For the past two months, Donald Trump has presided over a political team riddled with turf wars, staff reshuffling and dueling power centers.
But the tensions are more than typical campaign chaos: They illustrate how Trump likes to run an organization, whether it’s a real estate venture or his presidential bid. Interviews with current and former Trump associates reveal an executive who is fond of promoting rivalries among subordinates, wary of delegating major decisions, scornful of convention and fiercely insistent on a culture of loyalty around him.
Whether the drama of recent weeks has been cathartic or calamitous is an open question — and one that is increasingly important as the general election phase of the campaign unfolds. The tumult has often dominated news coverage, stepping on Trump’s own campaign message and averting the spotlight from missteps by leading Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.
“It is definitely dysfunctional compared to, say, Ace Hardware Store,” said David Carney, a veteran Republican political strategist. But, he added, “it is not fatal in and of itself.”
Honed over decades in business and now suddenly under the glare of a national contest, Trump’s style offers a glimpse of the polarizing management techniques he would carry into the White House. In fashioning his campaign after his real estate and entertainment projects, the mogul has inspired supporters and alarmed critics with his brazen moves.
“He’s always the man in charge,” said Edward Rollins, the veteran Republican strategist who is working for a pro-Trump super PAC. “From his people, he gets what he needs. He makes them compete. Sometimes it gets the juices flowing, sometimes it spurs conflict. If he needs to, he steps in to settle it.”
Rollins pointed to the relationship between Trump’s 42-year-old campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and his 67-year-old campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as a prime example of how Trump handles people. While they have worked just steps from each other in recent weeks at Trump Tower in New York, the pair — contrasts in age, experience and personality — have a simmering rivalry over stature and responsibilities within the candidate’s orbit. And Trump doesn’t seem to mind.
“One day, Manafort goes up and Corey gets set back. The next day, Corey can move up to the forefront. Trump is at the center, watching it all and seeing it all,” Rollins said.
Trump’s firing last week of Rick Wiley as his national political director is a case study in how being close to Trump is usually the best way to influence him. A mantra for Trump’s campaign advisers has long been, “If you aren’t close to the principal, you aren’t anywhere,” according to one person on staff.
The abrupt dismissal was typical Trump — reminiscent of his NBC television show, “The Apprentice,” which spawned the catchphrase “You’re fired!”
Wiley, who joined the Trump campaign in April with a headstrong persona and establishment pedigree, did not endear himself to many of the grass-roots activists and Trump allies who had been working for the campaign for months, including Karen Giorno, who started as Trump’s Florida director and is now in charge of 10 Southeastern states.
According to multiple people familiar with the situation, Giorno grew unhappy with Wiley throughout May, telling friends that he was unresponsive to her and, in her view, too forceful in asserting his strategy.
Eventually, Giorno voiced her complaints directly to Trump. It worked. Wiley’s exit was announced Wednesday. In a statement, the campaign said Wiley was “hired on a short-term basis.” Wiley did not respond to a request for comment.
Giorno said Trump’s loyalty “goes beyond anything I’ve experienced in politics.” She also described Trump as a boss constantly testing his employees and turning the tables on them.
“He’ll ask questions — and if you don’t know the answer, you can tell that he’s disappointed that you don’t know it,” she said. “But then, he’ll brief you.”
On Florida matters, Trump has always been “extraordinarily curious — tell me more about what’s going on in Florida; give me the snapshot,” Giorno said. “As I am telling him information, he’s actually feeding me more information.”
From his 26th-floor office in New York, Trump — who through a spokeswoman declined to be interviewed for this article — is attempting to bend the nature and norms of a presidential campaign to his unpredictable and outsize personality, eschewing the top-down, consultant-heavy mode used by most candidates.
Rather, Trump functions simultaneously as his own big-picture strategist and micro-managing chief executive. He has gotten involved in intramural skirmishing that has engulfed his campaign, both stoking and calming tensions depending on the circumstances.
“His style can be what I call ‘hands off, hands on.’ He gives people space to think and work and doesn’t get involved in everything each day, but he is the kind of person who can swoop in in a second and change everything,” said Sam Nunberg, a former aide who was let go from the campaign last year following disagreements with Lewandowski and controversy over past racially charged posts on Facebook. “He monitors it all and he comes to check in on things when you don’t expect him.”
Trump’s fondness for stirring internal competition was on display during his Atlantic City heyday, when he pitted his casinos against one another — much to the dismay of some of the executives who ran them. He encouraged the Trump Castle to compete for customers against the Trump Plaza hotel and casino and, later, his third casino, the Trump Taj Mahal.
Trump liked the sparring while others worried about cannibalizing customers; in the end, for a variety of reasons, the three casinos went through corporate bankruptcies.
Trump’s method contrasts sharply with that of Clinton, who operates her corporate-style campaign from a sprawling headquarters in Brooklyn with legions of professional aides. Unlike Trump, her aides say, Clinton does not offer daily input on personnel or brewing internal debates.
“He takes in information from people around him,” Lewandowski said. “We look at that as surround-sound advocacy that gives him the totality of an issue. Then he is decisive. People shouldn’t be surprised he’s involved. Of course he’s involved. It’s his campaign and his money.”
Carl Paladino, a businessman and political operative from Buffalo, N.Y. who is the co-chairman of Trump’s New York campaign, recalled when Trump called him months ago ahead of the New York primary and asked him to take the position.
“He said: ‘Carl, let’s do it. Let’s go.’ He didn’t have to say anything else. He trusted me to do what he needed me to do,” Paladino said. “He knows that . . . if you get in my way, I’m going to knock you down.”
Such general directives demonstrate the level of trust Trump regularly places with many of his closest supporters. He continues to have faith in them when they collide, as has been the case with Manafort and Lewandowski.
Manafort, who declined to comment for this article, was brought into Trump’s circle in March when Trump started to fret that he might be headed for a contested Republican convention and would need someone who could navigate that thicket. This month, he was given the title of campaign chairman and chief strategist.
Manafort calls Trump “Donald,” unlike Lewandowski, who calls the candidate “Mr. Trump.” He also does more freelancing than Lewandowski in terms of building relationships and arranging his own media appearances.
Trump at times seem to play the two off of each other. Manafort appears to relish being a strategist and chairman more than the manager Lewandowski. Lewandowski, who prides himself on having been at Trump’s side since the campaign’s start, regularly takes the lead on overseeing events, operations and Trump’s travels.
Even as Manafort and Lewandowski seek to exhibit and expand their influence on the campaign, there is no doubt within the campaign that Trump is the ultimate arbiter.
Sometimes that means drawing conclusions on topics that more traditional campaigns would outsource to aides. Other times, it means his counsel comes from just one person: himself.
“Trump is micromanager on the most important things but not all things,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York and a Trump ally who has known and observed Trump for decades. “On the most important things, he realizes you have to be a micromanager. He’ll delegate to a point. He has in his head what he wants to do and his issues, and he’ll hold onto them instead of sharing those big decisions.”
Michael Kranish contributed to this report.