For a brief moment Tuesday morning, hearts raced, temperatures rose, and chests tightened: Matt Drudge was teasing a “SHOCK ANNOUNCEMENT” from the White House. Given the tumultuous state of the news, domestic and foreign, could this be a fresh bombshell?
In a word: Nah.
Instead, Drudge Report revealed that President Trump intended to run for reelection in 2020, with Brad Parscale, his 2016 digital guru, as campaign manager. (The Associated Press confirmed the news.) To borrow a phrase from Trump’s attorney John Dowd, the news turned out to be a nothingburger. For one thing, it’s not generally news that a first-term president intends to run for reelection—in fact, it’s the overwhelming norm, and the fact that anyone might think otherwise is a testament to how embattled Trump is right now. As Alex Burns pointed out, the first report of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, including the identity of the campaign manager, came almost exactly eight years ago, at the same point in Obama’s presidency.
For another, Trump has been saying he’d run for reelection for more than a year now. He filed documents to do so the day he was inaugurated in 2017. More than a year ago, in February 2017, I reported on how Trump was holding his first reelection rally, paid for by his campaign.
To be sure, the Parscale news is intriguing, though given the rate at which Trump churned through top campaign officials in 2015-2016, it’d be risky to put too much stock in it. Parscale was plucked from obscurity in San Antonio to lead Trump’s digital efforts; the sophistication of his work remains under debate, and is partly connected with questions about Russian social-media interference with the election. Interestingly, Parscale is close to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is somewhat on the outs at the White House over his inability to obtain security clearance. Parscale is also an interesting choice because his digital-campaign work is said to be a focus for Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Zooming out, the idea that Trump is announcing his plans to run seems almost paradoxical—how can he start running when he never really stopped? To begin with, the president has never stopped litigating the 2016 campaign. Just a few hours before the Drudge dud, Trump was tweeting about accusations of criminality against his general-election opponent, Hillary Clinton. When pressed about the Russia probe and other questions from his own aides, Trump has consistently sought to change the subject to Clinton. At times of unhappiness, and there are so many, he likes to invoke the election, since it was a time when press coverage was (comparatively) positive, and when he overcame doubters to notch an upset victory.
Every successful politician who is not term-limited or retiring has to keep a dual focus—one eye on the next race, and one eye on the work they were elected to do—but generally they run because there is something they want to accomplish. Trump, however, has shown relatively little interest in governing, and it seems as though he ran for office so that he could run for office again.
Trump’s boredom with governance shows through in his increasingly truncated briefings and his increasingly empty schedule, as well as his disinterest in legislative nuts and bolts. Plenty of presidents are big-picture guys, and there’s a danger to getting bogged down in detail; just ask Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. But it’s not as if Trump is big on an overarching ideological agenda either. “Make America Great Again” is an effective slogan, but it doesn’t imply any particular policy platform. During the campaign and early stages of his administration, observers either assumed he would develop one, or else ascribed Steve Bannon’s agenda to Trump. Now Bannon is gone, and Trump has abandoned most of his distinctive platform in favor of a more traditional Republican one—or has abdicated it to congressional Republicans.
Of the core and distinctive things Trump wanted to do, the tax cut passed; the border wall remains basically stuck in neutral; Obamacare repeal flamed out; and the travel ban and DACA remain in limbo. That’s a mixed record of successes, failures, and incompletes, but it’s hard to think of anything that’s left that Donald Trump has an obviously burning passion to attempt. There will be further crises. There are things he continues to talk about, with varying degrees of interest, from flavor-of-the-week gun control to always-next-week infrastructure, but having at least tried most of his big ideas, it’s no surprise that Trump would be bored and ready to return to campaign mode.
Last week at CPAC, Trump reprised—at audience request, he said—a frequent stump-speech feature, in which he recited Oscar Brown Jr.’s lyrics to Al Wilson’s minor 1968 R&B hit “The Snake.” At CPAC, Trump said, “This was a rock-and-roll song,” but on the campaign trail he was more likely to refer to it as “poem.” That seems fitting in light of Tuesday’s supposed announcement. The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump, who has little inclination toward governance, never left poetry behind, either literally or figuratively.