NC running RNC: Whatley, Lara Trump take top GOP spots

Lara Trump, the newly-elected co-chair of the Republican National Committee, center, speaks as new Chairman Michael Whatley listens during the general session of the RNC Spring Meeting on Friday, in Houston. (Michael Wyke / AP Photo)

HOUSTON — The Republican National Committee voted Friday to install Donald Trump’s handpicked leadership team, two North Carolina natives who will shape the party as the  former president closes in on a third straight presidential nomination.

Michael Whatley, a Watauga County native and chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, was elected the party’s new national chairman in a vote Friday morning in Houston. Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law from Wilmington, was voted in as co-chair.

“The RNC is going to be the vanguard of a movement that will work tirelessly every single day to elect our nominee, Donald J. Trump, as the 47th President of the United States,” Whatley told RNC members in a speech after being elected.

Whatley will carry the top title, replacing longtime chair Ronna McDaniel after she fell out of favor with key figures in the former president’s “Make America Great Again” movement. But he will be surrounded by people closer to Trump.

Lara Trump is expected to focus largely on fundraising and media appearances.

She emphasized that shortly after she was voted in, taking time in her inaugural speech as co-chair to hold up a check for a $100,000 that she said had been contributed that day to the party. When asked by a reporter later, she declined to say who wrote the check.

The functional head of the RNC will be Chris LaCivita, who will assume the committee’s chief of staff role while maintaining his job as one of the Trump campaign’s top two advisers.

McDaniel was handpicked by Trump to lead the committee seven years ago but was forced out after Trump’s MAGA movement increasingly blamed her for losses over the last few years. She alluded to that in her goodbye speech Friday, telling the members that she worries most about “internal cohesion” heading into the election.

“We have to stop the attacking other Republicans,” she said. “If we spend our time attacking each other, we guarantee the Democrats are going to win.”

She also told the party that it needs to engage independent and swing voters, warning: “We don’t win if we only talk to each other.”

While McDaniel got a standing ovation after her goodbye, the new leadership eagerly embraced the change, and Lara Trump, accompanied by her husband, Eric Trump, was greeted like a celebrity, with members lining up to take photos with her.

With Trump’s blessing, LaCivita is promising to enact sweeping changes and staffing moves at every level of the RNC to ensure it runs seamlessly as an extension of the Trump campaign.

In an interview Thursday, LaCivita sought to tamp down concerns from some RNC members that the already cash-strapped committee would help pay Trump’s legal bills. Trump faces four criminal indictments and a total of 91 counts as well as a $355 million civil fraud judgment, which he is appealing. His affiliated Save America political action committee has spent $76 million over the last two years on lawyers.

People speculating about the RNC paying for legal bills, LaCivita said, do so “purely on the basis of trying to hurt donors.” Trump’s legal bills are instead being covered largely by Save America, a separate political entity.

“The fact of the matter is not a penny of the RNC’s money or, for that matter, the campaign’s money has gone or will go to pay legal fees,” he said.

The new leadership team is also expected to more fully embrace Trump’s focus on voter fraud and his claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. Multiple court cases and Trump’s own Justice Department failed to reveal any evidence of significant voting irregularities.

Whatley, an attorney, has largely avoided using Trump’s characterization of Biden’s victory and said in one 2021 interview that Biden “absolutely” was legitimately elected and won the majority of the electoral college votes. But he said in another interview in the weeks after the 2020 election that there was “massive fraud.” He has also made focusing on “election integrity” a top priority for his state party in the years since.

In a letter announcing her candidacy for co-chair, Lara Trump wrote to members of the committee telling them she intends to focus on battleground states, getting out the vote in close races, to comb through the RNC’s finances, including all of its contracts and agreements and cut spending “that doesn’t directly go to winning elections.”

A key priority, she wrote, is working to ensure that the election is secure, something her father-in-law has made a chief focus.

In her speech Friday, Lara Trump declared: “I’m ready to get to work.”

“The goal on Nov. 5 is to win, as my father-in-law says, ‘bigly,'” she said.

In some ways, Trump’s GOP takeover represents a typical transition for major political parties when they shift from the primary to the general election phase of presidential elections. Candidates are typically given the keys to their national parties once they secure the presidential nomination. Biden, for example, effectively controls the Democratic National Committee.