BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Offering consolation, expressing regret, cutting ties with a controversial aide. Donald Trump’s campaign turnaround plan on Friday featured the unorthodox candidate acting much like a conventional politician struggling to revive a presidential bid on the ropes.
Trump headed to flood-damaged Louisiana to express solidarity with residents cleaning up after devastating flooding that left at least 13 people dead. The trip made for a pointed contrast to President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who both have yet to go, although Obama announced later Friday that he would visit next week.
The typically brash and spotlight-seeking billionaire offered notably restrained remarks as he surveyed the waterlogged wreckage.
“Nobody understands how bad it is,” Trump told reporters, after briefly helping unload a truck of supplies while cameras captured the moment. “It’s really incredible, so I’m just here to help.”
Yet the trip did little to obscure the turmoil in Trump’s campaign, punctuated early Friday when Trump announced that he’d accepted campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s offer to resign.
Manafort’s departure followed a string of revelations about his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. The damaging news included an Associated Press report Thursday describing a covert Washington lobbying operation run by Manafort’s firm. Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law.
Trump, in a statement, praised Manafort’s work on the campaign and called him a “true professional.” But his son, Eric Trump, made clear the controversy was behind the resignation. His father didn’t want to be “distracted by whatever things Paul was dealing with,” the younger Trump told Fox News.
Campaign spokesman Jason Miller said Gates would remain part of the campaign with a new role as liaison to the Republican National Committee, which has had a turbulent relationship with its nominee this year.
Clinton’s campaign called the resignation an admission of the Trump campaign’s “disturbing” connections with allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Ukraine.
“You can get rid of Manafort, but that doesn’t end the odd bromance Trump has with Putin,” campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement.
But the Clinton camp also found itself on the defensive for the first time in weeks.
Trump’s visit to southern Louisiana put pressure on Clinton. Even as she kicked off a fundraising blitz, Clinton emailed supporters asking them to contribute to the relief effort and noted that she had spoken with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat whose spokesman blasted Trump’s visit as “a photo op.”
In a clear swipe at her rival, Clinton added: “The relief effort can’t afford any distractions. The very best way this team can help is to make sure Louisianans have the resources they need.”
Trump’s trip was a striking detour for a candidate who has largely stuck to boisterous rallies and phone-in interviews to appeal to voters.
The businessman and his running mate, Mike Pence, drove past piles of ripped-up carpet, furniture and personal belongings discarded on curbs. Trump consoled residents — even hugging two — as several Louisianans noted they have felt left out of the national spotlight.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, residents emerged from their homes to wave at Trump’s motorcade, some with gloved hands dirty from their house-gutting work. At a Baptist church later, a woman screamed “We knew you would be here for us!” as he and Pence sat down with volunteers.
When a woman thanked him for coming, rather than playing golf like the president has been doing during his New England vacation, Trump replied, “Somebody is, somebody is that shouldn’t be.”
With pressure mounting, the White House said after Trump’s appearance that Obama would visit Louisiana on Tuesday to survey the damage. Aides have noted Obama is receiving regular updates on the conditions.
Trump’s visit was one of his first steps under new campaign leadership. Earlier this week, he tapped Stephen Bannon, a combative conservative media executive, as his new campaign chief. The decision suggested to some that Trump might ramp up the divisive rhetoric that has angered minorities and alienated large swaths of the electorate.
While it remains too early to tell, the first moves under the new regime have largely shown an investment in conventional campaigning. Trump’s operation on Friday released its first general election TV commercial, one of two set to run in battleground states over the next 10 days.
Later Friday, Trump fired up a rally in Dimondale, Michigan — but for the fourth time this week spoke with the aid of the telepromoters he used to revile.
Although the suburb just outside Lansing is overwhelmingly white, Trump made an appeal to black voters. He urged them to abandon Democrats, who he said only take advantage of African-American voters.
“You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed — what the hell do you have to lose?” he said, adding a bold prediction: “At the end of four years, I will get over 95 percent of the African-American vote.”
Most polls show Trump trailing Clinton significantly among black voters. Obama won roughly 93 percent of black voters in his re-election campaign in 2012.
The tone was a shift from the night earlier, when Trump expressed rare regret for some of his more caustic comments — although he did not say which ones.
“Sometimes in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that,” the GOP nominee said. “And believe it or not, I regret it — and I do regret it — particularly where it may have caused personal pain.”
Associated Press writers Kathleen Hennessey, Steve Peoples, Julie Bykowicz and Lisa Lerer in Washington contributed to this report.