The real question isn't so much when he'll start campaigning, but whether he will stop.
Trump has held rallies in key states, including an October gathering in Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating contest, where he told voters "We're going to take America back."
He is endorsing candidates for federal and statewide office — sometimes in primaries — and claiming credit when they succeed, as he did last week after Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and newly elected Rep. Mike Carey, R-Ohio, won races.
Trump continues to flood inboxes with near-daily fundraising appeals for his political action committee, "Save America," which was sitting on $90 million — a veritable fortune in national politics — when it last made a disclosure to the Federal Election Commission in June. And he remains on a quest to discredit GOP officials who might stand in the way of a third bid for the presidency, calling them "Republicans in name only" and worse.
"Very sad that the RINOs in the House and Senate gave Biden and Democrats a victory on the 'Non-Infrastructure' Bill," Trump said in a statement after the House sent a $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure to President Joe Biden's desk Friday. "All Republicans who voted for Democrat longevity should be ashamed of themselves."
There's no question that the former president maintains his grip on the Republican electoral base, and, with it, the ability to influence most of the party's candidates and elected officials. What remains in some doubt is what, exactly, Trump wants to do with that power, according to GOP strategists.
"I would describe what Trump is doing right now as not not running for president," said Chris Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist and pollster who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign. "Everything he's doing could morph into a 2024 campaign quite easily, but it also keeps him in the public eye and with a strong base of political power if he decides to play kingmaker in the primary and do something else instead."
Indeed, he is making all of the moves of a presidential candidate — and with far more capacity to command national attention than any other potential GOP 2024 hopefuls. Next to Trump, the rest of the field looks downright tiny: former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sens. Cruz, Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and others.
His universal name-recognition, deep support within the GOP and ability to raise cash all mean that Trump can afford to wait on a formal decision, according to John J. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College outside Los Angeles.
"If he wants the GOP nomination, it's his for the asking," Pitney said. "Trump is in a unique position," which allows him to "content himself with making money, waging legal battles and getting the occasional fix of audience applause" for now.
In late May, longtime Trump adviser Jason Miller told NBC News that "there's a good chance" that Trump runs if he thinks he is well-positioned to win. Several veteran Trump advisers, including Miller, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Democrats are paying close attention to Trump's positioning.
"The Trump threat should not be underestimated," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns. "How much of a threat depends on whether voters continue to feel that Democrats are talking past their concerns."
As evidence of that problem for Democrats, Kofinis pointed to Youngkin's win in Virginia and the razor-thin re-election of New Jersey's Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in a state that typically favors Democrats by wide margins.
"You don't have to look past New Jersey and Virginia to realize how off base we are right now," he said.
Though White House officials hope Biden will get a bounce from the enactment of his infrastructure bill — and perhaps a social spending bill behind it — his approval ratings have been under water since August, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national surveys. They stand at 42.7 percent, with his disapproval at 51.3 percent.
Many Republicans look at Youngkin as a model tightrope-artist. They watched him stoke Trump's base with appeals on cultural issues while reassuring independent voters by keeping arm's length from Trump himself. Still, that construct highlights the indispensability of Trump-minded voters to the GOP. Youngkin ran up huge turnout numbers in the same rural communities that helped deliver Trump's 2016 victory and kept him close in the electoral college in his failed 2020 re-election bid. Those voters are still energized, and many of them are waiting for Trump's return to the ballot.
If he officially runs in 2024, he won't have to launch a campaign. It's already begun.