June 16, 2015 — Trump Tower, New York
Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman turned reality television star, glides down the escalator at his monument to himself and takes the stage in front of a crowd of supporters to announce ... that he is not running for president.
"We need somebody that literally will take this country and make it great again," Trump says. "Many, many successful people have been approaching me and begging me to run for president."
The crowd cheers so loudly Trump has to pause. "But I love my life, I have a wonderful family. I love hosting 'The Apprentice,' which, by the way, has very high ratings, some of the best ratings. So I just can't do it."
The crowd sighs in disappointment, although some of them were reportedly paid actors.
"There are so many people already running, I know the American people will pick someone really fantastic who will make America great again. Now, as you all know, I'm very rich. Tremendously wealthy. And when one of these guys proves he's going to make America great again, he's going to get so much money.
"And everyone that begged me to run will love him. We will win together, and we will win so much you're going to get tired of winning." And with that, Trump walks off, signing autographs and taking pictures with his die-hard fans.
But before he said he wouldn't run, with all the major cable news channels covering his speech live for a full hour, Trump sounds off on several issues.
On global trade, Trump says, "We never beat Japan at anything." He offends Mexican-Americans, saying, "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people." Trump calls for a "big, beautiful wall" to be built along the southern border.
Despite choosing not to run, it's immediately clear Trump will have an impact on the Republican primary. In an interview the next morning, radio host Hugh Hewitt asks GOP front-runner Jeb Bush if he will seek Trump's support. "Look," Bush says, "Donald is a great businessman, but there's just some things about policy he doesn't understand. We need to improve border security, but a southern wall is impossible and it would cost billions of dollars we don't have right now.
"And to call Mexicans rapists and criminals? That's just offensive. There are millions of Mexicans in America, including my wife, that are productive members of society."
July 1, 2015 — San Francisco
Thirty-two-year-old Kathryn Steinle is killed when an illegal immigrant shoots her on Pier 14 in San Francisco. The murder immediately ignites a debate over illegal immigration and sanctuary cities. Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the alleged killer, had been deported five times.
Prior to the incident, Jeb Bush emerges as a slight front-runner in the GOP race, although reaching only 16 percent support in the crowded field. The only other candidate to break 10 percent is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who's on the rise but hasn't yet launched his campaign.
The backlash against illegal immigration hurts Bush, who still hesitates to say Mexicans are criminals. "Let's not allow one bad actor to define all Mexicans, or all immigrants," he says.
Ted Cruz goes on the offensive. "How can we allow dangerous illegals to walk free?" Cruz says at a small Iowa gathering. "Jeb Bush says it's offensive to call immigrants that break the law 'criminals.' That's not offensive. It's just reality." Cruz vows to work in the Senate to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
August — October 2015
Even though he's not on the stage participating, Donald Trump influences the GOP debates. Fox News and CNN sign Trump to big contracts for live debate analysis. His promise to give huge funding to the candidate of his choice looms over the campaigns, though Trump doesn't actually come up during the debates.
"Jeb Bush? I don't like the guy. Very low-energy," Trump says after one debate. "Doesn't understand the problems we're having with illegals. I mean, his wife is Mexican, so he can't really get what's happening with the illegals who come here that are Mexican.
"Marco Rubio? Absolutely not. He's always supported amnesty. But you know who I like is Dr. Carson — never run for office before, doesn't owe anyone any favors. Ted Cruz, he's always been a winner. And Carly: She's a tremendous candidate and already very wealthy, just like me."
Given the chaotically large field, the first GOP debate on Fox News sets a ratings record: 21 million viewers. CNN draws 19 million for its debate a month later.
Although he's not running, Trump maintains a regular media presence, appearing on Fox News about three times a week and CNN at least once a week. Many people beg him to throw his hat into the race, or so he says. The occasional poll tests Trump's numbers just to be safe, and he performs decently.
By mid-September, Ben Carson has surged into the lead in national polls with 20 percent support, more than any other candidate has gotten in 2015. Fiorina is close behind with 16 percent. Bush still leads the so-called "Establishment Lane" of the primary, but with only 14 percent. Pundits and analysts start to call 2015 the "Year of the Outsider."
Bush maintains a 5-point lead in New Hampshire, though he's fallen out of the top tier in Iowa. There, Carson, Fiorina, Cruz and sometimes Walker battle for the lead.
Walker shocks everyone with an early October exit after lackluster debate performances and low fundraising numbers. Otherwise, the race is fairly stable. But terror is on its way in November and December and the race is about to get a shake-up.
Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.