A top staffer to Donald Trump suggested in a closed-door meeting with members of the Republican National Committee on Thursday that the GOP frontrunner has adopted a "persona" to attract voters.
Paul Manafort, Trump's recently hired chief strategist, told RNC members on Thursday that the Trump who conducts business deals and outlines political strategy behind closed doors is very different from the one who has dominated the 2016 campaign using incendiary, divisive, and occasionally racist and chauvinistic rhetoric. Manafort's comments were made in a private meeting, a recording of which was leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post.
"Trump is an outsider, that's why maybe you don't know, but he's sitting in a room talking business and when he's talking politics in a private room, it's a different persona," Manafort said. "When he's out on the stage and he's talking about the kinds of things he's talking about on the stump, he's projecting an image that's for that purpose."
Manafort suggested that those two Trumps will merge "in the course of the next several months," as he works to lock up the Republican nomination before the party's convention in July and begins to focus on the November election.
Manafort said that the biggest message Trump hoped to impart to the party's top leadership at the RNC's three-day spring meeting in Hollywood, Florida, is that the frontrunner's critiques of the party and the campaign trail remarks that he's made that have hurt him — and potentially the GOP — with women voters and minorities were all a sort of play-acting that helped him to win primaries. But that will soon change.
"He gets it and the part that he's been playing is evolving into the part that you've been expecting," Manafort told RNC members Thursday. "But he wasn't ready [to play that part] because he had to first complete the first stage. The negatives are going to come down, the image is going to change, but [Hillary] Clinton is still going to be Crooked Hillary."
Manafort said that while Trump still has high negatives among many voters, particularly women even within the Republican Party, he believes they are changeable. Manafort compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, who also had high negatives and a big gender gap at this point in the presidential race in 1980 (though as the Post noted, Reagan's negatives were never this high).
Clinton also has high negatives, Manafort said, but he believes the two are different. Trump's problems with some voters are issues of personality, he argued, while Clinton's are about character. The former are much easier to fix than the latter, he said.
"People don't trust her, they don't like, they think she's a liar, they think she does things only for her interest, the Clinton corporation — all the issues go to character. Trump's negatives are negatives that deal only with his personality. People don't know what to make of him — some of the stump speeches he's given, some of the style he has, some of the ways in which he's presented the issues — but it's his personality that people have trouble with… You can't change somebody's character, but you can change the way a person presents himself," he said.
Trump will begin that process next week, Manafort said, with a speech on his foreign policy plans in Washington on Wednesday. That address will be followed by other formal speeches from the candidate that will work to address concerns about his personality and close the gender gap, among other issues, he added.
Senator Ted Cruz, Trump's biggest rival for the nomination, jumped on Manafort's comments in an appearance on Mark Levin's radio show Thursday.
"Donald is a New York liberal who is pretending to be a conservative, to try to fool Republican primary voters," Cruz said. "And, you know, the amazing thing Mark, all of us are frustrated with politicians lying to us. I'm actually going to give Trump a little bit of credit here. He's being candid. He's telling us he's lying to us."
Cruz was mathematically precluded from the winning the nomination before the convention after Trump (and Ohio Governor John Kasich) handily defeated him in New York on Tuesday,
Manafort, in a style that could have been pulled straight from Trump's The Art of the Deal, reassured RNC members during his presentation on Thursday that his candidate will work hard not only to get himself elected, but to help Republicans maintain control of Congress and win a slate of governors races and downballot seats in 2016 as well.
Now, the Trump campaign is offering its own help to party members, who it will rely upon to avoid a contested convention — a scenario that Trump would likely lose.
Manafort said Thursday that the campaign was ready to start creating state-by-state plans with local party leaders for the general election, emphasizing both that the campaign would allow state leaders to dictate strategy based on their own "local knowledge" and that Trump could, in turn, help them to bring in non-traditional voters using "the unique magic of Trump".
There is one catch, however. Manafort said that the campaign would like to complete these state plans before the convention begins in Cleveland on July 18, giving state leaders some buy-in to a Trump nomination.
"We don't want to begin Cleveland fighting for a nomination that's already decided," Manafort said. "Ted Cruz said something about a week ago that I totally agree with, a fractured convention is [the] destruction of the Republican Party. We don't want a fractured convention. We want to put this thing to bed early."
Manafort, who was accompanied by Rick Wiley, another longtime political operative recently hired to the Trump campaign, said that Trump had given them essentially carte blanche to ensure that he would be solid enough in terms of delegates and the popular vote heading into Cleveland so that RNC members "can feel comfortable that he is going to be the nominee."
Once they get to Cleveland, he argued, Republicans will want television networks broadcasting "our message, our leaders, and our vision for America — not people fighting over who's delegate is who's, the rules of the convention and things like that."
"You all have a vested interest in it. Donald Trump has a vested interest in it. And hopefully, working together over the next month, those interests are going to converge together," he said.
Hiring Manafort and Wiley this month, alone, is a shift in strategy and seriousness for Trump. The frontrunner had previously relied on a team of close aides with little political experience like himself. But Trump has since demoted campaign manger Corey Lewandowski, who recently avoided charges over allegedly grabbing a reporter, and brought on two long-time campaign veterans with strong ties to the RNC and the very political establishment Trump has so long railed against.
Part of that shift, Manafort explained to RNC members, is a simple realization that even though Trump was winning state primaries and caucuses, his campaign had not laid down the groundwork to win delegates, the only real measure of victory that will matter at the convention. That, too, is now changing.
Manafort repeatedly praised RNC members as campaign experts, while highlighting Trump's role as a political neophyte. The two groups will need to work closely together to elect more Republicans in this election cycle, Manafort emphasized, and despite Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail, he's ready to do that.
Trump's issues with the RNC, which he has repeatedly criticized in stump speeches and on television, actually has little to do with the party itself, Manafort argued, it's a "transparency issue where the voters are voting for something and the rules are providing something else regarding the selection of delegates."
Manafort emphasized that Trump "is not trying to change the rules… he is winning," but said that the frontrunner is raising these issues at a time when party operatives, too, are recognizing "some of the disconnects between what the voters are saying and what the system is producing."
In other words, whatever Trump was saying to voters and the public wasn't what he meant for the RNC to hear.
Follow Sarah Mimms on Twitter: @SarahMMimms