CLEVELAND — Ted Cruz allies pushing for reforms to the Republican nominating process that would favor grassroots conservatives failed to make a deal with the Republican National Committee after backroom negotiations on Thursday.
Conservatives led by former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli met privately with RNC officials, anti-Donald Trump delegates and Sen. Mike Lee in a conference room in the convention center, where the powerful convention Rules Committee met on Thursday. A recess was called in the morning due to an alleged “printer jam," which quickly became clear was cover for RNC officials, pro-Trump forces, and anti-Trump delegates to negotiate in private.
Cuccinelli's side wanted a set of changes to the Republican nominating process, including more closed primaries, that would empower conservative candidates and decentralize power within the RNC. On Thursday, Cuccinelli told reporters that he thought he had struck a deal with the RNC but that party officials pulled out over one issue: Cuccinelli's request for a a delegate bonus as an incentive for states to hold closed primaries.
"They yanked it," Cuccinelli said. "There was back and forth on the numbers after they had yanked what we believed was an agreed package." Cuccinelli said his side had come back with a lower percentage as the proposed bonus, but it was rejected.
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer refuted Cuccinelli's assertion. "What this came back to is every state has a right to have a closed primary right now. This would have allowed for bonus delegates to encourage states or to create incentive, and I think we got to a place where we thought we could do this. But negotiating isn't giving in to everything that everyone wants," Spicer said. "Part of what we have to do is represent different interests as well and other people's thoughts, so the consensus people were sharing with the RNC is here's what we think is a fair number to create that incentive."
Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire delegate and an ally of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, also said it was more than the closed primary aspect that killed the deal and that ultimately Cuccinelli didn't have enough leverage to push his package through.
"We haven't lost on anything," he said, pointing to Cuccinelli-backed proposals that have already failed when they came up for vote before the Rules Committee Thursday afternoon.
Cuccinelli's maneuvers have been seen as behind-the-scenes moves from Cruz's circle to obtain favorable conditions for his presumed 2020 campaign; Cuccinneli endorsed Cruz and was in charge of his delegate hunting operation. But a senior Cruz aide told BuzzFeed News that Cruz wasn't kept aware of the negotiations as they went on on Thursday.
Asked about whether these moves were designed to help Cruz, Cuccinelli told reporters he was focused on bringing the Republican party "to a position where it is friendlier to the grassroots conservatives that really make up the heart of this party and that do the work of this party day in and day out in state and local races."
Anti-Trump forces were well represented in the meetings on Thursday morning: Sen. Mike Lee, a member of the Rules Committee who has vociferously criticized Trump and refused to endorsed him, entered a conference room in the convention center where the Rules Committee meeting is being held. Inside the room were Cuccinelli and Kendal Unruh, a Colorado delegate and leader in the Free the Delegates movement that is seeking to allow delegates to vote their conscience. Lee, who is considered a potential supporter of Unruh’s “conscience clause” proposal that would enact a rules change allowing delegates to vote their conscience, declined to speak to reporters on his way in.
Priebus also joined in the meetings, along with other RNC officials like general counsel John Ryder, though reporters staking out the meeting did not witness Priebus going inside. Asked if Priebus attended, national committeeman Bruce Ash, who is also trying to quell anti-Trump forces, said, “I can’t help you but I will say I’ve talked to him a lot in the past day.” And another delegate confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Priebus was in the meeting.
Meanwhile, members of Trump’s campaign staff lingered nearby. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort told reporters he was “not worried at all” about the anti-Trump plan in question, as he walked toward the lower floor of the convention center. The anti-Trump delegates are trying to secure 28 votes to would send the measure — a clause that would allow delegates to vote their conscience — to the convention floor. Manafort stopped to huddle with RNC spokesman Sean Spicer, and then entered a conference room where he was later joined by Trump spokesman Jason Miller.
The printer jam ruse caused the Rules Committee to be called into recess until 1 p.m., meaning the two sides had a limited amount of time to come to an agreement before the proposals came to the Rules Committee to be voted on. Lee was seen leaving the meeting around 12:20 p.m.
Though the conversations on Thursday focused on the Cuccinelli-led proposals and not the issue of delegate unbinding, the result of the negotiations — and subsequent votes in the Rules Committee — could be a harbinger of things to come.
As of Wednesday night, Unruh told BuzzFeed News she was still confident about the minority report. “I know I have the 28 votes,” she said in an email. And reached by phone on Thursday, a Free the Delegates source said he was feeling good about what was happening in the room.
But doubts have emerged about how much support Unruh really has for the measure, especially as it has emerged that the RNC has enacted a whip operation — in other words, people actively working to get delegates to vote a certain way — against the proposal. The RNC is projecting a confident stance on the issue, with Spicer telling reporters “the numbers aren’t there” on Thursday.
Unruh told BuzzFeed News in a text message on Thursday, as the meeting was ongoing, that her conscience clause was not being negotiated over in the meeting. “This has nothing to do with unbinding,” Unruh said. “Or the conscience clause.” And Graham Hunt, one of the delegates in the meeting, told reporters it was a discussion between grassroots activists and not about unbinding delegates. “This isn't a meeting of free the delegates,” he said. “I think it's been a great meeting and will further the progress that's going to be done.”
When the committee reconvened on Thursday, the Cuccinelli-backed proposals failed, including an amendment proposed by fellow Cruz supporter Morton Blackwell that would eliminate a RNC rule that gives the RNC extra powers between elections, which got just 23 votes when it came up — an indication of how much resistance there is on the committee to RNC leadership.
It appeared that Cuccinelli’s proposals could be a way for the RNC to appease some anti-Trump delegates in exchange for them abandoning their efforts to unbind delegates, but with the failed deal, that's no longer an option.
When the committee reconvened at 1 p.m., committee chair Enid Mickelsen acknowledged that the delay was not due to a printer jam but instead because of the meetings.
"Obviously we did not stand adjourned for 3 hours for a jammed copier," Mickelsen said, but said the meeting was moving forward "deal or no deal."
Spicer later told reporters that the printer jam excuse was "frankly just a misunderstanding" and "we should have been clearer."