Corey Lewandowski: The back-seat driver on Trump’s juggernaut

The man masterminding the tycoon’s presidential campaign is as relentless, rough and ruthless as his boss

It was the night of the most important victory thus far in his astonishing assault on the White House, and in Manchester, New Hampshire, Donald Trump turned in self-exalting gratitude to a tall, intense-looking figure on the edge of the podium. “Does Corey have a ground game or what?”

Now you may ask, who in Trumpland cares about the “ground game” – politico-speak for that most banal yet fundamental of electoral tasks, getting out the vote? Don’t angry voters just respond instinctively to the much-coiffed one’s trumpet blast? 

As it happens, not always. The week before, the lack of an adequate ground game had cost Trump a win in Iowa. Another defeat in New Hampshire would have turned bombast into ridicule, shattering the notion of an irresistible force. Instead, he swept to an overwhelming win that helped to set up Trump’s super Super Tuesday. So who exactly is Corey?

Corey Lewandowski, the local boy from New Hampshire who is now the property mogul’s campaign manager, is a key political aide in the small and tightly knit Trump inner circle. The two met in April 2014, at a “freedom summit” in New Hampshire organised by Lewandowski’s then employer, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the advocacy group of the billionaire and much demonised Koch brothers.

It was the first cattle call of potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates. Trump showed up, and discovered that he and Lewandowski, now 41, a contrarian by nature and anti-establishment by conviction, were natural soulmates. In January 2015, the latter left AFP to sign on full time at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The pay was $20,000 a month – not bad for a seat next to the driver in a presidential election ride like no other in modern times.

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And, indeed, the pair have much in common, not least a love of the attention-grabbing antic. Those of Trump need no documentation. But at AFP, Lewandowski produced his own stunts, including debating a cardboard cut-out of New Hampshire’s sitting Democratic governor on the steps of the state Capitol building during the 2010 midterm elections. On another occasion, trying to launch a political career of his own, he turned a campaign for municipal treasurer in his home town into a robo-call assault on an impending visit by President Obama. The gesture was deemed over the top. Obama came and Lewandowski lost his election. But the message was plain: anything goes.

Both he and Trump have disdain, too, for the ruling political elites, not to mention the media. And both are bullies. In a recent instalment of the running feud between the Trump campaign and Fox News, the quasi-official mouthpiece of the Republican Party, the network accused Lewandowski of threatening its star presenter Megyn Kelly, whom Trump had savaged after an earlier Fox-sponsored candidates’ debate in which she challenged his attitude to women.

Kelly was set to anchor a second debate in January. As Fox tells it, Lewandowski warned them that she had a “rough couple of days after that last debate” and he “would hate to have her go through that again”. Like his boss, Lewandowski’s creed is “respond to every slight in kind” – and then some.

Their backgrounds, however, could not be more different. Trump started out with a $1m cheque from his multimillionaire daddy. His campaign manager, the grandson of a union printer, grew up in the bleak textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where he attended the local public university. But even as a teenager, Lewandowski was captivated by Ronald Reagan and his promise of the American dream (to the extent of naming one of his own four young children Reagan).

Immediately after graduating, Lewandowski went to Washington and worked on Capitol Hill while earning a master’s in political science at the city’s American University. In 2001, he briefly worked for the Republican National Committee. But then he parted company for good with the Republican establishment. 

In 2002, Lewandowski ran the re-election campaign of Bob Smith, a black-sheep Republican senator, in the process suggesting Smith’s party-backed primary opponent John E Sununu – of Lebanese extraction – was anti-Israel and complicit with terrorism. Uproar followed; Smith lost, but Lewandowski had sealed a reputation for unswerving loyalty and a readiness to do what it takes.

Not surprisingly, the Republican establishment shut him out and Lewandowski was forced to take on a variety of jobs – among them lobbyist, public safety officer and estate agent – before landing with AFP as the first head of its operations in New Hampshire. Then Donald Trump came calling.

His campaign manager has some of the classic attributes of the species: he’s suitably profane and impatient, with a tirelessness fuelled by constant energy drinks. He’s as uncompromising with foes as he is loyal to friends. But Lewandowski’s no great thinker, no strategist like James Carville, architect of Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, or David Axelrod who masterminded Obama’s win in 2008 – let alone Karl Rove, the far sighted data-cruncher known as “Bush’s Brain”, who steered George the Younger to his victories in 2000 and 2004.

And how could he be? “Let Trump Be Trump” is the golden rule, scrawled on a board at campaign headquarters at Trump Tower. In a Washington Post interview, he likened Trump to American Pharoah, who had just become the first Triple Crown winner in almost 40 years. “When you have a horse like that, you have to let him do his thing. Let him run his race.”

Lewandowski, an associate put it, is “more of a logistics guy”, a troubleshooter (and, on occasion, troublemaker). For Greg Moore, who succeeded him in charge of Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire, he is, in football jargon, a master at the “blocking and tackling” of politics. “He reminds me a lot of Bob Haldeman,” said former Trump adviser Roger Stone, referring to the Nixon White House chief of staff, who was jailed for his role in the Watergate scandal. Stone mischievously added, “He’ll probably end up the same way.”

But until the Trump hook-up, Lewandowski operated on a very small scale. He was an obscure New England political operative; as someone who has dealt with him puts it, “an underachiever who’s latched on to a juggernaut”. Or, as a local sports metaphor might have it, a Boston Red Sox minor leaguer suddenly plunged into the World Series. Is Lewandowski ready for it?

For all Trump’s praise that night in New Hampshire, doubts still surround his campaign’s organising skills – essential in a primary battle that is about to become even more venomous, not to mention a probable general election sbowdown with the Clinton machine. A day after Super Tuesday, John Hulziger, an experienced Trump campaign adviser and former US marine, took to Facebook to let rip: we won seven states last night, he asked, but why not all 11? “I want Mr Trump to win more than anyone,” he wrote. But the central campaign (read: Corey Lewandowski) had no clue about voter registration and locking down delegates, “in an election cycle where everyone wants Trump out”.

So does Corey have a good ground game or not? That may make the difference in this crazy American election of 2016.

Corey Lewandowski: A life in brief

Born: 1975, Lowell, Massachusetts.

Family: Married to Alison. They have four children.

Education: Political science BA, University of Massachusetts at Lowell; political sciences MA, American University.

Career: During and after university, Republican activist; 2001, joined Republican National Committee; 2002, Bob Smith Senate campaign manager; 2008, Americans for Prosperity; 2015, Trump presidential campaign manager.