This time, Donald Trump says, he really means it.
The billionaire real-estate mogul — long amounting to a one-man circus sideshow in GOP presidential politics — said in an interview Wednesday that he is “more serious” than ever about pursuing a run for the White House in 2016.
In recent days, Trump said, he has hired staffers in key primary states, retained an election attorney and delayed signing on for another season as host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” because of his political projects.
“Everybody feels I’m doing this just to have fun or because it’s good for the brand,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Well, it’s not fun. I’m not doing this for enjoyment. I’m doing this because the country is in serious trouble.”
The moves are the most significant steps yet by Trump, 68, toward a bona fide presidential bid, which he considered briefly and flamboyantly in 2011 before deciding against a run.
The looming question, however, is whether he can convince Republicans that he is more than a celebrity bomb-thrower and instead is sincere in his consideration of a campaign. Trump is slated to appear ahead of former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives near Washington.
Trump in recent years has served largely as a provocateur and carnival barker on the sidelines of Republican politics, flirting with “birtherism” and making other remarks casting doubt on President Barack Obama’s credentials and love of country. GOP nominee Mitt Romney frequently shared the stage with Trump in often awkward appearances during the 2012 campaign, providing ample fodder for Democratic attack ads.
At a meeting Monday in New York with Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Trump said he was actively mulling a presidential run and acknowledged the necessity of formalizing his interest, according to people familiar with the conversation. Priebus, who will remain neutral in the 2016 primaries, took the meeting because of Trump’s status as a prominent donor to the RNC.
For the moment, Trump’s just-tapped consultants will be employed by his personal office, but they are likely to transition over to a new political group in the coming weeks. Donald McGahn, a partner at Jones Day, is counseling the businessman as he takes further steps.
Corey Lewandowski, a former director of voter registration at Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch, has been asked by Trump to serve as his senior political adviser and manager for the campaign-in-waiting.
Alan Cobb, a former political adviser at Koch Industries, is another Republican who has signed on with Trump and is assisting with recruitment.
Based in New Hampshire, Lewandowski will direct Trump’s efforts in the first presidential primary and nationally if Trump jumps into the race later this year.
Lewandowski, in an interview Wednesday, said he was hired by Trump in January and has since been quietly working with him to map out a strategy for the 2016 primaries that would enable Trump to run as a political outsider with a coalition of disaffected conservatives.
“The dysfunction of Washington and politics as usual drew me away from other candidates and toward someone who’s gotten something done in the business world,” Lewandowski said. To doubters, he said, “Wait and see. Mr. Trump is going to reintroduce himself to the American public. This is going to be a real contest and no one wants to see a coronation.”
Chuck Laudner, who advised former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s 2012 victory in the Iowa presidential caucuses, will lead Trump’s expected campaign there. Laudner’s hire was first reported Tuesday by the conservative Breitbart news website.
And in South Carolina, Ed McMullen, a political operative who assisted Arizona Sen. John McCain’s previous presidential campaigns, has agreed to serve as Trump’s state chairman and political adviser. Also on board is state Rep. James Merrill.
Advising Trump on communications is Sam Nunberg, a political operative who is an associate of Roger Stone, the famed New York-based GOP opposition researcher.
Trump would face steep challenges entering a field that is almost certain to include Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among a dozen others, including many conservative hopefuls who have built their own networks.
The billionaire’s entry would infuse the field with a large and colorful personality, as well as a national following and media coverage, forcing others to respond to him and his views.
Trump was in Charleston, S.C., on Sunday, for a speech at the Citadel. While he was there, he met with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a rising political player in the early primary state.
Last month, Trump was in Des Moines for a conservative summit hosted by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, where he made headlines by bashing both Romney and Bush. “The last thing we need is another Bush,” Trump said.
Laudner, who was also being courted by Santorum and Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., said he signed on after driving through the state with Trump during that visit, when he said he became convinced that Trump was not leading him on.
In March, Trump will travel to Iowa once again for an agriculture summit and to New Hampshire.
“I am more serious about this than I’ve ever been before,” Trump said in the interview. “I made the deal with Chuck and Corey and some more we’ll be announcing soon because I’m serious and I want to focus on connecting with people. I don’t need to be out there raising money.”
On the television front, Trump said he is keeping his options open and holding off on signing on for another season as host of “Celebrity Apprentice,” which NBC renewed earlier this month for a 15th season.
Nunberg said while Trump is open to doing the show, he has told NBC he cannot commit to hosting it.
Trump said his pitch is straightforward and meant to reach voters who are fed up with the political system, mixing conservative populism and a blunt message about leadership.
“People around the world are laughing at us,” he said. “Look at China, they’re killing us, taking our jobs. We have weakness in the Middle East and with ISIS. We have incompetent people running the country and I’m tired of it.”