Trump keeps making incendiary statements. His campaign says that won’t change.

Mar 3, 2024, 10:24 PM

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — He’s argued his four criminal indictments and mug shot bolstered his support among Black voters who see him as a victim of discrimination just like them.

He’s compared himself to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison imprisoned by Vladimir Putin, and suggested that he is a political dissident, too.

And in nearly every public appearance, he repeats falsehoods about the election he lost.

Candidates on the verge of winning their parties’ nominations generally massage their messaging and moderate positions that may energize hardcore primary voters but are less appealing to a broader audience. In political terms, they “pivot.”

Not Donald Trump. The former president is instead doubling down on often-incendiary rhetoric that offends wide swaths of voters, seeming to be doing little to rein in his most irascible and oftentimes self-defeating instincts. That’s even as some of his most loyal allies have suggested he shift his focus and tone down rhetoric that risks offending independent voters and people outside his base.

“Donald Trump is Donald Trump. That’s not going to change,” said senior campaign adviser Chris LaCivita. “Our job is not to remake Donald Trump.”

LaCivita and other top campaign officials instead say their role is to provide the organization “to amplify and to force project” Trump’s message.

The campaign, he said, had already assumed a general election posture before voting began, running ads attacking President Joe Biden before the Iowa caucuses. So while Trump is now talking less about his last remaining GOP rival, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, his campaign is focused on building out a general election infrastructure as it turns its focus from early voting states to November battlegrounds.

That includes efforts to take over the Republican National Committee, with plans to consolidate the party’s and campaign’s fundraising, political operations, communications and research operations. LaCivita is in line to become the RNC’s chief operating officer while retaining his role on the campaign.

“The campaign’s pivot,” LaCivita said, “is just a realization that we’ve already secured what we need to win. That manifests itself in not only the messaging but the mechanics.” He said to expect “more of the same” after Trump clinches the nomination, which is expected later this month.

Trump’s hardest edges, no matter how familiar to Americans nine years after he first ran for president, produce welcome fodder for Biden’s reelection team, which wants to motivate disaffected Democrats and independent voters by warning about a second Trump term.

Trump’s speeches at rallies can stretch for two hours as he meanders between policy proposals, personal stories and jokes, attacks on his opponents and complaints that he is being persecuted by the courts, and dire warnings about the country’s future. Trump often adds asides that were not in his prepared remarks. But some of his most divisive comments are part of his script.

He has bragged about nominating three Supreme Court justices who voted to end a national right to abortion, even as he urges Republicans not to be too extreme on an issue Democrats have credited for several victories. In promising to carry out the largest deportation operation in U.S. history, he has talked about immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country,” echoing Adolf Hitler. And he once described his enemies as “vermin,” language opponents deride as authoritarian.

At one rally this past weekend, Trump went so far as to cast Biden’s handling of the border as “a conspiracy to overthrow the United States of America.”

“Donald Trump is still Donald Trump — the same extreme, dangerous candidate voters rejected in 2020, and they’ll reject him again this November regardless of the team he has around him,” said Biden spokesman Kevin Munoz.

Trump’s advisers have at times encouraged him to speak less about grievance and retribution and more about his vision for a second term. But after three campaigns for the White House and four years in office, Trump is set in his ways. Former aides learned long ago that trying to pressure Trump to rein in his impulses often only led him to dig in deeper. And his campaign team seems to respect and trust the former president’s political instincts, pointing to his sweep of the GOP primaries so far.

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung said Trump would not change. Americans “deserve a president who will not sugarcoat what’s happening in the world,” he said.

Interviews with Republicans, including Trump supporters and those still backing Haley’s beleaguered bid, reflect concerns that Trump risks fumbling a clear opportunity against Biden, who faces low approval ratings and widespread voter questions about his age and readiness for a second term.

“At some point (Trump) needs to take the spotlight off himself,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who backs Haley. Davis noted improving economic indicators but said Biden remains burdened by concerns about inflation and “has been bad on the border” and “terrible on the deficit.”

Even Trump voters seem to recognize the problem: According to AP VoteCast data, about half of Republicans in conservative South Carolina — including about a quarter of Trump’s own supporters — are concerned he is too extreme to win the general election. While Trump dominates among conservative voters, those voters represented just 37% of the electorate in the November 2020 presidential election.

Trump held rallies Saturday in North Carolina and Virginia, two states that hold primaries on Super Tuesday but are also potential swing states in November’s general election.

Both states highlight Trump’s potential problems in November: He dominates among conservatives, especially in rural and small-town America, but struggles with more moderate voters in more urban settings.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who was re-elected in 2020 even as Trump won his state, said he welcomes the contrast between Trump and Biden.

“Do you want a president who wakes up every morning thinking about the American people?” he asked in an interview. “Or do you want a president who wakes up every morning thinking about himself?”

Biden won Virginia in 2020. A year later, Virginians elected Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor. Youngkin emphasized education and economic policy, and attracted urban and suburban moderates who rejected Trump. Some of the states’ suburban and exurban congressional districts have become more favorable to Democrats in the Trump era.

Notably, Youngkin has not endorsed Trump. He declined an interview request through aides.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who sometimes speaks to the former president, compared 2024 to 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan won a landslide over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, who was saddled with inflation, high unemployment and international conflict. Reagan, dubbed “the happy warrior,” won 44 states and a new Republican Senate with “a positive vision,” Gingrich said, that was about more than Carter’s record.

“When you have the kind of numbers Biden has, what people need is about 70% positive, 30% anti-Biden,” Gingrich said, insisting Trump could usher in a Republican wave like when he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Just as possible, however, is a repeat of 2018, when Republicans lost the House majority, or 2020, when Trump lost and Democrats reclaimed Senate control, or 2022, when Republicans lost winnable Senate races and failed to flip the chamber.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham suggests Trump and his campaign should “just keep doing what they’re doing.”

But Graham himself has pivoted. After he ran for president in 2016, Graham vowed that “if we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed.” Now, he is a Trump confidant.

“Everybody that wants to give him advice, he beat like a drum,” Graham said at Trump’s South Carolina victory party.


Colvin reported from New York.

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Trump keeps making incendiary statements. His campaign says that won’t change.