Amid "New" Trump Campaign, Off-Script Donald Persists

Amid "New" Trump Campaign, Off-Script Donald Persists
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Nearly two months after effectively clinching the Republican Party nomination, Donald Trump finally is beginning his general election campaign: visiting battleground states, implementing a basic fundraising strategy, hiring communications staff, giving prepared policy speeches, and keeping the fire focused on Hillary Clinton.

Trump and his surrogates have tried to muddy what had been a clear call -- and integral to his campaign -- to temporarily ban all Muslims from the United States. And his campaign released a statement after the attacks in Istanbul Tuesday night that offered prayers instead of self-congratulations. 

But amid signs of progress remains the clash of the Two Trumps: a candidate who now delivers on-message addresses via a teleprompter and the one who thrives off the script in the comfort of thousands of supporters at his rallies.

The new phase of the Trump campaign faced its initial test Tuesday night at the candidate’s first rally since last week’s campaign shakeup, which involved the firing of his campaign manager after weeks of unforced errors, a steep decline in the polls, and lagging fundraising. But in St. Clairsville, Ohio, near the West Virginia border, there were no signs of the Trump pivot.

Trump said the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration that scrambles party lines, “is continuing to rape our country.” He reiterated his support for the unlawful torture technique of waterboarding, arguing, “It’s peanuts compared to other things,” and called for fighting ISIS “violently and viciously.” Trump bashed the media as “ the most dishonest human beings in the entire world.” And he praised his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border. “It's going to go up so fast, and it's going to be as beautiful as a wall can be,” Trump said to a cheering crowd during his first visit to the key battleground state of Ohio as the presumptive nominee.

Earlier in the day, the scripted Trump was on display. The GOP standard-bearer delivered a trade policy speech in western Pennsylvania. Here, as in Ohio, he hopes his populist appeal among working-class white voters anxious about their jobs and wages will lure Bernie Sanders supporters and make him competitive with Hillary Clinton -- even if his policies put him at odds with his own party orthodoxy. 

Speaking at a scrap metal facility near Pittsburgh, Trump ripped apart trade negotiations and globalization policies he argues have sent jobs overseas and decimated industry-dependent towns across the country.

“Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization -- moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” Trump said in Monessen, against a backdrop of compacted aluminum products.

Drawing parallels between the “Brexit” vote and American workers’ angst, Trump argued, “The wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class” and he praised the British vote to “take back control of their economy, politics and borders.”

Trump pledged to impose tariffs on countries like China over currency manipulation and advocated for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, a legacy of the Bill Clinton administration, and withdrawing from the TPP. Trump slammed Clinton over NAFTA and for changing her position on the TPP, which she had called the “gold standard” of trade agreements while secretary of state, before opposing it as a presidential candidate. Trump claimed he “shamed” the presumptive Democratic nominee into changing her tune, though her shift came during the primary campaign after Sanders rallied the base against such trade deals. Trump cited Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton on the issue in a direct appeal to Sanders’ voters.

A new poll this week, however, shows signs of Sanders’ supporters moving to Clinton. A Washington Post-ABC News survey shows 8 percent of Sanders backers prefer Trump to Clinton, down from 20 percent last month. The poll also spells trouble for GOP party unity under Trump, with 88 percent of Democrats supporting Clinton and 79 percent of Republicans backing their nominee -- with a third saying he is unqualified for office.

Many Republican leaders are declining to attend the convention in Cleveland next month, and few have expressed interest in appearing on stage. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who withdrew from the presidential race in May, has not yet made plans to attend the convention in his home state. Bloomberg News reported Tuesday that the Trump campaign is lining up figures including former boxer Mike Tyson, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, and former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, among others, to be a part of the convention program.

Trump’s positions on trade were central to his campaign’s appeal during the primary process, but his speech on Tuesday underscored the distance between the candidate and many in his party, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the issue. The GOP-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized Trump’s plan in a series of tweets, arguing his policies would “make America recession-bound again.”

Clinton struck back at Trump on Tuesday by drawing similarities between her trade policies and his, while criticizing the businessman-turned-politician for manufacturing items from his clothing and product line overseas.

But Clinton is facing her own issues regarding trustworthiness among American voters. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed registered voters see Trump as more honest than Clinton. Trump and other Republicans pounced on a report released Tuesday by the House Republican-led panel investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi.

Trump is expected to campaign in Maine on Wednesday after attending a fundraiser in Boston. He will then travel to battleground Colorado to give a speech to the Western Conservative Summit, where speakers include a variety of conservative politicians and thinkers, including Carly Fiorina, Sarah Palin, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a fierce Trump opponent.

The campaign announced new key staff this week, including Jason Miller, a former top Ted Cruz aide, to serve as a senior communications officer. Team Trump is also bringing on Vincent Harris, Rand Paul’s former digital director.

Chairman Paul Manafort has said more hires are imminent and insists that battleground state organization is underway, which could bolster an organization that has been running on fumes and at the whims of the candidate.

But it's clear that Trump himself doesn't plan on making any personal alterations as the general election approaches. In an interview with NBC News on Monday, Trump asserted: "I do what I do. I've listened to this for a long time -- at the beginning of the primaries -- 'He should do this, he should do that.' I won in a landslide."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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