The Donald Trump presidential campaign had a major reshuffle this week, with months-long campaign chairman Paul Manafort resigning from his post amid a raft of reporting on his political work on behalf of the government of former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych.
It made for the second time in Trump’s campaign that his chief adviser has withdrawn, giving way to a new face, and reports of an impending “pivot.” In this case, GOP strategist Kellyanne Conway has stepped into the role of campaign manager, while Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon has signed on as campaign CEO.
Bannon is a hugely controversial figure, both for the harsh and virulent brand of right-wing politics Breitbart traffics in, and the site’s antagonistic style against liberals and traditional conservatives alike. But his controversies make him an unlikely bet to get much screen time on morning interview shows. That’s an avenue that’s much more favorable to Conway.
So, she took to ABC’s This Week on Sunday for an interview with George Stephanopoulos, looking to put a little polish on her new boss’s reputation. Faced with Trump’s litany of past inflammatory and personally vitriolic statements, things got a little bit awkward, revealing that even the well-regarded Conway doesn’t necessarily have a magic solution for the Trump temperament rubix cube.
This was perhaps most clear when Stephanopoulos noted how Trump expressed “regret” for his attacks and past statements which had “caused personal pain” in a speech earlier this week, then played a brief clip from a Clinton campaign ad, showing him denying he was regretful at earlier stages of the campaign.
Trump’s half-hearted, generalized mea culpa has sparked a lot of speculation over what specifically he felt regretful about, and whether he’d ever feel compelled to clarify. Simply expressing regret and actually apologizing to someone are distinctly different things, after all, and Trump has built up quite the list of transgressions so far.
Stephanopoulos put the question to Conway, asking her which comments he specifically regretted: the attacks (by both him and his surrogates) on the Khan family, the attacks on John McCain, or the attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Here’s how Conway replied:
“He has said that he wants to regret anytime he has caused somebody personal pain by saying something that he didn’t intend to cause personal pain. And I think those that have received it privately should take that expression of regret for them.”
Conway then confirmed that Trump hasn’t actually privately apologized to anyone, preferring instead to “express regret publicly.” She added: “This is exactly what people love, they love humility, they love accessibility, they love authenticity.”
Conway went on to criticize Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for running negative ads against Trump, for failing to fully apologize for her private email server scandal, and accused her of establishing a “pay-to-play” system through the Clinton Foundation while she served as Secretary of State.
Stephanopoulos acknowledged that he’d be asking Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook about that later in the show. For his part, Mook did his best to sidestep those questions and instead implicate Trump’s alleged involvement with Russia. The Clinton campaign manager did indeed acknowledge that the acceptance of foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation have been suspended.
Clinton campaign chair Robby Mook: Questions being raised about whether Donald Trump is "puppet for the Kremlin" https://t.co/8tI03Z1tgu— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) August 21, 2016
Conway was pressed on her own past statements opposing Trump, on many of the same grounds she’s now trying to remedy. She used to work for a pro-Ted Cruz superPAC, and at that time, she had a pretty unfavorable view of the Donald. Conway calling him “vulgar,” hitting him for refusing to release his tax returns, and accusing him of hurling “personal insults” rather than speaking to “philosophical differences.”
Conway’s response, right alongside video clips of her prior remarks, struck a glaring contrast. When Stephanopoulos asked her whether she stood by those comments, she maintained her initial stance because she’s against personal insults. “That’s not my style, I’m a mother of four small children, and it would be a terrible example for me to feel otherwise,” Conway added.
Stephanopoulos then asked Conway whether she thinks Trump will change that aspect of his public profile, to which she replied “well, but he doesn’t hurl personal insults.”
As a veteran strategist like Conway surely knows, one of the more awkward things you can do in a TV interview is to highlight a contradiction like that, and it was made all the worse by Stephanopoulos having the video queued up. But it also speaks to the sticky situation she’s in. Clearly, she can’t continue to maintain her opposition to Trump’s inflammatory tongue while urging Americans to vote for him.
“Well, but he doesn’t hurl personal insults.”
From there, the conversation segued into Trump’s recent tone-deaf appeals to black voters, which have notably been delivered to overwhelmingly white audiences. He’s been asking black Americans “what the hell do you have to lose” by voting Trump, while generalizing that “you’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.” Needless to say, those statements didn’t necessarily reflect an ace outreach effort. Conway insisted that the message wasn’t just for black people, however:
“But those comments are for all Americans. And I live in a white community, I’m white, I was very moved by his comment. In other words, he is trying to tell Americans that we can do better. And the thing that he said that I think got a great deal of resonance is that maybe Hillary Clinton looks at you as voters, takes you for granted. I look at you as people.”
Conway’s appearance on This Week wasn’t her only media hit of the day, not by a long shot. She also appeared on CNN’s State of the Union to discuss the state of the race. Even taken on its own, her sit-down with Stephanopoulos spoke volumes about the problems even a polished political professional faces in working for the Trump team. Sometimes, the nature of what you’re apologizing for can swamp even the most composed, unflappable delivery.