Behind the scenes: Angst in Trump’s campaign

Behind the scenes: Angst in Trump’s campaign
© Greg Nash

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Obama condemns attacks in Sri Lanka as 'an attack on humanity' Schiff rips Conway's 'display of alternative facts' on Russian election interference MORE and Corey Lewandowski spent much of Saturday together at rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix. But there was tension between the presumptive GOP nominee and his then-campaign manager.

A source who was in their company over the weekend observed a coldness and distance between the two men.

Early Monday morning, Lewandowski participated in a routine conference call with the Republican National Committee. Shortly after that call, Trump’s campaign staff — even some of his most senior people — learned via a New York Times story that Trump had fired Lewandowski.

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The dismissal was news to nearly everyone outside of Trump’s immediate family. His daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, were both said to be intimately involved in the decision to sack Lewandowski.

Lewandowski, who was informed by Trump on Monday morning at Trump Tower, appeared to be oblivious to his fate as recently as the weekend, three high-level campaign sources said.

Lewandowski on Saturday was energetically making campaign plans for the future, according to a source who was with him.

“We all found out when it started to hit Twitter,” said another senior Trump campaign source who is viewed internally as a Lewandowski ally.

Another shocked senior member of Trump’s campaign staff replied, “No ­f---ing way, man,” when The Hill called for comment on Monday morning minutes after the news broke.

Trump opted to release the news at the start of the workweek — attracting a slew of media attention — instead of releasing it on a Friday afternoon or over the weekend.

Campaign sources say that for the past several weeks, Trump was weighing concerns about Lewandowski’s ability to manage a national presidential campaign, which he’s never done before. In addition, there were tensions between Lewandowski’s “let Trump be Trump” approach and the more buttoned-down politics advocated by Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Lewandowski and Manafort maintained the appearance of friendliness even to those who worked closely with them. Yet behind the scenes they were at odds over strategy and staffing. Manafort wants to bulk up the campaign with seasoned political operatives, and Lewandowski was seen as favoring a leaner model in which he maintained closer access to the White House contender.

Internally, Trump campaign staffers are seen as belonging to two separate camps — either you’re a “Manafort guy” or a “Corey guy” — and Manafort has been struggling to take control of decisionmaking.

Now that Lewandowski is gone, his friends and backers have been exchanging text messages, wondering whether they’ll be cut, too, as part of a larger ousting of his lieutenants. The consensus, or hope, among them is that Trump and Manafort will keep them on and that Lewandowski’s firing was a one-off.

“If they fire [the Lewandowski guys], the campaign is over,” a source working with the Trump campaign said.

Exacerbating all of these tensions has been a terrible few weeks for Trump on the campaign trail and rising anxieties from Republican leaders and donors across the country.

The real estate tycoon has made unforced errors, including racially charged statements about a federal judge and a response to the Orlando massacre that was widely panned by Republicans for its self-congratulatory tone and implication that President Obama is sympathetic to terrorists.

Trump has fallen 6 points behind Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThorny part of obstruction of justice is proving intent, that's a job for Congress Nadler: I don't understand why Mueller didn't charge Donald Trump Jr., others in Trump Tower meeting Kellyanne Conway: Mueller didn't need to use the word 'exoneration' in report MORE in national polls and is behind in battleground states. And his fundraising is in disarray, with “emergency” fundraising emails calling for relatively small daily targets of $100,000. Some major donors are refusing to fund a candidate they fear is going to lose and cost them congressional seats.

With Twitter and cable TV buzzing with the news of Lewandowski’s firing, Trump’s campaign staffers were hurried onto a conference call around 11:30 a.m. with Manafort, deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner and HQ staff in New York, according to a Trump campaign source who participated in the call. 

But the call conveyed little information. 

“It was super scripted from Manafort ... it may as well have been talking points,” the source on the campaign conference call said. 

Manafort told those on the call that the campaign was expanding its staff in battleground states, a point of deep concern to senior figures on the campaign. The Lewandowski departure was mentioned briefly.

Trump’s campaign staffers and those leading his fundraising want to know when their candidate is going to get serious about fundraising and when he’s going to hire more paid staffers in battleground states. They also are pushing for Trump to focus on the general election and court independent voters.

“We’ve been in a holding pattern for a couple of months now, and we’re getting to the point where the convention’s a month away now, and we don’t have any staff that I know of in Colorado [or] Ohio,” said a campaign source.

“We’re trying to get our s--- together and HQ hasn’t relayed the message yet. ... I’m hoping [the Lewandowski firing] means we can start focusing on the general election,” the source added. 

Trump was under pressure to fire Lewandowski, multiple sources say.

Lewandowski was increasingly viewed internally as being out of his depth and resistant to change.

Manafort wanted to hire top communications people for the campaign. But Lewandowski resisted the recruitment of seasoned political operatives, two senior sources familiar with internal conversations told The Hill.

Weeks after becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, Trump’s staff remains skeletal and the billionaire has been outsourcing nearly all his campaign functions — including fundraising — to the RNC.

“Manafort’s trying to mature the organization and grow it and he’s realized that Corey’s impeding that, to maybe stay as close as possible to the boss and consolidate his power,” a senior Trump campaign source said. 

“But we have to grow. That’s one of the most frustrating parts.”

Lewandowski was also seen as an enabler of Trump’s worst instincts, a yes man who wouldn’t challenge his boss.

In a nearly half-hour interview with CNN reporter Dana Bash on Monday, Lewandowski defended himself against charges that he had failed to build an adequate campaign structure.

He said the campaign had been deliberately “lean” and should have been praised for spending so little money to defeat higher-spending primary campaign opponents such as Jeb Bush; the former Florida governor, combined with his super-PAC, spent more than double what Trump spent.

Lewandowski also denied reports that he had been a “hothead” who mistreated staffers, saying his outbursts were part of his push for perfection.

“I think I’m a very intense person and my expectation is perfection, because I think that’s what Mr. Trump deserves,” Lewandowski said.

Lewandowski further denied news reports that he had fallen out with Trump’s daughter and son-in-law.

A source familiar with the conversations told The Hill that the presumptive nominee had spent Father’s Day with his family, adding that the decision to fire the campaign manager had been weeks in the making.

Trump’s communications director, Hope Hicks, declined to comment, and Lewandowski didn’t respond to a call or text message.

Ben Kamisar contributed.