There are few moments in a presidential campaign when a candidate is given an unsolicited gift, a free chance to achieve a victory over his opponent and set the narrative of the race. Having the director of the FBI accuse your opponent of "careless" handling of classified material that came just shy of a criminal indictment is one of those moments.
Donald Trump seemed to recognize this windfall last week, raising questions about Hillary Clinton's honesty and truthworthiness in light of the FBI investigation into her use of a private email server. But in classic Trump fashion, he couldn't quite stay on message, and during a speech, he delivered a deranged defense of a six-pointed star tweet and insisted that Saddam Hussein was "so good" at fighting terrorists.
That Trump would botch such a clear opportunity to reverse his dismal fundraising and sinking poll numbers is remarkable, but also not surprising. In the two months since the real estate mogul effectively locked up the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign has shown a stunning penchant for self-sabotage, ricocheting between catastrophes of its own creation.
The brief moments in which Trump has appeared to have finally gotten his shit together—like the time he read an entire speech off a teleprompter, or his campaign's announcement last week that they had finally raised a little money—have been overshadowed by Trump's continuous descent into madness, devolving into a six-day scandal over the Star of David, or a week's worth of racist cable news rants about a Mexican American judge.
With just one week to go until the Republican National Convention, GOP leaders are understandably panicked at the prospect of hitching their wagon to the Trump Trainwreck. At this point, it's unclear whether the barebones team of relatives and Republican bagmen who make up the candidate's campaign team are unable or just unwilling to rein in the freewheeling populist at their helm. At the very least, both Trump and his campaign seem deeply confused by what they've gotten themselves into and what exactly they should do about it.
To get some insight into what might be going down in Trump Tower as the candidate prepares to head to the Republican National Convention, I called up Steve Schmidt, a veteran GOP operative who, as a senior advisor to John McCain's 2008 campaign during the heyday of Sarah Palin, knows better than most what it's like to deal with a reality-television populist as a candidate. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Let's get right to it: What the hell is going on inside the Trump campaign right now? Is it as bad as it seems?
Steve Schmidt: From the moment he secured the nomination, they have not had a good stretch. He's raised his unfavorables to record levels—demographically, his unfavorables are extraordinary. There are two finite commodities in a political campaign: time and money. The Trump campaign's not raising money, the donor base is unsettled, the campaign committees are behind where they should be on raising money from donors. So it's not good.
That being said, he is running against a really weak opponent who can't put him away. And his message in Pittsburgh, where he gave the teleprompter speech, that economic message is a potent message. And the message on Hillary Clinton, if he can get the beat on her—it's tough.
Do you think anyone on his campaign understands that, though? It seems everyone over there, including Trump, is confused by what they've gotten themselves into.
For sure. The Trump campaign doesn't do any of the things a normal campaign does. It's never going to do those things—it's just not. So most of that is outsourced. What the campaign needs to do is move the candidate from Point A to Point B, they need to do the rallies and control the communications space to keep him focused on three or four points with a unifying top thread.
The question is, is that enough? Is it a powerful enough message? It could be. It'll keep the race really close. But he's just not getting wheels up on doing that. It is moving in the right direction, on some level, just on the basis of him being able to deliver a couple of teleprompter speeches. He's going to have to communicate like that at the convention—he's got to have focus, he's got to have discipline. I think there is awareness inside of that campaign—they know this has not been a good stretch.
But doesn't the whole Star of David debacle suggest that just might not be possible? That his campaign is too incoherent and self-sabotaging to actually avoid these crises?
What the issue is that this is an important proof point in his eligibility and competence to be president: If his campaign is a circus, it really undermines his [claim] that he's going to put together the best team. If he's such a great dealmaker, and he can't get the deal done with the guys in his own party, then that narrative starts to soften.
With the Star of David story, there are two parts to it. The first part is, OK, [they're] going to do a "Crooked Hillary" and [they're] going to put up a six-pointed star. You can't fix stupid, in life, in a campaign. You have to have people with some level of judgment on this stuff. And so that's incredible.
Then, when it happened, the inability to move beyond it is remarkably. Particularly on a weekend where [Clinton] is being interviewed [by the FBI], and where the [news] is really just shattering, in terms of what [FBI director James] Comey said about [Clinton's emails]. You've just got to get out of your own way—and they've had a hard time with that for sure.
So why can't Trump fix it? Why does his campaign just keep fucking up like this?
Campaigns are complex organizations. Properly funded, you have campaigns approaching a billion dollars. They have large staffs. It's an enormous logistical enterprise: moving the candidate and the press via airplanes around the country, then with the running mate, across time zones; capitalizing the campaign from a donor prospective; spending and targeting ads, with hundreds of millions of dollars.
They [the Trump campaign], broadly speaking, don't have either the experience—people who have done this before and been successful at it—and they don't have the scale of personnel necessary to match the requirements of a traditional presidential campaign.
Then I guess the question is, is it possible that none of this matters? Trump has managed to defy all political logic so far.
I'm not sure that it has a long-term effect, providing that he has a good convention speech. None of this stuff now matters. What matters is that he's got to have a good [vice presidential] pick, and a good roll out of the pick. He's got to have a good convention—he's got to look like a plausible president of the United States. He's going to be talking to the largest audience that he will have in the entirety of the campaign. So the question isn't is the campaign going to stop doing stupid shit. The answer to that is no. The question is does it matter, if he performs in the center ring where he has to perform.
If you're looking at his campaign and its ability to win, the fact that [Clinton] can't put him away, despite the last six weeks, means yeah, anything can happen in the general election. But the notion that you don't have to advertise, you don't have to target, you don't have to communicate a message, you don't have to make the race about three or four things—all of those are fundamental elements about a presidential campaign. And I don't think that is right.
You probably know better than most what it's like to work with a candidate as culturally divisive, and as unprepared, as Trump. Are there any takeaways '08 that you think are relevant in understanding the current political moment?
Look, Sarah Palin didn't invent American populism, the populism that is driving this campaign. But she did become a cultural lightening rod. She was perceived so profoundly differently by the elites of the country than she was by the general electorate of the Republican Party from states on the East and West Coasts. She gave voice to a lot of grievance in the country. But she wasn't good enough to take it beyond the reality show level; she didn't have the skill set that Trump has. The difference with Trump is that he is a much bigger, better performer, so he's able to grow that space.
Part of the Trump phenomenon is that we've arrived at this moment in time of a systematic failure of the Republican Party; we've lived through an era of fraud that is really unprecedented in this country, going back to Enron and WorldCom and sports and the Catholic Church and on and on and on. All of those things created an atmosphere in which Trump could rise.
We're just a week out from the Republican National Convention—what happens next?
I don't have any expectations. On any given day, who knows? Who knows what this convention will be like? It could be great. It could be a disaster for the ages. It could be a freak show for all time. This is a guy who gave a victory speech was surrounded by Trump steaks and waters. No one knows! No one knows….
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