Inside Trump’s secretive endorsement operation

A small set of advisers, led by longtime counselor Susie Wiles, is vetting some of the candidates seeking the most valuable stamp of approval in GOP politics.

WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump headlined a fundraiser for the Republican campaign arm of the House of Representatives in Tampa, Florida, in November, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida, seized the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting. face to ask for Trump’s support. approval.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Trump responded. He then said that he would talk to his team about it.

The next day, the former president called Bilirakis to offer him the most sought-after validation in Republican politics. As Bilirakis drove to an event in northern Hillsborough County, Trump read a proposed statement over the phone and asked if the congressman needed to make any changes.

Bilirakis, who could face a tough re-election race, was delighted to have the seal of approval. He didn’t change a comma.

“Of course it’s important to me,” Bilirakis said in an interview with NBC News on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. As for whether Trump’s nod will scare off potential primary contenders, Bilirakis, whose district is likely to become more Republican in an upcoming rewrite of Florida’s congressional map, said, “We’ll see.”

The experience of the eight-term lawmaker, whose father held the seat for 12 terms before him, reflects a sometimes secretive process that was outlined in interviews with more than a half-dozen people familiar with aspects of the passage operation. Trump has endorsed 91 candidates for the House of Representatives, Senate, governorships, state legislative seats and a variety of state offices, including Texas secretary of state, attorney general and land commissioner, according to an NBC News review.

And when he takes the stage for his first rally of 2022, in Florence, Arizona, on Saturday night, he will be flanked by an entourage of hand-picked favorites who deny losing their home state in 2020. Arizona saw the closest finish in the country, Trump lost by less than 10,500 votes, and the result remained the same after a partisan review by the GOP failed to change the result.

Still, when Trump abruptly canceled a planned January 6 speech designed to refute the actual election results, he promised that he would make his case at Saturday’s rally. Candidates who agree with him have been assigned election slots to speak at the event.

The most common theme of Trump endorsements, particularly at the state level, is that he endorses candidates who expressed support for his lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him. Fifty-nine of the 91 have questioned the results of the 2020 election, according to an NBC News review, including those who voted against certifying President Joe Biden for victory in Congress.

He has also fallen in love with the anti-endorsement, attacking Republican incumbents who challenge him or his lie about the election.

“Rumors are that Doug Ducey, the weak RINO governor of Arizona, is being pressured by old raven Mitch McConnell to run for the United States Senate,” he said in a statement Friday, ahead of his weekend rally. week in that state. “He will never have my backing or the support of the MAGA Nation!”

“I will never endorse this asshole again,” he said last Sunday, after Sen. Mike Rounds, R-SD, called for the fair election.

Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio polled South Dakota voters for a conservative group trying to show that support for the state’s other senator, Republican John Thune, is weak enough for him to lose a primary. While Rounds is not running for re-election for another five years, Thune is on the ballot in 2022.

Faced with political and personal destruction at Trump’s hands, three House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year decided not to run for re-election. And Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican, who is part of the Democratic-led House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill, is in danger of losing a primary to Trump-backed Harriet Hageman.

In Alaska, Trump endorsed Gov. Mike Dunleavy on the condition that Dunleavy not endorse Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s re-election bid. Trump has endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, who is seeking to deny Murkowski the Republican nomination. (Murkowski voted to convict Trump in her impeachment trial last year.)

But there’s another key thread: Trump is looking to find races where his endorsement can be tied directly to a hopeful’s fate.

He has stayed away from several competitive GOP Senate primaries where multiple candidates are running as acolytes, including in Missouri, Arizona and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed Sean Parnell — only to see Parnell suspend his campaign amid domestic abuse allegations. That served as a warning that he needed a better vetting process.

In cases where Trump doesn’t have a long-standing relationship with the candidate — or isn’t making the endorsement to thwart an adversary — Republicans familiar with the process describe a more cautious and strategic approach than the one he pursued as president or in the immediate aftermath of his defeat.

A small set of advisers, led by longtime counselor Susie Wiles, vets candidates seeking Trump’s endorsement. The group includes Bill Stepien, who managed Trump’s 2020 campaign; Brian Jack, the White House political director under Trump; and Donald Trump Jr., according to people familiar with the process.

It’s a two-tier process: Some candidates Trump is going to endorse no matter what. Other lower-tier hopefuls have to be vetted.

“In the end, he makes these decisions, but he does it after having it run through channels,” said one Republican operative. “There’s nobody that would have stopped him from endorsing Jody Hice or David Perdue,” the operative said, referring to Georgia candidates who are trying to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and Gov. Brian Kemp, both of whom rejected Trump’s false claims of foul play in their state in 2020. “No process would have stopped that.”

While the decisions start from different angles — a one-on-one encounter with a supplicant, Trump approving of an ally’s public commentary on him, or appeals to Wiles’s endorsement team — they end in the same place.

“He makes up his own mind,” said Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, who narrowly won her seat in 2020 and got a second endorsement from Trump in December, along with fellow Texas Reps. Michael Burgess, Roger Williams and Michael Cloud. Van Duyne said she wasn’t aware of any formal process and that it took her longer to get approved to serve as a Housing and Urban Development official in Trump’s administration than to get her most recent endorsement.

Behind the scenes, there’s an effort afoot to align Trump-backed candidates from around the country. A super PAC run by Trump ally Pam Bondi is bringing many of them together for a policy conference and fundraising dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort next month. Trump is scheduled to speak at the Feb. 23 dinner, according to an email sent to donors that was first reported by The New York Times.

The competition for Trump’s endorsement has also spurred jockeying to hire advisers who are perceived to have his ear. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., and Bernie Moreno, an Ohio Republican, both hired former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to advise their Senate campaigns. David McCormick, who recently entered the Senate race in Pennsylvania, has lined up so many Trump-world figures that it’s hard to keep count.

But some longtime Republican strategists aren’t convinced that’s the ticket, at least not for the second-tier candidates who are unknown to the former president. The better route — save a direct relationship with Trump — may be to go through Wiles’ vetting process.

“There’s a lot of other people milling around and keeping a room at Mar-a-Lago and finding a way to spin by the table, but I don’t think those people, by and large, have any sway in the process,” said the GOP operative. “Not everybody gets a meeting. If they’re considering [an endorsement], they meet with everybody who they’re considering.”

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