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Trump’s former team of rivals returns to challenge him

Vice President Mike Pence, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listened as President Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. All appear to be gearing up to run for president in 2024.Spencer Platt

WASHINGTON — After he won the election of 1860, President Abraham Lincoln famously asked his erstwhile opponents in the presidential race to come and work for him. It was a masterstroke that stocked his administration with political talent, promoted Republican Party unity at a critical moment, and ultimately strengthened his presidency.

Several alumni of the Trump administration are poised to test what happens when they do that in reverse.

At least four prominent figures from the Trump administration appear to be weighing a 2024 run for president against each other and the boss himself, an unusual scenario that could reignite the old rivalries of an administration well known for its infighting and display them live and uncut on the campaign trail.


“I think it’s going to get messy no matter what,” said Stephanie Grisham, a former aide to Donald Trump and the first lady who has compared the administration to a house that is always on fire. “They’re going to hurl insults at one another. … Trump’s going to sit back and watch, and then he’s going to throw his own bombs himself.”

The former president entered the race in November, and the list of competitors may soon look like a slice of his administration’s 2018 payroll. Nikki Haley, who left her job as the governor of South Carolina to serve two years as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, is widely expected to announce a presidential run on Feb. 15. That same day, former vice president Mike Pence will be making the rounds in Minneapolis and Iowa, giving a series of speeches on “parental rights” that seems like a precursor to a run of his own.

Former CIA director and secretary of state Mike Pompeo appears to be positioning himself with trips to early-voting states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina.


One former member of the Trump Cabinet, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, said there is no shortage of pent-up ambition in the former administration’s ranks — and a sense that someone has to stop Trump.

“I think those of us who served in the Cabinet and had close contact with him, most individuals feel that a second term of President Trump would be harmful to the country and certainly harmful to the party,” the former Cabinet member said. “There’s a principled nature to the decisions that many of them are making and that say ‘we just can’t allow that.’”

But well aware of the former president’s enduring popularity, all three have taken pains to emphasize their loyalty to and respect for Trump, sometimes at the expense of the others. Pompeo bragged in his book that Trump nicknamed him “My Mike.” Haley, who once said she would never run if Trump ran, called him personally to tell him she might run, Trump said recently. And Pence, despite admitting to feeling “angry” when a mob convinced of Trump’s election lies called for him to be hanged on Jan. 6, insisted in his book that the two parted amicably at the end of the administration and that the former president had been his “friend.”

The lane to be the MAGA heir will be crowded, particularly because it also contains the original.

“Potential candidates trying to falsely take credit for President Trump’s successes is proof they can’t run on their own records,” said Steven Cheung, a spokesperson for Trump’s nascent campaign, in a text message.


To put it another way: “There can only be one” Trump, said Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana, who served as Trump’s secretary of the interior, and unlike his former colleagues, does not seem to be running for president.

The three will each have the delicate task of explaining why they are running against their former boss — without provoking his base and sinking their own campaigns.

“You’ve got to try to wrestle the mantle away from him without alienating his voters,” said David Urban, a Republican lobbyist who is a longtime friend of Pompeo and worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It’s hard to thread the needle.”

That dynamic could boost presumed contenders who did not serve in the administration, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

A fourth Trump era official, former national security adviser John Bolton, says he is mulling a run too, but insists he won’t have to walk on eggshells when it comes to Trump.

“Trump’s not fit for office. My book’s 500 pages long and explains why,” Bolton said in an interview. “That’s a plus for me going in: I don’t have to be subtle about it.”

One thing that serving in the administration gave many of its alumni is ample practice attacking each other.

“Every administration has elements of discord,” Bolton said, “but the Trump administration I think was unique in that one of the troublemakers was the president himself.


“Trump loved the disorder,” he added, “and he believes this idea that he was more powerful if his aides were in conflict with one another.”

The tension between some of the potential candidates drips out of their books. The way Pompeo tells it, Haley teamed up with Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, to try to persuade the former president to kick Pence off the ticket and replace him with her for his 2020 reelection bid. Haley and her representatives have vigorously disputed this, and Pompeo has admitted he could not confirm it.

“Clearly, this visit did not reflect a team effort but undermined our work for America,” Pompeo wrote.

He bragged that he was the only member of Trump’s core national security team to stay on for the whole administration, and admonished Haley for leaving halfway through.

“Haley flat out threw in the towel after two years as the US ambassador to the UN — a job that is far less important than people think,” Pompeo wrote.

Bolton, who reserved most of the invective in his book for Trump, undercuts Pompeo’s narrative of tireless commitment by suggesting multiple times that Pompeo, too, considered resigning. Haley, meanwhile, spares Pompeo in her book but spends considerable time on her rivalry with former chief of staff John Kelly and Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, admonishing both for not being loyal enough to the president.

“In an administration in which so many people’s negative relationship with the president was their undoing, my relationship with Trump was a positive,” she wrote.


The one Cabinet official who in public so far has remained above the fray is Pence, who wrote of his “love” for Pompeo, his friendship with Haley, and even said Bolton’s and Trump’s worldviews align.

And, aside from Bolton, all of the alumni are exceedingly careful in how they explain their differences with Trump, a possible preview of how they will try to set themselves apart from him. Haley writes about telling the former president she disagreed with his equivocation after the racist and deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va. Pompeo admits there was too much turnover on the national security team. And Pence insists his relationship with Trump was cordial up until the end, although he allows that “it did not end well.”

Those differences are likely to be a key part of their campaign strategies, Urban said.

“They’ll say, ‘Look, here’s what I did on January 6th,’ or ‘Here’s what I did on Charlottesville,’ and say, ‘Here’s where we part ways,’” Urban said. “The narrative is, ‘The president did a great job but times change, and I think we need a different messenger.’”

Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University who assigns Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” for his class on the presidency, said rivalries within administrations are common, and have spilled out onto the campaign trail before. In 1968, for example, Democrats were bitterly divided over whether to back Hubert Humphrey, who had been loyal to the embattled Johnson administration, or embrace anti-war Democrats, such as Robert F. Kennedy, who had served alongside Lyndon Johnson in his brother’s administration.

This time, he said, the divisions are less stark.

“I think the division in the Republican Party is one of pragmatism and strategy. It’s not that they dislike the Trump years in terms of policy, but they see Trump as a loser,” Berry said, “and they want to win.”

Tal Kopan and Jackie Kucinich of the Globe staff contributed reporting.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.