Trump campaign: the finger-pointing starts early

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, August 1, 2016. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event in Columbus, Ohio, August 1, 2016. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

As Donald Trump’s campaign hit a new level of chaos this week, people in and around the campaign raced to assign blame.

Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is coming under increasing criticism from a variety of sources. Much of this is due to leftover ill will between the 67-year old political operative and those still loyal to the man he deposed as campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

But even some who have no loyalty to Lewandowski have said Manafort must accept some blame for Trump’s erratic performance in recent days and weeks, during which his poll numbers have taken a nosedive.

“A big part of being the man in charge is managing the candidate, and he’s got a tiger by the tail,” said one source who has known Manafort for years.

A second source who has operated inside the campaign in the past said, “If you judge a campaign manager by whether they manage the candidate, you’d have to say [Manafort’s] failed.”

But the campaign’s floundering organization and lack of a coherent message “starts with the candidate,” the Manafort associate said. Another longtime friend of Manafort’s said it was clear that the campaign manager isn’t calling the shots.

“Trump’s not listening to him, obviously. Paul’s certainly not advising him to do this stuff,” Manafort’s friend said.

Trump has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past week, all of his own making. He has repeatedly criticized the parents of a slain U.S. Army captain who spoke at the Democratic convention, then joked about accepting a Purple Heart medal from a veteran. And he has revived tensions with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) by withholding his endorsement in Tuesday’s primary. (As of Friday afternoon, networks were reporting that Trump was preparing to endorse Ryan that night.)

“Paul’s still a one-man band,” the Manafort associate said. “You gotta have a campaign. You gotta have a media team. You gotta have pollsters feeding in information so you can use it. You need a ground game.

“This whole thing needs to pick up. I still think it can.”

One leading Republican policy adviser who spoke to Yahoo News expressed dismay with Trump’s “really rough week” and what was described as “unforced errors” that coincided with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton pulling ahead in the polls.

“”It is really frustrating. Hillary is such a flawed option that it should be a lot easier than it’s been,” the adviser said.

In the adviser’s view, Trump’s success in winning the nomination on his own terms—with a steady stream of combative tweets and angry off-the-cuff speeches— makes it harder for aides and critics to persuade him to change his approach.

“The hope that people had was that he was crazy like a fox. You know, he seemed to be doing all these things that made no sense, but looking back it worked. There’s a whole Napoleon analogy. Three times in a row Napoleon gambled everything and won, so it’s a little hard for the staff to say, ‘Don’t go to Russia,’” the adviser said. “Somebody who’s that wildly correct has a hard time taking his critics seriously and his critics have a hard time getting through to him.”

The adviser particularly lashed out at Trump’s feud with the family of the fallen soldier, which they called “disgusting.” Trump’s comments and failure to “cut his losses” after the initial backlash left the adviser wondering about the state of the campaign team.

“How do you not have an internal governor who tells you that is out of line in the most ridiculous way? It’s just awfully difficult to not get that.”

Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort is surrounded by reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Photo:/J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Trump Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort is surrounded by reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Photo:/J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Another one of Trump’s many bad headlines this week was the claim by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that the candidate has asked members of his team why the US can’t use nuclear weapons against its enemies. This goes against decades of policy that has focused on nuclear disarmament with the goal of preventing these weapons from ever being used. The campaign has disputed Scarborough’s account, but Trump has previously expressed interest in using nuclear weapons against the jihadist group Islamic State.

The leading Republican policy adviser who talked to Yahoo News expressed disbelief that Trump doesn’t seem to have familiarized himself with the position every modern president and White House hopeful has held on nuclear weapons. Overall, the adviser said Trump’s recent remarks and behavior have them wondering whether his entire campaign is a scam to aid his business ventures.

“There’s this other thing here where maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t running for president, he was just running to raise his name ID because of the value of his property,” the adviser said. “Is he really running for president? Is he running to raise Trump name ID? If you were really running for president you might have spent time preparing. And here’s a guy who hasn’t been briefed and never made an effort to be briefed on nuclear weapons.”

Trump has continued to play the publicity and provocation game in the press. But despite his lack of focus and self-control, some in the campaign have blamed Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, for not stopping self-destructive cycle. Some think the two operatives are simply now riding out the campaign.

“Paul and Rick are in it for themselves. They’re gonna get a big lobbying contract after this,” the Trump campaign insider said.

Manafort’s regular presence on Sunday talk shows and his outsized reputation in the press as a master of the dark arts of politics — tracing back to his time working in the Ukraine for a candidate loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin — have irked some in the campaign.

The insider detailed several complaints about the campaign’s organization, including the fact that many state parties, including in key battlegrounds, still do not have what is referred to in campaign language as “collateral material” – yard signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, flyers and other materials for canvassing door to door.

The Republican party of Virginia, for example, said they did not have Trump yard signs yet, but were hoping to receive them “any day.” In New Hampshire, the state GOP said they are “all out” of signs and hope to have more “soon.”

State by state budgets were not even approved as late as last week, this source said. Coming out of a “not great” convention, “Mr. Trump found out about this last week and went apoplectic.”

“We’re gonna have a robust 50 state ground game? They have state directors but do they have ground games? No. There are 17 battleground states. Do they have offices in all of them? No,” the source said.

The Trump campaign has aggressively pushed back against the rumors of dysfunction swirling around the campaign. In a conversation with Yahoo News on Friday evening, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the “notion of campaign discord or campaign disconnect is just absolute pure fiction.”

“Mr. Trump is the one who’s in charge of his campaign and Paul Manafort is in charge of implementing that vision and overseeing campaign operations. Mr. Trump knows exactly what he’s doing, knows exactly where he wants to go. We have a unified team and everyone is on the same page in terms of next steps,” Miller said, adding, “We’ve seen anecdotal evidence that things have been going well over the past few days, but also empirical evidence. Reuters just released a poll showing Clinton’s lead over Trump has narrowed to less than three points. That shows the elasticity of this campaign and the problems Hillary Clinton has running for a third term when everyone in this country so clearly wants a new direction.”

Miller further said he believes the rumors of discord are a false “narrative” spread by the Clinton campaign.

But the Trump insider said that communication inside the campaign is broken; the New York office inside Trump Tower, the Washington office run by political director Jim Murphy and by Rick Dearborn, a top aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and the candidate and his entourage aboard Trump’s plane are isolated from one another.

Tellingly, the Trump insider argued that Lewandowski was better able to restrain Trump’s tendencies to sabotage himself with outrageous or offensive comments, even though Lewandowski’s philosophy was to “let Trump be Trump.”

“You never saw a meltdown last this long under Corey’s tenure,” the insider source said. “I think [Lewandowski] was misinterpreted as a body man. The point of flying with [Trump] is whoever dominates his ear, he listens.”

On the plane with Trump most regularly are spokeswoman Hope Hicks, social media director Dan Scavino, policy adviser Stephen Miller, advance director George Gigicos, advance man John McEntee, and personal bodyguard Keith Schiller.

But Trump also awards outsized status to those who he sees on television, the Manafort associate said, pointing out that Kellyanne Conway, who worked for a super PAC backing Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tx.) candidacy, is now “at the grown up table,” working out of Trump Tower in New York.

“Trump loves her. He sees her on TV,” he said. “Trump listens to people who go on TV.”

Manafort does not usually travel with Trump, instead staying in New York trying to organize a chaotic campaign that has relied for much of Trump’s candidacy solely on the reality TV personality’s ability to function as a one-man “media organization” — as Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith put it — through social media and TV appearances.

The Trump insider said he was talking to a reporter “strictly out of love of the candidate, which is weird that you’d have to go speak to reporters so a candidate can find out what’s happening in his own organization.”

He and many in the Trump campaign, he said, are “hoping and praying that [Trump] reads this and says, ‘Something’s got to change.’”