Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for “a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation,” according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.
Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and “clueless” GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell’s “two front war” against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here.)
One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Among the conveners listed in an invitation to a May 8 meeting of Groundswell were Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network; Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who resoundingly lost a Maryland Senate race last year (and is now running for a House seat); Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor; Lori Roman, a former executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Conservative journalists and commentators participating in Groundswell have included Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.
Meet the participants in Groundswell
Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right’s messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing “action items.”
A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell’s efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag, a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept “off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons.” This “will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked,” the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)
Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist’s group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions.
Critics have contended that Thomas’ work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the “tyranny” of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups’ spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker.) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000 for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as “the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism.” The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.
How Groundswellers Win “Brownie Points”
Notes prepared after a Groundswell meeting held on March 27 detailed the group’s mission and origins:
Groundswell evolved out of conversations among conservative leaders after the November elections. This is the eighth meeting. Now others are asking to be included. Growth needs to be strategic; it should be made up of senior level people willing to collaborate. It is important to keep a balance of social conservatives, national security conservatives, and constitutional conservatives. Outreach has occurred to incorporate groups with extensive reach: Heritage, Heritage Action, FreedomWorks, AFP [Americans for Prosperity], FRC [Family Research Council] and the NRA, among others…Our country is in peril. This is a critical moment needing critical leadership. We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time.
The memo declared that the goal was not to merely ponder, but to be proactive:
What Groundswell is not is a room of note takers. The goal of Groundswell is to sync messages and develop action from reports and information exchanged. Going forward there should be an action item accompanying each report.
At the March 27 meeting, Groundswell participants discussed one multipurpose theme they had been deploying for weeks to bash the president on a variety of fronts, including immigration reform and the sequester: Obama places “politics over public safety.” In a display of Groundswell’s message-syncing, members of the group repeatedly flogged this phrase in public. Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed titled “Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update “Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration.” Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post called “Obama’s Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Matthew Boyle used the phrase in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle’s story on Twitter by tweeting, “Politics over public safety?” In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded “brownie points” to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the “politics over public safety” riff.
There was much more on the agenda for the March 27 meeting than a single talking point. The group routinely addresses an ambitious to-do list for its campaign against the left. At that session, Groundswellers discussed several immigration-related “action items.” These included attempting to link the pending reform bill to Obamacare and collecting health care reform horror stories to provide to Cruz, a leading opponent of the Senate immigration reform bill. (Cruz has repeatedly compared the legislation to the health care reform law.)
Groundswell members saw immigration as a life-or-death issue. “If we lose on immigration,” the post-meeting memo noted, “we lose on every other issue. The key to defeating this bill is Sen. Rubio. He can gracefully remove himself from the ‘gang of 8’ and still save face…The messaging on this issue has to be ‘we can’t trust Obama’ to enforce immigration laws after the amnesty.”
The group also reviewed how best to oppose the confirmation of Tom Perez, Obama’s nominee for labor secretary. Groundswellers claimed that Perez, then a senior Justice Department official, supported “Muslim Brotherhood organizations and Shariah.” (One Groundswell memo maintained that Perez “is extremely antagonistic toward whites.”) A third agenda item that Wednesday morning was beating back the effort to end the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay Scouts. And there was yet another issue for the Groundswell members to stoke: “John Kerry has family ties to Iran that opens the doors to blackmail and other national security risks. Kerry’s son in law is an Iranian American with extensive family still in Iran.” The post-meeting memo suggested Twitter hashtags to push: #CantTrustObama, #PoliticsOverPublicSafety, #SequesterLies.
“We’re Failing the Propaganda Battle”
The Groundswellers feel that they too often lose the political narrative to their progressive rivals. One memo that circulated among members declared, “We must reclaim the language and put ‘a face’ on our messages; tell stories. Write articles on 4th grade level!”
Notes from a February 28 Groundswell gathering reflected both their collective sense of pessimism and desire for aggressive tactics: “We are failing the propaganda battle with minorities. Terms like, ‘GOP,’ ‘Tea Party,’ ‘Conservative’ communicate ‘racism.'” The Groundswellers proposed an alternative: “Fredrick Douglas Republican,” a phrase, the memo noted, that “changes minds.” (His name is actually spelled “Frederick Douglass.”) The meeting notes also stated that an “active radical left is dedicated to destroy [sic] those who oppose them” with “vicious and unprecedented tactics. We are in a real war; most conservatives are not prepared to fight.”
The notes from the March 20 meeting summed up Groundswell griping: “Conservatives are so busy dealing with issues like immigration, gay marriage and boy scouts there is little time left to focus on other issues. These are the very issues the Left wants to avoid but we need to magnify. R’s cannot beat Obama at his own game but need to go on the offense and define the issues.” The group’s proposed offensive would include hyping the Fast and Furious gun-trafficking controversy, slamming Obama’s record, and touting Benghazi as a full-fledged scandal. “The problem,” the memo noted, “is Speaker Boehner and [Rep.] Mike Rogers (Intelligence Community) are refusing to deal” with the Benghazi issue. It added, “Leaders can and should be shamed into doing the right thing.”
Another problem for right-wingers, this memo pointed out, was that though “a group of freshmen and sophomore representatives in Congress…are willing and ready to stand up” for conservative causes, “no one is willing to step up and become that leader.” Reflecting the dim view held by Groundswell members of House GOPers, the memo maintained that too many Republican lawmakers were co-opted by power and reluctant to challenge House Republican leaders: “The Speaker holds the control in the House. He controls committees, chairmanships, meeting rooms, etc. Conservatives sell out rationalizing their compromises will position them to advance their agenda through committee work. In reality they are being bought.” Boehner, according to his memo, was too frightened to confront Obama head-on regarding budget issues because he “believes that Newt lost his speakership due to the government shutdown.”
Venting about weak and squishy GOP leaders was a regular feature of Groundswell gatherings. One action item put it bluntly:
GAP of REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP: how do we tell them they are failing their base; will lose in 2014 unless they fight for principles (as opposed to show disdain for them and accommodate Obama; O is dividing Rs and they seem clueless: IDEAS NEEDED!
A week later, Newt Gingrich was scheduled to address the group on the “lack of Republican Leadership right now, and Rove.” For 10 minutes.
At the March 27 meeting, Groundswellers once more voiced their anger with the GOP establishment and Rove—ideological sellouts, they believed, who undercut conservative candidates in order to back Republicans deemed more electable. They discussed the efforts among conservatives to respond to the Republican Party’s recently released autopsy (PDF) of the 2012 elections, which called on the party to be more inclusive of minorities and less severe on social issues.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, the post-meeting memo huffed, “is sending messages to the party…If we were all gay illegal aliens, the party likes us. He is preparing the way for a change on social issues by giving a warning, ‘don’t go Old Testament’ and advising the party to consider what Rove said about the next nominees could speak favorably of homosexual marriage in the campaign.” The memo summed up Groundswell’s preferred solution to GOP woes: “embrace the libertarian and conservative wing of the party.”
“I’m Going to Need Help Pushing Back”
Shortly after its creation, Groundswell started bolstering interactions between right-wing advocates and conservative members of the Senate and the House. On March 5, Gaston Mooney, a staffer for the Senate Republican Steering Committee, posted a message to Groundswell’s Google group asking for questions that could be posed to Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to lead the EPA, during confirmation hearings or in meetings between her and individual senators. (She was confirmed as EPA chief this month.)
At an April 3 meeting, Groundswell members were encouraged to send Paul Teller, executive director of the Republican Study Committee, the caucus of House conservatives, “feasible asks in exchange for raised debt ceiling.” The post-meeting memo noted, “House conservatives want clear consensus on what the conservative grassroots want to see negotiated.” Here was a chance for Groundswellers to shape the next debt ceiling showdown.
In Groundswell’s first months, one of the most active members in its Google group was Danielle Cutrona, chief counsel to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. She frequently placed information—speeches, articles, press releases—on Groundswell’s Google group. In February, she posted opposition research material regarding a judicial appointment and asked members to distribute it: “Any help is much appreciated.” In another message to Groundswell, she requested assistance in opposing the pro-immigration reform GOP establishment. “I’m going to need help pushing back,” she wrote.
On one occasion, Cutrona promoted a column from the conservative site RedState.com. Headlined “Who is Going to Put an End to the McCain/Graham Circus?” this RedState.com post excoriated Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as “Benedict Arnolds” for retreating on their opposition to Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary and for “their treachery on the issue of illegal immigration.” Cutrona, who occasionally used her official Senate email to communicate with Groundswell members, was encouraging this band of conservatives to spread the word that two party colleagues of her boss were ideological traitors. A spokesman for Sessions says that this blog post did not reflect Cutrona’s views and “was simply one of scores of diverse news and opinion pieces she emailed on immigration.”
“Even If the Idea Isn’t Perfect, I Can Help Massage It”
Several conservative journalists have enthusiastically participated in Groundswell’s deliberations. In March, Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, sent his most recent column to group members. It focused on a theme that Groundswellers had resolved to hype: President Obama is a divider. And after a meeting that month, Tapscott wrote to the group, “Enjoyed hearing from all of you who spoke earlier today. It’s amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts.” But Tapscott tells Mother Jones that after attending one or two meetings at the invitation of Ginni Thomas, he decided to stop participating: “The implication of attending is that you’re participating in their planning, and, as a journalist, I don’t think that’s appropriate. Other journalists may think differently.”
At another Groundswell gathering, according to the minutes, the members decided to ask Breitbart‘s Stephen Bannon to arrange for his media organization “to get senators on the record regarding their support [or non-support]” of the filibuster that GOP Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz were threatening to mount against the gun control bill. This suggested that the Groundswellers thought they could task Breitbart News to pursue a story that would be strategically useful for the group. (Breitbart News was already covering the possible filibuster.)
Groundswell has forged a particularly close relationship with Breitbart. Matthew Boyle, one of Breitbart‘s more prominent reporters, has attended Groundswell meetings, used the group as a source for tips and a mechanism to promote his stories, and joined in its efforts to whip up coordinated bullet points to be deployed by conservative advocacy shops. In February, he tried to enlist the group to push a story he had written the year before at the Daily Caller, in which he maintained the Justice Department was in cahoots with the liberal group Media Matters to smear conservative whistleblowers and journalists. In a long note addressed to all Groundswellers—written at a time when reporter Bob Woodward was making (what turned out to be inflated) claims about the Obama White House intimidating foes—Boyle said, “Figured this might be a good time to bring this story back up and see if there’s a way to drive it.”
Boyle said he was hoping to prompt congressional Republicans to launch an investigation. He contended he had only revealed the “tip of the iceberg” and shared his suspicion that many government agencies (State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the EPA, and more) were conspiring with “far left wing groups” to undermine conservatives in the media: “I think we can get at the heart of the Obama admin’s weaknesses here.” He explained: “Any evidence obtained would be more proof of collusion between the administration and the media and far left groups, while at the same time serving as evidence of whatever ridiculously moronic big government policies they’re pushing are.”
The following month, Boyle sent a message to Groundswell members seeking tips and offering to help shape stories Groundswellers wanted to disseminate: “I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there. Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.”
A high-priority cause for Groundswellers is voter identification efforts—what progressives would call voter suppression—and when Groundswellers developed a thread on their Google group page exploring the best way to pitch the right’s voter identification endeavors as a major voting rights case was pending in the Supreme Court, the coalition’s friendly journalists joined right in. Dan Bongino, the ex-Secret Service agent and 2012 Senate candidate, kicked off the discussion: “We need to reframe this. This narrative of the Left has already taken hold in MD. The words ‘Voter ID’ are already lost & equated with racism. Maybe a ‘free and fair elections initiative’ with a heavy emphasis on avoiding ANY voter disenfranchisement combined with an identification requirement which includes a broader range of documents.”
In response, Tapscott suggested, “How about ‘Election Integrity’?” And Gaffney weighed in: “I like it.” Fitton noted that Judicial Watch had an “Election Integrity Project.” Boyle proposed, “Fair and equal elections,” explaining, “Terms ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ connect with most people. It’s why the left uses them.” Then came True the Vote’s Anita MonCrief: “We do a lot under the Election Integrity Banner. Does not resonate with the people. Voter Rights may be better. We really have been trying to get the messaging right.”
Minutes later, Breitbart‘s Mike Flynn tried to change the conversation, noting that Boyle earlier in the week had reported that Obama’s daughters had been vacationing in the Bahamas while the White House had suspended tours due to the sequester. “The Obama White House has never been so exposed to public criticism as they are right now, because of their decision to cancel WH tours,” Flynn wrote. “Everything should be focused on that front.” He declared, “We have to be willing to march to the sound of the guns.” (Earlier in the week, Boyle had posted his story on the Obama daughters on Groundswell’s Google group page, noting, “I think this fits in nicely with that politics over public safety theme…Enjoy.”) Ignoring Flynn’s missive, Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, wrote, “We bill ourselves as an Election Integrity Initiative and have found it strikes the right tone.”
In a response to a request for comment regarding his participation in Groundswell’s message-making, Flynn emailed, “We have reporters covering lots of meetings in DC, as I’m sure you do as well. As you know, it provides critical background to know what’s happening on the Hill.” In a subsequent email, Flynn insisted, “[N]either Boyle nor I have spent 1 minute on any messaging. We haven’t spent any time creating talking points.” Flynn added, “[W]e are journalists with a point of view. We are open about that. We attend meetings of conservatives. Where we are allowed, we attend meetings of leftist activists.” Boyle did not respond to requests for comment.
“We All Lament the Difficulty We Have Persuading Americans”
In between the weekly meetings, Groundswellers keep on scheming, frequently using their Google group to share ideas and need-to-know information. The material is often routine: a John Bolton op-ed, a press release opposing the nomination of the EPA administrator, a call to rally support for a Rand Paul filibuster. Often the material reveals the group’s ideological excesses, such as a PowerPoint supposedly proving that John Brennan, the Obama national security adviser who has become CIA chief, is soft on radical Islam. In one post, Ginni Thomas encouraged Groundswell members to watch Agenda: Grinding America Down, a documentary that claims that progressives (including Obama) seek “a brave new world” based on the “failed policies and ideologies of communism” and that an evil left is purposefully “destroying the greatest country in all of world history.” MonCrief posted an email noting that the bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon were “similar to Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground nail bomb.”
But Groundswellers constantly brainstorm via their Google group in search of a magic talking point, or a silver bullet of messaging. On April 24, Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, posted a message to the Google group, writing, “We should have a unified name for the immigration bill so that as the other side is calling it ‘reform,’ we present a unified front against that notion. If we’re all calling it different things, their ‘reform’ message will win. We only combat the idea that it is reform if we hammer back with one different phrase/name.” She tossed out a few ideas: “Schumer-Rubio bill,” “anti-security bill,” and “amnesty bill.” Sheryl Kaufman, the communications director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, chimed in that she was fond of a phrase derived by MonCreif: “‘OBAMAGRATION’—I love it!! Communicates the similarity with Obamacare.”
When Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive group, sent out an email regarding the sequester headlined “Don’t let Republicans destroy the economy,” Carender sent a message to Groundswell members via the Google group: “What about a ‘stick with sequester’ (or similar) mantra from our side?” Responding to Carender’s note, Peter List of LaborUnionReport.com wrote, “Most Americans don’t understand sequesters. We need to be more clever than the Left on this…Something amusing and easy for LIVs [low-information voters] to understand. Maybe a tie in to Humpty Dumpty (the economy) and all King Obama’s men (‘tax increases’) not being able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. (I’m open to anything…and just made that up.)”
At another point, List emailed Ginni Thomas an idea for an anti-Obama ad that he thought could go viral:
A 15 sec internet [YouTube ad] featuring ethnically diverse children on a merry-go-round [soft music]…
Two bullet points on the facts.
Call to action:
Tell President Obama & Congress not to cut our nation’s defense.
Thomas posted the note for all in Groundswell to see. “Brilliant idea,” she commented. “…Taker?”
Several months after Groundswell kicked off, Steven Sutton, vice president of development for the conservative Leadership Institute and a former chief of staff to several House GOPers, proposed a “strategic message development project” for the outfit. “What is needed,” he wrote, “is an umbrella thematic message under which each specific issue can be magnified and maximized. For those familiar with it, this is an extension and development of the Leesburg Grid (which the Left has co-opted and now uses extensively, and the Right has ignored and allowed to fall into disuse.)”
Sutton suggested using four main themes: Obama and liberal policies fail; Obama and liberal policies make things worse; there is a lack of leadership in the White House; and Obama “puts politics ahead of people/our country/America.” These themes, he contended, “are best used sequentially, rather than randomly/haphazardly/isolated…The most important thing is to think thematically and drive these messages.” Sutton went on:
Issues matter. Details matter. Substance matters. But theme matters more. Substance matters only as it helps to reinforce the themes.
We all lament the difficulty we have persuading Americans. After all, we have the facts, figures, and data to prove our points. Why can’t we persuade? There are many tactics we can use to help persuade (telling stories, finding victims, tempering tone). But these tactics pale in comparison to the importance of providing a context…a theme…to help people organize their thoughts and opinions.
Groundswell has set itself up as the theme lab for the true-red activists of the conservative movement. Fearing that some hydra of the left has long been running wild, vanquishing the right, and bringing the nation closer to utter ruin, the members of Groundswell have birthed a hydra of their own.
Additional reporting by Kate Sheppard.