NEW YORK – Donald Trump is betting he can win his way back to the White House by reviving the outsider appeal that fueled his success in 2016.
But his dinner with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and a rapper who has spewed antisemitic conspiracies is demonstrating the risks of that approach. It underscores the dangers of his limited campaign operation and leaves the former president subject to stinging criticism from fellow Republicans who increasingly see him as a liability for their party after a lackluster showing in this year's midterm elections.
In an acknowledgment of the severity of the backlash and an effort to prevent a repeat, Trump's campaign is putting new protocols in place to ensure that those who meet with him are approved and fully vetted, according to people familiar with the plans who requested anonymity to share internal strategy. The changes will include expediting a system, borrowed from Trump’s White House, in which a senior campaign official will be present with him at all times, according to one of the people.
The decision follows the anger and handwringing from people close to Trump over how the former president became embroiled in scandal just two weeks after launching his third campaign for the White House under the cloud of numerous investigations. And it highlights their concerns about Trump's vulnerability as GOP strategists and officials increasingly conclude that new leadership is the party's best hope for winning in future elections.
“Republicans, we’re looking to 2024 and we’re looking for a winner," said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who blasted Trump's dinner as “absolutely reprehensible."
“I think it makes him even less electable in November of 2024,” he said.
Trump has repeatedly said he did not know until after the fact that he had had dinner with Nick Fuentes, the far-right activist who has used his online platform to spew antisemitic and white nationalist rhetoric. Fuentes arrived by car with Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and was waved into the club by security, even though only Ye had been on the security list, according to one of the people present and others briefed on the events. (Fuentes apparently did not show his ID and the car's driver, a frequent guest at the club, got in using a credit card after misplacing her license.)
Some aides had advised Trump against meeting with Ye, who has made his own antisemitic comments. But the two have a longstanding relationship and Trump rebuffed the advice. They were supposed to meet one-on-one in the club’s library, but Trump, eager to show off his celebrity guest to his paying club members, decided to divert the group to the club’s main patio dining area. Fuentes joined the dinner at Ye's invitation.
Trump is no stranger to controversies of his own creation. His 2016 campaign was fueled by an endless cycle of outrage. Trump would make an inflammatory statement, calling for Muslims to be banned from entering the country, saying John McCain was “ not a war hero ” because he was captured in Vietnam, or asserting an Indiana-born federal judge had “ an absolute conflict ” on a case because of his “Mexican heritage." Those comments would spur days of media coverage as critics responded with outrage, keeping Trump in the news.
But the political landscape is fundamentally different now. Trump is no longer a political outsider or newcomer. He's a member of a most elite circle — the former presidents club — and a seasoned politician mounting what is now his third campaign for the office. And after nearly eight years of his dominating the news cycle, many in his party and the voting public are tired of the constant drama and chaos.
“If you have people who are constantly creating distractions and taking you off message and forcing people to answer questions like the ones that you’re asking, that’s not a good thing," South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
And While Trump has advised aides that he wants to try to recapture the energy of his first campaign, when he was the anti-establishment outsider fighting better-financed and organized rivals, the Mar-a-Lago episode revealed the limits of his threadbare operation, which has yet to hold a single public event since Trump's announcement two weeks ago.
Trump's team had planned to wait until the new year to begin building out a more robust and regimented campaign operation. But while no travel has been planned through the end of the year, aides are stepping up their efforts to ensure the people he meets with have been screened and that the former president is staffed by a rotating set of campaign aides — something that had not been expected to begin until January.
In the aftermath of the dinner meeting, several GOP senators had said those responsible for the meeting should be fired. Longtime allies not involved in the campaign questioned how Fuentes was able to access the club and why nobody seemed aware of his presence or warned Trump against meeting with him.
So far, Trump has refused to condemn the views of either visitor, despite growing condemnation from his party, including calls for an apology from his former Vice President Mike Pence.
In an interview with Fox News Digital Tuesday, Trump said again that he had “never heard of” Fuentes. “I had no idea what his views were and they weren’t expressed at the table in our very quick dinner, or it wouldn’t have been accepted," he said.
On Tuesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, “There is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy," and "anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the Untied States.”
“The president can have meetings with who he wants," added House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, "but I don’t think anyone should have a meeting with Nick Fuentes, and his views are nowhere within the Republican Party and within this country itself.”
Trump, who generally views backtracking as a sign of weakness, has a long history of failing to condemn bigotry and hate speech in what some have attributed to concerns about alienating parts of his base who are open to such views.
Amid pressure to denounce David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed his 2016 campaign, for instance, Trump was heard assuring former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie “that he would get to it, but that it didn't have to happen too quickly," reporter Maggie Haberman recounted in her book, “Confidence Man.” "A lot of these people vote,” Trump reportedly said.
“Mr. Trump isn’t going to change, and the next two years will inevitably feature many more such damaging episodes," The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Sunday. “Republicans who continue to go along for the ride with Mr. Trump are teeing themselves up for disaster in 2024.”
___ Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report from Washington.