Inside Donald Trump’s Last Stand: An Anxious Nominee Seeks Assurance



Donald J. Trump is not sleeping much these days.

Aboard his gold-plated jumbo jet, the Republican nominee does not like to rest or be alone with his thoughts, insisting that aides stay up and keep talking to him. He prefers the soothing, whispery voice of his son-in-law.

He requires constant assurance that his candidacy is on track. “Look at that crowd!” he exclaimed a few days ago as he flew across Florida, turning to his young press secretary as a TV tuned to Fox News showed images of what he claimed were thousands of people waiting for him on the ground below.

And he is struggling to suppress his bottomless need for attention. As he stood next to the breakfast buffet at his golf club in Doral, Fla., eyeing a tray of pork sausages, he sought to convey restraint when approached by a reporter for The New York Times.

“I’m on message,” Mr. Trump asserted, with effort. “I’m not playing around. In fact, I’m a little nervous standing here talking to you even for just a minute.”

But moments later, his resolve had collapsed. He allowed the same reporter onto his plane for a flight from Miami to Jacksonville, Fla.

In the final days of the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s candidacy is a jarring split screen: the choreographed show of calm and confidence orchestrated by his staff, and the neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.

On the surface, there is the semblance of stability that is robbing Hillary Clinton of her most potent weapon: Mr. Trump’s self-sabotaging eruptions, which have repeatedly undermined his candidacy. Underneath that veneer, turbulence still reigns, making it difficult for him to overcome all of the obstacles blocking his path to the White House.

The contrasts pervade his campaign. Aides to Mr. Trump have finally wrested away the Twitter account that he used to colorfully — and often counterproductively — savage his rivals. But offline, Mr. Trump still privately muses about all the ways he will punish his enemies after Election Day, including a threat to fund a “super PAC” with vengeance as its core mission.

His polished older daughter, Ivanka, sat for a commercial intended to appeal to suburban women who have recoiled from her father’s incendiary language. But she discouraged the campaign from promoting the ad in news releases, fearing that her high-profile association with the campaign would damage the businesses that bear her name.

Mr. Trump’s campaign is no longer making headlines with embarrassing staff shake-ups. But that has left him with a band of squabbling and unfireable advisers, with confusing roles and an inability to sign off on basic tasks. A plan to encourage early voting in Florida went unapproved for weeks.

The result is chaotic. Advisers cut loose from the campaign months ago, like Corey Lewandowski, still talk to the candidate frequently, offering advice that sometimes clashes with that of the current leadership team. Mr. Trump, who does not use a computer, rails against the campaign’s expenditure of tens of millions on digital ads, skeptical that spots he never sees could have any effect.

Not even staff members who volunteer to be dismissed are let go. The senior communications adviser, Jason Miller, offered to resign after he was spotted at a Las Vegas strip club the night before the final presidential debate. The offer was rejected.

This inside account of the Trump campaign’s final stretch is based on interviews with dozens of aides, operatives, supporters and advisers, many of whom were granted anonymity to describe moments and conversations that were intended to be confidential.

Hope Hicks, Mr. Trump’s spokeswoman, said the campaign was on course and gaining ground. She firmly rejected suggestions that advisers were clashing, and said voters were responding to Mr. Trump’s message.

Ms. Hicks denied that Ms. Trump had misgivings about promoting the ad in which she appeared. “That’s simply not true,” Ms. Hicks said. “Ivanka is totally supportive.”

Falling Into Despair

The closing phase of Mr. Trump’s campaign has been punctuated by swaying poll numbers and dizzying mood swings. It started on Oct. 7 with the release of a recording in which Mr. Trump was caught bragging about forcibly kissing women and grabbing their genitals.

Many Republicans decided that Mr. Trump’s already shaky campaign was over. Some despondent young staff members at the Republican National Committee on Capitol Hill, who usually work late into the night in the final stretches of a campaign, took to leaving their desks early, in time for happy hour at bars. They complained that Mr. Trump had not just lost the election but was dragging down House and Senate candidates, dooming the entire party.

Mr. Trump’s aides were just as thrown by the tape. But they saw a chance to salvage his candidacy — on a Civil War battlefield.

His aides outlined 15 bullet points for him to deliver during an Oct. 22 speech in Gettysburg, Pa., to focus voters on a new theme of cleaning up government, even as several women came forward to accuse him of groping them just as he had described in the recording.

But Mr. Trump grew frustrated with the instructions. By the time he was done revising the proposed speech, only about a half-dozen of the original suggestions remained. And over the firm objections of his top advisers, he insisted on using the occasion to issue a remarkable threat: that he would sue all of the women who had gone public with the accusations.

As the advisers begged him to reconsider — it would make him seem small, they warned, and undermine a pivotal speech — Mr. Trump was adamant. There had to be a severe penalty for those who dared to attack him, he said. He could not just sit back and let these women “come at me,” he told one of them.

The speech was roundly criticized and seemed strikingly out of place on such sacred and historic ground. “The Grievanceburg Address,” one journalist deemed it.

Mr. Trump fell into despair, and the gloom already enveloping the Republican political class started to infect his campaign.

On Oct. 23, he learned that an ABC News poll showed him trailing Mrs. Clinton by 12 points. He lashed out, becoming so agitated that his aides planned to confront the network about its calculations and accuse ABC of bias, according to internal emails.

“Do they think Republicans and Trump supporters are not going to vote?” one of Mr. Trump’s pollsters, John McLaughlin, wrote to the group. “Or is this an intentional effort to suppress Trump turnout?”

They pressed the network on its methods, but other polls delivered similarly grim news.

An Injection of Hope

Then came an astonishing development. On Oct. 28, the director of the F.B.I., James B. Comey, announced that his agency would review newly discovered emails potentially pertinent to its investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s private server.

On an afternoon flight to New Hampshire, Mr. Trump and his aides saw the news splash across the giant flat-screen television on his plane.

Mr. Trump was unsure how to respond.

“What do you think this means?” he asked the small circle traveling with him — Stephen K. Bannon, his campaign’s chief executive; Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser; and Mr. Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, who lives in New Hampshire.

To the assembled men sitting in white leather seats, the answer was simple: It could turn the election around.

But they insisted that to truly exploit it, Mr. Trump needed to do something he had been incapable of in the past: strictly follow instructions, let a story unfold on its own and resist the urge to endlessly bludgeon his rival.

They headed to a fleet of cars that whisked them to the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, where a crowd of thousands was waiting for the candidate to take the stage.

But his aides needed time to sketch out what Mr. Trump should say — and not say. They sent Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, onstage with a mission: stall.

As the aides agonized over which words to feed into the teleprompter, they become so engrossed that a hot light set up next to the machine caused Mr. Bannon’s Kuhl hiking pants to begin smoldering.

“I think my pant leg is on fire,” he said after noticing the acrid smell.

At the rally, Mr. Trump did as he was told, quickly praising the F.B.I. and warning that Mrs. Clinton could not be permitted to “take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Then, improbably, he moved on.

For the next week, his staff deployed a series of creative tricks to protect its boss from his most self-destructive impulses.

Several advisers warned him that he risked becoming like a wild animal chasing its prey so zealously that it raced over a cliff — a reminder that he could pursue his grievances and his eagerness to fling insults, but that the cost would be a plunge into an electoral abyss.

Taking away Twitter turned out to be an essential move by his press team, which deprived him of a previously unfiltered channel for his aggressions.

On Thursday, as his plane idled on the tarmac in Miami, Mr. Trump spotted Air Force One outside his window. As he glowered at the larger plane, he told Ms. Hicks, his spokeswoman, to jot down a proposed tweet about President Obama, who was campaigning nearby for Mrs. Clinton.

“Why is he campaigning instead of creating jobs and fixing Obamacare?” Mr. Trump said. “Get back to work.” After some light editing — Ms. Hicks added “for the American people” at the end — she published it.

Mr. Bannon, his rumpled campaign chief and a calming presence to the candidate, tried a different approach: appealing to Mr. Trump’s ego and competitive side by suggesting that the Clintons were looking to rattle him.

“They want to get inside your head,” Mr. Bannon told him. “It’s a trap.”

Of course, it was not easy to keep Mr. Trump focused. He chafed at his advisers’ request that he use a seemingly canned line in a speech — a call to curb government corruption by “draining the swamp” in Washington.

But he finally gave in when he saw the crowd reaction, explaining that even Frank Sinatra disliked one of his biggest songs, “My Way.”

‘I’m Going to Win’

Mr. Trump still clings to certain prerogatives, such as personally approving every commercial before it reaches a TV screen. During a recent four-hour flight, Mr. Trump painstakingly reviewed a new batch of ads on an aide’s laptop and seized on the smallest details.

He objected to a short clip in one ad that showed him emerging from a hug with a female supporter, worrying that it made him seem dismissive rather than warm.

“It looks like I’m repelling away,” Mr. Trump complained. The ad was fixed.

Over all, though, he seemed pleased by the results, as polls started to tighten and his news media coverage changed. Aboard his plane on Thursday, he seemed struck by an unfamiliar trend: News stories emphasized the intended message of his campaign rallies, not his improvised rants or stray tweets.

“All my quotes are coming from my speeches,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

Of course, a few days of good behavior cannot erase 16 months of erratic conduct, and aides acknowledge that their efforts to steer a straight course may falter.

Top of Form

And they know that his chances of winning the election are iffy: Perhaps their best hope, the F.B.I. inquiry into Mrs. Clinton’s email server, fizzled on Sunday with no charges or revelations. But they maintain that there is unseen money and muscle behind Mr. Trump’s political operation — and a level of sophistication that outsiders, and people who have run traditional campaigns, cannot fully appreciate.

At times, however, that is hard to detect. Over a cheeseburger, fried calamari and an “Ivanka Salad” at the Trump Grill in the basement of Trump Tower last week, several aides flipped open a laptop and loaded the popular website, which allows users to create their own winning electoral maps.

For 10 minutes, they clicked through the country, putting Democratic-leaning states won by Mr. Obama four years ago, like New Mexico and Colorado, into Mr. Trump’s column.

Their analysis seemed more atmospheric than scientific.

“You can go to Pennsylvania,” the campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, said, referring to a state that polls show favors Mrs. Clinton. “You can almost slice the excitement with a knife. You can feel it in the air there.”

And even as early-voting returns indicated a surge for Mrs. Clinton, they tried to reassure themselves, over and over, that nobody finishes stronger than Mr. Trump, comparing the wisdom of his political judgments to Babe Ruth pointing his bat to the stands to predict where he would hit a home run.

Back on his plane, heading into the campaign’s final weekend, Mr. Trump reclined in his leather chair and refused to entertain any suggestions that his unorthodox, unpredictable and now uncertain campaign for the presidency would end in defeat.

“I’m going to win,” he said.



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