In public, Donald Trump is standing behind embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as he faces battery charges for grabbing a reporter.
But behind the scenes, Lewandowski’s role in the campaign is shrinking.
In early March, Lewandowski ceded authority over many hiring decisions to a lower-ranking staffer.
In recent days, the campaign’s press office has been overruling his decisions about issuing credentials for campaign events.
Going forward, Trump’s just-named convention manager, Paul Manafort, is expected to take a leading role not just in the selection of delegates, but in the remaining primaries themselves, according to three people on or close to the campaign.
The shift is, in part, a natural outgrowth of the campaign’s maturation.
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But according to sources close to the campaign, it’s also at least partly the result of long-simmering concerns among some members of Trump’s inner circle about Lewandowski’s lack of national experience, his perceived unwillingness to challenge Trump and his brash temperament.
Those concerns got renewed attention this week, when Lewandowski was charged by police in Jupiter, Fla. with criminal battery related to a March 8 altercation with a reporter then working for the conservative Breitbart News.
“I’m not saying Corey’s going to be fired or anything because I don’t think he’s going to be, at least not at this juncture,” said a person involved in Trump’s campaign. “But Mr. Trump’s listening to other people now.
The crew’s expanding. The inner circle is not what it used to be.”
Neither Lewandowski nor the campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, responded to requests for comment.
Lewandowski’s once-outsized grip on the campaign began loosening soon after voting started this winter, when National Political Director Michael Glassner’s title was changed to deputy campaign manager, a change billed as a promotion.
“The move to deputy campaign manager was not something Corey wanted to happen because it put someone in line as a successor in case he had to leave,” said the person involved in Trump’s campaign. “It was an odd move to go from national political director to deputy anything.”
The move sparked enduring resentment towards Glassner among Lewandowski’s loyalists on the campaign, including the many friends he hired from his home state of New Hampshire and a number of his fellow alums of the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.
On March 2, the campaign promoted Stuart Jolly — another former AFP employee brought on by Lewandowski who had served as Southeast political director — to national field director, giving him primary authority over the hiring and firing of field staff.
Trump’s candidacy has consisted largely of high-octane rallies, and Lewandowski has been a near-constant presence at Trump’s side as the businessman tours the country in his private jet, often making it difficult for other campaign staff and Trump allies to communicate directly with the candidate, who carries a cell phone but does not regularly communicate by email himself.
“It’s hard to get things to Mr. Trump. It’s hard to get things around Corey unless you know one of the kids,” said the person involved in Trump’s campaign.
Four people close to the Trump family and campaign say the concerns about Lewandowski’s temperament and certain aspects of his performance extend deep into Trump’s inner circle.
Lewandowski, a former New Hampshire state marine patrol officer, has a history as a confrontational anti-establishment figure stemming from his work running the failed 2002 reelection campaign of Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who was on the outs with the GOP after running for president as an independent two years earlier.
Lewandowski cemented his anti-establishment bona fides during his time at Americans for Prosperity, where he antagonized some Republicans.
That reputation may compromise the campaign’s fledgling effort to court the Republican National Committee, its officials and members, one Trump friend suggested.
People close to Trump “have voiced concerns that Trump is not going to be able to win over the party apparatus if they have someone like Corey running the show,” the friend said.
Between March 15 and Trump’s reemergence on the campaign trail this week in Wisconsin, the businessman spent several days at Mar-a-Lago, one of the few places where Lewandowski remains far from his side.
During this period, Trump hired Manafort as convention manager, a move first reported by he New York Times on Monday. Manafort, is a longtime associate of Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and adviser, who left the campaign in August as Lewandowski consolidated control, but continued to serve as a surrogate for Trump and to consult with him.
Manafort has quickly taken charge of his own fiefdom in Washington, and is planning to hire a team of his own, which is likely to include several veterans of the 1976 Republican National Convention – the party’s last convention at which the presidential nomination was contested — though he remains below Lewandowski on the organizational chart.
“He technically still reports to Corey and Corey technically still has the title,” according to a person familiar with Manafort’s role.
On March 8, Lewandowski was involved in an altercation with Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, who alleged Lewandowski roughly grabbed her following a press conference at Trump’s golf club in Jupiter, Florida. Lewandowski tweeted that Fields was “delusional” and that he had never touched her.
But on Tuesday, Jupiter police released security camera footage showing Lewandowski grabbing fields and announced that Lewandowski had been arrested on a criminal battery charge. Lewandowski and the campaign both maintain Lewandowski’s innocence.