Former President Donald Trump is facing serious backlash from die-hard loyalists over his decision to intervene in a Tennessee House race, with his supporters accusing him of spurning a staunch Republican ally who’s running.
Trump on Tuesday evening endorsed Morgan Ortagus, who served as a State Department spokesperson during his administration and is pondering a run for a Middle Tennessee-based congressional district. The announcement has caused a firestorm, with far-right, high-profile backers ranging from North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn to conservative activist Candace Owens taking to social media to voice their support for Robby Starbuck, a rival candidate who’s been a mainstay of the pro-Trump movement.
Even Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the former president’s most prominent supporters, promoted a tweet outlining criticisms of Ortagus. The gripes have included everything from Ortagus’ support of Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP primaries to her being photographed with President Joe Biden and having her wedding officiated by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Amid the criticism, two of the former president’s top lieutenants, eldest son Donald Trump Jr. and social media director Dan Scavino, have privately voiced their displeasure over what Trump’s inner circle concedes was a hasty endorsement rollout, according to two people familiar with the internal discussions.
Starbuck himself is far from a sure-fire primary bet: He’s a first-time candidate and a relative newcomer to the district, running in what is expected to be a large field of formidable Republicans, and he has posted lukewarm fundraising numbers. Still, the episode represents perhaps the most intense blowback Trump has received from loyalists since leaving office — and a potential test of the former president’s credibility with some of his fiercest defenders. While he has endorsed in races up and down the ballot ahead of this year’s midterms, few of them have generated substantial criticism from allies, though there have been ongoing questions about how carefully Trump has made his endorsement decisions.
“This in a lot of ways is a watershed moment for, I’ll say, the entire Trump team,” said Daniel Bostic, a conservative activist whose Twitter page has closely documented the backlash. “And it should be, to be honest, because it is being perceived as a back-stab to his own base.”
Unlike many of the former president’s other endorsements, the decision to get behind Ortagus unfolded quickly. The would-be candidate, joined by her family, met with Trump on Monday at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, where she informed him she was considering running. In the hours after their meeting, Trump began asking a range of people what they thought of Ortagus.
By Tuesday evening, the former president had decided to move ahead with the announcement. He released a statement calling the 39-year-old Ortagus, a former Fox News contributor, “an absolute warrior” for his movement and saying she was “fantastic in her role” at the State Department.
“Morgan Ortagus will have my Complete and Total Endorsement if she decides to run!” Trump said.
The pushback was swift.
“Absolutely not,” wrote Ned Ryun, a conservative activist, on Twitter.
“Nope. Trump has this completely wrong,” Owens tweeted.
“Trump is now firmly in the establishment camp,” wrote John Cardillo, another conservative activist.
Within a few hours, Bostic, who was a producer of the pro-Trump documentary “The Plot Against the President,” began pumping out tweets with photographs of Ortagus alongside Biden and Ginsberg while noting that she worked on Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. The following evening, the Republic PAC Twitter account circulated a TV clip from 2016 of Ortagus saying that she’s “not a Trump fan.”
Within some corners of Trump’s inner circle, there were complaints about what they regarded as an impulsive, poorly planned and unnecessary endorsement, especially given that Ortagus isn’t an announced candidate.
Others, however, defended the move, saying they’d received widespread positive feedback about Ortagus. They also contended the pushback was unfair, pointing out that Ortagus steadfastly defended the administration’s policies during her time at the State Department and as a Fox News contributor, and that she had a role on Trump’s first campaign. During a November appearance as guest host on “The View,” Ortagus went after House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a prominent Trump antagonist.
Ortagus has gotten backup from the likes of Robert O’Brien, who served as Trump’s national security adviser and on Tuesday evening published a tweet announcing his support for her.
There is also a degree of skepticism within some corners of Trump’s orbit about whether Starbuck would be the strongest candidate in a potentially crowded primary. While Starbuck, whose real name is Robby Newsom, has developed a reputation as a Twitter personality and has garnered support from out-of-state Trump backers, he has lived in the district for only a few years and never run for office. The primary is expected to draw a number of well-known local officials. The list of potential candidates includes former Tennessee state House Speaker Beth Harwell and Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles.
Apart from the online backlash, it remains unclear whether Ortagus will actually enter the congressional contest. While she has begun reaching out to strategists and local party officials, she has yet to make a final decision. Ortagus, who has been working in the health-care industry since the Trump administration ended, has been living in the area for about a year.
Whether she jumps in or not, the drama has taken center stage within Trump-world.
During a Wednesday evening fundraiser at the Miami home of pro-Trump megadonor Peter Thiel, donors were abuzz about the skirmish, inquiring about how the endorsement had unfolded, according to several attendees.
“Ortagus’ endorsement really came as a complete shock,” Bostic said. “My phone started blowing up.”