ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Saddled with an unpopular president facing a criminal investigation into his relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the Republican party this week is nevertheless tying its future even more tightly to Donald Trump.
The Republican National Committee “offers its undivided support for President Donald J. Trump and his effective presidency,” according to a formal resolution the group is scheduled to pass Friday.
“I think it reflects the sentiments of the grassroots,” said Jill Homan, an RNC member from the District of Columbia. “Supporting the sitting president is the obvious thing to do.”
The committee — made up of three members from each state, the District of Columbia and five overseas territories ― did not attempt to re-write its rules to make it harder for a challenger to defeat Trump in the primaries, as a Virgin Islands delegate had called for early this month. RNC members and officials said such a move was impossible under its rules as well as unnecessary.
J.L. Spray, a member from Nebraska and member of the RNC Rules Committee, said the existing rules require candidates to win six primaries or caucuses for their names to be offered for nomination on the convention floor. “That’s a high bar as it is. I wouldn’t change it,” he said.
While some members privately expressed concerns that Trump may do serious damage to the 165-year-old party before he leaves office, few were willing to offer even mild criticism of their leader.
“We’re about the nuts and bolts,” said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. “Focusing on issues, that’s not our job. That’s the job of the campaigns and the candidates.”
One member, though, said the committee is, as a practical matter, beholden to the president. “The RNC has no choice,” he said on condition of anonymity. “The RNC is not independent of the person they put in the White House.”
But some former RNC and convention officials said the party is bringing about its own demise by supporting a president so antithetical to the institution’s long-espoused principles.
“I used to think the party cared about value systems and philosophies and morality,” said Kendal Unruh, a longtime Republican activist from Colorado who led an unsuccessful effort to strip the nomination from Trump at the 2016 convention. “And then I found out: No, they simply care about winning.”
Jennifer Horn, a former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said the RNC is making a big mistake, given all the prosecutions already made public in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
“In this particular situation, at the very least, I would think that the party leadership would have wanted to wait until that report becomes public,” she said. “I think it is shortsighted and misguided.”
Mueller was appointed to lead the probe after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey because he was upset about the bureau’s investigation into his relationship with Russia. To date it has brought convictions in seven cases, including that of Trump’s former campaign chairman and his first national security adviser, and indictments against 29 other individuals and companies.
Many RNC members, though, said that Trump has nothing to worry about from Mueller.
Harmeet Dhillon, an RNC member from California, called it a “fake investigation” created by Trump’s political opponents. “It’s a function of a very vicious opposition,” she said. “It is very important for our party to support our president.”
Republicans had a similar situation in 1973-74, when President Richard Nixon faced investigations and, eventually, impeachment for his role in the burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters and subsequent cover-up. Then, as now, many Republican leaders claimed through 1973 and the first half of 1974 that Nixon was being unfairly smeared by Democrats and the news media.
But during the Watergate scandal, Nixon was already in his second term and could not run again, regardless of how it had played out. The GOP situation today is potentially far worse, with Trump likely topping the ticket in 2020 for Republicans in congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative races.
“If they don’t even have a plan, it proves they have their head in the sand,” said Unruh, who served as a delegate for eight straight Republican conventions starting in 1988 but who is now a registered independent. “They need to start having some courage. They need to stop defending him, first and foremost.”
Trump was not on the ballot last year, yet his party still lost 40 seats in the House and gained only two Senate seats despite the most favorable map in decades — and all that was before details had emerged about Trump’s efforts to make millions on a Moscow building project throughout his 2016 campaign.
Horn, who said she remains a registered Republican but will not serve in leadership while Trump is still president, said the RNC needs to stop trying to rig the system in favor of Trump, particularly if the Mueller investigation reveals something especially damaging. “I think there are millions more who are going to wish there was an alternative to Donald Trump,” she said.
But John Weaver, an aide to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a likely primary opponent to Trump, said what the RNC does or does not do ultimately will not matter. “None of those people will have any impact on the nominating process,” he said, adding that voters and caucus-goers will determine the nominee next year. “Not some committeeman or committeewoman who chains themselves to the Titanic. That’s not how it works.”