WASHINGTON, May 18, 2018 — A Republican with the widespread name recognition that comes from serving at the highest levels of President Donald Trump’s administration has already formed a presidential exploratory committee to look into challenging him in 2020 to prevent him from dividing the country any further, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.
“The opportunity is there,” said the committee insider, who previously worked for the potential candidate and still serves in an advisory position. “At the end of the day, this person believes that another Trump term would result in a further fracture in the public discourse and further division in the country.”
“The issue is convincing [them] it’s the correct move,” the source said, adding that if the individual is even looking at running, it could mean the committee’s work in that area is as much as 65 percent complete.
A presidential exploratory committee, traditionally the first step toward a White House run, allows a potential candidate to conduct polling and measure interest in their campaign without formally becoming a candidate.
The one, BeltwayBreakfast was told, began one week ago on behalf of a senior administration official who is well known to the general public.
While the source cautioned that the potential challenger’s name can not yet become public “because of the current work this individual has done or is doing,” he or she called them a “household name” familiar to most Americans.
But after BeltwayBreakfast obtained documents showing persons with links to the administration official had engaged typical vendors used by an early-stage exploratory committee, the source was willing to authenticate the documents so long as none were published.
However, the source would not confirm the name of the individual exploring a run, and when asked, would only say that they “strongly urge caution moving forward due to the nature of the work he or she currently performs” within the Trump administration.
The potential candidate has put up “seed money” for the exploratory committee, but the committee has not raised any outside funds at this early stage. Exploratory committees must adhere to Federal Election Commission fundraising limits, but because the FEC doesn’t require candidates to file reports of contributions or expenditures until they officially declare they are running or start campaigning, a presidential hopeful can test the waters without creating a public paper trail.
Although Mr. Trump filed a statement of candidacy the day after he took office and already has a small campaign operation running in the basement of Republican National Committee headquarters, this senior official is the first Republican to make anything resembling a serious move against the president.
If he faces a primary challenge, he would be the first incumbent GOP president to do so in nearly three decades.
The last time a Republican had to beat back a credible primary challenger for the right to run for a second term was 1992, the president was George H.W. Bush and the challenger was conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.
Although Buchanan did not win a single primary election, his proto-Trumpian campaign garnered 2,899,488 votes by focusing on immigration and social issues.
Bush’s weaker-than-expected showing opened a window on his right that businessman Ross Perot exploited in the first of his two independent White House bids. The billionaire’s presence on the ballot split conservatives and allowed Democrat Bill Clinton to claim an electoral college victory with a plurality of the popular vote.
Most talk of a GOP primary challenge has centered around never-Trumpers and former Trumpers
One prominent name among “never-Trump” Republicans who has often been cited as a possible 2020 challenger is Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Flake became one of the most well-known voices of protest on Trump’s right flank after he announced his retirement and delivered a series of floor speeches denouncing aspects of the president’s conduct. But despite his apparent break with Trump, Flake has continued to be a reliable vote in favor of the president’s nominees and legislative priorities.
Another group of names frequently bandied about comes not from Congress, but from the long list of top officials who’ve left the Trump administration. Thanks to a turnover rate some estimates have put at around 50 percent, there’s no shortage of possibly disgruntled ex-Trumpers whose experiences on the inside might have convinced them that they could do better.
The list of Trump administration castoffs has gotten so long that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow — who has kept a running tally on her nightly program — was recently to extend it around a corner on her set’s wraparound video-wall display.
However, the only high-profile ex-administration official to have made anything that could be remotely considered a break from Trump is former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
A recent speech had Washington wondering whether Tillerson had unfinished business with Trump
Tillerson may have good cause to not be enamored of Trump, who he once reportedly called a “moron,” after the president announced his firing via Twitter and officials leaked details of his being informed of his pending demise by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly while the then-Secretary of State was sitting on the toilet in a hotel in Africa.
Washington was abuzz this week after video surfaced of Tillerson — who’s made himself scarce since his firing — delivering a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute that some observers saw as a rebuke to an administration that frequently denounces unflattering news stories as “fake” and has embraced what Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway notoriously called “alternative facts.”
But even if he’s still sore about his tenure at Foggy Bottom, it’s far more likely that Tillerson — who never cared much for DC or its culture — will continue to enjoy the benefits of his retirement from Exxon-Mobil — where he spent his entire career before being tapped to by the nation’s top diplomat — rather than return to public life by challenging Trump.
The call is coming from inside the (White) House!
While that long list of names on Rachel Maddow’s wall could end up providing a steady stream of surrogates for this senior administration official, he or she will have to join them to mount a primary bid because the potential candidate is one who still goes to work for the administration every day.
One high-level Republican who could mount a credible White House run and is currently still in government service is Vice President Mike Pence, who recently denied any prematurely presidential ambitions after reports surfaced of his outsized involvement in the 2020 midterm elections.
Asked if the former House member and Indiana governor was considering a run before 2024, Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah replied: “Of course not.”
Another high-level Trump officials who might still harbor presidential aspiration is Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and current Secretary of Energy also ran in 2012 and 2016.
Both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Office of Management and Budget boss Mick Mulvaney have experience serving in elected office as well. Sessions spent decades representing Alabama as one of the Senate’s most conservative members and the much younger Mulvaney was a longtime House member from South Carolina and helped found the uber-conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Although it is often said that every senator sees a potential president in the mirror, Sessions appears happy in his “dream job” as Trump’s Attorney General, where he’s become a key player in the president’s efforts to clamp down on the border and get rid of persons in the country illegally.
Mulvaney, who is moonlighting as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, might be too busy dismantling the agency he once called a “joke” to think of much beyond that.
But the name of another prominent South Carolinian — former governor and current UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — is often on the tongues of Washington’s most dedicated presidential prognosticators, often after she manages to defy, contradict, or even subtly rebuke her boss without provoking his peripatetic twitter finger.
While being a subordinate who is seen as a potential rival usually means a death sentence in Trumpworld, Haley’s perch in New York and her frequent public expressions of loyalty have largely insulated her from the wrath of a chief executive who hates being overshadowed by anyone, ever.
Representatives for Haley, Mulvaney, Perry, Sessions and Tillerson did not yet return requests for comment by our deadline.
This story has been updated.
Defense Secretary Mattis Weighing 2020 Bid, Predicts He’d ‘Kick Trump’s Ass’
WASHINGTON, August 7, 2018 — Secretary of Defense James Mattis believes he would easily defeat President Donald Trump in a 2020 primary matchup and has been actively considering mounting a White House run for some time, according to sources close to the secretary.
Mattis, 67, has been weighing a run for the presidency since May of this year, when he began bankrolling the efforts of a presidential exploratory committee.
That effort has thus far stayed under the radar through the use of non-disclosure agreements with vendors, solidarity among the Mattis loyalists involved and because exploratory committees are not required to file any paperwork with the Federal Election Commission.
Still, rumors of his possible ambitions have been whispered in high-level Republican circles.
Speaking more openly about a challenge to President Trump
The retired four-star Marine Corps general has recently begun speaking more openly about the possibility of challenging the president who convinced him to return to public service after six years in retirement.
Mattis, one of his senior aides said, raised the issue of his electoral potential last week during a high-level Pentagon meeting, in which he, along with 10-15 of the country’s top civilian and military defense officials, discussed ways to maintain continuity of Defense Department operations in the event that Mattis abruptly resigns or is fired from the cabinet.
“I’d kick Trump’s ass in 2020, and I just might have to!” Mattis said, according to a source.
A Mattis candidacy might make the 2020 election as unprecedented as the 2016 contest
A Mattis primary run might make the 2020 GOP primary as unprecedented as its 2016 predecessor, pitting a complete newcomer to electoral politics against a president who, with only one primary and one general election victory under his belt, is almost as inexperienced.
Trump rode to his 2016 victory over a massive slate of GOP hopefuls on the strength of widespread name recognition from years of hosting a hit television show, and further took advantage of natural divisions in the electorate with at least 17 candidates.
He was also able to successfully define and diminish the few candidates who might have stood out by perfecting his use of base insults and nicknames like “Liddle Marco [Rubio] and “Lyin’ Ted [Cruz]” before deploying the same tactic against “Crooked Hillary” Clinton.
Would a divide and conquer strategy work against Trump’s military chief?
However, the same divide-and-conquer strategy might not work against a single challenger. Further, Trump may have trouble finding traction for schoolyard taunts when confronted with an opponent like Mattis, someone on whom Trump has frequently lavished praise.
Mattis came out of retirement to become the 26th defense secretary, after having risen through the ranks of the Marine Corps to become a four-star general.
A Mattis confidante who holds a major role in his exploratory committee told BeltwayBreakfast that even at this early stage, there are plenty of reasons for optimism when it comes to his chances.
Despite the low public profile Mattis has kept as Secretary of Defense, the committee’s internal polling shows that he would start a campaign with significant support from a wide swath of the electorate, said the longtime Mattis aide.
The aide said their polling shows that even before any sort of campaign announcement or publicity, Mattis would begin with support from 50 to 60 percent of white men (depending on the state), a key GOP constituency and one of the demographic groups that normally make up the backbone of President Trump’s loyal base.
Mattis also polls at 45 to 50 percent support among urban and educated women, and has what the aide called “decent electability numbers” among minority groups, coming in at 35 to 40 percent.
Because both of the latter two groups make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party base, if that support is translated into votes, Mattis could garner enough significant crossover to give him a boost in states that hold open primaries.
Veterans are among Mattis’ most enthusiastic supporters, the aide noted, adding 80 percent of veterans on record as supportive of his candidacy.
Mattis could begin with a level of support among Republicans in Congress, too
Mattis could also start out with a level of support from Republicans in Congress that would be unheard of for a Republican challenger to an incumbent Republican president. Indeed, the aide said, some of the most senior Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed interest in his potential candidacy.
The same aide told BeltwayBreakfast that two even more senior Republicans are contemplating throwing their weight behind a Mattis run: Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Neither father nor son were among Trump’s supporters in 2016, and the aide said the only two living Republican former presidents are “almost on board” with lending their support to help add Donald Trump to their ranks.
Another reason for optimism, the aide said, is that in the past three months, Mattis’ exploratory committee has put together the resources necessary to have an organization ready to go from the moment an official announcement is made.
“The day we launch we open up a field office in almost every state,” he said.
This will be possible, he said, because Republican donors would be behind Mattis in enough of a big way that the RNC and Trump’s campaign “are in big trouble if Mattis decides to run.”
Asked to elaborate further, the aide offered a bold prediction: “If Mattis were to announce that he decided to run for President, his war chest would be equal to that of Hillary Clinton by June of next year.”
As for when — or if — that announcement will come, Mattis’ longtime aide and confidante explained that whatever decision gets made, it’ll be made based on the defense secretary’s belief that a second White House term for his boss would be “devastating” for the country.
Mattis “is ready to run,” he said, even if he may not yet have admitted it. “You can see it in his eyes.”