CLEVELAND — As a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno hews close to former President Donald Trump's brand.
Moreno, a car dealer and blockchain technology entrepreneur from the Cleveland area, presents himself in much the same outsider's vein. And last month Moreno submitted himself to what has been described as a "Hunger Games"-like competition for Trump's support during a private meeting he and three rivals had with the former president in Florida.
But five years ago, Moreno wanted nothing to do with Trump as he romped his way to the Republican presidential nomination and the White House.
Moreno, according to emails obtained by NBC News, bashed Trump as a "lunatic" and a "maniac" in correspondence with a national Republican fundraising consultant who was seeking donations. Moreno said he would, in a coming meeting with the pope, ask "for a convention miracle" in which Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, then the speaker of the House, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would "emerge as the saviors of the Republican Party."
And he suggested that he would stop donating to the national party if Trump became its leader.
"I am a hard core true believer in the party! But ... If Donald Trump is nominated, I will consider that a hostile take over and no longer associate myself with THAT, new GOP," Moreno wrote in an exchange in March 2016, responding to a request that he meet with the chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, Reince Priebus, during a visit to Cleveland. Moreno said he would be out of state.
"I completely get the position Reince is in and he is doing the best he can with a lunatic invading the party," Moreno added. "In retrospect, more could/should have been done early, but I don't blame anyone for that. Hindsight is always 20/20."
Moreno closed the email prophetically: "The worst part for me," he wrote, "I think trump can beat Hillary!"
A month later, as Trump tightened his grip on the nomination in a field that had started with 17 candidates, the fundraising consultant followed up with Moreno and acknowledged concerns "about the situation at the presidential level" and wondered whether Moreno might contribute to a separate fund for Senate candidates.
"Given that I see a future where trump is the leader of what used to be my party, I've sidelined myself," Moreno replied. "I will support individual candidates, but can't support a party led by that maniac."
Moreno's campaign, in response to questions about the emails, forwarded additional emails from the correspondence. One of them included the consultant's commiserating with Moreno about "a very weird place we are in" and saying "no one would have expected this to be where we are in March 2016."
Moreno's campaign also noted that the consultant now raises money for one of Moreno's GOP primary opponents, Jane Timken, former chair of the state's Republican Party.
"This email exchange was with Jane Timken's current fundraiser," Moreno campaign manager Parker Briden said. "At the time, the fundraiser was raising money for the RNC when these five-year-old emails were exchanged."
"Bernie gave more than $50,000 to the RNC and related entities in the Trump 2016 cycle," Briden added. "That includes thousands of dollars from after this conversation — to support Republicans up and down the ballot. He was obviously fired up and disappointed in the moment years ago, but he supported Donald Trump, donated to him and is fired up for his agenda."
The donation to Trump came at an event in Cleveland in October for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising venture with the RNC, a Moreno campaign spokesperson said.
Moreno had raised money for Rubio's presidential bid and contributed to the White House campaign of John Kasich, then the governor of Ohio, early in the 2016 cycle. His company also gave $20,000 to the Republican National Convention's host committee in Cleveland long before it was known that Trump would be the nominee.
His initial skepticism about Trump does not make Moreno unique among Republicans angling to succeed GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who announced in January that he was not seeking re-election.
Former state Treasurer Josh Mandel also first supported Rubio, and Timken had backed Kasich. But Mandel and Timken would eventually nurture strong ties to the Trump network. Mandel did it through the political aides he lent to Trump for the 2016 general election, Timken through her years as Trump's handpicked head of the state Republican Party.
Both have spent the early days of the developing primary trying to outdo each other over who is most loyal to Trump.
As Briden noted, despite having renounced the GOP in his emails with the fundraiser, Moreno continued contributing to other party leaders and organizations in the run-up to Trump's election. He gave $10,000 each to Ryan's super PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee that fall, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The following year, as the 2018 midterm campaigns began, Moreno was a top donor to the successful House campaign of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the former NFL wide receiver and Ohio State Buckeyes standout. Gonzalez — one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump this year for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — now rates as one of the most despised figures in Trump's political orbit. Timken also had been a staunch Gonzalez ally who in the weeks after the impeachment vote spoke favorably of him before reversing course a month later and calling on him to resign over what she called his "wrongful decision."
In an interview with NBC affiliate WKYC of Cleveland in April 2019, Moreno corrected the interviewer when he was asked about his support for Trump.
"No, my daughter works on Trump 2020," Moreno said. "And she's free to do that. We have a vigorous debate at home about politics, and my daughter works on the Trump campaign. That doesn't mean that I support the Trump campaign."
A spokesperson said Monday that Moreno did not want to overshadow his daughter's professional work.
Today, Moreno leans unabashedly into Trump. He sprinkled his official campaign launch last week with other gestures to Trump and his supporters. He has been endorsed by Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, and his steering committee includes allies of Trump with Ohio ties, including the Rev. Darrell Scott and former White House aide Ja'Ron Smith. Once a GOP donor who wanted his party to cancel Trump, he is now a vocal defender.
"Big Tech companies colluded to erase President Donald J. Trump from the internet because they hate what he represents," Moreno writes on his website. "If they can silence him, what will they do to the rest of us if we step out of line?"