Trump Shakes Up Staff After Ailes Is Said to Urge Big Changes
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump overhauled his campaign leadership Wednesday, demoting an operative brought in to professionalize the operation and appointing one known for stoking hardcore conservatives on the web.
Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of crusading right-wing site Breitbart News and a former Goldman Sachs banker, was named chief executive of the campaign after former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, according to a person familiar with the matter, urged that a struggling Trump make dramatic changes.
Pollster Kellyanne Conway, who has been working as a senior adviser to Trump since July, was promoted to campaign manager.
The new leaders plan to return a full-bore anti-establishment tenor to the operation, dispensing with efforts to transition to a more formal, toned-down approach associated with campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the person said.
According to several campaign insiders, Bannon will steer day-to-day operations and strategy from New York, with Conway concentrating on messaging while traveling with Trump to rallies and other events. Manafort, who is retaining his titles of chairman and chief strategist, will manage relationships with major Republican leaders along with Rick Gates, his deputy.
The campaign will seek to galvanize Americans who feel that the elites in both parties and the media don’t understand them or care about their problems, and to stoke the emotions that former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ supporters felt.
In turning to Conway and Bannon, Trump, 70, is bolstering his campaign’s links to Robert Mercer, a Long Island hedge-fund manager and major conservative donor who often tweaks the Republican establishment. Other than Mercer’s daughter Rebekah, Bannon and Conway are perhaps his family’s closest political advisers. The Mercers couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.
After weeks of polls showing Trump trailing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton nationally and in key battleground states, Trump indicated he’d grown frustrated.
“I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change,” Trump told WKBT-TV in Wisconsin on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. “Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well you're going to pivot, you're going to.’ I don't want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people.”
The decision to shake up the campaign came over the weekend, the person familiar with the matter said.
Ailes traveled to Trump’s Bedminster golf course in New Jersey to urge changes to the campaign, the person said. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was also at the talks, agreed. (Responding to a report Tuesday that Ailes was helping Trump prepare to debate Clinton, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks denied that Ailes was advising the candidate. “They are longtime friends, but he has no formal or informal role in the campaign,” Hicks said in a statement.)
The staffing moves come just days after the New York Times published an investigative report into Manafort's dealings in Ukraine, where he served as an adviser to that country’s pro-Russian former president.
Manafort was seen as someone who could help guide Trump on broadening his appeal to general-election voters, but Trump has shown himself disinclined to cooperate with advisers’ recommendations. Manafort’s background in overseas work also underscored Trump’s regular praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the nominee has called a stronger leader than U.S. President Barack Obama and someone with whom the U.S. should strengthen its relationship to better fight Islamic State terrorists.
Trump even went so far as to encourage Russian hackers, during the Democratic National Convention, to find Clinton’s deleted private e-mails.
Manafort was initially hired in March to lead efforts to run a successful national convention after Republicans opposed to Trump openly welcomed the possibility of another nominee emerging with the help of sympathetic delegates at the gathering in Cleveland in July. While the nomination ended up going relatively smoothly, the convention didn’t give Trump the sustained polling bounce he had hoped for.
“It is imperative we continue to expand our team with top-tier talent,” Manafort said in a news release from the campaign. “Steve and Kellyanne are respected professionals who believe in Mr. Trump and his message and will undoubtedly help take the campaign to new levels of success.”
Trump in the release said, “I am committed to doing whatever it takes to win this election.”
Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer said that “expanding the team should be viewed as a healthy step and nothing else.”
“Both senior folks going into the final stretch will put togther the effort to win in November up and down the ticket,” Spicer said.
Conway is the second campaign manager serving Trump. The first, Corey Lewandowski, was dismissed in June after helping Trump clinch the nomination during a combative primary race.
In March, Lewandowski grabbed a reporter working for Bannon’s Breitbart as she questioned the billionaire after a Florida press conference. A prosecutor later dropped a simple battery charge against him.
Several of Trump’s adult children, who played a crucial role in the last campaign overhaul, have been traveling this month as the campaign struggled. Ivanka Trump was spotted in Croatia this week, reportedly vacationing with her husband, Jared Kushner, who has acquired more responsibility as the race progressed. Sons Donald Jr. and Eric embarked on a long hunting trip earlier in the month.
Bannon, a major figure in the conservative-media world, played a crucial role in some of the most scathing allegations against Clinton.
A heavily researched book published in May 2015 called Clinton Cash was produced by the Government Accountability Institute, which Bannon co-founded and presides over as executive chairman.
The book, which outlined a series of connections between the Clinton Foundation, former President Bill Clinton's paid speeches, and Hillary Clinton's decisions as secretary of state, was shared with major news organizations before publication so they could confirm and expand upon some of the findings.
The New York Times detailed donations flowing to the Clinton Foundation as a uranium deal involving Russia was being approved. Bloomberg Politics reported some 1,100 foreign donors to the foundation who were not disclosed as required by an agreement with the Obama administration.
Clinton Cash was later made into a movie. On May 11 of this year, Bannon assembled a crowd of conservative donors and media figures in Manhattan for an invitation-only screening. Sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and a black shirt with a picture of an eagle over the heart, he talked up his plans for a “carpet-bomb” promotional campaign for the film, particularly during the Democratic National Convention. He explained who he saw as the film’s target audience.
“We made this film for independents, liberals. Really the Bernie Sanders crowd,” he said. He lamented that the Sanders campaign wasn’t making more use of the anti-Clinton research that his team had generated. Rebekah Mercer, who was a co-executive producer of the film, joined him at the event.
Despite Clinton’s strength in horse-race polls, she and Trump are about even on the question of trustworthiness. In a Bloomberg Politics national poll conducted Aug. 5-8, 41 percent of likely voters said “trustworthy” better described Clinton and 39 percent said so of Trump. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
The poll also found Clinton to be vulnerable on her e-mail practices and her family foundation’s practices when she was secretary of state. Almost six in 10 likely voters, 58 percent, said Clinton’s handling of her private e-mail, which the FBI director called “extremely careless,” bothered them a lot, and another 22 percent said it bothered them a little.
More than half of likely voters, 53 percent, said it bothered them a lot that the Clinton foundation accepted money from foreign governments when she was secretary of state, and another 21 percent said it bothered them a little.
Bannon is temporarily stepping down from Breitbart to work full-time on the campaign “in a new position designed to bolster the business-like approach of Mr. Trump’s campaign,” the news release said. Conway “will work on messaging and travel frequently with Mr. Trump, while working closely with Mr. Bannon and Mr. Manafort on all aspects of the campaign moving forward.”
Bannon is volunteering and won’t receive a paycheck, the person familiar with the matter said.
Conway is among the Trump insiders who have encouraged the candidate to focus on the angry electorate, and to pound out the arguments against Clinton.
"I think this is one of the most simple elections in presidential history," she said to reporters on Tuesday. "Why do two-thirds of Americans say we're headed on the wrong track? Why do 11 percent, according to the new NBC poll, say that Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy? Why, according to the Bloomberg poll this week, do 80 percent say that her emails bother them? You can't get away from those metrics and eventually Hillary Clinton is going to have to come back to the campaign trail and answer that."
After the New York Times reported Saturday that people close to Trump and his campaign described him as “exhausted, frustrated and still bewildered by fine points of the political process and why his incendiary approach seems to be sputtering,” Trump fired back in a series of messages to his nearly 11 million Twitter followers.
“The failing @nytimes, which never spoke to me, keeps saying that I am saying to advisers that I will change. False, I am who I am-never said,” Trump said in one message. “If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%,” he said in another.
—With assistance from Zachary Mider and Ben Brody.