Trump's staff shakeup: a defiant move

Donald Trump has changed his political team. The move appears a defiant one, with Mr. Trump standing up for his way of campaigning.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Newly appointed campaign CEO Stephen Bannon listens during Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's round table discussion on security at Trump Tower in New York on August 17, 2016.

“I am who I am,” Donald Trump likes to say, echoing another famous TV entertainer.

But unlike Popeye, Mr. Trump is running for the highest office in the land, and has now made clear that he’s going to finish his presidential race on his own terms.

In the second shakeup to his campaign team in two months, Trump has given the upper hand to loyalists who favor his populist style. With less than three months to the election, it appears there will be no pivot toward a more conventional “presidential” posture.

Coming in as the campaign’s chief executive is Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of the conservative news site Breitbart and a longtime opponent of Speaker Paul Ryan’s mainstream brand of Republicanism. He’s a political neophyte, like Trump, and one reputed to favor a good fight, with a nationalist, populist approach to the campaign – also like Trump.

Being promoted is pollster Kellyanne Conway, now campaign manager. She is also said to favor the “let Trump be Trump” approach, and is an experienced politico with keen verbal skills.

Paul Manafort remains campaign chairman but with apparently less clout. He has been a big proponent of the “pivot” – the effort to instill discipline into Trump’s rhetoric and encourage more outreach to skeptical Republicans. Mr. Manafort has also been at the center of controversy lately, over his dealings with Ukraine’s former Russian-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych.

The shakeup, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, doubles down on the grand Trump experiment: Can an outsider with no political experience swoop into a US presidential race, break all the rules, and win the whole thing? Trump has already gone further than just about anyone imagined. Now, having secured the Republican nomination, would be the time for him to try to unify the party and make nice with its establishment.

Trump has done some of that. He did eventually endorse Speaker Ryan, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in their reelection bids. But he did so by reading a prepared statement that felt more like a hostage video than a sincere statement of support.

Now with Trump rebooting after weeks of sinking poll numbers, the question is, what will Trump 3.0 look like?

He has given three well-received policy speeches in the last two weeks – all carefully delivered with the aid of a teleprompter. One was on the economy, another on national security, and on Tuesday night, he spoke on the challenges faced disproportionately by African Americans.

It’s easy to imagine Trump continuing to deliver such speeches – deliberately worded, without the signature detours and asides. He seems to be getting better at reading off the much-maligned prompter. But if “let Trump be Trump” is once again the campaign mantra, then just as surely, we will also be seeing more assertions like “Obama is the founder of ISIS” and more of “Obviously I’m being sarcastic, but not that sarcastic.”

It’s also clear that Trump does not see himself as a loyal member of the Republican Party. And given the unpopularity of the Republican leadership, this point may be bad news for Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. The Republicans’ Senate majority, in particular, is on the line – and a rogue Trump likely means that he doesn’t care about the down-ballot races.

An unfettered Trump will certainly be a compelling Trump. And if nothing else, he will continue to shake up the political order as we know it. Whether that breaks Washington of its gridlocked ways is too soon to say. Trump might lose spectacularly, and take the party down with him. Or who knows, Trump being Trump could actually win. It’s the ultimate political shakeup that no one can rule out.

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