Most ex-presidents spend their time out of office playing golf, getting their libraries in order, making well-paid speeches, writing even more lucrative memoirs and biting their tongues about what the next guy is doing. Other than the golf, the road ahead for Donald Trump, a president who has never adhered to his office’s norms, will be unlike any other.
We know where he will not be when his term ends at noon on Wednesday – he’s the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1869 to decline to attend his successor’s inauguration. But there is no clear answer yet on what he plans to do next. Even where he plans to live is potentially up in the air – though Trump says he’s moving to his Mar-a-Lago private club, some of his Palm Beach, Florida, neighbors are challenging his ability to live there full-time.
In the near term and possibly longer, Trump’s post-presidential options will be circumscribed by the fallout over his Jan. 6 speech egging on the crowd that would go on to storm the U.S. Capitol, including a historic second impeachment. If he’s convicted at the upcoming Senate trial, he’ll almost certainly be barred from ever running for federal office again. For now, some of Corporate America’s biggest names are shunning the businessman president, “de-platforming” him on social media and cutting him off from certain professional and financial services. Tens of millions of his fellow citizens will continue to revile him, rendering the Trump brand toxic to half the country and harming prospects for his real estate, hotel and golf resort empire.
But tens of millions of other Americans are likely to form a durable base of support, making Trump a political force for years to come regardless of whether he seeks the presidency again. Deprived of his @realDonaldTrump megaphone and other online platforms, the former president will have to think of new ways to mobilize – and possibly monetize – his loyal followers. Though Trump will likely be frozen out of mainstream media opportunities, he could launch his own endeavors focused on his conservative base, perhaps a Trump network to go head-to-head with Fox News or a Trump social media site to compete with Twitter.
Of course, that’s assuming he’s not completely consumed by court battles once he leaves office. Even before the Capitol riot, he faced several lawsuits and potential criminal investigations. His wild election-fraud claims and possible incitement of the riot have only added to his legal risk. There’s a very real possibility that Trump could wind up in jail.
It’s probably not wise to count out Trump though. Widely dismissed after his 1990s Atlantic City casino bankruptcies, he came back strongly a decade later on “The Apprentice.” Then, when his ratings began to wane, he latched on to the racist birther conspiracy about President Barack Obama and built a new, right-wing audience that ultimately carried him into the White House. Even his defeat by President-elect Joe Biden was by a much narrower margin than polls had predicted.
As for that presidential library, normally a gleaming monument to a leader’s achievements? There are no public plans yet, but comedian Luke Thayer and former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci have made some suggestions in their spoof djtrumplibrary.com site, including a “Lie to America” exhibition and a “grift shop.”
Before the Capitol riot, it looked like Trump would remain the Republican Party standard-bearer, either running for president himself again in 2024 or acting as kingmaker in the GOP field. He was also expected to exact revenge against a long line of Republicans who crossed him, most notably Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who refused to try to overturn Biden’s election win in the state.
But some believe Jan. 6 changed all that.
“When the Trump presidency is discussed in the near, medium and long term by anyone, all conversations will begin and end with the day of insurrection,” said Republican strategist and former George W. Bush White House aide Scott Jennings. “And I don’t know how you ultimately go back to the American people and say, ‘Please overlook that one day because it wasn’t really our fault.’ Well, yeah it was. It was your fault.”
A Jan. 15 Pew Research poll supports that view, finding only 29% job approval for Trump, with 68% of the sample saying they don’t want him to remain a major political figure in the years to come.
The riot has certainly exposed a rift in the GOP. Republican House Conference Chair Liz Cheney was one of 10 members who crossed party lines and joined Democrats in impeaching Trump for inciting insurrection. Several Republican senators, including Leader Mitch McConnell, have suggested they are open to convicting Trump, which would effectively end his 2024 run before it begins. Dozens of major U.S. corporations, business groups and donors who typically back Republicans have said they will suspend or stop campaign contributions to candidates who supported Trump’s challenge to the election results.
But Trump is likely to maintain a grip on the populist wing of the GOP. That was evident on Jan. 8 when the Republican National Committee re-elected Trump allies Ronna Romney McDaniel and Tommy Hicks as chair and vice chair in what was widely viewed as a proxy fight over the outgoing president’s role in the party. Despite the defections, the vast majority of House Republicans opposed impeachment, and nearly two-thirds did Trump’s bidding and objected to state-certified electoral votes for Biden even after the violence in Washington. Recent polls have shown that most Republican voters still support Trump and don’t blame him for the Capitol riot.
“That doesn’t go away overnight,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said of Trump’s popularity with the Republican base. “That power that he has, that connection with the most active voices inside his movement, is very real and it still exists.”
Any political comeback will depend on Trump finding a new way to mobilize his base. The scale of his de-platforming is hard to overstate. His @realDonaldTrump account had more then 88 million followers before Twitter permanently banned him on Jan. 8 for breaking its rules against glorifying violence. He also lost access to more than 30 million Facebook friends when he was banned from that site indefinitely and at least through Biden’s inauguration.
The president still has ways to reach his most fervent fans though. The Official Trump 2020 Mobile App, which was used to register rally attendees and for direct messaging during the campaign, was downloaded 2.6 million times in the last year, with users required to input phone numbers and agree to be contacted, according to Apptopia. Nu Wexler, a communications consultant formerly with Google, Facebook and Twitter, said Trump’s online footprint is still remarkable among Republican politicians.
“He has millions of cell numbers from events and a fundraising email list that dwarfs the rest of his party,” said Wexler. “So he won’t have any problem communicating directly with his supporters.”
But carrying his message beyond that core will remain a challenge, and some options could prove problematic. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, stopped an effort to sign the president up on right-wing social media platforms like Gab and Parler after Twitter suspended his account last week, according to three people familiar with the matter. Parler was taken offline by Amazon Web Services for promoting violence in the wake of the Capitol riot and was also previously dropped by the Google and Apple app stores.
Wexler said fringier platforms like Gab and Parler wouldn’t reach a broader audience the way his Twitter account did. And their echo chamber of like-minded users may bore him. “He won’t get the thrill of fighting with Democrats,” said Wexler.
Raising money online could also be a problem going forward for a president who raised $1.6 billion in his bid for a second term, including $167.6 million that came in after the election as he trumpeted false claims of widespread fraud. Payment processors PayPal, Square and Stripe have joined the social media giants in suspending accounts tied to Trump.
The Trump Organization
The New York real estate developer made his properties the backdrop for many of the most memorable moments of his political career. He descended Trump Tower’s escalator to announce his candidacy, defended White supremacists as “very fine people” in the lobby of the same building and held a crowded fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club just before he was diagnosed with Covid-19.
Trump’s divisive politics have inevitably impacted his family’s real estate, hotel and golf empire, much of which is located in New York and other Democratic-leaning states. In a move that reportedly “gutted” the president, his Bedminster club was stripped of the 2022 PGA Championship in the wake of the Capitol riot, with the golf body saying that holding the prestigious event at the Trump course would be “detrimental” to its brand.
The PGA stuck with him longer than most. Palm Beach charity balls and social events fled Mar-a-Lago en masse after his Charlottesville remarks, and several hotels and condo buildings have exited Trump management contracts in recent years, removing the president’s name from their exteriors and awnings in the process. Trump properties have also inevitably been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic along with the rest of the real estate, tourism and leisure sectors. In New York, office vacancies are rising, retail is decimated and residential rents are falling.
It all couldn’t come at a worse time for Trump, whose company carries $1 billion of debt, much of which he’s personally liable for. Though his assets would cover that, recriminations from the Capitol riot will make refinancing a challenge. Deutsche Bank, which holds much of his debt and was the last large bank willing to do business with him, has now declared it will no longer do so, and smaller Signature Bank, on whose board Trump’s daughter Ivanka once sat, twisted the knife by declaring the president persona non grata and closing his accounts. Even selling his assets to raise cash will be harder, as brokerage giants like Cushman & Wakefield and JLL have cut ties with him.
Alan Garten, general counsel for the Trump Organization, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the state of the business and its prospects.
One potential silver lining for Trump is that being president has made him even more famous than before overseas, and he may find more business opportunities in markets like Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines and India, where he retains some popularity and whose authoritarian leaders he courted while in office. His administration also developed close ties in the United Arab Emirates, where he’s previously done business, and Saudi Arabia, where his company considered projects prior to his ascent to the presidency.