The Claremont Institute, once a little-known think tank often confused with the liberal-arts college of the same name, has emerged as a driving force in the conservative movement’s crusade to use bogus fraud claims about the 2020 election to rewrite voting laws and remake the election system in time for the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election. Most infamously, one of the group’s legal scholars crafted memos outlining a plan for how then-Vice President Mike Pence could potentially overturn the last election.
Conservative mega-donors like what they see.
The biggest right-wing megadonors in America made major contributions to Claremont in 2020 and 2021, according to foundation financial records obtained by Rolling Stone. The high-profile donors include several of the most influential families who fund conservative politics and policy: the DeVoses of West Michigan, the Bradleys of Milwaukee, and the Scaifes of Pittsburgh.
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation donated $240,000 to Claremont in 2020 and approved another $400,000 to be paid out in the future, tax records show. The Bradley Foundation donated $100,000 to Claremont in 2020 and another $100,000 in 2021, according to tax records and a spokeswoman for the group. The Sarah Scaife Foundation, one of several charities tied to the late right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, supplied another $450,000 to Claremont in 2020, according to its latest tax filings.
Claremont’s own tax filings show that its revenue rose from 2019 to 2020 by a half-million dollars to $6.2 million, one of the highest sums since the organization was founded in 1979, according to the most recent available data. A Claremont spokesman said the group wouldn’t comment about its donors beyond publicly available data but estimated that Claremont’s revenue for the 2021 fiscal year had increased to $7.5 million.
The DeVoses, Bradleys, and Scaifes are among the most prominent donor families in conservative politics. For Bradley and Scaife, the giving to Claremont tracks with a long history of funding right-wing causes and advocacy groups, from the American Enterprise Institute think tank and the “bill mill” American Legislative Exchange Council, to anti-immigration zealot David Horowitz’s Freedom Center and the climate-denying Heartland Institute.
Bradley in particular has given heavily to groups that traffic in misleading or baseless claims about “election integrity” or widespread “voter fraud.” Thanks to a $6.5 million infusion from the Bradley Impact Fund, a related nonprofit, the undercover-sting group Project Veritas nearly doubled its revenue in 2020 to $22 million, according to the group’s tax filing. Bradley is also a long-time funder of the Heritage Foundation, which helped architect the wave of voter suppression bills introduced in state legislatures this year, and True the Vote, a conservative group that trains poll watchers and stokes fears of rampant voter fraud in the past.
But while the Bradley donations are to be expected, the contributions from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation to Claremont are perhaps more surprising. Betsy DeVos, in one of her final acts as Trump’s education secretary, condemned the “angry mob” on January 6 and said “the law must be upheld and the work of the people must go on.”
A spokesman for the DeVoses, Nick Wasmiller, said Betsy DeVos’s letter “speaks for itself.” He added: “Claremont does work in many areas. It would be baseless to assert the Foundation’s support has any connection to the one item you cite.” While the foundation’s 2020 tax filing said its grants to Claremont were unrestricted, Wasmiller said the filing was wrong and the money had been earmarked. However, he declined to say what it was earmarked for.
The donations flowing into Claremont illustrate that although the group’s full-throated support for Trump and fixation on election crimes may be extreme, they’re not fringe views when they have the backing of influential conservative funders. “Were it not for the patronage of billionaire conservatives and their family foundations, the Claremont Institute would likely be relegated to screaming about its anti-government agenda on the street corner,” says Kyle Herrig, president of government watchdog group Accountable.US.
The Claremont spokesman responded to Herrig’s comment by saying “We think the dark money behind Accountable.US, under left-wing umbrella groups like Arabella Advisors, are threats to democracy and Western civilization. We defer to Herrig’s expertise on street corners.”
The Claremont Institute’s mission, as its president, Ryan Williams, recently put it, is to “save Western civilization.” Since the 2016 presidential race, Claremont tried to give an intellectual veneer to the frothy mix of nativism and isolationism represented by candidate Donald Trump. The think tank was perhaps best known for its magazine, the Claremont Review of Books, and on the eve of the ’16 election, the Review published an essay called “The Flight 93 Election,” comparing the choice facing Republican voters to that of the passengers who ultimately chose to bring down the fourth plane on September 11th. If conservatives didn’t rush the proverbial cockpit, the author, identified by the pen name Publius Decius Mus, “death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.”
The essay’s author, later revealed to be a conservative writer named Michael Anton, went to work in the Trump White House, which made sense given his description in “Flight 93 Election” of “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”
Former Claremont scholars said they were aghast by the think tank’s full-on embrace of Trump in 2016. “The Claremont Institute spent 36 years as a resolutely anti-populist institution, [and] preached rightly that norms and institutions were hard to build and easy to destroy, so to watch them suddenly embrace Trump in May 2016 was like if PETA suddenly published a barbecue cookbook,” one former fellow told Vice News.
In recent years, the think tank courted controversy when it awarded paid fellowships to Jack Posobiec, a right-wing influencer who was an early promoter of the Seth Rich and Pizzagate conspiracy theories, and Charlie Kirk, head of the pro-Trump activist group Turning Point USA who has pushed baseless election-fraud theories and vowed to defend young people who wouldn’t refused vaccination from what he called “medical apartheid.”
But Claremont wouldn’t fully land in the spotlight until the end of Trump’s presidency. On Jan. 6, John Eastman, a law professor and Claremont scholar, spoke at the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that preceded the Capitol insurrection. Eastman repeated several election-related conspiracy theories, alleging that “machines contributed to that fraud” by “unloading the ballots from the secret folder,” a version of the rampant conspiracy theories spread by Trump campaign lawyers about the company Dominion Voting Systems.
As would later be revealed, Eastman also wrote two memos outlining a plan for how then-Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the 2020 result on January 6. “The main thing here is that Pence should do this without asking for permission — either from a vote of the joint session or from the Court,” Eastman wrote. “Let the other side challenge his actions in court…” (Worth noting: The Claremont Review would later publish its own critique of Eastman’s memos by a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna college. After walking through a key piece of Eastman’s argument, the professor, Joseph Bessette, wrote: “One doesn’t have to be a scholar of the American Founding, a professor of constitutional law, or an expert in election law to know that this simply cannot be right.”)
Claremont continues to push the stolen-election myth and has apparently helped state lawmakers draft legislation to make election laws more favorable to the Republican Party. In October, Claremont President Ryan Williams told an undercover liberal activist that Eastman was “still very involved with a lot of the state legislators and advising them on election integrity stuff.”
Williams went on to tell the undercover activist, Lauren Windsor, that Eastman’s position was this: “Look, unless we get right what happened in 2020, there’s no moving on. They’re just going to steal every subsequent election.”