Donald Trump overhauls campaign team to make way for Breitbart executive and conservative 'street fighter'

Hire of combative figure is the latest major overhaul to a campaign that is struggling in the polls against Hillary Clinton

David Usborne
New York
Wednesday 17 August 2016 15:56
Donald Trump has embarked on yet another shake-up of his campaign
Donald Trump has embarked on yet another shake-up of his campaign

His campaign stalled if not actually going down in flames, Donald Trump has done what so many other floundering candidates have resorted to before – he has shaken up his top staff.

In a reset that pushes his current campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, into the weeds, Mr Trump has taken on Stephen Bannon, a conservative media pirate, as his new campaign chief executive and promoted his main pollster, Kellyanne Conway, to become campaign manager.

The changes show Mr Trump rebelling against efforts by some in his campaign - Mr Manafort in particular - to repress his shock-jock instincts on the trail and and transform him into a candidate more closely conforming to what the Republican Party and donors want to see.

In Mr Bannon, who will take leave from his position as CEO of the conservative site Breitbart News, he has found someone who, if anything, will encourage him to amplify those traits that won him the nomination in the first place – playing the nationalist insurgent who will break china in the White House and trample all of the rules of normal political etiquette to get there.

That, more or less, will mean allowing “Trump to be Trump”. Ironically, that had been the mantra of Corey Lewandowski, who was the nominee’s campaign manager throughout the primaries until he was dumped in June in favour of Mr Manafort whose job, at the time, was to introduce a measure of discipline. Mr Lewandowski is now a commentator for CNN, the news channel. On Wednesday Mr Lewandowski described Mr Bannon as a conservative “street fighter”.

The consequences of the shake-up are hard to predict. Voters are unlikely to care about it, as such. The fact that it has happened, with less than 90 days until the election, was widely seen as evidence of a deep malaise in Camp Trump. The candidate himself is said to have descended into a sulk in recent days as his poll numbers against Hillary Clinton have slumped.

Loneliness and a fear of losing may have been the motivation behind Mr Trump also turning to old friends in recent days for help. Roger Ailes, the disgraced former boss of Fox News, and Roger Stone, an eccentric Republican operative who has the face of Richard Nixon tattooed across his back, are both now helping the candidate in unofficial capacities.

Mr Bannon, who worked formerly for Goldman Sachs and made the film Undefeated lionising former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is a buccaneer figure in the party, who has reportedly made the case several times to Mr Trump that toning down his act in the general election phase of the race would be a mistake and he should stick with wielding anti-establishment dynamite.

He is arguably the conservative wing’s most influential agitator. “This man is the most dangerous political operative in America”, blared the headline of a Bloomberg News profile of Mr Bannon last year, noting his commitment not just to stopping Ms Clinton but also sabotaging any hopes Jeb Bush, the Republican former Governor of Florida, had of winning the White House.

At a gathering of the most conservative faction of the Republican Party outside Washington DC last year, Mr Bannon played host to Nigel Farage, the former head of the Ukip party.

Ms Conway is also from the right of the party, though her record is less one of bomb-throwing and more one of data-cruncher with helping her candidate win always first on her mind. Widely respected even by political foes, she has worked in past election cycles for Mike Pence, who is now on the Trump ticket, as well as Newt Gingrich and former Vice President Dan Quayle.

“I've known both of them for a long time,” Mr Trump said of Ms Conway and Mr Bannon after the news of his reshuffle broke early on Wednesday. “They're terrific people, they're winners, they're champs, and we need to win it.”

Stephen Bannon joins the Trump campaign as chief executive

That Mr Trump was already feeling some sense of being liberated from the forces that wanted him to temper his style and his proclivity for the outrageous came through even on Tuesday evening when he spoke to a local TV station after addressing supporters in Wisconsin.

“You know, I am who I am,” he declared. “It's me. I don't want to change. Everyone talks about, 'Oh, well you're going to pivot, you're going to.' I don't want to pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people.”

In recent days, Mr Manafort has been hit by allegations that he helped channel millions of dollars from supporters of the former pro-Russian ruling party in Ukraine to lobbyists in Washington DC to help them influence the US elections. The current government in Ukraine has opened an investigation into Mr Manafort’s past activities as a consultant in the country. That in turn has focused attention again on Mr Trump's ties with Russia, an awkward issue the Clinton campaign has energetically tried to exploit.

For now, the campaign is not saying that Mr Manafort has been sidelined or demoted, for that or any other reason. The new posts for Mr Bannon and Ms Conway, they insist, represent an “expansion” for a campaign that many outsiders have indeed described as woefully thin on the ground.

As remarkable as anything is the total absence of spending by the Trump campaign so far on television commercials against Ms Clinton. In recent days, however, it has announced the first ads paid for by the campaign will begin airing in key markets in swing states next week.

“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” Mr Trump said in a formal statement about his campaign revamp.

“I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”

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