The original Trump crew, the four who had been there from the start, stood at the fringe of the news conference, watching as their boss trash-talked his competitors, hocked Trump products that may or may not exist, touted his Michigan and Mississippi primary wins, and berated the media. They smirked, nudged one another and laughed. When they started together last summer, the press and the political ruling class treated them like a joke. Now they're winning so much their heads are spinning.
But from the beginning, they had been fiercely loyal, willing to fight for their candidate. Sometimes to a fault.
When Donald Trump descended into the crowd after speaking Tuesday night, the instinct to defend kicked in.
As security parted the masses to give him passage out of the chandelier-lit ballroom, Michelle Fields, a young reporter for Trump-friendly Breitbart News, pressed forward to ask the GOP front-runner a question. I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way. He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump's 41-year-old campaign manager.
Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm.
"I'm just a little spooked," she said, a tear streaming down her face. "No one has grabbed me like that before."
She took my arm and squeezed it hard. "I don't even want to do it as hard as he did," she said, "because it would hurt."
Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks denied the account in a statement released Thursday afternoon:
"The accusation, which has only been made in the media and never addressed directly with the campaign, is entirely false. As one of the dozens of individuals present as Mr. Trump exited the press conference I did not witness any encounter. In addition to our staff, which had no knowledge of said situation, not a single camera or reporter of more than 100 in attendance captured the alleged incident."
As it happened, I had plans the following day to interview Lewandowski and three other early campaign staffers: Michael Glassner, the campaign's national politics director, once an aide to former senator Bob Dole; Daniel Scavino, the social media strategist who started with Trump as a teenage caddy; and communications director Hope Hicks, a Ralph Lauren model-turned-publicist who first entered politics last year when her boss did.
But just before I arrived for our meetings at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's crown jewel resort in Palm Beach, news broke that I had been a witness to the incident between Fields and Lewandowski. I sat in the gilded, cavernous lobby, kept company by the naked golden cherubs on the lamp beside me, watching the waitstaff scurry about and feeling like I was being watched myself. Terrance, the chiseled man who directed me to stay put, informed me that the cameras would let them know if I wandered.
(Trump is) driving the message. We help facilitate, but we're not controlling that.
Michael Glassner, Trump’s national politics director
Glassner, 52, came to meet me first, bald and bespectacled, wearing shorts, sneakers and a plaid baby-blue summer shirt. He told me about his 15 years with Dole, starting as a college intern, a friendship he says he has maintained to this day. But a lot happened between working for the consummate Republican and signing on with the mogul reality star many fear could destroy the party. Glassner got a job at the New Jersey Port Authority, working out of the World Trade Center. He left in the summer of 2001, just months before the towers came down.
"Eighty-seven of my former colleagues were killed that day," he said. "I worked the pile in the aftermath, looking for people. It was the worst experience I ever had in my life. ... I could smell it burning every day for months."
As a Jew and as a New Yorker, he said, the terror attacks "made me more cognizant of the threat of radical Islam."
In 2008, Glassner left a private sector job to join Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, where he got to know Sarah Palin.
"The way Governor Palin was treated by her own staff and the media I thought was shameful," he said. "It was unwarranted and unfair, and it's informed a lot of the views I have about the process and about the party and about the media."
When Trump came calling, Glassner said it was a natural fit. His role is to stay on top of the ground operations in various states - an area where the Trump campaign was widely regarded as weak before the first primary votes were cast.
His years of experience in the trenches contrast with Scavino and Hicks, both political neophytes. Hicks, 26, met Trump in 2012 while working for a PR shop with accounts related to his business ventures; on her first presidential campaign, she has had to respond to queries about whether her candidate cheats at golf, has ties to mobsters, or used eminent domain to try to throw a little old lady out of her house. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Scavino, 40, entered the room, wearing a suit and shiny black shoes, and plopped down beside Glassner. He was just a teenager when Trump "pulled up in a limo to the (golf) club where I was working in the early '90s." Scavino caddied for him, cleaned his clubs. "Not a day he left the place where he didn't give me money and say keep up the good work." When Trump bought the place, Scavino began rising through the organization, eventually becoming executive vice president and general manager at the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, New York.
At Eric Trump's wedding in November 2014, "I told Mr. Trump right then that if he were to run for president I was in," Scavino said. He loves to see the calls he's getting now from people who once thought he was an idiot for associating with this campaign.
"It is very personal to me," he said when I asked about dealing with attacks on his boss. "I don't like it. None of us like it. It's like you're attacking my own father."
Not a traditional job
How does one advise someone like Donald Trump? For this campaign staff, there's clearly a different mandate than for those who work for traditional candidates. When Trump says things that would kill another campaign, he only gets stronger. So, does his staff suggest ever more outlandish things for him to say?
Glassner and Scavino say no.
"As far as the rallies go and the speeches, that's all him," Scavino said.
"We don't have pollsters, we don't have handlers," Glassner chimed in. "He's driving the message. We help facilitate, but we're not controlling that. He has an incredible ability to read a crowd and understand them in a way that I've never seen in politics."
Trump has certainly tapped into something, a collective mood of fear, anger, a sense of having never been heard. That may be why he retweets so many random supporters, as if to suggest that anyone can reach him and he can amplify even the smallest voice.
Does he retweet racists? Sure he does. "He's not reading the bios," Scavino said.
It appears then that Scavino's job involves keeping track of what tweets and posts are working for Trump - keeping him informed to aid his own gut sense of what to do and say.
Trump might not be truthful when he tells his crowds what he's going to do. (Get Mexico to pay for a wall?) He might not even be telling the truth about his own accomplishments. Does it matter? The filmmaker Werner Herzog often speaks of an "ecstatic truth" a truth that "can be reached only though fabrication and imagination and stylization." Trump, in "The Art of the Deal," called it "truthful hyperbole." Might not make him a good president, but it makes him an effective candidate.
Scavino and Glassner recalled that the campaign started to feel like it had legs after filling stadiums across the South. Yet there's something about the crowds that have started to seem threatening to Trump's team. There are reportedly undercover security officers embedded in the stands, looking for ne'er-do-wells - better known as anti-Trump protesters.
Lewandowski, a former state public safety officer in New Hampshire (who once was arrested at the U.S. Capitol for bringing in a concealed pistol), has personally helped escort protesters out of rallies - some of whom have found themselves pushed or confronted by angry Trump fans. Members of the press have shown up to events only to find themselves not allowed in, or not allowed out of their proscribed areas, and frequently mocked and derided by Trump supporters and by Trump himself.
After chatting with Scavino and Glassner, I waited in the lobby for Lewandowski. Just a day earlier, before the tumultuous news conference, he had urged me to come down to interview him. He had been described to me by Dallas Woodhouse, his former co-worker at the conservative PAC Americans for Prosperity, as "a real company man, who when he signs on to someone gives it his all."
Lewandowski has worked on other outsider campaigns, but nothing this big. His colleagues from over the years pretty much all describe him as organized, as someone who demands results, and as someone with plenty of people on both his good and bad sides. "I'm happy that I was always on his good side," said Greg Moore, another former AFP colleague.
After a while, Lewandowski texted me with his change of heart about an interview: "I'll pass." And then Terrance came by to walk me off the premises.