WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – As US President Donald Trump brazenly seeks to delay the certification of the election in hopes of overturning his defeat, he is also mounting a less high-profile but similarly audacious bid to keep control of the Republican National Committee (RNC) even after he leaves office.
Ms Ronna McDaniel, Mr Trump’s hand-picked chair, has secured the president’s support for her re-election to another term in January, when the party is expected to gather for its winter meeting.
But her intention to run with Mr Trump’s blessing has incited a behind-the-scenes proxy battle, dividing Republicans between those who believe the national party should not be a political subsidiary of the outgoing president and others happy for Mr Trump to remain in control of it.
While many Republicans are hesitant to openly criticise their president at a moment when he is refusing to admit he has lost, the debate crystallises the larger question about the party’s identity and whether it will operate as a vessel for Mr Trump’s ambitions to run again in four years.
Mr Trump will have no political infrastructure once he leaves office except for a political action committee he recently formed, and absent a formal campaign, he is hoping to lean on the RNC to effectively give him one, people familiar with his thinking said.
The continuing influence of Mr Trump could also have implications for some of the national committee’s most critical assets: Its voter data and donor lists contain thousands of names of contributors and detailed information about supporters.
The voter data in particular is a focus of attention, after distrust arose between the committee and the Trump campaign over the data’s use in the final months of the campaign.
While the committee and the Trump campaign are in the process of untangling joint agreements over access to that information, Mr Trump sees control of the lists that he helped build over the past four years as a way to keep a grip on power – and to neutralise potential challengers for supremacy over the party, according to Republicans close to the White House.
This power play is alarming a number of RNC members, party strategists and former committee aides, who are highly uneasy about ceding control of the committee to a potential candidate in 2024, a step that they fear would shatter the party’s long-standing commitment to neutrality in nominating contests.
“Trump always wants to use other people’s money,” said former Republican Barbara Comstock, a Northern Virginia Republican who lost her re-election in 2018 thanks to the suburban anti-Trump wave that also felled the president this month.
The RNC, the Trump campaign and related committees raised more than US$1 billion this cycle.
Ms Comstock – while allowing that “nobody dislikes Ronna” – said the committee should not be a piggy bank for the president’s political endeavours.
Traditionally, the chairs of the national committees of both parties have relinquished control when the other party takes the White House. Yet as with so many other aspects of his presidency, Mr Trump has little regard for precedent. And many of his lieutenants, particularly those eyeing their own political future, are happy to defend him.
But what is troubling to some Republicans is the risk that Mr Trump will try to bend the national party to his will by exacting retribution on those lawmakers who have not pledged total fealty to him.
The dismay among Republicans that Mr Trump is trying to seize control of the party machinery has prompted Ms McDaniel to try to reassure both camps, the Trump die-hards and those Republicans who want the committee to remain independent.
Mr Jonathan Barnett, the Arkansas Republican chair, emphasised that the party “supports our president”, but that it was imperative the RNC not be seen as an arm of any would-be White House contender, even a former occupant of the Oval Office, particularly as events like presidential primary debates begin.
“If we’re not fair, what about the other candidates who want to run for president?” he said.
Mr Henry Barbour, the Republican committeeman from Mississippi and an influential voice in the party, said that “it’s critical for the RNC to be independent,” and that this “should always be the case.”
In a statement, Ms McDaniel sought to assuage some of the concerns, stating: “The 168 RNC members choose who will lead the RNC. I hope to win their support, and that is the most important endorsement.”
A committee spokesperson, Mike Reed, said that Ms McDaniel and the committee had always followed bylaws not to endorse candidates in Republican primaries.
“That policy to remain completely neutral in primaries will continue as long as she is chair,” Mr Reed said.
Senior Republican officials close to Ms McDaniel said they were already seeking new arrangements between the RNC and the Trump campaign over the donor and data lists, which would provide Mr Trump with copies of certain lists but also leave them available to other candidates through the committee. Beyond that, these Republicans said, there are limits to how influential the RNC can be in party primaries.
Ms McDaniel, a Michigan native, has a gilded political pedigree. She is the niece of Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and the granddaughter of George Romney, a three-term Michigan governor. She earned Mr Trump’s trust in part by urging him to make trips to her home state during the 2016 campaign, which he credits with helping him win there.
She has told people she does not intend to seek another term after 2022, one person briefed on the discussions said, a move that could ensure her exit before the 2024 presidential cycle gets underway in earnest.
Notably, Mr Trump has gained even more influence over the committee in the past two years because two of the president’s top campaign aides, Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, worked to install Trump supporters in state-level party posts; it was part of a preemptive effort in 2019 to head off the risk of a primary challenge this year.
“At the end of the day, this is the president’s party, and this will continue to be the president’s party,” said Florida state Senator Joe Gruters, chair of the Republican Party of Florida. “He will have an oversized role no matter what happens.”