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Why Trump’s offhand comment about his health could be a watershed moment

Although the 2022 midterm elections are fast approaching, with control of Congress hanging in the balance, the question of whether Donald Trump will once again try  to seek the presidency in 2024 continues to hover over national political discussions.

Pols, pundits and former associates of Trump are split about whether he will toss his hat in the ring a third time. Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney and “fixer,” told CNN last year that Trump’s “fragile ego cannot stand to be considered a two-time loser.” On the other hand, many analysts — including me — believe that Trump may very well take another crack at returning to the White House in 2024. In a recent piece, I argued that no matter the stakes, Trump will likely have no other option than to run again, given the wide array of legal problems bearing down on him, his family members and his business interests. 

This offhand comment — one that apparently came as something of an afterthought toward the end of the interview — sent shock waves through the political establishment

So, with so much at stake for him personally, as well as for his party and the country, it was notable that, in a recent interview with The Washington Post, the former president floated the possibility that his health could become an important factor in weighing whether he would run again in 2024: “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.” 

 This offhand comment — one that apparently came as something of an afterthought toward the end of the interview — sent shock waves through the political establishment, because it was the first time that Trump, who has been notoriously secretive about sharing his health records with the public, seemed to admit that health issues might influence his decision to run. He has often been deliberately misleading and even dishonest about his health, and for him to proactively bring it up as a potential reason not to run in 2024 is something of a watershed moment. But Trump being Trump, what you see or hear is not exactly what you get, and it would be ill-advised to take his comments at face value.

There are three possible ways to interpret Trump’s recent comments, all of which have important political consequences for national politics and even the international stage.

First, he may really have some serious undisclosed health issues. Trump, who would be 78 by the time he would take office if he were to win another term, has had access to the world’s best health care. But his advanced age, his 2020 bout with the coronavirus, coupled with obesity, and what has been well documented as a generally unhealthy lifestyle may be catching up with him. There has also been rampant speculation that he may even be in the early stages of dementia. It is not inconceivable that, in a rare moment of candor, Trump may have said out loud what he may be hearing from his medical team — that he simply cannot physically or mentally endure the rigors of another presidential campaign, much less another four years in office.

Second, perhaps Trump never intended to run, and he will use his health to justify having strung out speculation about his political return for so long. I, along with presumably millions of other people, recently received an email from Trump on behalf of Save America, an entity that raises funds on behalf of his Save America and Make America Great Again political action committees, celebrating his alleged hole-in-one while he was playing against “some of the greatest golfers in our country.” His supporters were invited to help celebrate his achievement by donating a minimum of $75 to his political organization in exchange for a signed picture of him on the green.

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This entreaty from Trump is just the latest in a barrage of electronic missives soliciting money from MAGA nation. Since leaving office, Trump has continued to milk his base of loyal supporters for every possible last dime. Cohen has called Trump’s post-presidential fundraising operation “nothing more than the world’s greatest grift” and said that Trump is “bringing in money greater than when he had the Trump Organization with all of its assets.” Since leaving the White House, Trump has raised over $130 million from his loyal fan base, largely because many feel that he will make a return to politics.

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But at some point, the rubber will meet the road, and he will have to either announce a third run or cut bait. Assuming he has never had much intention of making another bid amid fears of losing a second time to Joe Biden, he will need a convenient and unassailable excuse for why he is not running after having raked in so much dough. Citing mounting health concerns is the perfect way out of an otherwise messy and compromising situation he has created vis-à-vis his donors.

A final possibility is that Trump is sending out a trial balloon. Dangling that potential health issues might prevent him from running reminds me of a famous quote from Chinese war philosopher Sun Tzu: “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Suggesting that health issues may prevent him from running might be an effort to see how other Republicans react. Do GOP heirs-apparent such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pounce on what might be construed as Trump’s weakness to gain an advantage ahead of 2024, or do they rally behind the former president in a show of continued loyalty? Trump’s ego will make it very difficult for him to step aside and hand over the reins of the GOP to a new jockey; if anything, he will want to be seen as a kingmaker and will carefully evaluate potential successors to the MAGA movement, demanding complete loyalty. Dropping hints about health issues may be part of that vetting process to see whom he will be able to control once he steps aside.

I still believe that the odds that Trump will run are greater than not. Just last week, he teased another presidential run at a political rally in North Carolina. Either way, it will be interesting to see whether he returns to his health issues in the run-up to 2024.

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