OPINION - Donald Trump is ditching the Maga psychos and building a very slick team

Donald Trump is determined not to let anyone else throw his presidential campaign off kilter (AP)
Donald Trump is determined not to let anyone else throw his presidential campaign off kilter (AP)

The curious case of the puppy killer, which went viral this week, confirms that there is room for only one political “psycho” in Trumpland. The only American who can get away with conduct that would kill off anybody else’s career is sitting in a New York courthouse facing allegations of having paid hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels. The dog-slayer in question, Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, now known as “Cruella”, must be wondering where she went wrong.

The tone-deaf, trigger-happy Noem, who had high hopes of becoming Donald Trump’s vice-presidential running mate, has just shot herself royally in the foot. In No Going Back, one of those ghastly political books that aspiring candidates for national office feel obliged to churn out, Noem boasts about killing Cricket, her family’s 14-month-old wirehaired pointer. She must rue the day a Guardian reporter sniffed out the best bits ahead of publication next week.

“I hated that dog,” Noem admits in her book, adding that the boisterous Cricket was “worse than useless” as a hunting dog. After the over-exuberant pup slaughtered some chickens, it was time for her to act. Noem grabbed a gun and shot Cricket in a gravel pit. “It was not a pleasant job but it had to be done,” she boldly confesses. While she was at it, Noem also dispatched the “nasty and mean” family goat, who smelled “rancid” and used to headbutt her children.

At a stroke, Noem’s political ambitions were snuffed out. What kind of crazy person murders their dog? In a desperate effort to limit the damage, Noem claimed to have to put down three horses in a subsequent statement and tried to justify her behaviour as the act of a caring but concerned, tough-minded citizen.

No dice. As Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, quipped: “If you are on day four explaining your literal puppy murder, you are not winning.”

Meanwhile, the Teflon Don is neck-and-neck with Joe Biden in the race for the White House, despite racking up penalties of over $500 million for business fraud and defaming E Jean Carroll, whom he sexually assaulted in the Nineties. He is in the middle of one of four criminal trials and has been threatened with jail by the judge in the Daniels case if he doesn’t stop intimidating witnesses. His own side is not bothered.

In an interview, Trump declared he would have the right to order government officials to go after his opponents and there could be violence if he loses to Biden

Trump also gave an interview this week to Time magazine, headed: “If he wins”. In it, he declared states would be able to prosecute women who have abortions, the military could be used to deport migrants, he would have the right to order government officials to go after his opponents and there could be violence in the unfathomable event that he loses to Biden.

“If we don’t win, you know, it depends,” Trump said. “It always depends on the fairness of an election.” So that’s all right then. Nothing to worry about.

But while Trump refuses to moderate his own behaviour, he is not interested in extending the same leeway to other members of his Make America Great Again (Maga) gang. The election is only seven months away and he knows his freedom from jail could depend on securing the presidency. Trump’s campaign is far more slick and professional than it was in 2016 and 2020 and he is determined not to let anybody else throw it off kilter.

Helping Trump to exert control is Susie Wiles, 66, a veteran Republican operative in Florida who has been described by Politico as the “most admired and feared political operative nobody has ever heard of”. Previously a moderate, she has become Trump’s top strategist and political campaigner.

“I get it that the GOP of today is different,” Wiles told Politico last week. “There are changes we must live with in order to get done the things we’re trying to do. I haven’t and likely won’t fully adapt. I don’t curse. I’m polite. It’s not who I am.” But she is ruthless and efficient in the service of her boss.

Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who tried to topple Trump, made a big mistake by firing Wiles as an adviser in 2019. Nobody knows exactly who spread the rumour that he liked to eat chocolate pudding with his fingers but it was a deadly hit job — and proof, yet again, that other politicians are held to higher standards than Trump.

The hapless Noem must have thought Trump would approve of her bloodthirsty behaviour, indeed he was likely the target audience for her puppy-killing boasts.

But having previously promoted her book on his social media platform, Trump swiftly dropped her in the mire. Aides let it be known that though he “likes Kristi a lot” he was very “disappointed” to hear about her dog.

Other Maga types are being given the cold shoulder, lest they ruin Trump’s election prospects. In recent weeks, Trump has rallied to the defence of Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House, against his threatened removal by Marjorie Taylor Greene, the firebrand Georgia representative. “I think he is a very good man,” Trump said, snubbing her efforts. “I think he is trying very hard.”

There has also been tension with Kari Lake, the would-be senator for the swing state of Arizona, who is second only to Trump in her insistence that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The charismatic but completely batty Lake also lost the governorship of Arizona in 2022 and has cried foul ever since.

Ironically, given his own self-serving view of election fraud, Trump has been privately disparaging Lake as a loser who “didn’t win” and has let it be known he is fed up with her constant visits to Mar-a-Lago. She, too, is said to have been crossed off his list of potential running mates.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the governor of Arkansas who is best known as Trump’s former White House spokeswoman, is still in the frame, but only just. She has been tarnished by a bizarre scandal known as Podiumgate, about a mysterious $19,000 payment for a lectern.

These offences don’t amount to much, in the grand scheme of things, but Trump can’t stand to share the spotlight with anyone, least of all his mini-mes. If only there was someone quiet and dutiful like Mike Pence to do his bidding once again, but the former vice-president is one of the few Republicans who steadfastly refuse to condone Trump’s antics.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting