Inside Trump’s secret endorsement operation

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WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump headlined a fundraiser for the House Republicans campaign arm in Tampa, Fla., in November, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., seized on the opportunity to meet face to face to seek Trump’s approval.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Trump replied. Then he said he would tell his team about it.

The next day, the former president called Bilirakis to offer the most sought-after validation of Republican politics. As Bilirakis drove to an event in northern Hillsborough County, Trump read a proposed statement over the phone and asked if the congressman had any changes to make.

Bilirakis, who could face a tough re-election race, was just thrilled to get the stamp of approval. He didn’t change a comma. “Of course it’s important to me,” Bilirakis said in an interview with NBC News at the Capitol on Tuesday. On whether Trump’s imprimatur will scare off potential top challengers, Bilirakis, whose district is expected to become more Republican in an upcoming rewrite of Florida’s congressional lines, said, “We’ll see.”

The experience of the eight-term lawmaker, whose father held the seats for 12 terms before him, reflects a sometimes secretive process that was described to NBC News in interviews with more than half a dozen people familiar with the aspects of the approval operation. Trump has endorsed 91 candidates for House, Senate, governorships, state legislative seats and a variety of statewide offices, including secretary of state, attorney general and the Texas Lands Commissioner, according to an NBC News review.

And when he takes the stage for his first rally of 2022, in Florence, Arizona, on Saturday night, he will be flanked by a retinue of hand-picked favorites who deny losing their home country in 2020. Arizona saw the closest finish in the nation – Trump lost by less than 10,500 votes – and the result remained the same after a partisan GOP review failed to change the result.

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Yet when Trump abruptly canceled a planned Jan. 6 speech intended to refute the actual election results, he promised to make his case at Saturday’s rally. Candidates who agree with him were given prime speaking slots at the event.

The most common theme of Trump’s endorsements, particularly at the state level, is that he endorses candidates who have voiced support for his lie that the 2020 election was rigged against him. Fifty-nine of 91 questioned the 2020 election results, according to an NBC News review, including those who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory in Congress.

He also fell in love with the anti-approval, tearing up Republican incumbents who challenge him or his lie about the election.

“Rumors have it that Doug Ducey, the weak RINO Governor of Arizona, is being pressured by Old Crow Mitch McConnell to run for the United States Senate,” he said in a statement Friday, ahead of his weekend rally. end in this state. “He will never have my approval or the support of MAGA Nation!”

“I will never endorse that fool again,” he said last Sunday, after Sen. Mike Rounds, R.S.D., called the campaign fair.

Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio conducted a survey of South Dakota voters for a conservative group that is trying to demonstrate that support for the state’s other senator, Republican John Thune, is low enough for him to lose a primary. While Rounds is not eligible for re-election for another five years, Thune is on the ballot in 2022.

In the face of Trump’s political and personal destruction, three House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year have decided not to run again. And Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who sits on the Democratic-led House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, faces losing a Trump-endorsed primary against Harriet Hageman.

In Alaska, Trump endorsed Governor Mike Dunleavy on the condition that Dunleavy not support Senator Lisa Murkowski’s re-election bid. Trump has endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, who is seeking to deny Murkowski the GOP nomination.

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But there’s another common thread: Trump is looking to find races where his endorsement can be tied directly to a prospect’s fate.

He has stayed away from several competitive GOP Senate primaries where multiple candidates are running as sidekicks, including in Missouri, Arizona and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed Sean Parnell – only to see Parnell suspend his campaign amid domestic abuse allegations. This served as a warning that he needed a better verification process.

In cases where Trump doesn’t have a long-standing relationship with the candidate — or isn’t making the endorsement to thwart an opponent — Republicans familiar with the process describe a more cautious and strategic approach than he has pursued. as president or just after his defeat.

A small group of advisers, led by longtime adviser Susie Wiles, vet candidates seeking Trump’s endorsement. The group includes Bill Stepien, who managed Trump’s 2020 campaign, Brian Jack, the White House political director under Trump and Donald Trump Jr., according to people familiar with the process.

It’s a two-tier process: the candidates Trump is going to endorse in hell or high tide, and the lower-tier hopefuls who are vetted.

“At the end of the day, he makes those decisions, but he does it after he’s put it through the channels,” a Republican operative said. ‘No one would have stopped him from endorsing Jody Hice or David Perdue’, the Georgia candidates trying to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger and Governor Brian Kemp, who have both dismissed Trump’s false gambling claims disloyal in their state in 2020 “No process would have stopped that.”

As the decisions begin from different angles — a one-on-one meeting with a supplicant, Trump endorsing an ally’s public comment on him, or calls to Wiles’ endorsement team — they wind down. at the same place.

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“He makes up his own mind,” said Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas, who narrowly won her 2020 seat and recently won a second endorsement from Trump in December, along with her fellow Texas reps. Michael Burgess, Roger Williams and Michael Cloud. Van Duyne said she was unaware of any formal process and that it took her longer to be approved to serve as housing and urban development officer in the Trump administration than it was to get its most recent approval.

Behind the scenes, efforts are underway to line up Trump-backed candidates from across the country. A super PAC led by Trump ally Pam Bondi is bringing many of them together for a policy conference and fundraising dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort next month. Trump is due to speak at the Feb. 23 dinner, according to an email sent to donors that was first reported by The New York Times.

The competition for Trump’s endorsement has also spurred the jockey to hire advisers who are seen to have his ear. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., and Bernie Moreno, a Republican from Ohio, have both hired former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway to advise their Senate campaigns. David McCormick, who recently raced for the Senate in Pennsylvania, has fielded so many luminaries from the Trump world it’s hard to count.

But some longtime Republican strategists aren’t convinced that’s the ticket, at least not for second-tier candidates unknown to the former president. The best path — short of a direct relationship with Trump — might be to go through Wiles’ vetting process.

“There are a lot of other people who are busy and keeping a room at Mar-a-Lago and finding a way around the table, but I don’t think those people, on the whole, have a any influence on the process,” the GOP operative said. “Not everyone gets a reunion. If they’re considering [an endorsement], they meet anyone they envision.”

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