“Let Donald Trump Be Donald Trump,” read the plaque on his campaign manager’s desk. Put the master showman before a frustrated audience and watch him pitch a totally new kind of product. The man was magic.
At least it seemed that way for months: the more Trump broke the rules, the better it seemed to work. Insult a war hero? Congrats: you win the news cycle. Float a religious test for immigration? Trump never claimed to be politically correct. Suggest his opponent abetted a rape or murder? He’s just sayin’. The Trump Show won the most votes in the history of Republican primaries. So when it came time to pivot to the general election, he wasn’t likely to rewrite the script. “You think I’m going to change?” Trump said on May 31, five days after securing enough delegates to clinch the nomination. “I’m not changing.”
Except now he must. Since that boast, Trump has plunged from dead even with Hillary Clinton to 6 points down in national surveys. During a few days in June, he attacked the fairness of a federal judge on the basis of ethnicity, delivered a widely panned response to a mass murder and seemed to hint that President Obama might have connections to Islamic terrorists. The candidate who relies on his magnetism is now the most unpopular major-party nominee in modern history, with disapproval ratings that have climbed 10 points over the past month to 70%. On June 20 he fired his campaign manager and right-hand man, Corey Lewandowski, the keeper of the plaque and architect of its hands-off credo.
In a primary contest against a dozen others, Trump could run a race with little more than a Twitter feed to rouse his fans and a cell phone to reach cable bookers. In a general election, the odds are longer, the adversary more sophisticated, the electorate more diverse and the media more skeptical of what a candidate is selling. And so Trump’s freewheeling formula has begun to crumble.
Trump faces the worst fundraising and organizational deficits in modern presidential history. He brought in just $3 million in May–less than what Clinton has raised in a single day–and has dispatched just a couple dozen field staff members nationwide, about the same number you might find for a competitive Senate race. Clinton has outspent him on swing-state TV ads by $23 million to zero. And that margin is only going to grow.
Trump, meanwhile, has spent more time tending the finances of his business empire than building a campaign treasury. Fundraising reports suggest Trump’s play for the presidency has become a kind of vendor to many of the other properties in his portfolio. Through the end of May, Trump had spent more than $6 million in campaign money to pay his own companies. He’s shelled out cash to fly on his planes, pay the lease on his headquarters in Trump Tower, rent his own glimmering hotel ballrooms for speeches and stock up on Trump-branded wine and bottled water. He even reimbursed his children for travel expenses.
If the GOP was ready to rally around him six weeks ago, party officials are now more keenly focused on damage control. Hostile delegates and party operatives have rekindled a long-simmering plot to turn Trump’s coronation in Cleveland in July into a coup. Republicans have grown so frustrated with Trump that they’re publicly weighing whether to overturn the will of more than 10 million voters, a move that could tear the party in two. But since they’re probably stuck with him, they’re still hoping he can change. “‘Let Trump be Trump’ is ridiculous,” says Republican strategist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “He needs to grow into the role.”
The gut-check moment came by coincidence on Father’s Day with an intervention by three of the candidate’s children. At a gathering at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump–executive vice presidents of the Trump Organization, heirs to his empire and top political advisers to the campaign–insisted to their dad that Lewandowski had to go.
An ardent loyalist with no national campaign experience, Lewandowski was one of the original six members of Trump’s political team. The buzz-cut-sporting manager mimicked Trump’s style and mannerisms–the staccato patter and superlatives, the indifference to criticism, the loose relationship with the truth. And he learned from the real estate baron the value of location, currying influence by joining Trump on almost every campaign swing. When Trump was in New York, Lewandowski stayed at an apartment in Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, just an elevator ride away from the candidate.
More than anything, he had Trump’s trust. But Lewandowski’s profane tirades and gift for sparking turf wars wore thin. In March, Trump tried to calm insiders by hiring Paul Manafort, a veteran Washington lobbyist who was brought on to wrangle convention delegates but quickly expanded his portfolio into other realms. Manafort and Lewandowski soon clashed over the campaign’s organizing principles–Manafort wanted more scripted speeches–and the boss was amused by the rift, dismissing reports of discord. “It’s actually a very well-unified campaign,” he told TIME on June 8, when the squabbling was starting to peak. “Paul loves being in Washington and dealing with the Senate and dealing with Congress, and he’s good at it. And frankly, Corey doesn’t like that so much. He likes other things. He likes the rallies.” Lewandowski wrested control of the campaign checkbook, insisting on personally approving expenses as small as office supplies.
The Trump kids watched all this with growing alarm. In March, Lewandowski was accused of battery after grabbing the arm of a female journalist. (The charges were later dropped, but not before Trump supporters blasted the prosecutor as a Clinton backer.) In recent months, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus urged Trump in nearly every conversation to reassess the campaign’s management, according to a GOP official, while making back-channel calls to Trump’s children, who soon became Priebus’ preferred conduits to the candidate.
The final straw for Lewandowski was a falling-out with Ivanka’s husband, real estate heir and New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, who has assumed a key role as the de facto foreign policy and communications adviser, aides said. When Lewandowski sought to shop negative stories about Kushner to reporters, Ivanka moved to protect the family brand. (Lewandowski denies any leak against Kushner.) The operative who bragged about winning the nomination on a shoestring budget was escorted out of Trump Tower. As the drama went down, a senior Trump adviser told TIME, “Nobody has any idea what’s going on.”
Campaign managers are supposed to make the trains run on time, but the railroad Lewandowski left behind is a mess, shot through with strife and run by a skeletal crew. (Trump is outstaffed by Clinton’s White House in waiting by about 9 to 1.) With a measly $1.2 million on hand, according to federal campaign filings, Trump trails Clinton in the cash chase by some $42 million. “If you compare his campaign to Clinton’s, he doesn’t have a campaign,” says GOP strategist Rick Tyler.
He doesn’t have a shadow campaign, either. At least 15 super PACs have been established to support Trump, including separate groups promising to shore up his standing with everyone from women to the Amish. The confusion seems to be scaring off some megadonors, like Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose aides explored starting their own pro-Trump super PAC with as much as $100 million of Adelson’s cash. But they couldn’t coax rival groups to step aside so the pros could coordinate, in part because the existing groups wanted to cash in themselves. And so for now, Adelson’s money and organizational muscle remain on the sidelines.
The meltdown is visible everywhere. Instead of working the big cities of battleground states, Trump often winds up in strange places for strange reasons, like traveling to Scotland for a June 24 ribbon cutting at the ceremonial reopening of his latest golf course. He takes an unusual amount of time away from the campaign trail. And he has yet to buy a single general-election TV ad, showing a dangerous reliance on free media that few, if any, veteran pols believe can work.
Perhaps most damaging of all, the party got another case of cold feet about Trump in late June. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had awarded his delayed endorsement with the enthusiasm of an undertaker, is now publicly peddling a competing agenda. And he took the extraordinary step of announcing that his members had his permission to disavow the party’s nominee. “The last thing I would do,” Ryan said on June 17, “is tell anybody to do something that’s contrary to their conscience.”
A few dozen GOP delegates are trying to topple Trump by getting a majority of colleagues to back a plan that would permit peers who oppose Trump for “moral or religious” reasons to withhold support as “conscientious objectors.” It is a maneuver that has some precedent: Ronald Reagan’s campaign managers considered the gambit when they were trying to dump Gerald Ford at the Kansas City convention in 1976. Many of those delegates support Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the runner-up in the Republican primary derby, whose political aides are quietly watching the insurgency unfold. But with no desirable Reaganesque alternative, the latest dump-Trump impulse is likely to prove little more than symbolic. Even party veterans who are desperate to ditch Trump have come to believe it would be better to lose with him than risk the fatal party rift that would come if he were deprived of the nomination.
But should the GOP stick with Trump, it doesn’t mean it will run with him. For the first time since 1996, much of the party is preparing to run independent of its top candidate. Republican officials are drawing up plans to reallocate money and personnel away from the presidential race and to competitive congressional campaigns. Senators in tough re-election contests are telling donors the best use of their dollars is preserving the GOP’s hold on the upper chamber, not backing a nominee who has torn up decades of party doctrine on trade, immigration and social programs. Abandoning Trump may be the only way for the GOP to keep the Senate out of Democratic hands. “You know what you’re paying for with me,” one Senator told donors on a finance call in mid-June. “We are the insurance policy.” Another Senator is fielding questions about surviving five months of television ads tying the candidate to Trump. “We run our own race,” the Senator told staff, sketching plans to maintain distance.
In early June, Illinois’s Mark Kirk, a vulnerable Republican in a blue state, became the first Senate Republican to rescind his endorsement of Trump. The decision came shortly after an economic town hall in Chicago was sidetracked by a volley of questions from Hispanic workers about Trump’s immigration policy. “Cállate–shut up–that’s what I told Donald Trump,” Kirk replied. Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, told TIME he backs the long-shot fantasy of toppling Trump in Cleveland. “The Trump campaign is not good down-ballot,” he says. “It weakens the party.”
If Lewandowski’s departure is a turning point, not even Trump’s allies are certain of where the candidate is headed next. Would the in-your-face strategy that carried him this far be replaced with something more staid and somber? And would that even work? For now, perhaps: a day after the ouster, Trump announced a spate of new hires. And when Clinton gave a speech burying Trump’s economic policies, his campaign fired off a flurry of rebuttals. Simple stuff, but a first for his undermanned communications shop. He began to bombard his email list with fundraising pleas, pledging to match up to $2 million in online donations. A meeting to mend fences with Congress is on the calendar for July.
The new strategy was on display on June 22, when Trump delivered a targeted critique of Clinton’s economic agenda and her stewardship of the State Department. Speaking with the aid of a teleprompter, which curtailed his typical digressions, Trump was even-toned and on message. The message, however, was still unmistakably Trump. The self-aggrandizing hyperbole, the conspiracy theories and the scathing personal attacks seemed to find their target. “Hillary Clinton,” Trump declared, “may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”
All of this change, even if it sticks, may be too late. The billionaire developer will never be able to match Clinton’s state-of-the-art operation, its massive ad spending or its organizational scale. And the perception that he is a unique, uncensored and authentic candidate is at the center of his appeal. “If he woke up tomorrow as Mitt Romney,” says one veteran of the 2012 GOP nominee’s buttoned-up campaign, “he’d lose.”
That leaves Trump’s advisers and cheerleaders scrambling to write a new playbook on the fly, mixing his renegade instincts with concessions to campaign custom. “There are warring factions,” says a GOP strategist interested in joining the campaign. “Be more presidential, or let him do what he wants. Neither one alone is a way to win.”
So at the urging of Manafort and his children, Trump is looking to thread the needle. He’ll keep tweeting insults and lobbing missiles. The bombast isn’t going away, but instead of riffing without a filter, he’ll stay focused on the right targets. “We’ll pivot off of the judge,” Manafort explains, “and onto Clinton.”
Of course, the Great Presidential Pivot has been just around the corner for months now. Few politicians can execute a makeover of this magnitude, least of all a 70-year-old newcomer who wins by bending norms. As Manafort was pledging a tighter focus on Clinton, Trump was busy cooking up an improved nickname for his rival: “Lying, Crooked Hillary.” Some things never change.
–With reporting by PHILIP ELLIOTT, JAY NEWTON-SMALL and WILL DRABOLD/WASHINGTON
This appears in the July 04, 2016 issue of TIME.