How Trump Took Over the GOP, According to Cruz, Rubio, and Other Insiders

The most famous escalator ride in American political history was almost an elevator ride. Donald Trump's operatives couldn't decide whether to send him down the escalator to announce his presidential candidacy or have him take the elevator instead. They landed on the escalator, and that moment would set in motion a 13-month ride that would ultimately ensconce him atop the GOP as its 2016 standard-bearer.

Seventeen Republicans aspired to be president of the United States during that election cycle, one of the most unorthodox and unconventional the country had ever seen. Only one emerged from the pileup — Trump — who would learn he was the nominee on the Trump Tower elevator he almost descended on back on announcement day.

During those tumultuous months from June 2015 to July 2016, the Republican Party establishment's reluctant journey to accepting a reality-TV celebrity as their presidential nominee laid bare deep ideological and cultural divisions within their ranks. Traditional Republicans found themselves outflanked by an insurgent former lifelong Democrat whose impulses and approach conflicted with their own. But by the time of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland five years ago this week, running from July 18 through the 21st, Republicans who did not support Trump fell in line.

In interviews with nearly two dozen people — including several 2016 Republican candidates, party officials, and both GOP and Democratic campaign operatives — Insider collected never-before-reported recollections from Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP. The story that follows covers the Trump Tower escalator ride that was mocked from all directions and yet started everything; the Trump official behind renting a crowd for the big campaign announcement speech; and Melania Trump's plagiarism of Michelle Obama's Democratic National Convention speech eight years earlier.

These 2016 insiders also described how the Trump team prepared for the first GOP debate in Cleveland by hanging with a member of Aerosmith and how his campaign polled Ivanka Trump as a vice-presidential candidate amid the RNC's last-minute gambit to dump Trump.

The human drama of the Republican primary campaign has been all but forgotten, replaced by what came after: Trump versus Hillary, Russian hackings, WikiLeaks, and the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape — and the four ensuing wild years that roiled the nation and the world.

But for any of that to happen, Trump must first become the leader of the GOP. What you are about to read is the oral history of that story.


Chapter 1: The escalator

For 29 years before his fateful escalator ride, Trump toyed with the idea of running for president. This time he was serious. Aides carefully planned and scripted the event and his remarks; Trump improvised.

Corey Lewandowski, Trump campaign manager: We had a number of variables which we had to factor in, which was either come down the elevators in the back of the room and have him walk out through a blue curtain and onto the stage, or come down into the lobby, come down that now famous escalator ride, and then go up onto the stage. But what our goal was, was making him look as presidential from the very onset, which means the American flag behind him, the stage was exactly how we wanted it, with a podium, with the same type of microphone that presidents traditionally use.

donald trump

The most famous escalator ride in US political history.

Christopher Gregory/Getty Images


Donald McGahn, Trump campaign counsel: I was at the top. He went down. And I remember seeing the crowd go nuts.

Adrienne Elrod, Hillary for America director of strategic communications: We all kind of stopped what we were doing and chuckled at the fact that this is happening. And we all kind of said, “Yeah, he's going to be in the race for about six weeks. He'll use this to make some more money and grow the Trump brand and try to launch a new television show.”

Sarah Isgur, deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina: What a weird thing for the advance team to think was OK — like him standing on this escalator.

Tim Miller, communications director for Jeb Bush: I thought it was a ridiculous show.

Corey Lewandowski: We had people who were on the periphery of the campaign and thought they were campaign strategists who wanted to have elephants and monkeys and donkeys running through Trump Tower.

Donald McGahn: There was a lot of building security checking each other's credentials, because we had different levels of credentials. It took them a while to realize there was a hierarchy of credentials. There were security guards telling other security guards to move.

Corey Lewandowski: There were five different sets of credentials and all-access to media and volunteers. They all had the wrong date printed on it. They all said June 16, 2016. So we had to send this poor woman by the name of Joy out to Brooklyn at, like, 3 o'clock in the morning to get these reprinted, because we knew that if it wasn't perfect we'd be chastised.

Josh Schwerin, Hillary for America national spokesman: He was not a serious person at that point. There had been debate of will-he-won't-he for a really long time. It didn't seem like a serious thing.

Sarah Isgur: I remember thinking: “Man, I'm surprised he couldn't even get people there. That seems insane.”

Amanda Carpenter, communications director for Ted Cruz: It seemed strange. I was watching the coverage of “Oh, did they pay people to show up? Who were these people?”

Trump's 2016 campaign aides said they paid about 50 people, including part-time actors, to appear as supporters for his 2016 campaign announcement.
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The scene in the Trump Tower lobby on June 6, 2015.
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Trump's “Make America Great Again” slogan adorned T-shirts at his campaign announcement speech.
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Corey Lewandowski: That's a Michael Cohen special. Michael Cohen decided that he was going to go hire one of his buddies and pay his buddy without getting any campaign approval. You know, $50 for every person to come in, to stand in Trump Tower.

I literally spent the entire day of Trump's announcement screaming at TV executives. Tim Miller

Michael Cohen, Trump personal attorney: Trump hired David Schwartz to coordinate the campaign launch, which he did professionally. Any allegation of payments to actors is an absolute lie that was promoted by Corey Lewandowski.

David Schwartz, partner at Gotham Government Relations: We were hired to put that entire event together. That event was really our brainchild: The most famous escalator ride in the history of politics was that one. Bottom line is, we had thousands of people there, and then the press accused us of hiring thousands of actors. Based on the fee that I got, that would not have been a good business decision on anyone's part. The reality is we hired 50 people, some of whom were part-time actors I found out later on. But we hired 50 people to help coordinate an event that brought in thousands of people. There were people at the door that couldn't get in. That night, all of the sudden, I got accused of hiring thousands of actors.

Tim Miller: So Trump is going to speak, and Sean Hannity was going to give Trump Jeb's slot that night, because they announced the same day. So I'm standing outside Bed Bath & Beyond in Miami, shouting at Hannity, like, “What the F is your problem?” F this and F that. “How can you give this guy our slot?” Then I remember going in to shop and coming out and yelling at some other anchors. I literally spent the entire day of Trump's announcement screaming at TV executives.

Corey Lewandowski: He did not deliver one word of the speech as it was written. We provided the speech to every media outlet and said, “Remarks as prepared by Donald Trump for his announcement speech.” There were some media outlets that actually just printed them verbatim. Probably had egg on their face afterward. Because as we know, Donald Trump went on to speak extemporaneously for 45 minutes and talk about some of the individuals coming across the border that were never in the original speech. And I assume some are good people.

Donald Trump speaks at his 2016 presidential campaign announcement at Trump Tower.

Trump promised to make America great again and vowed to take on the growing might of China in a speech launching his run for the presidency in 2016. He made his way to the stage serenaded by “Rockin' in the Free World” by the Canadian singer Neil Young.

Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images


Amanda Carpenter: I was like, “OK, well, at least he's talking about mostly our type of issues. People will realize he's a clown. And then this whole thing will melt like cotton candy. And we'll be back to maybe a Jeb, Rubio, Cruz race.”

Lindsey Graham, GOP senator and 2016 presidential candidate: I thought his announcement was pretty extreme. I thought the rhetoric around his announcement and some of his policy positions would make it almost disqualifying.


Chapter 2: Early disasters

A month after his campaign announcement, at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump attacked Sen. John McCain. The Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee had been a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “He's not a war hero,” Trump told the moderator Frank Luntz. “He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured.” It proved to be the first of a series of moments early on when it looked like Trump's campaign was over before it had even really begun.

Marco Rubio, GOP senator and 2016 presidential candidate: Look, everybody — every traditional observer of politics — thought his campaign was dead when he said the things he said about John McCain.

Sen. John McCain walking down the stairs in the US Capitol surrounded by reporters.

GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the US Capitol in July 2015, days after Trump said the Vietnam POW was “not a war hero.”

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo


Corey Lewandowski: We had a whole day planned in Iowa that day. I remember it very vividly. I waited for Mr. Trump to walk off the stage, and I said, “I'd like to speak to you.” He said, “I was pretty good, right?” I said, “Sir, could I speak to you over here for a second, please?” We went into a locker room, which is where the referees or umpires, depending on the sport, would get dressed in that gymnasium. And I said: “Sir, by all accounts, John McCain is a war hero. You need to apologize.” He said, “Yeah, no apologies.”

Marco Rubio: That was a pretty early sign that the dynamics of American politics have changed. Part of it is just the way the public now consumes political news. It's very different than 20 years ago. It's covered more like entertainment or sports, and less like public policy. It was a perfect forum for a candidate with a message and the experience that he had.

I called my wife just as we were getting onto the plane. I said, “Hey, baby, I'm coming home.” She said, “Oh, the day is over?” I said, “No, no — the campaign is over.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said: “It's over. We're done.” Corey Lewandowski, Trump campaign manager

Corey Lewandowski: I called my wife just as we were getting onto the plane. I said, “Hey, baby, I'm coming home.” She said, “Oh, the day is over?” I said, “No, no — the campaign is over.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said: “It's over. We're done.”

We flew from Iowa back to New Jersey, and this guy Dave picked us up in the car and we drove over to Mr. Trump's home. As we walked in the door, Mrs. Trump was waiting for us. She said: “You're right. John McCain isn't a war hero. What he has done for the veterans has been shameful.” In the meantime, I'd been getting phone calls from every major political pundit and conservative talk-show host except Rush Limbaugh. They were all telling me that Donald Trump had to apologize — that his race was over if he didn't apologize immediately.

Michael Cohen: Melania played a very limited role during the campaign not believing Donald would actually win. However, when directly asked for her opinion on a matter by Donald, she offered it readily.


Chapter 3: The Debates

On August 6, inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, 10 Republican presidential candidates took part in the first debate. Trump was a neophyte to debates, and his team was more interested in hanging out with the Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry than prepping, auguring the alchemy of entertainment and politics that would define the Trump era. If Trump was a made-for-television candidate, he benefited from the unconventional nature of that cycle's nearly dozen debates, spanning from August 2015 to March 2016.

Corey Lewandowski: We had a little bit of downtime before we went over to the arena. We landed the plane in Cleveland, and we got a phone call from Don McGahn, who was then our general counsel. “Hey, Aerosmith is close by. Do you mind if they bring their tour bus over and party with us for a little while?” We said, “100% — bring Aerosmith over!”

Donald McGahn: Close, but that's a little off.

Corey Lewandowski: So we sat there with Aerosmith about an hour before the debate, swapping stories of Aerosmith as opposed to doing debate prep.

Aerosmith's Steven Tyler at the GOP presidential debate in Cleveland in August, 2015.

Steven Tyler of the band Aerosmith listens from the audience during the first official 2016 Republican presidential debate in Cleveland.

Brian Snyder/Reuters


Donald McGahn: It wasn't the whole band. It was Joe Perry. He was intrigued by the emerging Trump phenomenon. Remember, this was before there were any primary debates, and it was all new to everyone. Stuff that would be from Mars on any other campaign was perfectly normal for the Trump campaign.

By this point, Trump was getting ready for the debate, so Joe had to wait a little bit. On the way out the door, Trump says something about “rock stars have all the ladies,” which apparently Perry got mad at, because he's been married for decades and takes all that stuff pretty seriously. After the debate, if you watch the film, Joe goes up on stage and finds Trump and proceeds to tell him that he's married and he doesn't sleep around.

The subtext is that Steven Tyler already had tickets to the debate through some other wing of Trump Org. Joe didn't want to be upstaged — wanted to meet with Trump rather than just go to the debate. Apparently, there's a whole internal Aerosmith thing among the political persuasion of the band.

After the first debate, the prime-time contests took on a familiar pattern, with Trump becoming their draw and center of gravity.

Marco Rubio: The first time I got on the debate stage, there were, like, 100 people on stage. So it was a very unique race, because you had so many different people running.

Rand Paul, GOP senator and 2016 presidential candidate: I blame as much as anything the media. The media organizes the debates.

Sarah Isgur: It wasn't a debate. You were debating yourself. How could you use your time as effectively, and where can you jump in on a question that wasn't to you?

A line-up of the top-polling 2016 GOP candidates before the first debate in Cleveland.

The top-polling 2016 Republican presidential candidates in August 2015 at their first official debate in Cleveland. From left: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and John Kasich.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Corey Lewandowski: Let me just remind you, Trump had never been on the debate stage. And he was going up against a Princeton-educated debate champion in Ted Cruz, and career politicians and executives who've done this their entire life. So we spent time talking to Mr. Trump about some of the possible questions that would come up. We wrote one-liners on every candidate, just so he would have a quick retort if he wanted that.

Rand Paul: It's hard to have much exchange when you don't get much time. It's unfair the way the debates are set up. They really make it impossible for the underdog to have much of a chance.

Lindsey Graham: I never got on the big stage. That's frustrating. I was never able to poll well enough.

Sean Spicer, chief strategist and communications director for the Republican National Committee: You're sitting there and watching Trump say, “Yeah, I don't know.” And you think, “OK, that would have been a death knell for anybody else. It would have been, like, ‘Boom — you're out.'”

Josh Hawley, GOP candidate for Missouri attorney general: The one debate I remember, he starts by attacking Rand Paul. “I don't know why Rand Paul is even on the stage.” I remember thinking, “I can't believe he's saying this stuff out loud.” You can understand why people are watching the debates. Because you wonder, “Well, what's gonna happen next?”

Rick Gates, deputy Trump campaign chairman: Donald Trump had this amazing ability to size people up — a “Little Marco” — in literally a one- or two-word phrase that so encapsulated who they were that people said: “This guy is absolutely right. He's telling us the truth.” So it was almost impossible to compete with Donald Trump in that regard.

Carson, Walker, and Trump at the debate on August 6, 2015.
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The Fox News moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier at the first 2016 GOP presidential debate.
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Trump speaks as Bush watches during the first GOP presidential debate.
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Corey Lewandowski: Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face. And we just kept punching people in the face.

Tim Miller: If you're designing a candidate to do a poor job of being the one to go head-to-head with Trump, it would be Jeb. He was an easy punching bag because of his family. He's not an alpha type on a debate stage.

Josh Schwerin: The most memorable debate experience? I was on the road, and it was the one where Trump and Rubio got into an argument about hand size, which I then had to brief President Clinton on. Which was one of the more awkward moments in my life, I would say. We were in Louisiana. He didn't at first believe me that this was the topic of a debate. I had to show him the CNN headline. I tried to not add any commentary and just let him read it for himself. Because it was not the most comfortable conversation to have with the former president of the United States. He was amused, but also really aghast that this is what they had devolved to.

The evening after the Cleveland debate, with exhaustion setting in, Trump ignited another controversy when he phoned into “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon and said that the Fox debate moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Kelly had aggressively questioned Trump about his past comments about women, and his post-debate commentary would only further solidify the narrative that Trump had a problem with sexism.

Sean Spicer: I think she thought that was going to be the gotcha moment.

Corey Lewandowski: I remember getting a phone call that Friday night. I was in my apartment in New York at, like, 9 o'clock — we were supposed to be traveling to South Carolina the next day — from a guy by the name of Erick Erickson. And he says, “I just listened to the interview, and I've got teenage daughters and a wife, and Donald Trump is no longer invited to my event, because it was such an egregious thing to do.”

I didn't even know what the hell he was talking about. I said, “What happened?” I call Mr. Trump, and he says: “Yeah, I don't know. Maybe I said something.” I again tell him it was one of these things where his campaign was over. And he just doubled down on it. He powered through it. And once again, 48 hours later, we were into a new news cycle.

At the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the candidates faced off in another marathon debate, during which Trump attacked Rand Paul's height and Carly Fiorina blasted Trump for mocking her appearance in an interview with Rolling Stone a few days before the debate. (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”) “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” Fiorina would say that night to raucous applause.

Sarah Isgur: We were landing — this was back when not every airplane had WiFi. And so I was landing and getting WiFi back, and that's when I saw it. And, I mean, she knew immediately that was the best opportunity we'd ever had. Like the thing sucking up all the oxygen just gave us an oxygen mask.

Tim Miller: Carly did a good job.

Sarah Isgur: Trump realized the mistake he had made. That's why he never touched her again.


Chapter 4: Republicans cannibalize themselves

In the months-long lead-up to February's Iowa caucuses, the massive Republican field continued to jockey for position, and Trump continued to suck most of the oxygen out of the room and vacuum up earned media. By the end of 2015, the oxygen deprivation had winnowed the field by five candidates. The candidates who remained were trapped in something like a prisoner's dilemma in which they turned fire on everyone else but Trump. Meanwhile, the former celebrated neurosurgeon Ben Carson began to gain traction among social conservatives nationwide, particularly in Iowa. During a rally in Fort Dodge, Trump went after his future Cabinet appointee, reenacting Carson's teenage tribulations — ridiculous mock knife fight, anyone? — purely for laughs. Trump's team planned it on the plane, and it led to an awkward exchange in the motorcade afterward.

Corey Lewandowski: Mr. Trump says to Mark, the head of the Secret Service detail: “Hey, Mark. How did we do?” And Mark says, “Very good, sir!” And Mr. Trump says, “Do you have any advice?” And Mark says, “Just one, sir.”

I'm like, “You gotta be shitting me. This guy has been on the job a hot second and he's already giving the candidate advice? He's the fucking Secret Service guy!” And Mark, who's a great guy and I have enormous respect for, says: “Sir, please don't have anybody come up on the stage and stab you. We have to shoot them!”

Then Trump goes, “Oh, Mark — the guy was 80.”

And Mark goes: “No, don't. Please. Here is my only advice. Please don't ask anyone to come up on the stage.” And I said: ‘OK, like, I agree with you, head of Secret Service detail protection, let's not have anyone come up on the stage.”

Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, in West Des Moines, Iowa, on February 1, 2016.
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Trump eats a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair on August 15, 2015.
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Trump speaks at a January 2016 campaign event at Clinton Middle School in Clinton, Iowa.
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February 2016 opened with Ted Cruz mounting a surprise win in Iowa and Trump complaining that the election was rigged.

Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and 2012 GOP presidential candidate: Trump could never perform a classic Iowa campaign. First of all, it's not who he is. It's inconceivable he was going to go to small towns three times. But how could you create a replacement campaign? I called him one afternoon and said: “What you have to do is get on Facebook every day. People have to feel that you're in their living room or their kitchen every day. Then the familiarity will lead them to decide.” I must have said that to him in October. And at Christmas, we were at my wife's sister-in-law's. He calls and says: “This is Donald. We just finished taping 58 Facebook videos.”

Sean Spicer: I had breakfast one morning with Corey. He was very clear that the expectations were that Trump needed to win Iowa. He was going all in, doing anything he could.

Corey Lewandowski: Cruz's campaign was so focused, they put all their eggs in the Iowa basket. Then at the very end of the night of the Iowa caucus, they sent out a mass distribution that said, “Ben Carson is getting out of the race — vote for Ted Cruz.” We believe that those votes went from Dr. Carson to Ted Cruz, and that is ultimately what led Donald Trump to finish second in the Iowa caucus.

Marco Rubio: It was obvious he was doing it differently than everybody else was.

Corey Lewandowski: There was a brief period of time where Marco Rubio started to go after Donald Trump and attack him. And you actually saw a movement in the polls, but what did Marco's team do? They started hearing from their donors, and their donors said: “This is beneath you. You should not be talking about the size of Mr. Trump's hands. This is not becoming of a presidential candidate.”

Marco Rubio: He has a real understanding of the media ecosystem and what feeds it—what it is the media wants to report on and getting narratives across. And that was probably underappreciated when everybody was kind of running traditional political campaigns and he was running a 21st-century, modern version of what we have. And it worked.

The ensuing four weeks — starting with the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of February 2016 — saw the remaining Republican challengers cannibalize each other instead of Trump. Taking out the top guy after the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz, was too lofty a goal for Chris Christie in early 2016. So the straggling two-term governor of New Jersey settled on taking out the first-term senator from Florida, portraying Rubio as too green to be president. Meanwhile, Trump aides worried their candidate's obsession over not coming in first in Iowa could spell the end of his campaign.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's daughter Daniella throws a snowball at her father after a town-hall meeting in Hudson, New Hampshire, in February 2016.
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Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas speaks at a rally in Pahrump, Nevada, in February 2016.
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Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey answers questions at a campaign event in Nashua, New Hampshire, in February 2016.
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Mike DuHaime, senior strategist to Chris Christie: So it was on the plane ride back from Iowa to New Hampshire, it was really the governor himself and basically said: “This is what we have to do. Now is the time to take on Marco.”

Corey Lewandowski: I called the grown children — Don, Eric, and Ivanka — told them what was happening, brought Mr. Trump in, and, over a meal of McDonald's in the back room of our Manchester office, told him that if he wants to continue to bitch about the results in Iowa and not lay out his vision for what he wanted to achieve for America to the people in New Hampshire, this race was over. It was a very candid conversation; it was just he and I in the room. He listened intently. You walked out of that room. He went to a town-hall meeting with CNN that afternoon and Manchester. He came and ran a positive message.

Then he went to a shift change at the Manchester police department, where he talked about supporting the men and women in law enforcement. And we campaigned in New Hampshire on Thursday and Friday, on Saturday, on Sunday, and on Monday. And on Tuesday, Donald Trump won the state of New Hampshire by 17 points, with 35%, in the 17-way primary. It was a complete blowout, the biggest blowout in the primary's history.

With the field on the verge of collapsing, the GOP establishment's favorite son, Jeb Bush, sensed opportunity — albeit briefly. They pinned their hopes on the candidate's mother, the former first lady.

Tim Miller: There was a small window where we felt, like, “Mrs. Bush is coming up, somebody is going to take some momentum here out of New Hampshire.” That's not Cruz or Trump. It'll either be us or a Kasich or Rubio. We thought maybe we can kind of channel this and have a McCain-like 2008 sort of bump.

Our internal numbers were going up a little bit right around the time when Mrs. Bush came to visit us. And it was just lovely, and she's just so charming and wonderful and aligned and blunt. And I remember briefing her for — she was interviewing with Norah O'Donnell. I was pretty clear, and I asked her what she was going to say if she was asked about them. I asked her her thoughts about Cruz and Trump, and she gave her very candid negative assessments of both of them. After each sort of rant she went on, she then looked at me and said, “But I'm not going to say that.”

Former First Lady Barbara Bush speaks alongside her son, Jeb Bush, during a 2016 campaign event in New Hampshire.

Former first lady Barbara Bush introduces her son Jeb Bush at a town-hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, in February 2016.

Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Corey Lewandowski: We could attack Jeb for being a fake rich guy. Because he wasn't as rich as Trump. And then we could attack him for being a career politician. And then we can attack him for being low energy. He became an easy target for us because he had never had a tough battle.

Christie dropped out after Trump won New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Bush's campaign never got going. He suffered perhaps most from a viral video after he told a New Hampshire audience on February 4, 2016, to “please clap.”

Tim Miller: The “please clap” thing is Ashley Parker's fault. I never will forgive her for that. She was the one who tweeted it out first and made everybody go back and find it and make it seem cringe.

It was like a totally normal human response to an awkward audience moment that he was trying to let it go ahead. And then it got turned around on the internet to seem like he's begging people to clap for him. Like: “Please clap for me, please clap for me. I'm so sad. I'm in last place.” Such is life. Tim Miller

Ashley Parker, reporter at The New York Times: I made it the kicker of my story. Once I tweeted it out, it just took on a totally unexpected life of its own.

Tim Miller: It was like a totally normal human response to an awkward audience moment that he was trying to let it go ahead. And then it got turned around on the internet to seem like he's begging people to clap for him. Like: “Please clap for me, please clap for me. I'm so sad. I'm in last place.” Such is life.

Ashley Parker: It was sort of a poignant moment and a telling moment, in certain ways, but I think some of this got lost in the meme. It was also a lighthearted moment.

All told, 12 Republican candidates started out in February. By the time Super Tuesday rolled around, on March 1, 2016, the field stood at five. Amid the South Carolina primary, holed up at a Hilton Garden Inn, the Bush campaign compiled speeches for dropping out and forging deeper into other states' nominating contests. Surrounded by the Bush family, the New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, and staffers, the son and brother of two former presidents dropped out of the race. He was the 2016 campaign's original front-runner with a nearly $100 million war chest.

Rob Portman, GOP senator from Ohio: The Republican primary was a surprise for people because most of us thought Jeb Bush came into it with the most mainstream Republican support.

Tim Miller: There were a couple of folks around Jeb who wanted him to keep going, and he called us back in and said: “You know, this is, I can't, can't do it. I can't move forward. So we have to, you know, we have to do this.” He was all business. And he looked at me and says, “I've got it.” And we went over the speech, you know, just like we would have with any other speech. He was wistful, obviously, and a little sad, but very businesslike. Like, this happened, he gave it his all, and he recognized staying in was only going to make things more likely at that point for Trump.

Lawn signs for Jeb Bush and Ben Carson on the ground in South Carolina during the 2016 presidential primaries.

Discarded lawn signs for Jeb Bush and Ben Carson lie on the ground outside a polling station in Columbia, South Carolina, on February 20, 2016.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters


Marco Rubio: Generally I was happy when people dropped out, because that meant, you know, one less candidate out there and a pool of voters that were now available to go after. Unfortunately for me, they didn't drop out soon enough.


Chapter 5: Trump takes control: Super Tuesday, Indiana's decisive primary

In March, as the contest narrowed, Trump went on a tear on Super Tuesday, winning Virginia, Vermont, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Alabama, setting up a battle royal between Trump, Cruz, and Kasich in Indiana's May primary.

Rick Gates: By March, clearly he was the front-runner, and he was gaining delegates. But at the same time, you could see the party apparatus starting to work against him.

Lindsey Graham: I endorsed Ted Cruz. I ran out of people to endorse. I was sort of the Dr. Kevorkian of endorsing. Everybody I endorsed politically died.

Amanda Carpenter: It was essentially coming down to a Cruz-Trump race, and Kasich was refusing to get out. People like John Boehner and others were signaling that they weren't going to help Cruz and consolidate the field. They were just saying, “Well, we'll just nominate Trump and let him lose.”

Tim Miller: Jeb endorsed Cruz pretty quickly after he dropped out. Gave Marco Florida all to himself. I went to work for a super PAC that spent millions of dollars attacking Trump in Florida. Like, what more did you want from us?

Mike DuHaime: Mitt Romney was potentially the most influential endorsement during that cycle. He was the previous nominee, and he had this massive fundraising network. So the thought was that if Mitt endorsed somebody, that person could become the one who could coalesce people. He never did.

Mitt Romney, 2012 Republican presidential nominee: There's really no reason for me to add to that story.

Tim Miller: There's an alternate history where Trump gets treated like a joke from the start. There's another alternate history where all of the campaigns attack him and treat him seriously from the start and he never really takes off. We'll never know. I do think that in both of those alternative histories, he could've gotten killed in the crib.

Cardboard cut outs of the faces of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio, set up over urinals at a London pub during the 2016 presidential campaign.

A London pub set up cardboard cutouts of the faces of Ted Cruz, Trump, and Marco Rubio in March 2016 as part of an informal survey for customers to log which they disliked the most.

Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images


In the early spring of 2016, the Trump campaign began to make some changes atop its organizational chart, hiring Paul Manafort, the veteran delegate wrangler of RNC conventions who'd turned into a jet-setting shadowy political operative for foreign autocrats.

Rick Gates: Paul Manafort was brought in at the end of March. Trump had been advised to meet with Paul because Paul knew how to deal with conventions. The media had been reporting that the Republican convention was going to be contested. So you needed somebody to understand the nuances of how a contested convention works.

The first call he made was to Jim Baker, the broker of the last contested convention. We had a secret meeting with Baker at the Jones Day law firm, our lawyer at the time. He and Trump had a fantastic meeting. Baker was as smooth as he typically is, and Trump was very interested in Baker's experience.

The second call, which I thought was interesting, was to Dick Cheney. Cheney had agreed to support Trump, but he wanted to do it from behind the scenes. He wanted to be helpful for the party and support the nominee, but clearly he was not comfortable yet to move all into Trump's camp, given his relationship with the Bush family.

Another interesting call was to Marco Rubio. Paul got Marco on the phone, and Rubio said he would look at how Trump was going to run his campaign, and, at the appropriate time, he might be willing to support him. Paul hung up and started smirking. I said, “What's going on?” He goes, “Marco used to be my driver at the 1996 Republican convention.”

At a hastily arranged event in Indianapolis, in a last-stand effort ahead of Indiana's decisive primary and following Trump's big wins in five East Coast states, Ted Cruz announced that Carly Fiorina would be his running mate if he emerged from the GOP primary with his party's nomination. It was an odd, awkward event that featured a botched handshake between the two.

Sarah Isgur: The most important thought was, who can actually beat Trump at this point? He was underperforming with women. Cruz wasn't women's favorite candidate either. So if women in the middle of the Republican Party were up for grabs, maybe Carly could help with that.

Jeff Roe, campaign manager for Ted Cruz: They had a really good rapport, and it was a man-bites-dog publicity event. So we thought it would be newsworthy, and that's how it came together.

Adrienne Elrod: By that point, we realized it was over, and we started planning for the general election.

Amanda Carpenter: I like Carly and respect her a lot, but it was just a play. You just tried to signal that we would be serious about things: “Look, we would bring a woman onto the ticket.” I mean, it was kind of a last-ditch attempt.

Nothing fancy to explain there: We fumbled for a moment, and it makes for an amusing video after the fact. Ted Cruz

Jeff Roe: What's funny is we practiced the handshake.

Sarah Isgur: Oh, my God. My memory is that not only did they practice the handshake, we made them practice the handshake. They balked at us and said that we were idiots for making them practice. They did it in a way teenagers will do something, like rolling their eyes. And then to have them do the most awkward, whatever that was, in the world.

Jeff Roe: It's always awkward when candidates do the victory wave. We freaking practiced it, and they still screwed it up.

Ted Cruz: Nothing fancy to explain there: We fumbled for a moment, and it makes for an amusing video after the fact.

Jeff Roe: They really liked each other, legitimately liked each other. So it was what it was, a guy running for president who announced his VP before he got the nomination. It's going to be a little funky. If we could get conservatives to unite against Trump, then this could be a thing. It wasn't, “Oh, isn't this kind of funny?” We did not treat it as being funny.

Lindsey Graham: I think it had slipped away by then.

Days later, during an event on May 2, Fiorina fell through the stage while campaigning with Cruz.

Sarah Isgur: I was doing something on my phone. They were, like, “Carly just fell!”

Jeff Roe: I think she stepped off the thing. It's better from the camera angle than it was in real life. But the camera angle looks bad.

Sarah Isgur: I was, like, “Oh, my God.”

One of the most pivotal endorsements during the final days of the GOP nominating contest was still up for grabs. On April 29, 2016, in a radio interview in Indianapolis, Gov. Mike Pence, himself running for reelection, endorsed Cruz to appease his socially conservative base. But Pence also threaded the needle with kind words about Trump. “I'm not against anybody, but I will be voting for Ted Cruz in the Republican primary,” Pence said in an interview with WIBC's Greg Garrison. Trump won despite Pence's endorsement.

Rick Gates: That night we set up a rally inside Trump Tower for Trump to kind of do his victory party. But we didn't say anything about being the presumptive nominee. We didn't take any liberties. We just stayed in our lane, and we knew at some point Cruz is going to have to drop out. We didn't know he was going to drop out that night.

Jeff Roe: We stayed in a hotel. I cannot remember the name of the hotel, and, unbelievably, there was a dog show there. So we stayed up there the whole weekend, and we made our decision with these dogs barking next to us the whole damn time.

Ted Cruz: When I was giving my speech and I said the words “We're suspending the campaign,” a woman in the crowd let out a wail. It was piercing. I almost broke down. I finished the speech, and one of the things I'm still frustrated to this day is that I wanted to stay out there and thank the hundreds of volunteers who were there that night who were grieving. And I couldn't. I couldn't hold back the tears. There was an army of TV cameras there, and I'll be damned if I was going to let the media turn Lyin' Ted into Cryin' Ted. I had to leave the room because I simply couldn't hold back. I'm grateful that Heidi spent probably an hour just hugging everyone and saying thank you. I wish I had the strength to do that. I didn't. But Heidi did it for us. That piercing cry from the woman in the crowd. I'll never forget.

Rick Gates: We found out that Cruz had dropped out after Trump had gone through the hallway to the elevator. It was Melania and Trump and myself and Paul in the elevator. And it was just utter silence. Paul turned to Trump and said, “Do you now know that you're one of two people who is going to be the next president of the United States?”

Sarah Isgur: I was listening to the “Hamilton” soundtrack just over and over and over on the bus with my headphones on with the senior Cruz team and Cruz and Heidi and Carly. I wish I had had a better mood, attitude, whatever you want to call it. But you just worked your heart out and lost, and now you don't have time off. You're just back doing it for someone else. I say all that because when he lost, I was in sort of a historical, pensive mood. I remember wondering who had run against Hitler in Germany and thinking those people deserve more credit in history. Because you can know what the threat is and you can give everything you've got and still lose.

Mike DuHaime: There were too many people who wanted to beat Trump but didn't have the courage to get behind any one person, because they didn't want to offend either us or Jeb or Marco or Cruz. So it was just too little too late.

Ultimately, Pence, despite not endorsing Trump, became Trump's pick for the vice-presidential nomination — because of “divine intervention.”

Donald Trump and Mike Pence on stage during their July 2016 running mate announcement.

Trump walks with Mike Pence on stage during a July 2016 campaign event in New York to announce Pence as Trump's running mate.

Evan Vucci/AP photo


Rick Gates: Unbeknownst to Trump, we polled Ivanka to understand where she was. We didn't think that he was necessarily seriously going to move forward with it. But Paul thought we got to at least test it, because you never know, everything else about this race has been different. So why not? Let's look at this, you know, in totality. She had pretty good name recognition for that part. But at the end of the day, even she knew that she was not wanting to be the candidate. And so we moved on very quickly.

Trump wanted to bring on somebody that was his friend, that he could work with as vice president, that he was able to communicate with very easily. And so this idea of Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich kind of being among the front-runners was absolutely accurate. But in the background we were looking at people like Mike Pence, Joni Ernst, and Bob Corker who might bring some significant role or resource to the campaign in order to help Trump win.

So they came up with a short list very early on, and we reached out to the candidates individually. One of the first candidates was Mike Pence. He was the first VP candidate we met with at Bedminster. I was put in charge of vetting for Pence along with the lawyer A.B. Culvahouse. I staffed that meeting. This is the first time that Trump was physically meeting Mike Pence. And I think it's humorous in the sense that up to this point, Trump thought that Pence was not doing well in his governor's race. Trump felt like if he wasn't winning the governorship of Indiana, how in the world would he be able to help Trump as a vice-presidential candidate?

And I say to this day, it was just divine intervention on how everything worked out for the first time they had met. Pence was ultimately selected. And we had a scenario where we met at Bedminster for the first time, Pence and his wife, Karen, and daughter Charlotte were there. And it was Trump and myself in the room. And Trump immediately started the meeting looking at Pence's daughter, Charlotte, and saying, “Charlotte, you know, your dad supported Ted Cruz in Indiana, not me.” And it broke the ice and it was great. And to Mike's credit, he said, “Yes, Mr. Trump — uh — that was my fault.” And it immediately just kind of got them into a position of really getting to know each other. And the visit was not without its challenges, because they are two very different people.


Chapter 6: The RNC, July 2016

Their presidential dreams crushed, a handful of Trump's 2016 rivals had by this point quit fighting and pledged allegiance to the seemingly inevitable nominee. But there were holdouts, like Rubio, Cruz, and Graham, who were still refusing to bend the knee. The climax came in Cleveland.

Marco Rubio: I didn't go to the convention because I was running for reelection. I had announced late, so I needed every day I could spare in Florida.

Tim Miller: I ended up not going to Cleveland. I drove to Richmond and got blackout drunk with my friend.

Melania Trump waving to the crowd at the 2016 Republican National Convention after her speech.

Melania Trump waves to the crowd at the end of her speech on the opening day of the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images


Rick Gates: On the first night of the convention, Melania did a fantastic job in the speech. And then about an hour and a half later, we start getting calls about the speech and about how it may have had information in it from a speech that Michelle Obama gave. And then, obviously, people started digging into the two speeches, and then they started comparing it.

My wife calls me about an hour later, I think just a little after midnight, and says, “You're being blamed for it.” And I was in a complete state of shock, because none of us had seen the speech until just before she gave the speech. And the way that the process worked, it was fed into a system run by the RNC where they would typically check for grammatical mistakes, but they never checked for content — obviously a correction that was made after that night. But at that point, nobody had thought to check Melania's speech because she had taken the team of speechwriters and done it. And what we found out after the fact was that there was an individual who had been guided by the speech firm that had given ideas and previous examples of speeches, and the speechwriter that helped him a lot, he was not political in nature and so, from what we now know, taken some of those aspects of the speech and included it, unbeknownst to Melania. And I don't think it was a deliberate intent, but obviously it created such a stir.

Entering the convention, candidates who vociferously opposed Trump during the primary had to decide how to handle the convention optics. Former candidates such as Fiorina took a different tack than former candidates such as Cruz.

Sarah Isgur: Carly couldn't endorse Trump and she couldn't not endorse him. I think that the phrase that was used was “You don't show up to someone's birthday party and talk about what a son of a bitch they are.”

Amanda Carpenter: I was working for CNN, and I had an inkling that Cruz was going to do something. I thought, another good, last-ditch attempt to try to at least signal opposition to what was going to happen.

Rick Gates: We had negotiated with Cruz that he would be able to speak but that he would need to come out and say he was endorsing Donald Trump, which up until that moment he hadn't committed to. We asked for a copy of the speech in advance, but he didn't give it to us. We felt Cruz was going to renege on his commitment, which you naturally would assume.

There was a lot of jockeying at the last minute. Jared and I were at the hotel with Trump in his suite. We're on the phone with Paul, who was over at the convention center. Nobody wanted Cruz to speak except for Paul, who thought it would be a disaster if he didn't, since we had committed to it. But Trump refused to allow him to speak, and so we were working out how we were going to tell Cruz this.

Ted Cruz: The purpose of the speech was to lay out a path that I hoped then-candidate Trump would follow. A path to unifying conservatives. A path to honoring the promises that we had been making to the American people. What I said in the speech is vote for candidates who you trust to defend freedom and to defend the Constitution. And that is very much what I hoped Donald Trump would do. At the time I didn't know if he would or not. There were reasons to have concerns. I did have concerns.

Amanda Carpenter: It was all pretty high-level, high-stakes theatrics going on — on everyone's part.

Rick Gates: So we go over to the convention center in the motorcade. We have Trump in a holding room, and he's watching the proceedings on TV. He asked me where the rest of the family is. We had a family box, which we called the VIP box, in the corner of the convention center, looking directly onto the stage. Trump said: “‘We'll check it out. Let's go.”

So we walk through the halls, and everybody's shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” He's building momentum. I'm thinking, this is way early for him to come down into this area, before Pence comes out to speak. And then he just kind of moseys out of the room right around the corner, because the stairs lead down into the box. He gets into the stairwell, and he turns to me and says, “Watch this.”

Ted Cruz: I didn't know it was coming. I had no idea. It didn't occur to me that that would be the campaign's reaction. Given that, for any nominee, the objective typically is to unify the party and win in November.

Amanda Carpenter: I just remember how loud the boos were. And how I was worried for Heidi, watching her just kind of whisked out.

People shout as Ted Cruz delivers a speech on July 20, 2016, during the third day of the Republican National Convention.
Mark J. Terrill/AP photo

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Trump acknowledges the crowd at the Republican National Convention while Cruz speaks on July 20, 2016.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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A woman yells “Say it!” and “I don't believe you!” as Cruz speaks at the Republican National Convention.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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Ted Cruz: If you look at what I said in the speech, the words were virtually identical to what Ted Kennedy said about Jimmy Carter and to what Ronald Reagan said about Gerald Ford. Neither one of them, at their respective conventions, endorsed the nominee. And the reason I know it was identical is I had both of those speeches in front of me when I was writing it and very deliberately used the same language.

Amanda Carpenter: I didn't think anybody was in real danger, but just watching everything that happened at Trump rallies and the violence outside the convention, it was uncomfortable.

Sean Spicer: Trump owned the moment. He gets stuff in a way that I don't think people appreciate in terms of — what's the right word? — pageantry. It's like showbiz, in the sense that he knows how to make a presentation.

Trump's takeover of the GOP would culminate in a dark, authoritarian speech that would presage much of his reign over the country and, years later still, his party. “I alone can fix it,” he infamously claimed.

Rick Gates: Trump was very involved in writing the speech. We had created a framework for it. But as with every speech, he put his words to it, he put his rhythm, his content, to a large extent. It was a speech that I think resonated with a lot of people at that time. It was one that showed the issues with America, the problems that we were having, based on, in his view, failed leadership, across not just Democratic administrations but Republicans too. He felt very particular about immigration, about China, about making sure that America could be the best country it could be. And he had a different idea of how to do that. And so in laying that out in the speech — and it was a long speech, longer than we had anticipated, but it needed to show Americans — not just Republicans, but all Americans — what was wrong and how we could potentially fix it. And so it kind of codified both those dark moments of where you feel like there's no hope or optimism to feeling very optimistic by the end. And you could sense that he poured everything he had into that speech.

Balloons fall at the end of the 2016 Republican National Convention upon the nomination of Donald Trump.

The balloon drop after Trump formally accepted the GOP's 2016 presidential nomination in Cleveland. He'd go on to defeat the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, that November and serve a single term as president of the United States.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images


Lindsey Graham: I thought it was a pretty good speech. But I never thought he could win. I really didn't. I thought we would lose big. So what the hell do I know?

Rick Gates: I'll never forget it, because he was also involved in the actual walk out and how he was going to do it. And just the way that the optics were very important for him. And it was going to either create a momentum booster, which is exactly what you want out of a convention, because at the end of the day, a convention is an event where you get to control the entire script, you don't have a bunch of people criticizing you or weighing down on it, you can certainly try, but at the end of the day, the majority of Americans are seeing exactly what you put on prime time. That 7-to-10-p.m. slot is the most important time of any convention, Republican or Democrat. And so with Trump that night, giving that speech, if he did it, it ultimately gave us a 10-point boost.

Donald McGahn: The thing I remember the most are the number of people who still opposed Trump at that point and who were not at all enthusiastic about him. But then after he won, they were the first people in line saying, “I was with you the whole time, and I should get a job.” That's the biggest thing I remember about the convention: the lack of honest support Trump was getting, even then.

Rick Gates: When we first started planning the convention, it turns out that the RNC had hired a production team, that part of their team had been involved in “The Apprentice.” So Trump, he has a style of getting to know everybody who works under him. At the convention, during the walk-through, Trump saw a director he knew, and they connected right away. This individual had a sense of what Trump would like, and he presented an overall plan. Trump loved it. We had to change a few things along the way at Trump's request, but this idea that you create the optic of somebody coming out in this kind of silhouette way through the middle doors — it was almost like a rock concert more than a convention, and people reacted that way. I'll never forget people texting me and emailing me, like, “I've never seen a walk out like that, not ever.”

Sarah Isgur: By that point, not only has Trump taken over the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party has responded to him as well. So he has had a huge effect on the Democratic Party. Think of it like evolution. There's this thing called Red Queen theory, where parasites actually affect the evolution of their hosts. The two will keep evolving to get advantage over one another. So it really matters what advantage the parasite gets next time, because that's how the host is going to evolve next time.

John Cornyn, GOP senator from Texas: Every day was a surprise.

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