First it was an email warning Steve House, the Colorado GOP chairman, to hide his family members and “pray you make it to Cleveland.” Then there was the angry man who called his cellphone and told him to put a gun down his throat.
“He said, ‘I’ll call back in two minutes, and if you’re still there, I’ll come over and help you,’” House recalled.
Since Donald Trump came up empty in his quest for delegates at the Republican state assembly in Colorado Springs nearly two weeks ago, his angry supporters have responded to Trump’s own claims of a “rigged” nomination process by lashing out at Republican National Committee delegates that they believe won’t support Trump at the party’s convention — including House.
The mild-mannered chairman estimates he’s gotten between 4,000 and 5,000 calls on his cellphone. Many, he says, have ended with productive conversations. He’s referred the more threatening, violent calls to police. His cellphone is still buzzing this week, as he attends the RNC quarterly meetings in Florida, and he’s not the only one.
In hotel hallways and across dinner tables, many party leaders attending this week’s meetings shared similar stories. One party chairman says a Trump supporter recently got in his face and promised “bloodshed” if Trump doesn’t win the GOP presidential nomination. An Indiana delegate who criticized Trump received a note warning against “traditional burial” that ended with, “We are watching you.”
The threats come months ahead of a possible contested convention, where Trump is all but certain to enter with a plurality of delegates bound to him on the first ballot, but he could lose support on subsequent ballots, as rules will allow delegates to vote however they choose. And although the harassers are typically anonymous, many party leaders on the receiving end of these threats hold Trump himself at least partly responsible, viewing the intimidation efforts as a natural and obvious outgrowth of the candidate’s incendiary rhetoric.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The party chairman who said a Trump backer threatened “bloodshed” at the convention also said the man told him he would “‘meet me at the barricades’ if Trump isn’t the nominee.” The chairman spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The Trump campaign needs to publicly reject bullying and threats of violence. They haven’t, yet. It’s not OK to give supporters threatening violence a wink and a nod.”
Trump’s campaign has never explicitly encouraged violence. But it has promoted tactics that have contributed to delegates’ fear. Earlier in April, a top Trump adviser posted online the cellphone number of Tennessee state party chairman Ryan Haynes, along with a message accusing the state party of trying to “STEAL your vote TODAY.”
Haynes told POLITICO at the time that he nearly canceled the party’s delegate selection meeting after a barrage of vitriol and the specter of violence.
The fears expressed by party leaders are bubbling up at a time Trump is facing internal pressure to rein in his confrontational inclinations too. Paul Manafort, Trump’s GOP convention chief, who is in Florida to attend the RNC meetings and assuage the concerns of the GOP establishment, has encouraged the candidate to temper his bombast.
It’s a noticeable shift away from the slash-and-burn approach of Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who some party insiders blame for cultivating, or at least enabling, Trump’s brasher tendencies. One state party leader, who requested anonymity, described the intimidation tactics coming from Trump supporters as part of “Corey culture.”
For months, Trump’s campaign has played a recording before the start of its rallies, encouraging attendees not to physically harm protesters but simply to shout them down with chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” But one operative close to the campaign, an ally of Manafort, also blames the old regime for not doing more to rein in the violence that has occurred at some rallies and the threats many people continue to make.
“That only happens when somebody is not driving the bus,” the operative said. “That’s all going to settle down now that Paul is in charge.”
But even if Manafort is able to nudge Trump toward a more traditional presidential bearing, the hostile energy his campaign has already whipped up among some supporters has left a trail of anger and intimidation that is likely to linger when the convention comes in July.
“I’ve had these thoughts quite a bit and had these discussions with people who think I’m an idiot for wanting to go to Cleveland,” said Craig Dunn, a delegate from Indiana who supports John Kasich. Dunn said he’s most nervous about exiting the convention arena in the moments after a potential Trump loss.
“That’s where there’s the greatest prospect for danger,” he said. “I don’t see myself walking outside the convention with a Kasich badge.”
Several delegates and party leaders told POLITICO that the rising atmosphere of fear has silenced some critics and led party leaders to eye extra security for state conventions and local gatherings at which Trump supporters might take exception to the results.
Concerns about delegate safety at the RNC convention in Cleveland began to escalate earlier this month when Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally, promised to disclose the hotels and room numbers of delegates “directly involved in the steal.”
In their Wednesday meeting, the party chairs discussed developing security measures for delegates at the national convention. Louisiana chairman Roger Villere said he felt reassured by RNC chairman Reince Priebus and other party leaders that the security situation — helmed by the Secret Service — would be more than adequate to keep delegates safe.
“A lot of us bring our wives and children. Do we really want to? That’s one of the things that was asked,” Villere said. “They assured us that we would be protected.”
Villere himself became a target when Trump last month slammed GOP leaders in Louisiana — a state he won — over reports that his top rival, Ted Cruz, appeared likely to win more delegates to the convention than him.
“I have had personal calls, and people are very aggressive on the phone who are supportive of Donald Trump,” he said. But none, he added, have been death threats. “I don’t think it’s any different from some tough campaigns I’ve been through in the past.”
But the degree of concern has varied among the chairs. One chairman described the conversation as “concern expressed by some new chairs and some chairs in states where threats have been particularly acute.” Veteran chairs, he said, tried to reassure colleagues that it would eventually fizzle.
Kevin Downey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the discussion also included plans to have “a process in place” for any “specific or concrete threats that our delegates would become aware of.”
“Campaigns approaching delegates and pitching their candidates and trying to win delegate support — absolutely nothing new about that. It’s just part of the process and it’s what delegates expect,” he said. “We just want to make sure that nothing extends into the zone of being a threat or intimidation.”
Another chairman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were concerns raised about delegates being “pursued in extreme ways” traveling to and from the convention arena.
Dunn, the Indiana delegate, said his tormentors had largely moved on in recent days. But he expects them to return when the state hold its primary on May 3. He says he’s most frustrated at Trump for not recognizing the lingering impact his words have on supporters who don’t understand the complicated delegate process.
“You can take advantage of the people’s lack of understanding. He may premeditate when he does that and chuckle when he walks off the podium, but [his supporters] don’t know when to turn it off,” he said. “By the time it gets down to the guy sitting in Row 63, that may be ‘I’m going to find one of those delegates.’ … (T)hat’s the danger when you whip the audience and the crowd up.”
Amid conversations about convention security, Trump’s detractors face one harrowing fact: The fear wrought by threats and intimidation could be affecting convention rules — and, potentially, the GOP nomination fight itself — to Trump’s benefit.
The RNC’s rules committee met Thursday afternoon and rejected a proposal to dramatically alter the party’s nomination process. With the likelihood of a contested convention for the first time in 40 years, every potential rule change is being highly scrutinized, and the individuals on the RNC rules committee are now acutely aware of the backlash they may face if there is any perception that they are changing the rules to help a certain candidate.
“Several people said now is not the time to change the rules,” said House, the Colorado chairman. “Most people don’t want to make news and are being very, very careful. There’s an element of fear in the process.”
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