Meet the policy wonk who’s writing Trump’s authoritarian blueprint

At the beginning of former President Donald Trump’s term, chaos oozed from of every corner of the West Wing, well beyond the norm for presidential transitions. Inexperienced sycophants and would-be petty tyrants clashed daily with the supposed “adults in the room” in a battle for the new president’s limited attention span. Russ Vought is working to ensure that should Trump win a second term, things will be different.

Vought displays a combination of MAGA zealotry and familiarity with Washington’s workings that makes him a uniquely dangerous figure for the future of the country.

As a former head of the Office of Management and Budget, Vought isn’t a household name like former White House adviser Steve Bannon or even as known among the political set as Trump’s immigration ghoul, Stephen Miller. But as a recent profile of him in The Washington Post suggests, he’s set to be a major player if Trump returns to the White House. Even more concerning, Vought displays a combination of MAGA zealotry and familiarity with Washington’s workings that makes him a uniquely dangerous figure for the future of the country.

Longtime readers of this column might remember previous coverage of Vought in his current role leading the Center for Renewing America, a think tank that has been advising congressional Republicans and acting as a jobs program for former Trump administration B-listers. It was Vought who encouraged congressional Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage, a failed strategy that ended with the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. His organization also pushed the GOP to focus on cutting funding to the “woke and weaponized government.” Vought himself personally circulated an alternative budget on Capitol Hill that included “$2 trillion in cuts to Medicaid, the health program for the poor; more than $600 billion in cuts to the Affordable Care Act; more than $400 billion in cuts to food stamps; hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to educational subsidies; and a halving of the State Department and the Labor Department, among other federal agencies,” as the Post documented last year.

It’s a testament to Vought’s growing policy influence that the Heritage Foundation tapped him to write the chapter on the Executive Office of the President in “Project 2025,” a massive blueprint for the next GOP president to follow. He is also putting together the initiative’s “playbook for the first 180 days” of a second Trump term, the Post reported. Though the Trump campaign has tried to distance itself from Project 2025, there’s little chance that an incoming administration wouldn’t draw heavily on the work being done.

It may be even more concerning that Vought has been tapped to be policy director for the GOP’s 2024 platform committee. He’ll be joined by a deputy who, like him, was a fierce advocate of the false claims that Joe Biden stole the election from Trump. Unlike in 2020, when the Republican National Committee forwent drafting a platform, the plank Vought will develop will be the policies that Republicans up and down the ballot will be campaigning on ahead of Election Day.

Vought is particularly vocal about empowering OMB’s director to enforce the president’s will throughout the executive branch — an unsurprising interest given how much damage he did from that perch in the Trump administration. In 2019, he helped craft a doomed effort to kill Obamacare. The following year he signed off on redirecting funds from the Defense Department to construct Trump’s border wall in 2020. He also was responsible for withholding crucial military aid to Ukraine as part of the scheme that led to Trump’s first impeachment. The Government Accountability Office found the latter move to be a violation of the law against “impoundment” that Congress passed in 1974.

While Vought is as committed to enabling Trump as even the most subservient lackeys who held the position, he’s no stranger to the gears that keep Washington’s policy machinery turning.

Vought has argued that the anti-impoundment law and other post-Watergate restraints on the presidency need to be overturned. Accordingly, he’s one of the loudest voices for transforming the Justice Department from an independent agency into a tool for Trump’s vendettas. If anything, the radical shifts he has proposed for a second Trump term would make the executive branch both more powerful than at any time since the Nixon administration and more openly partisan, with authority stripped from career officials and consolidated in political appointees’ hands.

It’s not surprising that, given how extreme Vought’s proposals are, they’ve found little success with Biden sitting in the White House and Democrats controlling the Senate. But the ideas that he and his team are cranking out are set to shape the future of the Republican Party in the same way the Heritage Foundation shaped the Reagan administration and helped develop three decades of GOP orthodoxy. Given his unabashed defense of Christian nationalism, those ideas are set to be massively harmful to LGBTQ Americans and immigrants should he be given a chance to enact them.

He may well get that chance, given that the Post names Vought as a potential White House chief of staff if Trump reclaims the Oval Office. If this comes to pass, he’d be from a different mold than any of the chiefs of staff in the first Trump administration. Because while Vought is as committed to enabling Trump as even the most subservient lackeys who held the position, he’s no stranger to the gears that keep Washington’s policy machinery turning. This is a person who has spent the last 30 years working his way up from a congressional aide to becoming a conservative lobbyist to landing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Given the extent of the plans he has made, Vought would have a frightening level of understanding of how to execute his vision from the top down with the full weight of the presidency behind him as an unofficial prime minister. And, most worrying, it would most likely be a road map to authoritarianism for future candidates to follow even long after Trump’s name is no longer on the ballot.

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