On Wednesday afternoon, Republican strategist and Never Trump PAC adviser Rory Cooper published a sort of manifesto for how his party could save itself. Party leaders could pointedly un-endorse Trump. The delegates meeting in Cleveland could overthrow him. The drumbeat of anti-Trump criticism could lead to a new nominee.
"The Rules Committee have it within their power to install a mechanism whereas if a potential nominee crosses a line or embarrasses the party to an extraordinary degree, delegates can vote for an alternative candidate," offered Cooper. "Many in the party believe Trump has already crossed that Rubicon."
The only problem was the one that faced people like Cooper all year: The Republicans who were supposed to "save" the party under this scenario had forgotten to seize power. This week, as influential conservatives, such as Hugh Hewitt and Steve Deace, have asked Rules Committee members to consider "unbinding" the delegates, the only people who could do that have been skeptical or silent. Five weeks before the relevant committees meet on the GOP's rules, the "unbind" movement largely consists of people who have failed to stop Trump when there were more options for doing so.
While familiar #NeverTrump faces have reappeared on cable news this week, fewer than 200 people actually get a say in the party's nominating rules. Fifty-six Republicans belong to the party's Standing Committee on Rules, which can recommend changes to the 112-member convention-only Rules Committee. And the effort to put Trump-skeptical Republicans on that committee petered out after Trump's May 3 victory in Indiana.
“There’s a very unenthusiastic acceptance of the inevitability,” said Craig Dunn, chairman of the Howard County, Ind., Republican Party. “I don’t think there’s anything afoot anywhere. I did get an email from a group still trying to put together a stop-Trump-at-the-convention movement. But I know of no delegates in Indiana who are part of that."
Dunn, like many other Republican delegates from his state, was supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He isn't looking forward to voting for Trump. But he couldn't contemplate a coup. "I think everybody is of the consensus that to try and do something extraordinary, like do something on the first ballot — I think everyone views that as a disaster," he said. "That’d be a nuclear disaster scenario, and I don’t think anyone has the stomach for that fight. It would affect us down-ballot.”
For a few busy weeks, between Trump's March 15 victories and the Indiana primary, allies of Kasich and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) attempted to win support at the state conventions where key committee members were elected. Initially, they hoped to alter Rule 40(b), which allowed only candidates with majorities of delegates from eight states to be nominated, in the hope that Trump would not secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win on the first ballot. They stormed state conventions to make sure that even delegations bound to Trump, like South Carolina's, were packed with allies who would bail on Trump as soon as they were unbound on second or third ballots.
Since Kasich and Cruz ended their campaigns, Trump blew past the threshold, ending the primaries with 1,439 pledged delegates and more unbound delegates who intended to back him. And Tuesday's primaries, which took place after a week of Republican self-cannibalism, found no significant falloff in support for Trump. His "victory lap" looked like the one for previous Republican candidates, who locked up the final primaries despite small protest votes. Trump won 75.3 percent of the vote in California, comparable to the 79.1 percent won there by Mitt Romney in 2012 after he had locked up the nomination. In two of Tuesday's states, Montana and South Dakota, Trump actually ran ahead of Romney's 2012 vote.
Members of the rules committees say they've heard fresh advice on "unbinding" delegates, but nothing consistent, and nothing that sold them. “I haven’t heard anything positive," said Guy Short, a convention rules committee member from Colorado. "You have both sides of the party, everybody from Lindsey Graham on one side to Paul Ryan and Newt Gingrich on the other, and nobody’s happy with what Donald Trump has said, including myself. I think at some point Donald Trump is going to realize he’s not perfect and that when he makes [a] mistake, he needs to apologize. That seems something foreign to Donald Trump up until this point.”
Wendy Day, a Michigan delegate who supported Cruz, is among the most strident Trump critics, and is constantly communicating with like-minded Republicans. “We’re not ready to attend a Trump coronation — we’re just not,” she said. “It almost would be easier if there was some central person organizing this, but there really is not. We don’t know what the options are, so we’re just trying to be a scrappy band of patriots and figure out what we can do."
Most of the conversations about that were occurring in long email chains and some private Facebook groups — out of sight of Trump supporters, who have threatened her and others with retribution and violence. To the "unbinding" campaigners, the reluctance of the key 112 delegates to discuss this may simply mean they're holding their cards. In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Deace claimed that delegates from eight states had contacted him about the need to overthrow Trump, but he did not say which states. Eight states would still represent a rump of the relevant committee; Trump will enter the convention as the winner of 40 contests. And plenty of rules members are on record against changing the rules now that the primaries are over.
“The threats put out were serious threats, and we take that seriously, for most delegates are not willing — my philosophy is bring it on — but most delegates are not willing at this point right now to come out of the shadows and make their concerns known right now,” said Day. “This is not being run by the ‘Never Trump’ camp. That’s not what this is about. It’s about the soul of our party and what we’re going to stand for. And our responsibility as delegates."
The effort to put together an "unbinding" bloc has played bigger among conservative influencers than actual delegates. Cooper and Hewitt et al. argue that this is only natural — for delegates to consider an unprecedented strike against the winner of the primaries, there needs to be a conversation. Media interest in the effort began building on Tuesday, when Republican Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) spoke of Trump having a few weeks to prove himself. That was interpreted as a reference to the time before mid-July, when the rules committees will meet.
But so far, the "unbinding" movement is comparably less organized than the supporters of Bernie Sanders who have distributed lists and contact information of Democratic "superdelegates." The most organizing by "unbinding" activists has been distributing "Unbound," the free ebook by Curly Haugland, a North Dakota delegate and rules member who has insisted for years that no delegate is bound to a primary winner.
"I think Curly's book is well known at this point with anyone who is even examining or thinking about this stuff," said Cooper. "I don't know if anyone is proactively distributing it in an organized way. This is really week one of considering such an option, so it's not going to be all laid out neatly just yet."
The lack of strategy is evident in the efforts of "Save Our Party," a group founded by tea party activist Ian Bayne and briefly promoted by Erick Erickson, who is now talking up the "unbinding" gambit. Bayne is telling delegates to travel to Cleveland, but not to show up in the convention hall as nomination ballots are cast.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “If you show up in that hall, they’ll count you as a vote for Trump. That’s the only thing that scares me, because I know that we have a significant number of people bound to Trump who don’t want to vote Trump."
The idea of multiple pie-in-the-sky ways to stop Trump may create a moral hazard, giving the appearance of multiple options for a coup, instead of one hard slog. And the next test for holdouts will come early next week, when Trump has promised to deliver a speech on "all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons." It was a teleprompter-delivered line aimed at Republicans who worried that his rambling about the ethnicity of unfriendly judges would prevent him from ever getting on message.
To the pundit and strategist class, which always saw Trump as uniquely ill suited to criticize a candidate who he had praised in the past and rewarded with donations, the idea of an anti-Clinton speech does not impress. But their interests, as they've discovered, do not sync up with the people who will actually write the party's rules.