Political experts have been saying for months now that if Donald Trump wants to capitalize on his early success in the Republican presidential primary, he would have to both expand and professionalize a campaign that has so far been run on a shoestring and managed by Trump and a small corps of relatively inexperienced loyalists. A pair of reports out this week demonstrate that Trump is beginning that process in earnest -- and why it’s not going to be an easy one.
On Monday, Politico reported that Team Trump met over the weekend and the billionaire made it plain that two of his newer hires -- attorney Paul Manafort and former Republican National Committee official Rick Wiley, who managed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s aborted campaign -- were going to be running the show from here on out. They were also reportedly given a $20 million budget for the remaining primary races -- a drop in the bucket compared to what some other campaigns are spending, but more than Trump has spent over a similar timeframe so far.
The news signaled a demotion for Corey Lewandowski, the brash operative who helped Trump surge to a large delegate lead in the first few months of the campaign. A report in The New York Times that Stuart Jolly, one of Lewandowski’s top assistants, had submitted his resignation on Tuesday afternoon seemed to confirm that there is a significant shakeup happening inside Trump Tower.
However, if Trump is really trying not just to ramp up his campaign but to staff up with experienced political operatives, he’s facing a serious obstacle: His own reputation.
Trump has shown little regard for the Republican Party as an institution and has publicly insulted and belittled any number of current and former GOP officeholders. He has accused the institutional Republican Party, in the form of the Republican National Committee, of running a “rigged” system and warned that there will be riots in Cleveland this July if he comes to the national convention with the most votes but ultimately loses the nomination.
How easy would it be for a Republican operative to come back home to the party’s mainstream in 2018 or 2020 after supporting a candidate who tried to burn the house down? Maybe not very easy at all, as Politico reported on Tuesday, in an article suggesting that an effective “blacklist” was going to arise from this campaign making anybody who puts a stint with The Donald on their resume persona non grata after 2016.
Politico’s lead anecdote cites an email one Trump staffer received from an acquaintance before he took the job that warned, “You realize once you go Trumptard, your career in GOP politics is over?”
The fact that Manafort and Wiley signed on to Trump’s effort might seem counterintuitive under these circumstance, until one looks a little closer.
Bringing on Manafort and Wiley was seen as a shrewd move by Trump, but one that raised an obvious question: If these guys are so great, why are they available to come work for Trump this deep into the campaign?
For Wiley, the answer is fairly obvious. He managed the Walker campaign, which was largely seen as a major disappointment. The effort to get the union-busting Wisconsin governor into the White House blew through millions of dollars before flaming out early in the race, leaving Walker with $1.2 million in campaign debt that he is now trying to pay down by selling leftover campaign t-shirts. Probably no big surprise that other candidates weren’t clamoring for Wiley’s services.
Manafort is another story. He’s been a figure in GOP politics since the 1970s. However, some of his more dubious clients during his lobbying career -- deposed Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, Pakistan’s notorious ISI and former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, to name a few -- might make a politician more mainstream than Trump a bit uncomfortable. That probably contributed to his availability when Trump came knocking.
Trump is likely to have a good night in New York Tuesday, and then a good showing next week when a group of Northeastern states gather to vote. But whether he will be able to assemble a team capable of capitalizing on its opportunities remains an open question.