The Jeff Roe Monologues

Trump at a campaign rally. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
June 8, 2022

After seven years of chronicling the dramatic arc of Donald Trump’s political career, I can confidently say this: being Trump’s campaign manager is a cursed job. Every individual who has occupied that post—six people so far, across two election cycles—has inevitably met some disgraceful, highly-publicized end, no matter their background, ideology or talent. Corey Lewandowski clashed with Trump’s kids; Paul Manafort fraternized with the Russians; Steve Bannon’s ego threatened to eclipse Trump; Kellyanne Conway stepped down to focus on her family; Brad Parscale got shanked over budget issues and had a mental breakdown. Only Bill Stepien, a professional campaign operative, finished his term without incident and managed to slink back to his consulting shop without ever saying much about having lost the election or the stop-the-steal mayhem that followed.

This perilous state of nature has been fueled by Trump’s desire that underlings compete for his favor. But it is also a function of his narrow circle of trust—to get closer to the principal, someone else must be pushed out. It’s not surprising, then, that the chatter about Jeff Roe auditioning to manage Trump’s 2024 campaign is not sitting well with some incumbents among the Mar-a-Lago in-crowd. “Do you think Trumpworld’s gonna take it lying down as news story after news story comes out about how they’re going to have a new dad soon?” one Republican operative asked me rhetorically. “That he’s really excited to meet them and go to some ball games?”

Roe, the founder and principal of Axiom Strategies, is the likely frontrunner for the gig, assuming Trump runs, which seems increasingly inevitable these days. He has a midterm track record that suggests a tactile understanding of what G.O.P. voters want in the current post-Trump, inflation-riddled, social-issues-triggered, supply-chain-throttled country. He has manifested a similarly deft touch for weaponizing high-salience culture war issues without alienating moderates. And, perhaps most importantly, he has demonstrated how creativity can win out against the conventional wisdom: he elected Republicans in states they weren’t supposed to win (Glenn Youngkin in Virginia), proved that he could overcome a rival Trump endorsement (Jim Pillen in Nebraska), nearly beat a Trump-backed celebrity with superior strategy (Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania), and, most brazenly, congratulated Trump on his endorsee beating Roe’s own client, Josh Mandel, in Ohio. (No hard feelings? In this party?!) 

But in Trumpworld, the concept of “resumes” and “track records” and “expertise” are secondary to questions like: Does Roe have allies inside Mar-a-Lago? (Not really.) Are he and Trump going to butt heads? (Inevitably.) How much money would Axiom charge to run this campaign, supplanting the campaign infrastructure of yesteryear? (Probably a lot.) And if you look at him, as a senior advisor familiar with Trumpworld pointed out to me, does Jeff Roe, even in the midst of a notable weight loss journey, fit visually with Trump’s mental image of perfect, all-American manliness? “I don’t think when Trump sees Roe a lot, he’ll like him,” he said, delicately explaining how the germaphobe Trump had viewed Bannon as “sloppy and overweight, and the president really has a problem with that.”

Trump has always obsessed over how the people around him look, and only in Trumpworld would a man’s B.M.I count as a demerit. That’s just one of the bizarre realities of working for the Trump political machine: unless you’re a member of the family, skill and professionalism alone will not carry you through, and superficial quirks, like your tie being straight, will. “I’ll think he’ll get eaten up,” this advisor added. “He doesn’t have the relationships with the people who I think would eat him alive, [and] who are around the president. And the president likes to hire talent, but survival is about who you know, not what you know.”

The political math that points toward a Roe-Trump pairing comes down to two inescapable factors. First, the present market conditions dictate that, barring some unexpected development that convinces Trump not to run, there is only one viable G.O.P. presidential campaign available in 2024. (While there’s a slim chance that Ron DeSantis decides to pull out his Presidential FastPass, I doubt he’ll telegraph any move until after November, and anyone who sides with DeSantis over Trump may as well burn their memberships to Mar-a-Lago now.) Second, and just as important, there are only a handful of qualified Republicans available to run nationwide campaigns. While Susie Wiles, the C.E.O. of Trump’s Save America PAC, is considered a strong contender—she’s a veteran political operative who orchestrated major upsets in Florida, including for Rick Scott and DeSantis, and for Trump in the 2016 primary—it’s unclear whether she could scale her operation in time.

That’s not an indictment of Wiles’s skills or acumen—it’s simply the reality of the limited G.O.P. operative field these days. “I think, in terms of people that are still in campaign [operations], you’ve got Karl Rove, who’s like the senior statesman at this point,” a person who’s worked with Roe told me, racking his brain for other contenders. “Jeff is sort of singular within his class.” Terry Sullivan, who became a brand name by managing Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, now runs a corporate comms firm, while Danny Diaz still runs a political comms firm but is unlikely to pitch Mar-a-Lago (having committed the unforgivable sin of running Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign). In fact, this person said, it’s been a struggle to recruit competent operatives to manage even low-level congressional races. “I don’t think there’s anybody outside of Jeff. There’s nobody really left who wants to go around the country and run campaigns anymore.”

Even Roe’s avowed haters—and there are many of them—acknowledge that there is at least some logic in having several hundred or so Axiom staffers onboard to fasten the nuts and bolts of a political campaign while Trump flips channels and vents on Truth Social and mainlines Diet Cokes. “What does it mean to be Trump’s campaign manager? What is that job?” the operative wondered aloud. “Seems like you’re probably just making sure that the bills get paid to compliance guys who are signing off on everything. It’s much more of like a C.F.O., C.E.O., C.O.O. type of role, rather than being like, the strategist. And so maybe Jeff would be good, actually.” What gets Trump campaign managers in trouble, after all, is making the mistake of thinking they can manage Trump, himself. “Jeff understands that Trump is always going to be Trump,” explained the Roe associate. “And so I don’t think you’d see Roe like, sort of trying to shift who he is, but rather shift the focus of the organization to fit who Trump is.” 

Of course, building a functional organization is hard to do if you can’t maintain an open and honest strategic dialogue with the principal—a volatile dynamic in Trumpworld, to be sure, especially when the consultant cashing Trump’s checks has no prior history with the Trumps. Roe has established some credibility by demonstrating he isn’t afraid to go up against Trump in G.O.P. primaries, but it’s a long road from respected antagonist to trusted insider. “He has no relationship with the family. The family doesn’t trust him or like him. He would have to go solely with the president. And that’s never lasted very long,” the advisor in Trumpworld told me. “The shortest lived campaign managers were the ones who knew the least people.”

No matter which poor soul takes over Trump’s campaign—whether it’s Roe or Wiles or, who knows, maybe Stepien again—they will have to contend with an electoral landscape far more hostile to Trump than when he retreated to South Florida in 2020. Yes, he’ll be the overwhelming favorite in the G.O.P. primary field, but Trump’s actions over the past years have eroded his status as the absolute favorite among the far right, and turned off a meaningful sliver of moderates. Thanks to his desire to play kingmaker in the primaries, Trump has burned scores of local and state G.O.P. officials, ignoring their recommendations, stringing them along, and, in several primary cases, completely ditched candidates who’d risked their political careers for him in his early years, so he could instead endorse candidates he considered “winners.” 

Furthermore, his strategy to punish “disloyal” Republicans who said that Joe Biden legally won the 2020 election backfired miserably, as Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger in Georgia could tell you. But worst of all, Trump damaged his own credibility among hardcore MAGA voters by endorsing people like Mehmet Oz—a television star, Hamptons resident, and Ivy League professor who magically turned into an America First populist when Trump waved a MAGA hat over his head. He’s still holding rallies, but mostly plays the hits. Amazingly, after all these years, Trump still seems pathologically incapable of advancing a real political platform. It’s all just vibes.

Given Trump’s history, it’s hard to envision any campaign manager who could stop him from sabotaging himself, as he has so many times in the past. To “let Trump be Trump,” as Lewandowski said, means constantly doing damage control; trying to impose any sort of discipline on Trump prompts him to immediately break your new rules. “I mean, there will be many, many suitors, and I suspect it won’t be the same person at the end of the race that was in it at the beginning,” the G.O.P. operative predicted. Regardless, it’s a thankless job that’s ended poorly five out of six times, and it’s unclear whether it’s worth the heartbreak, to say nothing of the paycheck. “In fact, some might say it’d be better if Jeff didn’t do it,” the source who worked with Roe told me. “And so I think that separates him from a lot of the operatives in Trump’s orbit now. He does not need this as a meal ticket, to be very clear.”