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Trump builds better machine: Campaign team and administration in waiting primed for Day One

Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign is more of a well-oiled machine than his first scattershot bid when he learned on the fly and threw together an operation that ignored the traditional nuts and bolts of running for president.

The more professional nature of his campaign’s structure and the legwork his allies are putting in to prepare for a presidential transition is setting the stage for a far less chaotic scene if he seizes the nomination and then returns to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The America First Policy Institute, a think founded in 2021 to promote Mr. Trump’s policies, is doing some of the heavy lifting through a transition project launched last year. It is being led by Doug Hoelscher and Mike Rigas, a couple of Trump administration alum.

They are tasked with drawing up a Day One roadmap that allows Mr. Trump — or whomever the conservative nominee is — to hit the ground running when it comes to filling posts, carving out policy and advancing the America First policy vision.

“This unique, experienced, never-before-assembled team has developed the playbook of how a new America First Administration can begin operations to save this country on Day One,” said J. Hogan Gidley, vice chair for the Center for Election Integrity and senior advisor for communications at AFPI.  “We are grateful to others in the arena who’ve been around for a long time doing the vital clerical work of compiling resumes needed to staff AFPI’s new, innovative Transition Project for 2025.” 

Mr. Hoelscher, who served as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Trump administration, said it marks a seismic shift from 2016 when preparation for a Trump administration started less than four months out from Election Day.

“I think us being around and being in this space has caused other people to have more pep in their step, and that is a good thing because if you look back at transitions, historically the left has done a much better job of being prepared to govern,” he said.

For example, Mr. Hoelscher said President Biden on his first day in office was ready to staff 1,200 slots, and signed 19 executive orders into law in his first 48 hours. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, had 500 people ready to go and inked a single executive order.

“We’re working on that,” he said. “We’re writing draft executive actions right now, we are working on legislative packages and working with a variety of folks on that.”

“We have experienced practitioners, people have been in the trenches, what we call ‘Wise Warriors,’ that have been in government,” he said. “They know how it works and how it doesn’t. They know how to get things done [and] how to avoid the landmines.”

The Trump campaign also has matured.

For starters, he has had more seasoned political hands leading the charge, including Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the mastermind behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks against Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race.

The Trump team announced over the weekend it has collected over 27,500 pledge cards from Iowa voters — more than in 2016.  More importantly, the Trump camp is intent on doing something it failed to do then: follow up with those voters before the caucus to make sure they turn out.

Mr. Trump plans to deliver remarks at a “Commit to Caucus Event” on Sept. 20 in Iowa.

That sense of professionalism was lacking when Mr. Trump took the oath of office in 2017 surrounded by a motley crew of campaign loyalists and a few more established Republican Party players. The group, which included the likes of Steve Bannon and former RNC Chair Reince Priebus, struggled to coral Mr. Trump and put forward a unified vision, but they often wound up in his doghouse.

Indeed, Mr. Trump set a new modern-day bar for administrative turnover, according to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute who tracks turnover at the White House.

“President Trump’s turnover was off the charts. It was just an outlier,” Ms. Tenpas said.

On the one hand, Ms. Tenpas said it is normal for the White House to be a revolving door because of the grueling nature of the work and the high levels of burnout.

On the other hand, she said the Trump White House was filled with more “drama related to personnel” and the president would “publicly fire individuals and do so frequently.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson learned he was fired on Twitter. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also got canned in a tweet.

Ms. Tenpas’ tally shows Mr. Trump burned through 92% of his executive staff over four years. The lion’s share of the departures came over his first two years on the job.

He also lost 14 of his cabinet members including three chiefs of staff — Mr. Priebus, John Kelly, and Mick Mulvaney — and blew through security advisers and press secretaries.

That was far more than his predecessors. Former President Barack Obama, for instance, lost 3 cabinet members, and 71% of his executive employees over his first four years.

President Biden so far has had 58% turnover among the senior level executive staff and lost a cabinet member.

The turnover in the Trump administration has provided ammunition for his critics to warn a second Trump term is going to be just as messy as the first. 

“Who is he going to hire: Rudy Guilliani, Sidney Powell, and John Eastman?” said Bill Palatucci, a longtime advisor to 2024 GOP presidential contender Chris Christie, who is a top Trump critic. “If he is lucky enough to be president again, most of the staff will be serving because they got a federal pardon.”

Those questions will continue to swirl around the Trump campaign operation over the coming months as he looks to navigate 91 felony charges and fend off a field of rivals that say it is time to move on from the Trump-inspired drama.

And yet, the efforts to slow him down have failed.

Mr. Trump dominates polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the leadoff states in the nomination.

Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who helped lead Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, said Trump is running a more polished show.

“In 2016, it kind of felt like they were building the airplane when it was taking off from the runway,” Mr. Merrill said. “I think they are better organized, both from a grassroots standpoint and from a communication standpoint.”

Mr. Merrill, though, said the jury is out on whether the newfound strength of the Trump campaign is a harbinger of a less chaotic second term in office.

“I wouldn’t write it off, but I am certainly not prepared to make that leap right now,” he said. “With Trump, the one thing we have learned from him over the last 8 years is expect the unexpected.”

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