Anti-Donald Trump forces are within striking distance of getting a vote on a measure aimed at challenging his nomination at the GOP convention next week.
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. Lee was an early endorser and remains a good friend of Sen. Ted Cruz, and remains fiercely critical of the presumptive GOP nominee.
Lee’s support could give cover to undecided delegates wary of backlash from GOP leaders and sway some undecideds.
But a top strategist involved in the Trump campaign's delegate operations expressed confidence the proposal would die in the committee, saying the Free the Delegates movement has a “continually lessening chance” of success.
“We’re peeling people off” with their whip efforts, the strategist said.
If anti-Trump forces do get a minority report in hand, the movement would need majority support from the full convention on the floor — and they insist they have the votes. Dane Waters, the lead strategist for a supportive group called Delegates Unbound that's organizing the group’s whip effort, confirmed an internal survey done by the group that found about 72 percent of the delegates they polled — a number he pegged around 1,400 — believe they’re unbound, and want a candidate other than Trump.
“There's no doubt that there are enough delegates to deny Donald Trump the nomination if the vote were held today. These delegates want to choose somebody else, and even if they don't choose somebody else, I think one thing that's important is that they choose to abstain,” he said.
"I mean, these delegates want the world to know, and this country to know, that not every Republican's in lockstep with Donald Trump.”
And even some Trump staffers believe they’ll see a minority report come out of the Rules Committee.
“This vocal minority is going to get their pound of flesh,” a staffer involved in delegate operations lamented in an interview.
But the staffer insisted that, regardless of whether they’re successful in the committee, “it’s not going to change the results.”
That’s because both the Trump campaign and an independent whip count, from Georgia RNC member Randy Evans, are banking on a huge number of veteran Republican operatives and volunteers — traditional party supporters wary of fracturing the GOP with a contested convention — falling in line behind Trump.
Evans, who opposes any effort to spark a contested convention, counts 1,700 delegates total who would support Trump, about 900 of whom are RNC members, state party leaders and “regular volunteers, people who put out signs who just earned the right to be here by being good party activists.”
A top Trump adviser pegged the total number as closer to 1,900. And Evans said the avowed anti-Trump faction on the floor, which he counted around 680 last week, has dropped off by about 100 since Sen. Ted Cruz — considered a top alternative to Trump by grassroots activists — announced he’d speak at the convention.
The Trump campaign is planning not to let it get that far.
They’ve been whipping hard against the conscience clause, and will have a full team at Thursday’s Rules Committee meeting ready for action. Delegate Director Brian Jack will be there; Rick Gates, a top aide to Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, is expected to show, and the campaign’s legal counsel, Donald F. McGahn will be there. That’s in addition to the four Rules Committee members that make up Trump’s “study committee.” Trump himself, campaign sources say, is staying out of the parliamentary minutiae of the meeting and leaving it up to his team to execute.
And Trump staffers are open to compromising on some rule changes to stave off a conservative revolt on the committee.
“As long as it’s not affecting this convention...Mr. Trump is somebody who wants to make sure the grassroots is heard,” the strategist involved in delegate operations said.
But the battle won’t end there. Free the Delegates is also preparing for a floor fight, regardless of whether they get a minority report for the conscience clause, based on an esoteric reading of the RNC’s rules that states that delegates aren’t bound to begin with.
“No matter what happens at the Rules Committee, we'll push forward on the floor for the delegates to vote their conscience,” Waters said.
That, too, is a possibility the Trump campaign is preparing for — and they’re confident it won’t go anywhere. Multiple Trump sources pointed to the fact that the chairman of the convention — this year, House Speaker Paul Ryan — has control over the floor proceedings and can ultimately decide whether to even yield the floor to any objections from hostile delegates.
But both sides of the fight are preparing for fireworks on the floor, no matter what comes out of the Rules Committee this week.
“Is this gonna be a pretty scenario? No, it's not,” Waters said.
“But as I said, Donald Trump has created this environment. Donald Trump has created the atmosphere in which this divisiveness is happening.’