Five years ago, at the dawn of the Trump era, few national observers were focused on the role of the Council for National Policy. That was not a coincidence; over the past four decades, this coalition of Christian nationalists and fossil fuel interests has deliberately kept a low public profile, maintaining both its meetings and its membership under a veil of secrecy. Although it is registered with the IRS as a tax-exempt "educational" organization, it has advanced an unapologetically partisan agenda, promoting Republican candidates from the radical right and purging moderates. Key to its success is the expansion of its information ecosystem, composed of fundamentalist broadcasting outlets and myriad digital platforms. Often masquerading as "news" outlets, these organizations have served as vehicles for partisan propaganda and dangerous disinformation, including the ongoing hydroxychloroquine hoax claiming that the drug cures COVID-19.
Even Washington insiders who were familiar with the CNP often discounted its influence. As of 2020 this was no longer possible. CNP affiliates played an outsized role in helping Trump win the 2016 election (as documented in my book Shadow Network), offering his campaign the money, the strategy, and the ground troops his primitive operation lacked—enhanced by state-of-the-art digital campaign tools and the Koch Brothers' i360 data platform. The CNP went on to reap the benefits: CNP's then-president Tony Perkins, became a regular visitor to the Oval Office, where he successfully lobbied to restrict the civil rights of LGBTQ populations. Trump granted a day of exclusive coverage at the White House to Salem Media, co-founded by another former president of the CNP. CNP leadership pushed the nominations of right-wing federal judges, and turned out in force for the Rose Garden super-spreader event to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.
In early 2020, CNP members had every reason to feel confident of Trump's reelection, based on strong economic indicators and a contentious Democratic opposition. Then COVID-19 struck. For the next ten months, the CNP and its partner organizations supported Trump's increasingly desperate attempts to remain in office. CNP Gold Circle member Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Koch Brothers' Tea Party Patriots, orchestrated the promotion of the hydroxychloroquine hoax, designed to reopen the country in time to benefit Trump's campaign rallies. A steep price was paid, by both gullible followers and patients with auto-immune diseases who had a legitimate need for the drug.
As the campaign season advanced, the CNP leadership realized that Trump's chances were eroding. They held a series of strategy meetings, which were accessed and recorded for the first time by researcher Brent Allpress. There the CNP strategists laid out a series of options: If Trump lost the popular vote, they would emphasize the Electoral College. If he lost the Electoral College, they would promote spurious claims of election fraud and support challenges to the electors in Republican-controlled statehouses. Videos of the meetings record the presentation of these strategies by various CNP members, including Lisa Nelson, CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), attorney Cleta Mitchell, and Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a member of the Board of Directors of CNP Action, the organization's lobbying arm.
After the November votes were counted, the organization went into overdrive. On December 10 the CNP leadership released a letter (drafted by Mitchell) calling on legislators in swing states to throw out over 25 million votes based on false claims of electoral fraud. On January 2, 2021, Cleta Mitchell represented Trump on his call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger pressuring him to alter his state's count.
Finally, as a last-gasp effort, a number of members helped to organize the January 6 "Stop the Steal" protest on Capitol Hill. CNP members Jenny Beth Martin, Charlie Kirk, and Virginia Thomas all publicized the event in advance. Ali Alexander, a former CNP member, was a lead organizer, and Trump advisor Michael Flynn, who appeared on the CNP's staff roster, gave an address at the protest saluting his QAnon supporters.
That attempt to sabotage the electoral process failed to halt the certification of the electoral votes — barely—but so far there have been shockingly few consequences. Jenny Beth Martin has gone on to attack Biden nominations and policies without missing a beat. Martin's front woman, Dr. Simone Gold, has expanded the hydroxychloroquine hoax into an anti-vaccine crusade, labelling COVID-19 vaccines "an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine." Equally worrisome, the CNP has regrouped to assert its influence on a state level. Working through Republican-controlled state legislatures, ALEC has renewed its attempt to restrict voting rights in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
The digital arms race will continue into the 2022 midterm campaigns. Trump and some of his supporters have been banned from Twitter, but his camp has accelerated its construction of a parallel media sphere. This operation — much of it now out of sight for outsiders — –effectively networks several critical components of their outreach in swing states. The first component consists of their messaging "news" outlets, including the Daily Caller, video outlets such as NewsMax, and Salem Media's radio stations and digital platforms. All of these are active in stretches of Middle America that have suffered a colony collapse of the local professional news media, turning vast regions of rural America into news deserts.
The second component involves social media, linking new campaign apps to new communities on services such as Reddit, Telegram and Gab and on to the latest versions of the i360 data platform. This assembly provides a powerful tool to state-level from CNP affiliates such as the NRA and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, allowing them to personalize their messaging for door-knocking and to expand their use of data from evangelical and conservative Catholic congregations.
As recently as the January, 2021, Democratic canvassers in Georgia were still lagging behind, provided with an app that gave them out-of-date information about a resident's contact information and record of voting, and little else. Some critics are uncomfortable with the use of commercial data in political campaigning, but they cannot deny that it has become ubiquitous in other aspects of life, and apparently not illegal in a political context.
The Biden administration came to office with a nearly 7 million lead in the popular vote, but his Electoral College victory was based on a razor-thin margin of less than 45,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona (both current targets of voting suppression legislation), and Wisconsin. As election-watchers look ahead to 2024, they should bear in mind that the Council for National Policy is characterized by three traits: it does not give up; its tactics are infinitely morphable; and it is willing to operate on the very fringes of legality, without regard for public safety or the principles of democracy.