“America First” In Name Only

A poisonous confluence has emerged in Washington, D.C., where the waters of the swamp converge with the promise of “America First.”

On July 26, Donald Trump headlined the America First Agenda Summit, hosted by the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), the nonprofit known in Trump world as “the White House in waiting.” The event—not coincidentally—followed a story in Axios about AFPI’s supposed part in a plan for purging “potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists to [Trump] and his ‘America First’ ideology” if he were to be reelected. The news was met with understandable fanfare on the right and apoplexy on the left. 

But there is just one small problem: AFPI is the swamp; it is an organization that is run, staffed, and affiliated with the worst people from the Trump White House, who systematically undermined the America First mandate and who promoted the interests of the establishment during Trump’s presidency. The summit provided a snapshot of this problem.

Belying its populist put-ons was a roster of dyed-in-the-wool establishmentarians, from Sen. Lindsey Graham to Rep. Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The latter commended boozy Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not backing down on her unnecessary and provocative trip to Taiwan despite warnings from China—praise that AFPI’s audience applauded. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst demanded “that we absolutely annihilate the Russian forces, and we get them to crawl back into Russia so bloody and bruised that they can’t come back.” Rep. Mike Waltz called for U.S. personnel to get “directly into the war to operate U.S. weapons systems alongside Ukrainian forces.”

Of course, there is nothing “America First” about the foreign policy promoted by these Republicans. In fact, it is utterly opposed to the realism and restraint that places the interests of the American people over foreign entanglements. This hawkish mindset is also at odds with Trump’s promise to bring America home from endless wars and humanitarian interventions, and to stop looting the American people in order to subsidize international satrapies—also known as “foreign aid.”

So what is AFPI, and why does it have so much access to Trump? Understanding that requires revisiting the Office of American Innovation (OAI), an agency within the White House Office created for and directed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In policy, personnel, and outlook, OAI was the precursor to AFPI.

In theory, the agency was redundant because it performed a similar role as the National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council (DPC). In practice, that didn’t matter because its real purpose was to act as a vehicle for Kushner and his allies to hijack the White House’s policy shop. Key members of OAI included Larry Kudlow, now the vice chair of AFPI’s board, and and Brooke Rollins, its president and CEO.

“OAI was Jared’s shadow DPC, which he was eventually able to formally take over through Brooke running DPC in 2020,” a person familiar with AFPI operations told Chronicles. “The main figures from Jared’s OAI and DPC have key roles at AFPI. The other AFPI ‘leadership’ were not with OAI but are reliably Never Trump in their outlook, which is shameful.”

Kushner created the office in 2017 with the help of Reed Cordish, whose wife is a longtime friend of Jared’s wife, Ivanka Trump. In April that year, Trump prepared a directive to review the H-1B visa program, which is commonly used by corporations to replace American-born workers with lower-paid immigrants. Through the OAI, Kushner and Cordish used that corporate pressure as leverage to undermine the president’s efforts. Anonymous sources told the technology news website Recode that “tech executives, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, received an early warning about Trump’s coming directive on a call” with Kushner, who “convened them and other executives as part of his tech-focused efforts with the White House’s new Office of American Innovation.”

Liberal media seemed to see the OAI for what it really was. CNBC, for example, called the rise within the Trump administration of Chris Liddell, who worked closely in the OAI with Kushner, “a win for Kushner,” who had emerged “as the standard bearer of the establishment faction of the Trump White House, which is locked in a perpetual power struggle with the more ideologically conservative wing.” Enter Rollins, a key part of the establishment faction, who got her start as president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a Koch Foundation-funded think tank based in Austin, Texas. A Daily Beast headline neatly summarized the implications of her admission into the White House: “White House Hires Prison-Reform Activist as a Trump Assistant.”

In 2018, Rollins bragged in a Fox News op-ed about “closing eight prisons in Texas (and 10 juvenile facilities)” through her efforts with TPPF. The Lone Star State would see skyrocketing homicide rates by the end of 2021—now with fewer detention facilities to contain the new crop of murderers. With the help of Kushner, Rollins brought her soft-on-crime ideas to President Trump’s desk, in what became the First Step Act. The Act released a swarm of dangerous criminals from the federal prison system, some of whom went on to kill almost as soon as they got out of jail. 

The Act also contained a provision to shorten mandatory minimums for traffickers caught smuggling drugs into the U.S. by sea. “These criminals have never been eligible for such leniency and are rarely if ever U.S. citizens,” said former Senator Jeff Sessions, who served as Trump’s attorney general. Indeed, Rollins’s soft spot for criminals also extended to illegal aliens. She was instrumental in using the OAI to produce what Reuters called an “unusual reversal” on Trump’s zero-tolerance policy at the southern border. 

Nevertheless, the First Step Act became law in late 2018 and was soon followed by similar legislation at the state level, where criminal-justice reform initiatives advanced despite rising national crime rates. Rollins predicted that the Act would reduce repeat crime by reforming prisoners. This has been proven false by a first-of-its-kind, decade-long study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission released in June 2022. The study found 

no statistically significant difference in the likelihood of recidivism among offenders who participated in Occupational Education Programs or Federal Prison Industries compared to offenders who did not participate in the programs.

In other words, the First Step Act, which became trademark Trump White House policy, was based on a premise that has been conclusively proven to be flawed. 

So enamored was Rollins with criminals that she and her colleagues in the OAI, including Ja’Ron Smith, who later joined Rollins at AFPI, urged Trump not to crack down on rioters during 2020’s summer of rage following the death of Saint George Floyd. They argued that stopping mobs of black criminals from razing and looting entire communities might seem racist. Instead, Kushner and Rollins put their heads together to appease the destroyers. They invited rapper Ice Cube, best known for his song “F— Tha Police,” to the White House to get his input on what
became the Platinum Plan. Mr. Cube asked Trump’s team to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday and to pledge $500 billion to the black community—which appeared to be halfway between reparations and a ransom in the context of the ongoing race riots. They agreed and added, among other things, the promise of additional criminal justice reform during Trump’s second term.

It wasn’t just run-of-the-mill felons who benefited under the auspices of AFPI’s spiritual predecessor. The OAI also usurped control over the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, where applications for pardons are referred. In February 2020, The Washington Post reported that Kushner “personally reviewed applications with White House lawyers before presenting them to Trump for final approval, according to two senior administration officials.” The process followed a pattern: a few pardons to please populists, and far more substantial ones to help friends of the OAI. Notably these included pardons for Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, and Salomon Melgen, a sleazy Democrat megadonor.

It is difficult to provide profiles in brief of everyone who went on to join AFPI after subverting the Trump agenda, but two stand out: Chad Wolf and Larry Kudlow. 

Before joining the Trump administration, Wolf worked as a paid lobbyist for the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NASSCOM), a trade body of Indian firms. As the acting secretary of Homeland Security and undersecretary of Homeland Security for Strategy, Policy and Plans, Wolf was amenable to NASSCOM’s interests. When coronavirus measures drove unemployment rates through the roof, DHS, under Wolf, announced it would accelerate the processing of H-1B foreign workers to U.S. and Indian companies. Wolf’s DHS then went a step further by changing a rule to accelerate the influx of these workers. By March 2020, DHS began the process of admitting 85,000 H-1B workers. On April 1, 2020, Wolf used his discretionary powers to grant an additional 20,000 new H-2B visas for seasonal guest workers. The latter initiative was halted due to scathing coverage by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Wolf was also never proactive on securing funding for the border wall but did, instead, lavish sanctuary cities protecting illegal aliens with discretionary funding, effectively subsidizing lawbreaking with money that was in his power to withhold. Today, he serves as AFPI’s executive director and chief strategy officer, doing the “good work” of promoting bad ideas alongside the likes of Kudlow.

In an article for American Greatness, Peter Navarro, former assistant to the president for trade and manufacturing policy, described Kudlow as “the most famous offender” among the “free trade ideologues on record opposing Trump’s tariffs” in the White House. He was also a member of the OAI.

Kudlow, according to Navarro, was instrumental in killing an effort to haul Dr. Anthony Fauci before a presidential commission inquiring into the funding of the Wuhan laboratory, suspected of leaking the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Kudlow and his allies were reportedly chiefly concerned about upsetting China and thereby getting bad press. “Kudlow is just stupid, dumb. You can quote me on that,” Navarro told investigative journalist Sharri Markson.

AFPI isn’t going to lead a radical reimagining of the federal government or drain the swamp—it merely wants to carve out a space for itself to wallow in the muck. It does not produce an actual product but instead claims credit for what others do. It has “America First” in its name, but you couldn’t find an organization whose members did more in the Trump White House to undermine the essence of the phrase. Its corridors are adorned with pictures of Kushner, like a shrine, and it offers private dinners with him for donors. It is a temple to a grift that has infected right-wing populism, and a dead end for America First.                                                             ◆

image from: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

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