WASHINGTON — On President's Day weekend, 15 years before Donald Trump would be sworn into office, he offered a friend of his son’s a ride from Palm Beach to New York on his plane.
Now that friend of Donald Trump Jr.'s is one of the most powerful Republicans in campaign politics — a unifying figure inside the often warring Trump world, and a quiet supporter of what he describes as the president’s strategy to “frack” the Democratic Party in 2020.
Back in 2002, Tommy Hicks Jr., whose father then owned the Texas Rangers, found Trump unexpectedly grilling him on baseball statistics during the flight. If he gave a wrong answer, Trump let him know.
It was the first time Hicks was meeting Don Jr.'s father. The two had become close friends in their early twenties in New York and later became hunting buddies. "We both have kind of famous fathers," Hicks said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "We're both juniors. We could complain about things that nobody else would care about."
Politics never came up.
This year, Hicks, 41, was named cochair of the Republican National Committee at a meeting in New Mexico, where 168 of the committee's members unanimously voted on a resolution to give Trump their "undivided support" for reelection.
Already, the RNC has tweaked its rules and has been focusing on hosting a drama-free 2020 convention by ensuring Trump supporters are selected from each state as delegates. Hicks insisted those moves were unrelated to any concerns about a potential spoiler challenge from former Ohio governor John Kasich or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
“We've had some people move out who weren't on the side of the president,” he said, adding with a smirk, “We're stronger together,” a nod to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan.
“I think the Democrats should be more concerned about an independent spoiler,” he said.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently announced he is considering a run as a “centrist independent,” a move Democrats fear would split the anti-Trump vote in 2020.
Hicks said the Democrats’ shift to the left opened up room for a moderate spoiler, and Team Trump plans to emphasize those divisions within the opposing party by portraying them as radical socialists who have extreme views on abortion and the role of government, as the president laid out in his State of the Union address. The president’s line on socialism in particular — “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country” — is one Republicans plan on playing up ahead of 2020.
Hicks, who was in the audience for the State of the Union, said that Trump’s delivery of the line carried even more weight for those inside the House chamber who could see all the dynamics.
“[Trump] pointed right to certain people sitting next to each other when he said that,” he said. “In Texas, in the oil business, we call that fracking. He's trying to frack the Democratic Party.”
Hicks’ role within the Republican Party has been the opposite of fracking. Since getting on board with Team Trump in 2016, Hicks, who had been working in his family’s Dallas-based private equity firm, has played a key role raising money for Trump and trying to unify the party, particularly among the major Republican donors in his home state of Texas who were still reeling from Trump defeating Sen. Ted Cruz and former governor Jeb Bush in the primary. He was named national finance cochair of Trump's 2016 campaign and a vice chair of his inaugural committee before going on to serve as chair of the pro-Trump groups America First Policies and America First Action, where he helped raise a combined $75 million in the first two years.
But coordination rules governing how much outside groups can communicate with the campaign and elected officials had been limiting Hicks’ relationship with the president. In his new role, Hicks can now be more directly involved and play a larger role, especially with the president’s 2020 campaign creating a structure in which the RNC’s operations are intertwined with its own.
The setup is shaping up to be dramatically different from the 2016 election when the campaign’s relationship with the RNC was more of a “forced merger,” Hicks said.
His personal connections to Trump's family in addition to his relationships with Trump's former rival, Cruz, and sometime rivals, the Bush family (Hicks' father bought the Rangers from the Bush family in 1998), have put him in a unique position to serve as the party's "bridge builder," as Hicks put it.
Besides Hicks’ wealth and politics, however, there's not much Trumpian about him. He came across in the interview as quiet and measured. He’s mostly well-liked across Trump’s orbit, where backstabbing and calculated leaks among rival factions have become a mainstay (Hicks, however, argued, “I don’t see the warring factions”).
Several of Trump’s top allies were readily willing to give on-the-record statements praising Hicks as a true believer whom the Trumps trust fully. “There is no one better suited for the role of cochair at the RNC than Tommy,” said Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager. “Not only does he have the complete trust of the president, his family, and our campaign, he has the experience necessary to get the job done.”
“Tommy is a committed advocate for President Trump’s administration and will help strengthen our party in this leadership position,” said Ronna McDaniel, RNC chair.
Doug Deason, a major Dallas-based GOP donor who has hosted fundraisers with Hicks, said the reason Hicks has the support from across Trump’s orbit is because people know “nothing he's doing is for the money,” Deason said. “People see that and buy that about him. He's doing it for the good of the country. He knows he's in the right place at the right time to do some good work."
Sitting at a somewhat hidden table — one that Trump allies typically frequent — next to the bar in a corner of the lobby at Trump International Hotel, Hicks responded to questions with only a few words at a time. He described himself as a "low-profile guy" and looked genuinely relieved when the interview ended. Hicks, unlike other Trump loyalists, won't be seen on TV defending the president anytime soon.
"If he asks...," Hicks said, adding that the president knows where his skills lie, and they're not in front of a camera. Andy Surabian, a former Trump campaign official who was with Hicks for the interview and described him as the “ultimate loyalist,” said Hicks wouldn’t say no to the president but that “there’s no one better suited for a more behind-the-scenes role in Trump world.”
Hicks also won’t be aggressively attacking the media and Trump critics on Twitter anytime soon. He didn’t even have an account until two months ago.
“Baby steps,” he said.
Hicks first became involved in politics when he was 15 years old and asked his mother to drive him to a phone bank to make calls for President George H.W. Bush’s 1992 reelection campaign. Along with then–Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, Bush was facing an independent challenge from a fellow Texan, Ross Perot.
“I started listening to Rush Limbaugh, and he made me kind of understand at a young age that elections have consequences, and I was living in Dallas where Ross Perot is from and I just felt gravity kind of pull me and wanting to get involved,” Hicks said.
“I was a big fan of what President Bush had been doing at a young age, and I understood that Ross Perot was going to screw up the race for Republicans, so I had my mom drive me out to the phone bank, and my voice hadn't even changed yet. It was pretty high-pitched, and I was cold-calling people and trying to get them to get and out vote for the late President Bush.”
Perot ended up winning a stunning 19% of the vote as a third-party candidate, and Clinton won the presidency.
Perot-like spoilers — both for the Republican and Democratic side — again are a possibility in 2020, as Hicks increases his involvement in politics.
But in talking about individual Democratic challengers, Hicks doesn’t really want to get into specifics yet. Asked about Beto O’Rourke, who came close to defeating Hicks’ home state senator Cruz, Hicks said the Democrat “ran a really good race.” Can he translate that energy in Texas into a strong 2020 challenge? Hicks pondered the question for a few seconds before saying, “I haven't decided.”
Hicks was also restrained and careful when pushed on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as an unknown factor in the 2020 race and the RNC’s plans to respond when the probe ends.
“I think most people on both sides have already come to some sort of conclusion,” he said. “I think it's part of a political game that was hatched as a political insurance policy in 2016 when they figured out that [the] then-candidate, now president had legs.”
Who took out the insurance policy? “Peter Strzok and others,” Hicks said, bringing up the FBI officer who was leading the Russia investigation until he was fired for inflammatory anti-Trump texts to a colleague. “It's way above my pay grade, but I think it's political.”
Dozens of people have already been charged by Mueller, including Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and longtime adviser Roger Stone.
How will the RNC respond though? “I'm sure there will be a conversation that takes place. I can't say what the report is going to say, so that’s a tough question to answer.”
For now, however, Hicks expects the 2020 election night to unfold much like his longtime annual round of golf with Trump and his sons. Making his way through the course, Trump is fixated on the final outcome.
“The president,” Hicks said, “is on a mission to win.”
“Never sick of winning.”