Behind Trump’s CPAC deal gone bad – Politico
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland ― Donald Trump spent five years building a mutually beneficial relationship with the organization that hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, filling its coffers with at least $150,000 in cash and scoring coveted speaking slots that started him on a course towards winning the Republican presidential nomination.
But he ended up canceling what would have been his biggest CPAC speech at the last minute amid plans for protest and disruptions, apparently deciding that his surging presidential campaign no longer needed any boost from the once-storied group.
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Amid criticism of the relationship with CPAC’s organizers, Trump also bristled at their insistence that he answer questions from a journalist of their choosing onstage after his speech, according to sources familiar with the planning.
“They refused to accept the terms and they asked us to change the terms to allow him to give longer remarks,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that sponsors CPAC. “And we said no to that.”
An ACU board member added that Trump “didn’t want to answer questions, and he decided he was the frontrunner so he didn’t need to answer them, or even to show up,” said a member of the board member of the American Conservative Union, the group that sponsors CPAC.
The organization went back and forth with Trump’s campaign about the Q&A session, according to the board member.
“Trump thinks everything is negotiable, but this wasn’t,” said the board member, who didn’t want to be identified discussing internal negotiations. “It’s ACU’s policy to have every presidential candidate actually answer questions, not just come and give a stump speech,” the board member said, noting the policy was implemented last year. On Friday, Trump’s rivals Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were questioned after their Friday afternoon speeches by Fox News host Sean Hannity. The intent is for “hard questions, but not gotcha questions,” said the board member.
But the requirement could have proven uncomfortable for Trump in light of the sentiment swelling at the convention center here. Speakers and attendees alike have lashed out at the billionaire real estate showman as a fake conservative whose presidential campaign threatens to set back the Republican Party years, if not decades. Trump’s rival Ted Cruz earned some of his enthusiastic applause during his Friday afternoon speech when he reasoned that Trump probably skipped the event because “someone told him conservatives were going to be here.”
Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, continued to negotiate over the terms of the appearance with ACU executive director Dan Schneider through Friday morning.
But ACU was caught off guard when Trump suddenly pulled the plug shortly before noon on Friday, even after his campaign had made arrangements to arrive that night at the hotel connected to the convention center, according to the sources familiar with the planning. Adding insult to injury was that the group had worked to build a close relationship with Trump, and had endured criticism for its unwillingness to bow to calls for it to disinvite Trump.
“It’s a shame because Schlapp had stood his ground and said that we were going to have him come and speak, even though he was taking some heat for it,” said the ACU board member. Former ACU chairman Al Cardenas added that Trump’s cancellation was “about as strong a slap in the face as you can get” and predicted “this is going to make it very difficult to unite the conservative movement if he is the nominee.”
Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, denied that ACU’s insistence on the session had anything to do with the last-minute cancellation.
“No candidate in the race for President has answered more questions than Mr. Trump. He has done more interviews than all the candidates combined,” Lewandowski emailed. He suggested that the decision was solely based on the calculation that it was a better use of time to be in Kansas on Saturday, when the state is holding its GOP primary.
“Delegates available in KS tomorrow,” he added, pointing to a campaign statement explaining that Trump would be holding a rally in Kansas Saturday, then planned to travel to Florida, which holds its pivotal primary on March 15.
“Because of this,” the statement read, Trump “will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years. Mr. Trump would like to thank Matt Schlapp and all of the executives at CPAC and looks forward to returning to next year, hopefully as President of the United States.”
The niceties aside, Trump’s decision to bail on CPAC is being interpreted as a slight that suggests the once-storied event no longer holds much sway in GOP politics. It left some ACU insiders grumbling regretfully about how ACU leadership had gone out on a limb for Trump early, even as the alliance played into problematic narratives for both sides.
Trump has been accused of trying to buy conservative support.
Meanwhile, the ACU, once among the most storied institutions on the right, has been criticized in recent years for selling influence to deep pocketed interests.
Trump’s decision to cancel his speech underscores the extent to which he has created his own constituencies independent from those that traditionally define presidential politics. It also shows just how far Trump has come as political force since he kicked off his presidential campaign last year.
Not long after Trump’s announcement, he invited ACU chair Schlapp and his executive director Schneider to meet with the Trump campaign’s staff at its headquarters inside Manhattan’s Trump Tower.
The invitation came at a time when no one was giving Trump much of a chance of winning the GOP nomination. But Schlapp and Schneider were making an effort to meet with all the candidates, and they had extra incentive to do so with Trump, who was emerging as one of the group’s major donors, giving checks that now total at least $150,000, more than previously known, according to multiple sources familiar with Trump’s support.
And when Schlapp and Schneider returned from their visit ― their second to Trump Tower in just a few months ― they were raving about his operation and his chances for winning the nomination.
“They’re doing big things,” Schneider told associates, according to multiple sources to whom he praised Trump’s nascent campaign at the time.
The unlikely alliance between Trump and the ACU, detailed in interviews with ten people who have been involved at various stages, benefitted both parties.
The donations from Trump ― the last of which came in 2015 ― helped the organization stabilize itself after a tough financial stretch under Cardenas’ leadership, according to former officials and other people familiar with the group. “Trump helped saved ACU,” said one former ACU official. (Cardenas, disputed the suggestion that the group had been in dire financial straits. “We’re not a money-making organization, and we always burn all of our resources after we do CPAC,” he said).
For Trump, the alliance provided valuable entry into conservative circles as he was just beginning to increase his political profile. And, since he launched his campaign, the group and its officials had been among the few high-profile conservatives who have regularly defended him.
Last summer, when Trump was drawing fire from across the political spectrum for questioning the war heroism of Arizona Sen. John McCain, and for calling undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and drug smugglers, Schlapp was one of the few high-profile conservatives to defend him.
“I actually know Donald Trump. He is not a racist,” Schlapp, a former political director for President George W. Bush, said in one interview. In another, he praised Trump as “pretty smart” for “picking a fight with John McCain.” And he has encouraged people “to listen to what [Trump] is saying”, saying he is “definitely” a “plausible president.”
Despite a testy back-and-forth with Marco Rubio’s campaign, ACU spokesman Walters said the group has “been fair and neutral in this race and have treated all campaigns the same.” ACU has “close relationships with all the major presidential candidates,” said Walters. “That means that we meet with them and talk to all the major campaigns.” And Schlapp has argued that ACU’s only interest in the presidential race is ensuring that GOP voters and the thousands of activists who attend CPAC are able to hear directly from the candidates in an unfiltered way.
In fact, though, it’s possible to trace the roots of Trump’s presidential campaign back to his first appearance at CPAC in 2011, according to one of the men who invited Trump to the event that year, Jimmy LaSalvia, a former conservative operative.
“Trump recognized in that first CPAC speech and in subsequent ones that CPAC attracts the anti-establishment grassroots activists who are driving the Republican Party now, and that he could manipulate them and play to them. And that’s exactly what he’s done,” said LaSalvia.
LaSalvia co-founded a conservative gay rights group called GOProud that had participated in CPAC over objections from social conservatives, who threatened to boycott the event in 2011 over GOProud’s inclusion.
It was against that backdrop that GOProud reached out to Trump, who has been seen as a supporter of gay rights, and who at the time was encouraging speculation that he might run for president in 2012. “We invited him to CPAC and arranged for him to have time to speak from the main stage. He accepted,” wrote LaSalvia in a 2015 book about his decision to abandon the GOP. Trump was a massive hit, prompting one of his staffers to express relief to LaSalvia, explaining “you know, that was his first political speech.”
LaSalvia can be seen in a behind-the-scenes GOProud video walking Trump to his waiting limousine afterward, posing for a photograph with the billionaire and urging him to run for president.
“I do regret that I ever encouraged him to run for president,” LaSalvia says now. But he acknowledged that “GOProud, Trump and ACU all got what they wanted out of that stunt. Everybody benefited from it. And that helped him to realize his path to the Republican nomination.”
Trump has been invited back to CPAC every year since, and has gotten mostly enthusiastic responses each time. But sources say that ACU board members began raising objections to providing Trump with a prime speaking slot ahead of the 2014 meeting.
By that time, he had begun getting traction as a political provocateur whose best known cause — a bizarre crusade to prove that Barack Obama was not born in America and was, therefore, ineligible to be president — played well with the conservative base, but struck many GOP leaders as a distraction. They also were bothered by his past support for liberal positions on a range of issues, from taxes to gun control to abortion rights to affirmative action.
Cardenas, who was ACU chair from 2011 through 2014, said “Donald Trump has had some detractors every year, but the majority of the decision-makers have seemed to think he was part of a good mix of speakers” for CPAC. “Now, if you had added the caveat that he might one day run for president, maybe I would revisit that decision. But who had a crystal ball at that time? I don’t remember ever discussing the possibility. No one took it seriously.”
Cardenas resigned from ACU’s executive committee after CPAC 2015 to support the since-aborted presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who assailed Trump as an “unhinged” and unserious Johnny-come-lately to the conservative cause.
While Cardenas solicited two $50,000 checks from Trump, with whom he met in 2014 at the billionaire’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, he said those checks did not play any role in the decision about whether to invite him to CPAC.
“Given that it costs probably $3 million to put on a CPAC, I never felt like a $50,000 contribution was enough to raise an eyebrow, or to influence what we do,” he said. “When I was chairman, we never asked for anybody to put in a significant percentage of what it costs to run it, and that was on purpose, to be independent of significant pressure.”
When Schlapp took over, he picked up where Cardenas left off, collecting at least one additional $50,000 check from Trump in 2015. Walters, the ACU spokesman, would not confirm or the amounts of Trump’s donations, explaining “we don’t discuss our donors.” He stressed, though, that ACU doesn’t provide preferential treatment for donors. He added that the group this year “made a point not to solicit support from people who might be presidential candidates.” In 2013 and 2015, political committees associated with Trump’s rivals Rubio and Cruz also donated to ACU, albeit in far smaller amounts than Trump.
But the warm feelings between ACU and Trump appeared mutual. When Schlapp emailed Trump with an invitation to speak at this year’s CPAC, Trump immediately responded with a handwritten note reading “Matt, I wouldn’t miss it.”