Never camera shy, Donald Trump is being criticized for using his current testing-the-presidential-waters operation as a calculated publicity stunt to bolster the ratings for his NBC reality show The Celebrity Apprentice. It did not help matters this week when reports surfaced suggesting Trump “may” make an announcement—to be precise, he “may” make an announcement about making an announcement—during the season’s final episode, to air on May 22.
But in a move bound to trigger a new guessing game about the credibility of Trump’s presidential ambitions, he has quietly interviewed a number of bold-faced names for the job of campaign manager, according to a source close to Trump. Among the candidates: Ralph Reed, the scandal-tainted former Christian Coalition leader with links to fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Until now, Trump has been “a one-man band,” according to the source close to Trump who does not want to be identified. He vets interview requests. He decides which television shows to appear on and which speaking engagements to accept. “The most influential person in the Trump inner circle is Rhona Graff, his executive assistant,” says the source. She assumed that position as Michael Cohen, a special counsel to Trump who started the website ShouldTrumpRun.com, made some well-documented blunders such as an ill-conceived political trip to Iowa that resulted in a Ron Paul supporter filing a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission. "If Mr. Trump elects to run within days, he will begin to hire a more traditional political team," said Cohen.
Over the past three weeks or so, Trump has been interviewing candidates for campaign manager. He first met with Tony Fabrizio, a respected veteran within the Republican Party. A chief pollster and strategist for Robert Dole’s 1996 presidential run, Fabrizio has worked on numerous campaigns for senators, congressmen, and governors, including Tim Pawlenty’s successful 2006 campaign for governor of Minnesota.
“I do guerrilla warfare,” Reed once famously said to a journalist. “You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”
Trump has also spoken with Ralph Reed. A lightning rod for controversy himself, Reed used his position as executive director of the Christian Coalition to make himself into a national figure in the 1990s, landing on the cover of Time in 1995 with an article about him titled “The Right Hand of God.” But Reed became mired in scandal during the Bush years through his association with longtime friend and political colleague Jack Abramoff, who at that time represented Indian casinos in Mississippi that in total paid him fees of some $82 million. The Mississippi tribes were paying Abramoff, who hired operatives like Reed, to keep gambling illegal in Alabama because casinos in Alabama would damage their business in Mississippi.
“For a high-profile religious conservative like Reed,” Time wrote in 2006, “the stories of being paid millions by one Indian tribe to run a religious-based antigambling campaign to prevent another tribe from opening a rival casino made him look like something worse than a criminal—a hypocrite.” Ultimately, Abramoff was indicted on charges including fraud, pleaded guilty on three felony counts, and ended up in prison. Reed was not indicted.
In terms of strategy, Reed can be brutal. “I do guerrilla warfare,” Reed once famously said to a journalist. “I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.”
Finally, Trump has interviewed Lawrence Weitzner, who, through his Princeton, New Jersey-based Jamestown Associates, was a consultant on Chris Christie’s successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign. While Christie is seen as one of the rising stars of the present Republican Party, Weitzner does not have the national profile of either Reed or Fabrizio.
“Fabrizio is one of the most respected pollsters and strategists in the GOP,” the source close to Trump says. “He is known for his blunt manner and hard-hitting tactics as well as his incisive use of polling date. A Fabrizio hire would win Trump instant respect and credibility in GOP circles.” Neither Fabrizio nor Reed responded to an email for comment, and Weitzner could not be reached.
Trump earned national headlines when he agreed to make appearances in June in the politically sensitive states of Iowa and New Hampshire. At the invitation of the state party chairman, he will give the keynote speech at the Lincoln Day Dinner, a major event for the Republican Party in Iowa, and he will deliver a speech at the “Politics and Eggs” forum at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Well before these appearances, however, Trump headlined an equally important event on April 16 sponsored by the South Florida Tea Party. Advertised as a Tax Rally, Trump spoke in Boca Raton along with Tea Party favorite, freshman congressman Allen West. The event could be pivotal in Trump’s flirtation with the Tea Party, which is why there is so much interest in the speech. Last year’s speaker at the same event was Marco Rubio, now the junior senator from Florida, who drew an audience of approximately 1,500 people. This year, 5,000 showed up to hear Trump. With 17 media trucks covering the event, it already has the feel of a presidential campaign address.
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove and Man of the People: The Life of John McCain, among others. A member of The Authors Guild and PEN American Center, Paul has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.