As the presidential campaign entered its final stages, a fresh-faced Republican activist named Charlie Kirk stepped into the spotlight at a closed-door gathering of leading conservatives and shared his delight about an impact of the coronavirus pandemic: the disruption of America’s universities. So many campuses had closed, he said, that up to a half-million left-leaning students probably would not vote.
“So, please keep the campuses closed,” Kirk, 26, said in August as the audience cheered, according to video of the event obtained by The Washington Post. “Like, it’s a great thing.”
The gathering in northern Virginia was organized by the Council for National Policy, a little-known group that has served for decades as a hub for a nationwide network of conservative activists and the donors who support them. Members include Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Leonard Leo, an outside adviser to President Donald Trump who has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars from undisclosed donors to support conservative causes and the nominations of conservative federal judges.
Videos provided to The Post – covering dozens of hours of CNP meetings over three days in February and three in August – offer an inside view of participants’ obsessions and fears at a pivotal moment in the conservative movement. The videos, recorded by CNP to share with its members, show influential activists discussing election tactics, amplifying conspiracy theories and describing much of America in dark and apocalyptic terms.
“This is a spiritual battle we are in. This is good versus evil,” CNP’s executive committee president, Bill Walton, said on Aug. 21, addressing attendees at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. “We have to do everything we can to win.”
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, told attendees that same day that the left is “war-gaming” a plan to delay the election tally until Jan. 20, 2021, and enable House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to become acting president. “This is kind of like crazy talk” among political people, Fitton said. But he added: “This is not an insignificant concern.”
Expressing concern about voter fraud and disenfranchisement, Fitton called on the audience to find a way to prevent mail-in ballots from being sent to voters. “We need to stop those ballots from going out, and I want the lawyers here to tell us what to do,” said Fitton, whose organization is a tax-exempt charity. “But this is a crisis that we’re not prepared for. I mean, our side is not prepared for.”
In an interview with The Post, Fitton elaborated on his remarks. “The left has war-gamed this out,” Fitton said. “And it could cause civil war.”
Brent Bozell, a CNP executive committee member and founder of the Media Research Center, another tax-exempt charity, told attendees at one of the August sessions that he believes the left plans to “steal this election.”
“And if they get away with that, what happens?” he said. “Democracy is finished because they usher in totalitarianism.”
Bozell did not respond to messages seeking comment.
At the February meetings, attendees discussed plans for seeking an advantage in the upcoming vote. Two said the right will begin “ballot harvesting,” a controversial technique that involves the collection and delivery of sealed absentee ballots from churches and other institutions.
At the time of the meeting, Trump, his campaign officials and other Republicans were blasting the practice as an abuse by Democrats. “GET RID OF BALLOT HARVESTING, IT IS RAMPANT WITH FRAUD,” Trump tweeted this spring.
But Ralph Reed, chairman of the nonprofit Faith & Freedom Coalition, told the CNP audience that conservatives are embracing the technique this year.
“And so our organization is going to be harvesting ballots in churches,” he said. “We’re going to be specifically going in not only to White evangelical churches, but into Hispanic and Asian churches, and collecting those ballots.”
Reed did not respond to requests for comment.
J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official and the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a charity, described mail-in voting as “the number one left-wing agenda.”
Adams urged the activists not to worry about the criticism that might come their way. “Be not afraid of the accusations that you’re a voter suppressor, you’re a racist and so forth,” Adams said.
In response to questions, Adams wrote in an email: “I stand by what I said because it is accurate.”
The partisan commentary and election-related discussions captured on the videos involved members of an array of nonprofit organizations, including tax-exempt charities. In exchange for the right to accept tax-exempt donations, charities are prohibited from actively supporting political candidates or working in coordination on candidates’ behalf.
Such laws are rarely enforced, in part because of murkiness about what constitutes a violation, and because of the complex interactions between some charities and nonprofits known as “social welfare” groups, tax specialists said. Social welfare groups are permitted to engage in lobbying and advocacy but must devote less than half of their resources to political activity. An individual may serve as a leader of both a charity and an affiliated social welfare group.
Some of the sessions at the CNP conferences are designated as run by CNP Action, a social welfare affiliate that shares leaders with CNP.
Two tax law specialists who viewed hours of video at The Post’s request said some of the remarks and planning on the videos could be improper for the groups that are registered with the IRS as charities.
“What was jarring was that it was pretty clear to any reasonable observer that the entire purpose of the panel was to help the Republican Party win in November, up and down the ticket,” said Roger Colinvaux, director of law and public policy at Catholic University’s law school, referring to a panel about health care.
Marcus Owens, a lawyer who led the Exempt Organizations Division at the IRS from 1990 to 2000, told The Post that participants’ comments on the videos raise potential issues of compliance with election laws and charity rules. “I’ve never seen anything like it on videotape and live,” Owens said, referring to the overt partisan coordination among the nonprofit leaders. “It’s almost like a movie.”
A spokesman for Kirk said he was there representing himself, not in his capacity as the leader of Turning Point USA, a prominent conservative youth organization based in Phoenix.
In an interview, Bob McEwen, CNP’s executive director, said the Washington-based organization complies with IRS regulations and does not itself “do anything.”
“CNP doesn’t do ad campaigns. It doesn’t do brochures. It is a meeting of leaders,” said McEwen, who is also president of CNP Action, the related social welfare group. “Anything that’s done is done by the membership, not by the Council for National Policy.”
The sessions are closed to the public, and participants are told not to talk to the media about the group or its proceedings. “It absolutely could be open to the media, except that the media is known to be left, and then creates a distorted vision of their conversations,” McEwen said.
The Council for National Policy was launched during the Reagan administration by figures in the religious right to bring more focus and force to conservative advocacy.
It has attracted conservative luminaries and front-line activists from across the country, according to internal directories obtained by The Post. In the years leading up to Trump’s election, members included Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. The videos make clear that CNP maintains strong links to the White House.
Some participants spoke of a CNP-associated delegation that meets weekly with White House officials. They said the group, the Conservative Action Project, has helped to choose loyalists to run federal agencies and coordinate outside messages with nonprofit organizations to support administration policies and leaders.
“It’s kind of this little secretive huddle that meets every Wednesday morning,” Paul Teller, a Trump deputy and director of strategic initiatives for Vice President Mike Pence, told the audience in August.
In February, during three days of meetings in Southern California, a CNP member named Rachel Bovard described the Conservative Action Project’s influence in helping the Trump administration select political appointees for the executive branch. She said the Conservative Action Project coordinated closely on these and other efforts with CNP members and the Conservative Partnership Institute, a tax-exempt charity run by former senator and tea party leader Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
“We work very closely – CAP does and then we at CPI also – with the Office of Presidential Personnel at the White House to try and get good conservatives in the positions because we see what happens when we don’t vet these people,” she said.
Bovard cited as examples two figures who testified against Trump last year in the House impeachment hearings: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“All these people that led the impeachment against President Trump shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” Bovard told the CNP audience. “We want to prevent that from happening.”
In addition, Bovard described Ginni Thomas as a crucial link to the White House. “She is one of the most powerful and fierce women in Washington,” Bovard said. “She is really the tip of the spear in these efforts.”
Bovard and Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
A White House spokesman said Teller declined to comment.
In another February session, Kelly Shackelford was introduced as CNP vice president, chairman of CNP Action and leader of the First Liberty Institute, another organization registered as a tax-exempt charity.
He bragged about extensive behind-the-scenes coordination by his group and other nonprofit organizations to influence the White House selection of federal judges.
“Some of us literally opened a whole operation on judicial nominations and vetting,” he said. “We poured millions of dollars into this to make sure the president has good information, he picks the best judges.”
Shackelford said he is among the nonprofit leaders now coordinating with the White House to support the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat previously held by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In an interview, Shackelford said he is focused on educating Americans and providing information that will help the White House choose judges who interpret the Constitution in a literal way.
Speakers at the August conference touched on many of the cultural issues absorbing conservatives today – sometimes with more edge and heat than they do in their typical public remarks.
In one of the sessions, author and former professor Carol Swain, speaking on a panel about race relations, said that “White people have lost their voice in America.”
She likened the Black Lives Matter movement to the Ku Klux Klan. “The Democratic Party is using Black Lives Matter and antifa the same way they used the KKK,” said Swain, who is Black. “They created the KKK. It was their terrorist wing to terrorize everyone.”
In response to questions, Swain stood by her remarks.
Some participants bridled at pandemic restrictions – and the video showed that many did not wear masks.
“You will need to wear masks in the public part of the hotel but not here,” Walton, the CNP president, announced to applause.
“Yeah,” Walton said. “That’s great!”
A state mandate in Virginia generally requires masks at indoor public settings.
On Aug. 21, in a rare CNP open session, Trump addressed the audience, which included acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf. Later that day, Teller, the White House deputy, gave a high-spirited shout-out from the front of a conference room to Wolf’s team.
“I don’t know if you got to know Secretary Wolf’s team, sitting in the corner, they’re just a bunch of wingers. That’s like the most conservative table in the entire room, is Secretary Wolf’s team,” Teller gushed. “Great, great, great secretary.”
In contrast to his ebullience, some speakers at the meeting raised doubts about Trump’s prospects in November.
Nancy Schulze, a CNP member and co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Wives Council, said the lack of a clear health-care plan from Trump poses a “huge vulnerability” for the president.
“If we don’t get this right in the next 75 days, there is a question as to whether we’re going to prevail at all within the presidential campaign, or the House or the Senate,” she said.
Others described an elaborate social media and advertising campaign by a collection of nonprofits – some of them tax-exempt charities – to convince voters this fall that a Republican free-market approach to health care would offer more choices.
Organizers showed ads that feature doctors in white lab coats with stethoscopes. They told the CNP audience that market research found that featuring doctors engenders trust among voters.
“And so I remind people that what we’re trying to do is put on theater here,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president of Job Creators Network and chief executive of its foundation. “It’s the stage. It’s the script and the actors.”
Ortiz did not respond to requests for comment.
Among those involved are former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former health and human services secretary Tom Price. Organizers are asking allies in Congress to introduce a resolution that echoes the policy themes, such as the notion of personalized health care, Price told the crowd.
“It’s urgent, but it’s not too late,” Price said.
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