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Trump’s takeover of Republican National Committee is official as McDaniel steps down

Donald Trump wasted little time putting his imprint on the Republican Party just days after becoming its presumptive presidential nominee.

At the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting here Friday, members elevated Trump’s endorsed candidates – North Carolina GOP chairman Michael Whatley and the former president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump – to serve as the organization’s new chair and co-chair, respectively.

The two were elected to succeed outgoing RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and RNC co-chairman Drew McKissick. Neither faced any challengers Friday.

“I know how important this role is, and it is truly an honor to be here to work alongside all of you over the next 241 days,” Lara Trump said in remarks following her election. In her speech, she repeated referred to the former president as her father-in-law and acknowledged the support of her husband, Eric Trump, who was in attendance Friday.

The former president is also planning to install two of his senior advisers, Chris LaCivita and James Blair, to serve in senior positions at the RNC. LaCivita is expected to take on the role of the committee’s chief operating officer, while Blair will help drive the RNC’s political strategy, sources familiar with the plans told CNN. Both will continue in their roles as advisers to Trump’s 2024 campaign.

The leadership changes aren’t entirely out of the ordinary. A national committee is typically overhauled after the party has a de facto or official presidential nominee. The changes normally come in the form of a new chairperson or a top official from the presidential campaign moving over to the committee.

This time, however, people close to the former president and at the RNC describe the shift as a more of a takeover. Trump is looking to sync the RNC closely with his presidential campaign, building out a team that will indulge in his focus on election fraud and improve its fundraising prowess – at a time when the committee finds itself in dire financial straits.

“It’s going to be identical to what it’s always historically been, which is the presidential campaign runs the RNC, prioritizes what the RNC does, how it does it, what it spends money on, what it’s priorities are,” David Bossie, an influential RNC member from Maryland, said Friday before the chair vote. “So it’ll be the same.”

The changes come as Trump is eager to deploy the full weight of the RNC’s infrastructure to boost his general election campaign against President Joe Biden.

With Trump all but clinching the GOP nomination this week, roughly four months before the Republican National Convention in July and eight months before the November 5 election, he will be able to access the RNC’s voluminous data on its voters as well as its fundraising infrastructure and ground operation far earlier than he did during his 2016 campaign. These resources are critical to Trump’s campaign as it makes plans to build out teams in key battleground states such as Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania in the coming weeks and months.

The full support of the RNC also ensures that state parties will begin working toward the goal of electing Trump.

“The Republican National Committee will be focused like a laser on getting out the vote and protecting the ballot,” Whatley said in his remarks Friday. He added that the RNC would work “hand in glove” with the Trump campaign to “deliver on these core missions.”

RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is seen at the Republican presidential primary debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 27, 2023. - Gilbert Flores/Variety/Getty Images
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is seen at the Republican presidential primary debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 27, 2023. - Gilbert Flores/Variety/Getty Images

Inside the changing of the guard

McDaniel, who previously served as Michigan GOP chair, has led the RNC since 2017 and won reelection to a fourth term in January.

“It is a little bit bittersweet to be with all of you here today as I step down as chair after seven years of working with you all,” she said Friday.

But her decision to leave the position comes after more than a year of rising tensions between the former president and the RNC. Trump has long harbored resentment toward the committee over its handling of the 2020 election, blaming it for not having what he believes were the proper attorneys or systems in place to challenge the election results, CNN previously reported.

Those tensions have continued to grow in recent months, with Trump and his campaign becoming increasingly frustrated with how the RNC handled the GOP primary debates.

The strain on the relationship hit a tipping point earlier this year, after the RNC reported having its worst fundraising year in a decade, a reality that Trump’s advisers described as deeply alarming.

McDaniel then offered to step down from her position to allow Trump to install his own party chair, two party advisers told CNN. She announced her official departure date after last month’s South Carolina primary.

By the time Whatley and Lara Trump were installed as the new RNC leaders, McDaniel had left the Hilton ballroom where the proceedings were taking place.

Trump’s interest in Whatley

Two sources close to the former president said that Trump’s interest in Whatley stems directly from the North Carolina GOP chairman’s work and intense focus on claims of election fraud. Whatley has led his state’s political apparatus for almost five years, and in that time, he has cultivated a reputation as a loyal party figure able to appeal to both Trump and establishment Republicans.

Former President Donald Trump is introduced by North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley before speaking at the state GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, in June 2021. - Jonathan Drake/Reuters/File
Former President Donald Trump is introduced by North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley before speaking at the state GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, in June 2021. - Jonathan Drake/Reuters/File

In the lead-up to his election as RNC chair, Whatley had been signaling his interest in focusing on election fraud claims. At a reception for RNC members Thursday night, he emphasized that focus, according to multiple attendees of the event.

On Friday, Whatley thanked Trump “for his trust and support.”

“There is no one who has been more focused on fighting for the American people, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with him to win and help revitalize our great nation,” the new chairman said.

One of Whatley’s first tests will be how he revives the RNC’s fundraising prowess. Recent campaign finance reports show the RNC entering February with $8.7 million in the bank, compared with $24 million for the Democratic National Committee.

However, current and former RNC officials argue the task will be far less of a challenge now that Trump has become the presumptive GOP nominee, and the organization can use Trump’s branding to boost its own financial situation.

The committee’s lifeblood in the lead-up to the 2020 election was its ability to use Trump’s name to fundraise. However, in March 2021, weeks after Trump had left the White House, the former president’s attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to the RNC, as well as two other GOP organizations, ordering them to stop using Trump’s name and likeness in fundraising appeals and merchandise.

But with LaCivita — who has long-standing knowledge of how the RNC operates — joining the committee with the top priority of overseeing its finances, the RNC is expected to move in conjunction with the Trump campaign, a relationship described by one Trump adviser as more “symbiotic” than it has been previously.

In a show of her commitment to boosting RNC fundraising, Lara Trump told members Friday that she had donated $100,000 to the committee, holding up a check she had written.

“We have to raise a lot of money, and I have great news. I brought this up here today because I wanted everyone to know that, already, I have a check for the Republican National Committee for $100,000 that has been donated as of today, as of these nominations going through,” she said. “Yeah, we’re starting today, folks.”

Lara Trump is also expected to serve as a public face for the RNC — with her focus centering on fundraising and public speeches, sources familiar with her anticipated role told CNN.

One question that remains is whether the RNC will begin helping cover the costs of Trump’s mounting legal bills now that he is the presumptive Republican nominee.

Trump’s senior advisers, including LaCivita, insist they have no plans to use the RNC to help pay his legal expenses.

But, as CNN previously reported, that stance has come as a surprise to some Trump allies and former RNC members, who had expected the committee to revert to its process of helping pay the former president’s legal bills when he became the party’s nominee, a practice they began implementing while he was in office and continued until he announced his 2024 bid.

Lara Trump, however, left the door open to that possibility, telling reporters at a recent campaign appearance that she believes GOP voters would support such a move.

This story and headline have been updated.

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