WASHINGTON — The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, stepped up efforts to boost its Project 2025 initiative by ramping up grants to the venture aimed at creating a “government-in-waiting” for the next Republican presidential administration, according to a new tax filing.
The foundation distributed over $1.67 million in grants in 2022 — including a total of $965,000 to organizations on the advisory board of Project 2025, tax records show. These donations accounted for 58% of Heritage’s total grant-making in 2022.
By comparison, in 2021, the foundation contributed only $174,000 to other nonprofit organizations. In 2022, contributions to the Heritage Foundation also increased, to $95 million, a jump of 26% compared to the previous year.
The filing was first shared with NBC News by Accountable.US, a progressive advocacy group.
The Project 2025 initiative aims to be ready with conservative policy recommendations when the party retakes the White House. The group is also vetting and training personnel who could populate a future administration.
The advisory board for Project 2025 includes representatives from conservative groups led by veterans of the Trump administration, such as America First Legal, the Center for Renewing America and the Conservative Partnership Institute, as well as heavyweight mainstays, like the Claremont Institute, the Family Research Council and the Independent Women’s Forum, which received $100,000 last year.
It also distributed $400,000 to its political arm, Heritage Action for America.
The board forms a diverse coalition that also includes the free-market FreedomWorks and Competitive Enterprise Institute, and those that represent the ascendant populism that came into favor under President Donald Trump, such as American Compass, the Coalition for a Prosperous America and American Moment, a group focused on identifying and preparing young staffers to serve in political roles in government.
Earlier this year, Heritage scored a top aide from the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit group closely tied to Trump that is also preparing to staff a future GOP administration.
While these groups can’t support a candidate outright, many of the people leading them or with longtime affiliations have close ties to Trump, having served in his administration, and some could be expected to retain his ear.
For instance, Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and senior economic contributor at FreedomWorks, is one of several advisers to Trump on economic issues going back years. Others include Larry Kudlow, the Fox Business host and former director of the National Economic Council under Trump, and Kevin Hassett, chairman of the Trump White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich is also advising Trump.
Whether Republicans have control of Congress could add another wrinkle to Project 2025’s efforts, Moore told NBC News.
“If Trump comes in, a lot of this will be by government diktat — White House diktat,” Moore said, recalling Barack Obama’s strategy of taking executive and administrative actions that the former president summarized as, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”
Stephen Miller, a former Trump White House adviser who now runs America First Legal, and Russ Vought, who also served as a top aide to Trump and is now leading the Center for Renewing America, are two figures expected to play prominent advisory roles to Project 2025.
Project 2025’s board of more than 80 conservative organizations includes nearly 40 that have received funding from dark-money groups linked to Leonard Leo, a major right-wing donor who influenced the shaping of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority under Trump.
Leo was a key outside adviser to Trump on his judicial picks while he was in office, though their relationship has soured in recent years, The New York Times recently reported.
A prolific fundraiser, Leo is affiliated with an extensive network of tax-exempt groups, including DonorsTrust, a donor-advised nonprofit that directs money to other organizations and groups seeking to influence policy, such as the 85 Fund or the Concord Fund.
The flow of donor money may show where influence has pooled.
In 2022, DonorsTrust alone funneled more than $16.5 million to organizations on Project 2025’s advisory board, according to the group’s 990 tax filing. One of those groups, the Teneo Network — described as a “talent pipeline” for the conservative movement spanning business, media, finance, entertainment and politics — received one of the highest distributions, more than $3 million.
The $16.5 million in donations represented a small increase from one year prior, when Project 2025 received about $15 million collectively from DonorsTrust in the 2021 financial year.
Caroline Ciccone, president of Accountable.US, warned that Project 2025 threatens to empower an executive branch set on weaponizing its powers against its political enemies, while dismantling core government accountability functions, with the Heritage Foundation and DonorsTrust enabling its efforts.
“Project 2025 is a five-alarm fire for our democracy — and groups like the Heritage Foundation and Leonard Leo-backed DonorsTrust are making it all possible by dumping millions into the dangerous project,” Ciccone said. “From dismantling critical checks and balances to weaponizing the executive branch, Project 2025 takes extremism to a whole new level. The project — and the dark network propping it up — must be stopped.”
Accountable.US, which describes itself as a watchdog group, has received more than $9 million in recent years from the New Venture Fund, a liberal dark-money behemoth that has controlled a war chest of close to a billion dollars in recent years, tax records show.
The New Venture Fund spent more than $329 million in 2021 alone, the most recent year that its tax filing is publicly available.
While the Heritage Foundation has received a funding boost, groups tied to Leo collectively received far less than in previous years, tax filings reported by Bloomberg show.
By comparison, Miller’s America First Legal raised more than $44 million last year, according to tax documents, with more than half appearing to come from a single donor. The group has seen a considerable increase in funding from the nearly $6.4 million it raised in 2021.
In 2014, before Trump had even declared his candidacy, Heritage was assembling a database of potential staffers for a future administration, reprising planning efforts that date back decades.
Yet while preparations to hit the ground running in a new administration are not new, Trump’s promises to use his powers to go after his perceived enemies have stoked concern among even allies.
“He’s taking names. That’s scary to anyone who has a rational mind, who is a free thinker, who doesn’t believe in this kind of fealty,” said a former Trump campaign adviser. “We’re not picking people to take out their political enemies.”
This person said the topic had come up again and again in conversations with people who intend to support the former president’s re-election campaign but are also wary of elevating a leader who has strongly personalized his political fights.
In the early race for the presidency, Trump has already vowed to appoint a special prosecutor “to go after” President Joe Biden and his family. Trump has also threatened to “root out” his own enemies, whom he described last week as “vermin.”
“These are private conversations where we share a concern that if we are not 100 % bowing to Trump, saying the right things, fighting for him, or denouncing his enemies, there are going to be consequences for you and your family and your professional status,” this person said.
If elected, Trump has said he plans to respond in kind to a government that he perceives as working to stop him from returning to office. His allies are also ramping up their fight against what they have described as “activist” judges and prosecutors who have charged Trump, including in a new advertisement.
Aides to Trump’s campaign issued a statement this week appearing to distance him from outside groups aimed at shaping a presidential transition, which have garnered outsize interest as the former president leads the GOP primary by double digits in polls.
Still, Trump faces a series of legal battles as he heads into next year’s primary season, with a packed schedule that pits the start of the trial in his election interference case up against Super Tuesday.