The Republican Party has a handshake agreement with Donald Trump—for whatever that’s worth.
Trump’s decision to sign a GOP loyalty oath is certainly a public-relations victory for Reince Priebus and his Republican National Committee, whom Trump has claimed “leverage” over because of his threat to run as an independent candidate next fall and splinter the conservative vote.
But make no mistake: Trump’s signature will do nothing to prevent a third-party campaign if the real-estate mogul decides to change his mind. Legally speaking, the Republican Party’s loyalty oath isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
“Is it legally binding? Ahhh,” John Ryder, the RNC’s general counsel, said shortly after Trump’s press conference Thursday afternoon. Ryder took a long pause. “Legally binding? Ummm. I think it’s politically binding.”
After weeks of internal debate and dissension, the RNC on Wednesday began circulating the document to its presidential candidates. It required the signer to pledge two things: To support the eventual GOP nominee and to rule out running as an independent next November.
The oath was aimed at isolating Trump, who for months has threatened a third-party run if the GOP would not treat him “fairly.” Trump signed the document to great fanfare Thursday afternoon in New York City. But shortly thereafter, RNC officials acknowledged there would be no legal consequence for violating it.
“It’s a pledge, not a contract,” RNC spokesman Sean Spicer wrote in an email.
Ryder would not elaborate on what “politically binding” means. He also would not say whether or not he was consulted on the language included in the oath. In fact, Ryder, a prominent Tennessee attorney, sounded uncertain about the contents of the document and caught off guard by its distribution.
“I would hesitate to express a legal opinion at this point,” Ryder said. “If the chairman calls me up, I’ll give him an answer.”
Asked whether Priebus had consulted him on the document, or whether they had spoken about it prior to its release, Ryder replied, “I’m not going to get into that.”
If Ryder was out of the loop on the loyalty pledge, he wasn’t the only one. A number of high-powered Republican attorneys had expressed certainty in recent interviews that no such pledge was going to be circulated—in part because it would be unenforceable.
“There’s been some talk about that, but it hasn’t risen to the level of being meaningful,” Randy Evans, the RNC committeeman from Georgia and chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said Monday afternoon when asked about a loyalty oath. “The process,” Evans noted, “tends to take care of itself.”
Less than 48 hours later, party officials began circulating the loyalty pledge.
The episode speaks to mounting confusion and conflict inside the national party, much of which can be traced to the first GOP debate in Cleveland last month. When Trump began that event by refusing to rule out a third-party run, many RNC members were incensed and immediately began discussing a proposal that would force Trump to sign a loyalty oath before participating in future debates.
Senior RNC officials tamped down such talk, arguing that it would only contribute to an appearance of singling out Trump and thus make him all the likelier to leave the party. This, in turn, prompted Republican leaders in a handful of states, including South Carolina, to begin tinkering with language on their ballot-qualification forms that demanded loyalty to the party and its eventual nominee.
Still, even the people involved with those efforts admitted that the legal ramifications were unknown.
“We’re not sure if it’s legally binding,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore said several weeks ago, as his organization was drawing headlines for including language on its ballot-filing forms that required candidates to support the eventual nominee.
If nothing else, Moore said at the time, violating the pledge would prove to be a political inconvenience for Trump amid the bustle of a campaign. “He would at least open himself up to a lawsuit from the state party,” Moore said.
All the while, RNC officials insisted that the national party had no involvement with such actions being taken at the state level. They also maintained, as recently as early this week, that no such efforts were being contemplated at by the RNC.
What, then, caused such an abrupt change of plans? Nobody could answer that question Thursday. “This has been an absolutely fascinating primary season, and this has been one of the fascinating developments,” Ryder said of Trump’s signing. “But I can’t tell you exactly what the genesis of this was.”
The likely explanation is that Trump let the RNC know he was willing to sign the pledge; it’s hard to imagine any other scenario, considering party officials had previously shown no appetite to back the front-runner into a corner.
Whatever the backstory, Trump has publicly pledged not to abandon the Republican Party in 2016. He may wind up keeping that promise—but there won’t be anything to keep him from breaking it.