Top aide departs Trump campaign

Story highlights

  • The abrupt split drew attention to ongoing power struggles
  • Wiley did not respond to CNN's requests for comment

(CNN)A quiet war is still brewing inside Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The presumptive Republican nominee's top two campaign advisers and their respective factions have been grappling for months for power and influence, a contentious tug of war that resurfaced into public view on Wednesday when the campaign abruptly split with its political director, Rick Wiley.
The tensions, which have been percolating since veteran GOP strategist Paul Manafort joined the campaign in late March, have roiled the campaign in recent weeks as it works to expand its infrastructure to prepare for a bruising fall campaign, multiple GOP and Trump campaign sources told CNN.
    The rush to swell the campaign's ranks has pitted Manafort and the campaign's new guard, including Wiley, against Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who has fought to keep much of his original staff in place.
    Several sources said Lewandowski, who helped Trump launch his convention-defying presidential campaign, clashed with Wiley over staffing for the general election, triggering Wiley's exit.
    The rift between Wiley and Lewandowski -- most recently evidenced over the campaign's leadership in the crucial battleground state of Florida -- reached a boiling point on Wednesday, according to two Republican sources familiar with Wiley's exit, and campaign chairman and chief strategist Manafort called Wiley on Wednesday to tell him Trump wanted to fire him.
    Two campaign sources said Wiley was fired. Wiley did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.
    Lewandowski denied that there was any "tension" with him and Manafort.
    "There is absolutely no tension between" me and Paul Manafort, Lewandowski told CNN. "I have been exceptionally inclusive. My phone is always on for any member of the team. Anyone on the team can always bring any question or concern to my attention without fear of retribution."
    Manafort did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
    Wiley's exit notched a victory for Lewandowski, proving that the hard-charging strategist still has Trump's ear, two sources close to the campaign said.
    But the scoreboard has been a mixed one as Trump recently elevated Manafort, who was brought on as convention manager, to the position of campaign chairman and chief strategist -- giving Manafort more leverage in his quarrels with Lewandowski over how to forge a path to victory. And while Lewandowski was able to force Wiley's exit, three sources close to the campaign said Manafort now holds most power and authority within the campaign.
    "The title just gave him the ability to do what he was already doing (making top decisions for campaign) without complication," a senior adviser to the campaign said.
    The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to more freely discuss the internal campaign strife.

    Behind Wiley's exit

    The campaign claimed in a statement Wednesday that Wiley, the former campaign manager to Scott Walker's presidential bid, had been hired "on a short-term basis as a consultant until the campaign was running full steam."
    But there were no signs to suggest that Wiley had been hired on a temporary basis.
    Wiley had been working in the last week to fill state director roles in battleground states by next month and was making it clear that state directors would report to him, three Republican sources said.
    "This all goes back to the Manafort-Lewandowski fight," said a GOP campaign veteran familiar with the growing tensions within the campaign. "Wiley was trying to bring in experienced operatives who knew what the hell they were doing."
    Wiley's effort to bring in new staffers irked Lewandowski, who wanted Trump's original team to take the lead in prominent battleground states, the source said.
    Wiley most notably clashed with the campaign's Florida state director Karen Giorno, a Lewandowski hire, according to two Republicans familiar with Wiley's exit.
    "Florida was the tip of the iceberg," one operative said, adding that Wiley's bottom line was essentially, "either you let me do this my way with people who can actually do the job or there's no point continuing this."
    The campaign declined to say whether Wiley was fired or if he quit and Wiley did not respond to requests for comment.
    "Statement stands for itself," Lewandowski told CNN.
    Wiley was hired amid worries that the campaign was not sufficiently targeting its ground game efforts in order to clinch the needed 1,237 delegates at a time when a contested convention was becoming increasingly likely.
    But a source close to the campaign told CNN that Wiley's departure was only a matter of time and that there was a feeling Wiley wasn't doing enough to help the campaign.
    "It's been in the works for a while," the source said. "Trump was getting calls from people saying that Wiley wasn't returning their calls."
    With his deep ties to the Republican establishment -- he had formerly served as the RNC's national political director -- Wiley had been viewed as an important bridge between the Trump campaign and party headquarters.

    Campaign tensions

    Until the Wiley's exit, some campaign aides had begun to believe that rivalry between Manafort and Lewandowski was cooling off and the two had begun to work in tandem, one campaign source said.
    But the split made clear the power struggle is alive and well -- and several sources indicated that members of both camps are now operating as though they have a target on their back.
    Reports of friction -- between Manafort and his hires and Lewandowski and the campaign's old guard -- emerged almost immediately after Trump brought on Manafort to help lead the campaign into what they dubbed a "new phase" -- one that heralded a professionalization of the campaign operation.
    But while Lewandowski enabled Trump into sticking to his brash style and unconventional tactics, Manafort has pushed for changes that would make Trump and his campaign more traditional.
    And as fears of a brokered convention slowly dissipated and then suddenly evaporated with Trump's victory in the Indiana primary, Lewandowski recovered much of his influence.
    Trump tapped Lewandowski to oversee the vice presidential search and vetting process the day before his meetings with Republican lawmakers in Washington, an announcement that drew concerned glances from several of those lawmakers who were more comfortable with Manafort's more traditional hand calling the shots, a source familiar with meetings said.
    The announcement also hurt Trump's relationship with Ben Carson, a presidential rival turned trusted surrogate, who had not been told that Lewandowski would be running the search and was taken aback. A source close to Carson said up until that point the retired neurosurgeon had only been speaking with Manafort.
    The news was further exacerbated by a belief among many in the campaign that Lewandowski leaked the news himself, a campaign source and senior adviser to the campaign said.
    And there has also been media sniping that came to a head this week after the New York Post reported on a shouting match on a public street in New York between Lewandowski and Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks -- a report Lewandowski blamed on his rivals in and around the campaign, a campaign source told CNN.
    But Lewandowski's role in the vice presidential process also gave Manafort the leverage to secure his role as campaign chairman, which Manafort had been angling for after facing push back on several decisions from Lewandowski, campaign sources said.
    Lewandowski has long been wary of Manafort because of his longtime relationship and closeness to Trump's informal political adviser Roger Stone, who quarreled with Lewandowski during his brief stint as an official campaign adviser last summer before he and Trump publicly split ways.
    Stone has made no secret of his dislike for Lewandowski and has publicly disagreed with some of the campaign's decisions under Lewandowski's leadership and Lewandowski believes Manafort is working with Stone to try and force him from the campaign, according to a source familiar with the internal tensions.