Republican political consultant Rick Tyler had been on Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel’s payroll for only a few months last summer, as a behind-the-scenes communications adviser, when the White House called to complain.
The complaint included an explicit threat: If Tyler was permitted to stay on Team McDaniel, a White House political operative warned in early July 2018, the president would have no choice but to endorse McDaniel’s primary opponent, Cindy Hyde-Smith, a relatively weak incumbent who’d been appointed in April to fill the Senate seat vacated by the ailing, 80-year-old Thad Cochran.
The incident, which is being reported here for the first time, is evidence of a White House that prizes petty vengeance over thoughtful political strategy, according to half a dozen longtime Republican consultants and strategists interviewed for this article; they say Donald Trump’s White House operates as a cult of personality, insisting on lockstep loyalty above every other consideration—even at the expense of competent political practice.
“There’s no sophistication. They are not trying to pick winners and losers at all. They are not getting involved in the races. They are simply vengeful,” said Republican consultant Susan Del Percio, echoing the assessments of other GOP strategists who describe the White House political operation as “chaotic.”
“They’re just going after political enemies,” Del Percio added.
Asked for a response, a White House spokesperson offered no on-the-record comment. But a person familiar with the president’s thinking emailed the following: “It is absurd and unfortunate, but it seems a campaign consultant is trying to elevate his profile by projecting a completely, categorically false narrative. If the president or his political operation carried political vendettas, why would the president maintain the close relationships he has with Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul?” (More of the response at the end of this story.)
Tyler, a committed conservative and wizened veteran of Newt Gingrich’s and Ted Cruz’s presidential campaigns, doubles as a severe critic of Donald Trump on Twitter (where he has derided the 45th president as an “unamiable dunce”), as an occasional SiriusXM radio host, and as a regular on-air analyst for MSNBC, where he has spent the past two years arguing that the former reality-TV star is unworthy of the Oval Office. (Del Percio, like Tyler, is an MSNBC analyst.)
Tyler’s role in the McDaniel campaign was by necessity low-key. Trump remains enormously popular among Republicans in Mississippi, and McDaniel is an ardent supporter of the president, but he hired Tyler nevertheless.
McDaniel has a checkered past in Mississippi politics. His 2014 primary race against Cochran exploded in scandal when a couple of his Tea Party campaign supporters entered the nursing home where Cochran’s disabled wife was being treated, and one took cellphone video of her. Criminal charges were filed, and one of them ultimately committed suicide. (McDaniel claimed ignorance of the incident.)
Among many other controversial statements, the Southern Baptist politician has decried “the homosexual agenda,” and opined that sexual-assault allegations “99 per cent of the time, are just absolutely fabricated.”
“He’s an exceptional talent—one of the best communications people I’ve ever known,” McDaniel told The Daily Beast of Tyler. Yet shortly after the phone call from the White House political shop run by former Chris Christie operative Bill Stepien, McDaniel and Tyler agreed that he should immediately give up his $5,000-a-month consultancy.
“I didn’t want to be the issue so I agreed to leave,” Tyler recalled. “To me, it was a no-brainer. I didn’t want to hurt the campaign.”
A month later, despite Tyler’s forced leave-taking, Trump endorsed Hyde-Smith anyway and she ultimately prevailed in the runoff election over Democrat Mike Espy.
“I don’t feel betrayed,” McDaniel insisted. “I’ll tell you this. Unequivocally I believe this: If Trump hadn’t endorsed Cindy Hyde-Smith, we [as in McDaniel’s campaign] would have won the race.”
McDaniel added: “I know for a fact that he has individuals on his political team that are more concerned about playing D.C. games. And I think those individuals do influence him from time to time. I wish they did not, but it’s obvious that they do.”
Tyler, for one, said he isn’t upset to have been deprived of paid employment by White House operatives—“I’m fine with it,” he insisted—and expressed grudging admiration for their attention to detail in the enforcement of a certain kind of discipline.
But other Republican stalwarts said it is unusual for a president to target the staff members of down-ballot campaigns, and that the episode reflects a self-defeating pettiness that is driving talent out of the GOP.
Trump critic Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Tyler’s experience illustrates “the response some candidates feel they have to give in order to hopefully get support from Trump or to avoid his ire.”
Consultants and office holders are justifiably fearful that the Trump White House can prevent them from keeping their jobs or earning a living should they be deemed less than 100 percent loyal, Steele said. For the consultants, many millions of dollars, under the control of the party apparatus, are at stake, Steele said.
Asking for anonymity, one prominent anti-Trump Republican consultant lamented: “I’ve lost a lot of business, but it’s sort of mutual”—mentioning a Republican senator that “I just didn’t want to work for personally after he rolled over for Trump.”
“They have to be careful,” Steele said. “They’re just trying to do what they were doing before Trump showed up. ‘I’ve got money to raise, I’ve got votes to get,’ and now you’ve got this other layer of ‘I’ve also got to prove that I’ve been loyal to Donald Trump.’ It will have an impact.
“It’s why you see certain members of Congress behaving the way they behave, because they don’t want that noise to affect their campaigns that create headaches that they don’t need or want… They don’t want to be primaried. If you’re [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham [the virulent Trump critic-turned-sycophantic acolyte], you start sounding the way Lindsey Graham sounds.”
Another prominent Republican consultant—who spoke on condition of not being identified—declines to defend the president personally but occasionally participates in White House strategy sessions and RNC conference calls, and does surrogate work on core conservative issues like Supreme Court nominations, religious liberty, and tax cuts.
But this person has noticed alarming changes in the party leadership over the past year as the Trumpites have meticulously weeded out skeptics.
“It used to be that you’d go to meetings over at the RNC, and everybody would be publicly supportive of Trump, but then you’d go into their offices and they’d shut the door and say, ‘Oh my God, he’s a nightmare.’ Not anymore,” this consultant said. “Now it seems that everybody there is genuine in their support—whether they think he’s gonna win anyway, or he’s the answer to their prayers. I used think it was fake. But these people are all-in. They all have mortgages to pay.”
John Weaver—who has been advising Trump critic and 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich—is, like Tyler and Del Percio, a rare Republican consultant who’s willing to criticize the Trump White House on the record.
“Hopefully I have a single-digit ranking on Trump’s enemies list. I’ve certainly tried to earn that,” he said. “Anybody they would consider supporting is not someone I would work for… They’re pretty petty. There’s the professional consulting class and then there’s these low travelers who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else and went to work for Trump. Now they’re working in the White House. I’m sure they’re feeling their oats.”
Weaver speculated such figures are principally motivated by greed and retribution. “I think it’s a combination of ‘let’s take out our enemies who have spoken out against the president’ and also ‘let’s try to scrub out the professional consulting class for a post-Trump world because we can make money.’”
Steele said that by stoking his small but rabid base of support, the president has turned the GOP party apparatus into a servile creature of the Trump organization—a departure from recent precedent.
Traditionally, “for the president of your party, the RNC is the extension of the political shop of the West Wing and a resource to further the president’s agenda, whether it’s making sure the talking points get out to the various states or supporting candidates that the president has endorsed—that type of thing,” Steele said.
“What is different here,” he explained, “is that the president’s campaign has made the RNC the wholly owned subsidiary of the campaign; they brought the RNC inside the Trump organization.” Thus, there is not even a pretense of fairness when it comes to declared primary challengers like former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld or other potential candidates such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“The party’s never before maneuvered to block and tackle people out of position to challenge for the nomination,” Steele said. “There are actually people [in the party leadership] who want to declare Trump the nominee by acclamation without even holding a primary. That’s antithetical to everything the party has stood for. I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid that Donald Trump served, but it damn sure must be good.”
Tyler, for his part, laments the permanent damage he says Trump has wreaked on the Republican Party, which once was a bulwark—at least in terms of messaging—of pro-immigration, pro-life, free trade, responsible spending, and other core principles that Trump has either overturned or ignored.
“There is no guiding philosophy now except loyalty to Trump,” Tyler said. “He has destroyed the Republican Party. It’s never coming back.”
Meanwhile, the person familiar with the president’s thinking continued their defense of the Trump White House: “After all, two of his former primary opponents (Carson and Perry) serve in his Cabinet. You referenced Mississippi, which couldn’t be a better example of the president following a methodical process for endorsing a candidate. Cindy Hyde-Smith received her endorsement because she met and exceeded every expectation the president laid out for her and her campaign. Further, the president endorsed over 40 candidates in primaries–all of which were based on support for the president’s agenda and the candidate’s ability to win–both of which were suspect in the case of Chris McDaniel.”