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Citizen Trump: The many paths ahead for the ex-president

By Tina Davis
Bloomberg News/TNS

Most ex-presidents spend their time out of office playing golf, getting their libraries in order, making well-paid speeches, writing even more lucrative memoirs and biting their tongues about what the next guy is doing. Other than the golf, the road ahead for Donald Trump, a president who has never adhered to his office’s norms, will be unlike any other.

We know where he will not be when his term ends at noon on Wednesday - he’s the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1869 to decline to attend his successor’s inauguration. But there is no clear answer yet on what he plans to do next. Even where he plans to live is potentially up in the air - though Trump says he’s moving to his Mar-a-Lago private club, some of his Palm Beach, Florida, neighbors are challenging his ability to live there full time.

In the near term and possibly longer, Trump’s post-presidential options will be circumscribed by the fallout over his Jan. 6 speech egging on the crowd that would go on to storm the U.S. Capitol, including a historic second impeachment. If he’s convicted at the upcoming Senate trial, he’ll almost certainly be barred from ever running for federal office again. For now, some of Corporate America’s biggest names are shunning the businessman president, “de-platforming” him on social media and cutting him off from certain professional and financial services. Tens of millions of his fellow citizens will continue to revile him, rendering the Trump brand toxic to half the country and harming prospects for his real estate, hotel and golf resort empire.

But tens of millions of other Americans are likely to form a durable base of support, making Trump a political force for years to come regardless of whether he seeks the presidency again. Deprived of his @realDonaldTrump megaphone and other online platforms, the former president will have to think of new ways to mobilize - and possibly monetize - his loyal followers. Though Trump will likely be frozen out of mainstream media opportunities, he could launch his own endeavors focused on his conservative base, perhaps a Trump network to go head-to-head with Fox News or a Trump social media site to compete with Twitter.

Of course, that’s assuming he’s not completely consumed by court battles once he leaves office. Even before the Capitol riot, he faced several lawsuits and potential criminal investigations. His unfounded claims of election fraud and possible incitement of the riot have only added to his legal risk. There’s a very real possibility that Trump could wind up in jail.

It’s probably not wise to count out Trump though. Widely dismissed after his 1990s Atlantic City casino bankruptcies, he came back strongly a decade later on “The Apprentice.” Then, when his ratings began to wane, he latched on to the racist birther conspiracy about President Barack Obama and built a new, right-wing audience that ultimately carried him into the White House. Even his defeat by President-elect Joe Biden was by a much narrower margin than polls had predicted.

As for that presidential library, normally a gleaming monument to a leader’s achievements? There are no public plans yet, but comedian Luke Thayer and former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci have made some suggestions in their spoof djtrumplibrary.com site, including a “Lie to America” exhibition and a “grift shop.”

POLITICS

Before the Capitol riot, it looked like Trump would remain the Republican Party standard-bearer, either running for president himself again in 2024 or acting as kingmaker in the GOP field. He was also expected to exact revenge against a long line of Republicans who crossed him, most notably Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused to try to overturn Biden’s election win in the state.

But some believe Jan. 6 changed all that.

“When the Trump presidency is discussed in the near, medium and long term by anyone, all conversations will begin and end with the day of insurrection,” said Republican strategist and former George W. Bush White House aide Scott Jennings. “And I don’t know how you ultimately go back to the American people and say, ‘Please overlook that one day because it wasn’t really our fault.’ Well, yeah it was. It was your fault.”

A Jan. 15 Pew Research poll supports that view, finding only 29% job approval for Trump, with 68% of the sample saying they don’t want him to remain a major political figure in the years to come.

The riot has certainly exposed a rift in the GOP. Republican House Conference Chair Liz Cheney was one of 10 members who crossed party lines and joined Democrats in impeaching Trump for inciting insurrection. Several Republican senators, including Leader Mitch McConnell, have suggested they are open to convicting Trump, which would effectively end his 2024 run before it begins. Dozens of major U.S. corporations, business groups and donors who typically back Republicans have said they will suspend or stop campaign contributions to candidates who supported Trump’s challenge to the election results.

But Trump is likely to maintain a grip on the populist wing of the GOP. That was evident on Jan. 8 when the Republican National Committee reelected Trump allies Ronna McDaniel and Tommy Hicks as chair and vice chair in what was widely viewed as a proxy fight over the outgoing president’s role in the party. Despite the defections, the vast majority of House Republicans opposed impeachment, and nearly two-thirds did Trump’s bidding and objected to state-certified electoral votes for Biden even after the violence in Washington. Recent polls have shown that most Republican voters still support Trump and don’t blame him for the Capitol riot.

“That doesn’t go away overnight,” said Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said of Trump’s popularity with the Republican base. “That power that he has, that connection with the most active voices inside his movement, is very real and it still exists.”

SOCIAL MEDIA

Any political comeback will depend on Trump finding a new way to mobilize his base. The scale of his de-platforming is hard to overstate. His @realDonaldTrump account had more then 88 million followers before Twitter permanently banned him on Jan. 8 for breaking its rules against glorifying violence. He also lost access to more than 30 million Facebook friends when he was banned from that site indefinitely and at least through Biden’s inauguration.

The president still has ways to reach his most fervent fans, though. The Official Trump 2020 Mobile App, which was used to register rally attendees and for direct messaging during the campaign, was downloaded 2.6 million times in the last year, with users required to input phone numbers and agree to be contacted, according to Apptopia. Nu Wexler, a communications consultant formerly with Google, Facebook and Twitter, said Trump’s online footprint is still remarkable among Republican politicians.

“He has millions of cell numbers from events and a fundraising email list that dwarfs the rest of his party,” said Wexler. “So he won't have any problem communicating directly with his supporters.”

But carrying his message beyond that core will remain a challenge, and some options could prove problematic. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, stopped an effort to sign the president up on right-wing social media platforms like Gab and Parler after Twitter suspended his account, according to three people familiar with the matter. Parler was taken offline by Amazon Web Services for promoting violence in the wake of the Capitol riot and was also previously dropped by the Google and Apple app stores.

Wexler said fringier platforms like Gab and Parler wouldn’t reach a broader audience the way his Twitter account did. And their echo chamber of like-minded users may bore him. “He won't get the thrill of fighting with Democrats,” said Wexler.

Raising money online could also be a problem going forward for a president who raised $1.6 billion in his bid for a second term, including $167.6 million that came in after the election as he trumpeted false claims of widespread fraud. Payment processors PayPal, Square and Stripe have joined the social media giants in suspending accounts tied to Trump.

THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION

The New York real estate developer made his properties the backdrop for many of the most memorable moments of his political career. He descended Trump Tower’s escalator to announce his candidacy, defended White supremacists as “very fine people” in the lobby of the same building and held a crowded fundraiser at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club just before he was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Trump’s divisive politics have inevitably impacted his family’s real estate, hotel and golf empire, much of which is located in New York and other Democratic-leaning states. In a move that reportedly “gutted” the president, his Bedminster club was stripped of the 2022 PGA Championship in the wake of the Capitol riot, with the golf body saying that holding the prestigious event at the Trump course would be “detrimental” to its brand.

The PGA stuck with him longer than most. Palm Beach charity balls and social events fled Mar-a-Lago en masse after his Charlottesville remarks, and several hotels and condo buildings have exited Trump management contracts in recent years, removing the president’s name from their exteriors and awnings in the process. Trump properties have also inevitably been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic along with the rest of the real estate, tourism and leisure sectors. In New York, office vacancies are rising, retail is decimated and residential rents are falling.

It all couldn’t come at a worse time for Trump, whose company carries $1 billion of debt, much of which he's personally liable for. Though his assets would cover that, recriminations from the Capitol riot will make refinancing a challenge. Deutsche Bank, which holds much of his debt and was the last large bank willing to do business with him, has now declared it will no longer do so, and smaller Signature Bank, on whose board Trump’s daughter Ivanka once sat, twisted the knife by declaring the president persona non grata and closing his accounts. Even selling his assets to raise cash will be harder, as brokerage giants like Cushman & Wakefield and JLL have cut ties with him.

Alan Garten, general counsel for the Trump Organization, didn't respond to requests for comment about the state of the business and its prospects.

One potential silver lining for Trump is that being president has made him even more famous than before overseas, and he may find more business opportunities in markets like Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines and India, where he retains some popularity and whose authoritarian leaders he courted while in office. His administration also developed close ties in the United Arab Emirates, where he’s previously done business, and Saudi Arabia, where his company considered projects prior to his ascent to the presidency.

Hussain Sajwani, chairman of Dubai’s DAMAC Properties, which has partnered with Trump on two golf courses in the emirate, said he’d welcome the chance to expand his firm’s relationship with Trump. “We have a great relationship with the Trump Organization and, be assured, we have absolutely no intention to cancel our agreement,” he said.

MEDIA

With a love for the limelight, Trump is expected to pursue media opportunities of some kind, whether a book deal, a lucrative role at a news channel or his own media venture.

Rumors of Trump discussing an “Apprentice” revival with show creator Mark Burnett have cropped up periodically during his time in office. In November 2019, Trump took to Twitter to deny a Daily Beast report that such talks had taken place, though he allowed that it would be “a big show.” It would be unsurprising if Trump did seek to revive the show - according to the New York Times investigative report that revealed his tax information in September 2020, “The Apprentice” ultimately made him $427 million, a windfall that turned his business fortunes around.

With Trump now anathema to a large part of his former audience, a return to network TV is high unlikely, though former campaign adviser Sam Nunberg says the idea shouldn’t be ruled out.

“Donald Trump is a money-making commodity in media,” Nunberg said. “There will always be a space for him. He will always have a tremendous audience. Even people who hate him will watch him.”

Conservative media seems a surer bet, though the messy aftermath of the election has scrambled that landscape as well. Fox News’ early call of Arizona and subsequently the election for Biden was seen as a stark betrayal by Trump, who began railing against Rupert Murdoch’s conservative news giant and urging his supporters to switch to upstart rivals like Newsmax and One America News Network that more freely repeated his baseless claims of election fraud. But those channels still reach far fewer viewers than Fox, and there have been calls for cable operators like AT&T and Comcast to drop them in the wake of the Capitol riots.

The Wall Street Journal reported in November that Hicks Equity Partners, an investment firm associated with RNC Vice Chair Tommy Hicks, the son of Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst founder Tom Hicks, has tried to raise money to help Trump acquire or create a right-leaning outlet of his own. But many doubt the former president would be able to raise the kind of money needed to create a credible competitor to Fox. Politico media columnist Jack Shafer dismissed the idea of a Trump network last week, noting that the former president would have a hard time convincing cable companies to carry his channel, face withering competition from a once-friendly Fox and struggle to attract advertisers besides  MyPillow.

Even just getting a book published might be tough. The Obamas got a combined $65 million advance for their memoirs, and Trump would no doubt love to best that figure. If he does though, it might not be with a mainstream publishing house. Simon & Schuster, which is being bought by Bertelsmann SE, recently canceled plans to publish a book by Republican Senator Josh Hawley, who sought to challenge Biden’s election win and was photographed raising his fist to salute the Capitol protesters.

But Nunberg said Trump is in a whole different category from Hawley. “Simon & Schuster would love to publish a Donald Trump book,” Nunberg said. “That book will sell more than Obama’s. And it wouldn’t be 700 pages.”

RETAIL

Trump has long loved to slap his name on things, buildings for sure but also adult-education courses, vodka (though he doesn’t drink) and mail-order steaks (he eats his well-done, with ketchup). This trait appears to run in the family - before her father became president, Ivanka Trump built a fashion label that sold clothes, shoes and handbags at retailers like Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s.

But, as far as mainstream customers go, that ship likely sailed a long time ago.

“The brand is irreparably stained,” said New York public relations executive Dorothy Crenshaw. The partners and retail ecosystem Donald Trump would need to get his products on the market won’t want to have anything to do with him now, she said. “I really don’t see any viability.”

Trump-branded items were dropped from Macy’s and other retailers soon after he launched his campaign with a speech promising to build a border wall to keep out “rapists” from Mexico. Ivanka’s partners started pulling her merchandise in 2017 after she took an advisory role in her father’s administration, with Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Hudson’s Bay all dropping her label entirely. She shut down her fashion business in 2018, and now her clothes can only be found secondhand at resellers such as thredUP or auction sites like eBay.

As in other areas, any future Trump retail enterprise will likely be geared towards the president’s conservative base. But even maintaining the site selling Make America Great Again caps and mugs is proving difficult. E-commerce platform Shopify’s decision to cut ties with Trump means online customers must now email the site to place orders.

Though the family hasn’t declared any intention of expanding their consumer-facing businesses, the Trumps still hold live trademarks for products ranging from infant beddings to coffee to greeting cards. And Ivanka may find new markets for her wares abroad — the Chinese government awarded her dozens of trademarks during her father’s time in office, many of which seemed suspiciously timed with Trump administration foreign policy decisions, watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has pointed out.

LEGAL EXPOSURE

Of course, none of that will matter if Trump is behind bars. He was already facing a number of  legal threats that pre-date the election. Special counsel Robert Mueller's team detailed several instances in which the president may have obstructed justice, and Trump was also potentially implicated in the campaign finance case that resulted in a three-year sentence for his former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen.

Justice Department policy has shielded Trump from federal prosecution as a sitting president, but that goes away on Wednesday, and the incoming administration could revive those cases. The revelation by The New York Times that Trump took a number of questionable deductions over the years and only paid $750 in income taxes in 2016 could also spur a fresh probe into possible tax evasion.

New York state authorities have been eyeing Trump as well. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is leading a probe of the president's business dealings that could ultimately result in criminal charges. New York Attorney General Letitia James is simultaneously pursuing an investigation into whether the Trump Organization inflated asset values.

Trump's personal conduct is also at issue in a number of civil cases. He could soon face depositions in two New York defamation lawsuits brought by women he said were lying when they accused him of sexual assault.

Since the election, Trump has only added to his potential legal woes. His shocking Jan. 2 call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which he asked the election official to “find” him just enough votes to overturn Biden's victory in the state, may have violated both federal and state laws against election fraud. Such a case could be bolstered by additional actions taken by Trump - telling a state investigator he would be a “national hero” if he uncovered fraud in the Georgia vote, as The Washington Post has reported, and forcing the resignation of the top federal prosecutor in Atlanta for failing to aggressively pursue baseless claims of election fraud, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And then there's the Capitol riot. Trump gave an inflammatory speech to the crowd that then laid siege to the halls of Congress. While some legal experts say the president's exhortations may have been too vague for him to be charged with inciting the violence, any evidence that emerges of coordination between the White House and radical groups that participated in storming the Capitol could change the picture.

Perhaps more importantly, widespread outrage over the riot has scrambled the political calculations behind bringing any case against Trump. Where the Biden administration may have once preferred to move on, it may now face growing calls to hold a former President Trump accountable in one way or another.

President Donald Trump sits at the Resolute desk during a briefing on Hurricane Michael in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10, 2018.