Friday March 31st, 2023 11:33PM

Trump seeks White House again amid GOP losses, legal probes

By The Associated Press
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump on Tuesday launched his third campaign for the White House just one week after a disappointing midterm showing for Republicans, forcing the party to again decide whether to embrace a candidate whose refusal to accept defeat in 2020 sparked an insurrection and pushed American democracy to the brink.

“In order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States,” Trump said before an audience of several hundred supporters in a chandeliered ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago club, where he stood flanked by American flags and banners bearing his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“America’s comeback starts right now," he said, formally beginning the 2024 Republican primary.

Another campaign is a remarkable turn for any former president, much less one who made history as the first to be impeached twice and whose term ended with his supporters violently storming the Capitol in a deadly bid to halt the peaceful transition of power on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump also enters the race in a moment of deep political vulnerability. He hoped to launch his campaign in the wake of resounding GOP midterm victories, fueled by candidates he elevated during this year’s primaries. Instead, many of those candidates lost, allowing Democrats to keep the Senate and leaving the GOP with a path to only a bare majority in the House.

Trump has been blamed for the losses by many in his party, including a growing number who say the results make clear it’s time for the GOP to move past him and look to the future, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emerging from last week's elections as an early favorite.

In addition to trying to blunt his potential rivals' rise, Trump's decision to launch his candidacy before the 2022 election had been fully decided also comes as he faces a series of escalating criminal investigations, including several that could lead to indictments. They include the probe into hundreds of documents with classified markings that were seized by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago and ongoing state and federal inquiries into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

As Trump has spent the last months teasing his return, aides have been sketching out the contours of a campaign that is being modeled on his 2016 operation, when Trump and a small clutch of aides defied the odds and defeated far better-funded and more experienced rivals by tapping into deep political fault lines and using shocking statements to drive relentless media attention.

Trump returned to that dark rhetoric in his speech Tuesday, painting the country under President Joe Biden in apocalyptic terms, describing “blood-soaked streets” in “cesspool cities" and an “invasion” at the border and earning cheers as he vowed to execute those convicted of selling drugs.

“We are a nation in decline,” he said. “We are here tonight to declare that it does not have to be this way.”

Trump notably avoided much talk of the 2020 election, eschewing the extreme conspiracy theories that often dominate his rallies. Still, the speech included numerous exaggerations and deflections as he cast himself as “a victim” of wayward prosecutors and the “festering, rot and corruption of Washington."

While Trump spoke before a crowd of several hundred, notably missing were many longtime supporters including previous campaign managers, aides and his daughter Ivanka, who released a statement saying that she does not plan to be involved in his campaign.

“While I will always love and support my father, going forward I will do so outside the political arena,” she said in statement.

Even after the GOP's midterm losses, Trump remains the most powerful force in his party thanks to the loyalty of his base. For years he has consistently topped his fellow Republican contenders by wide margins in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. And even out of office, he consistently attracts thousands to his rallies and remains his party’s most prolific fundraiser, raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Trump is also a deeply polarizing figure. Fifty-four percent of voters in last week’s midterm elections viewed him very or somewhat unfavorably, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. And an October AP-NORC poll found even Republicans have their reservations about him remaining the party’s standard-bearer, with 43% saying they don’t want to see him run for president in 2024.

Trump’s candidacy poses profound questions about America’s democratic future. The final days of his presidency were consumed by a desperate effort to stay in power, undermining the centuries-old tradition of a peaceful transfer. And in the two years since he lost, Trump’s persistent — and baseless — lies about widespread election fraud have eroded confidence in the nation’s political process. By late January 2021, about two-thirds of Republicans said they did not believe Biden was legitimately elected in 2020, an AP-NORC poll found.

VoteCast showed roughly as many Republican voters in the midterm elections continued to hold that belief.

Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by numerous courts, including by judges Trump appointed.

While some Republicans with presidential ambitions have long ruled out running against Trump, others, including Vice President Mike Pence, have been taking increasingly public steps toward campaigns of their own, raising the prospect of a crowded GOP primary.

That could ultimately play to Trump’s advantage, as it did in 2016, when he prevailed over more than a dozen other candidates who splintered the anti-Trump vote.

Trump’s decision also paves the way for a potential rematch with Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection despite concerns from some in his party over his age and low approval ratings. The two men were already the oldest presidential nominees ever when they ran in 2020. Trump, who is 76, would be 82 at the end of a second term in 2029. Biden, who is about to turn 80, would be 86.

If he is ultimately successful, Trump would be just the second U.S. president in history to serve two nonconsecutive terms, following Grover Cleveland’s wins in 1884 and 1892.

But Trump enters the race facing enormous challenges beyond his party’s growing trepidations. The former president is the subject of numerous investigations, including the monthslong probe into the hundreds of documents with classified markings found at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump is also facing Justice Department scrutiny over efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating what she alleges was “a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign” to influence the 2020 results.

Some in Trump’s orbit believe that running will help shield him against potential indictment, but there is no legal statute that would prevent the Justice Department from moving forward — or prevent Trump from continuing to run if he is charged.

Still, Trump’s campaign will further complicate what is already a fraught decision by the Biden Justice Department, which will have to decide not only whether it believes Trump broke the law, but will face enormous political pressure for indicting the man who is now the sitting president’s chief political rival. Already Trump has cast the probe as a politically motivated effort to derail his candidacy.

Aides who had succeeded in persuading Trump to delay his announcement until after the midterms had also urged him to wait until after next month's Senate runoff in Georgia. But Trump chose to ignore the advice.

It wasn’t any secret what he had been planning.

At a White House Christmas party in December 2020, Trump told guests it had “been an amazing four years.”

“We are trying to do another four years,” he said. “Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.”

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