Inside Trump's Inner Circle as White House Defeat Forces Them to Confront What's Next
When the clock strikes noon on Jan. 20 and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States, where will he and his family go next?
Let's let the sources sound off:
Will he shuck the mantle of Republican standard-bearer and essentially retire to Florida? That's the prediction of first wife Ivana Trump. But then again she's sick of the whole thing.
"He's going to go down to Palm Beach and play golf and live the normal life, I think. This is the best choice for what he can do. ... He hates to be a loser — that I'm sure of," she says. "But if he loses, he loses. He has plenty of money."
Or might Trump instead, as envisioned by one close adviser and former White House official, simply declare to reporters, "I'm going to be active in 2022 and who knows how active in 2024"?
This source, who relishes the candor of anonymity as much as the quotability, goes on to say: "If he leaves open the possibility about a rematch, I think people will be excited."
"I'm also somebody who has told the president, 'If you concede or if you leave the White House after one term, you are the biggest player and the biggest fundraiser for 2022 and you'll be a king-maker for 2024,' " the adviser says.
Elsewhere in conversation, the source swipes at some of Trump's other close allies — characteristic of the in-fighting in the administration from the start: "I'll always think the president did not get the campaign he deserved. They raised $1 billion and lost to Joe Biden."
Trump friend Chris Ruddy, of course, would like to see him on TV — specifically Ruddy's cable network Newsmax, which Trump has tweeted about approvingly as an even-more-conservative alternative to Fox News.
"I have not yet had a formal discussion with Donald about doing a talk show or commentary on Newsmax, but I will," Ruddy recently told PEOPLE.
"I don't see a daily radio show or TV show simply because that is not who Donald is. That is too frequent, too regular. But I can see him as a mainstay on the network or even doing a regular weekly commentary," Ruddy says. "We would love to have him."
Michael Cohen — a Trump confidant-turned-enemy — imagines him in exile in Florida but not out of favor with Republicans.
"Donald Trump will never admit that he lost. The illegitimacy of the election is fundamental to his larger goals of establishing a shadow, for-profit presidency at Mar-a-Lago," Cohen tells PEOPLE. (A disgraced attorney and longtime Trump "fixer" who recently spent time in prison, Cohen has refashioned himself a Trump dissenter. The White House calls him a liar.)
Any next act first requires Trump to give up his long-shot legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden's victory and to make some kind of peace with the reality of his defeat.
The exact nature and timing of this varies by the source.
Their informed speculation, at times agreeing and at times conflicting, illustrates the extent to which the Trumps are likely to remain at the center of conservative media and politics in the coming months, if not years — an entire party remade by a family who can no longer claim to be outsiders.
This description of the Trumps' future is based on interviews with more than 10 people in their circle, including close aides and those who have observed them in private moments.
A White House spokesman had no comment on PEOPLE's reporting, referring questions to the campaign, which did not return a request for comment. Other representatives for the Trumps did not respond to calls and messages.
"He doesn't want to lose, and we'll see what happens," Ivana says of her ex. "He's going to fight to the end."
As President Trump has publicly insisted, without evidence, "I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!" he has been more realistic behind closed doors — at least according to the former official-turned-adviser.
"He feels he has to see it through for them ... his supporters," this source says, who describes Trump as initially more resigned on Nov. 4 before turning defiant about his loss.
"On [election] night going into Wednesday morning, say 4 a.m., the president and his family realized this was going to take longer than the first one," the adviser says.
They had gathered for a White House reception as the vote totals started rolling in. (Multiple attendees that night later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.)
A source close to son Eric Trump told PEOPLE after the counts had become clear: "They're very upset. It's been hard to watch."
The adviser says that "one thing I think is that the president, the people around the president were convinced the crowd sizes were determinative. And because there was so much early voting by mail the ability to make up that deficit on Election Day was probably more out out reach than anybody could have realized. In that way I'm not attacking, I'm defending."
The source says they saw Trump in the Oval Office on Nov. 5 "and he really had a fighting spirit about him, but it wasn't this 'fraud, stealing the election.' He said, 'I hear that it's pretty close in some of these states.' "
Privately, however, this source acknowledges the obvious: that Biden has won.
Rather than officially confirm his defeat — which is not, technically, required for Biden to come to power — Trump might leave office as a martyr for his voters: the magic trick of his 2016 campaign pulled in reverse.
"If the president does not want to concede in the traditional sense he can just say, 'Look folks, I warned you ... they did it with impeachment, they did it with the Mueller investigation, they did it with the tax returns, they did it every single day and then they came up with a brand new mechanism,' " the adviser says.
For as much as the president has baselessly cried fraud over the voters who have specifically rejected him — rather than the many Republican candidates in Congress and elsewhere on the ballot who won their races — his adviser says it's not so hard to understand. For everyone else, if not for him.
"It really hurts to lose. It really hurts to lose the presidency," the adviser says. Nonetheless, they say, "He's won: He's changed the party, he's changed the country."
"The irony for President Trump," they say, "may be the Trump accomplishments prevailed down-ballot on Tuesday night but he did not."
What About His Family?
This much seems clear: "Nobody pretends the Trump Organization will go back to what it was, with all the Trump kids working there, doing business deals and all," says the president's adviser. "Politics is now in their blood stream, each of them."
Trump was followed to the White House by his elder daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom are senior aides. His oldest sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, while nominally running his Trump Organization, became two of his most active campaign surrogates.
A source close to Kushner and Ivanka paints a rosy picture of their future, whatever that might be. There are several options, including relocating back to New York City.
"I think they're very aware of what's going on and will probably take some time thinking about what comes next," the source says.
"They're not like a traditional family that immediately needs to figure out their next move," the source says, adding, "They gave four years of extremely hard work and energy. They've got a young family, they've got a lot to figure out — where they want to live and what avenues they want — but there's no rush."
This source boasts of what they call Kushner's international connections and Ivanka's following, particularly with conservative women, born out of their work on Middle East relations, criminal justice reform and workplace and family issues.
That is to say nothing of the severe criticism Kushner and Ivanka have weathered since 2017 — that they are under-qualified and out of their depth and that they create only hypocritical distance between themselves and the Trump administration's most controversial policies.
The source close to the couple, as ever, shrugs it off.
"Politics is a very very tough, difficult business but things are not forever," they say. "People don't have positions that are eternal. And I think already the rhetoric is going to drop. The people in New York — what did they want? They wanted a Biden victory, and that looks like that's where it's headed."
"The magnifying glass, when you're out of the government, someone else gets the magnifying glass — and now it's Biden and Harris," says the source, "and good luck to them."
The president's adviser is one of those who speaks skeptically of Kushner, describing him as "shell-shocked" and "scrambling" in the immediate days after the election as Trump pushed to legally challenge the votes.
"People are mad at him for not being better prepared," the adviser says. "If you're going to say you run the campaign, you run the White House ... you run the world, if you sort of wink and nod when people say you're the de facto chief of staff, campaign manager and president then you best be ready for something as simple as the possibility you may be defeated and that these razor-thin margins may require intervention if not investigation."
(The source close to Kushner responds: "That [the legal strategy] wasn’t something Jared was running. It was being run out of the campaign and the RNC, but obviously people are going to throw shade after the fact.")
A source who knows many people in the Trump inner circle and White House says the discussion on how to process the election result has split the president's family and their allies: Some say "the president has to face the numbers and concede. Then there is another faction — Don Jr. and [his girlfriend] Kimberly and Eric and [Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows — who are all saying, 'Fight, fight, fight.' "
The Trump adviser agrees on Don Jr. and Eric: "His two sons not named Barron Trump, they want him to fight to the death. But I don't think I'm giving you breaking news."
This source describes a scene returning from a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in which Eric confidently predicted his father would win 326 electoral votes, while others on the plane spoke more cautiously.
A third source agrees: "Eric and Don Jr. are livid and ready to fight. They want to hold on to their power."
Ivanka, whom her father's adviser calls "a very pragmatic person," is handling the loss better and will move on, according to this source.
"I can see her getting involved in women’s and international issues that interest her even if she doesn't run for public office. I think she is the child most like her father," this person says. (The source close to her and Kushner said talk of a future political run was "premature" and says Trump well may try and run again in four years.)
The source who knows the Trump circle maintains that the first lady, even though she has tweeted in support of the president's suspicion about the voting, is privately "saying we have to listen to the facts."
"She is the voice of reason. She has always been the one to calm him down. ... She is also trying to be an example for Barron," says the source.
A source at the family's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, which is a favored retreat of Mrs. Trump, says she had been spending several days there recently: "She is very polite and quiet but has not looked happy. She rarely smiles."
Ivana, mother to the president's three oldest children, is meanwhile hoping for their exit from Washington, D.C.
"I just want them to be able to live their normal lives — normal lives — not the Washington life and all that, just New York or wherever they're going to be and just live their normal lives," she says. "I think they enjoyed being around Donald and running the election and seeing what will happen. But now it is, thank god, over."
Trump's adviser says daughter Tiffany, who recently graduated from law school, has been "really Zen and level-headed about all this."
"I'm really curious to see what Tiffany does next. She's got a servant's heart, she really does," the adviser says. "She'll be in some public service law, I'm convinced of it."
The possibility of 2024 — not to mention the 2022 midterms, with candidates likely currying Trump's stamp of approval as well as access to his vast network of supporter and donor contacts — remains an unanswered question. For him. For his kids.
"Don Jr. and Kim, they think they should be president and first lady one day and Ivanka loves going out and campaigning and she said she's unapologetically pro-life now — welcome — and she can go run for governor of Florida if she wants, sure," the president's adviser says, voice drying out a bit as they describe Ivanka's evolving political ambitions.
Ruddy, the Newsmax CEO and president's friend, says Don Jr. "shares his dad's world vision and is interested in politics. Plus, Kimberly is so good for him. She would be a tremendous asset."
"So the question is does [Eric's wife] Lara Trump run in North Carolina or New York? Does Don Jr.? Does Ivanka have aspirations? Maybe she'll do a big Trump public policy for women and girls," the adviser says.
The adviser goes on to say: "They're [the family] just going to have to figure that out, I can't worry about that. I like the family but they're just going to have to figure out what they're best in."
Perhaps the correct answer is the most obvious one: They'll stick with their father and their father will not in fact change anything at all. Not the rallies, not his cable news appearances, not his hourly tweets to tens of millions of other social media accounts.
"He defied expectations. If he comes up short this time, he still defied expectations, rebuffed his naysayers and critics," his adviser says. "And they think they finally killed the king. But this is a man who's not going to go away quietly or quickly. Nobody thinks Donald Trump will go away quietly or quickly."
Lou Midkiff, who worked with Vice President Mike Pence on the 2016 Trump campaign, says the appeal forged with the base in that populist, inflammatory and rag-tag run for office has grown stronger with the years.
“The enthusiasm of Trump supporters is nothing like I’ve ever seen in my 35 years of political campaigns," Midkiff says. "From my time around him I’ve come up with a very apt phrase: He’s a rock star without a guitar."
But stretching that metaphor just a bit further means there are now more than 78 million Americans who would in fact like the music to stop — even as the president threatens not to cede the stage to Biden.
"How can anybody be surprised? He did exactly what he said he was going to do," says Cohen, his former attorney. "I expect him to act abominably and further alienate us from one another while encouraging the worst in his supporters."
"This is a man who has avoided consequence his entire life," Cohen says. "Now for the first time he's being handed the bill. So expect the worst."
• With reporting by KC BAKER, LINDA MARX, SEAN NEUMANN and CHARLOTTE TRIGGS
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