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Inside Trump’s secretive endorsement operation

Inside Trump’s secretive endorsement operation WASHINGTON — When former President Donald Trump headlined a fundraiser for the House Republicans’ campaign arm in Tampa, Fla., in November, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., seized the opportunity of a face-to-face encounter to ask for Trump’s endorsement.

"Yes, yes, yes," Trump replied. Then he said he would talk to his team about it.

The next day, the former president called Bilirakis to offer the most sought-after validation in Republican politics. While Bilirakis drove to an event in north Hillsborough County, Trump read a proposed statement over the phone and asked if the congressman had any changes to make.

Bilirakis, who could face a tough re-election race, was just thrilled to have the stamp of approval. He didn’t change a comma. "Of course it’s important to me," Bilirakis said in an interview with NBC News in the Capitol Tuesday. As to whether Trump’s imprimatur will scare off potential primary challengers, Bilirakis, whose district should become more Republican in an upcoming rewrite of Florida’s congressional lines, said, "We’ll see."

The experience of the eight-term lawmaker, whose father held the seats for 12 terms before him, is reflective of a sometimes secretive process that was described to NBC News in interviews with more than half a dozen people familiar with aspects of the endorsement operation. Trump has endorsed 91 candidates for House, Senate, governorships, state legislative seats and a variety of statewide offices, including secretary of state, attorney general and Texas lands commissioner, according to an NBC News review .

And when he takes the stage for his first rally of 2022, in Florence, Ariz., Saturday night, he will be flanked by a retinue of hand-picked favorites who deny that he lost their home state in 2020. Arizona saw the closest finish in the country — Trump lost by less than 10,500 votes — and the outcome remained the same after a partisan GOP review failed to change the result.

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