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'No More Money For RINOs': How Trump's Fight With The GOP Is All About Control

Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month. Trump is urging his supporters to donate to his political action committee, rather than the Republican Party.
Former President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference late last month. Trump is urging his supporters to donate to his political action committee, rather than the Republican Party.

Updated March 9, 2021 at 8:10 PM ET

The latest Trump-versus-The-Establishment skirmish is over one of the things couples fight about most.

Money.

"No more money for RINOS," former President Donald Trump said in a statement Monday night, using the acronym for "Republicans In Name Only," which is what conservatives call Republicans they deem not sufficiently conservative. "They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base—they will never lead us to Greatness. Send your donation to Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com. We will bring it all back stronger than ever before!"

Trump's appeal follows a similar one he made last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when he said, "There's only one way to contribute to our efforts."

And that Monday one came after a lawyer for his political action committee on Friday sent a "cease-and-desist" letter to the Republican National Committee, and to other party committees tasked with electing Republicans to the House and Senate, demanding they stop using the former president's name and likeness to raise funds. Politico first reported news of the letter.

RNC lawyers wrote back, saying the organization has "every right" to use a public figure's likeness. NPR was able to view the contents of the letter. It notes RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel's "close relationship" to Trump and that she moved quickly to quash the beef, reaching out to the former president this weekend.

"I'm not a lawyer, but I would assume stopping the RNC from using his image/name is totally unenforceable since he's a public person," Alex Conant, who was an RNC press secretary and worked on the presidential campaigns of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, told NPR.

"We raised a lot of money off [of former President Barack] Obama, and he never gave us permission. But if he [Trump] wants to help Republicans win back Congress, he'll help the RNC raise money however he can."

The RNC letter also notes that during McDaniel and Trump's conversation, "Trump reaffirmed to her over the weekend that he approves of the RNC's current use of his name in fundraising and other materials, including for our upcoming donor retreat event at Palm Beach at which we look forward to him participating."

In a new statement Tuesday evening, Trump said, "I fully support the Republican Party and important GOP Committees, but I do not support RINOs and fools, and it is not their right to use my likeness or image to raise funds. So much money is being raised and completely wasted by people that do not have the GOP's best interests in mind."

The Washington Post reported that the RNC decided to move a portion of the April donor event to Trump's Mar-a-Lago property. Trump's club will be paid for it.

The RNC letter also said it would seek Trump's "prior approval" for future materials.

Those close to Trump did not immediately respond to requests to comment.

It's pretty standard for political parties to use the image or words of popular and powerful people to try to raise money and help elect people from that party. But it appears to chafe Trump when anyone uses his name or image and he doesn't see a direct benefit. After all, much of the money he made before becoming president was from licensing his name to adorn the sides of buildings or properties he didn't own.

The tension between the RNC and outside political groups is not a new one, but Trump's singular popularity with rank-and-file voters presents a unique danger to the party's ability to raise money, if Trump isn't on board. Both major parties have come to increasingly rely on small donors, because of the ease of donating online, and this episode shows the grip Trump retains on them and that he's willing to use that leverage when it suits him.

"It shouldn't be surprising to anyone," said Doug Heye, who was communications director at the RNC at the beginning of the Obama presidency and is no fan of Trump. "We've known that Trump's loyalty is to himself — not only first and foremost, but only. We've seen that play out any time anyone has said anything critical."

Heye noted the influence the former president has over McDaniel, who used to include her maiden name: Romney. She is Utah Sen. Mitt Romney's niece.

"Ronna McDaniel basically dropped her maiden name for the guy. She's been fiercely loyal to Trump, always defended him, never been critical, and this is the thanks you get. It says to me — Trump doesn't give points, he only takes them away one at a time."

"What this really is about is control," said Matt Gorman, former communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, one of the committees that received the cease-and-desist letter from Trump's attorney. "He [Trump] doesn't have the political infrastructure of the RNC and others at his beck and call that he did three months ago as president."

How political parties spend the money they raise

Outside of Washington, D.C., what the national political committees actually do is likely something of a mystery. But they do a lot for candidates and state parties.

For example, they help fund state parties, put money into local get-out-the-vote efforts and provide parties and candidates across the country with access to sophisticated data programs that include voter contact files, from which they can identify high- and low-propensity voters in their districts and track contacts with them.

Trump's PAC doesn't have that ability, and in recent months, he doesn't have a very good track record of spending the kind of money necessary for candidates to win.

As of a month before January's Georgia Senate runoffs, for example, his PAC had kept most of the money it had raised, despite fundraising appeals saying the money was needed to win the races and "STOP Socialist Dems."

The RNC, on the other hand, spent some $20 million in the races, with only a small amount donated from Save America PAC, which didn't heavily play in advertising either — something outside groups tend to do to support candidates.

Democrats went on to win both races and control of the U.S. Senate.

"The reality is — this is going to be money Donald Trump can do whatever he wants with, without spending his own money and could basically be paying his lawyer bills," Heye said.

"Donald Trump basically wants a slush fund he can control. At the RNC, he can't control it. Yes, it is basically Trump's party still, and that includes state party chairs and Republican National Committee members, but the RNC chair doesn't serve at the pleasure of Trump anymore. She works more immediately for the 168 [committee members], and there is a separation there."

Part of why Trump likely wants that control, however, is because he hasn't always liked the kinds of candidates the establishment committees have supported. He wants Republicans who have crossed him — those like Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted for his impeachment — out of the party.

The priority for the committees, though, is to win as many seats as possible. That's the fundamental tension between Trump and the political professionals who have been on and around campaigns for Republicans for decades.

When Trump took office, Republicans also controlled both the House and Senate. By the time he left, however, they had lost both. To get back on track, Trump and the party committees have to be on the same page.

"Trump signing emails for anyone other than his own campaign was rare," Gorman said. "However, practically every candidate and committee out there invokes his name. If he is the de facto leader of the party, which he claims to be, he should welcome this. He should view it as a sign of strength. It's a way to keep the grassroots energized in his name while he is not in the spotlight."

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