The Trump machine: the inner circle preparing for a second term

In 2016, Donald Trump was the ultimate political outsider. If he wins this year’s election, he will be backed by a group of experienced former officials eager to apply his ideas

When Donald Trump hosted Viktor Orban at his Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this month, he lavished praise on the Hungarian prime minister as a “fantastic” leader for Europe. The evening entertainment included a “members-only” concert with tribute bands for the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

But in the afternoon, the pair retreated to a dining room for private talks. At the table on Trump’s side was David Cornstein, the former US ambassador to Budapest, Susie Wiles, his campaign’s top political strategist, and Fred Fleitz, a former National Security Council official under Trump, now at the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), a think tank founded in 2021 to promote Trump’s agenda.

“There were many issues which they agreed on,” says Fleitz, “especially immigration.”

The gathering at Mar-a-Lago provides a rarely seen snapshot of Trump’s world in 2024. On the surface, the Trump campaign often seems chaotic, marked by the candidate’s angry rhetoric about revenge and his never-ending legal woes.


But behind the scenes, there is a streak of ruthlessness and determination in his new bid for the presidency. Narrowly ahead in the polls against Joe Biden, Trump now has the backing of a small group of seasoned campaign operatives and a tightly knit entourage of former officials eager to apply his ideas.

When Trump first ran for president in 2016, he was the ultimate political outsider – lacking both governing experience and a network of support in Washington and within the Republican Party.

While he promised a radical shake-up – and rattled allies by launching trade wars and casting doubt on the US’s commitment to Nato – his more aggressive ambitions and impulses were restrained by officials and lawmakers from the party’s centre-right mainstream.

This time around, he presents a very different proposition. 2024 Trump is vowing a much more profound break from what used to be his party’s orthodoxy. As well as a push for Ukraine to settle with Russia, the potential measures include tariffs more sweeping than last time and an even more overwhelming crackdown on immigration. Trump has also threatened to launch purges of the federal judiciary and bureaucracy, which, in the view of many critics, are a sign of a greater authoritarian bent to a second term.

Trump’s ability to achieve any of this will depend in part on the people and groups that surround his candidacy – his advisers, donors and media allies.

The biggest difference from when he first entered politics involves personnel. While Trump felt in 2017 he needed to bring wary members of the Republican elite into his administration, he is now able to draw on a core of experienced aides who have remained fiercely devoted to the former president. At the same time, he also has the backing of a party machinery that has been remade in his image.

“It’s going to be much more hard hitting,” says Steve Bannon, his former political strategist and conservative media host who remains a close outside ally. Whereas the 2016 campaign was much more “theoretical” in terms of plans and “shambolic” in its operation, Trump now has a “deep bench” of people who are “ready to go”.

“His speeches are all loaded with stuff he’s going to do,” he says. “It may not be high rhetoric, but substance-wise it’s there, and people should understand these things are being worked on and developed. And those policies will be implemented.”

Bannon adds that he is being upfront about his intentions: “Trump’s not hiding the football.”

This look into Trump’s new inner circle is based on interviews with more than a dozen people involved directly or indirectly with the 2024 campaign. Many declined to be quoted on the record, but they all describe a group which is itching to hit the ground running if they get into office.

Members of the traditional Republican ruling class have either accepted him as their standard-bearer or they have been sidelined. They are in a much weaker position to set the same kinds of institutional and policy guardrails around a second Trump administration compared with the first.

“We are living in a different world,” says Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “[Trump] knows many of such people are alienated by his defence of the January 6th insurrectionists, and disgusted about what he says about dictatorship. So he has largely written them off and is going with people who seem to be loyal to him and his current passions.”

Revenge mission

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, Trump signalled what his approach would be if he defeats Biden in November.

It essentially has two prongs: the first is a rightwing policy revolution to reverse many of Biden’s moves over the past three years, while the second is a revenge mission against his political opponents, to punish them for the persecution he claims to have suffered at the hands of the US justice system.

“For hard-working Americans, November 5th will be our new liberation day,” he told the crowd of activists and supporters that day at CPAC. “For the liars and cheaters and fraudsters and censors and impostors who have commandeered our government, it will be your judgment day.”

After leaving office in January 2021, Trump retreated to his Mar-a-Lago resort – into a relatively shortlived period of political isolation. But even then, he maintained close ties with his allies on Capitol Hill, and retained the support of a number of former administration officials who are at the heart of his campaign for a second term this year.

In character, his inner circle ranges from the abrasive to the mild-mannered, but what they share is a fierce personal loyalty to Trump. Both they and the former president are more experienced in Washington manoeuvring, and less likely to be thwarted or slowed by career civil servants, mainstream Republican officials, and critics in Congress.

“The previous time Trump didn’t have a team and he needed to reach out to people that he hadn’t dealt with before,” says Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “Now he has an internal team and the Republican governmental world is in lockstep with him.”

Some are also affiliated with new and existing Washington think-tanks that have aligned themselves with Trump and his ideas in recent years and plan to populate his administration if he wins again – a support network he lacked in 2017.

People working with Trump say that Stephen Miller, a senior adviser in the Trump White House and the champion of draconian immigration restrictions, remains very close to the former president, along with Robert Lighthizer, the former US trade representative and architect of the big commercial battles with China, the EU and many others the last time around.

The AFPI’s Center for American Security – where Fleitz is vice-chair – is now the home of two of Trump’s key sounding boards on national security.

One is Keith Kellogg – a retired three-star US Army lieutenant general and a veteran of the NSC in the Trump White House. Kellogg recently led a delegation from the AFPI to Israel where they met with Ron Dermer, the minister of strategic affairs, and Yoav Gallant, the defence minister. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, he blasted Biden for failing to encourage peace talks between the two countries.

The other critical voice on international affairs is John Ratcliffe, the former mayor of a small Texas town in the Dallas suburbs who later was elected to Congress and tapped by Trump to be his director of national intelligence in his final year in office.

On the economy, Kevin Hassett, Trump’s former chair of the council of economic advisers, and Russ Vought, the former budget director, are key figures in Trump’s current orbit – though he still speaks to Larry Kudlow, another previous economic aide, and Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, whom he previously tried and failed to appoint to the Federal Reserve board.

One of Trump’s top goals is to purge the civil service of what he calls “rogue bureaucrats” – a dramatic culling of the federal government and the legal system intended to remove individuals who are unsympathetic to him and his agenda. Miller would be expected to play a big hand in this along with Matt Whitaker, who served as acting assistant attorney general during Trump’s first term after he fired Jeff Sessions, his first attorney general.

Miller is also the architect of Trump’s plans to close down the US border with Mexico, and round up undocumented immigrants in the US to deport them back to their home countries, using the military if necessary to detain them – an escalation even compared to the hardline immigration policies of his first term.

On trade, Trump plans to renew his trade wars – floating the idea of introducing a 10 per cent across-the-board tariff on imported goods, a 60 per cent tariff on Chinese goods, as well as a separate levy of 100 per cent on Chinese-made cars coming to the US through Mexico.

Whether such ideas could be executed will have a lot to do with Trump himself, who even aides acknowledge can be erratic in decision-making and is often swayed by the last person he talks to.

“There are many groups and people who are purporting to speak on behalf of the Trump movement but ... we may not have good visibility into what’s real,” says Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former aide to Mitt Romney’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign. “In the end he’s the decider.”


If Trump wins a second term in office, much of the credit will probably go to Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the campaign’s political strategists who have so far avoided the public feuding and turnover that occurred during his previous campaigns. “He [Trump] sets the tempo, sets the agenda, and our job is to implement it,” says LaCivita.

Over the course of the past year, Trump has also tightened his grip on the Republican Party in Congress – which could be a big factor in how he would govern in a second term.

Although divided government is a possibility, the momentum from a Trump victory for the presidency would probably result in Republican control of both chambers.

Whereas last time around lawmakers such as Paul Ryan, former Republican House speaker, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, did not always bend to his wishes, that has changed.

Last year, Trump was able to install Mike Johnson, a relatively obscure lawmaker from Louisiana but one of his allies, to be speaker of the House. At the same time, McConnell is stepping down from his leadership role and is expected to be replaced by a more Trump-friendly successor. Critics such as Romney and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are few and far between.

“I don’t know anyone who is not looking forward to a second Trump term ... there’s acceptance and excitement about what [it] would look like. Even folks who have been reluctant, they are shoulder to shoulder with him,” says Brian Ballard, a Florida-based lobbyist close to Trump.

Trump has also moved quickly to seize control of the national party apparatus. Early this month, he forced the replacement of Ronna McDaniel as chair of the Republican national committee, with Michael Whatley, the former party head in North Carolina. He was also able to install Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, to be co-chair of the RNC. This will allow Trump to more easily direct party resources towards his political needs – and possibly even his legal bills – rather than down-ballot candidates in congressional and state elections.

Lara Trump, who is married to Eric Trump, is arguably the most involved member of the former president’s family in his latest campaign for office, though Donald Trump Jr, the eldest son, has also played a significant role.

Shift in identity

The picture of greater unity behind Trump cannot hide the fact that he has burnt a lot of bridges with some of the leading figures from his administration. Some may not even vote for him – let alone return to a second term.

Mike Pence, his former vice-president who helped certify the 2020 election result against Trump’s wishes, this month publicly said he would oppose a return to the White House for his former boss.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser and the former US ambassador to the UN under George W Bush, has publicly criticised him, as have Mark Esper, his former defence secretary, and John Kelly, his former White House chief of staff.

One of the decisive moments for an eventual Trump second term would come as staff choices are made following an election victory. All successful campaigns for the presidency face a shift in identity as they start to expand beyond the candidate’s inner circle.

Bannon says not to expect a big pivot in either personnel or policy. “I’m not sure if Trump believes in neoliberal or neocon solutions,” says Bannon. “I think he understands what he wants to do and who are the types of people” who can achieve it.

One former Trump official says he “will always keep open a lane to really impressive individuals who may not be perfectly aligned on everything but he respects”. But the former official adds: “At the same time he doesn’t want to put people on the administration and on the staff who are going to work against his agenda, that’s a lesson learned.”

On the foreign policy front, for instance, some familiar figures are currently being talked about as candidates for leading positions.

Robert O’Brien, the former national security adviser who has continued to praise Trump, may well be in the mix for a top job. Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state who has defied Trump’s scepticism about aid to Ukraine, has not necessarily been ruled out either, say insiders. Richard Grenell, the former US ambassador to Germany, may make a comeback too, while prominent senators such as Marco Rubio of Florida and Bill Hagerty in Tennessee are also contenders.

For the economic team, the big questions are whether Trump might pick a Wall Street donor for the role of Treasury secretary, as he did with Steven Mnuchin in 2017 – and who he might tap to replace Jay Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, whose second term in office expires in 2026. As well as Hassett, John Paulson, Jeff Yass and Scott Bessent, the top hedge fund managers, might be in the mix for senior economic roles.

On a potential Treasury secretary in a second term, Moore at Heritage says: “Trump likes successful financial people and he likes successful business people.”

Jason Miller, a senior adviser to Trump, says such discussion is premature. “There will be time and place for discussing senior positions within the second administration, but that isn’t now,” he says.

Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, sees more “continuity” than change over who is involved in the campaign between the first administration and a potential second Trump term. But he is concerned about the “unsound policies” and “morally troubling” statements.

“It’s not unusual to have a campaign filled with true believers. It is unusual for the true believers to want to put a 60 per cent tariff on imports or want to deport millions of undocumented immigrants who are living here,” he says.

Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution says that in a second term “the people in the White House would be more willing to do [Trump’s] business and they will presumably be more sophisticated about it”.

But she still has faith that the “separation of powers” in the US, with an independent judiciary and legislature, will be a buffer against what many see as Trump’s growing authoritarian tendencies.

“We’re confronted with our first wannabe dictator in American history, and we have to go back to the wisdom of the founding fathers, who specifically designed a system which is very bulky and takes forever,” she says. “Guess what? It does a pretty good job of protecting against guys like Donald Trump.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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