A more disciplined Trump operation faces fresh headaches from outside allies and the candidate himself

By Kristen Holmes and Alayna Treene, CNN

CNN  — 

When news broke that a top aide to Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy was joining former President Donald Trump’s campaign last month, Trump advisers were livid, believing the aide was promoting himself, without permission of the campaign’s top brass.

Senior Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita called the newest team member, Brian Swenson, and “ripped into him,” according to two sources familiar with the conversation. The message was clear: If you want to keep your job, stop running your mouth, the source said. Swenson did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The episode was indicative of how Trump’s 2024 team has sought to focus the messaging and the media that surrounds the chaotic world of the front-runner for the GOP nomination. His team is viewed by both outside political operatives and current and former Trump officials as his most disciplined to date. Led by seasoned Republican strategists LaCivita and Susie Wiles, the team has sought to prevent the kinds of internal leaks that were ever-present during 2016 and throughout Trump’s presidency from damaging the former president as he seeks to regain the White House.

“They know they aren’t able to control him, he will always say and do what he wants,” one source familiar with the team’s dynamic told CNN, noting that Trump is known to ignore prepared remarks and solicit outside advice from a wide net of allies, often without the knowledge of his closest advisers. “But they can try to control everyone around him.”

The advisers who have spent the last year working to streamline his campaign’s messaging, however, have recently found themselves fighting an uphill battle. They’re attempting to navigate the wide span of Trump allies all itching to be a part of the action and leverage their ties to the former president in hopes of bolstering their influence in the months before the 2024 election.

As Trump’s primary lead has grown, so has the interest in what a second Trump administration would look like – in both policy and personnel. A slew of recent media reports have speculated on potential vice presidential picks and Cabinet members, citing anonymous sources.

“Nobody came out of the woodwork to say they wanted to be a Cabinet secretary 12 months ago when things were really dire and no one wanted to be associated with us,” a senior Trump campaign adviser told CNN, adding that the recent shift in the narrative around the former president has brought with it a surge in outside parties interested in joining a potential administration.

Trump’s senior advisers were recently surprised and annoyed when they learned Kash Patel, a former Trump administration official, was telling Trump allies he was part of the vetting effort for a potential vice presidential pick, according to three senior advisers who adamantly denied his involvement.

Patel, a Trump loyalist who climbed the ranks while Trump was in office, continues to hold sway with the former president and is widely viewed as someone who would likely serve in a national security capacity in a second administration.

“I am not nor have I ever been involved with any vetting process. President Trump and the campaign are solely in charge,” Patel said in a statement to CNN.

The frustration runs deep in the campaign.

“When you’re trying to be disciplined and run a sophisticated campaign, it gets annoying when people who aren’t working on the campaign are creating headaches for the team,” a person close to Trump said. “They’re pissed people are running to reporters saying they’re in line for jobs that the Trump team hasn’t even discussed.”

However, some of those headaches come from Trump himself.

During a recent fundraiser, Trump began tossing names around for vice president, a source familiar with the conversations said.

“Who do we like for VP?” the former president asked donors and allies before batting around names with the crowd — a story that was eventually shared with reporters.

Trump 2025: Credit grabbing and calling out

Since Trump left office, former administration officials created several organizations in Washington to continue the work of the administration and prepare for a potential second term — including vetting future Trump administration officials, writing policy proposals and drafting executive orders with the intention of putting them in front of Trump to sign on the day he would enter office.

Additionally, Trump allies have also begun preparing for a possible Republican presidential transition through a collaboration of right-wing think tanks led by the Heritage Foundation — dubbed “Project 2025.”

The groups recently entered the spotlight through a series of media stories on Trump’s agenda for a second term. Internal frustration over the coverage has grown within Trump’s inner circle, which has stressed that any official policy or personnel decisions will come from the campaign directly. One group in particular — the America First Policy Institute led by Brooke Rollins, the acting director of the US Domestic Policy Council under Trump — has drawn the team’s ire.

Members of Trump’s campaign were furious when they learned the group had been touting their relationship with the former president and their efforts to build out his possible future administration, two sources familiar with the situation told CNN. Not only is the work not authorized by the campaign, these campaign team members argued, but they believe it is premature and did not appreciate AFPI quietly taking credit for something that was not in their purview.

One senior Trump adviser took particular issue with AFPI’s personnel efforts.

“They’re vetting people for a future Trump administration? Who? We have no insight into these people,” the campaign official said.

Senior members of Trump’s campaign team made it clear to Rollins they did not appreciate the group exaggerating their ties to the campaign, three sources familiar with the exchange said.

Shortly afterward, Wiles and LaCivita issued a rare statement that read: “reports about personnel and policies that are specific to a second Trump Administration are purely speculative and theoretical.”

“Any personnel lists, policy agendas, or government plans published anywhere are merely suggestions,” the statement read, arguing that no outside groups have the authority to speak on behalf of Trump or his campaign.

One source disputed this statement was directed at AFPI, insisting their officials were assured by multiple campaign officials the statement was not about that group.

Marc Lotter, the chief communications officer for America First Policy Institute, pushed back on the existence of any friction between the former president and AFPI, calling it “fake news.” Lotter noted that Trump has “headlined a half dozen events for AFPI including our Hispanic leadership conference in Miami, his first return trip to Washington, DC, the big tech lawsuit, and three fundraising events at Mar-a-Lago, as recently as last month.”

A source close to the former president made clear that Trump is still in touch with several members of AFPI’s team and routinely seeks their counsel. This includes Larry Kudlow, who served as his director of the National Economic Council, and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who serviced as a national security adviser to Mike Pence and whom Trump has recently consulted on foreign policy. Another source said Rollins herself still routinely talks to Trump.

The statement from Wiles and LaCivita did little to prevent other outside entities and allies from leaking potential administration positions.

A few weeks later, the pair fired off another warning shot: “Despite our being crystal clear, some ‘allies’ haven’t gotten the hint,” they wrote in a second statement. “Let us be even more specific, and blunt: People publicly discussing potential administration jobs for themselves or their friends are, in fact, hurting President Trump … and themselves. These are an unwelcomed distraction.”

A senior Trump campaign adviser told CNN the second statement was in response to an Axios story published the previous day laying out the names of people who could serve in a potential Trump Cabinet.

It also followed an interview that Patel gave to Steve Bannon asserting that a future Trump administration would target journalists and attempt to “prosecute them for crimes” should Trump win the 2024 election.

“Idiotic comments like this have nothing to do with our campaign,” a Trump campaign official told CNN after the Patel interview.

Campaign officials have also downplayed how many outside voices Trump listens to.

Earlier this month, Ric Grenell, Trump’s former ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence, met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. A senior adviser to Trump attempted to discredit Grenell’s influence on the former president. However, a source familiar with the recent visit said that afterwards, Trump praised Grenell as someone he hoped would serve again in a future administration.

Campaign takes grievances to Trump

Trump himself has been irked with how some of his outside allies and aligned groups have been using his name, multiple sources said. Trump has long loathed when people are perceived to be profiting off him or using their ties to bolster their own careers.

Last year, he was angry after dining with a major donor at his Mar-a-Lago club, when he learned that they had given roughly $1 million to AFPI. The donor told Trump at the time that they believed they were donating directly to a super PAC associated with Trump’s reelection campaign, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

Following that dinner, Trump complained to several of his closest aides that the money should’ve gone to the campaign directly, and he remained annoyed about the encounter for several days, the sources said.

In an effort to keep a lid on some of the growing speculation that now surrounds a possible second administration, the campaign has taken some of their concerns directly to the former president.

“The campaign, we’re briefing him on the people who are doing this stuff on the outside. So do they want to risk playing games and having their name tarnished internally? Or do they want to sort of play by the rules and not mess around and try to actually help win a election,” a campaign adviser told CNN.

However, one complication the campaign is grappling with is Trump’s innate preference to seek outside counsel from his friends and allies.

As president, Trump often called up Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson to take their temperature on ideas he was eager to roll out. As a candidate, Trump continues to call allies and former administration officials on topics ranging from how the campaign is doing to what he wants a possible second term to look like.

The former president dines frequently with such allies — including those whose names have appeared in stories about serving in a future Trump Cabinet.

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