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They renounced Trump. Will they get fellow conservatives to vote Biden?

Washington Post

Sarah Matthews, a former deputy press secretary to President Donald Trump, is supporting Nikki Haley in the Republican primaries. But if her choices on Election Day are Trump and Joe Biden? She’ll support Biden. “We can survive bad policy from a second Biden administration,” Matthews says, “but I don’t think we can survive a second Trump term, in terms of our democracy.”

Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as a White House communication director for Trump in 2020, is in a similar place. “Donald Trump is a threat to democracy, and I will never support him,” Farah Griffin says. She doesn’t know whether she’ll support Biden, but she hasn’t ruled it out. “If Joe Biden remains where he’s been on aid to Ukraine and support for Israel, it’ll be much easier to get there,” she says of Republicans, like herself, who are considering supporting the Democratic president.

Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows when he was Trump’s chief of staff, hoped for a different (presumptive) Republican nominee. She has “completely shut” the door to supporting Trump and has encouraged people to vote for Biden. “We all need to be putting 100 percent in until the election to make sure that this doesn’t happen — that he’s not reelected,” Hutchinson says.

The three women were together in a conference room at a hotel in downtown Washington on Saturday afternoon. In a few minutes, they would take the stage at a gathering of anti-Trump Republicans called the Principles First Summit. They represent the last wave of the anti-Trump movement — what you might call Now-Never Trumpers (or, maybe, the Better-Late-Than-Never Trumpers). They’re conservatives who were for Trump before they were against him, and for whom the former president’s reckless behavior after losing the 2020 election was a breaking point. Farah Griffin departed first, that December. Matthews quit immediately after the Capitol riot. Hutchinson served through the end of Trump’s term but later gave explosive testimony to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

And they are among dozens of former Trump officials who have criticized the conduct of their former boss. Those who saw him up close have called the former president a “wannabe dictator” (former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley), a “consummate narcissist” (former attorney general William P. Barr), and a “moron” (former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, reportedly). But Barr reportedly has suggested that a second Trump administration — which he likened to “playing Russian roulette with the country,” according to Axios — would be less dangerous to the country than a second Biden administration. Voting for Biden, the outlet quoted him as saying during a speech in Florida, would constitute “outright national suicide.”

Which raises a question: Just how serious are some of the anti-Trump Republicans about keeping him out of the Oval Office? Serious enough that these dissenting former officials would actually vote for Biden?

Ty Cobb would. “If the time comes and a vote for Joe is required to stop Trump, then I’d grudgingly vote for Biden,” Cobb, who served as a special counsel in the Trump White House, said in an interview — adding, though, that he fears “this sad choice perpetuates the domestic divide as well as the substantial risk we continue to face internationally.” (Despite serving in Trump’s White House, Cobb says he never voted for him.)

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, would not. “My focus, right now, is to make sure he doesn’t get the nomination,” Bolton told The Washington Post. But if it does come down to Trump vs. Biden, he said, “I’ll do what I did in 2020: I wrote in the name of a conservative Republican.”

Farah Griffin doesn’t begrudge Bolton his write-in plan, and she considers him one of the “most important voices” on the anti-Trump right. But Barr?

“He couldn’t be more dead wrong,” Farah Griffin says. “He heard the crazy that we heard.”

“It’s just ridiculous,” Matthews adds. “I mean, there’s really no comparison,” she says, between the dangers posed by Biden vs. Trump.

“It’s so disappointing, when you have these men who are twice my age, maybe three times, who stay silent,” she adds.

The women were friends in the Trump White House and have only gotten closer since becoming Trump apostates. They have a text chain, where one will reach out to the others — often “when we’re walking in airports, for some reason,” Farah Griffin says — wondering whether the person who bumped them had done so accidentally or because they’d “been radicalized to hate you by the former most powerful man on the planet.”

But besides each other, who is the audience for the Now-Never Trumpers? On the MAGA right, there’s a selective deafness to anyone disloyal to Trump. For those who already know they dislike Trump, the Hutchinsons, Matthewses and Farah Griffins of the media world offer validation that is in high demand; Farah Griffin is now a co-host of “The View,” and Hutchinson’s memoir, “Enough,” spent five weeks on the New York Times’s bestseller list. But are they in a position to talk anyone out of voting for Trump in November?

Sitting around the conference table, with soft curls and camera-ready makeup, they look the part of credible conservative messengers — and they probably are, says Sarah Longwell, an early Never Trumper and publisher of the Bulwark, an anti-Trump conservative news and opinion site. Among the most persuadable cohort are the “double doubters,” as Longwell calls them: voters who don’t like Trump or Biden, but will vote in November — and are exhausted by the former president’s election denialism.

“These former officials can help them make up their minds,” Longwell says. Anti-Trumpers who served for him have special status, because they can honestly say, as Matthews does: “Hey, look, I supported the guy, went to work for him as a spokesperson because I believed in the agenda, but January 6th was a red line for me.”

Beyond voters, Longwell also hopes that the visibility of outspoken former Trumpers who worked in the administration — or investigated the Jan. 6 insurrection, like former congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) — can encourage more timid anti-Trumpers to speak their minds, too. “When you see Cassidy and Sarah and Liz, I think those who are being cowards feel shame,” Longwell says. “They’re the kind of people who would make Bill Barr or [New Hampshire Gov.] Chris Sununu go, ‘Ugh, I can’t stomach this.’”

Maybe. It’s been more than three years since Jan. 6, 2021, and the number of former Trump officials stepping up to encourage people to vote against him seems to have plateaued. “I’ve lost some degree of hope of more people coming forward,” Farah Griffin says.

Many of those who have come forward were at the Principles First Summit. The two days of panels featured the leading lights of the Never Trump movement, including George Conway, who became a prominent anti-Trump commentator while his then-wife, Kellyanne Conway, was working as a Trump adviser, and Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who rebuffed Trump’s efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election results.

In a not-so-distant past, the Now-Never Trumpers would have been at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual right-wing gathering held in National Harbor, Md., each February. But MAGA has swallowed CPAC whole since Trump’s presidency, transforming the event into something of a TrumpCon — one at which Trump defectors are decidedly unwelcome. (Over there, Trump railed against the “liars and cheaters and fraudsters and censors and impostors” who opposed him, and promised a “Judgment Day” if he wins in the fall.)

Here at Principles First, in the sweeping second-floor atrium of the Conrad Hotel, was your father’s Republican Party: a herd of chinos, sports coats and the occasional Nikki Haley T-shirt. First held in 2020, the event was a refuge for conservatives who rejected the “personality cult” of Trumpism, as founder Heath Mayo put it. Marisol Maddox, an independent voter and climate risk analyst from Arlington, wanted to connect with “like-minded people” who put “country over party,” she said. Jonathan Funke, a New York-based consultant who supported former Ohio governor John Kasich in the 2016 primaries, came seeking an “emotional support group,” he said.

This year, Hutchinson was the star. Fans rushed toward her as she bounded across the atrium, her swingy dress a blur of royal blue. The line for her book-signing grew so long that it disappeared around a corner. Conference organizers bestowed her with their Profiles in Courage award — for standing up “as you did at such a young time in your career,” Mayo said when he presented her with the statue.

At a panel discussion featuring the three women, Farah Griffin made the audience laugh when she assured them that, as someone who “spent lots of time with him, the worst things you’ve heard [about Trump] are only scratching the surface.” Matthews accused Trump loyalists of being “more concerned with their own positions of power than they are with doing what’s right for the country.”

“In this next election, we start by doing everything we possibly can to make sure that Donald Trump never gets near the Oval Office again, and” — Hutchinson had more to say, but couldn’t continue, because the clapping drowned her out — “and to make sure that every member of Congress who has been an enabler of Donald Trump’s agenda is also held accountable and voted out of office.”

This brought the attendees back to their feet. The next morning, Trump would dominate the headlines yet again, beating Haley soundly in the South Carolina primary and continuing his relentless march toward the Republican nomination. But those who watched Farah Griffin, Hutchinson and Matthews from the audience left convinced that they could change voters’ minds, if voters would only listen to what they had to say.

“The three of them, up there in a row?” Dale Oak, a retired federal budget and appropriations expert, said after their panel. “Yeah, absolutely.”

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