On the afternoon of March 15, as voters across five states streamed to the polls, Donald Trump’s campaign advisers gathered by the pool at Mar-a-Lago, the billionaire’s private club in Palm Beach. Hope Hicks, Trump’s 27-year-old press secretary, wearing a cover-up over bikini bottoms, her hair still wet from the pool, scanned headlines on her iPhone next to Trump’s square-jawed campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. That morning, Politico had reported that Trump allies wanted Lewandowski to be fired for roughly grabbing a female reporter while she tried to ask Trump a question at a press conference (an incident for which he has since been charged with battery). Lewandowski didn’t appear to be worried about his job. He was kicking back in a Trump-brand golf shirt, drinking a 16-ounce Monster energy drink, and chatting with deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner, a former Bob Dole adviser, who at age 52 has been seen as the campaign’s grown-up. Dan Scavino, who first earned Trump’s trust as his golf caddie at the Briar Hall club in Westchester and now handles the campaign’s social media, sauntered over in baggy mesh shorts and a baseball cap. “We go to bed and we’re winning, and we wake up and we’re winning!” Scavino said with a cocky smile.
There is perhaps no better representation of the singularity of the Trump campaign than this handful of political outsiders lounging poolside. They fit no one’s description of a dream team. Hardly any of Trump’s staffers arrived at their positions with high-level political experience. The last time Lewandowski ran a campaign was in 2002, when he managed a losing Senate reelection bid in New Hampshire. Hicks and Scavino spent zero time in politics before this. Hicks did PR for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line and promoted Trump resorts. Scavino graduated from caddying to serve as general manager at Trump National Golf Club; he spent his free time as an unpaid disc jockey at a local radio station. Trump’s national spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, is a onetime Obama supporter turned tea-party activist who once was arrested for shoplifting. His foreign-policy advisers include a former banker who writes a foreign-policy blog that quotes Kanye West and Oprah, and an energy consultant whose LinkedIn page cites as a foreign-policy credential being one of five finalists for a model-U.N. summit.
“I would take capable over experienced all day long,” Trump said. “Experience is good, but capable is much more important.”
Furthermore, he’ll take few over many. 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.
But now that the race is shifting into a significantly different phase, Trump’s innate talents — and his tiny team — will be challenged. His goal, of course, is to cross the delegate threshold that would guarantee him the nomination before the Republican National Convention in July, but that is nowhere near a sure thing. If he comes up short, he will have to maneuver through an extremely complicated convention, protecting his delegates and making sure the party feels obligated, or cowed enough, to give him the nomination even if it is not legally bound to do so. The focus of the race is changing from what he is naturally good at — riling up the populace — to something closer to what happens on Capitol Hill: horse-trading, negotiating, working levers behind closed doors. Trump may soon need to change how his campaign operates, raising outside money, engaging the super-pacs he has denounced, and widening his circle beyond, essentially, himself. To that end, in late March he hired Paul Manafort, famous in GOP circles for running Gerald Ford’s successful floor fight at the ’76 contested convention, to play delegate hardball. It’s a start, and he is determined.
“I’m a closer,” he told me. “I want to close. I have to beat the leftovers. Okay? These are leftovers.”
Inside the pink-marble lobby of Trump Tower, tourists were snapping pictures of the giant waterfall that ripples down the wall of the atrium, while a visiting high-school brass band played in the “Trump Parlor.” At the welcome desk, copies of Trump’s book Crippled America were for sale alongside placards that read make america great again! and the silent majority stands with trump. Security guys patrolled everywhere. The place is a microcosm of Trump’s campaign thus far: cheesy, quaint, and menacing.
I left the ostentatious glitz of the lobby and took the elevator to the fifth floor, where two unmarked frosted-glass doors open onto a raw-concrete space with electrical wires and pipes hanging from the ceiling. Sheets of plywood were stacked haphazardly against the walls; plastic buckets and garbage cans were scattered across the floor. It looked like an abandoned construction site. In an unfinished room, I counted seven 20-somethings sitting at scuffed wooden desks and plastic foldout tables. Trump memorabilia festooned the walls. “This is all stuff people sent in,” said an earnest young man in a suit who works in voter outreach. He was sitting under an architectural rendering of the border wall that Trump insists Mexico will pay for. On the floor nearby was a model of the White House topped with a cardboard Trump cutout, American flags, and a pair of pink flamingos. Across the room, a wall of shame featured grim-faced photos of the 13 GOP candidates Trump has so far dispatched, with handwritten dates of their campaigns’ demises.
I was well aware that Trump runs a bare-bones operation, but college-newspaper offices have more robust infrastructure than his national campaign headquarters—to say nothing of Hillary Clinton’s 80,000-square-foot headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. As I tried to square all this in my mind, Hope Hicks strode over in five-inch heels. “He’s ready for you.” We took the elevator to the 26th floor. “It’s been so crazy,” she said. “I haven’t really been home since Thanksgiving.”
A guard outside Trump’s executive suite waved a wand over me before opening the locked doors. Trump stood and shook my hand, wearing his usual uniform: crisp navy suit and bright-red tie. Not surprisingly, given the state of the race — this was a few days after Trump trounced Marco Rubio in Florida — his mood was good, boastful even. “So much for the face of the Republican Party—that’s the end of that!” he said of Rubio. “He was going to be president. By the way, Jeb Bush was going to be president. Walker was going to be president. They were all going to be president, except for the fact I got in their way!”
Trump turned to Hicks. “How many states have I won?”
“Twenty,” she said.
“So I’ve won 20. Cruz has won five. And I see Cruz on television last night saying, ‘I have proven I can beat Donald Trump!’ He didn’t say I beat him 20 times! It’s why I call him Lyin’ Ted!” (Cruz had actually won eight states by this point.)
I asked him about the lines that have become his signature. In most other campaigns there are speechwriters (and pollsters) for this. But there is clearly no team of comedy writers squirreled away downstairs.
“I’m the writer,” Trump said. “Let me start with Little Marco. He just looked like Little Marco to me. And it’s not Little. It’s Liddle. L-I-D-D-L-E. And it’s not L-Y-I-N-G Ted Cruz. It’s L-Y-I-N apostrophe. Ted’s a liar, so that was easy.”
All his utterances are, by his account, spontaneous. “It’s much easier to read a speech, obviously,” he said. “I speak from the brain and from the heart in combination, hopefully in equal combination.”
In person, it’s difficult to see exactly where Trump the man blurs into Trump the character. He moves in and out of his bellowing stump-speech persona and his “normal” persona, which is the same in many ways, just dialed down a few notches.
There is, however, a vulnerability to Trump in private that you don’t often see; he comes across as genuinely wounded that he’s not taken seriously. Rubio, he said, “talked about my hands because he had nothing else to talk about. I said to him, ‘It’s pretty sad when after the long career I’ve had the best he can do is talk about my hands,’ which are really good.” Trump paused and spread his five fingers for me to inspect. “He probably got it from that sleazebag Graydon Carter, who said I had short stubby fingers.”
He seemed particularly upset that his fellow billionaires don’t show him respect. “Murdoch’s been very bad to me,” he said. “Bloomberg’s been quite bad to me. I thought he was a friend of mine; he’s no friend of mine. He was nasty.”
When a middle-aged executive wandered in during our interview, Trump shouted, “What do you want, Mike?”
“I just wanted to show you something,” said the man, indicating that he would come back later. It was a reminder that Trump is ostensibly still running a business through all this. Later, Hicks would tell me about the time they were driving to a campaign event when Ivanka called to update Trump on a development. “He said, ‘Go with the marble. Now I have to run, baby. I’m about to give a speech.’ ”
Trump deflected most questions about policy (“I have policy on my website”), strategy (“I think I’ll win before the convention”), and controversies around his campaign (“It’s totally blown out by the press. There’s very little violence”). He said he would choose a politician as his running mate — “I don’t want to have two people outside of politics” — but he wouldn’t name any possibilities. What he talked about most was winning. It’s a truism, but it’s still true: His worldview is that life is a contest, and he’s been winning it for years.
“I always get good crowds,” he said. “I’ve always had ratings from the time I was born, for whatever reason. It hasn’t, you know, just started. The Apprentice went on, and no one thought it would be successful.” The transition in our conversation from his presidential run to his reality-TV show was seamless. “In fact, get up, Gabe, take a look there, see the picture on the wall—Variety. I mean, No. 1 show on television. You remember how amazing that was. That wasn’t a surprise to me, but everyone else in show business couldn’t believe it. ‘Wow, you got the No. 1 show on television!’ ” In this conversation, The Apprentice was the subject that had him most animated.
As much as his campaign appears off the cuff, Trump diligently laid the groundwork for his 2016 run over the course of several years, cultivating relationships with powerful allies in the conservative firmament and in the media, inviting them to private meetings at Trump Tower and golf outings in Florida, all the while collecting intelligence that he has deployed to devastating effect.
As early as 1987, Trump talked publicly about his desire to run for president. He toyed with mounting a campaign in 2000 on the Reform Party ticket, and again in 2012 as a Republican (this was at the height of his Obama birtherism). Two years later, Trump briefly explored running for governor of New York as a springboard to the White House. “I have much bigger plans in mind — stay tuned,” he tweeted in March 2014.
Trump taped another season of The Apprentice that year, but he kept a political organization intact. His team at the time consisted of three advisers: Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and Sam Nunberg. Stone is a veteran operative, known for his gleeful use of dirty tricks and for ending Eliot Spitzer’s political career by leaking his patronage of prostitutes to the FBI. Cohen is Trump’s longtime in-house attorney. And Nunberg is a lawyer wired into right-wing politics who has long looked up to “Mr. Trump,” as he calls him. “I first met him at WrestleMania when I was like 5 years old,” Nunberg told me.
Throughout 2014, the three fed Trump strategy memos and political intelligence. “I listened to thousands of hours of talk radio, and he was getting reports from me,” Nunberg recalled. What those reports said was that the GOP base was frothing over a handful of issues including immigration, Obamacare, and Common Core. While Jeb Bush talked about crossing the border as an “act of love,” Trump was thinking about how high to build his wall. “We either have borders or we don’t,” Trump told the faithful who flocked to the annual CPAC conference in 2014.
Meanwhile, Trump used his wealth as a strategic tool to gather his own intelligence. When Citizens United president David Bossie or GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Trump for contributions, Trump used the conversations as opportunities to talk about 2016. “Reince called Trump thinking they were talking about donations, but Trump was asking him hard questions,” recalled Nunberg. From his conversations with Priebus, Trump learned that the 2016 field was likely to be crowded. “We knew it was going to be like a parliamentary election,” Nunberg said.
Which is how Trump’s scorched-earth strategy coalesced. To break out of the pack, he made what appears to be a deliberate decision to be provocative, even outrageous. “If I were totally presidential, I’d be one of the many people who are already out of the race,” Trump told me. And so, Trump openly stoked racial tensions and appealed to the latent misogyny of a base that thinks of Hillary as the world’s most horrible ballbuster.
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.
In January 2015, Trump hired Corey Lewandowski as campaign manager at the recommendation of Citizen United’s Bossie. On paper, Lewandowski’s credentials didn’t shine, but what he lacked in pedigree he made up for in raw ambition and ruthlessness. Lewandowski grew up poor in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts. As an undergraduate at the local UMass branch, he ran unsuccessfully for state representative. After graduating in 1995, he moved to Washington, D.C., got a master’s in politics at American University, and worked as a House aide on Capitol Hill. In 2001, he got a job with the Republican National Committee. But Lewandowski’s time as a member of the GOP Establishment was short-lived.
In 2002, he managed the reelection campaign of New Hampshire Republican senator Bob Smith, who was loathed by George W. Bush’s White House for briefly leaving the party in 1999 to launch an independent run for president. Against Smith, the Bushes backed John Sununu Jr., the son of George H. W. Bush’s former chief of staff. “I told Corey that the Establishment is coming after me, even the president of the United States,” Smith said, recalling his interview with Lewandowski for the job. “I said, ‘If that bothers you in any way, if you don’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole because of your political career, I understand.’ He just said, ‘No problem.’ ”
Smith lost, and Lewandowski, as Smith had warned, found himself cast into the political wilderness. He settled in New Hampshire, got married, and raised four children while bouncing around a series of jobs, at one point selling real estate and serving as a police officer. In 2008, he landed a position with Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-brothers-backed free-market group. Lewandowski rose through the ranks at AFP to become national director of voter registration but stalled after a voter-recruitment project he spearheaded failed to yield results in 2014. Politico also reported that Lewandowski once threatened to “blow up” a colleague’s car and even called a female co-worker a “cunt.” One former Koch executive told me he was going to be fired. (Lewandowski denies this.)
Luckily, Trump came calling. He hired Lewandowski thinking that the 42-year-old operative had two crucial assets: his Koch connections and an intimate knowledge of New Hampshire’s quirky political terrain. The first assumption was wrong, but on the second, Lewandowski proved his worth. And he gained Trump’s trust by demonstrating he possessed the quality Trump values most: loyalty. “This campaign, above all other things, is about loyalty,” Lewandowski said. In what’s been said to be a unique arrangement for a campaign manager, Lewandowski travels everywhere with Trump, a role normally reserved for the campaign’s “body man.”
Trump turned to an equally unlikely candidate to handle communications. One day in January 2015, Hope Hicks got a call from Trump’s office asking her to come in. At the time, she was working on the 25th floor with Ivanka. “Mr. Trump looked at me and said, ‘I’m thinking about running for president, and you’re going to be my press secretary,’ ” Hicks said. “I think it’s ‘the year of the outsider.’ It helps to have people with outsider perspective.” Her mother told her she should write a book about this experience someday. “She said it would be like Primary Colors, and I told her, ‘You don’t even know.’ ”
Six months later, Lewandowski and Hicks worked into the early hours of the morning prepping for Trump’s campaign announcement in the lobby of Trump Tower. “It had to be perfect,” Lewandowski said. “We had to build the stage, make sure the flags hung perfectly; the eagles faced out; the carpet was red, and he would wear a red tie.” And hire plants. The campaign paid actors $50 each to wear Trump T-shirts and wave placards.
Later that morning, they watched from the wings as Ivanka introduced her father in front of reporters and photographers and the manufactured crowd. “It looked like the Academy Awards!” Trump recalled. “You saw the cameras, forget it. You couldn’t get another person in.”
Trump didn’t read a prepared speech, but he knew what he wanted to say, which hardly mattered anyway because hardly anyone took his candidacy seriously at the time. “Nobody said anything,” Trump said about the fact that he had accused Mexico of sending “rapists” over the border into the U.S. “Then two weeks later, they started saying, ‘Wait a minute! Did he really say that?’ ”
He hadn’t tested the line, but Nunberg’s deep dive into talk radio had shown him that this was the sort of thing that would resonate with a certain segment of the Republican base. He also knew that this kind of outrageous statement would earn him the free media attention ($1.9 billion worth and counting, according to the New York Times) that would propel his campaign.
This strategy did not go over well in all corners of the Trump empire. Ivanka, Trump’s 34-year-old daughter, had carefully tended her public image as the softer, more refined face of the Trump empire. Now her father’s hard-edged nativist rhetoric risked damaging not only her brand but her business. A few days after the announcement speech, Ivanka received a terse email from Kimberly Grant, the CEO of ThinkFood Group, the holding company behind celebrity chef José Andrés, whose restaurant was supposed to be the anchor tenant in one of Ivanka’s biggest projects: the $200 million redevelopment of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., into a luxury hotel.
“We need to talk. Getting crushed over DJT comments about Latinos and Mexicans,” Grant wrote her, according to legal filings.
Ivanka forwarded Grant’s email to her executives.
“Ugh,” one responded. “This is not surprising and would expect that this will not be the last that we hear of it. At least for formal, prepared speeches, can someone vet going forward? Hopefully the Latino community does not organize against us more broadly in DC / across Trump properties.”
Ivanka’s older brother, Donald Jr., also weighed in. “Yea I was waiting for that one. Let’s discuss in the am.”
Ivanka did her best to salvage the partnership. She asked her father to issue an apology, even submitting several drafts for him to release to the press. But he refused. “Rapists are coming into the country! You know I was right,” Trump later told me.
On July 8, Andrés backed out of the restaurant deal, citing Trump’s immigration comments. The two sides are now battling in court.
Despite any differences of opinion, Ivanka is by all accounts thrilled at the possibility of her dad becoming president. She managed to persuade him to support Planned Parenthood—at least the part of the organization that doesn’t provide abortions—an extreme position for a Republican to take. “She’s very much into the concept of women’s health issues,” Trump said. (He no doubt embarrassed her last week by saying that women should be punished for getting abortions if the procedure were outlawed, a position held by almost no one even in the pro-life community, and one Trump recanted several hours later.)
Ivanka also pushed him to act more “presidential,” but in one of our conversations, Trump said he disagrees: “You know, there’s a difference between being presidential when you’re now president of the United States than being presidential when you’re running against 17 other people.”
“No one can control him,” said Nunberg. Not even his family.
Ivanka’s husband, the real-estate scion and Observer owner Jared Kushner, has also gotten involved in the campaign, serving as an emissary to the Jewish community. He helped plan Trump’s trip to Israel last December, though it didn’t go exactly as planned. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Trump’s proposal to halt Muslim immigration, Trump canceled the trip. “This was all your idea!” Trump scolded his son-in-law, according to a source. He fared better with Trump’s aipac speech, which Kushner wrote with input from Observer editor Ken Kurson. It was one of the most subdued of his public statements so far, perhaps because it was the only one he has read from a Teleprompter.
Kushner has tapped his network in an attempt to help his father-in-law. He reached out to hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer to introduce him to Trump (Singer declined), and during Trump’s feud with Fox, he called Rupert Murdoch to try to make peace (Murdoch told him to deal directly with Roger Ailes). But this is where Kushner’s involvement makes for the strangest of bedfellows. One of Trump’s most prominent endorsers, Chris Christie, happens to be the man who, as U.S. attorney, sent Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, to federal prison for tax fraud, among other felonies, in 2004.
One way in which Trump’s campaign is like others is that its advisers have jousted for primacy. Over the summer, Lewandowski became embroiled in a battle for control with Stone, Nunberg, and Cohen. The principal fault line was over Stone and Nunberg’s belief that Trump needed to invest money into building a real campaign infrastructure and Lewandowski’s contention that their current approach was working fine.
On July 31, the dispute spilled into public view when Business Insider published an article revealing racist Facebook posts Nunberg had written years earlier. Nunberg believed Lewandowski was involved in the leak, hoping to use it as a pretext to force him out of the campaign. “I have been told by past colleagues that he has bragged about ‘ratfucking’ me in private,” Nunberg said. Lewandowski adamantly disputes this. “I am denying 150 percent on my kids’ lives that I had anything to do with it,” he said.
Trump is not usually one to be put off by a few racist tweets, but Lewandowski convinced Trump that Nunberg needed to go. (Nunberg now supports Ted Cruz.) A week later, Stone quit, although he continues to advise Trump informally. Cohen remains in the Trump organization but is no longer part of the core political team.
Having won the power struggle with Nunberg and Stone, Lewandowski focused on letting “Trump be Trump,” which is what Trump wanted too. There would be no expensive television ad campaigns, no bus tours or earnest meet-and-greets at greasy spoons. Instead, the cornerstones of Trump’s strategy are stadium rallies and his ubiquitous presence on television and social media. “Mr. Trump is the star,” Hicks said.
Pundits have scoffed at this. Trump has no “ground game,” they say. His refusal to spend money on television ads spells disaster. But from the beginning, Trump knew he was onto something. “I remember I had one event in New Hampshire right next to Bush,” Trump told me. “I had 4,500 people, many people standing outside in the cold. Bush had 67 people! Right next door! And I said, ‘Why is he going to win?’ ”
The Trump team is on the road — or rather in the air — five to six days a week on average. Lewandowski, Hicks, Scavino, Donald Jr., and security chief Keith Schiller travel with Trump, while Glassner often stays behind at headquarters. When they travel, they live on the plane, returning to New York or Palm Beach at night whenever possible, even if it means flying in at 2 or 3 a.m.
When they’re in New York, Hicks spends most of her day sitting in Trump’s office with her laptop, fielding press inquiries and taking dictation from him to tweet. Lewandowski spends most of his time in the campaign office, organizing logistics. He’s said to approve every invoice himself. Trump has given them both free apartments at a nearby Trump building.
The small scale and near-constant proximity mean they can respond to events quickly. In February, when the pope suggested Trump might not be a Christian owing to his plan to build a wall along the border, the campaign struck back within minutes. “If and when the Vatican is attacked by isis, which as everyone knows is isis’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president,” his statement said. Lewandowski recalled how it happened: “We found out about it as Mr. Trump was giving a speech on Kiawah Island in South Carolina, and within three minutes or less, he provided the response to Hope.” (By contrast, Clinton’s tweets are vetted by layers of advisers. “It’s very controlled,” one said to me.)
But if speed is the advantage of the small campaign, insularity is its inherent disadvantage. By all accounts, Trump doesn’t seek much counsel beyond his staff and children. There is, of course, his circle of declared foreign-policy advisers whom no one had heard of, but it’s unclear how much he talks to those he cites publicly. Carl Icahn told me that Trump didn’t call him before he invoked his name as a potential Cabinet member. “I saw one day he was on TV talking about making Carl Icahn secretary of the Treasury,” Icahn said. “I’m certainly not going to be Treasury secretary.”
A conservative source close to the campaign told me that Trump only truly consults one person, Alabama Republican senator Jeff Sessions: “When Jeff Sessions calls, Trump listens.” It’s hard to overstate Sessions’s influence on trade and immigration policy within the GOP. As far back as 2007, Sessions led the right-wing revolt to scuttle comprehensive immigration reform. Trump set out to win his endorsement early, calling him shortly after he launched his campaign and asking him to advise him. Then, while in D.C. for the anti-Iran-nuclear-deal protest in September, he met privately with Sessions in the basement of the Capitol. “That was a very long meeting,” recalled Stephen Miller, then an adviser to Sessions. “They discussed immigration, taxes, welfare, the Supreme Court, and entitlements.”
Trump stayed in contact with Sessions throughout the fall and in January strengthened ties by hiring Miller to serve as his campaign’s policy adviser. A 30-year-old Duke philosophy grad, Miller grew up liberal in Los Angeles but converted to the right as a teenager after reading NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s book Guns, Crime and Freedom. He said Trump inspires him. “I am here because in the bottom of my heart I see this election as a last-chance election,” he told me.
Since then, Trump and Sessions seem only to have grown closer. Sessions stood with Trump onstage near Huntsville just before the Alabama primary in late February. And when Sessions called Trump last month and criticized him for coming out in favor of H-1B visas, which allow companies to recruit high-level talent abroad, Trump promptly changed his position. “Sessions has told him to get off the personal attacks,” the source told me. “He says, you’ve got a policy position that’s resonating with the country, just stay on illegal immigration.”
Meanwhile, the Trump team has poured almost all of its efforts into producing rallies down to the most minute details. At a Christmas-themed one I attended in Cedar Rapids in December, eight perfectly symmetrical Christmas trees lined the stage. As Lewandowski told me, “It’s all about the visual.” He requires reporters to stay behind metal barricades and positions television cameras for the most dramatic shots. “We want to know, what does it look like when he walks out on the stage?” Lewandowski said. “Sometimes we’ll allow cameras up close, sometimes we’ll show Mr. Trump on the rope line.” And the networks, hungry for ratings, have played by these strict rules.
Trump is personally very invested in the theater of the campaign. In August, his private 757 buzzed a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama, that was packed with 30,000 supporters. “I was sitting up front,” Trump recalled, “and I saw a tremendous crowd of people. I went up to the pilot, I said, ‘Hack a left here and go right over.’ And the people went crazy. It’s my instinct.” In Florida last month, Trump’s helicopter hovered over a rally in Boca Raton.
After the rallies, Trump makes sure his fans stay mobilized. Everyone who attends a rally has to register by email, and the campaign uses this list, which Lewandowski estimates is “in the millions at this point,” to turn out voters. Most campaigns spend a lot of money to acquire voter lists; Trump largely built his own. “If you look at what the Obama campaign achieved many years ago, they were successful at bringing new people in, and then communicating with those people. What we’re doing is not dissimilar,” Lewandowski explained. “He had a brilliant plan, which was to go in and attract huge crowds,” added Ed McMullen, Trump’s South Carolina co-chair. “We had extremely strong interaction with them, and we were dedicated to keeping track of who those people were.” Trump supporters receive frequent email updates and phone calls from phone-bank volunteers.
Trump has refined the rally concept over the course of the campaign. To save time and money, he now does events at airports. “We’ll take a hangar because it’s not as expensive as a ballroom,” Trump said. “Look at the rally we did in Mesa, Arizona, December 16th,” added Hicks. “That was the first one when we pulled the plane in and ‘Air Force One’ [the theme song of the 1997 movie starring Harrison Ford] was playing. It’s efficient. It’s for branding, and we don’t have to pay for the cars.”
His ad strategy, too, is inexpensive. Trump has aired only six unique TV commercials, according to Hicks, while his GOP rivals have aired more than two dozen separate ads each. Through February, he spent only $10 million on ads; Jeb Bush spent $82 million. Trump relies mostly on essentially free Instagram spots produced by 29-year-old Justin McConney, the son of Trump’s corporate comptroller, whom Trump put in charge of building his social-media profile a few years ago. (One ad he made that featured Hillary barking and Putin laughing got a ton of — free — press.)
Trump is cheap, and proud of it. Indeed, Lewandowski’s bonus for winning New Hampshire was a paltry $50,000. It’s part of Trump’s central argument: He will run the government like a business. (Though, truth be told, there are few businesses that operate the way his does: Trump’s company is primarily a marketing vehicle at this point, licensing his name to other firms’ developments.) “I don’t spend much money,” he told me. “In New Hampshire, I spent $2 million” — actually $3.7 million — “Bush spent $48 million” — actually $36.1 million — “I came in first in a landslide, he came in sixth” — actually fourth. “Who do you want as your president?”
This formula has worked thus far better than anyone, including Trump, could have imagined. When he launched his campaign, Trump suspected it would eventually fizzle and he would return to The Apprentice. “You know, when I first got into this, it was for other reasons,” he told a friend. As weeks and then months passed with him remaining out front, he began to think winning the nomination was a real possibility, even as he resisted calls to professionalize his campaign. Why bother, when what he was doing was working so well? But now the cracks are starting to show.
Lewandowski’s criminal charge is just the latest self-inflicted setback for the campaign. There was also the canceled Chicago rally that sparked a near riot; Trump’s inability to blunt the criticism over Trump University; and his woefully unprepared performances recently before the Washington Post and New York Times. Until last week, when Trump hired Manafort to oversee his delegate strategy, there was virtually no serious plan to wage a battle for delegates in anticipation of a contested convention. As of now, Cruz may secure more delegates in Louisiana despite losing to Trump in the primary (Trump says he’ll sue over this). A Republican official in Texas recently told Breitbart News Network that Trump has no visible delegate operation in the state. “I’ll buy the delegates,” Trump joked to a friend over dinner.
Trump demurred when I asked him about his strategy to win the nomination at a contested convention. “I have people looking at it,” he said. What about his intimation that there will be riots in the streets if he loses on a second ballot? “You will have a lot of very unhappy people,” he said coyly. The threat is thinly veiled given the violence associated with his campaign, especially after he told NBC he’d consider paying the legal fees of a white supporter who punched a black protester in the face.
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.
Some have speculated that the arrival of Manafort and the shifting strategy of the campaign mean that Lewandowski’s role will be reduced, and not just because of the battery charge. People inside Trump’s world, while praising Lewandowski’s talents as an advance man, are privately expressing doubts about his strategic abilities. One prominent conservative told me Trump surrogate Jerry Falwell Jr. complained about Lewandowski’s brusque demeanor. Another source told me Ivanka doesn’t think Lewandowski can handle the pressures of the next stage and has told her father as much. “Generally, her feeling is he’s low-level and doesn’t have a good rep and is not going to bring her father to the next level,” the source explained. A third source close to the campaign suggested Glassner is taking a more hands-on role. Recently, he persuaded Trump to dump the campaign’s data analyst and recruit a more experienced consultant. But publicly, Trump is still standing by Lewandowski, coming to his defense after the battery charge.
If Trump makes it to the nomination, he will face other challenges for which he seems right now completely unprepared. He’ll have to rally at least some of the GOP Establishment, which he’s spent the last year vilifying. “People are calling me, that you have interviewed, that you see on television, who have total disdain for Donald Trump, and they’re calling to see if they can join the Trump train,” he said. During one conversation, he told me Paul Ryan called him “very nicely, twice.” But when I later checked that with Ryan’s communications adviser, Brendan Buck, he said the two spoke only once and it was after Trump’s office called. In recent days, Trump named a new “House Leadership Committee” headed by Republicans Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins. On March 31, he sat down with Priebus at RNC headquarters. There are plans to open a D.C. campaign office.
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. In February, Trump got some encouraging news when Sheldon Adelson said at a Las Vegas gala that he would support Trump if he were the nominee. The campaign has been talking to veteran GOP fund-raiser Ray Washburne about taking outside money, according to the Washington Post.
Trump perked up when I asked him about the prospect of running against Hillary Clinton, as if that were the thing he looks forward to more than anything. “Oh, I’m the only one who will beat Hillary,” he said. “Look what happened two months ago when she brought up the sexist thing about me. They went into a deep coma. They had a rough weekend, the two of them.” He began to impersonate a conversation between Bill and Hillary. “He’s saying, ‘Why did you say that?’ And she’s saying, ‘You sonofabitch.’ Because of his past problems.” Trump smiled.
A confluence of factors created the conditions for this election and Trump’s surprising success in it: the turbulence of economic change, anxiety about terrorism, the rise of social media, Obama-inspired racism, Hillary-inspired misogyny, resistance to all manner of social change; the list can go on and on. But one factor that’s been particularly crucial to Trump’s rise may be the way that reality television, cable news, and talk radio have shaped the culture’s sense of “reality” — in other words, its relationship to truth. If Ronald Reagan showed us that Hollywood was good training for politics, Trump is proving that the performance skills one learns in the more modern entertainment arenas are even more useful. Talk and reality shows are improvised operations, mastered by larger-than-life personalities expert at distorting and provoking, shifting and commandeering attention.
As Trump sees it, his television instincts are better than any of the network executives. “CNN is up 75 percent because of me. Call Jeff Zucker and you ask him. Because of me. You know 1010 wins? They say ‘All news all the time.’ CNN is called ‘All Trump all the time.’ ” The same goes for Roger Ailes. “You know my weekly call-in at 7:15” — on Fox & Friends — “was the highest-rated 15 minutes of the show.”
But a couple of things happen when reality-TV standards are applied to politics: One is that the level of sleaze gets so high that nothing is shocking — casual racism, misogyny, a campaign manager charged with battery, allegations about candidates’ affairs or sexual orientations, constant gossip about “even worse” revelations on all sides to come (“Tune in next week!”). This primary season would seem implausible if it were fiction. But as reality TV, it’s spot-on.
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.
“They wanted to renew The Apprentice with me so badly,” he told me. “Steve Burke” — CEO of NBCUniversal — “good guy, came out and sat right in that chair along with the head of NBC. ‘Please, please, I want you to renew. The Apprentice, after 14 seasons, is still a big hit.’ I said I’m not going to do it, because I’m going to run for president. They didn’t believe it, so they renewed anyway. Then I ran. Now they have Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s see how Arnold does. I hope it does well, because I still have a big chunk of it.”
He talked about it almost wistfully. Now that his campaign seems more vulnerable, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes he wishes he could go back to a reality show where he can’t be fired.
*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.
Editor’s Note: The online version of this article was updated after press time to reflect that the Trump campaign has 94 people on its payroll, including state and local level employees, according to the latest FEC filing.