The Trump-Allied Conservative Partnership Institute Rises in Washington

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In the lobby of the grand Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., where a sprawling new force in Washington’s right-wing ecosystem, the Conservative Partnership Institute, was holding its winter conference, the former Trump legal adviser Cleta Mitchell was exultant.

“Did you hear the ‘War Room’ today? Bannon was on fire!” she said to a friend. She was referring to the podcast hosted by Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump White House senior adviser who had been condemning Republican senators for supporting billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and Israel earlier that day.

Ms. Mitchell was among some 150 conservative donors and activists who gathered in Coral Gables earlier this month to celebrate the ascendancy of a group that has become a well-paying sinecure for Trump allies and an incubator for the policies the former president could pursue if elected. The participants toted gift bags in the warm sunshine and swapped golf clothes for business attire at a dinner where they applauded as two Black speakers — Ben Carson, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Representative Byron Donalds of Florida — extolled conservative values while condemning the racial identity politics of the left.

The group’s top executive, Jim DeMint, the former U.S. senator from South Carolina, was there, as was Mark Meadows, President Donald J. Trump’s former chief of staff, who is paid $847,000 annually as the organization’s senior adviser. More than a dozen members of the House Freedom Caucus also turned up, as did Mollie Hemingway, the editor in chief of the right-wing journalism website The Federalist, whose parent company C.P.I. helps underwrite.

The message at the conference was “taking on the Swamp” from a nonprofit with a $36 million annual budget from private donors that now operates as a full-service nerve center for right-wing activity and a breeding ground for the next generation of Trump loyalists.

Legislators can hold fund-raisers in its event rooms; send their staff members to training sessions at the group’s getaway lodge in Maryland; do their TV news hits in its studio; or be fed, by text message, follow-up questions for lawmakers to ask witnesses during congressional hearings. Donors can funnel their money through the institute into a host of conservative causes, from promoting Christian values in education to helping pay legal fees incurred by what the group calls “America First public servants.”

“We’re just doing what the other guys have been doing for decades,” Robert Bruce, a retired Texas aviation entrepreneur and C.P.I. donor, said in an interview two days after the conference. “There’s been a void in Washington, D.C., and C.P.I. has filled it by giving conservatives a refuge.”

The organization aims to be much more than a refuge. One of the groups it has staffed and funded, the American Accountability Foundation, says in its mission statement that it seeks to “advance conservative messaging” by aggressively attacking appointees for the Biden administration. Another offspring, the Center for Renewing America, aims to take on what it calls a leftist “cultural revolution” as well as a “taxpayer-funded woke federal bureaucracy.”

Critics say that by incubating these and other groups, C.P.I. is running afoul of laws that prohibit tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan activity. Today a watchdog organization, Campaign for Accountability, and a progressive nonprofit research group, Accountable.US, filed a formal complaint about the group to the Internal Revenue Service, arguing that the group’s offerings of funds and services are reserved for a single political party.

The watchdog group has also asked the I.R.S. to investigate whether C.P.I. has engaged in unreported lobbying activity by donating nearly $2 million to a related organization, Compass Legal Group, that supported conservative legislation on both the state and federal levels.

Senior officials at C.P.I. declined to comment.

C.P.I.’s original aims were modest. Founded in the summer of 2017 by senior staff members of the conservative Heritage Foundation, including its recently ousted president, Mr. DeMint, it described itself as a support system “to advance conservative policies in Congress.” In 2018, the group organized a jobs fair to help fill vacancies in the Trump White House, according to a CNN report at the time. Its operating revenue grew at a steady if sluggish pace: $4.3 million in 2018, $5.3 million in 2019, $6.2 million in 2020.

In 2021, the group’s annual revenue swelled to $45.7 million. The increase resulted from a confluence of factors, according to a review of the organization’s documents as well as interviews with current and former C.P.I. allies. After Mr. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election and subsequent impeachment, the group positioned itself as the combat-ready vessel for the outrage from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. Its 48-page 2021 annual report vowed that it was “changing the way conservatives fight,” using the word “fight” or “fought” 27 times in all.

It also recruited what the report described as Trump heroes, beginning with Mr. Meadows, who became a senior partner a week after Mr. Trump left office. The former White House chief of staff “helped incubate and launch” numerous related groups that would be headed by prominent fellow Trump alumni, another annual C.P.I. report said.

Among them: the America First Legal Foundation, a litigious conservative firm led by the former White House senior policy adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller; the Center for Renewing America, a culture-war messaging hub whose top officials include Russell Vought, the former Office of Management and Budget director, and Kash Patel, a former national security aide; and the Election Integrity Network, headed by Ms. Mitchell, whose role in Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results led to her abrupt departure from the Washington establishment law firm Foley & Lardner two months before C.P.I. hired her.

Among the group’s donors are familiar names in the conservative community, including the philanthropist Rebecca Dunn, the private equity billionaire John W. Childs and the Servant Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the “He Gets Us” ads that aired during the Super Bowl.

But many carry a lower profile. Mr. Bruce, the former aviation entrepreneur, said in the interview that he had been a longtime donor to Heritage and was persuaded by that group’s alumni to make C.P.I. his top charitable beneficiary. Another Texan who is a former software chief executive, Mike Rydin, donated $25.6 million to the organization in 2021. C.P.I. used nearly one-third of that amount at the end of the year to buy a 2,200-acre hunting lodge in Cambridge, Md., about a 90-mile drive east of Washington. “Camp Rydin” now serves as a conference center and guest lodge for conservative members of Congress and their staffers, who according to ethics rules cannot accept travel within 50 miles from the Capitol.

Mr. Bruce said he and Mr. Rydin had urged the group to create a lasting footprint in Washington, saying: “You’ve got to get real estate. That needs to be your No. 1 goal.” The two men provided money to buy a rowhouse, subsequently dubbed the Rydin House, around the corner from C.P.I.’s current headquarters on Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill.

Several small donors, with matching funds provided by a handful of wealthier donors such as Mr. Rydin, pitched in to buy four adjacent properties on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue, renamed as Patriots’ Row by C.P.I. literature. The group’s officials have described these acquisitions as a self-sustaining city within a city for conservatives. Long-term plans for the buildings include a C.P.I.-owned restaurant and a television studio to replace the one now situated in C.P.I.’s basement.

A third tenant, the C.P.I.-affiliated Capitol Hill Christian Academy, is set to open its doors to kindergarten-age students in September, a stone’s throw from two longtime Capitol Hill watering holes, the Tune Inn and Hawk & Dove.

C.P.I.’s elegant three-story Independence Avenue headquarters, a short stroll from the Capitol and originally constructed as a bank building roughly a century ago, has become a safe space for conservative fellowship. Legislative staffers can enjoy happy hours in the sequestered courtyard, and members can hold campaign meetings in its conference rooms without fear that their conversations will wind up in the media.

Still, C.P.I.’s lavishly funded growth in Washington has rankled a number of fellow conservatives, though those who shared their misgivings would not do so on the record, for fear of being targeted by the group.

Though it caters to the House Freedom Caucus, which meets at C.P.I.’s headquarters every week that Congress is in session, about one-third of them do not pay the $5,000 annual membership fee, according to Federal Election Commission records. One Freedom Caucus member who is not a C.P.I. member expressed dismay at the hefty salaries being paid to Mr. Meadows and other executives. Another conservative House member described Camp Rydin as an unseemly luxury, particularly when the money might be spent protecting the party’s reed-thin House majority in contested districts.

But it is C.P.I.’s status as a nonprofit organization that has raised the most pointed questions. Unlike some charities, which can engage in some political activity, a tax-exempt nonprofit like C.P.I. cannot be partisan. That said, such groups are permitted to be ideological, according to Anna Massoglia, the editorial and investigations manager at the watchdog group OpenSecrets.

“That’s the gray area that C.P.I. is able to exploit,” Ms. Massoglia said in an interview. “It’s an area that the I.R.S. hasn’t issued extensive guidance on.”

C.P.I. has taken advantage of this gray area. During the past three years, it has helped launch a law firm for conservatives (Compass Legal Group), a personnel placement center for conservative job seekers (American Moment) and a media center for aspiring conservative journalists (the American Creative Network). It has also joined the Heritage Foundation in spearheading Project 2025, an effort to train what it hopes will be presidential appointees for the next Republican administration.

Some of its efforts have been shrouded, however. As The Guardian first reported, a million-dollar contribution to C.P.I. in July 2021 from the Trump-affiliated Save America PAC was followed by C.P.I. associates creating a shell company that at Ms. Mitchell’s direction subsequently donated $1 million to the audit of the 2020 election results in Arizona conducted by the Cyber Ninjas group.

Another C.P.I. operation, not previously reported, took place in 2022. That year, the group established Personnel Policy Operations, a nonprofit set up to “educate and defend conservative, America First civil servants and their advisers.” The mission included helping to fund the legal defense of individuals subjected to a “Leftist purge,” including Mr. Meadows.

C.P.I. contributed $1.15 million to the legal defense fund, and in turn the defense fund issued a single grant, totaling $1.13 million, to a newly formed company called the Constitutional Rights Defense Fund. A year later, the company dissolved.

The treasurer of the defunct company, Thomas Datwyler, had performed the same function for the shell company that donated $1 million to the Arizona audit a year earlier.

“You look at all these phony front groups, and the sinecures they’ve provided to disgraced Trump loyalists like Mark Meadows and Jeffrey Clark, and when you put it all together, it looks more like a sneaky political operation than an honest” nonprofit, said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. In December 2022, when he was the chairman of the Taxation and I.R.S. Oversight Subcommittee, he sent a four-page letter to C.P.I. requesting details on several of the group’s endeavors. Mr. Whitehouse said he had yet to receive a reply.

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