Donald Trump is bristling at efforts to implement a more conventional presidential campaign strategy, and has expressed misgivings about the political guru behind them, Paul Manafort, for overstepping his bounds, multiple sources close to the campaign tell POLITICO.
Trump became upset late last week when he learned from media reports that Manafort privately told Republican leaders that the billionaire reality TV star was “projecting an image” for voters and would begin toning down his rhetoric, according to the sources. They said that Trump also expressed concern about Manafort bringing several former lobbying colleagues into the campaign, as first reported by POLITICO.
Now Trump is taking steps to return some authority to Manafort’s chief internal rival, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Neither Lewandowski nor Manafort responded to requests for comment, though Manafort on Sunday during an interview on Fox News blamed Lewandowski’s regime for shortcomings in the campaign’s delegate wrangling operation. Lewandowski’s allies responded by privately questioning whether Manafort has done anything to improve the situation. They grumble that Manafort has spent a disproportionate amount of time on television — just as Trump himself has been avoiding the Sunday morning talk show circuit at Manafort’s urging.
“I think it pisses him off that he was getting free television by going on the shows and now Paul Manafort is out there resurrecting his career,” said one campaign operative. Citing Manafort’s advocacy within the campaign for an expensive advertising push in upcoming states, the operative said Trump is “saying I can get on every show I want for free and you’re telling me not to do that and that I should pay for my advertising? That doesn’t pass the smell test to me.”
The mounting tension comes as Trump is struggling to incorporate traditional political tactics with the cult-of-personality approach that helped him climb from long shot to front-runner for the GOP nomination. In some ways, Manafort and Lewandowski represent the ego and the id of that balance, with the hardscrabble outsider Lewandowski earning Trump’s trust early, only to be challenged by the more polished insider brought in late last month to provide help as Trump’s campaign struggled to secure loyal convention delegates.
Manafort, sensing a far-reaching mandate, moved quickly to consolidate power, overhaul the campaign and rein in the candidate. Trump has acquiesced to a number of changes that appear to have Manafort’s fingerprints, from practicing reading from a teleprompter to opening up his wallet to hire staffers and approving a major TV ad buy in California next month, while announcing a series of more substantive policy addresses, starting with a foreign policy speech on Wednesday in Washington.
“Paul is not being ‘reined in,’” said one Manafort ally working closely with the campaign, who acknowledged that Trump is still “calibrating” his operation. “He’ll find his comfort zone in this transition.”
But campaign insiders say it has become increasingly clear that Trump, for all his boasts about his ability to become more “presidential,” is simply unwilling or perhaps unable to follow through, and resents efforts to transform him.
“Everyone coming in now thinks they’re going to be able to manhandle him and he’s not going to let it happen,” said an operative close to Trump. “These consultants are used to being smarter than their candidate and in this scenario, the candidate is smarter and willing to risk more than you are.”
After Trump’s resounding victory in last week’s New York primary, for instance, Manafort handed the candidate a speech he’d written for him that aimed for a more presidential tone, according to two campaign sources. Trump took a quick look at it and told Manafort he’d consider using such a speech down the road, but in the glow of his huge win in his home state, he preferred to wing it.
Nonetheless, Trump’s focus during the speech on job creation and his references to his leading GOP opponent as “Senator Cruz” (rather than his mocking moniker of “Lyin’ Ted”) seemed to indicate he at least incorporated Manafort’s main points).
Then, later in the week, Trump expressed concern after learning about Manafort’s moves to bolster the campaign by bringing on associates from his lobbying days, as well as his pitch to leery Republican Party leaders.
In leaked audio from a presentation to the Republican National Committee, Manafort suggested that Trump’s bombastic campaign trail rhetoric was just “projecting an image” to win over voters. “The image is going to change,” Manafort said on the recording.
Around the same time, POLITICO revealed that Manafort brought in a handful of operatives who had ties to his lobbying firm, which had developed a niche representing a roster of controversial international clients who have been collectively described as “the torturers’ lobby.”
“I don’t think he was aware of the extent of the work that Paul has done in foreign countries that have not always been friendly to the United States,” said a Washington operative with close relationships to the campaign.
The operative pointed out that since Manafort joined the campaign, it has continued to struggle to keep pace with Cruz’s superior operation to recruit delegates free to back their preferred candidate if a first ballot at a contested convention yields no nominee. Citing Trump’s poor showing in delegate battles over the weekend in Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, South Carolina and Utah, the operative said “this is the narrative that Trump has tried to get away from and that was supposed to be Paul’s job.”
During his Sunday appearance on Fox News, Manafort appeared to shift blame for recent losses to the campaign’s original core staff, explaining “most of the conventions that happened yesterday were set in state — stages a month or two ago and before frankly I was involved.”
Multiple sources said that Trump in recent days has re-empowered Lewandowski to handle the campaign’s finances and make some hiring decisions, partially reversing changes Manafort laid out this month when seizing some decision-making authority from Lewandowski.
Lewandowski was responsible for the campaign’s recent hiring of former Chris Christie campaign manager Ken McKay, who is working on delegate operations but is seen as an ally of Lewandowski’s, according to campaign sources.
And at his campaign appearances in the days since Manafort’s appearance at the RNC, Trump has served notice that he isn’t about to change his approach.
“If I acted presidential, I can guarantee you this morning, I wouldn’t be here,” Trump said Saturday in Waterbury, Connecticut.
On Monday, as he again mocked the idea of behaving in a more “presidential” manner at two rallies in Pennsylvania, Trump called John Kasich a “slob” after calling attention to his penchant for eating too much on the campaign trail and blasted him and Cruz, whom he called “an ass,” for “colluding” to stop him — every broadside delivered in his trademark vernacular and an implicit rebuke to those handlers looking to rein him in.
“That’s Trump. If you try to force him into a box, he’s going to climb out of the box just to prove it to you,” said one operative close to the campaign. “If you say he’s going to be more presidential, all you did is make him less presidential.”
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