Donald Trump reportedly wants to set up his his own “MAGA Party” to challenge “disloyal” Republicans who helped impeach him in the House – or else are considering voting to convict him in the Senate.
On Monday, a single article of impeachment is set to be transferred from the House of Representatives to the Senate, where members of the upper chamber will next month consider Mr Trump’s fate. If Mr Trump, who is the only president to have been impeached twice, is convicted in the Senate, he could also be barred from ever running for federal office again.
Over the weekend it was reported Mr Trump, now ensconced at his estate in Florida, has been talking to advisers about establishing a third party, that could be called the Patriot Party, or perhaps the Make America Great Again Party, borrowing from his campaign slogan.
At the same time, figures such as Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, unelected but with huge influence among many conservatives, in effect warned Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell he would face a primary challenger if he voted to convict Mr Trump.
While three presidents have been impeached by the House – Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump – none have been convicted by the Senate. The Senate is due to start hearing the case on the week beginning February 8.
The Washington Post said Mr Trump, operating out of Mar-a-Lago, had told staff to investigate setting up a third party, perhaps named the Patriot Party, to challenge the 10 Republican members of the House who voted to impeach him earlier this month.
The paper said in recent weeks, the former president had entertained the idea of creating a third party “and instructed his aides to prepare election challenges to lawmakers who crossed him in the final weeks in office”.
It added: “Multiple people in Trump’s orbit … say Trump has told people that the third-party threat gives him leverage to prevent Republican senators from voting to convict him during the Senate impeachment trial.”
Even before he left office, the prospect of Mr Trump setting up a third party was something that was often talked about. While third parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians, have typically made little headway at the national level, there have been exceptions.
In 1992, businessman Ross Perot, of the Reform Party, secured 19 per cent of the vote in a three-way race with George HW Bush, and Mr Clinton.
While there are large portions of the Republican establishment who dislike Mr Trump but supported him during his presidency because they judged he could help them, Mr Trump’s approval rating rarely dipped below 40 per cent, suggesting there remains a very Trump-loyal portion of Republicans who might switch to third party, with him at the helm.
The prospect for establishing such a party appears to be more likely given the way a number of Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have sought to distance themselves from MrTrump since the events of January 6, when hundreds of Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, seeking to stop the confirmation of the electoral win of Joe Biden. Large numbers of Republicans believe Mr Trump’s false claims the election was rigged.
The Post also said over the weekend, Mr Trump was heard on a recorded message offering his “complete and total endorsement” for another term for Arizona state party chairwoman Kelli Ward, a controversial figure who clashed with the state’s Republican governor.
On January 6, Ms Ward posted a poll on her Twitter account asking “Can we salvage/save the Republican Party or do we need another option?”. Around 8 per cent voted to salvage the GOP, while 78 said a “#MAGA Party [was] needed.” On Sunday, the hashtag #MAGAParty was trending in the US.
The threat of being punished by Mr Trump’s supporters for voting to impeach him seems very real.
Just 10 Republicans voted to do so – Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Tom Rice of South Carolina, Dan Newhouse of Washington state, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, Fred Upton of Michigan, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, Peter Meijer of Michigan. John Katko of New York, and David Valadao of California.
Over the weekend, The Independent sought a comment from all 10; only Mr Kinzinger’s office replied, saying he did not wish to say anything further at this stage
Indeed, since the vote, Mr Kinzinger, who represents Illinois’ 6th congressional district, which includes a number of rural counties west of Chicago, has been the only person to speak about his decision, while the others have maintained a low profile.
“I think this is one of those votes that that transcends any kind of political implication if the moment. This is one of those that you’re going to look back on when you’re 80 and this will be the one you talk about,” he told CNN.
“I don’t know what the future is, you know, I don’t know what that means for me politically but I know I’m at real peace right now.”
Ms Cheney is now facing a challenge to her position as the third-ranking GOP member of the House, and The New York Times ran a recent article headlined: “10 Republicans Voted to Impeach Trump. The Backlash Has Been Swift”.
The issues raised by the prospect of Mr Trump establishing his own party, could dominate many of the energies of the Republican Party, which has now lost the White House, the House and the Senate, after Democrats bagged the two run-off races in Georgia, to give them the narrowest control of the Senate.
With eyes already turning to 2024, Republicans need to decide whether to opt for Mr Trump again, or his son, Donald Trump Jr. Otherwise they may decide for a more traditional conservative candidate, perhaps in the likes of Nikki Haley, or potentially Mike Pence.
If Mr Trump is barred from running from office, it would open the way for other challengers, and allow donors to think with clarity about who they want to back.
Yet if Mr Trump does set up his own party, even if he is not its candidate, it would likely split the conservative vote, and all but ensure a second term for a Democratic administration. Back in 1992, Mr Bush always blamed Independent Ross Perot for his defeat to Bill Clinton.
“Setting up a political party is complicated and takes a great deal of work. Is Trump up to the task? I wonder,” said Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.
He added: “Democrats should volunteer to help [set up any third party]. The Patriot Party would split the GOP and nearly guarantee Democratic victories.”
The prospect of such a showdown is already creating anxiety. Politico quoted Florida Republican Rick Scott, a long-time ally of Mr Trump, as saying he would be backing Republican incumbents in his role as chair of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, should they face a primary challenge, from a third-party.
“I’m supporting the incumbents,” he said. He said that he has not spoken to Ivanka Trump or anyone about Marco Rubio possibly getting a primary challenge from her.
“Nobody has talked to me about it at all. Nobody. I’ve tried to call around,” he added. “Nobody’s said anything about Florida.”