Donald Trump was impeached twice, lost the 2020 election by 7,052,770 votes, is entangled in investigations by federal prosecutors (over the Capitol insurrection and over the mishandling of classified White House documents and over election interference) and the District of Columbia attorney general (over financial fraud at the Presidential Inaugural Committee) and the Manhattan district attorney (over financial fraud at the Trump Organization) and the New York State attorney general (over financial fraud at the Trump Organization) and the Westchester County district attorney (over financial fraud at the Trump Organization) and the Fulton County, Georgia, district attorney (over criminal election interference in Georgia) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (over rules violations in plans to take his social-media company public through a SPAC) and the House Select Committee on January 6 (whose hearings are the runaway TV-ratings hit of the summer), yet on Monday, July 11, he was in a fantastic mood.
It was a beautiful day in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the former president maintains a golf club and private estate to which he decamps when the Palm Beach humidity and the habits of snowbirds shut down Mar-a-Lago for the Mother’s Day–to–Labor Day summer season, and it had been a beautiful weekend, too, one he said affirmed the choice he had made about his own future, the future of the Republican Party, and — whether he wins this time or if he loses as sorely as before — the future of the American experiment.
At a rally in Alaska on Saturday, he told me by phone, his fans were adoring. “More love,” in his words, “than I’ve ever had before.” His voice was humming with excitement. He was still in awe. After all of this time, after so many rallies, so many crowds, so many winding speeches and chants of “Lock her up” and “USA” and “Build the wall” and the familiar sounds of “Tiny Dancer” and “Memory” (from Cats) and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “YMCA” and that goofy little dance and the delusion and the fervor so great that it built up to an attack on the Capitol and the democratic process at the center of the Republic itself, the novelty of this had not faded.
As a technical matter, the Anchorage event was on behalf of Sarah Palin and Kelly Tshibaka, Trump-endorsed candidates for the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, respectively, but like all such endeavors, it was for its star a means of discerning through a vibe check what traditional polls could not so reliably or completely tell him. And what it told him this time, he said, is that his voters — a portion of the electorate that he insists amounts to a majority of the country, though it does not — want to, and will, bring him back to power.
“Look,” Trump said, “I feel very confident that, if I decide to run, I’ll win.”
I fixated on If I decide. Trump is less a politician than a live-action mythological creature, and so punditry and all of the standard forms of analyses tend to fail. What would factor into such a decision for such an unusual person? “Well, in my own mind, I’ve already made that decision, so nothing factors in anymore. In my own mind, I’ve already made that decision,” he said.
He wouldn’t disclose what he’d decided. Not at first. But then he couldn’t help himself. “I would say my big decision will be whether I go before or after,” he said. “You understand what that means?” His tone was conspiratorial. Was he referring to the midterm elections? He repeated after me: “Midterms.” Suddenly, he relaxed, as though my speaking the word had somehow set it free for discussion. “Do I go before or after? That will be my big decision,” he said.
He was thinking aloud now. “I just think that there are certain assets to before,” he said. “Let people know. I think a lot of people would not even run if I did that because, if you look at the polls, they don’t even register. Most of these people. And I think that you would actually have a backlash against them if they ran. People want me to run.”
He insists he cares little about the other Republicans people may want to run and denies that he even considers Ron DeSantis a rival. “I don’t feel that,” he said, “I endorsed Ron, he was at 3, and as soon as I endorsed him, he went to first place, he was not gonna win, then —” I stopped him. The question was about the 2024 presidential primary, I said. “Yeah, no, I meant when he ran for governor, as you know, he was running and then he came to me for an endorsement because he was not, you know, he was at 3 percent.” With his blessing, Trump said, “the race was over, and I think Ron knows that better than anybody. We have a good relationship, and, uhh, there may be some others soon, but that’s okay.” He cited a recent poll that had him beating DeSantis by a margin of 58 percent to 10 percent. (Never content, Trump had overstated things slightly: DeSantis was at 16, not 10. In the averages, meanwhile, he beats DeSantis 53 to 21 and Biden 43 to 41.)
For weeks leading up to the Fourth of July, there were rumors about an announcement, but like so many things in Trumpworld, it was hard to know what was true and what was just chatter circulated by those around him looking to advance various personal agendas. Floating ideas in this way, watching them circulate through the political conversation, was a favorite tactic of Trump staffers and hangers-on during his campaigns and presidency. You could kill a bad idea this way, directing attention and input and debate so that soon it was no longer exciting to Trump, or you could plant your own idea, on the thinking that if he heard it enough, from enough people, it would soon manifest as the new plan to replace the total absence of one. Or because after a while the fake plan began to sound real and who could be sure it hadn’t been the real plan all along, or because Trump had convinced himself that the stroke of brilliance he kept hearing about was his?
“He really was 100 percent going to announce on the Fourth of July,” one person knowledgeable about the discussions said, “but the kids and Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy were against it because he would be blamed for the midterms.” (The “kids” is a common but often incomplete term used by people with knowledge of Trump and his family, and here it does not refer to Donald Trump Jr., who, according to multiple people connected to the former president, was thought to be a supporter of the patriotic announcement date.) To me, Trump denied that he had considered it at all. As the producer of the iconic escalator ride in the atrium of Trump Tower to announce his 2016 campaign, he considered an Independence Day declaration amateurish. “I don’t think I have to compete with that,” he said. “First of all, a lot of people aren’t around on the Fourth of July. It’s not a great time to do an announcement … I never said I was going to. That was just fake news. Somebody said that I was going to,” he said. “I don’t think it was any of our people.”
The dimensions of the category to which Trump refers when he says “our people” were always shifting around the family and the regulars. Over the course of his candidacy and presidency, Roger Stone and Sam Nunberg became Corey Lewandowski became Paul Manafort became Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon became a succession of White House chiefs of staff — all of them hated by Trump in the end (with the exception of Reince Priebus, who was hated by Trump from the beginning) — became, postelection and post–January 6, the skeleton crew of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell and the MyPillow Guy and the other extremist misfits who were eager to stick around once everything went to shit and nobody cared to keep them away from the principal anymore. Trump left the White House and returned to Mar-a-Lago with a few junior aides and even fewer longtime advisers, and since then, the list of loyalists who have not betrayed or been betrayed by him has dwindled further.
“The circle’s very small,” a current Trump adviser said. “Obviously, a lot of these Cabinet officials and others who have been going out there” — going out there meaning going public in opposition to Trump or his version of the election and his effort to cling to power — “they are blacklisted or cast out.”
The org chart for the pre-campaign is a Jackson Pollock of people hovering nearby or maneuvering in secret or making trips to Bedminster or launching into the ether the notion that they might do this or that job when the time comes. “Everybody does their own thing,” the adviser said.
“Susie’s at the top of it, and she’s with him constantly,” the adviser continued — as in Susie Wiles, a Florida operative who had worked to elect DeSantis to the governorship only for him to turn around and engineer her firing from the 2020 Trump campaign with an accusation that she was a leaker. As Trump soured on DeSantis, he welcomed Wiles back as the CEO of his political-action committee, Save America, and to some, it seems a safe bet that she will be functionally in charge of what comes next. Then there’s what the adviser called “the Stepien-Clark cabal,” as in Bill Stepien, the manager of the 2020 campaign in its final stretch, and Justin Clark, one of Trump’s attorneys who served as Stepien’s deputy. And “Bossie’s around,” as in David, the right-wing activist and Citizens United chairman turned 2016 deputy campaign manager. “He comes and goes,” said the adviser. Plus, “Stephen Miller’s around — not tight-knit circle, but he’s there. Jason Miller, same thing.” Mike Pence’s former scheduler now schedules the former president. And “Margo — she’s definitely around constantly,” as in Margo Martin, a White House press aide who moved to Florida to function officially as Trump’s post-presidential deputy communications director and less officially as his Girl Friday, fetching miniature bottles of Diet Coke and printouts of polling and articles for him to hand to guests. “It’s Trumpworld, man,” the current adviser said. “It’ll be done the way we do everything else. It’ll be very last minute; it’ll be a surprise. We’ll cowboy it like 2016.”
It was a similar set of circumstances that careerist politicos cited as justification to enlist with Trump in 2016 and staff his administration. If they weren’t there, they said at the time, only the worst people encouraging his worst impulses and executing his worst ideas and giving him even worse ideas would be there. Of course, those people were mostly gone by January 6. “The quality is going to be even worse, if that’s imaginable,” the former Trump adviser said. “It’s bad. It’s, like, next level. It’s just one too many times of screwing people that were loyal. I definitely think people are done, like the closest of the close.”
“I’ve never been overly trusting of a lot of people,” Trump told me, “You know, that’s the way it is, and that happens to a lot of people and that happens to a lot of presidents. They are very good and then somebody offers them a couple bucks for a book and they say, ‘Wow, I never made that kind of money before!’ They take the money and then they have a book that doesn’t sell. Those books haven’t done particularly well. The positive books have.” (In fact, the harshest books of this genre have also been the most successful: John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened sold 780,000 copies in its first week, for instance, compared to 6,000 for Sean Spicer’s The Briefing.) “I watched the un-select committee” — his term of art for the January 6 hearings — “as an example, and I watched, with people that I hardly even know how they got on there. They make up stories, they pretend,” Trump continued. “I call them the pretend witnesses.”
Had he tried to grab the steering wheel when the Secret Service prevented him from following his supporters as they marched to the Capitol after his speech on the Ellipse? “Not at all. No, not at all, not at all, no, that’s all fake news,” he said. But the mention of Cassidy Hutchinson, the former aide who made the allegation, hit a nerve. “Cassidy? Cassidy’s been totally discredited!” he said. “You know what? If Cassidy was in a room, I wouldn’t even know who she is. Cassidy has been totally discredited about her story with the Secret Service, about her story with throwing food at a wall. She’s been totally discredited.” (Others have, in fact, confirmed key aspects of her testimony.) He never threw a plate at a wall in the White House? “Never. Never. Not my thing. And I never did it anywhere else, either,” he said, “And I never did what she said with the Secret Service. She went too far. Look, they’re made up stories. She made up these stories. They’re lies. And most people understand that. I think she’s a sick person.”
Although he had just claimed he was so unfamiliar with Hutchinson that he could not identify her on sight, he then offered a psychological motive for her behavior. “You know, I’ll tell you,” he said, “She wanted desperately to come with us to Florida. And what happened is we’re all set to do that. And then the other women and girls complained that they didn’t want her. They came to my office — I didn’t know who she was very much — but they didn’t want her.” He said that her testimony — “these horrible, fake stories” — was a form of payback, because if any of it had really happened, she would have come forward “at the time.” I sent Trump’s comments to Alyssa Farah Griffin, who resigned from the White House in the postelection, pre-insurrection period, and who helped Hutchinson hire a new lawyer (to replace her Trump-issued lawyer) and connected her with Representative Liz Cheney to arrange her explosive testimony. “So, real talk: he’s definitely off,” Farah Griffin said. “And if he wasn’t the former leader of the free world and didn’t try to do a coup, I’d almost feel bad for him.” (Hutchinson declined to comment.)
More complicated for the former leader and failed coup-doer: among the pretend witnesses was the real Ivanka Trump, who, in recorded testimony, said that after Election Day, she looked not to her father, who talked about a rigged election, but to then–Attorney General Bill Barr, whom she described as someone “I respect.” And in Barr’s respectable opinion, her father’s fraud story was “bullshit.” In a statement, the former president said that his daughter was not a credible source. “Ivanka Trump was not involved in looking at, or studying, Election results,” he wrote on Truth Social, the social-media platform he launched to fulfill his compulsive need to Tweet after Twitter permanently banned him “due to the risk of further incitement of violence” in the wake of the insurrection. “She had long since checked out and was, in my opinion, only trying to be respectful to Bill Barr and his position as Attorney General (he sucked!).” It landed with a minor shock, proof that Trump’s post-insurrection, post-presidency alienation from his inner circle was near total. Not even Ivanka was safe from his public ridicule.
When I raised the subject of the testimony, Trump paused. “Well, I think she wanted to be nice and respectful,” he said, “She’s a very high-quality person, and I don’t think she wanted to hurt anybody’s feelings. I thought that Barr was weak and pathetic, and I think that she doesn’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings.” It came across like he was trying to convince himself of what he said. “I’m not even sure she knew what my feelings were. He didn’t want to be impeached, so he didn’t do his job in order to not get impeached,” he added, channeling his daughter channeling himself. “I don’t think she knew that.”
Has he talked to her about it since? “I’d rather not say. I’d rather not say,” he said. “But she’s a good person, and she doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. She has respect for everybody, and there’s something very nice about that, actually.” Did he think that she took after him in that respect? “No,” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t think so. We’re a little different in that regard.”
Trump has a hard time expressing his emotions about his daughter, so I asked another former adviser to translate for me. “He’s just trying to protect her and also himself,” this person said, which they thought was usually the case, even if the way that he worded things left people thinking he meant something completely different. “It’s similar to when he would suggest they” — Ivanka and Jared Kushner — “move back to New York. He didn’t want them to, and it wasn’t a dig; it really was him trying to think of them.” Emphasis on trying. Future political endeavors, this person said, would likely feature less of the couple. “I think their involvement would resemble their November 2015 to January 2016 involvement. ‘Supportive family members’ on occasion, but not involved in any decisions or process day-to-day.”
Abruptly, Trump changed the subject in the most Trumpian of ways. “Did you see Alaska, and did you see Las Vegas? I’ll tell ya, the enthusiasm and the crowds are bigger than they’ve ever been,” he said. “The enthusiasm is greater than it’s ever been.” It does not seem a wholly conscious choice when he does this but like a feature that activates when he is nervous or uncomfortable and zaps him, like magic, into command as The Donald again, which is maybe why he is unable to resist doing it even when doing it could only make things worse.
When I asked if the insurrection had embarrassed him, he disputed the premise that it was committed on his behalf. “They did it on their own behalf,” he said. He disputed, too, that the insurrectionists were armed. “I don’t think one person in the Capitol had a weapon, not one weapon,” he said. And he disputed my characterization of a swarm of MAGA hats charging the Capitol. “And other hats. And other hats. Not just MAGA hats. Other hats,” he said. “There were a lot of people there that a lot of other people don’t want to talk about, but they’re also one of the largest crowds I’ve ever spoken to, when I made the speech — peacefully, it should be known as peacefully and patriotically — but when I made the speech, it was one of the largest crowds I’ve ever spoken to.” He threw in a distinction between his crowd, which he said did not go to the Capitol, and the insurrectionists. “Nobody ever talks about that,” he said, but he didn’t want to talk about it much, either. He returned to the point of all of this: “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken in front of a larger crowd.”
For Trump, there has always been safety in performing for an audience. Amid the investigations on approach to 2024, that might mean something more literal. “A lot of people are saying, ‘You’ve got to announce so you’re protected. It’s a witch hunt, they’re trying to do this to you again. You’ve got to do it before the grand jury meets with Lindsey Graham in the Georgia case,’” the former adviser said. The Fulton County DA issued Graham a subpoena for his testimony regarding two phone calls he placed to the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, amid Trump’s campaign to pressure him to find more votes and overturn the results of the election. Graham filed to “quash the subpoena,” he said Wednesday, but the former adviser said that, in private, everyone is spooked. “Grand juries leak. It’s not like you could say, ‘Well, he’s got six months before they make a decision about prosecuting him in Fulton County. That’s a criminal case. That’s the big thing he’s worried about because of the tape.”
Others may have sought to impose distance — or the appearance of distance — between themselves and Trump, but Graham has kept up his schedule of frequent golf outings with him, traveling to Florida and now New Jersey for the purpose. This person described Graham’s constant presence around Trump as an effort to stay aware of his thinking and, when possible, influence it. “Graham feels like if you just let him do what he wants, then it doesn’t happen out of the blue in the dead of night. The takeaway was he’s not gonna last five months without announcing.”
Trump swears that shielding himself from prosecution is not among his reasons for running for president because he is not at any risk of being prosecuted. “Well, I did nothing wrong, so I don’t see that,” he said, “I did absolutely nothing wrong. I had a perfect phone call in Georgia, so I’m not concerned with it.” He was also not concerned with inquiries by Tish James, he said, referring to her as “a racist attorney general in New York.”
He was looking forward while everybody else was looking back. Presumably, I said, he wouldn’t be asking his former vice-president to join his 2024 campaign? “Presumably, as you said … Nobody ever voted for a vice-president,” he said. “I’m not bored. I’m very busy with everything actually. Amazingly busy.” But, he admitted, “nothing compares to getting things done that you can’t do from any other position other than president. I made America great again, and I may have to do it again.”
More From This Series
- The Mind-Bending Politics of RFK Jr.’s Spoiler Campaign
- Do Any of These People Stand a Chance Against Trump?
- The Circus of Trump’s Arraignment