Donald Trump's 27-day spiral: From convention bounce to campaign overhaul

Updated 5:53 AM ET, Thu August 18, 2016

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(CNN)Twenty-seven days after his coronation in Cleveland and post-convention bounce, Donald Trump's prospects appear to be dwindling -- a precipitous decline he sought to reverse on Wednesday with a major shakeup of top campaign staff.

Weighed down by a dizzying string of successive and overlapping controversies, verbal spats, and political missteps, Trump saw his brief advantage evaporate in a haze of conflicts with everyone from the parents of a slain Muslim-American war hero and the most powerful elected official in Republican politics to a crying baby.
And that was just the beginning.
Divergent storylines have become so muddled together it is now hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. The lone certainty, it often seems, is that there is another quarrel on the horizon.
Last week, the nominee set off alarm bells across the political spectrum with comments suggesting "Second Amendment people" could step up as a last line of defense against Clinton and her potential judicial appointees. That mess was hardly settled by the time Trump launched a new attack on President Barack Obama, repeatedly calling him the "founder" of ISIS -- curious phrasing he clung to for days before seeking to defuse critics with an attack on reporters he said "don't get sarcasm."
Now, with the candidate short on room for error, a gamble: Trump has brought in a new chief executive and campaign manager to right the ship. Let's look back at how we got here.

First, a bounce

    It's almost hard to remember the hot summer night in Cleveland almost four weeks ago, when Trump accepted the Republican party's presidential nomination with a dire warning -- and a sober promise.
    The country is in decline, he told an approving audience of Republican delegates, cracking up domestically while its citizens are forced to endure "one international humiliation after another."
    Reversing the rot would require something special. Quite simply, it would require Donald Trump.
    "I alone can fix" the broken and corrupt political system, he said, before declaring to the more than 32 million watching at home, "I am your voice."
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    Reviews among pundits and voters were predictably split, but the post-convention polls suggested a significant net gain for him. For the first time since 2000, a presidential nominee had emerged from his party's grand powwow with a meaningful bounce -- 6 points, according to a CNN/ORC poll, enough to put him three points ahead of Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup.
    As the Democrats gathered in Philadelphia to rebut Trump and make their own case, many skeptical Republicans were beginning to cast an optimistic eye on their new nominee. The long awaited "pivot" to the general election campaign no longer felt like wishful thinking -- Trump and his campaign seemed poised to hammer at Clinton's weaknesses while presenting the billionaire businessman as the only candidate with the particular experience and bravado to lead a revival.

    The spiral begins

      The unraveling began quietly, by Trump standards, on the morning after his convention speech. Clearly irked by his former primary rival Ted Cruz's decision to withhold an endorsement during a prime-time speech earlier in the week, the nominee at a news conference revived a conspiracy theory that tied the Texas senator's father to President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
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      "I think he's a lovely guy, a lovely guy," Trump said of Rafael Cruz. "All I did was point out the fact that on the cover of the National Enquirer, there was a picture of him and crazy Lee Harvey Oswald having breakfast. Now, Ted never denied that it was his father."
      The off-script -- and baseless -- accusation was mostly overshadowed by a leak of hacked Democratic National Committee emails that threatened to throw Trump's opponents into crisis on the eve of their own convention in Philadelphia. But the combined effect of well-received speeches by party favorites like Michelle Obama and an odd press conference thousands of miles away in Florida brought the focus back to the Republican nominee.

      Message for Moscow?

      It was Wednesday, July 27, about halfway through the Democratic convention, when Trump made his appeal.
      "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails (from Hillary Clinton's private server) that are missing," Trump said, nodding to Moscow's alleged role in the DNC hack. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."
        The campaign denied that Trump had invited a foreign power to interfere in the election, even as he tweeted, "If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton's 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!"
        The episode raised new questions -- and stoked dormant concerns -- about Trump's apparent soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his campaign chairman Paul Manafort's past work as a consultant to the Moscow-backed former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich. When Trump told ABC News days later that Putin was "not going into Ukraine" if he was elected, another prolonged scramble followed, along with a tweeted clarification -- the Russians would not, he explained, go beyond their current annexation of Crimea.

        Trump vs. the Khans

        On the final night of the DNC, the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed by suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004, took the stage in Philadelphia to deliver their stern verdict on the Republican nominee.
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        "Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution?" the soldier's father, Khizr Khan, said, reaching into his jacket to pull out a pocket-size version, then making his now famous offer: "I will gladly lend you my copy."
        The speech was a hit inside the arena and on liberal social media. Trump took notice. Two days later, he responded in an interview with ABC News. To Khan's remark that Trump has "sacrificed nothing," the nominee argued that he had indeed "made a lot of sacrifices."
        "I work very, very hard," Trump said. "I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've done -- I've had tremendous success."
        The he moved on to Ghazala Khan, the soldier's mother, who stood quietly as her husband spoke.
        "His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say," Trump said. "Maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say."
          By the next morning, Khan would have her say -- on Trump. In a Washington Post op-ed published Sunday, July 31, she explained her silence.
          "Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself," she wrote. "What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?"
          The back-and-forth continued through the weekend and into Monday, when Trump in a pair of early morning tweets criticized Khizr Khan for being "all over the place doing interviews."
          Along with elected officials from both parties, the newly minted leader of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation's largest veterans organization, slammed Trump.
          "Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression," Brian Duffy said in a statement released just hours after 11 more of those families published a letter demanding Trump apologize.

          Taking on Paul Ryan -- and plummeting poll numbers

          Compared to some of his Republican colleagues, House Speaker Paul Ryan's response to Trump's comments about the Khans was fairly tame. He tweeted a statement noting his disapproval of Trump's proposed Muslim immigration ban and saying, "(Capt. Khan's) sacrifice -- and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan -- should always be honored."
            Trump, who has come under criticism from Ryan repeatedly even after securing his endorsement, wasn't quite so restrained. The next day, Aug. 1, not long after a new CNN/ORC poll showed Clinton having regained her lead -- 52% to 43% when pitted only against Trump -- he tweeted praise for the speaker's primary opponent.
            Meanwhile, Trump launched a new round of increasingly scattershot attacks at rallies in Ohio and Pennsylvania, first suggesting to supporters that the general election would be "rigged" against him, then calling Clinton "the devil." Over the next 24 hours he would contend with a controversy surrounding comments he -- and then son Eric -- made about sexual harassment in the workplace, lose the backing of a GOP congressman to Clinton and be ridiculed for saying he had "always wanted to get the Purple Heart" after one was gifted to him at a rally, before adding that receiving one that way was "much easier" than the alternative.
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            There was even a brief kerfuffle over his apparent -- if joking, as he later claimed -- request that a crying baby be removed from a campaign event.
            And yet, it would get worse.
            In an Aug. 2 interview with the Washington Post, Trump pointedly refused to endorse Ryan and Sen. John McCain in their primary contests. In Ryan's case, Trump even used the speaker's own language -- from early May -- saying he was "not quite there yet."
            The comments, a source told CNN's Dana Bash, had infuriated RNC chair Reince Priebus, who like his close friend Ryan had tried to maintain a narrow balancing act -- formally supporting Trump while simultaneously condemning or rejecting his most incendiary rhetoric -- in the midst of almost daily political storms.
            The drama had begun to weigh on the campaign, too, as whispers about their frustrations -- denied by top officials -- turned into prolonged groans.
            Trump "is such a good counter-puncher that he is knocking himself out," Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said on CNN's "New Day" that week. "If he would focus on Hillary, if he'd focus on the economy, if he'd talk Obama and we don't want a third term, he could win this race. He's hurting himself and hurting the cause."
            The polls agreed.
            Surveys out of battleground Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- all released on Aug. 4, a fortnight after his convention speech -- showed Trump trailing Clinton. The next day, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution dropped a shocker of its own, releasing a poll that found Clinton leading in Georgia, a state that last went for a Democrat in 1992, during her husband's first run.
            By the time Trump arrived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to stop the bleeding -- he would endorse Ryan, McCain and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte at a single Friday event -- the damage had multiplied.

            'Second Amendment people' in, GOP establishment out

            By the following Monday, Aug. 8, Clinton had raced out to a 10-point national lead over Trump in CNN's poll of polls. Republicans began to flee the campaign in greater numbers, too, as Maine Sen. Susan Collins wrote that she would not support Trump and 50 high-profile GOP foreign policy and national security hands signed a letter pledging to withhold their support on Election Day. The list, which includes longtime aides to Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, continues to grow.
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            Despite the setbacks, Trump's speech that day on the economy was pleasantly received by Republicans hoping the sting of the past couple weeks might finally inspire the candidate to become more disciplined on the stump. But the good feelings wouldn't last.
            "Hillary wants to abolish -- essentially abolish the Second Amendment," he said the next day in Wilmington, North Carolina, before adding: "By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know."
            One supporter seated behind Trump could be seen gasping, then laughing uncomfortably. He's still voting for Trump, by the way.
            Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy called it an "assassination threat," while the Clinton campaign tweeted that "a person seeking to be the President of the United States should not suggest violence in any way." Trump senior communications adviser Jason Miller rejected that interpretation, saying the nominee was calling on gun rights activists to wield their "political power" against Clinton.
            A former CIA chief, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, was not impressed.
            "You're not just responsible for what you say," he told CNN's Jake Tapper that afternoon. "You are responsible for what people hear."
            The Secret Service even weighed in publicly, tweeting that it was "aware of the comments made earlier this afternoon."
            Even as supporters downplayed the issue, a USSS official told CNN's Jim Sciutto it had been in contact with the Trump campaign about his remarks.
            "There has been more than one conversation," an official said. The Trump campaign denied this, tweeting that "no such meeting or conversation" had taken place.
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            By Friday, another week that had begun with hints of promise for Trump had been almost entirely consumed by a swarm of distractions and controversy. His repeated claims that Obama and Clinton were the "co-founders" of ISIS had confounded Democrats and Republicans. When given multiple opportunities to clarify his point by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump had demurred. It would be another day before he began to walk back the claim, calling it "sarcasm."
            But in an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Trump rejected any notion he might adjust his approach on the trail in the face of falling poll numbers.
            His plan: "Just keep doing the same thing I'm doing right now."
            "And at the end," he said, "it's either going to work or I'm going to, you know -- I'm going to have a very, very nice, long vacation."

            A pivot... toward what?

            That fatalistic note would disappear on Friday night, when Trump again floated the idea that a massive voter fraud scheme could deliver Clinton the presidency.
            "Certain areas" in Pennsylvania would come under special scrutiny, he said during a rally in Altoona. The campaign website now offers supporters the opportunity to volunteer to be a "Trump Election Observer." The pitch? "Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!"
            Campaigning the next day in Connecticut, a state no Republican has won since 1988, Trump trained his ire at the press and reporters in the room. The New York Times was "going to hell," he said, before presenting the race in a new light.
            "I'm running against the crooked media," he said. "That's what I'm running against. It's true. I'm not running against crooked Hillary."
            On Sunday, he tweeted: "If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20%." (As it stands, he is losing -- according to those latest national polls -- by about half that much.)
            By Monday, after another day of nasty tweets at the news outlets covering him, Trump had turned the applause line into a fundraising pitch.
            "We are running against the very dishonest and totally biased media!" the campaign said in an email. "It's time to hold the media accountable for trying to rig this election against us."
            At this rate, critics have begun to wonder if Trump is just feathering the bed for what he believes is an eventual, inevitable loss to Clinton. The Wall Street Journal even suggested turning the nomination over to running mate Mike Pence if he wasn't prepared to "behave like someone who wants to be President."

            Far-righting the ship

            On Wednesday, with his polls numbers continuing to waver, Trump announced his most serious staff shakeup since campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired in June.
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            Campaign chairman Paul Manafort's push to rein in the candidate had been rejected -- in practice and now on paper -- as Trump brought on Steve Bannon, the combative executive chairman of the right-wing web network Breitbart News, as chief executive while pollster and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway had been promoted to campaign manager.
            What does it mean?
            Given Bannon's pugnacious reputation, observers believe the campaign is now set on an even more aggressive path. Whether it will lead Trump to the White House or speed up his spiral is less certain. And with 83 days remaining, the time for detours is dwindling too.