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Conservative think tank's exclusive gathering will include Biden official — but not Trump

A private, off-the-record gathering of conservative leaders and wealthy donors will convene this week in Sea Island, Georgia, with appearances by a Biden White House official and several critics of former President Donald Trump.

Trump was not invited to the exclusive event, which will be attended by some of the Republican Party's biggest donors, according to two people familiar with the event who were not authorized to discuss it.

The conservative American Enterprise Institute's annual World Forum this year will be held at The Cloister, a high-end hotel complex in Sea Island, and feature invite-only discussions, meals and access to miles of private beach. The schedule for this year's forum was obtained by CBS News.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog that focuses on corruption and abuses of power, has described the gathering as a "secretive" event "where industry titans and GOP megadonors [mingle] with mostly Republican power players at an exclusive, 'off-the-record' retreat." Past attendees have included billionaire executives from global manufacturing, energy, and financial companies.

The makeup of this year's conference reflects AEI's drift in recent years. While the nonpartisan — but historically conservative — group has previously supported aspects of Trump's agenda, many of its scholars have become critics of the former president, particularly after he refused to concede defeat in the 2020 presidential election. 

This year's guest list also underscores how some leaders inside the establishment wing of the Republican Party and their allies on the right are increasingly eager to move on from Trump and loosen his grip on the conservative movement.

One of the key speakers at this week's gathering will be Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been working behind the scenes to recruit candidates who come from a more traditional Republican mold, in terms of both policy positions and rhetoric, as he works to reclaim the Senate majority later this year in the midterm elections.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, who Trump has harshly criticized for refusing to endorse his efforts to decertify President Joe Biden's 2020 win in the state, will also speak at the forum, according to the schedule. McConnell repeatedly attempted to recruit Ducey to jump into Arizona's Senate race, but the governor declined to do so.

And instead of celebrating Trump, like the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last month, this year's AEI World Forum will feature Democrats alongside congressional Republican officials and possible contenders for the party's 2024 presidential nomination.

One of those Democrats is Brian Deese, Mr. Biden's top economic adviser. Deese is slated to appear in front of the World Forum audience on Friday, March 11, giving the White House a rare private platform in front of influential GOP donors and business leaders. Deese will be in conversation with AEI's James Pethokoukis for a breakfast discussion, "An Interview with the Director of the National Economic Council." 

Secretary Psaki Holds Daily Press Briefing
White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese talks to reporters during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on December 09, 2021 in Washington, D.C. / Getty Images

The two people familiar with the event noted that AEI has previously hosted Democrats at the World Forum, including economic officials from the Obama White House. 

Jesse Lee, a senior communications adviser to the National Economic Council, said Sunday in a statement, "The Biden White House has successfully found common ground on things like the bipartisan infrastructure law and competitiveness legislation by reaching out to stakeholders across the spectrum. We will continue to talk to anybody who has an interest in collaborating toward our goal of building long term growth that benefits all Americans."

A spokesman for AEI declined to comment. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

AEI is currently led by Robert Doar, a mild-mannered Republican policy expert on poverty who has worked for Republicans as well as for Michael Bloomberg, who is currently a Democrat but has in the past been a registered Republican and independent. Doar worked in the Bloomberg administration when Bloomberg was an independent and the mayor of New York. 

In 2019, the AEI World Forum drew attention when it was reported that then-Vice President Mike Pence was sharply questioned by former Vice President Dick Cheney about the Trump administration's foreign policy, highlighting how various players in AEI's orbit have long been uncomfortable with elements of Trump's populist and nationalist policies. 

It is unclear whether Pence was invited to the 2022 event.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks on tax reform at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington in 2017. Andrew Harnik / AP

Conservative Trump critics will also be featured during various Sea Island sessions this week. AEI fellow and veteran columnist Jonah Goldberg, who recently departed Fox News, is listed several times on the schedule. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a vocal critic of Trump who has warned fellow Republicans against "whitewashing" last year's attack on the Capitol, will speak on Thursday. Hogan has expressed interest in running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. 

But Trump allies will be present as well. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, who has been outspoken about her support for the former president, and Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and has remained politically close to Trump, will both appear. 

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, another potential 2024 presidential candidate, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and retiring Senator Rob Portman of Ohio will also appear.

The people familiar with the event cautioned that some scheduled speakers may drop out in the coming days due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, an ally of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is scheduled to attend and speak, according to the schedule. But it is uncertain if she will end up making the event.

Trump, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold a rally in Florence, South Carolina, about 250 miles to the north of Sea Island, on March 12.

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