Facing harsh criticism from front-runner Donald Trump, the Republican National Committee has all-but ceased efforts to update the rules that govern the upcoming convention in preparation for the first potential contested gathering in more than a generation.
Proposed rules changes were set to be a component of the meeting, set for a beachside resort in Hollywood, Fla. three months before the start of the July gathering, amid other discussions about preparing for a convention without a presumptive nominee.
But RNC Chairman Reince Priebus issued the equivalent of a “stop work” order to the RNC’s rules committee on efforts to even tweak the rules in light of Trump’s recent charge that the establishment is “rigging” the nomination. While the rules committee will still meet, Priebus and top RNC members have been lobbying members to avoid making any recommendations to be adopted for the Cleveland convention that could further jeopardize the party’s standing with skeptical voters.
“It’s not about rule changes—it’s about optics this week,” one committee-member told TIME. “Any rules discussion at all gives credence to Trump’s claims and undercuts the ‘RNC is just an administrator’ talking points. It’s best to let delegates absolutely own any rule changes in Cleveland.”
Trump remains the front-runner in the Republican primary, but his path to winning the 1,237 delegates he needs tow in a majority and secure the nomination outright has narrowed. The better-organized Ted Cruz campaign, has outworked Trump to secure first-ballot delegates, most recently in Wyoming, while Trump rivals have implanted scores of their supporters among his delegates to the convention, laying the groundwork for a showdown on the convention floor. In response, Trump criticized the delegate selection process as undemocratic and said the RNC will face a “rough July” if he’s denied the nomination.
“I hope it doesn’t involve violence. I hope it doesn’t. I’m not suggesting that,” Trump told reporters Sunday in Staten Island. “I hope it doesn’t involve violence, and I don’t think it will. But I will say this, it’s a rigged system, it’s a crooked system. It’s 100 percent corrupt.”
Trump’s comments, directed for the first time at the members of the national body, came as rules committee members reviewed proposed amendments to the party bylaws. Some rule changes up for consideration were strictly housekeeping. Others were mulled as ways to benefit Trump’s rivals. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and his allies have called for repealing or altering Rule 40(b), which was passed in its current form at the 2012 convention to keep Ron Paul supporters from embarrassing nominee Mitt Romney. Under that rule, only candidates who have majority support among eight delegations can have their names put forward for the nomination. This year, that would likely mean Trump and Cruz, but not Kasich. Other changes under consideration would ease restrictions forcing delegates to vote for the candidates to whom they are bound.
Under RNC rules, only the convention is empowered to change the party’s bylaws at this point in the nominating calendar—the rules committee vote would be a recommendation that could be accepted or rejected in Cleveland. Priebus believes there is only downside in making those suggestions while the increasingly bitter struggle for delegates is underway. Meanwhile, the RNC has stepped up a public relations campaign to educate voters about the arcane—and often less-than-democratic—process by while convention delegates, and thus nominees, are selected.
Priebus on Sunday acknowledged he has made clear to members of the rules committee that they should table any plans to amend the rules. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea for us next week, I mean, before the convention to make serious rules changes or recommendations of changes right now,” he told CNN. “I think we’re in a politically charged environment. I think it’s too complicated.”
Priebus’ comments came after a tumultuous 24 hours for the committee. Rules Committee chairman Bruce Ash, a longtime Priebus ally, sent an email to colleagues Sunday, first reported by the Associated Press, bristling at the directive from the chairman. Ash intended for the committee to consider an amendment to the party rules to prevent the reopening of nominations on the convention floor—the pathway to the nomination of a “white knight” in the event of a deadlocked convention.
That amendment would have shifted the convention procedural rules from the rules of the House of Representatives—which has been in place for generations—to the stricter Roberts Rules of Order, thereby weakening the convention chairman in a move viewed as weakening the party establishment’s control over the convention. Hours later, RNC Counsel John Ryder told the committee it would take up the measure after all.
But despite the reversal, the committee is still set to heed Priebus’ counsel, insiders said, eschewing any substantive changes or recommendations at the meetings this week. “There is absolutely no upside to trying to change any rules,” said rules committee member Steve Duprey, the committeeman from New Hampshire. “Our rules are only suggestions to the convention rules committee anyway so what is the upside of changing ours now?”
Priebus’ desire for the committee to remain a neutral arbiter will only last so long. The RNC rules committee and the full 168-member body will meet in the week before the convention in Cleveland to pass on a slate of recommendations to the convention rules committee—a 112-member group made up of a man and woman from each delegation. And those rules would still need to be approved by the majority of the 2,472 delegates to the convention to take effect.