Lynda Blanchard donated nearly $1 million to pro-Donald Trump political committees, served as his ambassador to Slovenia and launched her Alabama Senate campaign with a video spotlighting her Trump bumper sticker-adorned pickup truck.
But the former president was annoyed after hearing from donors that Blanchard was hyping her connections to Trump and giving them the impression she had his backing. Trump, who was widely believed to be leaning toward Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a longtime ally who spoke at the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the deadly Capitol riot, vented to his advisers that he barely knew Blanchard. The former ambassador’s allies insist she never meant to imply she had Trump’s support — but before long, Trump decided to make his endorsement of Brooks official, even though the primary was more than a year away.
With the 2022 Republican primary season beginning to take shape, candidates up and down the ballot are portraying themselves as staunch Trump loyalists, showing off photos they’ve taken with the former president, divulging private conversations they’ve had with him and, in Blanchard’s case, brandishing Trump-signed nomination papers. But some candidates are taking it too far — and Trump and his team are aggressively letting them know it.
“Lots of candidates pretend to have the support of President Trump. Most are full of shit. You will know when President Trump endorses someone,” said former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
The episodes illustrate the colliding pressures confronting the former president and the Republican office-seekers desperate for his support. While candidates are calculating that they need voters to see them as Trump-approved, the former president is protective of his political brand and recognizes that his much-coveted endorsement — and the performance of the candidates who get it — is one of his primary means of maintaining relevance.
The problem has gotten worse since Trump left the White House, advisers say. The former president’s team has long pushed back on candidates they accused of misrepresenting themselves as Trump-backed: Last year alone, the Trump campaign sent cease-and-desist letters to the likes of attorney general-turned-Alabama Senate candidate Jeff Sessions and even contenders for local office. But now, without a comprehensive state-by-state network of operatives and chairpersons that can patrol races, the former president’s political team has to work harder to keep candidates in line.
The most recent flare-up came last week, when a bogus flier popped up on the internet proclaiming that Trump had endorsed businessman Hirsh Singh in New Jersey’s June 8 GOP gubernatorial primary. After Trump spokesman Jason Miller became aware of the posting — which was designed to mimic Trump’s official endorsement statements — he took to Twitter to declare that it was “FAKE” and say that Trump “has NOT endorsed in the race.”
Singh denied in an interview that he was behind the flier and accused one of his primary rivals of planting it to embarrass him. “I don’t play sneaky games like this,” said Singh, who ended up finishing a distant third.
Mike Testa, a state senator who co-chaired Trump’s reelection campaign in the state, said the posting had been damaging for Singh, raising questions of trustworthiness in the minds of voters at the last minute. Testa recalled running for office in 2019 and being careful not to state he had Trump’s support until the then-president said it explicitly.
Trump is “his own man, and if he wanted to weigh in in the state of New Jersey he would have made it loud and clear that he was weighing in in the state of New Jersey,” said Testa, who supported a Singh rival and the eventual winner of the Republican nomination, former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli.
A few weeks earlier, Miller swatted down Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a prospective gubernatorial candidate who had asserted in a radio interview that Trump had “asked” him to run and that the ex-president had told him, “‘Doug, run and I’ll campaign for you.’”
Miller shot back that Trump “has not made any endorsement or commitments yet” in the contest.
Trump aides have grown aggravated by Mastriano, partly because of his willingness to reveal private conversations with Trump. Mastriano, who has loudly echoed the former president’s baseless assertions that there were irregularities in the 2020 election, has talked publicly on at least four occasions about his discussions with Trump regarding the gubernatorial race.
“I would warn people against claiming endorsements from anyone without authorization. When and if President Trump endorses anyone, it will be very unmistakable,” said Rob Gleason, a former Pennsylvania GOP chairman and a close Trump ally.
Mastriano did not respond to a request for comment.
In April, the Trump forces were pushing back on Dan Rodimer, a former professional wrestler running in a Texas special congressional election. Rodimer ran ads calling himself “the Trump candidate” and released a statement saying he was the “only” candidate in the race “that has ever been endorsed by President Trump.”
Taking to Twitter, Miller wrote: “Important Note. President Trump has NOT yet endorsed a candidate,” adding a pair of siren emojis for emphasis. Trump later endorsed Susan Wright, the widow of the late Rep. Ron Wright, just before the first round of the special election. Wright finished in first place, making the July runoff.
Rodimer, who ended up finishing 11th in the all-party election, insisted in a text message that he “did not imply we had Trump’s support” and that he’d been referring to Trump’s endorsement of him during his unsuccessful 2020 Nevada congressional bid.
Trump advisers say he’s relished being courted by candidates, which has kept him occupied during his post-presidential days at his Mar-a-Lago estate and Bedminster golf course. The former president has received hundreds of requests for endorsements, evidence that he retains full sway in the Republican Party, they say.
But they warn that being perceived as faking an endorsement is a mistake — and could even sink a campaign.
“Until a candidate gets an official statement from President Trump, whether in writing, video or audio, they do not have the official endorsement,” said John McLaughlin, who was a pollster on Trump’s campaigns. “It’s dishonest. If proven, it could totally backfire.”
Trump lieutenants say they’ve tracked other incidents, such as a statement Texas Republican gubernatorial hopeful Don Huffines released last week calling himself the “Trump candidate.” It came just hours after the former president endorsed the incumbent, Gov. Greg Abbott.
Blanchard hit the skids with the Trump team earlier this spring, when a photo began to circulate in the news media of her alongside the former president at Mar-a-Lago, heightening the perception he was supportive of her. While Trump was always likely to endorse Brooks, those close to him say, his irritation about the situation hastened his decision to engage in the contest early. Trump’s displeasure was confirmed by four people familiar with the episode.
Blanchard allies say that while she has stressed her proximity to Trump — she has called herself the “Trump appointed, Trump approved” candidate in the race, in reference to her ambassadorship — they contend she has been careful not say she’s been endorsed by Trump in the Senate race.
Whether that is too close for comfort may be up for debate. But with the primary season just beginning, Trump aides say one thing is for certain: More false assertions of support from candidates are only inevitable.
“President Trump or his people are going to find out about it quickly,” said former Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, “and correct the record.”