Meet Donald Trump's new inner circle

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump has dismissed longtime aides and elevated a new flock of political operatives
  • Campaign hopes a professional, albeit non-traditional, campaign could be the key to victory

Washington (CNN)Donald Trump's campaign is tired of being a punch line.

In recent weeks, Trump's team has been plagued by staff infighting, inappropriate remarks and, of course, firings. Now that Trump, the billionaire businessman at the center of it all, has dismissed longtime aides and elevated a new flock of political operatives, his camp is trying to start a new phase.
"If we're going to run a different campaign, we don't need advice from people who know how campaigns were run two years ago, eight years ago, 20 years ago," said Chuck Laudner, Trump's Iowa state director. "We don't need an army of consultants."
    In any presidential campaign, staff shakeups are often bitter and uncomfortable. In Trump's, they are also public battles -- a war of words, often coupled with the threat of lawsuits.
    The departure of Roger Stone, Trump's longtime political adviser, over the weekend was no different. While a Trump spokesperson insisted he was fired, Stone and his associates said he quit after being unable to rein in the candidate.
    Regardless of the circumstances, Stone's departure cleared a wing of veteran Trump aides that played key roles in supporting his presidential flirtations. And it's giving rise to a circle of operatives -- led by campaign manager Corey Lewandowski -- who are hoping a professional, albeit non-traditional, campaign could be the key to victory.
    Lewandowski rebuffed the idea that the departures of Stone and his associate Sam Nunberg were a changing of the guard. But he also pointed to his own hires, such as Laudner and the newly retained political director Michael Glassner, as a signal of where the campaign is headed.
    "If you look at the level of professionalism that those people have brought to the table, these are the individuals that we have built this campaign around," Lewandwoski said.
    The Trump playbook comes with fewer demands than a traditional campaign. There is little fundraising urgency because the candidate is billionaire. The former reality TV star turned politician is a constant media attraction, making television ads redundant. And travel logistics are a cinch, thanks to Trump's private jet.
    But the core of the campaign comes back to basics: Ground game is king, aides said.
    To make it work, Trump is relying on a mix of seasoned campaign operatives and political neophytes.
    Laudner, for instance, is an Iowa campaign veteran who engineered former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's surprise victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Both Lewandowski and Trump's New Hampshire state director previously worked for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group lauded for its sophisticated efforts on the ground. Glassner pitched in on John McCain's presidential bid in 2008, George W. Bush's in 2000 and former Sen. Bob Dole's 1988 and 1996 campaigns.
    Newbies are sprinkled throughout the organization, too. Hope Hicks, the campaign spokeswoman, has a corporate communications background. Tana Goertz, a former contestant on "The Apprentice," is serving as one of Trump's Iowa co-chairs. Ed McMullen, who runs a public relations firm and is one of Trump's South Carolina co-chairs, is one of a number of state operatives coming from the private sector. The Trump children, particularly his daughter Ivanka and his son Eric, offer the campaign another unique perspective.
    "What I love about so many of the people that are working on this campaign is they're not political hacks," McMullen said.
    The result is a ground game with a Trump twist.
    In New Hampshire, aides wear Trump t-shirts to the local Wal-Mart and wait for fans to approach. And in Iowa, on top of the usual hot spots, Team Trump has been staking out "brewfests and baconfests and any other kinds of fests we could think of," to recruit supporters beyond traditional caucus-goers, Laudner said.
    For many, it's their first foray into presidential politics. "Born and raised, lived their whole life in Iowa," and their first question is, "What's a caucus?" Laudner said.
    His challenge is turning newly engaged Trump supporters into campaign warriors. That's why Trump's staffers have been tooling around Iowa in a van, doling out caucus kits and offering a crash course in campaigning 101.
    "You have to convince them there's no secret handshake," Laudner said. "We have so many supporters out there that we have to train if they're going to be caucus captains and take charge in their precinct."
    Laudner said Trump already has about 10 staffers in Iowa. Meanwhile, Glassner, the political director, is in the process of interviewing potential staffers to bolster their operations in other states, staffers said.
    In South Carolina, McMullen said the campaign would step up the traditional ground game with the help of new technology "that has never been seen in a Republican primary before."
    He declined to offer specifics, adding, "it will be the most cutting edge campaign in the state of South Carolina."
    Staffers in the early states said they've seen little impact from the past few weeks of tumult, during which Trump split from three of his aides. Instead, they applauded the leadership of aides like Glassner and Lewandowski. The duo doesn't tend to micromanage, instead leaving the early state work to operatives on the ground, staffers said.
    "We interact regularly with New York," McMullen said, but "it's not a top-down dictatorial situation at all."
    So could this be the end of staff turmoil among Team Trump?
    Asked whether any other staff splits were on the horizon, Lewandowski said, "not that I know of."