Trump looks to Whatley as he plans to reshape RNC

Former President Donald Trump is introduced by North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley before speaking at the state GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, in June 2021. - Jonathan Drake/Reuters/File
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Even though he hasn’t officially clinched the 2024 Republican nomination for president, Donald Trump has looked to reshape the structure of the national party to better suit his desires for the general election and beyond. The former president has signaled interest to closely syncing the Republican National Committee with his campaign, building out a team that will indulge in his focus on election fraud, and improve its fundraising prowess – in a time when the committee finds itself in dire financial straits.

The former president publicly endorsed Whatley earlier this month alongside Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, as co-chair of the RNC. Trump also said he planned to install senior adviser Chris LaCivita as chief operating officer. Trump and his team are hoping the new leadership could improve the RNC’s fundraising. New campaign finance reports show the RNC has $8.7 million cash on hand, compared to the Democratic National Committee’s $24 million of available funds.

Two sources close to Trump said that the former president’s interest in Michael Whatley, currently the RNC’s general counsel, stems directly from Whatley’s work and intense focus on claims of election fraud. The North Carolina Republican Party chairman has led his state’s political apparatus for almost five years, and in that time, he has cultivated a reputation as a loyal party figure who has been able to appeal to Trump and establishment Republicans alike.

“Michael has been with me from the beginning, has done a great job in his home state of North Carolina, and is committed to election integrity, which we must have to keep fraud out of our election so it can’t be stolen,” the former president said in a statement endorsing Whatley.

North Carolina Republicans often point to Whatley’s emphasis on building out a team of pollwatchers and lawyers for elections in the 2022 midterms.

“Chairman Whatley is one of the hardest working individuals I’ve ever met. He is a tireless advocate for our party. Since I’ve worked with him, one of his main focuses has been on the security of our elections,” said Philip R. Thomas, who has served as the political director, chief counsel and strategy director of the North Carolina Republican party under Whatley.

North Carolina has seen instances of voter fraud in recent elections. In 2022, four people pled guilty on misdemeanor charges in an absentee ballot fraud scheme centered on a Republican political operative working for Rev. Mark Harris, then a candidate for the 9th Congressional District race in 2018. Whatley became chair in 2019.

That reputation on election security extends beyond Whatley’s home state. The North Carolina Republican has also aligned himself with Trump on false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. As leader of his state party, Whatley played an active role in both the 2020 and 2022 elections in the state—in which Trump won the state in the presidential race and Republicans retained control of outgoing Sen. Richard Burr’s seat. Trump and his allies believe Whatley had a particular impact on the tight 2022 Senate race through reinforcing election security, which ended in Trump-endorsed Sen. Ted Budd’s win. Budd’s victory was one of a small number of important races Trump had in his win column during an election where the former president was widely blamed for the party’s lackluster results.

“In 2021, Whatley created an election integrity committee composed of private practice attorneys, former elections officials, and grassroots organizers who advised the party on how best to build upon our successful election integrity efforts,” Thomas told CNN, adding that Whatley continued to recruit and train poll observers and lawyers who “helped to ensure that [the state’s] election was conducted according to the law.”

Whatley’s ambitions have extended beyond North Carolina. In 2023, he ran to be co-chair of the RNC and was endorsed by Trump. Ultimately, though, Whatley came short and placed third in the contest.

Whatley is the heavy favorite to succeed current RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who has offered to step down after the South Carolina primary.

One of Trump’s grievances with McDaniel is that he privately still harbors resentment toward the organization over its handling of the 2020 election, blaming it for not having what he believes were the proper attorneys in place to challenge the election results, multiple sources told CNN.

“His primary focus [as RNC chairman] will be on the election integrity stuff, which he has a passion for,” one source told CNN. “He obviously shares that passion with [Trump].”

Another pivotal role of the RNC chair is to help with fundraising, something the committee desperately needs to do, according to dismal financial filings. Some Republicans have expressed concern that Whatley, who is relatively unknown on the national stage, would not have the experience necessary to help the RNC bring in the high dollar donations.

If all goes well for Whatley and Trump’s team, the North Carolina Republican will be walking into an unenviable situation. The RNC finds itself with a smaller war chest than its Democratic counterpart.

“I have the sense that he’s walking into not a good situation [sic]. We have definitely struggled with fundraising lately. The Democrats have really been going gangbusters really since the beginning of the Trump era the Democrats have been much better at fundraising,” a North Carolina Republican strategist said. “Yeah, so I think he’s probably walking into somewhat of a mess that could get worse. Especially if the RNC is tasked with doing things that aren’t really supporting candidates but are helping Trump with legal bills or whatever else.”

A Trump ally brushed off those concerns: “Trump does that himself.”

One source said that while Whatley and Trump were not in constant communication, the former president always singles out Whatley at various RNC events. And in private conversations, Trump has often said, “Let’s talk to Michael [Whatley],” when the issue of election integrity arises.

One source said that Whatley has privately acknowledged that the RNC needs a system overhaul.

While the committee’s 168 members will need to vote both Whatley and Lara Trump into position, sources familiar with the internal process said that Trump’s endorsement, particularly as he looks poised to win the Republican nomination, makes it much harder for members to vote against Trump-backed candidates.

For Whatley’s backers, there’s a feeling in North Carolina that he will likely become the next RNC chair and an apprehension about what that means for the state party.

“We’re pretty darn concerned at the state level of what’s going to happen if Whatley leaves,” the North Carolina Republican strategist said. “There’s a high chance that we could get somebody that’s just totally incompetent.”

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