Trump's new campaign manager brings ties to GOP establishment

Trump's new campaign manager brings ties to GOP establishment
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The longtime operative President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump suggests some states may 'pay nothing' as part of unemployment plan Trump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore Trump, US face pivotal UN vote on Iran MORE has tapped to revive his moribund campaign has deep ties to top Republican strategists and activists across the country, offering a measure of calm to a party that is increasingly worried about Trump’s political prospects in November.

For months, Bill Stepien, 42, has played an increasingly visible role for the Trump campaign, representing the team at meetings with other GOP officials around Washington and taking on more responsibility at its Arlington headquarters. 

He regularly briefs Trump on the state of the race, offering a more candid and sober assessment of the hurdles Trump faces than others who paint a rosier portrait, sources with knowledge of the discussions said.

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And unlike Trump’s now-ousted campaign manager, Brad ParscaleBradley (Brad) James ParscaleMORE, Stepien is not a public personality.

“Bill knows who the boss is, but I also think he’s willing to tell the boss in the appropriate forum when he thinks the boss is making a mistake,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who was impressed by Stepien’s performance as White House political director. “His greatest attribute is he knows what he doesn’t know, so he’s willing to ask questions.”

Stepien formally took the reins from Parscale at a meeting at campaign headquarters in Arlington on Thursday morning, hours after Trump announced on Facebook he would shake up his campaign.

Stepien cut his teeth in the rough world of New Jersey politics, where he worked on a series of state and local Republican campaigns in between ice hockey and studies at Rutgers, where he was an academic all-American.

He ran voter turnout programs at the Republican National Committee after working on President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. In 2008, he ran field programs for former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiCoronavirus concerns emerge around debates Giuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group Commission on Presidential Debates rejects Trump campaign call for earlier debate MORE, alongside Jason Miller, now another top Trump strategist, and for Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column CNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' MORE (R-Ariz.) after McCain captured the Republican nomination.

“He comes out of the Bush, [Karl] Rove, [Ken] Mehlman disciplined approach to how you run campaigns,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who worked on many campaigns with Stepien over the years. “There’s a high confidence level in Bill that he’s earned over a couple of decades now.”

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After McCain’s loss, Stepien moved home to New Jersey, where he managed Chris Christie’s (R) campaign for governor in 2009. 

When Christie moved into Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Trenton, Stepien took on an official role as his deputy chief of staff. In a state where the legislature was controlled by an overwhelming but fractious Democratic majority, Stepien became a critical go-between.

“Nobody could do anything in the state house in New Jersey without checking in with Bill,” said Lisa Miller, a Republican strategist from New Jersey who has known Stepien for decades. “He was notorious for helping Democrat legislators here in New Jersey realign themselves with Chris Christie. He knew how to bridge between Christie and Democrats.”

“He really had the confidence of Chris Christie more than anything,” Miller said.

But Stepien lost that confidence in 2014, after guiding Christie’s reelection bid. Christie made Stepien the scapegoat after the Bridgegate scandal, in which state officials closed lanes on a crowded bridge going into New York City to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who had refused to endorse the governor for a second term.

Days after tapping Stepien as his choice to chair the New Jersey Republican Party, Christie fired him and canceled his contract with the Republican Governors Association, after emails showed Stepien had communicated with another official implicated in the scandal.

The emails “made me lose my confidence in Bill’s judgement,” Christie said at the time.

Stepien was never accused of wrongdoing, and he has denied in the past that he knew what was happening. Three other Christie aides, including the official implicated in the scandal, were criminally charged. The Supreme Court overturned two of those convictions earlier this year, and a federal judge vacated a third.

Stepien did not respond to an interview request made through the Trump campaign.

After consulting on other projects, Stepien landed on the Trump campaign, where he became allies with another close adviser who had beef with Christie, the president’s son-in-law Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Deutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner Watchdog group accuses Stephen Miller of violating Hatch Act with Biden comments MORE. When Trump won, he brought Stepien into the White House as his first political director.

There, Stepien stuffed his West Wing office with the maps and charts that consumed him. While many Trump advisers had to take crash courses in the politics of the modern Republican Party, Stepien impressed candidates who came to brief him on their races by knowing as much about their districts or states as they did.

“He has always been one of the members of the Trump campaign team who was most connected to the Republican colony of strategists and consultants,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who met with Stepien frequently in the White House. “Bill has relationships with everyone who is running a Senate race or a governor’s race anywhere in the country, and that is probably a pretty integral requirement for that job in a cycle when turnout suddenly looks to be a pretty high priority.”

In a White House beset by rivalries and backstabbing, Stepien kept his head down and made the most important ally he could: Trump himself.

Trump, sources said, routinely introduces Stepien as the only person who told him on Election Day 2016 that Trump would win.

“I’ve heard the story at least 10 times,” one Republican strategist close to the campaign said.

Despite Trump’s optimism, Stepien takes over a campaign that has been mired in a morass of lousy and deteriorating poll numbers for months, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads virtually unchecked across the country and unemployment rolls blossom. Four reputable national polls released Wednesday show Trump trailing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump denies White House asked about adding him to Mount Rushmore HuffPost reporter: Biden's VP shortlist doesn't suggest progressive economic policies Jill Biden says she plans to continue teaching if she becomes first lady MORE by 9 to 15 points, and Trump’s job approval rating has sunk near its lowest point.

Those same polls show Biden leading in virtually every battleground state, and even running competitively in states no Democrat has won in generations, like Montana, Alaska and Texas.

Those who know him say Stepien is likely to steer a campaign that has largely been about defending Trump in a direction meant to turn the spotlight onto Biden.

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“He’ll figure out what slice of the electorate needs to know more about Joe Biden, and that’s something the campaign needs to do better,” DuHaime said. “You’ll probably see a more aggressive or effective attempts to pull Biden out, draw him more into the conversation. Biden has been in an undisclosed location for a while. I’m not being critical of the Biden campaign on that, it’s working.”

Stepien’s greatest challenge will be the same one that Trump’s four chiefs of staff have failed to conquer: Keeping the boss consistently focused on driving home a message designed to win back the voters who are most skeptical of his personality, his performance and his handling of mounting crises, rather than rage-tweeting to appease his base.

“You couldn’t find a more competent guy than Bill Stepien. He knows his precincts, he knows the big picture,” Davis said. “The real question is whether his candidate can stay on message.”