Trump is Set to Finalize His RNC Takeover, Installing a Key Ally and His Daughter-in-Law as Leaders

HOUSTON (AP) -- Donald Trump is set to complete his takeover of the Republican National Committee on Friday when GOP officials vote to install the former president's hand-picked leadership team -- including his daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

Michael Whatley, a North Carolina Republican who has echoed Trump's false theories of voter fraud, is set to be elected the party's new national chairman in a vote Friday morning in Houston. Lara Trump will become the co-chair.

Trump's team is promising not to use the RNC to pay his mounting personal legal bills. But once the leadership changes are finalized, Trump and his lieutenants will have firm control of the party's political and fundraising machinery with limited, if any, internal pushback.

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. 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.

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, he 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 RNC was paying some of Trump's legal bills for New York cases that started while he was president, T he Washington Post reported, but McDaniel said in November 2022 that the RNC would stop paying once Trump became a candidate again and joined the 2024 presidential race.

When Trump announced his plans to replace the party's leadership, it raised fresh questions about whether the committee would pay his bills. Those questions intensified after Lara Trump said last month that she wasn't familiar with the party's rules about paying her father-in-law's legal fees, but she thought the idea would get broad support among Republican voters.

Facing such mixed messages, some RNC members remain skeptical.

Republican committeeman Henry Barbour, of Mississippi, proposed a non-binding resolution explicitly stating that RNC funds could not be used for Trump's legal bills. Yet the resolution died when Barbour failed to earn the support of RNC members from at least 10 states.

"People I've talked to on the committee privately all agree that donor money needs to be devoted to winning elections, not legal fees," said Republican committeeman John Hammond, of Indiana. "I'm sure the committee would be glad to have some more assurance about that and clarification."

The new leadership team is also expectedly to more fully embrace Trump's focus on voter fraud and his debunked claims about the election he lost to President Joe Biden. 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 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.

Yet some privately worry that Trump is creating unnecessary drama and distraction for the party.

McDaniel is being replaced on Friday after Trump pressured her to resign. She was Trump's hand-picked choice back in 2017. And he supported her reelection every two years as recently as last year.

But McDaniel increasingly drew the ire of MAGA leaders who blamed her for Republican losses in recent years. Other Republicans have blamed Trump, who remains broadly unpopular with Americans and vulnerable in particular with suburban and college-educated voters. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. adults said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were nominated for president, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll published in December.