NEW YORK — Donald Trump abruptly fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on Monday in a dramatic shake-up designed to calm panicked Republican leaders and end an internal power struggle plaguing the billionaire businessman’s unconventional White House bid.
In dismissing his longtime campaign chief — just a month before the party’s national convention — Trump signaled, at least for a day, a departure from the seat-of-the-pants style that has fueled his unlikely rise in Republican politics. Perhaps more than anyone else in Trump’s inner circle, the ousted aide has preached a simple mantra: “Let Trump be Trump.”
“I have no regrets,” Lewandowski told CNN just hours after he was escorted out of Trump’s Manhattan campaign headquarters. Still, the former conservative activist seemed to acknowledge the limitations of his approach, which has sparked widespread concern among the GOP’s top donors, operatives, elected officials, and even some of Trump’s family members.
“The campaign needs to continue to grow to be successful,” he said.
Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, described Lewandowski as a “good man” who helped “a small, beautiful, well-unified campaign” during the primary season.
“I think it’s time now for a different kind of a campaign,” Trump said on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”
People close to Trump, including adult children Ivanka, Eric and Donald Jr., had long-simmering concerns about Lewandowski, who had limited experience on the national scale before becoming Trump’s campaign leader. Like many Republican officials, Trump’s family urged the billionaire businessman to professionalize a bare-bones campaign that had previously resisted adding staff and paid advertising heading into the general election.
A person close to Trump said Lewandowski was forced out largely because of the campaign’s worsening relationship with the Republican National Committee, donors and GOP officials, who have increasingly criticized the candidate’s message and campaign infrastructure in recent weeks. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
While Trump dismissed his critics publicly, he has been privately concerned that so many party leaders — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell among them — have been reluctant to support him, the person said. Trump at least partially blamed Lewandowski.
Yet in his response Monday evening, Trump left little indication that he was prepared to abandon his divisive rhetoric.
He repeatedly called Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” in the Fox interview. He also said “facts” suggest President Barack Obama sympathizes with Muslim terrorists.
“Firing your campaign manager in June is never a good thing,” said veteran Republican operative Kevin Madden. “The campaign will have to show dramatic changes immediately on everything from fundraising and organizing to candidate performance and discipline in order to demonstrate there’s been a course correction. Otherwise it’s just cosmetics.”
Lewandowski’s chief internal rival, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, largely inherits the campaign reins. The political veteran has long advocated a more scripted approach backed by a larger and more professional campaign apparatus, although Trump has shown little willingness to embrace a wholesale change in his approach.
Lewandowski, speaking to The Associated Press, noted that Manafort actually has been in charge of major campaign functions, including media strategy and Washington outreach, for months.
“Paul Manafort has been in operational control of the campaign since April 7. That’s a fact,” Lewandowski said.
Lewandowski has long been a controversial figure in Trump’s campaign, but he benefited from his proximity to the presumptive Republican nominee. Often mistaken for a member of the candidate’s security team, he traveled with Trump on his private plane to nearly every campaign stop.
His aggressive approach produced internal enemies.
Just minutes after his departure was announced, Trump adviser Michael Caputo tweeted, “Ding dong the witch is dead!” and included a link to the song from the film, “The Wizard of Oz.”
A few hours later, Caputo was gone, too. The aide was to have served as Trump’s director of communications at next month’s convention, but Hicks confirmed late in the day that he was no longer with the campaign.
The public airing of internal campaign turmoil comes as Democrats rally behind their presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton. The former secretary of state has already assembled a national campaign with hundreds of paid staffers backed by millions of dollars in battleground-state television advertising. Trump has roughly 30 paid employees working in key states and isn’t spending anything so far on television advertising.
The shakeup came a day before Trump was to attend a major New York City fundraiser, organized by longtime GOP financier Woody Johnson, the owner of the New York Jets.
Fundraisers have encountered turbulence between worried donors and a campaign manager who did not seem fully onboard with the idea that Trump and the party needed to buckle down and raise the money needed to build a robust general election operation.
Trump publicly backed Lewandowski last spring when he was charged with misdemeanor battery after an altercation involving a female reporter during a campaign rally. The charges were later dropped.
Yet, under the weight of dismal poll numbers, many of Trump’s supporters recognized a need to make a change.
“It’s got to become much more disciplined and much more focused and much more organized and have a bigger structure,” said Stephen Stepanek, Trump’s New Hampshire co-chair. “I think the campaign, for lack of a better word, outgrew Corey.”
Associated Press reporters Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples wrote this report. AP writers Jonathan Lemire in New York, Julie Bykowicz in Washington and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.