A conservative mega-donor whose think tank employs the lawyer who pushed then-Vice President Mike Pence to block Joe Biden’s election win just took another big step into the political arena.
Thomas Klingenstein is the chairman of the board of the Claremont Institute, a conservative California-based think tank that has sought to mainstream and intellectualize the right’s most hard-line views on immigration and culture and led the charge in pushing President Trump’s false claims that the 2020 was stolen from him. And he now has a new super PAC to help like-minded candidates win office in the 2022 midterms.
“We find ourselves in a cold civil war. This is a war not over the size of government or taxes but over the American way of life,” Klingenstein intones in a slickly produced video released by American Firebrand, a new super PAC created by a former Trump administration staffer and Claremont Institute fellows. “This war is between those who want to preserve the American way of life, and those who want to destroy it.”
The super PAC is a new step in Klingenstein’s emergence as a powerful figure on the right—and his efforts to convince conservatives that Democrats aren’t just political adversaries but a dangerous enemy that seeks to destroy America.
“War is not a time for too much civility, compromise, or for imputing good motives to the enemy,” he said in a subsequent video. “Republicans must understand that we are in a war and then act accordingly.”
The Claremont Institute employs John Eastman, Trump’s lawyer who authored a pair of memos which argued that Pence should try to block Congress from certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6.
Eastman remains on the institute’s payroll as the director of its Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence as other organizations have distanced themselves from him—and even as he’s pushed debunked claims that the election was stolen from Trump and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was actually triggered by the FBI and left-wing radicals, not pro-Trump agitators.
Klingenstein issued a full-throated defense of Eastman in October, calling scrutiny of his work for Trump a “disinformation, de-platforming, and ostracism campaign” in a joint statement with Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams.
Klingenstein is the Claremont Institute’s largest donor and has considerable sway with the organization: he gave it $2.5 million in 2019 alone, according to federal tax forms, nearly half the $5.7 million in total grants the think tank received that year.
“The woke communists no longer teach our children about an America striving, however imperfectly, toward its noble ideals. Instead, they teach our children about an America conceived in oppression and dedicated to racism, aiming to indoctrinate a generation who will liberate and even enthusiastically participate in its destruction,” he said in the group’s first video. “Together, we will find and support the generals we need in 2022. We will fight to win.”
In subsequent videos released after VICE News contacted American Firebrand, Klingenstein said that it’s “every bit a lie” to claim that Jan. 6 was an insurrection, argued that Trump has mobilized a “huge army” that “needs direction,” and repurposed the phrase “big lie” from a term about Trump’s false election claims to turn it against the left.
“We are told election fraud is baseless, a lie repeated with such determination that it is forbidden to question it. When we fail to rebut lies we perpetuate it. Donald Trump understood better than the others that we are in a war. He had the courage to lead the way. 2024 is a long way off, but whoever the candidate, all Republicans should tell the truth as Trump did,” he said in one of the newly released videos.
While Klingenstein has donated to Republican candidates for decades, it wasn’t until the last few years that he became a GOP mega-donor. He gave $3 million to the Trump-aligned group the Club for Growth and another $500,000 to the hard-right American Principles Project in 2020 alone, and maxed out to a number of GOP House and Senate candidates last election.
He’s already donated another half-million dollars to the Club for Growth this year as well as more than $100,000 to candidates—most of them ardent Trump supporters.
Others with close ties to the Claremont Institute appear to be running the PAC’s day-to-day operations. As VICE News previously reported, Adam Korzeniewski, a former mid-level official in the Trump administration and a 2021 Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute, is listed in public filings as a director. So are Matthew Peterson, the Claremont Institute’s vice president of education and founding editor of its bombastic American Mind publication, and Nathaniel Fischer, a 2020 Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow, venture capitalist, and real estate investor.
It’s unclear how much money this super PAC will actually spend. Totals like Klingenstein’s past yearly giving are nothing to sneeze at, but they wouldn’t put this new group in the top tier of super PAC spending. For comparison, conservatives Sheldon and Miriam Adelson gave a combined $173 million to right-wing causes last election cycle; right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel has already donated $20 million to fund a pair of super PACs backing Senate candidates J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona.
Klingenstein has been delivering a version of the speech he makes in this video for more than a year, and this initial foray could be more a vanity project to promote his views than a traditional super PAC, which tend to focus on TV ads for candidates.
It’s too early to tell whether other major GOP donors may get involved or if Klingenstein himself could start cutting truly massive checks. Klingenstein didn’t respond to requests for comment; when VICE News asked Peterson how much the group planned to spend or who they’ll back, his response was “I am old enough to remember when VICE was actually kind of cool and interesting.”
But Klingenstein has already said he’ll likely back Trump if he runs in 2024, and there are signs of which other candidates his group might support. Klingenstein has given maximum direct donations in recent months to Vance, Masters, and Missouri Senate candidate Eric Schmitt; Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Mike Lee of Utah, and Tim Scott of South Carolina, as well as a number of House candidates and congressmen.
The Claremont Institute had Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to headline its annual dinner in October, Peterson recently posed with Vance at a National Conservatism conference; Korzeniewski recently hosted Masters for a twitter spaces chat, joined embattled Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz for a chat, and interviewed Texas Republican former state Sen. Don Huffines, who’s running in a primary against Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.