Donald Trump’s campaign is in the midst of a massive restructuring and re-strategizing effort aimed at shoring up Trump's delegate lead against a furious challenge by his main rival for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz, several sources inside the campaign tell NBC News. The sources were not authorized to discuss the strategic changes inside the campaign, so were granted anonymity to do so.
Polls suggest Trump is poised to win his home state of New York Tuesday and go on to perform well in several northeastern primaries next week. But after a series of primary and caucus losses to Cruz and demonstrable evidence of the Cruz campaign’s mastery of the delegate game ahead of a likely contested convention, the Trump organization has recast staff roles and committed a significant new influx of funds.
Paul Manafort, whom the campaign recently brought in to manage Trump’s convention operations, has stepped into a larger leadership role in the campaign and been given a $20 million budget to spend in coming primary states, a senior campaign source told NBC News. A meeting took place last Saturday in New York to lay out the new staffing structure, the source confirmed. The meeting was first reported by Politico.
Trump, for his part, hasn’t denied that the meeting happened, but did push back on the characterization that he had personally attended. “I was not at a meeting,” Trump said Tuesday on “Fox and Friends,” while saying the Politico report wasn’t “necessarily a bad story.”
Trump added, “With that being said, I brought in Paul Manafort who’s a total professional, won tremendous numbers of races.”
Manafort’s ascension to the helm of the Trump operation means campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s role has been recast. While Lewandowski on Tuesday told NBC News in an email it’s “not true” his position has been diminished, several sources close to the candidate and to Lewandowski tell NBC News that he is now essentially working as a scheduler and body man for Trump.
Lewandowski has been under fire for allegedly manhandling a reporter at a Trump event last month in Florida. He was initially charged with misdemeanor battery, but a prosecutor later said he would not be prosecuted.
Manafort’s influence is already being felt in Washington, where he met Tuesday with Republican House members to discuss the next phase of the campaign, NBC News has learned. Some who attended are already Trump supporters, while others are considering getting behind the real estate mogul.
In the meeting, one attendee told NBC News, Manafort described “a little more about what the delegate strategy will be and wanted to get some feedback from us … Trump is getting serious about the delegate process,” the attendee noted.
The Trump campaign has also brought aboard Rick Wiley, the onetime campaign manager for Scott Walker before the Wisconsin governor dropped his bid for the GOP nomination, as national political director. That hire prompted the resignation of Stuart Jolly, Trump's national field director and a Lewandowski loyalist. Sources close to the decision told NBC that Wiley and Jolly do not get along and that Jolly would have reported to Wiley in the new staffing structure.
In a resignation letter sent to Trump, obtained by NBC News, Jolly wrote that his decision "has nothing to do with you or Corey's staff, because I have never worked with a finer group of people.” Jolly did not directly cite Wiley as the reason for his departure, but his reference to "Corey's staff" laid bare the different divisions at play in the Trump camp right now.
Jolly, in the letter, called Lewandowski "one of my best friends" and cited him as the reason he first came aboard the campaign. Lewandowski, sources told NBC News, is saddened by Jolly’s decision to leave but understands why the departure is happening.
Despite his growing power, Manafort’s vision for the campaign doesn’t necessarily align with others on the campaign. One source said he is pressing for Trump to tone down his rhetoric and sound more moderate and presidential — a decision this source believes is the wrong move for a candidate who has succeeded this far by being anything but traditional.
Another campaign insider agreed, saying any additional efforts should be made to improve Trump’s performance, not change him. “Donald Trump is going to get better every day,” the source said.
The new push for more policy-minded speeches is coming from Manafort and others, who are also advising Trump to stay off Sunday shows and instead allow top surrogates to speak for him. This past weekend saw Manafort, Wiley and campaign aide Stephen Miller on the shows in lieu of their boss.
The disagreement over the strategy shift is so strong, a source told NBC News, that campaign insiders are openly questioning what Manafort knows about managing a race — particularly this one, since traditional campaigning and candidates are all he's ever known.
Still, campaign senior adviser Barry Bennett tells NBC News that the campaign feels they’re in a good position to sweep delegates in the New York primary. Going forward, polling continues to favor the GOP front-runner in soon-to-vote states like Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
NBC News’s Luke Russert and Alex Moe contributed to this story.