RNC struggles to control fight over Trump, convention rules
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Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is struggling to control an escalating party debate over what rules should govern a contested Republican convention.

It’s an unprecedented situation for Republicans, who for the last week have seen a war of words between their party’s chairman and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

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“The committee is trying to be a fair player to all, and one of the challenges they face is there are three or more definitions of what is fair and everybody wants what is most fair to them, Trump more than anyone,” one former RNC aide told The Hill. 

“So that’s why they find themselves in a situation where they are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Priebus has sought to position himself as a neutral arbiter to fend off accusations that he and other party officials are siding against Trump. 

Yet this weekend, Priebus found himself coming under criticism from the chairman of the RNC’s Rules Committee, who suggested Priebus was tipping the scales against Trump or rival contender Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Supreme Court fight pushes Senate toward brink Crenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat MORE in internal conversations. 

The letter to the 56-member Rules Committee from Chairman Bruce Ash, first reported by The Associated Press, knocked Priebus for a “breach of our trust” for trying to stop a proposal to change the rules of the Republican National Convention to Robert’s Rules of Order from those used by the U.S. House.

Switching to the Robert’s Rules could make it more difficult for a “white knight” candidate to emerge on the floor of a contested convention by requiring that a majority of floor delegates vote in favor of doing so. Under the House rules, the convention’s chairman would have more power to put a new nominee up for consideration.

As a result, the change to Robert’s Rules could help Trump or Cruz, whose delegates on the floor could vote against adding any new candidate to the mix.

A top RNC aide did not return a request for comment on the dispute, but former aides and a Rules Committee member said they were sympathetic to Priebus, who they say is simply trying to keep the RNC above the fray.

“What Reince is dealing with is unprecedented and he’s dealing with it as best as he can,” said J.R. Romano, the Connecticut state GOP chairman and a Standing Rules Committee member. “We are here to promote fairness, and that doesn’t mean that everybody is happy.”

The Standing Rules Committee for the RNC is set to meet in Hollywood, Fla., on Thursday, when the issue could again be raised.

Any changes to the rules will not be binding, however, unless a separate convention rules committee convening in Cleveland agrees to it. Members of that separate committee are being nominated at conventions around the country.

Because the delegates themselves have complete control over convention rules, with only input from the party’s Rules Committee, Priebus has cautioned that the Rules Committee refrain from any rules changes so that the party can remain neutral.

The new controversy comes as Trump is hammering the party’s nominating process as rigged.

The billionaire is on the verge of what could be a major victory in New York’s primary on Tuesday, but even a big win there won’t guarantee that he can win the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the party’s nomination.

If Trump can’t get to that number, Republicans will pick a nominee at the Cleveland convention in July.

Trump argues that he should get the nomination even if he doesn’t get to 1,237 delegates, so long as he has a large lead in the delegate chase.

Many other Republicans, who fear Trump would lose the White House and could cause severe down-ballot losses in the House and Senate elections in November, say the race will and should go to a second or third ballot if no candidate reaches 1,237.

Trump’s complaints that party officials are rigging the system against him have been validated for his supporters by statements from some party leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHawley warns Schumer to steer clear of Catholic-based criticisms of Barrett Senate GOP set to vote on Trump's Supreme Court pick before election Harris slams Trump's Supreme Court pick as an attempt to 'destroy the Affordable Care Act' MORE (R-Ky.) over the weekend said he was “increasingly optimistic” the contest will go to a second ballot.

“When a nominee gets to 1,237, he will actually be the candidate. If he doesn’t, there will be a second ballot, and about 60 percent of the delegates who are bound on the first ballot will be free to do whatever they want,” McConnell told a local ABC station Saturday. “And I’m increasingly optimistic that there actually may be a second ballot.”

He noted that he’s expecting to be a delegate for Kentucky and that “on the second ballot I’ll be free to do whatever I want to.”

Cruz argues that support for Trump will steadily drop if the contest goes to multiple ballots. He and his supporters have been busy working state conventions to win the election of delegates loyal to Cruz.

While some of those delegates may be required to vote for Trump on a first ballot, they could vote for Cruz or John Kasich on a second ballot.

Cruz is also picking up at-large delegates who could back him on a first ballot.

At Wyoming’s state convention on Saturday, Cruz won all 14 of the at-large delegates.

Trump has railed against this process and suggested it could lead to riots in Cleveland if the candidate with the most delegates and votes does not walk away with the nomination.

Over the weekend, he pulled back on suggestions it could lead to violence.

“I hope it doesn’t involve violence, and I don’t think it will,” Trump said during a Sunday rally in New York. “But I will say this: it’s a rigged system, it’s a crooked system, it’s 100 percent corrupt.”

Romano said the latest internal fights Priebus is trying to control constitute yet another distraction for a party that needs to be focused on beating Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE, who leads the Democratic race.

“What everyone has to realize is what’s at stake. You’re doing a story today about the rules of our convention and not a story about how terrible Hillary Clinton is,” Romano told The Hill. 

“It’s frustrating because this process will be 100 percent determined by the delegates themselves. The RNC and what they recommend is not set in stone.”