For much of the summer, there was a very real possibility that Donald Trump would run for president on a third-party ticket if his Republican campaign faltered. Pressed repeatedly to rule out the independent option, the New Yorker demurred, causing considerable handwringing in GOP circles.
By September, however, the matter appeared to be resolved. Trump signed – and publicly waved around – a “loyalty pledge” binding him to the Republican nominating process. The speculation about a third-party run quickly evaporated.
And now it’s back. On Sunday, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos noted a Wall Street Journal article about Republican insiders planning to launch a guerrilla campaign against Trump. The host asked the candidate if he’d “reconsider” an independent bid. “Well, we’ll see what happens,” Trump replied. “It will be very interesting.” Moments later, there was this exchange:
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you’re open to an independent run?TRUMP: Well, I’m going to have to see what happens. I will see what happens. I have to be treated fairly. You know, when I did this, I said I have to be treated fairly. If I’m treated fairly, I’m fine. All I want to do is a level playing field.
Yesterday, the Republican added on Twitter, referring to the Wall Street Journal article Stephanopoulos mentioned, that his party is “getting ready to treat me unfairly.” Trump concluded, “That wasn’t the deal!”
The wording mattered. If Trump believes he reached an agreement with Republican Party officials, and the party is now reneging on the deal, then he may very well feel justified in breaking the “loyalty pledge” he signed – since in his mind, his intra-party partners didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
For the record, the substance of Trump’s complaints is dubious. His deal was with the Republican National Committee, which has no power over Republican donors and activists who may try to bring Trump down. It’s not like Reince Priebus can identify Trump’s critics, give them a call, and order them to knock it off.
But these details probably won’t matter to Trump and his supporters, who’ll likely enjoy the leverage that comes with the unstated threat.
As for whether Trump could actually mount a credible third-party campaign, we may have to take another look at those sore-loser laws sometime soon.