The US Capitol in Washington, DC (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Congressman Trump?: Donald Trump’s surest path back to power

The idea of Trump running for Congressional office may sound unconventional, but the former president has never been one to toe the line

The legal challenges failed. The votes were certified. The White House was vacated. Much against his will, and without his Twitter account, on 20 January Donald Trump relinquished office and relocated to Florida, his recently declared state of official residence. Rumours circulated. The former president was said to be angry and depressed. His second impeachment trial loomed. New York prosecutors seemed to be closing in.

It is still not clear that local authorities will permit him to reside at Mar-a-Lago, his seaside private club in Palm Beach, where he was just forced to demolish a helipad provisionally allowed while he served as president. Will he start a new political party to shed Republican opponents who have crossed him? Will he start a new communications network to prevent himself and his supporters from being cancelled on social media? Does he have any political future at all? Despite the fleeting platitudes about “healing,” “unity,” and “moving on,” the future of Donald Trump remains the object of major national and international attention.

Trump remains by far the most popular figure in the Republican Party

Taking stock just a month after Joe Biden replaced him as president, Trump does indeed have a future. He remains by far the most popular figure in the Republican Party, with an approval rating approaching 80 per cent and a slightly higher percentage believing that the election was stolen from him. Opposition to him within the party is hyped by the media and Washington establishment but numerically insignificant, and so unlikely to survive now that Trump’s few Republican opponents are claiming to be victims of cancel culture. Trump is far and away the preferred candidate to challenge Biden in 2024, even though only one previous US president was ever re-elected to a non-consecutive second term. The party’s machinery is personally loyal. Devoted followers regularly gather on the road leading to Mar-a-Lago. He is beginning to give major interviews and speeches again, repeating his claims that he was the true winner of the 2020 election. No one doubts that Trump will have a huge role in the 2022 midterm elections, in which thin Democratic Congressional majorities will be on the line.

Most predictions for 2022 hold that Trump will endorse and campaign for candidates who share his ideology and support him as leader of both the Republican Party and his populist-nationalist movement, which will certainly still control the party eighteen months from now. In the current climate, this will boost younger and more conservative challengers to Republican centrists, whom the vast majority of the national party derides, distrusts, and blames for having insufficiently supported the former president.

There is, however, another option – Trump himself could run for Congressional office. The idea may sound unconventional, but Donald Trump has never been conventional. Nor, like running for a second non-consecutive presidential term as he is expected to do, would a Congressional run be unprecedented. In 1828, John Quincy Adams lost re-election after his only presidential term. Disgusted by his newly elected successor, whose inauguration he, like Trump, refused to attend, Adams returned to the national scene as a member of the House of Representatives at the very next opportunity just two years later. He went on to serve for seventeen years, dying in office in 1848.

What better way to show up a body that twice voted to impeach him?

Andrew Johnson, one of the only two other US presidents to be impeached but not removed from office, left the presidency in 1869 and was elected to the Senate six years later, having avidly sought Congressional office to battle old enemies from his presidency. He died after a few months, but no one ever questioned the validity, legality, or wisdom of his or Adams’s post-presidential legislative career. More recently, it was suggested that Bill Clinton might run for Congress after he left the presidency enjoying much popularity. He never pursued that option, but his wife Hillary, a two-term First Lady, was elected to the Senate from a state to which she had only recently moved, and later entertained higher aspirations.

There is no bar in either law or precedent to stop Trump from a Congressional run, and his motivations to do so closely parallel those of Adams and Johnson. What better way to show up a body that twice voted to impeach him than to re-emerge in its midst, unscathed by its adverse votes and unbowed by defeat? It would be worth it just for the sour look on AOC’s face or the bulging of Adam Schiff’s eyes.

Even better from Trump’s point of view, rank-and-file Republican devotion to him will certainly accord him outsized prominence even as a freshman Congressman. Adams was appointed to prominent committees as soon as he entered the House as a former president. Trump would also be an immediate candidate for leadership positions. He could shove aside Republican minority leader Kevin McCarthy with whom he reportedly quarrelled during the events of 6 January, allegedly accusing McCarthy of caring less than the Capitol-storming protesters did about the disputed election results. He probably would not even encounter the ten Republican representatives who voted in favour of the second impeachment since all are likely to be primaried out of office.

If the Republicans capture the small number of seats they need win back a House majority, Trump could even be elected Speaker, an office for which all Congressmen are qualified and to which elections are held at the beginning of every new Congressional term. This would undoubtedly devastate his arch nemesis Nancy Pelosi, who currently holds the post and presided over both of his impeachments. It would also place Trump third in line for the presidency and, more importantly, in control of the flow of all federal legislation. Just imagine him sitting behind Biden and beside Kamala Harris at the 2023 State of the Union address! Once ensconced in the Speaker’s chair, moreover, not even the mightiest tech lord could silence him. Trump would hold a legitimate and constitutionally hallowed national platform that would guarantee him a major say in government and prove a far better starting point for a 2024 presidential campaign than any Florida golf club disconnected from social media.

Residing in Florida, Trump is already in an excellent place to pursue a Congressional candidacy. In 2020 he won his new home state by an absolute majority, adding over one million votes to his narrower 2016 win in the state. Republicans currently hold sixteen of Florida’s 27 seats in the House of Representatives, both of its Senate seats, its governor’s office, and majorities in both houses of its state legislature. In recent elections, most Florida Republicans have won their House seats with over 60 per cent of the vote. Trump could easily leverage his enduring popularity to succeed any of the sixteen Republican Congressmen who decides not to run in 2022, or, if all seek re-election, handily defeat any of them in a party primary election and then proceed to victory over whatever local Democrat is daft enough to challenge him.

The Democrats have no one of comparable stature to run against the former president

Even if Trump is averse to dragooning an existing House seat in those ways, Florida stands to gain two or three new Congressional seats once the 2020 census results are finalised later this year. Preliminary assessments indicate that the biggest areas of population growth are in central Florida, where Republicans made considerable gains in 2020, largely among recently arrived transplants who moved there because they were sick and tired of northern Blue State policies and no longer had any desire to live under them. Congressional redistricting will be determined by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, with any legal challenges decided by its Republican-majority state supreme court and, if appealed, by the US Supreme Court, which also has a Republican majority. Rather than take an existing seat, Trump could simply run for one of the new ones that will certainly be created in 2022.

Across the aisle, the Democrats have no one of comparable stature to run against the former president. Florida’s most prominent Democratic politician, a progressive who narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial race, was subsequently ruined in an embarrassing sex-and-drugs scandal and has no political future. His colleagues do not travel well outside the state’s Blue south-eastern corner around Miami and are losing ground even there, especially among Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan communities who remain unconvinced of the virtues of democratic socialism, and among Blue State transplants who went further south.

Any election involving Donald Trump’s candidacy will certainly be a sensational event, even if much media attention will be oriented toward ensuring his defeat. It will return him to an inextinguishable spotlight. It will make the national midterm elections a referendum on Biden’s first two years in office, which are unlikely to be smooth, and offer the Republicans perhaps their strongest chance of winning back Congress in 2022. There is every possibility that voter dissatisfaction, encouraged by Trumpian doses of “I told you so,” will grant their wish and set the former president on a path back to the White House in 2024.

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