The pundits instantly ripped Donald Trump’s campaign shakeup yesterday, using analogies like Titanic deck chairs and saying the candidate, not the staff, is the problem.
And it’s true that some of the recent unforced errors have been Trump’s doing, amplified by increasingly hostile media coverage. But based on conversations with knowledgeable sources, let’s offer a contrarian view.
If Trump is going to lose anyway—and recent polls haven’t been encouraging—why not finish the campaign as the street fighter he is at heart? And maybe that might just turn things around. The free-swinging approach, in his mind, is how he seized the Republican nomination.
Trump was clearly chafing at the efforts by Paul Manafort and others to transform him into a more choreographed and disciplined candidate. But it wasn’t working, and every few days he’d fall off the wagon. So rather than change, he got himself some new aides, in the person of Breitbart executive Steve Bannon and GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.
Conway’s mere presence, as the first woman to manage a Republican presidential campaign, helps Trump, who faces a huge gender gap.
Trump never got entirely comfortable with Manafort, who was brought in as designated grownup after the firing of Corey Lewandowski, who largely followed a “let Trump be Trump” philosophy. There was a feeling within the campaign that Manafort, a longtime lobbyist, was too tied to the Washington establishment and grumbling that he was spending some weekends in the Hamptons. Rightly or wrongly, Manafort is also blamed for the campaign’s weak infrastructure, including the lack of field offices in such battleground states as Florida.
I’m told that Trump wasn’t particularly perturbed by the New York Times report that Manafort, as an adviser to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian regime, may have received millions in undisclosed cash payments, which Manafort vociferously denies. Trump was far more upset about the previous day’s Times story on how Trump’s aides had concluded that he wasn’t coachable, with details of meetings that included Manafort and only a handful of other advisers. The sources seemed to be distancing themselves from a potential Trump defeat.
It’s interesting that after the shakeup was announced, a couple of news outlets got word that Manafort had tried to stop Trump’s infamous taco bowl tweet on Cinco de Mayo, which some found offensive.
Insiders hope that Conway’s polling data will guide Trump’s rally appearances, such as a law-and-order speech he gave Tuesday night that included an appeal to black voters, and that he will focus on the half-dozen swing states he needs to win rather than wasting time in places like Wisconsin and Connecticut.
What’s striking is that Trump didn’t tell Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus of the decision after it was made on Sunday, fearing it would leak to Manafort.
Instead, he waited for Jared Kushner, Ivanaka’s husband, who had assumed day-to-day management of the operation, to fly back from a vacation in Croatia to give Manafort the news.
It’s easy to conclude that shuffling aides won’t matter much if Trump keeps talking his way into trouble and picking unnecessary fights.
But as the candidate himself told a Wisconsin television station: “I don’t wanna change. Everybody talks about, ‘Oh well, you’re gonna pivot, you’re gonna’ — I don’t wanna pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.