Former president Donald Trump speaks to thousands of supporters at an outdoor rally in 2022 in Florence, Ariz.

Former president Donald Trump speaks to thousands of supporters at an outdoor rally in 2022 in Florence, Ariz. (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Most of the dozen GOP officials or activists interviewed by The Post even ventured that the aim may have been to substitute former national security adviser Michael Flynn for Trump if the former president is sentenced to prison time. Among some on the far right, suspicions have intensified that the former president has surrounded himself with too many advisers beholden to the “deep state.”

PHOENIX - Arizona delegates to the Republican National Convention gathered this month in a Phoenix suburb, showing up to get to know each other and learn about their duties.

Part of the presentation included a secret plan to throw the party’s nomination of Donald Trump for president into chaos.

The instructions did not come from “Never Trumpers” hoping to stop the party from nominating a felon when delegates gather in Milwaukee next month. They instead came from avowed “America First” believers hatching a challenge from the far right - a plot to release the delegates from their pledge to support Trump, according to people present and briefed on the meeting, slides from the presentation and private messages obtained by The Washington Post.

The delegates said the gambit would require support from several other state delegations, and it wasn’t clear whether those allies had been lined up. One idea, discussed as attendees ate finger-foods, was for co-conspirators to signal their allegiance to one another by wearing matching black jackets.

The exact purpose of the maneuver was not clear - and left some delegates puzzled and alarmed. People familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said that perhaps the intent was to block an undesirable running mate. Most of the dozen GOP officials or activists interviewed by The Post even ventured that the aim may have been to substitute former national security adviser Michael Flynn for Trump if the former president is sentenced to prison time. Among some on the far right, suspicions have intensified that the former president has surrounded himself with too many advisers beholden to the “deep state.”

Whatever the goal, the Trump campaign rushed to head off the stunt and replace the delegates. One campaign staffer involved in the cleanup described it to at least two Republicans as an “existential threat” to Trump’s nomination next month, two people familiar with conversations told The Post. To another Republican, the staffer described the scenario discussed by the Arizona delegates, however unlikely, as being “the only process that would prevent Trump from being the nominee.”

The episode in Arizona - a swing state where Republicans have been gripped by especially strong doubts about the integrity of elections - unfolded mostly out of sight.

The campaign and the Arizona delegates reached an agreement that there would be no disruptions at the convention. Still, suspicions lingered about other state delegations, according to a campaign official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. He declined to elaborate.

The fracas exposed the challenges of choreographing next month’s convention in Milwaukee, where some 5,000 delegates and alternates will participate - many of them inclined toward the falsehoods and conspiracy theories that animate many of Trump’s supporters.

“See this is what happens in a war between Good and Evil,” Chris Hamlet, one of the Arizona delegates involved in the plan, told other delegates in a private messaging chat. “We’re never going to get along and hold hands and sing kumbaya, that’s just not how it works.”

The 2016 Republican convention briefly descended into a shouting match during a short-lived bid by Trump’s Republican opponents to derail his nomination. This time, the Trump campaign has worked quietly and steadily to line up delegates who are unswervingly loyal Trump fans, just in case any of his defeated primary opponents try to disrupt the proceedings.

Delegates this year include at least one organizer of the rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as well as individuals who are being prosecuted for participating in a strategy that falsely declared Trump had won their states in 2020.

Even so, suspicions have circulated among Trump’s supporters that covert saboteurs have somehow infiltrated their ranks. At the Georgia GOP convention in May, one would-be delegate withdrew after being accused of having lobbied for Dominion Voting Systems, a frequent target for false claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

“I have had to spend far too much time dealing with intra party power struggles, and local intra party animosities,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy said in a resignation letter this month. “We have Republicans who would rather fight other Republicans than engage in the harder work of defeating incumbent Democrats by convincing swing voters to vote Republican.”

Next month’s convention is supposed to be a pro forma affair, a made-for-television event where the delegates put their stamp on a decision already made by Republican primary voters, who overwhelmingly backed Trump this year.

That’s what has made the presentation in Arizona about changing the rules so baffling, according to GOP officials and activists who were interviewed for this story.

“Suspending of the rules would then allow an open forum to consider alternate candidates to Trump,” one person involved in the state’s delegate drama said.

Several other Republicans involved in the discussions suggested motives that revolved around the same idea: money.

“I suspect that they really don’t want us to win … they’re making money on the election integrity stuff,” a Republican said of efforts by activists aligned with some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories of fraudulent balloting. “They make money when we lose.”

The group of delegates that caused alarm with the Trump campaign was led by Shelby Busch, chair of the Arizona delegation and leader of a political action committee she helped create in 2020.

The group, the We the People AZ Alliance, has raised nearly $1 million, according to state campaign finance records. The group is closely aligned with Senate candidate Kari Lake (R) and is funded largely by entities linked to prominent election deniers such as Flynn and Patrick Byrne, a former executive who is no longer affiliated with the company.

On Tuesday, Byrne wrote in a post on X that Trump, based on some of his endorsements, “is still surrounded by DEEP STATE nobodies” who tell the former president to choose a vice president that won’t overshadow him. “In two weeks Trump is going to be either in jail or under house arrest,” Byrne wrote. “His VP needs to be a General.” The post tagged Flynn’s social media profile.

Busch convened the June meeting where another delegate and party activist, Joe Neglia, gave a presentation that included information on a maneuver to suspend the convention’s rules and take over the proceedings from the floor, according to those present or briefed on the meeting. Neglia declined to comment.

When the Trump campaign heard about the meeting, a staffer started working with local party officials and activists to recruit new delegates to replace the six who had gathered.

“The leaders of this group, Shelby Busch and Joe Neglia, are engaged in a multi-state conspiracy to suspend the rules at the national convention,” the campaign said in a memo outlining the plan to recruit new delegates and swear them in instead of the six.

Busch’s bloc responded by accusing those challenging their status of being part of “an anti-Trump establishment group,” seeking to sabotage Trump from within his own campaign and the RNC.

“This is an orchestrated effort by our political adversaries using the same vile Democrat tactics on display against our beloved President Trump,” her group said in a statement this week. “The Arizona grassroots Patriots that love our President Donald Trump overwhelmingly voted for our delegation because they know us and our work in Arizona to save our state and our country, our unwavering support for Trump, and they know they can trust us to vote for Trump even if he is incarcerated.”

(Trump is scheduled to be sentenced in New York on 34 felony convictions on July 11, a few days before the convention starts.)

On Thursday, Busch reached an agreement with the campaign that Neglia would step aside, the other delegates could remain, and there would be no revolt on the floor, according to people familiar with the conversations. That resolution defused the threat, but it left some of the volunteer replacements feeling jilted for having stepped up to help the campaign, taken heat and then cast off.

“It was campaign- and RNC-driven,” said one of the recruited replacements. “There was no reason for any of us to do this other than to help the campaign.”

Another volunteer said in a private chatroom message obtained by The Post that the “juvenile rhetoric used toward fellow delegation members” was disappointing to him. “These actions were done at the request of the candidate we are all legally bound and proud to nominate in a few weeks.”

Campaign political director James Blair moved to smooth things over with a public statement thanking them for their service and praising their loyalty to Trump, while also announcing Busch’s commitment to cooperate with the campaign.

“It’s not just a question of loyal Trump support, it’s willingness to not do anything that could distract from the historic nomination and celebration of President Trump, which is a four-day commercial,” the campaign official said. “There’s Trump supporters on all sides. Sometimes people want to use that forum to fight about little things, and we don’t want that. We don’t want anything that could distract.”

Meanwhile, the Arizona Republican Party chair wrote to fellow conservatives that the delegation’s private chat had become its own distraction.

“I’m closing the thread,” the post said. “It’s hurting the ability to function as a team.”

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