CLEVELAND — Anti-Donald Trump delegates lost their battle to stop Trump's nomination at next week's convention, losing a critical vote in the powerful convention Rules Committee over whether delegates can vote their conscience.
A proposed "conscience clause" written by Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate and leader of the Free the Delegates movement which seeks to unbind delegates from Trump, was resoundingly voted down shortly before 10 p.m. on Thursday night. The Rules Committee chair, Enid Mickelsen, did not even have to call a standing vote that would provide an exact vote count, because the voice vote was clearly a win for the anti-unbinding side. The clause was the centerpiece of Free the Delegates' campaign.
The anti-Trump side would have needed 28 votes in order to send the amendment out of the committee for a wider vote at the convention. They didn't get close to that.
Anti-Trump delegates also lost by a wide margin a previous vote affirming the binding of delegates. Only a dozen members of the Rules Committee voted against binding delegates.
"Does anybody need any information on the conscience clause?" Unruh joked as she introduced her amendment to the committee.
"The right to conscience isn't just something we've decided is a cool idea," Unruh said. "It's something that's the basis of our nation."
"All I'm asking is that you regard this as the sanctity of the vote that is reflected and the duty and the obligation of each delegate to cast the ballot according to their conscience," Unruh said. "That's their God-given right."
RNC loyalists on the committee had asked the chair earlier in the evening to push through the remaining amendments instead of taking a recess for the night, in an apparent move to force a vote on the most controversial issues after everyone had already been meeting for hours.
Unruh had been saying as recently as Wednesday that she was confident she would have the votes for a minority report. "I know I have the 28 votes," she told BuzzFeed News. But RNC officials and Trump campaign officials were both telling reporters that the Free the Delegates movement had no chance.
"Anti-Trump people get crushed at Rules Committee," Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort tweeted on Thursday. "It was never in doubt: Convention will honor will of people & nominate @realdonaldtrump."
Eric O'Keefe, a leader of the Delegates Unbound group that is also opposing Trump's nomination, told BuzzFeed News that a plan was "in development" now that the conscience clause has been lost. Delegates Unbound later released a statement saying "Donald Trump is right: the process is rigged."
On Thursday night, Rules Committee members who opposed the Free the Delegates movement urged everyone to get behind Trump.
"It's over folks," said Steve Scheffler, a delegate from Iowa who is also the director of the Iowa branch of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "Let's get behind our nominee."
One delegate from Hawaii who wore a Make America Great Again hat became tearful while asking his colleagues to back the nominee.
"I'm only as good as my word, and I ask you to be as good as your word," he said. "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
One delegate who emerged as a strong anti-Trump voice in the committee was Utah senator Mike Lee, who backed the conscience clause and opposed the binding amendment. Lee repeatedly went back and forth to confer with Unruh throughout the debate.
Lee gave an impassioned speech accusing Trump of silencing delegates.
Lee said that a nominee must win on "two levels" — in the primaries, as well as among the delegates.
"I hope that whoever our nominee will be this time will in fact win over the delegates," Lee said.
"This problem, this angst, as we will see in a few days isn't going to go away just because we paper over it with rules," Lee said. "So I say to Mr. Trump and those aligned with him, make the case, make the case to those delegates who want to have a voice, make the case that they should use their voice to support him. Don't make the case that their voices should be silenced."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting adjourned, Lee did not rule out the prospect of some kind of delegate action on the floor of the convention despite the loss in the Rules Committee, saying "we'll see" and that people shouldn't "assume the problem's gonna go away" because the Rules fight is over.
"It didn't turn out how I wanted it to but by the end it wasn’t a huge surprise that it turned out the way it did," Lee said of the vote on unbinding. "I studied this issue for weeks," he said of his decision to join the unbinding cause. "I made the decision on basis of reading a lot of material, historical analysis of the rules, the rules themselves."
Unruh also vowed to fight on, telling reporters she was still seeking enough names for the minority report, and that there would now be a floor fight.
"This was decorum of the process, this was trying to play by the rules, so Trump and the RNC chose to have a floor fight," Unruh said.