Jun 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The inside story of Trump’s embarrassing endorsement

Photo of President Trump looking down

Trump listens during a roundtable at the White House June 15. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Madison Cawthorn, the 24-year-old who stunningly defeated the candidate President Trump endorsed in the Republican runoff for North Carolina's 11th congressional district, got a congratulatory call last night from the president himself — on Air Force One flying back from Arizona.

Why it matters: Lynda Bennett's defeat ruined Trump's near-perfect record of endorsing winners in GOP primaries — a record he prized and often boasted about.

Between the lines: It also puts White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in an awkward position, with allies of the president blaming him for the loss.

  • Meadows vacated the seat to join Trump's White House earlier this year. The president only endorsed the losing candidate because Meadows' wife encouraged him to do so, according to sources with direct knowledge.

Behind the scenes: After congratulating Cawthorn, Trump told the young real estate investor that he didn't even know Bennett, and that his team had told him to endorse her, according to two sources familiar with the call. The real story is even knottier.

  • Early on the morning of June 4, Trump got a call from Debbie Meadows, the chief of staff's wife, according to a source with direct knowledge. She persuaded Trump to endorse her close friend, Bennett, and later that morning Trump tweeted out his endorsement.
  • Trump's tweet surprised a number of people in his political orbit. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was unhappy about the endorsement and told Trump that he thought he'd made a mistake and that Cawthorn would win, according to a source familiar with McCarthy's thinking.

Soon after he tweeted his endorsement, Trump started to get nervous that Bennett would lose and spoil his record of endorsing winners.

  • On June 16, Trump tried to give Bennett another boost by urging his 80+ million Twitter followers to donate to her campaign.
  • Per Politico, Trump "released a robocall saying [Bennett] would help him 'fight crazy Nancy Pelosi and that radical socialist liberal group trying to destroy our country.' House Freedom Action, a leadership PAC aligned with the House Freedom Caucus, which Meadows co-founded, spent nearly $500,000 on the airwaves to boost Bennett."

The other side: “The Republican race for NC-11 was an embarrassment of riches," said a source close to Meadows. "Several qualified candidates were eager to fill the shoes left by Meadows to support the pro-Trump agenda."

  • "Wayne King was Meadows' former deputy chief of staff, Lynda was a personal friend, and Madison was a former intern of Mark Meadows. We’re proud of Madison.”

After his victory last night, Cawthorn said he did not think his win revealed any larger conclusions about Trump's influence in the Republican Party.

  • "I want to make something clear," he said in a statement. "I support our great president. I do not believe this election has been a referendum on the president's influence. The people of western North Carolina are wise and discerning. You observed both candidates and simply made the choice you believed is best for our district."

What we're hearing: Watch for Cawthorn to visit with Trump in the not too distant future.

What's next: Cawthorn faces Democrat Moe Davis in November. If Cawthorn wins, he will be the youngest member of Congress.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that not every Trump-endorsed candidate has won their primaries.

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