As Donald Trump jetted to Colorado on Monday, his presidential campaign was on life support. His momentum had been zapped by a turbulent week, book-ended by an unsteady debate and an erratic display at his last rally. In Washington, GOP leaders were analyzing internal polls that charted a Trump collapse in nearly every swing state.
Aboard his plush Boeing 757, the Republican nominee and his closest advisers charted a plan to stabilize the campaign. In the wake of revelations about his taxes, Trump would deliver two prepared speeches defending his business acumen and framing his ups and downs as a real estate tycoon as a “comeback” – and he would yoke it to the populism that galvanizes his grass-roots supporters.
“I’m working for you now; I’m not working for Trump,” he thundered in Pueblo. Hours later, at a massive arena rally in Loveland, Trump cast himself as a warrior for working people who relishes “taking out the financial establishment.”
For Trump and his bleary team, the day was a victory. The candidate was back on script and seemingly back on track.
But Trump was still Trump. As his motorcade pulled into Denver’s Ritz-Carlton hotel for the night, Trump was in a fury. He lashed out at aides for booking such luxurious accommodations, saying he would have preferred to stay at a Holiday Inn Express – a chain he considers reliably clean – as he did on occasion during the primaries, according to three people familiar with the episode who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The hotel squabble was a reminder that Trump would never allow himself to be fully controlled, even as his party’s nominee in the home stretch of the general election. He would win or lose on his own terms.
So it went throughout the rest of this week, as pressure mounted on Trump to rebound or risk losing to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in a landslide. Although Trump understood that he needed to improve his standing, he continued to boast behind the scenes about unscientific online polls showing he won the first debate.
Trump resisted suggestions from his advisers to practice exhaustively for the second debate, a town hall-style forum that will be held Sunday night in St. Louis. He flat-out refused to participate in mock sessions, saying such play-acting was annoying.
“He doesn’t like rehearsing and rehearsing,” said former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has been among those coaching Trump on the debates. “The way he wants to do a test run is by doing a real test run.”
Instead, Trump sat for informal meetings beginning last weekend at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., and later on Thursday at Trump Tower in New York.
In those conversations, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus would pepper him with rapid-fire questions while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie played the role of Trump’s antagonist. Campaign chief executive Stephen K. Bannon, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, policy director Stephen Miller, Giuliani and others would talk through scenarios, body language and political points.
“Christie is taking the lead on this and that gives me some relief,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser. “You don’t see any better puncher and counter-puncher than Chris Christie.”
Perhaps most revealing – and an example of how Trump’s campaign tightened the circle around Trump – was the absence of Roger Ailes, the ousted Fox News chairman and former Republican operative, as well as several retired military officials, who had participated in some of Trump’s earlier huddles.
Before the first debate, Trump was inundated with counsel from a sprawling network of friends, many of whom called him or stopped by Bedminster and Trump Tower in New York to give him unsolicited tips.
Giuliani credited Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, 35, for consolidating the number of voices in Trump’s ear. “He’s the majordomo, and put that in all caps,” Giuliani said. “He’s the orchestra director, the man who makes sure it’s all working like it should.”
Making the television rounds Thursday, Conway sounded confident about Trump’s readiness. “It’s a comfortable format,” she told ABC News. “He’s the one out there at these rallies and small settings every single day.”
People close to Trump insisted that the candidate was learning the right lessons from his rocky first debate. He has watched footage of that performance, as well as that of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in this week’s vice-presidential debate.
“What he lost last Monday were opportunities that she served up on a silver platter,” Caputo said.
As this week wore on, Trump strategized with Bannon, Kushner and top aides as he campaigned in Arizona and Nevada. He remained insistent against the kind of formal run-throughs Clinton was doing, but his advisers convinced him to do a scrimmage.
Trump held a town-hall meeting on Thursday night in New Hampshire. David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, worked to secure a small venue in Sandown, N.H. The event was designed as a dry run, down to the clock set on the floor by his feet to help him keep his answers to two minutes, as required in the debate.
But Trump would not be wrangled. “They were saying this is practice for Sunday. This isn’t practice. This has nothing to do with Sunday,” Trump said as he opened the event, deriding the notion of “debate prep” as Christie looked on from the crowd.
Indeed, the event bore little resemblance to the upcoming showdown with Clinton. Only Trump supporters were invited to attend, and they were asked to submit questions in advance for screening. The moderator was Howie Carr, a Boston-based talk-radio host favorable to Trump. The candidate took 12 softly-lobbed questions and spoke for just 30 minutes, one-third the length scheduled for Sunday’s debate.
Again and again, Trump veered away from the relatively sharp pitch he made on the stump in Colorado. He ruminated at length about his “bum mic” in the first debate and speculated that someone backstage had been oscillating the volume of his microphone up and down. He read from a list of favorable polls and dramatically flung the piece of paper toward the press corps. On Hispanics, he said that on his recent trip to Las Vegas he learned that “they like to be called” Latinos there. He attacked two veteran journalists, John Harwood of CNBC and John King of CNN, as well as Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, an embattled Republican who is not supporting Trump.
It was not the disciplined town-hall routine some of his advisers had imagined. But at least he had done something, they figured, and there was more time to get Trump ready.
Ever the performer, Trump suggested he would smoothly adjust his persona before Sunday. Asked Wednesday by a reporter with NBC’s Las Vegas affiliate whether he was trying to tone down his incendiary comments about women, Trump replied, “It’s not a question of trying. It’s very easy.”
As for the candidate’s state of mind once the cameras were off, however, no one around him was quite sure what to say.
“You have to ask him that,” Giuliani said. “I’m not going to be a psychologist. I took one course, Psychology 101, and I got an ‘A.’ But I’m not going to go there.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Robert Costa, Philip Rucker