McDaniel, the unfailingly amiable chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, had stood by Trump, even as a trickle of GOP luminaries abandoned him. She had been Trump’s handpicked choice to lead the GOP four years earlier, and she had been loyal up to a point: gently critical of his most profane outbursts and divisive rhetoric, but buoyantly supportive of his policies and his often erratic conduct in office.
She had also pushed early for investigations into possible voter fraud in the 2020 presidential balloting, a position that gave oxygen to Trump’s baseless claim that the election had been stolen. But as time went on, she stopped short of endorsing many of Trump’s most outrageous and unsupported assertions and has since accepted that he was defeated at the polls.
On the phone from her home state of Michigan, she encouraged Trump not to form a third party, the Patriot Party, as he had been discussing, a rash act of hubris that could threaten to fracture the Republican firmament.
The embittered Trump made no promises, and shortly after the conversation, he was airborne, arriving hours later in Palm Beach, Fla., where he ducked behind the tall hedges of his private club turned sanctuary, Mar-a-Lago, only minutes before Joe Biden took the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States.
In the months and, perhaps, years to come, McDaniel, now 47 and one of the longest-serving GOP chairs in history, faces the unenviable task of steering a Republican Party that will have to reckon with Trump and the divisive and uncivil legacy of Trumpism. She heads a party that has lost the House, the Senate and the White House under her leadership and is riven by infighting over whether she should defend Trump more forcefully — or at all.
Over the past four years, McDaniel had grown so close to Trump that some Republicans feared her judgment could be impaired by the friendship, even as his presidency was imploding and the prospect of him becoming a disruptive force for the party in his post-presidency seemed certain. Her silence or milquetoast criticism during some episodes — his incendiary comments on race, disparagement of women’s appearances, promotion of policies that separated the children of undocumented migrants from their parents, and labeling of the news media as an “enemy of the people” — have made her one of Trump’s most visible enablers, according to her critics. Her allies say it is a more complicated picture.
She chooses her words carefully when contemplating how he might influence the tenor and shape of the party, a delicate question for a partisan stalwart clamped in a vise between Trump’s enormous Republican fan base and nervous establishment figures who would be relieved if he faded away. As Trump’s Senate impeachment trial approaches, some RNC members are leaning on her to at least acknowledge the former president’s direct role in inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, rather than steadfastly denying that he meant to inspire the riot.
Trump’s role in the party during his post-presidency “is going to be up to him in a lot of ways,” McDaniel said in an interview with The Washington Post, her most extensive since being unanimously reelected GOP chairwoman last month. “I’m not looking at who we can highlight or prioritize. It’s about where we can take our party and our message going forward.”
What she doesn’t say, despite being asked multiple times, might be just as telling as what she does.
She doesn’t say Trump will play a central role in leading the Republican Party; she doesn’t say he won’t. Yet there are subtle hints. She repeatedly talks about the need to change the party’s rhetoric to a more “civil” tone, especially toward women, and focus the conversation on policy proposals instead of personality — all implicit criticisms of a caustic, name-calling and often petty president who loves to call attention to himself. She says in the interview that the party will be neutral, and that Trump has told her that he is supportive of that.
“If he forms a third party, he would be letting down the 74 million people who supported him,” McDaniel said in the interview. “Just like if the Senate convicts him, the Republicans who vote for it will be letting down the 74 million who supported President Trump and the Republican Party.”
A famous family name
On Jan. 19, 2017 — the day before Donald John Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States — the Republican National Committee elected a little-known party foot soldier from Michigan as its chairwoman.
Ronna Romney McDaniel fashioned herself more as a mother of two, as a wife and as an outsider than as a national political power player. But helping Trump achieve an upset win in Michigan, while serving as that state’s GOP chair, caught his attention. His imprimatur has twice assured she would be elected to head the RNC, making her the second woman, and the first in four decades, to chair the party. She cut an unthreatening figure, with a glistening, ever-ready smile and a penchant for modest attire with an off-the-rack feel that contrasted with the fashion plates who often surrounded Trump.
Despite being a pioneering woman, McDaniel has always had to contend with being defined by the towering men in her personal and professional lives. They gave her instant recognition but could also be burdens as she tried to establish her own identity.
Growing up in Michigan, she wasn’t just a kid; she was the granddaughter of George Romney, the iconic politician who had served as the state’s governor and had made a run at the Republican presidential nomination before she was born. Much later, as a rising figure in her home-state Republican Party, she was tagged as the niece of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — the younger brother of her father, Scott. Uncle Mitt’s moderate politics were out of step with the hard-right bent of the Michigan GOP.
“It’s hard to have a name that’s well-known. When you have a well-known name, doors can open,” McDaniel’s mother, known to family and friends as “Big Ronna” Romney, said in an interview. “But then it’s up to you to walk through the door and make something of that opportunity. . . . In some ways, you think you’re letting people down if you don’t do a good job.”
“Little Ronna” — a nickname that has stuck within her family, even into adulthood — was born in Austin but grew up in the house next door to her grandfather in the upscale Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, after her father joined a Michigan law firm.
When Big Ronna was working on a 1982 Michigan gubernatorial campaign, she set up a babysitting room for her daughter and the children of other women involved in the election effort. At home, her children would see her doing laundry while wearing a headset so she could continue making fundraising calls as she tended to household chores.
Big Ronna was close to the first President Bush and his wife, Barbara, and introduced them to her children. When George H.W. Bush, then the vice president, came through Michigan during his 1988 presidential campaign, Little Ronna — who was head cheerleader at her high school — gathered up the rest of the squad to cheer for him at a rally. Other times, Little Ronna’s mom ushered her in to meet prominent Democrats, including Biden, then a senator from Delaware, whom McDaniel would fight so hard to defeat many years later.
She served as a driver for her mother in the mid-1990s when the elder Ronna, by then divorced, ran an unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate. A friend of Little Ronna’s did her a favor by giving her a job at his Washington political firm but was so taken with her work that he told her she could someday become one of the few women to run a big political consulting firm.
Love intervened. The younger Ronna wanted to go back and start a family with a young staffer she’d met, Patrick McDaniel, who was working for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the venerable Utah Republican, and the couple moved around before settling in Michigan.
Her mom was supportive, but she wanted her daughter to understand this: “You’re leaving a big opportunity.”
'A double-edged sword'
In the late 2000s, Michigan slid deeper into a brutal economic spiral, dubbed the single-state recession. All around her, Ronna Romney McDaniel watched as friends and acquaintances lost jobs, homes, dignity.
Her husband had become an insurance executive, and she had been a stay-at-home mom to two kids for two years. But she had that Romney political itch, and in 2012, that name of hers suddenly became more important than it had in years: Her Uncle Mitt was running for president, and she got heavily involved in the campaign.
She eventually won a seat as a Republican National Committee member, then in 2015, she became the head of the Michigan Republican Party in a fiercely contested election.
The problem was Uncle Mitt. The party regulars thought of him as a RINO — a Republican in Name Only — and his niece had to prove her bona fides as a small-government, antiabortion, pro-gun candidate.
“They didn’t trust her because she was Mitt’s relative,” Jeff Sakwa, her second-in-charge at the time, said in an interview. “They gave her a rough go because of her last name. Her last name does bring her attention, but it’s a double-edged sword.”
It was just a month before the 2016 election when McDaniel, intent on delivering Michigan for Trump, entered the crucible of her political life to that point. The Washington Post published a videotape of Trump making crude sexual remarks about women, a revelation that threw the campaign into crisis. She ultimately condemned the remarks, but leavened the criticism by saying that she still thought Trump was a better candidate than his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“At that point in time,” Sakwa said, “the state party was torn apart because people were pissed at her for even saying that.”
With Trump’s election, McDaniel had arrived. She was at the top of the Republican Party, selected personally as RNC chairwoman by the new president, a perch nearly unfathomable just a few years earlier when she was a homemaker.
Still, she couldn’t shake that problem of being defined by the men in her world.
By Inauguration Day, her Uncle Mitt and her greatest political benefactor — Trump — were the bitterest of enemies. Her uncle had given a high-profile speech early in the 2016 campaign calling Trump a “fraud.”
Before she took office, Trump asked his new RNC chairwoman to drop Romney and use only her married name. McDaniel has tried to brush off the request as either exaggerated or merely a lighthearted suggestion, rather than a demand, and has said it was her choice: that she wanted to honor her immediate family by using the name McDaniel. Regardless, “Romney” mostly disappeared from her official communications.
In the years since, McDaniel and her uncle have tended to dismiss any suggestions of a family feud. Mitt Romney, now a U.S. senator representing Utah, simply said in a statement to The Post that “I love my niece and always will.”
In reality, according to a person with direct knowledge of the family dynamic, the past four years have placed a serious strain with lingering corrosive effects on their relationship, and there have been shouting matches among the extended family over her steadfast support of the president. McDaniel and her uncle speak infrequently. She later made headlines with a prickly statement referring to her uncle not by name, but as the “junior senator from Utah,” while criticizing him for taking on the president.
McDaniel brought a new vibe to the Republican National Committee, an organization that has shrunk in importance since the advent of political action committees that can raise unlimited funds. Her predecessor, Reince Priebus — who became Trump’s first chief of staff — was known for getting chummy with committee members by hosting gatherings, such as “Pints with Reince,” at which beer was served in special steins, and for his smoky “Cigar Caucus.” McDaniel, who is Mormon, doesn’t drink, so she took to hosting “Milkshakes with McDaniel” instead.
She’s less eager to talk about another of her occasional guilty pleasures: casino gambling. She and her husband have been known to sidle up to blackjack and craps tables in Las Vegas from time to time, people close to her say.
“I don’t want you to say that!” she said with an embarrassed smile and a self-conscious laugh during the interview. “We’re really good Mormons!”
Highs and lows
One day in mid-June 2018, McDaniel turned to Twitter with a message for her followers: “Anyone that does not embrace the @realDonaldTrump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake.”
Prominent Republicans fumed that she was making threats, especially because the tweet was sent a day after Mark Sanford, a Republican congressman from South Carolina who has been a Trump critic, had lost to a pro-Trump primary challenger.
She said her tweet was trying to make the point that Republicans should be talking about issues that helped Trump win: jobs, the economy, fair trade, immigration enforcement and the president’s border wall. But that got lost in the shorthand of a social media platform.
“As new as I was, there were definitely mistakes I made in prime time that had a much bigger spotlight on them that might not have been made if I had come through politics a longer time,” she said in the interview.
The low point in her tenure, she added, came a half-year earlier, when she followed the president’s lead and threw the RNC’s support behind Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, the former judge ensnared in a scandal involving allegations of sexual assault, as well as earlier sexual misconduct claims. Usually mild-mannered, aides recall her walking around RNC offices while muttering that Moore was a pervert and asking allies on the phone whether she should resign. Supporting Moore backfired, damaging her reputation and ending in Moore’s loss to a Democrat, a rare outcome in staunchly red-state Alabama.
Behind the scenes, though, she had been an energetic fundraiser and scrupulous about giving individualized attention to the cast of 168 committee members around the country. She has been known to slip out after the first hour of Mormon services to take calls sitting in the car.
McDaniel had made strides building the party’s infrastructure and fundraising apparatuses — raising record sums and orchestrating a ground game that even some Democrats privately admire. But some former Trump campaign officials say the RNC’s data was so off the mark in certain states ahead of the 2020 election that they disregarded it and hired their own teams.
McDaniel understood intuitively that running the party, to some degree, meant keeping her ultimate boss — the president — happy, according to four White House advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. She took to calling him directly and asking what he wanted, and to presenting Trump with both good and bad news.
The president often remarked to aides that he wanted McDaniel to join him on trips — a rarity for him. She has met with anti-Trump Republicans while also mollifying the Fox News host and relentless Trump booster Sean Hannity, whom she considers a friend, with special presentations about the party’s work.
During one fundraiser earlier this year, Trump asked McDaniel to brag about his poll numbers. She took the cue, according to a person in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate an invitation-only event: “We are in the place we are,” McDaniel told the audience, “because of the president.”
Mastery of the RNC
McDaniel began 2021 in pain. She had broken her ankle while campaigning in Georgia before the new year and was suffering postoperative complications following surgery to repair the injury.
She also had to watch as Republican incumbents lost both Senate seats, handing control of the upper chamber to Democrats.
“2021 couldn’t have started any worse, and it keeps getting worse,” McDaniel said, describing her personal travails.
The months leading up to the new year had been tough, too. In October, she tested positive for the coronavirus days after attending an event at Trump International Hotel in Washington, where many attendees did not wear masks. She said she thinks she contracted the virus from a family member. (The RNC sometimes has not followed health guidance, hosting large indoor parties and dinners, where many members did not wear masks.)
Because McDaniel has asthma, her doctor prescribed the powerful steroid prednisone, which provoked a reaction she says made her agitated. She was so uncharacteristically aggressive during a “Face the Nation” interview that she sent the host an apology letter.
“I was so angry,” McDaniel said. “I just wanted to rip everybody’s head off.”
In the aftermath of Election Day, McDaniel allowed two Trump attorneys — Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani — to use the RNC’s lobby for a news conference in which they spouted discredited claims. Giuliani’s black hair dye dripping down his face got more attention than his remarks. McDaniel later told allies that she regretted her decision.
She later told lawyers not to amplify some of the most spurious claims from the president, according to people close to her. After having spent considerable time on television defending the president, she began to lower her profile during the last few weeks of his fight. Trump and Giuliani pressured her to be more visible backing voter fraud, but she wouldn’t.
In private, she was speaking frequently with Trump and once told him that many of his “Stop the Steal” claims were “crazy,” according to a person familiar with the call. She also challenged the president to wear masks.
At times, she thought about not running for reelection as party chair this year, and aides say it is unlikely she will seek reelection when her current two-year term ends in 2023.
William Kristol, the well-known Republican commentator and co-founder of an anti-Trump GOP group, said in an interview that he sent out feelers this fall about finding a candidate to challenge McDaniel when she stood for reelection. The word came back that it wasn’t worth the trouble — she had it locked. Kristol described McDaniel as “a nice symbol of the capitulation of the establishment to Trump.”
McDaniel’s mastery of the RNC became evident on Jan. 8, when she was unanimously reelected chairwoman without opposition at the RNC’s convention in Amelia Island, Fla., which began the day before pro-Trump rioters attacked the Capitol. Her team had worked to schedule the convention while Trump was still in office, and she had secured a tweet from him endorsing her.
At the convention, McDaniel upset some members when she appeared at a series of breakfasts on the day of the party elections to praise Tommy Hicks Jr., who is especially close to the president and his son, Donald Jr., and who went on to defeat less-Trump-aligned candidates for co-chair, the RNC’s second-ranking position. McDaniel told others that she made the appearances because other candidates for the job were falsely saying that she had a negative relationship with Hicks.
McDaniel is replacing a number of her senior staffers and has debated with aides whether she should conduct an after-action review of the 2020 election in a bid to discern how the party can keep Trump voters in the fold while also moving away from some of his more alienating characteristics and rhetoric — and persuading suburban women and other voters to support Republicans more broadly. But she fears such a report could be used against her by Trump allies and has argued that his presidency brought voters other candidates could not bring.
During the convention, McDaniel zipped around on a motorized scooter, wearing a “Ronna” pin. On the night of the Capitol riot, McDaniel ensconced herself with aides in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton to discuss what they should do, as they sat horrified watching the coverage on television. She was in a tough spot because many RNC members remained resistant to any criticism of the president, and some even wanted to put out statements highlighting his unsubstantiated voter fraud allegations, people present at the conference said.
At one point, she talked to Nikki Haley, the GOP star who served as South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, to ask her to tone down her criticisms of the president. Haley went ahead anyway with her remarks.
McDaniel had invited the president to the conference, an idea that was scuttled by White House aides, but he appeared by video. The morning after the attack, Trump called McDaniel. She put him on speaker so others in the room could hear. He was greeted with applause and nary a rebuke.
“I don’t think he intended to incite violence on the Capitol,” she said in the interview.
The furthest she will go is saying that Trump could have done more to tamp down the violence once it began. “He did not meet the moment,” she said.
“Her close relationship with Trump can be a big asset moving forward because she can use that relationship to help keep everything together,” said Priebus, the former RNC chairman. “We need all Republicans standing together: Trump folks, traditional Republicans and conservatives, too. Not an easy task.”
Just as she had to do in Michigan — when she was typecast as Mitt Romney’s clone — McDaniel had to convince her members that she is supportive of Trump but isn’t his pawn.
She made her case to Henry Barbour — an influential RNC member from Mississippi and an occasional Trump critic, who is the nephew of former RNC chairman Haley Barbour. “Initially I told her we probably should have somebody new [as chair],” Barbour said in an interview.
But he came away “convinced that Ronna is independent and neutral,” he added.
While Barbour and the others communed at the Ritz-Carlton, a swarm of possible 2024 presidential candidates roamed the halls. There was Haley, and Kristi L. Noem, the South Dakota governor with big national ambitions.
McDaniel had invited each to attend. The symbolism was obvious — she wanted to show the party that she was her own woman, and that the RNC wasn’t going to turn into a house organ for Trump as he made noises about running again in 2024.
There was one more possible 2024 contender with whom she wanted to talk while at the convention. The day after the Capitol attack, she placed a call to Vice President Mike Pence in Washington.
For days before the riot, Trump had tried to bully Pence into refusing to do his ceremonial duty and finalize the certification of electoral votes handing the presidency to Biden. Some Trump supporters took the hint; some chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” as they bashed in windows to storm the Capitol and search for him. Pence was rushed to a secure location.
On the phone, the next day, talking about what happened, McDaniel became emotional. She wanted Pence to know he was still welcome to come to the RNC meeting. He did not go.
McDaniel fought back tears.