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Can this man run Donald Trump’s Republican Party?

A few months after Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, Michael Whatley, the chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, alerted GOP faithful to what he portrayed as a two-decade quest by Democrats to cheat their way to power, beginning with the contested 2000 election.

“We knew, if we were not there, they were going to steal it,” Whatley told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, recalling how he and scores of other lawyers mobilized to secure George W. Bush’s victory in Florida.

Fast-forward 20 years, Whatley warned in February 2021, and there were new opportunities for fraud. “Now it’s all electronic,” he said.

Scarcely more than two years later, Whatley won reelection as state party chair using electronic voting software — causing an outcry, claims of fraud and, ultimately, a lawsuit against the state party. The lawsuit was dismissed. But it shows how distrust in the voting process, spread by GOP elites to satisfy Trump, has come back to bite them, making their own party increasingly ungovernable.

The friendly fire in North Carolina is a preview of what may await Whatley if he takes over the Republican National Committee from Ronna McDaniel, the national party’s current chair, who is expected to step down after this month’s South Carolina primary. Trump said in a statement on Monday that he favors Whatley for chair and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, for co-chair, as he seeks to exert control over the party before the November election. Trump’s endorsement all but guarantees their rise, though technically the committee’s 168 members must decide.

“Michael has been with me from the beginning, has done a great job in his home state of North Carolina, and is committed to election integrity, which we must have to keep fraud out of our election so it can’t be stolen,” the former president said.

Trump is drawn to Whatley, advisers say, because the former president twice won North Carolina and sees the state chairman as a loyal steward who has backed him since his first campaign in 2016. Trump expects compliance — whether on party personnel or his legal bills. The party helped defray his expenses from investigations into his businesses before he announced his 2024 campaign, and those payments could resume under new leadership.

When it comes to interacting with Trump’s team, Whatley “is not going to say no,” said a senior Republican who knows Whatley well and spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. Sharing duties with a Trump family member would surely redouble the pressure.

Whatley, currently the national party’s general counsel along with his state-level role, did not respond to questions. But in an interview last year, he defended McDaniel as her leadership came under criticism and presented himself as a happy warrior. The party needed to raise more money, he said, but she deserved support. The two have been close for years.

“There is no magic formula,” he said then. “Our whole job is getting people to vote and protecting the ballot.”

Trump’s false claims of voter fraud have brought those two aims into conflict. Whatley has not championed Trump’s claims to the degree demanded by party activists, nor has he repudiated them, instead allowing them to fester. In the process, he has opened himself to criticism on all fronts.

A Republican former member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, assessing Whatley’s likely promotion within Trump’s GOP, said, “Who in their right mind would go do something like this?”

Whatley hails from Watauga County, in a hilly region known as North Carolina’s High Country. He first became involved in politics as a high school sophomore, volunteering on the 1984 reelection campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican who crusaded against abortion, civil and gay rights, and foreign aid.

In 2000, as a member of the Bush campaign’s legal team, Whatley learned the ways of political combat, he later said. “It was really the first time that Republicans got down into the trench and fought,” he said from the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2021.

The experience also familiarized him with figures who remain central in GOP politics. Pointing at Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s embattled chairman, Whatley said, “One of the greatest things about that 2000 recount was getting a chance to meet this guy.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ended Florida’s recount, handing the election to Bush, Whatley served in the Department of Energy and as chief of staff to then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).

“He had a nonconfrontational, almost nonexistent life on Capitol Hill,” said the former member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation. “No one remembers anything he did on the Hill.”

By 2005, he had gone into lobbying, according to federal filings. He mainly represented energy companies, through larger lobbying shops and his own firm, The Patriot Group. He also worked the corridors of power for other interests, such as aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin, according to lobbying disclosures.

Whatley returned to North Carolina in 2015, property records show, just as Trump was arriving on the political scene. Unlike Republicans who made peace with Trump only after he had cleared the field, Whatley was an early booster.

“He was already with Trump long before it was locked up,” said Russell Peck, a longtime GOP operative in the state.

Whatley served as an informal adviser to Trump’s campaign in North Carolina and became friendly with Susie Wiles, who now runs Trump’s political operation. He was active in outreach strategy, helping to devise the candidate’s appearances in the state and deploy surrogates to press Trump’s case in other venues. He also worked on the campaign’s energy platform, according to a Trump adviser.

When Trump won, Whatley had a wide-ranging role in the presidential transition, notably shepherding the confirmation of former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as secretary of the Agriculture Department.

Back in North Carolina, the state GOP soon found itself mired in controversy. In early 2019, state election officials ordered a new contest in the 9th Congressional District, after evidence emerged that a ballot-tampering scheme had benefited Republican Mark Harris.

Weeks later, the state party chairman, Robert “Robin” Hayes, was indicted on federal bribery charges. He ultimately pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal agents (and was later pardoned by Trump).

That’s when Whatley stepped in. “We need a reset in Raleigh,” he said in a video announcing his campaign for state party chair. Despite Whatley’s years of support for Trump, the then-president didn’t back his bid.

Once he took the reins, Whatley focused especially on state legislative and judicial races, according to party officials and donors. The efforts paid off. Republicans flipped the state Supreme Court in 2022 and secured supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature by the following year.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the state party. “He’s been successful.”

Crucially, Whatley endeared himself to Trump in 2020 by delivering the state for him, even as Democrats held the governor’s office. An adviser said Trump was pleased by the clarity of North Carolina’s results and credited Whatley for preventing fraud — which Republicans blamed, contrary to numerous court decisions, for defeats in other states.

As election fraud became a GOP bugbear, Whatley boasted of his efforts in North Carolina, telling the CPAC audience that he had devoted three-quarters of the state party’s budget to legal expenses and amassed an army of 500 lawyers to prevent Democratic skulduggery.

He’s boasted privately to Trump as well, a person familiar with their interactions said.

In the weeks after the election, even as North Carolina’s results went unquestioned, Whatley echoed the president’s unfounded claims of fraud elsewhere. He told a conservative local talk radio host: “We do know that there was massive fraud that took place. We know that it took place in places like Milwaukee and Detroit and Philadelphia.”

When the protest encouraged by Trump on Jan. 6, 2021, devolved into a deadly riot, Whatley denounced the violence.

“The actions of the violent protestors who stormed and vandalized the U.S. Capitol, planted bombs and assaulted Capitol Police Officers are completely unjustified and unacceptable,” he wrote on Facebook. “There is no rationale to excuse this assault on the foundations of our Democracy.”

He struck the same tone on Twitter but later deleted the post.

The language reflects a balance Whatley was trying to strike, said Woodhouse, the former state party executive director. “I think Whatley found a middle ground,” he said. “I don’t recall him ever saying the election was stolen.”

Art Pope, an influential North Carolina donor backing former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in her long-shot bid to wrest the nomination from Trump, said Whatley’s position has been misconstrued.

“I have seen Michael Whatley referred to as ‘election denier,’ a term like ‘climate denier’ or ‘Holocaust denier,’” Pope, who has worked with Whatley since he became state party chairman, said in an interview. “I’ve never heard Michael Whatley allege any of the further-out conspiracy theories with regard to the 2020 election.”

To some in the party’s base, that very restraint is a problem. In replies to Whatley’s Facebook post — which remains on his page — users falsely blamed left-wing activists for the violence at the Capitol and insisted that the election was stolen. “This election was illegitimate,” one wrote, going on to question his rejection of violence: “There will be an illegitimate and illegally elected President living in the White House in 9 days and you don’t think there is ever a time for the use of violence?”

Whatley found other ways of proving his loyalty to Trump. In February 2021, he presided over a state party censure of then-Sen. Richard Burr after the Republican, who had already announced his decision to retire, voted to find Trump guilty of inciting an insurrection at the president’s second impeachment trial.

In 2022, he allowed Trump to use the state party’s annual convention in Greensboro to endorse then-Rep. Ted Budd in a contested Senate primary race, breaking with long-standing neutrality rules. Whatley later told others that he was taken aback when Trump issued an endorsement from the convention stage, according to people who spoke with him.

The endorsement bolstered Budd’s candidacy and deflated the campaigns of then-Rep. Mark Walker and former governor Pat McCory, both also running for Senate.

“I’d been advised early on by people I respect to never trust him, and it turns out they were right,” McCrory said of Whatley, declining to elaborate.

Whatley threw his hat in the ring for Republican National Committee co-chair early last year, and he picked up Trump’s endorsement but later withdrew. Instead, he was made RNC general counsel.

In June, he was reelected as state party chairman at the annual convention in Greensboro, but a cloud of suspicion hung over the results. That’s because voting in the chair’s race occurred via electronic software, according to court filings.

Three delegates to the convention sued, arguing that the party “conducted the vote over the Internet and failed to use paper ballots making an audit impossible.”

A judge dismissed the complaint, and the plaintiffs dropped their appeal early this year. But Whatley’s critics say the dispute shows how he has lost credibility with the party’s most engaged activists, for whom election integrity is a litmus test.

Michele Woodhouse, a regional GOP chair in the western part of the state, added, “The grass roots in North Carolina has completely walked away from the GOP and Michael Whatley’s leadership.”

Whatley’s evolution illustrates the arc of the Republican Party under Trump, said Robert Orr, a former Republican justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, who has since left the party. But the criticism Whatley faces from within his own ranks, Orr added, shows how few rewards such adaptations ultimately bring.

“Based on his political involvement prior to 2016, I wouldn’t have predicted he was some sort of MAGA supporter,” Orr said. “But look at the Republican Party: How many people holding elected or party office would you have expected to be some slavish supporter of Donald Trump?”

Aaron Schaffer contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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