CONROE, Texas – As he prepared to tee off at one of his Florida golf courses, a fellow player introduced Donald Trump as the “45th president of the United States.”
“45th and 47th,” Trump responded matter-of-factly, before hitting his drive.
The quip — a moment of levity on the links captured on shaky cellphone video — was a reminder that the former president often has another presidential run on his mind. But the declaration belied the growing challenges he's confronting as a series of complex legal investigations ensnare Trump, his family and many associates.
The probes, which are unfolding in multiple jurisdictions and consider everything from potential fraud and election interference to the role he played in the Jan. 6 insurrection, represent the most serious legal threat Trump has faced in decades of an often litigious public life. They're intensifying as a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Trump's iron grip on the GOP may be starting to loosen.
His popularity among Republicans is declining somewhat, with 71% saying they have a favorable opinion of Trump compared with 78% in a September 2020 AP-NORC/USAFacts poll. But the new poll shows only a narrow majority of Republicans — 56% — want him to run for president in 2024. The poll found that 44% of Republicans do not want Trump to run.
Despite the legal and political headwinds, those around Trump describe him as looking to the future and emboldened by a sense of invincibility that has allowed him to recover from devastating turns, including two impeachments, that would have ended the careers of other politicians. Instead of receding from the spotlight, he's teasing a comeback run for president as he escalates his attacks against those investigating him and his company.
“He’s in great spirits,” said Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor and Trump ally who met with the former president this week.
Trump huddled with top aides in Florida this week as he plots a midterm strategy that could serve as a springboard for future efforts. And be held another campaign-style rally in Texas on Saturday evening ahead of the state's March 1 elections that formally kick off the midterm primary season.
Speaking at county fairgrounds outside of Houston, Trump sketched out the beginnings of a 2024 campaign agenda, saying he would ban critical race theory — it views American history through the lens of racism — from classrooms, the military and government on “the first day, first hour, if I decide to run and if we win." And he said he would make sure those charged in connection with the deadly Jan 6. riot at the U.S. Capitol were treated “fairly.”
"And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons,” he said of his supporters, who stormed the building in an effort to block the certification of President Joe Biden's win.
But even as he projects a sense of inevitability that the nomination would be his if he wants it, his effort to freeze the field of Republicans eyeing the 2024 field has been uneven. Some, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have so far refused to demur, making speeches and traveling to key states that suggest they are strongly considering campaigns. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also seen as another contender for the nomination and drew attention recently when he said that one of his biggest regrets as governor was not pushing back when Trump urged Americans to stay home in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to stop the virus’s spread.
As Trump tries to move forward, so do the legal cases against him.
On Monday, judges in Georgia approved a request for a special grand jury by the Fulton County prosecutor who has been investigating whether Trump and others broke the law by trying to pressure Georgia officials to throw out President Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 election. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has said her office received information “indicating a reasonable probability” that the election had been "subject to possible criminal disruptions.”
In New York, state Attorney General Letitia James claimed in a court filing last week that her office uncovered evidence that Trump’s company used “fraudulent or misleading” valuations of its golf clubs, skyscrapers and other property to secure loans and tax benefits. While her lawyers said they hadn't decided whether to bring a lawsuit in connection with the allegations, they revealed the company overstated the value of land donations made in New York and California on paperwork submitted to the IRS and misreported the size of Trump’s Manhattan penthouse, among other misleading valuations.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has also been working with James’ office on a parallel criminal investigation, which resulted in charges last summer against Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Jan. 6 committee investigating the violent insurrection has interviewed hundreds of witnesses, issued dozens of subpoenas and obtained tens of thousands of pages of records, including texts, emails and phone records from people close to Trump, as well as thousands of pages of White House records that Trump fought to shield from public view. Among them: a draft executive order that proposed using Defense Department assets to seize voting machines, the committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, has said.
A top Justice Department official said this week that prosecutors are investigating fake certificates sent to the National Archives with made-up slates of electors who wrongly declared Trump the winner in seven states he lost as part of a desperate campaign to subvert the voters' will. Attorney General Merrick Garland has said the Justice Department remains committed to "holding all January 6th perpetrators, at any level, accountable under law, whether they were present that day or were otherwise criminally responsible for the assault on our democracy.”
As president, Trump was largely shielded from legal consequence. But no longer.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, said that, until now, Trump’s legal problems have largely been relegated to “money things,” with various lawsuits seeking payouts. But he described what Trump is facing now, particularly in Georgia and Washington, as “more significant, because with those comes the potential exposure to criminal punishment.”
“If they can prove intention, knowledge, involvement in an ongoing conspiracy,” he said, ”that’s potential criminal exposure, something he’s never faced before.”
But those who have worked with Trump said he and those around him are likely to continue to brush off the probes as nothing more than politically motivated “witch hunts” aimed at damaging his future political prospects. After spending so many years jumping from one crisis to the next, from the Russia investigation to inquiries about everything from his Washington hotel lease to payoffs to a former porn star, being under investigation in TrumpWorld is the norm.
For many in his circle, “It’s a badge of honor to be subpoenaed,” said Stephanie Grisham, the former White House press secretary who quit on Jan. 6 and has since penned an anti-Trump book.
“It’s easy to say ‘It’s just another witch hunt’ because that’s what we said about everything,” she said. “People are doubling down. That’s what we do in TrumpWorld, we double down. And you just claim it’s a witch hunt, you claim it's political theater. And that’s how you get your supporters to continue to donate money and to continue to believe they’re on the good side.”
Indeed, on Saturday night, Trump railed against the investigators and insisted, “There’s never been a witch hunt or a fishing expedition like this.”
“This has been going on as long as you’ve known me. It will continue as long as I’m leading in the polls like I am," he said, adding: “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you.”
And, after being accused of inciting the Capitol riot, he issued a request. “If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere."
Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.