ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Paul Manafort looks the part of a chairman: 67, well-coiffed, bespoke-suited and appropriately Rolexed. In the world of Donald Trump, that's his title: campaign chairman and chief strategist.
And as chairmen do, Manafort assured us that his enterprise will be crowned with success: Trump will beat Hillary Clinton soundly in November.
“He’s gonna win,” Manafort said over breakfast at a local diner called The Royal in Old Town Alexandria. “He's gonna win unless we -- meaning people like me -- screw it up. This is not a hard race.”
Why? In Manafort’s summary: Trump will remain Trump.
He may moderate a few views -- think Muslims -- but he won't and doesn't need to back down on anything. He probably won't pick a woman or a member of a minority group as a running mate because that would be “pandering.” He won’t win George W. Bush's levels of Latino support, but he will pick up enough Hispanic votes in key swing states. He won’t get the Bush family's support and doesn’t want it. Trump just has to be presidential enough in the first debate (no body parts mentioned), pick an experienced running mate, and run Clinton into the ground as a corrupt version of Barack Obama.
He'll win with white men and women, plus just enough of everyone else. Simple.
“You don’t change Donald Trump. You don’t ‘manage’ him.”
Handlers usually undersell, but not Manafort and not now. Extra infusions of optimism are helpful to Trump at a time when some Republican leaders remain dubious, mega funders are scared by Trumpismo, and The Donald has the highest negatives of any party nominee in memory.
Manafort’s sunny vision may be a little skewed. Having made millions as an image crafter for foreign tyrants, he can’t help but see Trump as an easy lift by comparison. And his analysis deserves an extra measure of caution because no one ultimately speaks for Trump -- a point Manafort was quick to stress.
“You don’t change Donald Trump,” he said. “You don’t ‘manage’ him.”
TrumpWorld is, in fact, a seething mosh pit of ambitious egos vying to influence Trump, who keeps them all at bay, milking them for advice, until he decides everything on his own -- often on a whim or in an odd-hour tweet.
But to the extent that there is a theory of and a plan for victory, it’s up to Manafort to devise them. He laid out his thinking for The Huffington Post between bites of egg-white omelet.
A Ban On Muslims: Democrats and many Republicans have hammered Trump on his call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. until some unspecified future time when he deems it safe to do so.
“He’s already started moderating on that," Manafort said. "He operates by starting the conversation at the outer edges and then brings it back towards the middle. Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more."
"He’ll still end up outside of the norm, but in line with what the American people are thinking."
“Within his comfort zone, he’ll soften it some more.”
That Wall: “He is going to build a wall. That is a core thing with him," Manafort said. "He will push it strongly, and he will push for the immigration changes just as strongly."
His Tax Returns: “I will be surprised if he puts them out. I wouldn’t necessarily advise him to. It’s not really an issue for the people we are appealing to. His tax returns are incredibly complicated. I wouldn’t understand them, so how are the American people going to? The financial disclosure he put out gives the salient points," Manafort said.
"The only people who want the tax returns are the people who want to defeat him."
“The only people who want the tax returns are the people who want to defeat him.”
The GOP: It was never as divided, Manafort said, as it might have looked on the night Trump locked up the nomination with a primary victory in Indiana.
“That was all B.S.,” he said. “It was overblown. His negatives were going to drop when Republicans came home, and they are. The level of GOP support for Trump now is between 82 and 87 percent, and it is going to get to 90, 93."
“I’ve made three trips to the Hill and most of the people up there are getting with us, if they weren’t already,” he said. “There are some Senate candidates who aren’t sure Trump is in their interest yet, but they’ll come along.”
“The ‘never Trump’ movement was never going anywhere.” He’s right.
Latino Voters: The conventional view, espoused by the Bush family and its retainer Karl Rove, is that a GOP presidential candidate needs 40 percent of the nationwide Hispanic vote to win. Trump is at roughly 20 percent.
“The national polls are distorted,” Manafort said. “To get a national sample they rely too much on Hispanics from New York and California, which is where large populations are, but also where most of the radical Hispanics are."
“But if you look at Hispanics in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and even Florida, you see a different picture. We’re going to target Hispanic voters in those and other swing states."
“The message is going to be jobs, national security, terrorism, family values and education,” he said. “In that order."
“Their concerns are the same as the white working families."
So his candidate doesn't need 40 percent of Latino voters nationwide. “If we get into the high 20s in those states with Hispanics, we will win them, and in Florida we can do even better if we do what we need to do in the Cuban community.”
The Women: “Our numbers even now are not that far out of whack,” Manafort said. “We’re down 12 among women, but up 20 among men."
“Hillary is the one who’s got a gender gap. And while we are behind among women over all, we’re ahead among white women even now. We’ll get some black and Hispanic women as we go along.”
How He'll Campaign: “We’ll continue the rallies. That is Trump’s brand. We’ll do the broad themes at the big rallies. No one wants to change that."
But, Manafort added, the campaign will assemble a state-of-the-art social media and on-the-ground operation.
“He doesn’t want to spend the money on a big national campaign structure. He hears a figure like $500 million and says, ‘These are all people who are going to get rich.’ But I have reassured him that it will be a very lean operation.”
'Filling The Chair': “There are two main challenges. One is to make the American people look at him and say, ‘He can fill the chair.’"
“Does he know enough? Yes, because he knows he has more to learn. And he is constantly doing that.”
Trump doesn't read briefing papers, but he is a magnet for information, Manafort said. "He reads the newspapers, and he talks on the phone and to office visitors in a never-ending stream. You’re sitting there in his office and you realize that he is constantly picking up stuff as he goes."
“We have all this survey research, but he does his own soundings all the time, all day every day. And he’s more accurate," Manafort said.
The first presidential debate will be key. Needless to say, Trump won't hesitate to attack Clinton in that and other debates. Attack is and has always been his only mode.
“The idea of going at her doesn’t have to change,” said Manafort. “But it will matter how he says it.”
“He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do.”
The vice presidential pick will also be part of the process of proving he's ready for the White House, Manafort said.
“He needs an experienced person to do the part of the job he doesn’t want to do. He seems himself more as the chairman of the board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO."
“There is a long list of who that person could be," Manafort added, "and every one of them has major problems.”
The campaign probably won't choose a woman or a member of a minority group, he said. “In fact, that would be viewed as pandering, I think.”
Attacking Hillary: The second challenge is to showcase Clinton's flaws in a way that doesn't drive away the independents.
There is little reason to worry that Trump's abrasive attacks will backfire, Manafort insisted. "He's not going to fundamentally change, though you have to say it right," he said.
The main message about Clinton will be that as president, she would be "Obama Three" but with worse ethics. The prospect of another term for the current administration will be enough to convince voters, the president's relatively strong recent job approval numbers notwithstanding.
No Bushes: “I think we’ll get other people coming aboard eventually, but probably not the Bushes -- and Trump can leave them alone,” said Manafort. "And we’re going to be above 90 percent Republican support without them."
“People don’t want dynasties. They want change.”