Trump’s campaign team tries to steady operation after messy shakeup

Trump’s campaign team tries to steady operation after messy shakeupJuly 16, 2020

President Donald Trump’s outgoing campaign manager and his successor gathered staffers at the Trump campaign’s Arlington, Va., headquarters Thursday morning for a “pass the torch” ceremony, after Trump abruptly replaced Brad Parscale with Bill Stepien atop his reelection effort Wednesday night.

Two attendees described the 20-minute meeting as emotional, with campaign leaders trying to push the idea that the change represented continuity for Trump’s reelection bid. Parscale thanked the 200 or so assembled staffers and praised Stepien for his political skills. Stepien urged aides to ignore what he described as a media-driven narrative that Trump was losing to Joe Biden, and he told them to ramp up its efforts for the final stretch of the campaign.

The meeting came just hours after Trump orchestrated the dramatic shakeup. In a move that left many aides stunned, the president took to Facebook to announce that Parscale, who has worked for Trump for the last decade and spent the last two-plus years building a massive reelection campaign apparatus, would be demoted into a “senior adviser” role and that Stepien would be taking his place.

Despite Stepien’s insistence that Trump’s struggles in the race against Biden amount to a media-driven narrative, the new campaign manager’s elevation followed weeks of angst inside the White House about Trump’s reelection prospects, with the typically self-assured president privately expressing concern about his plummeting poll numbers. The president’s lightly attended rally in Tulsa, Okla., last month piled anger on top of his anxiety, with Trump pointedly blaming Parscale for the fiasco.

Three people familiar with the internal deliberations over the campaign said the shakeup was set in motion Tuesday evening, when Stepien met privately with Trump in the White House.

Stepien, a 42-year-old hardened political veteran who is known for his organizational focus, has already taken steps to examine the state of the campaign. He has begun examining its budgets and organizational charts, and people involved in the campaign say it’s possible he will soon make changes. But it remains unclear how extensive those alterations will be with so little time until the election.

Those close to Parscale expressed unhappiness at how the late-night shakeup played out. Trump’s family, which has long been close to the ex-campaign manager, felt blindsided by the move, two people with knowledge of their reaction said.

They also described Parscale as deeply hurt. On Wednesday afternoon, he tweeted out a biblical verse: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”

Parscale had relocated to Washington for the job but he is now expected to return home to Florida, where he will be focused on his specialties of data, digital, and advertising. It is uncertain, however, the extent he will be involved in the day-to-day activities of the campaign.

Changing managers less than four months from an election is about the biggest staff move a presidential campaign can make. But the problems facing Trump appear to be on a different scale than a personnel solution. Trump’s popularity levels are near a low point of his presidency, Biden has wide leads in polling, and both public health and the economy are weighing on American minds during the coronavirus pandemic.

The president has made other moves to buttress his campaign with the Republican National Convention just over a month away. Trump has also rehired key 2016 aide Jason Miller and Michael Glassner, a loyalist of the president who had been serving as the campaign’s chief operating officer, was recently demoted.

Some described the sudden campaign manager shuffle as brutal and likened it to the demotion of Glassner, who learned of his fate not from the campaign’s senior-most leaders but from his replacement, Jeff DeWit. Many in the campaign saw Glassner as the unfairly designated fall guy for the Tulsa failure.

Parscale has been under the microscope for months, and questions about his fate intensified after the Oklahoma rally. Some people close to the campaign said they felt Parscale erred by making himself a public figure, aggressively promoting himself on social media and at one point appearing in an advertisement.

Stepien, by contrast, has developed a reputation as a low-profile operative who studiously avoids the limelight. He is rarely quoted in the press and doesn’t seek out TV interviews,

“He is level headed and low key, something necessary in a chaotic campaign environment. He’s smart and analytical. He excels at the nuts and bolts tactics that often go unnoticed by Twitter and cable news shows but really decide campaigns,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran Republican strategist who has worked with Stepien on many races.

Stepien, who served as White House political director after joining Trump’s first campaign in the summer of 2016, has been the subject of public intrigue in the past, though. Stepien formerly served as a top political adviser to ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He was a leading contender to manage Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign before he was fired for emails he sent amid the “Bridgegate” scandal. Stepien has denied knowing about the scheme to shut down traffic on the George Washington Bridge and was not charged with a crime.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has asserted further control over the political operation in recent weeks, has played a key role in orchestrating the staff moves. But some in the White House saw the shakeup as a brush-back against Kushner, who in 2018 picked Parscale for the campaign manager job.

Kushner, however, also has close ties to Stepien. Both men hail from New Jersey, a state with a notorious reputation for rough-and-tumble politics.

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