After real estate mogul Donald Trump stepped down from the stage in the Gaylord Hotel’s Potomac Ballroom into a cheering CPAC crowd on Friday, he found himself face-to-face with New York conservative Charles Peralo. “Vote for Trump!” the billionaire reportedly said, pumping Peralo’s hand. “No thank you!” the young conservative replied.
“He rolled his eyes at me [in response],” Peralo tells National Review Online.
Though Trump famously flirted with a presidential run in 2011 before deciding against the idea, most attendees at the 2015 CPAC appeared to believe that this time, he actually means business. But while conservatives see the New York billionaire as more serious about a campaign this time, they seem no more likely to vote for him. Overwhelmingly, the crowd’s response to Trump’s entreaties here was largely “thanks, but no thanks.”
Given that Trump has considered launching a presidential campaign multiple times since his first dalliance with the idea back in 2000, most media outlets have written off his latest push as another ego-stroking adventure destined to fade into oblivion. That, says long-time aide Sam Nunberg, is a mistake.
“Forget the political elite and media,” Nunberg tells NRO in a hotel bar overlooking an icy Potomac River, just hours after Trump’s speech. “If you want to underestimate Donald Trump, if you want to think he’s not serious, you do it at your own peril.”
Nunberg — who was briefly fired by Trump, and then rehired, as many of his aides are, after a Buzzfeed article cataloged what it called the ostentatious billionaire’s “fake” campaign for New York governor last year — explains why his boss’s 2016 talk is the real deal.
“NBC has renewed The Apprentice, and [Trump] announced that, and then people assumed he’s not running,” Nunberg says, referring to the confusion after Trump celebrated the continuation of his show before abruptly announcing he would not be returning for another season.
“Renew is an open term,” Nunberg says. “Renew means NBC wants to keep doing the show — and he owns the show, by the way. . . . What he has said to them is, ‘If I would do it again, I will do it with you, with NBC. You don’t have to worry about me going to ABC, FOX, CBS.’ That was more what that is about.”
Confident that he’s assuaged any lingering fears over how Trump’s reality-TV commitments might affect his candidacy, Nunberg turns to the impressive array of political advisors the real estate tycoon has assembled.
“We haven’t paid a premium for anyone; we’re signing at market rate,” he says, citing recent hires such as former Rick Santorum advisor Chuck Laudner and ex-Americans for Prosperity executive Corey Lewandowski. “These are people that are top-tier, first-class people in the industry, and they are willing to sign on because they believe that he is taking this very seriously.”
Trump visited last Monday with the Republican National Committee chairman, who welcomed the billionaire as thanks for his generous donations to the GOP. “The meeting we had with Reince Priebus, we were really happy with,” Nunberg says, adding that his boss will speak at the RNC’s spring retreat and do all the things “that the other candidates do.” He says that Trump will ultimately decide on a run — though not necessarily announce — by June.
Coupled with his well-received CPAC appearance — during which he said he was “80 percent determined to run for the presidency” — all this preparation has convinced many conservatives that Trump may actually end up on the GOP’s primary debate stage next fall. But that doesn’t mean many of them are buying what he’s selling.
“Do I think Trump is for real? Yeah, I think he’s really gonna run,” says Brandon Blum, a young conservative from Richmond, Va. “I think he’s gonna have fun with it, because he’s gonna claim he’s not gonna be a politician. . . . ‘We tried politicians, now let’s try someone who has success in running business.’”
“Of course that’s not gonna work,” he adds. “It may backfire against him, because Romney was a businessman. But I think he’ll run.”
Blum laughs when asked what he thought of Trump’s speech. “Typical Trump,” he says. “In the fashion that is Trump. His brand.”
Kyra Palange, a student at Connecticut’s Clemson University, hedged her bets. “I understand he has some popularity here,” she says of Trump. “I think he’s — you know — he’s nothing if not a very intelligent man, so I think he already knows whether or not he can win before he decides whether or not to run. . . . This year I think we do have some strong candidates that are emerging, so I’m not sure if he would run given that, or — it really depends.”
“I respect Donald Trump and what he’s done, but I don’t know if he would make a good candidate,” she says.
Even conservatives who appear tailor-made to support a Trump candidacy expressed reservations. The billionaire blasted moderate Jeb Bush during his CPAC appearance, calling him “weak on immigration” and saying he has no chance of winning. Nunberg echoes that sentiment, telling NRO his boss is “a proud member of the Tea Party” and that “one of the reasons Mr. Trump is prone to run is he wants to stop the Bushes.”
But William Temple, a Brunswick, Ga., native dressed in full Revolutionary War regalia and waving a Gadsden flag, is not impressed.
“I think he will run, and I don’t know if that helps us,” says Temple, who led immigration hawks in a walkout during Jeb Bush’s CPAC appearance later on Friday. “My problem with Donald Trump is, this is a man who buys influence. . . . He knows how to manipulate things.”
“I like him as a person, I’m just tired of him being a representative of conservatives,” he adds. “He’s never walked the Tea Party with me.”
Trump is not without his conservative supporters — he won 3.5 percent in Saturday’s straw poll, well behind the likes of Rand Paul, Scott Walker, and even Bush, but still good enough for seventh place, ahead of Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, and Bobby Jindal, among others.
But CPAC’s general opinion on the matter seems best encapsulated by Brian Long, an economist from Kalamazoo, Mich., who is also taking Trump at his word when he says he’s serious this time.
“Political ability is one that is necessary to maneuver with the House of Representatives, with Congress, with the other Republicans,” he says. “I’m not saying that Donald Trump can’t do that, but he would have to learn how to do that. And things are moving too fast in the world today for that to happen.”
“Even though I like the man personally,” he says, “I would have to come back and say he would be probably about my sixth choice for president, behind people like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker.”
— Brendan Bordelon is a media reporter for National Review Online.
EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been updated since its original posting.