Inside the Trump Campaign's Unusual Rise to the Top

The story of the Trump campaign.

— -- The day Donald Trump kicked off his campaign is the day that perhaps best set the stage for his entire candidacy -- unpredictable, always a show, with a slew of controversial moments.

In short -- it has been a campaign like no other.

Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 was electric. The building that was always open to the public become home to a closed affair for supporters (some of whom were paid actors). Green laminated cards read “Special Announcement” with "TRUMP," written all in caps. And in just a few short minutes, Trump, with his wife by his side, glided down the golden escalator, a trip he would often refer to as “the famous escalator ride," and announced he was in.

To be in Trump Tower that day, observers saw that Trump was going to do things his way. Staffers from the Trump Organization handed out four stapled sheets of paper that read “Remarks as Prepared for Delivery”. Trump never touched them. Instead he gave a rambling address hitting various topics -– trade, immigration, healthcare, President Obama’s record.

Controversy ensued with Trump calling some Mexican immigrants “rapists” that came to the United States illegally -– one of the themes that has defined his candidacy.


They joined by Trump’s longtime head of security -– Keith Schiller -– becoming the five people who would travel with Trump no matter where he went.

Aside from his hugely popular rallies, Trump used social media as a weapon, whipping up his supporters and tearing down his opponents 140 characters at a time on Twitter. He amassed a huge following and was able to communicate unfiltered at any time of the day or night. The other campaigns appeared unprepared for the onslaught, which energized his base.

Throughout the fall the polls had Trump up. At times, he was beating traditional Republican candidates by double-digits. Despite his moments of controversy, Trump held on.


On the day Trump announced his candidacy, he took off from New York’s LaGuardia airport bound for the very first state to vote in the nation during the primaries –- Iowa. "Trump Force One," his jumbo Boeing 757 office in the sky, touched down in Des Moines that Wednesday afternoon. The billionaire deplaned and was greeted by Chuck Laudner -– one of his first hires on the state level and one of only staffers with experience managing operations for a presidential campaign.

It was in Iowa that Trump gave some of the most memorable lines of the campaign trail including that he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue” and wouldn’t lose a single supporter. In Fort Dodge, Iowa, in November 2015, he went after (now supporter) Dr. Ben Carson and his stories of violence during his childhood. "How stupid are the people of Iowa to believe this crap?,” Trump asked the crowd. "He said he went after his mother to hit her on the head or he hit her on the head or he wanted to hit her on the head and I said , 'Wow' that’s tough, man did anybody in this audience ever go after their mother? This is in his book, this isn’t me I'm just trying to save you a cost of a book.”

In December -- on Pearl Harbor Day -- a controversy of Trump's own making struck again. During a rally in South Carolina in December, Trump made a solemn vow: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." He was denounced by Democrats, Republicans, even his running mate-to be, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence who said the ban was "offensive" and "unconstitutional."

Trump later appeared to soften his rhetoric, saying the ban pertained instead to "territories" in which radical Islam was rampant. Yet even still, to this day, his plan to temporarily ban all Muslims, is still on his website.

Trump had one of the highest-ever voter turnouts in Iowa caucus history with 45,427 residents voting for the first-time candidate. It was an impressive turnout, but there was a problem;, Texas Sen. Cruz had more. In his remarks that night, Trump was uncharacteristically humble saying he was “honored” by his supporters. He mused that he might even move to the Hawkeye State one day. “I think I might come here and buy a farm," he said. Trump left Iowa that night beaten, he had said many times even tweeting once “nobody remembers who came in second”. He didn’t speak to Laudner that night and still hasn’t to this day per sources with direct knowledge.

The next day a different story emerged as he began attacking Cruz for cheating, the beginning of one of the central arguments of his campaign -- the system was rigged.


In the wake of Iowa, it was time for Lewandowski to show his skills. New Hampshire was the home state of the campaign chief and the pressure was on. Trump stayed in the state the entire week leading up to the vote. Lewandowski got the Trump children to hold their own events -– Donald Trump Jr. and Eric even hosting a Super Bowl party at a Buffalo Wild Wings.

Trump held small rallies, town halls, and big rallies over that week, all the while receiving an unprecedented amount of media coverage. The last night he cut loose a little bit, joined by his family and got himself into a bit of trouble. "She just said a terrible thing. You know what she said? Shout it out because I don't wanna,” Trump said as a woman in the crowd said a bad word, referring to Cruz. "I never expect to hear that from you again. She said he’s a p---- that’s terrible. Terrible,” Trump said throwing his hands in the air.

That next day, he went on to win the Granite State with 35 percent of the vote. Second place was half way behind that with 15 percent, John Kasich.


As the campaign moved south, the man who said "I love to win" just couldn't stop. South Carolina, Nevada; his campaign was winning in states in which pollsters long thought he had no chance. And as Trump kept going -– the 17 men and woman he ran against were dropping. Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie left the race as did Bush, the establishment candidate who never was able to recover from his debate performances in the face of Trump's "low-energy" onslaught.

Wisconsin was Trump’s firewall -- home to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan –- and he was confident he would win it. Yet his support with women was sagging; it was time to call in his wife, Melania. The Slovenian-born former model was unaccustomed to the stage, forgoing many of the duties of a typical campaign wife.

"I’m very proud of him," she said. "He is a hard worker, he’s kind, he has a great heart, he’s tough, he’s smart, he’s a great communicator, he’s a great negotiator, he’s telling the truth, he’s a great leader, he’s fair. As you may know by now, when you attack him, he will punch back ten times harder,” she said to applause as part of her short scripted speech.

"No matter who you are, a man, or a woman, he treats everyone equal,” Melania Trump added. Indeed, she was correct. Trump made waves when he retweeted a photo of his wife juxtaposed with an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz's wife. Cruz called on Trump to apologize.

Trump, though he expressed regret, still has not apologized to Cruz.

The next morning Trump would go on to lose Wisconsin to Cruz, and his campaign spiraled into frenzy.


Few Republicans were around the last time there was a war over delegates -- 1976. One of the few? Paul Manafort. He had worked under former GOP nominee Bob Dole, was a friend of billionaire and Trump confidant Tom Barrack in addition to being a former partner of Roger Stone (the long time political guru behind Trump). Manafort was tasked with getting the Republican support in line, cleaning up relationships with feathers Trump ruffled. Yet there was another goal.

Trump’s children were now more involved than ever. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner was empowered with control of the budget. The real estate mogul’s children were uncomfortable with Lewandowski. Staff complained about the campaign manager and his temper, fearing he lost control of the ship. Manafort’s power grew. The daily TV interview Trump conducted was dead. Instead he would do a rally and bolt and was no longer doing interviews or daily press conferences.

Two months on the job with the nomination all but locked, Manafort’s role was changed. A convention manager was no longer needed -– a campaign leader was required. Trump elevated Manafort to Campaign Chairman and Chief Strategist.

Lewandowski was fired in late June after clashing with staff and Trump’s children. He was dismissed in an effort chiefly led by Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner.

Manafort’s vision was to create a theme a week for the candidate to focus on. But after what appeared to be a lackluster convention, it was clear Manafort was losing control. Trump, who had been on his best behavior finally let go the morning after he accepted his party’s nomination, where Cruz spoke, but declined to endorse. Trump, in a Friday morning event aimed to thank volunteers and supporters instead used the opportunity to go after Cruz. "Honestly, he may have ruined his political career. I feel so badly. I feel so badly,” Trump said, later adding "I didn't start anything with [Cruz's] wife.”


Trump’s controversies were his maelstrom, hovering over his candidacy and threatening to derail it amid renewed criticisms of xenophobia and racism. In the ongoing lawsuit concerning now-defunct Trump University, Trump took aim at the judge on the case, Gonzalo Curiel.

During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said that Curiel had an "absolute conflict of interest" due to his Mexican heritage. Curiel, who was born in Indiana, was appointed to the Superior Court of San Diego by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then appointed to the federal court by President Obama. Trump, in true fashion, refused to back down in the face of widespread criticism from both sides of the aisle, even as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (who, the day earlier just announced his support for Trump) told ABC News Trump’s remarks were "sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment."

It did not end there.

During the Democratic Convention, Khizr Khan, the father of slain Muslim-American soldier, Capt. Humayun Khan, took the stage and railed against Trump. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America,” Khan said, addressing Trump. “You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” He also ask if Trump had read the Constitution, holding up a copy of the document.

To many, Khizr Khan was a Gold Star father, a man whose loss afforded him dignity and respect. But to Trump, he was a man who had insulted him, and any insult deserved retribution. In an interview with ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos, Trump suggested that Khizr Khan's wife, who also took the stage with him, didn't speak because of her religion.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said. “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say.” He refused to apologize and said “I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs."

His staff tried to no avail to convince him to simply apologize, to express remorse to the family who had lost so much. To this day, Trump still has not specifically apologized to the Khans.

And there was another problem looming over Trump. Many remembered him as the one who began the birther controversy, the lie that President Obama, the nation's first black president, was not born in the United States. Trump had tweeted about the issue for years after the president took the step of releasing his birth certificate in 2011 but had never denounced it.

As questions grew fiercer in September, when he once again refused to acknowledge that the president was a natural-born citizen, he scheduled a press conference. Media shuttled into the back as a line of veterans flanked Trump. After nearly 30 minutes of them singing his praise, Trump declared, "Now, not to mention her in the same breath, but Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States period." He gave no further details on how he came to the conclusion, despite perpetuating otherwise. Politifact rates the claim that Clinton started the birther movement false.


It was an issue his campaign was eager to get past. There was one final iteration of the campaign to go with longtime pollster Kellyanne Conway taking over as campaign manager, a role left vacant since Lewandowski got axed. In addition to Conway, Breitbart Chief Steve Bannon was named Campaign Chief Executive Officer. Manafort issued a memo to staff saying he would “remain” on as campaign chairman, though he resigned days later after the New York Times published stories of his alleged dealings with the Ukraine government. Unlike Lewandowski, Manafort has not done interviews and several sources say he has advised Trump from time to time.

Conway took control of media, an area the campaign had struggled with. Bannon remained the silent operator, but his touches were evident.

Days after the new team was put in place, Trump did something he has never done throughout his journeys across the country -– he expressed regret. “Sometimes, in the heat of debate, and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that, and believe it or not I regret it,” Trump told the crowd gathered in Charlotte. “And I do regret it particularly where it may have caused personal pain.” Though not specific and not an apology, it was the first time he had a reflective moment.

After Clinton was caught on camera during a fundraiser saying some of Trump's supporters should be put in a "basket of deplorables," Trump (steered by Bannon) seized on the name. Even at one rally in Florida, he took the stage to the theme song from “Les Miserables” with an image behind his podium that resembled a scene from the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the Republican nominee ratcheted up his attacks on Bill Clinton, specifically targeting the former President’s past with women, including decades-old rape allegations.


In the final round of this journey, both Clinton and Donald Trump have suffered speed bumps. On a bombshell video from 2005, Trump was caught on a hot mic telling former "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush about touching and kissing women, in a lewd way, at one point saying he had license to "grab them by the p----." The video drew outrage from the Clinton camp and a strong rebuke from Republicans -– many of whom revoked their endorsements. Trump initially chalked his comments up to "locker room banter" but later apologized for the remarks. But his troubles weren't over. The video was coupled with nearly a dozen women who came forward claiming Trump had sexually assaulted them. Trump vehemently denied the allegations, calling the stories "phony," deriding the women, insulting one’s looks and calling another “horrible.”

In the wake of the allegations, Trump slipped in the polls, but Clinton was hit with twin October bombshells. First was a series of emails from Wikileaks that exposed the inner workings of her campaign and allowed Trump and his team to raise questions about pay-for-play, the integrity of the Clinton Foundation and other issues. Second, the FBI announced on Oct. 28 that it was reviewing emails that were potentially related to the probe into Clinton's use of a private email server. Very little information was released about the emails, but Trump seized on them, saying that Clinton classified information would likely be found and it's "likely to yield a very very serious charge or an indictment."

The renewed focus on Clinton's emails, an issue that has dogged her throughout the campaign coincided with the race tightening dramatically. In the days after the news broke, Trump pulled into a statistical dead heat with Clinton in ABC News tracking polls and a number of states started to shift to his favor. In the final days before the election, Trump's path to victory appears wider and the emboldened candidate was making a push in traditionally blue states.


In October, Trump told a Green Bay, Wisc. crowd: “If I don't win, it will be the greatest waste of time, energy and money… oh what a waste.” It has been a refrain throughout his campaign, even during the primaries. But as the race tightens and victory is within reach, Trump, in the final week of his campaign, mused aloud about a potential victory and how best to achieve it.

“Stay on point Donald, stay on point,” he told a crowd in Pensacola, Fla. It seems to be a line right out of his advisers’ playbook, a fervent hope that the nominee could focus on the issues that catapulted him to his surprise success.

With four days until the election, Trump appears to be staying on message. The worry is that such focus may be untenable. At the end of the day, what has led Trump to this moment, in all its unpredictability, excitement, and controversy, is one single mantra; “Let Trump be Trump”...for better or for worse.