RNC chief on life in Trump’s inner orbit: ‘I’m still here’
WASHINGTON (AP) — Hours after her friend and colleague at the Republican National Committee had been accused of sexual misconduct, Ronna McDaniel was on the phone with President Donald Trump for a difficult conversation.
Casino magnate Steve Wynn, the RNC’s finance chairman and a mutual friend, had to step aside, she explained to a man who also has faced accusations of sexual misconduct but refused to be derailed by them. McDaniel, Trump’s choice for RNC chairwoman a year ago, says the president listened and ultimately agreed. Wynn had to go.
“There’s a personal element to this, that Steve is a friend,” she said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But the allegations were serious. The president took them seriously. We needed to move forward.”
McDaniel has proved a shrewd navigator of the president’s swirling currents, but not a sycophant. And she’s kept Trump’s confidence in a way other top advisers haven’t, certainly by posting a robust financial bottom line for the party but also by being candid with him in private and discreet when she’s disagreed.
McDaniel now readies for her biggest test as chairwoman: protecting congressional majorities in the November elections while facing political headwinds fanned by the president’s low approval ratings and — more immediately — fallout from her finance lieutenant’s departure.
“My job is to be truthful,” she said. “My job is to share with him my recommendation.”
She added: “We may have a dialogue about it. We may disagree. But ultimately I’m going to support the president.”
“I’ve lasted a year,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m still here.”
McDaniel’s place in the circle of trust wasn’t necessarily expected. A niece of one of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics during the presidential campaign — 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney — McDaniel has sought to establish a political identity separate from her famous family.
She recently dropped Romney from her name in RNC communications and her Twitter handle. Trump had ribbed her about her name during the campaign, but the change was a nod to her husband and to signal her independence, aides and confidants said.
Before Wynn’s resignation last week over claims published in The Wall Street Journal that he sexually harassed several women, McDaniel had largely steered clear of the drama that has ensnared the White House.
The Wynn allegations came as a blow. Not only had Wynn helped raised more than $107 million for Trump’s inauguration last year, he had also denied the accusations.
But it wasn’t the first difficult conversation Trump and McDaniel have had in their year working together.
In December, McDaniel argued to Trump that the RNC should not resume spending money on Roy Moore’s special Alabama Senate campaign a month after she cut ties with it, with Trump’s consent, over allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted teenage girls decades ago.
But Trump reversed her decision to cut financial ties with Moore when Moore’s poll numbers somewhat rebounded and he appeared to still have a chance of keeping the seat in Republican hands in a narrowly divided Senate. Moore lost.
“There are times when she’s going to walk the line with what the president demands,” said Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican National Committeeman from Massachusetts. “I think she understands that.”
Although McDaniel is from a long line of prominent Republicans, including her grandfather former Michigan Gov. George Romney, she owes her new post solely to Trump.
As Michigan GOP chairwoman in 2016, McDaniel impressed Trump over Washington-based operatives bucking for the RNC post.
Neutral through the 2016 primaries, McDaniel later supported Trump — no small thing to the loyalty-driven Trump, given her uncle’s criticisms of him.
She was at Trump’s side in working-class Macomb County outside Detroit days before the election and watched him carry Michigan.
“One reason she seems to connect with Trump is because she reflects what it is to be a Trump voter,” said Margaret Metcalf, the Republican National Committeewoman from Guam.
Gregarious in public, McDaniel is a fierce fundraiser behind the scenes, boasting $132.5 million raised in 2017, the most of any party in a post-election year.
She shuttles between Washington and her home in Northville outside Detroit, meets weekly with Trump and his political team in the Oval Office, and talks to Trump by phone at least weekly. She often spends six hours a day fundraising.
Some party members have complained that she’s been less accessible than predecessor Reince Priebus, who lavished attention on members. But she has a higher-priority constituent: the president.
“It’s not glamorous. It’s a grind,” said Mark Shields, Priebus’ chief of staff. “It’s to raise money and to support the president. And Ronna’s a machine.”
Still, McDaniel has injected personal ideals into sensitive national debate. She’s just done it carefully.
Without criticizing Trump, McDaniel insisted in August, over some quiet protests, that the RNC pass a resolution condemning white supremacist groups after violence at a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump had condemned the groups, only to say later there was blame on “both sides” of the deadly clash.
While praising Trump for his condemnation, McDaniel added during an ABC interview, “I don’t think comparing blame in this situation works.”
With a light touch, McDaniel insisted the RNC speak up, without publicly crossing Trump, said Mississippi RNC committeeman Henry Barbour, whom McDaniel occasionally consults.
“I think it speaks to her leadership,” Barbour said. “And sometimes that means leading in a way it’s clear she’s taking her own path and not just following.”