RNC vows to be independent from Trump by 2024. Can that work?

DANA POINT, Calif. — Stimulating debate at this week’s Republican National Committee meeting was one big question: Can the official party apparatus really be neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries? The RNC has been closely associated with former President Donald Trump’s political operation for years, but a number of serious candidates outside of Trump are expected to enter the field in the coming cycle.

Neutrality was at the center of the contentious race for the presidency, where Ronna McDaniel — originally handpicked by Trump for the role — was able to cruise to re-election on Friday for a fourth term to head the RNC, much of which has been remade under the former president. Trump’s third bid for the White House puts the RNC at the center of a situation unprecedented in the modern era: a former president running in a contested major-party primary.

Members here at the RNC’s winter meeting have been cautious about offering outside support to Trump, and both McDaniel and her main challenger, Harmeet Dhillon — a California RNC committee member and attorney whose law firm has represented Trump in recent years — have pledged to side in a neutral fashion, in accordance with the RNC bylaws, as the primary season begins to heat up.

But some weren’t so sure that would be the case, especially with McDaniel’s re-election.

“If you look at our rules, we can individually support whoever we want,” said Jonathan Barnett, an Arkansas RNC committee member who supported Dhillon. “The chair doesn’t belong, but I mean, that’s a joke. Because she got her job because of him. She may pretend to say she’s neutral, but look at her looks.”

Needless to say, how the RNC treats itself in 2024 could affect the primary. The party plays a key role in creating the primary framework, fundraising and debates. As Dhillon told reporters this week, potential candidates have expressed her concerns about how the party could function in 2024 with Trump on the ticket.

Dhillon called Florida Governor Ron DeSantis “a likely presidential candidate,” and said on Friday that she “didn’t talk to him, but a few others, and several of them expressed concern about the party’s independence and the primary process.”

“I think just about everyone in this room, at the front of the room, in front of the velvet ropes, has voted for President Trump twice,” she said. “But if the party is not seen as a neutral body and a level playing field for all presidential candidates, that loosens our voters even more.”

Trump did not explicitly endorse McDaniel for a fourth term, but his top political advisers were present at the three-day RNC meeting. Prior to the event, the Associated Press reported that one of those advisers, Susie Wiles, had privately informed members that Trump still supported McDaniel, while Wiles also publicly defended McDaniel against a report in conservative media that cast a negative light on the RNC -expenses.

In any case, some members expressed confidence that the body would conduct the upcoming primaries in a neutral manner. New Jersey GOP chairman Bob Hugin said he didn’t see this as “that big of a deal” in the race for the presidency, as the candidates “have made it a big deal.”

“As chairman of a state party, you can’t bring people together and be a fair party if you’re not neutral,” added Hugin, who said he had doubts about his vote for chairmanship when speaking to NBC News on Thursday. .

Meanwhile, McDaniel allies expressed confidence she will oversee due process.

“The RNC is committed to being completely neutral,” said Steve Scheffler, an Iowa RNC committee member and chairman of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition that supported McDaniel, adding that he currently sees the 2024 primary as “a jumping ball”. .

Interestingly, the two Trump-backed RNC candidates — North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and Florida GOP Chairman Joe Gruters — lost their bids for co-chair and treasurer on Friday.

A day earlier, Dhillon had told reporters she thought it was “very problematic” for candidates to accept endorsements from presidential candidates or potential candidates, requiring the party to be neutral. In that same discussion, Dhillon was quick to quell comments from DeSantis calling for change at the party that many interpreted as an endorsement of Dhillon. She also declined to offer her personal position on Trump’s 2024 bid.

“I think when a lot of headlines come here saying ‘Trump-installed chairman wins re-election,’ I think there’s a reality and a perception,” Dhillon said. “That perception is definitely there. Perception becomes reality.”

“Ronna addressed that by saying we will have a strict code of conduct,” she continued. “I don’t know whether a code of conduct will solve the perception problem under the current circumstances. But I am not responsible for that. I am now a humble member of the 168.”

It wasn’t until just before Trump announced his third presidential bid that the RNC pledged to stop covering the former president’s legal bills in New York. And the debates committee is aided by a close Trump ally, Maryland committee member David Bossie.

But perhaps even more remarkable for the 2024 primary is whether states are beginning to regain control of their delegates’ allocation process. In the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign essentially teamed up with state parties to make it more difficult for its opponents to influence the selection of delegates.

As The New York Times reported in 2019, his political advisers spent months tightening those rules to avoid the kind of dissent he faced at the 2016 convention. At the time, more than three dozen states and territories changed their rules to make it nearly impossible to be divisive at the nomination convention.

Bill Palatucci, a New Jersey RNC committee member who supported Dhillon, said neutrality was one of his biggest concerns with McDaniel, adding that it was what “disqualified Ronna”.

“Her actions speak louder than words,” he said. “She has claimed to be neutral; she has been anything but.

“What neutrality means, it’s behind the scenes stuff,” he continued. Like, can we stop paying Donald Trump’s legal bills in secret? Can we agree when [Trump] says racist things about [former Transportation Secretary] Elaine Chao? That’s what a true leader would do. And that’s what I mean by being really neutral.”

Oscar Brock, an RNC committee member from Tennessee who also supported Dhillon, reiterated his concerns but said members will play a key role in ensuring neutrality.

“You have to know that she has a certain loyalty to him,” Brock said of McDaniel. “Do I think she can run a fair and unbiased primaries? I hope so. We’re going to make sure she does.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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