“We hit it off, and if you don’t hit it off with your campaign manager, you have a problem,” Trump recalled last week in an interview on the sun-drenched patio of his Mar-a-Lago estate here.
The GOP front-runner and the man he tapped to run his campaign are an unlikely pair. One is a blustery celebrity billionaire whose hairstyle is a marvel of engineering and styling products; the other, an intense political operative who grew up in a blue-collar Massachusetts mill town and sports a no-fuss buzz cut.
But they are very much alike in their approach to the rough sport of politics. Both hit hard, play close to the lines – and occasionally step over them, disregarding the foul calls.
“Donald Trump is not for the faint of heart, and neither is Corey Lewandowski,” said former representative Bob Ney, R-Ohio, for whom Lewandowski worked in the 1990s.
Now, Trump and his political kindred spirit are standing shoulder to shoulder after police in Jupiter, Fla., charged Lewandowski on Tuesday with battery for allegedly grabbing and bruising a journalist who had tried to ask the candidate a question.
Both men insist that Lewandowski is innocent, but footage from a security camera at a Trump-owned golf resort where the March 8 incident happened shows the campaign manager yanking the
arm of Michelle Fields, then a reporter for conservative website Breitbart News.
Lewandowski is known having a combustible temper and an eagerness to wade into the fray. Photo / Getty Images
It is the latest in a series of controversies involving Lewandowski, who is known for having a combustible temper and an eagerness to wade into the fray.
Eleven days after the altercation with Fields, another video caught the campaign manager mixing it up with protesters at a Trump rally in Tucson – and apparently pulling one by the collar.
Trump professed that he was not bothered by his campaign manager’s behavior. “I give him credit for having spirit,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “He wanted them to take down those horrible, profanity-laced signs.”
Nonetheless, in a 2 1/2-hour interview over lunch last week, Lewandowski acknowledged that his instincts – and his loyalty to a boss he always refers to as “Mr Trump” – sometimes override his judgment.
His eyes welled up as he described the chaos at the Tucson rally. Campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks handed him a Mar-a-Lago napkin to use as a handkerchief.
“When I see something that I think isn’t right, I think I have some kind of, for right or wrong, an obligation to fix it,” Lewandowski said.”I thought [the protesters’ disruption] was wrong.”
He added: “My job is not to do that. And I need to stay focused on my job.”
Another thing Lewandowski does not view as part of his job: restraining the candidate and his impulses.
“Let Trump Be Trump,” Lewandowski wrote on a whiteboard at headquarters the day the campaign launched last June.
Lewandowski with the man he hopes to make president. He is extremely loyal to his boss, always refering to him as “Mr Trump”. Photo / Getty Images
“Mr Trump fights back. He doesn’t fight back with one retort. He continuously reminds people,” Lewandowski said.
He listed like trophies the tags that Trump has hung around the necks of his opponents: “Jeb Bush has been labeled ‘low energy’, and he will be so for the rest of his life, because Mr. Trump labeled him that way. He’s a master brander. Marco Rubio is going to be ‘Little Marco’ forever. Ted Cruz is ‘Lyin’ Ted,’ because that’s what people understand.”
Lewandowski, a product of parochial schools, acknowledged that his own faith in his boss’s instincts was tested when Pope Francis took a jab a Trump in February, declaring that someone who would build a wall on the border “is not Christian.”
“I’m Catholic, and my initial reaction is, we might not want to fight the pope,” Lewandowski recalled. Trump felt otherwise, called Francis’ comments “disgraceful” and went on to win the South Carolina primary by 10 points two days later.
Meanwhile, Lewandowski’s own statements and inconsistencies have at times created problems for the campaign.
Last fall, The Washington Post reported ties between the campaign and a pro-Trump super PAC, which seemed to contradict Trump’s claim that he had not sanctioned an outside group.
Lewandowski first told a Washington Post reporter that he did not know the Colorado consultant running the super PAC. But when The Post discovered that the campaign was paying two firms connected to the consultant, Lewandowski – who prides himself on overseeing every invoice – admitted that he did know him and that they had worked together in a previous job.
Early on, Lewandowski had set his sights on holding office himself. While still in college at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, he ran in 1994 for state representative and lost to an opponent, Democrat Tom Golden, who had grown up on the same street.
“I knew him as a different person. He was very personable, and very affable, actually,” said Golden, who still holds the seat. “All of the stuff that is going on is not the gentleman I knew.”
Lewandowski then headed to Washington and began working on Capitol Hill while finishing his master’s degree at American University.
But the campaign bug had bitten him, and in 1997, he assembled a spreadsheet of every House Republican who had won a congressional seat with less than 55 percent of the vote. Lewandowski said he wrote them all, making the pitch: “I want to manage your next campaign, because you need my help.”
Ney, an embattled congressman from a Democratic-leaning Ohio district, took him up on the offer. When Lewandowski interviewed for the job, the congressman was struck by the young man’s fraying shirt cuffs. “This is kind of a working-class guy” who would relate to the coal miners in his district, Ney recalled thinking.
But Ney also said Lewandowski left him with a warning: “I may tend to piss people off.”
Ney won re-election handily and asked Lewandowski to run his congressional office.
Lewandowski was more an implementer than an idea man, Ney said. “He could provide strategy, don’t get me wrong, but he was more of a guy who carried it out.”
In 1999, Lewandowski was arrested for carrying a handgun, three magazines, a holster and several rounds of ammunition into the Longworth House Office Building. It was mixed up, he says by accident, with his dirty clothes in an overnight bag. He sued, unsuccessfully, to get the weapon back, along with $50,000 in punitive damages.
Lewandowski had moved on from Ney’s office by the time the congressman was convicted of corruption in the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But he loyally petitioned the judge for leniency in his sentencing.
“I had the privilege of spending 20 hours a day with Bob seven days a week for over three years. In that time , I learned more about life, people, politics, friendships and the importance of family than I ever could have imagined,” Lewandowski wrote in the letter dated Jan. 1, 2007. “Bob served as a mentor to me, as a surrogate father, and as a best friend all in one.”
His own career has taken a few detours. A stint at a public relations firm felt confining, so he applied to the New Hampshire police academy, from which he graduated in 2006. For 3 1/2 years, Lewandowski did seasonal work as a marine patrol officer. But law enforcement, he said, was hard to manage against the demands of a family that now includes four children, ages 5 to 9.
His marriage is a love story with a tragic twist. Lewandowski first met Alison Hardy when he was in ninth grade and she was in eighth; they dated in high school and college, he said, before going their separate ways.
In 1998, she wed one of Lewandowski’s best friends, Brian Kinney. On Sept. 11, 2001, Kinney boarded United Airlines Flight 175 at Boston’s Logan International Airport to meet a client in California. Terrorists steered it into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Drawn back together by grief, Lewandowski married Alison four years later. Every Memorial Day, he said, the couple and their kids visit Kinney’s grave.
In New Hampshire, Lewandowski developed a reputation as an irritant to the Republican establishment.
“He was grudgingly respected by other Republican actors,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. “He’s not untalented, and he knows more than enough to be dangerous – especially if the purpose is to blow something up.”
Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, for instance, had become an outcast of his own party, having bolted from the GOP to make a third-party run for president in 2000 and then returned to it to run for re-election in 2002. When Lewandowski interviewed for the job of managing what turned out to be a hopeless primary campaign, Smith told him, “If you’re looking for a career in the Republican Party, this may not be the venue.”
Smith recalled that Lewandowski replied, “I wear that as a badge of honor.”
“Supporting Smith was sort of a blow-up-the-bridges-and-burn-the-boats decision, professionally,” said Cullen, the former party chairman.
During the campaign, Lewandowski treated it as such, at one point making a none-too-veiled suggestion that Smith’s opponent, then-Rep. John Sununu, might have had divided loyalties when it came to fighting terrorism.
After Sununu went to a fundraiser attended by the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Lewandowski said of Sununu, who is of Lebanese descent, “If that is the type of person Congressman Sununu feels should be contributing to his campaign, then I think that may call in to question his views on terrorism.”
More controversy ensued when Lewandowski ran Americans for Prosperity’s regional operation and then its national voter registration effort.
In 2014, the North Carolina Board of Elections opened an investigation into allegations that Lewandowski’s operation had sent “misleading, incorrect and confusing voter registration mailers.” Americans for Prosperity acknowledged errors in the voter registration material it sent to voters in North Carolina, but said that they were a mistake and not an attempt to confuse voters.
But Lewandowski would soon be headed toward Trump Tower.
In April, 2014, he was introduced to Trump, briefly and for the first time, at an AFP event in New Hampshire. In December, he got a call from David Bossie, conservative activist and head of the group Citizens United, suggesting he meet with the real estate mogul.
“Corey’s an incredibly strong person, and an incredibly strong personality,” Bossie said. “I did think that both of them were going to suit each other perfectly.”
Lewandowski was spellbound from the outset. “He talks about all the things that he wants to do, and I’m listening, and he’s telling me about what his vision is to change the country, and I’m instantly – just enamored, would be the word,” he said.
For the first few months, however, the biggest question was whether Trump would really do it.
“It was a 50/50 chance. We were thinking about it. A 25 percent chance even. Because I give up a lot when I run. I gave up a life. I gave up this,” Trump recalled last week in the interview, gesturing to the grandeur around him.
Almost as if on cue, Trump’s wife, Melania, walked by in a bathrobe and giant sunglasses, headed for the spa. Even at home, Trump was wearing his red cap emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” – and carrying a stack of news clips about himself.
“I don’t think anybody expected this, exactly,” Trump said. “It’s been an amazing period of time, and we’ve done really well, and Corey’s done a terrific job. He’s a great professional.”
And then Trump added, wryly: “Now if I gave him a good candidate, he’d do even better, right?”