Trump Renews Indie Threat

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Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Virginia Campaign Rally
Donald Trump wants Republicans to understand he's not going away even if they stop his march to the GOP nomination.Photo: Andrew Harrer/© 2016 Bloomberg Finance LP

In a year when so many political precedents are being replaced by strange and wondrous developments, here’s a new one: The unquestioned, overwhelming front-runner for a major-party presidential nomination feels it’s necessary to remind his increasingly frantic intraparty enemies that even if they find a way to “stop” him in the primaries or at the convention he can still get the last laugh as an independent candidate. That’s what Donald Trump did on Morning Joe today.

Donald Trump said Thursday he is being treated unfairly by the Republican establishment and may run as an independent.

I am watching television and I am seeing ad after ad after ad put in by the establishment knocking the hell out of me, and it’s really unfair,” Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “But if I leave, if I go, regardless of independent, which I may do — I mean, may or may not. But if I go, I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me.”

On one level this is a straightforward response to Marco Rubio’s implicit repudiation of the “loyalty pledge” all the candidates, Trump included, signed late last summer. Since the whole thing was contrived to get Trump to forswear an independent bid that would surely ruin the GOP’s general election prospects, he wants everyone to understand that deal is off, killed once and for all by #NeverTrump, not to mention the not-so-secret talk of finding some way to manipulate the rules to deny him the nomination even if he theoretically wins it in the primaries. 

On another level, Trump is letting Republicans know he expects some respect as the front-runner, not the sort of hysterical efforts to toxify him as a con artist morally disqualified from even seeking high public office. 

And finally, you have to figure Trump is acutely aware there are many, perhaps hundreds, of GOP elected officials who are watching the presidential nomination race closely and wondering if surrendering to the inevitable might be good for their careers. At this point the VIP lounge on the Trump Train is relatively empty. Chris Christie may have nailed down one Cabinet post, but there are many others, not to mention ambassadorships and other glittering objects, still up for grabs. How long is it prudent to identify oneself with the shrill and borderline self-destructive Rubio campaign? Or indeed, if Trump’s going to be on the ballot in November no matter what, why not cozy up to him and his visigothic hordes right now? 

Whatever his motives, the timing of Trump’s reminder is perfectly obvious. The odds are extremely high that tonight’s Fox News debate in Detroit will feature attacks on him by Rubio and Cruz that could make the clash in Houston — itself a new low in presidential political tone — look mild or at least routine. The fear of a Trump indie run may not inhibit his desperate rivals, but could have an effect on the rest of the party’s reaction. One way or another, they’ll have to deal with Donald Trump at least through November, and perhaps for four long years.