The crowd rose to its feet and roared its approval as Sen. Jeff Sessions bounded onto the stage at the Breakers, an exclusive resort in Palm Beach. Stephen Miller, an aide to the Alabama Republican, handed him a glass trophy honoring his bravery as a lawmaker.
"Heyyyy!" Sessions yelled out to the crowd.
The ceremony that day, in November 2014, turned out to be a harbinger: It brought together an array of hard-right activists and a little-known charity whose ideas would soon move from the fringes of the conservative movement into the heart of the nation's government.
The man behind the event was David Horowitz, a former '60s radical who became an intellectual godfather to the far right through his writings and his work at a charity, the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Since its formation in 1988, the Freedom Center has helped cultivate a generation of political warriors seeking to upend the Washington establishment. These warriors include some of the most powerful and influential figures in the Trump administration: Attorney General Sessions, senior policy adviser Miller and White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
Long before Trump promised to build a wall, ban Muslims and abandon the Paris climate accord, Horowitz used his tax-exempt group to rail against illegal immigrants, the spread of Islam and global warming. Center officials described Hillary Clinton as evil, President Barack Obama as a secret communist and the Democratic Party as a front for enemies of the United States.
The Freedom Center has declared itself a "School for Political Warfare," and it is part of a loose nationwide network of like-minded charities linked together by ideology, personalities, conservative funders and websites, including the for-profit Breitbart News.
Horowitz's story shows how charities have become essential to modern political campaigns, amid lax enforcement of the federal limits on their involvement in politics, while taking advantage of millions of dollars in what amount to taxpayer subsidies.
In interviews with the Washington Post, Horowitz, 78, acknowledged the Freedom Center's partisan mission and said its aim is to protect "traditional American values" against adversaries on the left, who operate their own network of charities. "This is a shadow political universe," he said.
Horowitz makes a good living as the Freedom Center chief executive, earning $583,000 from a charity that received $5.4 million in donations in 2015, according to the latest available records. But he said he has come to believe that his group and others across the political spectrum ought to be reined in to ensure they fulfill the original spirit of the Internal Revenue Service's charitable rules, even though such overhauls would be "personally devastating for me."
"They should redefine what a charity is," he said. "A charity should be something that helps everybody."
The IRS prohibits charities from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, for or against candidates.
In an essay he published online in response to the Post's questions after refusing further interviews, Horowitz wrote the center "does not engage in political activities in the narrow sense used in the I.R.S. code."
A lefty moves right
Horowitz looks like a professor, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and small oval glasses. He speaks with a scratchy voice that carries strong hints of his New York roots. He is quick to use fiery rhetoric and no-holds-barred tactics he had learned as a student radical.
Horowitz was a "red diaper baby" of communist parents in New York City. After attending Columbia University in the 1950s, he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, an anchor of leftist thinking.
Over the next two decades, he took on prominent roles in the New Left. He served as an editor of Ramparts, an influential muckraking magazine in San Francisco.
But by the late 1970s, he had decided that the left represented a profound threat to the United States. On March 17, 1985, he and a writing partner came out as conservatives in a surprising Washington Post Magazine article headlined "Lefties for Reagan."
In August 1988, Horowitz launched the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that would become the Freedom Center.
Charities have been around since the nation's beginning, as citizens sought to help schools, churches and the poor. Decades ago, Congress created a special section of the IRS code to define and regulate charities, which are known as 501(c)(3) groups under the code. They have a special allure for donors: They can deduct contributions from their taxes.
IRS rules give charities wide latitude, but they may not devote a "substantial part" of their resources or activities to lobbying or "carrying on propaganda." And they "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office," according to the IRS.
In his IRS application for tax-exempt status in August 1988, Horowitz wrote his center would be "entirely non-profit, non-partisan," according to records obtained through a public records request. "It will not be organized to promote any particular political program."
Twenty years later, a brochure for one of the charity's events would sharply contradict that claim: "In 1988, Horowitz created the Center for the Study of Popular Culture to institutionalize his campaigns against the Left and its anti-American agendas."
From the start, Horowitz was supported by contributions from stalwart conservative groups, including the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, along with donations from the wealthy Scaife family of Pittsburgh.
In 1989, he co-wrote "Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties," a harsh critique of the radical left. He also began hosting events. A gathering called the Wednesday Morning Club catered to conservatives in liberal Los Angeles. In the 1990s, one of the regular guests was Bannon, then a former Wall Street investor seeking to make his mark in Hollywood, according to Lionel Chetwynd, the event's co-founder.
"Conservatives are nervous around me, and they're nervous because I'm very outspoken," Horowitz told The Post. "Steve Bannon was not nervous because he's like me."
Bannon did not respond to requests for interviews.
The origin of Stephen Miller
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Horowitz and his center argued that liberals had been too tolerant of radical Islam and illegal immigration.
Open to that message was Stephen Miller, a 16-year-old high school student in Santa Monica, California. In the fall of 2001, Miller asked Horowitz for help in disputes with administrators at his school. Miller complained his teachers and classmates were insufficiently patriotic and refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Horowitz's charity launched a group called Students for Academic Freedom, framing it as a counterweight to the dominance of the left in high schools and on college campuses. Miller formed a chapter and sought permission from school officials to invite Horowitz to the school to speak. When administrators delayed, Miller and Horowitz accused them of stifling free speech.
Horowitz eventually spoke at the school, and in November 2002, Miller wrote about the visit in an essay in Frontpagemag.com, the online news and opinion site run by the center. Miller portrayed himself as the victim of indoctrination and called on the system's superintendent to ensure "that his schools stress inclusive patriotism, rather than a multiculturalism."
When Miller went on to Duke University, he formed another chapter of Students for Academic Freedom and again invited Horowitz to speak. At the time, Horowitz had just published "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America," a book some condemned as a political blacklist.
After graduation, Miller wanted to work in Washington. Horowitz reached out to conservatives on Capitol Hill who had supported his group. He helped Miller land jobs with four lawmakers, including former representative Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sessions. "I highly recommended him to Jeff," Horowitz told the Post.
Miller did not respond to requests for interviews.
By 2006, Horowitz's charity, now operating as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, was staging events, publishing books and pamphlets, and operating a website devoted to "news on the war at home and abroad" against the left.
That same year, Horowitz wrote "The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party." He and a co-writer argued that Soros, a hedge fund billionaire, was a "political manipulator" who financed a vast movement on the left, with help from charities and other nonprofit groups.
The Freedom Center stepped up its anti-Islamic rhetoric, sponsoring an "Islamofascism Awareness Week" on college campuses. Horowitz accused U.S. college campuses of fostering "Jew hatred" and supporting Islamist militant terror.
It also formed an alliance with another charity called Jihad Watch, which would become a leading voice in calling for restrictions on Muslim immigrants.
"Our work at Jihad Watch relates to dispelling falsehoods and disinformation spread by the Washington Post and others regarding the motivating ideology, nature and magnitude of the jihad threat worldwide and within the U.S.," the group's chief, Robert Spencer, told the Post in a statement last month.
In the 2000s, the Freedom Center continued receiving millions in support from conservative donors, more than $4 million annually. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 provided an extra boost to fundraising.
It also affirmed the center's belief that "the political left has declared war on America and its constitutional system, and is willing to collaborate with America's enemies abroad," according to the center's website. "For most of those years the Center was a voice crying in the wilderness with few willing to recognize the threat from the enemy within, a fifth column force that was steadily expanding its influence within the Democratic Party."
This was all too much for some prominent mainstream conservatives such as William Kristol and George Will, who formerly sat on the board of the Bradley Foundation. "Some people seem not to feel fully alive unless they are furious," Will wrote in an email to the Post. (Will writes a twice-weekly column for the Post.) "Perhaps this is because they gain derivative significance from the feeling that they are personally involved in momentous events."
Minimal IRS regulation
The Freedom Center was among a growing group of allied charities that received funding from large, conservative foundations such as Donors Capital Fund, Donors Trust, the Bradley Foundation and the Scaife family. For decades, those foundations and others had financed nonprofit organizations that promoted free enterprise and small government and opposed the environmental movement and other issues favored by progressives.
In general, charities have been able to operate with little scrutiny by regulators. The number of enforcement officials at the IRS and the audits they conduct have dwindled over the past decade. The IRS became especially reluctant to enforce limitations on political activity, following a furious backlash from conservatives and Republicans in Congress in 2013 over allegations the agency was illegally targeting tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status. An IRS spokesman declined to comment.
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer, Bradley Foundation board member and recipient of a Freedom Center award, said conservative charities "take great pains to stay within their lanes from a legal perspective."
Matthew Vadum, senior vice president of the tax-exempt Capital Research Center and a prolific contributor to the Freedom Center's Frontpagemag.com, said there is no question the conservative charities work in concert. But the IRS rules are open to interpretation and unclear about the limits, he said.
"It's a network," Vadum said. "(C)onservative activist groups try to push the envelope. And it's not always clear how far they should go."
Ron Robinson, president of Young America's Foundation and another ally of the Freedom Center, said ideological alliances and shared financial support are commonplace across the political spectrum, not just on the right. "This is a reality of the modern world," Robinson said. "I don't view it as pernicious. They make it possible to enrich the world of ideas."
By 2008, the Freedom Center had assumed a leading role in the hard-right branch of the network, spending $2.7 million on seminars and meetings that routinely attracted the luminaries of the conservative movement.
The most popular of these annual gatherings was "David Horowitz's Restoration Weekend," which was often held at the Breakers in Palm Beach, a stunning hotel complex modeled on the Medici palaces of Renaissance Italy.
These were lavish affairs. In November 2009, the center paid $438,000 to produce the event at the Breakers, an IRS filing shows. That covered well-produced videos and cocktail parties and, for major donors, spa and golf privileges.
A marquee event that weekend was the Citizens United Film Festival. It included a documentary written and directed by Bannon about the ravages of the financial meltdown called "Generation Zero." The Citizens United Foundation, another conservative tax-exempt charity, would soon pay Bannon hundreds of thousands for fundraising and film consulting.
Bannon was becoming an important ally for Horowitz and a pivotal figure in the growing network. Bannon and a partner once suggested including Horowitz in a proposed documentary to be called "Destroying the Great Satan: The Rise of Islamic Fascism in America." The movie's draft outline warned of an Islamic takeover of the United States.
In March 2012, Bannon was named the executive chairman of the online Breitbart News site, following the unexpected death of his friend and collaborator, Andrew Breitbart. Bannon immediately began steering the site even deeper into the anti-establishment movement.
On Nov. 12, 2013, Bannon hosted a book party for Horowitz at a Washington, D.C., townhouse that served as Breitbart's capital office and Bannon's living quarters. Horowitz had just published a compendium of anti-liberal writings called the "Black Book of the American Left."
As Horowitz mingled, Bannon introduced himself to Ronald Radosh, a prominent conservative intellectual and historian. Radosh had known Horowitz for a half-century and also worked his way through the ranks of the New Left before becoming a conservative.
"I'm Steve Bannon and this is my house," Bannon said, according to an account that Radosh wrote about for the Daily Beast in August and discussed with the Post.
"I'm a Leninist," Bannon said, according to Radosh. "Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that's my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today's establishment."
A few days later, Horowitz traveled to Palm Beach to host another Restoration Weekend at the Breakers. Bannon was going, too — in part to raise money for a documentary film about Horowitz. Bannon said he needed $1 million and there were few venues better for finding wealthy donors. As it happened, Bannon could not raise the money, according to two attendees who heard his pitch. But he received an unexpected gift.
It came from Patrick Caddell, a veteran Democratic pollster who had once worked for President Jimmy Carter. He was speaking about his recent study of Americans' sentiments toward Washington, the economy and the nation's future. He said Americans were feeling glum: Two-thirds blamed self-serving elites in both parties for their troubles. They craved an outsider to shake things up.
His findings thrilled the crowd, Caddell told the Post in a lengthy interview. He earlier gave a similar account to the New Yorker.
Caddell said Bannon arranged for a private briefing the next day, to include Robert and Rebekah Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire and his daughter.
For two years, Bannon had worked with the Mercers, who invested millions in Breitbart News. The family also helped Bannon launch a Florida-based charity called the Government Accountability Institute, which describes itself as a nonpartisan investigative organization.
Bannon and the Mercers huddled with Caddell in a second-floor lounge at the Breakers. The Mercers were entranced by what they were hearing, Caddell told the Post, and Bannon "was ecstatic."
"Being a basic rabble-rouser, it fit his views," Caddell said.
Robert Mercer asked Caddell to confirm the poll's findings, offering to pay the costs. Caddell told the Post the follow-up poll did just that. The charities and their media allies began to coalesce around the discontent that Caddell documented.
"You don't find a lot of cooperation between conservative groups, but now this network, we have Breitbart, Drudge . . . " Horowitz told the 2013 Restoration Weekend attendees, according to video of the speech. "It's going to be very, very powerful over time."
'Fighting fire with fire'
By late 2013, the Freedom Center barely resembled the charity the IRS had approved for tax exemption. When it began, he told the IRS that it planned to serve the "broad public community as an educational institution."
Now it was openly involved in fighting a political war with the left. "You can counter their attacks by turning their guns around," Horowitz said in a speech at the time. "You can neutralize them by fighting fire with fire."
Among the center's targets was climate change, which it attacked repeatedly as a ruse by the left. Frontpagemag.com writers made fun of global warming in stories with headlines such as "New Study Says Global Warming Is Good For Polar Bears" and "Global Warming Ended in 1996."
The site also ran stories insinuating that Democrats were cooperating with Islamist militants: "Jihad Migrating to Red States — With Obama's Blessing," "The Left's Embrace of Islamic Rape," and " 'Sanctuary Cities' or 'Safe Havens' for Terrorists?"
In March 2014, the center made the first of $175,000 in contributions to the Party for Freedom, a group founded by Geert Wilders, one of Europe's most ardent anti-Muslim politicians, according to documents released by the Dutch government and originally described by the New York Times and the Intercept. He was campaigning on a platform of preventing the "Islamization of the Netherlands," proposing a ban on Muslim immigration and the shuttering of mosques.
Later that year, Wilders spoke at Restoration Weekend.
"The truth is that our own Western culture — based on Christianity, based on Judaism and humanism — is far superior, far superior, than the Islamic culture that immigrants have adopted," Wilders said to applause.
On hand that weekend was Jeff Sessions, a regular at the annual retreat. He was honored with a glass trophy for helping to derail a bipartisan bill aimed at overhauling U.S. immigration law. He acknowledged Horowitz from the stage. "I've seen some great people receive this, David. And it's a special treat and pleasure for me, David, because you know how much I admire you as we battle for right and justice and law," Sessions said.
Later that night, Sessions and Miller went to a lounge at the resort. Joining them was Ann Coulter, another regular and a contributor to Frontpagemag.com. She was writing a book called "Adios, America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole."
As Sessions sipped on a drink, she and Miller batted around ideas about how to crack down on immigration until long after midnight.
Coulter did not respond to requests for comment.
'It's quite an impressive list'
As the presidential campaign heated up, Horowitz's group and the conservative network shifted into high gear.
"Hillary Clinton May Go to Prison," said a Breitbart headline in August 2015, when Bannon was still its chief.
That same month, Frontpagemag.com ran stories titled "Hillary Under Siege" and "The Last Days of Hillary."
Peter Schweizer, president of the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon's charity, published "Clinton Cash," a searing critique of Bill and Hillary Clinton's foundation and personal enrichment. Schweizer worked with Bannon as an editor at large at Breitbart, and the two men were preparing to make a documentary based on the book.
For his part, Horowitz fired off contentious remarks about the race at every turn, and not only about Hillary Clinton. He also denounced the Republicans who branded themselves "Never Trump." In May 2016, when it became clear Trump would be the Republican nominee, he called conservative columnist William Kristol a "Republican spoiler" and "renegade Jew" in Breitbart News because of his opposition to Trump.
"To weaken the only party that stands between the Jews and their annihilation, and between America and the forces intent on destroying her, is a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven," Horowitz wrote.
The article created an uproar, with some critics accusing the Jewish Horowitz of making anti-Semitic remarks. In response to questions from the Post, Kristol played down the episode and dismissed Horowitz as a bombastic self-promoter.
"David is an angry man. He thinks he's been denied the power and recognition he deserves. So he lashes out. I shudder to think of David's rage when he realizes he's been taken for a ride by a con man," Kristol said.
"I look forward to the day when American conservatism regains its moral health and political sanity, and the David Horowitz center is back on the fringe, where I'm afraid it belongs."
But the Freedom Center and others in the network were rising on the Trump tide. The campaign named Bannon the chief executive, David Bossie of Citizens United the vice president and Miller an adviser.
In August, Horowitz took advantage of his ties to the campaign to offer a proposal for spending billions on school vouchers for poor, largely minority children — who Horowitz said had been underserved by Democrats. Miller made sure it became part of Trump's platform — along with a proposed ban on Muslims, a border wall and other ideas long supported by the Freedom Center and its ideological allies.
On Dec. 14, 2016, during a videotaped event, Horowitz expressed happiness about Trump's victory and said Republicans had finally woken up to his approach to politics. He pulled out a piece of folded paper from his suit coat a list of Freedom Center supporters already in the administration.
"It's quite an impressive list," Horowitz said, rattling off the names: Sessions, Bannon, Vice President Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway and at least six others.
"My personal favorite is Steve Miller, because Steve, who was today appointed the senior policy adviser in the White House . . . is a kind of protege of mine," he said. "So the center has a big stake in this administration."
The White House and Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Two weeks later, the Freedom Center named Bannon its Man of the Year.
"Over the years people would refer to my Freedom Center as a 'think tank' and I would correct them, 'No, it's a battle tank,' because that is what I felt was missing most in the conservative cause — troops ready and willing to fight fire with fire," Horowitz wrote in Breitbart in February. "The Trump administration may be only a few weeks old, but it is already clear that the new White House is a battle tank."