NEW YORK — Donald Trump fired his controversial campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on Monday, unleashing a major shake-up as he comes under pressure from his closest advisers — particularly his family members — to urgently reset his struggling presidential campaign.
Lewandowki’s abrupt departure is the campaign’s most significant staff change to date, and signals an acknowledgment from Trump himself that an overhaul is necessary ahead of the general election.
The candidate has suffered major setbacks since becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee last month, coming under intense criticism from party leaders, major donors and rank-and-file Republicans for an array of issues — including most recently, his response to last weekend’s terrorist attack in Orlando, Fla., that killed 49 people.
“The Donald J. Trump Campaign for President, which has set a historic record in the Republican Primary having received almost 14 million votes, has today announced that Corey Lewandowski will no longer be working with the campaign,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in a statement Monday. “The campaign is grateful to Corey for his hard work and dedication and we wish him the best in the future.”
The decision to fire Lewandowski was made swiftly in a Monday morning weekly meeting with Trump’s family members, a Trump adviser said.
Playing a pivotal role in convincing Trump to take action against Lewandowski was the candidate’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. She had been critical of Lewandowski for months and this was not the first time that she had leaned on her father to part ways with his top aide.
Contributing to Ivanka Trump’s recent dissatisfaction with Lewandowski were intensifying tensions between Lewandowski and Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, an influential force behind the scenes.
One source said rumors swirled that Lewandowski had attempted to plant negative stories in the press about Kushner — a final straw for Ivanka Trump.
Ivanka Trump ultimately sat down with her father within the last 24 hours and convinced him to let Lewandowski go, according to a source close to the campaign.
The development suggests that Kushner — who is already involved in building a transition team for Trump should he win the White House in November — could play an increasingly prominent role in guiding the Trump campaign.
Lewandowski did not appear to know that the ax was about to drop: The firing was so sudden that he was on a call with Republican National Committee staffers Monday morning, just hours before his firing, according to one GOP source.
Sources close to the campaign view Lewandowski’s ouster marks a major reset for Trump’s campaign — as well as an explicit acknowledgment that things were not going well.
Those closest to Trump worried that Lewandowski presented multiple problems for Trump. For one, they feared that Lewandowski was a hindrance to enlisting experienced, veteran strategists to join the campaign.
There were also concerns that Lewandowski — with direct access to Trump’s ear — would get the candidate agitated on issues that ultimately “did not matter” to the campaign, one source close to the campaign said.
Toned down rhetoric
Trump’s inability — and apparent lack of interest — in toning down his rhetoric going into the general election season has deeply troubled the party. There is widespread concern that without a dramatic course change, Trump will continue to be significantly outmatched by presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on many fronts, including organization, communications and fundraising.
Lewandowski could not be reached for comment by phone.
The news comes amid deep internal tensions that have roiled the Trump campaign — sometimes even played out in public. Lewandowski was well known for being fiercely loyal to his boss — he is even a Trump delegate from New Hampshire — and also deeply protective of his direct access to the candidate.
This dynamic created a series of problems as the Trump campaign began to hire staffers and expand its operations, including when Trump enlisted veteran GOP strategist Paul Manafort earlier this year.
It was also viewed as a huge source of distraction at a time when Trump needed to devote all of his campaign’s resources to preparing for November.
With Lewandowski leading the campaign, Trump volleyed from one controversy to the next: unleashing attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage and suggesting that President Barack Obama perhaps played a role int he Orlando massacre.
Lewandowski encouraged this behavior instead of prodding the candidate back on message, one adviser said. Amid all of these distractions, members of the Trump family, his friends, as well as Manafort, had been upping their efforts to convince Trump that Lewandowski’s guidance had grown harmful to the candidate and the campaign.
Some advisers hope the latest move will allow the campaign to ramp up more quickly by building out a communications team, a rapid response effort and by ramping up their political machine in battleground states, an adviser said.
“This has not been a campaign, it’s been a concert tour,” the adviser said, adding this could be the turning point for the campaign to get more serious.
A second adviser added a note of caution though, saying if Trump isn’t willing to behave in a more disciplined fashion, then Lewandowski’s departure might do little good.
“I don’t know if it helps Trump personally unless he is willing to completely change through the Manafort model,” the adviser added.
This marks the latest fallout in the power struggle between Lewandowski and Manafort — ultimately seen as a major victory for Manafort that could allow him to run the campaign in a more traditional sense. Some sources within the campaign are expecting Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, to fill the power void that Lewandowski leaves behind.
The Trump campaign has started hiring what one source called “middle level staffers with political experience” in key battle ground states across the country, scheduled to start after the July convention. Despite the Trump campaign’s efforts to create a more well-oiled machine, they are still not operating at full capacity due to internal feuding.
“No one is really sure who is running things. It’s very disorganized,” said one GOP source working with the campaign.
Most of the new hires have not begun their actual jobs yet, but are still in the process of filling out the enormous amount of paperwork — including disclosures and noncompetes that come with being employed by Trump, said one source.
There are particular frustrations that the campaign has yet to hire a traditional communications team that can handle the high volume of media requests that comes with being a nominee for president, according to two sources in and around the campaign. Currently, the team consists of only Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman.
“No one is managing the message,” one source close to the campaign said.
Last month, the campaign hired long-time consultant and operative Jim Murphy as political director, replacing Rick Wiley after clashes with Lewandowski and other original Trump hires led to Wiley’s abrupt departure from the campaign.
One of the top priorities with Murphy is in place was building out the campaign’s communications team, this person said.
In what was widely viewed as an incredible demonstration of the deep animosity towards Lewandowski from some factions of the campaign, one Trump adviser, Michael Caputo, tweeted this on Monday minutes after the news broke about Lewandowski: “Ding dong the witch is dead!”