A few weeks ago, I posed the question of whether when he entered the race last June, Donald Trump really expected his campaign for the Republican nomination to take off and become so viable or whether he did it mainly for a brief moment of publicity. Since then there have been two reports that provide support for both possibilities.
On the one hand Stephanie Cegielski, who was a Trump strategist, has quit the campaign and says that he was initially not serious about it.
Cegielski served as Trump’s communications director through the campaign, which, she says, no one intended to be a serious run at the White House — not even Trump. Rather, the goal was to take Trump to double-digit poll numbers and shake up the establishment, because Trump didn’t want to be president, he “just wants to be able to say that he could have run the White House.”
As Trump’s campaign success exceeded beyond everyone’s wildest speculation, Cegielski watched in horror as Trump talked himself into believing that he had what it took to run the nation.
On the other hand, Gabriel Sherman says that Trump has actually been considering running for a long time and carefully planned it, even to the extent of devising ways to challenge Fox News if they should try to stop him, and that around 2014 he set his plans in motion.
Trump used his wealth as a strategic tool to gather his own intelligence. When Citizens United president David Bossie or GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Trump for contributions, Trump used the conversations as opportunities to talk about 2016. “Reince called Trump thinking they were talking about donations, but Trump was asking him hard questions,” recalled [Trump advisor Sam] Nunberg. From his conversations with Priebus, Trump learned that the 2016 field was likely to be crowded. “We knew it was going to be like a parliamentary election,” Nunberg said.
Which is how Trump’s scorched-earth strategy coalesced. To break out of the pack, he made what appears to be a deliberate decision to be provocative, even outrageous. “If I were totally presidential, I’d be one of the many people who are already out of the race,” Trump told me. And so, Trump openly stoked racial tensions and appealed to the latent misogyny of a base that thinks of Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.
It was also thanks to some information he had gathered that Trump was able to do something that no other Republican has done before: take on Fox News. An odd bit of coincidence had given him a card to play against Fox founder Roger Ailes. In 2014, I published a biography of Ailes, which upset the famously paranoid executive. Several months before it landed in stores, Ailes fired his longtime PR adviser Brian Lewis, accusing him of being a source. During Lewis’s severance negotiations, Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved.
“When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
So there you have it, still unresolved. It may be that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, that Trump did seriously plan to run for president but even his huge ego told him that success was unlikely and that he was prepared to bow out early, and that he has been surprised by how far he has progressed.