© Reuters. Former U.S. President Donald Trump is introduced by North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley before speaking at the North Carolina GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, U.S. June 5, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File Photo
By Nathan Layne and Gram Slattery
(Reuters) -Donald Trump on Monday endorsed North Carolina Republican Party Chair Michael Whatley as the next chair of the Republican National Committee and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump as co-chair, moving to cement his grip over the organization as he closes in on the presidential nomination.
Trump, the frontrunner to become the party’s nominee and take on Democratic President Joe Biden in November, said he needed the RNC to carry out its work “flawlessly” and to be “a good partner” with his campaign for the 2024 election.
The move to endorse Whatley follows weeks of media reports indicating Trump had grown frustrated with the current chair, Ronna McDaniel, over lackluster fundraising and the party’s performance at the ballot box.
During McDaniel’s tenure, Trump was defeated in 2020, and the party turned in a weaker-than-expected performance in the 2022 midterm elections.
“I think my friend Michael Whatley should be the RNC’s next leader. Michael has been with me from the beginning, has done a great job in his home state of North Carolina,” Trump said in a statement.
“My very talented daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, has agreed to run as the RNC Co-Chair … She has told me she wants to accept this challenge and would be GREAT.”
As part of the reshuffling, Trump said Chris LaCivita, a co-manager of his campaign, would serve as the RNC’s chief operating officer. LaCivita is a veteran political operative who worked at the RNC during the 2016 race, helping thwart a challenge to Trump’s nomination on the convention floor.
Sources had told Reuters last week that McDaniel was looking to step down after the South Carolina primary on Feb. 24, which Trump is expected to win with opinion polls putting him far ahead of his sole challenger, Nikki Haley, in the state.
McDaniel will continue working hard to beat Biden this fall, an RNC spokesperson said on Monday after Trump’s statement, adding: “Nothing has changed, and there will be no decision or announcement about future plans until after South Carolina.”
Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa, said he expected Trump’s endorsed leadership slate to be approved by a majority of the body’s 168 members, who are responsible for formally selecting the party chair.
“If he’s going to be the presumptive nominee and is going to have a tough race he needs a team in place sooner rather than later,” Scheffler told Reuters. “I suspect there won’t be any opposition to this.”
In his statement Trump said he expected the RNC, which plays a vital role in marshalling resources and turning out voters, would also work to “ensure fair and transparent elections” – a veiled nod to his false claims that he lost in 2020 due to fraud.
Whatley had backed those claims, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) noted in a statement blasting Trump’s pick.
“Whatley already threatened our democracy once before when he spread lies about the results of the 2020 election,” said DNC Rapid Response Director Alex Floyd. “Trump is rewarding him in just the latest display that democracy will be on the ballot this November.”
Lara Trump has been one of her father-in-law’s strongest supporters. She is a fixture on conservative news programs and flirted with a run for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina in 2022.
Party rules require there be one male and one female in the two top roles.
While Whatley and LaCivita have proven track records with raising funds and the nuts and bolts of winning campaigns, Lara Trump “raises some red flags in the nepotism column,” said Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican political consultant.
Hoffman noted, however, that Trump had worked closely with his daughter Ivanka and other family members during his term in the White House. “So this is nothing new for the Trump world. His family are among his closest advisors.”
One of the most important tasks will be to reverse the RNC’s deteriorating finances. Clinching the nomination would pave the way for Trump’s campaign and the RNC to launch a joint fundraising committee and raise money from big donors.
“If new people go in and get a handle on the expenses and win the confidence of major donors it would be very helpful for the campaign,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on U.S. Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In a statement, Haley’s campaign manager, Betsy Ankney, criticized Trump’s proposed leadership changes as akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” She described the RNC as “effectively bankrupt” and said Haley, if elected, would fire everyone at the organization and conduct an audit of its finances.