Inside the Private Conservative Group That Promises to “Crush Liberal Dominance”

This story was initially printed by ProPublica.

Just a few months in the past, Leonard Leo laid out his subsequent audacious undertaking.

Ever because the longtime Federalist Society chief helped create a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court docket, after which acquired greater than a billion {dollars} from a rich Chicago enterprise proprietor to disburse to conservative causes, Leo’s subsequent strikes had been the topic of hypothesis.

Now, Leo declared in a slick however non-public video to potential donors, he deliberate to “crush liberal dominance” throughout American life. The nation was affected by “woke-ism” in companies and schooling, “one-sided journalism” and “leisure that’s actually corrupting our youth,” mentioned Leo amid snippets of cheery music and pictures of sunsets and American flags.

Sitting tucked right into a sofa, with wire-rimmed glasses and hair gone to grey, Leo conveyed his inspiration and intentions: “I simply mentioned to myself, ‘Properly, if this may work for legislation, why can’t it work for many different areas of American tradition and American life the place issues are actually tousled proper now?’”

Leo revealed his newest battle plan within the beforehand unreported video for the Teneo Community, a little-known group he referred to as “a tremendously vital useful resource for the way forward for our nation.”

Teneo is constructing what Leo referred to as within the video “networks of conservatives that may roll again” liberal affect in Wall Road and Silicon Valley, amongst authors and teachers, with professional athletes and Hollywood producers. A Federalist Society for all the pieces.

Regardless of its linchpin position in Leo’s plans, Teneo (which isn’t the similarly named consulting firm related to former officers within the Invoice Clinton administration) has stored a low public profile. Its one-page website contains bland slogans — “Timeless concepts. Contemporary strategy” — and scant particulars. Its co-founder described Teneo as “non-public and confidential” in a single presentation, and the group doesn’t disclose the overwhelming majority of its members or its funders.

However ProPublica and Documented have obtained greater than 50 hours of inside Teneo movies and a whole bunch of pages of paperwork that reveal the group’s formidable agenda, influential membership and burgeoning clout. We’ve additionally interviewed Teneo members and other people accustomed to the group’s actions. The movies, paperwork and interviews present an unfiltered take a look at the lens by means of which the group views the ability of the left — and the way it plans to fight it.

In response to questions for this story, Leo mentioned in an announcement: “Teneo’s younger membership proves that the conservative motion is poised to be much more gifted, pushed, and profitable sooner or later. This can be a group that is aware of construct profitable groups.”

The information present Teneo’s members have included a number of outstanding names from the conservative vanguard, together with such elected officers as U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a co-founder of the group. Different members have included Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, now the fourth-ranking Home Republican, in addition to Nebraska’s lawyer basic and Virginia’s solicitor basic. Three senior aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, are members. One other is the federal judge who struck down a Biden administration masks mandate. The heads of the Republican Attorneys Common Affiliation, Republican State Management Committee and Turning Level USA — all key cogs on the earth of nationwide conservative politics — have been listed as Teneo members.

Conservative media figures like Ben Shapiro of the Day by day Wire, a number of professional athletes and dozens of executives and senior figures within the worlds of finance, vitality and past have additionally been members.

Leo joined Teneo’s board of administrators as chairman in 2021 and has since turn out to be a driving power.

Teneo co-founder Evan Baehr, a tech entrepreneur and veteran of conservative activism, mentioned in a 2019 video for brand new members that Teneo had “many, many, many dozens” of members working within the Trump administration, together with within the White Home, State Division, Justice Division and Pentagon. “They’re in all places.”

The purpose, Baehr mentioned in one other video, was “a world through which Teneans serve within the Home and the Senate, as governors — one could be elected president.”

Right here’s how “the Left” works in America, in accordance with Baehr.

“Think about a bunch of 4 individuals sitting on the Harvard Membership for lunch in midtown Manhattan,” he mentioned in a 2020 Teneo video: “a billionaire hedge funder,” “a movie producer,” “a Harvard professor” and “a New York Occasions author.”

“The billionaire says: ‘Wouldn’t or not it’s cool if center college youngsters had free entry to sex-change remedy paid for by the federal authorities?’” Baehr continued. “Properly, the filmmaker says, ‘I’d like to do a documentary on that; it will likely be a serious movement movie.’ The Harvard professor says, ‘We are able to do research on that to say that’s completely biologically sound and protected.’ And the New York Occasions individual says, ‘I’ll profile individuals who really feel trapped within the fallacious gender.’ ”

After a single lunch, Baehr concluded, elite liberals can “put totally different sorts of capital collectively” and “exit into the world” and “principally wreck store.”

In a recorded video “city corridor” held for incoming members, Baehr, a graduate of three Ivy League universities and a serial entrepreneur fluent in tech startup lingo, recalled the second when he had the epiphany to create a conservative counter-effort.

It occurred a decade earlier when he was consuming lunch at a “pretty uninviting” Baja Contemporary in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., together with his then-boss Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic enterprise capitalist.

Baehr defined within the video that he had turn out to be annoyed as he kicked round right-of-center politics and activism for just a few years, engaged on Capitol Hill, within the George W. Bush White Home and for right-of-center teams together with the American Enterprise Institute and the Becket Fund for Non secular Liberty.

Baehr and Thiel lamented what they noticed because the fragmented state of conservative networks, with their hidebound suppose tanks and mental facilities that maintain sway over right-of-center politics. A uncommon brilliant spot on their aspect, Baehr and Thiel agreed, was the Federalist Society. Thiel had, the truth is, served as president of the Stanford Federalist Society. What if there have been a bunch much like the Federalist Society for enterprise capitalists or company CEOs or members of the media? (Thiel didn’t reply to a request for remark.)

In 2008, Baehr, Hawley and others launched Teneo — Latin for “I grasp” or “I endure.” Hawley, then an affiliate lawyer in non-public observe, authored Teneo’s founding rules, in accordance with the brand new member discuss hosted by Baehr, and served on the group’s board. Its core beliefs align with the broader conservative institution’s: restricted authorities, particular person liberty, free enterprise, sturdy nationwide protection and civil society and perception in a “transcendent order” that’s “based in custom, philosophy, or theology.”

For a very long time, the group didn’t dwell as much as expectations. In its first 12 months, Teneo raised a paltry $77,000, in accordance with its tax filing. From 2009 to 2017, the group, based mostly first in Washington, D.C., and later in Austin, Texas, by no means raised greater than $750,000 in a single 12 months, tax information present. One member described in an interview Teneo’s early days as little greater than a run-of-the-mill dinner membership with partisan overtones: “As an alternative of being a company about concepts, it was all about being a Republican.”

Enter Leo. Within the early years of the Trump administration, he and the Federalist Society had exceptional affect inside the new authorities. The Federalist Society had introduced the authorized doctrines of originalism and textualism — shut readings of legal guidelines and the Structure to stick to the intent and phrases of the authors — into the mainstream. Leo had taken a depart of absence from the group to advise President Trump on judicial appointments, serving to shepherd the appointments of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court docket and serving to to fill greater than 200 different positions in federal district and appellate courts. By the point Trump left workplace, he had placed on the bench 28% of all federal judges in America.

Within the city corridor video, Baehr defined how he modeled Teneo on the Federalist Society. Leo’s “secret sauce,” he mentioned, was to establish an “interior core” group of individuals inside the Federalist Society’s 60,000 members. Leo was “figuring out them and recruiting them for both particular roles to function judges or to spin up and launch essential initiatives typically which you’d don’t know about.”

Quickly after Leo took an curiosity in Teneo, the group’s funds soared. Annual income reached $2.3 million in 2020 and almost $5 million in 2021, in accordance with tax information. In 2021, the majority of Teneo’s revenue — greater than $3 million — got here from one supply: DonorsTrust, a clearinghouse for conservative, libertarian and different charitable presents that masks the unique supply of the cash. In 2020, the Leo-run group that acquired the Chicago enterprise proprietor’s $1.6 billion donation gave $41 million to DonorsTrust, which had $1.5 billion in property as of 2021.

Teneo’s different funders have included marquee conservative donors: hedge fund investor Paul Singer, Dwelling Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, the Charles Koch Basis, the Bradley Basis, and the DeVos household, in accordance with Baehr.

Because the group’s funds improved, its movies turned way more professionally produced, and its web site underwent a dramatic improve from earlier iterations. All of this was a part of what Baehr referred to as “Teneo 2.0,” a serious leap ahead for the group, pushed partly by Leo’s steering and involvement.

Baehr declined an interview request. He mentioned in an announcement: “Since Teneo started, I’ve been constructing a whole bunch of friendships amongst various leaders who’ve a deep love for this nation and are engaged on modern options to drive human flourishing for all. Teneo has made me a greater husband, father, and chief.”

Teneo goals to assist members discover jobs, write books, meet spouses, safe start-up financing or nonprofit donors and find out about public service. As described in a “Neighborhood Imaginative and prescient” report from 2019, Teneo seeks to differentiate itself by performing as “the Silicon Valley of Conservatism — a strong community of communities the place essentially the most influential younger leaders, the largest concepts, and essentially the most leveraged assets come collectively to launch key initiatives that advance our shared perception that the conservative worldview drives human flourishing.”

Lots of the connections occur at Teneo’s annual retreat, which brings collectively a whole bunch of members and their spouses, plus allies together with politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and DeSantis in addition to enterprise leaders and outstanding teachers. Audio system at previous Teneo retreats have included luminaries spanning politics, tradition, enterprise and the legislation: New York Occasions columnist David Brooks, federal choose Trevor McFadden, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, “Woke, Inc.” creator and 2024 presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, former Trump cupboard official and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, ultrawealthy donors and activists Dick and Betsy DeVos, and Chick-fil-A board chair Dan Cathy.

However the group’s inside paperwork and movies additionally present the widening sprawl of its different actions. Teneo at present has 20 regional chapters nationwide, plus business working teams centered, most not too long ago, on media, company America, finance and legislation. In April, the group is internet hosting a “finance summit” in South Seaside that its invitation says will “convene rising conservative expertise from main monetary establishments, funds, and household workplaces to attach and talk about key business points basic to the way forward for our nation.”

Teneo members characterize totally different sides of the conservative motion writ giant. Some Teneo members had been “very sturdy Trump defenders,” Baehr mentioned within the 2019 city corridor video, whereas others have opposed Trump vehemently. Baehr mentioned there have been clear divisions inside the group’s members about immigration and commerce coverage. “Hopefully different ones, possibly Inexperienced New Deal, I hope that’s extra like 99 to 1” in opposition, he mentioned.

It’s within the city corridor video that Baehr assured new members that Teneo “is non-public and confidential.” He mentioned the group won’t ever reveal the names of its members with out their permission, although they’re free to reveal their membership in the event that they wish to. Members should be of their 40s or youthful to hitch.

Baehr mentioned Teneo’s web site is crafted in order to not pique the curiosity of Senate staffers who may lookup the group if considered one of its members mentions Teneo throughout a affirmation course of for a judgeship or a cupboard place. “We expect rather a lot about that to guard your present and future management alternatives,” Baehr defined.

This technique seems to have labored. A spokesperson for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a critic of Leo’s who has spoken extensively about darkish cash and the courts, mentioned the senator’s workers was “not accustomed to Teneo.” In the course of the affirmation means of Ryan Holte, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Court docket of Federal Claims, Holte was requested a number of written questions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., about his membership in Teneo, however Feinstein spelled the group’s identify fallacious every time. (Requested what the mission of the group was, Holte responded that Teneo was a “nonpartisan, and nonprofit, group that gathers members from quite a lot of skilled backgrounds for dinners and social actions to debate present occasions.”)

A current Teneo fundraising e-mail laid out how the group can carry its members’ affect collectively in service of a trigger.

To “confront” what he dubbed “woke capitalism,” Jonathan Bunch, a longtime Leo deputy and now Teneo board member, wrote that the group had introduced collectively a coalition of Teneans “working with (or serving as) state attorneys basic, state monetary officers, state legislators, journalists, media executives and best-in-class public affairs professionals” to launch investigations, maintain hearings, pull state funding funds and publish op-eds and information tales in response to so-called environmental, social and governance, or ESG, insurance policies on the company stage.

“Our members had been within the rooms the place it occurred,” Bunch wrote.

One other undertaking underway, Baehr defined in a 2020 presentation, was a “surreptitious and thrilling” effort to map key establishments in main cities — non-public colleges, nation golf equipment, newspapers, Rotary and so forth — and discover methods to get Teneo members inside these establishments and assist members join with one another. The initiative has begun by mapping Atlanta and several other cities in Texas.

For these Teneo members who run for elected workplace, the community gives easy accessibility to a big pool of donors and allies. A Leo acolyte and member of Teneo’s Midwest membership committee, Will Scharf, is now working for Missouri lawyer basic. Marketing campaign finance information present that dozens of Teneo members made substantial early contributions to Scharf’s marketing campaign, together with Leo, Baehr and different members of Teneo’s management, who final 12 months every gave the utmost allowable donation of $2,650.

In an e-mail, Scharf mentioned a lot of his “dearest buddies are members of Teneo, and it has been a privilege to be concerned with such an awfully gifted and dedicated group of younger conservatives.”

Leo’s personal statements about Teneo recommend that his plan for the group extends nicely past attaining near-term political victories.

“Once you’re combating a battle for the guts and soul of our tradition, you wish to know you’re within the trenches with somebody you possibly can belief, somebody you realize, and somebody who could have your again,” Teneo’s “Neighborhood Imaginative and prescient” report quotes Leo as saying. “We don’t win except we construct friendship and fellowship with different individuals — and that’s what you’re doing right here with Teneo.”

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