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Tensions between Trump and RNC grow as he steamrolls toward GOP nomination

By Alayna Treene, Kristen Holmes and Daniel Strauss, CNN

(CNN) — When news broke last week that the Republican National Committee had its worst fundraising year in a decade, Donald Trump and his advisers were deeply alarmed. They began laying plans to send a clear message that things needed to change as the former president inches closer to the Republican nomination, sources familiar with the conversations tell CNN.

Trump quickly started privately and publicly making his grievances with the RNC and its chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, more widely known — outlining his frustrations during a series of interviews, in which he questioned McDaniel’s leadership and the direction of the committee.

On Monday, Trump stated on social media that he would “be making a decision the day after the South Carolina Primary as to my recommendations for RNC Growth,” laying down a clear marker for his plans to get more intimately involved in changes at the committee.

The declaration came just hours after Trump and McDaniel had met for more than two hours at his Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss the direction of the RNC, two sources briefed on the meeting told CNN, both of whom described it as cordial.

The heightened concerns over the RNC’s latest financial problems are just the tipping point in a yearslong struggle between Trump and the committee. The former president still harbors resentment toward the organization over the 2020 election, blaming it for not having what he believes were the proper attorneys or systems in place to challenge the election results, two Trump advisers said.

Those tensions have continued to grow in recent months, with Trump and his campaign becoming increasingly frustrated with how the RNC handled the GOP primary debates, and, more recently, with the bungling of an RNC draft resolution privately supported by the former president that would have formally declared him the presumptive nominee.

Trump has asked allies and aides in the past why the RNC must remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary. The RNC’s bylaws mandate neutrality; and up until recently, McDaniel remained committed to acting as an impartial chair.

Even before the RNC reported having just $8 million in the bank at the end of December, its lowest cash-on-hand figure since 2014, Trump’s top advisers had been preparing to force a major shake-up at the committee.

Trump’s team has quietly begun floating names to replace McDaniel as chair, including North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley and South Carolina Republican Party chairman Drew McKissick, according to two sources with knowledge of internal discussions. Florida state Sen. Joe Gruters, a longtime Trump supporter, is also a possibility, according to one source with knowledge of those internal discussions. Trump had previously endorsed both Gruters and Whatley for officer positions at the RNC, but both lost their respective bids.

Trump does not personally have the power to oust McDaniel, something the former president’s most senior advisers — Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, who have long-standing ties to the RNC and strong historical knowledge of how the national committee operates — have privately acknowledged.

He can pressure McDaniel to resign or urge RNC members to try and remove her at the committee’s summer meeting slated to take place shortly before the GOP national convention in July, but he cannot directly remove her. Removing McDaniel through a vote of the 168 RNC members would require a two-thirds majority – a bar that some RNC insiders doubt could easily be met.

What’s more likely, sources close to the former president and the RNC say, is that Trump and his campaign will revive a more traditional move: installing a core Trump ally as deputy chairman to serve alongside McDaniel.

Behind the scenes, Trump’s campaign has discussed potentially moving LaCivita over to the RNC to serve as that internal ally, though such conversations have been informal, a source familiar with the talks said.

An overt or de facto ouster of McDaniel would mark a dramatic change from the early years of her tenure running the RNC. McDaniel came in to the job as a staunch Trump ally. She has held her current position since 2017, making her one of the longest ever chairs.

One change at the committee was announced Tuesday: Mike Reed, the RNC chief of staff, is stepping down in the coming weeks. Still, two people familiar with Reed’s departure stressed that his move to the private sector was unrelated to the tensions between Trump and McDaniel.

Trump and the RNC need each other

Despite the broader tensions that are playing out both privately and publicly, the Trump campaign and the RNC have a lot to gain from each other.

The campaign will benefit greatly from accessing the RNC’s data operation, using its ground operation and fundraising. The RNC’s legal fund will also be a crucial asset as Trump and his political action committees continue to confront the mounting legal fees the former president faces amid his multiple criminal cases.

There are also some big-money donors who have been wary to give to Trump directly but would be more willing to write a check to the RNC on his behalf, a committee member told CNN.

“There are a lot of big donors who don’t want to give to Trump but would give to the RNC to check that box by giving to the Victory Fund. And that way they don’t get sh*t on at their country club,” they said.

The RNC, meanwhile, needs Trump’s branding to fix its flailing financial situation.

The committee’s lifeblood in the lead-up to the 2020 election was being able to use Trump’s name to fundraise. However, in March 2021, weeks after Trump had left the White House, the former president’s attorneys sent a cease-and-desist letter to the RNC, as well as two other GOP organizations, ordering them to stop using Trump’s name and likeness in fundraising appeals and merchandise.

But that would change if Trump were to become the presumptive GOP nominee — a key reason why RNC leaders have been eager to end the primary season as early possible, sources familiar with their conversations told CNN.

“The upside is as soon as he becomes the presumptive nominee and they basically deem him that, then he will allow them to use his name again,” a former RNC leader told CNN. “They’ll bring in a lot more money.”

Yet regardless of what the RNC does in the coming weeks to try and appease the former president, it will likely not compare with the sophisticated operation the committee had in place in 2020, when officials had years to build out their strategy with Trump as the incumbent, the former Republican leader cautioned.

“The downside is, I think Trump is going to expect the operation that he had in ’20, when you had an incumbent president, and he’s not going to realize they didn’t have the runway to build that up,” the former RNC leader said. “That’s going to be the biggest problem that they have.”

“In his mind, it should be the same operation that he last saw. And that’s going to be way short,” the former leader added.

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