CLEVELAND — Mike Lee climbed out on a limb here Thursday evening, publicly aligning himself with an effort to potentially deny Donald Trump the Republican presidential nomination at the party’s national convention next week.
Lee, a U.S. senator from Utah, stood and voted with a group of Republicans who were trying to allow all 2,472 delegates to vote according to their conscience and not necessarily for the candidate to whom they were pledged. He had arrived here the subject of interest and curiosity, and was lobbied and buttonholed by the Trump campaign before publicly supporting the effort to “free” the delegates.
It didn’t work. A well-organized effort by a squad of veteran Republican operatives, working on behalf of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, dealt the “conscience vote” effort a stinging defeat in the convention Rules Committee. The motion didn’t get anywhere close to enough votes to send it to the full committee.
Trump’s supporters on the committee and at the RNC went out of their way to ensure the effort’s defeat, preventing Lee and the other supporters of the measure from debating it, and not even allowing anything more than a voice vote.
Lee denounced the result in the room in front of the 112 committee members and a large contingent of reporters, and then spoke exclusively with Yahoo News for 15 minutes afterward in a room down the hall.
In the committee meeting, Lee did not concede that Trump — who is now all but certain to be named the GOP’s nominee next Wednesday night — will in fact be the party’s choice.
“I hope whoever the nominee is going to be this time will in fact win over the delegates,” Lee said. “But rules like this are not going to help that.”
He seemed to hint at the prospect of a demonstration on the floor of the convention, noting that “as we will see in a few days” the “angst” among many anti-Trump delegates or those with serious reservations about Trump “isn’t just going to go away.”
When I asked Lee if there would be an attempted revolt on the floor of the convention, he was evasive, likely because he needs to collect his thoughts and also perhaps keep Trump’s campaign off balance. “I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said. When I asked if he would speak out over the next few days, before the convention starts Monday, to protest the RNC’s strong-armed treatment of the “conscience vote” delegates, he was again noncommittal. “We’ll see,” he said.
But it is a remarkable fact that a sitting U.S. senator would even contemplate such a move. Lee swore that he is not anti-Trump as much as he is committed to making the party’s convention matter.
“The fact that we have a convention in addition to a primary has to mean something,” he said. “Any time you have … a set of primaries and then a convention, I think whoever is going to be the nominee needs to win both.
“I don’t view this as a ‘Never Trump’ effort. That isn’t the point. The point is there are delegates who have yet to be won over. He needs to win them over,” Lee said.
It’s clear, however, that Lee’s commitment to push for an “unbinding” of the delegates was driven in large part by the freshman senator’s deep unease about the GOP’s 70-year-old presumptive nominee. Lee said in May that Trump “scares me to death” and just last month went off on Trump’s “religiously intolerant” statements about a potential Muslim ban. Lee has also raised the prospect that Trump might be an “authoritarian” president.
He reiterated those concerns about Trump to me on Thursday night. “If he came out with a strong message, a strong focus on federalism and separation of powers, that would help a lot of people become convinced that he’s not going to be an authoritarian, that he’s not going to be an autocrat in office,” Lee said.
And he said that even if the delegates had been allowed to vote their consciences, “the odds are overwhelmingly — I mean really overwhelmingly — that Donald Trump would have still gotten the nomination.” That is likely overstating it. If a revolt had been allowed to grow, all bets would have been off as to what would happen.
But Lee said that the putdown of the “conscience” effort could spark a backlash.
“Now if we do it this way, I think the pressure doesn’t just go away. I think doing it that way would have allowed for some of the steam to be released, some of the pressure. This doesn’t just go away,” he said.
Lee, a lawyer who has clerked on the Supreme Court and who keeps his emotions in check, became unusually animated only once in our conversation as he talked about the message from pro-Trump forces that all delegates should line up behind the presumptive nominee.
“Instead of focusing on a message that could truly unite the party, you’ve got all these people in there who are shouting about ‘Darn it, we’ve got to be united,’” Lee said, his voice rising. “‘And to be united we’ve got to shut you guys up. We’ve got to lock up the rules, so that anyone who disagrees with us will be silenced. That’s how we’re going to be unified.’”
All day Thursday, members of the Trump campaign, the RNC and others in the GOP called, emailed and buttonholed Lee.
“A lot of people put on a lot of pressure one way or another, whether it was in the media or social media. I certainly got a lot of calls from a lot of people in the party and within the Trump campaign who wondered what I was going to do, who were nervous,” Lee said. “I was very candid with them, every single one of them, including especially the people with the Trump campaign. I told every single one of them: ‘These are my concerns. I am very concerned that if you clamp down on this, this is not going to be good for you, and it’s not going to be good for the party.’”
The RNC delayed the start of the Rules Committee for five hours to allow the whip operation to lean on Lee and others on the committee, and then voted a little before 9 p.m. to keep working as late as it took to finish all their amendments.
The tactic caught the “conscience” crowd off guard. They had expected to end around 6 p.m., giving them time for a planning session and some rest before a full fight on their motion on Friday. And having been put off balance, they were easy prey for a well-planned and well-executed series of parliamentary moves by pro-Trump forces to put them on the defense, isolate them, cut off debate and quickly kill their motion.
Trump forces gloated in the aftermath of their victory.
“Anti-Trump people get crushed at Rules Committee. It was never in doubt,” tweeted Trump senior adviser Paul Manafort.
But Kendal Unruh, a Rules Committee member from Colorado who spearheaded the “conscience” effort, said a “floor fight is inevitable.”
Lee will decide over the next few days if he will publicly and actively urge such a path. But regardless of his decision, the long-term effects of what took place Thursday will reverberate for some time in ways that are not possible to predict.
“This convention will be over in a few days, but we’ve got the rest of the year to think about. We’ve got what happens less than four months from now, we’ve got the next year, the next three years, the next 30 years,” Lee said. “We’ve got freedoms to protect and preserve, and we’ve got to focus on what it is we want our party to be, what it is that we want to stand for.”