The former president made a gaffe, realized his mistake, and then made a joke sure to make the Republican establishment nervous.
It was Friday night, and Donald Trump was telling a crowd at Mar-a-Largo about his last campaign, about how “we were going to go in with a fourth term.” Of course, he was talking about his unsuccessful bid for a second stint in the White House. So, pivoting with a quick quip, Trump said, “It could be; you know we should be entitled to a fourth term too, after what we had to put up with!”
The audience — including some former Cabinet members and sympathetic members of Congress — laughed and cheered. They laughed and cheered again when Trump said he couldn’t use “Keep America Great” as a slogan because, as he explained it, “with all of the things that are happening in this country, I’ll say it, America, right now, is not great; America is under siege.”
More laughing and more cheering from the crowd.
But Trump was serious.
“You think I kid,” he warned, “but I’m actually not. I’m actually not.”
The private remarks, shared with RealClearPolitics, are the clearest sign yet that Trump is considering a return to politics. Some close to him believe he’s already decided. Last month, his former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told a radio host to lend him “all your money” so he could “bet that [Trump] is running again.”
Trump’s latest remarks came at the end of a policy summit hosted by the America First Policy Institute, the brainchild of his former senior domestic policy adviser, Brooke Rollins. It was a chance to replay all the old hits, introduce new ones at the expense of Joe Biden, and continue the will-he/won’t-he routine that’s aggravated the GOP establishment and titillated the MAGA base since he left office.
The Virginia gubernatorial election was proof that the Trump method works, at least according to the former president. A year after he issued an executive order banning federal training programs that even mention critical race theory, he said it “had become the number one issue in the Virginia governor’s race.”
On the eve of that election, Trump hosted a tele-rally for Glenn Youngkin, who went on to defeat former Gov. Terry McAuliffe by 2.3 percentage points. If he hadn’t called in to the rally and his base didn’t turn out to vote, Trump argued, “you would never ever have even come close to winning that election. Not even close.” Three days later, then, at Mar-a-Largo, Trump was ready to explain what “Glenn’s victory” meant. In his estimation, it was “a complete vindication of the arguments, and that was truly a vindication of our movement and the things we have been talking about for years.”
More such vindication is coming, he predicted, though Trump warned that “once these incompetent radicals are voted out of office … we have our work cut out for us because they are vicious and they are smart and they do stick together.”
But the GOP that will emerge if Trump is right about next November will be “a much different party,” he said, citing the gains his 2020 campaign made with blue-collar voters. “They even call it the party of Trump. And I said, ‘It's not the party of Trump. This is the party of all of you in this room, and this is going to long outlast Trump.’”
One area where this assessment seems apparent: The proliferation of culture war political arguments. Though Youngkin was hesitant to embrace Trump in Virginia, the Republican candidate was more than eager to lean into the debate over parental rights in education. Pointing to the Virginia victory, and to the salience of the CRT debate, Trump argued, “We did not start the so-called culture war. But we will win it, and we will win it very strongly.”
But while Trump was ready to declare early victories, he also returned to old grievances, reading aloud from a list of Republicans who he believed had wronged him. He griped briefly about Sens. Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Bill Cassidy. His harshest remarks, however, were reserved for the Senate minority leader. Trump called Mitch McConnell “an old, broken-down crow.”
“They don't fight like they should,” he said of that wing of the party.
“They're afraid of doing anything without apologizing to the radical left.”
The crowd seemed to enjoy this commentary, but they sounded ecstatic when the 45th president turned his attention to the current occupant of the Oval Office.
According to Trump, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan was “the most embarrassing moment in the history.” Rising inflation is ruining the economy, and things are so bad that Jimmy Carter looks “like a brilliant president by comparison.” The surge of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border wasn’t the result of incompetence, he asserted; the uptick was evidence that the Biden White House “wants these people to pour into our country.”
All of it sounded like one his old stump speeches, but Trump rolled out new material for his guests. “You just saw what happened to Joe Biden on his travails in Europe. That wasn't good,” Trump said of unsubstantiated right-wing rumors that the current president was indisposed during his recent visit to the Vatican. “He went to see the pope. He was, uh ... a little late. What the hell happened to him? Does anybody know what happened?”
As Trump was riffing, someone in the crowd started bellowing, “Let’s go, Brandon!”
Another crossover of politics and culture, the chant has become a GOP rallying cry. And Trump was delighted.
“Brandon has become a big star. Nobody ever heard of this guy before. Now he's one of the biggest stars,” Trump told his supporters. The chant that had started at a NASCAR race, when an Alabama crowd interrupted a live interview of Brandon Brown in the winner's circle with shouts of “F--- Joe Biden” — and the confused interviewer jokingly told the driver that fans were chanting his name — suddenly echoed in the ornate Mar-a-Largo ballroom. Trump was pleased. He enjoyed the original: “I still like the first phrase better somehow. It’s more accurate.”
This new meme has become part of the Trump camp’s marketing machinery. Along with the red MAGA hats and branded plastic straws, there are now the “Let’s Go, Brandon!” T-shirts for sale. Without officially running, the former president has amassed a war chest of more than of $102 million. Along with his grassroots army, that pile of cash makes Trump impossible for the GOP establishment to ignore.
Given that he wins most 2024 nomination straw polls, why wouldn’t he run again? That was the question RCP’s Tom Bevan asked the former president last month. His answer:
“Well, one reason could be your health. You get a call from your doctor and that’s the end of that. ... You never know, there are many things can happen; politics is a crazy world. It is a big commitment of you, your children, your wife and your family.”
If Trump has any hesitation now, he didn’t express it Friday night. He talked about Trump World, particularly the America First Policy Institute that hosted the night, as part of a larger “movement,” one that transcended him. Those followers, he told the black-tie crowd, “will prevail.”
“They're destroying our country,” he said of progressives in summing up his hour-long speech. “We're gonna make our country greater than ever before.”