01:07 - Source: CNN
GOP senator: Trump Twitter attacks not helpful

Story highlights

Sources say President Donald Trump did not endorse Kelli Ward

Ward is a Republican primary challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake

Trump met with other possible Flake primary challengers on Tuesday

CNN  — 

President Donald Trump huddled privately with potential Republican primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake before taking the stage in Phoenix on Tuesday night.

The backstage meeting included former state GOP chairman Robert Graham and state treasurer Jeff DeWit – two candidates Trump has urged to consider opposing Flake – as well as Rep. Trent Franks and Graham’s 13-year-old daughter.

Faith Graham posted a photo of the group on her Instagram account. The meeting was first reported by Politico.

Two sources familiar with the meeting told CNN it was focused on ousting Flake – who Trump calls “the flake.”

The sense among participants, the two sources said, was that Franks won’t enter the Senate primary and DeWit, who is under consideration for posts within Trump’s administration, is unlikely to do so – so the focus is on Graham. Trump encouraged DeWit, Graham and Franks to meet again soon and decide on a plan, the sources said.

Those sources also said Trump was surprised that his positive tweet last week about Kelli Ward, the former state senator who had already entered the race, was taken by some as an endorsement, and that Trump did not mean it as one. The President, according to the sources, has been persuaded that Ward – who drew 39% support in her primary campaign against Sen. John McCain in 2016 – is a weaker candidate than alternatives such as Graham or DeWit.

One piece of evidence bolstering their assertion Trump has reached that conclusion: DeWit, who was the Trump campaign’s chief operating officer, was the MC on Monday night, and Graham’s daughter led the Pledge of Allegiance. Ward did not have a private audience with the President and was not a VIP attendee. And hundreds of Ward supporters carrying pro-Ward signs were not allowed by organizers to bring those signs into the Phoenix Convention Center.

However, Arizona Republicans eager to see Flake ousted were thrown for a loop Wednesday when Sean Hannity, the Fox News personality who Trump praised at his Phoenix rally, endorsed Ward on his radio program during an interview with the former state senator.

That came on top of a $300,000 contribution to a pro-Ward super PAC from Robert Mercer, the GOP mega-donor who is closely aligned with Trump.