ANALYSIS — Donald Trump prefers to keep allies and foes guessing, but he has finally shown a card in his closely held hand about the 2024 presidential race.
The former president, despite being 75 and overweight with several medical issues, has long argued he is in great physical and mental shape. Lately, he has boasted — and raised money — off a hole in one he allegedly bagged at one of his Florida golf courses.
“Many people are asking, so I’ll give it to you now, it is 100% true,” Trump said in a March 28 statement released by his post-presidency office before being sure to plug his ritzy resort. “It took place at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on the 7th hole, which was playing 181-yards into a slight wind.”
What came next was vintage The Donald, painting himself as something of an athletic savant on the links — one that can overcome a breeze and a course expertly set up to present a challenge to those brave, and wealthy, enough to take it on.
“I hit a 5-iron, which sailed magnificently into a rather strong wind, with approximately 5 feet of cut, whereupon it bounced twice and then went clank, into the hole,” Trump bragged.
To be sure, holes in one are rare and, as Trump put it in the same statement, “quite exciting.” He also boasted about winning the day’s match, during which he teamed with South African professional golfer Ernie Els, a four-time major tournament winner: “I won’t tell you who won because I am a very modest individual, and you will then say I was bragging — and I don’t like people who brag!”
The Republican standard-bearer is a lot of things, but humble has never been one of them. So it was somewhat stunning when Trump recently showed some humility and acknowledged his age and health during an interview with The Washington Post.
He appeared to suggest he is not, in fact, in peak physical condition when asked about seeking the GOP presidential nomination, a race that will kick into gear following November’s midterm elections.
“You always have to talk about health. You look like you’re in good health, but tomorrow, you get a letter from a doctor saying, ‘Come see me again,’” he told The Post. “That’s not good when they use the word ‘again.’”
The former president’s comment should cast some doubts on his entry into the 2024 race. But, as always, Trump spoke in a riddle that raises more questions than it answers. Here are three questions after Trump’s moment of candor.
Who wins the Trump endorsement hunger games?
To what lengths will other potential 2024 Republicans go to secure what would be the only endorsement that would move the needle in a Trump-free GOP primary?
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has offered a few clues, as has Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The former so wanted to make a point about illegal immigration that he took a hammer to his state’s economy by slowing the flow of goods entering from Mexico. The latter has made himself into a Trump-style fighter who will take on political foes and even large employers in the Sunshine State like Disney.
Imagine what others — think South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and others — might have to do and say. They will need to not only get Trump’s attention, but keep it and prove to him they are the proper heir to the “Make America Great Again” movement.
“If Trump decides not to run in 2024, then it would be a wide-open contest. More importantly, perhaps, could be the rush of securing Trump’s endorsement for the presidential nomination,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina. “That might actually be the bigger contest within the GOP: Who does Trump anoint as heir apparent?”
Could anyone handle the ultimate backseat driver?
Would Trump be able to resist commenting — multiple times per day — on the primary and how the party’s eventual nominee chose to take on President Joe Biden?
It would be very much on-brand for The Donald, whose entire political persona is based on an argument he is a once-in-a-generation mind, to become an irritant to the nominee by second-guessing every decision he or she makes in 2024.
Statements. Fox News call-ins to the highly rated primetime programs of commentators like Sean Hannity and others. Posts on his conservatives-only social media site.
The ultimate backseat driver would likely view himself as an unofficial campaign manager — and one with the loudest megaphone in American politics.
Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist, said Monday he expects several high-profile GOP figures — namely: DeSantis, Pence and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — won’t spend too much time dwelling on Trump’s remark.
“I think he was doing an interview and he was just riffing. He’s going to run if he chooses to run,” Siegfried said. “Other Republicans are going to run, even if he does run. There will be one or two who don’t run if Trump does run. But there are others who will run regardless.”
Is Trump losing his grip over the party?
The further from his presidency he gets, the less Trump’s endorsement of GOP candidates essentially secures them the Republican primary win in state or congressional races. So that begs a question: Is Trump’s health comment the start of him realizing the MAGA movement is starting to lose steam?
“It is possible to see three cracks in what Trump would like to believe is monolithic control over the Republican Party,” according to Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton administration official now with the Brookings Institution.
“The hard-core Trump base appears to be shrinking,” she noted. “In many Republican primaries, Trump does not appear able to crown winners simply with his endorsement — his candidates are often in for a fight with other Republicans.”
Ohio’s primary for the Senate seat soon to be vacated by the retiring Rob Portman is emerging as a key test case for the Trump seal of approval. The former president on Friday endorsed J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author of the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”
Trump’s usual public decisiveness and firmness has been missing with some of his recent endorsement, including that of Vance. His lukewarm embrace of Vance came in a statement that, in another un-Trump moment, put practicality over the MAGA movement, with Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan on course to be his party’s primary winner: “We cannot play games. It is all about winning!”
“Like some others, J.D. Vance may have said some not so great things about me in the past, but he gets it now, and I have seen that in spades. He is our best chance for victory in what could be a very tough race,” Trump said. “This is not an easy endorsement for me to make because I like and respect some of the other candidates in the race — they’ve said great things about ‘Trump’ and, like me, they love Ohio and love our Country. I’ve studied this race closely and I think J.D. is the most likely to take out the weak, but dangerous, Democrat opponent.”
All eyes will now be on future polling in the Buckeye State. When Trump’s endorsement landed late last week, Vance trailed former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, 28 percent to 22.6 percent, in one recent poll by the Trafalgar Group.
Will Vance get a “Trump bump” and overtake Mandel, which would amount to a sign the former president remains his party’s most powerful force?
Whether his grip on the party remains strong is “playing out in the various 2022 GOP primary contests battling for Trump’s blessing,” Bitzer said.
“Trump certainly likes being the party’s kingmaker, and 2024’s presidential contest within the Republican Party would be on steroids for the potential of moving a significant number of Republican voters into one candidate's camp,” he added, “and thus gaining instant traction in what could be a significantly crowded field of candidates.”