Donald Trump is relying heavily on the Republican Party to bolster his skeletal operation, but his campaign’s relationship with the Republican National Committee is increasingly plagued by distrust, power struggles and strategic differences, according to sources in both camps.
In recent days, RNC chairman Reince Priebus has privately grumbled that his advice doesn’t seem welcome with Trump, according to one RNC insider. Other party officials have expressed frustration that Trump’s campaign is trying to take too much control over a pair of fundraising committees with the party while adding little to the effort, according to campaign and party officials familiar with the relationship.
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While Trump had promised Priebus that he would call two dozen top GOP donors, when RNC chief of staff Katie Walsh recently presented Trump with a list of more than 20 donors, he called only three before stopping, according to two sources familiar with the situation. It’s unclear if he resumed the donor calls later.
Meanwhile, there’s deep skepticism on Trump’s campaign about the RNC’s commitment to the presumptive GOP nominee, with some campaign officials questioning how hard the RNC is working to help Trump and to raise money for his campaign’s joint committees with the party.
Indeed, faced with suggestions that party leaders are unhappy with Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about the Orlando shooting and the judge presiding over a lawsuit against the candidate and his Trump University, campaign insiders scoffed.
“I don’t think we are going to take a lot of political advice from Priebus,” a campaign official said. “From my perspective, we should not be relying on the RNC for much, because I’m not sure they are fully supportive yet,” the campaign official said, adding “but we hope and expect to soon be on the exact same page.”
The fraught dynamic is a potentially serious liability for an insurgent campaign that has proudly eschewed political infrastructure and is dwarfed by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s operation, which is expected to raise $1.5 billion or more. And the situation is equally problematic for the Republican Party, which typically relies on its presidential candidate to help boost down-ballot candidates, enhance voter data and raise money.
Several Trump allies said their distrust spiked this week when they learned that Rick Wiley, who was fired from the campaign last month, had been spotted in the RNC’s Capitol Hill offices and had participated in a Tuesday RNC conference call.
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, who over the last few days did not respond to multiple inquiries about Wiley’s new position, declined on Wednesday to answer nine specific questions about the party committee’s relationship with the Trump campaign.
On Wednesday, the RNC told The Washington Post that it had retained Wiley as a consultant to help run its national field program — a move it said was done with the blessing of the Trump campaign.
However, three operatives in and around the campaign suggested Wiley’s hiring at the RNC may have been blessed by one faction of the campaign, but that it’s not going over well with many staffers.
One said it’s being viewed as “a direct f— you to the campaign.”
Wiley had served as Trump’s national political director. And his fall from grace was partly due to the widespread perception among Trump’s staff that he was working closely with the RNC and representing himself as the campaign’s official liaison without the candidate’s blessing.
The Trump campaign would not comment on the record about its relationship with the RNC. One Trump Tower official called it “a great relationship. I work well with everybody over there and I haven’t heard of anyone who doesn’t have a great relationship with them.”
Major party presidential nominees typically merge their operations with those of their respective parties after securing their nominations, and it’s not unusual for rifts to emerge during the mergers. But in interviews with more than a dozen Republicans familiar with the relationship between Trump and the RNC, it became apparent that the phenomenon is more pronounced than in past presidential years, despite Trump’s greater reliance on the RNC for basic campaign functions.
In 2012, for instance, Priebus checked in numerous times a day with his party’s nominee, Mitt Romney. And, an RNC insider said that while the chairman does connect with the Trump campaign on a daily basis, it’s less frequent than it was with Romney’s team, and the discussions are more superficial.
A former RNC official who helped the party work with past presidential campaigns said: “Usually, the RNC sees itself as part and parcel of the presidential campaign, and they work hand in glove on budgets and spending. This doesn’t seem to be gelling that way. There’s some resistance there.”
The dissension appears to stem at least partly from the Republican establishment’s distaste for Trump.
Since the billionaire real estate showman dispatched the last of his challengers for the party’s nomination, a handful of RNC staffers have either left the committee or looked for other jobs. That notably includes the official tasked with communicating the party’s message to Hispanics — a demographic group that Trump has repeatedly antagonized with his criticism of undocumented immigrants and his calls for building a wall between Mexico and the United States.
And Trump’s campaign has sought to exert influence over the RNC by signaling its preference that party contracts be withheld from some firms that worked for Trump opponents or on the so-called #NeverTrump movement to block him from the nomination.
One of Wiley’s sins, from the perspective of some on the campaign, was to work on behalf of the campaign on an RNC mirco-targeting project in swing states with a firm called TargetPoint Consulting that had been paid at least $156,000 this year by a leading #NeverTrump super PAC. A TargetPoint partner did not respond to a question about whether the firm is still working for the RNC.
But one campaign source said, “People who overtly opposed the Republican nominee should not be making money from the Republican Party.” The source added, “Their duties were seamlessly taken over by other vendors who support the candidate.”
Trump’s efforts to build a relationship with the RNC also have been hindered by the disorganization and in-fighting plaguing his own campaign.
When campaign official Michael Caputo late last month reached out to an RNC researcher asking for material on the Clintons’ Whitewater real estate controversy, he was rebuked by campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks for contacting the RNC researcher.
“He is still an employee of the RNC and we need to be sensitive to that until he comes over to our team full time,” Hicks wrote in an email to Caputo that was obtained by POLITICO.
Trump’s organizational challenges have led to confusion about who was serving as the campaign’s point person to the RNC, a vacuum that Wiley had filled, apparently without official sign-off from the campaign.
Three operatives who have worked with the campaign suggested that Wiley’s recent hiring by the RNC may have been partly a power play by Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort in his power struggle with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who had pushed for Wiley’s firing from the campaign.
Neither Lewandoswki nor Manafort responded to requests for comment. But their in-fighting was seen as stymieing other efforts to tap a liaison to the RNC. Names previously floated included deputy campaign manager Michael Glassner and Bill Palatucci, an RNC committeeman who is a confidant of close Trump ally Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Neither man emerged in the role, nor did they respond to questions about whether they had been considered for it. Two campaign sources suggested that Glassner’s ability to fill such a role may have been compromised because he is seen as loyal to Lewandowski.
In recent days, though, Ed Brookover, who in the 1980s and 1990s served in top positions at the RNC and the party’s congressional campaign arms, has emerged as the de facto liaison. Brookover, who declined to comment, maintains a good working relationship with both Lewandowski and Manafort, according to multiple sources in and around the Trump campaign.
“Ed’s a Corey guy, but he plays well with everyone,” said a GOP strategist who has worked with the Trump campaign, adding that Brookover is not the only campaign official working with the RNC.
Others include Jim Murphy, who was hired this month by Manafort to replace Wiley as national political director, and Glassner, who is working with the RNC on fundraising-related matters.
It’s unclear if communication has improved, but even when the lines of communication are open, it doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same page.
RNC staffers have privately expressed disappointment that the research and messaging suggestions they have sent to Trump’s campaign are often discarded or reinterpreted by the candidate himself.
On the fundraising side of the operation, at least one Trump campaign staffer had privately suggested that the campaign would find a way to tap into cash collected by the joint fundraising committee for a relatively new RNC fund that can accept maximum donations of $100,200, according to a GOP operative briefed on the staffer’s conversations. That fund is legally required to be spent maintaining or improving party headquarters.
Lindsay Walters, an RNC spokeswoman, appeared to reject any suggestion that the money could be spent on Trump’s campaign, telling the Associated Press that the cash would be spent only on “the operation of the RNC headquarters.”
A member of the party’s fundraising leadership conceded that “there’s always friction staff to staff about who has control when you try to put two different organizations together.” But the fundraiser said that hasn’t been as much of an impediment as the calendar.
“Given the fact that we started from scratch, it’s going very well,” said the fundraiser. “Remember, we didn’t have any fundraising infrastructure like we did with Romney and with Bush.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.