The two sides were reduced to shouting at each other on national television after party leadership blocked a roll call vote on the convention rules, which virtually guarantee Trump the party nomination by requiring delegates to vote in accordance with their state’s primary or caucus results. Trump critics were unlikely to be able to vote down the rules — and even less likely to achieve their ultimate goal of replacing the rules with ones that “unbound” pledged delegates — but they were seeking a platform to voice their displeasure with Trump and demonstrate the strength of their movement.
They almost got the vote. The Never Trump delegates joined forces with a small but aggrieved band of GOP delegates — led Virginia delegate Ken Cuccinelli and Utah Sen. Mike Lee — furious with party leaders and the Trump campaign for their role last week in blocking a slew of changes to party rules that conservative activists favored. Together, they shocked Trump campaign and GOP leaders on Monday afternoon by producing signatures from a majority of delegates from 11 states and territories, far more than the seven jurisdictions necessary to force an up-or-down vote on the convention’s rules package. That would’ve left approval up fate to 2,472 delegates on the convention floor — and embarrassed Trump regardless of the results.
But when the time came to present the proposed rules to the full convention, the combined Trump campaign-party leadership faction crushed the rebellious faction.
Party leaders, anticipating an anti-Trump push, had installed Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack to preside over the convention – bucking recent history of having the Republican House leader preside over the proceedings. Womack initially determined on a voice vote that the rules package – as approved by a convention committee last week – would be adopted without changes. But a furious outcry among conservative delegates erupted, with hundreds of support chanting for their right to a “roll call vote.”
Then, Womack stepped off the stage and let the RNC and Trump campaign whips go to work. With the lists of insurgent delegates in hand, dozens of aides worked the convention floor for about 15 minutes, collecting their own set of withdrawal signatures. In the end, four of the initial 11 states saw enough delegates abandon the roll call effort to scuttle it: Minnesota, Maine, Iowa and the District of Columbia. Alaska, according to the RNC, failed to submit enough valid signatures to begin with.
Alaska delegate Fred Brown told POLITICO he did get the required signatures. “I had secured more than enough signatures from Alaska delegates, but the convention secretary was not at the designated location where I was told to submit them,” he said. “Some said she was hiding. Others said she was protected by guards. Regardless, I was told I could also present the signatures from the floor. Nevertheless, when the vote occurred, my mic was not turned on. When I attempted to present these signatures at the stage, my effort was ignored by the chair, and the security guard turned me away.“
When Womack announced the result from the stage, the rebellious delegates went ballistic, swamping the continuing proceedings with screams and still demanding a vote. Colorado’s Unruh convinced her state’s delegates to walk out and screamed for nearby Texas’ to do the same, though they declined. Morton Blackwell, a conservative Virginia delegate told POLITICO that the process was “crooked.” Blackwell, a veteran RNC member of 32 years, guessed that several of the delegations that withdrew from the effort were plants by the RNC to convince insurgents they had reached their goal. He wondered whether the bitterness they felt would linger.
For their part, RNC and Trump campaign aides involved in the convention argued that many of the delegates who signed forms demanding a vote had been duped, told at delegation breakfasts Monday morning that they would be supporting Trump by joining the effort.
Iowa delegate Marlys Popma, who helped lead the state’s effort to support the roll call vote, rejected that suggestion. “People knew exactly what they were signing,” she said.
“This is about the full assault on the delegates,” Waters said in an interview, while aides frantically bounced back and forth collecting signatures from friendly delegations. At one point Monday, 11 jurisdictions had signed on: Maine, North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska, Colorado, Washington, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Minnesota and Virginia.
The scene, with party officials feuding in front of reporters and cameras, was a distressing one for a party looking to present a united front amid Trump’s battle with Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
And it was all the more frustrating for party leaders because they came an eyelash away from preventing it. In the final hours before the voting Monday, Cuccinelli — a leader of the party’s conservative faction — reopened talks with Republican National Committee leaders in an attempt to forestall the public spectacle. The conversations, confirmed by GOP sources involved and by Cuccinelli, began late Sunday and continued into Monday morning. They were an attempt to revive negotiations that failed last week, when Cuccinelli pushed for changes to party rules that would encourage states to close their primaries to Democrats and independents.
For the second time in a week the two sides almost reached an accord, but just like the unity talks at last week’s pre-conevntion meetings, the negotiations again fell apart because Cuccinelli couldn't bring other conservative leaders – and especially Utah Sen. Mike Lee – on board.
As a condition of the renewed negotiations, RNC leaders demanded that Cuccinelli secure Lee’s support for the closed primary push. But Cuccinelli told POLITICO that it wasn’t Lee’s fight. He said the Utah senator told him “I’m not going to sell myself for some deal with the RNC.”
According to a source familiar with the talks, a Washington state delegate helped broker the renewed conversation between Cuccinelli and the RNC. In those talks, Cuccinelli said he’d accept a relatively modest version of a deal he asked for last week. He’d like to see states awarded a 20 percent bonus to their at-large delegate pool at the next national convention, and he’d also like the RNC to do away with an anti-transparency rule adopted last week: keeping the identities and contact information of the GOP’s convention rules committee secret.
The RNC agreed to the latter proposal and countered with an offer of 10 percent bonus at-large delegates instead. But without Lee, the RNC balked, opting for confrontation on the convention floor instead.
Backers of the conservative delegates and anti-Trump forces never expected to win a roll call vote on the floor, only to cause enough discomfort for party leaders to exert their will. But as their effort failed, they lashed out at leadership and created that discomfort anyway.
The conservative and anti-Trump delegates seethed in the aftermath of their failed bid for a vote, and they vowed to keep fighting as the convention went on.
"You will see more insurgency, because, and I have nothing to do with the fact that people now know that their voices were squelched," said anti-Trump Colorado delegate Kendal Unruh, the founder of the Free the Delegates movement, in a live interview on C-SPAN where she accused party leadership of using "strong-armed tactics."
"I have never in all my life, certainly in six years in the United States Senate, prior to that as a lifelong Republican, never seen anything like this," said Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the most prominent signatories to the push for a roll call vote. "There is no precedent for this in parliamentary procedure. There is no precedent for this in the rules of the Republican National Convention. We are now in uncharted territory. Somebody owes us an explanation. I have never seen the chair abandoned like that. They vacated the stage entirely."
"It’s coercion masking as unity," Lee said later. "It may well be the case there were only 9 states that submitted the petition… if that’s the case, then it appears we did not satisfy the threshold," Lee continued.
New Hampshire Sen. Gordon Humphrey personally filed the signatures to the convention secretary — an exchange that followed after a frantic search to find the secretary before the deadline to submit the signatures. At the time, Never Trump leaders raised concerns that the secretary, Susie Hudson of Vermont, might intentionally avoid them to ensure the effort was defeated.
After the vote, he was livid: "The very unpleasant scene that unfolded here just a moment ago I think is a glimpse into the future of a trump presidency,” Humphrey told POLITICO. "We have seen the trump presidency and prototype many of his supporters if they are not fascists, act very much like fascists, shouting down the opposition, treating them roughly.”
“My first act after Mr. Trump’s nomination if that occurs will be to get up, walk out and go home,” he continued. “And after that I will resign from the Republican Party if that is the case."
Blackwell, the Virginia delegate, said he expects the fight is over now and will resume again in four years. If so, he added, there’s a positive takeaway.
“There were many more conservatives on the convention floor this time,” he said. Next time, he said, might be different.
By Kyle Cheney, POLITICO