FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump has become the first one-term president in a century to watch his party lose both the White House and all of Congress and the first president ever to incite a violent insurrection at the Capitol — yet continues to be feared by that party’s leaders.
Trump’s brief phone call Thursday morning into the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting at the posh Ritz-Carlton resort in northeast Florida won a rousing ovation from the members in the room. And even though he must leave office in two weeks after losing the Nov. 3 election by 7 million votes, his handpicked chair, Ronna McDaniel, is set to win another term in that position.
“She’s our chair, and we’re going to reelect her on Friday,” said Glenn McCall, an RNC member from South Carolina. “We’re looking forward to it.”
Neither RNC staff nor McDaniel ― who had gone by the name Ronna Romney McDaniel until Trump asked her to drop the “Romney” part because of his antipathy toward her uncle, Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney — responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment about her election.
“When you get your ass kicked like this, it would not be a selling point for your reelection,” said one top Republican close to the RNC.
Trump selected McDaniel to run the party after winning the 2016 election because of her help in delivering her home state, Michigan, which Democrats had assumed would go for their nominee, Hillary Clinton. McDaniel won a second two-year term in early 2019 with Trump’s support, despite a disastrous midterm election that saw the House flip to Democratic control. And she remains a shoo-in for the formal vote on Friday, giving her two more years after Trump, who continues to speak of his intention to run for president yet again in 2024, endorsed her after losing re-election.
“I think Ronna has done a good job. But’s it’s certainly a break from tradition,” said Steve Duprey, a longtime RNC member from New Hampshire who was unseated a year ago for being insufficiently loyal to Trump.
“It is Donald Trump’s party. Notwithstanding losing the election, it is Donald Trump’s party,” Duprey said. “And it will be for an uncertain period of time.”
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, explicitly said as much at his father’s “Save America” protest on Wednesday, where Trump incited his followers to march on the Capitol to stop lawmakers from certifying the election for President-elect Joe Biden.
“This isn’t their Republican Party anymore. This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party,” Trump Jr. said, and then warned Republicans who did not support his father’s efforts to overturn democracy: “We’re coming for you, and we’re going to have a good time doing it.”
Some minutes later, his father took the stage and attacked the lawmakers from his party who refused to support his push to overturn the election: “the weak Republicans, they’re pathetic Republicans.”
Trump’s clear support for those who shortly thereafter broke through barricades and smashed windows in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Biden was reflected in the Wednesday statements of both McDaniel and the RNC as a whole, which condemned the violence but failed to mention that Trump had anything to do with it — which former Trump officials ranging from Defense Secretary James Mattis to Attorney General Bill Barr had done.
Vera Ortegon, an RNC member from Colorado, said she didn’t know how the attack on the Capitol would affect Trump’s future with the party, adding that Trump did not mention it during his minute or so phone call into the RNC’s members-only breakfast.
“It was not a good day for him. And I’m a Trumpist,” she said.
One former top RNC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trump’s incitation of violence should not have surprised anyone. “He’s not making this a secret. He’s been telegraphing he’s wanted a coup for months — for years.”
The episode gives party leaders and those considering seeking the nomination themselves in 2024 an easy way to break from him. “I think it gives people an opening — for people who wanted to have one,” the former official said.
Not all RNC members, of course, are interested in that opening. Florida’s Peter Feaman wrote on Facebook that police had purposefully let the pro-Trump mob into the Capitol. “This was a set up to make the Trump folks look bad,” he wrote.
Duprey, who pointed out that two-thirds of Republican House members also backed Trump’s attempts to overturn the election, said it could be a while before Trump’s influence wanes.
“Clearly the president has command of the Republican Party and the RNC. The question is: Does that extend to the midterms? Does it diminish? Who knows,” he said, and added that he is, in retrospect, glad that it is no longer his problem. “I tell people I am happily, involuntarily retired.”