For 35 years, a shadowy and intensely secretive group has operated behind the scenes, providing a venue three times a year for powerful American politicians and others on the right to meet privately to build the conservative movement.
The Council for National Policy (CNP) is, in the words of The New York Times, “a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country,” an organization so tight-lipped that it tells its people not to admit membership or even name the group. It is important enough that last fall, according to an account in The National Review, Donald Trump and five other Republican presidential candidates each took 30 minutes to address the group; the conservative journal reported that Trump was by far the favorite candidate.
The names of many members and officers of the group have leaked over the years, and some of its officers are reported on the organization’s tax forms. But the last time long lists of its members was made public was in 1998. For the most part since then, members of the CNP — which can be joined only by invitation, at a cost of thousands of dollars — have managed to keep their identities secret.
That is about to end. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently obtained a copy of the CNP’s 2014 Membership Directory, a 191-page compendium that lists 413 members, 118 members who have died, and 14 past presidents. The list is surprising, not so much for the conservatives who dominate it — activists of the religious right and the so-called “culture wars,” along with a smattering of wealthy financiers, Congressional operatives, right-wing consultants and Tea Party enthusiasts — but for the many real extremists who are included.
Paul S. Teller, the hardline chief of staff to Ted Cruz who was once described by The Hill as Cruz’s “agitator in chief,” is a member, or at least he was in 2014. Tony Perkins, the head of the LGBT-bashing Family Research Council, was its vice president that year, one of three executive officers. And Frank Gaffney, whose group provided Trump with bogus statistics about American Muslims’ support for violent jihad and who was a senior adviser to Cruz until May, was a member, too.
The CNP’s 2014 vision statement, reproduced at the front of the directory, succinctly lays out its goal: “A united conservative movement to assure, by 2020, policy leadership and governance that restores religious and economic freedom, a strong national defense, and Judeo-Christian values under the Constitution.”
But it has long been known that the group included some key individuals whose goals are less benevolent. One of its five founders, Tim LaHaye, is the co-author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic Christian novels and a man who has described gay people as “vile,” said the Illuminati are conspiring to establish a “new world order,” attacked Catholicism, and once worked for the wildly conspiracist John Birch Society. An important member whose name was revealed early on was John Rousas Rushdoony, who is listed in the 2014 directory’s “In Memoriam” section and advocated for a society ruled by Old Testament law requiring, among other things, the stoning of adulteresses, idolaters and “incorrigible” children.
The 2014 CNP members are paragons of the conservative establishment. There are business titans, Christian college presidents, owners and editors of right-wing media outlets, GOP mega-donors, government staffers and leading members of conservative think tanks. There are officials of organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Federalist Society. There are politicians and political appointees, anti-abortion activists and also some who are less known publicly as conservatives, like Linda L. Bean, who owns L.L. Bean Inc., an outdoorsy clothing company.
But what is most remarkable about the directory is that it reveals how the CNP has become a key meeting place where ostensibly mainstream conservatives interact with individuals who are, by any reasonable definition, genuinely extremist.
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Tony Perkins is a good example. He has falsely claimed that pedophilia is “a homosexual problem,” said that gay people “recruit” children, secretly purchased a mailing list for a candidate he was managing from former Klan leader David Duke, and addressed, in 2001, the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (the same group that inspired Dylann Roof’s murder of nine churchgoers last year).
He is hardly alone.
On the CNP’s board of governors, for instance, is Michael Peroutka. Peroutka was for many years on the board of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate hate group that advocates for a newly seceded South ruled by white people. He was also the 2004 presidential candidate for the Constitution Party, a far-right group opposed to abortion in all cases. He has appeared on a white nationalist radio show.
There are several other well-known extremists on the same board of governors. Jerome Corsi is the propagandist hit man responsible for the “Swift boating” of John Kerry, has written an error-filled book alleging that President Obama was not born in the United States, once described Martin Luther King Jr. as a “shakedown artist,” and is a subscriber to numerous baseless conspiracy theories. In his latest, 2014 book, he claims that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun fled to Argentina after the end of World War II and lived there happily until their deaths.
Another on that board is Joseph Farah, who runs the conspiracist online “news” outlet, WorldNewsDaily, and employs Corsi. When Farah’s site isn’t busy bashing anything vaguely liberal or suggesting that Obama is helping the United Nations create a one-world government, it spends its time doing such vital work as running a six-part series alleging that eating soybeans causes homosexuality.
Also on the board is Mat Staver, leader of the anti-LGBT Liberty Counsel, who has worked for the re-criminalization of gay sex, described the Boy Scouts as a “playground for pedophiles,” and likened LGBT activists to terrorists. And then there’s Alan Sears, founder of the Alliance Defending Freedom and the co-author of The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today, which falsely links pedophilia to homosexuality.
These members are listed on the CNP’s board of governors right alongside people who are not particularly known for their political extremism, although they are certainly highly conservative. A leading example is Chad Connelly, the two-term head of the South Carolina Republican Party who left that post in 2013 and is now the Republican National Committee’s national director of faith engagement.
Leaders and Money
The CNP founders, including then-Moral Majority leader Tim LaHaye, were a colorful cast of characters: oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt, a one-time member of the John Birch Society’s ruling council and a billionaire before he went bankrupt as a result of his effort to corner the silver market; T. Cullen Davis, a multimillionaire from Texas who was tried and acquitted in two separate murder cases; William Cies, a wealthy John Bircher and major CNP funder; and Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The CNP’s latest available tax forms show that the group has a budget of between $1.5 million and $2 million. Eleven years after it was founded in 1981 as a tax-exempt organization, the IRS yanked that status on the grounds that CNP was not run for the benefit of the public. A long legal battle ensued, with the CNP regaining its tax-exempt status after promising to produce a quarterly journal meant to educate the public, although it did not do so until years later. It also launched a website that distributes two publications, Policy Counsel and Heard Around the Hill.
Secrecy was paramount from the first. “Members are told not to discuss the group, reveal the topics discussed in the closed-door meetings, or even say whether or not they are members of the organization,” The Salt Lake City Tribune reported. The membership list is “strictly confidential” and guests may attend “only with the unanimous approval of the executive committee,” according to The New York Times, which also reported that one of its rules was, “The media should not know when or where we meet or who takes part in our programs, before or after a meeting.”
In the 2014 directory, two other executive officers are listed in addition to Perkins, the CNP’s vice president. They are President Stuart W. Epperson, co-founder of the sprawling conservative radio and online Salem Media Group, whose on-air personality Hugh Hewitt co-moderated some recent GOP presidential debates, and Treasurer John H. Scribante, the CEO of Orion Energy Systems Inc.
Those are not the only wealthy people associated with CNP. Its past presidents, in particular, include many extremely well off businessmen. Among them are Nelson Bunker Hunt; Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway whose net worth was estimated at $5 billion in 2012; and Foster Friess, a stock picker who was recognized in 2011 for contributions exceeding $1 million to the right-wing funding apparatus started by brothers Charles and David Koch. Friess is notorious for throwing himself an almost $8 million birthday party and saying on TV that women used to avoid pregnancy by putting a Bayer aspirin “between their knees.”
Other past presidents include Tim LaHaye, one of CNP’s original founders; Edwin Meese, a right-wing California lawyer who rose to become the nation’s attorney general under President Ronald Reagan; and Pat Robertson, the far-right Christian activist who started the Christian Coalition and similar groups and who pushed theories of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy in one of his books.
A Who’s Who of the Right
The CNP directory is a remarkable roster of significant figures on the political and religious right. In addition to listing their names and affiliations with various institutions, it also notes the issues that interest each of them. Although those issues vary, the favorites given include “Homosexual Issues” and “Radical Islam.”
The directory includes officials from 14 different conservative media outlets, including the opinion editor for The Washington Times; the publisher of the Daily Caller website; the editor-in-chief of CNSNews.com; and Thomas Lifson, editor and publisher of American Thinker, which published a fawning profile of Jared Taylor, a leading white nationalist intellectual. It also includes major donors to conservative causes, among them Michael Grebe, CEO of the far-right Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and Hugh Maclellan, president of the Maclellan Foundation.
Intellectuals on the list include Edwin J. Feulner of the Heritage Foundation and upper-level officials from 16 mostly conservative universities and colleges. And the large number of business leaders include Nashville’s Lea Beaman, the owner of several car dealerships, James R. Leininger, founder of Kinetic Concepts Inc.; Gary Loveless of Square Mile Energy, and many others from the private sector.
The directory also contains a list of young conservative leaders who comprise the CNP’s William F. Buckley Jr. Council. Among them are Daniel Suhr, chief of staff to Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch; Nicolas L. Wenker, a law clerk for the Senate Judiciary Committee; Garrett Gibson, a Texas Supreme Court clerk; and William J. Rivers, a press assistant to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Another one is Josh Duggar, the infamous member of the Duggar family that was the focus of TLC’s reality show, “19 Kids and Counting.” In 2015, Duggar was enmeshed in an enormous scandal when his youthful molesting of five girls, four of them his sisters, and his later membership in the Ashley Madison hookup site became public.
And then there is Michael Centanni, a CNP member and the COO of a direct mail company that raised money for conservative candidates. Centanni pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography — more than 3,000 images and 267 videos — in October 2014. He was sentenced last year to 46 months in federal prison.
But, again, the directory is most noteworthy for its hardliners.
One of them is Austin Ruse, head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and a man who has lobbied against reproductive rights, abortion and LGBT people at the UN and abroad for years. He once reportedly said that a Catholic priest “offered me guaranteed absolution if I just took [Hillary Clinton] out — and not on a date.” Ruse was fired from the far-right American Family Association’s radio operation for saying liberal professors should be “taken out and shot.”
Another is Tim Wildmon, leader of the American Family Association, which is also an intensely anti-LGBT group. One of the organization’s officials has notoriously complained that welfare rewards black people who “rut like rabbits” and asserted falsely that “homosexuality gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews.” (The group repudiated those comments last year in letters to the SPLC, which at the time was publicly criticizing the group for its role in paying for several dozen members of the Republican National Committee to visit Israel.) Wildmon himself has denounced homosexuality and described Islam as a “religion of war, violence, intolerance and physical persecution.”
Philip Zodhiates is another CNP member. In 2014, Zodhiates was accused in New York of helping a woman named Lisa Miller, a self-described former lesbian who fled the country with her daughter during a custody dispute with her former partner. Charged with conspiracy and international kidnapping, Zodhiates is set to go to trial in September 2016 and could face up to five years in prison. For years, Zodhiates’ direct mail company, Response Unlimited, sold lists of subscribers to America’s leading anti-Semitic tabloid, The Spotlight, and its successor publication, American Free Press, although neither is now listed at the Response website.
The radicalism of many members of the CNP is nothing new. That becomes obvious from a perusal of the 2014 directory’s “In Memoriam” section.
One of the people listed there is Madeleine Cosman, a longtime immigrant-basher who told a 2005 nativist conference that “most” Latino immigrant men “molest girls under 12, although some specialize in boys, and some in nuns.” Cosman, a medieval cookbook author with no expertise in medicine or immigration, also was the source of the storied, and entirely false, claim by then-CNN anchor Lou Dobbs that immigrants had brought a wave of leprosy to the United States.
Another is Howard Phillips, founder in 1992 of the U.S. Taxpayers Party, whose goal was to implement biblical law. Phillips was known for his opposition to the Voting Rights Act, homosexuality, pornography, immigrants and abortion.
W. Cleon Skousen, who is also on that list, was a longtime speaker for the John Birch Society and defender of the Mormon Church’s then-policy of excluding black people from its priesthood. Skousen was obsessed with alleged communist subversion and wrote a book, The Naked Capitalist, that remains a major source of conspiracy theories for people including television personality Glenn Beck.
Others on the list include Larry McDonald, a congressman and the second president of the John Birch Society; J. Evetts Haley, who wanted to use the Texas Rangers to enforce school segregation after the Supreme Court outlawed it; and Clarence Arch Decker, a one-time Colorado state senator whose Summit Ministries once published a book suggesting that gay people might have to be interned.
The Danger of the CNP
The CNP has every legal right to hold its meetings in private and to try to keep its membership secret. And it does publish many of the speeches its members hear, including most of the talks given by the GOP presidential candidates last fall (the exception was Trump’s talk). The speeches tend to center on expected topics for such conservatives, from opposition to same-sex marriage to cutting taxes.
But it also provides an important venue in which relatively mainstream conservatives meet and very possibly are influenced by real extremists, people who regularly defame LGBT people with utter falsehoods, describe Latino immigrants as a dangerous group of rapists and disease-carriers, engage in the kind of wild-eyed conspiracy theorizing for which the John Birch Society is famous, and even suggest that certain people should be stoned to death in line with Old Testament law.
And the people mixing with or giving speeches to these extremists are key leaders in American society. Those speaking in recent years to the CNP have included President George W. Bush; Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney; and Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court. The speakers at CNP’s candidate forum last October included Trump, Ben Carson, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum.
At a time of extreme political polarization in our society, in the middle of an ugly presidential contest which has featured an almost unsurpassed record of ethnic, racial and sexual insults and lies, Americans deserve to know who their ostensible leaders are mixing with as we collectively decide our country’s future.
CNP’s 2014 Membership Directory: