Donald Trump’s campaign was often riven by division and confusion—but in the end, he listened mostly to himself, said journalists Alex Isenstadt, Eli Stokols, Shane Goldmacher, and Kenneth Vogel.
Inside Trump’s improbable win
IT WAS FRIDAY afternoon, an hour after America heard Donald Trump bragging on tape about sexually assaulting women, when Roger Stone’s phone rang.
A secretary in Trump’s office had an urgent request: The GOP nominee wanted the political dark-arts operative to resend a confidential memo he had penned less than two weeks earlier. It was a one-page guide on Stone’s favorite line of attack against the Democratic nominee: how to savage Hillary Clinton for Bill Clinton’s history with other women.
It was a political third rail for most conventional candidates— a tactic that Republicans had tested and deemed a failure, and an approach so ugly that even the Clintons’ most vocal detractors urged Trump against it. But the GOP nominee, recognizing his crude, abusive comments caught on an Access Hollywood tape as a potential campaign-ender, needed no convincing. He decided it was time to return fire.
“Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed, and intimidated his victims,” Trump said in an apology just after midnight, quoting the Stone memo almost verbatim. And two days later, 90 minutes before the debate, he followed Stone’s advice and brought Bill Clinton’s accusers to a surprise press conference and then to the debate to confront the former president in person.
Trump’s untraditional and unflinchingly shameless campaign was always an improvised TV drama. It was personality-driven, consumed with defending the candidate’s manhood and gratifying his ego, uninterested in the less glamorous work of building a professional campaign infrastructure, undeterred by the candidate’s troublesome past, and unwilling to adopt a message the GOP establishment swore he needed.
And yet, he won. But not because this celebrity businessman and his team managed to eke some functionality out of the chaos. Indeed, his run looked like a train wreck because it was.
No, Donald Trump is now president-elect because his relentless, sometimes manic salesman’s pitch was able to pluck a string with Americans that no poll really managed to capture: the perpetual belief that a new character with a new story could deliver them something nobody else could, whether a trade victory over China, or a wall against Mexicans, or a return to a vision of America that seemed to be vanishing for good. And the more he cut loose, the more the media covered him, and the more people he reached.
IN EARLY JUNE, the Republican National Convention—Trump’s crowning— was right around the corner. It was a moment for the campaign to turn the corner, to focus on healing the wounds opened in the bitter Republican primary and moving together into a general election against a wounded Democratic nominee who was widely considered to be beatable.
By mid-June, less than one month before the convention would be gaveled in, there was no program. No celebrity acts had been booked. No known GOP leaders or elders had asked for a speaking slot. Slots were ultimately filled with mostly B- and C-list celebrities and GOP officials.
Those troubles, however, ranked below the drama unfolding around a speaking slot traditionally reserved for the final vanquished contender.
On July 6, two weeks before the convention, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus met with Ted Cruz and the Texas senator’s top political adviser, Jeff Roe. Priebus, eager for a show of unity in Cleveland, wanted Cruz, who had clashed bitterly with Trump, to speak. Cruz, who had proven himself over the course of 2016 an adept tactician, knew he had leverage and agreed to sit with Trump on Capitol Hill the next day.
They met privately at the offices of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Trump, who was with his daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Priebus, spent 45 minutes talking with Cruz. He offered Cruz a speaking slot, which the senator accepted. But Trump, perhaps owing to his lack of political experience, neglected to ask for something more basic: Cruz’s endorsement.
The oversight set the stage for chaos in Cleveland. As the convention neared, the looming disaster never fully dawned on Trump Tower. They had been operating on the assumption that Cruz would offer his support—even though it had never been made explicit.
It wasn’t until the first day of the convention that the New Yorker called Cruz and finally asked him for an endorsement. The Texan said no.
In his convention speech, Cruz urged Republicans to “vote your conscience.” A cascade of boos flooded the hall, but the damage was already done. Rather than helping to unify the Republican Party and rally the GOP for a fight against Hillary Clinton, Cruz smirked as he delivered a sucker punch that drove the most dominant storyline coming out of Cleveland: Trump’s party still didn’t like him. And things were about to get a whole lot worse.
IN THE DAYS after the convention, Trump endured a series of disastrous headlines, most of them surrounding his attacks on a Muslim Gold Star family that had shamed him from the Democratic National Committee stage. Priebus met with the nominee and told him he was hurting himself.
Trump, deeply demoralized, was at one of his lowest points in the campaign.
In August, Trump gathered a number of his top advisers in New York City for a presentation led by his chief pollster, Tony Fabrizio. The numbers showed Trump falling behind in a number of states. The nominee was stunned by the numbers, but he didn’t push back. “Jesus,” he said. “Can we come back from this?”
Trump would often ask his team whether he could win. But the mood was different this time. His aides were struck by the feeling of helplessness that had overtaken a candidate whose public image was centered on his confidence. To some of them, it highlighted his political inexperience.
Meanwhile, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was having problems of his own. He had suffered weeks of media scrutiny into his ties with Russianlinked oligarchs and it was taking a toll. On Aug. 18, Manafort came to Trump’s Alexandria, Va., offices for a day of meetings. Manafort, who was routinely getting three hours of sleep a night, was exhausted and frustrated. At one point, he appeared to doze off.
Later in the day, Manafort invited a few aides into an office. The coverage, which he felt to be deeply unfair, was never going to stop. “They’re just going to keep beating the s--- out of me until I can’t take it anymore,” he said. The next day, Manafort abruptly announced his resignation.
AND THAT’S WHEN the campaign started to turn around for Trump. Taking Manafort’s place were two people who would let Trump be Trump. Stephen Bannon took over as campaign CEO, and the campaign manager would be Kellyanne Conway, a pollster who’d been brought on in June and who developed a chemistry with Trump, mainly by cloaking the difficult realities she delivered to the candidate in more optimistic terms.
Trump’s decision to elevate the two, especially Bannon, demonstrated that Trump wanted to end his campaign just as he’d begun it: as an unapologetic, bare-knuckled nationalist. Recommended to Trump at the urging of GOP megadonor Robert Mercer, Bannon oversaw the alt-right Breitbart website, which frequently takes on Republican establishment figures.
Conway and Bannon took charge with the critical debate season just weeks away. While Clinton had been taking debate prep seriously, the far less disciplined Trump was doing little. His prep sessions, which included former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, were unfocused affairs. David Bossie, the newly installed deputy campaign manager, was particularly frustrated that there wasn’t a structured and more conventional approach.
When Trump arrived at Hofstra University for the first debate on Sept. 26, he was on edge. When he took the stage, he struggled to summon the usual rancor, delivering a scattered, relatively subdued, and at times incoherent performance.
But it didn’t matter. The voters who would drive his election night win responded with cheers to his debate performance. They didn’t flinch when he interrupted Clinton dozens of times or bristle when he couldn’t answer substantive questions. He was speaking to his audience, and that’s all he needed to do.
Yet, even in the final stretch, Trump’s team remained divided about what his message should be. The campaign’s internal surveys showed him behind in swing states like North Carolina and Florida, and also in traditionally conservative Georgia—and his pollsters argued that presenting Trump as a “change” figure was perhaps the only way to turn the tide.
When the Access Hollywood tape hit, Trump recognized the peril it presented. Trump’s campaign set in motion Stone’s plan to bring Bill Clinton’s accusers to the second debate. Here was perhaps the most explosive moment of the 2016 campaign— Trump ignoring all of the advice of veteran Republican leaders and strategists and instead adopting Stone’s prescribed course, giving accusers of Bill Clinton, who was not running for president, a national platform to prosecute a case against the woman who was, Hillary Clinton.
When it was over, Clinton, controlled and stone-faced throughout the debate, was once again deemed to have won. And once again, it didn’t matter to Trump’s voters.
AND THEN, 11 days before the election, Trump got a break he needed: the FBI director’s stunning announcement that his bureau was reviewing new information in the Clinton email probe. A renewed sense of optimism rippled through the Trump ranks. Aides began openly discussing which jobs they might get in a Trump administration. And at the RNC, operatives said they detected a dramatic shift toward Trump among undecided and Republican voters who had been wary of the nominee.
As Trump hit the final stretch, and he searched for a narrow path to victory, his team decided on a gambit: to try to steal a blue state from Clinton. Fabrizio suggested that Trump compete in Michigan and Minnesota. The odds were long. The RNC’s predictive model on the Friday afternoon before the election had Trump losing allimportant Florida by 2 percentage points and finishing with 240 electoral votes— 30 short of the tally needed to win the presidency. Clearly, Republicans couldn’t see victory on the horizon. But Trump didn’t lose heart, as he had in August.
In the final days of the campaign, he nursed grudges and plotted revenge against those he felt had wronged him. At close to the top of the list was Paul Ryan, the House speaker who, Trump was convinced, seemed determined to undermine him at all costs.
Trump’s circle of advisers remained as elastic, and unwieldy, as ever. Aside from Stone, Bannon, and Conway, a figure from the past, Manafort, was back in the fold. The strategist was offering the GOP nominee pointers on how to handle the Clinton email news and urging him to make a play in Michigan. Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, too, would join Trump on the trail in New Hampshire.
Priebus, meanwhile, had become a trusted member of the inner sanctum, all with the hope of holding his fragile party together and exerting a positive influence on his inexperienced, self-destructive nominee. Through a mix of chiding and cajoling, he’d succeeded in ways Manafort had not.
And yet, Trump had always done it his way—on matters large and small.
On the last Wednesday before Election Day, Priebus joined Trump on the nominee’s 757 jet. With Trump settled into his leather armchair, the cabin TV set was tuned to CNN. Priebus suggested they flip over to catch Game 7 of the World Series.
But Trump said no. He controlled the remote and was fixated on the image on the screen: a picture of himself. He wasn’t about to start listening to GOP veterans now.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Politico Magazine. Reprinted with permission.