How a tight circle of aides is trying to keep Trump out of trouble


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When he wrapped up remarks following his arraignment Tuesday with a familiar promise to “Make America Great Again,” former President Donald Trump pushed into the adoring crowd at his Mar-a-Lago club — ignoring Secret Service instructions to take a pre-cleared path — and made his way to a private patio dinner with his daughter Tiffany, her husband Michael Boulos and longtime conservative operative Sergio Gor.

While they ate, surrounded by aides and friends at nearby tables, Trump listened to a playlist he had curated himself. Songs included “Justice for All,” his version of the national anthem with the “J6 choir” of inmates awaiting trial for their roles in the insurrection, Luciano Pavarotti and James Brown singing “It’s a Man’s World,” and selections from Sinead O’Connor and Phantom of the Opera.

It was a serene end to one of the most tumultuous days in American political history — one that started with the first booking of a former president on criminal charges in New York and transitioned to the same man, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, delivering a speech rebuking state and federal prosecutors from his campaign’s base of operations in Palm Beach, Fla.

What Mar-a-Lago provided was a soothing retreat full of Trump’s favorite things: a crowd of friends and family, a quiet dinner on the patio and a 500-song Spotify list that allows him to play disc jockey. If Trump’s mood was mostly reserved that day — from his arrival at the courthouse where he declined to speak to reporters, through a jab-filled but sedately delivered speech, all the way to the end-of-night dinner — it’s a mood his team will be trying to sustain over the coming months as he tries to survive the twin crucibles of an election and criminal jeopardy. 

The relative calm in the midst of chaos Tuesday belied Trump’s well-earned reputation for failing to control his impulses and for whipping his supporters into frenzies in times of crisis — most notably the one that ended in the Jan. 6 insurrection. But it also revealed the extent to which the smaller, more insular, lower-drama team around him this time has already helped him keep focus and avoided riling him up unnecessarily. 

That’s not to say it will be easy — or that it will succeed. Trump is still Trump. He continues to push the unfounded claims of a stolen 2020 election, shared a photo of himself holding a baseball bat next to the head of the Manhattan district attorney and has championed the people incarcerated for the Jan. 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol. 

His team’s discipline promises to be put under severe duress as he simultaneously runs a presidential campaign and defends himself against charges in New York and investigations at the federal level and in Georgia.

“I’ve never seen a more professional operation around Trump. I’ve also never seen a Trump-world operation with so little infighting,” said one longtime operative in his orbit. “All of the key people are genuine pros.”

Indeed, the biggest difference, according to interviews with half a dozen people working on his campaign or with direct knowledge of its operations, is the type of operatives Trump is surrounded by right now. Gone from the inner circle are figures who sought their own publicity like campaign chiefs Corey Lewandowski, Steve Bannon and Brad Parscale. So are the sycophants who believed the best way to curry favor with Trump was to execute on his most outlandish ideas, like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. 

“We have less people who try to ingratiate themselves with him by going the extreme route,” said one person involved in the campaign who credited Susie Wiles, the co-manager of the operation, with keeping “the crazies” out. “Everything seems to be less dramatic — not drama-free, but less dramatic.”

On Friday, the campaign quickly put out a fire lit when the New York Times reported that Trump had instructed aides to hire Laura Loomer, a prominent Trump supporter with a long history of making anti-Muslim comments. Trump allies, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, reacted angrily to the news, and by the end of the day a campaign official confirmed to NBC News that Loomer would not be brought into the fold.

No one in proximity to Trump is under the illusion that he will barnstorm across the country for the next year and a half in anything resembling an ordinary campaign; nor would they want him to lose the rawness that connects him to millions of voters. But, for now, Trump insiders are pleased with what they see as a more-disciplined operation that helps the candidate channel his political instincts.

That group includes Wiles, co-campaign manager Chris LaCivita, strategist and public-relations veteran Jason Miller, longtime adviser Boris Epshteyn and a set of trusted hands who manage various aspects of security and logistics for his public appearances.

They are charged with helping Trump navigate the political side of the ledger while a three-member team of lawyers — Todd Blanche, Susan Necheles and Joe Tacopina — defends him against the charges in New York, along with allegations that he incited the Jan. 6 riot, mishandled classified material and tried to overturn his defeat in Georgia in the 2020 election.

Though noticeably more sedate than his fans are accustomed to in his speeches, Trump ripped the judge in the New York case, Juan Merchan, during his speech at Mar-a-Lago Tuesday night. He called the jurist, who appears to have donated $15 to Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020, a “Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family.”

For any other politician — or defendant — that remark alone would constitute a radical breach of decorum, political savvy and legal strategy. For Trump, an avid golfer, it was par for the course at a time when his legal troubles have solidified his support among the GOP primary electorate.

A Trump aide said they do not plan to attempt to significantly rein in the former president when it comes to these attacks, in part because they appear to recognize the benefits in them. While his harsh words for judges and prosecutors are “always a concern for the lawyers,” the aide said the campaign team was less worried. 

“We see the criticism as mild and factual. It’s not just coming from a place of anger,” the aide said, pointing to Trump highlighting the work Merchan’s daughter’s firm did for Vice President Kamala Harris’ short-lived 2020 presidential campaign. “As far as we are concerned, I would say there are minimal concerns because he behaved appropriately.”

Trump has watched his political fortunes rise in recent weeks, but one aide on his 2020 campaign said the political operation’s turnaround was first evident in a February visit to East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a major train derailment that released toxic chemicals into the air.

“That felt like that was the first thing they did that was ‘OK, they’ve got their s— together’” the operative said.

Trump railed against President Joe Biden at a rally with Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, in a 10-minute speech and made several stops in town to meet with residents. Last month, he held rallies in Davenport, Iowa, and Waco, Texas, and one adviser said his calendar will soon fill out with big events in early primary states. 

His next scheduled public appearance is April 14 at the National Rifle Association’s conference in Indianapolis, where several potential rivals for the GOP nomination are expected to speak.

Trump insiders say he has been encouraged by Republicans rallying around him in the face of the charges against him.

“He is pumped,” the adviser said. “He loves this moment. It’s a moment of vindication in his eyes.”

That sentiment may become more acute now that the anxiety of the arraignment is behind him.

On his flight to New York Monday, Trump and his aides discussed the logistics of his court appearance for about 25 minutes and then watched Fox News, according to a person who was present.

“It was for sure a surreal moment,” the person said. “We were stressed to some degree, of course, but there was no anger, and nothing totally out of the ordinary. “

Trump was virtually silent when he arrived at the courthouse to be finger-printed and sit for the arraignment hearing.

“It was a sober moment,” according to an adviser. “He did not really say two words. I think he knew it was not the right moment to do that. He let everyone else do the talking.”

The morning after the arraignment and his speech at Mar-a-Lago, Trump posted a note of gratitude to the officials inside and outside the courthouse on his Truth Social media platform.

“The great patriots inside and outside of the Courthouse on Tuesday were unbelievably nice, in fact, they couldn’t have been nicer,” Trump wrote. “Court attendants, Police Officers, and others were all very professional, and represented New York City sooo well.”

That courtroom setting, and the legal system more broadly, are things Trump and his team will have to become more accustomed to as they try and pull off a historic political high-wire act: returning to the White House facing criminal charges and a handful of separate serious state and federal investigations.

His advisers are confident his indictment will provide a short term political boost, and early public polling has backed that assertion it could at least with Republicans. But the person fretted over the long term uncertainty of the historic moment. “We just don’t know,” they said of whether the weight of high profile legal woes and ongoing investigations will eventually bog down his political aspirations.

“No one has ever done this before,” the person said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen here.”


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