RNC chairman braces for unruly convention

RNC chairman braces for unruly convention
© Greg Nash

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is bracing for a chaotic convention.

Thousands of party leaders, delegates, reporters and activists are descending on Cleveland for a week of platform and rules committee hearings as Republicans prepare to nominate a candidate that has divided the GOP and been a flashpoint for controversy.

Those meetings will take place under the shadow of a traumatic week marked by the fatal shooting of five police officers in Dallas and the deaths of two black men killed at the hands of law enforcement and subsequent protests.

In an interview with The Hill at RNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, just hours before he was scheduled to board a plane for Cleveland, Priebus opened up about how the convention would play out amid a backdrop of roiling anger and unease.

“It’s understandable that people everywhere across the country are a little nervous about what’s been going on around the country,” Preibus said. “It’s making us all a little uptight and concerned, there’s no question.”

Convention planners have been preparing to deal with massive protests in Cleveland for months. The city took out a $50 million insurance policy and law enforcement has plans in place for a potentially rowdy crowd outside.

But the violent episodes that have played out in the streets across the country will add an additional layer of tension to the event. Some delegates and elected officials have expressed concern about their safety.

Priebus said he’s been in touch with convention CEO Jeff Larson in recent days to ensure they’re taking every precaution to protect convention goers and protesters alike.

“We’ve done everything we can and beyond,” Priebus said.

“We will have the best of America there protecting the participants at the convention and they’re going to be protecting the protesters, too,” he added. “People are prepared in Cleveland. The Secret Service are prepared and the state of Ohio is prepared. I think this is going to be a great week.”

Priebus is also dealing with political uncertainty surrounding the nomination of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTwitter CEO: 'Not true' that removing Trump campaign video was illegal, as president has claimed Biden formally clinches Democratic presidential nomination Barr says he didn't give 'tactical' command to clear Lafayette protesters MORE and the potential for chaos on the convention floor. 

There is a contingent of “Never Trump” Republicans who have been organizing a last-ditch effort to wrest the nomination from the billionaire businessman at the convention.

RNC officials and the Trump campaign have long dismissed the movement as a small but vocal minority that has been given outsized attention by the media.

But Priebus said Saturday he won’t be caught off guard if the rebels manage to mount an unexpectedly strong challenge.

“I sweat everything,” he said.

Still, Priebus said he doesn’t believe the insurgents have the numbers to pass a rule that would unbind delegates from the primary and caucus results by allowing them to “vote their conscience.”

“I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I don’t see it happening in the Rules Committee and I don’t see it happening on the floor.”

“A lot of people aren’t happy that their person didn’t win, that’s obvious,” Preibus continued. “But even those people — a vast majority of those people don’t believe it’s fair to strip someone who won fair and square of being the nominee … I just don’t see enough people willing to throw out the 14 million people who voted for Donald Trump. I just don’t see it. It’s not there.”

But Trump's actions and remarks over the past few weeks have likely done little to quiet any discontent.

On a visit to Capitol Hill this week, Trump clashed with his critics in the Senate. He singled out Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Biden campaign releases video to explain 'what really happened in Ukraine' Why Republicans are afraid to call a key witness in the impeachment inquiry MORE (Ill.), who is among the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection, for criticism.

Priebus declined to comment on what was said at a closed-door meeting he didn’t attend but suggested Trump focus his energy away from fellow Republicans going forward.

“The best M.O. here is to promote your vision for America and how you will make this country great and rebuild the military and make this country a secure and sovereign country, which is what people are really worried about, security and sovereignty, and the economy and then talk about how horrible [Hillary] Clinton’s record has been,” Priebus said. “Personally, I’d leave Republicans out of the equation.”

But Priebus said he does believe Trump has turned a corner to becoming a more disciplined candidate in recent weeks and said he’s happy to see him getting comfortable using a teleprompter instead of relying wholly on off-the-cuff speeches.

“The prepared comments I’m a big fan of, and I like the dropping of talking about the other candidates in the primary,” Priebus said. “So I think things are in a much better place in terms of that focus and the presidential trajectory, in my view.”

Still, many Republicans remain concerned about Trump’s rhetoric. 

At the same closed door meeting with senators, Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Trump asserts his power over Republicans 'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? MORE (R-Ariz.) told Trump he risked losing Arizona because his insults and incendiary rhetoric would chase away independent and Hispanic voters.

Some Republicans are alarmed by polls that show a tighter-than-expected race in Republican strongholds like Utah, Arizona and Georgia.

“Those will straighten out,” Priebus said.

Meanwhile, Trump says he’s focused on expanding the map.

Trump boasted to lawmakers this week that he intends to compete in states like Washington, Oregon and Connecticut, where the GOP presidential candidate hasn’t won in 30 years or more.

Priebus signaled that the RNC wouldn’t join that effort.

“Our money is going into the battleground states,” he said. “The ground game I can assure you, the full-time bodies are where they need to be.”

Still, he noted that it’s “a curious election” and that “there are some odd things popping up that we need to pay attention to,” in terms of identifying new opportunities.

In the interim, the pressure is on Priebus to pull off a smooth convention that will allow Republicans to leave Cleveland with a united front.

One aspect of the event still to be ironed out is who will speak on behalf of Trump and what they'll say. 

Trump’s former rival, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFormer Trump adviser Jason Miller to join reelection campaign Texas Republicans call on county GOP chair to resign for saying Floyd's death was staged Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony MORE (R-Texas), has agreed to take the stage. The last time Cruz spoke at length about Trump in public was the day of the Indiana primary, when he eviscerated the billionaire businessman as “utterly amoral,” a "bully" and a “pathological liar.”

Priebus, who keeps “the Eastwood chair” from the 2012 convention in his office, said the RNC isn’t involved in vetting speeches. 

But he said that he’s been led to believe that the Trump campaign will review prepared text from everyone who plans to speak.

It’s all part of managing the risk at an unpredictable convention, Priebus said, even if some things are out of his hands.

“The truth is that you can have a speech written and vet it but once someone walks up to the mic and the camera is rolling, you have to believe and trust that the person is going to stay on message,” he said.