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Former President Trump’s refusal to sign the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) loyalty pledge is putting the organization in a bind as next week’s GOP primary debate approaches.
Trump said he wouldn’t sign the pledge last week and is expected to announce in the coming days whether he will attend the event.
RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel must now navigate the thorny situation of appeasing Trump — both a ratings draw and the clear front-runner in the primary — while maintaining her control as head of the party.
“It’s a distinct possibility that the Republican nominee for president could simply decide to shun the RNC itself,” said Brian Seitchik, a Republican strategist and Trump campaign alum. “When a candidate refuses to play by the rules, it obviously weakens the RNC’s position.”
However, McDaniel has given no indication that the RNC will make any exceptions for the former president.
“It’s the Beat Biden Pledge,” McDaniel told CNN’s Chris Wallace in an interview last month. “And what we’re saying — and the debate committee has met for over two years people from Alaska to Illinois to Tennessee — is if you’re going to stand on the Republican National Committee debate stage you should be able to support the nominee and beat Biden.”
“Everybody has to sign the Beat Biden Pledge. Everybody,” she added, when asked by Wallace if that applied to Trump as well. “It’s across the board. The rules aren’t changing. We’ve been very vocal with them.”
The pledge states that the candidate will support the eventual nominee of the party’s primary and that the candidate will not participate in any debate the RNC has not sanctioned. The pledge is a part of the criteria Republican candidates must meet to qualify for the first presidential primary debate set for Aug. 23.
This isn’t the first time Trump has gone against the RNC’s push for primary candidates to rally around the eventual nominee in the name of party unity. In August 2015, then-candidate Trump was the only candidate on stage at one of the debates to not raise his hand to show that he would support the eventual nominee in the 2016 primary. At the time, there were 17 Republicans competing for the nomination.
Trump ended up signing a loyalty pledge in September 2015, but by March 2016 said that he was no longer sticking with the pledge. By then, he was one of only three candidates running in the primary.
“The only reason that there was a need to do a loyalty pledge was because of Donald Trump,” said Alex Stroman, a Republican strategist and RNC alum. “I thought it was unnecessary in 2016.”
“The pledge, whether signed or not, whether followed or not, has never meant anything more than a piece of paper,” he continued.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) both signed the pledge when they ran in the 2016 GOP primary but did not end up supporting Trump in the general election.
Seven years later, Trump’s grip on the Republican primary base is as tight as ever.
Poll after poll shows Trump dominating the Republican primary field at the state and national level. The latest Real Clear Politics average shows Trump leading the candidates with 54.5 percent support, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis distantly trails in second place with 14.8 percent support. The rest of the field is polling at single digits or below.
So far, DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott have signed the pledge. Former Vice President Mike Pence has said he will also sign it.
“These are individuals who still believe that the strength comes from the party, organization comes from the party, victory comes from the party,” said Jennifer Horn, former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee and co-founder of the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project. Horn specifically referred to Haley, Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has suggested he will eventually sign it.
However, Republican strategists are quick to point out that there is a disconnect between Trump’s hardcore base and the Republican Party establishment.
“It speaks to the complicated relationship between Trump voters and the Republican Party,” Seitchik said.
That dynamic has forced the party establishment to rely heavily on Trump when it comes to turnout and fundraising. A number of Republican strategists voiced concerns to The Hill amid Trump’s legal issues that the party could see a turnout disaster if the former president is somehow removed at the top of the ticket.
“The RNC needs Trump a lot more than Trump needs the RNC,” Horn said. “Whether they want him to be the head of the party or not, the party is following him, not the RNC.”
“If they lose Trump, then they lose the support of the Trump voters and their base for their Senate candidates, their House candidates, their state candidates,” she added.
Horn said that if Trump decides to debate without signing the pledge, the other candidates should be given the same treatment.
“If they’re going to let Trump on the stage and not insist that he take the pledge and sign the paper, then no one else on that stage should have to do it either,” she said.
In an interview Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week,” Christie said he believes the RNC would keep Trump off the debate stage if he did not sign the pledge.
“I think that they are serious about wanting this pledge signed and I do think they would keep Donald Trump off the stage if he chose not to sign the pledge,” Christie said.
But like Trump, Christie has also been an outspoken critic of the loyalty pledge, calling it “a bad idea.” Christie said Sunday that he has not yet signed the pledge because he has not yet been presented with it. The former governor suggested it was due to the RNC going through the process of verifying donors.
Other Republicans say they do not see a scenario in which Trump’s hand is somehow forced to sign the document.
“If he decides he wants to do [the debate], it’s hard to see how he wouldn’t be allowed to, pledge or no,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former RNC communications director.