Pence’s chief of staff floats ‘purge’ of anti-Trump Republicans to wealthy donors

Nick Ayers urges donors to ‘form a coalition’ to take on GOP leaders and members who don’t back the president.
10/03/2017 02:23 PM EDT

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff railed against congressional leaders in closed-door remarks to wealthy donors and called for a “purge” if GOP lawmakers don’t quickly rally behind President Donald Trump’s agenda.

In remarks at a Republican National Committee event at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Tuesday morning, Nick Ayers also warned that Republicans are “on track to get shellacked” in next year’s midterm elections if GOP lawmakers don’t pass Trump’s legislative priorities.

But Ayers reserved his harshest criticism for congressional leaders and members who have not offered full-throated support for the president.

“Just imagine the possibilities of what can happen if our entire party unifies behind him? If — and this sounds crass — we can purge the handful of people who continue to work to defeat him,” Ayers said, according to an audio recording of the remarks obtained by POLITICO.

One attendee later asked how the donors could “rally the congressional delegation that does support the president and vice president, and rally them and push them to change the current leadership in both the Senate and the House.”

“I’m not speaking on behalf of the president or vice president when I say this,” Ayers responded. “But if I were you, I would not only stop donating, I would form a coalition of all the other major donors, and just say two things. We’re definitely not giving to you, number one. And number two, if you don’t have this done by Dec. 31, we’re going out, we’re recruiting opponents, we’re maxing out to their campaigns, and we’re funding super PACs to defeat all of you.”

He continued, “Because, look, if we’re going to be in the minority again we might as well have a minority who are with us as opposed to the minority who helped us become a minority.”

The crowd laughed and burst into applause.

The remarks are some of the most extensive to emerge from Ayers, who joined the White House over the summer after initially opting to remain on the outside. A longtime adviser to Pence and a top aide on the 2016 campaign, he’s widely respected in Republican circles as a sharp-elbowed and strategic operative.

The comments also offer a stark departure in tone from Pence’s team, with the vice president having often served the role of soothing tensions between the White House and Capitol Hill. The remarks reveal both a deep frustration within the White House with congressional leadership and a political tactic of placing the onus on Congress to advance the agenda on health care, tax reform and other legislative priorities that have failed to gain momentum.

The approach has echoes of right-wing firebrand and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s preferred methods. Bannon has repeatedly railed against congressional leaders and accused them of being the main stumbling block to Trump’s agenda. And he has taken his show on the road, speaking out against incumbent Republicans.

The White House and the vice president’s office declined to comment on Ayers’ remarks. Ayers also declined to comment. Speaker Paul Ryan’s office and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ayers warned that the Republican Party is on track for a repeat of the massive electoral backlash that came after President Barack Obama was elected, and the GOP took control of Congress and statehouses across the country.

“Not because anything that the president or the vice president has done or hasn’t done, but we’re on track to get shellacked next year,” Ayers said. “On a year where we could be totally on offense because of how favorable the Senate map is to us -- at best it’s going to be a wash.”

Ayers raised the possibility of “a gigantic loss” in 2018 if Republicans are not able to make tangible progress on their legislative agenda. He said policy outcomes “will determine about 75 percent of whether or not we succeed in the midterms, miss a big opportunity in the midterms or get destroyed in the midterms.”

“If we do what we’ve told the American people for almost a decade we’re going to do on Obamacare, and if we pass tax cuts, we’re going to have a governing majority for a very long time,” he said. “If we fail to do those two things, people who say, ‘Well we can’t lose the Senate, it’s way too favorable,’ I disagree with that. I totally disagree with that.”

It’s unclear the degree to which Ayers is expressing true fears about the prospects for 2018, or if his dire talk was largely a fundraising pitch.

Though Republicans are weighted down by their stalled agenda and Trump’s unpopularity, the Senate landscape is still tilted heavily in their favor in 2018. The GOP is defending just eight seats vs. 23 Democratic-held seats that are up next year. Democrats are trying to protect 10 seats that Trump carried in 2016, including five that he won by 20 points or more.

Democrats have a better shot at taking the House, where they need to flip 24 seats to win control of the chamber.

Ayers on Tuesday morning also expressed pessimism about the prospect of passing tax reform, the administration’s top legislative priority. He was asked how the GOP is going to get through the treacherous path to expansive tax reform.

“The honest answer is, I’m not sure we’re on track to do that,” he responded. “I think the White House, I think the president and the vice president have shown extraordinary leadership. They’ve been incredibly clear on the framework that was agreed upon. … It was frankly much bolder than the path that we were headed down.”

But, Ayers added, “here’s my skepticism: they had already passed health care bills to repeal and replace Obamacare in both chambers multiple times and couldn’t get that done. So, while there is a great framework in place, that will continue to grow the booming economy thanks to the president’s policies, I would ask them that question.”

“Hear those answers from the speaker and more importantly from the majority leader,” Ayers urged.

Ayers was also pressed on why Trump and Pence have been unable to win over the “handful” of Republicans in Congress who have resisted the president’s agenda.

“Great question,” Ayers quipped. “It’s hard to do when they all maintain their committee chairmanships.”

“They’re all still committee chairmen,” he added after a pause. “There’s only one other option and then let’s see if that option works.”

The 2018 midterms, Ayers said, will be a “referendum on the president’s policies.”

“Don’t we want to give all the upside of actually passing his policies? Because what all of us know and believe is that they’ll work,” he said. He called it a “suicide mission” to enter the midterms without having passed some of the major legislative priorities.

Ayers was pressed again on the inability to pass health care reform, and stressed that the problem was “two or three senators.”

“I’m not being passive aggressive against Leader McConnell,” Ayers added. “Look, he delivered Judge [Neil] Gorsuch. That was transformational what he was willing to do, he had a plan and he executed it. We just have to have the same aggression and effort and focus on the rest of the [agenda].”

He called the Senate’s progress on judicial nominations “very good,” but added it could be better and said the Senate should not recess with nominees still in the pipeline.

“Why would they ever recess?” he said.

And he praised the president for his criticism of NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem as a form of protest.

“Who would have ever said a couple years ago that a politician could take on the entire NFL and in one week, win. But by my count 183 players knelt on the national anthem nine days ago and 12 kneeled on Sunday,” he said. “Would that have happened if Hillary Clinton would have been president? No. You would have gone from 180 to everyone.”

As the meeting came to a close, one female attendee asked if she understood Ayers’ message correctly, saying: “Are we all willing, in order to get the tax bill passed, to contact all the people we donate money to — which is a long list — and tell them the money stops coming if they don’t get something done!”

The room burst into applause.

“If there’s one exception to that, that’s the RNC,” Ayers added. “But yes.”