Donald Trump, following weeks of gnawing agitation over his advisers’ attempts to temper his style, moved late Tuesday to overhaul his struggling campaign by rebuffing those efforts and elevating two longtime associates who have encouraged his combative populism.
Stephen Bannon, a former banker who runs the influential conservative outlet Breitbart News and is known for his fiercely anti-establishment politics, has been named the Trump campaign’s chief executive. Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster who has been close to Trump for years, will assume the role of campaign manager.
Two Trump campaign aides confirmed the staff’s reshuffle early Wednesday, requesting anonymity to discuss personnel changes without permission.
Trump issued a statement hours later. “I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” he said. “I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The campaign played down the notion that Trump was reacting to the polls or saw his bid in crisis.
“These announcements come at a time of significant growth for Mr. Trump’s campaign, with the first major TV ad buy of the general election slated to start later this week and with additional top-flight operatives joining the movement on a near-daily basis,” the campaign said in the statement.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the moves.
Trump’s decision effectively ended the months-long push by campaign chairman Paul Manafort to moderate Trump’s presentation and pitch for the general election. And it sent a signal, perhaps more clearly than ever, that the real-estate magnate intends to finish this race on his own terms, with friends who share his instincts at his side.
Manafort, a seasoned operative who joined the campaign in March, will remain in his role, but the advisers described his status internally as diminished because of Trump’s unhappiness and restlessness in recent weeks over his drop in the polls and reports over lagging organization in several key states. He told some friends that he was unsure if he was being given candid assessments of news stories and the campaign’s management.
While Trump respects Manafort, the aides said, he has grown to feel “boxed in” and “controlled” by people who barely know him. Moving forward, he plans to focus intensely on rousing his voters at rallies and through media appearances.
Sean Spicer, chief strategist at the Republican National Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that the national party is already working with the new high command and remains fully committed to supporting Trump’s candidacy in the coming months.
“The campaign is expanding and bringing in more senior people in the final stretch. Obviously that’s a healthy thing,” Spicer said, noting that he spoke with Bannon by phone late Tuesday and remains in close touch with the new Trump CEO by email.
But Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant working for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, said angst was evident Wednesday morning in a round of phone calls to his friends on Capitol Hill. He predicted that the RNC would be pressured to eventually distance itself from Bannon and then possibly from Trump, in order to protect down-ballot GOP candidates across the country.
“If you were looking for a tone or pivot, Bannon will pivot you in a dark, racist and divisive direction. It’ll be a nationalist, hateful campaign,” Wilson said. “Republicans should run away.”
Controversy has swirled around Manafort in recent days, after he was named in a corruption investigation in Ukraine that suggested he had received $12 million in undisclosed cash payments. The purported payments, earmarked in a ledger kept by the political party of Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s president, raised questions about Manafort’s ties to foreign governments and prompted his critics to demand his resignation. Manafort has denied receiving any such payments.
Trump’s turn away from Manafort is in part a reversion to how he ran his campaign in the primaries with then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Lewandowski’s mantra was “let Trump be Trump” and Trump wants to get back to that type of campaign culture, the aides said.
In Bannon especially, Trump is turning to an alter ego — a colorful, edgy figure on the right who has worked at Goldman Sachs and made several films, including a documentary about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Bannon, in phone calls and meetings, has been urging Trump for months to not mount a fall campaign that makes Republican donors and officials comfortable, the aides said. Instead, Bannon has been telling Trump to run more fully as an outsider and an unabashed nationalist.
Trump has listened intently to Bannon and agreed with him, believing that voters will ultimately want a presidential candidate who represents disruption more than a candidate with polished appeal, the aides said.
“Mr. Bannon,” the campaign said, “once recognized by Bloomberg Politics as the ‘most dangerous political operative in America,’ will oversee the campaign staff and operations in addition to strategic oversight of major campaign initiatives in addition to working with Mr. Manafort.”
Manafort, in a statement, said that he is sure the additions will “undoubtedly help take the campaign to new levels of success.”
“Buckle up,” wrote a Trump strategist in a text message Wednesday to The Washington Post.
Several people close to Trump said Bannon and Conway have decided to target five states and want to devote the campaign’s time and resources to those contests: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is in those states where they believe Trump’s appeal to working-class and economically frustrated voters has the best chance to resonate, the people said.