Seeking to move past the tumult that has damaged his campaign since he accepted the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump tried this week to broaden his appeal and sow the seeds for a competitive fall race against Hillary Clinton.
Trump shook up his campaign leadership, launched television ads, gave one of the best speeches of his candidacy and quietly visited flood-ravaged Louisiana. But much of his effort was overshadowed by the announcement Friday that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had resigned, completing the shift in power at the top of Trump’s campaign but keeping alive the sense of turbulence within the operation.
Trump must “let the media have enough time to kind of contemplate everything you’ve said versus continuing to give them a buffet of things to distract them,” said Craig Robinson, a former state Republican official in Iowa. “This is where message discipline matters. Don’t step on your own story.”
Indeed, Manafort’s departure dominated news coverage that otherwise likely would have focused on the well-received speech Trump had delivered the night before, in which he expressed surprising regret for incendiary rhetoric, or his low-key visit Friday to learn about the devastation in Louisiana.
Instead, Manafort’s controversial work for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine seized the conversation on cable news and social media, pointing to upheaval in Trump’s campaign. Manafort was effectively demoted earlier this week after Trump named Stephen K. Bannon, a pugilistic conservative-media honcho who has never worked on a campaign, as his chief executive officer and pollster Kellyanne Conway as his campaign manager — the second leadership overhaul in two months.
“You would hope by now you would have your core team in place for some time,” said GOP strategist Reed Galen, who worked for former President George W. Bush on his campaigns and in the White House.
Manafort’s consulting work for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich, which was well-known, drew renewed scrutiny this week, including an Associated Press story Thursday that said Manafort’s firm waged a covert lobbying effort for Ukraine’s ruling party aimed at influencing American public opinion. Manafort and a deputy did not register as foreign agents, a requirement for those lobbying on behalf of foreign leaders or parties, the AP reported.
Earlier in the week, the New York Times reported that handwritten ledgers indicated that Manafort and associated firms received $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments from a pro-Russia political party tied to Yanukovich. The report said the ledgers were discovered by a Ukrainian anticorruption bureau.
In a carefully worded statement, Manafort said the suggestion that he “accepted cash payments is unfounded, silly and nonsensical.”
Trump, though, wanted to avoid being "distracted by whatever things Paul was dealing with,” the candidate’s son Eric said in an interview to air on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” this weekend.
Evidence of Trump’s renewed focus was on display Thursday during his speech at a rally in Charlotte, N.C. In addition to offering regret for hurtful statements, Trump targeted Clinton, marking the third outing in a row where he stuck with a script, something Republicans have been urging for months.
Trump is also trying to improve his standing in four states crucial for him — Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida — with $4 million in advertising beginning Friday that tries to paint Clinton as the unsafe choice for commander in chief. The ads, airing in such markets as Philadelphia, Raleigh and Charlotte, were a clear effort to gain votes in the GOP-leaning suburbs surrounding those cities and expand Trump’s support beyond his white working-class base.
Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also visited Friday with victims of the devastating flooding in Louisiana that has killed at least 13 and displaced thousands.
Touring the site of a disaster requires the kind of careful choreography Trump had yet to display with regularity on the campaign trail; politicians and elected officials try to avoid appearing as though they are being opportunistic about tragedy or hardship. Trump stayed under the radar, meeting with victims and touring the flood-ravaged area without a phalanx of news media trailing him. And he won at least one vote.
“I just appreciate his passion,” said Phinney, a maintenance supervisor at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, a large, modern house of worship on the outskirts of Baton Rouge where Trump stopped.
“When he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, it felt real,” Phinney said. “The guy is down here for more than just a vote. I feel like this is legit. So he’s got my vote.”
Trump, who has a history of erratic messaging, has made similar nods toward a disciplined approach before, only to quickly revert to his free-wheeling ways.
“He’s turned his campaign around several times for 48 hours, so there’s always a wait-and-see till he gets loose on Twitter again,” said Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant who opposes Trump but says the party needs him to perform well to save its congressional majorities and legislative seats.
Others were skeptical that the latest reboot had the power to outweigh the divisive statements Trump has made since launching his presidential run last summer about Mexican immigrants, women, Muslims, prisoners of war, the disabled and others. Notably, Trump included no specifics in his expression of regret.
“All people are going to remember about Trump is all the nuttiness,” said Katie Packer, a Republican strategist who ran an anti-Trump super PAC and served as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager. “It’s hard to break through with anything substantive or reasonable.”
Mehta reported from Los Angeles, Hennessy-Fiske from Central, and Bierman from Washington.
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3:10 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with new details and reaction.
11:30 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
This article was originally published at 8:10 a.m.