NEW YORK—On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave, by his standards, a restrained and subtle speech.
True, the Republican candidate referred to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “a world-class liar,” “maybe the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency,” and someone whose “decisions spread death, destruction, and terrorism everywhere.” And yes, the speech was full of lies and half-truths. Yet Wednesday’s speech, delivered at an upscale hotel the candidate owns in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, was nonetheless the most focused and cohesive address he has yet given, one that laid out a cogent populist argument without resorting to overt racism or long insult-comedy riffs.
Such is the bar for Trump that this represents progress. But if the Great Trump Pivot is finally happening—his makeover into a normal and presentable general-election candidate, much anticipated but never delivered in the seven weeks since he became the Republican nominee—well, the political establishment will believe it when they see it.
Trump read Wednesday’s speech from teleprompters in a hotel ballroom lined with dark wood, bronze accents, and sparkling chandeliers. (Many Trump properties are gaudy or dated, but Trump SoHo is actually classy and luxurious.) “She believes she is entitled to the office,” Trump said. “Her campaign slogan is ‘I’m with her.’ You know what my response to that is? I’m with you: the American people.”
Trump’s campaign hit a panic point this week, battered by weeks of bad news. The racist-judge controversy; his self-centered response to the June 12 terrorist attack in Orlando, followed by an inflammatory and widely panned national-security address; his polling numbers in free fall; the sudden firing on Monday of his embattled campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski; and the revelation that his campaign had ended the last quarter just about broke, with levels of staffing and organization more appropriate to a congressional campaign than a presidential effort.
So far has Trump fallen that many on the right now see a loss as inevitable. The Washington Free Beacon’s editor, Matthew Continetti, accused the Republican Party of committing “self-immolation on a massive scale.” The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein declared that Trump was “getting schlonged.” So many times has Trump attempted to reboot before that at this point the political establishment is well past “fool me twice” territory. Even the rah-rah brigade at the Republican National Committee is starting to show strain, exhausted by the Trump-who-cried-wolf: Rather than continue to predict a “pivot” to “presidential” mode, party chairman Reince Priebus now touts Trump’s “authenticity” to the New York Times Magazine.
Yet as badly as Trump has faltered in recent weeks, voters have not necessarily flocked to Clinton as a result. Most national and swing-state polls show both candidates well under 50 percent, with Trump in the high 30s and Clinton in the low to mid-40s. A recent poll of Utah put Trump ahead of Clinton by 9 points, 36 percent to 27 percent—meaning a plurality of the electorate, 37 percent, was not for either of the two major candidates. (You might think this represents an opening for a third-party candidate, but just 12 percent had decided to support the Green or Libertarian ticket.) Save for Trump, Utah would not be a remotely competitive state. But its voters’ distaste for the Republican had not translated into support for the Democrat—instead, it had left a lot of voters deeply unsure about what they would do.
Rather than being over before it began, then, the election is at an extraordinarily volatile and uncertain point. Clinton has helped turn voters against Trump, but she hasn’t convinced them to support her. If Trump wishes to exploit this situation, he faces two tasks: First, he must convince voters that, as much as they dislike him, they ought to find Clinton at least as unpalatable. And second, he has to convince them that if they put him in the White House, they will not have bequeathed the nation’s highest office to an unstable madman with no self-control. He has to be cool, and he has to sustain it long enough to be convincing.
As many times as Trump has already failed to live up to that standard, those inside his orbit insist this new turn is for real. The dismissal of Lewandowski is seen as a crucial move, one that demonstrated that Trump is committed enough to the campaign’s mission to sacrifice a key enabler and confidant. So pervasive and toxic was Lewandowski’s influence that his departure unlocks enormous opportunities for the campaign, insiders say. And unlike past efforts to change Trump’s trajectory simply by putting new words in his mouth, his campaign is now actually engaged in a series of major operational changes to address its profound deficiencies.
It will be a great irony if, just as the political establishment gave up hope that Trump could turn things around, he actually started to do it. Still, it will take far more evidence before Wednesday’s speech can be considered a genuine turning point for Trump’s faltering effort.
Curious about who attends a Trump policy address, I lingered after he left the SoHo ballroom to speak to some of those who had cheered the speech from the rows in front of the media, cordoned off with a velvet rope. Would they be policy experts, wealthy donors, local political operatives? A bearded man named Guy Razzino, who wore a black Vietnam Era Veteran cap and a red-white-and-blue pin in the shape of a cross, told me he was a limousine driver and proprietor of two pro-Trump blogs who’d been invited to the speech by a friend affiliated with the campaign.
Razzino approved of Trump’s message. “We need to have the right person in charge of the presidency,” he said. “We can’t have someone who’s faithful to Obama, who never should have been president in the first place when it’s a known fact he was born in Kenya.”
A local reporter stepped in to ask Razzino what he thought of the Trump campaign. “Does it bother you that he only has $1.3 million in his campaign account?” he asked.
Razzino shrugged and said he trusted Trump to figure it out. “He reminds me of my older brother, who’s smarter than me, who went to college and got all those degrees,” he said.
The last few months have featured a very public battle between the id and superego of Donald J. Trump. On one side is his instinct to be outrageous, to play to the crowd, to cause constant chaos and commotion; this instinct is encouraged by the crowds he riles up at his public appearances. On the other are the many advisers—including Priebus, numerous GOP lawmakers, Trump’s own children, and his chief strategist, Paul Manafort—who have been telling him for a while that he’s got to tone it down if he wants to compete in a general election.
Organizationally, this tension has been reflected in the campaign’s flaming turf battles, which pitted Lewandowski against Manafort. Lewandowski’s slogan was “Let Trump Be Trump,” which, taken at face value, left little for the campaign to do beyond escorting the candidate from place to place. Manafort, an old Washington hand with a history of lobbying for dictators, wanted to do things the conventional way, but had been continually stymied by Lewandowski since he was brought on in March.
What with all the turmoil, apparently not much else was getting done. Trump did not spend the weeks after becoming the presumptive nominee studying up on policy or releasing white papers. He has not spent it beefing up his operation by putting staff in swing states or opening campaign offices or expanding his bare-bones headquarters in New York. He has not spent it fundraising—the task of asking for money is one he reportedly finds distasteful; until this week people who had signed up to receive emails from his campaign were not routinely asked to donate to it, a virtually effortless way the campaign could have brought in a steady stream of cash.
Instead, the Trump campaign continued to consist almost entirely of Trump’s traveling road show. “The Trump campaign is a production company,” one veteran Republican operative observed. “They put on events. That’s it.”
Until this week, it was possible to imagine that this was not the case—that some vast but secret structure was actually being erected behind the scenes. But the campaign-finance disclosure filed Monday revealed definitively that Trump’s campaign was a Potemkin village. It showed that Trump had just $1.3 million in cash on hand, compared to Clinton’s $42 million, and 69 staffers to her nearly 700. Clinton is spending millions on positive ads aimed at boosting her image, while a Clinton-supporting super PAC is spending millions more bashing Trump in swing states. The Trump campaign is airing no ads. It cannot afford to.
Researchers who study the effects of campaigns on elections are flabbergasted at the historical anomaly this represents. “A major party presidential nominee with no money! How is this happening?” Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth political scientist, told me. In a way, the Trump campaign could be a sort of controlled experiment in how many people will vote for someone with virtually no campaign whatsoever. “We’ve never seen a campaign this minimal—basically just a guy who flies around and phones the press,” he said. “He’s testing the floor of how many people will vote for a Republican no matter what.”
Is Trump simply a radical questioner of the political conventional wisdom, his methods a daring maverick move aimed at unmasking the hollowness of the political game? In the lobby after the speech in SoHo, I met a New York political consultant named Steve Goldberg, a longtime Manafort associate who was in talks to join the campaign. Goldberg, a Lee Atwater protégé who claims to have invented push polling, was dismissive of many of the data-driven techniques that are in vogue in campaigns these days. “It’s BS,” he told me. “They’re all Kool-Aid drinkers.” That was not to say that the campaign didn’t need to be beefed up, he said, it just didn’t have to slavishly follow the Way Things Have to Be Done. “Paul knows what to do,” Goldberg said. “Paul’s got all the tools.”
With Lewandowski gone, the Trump campaign has begun to behave slightly more like a normal political organism. It has announced several new hires, with more said to be imminent; it has begun to put out regular press releases to underscore his message and attack his opponent, whereas previously its communiques consisted of logistical announcements and occasional statements in response to controversies. An online fundraising effort raised $5 million this week alone, according to the RNC, while a pair of New York fundraisers were expected to raise a few million more. At Wednesday’s speech, the campaign even admitted reporters from several previously banned media outlets. And on Thursday, perhaps seeking to quell the idea that he’s personally profiting from his donors’ contributions, Trump announced he would not seek repayment for the $50 million he had loaned the campaign.
Inside the campaign, there is a feeling of relief that an operation that felt rudderless and chaotic for so long finally seems to have a direction—and a boss. “Clarity on the inside now,” one senior Trump adviser described it to me. Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr., who personally fired Lewandowski after an intervention-style family meeting with the candidate, told me the campaign was “moving forward with more direction.”
So deep has the skepticism that many Republicans now bear toward Trump become, however, and so far has he fallen that it will take more than one good speech to claw his way back to credibility. The effort to thwart him at the Republican convention, still a long shot, is gaining steam. A group of well-connected conservatives have begun a new effort to field an (as-yet-unnamed) independent candidate. And after months of hyping every appearance of the teleprompters as the turning over of a new leaf, the political press has turned markedly skeptical of the latest New Trump narrative. The Washington Post’s headline about Trump’s Wednesday speech read, “A (somewhat) tamer Trump emerges to focus attacks on Clinton. But will it last?”
The test, observers say, will be whether Trump can keep up a domesticated mien in the more candid settings of public rallies—where, as recently as last week, he was still inclined to let loose—and media interviews. “Trump on a teleprompter is not his character on display. It’s what you do when you don’t have the teleprompter,” said John Weaver, the former campaign strategist to Ohio Governor John Kasich. “They can shift around staff and do this, that, and the other, but there is no underlying core principle, no element of conservative ideology—nothing other than what’s best for Donald Trump at any moment,” he added.
I asked Weaver—who said he would not vote for Trump “unless a zombie snatches me and replaces my brain”—whether he held out hope of replacing Trump on the ticket. He was pessimistic. “Do I think it’s going to happen? No,” he said. “But you’d have to be on crack to have predicted any of this anyway.”
With all that Trump is now doing to turn things around, his problems may be deeper than money or staff or messaging, and that will present him with a deeper dilemma, observed Sam Nunberg, who served Trump as a political adviser for more than four years before being fired last August for racist Facebook posts. (Nunberg detests Lewandowski, whom he blames for engineering his ouster, and has no remaining relationship with Trump.)
“What’s the excuse going to be if Donald is down by 10 points two weeks from now?” Nunberg said. “What if he’s still down 8 points after the conventions? They don’t have Corey to kick around anymore. The major issue is going to be winning.”
On Friday and Saturday, Trump was scheduled to travel to Scotland, where he is opening a new golf course.