PALM BEACH, Fla. ― House Speaker Paul Ryan met Thursday night at a pricey French restaurant here with some of the Party’s biggest donors to assess a political landscape dominated by one vexing question: what to do about Donald Trump.
The dinner was a highlight of a secretive two-day conclave, convened under heavy security by a donor group headed by New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer, that is being viewed as a pivotal moment for the big-money effort to block Trump from the Republican presidential nomination.
Sources familiar with the gathering said it was not intended to rally a last-ditch anti-Trump cabal, and that, in fact, there was a diverse array of opinion represented among the donors in attendance. Some seemed open to supporting Trump if he wins the nomination, while others are backing his remaining rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
But many of the two dozen or so donors in attendance ― including Singer and Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts ― have given millions to super PACs devoted to attacking Trump or supporting his now-vanquished rivals, including Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush. Now, however, it’s becoming increasingly likely that efforts to derail Trump by defeating him in primaries and caucuses are futile.
Thus, talk was expected in GOP finance circles to turn to whether there might be other viable avenues for stopping the anti-establishment billionaire real estate showman, such as a convention fight, or whether his nomination is a fait accompli, and donors should instead focus their spending on protecting Republicans in other races.
The gathering, organized under the auspices of a coalition formed by Singer called the American Opportunity Alliance, took place largely in the second-floor ballroom of a tony resort hotel secured by guards wearing gold trident lapel pins.
While the session was planned weeks ago, as Trump was starting his surprising string of primary victories, the presidential race is only part of the focus. According to sources at the gathering and an agenda obtained by POLITICO, activities include a briefing on the presidential race, but also panels on economic policy, national security and the battle over President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. A Thursday lunch session was entitled “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” according to the agenda.
The meeting comes as other conservative leaders are debating whether to continue their anti-Trump assault, to wave the white flag or to begin plotting a third-party “true conservative” challenge in the fall. The latter possibility was the focus of another meeting convened Thursday in Washington by three influential conservative movement leaders.
And several participants in Palm Beach have been looked to as leaders in the anti-Trump effort.
Both Ryan and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is set to speak Friday morning, have been outspoken in their criticism of Trump.
While Ryan hasn’t endorsed any of the presidential candidates, he has sought to distance himself from Trump. The speaker blasted Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration as “not what this country stands for,” and on Thursday criticized Trump for predicting riots would erupt if the candidate is deprived the GOP nomination during a convention fight.
But Ryan also has shot down suggestions that he could be an alternative to Trump if the front runner arrives at the party’s convention in Cleveland without the 1,237 delegates necessary to secure the nomination. There is “no situation” in which he would accept the nomination, he told POLITICO this week.
An aide to Ryan stressed that his participation in the gathering here doesn’t mean that he’s endorsing any efforts to stop Trump. “This shouldn’t be construed as an anti-Trump event and that’s certainly not why Speaker Ryan is going,” said the aide. “His remarks will be in line with what he said this week regarding the Presidential nominating contest ― that he is not running and neutral in the process. I would expect him to focus on the House GOP agenda that is being developed by the task forces. His participation will be focused on the House, not on the presidential contest.”
According to the agenda, Friday’s sessions include scheduled appearances by GOP Reps. Joe Heck of Nevada, Todd Young of Indian and congressional hopeful Erin Houchin of Indiana. Representatives for Heck, Young and Houchin did not respond to questions about their attendance.
Sources familiar with the gathering said the politicians likely would stand to benefit from fundraising by members of the American Opportunity Alliance. It is a loose coalition of some of the richest pro-business GOP donors in the country, and it has helped raise money for select Republican candidates who mostly support hawkish foreign policy stances, and sometimes are moderate on social issues.
The Palm Beach gathering is set to conclude Friday afternoon with an “Investment Overview,” according to the agenda.
While the gathering is closed to press, a POLITICO reporter glimpsed a several-page-long roster of attendees at a registration table manned by three people.
Representatives for Singer and Ricketts declined to comment.
Singer had endorsed Rubio and had donated at least $2.5 million to a pro-Rubio super PAC that had spent heavily on ads opposing Trump. And Ricketts’ mother Marlene Ricketts donated at least $3 million to the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC. It spent heavily on ads in Florida and Illinois in the run-up to those states’ primaries, but Trump won both contests convincingly.
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