Did Donald Trump—and the heated debate and emotions his 2016 candidacy has elicited—ultimately cause the downfall of Hollywood’s exclusive, secretive organization of committed political conservatives?
Friends of Abe—an invite-only “fellowship” of the film industry’s Republicans and right-wingers both famous and not—has announced it is dissolving as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, ditching the tax-exempt status it once fought for. The group’s surprise move Thursday, news of which was broken Thursday by The Guardian’s Los Angeles-based correspondent Rory Carroll, immediately sparked rumors that bitter divisions within FOA over Trump’s presidential candidacy had led to the nonprofit’s shutdown.
“The announcement by the Friends of Abe fueled speculation that infighting over Donald Trump’s candidacy had drained commitment,” The Guardian reported.
On Thursday, the organization’s executive director, Jeremy Boreing, announced in an FOA-wide email: “Effective immediately, we are going to begin to wind down the 501 c 3 organization, bring the Sustaining Membership dues to an end, and do away with the costly infrastructure and the abespal.com website.”
“People just don’t feel as much of a need to show up for every speaker or bar night, and fewer people pay the dues that help us maintain that large infrastructure,” he continued. “We will still get together for drinks and speakers, but we may reassess how we approach those events logistically. In short, FOA will return to its roots. It will be a passion project, like it was in the beginning.”
Near the conclusion of the announcement, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast, it vows in bold:
“We’ll still be a private organization that protects the names of our members at all costs.”
The degree to which members held Trump’s polarizing presidential bid responsible varied.
“I think Donald Trump has everything to do with it. I don’t think he caused the dissolution of FOA, but relationships have defiantly become more tense,” Dave Berg, a former co-producer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, told TheWrap.
“Powerful Hollywood conservative group whose secret members include Clint Eastwood and Jon Voight forced to disband due to constant infighting over Donald Trump,” the British tabloid Daily Mail declared.
It is true that within FOA membership—which stands at upward of 2,000 Hollywood industry conservatives—there was a split. The majority of members leaned heavily toward GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, and some FOA members saw promoting his candidacy as their mission to help stop Trump. But a pro-Trump faction was growing. Ann Coulter, for instance, has been actively lobbying Hollywood stars and insiders behind-the-scenes to get on the Trump train.
However, it is likely that the causes of FOA’s sudden “return to its roots” are far more mundane than the alleged Trump-fueled civil strife that has dominated so much of the reporting on the fellowship’s recent changes. Eight FOA members who spoke to The Daily Beast over the weekend were baffled that by the rumors of Trump-related implosion.
“Trump as the primary cause is bullshit,” one Friend told The Daily Beast. “My view is that the organization had gotten too bloated. Every great institution needs a reformation now and again …My guess is high-profile events continue to happen, but constant meetings, formality, [and] dues…are over because there’s no longer much demand for them.”
“Whatever political discussion or arguments, there was never any violent disagreement or turmoil about that that would have threatened the life of the organization,” another member insisted. “It wasn’t the kind of thing where people got together and got nasty and fought [like that] about politics.”
On Friday, Boreing gave his blunt explanation for the reorganization.
“Think about it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We ask a donor for $800,000 and they say, ‘What do you guys do? Well, we get together and drink beer. Who’s a part of it? Oh, you’d be impressed, but I can’t tell you.’ Obviously, that’s a silly thing for us to pursue.”
One of the founders of this Hollywood-Republican fellowship was especially eager to push back against the Trump rumors.
“Categorically, unequivocally, there has been no ‘infighting’ between the Donald Trump and the Cruz [fans],” Oscar-nominated writer-producer, and FOA founding member Lionel Chetwynd told The Daily Beast. “We have never had a controversial meeting where we’ve had people [viciously] confront each other like that. Look, I’m a Cruz guy. One of the high-profile members and big stars of our group is a Trump guy, and I have dinner with him most Fridays!”
Chetwynd continued by drawing an analogy to the Spanish Civil War.
“We’re on the same side of the war,” he said, referring to the Cruz and Trump supporters in FOA. “Look, one of the books many of us have read is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. And one one thing we’re never going to do is that. When the Stalinists eat alive the Trotskyists. [Friends of Abe] will not give in to that sort of infighting.”
Chetwynd also accused The Guardian and its correspondent of bias and twisting his words.
“It’s not journalism; it’s a kind of wishful thinking one can expect from a newspaper like The Guardian, a newspaper so leftist, so left-wing, that it [has columnists who] embrace Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.
This month, The Guardian’s Carroll had reported that Chetwynd had told him that the Republican primary had caused “a civil war in slow motion” within Hollywood’s conservative inner circle. Chetwynd told The Daily Beast that this quote was ripped from its original context, and that he never meant to say FOA was embroiled in a civil, Trump-shaped war.
“The ‘civil war’ I was talking about was about the country at large,” he said. “I wasn’t referring to Cruz and Trump, or Hollywood, I was talking about the insurgency vs. the elites, which is happening in both parties today.”
Carroll, for his part, is standing by his reporting.
“[Lionel] was delighted with that story when it first came out,” Carroll told The Daily Beast. “He never challenged the quote then…He was very effusive in the way that story came out [at the time]. When I had a conversation with him one month ago, it was clearly in the context of Hollywood conservatives.”
The Guardian reporter also emphasized that his articles noted that “some members have been speculating that the Trump division may have been part of this” entire restructuring.
“I’m not saying they broke up because of Trump…and I’m not claiming that,” he continued. “But I am quoting some members who think that may be a reason…I would hope and think that is blindingly obvious to people who read [my] stories.”
This is merely the latest chapter in the saga of Friends of Abe, which has been making national headlines for years now as a private social club for the politically active right-of-center trapped in the vast Democratic stronghold of liberal Hollywood.
FOA has been described as a “stealth right-wing group” that is “influential in conservative circles” and which operates under “the same PR rules as Fight Club.” High-profile Friends include Gary Sinise, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Clint Eastwood, and the Trump-endorsing Jon Voight.
The group has hosted exclusive gatherings and dinners that have included events at which the Republican presidential candidates and politicians (Trump, Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Dick Cheney, the list goes on) have spoken. In early 2014, Cruz swung through Los Angeles to discuss what he called the Obama administration’s “McCarthyite” actions against FOA.
And as Friends of Abe sheds its nonprofit image—which it has enjoyed for more than two years—it enters its next stage. Top FOA brass are still putting together plans for the fellowship’s way forward. In the meantime, set to take place soon, two members confirm, is the next “new-members lunch,” where prospective members are invited by current Friends to dine and shoot the breeze about the usual: politics, culture, and Tinseltown.