WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has a Plan B if he’s faced with a contested convention, and it involves the sort of outside groups that he has called “corrupt.”
While the billionaire businessman might lock up the Republican presidential nomination in the next five weeks of voting, he and his allies are simultaneously undertaking a parallel effort in case he falls short.
Outside groups, including one led by longtime Trump political ally Roger Stone, and a loose collection of colorful supporters such as “Bikers for Trump” are organizing ahead of the July convention in Cleveland.
They’re soliciting money to pay for their transportation and housing, and they’re already trying to influence the mood of the convention with a social media campaign saying that anything short of a Trump nomination would be “stealing.”
“Our principal focus right now is Cleveland,” Stone said of his group, called Stop the Steal. “We want to bring as large a contingent as possible to demonstrate the breadth of Trump’s appeal so that the party can see graphically what they’re going to lose if they hijack the nomination from him.”
Stop the Steal and other groups are gaining steam even though Trump has insisted he wants no donor help for his bid and is beholden to no one.
Super PACS “are a disaster, by the way, folks,” Trump said at a Republican debate in March. “Very corrupt.”
Stop the Steal is not technically a super PAC, but it operates under very similar rules.
This past week, Trump’s lawyers sent the Federal Election Commission a letter renewing the campaign’s disavowal of groups using his “name, image, likeness, or slogans in connection with soliciting contributions.” All the groups planning Cleveland activities repeatedly use his name in their literature.
Trump set the stage for what the outside groups are doing by making provocative comments about the complex way Republicans pick a nominee — “rigged,” he calls it. Voters weigh in, but each state has its own rules about what delegates go to the convention and how they must vote on a presidential candidate while they’re there.
Stop the Steal and other Trump fans are pushing a similar message on social media and websites.
“The big steal is in full swing,” one online letter says, calling unfriendly delegates “stooges.”
The Stone-led Cleveland coalition includes We Will Walk, Bikers for Trump, Citizens for Trump and Women for Trump. Stone said the goal is to bring thousands of people to march peacefully in the streets.
“We are prepared to bring the Republican Party down if they mess with Trump and try to take it away from him by doing the dirty tricks,” said Paul Nagy, a New Hampshire Republican. He runs We Will Walk, a group that has collected more than 41,000 online signatures of people who say Trump deserves the nomination.
The public relations offensive is a counterpart to GOP rival Ted Cruz’s carefully crafted, labor-intensive strategy of recruiting friendly delegates in hopes he can win if Trump falls short on the first ballot of voting.
This weekend in Arizona, Cruz won another strategic victory over Trump, getting numerous friendly delegates elected to head to Cleveland while the Trump backers appeared to be virtually shut out. Those delegates are required to first vote for Trump at the convention because he won the state, but they could later switch their votes to Cruz.
While Cruz is playing within the party’s rules, Trump’s claim that what Cruz is doing amounts to “stealing” resonates with voters.
In mid-April, after Cruz swept Colorado’s elected delegates, stay-at-home mom Erin Behrens said she felt sick about what was happening to her candidate. So Stop the Steal helped her organize protests in the state.
Stone and an ally, Greg Lewis, flew in to help Behrens answer email and arrange a rally. At an April 15 event in Denver, about 200 demonstrators waved banners that read “Banana Republicans” and chanted “Stop the Steal!”
Behrens said in an interview last week that she’s continuing to organize Trump supporters in Colorado. “If there’s funny business and they make it clear they’re going to not give it to Trump, Stop the Steal Cleveland will be one thing,” she said. “But we will have protests, events across the United States. Count on it.”
A good chunk of what the outside groups are doing now is fundraising.
“Bottom line we need to raise $262,000 in the next two weeks,” Stop the Steal’s website says. “If you can’t make it to Cleveland will you help those who can? Will you send $500, $200 or even $100 to this crucial effort?”
A different pro-Trump group, Great America PAC, also is raising money for a Cleveland effort. This one is led by William Doddridge, CEO of the Jewelry Exchange.
Its commercials warn that “party elites” will try to seize the nomination from Trump at the convention and suggest that people stop that from happening by calling an 800 number and giving money.
It needs the help. The group’s latest fundraising report, covering through the end of March, shows it is more than $600,000 in debt. The super PAC can take unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions. Trump’s lawyers have specifically asked it to cease operations.
Stop the Steal isn’t a super PAC, the category of outside group that attracts the most ire from Trump, Stone said. But it’s a distinction without a difference.
It is organized as a political nonprofit “527” group that files periodic disclosure reports about its donors and spending with the Internal Revenue Service rather than the Federal Election Commission. Like an FEC-monitored super PAC, a 527 can take unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations and unions.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.