The problem with President Trump’s Tulsa rally was not execution or turnout, but rather unrealistic expectations, according to a string of concerned allies who believe Jared Kushner’s decision to replace a senior campaign figure does not go far enough in overhauling a misfiring reelection effort.
Instead, they say moving Michael Glassner, one of Trump’s first hires in 2015, from his role of chief operating officer looks like an effort to find a scapegoat and spare campaign manager Brad Parscale from blame.
“Of course he’s a scapegoat. He’s been around for a while and is expendable,” said a senior Republican strategist, granted anonymity to speak freely, who added that the campaign’s poor poll numbers and mixed messaging pointed to a deeper malaise.
At the heart of the problem is a tension that has roiled Trump’s political operation since he took power, pitting economic nationalists who think their message connects the president to ordinary voters against those around Kushner, who are accused of a more distant, globalist outlook.
The fault line opened again on Tuesday night when it emerged that Glassner, whose role included planning rallies, was being replaced by Trump’s 2016 Arizona chairman Jeff DeWit.
It followed weeks of plummeting poll numbers as the campaign grapples with the difficulties of holding mass rallies during the time of the coronavirus. What was supposed to be the president’s triumphal return to the campaign trail in Tulsa was dominated by a disappointing turnout and pictures of empty seats.
However, insiders said the problem was not in the organization of the rally but in the campaign’s hyperbolic advance messaging.
“The thing that keeps us up nights, the thing that takes so much effort is making sure that we get people to the events,” said a source familiar with rally planning. “It’s a basic rule not to exaggerate turnout in advance.”
Parscale, in particular, had trumpeted that the campaign had received more than a million ticket requests before the Tulsa rally. His position has been under intense scrutiny ever since local officials said barely 6,000 people entered the 19,000-seat arena.
This week brought fresh polling gloom. A new USA Today/Suffolk poll found presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a 12-point lead over Trump among 1,000 registered voters.
A veteran of the 2016 campaign said it was unlikely that Trump would respond by firing Parscale, whose digital strategy forms the centerpiece of the reelection effort.
“Brad is a Jared guy,” he said. “That’s the background you have to understand.”
The campaign has revamped its leadership in recent weeks, bringing in Jason Miller, a communications strategist who formed part of the 2016 team, and sending White House officials to reinforce personnel.
Officials said Glassner’s move did not come in response to Tulsa.
“Michael Glassner is moving into the long-term role of navigating the many legal courses we face, including suits against major media outlets, some of which will likely extend beyond the end of the campaign,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director.
But the leadership change came as it emerged the campaign had also abandoned plans to hold a rally in Alabama next weekend.
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Trump was reassembling the team that helped him get elected in 2016.
“Jeff DeWit is back on the campaign. He did a fabulous job in 2016. The president’s bringing the band back together,” she told Fox & Friends, adding that Glassner remained a valued member of the campaign.
Later she told reporters at the White House that the campaign had done a good job of laying down digital infrastructure and running rallies for the past few years and would be increasing its fire on Biden.
But she added that she had shown the president pictures from an open-air rally in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, last year as an alternative way to hold events for people wary of turning up to indoor gatherings.
“You had the mountains, Air Force One, the president, people out in the air, and it was a gorgeous night,” she said. “I think you could do something like that.”