Inside the 'private and confidential' conservative group that promises to 'crush liberal dominance'
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
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A few months ago, Leonard Leo laid out his next audacious project.
Ever since the longtime Federalist Society leader helped create a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court, and then received more than a billion dollars from a wealthy Chicago business owner to disburse to conservative causes, Leo’s next moves had been the subject of speculation.
Now, Leo declared in a slick but private video to potential donors, he planned to “crush liberal dominance” across American life. The country was plagued by “woke-ism” in corporations and education, “one-sided journalism” and “entertainment that’s really corrupting our youth,” said Leo amid snippets of cheery music and shots of sunsets and American flags.
Sitting tucked into a couch, with wire-rimmed glasses and hair gone to gray, Leo conveyed his inspiration and intentions: “I just said to myself, ‘Well, if this can work for law, why can’t it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?’”
Leo revealed his latest battle plan in the previously unreported video for the Teneo Network, a little-known group he called “a tremendously important resource for the future of our country.”
Teneo is building what Leo called in the video “networks of conservatives that can roll back” liberal influence in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, among authors and academics, with pro athletes and Hollywood producers. A Federalist Society for everything.
Despite its linchpin role in Leo’s plans, Teneo (which is not the similarly named consulting firm associated with former officials in the Bill Clinton administration) has kept a low public profile. Its one-page website includes bland slogans — “Timeless ideas. Fresh approach” — and scant details. Its co-founder described Teneo as “private and confidential” in one presentation, and the group doesn’t disclose the vast majority of its members or its funders.
But ProPublica and Documented have obtained more than 50 hours of internal Teneo videos and hundreds of pages of documents that reveal the organization’s ambitious agenda, influential membership and burgeoning clout. We have also interviewed Teneo members and people familiar with the group’s activities. The videos, documents and interviews provide an unfiltered look at the lens through which the group views the power of the left — and how it plans to combat it.
In response to questions for this story, Leo said in a statement: “Teneo’s young membership proves that the conservative movement is poised to be even more talented, driven, and successful in the future. This is a group that knows how to build winning teams.”
The records show Teneo’s members have included a host of prominent names from the conservative vanguard, including such elected officials as U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a co-founder of the group. Other members have included Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, now the fourth-ranking House Republican, as well as Nebraska’s attorney general and Virginia’s solicitor general. Three senior aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, are members. Another is the federal judge who struck down a Biden administration mask mandate. The heads of the Republican Attorneys General Association, Republican State Leadership Committee and Turning Point USA — all key cogs in the world of national conservative politics — have been listed as Teneo members.
Conservative media figures like Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, several pro athletes and dozens of executives and senior figures in the worlds of finance, energy and beyond have also been members.
Leo joined Teneo’s board of directors as chairman in 2021 and has since become a driving force.
Teneo co-founder Evan Baehr, a tech entrepreneur and veteran of conservative activism, said in a 2019 video for new members that Teneo had “many, many, many dozens” of members working in the Trump administration, including in the White House, State Department, Justice Department and Pentagon. “They’re everywhere.”
The goal, Baehr said in another video, was “a world in which Teneans serve in the House and the Senate, as governors — one might be elected president.”
Here’s how “the Left” works in America, according to Baehr.
“Imagine a group of four people sitting at the Harvard Club for lunch in midtown Manhattan,” he said in a 2020 Teneo video: “a billionaire hedge funder,” “a film producer,” “a Harvard professor” and “a New York Times writer.”
“The billionaire says: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if middle school kids had free access to sex-change therapy paid for by the federal government?’” Baehr continued. “Well, the filmmaker says, ‘I’d love to do a documentary on that; it will be a major motion film.’ The Harvard professor says, ‘We can do studies on that to say that’s absolutely biologically sound and safe.’ And the New York Times person says, ‘I’ll profile people who feel trapped in the wrong gender.’ ”
After a single lunch, Baehr concluded, elite liberals can “put different kinds of capital together” and “go out into the world” and “basically wreck shop."
In a recorded video “town hall” held for incoming members, Baehr, a graduate of three Ivy League universities and a serial entrepreneur fluent in tech startup lingo, recalled the moment when he had the epiphany to create a conservative counter-effort.
It happened a decade earlier when he was eating lunch at a “fairly uninviting” Baja Fresh in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., with his then-boss Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic venture capitalist.
Baehr explained in the video that he had become frustrated as he kicked around right-of-center politics and activism for a few years, working on Capitol Hill, in the George W. Bush White House and for right-of-center groups including the American Enterprise Institute and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Baehr and Thiel lamented what they saw as the fragmented state of conservative networks, with their hidebound think tanks and intellectual centers that hold sway over right-of-center politics. A rare bright spot on their side, Baehr and Thiel agreed, was the Federalist Society. Thiel had, in fact, served as president of the Stanford Federalist Society. What if there were a group similar to the Federalist Society for venture capitalists or corporate CEOs or members of the media? (Thiel did not respond to a request for comment.)
In 2008, Baehr, Hawley and others launched Teneo — Latin for “I grasp" or “I endure.” Hawley, then an associate lawyer in private practice, authored Teneo’s founding principles, according to the new member talk hosted by Baehr, and served on the group’s board. Its core beliefs align with the broader conservative establishment’s: limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise, strong national defense and civil society and belief in a “transcendent order” that is “founded in tradition, philosophy, or theology.”
For a long time, the group didn’t live up to expectations. In its first year, Teneo raised a paltry $77,000, according to its tax filing. From 2009 to 2017, the group, based first in Washington, D.C., and later in Austin, Texas, never raised more than $750,000 in a single year, tax records show. One member described in an interview Teneo’s early days as little more than a run-of-the-mill dinner club with partisan overtones: “Instead of being an organization about ideas, it was all about being a Republican.”
Enter Leo. In the early years of the Trump administration, he and the Federalist Society had remarkable influence within the new government. The Federalist Society had brought the legal doctrines of originalism and textualism — close readings of laws and the Constitution to adhere to the intent and words of the authors — into the mainstream. Leo had taken a leave of absence from the group to advise President Trump on judicial appointments, helping shepherd the appointments of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and helping to fill more than 200 other positions in federal district and appellate courts. By the time Trump left office, he had put on the bench 28% of all federal judges in America.
In the town hall video, Baehr explained how he modeled Teneo on the Federalist Society. Leo’s “secret sauce,” he said, was to identify an “inner core” group of people within the Federalist Society’s 60,000 members. Leo was “identifying them and recruiting them for either specific roles to serve as judges or to spin up and launch critical projects often which you would have no idea about.”
Soon after Leo took an interest in Teneo, the group’s finances soared. Annual revenue reached $2.3 million in 2020 and nearly $5 million in 2021, according to tax records. In 2021, the bulk of Teneo’s income — more than $3 million — came from one source: DonorsTrust, a clearinghouse for conservative, libertarian and other charitable gifts that masks the original source of the money. In 2020, the Leo-run group that received the Chicago business owner’s $1.6 billion donation gave $41 million to DonorsTrust, which had $1.5 billion in assets as of 2021.
Teneo’s other funders have included marquee conservative donors: hedge fund investor Paul Singer, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the DeVos family, according to Baehr.
As the group’s finances improved, its videos became much more professionally produced, and its website underwent a dramatic upgrade from previous iterations. All of this was part of what Baehr called “Teneo 2.0,” a major leap forward for the group, driven in part by Leo’s guidance and involvement.
Baehr declined an interview request. He said in a statement: “Since Teneo began, I've been building hundreds of friendships among diverse leaders who have a deep love for this country and are working on innovative solutions to drive human flourishing for all. Teneo has made me a better husband, father, and leader.”
Teneo aims to help members find jobs, write books, meet spouses, secure start-up financing or nonprofit donors and learn about public service. As described in a “Community Vision” report from 2019, Teneo seeks to distinguish itself by acting as “the Silicon Valley of Conservatism — a powerful network of communities where the most influential young leaders, the biggest ideas, and the most leveraged resources come together to launch key projects that advance our shared belief that the conservative worldview drives human flourishing.”
Many of the connections happen at Teneo’s annual retreat, which brings together hundreds of members and their spouses, plus allies including politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and DeSantis as well as business leaders and prominent academics. Speakers at past Teneo retreats have included luminaries spanning politics, culture, business and the law: New York Times columnist David Brooks, federal judge Trevor McFadden, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, “Woke, Inc.” author and 2024 presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, former Trump cabinet official and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, ultrawealthy donors and activists Dick and Betsy DeVos, and Chick-fil-A board chair Dan Cathy.
But the group’s internal documents and videos also show the widening sprawl of its other activities. Teneo currently has 20 regional chapters nationwide, plus industry working groups focused, most recently, on media, corporate America, finance and law. In April, the group is hosting a “finance summit” in South Beach that its invitation says will “convene rising conservative talent from major financial institutions, funds, and family offices to connect and discuss key industry issues fundamental to the future of our country.”
Teneo members represent different facets of the conservative movement writ large. Some Teneo members were “very strong Trump defenders,” Baehr said in the 2019 town hall video, while others have opposed Trump vehemently. Baehr said there were clear divisions within the group’s members about immigration and trade policy. “Hopefully other ones, maybe Green New Deal, I hope that’s more like 99 to 1” in opposition, he said.
It’s in the town hall video that Baehr assured new members that Teneo “is private and confidential.” He said the group will never reveal the names of its members without their permission, though they are free to disclose their membership if they want to. Members must be in their 40s or younger to join.
Baehr said Teneo’s website is crafted so as not to pique the interest of Senate staffers who might look up the group if one of its members mentions Teneo during a confirmation process for a judgeship or a cabinet position. “We think a lot about that to protect your current and future leadership opportunities,” Baehr explained.
This strategy appears to have worked. A spokesperson for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a critic of Leo’s who has spoken extensively about dark money and the courts, said the senator’s staff was “not familiar with Teneo.” During the confirmation process of Ryan Holte, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Holte was asked several written questions by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., about his membership in Teneo, but Feinstein spelled the group’s name wrong each time. (Asked what the mission of the group was, Holte responded that Teneo was a “nonpartisan, and nonprofit, organization that gathers members from a variety of professional backgrounds for dinners and social activities to discuss current events.”)
A recent Teneo fundraising email laid out how the group can bring its members' influence together in service of a cause.
To “confront” what he dubbed “woke capitalism,” Jonathan Bunch, a longtime Leo deputy and now Teneo board member, wrote that the group had brought together a coalition of Teneans “working with (or serving as) state attorneys general, state financial officers, state legislators, journalists, media executives and best-in-class public affairs professionals” to launch investigations, hold hearings, pull state investment funds and publish op-eds and news stories in response to so-called environmental, social and governance, or ESG, policies at the corporate level.
“Our members were in the rooms where it happened,” Bunch wrote.
Another project underway, Baehr explained in a 2020 presentation, was a “surreptitious and exciting” effort to map key institutions in major cities — private schools, country clubs, newspapers, Rotary and so on — and find ways to get Teneo members inside those institutions and help members connect with each other. The initiative has begun by mapping Atlanta and several cities in Texas.
For those Teneo members who run for elected office, the network offers easy access to a large pool of donors and allies. A Leo acolyte and member of Teneo’s Midwest membership committee, Will Scharf, is now running for Missouri attorney general. Campaign finance records show that dozens of Teneo members made substantial early contributions to Scharf’s campaign, including Leo, Baehr and other members of Teneo’s leadership, who last year each gave the maximum allowable donation of $2,650.
In an email, Scharf said many of his “dearest friends are members of Teneo, and it has been a privilege to be involved with such an extraordinarily talented and committed group of young conservatives.”
Leo’s own statements about Teneo suggest that his plan for the group extends well beyond achieving near-term political victories.
“When you’re fighting a battle for the heart and soul of our culture, you want to know you’re in the trenches with someone you can trust, someone you know, and someone who will have your back,” Teneo’s “Community Vision” report quotes Leo as saying. “We don’t win unless we build friendship and fellowship with other people — and that’s what you’re doing here with Teneo.”