With the relationship between Paul Ryan and Donald Trump already increasingly fraught, POLITICO has learned that a group of former Trump campaign hands is quietly working to defeat the House speaker in his primary election next week.
More than half a dozen of Trump’s former campaign staff members or leading volunteer organizers from around the country — and many more local volunteers — have signed on to the long-shot campaign of Ryan’s primary challenger, businessman Paul Nehlen, who openly embraces Trump and casts Ryan as an impediment to Trump’s agenda.
While they were not sent by Trump — in fact, most of the staffers had been laid off by his shoestring primary campaign or left amid infighting — their re-emergence in Ryan’s Southeastern Wisconsin district is notable.
Nehlen’s relatively small campaign appears to have collected the largest concentration of former Trump staff and volunteer advisers, with some acknowledging they see the effort to defeat Ryan as a continuation of the bitter fight Trump waged against the GOP establishment.
The migration to Nehlen’s team also suggests that Trump’s presidential campaign may be spawning a new crop of operatives outside tight-knit GOP consulting circles. And it hints at the depth and persistence of the divide between Trump’s supporters and the party establishment.
Nehlen, in an interview conducted Tuesday during a break in door-knocking here in Ryan’s hometown, accused the speaker of taking “every opportunity to undermine Mr. Trump. He’s not been loyal to him.” And Nehlen asserted, “I think [Trump] has had it with that,” before adding quickly that he didn’t know for sure “because I’ve never talked to him.”
In fact, Trump, in a separate interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, praised Nehlen’s campaign and declined to endorse Ryan’s.
But both Trump’s campaign and Nehlen’s bristled when POLITICO asked about the role of out-of-town former Trump staffers in trying to upset Ryan, whose campaign office declined to comment.
Pete Meachum, Trump’s Wisconsin state director, said in a statement “the only campaign that Trump staffers in Wisconsin are working on is to elect Donald J. Trump as our next President. Period.”
And Nehlen’s spokesman, Noel Fritsch, used misdirection to cut short the candidate’s interview with POLITICO when the subject of ex-Trump staffers was raised.
Fritsch escorted Nehlen into a campaign RV parked nearby and emblazoned with the words “Dump Paul Ryan,” explaining that the candidate would be “right back out” to resume the interview after the campaign verified the candidate’s door-knocking route.
But 10 minutes later, Fritsch emerged from the RV alone, and it drove away with the candidate still inside. “You know what, we have another interview,” Fritsch said. “We have a very, very busy schedule.”
While Nehlen trailed Ryan by more than 70 points in a May poll and has been outraised by Ryan $14.9 million to $868,000 through July 20, the upstart’s bid has become something of a cause célèbre on the populist right. He’s earned endorsements from the likes of Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. He’s fashioned himself as a mini-Trump of sorts, championing the same protectionist, anti-immigration rhetoric as the presidential nominee, and has benefited from mounting frustration among Trump’s supporters over Ryan’s less-than-enthusiastic support for Trump.
Nehlen was one of the few Republicans to come to Trump’s defense this week after the presidential candidate drew rebukes from across the spectrum for criticizing the parents of a slain Muslim-American soldier. And Trump in return tweeted his thanks to Nehlen, which raised eyebrows, given the efforts to project an alliance with Ryan.
Then, on Tuesday, Trump told The Washington Post he’s “not quite there yet” when it comes to endorsing Ryan and praised Nehlen for running “a very good campaign.”
The Trump-Ryan relationship could get even trickier later this week, when Trump is planning to stump in the state, even though his tentative plans call for an appearance in Green Bay, hours away from Ryan’s district.
It makes sense that former Trump campaign staffers, volunteers and voters would be drawn to Nehlen, said Stephani Scruggs, who was Trump’s director of field operations in Florida and is now a senior adviser for the Nehlen campaign, working mostly out of its Kenosha office.
“The Trump message — opposing [the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact] and working to close the borders — resonated with folks here. And that is Paul Nehlen’s message, so it was a natural progression,” said Scruggs.
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