Just one month after Donald Trump left the White House, a top donor to his campaign received a call on his personal cell from a Republican candidate seeking financial support.
The call was unsolicited, according to four people familiar with the situation, and it rubbed the donor, whose friends had received similarly unexpected fundraising pleas, the wrong way. Shortly thereafter, the firm Jones Day, which served as counsel to Trump’s campaign committee, sent out a letter to former staff and consultants, warning them that they risked prosecution if they misused campaign resources. The letter then asked recipients to destroy or return any information they might have taken from the Trump campaign’s vast Rolodex of donor contacts.
A senior adviser to Trump insisted that the directive wasn’t in response to “a particular act” but merely to “make sure no one was misusing valuable campaign data.”
But inside Trump World, the episode sparked a game of whodunit over who had the audacity to abuse the confidential donor list, with GOP sources speculating that a pair of ex-Trump campaign hands were working to amass a donor profile of their own. And it added to the cold war that has broken out between competing factions that are seeking to capitalize on their time with Trump to score new business and political clients.
“These are people who didn’t like each other four months ago and now they all have a common interest: how to get some coin out of the Trump post-presidency,” said a former senior administration official, who like others would only talk about internal squabbles on condition of anonymity.
For staff of a losing presidential candidate, the weeks and months after that loss present difficult career choices. Many choose to move on from politics altogether, worn down from the days on the trail. Others take time off or explore the lucrative fields of consultancy or K Street.
For some Trump aides, the landscape has been different. Getting jobs in corporate America has been difficult, owing to the often toxic reputation of the 45th president, especially after the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. Their boss, meanwhile, continues to float the idea that he will run for president again, and he is in the process of setting up a political — and, potentially, social media — apparatus aimed at cementing him as a lasting fixture in GOP politics. That has incentivized his one-time aides to stay in the game. It’s also sparked infighting, as those aides view maintaining their MAGA bonafides as critical for landing on current and future Republican campaigns.
Within Trump’s orbit, former aides and advisers have been squabbling for direct access to the ex-president as they filter in and out of Mar-a-Lago. Privately, they have accused others of overstating that access in order to score House and Senate clients. There have been whisper campaigns that some ex-staffers are misleading potential campaigns by telling them that, if hired, their candidate would have a better chance of securing Trump’s endorsement. Other ex-Trump aides who have promised to organize posh fundraisers for incumbent Republicans and GOP candidates at Mar-a-Lago have become targets of mockery among their peers, who insist there is no single gatekeeper to Trump’s gilded club, where donors regularly gather to hear from the party’s rising stars.
Recalling a recent fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago for one incumbent Republican, a Trump aide was incredulous that another had claimed to those in attendance that he was instrumental for arranging such gatherings — and, naturally, should be hired as a fundraising consultant for them.
“I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to make money … but don’t be so brazen about it,” the aide said.
Several former campaign officials and top White House aides who’ve retained access to Trump — either through regular meetings at Mar-a-Lago or weekly phone calls — have launched their own ventures following the 2020 election. As they’ve tried to ingratiate themselves with new clients and donors, they have settled into different camps, each wary of the other.
Former campaign manager Bill Stepien teamed up with deputy campaign manager Justin Clark and adviser Nick Trainer to form a political consulting firm; former 2016 campaign aides Corey Lewandowski and Dave Bossie have been tasked with creating a new super PAC for the ex-president; former White House policy adviser Stephen Miller is in the midst of launching a new legal group; and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is working for the Conservative Partnership Institute, which has a donor summit planned in Palm Beach next week. Others like Sergio Gor, the former chief of staff for the Trump campaign’s finance committee, and Caroline Wren, another Trump fundraiser, have been working closely with Republican candidates in 2022 races.
“Trump is surrounded by people who are telling him ‘you need us,’ but they really need him,” said the person close to the former president.
Trump spokesperson Jason Miller, who is in regular contact with the former president and the aides working for him currently, disputed claims of friction inside Trump’s orbit. Instead, Miller said he’s never seen such harmony.
“Having been around Trump World for five years now, I would argue that here’s the least amount of ally competition or conflict at this point than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “The people who the president has kept in his orbit are all true believers who understand that he makes his own decisions, and we have very specific roles supporting him.”
Another former aide who is still in frequent contact with Trump’s advisers agreed that the skeleton political operation is “getting along.”
But the whisper campaigns and mudslinging have been noticed well beyond Trump’s immediate team of aides. Some of the former president’s most trusted external allies have personally urged him to dump his current squad, claiming that those he’s surrounded himself with are singularly focused on enriching themselves or too clumsy to be running a successful post-presidential operation.
“They’re competing for his money. I’ve told the president, ‘You need to be cognizant of this,’’’ said a former senior administration official. “He does not need a huge organization right now peppered with crazy monthly retainers and unnecessary overhead.”
Trump himself is aware of the dynamics at play, according to multiple people who have either had direct discussions with the former president or are familiar with the situation. Some of his closest aides say they wish he would lay low until the 2022 midterm cycle kicks into full gear, a move that they believe would help mitigate the private clashes and confusion that some feel has consumed his current orbit.
But the chaos may not be disorienting for Trump. Since the earliest days of his 2016 campaign through the end of his presidency, the former New York real estate mogul has surrounded himself with strong personalities and constantly shifted his favor from one clique to the next.
“Trump has always encouraged that kind of behavior,” said a former aide. “But it is difficult to do the job like that.”
The warning shot fired over unauthorized use of the Trump Victory donor list was, for many, a clear example of the eagerness that some Trump aides or ex-staff have in exploiting what one 2016 Trump campaign official described as a “Wild West” environment at Mar-a-Lago.
“Right now, it’s like a daycare if you took all the adults away. There’s virtually nobody with organizational skills left,” said a person familiar with Trump’s operation.
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