Boots on the ground in Iowa. Accelerated fundraising. More national media interviews. A flood of new press statements. A rise in attack ads on the web.
With a flurry of activity from his super PAC and hints dropped in private conversations with confidantes and advisers, Donald Trump is signaling a heightened interest in reclaiming the White House — and laying the necessary groundwork to do it.
Since his November defeat, Trump and his allies have fanned the notion that he will seek a rematch in 2024. That’s nothing new — prior to his first bid for president, Trump feinted and flirted with runs for president for decades without pulling the trigger.
But associates say President Joe Biden’s declining political fortunes amid the resurgence of coronavirus and the Aug.15 fall of Kabul have intensified the interest of the former president, who is already motivated by a burning sense of pride and grievance over his loss to Biden.
“Trump sees Biden is on the ropes. He wants to throw punches as a combatant, not a heckler from the stands,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, adding that Trump is in no rush to announce, though, because “the base is rightly loyal to him. And a good rule in politics is to be a candidate for as short a time as necessary.
Gaetz, like the dozen Trump advisers and friends interviewed for this article, declined to disclose his conversations within the organization or with Trump. But he said it’s more likely than not Trump takes the plunge, especially after the 2022 midterm elections if the GOP takes back one or both chambers of Congress.
Trump, in recent interviews, has shied away from divulging specifics about his plans, but he’s privately suggested to others he’s running. He’s also paying attention to the finer details behind the scenes, such as making editing suggestions to his web ads to make them harder hitting against Biden.
His operation is likewise taking concrete steps to enhance his profile and position him for a potential campaign. In addition to hiring a new communications staffer to keep up with the increased activity, several rallies have been added recently to Trump’s fall schedule — there are plans for events in the first-in-the-nation presidential state of Iowa and the critical swing-state of Florida.
Perhaps more revealing, less than a month ago the PAC announced it hired two top operatives from Iowa dedicated to “advancing Save America’s goals of electing strong, pro-Trump, America First conservatives.”
The Iowa staffers also serve another purpose, Trump advisers say: they can keep an eye on the other potential Republican presidential candidates flooding the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
One person who has discussed Trump’s plans but declined to comment on the record to speak more freely said that “he really hasn’t decided, but we all think he’ll run … he wants to get in a position to where it’s a turnkey operation once he says yes. So he’s maximizing his position … the super PAC is ostensibly to help win back the House and the Senate. If he does that, it makes his position stronger.”
Nearly every poll shows that Trump, at this point, has little to fear from others in a Republican primary. The top potential GOP candidates in 2024 have said they wouldn’t run against him — or have shied away from saying they would — and refrained from criticizing him.
Trump campaign adviser, Jason Miller, declared Thursday that the chances of him running are “between 99 and 100 percent. I think he is definitely running in 2024. I had a good conversation with him last night. I’m going to go see him in another couple days here.”
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who spoke with Trump this week, voiced similar opinions in an undercover video shot Thursday by a Democratic activist, saying “I know so [that Trump is going to run again]. I talked to him yesterday. He’s about ready to announce after all of this craziness in Afghanistan.”
Trump’s super PAC declined to comment for this story. Federal election laws restrict coordination between a presidential candidate and a super PAC, which can’t directly advocate for a candidate but can raise unlimited sums from individual donors, unlike a candidate.
Only one former president, Grover Cleveland in 1892, has ever returned from defeat to reclaim his old office. Trump would turn 78 years old during the 2024 campaign, making him even older than Ronald Reagan when he left office at the end of his second term.
Even so, Trump’s fundraising picked up this year as he raised $82 million in the first six months in three political committees. He also stepped up the number of conservative radio interviews, sat with Sean Hannity on Fox as well as the right-wing One America News Network.
Trump has said he remains focused on Republicans winning back the House and Senate and has only teased another run by saying “you’ll be happy” with whatever he decides.
In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business, the ex-president blamed election laws for his inability to make an announcement.
“The campaign finance laws, which are antiquated and stupid, OK? Stupid and corrupt in a way. They’re stupid. Doesn’t allow me to tell you that, OK? If I tell you that a whole host of things happen, which are bad. So I can’t tell you. I can tell you this. I love our country and you’re going to be very happy,” Trump said.
Though deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook for spreading misinformation and sparking the Capitol riot that led to his historic second impeachment, Trump has remained the heart of the party and the most sought-after endorser in Republican primary politics. Now, instead of his flood of daily tweets, his super PAC sends out tweet-length statements, sometimes repeatedly in a day.
The pace notably picked up in mid-August as Biden struggled to gain public approval for his handling of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan (Biden has said he was following Trump’s planned withdrawal), “he started bleeding, and Trump is like a shark. He smelled blood,” said one confidante with whom Trump has recently spoken. But another cautioned that “he was running before the Afghanistan debacle. It’s nothing new.”
Tony Fabrizio, who polls for Trump’s Save America super PAC, said Trump is paying attention to Biden’s “dismal” numbers.
“You would think his [Trump’s] attitude would be, ‘I told you so.’ But instead, he is angry because he believes rightly or wrongly that the election was stolen from him and that all that has happened under Biden could have been avoided,” he said.
On the day Kabul fell, the former president began criticizing his successor’s every decision in Afghanistan, boasting on cable news shows and conservative radio of how he would have done a better job if he was still in the White House. Biden, in turn, blamed Trump for leaving him a foreign policy mess.
In a nod to his practice of releasing Rose Garden videos — recorded messages on the news of the day — Trump issued a video before Biden addressed the nation, directed at American service members and Afghans who were wounded or died in the Kabul airport suicide bombings.
“This tragedy should never have taken place, it should never have happened and it wouldn’t have happened if I were your president,” Trump said.
Trump’s super PAC also released an advertisement titled “Surrenderer-in-chief” that poked fun at Biden for tripping while walking up the stairs of Air Force One and spliced together statements made by Biden or his staff about Afghanistan.
“Four months ago I didn’t see that in him,” said one Trump adviser, referring to a prospective 2024 bid. “I saw someone who was going to wring his hands for a while about [the election]. It’s really changed now because of what we’re seeing [from Biden].”
Former presidents have at times criticized their predecessor, but none have shattered the norms of post-presidential decorum like Trump, who has taken swipes at Biden and offered his own daily commentary.
The former president — who has feuded with Gold Star families in the past — even chimed in with his own message to a Gold Star mother, Shana Chappell, after she and other Gold Star family members complained about Biden’s demeanor toward them during a transfer ceremony at Dover Air Force Base.
“If I were President, your wonderful and beautiful son Kareem would be with you now, and so would the sons and daughters of others, including all of those who died in the vicious Kabul airport attack,” Trump said in a statement, responding to her critical Facebook post about Biden.
One former Trump senior administration official who remains close to the ex-president said that Trump planned to run even before Afghanistan. “It’s nothing new. [Afghanistan] didn’t intensify [Trump’s interest] as it did convince Americans about the choice.”
Despite Trump’s public posturing and private conversations, some aides are still hesitant to say with certainty their boss will jump in the race. After all, Trump has been known to publicly flirt with an idea before changing his mind at the very last second.
“Right now, the President’s focus is on ensuring fair and honest elections, and doing everything he can to elect America First fighters to office up and down the ballot,” said a senior adviser to Trump’s political operation.
Teasing a run for president now works to Trump’s advantage. It freezes the long list of 2024 GOP hopefuls and inhibits their ability to build out a campaign apparatus while allowing him to continue raking in donations (although notably, his leadership PAC cannot use the funds for a presidential run). It also gives Trump the opportunity to call investigations into him and businesses pure politics and build up anticipation among his die-hard supporters.
For now, it’s unlikely Trump makes any official announcements before the 2022 midterms, multiple people close to Trump said.
When asked about his “99 to 100 percent” level of confidence that Trump will run, Miller made sure to stress in an interview that Trump has made no final decision.
“President Trump doesn’t do misdirection, he wears it on his sleeve,” Miller told POLITICO.