GOP debates ‘white knight’ after meeting RNC chairman

GOP debates ‘white knight’ after meeting RNC chairman
© Greg Nash/The Hill

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was forced to reassure House Republicans on Tuesday that the presidential nominating process would be fair and transparent as GOP front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN analyst Kirsten Powers: Melania's jacket should read 'Let them eat cake' CNN's Cuomo confronts Lewandowski over 'womp womp' remark Sessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance MORE continued to rip the system as “corrupt and crooked.”

Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers appeared split over whether internal party rules should be changed to allow an outside “white knight” candidate to step in and claim the nomination if none of the remaining presidential hopefuls can muster a simple majority of delegates before the Republican National Convention in July.

If none of the remaining three candidates reaches the threshold of 1,237 delegates after multiple rounds of voting, some Republicans argued, RNC officials would have no choice but to look to an outside candidate.

“My belief is it’s all about fairness. Ultimately, the convention has to be perceived to be fair,” said Rep. Luke Messer, a member of GOP leadership who recently decided not to run as a delegate to the convention in his home state of Indiana.

He mentioned Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who declined to run for the White House in 2008, as possible “white knight” candidates.

Those who attended the 15-minute meeting at the Capitol Hill Club next to the RNC headquarters described Priebus’s presentation on the nominating process as very “detailed” and “analytical.”

The RNC chairman underscored that the process will head to a second ballot if no candidate secures 1,237 delegates before the GOP convention in Cleveland, attendees said. And he repeatedly referred lawmakers to a website, Conventionfacts.gop.

No one complained to Priebus about the process during the meeting, and he took no questions before exiting the room.

“What he did say was the number is 1,237 and if you don’t hit 1,237 that means you didn’t get a majority of the votes and thus you’re dealing with a second ballot,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who is neutral in the presidential race but is vying to become a delegate in the Keystone State.

Other GOP lawmakers also could have a direct hand in picking the nominee if Trump can’t lock up the nomination by Cleveland. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) won an at-large delegate slot last week, while the husband of Rep. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksPress shuts out lawmakers to win congressional softball game Indiana shooting ‘hero’ released from hospital Senate harassment bill runs into opposition from House MORE (R-Ind.), David Brooks, won one of three delegate seats in her Indianapolis-area district.

There’s a fierce internal fight being waged in the GOP over what rules should be used in the event of a contested convention in July. Some in the party have argued that only the remaining presidential contenders — Trump, Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed Trump renews call to end filibuster amid immigration furor MORE and John Kasich — should be eligible to become the nominee. Others want to open up the process to a larger number of people, including some who didn’t even run in the crowded GOP primary.

“Millions of votes will have been cast. To ignore that and set that aside just doesn’t seem right to me,” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.). “I haven’t endorsed anybody; I don’t have a horse in the race. But I just think the will of the people ought to carry the day.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), meanwhile, said the adoption of a 2012 convention rule requiring candidates to win at least eight states in order to qualify for the ballot didn’t necessarily have to carry over into this cycle.

“The last rules don’t really mean anything. They’re just kind of where you start,” said Cole, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate. “But at the end of the day, if everybody deadlocks, the idea that the convention couldn’t come up with somebody else? Yeah, of course it can.”

Trump’s campaign has been making the case that the Manhattan billionaire and reality TV star should be awarded the nomination if he has a large lead in the delegate race, even if he falls shy of the 1,237 mark. The real estate mogul has said he’s won more states and millions more votes than any of his opponents, and he’s taken repeated swipes at the integrity of the process.

“I think it would bring irreparable damage to the Republican Party and hand this election to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions says FBI agent Peter Strzok no longer has his security clearance Melania Trump puzzles with 'I really don't care' jacket Grassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report MORE,” Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaPoll: Casey holds double-digit lead over Barletta in Pa. Senate race How lawmakers have landed an endorsement from Trump Pennsylvania lawmakers invite Eagles to Capitol after Trump snub MORE (R-Pa.), a Trump supporter, said of the idea of a “white knight” swooping in to win the nomination in Cleveland.

The Trump campaign held a rival meeting with House Republicans at the same time and building where Priebus spoke on Tuesday. Convention manager Paul Manafort, who Trump recently hired to revamp his strategy to secure enough delegates to win the nomination, briefed lawmakers on the campaign’s ground game in upcoming states. Manafort also met with a handful of House Republicans who are on the fence about backing Trump’s candidacy.

“People are angry. They think their voices aren’t heard and now they’re being told not only are their voices not heard but your vote doesn’t matter, and Washington knows better. At a time when people are very angry at Washington, it’s not helpful,” said Barletta, who attended Tuesday’s meeting with Manafort.

There will be more fireworks later this week in Hollywood, Fla., where RNC members are holding their spring meeting and gearing up for a heated debate over convention rules. The RNC Rules Committee chairman, Bruce Ash of Arizona, has been openly critical of Priebus, accusing him of trying to thwart a rules change that would make it tougher for a “white knight” candidate to win the nomination.

Priebus and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPolitical figures pay tribute to Charles Krauthammer House approves five-year farm bill House postpones vote on compromise immigration bill MORE, both Wisconsin Republicans and close friends, are trying to portray themselves as neutral arbiters in the primary race; Priebus runs the party, while Ryan will serve as ceremonial chairman of the summer gathering.

Ryan said Priebus was received “extremely favorably” by the 246-member GOP conference.

“He is making sure that the rules are the rules and that we follow the rules,” Ryan told reporters after the meeting. “So what Reince wanted to do was simply walk members through the process as we’re going into it.”