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Here's who has Trump's ear as the primary season kicks into full gear

The former president has always had a sprawling group of loyalists and outside advisers, many of whom are increasingly coming back into the fold.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Durham, N.H.
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Durham, N.H., on Saturday.Joseph Prezioso / AFP - Getty Images

As Donald Trump continues to consolidate support for the Republican presidential nomination, the many conservative advisers who orbited him while he was president are turning up again, jockeying for influence and possibly the spoils of a return to the White House. 

And it’s creating a challenge for the tight circle of campaign professionals who are trying to win an election while also trying to keep the former president disciplined and focused. 

“The one thing about Donald Trump is that he loves the infighting,” said a former adviser who remains in Trump’s orbit. 

NBC News spoke to more than a dozen people with knowledge of the Trump world about how many of the people who surrounded him during his often chaotic days in the White House are once again in the mix, some with more credibility and legitimate claims to being part of an inner circle than others. That dynamic will inevitably start to affect Trump’s messages and strategy, but it could also derail him and threaten his focus on the campaign trail. 

Trump has always liked to take counsel from a large network of people, for better or worse. And this campaign is no different. 

His management style “pits people against each other, but he sits back and it’s like entertainment for him,” this person added. “No matter what the campaign wants or says, he likes the spectacle of people jockeying for his attention.”

But Trump’s success is due in part to his willingness to entertain a range of viewpoints, said Jason Miller, a spokesperson for the campaign.

“He likes to get multiple opinions from people who have distinctly different perspectives, because far too often, political leaders will only get opinions from one side and only get opinions from people who have personal interest in how a decision plays out,” Miller said. “Getting input from a number of places and then coming to his own conclusion has always been one of his strengths as a leader.”

Asked whether Trump enjoys playing people off against one another, Miller responded: “I wouldn’t speak so much to that. There was some talk that maybe that factored into the White House days, but I think that the difference here, and why you don’t see the drama, is because President Trump knows whose opinions he values and he knows who he can trust.” 

The Insiders

Trump New Hampshire
Susie Wiles, center, has been credited with instilling discipline into Trump and his band of loyalists.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Trump’s 2024 campaign staffing has had far less drama than his earlier iterations. 

“In years and cycles past, there’s always been a level of infighting and trying to climb over one another to the top. That’s not happening now,” a source close to Trump said. “While there are some frustrations with individuals at times, there’s no alienation.”

That’s in large part due to the figures at the center of the operation: Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, who serve as de facto co-campaign managers; Miller, a veteran strategist; and longtime adviser Boris Epshteyn. 

Wiles, who used to be a top adviser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis but had a sharp break with him, has received particular plaudits for professionalizing the team. 

Current and former aides credit Wiles with instilling discipline not only in Trump but also in his motley band of loyalists and advisers — in part by keeping them within the fold.

There is an honest deference to Wiles, a longtime Trump ally said, including from people whom this person knows Wiles is not necessarily fond of.

“Those closest to the president, and those who are committed to the president, are doing one of two things: They’re raising money, or they’re working hard to get him re-elected,” said Ed McMullen, Trump’s former ambassador to Switzerland, who is raising money for his campaign. “They are not engaging in the palace intrigue.” 

The Outsiders

Steve Bannon leaves after a court appearance at NYS Supreme Court on May 25, 2023 in New York City.
Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, now has a podcast popular with conservatives.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

An overlooked part of the insiders’ job is to help corral Trump’s allies outside the campaign, without acting as gatekeepers who alienate supporters. They’re a broad circle of loyalists — some of whom have been with Trump since the beginning — who once again have his ear. 

Back in the mix are Stephen Miller, the conservative policy aide who served in the White House, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s ousted former chief strategist, whose podcast has vaulted him to the center of the populist universe and back into Trump’s graces. 

There’s also Ric Grenell, Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is often spotted on the road with him these days, and Kash Patel, a former top Defense Department official. Tucker Carlson, a former Fox News host whose prime-time polemics drew blockbuster ratings, is another influential voice. 

Patel, in response, told NBC News, “President Trump surrounds himself with the brightest minds in the country and will bring back policies that will make our failing nation prosperous again."

Bannon has been using his streaming show, “War Room,” to hint at what policies could come from a second term of a Trump administration. Patel recently suggested on Bannon’s show that Trump could use the power of the federal government to target his political and media enemies.  

Bannon’s show and the points he’s making on it about a future Trump administration are being taken seriously by top Republican Party donors who are now regularly watching the program, believing that at least some of the things he’s saying could happen if Trump regains power, according to a longtime party fundraiser. 

Miller, the mastermind behind some of Trump’s most hard-line immigration policies, is working remotely with the policy and speechwriting teams, a source close to Trump said.

Steph­en Mille­r
Stephen Miller, the mastermind behind some of Trump's most hard-line immigration policies, is back in the fold.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images file

Trump is also speaking regularly with his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who was ousted just one month before the Republican Party’s nominating convention in 2016.

At a stop in New Hampshire this fall, Trump called out for Lewandowski to join him: “Where is Corey? Corey. Get over here, Corey. Come here, Corey. Give me Corey. I gotta get him up,” Trump said, calling Lewandowski someone “that’s been with me really from the beginning.” 

Another person back in the fold is Michael Caputo, a longtime Republican operative who has been paid at least $15,000 to be an adviser on the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Caputo, who for years has been close to Trump and allies such as Roger Stone, has become a key policy adviser to Trump for his 2024 run for the White House, according to two sources briefed on the matter. 

During the Trump administration, Caputo was the top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services. He took a leave of absence after he posted a social media rant accusing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists of “sedition” and plotting “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump.” Shortly after he took leave, his spokesman said Caputo had been diagnosed with cancer.  

For Trump, holding a circle of faithful outsiders at close range holds other advantages: If an idea combusts, “the campaign can distance itself, arguing, ‘We never said it.’ If it works, they take credit for it,” a former adviser said, suggesting the tactic was akin to “running a campaign by proxy.”

While frustrations with some outside people surface at times, the campaign team does not feel it is to anyone’s benefit to try to alienate them, said a source close to Trump.

But still, there is extreme sensitivity to anyone’s trying too hard to position themselves for jobs in a potential second Trump administration. 

Trump “doesn’t want people in Washington planning their office space” for a future administration, his advisers say, and when people speculate about who could join his presidential ticket, “he shuts it down.”

After NBC News asked the campaign about an ally — someone Trump has publicly praised — who is working behind the scenes on vetting candidates to join the ticket, an aide said anyone purporting to be involved “has lost their damned mind.”

A day later, the Trump campaign put out a statement publicly tearing into “selfish efforts by ‘desk hunters’” to try to secure plum jobs for themselves in 2025. 

After Trump lauded the person by name before a large crowd at a campaign rally, another source said, “That’s Trump, not the campaign.”

The Washington crowd

Despite the refusal to engage in the Washington parlor game of guessing at a Cabinet makeup, the planning for a possible return to the Oval Office is happening. 

Inside and outside the campaign are operatives and policy strategists thinking about how to see Trump’s agenda through, with hires who can hit the ground running if he returns to the White House, said two advisers close to Trump who are not formally affiliated with the campaign.

Plans to implement policy objectives early on could become campaign arguments, this adviser said. 

“The higher-level appointments aren’t necessarily there yet,” this person added. “They are working on structure — how to deliver — and not so much on Cabinet appointments.” 

Still, “if you raise a name, he’s always interested in hearing about what you think,” this source said of Trump. “But his view is that the transition occurs after the nomination is achieved; until then, every ounce of energy is focused on that.”

Continuing to advise Trump are former officials with long government résumés, such as Grenell, Robert Lighthizer, Robert O’Brien, Mike Pompeo, John Ratcliffe and Russ Vought, this adviser said. Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore and Newt Gingrich also remain close to him.

Mike Pompeo at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Fort Washington, Md.
Mike Pompeo at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Fort Washington, Md., on March 3. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Some have found roles at the America First Policy Institute or the Heritage Foundation, two think tanks populated by former Trump officials that are now dueling for influence in Washington. 

But even with a Senate map poised to prove favorable for Republicans in 2024, roadblocks are expected, with a former top Trump military appointee predicting “blood sport” confirmations to muscle Trump’s nominees through.

Allies see plenty of opportunity to reshape the government even before Trump’s picks make it before the Senate. 

“We’re not going to sit by the next time around and wait for the Senate,” said a former Trump administration official closely involved in the planning for the next Republican White House. “In a perfect world, you nominate highly qualified, very conservative candidates to be in leadership positions throughout the federal government, not just at the secretary level, but all the way down. But the plans we are making are not contingent on a swift confirmation of people at the secretary level.”

Trump White House and administration veterans advised looking to the final months of Trump’s administration for a picture of where his priorities and staffing would begin to pick up. 

“The president has learned his lesson to count on people he would trust,” the adviser said. “He doesn’t have to re-create the wheel.”