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Trump addresses GOP as power to shape national debate wanes

Since leaving the White House, Trump has lacked access to his usual platforms

donald-trump-2-ap File photo of former US President Donald Trump at a World Series baseball game in 2019 | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Former President Donald Trump insists he's enjoying his life off Twitter. The press releases his aides fire off on an increasingly frequent basis are more elegant, he says. Plus there's no risk of backlash for retweeting unsavoury accounts.

But since Trump was barred from major social media channels after helping incite the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, his power to shape the national conversation is being tested. 

Trump transformed from a reality television star to a politician and president by bending the tools of communication and the media to his will. He still connects with his supporters through his releases and appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets, where he repeats misinformation about the 2020 election. 

And he remains a powerful force in the Republican Party, with a starring role Saturday at a Republican National Committee event that will be held at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

Still, the sway over American life he once enjoyed appears to be eroding at least for now.

"It'll never be the same for Trump unless he's a candidate again," said Harold Holzer, a historian who is director of Hunter College's Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and wrote a book about presidents and the press. 

"I don't think it's unnatural for coverage to diminish. I'm sure it's tough on his ego, given how much oxygen he sucks up and how much ink he generates, but it's not unnatural for an ex-president to get less attention."

It's been a dramatic adjustment nonetheless. Trump's tweets used to drive the news cycle, with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News often spending dozens of hours a week combined displaying his missives, according to a GDELT analysis of television news archives. Since he was barred from Twitter and other platforms, Trump can no longer speak directly to large swaths of his audience and must now rely on his supporters and conservative and mainstream media to amplify his messages. 

To compensate for the ongoing blackout, Trump aides have been pumping out statements and endorsements that often sound just like the tweets he used to dictate. "Happy Easter to ALL, including the Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!" read one sent from his political action committee (Happy Easter! was the more subdued version offered by his official government office).

At the same time, Trump has been ramping up his appearances on conservative media even sitting down with his daughter-in-law for her online program. But few of those comments have reverberated as mainstream outlets, long criticized for allowing Trump to dictate coverage, have become increasingly wary of repeating his falsehoods, especially pertaining to the 2020 election.

While Trump still garners coverage, Google search results for his name are at their lowest point since 2015, as noted this week by The Washington Post. And on late night TV, some have tried to scrub him out entirely, with Late Show host Stephen Colbert refusing to say his name.

After five years of wall-to-wall Trump, the contrast is jarring.

"He was unlike any prior president in the amount of oxygen he sucked up. But he increasingly resembles many former president in how little oxygen he now gets," said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to George W. Bush. 

While that is the reality for any former president, Fleischer argued that Trump continues to loom large in the party and could return to the spotlight if he chooses to run again. 

And though his dominance of cable news has dropped precipitously from its peak in fall 2016, when he was mentioned tens of thousands of times a month, per GDELT data, he remains a presence on cable news channels nonetheless.

Two months out of office, he's still roughly where he was in March of last year when the pandemic largely displaced him, said Kalev Leetaru, the project's creator. It shows that even two months out of office, he's still looming large. 

While most of Trump's statements garner relatively little coverage, some, like one that blasted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, dominated news coverage, with CNN, in particular, running with it for more than 44 minutes.

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