The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, talked out of announcing a 2024 bid for now, settles on a wink-and-nod unofficial candidacy

Former president Donald Trump delivers remarks at his “Save America” rally at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, Ga., on Sept. 25. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

As turmoil in Afghanistan reached a crescendo in August, Donald Trump began talking again with advisers about whether he should announce his 2024 campaign for president right away.

They responded by urging patience, according to three people familiar with the discussions, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. An announcement would force a reshuffling of his newly formed fundraising apparatus, advisers argued, and could complicate his ability to appear on broadcast television without triggering equal time rules.

Some of his advisers were concerned that Democrats might use his announcement in their effort to frame the midterm elections around his candidacy, potentially boosting their own turnout and hampering his plans if Republicans fall short next year. Advisers also argued that he could be more effective electing like-minded Republicans next year if he was not an official candidate himself.

“The biggest point we drove home was that he doesn’t want to own the midterms if we don’t win back the House or Senate,” said one person familiar with the conversations.

The arguments won Trump over, for the time being at least. Instead of a presidential campaign announcement, Trump, 75, has settled on a strategy of winks and nods. As some in his party worry, he is acting like a candidate for public office, and making clear he intends to be one again, without actually declaring so himself.

“He tacitly keeps the 2024 crowd on notice that nobody can move a major muscle until he decides what he’s doing,” said Kellyanne Conway, a former top White House adviser to Trump who served as his campaign manager in 2016. “As for 2024, there has been a shift from intention to urgency as he watches in horror the many failings of this administration.”

Former president Donald Trump has remained the main driver of the Republican Party priorities, despite losing his reelection bid in 2020. (Video: Blair Guild, JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Trump has returned to traveling the country for rallies — including a one in Iowa on Saturday — designed to look identical to his campaign events. He is raising money with the same aggressive online tactics he used during his last campaign — an unprecedented move for a former president. With Trump still cut off from Facebook and Twitter after his supporters attacked the Capitol when he encouraged them to “stop the steal,” aides send out daily emails — often riddled with false statements — on his behalf going after Democrats, detractors and wayward Republicans.

An informal poll of 13 of his current and former advisers in recent days indicated that 10 believed he would run, two said it was a public relations ploy and another said he was not sure.

“We’re not supposed to be talking about it yet, from the standpoint of campaign finance laws, which frankly are ridiculous,” Trump said on Sept. 11, when asked if he would again be a candidatie for presdent. “But I think you are going to be happy. Let me put it that way.”

In private conversations, he has made clear that he is keeping a close eye on his potential rivals in a 2024 Republican primary, most of whom are unlikely to run if he declares and none of which he currently sees as a threat, according to people who have spoken with him. Trump has asked some of his advisers about the moves of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his former vice president Mike Pence, though he believes neither of them will run should he run, three advisers said.

“I’m running,” he says to people constantly, according to two advisers. He has also made clear to advisers that he wants no changes to the nomination calendar in 2024, leaving Iowa, where he came in second in 2016, as the first-in-the-nation caucus for Republicans even if Democrats decide to go a different route.

Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, declined to discuss his specific plans.

“President Trump remains committed and engaged in Saving America from the disastrous leadership of the Communist Democrats,” he wrote in an email. “All avenues to achieving that remain on the table.”

Among some Republicans, another Trump bid is cause for concern. Public polling has consistently shown him struggling to break 45 percent approval across the country, while internal GOP polling this year has found support for his candidacy hovering around 40 percent. His toxic brand continues to turn off voters in the suburbs, according to strategists in battleground states. He faces a litany of other headaches, including investigations into his businesses in New York, and a probe into his role in the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

Many of the party’s top donors have privately told strategists and party leaders they want a nominee other than Trump, according to four strategists and officials. Part of the discussion inside the party has focused not on Trump’s overall popularity, but on whether he might have trouble convincing Republicans in 2024 that he is best suited to be the party’s nominee for the third time. Joe Biden received 7 million more votes in the last election than Trump, who also earned 2.9 million votes less than Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“He has a deep and committed loyal base,” said Bob Vander Plaats, CEO of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based Christian group that has been hosting potential candidates. “But even in that deep and committed loyal base, there are many who don’t think Trump should run again.”

Trump is aware of his challenges, advisers say. In a meeting just before the November election, he was shown polling that suggested his policies were popular — even as he was trailing. Trump, in a surprisingly self-deprecating move, people familiar with the meeting said, jokingly conceded the problem was him.

Despite Trump’s interest in the 2024 race, a large and varied group of potential presidential candidates has begun to test the waters themselves. Pence has been working with Chip Saltsman, the strategist who led former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Pence has already visited Iowa, joining former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and a gaggle of Republican senators, such as Tim Scott (S.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.). Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will return to the state in the coming weeks for an address at the Polk County Republican Party gathering in Des Moines, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Pompeo has traveled throughout early states, quietly fundraising and campaigning with state candidates.

“Maybe people are stepping a little more gingerly because the president is coming in,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa Republican strategist. “But don’t think that stops anybody from doing the things they can do. We have a lot of races in 2022, so there is a lot of ground they can cover.”

In August, Trump hired two Iowa experts, Eric Branstad and Alex Latcham, as advisers for his leadership PAC, Save America. Branstad, who helped Trump in his last two campaigns in the state, is the son of Terry Branstad, the former Iowa governor and Trump’s ambassador to China. Latcham, a Des Moines native who worked for Trump in the White House, previously worked in the state for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), former congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Trump.

Trump also in August called the current Iowa GOP chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, just weeks before Kaufmann was appointed chairman of the Republican National Committee’s effort to design a 2024 nominating calendar.

“He has been a really adamant supporter of our first-in-the-nation status,” Kaufmann said.

Trump’s fundraising efforts have persisted at a frantic pace, even though most of his direct appeals for independent PACs or his own cannot be used for a future presidential campaign because of how they were established under campaign finance law. He and his allies have sent out more than 100 requests for political contributions in recent weeks, at times reaching the levels of his 2020 campaign. All of his emailed statements now include a new button: “Donate to Save America.” There are signed football raffles, offers to meet him at events and even what sound like threats.

“President Trump has texted me,” one pitch reads, adding that the “fundraising director” will report the person for not donating.

Others feature promises of matching money from Trump or pleas that he won’t be able to fund his rallies without the donors. Trump has instructed some of his advisers to dial back the pitches, believing that some of the language is corny, particularly the opening greeting: “Friend.”

While those messages are meant for small-dollar donors, the former president has also been raising bigger sums at dinners and golf tournaments at his private clubs in New Jersey and Palm Beach, with entry sometimes costing six figures. And some of his allies are considering other fundraising vehicles designed to draft Trump into running or pay for his campaign-style efforts.

His allies and advisers say the money is designed to show political strength ahead of 2024 as he weighs a bid for the presidency, and that he plans to contribute some of it to candidates he has endorsed in the 2022 midterms. So far, Save America, his leadership PAC, has not given to the 2022 candidates he has endorsed, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Several people familiar with the former president’s operation said that Afghanistan fundraising pitches performed exceptionally well, as supporters aggrieved at President Biden’s actions looked for a way to oppose him.

“After the election, there was some erosion,” one of these people said. “But as the months have gone on, people have come back and started giving more.”

Organizationally, the former president’s orbit remains messy, with advisers representing multiple candidates competing for Trump’s endorsement. He recently distanced himself from Corey Lewandowski, a key leader of one of his fundraising efforts, after the wife of a donor alleged he touched her inappropriately and propositioned her at a charity dinner in Las Vegas. Trump advisers announced a new fundraising effort on Monday designed to replace the group Lewandowski led.

Trump remains focused on revenge against those who opposed his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. He has asked David Perdue, the former Georgia senator, to run against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, according to people familiar with the matter. He publicly pressured Perdue to run during his Sept. 25 rally in Perry, Ga., at which he mocked Kemp for failing to kowtow to his election demands.

Trump, like other Republicans, is optimistic that the party can win back the House and the Senate next year, in part because of Biden’s recent slump in polling. Aides to Biden, 78, say he is also planning to run for reelection.

“The only thing I am picking up is that people want to save this country,” said Steven Scheffler, a Republican National Committeeman in Iowa. “I am seeing bigger crowds at Republican functions.”