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What is happening at the Republican National Committee and could Lara Trump become its co-chair?

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump is calling for a shakeup at the highest levels of the Republican National Committee. And party leaders are taking it very seriously.

To be clear, this is not normal.

Trump has yet to secure the GOP’s presidential nomination and just last week, he and current Chair Ronna McDaniel privately agreed that no major changes would take place until after South Carolina’s Feb. 24 primary. But that didn’t stop Trump from announcing Monday on social media that he wants McDaniel to be replaced by Michael Whatley, the North Carolina GOP chairman. The new co-chair, Trump said, should be his daughter-in-law Lara Trump.

McDaniel has said nothing will change at least until after South Carolina. And the RNC membership isn't meeting until later this spring at the earliest to formalize any changes.

What is happening at the RNC and why does it matter? Here's an explanation:

What is the RNC?

The Republican National Committee is the governing body of the national Republican Party and runs the GOP's political machine. It's focused above all on winning elections. The committee is made up of 168 voting members, including at least one man and woman from every state.

Day-to-day operations and strategic decisions are controlled by a chairperson based in the Washington headquarters.

The RNC chair is elected every two years by the RNC's 168 members. But when a Republican president occupies the White House, the 168 effectively act as a rubber stamp for the president's wishes given his or her role as the undisputed head of the party. It's the same for Democrats.

That's why, back in 2016, Donald Trump had the power to handpick Ronna McDaniel to lead the RNC after he entered the White House. McDaniel, the niece of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, previously led the Michigan state GOP and was viewed as popular among the party's establishment and grassroots.

Trump's choice was ratified by the RNC membership in January 2017, and McDaniel has led the committee ever since. In that position, she's raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars, maintained and expanded GOP field offices and staffing in key states and communities across the country, and coordinated the presidential nomination process in 2020 and 2024.

But make no mistake, Trump — not McDaniel — has been the real leader of the Republican Party over the last eight years.

Why does Trump want to replace the RNC’s leadership?

Trump has for years had a hot-and-cold relationship with the RNC, but he has been under increasing pressure from leaders in the party's “Make America Great Again” movement to break from establishment leaders like McDaniel.

In particular, people like former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, conservative activist Charlie Kirk and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy blame McDaniel's leadership decisions for the GOP's political struggles in the last three national elections. (Those election losses also coincide, of course, with Trump's emergence as the face of the party.)

But until recently, McDaniel was viewed as a staunch Trump ally. Trump's advisers quietly worked to ensure her reelection just last year, despite criticism from those same MAGA leaders.

Trump's allies complain that the RNC has been irresponsible with its money. Recent campaign finance disclosures released showed the RNC had just $8 million in the bank and $1 million in debt.

Others say that the committee under McDaniel's leadership has not focused enough on the voter fraud that Trump falsely blames for his 2020 reelection loss. That's despite his own Justice Department saying there was no evidence of widespread fraud and Trump's team losing more than 50 lawsuits over the election.

Other frictions have developed with McDaniel and the organization as Trump launched his third presidential bid.

The former president began making clear early last year that he did not intend to participate in the party’s debates or sign a pledge requiring candidates to support the eventual nominee. Trump in April complained that “nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them.”

In October, he called for the RNC to cancel its remaining debates, all of which he sat out, and to focus instead on the likely rematch with President Joe Biden. The RNC did not heed his call.

The leadership changes Trump wants would both appease frustrated MAGA leaders while ensuring Trump has close allies — including a family member — running the organization.

Can he actually replace the chair?

Trump's social media post on Monday night calling for new leadership at the RNC has no legal authority.

McDaniel and her lieutenants can continue to run the committee's operations until they are replaced by a formal vote of the RNC's 168 members. That said, McDaniel is not expected to fight Trump's wishes. And barring an unforeseen development, her days as the RNC chair will end in the coming weeks or months.

That's because the Republican president — or the Republican presidential nominee — effectively controls the RNC. And Trump is on the precipice of becoming the party's presumptive presidential nominee. When that happens, he will essentially have the keys to the building.

Having already secured commanding victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Trump is eyeing a knockout blow in South Carolina's Feb. 24 primary that would embarrass his only remaining Republican rival, Nikki Haley, in her home state and likely force her out of the race altogether.

The RNC's 168 members are widely expected to formalize Trump's preferences when they meet next in person. The next scheduled meeting isn't until the summer, although the committee typically holds a training session each spring that might offer an opportunity for such a vote.

Why is he picking his daughter-in-law?

Trump has a history of installing family members in key roles.

That includes having his children run his businesses. Once he entered the White House, he tapped daughter Ivanka Trump to serve as a senior White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner as key presidential adviser covering weighty issues like Middle East peace, criminal justice reform and the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. Ethics experts condemned those moves.

Lara Trump has been a key member of her father-in-law’s political orbit for years, emerging from relative obscurity to become a steadfast and camera-ready advocate for the businessman-turned politician. She served as a senior adviser on his 2020 reelection campaign, and, like other family members, she has been an active presence on the campaign trail on her father-in-law's behalf.

Lara Trump, a former television producer, has also shown an interest in political office. In 2021, she openly considered a run for the U.S. Senate out of North Carolina, before bowing out.

One more factor in his decision: Trump needed to pick a woman to serve as co-chair because he tapped a male to fill the chair's role. RNC rules require the committee's top two staffers to be different genders.