It was a familiar scene Sunday when Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., tried to avoid giving a direct answer about the caustic behavior of former President Donald Trump.
Trump had called Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, “dumb” and used a coarse phrase to underscore it while speaking to hundreds of Republican National Committee donors Saturday night. When Thune was asked by Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” to comment, he chuckled and tried to sidestep the question.
“I think a lot of that rhetoric is — you know, it’s part of the style and tone that comes with the former president,” Thune said, before moving on to say Trump and McConnell shared the goal of reclaiming congressional majorities in 2022.
Thune was not the only Republican straining to stay on the right side of the former president. The day before Trump delivered his broadsides against McConnell, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, presented Trump with a newly created award for his leadership.
And Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations under Trump who enraged him when she criticized his actions in connection to the Jan. 6 riot, and indicated the party needs to move on, has also been attempting a delicate dance to work back into a more neutral territory.
This week, she told The Associated Press that she would not run if Trump did, a display of deference that underscored the complications the former president represents to Republicans.
Like many Republicans, Thune, Scott and Haley were navigating the impulses of a former president who talks privately about running again in 2024, and who is trying to bend the rest of the party to his will, even after the deadly riot by his supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6. He retains a firm hold on a devoted group of Republican voters, and party leaders have discussed the need to continue appealing to the new voters Trump attracted over the past five years.
To some extent, their posture recalls the waning days of Trump’s first primary candidacy, in 2015 and 2016. While McConnell and a few other Republicans have been directly critical of Trump’s conduct following the Capitol riot, most are trying to avoid alienating the former president, knowing he will set his sights on them for withering attacks, and hoping that someone or something else intervenes to hobble him.
Even as Trump makes clear he will not leave the public stage, many Republicans have privately said they hope he will fade away, after a tenure in which the party lost both houses of Congress and the White House.
“It is Groundhog Day,” said Tim Miller, a former adviser to Jeb Bush, the only candidate to repeatedly challenge Trump during the early stages of the Republican presidential primaries in 2016.
“I always thought that was like a rational choice in 2015,” Miller said, referring to the instinct to lay back and let someone else take on Trump. “But after we all saw how the strategy fails of just hoping and wishing for him to go away, nobody learned from it.”
Throughout that campaign, one candidate after another in the crowded field tried to position themselves to be the last man standing on the assumption that Trump would self-destruct before making it to the finish line.
It was wishful thinking. Trump attacked not only Bush but several other candidates in deeply personal terms, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. Only Bush sustained a response, though he eventually left the race after failing to gain traction; Cruz, in particular, told donors during a private meeting in late 2015 that he was going to give Trump a “big bear hug” in order to hold onto his voters.
They all tried to avoid being the target of his insults, while hoping that external events and news media coverage would ultimately lead to his downfall. Instead, Trump solidified his position as primary voting began.
“He intimidates people because he will attack viciously and relentlessly, much more than any other politician, yet somehow people crave his approval,” said Mike DuHaime, who advised former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey in that primary race. DuHaime recalled Trump attacking Bush’s wife in one debate, only for Bush to reciprocate when Trump offered a hand-slap later in that same debate.
“Trump did self-destruct eventually, after four years in office,” DuHaime said. “But he can still make or break others, and that makes him powerful and relevant.”
Even John Boehner, the former speaker of the House whose criticisms of Trump in his memoir, “On the House,” have garnered national headlines, told Time magazine this week that he voted for Trump in 2020 — well after the former president had spent months falsely suggesting the election would be corrupt.
In his speech before RNC donors Saturday night, Trump, in addition to attacking McConnell, also criticized a host of perceived enemies from both parties; among them was former Vice President Mike Pence, whose life was in danger on Jan. 6 because he was in the Capitol to certify the electoral votes. Trump reiterated that Pence, who recently signed a book deal, should have had “the courage” to send the electoral vote tallies back to the states, despite the fact that the vice president had made clear that he did not think he had the authority to do so.
Jason Miller, an adviser to Trump, disagreed with the comparison to 2015, saying that Trump had more dominance over the base of the Republican Party now than he did then, according to public polling, and a greater number of senior Republican officials speaking out against him five years ago.
“In 2021, there are no candidates trying to take out President Trump, just some occasional sniping from menthol-infused nitwits like John Boehner,” he said.
Still, Trump does not have the complete control over the party that he did during four years in office. His critics include leading Republicans like McConnell and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3-ranking Republican in the House. Asked on Fox News on Tuesday if she would vote for Trump if he ran in 2024 Cheney replied “I would not.”
Cheney, whom Trump has threatened as a target of his anger, also said her fellow Republicans shouldn’t “embrace insurrection.”
And not all Republicans think that ignoring Trump is a mistake. One senior party member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to engage in a lengthy back and forth with Trump, said that with the former president out of office and off Twitter, his reach is limited.
The Republican said there had been anecdotal evidence from members of Congress during the recess that Trump was less omnipresent for voters in their districts than he had previously been.
While Trump was ascendant in 2015 and 2016, said an adviser to another Republican who may run in 2024, that wasn’t the case now. And if party leaders fight with him publicly or try to take him on, it could only strengthen him, the Republican argued, giving him more prominence.
What’s more, the first senior Republican argued, Republican lawmakers have found common cause not just in battling President Joe Biden’s policies but in the backlash to the Georgia voting rights law. Those fights have continued without Trump, and will accelerate, the Republican said, without being driven by the cult of personality around the former president.
Other Republicans are privately hopeful that the criminal investigation into Trump’s business by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. will result in charges that hobble him from running again or even being a major figure within the party. People who have spoken with Trump say that he is agitated about the investigation.
While all of that may represent just a slow turn away from Trump, those Republicans believe the turn has begun.
David Kochel, a Republican strategist and supporter of Bush during the 2016 campaign, sounded less optimistic.
He noted that even the horror of Jan. 6 did not break the hold Trump has on other elected officials, and that several anchors on Fox News — the largest conservative news outlet — had consistently downplayed the attack on air, numbing viewers to what took place as time passes.
In an interview on Fox News with host Laura Ingraham late last month, when asked about the security around the Capitol, Trump said: “It was zero threat right from the start. It was zero threat.”
He added: “Some of them went in and there they are hugging and kissing the police and the guards. You know, they had great relationships. A lot of the people were waved in and then they walked in and they walked out.”
Kochel said Jan. 6 was “being stuffed down the memory hole” with the help of Fox News, noting that the strategy of waiting out Trump and hoping he fades away has had a less-than-perfect history of being effective.
“We’ve seen this movie before — a bunch of GOP leaders all looking at each other, waiting to see who’s going to try and down Trump,” he said.