How Trump Uses the Power and Imagery of His Presidency

Just five days after Donald J. Trump left office, one of his aides emailed a lawyer seeking approval for a formal-looking seal for use on filings from the Trump office. 45th president.

Margo Martin, one of his closest personal aides, told lawyer Scott Gast that consultants designed a subtly modified seal for Mr. Trump. “They said they changed a few things to avoid trademark issues,” she wrote, asking Mr. Gast if the design was acceptable.

The image ultimately used by Mr. Trump's team — a recognizable eagle from the Great Seal of the United States, placed within a circle — was evocative of the presidential seal that identified Mr. Trump with the office he had just left. And while he is not the first former occupant of the White House to put an eagle on his website, early conversations about presidential imagery revealed what turned out to be a significant obsession of Mr. Trump's : to be seen as much as a future president as a former one.

Mr. Trump left the White House before noon on January 20, 2021, as required by the Constitution. But since arriving at Mar-a-Lago, his members-only club in Florida, he has seized every opportunity to assume the role of outgoing president, including leveraging the trappings typical of a post-presidency. while trying to get the desktop back.

At a minimum, this approach could have helped soothe Mr. Trump’s bruised ego. But it has undoubtedly become a crucial factor in his bid to return to power.

According to polls, a majority of Republican voters view Mr. Trump not as a “defeated former president,” as President Biden often calls him, but as a wrongly deposed president whose re-election would correct a grave injustice. Republican lawmakers who once privately scoffed at conspiracy theories about a stolen election now publicly insist that Mr. Trump was the real winner, for fear of clashing with their voters or him.

This widespread embrace of Mr. Trump’s denial of reality has brought him enormous political benefits. His posture as president in exile deprived his rivals during the Republican primary of one of their most powerful arguments against him. Even if the mention of his presidency was a net asset for him in the race for the short-term GOP primaries, it will be used against him – notably on the politics of abortion – by the Democrats and the Biden campaign if he becomes the Republican nominee in the general election.

From the start of his post-presidential life, Mr. Trump refused to behave like someone whose days as president were over.

It ended any talk of building a Trump presidential library. He clung to classified government documents, reveling in his knowledge of the government's deepest secrets and showing them to visitors and aides – an act that resulted in one of his four indictments. “I can keep my title for life,” he told a House member in 2017 about the power of having been president.

On January 25, 2021, Mr. Trump's office emailed a press release, stating the official opening of his post-presidential office, under the title: “Statement from the Office of the Former President.”

The word “former” was never used again. Subsequent statements were sent by the “45th President Donald J. Trump.”

As he heads toward the Republican nomination — which would make him the first former president to win his party's nomination since Grover Cleveland in 1892 — Mr. Trump is capitalizing on his unusual status to turn the process on his side. favor, in every way.

He presented himself as both the legitimate president and the inevitable future president. He used the privileges, pageantry and powers granted to the presidency to make his rivals seem insignificant. And he has infused his campaign with presidential imagery, traveling aboard a plane his aides call “Trump Force One” and using his Secret Service motorcade and security detail as a muscular expression of his pseudo-incumbency. Uniquely, his only rival, Nikki Haley, was appointed by him as United Nations ambassador and served under him, making his foreign policy achievements her own.

He also used his post-presidency as a shield – both inside and outside the courtroom. He claimed presidential immunity from charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election. And his team acceded to requests from news networks to install dashboard cameras in Mr. Trump's motorcade during his visits to the courthouse, thereby transforming his criminal arraignments – there have been four in 2023 – into riveting live television spectacles.

Asked about Mr. Trump's use of presidential imagery in the race for the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump's communications director, Steven Cheung, said in a statement: “President Trump is the most famous in the world and he presents himself at the White House. The media needs him and his campaign because their entire existence revolves around what he does.”

Mr. Trump has used his power as party leader to squeeze Republicans in Congress, intervening in the House speaker race and the ongoing battle over border security and the U.S. funding deal. Ukraine. He used the power of his support to exert and maintain aggressive control over the party.

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and writer, said Mr. Trump was “using the presidency as a springboard to get re-elected, but when you're an election denier, he's basically saying to the country, 'I'm actually a shadow.' government.'”

“So that’s where things get confusing,” he added.

In this campaign unlike any other in American history, Mr. Trump has tried to behave more like a sitting president than a typical candidate. He has received many of the benefits of his tenure – the grandeur of the office, the deference from his rivals and his constituents – but, so far, none of the political repercussions of actually occupying the White House, as does to be held responsible for foreign wars or inflation. .

In the period immediately following the 2020 election, some of Mr. Trump's aides and confidants encouraged him to graciously acknowledge defeat. They argued that if he took credit for Republican victories in the House and Senate elections and acknowledged Mr. Biden's narrow victory, he would preserve a future in American politics.

That future, they believed, was irreparably marred by his election lies and the attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on January 6, 2021.

These aides and confidants were wrong. Far from ruining him, Mr. Trump's refusal to accept his loss — a months-long fit of rage that culminated in a deadly assault on the Capitol — almost certainly helped secure his political future: he maintained his grip on the Republican Party and allowed him to run. his 2024 campaign as if he were the rightful occupant of the Oval Office pursuing nothing other than his restoration to power.

Mr. Trump – who has breathed media attention like oxygen for decades – had no interest in the quieter, less visible lives of other previous presidents. George W. Bush took up painting and well-paid speeches. Barack Obama gave speeches, played golf, sailed with wealthy friends on superyachts and raised money for various causes, including a presidential library in Chicago.

Mr. Trump has played a lot of golf, but the similarities end there.

Cut off from social media after being banned from Twitter and Facebook following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Mr. Trump established his own channels to reach voters. He created his own social media website, Truth Social; gave interviews to right-wing influencers with their own platforms; and communicated with supporters through emailed fundraising appeals.

Mr. Trump has clung to the trappings of the presidency — as instruments of power, leverage and, some have suggested, psychological comfort. Many Republicans have welcomed his behavior as outgoing president. Last year, one of his highest-profile first stops as a candidate was to East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a train derailment that President Biden had yet to visit. There, he met with local officials and urged action to help residents. Mr. Trump's arrival at a nearby airport and descent down the grand staircases of his plane evoked the arrival of Air Force One.

Mr. Trump also never stopped behaving like the leader of the party, holding rallies, intervening in Republican primaries and working to end the careers of congressional Republicans who had opposed him. Candidates traveled to Mar-a-Lago to seek support. And Mr. Trump made them work for it. He treated their support for his false claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020 as a litmus test.

In time, he would expect these Republicans to reciprocate and support him. They did not disappoint.

Perhaps most notably, Mr. Trump has attempted to use the powers of his former office as a defensive measure in his criminal and civil court battles.

He asserted his immunity, by virtue of his office, to defend his behavior in the months leading up to the attack on the Capitol on January 6, in both criminal charges and civil liability suits. This immunity claim is the subject of litigation and is expected to ultimately be decided by the United States Supreme Court.

At the civil defamation trial against him in Manhattan, Mr. Trump responded to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, without facing the kind of punitive consequences that an ordinary defendant might well face. And while Judge Kaplan called him “Mr. Trump” throughout the trial, when Mr. Trump's lawyer, Alina Habba, announced that her client was his final witness, she said: “The defense calls President Donald Trump.”

Similarly, in a separate civil case in Manhattan, in which Mr. Trump and his company engaged in widespread financial fraud, he faced no consequences for sharply and loudly criticizing the presiding judge, Judge Arthur Engoron of State Supreme Court, from the witness stand.

And when opposing lawyers protested Mr. Trump's filibuster, his lawyer Chris M. Kise suggested that Judge Engoron “grant the former president of the United States” — which he quickly added, “may soon be the future president of the United States” United States – a little leeway to explain.

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