Nov 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Column / Behind the Curtain

Behind the Curtain: Trump allies pre-screen loyalists for unprecedented power grab

Illustration of Donald Trump's silhouette within a spotlight flanked by two empty spotlights.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Former President Trump's allies are pre-screening the ideologies of thousands of potential foot soldiers, as part of an unprecedented operation to centralize and expand his power at every level of the U.S. government if he wins in 2024, officials involved in the effort tell Axios.

Why it matters: Hundreds of people are spending tens of millions of dollars to install a pre-vetted, pro-Trump army of up to 54,000 loyalists across government to rip off the restraints imposed on the previous 46 presidents.

  • The screening for ready-to-serve loyalists has already begun, driven in part by artificial intelligence from tech giant Oracle, contracted for the project.
  • Social media histories are already being plumbed.

What's happening: When Trump took office in 2017, he included many conventional Republicans in his Cabinet and key positions. Those officials often curtailed his behavior and power.

  • Trump himself spends little time plotting governing plans. But he is well aware of a highly coordinated campaign to be ready to jam government offices with loyalists willing to stretch traditional boundaries.

If Trump were to win, thousands of Trump-first loyalists would be ready for legal, judicial, defense, regulatory and domestic policy jobs. His inner circle plans to purge anyone viewed as hostile to the hard-edged, authoritarian-sounding plans he calls "Agenda 47."

  • The people leading these efforts aren't figures like Rudy Giuliani. They're smart, experienced people, many with very unconventional and elastic views of presidential power and traditional rule of law.

Behind the scenes: The government-in-waiting is being orchestrated by the Heritage Foundation's well-funded Project 2025, which already has published a 920-page policy book from 400+ contributors. Think of it as a transition team set in motion years in advance.

  • Heritage president Kevin Roberts tells us his apparatus is "orders of magnitude" bigger than anything ever assembled for a party out of power.
  • The policy series, "Mandate for Leadership," dates back to the 1980s. But Paul Dans, director of Project 2025, told us: "Never before has the entire movement ... banded together to construct a comprehensive plan to deconstruct the out-of-touch and weaponized administrative state."

Project 2025 gets muscle from 80 partners, including Turning Point USA, led by MAGA star Charlie Kirk; the Center for Renewing America, headed by former Trump budget director Russ Vought; and American Moment, focused on young believers for junior positions.

Trump insiders relish rebuilding the team with purists. But the truth is, they have no choice: Many more-traditional Republicans quit the first administration in frustration or were fired by tweet. And some former advisers are talking to prosecutors or are charged with crimes.

  • The Trump campaign tells us no outside group speaks for him: "The campaign's Agenda47 is the only official comprehensive and detailed look at what President Trump will do when he returns to the White House. ... While the campaign is appreciative of any effort to provide suggestions about a second term, the campaign is not collaborating with them."
Questions for Heritage Foundation's Project 2025 applicants. Screenshot via Project 2025 website

How it works: The most elaborate part of the pre-transition machine is a résumé-collection project that drills down more on political philosophy than on experience, education or other credentials.

  • Applicants are asked to "name one person, past or present, who has most influenced the development of your political philosophy" — and to do the same with a book.
  • Another query: "Name one living public policy figure whom you greatly admire and why."

Details: Heritage's "Presidential Personnel Database" already has 4,000+ entries, we're told.

  • We're told immense, intense attention will be given to the social-media histories of anyone being considered for top jobs. Those queasy about testing the limits of Trump's power will get flagged and rejected.
  • The massive headhunting quest aims to recruit 20,000 people to serve in the next administration, as a down payment on 4,000 presidential appointments + potential replacements for as many as 50,000 federal workers who are "policy-adjacent," as Trumpers put it.

Reality check: Technically, this apparatus will be inherited by any Republican nominee — Heritage officials tell us they've briefed the campaigns of Trump, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

  • But this is undeniably a Trump-driven operation. The biggest tell: Johnny McEntee — one of Trump's closest White House aides, and his most fervent internal loyalty enforcer — is a senior adviser to Project 2025.
  • One of the most powerful architects is Stephen Miller, a top West Wing adviser for the Trump administration. Miller is charting an even harder line on legal and immigration policy than last time. While he maps a White House return, he's president of America First Legal, which vows to fight "lawless executive actions and the Radical Left."

Between the lines: Trump doesn't hide his intentions. It's important to tune out the theatrical language that drives social media and cable TV, and focus intently on the directional guidance of his second term.

  • He's telling us exactly what he intends to do — like it or loathe it. And this time, he'll have prefabbed institutional muscle to turn pugilistic words into policies and action from the get-go.

Here's what the early days of a second Trump presidency would look like, based on his words and our conversations with Trump insiders:

  1. His top obsession will be the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community — all of which he thinks conspired to investigate him, thwart him, screw him. He's been very clear that he's willing to unleash these agencies against political enemies.
  2. The next priority will be the Department of Homeland Security and the border, with plans to erect sprawling detention camps, "scour the country for unauthorized immigrants," and "deport people by the millions per year," The New York Times reports. We're told Trump's top criterion for immigration officials will be whoever promises to be most aggressive. Trump has told allies he's confident the Supreme Court will back his most draconian moves.
  3. As first reported by Jonathan Swan for Axios last year, a key tool for Trump's "revenge term" would be the use of Schedule F personnel powers to wipe out employment protections for tens of thousands of civil servants across the federal government. Trump allies want a deep and wide purge of the professional staff that often serves across new administrations.
  4. Officials close to the Pentagon tell us they're worried about a plan, articulated by former Trump official Russ Vought in the Heritage document, to direct the National Security Council to "rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions to prioritize the core roles and responsibilities of the military over social engineering and non-defense related matters, including climate change, critical race theory [and] manufactured extremism." Indeed, the Trump allies see obstacles to remove at every level of every agency.

The bottom line: This Trump-allied machine has the most power over the formation of a potential future government of any group in U.S. history. Trump, if elected, will leverage it to do things with government that none of us has seen in our lifetime.

"Behind the Curtain" is a column by Axios CEO Jim VandeHei and co-founder Mike Allen, based on regular conversations with White House and congressional leaders, CEOs and top technologists.

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