At the beginning of 2020, a small group of President Donald Trump’s top advisers huddled at the White House to craft a second-term policy agenda for the next administration.
Brooke Rollins, the domestic policy adviser, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, and Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, initially teamed up, sometimes working from white boards in the West Wing. They were joined at times by Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Russ Vought, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, along with various policy aides.
By the summer of 2020, the group produced a two-page document called “Vision 2025,” reviewed by POLITICO, that outlined 10 priorities. Camp David was reserved for the week after the election to go over their plans, according to Rollins.
But the plans were for naught. Trump lost the election. Vision 2025 was never released. The retreat was canceled.
Rollins, Kudlow and others haven’t discarded their project, though. Instead, they turned it into a blueprint for a new non-profit, the America First Policy Institute, often described as a “White House in waiting.”
And now, they’re taking on another task: turning that White House-in-waiting into an actual forward-looking platform for a movement, led by Trump, who famously can’t get over the past.
Trump returns to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday — his first visit since leaving in disgrace after Jan. 6 — to deliver the keynote address for AFPI’s America First Agenda Summit. As the ex-president is poised to announce a 2024 run, his allies are eager for him to use the occasion to press pause of his grievances about 2020 and begin to lay out a game plan for 2024.
“It’s an opportunity for President Trump to come to Washington and give a visionary speech about why the future would be better with his leadership — and to the degree he focuses on that it could be a very important speech,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker who remains close to Trump and will be speaking at the summit.
Trump’s capacity to let bygones be bygones is famously limited. But it’s becoming more critical, allies say, following damage he sustained from the Jan. 6 hearings that investigated and exposed his conduct before and during the insurrection at the Capitol.
Tuesday’s address represents a chance for Trump to demonstrate a focus on policy rather than score-settling. It will be the latest in a continuous war between those in Trump’s orbit who want him to move on, and his own instincts and ID, which prevent him from doing so.
According to someone familiar with Trump’s Tuesday speech, it is not expected to be a comprehensive policy address but instead will focus on one specific plank of the America First platform. In an interview, Rollins billed Trump’s speech at the upcoming summit as a “State of the Union 5.0.” Among some Trump allies, it is seen as a welcomed invitation to hear something forward looking from the ex-president.
“I think that is a mistake — I don’t mind saying that directly. I think he ought to devote five minutes to the past — everyone understands whether they agree or disagree, everyone understands it — then devote all the rest of his time to the future,” Gingrich said of Trump’s focus on re-litigating 2020.
In a statement sent after publication, a spokesperson for Trump said he will focus on rising crime and public safety.
“President Trump sees a nation in decline that is driven, in part, by rising crime and communities becoming less safe under Democrat policies. His remarks will highlight the policy failures of Democrats, while laying out an America First vision for public safety that will surely be a defining issue during the midterms and beyond,” said Trump spokesperson Taylor Budowich.
The launching of AFPI was predicated on the notion that policy is actually a part of Trump’s brand; that a component of MAGA-ism was predicated on something beyond Trump himself.
“It’s a chance to unify the movement,” said Rollins of the two-day summit in D.C. “In having worked next to him for almost three years in the White House, a lot of people didn’t give him enough credit for his policy vision.”
The draft version of “Vision 2025” reviewed by POLITICO outlined what Trump’s advisers believed would have been accomplished by the end of 2024, under the subhead: “renewed, restored, rebuilt.”
Some of those goals include job creation and low unemployment, expansion of affordable housing, eradicating Covid-19, reducing federal bureaucracy, cracking down on crime and illegal immigration, passing congressional term limits, and ending foreign war and reliance on China. There are social and cultural issues, too. But it doesn’t take on a central focus, at least not to the degree that has animated the right since Trump left office. Rollins, for one, did not want to get ahead of AFPI when asked about endorsing a national abortion ban in the wake of the striking down of Roe, but applauded the high court for giving the decision to the states.
“As a state-focused policy person, I think the Supreme Court was 100 percent right to return it closest to the American people,” said Rollins.
Under the Vision 2025 framework, Rollins and her team grew AFPI into a think tank with more than 150 employees, including 17 former senior White House staffers who include former Cabinet members like Small Business Administrator Administrator Linda McMahon and acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. It also includes past senior administration officials like Kudlow and even football coach-turned-Trump ally Lou Holtz. In all, there are 22 policy centers within AFPI focused on issues like “The Center for Election Integrity,” and the “Center for Media Accountability.”
The group has filed lawsuits against “big tech” and vaccine mandates. And in a sign of its fundraising power, it has an operating budget of $25 million, although funding sources for the nonprofit are publicly unknown, as those disclosure forms have not yet been released.
A newly published organizational agenda, provided to POLITICO in advance by AFPI, outlines the nonprofit’s focus in 10 areas, among them: “Make the Greatest Economy in the World Work for All Americans;” “Give Parents More Control over Their Children’s Education;” “Finish the Wall, End Human Trafficking, and Defeat the Drug Cartels;” “Make It Easy to Vote and Hard to Cheat;” “Provide Safe and Secure Communities so All Americans Can Live Their Lives in Peace;” and “Fight Government Corruption by Draining the Swamp.”
Trump has been supportive of the organization. He hosted a black tie gala fundraiser for AFPI at Mar-a-Lago last November and his PAC, Save America, donated $1 million. Some of the names on the organization’s roster — including Conway, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and pastor Paula Cain-White — remain in Trump’s orbit.
But not everyone allied with the former president is a fan. Trump’s former trade adviser Peter Navarro, appearing on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast Friday, called the organization “a dumping ground and haven for a lot of the failed people from the first administration, the RINOs,” or Republicans in name only, “and the disloyalists who let Trump down.”
One potential point of disagreement has been AFPI’s focus on building out personnel should Trump — or any other conservative — win in 2024. Other Trump-allied think tanks, including The Conservative Policy Institute and The Heritage Foundation, also recently shored up their own plans for the next conservative-led administration, with the 2025 Presidential Transition Project.
But as reported by Axios, a group of prominent Trump advisers have also been working on their own personnel proposals that would effectively purge a huge swath of the government under the pretense of disloyalty and replace them entirely with loyalists to Trump and Trumpism.
Earlier this summer, AFPI launched the “American Leadership Initiative,” led by former top federal personnel official Michael Rigas, to identify positions to cut or fill ahead of any new right-leaning administration.
“Our side has never been good about preparing on personnel and process and we have been outgunned on that for a long time. And I think that hopefully with this effort, our leadership initiative alongside CPI’s efforts, the Heritage efforts, we’ll be ready for a new day of leadership,” said Rollins.
As Rollins and others go about imagining the future of federal bureaucracy, there is also the possibility, as unlikely as it seems, that Trump decides against making another run for office; or, that he does and doesn’t win the primary. Hogan Gidley, Trump’s former deputy press secretary and the director of AFPI’s center on election integrity, said no matter what Trump decides, the group is uniquely qualified to serve the next “America First” administration, whether or not it is led by Trump.
“What we have are people who were in the room when President Trump made decisions. No one else has that,” Gidley said.