Donald Trump’s final speech, at a kind of half-hearted miniature rally, ended on a fitting note. “Have a good life,” a dejected and petulant Trump said. “See you soon.” Then the Village People’s “YMCA,” the anthem of his failed bid for reelection, started blaring. Trump waved goodbye and boarded Air Force One. Somewhere between Washington, D.C., and Mar-a-Lago, he made time to issue one final pardon—this one to favorite Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s ex-husband, who had been convicted of tax evasion 20 years earlier. Soon after Trump deplaned, Joe Biden was sworn in as president. Trump was, at long last, just another Florida man.
Trump’s whiny “have a good life”—delivered, it should be underlined, to a sparsely attended audience containing several close aides and members of his family—had an air of finality. He may not have been riding off into the sunset, but he was adopting the kind of teasing threats he was fond of issuing on the campaign trail. “If I lose to [Biden], I don’t know what I’m going to do. I will never speak to you again,” he told rallygoers in North Carolina in September. A month later, he told a crowd in Georgia, “Could you imagine if I lose? My whole life, what am I going to do? I’m going to say, ‘I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics.’ I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country?”
But no one expects Donald Trump to enjoy a George W. Bush–esque exile from public life. Instead, another line from Trump’s farewell speech hangs in the air: “We will be back in some form,” he said. Many in the media interpreted it as a comeback vow, though in true Trumpian fashion, it’s not at all clear what he meant. Was he talking about another run at the White House? Or simply saying that the MAGA movement will live on? Or, perhaps, that his legacy will continue in the form of his daughter Ivanka (brand awareness), his son Donald Jr. (hunting vlogs), his son Eric (gum disease awareness), his daughter Tiffany (increasingly desperate bids for attention), and his son Barron (gaming).
Most likely, Trump himself doesn’t know what comes next. He was, after all, apparently plotting insurrection with the CEO of a pillow company until only a few days ago. His final days in office were spent pardoning some of the most corrupt figures in recent American history, rather than making future plans. His vow to be “back in some form” is the kind of vague statement he’s been making for years—first in teasing a number of runs for political office and, as president, as a means of keeping the spotlight on himself. “We’ll see what happens” is one of Trump’s favorite phrases, at once a dodge and a threat, and it’s one that he deploys to ensure the press keeps covering him. Now he’s hoping the media will continue to lavish attention on him, this time focusing on whether he’ll run again in 2024.
Over the last two weeks, Trump has lost his ability to dictate the news in quite the same way that he has for most of the past five years. Without a Twitter account, he is unable to gatecrash the day’s media cycle. As an ex-president—no longer an aspirant, as he was in 2016, or a global leader, as he has been since 2017—he will not have the same clout. Trump’s hold over the GOP far surpasses Bush’s when he left office, but his continued influence over the Republican Party will be tested in coming months, particularly during his yet-to-be-scheduled impeachment trial in the Senate.
Now that he is suddenly without the means of instantly attaining media attention, stoking speculation about a potential presidential run is Trump’s best way of ensuring the country doesn’t move on. Even without Twitter, he still will be able to call in to cable news programs, as he did during the 2016 election. He may very well still hold rallies, taking his supporters’ money and keeping himself relevant at the same time. He will almost certainly attempt to sell a memoir, though it’s unlikely that any publisher deep-pocketed enough to pay him the tens of millions of dollars he would likely expect would be willing to work with him postcoup. (He could still find a home at a conservative press, as Josh Hawley did after he was cut loose from Simon & Schuster, or even self-publish.) And he will be dealing with a news media that has been addicted to Donald Trump for years.
Since the insurrection, mainstream outlets have gone cold turkey, more or less. Trump’s pretaped farewell address, which was released on Tuesday evening, barely received any notice. While there has been some of the palace intrigue that has defined much news coverage of the last four years—the president unsurprisingly spent his postcoup time in the White House brooding and isolated—there was a sense that the press had fully turned its attention to the incoming administration. Trump, however, is betting that the press’s detox won’t take. And he knows that dangling a presidential run is the best way to get the attention he craves.