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I watched the Republican Party surrender to Donald Trump in real time

Chair Reince Priebus participates in a Politico Playbook breakfast forum, May 6, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Chair Reince Priebus participates in a Politico Playbook breakfast forum, May 6, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus appeared Friday morning at the Politico Playbook Breakfast seeming upbeat and relaxed.

His party appears on the brink of tearing itself apart. Just the day before, House Speaker Paul Ryan had said he wasn't ready to support Donald Trump as the GOP's presidential nominee. Freshman Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who's making a name for himself as a rising star, suggested conservatives back a third party.

But Priebus suggested this was all overblown hype. "I think Paul's just being honest with how he feels," Priebus says. "I think he's going to get there. But he wants some time to work through it."

Priebus suggested there wasn't much widespread reluctance to embrace Trump within the party. Priebus even laughed when chief White House correspondent Mike Allen handed him some Baileys, a reference to Priebus's joke a few weeks ago that the Republican primary fight hadn't driven him to drink and put whiskey in his cereal.

Donald Trump at the Republican debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, this December. (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)
Donald Trump at the Republican debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, this December. (Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Priebus blamed the media for focusing on "drama" with "clickbait."

"I'm comfortable with the idea it's going to take some time, in some cases, for people to work through differences," Priebus said. "We're going to have to start the process of unifying."

Priebus has accepted what many Republicans will likely have to before November: Trump has taken control of the GOP.

Priebus flies a white flag to Trumpism

The Republican Party may have effectively surrendered to Trump weeks ago. But if Ryan's remarks resurfaced the prospect of any lingering resistance within the party leadership, Priebus did the opposite — defending Trump's vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton, his rhetoric about Mexicans, and even his tweet about taco bowls.

"Uh," Priebus said of the taco bowls, "he's trying."

Trump is often hard to pin down, worrying some party officials that he'll abandon conservatives on key issues, but Priebus played it down.

"I've never had a problem with him," Priebus said. "All of my interactions [with Trump] have been extremely positive."

Trump Ralph Freso/Getty Images

And he argued that for all the appearance of public fighting, the organization remains strong.

"We have been outworking the DNC for four years straight," he said. "The other big change — it sounds very basic, but it is actually important: We're a year-round party [in terms of fundraising]." This tied in with the larger narrative that the conflict in the GOP is mostly overblown.

"We were raising more money in the first quarter than we raised in 2012. The press is always focused on the drama — I get that's what people are interested in," Priebus said.

Why Priebus thinks Trump will beat Clinton

Ultimately what really matters, Priebus is saying, is that Republicans need to focus on the real target: beating Hillary Clinton. Sure, after a divided primary Republicans feel burned and frustrated, but that will blow over — and Trump really will start sounding presidential.

"I think it's going to take some time to get into general election mode and outside primary mode," Priebus said of Trump's rhetoric.

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton heads side by side (Getty Images)

But he also pointed out that Trump's effectiveness as an attack dog on the stump would destroy Hillary Clinton in a general election.

"Sometimes in our party we get criticized because we don't hit hard enough — we don't talk about Bill Ayers or talk about the things that happened in Barack Obama's life in 2008," Priebus said.

That won't be the case with Trump, he said. "I think he will win, and you have to look at Hillary Clinton — if there's one person who knows how to bring all of that out in a way people can understand, it's Donald Trump. He's going to bring it all out, and for Hillary Clinton it's not going to be very comfortable."

These two ideas are in conflict: Either Trump will moderate his tone to improve his acceptability, or he'll use his effectiveness on offense to tear down Hillary Clinton. But Priebus defended the two ideas in the same speech; after all, Trump is the party's new leader, and Priebus is fine with that.