Donald Trump’s campaign shake-up is being seen on Capitol Hill as yet another shot across the bows of the GOP establishment.
The changes in effect demote Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman who had been urging Trump to show more restraint, and promote pollster Kellyanne Conway to the position of campaign manager.
But the real bombshell came with the recruitment of Steve Bannon, an executive with the conservative news organization Breitbart, as the campaign’s CEO.
Breitbart has been synonymous with attacks on the GOP leadership, especially in recent weeks and months. A particular foe: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Back in May, Breitbart drew considerable criticism for a story that suggested Ryan was hypocritical for opposing Trump’s Muslim ban while sending his own children to Catholic school.
“Ryan sends his children to a private school that uses a ‘religious test’ in its admissions process,” the story stated.
More recently, as Ryan faced a primary challenge, Breitbart pounded out a drumbeat of negative stories. Among the headlines: “Paul Ryan plummets to 43 percent in new primary poll”; “Paul Ryan running scared in final days ahead of primary election”; “Desperate Paul Ryan floods Wisconsin with misleading television ads.”
The site has also suggested that Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is insufficiently rock-ribbed when it comes to standing up to Democrats.
That coverage, together with Breitbart’s broader reputation for inflammatory journalism, is causing consternation on Capitol Hill.
That isn’t likely to bother Bannon much — a Bloomberg Businessweek profile 10 months ago referred to his cooption of the phrase “Honey badger don’t give a s**t” as the Breitbart motto.
But Capitol Hill Republicans already disheartened by Trump’s scorched-earth campaign were apoplectic over the Wednesday morning shake-up.
“Breitbart has no credibility outside of the most extreme conservative wing of our party. Frankly, the same could be said of Kellyanne Conway,” one House member and close Ryan ally who has publicly endorsed Trump said in a text-message tirade.
“This would seem to signal that Trump is ready to go double-barrel against all of Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike,” the GOP lawmaker continued. “Breitbart takes a flamethrower to Washington and plays very loose with the facts. I would anticipate an even more bellicose, even less-connected-to-the-facts approach from the Trump campaign moving forward.”
Other sources who spoke with The Hill were much more complimentary of Conway — but, for the most part, just as scathing of Bannon and Breitbart.
Long-time Republican strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill, said he thought Conway was “a good hire” who could “bring some much-needed discipline” to Trump’s quest.
But he added, regarding Bannon’s elevation: “I know how it is going to be perceived on the Hill and among the leadership: it’s not gonna be perceived very well. Because Breitbart are nuts! They’re unhinged. They do stories that are not journalistically credible.”
Feehery added that if Trump were going to “run a Breitbart-type campaign, we are going to get 30 percent of the vote.”
Fears about how a take-no-prisoners approach might backfire electorally were also heard from lawmakers.
A second House Republican who has endorsed Trump said: “This doesn't sound to me like someone interested in running a rational, positive message, let alone winning. Breitbart isn't a legitimate news organization. It's a disgraceful propaganda machine that is trying to divide the party.
“I think Trump wants to lose but have media control over 25 percent of the party so he can make money off of them.”
Still, Bannon does have some backers on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the little-known economic professor who upset then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 GOP primary race, recently appeared on Bannon’s radio show in New York to promote his new book, “American Underdog.”
“Steve Bannon certainly will be great at reflecting the populist issues that have shaken the political world for the past couple years,” Brat told The Hill on Wednesday.
“He has his finger on the pulse of the American people and so I am sure he will make these issues … front and center in this campaign, including the war on ISIS, immigration-related issues, crony trade deals, and using all the levers of American power to ensure that we put the American people first.”
When asked if the Speaker had any issue with a Breitbart executive leading Trump's campaign, Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck declined to comment.
But Buck raised eyebrows by sending a tweet on Wednesday saying, “Free idea: Election Day on September 8th instead of November 8th.”
Sardonic or otherwise, his words reflected a near-horror among establishment-minded Republicans about the direction of the Trump campaign. In recent weeks, the GOP nominee has created controversies with an attack on a Gold Star family; a suggestion that “Second Amendment people” could act against Hillary Clinton; and an insistence that President Obama founded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The fear, at least among some, is that Bannon’s hire will lead the campaign into even more such furors.
Stuart Stevens, who served as senior strategist on 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, tweeted Wednesday that “The RNC shouldn't give a dime or help in anyway a campaign run by Breitbart. It's like funding CDC run by a Witch Doctor.”
Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for the presidential campaign of Trump’s main rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, told The Hill, “I just don’t know what [Bannon] adds. I think Mr. Trump has already won over the Breitbart crowd. I don’t know how Steve Bannon helps attract more people to Trump.”
Others took a more philosophical approach. Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the personnel changes showed that Trump was “going to play this hard all the way through.”
Steele added, “There was a lot of wishful thinking, including from me, that he will make a turn, a pivot. Well, there should be no further expectations for him to do anything like that.”
The changes, Steele said, reflected a belief on Trump’s part that “This campaign is going to succeed or fail on what got us here. It’s really kinda looking into the rearview mirror at the establishment, saying: There you are. You’re either going to get into the car with him or you’re not.”