WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s surprise move to hand the reins of his campaign to a right-wing firebrand was seen Wednesday as a formalized revival of his bare-knuckled, anti-establishment strategy and a rebuke to prominent Republican strategists who doubt its power to win the White House.
The hiring of Stephen K. Bannon, who runs a conservative site that often attacks top Republicans, also crushed longstanding hopes within the party that their nominee would tone down his rhetoric, a shift that now-sidelined campaign chairman Paul Manafort had promised for months.
If Corey Lewandowski, the first person to run Trump’s campaign, symbolized the campaign’s ragtag early days, and Manafort, the second, represented its professionalization, the Bannon hire suggests a return to the original “let Trump be Trump” ethos, along with a reaffirmation of the nationalist and nativist undertones that powered his success in the GOP primary.
“I agree with the outsider strategy. It was Trump’s primary strategy. It’s his best general election strategy,” said Roger Stone, a Republican operative and longtime Trump confidant. “Donald Trump has to hit certain marks among white voters, but don’t assume he can’t get some Democratic voters, union voters especially.”
Bannon’s Breitbart News has aggressively promoted Trump and his vision since his June 2015 presidential launch, most notably the anti-immigration views that powered the New York billionaire’s rise among GOP voters. Bannon’s organization has waged war not only on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but has mobilized conservative voters to help oust former House Speaker John Boehner and regularly pressure his successor, Paul Ryan, as a feckless pawn of the elite.
Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery, a former top House aide who supports Trump, said the Bannon hire was “not helpful.”
Bringing Bannon abroad “reinforces the outsider image Trump has cultivated with voters,” argued Ron Bonjean, a former Republican congressional leadership aide. “What really matters is if the strategy and direction change to bring results through rising poll numbers in order for Trump to win.”
The reaffirmation of a base-mobilization strategy, as opposed to reaching out to new constituencies, means Trump has “learned all the wrong lessons from the last few months,” said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for Senate Republican leaders.
“The numbers speak for themselves — he’s losing women, including many Republican women, and minorities by unprecedented margins because they’re turned off by his awful rhetoric,” Walsh said in an email. “Yet instead of listening to what his family and other close advisors have been telling him about pivoting to the general, he’s doubling-down on a failed strategy.”
Newly installed Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Wednesday the “race isn’t over because it’s August and not October.” She said Trump will take his case for change “right to Hillary Clinton: Hey, you’ve been in public office for decades. Why are the facts and figures as they are — why is the poverty? The homelessness? The unemployment? The crime? How can you with a straight face tell America we’re not going to have more of that?”
For Trump, there’s an operational upside to Bannon’s experience leading Breitbart, a site that reported that it reached 31 million unique visitors last month. Not only does he have a unique understanding of the economic and racial grievances that fueled Trump’s ascent, he brings digital media chops to a campaign that has been frustrated with its inability to react quickly to bad news cycles and influence narratives unfurling on cable television and social media.
In recent surveys, Trump trails Clinton by daunting margins. Even if he wins every toss-up state tracked by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, he would still lose the election, according to a new analysis this week. Polls say Trump’s strengths with older, white and noncollege-educated voters are offset by poor showings among blacks, Hispanics, women and college-educated voters in key battleground states.
In a Bloomberg Politics national poll of likely voters conducted this month, Clinton won 55 percent of women and 66 percent of nonwhites in a two-way contest against Trump. Trump’s strongest demographic groups included white men with no college degree (76 percent), evangelicals (59 percent), the noncollege educated (52 percent), married people (50 percent), those in the South (50 percent), and men (48 percent).
“There is no new Donald Trump,” Clinton said Wednesday at a rally in Cleveland. “This is it.”
Anti-Trump Republicans saw the move as a vindication of their opposition to him.
“Yes, it’s a mistake,” said GOP strategist Rory Cooper. “He’s got another ‘let Trump be Trump’ guy around, which may make the plane rides more pleasant, but they won’t help build an organization or campaign to reach out to persuadable voters that is desperately, desperately needed 75 days out.”
Charlie Sykes, a Wisconsin-based conservative radio host who supported Ted Cruz in the GOP primary and continues to oppose Trump, was less charitable.
“Trump’s campaign has now entered the Hospice Phase,” he wrote on Twitter. “He knows he’s dying and wants to surround himself with his loved ones.”
Team Trump’s latest shake-up combines Bannon, a conservative flamethrower, with Conway, a measured, data-driven analyst who might be able to broaden Trump’s appeal to women and independent voters.
It offers Trump’s team a chance to return to the “let Trump be Trump” style practiced by Lewandowski in winning the Republican presidential nomination for the Nov. 8 election.
Lewandowski, ousted in the last campaign reorganization in June, said on CNN that Bannon was “a street fighter” like himself. A Trump campaign statement announcing the changes touted a Bloomberg Politics article that branded Bannon “the most dangerous political operative in America.”
Whether this style will work in the fight against Clinton is unclear. Trump, a New York real estate developer and former reality TV host, has largely been unable to extend his reach beyond white middle-class voters who pack his rallies.
Trump is behind Clinton in national polls and in many battleground states, potentially facing a big defeat that could also cost Republicans congressional races.
Trump, who relishes in revving up crowds with off-the-cuff remarks, drew criticism for comments insulting women, Muslims and Mexican immigrants during the primary campaign for the Republican nomination that he secured last month.
Since then, he has faced a barrage of criticism from Republicans over his campaign style and his refusal to stick to a policy message. In particular, he has been rebuked for his prolonged feud with the family of a Muslim U.S. Army captain who was killed in the Iraq war.
Wednesday’s appointments amounted to a demotion for Manafort, who was brought on as campaign manager in June to professionalize Trump’s campaign but has struggled to get the businessman to rein in his freewheeling ways.
Clinton, a former secretary of state who has called Trump temperamentally unsuited for the White House, said staff shakeups do nothing to change the candidate and his rhetoric.
“Donald Trump has shown us who he is, he can hire and fire anybody he wants from his campaign, they can make him read new words from a teleprompter, but he is still the same man who insults Gold Star families, demeans women, mocks people with disabilities and thinks he knows more about ISIS than our generals,” she told a rally in Ohio.
Conway and Bannon may prove to be opposing forces in Trump’s campaign. Conway is analytical and numbers-driven and often offers a more pragmatic approach to winning campaigns. She is expected to travel with Trump. Bannon likes to push the limits of polite conversation and revels in taking the fight up a notch, strategists say.
“For Steve and I, we also recognize that we are different when we say we have different styles, but we have one vision,” Conway told reporters.
Bannon was a key figure in producing and promoting a movie called “Clinton Cash” that accuses Bill and Hillary Clinton of doing favors for high-dollar donors to the Clinton Foundation charity, a theme that Trump has been touching on in his campaign speeches.
“My guess is Bannon will be a bull in a china shop and Conway will be focused on messaging and paid media,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
The appointment of Bannon suggested Trump is aiming not to tone down his aggressive style but to be more disciplined in emphasizing themes that resonate strongly with the voters he is trying to court, such as his tough stance against illegal immigration and withering personal criticism of Clinton.
“I am who I am, I don’t want to change,” Trump told Wisconsin television station WKTB on Tuesday. “If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
The shift to new leadership may not be a good sign at this stage of a campaign, but some Republican strategists stressed that it was not too late for Trump.
“I’ve thought for a while that they’ve needed more smart, senior people and it looks like they just got them,” said Republican strategist Charlie Black. “It’s only the middle of August. This race is going to be close in the end, but he does need to tighten up his performance.”
Conway told Fox News she was advising Trump, who has never held elected office, to “keep giving policy speeches,” saying voters want to hear more than “cacophony.”
She said she was also advising him to take “his case directly to the people.” “With Donald Trump, he is still his own best messenger because people see him as very authentic,” she said.
A New Jersey-based pollster, Conway has worked in Republican polling since the 1980s, including for former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2012. She also worked for vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in his earlier races.
Conway has worked to improve the Republican Party’s standing with women voters and to push back on the Democratic accusations that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”
A campaign source said Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge fund manager and Republican donor Bob Mercer, played an integral part in presenting Bannon and Conway to Trump and his adult children, who have been influential with the campaign.
Manafort, who will remain on the campaign but will see his influence scaled back, drew unwelcome attention this week when The New York Times reported that his name was on secret ledgers showing cash payments designated to him of more than $12 million from a Ukrainian political party with close ties to Russia. Manafort denied any impropriety on Monday.
The source also said Trump was less concerned than his children were about Manafort’s Russia ties. The news reports about Manafort’s relationship with Ukrainian officials could have been “the last straw,” but the biggest problem was that Trump did not trust Manafort’s advice, the source said.
The current RealClearPolitics average of national opinion polls puts Clinton six percentage points ahead of Trump, at 47.2 percent to his 41.2 percent.
Conway said Wednesday she would encourage Trump to focus on substance and continue delivering policy speeches as he has done in the last week.
“Keep giving these policy speeches, because I tell you … there’s absolutely zero evidence that the voters want this election to be about this content-free cacophony with no substance and no issues,” Conway said in an interview with Fox News.
Trump’s campaign shakeup and new plan to run more directly against the Washington establishment could force more defections by mainstream Republicans who are increasingly worried about preserving their House and Senate majorities.
House Speaker Ryan and other congressional Republicans will be under added pressure to decide whether to stick with Trump or campaign more openly to keep Congress in Republicans hands as a check on a future President Clinton.
At the same time, Trump’s decision to hire Bannon, executive chairman of crusading right-wing website Breitbart News and a former Goldman Sachs banker, as chief executive of his campaign has buoyed the most conservative Republican lawmakers, who are eager to see the real-estate mogul stay the course that helped him triumph in the primaries.
Either way, the changes complicate what was already a difficult task for congressional Republicans to defend their majorities in both chambers and hold together a splintering party.
Under Bannon, Breitbart News has targeted establishment Republicans, including former Speaker Boehner. As part of Trump’s move, the nominee plans to restore a full-bore anti-establishment tenor to the campaign, ending sporadic efforts to moderate his tenor and reach out to skeptical Republicans and independents, according to a source.
Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who made clear in early August that he won’t be voting for Trump, said Bannon’s hiring could push some Republican congressional fence-sitters to take a firm stance on Trump.
“It might give them more incentive to make a decision one way or the other,” Dent, co-chairman of a group of about three dozen House centrists, said in a telephone interview.
“It will be kind of hard to just try and not say anything,” he said of Republican candidates. “It just seems to me that this campaign has been largely run by the candidate himself and this shake-up is just another indication of disorder ahead.”
But Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina called Trump’s move a good prescription for worried congressional Republicans.
“To suggest that we need to go with more of an establishment type of campaign really would be to ignore everything that is happening in the world, and certainly in Washington, D.C.,” said Meadows, a founder and leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which played a key role in ousting Boehner and since has challenged Ryan on several legislative fronts. “There’s a reason why millions of Americans on both sides of the aisle feel they want an outsider — whether that would be Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.”
Meadows added, “I think an anti establishment campaign is just want the doctor ordered — whether in North Carolina, California, or Illinois.” He said even voters in California and Illinois — two areas less conservative than his own state — “know Washington, D.C. is broken.” He said the Trump campaign for the last two or three weeks, in particular, has seemed “off course.”
The shift in tone will probably make it harder for Ryan to pursue his stated goal of bolstering party unity by uniting around a set of policy plans.
“This is sure not a plea for party unity,” joked Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Aides to Ryan declined comment.
Meadows said that Trump shouldn’t be thinking about making the Republican establishment happy as he works to win the White House.
“People are looking for something different, even if they disagree with some of the rhetoric,” said Meadows. He said the addition of Conway will be able to provide to the Trump campaign “some credence in terms of what matters to most people.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia said what Trump “is reflecting, and what I support, is the frustration and anger that has come across the nation” over the inability of government leaders as a whole to address challenges in many policy areas, such as health care and education.
“That’s what he’s tapped in to,” said Price. “That’s what the American people are embracing.”
But Price conceded that not all congressional Republicans have constituencies that necessarily see things that way, and these candidates know they must calibrate their local strategies accordingly.
“Individuals down-ballot have a constituency that is by definition more narrow than the nation. People run the races they have to run,” said Price, saying the same goes for Democrats. “I respect that and know Mr. Trump respects that as well.”
There are no solid signs yet that Trump is heavily influencing potential congressional race outcomes across the nation, said Miringoff of the Marist Institute.
“Here’s the dilemma. There are going to be some people who vote for Donald Trump,” said Miringoff, creating a challenge for Republican candidates who oppose him. On the other hand, for some Republicans who draw too close to Trump, there’s the danger that he either gets clobbered in that district, or he depresses Republican voter turnout.
“This totally could make things more difficult,” he said.
WhenTrump shook up his presidential campaign this week, he deepened his ties to Mercer, a wealthy hedge-fund manager and conservative donor with a taste for bucking the Republican establishment.
Bannon and Conway are longtime advisers to the Long Island, New York-based investor and have aided his family on a web of interlocking projects. Even within a Republican party that has battled Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades, the Mercers and their advisers stand out as among the Clintons’ most dogged and long-standing critics.
Until recently, Trump was not the Mercers’ favorite. During the Republican presidential primary, Mercer and his family put $13.5 million into a political action committee to support Sen. Ted Cruz’s bid for the party’s nomination. They put Conway in charge of the spending.
A few weeks after Cruz dropped out, the Mercers lined up behind Trump. The move followed a meeting in Manhattan that included Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, Conway, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, according to source.
When Cruz refused to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention last month, the Mercers issued a rare public statement that made clear their support for Trump is rooted in their opposition to Clinton.
“The Democratic Party will soon choose as their nominee a candidate who would repeal both the First and Second Amendments of the Bill of Rights, a nominee who would remake the Supreme Court in her own image,” the Mercers wrote. “We need all hands on deck to ensure that Mr. Trump prevails.”
The Mercers declined comment Wednesday through a spokesman. Conway and Bannon didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Robert Mercer, 70, is a computer programmer by training who is the co-chief executive officer of Renaissance Technologies in East Setauket, New York. The hedge-fund firm uses computers to spot patterns in financial markets that wouldn’t be obvious to human traders, and has generated one of the best investing records in history.
He got involved in major political spending in 2010, buying ads supporting a New York gubernatorial candidate by highlighting his opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque.” Since then, he’s become one of the country’s biggest Republican givers, with a preference for anti-establishment candidates and tea party favorites. One of his most long-standing beneficiaries is a chemist and sometime Congressional candidate who is collecting thousands of vials of human urine in freezers in rural Oregon for medical research.
Mercer’s ties to Bannon date to at least to 2011, when Bannon’s conservative Breitbart News network was struggling financially, and Mercer made a $10 million equity investment, according to another source. The next year, Bannon founded an organization called the Government Accountability Institute to research cronyism in Washington, and Mercer’s family foundation became a major supporter.
The group produced the book “Clinton Cash” last year highlighting conflicts of interest between the Clintons’ government service and their family foundation’s courting of foreign donors. This year, Bannon and Rebekah Mercer turned the book into an hour-long documentary. Robert Mercer sent his 203-foot yacht, Sea Owl, to the premier of the film at Cannes.
Some of the ties between the Mercers, Bannon and Conway are head-spinning. Bannon serves on the board of Reclaim New York, an advocacy group set up by the family devoted to transparency and tax cuts in the Empire State. That group shares an address in New York with Cambridge Analytica, a data and analytics firm of which the Mercers are part owners.
Cambridge Analytica has worked extensively for political groups funded by the Mercers, including Cruz’s presidential campaign and the super-PAC that Conway oversaw. The Trump campaign recently started using the firm’s services, according to a report in the National Review.
Meanwhile, the Mercers’ super-PAC has retooled from supporting Cruz to attacking Clinton. Succeeding Conway at the PAC is David Bossie, who has devoted much of his professional career to battling the Clintons, starting as an investigator for House Republicans in the 1990s. His effort to promote an anti-Clinton movie during the 2008 presidential campaign led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, opening up a flood of new political money from wealthy individuals like the Mercers.
Mercer put $2 million more into the super-PAC last month, and Bossie is now marketing it to other donors as a way to fight the Democratic nominee without explicitly endorsing Trump. Its name: Defeat Crooked Hillary.
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