By FOIA Research
on November 24, 2021 - Last updated: May 23, 2022

Groundswell group

The Groundswell group is a secretly operating network of politicians, political activists, donors and media personalities at the forefront of pushing the GOP further to the right. Groundswell is not an official organization and has no public profile or website. Instead, the coalition operates clandestinely and has reportedly communicated by way of a Google group, bringing together like-minded Republicans predominantly with a Christian Right leaning to coordinate their current agenda items.

The group emerged in early 2013 following the U.S. presidential election won by Barack Obama, and was set out to fight progressivism and the GOP establishment.1 Ever since, Groundswell participants have gathered at weekly meetings in Washington and began networking online. According to emails leaked to Mother Jones in 2013, the group had announced "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation"1 by such goals as repealing the Affordable Care Act, working behind the scenes to enact voter ID laws, and blocking Obama administration nominees.1 Furthermore, the platform was used "to exchange and amplify hard-line positions on immigration, abortion and gun control," as The New York Times reported.2

Several key Groundswell participants had a background in the Tea Party, which by then had largely flopped. Generally, Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is identified as Groundswell's founder, a Tea Party gone MAGA activist, while the support of Steve Bannon is also frequently quoted.2

From the little information that has seeped through since its early exposure, as of 2020 the group was still active.3 Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker that, as of 2022, Ginni Thomas' biography in the Council for National Policy’s membership book mentions her ongoing involvement in Groundswell. And a former participant had told the author that Thomas still chairs weekly meetings.3 Although little material evidence of the group exists, the manifold instances in which known Groundswell participants have collaborated in the recent years indicate that they kept on networking. No matter what, to this day the synergies between identified Groundswell participants are remarkable, so is the influence they exert on the GOP and the U.S. Right at large.

The group brings together political activist from notorious organizations on the GOP's (far) right, such as the Council for National Policy (CNP) (Virginia Thomas, William Boykin, Austin Ruse, Steve Bannon, Tom Fitton, Kenneth Blackwell, Frank Gaffney); the Committee on the Present Danger: China (Steve Bannon, William Boykin, Frank Gaffney); the Center for Security Policy (Frank Gaffney); the Family Research Council (William Boykin, Ken Blackwell), Judicial Watch (Tom Fitton), the American Legislative Exchange Council (Lori Roman), the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM) (Austin Ruse), Project Veritas (James O'Keefe, Barbara Ledeen), True the Vote (Catherine Engelbrecht, Anita MonCrief); the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Steve Bannon, Austin Ruse) and the Federalist Society (Leonard Leo).

Among the high-profile Groundswell participants are several Catholic hardliners (Steve Bannon, Virginia Thomas, Austin Ruse, Leonard Leo), and there is a certain footprint of the Catholic fundamentalist organization Opus Dei. Austin Ruse is a supernumerary Opus Dei member;45 and Leonard Leo directs the Opus Dei-affiliated Catholic Information Center (CIC)—a secretive organization some of whose members had direct influence on Donald Trump's appointment of arch-reactionary Supreme Court Justices during his tenure.6

In the mix are also former GOP government officials, and a whole range of far-right media personalities, most prominently Steve Bannon and Dan Bongino. Also contributors to several far-right news portals have reportedly taken part in meetings, such as from Breitbart News (Steve Bannon, Austin Ruse, Matthew Boyle, Mike Flynn (died 2016)7); Washington Examiner (Mark Tapscott), and the National Review (Michael James Barton) - certainly to publicize the talking points developed by Groundswell.1

Several members of the group have engaged in undercover opposition research and collecting dirt on political enemies. Among the early Groundswell meetings was James O'Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, a far-right group that has used deceptive techniques, such as hidden recordings, to damage its opponents. Another Groundswell participant, Barbara Ledeen, had reportedly passed on information about Trump's national security adviser H.R. McMaster to Project Veritas.8 In 2015, Ledeen had also offered "investigative services" to Steve Bannon to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton.9

In its early years, many of the Groundswell participants backed Ted Cruz as presidential candidate before switching to supporting Donald Trump in 2016. Two early Groundswell participants became members of Trump's transition team (Ken Blackwell, Danielle Cutrona). Groundswell went on to be influential in the White House of former president Donald Trump, conducting an effort to rid the White House and other government agencies of so-called "deep state" opponents of Trump.108 Several people who have been involved with the group have spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19, backed Trump in his false claims of widespread voter fraud during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and advertised the events that led to the January 6 insurrection.

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Timeline

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2013

Already a few months after the Groundswell group emerged in spring 2013, internal emails were leaked to Mother Jones, resulting in a groundbreaking exposé which identified some of the most important figures involved1:

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.

Virginia Thomas

Ginni Thomas speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.

An infamous role in the Groundswell efforts is ascribed to Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a trained attorney gone far-right Republican activist. Formerly a governmental employee in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor, upon marrying Clarence Thomas in 1987, she turned to political consulting and lobbying. In 2000, she joined the far-right Heritage Foundation, where she served as a liaison between the think tank and the George W. Bush administration. Thomas converted from Protestantism to her husband's Catholic faith in 2002. She credits Justice Antonin Scalia and his wife Maureen for helping her husband back into the Church.11 In 2009, Thomas founded Liberty Central (2009-2012), associated with the Tea Party movement, aimed at opposing what Thomas called the "leftist tyranny" of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, and "protecting the core founding principles" of the nation.12 A year later, she founded Liberty Consulting, which The Washington Post has described as "a one-woman shop" where Thomas advised political donors how to direct funds in the post-Citizens United v. FEC landscape.13 In 2011, Thomas became columnist for the Daily Caller, founded by now-Fox News host Tucker Carlson and political pundit Neil Patel in 2010, known for its ties to White supremacists and the spreading of fake news. After the Tea Party had lost traction, in 2013, Thomas started to concentrate her efforts on the newly launched Groundswell group.

The conflicts of interests that have emerged from Thomas' marriage to a Supreme Court Justice are alarming. According to Mother Jones:

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. ... Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision.

These conflicts of interests have been ongoing. While Virginia Thomas is doing lobbying work, e.g. to challenge voting, LGTBIQ and reproductive rights, in related court cases her husband has voted in line with the arch-reactionary positions of his wife.

According to The New York Times, from the start one of Groundswell's key imperatives was voter suppression:2

Among the early Groundswell participants was Russell J. Ramsland Jr., an influential Texas-based backer of evidence-free voting-fraud claims who would make a failed congressional run. So was James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, a right-wing group that has used deception and hidden cameras to try to buttress claims of voter fraud. Another participant was Catherine Englebrecht [Engelbrecht], a Texas activist who in 2009 founded True the Vote, a group that says it is battling “groups who subvert our elections to serve their own purposes” and has pushed for voting restrictions.

The activists were particularly inflamed after Obama signed an executive order on March 28, 2013, that created a commission to study elections. ... [Ginni] Thomas weighed in, listing key House staff members working on elections matters, and asked, “Who else are key working group members on ELECTION LAW, ELECTION REFORM and THE LEFT’S NARRATIVES, Groundswell???”

Three months after the email exchange, Justice Thomas provided a critical vote in the court’s 5-to-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which effectively stripped the Voting Rights Act of language that protected voters in places that had historically disenfranchised them on the basis of race. ... The case was led in part by one of Thomas’s own former clerks, William Consovoy, whose arguments echoed the justice’s views. ...

The ruling was cheered on the right, with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board calling it “a triumph of racial progress.” Civil rights groups were dismayed. “The Shelby decision is one of the biggest affronts to our democracy in modern history,” said Janai Nelson, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, arguing that it “unleashed a wave of voter suppression that is like what we witnessed in the Jim Crow era.” The decision freed states to enact restrictive laws, she added, that were “often based on mythical justifications” of supposed voter fraud and “by no coincidence disenfranchise minority voters at alarmingly disproportionate rates.”

The emails that were leaked in 2013 to Mother Jones include notes prepared after a Groundswell meeting held on March 27, 2013, detailing the group's agenda and giving some insights into its origins:14

Notes prepared after a Groundswell meeting held on March 27, 2013.

The level of micro-managing certain issues is considerable, and also how important optics are for carrying home certain messages. For example, Groundswell intended to create faux outrage over "boys vanishing from the boyscouts." According to the Groundswell report above:

Several groups are working together to create a campaign to protect the current policy of the BSA and the boys in scouting. An op-ed piece with the signatures of Moms will go out this Friday in the official campaign launch. Moms are being brought together to carry the message. A FaceBook page, Moms of Boy Scouts, is now up and running. [Please “like” the page and message to others.] ... The idea is to put Moms out first, expressing concerns for their kids. By Moms bringing their kids in strollers we will create visuals that will tell the story through social media [TV, Facebook and Twitter]. The goal is to bring attention to this matter and make it a grassroots issue. The Left will try to marginalize the message by making it a “hate” issue but by putting Moms with their kids out first, we will control the message.

Several of the leaked emails are signed by Stephanie Arje, a Jewish "author, teacher, encourager,"15 who also seems to have posted messages to the group under the moniker "conservativenetworking." A listing of the emails leaked in 2013 is available at the end of this article.

Tom Fitton

According to Mother Jones, in 2013 the Groundswell coalition convened "weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group"1 led by a vocal supporter of former president Donald Trump, Tom Fitton.16 Fitton has been a key Council for National Policy (CNP) member, an extremely influential "pluto-theocratic" umbrella organization and networking group for right-wing Republican activists. Since Groundswell's inception, former and current CNP members have been heavily represented in the group, including Virginia Thomas, Steve Bannon, Kenneth Blackwell, Frank Gaffney, William Boykin and Austin Ruse.

Fitton is the president of Judicial Watch (JW), a right-wing activist group founded by attorney Larry Klayman in 1994. JW files Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to investigate claimed misconduct by (Democratic) government officials, particularly sitting Democratic presidents. While courts have dismissed the vast majority of its lawsuits, they nonetheless serve as publicity stunts, underlining JW’s bogus narratives.17 The organization is also in staunch opposition to political measures tackling climate change. It has described climate science as "fraud science" and has filed lawsuits against government climate scientists. JW has made numerous false and unsubstantiated claims that have been picked up by right-wing news outlets and promoted by conservative figures. During the coronavirus pandemic, Fitton amplified right-wing conspiracy theories, particularly attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's leading epidemiologist.18 At the very end of the Trump presidency, Fitton was appointed to the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure which has the authority to remove judges from office for misconduct, his term running until 2025.19

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon joined the Groundswell group early on in 2013. The previous year, Bannon had become executive editor of Breitbart News, known to be majorly funded by the Mercer family. Subsequently, several Breitbart contributors participated in Groundswell meetings, including Austin Ruse, Matthew Boyle, and Mike Flynn (died 2016)7, in order to carry home the talking points developed by the group.

The same year as the Groundswell group emerged, in 2013, Bannon was involved in setting up the scandal-ridden political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which has become subject of several criminal investigations. According to CNN, "With financial backing from hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Bannon co-founded Cambridge Analytica in 2013 as the US-branch of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) Group, a British company that advertises how it has conducted "behavioral change" programs in more than 60 countries."20 The now defunct Cambridge Analytica had worked for Donald Trump's presidential campaign as well as for Leave.EU, rallying for a “hard” Brexit. This engagement entailed the inappropriate acquisition of the personal information of up to 87 Million Facebook users.21 The data gathered was predominately used for developing a system of personality profiling, which facilitated the targeted distribution of ads for particular audiences, so-called “Dark Ads.” Next to illegal data mining and profiling activities, Cambridge Analytica has also been accused of having used dirty methods such as “bribery stings, honey traps and spying” in order to influence the election results in Trump's favor.22

Given the strong focus on Facebook operations in the leaked Groundswell emails, it does not seem far-fetched that Groundswell subsequently made use of Bannon's Cambridge Analytica infrastructure.

Austin Ruse

The Groundswell group facilitated various synergies between its members. For example, starting in September 2013, Austin Ruse became a regular contributor to Steve Bannon's Breitbart News, writing hundreds of articles for the site. In an article on The Imaginative Conservative, Ruse said that it was Bannon who had first contacted him, and that the two knew each other from Groundswell meetings:23

Out of the blue in the summer of 2014 [more likely in 2013], I received an email from Steve Bannon asking if I ever published anyplace other than Crisis Magazine and would I be interested in writing for Breitbart. I knew Mr. Bannon’s name from a weekly conservative coalition that still meets in Washington DC. Mr. Bannon occasionally called in but never appeared in person.

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Steve Bannon with Benjamin Harnwell at the Pontifica Universita in Rome during the events leading up to the canonization of Pope John Paul II and John XXIII in April 2014.

Ruse then recommended Steve Bannon to broadcast a Breitbart radio show from Rome during the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27, 2014, which paved the way for the establishment of Breitbart's Rome bureau.24 Ruse also put Bannon in touch with Benjamin Harnwell, the co-founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), a Catholic fundamentalist think tank bringing together abortionist hardliners with like-minded figures in the right-wing Vatican orbit, which set the stage for Bannon's stronger involvement in right-wing Catholic affairs.25 The organization became more widely known when in early 2018 Steve Bannon announced his by now failed plans to open a far-right cadre school in the Abbey of Trisulti, a remote Italian monastery, with the help of the DHI.26 Since 2019, also Ruse appears on the Board of Trustees of the DHI, and from October 2021 to date Harnwell serves as "international editor" and occasional co-host of Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Pandemic.27

FOIA Research has been looking extensively into the activities of Austin Ruse, one of the leading organizers and opinion makers within the U.S. Catholic Right. He is co-founder and president of the arch-reactionary Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM), which has been listed as an anti-LGBTIQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.28 Ruse is deeply enmeshed in Republican politics, and was formerly a member of the Council for National Policy.29 He has publicly expressed his support for Donald Trump, and was part of the Catholic Advisory Group, liaising between Catholic groups and the Trump campaign.30 He has stated that Trump "more closely adheres to Catholic social teaching than Joe Biden."31

Ruse sits like a spider in a web of arch-reactionary, and largely Catholic, organizations. He is a Knight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and a supernumerary member of the Catholic fundamentalist organization Opus Dei.432 Since around 2000, Ruse has been involved in the planning of the World Congress of Families (coordinated by the International Organization for the Family), bringing together anti-choice and anti-LGTBIQ organizations from all over the world under the inconspicuously sounding banner of the "family."33 In 2004, Ruse was among the founders of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast,29 an annual prayer event and banquet that takes place in Washington, D.C., which has become an important networking event for the Catholic Right and the Republican Party.

William Boykin

Another noteworthy early Groundswell participant is William Gerald "Jerry" Boykin (b. 1948), a fundamentalist Christian retired three-star general who was the U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2007. Boykin, a born-again Christian, has generated considerable controversy with his religiously fanatic and Islamophobic remarks, particularly with framing the War on Terror in religious terms.34 Boykin is involved in several ultra-reactionary organizations, the most outwardly militant being the Black Robe Regiment, a clerical fascist militia, of which he is a member since its foundation in 2012.35 As of 2022, Boykin is also executive vice president of the Family Research Council (FRC),36 an American fundamentalist Protestant activist group and lobbying organization. In 2016, Boykin appeared as an advisor to Republican Ted Cruz in his presidential campaign.37 Currently, Boykin sits on the Committee on the Present Danger: China, a Cold War neocon think tank revived for the fourth time in 2019, prominently featuring the Groundswellers Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney on its roster. As of September 2020, Boykin is a member of the Council for National Policy.38

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2016

2016 Presidential election

Many of the Groundswell participants (Virginia Thomas, William Boykin, Max Pappas) were initially supporting the Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential primaries, but then shifted to Donald Trump when it was clear that Cruz was about to loose the race.39 When reactionary kingmakers, such as Robert Mercer, switched to betting on another horse, Steve Bannon, long funded by the Mercers, became Trump’s last-minute campaign manager. The Mercers' influence was furthermore evidenced, when, following the presidential election in November 2016, Rebekah Mercer served on the Executive Committee of Donald Trump's transition team,40 a group of around 100 aides, policy experts, government affairs officials, and former government officials who were tasked with vetting, interviewing, and recommending individuals for top cabinet and staff roles in Trump's administration.

Danielle Cutrona, a Groundswell organizer from early on, was also a member of Trump's transition team. Cutrona was tasked with leading the "Immigration Reform and Building the Wall" group of the policy implementation team. Currently, Cutrona is the chief counsel to U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary.41

Ken Blackwell, another early Groundswell participant, led the arena of "Domestic issues" in the transition team, the former mayor of Cincinnati (1979–80), treasurer of Ohio (1994–99), and secretary of state of Ohio (1999–2007).42 Blackwell is currently a Senior Fellow for Family Empowerment with the Family Research Council as well as a Council for National Policy member.43

With Bannon suddenly being catapulted into the limelight as chief presidential adviser, Groundswell had come a considerable step closer to the White House.

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2017

Project Veritas

Another battleground of Groundswell has been opposition research and smear campaigns directed against political opponents. As The New York Times reported, among the early Groundswell participants was James O’Keefe (b. 1984), who in 2010 had founded Project Veritas, a group that uses deceptive techniques to attack mainstream media and progressive organizations.2 Both O'Keefe and Project Veritas have produced secretly recorded undercover audio and video purporting to show abusive or illegal behavior by representatives of those organizations. 

Barbara Ledeen

Barbara Ledeen has been named as a member of Groundswell in connection with her involvement in an undercover campaign by Project Veritas to discredit H.R. McMaster when he served as Trump's national security adviser in 2017 and 2018.

Ledeen, a longtime staffer for Senator Chuck Grassley on the Senate Judiciary Committee and wife of neoconservative foreign policy analyst Michael Ledeen, said she passed on information about McMaster's social calendar to Project Veritas which then used the information to plan an operation to secretly record McMaster making comments that would cause him to resign or be fired. Ledeen admitted passing on the information but said "I am not part of a plot."8

However, Barbara Ledeen's involvement in "opposition research" go further back. The investigative journalist Seth Abramson reported:9

On June 5, 2015, eleven days before Donald Trump announces his candidacy for President of the United States ... Barbara Ledeen, emails a 25-page proposal for “investigative services” to Steve Bannon … a self-described “opposition research” proposal: she proposes that, alongside a company called Investigative Consultants, Inc. (“ICI”) partly run by William S. Lofgren—the man “responsible for all CIA operations in the former Soviet Union and Easter Europe” from 1993 to 1996—she will offer “investigative services” to Bannon, or any entity or campaign connected to Bannon, that would lead to the “obtaining ... of the emails of certain accounts linked to the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, as well as other members of the William, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.” ... Ledeen proposes to use “tools” to “recover seemingly deleted emails ... [from] the Deep Web, the Dark Web, the Poor-to-Peer [sic] and on private, but leaking domain servers of the recipients or re-senders [of emails from Clinton’s server].” ... That Ledeen’s goal in asking Bannon to help her acquire $290,000 to $350,000 in funds to execute her plan is to destroy Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign is clear.

Although the efforts were unfruitful and were eventually halted, Ledeen tried several avenues to get support for the project. According to The Guardian:44

She sought out the help of an unnamed defense contractor and also turned to Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, for help. According to the FBI notes, Gingrich “wanted to speak to others about the project” and asked Judicial Watch, the conservative activist group, for financial assistance.

Judicial Watch allegedly turned to another, unnamed, contractor who was familiar with the “deep web and dark web”, according to the FBI files.

The Ledeens have been “influential—and controversial— players in conservative circles in Washington for decades,” according to The Guardian.44 Michael Ledeen is a former consultant to the U.S. National Security Council, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Formerly a Reagan administration official, Ledeen had "helped to develop the secret programme to sell US arms to Iran in the late 1980s, in what is known as the Iran-Contra affair," according to The Guardian.44 Both Ledeens are linked to the retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and U.S. National Security Advisor for the first 22 days of the Trump administration. In July 2016, Michael Ledeen co-authored a book together with Flynn, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies. An anti-Muslim diatribe framing "Radical Islam" as a "tribal cult" emanating from a "failed civilization," the book urges for regime change, particularly in Iran, deemed at the center of the "great evil."45

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2018

It was reported that starting in 2018, Virginia Thomas and her affiliates "plied the White House with memos and suggestions about which people to fire — and who should replace them."16 According to The New York Times16:

Among Ms. Thomas’s top targets have been officials at the National Security Council, the former head of the White House personnel office, Sean Doocey, and other top White House aides. Another target was Jessie K. Liu, who recently left her job as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for a job in the Treasury Department that was later withdrawn by the White House.

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2019

In January 2019, The New York Times reported that Trump had met that month with Virginia Thomas and a handful of other Groundswell members at the White House's Roosevelt Room. The meeting started out with a prayer by Thomas and "some members of the group prayed at different moments as the meeting continued."39 According to The New York Times:

“It was the craziest meeting I’ve ever been to,” said a Trump aide who attended. “She started by leading the prayer.” When others began speaking, the aide remembers talk of “the transsexual agenda” and parents “chopping off their children’s breasts.” He said the president “tried to rein it in — it was hard to hear though,” because throughout the meeting attendees were audibly praying.

It was an event with no precedent, and some of the details of what transpired soon leaked: the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice lobbying a president when several cases involving transgender rights were making their way through the federal courts. (The following year, Justice Thomas would join a dissent that asserted that the Civil Rights Act did not cover people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.) The meeting grew chaotic. Ginni Thomas and other attendees complained to the president that their favored hard-line job candidates were being blocked and that his own personnel office should be purged, depicting some of his aides as closet liberals and Never Trumpers.

During the meeting, Thomas handed the then president a list of proposed appointees.16 According to The New York Times:16

Since the meeting, Ms. Thomas and her group have been pressing Mr. Trump to replace job holders they did not consider reliably conservative and have complained to White House staff that they were not getting enough attention from the personnel office.

Privately, officials in that office told associates that Ms. Thomas’s suggested hires could never survive proper vetting, including possibilities such as David A. Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County for a homeland security role, or the Fox News guest Dan Bongino for a counterterrorism post.

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Dan Bongino speaking with attendees at the 2020 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Daniel John Bongino (b. 1974), a Groundswell participant from early on, is a far-right American political operative, commentator, radio show host, and author, frequently identified as one of the most influential Trumpist media personalities. Politico reported in October 2020 that Bongino's posts on Facebook were routinely among the most shared on the platform.46 In November 2020, The New York Times listed Dan Bongino in its top 5 election "misinformation superspreaders.”47 Regurgitating key MAGA talking points, Bongino has been spreading misinformation about COVID-19 and has backed Trump’s false claims that Democrats had rigged the 2020 presidential election. He currently hosts the syndicated radio talk show “The Dan Bongino Show” on Westwood One, and “Unfiltered with Dan Bongino” on Fox News.

David Clarke (b. 1956) served as Sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, from 2002 to 2017. After a scandal-ridden career, Clarke resigned as sheriff in 2017 and became a full-time MAGA operative. Clarke joined the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action (see America First Policies) as a spokesman and senior advisor, which he left in 2019. Clarke then joined "We Build The Wall," the crowdfunding campaign to build a U.S.-Mexican border wall. In August 2020, four of its members, including Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon, were indicted for having defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors by pocketing funds for their personal use.48 Formerly a frequent guest on Fox News, Clarke has garnered attention for his inflammatory social-media posts, including calling Planned Parenthood "Planned Genocide"49 or referring to Black Lives Matter as "Black Lies Matter."50

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2020

Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker that, as of 2020, Groundswell was heavily involved in identifying GOP officials that were "disloyal" to former president Donald Trump:3

In a 2020 session of the Council for National Policy, Rachel Bovard, the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, described meeting weekly with Groundswell members to “vet” officials for disloyalty, saying, “Ginni has been very instrumental in working with the White House. . . . She really is the tip of the spear in these efforts.” Bovard lamented Groundswell’s failure to weed out the whistle-blower Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman before he gave testimony at Trump’s first impeachment trial. ... Vindman, then the director for European affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, testified that the President had tried to pressure Ukraine’s leaders into producing dirt on Joe Biden’s family. In retaliation, a smear campaign was mounted against Vindman. He suddenly found himself fending off false claims that he had created a hostile work environment at the N.S.C., and fighting insinuations that, because he was born in Ukraine and had been invited to serve in its government, he had “dual loyalty.” (Vindman had self-reported Ukraine’s offer, which he had rejected.) The Defense Department conducted an internal investigation of the accusations and exonerated him. But, Vindman told me, the attacks “harmed my career.” He went on, “It’s un-American, frankly, that a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court, who is supposed to be apolitical, would have a wife who is part of a political vendetta to retaliate against officials who were dutifully serving the public interest. It’s chilling, and probably has already had an effect on silencing other whistle-blowers.”

2020 presidential election

Following the 2020 U.S. presidential election, various Groundswell actors have been involved in Trumps efforts to delegitimize the election.

According to The New York Times, Ginni Thomas, in her role as a board member of the Council for National Policy "action" arm, had prepared a document that pressured Republican lawmakers to not certify the election results in November 2020:2

She had taken on a prominent role at the council during the Trump years and by 2019 had joined the nine-member board of C.N.P. Action, an arm of the council organized as a 501(c)4 under a provision of the tax code that allows for direct political advocacy. It was C.N.P. Action that circulated the November [2020] “action steps” document, the existence of which has not been widely known. It instructed members to pressure Republican lawmakers into challenging the election results and appointing alternate slates of electors: “Demand that they not abandon their Constitutional responsibilities during a time such as this.”

The latest leaked membership list of the Council for National Policy from September 2020.

In the weeks following Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Thomas repeatedly urged Trump's chief of staff Mark Meadows to take steps to overturn the result,51 repeating conspiracy theories about wide-spread ballot fraud.

Tom Fitton also chimed into the ballot fraud conspiracy theory. For example, at the February 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference he falsely claimed that "President Trump had the votes to win the presidency. These vote totals were changed because of unprecedented and extraordinary counting after election day.”52 Former U.S President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited false claims by Judicial Watch about voter fraud.53

Also Dan Bongino promoted false and baseless claims of voter fraud in the immediate aftermath of the election,54 and sticks to the line that Democrats have rigged the election.55

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2021

January 6 insurrection

After multiple efforts to decertify the election did not succeed, several Groundswell participants promoted the events that led to the January 6 insurrection. Virginia Thomas made an early social media endorsement of the Trump rally that preceded the January 2021 attack on the United States Capitol before the violence took place. Thomas stated that she attended the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the U.S. Capitol attack.56

Steve Bannon's involvement in pushing for the January 6 insurrection is well-known. On September 23, 2021, Bannon was subpoenaed by the Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, demanding documents as well as his testimony to the Committee. The Select Committee named three incidences as reasons for this step57:

Stephen Bannon reportedly communicated with former President Trump on December 30th, 2020, urging him to focus his efforts on January 6th. Mr. Bannon also reportedly attended a gathering at the Willard Hotel on January 5th, 2021, as part of an effort to persuade Members of Congress to block the certification of the election the next day. Mr. Bannon is also quoted as stating, on January 5th, that “[a]ll Hell is going to break loose tomorrow.”

Bannon's lawyers gave the Committee advance notice that he would not comply. After he did not appear, the House of Representatives voted to hold him in criminal contempt of Congress and to refer him to the Justice Department. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on November 12, 2021 on two criminal contempt charges: one count of not providing documents, one count of not testifying. If convicted, he could serve up to one year in jail for each count.58

According to The New Yorker, also the January 6 insurrectionist and Stop The Steal organizer Ali Alexander had originally participated in Groundswell activities:3

Another organizer of the January 6th uprising who has been subpoenaed by the congressional committee, Ali Alexander, also has long-standing ties to Ginni Thomas. ... Alexander spoke at a rally in Washington the night before the riot, leading a chant of “Victory or death!” A decade ago, Alexander was a participant in Groundswell ...

^

Leaked Emails

Below a list of emails leaked from the Groundswell Google group to Mother Jones in 2013, which are no longer available on the Website but are still available on archive.org.59

  1. 3 Items of interest: Rove and Brennan (February 8, 2013)
  2. Re: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: Don't let Republicans destroy the economy. (February 11, 2013)
  3. Ambassador Bolton's op ed on President Obama's leadership vacuum in handling the Benghazi attacks (February 12, 2013)
  4. Danielle Cutrona: Information (February 14, 2013)
  5. Re: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: Idea on Sequestration & Defense Cuts (February 20, 2013)
  6. Notes and Action Items - from meeting 2/20/2013 (February 21, 2013)
  7. Virginia Thomas: Fwd: Country club republicans link with democratic ruling class: millions of voters orphaned (February 21, 2013)
  8. Danielle Cutrona: INFORMATION/ACTION ITEM (February 27, 2013)
  9. Danielle Cutrona: Who is Going to Put an End to the McCain/Graham Circus? (February 27, 2013)
  10. Groundswell NOTES and ACTION Items - from meeting 2/28/2013 (February 28, 2013)
  11. INFORMATION/OPPORTUNITY - Obama administration pressure on truth-tellers through left-wing groups (with Woodward in the news) (February 28, 2013)
  12. ACTION ITEM - LTR DIANA BANISTER (February 6, 2013)
  13. Steve Bannon: Re: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: Weekly Update: Politics Over Public Safety (March 1, 2013)
  14. Virginia Thomas: Fwd: FYI only: Grassroots Activism & the Agenda (March 4, 2013)
  15. Myron Ebell: INFORMATION: CEI press release: McCarthy Wholly Unqualified To Serve as EPA Administrator (March 4, 2013)
  16. Gaston Mooney: EPA Nominee Questions (March 5, 2013)
  17. LINKS: FR Mark Tapscott - Obamacare, HHS Co-ops & The Obama You Don't Know" (Mar 6, 2013)
  18. Action Rand Paul Filibuster Now (March 6, 2013)
  19. Notes/Action: Groundswell Mtg 3/6/2013 (March 7, 2013)
  20. Matthew Boyle: Re: [SPAM] [GroundswellGroup] INFORMATION/ARTICLE: EX-SECRET SERVICE AGENT: OBAMA 'ABSOLUTELY NOT TELLING THE TRUTH' ON WHITE HOUSE TOURS (March 13, 2013 )
  21. GROUNDSWELL MTG NOTES: 3/20/2012 [sic] (March 22, 2013)
  22. Virginia Thomas: Fwd: Amendments Agreed to by Unanimous Consent -- one of the last emails of the night (thanks!) (March 23, 2013)
  23. INFORMATION: Heritage Backgrounder, Encouraging Lawful Immigration and Discouraging Unlawful Immigration, David Addington (March 27, 2013)
  24. GROUNDSWELL MTG NOTES 3/27/2013 (March 28, 2013)
  25. Frank Gaffney: RE: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: OBAMA TAKES TOTAL CONTROL OF ELECTIONS (March 29, 2013)
  26. Michael Flynn: RE: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: OBAMA TAKES TOTAL CONTROL OF ELECTIONS (March 29, 2013)
  27. Catherine: Re: [GroundswellGroup] Fwd: OBAMA TAKES TOTAL CONTROL OF ELECTIONS (March 29, 2013)
  28. Stephanie Arje: GROUNDSWELL MTG NOTE: April 3, 2013 (April 4, 2013)
  29. Steven Sutton: Strategic Message Development Project (April 8, 2013)
^

Participant list

Below a list of people who have reportedly participated in the Groundswell group (not exhaustive):

Alexander, Ali
Arje, Stephanie
Banister, Diana
Bannon, Steve
Barton, Michael James
Blackwell, Ken
Bolton, John
Bongino, Dan
Bovard, Rachel
Boykin, William
Boyle, Matthew
Cutrona, Danielle
Engelbrecht, Catherine
Fitton, Tom
Flynn, Mike
Gaffney, Frank
Ledeen, Barbara
Leo, Leonard
MonCrief, Anito
Myrick, Sue
O'Keefe, James
Pappas, Max
Rios, Sandy
Roman, Lori
Rumsland Jr., Russell
Ruse, Austin
Tapscott, Mark
Thomas, Virginia
Trotter, Gayle
West, Allen
^
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