How Donald Trump is tightening his grip on the Republican party as he seeks to defeat Haley in SC

WASHINGTON — As former President Donald Trump closes in on the 2024 presidential nomination, he is seeking to fortify his control of the Republican Party – from dictating policy to threatening purges.

Though he has yet to clinch the nomination, Trump is working to kill a bipartisan border security bill while serving notice that he will that he will try to drive GOP actions in future months.

Seeking to keep Republicans in line, the former president has also threatened to permanently bar “anyone” who contributes to his remaining primary opponent, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, from his “Make American Great Again” movement.

Trump has largely run the party since his successful campaign in 2016, but his degree of control has waxed and waned, especially after his 2020 defeat and the failed insurrection of Jan 6, 2021.

Now he is trying to go further in flexing his influence, even as he still faces primary challenges and polls that show large groups of Republicans and moderate voters who are concerned with with his four sets of criminal charges and other unprecedented hurdles in the 2024 campaign.

“You can declare that the Republican Party is never going to go back to those days of weak establishment candidates,” Trump told supporters a day before his Jan. 23 win in the New Hampshire primary, a follow-up to his victory in the Iowa caucuses.

Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Trump is “certainly demonstrating he is the party leader,” a traditional role for likely nominees.

But Trump is unique in that he is a former president with a record under scrutiny, including lawsuits and criminal indictments. Re-asserting control of the party frees him to attack President Joe Biden and the Democrats as if he were still an outsider.

“It’s very easy to be a bomb thrower when you’re outside the Oval Office,” Engel said.

Trump tries to kill border bill

In terms of dictating Republican policy, Trump in recent weeks has gone out out of his way to try and kill the bipartisan bill to address border security.

Trump, who has spoken repeatedly with House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., says the bill in unnecessary, and that Biden should use the authority he already has to seal the border.

Johnson told reporters Tuesday that it’s “absurd” to suggest that Republicans are out to kill the bill in order to help Trump’s presidential campaign.

Saying that “our duty is to do right by the American people, to protect the people,” Johnson added that Trump “understands that we have a responsibility to do here.”

Johnson and Trump said they speak with each other frequently, affording the ex-president many opportunities to lobby for his agenda. Trump has praised Johnson on the campaign trail, telling supporters in Las Vegas last weekend that “I think he’s going to prove to be a very good speaker. It’s tough when you have a very small majority. Very tough.”

Throughout the campaign, Trump has signaled support for a number of GOP agenda items, including an investigation of presidential son Hunter Biden and an impeachment drive against President Biden; the proposed impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is believed by Democrats and some Republicans to be part of Trump’s effort to make the border a key campaign issue.

But even as Johnson pushes for immigration reforms, Trump has called on Republican leaders to reject the Senate’s compromise.

“I did say that you have, if you’re not gonna get a great border bill, an immigration bill, don’t do a bill,” Trump told reporters this week after meeting with Teamsters leaders. “If it’s not going to be good, if it’s not going to solve the border problem, don’t do the bill.”

Expect Trump to continue speaking out, including upcoming negotiations in Washington on a spending bill and the prospect of a government shutdown in March.

In an interview broadcast Friday on the Fox News Business Network, Trump said he would speak out against Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell because “I think he’s, going to do something to probably help the Democrats – you know, I think, if he lowers interest rates.”

Powell’s job is non-partisan.

Donald Trump isn’t the Republican nominee – yet

Nevertheless, as Trump’s influence echoes in the halls of Congress, not all Republicans are on board with the former president at least not yet, and he does not have the presidential nomination locked up.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley continues to challenge the former president for the GOP nod, even after his sweeping victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Haley says the Republican Party and the country need to move on from Trump’s “chaotic” leadership style.

“I have a different style and approach from Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” Haley said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “No drama. No vendettas. No whining. Just results.”

Haley is hoping to derail the “Trump Train” in her home state of South Carolina, which holds a primary Feb. 24. But polls show Trump with a big lead over Haley in South Carolina and beyond.

Trump threatens to bar Haley supporters

Trump and allies have responded to Haley’s continuing campaign with scathing attacks on her, and her donors.

In a Truth Social post on Jan. 24, the day after the New Hampshire primary, Trump said contributors to the Haley campaign “will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.” Trump said: “We don’t want them, and will not accept them.”

After Trump made that threat, Haley called it “told Fox News: “That’s a president who’s supposed to serve every person in America and you’re deciding that you’re going to have a club and actually banned people from being in and out of your club.”

She added: “I mean, he’s totally unhinged.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, long-time bastion of conservatism, said Trump’s idea of uniting the party appears to be to “purge Republicans who are still skeptical of him.”

“Retribution is at the top of his mind, as he said when launching his campaign,” said The Journal editorial page. “Yet this politics of subtraction will make it harder to beat President Biden.”

Trump’s 2024 influence

Presumptive presidential nominees normally become de facto leaders of their parties, with varying degrees of success. But, as with so much in the Trump era, this is different.

For one thing, Trump is a former president. No former president has come back to win the office again since Grover Cleveland in 1892.

Trump is also a former president who refuses to acknowledge that he lost the 2020 election to Biden, and many of his Republican voters agree with him.

This particular former president has been assessed more than $88 million in damages to writer E. Jean Carroll, who accused him of rape during an incident in the 1990s. Trump also faces indictments in four criminal cases, including two sets of charges involving efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Biden.

Recent polls, however, indicated that some Republicans – and many moderates – may turn on Trump if he is convicted in any of these cases.

A Washington Post-Monmouth University Poll released Thursday showed Trump ahead of Haley in South Carolina by a margin of 58%-32%, but also contained some warning signs for the frontrunner.

Asked what the Republican Party should do if Trump is convicted in any of his trials, 60% of respondents said he should remain the nominee – but 36% said he should be replaced by another candidate.

‘An inordinate amount of sway’

Trump’s success in navigating these problems have helped give him “an inordinate amount of sway over the party,” said Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants.”

This has created a number of anomalies, Brown said.

One of them: Trump would be weaker now with Republicans if he had won in 2020; he’d be a second term lame duck while other Republicans battled for the nomination.

She added that Trump’s behavior also suggests that he wants the Republicans to help him rather than the party as a whole.

“Donald Trump cares more about his own future and staying out of prison,” she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump tightens his grip on GOP, bolsters ties with Mike Johnson

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