Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem.
Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims.
“Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end? Trump does what he wants,” a source close to the campaign said.
In reporting on Trump's operation, NBC News talked to three Trump aides and two sources working closely alongside the campaign, all of whom requested anonymity in order speak freely.
Veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles. There is no communications team to deal with the hundreds of media outlets covering the race, no rapid response director to quickly rebut attacks and launch new ones, and a limited cast of surrogates who lack a cohesive message.
“They don’t or can’t cover it all, and there are things that happen that need to be addressed immediately and don’t get addressed at all, and that hurts the candidate,” a source within the campaign groused last month.
The campaign is bringing on a new senior staffer Jim Murphy, as first reported by The New York Times, and a source said more communications hires are expected to follow. But they lag far behind the Clinton campaign, which has over a dozen senior staff dedicated to communications as well as teams devoted to modern data and analytics, an area where Trump is publicly skeptical of hiring. In addition, Clinton enjoys support from established super PACs like Correct The Record and American Bridge that respond to attacks and promote opposition research.
Aides appeared unprepared for the Trump University story last week, despite knowing in advance that unsealed court documents would reveal explosive allegations of fraud. Beyond a short video of former students praising the program that was posted online, the campaign offered scant pushback.
The absence of a response to the Trump U story left the candidate to fill the vacuum with a torrent of demagoguery against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was biased by his “Mexican heritage” despite his Indiana birthplace.
Trump’s comments against the judge horrified many supporters, but the real estate mogul rebuffed efforts by campaign staff, donors and party officials to back off the incendiary claim this weekend, per sources, telling them he was unwilling to look like he had caved to pressure.
“These are things that will defeat [us],” a second source within the campaign lamented.
The Curiel story made Trump’s already difficult task of lining up surrogates even harder, as supporters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced themselves from Trump’s remarks over the weekend.
With even early Trump backers like Rep. Chris Collins unwilling to defend his proposed Muslim travel ban or calls for mass deportations of illegal immigrants, the campaign is increasingly reliant on a small cast of mostly obscure figures to carry its message.
“It’s not a real surrogate operation,” the campaign source said. “They’re supporters. They’re not on there for their value or merit.”
The campaign source described the overall situation as “dysfunctional” and warned that if Trump failed to hire a full communications team by the convention, they would likely lose the election.
Making things difficult is the ongoing rivalry between Trump’s top adviser Paul Manafort, who was brought in to professionalize the campaign in March, and longtime staff like campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and press secretary Hope Hicks, who is essentially the lone media contact for reporters.
While Manafort handles every aspect of the campaign outside of travel and communications, per the source, Lewandowski and Hicks actually join Trump on the road and have his ear on a moment-to-moment basis. The source described the two as determined to block Trump from voices that might undermine their control, which has made hiring new senior staffers difficult despite the obvious need.
The conflict came to a head in California last week, where Manafort had lined up a raft of endorsements from local supporters ahead of Trump’s tour of the state – but no press releases went out announcing the news. Lewandowski and Hicks, the source said, vetoed draft after draft.
Delegate Jim Lacy boasted to NBC News in May that the campaign would soon host a press conference to unveil a coalition of female businesswomen endorsing Trump. The press conference never came. Instead, Trump referenced the group briefly in a speech in Anaheim, California, describing them only as “women that love Trump” who had met him earlier. The campaign sent out no further details, and the conservative site Breitbart, a hub for Trump backers, appears to be the only outlet that covered the new “Women in Business for Trump” coalition.
Manafort did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Lewandowski declined to respond to anonymous sources, but offered an overall assessment of the campaign's progress on general election staff and messaging.
"The campaign continues to hire additional team members in key areas such as communications and beyond," Lewandowski said in an email. "As a team, we continue to grow, expand and strengthen crucial areas of the campaign as we look towards a general election and defeating Hillary Clinton in the fall. We look forward to announcing new positions and sharing details with you in the future."
Despite the campaign’s sluggish start, Trump supporters stressed that his unique gifts, especially his ability to command media attention via Twitter and cable news, give him some leeway to bypass ordinary campaign methods. They also are encouraged by polls that show Trump competitive with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and Republican voters largely united despite the bruising primary.
"His ability to drive to a message is like nothing I've ever seen before in politics,” Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee, told NBC News.
In the meantime, the Trump campaign is leaning on the RNC for help to an unusual degree – it sent the first fundraising emails to small donors last week on their behalf – but it can only provide so much support. A source close to the campaign told NBC News that Rick Wiley, the GOP operative let go by Trump last month, was largely responsible for coordination with the RNC. The newly hired Murphy is set to replace Wiley as national political director, according to the Times.
“I don’t think [Trump] fully appreciates what the campaign is going to be like,” the source told NBC News.
The lack of organization is becoming more and more glaring as Trump faces a tough stretch that’s included a fight over his donations to veterans, renewed scrutiny of fraud allegations against Trump University and a withering offensive from Hillary Clinton over his fitness to be president. In each case, Trump has been left to respond almost entirely on his own via social media and interviews, with little obvious support from his campaign, his party or his top backers.
The cost of inaction
To understand the risks of Trump’s minimalist approach, one needs to understand how a traditional campaign with a typical staff might handle the types of situations confronting him.
Clinton’s widely covered foreign policy speech, in which she attacked Trump’s qualifications and fitness to be president, was instructive. While the Republican National Committee sent out a research brief, press releases, and a statement from Chairman Reince Priebusahead of the speech, conservatives eagerly anticipated a counterattack afterward from the Trump campaign questioning Clinton’s foreign policy record as secretary of state on Syria, Libya and Iran. Instead, Trump issued a tweet mocking her use of a teleprompter.
The silence after the address left Trump’s supporters, many of whom are already confused by his vacillating positions, with little guidance on how to counterattack. Clinton’s team took advantage of the vacuum, racking up more hits by blitzing the news with surrogates like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
What struck Republican strategist Ryan Williams, who served as deputy national press secretary on Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, is that Trump seemed aware of his staffing problem even if he couldn’t locate the cause.
“Do you ever notice that @CNN gives me very little proper representation on my policies,” Trump tweeted ahead of the speech. “Just watched - nobody knew anything about my foreign P.”
In a normal campaign, Williams said, Trump’s staff would have addressed this complaint long before their candidate was left to gripe on social media.
“There’s usually an entire department within the campaign that develops and distributes talking points on your foreign policy, not just to your staff and your official campaign, but to unaffiliated Republican talking heads to make sure everyone knows what your policy is,” Williams said.
Making sure supporters are on the same page is especially important in Trump’s case, because his positions constantly change. In the past week, he’s denied – inaccurately – that he's said the U.S. might benefit from Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. On Sunday, Trump completed a 360-degree reversal on the 2011 operation that removed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, saying he would have supported “surgical” strikes to remove him from power after previously arguing he should have been left alone and, before that, calling for his ouster.
“They set up this structure where no one is really allowed to speak on behalf of the candidate except the candidate,” Williams said.
The morning after Clinton’s speech, Trump tweeted that his opponent “made up things that I said or believe but have no basis in fact.”
This, too, is something a candidate’s staff is supposed to handle. Presidential campaigns typically have a war room that tracks opponent’s statements in real time and flags inaccuracies to push back on, attacks to counter or stumbles to exploit.
Trump’s staff never sent out materials challenging Clinton’s accuracy, however, while Clinton responded to Trump with a meticulously prepared list of citations for every quote she mentioned in her speech.
“A team with a robust rapid response operation would have been able to brief reporters to prebut the speech, blunt expected criticisms, and also plant negative research or negative narratives about Hillary Clinton with reporters,” Lis Smith, who served as rapid response director on Obama’s 2012 campaign, told NBC News. “They did not do that.”
Just as a campaign with a full and competent staff is expected to defend the candidate from attacks, it’s also expected to go on offense. Here, too, there are obvious missed opportunities.
The most glaring was Trump’s failure to focus attention on Clinton’s use of a private email address and server as secretary of state, the subject of a tough inspector general report last month.
Trump mentioned the report only briefly in passing in a speech the day of the report’s release, instead making headlines with renewed attacks on Romney, whom he called a “choker,” and defeated GOP primary rival Jeb Bush. The next morning, Trump continued a feud with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, calling her “Pocahontas” in a tweet and providing another story to distract from the email issue.
“They didn’t take advantage of that opportunity like they could have,” Smith said.
Another example: Last week’s violent anti-Trump protests in San Jose, which Trump ignored the night they occurred in favor of tweets about an upcoming visit to a golf resort opening in Scotland.
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A normal campaign might have held events across California the next morning demanding Clinton and Bernie Sanders repudiate the protests and distributed messaging instructions to surrogates to push the story across cable news. Instead, the story was quickly overshadowed by Trump’s ongoing attacks on Curiel.
The protests would have also been an ideal opportunity to solicit donations from grassroots supporters horrified by the violence, but Trump – who self-financed his campaign in the primaries – is still getting his own small-donor operation off the ground.
By contrast, Williams and Smith both pointed to instances in which their respective campaigns had coordinated efforts across a variety of aides and supporters to stoke damaging stories.
The Romney campaign, for example, helped push coverage of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” quote by organizing events with supporters in the business community in swing states around the country.
“That required teams on the ground to identify these people, to put out advisories to get reporters to come to the events and to follow up on their stories,” Williams said.
Smith recalled how the Obama campaign had flooded the zone to challenge an accusation from Romney that Jeep was moving auto production from Ohio to China and instead turn it into a weapon. Fact-checkers excoriated Romney over the claim, but the campaign helped keep it in the press with constant statements, calls, as well as events featuring top surrogates like Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton highlighting the story.
The good news for Trump is that it can only get better from here.
"It’s not difficult to be far more responsive than not responsive,” a campaign source said.