The RNC chairman laid out a road map for winning in 2016. Then he got behind the nominee who ripped it to shreds.
In early September, when Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus began asking presidential candidates to sign a loyalty pledge, groans could be heard throughout Jeb Bush’s headquarters. His senior staff in Miami saw it as a gimmicky, ultimately hollow ploy by Priebus to prevent the 17th candidate in the field, Donald Trump, from mounting an independent run.
Less than a week later, Trump appeared on national television in the lobby of his Manhattan office tower and signed the pledge with a Sharpie. Priebus had already come and gone, having entered Trump Tower through the back door and scurried out the same way; but news of his trip to see Trump left Bush’s high command incensed. Here was the chairman who commissioned the post-2012 GOP autopsy, the man who concluded the party must improve its standing with Hispanic voters, rewarding the candidate who indicted Mexicans as “rapists” as he launched his campaign and—just one day before Priebus came calling at Trump Tower—ridiculed Bush for speaking Spanish.
“We were absolutely furious,” one former Bush staffer recalled. “[Trump] is openly chiding us for communicating a conservative message in Spanish and they get on a train and go up to New York to give him a press conference and a pat on the back for joining the party. It was a total affront to us—because [the RNC] was no longer calling balls and strikes, they were actually helping him.”
Bush made his disgust known. Inside a New Hampshire Dunkin’ Donuts, he flipped over an index card of talking points and grabbed his own black Sharpie. Above his signature, he wrote: “Voting Republican since 1972.” The traveling press secretary, Emily Benavides, snapped a picture on her iPhone and sent it back to Bush headquarters, where communications director Tim Miller tweeted it from Bush’s main account—right into the ether of a media maelstrom where everything vanished but Trump.
“It sends the wrong message when the chairman gets on the train and comes to you,” said Michael Steele, the RNC chairman Priebus worked for and then replaced.
Every time Trump would do something dumb, Reince would be up in New York shining his shoes,” said a campaign staffer who worked for John Kasich.
Throughout the primary, Priebus defined his role as that of an umpire. But over time, he came to give the bulk of his attention to the most divisive candidate in the field, and the other campaigns noticed. “Every time Trump would do something dumb, Reince would be up in New York shining his shoes,” said a campaign staffer who worked for John Kasich, the Ohio governor who never interacted with Priebus “beyond a couple polite handshakes” before the debates.
It has been a surprising final chapter for the longest-serving RNC chairman in history. In six years, Priebus erased a $24 million budget deficit, made huge investments in data, minority outreach and voter-registration efforts in swing states and is routinely hailed as one of the best fundraisers ever to lead the party, having hauled in nearly $850 million in five years. He could rightly be compared to some of the party’s most successful chairmen — from Leonard Hall, who first saw the possibility of the country’s growing suburbs in the Eisenhower years, to Ray Bliss, who rebuilt the party after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 wipeout. But Trump’s unexpected rise last fall presented Priebus with a choice: continue to fight for the vision of the more modern, inclusive GOP he had laid out three years earlier or finish out his third and likely final term as, in the words of Bill Kristol, an “obedient, compliant apparatchik willing to subordinate a grand old party to a new strongman.”
Priebus chose to stay to aid and coach a candidate who may undermine the very things he has dedicated his tenure to improving. He has staked his reputation on Trump. To some extent, the tenuous unity visible at the Republican National Convention this week may be due to Priebus’ peacemaking efforts. And Trump’s near total dependence on much of what Priebus has built has made the RNC itself more vital than ever to Republican success in November. But in bending over backward to appease Trump in an effort to make sure the GOP didn’t crack up, the man who worked to strengthen the party has become a symbol of its weakness.
“He’s trying to finish the job he started,” said a Priebus loyalist within the RNC. When asked what that meant, this ally couldn’t answer.
Priebus began plotting 2016 in 2013.
Four months removed from the sting of Mitt Romney’s defeat, the RNC chairman was contrite as he announced the results of the Growth and Opportunity Report, what most politicos know as the GOP’s “autopsy.” While a number of shortcomings were addressed in the report, Romney’s poor showing with Hispanic voters—he won just 27 percent—was the most glaring. “We know we have a problem,” Priebus said as he laid out a path forward that included one clear policy prescription: “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.”
The autopsy included other recommendations for improving the Republican nomination process. Recognizing the impact of having more than 20 primary debates in 2012 and a calendar that didn’t see Romney officially nominated until mid-August—and no doubt assuming the 2016 front-runner would likely be another establishment candidate—Priebus successfully pushed through a number of rules at the RNC’s January 2014 meetings in an effort to streamline the 2016 primary.
Among them, in 2015 and 2016, the party would involve itself for the first time in primary debates, which they reduced to just a dozen. Only nine RNC members opposed Priebus as he also moved to front-load the calendar and shorten the period before states were allowed to hold winner-take-all contests, all in effort to enable the front-runner to reach the delegate threshold needed to clinch the nomination more quickly. Additionally, the RNC convention was moved up a month, allowing the nominee to access general-election dollars earlier.
“They were looking to create more of a glide path for the nominee to more quickly mesh with the RNC and adopt its infrastructure and financing earlier,” said Ryan Call, the former Colorado GOP chairman who attended the 2014 meeting and was an ally of Priebus. “Nobody really took seriously the potential for such an outside threat.”
Indeed, these tweaks to the nomination process ended up helping the anti-establishment Trump, who never looked back after dominating the March 1 primaries. With the unfair benefit of hindsight, Priebus has come to be blamed; to one GOP consultant, scheduling so many Southern states, where conservatives dominate primaries, on one day early in the primary season was “short-sighted” and “not an advantageous setup when you’re looking to have a more diverse representation of the party in the general election.”
Adding insult to injury, the Republican front-runner was actively promoting a story line that the RNC was at war with the Trump campaign. In fact, nothing was further from the truth, especially in the eyes of Trump’s rivals, many of whom believed the chairman should have criticized the businessman’s inflammatory rhetoric more strongly.
Certainly, Priebus did not refrain from criticizing Trump after the candidate first unveiled his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants from the country.
“I don’t agree,” he said. “We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values.” But when asked to consider the political ramifications for the GOP in a general election, Priebus refused to expand on his critique. “That’s as far as I’m going to go,” he said.
Behind the scenes, Priebus was trying to build a relationship with the man emerging as the GOP front-runner. But Trump was, after all, running against a “rigged” primary system. Toward the end of March, when he was questioning whether the party would deal with him fairly and as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz out-maneuvered him in the delegate hunt, Trump suggested to his supporters that the GOP was trying to steal his nomination. When the cameras were off, though, Trump’s rancor softened as he began talking to the chairman on a daily basis.
“He’d be bashing us publicly but then he’d say, ‘You’re doing a great job, just keep it up,’” said an RNC staffer privy to some of those phone calls. “We came to understand that railing against us was just a talking point.”
Ironically, the candidate whose own political approach amounts to a rejection of the traditional mechanics of campaigns and the class of operatives and insiders who run them is now more reliant on the RNC than any nominee in recent history.
Priebus has praised the post-primary fusing of the Trump organization and the RNC as “seamless,” largely because there wasn’t much of a campaign to merge with. Given the mutual disregard between Trump’s team and the party establishment, it wasn’t easy—but the recognition of their shared dependency brought the two sides together.
The entirety of the party apparatus shifted quickly into high gear on Trump’s behalf: RNC staffers long ago dispatched to swing states; the party’s data operation, opposition research and policy shops; its ballot access team and deep fundraising network. Every morning at 8:30, the RNC holds a conference call to inform Trump staffers of news releases, bracketing events and other elements of its communications strategy for the day. Jason Miller, recently hired to professionalize the campaign’s communications staff, now speaks, too, but for nearly two months, RNC staffers dominated the call. Last week, as Trump was about to officially name Mike Pence as his running mate, it was the RNC’s director of surrogates, Alex Stroman, not Trump’s campaign, who was lining up Republican voices to go on television praising the pick.
Even as the RNC exerts a large degree of control over Trump’s campaign, Priebus himself has come to understand the limitations of trying to control Trump. Over Memorial Day weekend almost as soon as Trump first suggested the U.S.-born judge presiding over a Trump University lawsuit was biased because of his Mexican heritage, Priebus was doing everything he could to make him stop, suggesting toned down phrasing, talking to family members—to little avail. It was nearly two weeks before Trump finally listened and issued a statement that he was moving on. This played out as the in-fighting between campaign chairman Paul Manafort and then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was coming to a head. “Manafort would agree with Reince and say, ‘Yeah, you should do this,’” one source close to the campaign said. “But Corey would say, ‘Fuck ‘em, do B.’ And Trump would do B.”
Priebus had never trusted Lewandowski, but he had been resigned to tolerating and working with him. That changed in May as Trump’s campaign set about working with the RNC and Lewandowski, who attempted to box out Manafort by putting staffers loyal to him in place as liaisons between the two organizations and to play a larger role in negotiating a joint fundraising agreement. “He was threatening to install his own people, talking about restructuring the RNC,” said one source involved in those negotiations. After Lewandowski threatened Priebus on his own turf, the chairman’s patience evaporated. He became more critical of the fiery operative in his conversations with Trump and was part of a united inner campaign circle that finally persuaded the candidate to fire his campaign manager.
But the relationship between the RNC and Trump’s campaign has been a one-way street.
On Saturday, hours before Trump would publicly parade running mate Mike Pence out to the public, Priebus walked into the New Yorker’s dining room, 25 stories above Fifth Avenue.
He sat in front of the gilded, mirrored fireplace, Manafort beside him, and stared across the gold-plated, glass-topped table at the soon-to-be-official nominee. Trump scooted slightly over to share the head of the table with Pence.
Having ensconced himself over the past few months as a member of Trump’s advisory team, Priebus offered suggestions on how the newly minted ticket should handle questions likely to be asked by the news media—policy differences on trade, for example, the Iraq war, the candidate’s rumored hesitation about adding the more understated Indiana governor to the ticket.
And after having spent much of the past year counseling Trump—hearing grievances, explaining the nuts and bolts of politics, coaxing him to be ever so slightly more presidential—Priebus was not the least bit surprised to be standing behind the stage an hour later as Trump ad-libbed his way through 28 minutes of angry remarks that had almost nothing to do with Pence.
For Priebus, it was enough that Pence had been selected. The chairman had made no secret of his preference. Not only did he explain directly to Trump the benefits of balancing his ticket with a more restrained personality with some credibility among conservatives, he had sought to softly sway Trump’s adult children, to whom he would take care to casually mention the governor’s positive attributes during phone calls.
As Priebus stood backstage, he knew this latest extemporaneous explosion was accomplishing at least one thing: The television networks waiting to hear from Pence were unable to cut away.
Now, success for the RNC—and for Republicans up and down the November ballot—equates to success for Trump.
In the run-up to and throughout this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Priebus has done his best to gloss over several glaring Trump-related problems. The host committee is $6 million short because big corporate and individual donors have refused to help fund Trump’s coronation. Many of the party’s most eloquent messengers have stayed home. As he has made the media rounds, Priebus has attempted to paper over the seemingly unprecedented level of intraparty sniping, praising Trump along with Kasich and the recalcitrant members of the party establishment who have yet to fall in line behind him, even as they ratchet up the insults during a week that was supposed to be about party unity.
“It was a bruising primary,” Priebus said Tuesday morning during a breakfast with reporters hosted by Bloomberg Politics. “Lots of healing to do and I understand why some people make those choices [not to attend the convention], but I would prefer that, as Republicans, that we would recognize that it’s a binary choice and given that binary choice it would be nice if they [the Bush family] would be here.”
At the same meeting, Priebus heralded the GOP’s investments in Hispanic and Asian outreach. “I don’t think we can win without appealing to Hispanic, black and Asian voters across this country,” he said. Just days earlier, the party adopted a platform that aligns even more with Trump’s stance on immigration and trade, one that’s more inward-facing and nativist—the opposite of what the 2013 autopsy concluded was critical to Republican efforts to broaden the party’s appeal to women, Hispanics and young people.
“The autopsy conclusions were right, but it was irrelevant,” said one GOP operative in Washington. “If you believe the only way to win a national election is to follow principles outlined in that report, you would think you would do your damnedest to make sure the candidates you nominate actually adhere to it.”
But Priebus loyalists, putting a positive spin on Trump’s party takeover, say they don’t think the autopsy has been turned on its head. In their view, the recommendation to embrace comprehensive immigration reform was but one small, disregarded piece of the prescribed changes. “We’re right where we need to be,” said Glenn McCall, an RNC member from South Carolina and one of the authors of the autopsy. “The RNC has implemented probably 85-90 percent of the report. We have people in those communities we hadn’t paid attention to in the past. I think we’re doing great with technology, with social media; and we’re providing better voter analytics to candidates around the country.”
And even senior operatives on vanquished teams who have publicly distanced themselves from Trump — going so far as to warn about the demise of their party — are more careful in their criticism of Priebus.
“I don’t think the RNC is to blame here,” said an adviser to Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. “I don’t believe Reince or Katie [Walsh] or even [Sean] Spicer wanted Trump to be the nominee or designed the process to help him. I think they were as surprised as everyone by the outcome. You really have to fault the establishment as a whole for not recognizing the threat sooner.”
Many RNC members and GOP consultants who are troubled by Trump’s anointing as the party’s standard-bearer empathize with Priebus, even as they debate his decisions and the party’s role in its nomination process. “It’s worth discussing whether the party should aggressively shape the credibility of a candidate trying to earn the party’s nomination,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Sen. Mitch McConnell who oversaw the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s successful 2014 cycle. “There’s an argument to be made that the party writ large had a responsibility to ensure that someone like Donald Trump did not have the credibility to earn its nomination.”
One of the authors of the GOP autopsy, former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, said that even in hindsight there wasn’t much that could have been done by the party apparatus or conservative megadonors to stop Trump.
“We are in the era of the individual candidate. The party hit its limits in terms of what it could do,” said Fleischer. Efforts to more tightly control the process might play further into Trump’s hands, Fleischer said, adding “In some ways, it was a vindication of the masses over the powerful interests.”
Indeed, the tweaks Priebus tried to make around the margins of the nomination process simply underscore how impotent the Republican Party has become. In the post-Citizens United world of campaign finance, the flow of big money to outside organizations and directly to candidates has limited the influence and importance of the party as little more than a nominating body—one with little control over the outcome of the nomination process.
“We don’t have party bosses anymore who choose the nominees,” Spicer, the RNC’s spokesman, said on Wednesday. “But in this generation, this party has never played a larger role.” Priebus, he said, is secure in his legacy, whatever happens in November. “He fundamentally believes the role of the party and trajectory of the role of the party are stronger because of his tenure.”
“Reince sleeps very well,” Spicer said, “knowing that he has done the right thing and the party is stronger because of it.”