As Trump delivers D.C. speech, his allies prepare for a second term

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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 quickly-built 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 pro-insurrection 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, Florida Sen. Rick Scott 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 health-care reform and expanded fossil fuel development.

Taken together, the apparatus of Republican groups are 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.

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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 who 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.

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“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.”

Whether the groups will come together on a unified plan for the next Republican presidential nominee remains an open question. Many of the intramural divisions among Trump’s advisers remain. Some Republicans have grown annoyed that money is being siphoned off that could help Republicans win in 2022 to groups such as AFPI and Save America, the president’s PAC. AFPI is just a “place for Trump administration officials to make money,” said one prominent Republican.

Peter Navarro, a former assistant to President Trump who worked on trade policy, published an article before the AFPI event telling Trump to cancel his appearance and denouncing the group as a “Trojan Horse” filled with “grifters” using “the Trump good name to raise money to engineer their ‘Trumpism without Trump’ coup” within the Republican Party.

Just what those policies would be, in specifics, remains a work in progress. Most of the panel discussions at AFPI avoided detailed policy ideas, with participants preferring instead to denounce Democratic ideas and offer bromides. A panel on economic policy revealed splits inside the organization, between Kudlow and former Trump trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer, over the wisdom of a bipartisan bill moving through Congress to subsidize the American computer chip industry.

Lighthizer argued that the national security and economic threat of China required Republicans to abandon their conservative objections to embracing an industrial policy that benefited a single industry.

“If you are in a knife fight for your life, you don’t go and then use the Marquess of Queensbury rule book,” Lighthizer said, referencing 19th-century British boxing guidelines.

Others have welcomed the shift in conservative thinking that followed Trump’s election in 2016, toward policies specifically aimed at helping working-class voters, with less concerns about deficits and more openness to trade tariffs and industrial policy.

“The fact that it has any conservative support signals movement in that direction,” said Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, of the computer chip subsidy bill in Congress.

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.”

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