Donald Trump, following weeks of agitation over his advisers’ attempts to temper his style, moved Wednesday to overhaul his struggling campaign by rebuffing those efforts and personally elevating two longtime associates who have encouraged his combative populism.
Trump’s decision sent a powerful signal to Republicans and Democrats alike that the real estate magnate intends to finish the presidential race on his own terms and that his closing argument to voters will defy the usual partisan template of general-election campaigns.
In its place will be a political pitch with ire directed at both parties and a fierce anti-establishment ethos, coupled with harsh critiques of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Trump plans to devote himself primarily to five crucial states — Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — where he hopes that raucous rallies and a relentless presence on television will electrify his working-class base and thousands of other people who have grown disengaged and frustrated with the political class.
Guiding Trump as he turns to the fall will be a new campaign chief executive, Stephen Bannon, a former banker who runs the influential conservative outlet Breitbart News and is known for his right-wing, nationalist politics. Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster who has been close to Trump for years, will assume the role of campaign manager.
Trump’s reset effectively ended a monthslong push by campaign chairman Paul Manafort to moderate Trump’s presentation and pitch for the broader electorate. And it comes just 12 weeks before Election Day, and after weeks of self-inflicted wounds that have caused some members of the GOP establishment to panic that Trump may severely damage the chances of down-ballot Republican candidates across the country.
Despondent or unsure of Trump’s willingness — or ability — to broaden his national appeal, several Republican consultants have urged the Republican National Committee to consider redirecting funds in the fall if his campaign appears irredeemable.
Manafort, a seasoned operative who joined the campaign in March, will keep his job title, but advisers described his status as diminished as a result of Trump’s unhappiness and restlessness in recent weeks over his drop in the polls and reports over lagging organization in several key states. The candidate has privately told friends that he was unsure whether he was being given candid assessments of news stories and of the campaign’s management.
Although Trump respects Manafort, aides said, he grew to feel “boxed in” and “controlled” by people who barely know him. Moving forward, he plans to focus on rousing his voters at boisterous rallies and through media appearances.
Sean Spicer, chief strategist at the Republican National Committee, said 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, saying he spoke with Bannon by phone late Tuesday and remains in close touch with the new Trump chief executive 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 staffers on Capitol Hill. He predicted that the RNC would be pressured to eventually distance itself from Bannon, and possibly from Trump, to protect Republican candidates in vulnerable districts and states.
“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.”
During a campaign event in Cleveland, Clinton scoffed at the idea that the personnel changes would improve Trump’s campaign. She quoted poet Maya Angelou to sum up her view of the Trump campaign realignment: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them,” Clinton said. “I think it’s fair to say that Donald Trump has shown us who he is.”
Trump’s moves are in part a reversion to how he ran his campaign in the primaries with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, whose mantra was “let Trump be Trump.” The candidate wants to get back to that type of campaign culture, aides said.
The reshuffling also comes amid growing controversy over Manafort’s past as an adviser to foreign dictators and oligarchs. In Ukraine, corruption investigators suggest he may have received $12 million in undisclosed cash payments earmarked in a ledger kept by the political party of former president Viktor Yanukovych, a Manafort client. Manafort has denied receiving the payments.
In Bannon, Trump is turning to an alter ego of sorts — 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 imploring Trump for months to avoid running a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable, aides said. Instead, Bannon has been telling Trump to run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist.
“I want to win,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the campaign shake-up. “That’s why I’m bringing on fantastic people who know how to win and love to win.”
Trump’s decision developed over the weekend as he traveled to the Hamptons on Long Island for a Saturday evening fundraiser at the home of Woody Johnson, the wealthy Republican benefactor who owns the National Football League’s New York Jets.
According to three Republicans familiar with that event, Trump was confronted by several supporters, including mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, about news reports on his advisers’ desire to tame his personality. The three Republicans spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the 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 and Conway’s names soon came up. Mercer, the daughter of hedge-fund titan Robert Mercer, spoke highly of both. (The Mercer family is a prominent investor in Breitbart News as well as in a super PAC opposing Clinton and has worked with Conway.) Trump did the same.
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 had 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 Sunday at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., to “lay out his new thinking for the campaign team.”
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 on Wednesday 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.
Conway worked on Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign and has long counted Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as a client. During the primaries, she backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and managed a pro-Cruz super PAC.
Bannon quickly began to prepare for a takeover. He was spotted at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Monday and worked there Tuesday.
The campaign’s revised structure started to take shape Tuesday afternoon at Trump Tower. Kushner, back from the vacation in Croatia with his wife, Ivanka Trump, joined Manafort, Manafort’s 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 prepared a speech delivered later Tuesday 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.
In the short term, Trump campaign advisers will seek to keep the candidate fixated on two themes that have animated him in recent months: defeating terrorism and bolstering law enforcement, which they see as an effective way to run against Clinton.
Gingrich, a Trump ally, said in an interview that “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 labored 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. He has seemed intent on settling scores from the GOP primaries, suggested that Russia should find and release Clinton’s personal emails, and initially withheld endorsements of Ryan and other high-profile Republicans.
But the episode that drew the heaviest criticism from members of both parties was his protracted feud with two Muslim American Gold Star parents whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed while he served in Iraq. After the father, 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 the couple’s religion. She denounced his remarks in the following days, telling the public that her grief made it too difficult to speak about her son.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released 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 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.”
DelReal reported from Washington. Anne Gearan and Abby Phillip in Washington contributed to this report.