As the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots lays out Donald Trump’s obsessive efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, Trump allies have responded with the political equivalent of a collective eye roll.
But elsewhere in the party, operatives are taking notice. The former president is being damaged, they say — perhaps not fatally, but notably so.
In interviews, those operatives describe a GOP electorate still enamored with Trump and dismissive of the committee and its findings. But elements of the voters, donors and activists that make the three pillars of the party are exhausted too, they say. And they’re growing less willing to let the baggage of the Trump years complicate the future.
“Trump is facing an important onslaught of negative facts with these hearings and there is no real defense. He has no friendly members on the committee and there aren’t facts to put in front of the public to make any of this sound less bad,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor.
While Eberhart suspected that the hearings were hardening Trump’s core supporters, he also noted that one of the former president’s more formidable, potential opponents was benefiting too.
“Ron DeSantis,” he said of the Florida governor, “is lying in wait, sharpening his knives.”
In some pockets of DeSantis land, these sentiments are shared. The governor’s advisers do not see the Jan. 6 hearings as a “nail in the coffin” for Trump, but rather another in a line of distractions that are exhausting the sort of top-line Republican money that could be influential to a potential 2024 Trump-DeSantis primary clash.
“I think the January 6 hearings are continuation of the exhausting circus that surrounds Trump,” said a close DeSantis adviser granted anonymity to speak freely. “There are of course the lunchbox Republicans who think this is a ‘mass conspiracy,’ but among the donor class many are just tired of this.”
“It’s a shitshow,” the person continued. “Some donors are getting sick of the shitshow.”
Another Republican consultant familiar with DeSantis’ thinking says the governor views the Jan. 6 hearings as a way to eventually get Trump indicted.
“That’s where his head is at. He thinks the goal here is to get Main Justice to go after him,” the consultant said. “That’s what Ron thinks this is all about.”’
The person, however, stressed that DeSantis’ focus is much more on running up the score in his reelection bid. DeSantis, who is already on pace to break state-level Florida fundraising records and is seen as a heavy favorite to win reelection, wants to win by more than the 3.2 points Trump won the state by in 2020. POLITICO reported last week that DeSantis also has no interest in seeking Trump’s endorsement for his reelection bid, another signal he does not see his political fate tethered to the former president who helped make him.
“A five-point win, and I think he would be off to the races,” the person said. “January 6 or not, the fact that he [DeSantis] is not seeking Trump’s endorsement I think says everything you need to know.”
DeSantis has long been seen as a 2024 shortlister. But until recently his “frontrunner” status for the Republican nomination has come with the condition that Trump does not run himself. Increasingly, though, DeSantis seems to be ascendant, defeating Trump in head-to-head straw polls taken among conservative most activists, and getting a foothold among consequential Republican donors, something that was happening even prior to the Jan. 6 hearings.
DeSantis has been bringing in huge sums from six and seven-figure Trump donors for his reelection, which he is heavily favored to win in November and could leave him with a huge state-level war chest that could be converted to a super PAC headed into the 2024 election cycle.
Trumpworld figures say they’re unbothered — either by DeSantis or the House committee proceedings. They note that recent national polls have shown little change to Trump’s favorability or approval ratings among Republicans since the hearings began. While a majority of Americans overall think the Jan. 6 committee is conducting a fair and impartial investigation, they are split on whether or not Trump committed a crime. And a majority of Republicans still do not believe Trump bears much responsibility at all for the attacks, according to Quinnipiac.
“I do not think [the hearings] hurt Trump,” said Steve Bannon, a former Trump campaign adviser and host of the popular “War Room” show. Bannon was charged last year with contempt for refusing to comply with the select committee’s congressional subpoena. “The only Republicans watching, if at all, are hardcore ‘never Trumpers,’” he added, predicting that if Republicans take back the House they will launch their own hearings to “set out all the facts.”
But Trump himself seems to have internalized that the hearings have inflicted some dents. The former president has tuned into the proceedings from his Bedminster club in New Jersey and has fumed publicly and privately over a lack of Republican defenders on the committee.
“We have nobody on that panel who can fight back,” Trump told Wayne Allyn Root during a radio interview. “In a way, the Republicans should be ashamed of themselves.”
Trump, said one former adviser, “is thinking about it optically and not politically. Optically it’s not great to have a committee without any pushback. Politically the base and the party are going to be with him — and it might sway some moderates. He really believes that the economy is what people are going to focus on.”
Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump and moderate Republican strategist who regularly conducts focus groups with Democrat, Republican and swing voters, said she has noted a shift. While the participants in her Trump voter focus groups are typically split on whether or not the former president should run, during the past two focus groups since the Jan. 6 hearings began, none have said they wanted Trump on the ticket in 2024.
“With January 6 they’re on Trump’s side, but they’re also exhausted by it. It creates that sense of wanting to move on. The question is whether that sticks. I’ve seen it before when Trump’s baggage is out there they get annoyed about having to defend it, they drift away and then come back,” Longwell said.
Ultimately, Trump allies believe that this sentiment will fade. The former president, after all, has faced it before, having gone through two impeachment hearings and innumerable scandals. And while Republicans soured on him then, they ultimately came back into the fold.
“You’re antagonizing his supporters at a time when — some people are so impacted by inflation they can’t make ends meet,” said John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster whose most recent poll that showed 42 percent of people are so impacted by the current economy they are “struggling to keep up and afford basic necessities.” “If Congress wants to focus on a partisan kangaroo court and indict a president that [his supporters] think was successful at keeping America strong and had a better economy? They’re going to revolt — not a violent revolt but at the ballot box.”
Privately, the expectation is that the past will be prologue once again. Publicly, the stance is no one actually cares.
“I learned my political chops from James Carville, and he told me, ‘It’s the economy stupid.’ It’s hard for me to go back on that and think that the only reason Trump is doing so well is Biden is doing so poorly on the management of the economy,” said Bryan Lanza, a former Trump adviser. “Nobody’s paying attention. The hearing may matter until you get gas. Then you get gas, and you’re like ‘what the f*** is going on?’”