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A Changing of the Guard at the Trump Campaign

Trump’s new campaign manager Bill Stepien is a cold-blooded professional—but with Bridgegate roots.

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. - Hundreds of supporters lined up early for Donald Trump's first political rally in months, saying the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a big, packed arena would not keep them from hearing the president's campaign message. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) / ALTERNATE CROP (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

A brash, New York-area figure may soon make a Republican run for president. 

He has a past record as a liberal on social issues, but it seems plausible that a smack-talking, self-assured pol could match the moment: the party needs a fighter. Recovering from an economic near-depression, the character’s righteous indignation will serve as a substitute for fire and brimstone politics in the classic sense—all while keeping in lockstep with a frustrated business wing wary of national decline.

Perhaps reading the room, he has briskly abandoned earlier musings about moderation on immigration. And he’s politically inexperienced, but so is the incumbent president. This candidate can’t be laughed off: he draws crowds and he pitilessly dispatches with most foes—in moments that soon after go viral. Charisma would seem more important than conservatism. This could work. It’s an uncertain time nine years ago. “I would say he’s the only Republican who could win,” his biggest fan, conservative columnist Ann Coulter, tells Fox News. The man is a tormenter of Mitt Romney, the putative party standard-bearer.

The similarities between Chris Christie, once the governor of New Jersey, and Donald Trump are perhaps obvious and yet often unremarked upon. The duo is made up of two old friends, but in a cold twist of fate, it would end up being Trump who would pick up the mantle of crusading political outsider—not the career politician Christie. After Romney failed to win the presidency in 2012 and Christie’s second term as governor became embroiled in scandal, Christie’s own bid in 2016 was an anticlimactic disaster. When Christie became the first major former presidential candidate to join ranks with Trump in February 2016, many in the GOP cognoscenti were sincerely shocked (I remember my editor at the time viewed him as Judas Iscariot). But that shouldn’t have been. It was vintage Christie, nearly netting him the vice presidency before losing out to Mike Pence. 

In retrospect, many were left to conclude that Christie’s best shot at the top had been four years prior. After 2012, Christie’s political viability (including a rapturous re-election in a blue state) was all too clear to his enemies, and he became a target. The perils of governing a famously corrupt state such as New Jersey eventually caught up to him. And the nightly, breathless coverage of “Bridgegate” (ground zero: MSNBC) was a precursor to “Russiagate” years later. Trump, on the other hand, also passed on 2012, but harvested gold in 2016.

Few know this history better than Bill Stepien, 42, now Trump’s campaign manager. Stepien was the architect of Christie’s 2009 and 2013 juggernaut runs for governor. But in 2014, at the height of Bridgegate, Christie dispensed with his then-deputy chief of staff, saying he’d lost confidence in his former disciple. “I was disturbed by the tone, and behavior, and attitude—callous indifference—that was displayed… by my former campaign manager Bill Stepien,” Christie said at the time. If you told Mr. Stepien—who amidst the brouhaha had to retain counsel and was thwarted from his ambition to serve as state party chair—that just years later, he would serve as the president of the United States’ political director and then after his campaign manager, he would probably have remarked that you were crazier than his old boss. But that’s just what went down. 

Trump last week technically demoted Brad Parscale—his longest-serving campaign manager. Parscale is now the political equivalent of a white dwarf (to look at him, something he’s never been called before) in Trumpworld, burnt out after an explosive crash and the president’s tumble in the polls. “He does not like Brad,” an advisor to the president told CNN. “It’s very clear that when Brad offers a position, Trump decides to be against it.” In contrast to Parscale, the hype machine for his replacement Stepien is just getting revved up. “Bill is the most talented political operative in America,” Congressional candidate Matt Mowers, a former Christie aide in better official standing with the former governor, also told CNN. “He understands political operations, he understands field [operations], he understands turnout and metrics in a way that’s unparalleled.”

As it turns out, Christie’s distancing from his ex-aide ended up being the best thing that ever happened to Stepien. Christie, of course, is the subject of a blood feud led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, senior counselor to the president and the campaign’s de facto chief strategist. Christie, as U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, helped put Charles Kushner—Jared Kushner’s father—in prison, in a sordid case of financial fraud and familial breakdown. Stepien was recruited by Kushner into Trump’s orbit in 2016 when the New York mogul clinched the Republican nomination. And Kushner eventually excised Christie from Trump’s inner circle, helping deny him the vice presidential slot and then having him fired as the head of Trump’s transition days after his shock victory. Other Kushner rivals, such as Steve Bannon, were later shown the door, as well. 

When reports of Parscale’s punishment first surfaced, frenzied speculation broke out that this represented, at last, a defenestration of Kushner, whose corporate politics have frustrated true believers in the president’s base. But it was no such thing. Stepien, like most who wield power in the president’s court, is a confirmed Kushner loyalist. But the Parscale-to-Stepien shift does represent a meaningful transition. In Mr. Stepien, President Trump has selected a more traditional guru—a Republican who knows the blocking and tackling of major campaigns. With the Christie precedent, he has a record of winning uphill campaigns and running up the score even when certain of victory. 

The demotion of Parscale, Trump’s longtime digital pointman, is a further debunking of the theory that technical trickery alone—so-called “meme magic” (or see the frenzied fanfiction around Cambridge Analytica)—installed Trump in the White House. A Republican campaign official told me the maneuver was probably “too late, but a good move.” In Stepien, Trump is staking out a belief in the kind of figure he’s always distrusted—a Republican company man—as his campaign tries to recover against a Democratic company man, Joe Biden. For the president, the question is whether he’s waited too long to pivot. For Mr. Stepien, the question is if his ticket back to power is a poison chalice. Perhaps what this campaign team now has going for them most is that few believe in them.

We’ve seen that show before.  

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the 2020 campaign and the Trump presidency. Previously, he reported for The National Interest, Washington Examiner, U.S. News & World Report and the Spectator. Mills was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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