The Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets Trump steps up attacks on 'Squad' after post-rally furor Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite MORE’s (R-Utah) public criticisms of President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE this week have caused a new wave of concern about a 2020 primary challenge among Trump’s circle.

Neither Romney nor any other centrist challenger would actually defeat Trump, the president’s backers say.

But some worry that a credible contender could hurt the president badly in his reelection race. And they see Romney’s public critique as evidence of a new boldness among the GOP establishment forces that have never been fully supportive of Trump, and could yet desert him.

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“Somebody will run against Trump. The question is, is it a serious candidate? All the establishment Republicans who hate Trump want to see someone run against him,” one source within the president’s orbit told The Hill.

The tensions are further exacerbated by the rivalries that always roil Trump’s world, with some advisers fretting that the president’s nascent reelection campaign is at risk of being caught flat-footed.

That campaign is helmed by Brad Parscale, who served as digital media director on the 2016 campaign and is a close ally of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Trump: 'We already started' talks to get A$AP Rocky home from Sweden Kim Kardashian West thanks Trump, Kushner for helping efforts to free A$AP Rocky from Swedish jail MORE.

Skeptics note that Parscale has never run a political campaign before and is now making his debut at the highest level. "Parscale is a mid-level IT guy," one GOP operative scoffed.

Defenders contend Parscale is getting caught in the crossfire from people who dislike Kushner for unrelated reasons.

An official with the reelection campaign pushed back on the anti-Parscale voices, telling The Hill: "No-one has worked longer with the president and his family than Brad Parscale. I think he has been in the Trump orbit for a decade now. He played a key role in the 2016 campaign, he has played a key role since, and he is the captain of the ship. ... I think he is the right guy for the job. He has the full faith and confidence of the president and his family." 

The campaign official also strongly disputed any suggestion that the reelection effort was ill-prepared. Citing the fact that no recent reelection effort has started so early, as well as the fact that the Trump 2020 effort has already made a number of key hires, the official said that "the campaign is far from flat-footed. In fact, it is better prepared than any [before]."

Further complicating the picture, even Republicans identified with the establishment wing of the party worry that a primary challenge — if one emerges — will be destructive for the GOP overall.

Matt Gorman, who was communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2018 midterm elections, acknowledged that there was an appetite for the kind of critique of Trump that Romney has laid out.

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“That has been clear from the day that [Trump] announced — there is a segment of establishment Republicans who are looking for an alternative, a new way of going about things. There is a hunger for that,” Gorman said.

But he added a cautionary note: “History has shown that challenging the sitting president in a primary tends not to work out too well for the party that holds the White House."

Gorman added that the destructive effects of such a public display of disunity would be felt in down-ballot races, not just in Trump’s quest for a second term.

Romney caused a huge stir with a Washington Post op-ed published on New Year’s Day in which he lamented that the Trump presidency had “made a deep descent in December” and that Trump’s “shortfall has been most glaring” in matters of character.

He expanded on those views in an interview with Jake Tapper of CNN on Wednesday and in an impromptu question-and-answer session with reporters in the halls of the Capitol on Thursday.

Romney insists he is not interested in challenging Trump, especially given that he has made two unsuccessful runs for the presidency before, in 2008 and 2012.

Trump loyalists regard Romney with undisguised disdain.

“We’re talking about a guy who is responsible for the phrase Etch A Sketch being part of the American political lexicon,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and a former special assistant to the president.

“Mitt Romney, the most infamous political flip-flopper of the last century, a man who bragged about opposing Reagan and gave us the blueprint for ObamaCare, is the politician taking a principled conservative stand against Donald Trump? It is laughable on its face," he said.

Surabian added that Romney “would lose by 50 points or more to Donald Trump in a Republican primary. He knows that and his advisers know it, too.”

Still, among Trump’s broader circle, Romney’s assertions that he is not interested in a run are viewed with distrust. And he is not the only one whom Trump cadres are keeping an eye on. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyAmerican women can have it all State denies report ex-spokeswoman received Fox salary while in administration Trump rules out Haley joining 2020 ticket MORE, Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseJeffrey Epstein denied bail Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers Some good advice for Democrats to ignore in 2020 MORE (R-Neb.), Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), recently retired Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers MORE (R-Ariz.), and even Vice President Pence are among those whose words and deeds are parsed with suspicion by some close to the White House.

None, with the exception of Kasich, has indicated serious consideration of a run, and most have ruled it out, apparently definitively. But that is not enough to staunch the gossip in the intrigue-filled milieu around the president.

Paradoxically, some of the figures most fiercely loyal to the president in public are the most worried in private about what happens if he is weakened over the course of 2019 as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE grinds toward the conclusion of his probe and Democrats use their House majority to ratchet up the pressure on the president.

Similar intrigue surrounds the reelection campaign itself, with some Trump allies expressing concern even about relatively arcane topics.

One such issue is the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) Rule 40(b), commonly known as the “eight-state rule.” This provision held that any candidate who got the backing of eight state-level delegations at the 2016 Republican National Convention could have their name placed in nomination, potentially setting up a floor fight.

At one point toward the end of the 2016 primary campaign, there was speculation that Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward Cruz2 Republican senators introduce resolution to label antifa as domestic terrorists Ted Cruz: Trump's chances of winning reelection are '50-50' How to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy MORE (R-Texas) could make use of this rule to mount a last-ditch effort to deny Trump the nomination. That came to nothing.

Now, the requirement is scheduled to revert to its pre-2016 level, where a would-be candidate requires only a plurality of support from five state-level delegations to be placed in nomination.

Some figures in Trump World, suspicious as ever of the prospect of political sabotage from the GOP establishment, wonder why the reelection campaign has not sought to change this rule to offer the president more safety.

Some even put that failure in a broader context.

“They missed that opportunity to protect the incumbent president. ... Part of the problem was — and John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE said it in his L.A. Times interview — he didn't want to be a chief of staff who put a political lens on things. For two years, there was no decision made with politics in mind,” said the source in Trump’s orbit. “The president is not involved in the minutiae. But that is what Brad Parscale is supposed to be doing ... and nobody did it for the guy."

Others defend the campaign in general, noting that the rules that governed this scenario prior to 2012 were much more lax and so the president already has a good measure of protection.

“Any concern about the RNC’s ‘eight-states rule' is an attempt to make a mountain out of a mole hill,” said Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman from New Jersey who served as general counsel to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) presidential bid in 2016.

"First, it would take a miracle next year for anyone to defeat President Trump with the majority of delegates from eight different states," Palatucci said. "And most importantly, the purpose of the rule was to simply allow the supporters of a defeated candidate to put their candidate’s name in nomination in order to have the honor of hearing his or her name called at the convention. No one expects it ever to be used in the heat of a contested convention fight.” 

Meanwhile, even though Parscale has detractors and defenders alike, other figures on the president’s reelection campaign win broad praise even from disparate factions in Trump World.

That is true of Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who recently moved over to the campaign from senior positions in the White House, and Chris Carr, a former political director of the RNC.

Other observers, even outside the circle of Trump supporters, are deeply skeptical that any serious primary challenge will materialize.

“It’s just the circumstance we’re in: The base of the party overwhelmingly supports him,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the RNC who has been critical of Trump in the past.

The Trump campaign official evinced total confidence in the president's capacity to push back any challenge, but accepted that someone would almost certainly make a run.

"Of course there will be some primary challenge," the official said. "But I don't think anyone who challenges this president, given his strength in his party, has any amount of seriousness."

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.