Trump, Facing Probes, Seeks to Assert Dominance over GOP at Donor Retreat

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
Former president Donald Trump at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Indianapolis on April 14.

NASHVILLE – Donald Trump sought to show his dominance over the Republican Party during a speech to its top donors Saturday night, defiantly bragging in a closed-door speech that he had permanently changed the GOP and would be the nominee in 2024, according to audio obtained by The Washington Post.

The former president’s 58-minute speech came after two days of other Republicans obliquely critiquing Trump’s focus on the 2020 election and calling for the GOP to move on from his polarizing presidency, as well as some private fretting among party donors about the myriad investigations that engulf Trump and his nascent campaign.

After lobbying some of Tennessee’s congressional delegation for political support during a private dinner on Friday, meeting privately with donors and playing a round of golf with the musician Kid Rock, Trump delivered the keynote address on Saturday with customary bravado to about 200 of the party’s top donors.

The Republican Party “had a big chance of extinction,” Trump said, calling for the party to rally around him as its 2024 nominee, according to the audio recording. He also said that until he came along, the GOP was a party known for starting wars overseas, cutting Social Security and Medicare at home and allowing amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally.

Saturday’s address to hundreds of the party’s donors at a riverfront Four Seasons hotel was essentially designed, people close to him said, to show donors that he remains the front-runner and that they should learn to either love him or get in line no matter what.

His top potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), did not attend the event. However, others including his former vice president, Mike Pence, did appear at the gathering.

Trump took extensive time to recite polling results, reading poll numbers state by state for about five minutes. He cited polls in about a dozen states including Massachusetts, South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas and Florida, and named the outlets and went through all of the candidates in each poll. The crowd was silent. He did not cite polls that did not show him in the lead and named arcane and national outlets alike.

He recounted the signs he saw on the side of the highway praising him as he rode through Tennessee. “The people who are with me have never seen anything like it,” he said.

“Who is this Trump person?” he said, in reference to himself. “[Nikki] Haley, 4, she’s working very hard,” he said, mocking the percentage results in support of the former South Carolina governor, a Republican presidential candidate, in some polls.

“Chris Christie at 1!” he said at another point. “These are tremendous numbers,” he said as the crowd remained silent.

Photo for The Washington Post by Craig Hudson
Former vice president Mike Pence speaks during the National Conservative Student Conference in July 2022.

The speech came during a time of particular legal peril for Trump: He faces felony charges in New York related to hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star, and he faces federal and state investigations into his mishandling of classified information and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He has suffered some political slippage among Republican supporters, strategists and party leaders say.

At the retreat, much of the argument against Trump was reflected by some politicians – and some donors – wondering whether he could win a general election in 2024.

“Not a single swing voter in a single swing state will vote for our nominee if they choose to talk about the 2020 election being stolen,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp told donors, according to attendees.

“If 2022 taught us anything, it’s that candidates that were focused on the challenges facing American families did well. But candidates focused on the past, on litigating the last election, did not do well,” Pence said, per an attendee.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu was also critical of Trump, according to an attendee, blaming him for disappointing GOP results in last year’s midterm elections and saying the party needed to move on from Trump.

But in all their veiled criticism, neither Kemp nor Pence mentioned Trump’s name, according to remarks reviewed by The Post.

This year’s retreat showed how the party is still fighting over how wedded they should be to Trump. As Pence spoke to donors who gave tens of thousands of dollars on an upstairs floor of the Four Seasons, the former president came in through the back door of the restaurant, drawing cheers from startled diners.

He spent three hours in a private, glass-walled room with Tennessee’s congressional delegation, many of whom are likely to endorse him in coming days, at a private dinner. Pence soon left the hotel, and the two men did not speak.

Photo for The Washington Post by Kevin D. Liles
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) greets attendees during a rally in Kennesaw, Ga., on Nov. 7, 2022.

After the critiques by Kemp, Pence and Sununu of the party focusing too much on the 2020 election, Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who worked with Trump as part of his bid to stay in office in 2020, gave an extensive “special legal presentation” to raise money for her effort to shape election laws in 2024.

Sununu received a sharp question from former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who asked why he did not run for Senate and why so many Republicans in the New Hampshire state legislature had lost while he was governor, according to an attendee. Sununu was also interrupted at one point by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the attendees said, when she told him she disagreed with him about what he claimed the party was doing about early voting and ballot harvesting.

Trump ran so late on Saturday night – talking backstage with top donors and taking pictures and taping a podcast – that some party leaders were left to speak to the crowd unprompted. Trump spoke for about an hour.

Much of his speech was familiar terrain: calling for tougher border security, attacking China and reciting his record in office, including the appointment of three Supreme Court justices, the movement of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and attacks on President Biden.

Notably, Trump – after extensive lobbying from advisers – leaned into the concept of early voting, surprising some in attendance. He had previously criticized such efforts, frustrating party officials.

“Our goal will be one-day voting with only paper ballots. But until that day comes, the Republican Party and the RNC must compete using every lawful means to win. That means swamping the left with mail-in votes, early votes and Election Day votes. Where we can’t get rid of drop boxes, we need them in every church and veteran center. And until we can eliminate ballot harvesting, we must become masters at ballot harvesting,” he said.

“We need every vote we can get, whether it’s early or late,” he said.

Trump ticked through states he had won in 2016 – not mentioning all of the swing states he lost in 2020. He ticked through his gains with certain groups of voters, while leaving out his substantive losses among suburban voters, particularly women. He did not mention abortion, which has come to the forefront in the national political debate after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

He barely mentioned the many criminal investigations of which he is the focus. He called the 2020 election “rigged” and accused Democrats of already mounting “election interference” in 2024, but he did not linger on the topic as he often does.

The speech zigzagged from topic to topic.

At one point, Trump highlighted the middle name of former president Barack Obama. “As Rush Limbaugh used to say, Barack Hussein Obama,” he said, then saying Hussein multiple times.

He repeatedly said there was “no collusion,” referring to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He bragged about how many votes he won in 2016 and 2020, and that he won “2,000” more counties than Biden in the 2020 election – without mentioning that Biden got 7 million more votes than he did and won the electoral college.

Trump claimed he helped make Ohio and Florida Republican states instead of swing states, though he did not mention states such as Georgia and Arizona that have swung to Democrats.

Echoing language he has used to attack prosecutors investigating him, he said he would sic the Justice Department on “Marxist prosecutors offices” if he was elected.

Trump said the American public “loved the idea” of sending missiles into Mexico to take out drug cartels, raising an idea he floated years ago when he was president.

Trump pledged to “keep men out of women’s sports,” a reference to transgender women seeking to compete.

Trump went on for about 10 minutes about his relationships with world leaders, the details of which were unverified, ostensibly to show that he was a better negotiator than Biden. In every story, Trump came off as the winner – and the deal made within a day once he offered stark terms.

Trump said he would settle Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and claimed the casualties were far greater than anyone knew. “The number of people being killed is far greater than the numbers you’re hearing,” he said, without offering specifics. “They say one person was injured and 16 buildings came down.”