Home » Anonymous Megadonors Propel Pro-Trump Think Tank

Anonymous Megadonors Propel Pro-Trump Think Tank

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that AFPI’s announced budget was for April 2021 through April 2022. An earlier version of this story stated that AFPI was underperforming because it used the FY2021 budget. The Daily Beast regrets the error.

As former President Donald Trump struggles to convert donors and consolidate his base, a nonprofit think tank chock full of political allies is reporting stronger than expected support, anchored by a handful of anonymous megadonors.

The America First Policy Institute, a 501(c)(3) organization formed last year by a cadre of Trump administration officials and known informally as a “White House in waiting,” says it exceeded its announced first-year operating budget of $20 million.

“Thanks to the generosity of our many supporters and in recognition of the importance of our mission to return the country to the America First policies that work, AFPI continues to meet and exceed its financial goals,” AFPI spokesperson Marc Lotter told The Daily Beast in a statement, pointing to “tremendous growth” in its staff, from 21 people to “more than 150.”

According to the group’s 2021 tax statement, obtained by The Daily Beast, AFPI collected about $14.9 million in contributions in its first nine months.

The donor pool, however, is dominated by a wealthy few. More than $10 million of that $14.9 million came from 10 anonymous donors, with the largest single source giving $3 million. (AFPI is not required to make the names of its contributors public.) Trump accounted for $1 million, in the form of a transfer last June of donor money from his Save America leadership PAC. Weeks after the transfer, AFPI officials joined Trump at a Mar-a-Lago press conference to announce his ultimately failed class-action lawsuit against social media companies. Both Trump and AFPI used that event to raise money.

Created last April, AFPI is the largest pro-Trump operation launched after his presidency. The group’s website lists 127 staff, and it has hosted several policy-focused events, including a summit earlier this year that doubled as Trump’s first return to Washington, D.C, after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Lotter said the group, which bills itself as a “non-partisan research institute,” now operates 22 “policy centers” and has actively promoted its “America First” agenda in 15 states. AFPI has since its inception placed more than 300 opinion articles, he said, and is preparing itself for the next “America First White House,” though he did not mention Trump by name. (AFPI is prohibited by law from directly engaging in campaign activity.)

Not everyone in Trumpworld is pleased, however. AFPI has been criticized within Trump circles for its perceived naked ambition to power in a second Trump administration, as well as its profligacy, with one Trump adviser telling The Daily Beast in July that the group was “burning through donor money and not doing anything meaningful to advance a coherent policy agenda.”

The AFPI roster doubles as a who’s-who of Trumpworld. Names include MAGA reliables like former White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, former acting head of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, former Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon, former director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, former Trump spiritual adviser Paula White-Cain, former Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser Keith Kellogg, and AFPI’s CEO, former acting director of domestic policy Brooke Rollins. Former White House senior advisers and Trump family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have also served as informal advisers, Axios previously reported.

Its tax filing also reveals about $10.8 million in expenses. Around $4.4 million went to costs associated with sustaining that sprawling staff—Rollins raked in about $417,000 in salary, more than double the second-highest paid official. (Lotter characterized that rate as “below market” for someone with comparable experience, and says Rollins is herself a donor. The liberal think tank Center for American Progress paid its president Neera Tanden $394,716 while raising $50 million in 2020, and the pro-Trump America First Policies, Inc. reported paying its chief officer Brian Walsh $142,708 in its first annual tax filing.) The second-largest single line item was $2 million to a vague “other program expenses.” AFPI also dropped a little more than $600,000 on lobbying, and the group shelled out more than $2 million combined for fundraising and events.

But AFPI only reported doling out one grant last year—a flat $1 million gift to the Citizens United Foundation. The conservative group, headed up by longtime Trump adviser David Bossie, won the 2012 eponymous Supreme Court case that gave rise to super PACs and unlimited “dark money” election spending.

Bossie’s fundraising practices faced scrutiny last year, with Axios and the Campaign Legal Center revealing that another one of his groups spent nearly all its revenue—most of it from small-dollar donors—on fundraising and administrative costs.

Consultants took a smaller bite out of AFPI’s bottom line, with Convert Digital leading the way at $1.2 million for fundraising, and GOP pollster Scott Rasmussen’s RMG Research receiving $340,000. R6 Consulting—a company that Texas business records tie to Julie Radford, Ivanka Trump’s former chief of staff—got $139,000 for “strategic planning.”

But Bossie’s involvement illustrates another characteristic of AFPI—namely, how the ever-changing Trumpworld fundraising landscape over the last two years has made it even more difficult to follow the money.

For instance, Bossie had in 2017 also co-founded America First Policies, Inc., the nonprofit precursor to AFPI. Last August—not long after Trump sent $1 million to AFPI—America First Policies, Inc., gave $1 million to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. That super PAC had given $1 million to another new pro-Trump super PAC two days after Trump’s million-dollar gift to AFPI, federal records show.

But allegiances have also shifted. And when AFPI brought Trump back to D.C. this spring—as the star guest at a two-day conference in a hotel basement blocks away from the Capitol building—the warring factions within the MAGA tent, eyeing prime slots in a second Trump White House, whipped out their knives.

One Trump adviser took the opportunity at the time to blast AFPI as “a mile wide and an inch deep, all sizzle and no substance.”

But the news of AFPI’s shortfall comes as Trump himself struggled to gin up small-dollar donor support in the months ahead of his 2024 announcement. And if the former president can’t consolidate power within MAGA world, this White House in waiting may have to wait a little longer.


November 2022