Even as President Trump fluctuates between false claims he really won the 2020 election and that it was stolen from him, he is also seriously considering launching a bid for 2024, two campaign sources and a third source with close ties to Trump's circle tell NPR.
The three sources, who were not authorized to speak to reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity, said a quick move by Trump to position himself for a comeback will have the impact of freezing out Republicans who may be considering a bid of their own — and will enable Trump to continue to raise questions about the legitimacy of Joe Biden's presidency once the president-elect takes office in January.
"I think he'd probably like to do it. And so dangling it out there is something that's very real, very real," a campaign official said.
"I think anyone except for Mike Pence in 2024 is really going to be frozen for a while on this stuff," the official said, noting that Vice President Pence was more recognizable than any other potential 2024 contenders for the Republican race.
Trump on Wednesday posted a 45-minute-long speech on Facebook and Instagram about his legal fight, one that was heavily edited and delivered to an empty room, recirculating debunked claims and conspiracy theories about the election, none of which have been proven in court, and calling for results to be overturned in multiple states.
Trump held up large charts that appeared to be blown-up versions of images he has tweeted since Election Day, claiming they prove fraud when they simply show the perfectly normal flow of ballots being counted. In the remarks, Trump admitted that "even judges so far have refused to accept it." Among diehard supporters, Trump has found an audience for these claims, but mainstream Republicans have moved on, and in private, Trump is looking past 2020 as well.
As first reported by Politico, Tuesday night at a largely White House holiday party with Republican National Committee members, Trump teased a 2024 run. In a video posted online by an attendee, Trump said, "It's been an amazing four years. We are trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I'll see you in four years."
Asked about a Trump 2024 run, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said she had "not heard any discussion of that." Referred to Tuesday night's party comments, she punted, saying that she hadn't spoken to the president about it and that he is focused on pursuing litigation to change the election results.
"He is still fighting to uncover the fraud in 2020 and win this current race," a second campaign source told NPR. "However, if he loses, he is 100% considering a run in 2024."
A former campaign adviser who remains in touch with key players around Trump said his advisers are working under the assumption he will run again, and said he could announce by the end of the year or shortly before Inauguration Day. "He'll probably announce the night before inauguration, so that that becomes a conversation all throughout Joe Biden's inauguration," the former adviser said. But others said they hadn't heard anything that concrete.
"Strategically, that's pretty smart on his part. Everyone now is frozen. Nikki who? Larry Hogan who?" the former adviser said, referring to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, both thought to harbor presidential ambitions. "That's what immediately happens to the Republican primary the minute Trump announces whether he's going to run again."
The former aide said a Trump announcement will also curb plans for Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and others they described as "career politicians" who are thought to be angling for the Republican presidential nomination.
Meanwhile, Trump's assertions of election fraud will continue to hurt Biden and his ability to try to unite the country, the former aide said, noting that Trump is not expected to attend the inauguration, and likely will continue to raise the specter that Biden's presidency is illegitimate.
"They're doing everything they can to create this asterisk," the former aide said. "There will be a significant amount of the population that sees Joe Biden as an asterisk president the more and more Trump keeps this up."
A common refrain in the Trump orbit is to say that while Trump is now trying to delegitimize Biden, it is no different than the Russia investigation that dogged his presidency and the constant reminders from many on the left that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016. Trump lost the popular vote by an even greater total in 2020.
Trump's campaign had prepared for the possibility of legal challenges if results were close, filing a flurry of lawsuits before Election Day questioning changes to rules for absentee balloting in several states. But after the election, Trump decided he wanted to take a different course of action and brought in his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, the campaign official said.
"We had a pretty narrow path, but it was a path," the official said. "I think the president made a decision that he wanted to kind of, you know, have someone go in there and knock over tables and stuff, and the path was probably a little too conservative for his taste, so he brought Rudy in."
Giuliani pushed out or alienated most of the more traditional campaign lawyers. "He's running kind of his own plays, and they're not very legal-oriented," the official said. "There's no legal team left. Like, they're calling it a legal team, but there's not lawyers that do work left to do it."
The public events orchestrated by Giuliani fall far short of the kind of evidentiary standards that would be required in court hearings, the campaign official said, calling them "fake hearings." But they help Trump push the fiction that the election was taken from him.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A popular Internet meme features signs showing President Trump running in 2020 and again in 2024 and again four years after that. Now, here we are. The president lost the 2020 election. He is still pushing allies to put their reputations on the line, backing his lie that he won. One of his allies even called for a Republican to be killed for telling the truth about the election. Yet people around the president say he is moving on to 2024. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here. Tam, good morning.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: What are you hearing?
KEITH: My colleague Franco Ordoñez and I spoke to three sources. They were not authorized to speak to reporters, so they spoke on condition of anonymity. But what they say is that President Trump is very seriously considering running again, that he's going to dangle it out there and that he could announce it quickly. One of the sources said he could announce by the end of the year or shortly before Inauguration Day. The thinking is that it would make him part of the conversation on Joe Biden's big day. But another source said that nothing that concrete has been discussed in the planning meetings that he's been a part of.
INSKEEP: Well, how does this 2024 planning match up with Trump making all of his political allies debase themselves by pretending that he hasn't lost 2020 yet?
KEITH: Well, they're connected, in a way. This fight that is being led now by his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is linked to his 2024 ambitions because among his supporters, at least, it casts a shadow over Biden's presidency. Also, Trump is allergic to the idea of being a loser even if, in reality, he lost fair and square. The campaign official I spoke to told me that there had been a plan for legal challenges if the results were close. It was a narrow path, he said. But after the election, President Trump decided he wanted a different playbook. He brought in Giuliani to, quote, "go in there and knock over tables and stuff." That alienated and pushed out more traditional, professional lawyers with relevant experience. And now Giuliani is going around the country holding what this campaign official called fake hearings.
INSKEEP: Well, then what is the president himself saying about this, as best you can determine?
KEITH: Well, he hinted at a holiday party at the White House a couple of nights ago about his 2024 ambitions. He told Republicans there that he'd like to be president another four years, even if that means returning in four years. Meanwhile, he posted a lengthy video on social media last night that was just chock-full of falsehoods, going over debunked claims that haven't been proven in court and haven't even been brought up in court because they couldn't stand up to it.
INSKEEP: And yet the president is going on to think about 2024. But let me ask about that, Tam. There are a lot of ambitious Republicans who've accepted the president personally humiliating them and embarrassing them and been silent about a lot of things, presumably so they would get a chance to go next. What's it mean to them that now the president himself may want to go next?
KEITH: Our sources - and basically the rules of politics - tell us that it will freeze them out. And that is part of the point. President Trump remains very popular with his base. And he is very good at keeping the spotlight on himself. And that will hurt people like Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who are thought to have presidential ambitions, as well as senators like Tom Cotton and others who have been positioning themselves to run in 2024. Vice President Mike Pence may be OK, one person tells me, because he already has a brand and a high profile because of the office he holds.
INSKEEP: OK. Tamara, thanks so much.
KEITH: You're welcome.
INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.