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Manuela Tobias
By Manuela Tobias April 13, 2018

Did Luke Messer plot to steal the nomination from Donald Trump in 2016? Not really

Three Republican candidates competing for a U.S. Senate seat to represent Indiana are trying to prove they are the closest allies to President Donald Trump, who in 2016 won Indiana by 19 percentage points.

The race represents one of the GOP’s best chances to seize a Senate seat from Democrats in the midterm election. The seat is held by Democrat Joe Donnelly.

In an ad released a month ahead of the Republican primary, on April 3, Senate hopeful and current U.S. Representative Todd Rokita said his opponents were faking their support for Trump. Rokita described Mike Braun as a lifelong Democrat and fellow U.S. Rep. Luke Messer as an anti-Trump conspirator.

"And Luke Messer? He plotted with the Never-Trumpers to steal the nomination from President Trump," Rokita said in the ad. "You’ve got to be kidding me."

We wondered whether Messer indeed plotted to steal the nomination from Trump. That’s an exaggeration.

Rokita’s staff explained they were not accusing Messer of formally organizing with politicians and PACs opposed to a Trump presidency, but of pushing rhetoric harmful to Trump’s chances of clinching the Republican nomination and winning the general election.

The white knight

Nathan Brand, Rokita’s spokesman, produced an April 19, 2016, article from The Hill as evidence of Messer’s "plotting" prior to the Republican National Convention.

The story was about an internal split in the Republican Party regarding a potential rule change to allow a "white knight" candidate to claim the nomination if none of the official candidates mustered a simple majority of delegates.

Messer named Mitt Romney and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as possible white knight candidates.

"My belief is it’s all about fairness," Messer is quoted as saying. "Ultimately, the convention has to be perceived to be fair."

Messer’s campaign argued the names were a response to a hypothetical situation and had no substance given that Messer was not a delegate at the convention and would thus be unable to influence its outcome. Rokita was. (Trump won all of Indiana’s delegates.)

Rokita’s campaign countered that the white knight possibility was one tactic floated by the Never Trump movement, and playing ball with the hypothetical implied Messer’s approval.

Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, Ind., downplayed the significance of a brokered convention, which has not happened since the 1950s. He saw Rokita’s attack as hyperbole.

"To the degree that there was some hypothetical prospect that someone was planning to deny Donald Trump the nomination, there is nothing in this article to suggest that Rep. Messer was directly involved in advancing this idea," Dion said.

Criticism of Trump

Rokita’s campaign also compiled a series of clips in which Messer criticized Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

In the clips, Messer said Trump did not act presidential or "like an adult" and repeatedly wondered whether Trump has "a personal tic where he can’t control what he says."

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"In my opinion when you look at Donald Trump's life pattern, you have not seen a life pattern of racism, but you have seen a series of comments that could fairly be called race baiting over the course of the last multiple months," Messer said in a June 9, 2016, C-SPAN interview. "I’ve spoken out against it, I think it’s wrong, and it needs to stop."

Messer expressed worry that Trump’s rhetoric would cost him the election. But a closer look at the full interviews revealed that while Trump was not his first choice, he would still support Trump over Clinton.

"If he will focus on jobs, focus on the record of deceit from the Clintons over their decades of public service, he can win the election," Messer said. "It is important he does. I do not want to see a President Clinton. That would be bad for America."

Messer’s remarks don’t suggest plotting, Dion said.

"The video links merely suggest that he was sometimes uncomfortable with the tone of some of then-candidate Trump’s remarks," Dion said. "If that is the criterion for being a Never-Trumper, then that would include an enormous segment of the American population, including Republicans. It is clear all along that he is a loyal Republican who plans to vote for Trump and who wants his party to succeed."

Rokita’s campaign said Messer could have communicated these suggestions directly to the Trump campaign. By taking them to national television instead, he undermined Trump’s credibility among voters.

The Messer campaign pointed to a double standard: In a February 2016 interview with WXIN TV, Rokita called Trump "vulgar, if not profane," when comparing Marco Rubio with Trump.

"At some point you have to be presidential," Rokita said. "People expect that, and you see that in Marco Rubio." Like Messer, Rokita acknowledged he would support Trump if he became the nominee.

Rokita did not seem particularly psyched about Trump in a May 2016 radio interview, either. He didn’t deny an interviewer’s claim that he would "obviously be anti-Trump" during the convention, called Trump’s comments on manufacturing "manipulative," and responded he wasn’t worried about the down-ballot ticket effect of a Trump supporter in the race for his current congressional seat, implying he was not the pro-Trump candidate.

Tony Samuel, who was vice-chairman of the Indiana Trump campaign and has endorsed Rokita, said Rokita ultimately came through for the Trump campaign whereas Messer did not.

While Messer spoke against Trump’s rhetoric on television, Samuel explained, Rokita made several media appearances at the campaign’s behest praising, for example, Trump’s debate performance.

After analyzing public statements from the congressmen leading up to the Republican National Convention, FiveThirtyEight classified both as "reluctant endorsers" of Trump, third in a seven-category scale.

FiveThirtyEight rated both Messer’s and Rokita’s support for the Trump agenda in the 90th percentile. Other than a few conflicting budget votes, Rokita and Messer have been virtually identical on the policy front, according to Indiana political columnist Brian Howey.

Neither Trump nor Pence have endorsed either candidate. The state campaign chairman, Rex Early, endorsed Rokita, and the American Economic Freedom Alliance, a group linked to Marty Obst, senior political adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, is running pro-Messer ads.

Our ruling

Rokita said Messer "plotted with the Never-Trumpers to steal the nomination from President Trump."

Rokita’s campaign and supporters argued that Messer’s engagement with questions about a white knight candidate and criticism of Trump’s rhetoric on national television expressed an implicit support of the anti-Trump movement.

But we found no indication that Messer actively plotted to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination or election. He maintained reluctant support for Trump throughout the 2016 campaign. What's more, Rokita had moments where he criticized Trump in a similar manner as well. 

We rate this claim Mostly False.

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"Luke Messer? He plotted with the Never-Trumpers to steal the nomination from President Trump."
In a digital ad
Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Our Sources

Youtube, Rokita for U.S. Senate MAGA, April 3, 2018

Youtube, Messer Trump Comments, March 15, 2018

Fox 59, IN Focus: Rep. Rokita on growing support for Marco Rubio from Indiana delegation, Feb. 28, 2016

The Associated Press, Indiana GOP Senate candidate called Trump ‘vulgar’ in 2016, April 5, 2018

The Hill, GOP debates ‘white knight’ after meeting RNC chairman, April 19, 2016

C-SPAN, News Review with Representative Luke Messer, June 9, 2016, Indiana Congressman: Manufacturing Sector Not As Weak As Trump Says It Is, May 3, 2016, Indiana Republicans React to Last Night's Debate, Sept. 27, 2016

Indy Star, Mysterious outside group with ties to Pence associates helping Rep. Luke Messer's Senate bid, March 9, 2018, The 7 Levels Of Trump Support In Congress, July 20, 2016

Email interview with Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, Ind, April 11, 2018

Phone interview with Nathan Brand, Todd Rokita spokesman, April 11, 2018

Phone interview with Tony Samuel, Trump Indiana campaign vice-chair, April 11, 2018

Phone interview with Molly Gillaspie, Luke Messer spokeswoman, April 10, 2018

Email interview with Brian Howey, Indiana political columnist, April 11, 2018

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