He may have lost the White House and his social media megaphone but Donald Trump is reminding US citizens of his ability to dominate the political conversation as he courts controversy on the comeback trail.
Surrounded by “Trump Won” flags at a rally on January 29 in Texas, the loser of the 2020 election teased another run for president and dangled impunity for those who waged last year’s attack on the Capitol in a failed bid to halt the transfer of power to Joe Biden.
Trump claimed that those charged in the assault – characterised by the FBI as an act of domestic terror – were being “treated so unfairly” and vowed that “if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons”.
Perhaps attempting to reach beyond the few obscure TV channels carrying the rally live, Trump upped the ante by accusing a trio of black prosecutors pursuing him over a panoply of alleged crimes as “racist”.
The 75-year-old property magnate urged his followers to launch “the biggest protests we have ever had” if the prosecutors “do anything wrong or illegal”.
The rally made headlines for its lawless, authoritarian tone but Trump set off bigger alarm bells the following day, repeating his false assertion that his vice president Mike Pence could have rejected Biden’s victories in a handful of crucial battleground states.
“Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the election!” Trump railed, in perhaps the most explicit and self-incriminating statement yet of his intent.
Stubbornly pushing false allegations of widespread voter fraud that got him banned from Twitter and Facebook, Trump has argued all along that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.
But the former reality TV star’s January 30 statement rather gave the game away – making clear that his only aim was to wrestle victory back from Biden, not to resolve disputes over electoral votes.
It confirmed suspicions of bad faith raised when Trump was caught on tape trying to order a Georgia elections administrator to change its tally enough for him to win the state by a single vote.
“This is an admission, and a massively un-American statement,” outspoken Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger said of Trump’s latest outburst.
Kinzinger’s House colleague Liz Cheney, a party grandee turned pariah over her opposition to Trump, said the rally showed that Trump “clearly would do this all again if he were given the chance.”
Despite the mounting controversies, Trump remains by far the favourite for the Republican nomination in 2024 and is the party’s most successful fundraiser, with $122 million on hand.
As the Republican National Committee holds its winter meeting in the coming days in Salt Lake City, there are signs however that his iron grip is loosening.
A recent NBC poll found that 56 per cent of Republicans now define themselves more as supporters of the party than of Trump.
Since he left office, several investigations – both criminal and civil, federal and state-level – have been launched into Trump’s suspected tax evasion, financial fraud, election interference and other allegations, all of which the ex-president denies.
On Capitol Hill, the cross-party House committee investigating his role in the insurrection recently began receiving more than 700 documents from the National Archives from Trump’s time in the Oval Office.
Trump sued to keep the trove secret, but the Biden administration chose not to support his privilege claims, and the courts sided with the committee.
In a bizarre signal of Trump’s disregard for convention, the archives said some documents handed over from the White House had to be taped back together because they had been “torn up by former President Trump.”
Politico reported in 2018 that the White House employed staff whose jobs were partly to repair paper communications that Trump would routinely destroy, which is against the law.
Meanwhile the Republican Party’s small core of lawmakers willing to call out Trump – including Kinzinger and Cheney, who are both on the Capitol assault committee – appears to be growing.
January 29’s rally was a bridge too far even for Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham, who told CBS that talk of pardoning insurrectionists was “inappropriate” and would make a repeat of the storming of the Capitol “more likely”.
Tim Miller, the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign, praised Kinzinger and Cheney for “saying what all of us see to be true . . . that this is absolutely insane, unconscionable, unprecedented.”
“The former president of the United States admitted in a statement that he wanted to overturn a free and fair democratic election to keep himself in power,” Miller told MSNBC on January 31, “that he tried to do it, that there was a plot to do it and that his only disappointment was that it didn’t work.”