America First Policy Institute formed in 2021 and is the largest of the MAGA nonprofit organizations that arose after former President Trump departed the White House. According to The New York Times, AFPI has “the look of a Trump administration in waiting” given the numerous ex-Trump officials who now work for the organization.
Since its founding, the group has led the charge against Biden’s economic and climate agenda in addition to attacking his political appointees. AFPI was among prominent conservative groups that successfully sank the nominations of Saule Omarova and Sarah Bloom Raskin.
In spite of Republicans’ mixed performance in the 2022 midterm elections, AFPI remains faithful to Donald Trump. In December 2022, the organization published a sprawling collection of policy proposals called the “America First Agenda,” which largely drew its inspiration from Trump’s often inconsistent policy positions during his tenure in office.
AFPI is closely affiliated with America First Works, a 501(c)(4) organization that high-ranking members officials at AFW have described as “an extension of AFPI.” AFPI president and CEO Brooke Rollins is a senior advisor to America First Works. Linda McMahon and Larry Kudlow also serve in senior positions at both organizations.
Brooke Rollins has served as the president and CEO of the American First Policy Institute since its founding in 2021. Rollins previously served as the head of President Donald Trump’s Domestic Policy Council. She also worked with Jared Kushner as the director of the White House Office of American Innovation – an office created by the former president whose singular accomplishment was wrestling control over the clemency application process from the Department of Justice. The move was widely viewed as political and resulted in former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, among others, receiving presidential pardons.
Prior to joining the Trump administration, Rollins was the president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank that has played an outsized role in stalling climate action across the country.
Linda McMahon served as Administrator of the Small Business Administration under Trump, but was close to the former president before he ran for office. As head of America’s pro-wrestling empire, the WWE, McMahon had longtime connections to Trump. Before Trump’s presidential campaign, McMahon’s WWE would pay the Trump Foundation millions of dollars for his public appearances at wrestling events. The Trump Foundation was dissolved in 2020 but in 2021 was forced to pay $2 million in restitution after a New York Attorney General found that it was illegally using charitable funds for his own political purposes.
In 2019, McMahon left the White House to lead Trump’s Super PAC America First Action, which received $20 million from AFW in 2020. She also came under fire during the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns as her wrestling company was deemed an “essential business” by the state of Florida and held live, in person performances. According to Forbes, this designation drew suspicion as it followed the announcement that McMahon’s America First Action intended to spend over $18 million in Florida during the 2020 election cycle.
Despite her public commitment to an “America First” agenda, McMahon’s family business is criticized for promoting pro-Saudi Arabia propaganda. Since 2014, the WWE has been holding live events in Saudi Arabia, leading Amnesty International to accuse the WWE for “sportswashing” human rights abuses in the Gulf nation, particularly the detention and torture of women’s rights activists. WWE events in Saudi Arabia have pushed anti-Iranian sentiment, and WWE wrestlers who participated in shows in Saudi Arabia have alleged gender discrimination and being held hostage. Notably, in 2018 the WWE held a match in the country exactly a month after the Saudi Arabian government assassinated American Journalist Jamal Khashoggi – despite a bipartisan group of senators objecting due to Linda McMahon’s involvement in the Trump Administration at the time.
Larry Kudlow was the assistant to the president for economic policy and director of the National Economic Council in the Trump White House. Prior to his time in the Trump White House, Kudlow worked in the Office of Management and Budget during the Reagan Administration and on Wall Street at Bear Stearns. He also worked at various media outlets, most notably the conservative National Review and on various CNBC programs. Since leaving the White House, Kudlow began hosting his own show on the Fox Business network.
As Trump’s top economic advisor Kudlow repeatedly contradicted or misrepresented data in his public statements to promote the successes of Trump’s economic agenda, specifically as it related to Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. He was also a major player in Trump’s push to reopen the economy weeks after COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. in 2020. Kudlow denied the existence of systematic racism during the 2020 George Floyd uprisings and claimed he was looking into regulating Google after Trump accused the company of rigging search engine results against him.
Tim Dunn is a well-known oil magnate and an influential right-wing megadonor in Texas. Dunn was the face, founder, and chair of Empower Texans – a now-defunct Tea Party advocacy group formed in 2006.after a major overhaul to the state’s business taxes. In addition to his work with Empower Texans, Dunn is personally known for his hardline anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion views grounded in his devout Christianity as well as his anti-government Libertarian ideology. He also opposes environmental regulations.
Empower Texans and Dunn aimed to unseat Texas Republicans they deemed insufficiently conservative in an effort to push the party right. Prior to founding Empower Texans, Dunn was a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative, free-market think tank that has played an outsized role in stalling climate action across the country. AFPI CEO Brooke Rollins was a former staffer at TPPF.
Empower Texans was known for its hardline socially conservative views on same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and trans equality as well as its fiscal conservatism. Empower Texans created a Fiscal Responsibility Index to criticize moderate Republicans as being insufficiently fiscally conservative, though the project was accused of fudging its statistics to attack moderates.
Empower Texans was also known for its fights against transparency and ethics laws, calling political financial transparency in Texas a “political vendetta.” The group was sued by the state ethics commission in 2015 for failing to disclose its donors after a new disclosure mandate for 501(c)(4) groups was passed, and the organization later attempted to replace over half of the ethics commission board members.
After Empower Texans shuttered in 2020, Dunn started funding a group called Defend Texas Liberty PAC, which had similar aims as Empower Texans. Defend Texas Liberty PAC spent millions backing long-shot and obscure right-wing primary challengers to prominent Texas Republicans such as Governor Greg Abbott in the 2022 election cycle.
Prior to becoming a well-known megadonor, Dunn founded an unaccredited Christian school after his growing interest in politics led him to support school choice policy. “Freedom of choice” in schooling was originally a means of defying the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which required the desegregation of public schools, but not private ones. Groups interested in privatizing government services and resources later found common cause with those who wanted to perpetuate racial segregation. A 2022 report covered by the Washington Post found that states that passed school choice legislation saw a degradation in their public school systems.
Lisa Troutt is the wife of Kenny Troutt – who as a couple are known as major conservative donors in Texas. Kenny Troutt is a billionaire who made his fortune in the telecommunications industry who supports high-profile conservatives like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Texas Republicans such as Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Bob Unanue is the CEO of Goya Foods and a noted public supporter of Donald Trump. In early 2021, he promoted conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, believing that “the conglomerate of social media, Big Tech, big media, and government, big government” used COVID-19 to steal the election in order to usher “in the dawn of a new world order, this Great Reset, with an unverified election.” He was censured by the board of Goya Foods for his comments, but remained in control of the company due to business regulations despite a majority of the board supporting his removal. After the censure, Unanue spoke at CPAC where he once again claimed the 2020 election was stolen.
During its first year of operation, the America First Policy Institute received more than $14.89 million in contributions. Only a fraction of this haul has been traced to specific funders. In 2021, the Searle Freedom Trust gave AFPI $300,000. The Dunn Foundation contributed $150,000 to the organization that same year.
The Save America PAC, Donald Trump’s main fundraising vehicle after the 2020 election, donated $1 million to AFPI in 2021. The former president’s fundraising through the political action committee is now the subject of a federal investigation.
The America First Policy Institute grew quickly during its first year of existence. As of January 2022, the organization had 110 employees, including a number of former Cabinet members, such as Rick Perry, David Bernhardt, and Andrew Wheeler. The New York Times described the organization as having “the look of a Trump administration in waiting.”
AFPI remains closely tied to the former President Donald Trump. In 2021, the organization held at least two events at Trump properties. In July 2021, the group and Trump held a joint press conference at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to announce a lawsuit challenging the bans against the former president by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The group then held a fundraising gala headlined by Trump at Mar-a-Lago in November 2021.
In July 2022, Trump delivered the closing address at AFPI’s America First Agenda Summit in Washington D.C., marking Trump’s first visit to the capital since leaving office.
AFPI has been outspoken in its opposition to the Biden Administration, its political agenda, and other liberal policies. Its attacks have included:
AFPI has also joined other right-wing groups, such as the America Accountability Foundation, in opposing Biden’s political nominees, including Saule Omarova for comptroller of the currency, Sarah Bloom Raskin for vice chair for supervision of the Federal Reserve Board, and Ketanji Brown Jackson for associate justice of the Supreme Court. In the case of Omarova and Raskin, AFPI’s attacks helped to derail their nominations.
In December 2022, AFPI published a 246-page policy plan called the “America First Agenda.” The sprawling collection of policy proposals translated Donald Trump’s often incoherent political philosophy into a single treatise. The plan was organized into 10 key “pillars,” including the economy, healthcare,education, border security, energy, and election reform. Specific proposals contained in the plan included:
AFPI pledged to champion its America First Agenda in the 118th Congress, although the nonprofit group is not able to directly solicit express support for its far-reaching plan from lawmakers. However, as of early 2023, numerous Republican House members had already participated in AFPI-sponsored events and voiced support for ideas contained in the America First Agenda. These members have included Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, among others.
America First Works is the 501(c)(4) sister organization of America First Policy Institute. Originally called America First Policies, the organization launched after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The group’s leadership features numerous high-ranking, former members of Trump’s Cabinet including former Small Business Administration administrator and pro-wrestling mogul, Linda McMahon, and former chief White House economic advisor, Larry Kudlow. Since 2020, America First Works has directed tens of millions of dollars to conservative and right-wing causes.
After Trump’s failed 2020 re-election bid, AFW rebranded itself and developed a close working relationship with the recently-created MAGA think tank, America First Policy Institute. The two organizations work closely together and the partnership was described by Politico as a “White House in waiting.” In 2020, AFW proclaimed its intent to support Trumpism at “all levels of government.” The organization has raised millions and funneled it towards efforts at the state and federal levels: