Donald Trump again all but declared he would run for president a third time, a possibility he floats so routinely now that it increasingly seems like an inevitability. It’s a scenario that Democrats say both publicly and privately they would very much welcome.
At the Marriott Marquis in downtown Washington, the former president reminded Republicans on the eve of the midterm elections that, even with congressional majorities, their power would be incomplete. “You still need somebody in the White House,” he told a crowd that included Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the man most likely to be the next House speaker. “You need help,” the former president added, “and I think that help will be forthcoming.”
In case any of those assembled Tuesday by the America First Policy Institute, a think tank launched by Trump allies to advance Trump policies, were confused about where that help might come from, the former president insisted that current controversy only whetted his appetite for a return to public office.
“They want to damage you in any form,” Trump said of Democrats generally. “But they really want to damage me,” he said of the Jan. 6 Committee investigation, “so I can no longer go back to work for you. And I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Trump spoke for more than 90 minutes, his first remarks in Washington since begrudgingly leaving the White House nearly two years ago and since hitting the stump in one way or another for himself and other Republicans. Different ballroom, same message: His return is imminent. He said the same just four days ago and at just about every public appearance since vacating the Oval Office. He gives a reason, too, and in his telling, it’s altruism, not ambition.
“If I announced that I was not going to run any longer for political office, the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately stop,” he said in Arizona, floating a line he later recycled in D.C. and before predicting his opponents would just “go on to the next victim.” He said he “can’t do that,” he couldn’t go quietly, “because I love this country and I love you.”
On July 8, Trump expressed that affection by flirting and being coy with a crowd in Las Vegas: “We had a president who ran twice and won twice, and may have to do it a third time.”
On June 25, Trump predicted the GOP would take the House and the Senate in 2022 but “most importantly,” he told Illinois Republicans, “we are going to take back our magnificent White House.”
On June 17, Trump wasn’t at all subtle when he just asked the social conservatives gathered in Nashville for the Faith and Freedom Conference, “Would anybody like me to run for president?”
Like a familiar call-and-response, the MAGA faithful know by now that a handful of replies will make the former president stop his speech and beam. They break into a chorus of “Four More Years!” Or they just chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Either way, the message gets across. His name is synonymous, in their minds, with a second coming. Eventually the former president will quiet the crowd with a knowing smile or a laugh, but he isn’t joking.
On November 8, when an AFPI crowd laughed at the suggestion of a fourth term, this time behind the closed doors of a ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, Trump shot back, “You think I kid, but I’m actually not.”
For months, the question seemed not if but when, and a favorite D.C. Beltway parlor game has been guessing the window Trump will choose to formally announce what everyone already expects. His senior advisors whispered in the press that word might come by the Fourth of July. More recent speculation – Labor Day Weekend. “We all do the same thing: ‘Well if he runs …’” Keith Kellogg, a retired Army general and current chair of the center for American Security at AFPI, told RealClearPolitics, mimicking months of cable news speculation. Then the former Trump administration official said the increasingly obvious: “Of course he’s gonna run!”
There are only a handful of reasons Trump wouldn’t follow through on his implied promise.
“One reason could be your health. You get a call from your doctor and that’s the end of that,” he told RCP in October. “You never know, there are many things can happen; politics is a crazy world. It is a big commitment of you, your children, your wife and your family.”
If Trump still harbors those hesitations, they haven’t stopped him from workshopping a new variation of an old message. He returned to the theme of “American carnage” Tuesday, swapping imagery of boarded up Rustbelt factories for “streets riddled with needles and soaked with the blood of innocent victims.” The country “is going to hell,” he said, citing an uptick in crime, “and it’s going to hell very fast.” What was needed, among other things, was a “return to stop-and-frisk policies in cities” and “a squad car on every corner if that is what it takes to stop the killing.”
“There is no longer respect for the law, and there certainly is no order. Our country is now a cesspool of crime,” Trump said, warning “we have blood death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable because of the Democrat Party’s effort to destroy and dismantle law enforcement all throughout America. It has to stop, and it has to stop now.”
The current administration has come to expect that kind of rhetoric from Trump – and have an answer for it. The day before, while speaking virtually to the National Association of Black Law Enforcement, President Biden condemned his predecessor for standing unmoved on Jan. 6 as Capitol Police “were attacked and assaulted before our very eyes. Speared, sprayed, stomped on, brutalized. Lives were lost.”
“And for three hours, the defeated former president of the United States watched it all happen, as he sat in the comfort of the private dining room of the Oval Office,” Biden added, referring to recent testimony from the select committee about how Trump failed to act to end the violence. “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.”
Polling from the New York Times and Siena College has left Democrats grasping for a silver lining. While it showed Biden on the backfoot with the American public, the survey also had the president holding onto the White House in a theoretical matchup with Trump by a margin of 44 percent to 41 percent. This inspired some, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, calls for divine intervention. “We pray he will,” South Carolina State Sen. Dick Harpootlian told RCP of Trump’s pending decision to get in the race, adding that he “embodies everything we need in a Republican candidate” and predicting that “Biden is going to beat Trump if he runs in 2024.”
Another wrinkle that would fold favorably for Democrats: Trump being indicted for inciting a riot at the Capitol. “Look, we pursue justice without fear or favor,” Attorney General Merrick Garland told Lester Holt of NBC News in a Tuesday interview, when asked whether indicting a former president would “arguably tear the country apart.”
Here, at least in the court room of public opinion, Trump has a ready strategy: Just dismiss the charges out of hand. He told his supporters that allegations about his actions on Jan. 6 were tantamount to the Russian collusion conspiracy, that Democrats “say stuff, and they think you’re going to believe it. It’s a serious, it is a horrible thing.”
Across town, meanwhile, an emerging rival was urging Republicans to move on already. “I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus,” Mike Pence told a group of conservative college students at a Young Americans for Freedom conference. When asked about the current divisions in the Republican party, a reference to the messy executive divorce that has been ongoing between the two men, Trump’s vice president told the student, “I truly do believe that elections are about the future.”
“It’s absolutely essential at a time when so many Americans are hurting, so many families are struggling,” said the former vice president with White House ambitions of his own, “that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back.”
For his part, as is his habit, Trump looked back repeatedly throughout his remarks Tuesday, reliving past victories and condemning old rivals. At times, it was difficult to differentiate between his past presidency and his emerging future candidacy. More and more, they seem one and the same, because Trump seems never to have left the campaign trail.
Philip Wegmann is a the White House reports for RealClearPolitics. This piece originally ran at RealClearPolitics.
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