“I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens,” he said minutes before leaving his Trump Tower office to fly to a campaign rally in New Hampshire.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Mr. Trump is playing coy to earn more news coverage. But the notion of the intensely competitive Mr. Trump’s being more interested in winning the presidency than serving as president is not exactly a foreign concept to close observers of this presidential race.
Early in the contest, his rivals, Republican operatives and many reporters questioned the seriousness of his candidacy. His knack for creating controversy out of thin air (this week’s edition: the Star of David Twitter post) and his inclination toward self-destructive comments did not instill confidence in a political culture that values on-message discipline in its candidates.
Those doubts dissipated after Mr. Trump vanquished his Republican opponents and locked up the nomination.
“I’ve actually done very well,” Mr. Trump said. “We beat 18 people, right?”
But as the race has turned toward the general election and a majority of polls have shown Mr. Trump trailing Mrs. Clinton, speculation has again crept into political conversations in Washington, New York and elsewhere that Mr. Trump will seek an exit strategy before the election to avoid a humiliating loss.
Now he is refusing to rule out an even more dramatic departure, one that would let him avoid the grueling job of governing, return to his business and enjoy his now-permanent status as a news media celebrity.
Told of Mr. Trump’s noncommittal comment, Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012 who has become one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal critics, said that Mr. Trump was “a con man who is shocked his con hasn’t been called” and that he was looking for an emergency exit.
“He has no sense of how to govern,” Mr. Stevens said. “He can’t even put together a campaign.”
Even Mr. Trump’s supporters acknowledge that his past campaigns had the air of a vanity tour. That impression lingers. A recent Trump news release promising “a speech regarding the election” prompted many reporters and political fortunetellers to predict a declaration of his departure. But just the fact that a routine news release prompted paroxysms of conjecture throughout the political universe suggested that, as Mr. Trump might say, “there’s something going on.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign and his supporters dismiss the talk as the fantasizing of frightened liberals or frustrated establishment figures.
“He’s not going to pull out,” said Thomas Barrack Jr., a financier and real estate investor who is a close friend of Mr. Trump’s. He compared Mr. Trump’s candidacy to an innovative start-up company: “You never see disruption when it’s happening.”
In Mr. Trump’s case, the disruption is everywhere. Last fall, he said in television interviews that if his standing collapsed in the Republican primary polls, he could very well return to his business. In mid-June, amid an onslaught of negative news coverage, he joked to a crowd that he would consider leaving the race for $5 billion.
On the off chance he actually is planning to back out, what would happen?
Alexander Keyssar, a historian at Harvard who is working on a book about the Electoral College, said the process of succession would depend on “the precise moment at which he said, ‘Nah, never mind.’”
The party representatives who make up the Electoral College would suddenly have real power rather than a rubber stamp. If Mr. Trump bowed out after winning on Nov. 8 but before the electors met in each state to cast their ballots on Dec. 19, then the electors could have the opportunity to vote for another candidate, Professor Keyssar said.
A majority of the 538 electors would be Republicans, but they might not agree on the best alternative candidate. If no one won a majority of the electors, the contest between the top three vote-getters — one of whom would presumably be Mrs. Clinton — would go to the House of Representatives, where each state would be given one vote, while the Senate would select the vice president. House Republicans hold 33 states to the Democrats’ 14, with three evenly split. It is unclear whether the vote would take place before or after newly elected representatives were seated.
It is also unclear what would happen, Professor Keyssar said, if Mr. Trump bid adieu after the electoral votes were cast but before they were officially counted, per the 12th Amendment, by the president of the Senate before a joint session of Congress in January. And if Mr. Trump left after the votes were counted in Congress but before he was sworn in on Jan. 20, Professor Keyssar said the closest guidance would probably come from Section Three of the 20th Amendment: “If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the president, the president-elect shall have died, the vice president-elect shall become president.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Professor Keyssar said.
And nothing like it will this year, Mr. Trump’s supporters say.
“It’s going to be too late by then,” Roger Stone, Mr. Trump’s longtime political adviser, said of the go-out-on-top theory. “If he got elected president, he’d certainly serve. I’m fairly certain about that. You think he’d resign? I don’t see that happening. There is only one star in the Donald Trump show, and that’s Donald Trump.”
Russell Verney, a former top strategist for Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who abruptly pulled out of the 1992 election, only to re-enter and win 19 percent of the vote, said that outsider candidates were more vulnerable to questions about their resolve.
“It never would be a subject raised with Romney and others, because the presidency is the ultimate goal of their entire professional career,” said Mr. Verney, who conferred with Mr. Trump during his exploration of a presidential run in 2000, during which, he said, Mr. Trump expressed reservations about selling his casinos to fund his campaign. “Donald Trump has not worked toward being president every day of his professional career.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters point out that he has begun adopting the more traditional trappings of a presidential campaign: a fund-raising operation, policy ideas, prepared speeches.
“This is silly,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, which has tried hard to make the Trump campaign more professional. “He’s in it to win it.”
But the only person who could truly put any doubts to rest seemed instead to relish the idea of keeping everyone guessing, concluding the recent conversation with a you’re-on-to-something grin and handshake across his cluttered desk.
“We’ll do plenty of stories,” Mr. Trump promised enigmatically. “O.K.?”
By Jason Horowitz, The New York Times