Defund the government. It’s way too “woke.”
That’s the message from Russell Vought — a hard-right policy wonk and once a senior official in Donald Trump’s administration— who has been leading a behind-the-scenes charge among congressional Republicans. He’s “sprinting around Washington, spreading the gospel of budgetary anti-wokeism, ” as one source familiar with the effort characterizes it to Rolling Stone.
It’s part of a strategy Vought believes Republicans should adopt as the nation approaches the debt ceiling: Make the looming standoff with the Biden administration a showdown over alleged wokeness in the federal budget — and leave popular entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, out of talks for now. Conversations with lawmakers and other sources familiar with the effort suggest Vought has found an eager audience for his counsel.
Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a Freedom Caucus member who serves on the House Budget Committee, says he’s participated in private meetings with Vought and adds there are more to come. “Our office is gonna use a lot of what Russ had,” Norman says. “Russ knows it from the political parts, the insider parts, and he knows the numbers.” As to which budget line items are on the chopping block: “We need to cut wokeness out,” Norman says. “Our office is going to be looking at the dollars that go into wokeness — whether it’s in the military, whether it’s in discretionary money.”
Multiple GOP lawmakers and two other sources familiar with the matter say Vought has led private in-person briefings and conference calls with leading Republican hardliners in both chambers of Congress. Earlier this month, for example, Vought and his group, the Trump-aligned Center for Renewing America, helmed a conference call with members of the House’s Freedom Caucus, during which right-wing lawmakers echoed CRA’s desire to turn the coming debt-ceiling standoff into a referendum on whether the government is overly saturated in “wokeness.”
At the heart of Vought and CRA’s push is a budget blueprint — “A Commitment to End Woke and Weaponized Government” — that has been circulating among influential Republican circles on Capitol Hill for months, sources say. It breaks down which line items in President Joe Biden’s budget are too “woke” — a word that appears 77 times across its 104 pages. Among the proposed cuts: gutting the National Institute of Health’s “offices that are infused with critical race theory and gender theory,” purging programs the Department of Housing and Urban Development that promote “health equity” or “social justice,” and defunding a quarter of the Department of Education’s budget to scrub the “equity” embedded “throughout the entirety of its operations.”
During Vought’s meeting with the House Freedom Caucus, Vought called the budget “paradigm-shifting” as he walked through cuts to, among other agencies, the FBI (“weaponized” and “SWAT-swaggering,” his budget states) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (a 50 percent budget reduction, Vought suggests, for “propelling risky and potentially destructive” research, a claim sourced from the unproven lab-leak origin theory of COVID-19).
Vought has also been making the rounds to other Republican offices and members in the past several weeks, including a recent gathering in Washington at the Conservative Partnership Institute, an influential pro-Trump organization that seeded CRA and a half-dozen other Trump-aligned policy and legal groups. Vought’s blitz has been aimed at getting as many lawmakers as possible on board with his anti-woke gameplan, and so far, he and his group seem to be making an impact. Last week, Vought attended a lunch meeting of a group of roughly a dozen Republican senators, led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). On Thursday morning, Lee tweeted out a new op-ed by Vought that reiterated his calls to link “out-of-control spending” with “the removal of the scourge of a woke and weaponized bureaucracy.”
A spokeswoman for CRA declined to comment on this story.
“We should just beat the crap out of all that — why are we funding that garbage?” says Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), another Freedom Caucus member on the Budget Committee. He doesn’t agree with everything in Vought’s proposal, but the ideas “form the pillars of how you can get to balance without touching Social Security and Medicare benefits.”
That message is a pivot for Congress’s most conservative members, who have long desired cutting entitlement programs. During past debt ceiling showdowns, it’s been Democrats, not Republicans, who have rushed to preserve them. But the GOP’s shifting message highlights the realization that focusing the party’s debt-limit messaging on cuts to those popular programs would hand Democrats a major victory. Trump put his thumb on the scales last Friday, declaring in a video message that “under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.” Bringing the fight back to anti-wokeness, then, marries a favored GOP attack line with the party’s desire to cut federal spending.
Vought, Trump’s last Director of the Office of Management and Budget, ranks among the former president’s most trusted aides. An influential wonk in conservative policy circles, Vought launched CRA a week after Trump departed the White House in January 2021. The intention was to crystallize Trump’s policy preferences, which frequently ran counter to GOP orthodoxy, into a ready-made agenda his acolyte legislators could carry out if Republicans regained control of Congress — or, perhaps, for him to resume if he won the presidency.
Of the several Trump-aligned organizations spawned from the Conservative Partnership Institute, CRA is showing early prominence among the Trump faithful on Capitol Hill. It was the first to propose, for example, the Select Committee on the Weaponization of Government, a new panel House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) established in response to his party’s right flank.
“I trust Russ,” Roy adds. “I think he’s got a lot of the right principles for sure.”