Bribery, threats and more: Donald Trump's got an evil, but cunning, strategy to win a brokered convention

Trump's team is crafting a plan to pay off and threaten delegates, and a ready excuse to justify unethical choices

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 11, 2016 3:03PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/LM Otero)
Donald Trump (AP/LM Otero)

After Ted Cruz's smashing win in Wisconsin's Republican primary, it's increasingly hard to imagine the Republicans heading into anything but a brokered convention. FiveThirtyEight is predicting that neither Cruz nor Donald Trump will get anywhere near the 1,237 delegate votes required to make this a clean majority rules win, meaning this will be a return to the days of backroom deals and hand-shaking to get delegates at the convention to rally around a candidate.

Some folks are predicting that this, after all this time, will be the thing that finally does Trump in. While hedging his bets that Trump might make it to the magic number, Rich Lowry of the National Review predicted Cruz would do better in an open convention.

"But it is true the Trump campaign wasn't built for this," he said Friday night on Fox News. "It was basically built as a media operation with Donald Trump going from phone interview to phone interview, and that worked brilliantly, much better than anyone would have expected. But now we may be getting into this granular delegate by delegate fight, and Ted Cruz is built for that."

It is true that Cruz is widely believed to have a better ground game than Trump, which is how Cruz built up a base of support across the country while having almost no support from the actual party. Still, it's a bit naive to think that Trump has no idea what he's doing when it comes to rallying delegate support at the Republican National Convention.

Public statements and behavior from the Trump team suggest they have a strategy is place, one that will be as effective as it is unethical. Piecing it together from public statements, it seems they have put together a simple but deadly three point plan.

1) Bribery. As the Washington Post reported Monday morning, there are few rules against bribing delegates at the RNC.

"Under regulations established in the 1980s, delegates cannot take money from corporations, labor unions, federal contractors or foreign nationals," Matea Gold and Ed O'Keefe write. "But an individual donor is permitted to give a delegate unlimited sums to support his or her efforts to get selected to go to the convention, including money to defray the costs of travel and lodging."

In practice that means that Trump could fly delegates in on his private jet, offer them all-expenses paid trips to his own resorts, and wine and dine them at the convention. To make it worse, convention rules were written before super PACs became a thing, meaning that these groups can lavish all sorts of money on delegates and use anonymity to skirt convention rules barring corporate money from influencing events.

While both candidates have equal opportunity to do this — and the super PAC aspect might level the playing field more for Cruz — the grim fact of the matter is that Trump's got more experience here.  Trump is largely a failure as an actual businessman, but he has stayed rich because he's able to bamboozle, bribe and cajole with some skill. Much of his career has been built on greasing palms. That's going to matter when it comes time to dazzling delegates at the convention.

2) Threats. The gangster candidate has already spent months riling ordinary supporters up to the point of violence. While Trump denies doing so intentionally, like with most things that come out of his mouth, there's no real reason to believe him. But either way, he's laid down the groundwork so that there will be a fear of violence and retribution at the convention.

Now Roger Stone, who used to work directly on Trump's campaign before going off to start a super PAC supporting Trump, is issuing thinly veiled threats that he's going to get the hotel room numbers for delegates that don't support Trump. Considering that Stone has a history of using violence to get his way, especially in provoking a riot to shut down vote-counting during the contested presidential election in Florida in 2000, these threats will not feel idle.

3) Establishing a "both sides do it" narrative. This is an old school right-wing technique: Make a bunch of wild accusations of corruption against your opponents, so that when your own corruption is exposed, outsiders will simply assume everyone is guilty and write the entire thing off. (The Clintons have been fighting this technique off for decades now.)

Trump is clearly gearing up to do this to Cruz, making all sorts of lurid accusations about Cruz playing dirty pool. That way, when Trump starts bribing and coercing delegates, he can resort to arguing that Cruz started it.

Over the weekend, Trump started accusing Cruz of using "crooked shenanigans", because Cruz won the Colorado Republican conventions on Friday. It's a classic case of sour grapes — there's no serious evidence of Cruz breaking any rules — but Trump and his team are clearly hoping that if they blow enough smoke, people will start to think there's a fire.

Trump's newly promoted adviser Paul Manafort called Cruz winning Colorado "Gestapo tactics" on "Meet the Press" Sunday and Trump went on to Fox News to argue that Cruz's win somehow doesn't count because Colorado uses a convention system instead of a primary or caucus. He is also, of course, ranting on Twitter about it.


Never mind that the Colorado system was in place long before Trump determined, the second he lost the state, that it's an evil and corrupt system

The sad fact is that this attempt to blow smoke will probably work because the Colorado system is obtuse and complicated, making it all too easy to believe that Cruz somehow parlayed his (relatively non-existent) Republican insider status to win through sleazy deal-making.

The whole phony outrage act is about laying down the groundwork to justify bribing and even threatening delegates at the national convention. Manafort refused to answer questions about whether the Trump campaign plans to bribe delegates. But it's clear, as Chuck Todd made explicit, that the Trump team is implying that bribes are justified now on the grounds that Cruz did it first.

After all, they've already had a run at this very same strategy. Just last month, Trump and his supporters launched a double-pronged attack on Cruz's marriage by insinuating that his wife is ugly and therefore he cheats on her. (Trump denies planting the adultery accusations in the National Enquirer, but he absolutely fanned them every chance he got.) Trump justified all this with the "he started it" nonsense, making the self-evidently silly accusation that a Facebook meme created by a minor super PAC that showed Melania Trump posing nude constituted starting it.

The more likely story here is that the Trump team, aware that his history of adultery and his trophy wife marriage are political liabilities, needed a "both sides do it" narrative. So they grabbed the slenderest of threads to justify an attack on the Cruz marriage. Now instead of having a Christian vs. adulterer narrative, they can imply it's just an adulterer vs. adulterer race.

The same script is being run on the issue of bribing delegates: Accuse Cruz of starting it, feel justified in doing whatever you want from there on out, no matter how outrageous. Since Cruz is legitimately sleazy and off-putting, it's going to be nearly impossible for him to shake these allegations. Because of this, it would be unwise to think Trump doesn't have a substantial advantage going into the convention. He's got money to throw around, surrogates who are willing to play rough, and a go-to excuse to justify all of it.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte