When I sat down with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago last week, my plan was to wait until the very end to ask him about running for president again. But before he’d even taken his seat, Trump was touting his 2024 poll numbers.
In nearly every interview he’s done since he left office on Jan. 20, Trump has been asked whether he’ll run again. Each time he has hinted and hedged, teased and toyed with his answer, saying only that his supporters would be “very happy” with his decision. I decided to ask the question a different way.
“Given your dominance in Republican primary polls, and given that President Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to 45% nationally and 31% in Iowa and 39% in Michigan,” I asked, “why wouldn’t you run?”
Trump parried with a noncommittal answer. “I love the country, and I hate what happened,” he said, adding that since he left office things have “gone to hell. It’s been a terrible time.”
With that, the former president was off and running, lamenting what had taken place in Afghanistan, which led to a lengthy detour. A bit later, however, I gave it another try. “So,” I said, “I know you might do it, but give me one reason you might not do it.”
This time, Trump was somewhat more direct, and a tad fatalistic. “Well, one reason could be your health. You get a call from your doctor and that’s the end of that,” he said. “That stuff happens; you hope it doesn’t. I just had a medical, just had great result. You never know, there are many things can happen; politics is a crazy world. It is a big commitment of you, your children, your wife and your family.”
Trump couldn’t resist delivering his standard line that “people will be very happy with my decision,” adding that his new slogan is “Make America Great Again, Again.”
If Trump still has some doubts about 2024, during the 90-minute interview he expressed no doubts whatsoever about 2020.
“I feel very strongly that the election was rigged,” he said. “I don’t feel like I could’ve lost Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and I just needed a couple of them.”
The issue of the fairness of the election has become the third rail of American politics. Among Trump and a good chunk of his supporters, there is a sincere belief that Democrats took advantage of pandemic-induced rule changes like universal mail-in ballots, ballot harvesting, drop boxes, etc., to corrupt the system enough to allow Biden to eke out victories in key battleground states. To Democrats and most of the media, it strains credulity that Trump could really believe such a thing. They dismiss these claims as “The Big Lie,” citing a host of lawsuits and recounts that have produced no evidence of fraud on anything approaching the scale necessary to have changed the outcome of the 2020 election.
Yet Trump still cannot get past a singular idea: that he could have done so much better in 2020 than in 2016, winning nearly 12 million more votes nationwide than he tallied four years earlier, and still lose the election.
“You win South Carolina big, Alabama by record numbers, then you lose Georgia?” he told me. “Doesn’t happen.”
Trump also mentioned his victories in traditional bellwether states like Ohio and especially Florida where he garnered over a million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, nearly tripling his margin of victory from 1.2% to 3.3%. “So many of those metrics that, when you add them all up, it gives very little chance to the other side,” Trump said.
Trump related that, before the election, Republican pollster John McLaughlin told him if he was able to win 64 million votes in 2020, improving on his 2016 total by just 1 million votes, he would win.
“I got 75 million votes and lost,” Trump said, before catching himself and adding, “Supposedly lost. I didn’t lose. You know, I’ve never conceded. It’s okay for Stacey Abrams to not concede, but if I don’t concede…”
Adding to Trump’s skepticism about the accuracy of the election returns was what he experienced on the campaign trail, where he perceived a massive enthusiasm gap in his favor.
“Don’t forget when Biden went out, he couldn’t fill his eight circles. They had to use the press to fill the circles because nobody was there,” Trump said. “And I go out and I’ll get 40,000 or 50,000 people, and then I hear I lost the state? It’s just not possible.”
Trump’s continuing claim that the 2020 election was rigged now presents him, and his party, with a quandary. According to a recent NPR/Marist survey, only one-fourth of Trump’s 2020 voters express a “great deal” or a “good amount” of trust that elections are fair. On the other hand, 72% of Trump voters have “not much” trust or “none at all” in the fairness of elections.
Republicans have embarked on a series of legislative measures in state capitals that they insist will restore Americans’ faith in the electoral system and which Democrats and sympathetic journalists have attacked as everything from “Jim Crow 2.0” to “the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.” No one needs to guess where Trump comes down: He takes credit for leading the GOP push on voting procedures. “Georgia has a bill, Texas has a bill. Some are stronger than others,” he said. “That’s one of the good things that I have done by being vocal about this.”
Some in his party disagree and wish Trump would stop trying to relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election. Instead, they want him to look ahead and help Republicans win back majorities in the House and Senate in 2022. Trump thinks this is backwards.
“The 2020 election fraud is the biggest and its most energizing issue within the Republican Party,” Trump said, “and a large percentage of elected Republican leaders, including Congress, don’t understand that.”
So far, Trump has a better track record of understanding what rank-and-file Republican voters want than the pundits and politicians in Washington, D.C. Whether he decides to run in 2024 or not, rest assured he will not stop talking about 2020 and the importance of election integrity.
“I used to say you can’t have a country without borders,” Trump said. But these days he adds a qualifier. “You also cannot have country with a corrupt election process. And we have a very corrupt election process.”