09.28.11

Donald Trump, GOP Kingmaker?

The Donald may have left the GOP 2012 horse race, but now top contenders like Romney, Perry and Bachmann are clamoring for his endorsement. McKay Coppins interviews the king of bombast.

The political-chattering class has made little effort to mask its mystification about Mitt Romney’s trek to Trump Tower earlier this week.

Yes, Donald Trump, the bombastic real-estate mogul and Celebrity Apprentice host, has entertained visits from other GOP heavyweights in the recent past. But those were people like Mike Huckabee, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin—Tea Party celebrities whose presidential aspirations have long strained credibility. Romney, on the other hand, is a Serious Candidate: establishment-approved, Ivy League-educated, and fantastically well-financed. What’s more, his Monday meeting with Trump came on the heels of another high-profile visit, from current Republican frontrunner Rick Perry. The high-powered names making it into Trump’s day planner these days provide a compelling (and perhaps frightening) question:

Is it time for Donald Trump to add “Republican kingmaker” to his resume?

“I have a very big following,” he tells The Daily Beast matter-of-factly, speaking over the phone shortly after his visit with Romney. “I think a lot of them depend on my endorsement. That’s why I was leading in the polls when I left. I never even said I was running, I said I was thinking about it.”

Trump is referring (as he often does) to his own short-lived flirtation with a presidential bid last spring. A seasoned provocateur, Trump rocketed up the polls at the time by hitching his wagon to the “birther” conspiracy, publicly calling on President Obama to prove his U.S. citizenship by producing a long-form copy of his birth certificate. The issue gained traction among the GOP’s right wing, and for a brief time Trump led the Republican pack in the polls. The whole overhyped affair culminated with a sweeps-month announcement that he would not, in fact, seek the White House. (Debunkers have pointed out that it’s a stretch to say he “was leading the polls” when he announced his decision.)

Since his non-campaign came to an end, the businessman has hosted a series of closed-door meetings with presidential hopefuls, most of whom have been reluctant to discuss the details of their conversations with Trump. Romney even reportedly gave journalists the slip on Monday, sneaking in and out of the building through a side door in an apparent attempt to avoid questions about the visit. (Reached for comment by The Daily Beast, a Romney campaign spokeswoman said simply, “It was a private meeting.”)

But discretion has never been Trump’s strong suit, and he is characteristically blunt when asked about the purpose of the visits.

“They want my endorsement,” he says. “I think they understand that I have a group of people who feel very strongly that I know what’s wrong with this country.”

Of course, it’s unlikely that Trump’s endorsement would sway the nomination. But for GOP primary candidates there are, no doubt, other advantages to getting him in your corner. As a prominent media figure, Trump has on-air rants that attract plenty of blogosphere buzz, and paying him the respect of a visit could at least prevent a blistering and widely covered attack from The Donald. His connections with the Wall Street elite could prove valuable in fundraising. And, for a candidate such as Romney, who lacks Tea Party bona fides, meeting with Trump could be a wink in the general direction of the party’s right wing.

To decide which candidate will reap these benefits, Trump puts each one through the ringer on his list of pet issues. The Trump agenda is, essentially, a list of foreign entities he believes are “ripping us off,” and he makes sure to ask the candidates how they plan to deal with perceived global enemies such as China and OPEC.

“It lasted over an hour with Mitt Romney and I’m liking his strength on China,” Trump says shortly after sitting down with the former governor. “I’m liking what he’s saying. I think he gets it and he gets it well.”

He also says he didn’t mean to slight Romney when he referred to him last April as a “small-business guy” whose net worth was “many, many, many” times smaller than his own: “I said I was richer, and that’s OK. He’s done very well. They asked me a question; they said, ‘Who’s richer?’ and I said, ‘Well that’s obvious, all you have to do is take a look at the magazines.’”

Trump shrugs off the renewed buzz about a possible late-in-the-game entrance by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. “I have a lot of property in New Jersey, so I’d love him to stay governor for selfish reasons,” he says. “But no, I don’t believe he’s going to run.”

That doesn’t mean the presidential field is entirely settled, in Trump’s estimation. For one thing, Trump himself refuses to rule out running as an independent “if the Republicans get it wrong” with their nominee. And he says to look out for the Democrats to launch a liberal primary challenge against Obama. “That’s something that’s very possible,” he says, parting ways with the vast majority of serious political observers. “I think if a good Democrat ran against him it would be serious.” Anyone in particular he’d like to see run? “Boy, would Hillary be nice,” he says.

Self-promotional hint-dropping aside, Trump seems to be embracing his role as an in-demand party kingmaker, and he doesn’t plan to relinquish that status anytime soon. He offers no indication of when he’ll announce an endorsement—or a campaign—and in the meantime, he will content himself with listening to top-tier presidential campaigns shower him with praise.

Paying Trump the respect of a visit could at least prevent a blistering and widely covered attack.

“He’s one of the most respected business leaders in the world,” says Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign. “[Meeting with him] is a worthwhile opportunity to talk to someone who understands the economy so well... No one understands economic issues like Donald Trump.”

Of course, not every candidate is clamoring for Trump’s support. Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China whom Trump says was “too nice” with the emerging superpower, has no plans to court an endorsement.

“I don’t think The Donald’s endorsement will go very far in New Hampshire,” says Huntsman campaign spokesman Tim Miller. “We can only hope Governor Romney and Mr. Trump will helicopter to New Hampshire together to campaign on birth certificates and Celebrity Apprentice.”