Trump’s MAGA forces threaten to upend vote for RNC chair
NEW YORK (AP) — By week’s end, the Republican National Committee is set to resolve a bitter leadership feud that has exposed perilous divisions within a party that has struggled to move past a disappointing midterm ahead of a critical race for the White House.
Those inside the fight believe the days ahead of Friday’s secret ballot at a luxury seaside resort could get even uglier as rebel forces within former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement threaten to upend RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel’s reelection bid.
The attacks have been led by McDaniel’s chief rival, Harmeet Dhillon, a Trump attorney who has accused the incumbent of religious bigotry, chronic misspending and privately claiming she can control the former president — allegations McDaniel denies. Also in the race is My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, a pro-Trump conspiracy theorist who secured enough support to qualify for the ballot.
Trump hasn’t made a public endorsement, but he and his team are privately advocating for McDaniel, whom he tapped for the position shortly after his 2016 victory. Still, many Trump loyalists blame McDaniel, the niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for some of the party’s recent struggles.
In an interview, Dhillon insisted that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters want a leadership change at the RNC. She warned of serious political consequences for any of the committee’s 168 elected members who support McDaniel’s reelection.
“For those members of the party who vote not with what the people in their state want but with what their own self-interest is, the next time they’re up for election, it’s going to be an issue,” Dhillon told The Associated Press.
Apprised of Dhillon’s statement, McDaniel said, “That sounds like a threat.” She condemned the increasingly ugly attacks against her and the divisions plaguing the committee.
“There’s nobody who’s enjoyed this more than Democrats. I know, because I love it when they’re fighting each other,” McDaniel said.
Friday’s vote for RNC chair serves as the latest high-profile leadership test for a deeply divided Republican Party grappling with questions about its future — and Trump’s influence — ahead of the 2024 presidential election. The infighting was on public display earlier this month as House Republicans almost came to blows before uniting behind House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, undermined by the same MAGA forces threatening McDaniel this week.
In both cases, Trump has struggled to control his own loyalists, who seem intent on fighting the status quo — whether McCarthy or McDaniel — no matter the cost.
Seeking to influence the vote, a group of Florida Republicans from the party’s MAGA wing moved last Friday to hold a vote of “no confidence” in McDaniel, which Republican groups in a handful of other states have done in recent weeks as well. But the Florida gathering, which drew leading McCarthy detractor Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., fell far short of reaching the quorum needed to hold an official vote.
Still, dozens of anti-McDaniel protesters waved signs outside the event. One read, “RONNA IS THE ENEMY WITHIN.”
“The biggest thing is that we want a really strong leader who’s in touch with MAGA, and Ronna just doesn’t have that,” Lake County, Florida, GOP Chair Anthony Sabatini, who led the anti-McDaniel push, said in a phone interview from a shooting range as gunshots rang out. “She’s lost the confidence of voters.”
Trump has avoided weighing in on the RNC chair fight at McDaniel’s request, according to those with direct knowledge of the situation. The former president would endorse her if she asked, but McDaniel’s team currently believes she will win without his public backing, allowing her to maintain a sense of neutrality heading into the 2024 presidential primary season.
According to its bylaws, the RNC must remain neutral in the presidential primary. Trump is the only announced GOP candidate so far, but other high-profile contenders are expected in the coming months.
Still, Trump could ultimately endorse McDaniel ahead of Friday’s vote if his public support is deemed necessary, according to people familiar with his thinking who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
At least three top Trump lieutenants — senior advisers Susie Wiles, Chris LaCivita and Clayton Henson — are planning to attend this week’s three-day RNC winter meeting in Southern California, where the vote will play out. While they are not attending specifically on McDaniel’s behalf, Trump’s team is making clear in private conversations that he backs McDaniel.
McDaniel’s unofficial whip team is expected to include former Trump chief counselor Kellyanne Conway, former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus, former Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, she said. Another high-profile Trump loyalist, Maryland RNC member David Bossie, is also backing McDaniel.
Dhillon’s guest list is still in flux, but she said over the weekend that her team would likely include former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, MAGA influencer Charlie Kirk and country singer John Rich.
After three consecutive disappointing national elections, there is a broad sense of dissatisfaction among Republican voters and RNC members alike about the health of their party. Some are increasingly eager to move on from Trump and, by proxy, McDaniel, who is viewed as a close Trump ally — even if many Trump’s supporters outside the RNC membership see her as insufficiently committed to their cause.
“She’s been Trump’s lap dog for four-plus years,” said Bill Palatucci, an RNC member from New Jersey and a vocal critic of both Trump and McDaniel. While Palatucci formally endorsed Dhillon late last week, he is skeptical she has the votes to defeat McDaniel.
Dhillon has unleashed a torrent of attacks against McDaniel in recent weeks that have resonated across Trump’s MAGA movement. But as the far right cheered, Dhillon may have alienated would-be supporters on the actual Republican National Committee, which is made up of activists and elected officials from all 50 states.
She has seized on several examples of apparent misspending and mismanagement under McDaniel’s watch, which McDaniel’s team — backed by former Trump officials like Wiles — claim are inaccurate or misleading.
In recent days, the attacks against McDaniel have intensified.
Last week, Dhillon promoted claims that a McDaniel ally raised concerns about Dhillon’s faith in at least one private conversation. Dhillon, who is of Indian heritage, identifies as a member of the Sikh religion.
The McDaniel ally has denied the claim, which was outlined in a detailed email to the RNC’s entire membership bearing the subject line “Religious Bigotry.”
Dhillon also highlighted a Washington Post report that McDaniel has said, in multiple private conversations with RNC members, that only she can dissuade Trump from launching an independent presidential bid — and ultimately destroying the party’s chances in the next presidential election — should he fail to win the GOP nomination.
“She said it to many people: Only I can control Trump,” Dhillon told the AP, likening such a statement to someone believing they could single-handedly stop an asteroid from crashing into Earth.
McDaniel said such claims are “ridiculous.”
“After working with President Trump for six years, I don’t think anybody could ever say they control him,” McDaniel said.
Meanwhile, McDaniel warned of a “huge risk” if Republicans cannot stop the infighting as the 2024 election season begins. The GOP is well positioned to win the Senate majority and maintain control of the House, although the presidential contest will dominate much of the committee’s focus.
“This is really critical as we head into ’24 that we stop labeling, attacking, demonizing other Republicans to the point where we can’t bring them together post-primary,” she said.
For her part, Dhillon said she would “of course” unite behind McDaniel if she ultimately prevails Friday.
“Job 1 is winning elections,” Dhillon said. “I’m a team player.”
Is DeSantis darkening Florida’s sunny open-records laws?
Florida has long been known for sunshine — not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation’s strongest meetings and records laws.
Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He’s also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.
Florida’s Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state’s lengthy list of open-government exceptions.
“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state’s public access laws for three decades.
DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP’s perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.
Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.
But it runs contrary to Florida’s historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.
Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.
Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.
As this year’s Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis’ powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.
Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.
“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”
DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis’ plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.
Other provisions of the legislation would presume anonymous statements in news stories are false for the purposes defamation lawsuits and would treat accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination as intrinsically defamatory.
Petersen said such provisions appear to be a first nationally and could have a freezing effect on free speech.
But Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who is sponsoring the bill, said it is “a sincere attempt to try and fix the problems that exist in this type of law.”
“This bill would make it easier for someone who’s actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to pursue justice in Florida courts,” Andrade said.
The defamation legislation is just one of several DeSantis administration policies prompting concern among media organizations.
Earlier this year, a Florida trial judge upheld DeSantis’ assertion of “executive privilege” in refusing to turn over information requested under the state’s public-records law about his screening of potential state Supreme Court nominees. That case is being watched by national media organizations as it’s being appealed.
The Florida Constitution contains no specific mention of “executive privilege.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution, though courts have upheld the president’s prerogative to withhold documents to protect the confidentiality of advice received in the decision-making process. Governors in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington also have previously asserted the privilege.
Another DeSantis administration policy has slowed access to some public records. Television station WKMG reported last month that public records requests to some state agencies were being routed for review to the governor’s office, sometimes delaying their release by weeks or months.
Public protests at the Capitol also have been limited. Under a DeSantis administration rule that took effect March 1, demonstrations at the Capitol Complex are only permitted outdoors. Requests to use space in the Capitol Complex must come from state agencies, the Legislature or judiciary, must be “consistent with the agency’s official purpose” and cannot include displays with “gratuitous violence or gore” that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community.”
Florida’s open-government reputation already was fading before DeSantis took office in 2019, but that trend has gained steam. In his first year, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details forbidden to be disclosed about various public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for college and university presidencies.
This year, roughly five-dozen bills already have been filed proposing more open-government exemptions, Petersen said. Some of those would prohibit the agency that provides security for DeSantis from disclosing the governor’s travel arrangements — even after the fact.
Though DeSantis said he doesn’t support it, another bill filed this year would require bloggers to file periodic reports with the state if they are paid for posts about the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members or legislative officials.
The cumulative effect is that “open government and public records laws are very much under the gun right now,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for the public’s right to open government.
“Every year, we’re seeing the vast sweep of the original intention chiseled away – sometimes bit by bit, other times chuck by chuck,” Block said, “and it’s definitely not the way it used to be.”
Missouri debates ban on LGBTQ education for all grades
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers argued Wednesday over a bill that would ban most LGBTQ education subjects for all grades in the state’s public schools.
The proposal is modeled after a Florida education law passed last year, touted by supporters as protecting “parent’s rights” and dubbed by opponents as a “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.
The Missouri bill debated in a state House committee hearing would ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Florida law only prohibits teaching those subjects from kindergarten through third grade, although any lessons on those topics for students of any grade are also banned if they are not age-appropriate.
“Exposure to such topics is inappropriate for children, creating confusion which may then cause doubt in their identities,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, a former teacher and the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill. “It is not the place of the school to indoctrinate our children by exposing them to gender and sexual identity curriculums and courses.”
Kelley said her bill will need to be amended so it does not limit teaching for Advanced Placement courses.
In response to a question from a committee member, Kelley said she assumes that under her bill, educators would be banned from explaining the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage.
“It seems like the things that you want to prohibit are targeted to one particular group that you find disfavorable,” Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli told Kelley.
Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, a former teacher who is openly gay, asked Kelley if him “being gay in the classroom” and not hiding that from students would be limited under her bill.
“Did you ever inform your students on your beliefs?” Kelley asked Mackey.
“They did know I was gay,” Mackey said. “They would see my wedding ring and they would ask about it, and I would say I have a husband.”
A committee vote on the bill was not scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.
The White House, Disney, and LGBTQ advocates criticized the passage of the Florida bill last year. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bill was a victory for parents and would prevent “indoctrination.”
Secretary Blinken to Honor International Women of Courage Awardees at White House Ceremony
WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will honor a group of extraordinary women at the 17th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Ceremony on Wednesday, March 8, at 2:00 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the White House for the first time in the award’s history.
The annual IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since 2007, the Department of State has recognized more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.
The ceremony will be pooled press and streamed live on whitehouse.gov/live and state.gov.
Following the IWOC ceremony, the awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, where they will meet with American counterparts in various cities throughout the country.
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