When former White House press secretary Sean Spicer bragged in an election-night retrospective this week about his central role at Trump Tower that night, some of his former colleagues did something very Spicer-like: They flipped out.
In the oral history published Tuesday by GQ Magazine, Spicer recalled of the historic day: “A group of us gathered on the fifth floor of Trump Tower in what could be described as basically an oversized utility room.”
Spicer, who during the campaign served as communications director for the Republican National Committee, described to the glossy magazine how he camped out on the fifth floor while political director Bill Stepien was “going through key counties, Florida in particular — Broward, Miami Dade, southern Florida. What’s in, what’s not. I would say that at least through 7:30, 8 o’clock, it was a very cautiously optimistic view.”
After the interview was published, four people who worked with Spicer on the campaign and at the RNC reached out to POLITICO to express surprise that he highlighted his presence on the fifth floor — which served as the nerve center of the campaign’s poll-monitoring operation and data war room that day — because party employees were given strict instructions prohibiting them from going there.
The four sources who were in Trump Tower on Election Day recalled seeing large signs on one of the doors leading to the fifth floor reminding RNC staffers to keep out. “It was a sign you can’t miss,” recalled one person who spent election night in Trump Tower. “It was pretty glaring.”
On election night last year, Trump campaign operatives on the ground across the country were instructed to call into the war room on the fifth floor if they witnessed any “voter fraud” at poll sites across the country, multiple sources said, describing the scene. Most staffers were camped out on the 14th floor of Trump Tower.
The directive to RNC employees to steer clear of floor five was given out of an abundance of caution, according to an RNC employee, to avoid violating a decades-old court order, known as a consent decree. It barred the RNC from challenging voters’ eligibility at the polls after the party was accused in the 1980s of practices meant to discourage African-Americans from voting. The consent decree is set to expire next month, barring proof of any violations.
The anxious reactions to Spicer’s comment demonstrate how haunted the GOP is by the consent decree — a remnant of a racially charged incident that some party leaders have been longing to leave behind. The party has been vigilant for the past year about avoiding even the appearance of flouting the court order.
Spicer’s mere presence on the floor would not violate the order, attorneys familiar with the order said. And some former campaign operatives said they saw nothing unusual about his presence there, noting that the campaign’s television studio was also located on floor five.
But the four former colleagues who reached out to POLITICO said they were frustrated by the optics of Spicer discussing his presence there in a magazine story just weeks before a judge decides whether to renew the consent decree or let it expire. “Just typical Spicer,” vented one former colleague.
Spicer declined to address the issue.
The RNC referred POLITICO to a four-page memo distributed ahead of Election Day last year, in which RNC chief counsel John Phillippe stressed: “This may sound extreme, but in the past RNC employees have had to spend many hours in litigation merely because they were on email chains that arguably implicated the Consent Decree. Even the appearance of a violation could be a huge drain on time and money while causing significant negative publicity for our party. Make sure to avoid any such appearance.” The memo did not, however, mention any sensitivity surrounding the fifth floor of Trump Tower.
One former Trump campaign official recalled that he was not briefed on the details of why the rules were in place, “but we knew there was a strong emphasis that RNC staff couldn’t participate on the fifth floor.”
The consent decree was a raw nerve for the GOP throughout the election cycle — especially while boosting a candidate who highlighted perceived voter-fraud issues.
“In August 2016, when I perceived that Mr. Trump was likely to emphasize voter fraud in his campaign, I started to put an even greater emphasis on training regarding the Consent Decree than in past cycles,” Phillippe stated in a declaration filed with the federal judge overseeing the consent decree during pre-election legal skirmishing last year. Democrats had accused the RNC of violating the agreement.
Phillippe also stated: “I have consistently endeavored to be extremely cautious with the Consent Decree. … I have regularly briefed the RNC senior staff on the Consent Decree and urged them to remind their staff of the restrictions. … On behalf of the RNC, I made clear to the Trump Campaign that the RNC cannot and will not be involved in any way with ballot security activities or election day operations.”
A PowerPoint presentation for RNC officials also warned against mingling the national party’s activities with Trump campaign poll watching. Under the heading “Practical Realities,” the presentation warned: “Separation between Victory and EDO [election day operations] — Caution is imperative.”
“There are severe consequences for any violation of the Consent Decree, one of which will be a renewal of its provisions for another eight years,” read an RNC memo distributed in September 2016. “It is set to expire in 2017 (after nearly 4 decades) — but only if no violation occurs between now and then.” That memo was also filed with a federal judge in Newark the following month, in response to Democrats’ complaints about alleged violations of the consent decree.
Litigation over the decree has continued over the past year, with an RNC lawyer as recently as Thursday urging U.S. District Court Judge John Vazquez to reject Democrats’ objections and allow the decree to expire as scheduled on Dec. 1.
The consent decree stems from a lawsuit Democrats filed in federal court in New Jersey in 1981, challenging Republican efforts at “voter caging,” a practice allegedly aimed at discouraging African-American voting through targeted mailings warning about penalties for fraud. The RNC agreed to halt such programs and to refrain from certain Election Day “ballot security” activities, like photographing or videotaping voters at the polls.
The restrictions don’t apply to campaigns or to most state party committees, so RNC lawyers have attempted to put significant distance between those working for the national party and those working on activities that the party is supposed to avoid.
In 2009, the judge involved with the “caging” case since 1981, Dickinson Debevoise, set a December 2017 expiration date for the consent decree, but he said it could be extended if someone proved the RNC was violating it.
Debevoise died in 2015. Last year, the case was reassigned to Vazquez, who is now mulling whether to let the decree slip into the history books at its scheduled end in three weeks.
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