CLEVELAND — As a Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno hews close to former President Donald Trump’s brand.
The car dealer and blockchain technology entrepreneur from the Cleveland area presents himself in much the same outsider’s vein. And last month Moreno submitted himself to what has been described as a “Hunger Games”-like competition for Trump’s support during a private meeting he and three rivals had with the former president in Florida.
But five years ago, Moreno wanted nothing to do with then-candidate Trump as the New York real estate tycoon and reality TV star romped his way to the Republican nomination and White House.
Moreno, according to emails obtained by NBC News, bashed Trump as a “lunatic” and “maniac” when corresponding with a national Republican fundraising consultant seeking donations. Moreno said he would, in an upcoming meeting with the Pope, ask “for a convention miracle” in which then-House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida “emerge as the saviors of the Republican Party.”
And he suggested he would stop donating to the national party if Trump became its leader.
“I am a hard core true believer in the party! But … If Donald Trump is nominated, I will consider that a hostile take over and no longer associate myself with THAT, new GOP,” Moreno wrote in a March 2016 exchange, responding to a request that he meet with then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus during a visit to Cleveland. Moreno noted that he would be out of state at the time.
“I completely get the position Reince is in and he is doing the best he can with a lunatic invading the party,” Moreno added. “In retrospect, more could/should have been done early, but I don’t blame anyone for that. Hindsight is always 20/20.”
Moreno closed the email prophetically: “The worst part for me,” he wrote, “I think trump can beat Hillary!”
A month later, as Trump tightened his grip on the nomination from a field that started with 17 candidates, the fundraising consultant followed up with Moreno and acknowledged concerns “about the situation at the presidential level” and wondered if Moreno might contribute to a separate fund for Senate hopefuls.
“Given that I see a future where trump is the leader of what used to be my party, I’ve sidelined myself,” Moreno replied. “I will support individual candidates, but can’t support a party led by that maniac.”
Moreno’s campaign, in response to questions about the emails, forwarded additional emails from the correspondence. One of them included the consultant commiserating to Moreno about “a very weird place we are in” and that “no one would have expected this to be where we are in March 2016.”
Video: Former Speaker Boehner discusses GOP’s future, U.S. political division (NBC News)
Moreno’s campaign also noted that the consultant now raises money for one of Moreno’s GOP primary opponents, Jane Timken, former chair of the state’s Republican Party.
“This email exchange was with Jane Timken’s current fundraiser,” Moreno campaign manager Parker Briden said. “At the time the fundraiser was raising money for the RNC when these five-year-old emails were exchanged.”
“Bernie gave more than $50,000 to the RNC and related entities in the Trump 2016 cycle,” Briden added. “That includes thousands of dollars from after this conversation — to support Republicans up and down the ballot. He was obviously fired up and disappointed in the moment years ago, but he supported Donald Trump, donated to him, and is fired up for his agenda.”
The donation to Trump came at an October 2020 event in Cleveland for Trump Victory, a joint fundraising venture with the RNC, a Moreno campaign spokesman said.
Moreno had raised money for Rubio’s presidential bid and contributed to then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s White House campaign early in the 2016 cycle. His company also gave $20,000 to the Republican National Convention’s host committee in Cleveland long before it was known Trump would be the nominee.
His initial Trump skepticism does not make Moreno unique among Republicans angling to succeed GOP Sen. Rob Portman, who announced in January that he was retiring.
Former State treasurer Josh Mandel also had first supported Rubio, and Timken had backed Kasich. But Mandel and Timken also would eventually nurture strong ties to the Trump network. Mandel did it through the political aides he loaned to Trump for the 2016 general election, Timken through her years as Trump’s handpicked head of the Ohio Republican Party.
Both have spent the early days of the developing primary trying to outdo each other on the measure of who’s most loyal to Trump.
As Briden noted, despite renouncing the GOP in his emails with the fundraiser, Moreno continued contributing to other top party leaders and organizations in the run-up to Trump’s election victory. He gave $10,000 each to Ryan’s super PAC and the National Republican Congressional Committee that fall, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The following year, as the 2018 midterm campaigns began, Moreno was a top donor to the successful House campaign of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the former NFL wide receiver and Ohio State Buckeyes standout. Gonzalez — one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump this year for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — now rates as one of the most despised figures in the former president’s political orbit.
In an April 2019 interview with Cleveland’s NBC affiliate, WKYC, Moreno corrected the interviewer when asked about his support for Trump.
“No, my daughter works on Trump 2020,” Moreno said. “And she’s free to do that. We have a vigorous debate at home about politics, and my daughter works on the Trump campaign. That doesn’t mean that I support the Trump campaign.”
A Moreno spokesperson said Monday that the prominent local businessman did not want to overshadow his daughter’s professional work.
Today, Moreno leans unabashedly into Trump. He sprinkled his official campaign launch last week with other gestures to Trump and his supporters. He’s been endorsed by Trump loyalist and former U.S. ambassador Richard Grenell and his steering committee includes allies of the former president with Ohio ties, including the Rev. Darrell Scott and former White House aide Ja’Ron Smith. And where Moreno was once a GOP donor who wanted his party to cancel Trump, he’s now a vocal defender.
“Big Tech companies colluded to erase President Donald J. Trump from the internet because they hate what he represents,” Moreno writes on his website. “If they can silence him, what will they do to the rest of us if we step out of line?”