Commentary: Will Donald Trump ever leave the RNC?

Frank Donatelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Political News

As the first president to attempt to overturn an election, Donald Trump has a history of not going away, especially when there’s a dollar to be made.

For Republicans, Trump’s refusal to leave presents an unsettling question for their future: Will he keep an iron grip on the Republican National Committee if he loses in November?

Trump effected a takeover of the RNC just a few months ago. This in itself is not unusual, as the party’s nominee frequently gains power over the organization during their run.

Trump’s takeover was a bit different, though. He helped oust the previous RNC chair after she was deemed insufficiently loyal, even after dropping her real last name to please him. His new hand-selected team immediately fired more than 60 senior staffers.

The RNC and the DNC are critical to their respective party’s long-term success. These two organizations help direct the money flow to candidates and build up the bench and political infrastructure that can result in electoral victory and longevity. They also craft and enforce presidential selection rules for each state, helping to manage and control battles for future nominations.

A wise party leadership also takes a big tent approach, allowing different ideologies and personalities to bloom. The high points of the Republican rule under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush saw a vibrant RNC, one that helped reverse decades of failure at the state and national level.

One important point to attaining these objectives is for the losing presidential candidate (or departing president) to decamp from the party leadership, leaving it to new entrants to set the party’s direction. But Trump appears to be taking a very different and, for Republicans, more disturbing route. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is the RNC run as a family business and not for the benefit of any other Republicans.

We saw this very quickly after Trump was convicted in New York. Most Republicans clutched their prayer beads and paid him the necessary homage by condemning the Manhattan trial. One who didn’t was a former governor and very popular Senate candidate from Maryland, Larry Hogan.

Hogan, who may be the only GOP candidate in 2024 who can capture a Senate seat in a deep blue state, made a neutral statement about respecting the rule of law, which was too much for the leader of the law-and-order party. RNC Co-Chair Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law, claimed Hogan “doesn’t deserve the respect” of any Republican or apparently RNC support, despite the fact that he is a Republican nominee in Maryland. Another RNC official and senior Donald Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita, opined, “You just ended your campaign.”

Such are the bonds of loyalty in the Republican Party of Trump. His recent half-hearted statement of support for Hogan in his Senate race doesn’t change any of this.

What are the Republicans getting for this loyalty? Trump raised a lot of money, but he did it by being convicted of a felony. It’s a tough way to raise funds, but he faces three more criminal trials, so maybe he can do even better.

When asked how much the RNC will spend on Trump’s legal fees, Lara Trump demurred, “We’ll wait and see what is necessary in the future.” Important to note: She did not rule out the idea. It’s only a question of how much and when donor money will pay for his lawyers, who so far have lost a criminal trial, plus two civil actions costing Trump hundreds of millions in penalties and fines.


I am reminded of a comment years ago from Patrick Ewing, then president of the National Basketball Players Association, when explaining the players’ salary demands: “We might make a lot of money, but we spend a lot of money too.”

If Trump loses the election, is there any reason to believe he would leave the RNC and allow the party to focus on improving Republican candidates’ prospects in future elections? Sadly, squatting there offers him too many advantages.

He could use it as a platform to claim the 2024 election was stolen and pay for an elongated fight with donors’ money. He could also continue to have his family members profit from fundraising opportunities and large salaries.

But the most important reason to keep the RNC is what is most important to Trump — revenge and control. From that perch, he believes, maybe correctly, he can pick the next nominee of the party, assuming he is finally ready to throw in the towel himself.

All would be beholden to him — “Little” Marco Rubio, “Pious” Tim Scott and “Lyin’” Ted Cruz. In some ways, it would be better than being president. Theoretically, he could radically alter the presidential selection process, even abolishing state primaries and caucuses and effectively assume the power of picking the nominee. Why not? After keeping control, the toothless RNC won’t object.

But then again, would another loss by Trump in 2024, after Republican losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022, finally put some backbone in other Republican leaders? For all these years, the RNC has been in an abusive relationship with the former president, always fearful of angering him and risking banishment from his chaotic inner circle.

If insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results, perhaps this time, the party might finally come to its senses and move in a new direction.


(Frank Donatelli is a former deputy chair for the Republican National Committee and was a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan.)


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