As Donald Trump’s onetime campaign manager and a New Hampshire resident, Corey Lewandowski has been by the former president’s side for many of his trips to the Granite State. But when Trump traveled to the state in late January, Lewandowski declined an invitation to appear at the event, a source with direct knowledge told CNN.
Lewandowski’s absence is seen as a sign of how the longtime ally has drifted away from Trump since the 2020 election, according to multiple sources familiar with their relationship. In total, CNN spoke with more than a dozen of people in Trump’s orbit who noted the change.
“I was over 1,500 miles away, and Mr. Trump was well aware of that,” Lewandowski told CNN when asked about his reason for missing the New Hampshire event, adding that his relationship with the former president has “never changed for the last eight years.”
But in recent months, Lewandowski has privately started pitching potential 2024 GOP hopefuls and surveying their campaign operations, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, multiple sources familiar with the talks told CNN. Lewandowski denies taking such steps, telling CNN he hasn’t “courted any other GOP candidates for president.”
The distancing by Lewandowski comes as Trump embarks on his third run for the White House, with many senior advisers who stood by him from his 2016 campaign through the end of his term as president seeming reluctant so far to embrace his latest bid.
Taking – or not taking – sides
CNN contacted eight former Trump campaign officials, in addition to Lewandowski, who remained in Trump’s inner circle throughout his presidency and were public fixtures in the media. Only three publicly plan to support his 2024 bid. Another two indicated their desire to remain neutral in the primary, and the other three refused to weigh in publicly or did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as Trump’s White House press secretary, and Katrina Pierson, his former 2016 campaign spokesperson, both were noncommittal about an endorsement.
Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning told CNN that the governor’s comments during a January interview in which she refused to make an endorsement in the 2024 race are still true.
“I love the president, have a great relationship with him. I know our country would be infinitely better off if he was in office right now instead of Joe Biden, but right now my focus isn’t 2024, it’s focusing here in Arkansas,” the new governor of the Natural State said on Fox News.
In a recent phone call, the former president asked Sanders for her support, and she told him she was not yet ready to do so. The interaction was first reported by The New York Times and later confirmed by CNN.
Pierson, meanwhile, told CNN she is personally not endorsing any candidate right now.
“It’s a primary. I’m a grassroots person. Eventually, it’s in my nature to get behind somebody,” she said. Pierson added, however, that DeSantis has “a lot of great ideas” and that some grassroots voters are moving toward the Florida governor.
Others who had been part of Trump’s circle did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment or declined to speak on the record about whether they plan to back Trump’s 2024 effort: Kellyanne Conway, who served as Trump’s 2016 campaign manager and as White House senior counselor; David Bossie, a longtime Trump adviser; and Brad Parscale, Trump’s former 2020 campaign manager.
Conway earlier this year wrote in a New York Times op-ed that it would be a “a fool’s errand” to write Trump off, while also arguing that it would be “foolish to assume” Trump will ultimately be victorious. Meanwhile, Bossie is not currently working for Trump and is managing the debate process for the Republican National Committee alongside chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
Parscale’s firm is continuing to provide the infrastructure and technology for the Trump campaign, but he is no longer involved in day-to-day operations. His firm also provides services to a series of other Republican campaigns. Since 2021, Parscale’s firm has received over $260,000 from political committees affiliated with Trump and the Republican Party.
On Thursday, another former Trump official, Ken Cuccinelli, formally launched a new super PAC aimed at urging DeSantis to enter the 2024 race, becoming the latest onetime Trump supporter to line up behind the Florida governor.
A source close to the former president brushed off the lack of public support from some former allies.
“We believe they’ll get on board. It’s early, and people have different reasons for not being able to publicly come out for [Trump],” the source told CNN, pointing specifically to Conway’s contract with Fox News and Sanders’ interest in not alienating Republican lawmakers and officials in order to be successful as governor.
Some longtime Trump allies are already fully on board with the current campaign.
They include Jason Miller, a Trump adviser who worked on both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns; Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media guru; and Steve Bannon, the former chief executive of Trump’s campaign and later his White House chief strategist.
Miller recently rejoined Trump’s team to help provide the campaign with strategic guidance.
Bannon, host of the “War Room” podcast, said he is “100% Trump,” telling CNN, “Trump’s gonna win the primaries. He’s gonna win the presidency.”
Scavino is still working for the former president, with recent social media posts revealing he still accompanies Trump on his travels and supports his campaign.
Where the donors go
Part of the reluctancy to back Trump this early in the 2024 primary, multiple sources familiar with the conversations told CNN, stems from not only wanting to protect themselves from the political fallout were another candidate to win but also to maintain relationships with donors.
Several wealthy donors and bundlers who backed Trump in both 2016 and 2020 are refusing to commit to him – such as Roy Bailey, a longtime Texas fundraiser, who helped lead Trump’s campaign finance committee and attended DeSantis’ Palm Beach donor retreat last month, according to Politico. That has led some Trump loyalists to look elsewhere and follow the money toward potential candidates they think could benefit them more financially, the sources said.
Lewandowski, for instance, has privately told GOP operatives and donors in recent months not to support Trump while he solidifies his future political plans, three sources briefed on the talks said.
“I have had no such discussions with donors or operatives about Mr. Trump’s electoral success,” Lewandowski told CNN. “I have made dozens of public statements about what I believe his chances are to be the GOP nominee.”
“I have always considered him a friend and continue to do so,” Lewandowski added. But when pressed whether he would endorse Trump’s current bid, Lewandowski responded that he does not “live by ultimatums.”
Lewandowski and Trump have had a tumultuous relationship. Trump first fired Lewandowski as his campaign manager in June 2016, just months before his first general election, over concerns with the direction of the campaign. Despite his firing, Lewandowski remained closed to Trump as a key adviser and was later appointed to oversee the Trump-aligned Make America Great Again Action suaper PAC. The PAC then cut ties with Lewandowski in 2021 after a donor alleged he had sexually harassed her at a charity event in Las Vegas.
Lewandowski made a deal with Las Vegas prosecutors in 2022 to avoid a misdemeanor charge related to the allegations, at which point his attorneys told CNN the deal “did not require any admissions” of wrongdoing.
Despite the firings, Lewandowski had always remained close to Trump, top allies of the former president told CNN. One source said they were “stunned” to learn he’s now quietly courting other potential candidates, noting how Lewandowski and Trump both benefited from their relationship.
A spokesperson for DeSantis declined to comment. A spokesperson for Noem did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.
CNN’s David Wright and Kristen Holmes contributed to this report.