RNC head Priebus scrambles in secret meetings to head off ‘conscience clause‘

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

CLEVELAND — After days of assurances from the Trump campaign and the RNC that the Rules Committee meeting starting Thursday would go off without a hitch, the session began with a five-hour delay while the parties met behind closed doors.

Rules Committee Chair Enid Mickelsen laughably blamed the delay on a problem with the printer.

One meeting was between Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is a key figure among the 112 members of the convention Rules Committee.

Other committee members met separately, as the RNC sought to beat back not only a motion to unbind the delegates — which could unleash chaos on the convention floor next week — but also a series of proposals from former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli that would weaken the RNC chairman and change the way the committee operates.

Priebus’ meeting with Lee was to talk about the unbinding proposal, also known as the conscience clause, a key goal of the effort to block Trump’s nomination. It was not clear whether Lee supported it, but he has not endorsed Trump. His spokesman told Yahoo News earlier this week that he had decided days ago about how he would vote on the convention Rules Committee.

If Lee supports the unbinding motion, it could open the door to a contested convention in which Trump fails to win on the first ballot and other names are put in nomination, setting off a floor fight. Hoping to avert that, the RNC appeared to be willing to cut a deal with Cuccinelli to keep his forces from aligning with the “conscience clause” movement.

When the committee reconvened at 1 p.m., Mickelsen acknowledged that the long delay had not been due to a broken printer. A number of delegates “asked for a period of time to work out their differences.”

“I don’t know what they have or have not decided,” Mickelsen said.

Outside the meeting, Cuccinelli and former RNC member James Bopp huddled with aides and talked occasionally with RNC staff, including chief of staff Katie Walsh.

The RNC reportedly was offering Cuccinelli a deal in which the first four primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — would not allow Democrats or independents to take part in primary voting and would offer “delegate bonuses” to other states that closed their primaries.

However, other sources who talked to people in the meeting between Cuccinelli and Priebus said the idea of closing those primaries was offered by Cuccinelli, but rejected by New Hampshire committee member Steve Duprey and others. Instead, the delegates approved a resolution creating a commission to study the nominating process, in hopes that Cuccinelli’s reforms could be deferred until then.

By midafternoon, talks between Cuccinelli and the RNC had fully broken down. But as it relates to the coming motion to unbind the delegates, the Trump and RNC whip operation was confident after a test vote went their way.

Lee spoke in favor of a proposal to revoke a rule, created four years ago, that gave the 168-member RNC more power over rules changes, at the expense of the 2,472 delegates at the convention. But the motion, opposed by the Trump forces and the national committee, failed by a large margin in the Rules Committee.

If that vote is any indication, Lee, who was widely viewed as one of the most influential members of the committee, may not be able to swing many voters his way.

Because of the long morning delay, the Rules Committee meeting, which was scheduled to end at 6 p.m., seemed likely to last late into the night before starting back up Friday morning.

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