Some of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives met Thursday on Capitol Hill to take questions from reporters about their legislative strategy and their party’s presumptive presidential nominee. No question was off limits.
But one-too-many questions about Donald Trump is enough to irritate some lawmakers.
At first, GOP Rep. Raul Labrador didn’t even want to answer the question.
What does he make of conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt’s new push for the Republican National Committee to deny Donald Trump their party’s nomination—even if it means changing the rules at the convention?
At a gathering of roughly a dozen members in which each blamed the so-called “establishment” of their party for Trump’s nomination, Labrador finally couldn’t resist the opportunity to skewer a man who, in his view, embodies the establishment.
The Idaho lawmaker led a monthly “Conversations with Conservatives” meeting on Capitol Hill and told reporters, “I would find it more telling if people like Hugh Hewitt and others were actually saying, ‘let’s get behind Ted Cruz … instead of Trump at the convention.’”
Cruz would be a welcome replacement, someone they view as a “true” conservative, Labrador said. “No, what they want is the guy that got the least votes, Jeb Bush, or the guy who lost the last election [Mitt Romney], or the guy who went all the way to the end but couldn’t get any vote but his own state to vote for him [John Kasich].”
Labrador, who originally backed Sen. Rand Paul last summer, mentioned other possible options for the top of the ticket, including Paul and Utah Sen. Mike Lee—but acknowledged that such a drastic change at the convention is unlikely.
Representatives from Paul and Lee’s offices declined to comment.
But, when the GOP primary fight was down to Trump and Cruz, many establishment figures were reluctant to rally behind Cruz.
“So they would rather have a person who makes those kind of statements as their nominee than a solid conservative because somehow they were offended that Ted Cruz at one point may have gone against them in Washington,” said Labrador. “And that tells you everything you need to know about the establishment. … Thank John Boehner and Mitch McConnell for Donald Trump.”
Hewitt and others may not be happy with Trump emerging victorious from the primary contests, but Labrador says they simply refused to listen to the majority of GOP primary voters who backed candidates like Cruz, Paul and other ideological conservatives.
“They continue to push the establishment candidate as their response to Trump,” said an exasperated Labrador as other members nodded in agreement. “And that’s why we lost. That’s why Trump is the nominee.”
A GOP political operative who worked on a rival campaign echoed Labrador’s sentiments, blaming establishment Republicans for the rise of Trump and declaring Hewitt’s efforts futile—too little, too late.
“Have we forgotten that it was people like Hugh who gave Trump a weekly platform in the first place?” the operative told The Daily Beast. “Perhaps he can join Bill Kristol on the elusive and mystical journey to find a third-party candidate.”
The so-called #NeverTrump movement has risen, fallen, and risen again in the wake of the billionaire businessman’s crusade against a Mexican-American judge, Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over Trump University fraud lawsuits. Top Republicans from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Lindsey Graham have said the comments were racist. Trump’s relentless effort to delegitimize Curiel even spurred an un-endorsement from vulnerable Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. Graham urged his fellow Republicans to follow Kirk’s lead.
It was also the last straw for Hewitt, who said a Trump nomination would guarantee a victory for Hillary Clinton and compromise the GOP’s majorities in the House and Senate.
There is no indication, though, that this select group of House conservatives will back away from Trump. Even as GOP leaders encourage party unity heading into November, Republican lawmakers are constantly being forced to distance themselves from their nominee.
“It doesn’t hurt party unity to disagree on things,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who condemned Trump’s attacks on Curiel as a bad approach to litigation.
Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman said that while he does not agree with everything Trump says, the presumptive nominee has tapped into the anger voters have with the Republican party for “not fighting President Obama” enough. Stutzman blamed GOP leadership on Capitol Hill for hurting party unity by “quickly ditching” Trump, however imperfect he may be.
The conservatives on the panel want nothing more than for Trump to drop the personal attacks and focus on congressional Republicans’ conservative agenda heading into November. Some are confident Trump can do that, and are swatting away suggestions that he could be replaced at the convention.
“We have not talked about that,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio told The Daily Beast, referring to Labrador’s trial balloon about nominating Paul, Cruz, or Lee. “I think we have a nominee, and while I didn’t approve of the statement he recently made … he’s our nominee.”
Kansas GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp told The Daily Beast that, in his view, a rule change at the convention to deny Trump the nomination will not happen. He is joining fellow Republicans like John McCain and Kelly Ayotte who are not even attending the convention next month.
Five months out from the general election, party unity is the Republican National Committee’s biggest and most important concern. There’s no telling when—or if—the party will be completely behind Trump.
“[Democrats] circle the bandwagons to support their candidates no matter who they are,” said Stutzman. “And the Republican party does not do that.”