The new head of President Trump’s re-election effort, Bill Stepien, has a formidable task ahead and little time — less than four months to right Mr. Trump’s campaign organization and messaging amid tumbling poll numbers in a presidential race shaped by a global pandemic and its economic fallout.
Stepien, a traditional GOP political operative, lacks the limelight-craving swagger of the man he’s replacing, Brad Parscale, who at 6’8”, was regularly spotted posing for selfies at Trump campaign rallies, served as a warm-up act for Mr. Trump, and promoted his Facebook page using campaign funds.
In Stepien, the president finds a more behind-the-scenes, disciplined campaign operative, jokingly described as “allergic to press” — and not nearly as frequently photographed as Parscale. Trump allies view him as a known entity.
Though Stepien rarely exerts too much power or control over the president’s message, he began a review of campaign infrastructure and spending weeks ago when promoted from campaign political director to deputy campaign manager in late May.
Former deputy assistant to the president and White House political director, Stepien joined the Trump administration in January 2017, but he departed his post in December 2018 after the House suffered Republican midterm losses.
In what was described by campaign staff as an “emotional” meeting, Parscale and Stepien convened the president’s re-election team for an all-call at Trump campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday. During the impromptu “changing of the guards” ceremony, Stepien gave campaign staffers a pep talk and thanked a “misty-eyed” Parscale for his service to the campaign. Stepien instructed the team to stay focused ahead of the general election and ignore media-driven narratives around public polling.
“With 109 days left, our goal is clear – to win each day we have left until Election Day,” Stepien wrote in his first statement as campaign manager. “If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be re-elected.”
According to this week’s CBS News Battleground tracker poll, Joe Biden is now leading President Trump by six points in Florida, and the two are tied in Arizona and competitive in Texas, where Biden is down by just a point to Mr. Trump. An ABC News/Washington Post poll out Friday shows a majority of Americans surveyed — 52% — “strongly” disapprove of the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A product of New Jersey politics, Stepien first worked in politics as a volunteer for a state Senate campaign in 1997 while studying at Rutgers University, then climbed the Garden State ranks for a decade. The campaign operative flipped a Democratic district to Republican in 2003 while running Bill Baroni’s State Assembly race, a job that led to positions at the Republican National Committee, and later, the 2008 presidential campaigns of both Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain.
Stepien served as Chris Christie’s campaign manager for his 2009 run for New Jersey governor and again for his reelection bid in 2013. Christie notoriously fired Stepien following a 2014 investigation of the. Thousands of emails and text messages revealed plans by Christie’s administration in 2013 to close traffic lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey, leading to the George Washington Bridge – political retaliation against the mayor for not supporting the governor’s reelection campaign. Christie said at the time that he was disturbed by Stepien’s “callous indifference” in some of the emails, according to CBS New York.
Stepien was never charged in the scandal, but his protege and Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy, along with another Christie appointee, Bill Baroni. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Kelly and Baroni’s convictions earlier this year.
Former Republican operative David Wildstein testified in the 2016 trial that Stepien knew about the plan to close traffic lanes to create gridlock to punish the Democratic Fort Lee mayor. Another one of Christie’s top political advisers, Mike DuHaime, testified that Stepien and Kelly knew about the plan ahead of a December 2013 news conference when Christie said no one in his administration had any knowledge of the scheme. Stepien’s attorney maintained his client did not engage in any wrongdoing.
While Stepien takes on a new title, his authority will be checked by another New Jersey native, White House senior adviser and son-in-law to President Trump, Jared Kushner. “Make no mistake,” one Trump reelection adviser told CBS News. “Jared was the campaign manager yesterday and Jared is the campaign manager today.”
Stepien is Mr. Trump’s fifth campaign manager, following Corey Lewandowski, Paul Manafort, Kellyanne Conway, and Parscale.
Major GOP fundraiser Dan Eberhart compared Stepien to a closer in a well-played baseball game. “[Parscale] was used as a starting pitcher, but someone else is being brought in for the most important innings.”
Major Garrett, Arden Farhi and Fin Gomez contributed to this report.