Yesterday, New York magazine published an extended look inside Donald Trump’s campaign. The writer, Gabriel Sherman, was given access to Trump, and he spoke to a number of current and former Trump staffers. The entire piece is worth a read, but a few segments stood out.
First, Trump had the confidence to take on Fox News because he believes he has information that can “destroy” Roger Ailes:
It was also thanks to some information he had gathered that Trump was able to do something that no other Republican has done before: take on Fox News. An odd bit of coincidence had given him a card to play against Fox founder Roger Ailes. In 2014, I published a biography of Ailes, which upset the famously paranoid executive. Several months before it landed in stores, Ailes fired his longtime PR adviser Brian Lewis, accusing him of being a source. During Lewis’s severance negotiations, Lewis hired Judd Burstein, a powerhouse litigator, and claimed he had “bombs” that would destroy Ailes and Fox News. That’s when Trump got involved.
“When Roger was having problems, he didn’t call 97 people, he called me,” Trump said. Burstein, it turned out, had worked for Trump briefly in the ’90s, and Ailes asked Trump to mediate. Trump ran the negotiations out of his office at Trump Tower. “Roger had lawyers, very expensive lawyers, and they couldn’t do anything. I solved the problem.” Fox paid Lewis millions to go away quietly, and Trump, I’m told, learned everything Lewis had planned to leak. If Ailes ever truly went to war against Trump, Trump would have the arsenal to launch a retaliatory strike.
Trump may be a political outsider, but he’s also a consummate New York insider. How many of his GOP rivals had that kind of history with Fox?
Second, it is nearly impossible to determine where the character “Donald Trump” ends and the man begins. Sherman details how the campaign was intentionally provocative to stand out in a crowded field, but Trump hasn’t been able to dial back his rhetoric. Instead, he escalates. Sherman says Trump can’t drop the “script he knows best:”
The other phenomenon is that everyone is assumed to be playing a role at some level, so it’s hard to tell what is real and what is just for attention. Trump has already started using this as a strategy to help him try to pivot to the general election. Those terrible things he said about and to women while playing himself on The Apprentice? Oh, he was just in character. He was playing “himself,” not being himself. The way he acted so unpresidentially in the primary? Oh, that was just to break out of the pack of all those pesky other candidates with some good ol’ provocation. And aren’t you glad? Because now that the field is almost clear, he can start to be presidential.
But I suspect Trump will have a hard time pivoting — not because of what he has said in the past, but because this is the script he knows best. He has been cultivating the character of “Donald Trump” for decades now, and it seems apparent that he can’t turn it off. Back at Trump Tower, it was striking how often he kept going back to the well of The Apprentice, unprompted.
Third, Trump has accomplished remarkable things with a skeleton crew. His inner circle is a tiny core of relative political novices, and the contrast with the size and scope of Hillary Clinton’s operation is striking:
Trump’s campaign employs a core team of about a dozen people; his campaign lists 94 people on the payroll nationwide, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing (Hillary Clinton has 765). Trump has no pollsters, media coaches, or speechwriters. He focus-groups nothing. He buys few ads, and when he does, he likes to write them himself. He also writes his own tweets, his main vehicle for communicating with his supporters. And it was his idea to adopt Ronald Reagan’s slogan “Make America Great Again!”
“I’m the strategist,” Trump told me. Which would make him, no matter what your feelings about his beliefs or his qualifications to govern a country, one of the greatest political savants of the modern era.
Fourth, he and his core team are now exhausted, and they’re making mistakes — with last week one of the worst of his campaign.
One explanation for all this raggedness is that the Trump team is simply burned out. People who know Trump say they’ve never seen him so tired. Several months ago, he began wearing a bulletproof vest, two sources close to the campaign told me, which has added to his discomfort on the stump, leaving him sweaty and spent after events. And given that his unfavorables among women already are at ruinous levels (a CNN poll last month found that 73 percent of registered female voters held a negative view of Trump), his ill-advised comments about punishing abortion-seekers seem like they might have been a function of sheer exhaustion as well. Outrageous comments may have gotten him attention early on, but now Trump is talking about pivoting. “I’ll have to expand the team and the theme,” he told me.
In addition, the team is ill-equipped for the challenge of raising money for a national campaign:
He will also have to figure out how to raise money. Trump won’t fund a general election himself, and he has no national fund-raising apparatus in place. During my tour of Trump’s campaign office, I overheard Glassner on the phone discussing the nascent state of their finance efforts. “I have to find a place for these rich guys to go to,” he said. “Dinners, receptions, events. We need everything, because we don’t have a finance committee.” It will be a hard sell for Trump, one of the hardest of his career, to persuade GOP donors to pony up, especially after his attacks on the donor class. Groups like the Club for Growth have been committed to stopping Trump. And the Koch brothers have also been unhappy; the assumption is that they will sit this election cycle out.
Overall, the picture that emerges is of a campaign that rocketed to the top but is struggling to adjust as its strengths are now becoming weaknesses. The small staff that allowed for spontaneity and instant response is struggling with exhaustion and reaping the consequences of failing to build a national infrastructure. The provocative style that separated Trump from the pack is now driving his negatives into the stratosphere, and Trump is having trouble moderating his style because he is the man we’ve seen these last eight months. The strain is showing, and — for now, at least — he can’t seem to adjust.