Brooke Rollins spent three years working for President Donald Trump in high-profile White House roles at the Office of American Innovation and the Domestic Policy Council. Now, she leads a new group of Trump administration alumni to defend the former president’s policy accomplishments and prepare for the future.
The mission of the America First Policy Institute is to develop and promote policies that put the American people first. “AFPI is truly the defender of the American dream, but also the American people,” Rollins tells me on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
As president and CEO of the new organization, Rollins has assembled a team that includes former Small Business Administration head Linda McMahon, former National Economic Council chief Larry Kudlow, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and former National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe.
“I think that no matter what we do as conservatives, we know our policies are righteous and we know that they work, and we know that they truly help those who need help the most,” Rollins says.
Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about a Texas teacher who was honored by her community in a special way during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Listen to the full interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Rob Bluey: We are joined on “The Daily Signal Podcast” today by Brooke Rollins, who is president and CEO of the new America First Policy Institute. Brooke, welcome back to the podcast.
Brooke Rollins: Well, what an honor to be with you and all of my great friends at The Heritage Foundation, and all of your listeners. I couldn’t be more appreciative. Thank you so much, Rob.
Bluey: Well, it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had you on the show, and you’ve certainly accomplished a lot in that time, working for President [Donald] Trump and the White House. We’ll get to that in a bit, but I want to begin with your new organization, the America First Policy Institute. You’ve assembled some heavy hitters from the Trump administration to join you, and why don’t you begin by telling us about your mission and some of the policy priorities that you have?
Rollins: First and foremost, the America First Policy Institute, AFPI, what we call ourselves, is really a continuation, a fight, a collaboration, a movement that we really believe well, frankly, begun decades ago with the founders of The Heritage Foundation; the founders of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, my old think tank; National Review, Bill Buckley. I mean, we know the longtime history of the fight to keep America America, the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty, and freedom, and opportunity.
So moving through all those years of that fight, and we know we’re battling for the soul of the country, but then being part of the Trump administration over the last four years, I was there three of the four years, and to see the transformative, positive, extraordinary change in this country in terms of job numbers, and decreasing poverty rates, and the fight for school choice, and Middle East peace, really being a part of that effort firsthand and witnessing, and being a part of history, and a very transformative, disruptive leader in the West Wing and the Oval Office, the question became, as it looked as if we weren’t going to stay for a second term, the question became, how do we keep that work moving forward and the momentum that was garnered with the highest numbers of African American support, and Hispanic support, and blue-collar support, for, Rob, the issues that you and I have been working on and fighting for for so long?
And the concept of the America First Policy Institute was born. And the idea that we could stay together as a team.
We launched, I guess, about six weeks ago and had about 40, 45 of my team and other teams from the White House who came alongside us. Some from the Trump campaign, but also amazing patriots like Larry Kudlow, and Rick Perry, and Chad Wolf, and John Ratcliffe, and David Bernhardt, and so many of the great leaders of the last four years who, again, wanted to stay in the fight and wanted to keep this work moving forward.
So the concept was born, and I was just given the great honor and blessing of being asked to construct it and put it together, and keep the teams moving forward, and so, AFPI became official on March 1 of 2021.
Bluey: As you said, these policies that you’re working on really do put the American people first and that’s, of course, what made Donald Trump stand out as president. What are the most important things that you plan to do to not only defend the policy successes of the past four years, but also prepare for the future?
Rollins: That’s right, and it’s interesting, and you bring up a very good point. In some respects, it is about defending what was accomplished in the last four years and making sure Americans understand that it wasn’t more government that created the best economy, arguably, in the history of our country, maybe in the history of the world, more jobs than people to fill them.
I mean, this is an amazing accomplishment, and that’s important, and let’s understand why that happened, but more importantly, this is not a two-year or a four-year play. This is a 100-year play. And organizing the America First Policy Institute around the governing concept of the American people are always first in everything that we do, that AFPI is truly the defender of the American dream, but also the American people.
So, AFPI has 20 policy centers, from the center for, I won’t go through all of them, but as an example, the Center for American Prosperity, chaired by Larry Kudlow, working to continue the concept of a free and flourishing economy being a necessity for any nation to prosper.
The Center for the American Worker, putting the concept of the American worker—not the international concepts and where it makes the most sense to put manufacturing plants, etc.—that putting the American worker first, putting America first, bringing back some of those devastated communities through the concepts of industry.
Putting opportunity first. The Center for Opportunity Now. So much of what we focused on in the last administration was how we bring prosperity to communities that had never had prosperity before. The Center for Education Opportunity, the continued fight for school choice and the expansion of charter schools, etc.
The Center for the American Child, Center for Immigration and Homeland Security. Working on election integrity. The Center for American Security. One of the great hallmarks of the last administration was bringing soldiers home for the first time while creating a safer world.
Freedom first, the Center for Law and Justice. The Center for 1776 Patriotic Education. American values, the Second Amendment, and life. But continuing to fight for energy independence and the cleanest environment in the world, without crushing our industry and our jobs.
Now, that’s just a quick summary of some of the centers, but again, chaired by some of the key members of the last administration, but also some of the great conservative luminaries out there. And then building out the teams underneath each center to continue that work forward, not just in Washington, but arguably, maybe now even more importantly, out in the states.
Bluey: That’s fantastic to hear, Brooke. I’m curious, have you been in touch with President Trump and what does he think of the work that AFPI is doing?
Rollins: Well, in fact, I was just with the president just yesterday in Mar-a-Lago and was with him a couple of weeks before.
This is a 501(c)(3). This is not connected to any one person or personality. It really is an educational institute in the vein of Heritage Foundation to ensure that the concepts are thought of and analyzed and researched, and then moved out into the narrative and to the American people.
But there’s no doubt that President Trump is so excited and so encouraged and invigorated that the fight continues. Then whether or not he decides to stay in the public domain and whether or not he decides to, for a third time, run for president in a couple of years, that all remains to be determined. But this project and effort is a value add to what he accomplished in the White House, but I think he would even agree, much more importantly for the next hundred years for this country.
Bluey: Look, I think it’s so important, something that you said earlier. Listening to some of the things we hear coming out of the White House today from President Joe Biden, in some cases, it’s frustrating to hear him take credit for some things that were started under President Trump. And he inherited, obviously, a strong foundation of an economy and so much of what was done with Operation Warp Speed on the coronavirus.
But particularly, as he wants to tax and spend his way to new levels that we’ve never seen in this country before, what does your organization and what are some of the things that conservatives more broadly can be doing to not only push back on that, but make sure that the conservative message and those principles that we believe in are front and center in the minds of the American people?
Rollins: One of my favorite quotes—and I didn’t do a lot of media at the White House, but I did do some, and I’d walk out … where all the green tents are on the north side of the White House and talk to the media.
And I remember a couple of times at one point, this may have been a couple of years ago, but at one point we walked in and walked out. And that day, I think the former President Barack Obama had said that, “Well, this great economy has nothing to do with Donald Trump. It has everything to do with what we did in the Obama administration.” And I’ll never forget my friend Kellyanne Conway said, “Wow, we finally found a Democrat that likes the Trump economy and it’s Barack Obama.” And I don’t ever forget that.
I think that no matter what we do as conservatives, we know our policies are righteous and we know that they work and we know that they truly help those who need help the most. And while we had long been defined as the movement for the rich white people, in fact, we all know that’s so different that who we’re really fighting for, the single mom from Detroit, Michigan, who really just wants to start her own small business and get her kids in a decent school. That’s who we’re fighting for.
And I think that began to really break through with the unprecedented numbers of support from those communities in the last election. And I think we have nowhere to go but up.
It’s so encouraging to me that, finally, I feel like we are breaking through this message, that we are the defenders of the American dream and of all American people, but especially those amongst us who don’t have as much as they would wish to have, but want to fight and have a real chance for that.
So we just have to continue the fight with The Heritage Foundation, with the America First Policy Institute. And as the other side starts to try to continue to take credit or not start to try to continue to take credit, to continue to take credit, we know what the answer is, and we just have to get that message out to the American people.
Bluey: We certainly do. And on that point, the Oversight Board just made its decision upholding Facebook suspension of President Trump. He, of course, was so successful at using social media to bypass the biased media and speak directly to the American people.
What did you learn from working for him and how can we as conservatives make sure that we are reaching beyond the base and continuing to find new audiences that might not hear about conservative policy ideas and how they will help those communities?
Rollins: I think that is truly one of the most important things we can do. And in fact, when I was in the White House, we really made it a significant priority to fly into these inner cities and make our case, whether it was the president, the vice president, our team.
Right before the pandemic hit, we had just begun a series called Opportunity Now Summit. And we’d launched our first one in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the president and key members of our team keynoting.
It was so encouraging, Rob, because we, of course, put the invitation out to all of greater Charlotte and all of North Carolina. Within a couple of hours, we were completely sold out. Thousands of tickets.
What we found is that more than half of the people who ended up attending, again, before the pandemic shut down, the ones that were going to come after in Detroit, San Antonio, and Milwaukee, and some other places, was that more than half of the attendees were not registered Republicans. They were local Democrat leaders. They were leaders in their communities who maybe were independent, but had maybe always leaned a certain way or had been told by their family to vote a certain way.
And that story was beginning to really unfold that the greatest economy in the history of the world did not come from more government handouts. The generations of poverty that so many have experienced, it could be broken, and it was being broken all across this great country. And frankly, with conservatives leading a lot of the states and hopefully back in the White House in just a couple of years, we’ll continue that march toward unprecedented prosperity and unprecedented opportunity for all.
Bluey: You’ve talked about some of the work that you’ve done for President Trump while you were serving in the White House. You were in both the Office of American Innovation, and later you led the Domestic Policy Council. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time in the Trump administration?
Rollins: I think that the transformative four years, and three of which I was a significant part of, that ultimately led to the greatest economy in the history of the world where people could for the first time really have a shot at the American dream. What an amazing gift to have been a part of that and to have seen firsthand the change in lives and hope had replaced despair in communities across this country.
And, Rob, that’s what we stand for. That’s why we fight for what we fight for.
And I was telling someone yesterday that I had always had a real heart for mission work and originally my plan had been to potentially go to seminary and join a church. And what I realized is that the fight for those who need our help the most, to be able to scale that through the work of real public policy, through the conservative lens, through our Founding Fathers’ vision of freedom and liberty and self-governance, from my perspective, and what I wanted to do with my life, there’s no better opportunity to truly affect and change lives for the better than through what we do, you and I and our teams that are different organizations.
The scale of what we’re able to achieve through fighting for America and the American dream is, it really is a dream. And I’m so proud of the work of this president and our amazing vice president, Mike Pence, of our entire administration, but proving out to the rest of the country and the world that what we believe really does work. And we really are the side that is fighting for those less fortunate.
Bluey: Brooke, you came to Washington after successfully leading the Texas Public Policy Foundation, really transforming that into a state-based policy organization that was a role model for so many other organizations across this great country. Now you’re leading the America First Policy Institute. Why do think tanks and policy organizations like AFPI matter in today’s Washington and today’s world, more largely?
Rollins: … Thank you for those very kind words. When I started at TPPF, I was a very young 28- or 29-year-old. I had really no idea what I was doing. I only had a couple of employees. I’d just finished working for Rick Perry, then the brand new governor of Texas. … And having come from the governor’s office, I saw firsthand that our elected officials almost never hear from anyone other than lobbyists representing special interests.
So I had a very unique perspective moving into the think tank world directly from a governor’s office of a major state because I realized the opportunity at hand. And that was to have, I’m using the term very loosely, but to have a lobbyist for freedom and for liberty, and for people who can’t represent themselves in the halls of governance.
I never in a million years would have dreamed that it would have led me to the halls of the West Wing or to the halls of a national new think tank with some of the greatest thinkers and doers in the country.
But even thinking back to then and understanding what was at stake and if we are not leading the way, the big “we”—The Heritage Foundation, the America First Policy Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation—I sincerely believe that freedom is lost and that the great American experiment goes down in the history books as just that, an experiment that worked for a couple hundred years and then eventually fell, as every other great civilization has, to the claws of big government. And I think that we really are the guardians at the gate.
Bluey: Well, Brooke, I’ve got one more question for you and I can’t let you go without asking a Texas-specific question. You talked about your role there at TPPF. As our economy recovers from the coronavirus and there’s so many debates playing out in our country over things like critical race theory or election integrity, it seems that Texas has once again stepped in as a leader and a model for other states to follow. What can we learn from the Texas example as we go forward?
Rollins: Well, it’s interesting, Rob, and thank you for asking about my beloved Texas. When I started at TPPF, now 18, 19 years ago, the first couple of years, it was about building the organization and really focusing on Texas. What I began to realize a few years in—and of course not surprisingly, the Obama administration then moved in soon after—is that the Founding Fathers’ genius vision of the models of democracy, of the laboratories of democracy under the 10th Amendment, really couldn’t be more pressing at that time.
That what we had to prove in Texas was not just about lifting people to the American dream in Texas, but if we could do it, whether it was education or criminal justice reform or deregulation, or the environment or health care, if we could prove it in Texas, we could truly set a model for the country.
And of course, again, never dreaming in a million years that what we built in Texas, and other red states alongside us, but what we built then became the model for the Trump administration and the concept of getting rid of 22 regulations for every new one that came in.
I mean, you and I would’ve never thought that possible, but we had the disruptor-in-chief come down those escalators those five or six years ago, who was relentless in following through on promises like that. And we saw firsthand what it did.
But back to Texas, the concept that in Texas or Florida or Georgia, or any of these red states with governors that are relentless and convicted and really will not give up on the concept of fighting the swamp and special interests for the betterment of the people, that really played out in my home state. And I do think it had an incredible national effect and ultimately, in some ways, led to the last administration.
Bluey: Well, we appreciate the freedom-loving governors who continue to pursue those policies today. So let’s keep the pressure on them. We know a lot of great activity happens in our states and particularly at a time when there isn’t a conservative in the White House, that’s where I think a lot of us will turn to for optimism and maybe our next and future leaders.
Brooke, thank you so much for joining us. The new organization is called the America First Policy Institute. From all of us at The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal, we wish you the best and look forward to working with you.
Rollins: God bless you. Thank you so much, Rob.