Just outside of the nation's capital, less than two weeks before the Republican National Convention, a group of conservative strategists and allies are gathered over classical music, champagne, and quinoa cups in a last-ditch effort to change the course of GOP presidential nomination. "We're all here for one reason, and that's to stop Donald Trump," says Jack Burkman, the lobbyist who was, along with his wife Susan, hosting the home-based July 8 fundraiser.
Burkman's claim started to seem like only so much spin as the night wore on, however. People were there for an array of reasons, from an ambassador "curious" about U.S. politics to friends of the event's chef, Grace Collins, showing their support. Libertarian communications strategist Liz Mair was there as a sort of keynote speaker. There were a few journalists, some waitstaff, and a violinist. Peter O'Toole's cousin and his glamorous blonde partner were there for reasons that were somewhat unclear. But what was clear was that few in the crowd could be categorized as emphatically #NeverTrump.
"Trump has drawbacks, but Hillary—" says Diane Miceli, before launching into a litany of Ms. Clinton's flaws and scandals. Miceli, who lives in Fort Washington, Maryland, and is around Clinton's age, describes herself as a political independent. Her first choice for president would have been Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, she says, but "it probably wasn't his time yet."
"I will say this, he's absolutely dreamy," pipes in Amanda Linton, a Democrat from Phoenix who currently lives in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Miceli laughs. "If looks could win an election…"
I am enjoying talking to these women as they sip wine, gleefully objectify male candidates, and express frustration with Hillary Clinton. "They assume that women will vote for her," objects Linton, who voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, "and that's wrong." Linton says might sit out the general election because she doesn't like Clinton or Trump.
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson isn't on her radar. In general, there's a lackadaisical-at-best embrace of the Libertarian ticket here.
Mair does mention Johnson during her speech, saying she hears "a lot" of conservatives "saying they will support Gary Johnson." But she also hears them complain because he's pro-choice—a concern she waves way. "It still strikes me that Johnson, while he's pro-choice, will be more conservative on abortion than, frankly, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton," says Mair.
As for Johnson's running mate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, his views on abortion are relatively irrelevant, Mair adds.
"I didn't know Weld was still living," Burkman shouts out. "Good to know."
Delegates Want to Be Free
The Libertarian Party's presidential chances might be quite a long shot—but at least libertarians know that. With Burkman and his compatriots, it's hard to tell how sincerely they believe in their own scheme. This scheme mostly centers on a movement called Free the Delegates, which Burkman describes as a play "to make sure Donald Trump loses on the first ballot" at the Republican convention next week.
According to Roll Call, Burkman's turn to the #NeverTrump side came after he tried to play along and be a good party soldier. Then Trump micromanaged a fundraiser the Burkmans were going to hold for the candidate. "We found out that he's a total control freak," Burkman told Roll Call. When they disagreed with Trump's planning ultimatums, the Burkmans received a "long, threatening letter" from the candidate's lawyers. "Like me, you probably wanted to believe that there has to be something behind the character you see on the screen," Burkman said. "But there's not. It's the rogue on stage."
Another reason Burkman—who once lobbied for legislation to keep gay players out of the National Football League—dislikes Trump? The candidate's refusal to condemn gay-marriage.
Mair, meanwhile, thinks Trump won't do enough to protect personal liberty. She describes both Trump and Clinton as "morally bankrupt individuals" who could both "end up being indicted or in jail at some point in the next 10 years." Neither candidate "has any interest in protecting liberties," Mair tells the group assembled in Burkman's living room. "The reason Trump has got to the stage he is at is because of a lot of institutional failure. The RNC delegates can make a decision if they want to be the last potentially functioning institution [and] shut this down."
To shut it down, the RNC Rules Committee members would have to vote for a rules change "so that [Trump] can be turfed," Mair explains. She says she realizes this might be seen as "undemocratic," but "you're not going to have a functioning democracy if you don't protect liberties."
RNC Rules Committee members are expected to vote on the change by the end of this week.
Because nominating conventions are extra-legal, "the rules set by each Convention are essentially peace treaties negotiated between the parties and the voters," Jill Lepore writes in her July 4 New Yorker article, "How to Steal an Election."
As it stands, RNC delegates must vote in accordance with the results of state caucuses and primaries. Free the Delegates wants to "unbind" the delegates so they can vote their "conscience," with the hope that what their conscience wants is someone like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, or Mitt Romney. "If there were ever a time for Mitt Romney to step up, it would be now," Mair says. "He's not my favorite guy… [but] I think Romney is actually relatively good at running things, unlike Donald Trump."
Free the Delegates Executive Director Regina Thompson said this week that the organization is also looking to change RNC Rule 40 in a way that would give delegates say over Trump's running mate. "That scenario has recent precedent," NBC News explains. "When Sen. John McCain seriously considered then Sen. Joe Lieberman as a running mate in 2008, many delegates viewed Lieberman's abortion record as so unacceptable, they threatened to vote him down in a floor fight if nominated."
"Could Be Clinton, Could Be Romney"
It's not just the RNC that binds delegates; some 20 states mandate it by law. Attorney and RNC delegate from Virginia Carroll "Beau" Correll recently challenged his state's law saying he must vote for whom he's told at the convention or face misdemeanor criminal charges. Correll, who supports Cruz, claimed it violates his First Amendment rights. On July 11, a federal judge agreed (Correll v. Herring).
The case has no direct implications outside of Virginia's delegation to the Republican National Convention. But anti-Trump types are hoping it will give, as NBC puts it, "some legal cover to delegates wishing to vote their 'conscience,' rather than for the candidate to whom they're bound."
Once upon a time, when primary elections held way less weight, delegates to the nominating convention could indeed do just that. But "the protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 resulted in a change in the balance of power between the primaries and the Conventions," Lepore writes. "Before 1968, primaries hardly mattered; since 1968, the Conventions have hardly mattered." Since then, neither party "has successfully defeated at the Convention the candidate who won a plurality of the primaries and the caucuses."
In shades of 2016, members of the Democratic Party were vowing #NeverMcGovern—"Anybody but McGovern" was the actual rallying cry—at the 1972 convention, to no avail. Ronald Reagan tried, and failed, to stage a delegate coup at the '76 GOP Convention where Gerald Ford won the party's nomination. The Democrats invented "superdelegates," not bound to any particular candidate, after Ted Kennedy failed to take the 1980 nomination from Jimmy Carter due to party rules.
"A savvy souvenir collector," writes Lepore, "could even hawk on the streets of Cleveland the buttons that Kennedy supporters wore in 1980, which read 'FREE THE DELEGATES.'"
Still, the never-Trump crowd seems undeterred by previous failures to unbind delegates. "If you end up with a free vote amongst the delegates, there's something like 90 delegates who could potentially be in play, who aren't necessarily 'Never Trump' but aren't committed to Trump," Mair says.
It's good to "have options," Mauricio, an insurance agent, tells me after Mair's talk. He says he is there "to support" his friends. When I ask who he plans to vote for in the general election, he says, "could be Clinton, could be Romney."
Requiem for a Reality Show
Nothing at the Burkman event really counteracts the sense of rich people ruminating whimsically on a ship that has long since sailed. The violinist plays a somber set more befitting the Titanic deck than a cocktail party, with The Godfather theme song thrown in for good measure. In front of her, an array of tall, narrow vases hold a single long-stemmed flower each. The space is tasteful and immaculate in a way that feels forced, too precious, unnerving. The bar serves spirits, champagne, and white wine but no red wine, and no beer. Platters of elaborate tarts and petit fours sit beautiful and untouched.
Burton, in a bright blue suit and perma-smile, totes his dachshund Jackie around, introducing her to guests as "daddy's boy."
Most of the men look like Central Casting Republicans: navy-blue blazers, golf tans, full heads of gleaming white hair. Handsome. Distinguished. The women are more of a mixed bunch, though there's scarcely a flat-heeled shoe or pair of pants among them. Susan Burkman wears a little black dress and is pretty in a Bravo-star kind of way.
In fact, the Burkmans and their crew court this real-socialites-of-D.C. image. In 2014, The Washington Post reported that "Burkman and his circle of pals have been seen around town being trailed by cameras, which they're telling people is for a Bravo show called 'Wicked Politics,' an upcoming series promising a peek into the world of lobbyists and 'other politicos.'"
Yet sources at Bravo told the Post no such project existed. Burkman later explained to the paper that while he was working with a "Hollywood" production crew and had been planning the project for a while, there was not officially a deal yet with Bravo or any other TV network.
Reading about this several days after Burkman's anti-Trump event, I begin to wonder if the whole spectacle had been intended more as media-bait than a legit fundraiser. Press had been not just allowed but actively encouraged to attend—rare for $1,000-a-head schmooze-fests of this sort. Attendees were eager to provide us with their names and quotes. Looking back through my notes, I notice three people uttering nearly identical phrases about the importance of having political options, as if they had been briefed on talking points beforehand.
We had assumed the event's press presence, combined with a low RSVP-count from paying attendees, had led to the hasty addition of guests whose hearts clearly weren't in freeing the delegates. But maybe we had assumed wrong. Perhaps these friends and friends-of-friends had been the bulk of the party roster all along. Perhaps donors were never the point. Perhaps we were duped.
I relish this idea, in a weird way. The whole strange, sad pageant seems less strange and sad if it was all a grand delusion, anyway.
But whatever Burkman's motivations and desired outcomes, he couldn't fully control the script that evening. And that's how my biggest takeaway from the evening became this: conservative women are pissed.
Sisterhood of the #NeverTrump
"And which one of these two gentleman are you with?" an older man asks me after two male colleagues introduce themselves to him as journalists. I politely explain that I, too, am a journalist.
Throughout the night, I will be congratulated by older women on several occasions for doing what I do. It's not precisely clear what they mean by this—having a job? Writing about politics? Writing about women?—but "you keep it up! You be proud!" they tell me as I leave, along with other sweet yet perplexing statements.
The night's sisterhood started, for me, during my early conversations with Miceli and Linton. "I'm really loving this synergy with women," Linton exclaims as we stand around chatting electoral politics and Rubio's good looks.
It's not all XX-chromosomed kumbaya, though. There's an undercurrent of outrage among the women gathered at the Burkman house, and it first manifests itself almost as soon as Mair starts speaking. Upon mentioning the infamous Heidi Cruz meme that got Trump "sidetracked" for weeks, a woman shouts out contemptuously that Trump also "insulted Carly" (Fiorina) and "he insults women" regularly. When Mair mentions Melania Trump, Collins, the chef (and inviter of almost every guest I talk to), pipes up to take issue with Melania's credentials: "She's a trophy wife!"
A fashion model, offers Collins, "is supposed to show the fashion of fashion designer's clothes. When you strip… that is a different class of person. She's not first lady material."
From the back, another woman murmurs disapprovingly that when Hillary was First Lady, she stood by a husband who "cheated on her in front of all of the United States."
Mair regains control of the assembly, but not for long. She's soon challenged again upon mentioning Mitt Romney's 2012 loss. A woman in a floral sundress insists that the reason Romney lost was his choice of another white man as a running mate; she felt he could have won if he would have picked a woman or minority as a running mate. After some back and forth about this, Mair gives up with: "I'm sorry, but that's categorically false."
Later, the woman in the sundress will tell me about a novel she is working on—a sort of modern twist on Gone with the Wind, she explains—in which the female protagonist is competent, kind, and makes good money but her "Rhett" is a louse with few prospects and a cat that he dotes on. Men think they can take women for granted, she says, shaking her head.
Across the room, the man identified only as Peter O'Toole's cousin is holding court about how his production company values women: "We have female writers, female directors, female producers…" He continues on in that vein for a bit, like some sort of feminist Bubba from Forest Gump.
Women are "the movers and the shakers," says Mary Thomas, 62, a retired federal employee who lives in Tantallon, Maryland. "We're the ones who get things done." Thompson says she isn't sure yet whom she'll vote for in November. "I don't think Trump is a bad guy," she says, "but I love Hillary."