As Trump dominates the airwaves, ‘it feels like f–king 2016’

Gun Rights

With the volume blaring on The Donald Trump Show, other Republican presidential hopefuls are struggling to make any noise of their own.

In the span of a week, Nikki Haley, former United Nations ambassador, campaigning at the U.S.-Mexico border, complained that “no one is talking about” immigration because of the focus on Trump’s “political drama.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Ukraine was reduced to a blip on the media landscape, while Ron DeSantis avoided the spectacle and instead revived his war with Disney.

On the same day Trump was indicted in an alleged hush money scheme, the Florida governor was posing with puppies at a pet adoption event as his aides instructed reporters to leave.

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“This is deja vu all over again,” said Terry Sullivan, who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign for president. “Trump dominates media coverage, making it impossible for his competitors to get any coverage or forward traction.”

The Republican presidential primary was always expected to revolve around Trump. But post-indictment, as Republicans rally to his defense — including, crucially, conservative talkers on Fox News — Trump’s opponents are confronting an even more damaging dynamic in race: Their inability to break through at all.

“It feels like fucking 2016,” said a Republican strategist who supports DeSantis and was granted anonymity to speak freely about the dynamics of the race. “Is there anything that can suck up as much political oxygen in the American political landscape as Trump? I don’t think so.”

Far from cable TV’s focus on Trump’s indictment, DeSantis has been plowing ahead with a political operation that resembles the early stages of a presidential campaign. But during the final weeks of Florida’s jam-packed legislation session — the backdrop against which DeSantis is preparing his case for taking his local conservative agenda nationwide — the governor hasn’t gotten a fraction of the attention Trump has. Visiting Long Island recently to promote his record and his book, he was greeted by a number of New Yorkers in MAGA hats and a sign that read “DeSantis 2028,” suggesting he get out of Trump’s way in 2024.

One man in the DeSantis-friendly audience repeatedly shouted “Trump!” before being escorted out of the museum where DeSantis spoke. Nearly all of the attendees POLITICO interviewed spoke favorably about DeSantis, but said they are already committed to supporting the ex-president’s comeback bid.

To Republicans who saw Trump steamroll through the primary in 2016, it’s all beginning to look like a rerun. And largely helpless to do anything about Trump on their own, they have been venting frustrations increasingly at the media.

“What’s frustrating to me is we didn’t learn a damn thing from 2015 and 2016 when it comes to just giving him absolute, roadblock media coverage,” said David Kochel, a veteran of six Republican presidential campaigns. “I get it, it’s a big story. But this was getting covered like … the opening of the war in Iraq or the O.J. chase. You couldn’t escape it.”

He said upcoming debates, cattle calls and other events during the campaign will “give everybody an equal footing, an opportunity” to drive their own coverage. But for now, he said, there isn’t much any Trump rival can do.

“I don’t know that there’s a strategy anybody could employ,” he said. “Maybe try shooting somebody on Fifth Avenue.”

Left unsaid was that many of the GOP contenders owe their careers to the man they are now wishcasting away. Mike Pence was Trump’s vice president, Pompeo served as his CIA director and secretary of state and Haley, who had been governor of South Carolina, was elevated as his United Nations ambassador. Trump often laments DeSantis’ disloyalty, saying he was trailing his opponent before Trump endorsed him in 2018.

One GOP Congressional staffer, granted anonymity to describe sensitive discussions about the campaign, said that in the current climate, “everybody” is worried about DeSantis’ chances.

“Most people are quietly watching from the sidelines, praying that he puts it together,” the person said.

While hoping for the Trump saturation to ease, his opponents are putting on a brave face — and working at the edges to draw attention to themselves. Without yet announcing his candidacy — something expected shortly after the legislative session ends in the coming weeks — DeSantis is putting together endorsements. And in pleas to donors, he has been pitching himself as a low-drama version of Trump. Meanwhile a PAC formed to bolster his candidacy has reportedly raised $30 million so far.

DeSantis traversed the Northeast in recent days to tout his book, then delivered an hour-long speech to a Republican group in Michigan and addressed the Christian liberal arts Hillsdale College about his record in Florida. Later this month he is planning to visit Israel — a significant overseas trip for any presidential contender.

An adviser to Haley’s campaign, granted anonymity to talk candidly about the situation, acknowledged that there’s “no question this week Trump was getting the bulk of the coverage.”

But Haley plowed ahead with her previously planned trip to the border last Monday. Her event received conservative media coverage, despite many mainstream news outlets remaining squarely focused on Trump’s looming arraignment. Haley’s border visit and Fox News interview about it appeared on the network’s shows nine times that day, and then five more times on Tuesday.

Her campaign last week was “conscious of timing,” the adviser said, noting that it would have been foolish to announce Haley’s $11 million first-quarter fundraising haul on Tuesday when Trump’s arraignment was receiving wall to wall coverage. So they waited until Wednesday to drop the news and were pleased with the level of national media coverage they received, the adviser said.

Ken Farnaso, spokesperson for Haley’s campaign, said her “strategy has not changed at all” given the Trump indictment, and her focus continues to be on holding frequent events in the early primary states.

Perhaps of all the other Republicans in the field, biotech entrepreneur and “Woke Inc.” author Vivek Ramaswamy has leaned most into the Trump campaign’s messaging on the prosecution. While some candidates, including DeSantis, hesitated to weigh in after news broke of a forthcoming indictment, Ramaswamy jumped to decry the case — and hasn’t stopped since.

But he is still trying to capture his own audience, too. Last week, he launched a new daily podcast from a high-end, newly built studio in his Columbus campaign headquarters. This week, he will set out across New Hampshire on a 10-county tour, traveling in a decaled bus emblazoned with his headshot.

Sen. Tim Scott, whose advisers formally announced his upcoming swing to Iowa and New Hampshire just moments before Trump entered the courthouse on Tuesday, will visit those early states this week. Haley will spend three days in Iowa, and Pence, the former vice president, is set to speak this weekend at both the National Rifle Association annual conference and a closed-door gathering of Republican National Committee donors.

It’s possible that attention will shift eventually to those candidates. Campaigning is not yet in full-swing in early primary states, and the candidates are still months away from their first debate.

Several people supportive of or close to DeSantis, who routinely polls as the leading alternative to Trump, said members of his team are privately projecting confidence in their methodical strategy, and not betraying any worries about Trump’s consuming presence in the field.

“I’m not worried at all. I think there’s a bunch of hand-wringing from some nervous nellies prematurely,” said Jason Roe, a Michigan-based Republican strategist who worked for Rubio.

Roe, who speaks favorably about DeSantis but hasn’t decided who to support yet, said time is in the governor’s favor — the Republican Party’s first primary caucus in Iowa is still 10 months away.

“Right now no one occupies the stage except Trump,” Roe said. “The dust has to settle.”

“At some point does all the chaos surrounding him create an opening for a candidate like DeSantis?” he said.

Then, mulling over his own question, he added, “I want to remain optimistic.”

Alex Isenstadt and Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

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