Despite an almost universal refusal by Republican establishment figures and the press to take him seriously, Donald Trump is taking very concrete steps toward forming - and announcing - a presidential campaign.
He has interviewed at least two people for a campaign manager position, sources said. He is in contact with several well-known media consultants and has spoken to figures in the evangelical community like Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins.
Still, the question remains: Is Trump serious?
Yes. And no.
The widespread assumption that Trump’s flirtation with the presidency is a publicity stunt is no doubt at least partly true. But that’s merely the point of departure for a man whose almost every public move over the last 30 years has been a publicity stunt. Trump has, in the past, hinted at presidential bids, only to pull back after basking in the public interest. But in the same voraciously media-hungry spirit in which he has leveled an array of accusations - some overstated, others flatly false - at President Obama in recent weeks, Trump appears likely to launch a formal presidential campaign, hire staff, shake hands in Iowa, participate in debates - in short, run for president.
Trump is making the “types of moves that one makes if they’re actually running,” said one top Republican consultant familiar with his efforts.
The real estate mogul has spoken to pollster Tony Fabrizio as well as members of Larry Weitzner’s Jamestown Associates, sources said. Three Republicans said that Florida-based media consultant Rick Wilson had been recommended to Trump as a potential hire. (Wilson declined to comment on whether he’d been approached or spoken with Trump).
He recently called pollster and strategist Kellyanne Conway, who agreed to set him up with some evangelical leaders.
“I would not discount his viability because he crosses the first threshold,” said Conway, citing his name recognition and ability to put money toward a race.
There are two “draft Trump” efforts. One is led by Trump executive Michael Cohen, who traveled to Iowa and scoped the landscape, and eccentric billionaire pal Stewart Rahr. The other is by former Nixon adviser and perennial Republican fascination-figure Roger Stone. Stone has denied being involved with Trump, while continuing to offer public advice in online columns.
And Trump has made moves that have little to do with getting him on television. He has, notably, abruptly reversed his position to firmly pro-life, something that conservative Christian leaders have noted with pleasure.
“I’m convinced he’s probably going to run,” said Steve Scheffler, the head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, who said Trump contacted him this past Wednesday in an “introduction” phone call.
“If he comes to Iowa and he engages in conversations in small groups of people one-on-one he might play well on that,” said Scheffler. “I think a lot of it has to do with where he stands on the issues, and if he can convince people that he’s going to go forward on the issues.”
There have also been ongoing discussions with strategists in Iowa, several Republicans there said.
Trump has said he is likely going to make an announcement about a press conference on his NBC television show, ”Celebrity Apprentice,” but he’s given every indication to several people he’s spoken with that he will unveil an actual campaign.
Trump’s scheduled keynote speech at the Iowa GOP’s annual Lincoln Day fundraising dinner in June is already such a draw that one attendee is planning to drive in from Northeast Wisconsin to see The Donald speak, a local Republican said.
Trump even swears he is looking forward to filing his financial disclosure statements, which would go toward a minimal establishment of net worth - something Trump has never done before, amid suspicion in the business media about the depth of his claims of wealth. He is also planning to accept donations, associates of his say, adding he has said expects he will be able to raise a fair amount of money.
In any event, the disclosure of his worth might not be the immediate bar to entry that many suspect. Candidates are given basically two chances to extend the deadline, which comes within thirty days of declaring candidacy, meaning Trump could stretch it out for months.
More than anything else, according to those who’ve spoken to him, he doesn’t want to be seen as the butt of this particular joke.
“He gets mad that people aren’t taking him seriously,“ said one Republican who’s spoken with him.
Still, while he is “serious” from the organizational point of view, and appears likely to emerge as a formal candidate for office, he will struggle hard to be taken seriously as a potential Republican nominee. Trump may not be in on the joke - he rarely jokes about himself - but he has been a punch line as long as he’s been a public figure. He’s still more of a sideshow than anything else, most Republican insiders are convinced, and his respectable showings in largely meaningless early polls reflect little more than his widespread notoriety.
Best known for the “You’re fired!” catch phrase from his network reality show, Trump is friends with WWE’s colorful Vince McMahon. He once appeared with an in-drag Rudy Giuliani on “Saturday Night Live.” He’d be the first GOP hopeful to have been roasted on Comedy Central by rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and a cast member from “The Jersey Shore.”
Trump is, above all else, a deeply parochial figure, and a creature of New York’s singular media environment. He barely uses email, and his usual first reads of the day from his perch in Trump Tower are said to be the city’s two tabloids, the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Trump has left a trove of material for opposition researchers – already, on Friday, Matt Drudge teased the top of his site with a “flashback” to NY1 video of Trump calling George W. Bush “evil” and President Obama “amazing” in late 2008.
Assistants print out news clippings for him, as illustrated by a printout of a Vanity Fair he sent to publisher Graydon Carter, scrawled with a black Sharpie and reading that Carter never got “the Trump thing.”
Trump is notorious for, among other practices, a history of planting anonymous items about himself in the tabloids.
Former Daily News editor Pete Hamill, fired in part for his refusal to print Trump stories, once noted in print that a “source close to Trump,” whispering details about his life of business was invariably Trump himself.
Trump is not particularly familiar, associates say, with the national media. He is trying, former Giuliani speechwriter John Avlon wrote in the Daily Beast, “to apply New York City tabloid rules to a prospective national presidential campaign.”
And it’s not clear that he can be, well, handled by a hired handler.
Trump has spent decades as his own best adviser, a skill that’s served him exceptionally well in business, but one which historically hasn’t led to a good end for candidates.
He has never had to submit to the tough questions candidates get asked by not just reporters, but voters.
He’s given to the occasional boasts of the Charlie Sheen “tiger blood” variety - he told Time magazine that he looks forward “to showing my financials, because they are huge … Far bigger than anyone knows. Far bigger than anyone would understand.”
And while Trump’s brand is based on a tycoon’s life, many of New York’s business elite members don’t consider him part of their ranks. One veteran business leader said associates are “rolling their eyes” at the presidential talk - and most of the major New York bundlers are already committed to Obama, or to Republican Mitt Romney.
Trump aide Cohen dismissed the criticism, saying, “While Mr. Trump certainly is an independent thinker, I believe the American people welcome this approach, as it is fresh and unique.” He called the other GOPers “a field of automotrons who all act in a way that is not benefiting this country during these economically troubled times.”
Cohen noted that Trump is “quite friendly with many of the business elites” in the city and chalked up those mocking him to being “guided by black-eyed jealousy and nothing more.”
Still, he will still have to prove he’s able to connect - not just on policy but with average voters. That won’t be easy: he recently told the Christian Broadcast Network that while he’d campaign there, he doesn’t necessarily see a need to go “into everybody’s home” in Iowa.
However, even those against Trump privately fret that he might have some unconventional appeal as a wild card in a slow-to-start race.
“I don’t see Donald Trump trudging around in the snows of Iowa wearing ear flaps and trudging around the country fair,” said a top official at the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land. “But look, we live in the celebrity age. He is a celebrity. He's got the name recognition. He’s got the money. He certainly appears to have the moxie. So maybe Americans are ready for a brash New Yorker.”