Many former Trump aides say he shouldn’t be president. Will it matter?
Critics are grappling with how they can puncture Trump’s candidacy in 2024 and whether their voices will have any impact
John F. Kelly, the longest-serving chief of staff in President Donald Trump’s White House, watches Trump dominate the GOP primary with increasing despair.
“What’s going on in the country that a single person thinks this guy would still be a good president when he’s said the things he’s said and done the things he’s done?” Kelly said in a recent interview. “It’s beyond my comprehension he has the support he has.”
Kelly, a retired four-star general, said he didn’t know what to do — or what he could do — to help people see it his way.
“I came out and told people the awful things he said about wounded soldiers, and it didn’t have half a day’s bounce. You had his attorney general Bill Barr come out, and not a half a day’s bounce. If anything, his numbers go up. It might even move the needle in the wrong direction. I think we’re in a dangerous zone in our country,” he said.
No president has ever attracted more public detractors who were formerly in his inner circle. They are closely watching his rise — cruising in the GOP nomination contest and, in most polls, tying or even leading President Biden in a general election matchup — with alarm. Among them are his former vice president, top military advisers, lawyers, some members of his Cabinet, economic advisers, press officials and campaign aides, some of whom are working for other candidates.
Among their reasons for opposing a second Trump term, they cite the 91 criminal charges against him, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, his false claims of election fraud, his incendiary rhetoric in office, his desire to weaponize the Justice Department, his chaotic management style, his likely personnel choices in a second term, and his affinity for dictators.
Interviews with 16 former Trump advisers — some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their former boss — show they are grappling with how they can puncture Trump’s candidacy in 2024, whether they can or should coordinate with one another and whether their voices will even matter.
Additionally, more than a dozen people once in his employ could end up taking the stand and providing testimony as part of multiple criminal trials, according to people with knowledge of the cases and court documents.
At the same time, even some who have publicly declared Trump unfit for office have said they would still support him over Biden in 2024.
So far, Trump has surged toward the GOP nomination even as former aides critical of him have blanketed the airwaves, giving scathing speeches, testifying on camera in front of congressional committees and penning books — shaking off the kinds of condemnations that could mortally wound another politician.
“These media whores are always looking for their next grift — whether its book deals or cable news contracts — because they know their entire worth as human beings revolve around talking about President Trump,” said Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman. “They clearly don’t own any mirrors because if they did, they would not be able to look at themselves every day knowing what they’re doing is hurting the country. These charlatans are disgusting and should be wholly ignored.”
Trump advisers note he has a coterie of loyal aides and advisers such as Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway and Dan Scavino, who have been allied with him for years. Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), a former press secretary, endorsed Trump onstage at a rally in Florida last week. Other former top aides are putting together a 2025 plan and want to rejoin the administration.
“The time has come to return to the normal policies of the Trump era which created a safer, stronger, and more prosperous America,” Sanders said.
In recent fundraisers, Trump has been questioned by donors on multiple occasions about his personnel choices and has attacked former officials who have spoken out against him, according to people familiar with the questioning. Trump has argued that while in the White House, he listened to people he should not have — and made bad hires, particularly at the Pentagon and Justice. Donors have expressed concern that Trump hired so many people who have attacked him, people familiar with the conversations said.
This time, Trump said, he would look out for people who are loyal and “smart.” A second term in office, people close to him say, would have people who “actually support President Trump,” in the words of one adviser.
“I learned how deep the deep state is,” he recently told donors at an event.
Every president has the occasional critic from within his administration. Scott McClellan, former press secretary in the George W. Bush White House, rattled his former colleagues with a scathing look behind the scenes. Former defense secretary Robert Gates offered a harsh critique of President Barack Obama’s judgments that was used as a cudgel by Obama’s critics.
What makes Trump different is how many former aides have come out against him, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, and how vituperative their criticisms have been. Their motives are varied, and while some are fueled by genuine concerns, others, he said, are driven by a new incentive structure. Some of the attacks could also be undercut because voters see the former aides as enablers who are now simply looking to reclaim their reputations.
“You can get paid for a Washington insider book that dishes dirt; there’s been a corrosion of loyalty towards presidents. It wasn’t always that way,” Brinkley said. “And you have a lot of people who want to be decontaminated from Trump because he’s become a symbol of authoritarianism.”