- Bill Stepien, the new Trump campaign manager, and Jason Miller, a senior adviser, have taken firm control of the 2020 effort, trying to salvage an operation with under 90 days left until the election.
- Stepien and Miller have been briefing President Donald Trump multiple times a day and helping him to stay focused on the coronavirus pandemic and a singular attack on Joe Biden.
- “I would love to pretend that I had some special influence,” Miller told Insider, adding, “My job is just to say that ‘I agree with you.'”
- Republicans close to the Trump campaign say that Stepien and Miller have brought the discipline and focus lacking under the former campaign manager Brad Parscale.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A tight-knit duo of longtime Republican operatives has taken the reins of Donald Trump’s reelection bid in an attempt to salvage one of the most fraught campaigns in recent history and achieve the almost impossible task of getting the president to focus on a single line of attack against Joe Biden.
Trump is getting briefings multiple times a day with Bill Stepien, his newly installed campaign manager, and Jason Miller, the senior 2016 campaign adviser now back for a 2020 encore, where they discuss strategy and how to target their Democratic rival for the White House, according to Republicans close to the campaign who detailed the efforts for Insider.
Stepien and Miller have also overhauled Trump’s campaign operation, reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in spending and redrawing the campaign’s on-air advertising strategy, the Republicans said.
The new strategy shift follows months when the president and his campaign floundered through the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, crippling unemployment numbers, and historic nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd. Trump’s summer of discontent reached a peak with his disastrous return to the campaign trail in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June — a sparsely attended event right before a severe coronavirus outbreak in the Sooner State.
Not long after the Oklahoma rally, Trump demoted his campaign manager Brad Parscale and elevated Stepien and Miller. Trump also brought back his regular press briefings, but this time he kept closer to the script by reading closely from his notes and limiting his sparring with reporters. Previous exchanges had resulted in fumbles that threw the president’s team way off message, like his suggestion that people might be able to inject bleach to stop the virus.
“It was the president’s idea to restart the press conferences. He wanted them to be much shorter, much tighter,” Miller told Insider. “I would love to pretend that I had some special influence. It was the president’s idea. My job is just to say that ‘I agree with you.'”
Journalists and political operatives tend to “overemphasize” the importance of political staff in setting the Trump campaign’s course, he added.
“Ultimately, it’s top-down,” Miller said. “He says, ‘I want to get this done,’ and we get it done.”
‘He’s a lot smarter than all the other chimps’
Republicans in regular contact with the campaign have noticed Trump sticking to his notes more and trying to avoid the wild asides that got him in trouble before Parscale’s demotion opened the door for Stepien and Miller.
“The president seems to have more message discipline since Stepien took over the campaign,” one Republican close to the campaign said. “He is more focused on what matters to voters who are still on the fence, and that’s simply doing a better job on COVID.”
Republicans in the White House and on the campaign griped for months that Parscale and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, were too inexperienced at running the reelection effort. It’d be better, these sources said, if Trump engaged a new team of senior strategists to help guide something as sizable as a presidential reelection campaign.
Those same Republicans welcomed the news, first reported by Insider, that Karl Rove, the former George W. Bush guru, had been informally advising the campaign, though Rove downplayed his efforts.
With Stepien and Miller, Trump has two veteran Republican campaign experts running the show. Stepien was Trump’s White House political director before moving to the campaign. He has a long history in Republican politics, punctuated by his work for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that resulted in a sharp falling-out over the “Bridgegate” scandal.
Stepien has overseen a complete review of the campaign and its spending since taking over. (Minutes before Insider broke the news that Trump’s campaign was conducting an audit of all spending under Parscale, Parscale accused reporters of working in a “criminal network.”)
Miller joined the Trump campaign in 2016 after working on Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential run. He was set, upon Trump’s inauguration, to be the White House communications director, but that was derailed after revelations that he had been having an extramarital affair with another campaign staffer.
Now that he’s formally back on Trump’s campaign team, Miller has tightened its press and messaging operation. He sends one-page lists of talking points every morning to senior campaign aides and top surrogates for Trump, like Mercedes Schlapp and Katrina Pierson. And he has helped the president focus more on responding to the coronavirus outbreak and attempting to tie Biden to “extreme leftists.”
“He’s a lot smarter than all the other chimps,” another Republican close to the campaign said of Miller. “He’s one of the first guys that Trump talks to in the morning … I’m not surprised it’s gotten more disciplined. They finally got through to the president.”
Current and former advisers have repeatedly said that the best way to curb Trump’s worst instincts is to offer up sound advice and approve when he offers it as his own idea — a convoluted process akin to the plot of the 2010 movie “Inception.”
That strategy plays well to the strengths of Stepien and Miller, whose relationship goes back to their work together for Rudy Giuliani during the former New York mayor’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Republicans close to the new team in charge of Trump’s campaign said Stepien’s and Miller’s roles were a reflection of Giuliani’s renewed influence on Trump some seven months after the Senate impeachment trial that ended in the president’s acquittal.
Nobody controls The Donald
Tightening up Trump and his operation and actually getting the president to focus on a singular line of attack are still, in reality, miles apart.
Trump in recent weeks has struggled to handle hardball interviews with Fox News’ Chris Wallace and Axios’ Jonathan Swan. Even a softball interview with the Fox News contributor Marc Siegel went viral when Trump flaunted his ability to pass a test meant to screen for dementia.
One former Trump adviser said he’d never seen anyone truly control Trump. The person noted that a string of campaign managers and chiefs of staff had failed at the task, from the former White House senior strategist Steve Bannon to the current chief of staff, Mark Meadows. The only people to have come close are Kushner and Trump’s eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, the former adviser said.
“Nobody can tell that guy what to do,” the former adviser said.
Still, current and former Trump advisers praised the work Stepien and Miller are doing to rein in the president wherever and whenever it’s possible.
“Stepien and Miller are having an impact,” a third Republican close to the campaign said, mentioning Trump’s recent schedule of talking with local TV reporters that had helped the campaign get extended positive coverage in battleground states. “Everything is tighter; it’s more strategic, and it’s more targeted.”
Optimistic Republicans have insisted that the swing-state polling gaps between Trump and Biden will start closing around Labor Day when more voters start paying closer attention to the election and Biden’s frequent verbal missteps.
Aiming to exploit the Biden gaffe factor, Giuliani has been trying to get an additional presidential debate on the calendar beyond the three that are already scheduled. In a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates on Thursday, Giuliani requested a guarantee that Biden would show up to debate Trump in person — a dig to reinforce the Trump campaign’s characterization of its Democratic opponent as hiding in his Delaware basement throughout the race because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden and Trump are set to debate on September 29 in Cleveland, on October 15 in Miami, and on October 22 in Nashville. The only vice presidential debate is scheduled for October 7 in Salt Lake City.