Trump seeks White House again amid GOP losses, legal probes

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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Former President Donald Trump on Tuesday launched his third campaign for the White House just one week after a disappointing midterm showing for Republicans, forcing the party to again decide whether to embrace a candidate whose refusal to accept defeat in 2020 sparked an insurrection and pushed American democracy to the brink.

“In order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States,” Trump said before an audience of several hundred supporters in a chandeliered ballroom at his Mar-a-Lago club, where he stood flanked by more than 30 American flags and banners bearing his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“America’s comeback starts right now,” he said, formally beginning the 2024 Republican primary.

Another campaign is a remarkable turn for any former president, much less one who made history as the first to be impeached twice and whose term ended with his supporters violently storming the Capitol in a deadly bid to halt the peaceful transition of power on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump also enters the race in a moment of deep political vulnerability. He hoped to launch his campaign in the wake of resounding GOP midterm victories, fueled by candidates he elevated during this year’s primaries. Instead, many of those candidates lost, allowing Democrats to keep the Senate and leaving the GOP with a path to only a bare majority in the House.

Trump has been blamed by many in his party, including longtime allies, who say the results make clear it’s time for the GOP to look to the future, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emerging as an early favorite.

Still, the former president remains deeply popular with the GOP base, even as DeSantis and other Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, are taking increasingly public steps toward campaigns of their own, raising the prospect that Trump will have to navigate a competitive GOP primary.

Trump is also launching his candidacy amid a series of escalating criminal investigations, including several that could lead to indictments. They include the probe into dozens of documents with classified markings that were seized by the FBI from Mar-a-Lago and ongoing state and federal inquiries into his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

But Trump, according to people close to him, has been eager to return to politics and try to halt the rise of other potential challengers. Aides have spent the last months readying paperwork, identifying potential staff and sketching out the contours of a campaign that is being modeled on his 2016 operation, when a small clutch of aides zipping between rallies on his private jet defied the odds and defeated far better-funded and more experienced rivals by tapping into deep political fault lines and using shocking statements to drive relentless media attention.

Trump returned to that dark rhetoric in his speech Tuesday, painting the country under President Joe Biden in apocalyptic terms, describing “blood-soaked streets” in “cesspool cities” and an “invasion” at the border and earning cheers as he vowed to execute those convicted of selling drugs.

“We are a nation in decline,” he said. “We are here tonight to declare that it does not have to be this way.”

And while Trump spoke before a crowd of several hundred, notably missing were many longtime supporters including previous campaign managers, aides and his daughter Ivanka, who released a statement saying that she does not plan to be involved in politics.

“While I will always love and support my father, going forward I will do so outside the political arena,” she said in statement.

Even after the GOP’s midterm losses, Trump remains the most powerful force in his party. For years he has consistently topped his fellow Republican contenders by wide margins in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. And even out of office, he consistently attracts thousands to his rallies and remains his party’s most prolific fundraiser, raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Trump is also a deeply polarizing figure. Fifty-four percent of voters in last week’s midterm elections viewed him very or somewhat unfavorably, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. And an October AP-NORC poll found even Republicans have their reservations about him remaining the party’s standard-bearer, with 43% saying they don’t want to see him run for president in 2024.

Trump’s candidacy poses profound questions about America’s democratic future. The final days of his presidency were consumed by a desperate effort to stay in power, undermining the centuries-old tradition of a peaceful transfer. And in the two years since he lost, Trump’s persistent — and baseless — lies about widespread election fraud have eroded confidence in the nation’s political process. By late January 2021, about two-thirds of Republicans said they did not believe Biden was legitimately elected in 2020, an AP-NORC poll found.

VoteCast showed roughly as many Republican voters in the midterm elections continued to hold that belief.

Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by numerous courts, including by judges Trump appointed.

But that didn’t stop hundreds of midterm candidates from parroting his lies as they sought to win over his loyal base and score his coveted endorsement.

While some Republicans with presidential ambitions have long ruled out running against Trump, others appear ready to challenge him. They include DeSantis, whose commanding reelection as governor last week was a bright spot for Republicans this cycle.

Even some enthusiastic Trump supporters say they are eager for DeSantis to run, seeing him as a natural successor to Trump but without the former president’s considerable baggage.

A crowded field of GOP rivals could ultimately play to Trump’s advantage, as it did in 2016, when he prevailed over more than a dozen other candidates who splintered the anti-Trump vote.

Trump’s decision paves the way for a potential rematch with Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection despite concerns from some in his party over his age and low approval ratings. The two men were already the oldest presidential nominees ever when they ran in 2020. Trump, who is 76, would be 82 at the end of a second term in 2029. Biden, who is about to turn 80, would be 86.

If he is ultimately successful, Trump would be just the second U.S. president in history to serve two nonconsecutive terms, following Grover Cleveland’s wins in 1884 and 1892.

But Trump enters the race facing enormous challenges beyond his party’s growing trepidations. The former president is the subject of numerous investigations, including the monthslong probe into the hundreds of documents with classified markings found in boxes at Mar-a-Lago.

Meanwhile, Trump is facing Justice Department scrutiny over efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating what she alleges was “a multi-state, coordinated plan by the Trump Campaign” to influence the 2020 results.

And in New York, Attorney General Letitia James has sued Trump, alleging his namesake company engaged in decades’ worth of fraudulent bookkeeping by misleading banks about the value of his assets. The Trump Organization is also now on trial, facing criminal tax fraud charges.

Some in Trump’s orbit believe that running will help shield him against potential indictment, but there is no legal statute that would prevent the Justice Department from moving forward — or prevent Trump from continuing to run if he is charged.

Still, Trump’s campaign will further complicate what is already a fraught decision by the Biden Justice Department, which will have to decide not only whether it believes Trump broke the law, but will face enormous political pressure for indicting the man who is now the sitting president’s chief political rival. Already Trump has cast the probe as a politically motivated effort to derail his candidacy.

Aides who had succeeded in persuading Trump to delay his announcement until after the midterms had also urged him to wait until next month’s Senate runoff in Georgia. But Trump chose to ignore the advice.

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Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj

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