Mar 4, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Top Trump advisers try to steer him off personal drama

Illustration of the eraser-side of a pencil in a suit and red tie

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Top advisers are trying — with some early success — to steer former President Trump to focus more on the border and the economy, and less on old grievances and personal drama.

Why it matters: How disciplined Trump is could determine whether he'll be able to attract college-educated voters who don't believe the 2020 election was fraudulent — voters he'll need some support from to win the Nov. 5 election.

  • In some recent speeches, Trump has used different terms in describing his typical complaint that the 2020 election he lost was "stolen" — saying, "We were interrupted," or "something very bad happened."
  • Another sign of Trump toning things down a notch: In at least one instance, he wanted to mention a salacious claim about a rival's personal life, but co-campaign manager Susie Wiles persuaded him not to.

Reality check: In front of right-wing audiences, Trump still rambles on, making the conspiratorial — and false — claims many come to hear.

  • At CPAC's recent meeting outside Washington, D.C., he called 2020 a "rigged election" and accused Democrats of "cheat[ing] like dogs."
  • His rambling speeches to MAGA crowds and others also still include suggestions that he'll "terminate" parts of the Constitution and use the military against protesters. He also casts immigrants in racist terms — as "poisoning the blood" of the country and "speaking languages nobody's ever heard of."

Zoom in: But as Trump looks to wrap up the GOP nomination soon and pivot toward a likely rematch against President Biden, he's tweaking some of his rhetoric — particularly about the 2020 election — when he's before broader audiences.

  • Polls have shown that roughly one-third of Americans buy Trump's claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. That represents his loyal GOP base — but isn't nearly enough to win a general election.

"We've done great things, and then we had a little interruption," Trump said last week at the Black Conservative Federation Gala in South Carolina, referring to Biden's tenure without the "rigged election" framing that has been a staple of Trump's speeches.

  • "We did much better in 2020 than we ever even thought about doing in 2016... (but) very bad things happened," Trump said Thursday while campaigning at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas.
  • Earlier, in New Hampshire: "We almost had it done until we were interrupted," he said in reference to his domestic policy goals.
  • In Las Vegas: "We did much better in 2020 ... but something happened. Something happened....Bad, bad things happened. But anyway... "
  • At a rally in South Carolina: "A bad thing happened. Bad things."

The vague euphemisms that Trump is using to describe his 2020 loss trickle down to how he discusses specific states he lost.

  • 'That evening of 2020, with those votes coming in, we're leading in Pennsylvania. And all of a sudden, ah, something happened. It went boom!" Trump said after winning South Carolina's primary.

Flashback: In Pennsylvania and other states in 2020, ballots from Election Day voting — when most Republicans voted — typically were counted first, followed by mail-in ballots, which were overwhelmingly from Democrats.

  • As the early vote totals showed Trump with a lead, he quickly declared victory and tried to cast the mail-in ballots as fraudulent — a claim that was rejected repeatedly in court.

The intrigue: Trump has chided Biden for relying on TelePrompters in speeches, but Trump relies on them as well. On the campaign trail, they're guardrails against his tendency to go off script. Sometimes.

  • Trump spends a good deal of time preparing to deliver his written speeches — but still ad-libs roughly half of a typical speech.
  • Speechwriters Ross Worthington and Vince Haley prep Trump's scripts, with input from the rest of Trump's senior team, which also includes Jason Miller and Steven Cheung.

What they're saying: Trump advisers say they don't control him or moderate his speech.

  • "There isn't a better or more effective spokesperson for President Trump than himself," Cheung said.
  • "The president's going to say what the president is going to say," Miller said in January.
  • "We're all along for the ride."
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