Oct 16, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Trump's advisers brace for loss, point fingers

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien stands behind President Trump listening to him talk on Air Force One

Stepien stands behind Trump on Air Force One Aug. 28. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Three senior Trump advisers who recently talked to campaign manager Bill Stepien walked away believing he thinks they will lose.

The big picture: The Trump campaign is filled with internal blaming and pre-spinning of a potential loss, accelerating a dire mood that's driven by a daily barrage of bleak headlines, campaign and White House officials tell me.

  • "A lot of this is the president himself," one adviser said. "You can't heal a patient who doesn't want to take the diagnosis."

Behind the scenes: In weekly pep talks, Stepien tells staff members why they shouldn't pay attention to the perennially horrible public polls — and how they can "win the week" and the campaign.

  • But in other private conversations, described by multiple sources, Stepien can seem darkly pessimistic. He likens the campaign to an airplane flying through turbulence, saying: "It's our job to safely land the plane."
  • Three sources who have heard Stepien use variations of the airplane analogy say they sensed he was deeply, perhaps irretrievably pessimistic about the state of the race.
  • "It's not a great feeling when you get the sense the campaign manager doesn't deep down think we're going to win," one campaign source said.

Stepien pushed back strongly on that, telling me on Friday morning: "With each day closer to November 3, our campaign data presents a clear pathway to 270 for the President that provides me more confidence than ever in President Trump's re-election."

  • "Our campaign knows how President Trump was elected in 2016 and more importantly, we know exactly how he's going to do it again," Stepien added.

Why it matters: Trump can still win. But make no mistake: Even his most loyal supporters, including those paid to believe, keep telling us he's toast — and could bring Republican control of the Senate down with him.

Between the lines: Stepien's critics say he is in CYA mode, refusing to make tough decisions that might incur Trump's wrath while setting up excuses for what polls suggest could be a shellacking by Joe Biden.

  • But Stepien's defenders tell me the campaign sees several remaining paths to victory, and note that it's hardly his fault when the president insists on actions like taking a joyride with the Secret Service while infected by COVID-19.
  • They added that it's also hardly Stepien's fault that Trump continues to attack his public health officials and present views that are out of step with public opinion — such as his denigration of the basic safety act of wearing a mask.
  • He's also dealing with a money shortage, driven by heavy early spending by his predecessor, Brad Parscale, who was demoted this summer.

Several campaign officials say they don't have a clear sense what Stepien's strategy is to get to 270 electoral votes.

  • In internal conversations, Stepien and other senior officials often use the word "optionality" to describe the decision to keep dabbling in every Rust Belt battleground and preserve multiple paths to 270.
  • Critics hear "optionality" as a cover for indecision, keeping small pots of money spread across numerous states rather than picking a path and committing to it.

One campaign adviser pointed to a "half-assed" advertising buy in Wisconsin this week, around $130,000 according to Advertising Analytics data, which two campaign sources said seemed pointless given it's too small to move the needle.

  • Ditto the decision to stay on the air in Minnesota, a state that no one I spoke to sees as part of Trump's path to 270.
  • But Stepien's dilemma, as described by several advisers, is that Trump would inevitably blow up at him if he were to read newspaper stories that he was going off the air in a Rust Belt battleground.

The other side: Defending Stepien, two senior officials said he was staying on air in Wisconsin and Minnesota because their data are still showing them these states could turn in Trump's favor.

  • "The notion will be, probably at some point in the next week we'll be making some decisions on where we place our bets and how we do it," one of the senior officials said.
  • "But the cool thing about the president is he's going to be everywhere in the last two weeks" — and family members like Don Junior and Ivanka are "also going to be everywhere."

What's new: In reporting out this story, Axios learned that Stepien has described to some colleagues that he sees at least three pathways to 270 electoral votes.

  • Stepien tells them the "easy part” is winning Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Maine’s second congressional district. From there, the first pathway, and the one he views as most likely, is for Trump to win Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
  • His second pathway would be for Trump to win Arizona, North Carolina and Michigan.
  • And pathway three — the one Stepien views as least likely of the options — does not include Arizona but involves Trump winning North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada.
  • Those states are where Trump will be spending the vast bulk of his time between now and Nov. 3, and where the Trump campaign is spending most of its money.
  • The states in none of Stepien's three scenarios: Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Senior officials' defense of continuing to spend money in Wisconsin and Minnesota is that staying on air with small buys in these states preserves their options, recognizing that, as in 2016, votes can move quickly in the final days.

What's next: Over the past two weeks, Jared Kushner has been casting about outside of the campaign for fresh ideas on tactics, strategy and messaging. A senior campaign source said he always does this, and that nothing should be read into it beyond him gathering the best information and trying to bring everyone together.

  • During the past week, Trump asked at least one confidant whether they think he needs to make any changes on his campaign.
  • But nobody I've spoken to seriously thinks any major personnel changes will be made at this late stage in the race.

The bottom line: "In terms of really changing the trajectory of the race," said one campaign source, "there's only one person, from either side, who can do that. And that's Trump."

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