President Trump’s attacks on conservative members of his own party come as his allies beef up an array of groups to promote his agenda, amassing firepower that could end up being trained on fellow Republicans.
At least four separate organizations are seeking to drive public support for Trump and his priorities — a marked shift from the first two months of his administration, when the White House had limited outside air cover.
The immediate goal: to lean on Democratic senators in the run-up to a vote expected this week on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. But down the road, some of the groups could end up turning their focus on lawmakers who cross Trump, including members of his own party, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
“It is something we would consider if there is clarity that a group is stymieing the agenda, whether it’s establishment types or others,” said Eric Beach, co-chairman of the pro-Trump advocacy group Great America Alliance, which has already spent $3.5 million on ads promoting the Trump administration.
Pressure could also eventually come from America First Policies, which was launched by a group of former Trump advisers in January to serve as the leading pro-Trump advocacy group. The organization has not yet turned its attention to the 2018 midterm elections, said spokeswoman Katrina Pierson.
“There is plenty of time and opportunity for Republican lawmakers to keep their promises to their voters and support the president’s agenda to make America great again,” Pierson said. “Lawmakers will be held accountable at the appropriate time.”
The White House is offering many cues that it wants its allies to go after members of the House Freedom Caucus, whom Trump blames for derailing legislation that would have repealed parts of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
On Saturday, White House social-media director Dan Scavino Jr. tweeted that Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a member of the Freedom Caucus, is “a big liability.”
“#TrumpTrain, defeat him in primary,” Scavino wrote from his personal Twitter account.
But it remains to be seen whether the wealthy Trump donors who are financing the advocacy groups — many of whom have also been supportive of conservative lawmakers — will feel comfortable using their resources to fuel internecine GOP battles.
Complicating the situation is the fractured nature of efforts by allies to support the White House. Exactly which group will take the lead in backing Trump, and on which issues, remains unclear.
Emily Cornell, chief operating officer of a new group called Making America Great that was started by GOP megadonor Rebekah Mercer, said that her organization will be eying ways to break logjams on Capitol Hill. Making America Great kicked off last week with a $1 million TV and digital ad buy praising Trump for keeping his promises that is aimed at 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018.
“It’s important to bring attention to policy movement in Washington — or lack thereof,” Cornell said. “In terms of supporting the president’s agenda, we’re thrilled about his recent accomplishments, and we plan to review our support one policy at a time.”
Administration officials said they believe the absence of a coordinated external campaign contributed to the GOP’s failure to roll back President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law. That prompted White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh to leave her post last week to jump-start America First Policies, which has had a relatively low profile since its launch.
One other pro-Trump advocacy group is also in the mix: 45Committee, which has already spent millions on ads touting Trump’s nominees and policies.
The increasingly crowded space recalls last year’s campaign, when multiple super PACs jockeyed to be viewed as the favored pro-Trump group. Since the election, the effort to create a robust organization to bolster the president from outside the White House has been hampered by rivalries and personal friction, splintering the donor world.
The wealthy Mercer family, along with other top Trump contributors, was expected to support America First Policies. But after tensions about the direction and leadership of the group, Rebekah Mercer launched her own effort, Making America Great, according to multiple people familiar with the dynamic. She was joined by at least two other major donors: Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and high-frequency-trading mogul W.E. Bosarge, said a person familiar with their support.
There are ongoing efforts to broker a collaboration between the two pro-Trump outfits, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. But for now, there is not yet a corollary in Trumpworld to Organizing for Action, the premier advocacy group that supported Obama’s legislative agenda.
It’s still unclear “which one of the organizations is going to rise to be seen as the one that supporters are going to go to,” said GOP strategist Mike DuHaime, adding, “I think people thought it would have come together more quickly than it has. It would have been helpful in the last legislative fight.”
Multiple groups are now jumping into the current, most urgent battle: the Gorsuch confirmation vote in the Senate.
The 45Committee is putting $1 million into a new, nationally running pro-Gorsuch spot called “Qualified,” which has state-specific versions that target undecided Democratic senators such as Jon Tester of Montana. The advocacy organization and its affiliated super PAC, backed by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, poured $60 million into last year’s campaign and has spent another $4 million since the election supporting Trump’s Cabinet picks.
Great America Alliance also is running ads aimed at putting pressure on Democrats, including a new spot that targets Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. The group’s supporters include billionaire investor Julian Robertson, Minnesota media mogul Stan Hubbard, Texas banker Hank Seale and Jewelry Exchange chief executive William Doddridge, according to a person familiar with their contributions.
The largest pro-Gorsuch investment is coming from a long-standing player: the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative nonprofit that is plowing $10 million into a sustained air campaign to pressure Democratic senators to vote for his confirmation.
Determining who is financing all the pro-Trump efforts is difficult. As “social welfare” organizations, set up under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, the groups are not required to reveal the identities of their contributors.
“We value the freedom of speech and privacy rights of our donors, and we’re going to protect that,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network.
The opacity has drawn sharp criticism from Democratic senators, who say Trump is abandoning his “drain the swamp” pledge by accepting support from groups funded by secret contributors.
“Dark money infiltrating the confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee is a further sad sign of billionaire and special interest influence gnawing at the heart of American democracy,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a statement.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly called for transparency in political spending.
“I don’t mind the money coming in,” he told Time magazine in 2015. “Let it be transparent. Let them talk, but let there be total transparency.”
White House officials did not respond to questions about whether the president will call for pro-Trump groups to voluntarily disclose their donors, as Organizing for Action did when it launched to support Obama.
John Pudner, a conservative activist who heads Take Back Our Republic, a group that seeks to lessen the influence of big money on politics, said Trump could buttress his credibility by calling for more robust disclosure.
Absent that, Pudner said, “it looks like you’re sort of enjoying the swamp. It’s getting comfortable.”