The anti-Donald Trump movement was dealt a resounding defeat late Thursday night, as any realistic hopes of keeping the New York billionaire from winning the nomination slipped away with a series of votes in the small but powerful Rules Committee.
The effort to stop Trump from clinching the nomination on the first ballot next week was centered on the concept of unbinding all the delegates at the convention to back any candidate they wished. The presumption was that Trump, who captured well over the 1,237 delegates needed, would fall short and the convention would move to additional ballots where another candidate would win.
Trump goes into the convention with momentum. His poll numbers have risen over the past week, and he is poised to introduce Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running-mate. That announcement, scheduled for Friday, was delayed due to the attack in Nice, France, Thursday night.
But while the #NeverTrump movement has been active, it failed to gain any true traction in Cleveland during the party meetings this week. It has also been hampered by the lack of an alternate candidate that would take the place of Trump as the GOP’s nominee.
After more than 12-hour day, the end came in two quick votes. The Rules panel first altered language some had said could be interpreted to say delegates weren’t obligated to vote based on primary results. That vote was 87-12.
Then, they soundly rejected the proposal from the Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh, the leader of the unbind delegates movement, to let delegates vote their “conscience.”
Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort declared victory shortly thereafter.
“Anti-Trump people get crushed at Rules Committee. It was never in doubt: Convention will honor will of people & nominate @realdonaldtrump,” he tweeted.
Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary and had kept his position closely guarded, gave an impassioned plea for delegates to be free to vote for whomever they chose, citing the importance of rights to the GOP and criticizing the Trump campaign for what he called steamrolling the nomination.
“This problem, this angst is going to go away just because we paper over it with rules,” Lee said. “So I say to Mr. Trump and those aligned with him, make the case, make the case to those delegates who want to have a voice … don’t make the case that their voices should be silenced. That’s not going to help, that’s not going to help make him president that’s not going to help our party in the long run.”
“The fight is far from over in Cleveland. Delegates will not be denied,” co-founder Dane Waters said.
But Lee was clearly in the minority. Delegate after delegate rose to give their reasons for supporting primary results binding delegates to vote for specific candidates, with many citing the more than 14 million voters who cast a ballot for Trump in the primary.
“I have no intention of returning to those people who I rely on to keep me in office and telling them I had some part in shredding their votes,” said Louisiana Committeeman Ross Little Jr., who had been otherwise aligned with Unruh throughout the day on a series of other efforts to take power away from the RNC.
Hawaii delegate Nathan Paikai, who wore a Make America Great Again hat as he said he was at his first Rules Committee to support Trump, came close to tears as he asked why Republicans would not simply unite behind Trump.
Other delegates took the opportunity to decry the email campaign waged by supporters of the unbinding efforts, who flooded delegates’ inboxes with repetitive emails.
“I personally have received 440 emails to vote my conscience, to unbind … I answered every single one of them, and the answers back weren’t nice,” said Rhode Island delegate Eileen Grossman. “I will not turn my back on 14.1 million people that voted for Donald Trump.”
The unbinding effort has one final last chance, however. If anti-Trump backers can get 28 members of the Rules pane to sign a “minority report” on Monday, the full convention would be forced to take up the issue. But given the resounding defeat in the committee Thursday night, getting the signatures needed may be impossible.
The rules will also need to be formally adopted when the committee reconvenes at the start of the convention on Monday, and then pass by a majority vote of all the delegates on the floor.
The long day started at 8 a.m., when the Rules Committee was first scheduled to convene.
But proceedings were abruptly delayed different factions fighting over control of the party huddled privately to work out a deal on various rules proposals.
RNC officials told reporters the delays — at first until 10 a.m. then to 1 p.m. — were the result of a “broken printer” and “technical difficulties.”
The talks were attempts to strike a deal to prevent an ugly and messy fight over the rules to wrest control of the party away from the RNC. Former Ted Cruz delegate director Ken Cuccinelli pushed a series of rules changes aimed at weakening the RNC and closing primaries and caucuses in 2020 from non-Republicans.
On the other side, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus was personally involved in negotiations, which were mostly conducted through emissaries, according to his spokesman.
Ultimately, they broke down.
“I think we just got to a point where we thought, ‘This is futile,'” RNC spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday evening.
The participants in the meeting were tight-lipped about what took place, but it wrapped shortly before the expected 1 p.m. new start time. “I think the printer will be fixed,” Washington delegate Graham Hunt joked after walking out of the closed-door negotiating session.
Gaveling the session back in shortly after 1 p.m., Rules Committee Chairwoman Enid Mickelsen acknowledged the obvious: the RNC’s office supplies are working just fine.
“Obviously we did not stand adjourned for three hours because of a jammed copier,” Mickelsen said.
“During the pause as we were trying to get all of this together, we were approached by a number of members … who asked if they could have a period of time who asked if they could work out their differences. … I don’t know what they have or have not decided,” Mickelson said, saying she was committed to moving on regardless.
Testing the power of the RNC
Once the official session was underway, two factions debated a series of changes to the rules. On the one side, grassroots activists on the Rules Committee sought to take power away from the RNC however it could. On the other side was party loyalists and Trump backers.
In one of the biggest test votes of the effort, longtime Rules Committee member Morton Blackwell, who was in the meeting with Cuccinelli earlier in the day, proposed doing away entirely with a rule that allows the RNC to amend the party rules within two years of the convention with a super-majority vote.
The effort failed a rare recorded vote, 23-86. That’s short of even the 28-member threshold to register a minority opinion on the full convention floor next week.
The effort failed even with the support of Lee, who also was in the meeting with Blackwell and Cuccinelli, as well as Unruh.
Lee had been thought to have an important influence on the Rules Committee, as a sitting senator and a reputation as an unbiased broker on these issues.
Trump’s campaign kept its distance. Manafort said “we’re not involved in it” when asked about the negotiations. The night before, the Trump campaign and RNC held a joint meeting for loyalists to present a united front and brief them on the rules that would matter. Trump’s campaign wanted to signal it was in lockstep with the RNC.
Spicer said the whole delay was actually about saving time.
“Yesterday, today — we had the votes,” Spicer said. “I think the idea was to try to streamline this process, make it more efficient, and find out if there was common ground. At the end of the day, you know, we continued to know that we had the votes.”