Dec 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

D.C.'s emerging MAGA machine

Illustration of a line of Maga hats on coat hooks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

If Donald Trump is once again elected president, he will enjoy a key asset absent from his 2017 White House transition: a sprawling infrastructure already preparing to staff a new administration and immediately enact major policies.

Why it matters: No such apparatus devoted to Trump's political brand existed in 2017. The fractious conservative movement of the time — split among Trump loyalists, reluctant hangers-on and outspoken opponents — fueled the internal dysfunction that plagued his early administration.

  • Few such divisions would exist in a second Trump term — or a first for a like-minded Republican such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
  • If an "America First" candidate prevails in 2024, a constellation of conservative groups — many created since Trump left office — hopes to cement that ideological brand in the policy and personnel makeup of the new administration.

What they're saying: "There was none of that [in 2017]. None of it," says Brooke Rollins, Trump's former Domestic Policy Council chief and the president of the America First Policy Institute. "The next time around ... there will be a whole new game in town that will be prepared for that presidency."

  • "A big part of that is having the personnel ready, the policy ready and the process understood so that on Day 1 of a new administration, no matter who the president is, we will have 2,500 people ready to report to work to begin to implement that agenda," Rollins told Axios in an interview.

What's happening: Annual tax filings for AFPI and other groups in the network have trickled in since last month, providing the first glimpses at the structures and finances of D.C.'s MAGA infrastructure.

  • Together, the groups are pouring tens of millions of dollars into what effectively amounts to an administration-in-waiting.
  • Many of the groups are integral to burgeoning efforts by Trump allies to remake the federal civil service to align with an "America First" policy agenda — including by purging thousands of bureaucrats and replacing them with loyalists.

The big picture: The organizations generally fall into three camps. Some sprouted from the remnants of an explicitly pro-Trump apparatus created during his term.

  • AFPI is the new nonprofit policy arm of America First Works, an advocacy group that previously backed Trump under the moniker America First Policies. It's staffed by dozens of his former Cabinet secretaries and senior aides.
  • In June, AFPI unveiled an effort, the American Leadership Initiative, to develop strategies for a future presidential transition. It's led by Michael Rigas, the former acting head of Trump's Office of Personnel Management.
  • AFPI brought in nearly $15 million in 2021, tax filings show. Rollins told Axios that the group now employs about 160 people and is operating on a $27 million budget this year.

Others are pursuing a broader ideological project but also have deep ties to Trumpworld and are aligned with his political brand.

  • The Conservative Partnership Institute, led by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and ex-Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, has incubated and financially supported a network of allied groups.
  • They include organizations founded by former Trump budget chief Russ Vought, former top policy aide Stephen Miller and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson.
  • American Moment, a new CPI-backed nonprofit, is explicitly devoted to cultivating "America First" talent, in part to staff a future administration.
  • CPI's budget grew substantially in 2021, tax filings show: Donations to the group shot up from $7.1 million in 2020 to more than $45 million last year — boosted by a $1 million contribution from Trump's leadership PAC.

Legacy conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation are also seen as key to a future GOP presidential transition.

  • Heritage heavily influenced the early Trump administration, and Trump allies say they expect the group, led by new president Kevin Roberts, to play a larger role in a second Trump term — or that of another "America First" Republican.
  • Heritage is leading the new 2025 Presidential Transition Project, an effort, organized with dozens of other conservative groups, "to ensure a successful administration begins in January 2025 ... [w]ith the right conservative policy recommendations and properly vetted and trained personnel to implement them."
  • Heritage plans to publish the ninth edition of its "Mandate for Leadership" series next spring, geared not just toward influencing the policy tenor of the GOP presidential primary, but also sketching out a model for an effective transition.

Between the lines: Undergirding the larger conservative movement preparations for 2025 is a recognition that the lack of this sort of infrastructure substantially hobbled the Trump administration from the start.

  • "It's been really important work for us to be doing not just for the purpose that meets the eye, which is to come up with the policies and staff or suggest those for the next administration. But also because the movement has been so fragmented with the different tribes of conservatism trying to adjust to this reality," Roberts told Axios in an interview.
  • "We created a forum for those conversations to happen. And if we hadn't, the next administration, I think, would be beset by the same kinds of infighting that obviously plagued the Trump administration."
Go deeper