Former President Trump is the master of confusing mind games. His skill-set was recently showcased in a Daily Mail headline: “Trump, 75 admits his health could stop him running for president in 2024 and says Pence, DeSantis and Mike Pompeo would NOT oppose him in a Republican primary.”
Let’s translate that conflicted two-part headline with direct quotes from Trump’s Washington Post interview published last week.
Part one – The Excuse: Trump admits holding what can be construed as a “face-saving doctor’s order.” Specifically, the former president said, “‘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. That’s not good when they use the word again ’” (Is Trump’s future doctor’s order self-activating when weak knees and irritable bowel syndrome preclude him from engaging in primary fights against his former vice president, former secretary of state or a popular Republican governor from his adopted home state?)
Part two – Intimidation: Trump said, “‘If I ran, I can’t imagine they’d want to run. Some out of loyalty would have had a hard time running. I think that most of those people, and almost every name you mentioned, is there because of me.’” Later in the interview, Trump repeated his usual tease, “‘I don’t want to comment on running, but I think a lot of people are going to be very happy by my decision…because it’s a little boring now.’”
Only Donald Trump could utter such convoluted messages that potentially forecast a health-related campaign withdrawal while actively discouraging rivals, using “how dare you” psychological guilt tactics questioning their motives and loyalty.
Such a crafty combination leads one to conclude that Trump’s 2024 chief strategist is Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War.” Tzu, an ancient Chinese general from the 5th century B.C., wrote this classic strategy handbook about defeating your enemies, applicable to any modern high-stakes venture. Thus, is it a mere coincidence that the title of Trump’s 1987 bestselling (ghostwritten) book was “The Art of the Deal”?
Furthermore, Google revealed a 2012 Trump tweet quoting Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” And a comparable Sun Tzu quote not tweeted by Trump reads, “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
Currently, both proverbs mirror the mind games and pressure tactics Trump uses to achieve his goal – to be crowned the GOP presidential nominee without opposition – as if he were the incumbent president. Then and ultimately, Trump’s “greatest victory” is to avenge his 2020 election loss that, in his mind, he won.
Here is another Sun Tzu quote embraced by Trump: “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” The former president continuously teases another White House run while refusing to stop speaking about how the 2020 election was stolen. But Trump believes that is what his loyal base and Trump-endorsed candidates still want to hear. Hence, Trump generates chaos for Republicans who want to move ahead while maximizing his opportunity to keep the GOP firmly under his control.
Regarding Trump’s will-he-or-won’t-he 2024 plans, he abides by “The Art of War” quote, “Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”
The former president likely relishes being “the director of the opponent’s fate” when potential 2024 presidential primary candidates discuss their plans while evoking his name, directly or indirectly.
For example, after former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity,” the FoxNews.com headline read, “2024 Watch: Pompeo hints potential presidential run not dependent on what Trump decides.”
Moreover, considering Pompeo’s new book, strategic speaking schedule and fundraising for his “Champion American Values” (CAVPAC), Pompeo must be girding for accusations of “no loyalty” and he is “there because of me” backlash from Trump.
The same goes for Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who unveiled a “Freedom Agenda” that qualifies as a presidential platform through his organization, “Advancing American Freedom.” At his March 31 launch event, Pence fired an indirect but unmistakable tactical missile at Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election, telling reporters, “Elections are about the future. ”
Both Pence and Pompeo, while successfully raising millions of dollars and gearing up for a long primary season, know challenging Trump is risky business. Perhaps they believe that together, Trump does not want to battle them and will activate his doctor’s orders card.
Earlier this year, the media spotlight shined on a DeSantis/Trump rivalry. Reportedly, Trump was angry after the governor refused to announce that he would not run against Trump in 2024. Fueling the coverage were Trump’s statements that his 2018 primary and general election gubernatorial endorsements of the young, then-unknown Florida congressman had made Ron’s career. True or not, Trump’s pattern of intimidation was once again on display.
Unofficially, the 2024 presidential campaign begins the day after the midterm elections. And, if Republicans win control of Capitol Hill, that momentum is bound to encourage more primary contenders. Perhaps former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will jump in, while numerous ambitious Republican senators see the next president in their mirror.
Yet, for Trump, 2016-like numbers of primary opponents are the polar opposite of what he expects — more reasons a crowded primary might prompt the face-saving medical card. But “The Art of Withdrawal” could have a Trumpian twist.
Assuming Trump is healthy enough, a heavy-handed endorsement might influence who wins the nomination due to his legions of primary-voting loyalists. Then, if that nominee wins the White House, Trump could continue saying, “He or she is there because of me.” And from his Mar-a-Lago palace, “The Art of Kingmaking” might be written.
Myra Adams writes about politics and religion for numerous publications. She is a RealClearPolitics contributor and served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. Follow her on Twitter @MyraKAdams
Cross-posted at The Hill and Substack.