The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At party retreat far from D.C. turmoil, Republicans still sing praises of Trump

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel speaks on the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — Winds of change did not blow through a luxury seaside resort here as top Republicans huddled Friday to chart their party's future.

After disappointing elections that cost the GOP the White House and control of the U.S. Senate — and after a mob incited by President Trump to protest his election defeat left five dead and his lame-duck administration in shambles — there was little appetite for a course correction, or for taking on the president.

Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman Trump installed four years ago as the titular head of the GOP, was reelected unanimously without a challenger. She lavishly praised Trump for attracting new voters in his losing campaign while thanking him for choosing her for the post. And Tommy Hicks Jr., a close ally of the president and his eldest son, overwhelmingly defeated three challengers to remain co-chair of the Republican Party with 70 percent of the vote.

GOP members — flying from all over the country for the event — repeatedly praised Trump publicly and privately. Most were not interested in condemning his behavior on Wednesday, where he incited a mob of supporters to descend on the Capitol in anarchy, according to people present at the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. Some members argued falsely that it was really “antifa” or other leftist groups responsible for the violence in the U.S. Capitol, people present said, and did not believe he had done anything wrong.

Some members wanted a statement from the party that condemned violence on Wednesday to also embrace the president’s bogus claims of voter fraud, attendees said, and urged party officials to fight harder to help the president. The prayer to kick off the meeting included a plea for an election such as 2020 to never happen again.

Attendees passed resolutions criticizing the news media and calling for attention to voter fraud, two of the president’s favored topics. One North Carolina official called for the reelection of the GOP’s officials partly so the news media could not say the party was in discord. A statement from a committeeman for the officer killed in the Capitol did not mention the president’s role in inciting the violence but said the Republican Party was the party of law and order.

Instead of focusing on how Republicans lost states such as Georgia and alienated women and suburban voters, party officials largely centered on how Trump and the party had improved its showing among minority voters and the fact that more Republican women were now in the House of Representatives.

“Our message clearly resonated, and the years-long investment we made was a big part of the reason President Trump earned the highest share of minority votes for a Republican in 60 years,” McDaniel said.

It was an alternative reality away from Washington, a country and a White House reeling from the ambush on the Capitol aimed at overturning the results of the election on the president’s behalf. Members socialized in beachfront blue cabanas, sipped pricey frozen cocktails and roamed among the palm trees and into the wee hours of the morning at the Ritz Carlton bar, where a live band and buffet tables created a scene that resembled a wedding reception.

If many members of Trump’s own administration, Republican senators and much of the country were ready for the president to leave after he incited a mob that eventually led to five deaths and took over the U.S. Capitol, that sentiment was not present here.

Many members and party officials dismissed the need for any type of autopsy examining the party’s election defeats and argued that most things were headed in the right direction.

“You don’t have to throw out everyone when there is nothing fundamentally wrong,” said David Bossie, a committee member from Maryland and an adviser to Trump.

Neither Trump nor Vice President Pence appeared at the conference, though Trump spoke briefly to members via phone and video. In the video, which was enthusiastically received, the president bragged about a “very tough” election he lost and told members he expected to see them soon, an attendee who watched the video said.

“Our popularity as a party is doing very well,” Trump said on the video, which was shown Thursday. “We have setbacks every once in a while, but I think we’re in great shape.”

“We love you!” some shouted into the phone after Trump dialed McDaniel during a breakfast meeting earlier that day and spoke to the group, decrying the “fake news” in a one-minute call.

Officials say there was some consternation behind-the-scenes. McDaniel is expected to change out some of her senior staff, people who have spoken to her say, and she privately told members that Wednesday was not Trump’s finest day in office. She declined to criticize him publicly and was not available for an interview. Privately, she said that the party needed to improve to win states like Michigan, her home.

Some of the party’s leaders, such as Henry Barbour, a committeeman from Mississippi, called for changes publicly. Reince Priebus, McDaniel’s predecessor, is pushing for changes privately, officials say.

“Our name is mud,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a committeewoman from California, referring to the image of the party with Republican voters. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result.”

Dhillon said there was interest in a reflective look at what went wrong and making changes in the party, even if that did not manifest itself publicly. “There is interest, and it will happen,” she said.

There were other subtle signs of potential change. Corey Lewandowski, a longtime adviser to Trump, escorted around South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, a potential 2024 candidate.

Nikki Haley, a rumored 2024 contender and Trump’s former U.N. ambassador, offered some rare criticism of the president. “He was badly wrong with his words yesterday,” she said Thursday. “And it wasn’t just his words. His actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”

 In private, several members said, some were concerned the party is heading into an internecine fight between the president’s most loyal supporters and its more establishment side.

Michael Steel, a GOP consultant and Trump critic who did not attend the event, echoed the sentiment of some party officials and members who said change may come in months.

“I don’t know that any sort of formal autopsy process by the party would be useful until and unless Donald Trump is no longer the dominant figure in the party,” Steel said. “The process of figuring out what the post-Trump Republican Party looks like can’t start until after the president has left the White House. It will involve more organic evolution than a sharp break.”

What happens next will depend in part on McDaniel, who cruised onto the stage and throughout the ballrooms in a motorized wheelchair after breaking her ankle while knocking on doors in Georgia two weeks ago. The event cemented her sway, no longer just as a Trump loyalist but also as her own figure, according to her aides. Her team carefully managed the event, banning the news media for most of the conference and having burly security guards escort some away from the Ritz-Carlton lobby.

Her remarks were carefully crafted, to acknowledge she was “pissed” at losing the election but repeatedly praising the party’s infrastructure and data operation. Onstage, she gave an aw-shucks apology for using the word “pissed,” which was in her prepared remarks.

McDaniel secured the support of the president weeks ago — a key in winning over the members and using the president’s power before it potentially wanes. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she promised skeptics that she would not be Trump’s proxy going forward, even as she speaks to the president regularly.

Many of the members said McDaniel and her team had worked relentlessly to ensure states would receive more funding and that she’d built goodwill from members of various stripes.

“Ronna has the respect of the Committee which gives her the ability to speak the truth regarding the difficult position we find ourselves in following both the losses in Georgia and the tragic events of Wednesday in Washington,” said Bill Palatucci, a committee member from New Jersey and a close ally of former governor Chris Christie (R).

Dhillon, who called for changes, said her main problem was not with McDaniel. “She gave a heroic effort. She worked day and night, and she is very popular in the party,” Dhillon said. “But we need to signal to constituents, to millions of angry voters, that we get it.”