With North Carolina Speech, Trump Returns To The Political Stage : The NPR Politics Podcast Former President Trump will speak at the North Carolina Republican Party's state convention this weekend, kicking off his unofficial return to the campaign trail as he prepares to stump for Republican candidates. Also, while some Trump administration alumni have followed traditional conservative routes since leaving the White House, others are working to keep the MAGA movement alive.

This episode: White House correspondents Asma Khalid and Ayesha Rascoe, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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With North Carolina Speech, Trump Returns To The Political Stage

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BETH JONES: This is Beth Jones (ph) from Tempe, Ariz., with her whole family at 12,633 feet on Mount Humphreys, the highest peak in Arizona. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:21 Eastern Time on Thursday, June 3.

JONES: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. Hopefully, we will have managed to get down the mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: That's some impressive mountain climbing. I mean, I will say, I thought I was an outdoorsy person, but I have had kids and not ventured out that much lately. So kudos to you.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Let's hope they get down safely.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yes. Could you imagine taking your whole family up a mountain? I might leave them there...

KHALID: Oh, my gosh.

RASCOE: ...And then go on vacation.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: So this weekend, Donald Trump will be reemerging. He is speaking at the North Carolina GOP State Convention. In the past few months, y'all might not have heard from the former president as much as we did before because he's been banned from most major social media platforms. But he is still out there. In fact, I am still signed up for these Trump campaign texts. And just yesterday I got this message that says, quote, "before I give my presidential speech on June 5, I need your input." Here I was like thinking, you know, what presidential speech is he delivering? What kind of alternative world is he living in?

MONTANARO: I guess it's going to be boring because he said he'll be so presidential, it'll be boring.

RASCOE: He should have said modern-day presidential.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: Domenico, I know that you have been doing some reporting on the Trump orbit, so let's start with you. This Saturday, in Greenville, N.C., will be Donald Trump's first speech in months, at least since CPAC in February. And it feels like Saturday will mark a sort of return to the so-called world of campaigning for Donald Trump, if that's fair to say, you Know. What do you expect from him?

MONTANARO: Yeah. You know, I think that we can pretty much expect what he's normally done at - when you look at what he's posted on his now-defunct blog - that's - everything has been moved over to his news section of his website. You know, he's really focused on relitigating the election that he lost and, you know, continuing to sort of stress these, you know, places that are doing reviews and claiming to have won repeatedly despite that obviously not being true. So I expect that we'll hear a lot about that.

We'll hear a lot of potential teasing about the kinds of people we need for 2022 and 2024, even maybe teasing that he might run, you never know, maybe poll the audience. Who knows? You know, I think it's going to be a sort of return for Trump to a setting where he's really comfortable - in front of a lot of people who are there rooting him on. And it was something that we know in the past that he's gotten a lot of energy from.

KHALID: And, you know, we have talked a lot on this podcast about how even though Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, he remains essentially the de facto leader of the Republican Party. And I'm curious, Ayesha, do you feel like this event is just one more sign that he is indeed still the head of the party?

RASCOE: Absolutely. It is him, you know, making an appearance for a state, you know, Republican Party. So that is not out of character necessarily for a former president. But everything else that Trump has done has been not at all what former presidents generally do. And even when he's ostensibly talking, you know, in support of someone else, it always comes back to him. You know, even when he is making his endorsements on the trail and things like that, you would often go, well, who is this for? What is this about? Because it would always go back to him.

And at this event, Republicans are going to want him to talk about Biden and, you know, and to make the case against him. And I'm sure Trump will do some of that. But he's also going to most likely talk about the election - the 2020 election - and how he feels like he was wronged and probably go against some Republicans, too.

MONTANARO: And when you talk about, you know, some of this campaigning kind of coming back to him, you know, he's tentatively expected to hit the trail this summer. He's expected to try to boost some allies, people like Mo Brooks in Alabama and also challengers to Republican incumbents who've spoken out against him. Think about the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who Trump really thought should have done more to help him win in the state where he lost, and Ohio Congressman Anthony Gonzales, who voted for Trump's impeachment.

He's expected to go to those places and try to boost those candidates. But you have to ask, what is this really about? Is it about really helping those candidates or helping himself? I think that, you know, you've heard Trump say, let's not have a rift in the Republican Party, we don't need to create a different Republican Party because the party is his party. He's really struggling for - saying, this is my party. If you want to be in the Republican Party, you've got to be like Trump.

KHALID: But let's talk about that, you know, because I think of former presidents, specifically former presidents who have lost reelection bids, and I don't think of them as these sorts of kingmakers. And I'm confused to some degree, you know, sort of why he holds such sway over the Republican Party when there are all of these other young stars who've been waiting for a chance. You know, I'm thinking of Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina or the former governor of South Carolina also, Nikki Haley. And that's just naming a couple of people, but there are many more. And you've got Donald Trump, who holds all of this power over the Republican Party, even though he lost the last election. And frankly, I mean, he's over 70 years old.

RASCOE: It really does seem like the Republican Party under Trump lost its ideological underpinnings. What is the Republican Party of Trump really standing for? Is it small government? Not really. What, some social issues? Is it, you know, just sticking it to the left? Really more so of that. And so much of the Republican Party under Trump is not ideological. It's not policy. So it's not something that Tim Scott can pick up or Nikki Haley can pick up. It's really about Trump and his personality and sticking it to people and getting back at people. That is what it is about. And that's why all these other people cannot break through, because it's not about policy. It is about a personality. And if you're not Trump, you're not it.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And, you know, we've talked about how this is really about culture. And, you know, Joe Biden ran on the battle for the soul of America. Trump and conservatives feel the same on the other end of things, where they feel like things have lurched too far in a liberal direction. Just some data for you, though - there was a Quinnipiac poll out last month showed Trump with an 84% favorability rating among Republicans. You know, and that poll also found that 85% of Republicans want candidates who agree with Trump. A slightly lower - somewhat lower, two-thirds wanted Trump to be the party's standard bearer again in 2024. But that's still, you know, an overwhelming majority, meaning the nomination is, as of now, pretty well within his grasp.

And, you know, Republican operatives I talked to this week, you know, in previewing the speech said, you know, look, if he ran in 2024, he'd be hard to beat, even though a lot of Republican voters are excited about this next generation of candidates.

KHALID: All right. Well, let us take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about some notable Trump alums are trying to maintain the MAGA movement.

And we're back. Domenico, you recently took a look at what some key players from the Trump administration have been up to since leaving the White House. You have categorized these Trump clubs into a couple of key groups. So walk us through the two main buckets that you found.

MONTANARO: Well, yeah. There's, you know, one main bucket of people who are trying to formalize MAGA, formalize the Make America Great Again movement with some of these institutionalized groups that they're trying to bring on online, at least four of them we've seen have cropped up - America First Legal, America First Policy Institute, one that's called American Greatness PAC, Fight Back Now America. You can see the sort of similarity in themes there.

KHALID: Yes.

MONTANARO: And, you know, they really have to do with pushing policy messages to sort of defend Trump's policies and push the kinds of policies that Trump has backed in the past. And also, with this group backed by Stephen Miller, the former White House aide, to fight in court, because they were really sort of impressed with how Democratic attorneys general around the country had fought for more liberal policy. So we're seeing essentially with Trump, you know, he's teasing that he'll run. We don't know if he actually will, but if he does, there's certainly an apparatus that's been set up by a lot of former officials that could essentially serve as a ready-made campaign.

RASCOE: And who is in that other bucket that you talked about, the more establishment going, the more routine route?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, they're pretty typical people, you know, the people who've gone, quote-unquote, "traditional." Think about, like, John Kelly, the former chief of staff who then criticized President Trump after the January 6 insurrection, James Mattis, the former Defense secretary. Both of them have joined boards of defense contractors, a pretty typical thing to do. His former White House counsel, Don McGahn's rejoined a law firm that he used to work for. Kirstjen Nielsen, the former Homeland Security secretary, she's advising people on security risks and risk management. Remember Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff? He's also had a law firm. And someone like Andrew Wheeler, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, joining the Heritage Foundation, one of those conservative think tanks that used to be landing spots for all of the former conservatives who came out of a White House. That's just not the case anymore. And it really does highlight the fracture that Trump has caused within the Republican Party.

KHALID: But beyond the people who just worked for President Trump, there are also those who worked for him but were also related to him, right? His family members. And I think that's where there was always a lot of curiosity. What would Ivanka Trump do? Say, what would Don Jr. do? Any guidance there, Domenico?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, if you think about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, you know, Ivanka Trump's daughter, Kushner, his son-in-law and Ivanka's husband, you know, she really has struggled with what she's going to do next, especially considering how her brand had really taken such a hit during the Trump presidency. She still lists herself on Twitter as an adviser to POTUS, I mean, even though her father's been out of office for some five months now. Kushner seems to be more focused on the Middle East still. You know, he took a lot of credit for, you know, some marginal Mideast deals that he had made. And he's created something called the Abraham Accords Institute, and that comes from the name of the deal that he had made and helped facilitate. So, you know, that's where they're at.

But, you know, the person who I think a lot of people's eyes are on, especially if his father doesn't run in 2024, is Donald Trump Jr. You know, he has really become quite the draw in Republican circles. Senate candidates love having him out on the campaign trail. He's able to raise a lot of money for people. He definitely culturally lines up a lot more with that base and identifies with them far more than his sister ever did, even though she seemed to be the apple of her father's eye.

RASCOE: Don Jr. is definitely the one to watch. He has the same issue, though, as all of the rest of the field of Republicans. And that's that Trump, his father, is unlikely to get out of the way for anyone, even for his own son. And so until Trump Sr. gets out of the way, that's not going to leave any room for anyone else.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And we know he's going to definitely leave it to basically the last minute. You know, he did so in 2015, you know, when he was thinking about getting into the race. And that's going to put a freeze, you know, on the potential field. You have people like his former vice president, Mike Pence, who's already made stops in South Carolina and New Hampshire today. You know, Mike Pompeo is traveling to Israel on the heels of his successor's trip there. Nikki Haley started a group called Stand for America. Its stated goal is to promote conservative issues and ideas, but it really - the site looks a whole lot more like it's just promoting her. So we have a lot of people who are waiting in the wings, champing at the bit to run, and they're on ice.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow with our weekly roundup. I'm Asma Khalid. Sorry. As you guys can hear, very much recovery from a cold. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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