WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s long-in-coming campaign shakeup rearranged some big job titles but isn't likely to change the identity of the person truly in charge of day-to-day operations: Jared Kushner.
Kushner wields his influence quietly and is rarely a presence in the campaign’s suburban Washington headquarters. Fittingly, he was nowhere to be seen Thursday when, in an emotional changing of the guard meeting, campaign manager Brad Parscale surrendered his title to onetime deputy Bill Stepien.
Facing strong electoral headwinds, it was Trump who demoted Parscale and elevated Stepien. But Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, is expected to remain the driving force behind a political operation built to respond to Trump’s instincts and give him another four years in office.
Parscale's ouster reflects Trump's willingness to shake things up as the coronavirus blocks him from holding his trademark rallies and as he grapples with polls showing him significantly trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden, according to some of the seven campaign officials and Republicans who discussed the shakeup on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
But it also shows a new willingness by Trump to diversify his inner circle, even if Kushner remains at the helm. Some Republican Party officials and outside allies have been encouraging Trump to listen to a broader array of political advice, believing that Kushner has filled the president’s ear with voices that echo Kushner's.
That process began when Trump first elevated Stepien to senior adviser and returned Jason Miller to the campaign last month. Parscale, for his part, was once the hand-picked choice of Kushner, but the president's son-in-law was among those who have soured on him in recent weeks.
Kushner's White House portfolio is so vast that it has become fodder for late-night comics. But he also has been the ultimate decision-maker on the campaign, and some Trump allies said Parscale was paying the price for Kushner’s own lack of political expertise.
Despite the deficits, the campaign on Thursday began its new chapter with typical bravado.
“We have a better team, better voter information, a better ground game, better fundraising, and most importantly, a better candidate with a better record,” Stepien said. “With 109 days left, our goal is clear – to win each day we have left until Election Day.”
Trump's willingness to accept new counsel was already in the works ahead of Wednesday's shakeup, and some advisers were heartened by his speech this week in the Rose Garden that, although meandering, contained his most sustained attacks against Biden.
Trump was finally framing the election as a choice between two visions of America — not just a referendum on his own divisive presidency. In recent days he has repeatedly underscored the campaign’s new dystopian theme that Biden is under the control of leftist elements determined to destroy the American way of life.
Kushner has long been the driving force behind the campaign, which some Republicans felt had failed in recent months to negatively define Biden. The former vice president has risen in the polls as he largely stayed out of sight and as Trump’s own political standing spiraled during a pandemic that has killed nearly 140,000 Americans and put tens of millions out of work.
Miller praised Kushner’s vital role in Trump’s orbit.
“Jared is a very important voice within President Trump’s orbit,” he said. “In addition to being a very smart and creative thinker, he is someone who always has President Trump’s back and looks out for him, not only as someone who is president of the United States, but as someone who is family.”
But some Republicans are worried that Kushner is spread too thin, with a West Wing portfolio that includes the coronavirus, immigration, reinventing government and, for good measure, the Middle East.
Kushner originally hired Parscale to run the 2016 campaign's digital operation. Rather than parting ways completely, Parscale will remain involved in the campaign, in part because of the difficulty the campaign would have faced in rebuilding its digital advertising operation so close to the Nov. 3 general election.
While the Republican National Committee owns most of the campaign’s data, voter modeling and outreach tools, Parscale ran most of the microtargeted online advertising that Trump aides believe was key four years ago. Parscale left the campaign office Thursday misty-eyed about how the effort had started with five people and expressed amazement about the behemoth that had been built, according to several people in attendance.
But Trump had begun to sour on him earlier this year as Parscale attracted a wave of media attention that included focus on his glitzy lifestyle on the Florida coast that kept him far from campaign headquarters in Virginia.
And Parscale's fate was sealed last month when he hyped a million ticket requests for the president’s comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that ended up drawing just 6,000 people. A furious Trump was left staring at a sea of empty seats.
Now, with just six weeks left before early voting begins in some states, polls show the president is trailing Biden in battleground states across the map, and those margins are only growing as COVID-19 ravages scores of states. It appears increasingly likely the election will be defined by Trump’s handling of the pandemic and the resulting economic collapse.
And Trump’s top weapon in his political arsenal has been holstered, at least for now. After the Tulsa debacle, the campaign tried to host a rally last weekend in New Hampshire — this time in an airport hangar to alleviate concerns about the spread of the virus.
But fears about low turnout, as well as a dicey weather forecast, led to its cancellation, and there are real questions about whether Trump can pull off rallies to rev up his base amid a pandemic.
Trump’s slide has also alarmed Republicans increasingly anxious about retaining control of the Senate. Despite the campaign shakeup, most in the GOP believe the candidate will determine his own fate.
“The title of campaign manager right now, with this particular president, is meaningless, because he is the message. He is the strategy,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Time is running out. This is not an election defined by Joe Biden. It is unavoidably defined by a global pandemic, the economic disruption it caused, and the president’s response to it.”
Lemire reported from New York.