May 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside the secret talks to overhaul the GOP platform

Jared Kushner

Jared Kushner. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

For the past six months, top Trump campaign officials, reporting to Jared Kushner, have been working on a radical overhaul of the Republican Party platform.

Driving the news: The Trump campaign's Bill Stepien has been leading the process, working with campaign colleagues and the Republican National Committee. As with all significant campaign matters, they've been reporting back to Kushner.

  • The president's son-in-law and top adviser has told confidants he wants to shrink the GOP's extensive platform of policy beliefs and principles down to a single card that fits in people's pockets. That's a huge change. The 2016 platform runs 58 pages — the product of extensive debate and heated negotiations.
  • Kushner told colleagues he wanted "something like the 10 principles we believe in," per two sources familiar with his comments. He asked Stepien to find historical examples of Republican platforms that look more like a "mission statement," per a source familiar with one of their meetings.
  • Another source familiar with the discussions pointed to the GOP platform of 1856 as an example of a platform that is similarly short. The source used this example to argue that the idea of a one-page platform isn't so new or radical after all.

Behind the scenes: At noon on Dec. 19, 2019, Kushner shared some of his thinking with colleagues in the Secretary of War Suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the West Wing of the White House.

  • From his seat at the center of a long table, Kushner told senior White House and campaign staff that more of their policies should be drawing people to the party, so they ought to eliminate alienating language.

As an example of language that would alienate voters, Kushner said that he didn't want to see anything about "gay conversion therapy" in the 2020 Republican platform.

  • The 2016 Republican platform did not explicitly mention gay conversion therapy, but it included this line: "We support the right of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children."
  • Gay Republicans were furious because they viewed it, accurately, as a coded endorsement for the widely condemned practice that's rejected by major medical associations and whose use on minors is banned in many states and some other countries.
  • Kushner also argued against rebranding "School Choice" as "Education Freedom Scholarships," because he said the latter phrase doesn't resonate with African Americans.
  • Two sources said they recalled Kushner making a more sweeping point — that they should rethink using the word "freedom" altogether in the GOP platform because polling showed it doesn't appeal to African Americans. But another source familiar with the Dec. 19 meeting pushed back adamantly against this.
  • The source said the only context in which Kushner argued against using the word "freedom" was in the context of rebranding "school choice." The source added that "freedom's a great word" and "should be smartly utilized" in the 2020 Republican platform.
  • (The Trump administration had been using the phrase "Education Freedom Scholarships" since at least February 2019 — more than nine months before this meeting.)

Between the lines: In developing their ideas for the new GOP platform, the Trump team has kept the information flow to an extremely tight circle. It's unclear who, if any, of the state party leaders — whose delegates will ultimately need to vote on the platform — have visibility of the discussions. And most White House officials have no idea these talks have been happening.

  • A one-page platform has been drafted, but only a few people have seen it.
  • Sources familiar with the discussions stressed that this is far from a final product and that ultimately it will be up to the 112 delegates on the platform committee to decide on its language at the Republican National Convention in late August. Then the whole slate of delegates will vote on it.
  • The sources also added that multiple options have been drafted.

The big picture: Overhauling the platform is no easy feat. Representatives from disparate and well-funded factions of the Republican Party live for their quadrennial fights over what goes into it, language for everything from hot-button social issues to America's relationships with allies and adversaries. And outside interest groups aggressively lobby to shape its contents.

  • The Republican Party's 2016 platform is an unwieldy document, outlining the party's positions on topics ranging from "protection against an electromagnetic pulse" to "our tax principles" to the declaration that "the cornerstone of the family is natural marriage, the union of one man and one woman."

The bottom line: “This is a concept that has been driven by the campaign. A more concise platform is just one of many options being discussed, and it is in fact not a new idea," said Tim Murtaugh, the campaign's Director of Communications. 

  • "As recently as 2016, a more focused platform was considered. Ultimately, the platform committee of the convention will make the decision, but as is the case with all national conventions, the President’s campaign will play a major role. In any event, we expect the 2020 platform to be the most conservative in history and one which will reflect the President’s conservative imprint on the Republican Party,” Murtaugh said.

Our thought bubble: Trump has enormous sway over the party, and his campaign has hustled to ensure states send Trump-friendly, compliant delegates to the convention. His team obviously has a far better chance than it did in 2016 to get their way.

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