In the two week since firing his campaign manager, Donald Trump has made progress in professionalizing his threadbare White House bid, but troubles remain.
Since parting ways with campaign manager Corey Lewandowsi on June 20, the Trump team has swiftly expanded its operations and broadened its ties to the rest of the Republican Party. Operatives describe a more efficient integration with Trump’s campaign. The GOP convention staff said internal bottlenecks have been cleared, the RNC said efforts to align the two organizations were progressing better than ever, and Republicans on Capitol Hill saw for the first time someone they could work with. “There is no question it’s been a lot easier getting things done,” said one senior Republican involved in the convention planning.
Trump’s focus on trade policy, and his criticism of the Clinton trade record, drew plaudits from many in the party—even from some who disagree vehemently with him on his protectionist policies. The Tuesday speech at an Aluminum processing plant in blue collar Western Pennsylvania promised a pie-in-the-sky reversal of decades of manufacturing declines across nearly every industry. His praise of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union and calls for a host of tariffs on foreign imports provided the most coherent vision of his plans in office.
But the challenge of mounting a general election campaign, essentially from nothing, remains — and it is clear that Trump still has a ways to go to even out the rough edges of his operation. While Clinton fills her events with signs that speak to her message of the day, Trump spoke in front of bales of recyclables and trash — a reflection of his campaign’s ramshackle operation that has struggled to attract top-tier talent across all departments. While his campaign has taken greater control of his Twitter account, sending out messages not in his voice with greater frequency, Trump still has the ability to attract unwanted attention. On Saturday, he tweeted a meme that attacked Hillary Clinton using the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, which was later found to have been created by Twitter account that traffics in racist jokes. The image has since been deleted from Trump’s account.
Behind the scenes, the operation is still staffing up. Since Lewandowski’s exit, Trump’s campaign brought on Jason Miller as its senior communications advisor. The Ted Cruz veteran was the first of more than 100 Cruz staffers to move over to Trump’s team. They also brought in GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, who worked for a pro-Cruz super PAC, and former Rand Paul advisor Michael Biundo.
Others continue to leave the Trump circle. Vincent Harris, digital strategist whose firm has worked for Paul and Cruz, joined the campaign before being pushed out on suspicion of leaking his own hiring, two campaign sources said. On Friday, two members of Trump’s surrogate operation, Kevin Kellems and Erica Freeman, left the campaign. Freeman, a former aide to Mike Huckabee, worked for Trump from Arkansas and was overruled publicly by the candidate on a conference call last month. Kellems had differences of opinion with some in the ever-changing orbit of aides around Trump. “While brief, it has been an interesting experience, and I am proud of the contributions made to our early phase project endeavors,” he wrote in a resignation letter distributed to some staff members.
Republican critics of Trump remain skeptical that he can build a quality organization in time for the election. “Trump is over a year behind Hillary in staffing,” said Tim Miller, the former Jeb Bush communications director who was a senior advisor to a #NeverTrump super PAC. “Hiring a few old semi-pros looking for another shot at the big leagues won’t change the deeply flawed candidate or the far, far, far over-matched opposition. This is the Yankees vs. the Springfield Isotopes.”
A senior Trump aide sought to minimize the focus on the staff, saying outside critics continue to overestimate the importance of staff and logistics in the Trump strategy. “This isn’t staff driven or campaign people or new people or old people or anything like that,” said the aide. “We’re talking about a candidate who’s different that anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes and this is his campaign.”
But there is little doubt that Paul Manafort, who has taken the reins of the campaign, now has un-challenged influence and the new blood has brought out a more focused candidate, even if some of the dysfunction remains. In the most important shift, Trump has bowed to their demands to begin delivering prepared remarks.
“I’m starting to love those teleprompters,” Trump said Friday in Denver, of the devices he now uses for most speeches—and whose use he famously ridiculed throughout the GOP primary. But his bombast flows freely when he speaks off the cuff in interviews and in campaign rally ad-libs. Over the last week, the well-regarded trade focus was muddled by his unscripted comments about renewing waterboarding and torture, and expressing openness to removing hijab-wearing TSA employees from work.