Campaign aides warn the nominee he cannot have another month like August if he wants to win in November.
Days after the Democratic convention, as Donald Trump sparred with the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, his campaign chair Paul Manafort waxed bullish about the GOP candidate’s chances in November — even as polls showed Hillary Clinton surging ahead.
The campaign is “feeling comfortable” with the state of the race, Manafort told a TV interviewer. “We feel like in another week or so, the polls are going to even out,” he said. As for the swiftly jelling consensus that Trump’s campaign was heading for electoral disaster, he was equally dismissive: “If we run the campaign that we plan on running, we think we’re going to win … We don’t plan on winning in August — we plan on winning in November.”
But in private, the top brass of the Trump campaign was growing increasingly alarmed at the dire numbers they were seeing — and aides knew they had to confront their boss with the truth. On Aug. 9, Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s chief pollster and a longtime party strategist, sat down with the nominee. The previous week had been a disaster, punctuated by Trump’s damaging confrontation with a Gold Star family. Fabrizio, who was joined by Manafort deputy Rick Gates, had just completed a fresh batch of polling and had an urgent message for the candidate: If you have another week like the last one, you won’t win.
According to interviews with over a dozen aides involved at various levels of the campaign, Trump’s team had already come to recognize the peril they faced. On Aug. 1, a number of top Trump advisers huddled for a meeting in New York City that stretched on for more than three hours. It was the Monday after the Democratic National Convention, and the Gold Star family blowup was dominating the news cycle. The group, which included Manafort, Kellyanne Conway, and Larry Weitzner, spent over an hour talking about how Trump’s off-message demeanor was jeopardizing his campaign, and there was broad agreement that getting him on track needed to be a priority.
The list of people who’ve talked to Trump about being more disciplined is long. There was vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who’s been regularly in touch with Trump, Manafort, and the nominee’s influential son-in-law, Jared Kushner. There was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who’s become a regular in Trump world.
And there was Conway, a GOP pollster and Trump adviser who’s taken a gentle approach with the nominee. Conway, who spent last Friday traveling with Trump aboard his plane, has been counseling the candidate that attacks on the media will do less to sway undecided, independent-minded voters than attacks on Clinton. On Wednesday, it was announced that Conway, who has forged a close relationship with Trump and Kushner, would be serving as campaign manager. Conway, who worked on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid, is familiar face on the cable news circuit and specializes in outreach to women, a demographic her current client has struggled with.
Also being brought aboard in the shakeup to help oversee the campaign – Stephen Bannon, a hard-charging operative and chairman of the conservative website Breitbart.
Yet the concerns go beyond Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail. For much of the summer, a team of Trump hands, including Manafort and Fabrizio pushed to finally begin running general-election TV ads, sometimes appealing to Trump personally. For weeks, Hillary Clinton had dominated the airwaves, attacking Trump on everything from his personal temperament to his history of outsourcing jobs. Particularly distressing was that Trump had failed to purchase commercial time during the widely-watched Rio Olympic Games. Clinton had bought an $8 million package of TV ads to appear on NBC, putting in heavy rotation a spot that used footage of David Letterman tweaking Trump for manufacturing his clothing line in China.
On Tuesday, the campaign announced that it would finally start running TV ads. It’s far behind: As of this week, Clinton had aired $61 million worth of general election commercials while Trump has spent nothing. Two senior aides blamed the predicament on a bottlenecked budget process, with key spending decisions going through only Trump and a few others.
“It’s been a disastrous summer for Trump. I think he kicked away what could have been a winnable election through a series of unforced errors and stupidities,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, who was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid. “There’s a lot of organizational dysfunction in the Trump campaign that can’t be fixed in the short time remaining.”
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
While Trump has succeeded in bringing on some top strategists, his team is far smaller than Clinton’s. And his efforts at hiring have not always been successful. On several occasions the campaign reached out to Brett O’Donnell, a veteran Republican debate coach who played a key role in Romney’s debate prep, in the hopes of securing his services ahead of Trump’s onstage showdowns with Clinton this fall. Yet the hire never happened. (O’Donnell declined to comment.)
Others have been trying to expand the team of overwhelmed senior advisers. During a recent meeting with campaign officials, Giuliani suggested they bring on Eric Beach, a California-based GOP operative who worked on Giuliani’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid. Neither Beach, who currently works for a pro-Trump super PAC, nor a Giuliani spokesman would comment. Beach has yet to join the campaign.
Republicans have watched the Trump campaign’s summer stumbles with a mix of fatalism and panic, with particular concern for how he might damage down-ballot candidates. On Tuesday, New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez, who heads the Republican Governors Association, addressed fellow governors at a retreat in Aspen, Colo. Martinez, who has yet to endorse Trump, unveiled the organization’s internal polling, which examined how the nominee is faring in states where governor’s races are on the ballot. While Trump was faring well in some conservative states like Missouri and Indiana, according to the RGA’s figures, he’s losing two states where Republicans are hoping to elect governors, North Carolina and Vermont.
As Trump has struggled, doubts have grown about whether big donors will pony up. Republicans had hoped that Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major GOP benefactor, would fund a pro-Trump super PAC. But there are now questions about Adelson’s interest. In May, Adelson’s advisers had discussed setting up a Trump super PAC, yet those plans have since been abandoned. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has personally appealed to Adelson to contribute to a super PAC he is chairing, Rebuilding America Now. Yet Adelson has yet to give to the group. (An Adelson spokesman declined to comment.)
Another headache is a dearth of infrastructure in key states. While the Trump team has made strides in expanding the number of offices and personnel in some battlegrounds, Florida remains a particular concern. In interviews, three Republicans helping the campaign complained about few field offices being open in the critical state and said Florida lacked what’s known as “collateral” – yard signs, bumper stickers, and pamphlets.
The Republicans attributed the impasse to Trump’s Florida state director Karen Giorno, who they said had held up hires and clashed with members of the campaign team. Rick Scott’s political team had become so frustrated with Giorino, one person close to Scott said, that the governor was now solely focused on helping the pro-Trump super PAC Rebuild America Now – not the Trump campaign itself. A Scott spokeswoman, Melissa Stone, wouldn’t comment on Giorno other than to say that Scott “believes his time is best spent” helping the super PAC.
But the three Republicans worried that little could be done to address the situation. Giorno enjoys a close relationship with Trump and in May locked horns with former Trump adviser Rick Wiley – a battle that led to Wiley’s firing. Giorno declined to directly address the complaints but said she’d “spoken directly with Mr. Trump as well as members of the senior team. We’re in synch on Florida.”
Those who’ve spoken with Trump amid the turmoil say he’s hard to read – a man who is thoughtful and contemplative at one moment, and impatient and angry the next.
During a recent campaign swing, one Trump adviser watched in dismay as the real estate mogul lit into Gates. The candidate had been scheduled with several hours of down time with no events planned and had grown impatient. Trump didn’t think his time was being utilized well – and let Gates know it.
Yet one thing has remained constant: Trump’s determination to upend the traditional rules of politics. It was on full display on the final night of the Republican National Convention, as Trump’s team and convention organizers haggled over the final play of show – the order of people who would come out and stand with Trump following his acceptance speech.
On Thursday evening, the agreed-upon plan was for Trump to spend a few moments waving to the crowd after the conclusion of his remarks and then to be greeted by Pence. It was a blueprint similar to the one used in 2012, when Paul Ryan joined Romney onstage for what’s known in campaign circles as the “glory shot” – the iconic image of the newly-minted presidential nominee standing united alongside the vice presidential contender.
But at 9:30 that night, about 30 minutes before Trump’s daughter Ivanka was to take the stage to introduce her father, Trump’s campaign gave convention organizers a small slip of paper with black handwriting scrawled on it. On it was a new play of show. Trump would first be joined by Melania, then his son Barron, then the rest of his family. Only then would the Pence family emerge. Yet there would be no image of the presidential nominee standing alone alongside his VP candidate – a convention tradition. Convention organizers were told they didn’t need it. It would be easy, the thinking went, to generate it at another time.
The day after the convention, Bill Greener, a longtime GOP operative who helped to oversee the Cleveland convention, circulated a photo of himself from the previous night. He was grinning ear-to-ear as he held up the loose-leaf.
It may not be too late for Trump to turn his campaign around, but as Labor Day – and the final fall push – nears, Republicans warn that time is growing short.
“Trump is in a far worse position today than he was when he won the nomination,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who is a veteran of presidential campaigns. “If he never closes the gap in this race, all will point to lost opportunities and avoidable mistakes in the summer months.”