Updated Apr 6, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Trump's team shows growing pains in pivot to general election

Illustration of Donald Trump with metal scaffolding up to his neck

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Since former President Trump's smooth ride to become the GOP's presumptive nominee last month, his team's pivot to a general election campaign has been more chaotic, with backtracking and second-guessing.

Why it matters: Many of the hiccups have revolved around Trump's takeover of the Republican National Committee. His team now has rehired many of the 60 staffers who were fired when Trump took control last month.

  • It's the latest in a series of reversals by Trump's team at the RNC, now led by chair Michael Whatley and Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law.
  • Those who've been rehired include most of the RNC's staff in key states, including five regional political directors and most of the committee's state directors. Some are unsure what their roles are now.
  • Also rehired: staffers who worked on the RNC's state strategies and data teams.

Reality check: Part of the Trump team's challenge is that his primary campaign involved only a few dozen people. Now that the RNC is essentially a part of Trump's campaign, the entire operation needs to grow quickly.

  • The campaign and the RNC — which have lagged President Biden and Democrats in fundraising — have kickstarted their fundraising with a joint committee that allows donations of up to $814,600.
  • The RNC and Trump's campaign raised nearly $66 million in March, surpassing the $62 million they raised in the same period four years ago. A fundraiser for big donors in Palm Beach on Saturday could raise more than $40 million.
  • The campaign also hired veteran pollster Tony Fabrizio, who moved over from a pro-Trump Super PAC, and GOP operative Alex Garcia.

Zoom in: The team's growing pains were evident from the start of Trump's takeover of the RNC.

  • On his first day, new chief operating officer Sean Cairncross alerted the 60 staffers that they were being asked to resign and reapply, in an email that misspelled his name.
  • After a backlash over the RNC's reported plans to cut community centers and an early voting program, Whatley sent out a memo stating his support for those programs.
  • Lara Trump initially said she hoped to hire conservative activist and conspiracy theorist Scott Presler, who called the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol "the largest civil rights protest in American history." (The RNC didn't hire Presler. But a Trump spokesperson told Axios he'll be registering voters at an upcoming RNC event.)
  • The RNC got more unwanted attention for asking job candidates whether they thought the 2020 election was stolen.
  • And after Lara Trump suggested the RNC might pay Donald Trump's legal bills, the team rushed to reassure RNC members that it wouldn't. Instead, a pro-Trump PAC is paying the legal fees.

The intrigue: The headlines about Trump's bumpy takeover of the RNC caused concern at the highest levels of his campaign.

  • On March 15, Trump co-campaign manager Susie Wiles told senior staffers that the new RNC's first week had gotten awful media coverage and things had to change, Axios has learned.
  • Separately, Wiles pressed fellow senior adviser Chris LaCivita — who was overseeing the changes at the RNC — about her concerns, three people familiar with the matter told Axios.
  • On a call with reporters last week, the campaign said it "terminated a couple people because they leak."

What they're saying: "Chris and Susie care about the status of the RNC and how the team comes together. The leaders talk to make sure they are on the same page," Trump campaign spokesperson Danielle Alvarez told Axios.

  • "We were never going to cut the early voting program," Alvarez added. "There was always going to be a program added to grow the vote. The community centers were always a process of evaluating their effectiveness."

Some RNC staffers say the Trump team's disruption of the committee was necessary.

  • They say many in Trumpworld believe the RNC's previous leadership, under ousted chair Ronna McDaniel, was never super-enthusiastic about the former president.
Go deeper