Brand Identity

Trump's Shaky Coronation Conflicts With Law-and-Order Image

Party disunity and plagiarism accusations are threatening to derail Trump's efforts to repackage himself for the general election.

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Donald Trump recently rebranded himself as the law-and-order candidate, projecting strength and competence in the face of what he sees as rampant societal weakness and disorder. But his Republican coronation in Cleveland is threatening to drown that image in a sea of turmoil as millions of Americans tune into the election for the first time.

It started with bedlam in the arena during the first vote on Monday, and continued on Tuesday with his campaign's struggle to manage revelations that sections of the speech delivered by Melania Trump, Donald's wife, were apparently lifted from one delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. 

As staffers and surrogates sought to deflect questions on the potential first lady's speech, there were signs the chaos was breaking through in battleground states where the presidential election will be decided.

"Trump's law-and-order night preceded by a day of chaos," read the main headline on the Miami Herald. In Michigan -- a traditionally Democratic state that Trump insists he can flip -- the top story on the Detroit News' front page: "Divisions on display as conservative platform is set." In Ohio, which no Republican has lost on the way to the White House, the headline was "Donald Trump's campaign shows how not to kick off a convention."

Trump's campaign is light on policy and heavy on narrative -- a superlative-filled promise of constant winning and unimaginable greatness. And right now, Trump has lost the storyline. 

Acceptance Speech

There's still time for Trump to regain control. His nomination is expected to be approved Tuesday; his vice-presidential nominee, Mike Pence, speaks Wednesday; and Trump delivers his acceptance speech -- the biggest address of his candidacy -- on Thursday.

"How we start isn't as important as where we finish," Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign manager, said at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast in Cleveland on Monday.

But the doubts are creeping up internally. A staff call on Tuesday morning made only brief mention of Melania Trump's speech, as Trump's team was told Manafort and his top deputy, Rick Gates, "would take care of it."

"This was the candidate's wife's speech," said one top aide, who requested anonymity to speak about the private call. "Now, it's about the structure of the campaign and who is in charge. Manafort and Gates were supposed to be the A-team, but no one is even taking ownership of this."

By Tuesday afternoon, the campaign hadn't identified who was responsible for Melania Trump's speech.

No Trump Mentions

The start of the convention has been filled with contradictions and curiosities. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, one of the most well-known speakers on the first day, never mentioned Trump during his address.

Manafort said he wanted the convention -- and larger campaign against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton -- to focus on his boss. But an extended portion of the program on Monday centered on the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

When a mother who lost her son in the attack was speaking, Trump called in for a live interview with Fox News, leading the most watched cable news network to cut away from live coverage of Trump's own convention.

Now that Trump's here, the most populated city on Lake Erie is the launching point for the rest of his campaign. No candidate in 60 years has won the presidency when trailing after the party conventions, according to research from Robert Erikson of Columbia and Christopher Wlezien of the University of Texas.

"People are going to be turning in -- some for the first time, non-primary voters for the first time," House Speaker Paul Ryan, the top elected Republican in the nation, said Monday at a Wall Street Journal luncheon. "They want to see, 'Am I looking at the president in front of me?'"

"If he can show that he's the kind of leader capable of bringing these ideas into place -- and that he has the temperament -- I think that's going to help him a lot," Ryan said.

Safety Theme

And stability continues to be the central problem, particularly with voters who say he lacks the temperament to be the next commander-in-chief. He's tried to combat these impressions in recent weeks by playing to his strengths.

More voters trust Trump than Clinton to keep the country safe, and in the wake of the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers, Trump rejiggered his campaign motto to "Make America Safe Again," which was also the official theme of the first day of the convention.

Trump's ability to appear presidential is the central question facing his candidacy. Polls shows that three of every five voters don't think he has the right temperament to be president. Even his own campaign says Trump's success rests on this consideration.

"Once Donald Trump is accepted by the American people as somebody who can be president, I think the race is over," Manafort said on Monday. 

One of the keys to pulling that off, Manafort said, was introducing Trump's family to the nation. The four days of speeches include his four children and wife.

But Melania Trump's speech -- which painted a touching portrait of Trump and was convincingly delivered to an arena of 20,000, especially considering her lack of previous political experience -- was quickly overshadowed by accusations that it lifted brief passages from Obama's speech.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Manafort refused to admit any plagiarism and blamed Clinton's campaign for promoting the negative story.

“This," Manafort said, "is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down."

And, once again, a missed opportunity for Trump.

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