The Washington Post

Back in D.C. — but as possible rivals

- BY MICHAEL SCHERER AND JOSH DAWSEY

Former president Donald Trump and former vice president Mike Pence, who are possibly eyeing 2024 presidenti­al runs, made appearance­s in Washington on Tuesday, speaking at the America First Agenda Summit and the National Conservati­ve Student Conference, respective­ly. The trip was Trump’s first to D.C. since leaving office. Think tanks, Trump allies and other Republican organizers are already working on a government in waiting if he wins a second term.

Former president Donald Trump returned to Washington on Tuesday for the first time since leaving office to deliver a dystopian speech that encouraged “tough,” “nasty” and “mean” new responses to violent crime and the forcible relocation of homeless people to quicklybui­lt tent cities in the suburbs.

The address — dripping with violent imagery of “streets riddled with needles and soaked with the blood of innocent victims,” death penalty sentences for drug dealers, and detailed tales of rape and murder — marked a return to the shocking rhetoric that Trump deployed in his 2016 campaign, as he considers launching another presidenti­al bid as early as this fall.

“Now, some people say, ‘ Oh, that’s so horrible.’ No, what’s horrible is what’s happening now,” he said of his plan to relocate homeless people to the outskirts of urban areas. He proposed additional funding for police, additional jail time for immigratio­n violations, a return of “stop and frisk,” an end to most early or electronic voting, and new restrictio­ns on medical treatment for transgende­r youths.

Before Trump arrived to cap off a two-day policy event by the America First Policy Institute, a new think tank he has helped to fund, President Biden pointed out that Trump had played a central role in fomenting a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and refused to immediatel­y ask his supporters to stop attacking police.

“You can’t be pro-insurrecti­on and pro-cop,” Biden said. “You can’t be pro-insurrecti­on and pro-democracy. You can’t be proinsurre­ction and pro-american.”

The AFPI event served as a public rebranding effort of sorts for Republican-backed policies, as a wide array of conservati­ve stalwarts including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and House Minority Leader Kevin Mccarthy (Calif.) all appeared under Trump’s “America First” banner. Event organizers made clear they saw “America First” as a rising identity for policies such as civil service reform, private-sector healthcare reform and expanded fossil fuel developmen­t.

Taken together, the apparatus of Republican groups is laying plans to transform the federal government, slashing the administra­tive power of agencies, making it easier to fire career civil employees, cutting the roster of those working for the government and vetting a generation of new loyalists to take positions to enact conservati­ve change.

One of several Trump-inspired think tanks founded since the 2020 election, AFPI was created by the group’s president, Brooke Rollins, and former White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow using a policy plan that the two officials had initially drafted on the assumption that Trump would win reelection. The group, which does not disclose its donors, has an annual budget of $25 million and 150 people on the payroll.

“This is in a sense an administra­tion in exile,” Gingrich said of the eight former Cabinet-level Trump officials and nine former senior White House officials who attended the event.

Kudlow said that the group did not plan to formally back any candidate in 2024 — and that Trump was not directly involved, though some of the group’s leaders still talk to Trump.

“We’re developing and expanding ideas and issues that we know work,” he said. “It’s all about issues and ideas and trying to get our country back on track.”

AFPI has also launched an effort to vet potential political appointees for the next Republican to win the White House, parallel to separate undertakin­gs by the Heritage Foundation and the Conservati­ve Partnershi­p Institute, a group led by former senator Jim Demint and former congressma­n Mark Meadows, who served as Trump’s last chief of staff.

Meadows has told others he is working with Trump advisers to make sure Trump has a team around him that is sufficient­ly loyal to him and his agenda. He did not respond to a request for comment. Meadows is not as close with Trump as he once was, according to advisers, who, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal details.

Russell T. Vought — Trump’s former budget director who played a role in Trump’s 2019 impeachmen­t by holding up aid to Ukraine — is working with a separate group of former aides, the Center for Renewing America, to make recommenda­tions on how to slim down government agencies, make “classifica­tion reforms” and strip away some of their powers.

“The paradigms have to shift. Our goal is to take on the deep state in the national security state and even some in the domestic agencies,” Vought said. “There are ones that are more problemati­c than others.”

Vought is working with former Trump national security official Kash Patel, former Trump Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark — who is under federal investigat­ion for his role in attempting to overturn the election — and former Department of Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli, among others, to put together such plans. “We will put out documents as we are ready to do so,” Vought said, adding that it would be before 2024.

Vought said Trump had generally blessed his work but is not involved in day-to-day efforts. He wants to give a blueprint for Trump or another conservati­ve in 2024 to transform the federal government, he said.

Vought had been key to civil service reclassifi­cation work, creating a new Schedule F in the final months of the administra­tion that would make it easier for presidents to remake the staffing of the federal government. “You have to have the know-how or the courage to actually change an agency,” Vought said.

It is unclear if Trump would even take up the recommenda­tions, advisers said. But two advisers said that he liked the idea of campaignin­g on his old “Drain the Swamp” slogan and that it would give him things to talk about, these people said. Axios reported in detail last week about some of the efforts of Trump allies.

The plans have raised concerns among advocates for the current civil service, who worry the next Republican president would move forward with plans started in 2020 to make more federal jobs subject to presidenti­al appointmen­t and make it easier to fire workers. And they fear it could catch on among Republican leaders, even if the nominee is not Trump.

“Our democracy is based on the principle that the most important infrastruc­ture we have, the federal government, is dedicated to the public good and not to the political leader of the day,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnershi­p for Public Service, a group that support civil servants.

One panel at the AFPI event focused on how to prepare the next Republican president to deal with federal employees who try to obstruct White House goals.

“The civil service cannot affirmativ­ely resist,” said David Bernhardt, the former interior secretary under Trump, during the session Monday. “If you are going to engage in subterfuge or workaround­s, there cannot be no accountabi­lity for that.”

During his time in the White House, Trump complained repeatedly about not being able to find the right people to carry out his wishes, or demonstrat­e sufficient loyalty. His presidency was marked by dozens of advisers, chiefs of staff and agency officials whom he cast aside after they refused to do his bidding, often for ethical or legal reasons — including former FBI director James B. Comey, former attorney general Jeff Sessions and former vice president Mike Pence, to name just a few. He still complains about a range of former officials at Mar-a-lago and says the next term will have to have “better people,” one aide said.

“I have heard President Trump say that his biggest regret was not having the personnel and the team ready on day one,” Rollins said before the event began. “What we are trying to achieve is, what is the long-term goal? How are we going to play offense and I do think our side has never really been ready for that opportunit­y.”

There is some concern among Trump advisers that because he was so frustrated with facing two impeachmen­t trials and advisers that were not totally loyal to him, he would pick unqualifie­d “toadies” for key picks, in the words of one adviser. This person said there was great concern in Trump’s orbit in the last few months of his presidency, when he elevated a range of controvers­ial or unqualifie­d people to key positions.

Among the other groups angling for Trump’s favor is the America First Legal Foundation, founded by former speechwrit­er Stephen Miller, and the American Cornerston­e Institute, founded by former housing secretary Ben Carson.

Trump, however, does not regularly talk with many of the architects of the personnel plans, such as Meadows and Vought. “He is supportive of them helping him find good people, I’m sure, but he’s not involved in it,” said a top adviser.

Pence, who is positionin­g himself to possibly challenge Trump for the 2024 nomination, has a separate group, Advancing American Freedom, which has released its own policy framework and has scheduled time for Pence to speak at the Heritage Foundation.

The flood of new Trump-affiliated groups has been disruptive for old-line conservati­ve think tanks, creating a set of overlappin­g and sometimes conflictin­g efforts.

“Heritage has to work harder because there are multiple people and organizati­ons that have their own agendas,” said Kevin Roberts, president of the Heritage Foundation, which has drafted plans for incoming Republican administra­tions since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. “I am not complainin­g. I think that is a good thing.”

Trump did not weigh into the weeds of ideologica­l policy debates Tuesday. Instead, he signaled that he once again sees an opportunit­y to disrupt the political world by embracing the themes of grievance, fear and anger that helped him rise to power.

“Never forget everything this corrupt establishm­ent is doing to me is all about preserving their power and control over the American people. They want to damage you in any form,” Trump said, prompting the crowd to chant “four more years.”

 ?? CRAIG HUDSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
CRAIG HUDSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST
 ?? JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST ??
JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASHINGTON POST
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 ?? Photos By Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post ?? Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at the America First Agenda Summit on Tuesday. His speech included shocking rhetoric reminiscen­t of his 2016 campaign. BELOW: Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) was in the audience for the event at the think tank Trump helped fund.
Photos By Jabin Botsford/the Washington Post Former president Donald Trump arrives to speak at the America First Agenda Summit on Tuesday. His speech included shocking rhetoric reminiscen­t of his 2016 campaign. BELOW: Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) was in the audience for the event at the think tank Trump helped fund.

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