Steps from the Capitol, Trump Allies Buy Up Properties to Build MAGA Campus

Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
Capitol Hill at Third Street SE. 126 Third Street SE, bought by the Conservative Partnership Institute for $1.5 million in December 2020, is on this block.

WASHINGTON – At first glance, the flurry of real estate sales two blocks east of the U.S. Capitol appeared unremarkable in a city where such sales are common. In the span of a year, a seemingly unrelated gaggle of recently formed companies bought nine properties, all within steps of one another.

But the sales were not coincidental. Unbeknown to most of the sellers, the limited liability companies making the purchases – a shopping spree that added up to $41 million – are connected to a conservative nonprofit led by Mark Meadows, who was chief of staff to President Donald Trump. The organization has promoted MAGA stars like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.).

The Conservative Partnership Institute, as the nonprofit is known, now controls four commercial properties along a single Pennsylvania Avenue block, three adjoining rowhouses around the corner, and a garage and carriage house in the rear alley. CPI’s aim, as expressed in its annual report, is to transform the swath of prime real estate into a campus it calls “Patriots’ Row.”

The acquisitions strike some Capitol Hill regulars as puzzling, considering that Republicans have long made a sport of denigrating Washington as a dysfunctional “swamp,” the latest evidence being a successful GOP-led effort to block local D.C. legislation to revise the city’s criminal code.

“So you don’t respect how we administer our city and then you secretly buy up chunks of it?” said Tim Krepp, a Capitol Hill resident who works as a tour guide and has written about the neighborhood’s history. “If it’s such a hellhole, go to Virginia.”

Reached on his cellphone, Edward Corrigan, CPI’s president, whose name appears on public documents related to the sales, had no immediate comment on the purchases, which were first reported by Grid News and confirmed by The Washington Post. “I’ll get back to you,” Corrigan said. He did not respond to follow-up messages.

Former senator Jim DeMint, CPI’s founder, and Meadows, a senior partner at the organization, did not respond to emails seeking comment. Cameron Seward, CPI’s general counsel and director of operations, whose name appears on incorporation documents related to the companies making the purchases, did not respond to a text or an email.

As Congress’s neighbors, denizens of the Capitol Hill neighborhood are accustomed to existing in close quarters with all varieties of official Washington. Walk the neighborhood and you might catch a glimpse of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, among those who own homes near the Capitol. The Republican and Democratic national committees both have offices in the neighborhood.

But it’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a nonprofit to purchase as many properties in such proximity and in so short a period of time as CPI has assembled through its related companies, a roster with names like Clear Plains Holdings, Brunswick Partners, Houston Group, Newpoint and Pennsylvania Avenue Holdings. The companies list Seward as an officer on corporate filings, as well as CPI’s Independence Avenue headquarters as their principal address.

Now, in what may be an only-in-Washington vista, a single Pennsylvania Avenue block is occupied by Public Citizen, the left-leaning consumer advocacy group, the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, and CPI, which bought four properties through its affiliates.

In addition to the nine D.C. parcels CPI’s network has bought since January 2022, another affiliated company, Federal Investors, paid $7.2 million for a sprawling 11-bedroom retreat on the Eastern Shore. In 2020, CPI, under its own name, also spent $1.5 million for a rowhouse next to its headquarters, which it leases, a few blocks from the Capitol.

DeMint, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina, started CPI in 2017, shortly after he was ousted as Heritage’s leader amid criticism that the think tank had become too political under his direction. Meadows joined in 2021, after working as Trump’s chief of staff. He was by Trump’s side during the administration’s final calamitous days, before and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and as the president’s allies were seeking to overturn election results.

On its 2021 tax returns, CPI reported $45 million in revenue, most of it generated through contributions and grants, and paid DeMint and Meadows compensation packages of $542,000 and $559,000, respectively. Its current offices, a three-story townhouse at the corner of Third Street and Independence Avenue SE, is a hub of GOP activity. During the chaotic lead-up to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s election as House speaker, dissident Republican lawmakers were observed congregating at CPI.

CPI also provides grants to a cluster of nonprofits headed by Trump allies. Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller, for example, leads America First Legal, which received $1.3 million from CPI in 2021 and bills itself as a check on “lawless executive actions and the Radical Left.”

Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who was on the call Trump made to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger seeking to reverse votes in the 2020 election, runs what the organization bills as its “Election Integrity Network,” which has cast doubt on the validity of President Biden’s 2020 victory.

“The election was rigged,” EIN tweeted last July. “Trump won.”

Close to the Capitol

At an introductory meeting in December, recalled Gerald Sroufe, an advisory neighborhood commissioner on Capitol Hill, a CPI representative said the group planned to move its headquarters to a three-story building it had bought on Pennsylvania Avenue, next to Heritage’s office. Until the pandemic forced it to close, the Capitol Lounge had occupied the 130-year-old building. The bar had served a nightly bipartisan swarm of congressional staffers and lobbyists for more than two decades.

The CPI official, Sroufe said, indicated that the group planned to use the new Pennsylvania Avenue properties to “expand” its offices and “provide new retail.” But the official made no mention of Patriots’ Row, Sroufe said, or the three rowhouses the group’s affiliates had bought around the corner on Third Street SE. All of the properties are in the neighborhood’s historic district, which protects them from being altered without city review.

“This is much grander than what we were talking about,” Sroufe said after learning from a reporter about the other purchases. “On the Hill, people are always talking about how wonderful it is to be close to the Capitol and Congress. It’s kind of like a curse.”

As in many commercial corridors hit hard by the pandemic, businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue have struggled over the past couple of years. Tony Tomelden, executive director of the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals, said CPI could energize a strip pocked with vacant storefronts.

“I welcome any business because the only thing opening right now are marijuana shops,” said Tomelden, an H Street NE bar owner who helped open the Capitol Lounge in 1996 and, as it happens, instituted a rule that patrons could not talk politics while imbibing. “If they’re going to pay a lot of money and raise property values, I’m all for it. I don’t care about anybody’s politics as long as they pay their tab.”

In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, finding those who are less sanguine about CPI’s growing footprint is not exactly difficult.

Yet politics is only part of the issue, as far as Krepp is concerned. CPI’s purchases, he said, threaten the area’s neighborhood vibe, as would be the case if any group, no matter its ideological leaning, bought as many properties. “I don’t want to create another downtown on Capitol Hill,” he said. “There’s a glut of available office space downtown. You don’t have to buy up neighborhoods.”

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), a regular commuter to the Capitol from his home in Montgomery County, sees CPI’s acquisitions in terms more political than geographic.

“It just seems like a massive real estate coming-out party for the extreme right wing of the Republican Party,” Raskin said. “This is a very explicit and well-financed statement of intent. They set out to take over the Republican Party and they’re very close to clenching the power.”

Instead of Patriots’ Row, Raskin suggested an alternative name: Seditionist Square.

“Maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene can be their advisory neighborhood commissioner,” he said.

A ‘permanent bulwark’ in D.C.

On its 2021 tax return, CPI said its mission is to be a “platform” for the “conservative movement,” and to provide “public policy” training for “government and nonprofit staffers” and meeting space for gatherings and policy debates.

Although not required to identify donors, CPI reported seven contributions in excess of $1 million, including one of more than $25 million. Trump’s Save America political action committee gave $1 million in 2021, according to campaign finance records. Billionaire Richard Uihlein, a major Republican donor, gave $1.25 million a couple of years ago through his foundation, records show.

A CPI-related entity, the Conservative Partnership Center, rented space to two political action committees as of early January, the House Freedom Fund and Senate Conservative Fund, according to campaign finance records. CPI also received $4,000 from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who has recorded his “Firebrand” podcast at the group’s studio, as has the host of the “Gosar Minute,” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), according to the group’s annual report. Greene paid CPI $437.73 for “catering for political meetings” in 2021, the records show.

“No one stood up to the Left as courageously as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene,” CPI declared in its 2021 annual report, hailing her as a “hero” who “endured sexist fury that always lurks just beneath the progressive surface.” The report described Boebert as a “gun rights advocate” who “wants to protect our environment more than anyone else.”

It was in CPI’s 2022 annual report that the group briefly referred to its expansion plans, writing that it has strengthened “its ability to serve the movement by beginning renovations to Patriots’ Row on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

“In 2022, the Left tried to drag America further into a dark future of totalitarianism, chaotic elections and cultural decay,” the report asserts in an introduction from DeMint and Meadows. “The Washington establishment, per usual, did nothing to stop them. But neither the Left nor the establishment could stop the culture and community we’re building here at the Conservative Partnership Institute.”

“With our expanded presence in D.C.,” they add, “we’re launching CPI academy – a formal program of training for congressional staff and current and future members of the movement.”

“Even if we can’t change Washington, we can create a permanent bulwark against its worst tendencies.”

A spate of sales

CPI began its expansion in 2020, purchasing the rowhouse next door to its headquarters and christening it “The Rydin House” for Mike Rydin, a construction magnate and prominent conservative donor. When Federal Investors bought the Eastern Shore property, the group named it “Camp Rydin.”

On Capitol Hill, several property owners who sold their buildings to CPI-linked companies were surprised to learn that the buyers were connected to a group led by Meadows and DeMint.

“I did not know,” said Jacqueline Lewis, who sold a townhouse on Third Street SE to 116 Holdings for $5.1 million in July. The company’s officer, according to its corporate filing, is Seward, and the principal address it lists is the same as CPI’s headquarters. A trust document related to the transaction is signed by Corrigan, CPI’s president.

Brunswick Partners, which lists CPI and Seward as contacts on its corporate filing, bought the neighboring rowhouse for $1.8 million in January, according to property records. Brian Wise, the seller, said he did not know of the company’s CPI connection. An attorney who approached him and his wife, he said, “asked if we were willing to sell and we agreed on a price. It was a business sale.”

Keith and Amanda Catanzano also were unaware of CPI when they sold a garage in the alley behind Third Street SE to Newpoint for $1 million in June. Newpoint lists Seward as an officer and the same mailing address as CPI. “We had no idea,” said a woman who answered the phone at a number listed for the Catanzanos before hanging up.

Eric Kassoff, who sold the former site of the Capitol Lounge to Clear Plains, said he knew of the company’s CPI ties before the $11.3 million deal was finalized in January. He also sold the group a carriage house behind the building for $400,000.

Kassoff said he did not want to lease the space to a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store. He said CPI’s political leanings were not a factor in his decision to sell to the organization.

“Why would I have any issue selling my property to proud Americans?” asked Kassoff, who described himself as an independent. “We need to get past the labeling and demonizing and talk to each other, and that’s true in politics as well as commerce. If we were all to take that position we wouldn’t have much of a country left, would we?”

Although the Capitol Lounge closed more than two years ago, vestiges of its past remain on the building’s exterior, including a rendering of Benjamin Franklin beneath a quote concocted by the bar’s founder, Joe Englert: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

James Silk, the bar’s former owner, said he left behind memorabilia when he vacated the building that could be suitable for the new owner: Richard M. Nixon campaign posters still hanging on the walls of what the owners cheekily dubbed the Nixon Room (located across from the Kennedy Room).

“Nixon is finally with his people,” Silk said. He laughed and added: “Nixon was a Republican, right?”

Photo for The Washington Post by Astrid Riecken
Many restaurants, pubs and cafes are located on Capitol Hill around the intersection of Third Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE.