Hillary Clinton’s team is bracing for what Donald Trump’s campaign shakeup portends: a political fight that that could drag out every Clinton family drama, tabloid scandal, and conspiracy theory of the past three decades.
But the Democratic presidential nominee doesn’t plan to adjust her strategy or shift staffing in response, according to interviews Wednesday with campaign advisers, surrogates, and party strategists. While Trump’s hiring of Breitbart News executive chairman Stephen Bannon as his campaign’s CEO signals that the Republican nominee won’t moderate his attacks, Clinton aides say she has built her general-election strategy around combating such tactics. Veterans of Clinton’s 2008 run are also keenly aware of the potential repercussions brought on by campaign staffing changes.
Trump’s installation and elevation of Paul Manafort, a lobbyist who has advised past mainstream Republican presidential candidates, coupled with the June firing of campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, held out the possibility that Trump would morph into a more reined-in, conventional candidate than the one who gleefully trounced his primary opponents. But Trump refused to be managed.
By hiring Bannon and promoting pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager, while Manafort retains his campaign chairman title, Trump may be formalizing the negative tack the Clinton team has been anticipating.
“After several failed attempts to pivot to a more serious and presidential mode, Donald Trump has decided to double down on his most small, nasty and divisive instincts,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters on a conference call scheduled to respond to the Bannon hire. “This latest shake-up turns his campaign over to someone who’s best known for running a so-called news site that peddles divisive, at times racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.”
A Trump campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity disputed that the new staff signals a plan to use tabloid-style tactics. Instead, the official said, the campaign will be unpredictable and won’t follow the standard playbook.
One Clinton campaign official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that throughout staff discussions Wednesday, the consensus was that Trump’s moves shouldn’t change anything in terms of Clinton’s lines of defense. Aides reaffirmed a strategy they agreed to in May, when it became clear Trump would be the Republican nominee, of avoiding what they saw as a trap of getting into a tit-for-tat with Trump over personal attacks.
The campaign’s thinking then and now, the official said, is that Clinton should take the high road, and if Trump goes after her personally, she should shift the message to focus on groups Trump may be attacking.
If the staff shakeup emboldens Trump to embrace more nationalistic or divisive rhetoric, as many Democrats are predicting, it could give Clinton an opportunity to expand her defense of Trump’s rhetorical targets, including women, Muslim-Americans, and other minority groups.
Clinton seemed to underscore this thinking at a campaign appearance in Cleveland hours after Trump’s changes were announced, saying, “There is no new Donald Trump. This is it.”
“Donald Trump has shown us who he is,” she said. “He can hire and fire anybody he wants from his campaign. They can make him read new words from a teleprompter. But he is still the same man who insults Gold Star families, demeans women, mocks people with disabilities, and thinks he knows more about ISIS than our generals.”
Key outside groups supporting Clinton say that they too plan to stick to the strategies they’ve had in place for months.
David Brock, who founded the Clinton-defending super-political action committee Correct the Record, said his group was ready for such a turn. “It's safe to say that the takeover of the Republican presidential campaign by the purveyor of a lunatic right-wing website signals a doubling down on the kind of anti-Clinton pseudo scandals and conspiracy theories that are red meat for the base already supporting Trump but will do nothing to move other voters unless it backfires with them,” Brock said in an e-mail, predicting “another round of unfounded attacks” against the Clinton Foundation by Trump. But, he added, “our first responders will be ready.”
“I think it’s sort of more of the same,” said Jess O’Connell, executive director of Emily’s List, which supports women seeking public office who back abortion rights. “They’re prepared for the antics. Letting Trump be Trump is just not a campaign strategy. We will be responsive. I’m sure the Hillary campaign will be responsive too.”
Justin Barasky, communications director of pro-Clinton super-PAC Priorities USA Action, said his group will also stay on course. “If it’s possible for Trump to get more offensive and unhinged and disgusting, I’m sure he will,” but that is all “ammunition” for Priorities to turn attacks back around on Trump, he said.
At the same time, Clinton backers said Trump’s shakeup could expand her options to go on offense. Breitbart’s own past antagonism of mainstream Republican leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, may allow Clinton or her surrogates to further drive a wedge between Trump and other leaders in his party.
Trump’s personnel moves reflect instability atop his campaign, the official said, while Clinton’s leadership team has been largely unchanged since she announced her candidacy in April 2015.
Trump hired Manafort in March, hired and fired political director Rick Wiley in the spring, and fired Lewandowski in June. Former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes is said to have taken on a more active advisory role since being ousted from his job last month.
At Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, there have been no shakeups or high-profile departures and no layering of senior aides on top of one another. There’s been only one high-level addition to the initial team, senior adviser Minyon Moore, who joined the campaign this spring and was already an active outside adviser to Clinton, plus hires and staff moves as Clinton chose Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.
Presidential campaigns, especially in general elections, don’t typically have CEOs, and Bannon’s title at least nominally clashes with those of Manafort, the campaign chairman, and Conway, the campaign manager.
“Leaving aside questions of competency, Trump has a CEO, a campaign manager, and campaign chairman who says he is chief strategist,” President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, who frequently speaks to Mook, wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “Cluster.”