A radical plan for Trump's second term
Category: News & PoliticsVia: hallux • 2 months ago • 26 comments
By: Mike Allen - Axios
Former President Trump’s top allies are preparing to radically reshape the federal government if he is re-elected, purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to him and his " America First ” ideology, people involved in the discussions tell Axios.
The impact could go well beyond typical conservative targets such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service. Trump allies are working on plans that would potentially strip layers at the Justice Department — including the FBI, and reaching into national security, intelligence, the State Department and the Pentagon, sources close to the former president say.
During his presidency, Trump often complained about what he called “the deep state.”
The heart of the plan is derived from an executive order known as “Schedule F,” developed and refined in secret over most of the second half of Trump’s term and launched 13 days before the 2020 election.
The reporting for this series draws on extensive interviews over a period of more than three months with more than two dozen people close to the former president, and others who have firsthand knowledge of the work underway to prepare for a potential second term. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive planning and avoid Trump’s ire.
As Trump publicly flirts with a 2024 comeback campaign, this planning is quietly flourishing from Mar-a-Lago to Washington — with his blessing but without the knowledge of some people in his orbit.
Trump remains distracted by his obsession with contesting the 2020 election results. But he has endorsed the work of several groups to prime an administration-in-waiting. Personnel and action plans would be executed in the first 100 days of a second term starting on Jan. 20, 2025.
Their work could accelerate controversial policy and enforcement changes, but also enable revenge tours against real or perceived enemies, and potentially insulate the president and allies from investigation or prosecution.
They intend to stack thousands of mid-level staff jobs . Well-funded groups are already developing lists of candidates selected often for their animus against the system — in line with Trump’s long-running obsession with draining “the swamp.” This includes building extensive databases of people vetted as being committed to Trump and his agenda.
The preparations are far more advanced and ambitious than previously reported. What is happening now is an inversion of the slapdash and virtually non-existent infrastructure surrounding Trump ahead of his 2017 presidential transition.
These groups are operating on multiple fronts: shaping policies, identifying top lieutenants, curating an alternative labor force of unprecedented scale, and preparing for legal challenges and defenses that might go before Trump-friendly judges, all the way to a 6-3 Supreme Court.The centerpiece
Trump signed an executive order , “Creating Schedule F in the Excepted Service,” in October 2020, which established a new employment category for federal employees. It received wide media coverage for a short period, then was largely forgotten in the mayhem and aftermath of Jan. 6 — and quickly was rescinded by President Biden.
Sources close to Trump say that if he were elected to a second term, he would immediately reimpose it.
Tens of thousands of civil servants who serve in roles deemed to have some influence over policy would be reassigned as “Schedule F” employees. Upon reassignment, they would lose their employment protections.
New presidents typically get to replace more than 4,000 so-called “political” appointees to oversee the running of their administrations. But below this rotating layer of political appointees sits a mass of government workers who enjoy strong employment protections — and typically continue their service from one administration to the next, regardless of the president’s party affiliation.
An initial estimate by the Trump official who came up with Schedule F found it could apply to as many as 50,000 federal workers — a fraction of a workforce of more than 2 million, but a segment with a profound role in shaping American life.
Trump, in theory, could fire tens of thousands of career government officials with no recourse for appeals. He could replace them with people he believes are more loyal to him and to his “America First” agenda.
Even if Trump did not deploy Schedule F to this extent, the very fact that such power exists could create a significant chilling effect on government employees.
It would effectively upend the modern civil service, triggering a shock wave across the bureaucracy. The next president might then move to gut those pro-Trump ranks — and face the question of whether to replace them with her or his own loyalists, or revert to a traditional bureaucracy.
Such pendulum swings and politicization could threaten the continuity and quality of service to taxpayers, the regulatory protections, the checks on executive power, and other aspects of American democracy.
Trump’s allies claim such pendulum swings will not happen because they will not have to fire anything close to 50,000 federal workers to achieve the result, as one source put it, of “behavior change.” Firing a smaller segment of “bad apples” among the career officials at each agency would have the desired chilling effect on others tempted to obstruct Trump’s orders.
They say Schedule F will finally end the “farce” of a nonpartisan civil service that they say has been filled with activist liberals who have been undermining GOP presidents for decades.
Unions and Democrats would be expected to immediately fight a Schedule F order. But Trump’s advisers like their chances in a judicial system now dominated at its highest levels by conservatives.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who chairs the subcommittee that oversees the federal civil service, is among a small group of lawmakers who never stopped worrying about Schedule F, even after Biden rescinded the order. Connolly has been so alarmed that he attached an amendment to this year’s defense bill to prevent a future president from resurrecting Schedule F. The House passed Connolly’s amendment but Republicans hope to block it in the Senate.Machine-in-waiting
No operation of this scale is possible without the machinery to implement it. To that end, Trump has blessed a string of conservative organizations linked to advisers he currently trusts and calls on. Most of these conservative groups host senior figures from the Trump administration on their payroll, including former chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The names are a mix of familiar and new. They include Jeffrey Clark, the controversial lawyer Trump had wanted to install as attorney general in the end days of his presidency. Clark, who advocated a plan to contest the 2020 election results, is now in the crosshairs of the Jan. 6 committee and the FBI. Clark is working at the Center for Renewing America (CRA), the group founded by Russ Vought, the former head of Trump’s Office of Management and Budget.
Former Trump administration and transition officials working on personnel, legal or policy projects for a potential 2025 government include names like Vought, Meadows, Stephen Miller, Ed Corrigan, Wesley Denton, Brooke Rollins, James Sherk, Andrew Kloster and Troup Hemenway.
Others, who remain close to Trump and would be in contention for the most senior roles in a second-term administration, include Dan Scavino, John McEntee, Richard Grenell, Kash Patel, Robert O’Brien, David Bernhardt, John Ratcliffe, Peter Navarro and Pam Bondi.
Following splits from some of his past swathe of loyal advisers, Trump has tightened his circle. The Florida-based strategist Susie Wiles is Trump’s top political adviser. She runs his personal office and his political action committee. When he contemplates endorsements, Trump has often attached weight to the views of his former White House political director Brian Jack, pollster Tony Fabrizio, and his son Donald Trump Jr. He often consults another GOP pollster, John McLaughlin. For communications and press inquiries Trump calls on Taylor Budowich and Liz Harrington. Jason Miller remains in the mix.
As Trump’s obsessions with 2020 fester, he has also broken with many traditional conservative allies in Congress. Most notably, his relationship with the man who delivered Trump the rock-solid conservative Supreme Court he hankered for — Sen. Mitch McConnell — is broken. McConnell is no longer on speaking terms with the former president.
Now Trump looks to Rep. Jim Jordan as his closest confidant on Capitol Hill. He has stayed close to former Rep. Devin Nunes, who runs Trump's social media company, Truth Social. Trump continues to be a big fan of the far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The advocacy groups who have effectively become extensions of the Trump infrastructure include the CRA, the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), and the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI).
Other groups — while not formally connected to Trump’s operation — have hired key lieutenants and are effectively serving his ends. The Heritage Foundation, the legacy conservative group, has moved closer to Trump under its new president, Kevin Roberts, and is building links to other parts of the “America First” movement.
Sources who spoke to Axios paint a vivid picture of how the backroom plans are taking shape, starting with a series of interactions in Florida earlier this year, on April 28.Trump’s new targets
On that warm spring night in April, an armada of black Escalades drove through the rain from a West Palm Beach hotel to Donald Trump’s Mediterranean-style private club.
Donors and Trump allies were getting soaked through their clothes as they waited in a brief downpour to be frisked by wands before they could access the inner sanctum of Mar-a-Lago.
Inside, near the bar past the patio, a balding man with dramatically arched eyebrows was the center of attention at a cocktail table. He was discussing the top-level staffing of the Justice Department if Trump were to regain the presidency in 2025.
With a background as an environmental lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, a veteran of George W. Bush’s administration, was unknown to the public until early 2021. By the end of the Trump administration, he was serving as the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division — although other DOJ leaders paid him little attention. But Trump, desperate to overturn the election, welcomed Clark, the only senior official willing to apply the full weight of the Justice Department to contesting Joe Biden’s victory, into his inner circle.
In February of this year, Clark repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during a deposition with the Jan. 6 committee. And in the early hours of June 22, federal agents with an electronics-sniffing dog in tow arrived at Clark’s Virginia home to execute a search warrant and seize his devices.
But back in April, as Clark circulated at Mar-a-Lago wearing a loose-fitting black suit and blue shirt, any troubles related to the Jan. 6 investigation seemed a world away. Clark sounded optimistic. Half a dozen or so donors and Trump allies surrounded him at the high-top table.
One of the donors asked Clark what he thought would happen with the Justice Department if Trump won the 2024 election. Conveying the air of a deep confidant, Clark responded that he thought Trump had learned his lesson.
In a second term, Clark predicted, Trump would never appoint an attorney general who was not completely on board with his agenda.
There was a buzz around Clark. Given Trump wanted to make him attorney general in the final days of his first term, it is likely that Clark would be a serious contender for the top job in a second term.
By this stage in the evening, more than a hundred people were crammed onto the Mar-a-Lago patio. They were a mix of wealthy political donors and allies of the former president and they had come to see Trump himself bless Russ Vought’s organization, the Center for Renewing America.
Vought was a policy wonk who became one of Trump’s most trusted officials. Before joining the Trump administration in 2017 as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget — and ultimately going on to run the agency — Vought had a long career in conservative policy circles.
That included a stint as executive director and budget director of the Republican Study Committee — the largest bloc of House conservatives — and as the policy director for the House Republican Conference.
Trump was helping raise money for Vought’s CRA, which has been busily developing many of the policy and administrative plans that would likely form the foundation for a second-term Trump administration.
Trump himself was running late to the reception. But the introductory speaker, his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, was filibustering, entertaining the crowd with stories about Trump and Vought’s efforts to fight a deep state that had tried to thwart them. Meadows paused. He scanned the patio. “Are there any Cabinet secretaries here?” he asked the audience. “Raise your hand if you’re a Cabinet secretary.”
Nobody raised their hand. “Well that’s a good thing,” Meadows said. “They often weren’t cooperating with us.”
Meadows was picking up on a theme from earlier in the day, when Vought’s group had held off-site sessions at The Ben, a luxury hotel a 10-minute drive up the coast from Mar-a-Lago.
In those closed-door sessions, Trump confidants, including former senior administration officials, discussed the mistakes they had made in the first term that would need to be corrected if they regained power.
They agreed it was not just the “deep state” career bureaucrats who needed to be replaced. Often, the former Trump officials said, their biggest problems were with the political people that Trump himself had regrettably appointed. Never again should Trump hire people like his former chief of staff John Kelly, his former defense secretaries, James Mattis and Mark Esper, his CIA director Gina Haspel, and virtually the entire leadership of every iteration of Trump’s Justice Department.
Shortly after noon, Kash Patel entered The Ben’s ballroom. Donors and Trump allies sat classroom-style at long rectangular tables in a room with beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The group was treated to a conversation between Patel and Mark Paoletta, a former senior Trump administration lawyer with a reputation for finding lateral ways to accomplish Trump’s goals. The Patel-Paoletta panel discussion was titled, “Battling the Deep State.”
Paoletta was a close family friend and prominent public defender of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas. Throughout the Trump administration, Ginni Thomas had taken a strong interest in administration personnel. She complained to White House officials, including Trump himself, that Trump’s people were obstructing “MAGA” officials from being appointed to key roles in the administration.
As Axios previously reported , Ginni Thomas had assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust — and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them.
Her recommendations to the White House included appointing the right-wing talk radio provocateur and former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino for a Homeland Security or counterterrorism adviser role. Thomas has recently been a subject of interest to the Jan. 6 Select Committee after the committee obtained text messages she sent to then-chief of staff Mark Meadows urging him to work harder to overturn the 2020 election.
Patel had enjoyed an extraordinary rise from obscurity to power during the Trump era. Over the course of only a few years, he went from being a little-known Capitol Hill staffer to one of the most powerful figures in the U.S. national security apparatus.
He found favor with Trump by working for Devin Nunes when he played a central role in the GOP’s scrutiny of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Patel was the key author of a memo in which Nunes accused the Justice Department and the FBI of abusing surveillance laws as part of a politically motivated effort to take down Trump.
Some of Nunes’ and Patel’s criticisms of the DOJ’s actions were later validated by an inspector general, and Trump came to view Patel as one of his most loyal agents. He put him on his National Security Council and made him the Pentagon chief of staff.
In one astonishing but ill-fated plan , Trump had wanted to install Patel as either the deputy director of the CIA or the FBI late in his administration. He abandoned this only after vehement opposition and warnings from senior officials including Haspel and former Attorney General Bill Barr, who wrote in his own memoir that he told then-chief of staff Mark Meadows that Patel becoming deputy FBI director would happen “over my dead body.”
Never again would Trump acquiesce to such warnings. Patel has only grown closer to the former president since he left office. Over the past year, Patel has displayed enough confidence to leverage his fame as a Trump insider — establishing an online store selling self-branded merchandise with “K$H” baseball caps and “Fight With Kash” zip-up fleeces.
He hosts an online show and podcast, “Kash’s Corner,” and he is a prolific poster on Trump’s social media network, Truth Social. In May, Patel re-truthed (the Truth Social equivalent of re-tweeting) a meme of himself and special counsel John Durham “perp walking” a handcuffed Hillary Clinton.
He also set up the Kash Patel Legal Offense Trust to raise money to sue journalists. He recently authored an illustrated children’s book about the Russia investigation in which “King Donald” is a character persecuted by “Hillary Queenton and her shifty knight.” Trump characteristically gave it his imprimatur, declaring he wanted to “put this amazing book in every school in America.”
During that April 28 discussion at The Ben, Patel portrayed the national security establishment in Washington, D.C., as malevolently corrupt. He claimed the intelligence community had deliberately withheld important national security information from Trump.
According to two people in the room, Patel told the audience he had advised Trump to fire senior officials in the Justice Department and he lamented the appointments of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI director Christopher Wray. Paoletta also recounted to the audience instances in which Trump officials refused or slow-walked lawful directives because they disagreed with the former president’s policies.
Patel’s message to the audience was that things would be different next time. A source in the room said later the takeaway from the session was that if Trump took office in 2025, he would target agencies that conservatives have not traditionally viewed as adversarial.
Sources close to the former president said that he will — as a matter of top priority — go after the national security apparatus, “clean house” in the intelligence community and the State Department, target the “woke generals” at the Defense Department, and remove the top layers of the Justice Department and FBI.
A spokesperson for Patel, Erica Knight, did not dispute details from this scene at The Ben in West Palm Beach when Axios reached out for comment.
Regarding his other post-government activities, she said Patel wanted Axios to include this statement, in its entirety, in the story: “The fundraising focus has changed from the Kash Patel Legal Offense trust to the broader K$H foundation with an expanded mission of a variety of efforts including education, youth development projects, and veterans assistance. All money raised via K$H merchandise will benefit these great causes. The Kash Foundation is properly operating as a not-for-profit organization, has applied for tax exempt status, submitted the designation request to the IRS and is awaiting a designation.”
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Kash Foundation would likely be required to file detailed annual reports on its finances and activities with the IRS. But until that tax-exempt status is secured, it is difficult to know what Patel's group — currently structured as a legal trust, Knight said — has raised financially or how it has spent its money. Knight declined to provide details on the group's activity to date.
Later that day, at the Mar-a-Lago reception for CRA, Trump confirmed some of these impressions from Paoletta and Patel about his deep-rooted animosity toward top people in his administration. In a 45-minute speech, Trump rambled over a long list of grievances about his government, according to a witness.
He ridiculed his first Defense Secretary James Mattis, calling him “the most overrated general” in history, and added that a lot of the generals were overrated and should not be allowed to appear on television. Eventually, Trump asked the people who were holding up their iPhones to stop recording.
Trump saved his kindest words that night for two individuals: Mark Meadows and Russ Vought. He praised their organizations and the important work they were doing.
During the past year, Vought’s group has been developing plans that would benefit from Schedule F. And while the power rests largely on the fear factor to stifle civil service opposition to Trump, sources close to the former president said they still anticipate needing an alternate labor force of unprecedented scale — of perhaps as many as 10,000 vetted personnel — to give them the capacity to quickly replace "obstructionist" government officials with people committed to Trump and his "America First" agenda.
In other words, a new army of political partisans planted throughout the federal bureaucracy.The new inner circle
The most important lesson Trump took from his first term relates to who he hires and to whom he listens.
Trump has reduced his circle of advisers and expunged nearly every former aide who refused to embrace his view that the 2020 election was "stolen."
He spends significant amounts of his time talking to luminaries of the "Stop the Steal" movement, including attorney Boris Epshteyn and the pillow entrepreneur Mike Lindell, who has spent at least $25 million of his own money sowing doubts about the 2020 election result.
Daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are no longer involved in Trump’s political operation. Trump still talks to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy but their relationship is not what it once was. The former president is no longer in close contact with a variety of former officials and GOP operatives who once had his ear. This group includes former senior adviser Hope Hicks, former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
Though Stepien has limited personal contact with Trump these days, he is still a part of Trumpworld. He participates in a weekly call that involves close advisers to the former president including his son, Donald Trump Jr. And Stepien is running the campaigns of several Trump-endorsed candidates.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, however, is in a different category altogether: now labeled enemy.
Former aides and administration officials said they have enjoyed friendly check-in phone calls and nostalgic encounters with Trump over the past 18 months. But they acknowledge their ability to influence the former president on any matter of importance has expired.
The dashed prospects of one prominent GOP candidate this year illuminate the unpredictable track of Trump’s loyalty. David McCormick, who ran for the Republican Senate primary in Pennsylvania this year, seemed on paper as well positioned as any candidate to convince Trump to endorse him.
A former hedge fund CEO and combat veteran, McCormick is married to Dina Powell McCormick, previously Trump’s deputy national security adviser. In 2016, Trump had interviewed McCormick to be his Treasury secretary and McCormick declined an offer to be Trump’s deputy secretary of Defense. The McCormicks are personal friends of Jared and Ivanka, and are close to Hicks, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and Trump’s former Pennsylvania state campaign director David Urban. None of this mattered.
Knowing that Trump and his wife Melania were fond of McCormick's primary rival, Mehmet Oz, and that Dr. Oz was backed by Trump's prime time TV cheerleader and Fox News host, Sean Hannity, the McCormicks made one request of Trump: to consider staying out of the primary. McCormick had moved ahead of Oz in polls more than a month before the May primary. Trump decided to make a late endorsement of Oz, but McCormick stayed up in the polls and Oz's unfavorables remained high. Trump retaliated with a vicious attack on McCormick on stage at a rally in Pennsylvania — single-handedly ensuring his defeat in a race decided by less than 1,000 votes.
A key litmus test was the 2020 election. Trump had been piqued by McCormick’s criticism of him after Jan. 6 and by McCormick’s refusal to publicly state that the 2020 election was “stolen.”
Trump has doubled down with a small group he views as loyal and courageous. The group includes his former senior White House officials, Dan Scavino, Stephen Miller and John McEntee. It also includes his fourth chief of staff, Mark Meadows, though their relationship was strained when Meadows recounted in his memoir private details of Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19.
Trump trusts only a few of his former Cabinet secretaries and senior government officials, sources close to him said. He still talks casually to many others, and is seldom off his phone, but former aides who felt they could occasionally persuade Trump to change course say he is quick to shut down advice he does not want to hear.
He remains fixated on the “stolen” 2020 election. He cannot stop talking about it, no matter how many allies advise him it would serve his political interests to move on. Most have stopped trying.
Between rounds of golf, Trump is seething about the “ungrateful” and “treasonous” former officials from his administration who pop up on television, sometimes promoting a book, other times being praised or co-opted by his enemies.
Trump has complained bitterly about his “wacko” national security adviser John Bolton, his “weak” attorney general Bill Barr, his “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and his “woke” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who, the former president sometimes charges, should be “tried for treason.”
But Trump’s poisonous retaliation against anyone he detects as not totally “with him” has also shifted allegiances with some who once had his back. The question of personal loyalty — so prized by Trump — has become a two-edged sword.
One former senior adviser noted that Jan. 6 was the crucible for these loyalties and that the treatment Trump meted out, especially to his own vice president, changed the landscape.
“How do you talk about loyalty for so long, and then you do that to Mike Pence?” the former adviser said. “Who is going to put themselves in that situation other than a totally power-hungry person who has no moral compass or any desire to implement solutions to the problems we’re all facing?”
“Even if you’re a true believer, you see what happens to people. Are there any Senate-confirmable individuals who would consider taking a chance on this? You’ll either be saddled with legal fees or have your reputation destroyed.”Seeking “courage”
In a second term, Trump would install a different cohort at the top than in 2017. He has said what he wants, above all, is people with “courage.”
Under the courage criteria, he has singled out Jeffrey Clark for particular praise. Trump has also praised Patel, who would likely be installed in a senior national security role in a second term, people close to the former president said. If Patel could survive Senate confirmation, there is a good chance Trump would make him CIA or FBI director, these sources said. If not, Patel would likely serve in a senior role in the White House.
People close to the former president said Richard Grenell has better odds than most of being nominated as Trump’s secretary of state. Grenell was one of Trump’s favorite officials at the tail end of his first term. As Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, he declassified copious materials related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
Grenell currently works as an executive and on-air analyst for the pro-Trump television network Newsmax. Grenell told Newsmax earlier this year : “I’m not going to stop until we prosecute [Trump’s former FBI director] Jim Comey.”
One important hub of 2025 preparations is the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), an organization whose nonprofit status under the tax code allows it to conceal its donors’ identities. CPI is a who’s-who of Trump’s former administration and the “America First” movement.
Founded by former firebrand GOP South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint — the bane of Mitch McConnell’s existence when he served in Congress — CPI has become the hub of the hard right in Washington.
Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows joined CPI last year. The group’s senior staff includes Edward Corrigan, who worked on the Trump transition team’s personnel operation; Wesley Denton, who served in Trump’s Office of Management and Budget; Rachel Bovard, one of the conservative movement’s sharpest parliamentary tacticians; and attorney Cleta Mitchell, who was a key player in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The group runs its operations out of a brownstone a short walk from the Capitol building and the Supreme Court. They recruit, train and promote ideologically vetted staff for GOP offices on Capitol Hill and the next Republican administration. The ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus meets at CPI headquarters.
CPI has become a fundraising powerhouse over the past few years, raising $19.7 million last year . The group has been buying up D.C. real estate. It leases out Capitol Hill office space to conservative groups it is helping to incubate and has even bought a farm and homestead in eastern Maryland that it uses for training retreats and policy fellowships.
In March, the Federal Election Commission released data showing Trump’s political action committee, “Save America,” had more cash on hand than the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee combined. This is partly because of the strength of Trump’s online fundraising machine. It is also partly because Trump does not like to share his PAC’s money.
It was, therefore, a meaningful act when Trump authorized a $1 million donation to the CPI. This was by far the Trump committee’s largest donation to political allies in the second half of 2021 .
CPI will wield substantial influence on the makeup of a potential second-term Trump administration. It has a team working on a database of vetted staff that could be fed immediately to the next GOP presidential nominee’s transition team.
CPI is not, however, spending much time thinking about Cabinet-level appointments. CPI staff know Trump well enough to understand nobody will have much influence over his splashy Cabinet picks. Their focus is on the crucial mass of jobs below.
CPI’s immediate priority is preparing to put its vetted people in new GOP congressional offices at the start of 2023. Over the past five years since CPI’s founding, the group has been adding personnel to a database that now contains thousands of names.
The CPI team is reckoning on Republicans likely winning back the House and possibly the Senate in the November midterms. That would deliver a tremendous staffing opportunity. These anticipated victories could open hundreds of new staff jobs on Capitol Hill next year — from congressional offices to key committees.
CPI’s goal is to have at least 300 fully vetted “America First” staffers to supply GOP congressional offices after the midterms. These new staffers would theoretically gain valuable experience to use on Capitol Hill but also incubate for a Trump administration in 2025.
Another influential group is Vought’s Center for Renewing America — designed to keep alive and build upon Trump’s “America First” agenda during his exile.
Vought kept a relatively low media profile through much of the Trump administration but by the end Trump trusted him as somebody who would rebuff career officials and find edge-of-the-envelope methods to achieve Trump’s ends.
When Congress blocked Trump from getting the funds he needed to build the southern border wall, Vought and his team at the Office of Management and Budget came up with the idea of redirecting money from the Pentagon budget to build the wall.
In the final week of the Trump administration, Vought met with the former president in the Oval Office and shared with him his plans to start CRA. Trump gave Vought his blessing. CRA’s team now includes Jeffrey Clark and Kash Patel as well as other Trump allies including Mark Paoletta and Ken Cuccinelli, former acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security.
Vought plans to release a series of policy papers, beginning this year, detailing various aspects of their plans to dismantle the “administrative state.”
Vought has other far-reaching intentions. He has told associates it was too onerous in the past for Trump officials to receive security clearances, so he plans to recommend reforms to the security clearance system. He also wants to change the system that determines how government documents become classified.
“We are consciously bringing on the toughest and most courageous fighters with the know-how and credibility to crush the deep state,” Vought told Axios.
America First Legal was launched by Trump’s influential senior adviser Stephen Miller less than three months after Trump left office. Its primary purpose was to file lawsuits to block President Biden’s policies — mirroring a well-funded legal infrastructure on the left.
But Miller has also been doing another job in preparation for 2025 that has not previously been reported. He has been identifying and assembling a list of lawyers who would be ready to fill the key general counsel jobs across government in a second-term Trump administration.
Trump’s close allies are intently focused on the recruitment of lawyers. Trump frequently complained that he did not have the “right” lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office.
He grumbled that they were “weak” — that they always and reflexively told him his demands were illegal and could not be implemented. Trump would occasionally compare his White House lawyers unfavorably to his late New York attorney — the notorious mob lawyer Roy Cohn. Yet he deferred removing them.
Other senior officials, including Miller, believed the federal agencies were clotted with cowardly general counsels too worried about their Washington reputations to risk throwing their support behind Trump’s policies. Instead, the Trump team suspected, these general counsels allowed the career attorneys to steamroll them.
Miller has his eye out for general counsels who will aggressively implement Trump’s orders and skeptically interrogate any career government attorney who tells them their plans are unlawful or cannot be done.
One model of such a lawyer is Chad Mizelle, who served as the acting general counsel at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. Miller formed a close working partnership with Mizelle and spoke glowingly of him to colleagues. Together they helped execute the most hardline immigration and border security policies in recent history.
In his new role, Miller has been working with Republican state attorneys general and closely watching Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his staff. The lawyers in Paxton’s office are a useful proxy for the type of attorneys Trump would likely recruit to fill a second-term administration.
Paxton has over the past few years filed some of the right’s most aggressive and controversial lawsuits, including a federal suit to overturn elections in battleground states Trump lost. His effort failed when the Supreme Court ruled Texas had no standing to sue. On May 25, the Texas State Bar filed a professional misconduct lawsuit against Paxton related to his efforts to help Trump subvert the 2020 election.
Paxton’s office has been using the legal equivalent of a blitzkrieg in the Biden era — suing fast and often to obstruct Biden’s agenda at multiple points — most frequently immigration, the environment, and COVID-19 measures.
As of July 17, Texas had filed 33 lawsuits against the Biden administration, by far the most lawsuits of all the Republican attorneys general during the Biden administration, according to Paul Nolette, an associate professor of political science at Marquette University who tracks state attorneys general.
A senior member of Paxton’s team, Aaron Reitz, outlined their mentality and strategy on the conservative “Moment of Truth” podcast in November. It is a blueprint for the mindset that would likely pervade a second Trump term.
“Just blitzing in every front where you can,” Reitz said, describing the Texas attorney general’s approach. While he said they do not want to file bad lawsuits against Biden, “the sort of hyper-caution that I think too often Republicans demonstrate, not just in the legal space but political and elsewhere, the time for that is over. We need to understand what time it is and … fight our war accordingly.”
Reitz said what animates himself and Paxton is “an abiding belief that we, as a movement, are at war with the forces that want to destroy the American order, root and branch.”
At the Texas attorney general’s office, “our soldiers are lawyers and our weapons are lawsuits and our tactic is lawfare,” Reitz added.
A large portion of the broader conservative movement infrastructure has also shifted to benefit Trump’s 2025 administration-in-waiting.
Most conservative groups take pains to claim they are neutral between prospective GOP presidential candidates. But these same groups are increasingly hiring people for key roles who are loyal to the former president or who support his “America First” views on trade, immigration and foreign policy.
Subtle shifts inside the vaunted Heritage Foundation provide an instructive example. For decades, Heritage was the conservative movement’s intellectual North Star, playing a significant role in shaping the personnel and policies of GOP presidents dating back to the Reagan administration.
When Trump emerged in 2016 with his “America First” ideology, he tore up the GOP’s playbook, especially on foreign policy and trade. Some inside Heritage at the time recoiled at these apostasies.
During the Trump administration, many conservatives perceived the group as sliding into irrelevance as they were detached from Trump and his movement. Recently though, some former Heritage allies watched in horror when the group broke with GOP hawks and opposed Congress’ $40 billion aid package to Ukraine for its fight against Russia.
Jessica Anderson, head of Heritage’s lobbying operation, released a statement explaining the controversial decision. Its title: “Ukraine Aid Package Puts America Last.”
Heritage is not institutionally tied to Trump. But under its new president, Kevin Roberts, the organization appears to be moving closer than any previous iteration of Heritage in allying itself with the Trumpian “America First” wing of the Republican Party.
Roberts has developed a closer personal relationship with Trump than his predecessor did. Trump even visited Amelia Island in Florida to speak to Heritage’s annual leadership conference in April. In addition to courting Trump, Roberts has also opened his door to the “New Right” — individuals and organizations whose views differ dramatically from many of the Bush era conservative policies Heritage has traditionally supported.
Roberts said in an interview to Axios he plans to spend at least $10 million collaborating with at least 15 conservative groups to build a database of personnel for the next Republican administration. He was careful to say the list is intended to support whoever is the GOP nominee, but he has appointed a former top Trump personnel official, Paul Dans, to run the operation, and a glance down the list of allied organizations shows it is heavy on stalwart Trump allies.
Roberts said these allied groups will be able to edit the personnel document with their own notes — a Wikipedia-like process. Tellingly, the Conservative Partnership Institute has signed onto the Heritage effort.
The Trump-blessed think tank America First Policy Institute did not sign onto the Heritage initiative, preferring instead to promote its standalone personnel project. This, too, will have a strong Trumpian flavor.
AFPI is run by Trump’s former Domestic Policy Council director Brooke Rollins. More than half a dozen Trump Cabinet officials are affiliated with AFPI and Trump loyalists fill the group from top to bottom.
Rollins brought in Michael Rigas to lead AFPI’s 2025 personnel project. Rigas ran Trump’s Office of Personnel Management — the federal government’s HR department. AFPI’s official position is that the group is developing their personnel database for whichever Republican wins the nomination. Such is Trump’s appreciation for AFPI that his PAC wired $1 million to the group in June 2021.
Even the billionaire-funded Koch network is playing a friendly behind-the-scenes role. While the Koch network overall has often been at odds with Trump, the network’s anti-interventionist foreign policy aligns neatly with Trump’s “America First” ideology.
In this narrow field of alignment, connections have been forged between Trumpworld and Kochworld, especially via the head of Koch’s foreign policy program, Dan Caldwell.
During the last year of the Trump administration, the Koch network built close ties with Trump’s personnel office. Trump’s final nominee for the ambassador to Afghanistan, Will Ruger, was a Koch candidate. The Koch talent pipeline — on foreign policy if nothing else — would likely get a serious hearing in a second-term Trump administration.
Startups including American Moment have sprung up to develop lists of thousands of younger “America First” personnel for the next GOP administration. Founded by Saurabh Sharma, the 24-year-old former head of the Young Conservatives of Texas, American Moment is dedicated to the idea of restaffing the government. Trump-endorsed Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance serves on its board.
Sharma said in an interview that he and his team have dozens of informal talent scouts on college campuses — from “certain Ivies with reactionary subcultures” to “normal conservative schools” like Hillsdale College to “religiously affiliated liberal arts schools.”
They have plugged into the younger staff populating hard-right offices on Capitol Hill and seek to attract a steady flow of young ideologues through events and a podcast.
American Moment says it has, so far, around 700 “fully vetted” personnel to potentially serve in the next administration. Sharma’s goal is to have 2,000 to 3,000 “America First” would-be government staffers in his database by the summer of 2024.
By then, the next Republican presidential nominee will be standing up their transition team and looking for staff to occupy not just senior jobs but the junior and mid-level positions American Moment wants to specialize in filling.
Sharma is prescriptive about what gets a person on his list. He wants applicants who want to cut not just illegal but also legal immigration into the United States. He favors people who are protectionist on trade and anti-interventionist on foreign policy. They must be eager to fight the “culture war.” Credentials are almost irrelevant.
“Reagan hired young, he hired ideological, and he hired underqualified,” Sharma said. “That gave him an enormous amount of soft power in the conservative movement for 40 years since, and many of those people are still in charge today.”
In the background, the former staff members of Trump’s final personnel director John McEntee have stayed in touch and are working loosely together across a number of groups in preparation for 2025.
One of these new organizations, " Personnel Policy Organization " or "PPO" — an homage to McEntee’s PPO — is a nonprofit led by McEntee’s former staff including Troup Hemenway. PPO says its mission is to “educate and defend conservative, America First civil servants and their advisors.”
A person familiar with the group’s work told Axios the group is helping to do “quality control” on other groups’ personnel lists and is “developing plans to provide a suite of policies and services to conservative officials and outside advisors to ensure that they are able to stand firm against attacks by the media or left-wing governmental actors, and offensive steps to take against left-wing officials.”
All of this amounts to a giant crowdsourcing effort for 2025.
CPI’s Edward Corrigan worked at Heritage during the 2016 presidential election cycle. After Trump’s surprise victory, he moved into an office at Trump Tower to join the transition team frantically sourcing and vetting personnel.
Heritage had assembled personnel lists starting in 2015, as it does for every election cycle, but Corrigan said the challenge for Heritage back then was that no one knew which candidate they were recruiting for.
“Back then most people assumed it was going to be Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, but it ends up being Trump,” Corrigan told Axios in an interview. “And so that creates a challenge because you don’t actually know” what is needed for the person to fit in.
“And so in 2024 if Trump is the nominee,” Corrigan added, “it gives you a huge advantage in that you know the kind of people that Trump’s going to want to pick.”
One uniting theme connects all of these disparate groups: fealty, to Trump himself or his “America First” ideology.
Now, they are functioning as a series of task forces for a possible Trump administration. They are rookeries for former Trump staff. They are breeding grounds for a new wave of right-wing personnel to run the U.S. government.
TOMORROW: New reporting on Schedule F, the legal theory at the heart of the 2025 strategy, and how a radically different mindset is shaping Trump’s plans for a do-over.
About this series: This reporting draws on extensive interviews over a period of more than three months. We spoke with more than two dozen people close to the former president, and others who have firsthand knowledge of the work underway to prepare for a potential second term. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive planning and avoid Trump’s ire.
“Inside Trump ’25” is reported by Jonathan Swan with research and reporting assistance from Lachlan Markay, Andrew Solender and Sophia Cai. It was edited by Margaret Talev, Mike Allen, Aja Whitaker-Moore and Sara Kehaulani Goo, and copy edited by Eileen Drage O’Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo.