AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — In Washington, Republicans were dealing with a burgeoning crisis in their ranks, with high-profile resignations and bitter infighting over how to deal with an erratic and isolated president. But at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting on Friday, most party members were operating in a parallel universe.
In a chandelier-adorned ballroom at the seaside Ritz-Carlton here, there was no mention of President Donald Trump’s disruption of the coronavirus relief package or his phone call to the Georgia secretary of state demanding that he help steal the election, both of which contributed to Republicans’ losing control of the Senate.
And while the RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, condemned the attack on the Capitol, neither she nor any other speaker so much as publicly hinted at Trump’s role in inciting a mob assault on America’s seat of government.
Even as the president faces a possible second impeachment proceeding, this collective exercise in gaze aversion was not the most striking part of the meeting. More revealing was the reason for the silence from the stage: Party members, one after another, said in interviews that the president did not bear any blame for the violence at the Capitol and indicated that they wanted him to continue to play a leading role in the party.
“I surely embrace President Trump,” said Michelle Fiore, the committeewoman from Nevada, where Republicans have lost two Senate races and the governorship since 2016. Fiore, who was sporting a Trump-emblazoned vest, said the president was “absolutely” a positive force in the party.
The fealty to Trump was made plain on Friday when the state chairs and the committeemen and women who make up the RNC’s governing board unanimously reelected McDaniel, Trump’s handpicked chair. They also reappointed her co-chair, Tommy Hicks, who was first appointed to his post because of his friendship with the president’s eldest son.
Trump is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over the loss of the White House, the House and the Senate in a single term and will be the first since Andrew Johnson to boycott his successor’s inauguration. That hasn’t yet fazed the Republican rank and file.
“This room, they’re in denial, and that’s on the record,” Bill Palatucci, a committeeman from New Jersey, said during a break in the Friday session, acknowledging the “damage done to the country” and the Republican “brand” this week.
But Palatucci was a lonely voice of dissent, at least in public.
Privately, a group of Republican officials, mostly those from the pre-Trump establishment wing of the party, said that they were appalled by the president’s conduct and that McDaniel had been candid about the party’s difficulties behind closed doors.
These Republicans predicted with more hope than confidence that once Trump was out of office, the ardor for him in the conservative base would cool.
Yet for now, the flames still burn.
“I would love to see him go into states that have some House seats we can flip in ’22,” said Terry Lathan, the Alabama GOP chair, who said “absolutely not” when she was asked if Trump bore any blame for the attack on he Capitol.
When a committee member took an informal survey on whose closed-door speech on Thursday members had liked better, that of Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota or of Nikki R. Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, the response was clear. The party officials preferred Noem, because she had not criticized Trump as Haley did in her remarks, a Republican familiar with the sampling said.
Earlier in the day on Thursday, when the president briefly called into a breakfast meeting, he was greeted by applause. And when the Missouri national committeeman, Gordon Kinne, said at the breakfast that he was a supporter of the president but had been upset by his comments about the violence at the Capitol, he was met with a generally frosty response, according to another committee member in the room.
The loyalty to Trump results in part from the turnover on the committee during his term. The president’s top political lieutenants intervened to install loyalists in state and local GOP conventions ahead of 2020. The goal was to prevent any party rule changes that could have made it easier to mount a primary challenge against Trump, but the end result was to leave the committee heavy with Trump devotees.
The changes also accelerated a trend that predated Trump’s rise: the evolution of the committee from a body filled with canny political professionals and power brokers in their states to one dominated by dogmatic partisans well-marinated in Fox News and Facebook memes.
Perhaps more significant, the president has fostered a new wave of activism on the right — and many longstanding GOP leaders fear alienating these newcomers to party politics.
“We can’t exist without the people he brought to the party — he’s changed the direction of the party,” said Paul Reynolds, the Republican committeeman from Alabama. “We’re a different party because of the people that came with him, and they make us a better party.”
Reta Hamilton, a committeewoman from Arkansas, said Trump should play “a leading part” in the GOP in the future for just that reason — “to bring his voters,” she said.
Hamilton and other RNC members also sought to rationalize questions about the damage to the Capitol and the images of Trump banners and Confederate flags littering the building.
“What was your reaction to Black Lives Matter looting and robbing and killing people?” she shot back brazenly before walking away. (
Steve Scheffler, a committeeman from Iowa, was equally quick to invoke last summer’s at times destructive protests over racial justice and the news media’s coverage of them.
“Why doesn’t the press condemn the violence that happened in Portland and Seattle?” Scheffler said. “It’s a double standard.”
Asked if he felt there was an equivalence between the left-wing protests of 2020 and the violent attempt to subvert the election this week, he said: “Two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s all bad.”
In her remarks to the committee, McDaniel, the niece of Sen. Mitt Romney, thanked Trump for his faith in her and never directly acknowledged that Trump had been defeated, only referring to her frustration at “losing critical elections.”
As for the president’s own denial about his loss, she did not rebut the conspiracy theories he has pushed, and that the party’s base has echoed.
Addressing the Republican “grassroots,” she vowed to work with state legislatures to “make sure what we saw in this election never happens again.”
McDaniel went on to criticize the effort by House Democrats to withdraw gender-specific words like “wife” and “husband” from the rule book governing the chamber.
The standing ovation she received was a reminder that disdain for the left’s perceived excesses is the most animating, and unifying, force on the right. This brand of oppositional politics could help paper over Republicans’ challenges when they run as the out-of-power party next year.
Indeed, much of McDaniel’s speech was Republican red meat. There were warnings against socialism, attacks on the four liberal congresswomen known as “the squad” and boasting about the diverse class of lawmakers who helped the party gain House seats in November despite Trump’s broad unpopularity. “Candidates matter,” she said, alluding to new lawmakers.
David Bossie, one of Trump’s advisers and the Maryland committeeman, insisted that the party’s losses had been on the margins.
“You don’t have to throw out everybody when there’s nothing fundamentally wrong,” Bossie said.
A handful of committee members, however, believe more reflection is desperately needed, particularly after this week. “We’re whistling past the graveyard,” said Henry Barbour, the Mississippi committeeman, who called Trump’s conduct before the riot “totally unacceptable.”
Few of his counterparts, though, would criticize the president.
Asked if Trump was still the effective leader of the GOP, the Wyoming Republican chair, Frank Eathorne, said, “The way Wyoming sees it, yes.”