Donald Trump's new presidential exploratory committee: Is it serious?

For Donald Trump, a presidential exploratory committee isn’t a step. It’s a phrase, a signal, a means of repeating the same teasing 'maybe I’ll run' formulation he’s used many, many times before.

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Donald Trump gestures to the audience before speaking at the Freedom Summit, Jan. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Donald Trump says he’s going to launch a presidential exploratory committee. He insists he’s told NBC he’s not going to renew his contract for “Celebrity Apprentice.” He’s really, truly thinking about running for the Oval Office in 2016, Mr. Trump announced in a statement released to the press on Wednesday.

“I am the only one who can make America great again!” the Trump statement concluded.

This has semi-impressed some in the media, who are clinging to the hope that maybe, just possibly, Trump is serious this time. They’re particularly impressed with the part about the presidential exploratory committee.

“A key step toward running,” writes the Associated Press.

“A sign the billionaire is seriously considering running,” says the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

“Trump’s most decisive step yet toward running,” says The Washington Post.

We beg to differ.

For Trump, a presidential exploratory committee isn’t a step. It’s a phrase, a signal, a means of repeating the same teasing “maybe I’ll run” formulation he’s used many, many times before.

Why? For one thing, they’re quite easy to establish. File some paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, and voilà, you’re exploring. All it takes is a little time from a lawyer, and Trump has lots of lawyers on staff.

It’s not as if you have to go out and shop for canoes and pemmican and find native guides to set one of these things up. (Also, check and see if Trump actually goes through with this – he wouldn’t be the first to say he was taking this step and then never actually do it.)

For another, Trump doesn’t need one. The purpose of a presidential exploratory committee is to allow prospective candidates to raise money to fund exploratory activities. These funds can legally pay for travel, phone calls, and other stuff meant to gauge national support. But it doesn’t seem to us as if The Donald has any trouble paying for his plane and cell service. He’s flying all over the country giving political speeches, many of them paid. Why bother with the legal restrictions that come with an FEC-registered entity, if you don’t have to?

Finally, maybe you haven’t noticed this, but the serious candidates for 2016 generally haven’t bothered with exploratory committees. They’ve gone straight to the bigger guns: PACs, super PACs, and 527s.

Reasons vary. Associates of Hillary Rodham Clinton told The Washington Post last year that establishment of an exploratory committee triggers donation and expense disclosure requirements she’d prefer to avoid as long as possible. And the whole thing just seemed too coy for someone with obvious presidential ambitions, they said.

Exploratory committees must abide by federal campaign contribution limits. Super PACs – such as Jeb Bush’s “Right to Rise” organization – don’t. They can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without FEC supervision, though they’re supposed to operate independently once Bush officially launches his campaign.

Who does have a presidential exploratory committee? Well, on the Democratic side former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb says he’s setting one up. Among Republicans, Dr. Ben Carson and Sen. Lindsey Graham have said they’ll do the same thing.

All those guys are the longest of long shots. As is Donald Trump.

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