- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

CLEVELAND | Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was hired to bring a steady hand, professionalism and competence Donald Trump’s presidential operation, but the first two days of the GOP convention signaled the campaign remains clumsy.

The opening day’s message was drowned out by the botched handling of Melania Trump’s speech, part of which the campaign admitted Wednesday was cribbed from first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 remarks.

But before the admission, Mr. Manafort, calling the accusations “absurd,” had insisted the words were Mrs. Trump‘s, and blamed Hillary Clinton’s campaign for stirring trouble.

Former Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele said the Trump campaign’s response was “unfortunate,” saying nobody believed the Clinton excuse.

“I think that was a deer in the headlights moment, where you didn’t have all of the facts internally to know exactly what was what,” Mr. Steele said.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist, said the Manafort response turned a one day story into a three day story.

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“By denying it was a mistake you extend the story and especially in a convention week, when every minute matters, you can’t extend stories,” he said. “You have to put a lid on them and flush them down the toilet.”

A month ago, Mr. Manafort became the face of team Trump after the New York billionaire fired Corey Lewandowski, a New Hampshire operative who had run the campaign with a mantra of “Let Trump Be Trump.”

Republicans hoped that the campaign would operate in a more traditional manner with Mr. Manafort at the helm given his experience with conventional campaigns.

Mr. Trump has ramped up his fundraising operation and delivered more scripted attacks against Mrs. Clinton. And he’s added more speeches delivered from teleprompter.

With the help of the Republican National Committee, Mr. Manafort and the Trump team also suffocated last ditch attempts from disgruntled delegates to block Mr. Trump from winning the party’s nomination.

Mr. Manafort’s marching orders during the efforts were clear: Whatever RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wants, the Trump campaign wants.

Still, the convention has drawn complaints of being unwieldy and unfocused, and Mrs. Trump’s speech seemed emblematic of a chaotic approach to self-inflicted gaffes.

That follows criticism over the awkward rollout of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as Mr. Trump’s running mate, as well as questions about why Mrs. Trump did not close out the opening evening.

Instead, she was followed by retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who rambled on for so long that by the convention hall was nearly empty by the time Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a star of the 2014 election, took the stage.

Some Republicans also questioned Mr. Manafort’s decision to publicly blast the Bush family and Ohio Gov. John Kasich for skipping the convention.

“I realize John Kasich can be surly sometimes, but if you are the Trump campaign you cannot go on the attack of John Kasich, the governor of Ohio — a state that you have to win,” said Austin Barbour, a Republican strategist. “You cannot go attack him.

“At some point in time they have to prove they can run a campaign in an effective way to get people thinking they can run a country as well,” Mr. Barbour said.

Mr. Manafort has had a hand in presidential politics since 1976 when he helped President Gerald Ford fend off Ronald Reagan, who he later worked for before the 1980 race. He went on to play a lead role in the 1988 and 1996 nominations of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.

Mr. Steele said he expects as Mr. Manafort catches up to speed on modern campaigning he will do better.

“A lot has changed,” Mr. Steele said. “The speed of the game has changed, the communication of the game has changed.”

“Reacting and responding to that, as we have seen with the situation with Melania, is sometimes very slow, and bifurcated, where the party says one thing, the campaign says something else,” he said.

Mr. Steele, though, said Mr. Manafort deserves credit for “bringing a asymmetrical player into the context of a conventional setting in running a campaign — sort of reigning in this idea of letting Trump be Trump and sort of giving context and form to the message.”

Strategists said given the challenges of a candidate like Mr. Trump there is a limit to how much Mr. Manafort can control.

“So if it is dysfunctional campaign it is because it is a dysfunctional candidate, and you can paper over some of that with a well run campaign, but ultimately it is not up to the campaign manager, as much it is the candidate,” said Kevin Sheridan, a GOP strategist.

“[Manafort] hasn’t fixed the problem and I don’t think Trump wants to fix the problem,” Mr. Sheridan said. “I think this is the campaign that Trump wants to run.”

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