Trump shakes up campaign staff, demotes top manager Brad Parscale as polls show him behind Biden

Dartunorro Clark, Monica Alba, Shannon Pettypiece and Peter Alexander
Brad Parscale, manager of U.S. President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, speaks during a rally for U.S. President Donald Trump in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump announced a new campaign manager for his 2020 re-election on Wednesday, four months before voters head to the polls, in an effort to reset a campaign that has already been through multiple failed reboots. The announcement comes as he lags even further behind his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump said in Facebook post, and later on Twitter after the cyberattack on that platform, that he is removing his top campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and tapping Bill Stepien, his deputy campaign manager and a veteran Republican operative, to take over.

Stepien was campaign manager to both of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's gubernatorial runs and served as his deputy chief of staff, but was fired in 2014 following the Bridgegate scandal that plagued the Republican lawmaker.

"Both were heavily involved in our historic 2016 win, and I look forward to having a big and very important second win together," Trump said. "This one should be a lot easier as our poll numbers are rising fast, the economy is getting better, vaccines and therapeutics will soon be on the way, and Americans want safe streets and communities!"

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The idea to promote Stepien and have him take the reins with only four months to go until the general election has been "flirted with" for months, per a Republican official, but some top campaign aides were caught off guard by the announcement on Facebook on Wednesday night. Several told NBC News they were not aware this was being formalized in recent hours.

Stepien was named deputy campaign manager in May in an effort to layer Parscale, who had been in that role for more than two years but was under fire in the last few months for lagging polls. He will maintain his digital and data strategy duties, per the campaign.

This shakeup was not discussed in the political meeting at the White House on Monday, according to the GOP official.

The move comes weeks after Parscale boasted about millions of tickets being sold for Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma last month which brought lower-than-expected turnout and left the president fuming. It also comes as polls show the president trailing Biden months before the November elections.

81% of swing state voters support more stimulus, CNBC/Change poll finds
81% of swing state voters support more stimulus, CNBC/Change poll finds

Biden holds a double-digit lead nationally over Trump, with seven in 10 voters saying the country is on the wrong track and Americans disapproving of the president's handling of the coronavirus, which has killed about 140,000 Americans, and race relations amid anti-racism protests over police brutality.

Trump has struggled to articulate a vision for his second term beyond more of the same, and a source familiar with the president's campaign said there's a growing perception that "he's not trying" and that it seems like "his heart is not in it."

Parscale had already seen his role greatly diminished in recent weeks with Stepien handling the strategy, Jason Miller taking over messaging and Jeff DeWit brought in to manage the finances, said a person close to the campaign. Some aides had assumed Parscale would keep the title in an honorary fashion or be moved into a chairman role rather than such a clear demotion.

Trump's campaign has struggled to land on a message since the coronavirus forced it to abandon its playbook that was centered around touting Trump's handling of the economy and blanketing the country with massive rallies, central to the campaign's fundraising and data operations.

Before Parscale took on the job of designing Trump's exploratory campaign website in 2015, he had no political experience and was mostly focused on the digital side of the operation during the 2016 election. During that race, he managed the social media advertising and online fundraising — elements that were crucial to Trump's victory but outside the traditional campaign manager role of polling, messaging, and managing staff.

With a degree in finance, international business and economic from Trinity University in San Antonio, Parscale started a digital marketing business in 2004 in Texas and expanded the business in 2011 when he partnered with a designer to focus on high-end web design, digital marketing and branding.

Parscale started working for the Trump Organization in 2011, managing websites for Trump International Realty. He got the job after a client he'd done work for in the past got hired by Trump.

Parscale's level of celebrity in Trump's world has been noted by those close to the campaign who say Parscale had at times gotten too big of a head in a universe where there can only be one star — Trump himself.

He had become a regular warm-up act at Trump rallies, throwing hats into the crowd, signing autographs, posing for selfies and taking the stage to pump up the crowd. He featured images of himself in campaign ads and running ads throughout his personal Facebook page and would often send out campaign fundraising emails under his own name, rather than Trump's.

In Stepien, the campaign gets a much more analytical, traditional political operative than Parscale. Before going over to the campaign he served as the White House's political director through the 2018 election cycle where he was tasked with having a granular, county-by-county understanding of the political landscape, helping the White House determine what candidates to send Trump to campaign for and where to hold Trump rallies and official events.

"Almost 140,000 Americans have lost their lives and millions more have lost their jobs because of Donald Trump's failed leadership," Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. "The Trump Campaign's game of musical chairs won't fix this. We need a new president for that."