Former President Donald Trump’s first return to Washington, D.C., since leaving office last January has reanimated the backstabby factions within the MAGA faithful—rival groups who have spent the time since his departure planning a way back to power, and who are intent on keeping others out.
The ex-president will be in town on Tuesday to address the America First Policy Institute, a relatively new Trump-aligned nonprofit group, which this week convened countless MAGA-loving policy wonks and loyalists for a two-day conference in a hotel basement blocks away from the Capitol building. The agenda, AFPI says, is heavy on legislative goals crafted ahead of what they hope is a Republican return to power in Washington after the midterm elections and beyond.
A source close to Trump told The Daily Beast that despite the cloud of investigations over his head, the former commander-in-chief has been “excited” about his return to the swamp.
The keynote will offer “an opportunity to present a binary contrast between America under Trump and America under Biden,” according to the source, who regularly speaks with the ex-president.
“People are thirsting for solutions,” this person said.
But just because the group successfully lured Trump back doesn’t mean broader Trumpworld plans to cede authority to them.
Instead, ardently pro-Trump sources told The Daily Beast that AFPI—a nonprofit created soon after Trump left the White House—has become a foe of MAGAland. These critics point to what they see as an ineffectual, glitzy organization that has failed to deliver tangible victories on behalf of the ex-president, while trying to stake a claim as gatekeeper to a potential second Trump administration.
And raking in tens of millions of dollars in the process.
“It’s a mile wide and an inch deep, all sizzle and no substance,” one current Trump adviser, who remains in the good graces of the former president, told The Daily Beast. “They’re burning through donor money and not doing anything meaningful to advance a coherent policy agenda, and everyone who’s paying attention knows it.”
“They launched a bunch of ‘centers’ and spread way too thin the very little talent the organization has,” the Trump adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, continued. “The Trump stamp of approval is all they really have going for them.”
Likewise, former Trump administration official Peter Navarro told The Daily Beast that the pro-Trump Washington, D.C.-based group is nothing more than a “Trojan horse” that will put “RINO”—Republicans In Name Only—staffers in a second Trump administration and foster the “same mistake[s]” when it comes to personnel in a potential Trump second term.
“People are using Trump’s good name to defeat him,” Navarro further said of the “incompetent” group of “grifters.” “Trumpism without Trump coup d’état.”
That remark didn’t sit well with AFPI’s communications chief Marc Lotter, who fired back at Navarro when reached by The Daily Beast.
“It is unfortunate to see Mr. Navarro, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, turning into the DC swamp creature he once abhorred,” he said. Lotter further directed Navarro to visit AFPI’s website “for reams of research that build on the Trump administration’s successes, including tough stances on China and continuing President Trump’s China tariffs.”
AFPI was created last spring, and with a board loaded with top Trump White House alums has been billed as something of a “White House in waiting.”
The nonprofit’s chair, former Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon, is joined by an array of ex-officials, including former acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf, former acting director of Domestic Policy Council Brooke Rollins, and former economic adviser Larry Kudlow. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump reportedly serve as informal advisers, according to Axios.
Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and special White House adviser Kellyanne Conway contribute to the organization’s fundraising firepower—and there’s a lot of it.
AFPI launched with a $20 million first-year budget, according to Axios. (Unlike other AFPI bigwigs at the conference, Conway was followed around by supporters and news cameras.)
Despite some in Trump’s orbit taking aim at the group, McMahon said Monday to guests at the private event that the “over 20 policy centers” part of the group are chock full of “the patriots” and “the doers” that will usher in the “America First Agenda.”
That assessment didn’t jibe with one former White House aide.
“I don’t see much happening from AFPI other than cable news interviews and press releases about people they’ve hired,” the aide told The Daily Beast. “I know they’ve raised a ton of money from President Trump’s supporters, but most of that is going to staff salaries and operating costs.”
A Trump spokesperson didn’t return The Daily Beast’s request for comment on Monday afternoon.
If the group is mostly a flashy donor trap, the first clue came early.
AFPI made its first public splash in the policy space a year ago, when it got behind Trump’s ill-advised First Amendment lawsuit against social media companies. Organization leaders even spoke alongside the former president at the televised announcement event, directing supporters to a website where they could allegedly sign on as co-plaintiffs to the class-action suit.
“We really are looking for the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans,” AFPI president Brooke Rollins said at the time.
But the site didn’t actually allow anyone to sign onto the lawsuit. Instead, it sent people to a separate fundraising page for an entity within AFPI, called the Constitutional Leadership Partnership.
And whatever contributions AFPI made to the legal effort over the next 10 months, they weren’t enough. A federal judge tossed the suit in May.
The fundraising, by contrast, is going gangbusters.
While the public doesn’t know who all of AFPI’s donors are, it’s clear the group has ponied up a lot of money. On Monday, Politico reported it has a current operating budget of $25 million.
But thanks to Federal Election Commission filings, one source of those millions is clear: Trump himself. In June, 2021, his leadership PAC gave the group $1 million—at the time, the only outside gift the PAC had ever made. A few weeks later, AFPI got behind his social media lawsuit.
AFPI also exhibits a fair share of overlap with other groups in Trump’s sprawling, byzantine dark money machine—with a focus on fundraising.
The Daily Beast reported that three AFPI officials—Bondi, former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, and former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell—are also on the payroll for a Trump-endorsed super PAC. Bondi alone has banked hundreds of thousands of dollars heading up that effort.
Those same officials are also aboard another nonprofit, called Make America Great Again Policies, along with Donald Trump Jr.’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle. That group, however, doesn’t appear to engage in any publicly known activity.
The same Trump adviser observed that the patina of Trump’s affection for the group obscures a deep, longtime rift.
“The Trump stamp of approval is all they really have going for them. But in reality, with very few exceptions, the people involved are much more closely aligned with Jared Kushner’s vision for the country than they are with Trump’s,” the person said. “That’s why Navarro has been criticizing them so openly.”
Trumpworld has long been riven with discord between two factions—the more corporate, polished Kushner wing, and the populist rabble-rousing camp, embodied by aides like Navarro and Steve Bannon.
AFPI emerged when that conflict was at a peak—in the months after Trump’s ignominious White House departure on the heels of the Jan. 6 attack, an event that drove the spike between the two factions even deeper.
“They’re making a play to be the epicenter of Trumpworld in D.C., so getting Trump back to the capital for the first time since he left and bringing together all of these lawmakers will go a long way toward doing that,” one Trump adviser said. “D.C. isn’t necessarily the place anyone wants to vacation, but it’s a smart power move to host this event there.”
Lotter dismissed other points of criticism from those in Trumpworld, telling The Daily Beast, “The fact President Trump is closing this event shows his support for AFPI’s work to continue the policies that put America First!”