Conservatives wonder what's worse: The establishment or Trump?

Greg Nash

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Republican grassroots leaders and members of Congress attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are torn between their suspicions about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWarren to go on attack for Clinton Lobbyists hopeful for Clinton thaw Guess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? MORE's conservative bona fides and their desire to burn down the party establishment that is frantically trying to block the billionaire’s path to the nomination.  

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Trump — who dramatically dropped out of CPAC on Friday afternoon, earning a stern rebuke from the conference conveners — had scarcely been mentioned in the formal speeches at CPAC. 

But in private conversations held in the corridors, cafes and restaurants at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center, the bombastic billionaire, who leads the Republican race for president, was the near-universal topic of conversation. 

“I’ve heard a lot of delegate math theories” to stop Trump, said Shaun McCutcheon, a well-known Republican donor and Trump backer. 

“I don’t see anything stopping us,” said McCutcheon, who brought the McCutcheon v. FEC case to the Supreme Court that overturned major campaign funding limits.    

McCutcheon, like many others at the convention, is “infuriated” by the GOP establishment’s increasingly desperate efforts to stop Trump.

“These other guys are making fools of themselves,” he said. “I poured my heart into Romney in the last election and he just needs to stay out of it. It’s time for somebody else to do it. I just thought it was tacky and it was real poorly done.” 

The dominant feeling about Trump among the conservative leaders, activists, media personalities and members of Congress interviewed by The Hill was one of caution about the sudden and frantic turn by Republican leaders and the party's donor class to take down Trump.

There are widespread suspicions among CPAC attendees that Trump cannot be trusted to uphold conservative principles. 

Most notably was his sudden decision on Friday to withdraw from speaking to the conference on Saturday. 

“Very disappointed @realDonaldTrump has decided at the last minute to drop out of #CPAC -- his choice sends a clear message to conservatives,” CPAC tweeted. 

But those suspicions about Trump are counterbalanced by a deep distrust for a Republican establishment who would dare tell its base how to vote. 

Those feelings were best summed up by the reaction to Mitt Romney’s  speech on Thursday denouncing Trump and urging voters to do whatever they can to block his path to the nomination. When Fox News host Sean Hannity mentioned Romney’s name in an on-stage discussion with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on Friday, the CPAC crowd booed loudly. 

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union that hosts CPAC, acknowledged this frustration with the establishment’s blocking tactics.  

“I think Mitt Romney is a very respected Republican figure but I don’t think conservatives are going to probably want to be lectured to by him,” Schlapp said in an interview with The Hill on Thursday afternoon, before he knew that Trump would be dropping out. 

“It’s a little bit odd that [Romney is] coming out so late in the process,” Schlapp added. “I mean you could see the support for Donald Trump that’s coming from around the country a long time ago. 

“I think it’s a real movement… It’s a democracy, people are voting, and we ought to look at that. That ought to chastise us. I think a message is being sent.” 

Republican members of Congress who attended CPAC were, for the most part, equally careful not to outright condemn their party’s presidential front-runner. Over the course of an hour on Thursday afternoon, The Hill heard speeches from a dozen Republican congressmen and not one of them attacked Trump. 

Ron DeSantis, a Florida representative who is running for Marco RubioMarco RubioGuess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? Budowsky: Why Warren masters Trump Meghan McCain: ‘I no longer recognize my party’ MORE’s vacant Senate seat, typified that caution when approached in a corridor between appointments at CPAC. 

“I made the decision not to get involved” in the presidential primaries,” DeSantis told The Hill. With Florida’s March 15 winner-take-all primary approaching,  “people are saying, ‘you should get involved.’ But I’m not going to get involved.”   

DeSantis described himself as “neutral” in the GOP primaries but reacted skeptically when asked about Romney’s suggestion that people should vote for whichever candidate in their state has the best chance of defeating Trump. 

DeSantis speculated that Romney’s plan could backfire, adding that he is “just a little skeptical that it’s going to be effective.” 

Rep. John FlemingJohn FlemingDavid Duke will bank on racial tensions in Louisiana Senate bid Former KKK leader David Duke running for Senate Overnight Finance: Senate punts on Zika funding | House panel clears final spending bill | Biz groups press Treasury on tax rules | Obama trade rep confident Pacific deal passes this year MORE (R-La.), a member of the influential House Freedom Caucus, told The Hill that he and many of his colleagues want to let voters have their say, and he does not wish to be associated with the “Never Trump” hashtag being spread by Rubio and others. 

Fleming believes the GOP establishment has been ignoring their base, which he said is understandably furious at Washington, and that leadership is out of touch, not noticing what is happening on the ground below them.  

Asked whether Romney’s intervention against Trump was yet another example of the establishment ignoring the will of the people, he said, “It could well be.” 

Even Steve King (R-Iowa), an opponent of Trump’s who is one of Ted CruzTed CruzGuess which Cuban-American 2016 candidate best set themselves up for 2020? RNC chairman defends Trump linking Cruz’s dad to JFK assassin It's midnight in America MORE’s strongest supporters, warned against using strategic trickery to deny Trump the nomination. 

“If Trump wins the nomination and he does so by following the rules, then he’s our nominee,” King told The Hill on Thursday. 

“I don’t think we ought to be thinking about how to change the rules. We ought to be living within the ones that we all agreed to live by.” 

Conservative pundits attending CPAC found themselves similarly divided between their distrust for their party’s front-runner and the establishment that has so long ignored the genuine fears and angers percolating within the Republican base. 

Some of these media figures are self-critical, admitting that they and their peers were too slow to make a moral case against Trump, allowing him to gather steam without his record being exposed. 

“I honestly think for a while conservatives thought, ‘OK, maybe this is a guy we can work with or...he’s never going to take off because he’s not serious about ideas’,” said Jay Richards, executive editor of The Stream, a Christian conservative digital outlet.

“In the last two months this has changed,” Richards added. “National Review [which ran an anti-Trump cover] is an example of this.  

"People have realized that this is serious, this is dangerous, and they’re saying things they thought before but weren’t saying before.”