Reince Priebus: 'Our country's at stake in this election'

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Throughout his tenure as Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus has seen the highs and lows of party politics. He’s lost a general election, won a midterm election fight, and has been dealt a tough set of cards with less than four months until November with Donald Trump serving as his party’s standard bearer this time around.

In an extensive interview with the Washington Examiner ahead of this week’s convention, Priebus touched on a cadre of hot topics, including Trump’s problems with the Hispanic community, the current state of the Republican Party and what to expect in Cleveland.

Washington Examiner: On the race, how much is on your shoulders personally? You’re the longest serving chairman, by most measures you’ve turned the place around, won midterms a couple of years ago. How much responsibility do you own and how much do you think this would be a feather in your cap in a sense?

Priebus: We did turn things around. The RNC today is in a different stratosphere than it was four years ago. We’re responsible for doing everything that we can possibly do to put a field operation in and a data operation so that our candidates can win, and we’ve done that and we’re going to continue to do it.

So at some point, you’ve got to leave it up to voters and the candidates to also close the deal. But as far as us doing our job in building the biggest national committee that we could build and the most effective national committee, we’ve done it.

Examiner: What about you personally and your responsibility? You’re heavily invested in this.

Priebus: Well, sure. Of course. I mean, that’s the whole point of doing this is to ultimately win, right? And to do everything you can to put a team together to win. So sure, it would be devastating not to win. But at the same time, it’s also our responsibility to build the mechanics and the plumbing, and do it in a way that’s effective and real and bigger than we’ve ever done before, and we’ve done that.

Examiner: Back when we talked in October, you said that the party as a national party would be “cooked” if you lost the general election in November. Do you still feel that way given what’s changed in the last seven months or so?

Priebus: Well, yeah. Given now, something I may not have been thinking about as much as I should have been back in October — the fate of the Supreme Court, and that losing generations of laws and decisions on the Supreme Court I think would be devastating, not just for the party but to the country. So I think I’d even double down on that and just say that our country’s at stake in this election.

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If you look at the productivity of the legislature. There’s not a lot they — they’ve done a lot, but there’s not a lot you can do at least in a major way with the president that’s not interested in working with the House and the Senate, so the Supreme Court’s taking on a role of really shaping the direction of our country.

Examiner: So Scalia’s death was a wake-up call in that sense.

Priebus: That’s right. A big wake-up call.

“The RNC today is in a different stratosphere than it was four years ago. We’re responsible for doing everything that we can possibly do to put a field operation in and a data operation so that our candidates can win, and we’ve done that and we’re going to continue to do it,” Priebus told the Examiner.

Examiner: Given how much things have changed in the past three-plus years, do you consider the autopsy [the Growth and Opportunity report] to be a bust?

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Priebus: No. Actually, I think it’s a wild success. The Growth and Opportunity report is about a year-round party. It’s about getting our act together on the ground and in the mechanics and get your act together in black and Asian and Hispanic communities with people in the communities paid for by a party that doesn’t just show up three months before the election.

That’s the Growth and Opportunity report. Ninety-nine percent of it has been accomplished.

Examiner: In the report, it states that “if Hispanic Americans perceive that the GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” How do you square that with Donald Trump given his past calls for a “deportation force” and going after the judge handling the Trump University case?

Priebus: Well, a couple of things. No. 1, the Growth and Opportunity report wasn’t just a report to the RNC. It was a report to the entire Republican Party. We don’t control legislation. We control ground game and data, and in that regard we’ve done an enormous amount that’s never been done in reaching out to Hispanics across the country.

I’ve said that I do think Donald Trump understands that his tone and rhetoric are going to have to evolve in regard to how we’re communicating to Hispanics across the country. I think he gets that.

Now, there’s a lot of time between now and November, and I think you’re going to see an evolution on that particular issue. But I will just say this: Without the operation that we’ve put in place in Hispanic communities, I think that we’d be far worse off.

But I think because of the work we’ve done, we’ve been able to reach out to families and people in communities in Colorado and South Florida and everywhere else and talk to Hispanic families about the values of our party. Without that, then you’re totally dependent on top-line messaging.

Examiner: Do you agree with the Trump attack on the judge?

Priebus: I wouldn’t invoke race into any sort of attack or commentary. Now I don’t know anything about this judge. I’m not involved in the case. I have not seen the motion practiced or the decisions that are made. When people make comments about judges, it usually depends on their personal knowledge of how a case is being handled.

But being a lawyer and an officer of the court, I’m under a different obligation to not criticize judges based on the rules of professional responsibility. Therefore I’m not going to do that.

“I’ve said that I do think Donald Trump understands that his tone and rhetoric are going to have to evolve in regard to how we’re communicating to Hispanics across the country,” Priebus said.

Examiner: Do you think Trump will exceed Romney’s 27 percent with Hispanics?

Priebus: I was surprised to see in a few polls that I’ve seen that Trump is actually doing better with Hispanics than Romney did, and he’s actually doing a lot better with black voters than Romney did. So some of these critiques and criticisms are a little too early to tell. I understand that some things would make sense, right? I mean I get that part.

But I’m not sure the end of the story is written here on how we’re going to do with Hispanic voters in America. No. 1, we have a lot of time left, but No. 2, the early polls show that Trump is actually doing better than Mitt Romney did with Hispanic voters.

Examiner: The major policy recommendation in the autopsy was that the GOP should back some form of comprehensive immigration reform. Do you regret that?

Priebus: No, because I think I’m in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, but I think it’s a loaded term. I think if you say, “I’m in favor of serious immigration reform,” people somehow don’t have a problem with that. Rand Paul went to the Hispanic chamber, I think it was March 19, 2013, and said the same thing. I think Ted Cruz has said the same thing.

Do I agree with amnesty? The answer is no. Do I agree with a pathway to citizenship? The answer is no. But I do agree that we need to do something about 12 million people that are here, and it isn’t sending people back en masse.

That’s not what I believe. But I do think there is some solution to this problem that reasonable people can agree on. That’s what I believe. I think that’s what our party believes in.

Examiner: Trump has said he wants more showbiz at the convention. Do you expect more of that? And do you expect an Eastwood moment?

Priebus: Well, I’m hoping for not another one of those moments. I actually am on board with the idea for more fun and bands and I’m happy with that. People want to have fun. The problem is with all the ideas comes more money. If you want to bring bands in, the people recognize and split things up at night. I’m on that committee. I want that. But it takes money and you have to have the money to do that.

Examiner: Trump has openly wondered why the candidate only speaks on the last night, has floated possibly speaking three or four nights. Are you on board with that, and is that something we should expect?

Priebus: Oh, I don’t know. We haven’t made any of those types of decisions. We are working on the Trump campaign on programming decisions, and it’s cooperative. But you have to give him credit — at least as long as I can remember, and I’m not that old, but I think I can remember a lot — I don’t know of a nominee that has drawn and taken up so much space on television by appearing or doing things than Donald Trump.

So not using Donald Trump would be a mistake. So I don’t know what that means on how much. There’s got to be a balance because you don’t want to oversaturate either. You want to make Thursday night special.

“We’ve got $50 million in federal security aid, both for here and the Democrats do in Philadelphia. Secret Service is locked in,” Priebus assured about convention security.

Examiner: Will the convention be family friendly and safe for kids to watch at home?

Priebus: As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be G-rated. It has to be. I mean, I have little kids, too. It has to be because we want everyone to be comfortable, and I don’t expect anything that would give anyone heartburn in that regard at our convention.

Examiner: What type of preparation are you putting forth to deal with possible protests? How concerned are you and how much preparation is going into this?

Priebus: I’m concerned about everything. That’s my job to worry about all the details … I’m not that worried about it in comparison to other things because I know we have a great plan in the city and the state and I know the governor and the mayor in Cleveland, they’re going to do a great job.

We’ve got $50 million in federal security aid, both for here and the Democrats do in Philadelphia. Secret Service is locked in.

Examiner: Are you prepared to be, in essence, a presidential campaign given Trump’s shortfalls in infrastructure and other aspects that you have been building for a long time?

Priebus: Well, that’s the good news about where we’re at today at the RNC is that we’ve got an RNC that is a massive operation. Now we’re spending a lot of money. I know some people are worried about that, “Oh the RNC’s spending …” — well, you can’t have a year-round field operation and then accumulate a lot of cash.

So what we’ve been doing is building this huge infrastructure and paying for that infrastructure as we go, and that’s the good news. So we’re lucky and fortunate that even though the Trump campaign has been thin by choice, they’re joining an operation here that’s been, by choice, very large. I think it’s a good fit.

Examiner: Are there going to be enough resources — you are putting a lot toward the presidential race, obviously— but are there going to be enough resources for you to hand out down ballot?

Priebus: 100 percent. We’ve been prioritizing down ballot for three-and-a-half years now. If we need more resources for Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, we’re going to get it. If we need more for Rob Portman, we’re going to get it, or Kelly Ayotte, we’re going to get the money and we’re going to put it in there.

Look at the field program right now. Four years ago, we had two full-time people in Ohio in May of 2012. Today we’ve got 53. You don’t think that’s a direct benefit to Rob Portman? 100 percent.

Here’s the other thing people need to understand: It just so happens that in this election cycle, almost every one of the targeted Senate races are in targeted presidential races … other than Illinois, right? And I’m sure we’ll build out a little bit in Arizona and Georgia just because, personally, I always feel like I need to watch my backside in Arizona and Georgia.

Priebus said of the “Never Trump” crowd, “[W]e live in a very competitive world of political punditry, and whenever you can do something where you can stand out and get clicks and you can get listeners, there’s a benefit to it.”

I always have — even in 2013 and ’14, we had a mini program going in Georgia, Arizona and even a long-term effort in Texas. Not that we’re worried about Texas, but … you have to watch, especially on Hispanic engagement — I’m serious on that — and black engagement in Georgia that we’re a year-round party. So our operation is covering all of those Senate races as well.

Examiner: Trump has openly spoken about not being kind to those Republicans who don’t speak kindly of him. Does that extend to RNC finances and giving candidates who back Trump more than another candidate who’s not backing him?

Priebus: Our money is going to be spent where it’s needed to win a race. My only measure is if I can do something to help a candidate win and that needs the help, they’re going to get the help. Period.

Examiner: Some Democrats — Van Jones, Jeff Weaver — have said that they lament that the Democratic National Committee doesn’t have a figure like you at the top of the party, excluding President Obama. Do you take that as a compliment?

Priebus: I do. I take it as a compliment. At least, maybe more of a validation that playing it straight and being fair and something I’ve tried to do for the last year in a very tough environment that’s noticed by people that we’ve actually done what we said we were going to do.

For so many years, I always heard that the party always fixes or unfairly influences the outcomes of presidential primaries and it just isn’t the case. I always knew it wasn’t the case, but I knew that I wanted to show everyone that we were going to play it safe. That meant at times I was firing back at Donald Trump at some of the accusations about the system.

It didn’t mean we were personally at odds, we never were. We were always getting along, but I had to protect the party, and I think people saw that I did that, so I guess it’s a good validation.

Examiner: Why should conservatives be confident that Trump is going to govern as a conservative if he’s elected? You’ve mentioned that you’ve wanted him to bring out a list of potential Supreme Court justices, he’s done that. You also wanted him to possibly stand down over a fight over the platform. Why should they be confident then?

Priebus: Well, he’s done it. You can only do so much. You can’t expect someone to hand over their kidneys on a platter. People have to judge people by what they do and what they say. We talked to Donald Trump about the Supreme Court, he totally agreed.

In fact, I think it was more of his idea than anyone’s idea to put those names out there and make sure they were vetted by good groups like the Federalist Society and Heritage [Foundation] and he did it. I’ve never had a conversation with him where I hung up the phone and said, “I can’t deal with this guy.”

It’s always been positive. And it’s not just once in a while, it’s every day I communicate with Donald Trump. Sometimes twice a day, and he’s always been gracious and fair. I’m just telling you the truth. He’s never been bad.

Examiner: After the convention, what’s going to be his biggest mountain to climb?

Priebus: I think it’s just a continuation of the unification process of our party. I don’t think it’s a big mountain anymore, especially with Paul Ryan coming on board. I think it’s that. I think it’s also presidential tone. I’m not saying — I’ve never advocated someone being someone they’re not because that’s worse. You lose your authenticity, then you can’t compete.

But it’s just shifting gears into a presidential mode, which I think takes time. I think he’s getting there, and I also think he understands that.

But it would be foolish for us not to at least understand and acknowledge that when you have a very bruising primary, which this was. It was a historically bruising primary. The more bruises you have, the longer it takes to heal. So it’s foolish for people to think that overnight after that year-round process we went through that suddenly everything’s just great and no problem.

It takes time, and I think you’re seeing people come around and unifying and turning to the general election. And I know that if people see the Donald Trump that I see, which is someone that’s been very gracious and personable, I think that people will like him. People that aren’t sure want to like him, and if he provides people the platform, I think he’s going to win pretty easily if that happens.

Examiner: How is the courting of the “Never Trump” crowd going?

Priebus: I think the crowd is getting very small … I think they’re influential and I respect a lot of those people, so I’m not going to say — they are smart, a lot of them and they are respectable and they are good people, but I also think the crowd is getting very thin, and I’m not sure if you’re ever going to get 100 percent unanimity, but we’re getting close.

There’s also competition. I’m not suggesting that anyone is doing it for notoriety, but we live in a very competitive world of political punditry, and whenever you can do something where you can stand out and get clicks and you can get listeners, there’s a benefit to it. And I’m not saying that’s why they’re doing it.

Examiner: There are also a lot of politicians who are in that crowd. Jeb Bush came out and said where he’s at.

Priebus: Well, I would hope that Jeb would come around. Especially since he signed a data-exchange agreement that had an exchange of valuable data for a promise to support our nominee.

Examiner: The Libertarian ticket was named recently. They are two two-term GOP governors. They may not be the biggest names, but they’re there nonetheless. How worried are you that Gary Johnson and Bill Weld could siphon off enough of Trump’s votes in key swing states?

Priebus: Well, you don’t know if there’s going to be a Green Party candidate yet either, so there’s that possibility.

Examiner: But the Libertarian’s specifically because they are two former GOP governors.

Priebus: But to answer your question, I need to know what the whole equation is, right? I mean, you’re giving me part of an equation and asking me to comment. I don’t know what the whole equation is going to be. But I don’t really see these two gentlemen being the big threat to our success, not that they’re bad people or anything.

You gotta get 1 percent of the vote in order to be in the debate. He wasn’t. He didn’t even register at 1 percent the last time. And as far as Gov. Weld, another pretty good guy but he’s hardly a Republican, let alone a Libertarian. I really don’t even understand that, but it is what it is.

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