Donald Trump was ensconced inside his Manhattan skyscraper early last week, preparing for his first presidential debate. The celebrity billionaire wanted to turn the summer fling that had catapulted him to the front of the Republican pack into a candidacy capable of winning the White House — and his longtime adviser Roger Stone had a plan.
Don’t get dragged down by petty attacks, Stone counseled Trump, but begin offering an agenda focused on the economy and hammer home what makes you a singular candidate. In a 13-page memo to Trump, Stone urged him to state that “the system is rigged against the citizens” and that he is the lone candidate “who cannot be bought.”
“A builder, an entrepreneur and a capitalist versus a bunch of politicians who are clearly part of the problem” is how Stone framed the contest in the document, obtained by The Washington Post from a Republican working with the campaign. The memo suggested a sound bite: “I’m running because when I look at this field — all perfectly nice people — I know that none of them could ever run one of my companies. They are not entrepreneurs.”
But Trump did not heed the advice. Instead, after briefly flipping through the papers, he decided to wing it — just as he had vowed to do. In a debate watched by a cable-news-record 24 million Americans, Trump followed his gut, and the theater that followed was defined more by outbursts than by substance — most memorably when he sparred with moderator Megyn Kelly over his past incendiary comments about women.
“I don’t follow any memo, actually, because no memo can prepare you for what goes on in these campaigns or at these debates,” Trump said Sunday in an interview with The Post. “I’ve got to be me. That’s why I am where I am, leading the polls. It’s not because of memos. The whole thing — the debate, asking me to raise my hand about running as an independent, everything — it was wild.”
Trump’s improvisations have created the defining friction in his unorthodox universe: He has struggled to expand his campaign from one appealing to an angry fraction of the electorate into a lasting, durable enterprise that can secure the presidency.
The result is a staff shake-up at the highest levels. The turbulent week ended with Stone, a political confidant to Trump since the 1980s, departing under uncertain terms.
Trump said he “fired” Stone because he was seeking too much publicity; Stone said in a resignation letter to Trump that he was quitting out of frustration with what he saw as Trump’s scant platform and the “current direction of the candidacy.”
On Sunday, Trump was at the center of another swirling storm. GOP leaders voiced outrage at his jibes about Kelly.
In rollicking television interviews, Trump defended himself and the long-term viability of his bid.
Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP consultant who is close to some of Trump’s advisers, said: “A campaign is not a reality TV show. It’s a very tough exercise. You don’t have the privilege of just saying, ‘I’m a billionaire, I’m going to build a wall and screw you.’ Can you take his campaign right now and fix it and make it about substance? Could he be a credible candidate? Possibly.”
Trump is entering a new and likely more difficult phase in which questions about his temperament and scrutiny of his past and current positions will mount. The pulse of the campaign has been and remains Trump’s personality — both mercurial and unpredictable — with decisions at times based on the candidate’s interests or grievances at the moment.
Trump wants to turn the page, vowing in the interview to further professionalize his operation and roll out policy details that will lend weight to his soaring rhetoric.
“We’re getting the best” operatives, Trump said. “I’m going to come out with more positions. Look, I already have done that on many issues,” he added, citing immigration, jobs, and trade negotiations with China and Japan.
Republican policy minds have been offering assistance. Economist Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation said he reached out a few weeks ago by e-mail to Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, to pass along his ideas on taxes.
“The problem for Trump is that he’s full of all of these contradictions,” Moore said. “He’s kind of a tabula rasa on policy. I wrote to Corey that if you do tax reform right, you can tax imports that come in from these countries Trump has been talking about.”
But Moore said he never got a response. “A lot of people haven’t been able to connect,” he said.
Lewandowski said Sunday: “Steve might have been using my old account. If I didn’t e-mail back, I meant no slight to Steve Moore.”
“We’re going to release policy statements on [Trump’s] time frame, not anyone else’s,” Lewandowski said. “Every speech with Mr. Trump is different. That’s part of why people are supporting him. He talks about policy in each one and has done so consistently.”
Economist Larry Kudlow, a former CNBC host and an acquaintance of Stone for decades, said that he heard in mid-June from Stone that Trump was resisting Stone’s input and holding off on releasing policy planks.
“He e-mailed me after I wrote a column wondering whether Trump would run as a supply-
sider,” Kudlow recalled in an interview. “Roger wrote back that he’d been trying to get that message in with Trump but was being blocked.”
There was internal pressure as well on Trump to develop a more nuanced economic program. In mid-July, as Trump was surging in the polls thanks to his strident opposition to illegal immigration, he flew to New Hampshire for a rally. State Rep. Stephen Stepanek, Trump’s New Hampshire chairman, met with the candidate at the Laconia airport.
“My message was: ‘We need to focus on the economy, on jobs. Obviously, security is very important, immigration on the border is very important, but across the nation the number one issue is jobs and the economy,’ ” Stepanek said.
Trump was receptive, Stepanek recalled: “He said, ‘That’s why I’ve said I will be the greatest jobs president this country has ever seen.’ ”
Trump’s debate preparation, held at Trump Tower and managed by Lewandowski, was described by aides as informal but substantive. It consisted mostly of Trump reading printed-out news articles about policy developments in Washington, culled by spokeswoman Hope Hicks. Lewandowski and adviser Chuck Laudner guided Trump on tactics and stagecraft, as well as policy reports.
Most other candidates arrived in Cleveland the day before the debate, to get acclimated to the setting and to huddle with advisers and donors. But Trump touched down late Thursday afternoon. The entourage rode straight to the Quicken Loans Arena, the site of the debate, where they got ready in a sparse green room.
“Once Mr. Trump went on, we were comparing notes,” Laudner said. “I kept tabs on time, number of questions. After it was over, I threw my notebook out. My notes were irrelevant. It wasn’t a debate. It was a weird quiz show.”
Trump said the tenor and subject of questions from Kelly and the two other Fox moderators, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace, caught him off guard.
“When the questions came like they did, I held my breath and said to myself: ‘Let’s go. If this is how it’s going to be, okay, fine — let’s go, let’s do it,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t like I had two or three softballs that’d give me much of a chance to talk about how to grow jobs or stop illegal immigrants from coming over our border with Mexico. It was boom, boom, boom, in terms of their questions, right from the start. You deal with it.”
As he walked off the stage, Trump was upset with the questioning, and his decision to wage war with Fox was his own, Lewandowski said.
“He knows how he wants to lead,” he said. “He is unafraid.”
For weeks inside Trump’s campaign, tensions have simmered between Lewandowski — a youthful and hard-charging strategist hired earlier this year after directing state political projects for Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by industrialists Charles and David Koch — and Stone and other Trump loyalists.
After Lewandowski successfully navigated Trump’s labyrinth of employees, business partners, political whisperers and family members to consolidate power, Trump granted him full authority. Along with Hicks, Lewandowski is regularly at Trump’s side aboard his “Trump”-emblazoned Boeing 757 and advises him before media interviews.
Working for Trump is an intense experience, based on The Post’s observations of the staff at work with the candidate. Trump constantly monitors Twitter, cable news channels, Web sites, newspapers and magazines. He keeps freshly updated binders of articles about his campaign in his office and on his plane. The latest barb or headline is his political oxygen.
During stressful episodes, the campaign endures Trump’s mood swings and acts on his impulses. The candidate is also a social animal who treats those around him like family. He warmly shares meals with aides and asks them about their dating lives or children.
Shortly before Trump launched his campaign, Lewandowski met with Rollins for drinks at the 21 Club in New York, where Rollins offered advice about working for a billionaire candidate. In 1992, Rollins managed businessman Ross Perot’s independent presidential campaign.
“I’ve been around billionaires, and when it’s their money, they don’t want to listen,” Rollins said. “Perot said to me, ‘I’ll give you $150 million and you spend whatever it takes,’ but he took out his little checkbook and fought over everything we spent. I suspect Trump is the same way.”
Lewandowski, known for his clipped New England accent and no-nonsense attitude — he requires staffers to arrive for work at 7 a.m. and stay until at least
8 p.m. — is on a mission this week to bolster the campaign’s infrastructure. He is traveling to Nevada and Michigan to interview potential hires and has deployed supporters in Virginia to work on ballot access issues. Alan Cobb, a former adviser to Koch Industries, is helping Lewandowski build out the team.
Trump has also hired Michael Glassner, a former aide on Robert J. Dole’s 1988 and 1996 presidential campaigns and adviser to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, as political director and is considering making additional national hires in coming weeks. Former Federal Election Commission chairman Donald McGahn, a partner at Jones Day, is assisting the campaign with its legal responsibilities.
But not all of Trump’s staffers are so experienced. In Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first caucuses and where Laudner is guiding Trump’s efforts, Tana Goertz is a campaign co-chair.
“I was a finalist on ‘The Apprentice,’ as you probably know,” she said in an interview. “Politics isn’t my expertise. There would be no way I would talk to [Trump] about how to run a presidential campaign, because this is my first time at this.”
Goertz said her job is to explain Iowa’s Midwestern culture to Trump. Although, she acknowledged, “I’m not a native Iowan. I’m a transplant here from the East Coast as well [as Trump]. We’re East Coasters with a certain way of doing things.”
Part of the culture in Trump’s New York orbit is to fight and forgive. Stone, in an interview Sunday, said he might one day return to Trump Tower.
“It depends,” he said. “We’ll see.”