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Fewer grievances, more policy: Trump aides and allies push for a post-South Carolina ‘pivot’

In World
February 25, 2024

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A growing chorus of top advisers to Donald Trump is urging him to fixate less on personal grievances and instead focus on hitting President Joe Biden and unifying the Republican Party.

The attempt to turn to broader themes comes as the campaign looks ahead to Super Tuesday and the general election, according to nine top Trump aides and allies who spoke to NBC News. Trump’s commanding win in South Carolina over Nikki Haley is yet another illustration of an undeniable political reality: Trump will be the GOP nominee.

“There is no question that after Saturday there will be a pivot, because there needs to be,” said a top adviser to the former president. “There is a mindset from our perspective that she [Haley] can do whatever she wants. She can do whatever, we don’t care.”

Follow live updates in South Carolina here.

The adviser said the goal is to focus on bringing the Republican Party together after a fractious primary, but the person conceded that flashes of Trump’s trademark pugilistic style and tendency to go off-script, especially when discussing his growing legal woes, will stick around.

“We are not going to totally be able to move away from what is going on in his personal life,” the adviser said. “It’s going to be happening every day, and he is a fighter and will talk about it. Everyone understands that.”

While Trump retains a commanding lead in polling for the Republican race, a potential general election matchup with Biden — where voters may be less interested in his personal grievances — remains tight, according to NBC News polling.

That attempted pivot was evident in Trump’s South Carolina victory speech, which did not mention Haley once, took shots at Biden and openly touted a GOP unity message. It was a marked contrast to his speech in New Hampshire, when he repeatedly mocked Haley for losing and having a “very bad night.”

“There has never been a spirit like this,” Trump said Saturday night in South Carolina. “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified.”

Trump is notoriously hard to wrangle, and he rarely sticks to the script. It’s unclear whether he will be willing, or able, to carry out a reset.

But two people involved in conversations around the potential pivot said the topic has been under discussion in internal campaign deliberations. One of those people, who doubts Trump has the discipline to execute on it, said the idea is to make the campaign “more about issues and less about personality.”

Those advocating for Trump to home in on a less divisive message point to his speech after a dominating win in the Iowa caucuses as evidence that he is capable.

“Whether it’s Republican or Democrat, or liberal or conservative, it would be so nice if we could come together,” Trump told supporters in Des Moines after his caucus win.

Republican strategist David Urban, a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 and 2020, said that the Iowa speech should be the model moving forward — even if Trump has at times shown an inability to stick with that tone, such as in his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary in which he reverted to his combative style.

Urban said Trump’s Iowa speech was about “pivoting to the general election,” but “in New Hampshire, you saw a little bit of a distraction and more pugilism.”

“The former, rather than the latter, serves him better,” Urban said.

“Especially in this race where there is such a compare and contrast, Trump should take Biden at his own words: ‘Don’t compare me to the almighty; compare me to the alternative,’” Urban said. “Trump should compare his record to Biden’s record. … There was a sense that America was on the right track. Now there’s a sense that America’s on the wrong track.”

Donald Trump Jr. told NBC News he “tries to talk about the issues as well.” But then underscoring that old habits may be tough to break, he proceeded to talk about the various legal cases facing his father.

The frequent focus on the former president’s own problems and grievances has been noticed by his opponents.

On Thursday, Haley said that part of what “bothers” her about Trump is that he so often is “talking about being a victim — at no point has he ever talked about the American people.”

“All he’s doing is talking about himself,” she added. “And that’s the problem — it’s not about him. It’s about the American people.”

“Trump Steaks, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Tower, Trump University — it’s always about him,” an aide close to the Biden campaign said. “Never about the people he pretends to care about out. That’s exactly why he’ll lose again to Joe Biden — no one wants to vote for someone who doesn’t give a damn about them.”

Part of any attempted shift would be moving away from a focus on Haley, his lone remaining viable Republican opponent, who has pledged to stay in the race past South Carolina despite many party leaders, including Trump, urging her to drop out.

“Trump needs to lay out his agenda for a second term. That’s what is going to convince swing voters to come to our side,” said a donor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who now supports Trump after DeSantis dropped out of the presidential race. “The grievance points make for good TV, but are not what will win the general election.”

“The Republican Party and the country have moved past Nikki,” said another Trump adviser who is among those urging Trump to switch focus.

Even some Trump voters are hoping he shifts focus heading into the general election.

“I’m tired of his mouth. But his policies worked,” said Scott Penabaker, a 67-year-old Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, resident who voted for Trump in 2016, 2020 and 2024.

So far, however, that transition has been elusive.

During a Friday-night speech to the Black Conservative Federation in Columbia, South Carolina, Trump continued to gripe about his legal troubles, including four indictments totaling 91 separate criminal charges.

“I got indicted a second time and a third time and a fourth time, and a lot of people said that that’s why the Black people like me, because they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against, and they actually viewed me as I am being discriminated against,” Trump told the audience.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican and top Trump congressional ally, agreed Trump’s focus needs to be on the general election.

“I want to see President Trump focus on Joe Biden. Nikki Haley … is completely null and void,” she said. “She is not even in the conversation. That became apparent to me being on the ground here in South Carolina.”

She said issues like immigration, inflation and foreign policy, and conservatives’ perception that the federal government is being weaponized against them, are all issues Trump does regularly discuss now, but she believes should be even more of a focus moving forward.

“That is honestly one of the things my message for Democrats would be: They need to realize that the way the power is being abused in attacking President Trump is real,” Greene said. “And it’s scary, and it should be scary. It shouldn’t happen.”

Though most Trump supporters understand he will never totally abandon his aggressive style, some do believe that his desire to get back to the White House can help blunt some of his harshest instincts.

“I’m not telling you Donald Trump is humbled and chastened, but I do feel, and I do see, a recognition that when you have been waking up in Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster — as nice as those places are — they’re not the Oval Office,” a Trump adviser said. “There is a recognition that ‘I’m not there. Someone else is president.’”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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