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Trump Tests Waning Appeal in Washington Visit Shadowed by Jan. 6

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is coming back to Washington as Republican rivals maneuver for a possible primary challenge and lawmakers probe his culpability for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

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The former president will deliver a keynote speech Tuesday at the America First Agenda Summit, a conservative conference. His remarks come on the heels of a House committee hearing that portrayed him standing by indifferently, even vindictively, for hours as a mob of his supporters battled police and chased lawmakers through the halls of the Capitol.

Trump isn’t expected to announce a third run for president in his Washington speech, according to advisers. But the notoriously mercurial ex-leader could change his mind on the way into town from the airport.A day before he speaks, his former vice president, Mike Pence, will deliver remarks of his own, highlighting the rivalry that has developed between the two men after Trump lambasted Pence for refusing to participate in his scheme to overturn his re-election defeat.

In the aftermath of his defeat and the chaos that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6, Trump slipped out of Washington in disgrace the morning of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. His return — at a time when Biden is notching the lowest approval rating of his presidency and contending with foreign crises and domestic anger over inflation and culture-war issues — has fanned speculation about what’s considered an all-but-inevitable campaign announcement.

“He loves that the news is about whether he’s ready to announce, when he’s going to announce,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “He loves all of the media speculation and he doesn’t mind a fight, but when you actually declare you have to make FEC filings.”

Bennett said he believes Trump will hold off to avoid triggering federal election-law requirements and limits on fundraising. Trump has raised $137 million since the start of 2021 through the end of June, Federal Election Commission records show, with the bulk coming from his loyal army of small-dollar donors. Save America, his political action committee, has $103 million in the bank, though contribution limits would bar him from using more than $5,000 of that total for his presidential campaign.

Some congressional Republican leaders would prefer for Trump to hold off on an announcement to avoid complicating their message ahead of the November midterm elections, in which the GOP is expected to take control of the House and possibly the Senate.

Regardless of when it happens, US voters are learning shocking details about the behavior of the president and his closest aides before and during the Jan. 6 insurrection. It will raise the question of how his popularity has ebbed outside of his devoted base.

Unpopular Ex-President

About 56 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of the former president and less than 41% hold a favorable view, according to an analysis of polling by FiveThirtyEight. That 15-point gap has almost tripled since late March, before the Jan. 6 committee began holding public hearings to reveal its findings about efforts by Trump and his associates to overturn his re-election defeat.

On Thursday, a hearing revealed that a day after the riot at the Capitol, Trump still balked at acknowledging that he had lost the election.

“I don’t want to say the election’s over -- I just want to say Congress has certified the results, without saying the election’s over, ok?” he said on Jan. 7 in a previously unseen outtake of a pre-recorded speech.

Trump has continued to try to pressure Republican leaders of legislatures in states he narrowly lost to somehow de-certify the results of the 2020 election, even though the Constitution provides no such process. Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s state Assembly Speaker, told television station WISN-TV that Trump called him this month about supporting a resolution to revoke the state’s 10 Electoral College votes cast for Biden in 2020. Vos dismissed the idea.

Still, 69% of Republican voters would like to see Trump run again in 2024, according to a Quinnipiac University poll this month. By contrast, 54% of Democrats would prefer someone other than Biden as their 2024 nominee.

Trump entered office in 2016 as what he later called the “only true outsider ever to win the presidency.” His term proved immediately polarizing, hobbled by low approval ratings and the loss of the House of Representatives to his opponents in 2018, a fate Biden now seeks to avoid himself.Trump went on to become the only president to be impeached twice, though he was also twice acquitted in the Senate.

But Trump’s brash and unapologetic style and his achievements -- including deep tax cuts, broad and enduring tariffs on Chinese imports, and the confirmation of three conservative Supreme Court justices -- helped him to cement near total control over his party. Since leaving office, he has continued to hold regular political rallies drawing thousands of supporters to hear him deliver lengthy stemwinders assailing his opponents.

His remarks at the America First summit will be Trump’s highest-profile speech since leaving office, just blocks from the White House where his successor is recuperating from Covid-19. The America First summit will feature a number of Republican luminaries in addition to Trump, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has sought to mend his relations with the former president after criticizing him in the days after the Capitol riot.

Rivals in Wings

Notably, however, some potential rivals for the GOP’s 2024 nomination won’t be in attendance, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who polls currently show would be Trump’s most potent challenger.

And Trump’s speech will be pre-empted by Pence, who will deliver remarks to another Republican interest group, the Heritage Foundation, on Monday. Pence was among Trump’s top loyalists until Jan. 6, when he rebuffed the president’s demands that he refuse to accept Electoral College votes from states where Trump and his allies claimed fraud had marred the results.

Pence carried out his constitutionally prescribed duties, then hid within the Capitol as Trump’s supporters invaded the building. The former vice president is popular among conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, and is regarded as likely to make his own run for the presidency in 2024.

Trump’s advantage over potential rivals such as DeSantis has significantly eroded over the course of the committee hearings, one Republican strategist said. The person asked not to be identified to candidly assess Trump’s prospects.

The US hasn’t seen a presidential candidate make a bid for a third consecutive major-party nomination in generations. Only one other president, Grover Cleveland, has served two non-consecutive terms, each in the late 19th century.

Other potential GOP candidates in 2024 include Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as Senators Rick Scott of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. It’s not yet clear how broad a field will emerge if Trump runs.

A crowded GOP presidential primary would benefit Trump, who still has a grip on more than a third of GOP voters, the strategist said. There’s a general sense within the party that there’s an opening emerging for a challenger. But because Trump may focus his attacks most sharply on the first person to declare his or her candidacy, some rivals may try to delay their announcements.

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