BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Offering consolation, expressing regret, cutting ties with a controversial aide. Donald Trump’s campaign turnaround plan on Friday featured the unorthodox candidate acting much like a conventional politician struggling to revive a presidential bid on the ropes.
Trump headed to flood-damaged Louisiana to express solidarity with residents cleaning up after devastating flooding that left at least 13 people dead. The trip that made for a pointed contrast to President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who both have yet to go, although Obama announced late Friday that he, too, would visit next week.
The typically brash and spotlight-seeking billionaire offered notably restrained remarks as he surveyed the waterlogged wreckage.
“Nobody understands how bad it is,” Trump told reporters, after briefly helping unload a truck of supplies while cameras captured the moment. “It’s really incredible, so I’m just here to help.”
Yet the trip did little to obscure the turmoil in Trump’s campaign, punctuated early Friday when Trump announced that he’d accepted campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s offer to resign.
Manafort’s departure followed a string of revelations about his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. The damaging news included an Associated Press report Thursday describing a covert Washington lobbying operation run by Manafort’s firm. Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
Trump, in a statement, praised Manafort’s work on the campaign and called him a “true professional.” But his son, Eric Trump, made clear the campaign the controversy was behind the resignation. His father didn’t want to be “distracted by whatever things Paul was dealing with,” the younger Trump told Fox News.
Campaign spokesman Jason Miller said Gates would remain part of the campaign with a new role as liaison to the Republican National Committee, which has had a turbulent relationship with its nominee this year.
Clinton’s campaign called the resignation an admission of the Trump campaign’s “disturbing” connections with allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Ukraine.
“You can get rid of Manafort, but that doesn’t end the odd bromance Trump has with Putin,” campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement.
But the Clinton camp also found itself on the defensive for the first time in weeks.
Trump’s visit to southern Louisiana put pressure on Clinton. Even as she kicked off a fundraising blitz, Clinton emailed supporters asking them to contribute to the relief effort and noted that she had spoken with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat whose spokesman blasted Trump’s visit as “a photo op.”
In a clear swipe at her rival, Clinton added “the relief effort can’t afford any distractions. The very best way this team can help is to make sure Louisianans have the resources they need.”
Trump’s trip was a striking detour for a candidate who has largely stuck to boisterous rallies and phone-in interviews to appeal to voters.
The businessman and his running mate, Mike Pence, drove past piles of ripped-up carpet, furniture and personal belongings discarded on curbs. Trump consoled residents — even hugging two — as several Louisianans noted they have felt left out of the national spotlight.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, residents emerged from their homes to wave at Trump’s motorcade, some with gloved hands dirty from their house-gutting work. At a Baptist church later, a woman screamed “Thank you for coming, Mr. Trump” as he and Pence sat down with volunteers.
When a woman thanked him for coming, rather than playing golf like the president has been doing during his New England vacation, Trump replied: “Somebody is, somebody is that shouldn’t be.”
With pressure mounting, the White House said after Trump’s appearance that Obama would visit Louisiana on Tuesday to survey the damage. Aides have noted Obama is receiving regular updates on the conditions.
Trump said this week he’s overhauling his campaign operation. His decision to tap Stephen Bannon, a combative conservative media executive, as his new campaign chief suggested to some that he might continue the divisive rhetoric that has angered minorities and alienated large swaths of the electorate.
While it remains too early to tell, the first moves under the new regime have largely shown an investment in conventional campaigning. Trump’s operation on Friday released its first general election TV commercial, one of two set to run in battleground states over the next 10 days.
The hard-hitting spot touts Trump’s plan to crack down on illegal immigration and halt some refugee programs. But it also keeps up his unfounded suggestions that a Clinton victory would be the result of an election system “rigged against Americans.”
The candidate has taken a quieter tone in person. In a highly uncharacteristic move at a rally in North Carolina on Thursday night, Trump said for the first time that he regrets some of his more caustic comments.
“Sometimes in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that,” the GOP nominee said, reading from prepared text. “And believe it or not, I regret it — and I do regret it — particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”
It was a rare admission for a man who has said that he prefers “not to regret anything,” and it underscored the dire situation Trump finds himself in. With just 80 days left until the election, Trump is behind Clinton in preference polls of most key battleground states.
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