U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the weekly Republican policy luncheons, on May 03, 2022 in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

Mitch McConnell sent a clear signal on Tuesday that he does not think Donald Trump will clear the Republican presidential field even if he decides to run in 2024.

Asked how he would handle a third presidential bid by Trump, McConnell pivoted. “I think we’re going to have a crowded field for president,” the Senate Republican leader said. “I assume that most of that’ll unfold later and people will be picking their candidates during a crowded primary field.”

Which may seem banal – unless you know that McConnell never says anything without a) thinking about it first and b) meaning exactly what he says.

Given that, it’s right to read McConnell’s answer as a sort of “come on in, the water’s fine” moment, an attempt to ensure that aspiring Republican contenders wouldn’t get spooked by Trump being in the race.

It also runs directly counter to how Trump has talked about his candidacy – and the 2024 race more broadly.

1) He has all but announced he is running. “Well, in my own mind, I’ve already made that decision, so nothing factors in anymore,” Trump said about another White House bid in a recent interview with New York magazine. “In my own mind, I’ve already made that decision.”

2) He’s dismissive of the other potential contenders. Of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump said this in the same interview: “I endorsed Ron, he was at 3, and as soon as I endorsed him, he went to first place, he was not gonna win.”

Trump, despite his boastfulness that he effectively “made” DeSantis, is clearly cognizant of the fact that recent polling has suggested the Florida governor would be his closest competitor.

And he’s cognizant that he’s sustaining damage from the ongoing January 6 hearings. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll showed that roughly half of those who plan to vote in the 2024 GOP primary would prefer someone other than Trump as the party’s nominee.

At least part of Trump’s reported interest in getting in the race before the 2022 midterms are over is to stake his claim and dare anyone else to challenge him.

McConnell knows this – and is working to counteract it.

Whether any major candidates – DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence – ultimately jump in is, of course, outside of the control of both Trump and McConnell.

And whether anyone who does run can actually beat Trump is a question no one can answer right now.

The Point: McConnell clearly prefers someone other than Trump as the party’s nominee in 2024, so he’s doing what he can to encourage them to not be bullied by the former President from running.