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.”
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.
“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) tha