I know he’s anti-Trump, but lots of people who are obviously anti-Trump on the merits are tepidly pro-Trump when finally forced to declare themselves. Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio embody the phenomenon. I figured Lee, a member of the Rules Committee, would end up going that same route — “troubled” by Trump’s excesses but ultimately resigned to the fact that the voters have spoken (a plurality of voters, anyway) and that’s that. There’s no sense making yourself a lightning rod for Trump’s nastiest fans and risking major political capital when you’re up for reelection on a longshot bid to oust the presumptive nominee. There’s much more to lose politically by doing so than there is to gain. All there is to recommend the action is principle.
So Lee’s going with principle. Allegedly.
An NBC News whip count of convention Rules Committee delegates finds that the Free the Delegates movement — a grassroots group of delegates pushing a rules change to allow bound delegates to vote their “conscience” — can count on at least 16 delegates open to the change based on delegates’ public statements, backgrounds and social media profiles.
That’s more than halfway to the 28 votes Trump detractors would need to produce a minority report on their proposal, which would give it a vote on the convention floor. At least four more delegates are undecided, while the positions of another 24 remain unknown and 68 have either gone on-record as opposed or their history of support for Trump suggests they would be.
The effort could get a boost from Utah Sen. Mike Lee and his wife, two delegates on the Rules Committee that both the Trump campaign and Free the Delegates operatives expect to vote in favor of the conscience clause.
A reminder: Per the Wall Street Journal, Lee taking a strong stand in favor of unbinding the delegates is one of Team Trump’s nightmare scenarios.
The Trump campaign is preparing for some nightmare scenarios if the opposition gets close to the 28 votes it needs. One fear is that Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has been critical of Mr. Trump and is the highest-profile Rules Committee member, delivers a speech urging votes in favor of unbinding delegates.
A sitting senator preaching “coup” at the convention is as much political cover as a rogue delegate could reasonably hope for. In fact, although Lee’s been quiet publicly about which way he’s leaning, his private support might help explain why the head of the “Dump Trump” faction on the Rules Committee seems so confident she’ll have 28 votes to force a floor vote on a “conscience clause.” When the Weekly Standard asked Kendal Unruh why she thinks she has 28 and whether Lee specifically figures into that calculation, she said with a laugh, “I won’t be able to tell you anything either on the record, but I’m gonna get the votes.” Hmmm.
Even if Lee sides with the “conscience” contingent, though, much depends on how vocal he is about it. Some Republicans in backing Trump have been at embarrassingly great pains to say that they support him but that they’re not necessarily endorsing him, i.e. they’ll cast their own vote for him in November but they don’t feel so strongly about it that they’d necessarily urge anyone else to do so. Lee could go that same route in the opposite direction, insisting that while he personally feels “conscience” is too important to ignore, it’s a decision every delegate needs to make for him- or herself and he wouldn’t presume to say how anyone should vote. (No doubt many delegates would vote for Trump even if they’re unbound.) That would be the safe play politically. Although Lee isn’t risking much by opposing Trump in hailing from Utah, which has been chilly towards him throughout the campaign, it would still be a major embarrassment for Lee to give a stirring speech in favor of ousting Trump and then have the delegates vote en masse to nominate him anyway. He needs to hedge his bets here somehow. Coming out strong for unbinding the delegates but saying little or nothing about how they should vote on the nomination would be an obvious way to compromise and probably wouldn’t do too much to shake loose anti-Trump votes on the floor. We’re still a long, long, long way from Trump being ousted even if Lee’s onboard with “conscience.”
But we’re a little closer than we were an hour ago.
Also buried in the NBC piece quoted above, by the way, is news from one anti-Trump delegate that they’ve polled around 1,400 delegates and no less than 72 percent support unbinding and want someone other than Trump. Ummmmm … that seems unlikely, but there you have it.