The tumultuous primary has left some Republicans concerned their party’s nominee will be hobbled going into the general election, but the head of the GOP is not one of them.
In an interview with TIME before frontrunner Donald Trump’s last remaining opponents dropped out of the race, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that he thinks the party will unify long before the delegates begin arriving at their hotel rooms in Cleveland in July.
Even if Trump wasn’t able to secure the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, Priebus argued that enough would be known about who the delegates support that people would have an “educated guess” on what would happen, which would help the party reconcile.
“Some of the unification I think is going to start before Cleveland because I don’t believe it’s going to be a mystery,” he said.
That unification wound up happening perhaps even more quickly than Priebus expected, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ending his candidacy after Indiana’s primary on Tuesday evening, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich planning to announce his own withdrawal on Wednesday afternoon.
Priebus pledged to TIME that the convention will be “totally open and honest” with “no shenanigans” over changing the convention rules or disqualifying delegates, arguing that a fair process would make it easier for the party to unify by the final day.
“If it’s all about the votes on the floor, and it’s not about how someone screwed someone over with a rules change or in a sentence here or in a sentence there, then I am in a much better place to get to unity by the time we get to Thursday,” he said.
Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript.
What are the conversations with the campaigns like?
It’s really just general. What is the field program looking like, what does the data look like, basics on convention. There are a lot of logistics involved in an open convention—even the hotel rooms. And they’re big states too. Think about the size of bringing Texas and New York and Ohio downtown. Typically Ohio gets taken care of, but bringing Texas and New York downtown near the perimeter is a huge task for us, which pushes out a whole lot of delegations that are used to be taken care of.
Will Wisconsin be taken care of?
Wisconsin will be in the headquarters hotel. They’ll be good. Wisconsin will be great. They have to be taken care of.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given on this job?
[My wife] Sally always reminds me not to carry the burden of things I don’t control. You can’t carry the burden of things you have no control over, so don’t even try. That’s important advice.
Do you view yourself as the only force holding the party together?
I think part of our problem is that division is profitable. When division is profit, and you have 24/7 cable television that has one split-screen after the next that creates division in the party. And many of the people that are on those screens have no clue what they’re talking about. But it fills up seven minutes of space where people can fight about things where they don’t know what they’re talking about, create opinion that is inaccurate and then it takes on a life of its own. Unity is not a profit industry, at least in politics. In the world of 24/7 cable. That’s why I’m doing everything I can to be out there on as many shows that I can … to push back on a lot of the misinformation that’s out there that I think is poisoning the concept of unity.
I tend to think that constantly in the media constantly pitting people against each other 24/7 in seven minute increments hasn’t been helpful for the process. But I also know it doesn’t matter, because that’s capitalism. While I’m pointing something out that I think is factual, I’m also admitting that there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Some have suggested that all the delegates be unbound, or some other radical changes to the rules be made. Would you try to fight it?
I highly doubt something like that is going to happen. I just can’t see that happening after 160 years—changing majority rule or some of these other wild possibilities. We’ll have to wait and see what the fight is. I tend to think that the Rules Committee ought to keep as much as we have in the rules the same given the circumstances. You saw that from my own actions in Florida last week. People doubted whether the RNC was going to change rules or not and I’ve been telling people who ask me that I’m not in favor of major changes and I put my money where my mouth is last week and showing by a 54-2 vote that we weren’t going to have changes on the rules committee. I think that given the circumstances that we’re under and that we want to have unified party I would recommend that the rules committee make as few changes as possible.
How will you bring people together after this primary?
On one hand, I’ve got to take one issue at a time. And the first issue is that there will be no shenanigans, whatever that means—that the process itself will be totally open and honest, which I think can take away some of the fear of gamesmanship, which I don’t support or want, and then focus the candidates on the votes on the floor. And if it’s all about the votes on the floor, and it’s not about how someone screwed someone over with a rules change or in a sentence here or in a sentence there, then I am in a much better place to get to unity by the time we get to Thursday. But it’s not to say that unity happens over night. Unity could take time. Sometimes it does take time for people to heal and accept what happened. And so, I have to keep all of this together as best as I can, put everyone in our party back through the funnel so that we go after the real opponent, who is Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party.
You don’t seem too concerned about that.
I know one of the things that’s important for people to remember is that when everyone is talking about coming together and unity—and that’s what we have to do—what people are not fully taking into consideration is that at some point in mid-June we’re going to know the bound delegate count. We’re going to know where the unbound delegates are. The press is going to be all over this. The press is going to have one story after the next announcing where everyone’s at. I don’t believe that if we go in in an open convention without a nominee, I don’t believe we’re going to walk in there with no educated guess about how things play out. People are going to know before you get to Cleveland. There are going to be so many interviews, so many delegate counts, so much information out there that those numbers are going to be advertised all over the place. People are going to know where the unbounds are. Some of the unification I think is going to start before Cleveland because I don’t believe it’s going to be a mystery.
In 2012 you commissioned the Growth and Opportunity report, which everyone else calls the autopsy. Do you have any regrets about it?
Not at the moment. Not that you asked me. I don’t regret anything in that document. It was all good advice. It doesn’t mean you have to follow everything that’s in it—it’s advice from five authors after doing a lot of research and interviewing. Just because it’s in a document though doesn’t mean I 100% agree with it all.
What do you disagree with?
I think I disagree with a perception that has come out of it that I don’t believe is in it. One of the perceptions that people believe that the growth and opportunity report said we have to alter our position on immigration and marriage and abortion. That’s not what it says. What it really says is the way we communicate and the way that our tone is sometimes heard by the listener in general election campaigns and presidential elections is not helpful. So through dignity, respect, and love I think we can present a better case to the American people as opposed to what happened at times in 2012.
Some of your critics have argued you should have done more to stop Trump. Others think you should step down now.
Those are uninformed people that don’t understand what the role of a national party is. And I tend to put stupid opinions in the stupid bucket and I don’t really care. I can’t do anymore than I’ve done. And I’m not an arrogant person, but I don’t think anyone else could have done more or better. I know that. If people have opinions—and that’s what they are—I know they couldn’t have done better and I don’t know anyone who could. I have total peace in that as chairman of this party I have done everything humanly possible and I believe we’re going to win in November and we’re going to have a Republican president and I think winning is a great antidote to a lot of these opinions.
You’ve had conversations with Trump about tone and message. How did that go?
I’ve had conversations with the candidates about things that they say and how they say it and what the potential future implications of those decisions and comments. I’m not going to get into the specifics because that would violate the whole purpose of candidates having conversations with me. But you can expect that I don’t take a backseat role to a candidate and I don’t expect them to take a backseat to me. But we’re on the bridge together and in order for this to work you have to have strong candidates and a strong party that operate seamlessly or as seamless as possible given the circumstances.
So many people ask me are you tired of the tone and what about the tone and the tone and the tone and the tone. The fact is, I do wish the tone were improved. The Democrats are having their own issues. But my point is if you flip through the channels on your television, don’t go to the shows you always go to, but go from the beginning to the end, and you tell me what the tone is like. You tell me what the tone is like that people in America watch every single night and so, yes, I wish the tone was improved, but I also think people are naive to think things are any better anywhere around us. That’s not an excuse, it’s sort of an indictment of where we’re at. People should expect highly of our leaders and potential leaders and I do think they should be held to a higher standard. I’m just pointing out that the standard that’s all around us right now isn’t all that great.
What would a contested convention mean to you? Are you excited by the prospect?
It’s exciting but it comes at a cost. It comes at a cost of division. It comes at a cost of at some point you’re going to have to catch up on your fundraising with the nominee because you’re not going to have a true joint fundraising agreement until you have a nominee. The other cost is the unknown—you just don’t know what could happen at an open convention. There are no experts at an open-ballot convention. There are a lot of people filling up space on cable and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just yapping.
If you could, what would you tell yourself about this job before you took it?
I would say the stakes are even higher than you ever imagined, which means the risk is even higher than you ever imagined, and do you want to do this? And my answer would have been yes, because I tend to be a little bit more of a riverboat gambler than people realize.
Is Trump that riverboat gamble?
I’ll let you use that for copy. I don’t know who our nominee is going to be, but I do know that no nominee will have inherited the competency and the organization that we’ve developed in the history of our party.
You talk a lot about having to be perfect as a party.
That’s a pretty hard standard. It might be a little reckless on my part.
When did the clock start? Last year?
I think so, and I’m happy with that clock because we’ve been killing the Democrats on the ground for the last 3-4 years.
So in the absence of a nominee, and even if Trump does get to 1,237, you’re in charge?
Over the years I think our party has made a mistake ceding too much control over our convention to the nominee. … Any campaign operative who thinks they run the convention will be sadly mistaken. …We should never have allowed a nominee to take over the committees all the programiming, it’s ridiculous. It’s the Republican Party convention.
As far as the convention goes, what are you thinking about in terms of programming?
My guess is we’ll have more people watching voting than we will with speeches and videos. I think we’ll break all-time viewership that’s ever been seen before at a convention. If we have an open convention the issues would be do we have a debate on Sunday night at the convention. These are the things we’re thinking about.
Trump says he wants more “showbiz” at the convention. Are you looking into that?
Showbiz is great. I’m all for it. I’m all for entertainment. Actually, I prefer more fun and entertainment over one speech after the next. But with all these recommendations, someone needs to write a big check. Showbiz doesn’t happen without a lot more money.
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