By Donald Trump's telling, crooked Republican operatives have rigged the selection of the party's presidential nominee and plan to defy the will of the millions of Americans who have voted for him.
"The Republican National Committee, they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this kind of crap to happen," Trump told supporters Tuesday in upstate New York after griping about losing all of Colorado's GOP delegates to rival Ted Cruz at gatherings of party insiders.
Trump's charge feeds into a widespread misconception that political parties choose their White House nominees by popular vote.
Not in the United States, and not in any other major democracy around the world, said Elaine Kamarck, author of "Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates."
"Nobody did anything to deny Donald Trump the nomination," she said. "He kind of woke up to the fact that there's a way nominations are won, and it's not the way he thought."
It is only since 1972 that primaries have given voters a significant role in choosing the major parties' nominees for president, Kamarck noted. Since 1832, the selection has ultimately been up to delegates at party conventions.
What's unique in 2016 is the breach between Republican voters, who favor Trump more than any other candidate, and party insiders who are appalled by his potential capture of the GOP brand.
Many party leaders and activists fear that in the general election, Trump's unpopularity among voters as a whole could cost Republicans control not just of the U.S. Senate, but also the House of Representatives, an unthinkable prospect just months ago.
Cruz, a Texas senator who is also widely disliked by party leaders, has been far more adept than Trump at tapping networks of GOP conservatives to outmaneuver the New York real estate mogul in backwater competitions for delegates, like the one last week in Colorado.
"As a candidate, the first thing you better understand is what the rules are, because the rules apply to everybody the same," said David Winston, a Republican pollster and strategist who is unaligned in the nomination fight. Trump "didn't apparently take the amount of time and effort needed to do that effectively."
Among other purposes, Trump's charges of impropriety deflect attention from his failure to master the nomination process as well as Cruz has, costing him delegates in North Dakota, Louisiana, Colorado and other states. In some cases, delegates who are required to back Trump in the first round of voting at the national convention are set to abandon him in subsequent votes.
It's especially embarrassing for a businessman who touts his management skills as a prime qualification for the presidency.
As Trump's shortcomings in the delegate fights have become more apparent, he has beefed up his political operation. He put former Washington lobbyist Paul J. Manafort in charge of acquiring delegates. On Wednesday, he named veteran GOP operative Rick Wiley as his national political director.
Trump has also hired a Sacramento consultant, Tim Clark, to run his campaign to win California's June 7 primary, the last major contest before the Republican convention in Cleveland in July.
"Every campaign, in order to be successful, needs to grow and change and bring on people who can make sure that we have the best resources available," Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an interview.
But Trump's late engagement in skirmishes over delegates at local and state party meetings nationwide could ensure that he falls short of the 1,237 that he needs to clinch the nomination without a floor fight in Cleveland.
For now, Trump's lead is substantial. He has won 8.2 million votes — 1.9 million more than Cruz, according to RealClearPolitics. He also leads Cruz in the delegate count, 743 to 545, with 143 for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Former Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the race, is holding onto his 171 delegates.
Campaigning this week in New York for his home state primary on Tuesday, Trump lamented the absence of a genuinely democratic process to pick the Republican nominee.
"Nobody even talks about votes," he complained to the crowd at a rally in Rome, N.Y. "I have millions of voters more, but I also have hundreds of delegates more. But that's not the same thing to me. I think the vote is the thing that you count, right?"
Trump called the Republican operatives who devised the nominating system "dirty tricksters" who are disenfranchising his supporters. Like the economy and the banking system, he said, the party nomination process is rigged against outsiders like himself and Democrat Bernie Sanders.
"It makes it impossible for a guy that wins to win," Trump told the crowd. "It's a crooked system, folks."
It was the second day in a row that Trump had lashed out at the nominating system.
At a rally in Irvine on Monday, Cruz ridiculed Trump for bemoaning his delegate setbacks.
"Donald has been yelling and screaming — a lot of whining. I'm sure some cursing, and some late-night fevered tweeting — all the characteristics I would note we would want in a commander in chief," Cruz said as the crowd laughed.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus responded to Trump on Twitter.
"Nomination process known for a year + beyond," he wrote. "It's the responsibility of the campaigns to understand it. Complaints now? Give us all a break."
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.