President Donald Trump shook up his campaign leadership on Wednesday, announcing he was promoting Bill Stepien to be his campaign manager and demoting Brad Parscale, who had been serving in that role.
The announcement comes on the same day that two national polls showed the President trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden by double digits. There may be more staffing changes to come at the campaign, but nothing significant is expected in the immediate future, an official tells CNN.
The future of Parscale, who had been lauded by the President and his allies as a digital guru who helped secure Trump’s first election effort and became his reelection campaign manager in early 2018, had been in serious doubt for weeks. In addition to the President’s lagging poll numbers, Trump was furious after a much-hyped return to the campaign trail fell flat at the end of June. A planned rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, fell well short of expectations after Parscale predicted massive crowds, not only inside the 19,000-seat arena but outside as well.
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In the weeks leading up the event, Parscale predicted as many as 100,000 people would show up to support the President. Instead a meager crowd of just over 6,000 came, the outdoor event was canceled and Trump was embarrassed – laying much of the blame on Parscale who personally offered up Tulsa as one of the locations for the President’s return to the trail.
Trump has repeatedly criticized Parscale in meetings over the turnout. Parscale was unaware that he was being demoted until a few hours before the Wednesday night announcement, a source familiar with the situation told CNN. But after a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Stepien on Tuesday, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, informed Parscale of the decision, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
“I am pleased to announce that Bill Stepien has been promoted to the role of Trump Campaign Manager,” Trump said in a Facebook post. “Brad Parscale, who has been with me for a very long time and has led our tremendous digital and data strategies, will remain in that role, while being a Senior Advisor to the campaign. Both were heavily involved in our historic 2016 win, and I look forward to having a big and very important second win together. This one should be a lot easier as our poll numbers are rising fast, the economy is getting better, vaccines and therapeutics will soon be on the way, and Americans want safe streets and communities!”
A senior campaign adviser said Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and top advisers to both men have been discussing the Parscale move for a number of days. The adviser described the situation for Parscale as untenable. The Trump family had become annoyed in recent weeks at reports of how much money Parscale was making in his role, including stories about his ownership of a Ferrari. Parscale, the adviser said, had been advised to lay low and stay out of the limelight, advice he apparently did not take.
The adviser said Stepien, Jason Miller and Jeff DeWitt are now viewed as running the day-to-day operations of the campaign.
Parscale posted on Twitter Thursday afternoon, “Romans 12:14: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
He had held an all-staff meeting at the Trump campaign’s headquarters on Thursday morning to hand things over to Stepien, according to two sources.
Parscale was given a standing ovation after he finished his remarks, according to an aide who was in the room. Stepien then addressed the group of about 200 people and said Parscale would still be heavily involved in the campaign and would resume his focus on the digital operation, the aide said.
The aide described Stepien’s and Parscale’s roles as, “Bill will steer the ship, Brad will man the guns.”
This aide said there is a sense of “calm and continuity” with Stepien in charge. “He’s not an outside person that people need to get to know. He’s been here and been part of the fight and people know they can trust him,” the aide said.
CNN has reached out to Parscale for comment, he has not yet responded. A source tells CNN that despite the demotion he plans to stay with the campaign.
A longtime aide demoted
A source familiar with Trump’s thinking said he had wanted to get Parscale out of the job for the last several weeks, but was hesitant to fire him.
While several campaign figures were concerned about what would happen to the digital operation if Parscale was dismissed altogether, Trump was worried Parscale would go after him and potentially write a negative book. Trump did not call his longtime campaign manager Wednesday to tell him the news.
Parscale worked for the Trump family years before Trump launched a presidential bid and ascended to a role leading the campaign’s data analytics team in June 2016. After Trump won, Parscale worked with America First Policies, a pro-Trump political organization.
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Parscale parlayed that goodwill into his role running the entire campaign. He took the job in February 2018, but – as the election grew closer and the demands of the campaign took hold, along with the curveball of the Covid-19 pandemic – there were increasing concerns that his lack of political experience was starting to show.
“It was only a matter of time” before Parscale was moved out of his role as campaign manager, said a senior adviser to the campaign. “His inexperience hindered the campaign.”
Parscale was also a target of the President’s frustrations in late April, when Trump was fuming about sliding poll numbers and facing an onslaught of criticism for suggesting that ingesting disinfectant might prove effective against coronavirus.
On a call, three people familiar said, Trump shouted at Parscale and berated him about the poll numbers. At one point on the call, Trump threatened to sue him.
Trump denied ever shouting at Parscale and two sources said the President and Parscale patched things up shortly thereafter.
While it was clear inside the campaign that Parscale’s favor within the President’s orbit was waning, his demotion still came as a surprise to many.
Most campaign aides learned of the news with Trump’s Facebook post on Wednesday night, sources tell CNN.
Officials told CNN in recent days that while Parscale had lost influence and earned Trump’s ire, he would likely remain campaign manager in title – even as other aides have already begun to take over bigger parts of the campaign’s strategic decisions.
Parscale’s relationship with Trump, though, soured significantly in the wake of the Tulsa campaign rally debacle.
“He does not like Brad,” one Trump adviser said last week, noting that Trump has taken to frequently cutting Parscale off during meetings and disagreeing with nearly every position he takes, at times ultimately agreeing with the same position when it is later reiterated by another aide in the room.
“It’s very clear that when Brad offers a position, Trump decides to be against it,” the adviser said.
But many saw the role as campaign manager impossible. Kushner has one foot inside the White House and one foot inside the campaign and was known to hire people without informing Parscale. And Trump often blamed poor polling on his campaign staffers, instead of his own actions.
Parscale also enjoys a close relationship with the President’s children, and his firm, Parscale Strategy, has been used to pay prominent figures close to the family: Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, and Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife. Both have advisory and fundraising roles with the campaign.
Stepien takes over campaign manager role
Stepien met with the President on Tuesday at the White House about the potential move, according to a source familiar with the situation. He joined Trump’s first presidential campaign in August 2016.
He previously served as national director to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and was New Hampshire political director to President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection effort.
A former top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Stepian was fired amid the Bridgegate scandal, but ultimately not charged in the federal investigation into the lane closures. Court documents later revealed, however, that a Christie aide texted a colleague amid Christie’s news conference on the bubbling scandal in December 2013 that Christie “just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved.”
Before his dismissal, Stepien had been widely expected to run Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“Bill is the most talented political operative in America. He understands political operations, he understands field, he understands turnout and metrics in a way that’s unparalleled,” said Matt Mowers, a New Hampshire congressional candidate and a former Christie and Trump administration aide.
Kushner recruited Stepien to join the Trump campaign and the two enjoy a close relationship.
Stepien’s understanding of data and metrics will be vital as the President looks to turn around sinking poll numbers in key battleground states. He has expertise in turning successes from the administration on very specific issues into tailored, focused messaging to very specific groups of voters.
“The biggest thing Bill needs to do is marshal all the resources of the campaign and the RNC toward ensuring the President hits the metrics he needs to win in these battleground states. A piece of this is going to be the President articulating the vision for the next four years,” a source close to Stepien said.
Kushner solidifies his role but Trump in control
The installation of a new campaign manager for Trump doesn’t change one fact, a Republican close to the campaign tells CNN: Kushner is still effectively in charge of the reelection campaign.
“Jared is, and has been, running most everything,” a senior Republican close to the campaign said. “This doesn’t change that.”
The Republican close to the campaign made clear that the stakes are even higher now for Kushner.
A Republican strategist close to the campaign said the move to demote Parscale and promote Stepien means, “Jared owned (the campaign) before but he really owns it now.”
But ultimately, Trump’s campaign is still very much in the control of the President.
A senior White House official told CNN that only Trump can turn his campaign around.
“Brad’s not the one going off message,” the official said. “Brad’s not the one refusing to wear a mask. He’s (Trump) not focused. Everyone has told him that. Nothing has changed.”
Some of the President’s aides inside the White House have long been skeptical of Parscale, whose political acumen they questioned and whose lifestyle they saw as obnoxious.
Many of the President’s aides are frustrated that Trump himself hasn’t seemed to adopt a coherent campaign message or take the steps necessary to salvage his reelection prospects.
A senior Trump adviser echoed that, telling CNN that unless Trump gets a handle on the virus, he is in serious jeopardy.
Kushner and all of the campaign officials in the world can’t fix that, the adviser said.
This story has been updated with additional developments and reporting.
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Kevin Liptak, Dana Bash, Paul LeBlanc and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.