To write three books in four years about Donald Trump has been an immersion into his obsessions and fixations. This is why I know the obvious: Donald Trump will run for president again.
This spring, in another of his compulsive bids for attention — indifferent to whether it is good or bad — he hosted me at Mar-a-Lago, even after I had written two unflattering books about him (one whose publication he tried to stop), for an interview and dinner. After dinner, I asked about his plans for a presidential library, the traditional retirement project and fund-raising scheme of ex-presidents. There was a flash of confusion on his uniquely readable face, and then anger, aroused, I figured, by the implication of what I seemed to be saying — that his time in office was past.
“No way, no way,” he snarled, “no way.”
It is an existential predicament: He can’t be Donald Trump without a claim on the presidency. He can’t hold the attention and devotion of the Republican Party if he is not both once and future king — and why would he ever give that up? Indeed, it seemed to be that I was strategically seated in the lobby of Mar-a-Lago when I arrived precisely so I could overhear the efforts by a Republican delegation to court and grovel before Mr. Trump and to observe his dismissive dominance over them.
More than a bit of his subsequent conversation with me was about his contempt for any Republican that might be less than absolute in his or her devotion to him — after all, he had the power to make or break the people who have since disappointed him (like Senator Mitch McConnell and Justice Brett Kavanaugh). He seemed not so much paranoid about challenges to him but warlike, savoring his future retributions.
He repeatedly returns to his grudge against his once obsequious vice president with relish; Mike Pence has become more public about his own political ambitions. In his telling, it is Mr. Pence whose actions confirmed “the steal,” by his refusal to overturn the electoral vote count, over which he presided in January in the Senate. I believe he will run again just to stop the men who, in his view, helped take the presidency from him from trying to get it for themselves. The reports that reach him of the West Wing and members of his administration who refuse to subscribe to the idea of “the steal” only feeds his fury and determination to punish all doubters — “some very weak people who have worked for me but won’t in the future,” as he told me.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has become another frequent subject at Mr. Trump’s Bedminster, N.J., golf club, where the former president is spending the summer away from the Florida heat. Many members of TrumpWorld believe Mr. DeSantis, who came in second to Mr. Trump in a CPAC straw poll this month, might, unbelievably, run for the 2024 nomination even if Mr. Trump runs. The idea that Mr. DeSantis, who Mr. Trump believes he “made” by his endorsement, might not accept his dependence on and obligation to Mr. Trump would be a personal affront that must be met. Mr. Trump pointedly blew off the governor’s request that he postpone a Florida rally in the aftermath of the Surfside building collapse. Clear message: The governor is not the boss of him. (Mr. DeSantis has denied making this request.)
The continued career of Mr. McConnell, to whom Mr. Trump has not spoken since vilifying him with a heap of obscenity after Mr. McConnell acknowledged Joe Biden’s victory, is unfinished business. (Trump aides believe the two are likely to never speak again.)
Mr. Trump believes that Mr. McConnell retained his Senate seat in 2020 only because of his support. The war against Mr. McConnell is a war about who controls the Republican Party — if it’s Mr. Trump’s party, it can’t be Mr. McConnell’s. If candidates win because of his endorsements, thereby making Mr. Trump himself the ultimate winner, and inevitable front-runner, then it’s surely his party. Mr. Trump, whose political muscle helped oust some Republican enemies from office in 2018, will be confident about evicting Mr. McConnell once he is back in power. (I doubt he pays attention to the fact that Mr. McConnell was re-elected to a six-year term and has a reasonable chance of becoming the Senate majority leader again.)
Many Democrats believe that the legal pursuit of the former president’s family business in New York, and other cases, including the investigation of his attempt to overturn election results in Georgia, might seriously impede his political future. But in Mr. Trump’s logic, this will run the opposite way: Running for president is the best way to directly challenge the prosecutors.
Mr. Trump also believes he has a magic bullet. In his telling, the Republicans almost took back the House in 2020 because of his “telerallies,” telephone conference calls in congressional districts that attracted in some instances tens of thousands of callers. Who has that draw? he asked me, nearly smacking his lips. In 2022, with his draw, the Republicans, he is certain, will retake the House with his chosen slate of candidates. And indeed, this actually might be true.
But perhaps most important, there is his classic hucksterism, and his synoptic U.S.P. — unique selling proposition. In 2016 it was “the wall.” For 2022 and 2024 he will have another proposition available: “the steal,” a rallying cry of rage and simplicity.
For Democrats, who see him exiled to Mar-a-Lago, stripped of his key social media platforms and facing determined prosecutors, his future seems risible if not pathetic. But this is Donald Trump, always ready to strike back harder than he has been struck, to blame anyone but himself, to silence any doubts with the sound of his own voice, to take what he believes is his and, most of all, to seize all available attention. Sound the alarm.
Michael Wolff (@MichaelWolffNYC) is a journalist and the author, most recently, of “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency.”
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