Will he, won’t he? Trump’s big tease keeps 2024 election rivals guessing


The ex-president keeps dropping hints he will run again without taking the plunge – and finance as well as politics may be a factor

In Tennessee in June, he asked a crowd: “Would anybody like me to run for president?” Then in Nevada in July he remarked: “We have a president who ran twice, won twice and may have to do it a third time. Can you believe it?”

In Pennsylvania earlier this month, he vowed that “in 2024, most importantly, we are going to take back our magnificent White House”.

Donald Trump – former US president and architect of the big lie that he was robbed of victory in the 2020 election by electoral fraudsters – is now finding fresh political utility in the big tease.

For more than a year he has tiptoed up to the line of declaring his candidacy for the White House in 2024 but never quite crossed it. It is a rare show of self-discipline from a man notorious for saying the quiet part out loud.

It is also a strategy that yields benefits. The coyness about his intentions ensures a steady stream of coverage for his rallies and keeps potential Republican primary rivals guessing. He avoids a conflict with party leaders who fear that an official Trump candidacy would overshadow their midterm elections campaign. And it keeps money flowing to his Save America political action committee, which has raised more than $100m since it was formed after the 2020 election.

“He’s an attention whore and everything always has to be about Donald,” said the Democratic National Committee adviser Kurt Bardella. “He has to make himself the centre of the universe so he goes out there and plays this little flirtatious ‘will he, won’t he?’ card and it’s just designed to continue to keep that conversation going.

“It’s also designed to try to keep his would-be competitors like Ron DeSantis or Mike Pence or Mike Pompeo at bay.”

When Trump suffered a crushing defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 race, many observers expected him to follow the example of previous one-term presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush: accept that his political career was over and contemplate a presidential library and museum.

But Trump has never done anything by the book. He pushed the “big lie” that culminated in his supporters’ deadly attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021. Six months later he resumed his raucous campaign rallies with an event in Ohio, and he has since held a further 20 in locations that include Alaska, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming.

At every one of them supporters have thronged in expectation that this might be the day that Trump declares he is staging a great political comeback and running for president again. Invariably he drops a hint or two in that direction, generating headlines that he is “floating” or “teasing” a run, but he never makes it explicit.

The closest he came was not an adoring rally but when pressed by a journalist from New York magazine over what would factor into his decision. Trump replied: “Well, in my own mind, I’ve already made that decision, so nothing factors in any more. In my own mind, I’ve already made that decision.”

But one factor, perhaps, does give him pause. If and when Trump formally declares, he will trigger Federal Election Commission requirements about financial disclosures and limits on how much money he can raise from individual donors. The 76-year-old’s reticence may ultimately be about financial – rather than political – expediency.

Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington said, “It’s a matter of federal law: once one says one is a candidate for the presidency, certain attachments take place with respect to what you can and can’t spend money on and with respect to any committees organised.”

This is why candidates typically announce an “exploratory” rather than “campaign” committee, added Olsen, a senior fellow at his organisation.

“Presumably Trump has been briefed on this to the point where he knows that he’s not going to come close enough to crossing that line to give people the ability to argue that he’s now a candidate, and that means he can’t do this or that or the other thing with his money.”

Although Trump often revels in his reputation of being undisciplined, Olsen said, he can be disciplined when he thinks that being disciplined is in his interest and he’s doing that now”.

The same financial rules would apply to any would-be Republican primary challenger, making any official declarations from them similarly unlikely. Contenders include Florida governor DeSantis, former vice-president Pence, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin and senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide, added: “Even if Trump knows right now that he’s not going to run, he will make it look like he is as long as he possibly can because that keeps him at the forefront of the conversation. The minute he were to not run, the attention would be immediately focused to the others and he obviously wants to avoid that as much as possible.

“The one thing we know about Donald Trump is he does not want to share the spotlight with anybody and in the past has fired people in his orbit who have flown too close to the sun – like Steve Bannon.”

The big tease plays out against the backdrop of multiple criminal investigations into Trump and his associates. The justice department is investigating his possession of classified material – reportedly including information on a foreign country’s nuclear capabilities – at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.

The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago had a rallying effect on Trump’s supporters and led to a surge of donations. But the gravity of the case, combined with the damaging revelations of the congressional January 6 committee, make Republicans anxious that Trump’s looming presence could upend their hopes in November’s midterms by galvanising Democrats and deterring moderates.

Biden last week began taking a more gloves off approach to calling out Trump and “Maga Republicans” as a fundamental threat to democracy. Two in three independent voters say they do not want Trump to run in 2024, according to a poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist.

It is possible, however, that should Trump’s legal perils reach a critical point of no return, that will be the spur for him to declare his candidacy and make the bogus claim to his supporters that he is the victim of a politically motivated persecution.

The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia’s director, Larry Sabato, said: “He believes incorrectly that, if he’s a formal candidate, that will somehow protect him from legal charges. It will not. We’ve had quite a number of candidates in American history who got into legal troubles so I don’t know why he thinks that. Somebody probably said something to him once and he never let it go.”

But Sabato also admitted: “Nobody knows. He is very likely to run again but I can see scenarios in which he wouldn’t. He said himself, let’s see how my health is. He hasn’t had the best diet in the world and doesn’t look to me to be in particularly good shape.”

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