Trump brings back 2016 veterans as his campaign makes aggressive turn


By Ryan Nobles, Vicky Ward and Michael Warren

As President Donald Trump struggles with sagging poll numbers and faces a chaotic news cycle, his reelection campaign is going back to the well of players who shaped his successful 2016 bid.

In the last week, Trump’s campaign has hired two veterans from his first White House run, Jason Miller and Boris Epshteyn, to senior advisory roles — moves that people familiar with the decisions say are part of an effort driven by the President himself for his team to push back more combatively at Democrats and their presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. According to two people with knowledge of their conversation, Trump encouraged Miller to “maximize the killers” who could reinvigorate the campaign.

“We are going to get much more aggressive,” said one senior campaign official.

Miller and Epshteyn are just two examples of how the President is increasingly relying on the group of people who helped him win the White House four years ago. Hope Hicks, one of the original Trump campaign aides, came back to the White House in March after leaving the West Wing in 2018. The President’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, still meets with and talks to Trump on a regular basis while serving as an unpaid senior adviser to the campaign. And David Bossie, who runs an unaffiliated PAC and is close with Lewandowski, is also regularly called upon for counsel. Last week, Trump also appointed Lewandowski and Bossie to the Commission on Presidential Scholars, which advises the Department of Education program.

The campaign insists the moves are not a shakeup. Campaign manager Brad Parscale, who ran the campaign’s digital operation in 2016 but now runs all of the day-to-day operations, remains in charge. A senior campaign official said these new hires are in part designed to support Parscale as he manages the home stretch of the campaign.

But the hires also reflect how Trump often seeks familiarity and affirmation when facing difficulties — and the last three months have produced a steady stream of challenges for the President. A June CNN poll of registered voters nationally finds Trump trailing Biden by 14 points, the worst in a series of recent polls that have the former vice president ahead, sometimes with a majority of support. There have been nearly 2 million cases and over 111,000 deaths in the US from coronavirus, while protesters continue to march in streets across the country in response to George Floyd’s death.

“When a campaign starts to struggle, it’s normal for a candidate to look for an outside set of eyes to come in and provide a fresh perspective or provide a new direction to the campaign,” said Kevin Madden, a former presidential campaign adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “That’s what the President is doing here. He wants his old crew of true loyalists who were there for his 2016 win.”

The slate of returning advisers suggests Trump intends to double down on the approach that won him both the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016: bruising your opponent while defending yourself as aggressively as possible.

Both of his most recent hires join the campaign from positions as unofficial surrogates on alternative outlets to the mainstream media. Miller, a veteran Republican consultant who was senior communications adviser for Trump’s campaign in 2016, had for months co-hosted the War Room podcast with former White House and Trump campaign official Steve Bannon to defend the President during the impeachment inquiry. And following a short stint in the White House in 2017, Epshteyn delivered on-camera pro-Trump commentary on the Sinclair Broadcasting network of local television news stations.

The President has been looking not just to get the 2016 band back together but to start a comeback tour. In recent weeks, aides have told CNN, the President has been anxious about quickly resuming his in-person campaign rallies, which have been non-existent since the brunt of the pandemic began. The Trump team has been laying the groundwork to relaunch rallies in July but had sped up the timeline in part because of the overwhelming protests in support of Floyd and police reforms.

The rallies will not just give the President the chance to direct the news cycle back to himself but to fully train his rhetorical fire on Biden, who had not yet clinched the Democratic nomination when social distancing became the nationwide norm. While Trump and his team are anxious to unload on Biden, officials say they recognize that the overwhelming barrage of news has made the race much more about the President than his opponent. Still, they believe that there is plenty of time for the narrative to change.

“It’s all about Trump,” the senior official said. “The general populace has forgotten Joe Biden even exists.”

Trump’s campaign argues that once protests subside and as the country re-opens, Biden’s role in the race will become much more important and they will be able to draw a clearer contrast.

“It will be quite a contrast between the two,” said Tim Murtaugh, campaign communications director, “When we start our rallies and you see the crowds it will be clear that there is a stark enthusiasm gap between Biden and the President.”

CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.