Dispatch, Explainers July 27, 2018

Trump Ran the Trump Campaign: “For Donald Trump it’s always about control”

The simplest explanation for the entire Russia investigation is that President Donald Trump had a decades-long relationship with Kremlin-linked Russians and openly accepted their help in the 2016 election.

Yet, as the investigation unfolded, a common pushback to revelations about the 82 known contacts between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-linked figures has been that Trump may have simply not have known. Perhaps Trump was an innocent bystander on his own campaign; he opposes Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the logic goes, not because he is guilty but because it threatens the perceived legitimacy of his election. This exculpatory explanation was offered again and again by commentators after Helsinki.

But recent news that, according to his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump knew about the June 9, 2016, meeting in advance, and that he personally approved secret hush-money payments to prevent public disclosure of an affair days before the election, reveal a simple truth: Trump ran the Trump campaign.

The president’s tweet-denial is hardly believable as it is, but even if he were telling the truth about this one instance, it’s still completely obvious that he knew about the collusion writ large.

For more than a year and a half during the campaign, report after report told the public that Trump ran his campaign exactly like he ran his businesses: by placing himself at the center of every major decision. This wasn’t just sycophantic surrogates pumping up his image on television; off-the-record and anonymous sources and outside reporting corroborate the impression of Trump’s tight control over his campaign.

The idea that Trump stayed entirely above the fray and was not involved in the biggest decision of the campaign—whether to coordinate with the Russian government—goes against everything we know about his leadership style. A clear pattern of behavior runs through both his private-sector career and the leadership of his campaign: Trump was fully in charge.

According to his top aides, Trump was “running the campaign.”

  • Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort: “Donald Trump is running this campaign. And I’m working directly for Donald Trump.” (Meet the Press,” April 10, 2016)
  • Campaign Manager Corey Lewandowski: “Mr. Trump is the final arbiter of what goes on in this campaign. He decides what the messaging is. That will not change regardless of my involvement or anyone else’s involvement in the campaign.” (NBC, April 2016)
  • Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway: “It’s his campaign. He’s the candidate.” (New York Magazine, October 2016)
  • Ed Rollins, who ran the pro-Trump super-PAC: “He’s always the man in charge … watching it all and seeing it all.” (The Washington Post, May 2016)
  • A former campaign aide: Trump was constantly monitoring his campaign, “[checking] in on things when you don’t expect him.” (The Washington Post, May 2016)
  • A Republican familiar with Trump’s campaign: “He controls all content in his campaign. He dictates the press releases. He decides what reporters he wants to see. He is his own strategist and his own message maker.” (The Guardian, December 2015)

Contemporary examinations of the campaign’s unusual structure consistently placed Trump at the center of the decision-making process.

  • Trump is “his own chief strategist, campaign spokesman and overseer of day-to-day operations.” (The Los Angeles Times, June 2016)
  • Donald Trumpis a candidate without a campaign” and the “Candidate’s team has complete reliance on Trump.” Additionally, “they set up this structure where no one is really allowed to speak on behalf of the candidate except the candidate.” (NBC, June 2016)
  • “Donald Trump is obsessed with being in control […] At every turn, the GOP presidential front-runner tries to be the top boss. He rarely puts himself in situations where he is not in control.” (The Washington Post, January 2016)
  • Trump has “singular control […] Trump’s campaign is unusual for the candidate’s singular control over its daily message, which thwarts attempts at traditional discipline.” (CNBC, August 2016)
  • Trump “personally reviewed every single campaign ad, rejecting some over the smallest of perceived flaws.” (Associated Press, November 2016)
  • “Trump is known to take direct responsibility for the content of his train-of-thought press releases, his political strategy and, to use one of his favorite words, the ‘tone’ of his quixotic pursuit of the presidency.” (The Guardian, April 2016)
  • Even attempts by his daughter, Ivanka, to manage him often fell flat—the article reported that it “proved impossible, even for her, to keep him on message.” (New York Magazine, October 2016)

As a candidate, Trump’s campaign did what Trump wanted—even when advisors thought that was the wrong approach. Notable examples:

  • The Trump campaign poured resources into New York. This was an obviously doomed effort but was done solely because “Trump was adamant to aides and associates that he want[ed] to win his home state in the November election.” (The New York Times, June 2016)
  • Trump was known to explicitly contradict advisers and surrogates. For example, after Trump’s racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, surrogates received instructions to avoid the topic in televised appearances to avoid stirring up further controversy. Trump reportedly overruled the instructions, telling surrogates on a conference call to “take that order and throw it the hell out.” (Bloomberg, June 2016)
  • Trump ignored advisors on the response to the “Access Hollywood” tape. After hours of deliberation about how to respond to the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape, Trump, reflecting his lifelong unwillingness to apologize, released a videotaped response that “did not reflect the several hours of conference calls and strategy meetings about his top aides” but instead called the controversy a “distraction” and pivoted to attack the Clintons. (The New York Times, October 2016)
  • Trump overruled his advisors. In October, facing a growing chorus of women accusing him of sexual misconduct, Trump, “over the firm objections of his top advisers … insisted on using the occasion to issue a remarkable threat: that he would sue all of the women who had gone public with the accusations.” (The New York Times, October 2016)

Trump ran his campaign like his business, where he was described as a famous micromanager, making himself the ultimate arbiter of even the smallest details and placing a high value on “being the boss.”


  • He micromanaged his business. Interviews with twelve former Trump employees depicted Trump as “a businessman obsessed with minute detail, prone to micromanagement, who takes little interest in the diversity of his executives or the welfare of lower-level employees.” (The Guardian, March 2016)
  • Trump was involved in the small details of ‘The Apprentice.’ “The Apprentice” remade Trump’s image after his financial struggles in the 1990s and early 2000s, and as the show took off, “Trump became more involved in both the production of the program and its promotion. With each passing week, he grew more serious about the show, devoted more time to it, and became a close student of its audience demographics.” (Fortune, September 2016)
  • He was “hands-on” and detail-oriented. Trump’s management style has been described as “hands-on” and “minutiae-obsessed.” Trump not only involved himself in the smallest details of his company’s construction projects but could also recall those details even decades later. (Associated Press, November 2016)


  • Trump made the final decisions. Blanche Sprague, a former “high-powered executive” at the Trump Organization, said “Donald, in the end, did everything … No matter how smart you might be, it was Donald” who made the final decision. Other former employees recalled how he involved himself in minor details during property renovations.
  • In fact, he “made almost all the decisions.” In December 2016, Emily Flitter of Reuters reported that “interviews with a dozen people familiar with how Trump conducts business reveal the president-elect as a micromanager who regularly spars over details about decor in projects across his real estate and branding empire.” Among those quoted are Trump himself, who, during a June 2016 deposition for a lawsuit regarding his Washington D.C. hotel, stated, “I’m very much involved in the details,” and Hope Hicks, who described Trump as “incredibly detail oriented.” Flitter also notes that Trump transferred his micromanagement style from his business to his campaign, citing three campaign sources as saying that “Trump made almost all the decisions on spending, strategy, and messaging.”
  • Trump was the hub of the wheel. One former business partner noted that Trump was involved in the smallest details in the projects. Trump reportedly had “the final say on most deals, especially involving his own money. He has signed the licensing agreements, the leases—and the big checks.” One former Trump executive described the Trump Organization as the hub of a wheel, with Trump right in the middle.
  • Trump: the center of all decisions. Adam Davidson of The New Yorker, who has reported extensively on the Trump Organization, noted on Twitter, “One of the great challenges of covering the Trump Org is that nobody–not one person–knew all the things Trump was doing and had agreed to … Trump was the only person who was aware of all the things he had assigned.”

Both Trump’s own staff and real-time coverage show that Trump ran his campaign like he ran his businesses. It defies logic that he would have been out of the loop regarding the campaign’s most important decision—whether to collude with Russia—and would be completely unaware of the frequent, sustained communication and coordination between campaign officials and Russia-linked figures. It just doesn’t add up.

As the Mueller investigation closes in on the highest levels of Trump’s orbit, Trump himself cannot be let off the hook.