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In DC’s Republican Delegation, Tensions Simmer Over Trump

As the GOP convention draws closer, many DC delegates face a crisis of conscience.
Photograph by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

Kris Hammond was never shy about his opposition to Donald Trump.

Back in March, campaigning to be a Republican delegate for DC, Hammond passed out business cards with the #NeverTrump hashtag splashed across them. The cards stated that Hammond was open to supporting any candidate at the party’s July convention on the second ballot — be it Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich — but not Trump. That platform resonated, catapulting him to the top of the field for a delegate slot. Kris Hammond was going to Cleveland.

Fast forward three months, and Hammond may now have to support the candidate he pledged so insistently to shun. And he’s not the only one. Now that Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee, many of DC’s delegates — those who campaigned on an anti-Trump platform — are dreading attending a convention meant to enshrine his nomination. It’s caused fault lines to surface within the group, as local party leaders urge them to unite behind Trump, and a handful of delegates openly refuse, with one resigning his spot altogether. And according to interviews with multiple delegates, as Trump’s rhetoric continues to divide rather than unify, those tensions are only poised to escalate.

“I was elected on a mandate to oppose Donald Trump,” Hammond says. “And that’s what I’m going to do. I have iron knees. I will not buckle.”

But he’ll probably have to. Even though all 19 DC delegates are pledged to either Rubio or Kasich, DC’s party bylaws dictate that if only one candidate is up for nomination at the convention, delegates are obliged to support that candidate (read: Trump). It’s one of the main reasons DC real estate agent Kevin Cain gave up his spot: “I do not want my name on record in any way as having ever voted for, contributed to, or otherwise assisted [Trump] or his campaign,” Cain announced in a Facebook post last month.

Bob Kabel, a DC GOP delegate who secured a coveted spot on the convention’s Rules Committee, says he has some sympathy for the crisis of conscience in which some delegates find themselves, but ultimately, the rules are the rules. “It’s an unhappy situation,” he says. “But they know the rules. They’ve bought into it. They’re all adults.”

Come July, DC’s anti-Trump delegates risk compromising the very platform that gave them their spots to begin with. So why are they sticking around?

While many Republicans have moved further through the stages of grief, acknowledging Trump’s status as the presumptive nominee, DC’s Never Trump faction may still be stuck in denial. Those interviewed clung to the possibility that Trump could be ousted on the convention floor by a delegate revolt, which would take shape through a rules change that would allow Trump’s bound delegates to vote for another candidate. This is not out of the question, and there has indeed been favorable chatter in the last weekabout a “conscience convention.” But it requires an insurgent operation nearly impossible to organize among any number of GOP delegates ahead of convention. “Not only would it be an unprecedented move, which comes with its own baggage,” says one convention rules guru, “but there’s just no time.”

But Rich Counts, a DC delegate who served as Mitt Romney’s campaign co-chair for the District in 2012, says he and like-minded delegates remain hopeful. “There’s a rules committee that could change things, and we don’t know what to expect,” he says. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”

I ask Counts if his NeverTrump stance would continue into November, “when Trump is on the ticket.”

“Well, I’ll vote for the candidate, you know, the Republican candidate,” he says. “Unless it’s Trump.”

“But can’t we all agree that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee?”

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“Well, we’ve got to see…convention is still a month away,” Counts says.

Hammond is also unwilling to go ahead and call Trump the nominee. “I’m not saying the Never Trump forces will rise like a phoenix from the ashes,” he says, “but the Never Trump movement is still alive. If things continue the way they are, there is going to be an openness among party leaders to do what seemed inconceivable only a month ago.” (As for November, if Trump is in fact the nominee, Hammond says there’s an “80 to 90 percent chance” he’ll vote for Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson.)

Anti-Trump delegate Christian Berle has another reason for going to Cleveland, arguing that DC voters deserve a delegation committed to representing their views, even if only through helping craft the national party’s platform and convention rules for 2020. “There’s a disconnect” between DC’s GOP leadership and many of the delegates, Berle says, and he feels he owes it to those who voted for him to give voice to the Never Trump cause.

“Unfortunately our votes are already in [DC GOP Chairman Jose Cunningham’s] hands,” Berle says. “But there is a solid block of us who feel we still need to represent DC voters at the national convention, and DC voters are not in support of Trump. We have to find a way to express that.”

A convention standoff, whatever shape that may take, would be only the latest in the party’s string of Trump-related problems. In April, DC GOP leadership ousted Rina Shah Bharara from her delegate spot after claiming that she lived permanently in Virginia, which is a violation of party bylaws. In an interview with the Washington Post, Bharara, who provided the paper a legal affidavit showing her DC voter registration and driver’s license, maintained that the incident was “all Trump-driven,” a retaliation to her Fox News on-air comment that she would not rule out voting for Hillary Clinton over Trump.

Bharara has now sought legal counsel to challenge her removal, and the prospect of a drawn-out legal brawl, coupled with inter-delegation clashes over Trump, could make for a long summer for DC’s Republican party.

“I think things could get awkward at convention,” Berle says “But I frankly don’t care. There are more things that I care about than being liked. Especially when it comes to Trump.”

Staff Writer

Elaina Plott joined Washingtonian in June 2016 as a staff writer. She has written about her past life as an Ann Coulter fangirl, how the Obamas changed Washington, and the rise and fall of Roll Call. She previously covered Congress for National Review. Her writing has appeared in the New York Observer, GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.