Last weekend, Donald Trump embarked on his first campaign trip since announcing his plans to seek the Presidency again in 2024. Trump remains, arguably, the most powerful Republican in the country, but he is facing multiple state and federal investigations, and few high-profile Republicans have committed to supporting his campaign. (He also faces a potential challenge from Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who has amassed a significant following.) As McKay Coppins recently wrote, in The Atlantic, “Aside from his most blinkered loyalists, virtually everyone in the party agrees: It’s time to move on from Trump. But ask them how they plan to do that, and the discussion quickly veers into the realm of hopeful hypotheticals.”
To understand how the Republican Party is thinking about Trump’s 2024 aspirations, I spoke by phone with Jim Renacci, a former congressman from Ohio, who ran unsuccessfully against Sherrod Brown in the 2018 Senate race. (Last year, he challenged the incumbent Republican governor, Mike DeWine, in the G.O.P. primary.) Renacci has long been considered a Trump loyalist—he endorsed Trump early in 2016—but he recently told the Times that he and people like him are going to sit on the sidelines for now. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his concerns about a Trump candidacy in 2024, how Republicans have tried to take both sides of election denialism, and why the Party always ends up returning to Trump.
O.K., great, we are recording. Is there anything I should mention in terms of what you’re up to now?
Well, we have the American Greatness PAC. We’re still promoting the America First agenda, no matter who the candidate is for 2024. That’s really the work that I’m doing today. We’re building the America First agenda throughout several states, but primarily focussed on Ohio.
You say the “America First agenda,” and that’s obviously a phrase associated, in our current era at least, with Donald Trump. But you are not supporting him at the moment. Is that correct?
Correct. At this stage, I think we need to see what candidates get in the race. Look, what I’ve said about Donald Trump in the past—and I was a big supporter and endorser of his early on, in 2016—is that I appreciate what he’s done. I appreciate many of the policies and principles he stood for, and I appreciate the work he was able to accomplish between 2016 and 2020. But today we need to see what candidates step up and who can really take the country forward.
I know Trump often refers to you as one of his great early supporters. If he did such a great job, why wouldn’t he be the best choice for 2024? Has something changed about him? How do you understand it?
The one problem with former President Trump is that he’s polarized in a lot of positions.
The “one” problem, you said?
Well, I say the one problem is that he has become very polarizing for the base of the Party. Now, he’s got a pure base of thirty-five per cent, maybe even as high as forty per cent. And if it was just a primary between former President Trump and another candidate, I believe he would not be successful. But, as long as there are multiple candidates running, former President Trump probably will be successful.
So, your concern is not so much with his policies or his ideas. It’s more that you think he’s polarizing?
Well, I think, yes. “Polarizing” may not be the right word.
Right now the Republican Party is divided on a lot of principles. The biggest problem that has really caused Trump to lose the majority of the base of Republicans is, of course, January 6th. And then his willingness to continue to say that he won the 2020 election. Those two things have really caused many Republicans to say that they have had enough of former President Trump. I think if he would come out and say, “Look, 2020 is over—I lost, but I’m going to come back in 2024 and run and put my same agenda in place,” he probably would win some additional support back.
Are these your concerns? Are you saying, “I, former congressman Jim Renacci, am concerned that our President tried to foment a coup?” Or are you saying, “Other people might have those concerns, so we in the Party establishment need to be concerned about that”?
First off, I don’t consider myself establishment. But, yeah, I think the Republican Party is divided between those who are very pro-Trump no matter what, and the establishment, which is really anti-Trump. And then there are a lot of people in the middle, where I would consider myself, who want our country to go back to many of the policies that former President Trump was putting in place, but are just a little concerned with many of the things the President is saying. One of my other biggest concerns is President Trump’s loyalty. What’s the best way of saying this? I’ve often said that his loyalty only goes one way.
Yeah. One of the concerns I have for Jim Renacci, for me personally, is that I stuck my neck out and supported candidate Donald Trump in 2016, even when Governor John Kasich, in the state of Ohio, was running. That was a very bold move. But I did believe we needed change. I believed that candidate Trump, at that time, would bring change. And he did. I very much appreciated that. When I ran, in 2022, I did not get that same support from former President Trump.
When you challenged Governor DeWine in the Ohio primary, you’re saying?
Do you have a sense of why that loyalty didn’t go both ways?
Well, it’s probably one of the problems with former President Trump. His loyalty doesn’t go two ways. I’ve seen that too often.
It was hard to predict that in 2016.
Yeah, I did not realize that his loyalty is really one way. And so I don’t know. I was in constant contact with former President Trump during the Ohio primary. He was always saying that he appreciated all that I’d done. He was a big supporter of mine. He was concerned that there were three people in the race and that, as long as the third person was there, he was going to be peeling votes away from me, which would cause Governor DeWine to win. In the end, it was just disappointing, because I look back at 2016 and, for me, it’s always about the person, not whether he or she wins or loses. I’m going to support the person with the values and principles that I believe in. And he did not do that in the governor’s race. He didn’t do it just to me. There are a lot of candidates out there that he did not support that supported him in 2016.
Do you think it’s worth drawing a connection between the personal and the political here? Sometimes I wonder whether someone who has no personal loyalty and seems only invested in himself might also try to foment a coup, and obsess about winning when he didn’t, in fact, win. I just wonder if those two things might be connected.
Look, you said something very important there. The person who is so concerned about himself and not about the entire country and the country moving forward is one of the reasons he doesn’t have my support today. So, that’s the personal side. Remember, I a hundred per cent appreciate what he’s done for us. I’m happy that he jumped in the race in 2016. But when any person—it doesn’t have to be former President Donald Trump—when any person puts himself over the entire country, I do think that’s a flaw that makes me sit back and say, “I want to see what candidates are in the race going forward.” If he wins the primary, I’m going to be very much supportive of him.