Amid campaign turmoil and slipping poll numbers, Donald Trump on Monday suddenly parted ways with Corey Lewandowski, his embattled campaign manager who had clashed with staff, fellow Republicans and members of the press.
“The Donald J. Trump Campaign for President, which has set a historic record in the Republican primary having received almost 14 million votes, has today announced that Corey Lewandowski will no longer be working with the campaign,” Hope Hicks, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement to the New York Times. “The campaign is grateful to Corey for his hard work and dedication, and we wish him the best in the future.”
The move came amid Republican criticism of Trump for a series of missteps, including the presumptive GOP nominee’s response to the Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooting. Donors and party officials have also raised questions about the campaign’s general election strategy.
Despite a nearly monthlong head start on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Trump has not yet fully staffed up for the general election and has been criticized for a lack of organization and coordination with the Republican National Committee. Trump has suggested that he will lean heavily on the RNC for a ground game operation this fall, which has many GOP officials worried about the impact on down-ballot Republicans.
But the move also came after months of controversy surrounding Lewandowski, who had worked with Trump since the early days of his insurgent campaign. The brash GOP operative, a veteran of congressional campaigns who was formerly aligned with conservative efforts spearheaded by the Koch brothers, had clashed with reporters — including former Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields, who filed an assault charge against him that was dropped in April. He also tangled with a protester at an Arizona rally earlier this year.
But it was Lewandowski’s reportedly poisonous relationship with Paul Manafort, a Republican operative Trump hired to help spearhead his general election efforts, that had fueled intrigue about his role within the Trump operation for weeks.
Lewandowski was a fierce proponent of the “Let Trump be Trump” philosophy — arguing that his boss emerged victorious in the primaries by campaigning as an unfiltered nonpolitician. He rejected the notion that Trump should moderate his positions or polish his delivery as he looked toward the general election — as Manafort and other more experienced Republican advisers argued. And perhaps echoing Trump, Lewandowski frequently dismissed the idea of investing money in polling or other expenditures viewed as necessary for a successful political campaign.
On Monday afternoon, Lewandowski said in CNN interview that he was grateful to have spent time helping the Trump campaign.
“I had a nice conversation with Mr. Trump. And I said to him, ‘It’s been an honor and a privilege to be a part of this.’ And I mean that from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) June 20, 2016
That prompted a turf war between staffers loyal to Lewandowski and others who agreed with Manafort that the Trump operation needed to evolve. But Lewandowski benefited from his proximity to Trump, traveling with the candidate to nearly every stop of his campaign. At rallies, Lewandowski stayed so close to Trump that he was sometimes mistaken as a member of the candidate’s security team and was often seen standing behind the candidate as Trump worked the rope line after events.
Rumors had persisted for months that Lewandowski was on his way out — only to have Trump publicly express loyalty to his longtime aide. But GOP sources close to the campaign tell Yahoo News that Trump had been increasingly irritated by reports of campaign infighting between Lewandowski and Manafort — though Trump insisted as recently as last week that everybody on his campaign was getting along.
Ultimately, it appears that it was Trump’s worry about losing ground to Clinton that played the primary role in Lewandowski’s departure. The move came as Trump was set to meet about campaign strategy later Monday with his senior staff and members of his family, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who has taken on a more prominent role in the campaign in recent weeks. Trump’s children are said to have played a key role in their father’s decision to part ways with Lewandowski.
Although his position in the campaign had long been said to be precarious, it does not appear that he saw the change in leadership coming. A Republican source tells Yahoo News that Lewandowski had participated in a conference call with RNC aides earlier Monday morning, just before the staff announcement was made.
Lewandowski did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News, and many Trump staffers either did not respond or declined to comment further. But just minutes after the staff change was announced, Michael Caputo, a Trump campaign adviser, tweeted a link to a song from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Ding dong the witch is dead!” he wrote.
Caputo subsequently sent a letter of resignation to Manfort, saying that he regretted the tweet. The former aide said the post was a “distraction from the kind of campaign you want to run, so I’m resigning my position.”