Republicans fear campaign shake-up can’t counteract Trump’s self-sabotage

In Trump’s orbit and Republican circles, there is growing unease and even panic over Trump’s conduct as allies fret that the president, who lags behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in both public and private polling, is free-falling into a political abyss.

Republicans have long accustomed themselves to the mayhem that seems to accompany Trump everywhere, like a personal tornado cloud. They are not deserting him, and they acknowledge that supporting the president means at least tacitly condoning his more incendiary comments and actions.

But even stalwarts are bewildered by what many view as his self-sabotaging actions, worried not only that he may lose in November but also that he will drag the rest of the party down with him.

“The whole world has changed in the past six months, and I don’t know if the president has caught up,” said Amy Koch, a Republican and former majority leader of the Minnesota Senate. “His messaging is landing on deaf ears. He just doesn’t seem to fully understand what people are talking about or worrying about.”

The Trump administration so far has no clear national plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 135,000 in the United States. The president has continued to defend the Confederate flag — a symbol of slavery and racism to many Americans — and, in the wake of national protests over the death of an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis, played an actively divisive role, trafficking in racist and other offensive statements.

In the past week alone, Trump commuted the prison sentence of Roger Stone, a 2016 campaign adviser and longtime confidant who was to serve more than three years in federal prison for seven felonies; held a rambling and partisan news conference in the Rose Garden; and joined in criticism of Anthony S. Fauci, the popular infectious-disease director helping the administration with its coronavirus response.

Charlie Dent, a Republican former member of Congress from Pennsylvania, said Trump is out of step with members of his own party, especially those in tough reelection fights.

“Most members in swing districts understand that they need to expand on their base, and you would think that this president, who won his election by 80,000 votes [in key swing states], would be of the same mentality but he’s not, and that’s’ where the conflict is,” said Dent, now a CNN contributor. “There’s a total disconnect there between the president and those members in swing districts who need the president to be more measured and balanced — and, of course, he’s totally incapable of that.”

Replacing the campaign manager, Dent continued, is hardly what most Republicans care about.

“It’s all these other erratic and bizarre comments and behaviors that are causing the most heartburn for a lot of Republicans, by far,” Dent said. “I don’t think any Republican member of Congress wants to stand up there and defend the Confederacy, which makes absolutely no sense, or go to war with Tony Fauci.”

Privately, many Trump allies and advisers agree, saying that simply changing the campaign manager is unlikely to have a major impact. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, is still expected to operate as the de facto campaign manager — much as he did since appointing Parscale to the job — and it is ultimately the president himself who poses the real management challenge, many aides and allies say.

But Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller insisted in an interview that the president has been sharp and clear in his messaging in recent weeks, pointing as an example to Trump’s remarks this week linking Biden to liberal Democrats. Miller said Biden’s work with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others in Sanders’s political orbit, in particular, provides a vivid contrast with Trump.

“Taking a massive leftward lurch and endorsing radical left-wing policy items” makes Biden more vulnerable, Miller said, adding that Trump has a “very clear and sharp focus on rebuilding the greatest economy in the history of the world.”

Nonetheless, in recent weeks, a campaign overhaul had come to feel increasingly inevitable, as Trump and Kushner had grown disenchanted with Parscale — a loss of confidence that came to a head after Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa, in advance of which Parscale had boasted of more than a million supporters clamoring for tickets, only to have just 6,000 show up.

The president was eager for someone to blame, and donors were fretting about grim polling and agitating for a reset. By Thursday morning, White House and campaign officials had begun reaching out to Republicans to reassure them that the campaign is in a better position than many think and to urge them to stick with the president.

In a roughly 20-minute meeting Thursday morning at campaign headquarters, Stepien also encouraged staffers to ignore media reports and focus on winning in November, said an official present, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting. Stepien told his team that he never thought the election would be easy but that things are not as bad as is being reported.

In an email statement hours later, he dismissed public polling that shows the president trailing Biden and praised the entire Trump operation. “We have a better team, better voter information, a better ground game, better fundraising, and most importantly, a better candidate with a better record,” Stepien wrote.

Stepien told campaign aides at length Thursday morning about polls that were wrong about the president in the past.

In recent weeks, Trump campaign and Republican National Committee officials have huddled with Senate and House aides, seeking to convince them of the Trump campaign’s strength and “trying to keep the party together,” in the words of one campaign official. The last such meeting with Senate staffers was Wednesday and was led by Kushner. Parscale was there but said little. “Jared was the master of ceremonies,” one attendee said.

Though Stepien and Trump have a good working relationship, including from Stepien’s time in the White House as political director, the two men are not particularly close and do not have a warm personal rapport, advisers said. And despite being in the president’s orbit since the 2016 campaign, Stepien also does not have the deep ties to Trump’s family that Parscale has.

People close to Stepien say he has no plans to do television interviews or try to burnish his own profile, and they say Parscale’s outsize public image was one of the reasons Trump demoted him.

Stepien has taken deep interest in state and county data and views his role as a field operations manager, a senior campaign official said. He plans to focus on get-out-the-vote efforts and making sure battleground states have the right staffing and resources, the official said.

He is planning to make more decisions as early as next week about reorganizing the campaign and its staff, and he personally called all the regional field directors and political directors Thursday, the official said.

Mike DuHaime, a longtime strategist for former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) and a close friend of Stepien’s, said the strength of the incoming campaign manager will be his “below-the-radar decisions.”

“He is incredibly smart about the data and making dispassionate decisions that are in the best interest of the campaign,” DuHaime said.

Trump did not deliver the news to Parscale himself but relied on Kushner to tell him at campaign headquarters. Parscale, meanwhile, was deeply upset Wednesday night, two people with knowledge of his reaction said, and felt blindsided by the decision to demote him without first discussing the matter with him.

As of Thursday around noon, Trump still had not spoken to Parscale, people familiar with the situation said.

Some Republicans were cautiously optimistic that the campaign shake-up at least signals an acknowledgment by the president that he has just four months to save his reelection hopes.

“Elevating Bill Stepien is clear evidence that President Trump sees the need to break glass, do a U-turn and try to make up some much-needed ground on Joe Biden,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. “While most Republicans still support President Trump, warts and all, they are also alarmed by his recent behavior, which includes too many self-inflicted wounds.”

Ethan Baker, a Republican who is the mayor of Troy, Mich., a nonpartisan office, said he does not think the president is engaging in self-sabotage.

“It’s part of his style and personality, and it’s not understood and grasped by most of us, frankly,” Baker said.

However, pressed on whether the president’s actions may be inadvertently harming his campaign, Baker paused and laughed. “Well, I mean, sure,” he said. “There’s always that risk that he loses more votes than he gains, and that could have the effect of sabotaging him in the election.”