Donald Trump’s presidential campaign fired its Virginia state co-chairman, Corey Stewart, on Monday after he took part in a protest in front of Republican National Committee headquarters, a move with repercussions in both the national campaign and the 2017 governor’s race.
The messy parting of ways came just weeks before the election and was the latest sign of turmoil in a campaign that has recently been in a free-fall. Stewart and senior Trump campaign officials blamed each other for problems in Virginia, where polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton leads comfortably.
“Former Virginia State Chairman Corey Stewart is no longer affiliated with the Donald J. Trump for President campaign,” said Trump’s deputy campaign manager, David Bossie, in a statement. “He is being replaced, effective immediately. Corey made this decision when he staged a stunt in front of the RNC without the knowledge or the approval of the Trump campaign.”
Stewart acknowledged that he was let go for supporting the rally in front of RNC headquarters in the District, which was aimed at warning the national party against abandoning Trump. He said he did not organize the rally but wholeheartedly backed it and helped spread the word about it.
Shortly before the rally began, Bossie texted, warning him to stop the rally, Stewart said.
“He threatened me,” Stewart said. “I let everybody know he was threatening me. They said, ‘there are going to be dire consequences’ unless I shut down the rally.”
Stewart said he did not respond to the message but knew that it meant that he would be fired if he went forward with his plans. He went ahead to make his point, that establishment Republicans — he referred to them at the event and on Facebook as “establishment pukes” — were trying to undermine Trump.
Stewart said he never heard back from the campaign afterward and only learned from a media report that he had been fired.
“I wanted to call them out and, look, there’s not a lot of time left,” Stewart said. “The truth needs to be told. Paul Ryan, the Mitt Romneys, the Reince Priebuses, they don’t want Trump to win. They’re sabotaging the campaign.”
Stewart was the only prominent Virginia Republican to defend Trump after the release last week of a video in which the presidential candidate made lewd remarks about women. Trump “acted like a frat boy, as a lot of guys do,” he said at the time.
Stewart complained that money raised by Republicans in Virginia was spent by the RNC on down-ticket races in other states.
“We’ve been raising money in Virginia for Trump, and the RNC has broken all its promises to help its campaign in Virginia because Virginia doesn’t have any critical down-ticket races,” he said.
The RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, pledged complete loyalty to Trump in a Monday conference call with RNC members and swatted down rumors the national party was redirecting its resources to down-ballot races, according to a person on the call.
“We’re putting together a very strong effort in Virginia. Clearly, Mr. Stewart was more concerned about his own personal agenda than the campaign of Mr. Trump,” said Trump spokesman Jason Miller.
Stewart said he will continue to support Trump, blaming Bossie for his firing and for what Stewart described as Trump’s waning fortunes in Virginia.
“David Bossie’s been a real problem,” Stewart said. Bossie “basically refused to support the efforts in Virginia. I can say this now because I’m not a member of the campaign anymore.”
Stewart claimed the campaign “invested nothing in Virginia. We couldn’t even get signs. We couldn’t get literature to go door knocking with until recently.”
Stewart originally served as Trump’s campaign chairman, while John Fredericks, a conservative Virginia radio host, was vice chairman. A few weeks ago, the titles changed so that Stewart and Fredericks were both identified as co-chairs.
“I will continue in the role as co-chairman and spokesperson of the Trump campaign in Virginia as of right now,” Fredericks said. “No decision has been made at this time.”
Fredericks said Stewart had participated in the rally to boost his own profile ahead of his gubernatorial bid in Virginia next year — despite warning that he risked further alienating establishment Republicans from Trump.
“Behavior like we saw today with this protest is simply counter to winning Virginia’s 13 electoral votes,” Fredericks said. “It didn’t gain us one vote. It’s alienating people. It makes no sense.”
The Trump campaign has struggled to implement an effective ground game in key swing states such as Virginia. The responsibility had largely fallen on the RNC. Compared with the Democrats, the Republicans have been slower to open up field offices across the country.
With his actions Monday, Stewart could endear himself to conservative Republicans as he seeks his party’s nomination for governor in 2017. But the strategy is not without risks, particularly since the GOP has decided to pick its nominee in a statewide primary, which tends to favor more moderate candidates, instead of a closed convention.
As the elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Stewart drew national attention a decade ago promoting a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, a policy that presaged the tempest caused by Trump’s own anti- immigrant barbs. At his urging, Prince William authorized police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they detained. After a public uproar, the county watered down the policy so that an immigration check would be done only after an arrest.
“I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” Stewart has frequently boasted.
In June, Stewart wholeheartedly backed Trump’s racially tinged criticism of a federal judge presiding over a fraud case against the now-defunct Trump University, even as some leading Republicans condemned Trump’s comments.
Stewart was the rare Virginia Republican willing to back Trump well before the real estate mogul locked up the nomination, with other elected officials staying neutral in the primary or backing other contenders. They seemed well suited to each other, both of them blunt-talking foes of illegal immigration. But at times, Stewart’s rhetoric pushed the limits even for Team Trump.
In July, Trump’s campaign disavowed comments Stewart made on Facebook, which placed responsibility for a police massacre in Dallas on Clinton and another Democrat, Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Like Stewart, Northam is running for governor in 2017.
Philip Rucker and Robert Costa contributed to this report.