Robert Costa, et al., Washington Post, August 17, 2016
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.”
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.
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.”
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.