On a drizzly afternoon in the tony Tysons Corner Ritz-Carlton, embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions found a welcoming audience: the members of the Council for National Policy, a secretive and powerful conservative group.
In the speech, Sessions argued it needs to be harder for people to get asylum in the United States. He said the asylum process is riddled with “ridiculous loopholes” that let people who enter the country illegally avoid deportation by claiming they fear persecution in their countries of origin.
“That is just not sound policy, no nation should do it in that fashion, we shouldn’t either,” he said, drawing a bit of applause.
Sessions is one of several powerful administration and Congressional officials to make the thirty-minute trek outside DC to address this ascendant group of power brokers. The group, made up of activists and donors, has kept its meetings behind closed doors for decades—and Republican politicians have worked to stay in its good graces. One person familiar with the group said its members feel they have more power than ever thanks to the Trump administration.
Sessions mostly boilerplate speech hit all the right conservative notes. He spoke broadly about the Justice Department’s efforts to combat violent crime and the opioid epidemic, and discussed its recent settlements with Tea Party groups who sued over alleged discrimination by the IRS under the Obama administration. And he reiterated his claim that a settlement the city of Chicago made with the ACLU—requiring officers to document their stops of Chicagoans—resulted in the city’s ballooning homicide rate. The study Sessions cited as evidence for this has drawn significant criticism.
He found a warm reception, and the speech was frequently interrupted by applause.
“Everybody knows him personally because he’s been a constant friend of the people in this group for so long,” said one source familiar with CNP.
Reporters weren’t allowed in the main ballroom where Sessions addressed the group. Instead, they sat in a separate room on a different floor of the hotel to view a closed livestream.
CNP has seen its cachet grow under the Trump administration. The group’s three yearly meetings are always off the record, providing a forum for the conservative movement’s most prominent leaders to speak to its most generous donors and powerful activists.
Unlike the Club for Growth and the Koch Network, which also bring together politicians and donors at exclusive retreats, CNP is staunchly socially conservative. The group’s meetings emphasize the full spectrum of conservative issues—including small-government economics and traditional Republican foreign policy concerns—and prioritize socially conservative efforts on marriage, gender, and abortion.
Vice President Mike Pence has spoken to the group many times over the course of his political career. The night before Sessions’ speech, the vice president hosted about a dozen CNP members for a small dinner at his residence, according to three sources familiar with the gathering. The vice president’s office declined to comment on the meeting.
“He is of that group,” said one person close to CNP. “That is his comfort zone.”
The source said many people in CNP had encouraged Pence to run for president and would still ultimately like to see him run.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson also spoke to the group, according to sources. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Mark Meadows were scheduled to speak after the attorney general.
The group has also received funding from the Mercers, a powerful conservative donor family who gave generously to Trump’s presidential bid. Sessions’ appearance at the group’s meeting is more evidence of their growing clout with the Trump administration.