CLEVELAND — The “Never Trump” movement died with a whimper Thursday night. And to be clear: There was never a bang to begin with.
After months of hype — and weeks of misleading media narratives — the efforts to derail Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention ended abruptly and undramatically here during a marathon meeting of the Convention Rules Committee.
Fourteen hours after the committee hearing was gaveled into session, delegates delivered a swift and anticlimactic verdict on a proposal that would have allowed all delegates to vote their conscience on the convention floor next week. The amendment, offered by Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh, received national attention in recent months and was reported by several major media outlets to have a realistic chance of garnering the 28 votes needed to produce a “minority report” that would result in a convention-wide vote on the topic. Yet when the time came for a vote in the Rules Committee, the margin was so lopsided against the amendment that no recorded vote was taken — meaning no minority report will be considered on the convention floor.
That result was previewed minutes earlier when delegates voted overwhelmingly — 87 to 25 — to adopt an amendment that prohibited any language in the GOP’s rules allowing for the unbinding of delegates from the winners of their state’s nominating contests.
That 10-minute stretch erased any minuscule chance that ever existed of toppling Trump at next week’s convention. With the two much-discussed mechanisms of ousting Trump taken off the table, RNC leadership and Trump campaign officials — who furiously whipped committee votes against these efforts — were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief, knowing Trump’s nomination is now assured.
“Anti-Trump people get crushed at Rules Committee. It was never in doubt: Convention will honor will of people & nominate @realdonaldtrump,” Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort tweeted shortly after the vote.
Manafort is correct: The outcome was entirely predictable, especially after Unruh’s allies showed their weak hand earlier in the day.
Barely 10 minutes into Thursday morning’s proceedings, the Rules Committee recessed temporarily because of a printer jam. That recess was then extended another five hours — not due to technical difficulties, but because of private negotiations — first reported by National Review — between RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and a group of anti-Trump conservatives. Those present included Unruh, leader of the conscience movement; Virginia delegate Morton Blackwell, who sought to reduce the power of the RNC; and Ken Cuccinelli, a Ted Cruz ally who sought changes to the 2020 primary structure that could theoretically help the Texas senator’s next presidential bid. (Cruz allies emphasized that the Texas senator had nothing to do with Cuccinelli’s efforts.)
The purpose of the meeting was to reach a compromise: Priebus would get a quick, clean Rules Committee hearing, and conservatives would get concessions on certain items that were otherwise certain to be voted down. Sources involved in the negotiations explained that Unruh couldn’t get anywhere near the requisite 28 votes without the aid of Cuccinelli — and he, in turn, realized Unruh wouldn’t hit that mark even with him whipping votes on her behalf. Cuccinelli was open to brokering an agreement with Priebus under which he would win some 2020 modifications in exchange for convincing conservative delegates to allow the Rules Committee meeting to proceed smoothly. Specifically, Cuccinelli requested that the first four nominating states in 2020 close their primaries to registered Republicans only. Priebus and RNC leadership balked at the idea. This disagreement, on top of fundamental differences between the two sides, led to the collapse of the negotiations.
When the Rules Committee reconvened at 1 P.M., it became clear immediately that delegates loyal to Priebus and Trump would show no mercy to the conservative agitators.
The defeats piled up quickly: No changes to the 2020 primary calendar. No decentralization of power in the Republican party. No elimination of Rule 12. And, of course, no unbinding of delegates or allowing them to vote their conscience on the convention floor.
Other than efforts to stop Trump, the hot topic heading into Thursday’s meeting — rules and regulations governing the 2020 primary process — produced little in the way of drama. Representatives from the first three nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina were successful in establishing an RNC committee that will study the issues pertaining to 2020 and make recommendations at a later date on the rules and regulations. This maneuver essentially allowed the Rules Committee to vote down all subsequent amendments that were offered to restructure the GOP’s nominating process, with the understanding that such decisions would be punted until a later date. (These amendments included proposals that would have forced the first four states to allocate their delegates proportionally; to award a bonus of 20 percent more delegates to states that hold closed primaries; and to require proportional allocation in all states that vote before March 31, instead of the current cutoff date of March 15. All were rejected in lopsided votes.)
There were also a host of proposals geared toward decentralizing power within the GOP, in many cases by shifting decision-making authority away from the chairman and toward the RNC body. All of these amendments failed; in fact, none came anywhere near passage.
Many of the related fights focused on where in the party power should reside — and who should be eligible for official positions within the RNC itself. Indeed, a controversial proposal that would have barred registered lobbyists from serving as RNC members provoked fierce debate inside the committee. And, like other amendments offered by grassroots-oriented delegates, it failed badly.
More broadly — and perhaps most pertinent to the discussion of power in the party — there was lengthy back and forth over the elimination of Rule 12, which allows the RNC membership to change rules in between conventions with the support of a three-fourths supermajority. Delegates pushing the measure argued that Rule 12 represents an unprecedented power grab in which 168 RNC members can subvert the rules written every four years by 2,472 delegates at the convention. After a lengthy debate, the conservatives arguing for eliminating the rule — including Blackwell and Utah senator Mike Lee, Utah’s committeeman on the panel — were handed yet another lopsided defeat.
The proceedings were a sweeping and uninterrupted success for what is widely and vaguely described as the party “establishment” — in this case, those GOP officials intent on safeguarding the RNC’s authority and preserving Trump’s nomination based on the results of this year’s primaries. Many of these Republican heavyweights have made clear, and reiterated on Thursday, that Trump was not their preferred candidate, yet they insisted on reflecting the will of the voters and protecting the integrity of the nominating process.
One such delegate, Iowa committeeman Steve Scheffler, spoke only once during the day-long meeting. When the amendment came up to prevent the adoption of unbinding language, Scheffler walked to the microphone and sternly rebuked the leaders of the anti-Trump movement who, he said, urged allies to inundate him with emails and phone calls pressuring him to abandon Trump. They also, he complained, paid for a radio ad in Iowa attacking him. Looking to those colleagues, Scheffler admonished them to acknowledge their errors and unite around Trump.
“It’s over, folks,” Scheffler said.