Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
As he shuffled into the Hotel Fort Des Moines Saturday night, Donald Trump looked not quite ready to embark on the first of many epic battles to reclaim his throne. One leg seemed to be dragging, he was missing his necktie, and his shirt was open. Before the door slid shut behind him, an Arctic gust lifted his hair. Grimacing, he reached up to pat it down around the sides of his head. He looked shivery, a bit bedraggled.
“That’s a lot of cold weather,” he said to a small crowd that had gathered by the front desk to witness this. There was one cameraman, four Washington Post reporters, a confused-looking hotel guest with two young children, a PR woman holding a martini, and the right-wing attention-monger Laura Loomer. “We’ve got a lot of meetings tonight, we’re doing well,” said Trump, “but it’s nasty out there.”
Many of us had barely left the Fort Des Moines in the past 24 hours, as a blizzard had pounded the grand old hotel, which was built in 1919. It was like the MAGA Shining: We were trapped there. The few reporters who’d managed to get the last flights out of Washington and New York sat by the fake fireplace Friday afternoon losing their collective minds. Too early for bourbon. Too cold to smoke. And there was nowhere to go. It was far below freezing, and the Iowa Department of Transportation issued warnings about “treacherous” highway roads. Meanwhile, apparitions from the recent political past — Kari Lake, Donald Trump Jr., Jason Miller — wandered the hotel’s halls in high spirits. Trump’s victory here feels like a frostbitten fait accompli.
In 2016, he lost the Iowa caucuses by just 6,000 votes and one delegate (and promptly cried fraud). But that was when he was relying on a ragtag operation of political neophytes. “This time around, it’s different,” said Chris LaCivita, one of his top advisers now. “We have a team of professionals who’ve been doing this a while.” He was the strategist behind the Swift Boat ads that sunk John Kerry. Together with Republican operative Susie Wiles, a Florida power broker who turned against Ron DeSantis, they are ready to vanquish all Republican pretenders and prepare for the main event. “We’re enjoying it, we’re having fun, and, you know, the boss makes it fun,” said LaCivita.
As the blizzard outside grew meaner, Kari Lake materialized in a full face of makeup and a canary-yellow sweater. She moved about the lobby inside her own portable media bubble: Two aides aimed lights and mics at her while her husband trailed with a video camera on a gimbal, filming her every move. Why say anything if it’s offcamera? But there wasn’t really anyone to talk to. So the bubble moved across the Great Room toward a couple of bored reporters who asked her for some inside dope. “I don’t really have any gossip,” she said. She stuck to her ludicrous line about the 2020 election being stolen and waved away questions about whether she’d like to be Trump’s VP, though one suspects she’s just thrilled — maybe even was hoping — to be asked such a thing.
She did offer up a theory for why Trump was set to trounce. You see, she grew up here in rural Iowa, and to her it’s no great mystery as to why her people aren’t taking to DeSantis or Haley. “Nikki Haley represents a different side of the Republican Party that I believe the American people have grown weary of,” said Lake. “The warmonger side of the party is not of interest to the voters anymore, we don’t want to start endless war, we liked that President Trump didn’t start any wars. And I think we learned a lot about Ron DeSantis. He’s not the retail politician that you need to be to connect with voters, and I don’t know that you can learn that.”
She’s from around here.
Photo: Shawn McCreesh
The last time the national media descended for the caucuses, it all felt quite different. In 2020, it was the Democrats who were trying to figure out who would be their nominee. There was a lot more — more choices, more operatives loitering, more media, more suspense, more surprise, more sunshine, more parties. The caucus corona back then had not been the Fort Des Moines but the Marriott a few blocks away. It was the sterile command center of the corporate media and the Democratic Establishment. This weekend, the scene at the Marriott was dead. There were very few forms of life there beyond the dozens of New York Times employees — reporters, masthead editors, photo editors, podcast producers, opinion columnists —working in the paper’s makeshift war room on the third floor. (The Washington Post had its somewhat smaller war room across the hall.)
The real schmoozing happened at the Fort Des Moines, which had become Fortress Trump. There were DeSantis and Haley operatives there, too, and reporters tried dutifully to cultivate relationships with them, but as with so much about this weekend, that seemed pointless. Those people will probably be unemployed soon. It was the new Team Trump with whom reporters wanted some drunken face time, and they got plenty of it.
As the weekend wore on and the mercury dipped lower, new characters appeared at the Fort Des Moines. A claque of very wealthy-seeming women with lots of luggage and big blowouts underneath sequined MAGA beanies checked in at the front desk Friday. “We’re from Palm Beach!” said one. A tremulous little Trump aide who seemed entirely unequipped to shepherd the Palm Beach Ladies cut in to say “No interviews until we check with Jason Miller.”
At the Trump campaign headquarters in Urbandale, Iowa, on Saturday.
Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
Saturday morning, with not much else to do, many members of the media dropped by the Trump Campaign’s Iowa HQ nearby. The Palm Beach Ladies and a pinstripe-suited Jason Miller and Kari Lake and her husband-videographer were all there, amid volunteers in red hats waving little red flags. Mostly, it seemed like a prefab opportunity for camera crews from the networks to get B-roll footage of the MAGA faithful, since there was not much else to film that day.
LaCivita had told me earlier that “the biggest difference” in Trump’s Iowa strategy this time around “is that we’ve identified enough people to actually win the caucus. It’s more of a focus about turning them out. But they’re there. It’s the same thing in New Hampshire. Whereas Haley and DeSantis have to do several things — they have to identify their supporters, they have to advocate, then they have to convince Trump supporters not to support the president, then they have to turn them out,” he said. “All we have to do is turn them out.”
There was a tailgate’s worth of college Young Republicans in the room who’d flown in from nine different states to phone-bank for Trump. “You get some people who are undecided, and I think a lot of them are misguided, especially by Nikki Haley,” said Trevor Tiedman, 22, from South Carolina. Other dialers agreed. They said the undecided voters they’d reached confessed to wariness about the “chaos” that trails Trump. It seemed that Trikki Nikki’s line was proving effective. The only other candidate people here seemed to like was Vivek Ramaswamy. “He’s pretty good,” said Tiedman. Mike Lantz, a 66-year-old Trump caucus captain, said, “I definitely want Vivek somewhere. I think he’s one of the sharpest young men. Ooh, yeah, he’s good.” But a few hours later, Trump issued a programming note on Truth Social, writing that “Vivek is not MAGA.” Oh, well.
I finally found one of those undecided Iowans, a few minutes down the road, at an event where DeSantis was scheduled to speak. “I worry about Trump and the drama going around,” said Brian Moon, a 62-year-old bar owner. But would he still vote for him if he were the nominee? “Oh, absolutely.” He explained why Trump still has such support here. “I think the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and we know what Trump can do, and what he’s done for us.”
The DeSantis event was at the office-park headquarters of his “Never Back Down” PAC, which had run his ground game in Iowa. It was an airless room stuffed with media. There was New York Post columnist Miranda Devine, CNN’s Dana Bash, Semafor editor Ben Smith, Fox News’ Bill Melugin, Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan, and at least 14 people from the Times. You could barely swing a notepad without knocking into a cameraman. Outside, icy winds whipped against windows that could not be opened, not even a crack; inside, the hat-haired press began to sweat in their REI base layers. That the song Ron DeSantis walked onstage to was Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time” seemed acutely counterfactual. It was a miserable time, watching it all turn to ash in his mouth. He’d done everything right: fomented the right panics, supported Israel, got the donors onboard and Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine, too. And yet …
He stood up there in that low-ceilinged room and did what many a failing pol before him has done. He blamed the media. “They can throw media narratives at us,” said DeSantis, “and we’re going to fight.”
But 70-year-old Cindy Davis, who’d been out canvassing for DeSantis, knew the truth. “It’s surprising that there’s still so many Trumpers out there,” she told me. “I think they see him as a strong, bigmouthed person who will stand up to other countries — ’cause he was really good at that — and I think older people don’t like change, so they’re stuck in that mind-set that he can still do this.”
She’s hoping DeSantis will be saved by the weather, as old people inclined to vote for Trump might be too afraid to leave their homes. “It may help us actually if we’re having negative-5 degrees on Monday,” she said brightly.
But the Trump true believers won’t likely be deterred, no matter the effects on their health. As he told them at a rally here Sunday, “Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it.”