Erick Trickey will be in Cleveland all week covering the Republican National Convention for Cincinnati Magazine. This is his second post. Read the first here.
The crowd’s roar rose fast, a chaos of protests and cheers. For 10 delirious minutes at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland yesterday, the stage-managed script collapsed, order broke down, and rebel delegates staged their last, most furious resistance to Donald Trump.
The convention’s first three hours had been low-key, even casual, with delegates half-listening to welcome speeches and chatting in the narrow aisles on the Quicken Loans Arena floor. But at 4:10 p.m., as RNC Rules Committee chair Enid Mickelsen came to the podium, they were gathered behind their states’ banners. Last week, Mickelsen put down a revolt in her committee against the rules that bind most delegates to Trump. Now, Mickelsen asked the convention to adopt those rules, and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, the acting convention chair, called the question.
That’s when bedlam broke out. The delegates’ rose in a single cacophony, blending approval and anger. Womack’s declaration that “the ayes have it” was unconvincing. The shouting built.
Trump supporters cheered to drown out the rebels. “Build the wall! Build the wall!” chanted the Alabama delegation, to the stage’s right. Others looked behind them to see where the “nos,” which sounded like boos, were coming from. It was the Virginia delegation.
“Roll call vote! Roll call vote!” the Virginians were shouting. Ken Cuccinelli, the arch-conservative former state attorney general, was standing at Virginia’s shut-off microphone, attempting to object. A majority of the Virginia delegation had signed a petition asking for a full state-by-state vote on the rules.
“That’s all we’re asking for here,” Cuccinelli said to reporters, “and apparently it was too much.” Nine or ten other states had signed similar petitions. The Virginia delegates had stuck with their request even though pro-Trump whips had pressured them to recant. A Yahoo News reporter overheard Rick Gates, who works for top Trump aide Paul Manafort, telling a Virginia delegate, “I’m gonna remember how Virginia was an embarrassment at the national convention.”
Onstage, Womack was gone. The raucous crowd had made it impossible for him to get the party platform approved. After whispering to the parliamentarian at his side, he’d walked offstage. A band was playing instead, offering a peppy soundtrack to the party’s anger. “Trump! Trump!” chanted the loyalists. “USA! USA!”
The rebels had various motivations for their roll-call revolt. Some still wanted to stop Trump, but not all. Cuccinelli had allied with the Never-Trump faction last week to try to change party rules to benefit conservatives in future primary seasons. Now he wanted the resistance to the party line counted and put on the record. He told reporters he’d wanted to avoid an ending similar to Ron Paul’s failed rules protest at the 2012 convention.
“In ’12, they sent a lot of people out of here angry,” Cuccinelli said, “and I don’t understand why they would want to do it again. This is pretty disgusting. I had hoped they wouldn’t do this.”
The Utah delegation also signed a roll-call petition. Kera Birkeland, a Utah delegate pledged to Ted Cruz, said before the vote that she wasn’t trying to stop Trump, just allow for dissent.
“I think the Republican Party will and should elect Donald Trump,” Birkeland said. “But the delegates have to matter, or we should not come anymore. If we’re put here to rubber-stamp it, I should’ve saved $5,000”—her costs for the week in Cleveland. “Let the body of the party speak! Otherwise it’s a dictatorship.”
After ten minutes of back-and-forth shouting on the floor, Womack returned to the stage and allowed another voice vote on the rules.
“It’s absolutely critical that we are able to discern the ayes from the nays,” Womack said. “Those in favor of the rules package will say aye.” The arena exploded with ayes. Womack banged his gavel, which resonated like a bass drum throughout the hall. “Those opposed shall say no.” A strong chorus of nos rose up. “In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it,” Womack said again.
“Roll call vote!” the Virginians and others began shouting again. Womack called on the Utah delegation chair, Phil Wright, who asked for a full vote.
“The secretary received requests from a total of nine states requesting a roll call vote,” Womack acknowledged. But then he said that several petition-signers withdrew their support, so only a majority of six state delegations still supported it. Seven states were needed to force a roll call. “The chair has found insufficient support for the request for a record vote.”
“That’s a lie!” a Virginia delegate shouted. Nearby, Steven Bayes, an Illinois delegate, shouted, “No Trump! No Trump!” Cuccinelli shouted “Point of information!” into Virginia’s mike, but it wasn’t on. As the delegates buzzed, the chair moved on to approve the platform.
“It’s all on them,” Cuccinelli told reporters. “They own this. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate.” He asked why the chairman had only acknowledged nine states’ petitions—there were more. “Why was it nine?” he asked.
A Trump spokesperson later claimed delegates from four of ten states, not three of nine, had backed down. A petition from an 11th state, Alaska, reportedly wasn’t counted because the Alaska delegation couldn’t find the convention secretary, whom the rebels accused of being in hiding.
The convention approved the party platform without dissent. Cuccinelli saw a younger delegate at Virginia’s dead mike. The delegate still wanted to object to the rules vote. Cuccinelli put his arm around the younger delegate and convinced him to let it go.
As the convention recessed for dinner, Kera Birkeland, over in the Utah delegation, had tears in her eyes. “Now’s not a good time,” she said. “I just got yelled at and threatened in the bathroom.”
Reached by phone this morning, she said two women had confronted her in a restroom after the rules vote.
“They started calling me names, calling me stupid,” Birkeland said. “They said I should die. They said the Utah delegation should lose its police force and should all die, that we should have backed Trump and were too stupid to know that.
“I explained I didn’t want to stop Trump or take away the nomination, that it would have helped unite the party to have a roll call. They said I was too stupid to know what the roll call was about.”
Birkeland blames high tensions and confusion on the convention floor for the confrontation. “A lot of people thought we were trying to unbind the delegates, and that was not happening,” she says. “That’s what politics has come to now. If you don’t agree with each other, you just get angry, you insult, and you attack.”
Erick Trickey is a Cincinnati Magazine contributor, and has written for POLITICO, Smithsonian Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Cleveland Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @ErickTrickey.