Trump Is Already a Candidate, So Treat Him Like One

Much speculation swirls around the question of when former President Donald Trump will announce his 2024 presidential candidacy. 

Some thought Trump would say the magic words at a rally on Saturday in Wisconsin, where he campaigned against state Republicans who had refused to help him try to steal the Badger State’s electoral votes in 2020. Others expected Trump to make his declaration that evening at the Dallas convention of CPAC, one of the groups for young nationalists in his orbit.

Trump has helped fuel much of the speculation through leaks or barely concealed hints about the timing of his declaration. The Washington Post has practically created a sub-beat for empty musings about when Trump will really, actually, totally do it. Among mainstream news outlets, the Post is second only to Fox News in obsessive coverage of Trump’s 2024 announcement. Trump’s own rhetoric on the subject is heavy-handed, even for him: “The time is coming” or “Now, we may just have to do it again”—even on the first tee of a Saudi golf pro-am.

It’s no mystery why Trump and those news outlets are hyping the announcement. Trump, like any candidate for president, wants to generate attention for a proclamation that will be about as surprising as the fact that drug use went up during an electronic music festival in Las Vegas. The news outlets, meanwhile, are trying to wring every droplet they can out of what they must hope is the second coming of the greatest audience generation phenomenon since 9/11. 

We also know Trump can’t say he’s not running either. At a campaign rally in Arizona, Trump said, “If I announced that I was not going to run any longer for political office the persecution of Donald Trump would immediately stop.” The opposite is far closer to the truth. Out of politics, Trump would be a sitting duck for prosecutors and quickly disregarded by situational suckups like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Kevin McCarthy. It is the threat of a fourth Trump presidential run and second presidential term that make things harder for his foes.

Attorney General Merrick Garland wouldn’t prefer to have federal agents arresting a candidate for president, or even investigating one. The 2016 debacle by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey in investigating both major party nominees shows the perils of prosecuting candidates. Trump, who faces a host of potential criminal charges relating to his alleged misconduct in business and government, is a much easier target as a private citizen. And soon as Trump’s revenge tour loses the smack of potential presidential power, he will quickly lose his grip on both the thirsty, like Graham and McCarthy, and also the closet normals in the GOP who stay silent in anticipation of his departure.

They won’t be so lucky, but those same Republicans hope that Trump will hold off on his ’24 announcement at least until after the midterm elections. The red team is in the process of squandering a big early lead thanks to a shifting issue set and subpar candidates in key states including Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, many of whom were Trump’s own picks. The bigger Trump’s presence this cycle, the better for Democrats.

The conventional wisdom goes that if Trump declares his candidacy it will distract from the party’s narrative for the election as a referendum on the deeply unpopular incumbent and voter frustrations with inflation and crime. Republicans grouse that if Trump declares, every candidate up and down the ballot will have to make a potentially painful declaration of support or opposition. This is a companion to the fear that the former president will drain fundraising dollars from candidates in this cycle for a race still two years away. 

But all of that is already happening. Trump is not only presumed to be a candidate, he is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. The concerns about his disruptive effect have already been realized, and wishing it were otherwise is the kind of fogeyism that prevents Republicans from properly addressing the single biggest threat to their viability as a party. Ideas about waiting until after midterms out of party loyalty certainly do not apply to Trump, who has already succeeded in trashing the principle while still keeping the McCarthys of the world begging him not to do so. Republicans should know that already, and so should the reporters covering the timing of the announcement as a big story. Indeed, they probably do.

Timing of an official announcement may not matter for the electorate, but for the de facto frontrunner, it is a matter of serious financial significance. As a candidate in fact, but not in filing, Trump can do pretty much whatever he wants with probably more than $100 million of the quarter of a billion dollars he raised in the wake of the 2020 election when he was begging money for a non-existent Election Defense Fund to help him overturn the result. The money instead was directed to his leadership PAC, which has few restrictions on how or how much money Trump wants to spend. He can pay himself and his family members for services, cover travel costs, stage campaign rallies (as long as he doesn’t say the magic words), and even spend $60,000 on a fashion designer. Very much in the way the Clintons used their family foundation as a slush fund in the years between campaigns, Trump is exploiting the loopholes and lack of enforcement in the system to subsidize his lifestyle and keep himself politically relevant.

Since then, he has kept up a steady barrage of fundraising appeals to his army of small-dollar donors with scammy, spammy messages and even a plea to replace his broken down “Trump Force One.” A Democratic group alleging that Trump is running a shadow campaign through the PAC said in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission that the former president’s group is spending $100,000 a week on Facebook ads and “has consistently raised more than $1 million per week.” But that grift ends—or at least shifts—as soon as Trump files his candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission. Trump’s PAC can give $5,000 to his own campaign once it begins, just like any other candidate, but no more.

Trump will still control the PAC after he declares his candidacy, and the long-running gag that is our nation’s election commission isn’t much of a threat if he does abuse the rules. As the campaigns of Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, John McCain, and others learned, even the largest fines from the FEC are only about $1 million and usually come years after the campaign is over. The perverse incentives under America’s miserable campaign finance regime line up strongly in favor of shady operators like Trump. Even so, the declaration will make raising and spending money harder, so Trump would presumably benefit from keeping the slush-fund status quo in place for as long as possible.

We should all be treating Trump like a presidential candidate already. He’s acting like one, fundraising like one, and campaigning like one. The only beneficiaries to pretending otherwise are Trump and the clickbait journalists trying to kindle some suspense. If Trump drops out of the race, that’s a big story. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same.

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