Feb 18, 2024 - Politics & Policy

How Trump phones in his support for far-right groups

Illustration of a smartphone screen with Donald Trump's silhouette as an avatar, the word "Calling..." and the speakerphone icon highlighted.

Illustration: Axios Visuals

Former President Trump has cut back on rallies and some campaigning to save money and attend court hearings, but he's making a habit of calling into live events to deliver messages to far-right supporters.

Why it matters: For Trump it's become an efficient, low-cost way to connect with fans and surrogates — and a way to court fringe political groups and their followers without appearing on a stage or in photos with them.

Zoom in: Trump has called into Michael Flynn's ReAwaken America Tour, a Christian nationalist road show.

  • Reawaken America members support Trump's claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, and they tout a range of QAnon conspiracy theories — including some far-right Christians' belief that America is in its final days.
  • During one Trump call last May, a crowd of several thousand people erupted as the former president's voice boomed through a microphone and he declared Flynn "some general, some man who took abuse like nobody could have handled" — and vowed to bring Flynn back into government in a second Trump administration.
  • Flynn — Trump's former national security adviser — twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and has peddled conspiracy theories about George Soros and Bill Gates creating the coronavirus.

Trump also has called into events supporting Jan. 6 defendants — and more conventional GOP events that feature Trump loyalists.

  • He often has praised those charged with storming the Capitol to try to stop Congress' certification of the 2020 election. At his own rallies he has played "Justice for All," a recording in which jailed Jan. 6 defendants sing the national anthem, interspersed with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
  • This month, Trump spoke through former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson's phone at the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee dinner: "We have to win Pennsylvania to turn our country around — and we should, based on everything."
  • Trump also called into Kari Lake's speech at the Hidalgo County GOP Reagan Dinner in McAllen, Texas, last August.
  • Lake — who supports Trump's claim about the 2020 election and has refused to accept her defeat in the 2022 Arizona governor's race — is now running for the Senate seat occupied by Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.).

Between the lines: Many of Trump's call-ins are presented as surprises, but almost all are planned, a Trump campaign official tells Axios.

  • An assistant at an event starts a three-way call with the speaker on stage and Trump, who's usually at Mar-a-Lago or his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
  • A speaker who chats regularly with Trump may dial the former president while on stage, after giving Trump a heads-up beforehand.
  • Trump typically is prepared with the names of local officials in the audience, thanks them for their support and launches into some abbreviated remarks that typically lavish praise on the surrogate or the group in the audience.

What they're saying: Asked about the ReAwaken America Tour, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung says he doesn't know much about it beyond what he reads in the press.

  • "People can't get enough of him, even if it's spurts of him," Cheung said of Trump's habit of calling into various events.
  • "It goes to show that there's stuff he does in a private setting for people, not for the coverage."
  • The other side: President Biden doesn't have a habit of calling into rallies, but he did call Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) while Clyburn was speaking at the Democratic watch party celebrating Biden's win in the recent South Carolina primary.
  • Clyburn appeared to struggle to figure out how to put the phone against a mic to amplify Biden's voice, so DNC chair Jaime Harrison stepped in to help.
  • It was spontaneous, a Biden campaign official told Axios. Clyburn happened to be on stage when Biden called him.
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