By now, most of you have probably heard at least a little of what happened on the first day of the Republican National Convention. Although a great deal of attention was diverted to Melania Trump’s absurd plagiarized speech (and to the events of the following two days, particularly Cruz’s speech Wednesday night), the really interesting stuff—at least for those interested in politics—happened a little after noon, during the convention’s opening business. That was when the anti-establishment delegate revolt was crushed, and the Republican establishment kept itself—and with it, Donald Trump—in a position of power.
Prologue: The Committee
In order to understand what went on, though, we first need to step back to the week before. The Thursday before the convention, the Rules Committee met to decide on a set of rules to present to the convention for approval. These rules are based on the existing rules, and govern the nature and power of the RNC, how and when primaries and caucuses will be held, and how the national convention itself would be run, among many other things. A number of different groups had put their hopes on the Rules Committee as a way of advancing their goals. The effort to free the delegates and dump Trump, led by Kendal Unruh of Colorado, hoped to pass an amendment that would specifically give the delegates the freedom to vote their consciences (arguably they already could have, but the point was disputed, and the amendment would have cleared up any ambiguity). Ken Cuccinelli led a faction that had largely given up on nominating someone other than Trump this year, but hoped to amend the rules so that in future, disasters like Trump could be avoided–in particular, by closing early primaries, where crossover voting had boosted Trump’s campaign. Another faction still sought to repeal Rule 12, which had been passed in 2012 and gave the Republican National Committee the authority to change the rules whenever they liked. These anti-establishment, pro-grassroots factions were closely intertwined, and most of the members of any one were also members of the others.
They were opposed by the usual actors in the RNC, who held a majority of spots on the Rules Committee, including Trump’s supporters (in stark contrast to his claim to have been the anti-establishment candidate)—men like Henry Barbour, a Trump whip who in 2014 leveraged open primaries, dishonest mailers, and voter fraud to help Thad Cochran hold onto his Senate seat in the face of a conservative challenge. The only hope for the anti-establishment forces was to gain enough votes for a Minority Report, which would force a vote by the full convention. Better still, they might be able to extract concessions from the establishment, who would be eager to avoid the embarrassment of a floor fight, in exchange for refraining from filing such a report.
In the days leading up to the Rules Committee meeting, it was a contest to see which side could win more votes and hold onto them, with the RNC’s operatives, including the current and former Texas GOP Chairs, Tom Mechler and Steve Munisteri, working to beat back any inroads the various factions could make. The insurgents appeared to have gained sufficient votes for a minority report—enough that Tuesday evening Trump and the establishment’s operatives asked for a meeting with Cuccinelli, Unruh, and Mike Lee, a Cruz supporter and the most conservative member of the Senate, who had taken a leading role in several anti-establishment efforts. The meeting was delayed until Thursday morning when Lee’s flight was delayed, and continued into the scheduled meeting time. The chair, Enid Mickelsen of Utah, gaveled the meeting to order, then called a recess, claiming a “printer error.” There was no printer error; only the imperative of preventing any open opposition to Trump or the RNC.
The talks, with Cuccinelli largely speaking for the insurgents and foregoing disruption this year in favor of reforming the process in future years, seemed likely to yield a compromise until it became apparent that Cuccinelli could not control the various insurgent factions. Sensing weakness, the RNC-Trump alliance left abruptly, and brought the full committee out of recess. Their machine—the machine that’s run the party for years—was polished and skillful as it rammed the establishment’s agenda through the committee. Texts were sent to each member of the committee alerting them to which amendments were favored by Trump and the RNC, and all others, regardless of their content, were voted down out of hand. One establishment operative even went so far as to stand to the side of the room holding a sign reading “Trump RNC No” during the vote on a disfavored amendment. He quickly moved once TV cameras caught him.
Not relying on the strength of their Trump-RNC votes, though, the establishment also relied heavily on procedural tricks. Having already started the process late, their supporters successfully moved to continue business into the night rather than use the time allotted the next day, in hopes that, when combined with the summary rejection of every amendment not originating with the Trump-RNC axis, it would demoralize the insurgents. In addition, since an amendment on which a motion to reconsider had been moved and failed could not be raised again, Doug Ose, a committee member from California, began making a motion to reconsider on every failed amendment. This motion would then promptly fail by the same margin that the amendment originally had, rendering the amendment entirely dead, and incapable of being brought up again.
Senator Lee spoke passionately and eloquently in favor of allowing delegates—the representatives of the people—to fulfill their duty and exercise their judgement (he was quickly rebutted by Munisteri, who gave a strident anti-Burkean view of the duty of a representative), but the measure quickly went down to defeat, with only 12 votes in favor to 87 against. The committee slowly ground down every other attempted challenge to the establishment, none even reaching enough support to file a minority report.
Not only was the Trump-RNC axis able to block challenges to their authority, they were able to seize power in a way that hadn’t been seen for 40 years. Trump-RNC committee members put forward and passed an amendment to Rule 38 to bind delegates to the result of their primary or caucus. This clause was last put in place in 1976, when Gerald Ford needed to stomp out an insurgency led by Ronald Reagan (a young delegate-hunt coordinator for Ford by the name of Paul Manafort, now Trump’s campaign manager, was clearly paying attention).
With complete control over the Rules Committee, the Trump-RNC axis had all that they needed to craft a set of rules strongly slanted in favor of the elite ruling class and the presumptive nominee. Now, however, that set of rules needed to pass a convention heavily influenced by Ted Cruz’s top-tier delegate wrangling organization.
Ordinarily, the rules, like the platform and most other convention business, are passed by a simple voice vote. It’s quick and easy, and avoids interfering with the pageantry of the convention. However, because it’s impossible to decide a contested issue fairly by a voice vote, the standing rules do contain a clause that requires a more precise roll call vote if signatures from a majority of the delegates in 7 states are submitted to the convention secretary.
As soon as it became clear that the Trump-RNC axis would be successful in implementing heavily pro-establishment rules, the insurgent factions started preparing to gather support to reach the seven-state threshold. Although their efforts were viewed as unlikely to succeed, the Trump-RNC alliance still did their best to discourage them. According to reports from several Texas delegates, at breakfast that day, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the chair of the Texas delegation, told the Texans that
There was a move by some this week against the rules, and apparently there’s still a movement by some, a few people in each delegation in some of the states. If we were to overturn the rules, we would have to suspend the convention for five, six hours, for one or two days. I don’t think we want to lead that fight here in the Texas delegation, do we? So, as you heard earlier, . . . we will have microphones but they’re not going to be operating. . . . It is not my position, and I respect that there may be three or four or five people in the room who want to speak against the rules, it is not going to be my position on the floor to open up our mic and challenge the rules, and challenge this convention and make it look like Texas is trying to undermine our nominee.
The rest of Trump and the RNC’s whips also moved to discourage the movement, but they’d underestimated the number of conservative delegates Cruz’s campaign (and others) had been able to put in place. Before the convention even started, the insurgents were reporting that they had sufficient signature in seven states. By noon, that number had risen to ten: Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, Maine, Washington, Minnesota, Wyoming, DC, Utah, and North Dakota (Texas eventually talked enough delegates into signing, but they were so delayed by Patrick’s discouragement that they had no hope of submitting them in time), and the insurgents set out to submit their petition for a roll call vote.
Susie Hudson, the convention secretary to whom the signatures needed to be submitted, took this opportunity to leave the spot where the petitioners had been told to go to submit the signatures, and take refuge in a back hallway, where pictures show her cordoned off by security guards. Eventually, Gordon Humphrey, the former GOP Senator from New Hampshire designated to deliver the signatures, was able to find a GOP official willing to carry the petitions through the wall of security to the secretary. Fred Brown, one of Alaska’s members of the Rules Committee carrying the signatures from that state, was delayed by a slow bus on the way to the convention, and was not able to find the secretary’s hiding place in time to deliver them. He was assured, however, that he’d be able to submit the signatures making Alaska the eleventh state to call for a roll call vote from the floor.
In the meantime, Ken Womack, the Deputy Convention Chair, began working through the business of the convention. When he came to the rules, he acted as if nothing had been submitted at all, and proceeded with a voice vote. In the roar of outrage from the floor, he didn’t even pause to pretend to listen for votes as he read “the ayes have it” off his teleprompter.
Perhaps taken aback by the forceful outrage from the delegates, Womack then paused to reconsider, whispering with aides at his side. He left the stage, and for fifteen minutes while the convention was still in session, still technically conducting business, there was no chair, only a truly dreadful jazz band. The usually reserved Senator Lee found the deviation from normal procedure disgusting
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 life this. 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.
The interlude was planned, though, not accidental: it was designed to give the Trump-RNC axis time to respond. With the signatures in hand, Trump aides and RNC operatives moved through the hall, finding the signators and pressuring them to withdraw from the petition. Cuccinelli reported that Virginia delegates were threatened with unspecified repercussions if they didn’t withdraw. The Minnesota delegation was threatened with “consequences.” A delegate from Michigan reported that a member of the Rules Committee—who it was she didn’t say—threatened to hang an expectant mother who had signed the petition if she didn’t back down. Kera Birkeland of Utah was cornered in the bathroom by Trump delegates and told that she, and the entire Utah delegation, should die.
Birkeland was shaken to tears by the experience, but stood firm. According to the RNC, not all the signators could say the same. Womack took the stage again, thankfully displacing the jazz band, and began consideration of the rules again, tacitly admitting the absurdity of his previous performance. He began by asking for silence to discern ayes from nos, then once again proceeded with a voice vote on acceptance of the rules. Querying those in favor brought a thunderous chorus of ayes from the floor and gallery, with those opposed joining in an equally thunderous chorus of nos. Indifferent to the parity between the two sides, Womack again asserted that “in the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it.”
His announcement brought a fresh wave of outrage, and threw the convention into chaos. Chants of “roll call vote” rang out from several delegations as several of the insurgents called for their microphones to be turned on, so they could make a motion. After a few moments of anger, Womack recognized an irate Phil Wright, chair of the Utah delegation, who promptly moved for a roll call vote. Womack, confident in the work carried out by Trump and the RNC’s brownshirts, countered by announcing that nine states had submitted petitions, but arm-twisting had forced enough delegate withdrawals to bring three under a majority, invalidating their petitions (In RNC statements, these numbers would later be changed to ten and four, respectively, with Minnesota, Maine, Iowa, and DC tabbed as the states that withdrew. To the RNC, apparently, the numbers themselves didn’t matter; all that mattered was that their difference be less than seven.). Alaska’s microphone was turned off, and security chased Fred Brown away from it before he could make any attempt to submit Alaska’s signatures, which would have bumped the insurgents back up to the seven-state threshold. No attempt was made to explain which states had withdrawn, despite shouts from Wright, who, even without a working microphone, was able to make himself heard demanding to know which delegates had withdrawn (although the RNC later invented a list of states that had withdrawn, they have yet to provide any documentation of delegate withdrawals). The North Dakota, Virginia, and Alaska delegations can also be seen in the TV broadcast asking the same question, but without a working microphone, they had no chance of being heard, while Humphrey complained afterward that
I sought to be recognized to raise a point of parliamentary inquiry and was immediately drowned out by people I would refer to as brownshirts.
In the absence of sufficient signatures to force a roll call vote, Womack declared that the voice vote held and the rules had passed. After waiting for chants of “roll call vote” from the floor and “we want Trump” and “USA” from the gallery to die down, he moved on to the platform, which was accepted without objection.
Led by Unruh, the Colorado delegation walked out, and was quickly joined by Iowa (once again, Patrick’s leadership prevented the neighboring Texas delegation from joining them, despite urging from Colorado delegates). Their frustration was understandable: with the new rules in place, they not only had no hope of stopping Trump at this convention, but little hope for the future.
The amended Rule 38, of course, completely snuffed out any hope of stopping Trump. Where delegates hadn’t been specifically bound before, for the first time since 1980, when Reagan’s revolution put an end to the clause, they were. Rule 12, which gives the RNC full control over the rules, will effectively give GOP establishment candidates a massive leg up in the 2020 presidential race. In addition, open and closed primaries are still given precisely the same weight, allowing the Democrat crossover voters who did so much to help Trump’s campaign early on the same power they exercised this year.
Trump didn’t officially become the nominee until Tuesday evening, but after the vote Monday afternoon, it was a foregone conclusion. The Trump-RNC alliance completely routed conservative insurgents, and now have complete power over not only the convention, but the party apparatus for the next four years. They made clear and definite gains through the chaos on the floor.
It’s less clear what problems their success will bring. Certainly, a number of delegates from solidly conservative states are now incensed at both Trump and the RNC; however, the Republican leadership gambles, as it always has, that their anger won’t be enough to convince them to stay home or withhold their donations. In general, that’s been a safe bet, since conservatives have shown themselves more than willing to accept all manner of abuse and continue being loyal Republicans, but this year might be different: had the leadership simply allowed a roll call vote, it would have fostered unity and weakened the resolve of the “Never Trump” movement, even if the insurgents had lost. As it is, though, by circumventing the rules to crush the insurgency, they added a new layer to the movement. Not only do most principled conservatives see that Trump doesn’t represent them, they now also feel disenfranchised by their own party. In fact, it seems likely that the RNC-Trump axis’ moves to crush any opposition may, paradoxically, be the final nail in Trump’s already mostly sealed coffin and the start of a conservative run in 2020, just as the establishment’s actions at the 1976 convention fueled Reagan’s victory in 1980.