The America First Policy Institute was supposed to add the ideological heft to Donald Trump’s ad hoc, seat-of-your-pants policymaking. But a year out from Election Day, Trump’s allies are signaling that the group may be doing more harm than good—and the campaign is making it clear that Trump, not any outside group, will be in charge of staffing up another White House.
The Daily Beast reviewed an internal AFPI email showing staff inside the organization collecting names and seeking recommendations for future Trump administration posts. When Trump campaign operatives got word of that effort, they saw it not only as premature, but also not AFPI’s place.
But more to the point, Trump’s associates are telling the think tank to back off from its donors, fearing that AFPI may be cannibalizing campaign contributors and confusing those who want to directly help Trump’s 2024 effort.
Two of Trump’s top advisers—Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita—took the notable step of issuing a joint statement earlier this week clarifying that outside groups do not “speak for President Trump or his campaign.”
“Therefore, these reports about personnel and policies that are specific to a second Trump Administration are purely speculative and theoretical,” they said. “Any personnel lists, policy agendas, or government plans published anywhere are merely suggestions.”
Wiles and LaCivita were apparently reacting to efforts by some people at AFPI and the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 to present themselves as the Trump White House-in-waiting. A key pitch to donors of these groups has apparently become that these staffers will have tremendous power in the next administration; giving now is seen as one way to curry favor later.
But Trump’s team is apparently so fed up with that pitch that it dispatched its two top leaders to set the record straight.
The fact that Wiles and LaCivita issued the statement together is itself notable. Both are widely recognized as the leading candidates to be Trump’s next chief of staff in a potential administration. They both wanted it known that no one should be making promises—and neither was willing to cede ground to the other to make the point alone.
But the statement itself didn’t address another point of contention: the general confusion for donors. Trump’s campaign apparently believes these groups are siphoning off contributors from the actual campaign.
“People think they are giving to something that helps the president, but it’s not the campaign, it’s not the PAC, and they’re a 501(c)(3), so they can’t do anything that helps him get elected,” one Trump adviser told The Daily Beast. The source recalled incidents where MAGA donors would tell the official campaign they donated, then the campaign would find out that they had instead given to these other entities.
“They literally tell us, ‘Oh, I just contributed,” the adviser said.
“The vast majority [of AFPI’s donors] are old donors or people that we have relationships with,” the adviser added. “How could you not support a group called America First Policy Institute that’s having an event at Mar-a-Lago? That sure sounds like something that helps him. It’s just not the campaign. Legally they can not do it.”
While most in Trump’s orbit were clear they don’t think AFPI is trying to sabotage Trump in any way—even Wiles and LaCivita said in their statement that the outside groups had been “enormously helpful”—one former Trump administration official was less sympathetic.
“All they are doing is misusing the Trump brand to raise money to hand out extravagant stipends and pay extravagant rent for their policy operation that doesn’t reflect Trump policy,” Peter Navarro, a top trade adviser in Trump’s White House, told The Daily Beast. “They oughta shut that place down now and just turn things over to Susie Wiles.”
“Trump knows where to find people to hire. Susie knows where to find people to hire,” Navarro continued. The former director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy—and an uncompromising ‘America First’ cheerleader—was also highly critical of the Heritage Foundation and accused the group of not being MAGA at their “core.”
The previously mentioned Trump adviser agreed that Navarro’s analysis was “spot-on.”
“Heritage has become so irrelevant over the years,” the adviser claimed. “Nobody should be jumping the gun that much.”
The adviser went on to question the Heritage Foundation’s involvement with the Trump White House, even though there were a number of administration staffers who came from Heritage or had previously spent time at the conservative think tank.
“At least the people at AFPI, half of them worked for the administration... Heritage is trying to figure out a way to be relevant,” this adviser said.
AFPI declined to comment on the frustration around donors, but provided a more general statement.
“America First works with many groups in the conservative movement to reverse the enormous damage caused by the failure of Joe Biden,” AFPI’s chief communications officer, Marc Lotter, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. “Apologies for not responding sooner. We are currently holding our annual policy summit in West Palm Beach and at the historic Mar-a-Lago resort.”
As for the email The Daily Beast obtained showing AFPI staffers quietly collecting names, Lotter responded by taking a shot at Heritage.
“Let me be clear—America First is not building personnel lists unlike other organizations who’ve boasted publicly about building a LinkedIn for the next administration,” he said, referring to a New York Times piece, which highlighted that Heritage had developed a “database” of profiles “akin to a right-wing LinkedIn.”
(The email which The Daily Beast obtained, but was not authorized to quote from, did, in fact, show an AFPI employee compiling names for administration posts.)
For Heritage’s part, the think tank has publicly admitted to creating something comparable to a “conservative LinkedIn.”
But as much as the groups are pitching themselves to donors as the employee pool from which a Trump White House will be staffed, it’s the donor issue that seems to be irking the Trump camp the most.
One source who’s raised money for the Trump campaign told The Daily Beast that, for major corporate donors, it’s easier for them to give to the nonprofits because of the lack of disclosure rules.
“Some donors say: ‘We’re with you, but what about just doing AFPI? That way, we can avoid the scrutiny of campaign finance disclosures, and they’re Trump’s group anyway, right?’” this source said.
Another Trump operative was just as blunt. “There’s a competition for Trump donors, and every dollar AFPI soaks up is a dollar that’s not going to get Trump elected,” this operative said.
According to a fundraising email obtained by The Daily Beast, AFPI recently wrote that they are “grateful for the support of over 42,000 donors.”
As 501(c)(3) organizations, the pro-Trump groups aren’t allowed to participate in election activities, but that status gives them more flexibility in terms of not having to disclose the names of their donors. It also allows donors to give unlimited amounts of money.
But a Heritage spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “any claim about a benefit from corporate donors coming to Heritage over other groups is not grounded in reality.”
“The total of all corporate support to Heritage amounts to less than 2% of all contributions,” the spokesperson said.
Fundraising frustration might be an essential part of the developing rift between the conservative nonprofits and Trump’s official campaign, but there’s also an increasing divide between the Heritage and AFPI.
“AFPI and Heritage hate each other with a passion,” one Trump operative familiar with the rift between the two groups said. “The Heritage people look down on the AFPI people like they’re a joke. And the AFPI people look at the Heritage people like they’re phony MAGA. Admittedly, that’s a little ironic because a lot of Trump’s most hardcore supporters look at AFPI like they’re phony MAGA.”
Heritage declined to comment on these allegations.
What isn’t disputed is that, despite being invited to join, AFPI is not part of “Project 2025,” a coalition that includes the Heritage Foundation and more than 80 other right-leaning organizations that have agreed to help with a possible Trump transition.
As Axios reported earlier this week, the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 has already gone to press with a 920-page book outlining policy proposals. While the publication didn’t report on the developing divide between the groups, Axios noted that AFPI has launched its own “Pathway to 2025.”
Meanwhile, Trumpworld operatives noted that the Trump campaign has its own policy plans: “Agenda47.”
“Obviously, there are lots of stories about what a Trump second term looks like, and those stories don’t cite the campaign; they are based on think tanks,” another Trump operative said.
Either way, as the AFPI spokesperson pointed out, AFPI will hold a gathering at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club later this week. And despite the group’s rift with the campaign, both have little problem coexisting. AFPI’s leader, Brooke Rollins, remains a fixture in Trump’s orbit.
“Brooke is ideally positioned to lead this effort because she was in the Trump White House. So she knows how the government works, she knows all of the personnel, and she ran the policy shop,” an AFPI staffer familiar with the group's internal conversations told The Daily Beast. “Nothing against [former Trump bodyman] John McEntee or anyone else at Heritage. They have a role to play. But nobody is thinking about them as a potential White House chief of staff. Brooke has that stature.”
Navarro, for one, hopes that doesn’t happen.
The former Trump adviser, who was at odds with Rollins during his time in the White House, had some advice for his former boss: “Make her ambassador to India.”