Let there be no doubt about it: Donald Trump has decided. As a result, this general election season won’t be like anything the country has seen before.
The unceremonious firing of Rick Wiley, a former RNC political director who served as campaign manager for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, was the latest signal that Trump was happy to continue his barebones, shoot-from-the-hip campaign that proved so successful in the Republican primaries. Then there were his words at a press conference Thursday.
Asked about building a traditional campaign for the fall, he was dismissive. ““As far as building the infrastructure for campaign, the RNC has been doing it for many years, Reince [Priebus] has really upped it, all over the country, and part of the benefit is that we get to use those people,” Trump said at a press conference Thursday marking the occasion of securing the 1,237 delegates needed for his nomination.
The signs have been clear for weeks that Trump had pivoted back, after a scare in the Wisconsin primary let him to staff up with outsiders who understood to build a traditional campaign. Facing a sophisticated campaign to force a contested convention and deny him the Republican nomination, he turned to a one of Washington’s ultimate insiders, Paul Manafort, the perennially besuited lobbyist who helped to manage the 1976 convention for President Gerald Ford.
Manafort, with the title of convention manager, quickly promised to professionalize Trump’s threadbare operation, which substituted strategy little more than Trump’s whims. He promised a new Washington office, experienced hires and a honey-over-vinegar approach would take Trump to the White House. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting,” Manafort told members of the RNC at a briefing with Wiley last month. “The negatives will come down, the image is going to change.”
His hiring was viewed as a rebuff to campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, the relatively inexperienced operative who was running Trump’s seemingly imperiled campaign. Lewandowski’s mantra, exuded on a plaque near his desk in the bowels of Trump Tower, had been “Let Donald Trump be Donald Trump,” warts and all. What followed was the most unpredictable campaign in generations falling into the old trap of bitter factionalization, divided loyalties, and political intrigue.
But as the polls and election results turned in Trump’s favor, so did Trump’s strategy turn back to favor Lewandowski, who weeks later found himself back in charge of the campaign checkbook. Lewandowski’s power stemmed from commitment to Trump to spend the campaign’s money like he would his own, and from his proximity to the candidate, always traveling on the road with the presumptive GOP nominee and often goading him to be more forceful on the stump. Manafort struggled to bring on new talent or execute his plans without the campaign manager’s permission—that is when he found qualified professionals willing to the controversial candidate.
Wiley’s firing was explained as the completion of a temporary contract, but confirmed by multiple sources to be a termination. It was announced just as Manafort gave another interview, this time to the Huffington Post, in which he suggested that Trump would start “moderating” on his plans for a temporary ban on Muslims from entering the country. Manafort also said it would be seen as “pandering” if Trump chose a woman or minority as a running mate. “I’m sure he was misquoted,” Trump said Thursday, when asked about the comments. (Manafort has made no public claim that he was misquoted, and the Huffington Post stands by its comment.) Trump then swiftly overruled Manafort, who was given the title of campaign chairman and chief strategist just weeks ago, saying he would consider a woman for vice president.
A former political director of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager of Scott Walker’s failed primary campaign, Wiley’s hiring was seen as an overture to the party establishment. He became the point-person on melding Trump’s organization with the RNC’s and was a near-daily fixture in the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters. It was Wiley’s efforts to marginalize and layer some of Trump’s earliest state aides with more experienced operatives that proved to be the final straw of his employment, allies said. Wiley didn’t respond to a request from TIME for comment.
The result is a clear, unconventional and risky blueprint for Trump’s fall campaign. His aides say he will not seek to match the hundreds of millions of dollars that Democrats plan to spend on television advertising, and will not worry about building an in-house data and field operations. Trump and Lewandowski believe they can overcome the far greater hurdles of a general election by replicating the media-driven campaign than won the primary. While Trump, who has begun fundraising after largely self-funding his presidential campaign through in-kind loans, is holding fundraisers, he will leave control over most of the spending to the RNC, which could abandon the presidential race in favor of trying to maintain its majorities in the Senate and House if the presidential race goes south.
The RNC, which had been building a permanent ground operation after its losses in 2012, is set to be more vital than ever. On Thursday it announced it is hiring an addition 250 field staffers in the coming weeks, bringing its total to 466 across 11 states.
“Regardless of whom a candidate is trying to appeal to, they need to have the fundamentals,” says former RNC chief of staff Mike Shields, referring to the field and outreach programs Trump hasn’t developed. “Donald Trump is going to have to rely on the RNC for the vast majority of his mechanics more than any candidate in recent history.”
In the meantime, there is more clarity inside Trump’s campaign about who is calling the shots—at least for now. The last man to talk to the candidate before each public appearance remains campaign manager Lewandowski and neither he, nor the candidate, are looking to change.
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