Trump’s Man at the R.N.C. Will Face Pressure to Satisfy His Election Lies

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After the 2020 election, one story out of North Carolina had a powerful effect on Donald J. Trump.

A proactive Republican, the story went, had worked behind the scenes to stop Democrats from stealing the election in the state and helped secure Mr. Trump’s victory there.

That Republican was Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina G.O.P. He had pushed the state party to recruit what he described as thousands of poll observers and hundreds of volunteer lawyers as part of an election-protection program. Mr. Trump called Mr. Whatley after the election, and Mr. Whatley boasted to him about that program’s success.

“That’s great,” Mr. Trump replied, as Mr. Whatley recounted the conversation in a speech to North Carolina Republicans last year. “Why the hell didn’t they do that in Arizona and Georgia?”

Mr. Whatley, who became the Republican National Committee’s general counsel last year, is now poised for a far bigger and more consequential role: Mr. Trump handpicked him to succeed Ronna McDaniel as the committee’s chair. Ms. McDaniel is expected to step aside Friday.

Mr. Trump’s selection of Mr. Whatley, whose appointment still awaits a formal vote, sums up the former president’s vision for the new R.N.C. He wants it to share his obsession with the false idea that President Biden and Democrats stole the 2020 election from him and are working to do it again in 2024. Mr. Trump believes Mr. Whatley is more in sync with his views about voter fraud than Ms. McDaniel, and he has insisted that Mr. Whatley will stop Democrats from “cheating” in November, according to two people who have spoken to Mr. Trump and who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

But the story that stuck with Mr. Trump — that his victory in North Carolina had hinged on Mr. Whatley’s election-watchdog work — was just that: a story, based only loosely on reality.

Local election officials and national Republican leaders saw the North Carolina G.O.P.’s 2020 election-protection program as well organized, but hardly as the reason for Mr. Trump’s victory there. Despite Mr. Whatley’s boasts to Mr. Trump, in the days after the election, he and other party officials publicly attributed the victory in North Carolina to their robust efforts to get out the vote and to Mr. Trump’s own appearance there ahead of Election Day.

Moreover, Mr. Whatley himself has a more mixed record than Mr. Trump may realize on the former president’s No. 1 issue. While he often sounds like a loyal soldier in the effort to falsely discredit Mr. Biden’s win, at other times he has distanced himself from the most extreme conspiracy theories promoted by Mr. Trump and his allies.

The R.N.C. leadership changes expected to start on Friday serve as yet another example of an institution being shaped to fit the mold of what Mr. Trump wants it to be rather than what it was actually built for. It remains unclear whether everything will fall into place as he and his supporters envision it.

In November and December of 2020, a frantic Mr. Trump was scrounging to find lawyers to file increasingly audacious lawsuits to challenge his election loss. His demands were so outlandish that Washington’s elite class of Republican lawyers suddenly became unavailable to the president of the United States.

There was perhaps no more anxious place at that time than the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington. Officials there tried to insulate themselves from what many saw as a clownish scheme unbound from law and evidence. Of the 65 lawsuits that Mr. Trump and his allies filed after the 2020 election, the R.N.C. attached its name to only four, according to Democracy Docket, which tracks the cases.

This time around, Mr. Trump wants the R.N.C. to be far more aggressive in training poll watchers and filing lawsuits, both before and after the November election. He is already claiming, without evidence, that Democrats are plotting to steal the presidential election. The committee has invested substantially in so-called election integrity efforts, at Mr. Trump’s insistence.

But it has not been enough to satisfy him, or some of his allies.

On the campaign trail Mr. Trump has praised a plan — first pushed by his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn — to “guard the vote” during the 2024 election, with an emphasis on heavily Democratic cities with large Black populations.

“Michael Whatley will bring in active leadership in the form of election integrity, as opposed to a passive slash reactive approach,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump campaign adviser who is expected to soon move over to the R.N.C. to run its operations in the general election.

A spokesman for Mr. Whatley declined to answer questions for this article.

If there’s another tight race in swing states this fall, the R.N.C. will be far more active after Election Day than it was in 2020, said Steve Bannon, the far-right podcast host and former chief strategist to Mr. Trump.

“It’s the MAGA takeover of the R.N.C.,” Mr. Bannon said in an interview.

Mr. Whatley is no doubt familiar with the R.N.C.’s existing efforts on election integrity having served as its general counsel. He has kept an eye on, but has not played a direct role in, the dozens of lawsuits the committee has filed to challenge voting laws in key states ahead of the 2024 election. And he has worked with state parties to bolster their own election integrity work.

His work in North Carolina setting up the poll observers, which he claimed served as a deterrence for voter malfeasance, has also drawn attention from Mr. Trump and his associates, though there is no evidence of mass voter fraud attempted in North Carolina or elsewhere.

As R.N.C. chairman, Mr. Whatley will face intense pressure to embrace the most extreme versions of Mr. Trump’s obsession with the false idea that the 2020 election was stolen.

To some of the activists leading that movement in North Carolina and beyond, Mr. Whatley is viewed as insufficiently hard-line for that role. He is an understated lawyer who worked in the George W. Bush administration and lobbied for energy companies before showing up in Florida as a volunteer during the 2016 campaign and later endearing himself to key Trump aides.

He has broadly embraced the notion that Democrats cheated in elections in states outside of North Carolina. But he has also negated the conspiracy theory spread by Mr. Trump that election machines were hacked to switch votes. According to a North Carolina party leader who insisted on anonymity to speak freely about Mr. Whatley, he privately told people that, contrary to the conspiracy theory, election machines are not connected to the internet and do indeed have a paper trail.

In 2021, Mr. Whatley said in an interview with National Public Radio that he agreed with the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that Joseph R. Biden Jr. was the rightfully elected president since he got the most electoral votes. That same year, under Mr. Whatley’s leadership, the North Carolina G.O.P. resisted calls for a so-called forensic audit in the style of the discredited effort organized by Republican Arizona legislators.

At one event, held on a farm outside of Greensboro, N.C., in September 2021, hecklers booed Mr. Whatley as he tried to explain to the crowd that unlike in Arizona and Georgia, the election in North Carolina had gone smoothly, according to a video posted by the right-wing website Gateway Pundit.

“That’s a lie, Michael!” one person in the crowd shouted, the video showed.

As Mr. Whatley prepares to lead the R.N.C., the pressure on him from those who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump is likely to be even more intense. The movement that has organized around that notion has already permeated the party’s official structure and has helped reshape what was once a bastion of old-guard Republicanism.

For decades, the committee was sharply limited from directly engaging in election protection work because of a consent decree it signed in the 1980s after it was sued for racist practices. Those alleged practices included setting up a “ballot security task force” of armed off-duty police officers to patrol polling sites in Black and Latino neighborhoods and trying to remove vast numbers from the voting rolls.

After the consent decree expired, the R.N.C. developed a program ahead of the 2022 midterms that funded and placed “election integrity” trainers and lawyers in state parties around the country, to recruit and train election observers and temporary poll workers based on the local laws and rules.

These new election integrity R.N.C. officials have often been involved with a national network of activists organized by Cleta Mitchell, a Trump legal ally who played a key role in the former president’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Ms. Mitchell was knitting together many of the groups that had sprung up in swing states in response to Mr. Trump’s 2020 election lies and conspiracy theories. She offered them a way to get more closely involved in election offices, election board meetings and polling places. But the R.N.C. officials were also operating out of some caution, mindful of not wanting to create the conditions for another legal battle that had limited their election integrity work for decades.

The R.N.C. then became a convenient dumping ground for recriminations after a disastrous 2022 midterms for Republicans.

Republicans fared far worse than expected, but instead of focusing on the liabilities of candidates backed by Mr. Trump who had pushed lies about the election system and been rejected by voters, Trump allies blamed the R.N.C. They pressured the committee to take more aggressive and expansive actions to stop what they falsely claimed was mass voter fraud. Ms. Mitchell sent the committee a letter last year asking for closer coordination with her group.

When asked about the letter, she said she also sent one on the topic to the Democratic National Committee.

Earlier this year, Turning Point Action, the political arm of a prominent conservative organization with close ties to Mr. Trump, organized a shadow “R.N.C.” event — standing for Restoring National Confidence — for hundreds of local party chairs and state party officials from swing states timed to coincide with the official R.N.C. annual winter meeting in Las Vegas. The event was aimed at pressuring the R.N.C. to be more aggressive.

Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman and vocal Trump ally who has spent millions of his own dollars spreading conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, was there. He and his associates spent hours speaking at the event. They ran through conspiracy theories about election machines and implored the party leaders present to demand practices such as hand-counting ballots without any election machines — actions deemed disruptive and unnecessary by many election officials.

Doug Frank, an elections activist promoting conspiracy theories, gave a presentation as a member of Mr. Lindell’s team. He said he showed people “how election fraud is disenfranchising them from their constitutional rights, which empowers them to nullify any state law or any state policy that does that.”

The Republican Party is his biggest opposition, he said during his presentation, foreshadowing the pressure that will come to bear on the incoming R.N.C. chairman.

“Who’s our enemy?” Mr. Frank asked. “Is our enemy the Democrats? No. It’s our own party, the Republican Party.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research. Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.



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