August 17, 2016 at 10:22 AM
Donald Trump, following weeks of gnawing agitation over his advisers' attempts to temper his style, moved late Tuesday to overhaul his struggling campaign by rebuffing those efforts and elevating two longtime associates who have encouraged his combative populism.
Stephen Bannon, a former banker who runs the influential conservative outlet Breitbart News and is known for his fiercely anti-establishment politics, has been named the Trump campaign's chief executive. Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster who has been close to Trump for years, will assume the role of campaign manager.
Two Trump campaign aides confirmed the staff's reshuffle early Wednesday, requesting anonymity to discuss personnel changes without permission.
Trump issued a statement hours later. "I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win," he said. "I believe we're adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again."
The campaign played down the notion that Trump was reacting to the polls or saw his bid in crisis.
"These announcements come at a time of significant growth for Mr. Trump's campaign, with the first major TV ad buy of the general election slated to start later this week and with additional top-flight operatives joining the movement on a near-daily basis," the campaign said in the statement.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the moves.
Trump's stunning decision effectively ended the months-long push by campaign chairman Paul Manafort to moderate Trump's presentation and pitch for the general election. And it sent a signal, perhaps more clearly than ever, that the real estate magnate intends to finish this race on his own terms, with friends who share his instincts at his side.
Manafort, a seasoned operative who joined the campaign in March, will remain in his role, but the advisers described his status internally as diminished due to Trump's unhappiness and restlessness in recent weeks over his drop in the polls and reports over lagging organization in several key states. He told some friends that he was unsure if he was being given candid assessments of news stories and the campaign's management.
While Trump respects Manafort, the aides said, he has grown to feel "boxed in" and "controlled" by people who barely know him. Moving forward, he plans to focus intensely on rousing his voters at rallies and through media appearances.
Sean Spicer, chief strategist at the Republican National Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the national party is already working with the new high command and remains fully committed to supporting Trump's candidacy in the coming months.
"The campaign is expanding and bringing in more senior people in the final stretch. Obviously that's a healthy thing," Spicer said, noting that he spoke with Bannon by phone late Tuesday and remains in close touch with the new Trump CEO by email.
But Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant working for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, said angst was evident Wednesday morning in a round of phone calls to his friends on Capitol Hill. He predicted that the RNC would be pressured to eventually distance itself from Bannon and then possibly from Trump, in order to protect down-ballot GOP candidates across the country.
"If you were looking for a tone or pivot, Bannon will pivot you in a dark, racist and divisive direction. It'll be a nationalist, hateful campaign," Wilson said. "Republicans should run away."
In a call with reporters Wednesday, Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, said Trump's recruitment of Bannon heralds an even nastier campaign.
"After several failed attempts to pivot into a more serious and presidential mode, Donald Trump has decided to double down on his most small, nasty and divisive instincts by turning his campaign over to someone who is best known for running a so-called news site that peddles divisive, sometimes racist ... sometimes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories," Mook said.
Controversy also has swirled around Manafort in recent days, after he was named in a corruption investigation in Ukraine that suggested he had received $12 million in undisclosed cash payments. The purported payments, earmarked in a ledger kept by the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine's president, raised questions about Manafort's ties to foreign governments and prompted his critics to demand his resignation. Manafort has denied receiving any such payments.
Trump's turn away from Manafort is in part a reversion to how he ran his campaign in the primaries with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski's mantra was "let Trump be Trump" and Trump wants to get back to that type of campaign culture, the aides said.
In Bannon especially, Trump is turning to an alter ego — a colorful, edgy figure on the right who has worked at Goldman Sachs and made several films, including a documentary about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Bannon, in phone calls and meetings, has been urging Trump for months to not mount a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable, the aides said. Instead, Bannon has been telling Trump to run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist.
Trump has listened intently to Bannon and agreed with him, believing that voters will ultimately want a presidential candidate who represents disruption more than a candidate with polished appeal, the aides said.
"I want to win," Trump told the Wall Street Journal. "That's why I'm bringing on fantastic people who know how to win and love to win."
The campaign said in its statement that Bannon, a former Navy officer, would be "temporarily stepping down from his role with Breitbart News to work full-time on Mr. Trump's campaign in a new position designed to bolster the business-like approach of Mr. Trump's campaign."
"Mr. Bannon," it continued, "once recognized by Bloomberg Politics as the 'most dangerous political operative in America,' will oversee the campaign staff and operations in addition to strategic oversight of major campaign initiatives in addition to working with Mr. Manafort."
Manafort, in a statement, said that he is sure the additions will "undoubtedly help take the campaign to new levels of success."
"Buckle up," wrote a Trump strategist in a text message Wednesday to The Washington Post.
Several people close to Trump said Bannon and Conway have decided to target five states and want to devote the campaign's time and resources to those contests: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is in those states where they believe Trump's appeal to working-class and economically frustrated voters has the best chance to resonate, the people said.
Trump's decision developed over the weekend as he traveled to the Hamptons in New York for a Saturday evening fundraiser at the home of Woody Johnson, the wealthy Republican benefactor who owns the New York Jets.
According to three Republicans familiar with that event, Trump was confronted by several supporters there, including mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, about news reports on his advisers' desire to tame his personality. The three Republicans requested anonymity due to sensitivity of the campaign's transition and their relationships with Trump, Bannon and Conway.
Trump was visibly infuriated at the news stories, the Republicans said, and he conferred with Mercer about potential steps he might take to remake his campaign and populate his inner circle with voices more like his own.
Bannon's name soon came up. Mercer, the daughter of hedge-fund titan Robert Mercer, spoke highly of him. (The Mercer family is a prominent investor in Breitbart News as well as in a super PAC opposing Hillary Clinton.) Trump did the same and told her they had been talking.
By Sunday, as Manafort appeared on network television shows, Trump was stewing and dialing up his friends, the Republicans said. He connected with his son-in-law and trusted adviser Jared Kushner, who has been on vacation in Europe. Then he called Conway and Bannon, ruminating aloud on how they could help him jolt his stalled candidacy.
The Journal reported that Bannon met with Trump later on Sunday at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., to "lay out his new thinking for the campaign team" — with Manafort joining that meeting.
Bannon and Conway, who are friendly, both told Trump they'd be willing to work together and that they understood Trump's vision for the rest of the campaign, the Republicans said. While careful to not be critical of Manafort — Conway has referred to the changes as an "expansion" rather than a shake-up — they told Trump they would be dedicated to sharpening his message rather than handling him.
Bannon came to the conversation armed with ideas about how to promote Trump nationally and underscore his populism. Conway, who worked on Newt Gingrich's 2012 campaign and has long counted Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as a client, had thoughts on how Trump could reach out to more women and suburban voters.
Bannon quickly began to prepare for a takeover. He was spotted at Trump Tower on Monday and worked there Tuesday though he did not travel with Trump.
The campaign's revised structure started to take shape Tuesday afternoon at Trump Tower. Kushner, back from vacation in Croatia with his wife Ivanka, joined Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, Conway and Bannon, the aides said.
Trump's decision to transfer oversight of the campaign was deliberated at length. At the same time, Bannon and Conway were also remotely assisting Trump as he readied his speech that evening in Wisconsin.
Moving forward, Trump is hopeful that Manafort will remain involved and a leader within the campaign with a possible emphasis on building Trump's Washington operation, one of the Republicans said.
But Bannon's position could make any attempt to smooth relations in Washington difficult. Breitbart News has been harshly critical of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and is seen as an antagonistic organ by congressional GOP leaders.
Another headache for Manafort: the continued hovering presence of Lewandowski, now a CNN commentator, who remains a confidant of Trump. According to Trump aides, he had a hand in prodding Trump to elevate Conway and Bannon and spoke with Trump over the weekend.
Ever since Manafort joined the campaign, he and Lewandowski have had a bitter relationship, which only worsened when Lewandowski was fired in June during the last major campaign overhaul.
Lewandowski took a veiled shot at Manafort on CNN on Wednesday morning, praising Bannon's addition to the staff and suggesting it would lead to a more aggressive approach.
"You've got a candidate who wants to win. This is a clear indication of that. If you look at Stephen Bannon and what they've built at Breitbart, it's win at all costs," Lewandowski said. "And I think that really makes some people on the left very afraid because they're willing to say and do things that others in the mainstream media wouldn't do."
"The campaign wants to prove to the Clinton people that they're going to take this fight directly to her," he added.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani praised the shake-up during an interview with Fox News on Wednesday morning, avoiding direct criticism of Manafort directly but suggesting that the moves could inject new energy into Trump's campaign.
"I don't think it's about strategy, I think it's about management, making sure you have the right number of people in place to manage an organization that has grown dramatically," he said.
"This is a good thing. This is what Ronald Reagan did when he brought Jim Baker in.… And that turned out to be the thing that turned the campaign around, or helped turn it around," he added.
Giuliani also praised Trump for a speech Tuesday night in West Bend, Wis., where he spoke about law enforcement in light of the unrest in Milwaukee. The former mayor called it a substantive speech and a step in the right direction.
In the short term, Trump campaign strategists will seek to keep the candidate focused on two themes that have animated him in recent months: defeating terrorism and expanding law enforcement, which they see as going hand in hand and as an effective way to hit Clinton.
Surrogates have been instructed to talk about the campaign restructuring as a "broadening" of the original team and as an "extremely positive development for the future of our campaign." Conway, Bannon and Manafort, surrogates were told, will work closely together.
Remnants of the bitter feud between Manafort and Lewandowski persist, however, with allies of both men moving quickly Wednesday morning to spin the new hires in their favor.
Manafort's allies have begun characterizing the shake-up as a natural expansion at a critical time and say that he has welcomed the decision to strengthen the leadership team for the final stretch of the race. Manafort, according to sources, will remain an active presence on the campaign and will not report directly to Bannon.
Manafort, according to a campaign source, will be focused on "the long-term vision" of the campaign.
But Trump's decision to layer Manafort's role with other senior staff carries echoes of the way he chose to handle Lewandowski's gradual removal: divvying up his responsibilities as campaign manager and empowering Manafort before eventually firing Lewandowski altogether.
Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman, framed Trump's adjustment of his inner circle as an acknowledgment of his uphill climb over the next 80 or so days and as a savvy gesture to voters about Trump's bona fides as an outsider.
"It's magical and in your face. [Irritating] the right people. That's what it's designed to do," Steele said, referring to the skittish reaction of some top Republicans.
Steele, who is close to Trump, said Conway has developed a bond with him and "knows how to speak the language of Trump, which enables her to bring this entire campaign to the next level."
Trump, who spent decades reviewing television ratings, has clicked with Conway during discussions about polling and trends, Steele said. "She gets it. She understands how to break it down for Trump. He has appreciated her skills and how she communicates the reality of the numbers."
Steele called Bannon a "guy who is fist-balled and getting busy, never conventional."
Said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally, in a brief interview: "Manafort has done a remarkable job, but they're expanding from something that was like a medium-sized Senate race to a national campaign."
Trump has struggled to stay on message since the Republican National Convention last month, erasing the steady footing he had developed in polls against Clinton through a series of self-inflicted wounds that have driven news cycle after news cycle.
The day after he formally accepted the nomination at the GOP convention, Trump seemed intent on score-settling when he tore into his vanquished rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and revived unsubstantiated conspiracy theories linking Cruz's father to President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Then, during a combative news conference, he offhandedly said Russia should find and release Clinton's private emails.
Meanwhile, his coy refusal to initially endorse Ryan and several other high-profile Republican leaders raised fresh questions about whether he could unite his party to defeat Clinton in November.
But it was his protracted feud with two Muslim American Gold Star parents — who lost their son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, while he served in Afghanistan — that drew the heaviest criticism from his Democratic critics and members of his own party alike. After Khizr Khan delivered an impassioned denunciation of Trump at the Democratic convention, Trump suggested that Khan's wife, Ghazala, remained silent on stage because of their religion. She denounced his remarks in the following days, telling the public that her grief made it too difficult to speak about her son.
Those controversies flew in the face of efforts by Trump's advisers to craft a more deliberate and controlled message, and to transform Trump from the populist flamethrower he was during the GOP primaries to a more restrained presidential candidate.
And they came with a price: A Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier this month showed Clinton opening an eight-point lead against Trump among registered voters. Nearly 6 in 10 voters surveyed in that poll said they do not believe he is qualified to be president. Trump's persistent unpopularity with minority voters has outweighed his strength among white voters in key battleground states and has potentially put several noncompetitive states for Democrats into play.
"You know, I am who I am," Trump told a Wisconsin television station Tuesday. "It's me. I don't want to change. Everyone talks about, 'Oh, well, you're going to pivot, you're going to.' I don't want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you."
Abby Phillip contributed to this report.