WASHINGTON — Donald Trump, the twice-impeached former U.S. president, tossed his red ball cap back into the ring Tuesday — an exercise some observers say is as much about judicial self-preservation as it is a brazen display of political ambition.
"America's comeback starts right now," Trump said Tuesday as he declared his long-telegraphed intention to pursue the 2024 Republican nomination.
"In order to make America great and glorious again, I am declaring my candidacy for president of the United States."
He did it inside a gilded, mirrored ballroom at his private Mar-a-Lago country-club fortress in Palm Beach, Fla., from a lectern surrounded by American flags. In the crowd, dozens of cellphone screens held aloft captured Trump's entrance with his wife Melania at his side.
For America's most infamous commander-in-chief, now comes the hard part.
— He was impeached and acquitted twice, first in 2020 for what Democrats considered an attempt to leverage aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter, and again in 2021 on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection.
— A select House committee investigating last year's chaos on Capitol Hill has all but laid the blame directly at the former president's feet, accusing him of ignoring the danger to lawmakers and Vice-President Mike Pence and riling up supporters on Twitter, all the while trying to drum up support to overturn Biden's election win.
— He's under federal investigation for his concerted efforts to strip Biden of his 2020 victory, as well as for spiriting hundreds of documents out of the White House to Mar-a-Lago, many of them considered top secret.
Political experts say his candidacy, particularly such an early entrance into the race, could be part of a strategy to trip up his legal pursuers.
"There is no settled law about whether or not (a presidential candidate) can or cannot be investigated," said Aaron Ettinger, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
"All of this exists within the realm of democratic norms in America, and right now we're in uncharted territory. So he enjoys the benefit of muddied waters."
In an abbreviated version of his usual rally performance — he entered, on cue, to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A.," his unofficial theme song — Trump made no mention of his presumptive rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But in a speech that ran just over an hour, which is brief by Trump standards, he hinted at a possible strategy for the nomination battle to come: portraying DeSantis as a career politician who will put party loyalty above his constituents.
"This is not a task for a politician or a conventional candidate," Trump said. "This is a task for a great movement that embodies the courage, confidence and the spirit of the American people."
As he often does, he mentioned Canada by name when he cited the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, signed in 2018, which replaced NAFTA: "the worst trade deal ever made," as he described it.
He lingered, as well, on energy independence and fuel prices — an issue that often perks up ears north of the border, particularly since the Alberta government's full-throated efforts earlier this year to promote Canadian oil and gas to Biden's current administration.
It also raises fears that a Trump administration would run roughshod over efforts by the current White House to confront climate change — a threat Trump dismissed by comparing the threat of nuclear war with the prospect of sea levels increasing "by an eighth of an inch" over "the next 200 to 300 years."
Foreign countries "that hate us gravely" are perplexed by a U.S. reluctance to expand domestic fossil-fuel production even now, he said.
"We go to them begging for oil, and we have more liquid gold under our feet than they have or any other nation has — and we don't use it because we're going to them? It's crazy, what's happening. We can't let it continue."
Over his four-year term, Trump appeared uninterested in a constructive relationship with the Canadian federal government. He complained frequently about access to Canada's dairy market, griped publicly about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chrystia Freeland, who was foreign affairs minister at the time, and left punitive tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum producers in place for months after the USMCA was completed.
A Trump presidency would be "a terrible situation for Canada," Ettinger warned.
"Canada has enjoyed a sort of benign neglect from the Biden administration," said Ettinger, adding that a second Trump presidency would be "a terrible situation" for leaders north of the border.
"Trump back in the White House places uncertainty back at the centre of the North American relationship. And that is bad for Canada, because when access to the American market is uncertain, the Canadian economy suffers."
In recent days, Trump has not appeared as invincible as he once did.
Republicans — until recently either on board or on mute when it came to the idea of Trump as their nominee — have been having second thoughts ever since voters pulled the rug out from under their feet in last week's midterm elections.
For them, the best news to emerge Nov. 8 was the convincing 20-point re-election win for DeSantis, who has yet to declare his intentions but is widely seen as a contender for the crown of presumptive Republican nominee.
Media reports suggest DeSantis himself has done little to dispel that notion.
"At the end of the day, I would just tell people to go check out the scoreboard from last Tuesday night," he said Tuesday, ahead of Trump's announcement, when asked about the former president's criticism.
Several recent polls suggest DeSantis is gaining on Trump, if not surpassing him. That appears to have loosened the tongues of some Republicans, particularly those who blame Trump-approved candidates for their poor showing.
And some major Republican donors and Trump allies, including Blackstone Group chief executive Stephen Schwartzman and hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin, are making clear they want generational change.
"You have two players with significant constituencies, both having political claims to be the next leader, going at it for all the marbles," Ettinger said.
"This is going to be civil war within the Republican Party."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press