“Here you are, fine-tuning the system to deliver a victory, when the system became the enemy”
Can Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus put Trump in the White House? Does he even want to?
When Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination on May 3 by winning Indiana and forcing Ted Cruz from the race, it fell to Reince Priebus to formally surrender on behalf of a shellshocked party Establishment. This being 2016 and the Age of Trump, Priebus, the long-serving chairman of the Republican National Committee, did so in a tweet: “@realDonaldTrump will be presumtive [sic] @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton #NeverClinton.” Depending on your point of view, the misspelling was either an homage to Trump’s haphazard Twitter style or the latest example of a Republican Party that can’t seem to get anything right.
Three days later, Priebus climbed onto a stage in a hotel ballroom on Capitol Hill to sit for a public interview with Politico’s Mike Allen. “This is off the record, right?” he joked, looking a bit nauseous. To Republicans still not resigned to Trump, Priebus was already a symbol of capitulation. John Kasich had just dropped out and criticized Priebus’s anointment of Trump as “completely inappropriate.” Trump, on the other hand, who had once threatened party leaders when it looked as if they might block him at a “rigged” convention, now cast himself as the magnanimous liege, bestowing forgiveness and nicknames. “I call Reince Mr. Switzerland,” he told me during a May 17 interview at his 26th-floor Trump Tower office. “He’s doing a great job as peacemaker.”
In the weeks before Trump prevailed, the political media made a sport of trying to get Priebus to concede that his party was falling to pieces, while Priebus insisted against all evidence that things were going great. Commentators on both the left and right likened him to “Baghdad Bob,” the Saddam Hussein spokesman who maintained during the U.S. invasion of Iraq that victory was imminent, even as U.S. bombs rained down around him. An April 20 interview on CNN perfectly captured Priebus’s anguish. “People assume, oh, you must be miserable. You’ve got a horrible job. But I don’t see it that way,” he offered. “I’m not pouring Baileys in my cereal.” His disavowal mainly suggested that he had contemplated pouring liquor into his cereal bowl. When he sat down onstage, Allen, noting Trump’s victory, presented him with a large bottle of Baileys. “Oh, excellent,” said Priebus. “Now, where’s the Lucky Charms?”
Priebus’s mission at the RNC has been to manufacture some luck: to rebuild a party that lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and lost power completely with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. While Republicans traded recriminations after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Priebus announced that the RNC would conduct a rigorous postmortem of all that had gone wrong and figure out how to refashion the party for the 21st century. “It wasn’t the RNC’s fault that things didn’t work out in 2012,” says Sally Bradshaw, a senior Jeb Bush adviser and a co-author of the resulting report. “But Priebus was willing to say, ‘There’s no other entity that can do this, that can take this on.’ ” The key to revival, the authors concluded, was to put a kinder, gentler gloss on the old stalwart Republican ideals (free trade, small government) while reforming immigration laws to entice nonwhite voters who were tuning the party out.
This was a comforting notion, but it hasn’t panned out. “The Jeb Bush guys wrote the autopsy,” says a frustrated Republican strategist who works with the RNC. “Then Jeb Bush ran the worst campaign in presidential history.” By obliterating Jeb, Trump redefined the Republican Party’s identity off the top of his head. And his vision of the GOP’s future is in many ways the diametrical opposite of what Priebus and the party Establishment had imagined. Many politicians, Trump told me, had privately confessed to being amazed that his policies, and his lacerating criticism of party leaders, had proved such potent electoral medicine. Trump says this was obvious,
but craven Republicans wouldn’t acknowledge it. So he called bulls---. “It’s funny,” he told me, delighted by the swift triumph of his influence. “It’s like the paper clip: a very simple thing. But one guy got rich, and everyone else said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”
The story Priebus would like to tell, if everyone would just
shut up about Trump for a moment, is a tale of perseverance and triumph over long odds—not Trump’s tale, but his own. “The changes we’ve made are historic,” he told me, in an interview at the RNC’s Washington headquarters later in May. We were sitting in the Ronald Reagan Conference Room, which lies within the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Republican Center. Portraits of GOP luminaries line the walls and corridors. Priebus was laboring to convince me that Trump will soon join them. “I think he’s gonna win,” he kept saying. But he was getting angry. When I suggested Trump’s hostile takeover was ruining his push to modernize the party, Priebus snapped that I didn’t know what I was talking about. A moment later, he apologized: “I hardly ever get testy.” He insisted his efforts weren’t about to be wiped out by Trump—and might just save his nominee.
When Priebus took over the RNC in 2011, the job came freighted with problems: The committee was $24 million in debt. Major donors were fleeing. A top official had just been fired over a fundraiser at a bondage-themed strip club in Los Angeles. Priebus was no obvious savior for a party in crisis. At 44, he’s short, with soft features, thinning hair, and a gentle, guileless manner augmented by his Wisconsin accent—someone born to deliver prefatory remarks at Rotary luncheons.
Reince (rhymes with “pints”) Priebus was born in New Jersey, but he moved to Kenosha at age 7. By the time he was a teenager, he was an ardent Republican driving around listening to tapes of Newt Gingrich speeches. After law school, he made a failed run for the state Senate, but thrived at the insider’s game of party politics. In 2007 he became the youngest-ever chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, and part of a triumvirate with Paul Ryan and Scott Walker that led the GOP takeover of Wisconsin in 2010.
This brought national attention, and for Priebus, a job in Washington as RNC general counsel—under a chairman he would soon be angling to replace. Michael Steele, the flashy, telegenic, African American former Maryland lieutenant governor, had been elected after Obama’s victory. But Steele had quickly fallen out of favor for his spendthrift ways. Priebus is as flashy as a basset hound.
To the 168 members of the RNC, he represented sober yeoman competence and a chance to climb out of debt. Priebus, whose affect shrouds his ambitions, saw opportunity in a job most would consider thankless. “When I got elected chairman,” says Haley Barbour, who took over the RNC after George H.W. Bush’s blowout 1992 loss, “people would say, ‘Well, Haley, I’ll vote for you, but I don’t know why you’d want it.’ I’d tell ’em, ‘I can’t think of a better time to be chairman—there’s nowhere to go but up.’ ”
Today, Priebus is the longest-serving chairman in party history, the debt is gone, and the wealthy insiders and functionaries who comprise and donate to the committee offer glowing appraisals. “Terrific,” says Mel Sembler, the former RNC finance chairman. “An unbelievable job,” says Randy Evans, a Georgia committeeman. “He disarms you with this ‘Aw, shucks, I’m from Kenosha’ routine,” says Lewis Eisenberg, the current RNC finance chairman and a senior adviser at KKR. “But he’s very politically astute. He’s the best fundraising chairman I’ve ever seen.”
Priebus won added plaudits from the donor class for the autopsy, which was officially titled the Growth & Opportunity Project and released in March 2013. While lauding the GOP’s strength in Congress and statehouses, it warned that the angry, strident tone many Republicans directed toward Hispanics and other minorities threatened the party’s viability: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” The report continued: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” To Priebus, the lesson was clear. The party had to focus “on tone, inclusiveness, and engaging in [minority] communities on a full-time basis,” he told me. “You’d think, ‘Wouldn’t any competent party do that?’ Yes. But we weren’t competent.”
While press coverage focused almost exclusively on the call for immigration reform, the report mostly proposed a blizzard of technical fixes: shorten the primary calendar; move up the convention; invest in data analytics to catch up to the Democrats; control debates to shield candidates from what Republicans believed was hostile questioning by liberal moderators trying to embarrass presidential hopefuls. While the report was unblinking about the need to win more support from women, minorities, and young people, it betrayed no hint that Republican policies beyond immigration reform might need adjusting to attract them. Emphasis fell instead on such things as hiring a more ethnically diverse staff (“The RNC must hire [Asian Pacific Islander] communications directors and political directors for key states”) and injecting a dash of Hollywood glamour to impress fickle millennials (“Establish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry … to attract younger voters”).
In bypassing a major course correction, the party fell into an old pattern that typically follows presidential losses. “Defeated parties almost always behave according to the dictates of their own party cultures rather than engage in a more objective analysis of how they should respond,” says Philip Klinkner, a Hamilton College political scientist and expert on party committees. Nearly every chairman attempts to make changes, and some succeed. After Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 defeat, the Democratic National Committee became a vigorous counterweight to conservative Democrats in Congress, pushing a civil rights agenda that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. More often, parties avoid true introspection. “Republicans in particular,” says Klinkner, “focus on organizational and managerial changes and don’t talk about politics.”
Why not? Well, for one thing, politics is divisive. “Nobody wants to talk content, because that’s hard and you get yelled at on the radio by Rush Limbaugh,” says Mike Murphy, the veteran Republican strategist who ran Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise. “So instead they talk process: ‘The RNC is building a new, lithium-cooled supercomputer in the basement, and we’re going to have better microtargeting and organize everybody in America on their cell phone with go-get-’em apps.’ ”
Even so, conservatives railed against the Growth & Opportunity
Project, pointing out its major policy recommendation— immigration reform—was something the GOP Establishment has sought for years, over intense grass-roots opposition. “It was shocking,” says Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse Trump, “a kick in the teeth of decent Republicans.” Gingrich, who’s known Priebus for years and serves him as a strategic adviser, told me he thinks the recommendation was a grave error that might have sparked the anti-Establishment backlash that led to Trump. Says one Washington-based strategist: “After Romney’s loss, every major donor was just distraught and ready to bail, convinced we could never win a national election. So the autopsy was absolutely necessary from a donor
maintenance standpoint. But it was public relations, nothing more. Reince never had the power to implement it.”
Early on, this wasn’t clear. The tweaks to the calendar and debates went through (although they may have helped Trump). In Washington, a consensus formed that fixing immigration was the key to the party’s revival. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, eyeing the 2016 presidential race, took up the issue in earnest. Priebus’s effort appeared to be working. “He had a convincing story of how the Republican Party could win,” says Eisenberg. “That’s what it’s all about, to win a donor’s heart.”
Immigration reform died in the House. But when Republicans won the Senate in 2014, Priebus still looked like a success. He considered stepping away. “I told him, ‘Listen, you’ve had four unbelievable years,’ ” says Georgia’s Evans. “‘If you stop now, you’re gonna be regarded as one of the most successful party chairmen in history. If you run [for another term], you’re going to be judged by one presidential election.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ But he really thought we had in place all the pieces to dominate the election cycle.”
In the end, Priebus stayed. “I guess I’m a bit of a riverboat gambler,” he told me. The potential rewards were too great to pass up—for the party, but also for him. After falling out of power in 2009, the GOP won back the House, then the Senate, and needed only the White House to complete its takeover of Washington. A chairman who presided over such a feat—knocking off Hillary Clinton in the process—would become a legend.
But then came Trump, a walking exaggeration of every negative attribute the autopsy had warned against. Priebus won the Establishment’s heart—but it turned out voters loved Trump. As chairman, Priebus had a choice: resign or get behind the nominee. He chose the latter, even though it entailed addressing every outrageous comment from Trump.
Although Priebus insists, as he must, that Trump will prevail, the prospect of the chairman leading an historic Republican restoration is in serious jeopardy. “Reince is not the general,” says Murphy, the Republican strategist. “He’s stuck in the job of being the supply clerk to a losing presidential army.” To many committee members, Priebus’s sudden turn of fortune is simply bad luck. “Here you are, fine-tuning the system to deliver a victory, when the system became the enemy,” says Evans. “If the Republicans win in November, Reince will go down as one of the greatest chairmen we have ever had. If we lose, he’ll have succeeded by every metric but that one.” He paused. “Of course, that’s like saying, ‘Except for that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?’ ”
“If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told me, sitting beside a scale model Trump airplane in his Trump Tower office. He was explaining his own Growth & Opportunity plan. Its primary component is, of course, Trump. But there’s more to it. Just as he showed an instinct for devastating personal invective (“Lyin’ Ted”), he also seemed to intuit that standard Republican dogma no longer appeals to large swaths of the party electorate. Although it was overshadowed by his feuds and insults, he conveyed and defended a clear set of ideas that drew record numbers of Republican primary voters, even though—or more likely because—they often cut against rightwing orthodoxy: protect Social Security benefits, defend Planned Parenthood, restrict free trade, avoid foolish Middle East wars, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, build a wall. Trump believes the scale of his victory proves the strength of his proposals. “All these millions and millions of people,” he marveled, echoing Bernie Sanders. “It’s a movement.” To his allies, Trump’s movement signifies a decisive shift in the GOP’s identity toward his brand of nativist populism. “We had an argument in the party,” Sessions told me. “The elites wrote the autopsy. Their theory was tested in the primary election. Trump proved they were wrong.”
I asked Trump what he thought the GOP would look like in five years. “Love the question,” he replied. “Five, 10 years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry. What I want to do, I think cutting Social Security is a big mistake for the Republican Party. And I know it’s a big part of the budget. Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all].” He explained the genesis of his heterodox views. “I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.” He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions, had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”
Trump casts his break with party orthodoxy as being a matter of common sense dictated by electoral math. “I think Republicans lose because they have a harder highway in the [battleground] states,” he explained. The standard conservative message holds such limited appeal that it forces Republican nominees onto a dangerously narrow path. “If you look at the states,” Trump said, “the Democrats have a lot of cushion; the Republicans have no cushion.”
Trump Republicanism, on the other hand, in his estimation, holds broader appeal, despite the clucking of lily-livered Establishment types. “You notice my poll numbers today are starting to get much better?” he said. “I’m above Mitt Romney with the Hispanics. He was at 27 [percent in the