Thursday, June 9, 2016
Donald Trump's campaign is falling apart
Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem.
Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims.
“Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end? Trump does what he wants,” a source close to the campaign said.
In reporting on Trump’s operation, NBC News talked to three Trump aides and two sources working closely alongside the campaign, all of whom requested anonymity in order speak freely.
Veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles. There is no communications team to deal with the hundreds of media outlets covering the race, no rapid response director to quickly rebut attacks and launch new ones, and a limited cast of surrogates who lack a cohesive message.
“They don’t or can’t cover it all, and there are things that happen that need to be addressed immediately and don’t get addressed at all, and that hurts the candidate,” a source within the campaign groused last month.
The campaign is bringing on a new senior staffer Jim Murphy, as first reported by The New York Times, and a source said more communications hires are expected to follow. But they lag far behind the Clinton campaign, which has over a dozen senior staff dedicated to communications as well as teams devoted to modern data and analytics, an area where Trump is publicly skeptical of hiring. In addition, Clinton enjoys support from established super PACs like Correct The Record and American Bridge that respond to attacks and promote opposition research.
Aides appeared unprepared for the Trump University story last week, despite knowing in advance that unsealed court documents would reveal explosive allegations of fraud. Beyond a short video of former students praising the program that was posted online, the campaign offered scant pushback.
The absence of a response to the Trump U story left the candidate to fill the vacuum with a torrent of demagoguery against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was biased by his “Mexican heritage” despite his Indiana birthplace.
Trump’s comments against the judge horrified many supporters, but the real estate mogul rebuffed efforts by campaign staff, donors and party officials to back off the incendiary claim this weekend, per sources, telling them he was unwilling to look like he had caved to pressure.
“These are things that will defeat [us],” a second source within the campaign lamented.
The Curiel story made Trump’s already difficult task of lining up surrogates even harder, as supporters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks over the weekend.
With even early Trump backers like Rep. Chris Collins unwilling to defend his proposed Muslim travel ban or calls for mass deportations of illegal immigrants, the campaign is increasingly reliant on a small cast of mostly obscure figures to carry its message.
“It’s not a real surrogate operation,” the campaign source said. “They’re supporters. They’re not on there for their value or merit.”
The campaign source described the overall situation as “dysfunctional” and warned that if Trump failed to hire a full communications team by the convention, they would likely lose the election.
Making things difficult is the ongoing rivalry between Trump’s top adviser Paul Manafort, who was brought in to professionalize the campaign in March, and longtime staff like campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and press secretary Hope Hicks, who is essentially the lone media contact for reporters.
While Manafort handles every aspect of the campaign outside of travel and communications, per the source, Lewandowski and Hicks actually join Trump on the road and have his ear on a moment-to-moment basis. The source described the two as determined to block Trump from voices that might undermine their control, which has made hiring new senior staffers difficult despite the obvious need.
The conflict came to a head in California last week, where Manafort had lined up a raft of endorsements from local supporters ahead of Trump’s tour of the state – but no press releases went out announcing the news. Lewandowski and Hicks, the source said, vetoed draft after draft.
Delegate Jim Lacy boasted to NBC News in May that the campaign would soon host a press conference to unveil a coalition of female businesswomen endorsing Trump. The press conference never came. Instead, Trump referenced the group briefly in a speech in Anaheim, California, describing them only as “women that love Trump” who had met him earlier. The campaign sent out no further details, and the conservative site Breitbart, a hub for Trump backers, appears to be the only outlet that covered the new “Women in Business for Trump” coalition.
Manafort did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Lewandowski declined to respond to anonymous sources, but offered an overall assessment of the campaign’s progress on general election staff and messaging.
“The campaign continues to hire additional team members in key areas such as communications and beyond,” Lewandowski said in an email. “As a team, we continue to grow, expand and strengthen crucial areas of the campaign as we look towards a general election and defeating Hillary Clinton in the fall. We look forward to announcing new positions and sharing details with you in the future.”
Despite the campaign’s sluggish start, Trump supporters stressed that his unique gifts, especially his ability to command media attention via Twitter and cable news, give him some leeway to bypass ordinary campaign methods. They also are encouraged by polls that show Trump competitive with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican voters largely united despite the bruising primary.
“His ability to drive to a message is like nothing I’ve ever seen before in politics,” Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, told NBC News.
What can you expect for a guy who has several failed businesses, has filed for bankruptcy four times, and changes wives as often as his underwear?