The Republican National Convention kicked off, campaign advisers to presumptive nominee Donald Trump worried that his former campaign manager might screw things up. Trump’s advisers told New York Magazine early this week that they feared Corey Lewandowski, who reportedly still advises Trump, would “undermine the campaign leadership by giving Trump bad advice” and “working the convention rivalries into a froth.”
Lewandowski, now a CNN political analyst, was fired from his job in June. He was divisive and brash. He had been charged with misdemeanor battery — the charge got dropped — for yanking the arm of a reporter who was trying to get Trump’s attention at a rally. He routinely clashed with old-guard political operatives who prefer that campaigns run on silk. All scripts and no surprises. Lewandowski fought to allow Trump to be Trump — no scripts and all surprises.
After Trump fired him as campaign manager, Lewandowski became a bit of a concern. So far, he hasn’t tossed any wrenches at the convention in Cleveland. But he did expose a flash of rebellion during a surprise visit to the Illinois delegates’ breakfast Tuesday morning at the hotel where they are staying.
Social media lit up as some on Twitter pointed out that Melania Trump’s prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention appeared similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
As soon as the press swarmed him, he swiftly and overtly blamed the Trump campaign for the Melania Trump cut-and-paste-gate scandal — passages of her convention speech closely mirrored those delivered by Michelle Obama in 2008. Lewandowski said someone in the Trump campaign needed to be held accountable for not vetting her speech.
“I know about accountability in this election,” Lewandowski said.
He could have stepped softly. He could have said the controversy was much ado about nothing. He could have blamed a politically lopsided media. He could have said he empathized with Melania Trump, who has little experience writing or delivering speeches.
No. He took a deliberate swipe at the campaign, which was an indirect swipe at the campaign manager who replaced him, Paul Manafort. Clearly, Lewandowski found satisfaction in the firestorm over the speech and the cleanup required. Manafort was dispatched to media outlets to blame Hillary Clinton for the mess. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said someone should be fired. In the world of campaigns, Melania Trump’s misstep was the worst kind because it was easily avoidable.
So OK, give Lewandowski his moment of karma. The guys who ousted him from the Trump campaign spent Monday night and most of Tuesday trying to look calm.
Beyond that, Lewandowski so far has been the best spokesman for Trump I’ve heard. At the Illinois delegates’ breakfast, he was gracious. He was engaging. He painted an everyman portrait of Trump and called him a “blue-collar billionaire.”
He spoke of his own surprise at how the campaign unfolded. Lewandowski, of course, was first to experience the sheer draw of Trump. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was attracting 20 or 30 people to his events, Trump could barely get through the front door of his. Shortly after Trump announced he was running, Lewandowski was with him as they flew to an event at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. When they landed, Lewandowski said he had nine voicemail messages on his phone from the same caller.
“Well, this can’t be good,” he said.
It was the local police chief alerting them they wouldn’t be able to make it to the VFW hall without a police escort. The police department had to close roads because so many people showed up, some of whom stood on the roof of the VFW hall just to get a glimpse of Trump.
By now we’ve all had our glimpses of Trump. Some are painful. Conventions are about softening up and broadening presidential candidates for a larger audience. Same for Hillary Clinton next week. You can’t run a primary campaign twice. Trump needs to pivot and attract independent voters or he won’t win.
Lewandowski was in pretty tepid company Tuesday morning. Establishment Illinois Republicans endorsed John Kasich and, to some extent, Jeb Bush during the primary campaign. Many elected Republicans have been skipping the daily gathering of delegates, and some aren’t in Cleveland at all. They don’t want to be forced to publicly cheer on Trump.
But if Illinois is a sign of Trump’s momentum, his detractors are starting to loosen up. After listening quietly to Lewandowski’s 20-minute sell, rank-and-file delegates, including those here who supported Kasich and Bush, showed a glimmer of enthusiasm: They shoved aside their chairs at their breakfast tables and gave Lewandowski a standing ovation.
Kristen McQueary is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.