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Anti-Trump delegates raising money for staff and a legal defense fund

Donald Trump announced his campaign for president on June 16, 2015, and he's come a long way in the year since. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Supporters of a growing anti-Donald Trump movement announced plans Sunday to raise money for staff and a possible legal defense fund as they asked recruits to help spread the word with less than a month until the Republican National Convention.

Having started with just a few dozen delegates, organizers also said Sunday that they now count several hundred delegates and alternates as part of their campaign.

"As we carefully consider not only the presidential nominee but the rules of the convention, the platform of the Republican Party and the vice presidential nominee, remember that this is true reality TV — it is not entertainment," Regina Thomson, co-founder of the group now calling itself "Free the Delegates," said Sunday night.

The group is led by delegates seeking to block Trump at the GOP convention next month in Cleveland by changing party rules so that they can vote however they want — instead of in line with the results of state caucuses and primaries. It is quickly emerging as the most organized effort to stop Trump and coincides with his declining poll numbers.

Concerned Republicans also are increasingly alarmed by Trump's rhetoric, including his racial attacks on a federal judge, a fresh call made Sunday to begin profiling Muslim Americans, and his support for changing the nation’s gun laws in the aftermath of a mass shooting in Orlando.

Donald Trump calls profiling Muslims ‘common sense’

But Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and other party leaders believe that convention delegates are bound to the results of the caucuses and primaries held over the course of the year. An RNC spokesman on Friday dismissed plans to undermine Trump, first reported by The Washington Post, as "silly" and "nothing more than a media creation and a series of tweets."

Trump called attempts to strip him of the party nomination "totally illegal but also a rebuke of the millions of people who feel so strongly about what I am saying." On Saturday, he accused former opponents Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) of trying to undermine his candidacy.

In a conference call Sunday night, leaders of Free the Delegates repeatedly insisted that they are not working on behalf of any of Trump's former opponents. They also lashed out at top party leaders.

"Mr. Priebus needs to understand that leadership has not answered the call of the most important people in the Republican Party, and that’s the conservatives. We have always been there; we’ve endured a lot of one-way loyalty," said Chris Ekstrom, a Dallas-based businessman and founder of Courageous Conservative PAC, an organization that once supported Cruz's campaign but is now backing the new movement.

"It’s now our time and our duty to say that this is a conservative platform in the Republican Party, and we simply will not abandon it," Ekstrom added.

Thomson, Ekstrom and others addressed at least 1,000 Republicans nationwide who participated in the call, organizers said. The Washington Post obtained call-in information from a caller, but there was no way to independently verify how many people participated.

Also on the call was Steve Lonegan, a Republican consultant from New Jersey who is advising the campaign on fundraising and media outreach. He asked participants to donate to Ekstrom's PAC, reiterating that both men are volunteering their time and would spend the PAC money only to help track down like-minded delegates, hiring staff to assist the campaign while in Cleveland and to help any delegates who may face threats or pressure.

Delegates in several states are under pressure not to join anti-Trump groups. In North Carolina, some have proposed fining delegates or kicking them out of the party if they vote against Trump. In other states, party leaders are threatening to strip delegates of their credentials if they buck primary results and vote against Trump, according to delegates who have contacted The Post. Some reached out on the condition of anonymity, saying that spouses are fearful of physical threats if they speak out publicly about their plans.

Kendal Unruh, one of the group's founders, told callers that she is planning to propose adding the "conscience clause" to the convention's rules so that there is no confusion about what delegates can do. While some Republicans believe that they already can vote their conscience, Unruh said that adding the rule would end any dispute.

"I’m so convinced that it’s going to pass with a majority," she said.

Unruh and other delegates were pleased to hear House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tell NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that it's "not my place to decide" whether delegates should be unbound at the convention.

"It is not my job to tell delegates what to do, what not to do, or to weigh in on things like that. They write the rules. They make their decisions," Ryan told NBC.

Paul Ryan: ‘It’s not my job to tell delegates what to do’

"Paul Ryan signed our permission slip," Unruh said in an interview.

Talmage Pearce, a GOP delegate from Arizona's 5th Congressional District, said that Ryan "spoke wisely and empathetically" in his interview.

"Regarding Trump, I cannot in good conscience vote for him," Pearce said in an email. "The deceit, bullying, insulting, blackmailing, and liberal views all make it impossible for me to cast him my endorsement. Trump would need to change significantly and convince myself and millions of other conservatives across the country that he has changed in order to earn our votes."

A delegate from Colorado supporting the campaign said that "we will not put our delegates in an ethical dilemma" if they are unbound. "We live in America. The land of the free. As delegates, we should be free to vote our conscience."

The delegate spoke by email and on the condition of anonymity because he said he's already being harassed by other Republicans and is concerned for his safety.

Cecil Stinemetz, a delegate from Iowa, participated in Sunday night's call. Angered by intimidation tactics used by one of his state party's leaders, he forwarded an email he received on Friday from Steve Scheffler, who holds one of Iowa's seats on the Republican National Committee and is a leader of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

"Stop this madness Cecil!!" Scheffler wrote. "All the other candidates have either folded their campaigns or suspended them. You are hurting Iowa! Can't you behave yourself? You are an embarrassment! The binding for Iowa is what it is and your trying to make a name for yourself in the press is disgusting! Christians don't behave this way!"

Scheffler declined to comment when contacted for a response about the exchange, but he didn't deny that he wrote the email.

"I'm not sure I've ever been this disappointed," Stinemetz said of the message.

"My whole adult life I have been a loyal Republican. But this whole experience has really opened my eyes to what some folks I previously thought were nuts were warning us about," he added. "If you want to know how it's possible for someone like Donald Trump to rise this far in our party, it's because we have leaders like this."