The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel comes under pressure to show more independence from Trump

President Donald Trump listens as RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks during a November 2018 campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
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Amid the din of clanking glasses and cheering at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club on April 10, the former president ribbed Ronna McDaniel, the Republican Party chairwoman, about her relationship with the GOP’s potential 2024 White House contenders.

“She has to be neutral,” he said, before pausing and adding: “She’s supposed to be neutral.”

McDaniel interjected, yelling back to the stage: “I said you’re my president!” referring to her introduction of Trump earlier that night.

“She’s neutral like I’m neutral,” Trump said, drawing loud laughs from the crowd of Republican donors, according to audio of the speech reviewed by The Washington Post.

In his first public appearance since leaving office, former president Donald Trump further cemented his dominance over the Republican Party. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Since Trump left office, McDaniel has taken a hands-on approach to staying in his good graces — meeting with him privately at Mar-a-Lago, having the RNC spend more than $100,000 to hold the donor event at his club and regularly conferring with him, even after the deadly Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

But as the Republican National Committee prepares to meet in Dallas for its first gathering since Trump left the White House, McDaniel is under increasing pressure from some of the committee’s members to show more independence from the former president — particularly after his Saturday Mar-a-Lago speech, in which he slashed Republicans and called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a “dumb son of a bitch.”

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While Trump maintains broad support throughout the party, some of the RNC’s 168 committee members want to see the party create at least a modicum of distance from Trump — or at least grapple with the fact that the GOP lost the White House, Senate and House during his administration and reflect on how to improve its fortunes in 2022 and 2024, according to party officials and committee members. Other members say they have been frustrated the GOP has not commissioned any wide review of what to do next, as the RNC did after Mitt Romney lost the White House in 2012.

“We’ve got to be clear-eyed about the last cycle,” said Henry Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi. “We lost.”

Barbour said it was a mistake for the RNC to hold part of its spring donor retreat at Mar-a-Lago, adding that some of the former president’s rhetoric is not helping the party.

“The RNC has to be independent. That’s fundamental to hold fair primaries. . . . Holding part of our RNC donor retreat at the home of one of the potential 2024 candidates is inconsistent with being independent,” Barbour said. “Could you imagine if the RNC held a similar event at Ted Cruz’s home or Mitt Romney’s home or any other potential candidate’s home? Trump is a major force in the party, but the party must be bigger than any one candidate, including Donald Trump.”

Bill Palatucci, a national committeeman from New Jersey, said “some of us in purple states sit back and just roll our eyes” at events such as last weekend’s retreat, during which Trump railed about the 2020 election and Republican lawmakers he deemed insufficiently loyal to him.

“We lost those two seats in Georgia because he wouldn’t talk about his accomplishments,” he added, referring to the two Senate runoffs that Democrats won in early January. “He seems to want to beat his chest about how the election was stolen. That’s not a winning message going forward. I’m interested in winning the next general election.”

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Palatucci added that he did not expect an immediate course correction from many in the party. “They’ll continue to be in denial,” he said, adding that McDaniel and other RNC officials had installed Trump loyalists in key positions and “they don’t want to hear from the rest of us.”

McDaniel and her allies reject that criticism, saying she is juggling an array of complicated forces inside the GOP and will remain neutral in the presidential primary.

“We aren’t interested in litigating intraparty squabbles with the mainstream press,” she said in a statement. “President Trump offered to help the RNC raise money at our donor retreat and we gladly took him up on it. We would do the same with many other top Republican leaders. Republicans need to remember we have far more in common with each other than we do with Democrats.”

McDaniel also defended the decision to move part of the RNC retreat to Mar-a-Lago, which frustrated strategists close to other potential White House candidates. “The RNC accepts the support of former Presidents, as well as other former or current elected officials and candidates running for office. Anybody who says differently clearly does not understand this process,” she said.

McDaniel was given a different version of Trump’s speech in advance and was not aware he was planning to attack McConnell and other Republicans, according to people with knowledge of the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, like others interviewed for this report. Afterward, she expressed displeasure to other Republicans that Trump had given such caustic and slashing remarks, they said.

In a statement, Trump praised McDaniel, saying that she and the RNC helped him receive a record number of votes for an incumbent president last fall. He added that “the RNC has also been a great ally in fighting the rampant voter fraud and rigged election that occurred on November 3rd,” repeating his false claims that the election was stolen.

“I look forward to working with Ronna to win back the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022, and then winning back the White House in 2024,” Trump said.

The dynamic between McDaniel and the former president is emblematic of the difficult balancing act that other party leaders are trying to strike as they attempt to carve out a post-Trump future for the GOP.

Earlier this year, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley appeared to break with Trump, telling Politico Magazine that after the attack on the Capitol, “I don’t think he’s going to be in the picture.”

“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she added. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”

But on Monday, Haley said she would not run for the White House if Trump did in 2024, adding that she would support the former president and praised his foreign policy agenda.

Haley was in Palm Beach this week, but she said in an interview that she was not meeting with Trump or attending a Republican event being held this weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

Meanwhile, McConnell’s advisers have been strident about not dignifying the president’s attacks on the Senate minority leader with a response, believing his political relevance will fade more quickly than others believe and that Trump is looking to goad other Republicans into fights for political oxygen, according to people close to him.

Former vice president Mike Pence, who has spoken to Trump several times by phone in recent weeks, has stayed away from Mar-a-Lago and did not attend the RNC event. But Trump has continued to criticize Pence — both from the stage on Saturday night, and in interviews with authors for upcoming books, according to Trump advisers.

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the head of the Republican Senate campaign committee, has sought to keep Trump inside the tent. He brought the former president a chiffon-wrapped bowl on a recent visit to the club — the committee’s “Inaugural Champion of Freedom Award” — and praises him publicly, while encouraging him to support incumbent senators. One Trump adviser said Scott was particularly masterful at working with — and working — the president.

However, days after getting the award, Trump went after McConnell in his address to party donors.

“I think it’s always important to recognize, you know, people who do the right things. I mean, I’m very appreciative of what the president’s done,” Scott said during an interview with Washington Post Live on Tuesday, when asked why he gave him the award.

Pressed about Trump’s attacks on McConnell and other Republicans, Scott acknowledged: “I don’t agree with the things the president said on Saturday night.”

The challenge facing McDaniel and other party officials is that Trump is not retreating from the spotlight, as past presidents have, and has made it clear that he plans to continue to attack other Republicans.

Trump helped the GOP raise $2 billion. Now former aides and allies are jockeying to tap into his fundraising power.

And he still has a strong hold on the GOP base. At the RNC’s January meeting in Florida, held days after the Capitol attack, some of the members pushed for the party to issue a statement that embraced Trump’s bogus claims of voter fraud. A poll from Monmouth University in March found 65 percent of Republicans believed Biden won the 2020 election because of voter fraud.

During his speech at Mar-a-Lago last weekend, Trump lamented that Republicans need to be “tougher” and stick together more like Democrats, in his estimation. He polled the room to ask who believed he actually won the election — drawing loud cheers — and spent much of his speech challenging the notion that he lost. He called out lawmakers, individually, and encouraged them to pass more stringent election laws.

“We’ll be much better in the future when all of that is reviewed,” Trump said of the 2020 vote.

The former president praised a number of Republican senators who had backed him but attacked other Republicans, such as McConnell, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

That puts him at odds with McDaniel and other party officials, who are expected to defend and promote Republicans across the ticket.

Trump in recent weeks has complained that the RNC did not do enough to help him overturn the election, according to advisers — even though the party challenged election procedures in a number of states and hosted a news conference in its lobby where some of the most incendiary and spurious claims were made.

For her part, McDaniel has told others that she wants to make sure Trump does not start a third party. And she is conscious that the former president is the “golden goose” for fundraising, one person close to her said.

“Ronna is in a terribly difficult position. She’s trying to maintain the donor base, which likes the president, but she’s got to navigate a lot of primary fights,” Palatucci said.

At the RNC donor retreat, McDaniel gave a lengthy and rosy presentation in which she highlighted the party’s state legislative victories and congressional victories, according to people familiar with her remarks. She touted the fact that Trump won 74 million votes — without mentioning that Biden got over 7 million more — as a rejection of socialism. She highlighted the RNC’s legal efforts in many states before the election, without discussing the specific attempts by Trump allies to overturn the results.

McDaniel also put a positive spin on the GOP’s standing with voters of color and with women, who broke for Biden in November, according to exit polls.

“As we head into the 2022 cycle, the data we gathered during the Presidential election provides us with key issues where we see positive alignment between our Party and suburban women,” according to her presentation.

And she tried to downplay the nasty crosscurrents in the party. “Attacking fellow Republicans and embracing cancel culture within our Party is not helpful to winning back our majorities,” her presentation read.

At the meeting in Dallas next week, senior staff members and consultants are expected to train party officials on how to approach 2022 and 2024.

“If we dwell on the past, as far as all we are is a mad party and an angry party, that’s not going to win for us in two years, and that’s not going to win for us in four years,” said Jonathan Barnett, a national committeeman from Arkansas.

Barnett said Trump has “every right” to run in 2024 and deserves the same chance other candidates have.

“But we should talk about issues,” he added. “We should emphasize issues. What do we stand for as a party? I don’t think we should go negative and beat people up. We don’t need to be doing any more division but instead building our party.”

Scott Clement in Washington and Jackie Alemany in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.