The Claremont Institute triumphed in the Trump years. Then came Jan. 6.

After Trump helped revolutionize Claremont from a minor academic outfit to a key Washington player, the think tank is facing blowback for standing by lawyer John Eastman after he counseled Trump on overturning the 2020 election.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the Reno Event Center on Jan. 10, 2016, in Reno, Nev. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
19 min

CLAREMONT, Calif. — Early in 2016, as Donald Trump’s march toward the Republican presidential nomination gathered the air of inevitability, alumni of a conservative think tank nestled here at the base of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains received an email with a tough question: Was it time for supporters of the Claremont Institute to help make Trump president?

“I’d sooner cut off my arm with a rusty spoon!” replied Nathan Harden, an editor at RealClearEducation, an offshoot of the political site RealClearPolitics, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.

Others were interested, however. “I’m graduating this May and would very much like to get involved,” wrote Darren Beattie, a philosophy graduate student who would later work in Trump’s White House, until he was fired in 2018, after revelations that he had attended a conference with white nationalists. Harden declined to comment. Beattie did not respond to requests for comment.

The next four years would revolutionize the role of the Claremont Institute and a handful of other intellectual institutions that preach an America-first, originalist ideology. The institute — along with its journal, the Claremont Review of Books, as well as related journals such as American Greatness, and allied organizations, including Michigan’s Hillsdale College — gained influence during Trump’s tenure, funneling ideas and personnel to the administration despite Trump’s lifelong suspicion of academics and other experts.

Claremont blossomed under Trump just as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute had during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, adding a Washington office and expanding its recruitment of conservative activists and sheriffs to study its ideas.

But now, as the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol reaches its zenith, the role played by one of Claremont’s leaders, John Eastman, has divided its followers and raised some of the same questions posed in that 2016 email: How far should scholars go to put their ideas into action?

Here’s what you need to know about John Eastman, an attorney for former president Donald Trump, ahead of the Jan. 6 committee revealing its findings publicly. (Video: The Washington Post)

Eastman, once a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was a mainstay of the institute from its earliest days and an architect of its approach to the Constitution. He argued, against centuries of legal precedent, that Kamala D. Harris was ineligible to serve as vice president because her parents weren’t American citizens when she was born in California. Then, in the final months of 2020, he burst into the national consciousness as he helped lead Trump’s drive to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He wrote confidential memos urging then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject official electoral vote totals and went on former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s show to build support for his widely discredited theory. And, on Jan. 6, he rallied Trump supporters at the Ellipse before a mob stormed the Capitol.

As dozens of courts rejected Eastman’s arguments, he fell from grace in many quarters. At Chapman University, where he was a professor and former dean of the law school, more than 140 faculty members signed a letter demanding he be disciplined. The university quickly announced his resignation.

But the Claremont Institute, where he sits on the board of directors, stood by Eastman, keeping him on as head of its Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, a position for which he was paid $120,000 in 2020, tax records show. An institute statement condemned “widespread lies peddled by malicious domestic political opponents” and decried a “blackout on the Claremont Institute or on John.”

That statement belied the debates and tensions that have persisted for more than a year, as the institute remains divided and other conservative journals ask what “happened to the Claremont Institute?”

To some who have gone through institute programs, its trajectory is less surprising. Several former Claremont fellows said Eastman’s legal strategy drew on doctrine that for many years has been at the heart of the institute’s politics.

“How on Earth does Eastman get to this point of being ready to jettison the Constitution?” said one former fellow, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating friends at the institute. “It’s by pushing deeper into this idea of natural rights, which justify any means necessary to preserve the republic. … That’s how Claremont goes from this quirky intellectual outfit to one of the main intellectual architects of trying to overthrow the republic.”

Charles Kesler — a senior fellow at the institute, editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, which is located nearby but is not related to the think tank — said the institute is split between some “who continue to believe that the election was stolen and some who have denied that from the beginning.”

Many of the institute’s leaders remain close with Eastman, but Kesler said: “I’m persuaded that John was wrong in the advice he gave Trump. ... Whether his actions will hurt us or not, I’m not sure. It’s awkward and it raises some questions.”

Eastman did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the institute’s president, Ryan P. Williams, declined to make him available for an interview and asked for written questions. Those yielded no response. There was no answer when a reporter knocked on the door of Williams’s home in Claremont. At the institute’s headquarters, a two-story unit with gold-colored chandeliers at the back of a drab office building in nearby Upland, a receptionist said Williams was away.

Later, as The Post prepared to publish this story, Williams, 40, who has risen through the institute’s ranks since graduating from Hillsdale College in 2004, sent an emailed statement that read, in part: “We’re proud of what we do at the Claremont Institute; for over 40 years, our scholarship and teaching have had a positive and substantive effect on the nation’s political discourse. … That said, the Claremont Institute is not interested in participating in the fiction that the Washington Post is a legitimate media outlet, or that its chronically discredited journalists are dispassionate fact-finders intent on bringing their readers objective news.”

Ralph Rossum, who taught Eastman at Claremont Graduate University, which is unaffiliated with the institute, said Eastman’s notion that Pence could overturn the election result left him “extraordinarily disappointed.”

“His reputation is in tatters, and the institute is badly damaged,” Rossum said.

Institute leaders, however, have been unwilling to speak out against Eastman because of long-standing philosophical agreement and enduring friendships, he added. “They are grappling with how to gracefully separate themselves from him,” Rossum said.

But for some, no such separation is warranted. Brian T. Kennedy, a past institute president and current member of its board, said Eastman’s association with Claremont remains, for him, a “point of pride. A lot of the lawyers on the right ran for the hills when it came to Trump and the election.”

The institute has also stood by Eastman because it has not paid much of a price for its association with him, according to people close to the institute and in wider conservative circles. A tax filing shows its revenue grew to $9.5 million in the 12 months ending June 2021.

“There’s been a subtle retreat from Eastman,” said David Swartz, a sociologist at Boston University who researches Trump’s impact on American academia, “but the institute is doing well despite the publicity about Eastman. Their network of influence continues to spread.”

‘Know where your loyalty lies’

For much of the Claremont Institute’s history, the idea of embracing a presidential campaign and placing its people in White House jobs seemed far-fetched. Founded in 1979 by students of conservative political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa, the institute steered clear of policy analysis, preferring to focus on “deeper philosophical developments, the causes of our deep political discontents,” according to Kesler.

But by the 2010s, many at the institute had come to believe that America had fallen into precipitous cultural decline, accelerated, in their view, by the left’s demands for racial and gender equality. The institute “evolved in the direction of impatience,” Kesler said. “We have a legitimacy crisis in America. We’re one nation with two ideas of our Constitution — the conservatives’ view of the Founders’ vision, and the liberal notion of a living, evolving Constitution — and it’s not sustainable to have two constitutions governing one nation.”

Then came Trump.

The dilemma involved in going to work for Trump was expressed in biblical terms by Michael Buschbacher, a Washington lawyer who had been a Claremont fellow. In an email to other former fellows, which was obtained by The Post, he described Trump as “singularly uninterested” in the institute’s mission of applying “the principles of the American Founding” to the job of “preserving constitutional government.”

There was, Buschbacher argued, “a case to be made for helping Trump in a Daniel-in-the-court-of-Darius sort of way,” referring to the Old Testament story of a Jewish captive thrown to the lions for staying loyal to his God. Buschbacher exhorted conservatives who decided to enter the lion’s den and join Trump to “do great work, but know where your loyalty lies, not with earthly power, but with truth.”

Buschbacher himself later joined the Trump administration, serving as counsel to Jeffrey Clark, the assistant attorney general who, former colleagues have said in testimony before the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, volunteered himself as acting attorney general in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency to help push false claims of election fraud. Buschbacher told The Post that a family emergency kept him away from work in the weeks after the 2020 election and that he learned about Clark’s ambitions from media reports. He did not respond to other questions about the dilemma he had articulated in 2016.

Once Trump took over the Republican Party, many Claremonsters, as some at the institute call themselves, concluded that despite their misgivings about the candidate’s personal behavior and lack of commitment to conservative principles, he could be effective in bringing a nationalist focus to U.S. policies and deepening the ranks of originalist judges on the federal bench.

Their rhetorical styles were not in sync, but the institute’s view of the country echoed Trump’s in basic ways: Its scholars preach an America-first approach that is suspicious of international entanglements (they opposed the Iraq War) and joined Trump in embracing the long-standing view among Christian evangelicals that America was in spiritual and cultural decline. The institute and the Trump administration also shared a loathing for the “administrative state,” the term they both used to deride the federal regulatory bureaucracy, and encouraged a flavor of patriotism that rejected the critical approach to American history dominant in some academic and media circles.

The institute came to fill the ranks of its fellowship programs, which admit about 30 people a year, with pro-Trump influencers, such as Charlie Kirk, the founder and president of Turning Point USA; Jack Posobiec, who once promoted the false Pizzagate conspiracy theory; and Raheem Kassam, a Bannon acolyte who edited the London edition of Breitbart News when Bannon was executive chairman, and has co-hosted Bannon’s “War Room” show, though he has appeared on the program only twice in the past six months.

Meanwhile, some institute leaders adopted a rougher rhetorical style, seemingly inspired in part by Trump. Williams, the institute’s president, launches Twitter fusillades about “tyrannical left-liberalism” and “unmanly liberalism” and shares GOP talking points labeling testimony about Trump’s conduct on Jan. 6 a “hoax.” Williams was awarded a National Humanities Medal by Trump in 2019.

Rossum, the Claremont McKenna professor who is close to many institute leaders, said, “They’re not cultural warriors, they’re political warriors.”

The pivotal moment for many at the institute was its publication of a 2016 article by Michael Anton called “The Flight 93 Election,” which argued that the United States was in such dire trouble that Americans had to do whatever it took to grab control over the country from liberals and social reformers — and especially from Hillary Clinton.

Anton, a former investment banker, argued that electing Clinton was equivalent to choosing not to charge the cockpit of a plane hijacked in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

When Trump won, he rewarded several Claremont leaders with policy positions. Anton joined the National Security Council. Michael Pack, a former institute president and conservative filmmaker, was tapped to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which became engulfed in scandal when he fired leaders of the news outlets under his direction and launched an investigation of his own top executives. Anton and Pack did not respond to requests for comment.

Both the administration and Republicans in Congress liked to point to intellectual and legal foundations for their policy proposals, and scholars at the institute could provide those arguments.

“Trump was such an amateur that he didn’t have contacts even with the establishment conservative think tanks in Washington, like Heritage and AEI,” Kesler said. “That was an opportunity for us to have a little more influence as an outsider.”

Trump named Kesler and Larry Arnn, vice chairman of the institute’s board and president of Hillsdale College, to serve on his 1776 Commission. The panel was created to promote patriotic education as a response to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which argued that slavery and white supremacy were the organizing themes of the nation’s founding. Arnn did not respond to a request for comment.

The Claremont Institute crowd “saw Trump as a vehicle for their ambitions,” argued William Kristol, editor at large of the Bulwark and a lifelong conservative who became a prominent voice of the “Never Trump” movement. “They always had a streak of radicalism, which could be provocative and interesting.”

But in recent years, Kristol added, “they had a big impact in legitimizing the demagoguery, the mean-spirited willingness to demonize outsider groups.”

Still, William Voegeli, a senior fellow of the institute and senior editor at the Claremont Review of Books who wrote a response to Anton’s “Flight 93” warning of Trump’s dangers to conservatism, said he has never been prevented from expressing his misgivings about Trump in institute publications. He has called Trump “volatile and vindictive … lightly informed and unjustifiably self-assured.” Voegeli said in an interview at his home in California that he would prefer the GOP choose a different nominee in 2024, but added that he would back Trump over a Democrat.

‘Not just a group of political philosophers’

The Claremont Institute’s main funder is Thomas D. Klingenstein, a Manhattan investment manager who chairs the institute’s board and has argued that the United States is in a “cold civil war.” His firm, Cohen Klingenstein, reported about $2.4 billion worth of stock in publicly traded companies this year, including investments worth a combined total of nearly $20 million in Facebook and Twitter and nearly $1 million in a fund that invests in large Chinese companies. Those comparatively small holdings contrast with the institute’s criticism of Silicon Valley and China.

Klingenstein’s philanthropy, the Thomas D. Klingenstein Fund, gave $2.5 million to the institute in 2019, the last year for which a tax filing is available. A filing for 2020 was due more than a year ago but is late because “there were some questions that needed to be addressed,” said Amy Marder of Prager Metis, the accounting firm listed on the fund’s tax filings.

Klingenstein, 68, declined to be interviewed and did not respond to written questions, and leaders of his firm did not respond to requests for comment. Appearing on Bannon’s “War Room” show last week, Klingenstein said the institute has been widely “recognized as the intellectual basis for Trump,” making this “a great time for us. … Our budget is going way up. The Washington Post is going to write a hit piece on us and we take great pride in that. … It tells you that they think we’re important, and we’re not just a group of political philosophers.”

Other institute funders include the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation — controlled by the family of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos, who resigned following the Jan. 6 attack and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based conservative philanthropy. Each donated several hundred thousand dollars in 2020, according to tax filings. A spokesman for the DeVos foundation said the support had no connection to Eastman, noting, “Claremont does work in many areas.” A Scaife representative did not respond to a request for comment.

The continuing success of the institute’s fellowship programs has strengthened its resolve to remain “all in” on its association with Eastman, Kristol said: “No one is paying a price for going out there. They’re getting ambitious 28-year-olds who say, ‘I’m a Republican, I want to move up, and this Claremont stuff seems to be a good way to get there.’ ”

Graduates of the institute’s Publius fellowship and similar programs end up in a wide array of Washington roles. “They’re trying to train people to take a kind of extreme populist right-wing ideology back with them to Washington,” said Swartz, the Boston University sociologist.

Former fellows include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), right-wing filmmaker and commentator Dinesh D’Souza, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro.

After Jan. 6, the institute’s fellowships still attract prominent conservatives, including Kirk of Turning Point USA; Anthony Sabatini, a member of the Florida House of Representatives and an ally of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R); and Jack Murphy, a podcaster who runs a men’s group called Liminal Order.

The institute set up a Washington office last year, announcing that the Center for the American Way of Life would push for a “restored Right,” proposing to counter “radical feminism, ‘,’ and globalism” with “mental and moral toughness.”

Claremont also last year launched a program to bring sheriffs to California for a week-long training on the Constitution and “the Roots of Radical Leftist Ideology,” among other topics. Invitees have included conservative sheriffs who gained national notice with appearances on Fox News or at Trump’s White House. Of three participating sheriffs who spoke to The Post — Michael A. Lewis of Maryland’s Wicomico County, Mark Lamb of Arizona’s Pinal County and Brian Hieatt of Virginia’s Tazewell County — none would acknowledge the 2020 election was legitimate.

Lewis said he agreed with Claremont leaders that the country is locked in a cold civil war. “Our country is upside down,” he said. “It’s unrecognizable.” He praised the program and its focus on “the myth of systemic police racism.”

Institute leaders say that as they have expanded their role in politics, they have stayed true to the ideas of their mentor, Jaffa, who advised Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign and wrote the Arizona senator’s famous statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Some who were close to Jaffa, who died in 2015 and was a scholar of Abraham Lincoln, see matters differently.

Charles C. Johnson, a former intern and fellow at the institute who studied under Jaffa, wrote the 2016 notice asking if former associates of the institute wanted to help elect Trump. Once a right-wing provocateur who has since stepped away from those endeavors, Johnson said the institute today has “little to do” with the worldview of his former professor. “I regret my involvement,” he said, stressing in particular the institute’s rhetoric about a “cold civil war.”

Jaffa would have been disappointed but unsurprised by the institute’s fealty to Trump, according to one of his sons, Philip Jaffa, who said his late father had grown disturbed by the institute’s teachings.

Philip Jaffa said his father had harsh words for the institute, which he “repeated endlessly those last few years.”

“They did not wait to bury the teaching with the teacher,” Jaffa recalled his father saying. “What they are trying to do is put a top hat on Jefferson Davis and call it Abraham Lincoln and the dust cover of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ on ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and call it Aristotle.”

Fisher reported from Washington. Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with additional details about the nature and timing of Raheem Kassam’s work for enterprises connected to Stephen K. Bannon.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ralph Rossum, a professor at Claremont-McKenna College, supervised John Eastman’s PhD work at Claremont Graduate University. In fact, Rossum taught Eastman in a graduate course.