By Anita Kumar
POLITICO . Mon, December 14, 2020, 10:30 AM GMT+1
Donald Trump doesn’t need to run for president again. He just needs everyone to think he is.
The president’s recent discussions with those around him reveal that he sees his White House comeback deliberations as a way to earn the commodity he needs most after leaving office: Attention.
The president has spent days calling a dozen or more allies to ask what they think he needs to do over the next two years to “stay part of the conversation,” according to two people, including one who spoke to the president. And while Trump has told allies he plans to run for president again, he has also indicated he could back out in two years if he determines he’ll have a tough time winning, said three people familiar with the discussions.
Essentially, at this point, Trump appears just as interested in people talking about a Trump 2024 campaign as he is in actually launching a real campaign, even if he may ultimately turn his flirtation into a serious bid, according to interviews with 11 Republicans who worked for Trump or helped in his two races.
Formally running for president would mean a lot of things aides say Trump doesn’t want to deal with: financial disclosure forms, building campaign infrastructure, the possibility of losing again. But simply teasing a presidential run — without actually filing the paperwork or erecting a campaign — gets Trump the attention he needs for the next two years.
Attention will help sustain his business, parts of which lost millions of dollars while he was in office. Attention will help pay off his debts, which will need to be paid off in the coming years. Attention will help discredit his investigators, who are examining whether Trump illegally inflated his assets.
It’s a strategy Trump has used before. Prior to his 2016 run, Trump expressed interest in at least four different presidential bids spanning all the way to the late 1980s, only to ultimately back out.
“Trump has probably no idea if he will actually run, but because he only cares about himself and his association with the party has only been about his ambitions rather than what it stands for, he will try to freeze the field and keep as many people on the sidelines,” said a former White House aide. “Just for the sake of keeping his options open and, yes, keeping the attention all for himself.”
Trump hasn’t announced his candidacy yet in part because he won’t acknowledge he lost, falsely asserting widespread voter fraud gave the race to President-elect Joe Biden. On Monday, electors will meet in states across the country to officially cast their votes, a move expected to cement Biden’s win and prompt more Republicans to accept the victory.
That vote will train more focus on Trump’s future plans. Many in the MAGA base and even some prospective 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls have already thrown their support behind another Trump White House bid.
“There’s nobody really better than him to carry the torch,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who served on the Trump campaign’s 2020 advisory committee.
In his calls to allies, Trump has been asking them specifically how he can campaign for four years, and soliciting advice on how to navigate the first two years. He has talked about traveling to the Middle East, a region where he would be well-received, according to the two people familiar with the calls. The visit would allow him to promote his policies there, including agreements his administration helped negotiate to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab nations.
Among those he’s called are Fox News host Sean Hannity, former White House communications director Bill Shine, longtime allies Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell, according to one of people familiar with the calls. None of these people are dissuading him about running, but, according to the person, Trump has already dismissed concerns from those who think it’s a bad idea.
Some allies have privately urged Trump to announce he is running on Inauguration Day – as he did in 2017 — to try to take attention away from Biden and satisfy Trump’s need for attention. But Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top aide, and Bill Stepien, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, are advising him to take his time to announce, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
The Trump campaign declined to comment. The White House and those Trump called didn’t respond to messages.
“He’s going to announce,” according to the person. “It’s not a question of whether he will announce. The question is when he is going to announce.”
Trump’s anticipated announcement is nearly unprecedented. Most recent former presidents have shied away from the limelight after leaving office, in part to allow their successor to govern. Several presidents have tried to secure a second non-consecutive term, but Grover Cleveland is the only one to succeed, mounting a 1892 comeback after being voted out of office in 1888.
“He will be astounded at how irrelevant a president becomes after losing reelection. Ask Jimmy Carter. Ask George H.W. Bush,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “They become aware they are unable to affect things the way they had become accustomed to.”
Hoping to stave off that irrelevancy, Trump is expected to start promoting his candidacy immediately after leaving office, basing his early messaging on the unfounded allegation the last election was stolen from him.
If Trump is just technically exploring a potential candidacy, he doesn’t have to register as a candidate, even if he conducts polling, travels and calls potential supporters, according to the Federal Elections Commission and election lawyers. But if he makes declarative statements about running, purchases campaign ads or spends more than $5,000 on an actual campaign, he would have to register, they added.
“I think it’s important for Trump to boldly telegraph to the public that this election was a sham, that it can never happen again, and that he will lead the opposition for the next four years, including demanding election reforms,” a senior Trump campaign official said.
Meanwhile, Biden has been building up his White House team, largely ignoring Trump’s remarks about the 2020 and 2024 races.
“The oxygen of his life is attention,” said Steve Schale, who ran Unite the Country, a super PAC that supported Biden’s candidacy. “I’m sure that not being on the news every day is a terrifying prospect to him. … I would not be surprised if he announced because he needs it.”
A former Trump aide, who doesn’t want Trump to run a third time, said the early launch would be all about “ego.”
Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio agreed: “He’s not interested in running anything,” D’Antonio said. “He’s just interested in getting the attention.”
Some Republicans fear Trump’s boasts about running again will crowd out the 2024 Republican field, including three people who worked in his administration: Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, preventing the party from evolving beyond him.
The GOP is torn between conservatives who support Trump and moderates who are eager to distance themselves, but have held back due to fears over backlash from Trump’s base. Fifty three percent of Republicans said they would vote for Trump in a primary in 2024, according to a POLITICO and Morning Consult poll in late November.
In the interviews of the 11 Republicans who worked for Trump or helped in his two races, only three would commit to supporting him this early.
Some Republicans complain that Trump’s early candidacy could take money and attention from other candidates in 2022, 2021 and, more immediately, the pair of Senate runoffs in Georgia next month that will determine which party controls the upper chamber.
“Donald Trump has put himself ahead of the party and the country,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor. “I am shaking my head. The speed with which Trump has rearmed post the general election makes me blush. There is no off-season anymore.”
If Trump formally files paperwork to run, he could begin raising money for his race immediately. If he announces informally, he could continue to raise money for his new political organization, Save America PAC, which he created days after Biden was projected to win.
Already, he’s raised tens of millions of dollars for the leadership PAC, the type of organization popular with both parties but one long derided by ethics groups because of the few restrictions on how the money they raise can be spent.
A Republican who speaks to the president said Trump and his aides are discussing whether he should delay his official candidacy because of requirements to file financial disclosure reports on his businesses.
The Trump Organization is presumed to have lost millions of dollars during the coronavirus outbreak just before Trump has to pay back $421 million in loans that he guaranteed, much of it to foreign creditors, according to a New York Times examination of Trump’s personal and business tax returns.
Meanwhile, New York investigators are examining whether Trump improperly inflated assets, evaded taxes and paid off women alleging affairs in violation of campaign finance laws.
The Republican who speaks to the president said they would advise Trump to wait to announce any candidacy, not because of his legal troubles but because he might be more desirable as a candidate.
“My advice would be to let time go by,” the person said. “If he allows time to go by, then he will allow people to miss him.”