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Trump staffers face threat of blacklist

When Matt Braynard signed on to run Donald Trump’s data team last fall, he got an email from a veteran GOP operative to whom he was close warning, “You realize once you go Trumptard, your career in GOP politics is over?”

Braynard took the job anyway, explaining that he believed in Trump, and that he wasn’t worried about being blacklisted. “This isn’t a career, it’s a vocation, and only God can take that away,” he said he responded.

But according to interviews with more than a dozen operatives — including several who oppose Trump, some who support him and the leaders of some prominent D.C. political shops — some of those who go to work for Trump face an implicit, and occasionally overt, threat: Help Trump, and you’ll never work in this town again.

It may be unenforceable, but the push to stigmatize Trump’s aides, advisers and vendors is among the last remaining pieces of ammunition available to a Republican establishment that has tried just about everything else to block the billionaire from taking over of the GOP. And, critically, it has complicated Trump’s efforts in recent weeks to hire top-tier operatives, according to sources familiar with Trump’s campaign.

Already, the conservative digital firm Targeted Victory has fielded questions about its relationship with Trump’s campaign, for which it has been paid nearly $106,000 for processing online payments. And the venerable law firm Jones Day has faced internal grumbling about its work for the Trump campaign (which has paid the firm $672,000 for legal consulting). Multiple staffers at the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity turned down Trump’s entreaties, in part because they were “concerned about what that would do to their reputation in professional circles going forward,” as one staffer familiar with the entreaties explained.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of the multipartisan American Association of Political Consultants quietly debated whether to publicly call out Trump for capitalizing on racial and religious tensions and the ethics of those working to elect him. (They ultimately decided against weighing in.)

Juleanna Glover, a longtime GOP operative who is now a corporate consultant in D.C., said of people choosing to work for Trump: “In the world Fortune 100 companies, their careers would be severely curtailed.”

Katie Packer, who served as Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager and now runs an anti-Trump super PAC, said: “I know that I would never hire or want to work with somebody who tried to help Trump. It would be disqualifying.”

Trump’s opponents have been the loudest and most outspoken voices in amplifying talk of a blacklist, but, Packer said, “there are a lot of people who share my view.”

The blacklist talk is among several factors that Republicans cite to explain Trump’s difficulty in attracting top talent, along with his campaign’s reputation for stingy salaries and his lack of grounding in Republican politics or policies. Early on, the campaign made entreaties to several veteran operatives who did not pursue the opportunity, including Jeff Roe, who went on to become the campaign manager for Trump rival Ted Cruz, and R.C. Hammond, who decided to sit out the presidential race entirely.

Instead, Trump’s campaign initially relied on a small core of anti-establishment operatives and political neophytes. Eventually, the billionaire brought in a pair of operatives, Paul Manafort and Rick Wiley, with high-level — albeit dated (Bob Dole and Gerald Ford) or embarrassingly unsuccessful (Scott Walker) — presidential campaign experience.

“I don’t know that he’s hired people who had much of a future in the Republican Party anyway,” Packer said.

It’s notable that Trump’s campaign is the subject of peer pressure and condemnation at all, especially from a D.C. consulting class that tends to forgive — and even sometimes celebrate — contracts with repressive governments or corporations accused of bad behavior.

But the anti-Trump stigma may lose some potency if Trump wins big in New York on Tuesday, and, especially, if he ultimately claims the GOP nomination.

Then, Trump’s allies would have the power to steer tens of millions of dollars in consulting work, through both his campaign and the Republican Party apparatus itself, for a wide array of services, from direct mail to voter data to advertising. That cash flow is the life blood of many a Washington-based consultant, and for many it would be difficult to turn down contracts out of concern over Trump’s bombastic style or scattershot ideology.

“That’s how these consultants make a living,” said veteran GOP fundraiser Fred Malek. “I don’t think anyone is going to resent any consultant who goes to work for any of the candidates.”

If Trump were to win the White House, he would control that consulting cash flow for at least four years and operatives who signed on early would have the inside track to become the new elite in a reordered GOP consulting class. Those who actively opposed him — Trump has said he has a long memory — could face dire career implications. Of course, a Trump general election loss in which Republicans are swept from power on Capitol Hill could cause serious recriminations for those seen as facilitating his rise.

In that case, a blacklist for his operatives and consultants could extend for years. That’s what happened to conservative consultants who worked on Ross Perot’s 1992 independent presidential campaign, which Republicans blamed for President George H.W. Bush’s reelection loss.

“People call me a Republican pollster, and they don’t realize that to this day there is still hostility for me because of Perot,” said Frank Luntz, the pioneering conservative messaging guru who worked for Perot.

Since that campaign, Luntz said, he has done only a handful of projects for the GOP party committees (including notably 1994’s historic Contract with America), instead earning his living doing corporate and media work, and projects for mostly conservative outside groups. “I couldn’t make any money from the parties and it allowed me to be independent,” Luntz said.

But in 2016, with the weakened party apparatus of the post-Citizen United era, it’s not clear how a Trump blacklist would even work, or even if there is enough of an establishment left to enforce such a thing.

In the previous election cycle, the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to blacklist a GOP consulting firm, Jamestown Associates, for working to unseat Republican incumbents, including Mitch McConnell. But outside groups and tea party candidates kept hiring Jamestown and now one of the firm’s then-partners is a top adviser to Cruz — the candidate, in a twist, with the best shot at stopping Trump.

One anti-Trump GOP consultant was doubtful of the long-term impact of a blacklist, especially should Trump become the nominee. “Nobody ever really faces consequences,” this person said. “People have pretty short memories in this space.”

Some operatives in D.C. said different levels of work for Trump would be treated differently, with the most scorn heaped on high-level strategists and leniency for lower-level aides and vendors simply selling products.

Typically, lawyers, like Don McGahn, Trump’s election law attorney and a partner at Jones Day, have received more slack, out of deference to the tenet that everyone has a right to legal representation. But after Jones Day hosted a recent Trump summit in D.C., some attorneys complained anonymously about the firm’s prominent role in Trump’s campaign. McGahn did not respond to a request for comment.

And when Packer was launching the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC, she said she asked Targeted Victory, which processes payments on Trump’s website, to detail the extent of their work for him. She was satisfied with the answer that they were simply selling a tool — like Google or Facebook selling ads — available to all GOP campaigns.

Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory and a former top Romney digital operative, told POLITICO, “We do not currently have a campaign strategy relationship with the Trump campaign.” The firm works far more extensively with Cruz, who has paid the company nearly $3.5 million.

Objections to Trump typically are about not just policy but his broader political posture, most notably his divisive rhetoric on racial and religious matters. His comments about Muslims late in 2015 are part of what spurred a discussion among board members of the AAPC over whether the organization should condemn Trump’s comments, and even say working for him would amount to a breach of the AAPC’s code of ethics. The bipartisan board ultimately decided it would be poor precedent to intervene in the midst of a heated political campaign.

Braynard, the Trump tech guy who was warned not to take the job, has since parted ways with the campaign, but he said he still supports Trump and has seen no evidence of a blacklist.

“Down-ballot campaigns have started reaching out to me, so I don’t believe in the taint,” Braynard said. “If you’re good at your job, the cream rises.”

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