Last summer, while most of official Washington was still reeling from the historic assault on the Capitol, a clubhouse for Trump White House exiles hosted a bash that all but toasted the insurrectionists and plotters responsible.
“Hot Gulag Summer,” held at the nondescript Capitol Hill town house leased by the Conservative Partnership Institute, advertised Jan. 6, 2021-themed cocktails, including the “Capitol Attaquiri,” “Insurrection on the Beach” and the “Mostly Peaceful Mojito.”
“We’re all going to be sent to the gulag eventually,” the invitation read. “We might as well party and get to know each other before we are all ‘reeducated.’”
Founded in 2017, CPI is little-known outside Trump circles, yet it has quickly become among the most powerful political messaging forces in the MAGA universe. The group did not respond to questions submitted by Grid for this article.
CPI raised $20 million last year alone, and its network of nearly a dozen affiliate groups, several headed by ex-Trump aides, likely raised more. Donald Trump himself has endorsed the group’s work, boosted its fundraising and even donated $1 million to the group from his PAC in 2021.
The network has broad reach and keeps an eye on future elections: CPI helped found and support the election monitoring nonprofit run by ex-Trump lawyer Cleta Mitchell, along with roughly a dozen other dark money and advocacy groups, virtually all of which share the address of the CPI town house on official reporting. Mitchell did not respond to inquiries from Grid for this story.
These organizations employ or assist at least 20 key operatives, reportedly involved in Trump’s failed effort to subvert the 2020 election, including Mitchell, ex-Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, and former Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark, who was the subject of both a recent Jan. 6 hearing and an FBI raid. And they help raise millions for Trump-aligned members of Congress — more than $38 million over the 2020 and 2022 election cycles, according to the nonprofit OpenSecrets.
The House Freedom Caucus, whose members were allegedly involved in planning and executing strategies to derail the certification of 2020 election results to help Trump retain power, keeps its PAC at CPI’s headquarters and holds meetings at the brownstone. The Senate Conservatives Fund also calls the building home. The group has backed Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who, according to text messages obtained by the Jan. 6 congressional committee, was involved in a pressure campaign directed by Trump attorney John Eastman to get state legislators to change election results in key states. When the effort failed, Lee voted to certify the election. The fund also supports Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who both promoted vote fraud lies and voted against certifying the election results.
Caroline Wren, a key organizer for the “Stop the Steal” rally preceding the Capitol riot, was invited by CPI to speak at an event last year. The group made Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media guru, a CPI digital fellow and asked him to speak about “Winning Communications Strategy” at a recent conference. According to the Jan. 6 committee, Scavino wrote many of Trump’s postelection posts falsely alleging vote fraud and promoting his rally on Jan. 6. Jenna Ellis, a Trump lawyer who wrote memos attempting to justify overturning the election, records her podcast, “The Jenna Ellis podcast,” at CPI. Requests for comment to Wren, Scavino and Ellis went unanswered.
“It’s striking how many people who played these key roles in efforts to overturn the election are now involved with CPI,” said Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance legal expert and deputy executive director of the watchdog group Documented. His group has examined at least 11 organizations claiming CPI’s address, 300 Independence Ave., as their home.
CPI and its affiliates are more than just a safe harbor: The network and its employees are a continued source of false vote fraud allegations, and produce and amplify defensive messaging in conservative circles responding to the major revelations of the Jan. 6 hearings.
“Mark Meadows is an American hero, and Nancy Pelosi’s January 6 Committee is a national embarrassment,” founder Jim DeMint is quoted as saying on CPI’s website. The committee is “desperate primetime theater,” another post says. Grid sent multiple interview requests and questions for Meadows and DeMint to CPI. CPI did not respond to questions that Grid sent for Meadows and DeMint, or make them available for comment.
A soapbox for the far right
CPI is structured in part to act as a 21st century megaphone for pro-Trump messaging, including media perpetuating false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, furthering MAGA-friendly culture war battles and pushing back against efforts to hold Trumpworld figures accountable.
Its tools reflect a growing right-wing communications strategy, which largely avoids mainstream media in favor of direct-to-supporter platforms like podcasts and social media, or engagements with MAGA-friendly outlets.
The offices at 300 Independence boast an in-house podcasting studio, a television studio and a host of employees with large Twitter followings. Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert is a “frequent visitor” to CPI’s television studio, according to CPI’s annual report, and she records her podcast, “Bullet Points,” at CPI, as do Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona (“What’s the Biggs Idea?”) and Matt Gaetz of Florida (“Firebrand”), as well as several other right-wing figures.
CPI also opens its facilities to right-wing outlets who help promote Trump-friendly messaging. The Epoch Times, a far-right media company affiliated with the anti-Chinese Communist Party Falun Gong religious movement, films two shows in the building, according to CPI. Right-wing outlet Newsmax filmed a documentary about Jan. 6 at CPI’s television studio.
“Just because some talking head calls it an insurrection doesn’t mean it’s one — unless there’s a campaign to make it look like one,” conservative analyst J. Michael Waller says in Newsmax’s documentary.
“A Rorschach test for your sanity”
Last week, following the surprise bombshell testimony of former top Meadows aide Cassidy Hutchinson before the Jan. 6 committee, the CPI network went into action.
Hutchinson told the panel Meadows was in communication with Rudy Giuliani and other alleged Jan. 6 plotters, that Meadows appeared to know violence on the sixth was a possibility, that Trump knew his supporters on the Mall that day were armed when he dispatched them to the Capitol, that Trump wanted to go to the Capitol with his supporters and that White House lawyers warned “people are going to die.”
That evening, Stephen Miller, Trump’s former adviser who now runs CPI-linked America First Legal, appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show to call Hutchinson “an extremely junior, low-level aide.”
“This is a Rorschach test for your sanity,” Miller went on. “If you heard this story, and you thought, ‘Man, I believe every word about this and I’m going to go online and say something about it energetically,’ something is wrong with you. Something is wrong with you if you’re that gullible.”
Later that evening, former Trump Pentagon official Kash Patel, now with CPI’s Center for Renewing America, went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to join the attacks on Hutchinson. The 26-year-old former Meadows aide, Patel said, was a “junior staffer who is completely, I believe, lying to the Jan. 6 committee for [her] own self-gain.”
Though young, Hutchinson had so much access around the White House that some people derisively called her “Chief Cassidy,” the Washington Post reported.
On Hannity’s show the day after Hutchinson’s testimony, Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio laid into the committee: “This is not an unbiased finder of fact. These are nine people as you said, Sean, nine people who voted to impeach President Trump, nine people who are out to get President Trump and don’t want him to run. … All we have got from them is lie after lie after lie.”
Miller, Patel and Jordan declined to respond to Grid’s requests for comment.
Where the money comes from
CPI is thriving. In less than five years, it has grown from a newcomer to a $19.7 million organization. Its network likely has raised much more, because separate organizations that are affiliated with CPI raise funds independently of their parent organization.
One of the biggest donors to CPI has been Trump himself. The ex-president gave CPI $1 million from his Save America PAC in the summer of 2021, after the then-president had raised millions by blasting his small-dollar donors with messages about a stolen election and pleas for money. He also gave CPI a personal endorsement, saying the group would help “conservatives to start fighting back more aggressively than ever before” in a fundraising appeal sent by CPI.
Trump also appears to have paid legal bills for CPI-linked figures through his PAC, including Mitchell and Scavino.
The group’s success has irked some Republican operatives who feel CPI is acting as a job provider for otherwise out-of-work ex-Trump aides.
“They’re frauds,” said one longtime Republican strategist who has worked for major campaigns and spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person’s job could be at risk for speaking negatively. “They claim to be fiscal conservatives, but they’ve made a living off of generating conservative outrage in order to raise money for themselves.”
CPI does not disclose its donors. Grid was able to identify more than 40 foundations, charities and other organizations who have funded the group. GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein’s foundation gave CPI $1.25 million in 2020, making him one of the best-known donors to the organization. Mike Rydin, who founded a Texas-based construction software company, helped CPI buy a $1.5 million town house next door to its leased headquarters, according to a CPI report. Neither Uihlein nor Rydin responded to Grid’s requests for comment.
Other Republican luminaries who have donated to CPI include the late GOP megadonor Foster Friess, who is known for helping fund the Koch donor network. The late gaming machine mogul Stanley E. Fulton’s private foundation gave $500,000 to CPI, according to its records. The Chicago Community Trust reported $200,000 in contributions to the group.
“They’ve got a lot of money, and they’re willing to use that money in any way to advance their goals,” said Norm Ornstein, election expert and emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “And their goals are radical goals about voter suppression, overturning election results if they don’t like them and trying to keep any Democrat who’s in office from governing.”
A who’s who of Jan. 6
Several of the figures of greatest interest to the Jan. 6 committee are now employed by CPI or its subsidiary groups, including:
- Mark Meadows: Meadows, Trump’s fourth chief of staff, was allegedly a key enabler of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. He promoted false fraud claims and was a point of contact for election-denying members of Congress, Giuliani and other key operatives. Meadows participated in pivotal meetings and conversations with state and federal officials, according to reports and the Jan. 6 committee. Meadows joined CPI as senior partner just three weeks after Jan. 6.
- Cleta Mitchell: Mitchell was a legal adviser to Trump’s campaign. She was on the infamous call between Trump and Georgia election officials, which cost her a job as a partner at the Foley and Lardner law firm. The Jan. 6 committee subpoenaed Mitchell and deposed her. Mitchell is a senior legal fellow at CPI and runs the CPI-backed Election Integrity Network, which holds “election integrity summits” to train partisan volunteers who want to get involved in election administration. Mitchell records her election-themed podcast, “Who’s Counting?” at CPI.
- Jeffrey Clark: A former Department of Justice environmental lawyer, Clark was Trump’s pick for attorney general when William Barr declined to pursue vote fraud claims. Clark allegedly circulated a letter encouraging state officials in Georgia to decertify their election results. Federal agents raided his home on June 23, the same day a committee hearing focused on him. Clark was recently hired by the CPI-founded group, the Center for Renewing America.
- Kashyap “Kash” Patel: The former Department of Defense chief of staff was allegedly in contact with Meadows on Jan. 6, and the Jan. 6 committee believed he had “important insight and information” into the Pentagon and White House preparations for and response to the Capitol riot. Patel joined the Center for Renewing America as senior fellow for national security and intelligence in September 2021. Patel also records his Epoch Times TV show, “Kash’s Corner,” at the CPI studio.
- Stephen Miller: Trump’s former senior adviser for policy and speechwriter has been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee for his involvement in the day’s events. He may have prepared some of Trump’s remarks at the Stop the Steal event before the riot. He is identified as a founder of America First Legal, a nonprofit legal organization with Meadows and former counsel Gene Hamilton, which is associated with CPI. Miller did not respond to a request for comment from Grid.
Several of these figures work for CPI affiliates, which report operating from the same building as CPI and get support from the organization but have distinct names and legal identities, and at times list addresses other than CPI’s Independence Avenue headquarters. The website for Miller’s America First Legal, for instance, lists the group’s address as a nearby UPS store.
“We try to keep out — we don’t try to take credit,” DeMint said earlier this year to supporters, according to audio reviewed by Grid. “We try to give other people the credit, because that’s how you are going to build the movement and build trust.”
Asked about the ties between Clark, Patel and the CPI-linked Center for Renewing America, spokesperson Rachel Semmel said the center stands by its employees. Clark and Patel did not answer questions sent to the Center for Renewing America.
“We’re honored our Trump White House colleagues like Kash Patel and Jeff Clark are on our team to punch back against the Deep State,” Semmel said. “We only hire fighters at Renewing America.”
CPI and several of its other affiliate groups, like Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network, did not respond to interview requests or requests for comment for this story.
CPI has forged close ties to the Freedom Caucus, the far-right group of Republican House lawmakers co-founded by Meadows that was deeply involved in the events leading up to Jan. 6, according to reports and sworn testimony.
In addition to holding meetings and recording podcasts at CPI, the group runs its PAC from its offices, documents show, and some members pay dues to the organization. CPI has spent tens of thousands of dollars taking Freedom Caucus lawmakers and their aides on trips. In February 2021, just weeks after the failed insurrection, CPI flew three dozen Freedom Caucus members to Florida for an unpublicized retreat at Miami’s Biltmore Hotel, according to congressional disclosures.
According to testimony from Hutchinson, Meadows’ former aide, Freedom Caucus members met with Trump prior to Jan. 6 to press their belief that Vice President Mike Pence could delay the vote certification or send the matter back to individual states.
“We have to get organized for the 6th. I would like to meet with Rudy Giuliani again. We didn’t get to speak with him long,” Freedom Caucus member Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia texted Meadows on Dec. 31, 2020. “We are getting a lot of members on board. And we need to lay out the best case for each state. I’ll be over at CPI this afternoon.”
“On January 6, 2021, Vice President Mike Pence, as President of the Senate, should call out all electoral votes that he believes are unconstitutional as no electoral votes at all,” Jordan texted Meadows late on Jan. 5, messages Meadows later handed over to the committee showed.
Four out of five Freedom Caucus members voted against certifying the 2020 election results. Several Freedom Caucus members sought pardons for their involvement in the election subversion effort, the committee has alleged. Some have denied doing so. At least four Freedom Caucus members have been subpoenaed by the committee.
- Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania allegedly connected Trump with little-known DOJ lawyer Clark and participated in planning meetings with Trump prior to Jan. 6;
- Founding Freedom Caucus member and former chair Rep. Jim Jordan was being contacted by Meadows from the White House on Jan. 6, according to testimony;
- Former caucus chair Rep. Andy Biggs allegedly helped organize the rally that segued into the storming of the Capitol, and pressured Rusty Bowers, the Arizona House speaker, to decertify electors;
- Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close associate of the Freedom Caucus, but not an official member, has been one of the former president’s most vocal supporters and has spread conspiracy theories about the “feds” being behind the Capitol riot. According to testimony, Gaetz was one of several members of Congress who requested broad pardons from Trump. Gaetz was a speaker at CPI’s 2022 leadership conference and records his podcast at CPI’s studios;
- Jan. 6 committee testimony revealed that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene asked Trump for a pardon, but she denies this. She faced a lawsuit in her home state of Georgia where she was forced to testify on her involvement in the effort to overturn the election. She often said she couldn’t recall key moments and meetings. In its 2021 annual report, CPI listed Greene as a “Hero of 2021,” and she spoke at the organization’s 2022 leadership conference.
Neither Perry, Jordan, Biggs, Gaetz nor Greene responded to requests for comment for this story.
A MAGA institution?
After Trump became president in 2017, long-standing institutions that had supported past presidents faltered. The Chamber of Commerce, once viewed as an adjunct of the Republican Party, sued the Trump administration over its immigration policies and, more recently, started endorsing some Democrats. The Heritage Foundation tried throwing its support behind Trump — until its leader, DeMint, was ousted after board members and donors believed the group had become too engaged in Trump-era politics. Other right-leaning think tanks, like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, operated quietly, never providing the bevy of staff or policy ideas that think tanks usually aspire to offer the White House.
Now, a new breed of MAGA-friendly think tanks, like CPI and the America First Policy Institute, has started offering shelter to Trump aides-in-waiting. After Jan. 6 and a flurry of resignations from the administration, former loyalists told Politico they were worried about finding another job after the fallout of the insurrection, and more traditional conservative think tanks weren’t eager to hire them.
Rather than tarnish the reputation of the burgeoning think tank, having allies like Meadows and Greene have helped CPI burnish its identity, Washington Republicans said.
The group’s focus at the moment may be on deflecting attention from Jan. 6, but its gaze is facing forward, at future elections — and future MAGA administrations.
“Everything we love and care about in this country goes down the drain if the election system continues the way it is,” DeMint told attendees at an event this spring, according to a recording reviewed by Grid.
DeMint warned the crowd they would be unfairly painted by liberals and the media: “What we’re doing today is what the left says is the ‘Big Lie,’” he said. “You’re involved with the ‘Big Lie.’”
Mitchell has begun to hold trainings on “election integrity” for volunteers interested in monitoring voting, filing records requests and working at polling places, the New York Times reported earlier this spring; one of CPI’s central focuses is on training conservative political aides and making staffing recommendations to offices, which it has done over 200 times, according to CPI.
“It’s aiming to be more than just a place where former Trump officials can cool their heels until the next administration,” said Fischer, of Documented. “It appears to be taking some pretty serious steps to try to establish itself as an institution in Washington D.C. and create that political infrastructure to support the America First movement.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Sen. Mike Lee's vote to certify the presidential election. Lee voted to affirm the results. This version has been corrected. This story has also been changed to reflect that Rep. Matt Gaetz is a close associate of the Freedom Caucus, but not a formal member.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.