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Trump gravitates to fringe figures despite efforts to limit their influence

On Aug. 13, former president Donald Trump spent the day at his New Jersey golf club with former congressional candidate Laura Loomer, whose history of offensive and inflammatory comments led to her being banned by social media platforms and shunned by other Republicans.

Advisers and lawyers spent days last week talking him out of a news conference to tout a report compiling old and unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud in the 2020 election — more than 100 pages prepared by staffer Liz Harrington, who was the former editor in chief of Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” website. The former president spends more time with another staffer, former One America News anchor Natalie Harp, than almost anyone else in his orbit and her omnipresence has at times annoyed many of his other aides, according to people close to Trump, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details.

And on occasion, Trump is again taking advice from figures such as Roger Stone and Dick Morris, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton who was ousted over a prostitution scandal.

Trump’s current presidential campaign in some ways is more professionalized and orderly than his past operations — so far not besmirched by as much infighting, sudden staff firings and other drama. He has attracted a series of respected GOP strategists who have run successful campaigns and his team has worked behind the scenes with savvy operatives to shape primary rules, GOP officials say.

But the candidate is still finding himself drawn to fringe figures, outside the formal chain of command, who reinforce — and encourage — his most pugilistic impulses.

“I read in disbelief at some of the people he’s brought back, but he likes the sycophants, he likes people telling him how great he is and all the rest,” said John F. Kelly, one of his former White House chiefs of staff. “Particularly now, when he’s really under assault, and justifiably so. He would for sure want to surround himself with people telling him how great he is. He always wants the people around who say, ‘Yes, sir, you are the smartest, you are the genius.’”

The dynamic is especially pronounced as indictments against the former president have piled up — 91 charges across four criminal cases in state and federal courts. In particular, special counsel Jack Smith’s allegations that Trump fraudulently tried to overturn the 2020 election have renewed Trump’s eagerness to dig into the claim that he always believed the election was stolen — and still does. And his strategy to not give back classified documents to the government — which has prompted a separate Smith prosecution in Florida — came in part from an outside legal adviser who disagreed with Trump’s lawyers.

“I love when his fangs come out,” Morris said in an interview, adding that Trump had internalized many of the ideas of their mutual mentor and fixer-lawyer, the late Roy Cohn. “Including the idea of ‘permanent offense.’ It’s very important and runs through all of my thinking, too.”

Steven Cheung, a Trump campaign spokesman, said the former president “has surrounded himself with the best team in history and everyone is working to ensure he retakes the White House.” He added: “Any suggestion otherwise is nothing more than false rumors that have no basis in reality and come from people who have no idea what’s going on.”

Fresh off a visit with the New York Young Republican Club on Aug. 11, Loomer was planning to return home to Florida when her friend, a law clerk for a firm representing multiple defendants in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, asked if she wanted to tag along on a visit to Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

Loomer had never visited Bedminster before, and she knew there was a chance she’d get to see Trump. She hadn’t packed another outfit, so she bought a new fuchsia bodycon dress before driving to the club and buying a public ticket to a LIV Golf tournament. When Trump approached a rope line of fans to shake hands and sign Make America Great Again hats, one of his aides pointed out Loomer in the crowd.

“Where’s Laura?” Trump shouted, turning around to see her, according to video of the encounter reviewed by The Washington Post. “I love you,” he told her. Then, turning to Harp, he said: “Would you do me a favor? Get her a pass.”

Loomer has a history of derogatory and provocative remarks — particularly against Muslims — that has led to her being banned from social media platforms and being ostracized by other Republicans. Loomer has denied being a white supremacist or anti-Muslim, describing herself as a “free speech absolutist.” She has publicly feuded with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Fla.), who publicly warned Trump against hiring Loomer to work on his reelection campaign. She lost a congressional primary in Florida last year and got her start in right-wing circles working for the conservative undercover camera group Project Veritas. Loomer is viewed by some of Trump’s aides as too extreme to work for him. The super PAC backing Ron DeSantis promptly used a clip of Loomer with Trump in an attack ad that premiered last week.

But Trump invited her up to his private box and spent much of the day with her, posing for photos as he showed off his golf course. In recent months, she has increasingly been on Trump’s radar for her cutting attacks on DeSantis, the Florida governor who is one of Trump’s 2024 challengers — particularly after she unearthed research against DeSantis that was viewed as helpful by some of Trump’s aides.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who on his team likes me, because President Trump loves me,” Loomer said in an interview. “It really, honestly, doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.”

Harp is a relatively recent addition to Trump’s orbit but is nearly always with him, advisers say. Other Trump aides view her as a problematic figure among his advisers for her unwavering devotion to her boss and lack of discernment. She follows Trump around — even on the golf course on a cart equipped with a laptop and sometimes a printer. She often is just outside his office, advisers say, and seeks to travel with him. She stands at such attention when he walks into a room that other aides have joked about it for months, people close to Trump say.

Advisers say she often hands him news articles and social media posts that he would not see otherwise (sometimes promoting false claims of election fraud) and takes dictations to post on Truth Social — which are sometimes published without vetting from senior aides. For example, some Trump aides were caught off guard by a long statement he posted announcing he had received a target letter in the Jan. 6 investigation. Harp did not respond to a request for comment.

When other aides have repeatedly complained about the former TV anchor to Trump, he has defended her and argued that she is smart and works hard. Efforts to get her to “go through the chain of command have failed, failed, failed,” said one Trump adviser.

Unlike some of Trump’s other informal advisers, Harp and Harrington are on the campaign payroll. Harp is often the bridge to figures such as Loomer, according to four Trump advisers.

Harrington wrote the 100-page report on election fraud for Trump to share publicly — even as Trump is facing criminal charges for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. While her presence around Trump has dwindled in recent months — and lawyers and advisers were able to at least temporarily quash the release of the report after days of fighting — she still provides reinforcement to him that the election was stolen. She continued to argue in favor of releasing the report last week, even as other advisers and lawyers argued against it, according to Trump advisers.

“It is kind of odd The Washington Post, which espouses conspiracy theories such as the 2016 Election was stolen by Russia, Russia, Russia, and unsubstantiated claims like Joe Biden got 81 million votes, the most in history, wants people thrown in prison for fighting against an election that was actually stolen,” Harrington said in a statement that propagated unsupported claims. “Rather than spend all its energy smearing people who pursue the truth, maybe The Post could start covering the news, instead of covering it up. But I won’t hold my breath.”

Biden won more than 81 million votes nationally, according to results certified in each state.

Outside his official team of lawyers, Trump has increasingly relied on Tom Fitton, the head of the conservative group Judicial Watch, for legal advice. Fitton, who is not a lawyer, was among those who advised Trump that he could legally keep documents with classification markings that he took with him from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., and urged him to fight the Justice Department on the matter, The Post has previously reported. Fitton told The Post that Trump has always sought “a lot of creative input” on issues as he deals with them.

“I don’t know why it would be surprising that someone like President Trump — or, frankly, any other national leader — would want to talk to the head of a group that’s one of the largest and most effective watchdog groups in the country,” Fitton said. “It’s like, why would it be concerning that someone wants to talk to the head of the ACLU about issues concerning policy and law? More national leaders would do well to look at what Judicial Watch is doing in our approach to government corruption issues.”

Morris also often urges Trump to attack others — and often shares ideas about campaign and policy messaging with Trump’s campaign advisers and speechwriters.

One person close to the former president said the campaign was better served in focusing on leveraging these figures productively and to his campaign’s advantage rather than trying to act as a gatekeeper. For example, some advisers have spoken privately with Stone about the advice he is giving Trump. Stone did not respond to requests for comment.

Stone was among the loyalists pardoned by Trump at the end of his presidency after he was convicted by a federal jury in Washington of lying during his September 2017 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee about his role in the 2016 Trump campaign’s efforts to learn about Democratic computer files hacked by Russia and made public by WikiLeaks. Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. He was also involved with efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, as captured by a Danish camera crew for a documentary on Trump’s longest-serving political adviser called “A Storm Foretold.”

Despite Stone’s political and legal baggage, he and Trump have been in regular touch in recent months, and Stone recently flew with Trump on his private plane. Four Trump advisers said Stone is also in touch with Trump’s team, and they view him as a more constructive figure than many of the others and an often savvy political thinker.

Bannon, the former White House strategist who fell out with Trump in 2018 but began advising him informally again in 2020, said Trump views his outside network as a way to “get a feel for what people are thinking and feeling.” He said that Loomer and others should be seen less as advisers than as “fighters who can always be pointed downrange.”

Because Trump now has the strongest campaign team he’s ever had, Bannon said, his reliance on such outside figures isn’t as pronounced as it could be. “I’m quite impressed that he’s not just reaching out all the time for outside stuff,” Bannon said.

It is difficult to know exactly who is on Trump’s payroll, because many payments are made through consultants. Advisers say Stone, Morris, Loomer and others are not being paid.

In the past, Trump has been willing to associate with far-right figures who have promoted hate and extreme ideology. He had dinner last year with far-right activist Nick Fuentes and Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who have made white-nationalist and antisemitic comments, and came under fire when anti-Muslim activist Brigitte Gabriel visited the White House for a meeting with Trump’s legislative aides early in his term. And at the end of his presidency, after the 2020 election, even some of his most loyal aides were astounded to see lawyer and conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell on the White House grounds repeatedly.

“Do you know how much time you spend as a Trump adviser dealing with crazy people?” said one Trump adviser. But another noted, for example, that Morris’s ideas “aren’t always crazy” but are usually “self-serving or ill-timed.”

Kelly said the goal in the White House was to keep fringe figures out of Trump’s ear “at least during business hours.”

Morris — Cohn’s cousin who was fired from the Clinton White House after tabloid reports of a relationship with a $200-an-hour prostitute — has sometimes annoyed some of Trump’s aides with his aggressive and self-promotional approach, who say he regularly dials Trump’s speechwriters, top political advisers and the president himself. But Trump takes at least some of his calls, these people said, and has told his team to keep in touch with Morris, who has been spotted at Mar-a-Lago on multiple occasions. Morris has told others he speaks to Trump frequently — though some close to Trump say the contact has dwindled some in recent months.

“Morris and Stone — both of them believe in the permanent offense,” said Doug Schoen, a pollster and former senior political adviser to Clinton. “What it means is that you pick up the phone at 8 a.m. and say, ‘Here is what you should say today, Donald, and here’s what you should do.’ Because Trump’s theory is you control the dialogue even if you are wrong and people don’t like it because you’re in the dialogue and other Republicans aren’t.”

Trump has unsuccessfully tried to bring some of these fringe figures onto his campaign in a more formal capacity.

Earlier this year, Trump met with Loomer and invited her to work on his campaign, but the offer was scuttled after it was reported in April by the New York Times. While sitting with her this month, he reposted several of Loomer’s messages on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.

“You work hard and you are a very opinionated lady, I have to tell you that,” Trump said in a video Loomer posted to X. “And in my opinion, I like that.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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