ABC News' Michael Falcone ( @michaelpfalcone) reports:
Had Donald Trump decided to run for president he and his aides were planning an announcement event in an iconic location -- the glittering atrium of his own building on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
There, at Trump Tower, surrounded by polished marble, brass, mirrors and even a waterfall , the real estate and reality television mogul planned to hold a morning press conference on Wednesday, May 25. It was to be followed by a series of events over the next few weeks in early nominating states like New Hampshire and Iowa that Trump confidantes said would attract thousands.
“I love this country, I hate what’s happening to it,” Trump said in an interview with ABC News in April when asked about the chances he would run, “and you may very well be surprised.”
But Trump’s abrupt announcement on Monday that he would not seek the Republican nomination, renewed questions about whether it was all just a fantasy created by Trump and a small cadre of advisers to raise his profile and improve his negotiating position before signing on for a 12th season of “The Apprentice.”
For the third time since 1988, Trump flirted with a run before ultimately rejecting the idea. As he said in a statement, “business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.”
But he was apparently ready to think about it -- so much so that Trump had been meeting with political consultants on a weekly basis and talking to them on the phone even more frequently. Last Thursday they handed him a campaign plan complete with suggested names for a campaign manager, a finance director and even a team to run his political website.
“He was more serious than a lot of people realize,” Jim McLaughlin, one of the consultants working closely with Trump, said in an interview with ABC News. “He definitely had a path to victory -- it would have been a tough path.”
A few weeks ago, Trump settled on McLaughlin, who along with his brother Jim, run a New York and Virginia-based polling and strategic services firm, McLaughlin & Associates, to draw up the blueprint for a potential presidential bid.
When asked how close he believed Trump was to running on a scale of one to ten, McLaughlin answered, “I think he was a nine.”
McLaughlin, who worked on the presidential bids of Steve Forbes and Fred Thompson, said the campaign-in-waiting he had been putting together for Trump would have been ready to go at a moment’s notice. He was recruiting Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 deputy national press secretary, Jason Miller, to be Trump’s campaign manager. (Miller never officially accepted the position.)
By last week, Trump and his aides, including top political adviser Michael Cohen, were reviewing network television proposals for interview requests timed to coincide with the May 25 announcement. At the same time Trump was also facing heavy pressure from NBC executives who wanted Trump to continue hosting “The Celebrity Apprentice” for another season.
“He was definitely avoiding the NBC people,” said McLaughlin who met in person with Trump last week to deliver the campaign plan and said he was providing his services voluntarily while Trump considered his options. “He was procrastinating on the decision.”
Another political operative under consideration to work for Trump’s campaign team said he was “far from 100 percent sure that he was ever going to pull the trigger.”
“There’s still a big void in the Republican primary for someone with a big voice, for someone with no hesitation on what they’re about or what they want to accomplish,” said the source who had taken part in phone conversations with members of Trump’s staff. “He’s the type of leader that a lot of Republicans in the base were looking for -- they don’t want wall flowers.”
At least one member of Trump’s extended family, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was said to have taken an active interest in Trump’s political plans. Kushner, a wealthy New York media and real estate player who is married to Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, recommended a possible messaging and ad consultant to his father-in-law.
And Trump appeared to be showing real interest in a presidential bid in other ways too. Besides paying two visits to New Hampshire in less than a month, he met last week with roughly two-dozen Christian pastors in his New York office. Trump even made a brief cameo on Fox News over the weekend immediately following former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announcement that he was passing on a presidential bid.
“A lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates,” Trump said in the taped segment. “So, Mike, enjoy the show, you're ratings are terrific.”
But, like Huckabee, it was the lure of a successful television show and other business ventures that kept Trump out of the presidential race even though he boasted on Monday, “I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and ultimately, the general election.”
McLaughlin, who did not learn of Trump’s decision until Monday morning, said that it was better for Trump to stay out of the race since as Trump, himself said, “running for public office cannot be done half heartedly.”
But, McLaughlin added, “if he had gotten in, he would have sucked all the oxygen out from the rest of the field.”