Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Donald Trump in a phone call last week that if he doesn’t turn his flailing campaign around, the national party may shift its focus from his candidacy to down-ballot races, according to two GOP officials briefed on the exchange.
The officials said Priebus described to Trump internal party polls that show his campaign headed in the wrong direction. Priebus told Trump that he would have been better off had he spent the days since the Republican convention at his Mar-a-Lago Club, officials said.
Trump denied the officials’ account of the exchange.
“Reince Priebus is a terrific guy,” Trump told TIME on Tuesday. “He never said that.” Trump also said that the Republican Party should be grateful for his recent fundraising. “Why would they state that when I am raising millions of dollars for them?” Trump asked, rhetorically.
Priebus could not be reached for comment.
Whatever the exact words spoken on the phone, there is no doubt that the possibility of Republicans effectively abandoning Trump by prioritizing voter outreach for down-ballot races now haunts his presidential campaign. In the last two weeks, Trump has suffered a deep dive in public polls amid a number of controversies caused by his own public statements .
Priebus and Trump talk frequently, with the party chair urging Trump for months to professionalize his operations and campaign. But the tenor of the calls turned more frank and frustrated last week as Trump’s campaign slide continued. The officials said Priebus reminded Trump that his title is RNC chairman, not chairman of the Trump campaign, adding that he would act in the best interests of the Republican Party.
With the party seeing record numbers of ticket-splitting voters in its internal and public polls, the GOP is facing a decision about whether to prioritize outreach to those voters who would never vote for Trump but remain open to supporting its Senate and House candidates. The end result could be the party expending resources to turn out voters who will vote for Hillary Clinton but also back Republican Senate incumbents like Marco Rubio in Florida or Rob Portman in Ohio.
With early voting beginning in mid-September, Priebus told Trump he doesn’t have much time to reverse his polling slide, the officials said. Priebus reinforced a longstanding plea to Trump to stay on message—a goal that remained elusive more than a week a later as Trump’s economic speech was quickly drowned out by comments viewed by critics as promoting political violence.