In October 2015, Donald Trump was still a laugh line for right-wing Christian activists. By their lights he was a failed casino owner and thrice-married playboy. He had no apparent principles, no policy blueprint and no grasp of the Bible. He didn’t even understand free-market theory, something they consider to be a fountainhead of American liberty. Yet here he was in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Va., soliciting support from a closed-door group of conservative leaders called the Council for National Policy.
Trump looked the part. He wore a blue suit, white shirt and shiny blue tie. But he seemed to lose his way during the pitch and began riffing about his hair. He turned his head to various angles for the crowd. “It looks pretty good back here,” Trump said, as CNP’s president, Bill Walton, would later recall during a confidential talk captured on video.
It was too much for Marjorie Dannenfelser, an antiabortion activist also in the crowd. “This is insulting,” Dannenfelser said, according to her recorded recollection. She pulled on Walton’s sleeve. “Can you believe what is happening here?” she asked.
For months after the event, Dannenfelser and some other CNP members were determined to stop Trump. While he solidified his lead as GOP front-runner, they denounced him as a “charlatan” in the conservative magazine National Review, blasted his prior support of abortion rights and implored Republican voters to choose another candidate.
“America will only be a great nation when we have leaders of strong character who will defend both unborn children and the dignity of women,” Dannenfelser and other women wrote in an open letter to Iowa voters in January 2016. “We cannot trust Donald Trump to do either.”
Then came a great swerve that would upend politics in America: Millions of conservatives — Dannenfelser and other CNP members among them — got firmly behind Trump. Today, the Republican Party has been transformed, and Trump or one of his ideological heirs is likely to be the GOP nominee in 2024.
Much has been written about this turn of conservatives toward Trump. But I wanted to learn more about the political and communications infrastructure that converted this support into votes and influence. How did these leaders and activists — once so critical of Trump — end up helping shape and advocate for his agenda? And now that he is almost a year removed from the White House, how are they continuing to serve him and his cause?
Working with fellow Washington Post reporter Shawn Boburg, I started gathering documents and cultivating sources. We zeroed in on key figures and groups, making charts of their ties and timelines of their actions. We identified networks of groups that served as a kind of nerve system for conservative influence campaigns.
Enmeshed in these efforts was the Council for National Policy. CNP may be the most unusual, least understood conservative organization in the nation’s capital. A registered charity, it has served for 40 years as a social, planning and communications hub for conservative activists in Washington and nationwide. One of its defining features is its confidentiality. In a town where people and groups constantly angle for publicity, CNP bars the press and uninvited outsiders from its events. All members — even such luminaries as former vice president Mike Pence, Ralph Reed and Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — agree to remain silent about its activities.
Other bastions of conservative influence — from policy groups like the Heritage Foundation to media outlets like Breitbart News — generally have clear missions. By contrast, CNP’s executive director, Bob McEwen, told me that the organization itself does not “do anything.” He and other CNP leaders will tell you it is merely an educational venue aimed at uniting its conservative members.
Yet as I began to learn more, I came to see that it would be a mistake to underestimate the group’s significance. I also realized that researching CNP represented a rare opportunity: to get a behind-the-scenes look at the outlook, goals and methods of activists who have so successfully promoted Trumpism. “I just wanted to thank you and the Council for National Policy for your support and for consistently amplifying the agenda of President Trump and our Administration,” Pence wrote to CNP last year. “I know our collaboration with CNP will only strengthen and deepen this year and beyond.”
The Council for National Policy began taking root on Jan. 22, 1981, when six religious and social conservatives gathered for dinner at a home in Dallas. Most American conservatives were still jubilant about the inauguration of Ronald Reagan two days earlier. They rejoiced at the prospect that Reagan might make good on one of his campaign slogans: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Over dinner, they resolved to bring together Christian activists, business interests and wealthy donors under one umbrella to cajole and pressure the new administration.
Details about CNP’s history have emerged periodically over the decades, as journalists, authors and left-leaning activists pieced together leaked internal documents and other material. In early June this year, Nick Surgey, executive director of a progressive watchdog group called Documented, reached out to say he had obtained a speech from a CNP meeting in May that celebrated the group’s 40th anniversary. Did I want it?
The speech offered a wealth of new information and context. And it supplemented dozens of hours of confidential conference recordings and documents that I obtained from Surgey and other sources. “I’m not going to crystal-ball-gaze about the way ahead,” speaker Ed Feulner told the crowd gathered behind closed doors in Naples, Fla., on May 21. “Rather, I’m focusing on the early days of CNP. How we started, who did what and how the foundations were laid for us now, four decades later.”
One of the organizers of the initial dinner was Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister, writer and political activist. LaHaye later wrote the popular Left Behind series, books about the end of times and the Antichrist, using themes derived from the Bible. He thought the Christian right would have greater force if its components banded more tightly together. “This new organization could help bring America back to moral sanity,” he told Feulner, according to the speech.
LaHaye knew the endeavor would need funding, so he reached out to Cullen Davis, a wealthy Texas oil scion. Davis — who told me recently that the original organizers thought that communists were going to take over the U.S. government and that Christianity in America needed staunch defenders — agreed to host the dinner. He called his pal Nelson Bunker Hunt, another wealthy oil figure known for trying to corner the global market in silver. They also tapped Richard Viguerie, a fundraising pioneer and master of far-right persuasion campaigns who once said he mailed out 1.5 billion letters for more than 100 public policy groups.
During the dinner they agreed to reach out to a long list of other influential evangelicals and social conservatives. Several weeks later, more than two dozen activists gathered around a conference table at a hotel near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to sketch out CNP’s ambitions. Together, they made up a formidable force: Paul Weyrich spoke about a group he was building to help elect conservatives to Congress. Phyllis Schlafly described her campaign to thwart the Equal Rights Amendment. For his part, Feulner, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, spoke about how religious conservatives needed an alternative to the Council on Foreign Relations.
On a rainy evening in May 1981, the group had a coming-out party in the suburbs of the nation’s capital, or, as Feulner put it in his speech, “the belly of the beast.” Some 160 activists and politicos ventured to tents set up in the backyard of Viguerie’s home in McLean. It was a rare exception to the fledgling group’s rules around confidentiality. Guests found a spread of Peking duck, lobster, sushi and piña coladas served in coconuts, according to Feulner’s account.
The special guest, David Stockman, Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget director, received a standing ovation for his efforts to scale back the government. Optimism and good cheer wafted through the tents. But even then, CNP members grumbled that the Reagan administration needed to change how it was selecting political appointees. “Appointments have been made on the basis of credentials rather than shared values,” one CNP member complained, according to Feulner’s speech. “The council hopes to identify people with these values and put them forward.”
In a town where people and groups constantly angle for publicity, CNP bars the press and uninvited outsiders from its events.
Feulner told me recently that CNP has always aimed at providing a forum where certain conservative elites could socialize and strategize — and raise money from wealthy donors. “You could let your hair down and just talk candidly about shared visions,” he said. “You also have a lot of people who can write significant checks.”
From the start, CNP members cultivated political power at the highest levels in Washington. In an early letter to the Reagan White House, a CNP leader wrote that the group included “some of the most influential business, political and religious leaders in America” who wanted to “plan together the future of our country.” Their goal was a “moral rebirth” for our society.
CNP’s leaders had much experience in political fundraising, organizing and communication. Among them was a political operative named Tom Ellis, who had played on White racial fears as he helped build the career of the late former senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. (Helms, who became a revered member of CNP, was once described by The Post’s David Broder as “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.”) Others included televangelist Pat Robertson; Ed Meese, the attorney general under Reagan; Sam Moore, the nation’s largest Bible publisher; and Rich DeVos, billionaire co-founder of Amway and funder of conservative causes.
CNP members showed they were willing to participate in behind-the-scenes activity in support of their values. Consider the covert campaign run by Oliver North, a member of the National Security Council staff from 1981 to 1986. In 1984 — apparently before he became a member — North spoke at a CNP meeting about the importance of supporting the contra rebels opposing a leftist regime in Nicaragua. At the time, Congress had imposed a prohibition on government financial support for the contras.
According to an audio recording of the session, North told CNP members that Nicaragua’s leaders and their Soviet supporters had more than Central America in their crosshairs. “The real target is the United States,” he said. “This country is in great, great jeopardy from these people, who are truly godless communists.”
North sought financial support from CNP members, including a wealthy elderly woman named Ellen Clayton Garwood, whom he met at a CNP meeting. “With tears in his eyes,” a Senate report later recounted, “North explained to her that the Contras were hungry, poorly clothed, and in need of lethal supplies.” Garwood eventually gave about $2.5 million to support North’s off-books effort, according to the Senate report. Using old CNP directories and other documents, I determined that four CNP founders, members or funders were cited in the Senate report as contributors to North’s mission. (I reached out to North, but a spokesman declined my requests for an interview.)
In internal videos, audio and documents, the conservatism of CNP members often seemed linked to fear — not just of the godless foreign communists that North invoked but of liberal Americans as well. In September 2017, a guest of CNP was invited to discuss his efforts to map leftist organizations. “I almost think we might want to call it tracking and defeating evil,” an unidentified CNP leader said during the speaker’s introduction, according to an internal CNP audio recording. “The activists on the left and the people who fund them are out to destroy everything you hold dear,” the leader explained. “Your families. Marriage. Your businesses. Your freedom of speech. Your freedom of religion. Everything.”
An internal CNP directory for 2015 had about 400 members across the country. They included Kellyanne Conway, who would become a White House counselor. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
Steve Bannon, who was chief executive of Trump’s campaign, was also listed as a member. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)
LEFT: An internal CNP directory for 2015 had about 400 members across the country. They included Kellyanne Conway, who would become a White House counselor. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Steve Bannon, who was chief executive of Trump’s campaign, was also listed as a member. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)
When candidate Trump arrived at the CNP meeting in the fall of 2015, many White conservative evangelicals were still aggrieved about Barack Obama’s presidency and his promotion of progressive policies, such as near-universal health care. The presence of a Black man in the White House served as a reminder of a new demographic reality: They constituted a diminishing proportion of the electorate and were losing their power to shape America’s culture and politics.
Trump’s appearance was part of a weekend-long meeting in suburban Washington; CNP usually holds these meetings three times a year in posh hotel conference rooms around the country. All the candidates had been invited to speak, but only Republicans responded, a CNP official told me.
I obtained an internal CNP directory for 2015 and examined it for insights about the kinds of people Trump would be courting. There were about 400 members from across the country, many of them leaders of relatively small nonprofits focused on social and religious conservatism. But I also saw some now-familiar names: Leonard Leo, then of the Federalist Society; Steve Bannon, then leader of Breitbart News and later chief executive of Trump’s campaign; David Bossie, the head of the group Citizens United and later Trump’s deputy campaign manager; and Kellyanne Conway, who would become a White House counselor.
On hand for Trump’s presentation was Ralph Reed, an evangelical political leader and CNP member. By his own account, he had come to know and admire Trump. But Reed sensed intense skepticism from other CNP members, as he writes in his book “For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump.” Then, at the meeting, something unexpected happened. After his presentation, Trump, like the other Republican candidates, answered questions and offered to stand with any CNP member for a photo. The line went clear out of the ballroom.
Still, in early 2016, just months before the election, Hillary Clinton appeared to be ahead in the esteem of most Americans. It was increasingly clear Trump needed the conservative evangelical vote to win. “The Trump train kept rolling, and Evangelical leaders were either going to have to get on board or get out of the way,” Reed writes. That March, Trump and Donald McGahn, who would become a White House lawyer, hosted a meeting with Leo, who was involved with a nonprofit network that was raising hundreds of millions to fund media campaigns and other initiatives in support of conservative judges and causes. The three men focused on the Supreme Court seat left open after the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia. McGahn thought Trump could benefit by releasing a list of nominees to replace Scalia, an unusual move that would reassure religious and social conservatives who wanted an antiabortion jurist. Trump expressed support for one of Leo’s long-cherished goals: a federal court system dominated by judges who would interpret the Constitution in ways that favored business and conservative views.
As Leo later told members of CNP — where he served on the board of governors — that was only going to happen through a campaign by the conservative movement. “We’re going to have to understand that judicial confirmations these days are more like political campaigns,” Leo said, according to one of the videos I reviewed. “We’re going to have to be smart as a movement.”
On May 18, 2016, Trump greatly boosted his prospects when he released the list of judges. The next month, he convened a faith advisory board of conservative evangelicals at Trump Tower. Reed and James Dobson, a Christian activist who had been with CNP from the early days, were on the board, according to Reed’s book. The meeting was followed by an extraordinary closed-door conclave at a Times Square hotel for nearly a thousand conservative Christians.
The Religion News Service account asked in a headline: “Could conservative Christian leaders rescue a Republican presidential candidate whose personal lifestyle and religious bona fides have been punchlines more than a testimonial?” But something else in that story popped out at me: It said a chief organizer of the Times Square conclave was CNP member Bill Dallas.
Dallas was an unusual figure. He had been convicted two decades earlier on felony embezzlement charges. He was sent to San Quentin State Prison, where a newfound commitment to Christianity deepened, according to his book, “Lessons From San Quentin.” Now he was a data entrepreneur who headed a nonprofit called United in Purpose, which gathered and parsed information about Christian voters. Among the board members was CNP executive director Bob McEwen, who is also a former House member from Ohio.
United in Purpose’s network of allies and clients included other CNP members from groups such as the American Family Association, the Family Research Council and Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, according to Anne Nelson, a research scholar at Columbia University and author of “Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right,” a book that examines CNP. Dallas’s operation seemed a perfect complement to other initiatives by groups affiliated with CNP members. “What the CNP has done is convene these forces in a highly strategic way and create an environment in which they can collaborate and leverage each other’s work off the radar,” Nelson told me. “It’s a well-oiled machine.”
In a chat with me, Dallas said he is no longer a member of CNP and is stepping back from political activism. He expressed pride about the 2016 Times Square event and recalled one remark there that he believes won over the Christian activists. It was when Trump told them not to be ashamed of their own religious culture and beliefs. “He said, ‘Christians should not be afraid to say Merry Christmas at Christmastime,’ ” Dallas told me. “I think that was a turning point.”
In the summer of 2016, Trump made another strategic move that would seal the deal with Dannenfelser, the antiabortion activist, and other CNP members. He pledged to oppose abortion and put the promises onto paper in September. “Dear Pro-Life Leader,” Trump’s letter began. “I am writing to invite you to join my campaign’s Pro-Life Coalition, which is being spearheaded by longtime leader Marjorie Dannenfelser.” Trump said he would nominate “pro-life justices to the U.S. Supreme Court,” defund Planned Parenthood and take other measures that the antiabortion activists had demanded.
Dannenfelser was thrilled. “Before that we were still stomping our feet,” she said last year at a CNP meeting, according to one of the internal videos. “Little did we know that this man, who was a performer and can incite audiences in ways we never even thought could be, would galvanize audiences in battleground states all over the country and put life at the center of the project.” The CNP crowd whooped and hollered at her remarks. In Reed’s book, he writes that Dannenfelser told him: “Trump was my last choice until he was my first.” (A spokeswoman for Dannenfelser declined my request for an interview.)
In an early letter to the Reagan White House, a CNP leader wrote that the group’s goal was a “moral rebirth” for our society.
Pence acknowledged CNP’s support in his letter last year: “We are grateful for CNP’s timely counsel and unique capacity to rapidly garner support for the difficult decisions the President and I are making each day.” And CNP meetings reflected the group’s standing with the administration. In May 2017, for instance, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared at a CNP meeting and crowed about the rollback of regulations, with an emphasis on Obama administration measures aimed at climate change. “With respect to the EPA, the future ain’t what it used to be,” he said, drawing cheers.
Surgey, the director of Documented, who first obtained the internal CNP videos I reviewed for this story, said he “started studying CNP because it seemed like its members were becoming a power base, in terms of their public support of the Trump administration.” He added, “I was surprised by just how many leading Trump advocates appear on the videos.”
Activist David Horowitz spoke at a CNP meeting later in 2017. Horowitz, leader of a nonprofit group called the David Horowitz Freedom Center, captured the sense of desperation expressed by many on the right — a feeling that had drawn them to Trump. “For all of Donald’s faults, and everybody knows them, he stood on the right side. We are in a civil war,” he said. “This is the standard-bearer for us in this war.”
I met Bob McEwen at the small suite of offices CNP maintains in the Hall of the States building, just down the hill from the U.S. Capitol, a remarkably tiny space for a group with such a large reach. Joining us was lawyer Alan Dye, a CNP member and nonprofit specialist.
Meeting with someone like me was a departure for a group that has spent decades trying to avoid attention from the mainstream media. McEwen emphasized that CNP was not involved in political campaigns and exists only to educate its members, leaders of allied nonprofit groups across the country who are invited to join. Like all tax-exempt charities, CNP may not under Internal Revenue Service rules engage in political activity or support particular candidates for office. An affiliated group called CNP Action — another type of nonprofit — is permitted by the IRS to focus more on political activity.
McEwen, also president of CNP Action, told me he would not discuss the conservative movement in general or the activity or advocacy of CNP members. When I asked about his group’s efforts to operate in secret, he rejected the premise of the question. “It’s not secret,” McEwen said. “It’s just private. And anything that we want to elevate is going to be elevated by the members.”
He said CNP and its members have privacy rights, and confidentiality helps create an atmosphere where participants can freely exchange ideas without unwanted judgment. “Quite frankly, in a nonpolitical sense, this is like a Rotary Club,” McEwen said. “CNP is a convening organization of patriotic Americans that love their country and have increasingly been of the opinion that the information they receive is unreliable. And there’s not very many places they could get the truth. And CNP seeks to deliver the truth.”
I asked about the influence campaigns — the advertisements, social media and such — run by various networks of people and groups linked through CNP. As an example, I mentioned the concerted efforts of interlocking nonprofit groups allied with Leonard Leo.
“What you’re really talking about is a whole bunch of different networks. You could do a Venn diagram, I suppose,” Dye said. “So there’d be pro-life. There’d be this and that. All the various issues, and in every place they overlap would be a network. And clearly there’s a network of people supporting conservative judicial nominees. And Leonard, of course, would be in that network. It might not encompass the entire CNP membership, but it might encompass a fair number of them.”
Both men asserted the networks on the left are far larger and better funded than those on the right, and that some are financed by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. “They’re much bigger,” Dye told me. McEwen said, chuckling, “We’re a gnat.”
I learned about another dimension of CNP through a video featuring Jim DeMint, a former senator and tea party favorite. It was 2018, and he was telling CNP members about an initiative called the Conservative Action Project, which had been launched years earlier by CNP leaders.
CAP claims to include more than 100 groups “representing all major elements of the conservative movement — economic, social, and national security.” Its website publishes policy memos signed by the leaders of its member groups. It turns out that, according to documents, CAP shares an address with CNP, and many CAP activists are members of both groups. CAP also works hand-in-hand with yet another group that DeMint had started not long before called the Conservative Partnership Institute. (“The Conservative Partnership Institute arms, trains, and unites conservative leaders in Washington ready to fight,” its website until recently stated.)
“The whole point was to support people on the inside,” explained DeMint, listed on the 2018 video as a CNP executive committee member. “But that doesn’t work unless we’ve got people like the folks here tonight with the Council of National Policy on the outside building public support for the right ideas to get things done. We’ve got an outside game. We’ve got an inside game. And it’s the only way to win.”
DeMint said CAP’s efforts were coming to fruition under the Trump administration. “Folks, there are more of us than there are of them. There is no reason for conservatives to be losing,” he said. “We got the power in our hands.”
At one point in the video, DeMint praised Trump. “We’ve got an amazing opportunity here,” DeMint told them. “And it’s incredible with this president, who is the last person I ever thought would promote religious freedom, pro-life. I mean, the Lord confuses things!” He grinned and paused while the CNP crowd broke into laughter and applause. “But this guy’s more genuine than anybody I’ve ever known,” he said. “I mean, I don’t know, I’m just really confused. But then, he seems willing to work for us because he’s confused, too.”
I recalled another internal CNP video where others described how a delegation of CNP and CAP officials met most every week with Trump administration officials, often at the White House. “It’s kind of this little secretive huddle that meets every Wednesday morning,” Paul Teller, director of strategic initiatives for Pence when he was vice president, said on the video.
Yet another video included Rachel Bovard, a conservative activist who works closely with DeMint at CPI. She said CAP people worked behind the scenes with the White House and allies in Congress to maintain public support for Trump during impeachment proceedings. “We worked a lot to coordinate messaging,” Bovard said. Throughout the Trump administration, she explained, CAP leaders also collaborated with White House officials to select political appointees. “We work very closely — CAP does and then we at CPI also — with the Office of Presidential Personnel at the White House to try and get good conservatives in the positions, because we see what happens when we don’t vet these people,” she said, adding: “All these people that led the impeachment against President Trump shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Last year, in the months before the election, there was a new air of desperation in some of the rhetoric of CNP members. L. Brent Bozell III, a CNP executive committee member, claimed in a closed-door meeting that “evidence is pouring out of an attempt by the far left to steal the election,” an internal video shows.
“Today we’re as close to losing this nation as we ever have been,” Kay Coles James, then president of the Heritage Foundation, said at another CNP session, according to an internal video. “And make no mistake about it: This November is not about winning or losing an election. It’s about winning or losing our country.”
The integrity of elections has been a preoccupation on the right for years. In 2017, Trump announced a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which included two CNP members: Kenneth Blackwell, the former secretary of state in Ohio, and J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Foundation. In August 2019, Lisa Nelson, a CNP member and chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, launched an initiative called “ALEC Political Process Working Group,” according to an internal email. Among other things, the group was going to focus on “election law and ballot integrity.” (In a letter to funders defending that effort this year, Nelson said the group “connected legislators with each other as well as federal officials to discuss process and governance issues including the census, redistricting and other issues related to how state governments work.”)
Among those working with her was a CNP board of governors member named Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who often speaks in the closed-door meetings about issues around election integrity. Mitchell has described herself jokingly as “consigliere to the vast right-wing conspiracy.” She was a driving force behind the allegations a decade ago that the IRS and Obama White House engaged in a political witch hunt against tea party groups — and later worked closely with Trump as he disputed the 2020 election results.
“We’ve got an amazing opportunity here,” Jim DeMint told CNP members about Trump in one video. “This guy’s more genuine than anybody I’ve ever known.”
In February 2020, Nelson told a CNP Action session that ALEC, in collaboration with Mitchell and other CNP members, had begun prepping state lawmakers on rules they could invoke during an election dispute. “And I think we’ve identified a few,” she said in the meeting. “They can write a letter to the secretary of state questioning the validity of an election and saying, ‘What did happen that night?’ So we are drafting a lot of those things. If you have ideas in that area, let us know and we’ll get those to the state legislators, and they can start to kind of exercise their political muscle in that area.”
That spring, the election preparations coincided with efforts by CNP members to push back against pandemic restrictions. Working through newly formed coalitions, the members pumped out messages aimed at opposing face masks, business closures and other measures to contain the coronavirus.
The campaigns received attention in mainstream media. But the fact that CNP members played leading roles was not generally understood. One new push was called the Save Our Country Coalition. It was announced by FreedomWorks, whose leader is a CNP member. Other participants included Nelson from ALEC and Jenny Beth Martin, a CNP member and leader of Tea Party Patriots. Nearly two dozen participants in all were CNP members. The group called for a resumption of normal economic activity, an end to federal control of the nation’s pandemic response and protection of “individual liberties of our citizens from unconstitutional power grabs by the federal, state and local governments.”
Weeks later, McEwen and other members hosted a confidential conference call for activists that included Trump campaign officials. Their goal was to make recommendations to the campaign and coordinate efforts to pressure state and federal officials to reopen the country. According to a recording of the call obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, a left-leaning group, McEwen opened with a prayer: “We would give you the praise in Christ’s name.” He described government efforts to contain the pandemic as “tyranny.”
CNP member Nancy Schulze told the campaign officials about “a doctors coalition who are extremely pro-Trump that have been preparing and coming together for the war ahead in the campaign, on health care.” A campaign official expressed enthusiasm. “Those are the type of guys that we should want to get out on TV and radio to help push out the message,” the official said.
The next few months became a whirlwind for CNP members. At a CNP meeting in August, the organizers of the health-care initiatives offered more details on what they were up to, internal videos show: It was an advertising campaign crafted or promoted by several nonprofits and CNP allies, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Tom Price, former health and human services secretary under Trump.
In a video of the session, organizers showed examples of ads featuring doctors in white lab coats. “And so I remind people that what we’re trying to do is put on theater here,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president of a group called Job Creators Network and chief executive of its affiliated foundation. “It’s the stage. It’s the script and the actors.”
During another CNP session that August, various members also discussed the upcoming election in breathless terms. Some zeroed in on the proliferation of mail-in balloting as an ominous trend, claiming it made the system ripe for fraud. “We need to stop those ballots from going out, and I want the lawyers here to tell us what to do,” said Tom Fitton, CNP’s new president and the leader of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.
J. Christian Adams, the former Justice Department official who served on Trump’s election integrity commission, described mail-in voting in the video as “the number one left-wing agenda.” He urged CNP members not to be cowed by criticism about efforts to stop such voting. “Be not afraid of the accusations that you’re a voter suppressor, you’re a racist and so forth,” Adams said. (Fitton and Adams did not respond to requests for comment for this article. In a previous email, Adams stood by his remarks. In an interview last fall, Fitton told me: “The left has war-gamed this out. … And it could cause civil war.”)
As I watched the video of these men and other CNP members describing the election with such passion, I wondered: Were they trying to outdo one another in the zeal department in a play to wealthy donors? I knew from tax filings that donations to some groups led by CNP members had soared during the Trump years. Donations to Judicial Watch, for example, rose to $104 million last year from $44 million four years earlier, tax filings show.
In October 2020, I wrote a Post story about those and other election-related discussions at the group’s meetings. But of course, I learned later that much more was in play. Multiple people from far-right groups were promoting a movement to “Stop the Steal” that included specious claims that Trump won. One of the most prominent leaders was a former CNP fellow named Ali Alexander, formerly Ali Akbar. “We will not go quietly. We’ll shut down this country if we have to,” Alexander said at a Phoenix rally in December, later leading the crowd in a chant of “1776.”
At least five other CNP members and their groups worked with other Trump supporters to amplify the Stop the Steal claims. On Dec. 30, Cleta Mitchell wrote to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and offered to send some 1,800 pages of documents purporting to support claims of election fraud, according to an email included in a report this month by Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Three days later, Mitchell joined Trump on a call aimed at pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state “to find 11,780 votes,” the report said.
Several CNP members were involved in the organization or promotion of the rallies preceding the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Jenny Beth Martin was listed as a speaker in promotional materials (though she did not speak, in the end) and Tea Party Patriots was listed as a “coalition partner.” CNP member Charlie Kirk — the leader of Turning Point USA, a group oriented to conservative students, and Turning Point Action, its political advocacy arm — offered to transport and house student protesters. Months earlier, Turning Point Action was behind a secretive campaign that relied on teenagers to pump out social media postings in favor of Trump.
Meanwhile, Ginni Thomas, then a CNP Action board member, praised rallygoers in tweets: “LOVE MAGA people!!!!” Ultimately, Stop the Steal organizers urged protesters to “take to” the Capitol steps “to make sure that Congress does not certify the botched Electoral College” on Jan. 6, according to webpages that have since been removed.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment. She wrote a note on social media stressing that her encouragement came before the violence. Kirk, Martin and other CNP members who helped the rallies condemned the subsequent events at the Capitol. “We are shocked, outraged, and saddened,” Martin told me in an e-mail in January.
McEwen also condemned the insurrection, saying CNP had no role in the events or its members’ activity. “What they do on their own time — I won’t say I don’t care — we have no interest or capacity to monitor,” McEwen told me earlier this year.
That reminded me of something he told me last year: CNP itself “doesn’t do ad campaigns. It doesn’t do brochures. It is a meeting of leaders,” he said. “Anything that’s done is done by the membership, not by the Council for National Policy.”
Former vice president Mike Pence recently became a “dues-paying CNP member,” according to one speaker at a CNP event. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)
Charlie Kirk, center, listens as President Donald Trump speaks at the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit in the East Room of the White House. Kirk, a member of the Council for National Policy, is leader of Turning Point USA, a group oriented to conservative students. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Former vice president Mike Pence recently became a “dues-paying CNP member,” according to one speaker at a CNP event. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images) RIGHT: Charlie Kirk, center, listens as President Donald Trump speaks at the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit in the East Room of the White House. Kirk, a member of the Council for National Policy, is leader of Turning Point USA, a group oriented to conservative students. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
After it was clear that Biden was the next president — and nothing was going to undo that — CNP members and their allies dove headlong into new initiatives. Much of their activism now seems focused on state legislatures and election rules. And once again, groups with ties to CNP appear to be closely coordinating with one another.
In March, two months after Biden’s inauguration, a CNP leader named Kelly Shackelford hosted a private Zoom session organized by CNP Action. Shackelford is president of First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that promotes religious liberties. The call focused on H.R. 1, sweeping reform legislation that Democrats promised would, among other things, make it far easier for Americans to vote. Shackelford said the bill represented “the existential threat for our country.”
“The number one priority of the Nancy Pelosi Democrats was to change the rules for our elections to ensure that the Democrats would never, ever, ever lose again,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), according to someone participating on the call. “This bill is a partisan power grab at an order of magnitude we have never seen.”
For nearly an hour, speakers urged CNP members and their allies to coordinate their efforts to pressure Congress and sway regular Americans. They recommended the use of billboards, websites, social media, Internet memes and “on the street” videos of people opposed to H.R. 1. They suggested organizing protests at the homes of certain Democratic lawmakers.
“Urban art is another really exceptional strategy, both for the media and for actually awakening the American people with a visceral campaign,” one official on the call said. Instead of a Stop the Steal movement, “we want to establish ‘Stop the Pigs’ or ‘Stop the Corrupt Politicians,’ ” as social media themes. It was vital, the official said, to “kill this bill” without getting “trapped in a voter suppression conversation.”
In an interview, Shackelford defended the call. “I’ve looked at that bill. It’s just crazy stuff,” he told me. He also defended the persuasion tactics. “I mean, I’m sure everybody on every side does that, right?”
At the same time, CNP members have expanded related campaigns regarding voter laws. An effort called the Election Transparency Initiative was started with the endorsement of Dannenfelser, who has continued to make dubious claims about the election. “The integrity of our electoral system was severely compromised in 2020 when pro-abortion Democrats — utilizing the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse — weakened state laws that ensure free and fair elections,” she said in a Feb. 23 news release.
Leonard Leo and a former Heritage Foundation official have ties to a group launched last year called the Honest Elections Project. Kenneth Blackwell took the lead of a group called the Center for Election Integrity. He told me election-rule changes during the pandemic to encourage mail-in balloting created significant vulnerabilities in the electoral system. He said that allied groups would collaborate to become “force multipliers” on the issue. Cleta Mitchell and FreedomWorks, meanwhile, are teaming up for the National Election Protection Initiative. “What is urgently needed today is the involvement by conservative and patriotic Americans in the election process at the local and state levels, challenging the vast resources of the leftist groups who have dominated election activism for too long,” Mitchell told Newsmax. By early October, 19 statehouses had passed 33 laws curbing voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. (Mitchell declined to comment for this story.)
CNP members have also joined Advancing American Freedom, a new group co-founded by Mike Pence. About half of the 40-some people on the group’s advisory board and its board of directors have been CNP members or guests in recent years, a review of internal directories and videos shows. And Pence himself recently became a “dues-paying CNP member,” according to Feulner’s speech.
Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, told me that, for AAF, Pence wanted a combination of people who served in the Trump administration and those “who represent the more traditional elements of the conservative movement.” “I think we can marry them together to sort of build a winning coalition,” Short added.
That will be a tall order. Some conservatives I interviewed for this story said that Trump had effectively fractured the movement. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center who was previously a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said the conservative movement was in a long decline by the time Trump was elected. “The conservative movement, I think it was already sort of stuck in a time warp,” he said. “It was like every day was January 20th, 1981.”
That remark stuck with me. It captured a feeling I had about CNP throughout my efforts to understand the group. In their quest to remake our country — to purge it of the cultural and political decay they believe has sapped it of virtue — CNP members are looking backward to receding triumphs. But it’s clear they’re also looking forward — and they are as determined as ever to shape the nation’s future.
Late this month CNP leaders and the Conservative Action Project are slated to host a strategy summit in the nation’s capital for the leaders of more than 100 conservative groups. They want to seek ways “to slow the Administration’s left wing policies” and advance a conservative agenda in Congress and the states, according to an invitation obtained by American Oversight, a left-leaning group in Washington. The title of the meeting? “Saving the Country: The Pathway Forward.”
Robert O’Harrow Jr. is an investigative reporter at The Post.