Donald Trump insists his racist attacks on prominent people of color, like his recent, concerted campaign against Rep. Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore, are not part of a larger plan. "There's no strategy," Trump said last week in one of his White House driveway briefings. "I have no strategy. There's zero strategy."
There is longstanding debate about whether Trump is playing a complex version of chess, or driven by gut impulse; either option, thinker or poll-eschewing populist, depicts him in terms he and his staffers might find satisfying. But reporting for the oral history book I co-authored with Aaron Short covering Trump from 1999-2015, The Method to the Madness: Donald Trump's Ascent as Told by Those Who Were Hired, Fired, Inspired – and Inaugurated, suggests a third option: Trump is often executing plays written by ordinary Republican political operatives, and has been doing so competently for longer than either those who prefer to think of him as a genius or those who think of him as simply senile might like to admit.
Evidence? Here's a hard piece of it I dug up in working on the book, courtesy of Doug Davenport, a man never officially hired but who said he was commissioned by Trump to write a strategy memo in 2014 for a potential presidential run. Davenport is a Republican D.C. operative who cut his teeth in politics working for Paul Manafort's lobbying firm; his memo, dated August 6, 2014, has never before been made public, though we did allude to its existence and quote from it in the book.
Some parts of the memo sure sound strategic, and align more or less with the approach Trump actually took. "You won't be campaigning one-on-one at Pizza Ranches or at town halls that have a handful of seniors in attendance, rather you will pack auditoriums with enthusiasts and the curious who will witness not a speech but a production about American greatness capped with a message of Leadership from Donald Trump," it reads.
"A long and extracted Presidential Nomination Process is risky to both to the [sic] Trump political brand and the Trump business brand. But the upside is huge," it continues. "The time is now—if you are serious about this—it is your last window to do it. BUT, you must have the right messages, the right team around you and align yourself with the right players overall. AND, you must show people you are deadly serious and focused on this race and it is by no means some grand media stunt."
How do we know Trump actually read Davenport's strategy memo and what he thought about it? A note apparently handwritten by Trump on a print-out of an email from campaign aide Sam Nunberg that had the memo attached: "Sam-, I like Doug- His memo to me was great- Please set up another meeting- Thanks," it reads.
Requests for comment for this story from the White House had not been returned at the time of publication. Contacted for this story, Davenport replied briefly in a text that he agreed Trump saying he had no strategy was in fact part of the president's strategy. He did not reply to a specific question about how race factored into that strategy.
In the book, Davenport said he first met Trump via an introduction by Trump's longtime political confidant and former Nixon aide Roger Stone. He was also in serious consideration to be Trump's campaign manager, Nunberg said. Stone was pushing for him, but Davenport was not sure he wanted to spend time away from family, and conservative activist and alleged scammer David Bossie convinced Trump to go with Corey Lewandowski, according to Steve Bannon. Davenport worked for Trump at the 2016 GOP convention helping manage delegates. He is now part of the lobbying firm Black Diamond Strategies, with former U.S. Congressman Connie Mack, and consultant Rick Wiley, who managed Gov. Scott Walker's 2016 presidential campaign.
Not everything in Davenport's memo became part of Trump’s 2016 run, and the document doesn't include an explicit admonition to go after popular people of color like Colin Kaepernick or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But Trump's written embrace of this kind of planning certainly shows he's not above playing the long game.
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