Donald Trump has promised a presidency of “retribution” if he wins another term in office. Many Republicans fear they might face the brunt of it.
The former president has threatened to have donors to his Republican opponent Nikki Haley “permanently barred” from his orbit. A top adviser has vowed to destroy the career of Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), House Freedom Caucus chair, after he endorsed another Trump challenger, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Trump campaign has also attempted to condemn former aides who worked for his rivals during the GOP nomination fight and have twisted arms demanding endorsements, telling lawmakers that Trump will remember exactly when they backed him.
“MAGA disowns her and anyone else that associates/works with her,” read a recent Trump campaign social media message targeting the Trump campaign’s 2020 communications director for working last year to elect DeSantis. “TRAITOR!”
Even new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has been dragged into the crossfire. One of his top political consultants, Jason Hebert, works for Axiom Strategies, a consulting company that advised the DeSantis presidential effort. A Trump adviser called Johnson after he won the speakership to warn him not to work with Axiom, according to multiple people familiar with the call, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal details. Hebert, a college friend of Johnson’s, is expected to start billing his work for Johnson through a company not tied to Axiom, one of the people said.
The high-dollar donor community, which has been told in various ways to rally quickly behind Trump, has taken notice.
“People took that as, ‘I am going to be president and I am going to investigate you,’” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chairman and Haley backer, when Trump threatened to punish her donors. “There is always a threat. If you are not for him he’s against you.”
Trump’s top advisers say the efforts to cajole and punish within the party are not a central part of their strategy, and some close to Trump point out that the former president can be quick to forgive when it is in his interest. Trump has long distinguished himself as both surprisingly vicious and disarmingly transactional, often willing to forgive intractable enmity for short-term gain.
Hours after DeSantis endorsed him, Trump dropped use of his vicious nicknames — saying he was retiring them — and praised the Florida governor. This past week, Trump’s top aide, Susie Wiles, addressed some of the country’s most affluent donors in Palm Beach, Fla. In her presentation, Wiles did not make threats, and instead shared data and attempted to woo the donors with a carrot-more-than-stick approach, people with knowledge of the meeting said.
“The campaign is singularly focused on one thing — beating Crooked Joe Biden and winning back the White House,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, in a statement.
Trump has complained repeatedly to advisers that Republicans are not loyal enough and often shares more anger for Republicans who buck or criticize him than for Democrats. In 2021 and 2022, he made it a near-singular mission to defeat Republican lawmakers who voted for his impeachment and who publicly disputed his claims of election fraud.
There are other signs that Trump’s team has used a heavy hand. His campaign sent word to other operatives that if they worked for DeSantis, they would no longer be able to work for Trump, according to people with knowledge of the comments. One message sent to former aide who did not heed the warnings read, “RIP,” according to a person familiar with the exchange.
The former president’s advisers have discussed trying to change personnel at the Republican National Committee to install people they view as more in line with Trump and controlled by Trump’s campaign, according to people familiar with the discussions. It is unclear exactly how they would do this, but Trump said in a Sunday morning interview with Fox Business that there would be changes at the RNC. The former president has discussed trying to immediately remove Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) from his Senate leadership post should he be reelected, and has told advisers that he would want to immediately fire Christopher A. Wray, who was appointed by Trump as FBI director, following multiple federal investigations since he left office.
Some allies have kept lists of Republicans who have been critical of Trump in a bid to block them from getting jobs in a second term, according to a person with knowledge of the list. “You have a lot of people who want to come back in, but we remember what people have said in the past,” one longtime Trump ally said.
During a grueling primary, Trump has told advisers that he wants to make sure Ron DeSantis is not the GOP presidential nominee in 2028 and that he wanted to make his 2024 loss painful, people who heard his comments said. He has floated attacking lesser-known senators for not immediately endorsing him, according to people who have spoken to Trump.
Trump’s team turned up the pressure on endorsement holdouts ahead of the Iowa caucuses, and the former president quickly embraced the January endorsement of Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) just months after calling him “hopeless” in a social media post. Trump warned Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), who resisted calls to endorse Trump in 2021, that he “must be very careful” about his 2024 reelection race in a December social media post, while aides leaked word that Trump was talking of doing something more to punish his former 2016 rival. Cruz endorsed Trump after the Iowa caucuses, and Trump embraced the move as “wonderful.”
Texas House speaker Dade Phelan (R) led the impeachment effort against Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (R), a Trump ally, and later endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign. Just days later, Trump endorsed Phelan’s opponent, saying in a social media post that Phelan’s support did “not mitigate the Absolute Embarrassment Speaker Phelan inflicted upon the State of Texas and our Great Republican Party!”
He obliquely threatened Haley during his speech in New Hampshire, saying she would soon be under investigation for various things — without naming them — and allies of Trump have fanned rumors about her personal life.
Haley, as Trump’s last opponent for the nomination, has tried to make Trump’s efforts to punish fellow Republicans a central message of her campaign. She has said she represents a different, more unifying kind of politics.
“That’s a president who is supposed to serve every person in America, and you are deciding that you are going to have a club and actually ban people from being in and out of your club?” she said in a recent Fox News interview.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R), a major backer of Trump, joined the pressure game during an appearance in New Hampshire with Trump, when he took a jab at his own state education superintendent, Ellen Weaver, for being the only statewide elected official who has not yet endorsed the former president. Trump advisers and allies in South Carolina have pressured Weaver, who has demurred, saying she did not want to take a position in the race, people with knowledge of the talks said.
“She’s a rookie and she will figure it out before long,” McMaster said about Weaver. Since those comments, Weaver and McMaster spoke privately, according to people familiar with the call.
Other conflicts have been fueled in public by Trump’s staff, who made a point of attacking consultants and supporters of DeSantis last year as part of a campaign to create discord within his operations. Chris LaCivita, a top aide to Trump, repeatedly attacked Axiom strategist Jeff Roe, who had previously auditioned for a role in the Trump campaign.
Trump has told advisers that his opinion of Roe, who he once praised publicly as a formidable strategist, has changed after watching the now-shuttered DeSantis campaign because he now views him as a “loser,” in Trump’s words. Trump has nonetheless endorsed a number of candidates who have Axiom as a consultant.
Several Axiom employees who worked for Trump in 2020 went to work for DeSantis. When one of them, Erin Perrine, appeared on Fox Business in January she was immediately targeted by the Trump campaign’s social media account, which called her out after Fox chose to identify her as a former Trump adviser.
“She chose to side with DeSanctimonious and nothing can ever wash that foul stench,” the Team Trump post said, using a derogatory Trump nickname for the Florida governor.
LaCivita was also behind a recent attack on Good, a congressman from his home state of Virginia for endorsing DeSantis. Aides were upset by Good’s suggestion that DeSantis had a better chance than Trump of winning a general election.
“Bob Good won’t be electable when we get done with him,” LaCivita said in a text message to Cardinal News, a publication that covers politics in southern Virginia.
Such moves have cast a pall over the Republican caucus, quieting public challenges to Trump’s control of the Republican Party. One of the reasons more Senate Republicans have begun endorsing Trump, according to a strategist with knowledge of the talks, is they would prefer to avoid his wrath if he becomes the nominee. Trump’s endorsements in 2022 Senate races were decisive in multiple contested primaries, though several of those candidates later lost the general election.
Johnson has told people that he speaks to Trump regularly and tries to solicit Trump’s opinion.
People close to McConnell say he has assiduously avoided fighting with Trump even when goaded by others to do so — or even when Trump has attacked his wife, former transportation secretary Elaine Chao. After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, McConnell held Trump responsible, calling his actions beforehand “a disgraceful dereliction of duty” and “unconscionable behavior.” McConnell described Trump’s political clout as “diminished” after the 2022 elections. The two men have not spoken since 2020, and McConnell has largely avoided even saying Trump’s name.
McConnell has yet to endorse Trump, but he has also refrained from making any recent critical statements. “I’ve stayed essentially out of it,” he told reporters on the day of the New Hampshire primary. “And when I change my mind about that, I’ll let you know.”
After Trump won the New Hampshire primary, McConnell began referring to the former president as “the nominee.”