DENVER — Just three weeks before he is set to officially claim the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump was hit with another staff shakeup as his campaign struggles to expand in advance of what is expected to be a bruising general election campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Kevin Kellems, a veteran GOP strategist and former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, abruptly resigned from the Trump staff Thursday, less than two weeks after he was hired to help oversee the campaign’s surrogate operations. Erica Freeman, another aide working with surrogates, also quit.
“While brief, it has been an interesting experience, and I am proud of the contributions made to our early-phase project endeavors,” Kellems wrote in a goodbye note to colleagues.
The campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The latest departures come as Trump has tried to steady a campaign operation that has been shaken by internal drama and outside turmoil, including the candidate’s own missteps. Those include Trump’s racially tinged comments about a federal judge and his response to the Orlando shooting that many Republicans say have distracted from his general election argument against Clinton.
Two weeks ago, Trump fired Corey Lewandowski, his campaign manager and longest-serving campaign aide, amid tensions between him, the Trump family and other Trump aides, including Paul Manafort, a longtime Washington hand who was hired this spring to help ready the campaign for the general election.
Lewandowski’s departure was read by many GOP observers as a hopeful sign that Trump was finally taking steps to mount a more serious campaign. But on Friday, Republicans outside the campaign began to fret once again, questioning if Trump will overhaul his operation in time to not only weather attacks from Clinton and Democratic allies, but also counterpunch against the presumptive Democratic nominee.
But the Trump operation has continued to expand its operations in other areas. Earlier this week, the Trump team hired Jason Miller, who most recently worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, to buttress its communications operation. And on Friday, Trump announced he had hired Kellyanne Conway, a veteran GOP strategist and pollster, as a senior adviser. Conway, who until recently was helping run a super-PAC backing Cruz, is expected to advise Trump on how to better appeal to female voters.
Her hiring came as Trump did some outreach of his own, speaking at the Western Conservative Summit here in Colorado. It’s home to many members of the #NeverTrump movement, which is still trying to stop him from clinching the nomination at the upcoming party convention in Cleveland.
Taking the podium nearly an hour late, the New York real estate mogul tried to stay on message, vowing that he would be a better candidate that Clinton in handling the economy and confronting terrorism. The Islamic State terror group, he claimed, wants Clinton to win the presidency because she is “weak.” “They have dreams at night, and their dreams are that Hillary Clinton becomes the president of our country,” Trump said.
But Trump kept diverting from the general election to talk about the primary, reminding voters of the states he won and griping about those he didn’t — including Colorado, where Cruz won all of the state’s delegates.
“Colorado has taught me a lot about politics,” Trump said, calling it a “rigged” election. “The polls came out that I was going to win Colorado. … I was looking forward to it, and then all of a sudden I didn’t get the delegates. I said, ‘What happened to the vote?’ I started to learn.”
At one point, Trump revived his criticism of former President Bill Clinton’s impromptu meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, dismissing claims by Lynch that it was simply a casual meetup.
He mocked Lynch’s claim that the two had talked about their grandchildren. Referencing his own role as a grandfather, Trump told the audience that he loves his eight grandchildren but that he couldn’t fill up 20 minutes of conversation about them, which is the amount of time Clinton is said to have met with Lynch.
“If I talk about them for more than nine or 10 seconds … after that what are you going to say?” Trump said, shrugging.