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How Trump hopes to use party machinery to retain control of the GOP

President Donald Trump leaves the White House briefing room in Washington on Nov. 20, 2020, after speaking to reporters.
President Donald Trump leaves the White House briefing room in Washington on Nov. 20, 2020, after speaking to reporters. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

As President Donald Trump brazenly seeks to delay the certification of the election in hopes of overturning his defeat, he is also mounting a less high-profile but similarly audacious bid to keep control of the Republican National Committee even after he leaves office.

Ronna McDaniel, Trump’s hand-picked chair, has secured the president’s support for her reelection to another term in January, when the party is expected to gather for its winter meeting. But her intention to run with Trump’s blessing has incited a behind-the-scenes proxy battle, dividing Republicans between those who believe the national party should not be a political subsidiary of the outgoing president and others happy for Trump to remain in control of it.

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While many Republicans are hesitant to openly criticize their president at a moment when he is refusing to admit he has lost, the debate crystallizes the larger question about the party’s identity and whether it will operate as a vessel for Trump’s ambitions to run again in four years.

Trump will have no political infrastructure once he leaves office except for a political action committee he recently formed, and absent a formal campaign, he is hoping to lean on the RNC to effectively give him one, people familiar with his thinking said.

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The continuing influence of Trump could also have implications for some of the national committee’s most critical assets: Its voter data and donor lists contain thousands of names of contributors and detailed information about supporters. The voter data in particular is a focus of attention, after distrust arose between the committee and the Trump campaign over the data’s use in the final months of the campaign.

While the committee and the Trump campaign are in the process of untangling joint agreements over access to that information, Trump sees control of the lists that he helped build over the past four years as a way to keep a grip on power — and to neutralize potential challengers for supremacy over the party, according to Republicans close to the White House.

This power play is alarming a number of RNC members, party strategists and former committee aides, who are highly uneasy about ceding control of the committee to a potential candidate in 2024, a step that they fear would shatter the party’s long-standing commitment to neutrality in nominating contests.

“Trump always wants to use other people’s money,” said former Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Northern Virginia Republican who lost her reelection in 2018 thanks to the suburban anti-Trump wave that also felled the president this month.

The RNC, the Trump campaign and related committees raised more than $1 billion this cycle.

Comstock — while allowing that “nobody dislikes Ronna” — said the committee should not be a piggy bank for the president’s political endeavors.

Traditionally, the chairs of the national committees of both parties have relinquished control when the other party takes the White House. Yet as with so many other aspects of his presidency, Trump has little regard for precedent. And many of his lieutenants, particularly those eyeing their own political future, are happy to defend him.

But what is troubling to some Republicans is the risk that Trump will try to bend the national party to his will by exacting retribution on those lawmakers who have not pledged total fealty to him.

In recent days, the president has railed against two Republican governors, Brian Kemp of Georgia and Mike DeWine of Ohio, who are on the ballot in 2022 and who have declined to aid his bid to effectively steal the election.

One of the president’s most vocal allies, Rep. Jim Jordan, is already musing about challenging DeWine in 2022, according to The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

Eager to sidestep a spat with the outgoing president, DeWine said in a telephone interview Saturday that he had enjoyed “a good relationship” with Trump. The governor betrayed no concern about his political future, and he noted that the president had angrily tweeted at him to float the idea of a primary challenge but had not directly contacted him to express concern.

“Look, I’m running for reelection, and I’m confident I’ll be renominated,” DeWine said.

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Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel addresses the party's convention on Aug. 24, 2020.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel addresses the party's convention on Aug. 24, 2020. (Pete Marovich for The New York Times)

The dismay among Republicans that Trump is trying to seize control of the party machinery has prompted McDaniel to try to reassure both camps, the Trump die-hards and those Republicans who want the committee to remain independent.

Jonathan Barnett, the Arkansas Republican chair, emphasized that the party “supports our president,” but that it was imperative the RNC not be seen as an arm of any would-be White House contender, even a former occupant of the Oval Office, particularly as events like presidential primary debates begin.

“If we’re not fair, what about the other candidates who want to run for president?” he said.

Henry Barbour, the Republican committeeman from Mississippi and an influential voice in the party, said that “it’s critical for the RNC to be independent,” and that this “should always be the case.”

In a statement, McDaniel sought to assuage some of the concerns, stating: “The 168 RNC members choose who will lead the RNC. I hope to win their support, and that is the most important endorsement.”

A committee spokesperson, Mike Reed, said that McDaniel and the committee had always followed bylaws not to endorse candidates in Republican primaries.

“That policy to remain completely neutral in primaries will continue as long as she is chair,” Reed said.

Senior Republican officials close to McDaniel said they were already seeking new arrangements between the RNC and the Trump campaign over the donor and data lists, which would provide Trump with copies of certain lists but also leave them available to other candidates through the committee. Beyond that, these Republicans said, there are limits to how influential the RNC can be in party primaries.

McDaniel, a Michigan native, has a gilded political pedigree. She is the niece of Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and the granddaughter of George Romney, a three-term Michigan governor. She earned Trump’s trust in part by urging him to make trips to her home state during the 2016 campaign, which he credits with helping him win there.

She has told people she does not intend to seek another term after 2022, one person briefed on the discussions said, a move that could ensure her exit before the 2024 presidential cycle gets underway in earnest.

So far nobody has emerged to challenge McDaniel, but some influential Republicans are trying to stir support for Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has just lost his reelection bid and is well-liked among pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical Republicans alike in Washington. Gardner did not respond to two emails inquiring whether he had any interest in the chairmanship.

The current and former committee members who may prove most formidable have told associates they will not run. That includes Barbour — whose uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, took over the party after Republicans lost the presidency in 1992 — and Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff and a former RNC chair.

Some party operatives are working behind the scenes to nudge former committee members into the race, with the idea being that once an alternative, even a long shot, enters, it will be easier for others to join.

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Any challenger against McDaniel, particularly one who does not emerge from the ranks of the committee, would start as the underdog. And not just because of her ties to Trump.

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She enjoys a reservoir of good will, thanks to the party’s robust spending, support for the state parties and the success that Republicans enjoyed in down-ballot races earlier this month. When she revealed her plans to run again on a recent conference call, a handful of committee members responded with encouraging words and nobody aired a note of dissent, according to a committee member on the call.

A number of state chairs said in interviews that they had already committed to her and her co-chair, Tommy Hicks Jr., who is close to the president’s elder son.

“I believe that she’s done an incredible job both in fundraising and bringing energy to the party members,” said Jane Brady, the chair of the Delaware Republican Party.

Notably, Trump has gained even more influence over the committee in the past two years because two of the president’s top campaign aides, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, worked to install Trump supporters in state-level party posts; it was part of a preemptive effort in 2019 to head off the risk of a primary challenge this year.

“At the end of the day, this is the president’s party, and this will continue to be the president’s party,” said Florida state Sen. Joe Gruters, chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “He will have an oversized role no matter what happens.”

Barnett, of Arkansas, said he had relayed his concerns to McDaniel about the committee not seeming to favor any one potential 2024 contender and had the impression that “she probably agrees with me.”

McDaniel was more clear about her commitment to independence with four other Republicans, some committee members and some not, according to each of the Republicans, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.

She assured them that she, and not Trump and his family, would control the party’s finances and that she would resist any pressure the Trumps put on her to mobilize the party against incumbent Republicans who are not pro-Trump. Most strikingly, she told one party leader that if the committee does not rally to her, she will be succeeded by somebody even closer to the president, such as Donald Trump Jr. or his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.

“If you have a suburban woman problem, Don is not your answer — nor is Kimberly,” said Comstock, the former Virginia congresswoman.

Aides to the president’s son and Guilfoyle have said they are not interested in the job. Some senior Republicans said another Trump ally, David Bossie, is being mentioned as a co-chair.

This “alternative-would-be-worse” theory, along with a deeper apathy about the national party, has prompted a number of Republican lawmakers and strategists to make peace with McDaniel’s serving another term. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, have both endorsed her reelection in recent days.

Mike DuHaime, an RNC political director during George W. Bush’s presidency, said he understood why Trump would want to retain possession of the party apparatus.

“It has the potential for great value in terms of a platform, fundraising and relationship building,” DuHaime said. “However I’ve never seen a former president try to maintain that control, so I’ll have to research the post-presidency actions of Grover Cleveland to see how he did it.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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