Who – If Anybody – Is Advising Donald Trump?
When Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner in the race for the White House, dropped his A-bomb on the presidential contest last week by calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, there is little doubt that he knew what he was doing.
Anyone who has spent the past six months honing his political message under the national spotlight would have been wholly aware of the visceral response that such a radical proposal would provoke in the US and around the world.
Yet the policy statement was released in what appears to have been a remarkably cavalier fashion. None of the meticulous pre-release vetting, obsessive focus group testing and media messaging that would be typically carried out by an army of staffers working for any conventional presidential campaign seems to have been done.
The appearance of such a prominent presidential candidate, well ahead in the polls less than two months before the Iowa starting gun, apparently making up contentious policies on the hoof has left an already bewildered Republican party reeling. And it has raised important questions about Trump and his coterie: where is he getting his ideas, and is anybody advising him?
At first look, last Monday’s blast out of the blue certainly appears to have been thinly sourced. Trump’s two-paragraph announcement, released to reporters and then read out before a mostly military crowd on board an aircraft carrier, cited research by the Pew Research Center showing “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population” – when Pew’s own studies suggest the exact opposite.
He went on to quote the results of a survey showing high levels of violent ideation among American Muslims that was conducted by the Washington-based thinktank, the Center for Security Policy.
Within minutes of the announcement, organisations that monitor hate speech were pointing out that the group’s founder, Frank Gaffney, is a notorious Islamophobe with a long track record in demonizing American Muslims.
When contacted to ask whether Trump had consulted him in advance of making his contentious call for a Muslim lockdown, Gaffney gave a one-word reply: “Nope.” Yet the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate speech, has identified strong connections between Trump and Gaffney running through this year.
The SPLC has found that Gaffney organized summits on national security policy in the three early contesting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Trump attended each one. The Center for Security Policy also co-sponsored a rally on Iran in September at which Trump and his rival Ted Cruz spoke.
In March, the Center for Security Policy published a pamphlet called Refugee Resettlement and the Hijra to America that reads like a blueprint for Trump’s Muslim immigration blockade. Its conclusion calls for a “moratorium on Muslim immigration to America” and exhorts supporters to “demand a complete halt”.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC, said that Trump’s anti-Muslim statement “turns out to be based entirely on the thoroughly un-American proposals of Frank Gaffney”.
Though the Center for Security Policy certainly appears to have influence on Trump’s campaign policies, it would be wrong to see him in any formal advisory capacity. The truth is that while the billionaire real estate developer has built astrong organization on the ground in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, there is only one person who truly matters in this campaign: Donald Trump himself.
As a Republican familiar with Trump’s efforts said: “He controls all content in his campaign. He dictates the press releases. He decides what reporters he wants to see. He is his own strategist and his own message maker.”
This isn’t to say Trump is making every decision. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has overseen a diligent organisation. Sam Clovis, a small-town Iowa college professor and conservative activist, advises Trump on policy and is seen at candidate forums and debates. He even has his own surrogate for cable news appearances, telegenic Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson who recently defended her boss’s Muslim ban with the statement: “So what? They’re Muslim.”
Trump loves to go it alone, though, using his Twitter account to attack his critics. Britain got a taste of that when he warmed to his provocative theme with a succession of slurs about Muslims in the UK, which were rooted so superficially in reality that he found himself relentlessly mocked in a series of absurdist #TrumpFacts.
Most punditry about Trump has revolved around the idea that he will eventually ruin his own chances with one unsustainable remark too far. Yet even while US media have branded his charge for the White House as “the most vulgar, embarrassing campaign of the century”, polling in recent days suggests he is still resonating as he leads overall and has the support of 42% of Republicans for his Muslim ban.
At best it can be said that Trump is evasive about his policy advisers. He told NBC News that when it came to looking around for in-depth military knowledge, “I watch the [TV political] shows.”
The same pattern is shown on domestic policy. The campaign has released several policy papers on topics such as immigration, trade and military veterans’ affairs but they were written by an operative no longer affiliated with the campaign.
The campaign now relies on Trump himself to be the generator of its ideas. As the Republican source put it, in the same way that Ronald Reagan was able to glean facts from newspapers, Trump “just picks stuff up from the internet. He reads it and he keeps it.”
To some extent, this lack of a traditional infrastructure, largely lacking in policy advisers, speechwriters, pollsters, ad-makers or fundraisers all adds to the magical mystery show that is Donald Trump 2016. “It’s part of the presentation of self – that he wants it to appear that he is his own person telling it like it is with no advisers corralling him to do this or that,” said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University.
But it also leaves him dangerously exposed, and vulnerable to his own tendency to shoot first, aim later. That pattern of behavior was well illustrated last month when he tweeted a panel of what purported to be USA crime figures gathered by the “Crime Statistics Bureau” that had black people being responsible for 81% of homicides of white people.The statistics were not only false – PolitiFact rated them “pants on fire” – they turned out to have come from a Twitter feed with the handle @CheesedBrit that has now been discontinued. The owner of the account described himself as someone who “should have listened to the Austrian chap with the little moustache”.
One reason that the Trump charabanc now looks so chaotic was the departure in August of his top – and pretty much only – political adviser, Roger Stone. In true Trump fashion, the candidate said he’d fired him, while Stone said he left of his own accord out of frustration that the media fights Trump was getting into were drowning out the message.
Either way, his absence, by all accounts, is now being felt. “I don’t think anybody tells Mr Trump what to say or think,” said conservative strategist Chris Barron, who has worked for many years with Stone. “But Roger was one of the few people who have known Mr Trump for decades and was not a yes-man and would challenge him.”
Barron said that a void had now opened up around the leading Republican contender that was problematic. “You can run an unconventional campaign – and Mr Trump is certainly doing that – but you still have to run a campaign.”