National News

Concerned by Trump, Some Republicans Quietly Align With Democrats

Posted May 24, 2018 8:52 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Since Donald Trump began dominating American politics more than two years ago, Democrats concerned about his policies and behavior have taken solace in a group of influential Republicans who have consistently assailed the president as anathema to the values of their party, and the country more broadly.

In the past year, however, influential liberal donors and operatives have gone from cheering these Never Trump Republicans to quietly working with — and even funding — them. Through invitation-only emails and private, off-the-record meetings, they have formed a loose network of cross-partisan alliances aimed at helping neutralize Trump, and preventing others from capitalizing on weaknesses in the political system that they say he has exploited.

While this network has mostly eschewed electoral politics, some involved see the potential for it to help form an ideological — and possibly financial — platform to back candidates, including a centrist challenge to Trump in 2020, possibly from within the GOP or even a third party.

The network — composed of overlapping groups led by Democrats such as donor Rachel Pritzker and several veteran Obama administration operatives, as well as leading Never Trump Republicans like Evan McMullin, Mindy Finn and William Kristol — aims to chart a middle path between a Republican base falling in line behind Trump and a liberal resistance trying to pull the Democratic Party left.

“If you’re a Republican who is concerned about the health of the liberal order and alarmed over the destruction of the norms of American democracy, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be willing to work with a Democrat who is equally concerned about those same matters,” said Jerry Taylor, a Republican who is president of the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank that grew out of the libertarian Cato Institute.

While a slew of initiatives raised big money for cross-partisan bridge-building and even presidential campaigns in 2012, the current effort is different. It involves more players who are more actively involved in politics from across the spectrum, many of whom bring their own constituencies, making it less centralized and, in some ways, less organized.

Yet they are arguably more united than past efforts by their concern over threats to democracy they contend are embodied by a single politician: Trump.

It’s an amorphous, somewhat secretive effort, partly because some participants fear Trump and his allies would brand Never Trump Republicans as pawns of Democrats. Meeting locations, agendas and attendees are mostly kept quiet, while political intelligence is privately shared between participants on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

But some of the collaboration is becoming more overt.

Over the past couple of months, network members filed amicus briefs accusing Trump of overstepping his authority on matters ranging from immigration to his administration’s efforts to block a merger between AT&T and Time Warner. And last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to protect the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election, for which network members had lobbied.

“It was a kumbaya moment,” said Lisa Gilbert, an official at the left-leaning watchdog group Public Citizen, which helped coordinate lobbying by groups across the political spectrum.

A coalition involving many of the same groups is working to quickly mobilize mass protests across the country if Trump acts to impede the special counsel investigation. And next month organizers of a group of leading donors and operatives from the right and left called Patriots and Pragmatists are expecting their biggest turnout yet at a meeting in San Francisco, according to people familiar with the planning.

The Niskanen Center hosts a semimonthly invitation-only gathering of Trump critics called the Meeting of the Concerned, which attendees are asked to keep confidential. While it is attended primarily by a rotating cast of Never Trump Republicans — including the pundit Kristol and former Rep. Mickey Edwards — meetings sometimes include a Democrat or two presenting research or analysis on relevant issues. Attendees have included Ian Bassin, a former Obama White House lawyer who founded a watchdog group, Protect Democracy, that has sued the Trump administration and that has brought on staff members and advisers — including Taylor — from conservative or Republican backgrounds.

Other Republicans have been wary of getting involved, Bassin said. “There is a troubling dynamic happening where anytime a conservative expresses concerns, they get branded a Never Trumper and are excommunicated from the American right.”

But Edwards, a Republican representative from Oklahoma from 1977 to 1993, said he was not worried about stigma. “Party identity really is being set aside. We have bigger fish to fry,” he said. He has become involved in a number of cross-partisan coalitions challenging Trump in recent months, including working with the former Obama administration lawyers Neal Katyal and Joshua Geltzer to file a legal brief in March in a court case opposing Trump’s proposed restrictions on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. “It’s really a much more free-form kind of resistance. It’s a movement more than an organization.”

Arguably the most intriguing of the cross-partisan gatherings are those convened by Patriots and Pragmatists, an informal coalition started in 2017 by Pritzker in response to the political polarization inflamed by the 2016 election.

Pritzker was a founding board member of the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of major liberal donors that has steered more than $600 million to the groups that comprise the institutional left since 2005. In 2010, though, she dropped out of the alliance and began redirecting her larger donations to efforts designed to break through partisan polarization, primarily on climate change and energy production. The discussions at Patriots and Pragmatists meetings are intended to focus on big picture topics related to democracy, rather than elections or political funding. Nonetheless, some see the coalition as having the potential to bring the same kind of financial firepower to an anti-Trump centrist movement as the Democracy Alliance brought to the left. Its efforts were described by a dozen people familiar with the group, who spoke anonymously to describe private discussions.

The group has held three two-day gatherings outside San Francisco, New York and Washington, to which Pritzker and her political adviser invited 20 to 40 people per meeting. Gatherings have drawn influential Democratic operatives like Bassin and Democracy Alliance founder Rob Stein. They have also attracted big-name Republican thinkers, writers and operatives including Taylor, legal analyst Benjamin Wittes and foreign policy hawks Mona Charen, David Frum, Robert Kagan, Kristol and Jennifer Rubin. Also attending were McMullin, who ran a long-shot independent conservative presidential campaign against Trump in 2016, and his running mate, Finn.

Perhaps most significantly, Patriots and Pragmatists gatherings have drawn major donors like William D. Budinger, a former Democracy Alliance board member

Also attending have been representatives of deep-pocketed grant-writing foundations like Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund and Democracy Fund Voice, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative.

For the past few years, those foundations have been donating millions of dollars a year to bipartisan and nonpartisan groups advocating political reforms. But they redoubled their efforts after the 2016 election.

Stand Up Republic and Stand Up Ideas — founded by McMullin and Finn — have received a total of as much as $1.3 million from the Democracy Fund groups and the Madison Initiative. And Protect Democracy and the Protect Democracy Project — founded by Bassin — have received as much as $500,000 from those grant-writing foundations, according to financial information on their websites.

Bassin’s group teamed with McMullin and Finn’s to host a two-day conference in Washington in February called the National Summit for Democracy, which was funded partly by Pritzker and also by a foundation funded by a Republican donor, Jerry Hirsch. It brought together groups and leaders from the Never Trump right with the liberal resistance, centrist Democrats and government watchdog groups to discuss phenomena that have garnered increased concern in the Trump era — from foreign meddling in elections to attacks on the press and the special counsel, and federal law enforcement, more generally.

It’s too early to predict the outcome of the spike in cross-partisan organizing, Stein said. But he added that there was a “sense of urgency and intellectual vitality animating these efforts” that could “challenge conventional political wisdoms, 20th-century political alliances and the two major, internally fractious, parties.”