In the end, a 48-hour period in August may be remembered as the moment that Donald Trump stopped trying to win the presidency.
On Wednesday, Trump announced that he had hired as the “CEO” of his campaign Steve Bannon, the chief executive of Breitbart News, a publication that could generously be described as the slightly more mainstream iteration of Stormfront, the white nationalist website. By elevating Bannon, Trump effectively neutered his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, a creature of the Republican establishment who had been hired to much fanfare less than five months before.
Manafort allies desperately tried to spin Bannon’s hiring as a welcome addition to Trump’s campaign that in no way reflected negatively on the chairman’s performance, but by Friday, Manafort was out.
“This morning Paul Manafort offered, and I accepted, his resignation from the campaign,” Trump said in a statement issued to reporters. “I am very appreciative for his great work in helping to get us where we are today, and in particular his work guiding us through the delegate and convention process. Paul is a true professional and I wish him the greatest success.”
That last thing, about Manafort’s professionalism, may have been what did him in. That and the avalanche of negative stories raising questions about his unusual and possibly illegal business dealings in Ukraine.
“It’s a shitshow,” one source with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said on Friday morning. “It’s hostile on the 26th floor,” the source added, referring to Trump’s sprawling and dated Trump Tower office, which is 21 stories above the 5th floor campaign headquarters which are, literally, housed in an old production studio for The Apprentice.
Over the last several weeks, the source said, the mood on the 26th floor had gotten more and more tense as his poll numbers dropped and his minor compromises to do things Manafort’s way didn’t result in a total reversal of luck.
“Paul had basically stopped trying to change his behavior by telling him precisely what to do or what to say,” the source said.
“He had been getting that funny look from Trump for a little while,” the source added, “Trump would stop listening. That’s what happens, you get a funny look.”
When he was hired in March, Manafort succeeded in taking over control of the campaign from Corey Lewandowski, a novice operative who served as Trump’s campaign manager despite having never run a presidential race. By June 20, Manafort had pushed Lewandowski out completely. But Trump, for reasons that continue to confuse campaign insiders, always had a fondness for Lewandowski and the two have continued to talk even after his firing and subsequent second life as a CNN contributor.
The source said it was Lewandowski, and separately Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had been in Trump’s ear with concerns about Manafort and Ukraine: “Corey was trying to give the boss in the impression that any minute now he was going to get caught up in an international money laundering scandal…Paul just bled out. He was having no more impact on Trump.”
Minutes after The New York Times published a story detailing some of Manafort’s Ukraine dealings on Aug. 14, Lewandowski tweeted it with the headline, “Secret Ledger In Ukraine Lists Cash for Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief.” On Friday morning, after Manafort’s resignation became public, he retweeted journalist Sasha Issenberg, saying, “Lewandowski is winning so much even he may get tired of winning.”
The ousting of Manafort will likely have a ripple effect on the campaign and the transition team, where the former Reagan and George H.W. Bush operative had installed his allies. Trump is now surrounded, much like he was during the majority of the Republican primary, by people who share his Trump-centric worldview and are unlikely to challenge him.
The one possible bright spot is pollster and campaign veteran Kellyanne Conway, who was promoted to campaign manager this week. Conway, an effective public speaker who frequents cable airwaves, managed to make Trump seem sane during a CNN interview after her hiring. And it was to her credit that Trump delivered what was received as a relatively even-keeled speech on Thursday evening.
Still, she faces stiff headwinds of alt-right mania.
The shift comes just as Trump needs challenging from those on his side, as he’s unlikely to bounce back while campaigning as the definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
But as always with Trump, his personal dramas have overshadowed his “message,” if he even has one. Just before the campaign announced Manafort’s exit, they released their first big-budget ad, which they will spend $4.8 million to run in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida.
Not that anyone cares now.