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How the CPI became the most powerful messaging force in the MAGA universe

Journalist Maggie Severns explains how the Conservative Partnership Institute helped push the Republican party further to the right and became what she calls a "clubhouse" for insurrectionists.


Other segments from the episode on July 21, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 21, 2022: Interview with Maggie Severns; Review of The Last Movie Stars



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A soapbox for the far right, the insurrectionists' clubhouse - that's how the Conservative Partnership Institute is described in an investigative article co-authored by my guest, Maggie Severns, a domestic policy reporter for the startup online publication Grid, which is about putting the news in context. The CPI is little known outside Trump circles, but according to the article, it's quickly become among the most powerful messaging forces in the MAGA universe. Several of its affiliated groups are headed by ex-Trump aides. One of the CPI's leaders is Mark Meadows, who was Trump's final chief of staff. The CPI was founded by Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina who served in the House and Senate, was closely aligned with the Tea Party movement and helped push the Republican Party further to the right. He left the Senate to become president of the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and then went on to start CPI. Maggie Severns is a former national affairs reporter for Politico, where she covered money and politics and the 2016 election. We recorded our interview yesterday.

Maggie Severns, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what is the Conservative Partnership Institute - CPI?

MAGGIE SEVERNS: Yeah. The Conservative Partnership Institute, I think, is a group that really speaks to the state of Trump in Washington now that he's not in power. It is an organization that under it has nearly a dozen other groups, all of them focused on kind of furthering pro-Trump Republicans in Washington. And as you mentioned, they employ some of the highest profile people from the Trump administration, folks like Mark Meadows and Cleta Mitchell.

GROSS: It sounds like it's a whole MAGA universe - a, like, one-stop shopping place for all your MAGA needs if you're somebody in the political world. So describe some of the organizations affiliated with the CPI and how this is - how this can be a whole, like, infrastructure for the MAGA universe.

SEVERNS: Yeah. And infrastructure is a word that we were using a lot when we were talking about this story because that's something that the MAGA universe hasn't really had a lot of - right? - is groups that really exist to support it. So running out of one townhouse on Capitol Hill just a few blocks from the Capitol - like I said, you have nearly a dozen different groups, and they include things like the Election Integrity Network, which is an organization run by Cleta Mitchell that is really aimed at training poll watchers and observers and people to file public records requests to really kind of watchdog the upcoming midterm elections. You also have the American Accountability Foundation, which is very different. It's focused on nominees. So they have been doing a lot of shopping opposition research and kind of furthering narratives about people, including Ketanji Brown Jackson when she was nominated to the Supreme Court, you know, basically digging up opposition research. So with Jackson, that was the notion that she had been soft on child porn sex offenders.

GROSS: Doesn't it also have, like, accounting services and public relations and messaging?

SEVERNS: Oh, yeah. (Laughter) So they really have everything. You know, those are examples of some of the kind of more meaty programs from CPI, but it really is a full-service shop, I would say, for pro-Trump Republicans, including several members of the Freedom Caucus in Congress. You know, there are several PACs, for example, that run out of CPI, including the Freedom Caucus' PAC. There is a PR firm that runs out of CPI. There are podcast and recording studios in the building. People like - Lauren Boebert records her podcast there. So they really provide all kinds of backup to both folks on the Hill like Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene and to folks who served in the Trump administration.

GROSS: Why does the MAGA world think it's necessary to have this institute that's basically an infrastructure for the political and money end of MAGA?

SEVERNS: I think that they probably looked to the rest of the Republican Party and Democrats and the things that they have had in the past that Trump really didn't have. So when Trump was in office, he didn't have that kind of institutional support in Washington. You know, Heritage, where Jim DeMint was president for quite a while, really tried to provide that kind of backing to Trump, but other organizations didn't. You know, the Koch network didn't really support Trump the way I think some would have expected. You know, AEI or Cato, the other think tanks in Washington, were never supplying a wealth of staff and ideas to the Trump administration. The Chamber of Commerce at one point sued Trump over immigration policies. So a lot of these longstanding Republican institutions that really help a president with ideas and staff and support on the public sphere, you know, on cable, really didn't exist for Trump, and I think that that made the administration have a harder time in Washington than it needed to.

So going forward for this pro-Trump movement, what do they need? They need that kind of infrastructure if they really want to grow and thrive and, frankly, if they want to exist outside Trump, right? We don't know what's going to happen in 2024. We don't know if he'll be president again, but building something like CPI is in a way building something that could last a while.

GROSS: So it's about the people who were in Trump's orbit but who want to be able to survive and carry on whether Trump is in the White House or not. So it's not specifically about Trump. It's a whole infrastructure that was kind of created in the Trump era but will exist independently of Trump.

SEVERNS: Yeah, I think it's about supporting...

GROSS: Or at least eventually it will. They hope it will exist independently of Trump.

SEVERNS: Yeah. I was just going to say I think it's very much about supporting Trump and his policies. He's just not quite on the scene right now, right? So if he were president again, this would be a great help to him to have a organization that trains staff, that, you know, has a crew of people that get on cable and help push Trump's talking points for the day, you know, helping organize folks in Congress. So this could be very helpful to a Trump administration. But at the same time, I think one thing that was kind of striking to me about doing this story is that you have to wonder where is this Trump movement going, right? And I think that one thing that CPI got me - and my colleagues who I worked on this story with - thinking about is kind of how this ideology, if you want to call it that, or how this movement could really be here to stay.

GROSS: Is the CPI in part meant to be a home for former Trump aides who perhaps are having a hard time finding a place for themselves within the Republican Party?

SEVERNS: I think that in the weeks after January 6, that definitely was true for a while. You know, there was a lot of talk of folks from the Trump White House not being able to find jobs after we saw everything that happened at the Capitol, and then you saw Mark Meadows move over to CPI just several weeks later. And so I think there was this understanding that this was kind of employment. This was a place that was going to offer employment for people who had been in the Trump White House, and I think that that's definitely still the case. We see a number of people like Jeffrey Clark, Kash Patel who had worked for Trump, are now over at CPI. I mentioned Cleta Mitchell before. But also, you know, it is something that's more than that, right? It's really kind of taken on a lot of different functions both in terms of advocacy, in terms of PR, so I think that it's a lot of different things at this point.

GROSS: Tell us about Mark Meadows' role in CPI. He was Trump's last chief of staff. He handed over a trove of documents to the January 6 House committee and then later refused to testify, and the House voted to hold him in contempt of Congress. So what is his role in CPI now?

SEVERNS: So Mark Meadows is one of the leaders of CPI. And, you know, he isn't focused on a specific policy area as much as he is presumably focused on helping grow the organization, which has grown rapidly in recent years. It went from having a few million dollars coming in a year to, after Meadows and other folks from the Trump administration joined, you know, at least $20 million in - recently. We don't know what they are bringing in this year, but it's becoming a larger and larger organization. They actually just acquired a townhouse next door, which really speaks to the ambitions of this group and how it's trying to grow.

GROSS: Let's talk about Cleta Mitchell, who runs the Election Integrity Network at the CPI. And she is a lawyer who was closely connected to Trump and was one of the lawyers advising him on how to overturn the results of the election. Describe her role in that, in the election.

SEVERNS: Yeah. Mitchell was someone who was out after Trump, making the case that the election had been stolen. And, you know, what we've seen at CPI is that she's been able to, in some ways, really carry out that work as leader of this Election Integrity Network. She's been traveling around the country holding trainings with volunteers who seem to agree with Mitchell. And they are doing trainings in poll-watching and observing and in filing public records requests.

You know, I recently - actually, for another story - spoke to someone who had worked in Fairfax County, Va., and the elections office in 2021. They have these odd off-year elections in Virginia, and that's one place that Mitchell and her organization had been working that year. And he said it was unlike anything he'd ever seen, that the number of people requesting to come in and observe the work of the election officials, the number of public records requests they were getting - they had a person basically tasked five days a week to just respond to these requests - and that in the past, he said that most people who were interested in doing these kinds of things and monitoring the elections process seemed to be kind of driven more by curiosity.

You know, he said that he would really try and explain to people what's going on and that in 2021, it was the first time he really felt that folks were looking over his shoulder, trying to find something they were doing wrong. So I think that we're seeing a real shift in the way that a lot of people who feel there was something that happened wrong during the 2020 election, how they're approaching these upcoming elections.

GROSS: So part of the work of this Election Integrity Network is to keep challenging votes, to challenge the administration of voting. Is it almost a form of harassment?

SEVERNS: You know, I think that we'll learn more after the midterm elections. I think that it's certainly - so, you know, it's so funny 'cause a public records request sounds so administrative. But when you are a small bureau of elections and you have just hundreds and hundreds of requests coming at you, it can really gum up the works, right? - same with if you have tons of people coming in, trying to kind of observe you every day and look for any little thing that they think you could be doing wrong. And so I think local elections officials in the past have had really quiet jobs, and now there's a lot going on. And we're going to learn a lot more about kind of the effects of these programs that I should say not just Mitchell, but others in the Republican Party are running as we go into the midterm elections.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about the CPI. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Severns, and her latest article is called "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub." And Maggie Severns writes for Grid, which is a new online journalism site. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Maggie Severns, who writes for the online publication Grid, which is an online startup that's dedicated to putting the news in context. And her latest article is titled "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub." And this home is called the Conservative Partnership Institute, and nearly two dozen alleged members of the January 6th plot are connected to this group.

Stephen Miller, a former Trump aide and speechwriter who's a hard-liner on immigration and had a strong influence on Trump's anti-immigration policies - he runs a group linked to CPI, America First Legal. So tell us about Miller's association with CPI and what America First Legal does.

SEVERNS: Yeah, so like we've discussed, CPI really is a network of different groups, and it's a kind of complicated arrangement. And one of the sister groups, as we could call it, America First Legal, is run by Stephen Miller, and they're really focused on bringing lawsuits. So they sued the Biden administration over the border, for example, saying that letting people into Texas was going to help the spread of COVID.

Another example of America First Legal's work is that they have sued Loudoun County, which was a real center of the critical race theory debate over diversity policies in Loudoun County, saying that there should be kind of these special operators over the school board. The school board shouldn't be allowed to function normally anymore. So a lot of Stephen Miller's work, you could say, is bringing especially these culture war issues, which is something we see a lot at CPI, really bringing these cultural issues to the fore via lawsuits.

GROSS: And let me ask you about Jeffrey Clark. Now, he worked at the DOJ, and Trump wanted to replace the acting attorney general with Jeffrey Clark because the acting attorney general wouldn't go along with Trump's plans to overturn the results of the election. So what's Jeffrey Clark's role at the CPI?

SEVERNS: Yeah. Jeffrey Clark works over at the Center for Renewing America, which is another sister group that is run by Russ Vought, who was a longtime Jim DeMint aide. So we see a lot of these - one thing that I think is interesting about CPI is you see this real mixing of people who have been involved with DeMint and involved with the Tea Party for a long time, who then are kind of paired up with people like Jeffrey Clark at the Center for Renewing America.

And Center for Renewing America is really focused, in no small part, on critical race theory and other of these cultural issues that we've seen really come to the fore in recent years. So, for example, Center for Renewing America has bragged about getting model legislation focused on CRT introduced in a lot of different states and introduced in Congress.

GROSS: Let me read something from the CPI website. This is about their messaging capabilities. It says, CPI Studios, our state-of-the-art media center, is now home to 15 podcasts, eight constituent video projects and constant visits by members of Congress and allied groups. In less time than it takes to eat lunch, members can conduct media and TV interviews from our studios and still make it back to the U.S. Capitol for an important vote.

OK. So this says members of Congress work out of CPI for their media work. They're home to 15 podcasts. Who are some of the people who host their podcasts from CPI Studios?

SEVERNS: There seem to be a number of people who host podcasts from CPI Studios. I think I mentioned Lauren Boebert as being one of them; Andy Biggs, who's another major Freedom Caucus member. Jenna Ellis records her podcast there. She was very involved with the stop the steal movement. So we see a lot of people. And I think it really speaks to one of the core functions of this organization and something that, in general, Trump world is really focused on, which is messaging. So when you have a podcast and a television studio - the TV studio, I should mention, you know, there was a whole documentary shot about January 6 - you can really get your message out better and more clearly when you can work in collaboration with all these other people. I think it's really interesting to see - because CPI is fractured into so many different parts and is kind of a home base for the Freedom Caucus, it's interesting because you look at all these media clips as an outsider, all these tweets or interviews or podcasts, and they're all coming from different people in Trump world. But, really, it's more kind of a chorus of folks - right? - who are all connected to each other, all operating out of the same house. And so a relatively small number of people can seem to have a very big effect when it comes to messaging and public relations.

GROSS: And these podcasts and other messaging, the video projects, they go right to the base. They bypass the mainstream media.

SEVERNS: Oh, absolutely. And that's something that we've seen in recent years both parties really try and do. But the Republican ecosystem, of course, has become kind of something of its own, especially since January 6, because a lot of what people are saying is just not true. So I think that it helps to reinforce these things that a lot of Trump supporters are being told about the legitimacy of the last election.

GROSS: I think that the American Accountability Foundation, which is affiliated with CPI, takes credit for finding a note in the Harvard Law Review in which they claimed that Ketanji Brown Jackson had argued that America's judicial system is too hard on sexual offenders. And they tweeted that she had been soft on sex offenders when she was a judge, and that really got traction during her hearings.

SEVERNS: Yeah. And this is, again, a story about messaging - right? - and what gets said in the public sphere, but now we're talking about what happens behind the scenes. And the American Accountability Foundation focuses on nominees - some of them lower-level nominees and some of them people like Ketanji Brown Jackson - and spreading opposition research and, in some cases, what seems like misinformation about these people. When it came to Jackson, there was a narrative that AAF and some other conservative groups really tried to put forward that she had supported lighter sentences for people who had been involved with child pornography. And I think that it was fact-checked a lot by the media who found that that idea was severely lacking context, that what she did was very mainstream, the positions that she had taken, and that in some cases it wasn't her that took the position but an entire commission that she was a part of. So that idea wasn't necessarily true, but it got a lot of traction on the right. And I think that the lasting effect on something like that - you know, Jackson was confirmed, but now this idea about her has been placed with a lot of people that's not necessarily going to go away.

GROSS: You describe the CPI as a base for the Freedom Caucus, and the Freedom Caucus is the far-right caucus in the House. So in what way is the CPI a home base for the Freedom Caucus?

SEVERNS: Yeah. You know, people who have really been following the January 6 hearings might remember there was this text that came out from Marjorie Taylor Greene to Mark Meadows where she said, we need to get organized for the 6. And then she says, I'll be at CPI this afternoon. And to me, that's such a good example of the kind of function that CPI is trying to provide for folks who are in the Freedom Caucus and seems to successfully be doing. The Freedom Caucus hosts meetings at CPI. Their PAC is run out of the CPI building. People record podcasts out of CPI. So it really is providing a lot of functions. And, you know, we called it a clubhouse in some ways. I think it wants to be a clubhouse for the Freedom Caucus.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Severns, and she writes for the start-up online publication Grid. She was formerly with Politico. Her latest article, the one she co-authored, is called "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub." And that hub is the Conservative Partnership Institute. We'll talk more about it after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Maggie Severns about the article she co-wrote titled "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub."

The article is about the Conservative Partnership Institute, CPI, which is described in the article as having quickly become among the most powerful messaging forces in the MAGA universe. Several of its affiliated groups are headed by ex-Trump aides. One of the CPI's leaders is Mark Meadows, who was Trump's final chief of staff. The CPI was founded by Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina who served in the House and the Senate, was closely aligned with the Tea Party movement, and helped push the Republican Party further to the right. Maggie Severns covers domestic policy for the online startup journalism publication Grid and is a former national affairs reporter for Politico where she covered money and politics and the 2016 election.

In just a few years, CPI has grown from being a new organization to raising - what? - 19-, like, nearly $20 million. Is that total? Or is that per year?

SEVERNS: That's per year, and that's that we know of.

GROSS: So what were you able to find out about who funds CPI and its affiliates?

SEVERNS: Yeah. So you have a dark-money network, which means that it doesn't have to disclose any of its donors. But we were able to figure out some things. Now, Trump himself is probably CPI's most noteworthy donor. He gave the group $1 million out of his PAC, and that was money that he had, in part, raised following January 6th when he was sending a lot of messages to supporters about the election having been stolen and raising millions and millions of dollars off of that concept.

He later gave $1 million to CPI not too long after Meadows joined. There are several other donors who have been people who supported several far-right candidates or were big Tea Party supporters like Foster Friess, who recently passed away but, until then, had been a donor to CPI. Richard Uihlein is another. He's given millions and millions of dollars to conservative candidates in recent years. So there are some pretty heavy hitters in the Republican Party who are helping this organization grow.

GROSS: It's funny 'cause, you know, I think of Trump as taking money and not giving money - you know, raising money, but not donating to other groups.

SEVERNS: Which raises the questions of, why did he give that money to CPI? You know, one thing that was really interesting to us but didn't quite make it into the story was that shortly after Trump gave the money to CPI, there was a group that kind of sprang out out of nowhere. And Cleta Mitchell appears to have given roughly $1 million to the audit in Arizona that was looking into whether there had been abnormalities in the 2020 election.

So there is some possibility that the money kind of passed through CPI to Cleta Mitchell to the Arizona election audit. We don't know. We can't definitively say what happened. But it's interesting to see how once you have a network of dark-money groups and advocacy groups, all interconnected money can go in really unexpected directions.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the Tea Party, which is a kind of far-right group - political, kind of populist - that formed in response to Barack Obama - to his election and then his presidency. Do you see any connection between that group and what's evolved into MAGA or the CPI?

SEVERNS: Yeah, I'll give you kind of a big-picture answer and then a more specific one. The big picture is that when you look at the Tea Party and how it's evolved over time, it is striking to think about how some of these folks who were involved with the Tea Party have carried through and become key leaders on the right today. You know, Mark Meadows was an original Tea Party figure, but he is someone who helped co-found the House Freedom Caucus, which grew out of the Tea Party, and now he's over helping lead CPI.

Jim DeMint, who was a congressman and then a senator, was really crucial to helping drive the Tea Party when he was in the Senate. And he actually started a PAC that helped promote Tea Party candidates. Jim DeMint then went to the Heritage Foundation. He helped found a whole political arm of Heritage that, again, was really helping kind of antagonized, centrist Republicans by funding challenges to them from the right and, in some ways, was successful at doing that or was successful at least at becoming a very vocal player.

Heritage, at one point, decided, you know what? We've become too political. We've become too closely aligned with Trump. We want to go back to really our roots as a think tank. And so board members at Heritage decided to kick DeMint out, and he went on to found CPI. So he's a really good example of someone who's kind of ridden through these various waves on the right and how, I think, some of what we see today in MAGA world or in pro-Trump politics is really a continuation or a new iteration of the Tea Party.

GROSS: On the CPI's website, it talks about its ability to help with staffing. And here's a paragraph about that - we don't stop at simply training great staffers. Personnel is policy, which CPI identifies, interviews and places proven conservatives on the Hill and in organizations throughout Washington. To date, we've pitched hundreds of top-notch candidates for positions in key House and Senate offices. We recently expanded our team to prepare to staff new offices after the 2022 midterm elections.

So if you take that at face value, it makes it seem like the CPI wants to place its people throughout the places of power in Washington. I have no idea how much power they really have or how successful they'll actually be at getting their people - and we're talking about MAGA people - as staffers in key offices. What is your evaluation of how much power they have to accomplish their goals and to make this a much bigger and even more powerful movement?

SEVERNS: Yeah, I think that one thing that we learned during the Trump administration is that personnel is policy, like CPI says, and kind of the importance of that. You know, Trump, when he came to Washington, had really railed against the machine and then, I think, had problems filling out a lot of his administration, right? I think that finding people who are well-trained and equipped to work in offices for lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene isn't as easy always as you would think. And so there is a need there, I would imagine, to provide a lot of young but, you know, very bright, kind of the traditional Capitol Hill aide for these MAGA folks. So I think there really is something to that. I think that it's the kind of thing that can really help wheels turn and help avoid dysfunction that we've seen sometimes from the Trump White House or other parts of Washington.

GROSS: One of the greatest threats to democracy is when people lie about an election and say that the winner didn't win and that the loser really did win. And that's what we've been seeing now with a lot of the MAGA people. So do you consider the CPI, which is a MAGA organization - their election integrity network is run by an election denier. Do you see this group as a threat to democracy if they accomplish their goals of getting their people in powerful positions, getting their people as staffers in political offices?

SEVERNS: I think that, like you said, the argument about whether the 2020 election was won or lost is a dangerous one because it shouldn't be an argument. And looking at CPI and other groups for other reporting that we've been doing, the intense focus on future elections and whether those will have some kind of election fraud, you know, that's something that can really rally a base. But it's also something that can, of course, be very, very dangerous when you're undermining public confidence in an election. So yeah, for that reason, I think that groups like CPI should be taken very seriously.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Maggie Severns. The article that we're talking about that she co-authored is titled "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub." And the hub is the Conservative Partnership Institute. We'll talk more about it after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview that we recorded yesterday with Maggie Severns. The article we're talking about that she co-authored is called "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse: Former Trump Aides Find A Home At A Little-Known MAGA Hub." The hub is called the Conservative Partnership Institute. And the article is published in Grid, which is a new online publication whose goal is to put the news in context.

Are there any models for the CPI? Or is this something new?

SEVERNS: It is. You know, I spent several years covering money in politics. Before that, I was on Capitol Hill. This is not like anything that I've seen. I think it is an extension of a lot of things that we've seen. So for example, the Trump universe has always been very focused on kind of messaging over policy, right. One interesting thing about CPI and all the affiliated groups is they're not actually that focused on policy despite CPI being a think tank. They're more focused on the message and helping further some culture war issues to the extent that there is policy. So I think that that is - it's very natural for the MAGA think tank to have this focus on getting the message across.

I think another thing about CPI that felt a little bit familiar to me is - we've talked about the structure and the way that it's a group of a bunch of different dark money organizations. That hearkens back to groups like the Koch network, to donor funds, places where donors pool money like Wellspring or Arabella on the left. So we've seen - since Citizens United, we've seen campaign finance and dark money organizations get more complicated and harder to understand. And this also feels, to me, like an extension of that.

GROSS: What are you going to be looking at as we approach the midterms?

SEVERNS: I think this is something people know, but it's hard to internalize - that the next election, and probably 2024, too, there's going to be a lot of talk from the right about the vote being unfair, you know, about stop the steal, about the 2020 election having been stolen and that this isn't just something that happened in the past. You know, we're still having a lot of conversations about January 6. But in a lot of ways, we kind of got lucky during the 2020 election that all the electors behaved as you would expect, that there weren't any problems certifying the vote, that more people didn't die at the Capitol.

There were a lot of disasters averted by our system, you know? And the system exists and works for a reason. But I think that going forward, this is going to continue. And it could get more extreme or more harrowing. And that's - when I really think about the next couple elections, it's not even about who wins and loses. It's about, how much faith do people have in the electoral system?

GROSS: In our basic democracy.

SEVERNS: Yeah. And, you know, the extension there is our basic democracy. So I think that that's something that - it isn't going away. And that one thing when you look at a group like CPI is, that's building a lasting infrastructure - right? - to be making some of these same points to support lawmakers on the far-right, regardless of whether Trump wins. So you know, maybe - you never know what's going to happen in politics. It's - elections in particular can be a grand, you know, surprising story. Who would have anticipated Trump before he became the nominee? So we don't know what's going to happen. But I think that there's something very serious going on. And that's really where my attention's at.

GROSS: You cover policy, domestic policy. Do you have a sense - I mean, the Republican Party does not have a platform for the presidential election, which is, like, pretty unusual. And the Republican Party has become famous for being an oppositional force as opposed to, you know, having real policies laid out. Though, abortion is an exception. They drove really hard on getting abortion overturned by appointing anti-abortion justices and creating laws on the state level that limited or now overturned abortion. Do you have a sense of what Republicans want policy-wise in the future?

SEVERNS: I think it really depends on what you - who you talk to, you know? The Supreme Court, I think, is set to, really, fulfill a long-held conservative dream of, really, reinforcing states' rights, which is what we saw in abortion, and kind of a new era of federalism. I think that that's something that has been on the agenda for a long time. I think that during the Trump administration, you also saw some people who weren't necessarily, really, aligned with Trump really try and get their policy priorities accomplished through him - tax cuts being a major example. You know, there were folks like the Kochs, who weren't really Trump supporters, but they had really wanted tax cuts for a long time. And they were very thrilled when Congress and Trump cut taxes. So I think that there are definitely policy priorities there for the Republican Party.

I think that one thing that Trump did very brilliantly and that the party seems to be kind of coalescing about is that most voters don't really vote based on your policy platform. You know, there might be people who vote based on whether or not you want to cut taxes, but really, voters vote on kind of the identity, the message, the vision that you're presenting. And so pivoting to that over having really detailed policy platforms, I think that they feel that's successful because that really worked well for Trump.

Trump is a great communicator. You know, people can have problems with him, but he is very good at drawing in a crowd and drawing people into kind of his Make America Great Again. You know, that's not a policy platform, but it is a vision.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of where leaders of the Republican Party stand on whether they want Trump to run in the next election or not? I really have no idea whether they see him, at this point, as a liability or as a plus. Certainly, they want his base, but do they want him?

SEVERNS: I think that really depends on who you talk to. You know, you get the sense over time among leaders, Republican leaders in Congress sometimes, that it's like their lives would be easier if this whole thing went away, right? If things were kind of back to the pre-Trump days when, in some ways, it was a lot easier to be Mitch McConnell and not be negotiating all of these really tricky things like denial of the last election.

You know, I think that at the same time, it's - Trump is the Republican Party now. And I think that that's something that a lot of people have accepted and embraced even if - you know, I'm based in Washington. There are a lot of Republican aides in Washington who wish that Trump would disappear, but he's running next election. You know, there might be folks who are also running, but the fact is right now, he is the standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

GROSS: So you're confident that he's going to run?

SEVERNS: I mean, he's saying he's going to run. I don't - you know, and he's (ph) has seemed to, in every indication, be intending on running. You can't quite predict the future or what's going to happen, and you don't know how much of that posturing is him trying to kind of insulate himself from potentially being investigated by DOJ.

GROSS: Yeah. How much - I know if he was president, that would offer some protection. But what if he's a presidential candidate? Does that offer any protection from being investigated or being subpoenaed to testify?

SEVERNS: I think that one thing that's going to be really important for DOJ is this question of, what are the optics of investigating someone who's running for president? There's nothing in the law that says they can't do it, but it really would look like political persecution to a lot of Trump's base. And so there are people who say they can't not, you know? Nobody is above the law. You have to bring a case against Trump if you think you have one and it's winnable. And then there are people who say this would be very destructive to trust and democracy, and it shouldn't be done. So we're just going to have to see what DOJ decides to do.

GROSS: Maggie Severns, thank you so much for talking with us.

SEVERNS: Thanks so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Maggie Severns co-wrote the article "The Insurrectionists' Clubhouse," which is in the new online publication Grid where she covers domestic policy. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the new documentary series about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, their acting careers, and their marriage. It's directed by Ethan Hawke and streaming on HBO Max. This is FRESH AIR.


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