Inside Trump Tower’s ornate lobby Tuesday night, a Megyn Kelly-anchored Fox News program is turned all the way up, and the grand escalators are turned off — both signs Trump’s learned a thing or two since he kicked off his bid for the Republican nomination in this very spot ten months ago.
Before Trump’s New York primary victory speech, there’s no slow, awkward escalator ride for the losers and haters to ridicule endlessly in the coming months. There’s also no loser-hater name-calling, as Kelly — whom Trump made peace with in a secretive meeting in this building last week — notes on her program later in the evening. “You heard Donald Trump tonight sounding, you tell me: more presidential?” She asks a guest. “‘Sen. Cruz,’ not ‘Lyin’ Ted’ — did you notice that?”
Kelly isn’t wrong. Tuesday night is the debut of a kindler, gentler Donald Trump. He strides, relaxed and confident, into the lobby, Melania by his side, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” on the loudspeaker, to deliver a brief and uncontroversial set of remarks. He thanks his home-state supporters repeatedly, only gently chides the media covering the event, takes the most casual of swipes at the Republican Party and Ted Cruz, and leaves the podium without lobbing a single outrage-inspiring comment, insult or accusation.
That is all by design, Trump’s new chief strategist, Paul Manafort, tells a tangle of reporters jostling to speak with him after his candidate’s victory speech. “He understands,” Manafort says, when asked about the difference in Trump’s tone Tuesday, but he refuses to take credit for any change. “He’s setting the tone of his campaign. We’re helping to frame it, but he’s setting the tone. I think he’s disciplined. I mean, I really do. You heard him tonight.”
A veteran Republican operative who helped coordinate President Gerald Ford’s successful effort to stave off a convention-floor challenge by Ronald Reagan in 1976, Manafort joined the campaign just three weeks ago, reportedly supplanting embattled campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. (Lewandowski is present as ever on Tuesday, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump’s adult children during the speech.)
The single change Manafort cops to is in Trump’s campaign’s strategy. “What we’re doing now is we’re putting strategy together where we’re not just trying to win a state, like in New York. [When] the results are done, [you’ll see] we didn’t just win a big victory in New York state, we won a big victory in all of the congressional districts as well. We focused on that as an organization,” he says, “and we’re going to focus on that in the upcoming states as well.”
While Trump did win big in many of New York’s congressional districts (he took home more than 60 percent of the vote and a projected 89 delegates), he lost Manhattan’s New York County — where he lives, in his signature Trump Tower — to John Kasich.
But one wouldn’t know Trump had lost his own neighborhood standing outside Trump Tower, where supporters are sporting the full range of “Make America Great Again” hats: the classic red ball cap, the camo version, the bucket hat. (Meanwhile, a gruff, ex-NYPD-looking security guard barks at members of the media to “get in your media pen.”)
A gaggle of Upper East Side high schoolers are among those who’ve come out to check out the scene. Rick, who won’t give his last name and who claims to be 19 but looks barely old enough to have a learner’s permit, says he came to the victory party for the same reason he and his friends attended a Trump rally in Bethpage, New York, two weeks earlier: They like that he speaks his mind.
“I’m around liberal people at school all day in New York,” he says. “It’s just gotten so overly politically correct. It’s basically like a dictatorship now. You can’t have honest conversations about any issues anymore because you’re so worried about offending everyone. But this guy, he doesn’t care who he offends.” Rick says he’s excited to cast his first-ever vote for Trump. “I think he’s the one chance we have for putting this whole political correctness, trigger-warning, micro-aggression culture into the ground.”
A few steps away, Joe Brunner, 37, is standing on the corner holding the same sign he brought to a Westchester polling place earlier in the day. (“Undecided?” it asks, above a list of reasons to vote Trump.) Brunner says he’s taken the day off work to try to convince swing voters in the suburbs to break for the real-estate mogul. He thinks he successfully flipped one voter, a teacher who was thinking of casting his ballot for Kasich.
Trump isn’t the first candidate Brunner has campaigned for before: He volunteered for George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign when he was just 14. “I was a big Bush guy for 20 years,” he says. No longer, though. “I think Trump’s candidacy has exposed a lot of the failures of the Bush era. Some intentional, some not intentional. I think Trump is the new Republican Party, honestly. I think the Republican Party does not exist without Donald Trump right now.”
He’s skeptical of the growing speculation that Trump can be defeated by Cruz on the convention floor in July. If that happens, Brunner says, he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton. “Hillary, for all her foils, is more honest than Cruz,” Brunner says. “I don’t think Cruz is a leader. You can say what you want about Hillary, but she’s a leader…. Right or wrong, she will lead people.”