The proper way to approach this story is through the lens of incentives.
What incentive does Trump have to say he isn’t running for president again?
He has lots of incentives to say that he’s running — and to actually run, since he’ll be facing either a senescent 82-year-old or an underwhelming VP with poor retail skills.
But if he has any reason to make people think he’s out of the game, I can’t come up with it.
Trump has told at least three people he’s dined with in recent months that he plans to run in 2024, a former senior official at the Republican National Committee tells Rolling Stone. “I have three friends who’ve had dinner with him in the last couple of months. All three reported that his current plans are to run for president in 2024,” the former R.N.C. official says. “Now, whether he does or not is a different issue. We’ve still got three years to go. But he’s telling people that.”
The ex-R.N.C. official says the first two dinners took place in late spring. But the third dinner happened in the last two weeks, the official said. The first two dinner companions came away from their conversations convinced Trump was serious and he’s running, the official adds…
A former Trump adviser who speaks with members of Trump’s inner circle says he’s been briefed on similar conversations that reflect the former president’s current thinking. The ex-adviser says Trump started to give indications in private back in May that he was leaning toward running again, and that the more recent signs suggest he wants to run.
Why would he want people to believe he’s running even if he hasn’t actually decided? Let us count the ways.
1. It keeps him the undisputed alpha dog of the GOP. “The second he says [he’s not running], someone smashes a giant red button that says RON DESANTIS, a klaxon alarm goes off, and everyone focuses on him instead. He’s well aware of that issue, which sure seems like a problem for DeSantis,” tweeted Benjy Sarlin this morning. He added, “If you think Trump has a hard time getting his daily complaints about Twitter bans and which of his cabinet picks he hates into the national conversation now, imagine it’s 2023 and he’s clearly not running.”
Trump plans to be on the campaign trail next summer too, stumping for his endorsees and targeting enemies like Liz Cheney. He’ll have much more juice at his rallies and his endorsements will carry more weight if Republican voters are led to believe that he’ll be in charge of the party until 2029. If nothing else, he’ll want to be able to say stuff like, “We’re gonna win big this November and then we’re gonna win big again with me at the top of the ballot in 2024.” Whereas if he’s not running, who cares what he says? Focus on who Ron DeSantis has endorsed instead.
2. He’ll relish freezing the field. Partly because he loves drama and partly because he’s such a narcissist, I’d imagine Trump’s tickled pink at the thought of lesser heavyweights like DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Cruz, Rubio etc having to not utter a peep about running until the moment he decides that he’s out. No one will want to offend the king by suggesting they’d rather see themselves as nominee than him. You can almost picture him rubbing his hands with glee when he spoke about Haley this way in a new interview with two WaPo reporters:
But Trump all but ruled out running with Chris Christie, who had been runner-up to Pence in his 2016 veepstakes, and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, who had criticized Trump’s attempts to subvert the vote in repeated interviews with Tim Alberta of Politico.
“Chris has been very disloyal, but that’s okay,” Trump said. “I helped Chris Christie a lot. He knows that more than anybody, but I helped him a lot. But he’s been disloyal.”
As for his former ambassador, Trump said he was rebuffing her outreach. “Nikki Haley wants to come here so badly,” he said. “She did a little nasty couple of statements…She has been killed by the party. When they speak badly about me, the party is not happy about it. It’s pretty amazing. There’s not been anything like this.”
Haley criticized Trump after the insurrection, then turned on a dime and demanded that the media give him a break when she realized Republican voters weren’t going to abandon him after all. She was last seen groveling, insisting that of course she won’t challenge him in a primary in 2024 if he runs. But Trump doesn’t forgive easily: Reportedly she asked to meet with him in February to clear the air — and he refused. He must have relished telling her no, almost as much as he’ll relish watching her and other presidential hopefuls twist in the wind as he keeps them in suspense for the next few years about his 2024 plans.
As for Christie, he’s been critical of Trump on COVID and had the audacity to say that he may run for president in 2024 whether Trump runs or not. Such an affront to the throne will never be forgiven.
DeSantis could luck out here, though. If Trump freezes the field through late 2023 and then announces he’s not running, the candidates won’t have much time to campaign and introduce themselves to Republican voters. Whichever not-Trump figure is most popular within the party at that point will have a major advantage against the competition. That’s certainly DeSantis right now. Trump is freezing the field for him too in a way.
3. He’s making money hand over fist with his political action committee at the moment. Why would he end that gravy train prematurely?
He can’t raise money once he says he’s not running. Not a small factor either. https://t.co/jyagVrpbWW
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) July 19, 2021
Save America PAC more than doubled its cash on hand in the first three months of this year, notes Rolling Stone, ballooning from $31 million to $85 million. The more convinced Trumpers are that he’s planning a third run, the more likely they are to divert their cash to him instead of to DeSantis, the RNC, or some other would-be party kingmaker.
4. His potential candidacy hands him some useful spin for any legal trouble he encounters. The moment he says he’s not running it becomes that much harder for him to claim that the Manhattan D.A. or the Biden DOJ are running a political vendetta against him by charging him or his company. He’d still say it — “they want to punish me for having made America great again” — but that excuse is less seductive than claiming that they’re trying to take him down because they fear he’ll beat the Democrats in 2024. So long as his candidacy is theoretically alive he can say that he’s the target of another partisan witch hunt aimed at clearing Biden’s or Harris’s path in the next election.
Speaking of which, new polling data shows why Democrats are right to be anxious about how Harris would match-up with Trump — or DeSantis, or any other Republican:
The poll, conducted this month by the Trafalgar Group/Convention of States, found 64 percent of Americans lack confidence in Harris’s readiness to replace President Joe Biden based on her performance as vice president thus far. Fifty-nine percent of Americans are not confident at all about Harris’s readiness. The nationwide poll captured more than a thousand voters’ opinions with a 3 percent margin of error.
The majority of Democratic respondents still viewed the vice president favorably, but it was closely split. Fifty-two percent were confident in Harris, and 43 percent lacked confidence.
That’ll shift some before 2024, but if Harris is still viewed as not ready for primetime, that’s a major advantage for Trump potentially. Normally an incumbent VP can boast more relevant experience via proximity to the top job than anyone she’s running against. But what if she’s running against a former president and is herself viewed as unready?
I’ll leave you with this. Many people and businesses won’t want to see Trump back in 2025. But I know a few who will.
The post-Trump news slump continues online. Traffic has declined at leading news sites almost every month since January peak and from a year ago. Latest figures from ComScore: pic.twitter.com/OR8KhPJlXT
— Paul Farhi (@farhip) July 19, 2021