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    Can Trump Survive Mueller?

    Can Trump Survive Mueller?


    “Well,” the newswoman said to Donald Trump, “you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure lately.”“Why do you say that?” he asked.It was April 6, 1990, and Paula Zahn on CBS actually had plenty of reasons to think Trump might be feeling...


    “Well,” the newswoman said to Donald Trump, “you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure lately.”

    “Why do you say that?” he asked.

    It was April 6, 1990, and Paula Zahn on CBS actually had plenty of reasons to think Trump might be feeling anxious. It hadn’t been two months since the hyper-public, tabloid-tawdry revelation that his philandering had shattered his marriage to the mother of his first three children. He and his executives were grappling with the flawed, frantic opening of the newest, gaudiest, most expensive and most debt-bloated of his three casinos in Atlantic City. And reporters who covered money instead of celebrity had started to suss out the unsteadiness of Trump’s overall financial state.

    “Both in your professional life and your personal life,” Zahn offered.

    She asked how he was doing.

    “I feel great,” Trump replied. “I’m doing well.”

    Nearly three decades have passed. Even in Trump’s perma-perilous presidency, this is a juncture that pulses with risk. Newly empowered Democrats in Congress are ramping up multiple investigations, and talk of impeachment is impossible to avoid. Looming largest over this tumultuous battlefield, though, is the report special counsel Robert Mueller appears poised to submit to Attorney General William Barr—the culmination of nearly two years of labor and the subject of immeasurable speculation. While Trump often awards himself and his administration “A-plus” grades, many others question whether he will be able to sustain his rosy self-assessment once the details of Mueller’s findings become public.



    Every flurry of tweets from the president—and last weekend’s two-day grievance bender against late-night comedy and cable news shows was a particularly strong example—begets new pronouncements that Trump is coming unglued from the strain. George Conway, husband of close Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, hauled out the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder to make the case that Trump is not only unfit for office but becoming catastrophically worse. And psychiatrists are speaking with dire predictions about the potential for a deranged person with extraordinary powers to create global mayhem and destruction.

    “He has very poor coping mechanisms when he is criticized or when he feels humiliated,” Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist from Yale and the editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, the second edition of which is out this month, told me, “and at these points he generally goes into attack mode and he threatens others or tries to get revenge. The Mueller report is of a scale that is probably unlike what we have seen him undergo before.”

    Worst-case scenario? “Obliterate observing eyes of his humiliation,” Lee said. Meaning? “Destroying the world. That, very quickly, becomes an avenue, a perceived solution … for individuals with his personality structure.”

    Make what you will of such medical predictions, but the historical record tells a different story. The back-and-forth with Zahn is an instructive (and comforting?) reminder about overstating Trump’s fragility. The Trump campaign in 2015 and ’16 careened from kill shot to kill shot, of course, and just kept going, right to the White House—and that was not the first time he flashed his ability to mitigate calamity and deftly skirt what might have seemed like an inevitable comeuppance. Whether or not Trump could remain not only financially solvent but reputationally intact was an open question for the entirety of the first half of the 1990s. So many times, he could have been snuffed, stopped, rendered a relative footnote, his place in the history of this country limited to status as a gauche totem of a regrettable epoch of greed. That, needless to say, is not how the tale played out. Trump is many things. A developer. A promoter. A master media manipulator. A grown-old rich kid. The president of the United States. Above all else, though, he is a survivor.

    “The ultimate survivor,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me recently.





    But it’s not just that Trump has survived that’s important to consider at this moment—it’s how he has done it. Armed with extraordinary audacity, constitutional sangfroid, a stomach for tumult, an acumen for recasting obvious losses into strange sorts of wins, and the prodigious safety net bequeathed by his wealthy, wily father, he has plowed past myriad hazards. And he did it by tying himself tightly to his bankers and lenders in New York and to gaming industry regulators in New Jersey—who let him live large until they couldn’t let him die without fatally wounding themselves. He effectively inhabited hosts, using them to get bigger and bigger in the ’80s until he was practically perversely invincible by the ’90s—not only “too big to fail,” as the late Wayne Barrett once told Susan Glasser and me, but “too big to jail.”

    Perhaps his past escapes are the reason he appears oddly calm as most of the country leans forward, awaiting word of bombshells from Mueller. Over the weekend, when outsiders perceived mounting anxiety in Trump’s Twitter barrage, people who spoke to Trump by phone told reporters that “he seemed to be in good spirits.” The volume of tweets, they surmised, was just a product of too much time on his hands in the White House.

    His bravado and bluster can’t mask, his critics say, the true jeopardy he faces. The stakes now are too high, the arena too large, the political currents too strong, for Trump to expect the same results. But if he does fail, pinned to account by the weight of evidence uncovered by Mueller, one thing is certain: It will be the first time.

    ***

    Those who believe in the power of Trump’s survival skills to protect him from even this unprecedented threat draw an analogy between the Republican Party—its members of Congress and especially the Senate—and the institutions that have enabled him in the past.

    “The banks were heavily invested in Trump, and they couldn’t have him go down,” former Trump campaign staffer Sam Nunberg told me, “and the Republican Party can’t have him go down.”

    “I think he believes that the presidency is too big to fail, too powerful to be taken down,” O’Donnell added. “And I think that this is kind of something that he learned in the ‘90s, where the banks basically said to him, ‘You’re too big to fail, we have to back you.’ And they did it, time and time again, in Atlantic City.”

    To be determined in the coming weeks and months: how well those lessons will hold up.

    “This is a man who has lived dangerously for decades by flirting with the boundaries of propriety, legality and civility,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “And he is now faced, after years and years of getting away with it, with consequences that are far beyond anything he’s encountered before. … The things that I think have allowed him to survive in the past will be of practical, personal use here in terms of him maintaining a stiff upper lip, if he’s able to.” But the more material applicability of the Machiavellian takeaways from his ‘90s scrapes? “I think they’re going to be absolutely of no use if the legal consequences are realized at their full magnitude.”



    Others who know Trump well aren’t so sure.

    “No matter what they do, he survives. No matter what they try, he survives,” longtime New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me. “Can Trump survive this? He absolutely can.”

    In the middle of 1990, after all, he was more than $3 billion in the red. He had for years spent too much to buy too much, all with mostly borrowed money. The yacht, the airline, Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. “Trophies,” he called them. And his casinos, first two, now three with the lurching launch of the Trump Taj Mahal, cannibalized each other. Even record rakes of cash weren’t enough to simply service all of Trump’s debt. On the horizon was the first of his six corporate bankruptcies.

    “Trump is on his way down—and probably out,” business journalist Allan Sloan wrote that June in Newsday.

    People didn’t stop at mere predictions. They also poked fun.

    “I envision Donald Trump a year from now doing the ads for stomach-flatteners or ginsu knives on late-night TV. Or as a Worldwide Wrestling Federation commentator,” Gail Collins, then a columnist for the New York Daily News, told David Von Drehle, then a reporter for the Miami Herald.

    Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown likened Trump to late-in-life Elvis. “He probably will wind up in that sort of Graceland, you know, wearing a diaper,” she told Steve Kroft of CBS News.

    Spy, the puckish satirical magazine and inveterate needler of Trump, in its August 1990 issue took a tongue-in-cheek look at what they foresaw as a sad, middling future for a balding, paunchy Trump. Their crystal ball, though, was not all wrong. They anticipated a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, and a rough version of reality television, too—and a public offering that would permit Trump to use money from shareholders to make money of his own (“Now YOU can own a piece of the Trump!”).

    But beyond the smart set’s schadenfreude were Trump’s real-life results.

    After weeks of negotiations, the cluster of 70-some-odd banks that had loaned him billions of dollars gave him an additional $65 million loan. It was the first in a yearslong sequence of bailouts and extensions and breathing-room reprieves. They had loaned him so much money, it was no longer only his problem—it was theirs. He all but dared them to take him down. “He has a good bit of leverage over the institutions,” a Harvard Business School finance professor told the Boston Globe at the time. “His adjusted net worth is minus several hundred million dollars, by my estimate, and he is alive only because his bankers are too red-faced to pull the plug on his life-support system,” the chairman of a money management firm wrote in the New York Post. “The most important thing,” an official in the office of one of his lenders said in The American Banker, “is to make Trump survive.”





    The banks over time clawed back a passel of Trump’s possessions (the yacht, the planes, the Plaza), but they didn’t take his casinos—because they didn’t want them. “The last thing they want to do is manage casinos,” an analyst from Moody’s Investors explained to the Associated Press. And the last thing the gaming officials and city leaders in New Jersey wanted was to have them close. The relationship was the same as with the banks back in New York. Desperate to prop up the flagging gaming industry, looking continually to the casinos to inject into the struggling seaside town at least the appearance of vitality and prosperity, they needed Trump as much as Trump needed them. A prerequisite to owning a casino in Atlantic City, understandably, was financial stability, and regulators could have stripped Trump of his—repeatedly—but of course didn’t. Trump’s casinos amounted to roughly a third of the market. “The whole economic development of the town,” said O’Donnell, “it was dependent on this. And so they just—they caved.”

    Trump had managed to turn an apparent weakness into a significant advantage. The banks put him on an allowance … of $450,000 a month. The Trump Tower triplex was safe.

    “The man is a Sherman tank in a Brioni suit,” New York Post gossip columnist and Trump pal Cindy Adams told USA Today.

    “Hey, look, I had a cold spell from 1990 to ’91,” he said in 1994 in New York. “I was beat up in business and in my personal life. … But you learn that you’re either the toughest, meanest piece of shit in the world, or you just crawl into a corner, put your finger in your mouth, and say, ‘I want to go home.’” And Trump didn’t want to go home.

    He wasn’t entirely in the clear, though, until 1995 and ’96, when his need for money finally superseded his desire for absolute control and he took his casinos public. He sat in his office and looked at O’Brien, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He was “back,” he said. People bought stock in Trump and lost money in droves. Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts proved to be a good investment for just one person—Trump. “It was to get other people to get him out of that debt,” a former member of the Trump Organization told me. In addition to his selling of his stake in his foundation-laying Grand Hyatt and tens of millions of dollars of wrangled, well-timed loans from family trusts, it’s what saved Trump—along with a partnership with Hong Kong investors that turned his long-held plot of land on the Upper West Side that always cost him money into one that began to actually make him money. Construction on what would have been Trump City and now would be called Trump Place (and then wouldn’t) started in 1997. And two years later, in front of some of the buildings, Trump let the magician David Blaine get “buried alive” for a week in a plexiglass coffin. It was, said Blaine, a stunt famed illusionist Harry Houdini always wanted to do. For Trump, the publicity ploy made for an apt ode to the art of escape.

    Trumpologists and culture critics frequently cite showman P.T. Barnum as Trump’s preeminent antecedent, but another, less noted inspiration was Houdini, the author of a forthcoming Houdini biography told me. “He always found—especially when it just seemed like it was over for him—he found some new chapter, and some new way to sort of get his success going again,” Joe Posnanski said. “He created this handcuff act, and the handcuff act becomes huge, and then that sort of runs its course. And then he comes up with the milk can, and the milk can sort of runs its course. And he comes up with the Chinese water torture cell, and that runs his course. And he starts hanging upside down and escaping from straitjackets.”

    It makes Posnanski think of Trump.

    “With Trump, you just think, ‘OK, this is it. This is totally it, you know?’” he said. “He’s bankrupt, people are laughing at him, he’s this, he’s that—but it’s never over for him.”

    “Trump,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, “is incessantly pulling Houdini acts.”

    Recall all the “gaffes” that were to have torpedoed his indelicate, unorthodox 2016 presidential bid—peaking, of course, with the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed in early October in which he swaggered about sexual assault.

    ***

    Those who predict Trump will ultimately fall don’t disagree that he has benefited from well-placed safety nets before. This time is different, they insist, because his high-wire act is being performed at unprecedented heights.





    “Significantly higher,” O’Brien said. “He’s been on a financial tightrope, and a familial tightrope, but he’s never been on a legal tightrope like this one. Not even close. This is fundamentally new because of the legal consequences, and those legal consequences don’t end with the filing of the Mueller report. He still has issues that are still very serious in the Southern District of New York; in some ways, they may be more serious than the Mueller investigation in terms of potential consequences and how far they dig into his world.”

    Bandy Lee is worried. The forensic psychiatrist from Yale has studied thousands of people with the mental disorders she perceives Trump has. Their behavior, untreated, had predictable and unpleasant results. She foresees a similar unraveling for Trump, albeit with a wild card she has never encountered in any of her patients: the awesome power of the commander in chief.

    “Under stress, we can see the limits of one’s ability to cope, and we can see that the president has reached his limits fairly rapidly, in terms of not being able to sit with the advancing special counsel’s investigation. You can see there is a heightening of activity and creation of crises, distractions, if you will, in order to distract both themselves as well as the public away from the bad news he is continuing to receive,” Lee said.

    “He has very poor coping mechanisms when he is criticized or when he feels humiliated,” she continued, “and at these points, he generally goes into attack mode, and he threatens others or tries to get revenge.”

    Our conversation took place before Trump resurrected his feud with the late John McCain, but I couldn’t help thinking of Lee’s warning as I listened to the president on Wednesday belabor his grudge before a crowd of workers who were expecting some good news on the economy, not a hit job on a war hero. Maybe this, just like the days of name-calling with George Conway, really are the signs of a mind in turmoil.



    And yet—and this is just the reality of the record—Trump shrewdly, bullheadedly, even blithely pushed past crises in the ‘90s that would have felled almost anybody else. And then, perhaps convinced of his own invincibility, he blew through a litany of accepted social and political checkpoints on his way to the Oval Office and his high-backed chair behind the Resolute desk.

    “Pressure,” Trump said in an extended interview in Playboy in 1990, “doesn’t upset my sleep. … I like throwing balls into the air—and I dream like a baby.”

    That same year, on June 14, he turned 44. The next day, he missed about $45 million in debt payments for his casino called Trump Castle. “He is absolutely on knife’s edge,” James Grant, the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, told Newsday. The day after that, Trump had a party. More than a thousand employees in Atlantic City showed up at the bash on the boardwalk, according to news reports. “We love you, Donald!” they cried. He was presented with a chocolate cupcake, a 12-page birthday card and an 8-foot-by-10-foot portrait of himself.

    “Nobody wants to write the positives,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “Over the years, I’ve surprised a lot of people. The largest surprise is yet to come.”

    True.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    POLITICO Playbook: Why Mueller’s end is only the beginning


    And Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) demands documents on Jared Kushner’s alleged use of an encrypted app for official...

    And Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) demands documents on Jared Kushner’s alleged use of an encrypted app for official business.
    Can Trump Survive Mueller?

    Can Trump Survive Mueller?


    “Well,” the newswoman said to Donald Trump, “you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure lately.”“Why do you say that?” he asked.It was April 6, 1990, and Paula Zahn on CBS actually had plenty of reasons to think Trump might be feeling...


    “Well,” the newswoman said to Donald Trump, “you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure lately.”

    “Why do you say that?” he asked.

    It was April 6, 1990, and Paula Zahn on CBS actually had plenty of reasons to think Trump might be feeling anxious. It hadn’t been two months since the hyper-public, tabloid-tawdry revelation that his philandering had shattered his marriage to the mother of his first three children. He and his executives were grappling with the flawed, frantic opening of the newest, gaudiest, most expensive and most debt-bloated of his three casinos in Atlantic City. And reporters who covered money instead of celebrity had started to suss out the unsteadiness of Trump’s overall financial state.

    “Both in your professional life and your personal life,” Zahn offered.

    She asked how he was doing.

    “I feel great,” Trump replied. “I’m doing well.”

    Nearly three decades have passed. Even in Trump’s perma-perilous presidency, this is a juncture that pulses with risk. Newly empowered Democrats in Congress are ramping up multiple investigations, and talk of impeachment is impossible to avoid. Looming largest over this tumultuous battlefield, though, is the report special counsel Robert Mueller appears poised to submit to Attorney General William Barr—the culmination of nearly two years of labor and the subject of immeasurable speculation. While Trump often awards himself and his administration “A-plus” grades, many others question whether he will be able to sustain his rosy self-assessment once the details of Mueller’s findings become public.



    Every flurry of tweets from the president—and last weekend’s two-day grievance bender against late-night comedy and cable news shows was a particularly strong example—begets new pronouncements that Trump is coming unglued from the strain. George Conway, husband of close Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, hauled out the clinical definition of narcissistic personality disorder to make the case that Trump is not only unfit for office but becoming catastrophically worse. And psychiatrists are speaking with dire predictions about the potential for a deranged person with extraordinary powers to create global mayhem and destruction.

    “He has very poor coping mechanisms when he is criticized or when he feels humiliated,” Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist from Yale and the editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, the second edition of which is out this month, told me, “and at these points he generally goes into attack mode and he threatens others or tries to get revenge. The Mueller report is of a scale that is probably unlike what we have seen him undergo before.”

    Worst-case scenario? “Obliterate observing eyes of his humiliation,” Lee said. Meaning? “Destroying the world. That, very quickly, becomes an avenue, a perceived solution … for individuals with his personality structure.”

    Make what you will of such medical predictions, but the historical record tells a different story. The back-and-forth with Zahn is an instructive (and comforting?) reminder about overstating Trump’s fragility. The Trump campaign in 2015 and ’16 careened from kill shot to kill shot, of course, and just kept going, right to the White House—and that was not the first time he flashed his ability to mitigate calamity and deftly skirt what might have seemed like an inevitable comeuppance. Whether or not Trump could remain not only financially solvent but reputationally intact was an open question for the entirety of the first half of the 1990s. So many times, he could have been snuffed, stopped, rendered a relative footnote, his place in the history of this country limited to status as a gauche totem of a regrettable epoch of greed. That, needless to say, is not how the tale played out. Trump is many things. A developer. A promoter. A master media manipulator. A grown-old rich kid. The president of the United States. Above all else, though, he is a survivor.

    “The ultimate survivor,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me recently.





    But it’s not just that Trump has survived that’s important to consider at this moment—it’s how he has done it. Armed with extraordinary audacity, constitutional sangfroid, a stomach for tumult, an acumen for recasting obvious losses into strange sorts of wins, and the prodigious safety net bequeathed by his wealthy, wily father, he has plowed past myriad hazards. And he did it by tying himself tightly to his bankers and lenders in New York and to gaming industry regulators in New Jersey—who let him live large until they couldn’t let him die without fatally wounding themselves. He effectively inhabited hosts, using them to get bigger and bigger in the ’80s until he was practically perversely invincible by the ’90s—not only “too big to fail,” as the late Wayne Barrett once told Susan Glasser and me, but “too big to jail.”

    Perhaps his past escapes are the reason he appears oddly calm as most of the country leans forward, awaiting word of bombshells from Mueller. Over the weekend, when outsiders perceived mounting anxiety in Trump’s Twitter barrage, people who spoke to Trump by phone told reporters that “he seemed to be in good spirits.” The volume of tweets, they surmised, was just a product of too much time on his hands in the White House.

    His bravado and bluster can’t mask, his critics say, the true jeopardy he faces. The stakes now are too high, the arena too large, the political currents too strong, for Trump to expect the same results. But if he does fail, pinned to account by the weight of evidence uncovered by Mueller, one thing is certain: It will be the first time.

    ***

    Those who believe in the power of Trump’s survival skills to protect him from even this unprecedented threat draw an analogy between the Republican Party—its members of Congress and especially the Senate—and the institutions that have enabled him in the past.

    “The banks were heavily invested in Trump, and they couldn’t have him go down,” former Trump campaign staffer Sam Nunberg told me, “and the Republican Party can’t have him go down.”

    “I think he believes that the presidency is too big to fail, too powerful to be taken down,” O’Donnell added. “And I think that this is kind of something that he learned in the ‘90s, where the banks basically said to him, ‘You’re too big to fail, we have to back you.’ And they did it, time and time again, in Atlantic City.”

    To be determined in the coming weeks and months: how well those lessons will hold up.

    “This is a man who has lived dangerously for decades by flirting with the boundaries of propriety, legality and civility,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “And he is now faced, after years and years of getting away with it, with consequences that are far beyond anything he’s encountered before. … The things that I think have allowed him to survive in the past will be of practical, personal use here in terms of him maintaining a stiff upper lip, if he’s able to.” But the more material applicability of the Machiavellian takeaways from his ‘90s scrapes? “I think they’re going to be absolutely of no use if the legal consequences are realized at their full magnitude.”



    Others who know Trump well aren’t so sure.

    “No matter what they do, he survives. No matter what they try, he survives,” longtime New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me. “Can Trump survive this? He absolutely can.”

    In the middle of 1990, after all, he was more than $3 billion in the red. He had for years spent too much to buy too much, all with mostly borrowed money. The yacht, the airline, Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel. “Trophies,” he called them. And his casinos, first two, now three with the lurching launch of the Trump Taj Mahal, cannibalized each other. Even record rakes of cash weren’t enough to simply service all of Trump’s debt. On the horizon was the first of his six corporate bankruptcies.

    “Trump is on his way down—and probably out,” business journalist Allan Sloan wrote that June in Newsday.

    People didn’t stop at mere predictions. They also poked fun.

    “I envision Donald Trump a year from now doing the ads for stomach-flatteners or ginsu knives on late-night TV. Or as a Worldwide Wrestling Federation commentator,” Gail Collins, then a columnist for the New York Daily News, told David Von Drehle, then a reporter for the Miami Herald.

    Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown likened Trump to late-in-life Elvis. “He probably will wind up in that sort of Graceland, you know, wearing a diaper,” she told Steve Kroft of CBS News.

    Spy, the puckish satirical magazine and inveterate needler of Trump, in its August 1990 issue took a tongue-in-cheek look at what they foresaw as a sad, middling future for a balding, paunchy Trump. Their crystal ball, though, was not all wrong. They anticipated a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, and a rough version of reality television, too—and a public offering that would permit Trump to use money from shareholders to make money of his own (“Now YOU can own a piece of the Trump!”).

    But beyond the smart set’s schadenfreude were Trump’s real-life results.

    After weeks of negotiations, the cluster of 70-some-odd banks that had loaned him billions of dollars gave him an additional $65 million loan. It was the first in a yearslong sequence of bailouts and extensions and breathing-room reprieves. They had loaned him so much money, it was no longer only his problem—it was theirs. He all but dared them to take him down. “He has a good bit of leverage over the institutions,” a Harvard Business School finance professor told the Boston Globe at the time. “His adjusted net worth is minus several hundred million dollars, by my estimate, and he is alive only because his bankers are too red-faced to pull the plug on his life-support system,” the chairman of a money management firm wrote in the New York Post. “The most important thing,” an official in the office of one of his lenders said in The American Banker, “is to make Trump survive.”





    The banks over time clawed back a passel of Trump’s possessions (the yacht, the planes, the Plaza), but they didn’t take his casinos—because they didn’t want them. “The last thing they want to do is manage casinos,” an analyst from Moody’s Investors explained to the Associated Press. And the last thing the gaming officials and city leaders in New Jersey wanted was to have them close. The relationship was the same as with the banks back in New York. Desperate to prop up the flagging gaming industry, looking continually to the casinos to inject into the struggling seaside town at least the appearance of vitality and prosperity, they needed Trump as much as Trump needed them. A prerequisite to owning a casino in Atlantic City, understandably, was financial stability, and regulators could have stripped Trump of his—repeatedly—but of course didn’t. Trump’s casinos amounted to roughly a third of the market. “The whole economic development of the town,” said O’Donnell, “it was dependent on this. And so they just—they caved.”

    Trump had managed to turn an apparent weakness into a significant advantage. The banks put him on an allowance … of $450,000 a month. The Trump Tower triplex was safe.

    “The man is a Sherman tank in a Brioni suit,” New York Post gossip columnist and Trump pal Cindy Adams told USA Today.

    “Hey, look, I had a cold spell from 1990 to ’91,” he said in 1994 in New York. “I was beat up in business and in my personal life. … But you learn that you’re either the toughest, meanest piece of shit in the world, or you just crawl into a corner, put your finger in your mouth, and say, ‘I want to go home.’” And Trump didn’t want to go home.

    He wasn’t entirely in the clear, though, until 1995 and ’96, when his need for money finally superseded his desire for absolute control and he took his casinos public. He sat in his office and looked at O’Brien, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He was “back,” he said. People bought stock in Trump and lost money in droves. Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts proved to be a good investment for just one person—Trump. “It was to get other people to get him out of that debt,” a former member of the Trump Organization told me. In addition to his selling of his stake in his foundation-laying Grand Hyatt and tens of millions of dollars of wrangled, well-timed loans from family trusts, it’s what saved Trump—along with a partnership with Hong Kong investors that turned his long-held plot of land on the Upper West Side that always cost him money into one that began to actually make him money. Construction on what would have been Trump City and now would be called Trump Place (and then wouldn’t) started in 1997. And two years later, in front of some of the buildings, Trump let the magician David Blaine get “buried alive” for a week in a plexiglass coffin. It was, said Blaine, a stunt famed illusionist Harry Houdini always wanted to do. For Trump, the publicity ploy made for an apt ode to the art of escape.

    Trumpologists and culture critics frequently cite showman P.T. Barnum as Trump’s preeminent antecedent, but another, less noted inspiration was Houdini, the author of a forthcoming Houdini biography told me. “He always found—especially when it just seemed like it was over for him—he found some new chapter, and some new way to sort of get his success going again,” Joe Posnanski said. “He created this handcuff act, and the handcuff act becomes huge, and then that sort of runs its course. And then he comes up with the milk can, and the milk can sort of runs its course. And he comes up with the Chinese water torture cell, and that runs his course. And he starts hanging upside down and escaping from straitjackets.”

    It makes Posnanski think of Trump.

    “With Trump, you just think, ‘OK, this is it. This is totally it, you know?’” he said. “He’s bankrupt, people are laughing at him, he’s this, he’s that—but it’s never over for him.”

    “Trump,” said Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, “is incessantly pulling Houdini acts.”

    Recall all the “gaffes” that were to have torpedoed his indelicate, unorthodox 2016 presidential bid—peaking, of course, with the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed in early October in which he swaggered about sexual assault.

    ***

    Those who predict Trump will ultimately fall don’t disagree that he has benefited from well-placed safety nets before. This time is different, they insist, because his high-wire act is being performed at unprecedented heights.





    “Significantly higher,” O’Brien said. “He’s been on a financial tightrope, and a familial tightrope, but he’s never been on a legal tightrope like this one. Not even close. This is fundamentally new because of the legal consequences, and those legal consequences don’t end with the filing of the Mueller report. He still has issues that are still very serious in the Southern District of New York; in some ways, they may be more serious than the Mueller investigation in terms of potential consequences and how far they dig into his world.”

    Bandy Lee is worried. The forensic psychiatrist from Yale has studied thousands of people with the mental disorders she perceives Trump has. Their behavior, untreated, had predictable and unpleasant results. She foresees a similar unraveling for Trump, albeit with a wild card she has never encountered in any of her patients: the awesome power of the commander in chief.

    “Under stress, we can see the limits of one’s ability to cope, and we can see that the president has reached his limits fairly rapidly, in terms of not being able to sit with the advancing special counsel’s investigation. You can see there is a heightening of activity and creation of crises, distractions, if you will, in order to distract both themselves as well as the public away from the bad news he is continuing to receive,” Lee said.

    “He has very poor coping mechanisms when he is criticized or when he feels humiliated,” she continued, “and at these points, he generally goes into attack mode, and he threatens others or tries to get revenge.”

    Our conversation took place before Trump resurrected his feud with the late John McCain, but I couldn’t help thinking of Lee’s warning as I listened to the president on Wednesday belabor his grudge before a crowd of workers who were expecting some good news on the economy, not a hit job on a war hero. Maybe this, just like the days of name-calling with George Conway, really are the signs of a mind in turmoil.



    And yet—and this is just the reality of the record—Trump shrewdly, bullheadedly, even blithely pushed past crises in the ‘90s that would have felled almost anybody else. And then, perhaps convinced of his own invincibility, he blew through a litany of accepted social and political checkpoints on his way to the Oval Office and his high-backed chair behind the Resolute desk.

    “Pressure,” Trump said in an extended interview in Playboy in 1990, “doesn’t upset my sleep. … I like throwing balls into the air—and I dream like a baby.”

    That same year, on June 14, he turned 44. The next day, he missed about $45 million in debt payments for his casino called Trump Castle. “He is absolutely on knife’s edge,” James Grant, the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, told Newsday. The day after that, Trump had a party. More than a thousand employees in Atlantic City showed up at the bash on the boardwalk, according to news reports. “We love you, Donald!” they cried. He was presented with a chocolate cupcake, a 12-page birthday card and an 8-foot-by-10-foot portrait of himself.

    “Nobody wants to write the positives,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “Over the years, I’ve surprised a lot of people. The largest surprise is yet to come.”

    True.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Obama donors prepare to power Biden’s campaign

    Obama donors prepare to power Biden’s campaign


    Top donors who helped power President Barack Obama’s campaigns are getting ready to boost Joe Biden for 2020.The former vice president, whose fundraising lagged during his previous bids for the White House, would this time enter the race with a base of...



    Top donors who helped power President Barack Obama’s campaigns are getting ready to boost Joe Biden for 2020.

    The former vice president, whose fundraising lagged during his previous bids for the White House, would this time enter the race with a base of support from many of his party’s major givers, according to interviews with 20 top Obama fundraisers, who each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect the former president.

    Many of Obama’s backers say deciding which candidate or candidates to support in 2020 is difficult. But Biden, who a number of Obama’s funders count as a friend and former coworker in the administration, comes out of the gate with a crop of top-tier fundraisers ready to back his bid and other donors willing to cut personal checks to jump-start Biden’s campaign, though they might wait to throw the full power of their networks behind him.

    Biden’s ability to put together a network of donors is a major test for the vice president — possibly moreso than for any other 2020 candidate. The small-donor digital network now so critical to the Democratic Party did not exist the last time Biden ran for office on his own, and he does not have a pre-built base of support from grassroots donors, like potential rivals such as Beto O’Rourke have — though Biden did build an online presence last year for his PAC.


    That would put a premium on Biden’s ability to attract high-dollar donors to sustain his campaign early — and give him time to try to build a broader fundraising program that could rival those of his competitors.

    If [Biden] got in, I would be leaning in that direction because, simply put, he’s best qualified, he has the stature and the experience to win the race,” said Steve Westly, the former state controller in California who raised more than half a million dollars for Obama during each of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “I think a lot of people will be coalescing around him.”

    Those offering their help to Biden include former colleagues like Denise Bauer, former United States Ambassador to Belgium and longtime Obama fundraiser who raised more than $4 million for his presidential campaigns.

    “I have been encouraging Vice President Biden to run. I think the country needs him and if he gets in, I will be with him!” Bauer said in an email. “I have seen him interact with foreign leaders, colleagues, and everyday Americans. His depth of knowledge, skill, and compassion are extraordinary.”

    As Biden, the front-runner in recent polls, moves closer to a campaign for president, the question of how he would fund that campaign has loomed over his decision. It has not been a strength of Biden’s past campaigns: As Obama and Hillary Clinton topped $100 million raised in 2007 in preparation for the 2008 primaries, Biden raised a total of $14.3 million before dropping out in January 2008.

    This time, Biden would enter the race as a respected party elder and an heir to the Obama legacy, but he would need to compete with candidates who have excelled in a new fundraising world focused on small-dollar donors. Bernie Sanders and O’Rourke each raised roughly $6 million in 24 hours after announcing their presidential campaigns, well ahead of any other rivals and largely from online donors.


    “His great strength is, he’s regarded as [a] very strong candidate to defeat Donald Trump and unite the party and the country,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and fundraiser. “The test of his candidacy will be engaging the diverse base of the Democratic Party and engaging [the] grassroots, which is the new small-dollar donor leadership.”

    Like the majority of other Democrats, Biden has also indicated he would not rely on the help of a single-candidate super PAC to boost his name in the 2020 race, saying in February that he would “not be part of a super PAC” if he were to run for president.

    “An awful lot of people have offered to help, and the people who are usually the biggest donors in the Democratic Party and I might add some major Republican folks,” Biden added during the appearance at the University of Delaware.

    Supporters are not blind to the possible pitfalls of a Biden run. In particular, many wish he were younger and better positioned to connect with young voters.

    But members of the Obama network have kept up with Biden in the years since Obama’s presidency. More recently, they have spoken with consiglieres like strategist Steve Ricchetti about the possibility of a campaign. And they believe he would be the candidate best-positioned to take on Trump in a general election.

    “He compares and contrasts with the current president in a positive way for Democrats,” said Joseph Falk, a Miami lawyer who raised more than $1 million for Obama’s reelection and now describes himself as a “Biden loyalist” for 2020. “His fealty to the law, his honor, his ability to speak truth to power, his ability to not be an extremist on either side I think bodes well.”


    Other Obama donors interviewed by POLITICO described a conundrum that echoes their initial decision to throw in with Obama over his rivals in 2008: They feel loyal to Biden and hopeful about the potential of his campaign — but they are simultaneously drawn to the idea of backing a charismatic newcomer for president, like the relatively untested O’Rourke or Pete Buttigieg, who has recently sparked intrigue among several Obama fundraisers.

    Some of the fundraisers are dealing with these conflicting feelings by planning to support multiple candidates throughout the Democratic primary, including Biden, while others are putting off the decision or planning to back a different candidate.

    In text messages and conversations, supporters of Obama — some of whom were not significant party donors before becoming involved with the former president’s 2008 campaign — have also nudged each other to attend fundraisers and watch CNN town halls for up-and-comers.

    “I like Joe Biden of course, I think he’s a great guy. He’s on the old side, but he’s not too old to do the job,” said Bill Eacho, an Obama fundraiser and former ambassador to Austria. Eacho said he’s “waiting to learn more about the candidates” before making a decision on who to support.

    Bill Stetson — who raised more than half a million dollars for each of Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and aided the 2008 campaign on environmental issues— said he discusses the race and who to support every night after watching the news with his wife, Jane, a former national finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. For now, he’s giving to multiple candidates, starting with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

    “We’re very close to Joe Biden and we don’t know what he’s doing, and I like Beto, and I think a woman should be in the mix,” Stetson said. “We have to think about the very big picture, and we need to heal this country right now.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    How Pramila Jayapal shepherds the freshmen Dems

    How Pramila Jayapal shepherds the freshmen Dems


    Rep. Ilhan Omar stood alone near the back of the House chamber earlier this month, glancing at her phone and seemingly oblivious to the remarkable rebuke being leveled at her. Lawmakers had gathered to vote on a resolution condemning hate speech —...



    Rep. Ilhan Omar stood alone near the back of the House chamber earlier this month, glancing at her phone and seemingly oblivious to the remarkable rebuke being leveled at her.

    Lawmakers had gathered to vote on a resolution condemning hate speech — legislation sparked by the freshman Democrat’s latest controversial remarks about Israel. After several minutes, she spotted Rep. Pramila Jayapal a few rows ahead and darted toward the Washington Democrat. They embraced and soon doubled over in laughter.

    “She came up to me on the floor, and she gave me a big hug, and I told her that some of my gray hair was [from her] over the last week,” Jayapal said, recounting the scene in an interview.

    For Jayapal, the moment on the floor was intended to offer a sense of solidarity that she rarely felt herself when she was sworn into Congress within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration.

    Just two years later, Jayapal has vaulted from liberal backbencher to co-leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — carving out a crucial role within the newly emboldened Democratic Caucus and earning a seat at Nancy Pelosi’s leadership table each week.


    Jayapal’s colleagues describe her as a mentor with a maternal touch, helping to shepherd a raucous faction that includes a pack of freshman superstars under immense scrutiny on the national stage and even within their own caucus.

    Her restraint on issues like impeachment and her signature “Medicare for All” bill has made her a trusted ally of Democratic leaders, even as she has also deployed her caucus’ 90-plus roster to occasionally force leadership’s hand.

    Amid debate on House Democrats’ sweeping anti-corruption bill, for instance, Jayapal and her progressive colleagues demanded a provision that would require Trump to disclose 10 years of tax returns. Pelosi agreed.

    “The fascinating thing about Jayapal is that she was elected two years ago and so she’s gone through this process,” Omar said in a recent interview. “When people are giving you advice, it’s from decades ago as a freshman. And so her advice is very fresh.”

    Like Omar, Jayapal has faced death threats. She’s been vilified by her political opponents. She’s been the only woman of color in a room. Now, in Congress, Jayapal has helped guide the largest-ever group of freshman women of color — particularly the squad of progressives that is frequently under attack.

    “I’ve been through that myself, so I know the fear of it, and I also know what it takes to steel yourself and get yourself through that,” Jayapal said.

    For Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Jayapal was a familiar and friendly face after the Michigan freshman ignited a firestorm of controversy just hours after being sworn into Congress with her call to “impeach the motherf---er” when speaking about Trump.



    More recently, Tlaib said her longtime friend — the two met as immigration activists 15 years ago, and Jayapal was the first member of Congress to endorse her— pulled her aside before giving a speech on the floor about universal health care with some helpful advice. Personalize your speech, Jayapal counseled, tell the world what the real-world implications of access to health care would mean for your district.

    Tlaib went on to describe in detail how growing up she thought it was normal her neighbors suffered from asthma, cancer and other serious health problems because of the poor air quality around her Detroit district and how having access to basic health care could have significantly improved their quality of life.

    “It’s these little touches,” Tlaib told POLITICO afterwards. “She’s one of these incredible mentors that, at the forefront, is always about serving your district and doing it in a very authentic way.”

    It’s not just Omar and Tlaib who seek her advice: Weeks after the election, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) came over to Jayapal’s house for a meal of boxed tomato soup — which was broadcast to thousands on Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram account.

    After a particularly grueling day at the Capitol, Jayapal will offer a spontaneous dinner invite to her fellow Democrats at her place near the Capitol, where Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) said Jayapal will whip up stew with homemade pita bread. Jayapal has plans to have freshman Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), her mentee within the CPC mentorship program launched this Congress, over for dinner in the coming weeks.

    “It’s almost comical, it’ll be at the last minute, and she’ll say, come over to my house for dinner,” Hayes said with a laugh. “I don’t know how she does it, I don't even have time to go to the grocery store.”

    The private gatherings are partly intended to help the new members navigate Congress, like when she counseled Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) on how to deflect attacks from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in the Judiciary Committee. But they’re also intensely personal, discussing how to survive a deluge of daily attacks as women of color.

    “What I tell them if they ask is, ‘It’s really important not to let the outside world define you, and to be strong in standing up for what you believe in, but also be strategic,” Jayapal said. “If you took on every single thing that drove you crazy, or was racist or sexist or unfair, you would be exhausted and you wouldn't be able to get the work done that you need to get done.”

    As she’s dispatching advice, Jayapal said, she thinks back to the years of discrimination she faced as an immigrant rights activist in the post-Sept. 11 era, and then as the first Indian-American woman elected to the House.


    The snubs even followed her to the House floor.

    In her first term, she was once interrupted mid-debate by senior Republican Don Young of Alaska, who called her “young lady” and asserted that she “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about.”

    Jayapal later wrote on Twitter: “A message to women of color out there: stand strong. Refuse to be patronized or minimized.” Young ultimately apologized.

    How Jayapal will leverage her newfound influence and if she’ll use it as a launching pad for a more prominent leadership post in the future is unclear. For now, her relatively cautious approach on controversial issues, even as some fellow liberals demand more radical action, is welcome within the broader caucus.

    “I’ve seen a lot of people promise things, and they don’t necessarily care whether they can get there or not,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who serves on the Judiciary Committee with Jayapal. “Pramila is very concerned that she can deliver ... And I think it’s very smart of her to do that.”

    Jayapal says for now that her focus is on working with her fellow CPC co-chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), to elect more progressives to Congress.

    Jayapal stumped for California freshman Democratic Reps. Katie Hill and Katie Porter and was instrumental in getting the progressive caucus to back Omar during her crowded primary race.

    Now the campaign arm of the CPC is hiring its first-ever political director, part of a larger effort overseen by Pocan and Jayapal to ensure the caucus plays an even more influential role in 2020, when Democrats will be defending the House majority and trying to win both the Senate and the White House.

    Jayapal has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, an outside group trying to encourage liberal primary challenges to incumbents, but she has said that’s not where she’s spending her energy.


    In the early months of Democratic control of the House, the progressive caucus leaders have taken what they describe as a sensible approach to pushing priorities from the campaign trail.

    Jayapal and Pocan haven’t demanded floor votes on Medicare for All, which they acknowledge still lacks widespread buy-in within the party. Instead, they got Democratic leaders to agree to hold hearings on the proposal for the first time.

    “We do know that in order to get where we need to get, we’ve got some convincing to do,” Pocan said. “It’s wise to make sure we’re having hearings to make sure we’re moving it forward, rather than try to force something that’s not ready.”

    Her conciliatory approach may surprise those who recall her decision to get arrested at a protest last year condemning Trump’s family separation policies.

    But Jayapal hasn’t strayed too far from her activist roots, Pocan insists.

    “My guess is she would gladly still get arrested for something she believes in,” he said.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Some Democrats want more than just Trump’s personal tax returns

    Some Democrats want more than just Trump’s personal tax returns


    Top Democratic lawmakers are preparing to request President Donald Trump’s personal tax returns, but some liberal lawmakers say they should also demand his business tax filings.The business returns are much more likely to indicate conflicts of interest...



    Top Democratic lawmakers are preparing to request President Donald Trump’s personal tax returns, but some liberal lawmakers say they should also demand his business tax filings.

    The business returns are much more likely to indicate conflicts of interest and other possible malfeasance Democrats hope to uncover, such as suspicious ties to Russian interests and whether he took aggressive steps to avoid paying taxes.

    Trump’s financial disclosures show he has more than 500 partnerships and other types of businesses, and each of those would generally have its own tax return.

    There are other types of returns Democrats could seek as well. They could demand returns from his trusts -- a check from Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen released earlier this month, that he said reimbursed him for hush payments to Stormy Daniels, was written out of the account of a revocable trust. Democrats might want First Lady Melania Trump’s returns, because if she and her husband file separately yet own a business together they could allocate income from it to her and not him.


    Trump’s recently dissolved foundation, which New York’s attorney general said had engaged in a “shocking pattern of illegality,” would have its own filings too, though much, if not all, of those are already publicly available.

    On top of all that, there is the tricky question of how many years back Democrats want to investigate.

    Some liberals want House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, who has the power to seize Trump’s returns under an arcane statute, to investigate everything with the president’s name on it, hoping to find criminal bombshells. They will likely jump on the Massachusetts Democrat if they believe he’s not giving them an adequate scrubbing.

    But that threatens to bury lawmakers in thousands of returns, and Democrats are working under time constraints; they want to have something to show the public before next year’s elections. It will take time to digest Trump’s returns and there will likely be a big court fight before the administration hands anything over. The tax panel also has other priorities in addition to investigating Trump’s taxes.

    Some say Democrats ought to take a more incremental approach by requesting a sample of Trump’s returns, with a promise to follow up on any leads they present. That would be more manageable and also help Democrats fend off complaints they are on a “fishing expedition,” said John Buckley, a former longtime Democratic tax aide on the Ways and Means Committee.

    “Strategically, you’re better off with a narrow, well-targeted first request,” he said. “The first request doesn’t mean that’s all you’re ever going to ask for.”

    "'We’re going to get there, we’re just not going to get there in one step’ — that’s what Neal needs to say,” Buckley said.

    But Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said Democrats should pursue a broader investigation, and downplayed the amount of time that will be needed to parse the president’s returns.

    “Five thousand pages is nothing,” he said. “Even 20,000 pieces of paper” is a “minor cost.”

    “This is a pretty significant issue for the country,” he added.


    The debate over the seemingly simple question of what to ask for is an indication of how Trump’s surely complicated taxes, thanks to his wealth and his career in business, pose a unique challenge to lawmakers trying to vet his finances.

    Democrats are preparing to employ a little-used law to try to seize Trump’s tax returns, which he’s steadfastly refused to disclose. A nearly century-old statute allows the heads of Congress’ tax committees to examine anyone’s private tax information. Experts say lawmakers can vote to make that information public. The administration has signaled it will fight the request.

    Neal has said little about what he plans to demand, while his colleagues on the panel have given conflicting accounts of their intentions. Last week, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said he expects Neal to request both Trump’s personal and business returns. The week before that, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), another tax writer, said Neal would request ten years' worth of personal returns, but not his business ones.

    Trump’s personal returns would include basic information like how much he earns, how much he pays in taxes and what, if anything, he gives to charity. It would also include summary information about his businesses, such as how much he earned from them.

    But the details of those businesses — like whom he is working with, whom he owes money to and whether he is taking aggressive steps to avoid paying taxes on them — would show up in separate returns.

    “If you start with the personal returns, what you’ll run into pretty quickly is a lot of references to investments that don’t tell you very much about what it is,” said former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “It’s going to drive you to the business return.”

    But those filings could not only be voluminous, they could also be quite complicated.

    There could also potentially be collateral damage if Democrats make his partnership filings public because they would likely reveal private information about not just Trump but other people in business with him. That could be important if they showed Trump is in business with prominent Russians, for example, but it could also violate the privacy of other people who are of little interest to Congress unless lawmakers take special steps to protect them.

    How many years to look at is another potentially difficult issue.


    House Democrats passed legislation earlier this month demanding a decade’s worth of returns from Trump, but that wouldn’t answer questions raised, for example, by a 1995 return leaked to The New York Times showing Trump took a $916 million loss that year.

    But it’s not clear how many of Trump’s old returns the government still has on file.

    The IRS has a policy of disposing of filings after a certain number of years, though the standard depends on the type of return and it doesn’t apply in cases where someone is under audit or owes the agency money. The agency generally dumps individual returns after six years, while it keeps corporate returns for 50 years and hangs onto estate tax filings for 75 years.

    Lawmakers are unlikely to get Trump’s 2018 returns anytime soon. He probably won’t file those until later this year — wealthy people often wait until October to do their taxes because it takes a while to collect tax information from business partnerships. So Democrats likely won’t be able to determine if Trump benefited from the GOP tax rewrite that took effect in 2018 or if he made any moves in response to the law.

    Many expect lawmakers to turn over Trump’s returns, should they get them, to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation to analyze. The agency is comprised of tax lawyers, accountants and economists who serve as nonpartisan technical advisers to lawmakers — and it has done this sort of thing before.

    President Richard Nixon faced questions over whether he had cheated on his taxes and, in a bid to clear the air, he asked JCT in December 1973 to audit his returns from 1969 through 1972. Though his finances were less complicated than Trump’s likely are — the main issues for Nixon had to do with charitable deductions he had claimed as well as whether he paid enough in capital gains taxes on an apartment and land sale — it still took JCT four months to analyze the filings.

    In April 1974, the agency produced a 1,000-page report finding that Nixon owed $475,431 in unpaid taxes and penalties.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Betsy DeVos strikes out — in court

    Betsy DeVos strikes out — in court


    Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ attempts to swiftly roll back major Obama-era policies at her agency are hitting a roadblock: federal courts. Judges have rebuffed DeVos’ attempts to change Obama policies dealing with everything from student loan...



    Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ attempts to swiftly roll back major Obama-era policies at her agency are hitting a roadblock: federal courts.

    Judges have rebuffed DeVos’ attempts to change Obama policies dealing with everything from student loan forgiveness to mandatory arbitration agreements to racial disparities in special education programs.

    As a result, the Education Department is being forced to carry out Obama-era policies that the Trump administration had been fighting to stop — stymying DeVos’ efforts to quickly impose a conservative imprint on federal education policy over the past two years.

    The latest legal blow came earlier this month, when a federal judge ruled DeVos illegally postponed a regulation requiring states to identify school districts where there are significant racial disparities among the students placed in special education programs. And last week, Education Department officials began implementing a sweeping package of Obama-era student loan policies after DeVos lost a lawsuit over delaying them last fall.

    The department already had to forgive $150 million in student debt under those policies, which DeVos argues are too costly to taxpayers and unfair to colleges. Department officials also directed colleges to stop requiring students to sign mandatory arbitration agreements, forcing them to implement an Obama-era policy that largely bans the practice.

    More legal challenges are in the pipeline. A federal judge allowed a challenge to DeVos’ delay of rules governing online colleges to proceed. And a lawsuit over the Trump administration’s delays of the Obama administration’s signature regulations aimed at cracking down on for-profit colleges is ripe for a decision at any time.


    Judges in the cases decided so far have said the Trump administration ran afoul of the Administrative Procedures Act, ruling that the department’s efforts to delay policies were arbitrary or lacked a reasoned basis.

    “It speaks to the Department of Education’s unwillingness or inability to follow the basic law around how federal agencies conduct themselves,” said Toby Merrill, who directs the Harvard Law School’s Project on Predatory Student Lending, which has brought some of the lawsuits against DeVos.

    Every administration has wins and losses in court, Merrill said, but most have done better at making sure they follow the legal rules of the road for rulemaking.

    “At the very least, they cross their Ts and dot their Is and therefore are less vulnerable to some of the procedural challenges that have been the undoing of so many of this Department of Education’s policies,” she said.

    In rejecting the Trump administration’s efforts to delay the policies, judges have largely focused on procedural problems. The federal judge striking down DeVos’ postponement of student loan regulations called her delays “unlawful,” “procedurally invalid” and “arbitrary and capricious.” The judge who rejected the delay of a special education rule faulted DeVos for failing to provide a “reasoned explanation” for stopping the policy.

    The administration is committed to correcting the regulatory overreach of the prior administration and will continue to make the case for fair and appropriate regulatory reform in the courts,” Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said.

    Many of the policies at issue in the lawsuits have dealt with student loan forgiveness. The Obama administration began forgiving the debts of some students who it determined were defrauded by their college after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges, a massive for-profit chain of colleges.

    DeVos and other conservatives have said that the previous administration’s approach was too lenient and costly to taxpayers. But the Trump administration’s effort to scale back the amount of loan forgiveness for some defrauded student loan borrowers has been blocked in court.


    The judge ruled in that case that the Education Department violated federal privacy law when it came up with a new formula for loan forgiveness that tied the amount of debt relief a borrower would receive with average graduate earnings at an academic program. The Trump administration has appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit, where it remains pending.

    In another case involving Obama-era regulations that call for more consumer disclosures to students of online colleges, a judge chastised the Trump administration’s arguments in favor of delaying them.

    The judge wrote in that it “takes chutzpah” for the Education Department to say that it would be too burdensome for colleges to provide the disclosures to students while also arguing that students “should be able to hunt down this undisclosed information on their own.” The judge hasn’t ruled on the merits of the case, which is being brought by a teachers union, but allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

    The Obama Education Department also faced legal setbacks to its regulatory agenda. A federal judge dealt a blow to the Obama administration’s first attempt to tighten regulations on for-profit schools and other career colleges, which officials rewrote during Obama’s second term. The Obama administration was similarly forced to redo another set of rules governing online college programs after a federal judge tossed them out. More recently, a federal judge found that the Obama administration’s decision to terminate a large accreditor of for-profit colleges illegally failed to properly consider tens of thousands of pages of evidence.

    The Trump administration welcomed that decision, immediately reinstating the college accreditor.


    And the Trump Education Department, to be sure, has also had some victories in court. A federal judge last year dismissed most of a lawsuit brought by advocacy groups challenging DeVos’ new guidance for how colleges must address sexual assault.

    But the Trump administration overall has been on a particularly noteworthy losing streak in the courts, according to a Washington Post report this week that analyzed data maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law.

    The legal setbacks to DeVos’ efforts to stop Obama-era policies at the Education Department also come as the Trump administration has faced a well-organized coalition of consumer groups, state Democratic attorneys general and oversight organizations run by many Obama administration alumni, all of whom are focused on challenging the Trump administration’s agenda at every turn.

    “This administration likes to pretend the rules don’t apply to them,” said Aaron Ament, a former Education Department official during the Obama administration who has brought legal challenges against DeVos as head of the National Student Legal Defense Network.

    “The Administrative Procedures Act does not say ‘check with your corporate supporters, and do whatever they ask,’” Ament said. “As long as DeVos keeps on acting based on political expediency instead of what’s best for students, she’ll keep getting challenged and she’ll keep losing in court.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump's hyped free speech order asks colleges to do what they already have to

    Trump's hyped free speech order asks colleges to do what they already have to


    President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon signed his much-hyped executive order on campus free speech — which he deemed a "historic action to defend American students and American values" that have "been under siege" on campuses."Under the guise of...


    President Donald Trump on Thursday afternoon signed his much-hyped executive order on campus free speech — which he deemed a "historic action to defend American students and American values" that have "been under siege" on campuses.

    "Under the guise of speech codes and safe spaces and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shutdown the voices of great young Americans," Trump said Thursday before signing the order.

    "All of that changes starting right now."

    The order, however, essentially reinforces what schools are already supposed to be doing by formally requiring colleges to agree to promote free inquiry in order to get billions of dollars in federal research funding.

    "While many schools — or all schools — are frankly supposed to follow this currently, it will ensure that grant dollars are associated through the grant-making process, and schools will have to certify that they’re following this condition," a senior administration official said earlier Thursday.

    Still the move, and the president's rhetoric surrounding it, raised alarms for some civil liberties groups and conservatives — including at least one Republican lawmaker — who expressed concerns about federal overreach.


    "I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate HELP Committee, said in a statement. "The U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech. Federal courts define and enforce it. The Department of Justice can weigh in. Conservatives don’t like it when judges try to write laws, and conservatives should not like it when legislators and agencies try to rewrite the Constitution.”

    The order directs 12 federal agencies that fund university research to add language to existing agreements that colleges have to sign to get the money. Public universities will have to vow to uphold the First Amendment — something they already must do — and private universities will have to promise to uphold their own "stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech," essentially setting their own rules.

    It will be up to the agencies to enforce the agreements, as they already do.

    "Today we’re delivering a clear message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans — and all Americans, not just young Americans … from challenging rigid, far-left ideology," Trump said. "If the university doesn't allow you to speak, we will not give them money — it's very simple."

    The president vowed it was "the first in a series of steps we will take to defend students' rights."

    The executive order is "plainly unnecessary," the president of a group of public universities said.

    "Public universities are already bound by the First Amendment and work each day to defend and honor it," Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said. “As institutions of higher learning, public universities are constantly working to identify new ways to educate students on the importance of free expression, provide venues for free speech, and advance our world through free academic inquiry.

    "No executive order will change that,” he said.

    The American Civil Liberties Union echoed that sentiment.


    “This executive order doesn’t do much with regard to free speech," ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane said in a statement. "Instead, it tells public universities to abide by the First Amendment, as they are already required to do, and private universities to abide by their existing policies."

    Some conservatives, however, believe haven't done that, and are regularly stifling speech — especially conservative speech — by banning speakers, creating speech zones and pushing trigger warnings.

    "College campuses are ground zero in the campaign by the liberal left to shut down conservative dissent," said Chandler Thornton, chairman of the College Republican National Committee. "President Trump's executive order is critically needed because college and university bureaucrats have absolutely failed to protect free speech on campus."

    Trump previously threatened to withdraw federal funding to the University of California, Berkeley, after riots on campus led it to cancel an event at which far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. At Trump's CPAC speech where he first mentioned the executive order, the president brought to the stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched in the face while recruiting on the Berkeley campus for the conservative youth group Turning Point USA.

    The Justice Department under the Trump administration, meanwhile, has backed lawsuits against colleges it believes are suppressing speech, including Berkeley.

    Donald Trump, Jr., touted the move on Twitter Thursday morning as "A big momentous day!"

    "Super excited today that @realDonaldTrump is signing an executive order today to protect free speech rights for ALL students!" he wrote. "Great work by @TPUSA and @charliekirk11 who have been pushing this since the first time I met him years ago."

    Some, however, remained skeptical of federal intrusions into campus speech, especially given the president’s framing of the issue. The conservative Charles Koch Institute pointed to a statement the White House issued in which Trump slammed “oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness, and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas."

    “We are concerned that wrongly framing censorship as an ideological issue works against efforts to foster open intellectual environments on campus," Sarah Ruger, director of Free Speech Initiatives at the Koch Institute, said in a statement. “The best policies are those that empower the academy to uphold its core ideals of academic independence and free inquiry."


    The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has sued colleges it believes are stifling speech, said in a statement that the order could result in "unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom."

    "To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial," the group said. "We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component. FIRE has long opposed federal agency requirements that conflict with well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. We will continue to do so."

    The American Council on Education, the leading higher education lobbying group, meanwhile, said the order is "unnecessary and unwelcome, a solution in search of a problem."

    "What remains to be seen is the process the administration develops to flesh out these requirements and the extent to which it is willing to consult with the communities most affected — especially research universities," said Ted Mitchell, the group's president, in a statement. "No matter how this order is implemented, it is neither needed nor desirable, and could lead to unwanted federal micromanagement of the cutting-edge research that is critical to our nation’s continued vitality and global leadership.”

    The order makes some moves beyond free speech, as well.

    It directs the Education Department to add program-level data, including information on debt, earnings, repayment and default rates, to the existing College Scorecard. In addition, the order directs the department to publish the performance, by college, of PLUS loans for parents and graduate students. It also orders up a report from the department with recommendations on how the administration can put colleges on the hook for how well their students do after graduation.

    "We’re going to make them have an incentive to keep their costs down," Trump said. "I’ve watched this over a period of time. I figured it out very, very quickly. I just see their numbers go up very rapidly, because they don't have the burden on them."

    Michael Stratford contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    The need for speed: Why Congress and the FAA outsourced oversight to Boeing

    The need for speed: Why Congress and the FAA outsourced oversight to Boeing


    Aviation unions and other critics offered dire warnings in 2004 when the Federal Aviation Administration proposed expanding the role of aircraft manufacturers like Boeing in deciding whether their planes were safe to fly: It would be “reckless,” they...


    Aviation unions and other critics offered dire warnings in 2004 when the Federal Aviation Administration proposed expanding the role of aircraft manufacturers like Boeing in deciding whether their planes were safe to fly: It would be “reckless,” they wrote, would “lower the safety of the flying public” and would lead to “ever increasing air disaster.”

    Fifteen years later, the FAA’s strategy of delegating much of its regulatory oversight to hundreds of employees at the companies it oversees may be too entrenched to reverse — even with the intense scrutiny on how Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX jet won approval to fly.

    The FAA has been acting at the direction of Congress, amid pressure from industry players like Boeing to help them compete with foreign rivals by speeding up approvals of new aircraft. The agency maintains that it has used its cooperation with industry to make air travel safer. But government watchdogs have raised red flags about the FAA’s oversight of the program, which puts companies in charge of duties such as doing inspections and vetting engineering designs, with the agency’s supervision.

    Concerns about the program are being amplified after 346 people died in two 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia since October, raising questions about how much agency officials knew about a software feature suspected as a factor.

    “There’s no question the certification process was fast-tracked, that Boeing wanted this plane in the air as quickly as possible,” said lobbyist Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, the independent federal agency that investigates airline accidents. “And the FAA is not designed for speedy decision-making. That’s not what they do. And I think that is a very legitimate question. Did the … system fail as this plane was rushed to get online?”


    House members said Wednesday that they too want to know more about how the FAA went about approving the 737 MAX — including any problems caused by the practice of delegating some of its regulatory powers.

    Similar questions arose in 2013 after a rash of smoke and fire incidents led the FAA to ground another new Boeing plane, the 787 Dreamliner. The NTSB later placed partial blame on Boeing for design flaws in its lithium batteries, and on the FAA for not catching those flaws when it certified the plane.

    Congress, though, has repeatedly encouraged the FAA to continue in this direction, ordering only minor changes in the delegation program in its last major aviation legislation last October. According to a 2013 Government Accountability Office report, FAA-approved private employees at that time were performing more than 90 percent of tasks involved in certification.

    Advocates for the program have included acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, who told Congress in 2012 that pressing forward with the program was the best way to streamline the agency’s approvals. At the time, he worked for the trade group Aerospace Industries Association, of which Boeing is a member.

    Some experts expressed skepticism about undoing the program at this point, given the sheer number of industry employees acting as the FAA’s eyes and ears while on private companies’ payrolls.

    “We’re talking about replacing thousands, if not tens of thousands, of [industry workers] with FAA personnel,” said John Goglia, an airplane mechanic and former NTSB board member. “Not going to happen.”

    FAA officials say the system enhances safety — and in fact, the past decade has been widely accepted as the safest in the history of U.S. air travel, with only one fatality in a domestic passenger airline accident since 2009.


    “FAA has never allowed companies to police themselves or self-certify their aircraft,” the agency said in a statement Wednesday. “With strict FAA oversight, delegation extends the rigor of the FAA certification process to other recognized professionals, thereby multiplying the technical expertise focused on assuring an aircraft meets FAA standards.”

    “Related to certification of the MAX, FAA experts, including chief scientists, engineers and flight test pilots, conducted in-flight testing of the flight control system,” the agency added — including the software feature that has emerged as a possible factor in the two Boeing crashes.

    In a statement this week, Boeing pointed to the “extensive qualification process” for company employees to be designated to act in the FAA’s stead, adding that they must “act independently on behalf of the FAA when performing in this role.”

    “These people are essentially the arm of the FAA,” Ray Conner, at the time president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial division, told the House Transportation Committee in a 2015 hearing. “Although they are paid by us, they are within our organization, they are approved individually by the FAA. They carry the FAA authority, in essence. And we take that very, very seriously.”

    Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) pressed Conner on whether Boeing employees are truly independent of the company that pays them. “I still do think there is some power and influence when you are signing the paycheck,” she said.

    The FAA says it couldn’t keep up with its regulatory work without shifting part of the load to the private sector, especially given rapid shifts in technology and public expectations for “efficient and agile” oversight.

    “Industry is expanding and contracting at a much faster pace than the FAA can currently match or exceed,” the agency said in a 2017 strategy blueprint outlining its plans for even more “collaborative relationships” with industry and less “direct” involvement by regulators “in individual projects.”

    The FAA document says the agency "balances the business needs of entities seeking certification approval (applicants) with the public’s expectations for safety." It includes a quote in large type from management guru Peter Drucker, urging people to embrace change: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

    The agency notes that it has been pursuing versions of this approach since at least the 1940s, when it began appointing private “designees” to handle tasks like inspecting aircraft, and later expanded it to cover new duties and entire companies. Congress ordered a major expansion in a 2003 aviation bill, prompting the agency to create a program called “Organization Designation Authorization,” in which companies like Boeing can form self-contained units that act as FAA representatives.


    Today, the FAA delegates a host of tasks involving aircraft and the gear on it, ranging from seats to cockpit displays, including the engineering design, manufacturing, operations and maintenance. They also help the agency certify aviation workers, including pilots and mechanics.

    Boeing, with more than 130,000 employees, is so huge and complex that as of 2015, the FAA had a 40-person office dedicated to overseeing its part of the ODA program, according to a Transportation Department inspector general report. According to an FAA fact book, as of fiscal 2016, the FAA had 1,571 designees for aircraft certification services.

    Agency officials say delegating tasks allows them to stretch the FAA’s resources.

    “It does leverage us,” Dorenda Baker, the head of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service at the time, told a House hearing two years ago. “We have about 700 engineers, whereas Boeing has approximately 900 … people that are working on our behalf.”

    Critics of the post-2003 expansion included the country’s largest air traffic controllers union and another union, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, which counts among its members FAA inspectors who oversee the “designees.”

    “Allowing the aviation industry to self-regulate in this manner is nothing more than the blatant outsourcing of inspector functions and handing over inherently governmental oversight activities to non-governmental, for-profit entities,” PASS wrote in its 2004 comments to the agency, calling the creation of the ODA program “premature and reckless.”

    PASS stands by those criticisms, spokesperson Elizabeth Doherty told POLITICO, saying the FAA is allowing its private-sector partners to perform “increasingly more difficult and critical work.”

    Doherty said FAA inspectors need to be in the field more “to strengthen their knowledge of the equipment and aircraft in order to use that expertise to document any violations or deviations and report them accordingly. They certainly should not just be signing off on paperwork submitted by a designee.”

    In recent years, the program has grown even more, in part due to urging by an industry eager to compete globally in an age of increasing technological innovation and a Congress unwilling to pony up for additional federal resources.

    The pressure on the FAA from Boeing and other manufacturers has been constant, one aviation source with deep knowledge of aircraft certification told POLITICO.

    “Boeing really pushed in Congress to put pressure on the FAA — you know how that goes — to put pressure on the FAA to improve and enhance the ODA program,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous because of ongoing dealings within the industry. The person added that Conner, the Boeing executive, joined in: “In every one of these [advisory committee] meetings we were in, no matter what was on the agenda, his agenda was to get certification moving faster.”

    The person noted that the FAA has also felt broader public pressure to respond more quickly to shifts in technologies, such as a groundswell of support for allowing greater use of gadgets like e-readers and tablets in all stages of flight. The FAA relented in 2014, allowing them to be used in “airplane mode.”

    Watchdogs have periodically expressed concern about how thoroughly the FAA is supervising the private employees acting on its behalf, especially when it has to rely on the companies’ technical expertise.

    In its 2013 report, the GAO wrote that “designee oversight is lacking,” particularly with the FAA’s newly expanded authority. It specifically cited concerns that “FAA staff have not been able to keep pace with industry changes and, thus, may struggle to understand the aircraft or equipment they are tasked with certificating.”

    A 2011 report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general said it found weaknesses in the FAA’s oversight of the program, such as inconsistencies in how companies select designees, as well as inadequacies in how it trains FAA engineers to manage it. A subsequent inspector general report in 2015 knocked the agency for not having a way to adequately assess whether it has enough staff overseeing the program.

    The author of the 2011 report, former assistant inspector general for aviation audits Jeff Guzzetti, said the FAA was responsive to his office’s recommendations. And though the program “probably still has issues,” he said, “in general, the system works.”

    “No one is more motivated to have a safe aircraft than the manufacturer, because if one crashes, it could be the end of that manufacturer, it could cost billions of dollars — just like it’s costing Boeing,” Guzzetti said.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Israel, anti-Semitism and 2020 fight on display as AIPAC gathers

    Israel, anti-Semitism and 2020 fight on display as AIPAC gathers


    The politics of Israel, the issue of anti-Semitism and the 2020 presidential campaign will move to center stage in Washington over the next few days as the powerful pro-Israel group AIPAC holds its annual policy conference and President Donald Trump...


    The politics of Israel, the issue of anti-Semitism and the 2020 presidential campaign will move to center stage in Washington over the next few days as the powerful pro-Israel group AIPAC holds its annual policy conference and President Donald Trump prepares to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

    The dual meetings come as Trump pushes his party ever closer to Israel — most recently with a Thursday announcement that the U.S. will recognize Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights — and Democrats face an internal debate over their party’s support for arguably the most important U.S. ally in the Middle East.

    This year’s three-day AIPAC forum will include appearances by Netanyahu and his political rival, Benny Gantz. It also will feature speeches from Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and an array of other lawmakers from both parties.

    The annual gathering comes at an extraordinarily turbulent moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Unconditional support for Israel was once sacrosanct in American politics, a topic so touchy that a mere misstep or slight flub could damage a politician's career.

    But with Netanyahu making a critical election-season trip to the United States, Israel has become a partisan football, with Trump's Republican Party on one side, and a new generation of Democrats, including the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress, on the other.


    Under Trump, the GOP has moved in lockstep with Israel and Netanyahu. Just on Thursday, Trump recognized Israeli control over the Golan Heights, a provocative move that no other U.S. president would even dream of doing during the past 50-plus years.

    The White House has signaled for weeks that the announcement was coming, but it was still seen as a major boost for Netanyahu, who gushed that Trump “is the greatest friend Israel ever had in our entire history” as he stood next to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference in Jerusalem.

    Netanyahu will join Trump at the White House next Monday and Tuesday. It’s the Israeli prime minister’s second visit to the White House since Trump took office. The two leaders are scheduled to meet on Monday to “discuss their countries’ shared interests and actions in the Middle East.” On Tuesday, Trump will host Netanyahu for dinner, according to the White House. The Israeli elections are scheduled for April 9, with Netanyahu and Gantz — a former general and Israeli army chief of staff — locked in a tight contest.

    Trump, meanwhile, has also seized on anti-Semitic comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to claim “Democrats hate Jewish people,” a raw partisan comment that outraged Democrats. Pompeo even singled out Omar by name during a Thursday interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, an extraordinary move by an American diplomat engaged in official business overseas.

    “The rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and in Europe and in, frankly, all across the world is something that is deeply troubling, and to see someone — a duly elected congressman — behave in that way, to speak about anti-Semitism in that way, is of great concern," Pompeo said.


    And Trump is pushing the so-called Jexodus movement, which is aimed at persuading Jewish Democrats to switch parties.

    “The ‘Jexodus’ movement encourages Jewish people to leave the Democrat Party. Total disrespect! Republicans are waiting with open arms,” Trump tweeted just last week. There’s no sign that the effort has had any success — surveys show Jewish voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic — but Trump’s efforts are clearly aimed at helping his own reelection effort next year.

    Democrats, for their part, are wrestling with the question over U.S. relations with Israel, a dispute that crosses the lines of race, religion and age.

    Newly elected Democratic lawmakers such as Omar and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the first two Muslim women elected to Congress — have bashed Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians. Omar’s criticism of AIPAC and the support Jewish-American voters have for Israel touched off a national furor over anti-Semitism. Omar later apologized for some of those remarks. The House also has twice passed resolutions condemning such comments, yet the controversy over Omar continues to reverberate inside the party.

    And while numerous Democratic lawmakers will speak at the three-day AIPAC forum, not one top-tier Democratic presidential candidate will be in attendance.

    In fact, Democratic front-runners — including Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — had no problem highlighting the fact that they would be skipping the gathering. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is weighing a presidential bid, will speak at the event.

    O’Rourke has said repeatedly that Netanyahu “openly sided with racists” to help save his embattled political career, while a Sanders’ spokesman told The Associated Press the Vermont Democrat is "concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.”

    But a large bloc of other Democrats remain unquestionably aligned with Israel, despite their queasiness with Netanyahu's tenure. These Democrats have raised concerns about the tenor of Israel criticism among Democrats, including Omar, both in public and private.

    In a statement to POLITICO on Thursday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) signaled that he backed Trump’s announcement on the Golan Heights.


    “Israel has controlled the Golan Heights for over 50 years. The Syrian civil war and the resultant presence of extremists on Israel’s northern border, including Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and ISIS, underscores the importance of Israeli control of this strategic area,” Engel said in his statement. “This is the reality of the situation, and there is no circumstance under which Israel should give that strategic advantage to the murderous Assad regime.”

    A pair of Jewish Democrats also are pushing a new measure to condemn an international boycott campaign aimed at Israel — the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" movement — a chance for much of the party to unify around support for the key U.S. ally after weeks of turmoil on the issue.

    House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) introduced a resolution Thursday that denounces BDS efforts as "incompatible" with the official U.S. stance on a two-state solution to end the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    In a letter to colleagues Thursday, Nadler and Schneider described the global attempt to economically isolate Israel as an "overly-simplistic and one-sided approach."

    "Its goal is Israel's elimination, not the criticism of any particular policy of Israel," they wrote of BDS, which has been cheered by some outside progressive groups as the best tool to force a change in Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

    The language on a two-state solution — which both parties have stuck by for years — is expected to be widely supported in the House. The resolution includes two GOP cosponsors: Reps. Lee Zeldin of New York and Ann Wagner of Missouri.

    Yet it could also expose a leftward shift among Democrats, with new members like Omar and Tlaib supporting such boycotts.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights

    Trump to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights


    President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the United States will formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights."After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan...


    President Donald Trump announced Thursday that the United States will formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.

    "After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!" the president tweeted.

    Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967, and effectively annexed the territory in 1981.

    During a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday in Israel, Netanyahu urged the United States to recognize Israel's sovereignty over the area, The New York Times reported.

    Netanyahu praised Trump's decision shortly after the president's announcement.

    "At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights," Netanyahu tweeted. "Thank you President Trump! @realDonaldTrump"`


    Netanyahu will meet with Trump at the White House for a working meeting on March 25 to “discuss their countries’ shared interests and actions in the Middle East." The prime minister will also attend a White House dinner on March 26.

    Netanyahu's trip to the White House comes several weeks ahead of the Israeli elections, where the prime minister is facing a tough reelection battle.

    While speaking to reporters on Thursday in Israel prior to Trump's announcement, Pompeo declined to confirm whether the U.S. was considering recognizing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights.

    "I don’t have anything to say about that," he told reporters. "The administration’s considering lots of things always, and I try to make sure we get to answers before we talk about them publicly."

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has strongly advocated for Israel, called on Congress to also recognize the president's request.

    "President Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan as part of Israel is strategically wise and overall awesome," Graham tweeted. "Well done, Mr. President! Now I, along with Senator @tedcruz, will try to get Congress to follow your lead."


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Cummings demands docs on Kushner's alleged use of encrypted app for official business

    Cummings demands docs on Kushner's alleged use of encrypted app for official business


    House Democrats are raising new concerns about what they say is recently revealed information from Jared Kushner’s attorney indicating that the senior White House aide has been relying on encrypted messaging service WhatsApp and his personal email...


    House Democrats are raising new concerns about what they say is recently revealed information from Jared Kushner’s attorney indicating that the senior White House aide has been relying on encrypted messaging service WhatsApp and his personal email account to conduct official business.

    The revelation came in a Dec. 19 meeting — made public by the House Oversight and Reform Committee for the first time on Thursday — between Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the former chairman of the Oversight panel, and Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell.

    Cummings, who now leads the Oversight Committee, says in a new letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone that Lowell confirmed to the two lawmakers that Kushner “continues to use” WhatsApp to conduct White House business. Cummings also indicated that Lowell told them he was unsure whether Kushner had ever used WhatsApp to transmit classified information.

    "That's above my pay grade," Lowell told the lawmakers, per Cummings' letter.

    Lowell added, according to Cummings, that Kushner is in compliance with record-keeping law. Lowell told the lawmakers that Kushner takes screenshots of his messages and forwards them to his White House email in order to comply with records preservation laws, Cummings indicated.


    Kushner, whom the president charged with overseeing the administration’s Middle East policies, reportedly has communicated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman via WhatsApp.

    The details of the discussion about Kushner’s email and messaging practices came as part of a new Oversight Committee demand for a slew of new documents from Kushner and other current and former White House officials, including his wife Ivanka Trump, former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland, and former top strategist Steve Bannon.

    Cummings is demanding the documents by April 4 and signaled he may issue subpoenas if the White House refuses to comply.

    In a reply to Cummings, Lowell disputed elements of the congressman's recollection about the conversation, suggesting that he told Cummings and Gowdy that he was not the authority on Kushner’s use of WhatsApp and that they should direct questions to the White House. "I specifically said that ‘If there was a question about Jared's use of WhatsApp, that is a question for White House counsel, not me.’”

    The White House acknowledged receiving Cummings’ letter but had no immediate response. “The White House has received Chairman Cummings’ letter of March 21st,” said White House spokesman Steven Groves. “As with all properly authorized oversight requests, the White House will review the letter and will provide a reasonable response in due course.”

    Gowdy did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

    According to Cummings, Lowell also told him and Gowdy that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter who also serves as a top adviser, conducts official White House business through her personal email account. Cummings suggested that Ivanka Trump was in violation of the Presidential Records Act because she was not forwarding emails to her official White House account that deal with government-related business.

    Lowell disputed Cummings' characterization of their conversation about Ivanka Trump. Lowell said that conversation was referring to Ivanka Trump's email use before September 2017.

    “Now she always forwards official business to her White House account,” Lowell says he told Cummings.


    Cummings also told Cipollone that the committee obtained a document showing that McFarland was using an AOL.com account to conduct official White House business. Cummings said the document shows that McFarland was in communication with Tom Barrack, a longtime Trump confidant and the chairman of the president’s Inaugural Committee, about transferring “sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.”

    Barrack pitched the plan to Bannon through Bannon’s personal email account, according to Cummings.

    “These communications raise questions about whether these officials complied with the Presidential Records Act and whether the White House identified this personal email use during its internal review and took steps to address it,” Cummings wrote.

    The chairman also asked the White House for a briefing on its protocols for preserving records in accordance with the law.

    The issue initially emerged as a bipartisan concern in 2017 when it was revealed that Kushner and Ivanka Trump were using their personal email accounts for official White House business. Gowdy, who at the time chaired the Oversight panel, had asked the White House for information about the process. But Democrats later complained that Gowdy refused to subpoena the White House over the issue.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    White House rebuffs Dem request for docs on Trump-Putin talks

    White House rebuffs Dem request for docs on Trump-Putin talks


    The White House on Thursday rejected congressional Democrats’ demands for documents relating to President Donald Trump’s private discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin — escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Congress...


    The White House on Thursday rejected congressional Democrats’ demands for documents relating to President Donald Trump’s private discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin — escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Congress over a crucial piece of Democrats’ oversight ambitions.

    “The committees’ letters cite no legal authority for the proposition that another branch of the government can force the president to disclose diplomatic communications with foreign leaders or that supports forcing disclosure of the confidential internal deliberations of the president’s national security advisors,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter obtained by POLITICO to the chairmen of three House committees seeking documents and witness interviews.

    In his letter to Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Cipollone cited precedents going back to the George Washington and Bill Clinton administrations to assert Trump’s authority to conduct foreign affairs, and to argue that Congress has no right to information about one-on-one conversations between the president and a foreign leader.

    “It is settled law that the Constitution entrusts the conduct of foreign relations exclusively to the Executive Branch, as it makes the President ‘the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,’” Cipollone wrote.

    Cipollone also argued that Congress’ demand for information about a president’s private conversations with foreign leaders could jeopardize similar talks involving future American presidents.


    “The president must be free to engage in discussions with foreign leaders without fear that those communications will be disclosed and used as fodder for partisan political purposes. And foreign leaders must be assured of this as well,” Cipollone wrote. “No foreign leader would engage in private conversations with the president, or the president’s senior advisors, if such conversations were subject to public disclosure (or disclosure to committees of Congress).”

    The three House Democratic chairman had demanded earlier this month that the White House and the State Department turn over, by last Friday, “all documents and communications, regardless of form and classification, that refer or relate to any communications between President Trump and President Putin, including in-person meetings and telephone calls.”

    That deadline came and went without a response from the White House. Administration officials have adopted a hardline approach to the myriad congressional investigations, often ignoring the committees’ deadlines altogether.

    But investigating Trump’s ties to Russia is a top priority for Democrats under their new House majority, and they’ve left all options on the table — including subpoenas — to try to force the White House’s compliance.

    Democrats were particularly incensed with the president’s posture toward Moscow when he suggested last July after speaking with Putin in Helsinki that he believed the Russian president’s forceful denials of interference in the 2016 presidential election.


    Democrats argue that despite some precedents that protect the privacy of a president’s conversations with foreign leaders, Trump’s interactions with Putin might determine whether the Kremlin has “leverage” over the U.S. president.

    Lawmakers openly acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining such sensitive information from an executive branch that has vowed to fight Democratic oversight demands, but they’re moving methodically to make their case.

    Schiff and Engel have been consulting with House General Counsel Douglas Letter about the best ways to legally compel information about Trump’s private conversations with Putin.

    Schiff, Engel and Cummings released a joint statement later Thursday condemning the White House for what they called its “troubling pattern ... of rejecting legitimate and necessary congressional oversight with no regard for precedent or the Constitution.” They also said the Obama administration produced documents about the then-president’s conversations with foreign heads of state, adding: “President Trump’s decision to break with this precedent raises the question of what he has to hide.”

    The chairmen said they would consult with one another on their next steps.

    The March 4 letters to the White House and State Department were among the chairmen’s first voluntary requests for documents and witness interviews pertaining to the committees’ wide-ranging investigations.

    The chairmen have not ruled out the possibility of issuing subpoenas, and Democrats have in the past demanded to speak with the State Department interpreter who was present for some of Trump’s private conversations with Putin.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Your guide to the end of the Mueller probe

    Your guide to the end of the Mueller probe


    It’s a moment nearly two years in the making, and it’s almost here.Any day now, Attorney General William Barr is expected to announce the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.When that happens, the heated interest in the...


    It’s a moment nearly two years in the making, and it’s almost here.

    Any day now, Attorney General William Barr is expected to announce the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.

    When that happens, the heated interest in the investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign conspired with the Kremlin will boil over.

    That’s a lot to take in. But don’t fret. POLITICO has you covered. Here’s our guide to the path ahead and the myriad logistical questions that will help to navigate this historical moment.


    When will we know the investigation is over?

    Good question. We’ve been getting that one from our editors, colleagues, friends, neighbors, parents, etc., pretty much since the investigation started.

    For a long time, we didn’t have an answer. We still don’t — yet. But the prospects that Mueller is about to finish are looking more solid by the day.

    In the past week, Mueller’s office has confirmed the departure of two senior prosecutors and the FBI has also reassigned its lead senior agent to another post. At the Justice Department, a growing gaggle of reporters has been stationed in the usually sleepy press room, waiting for any guidance on what’s to come.

    Long story short, everyone is on pins and needles, and the first burst of news could come any moment. We’re prepared for that to be on Thursday, Friday or soon thereafter. Several other factors are also leading to conclusions that the report is imminent, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s stated plan to leave his post in the coming weeks.


    Who’s going to make the announcement?

    William Barr, the new Trump-appointed attorney general who took office in mid-February, is Mueller’s ultimate supervisor and is expected to have the responsibility of announcing the Russia probe is finished.

    What exactly will Barr announce?

    The attorney general is expected to simply state that the probe is done and Mueller has given him a report detailing the investigation. But don’t expect him to say anything about that report — yet.

    Instead, he’ll likely say that DOJ is now working on a summary of that report and perhaps will give an indication of when that summary might be done.

    Under the DOJ regulations used to appoint Mueller — written during the Bill Clinton era — the special counsel must submit a confidential report to Barr explaining who’s been prosecuted and why, as well as who hasn’t been prosecuted and why. Barr then gets to decide how much of that material to make public, if any. He promised during his Senate confirmation hearing in January only to release a summary of the confidential report.

    It also seems likely we’ll learn of these steps through formal letters to Congress, including the House and Senate Judiciary committees. There’s been no indication that Barr plans a news conference about all this, although he’ll eventually have to answer questions from reporters and lawmakers.


    So, wait, this won’t be an announcement that the Mueller report is available for the public?

    That’s the expectation, yes. Sorry if you were misled.

    OK, then. The suspense is killing me. When will we get to see Mueller’s report?

    It’s up to Barr, who is expected to say he needs a few more weeks to review what Mueller submitted. During that time, he’ll redact any classified information from the document, as well as information sourced from a grand jury, which is secret. He’ll also be working to summarize what could be a sizable document for public consumption. That will become the trimmed-down version of Mueller’s report that goes to Congress and is released to the public.

    That said, this being Washington, D.C., there’s the possibility nuggets from the report could start leaking out while Barr prepares the summary and makes his redactions.

    So what’s this report going to say when it finally does come out?

    The answer to this question is something only Mueller, his team and perhaps a few top DOJ officials know at this point.

    Expectations among the public might be high that the document will be a tell-all page-turner that explains the ins and outs of what happened in the 2016 presidential campaign, how and why the Russians hacked Democratic email accounts and whether anyone in Trump’s orbit knew about this beforehand or facilitated the crimes.

    Those expectations would probably be too high. Barr promised only that he’d dish out a summary of what Mueller tells him about who’s been prosecuted and who didn’t get prosecuted, with the added caveat that DOJ policy is not to air people’s dirty laundry if it didn’t lead to a criminal indictment.


    Does the White House get to see it?

    It seems likely that the White House will have a chance to review whatever summary Barr proposes sending to Congress.

    If so, the White House lawyers will likely scour the document for information they believe should be withheld due to executive privilege, a right that presidents have long claimed to try and withhold certain information from the public. The president’s personal attorneys, including Rudy Giuliani, have also said they want to see the document to offer a chance to make corrections or include other information.

    Trump himself would likely be entitled to see whatever is sent to the White House, but there are questions about whether it would be proper for his personal attorneys to get a copy before it is publicly released. Another factor to consider: as the proposed report is circulated more widely, the chances of a leak increase.

    Here’s another wrinkle: Trump has said his legal team is preparing its own counter report, which as of last December was already 87 pages long.

    Is anyone else going to be indicted?

    That’s another closely held secret.

    A wide range of people ensnared in the Russia probe remain on edge about their legal fate.

    There’s the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., who attended a Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising him “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Or the conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, who exchanged multiple emails with indicted Trump associate Roger Stone about WikiLeaks, the activist group that dumped Clinton campaign emails in 2016.

    Adding to the tension: There are dozens of sealed indictments that have been filed in D.C. federal court over the two years Mueller’s been at work. These could all be unrelated to the Russia probe. But until Barr or Mueller gives an all-clear — something that actually may never come — Trumpworld can’t fully exhale.

    Mueller’s office has also handed off leads to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who are investigating Trump’s business dealings, campaign and inauguration fundraising.

    Additionally, several spin-off or related investigations remain publicly unresolved, including probes into the actions of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an inquiry into alleged false statements by fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and an investigation of Ukraine-related work conducted by former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig.


    What happens to the active Mueller cases that haven’t concluded yet?

    They will continue.

    In recent weeks, Mueller’s team has been bringing in outside federal prosecutors to work on the cases that will linger beyond the special counsel’s tenure. The move allows Mueller to hand off unfinished business more easily once he closes up shop.

    That’s been the case with Stone’s prosecution. The longtime Trump associate’s trial is scheduled to start Nov. 5 in D.C. on charges of lying to Congress and obstructing lawmakers’ Russia probe. All along, a pair of assistant U.S. attorneys from the D.C. office have handled key parts of the Stone case, including many of the arguments during preliminary hearings.

    Other federal prosecutors are also lined up to take over two other Mueller cases: the indictment of an online Russian “troll farm” that allegedly sowed discontent in 2016, and a case charging Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic Party emails that same year.

    None of the 12 alleged hackers have been taken into custody. But a St. Petersburg, Russia-based company charged in the trolling case — Concord Management and Consulting — has hired American lawyers and is demanding a trial. Career national security prosecutors appear prepared to handle that if it happens.


    When does impeachment start?

    Hold on, there — we’re a few steps away from that.

    First, Mueller’s findings will need to make their way to Capitol Hill. If the summary report doesn’t include granular details about the president’s actions, expect a protracted legal battle between Democrats and DOJ over gaining access to Mueller’s underlying investigative documents.

    Second, Democrats will need to be almost uniformly convinced that Mueller has found evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors” — the vague standard the Constitution says can merit a president’s removal from office.

    So far, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is setting the bar high for that standard. She’s warned that any attempt to remove Trump that didn’t include enough GOP support to succeed could backfire on Democrats. That’s the last thing Democratic Party leaders want going into the 2020 election.

    Will Mueller ever speak?

    It’s certainly possible.

    The famously tight-lipped special counsel hasn’t uttered a single public word about his investigation over his two years on the job. But House Democrats say they will call Mueller in to testify publicly if they don’t get his report in its entirety.

    Still, current and former DOJ officials, legal experts and lawmakers from both parties have been lowering expectations that the by-the-book Mueller would break script and provide much more than what has already been said in public about his investigation.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Jokes about school shooting, abortions flow from agency spokesman’s Twitter feed

    Jokes about school shooting, abortions flow from agency spokesman’s Twitter feed


    A Federal Highway Administration spokesman made dozens of jokes over the past several years about mass shootings, abortion and the killing of Trayvon Martin, a review of his personal Twitter account shows.The tweets by Doug Hecox, who is a comedian,...


    A Federal Highway Administration spokesman made dozens of jokes over the past several years about mass shootings, abortion and the killing of Trayvon Martin, a review of his personal Twitter account shows.

    The tweets by Doug Hecox, who is a comedian, writer and adjunct professor in addition to his role at the highway agency, include a 2016 post in which he wrote: "More Republicans would support abortion if they realized how many Democrats it prevents."

    The Twitter account was made private shortly before POLITICO inquired about Hecox's tweets. Hecox, who according to his LinkedIn profile has been with agency since 2004, did not respond to a request for comment.

    The agency responded by noting that its social media policy allows "limited personal use of Web-based interactive technology sites ... while on breaks or during lunch" and that users' personal views expressed on personal Twitter accounts "do not represent the positions held by the agency." The agency did not address questions about whether the tweets were inappropriate or unethical, however, and its social media policy, last updated in 2011, appears mainly focused on use of official social media accounts or conduct while at work. The agency noted that public affairs staff don't have official social media accounts.

    The account doesn’t state Hecox’s full name or suggest any connection to his government job, but a Q&A with Hecox on the federal agency's website says the Twitter account belongs to him. The agency's page also lists Hecox as the owner of a personal website that is linked from the Twitter account's bio page. Some recent tweets included photos from highway agency events as well as references to Hecox’s work as an adjunct professor of journalism at American University.


    Hecox has tweeted several times about mass shootings. In 2012, on the day 20 children were killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, Hecox tweeted: "The realist in me thinks the Newtown shooting is a tragedy, but the optimist in me thinks it is a good lesson in subtraction." Newtown was also the subject of several other tweets Hecox posted that day.

    Other tweets joked about the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and a 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Hecox tweeted about the Aurora shooting at least seven times in the days following the attack, which killed 12 people and injured 70.

    “Thanks to the Aurora shooter, hundreds of moviegoers were spared heart disease from heavily buttered movie popcorn. #silverlining,” one tweet read.

    Other topics Hecox took on include the Trayvon Martin shooting, transgender bathrooms and Syrian refugees. He also repeatedly uses a word that the developmentally disabled consider a slur.

    On his website, Hecox writes: “My standup material is mostly clean, which leads me to a lot of corporate gigs, conferences and workshops where profanity is not allowed. However, I also perform frequently for colleges and in comedy clubs where edgier material is preferred.”

    Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said the tweets aren't illegal or unethical, but raise questions about the line between Hecox’s comedy and his job as a spokesperson for a federal agency.

    “In any publicly visible role, you have to be careful about balancing your personal and professional lives. I think that he might want to consider which profession he wants to pursue," Light said. "You have to be thoughtful about how your life works if you’re going to be a public officer. If he’s making crude jokes … he needs to think about how he wants to handle these two pieces of his world.”

    Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, said making light of gun violence contributes to people not taking the issue seriously and that Hecox's tweets, especially on the day of a mass shooting, are offensive.

    “The bottom line is that gun violence is not a joke. It’s a matter of life and death. Everyone, including our public officials, need to take America’s gun violence seriously,” she said. “This person thought it was a good idea to mock gun violence victims on the worst day of their family members’ lives. It isn’t funny, it isn’t appropriate, and in fact it’s incredibly offensive and shouldn’t be acceptable in our culture.”

    An American University spokesperson said: "We do not condone the insensitive posts from the individual's Twitter account."


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump blames Powell's Fed for economy's failure to hit 4 percent growth

    Trump blames Powell's Fed for economy's failure to hit 4 percent growth


    President Donald Trump on Thursday fired a new broadside against the Federal Reserve under Chairman Jerome Powell, blaming the central bank for the economy's failure to exceed 4 percent economic growth last year.Trump’s attack signals that he has no...


    President Donald Trump on Thursday fired a new broadside against the Federal Reserve under Chairman Jerome Powell, blaming the central bank for the economy's failure to exceed 4 percent economic growth last year.

    Trump’s attack signals that he has no plans to let up on the Fed despite its announcement Wednesday that it doesn’t expect to raise rates at all this year, given muted inflation and slowing global growth. The central bank also said that later this year it will stop shrinking its multitrillion-dollar bond holdings, a process dubbed “quantitative tightening” that can make it harder for borrowers to obtain credit.

    “The world is slowing, but we’re not slowing, and frankly if we didn’t have somebody that would raise interest rates and do quantitative tightening, we would’ve been at over 4 [percent] instead of at 3.1 [percent],” Trump told Fox Business in an interview that will air in full Friday morning.

    The economy expanded more quickly last year thanks to tax cuts and increased government spending, but it has not grown at a 4 percent annual rate since 2000.


    Fed officials project that the economy will grow by 2.1 percent this year, indicating that some of the boost from the 2018 fiscal stimulus might start to wear off — feeding the central bank’s decision to hold off on further rate increases.

    The president said he didn’t know if his repeated criticism of the Fed had played a role in its decision to pause the rate hike campaign.

    “I hope I didn’t influence, frankly, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t care if I influenced or not. One thing: I was right.”

    Powell has repeatedly insisted that Trump's criticism has played no role in the central bank's policy making decisions, highlighting the importance of the Fed's independence from short-term political considerations.

    Ultimately, the Fed and Trump have fundamentally different views of the economy. While the administration’s goal is to achieve sustained 3 percent growth, the central bank doesn’t think the economy is productive enough to sustain that pace without stoking inflation.

    So if growth approaches the administration’s target — as it did last year — the Fed is likely to cautiously raise rates.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    McSally says she spoke to Trump about McCain attacks

    McSally says she spoke to Trump about McCain attacks


    Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally spoke privately to President Donald Trump about his attacks on John McCain on Wednesday evening, McSally told reporters in Arizona on Thursday.Trump has repeatedly disparaged McCain, the late longtime Arizona senator and...


    Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally spoke privately to President Donald Trump about his attacks on John McCain on Wednesday evening, McSally told reporters in Arizona on Thursday.

    Trump has repeatedly disparaged McCain, the late longtime Arizona senator and Vietnam veteran, including new attacks on Thursday. McSally said Trump listened to her.

    “There is a lot of disrespect going on out there all the way around. I did talk to the president yesterday. I wanted to make sure he understood how I felt about Sen. McCain and how Arizona felt about Sen. John McCain. And he heard me,” McSally said.

    Still, Trump continued his campaign against McCain on Thursday, saying he was “not a fan” of McCain and that the senator gave the unverified Steele dossier to the FBI for “evil purposes.”


    McSally faces a difficult reelection campaign next year. And McCain is still popular in Arizona seven months after his death: He won reelection in 2016 by 13 points, significantly outpacing Trump in the state. McSally and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) began defending McCain from Trump’s renewed attacks on Wednesday as the president focused on McCain’s handling of the dossier and his vote against Obamacare repeal.

    “I love John McCain. John McCain is an American hero. This state reveres John McCain. And his family deserves respect by everybody. That’s my message,” McSally told reporters on Thursday, according to audio from a press availability on military sexual assault.

    Some senators who were close to McCain urged the president to stop his attacks this week. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said Trump’s remarks about McCain are “deplorable” and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said that Trump’s attacks on McCain “really gets under people’s skin” and the longtime Arizona senator is “dear” to her.

    But most of the Senate GOP has been relatively quiet as Trump has stepped up his rhetoric this week, including a five-minute diatribe against McCain on Wednesday that included targeting McCain’s family for not thanking the president for his funeral.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump: McCain handed over dossier ‘for very evil purposes’

    Trump: McCain handed over dossier ‘for very evil purposes’


    President Donald Trump on Thursday continued his verbal attacks on the late Sen. John McCain, claiming that the Arizona Republican gave to the FBI an explosive dossier on Trump and Russia “for very evil purposes.”The president, in an interview with...


    President Donald Trump on Thursday continued his verbal attacks on the late Sen. John McCain, claiming that the Arizona Republican gave to the FBI an explosive dossier on Trump and Russia “for very evil purposes.”

    The president, in an interview with Fox Business, was asked by host Maria Bartiromo why he “spent a good portion of your time in Ohio the other day trashing” McCain when the senator is dead.

    “It’s not a good portion of my time, it’s a very small portion,” Trump claimed in an excerpt of the interview released Thursday. He spent several minutes during his rally in Ohio on Wednesday railing against McCain, remarks that did not receive cheers or applause from attendees.

    The president claimed McCain drew his ire after reports that the late senator had access to the Steele dossier, a mostly unverified document focusing on Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, and for his vote against repealing Obamacare.

    “They gave it to John McCain, who gave it to the FBI for very evil purposes. That’s not good,” Trump told Fox Business. “And the other thing, he voted against repeal and replace — now he’s been campaigning for years for repeal and replace.”

    “I’m not a fan,” he said.

    The full interview will air Friday morning on Fox Business’ “Mornings with Maria.“


    Trump’s assaults came after reports that McCain flagged the dossier to law enforcement officials. The president has maintained that it was an effort to put his presidential campaign in jeopardy.

    However, McCain did not give then-FBI Director James Comey a copy of the dossier until December 2016, a month after the election. In addition, FBI officials already had access to parts of document before the election.

    Bartiromo pressed Trump on why he continues to attack McCain.

    “He can’t punch back,” she said. “I know you punch back, but he’s dead.”

    “No, I don’t talk about it. People ask me the question, I didn’t bring this up,” Trump said. “You just brought it up, you asked the question.”

    “When I went out yesterday to the scrum, they asked me the question,” the president continued. “When they ask me the question, I answer the question.”

    The president, unprompted, tweeted about and began trashing McCain last weekend, before being asked by the media.

    The McCain Institute, which released a fact sheet on Wednesday rebutting Trump’s criticisms on the former senator and Republican presidential nominee, began fundraising off of the president’s comments.

    McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, who serves as chairwoman of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, on Thursday asked for donations following the president’s several days of attacks.

    “I hope I can count on your support to continue to exemplify John’s service to our country and maintain a legacy of putting country first,” she said in a solicitation email. “If so, please join me in the arena at The McCain Institute by making a generous contribution to support our efforts. We are the front line in defending the American ideals that my husband cherished.”

    Top Republicans have stood by McCain and his legacy, despite the president’s continued harsh comments. In addition, top conservative lawmakers have called on the president to stop attacking the late senator.

    “I’m not a fan. He was horrible what he did with repeal and replace,” Trump told Fox Business. “What he did to the Republican Party and to the nation, and to sick people that could have had great health care was not good.”

    “So, I’m not a fan of John McCain, and that’s fine,” he concluded.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Comey: I ‘don’t care’ if Mueller finds wrongdoing by Trump

    Comey: I ‘don’t care’ if Mueller finds wrongdoing by Trump


    Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday said he doesn’t know whether special counsel Robert Mueller will find wrongdoing by President Donald Trump — and “I also don’t care.”Comey, whom Trump fired nearly two years ago, wrote in a New York...


    Former FBI Director James Comey on Thursday said he doesn’t know whether special counsel Robert Mueller will find wrongdoing by President Donald Trump — and “I also don’t care.”

    Comey, whom Trump fired nearly two years ago, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he only wanted “maximum transparency” surrounding the special counsel’s investigation, which is expected to conclude any day now.

    “I have no idea whether the special counsel will conclude that Mr. Trump knowingly conspired with the Russians in connection with the 2016 election or that he obstructed justice with the required corrupt intent,” Comey wrote. “I also don’t care. I care only that the work be done, well and completely.”

    Comey also wrote that his “one hope” was that Trump not be impeached before the end of his term, instead encouraging critics of the president to focus on electing another candidate in 2020.

    “I don’t mean that Congress shouldn’t move ahead with the process of impeachment governed by our Constitution, if Congress thinks the provable facts are there. I just hope it doesn’t,” he said. “Because if Mr. Trump were removed from office by Congress, a significant portion of this country would see this as a coup, and it would drive those people farther from the common center of American life, more deeply fracturing our country.”


    Trump fired Comey — who served as FBI director from 2013 to May 2017 — after the pair clashed over the agency’s Russia probe. It was Comey’s dismissal that prompted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint Mueller to oversee the probe of whether Russia colluded with Trump’s 2016 campaign.

    Comey has been openly critical of Trump since leaving the Justice Department, rebuking both the president’s actions and character on multiple occasions. In the op-ed, he wrote that while he considers Trump “morally unfit,” he is not rooting for a specific outcome when Mueller’s findings are complete.

    “Wondering is fine,” he wrote. “But hoping for a particular answer is not. The rule of law depends upon fair administration of justice, which is rooted in complete and unbiased investigation.”

    Instead, Comey wrote he wants “a demonstration to the world” that the Justice Department is effective and fair.

    “That system may reach conclusions they like or it may not, but the apolitical administration of justice is the beating heart of this country,” he wrote. “I hope we all get to see that.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Former R.I. congressional candidate pleads guilty to fraud, campaign finance violations

    Former R.I. congressional candidate pleads guilty to fraud, campaign finance violations


    A former congressional candidate from Rhode Island pleaded guilty Thursday to using more than $1 million in political donations for personal use, according to the Justice Department.Harold Russell Taub, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against...


    A former congressional candidate from Rhode Island pleaded guilty Thursday to using more than $1 million in political donations for personal use, according to the Justice Department.

    Harold Russell Taub, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Rep. David Cicilline in 2016, solicited more than $1.6 million to two organizations he falsely presented as political action committees. According to the Justice Department, Taub used more than half of what he collected for “purely personal expenses.”

    Taub, 30, said donations to the two organizations — which he called Keeping America in Republican Control and Keeping Ohio in Republican Control — would be used to support GOP candidates in federal and state races. He did not register either entity with the Federal Election Commission or make proper reports to the federal agency as required by law.

    On Thursday, Taub pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud and campaign finance violations in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island. He will be sentenced July 12.

    Taub also claimed to be a former ambassador, repeatedly using a high-level military officer’s name even after being instructed not to do so, the Justice Department said.

    The scam dates back to 2016 and continued up until late last year. Prosecutors said Taub spent contribution money on airfare, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, clothes, cigars, strip club visits and “escort services,” the Providence Journal reported in February.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Obama to meet with freshman Dems next week

    Obama to meet with freshman Dems next week


    Former President Barack Obama will meet with House Democratic freshmen on Monday, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is hosting the reception, which will occur Monday evening after House votes, to...


    Former President Barack Obama will meet with House Democratic freshmen on Monday, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO.

    Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is hosting the reception, which will occur Monday evening after House votes, to “celebrate the freshman class of the 116th Congress.” The event is only for members and limited to the 60-plus freshman class.

    After keeping a low profile for much of President Donald Trump’s first year and a half in office, Obama was heavily involved in last November’s midterms, endorsing dozens of candidates both at the national and state levels and campaigning for several of the highest-profile Democrats running.

    The meet-and-greet will be held at the house of Esther Coopersmith, a well-known Washington hostess who served as representative to the United Nations in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

    While several of the new Democrats will be fresh faces to Obama, at least a half-dozen might be recognizable because they worked in his administration.

    Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), for instance, served as assistant secretary in the State Department. Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) served multiple roles in the Obama administration, including on the National Security Council. And Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) was a senior adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    House Dems push resolution to condemn global anti-Israel boycotts ahead of AIPAC

    House Dems push resolution to condemn global anti-Israel boycotts ahead of AIPAC


    A pair of Jewish Democrats are pushing a new measure to condemn an international boycott campaign aimed at Israel, a chance for much of the party to unify around support for the key U.S. ally after weeks of turmoil on the issue. House Judiciary Chairman...


    A pair of Jewish Democrats are pushing a new measure to condemn an international boycott campaign aimed at Israel, a chance for much of the party to unify around support for the key U.S. ally after weeks of turmoil on the issue.

    House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) introduced a resolution Thursday that denounces boycotting efforts as “incompatible” with the official U.S. stance on a two-state solution to end the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    In a letter to colleagues Thursday, Nadler and Schneider described the global attempt to economically isolate Israel as an “overly-simplistic and one-sided approach.”

    “Its goal is Israel’s elimination, not the criticism of any particular policy of Israel,” they wrote of the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which has been cheered by some outside progressive groups.

    The resolution comes days before the annual pro-Israel conference by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which claims that two-thirds of Congress attends each year. Top Democrats like Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) will speak at the conference, as well as GOP leaders like Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)


    The language on a two-state solution — which both parties have stuck by for years — is expected to be widely supported in the House. The resolution includes two GOP cosponsors: Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.).

    House Democrats aren't expected to vote quickly on the resolution, but it is seen as a chance to tout their ties to Israel ahead of this weekend’s AIPAC conference.

    Several other Democrats also dropped legislation Thursday intended to support Israel. Engel and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), along with several Republicans, introduced a bill that would impose sanctions on any foreign governments that support Hamas, a terrorist organization in the Palestinian territory.

    But it could also expose a leftward shift within the party, with new members like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is the first Palestinian American woman to serve in Congress, supporting such boycotts.

    Another freshman Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar, has also exposed a rift in the Democratic caucus on Israel after she repeatedly criticized the political influence of pro-Israel groups. Several of her Jewish colleagues condemned her comments — which they called anti-Semitism — and forced a vote on the floor.

    President Donald Trump, who has sought to strengthen U.S. ties to Israel during his tenure, took another major step Thursday as he announced that the U.S. would formally recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Interior drops casino roadblock at center of Zinke lawsuit

    Interior drops casino roadblock at center of Zinke lawsuit


    The Interior Department has dropped its opposition to a new tribal casino in Connecticut, a decision that effectively nullifies a lawsuit that alleged former Secretary Ryan Zinke kept the project on ice for more than a year because of improper political...


    The Interior Department has dropped its opposition to a new tribal casino in Connecticut, a decision that effectively nullifies a lawsuit that alleged former Secretary Ryan Zinke kept the project on ice for more than a year because of improper political pressure.

    Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs this month approved a proposal from the Mashantucket Pequot tribe to open an off-reservation casino in partnership with the Mohegan tribe, according to a notice to be published in Friday’s Federal Register. The casino project attracted intense opposition from Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International and Nevada lawmakers, who pressed their case with Zinke and other Interior officials, as POLITICO reported last year.

    The proposed casino in East Windsor, Conn., has been in limbo since September 2017, when Interior refused to approve or deny the tribes’ application — an 11th-hour decision that apparently contradicted the recommendations of career staff. MGM has since opened its own new casino just 12 miles away, in Springfield, Mass.


    Interior’s approval comes a month after a federal judge revived a lawsuit filed by the Mashantucket tribe and state of Connecticut alleging that Interior’s refusal to sign-off on their plans was “arbitrary and capricious” and driven by improper political considerations. With Interior’s approval in hand, the tribes are now expected to drop that lawsuit — sparing Interior from having to produce an administrative record or mount a defense of its initial obstruction.

    The casino matter also is under investigation by Interior’s Office of Inspector General, and Zinke himself is reportedly facing a criminal probe over allegations he lied to investigators with the IG’s office, charges the former secretary has denied.

    Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, thanked Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and Interior’s Office of Solicitor for the approval.

    “Today is a great day for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the State of Connecticut, especially given our 400-year history together,” Butler said in a statement. “Now that the approval of our Amendment is secured and our exclusivity agreement with the State of Connecticut is reaffirmed, we will move forward with construction on Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor and preserve much needed jobs and revenue.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Charles Kushner pens op-ed in defense of son Jared

    Charles Kushner pens op-ed in defense of son Jared


    The father of Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and son-in-law to President Donald Trump, defended his son and the family’s real estate business in an op-ed in The Washington Post, pushing back against scrutiny the younger Kushner has come under since...


    The father of Jared Kushner, a senior adviser and son-in-law to President Donald Trump, defended his son and the family’s real estate business in an op-ed in The Washington Post, pushing back against scrutiny the younger Kushner has come under since joining the Trump administration.

    “Though I am a private person and prefer to keep the details of my family’s business as private as possible, I want to set the record straight,” wrote Charles Kushner, the founder of Kushner Cos., in an editorial published late Wednesday.

    Charles Kushner, who in 2005 was convicted and imprisoned on charges of tax evasion and witness tampering, refuted critics of a then-record real estate purchase by the company in 2007 that later faltered amid the 2008 financial crisis. The family finally offloaded the last of the 666 Fifth Ave. skyscraper in Manhattan last year, Kushner said, “with significant financial upside for our company.”

    The family patriarch disputed that the company had ever been in financial jeopardy because of the purchase, and also that Kushner Cos. was forced “to seek illicit or inappropriate foreign investors,” an accusation that Kushner critics have asserted could have compromised Jared in his work for Trump if accurate.


    He also defended Jared's record as chief executive of the company, noting that the company expanded under his son's leadership.

    But Kushner noted that when his son joined the White House, he divested from more than 80 partnerships at a “substantial financial sacrifice” and resigned as a controlling partner in more than 100 entities “out of an abundance of caution” and in consultation with Kushner’s legal counsel and government ethics watchdogs. He also vowed that Jared had been cut off from receiving information about the company.

    Charles Kushner’s defensive op-ed follows the release of “Kushner, Inc.,” a new book by investigative reporter Vicky Ward that portrays Jared and wife Ivanka as “power hungry” enablers to the president and purports to shed light on the “couple’s self-serving transactional motivations and how those have propelled them into the highest levels of the US government where no one, the President included, has been able to stop them.”

    The book may be just one exemplification of what Charles Kushner bemoaned as the “unprecedented scrutiny” of Jared and Kushner Cos. brought on by “Jared’s service to the country,” though he said the company is “happy to assist with all inquiries.”

    The company was one of more than 80 entities and individuals close to Trump that was included in a massive document request by House Democrats in a sweeping new oversight investigation of the president and his advisers.

    “I must note that we are already voluntarily adhering to the strictest standards to avoid even the appearance of conflicts,” Kushner wrote in the op-ed. “As a result, we have passed up many business opportunities that we normally would have pursued. That might not be as alluring as some of the crazy stuff I read about my family and our business. But it happens to be the truth.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Delaney calls for a Republican to challenge Trump in 2020

    Delaney calls for a Republican to challenge Trump in 2020


    Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney on Thursday said a Republican, such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, should challenge President Donald Trump in 2020."Unless Republicans believe that Donald Trump is a fair and...


    Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney on Thursday said a Republican, such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, should challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.

    "Unless Republicans believe that Donald Trump is a fair and accurate representation of the Republican party as a whole, they should put up a challenger to run against him in the primary election," Delaney said in a statement, adding that few Republicans "have shown the courage to stand up to Trump."

    "We can’t go very far as a country if only one political party is committed to decency, honesty, and character," he continued.

    The former Maryland congressman then called on Kasich or Hogan, who are both weighing a run, to challenge Trump.

    “Voices like John Kasich and Governor Hogan, from my state, would do an enormous service to not just their party, but to their fellow Americans to stand up and challenge this President," Delaney said.

    Kasich, currently a CNN senior political contributor, has been a prominent critic of Trump. Hogan, who has also expressed doubt about Trump's chances of being reelected, may not make a decision to run for president until the fall, The Washington Post reported Monday.

    Delaney, who was one of the first to announce his candidacy for president, has yet to qualify to be one of the many Democrats on the debate stage.

    “I believe that we need a Democrat in the White House and that we will have a Democrat in the White House in 2021," Delaney said. "But step one in repairing our democracy is having two political parties committed to truth and decency."


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump’s Caddy Will Put You in a Chokehold If You Criticize His Boss

    Trump’s Caddy Will Put You in a Chokehold If You Criticize His Boss


    President Donald Trump’s two most loyal employees aren’t politicians or fixers or publicity flacks. They’re caddies.He has a regular outdoor caddy—a 60-something ex-Marine named A.J.—who loops for him faithfully at Trump National Golf Club...


    President Donald Trump’s two most loyal employees aren’t politicians or fixers or publicity flacks. They’re caddies.

    He has a regular outdoor caddy—a 60-something ex-Marine named A.J.—who loops for him faithfully at Trump National Golf Club Washington in Northern Virginia.

    And then he has a kind of indoor caddy—Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director, and one of the very few staffers who’s remained in Trump’s orbit from the start of the campaign—who actually met Trump caddying for him when he was a teenager.

    In a way, A.J. and Scavino are the same guy. They’re both mostly unknown, yet they know all the president’s secrets. Both do the same job, and it’s a fairly simple one: They give their man the right club to take shots with. These two work for a human flamethrower and yet somehow haven’t been torched. Cabinet members, attorneys general, chiefs of staff come and go like the Wendy’s drive-thru and yet they stay employed.

    What do A.J. and Scavino know about keeping the most powerful man in the world happy that others don’t?

    Take A.J. first.

    A.J. (who asked that I not use his last name in my book) is so loyal that if someone criticizes Trump, he’ll fight him—and has. One day, when the 2017 Senior PGA Championship was being held at Trump Washington, he overhead one of the Tour pro’s caddies—Brian “Sully” Sullivan—dissing Trump.

    “He was running his mouth, sir,” says A.J., who calls everybody “sir” or “ma’am.” “Yellin’ about Mr. Trump. He was sayin’ to somebody, ‘Don’t tell me how I have to feel about him! I hate that motherf-----!’”

    A.J. says he came up on Sully from behind and put him in a full military chokehold, yelling, “Now, you listen to me, f-----! You’re not gonna come to Mr. Trump’s course and eat Mr. Trump’s food and then use the word ‘hate’ about my president. I won’t have it, you got me?”

    That’s not quite the way the story is told by Sullivan, who caddies for Senior Tour player Joe Durant, but his memory is a little fuzzy. “It’s possible I was hungover,” Sullivan recalls. “I don’t like D.C. anyway and I sure as hell didn’t want to be on a Trump course. Some guys started talking about Trump. I mentioned that I can’t stand the son of a b----. I said he was the biggest jerk in the world. A.J. got all worked up and said, ‘That man pays my rent. He puts food on my table!’ I said if he has to take money from that horse’s ass, then he ought to find a different loop. He kind of just grumbled off. Of course, as luck would have it, he and I got paired for the first two days. We buried the hatchet.”

    Tensions were high because, for seniors, it was a big tournament and Trump’s name was attached to it. There were protesters by the entrance every day that week, and A.J. always made sure to drive his car right by them. “There’d be a bunch a women out front with all their stupid signs, sir. So I go real slow by 'em, see, hit the window button—zzzzzzttt—toss 'em the bird and I yell, ‘F--- you!’ They’d start yelling at me and I’m like—zzzztttt—right back up. And I laughed, sir.”

    A.J. sticks with Trump no matter how much it costs him. “I used to caddy for a lot of the ladies here, sir,” he says, meaning the female members of the club. “But once Mr. Trump won the election, that all ended. Now I hardly do it at all, sir. I guess they don’t like him. I’m the president’s caddy and they’re not gonna ask for me, sir. So that’s it.”

    One time, after a bad drive, Trump slammed his driver back in his bag, as guys will do, and wasn’t really watching what he was doing, and the driver ricocheted back and hit Trump in the head. “A.J.?” Trump asked, pissed. “Did you just hit me in the head with my own driver?”

    “Sir, Mr. Trump, why would I do that?” A.J. said. “You’re my president!”

    There are more than a few members at Trump Washington who’d love to hit Trump in the head. A valet told me, “We had a bunch of them quit when he won.” Most of the anti-Trump crowd stayed, but they resist in their own small ways.

    Every time one member sees A.J., he says, “Is this the day, A.J.? Is this the day?”

    “Is this the day for what, sir?”

    “Is this the day you take him out for me?”

    “This one time, we’re playing through, sir, like we do and, you know, usually the Secret Service has the people standing on the side in plenty of time for us. But this one guy, sir, young guy by the name of Jonathan Wallace, he was taking his sweet time getting out of the way. He was just moseying along, sir, doing it on purpose. Then he gives it one of these”—A.J. flips the bird— “right to Mr. Trump. Sir, that really made me mad. Mr. Trump just asked me who it was. I told him. He said, ‘Let’s go say hello.’ Not me, sir. I went the other way. But Mr. Trump went over there and talked to him. Right away, this Wallace guy caved, sir. He caved.” (I couldn’t get Jonathan Wallace to call me back to hear his side of it.)

    None of this used to be A.J.’s life. His Trump days used to be filled with pro athletes or businessmen. Now it’s congressmen and Fox hosts. Among his favorite these days is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican. “I love hearing that accent of his, sir. Mr. Trump plays pretty good with him. One time, he taught Mr. Trump a game called ‘Hogan.'” This was in 2017. “A Hogan is when you hit the fairway and the green and then two-putt. You do that, you get one Hogan point. So we played it, and, bam, Mr. Trump gets a Hogan on the first hole. And he just keeps going. Mr. Trump got 11 Hogans, sir! Shot 73 that day, I kid you not, sir. He made about four 15‑ to 20‑foot putts on the back and shot 73. Coulda been even lower.”

    A 1-over-par 73 on a “wet and windy day” as Graham described it, for a 72‑year-old overweight man? That’s unbelievable. How unbelievable? Well, at that same Senior PGA Championship, at the same course, from the same blue tees, professional golfer Tom Watson never shot better than 74. Tom Kite put up a 75 and an 80. Corey Pavin had an 82. Among them, those three men have won nine majors.

    When asked by a reporter how many gimmes there were in that 73, Graham allowed that they didn’t really putt out that often and that “the president is better at receiving than giving.” So, in other words, that 73 had more sugar in it than a family pack of Butterfingers. Now why would Graham tell the truth about Trump’s scorekeeping skills? Perhaps because of the vitriol Trump tweeted about him during the 2016 campaign, calling him “nasty” and “so easy to beat” and a man with “no honor.”

    Now, though, Graham is No. 1 on Trump’s golf speed dial.

    Graham remembers legendary Republican Sen. John McCain asking him why he kept playing golf with someone like Trump. “I told him, ‘I hope you understand. … The best place to talk to him is in his world.’”

    A.J. had Trump and Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker in his world one day—along with no less than former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning—but it didn’t seem to grease any wheels for his boss in Congress. Not long afterward, Corker said Trump needed “adult day care.”

    A.J. has no time for another Republican senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, whom he calls “a real chooch.”

    A chooch?

    “Yeah, I don’t know how to translate it, sir. A chooch. He treated me like a peon. Never even tried to fix a ball mark. Treated me like dirt, sir. He’s a rich guy who thinks he’s above everybody. A real chooch, sir.” (Paul didn’t return calls.)

    Paul didn’t sound like he had that much fun playing with Trump and A.J., either. When asked who won the golf match, Paul told reporters after the game, “The president never loses, didn’t you know?”

    In my 18 holes with A.J., he didn’t say a single negative thing about Trump. He didn’t even say a neutral thing about Trump.

    To hear A.J. tell it, Trump has Einstein’s brain, Lincoln’s wit and Nightingale’s heart. A.J. is smart that way. A loyal caddy can go a long, long way with Donald Trump.

    Take Dan Scavino.

    Scavino was a 16‑year-old summer caddy when he got Trump’s bag one day in 1990 at Briar Hall Golf and Country Club in New York, which was to become Trump Westchester. “I’ll never forget the day his limo first pulled up,” Scavino told Westchester Magazine in 2012. “I was star-struck. I remember his first gratuity. It was two bills—two $100 dollar bills. I said, ‘I am never spending this money.’ I still have both bills.”

    The two hit it off. Trump told him, “You’re gonna work for me one day.” Scavino graduated from State University of New York, Plattsburgh, in 1998 and went to work for Coca-Cola, but Trump brought him back soon enough to be the assistant general manager at Westchester. Then Scavino became executive vice president. When Trump decided to run for president, Scavino asked if he could be part of the campaign. Trump made him social media director.

    A billionaire and a caddy is a friendship that could only be made in golf, where kings can take orders from cobblers and lifetime allegiances are sealed over 6-irons. It was the perfect match. Scavino is Trump’s Mini-Me. They both speak fluent golf. Both love stirring up liberals. Both are often very short on details and understanding, but long on Atomic Pile Driver slams and face-first personal takedowns.

    “They share thumbs,” former campaign adviser Barry Bennett says. “They complete each other’s tweets.” Neither is well read nor a particularly good speller. Doesn’t matter. As a two-man Twitter team, they shout from the rooftops anyway. They find a phrase—“fake news” or “enemy of the people” or “Crooked Hillary”—and repeat it so many times, people start to accept it.

    When Scavino took over Trump’s feed in 2016, Trump’s tweets became even more bombastic, ultraopinionated, and, often, a par 5 over the line. They became longer and more punctuated with exclamation points. Former White House communications czar Hope Hicks called Scavino “the conductor of the Trump Train.” One day, in early July 2016, the train jumped the tracks. Trump tweeted out an image of Hillary Clinton, with a Star of David, against a background of money and the line “Most corrupt candidate ever!” It was a Scavino special, cobbled together with cut-and-paste images from the internet and no thought of maybe asking somebody, “Hey, is this too much?”

    Within seconds, Trump was blasted as anti-Semitic. Scavino had to issue a statement taking responsibility. He tweeted:

    The social media graphic used this weekend was not created by the campaign. It was lifted from an Anti-Hillary Twitter user. The sheriff’s badge, which is available under Microsoft shapes, fit the theme of corrupt Hillary and that is why I selected it.

    Except it wasn’t a sheriff’s badge; it was a Jewish star. (It was probably a mistake on Scavino’s part, since his wife is Jewish.)

    The more Scavino pumped up Trump’s tweets, the more it sounded like the Twitter feed of somebody else—Scavino. For instance, on March 2, 2016, Scavino tweeted on his own account:

    @MittRomney, You will not stop the #TrumpTrain You look like a complete LOSER. Very DESPERATE attempt. #Fail

    Hmmm. That’s got a certain ring to it. Another time, just days before the election, Scavino tweeted, again on his own account:

    NBC news is #FakeNews and more dishonest than even CNN. They are a disgrace to good reporting. No wonder their news ratings are way down!

    A minute later, the same message, word for word, was posted on Trump’s account as his original tweet. Scavino hastily deleted his, but in a world of screenshots, it was too late.

    Robert Draper, of the New York Times Magazine, conducted an exhaustive study of Trump’s tweets and estimated that Scavino was “responsible for—at least as a ‘co‑conspirator’”—about half of Trump’s 37,000 tweets. The late-night and early-morning tweets seem to be 100 percent Trump, but the daytime stuff has the patina of Scavino.

    Whichever it is, neither of them particularly knows what they’re doing. Scavino may have violated the Hatch Act by tweeting support for a candidate. Trump and Scavino got dragged to federal district court for blocking some followers, which, some argue, is unconstitutional for an American president.

    Still, he’s put Trump’s Twitter rants on a kind of steroid regimen. Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly accused Scavino of rabble-rousing against her: “The vast majority of Donald Trump supporters are not at all this way,” Kelly told an audience in Washington in late 2016. “It’s that far corner of the internet that really enjoys nastiness and threats and unfortunately there is a man who works for Donald Trump whose job it is to stir these people up and that man needs to stop doing that. His name is Dan Scavino.”

    But just think of it: Trump’s Twitter feed is the most powerful pulpit on the globe, and Trump’s former golf caddy has his hands on it, daily. It’s full-throated Trumpness, even Trumpier than Trump, sent without censure or concern and teeming with what former President George H.W. Bush called Trump’s “casual cruelty.” It’s a flamethrower that sometimes winds up setting the Oval Office curtains on fire. During his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney had 22 people approve each tweet before it went out. During the day, Trump has two—himself and his caddy. At night, just one. That’s not going to change.

    In 2016, CNN asked Scavino if there was anything Trump could do or say that would make him leave Trump’s side. He answered with an unequivocal “no.”

    Scavino refused my requests to interview him, but we know he’s a Catholic who once kissed Pope John Paul II’s ring. He was about 40 when Trump was elected. Scavino’s wife, Jennifer, became sick with Lyme disease, and the couple says they spent so much money trying to get her well, they went bankrupt in 2015. Some people say this is why they got divorced after 18 years. “Dan was a great husband, though,” says Ian Gillule, who worked with him at Westchester. “He’s very gregarious, a big personality, a people pleaser and very political.” Also, apparently, not a guy who will ask his billionaire boss for a loan.

    What’s A.J. and Scavino’s secret? It might be the Caddy Code: Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up. It only takes one bad read or one bad club to get fired as a caddy, but A.J. has been Trump’s loop for years now. Scavino has survived Trump’s well-oiled guillotine and remains one of the few staffers who’ve lasted since the beginning.

    A president who trusts nobody trusts Scavino. “The president has zero concern that Dan has any interest in anything but serving him,” the New York Times quoted a top administrator as saying. When you’re the only other person who has the president’s Twitter password, you’re trusted.

    All of which proves one thing: Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions should have learned to caddy.

    Excerpted from COMMANDER IN CHEAT: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly. Copyright © 2019. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Is This What Could Doom Elizabeth Warren?

    Is This What Could Doom Elizabeth Warren?


    Elizabeth Warren “is facing tough questions about fundraising and electability,” or so says The Associated Press. She is languishing in fifth place in a spate of polls of Democratic primary voters; Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are dominating...


    Elizabeth Warren “is facing tough questions about fundraising and electability,” or so says The Associated Press. She is languishing in fifth place in a spate of polls of Democratic primary voters; Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are dominating the money race; and her detailed and thoughtful position papers on health care, monopolies and tax policy threaten to define her as the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy Winner of 2020—the candidate who wins a prize from policy wonks and civic-minded pundits, but who never wins the nomination.

    There’s no single answer for Warren’s slow start. You could blame the self-inflicted wound of the DNA test and the media’s fascination with the Bright Shiny Object of Betomania. Perhaps it’s because she’s a woman in an era in which misogyny remains all too rife. Maybe, after years in the spotlight, she feels too much like yesterday’s news. But there might be a more difficult hurdle for her to overcome: Warren may be too much of a senator.

    But wait, you say: The last Democrat to occupy the Oval Office was a senator!

    Maybe that’s why, inspired by Barack Obama’s example, a half-dozen senators have already declared their 2020 candidacy, and Colorado’s Michael Bennet might make it seven. But Obama was a historical outlier, and not just because he was the first African-American president. Before him, only two sitting senators—Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy—had been elected president.

    Perhaps Obama’s two-term presidency lifted the senatorial curse, and the ghosts of the losing campaigns run by Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, John Kerry, John McCain and others have now been purged from the Senate. But with distrust of government at record levels, the optimism of the Senatorial Six seems unwarranted.

    The high-water mark for the Senate as a presidential springboard—at least for a major-party nomination—came during the Cold War when “senatorial” issues such as foreign policy were front and center. During the four elections held from 1960 to 1972, the nominees of both parties had Senate backgrounds. By 1976, after a disastrous war and a major constitutional scandal, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter could claim it as an advantage that he’d never served in Congress. In the quarter-century from Carter to George W. Bush, every president except H.W. Bush came from outside Washington.

    As for Obama, he’s best thought of as a SINO—Senator in Name Only. He began (unofficially) running for the highest office in the land back when he was a lowly state legislator from Illinois. If there is ever a study about his Senate career, spare Robert Caro the trouble: It will be about as thick as the energy-tip pamphlet that accompanies your utility bill. Indeed, it was a shrewd calculation for Obama to run before four or eight years in the Senate left him looking and sounding too much like a veteran of parliamentary procedure.

    I get why a senator—Warren most emphatically among them—is pointing to a raft of specific policy ideas as a way of arguing, “If you want a progressive government, you need to know how to turn good intentions into laws and programs.” But Warren’s approach, so far, is not connecting. A list of bills you’ve drafted (that went nowhere thanks to Mitch McConnell) will likely count for little weight in our short-attention span culture. The political appeal of Bernie Sanders, in contrast, lies not in what he's accomplished in the Senate, or indeed, not in the office he holds at all, but rather in his call for a “revolution.”

    Moreover, all of these Senate candidates—even Sanders—have a trail of votes and speeches that will provide tempting targets of opportunity for opponents who come without such baggage. (In the case of one former senator, Joe Biden, there are 46 years’ worth of targets, many of them from a less enlightened age.) We seem to be heading for a campaign in which a passing remark in a junior high school student newspaper will bring demands for apologies if not a stint in a re-education camp. Now imagine being a senator running for office, picturing your foes digging through thousands of pages of your remarks in the Congressional Record.

    In that respect, Warren is no worse off than her half-dozen senatorial opponents—which is a good place to note that there’s no reason to banish her to the role of also-ran 10 months before the often-irrelevant Iowa caucuses. Even so, her failure to gain early traction is a reminder that, going back decades, you wouldn’t need the fingers on one hand to count the times when the candidate with the most extensive experience in Washington won the White House—with 2016 serving as a case study on steroids.

    The sheer number of senators-turned-presidential candidates in 2020 tells us that this history has not had much of an impact on their ambitions. But if they think their service in the Senate is an actual advantage in this campaign, I’m hard-pressed to see how. So it might be better for all of them to aim a bit lower. From Harry Truman in 1944 through Tim Kaine in 2016, every Democratic vice presidential nominee save Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 has been a sitting U.S. senator.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Why Elizabeth Warren Is Wrong About the Electoral College

    Why Elizabeth Warren Is Wrong About the Electoral College


    Elizabeth Warren, the pointy end of the spear of Democratic radicalism, has called for the end of the Electoral College. “My view,” she said at a CNN town hall, “is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have...


    Elizabeth Warren, the pointy end of the spear of Democratic radicalism, has called for the end of the Electoral College.

    “My view,” she said at a CNN town hall, “is that every vote matters. And the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting and that means get rid of the Electoral College.”

    Her statement elicited the support of other 2020 candidates. The same people who complain daily about Donald Trump violating norms are now openly advocating eliminating the Electoral College and packing the Supreme Court.

    The Constitution, where the workings of the Electoral College are set out at length, is impossible to change on a partisan basis. So the Electoral College isn’t going anywhere soon, although opponents are attempting an end run through a compact of states.

    The disproportion of this effort is notable. In 2016, Democrats rigged their nomination process in favor of a radioactive candidate who was uninterested in appealing to white working-class voters and operated on a deeply flawed view of the electoral map—and yet they blame her loss on a mechanism for electing presidents that has existed, with slight modification, since the adoption of the Constitution.

    Democrats want to beat Donald Trump and win the presidency going forward. There are simpler, less far-reaching expedients within their grasp before trying to dump the Electoral College: Nominate a more appealing candidate. Find a way to pick up a little more support in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest. Moderate on culture issues. Drive up African-American turnout.

    If Democrats could manage a few of these things, and win both the popular vote and an Electoral College majority—the usual outcome throughout our history—their concerns over the Electoral College will suddenly evaporate.

    The case against the Electoral College is, first, as Elizabeth Warren said, that it supposedly ensures that some votes don’t matter: In heavily blue or red states, voters on the other side are effectively disenfranchised.

    This isn’t true, though. All votes are counted toward the outcome in every state. Voters from Republican, rural areas in California, for instance, aren’t disregarded; they are simply outnumbered.

    If it is the considered progressive view that this is tantamount to disenfranchisement, California could immediately mitigate the problem by splitting its electoral votes by congressional district the way Nebraska and Maine do. This would require no change to the U.S. Constitution, or elaborate schemes. Of course, California is loath to give up any of its solidly Democratic electoral votes.

    Another argument is that the Electoral College bears the moral stain of slavery. But the debate over how to select the president that took place at the Constitutional Convention—whether to do it by popular vote, or via Congress, or another method—was between the large and small states. Slavery wasn’t mentioned, except in an ambiguous remark by James Madison.

    The Electoral College was indirectly touched by the notorious slavery compromise only because states were allocated electors based on their senators and congressional districts, and slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. The Electoral College wasn’t in any way dependent on the 3/5th clause or defined by it. The clause was abolished 150 years ago—and yet the Electoral College persisted.

    Then, there’s the question of proportionality. The way the Electoral College distributes electors isn’t strictly proportional to the population of the states. This makes sense, since it was a compromise between the large and small states. Still, it’s not as though the big states aren’t hugely important.

    The 84 electoral votes of automatically blue California and New York are an enormous step toward Electoral College victory. It takes 19 small states to almost equal the electoral vote haul of those behemoths. Indeed, it’s theoretically possible via a coalition of big states alone to get to 270 electoral votes, while losing 39 smaller states and the District of Columbia.

    Finally, there’s the issue of the legitimacy of the popular-vote winner losing the presidency. It’s understandable that Democrats feel aggrieved by how Hillary Clinton lost. But 2016 wasn’t a true test of the popular vote, given her opponent wasn’t contesting the campaign on those grounds. Trump’s team was, rightly, trying to eke out an Electoral College victory rather than run up the score in Republican states.

    Yes, Clinton made the rubble bounce in California and New York, beating Trump by almost 2-1 margins, but that didn’t get her anything except greater permission to act the sore loser. What Democrats want is effectively to make California and New York the kingmakers in presidential politics, and not have to bother with the middle of country and smaller, more rural states. This is exactly the approach that the Electoral College is meant to foreclose, in favor of greater geographic diversity.

    Opponents of the Electoral College have made some progress in getting blue states to agree to award their electors to the popular-vote winner, a deal that would go into effect when states equaling 270 electors join the compact. This arrangement would surely lose its allure as soon as it meant awarding the electoral votes of these states to Donald Trump, or any other Republican. And, indeed, why should Connecticut or Illinois give its electors to a candidate its voters opposed?

    In the Trump era, Democrats are in a perpetual state of panic. They should remember that the electoral map is always changing. Before 2016, it was thought the Electoral College favored Democrats. It shouldn’t be beyond their conceiving that they can win again under the long-established rules of America’s foundational governing document.

    If it’s true that they can’t, they have only themselves to blame.

    Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    The Democrats’ Donor-Measuring Contest

    The Democrats’ Donor-Measuring Contest


    Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign was beginning to look like a self-indulgent midlife crisis road trip—until that number: $6.1 million. His self-reported first-day fundraising total once again made Beto not just a candidate, but a movement....


    Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign was beginning to look like a self-indulgent midlife crisis road trip—until that number: $6.1 million. His self-reported first-day fundraising total once again made Beto not just a candidate, but a movement. Online giving is largely powered by small donors, and in this Democratic presidential primary, small donors are the coin of the realm.

    O’Rourke emphasized two more numbers on Wednesday: 128,000, for the number of unique contributions to his campaign in its first 24 hours, and $47, for the average amount. This opened a new competition to determine whose movement is bigger … and whose donations are smaller. O’Rourke earned a bit more cash than Bernie Sanders did on his first day, reporters noted, but Sanders had more donors, more than 225,000, and a smaller average contribution of $27. (By the end of Sanders’ first week, his donor base was up to 360,000 people.)

    Meanwhile, we don’t even know how many individual people donated to O’Rourke, because “unique contributions” is not the same thing as “unique donors.” Similarly, the “average contribution” doesn’t take into account multiple contributions by the same person. While Sanders often touted an average contribution of $27 during his 2016 bid, his average donor gave roughly $90 to his campaign.

    Campaigns and the media play these number games because of the widely held presumption that a candidate funded by small donors (the smaller the better) is one who is funded by, and will govern for, “the people.” By the same line of thinking, a candidate reliant on cash from wealthy benefactors will be beholden to the “1 percent.”

    But what if that’s wrong? Having the biggest small-donor army doesn’t make a candidate the best reflection of the will of “the people,” because a relatively small set—a measly few hundred thousand in a nation of 300 million—of donors, large or small, isn’t necessarily composed of a cross section of America. And having considerable support among wealthy donors doesn’t force a candidate to enact policies that favor the elite few over the common good.

    Unfortunately, and foolishly, the Democratic primary candidates themselves, along with the Democratic National Committee, have turned this stage of the 2020 presidential campaign into a small-donor money chase. The regrettable consequence will be that some promising candidates not named Beto O’Rourke or Bernie Sanders are likely to fail to get a full hearing from voters and the news media. And fringe candidates will receive more of a hearing than they deserve.

    In early January, Elizabeth Warren told Rachel Maddow that she would set the standard for how all presidential campaigns should be funded: “We're going to grassroots funding,” Warren said on MSNBC. “No to the billionaires, whether they are self-funding or whether they're funding PACs. We are the Democratic Party, and that is the party of the people.” Warren, trying to further set the pace, has also sworn off private big-dollar fundraisers and one-on-one donor meetings.

    Since then, the rest of the Democratic Party’s 2020 field has largely followed her cue. Most candidates in the race are discouraging the formation of affiliated, but independently operated, super PACs, which place no limits on how much money rich donors can contribute. Billionaire prospects Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer bowed out, while Howard Schultz ditched the Democrats to explore a third-party bid. Worst of all, the Democratic National Committee decided to reward candidates for grassroots fundraising, even if they’ve yet to register in the polls, by offering debate invitations to candidates who amass 65,000 donors, so long as they also have a minimum of 200 donors in each of at least 20 states.

    By making “Big Money” appear to be inherently corrupting, and small money a formal measurement of a campaign’s success, Warren and the DNC have made it more difficult for the rest of the candidates—including herself—to compete with the fundraising juggernauts of Sanders and O’Rourke.

    Sanders and O’Rourke each grabbed huge first-day fundraising hauls of about $6 million each. That’s four times more than Kamala Harris raised, and six times more than Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Jay Inslee and former Gov. John Hickenlooper raised. Warren, meanwhile, has yet to announce how much money she has taken in, or how many donors are with her. Warren was never going to win the money race. But now she’s losing the virtue race, too.

    Money does not always determine the outcome of a presidential campaign: ask Jeb Bush. But you also can’t win without it. In 2020, early money looks to be more important than it ever has been. And the number of dollars is going to be more important than the number of donors.

    In the past, candidates could campaign on the cheap for months in Iowa and New Hampshire, low-population states with cultures of retail politics that give relative unknowns a chance to make a good face-to-face impression. But because those two predominantly white states don’t reflect the diversity of the entire Democratic Party, party leaders rightly encouraged a new primary schedule that increases the influence of racially diverse states.

    So now California and Texas—sprawling megastates that can’t be won with handshakes—are part of a Super Tuesday set of primaries on March 3, right after the first four small-state contests. Plus, California and Texas allow for early voting. As the calendar currently stands (though dates can still shift), California’s voting window is so wide that its voters will be able to vote the same day as Iowans. That’s right, the first primary votes in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination may not be cast in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. And the election won’t necessarily start in California, even: Michigan and Ohio have primaries on March 10, but because of early voting, Michiganders can vote before Iowa, and Ohioans can vote the same day as New Hampshire.

    All this puts unprecedented pressure on campaigns to spend early on expensive ad buys and get-out-the-vote efforts. And that tilts the playing field to Sanders and O’Rourke, who enter the race with a fully outfitted, pre-assembled donor operation. Even Joe Biden is sweating it. The Wall Street Journal reported that Biden is trying to “quickly raise several million dollars” from “major donors” as he has privately “expressed concern … that he wouldn’t be able to raise millions of dollars in online donations immediately.”

    Candidates with online donor armies typically are—let’s face it—cults of personality. That may not always be troublesome to Democrats; Barack Obama was to some degree a cult of personality who got elected president twice and advanced a lot of progressive priorities. But if the personality cult turns out to have only niche appeal—and a small-donor base ends up representing only an unrepresentative demographic slice of the electorate—giving such a candidate an advantage in the primary may not be conducive to victory in the general.

    Meanwhile, certain classes of candidates seem likely to be sidelined: those who have more appeal to swing voters than to the party’s ideological base; those more comfortable with policy nuance; those emphasizing less flashy attributes like depth of experience; and those who just haven’t had the time to find their groove.

    In the business world, it’s not unusual to start with a few “angel investors” who provide seed money to help get a project off the ground. Then once you gain traction, you aim for a broader base of funding sources. For a presidential campaign, a super PAC funded by a candidate’s most ardent backers would be the logical vehicle for that kind of venture capital. Without a super PAC, and without an ability to easily command enough national media attention to juice small-dollar giving—or a willingness to say the sort of provocative things that attract media attention—an otherwise promising campaign may be unable to get off the launching pad.

    Beyond the new challenges created in 2020 to get into the top tier, Democrats should also worry about what's happening at the bottom tier, thanks to the DNC’s offer to put small-donor success stories on the debate stage. It appears that the new rule is going to put not just long-shot candidates like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but also no-shot candidates like entrepreneur Andrew Yang in the debates. It may even be the case that candidates with better qualifications on paper than Yang won’t register in enough polls, or with enough small donors, to win a golden ticket. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is now explicitly asking for donations in order to get a debate invite, which suggests she is worried about making the cut.

    And while it might be terrific that the scrappy Yang will get a chance to promote his signature issue of universal basic income (and, um, opposition to male circumcision?) to a national audience, what happens when bigoted, hateful figures—people like past presidential candidates Lyndon LaRouche or David Duke—hack their way into the debates through small-donor giving?

    To all of these concerns, you may respond: So what? These are small risks relative to the benefit of ending the rule of Big Money. And if a candidate like O’Rourke or Sanders has an exceptional ability to cultivate a small-donor army, that bodes well for that candidate’s prospects in a general election, or so the argument goes. If other candidates can’t keep up, maybe they’re not good candidates.

    But that argument is wrong. It’s certainly true that some candidates can’t raise enough money because of their own flaws, and an ability to fundraise is an important skill for candidates to have. But the assumption that having a sizable small-donor base is tantamount to being representative of “the people” is a dangerous one. Not every small donor is pure and virtuous, and not every wealthy donor has a self-serving angle. A campaign fueled solely by small donors does not automatically make the candidate more responsive to the broad electorate because not every set of small donors represents a cross section of America.


    Progressives have long prized the false rationalization that corporate campaign money is the chief obstacle to enacting their policy agenda. But Donald Trump received far less money than Hillary Clinton from the finance and health care industries, and he pulled in little from the energy industry. (The Democratic bête noirs and fossil fuel moguls David and Charles Koch did not back Trump in 2016 and won’t in 2020). Missing out on those donations hasn’t stopped Trump from trying to roll back regulations on banking, energy and health care.

    Likewise, there is a long history of Democratic presidents—from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama—winning office with the help of corporate cash (as well as small donors) and then regulating corporations anyway. For example, Obama raked in nearly double the cash from Wall Street than his 2008 opponent, John McCain, but that didn’t stop him from passing Dodd-Frank banking reform. A campaign contribution isn’t a contract, let alone a bribe, and recipients have no obligation to do a donor’s bidding after pocketing the contribution. While progressives would be understandably wary of a candidate solely funded by corporate interests, they need not treat every dollar from the “donor class” as toxic to their agenda. To move a progressive agenda, Democrats don’t need to get rid of money in politics; they need to get rid of Trump and reclaim the Senate.

    Deep down, even Elizabeth Warren understands that. Asked by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes whether her disavowal of big donor events and meetings only “applies to the primary,” Warren said “yes” because she doesn’t “believe in unilateral disarmament.” Chances are whoever gets the Democratic nomination will say the same. But a dollar of cash from the top 1 percent in the general election is no different than a dollar from Rich Uncle Pennybags in the primary. Either it’s corrupting or it isn't. Warren is admitting that it isn’t.

    Of course, the disparity in fundraising among the Democratic presidential candidates may not last for the course of the campaign. If O’Rourke and Sanders don’t perform well on the trail and in the debates, perhaps their fundraising will start to lag. Maybe other candidates will have breakout moments that fuel their own small-donor bonanzas. It is way too early to conclude that nobody outside Sanders and O’Rourke has a chance to win.

    And there’s no rule of politics that decrees everything in campaigns must be fair. Certain candidates will always begin a presidential primary with advantages over others. Being drowned out by Big Money is just as frustrating for a candidate as being drowned out by small money. The winner has never been determined by who had the best policy ideas; sometimes it really is who has the biggest cult of personality.

    But Democrats should recognize that by idolizing the small donor, they are not cleansing the political process. They are just creating incentives in the primary that help certain types of candidates over everyone else.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    When Trump Blocks You on Twitter, He’s Violating the First Amendment

    When Trump Blocks You on Twitter, He’s Violating the First Amendment


    Constitutional democracies are under attack across the globe. As the tide of autocracy rises, not even our American republic is safe. Among the most alarming signals is President Donald Trump’s assault on truth and attack on dissent. He asserts,...


    Constitutional democracies are under attack across the globe. As the tide of autocracy rises, not even our American republic is safe. Among the most alarming signals is President Donald Trump’s assault on truth and attack on dissent. He asserts, without a shred of evidence, that his 2016 opponent’s nearly 3 million popular vote margin had to reflect voter fraud. He dismisses as a hoax the mounting evidence that it was he who actually defrauded the American people by directing payments of hush money and deceiving voters about his continued pursuit of business interests in Russia.

    Our legal system provides no timely relief from such alarming mendacity even as it erodes the foundations of our republic. But when the president shores up this deception by silencing disagreement and dissent, he finally crosses a legal line that the courts thankfully can police. A landmark legal battle that will unfold later this month in federal court in New York represents a welcome chance for freedom of expression to triumph over falsehood. The two of us, together with other First Amendment experts, have filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting those who sued Trump for blocking their free expression. That brief urges the court to seize this vital opportunity to vindicate our Constitution’s promise that freedom of speech will pave the path to a society built on truth, not lies.

    Trump’s threats to America’s core traditions of freedom of speech and of the press have taken many forms. He repeatedly attacks the media, in language reminiscent of dictators, as “the enemy of the people.” He has also targeted particular journalists and media outlets whose coverage displeases him. Trump stripped CNN reporter Jim Acosta of his White House press credentials in retaliation for his vigorous questioning, and threatened to revoke the licenses of television stations whose reporting he dislikes. He pressured his administration to oppose the merger between AT&T and Time Warner not, many suspected, because of legitimate antitrust concerns but because of personal animus against CNN (owned by Time Warner). He reportedly sought to raise shipping rates for Amazon because of similar animus against the Washington Post (owned by Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos). He retaliated against American journalists he dislikes by barring them from covering his dinner with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. And, most recently, his administration is reported to have assembled a list of journalists and lawyers to interrogate at America’s southern border.

    These are the sorts of moves we might expect from Trump’s North Korean dining companion or from the dictator of some banana republic, not from a U.S. president. A small subset of the president’s actions—like the rescission of Acosta’s White House press credentials—have been challenged in court, where Trump promptly lost. But most will never see the inside of a courtroom.

    That makes the argument to be held in a New York federal court on March 26 especially significant. The legal dispute began when some Twitter users found themselves blocked by the president’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account after they tweeted comments about Trump or his policies that he evidently disliked. They sued, represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute and alleging that the president’s blocking of them on Twitter violated their First Amendment right to free speech. A federal district court ruled in their favor. Trump appealed. Now the case will be heard by a three-judge appeals court.

    This case represents a unique opportunity to check Trump’s silencing of dissent and to begin the necessary task of establishing free speech principles for today’s digital age. It is the dual importance of the controversy—sitting at the crossroads of creeping authoritarianism and the path of a republic founded in 1787 struggling to adapt its 232-year-old Constitution to 21st century communications technologies—that led the two of us to become involved.

    The Supreme Court has long held that, when the government establishes or operates a public forum like a town hall, the First Amendment bars the government from excluding disfavored voices or silencing disfavored views. The court treats such “viewpoint discrimination” as among the worst kinds of First Amendment violations.

    Social media platforms like Twitter have come to play the role of digital-age public fora. They’re now a principal site of critical political debate and discussion. When a government officeholder or office uses a Twitter account for official government announcements—as Trump certainly has done—and opens that account for comments by and interaction with the public—as this president obviously has done—then that official and the office the official occupies create a modern-day town hall. Trump’s @realDonaldTrump Twitter account, like his less frequently used @POTUS account, is the site of many, perhaps most, of Trump’s initial announcements of major executive actions and newsworthy shifts in policy. That, in turn, means that the First Amendment forbids him from engaging in viewpoint discrimination in operating that forum.


    Trump’s government attorneys essentially acknowledge that the president engaged in viewpoint discrimination by blocking critics on Twitter for comments that he disliked, but they argue that a private company like Twitter can’t be the site of a public forum. That’s ridiculous. It’s true that, in general, Twitter is a private company and therefore is not constrained by the First Amendment, which applies only to government actors. Indeed, companies like Twitter have their own right as “authors” to speak as they see fit, as well as their own right as “editors” or “curators” to moderate speech on their platforms, both to avoid potential legal liability and, more broadly, to ensure that the discourse they host does not transgress certain standards. But this case isn’t about Twitter: It’s about what government officials like Trump do on Twitter. It’s not Twitter that created Trump’s account, used it for official purposes like announcing Cabinet nominees, diplomatic agreements, and troop withdrawals, and opened that account for others’ comments, even responding to them at times. It’s Donald J. Trump as president of the United States who did all of that; and the First Amendment applies squarely to him.

    Think of it as the digital equivalent of a president renting a ballroom in a hotel owned privately rather than by the government or even the president himself—and then using the space to host not a private, invitation-only fundraiser for a campaign, but a public town hall in a space accommodating more people than the public rooms in the White House can. It’s a forum in which the president occupies the stage alone but promises a robust give-and-take with all within earshot about his administration’s policies. As a privately owned property, the hotel is an entity to which the First Amendment clearly doesn’t apply; but the First Amendment does prohibit a president from using that same hotel as a site of government-hosted public dialogue—and then expelling or silencing those speakers who voice disagreement with him or his views.

    That’s what Trump believes he can get away with doing on Twitter, and he’s not the first world leader to do so. Authoritarians worldwide have stifled dissent on social media to cultivate a false impression that their people love them. That, in turn, warps public understandings of how those leaders are really viewed by their citizenry and aids the regimes’ efforts to quash democratic impulses.

    It’s a model that Trump will be free to continue emulating ever more aggressively if his unconstitutional actions are allowed to stand. That’s why the trial court was right to find him in violation of the First Amendment, and it’s why leading First Amendment scholars from across the country have joined in arguing for the appeals court to reach the same result. We’ve urged the court to take this occasion to reaffirm vital principles of free speech and, in so doing, help to usher the First Amendment into the digital age. As the Supreme Court recently recognized, “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general … and social media in particular.” This case offers a chance to vindicate the First Amendment’s promise in these critical sites for public discourse.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Don’t Censor the New Zealand Shooting Videos

    Don’t Censor the New Zealand Shooting Videos


    The greatest danger to the republic, Republicans and Democrats alike have shouted in recent months, is tech companies like Google and Facebook. They wield too much power over free speech and commerce, the argument goes, and thus must be broken up into...


    The greatest danger to the republic, Republicans and Democrats alike have shouted in recent months, is tech companies like Google and Facebook. They wield too much power over free speech and commerce, the argument goes, and thus must be broken up into smaller, weaker companies to reduce their hold on us.

    Then came last Friday’s massacre of 50 innocents at two New Zealand mosques, live-streamed on Facebook from the suspect’s body cam—an attack New York Times columnist Kevin Roose dubbed the world’s first “internet-native mass shooting.”

    The new complaint was that big tech wasn’t powerful enough to block the shooter’s videos from appearing on the web. Even though Facebook deleted 1.5 million of the first-person videos inside of 24 hours and Google’s YouTube boasted of “unprecedented“ scale and speed in erasing the videos (one per second!) and temporarily disabling search functions, neither service could keep up with the uploaders. Some users subtly altered the videos to slip under automated screening processes.

    At least two British tabloids ran edited footage from the suspect’s body cam and one published his 84-page “manifesto,” but they quickly self-censored the material off their websites. The Australian Broadcasting Company probably spoke for most media companies that limited their graphic coverage when it explained that it had deliberately denied the suspect a “platform” because his attack was “aimed not at the audiences of traditional news organisations but at reaching and triggering atomised and often extreme online audiences.” The ABC continued, “His every move appears to have been deliberate, calculated, web savvy and designed to grab attention.” The Aussie broadcaster seems to be saying it had no desire to reward the suspect’s media efforts and thereby encourage additional mayhem.

    But limited coverage didn’t mean zero coverage. Every major media organization flooded the New Zealand story with reporters and photographers who told the story in tick-tock detail. You might think this would be a counterproductive tack for the news media to take if deplatforming the suspect and restricting the reach of his propaganda goals was the intent. And you’d be right. Far from “protecting” the impressionable from the suspect’s racist and murderous message, the press communicated it everywhere. This let the press have it both ways—to claim an imagined moral victory by not using the video and manifesto directly but by extracting every essential reportorial detail from them. The “atomized and often extreme online audiences” who clicked through to read the tempered coverage of Christchurch killings in the New York Times or viewed it on CNN surely got the suspect’s message.

    Then why the charade? I can understand why the likes of Google and Facebook want to resist delivering maximum destruction, blood and massacre. They’re in the advertising business. But journalists are supposed to be hell-bent on chasing every angle on a story, to err by telling too much instead of not enough, to disclose and not conceal, aren’t they? Suppression of the news is the censor’s game.

    I can understand why New Zealand journalists gagged themselves: The New Zealand government invoked its powers to ban “objectionable and restricted material,” thereby criminalizing the sharing of the video. And the government acted on the ban. One person arrested for sharing the video faces 28 years in prison. Both New Zealand and Australian ISPs have blocked sites like 4chan that have hosted the videos.

    But no such law prevented the American press from running the videos.

    When the 9/11 terrorists struck, the networks live-streamed that atrocity into American living rooms, including the human demolition of desperate people leaping from high windows to escape the flames. This attack was every bit as deliberate, calculated and web-savvy as the Christchurch assault, but the press didn’t retreat behind worries that the coverage might encourage another attack. Nobody said, We can’t be free to publish this material because we must make every effort to be safe first! To this day, YouTube finds such journalistic significance in the jumper videos that they still host them in easily searchable form. So much for their “standards.”

    The “contagion” theory of mass killings, which instructs journalists to limit their coverage lest they inspire new villains to pick up the gun, is leaky. As Paul Farhi of the Washington Post noted in 2012, what are we to make of the fact that some killings, like Columbine, seem to have inspired additional killings, yet others, like the assault on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which left six dead, didn’t? “School shootings have waxed and waned for more than 100 years; shootings in postal facilities are all but unknown these days,” Farhi writes. It’s magical thinking to imagine that murderous violence will disappear if only the press can be persuaded to report it in small doses.

    If the logic of squelching the Christchurch video is to prevent another attack—which, as you can tell, I find dubious—have the censors thought through the unintended consequences of their plan? Although the video has been driven underground, it can still be found and shared, and its forbidden status will only lend it additional cachet for certain audiences. Call it a bloody version of the Streisand effect.

    The censor is never somebody who doesn’t want to see things. He wants very much to see salacious and disturbing stuff! He just thinks it’s his calling to prevent his neighbors from seeing the same material. When everybody is a potential publisher—something the millions of video downloads counted by Facebook and Google help affirm—today’s censor can only delay and distort. Information may not, despite what Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand once said, want to be free. But some free people want access to it—even if it’s abominably unpleasant to consume.

    ******

    Sharp eyes will notice that I rejigged the excellent line, “We can’t be free because we have to be safe,” from the movie Page Eight in the third from the last paragraph. Send your favorite movie lines to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have seen all of John Ford’s work. My Twitter feed fancies Budd Boetticher’s Westerns. My RSS feed wants to go to a “The Wild Bunch” re-enactor camp and play the role of either Lyle or Tector Gorch.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam

    The Federal Courts Are Running An Online Scam


    Every day, dozens of hungry reporters lurk inside something called PACER, the online records system for America’s federal courts. These days, they’re mostly looking for the latest scraps of intel on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of...


    Every day, dozens of hungry reporters lurk inside something called PACER, the online records system for America’s federal courts. These days, they’re mostly looking for the latest scraps of intel on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian inference into the 2016 presidential election. And everyone, from lawyers to researchers to activists, uses the system to find similar criminal cases, track the latest arrests of terrorism suspects or argue for sentencing reform.

    But I’m here to tell you that PACER—Public Access to Court Electronic Records—is a judicially approved scam. The very name is misleading: Limiting the public’s access by charging hefty fees, it has been a scam since it was launched and, barring significant structural changes, will be a scam forever.

    The U.S. federal court system rakes in about $145 million annually to grant access to records that, by all rights, belong to the public. For such an exorbitant price—it can cost hundreds of dollars a year to keep up with an ongoing criminal case—you might think the courts would at least make it easy to access basic documents. But you’d be wrong. The millions of dollars the courts have reaped in user fees have produced a website unworthy of the least talented of Silicon Valley garage programmers; 18 years since its online birth, PACER remains a byzantine and antiquated online repository of legal information. As a result, the public routinely misses key developments in the evolution of the criminal justice system.

    It was never supposed be this way. In 1991, Congress passed legislation to allow for “reasonable fees … for access to information [federal court records] available.” By 1998, one could get access to records by going to a terminal at a courthouse, and in 2001, PACER was launched online. A year later, Congress, responding to outcries from public records advocates, sought to strike a balance between the public’s need for access and the cost of providing access by allowing PACER to “charge for services rendered” but limited the charge “only to the extent necessary ... to reimburse expenses in providing these services.”

    The federal courts ignored Congress. PACER, which is run by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, instead substituted a broad and convoluted reading of the congressional intent so that it could charge for access far beyond what is allowed by Congress. In the past, PACER funds have been used for flat-screen TVs for courthouses.

    All told, some 319 million documents are available on PACER, flung across 94 district-level courts and 13 appellate circuits. These hundreds of millions of documents detail various cases making their way through the system, capturing the jousting between lawyers for the plaintiffs and defense, the judges’ opinions and a litany of court motions. Want to know how the rich and famous paid for their children to get into the Ivy League? Read the indictment in several different states. Or how an American defense official secretly worked for Chinese intelligence for years? Maybe you’re interested in the latest search warrants unsealed in the special counsel’s investigation?

    This light reading will cost you in time and frustration as well as money. There is no uniformity in the way federal courts file and save case information. Each district has its own idiosyncratic way of filing documents. If you were looking for a search warrant in say, the Eastern District of Virginia, you’d have to search “USA vs.” Run the same search in the District of Maryland and you would find not one warrant as they file them “In the matter.” While “United states v.” works in some districts, it gets you nothing in another. Add an “s” (vs).” and you get radically different search results. This isn’t PACER’s fault, exactly—but the Administrative Office could insist on uniform standards to make things easier for everyone.

    None of this would be half as infuriating if it didn’t cost a user 10 cents for each mistake or wrong search. And that is just for the search: To download or print the document will cost you more—10 cents per page, as if PDFs somehow become prohibitively more expensive to create the longer they are. My work at The George Washington University’s Program on Extremism generates a quarterly PACER bill that could fund a coup in a small country. It doesn’t help that PACER is a monopoly and it is the only way to do substantive searches on warrants and arrests.

    PACER is maddening in many ways, but I’ll give you just one concrete example of why it is so awful. If you’re a terrorism researcher in the United States, like me, you ought to read every case on the material support of terrorism. But there is no simple and cost-effective way for outside researchers to search PACER for all charges related to a specific federal statute. As it stands now, you have to rely largely on Department of Justice news releases announcing a new federal charge.

    But what happens when the U.S. Attorney’s Office stops putting out news releases? Last year, while perusing PACER, I stumbled upon the previously undisclosed case of a California man who attempted to join the Islamic State. The man was arrested by the FBI and ultimately sentenced by a federal judge with not announcement in the press. The same lack of timely disclosure was true of a Coast Guard official who in his vehement support of white nationalism created a media hit list. The DOJ did not initially release information on this arrest and the department’s lack of transparency would likely have hidden this case from public eye. That in turn would have skewed the public’s understanding of terrorism, Islamic State-inspired terrorism and, of course, right-wing terrorism.

    Given the media sensationalism on terrorism, having good data matters—and that requires complete access to cases. Getting that through government news releases has proved inadequate.


    Unfortunately, sometimes a little spotlight shuts down the whole system. In January, I found a search warrant related to a wide-ranging investigation into public corruption in the Los Angeles City Council. When I made my discovery public, the Central District of California essentially locked down all search warrants filed on PACER. Most, if not all, search warrants recently filed in the district are no longer accessible online. This action is against the spirit, and arguably the letter, of the legislation requiring that the public have ready access to court filings barring a court order sealing them.

    A functioning PACER could provide much-needed sunlight. As it stands now, one must know the quirks in the system. In the past two years, by exploiting those idiosyncrasies, I’ve helped reporters break stories ranging from ongoing criminal investigations of two congressmen, an intelligence analyst who tipped off a family member that they were under investigation, the closing of the investigation into a serial bomber, an Islamic State-funded terrorist plot in Maryland and corporate espionage that resulted in the chief executive of Walmart’s emails being secretly monitored, to name just a few.

    What started as an academic interest in helping journalists tell a good story has now morphed into a business. Last week, I launched a consulting company to help media companies, corporations and, most importantly, the public at large navigate the weird, wild world of PACER. Incensed by the lack of public know-how, I now provide PACER training sessions to reporters at media organizations such as the New York Times, Associated Press, Washington Post and Reuters.

    It’s not going to make me rich, and frankly I wish my services were not required—but unfortunately, they are. PACER could change that. It could lower its costs, upgrade its system to be more user-friendly and put me out of business. Until it does, though, the scam will continue.

    Access to public records is an inherent right in a functioning democracy. It’s a shame the purported guardians of America’s justice system don’t see it that way.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    I Am an Abortion Rights Activist. I Hope the Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade.

    I Am an Abortion Rights Activist. I Hope the Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade.


    On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that the ability to terminate a pregnancy was a constitutional right. Now, less than five decades later, with a number of lower-court abortion decisions advancing and the most conservative...


    On January 22, 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that the ability to terminate a pregnancy was a constitutional right. Now, less than five decades later, with a number of lower-court abortion decisions advancing and the most conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s, abortion opponents could be close to getting what they have wanted ever since Roe v. Wade: the decision’s reversal.

    I am an abortion rights activist, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

    Anti-abortion legal groups appear determined to use one of the several lower-court abortion cases currently pending to directly challenge Roe in the coming years. Right now, there are more than 20 cases in line at the Supreme Court that could fundamentally alter abortion rights as enshrined in Roe. And some are tired of waiting: Last week, Texas’ 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the most conservative in the country, appeared to try to force the Supreme Court to take up abortion rights next term by refusing to issue a decision on an abortion-related lawsuit until the Supreme Court resolved a different abortion case. What do Roe’s chances look like, should the Supreme Court take up such a case? Though it’s far from certain, the likelihood the court will overturn Roe is high enough, and imminent enough, that some states are already gearing up for it, inserting personhood language into state constitutions that will accelerate a full abortion ban in their states after a Roe reversal.

    So why am I so happy the United States’ strongest abortion protection is hanging in the balance? Because if Roe v. Wade’s fate really comes before the Supreme Court, then for the first time in decades, the abortion rights movement will understand that the threat it is facing is not theoretical, and supporters will stop fighting like it is. Despite a pitched and unyielding culture war over the issue, the legality of abortion alone has allowed much of the United States to look at abortion as a second-tier political issue, one that those on the left say they support but never have a problem compromising on. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the decision will finally force the ideological zeal typical of a political opposition—the force that has long powered the anti-abortion movement—onto the abortion rights movement. And liberal complacency on the issue of abortion could end for good.

    High-ranking, agenda-setting Democrats have long signaled to others in the party that abortion is safe enough to be used as a bargaining chip to accomplish other goals. In 2017, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Ben Ray Luján, said that there should be “no litmus test” on abortion—that being opposed to abortion rights didn’t necessarily disqualify a candidate from party backing and financial support. When it comes to the question of bringing in more moderate voters, as Luján and other big-tent Democrats like him illustrate, support for the unceasingly controversial issue of abortion is the first thing to go.

    Democrats similarly bartered abortion access away during the Obamacare debate in 2009. That year, 64 Democrats in the House (including 17 who would be considered pro-choice) and seven in the Senate voted for the Stupak-Pitts and Nelson Amendments to the Affordable Care Act, respectively. Those amendments banned abortion coverage in any plans in the federal insurance exchanges, and debate that resulted from them was instrumental in garnering the last few votes needed to pass the health bill. (Neither amendment was ultimately included in the enacted legislation, having been replaced with less aggressive language that allowed states to decide whether or not to ban abortion coverage in their own exchanges.) As long as abortion was technically legal, Democrats appeared to think, why should they fall on their swords to protect access to it if Barack Obama’s signature health law was at stake?

    In recent years, such complacency on the issue of abortion seemed rational. Assuming a Democratic victory was coming in the White House in 2016 and that the Supreme Court would be in progressive control, most people on the left were not planning for the possibility that a staunchly conservative court was just a few months away.

    And so Democrats have done little to stem the tide of legislation that has winnowed away access to abortion across the country, even while it has remained technically legal. Since 2011, state legislatures passed some 400 laws restricting abortion across the United States according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks anti-abortion legislation. For a pregnant person in Rapid City, South Dakota, for instance, Roe was effectively gone when the state legislature passed a law requiring a patient to see the same doctor face-to-face at least 72 hours apart in the state’s only abortion clinic, a full five hours away in Sioux Falls. In many cases these restrictions passed in states where there weren’t enough Democrats to stop them, but in others, like Missouri and Rhode Island, it was Democrats themselves helping their conservative counterparts pass abortion restrictions. Post-Roe, a litmus test will take on added importance for national Democrats deciding which candidates to support in both kinds of states.

    One of these restrictions, abortion opponents have long hoped, would one day lead to a Roe challenge with a more favorable bench on the Supreme Court. That day is now likely only a year or two away.

    If Roe is overturned, abortion will be a criminal offense in at least 15 states where there is either already a trigger law waiting to put a total abortion ban in place automatically or where the state has signaled a desire to do so once Roe is gone. Until now, encroaching restrictions on abortion have tended to affect more marginalized communities while bypassing those of privilege, but full-scale state abortion bans will put everyone on a much more level playing field. The stakes would suddenly be much higher for Democrats who have kept quiet as abortion rights have been chipped away, and who will finally have to be either opponents or allies. And at the same time, a court decision striking down Roe could open the door for new allies in the moderate Republican voters—especially women—who support abortion rights but have consistently voted Republican because legal abortion appeared to still be safe.

    As we’ve seen in other countries, it often takes such high stakes to trigger change when it comes to guaranteeing abortion rights. For instance, it was the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, who was denied a life-saving abortion in Ireland, that galvanized activists and lawmakers to overturn that country’s total abortion ban in 2018.

    While the privileged and well-connected would still be able to nab private procedures from their physicians with a wink, or catch a plane to Chicago or New York City, Americans post-Roe would be living in a country where the fact of an unwanted pregnancy means either childbirth or risking arrest, not to mention their health and lives in the worst cases of illegal abortions, in some states. When the entirety of the Gulf Coast is abortion-free—a swath of land stretching from Texas through the Florida panhandle—or Midwesterners have to choose between Illinois or Minnesota for abortion care, unintended childbirth will jump to historically high levels. Abortion bans would exacerbate the already unaddressed issues of maternal mortality and child mortality, both of which the United States has the worst rates for among all developed nations. The real-life consequences of forced childbirth will become real for Americans for the first time since 1972.

    If Roe is overturned in the United States, our current phase of post-Roe complacency will be seen not as a rational response to an era of secure reproductive rights, but as a warning sign. Disengaged abortion rights supporters might finally see the slow, steady erosion of abortion rights as symptomatic of a broader and ever-expanding suppression of reproductive rights, and they might finally understand why it is necessary to start addressing barriers to access due to race, class and geography, even when abortion is legal. Such a re-energized movement could prove powerful enough to reverse the rising red tide in state legislatures across the country. A new, more powerful abortion rights movement will certainly prove useful even after its advocates are able to restore the protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. Because, if history is any indication, it will only be a matter of time before opponents try to chip away at them again.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Preet Bharara Expects a 'Lengthy, Detailed' Mueller Report

    Preet Bharara Expects a 'Lengthy, Detailed' Mueller Report


    Preet Bharara decided not to do the easy thing and write a made-for-TV book about the sprawling legal inquiries into Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.But that’s all anyone wants to ask the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New...


    Preet Bharara decided not to do the easy thing and write a made-for-TV book about the sprawling legal inquiries into Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.

    But that’s all anyone wants to ask the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York about, along with his personal view of the president who summarily fired him in March 2017 after assuring him he could stay.

    Bharara, on his million-strong Twitter feed and his podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet,” analyzes the Trump probes with the gimlet eye of an ex-prosecutor known for his media savvy and his takedowns of corrupt pols and Wall Street bad boys. And while he’s careful not to go beyond the facts — or dish what he knows from his old job — it takes little to entice Bharara to dive into Muellermania with the rest of us.

    Bharara is critical of James Comey’s decision, in the heat of the 2016 campaign, to blast Hillary Clinton as “extremely careless” even as the FBI’s then-director was arguing that her email habits didn’t warrant prosecution. “The only way you can explain a decision not to prosecute is to talk a lot about the reason,” he says, citing the long-standing practice of declining to release derogatory information about a subject who isn’t charged with a crime. “It’s understandable, but it causes more harm than good, probably.”

    But he thinks Robert Mueller, the special counsel brought in to investigate that allegedly tainted election after Trump fired Comey, will want to explain himself, at least privately. Bharara predicts Mueller will deliver a robust report to Attorney General William Barr that will lay out precisely why and how he decided to prosecute — or not — various individuals swept up in the Russia probe, including the president.

    “He could give something bare-bones to the AG, because he’s said what he was going to say in publicly filed documents and indictments,” Bharara said in an interview. “Or, I think it’s slightly more likely — a hunch I have — that he’ll write a very lengthy, detailed document that goes into the prosecutions and the declinations at great length, with a lot of supporting exhibits as well.”

    Then, he says, Barr will face an excruciating dilemma: how much of the report to reveal to Congress and to the public. Disclose too much, and he’ll anger his boss in the White House. Disclose too little, and Democrats will howl. With stakes this high, Americans’ confidence (or lack thereof) that Mueller’s inquiry has been rigorously impartial has become a proxy for our wheezing collective confidence in the justice system and even democracy itself, a subject that concerns Bharara greatly.

    In leaky Washington, the broad outlines of such an explosive report likely wouldn’t stay hidden for long, Bharara predicts. “And once it is known that it’s” — he picks a number out of thin air — “a 480-page document, then let the games begin.”

    Bharara argues that, unlike Clinton — or, say, a businessman suspected of defrauding a bank, but not ultimately charged with a crime — the president of the United States isn’t entitled to prosecutors' silence. So even if Americans never find out why minor Russiagate figures such as Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner weren’t charged, Congress should be told what, if any, role the president played in Russia’s efforts to elect him, along with what he did to cover it up.

    “Donald Trump has a unique benefit and a literally unique system of accountability that no one else has,” Bharara says, pointing to Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted. “There’s something called impeachment. … And the only way in which Congress is going to have the ability to know [if Trump broke the law] without doing its own completely duplicative separate investigation,” he says, “is to get that information.”

    His bottom line: “So I think the president stands alone.”

    Parlor speculation aside, Bharara has written an engaging book about the law (“You sound surprised,” he quips when I tell him this) that comes at an urgent time in the United States, with America’s warring political tribes either losing faith in the justice system — a new poll suggests that half of Americans believe the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt" — or investing so much faith in the former FBI chief that many are bound to be disappointed by his final product.

    “It was very important to me that this not be a book for lawyers and aspiring lawyers,” Bharara told me in an interview in one of his several post-SDNY offices — this one the concrete-floored media company founded by his entrepreneur brother, Vinit Bharara, and where his podcast is produced.

    The book may nonetheless inspire a few young Americans to become the next Preet Bharara, but it also aims more broadly to impart lessons from his career on “how to do the right thing, how to exercise discretion, how to tell truth from falsehood, how to keep an open mind,” as he puts it. Part memoir, part guidebook and part leadership-circuit speaker-bait, “Doing Justice” makes for breezy reading given its weighty subject matter.


    Unlike many other prominent prosecutor types, Bharara is loose and funny, practiced at speaking in layman’s terms and cracking jokes — including one we struck from the record. And the war stories he shares in the book all come with lessons that apply well beyond the law, from the infamous Menendez brothers case that taught him to hone his instincts to the story of a mob boss whose love of food induced him to confess to his crimes.

    Bharara still has confidence in the justice system, even with Trump as its titular head. He isn’t especially troubled by the accusation that the president, through former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, tried to lean on his successor, Geoffrey Berman, to intervene in the SDNY’s probe of hush-money payments Trump allegedly made through his former lawyer.

    “Berman has a professional reputation to uphold and he’s going to go into what the facts require because those are the kinds of people he leads. And he would have a revolution on his hands if he did,” Bharara says. “How is that going to work? The whole world will know about it in a minute and a half and your credibility as leader is shot.”

    Bharara is concerned, however, about the larger state of American democracy in the age of Trump, and the gaps in the law he has exposed by flouting norms, such as: presidential candidates should release their tax returns, eliminate potential conflicts of interest once they win the White House and not hire their own children.

    “We didn’t contemplate that someone was going to just defile them in that way,” says Bharara, a Democrat who is working on a democracy and rule-of-law task force with former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican of decidedly pre-Trump vintage.

    But he’s also concerned about ordinary Americans’ increasingly partisan view of how the law ought to work — he worries about those on the right who still chant “LOCK HER UP!” at Trump rallies, just as he worries about those on the left who think Mueller, rather than a political process, will deliver them from Trump. He sees little chance the Senate would convict Trump even if the House impeached him, barring some major revelations from Mueller.

    “All these people who hope that he’s going to take this scourge of a man out of the White House are going to be really disappointed when he doesn’t do that,” Bharara says. “I think it’s perfectly possible that the Mueller report will not be that damaging to the president. And all of us need to be prepared to accept that and move on.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Are Israeli Politics Dooming Kushner's Peace Push?

    Are Israeli Politics Dooming Kushner's Peace Push?


    The Israeli attorney general’s 55-page preliminary indictment linking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to three charges of corruption may create collateral damage: President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.Until now, many had assumed that...


    The Israeli attorney general’s 55-page preliminary indictment linking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to three charges of corruption may create collateral damage: President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.

    Until now, many had assumed that Netanyahu would win Israel’s election on April 9 and the long-awaited Trump plan—an effort to make what Trump has described as “the deal of the century”—would be put forward shortly afterward. Given the close relationship between Trump and Netanyahu, it seemed a certainty that the plan’s overall contours would suit the Israeli premier even if he might object to some of its components.

    Hopes have never been high, whether in Washington or the Middle East, that Trump would be able to reach a breakthrough where many American presidents have not. And yet this novice president has persistently instructed aides to pursue this effort even as regional leaders and pundits all over have panned his peace push as unrealistic, one-sided, ill-timed or worse.

    But the biggest challenge for Trump may be the shifting political winds in Israel. Only a strong prime minister can take the big risks required for peace, but Netanyahu is struggling to overcome a difficult few weeks. First, there was a merger of two centrist parties, including an unprecedented joining of three former military chiefs of staff who could neutralize Netanyahu’s advantage in the all-important national security sphere. This new Blue-White party is led by former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz, who suddenly surged ahead of Netanyahu in the polls. Second, the attorney general’s preliminary indictment against the premier has cast a legal cloud over Netanyahu. Gantz may have a real shot to unseat Netanyahu, though the incumbent prime minister has campaigned relentlessly in recent weeks and erased Gantz’s lead. Netanyahu is confident, too, that he can more easily cobble together a majority coalition. Yet even if he prevails in April, the legal case will dog Netanyahu’s political future for months to come.

    The Gantz-Netanyahu showdown is already affecting U.S. calculations before the plan is rolled out. At a recent U.S.-led Middle East conference in Warsaw, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, announced the U.S. will not release the plan until after the Israeli elections. Kushner, whom Trump has tasked with leading the negotiations, is consulting Arab leaders about the economic dimensions of the plan, hoping that wealthier Gulf countries will pay for the proposal’s focus on regional development. Of course, the Gulf states are unlikely to do so before knowing more sensitive aspects of the plan regarding issues such as Jerusalem and borders.

    However, Kushner’s mere mention in an interview with Sky Arabia that the plan will deal with “borders” was enough to shake Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s leading opponent to his right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, saw the reference as presaging a Palestinian state and launched a broadside charging that the premier would cave to Trump after the elections. One can guess Kushner will shelve future interviews between now and April.

    Here are three possible election outcomes. None of them bodes well for the peace plan:

    Option One: Netanyahu wins and lurches to the right due to the configuration of the multiparty race. If that happens, his room to make compromises could shrink further. On one hand, he will view a victory as personal vindication in light of his legal troubles. On the other, Netanyahu has rivalries among the right, including with the party led by Bennett and one led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. With a finalized indictment still looming over him, how long can he expect these rivals to stick with him? The balance of power within the coalition is likely to shift away from Netanyahu so long as he remains under a legal cloud—leaving his political fate in the hands of rivals who think Trump’s ideas are too risky for Israel.

    Option Two: Netanyahu wins but looks to the center. There is speculation that Netanyahu would use the presentation of the Trump plan after the elections to widen political space in the center—making Gantz defense minister and the other leading Blue-White centrist, Yair Lapid, foreign minister. Additionally, the media’s focus on peace could distract the public from Netanyahu’s legal problems. Gantz, however, has said he would not sit in the same coalition as Netanyahu. If he stands by that pledge, what was once deemed the most likely scenario has evaporated—at least for now.

    Option Three: Gantz wins outright and creates a moderate coalition of center-left parties, perhaps with a smattering of ultra-orthodox parties. (Gantz has also not ruled out inviting the Likud in as a junior partner so long as Netanyahu is excluded.) In theory, this approach should give joy to Trump as it would be a coalition based on accommodation with Washington and Palestinian partners. However, precisely for this very reason, Gantz is unlikely to get behind a peace plan he has not had a chance to shape, as Netanyahu had for the past two-plus years. The U.S. will need to consult Gantz, who might not take office until late spring.

    On one hand, Gantz—like Netanyahu—will likely be attracted to Trump’s regional focus on Arab states, an idea designed to show Israelis what they have to gain, and not just yield, for the promise of peace. At the same time, a cautious Gantz will not want Trump to put forward something the Palestinians are likely to reject, as seems to be the case due to the expectation of terms less favorable to the Palestinians than those put forward by Bill Clinton in 2000 and amid deteriorating ties between Washington and Ramallah since Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017.

    For Gantz, trying to go for broke and solve the entire conflict as Trump favors is not a plus if the result is failure. He thinks it’s better to make progress with the Palestinians, though he has expressed pessimism that a grand deal is possible right now. Alternatively, some on the Israeli right may prefer a failed Trump plan if they think the Palestinians will be blamed for saying no and they can reap the benefit of Trump’s ire at the Palestinians by annexing key chunks of the West Bank with scant protest from Washington.

    Any of these three election outcomes would add fresh doubts about the viability of the proposal. The Trump peace plan was always an uphill climb, but the path looks steeper now.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban

    Trump’s Bad Deal with the Taliban


    Last week, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, launched into a broadside against Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American diplomat responsible for negotiating with the Taliban. Addressing reporters in Washington, Mohib insinuated that...


    Last week, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, launched into a broadside against Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American diplomat responsible for negotiating with the Taliban. Addressing reporters in Washington, Mohib insinuated that Khalilzad is seeking to install himself as the “viceroy” of a new “caretaker government.” The State Department quickly issued a sharp rebuke, saying that any condemnation of Khalilzad was really a critique of its leader, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

    While Mohib’s specific charge may have been hyperbole, it almost certainly wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Mohib has been around Washington for years, including as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., so he knew how his words would be received. His harsh critique of Khalilzad reflects the Afghan government’s deep mistrust of the Trump administration’s plans. Everyone knows that President Donald Trump wants out of Afghanistan, and the Afghans know that the State Department’s dealings with the Taliban will not deliver “peace.” Instead, Khalilzad’s talks have further empowered the same jihadists America has been fighting for nearly two decades.

    The Taliban has repeatedly dismissed the elected Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet” of the U.S. and refused to talk with President Ashraf Ghani’s representatives. Khalilzad’s diplomacy has validated the Taliban’s claim. The State Department long maintained that the talks must be “Afghan-led” and “Afghan-owned,” but nobody seems to have told Khalilzad. He caved to the Taliban’s demand for unilateral negotiations with the U.S. early on, holding extensive two-party talks without any preconditions. Incredibly, though the Afghan government has never been invited to the negotiating table, Khalilzad has already announced that a “draft” agreement is in place. Only after this accord with the Taliban is “finalized” can the Afghan government hope to participate in “intra-Afghan negotiations.”

    But meaningful peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government are not likely to happen. The Taliban is fighting to resurrect its totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and has already established a shadow government throughout parts of the country. The jihadists’ rulers-in-waiting do not intend to share power with the elected Afghan government—they quite openly plan to usurp it. And they are closer to achieving that goal today than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. With American and NATO forces preparing to leave, why would the Taliban suddenly get serious about peace? Indeed, the jihadists know that one of the last major obstacles to their victory is about to be removed.

    While Afghan officials like Mohib have their own reasons to distrust Khalilzad, Americans should also be concerned. The U.S. military would have you believe that the Taliban was driven, through force, to the negotiating table. That’s not true. The Taliban contests or controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. This ground is sparsely populated and mostly rural, but the Taliban’s men are circling several provincial capitals, just waiting to seize at least some of them. America has little will to keep them at bay any longer. So the State Department begged the Taliban for talks—not the other way around. As a result, the jihadists are negotiating from a position of strength, and they know it.

    But that doesn’t excuse Pompeo’s willingness to accept an exceptionally bad deal. In addition to alienating the Afghan government, America’s long-standing, albeit problematic ally, Khalilzad has endorsed the Taliban’s big lie concerning al-Qaida and international terrorism. This should be offensive to all Americans affected by the 9/11 wars. Let us explain.

    Although he has provided few specific details, Khalilzad tweeted on Mar. 12 that the Trump administration’s draft accord with the Taliban covers two key issues: a “withdrawal timeline” and “effective counterterrorism measures.” In essence, Khalilzad has sought a Kissinger-style “decent interval” during which the U.S. can execute an orderly withdrawal in exchange for a promise that Afghan soil won’t be used as a hub for international terrorism once again. On the latter point, Khalilzad has been remarkably credulous, stating that he is already satisfied with the Taliban’s assurances.

    Other than the Taliban, no one else should be satisfied—especially given the sordid history of the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaida.

    Afghanistan is, today, already home to international terrorist groups. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaida fight and train throughout the country. The Taliban has no control over the Islamic State’s regional arm, which operates across the Afghan-Pakistani border and has ties to the self-declared caliphate’s mothership in Iraq and Syria. Although there may be some episodic cooperation between the two sides, Islamic State loyalists clash regularly with their jihadist counterparts in the Taliban. And the Islamic State rejects the Taliban’s legitimacy, so it will not abide by any agreement struck with the U.S. Thus, the Taliban cannot guarantee that it will hold the Islamic State’s global ambitions in check.

    More important, there is no reason to think the Taliban wants to hold al-Qaida’s global agenda in check. And this is where Khalilzad’s credulity becomes especially problematic. He has already declared the Taliban to be a de facto counterterrorism partner. This is an absurd proposition.

    As the United Nations Security Council found in two recent reports, al-Qaida and the Taliban remain “closely allied” and their “long-standing” relationship “remains firm.” Al-Qaida’s leaders still view Afghanistan as a “safe haven,” and their men act like a force multiplier for the insurgency, offering military and religious instruction to Taliban fighters. Indeed, al-Qaida is operating across multiple Afghan provinces, including in areas dominated by the Taliban.

    Given this current reality, Khalilzad has not explained to the American public why he trusts the Taliban to restrain al-Qaida now. As part of any final deal, the Taliban should be required to state, in no uncertain terms, its official position on al-Qaida.

    Below, we outline four key aspects of the Taliban-al-Qaida relationship that the State Department should address. If Khalilzad’s final deal with the Taliban doesn’t take into these issues, in some direct fashion, then the agreement is an obvious charade.

    First, the Taliban has never publicly renounced al-Qaida, by name, or accepted responsibility for harboring it before 9/11. If the Taliban has really offered an ironclad counterterrorism guarantee, as Khalilzad claims, then the group should have no problem officially disowning al-Qaida. Indeed, a disavowal should be mandatory—a key test of the Taliban’s truthfulness.

    Some have tried to absolve the Taliban of any responsibility for the 9/11 hijackings, as well as a string of other terror plots hatched on Afghan soil, claiming that the group didn’t really endorse Osama bin Laden’s anti-American terrorism. But this bit of apologia falls apart when subjected to basic scrutiny. The Taliban deliberately shielded bin Laden, even as the U.S. demanded that he be turned over.

    In its final report, released in the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission documented various American and Saudi efforts to convince the Taliban to break with al-Qaida. All of them failed. In April 1998, for instance, the Taliban’s men told a U.S. delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson that they didn’t know where bin Laden was and, in any event, al-Qaida didn’t pose a threat to America. The Taliban told this brazen lie despite the fact al-Qaida had already declared war on America.

    On August 7, 1998, four months after Richardson’s encounter, al-Qaida’s suicide truck bombs struck the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing and wounding hundreds. It was al-Qaida’s most devastating attack prior to the 9/11 hijackings. The U.S. retaliated by lobbing some missiles into a training camp in Afghanistan and at a suspected al-Qaida facility in Sudan. The bombs missed bin Laden, but the Taliban’s lie had been conclusively disproved. Bin Laden was clearly a threat to the U.S.

    Still, the Taliban didn’t budge. In late 1999, according to the 9/11 Commission, the Taliban’s senior leadership voted to continue providing safe harbor for bin Laden and his terrorists. Mullah Omar even ordered the killing of a subordinate who objected to his pro-bin Laden policy. Then, on September 9, 2001, two al-Qaida suicide bombers killed the Taliban’s main battlefield opponent: Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Al-Qaida and the Taliban launched a joint offensive against the Northern Alliance the very next day. Al-Qaida’s senior leaders knew that America would rely on Massoud’s men as part of a counterattack after the kamikaze hijackings. And, in a premeditated move, al-Qaida helped the Taliban go on the offensive beforehand. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar then refused to turn over bin Laden even after the U.S. issued a post-9/11 ultimatum, deciding he’d rather lose his Islamic emirate than sacrifice the al-Qaida leader.

    The Taliban has never accepted responsibility for any of this. These facts are not merely a matter of history. To this day, al-Qaida continues to praise Omar for his obstinacy in the face of a superpower. The Taliban has had more than two decades to renounce al-Qaida and it hasn’t done so. And the Taliban still hasn’t proven its willingness to hinder al-Qaida’s international plotting from inside Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. killed a senior al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan just days prior to the 2016 presidential election. This same al-Qaida figure, Faruq al-Qahtani, was not only overseeing terrorist plots against the West, he also buttressed the insurgency in eastern Afghanistan by delivering cash and weapons to Taliban fighters, while also planning attacks on coalition forces.

    If Khalilzad negotiates a denunciation of al-Qaida as part of the accord, then that would be significant. If not, then everyone should be aware that the Taliban hasn’t really come clean.

    As a second measure, Khalilzad’s deal needs to address al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s current top leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada.

    Al-Qaida’s top leaders have been loyal to the Taliban’s emir since well before 9/11. In al-Qaida’s view, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was the only religiously legitimate state in the world at the time of the hijackings. Al-Qaida deemed Mullah Omar to be Amir al-Mu’minin, or the “Emir of the Faithful,” an honorific usually reserved for the Muslim caliph. (ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adopted the same title in 2014, after the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria.) As a result, bin Laden swore fealty to Omar and encouraged other Muslims around the world to do the same.

    Bin Laden was killed in 2011. Mullah Omar is thought to have passed away sometime in 2013. Nevertheless, al-Qaida continued to market its loyalty to Omar until 2015, when the Taliban finally admitted that its founder had passed away two years earlier. The Taliban then named Mullah Mansour, a powerful figure who considered al-Qaida’s men to be the “heroes of the current jihadist era,” as its leader. Bin Laden’s successor, Zawahiri, quickly swore his fealty to Mansour, and Mansour publicly accepted Zawahiri’s allegiance.

    After Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016, the Taliban named Akhundzada as its emir. Zawahiri fell in line once again—publicly declaring that Akhundzada was the new “Emir of the Faithful.”

    Akhundzada’s formal rejection of Zawahiri’s loyalty pledge would shake al-Qaida’s entire scheme. Al-Qaida is an international organization, with branches operating in several countries. Some of these branches have publicly endorsed the idea that Akhundzada is the true spiritual leader of the global jihad. Zawahiri has also declared that the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be the “nucleus” of a new global caliphate, which al-Qaida’s men are fighting to re-establish. If Akhundzada broke with Zawahiri, then it would therefore undermine al-Qaida’s foundational mythology.

    Third, Khalilzad’s agreement must sever the decadeslong partnership between al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban that has conducted many of the worst terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan. This issue is especially pressing, because the Taliban’s deputy emir is an infamous character: Sirajuddin Haqqani. As part of any deal with the Taliban, the State Department should require Sirajuddin to issue a statement, in his name, renouncing al-Qaida. Here’s why this is crucially important:

    Sirajuddin is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a power broker along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border who was one of bin Laden’s earliest allies. Jalaluddin’s eponymous network welcomed the first generation of Arab foreign fighters to the region during the 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Some of al-Qaida’s initial leaders were trained in the Haqqanis’ camps. The Haqqani Network has maintained close relations with al-Qaida in the decades since. Documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound show that al-Qaida’s men continued to cooperate with Sirajuddin in Afghanistan years after the U.S.-led war began.

    Sirajuddin was named the Taliban’s No. 2 in 2015. With his assumption to that role, the Haqqanis consolidated their power in the Taliban’s hierarchy. Sirajuddin has broad military responsibilities, meaning the Haqqanis are well-positioned to expand their influence across Afghanistan after the U.S. and its allies leave.

    More than a generation after the Haqqanis first embraced bin Laden, there is no hint that they are willing to break with al-Qaida or renounce global jihad.

    In December 2016, the Haqqanis’ media arm released a lengthy video celebrating the unbroken bond between the Taliban and al-Qaida. After the Taliban announced Jalaluddin’s death last year, al-Qaida issued a glowing eulogy, emphasizing the elderly Haqqani’s brotherhood with bin Laden. Al-Qaida’s central leadership said it took “solace in the fact” that Sirajuddin was now “deputy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Emir of the Faithful,” describing both Sirajuddin and Akhundzada as “our emirs.” The Taliban’s own video eulogy for Jalaluddin featured commentary from jihadists in Syria, including an al-Qaida-linked cleric from Saudi Arabia who has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S.

    Sirajuddin himself is an internationally wanted terrorist, with a $10 million bounty on his head. The U.S. and the United Nations have sanctioned the Haqqani Network and multiple members of the group. These legal measures are backed by abundant evidence. Not only have the Haqqanis conducted some of the most devastating terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, they have also harbored al-Qaida’s internationally-focused operatives along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The U.S. and its allies have traced a series of global terror plots to the Haqqanis’ strongholds in northern Pakistan.

    Fourth, and finally, any agreement has to take into account the many al-Qaida and al-Qaida-linked fighters embedded within the Taliban-led insurgency.

    In 2014, Zawahiri announced the formation of al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which operates throughout South Asia. AQIS’s first major terrorist plot was an attempted hijacking of two Pakistani frigates. The jihadists intended to fire the ships’ missiles at Indian and American naval vessels, possibly sparking an even more deadly international conflict. The plot was thwarted by Pakistani officials, but only after AQIS came close to taking control of the ships.

    While AQIS’ audacious terror schemes remain a concern, the group’s primary mission is to help the Taliban resurrect its Islamic Emirate. AQIS has made this clear in its “code of conduct,” which stresses AQIS’s loyalty first to Zawahiri and then to Akhundzada. AQIS retains a significant footprint in Afghanistan. In 2015, for instance, American and Afghan forces raided two large AQIS training camps in the Shorabak district of the southern Kandahar province. U.S. military officials revealed that one of the camps was nearly 30 square miles in size, making it the largest al-Qaida training facility discovered post-9/11. The Shorabak camps were hosted by the Taliban and intelligence recovered in the facilities shows that AQIS’s tentacles stretch from Afghanistan into other nearby countries, including Bangladesh.

    AQIS’s leader, Asim Umar, has already declared that America’s defeat in Afghanistan is imminent. In a tract released in April 2017, Umar argued that Trump’s “America First” policy really meant that the U.S. would “give up the leadership of the world.” Umar exaggerated America’s weakness, but he clearly saw a retreat from Afghanistan as a victory for al-Qaida. Other al-Qaida-linked jihadists, including Central Asian and Uighur groups, are eyeing a post-withdrawal Afghanistan as fertile ground for their jihadist projects as well.

    Will Khalilzad’s deal with the Taliban address these al-Qaida-related issues? Or is Khalilzad going to accept the deliberately ambiguous denials the Taliban has issued for years?

    The Afghan government has its own reasons to distrust Khalilzad.

    But Pompeo’s diplomats shouldn’t trust the Taliban either.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Are Democrats Facing Their Own Tea Party-Style Reckoning?

    Are Democrats Facing Their Own Tea Party-Style Reckoning?


    A wave election in midterms leading to a new House majority, won with victories by moderates in swing districts. A few freshman members in some of the safest seats in the country pursuing an ideologically “pure” agenda that riles up the party’s...


    A wave election in midterms leading to a new House majority, won with victories by moderates in swing districts. A few freshman members in some of the safest seats in the country pursuing an ideologically “pure” agenda that riles up the party’s base but could endanger the moderates who were essential to winning the majority.

    It’s all so familiar. And I would know.

    In 1994, I was part of a Republican wave that retook the House for the first time in four decades. I represented Northern Virginia, where many voters are centrists and expect their representatives not to be beholden to the extremes in either party. And over my seven terms—including a stint leading the National Republican Campaign Committee for two election cycles—I saw my conservative credentials questioned and denied by some on the ideological right. It was a prelude of things to come.

    After I left the House in 2008, I watched as the Tea Party wave crested in 2010, the House Freedom Caucus formed, and a new GOP House majority succumbed to infighting where members from the most safely deep-red Republican seats set the terms of the debate, held legislation hostage and endangered the reelection of moderates and more pragmatic members.

    I witnessed the transformation of my party into one increasingly challenging for centrists. And now, I’m seeing the same thing happening to the Democrats.

    Just as her Republican predecessors had to manage the Freedom Caucus’ demands for legislation that would endanger more vulnerable Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to govern around the left’s highly energized and emergent “Herbal Tea Party” segment. That wing, led by vocal freshmen, is rooted in solidly Democratic, highly urbanized areas where incumbents’ only worry is securing their party’s nomination—and to do that, they need to appeal only to the base. Meanwhile, the many freshmen Democrats elected in traditionally red districts—who must hew to the center to have any chance of being reelected in 2020—get painted with the same brush, imperiling the party’s majority.

    For Democrats, letting the tail wag the dog is a no-win formula. And already, Republicans are seeing a resurgence of sorts.

    In special elections held this year, the GOP has flipped state Senate seats in Connecticut, Kentucky and Minnesota, and a state House seat in Connecticut. This is in stark contrast to the run-up to the 2018 midterms, when the GOP was losing special election after special election in reliably Republican districts.

    If Pelosi wants to turn things around before it’s too late and prevent the Democratic Party from melting down, she needs to learn from what Republicans did—and didn’t do—over the past decade in responding to their own insurgents from within.

    Lesson 1: Don’t mistake your party’s opposition to the president for unity.

    Pelosi has room to maneuver that her Republican predecessor did not have. One significant differentiator is that House Democrats are not saddled with protecting and defending President Donald Trump’s actions. As speaker, Paul Ryan had to walk a tightrope in the first two years of the Trump presidency—trying not to alienate the president, his congressional allies or his supporters in the base, all while making progress on the House GOP’s own longtime legislative priorities, which didn’t always overlap with those of the administration.

    Now, Democrats and their voters are united in opposition to Trump. Still, House Democrats need to cobble together majorities to pass appropriations bills and raise the debt ceiling and would be well advised not to overdramatize these issues, as Republicans did. But on other issues, they are free to maneuver and to assess blame on the president or the Senate Republicans for public policy failures.

    That said, simply opposing a president from the opposition party doesn’t, in itself, mean your party is going to stick together. You can unite the opposition enough to paper over intraparty differences some of the time, but eventually those differences will come to the fore.

    Here’s why: Members from safe districts will be more likely to want endless theatrical investigations—sometimes of dubious merit—that can detract from the proactive message the party would prefer to send. Members from moderate or swing seats benefit from pursuing the policies and messages that resonate strongest in voters’ lives. A constant focus on stymying the president detracts from that goal.

    Fissures will develop. The activist base will get angry at the moderates they feel aren’t doing enough to oppose the president. Moderates will be pressured to abandon what made them electable in the first place. And if they don’t, they’ll face expensive, competitive primaries—usually against an ideologically “pure” candidate who can excite the base and potentially win the primary, but cannot hold the seat in the long term.

    Lesson 2: Realize that you are unlikely to get the president to sign any major legislation, and figure out how that should shape your message.

    In Congress, a leader’s success generally stems from the ability to do two things: move legislation and reelect members. Pelosi has no equal in the first category. However, with no realistic chance of enacting laws without a Trump signature, her ability to do anything besides messaging is limited—which makes it more complicated to do the second category.

    Lacking some sort of bipartisan legislative accomplishment to point to, there’s a good chance the party’s message will be aimed at the base instead of swing voters. Just ask some of the Republicans defeated in 2018 how that worked. It will jeopardize the majority.

    A similar dynamic was at play after Republicans took the House in 2010. They were not able to pass any major legislation that President Barack Obama was interested in signing into law. Instead, they voted to repeal Obamacare over a dozen times and shut down the government when unable to get their riders on appropriations bills.

    Republicans might have been better served finding some common ground with Democrats and exhibiting some talent for governing. The Republican class of 1994 did exactly that in reforming welfare. Finding common ground on an infrastructure bill would be helpful for Democrats in this Congress.

    Lesson 3: Do not let the most vitriolic and uncompromising members of your party set the policy agenda.

    Under Speakers Boehner and Ryan, Republican leadership bowed to pressure from the most conservative, safe-district members, unsuccessfully attempting to repeal Obamacare—a move popular with the base, but unpopular among the broader electorate—and enacting tax reform which, in eliminating the ability of some taxpayers to deduct state taxes above a certain threshold, turned California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other high-tax states into “killing zones” for Republicans in the 2018 elections, denying the GOP a majority they thought redistricting had ensured.

    One lesson to be learned from the Republican failures is that the public airing of intraparty disputes, while helpful in party safe havens, has a damaging effect on the party’s brand in swing districts. Even Republicans who voted “no” on party initiatives were held liable on Election Day for what the rest of the party did. (This was also true for Democrats in the 2010 election; half of all the House Democrats who voted against Obamacare were defeated by Republicans anyway.)

    On this front, Pelosi is not likely to get help from the party’s presidential contenders, as the race to win over the activist base emphasizes liberal litmus tests on controversial proposals like “Medicare for All,” the “Green New Deal” and reparations. Individual House members in more conservative districts will (and should) try to separate themselves from these issues. But as voting habits become more parliamentary in nature and less localized (with help from the earmark ban, which has made the localization of House races more difficult, as members have no tangible project to bring home), party branding dominates.

    Lesson 4: Do not mistake a wave election in the midterms for momentum in the upcoming presidential race.

    As is often the case, parties misread their mandates. Voters elected Democrats in 2018 to put a check on the president and balance government rather than giving President Trump a blank check. But midterms rarely indicate how the next presidential election will turn out.

    One has to look no further than 1994 and 2010 to see that those midterms—both tidal waves for Republicans—in no way predicted the outcome of the presidential elections two years later—when Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama, respectively.

    Democrats over-investigating the administration, or discussing policies outside the mainstream do not help their cause for 2020, in the swing districts that delivered their majority. The midterms were a referendum on Trump. But the 2020 will be different! It will be about the competing visions of the two presidential nominees.

    These potential nominees need to woo activist Democratic voters in order to be nominated. Playing to swing voters in the primary season is unlikely. This further complicates Democratic branding efforts among independent voters.

    Going into 2018, Republicans ignored the early signs of voter unrest at their peril. They let their tail wag their dog. Now, it’s happening to the Democrats. Two months into the new Congress, the exuberance of her most progressive members is a challenge to Pelosi’s majority. And it will remain so. But if the early returns from recent special elections are to be given credence—and, looking at historic trends, they should—the atmospherics of the 2018 elections are gone.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    The nation’s cartoonists on the week in politics


    Every week political cartoonists throughout the country and across the political spectrum apply their ink-stained skills to capture the foibles, memes, hypocrisies and other head-slapping events in the world of politics. The fruits of these labors are...

    Every week political cartoonists throughout the country and across the political spectrum apply their ink-stained skills to capture the foibles, memes, hypocrisies and other head-slapping events in the world of politics. The fruits of these labors are hundreds of cartoons that entertain and enrage readers of all political stripes. Here's an offering of the best of this week's crop, picked fresh off the Toonosphere. Edited by Matt Wuerker.
    How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide

    How Trump is on track for a 2020 landslide


    President Donald Trump has a low approval rating. He is engaging in bitter Twitter wars and facing metastasizing investigations.But if the election were held today, he’d likely ride to a second term in a huge landslide, according to multiple economic...



    President Donald Trump has a low approval rating. He is engaging in bitter Twitter wars and facing metastasizing investigations.

    But if the election were held today, he’d likely ride to a second term in a huge landslide, according to multiple economic models with strong track records of picking presidential winners and losses.

    Credit a strong U.S. economy featuring low unemployment, rising wages and low gas prices — along with the historic advantage held by incumbent presidents.

    While Trump appears to be in a much stronger position than his approval rating and conventional Beltway wisdom might suggest, he also could wind up in trouble if the economy slows markedly between now and next fall, as many analysts predict it will.

    And other legal bombshells could explode the current scenario. Trump’s party managed to lose the House in 2018 despite a strong economy. So the models could wind up wrong this time around.


    Despite all these caveats, Trump looks surprisingly good if the old James Carville maxim coined in 1992 — “the economy, stupid” — holds true in 2020.

    “The economy is just so damn strong right now and by all historic precedent the incumbent should run away with it,” said Donald Luskin, chief investment officer of TrendMacrolytics, a research firm whose model correctly predicted Trump’s 2016 win when most opinion polls did not. “I just don’t see how the blue wall could resist all that.”

    Models maintained by economists and market strategists like Luskin tend to ignore election polls and personal characteristics of candidates. Instead, they begin with historical trends and then build in key economic data including growth rates, wages, unemployment, inflation and gas prices to predict voting behavior and election outcomes.

    Yale economist Ray Fair, who pioneered this kind of modeling, also shows Trump winning by a fair margin in 2020 based on the economy and the advantage of incumbency.

    “Even if you have a mediocre but not great economy — and that’s more or less consensus for between now and the election — that has a Trump victory and by a not-trivial margin,” winning 54 percent of the popular vote to 46 for the Democrat, he said. Fair’s model also predicted a Trump win in 2016 though it missed on Trump’s share of the popular vote.

    Still, Luskin, Fair and other analysts who use economic data and voting history to make predictions also note that a sharp decline in growth and an increase in the unemployment rate by next fall could alter Trump’s fortunes.


    “It would have to slow a lot to still be not pretty good,” Luskin said, adding that what really matters is the pace of change. Even if overall numbers remain fairly strong, a sharp move in the wrong direction could alter voting behavior.

    Luskin’s current model — which looks at GDP growth, gas prices, inflation, disposable income, tax burden and payrolls — has Trump winning by a blowout margin of 294 electoral votes.

    The White House remains confident that the GOP tax cut will support growth of 3 percent both this year and next, keeping job and wage gains strong. That’s much higher than consensus forecasts from the Federal Reserve and major banks that generally see a global slowdown led by Europe and China, coupled with the fading impact of U.S. tax cuts pushing U.S. growth closer to 2 percent this year with job gains slowing.

    But Trump may have one major ally in his quest to make sure the numbers don’t go much lower than this: the Fed, which recently stopped its campaign of interest rate hikes. And on Wednesday the central bank said it foresees no more rate hikes this year.

    The moves followed months of Trump bashing the Fed for raising rates too much and stomping on his economy, though Chairman Jerome Powell has said repeatedly that politics plays no role in the bank’s decision.

    Whatever the case, a much more gentle Fed could slide a floor beneath any decline in Trump’s economy and boost his reelection chances significantly.

    Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics and a regular Trump critic, has been road-testing a dozen different economic models for the 2020 race. At this point, Trump wins in all 12 — and quite comfortably in most of them. The Moody’s models look at economic trends at the state level.

    “If the election were held today, Trump would win according to the models and pretty handily,” Zandi said. “In three or four of them it would be pretty close. He’s got low gas prices, low unemployment and a lot of other political variables at his back. The only exception is his popularity, which matters a lot. If that falls off a cliff it would make a big difference.” The Moody’s models look at economic trends at the state level and incorporate some political variables including a president's approval rating.

    The Moody’s approach performed well in recent presidential elections, but missed the 2016 result in part because it did not account for a potential drop in Democratic turnout in key swing states. Zandi is trying to correct for that now before rolling out a new model sometime this summer.


    Trump has already upended many of the rules of presidential politics. His party suffered a drubbing in last year’s midterm elections despite the strong economy, and the yawning gap between how voters view the president and the nation’s economic standing is growing even larger: Presidents typically just aren’t this unpopular when the economic engine is humming along.

    Trump this week seized on a new CNN poll that showed more than seven in 10 Americans, or 71 percent, view the U.S. economy as “very good” or “somewhat good.” That was higher than CNN has measured at any point since a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in Feb. 2001 found 80 percent thought the economy was that robust.

    Yet Trump’s approval rating in the poll — which is usually tied closely to the economy — is just 42 percent. And unlike during the late ’90s, when President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings surged ahead of his personal favorability amid major scandal, Trump’s favorable ratings (41 percent in the CNN poll) track closely with his job-approval rating.

    Those low scores also apply to many attributes typically seen as desirable in presidents. Just 40 percent say Trump cares about people like them; 34 percent say he is honest and trustworthy; 41 percent say he can manage the government effectively; and 32 percent say he will unite the country, not divide it.

    Moreover, even how Americans view the state of the country has become divorced from the economy. In the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, only 36 percent of voters said the U.S. was headed in the right direction, compared with nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, who said it was off on the wrong track.

    For the economic models to be correct, voters would have to shrug off much of what they dislike about Trump and decide the strength of the economy makes a change unwise.

    Prominent Democrats know that while Trump might seem like a loose cannon faced with the threat of a devastating report from special counsel Robert Mueller, he will likely be a formidable opponent in 2020, especially if the economy remains close to where it is today.

    “Despite the fact that Trump is a largely incompetent clown, Democrats should not be overly confident or sanguine that they can beat him,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a top aide to former President Barack Obama. “He is a slight favorite to win. But he barely won last time and it took a Black Swan series of events to make that happen. All Democrats have to do is flip 100,000 or so votes in three states to win and that’s a very doable thing.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Pence woos 2016 anti-Trumpers to bankroll billion-dollar reelection

    Pence woos 2016 anti-Trumpers to bankroll billion-dollar reelection


    When Vice President Mike Pence appeared before some of the GOP’s most powerful donors at the iconic Pebble Beach golf course on Monday evening, he did something that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago.Over a surf and turf dinner, the vice...



    When Vice President Mike Pence appeared before some of the GOP’s most powerful donors at the iconic Pebble Beach golf course on Monday evening, he did something that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago.

    Over a surf and turf dinner, the vice president showered praise on Paul Singer, a prominent New York City hedge fund manager who spent millions of dollars in 2016 bankrolling TV ads painting Trump as “too reckless and dangerous to be president.”

    But as the group of assembled Republicans — some of whom have been similarly skeptical about the president in the past — looked on, Pence praised the 74-year-old billionaire as a leading free-market thinker and thanked him for his years of financial support to the party and conservative causes.

    The private dinner provides a window into a behind-the-scenes, Pence-led mission: to ensure that Republican givers who never came around to Trump in 2016 are on board for 2020. With Democrats already raking in colossal amounts of cash, Republicans estimate they’ll need to raise around $1 billion — a figure that will require the party’s donor class to be all-in. Party officials also want to deprive any would-be Trump primary challengers of the financial oxygen they’d need to mount a campaign.

    As it turned out, Pence had his eye on others at Pebble Beach. That evening, the vice president met privately with Warren Stephens, a 62-year-old Arkansas investment banker who, like Singer, was among the biggest contributors to the failed effort to thwart Trump. In 2016, Stephens gave a combined $5.9 million to a pair of super PACs that spent heavily to prevent Trump from winning the Republican nomination.


    Pence’s appearance at Monday’s dinner was the latest in a string of overtures to the two megadonors: He also hosted Singer and Stephens at the White House for detailed briefings on the administration’s legislative agenda. And there are indications the relationship has improved.

    Singer chipped in to the party’s PR campaigns to confirm the president’s Supreme Court nominees, and shortly before the midterms Stephens cut a six-figure check to a pro-Trump super PAC.

    While the smash-mouth president is certain to be the public face of his reelection campaign, Pence — long a favorite of conservatives — is undertaking a lower-profile but critical role of offering assurance to the deep-pocketed Republican elites who will be needed to finance Trump’s behemoth campaign apparatus.

    Among those the vice president has courted is the Club for Growth, a prominent anti-tax group that in 2016 aired TV ads warning Republican primary voters that “there’s nothing conservative about Donald Trump.”

    After the election the vice president began a series of discussions with Club for Growth President David McIntosh, and made an appearance at the organization’s conference at the Breakers Resort in Palm Beach. Pence pledged to the group’s donors that the administration was committed to repealing Obamacare.


    “What I’ve seen the vice president do is, if you will, translate Trump and what the administration stands for into language that conservatives not only feel comfortable with but embrace as the agenda they want to see,” said McIntosh, whose organization received substantial funding from Stephens in 2016.

    The Club has adopted a very different posture heading into 2020, refashioning itself as a pro-Trump vehicle. Earlier this month, it launched an Iowa TV ad blitz casting Democrat Beto O’Rourke as a politician dripping with “white male privilege.”

    To some, however, the donor courtship illustrates a broader problem confronting the White House: The president’s support from GOP elders remains tenuous.

    “They know the whole edifice of Trump support within the party, which looks formidable, could collapse with a couple of shocks,” said Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator and Never Trump activist who’s been trying to promote the prospect of a 2020 Republican primary challenge. “Thus the rush to ‘lock up’ support.”

    The reception hasn’t always been friendly. While attending an exclusive American Enterprise Institute-hosted retreat earlier this month, Pence was grilled by former Vice President Dick Cheney on the administration’s foreign policy record.

    At his Pebble Beach appearance, Pence carefully tailored his appeal to the conservatives in attendance by highlighting the administration’s efforts to reshape the nation’s courts. And he gave a dire prediction of what would happen if liberals seized the White House: “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment America ceases to be America.”

    The Pence blitz commenced after the inauguration when he began headlining policy briefings at the White House that were attended by an array of major GOP givers, including Richard Uihlein, a packaging company executive who gave $2 million to an anti-Trump super PAC.


    Other attendees were from the influential Koch political network, which sat out the 2016 election. The gatherings were organized by Marc Short, who was recently named Pence’s chief of staff and formerly served as president of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners outfit.

    Among the Koch network figures invited was Art Pope, a North Carolina-based funder of conservative projects who publicly refused to support Trump in 2016.

    In an interview this week, Pope estimated that he’d been to the White House five times since the election. His most recent visit, he said, came earlier this year when he briefly exchanged pleasantries with the vice president.

    Pope said he’d been impressed by the the outreach he’d received from the White House. It’s led him to discount the idea that Trump has a blacklist of people who opposed him.

    “The conventional wisdom and the quote ‘word on the street’ in November of 2016 through spring of 2017 was that if you publicly criticized Donald Trump as a candidate, you need not apply to a position. You won’t be considered, you won’t be invited to the White House Christmas party or anything else,” said Pope. “That is not the conventional wisdom now.”

    Pope said he hasn’t decided whether to donate to Trump in 2020. But he said he expected few of those who opposed Trump in the 2016 election to remain on the sidelines this time.

    “The number of people who were publicly opposed or critical of President Trump during the 2016 election,” he said, “has really dwindled.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Kamala puts Beto on notice

    Kamala puts Beto on notice


    Kamala is coming after Beto — in his own backyard.Hours before the former El Paso congressman unveiled his presidential bid, Harris announced she was heading to Texas — an unmistakable warning shot at a fellow upstart competing to capture the...



    Kamala is coming after Beto — in his own backyard.

    Hours before the former El Paso congressman unveiled his presidential bid, Harris announced she was heading to Texas — an unmistakable warning shot at a fellow upstart competing to capture the imagination of Democratic voters.

    She’ll meet Friday outside Dallas with Tarrant County Democrats, then it’s on to Houston Saturday for a big rally at Texas Southern University in Houston. It’s the start of a sustained, delegate-focused strategy that aims to take advantage of the front-loaded primary calendar in which Texas and California will significantly shape the race on March 3.

    Harris has already reached out to Congressional Black Caucus members from Texas, including Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Colin Allred and Marc Veasey, according to a Democrat familiar with the calls.

    The aggressive maneuvering is the surest sign yet that for all of O’Rourke’s appeal at home — owing to his tantalizingly close loss to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last fall — Harris isn’t ceding Texas to O’Rourke or his fellow Texan Julián Castro, the former Obama-era Housing and Urban Development secretary from San Antonio. If anything, it’s the opposite: She wants to make clear that she’s willing to go toe-to-toe with O’Rourke, the charismatic Gen-Xer who starts the race with more money and a similar knack for drawing media and exciting audiences.

    "There is no state in America we will cede to anyone," a senior Harris campaign official told POLITICO. "We see a lot of opportunity to deepen support with African American and Latino communities and to expand into suburban areas where Democrats are resurgent."


    Harris and her team think they can win a significant share of Texas delegates by focusing on the Houston and Dallas areas. They pointed to Harris' advocacy for Dreamers in the Senate as an advantage with Latino voters and noted that she will hold her first campaign rally in Texas at one of the nation's largest historically black colleges, a choice reflecting her priorities as a candidate.

    More than half of the delegates up for grabs in the Democratic nomination contest will be decided by Super Tuesday states. That makes Texas a must stop for serious contenders. At the same time, like California, the sheer size of the state requires major resources and a creative approach to compete.

    “There’s a certain type of cruelty involved in having both Texas and California on the same day because they both are large, populous, diverse states with more than a dozen media markets that are quite frankly hard to get around,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Texas Democratic strategist. “Candidates have to start this process early to have any chance of success.”

    Finding top campaign talent in the GOP-dominated state isn’t a given, but Harris’ campaign is well situated on that front. Ace Smith, a Harris senior strategist, ran Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in Texas and California in 2008. Senior strategist Emmy Ruiz, who served as Clinton’s state director in Nevada and Colorado in 2016, is from Texas, where she ran the field program for the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2011, and worked for Annie's List, which helps elect pro-choice women in Texas. And Harris’ communications director, Lily Adams, is a granddaughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.

    Shelby Cole, a key player in O’Rourke’s record-breaking Senate fundraising effort and a Houston native, moved to Authentic Campaigns, where she is the digital fundraising director for Harris' presidential campaign. And Jose Nunez, Harris' online organizing director, is from San Antonio, and worked for former Rep. Leticia Van de Putte of Texas.

    Asked about rivals starting to campaign in Texas — and about his own hold on the state — O’Rourke said Tuesday, “I take no one for granted, and that includes the people of Texas.”

    “Every one of them deserves to be able to see every Democratic candidate for the nomination, to listen to us all, myself included,” O’Rourke told reporters after rallying several hundred students at Penn State University. “Texas is going to be central to our strategy. But this is going to be a true national campaign for everyone everywhere, and that’s got to include Texas.”


    When a student asked O’Rourke during the event about “a lot of really qualified female candidates running this year” and what he would do to “empower women in Congress,” O’Rourke responded, “One hundred percent agree — count myself lucky to be in this field, remind myself constantly that come summer of 2020, we are all going to be on the same team behind the same nominee. And whoever she or he happens to be, we want them to be successful in the November election against Donald Trump.”

    O’Rourke, after his Senate race, has a huge edge starting out: A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last year put his favorability among Democrats at 93 percent.

    But Democrats in the expansive state will have plenty of alternatives in the presidential race. In 2008, Texas Democrats divided so sharply between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that the former won the state’s caucuses and the latter its primary. O’Rourke in 2020 will be contending not only with a large field of candidates from out of state, but also Castro, who could draw home-state support.

    Strother put the feeling among Texans in universal terms: “We’re the best at everything, just ask us,” he said. “Our music is the best. Our food is the best. Our women are the prettiest, and beer even tastes better this side of the Red River.

    “Texans,” he added, “are going to stick with a Texan — to a large degree.”

    Yet he and other Democrats in the state still see an opening for non-Texans to win a significant share of the state’s 228 pledged delegates, particular for a candidate with Harris' profile. He said she can appeal to African American and Latino voters, attract media attention across the state and highlight her career in law enforcement in a part of the country where law-and-order candidates run strong.

    “She gives a heck of a speech. She’s inspiring. She has an interesting story,” Strother said. “The fact she’s put some bad people behind bars is not going to cut against her here. We want bad people behind bars. I think she’ll do well. She’ll get a lot of support.”

    Strategist Harold Cook, former executive director of the Democratic Party of Texas, compares the tactic of camping out in key areas to “duck hunting 101." "If you’re competing in a big state with proportional vote, you don’t need to get the most ducks to get a whole bunch of ducks."

    Of Texas’ 228 pledged delegates, 149 will be allocated to Texas' 31 state Senate districts — a difference from most other states that distribute their delegates by congressional district. Those districts have been packed with Democrats to allow Republicans to control more legislative seats, thereby decreasing the number of truly blue districts.


    But with neighboring seats covering the suburbs turning away from Republicans, Democrats will have a chance to campaign in more places that hug the borders of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, said Texas Democratic strategist Matt Angle of the Lone Star Project.

    The remaining 79 delegates are statewide, and candidates will need to meet a 15 percent threshold to secure them both statewide and at the district level.

    To give a sense of the scale, O’Rourke’s former 16th congressional district includes just one state Senate district. In 2016, Clinton won three of its four delegates, with Bernie Sanders taking one.

    With a crowded 2020 field, Angle said Democrats can’t appeal to only one part of the state — or one constituency.

    “It’s really easy to overlook the African American vote in Texas, and that’s a big mistake,” he said, noting the black population has grown at about five times the rate of whites.

    The hometown candidates could be a blessing for others, too. Castro’s run brings added attention to the Latino population, which is growing at an even faster rate than the black population — from El Paso to San Antonio to Corpus Christi, but also in Houston. O’Rourke, meanwhile, demonstrated in his Senate campaign that there’s a strong appetite for change in places where Democrats had lost faith and barely organized in years, said Henry R. Muñoz III, a Texas Democratic leader, philanthropist and major donor.

    “People in Texas are enjoying the fact that all of these candidates are calling, that they are coming to the state; that they are taking the voice of the people of Texas very seriously,” said Muñoz, co-founder of the Latino Victory Project and DNC national finance chair. “Certainly, the ‘Beto factor’ plays a role in that, but I think when you look at the diversity of Texas, and you look at the diversity of the candidates who are running for the Democratic nomination in 2020, there’s a great match-up.

    “So,” Muñoz added, “people are looking forward to Kamala coming to Texas.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    O’Rourke’s sprint out of the gate leaves Democratic field gasping

    O’Rourke’s sprint out of the gate leaves Democratic field gasping


    PLYMOUTH, N.H. — By Thursday afternoon, Beto O’Rourke will have campaigned in all 10 counties in New Hampshire — a sprint that will take him all of 48 hours. Last week he was all over Iowa, and in between, he traversed the upper Midwest.With no job...


    PLYMOUTH, N.H. — By Thursday afternoon, Beto O’Rourke will have campaigned in all 10 counties in New Hampshire — a sprint that will take him all of 48 hours. Last week he was all over Iowa, and in between, he traversed the upper Midwest.

    With no job tying him to Washington or a state capital — and a genuine zeal for the open road — O’Rourke is rallying college students, bounding onto café countertops and pressing himself into the news cycle in different media markets by the hour.

    “We’re setting the pace,” O’Rourke said in Iowa over the weekend, after running a 5K race at the start of a frenzied day of campaigning in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. He then traveled to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, before driving his rented Dodge Grand Caravan more than 430 miles east to New Hampshire.

    In less than a week since announcing his campaign, the Texas Democrat has singlehandedly quickened the clip of the early presidential primary, annoying some of his competitors — and driving others nuts.


    O’Rourke is hardly the first presidential candidate this year to arrive in Iowa or New Hampshire, states that presidential contenders have been visiting since the midterm elections last year. But O’Rourke is benefitting from large crowds and a protracted run of media attention following the announcement of his campaign last week.

    His first-day fundraising of $6.1 million, which he reported Monday, surpassed all of his competitors. And by waiting until Wednesday to announce his average donation of $47, O’Rourke generated another batch of stories. Later, as O’Rourke dashed from an event in Plymouth, an elderly woman craning her neck to see him climbed shakily onto a bench.

    “Hey,” she said, “he stands on furniture.”

    Aides to other top Democrats running for president granted in recent days they’ve inescapably been pulled into the “Beto Show,” texting quips about his wild arm gestures and his table-top campaigning — while acknowledging he’s giving voters and reporters an up-close view that they, by and large, are not.

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, for one, gives nearly the same speech at every event. He eschews coffee counters for his podium and rarely takes questions from the audience, let alone the news media.

    Rival aides have used Twitter as a kind of tracking device, privately taking shots at O’Rourke’s thin operation and noting though wry retorts each time he stumbles or borrows a policy or talking point from their candidate.

    With O’Rourke unemployed and free to roam the country in his minivan, other campaigns have begun discussing how to maximize their exposure when they travel.


    Yet none of the advisers to other Democrats said they’re planning wholesale changes to their approaches, with each insisting they are going to run their own races and one predicting O’Rourke will eventually fade.

    As one senior official for a 2020 Democrat put it to POLITICO, “When you’re in a race of 20 people, you can’t change everything for one person.”

    “He could still be in Congress, but he quit,” another senior official said of O’Rourke. “He’s decided that this is his big adventure now, and he’s going to do what he’s going to do.”

    Eventually, however, some who work for those with day jobs concede, they’ll have to amend their work schedules to accommodate the anticipated faster pace of the campaign.

    O’Rourke’s frenetic pace is largely an effort to replicate the closer-than-expected Texas Senate campaign he ran against Ted Cruz, when he visited all 254 counties in the Republican-heavy state.

    When asked about his strategy, he says repeatedly, “You’ve got to show up.”

    For O’Rourke’s supporters, the candidate’s efforts to get there are half the appeal. When several hundred students awaiting O’Rourke at Keene State College on Tuesday night heard that he would be late, they emitted a low groan, but recovered when organizers told them to turn on Facebook, where O’Rourke was streaming himself live from the car. When he arrived, he lingered long after the event to pose for photographs with anyone who wanted.

    But O’Rourke is also attempting in his go-everywhere-fast campaign to establish himself as a course-correction from Hillary Clinton’s losing effort in 2016. Many Democrats remain bitter that Clinton did not campaign at all in Wisconsin in the general election — a critical state ultimately carried by President Donald Trump. Asked recently to assess the Democratic Party’s failure in the last presidential election, O’Rourke said, “You’ve got to show up, and you’ve got to come back.”


    Robert Wolf, a venture capitalist who raised money for and advised former President Barack Obama, said, “If someone told me that their first stop was going to be Iowa and their second stop was going to be a road trip through the Blue Wall, considering our last candidate missed badly on the Blue Wall, I would say that’s a pretty thoughtful strategy.”

    He said, “From what I am watching and hearing, the excitement around Beto is real and the grass roots following is growing exponentially on each and every stop. We have learned from the past that instead of a candidate who’s behind rope lines all the time, those who are taking selfies, shaking hands and kissing babies draw bigger crowds and support.”

    Despite his fundraising and crowd-drawing ability, O’Rourke is still running far behind Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden and about even with Sen. Kamala Harris of California in the latest CNN poll, released Tuesday. O'Rourke will travel to South Carolina after New Hampshire, and he will draw another media convulsion on March 30, when he holds a campaign kickoff in his hometown of El Paso.

    In his typical fashion, O’Rourke announced Wednesday that he will not only hold an event in El Paso that day, but also in Houston and Austin.

    Still, it is so early in the year that O’Rourke almost certainly cannot maintain the constant crush of media attention that has accompanied his first week. Sitting lawmakers running for president can — and do — drive coverage by introducing bills, and debates starting this summer will offer abundant break-out opportunities. Biden, who is widely expected to run, will likely draw significant attention from O’Rourke following any announcement of a campaign.

    Asked if he could maintain his own pace, O’Rourke said, “We’ll see. It is extraordinarily energizing to be doing this … It’s thrilling to me.”

    For Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s chief strategist, O’Rourke’s early run is familiar. He said that if O’Rourke remains tied to the road, it will prevent him from advancing any public storyline other than that he is a road warrior — a narrative that will eventually grow old.

    “Coming out of the gate, for the first couple weeks, it’s probably OK,” Roe said. “But this is all he has … he’s in a constant sprint to find himself.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    World leaders tell Biden: We need you

    World leaders tell Biden: We need you


    When Joe Biden attended the annual Munich Security Conference last month, the wonky foreign policy confab promised an escape from the nonstop speculation back home about the former vice president’s political plans. Instead, Biden’s 2020 intentions...


    When Joe Biden attended the annual Munich Security Conference last month, the wonky foreign policy confab promised an escape from the nonstop speculation back home about the former vice president’s political plans.

    Instead, Biden’s 2020 intentions were the talk of the conference.

    When Armenian President Armen Sarkissian ran into him in a hallway, a TV camera captured him asking Biden: “Are you going to run?” (Biden whispered an inaudible answer.)

    And in several conversations with European leaders in Munich, Biden heard a repeated refrain, according to a conference attendee familiar with the conversations: The world needs you.

    Citing Biden’s long foreign policy track record and longtime commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, some of the leaders — echoing views from across the continent — told Biden that his return to the White House would be a sure way to restore western alliances that President Donald Trump has dramatically fractured.


    While Biden was already likely to enter the race even without the encouragement of foreign leaders, one Democratic Party official close to Biden’s circle said that their support had fueled his appetite to run. He is now widely viewed as likely to announce a 2020 bid in the coming weeks.

    These nudges from abroad are a reminder of the heavyweight foreign policy credentials Biden would bring to a Democratic field in which they are currently in short supply. None of Biden’s prospective rivals have the global experience or relationships with foreign leaders that Biden enjoys. But neither do they carry the baggage that comes with decades of involvement in controversial U.S. foreign policy decisions.

    A former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Biden has specialized in foreign policy for decades — a key reason why Barack Obama, who had modest credentials of his own in that realm as a freshman senator, tapped Biden to be his 2008 running mate. As vice president, Biden was Obama’s ever-present adviser on world affairs and played a leading role in their adminstration's Iraq and Ukraine policies.

    Even some prominent conservatives concede that Biden would bring to the campaign a formidable depth of knowledge of global events, especially compared to his would-be Democratic rivals.

    “If you look at this field, Biden is a giant in terms of his actual foreign policy experience. They have nowhere near the hands-on experience that he’s had,” said Ken Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute. “He spent decades talking to world leaders and in that sense, he’s got far deeper contacts.”

    But despite more than two years of near-panic among foreign policy elites over Trump’s approach to the world, it’s not clear how much voters will care about expertise in world affairs. In a February Gallup poll, only 5 percent of Americans ranked foreign policy or national security-related issues as the country’s top problem.


    “The electorate is going to decide whether [national security experience] is worth something in this period when elites are being rejected,” Weinstein added.

    Biden’s long record also brings vulnerabilities. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in the first two and a half years of the Obama administration alongside Biden, wrote in his memoir that the vice president had been wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

    Biden’s primary rivals might attack him for his support of George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Trump might savage Biden’s risk-averse counsel when Obama was weighing the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

    Still, Biden’s supporters say his national security credentials will be a major net plus — especially in a field dominated by candidates more versed in the Green New Deal than the Iran nuclear deal.

    “He’s been doing this for 30-plus years and even the best foreign policy hands end up being tutored by Joe Biden,” said one former foreign policy adviser to Biden who declined to speak on the record until that person’s former boss makes a decision about 2020. “We have a lot of candidates and unfortunately very few of them have any real depth or experience working in foreign policy issues.”



    While several declared Democratic contenders have served on Senate committees with foreign policy or national security purviews — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) on the Senate Intelligence Committee and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — none are associated with major foreign policy achievements, and their campaign pitches focus less on issues like North Korea and Syria than on health care or the economy. Another candidate, Pete Buttigieg, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, is a veteran of the Afghanistan war.

    Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was criticized early in the 2016 primary campaign for lacking foreign policy advisers and failing to focusing on global issues in his stump speeches. (Sanders did give an address on foreign policy last October.)

    When Warren rolled out an economics-heavy foreign policy vision in a speech and long essay last year, some critics dismissed it as “not as much about foreign policy as it is about reorienting domestic policy.”

    Doubts about where the Democratic candidates stand may have fueled the love for Biden on display in Munich last month. Biden is a known quantity for many foreign leaders and other diplomats who have many years of experience dealing with him and his foreign policy advisers. He was a proponent of NATO enlargement, for instance, in the late 1990s and early 2000s—which was instrumental in driving democratic reforms in former Soviet states and ensuring security and prosperity in post-Cold War New Europe.

    “There is little doubt that his name has a favorable ring in European ears,” former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who was foreign minister when Biden was vice president, told POLITICO.

    Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark and NATO secretary general in the Obama years, has also told Biden that he hopes he will run for president on a platform of strong U.S. leadership and trans-Atlantic harmony, said a person close to Rasmussen.


    “Joe Biden is a good friend and I always enjoy our work together — but he knows his own mind and does not need my advice on whether he should run for President,” Rasmussen told POLITICO by email.

    Though few dare say so publicly, thanks to a taboo against seeming to interfere in foreign elections, many European leaders shaken by Trump’s repeated disparagement of the EU and criticisms of NATO would likely not mourn his defeat in 2020. (Notable exceptions include Trump-friendly rulers in Hungary and Poland.)

    At the Munich conference, Biden gave a full-throated defense of U.S. engagement abroad. He also criticized the trade wars and tariffs that have marked Trump’s presidency.

    “I promise you. I promise you, as my mother would say, ‘This too shall pass.’ We will be back. We will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that,” Biden told the crowd, which capped his speech with a standing ovation.

    Biden’s speech on the main stage “raised a lot of eyebrows” that he would be given such prominent space in the program, according to another attendee of the conference. It was “a little bit unusual for a former official to have such a prominent role.” At the same conference, Vice President Mike Pence met a lukewarm reception and only polite applause.

    At the conference, Biden met privately with the leaders of Ukraine, Greece, Kosovo and North Macedonia. A conference attendee with knowledge of the matter said some of those leaders urged Biden to run. Biden spokesman Bill Russo declined to comment on the content of his discussions with foreign leaders.

    Foreign leaders view Biden “as a safe and consistent pair of hands on foreign policy and that’s what they’re looking for,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, who also attended the Munich conference. “They’re comfortable with him. It’s plausible he can win. He’s a known face on foreign policy.”

    Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of State in the Bush administration who introduced Biden before his speech in Munich and interviewed him on stage, noted that “Biden is deeply respected by European leaders and respected not just for the many and many decades of service but for the quality of it.”

    “He is seen as a firm trans-Atlanticist. He’s seen as an American leader who believes in American power,” said Burns, summarizing his conversations with European leaders he declined to name.

    “There was tremendous interest in him [in Munich] because there are extraordinary levels of frustration, I would say even anger, in the European governments about the Trump administration,” said Burns.

    After all of Trump’s broadsides against Europe and the world, former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio told POLITICO that “the thought of a Biden candidacy and presidency is reassuring. He represents something familiar.

    “More crucially he is deeply committed to the trans-Atlantic community and the rules-based international order,” she added. “Restoring that certainty to the White House would be a boon for a Europe which itself faces so much uncertainty in the near term.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Aides struggle to see strategy in Trump’s Conway, McCain fights

    Aides struggle to see strategy in Trump’s Conway, McCain fights


    He is a “whack job,” a “husband from hell,” and a “stone cold LOSER.” Those were just some of the insults President Donald Trump hurled on Wednesday at a once little-known corporate litigator who happens to be married to one of his top White...



    He is a “whack job,” a “husband from hell,” and a “stone cold LOSER.” Those were just some of the insults President Donald Trump hurled on Wednesday at a once little-known corporate litigator who happens to be married to one of his top White House aides, Kellyanne Conway.

    With a single insult-filled morning tweet, tapped out from the White House residence before 8 a.m., the president extended his dispute with Conway’s anti-Trump spouse, George, into a bewildering second day. By the afternoon, Trump had complemented it with new attacks on a dead man: the late Republican senator and war hero John McCain. Speaking in Ohio, Trump declared that he “never liked [McCain] much … [and] probably never will.”

    As the lurid disputes dominated cable news for several more hours, it was unclear whether Trump had any strategy in mind. Some people close to Trump speculated that he might be consciously trying to remake the news environment — creating a bizarre spectacle to displace criticism of his tepid response to the massacre of dozens of Muslims in New Zealand, the timing of the administration’s decision to ground Boeing’s 737 Max jets, and frenzied anticipation around the expected release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report.

    But the saga has left even White House aides accustomed to a president who bucks convention feeling uncomfortable. While the controversies may have pushed aside some bad news, they also trampled on Trump’s Wednesday visit to an army tank manufacturing plant in swing state Ohio.

    “For the most part, most people internally don’t want to touch this with a 10-foot pole,” said one former senior White House official. A current senior White House official said White House aides are making an effort “not to discuss it in polite company.” Another current White House official bemoaned the tawdry distraction. “It does not appear to be a great use of our time to talk about George Conway or dead John McCain. ... Why are we doing this?”


    While multiple sources said Kellyanne Conway’s standing with Trump appears to remain solid, some worried that the ongoing controversy could compromise her effectiveness if she is confronted in every one of her frequent television interviews with her husband’s scathing commentary about the president.

    “It makes it very, very, very difficult” for her to do her job, said the former senior White House official.

    The Conway and McCain feuds nonetheless revealed a handful of truths about the president and his White House, starting with the president’s hair-trigger sensitivity over accusations of mental instability. After the author Michael Wolff raised questions about Trump’s mental health in a 2018 book, the president lashed out — despite warnings that he was only inflating Wolff’s book sales — and insisted that he was a “stable genius.” Those who know him say these barbs are a point of particular sensitivity, and his dispute with Conway appears to have originated from the attorney’s recent suggestions that Trump is mentally ill.

    After tweeting images from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the text medical professionals use to diagnose mental illness — listing the characteristic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Conway charged that Trump is “unfit and incompetent for the esteemed office you temporarily hold.”

    “I don’t think that Trump is laughing at that,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive who has become a critic of the president. “He takes that stuff pretty personally.”

    The two disputes also highlight Trump’s inclination to personalize disagreements and disputes, roping in family members and friends and working to divide them against one another to inflict maximum damage.


    The Conway-Trump grudge match grew even more heated midday Wednesday when Trump stopped to take questions from reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to Ohio and described George Conway as “a tremendous disservice to a wife and family.”

    The accusation mirrored the president’s response through the winter to the cooperation of his former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, with federal prosecutors. The president took aim at Cohen’s father-in-law, retweeting a conservative author who had suggested he was a “loan shark” and telling Fox News host Jeanine Pirro in mid-January that rather than provide investigators with information on him, Cohen should “give information maybe on his father-in-law, because that’s the one that people want to look at.”

    “He makes it personal so that it hurts a little bit more. That’s when he enjoys it,” O’Donnell said. “He’s very calculating in that way.”

    Kellyanne Conway was drawn into the dispute on Wednesday, seemingly forced to choose between her husband and her boss. She chose the latter, perhaps one reason White House aides say her standing with Trump has not been diminished by her husband’s bitter exchanges with the president.

    “You think he shouldn’t respond when somebody, a nonmedical professional, accuses him of having a mental disorder? You think he should just take that sitting down?” Conway told POLITICO.

    The running controversy over Trump’s attacks on McCain have also confronted his political allies with painful choices. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been pressed in recent days to respond to the president’s repeated denigration of McCain, whom Graham has described as being like a father to him. Graham, who has carefully cultivated a close relationship with Trump, praised McCain on Twitter — without mentioning the president by name.


    Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas endorsed — and then embraced — Trump during the 2016 campaign even after the president unfavorably compared the appearance of Cruz’s wife, Heidi, to that of his own wife Melania. Trump also suggested Cruz’s father was linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

    After insisting that he was “not in the habit of supporting candidates who attack my wife and who attack my father,” as Cruz put it at the 2016 GOP convention, he soon changed his tune.

    “After many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience, I have decided that on Election Day, I will vote for the Republican nominee,” he said a few months later.

    Conway, for her part, delivered remarks at the White House’s South Court auditorium on Wednesday afternoon in honor of International Women’s History Month.

    “It just goes to show that her stature is in the place that it’s always been. She’s somebody who’s highly respected throughout the building and everybody just stands by her,” said a senior White House official. “Her role is seen as invaluable.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump's ever-expanding list of grievances

    Trump's ever-expanding list of grievances


    President Donald Trump aired a litany of grievances on Tuesday, claiming he has a “stacked deck” against him in 2020, putting down his top aide’s husband as a “total loser" and renewing his attacks on the Sen. John McCain."I was never a fan of...



    President Donald Trump aired a litany of grievances on Tuesday, claiming he has a “stacked deck” against him in 2020, putting down his top aide’s husband as a “total loser" and renewing his attacks on the Sen. John McCain.

    "I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be," the president said less than seven months after the the longtime senator and onetime prisoner of war died.

    The comments capped another eyebrow-raising few days for Trump, even by the standards of a man who has regularly flouted the conventions of the presidency. On Sunday alone, Trump sent out 29 tweets and retweets that touched on everything from General Motors to his media criticism of Fox News — a consequence, people close to him say, of another isolated weekend in the White House.

    Taken together, Trump's scattershot comments paint a picture of a president who feels under-appreciated and under siege as he obsesses over his upcoming reelection bid. Trump's outbursts come after he faced an embarrassing rebuke last week, when 12 Republican senators voted against his declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, prompting his first veto.

    The day began, as it almost always does for Trump, on Twitter.


    "The Fake News Media has NEVER been more Dishonest or Corrupt than it is right now," the president tweeted at 5:24 a.m. "There has never been a time like this in American History. Very exciting but also, very sad! Fake News is the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself!"

    It was a continuation of an airing of complaints that stretched through the weekend and into Monday afternoon, when the president expressed frustration that he wasn't getting enough attention for donating his salary to federal agencies, even as he insisted he didn't want any credit.

    "While the press doesn’t like writing about it, nor do I need them to, I donate my yearly Presidential salary of $400,000.00 to different agencies throughout the year, this to Homeland Security," Trump tweeted alongside a photo of a check for $100,000 made out to the Homeland Security Department. "If I didn’t do it there would be hell to pay from the FAKE NEWS MEDIA!"

    Trump took a break from Twitter on Tuesday to meet with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed the "Trump of the tropics." And Trump seemed to bask in Bolsonaro's adoration after weathering more than two years of scorn from other heads of state.

    "I’m very proud to hear the president use the term fake news," Trump said of Bolsonaro at one point.

    But even as he touted the close relationship between the United States and Brazil, Trump was eager to talk about the many other issues on his mind. Asked about McCain, Trump launched into a lengthy recounting of the senator's decision to vote against repealing Obamacare.


    "I'm very unhappy that he didn't repeal and replace Obamacare, as you know," Trump said. "He campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare for years, and then he got to a vote, and he said, 'Thumbs down.' And our country would have saved a trillion dollars and we would have had great healthcare."

    At a news conference with Bolsonaro, Trump also weighed in on what he sees as tech companies' bias against conservatives. "It seems to be if they are conservative, if they are Republicans, in a certain group, there is discrimination," Trump said.

    He was also quick to allege that companies like Twitter and Facebook were colluding to suppress Republicans, a notable accusation considering the president has spent months going after Democrats for what he says are accusations of Trump-Russia collusion made without clear evidence.

    "We use the word collusion loosely all the time and I will tell you there is collusion with respect to [social media companies], because something has to be going on," Trump said.


    It's a "stacked deck" against him, the president complained, when it comes to social media and television news.

    "Look at what is happening with the networks, what is happening with different shows and it's hard to believe we win," he said. "But I tell you what it really shows: The people are smart. The people get it."

    Earlier Tuesday, the president launched his most pointed attack to date on lawyer George Conway, the husband of his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway. "A total loser!" he wrote, retweeting an allegation from Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale that Trump rejected Conway for a job in the administration that "he desperately wanted."

    "LOL," Conway responded on Twitter before elaborating in a Washington Post interview.

    “It’s so maddening to watch,” said Conway, a veteran conservative Washington attorney. “The mendacity, the incompetence, it’s just maddening to watch. The tweeting is just the way to get it out of the way, so I can get it off my chest and move on with my life that day. That’s basically it. Frankly, it’s so I don’t end up screaming at her about it.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump says he never got a thank you for McCain's funeral


    President Donald Trump on Wednesday went after the late Sen. John McCain once again, saying that he “gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” but “didn’t get a thank you.”Speaking in front of a crowd at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, the...

    President Donald Trump on Wednesday went after the late Sen. John McCain once again, saying that he “gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” but “didn’t get a thank you.”


    Speaking in front of a crowd at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, the president continued the attacks on McCain that he began over the weekend. Trump said he was responsible for authorizing the state funeral services for McCain, who died of cancer in August, but got no gratitude.

    “I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted – which, as president, I had to approve,” Trump said. “I don't care about this, but I didn't get a thank you. That is OK. We sent him on the way, but I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”

    “I have to be honest, I’ve never liked him much,” Trump also said of the former senator in extended vent session that received a cool reception in the room. “Hasn't been for me.”

    Trump and McCain clashed repeatedly after the former launched his presidential campaign, but their feud peaked in 2017 when the senator sunk GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare with a dramatic thumbs-down vote.

    Trump was not invited to McCain's funeral last year, and the American flag atop the White House was initially raised to full-staff in the wake of the senator's death — and was returned to half-staff in McCain's honor only after the move garnered criticism from both sides of the aisle.


    Since Saturday, the president has publicly railed against McCain for tanking the Obamacare repeal and for passing along to the FBI an explosive and largely unverified dossier alleging links between Trump and Russia. Trump also mocked McCain on Twitter for being "last in his class" at the U.S. Naval Academy. The former Navy pilot graduated from the military academy in 1958, finishing near, but not at, the bottom of his class.

    For the pro-military audience gathered in Ohio, Trump added a point to his list of grievances against McCain: He blamed the senator for helping persuade President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

    “Thousands and thousands of our people have been killed, millions of people overall,” Trump said. “And frankly, we're straightening it out now, but it’s been a disaster for the country.”

    He also reiterated his qualms with McCain over the dossier and the vote to repeal Obamacare, tailoring his lines to the crowd.

    “He went thumbs down, badly hurting the Republican Party, badly hurting our nation and hurting many sick people who desperately wanted good, affordable health care,” Trump said, adding: “McCain didn't get the job done for our great vets in the VA.”

    Trump’s inflammatory remarks about the late senator have drawn scathing criticism from lawmakers and members of McCain’s family. The president concluded his tirade in Ohio by blaming the media for drawing out the issue.

    “Not my kind of guy, but some people like him,” Trump concluded.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    ‘High-level fear-mongering’: Trump’s economic team drives ‘socialism’ attack

    ‘High-level fear-mongering’: Trump’s economic team drives ‘socialism’ attack


    President Donald Trump has enlisted his senior economic advisers to flesh out one of his early 2020 presidential campaign themes: Socialism is coming.In recent months, traditionally staid official White House economic reports and briefings have begun to...


    President Donald Trump has enlisted his senior economic advisers to flesh out one of his early 2020 presidential campaign themes: Socialism is coming.

    In recent months, traditionally staid official White House economic reports and briefings have begun to emphasize the potentially massive costs of an ambitious socialist agenda and warn that America could transform into a Cold War dystopia.

    While last year’s Economic Report to the President, a congressionally mandated annual summary of the state of the economy, didn’t once mention “socialism,” the word appears more than 100 times in this year’s 700-page-plus tome. The 2019 report, released earlier this week, features an entire chapter on the subject, which includes a recounting of the economic fallout from socialist experiments in China, the Soviet Union and Cuba.

    At the beginning of a briefing this week, staff with the White House Council of Economic Advisers distributed to reporters a set of slides that summarized the report. The last slide plastered the Soviet, Cuban, Venezuelan and Chinese flags on a graph detailing decreases in the production of livestock, crops, crude oil and cotton.

    “Production declines substantially when socialist regimes take over — sometimes by more than 50 percent,” the slide read. “In contrast, capitalism spurs growth.”


    The messaging — which Democrats call preposterously exaggerated — marks a remarkable synergy in the themes being discussed among both Trump’s economic and campaign teams. Campaign officials say the socialism issue resonates deeply with Trump’s conservative base, as well as more moderate Republicans — and the president’s advisers have encouraged him to continue talking about it in speeches, arguing that one of his best avenues for reelection is painting Democrats as out-of-touch radicals. “It’s going to be a huge focus,” a Trump campaign official told POLITICO.

    It also marks a compromise between Trump advisers who have long wanted him to spend more time touting positive economic news and Trump’s fear-based rhetoric about his rivals. During last fall’s midterm election campaign, some Trump advisers wanted him to talk less about immigration and more about job growth, low unemployment numbers or manufacturing.

    The new economic approach will be central to Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, according to a half-dozen White House officials, allies and campaign advisers, and made all the easier by progressive causes like the “Green New Deal” championed by the likes of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

    “The socialism versus capitalism message is a home run with every group apart from millennials,” said one informal adviser to the campaign. “The campaign will cast 2020 through the prism of socialism versus freedom.”

    It’s unclear how seriously Americans might take the prospect of Washington adopting a state-run socialist economy, but a recent CNN poll showed 71 percent of Americans believe the current U.S. economy is in good shape.


    Democrats and liberal groups accuse the Trump administration of wildly stretching the truth to discredit ideas, like raising taxes on wealthy Americans or expanding health care, that might otherwise pose a political threat.

    “Obviously, this is an absurd political tactic,” said Emily Gee, a health economist at the Center for American Progress. “The Trump administration clearly thinks that high-level fear-mongering on socialism is better than talking about actual policy.”

    Among the Democratic candidates running for president, only one, Sen. Bernie Sanders, identifies as a Democratic socialist.

    While Trump’s fixation with socialism is now familiar from his speeches and tweets, the increasing involvement of his economic team is less visible, and reflects the degree to which the Trump White House is steadily moving to war footing for the 2020 campaign.

    “I ask you to join President Trump and me and the rest to put socialism on trial and convict it,” Larry Kudlow, head of the White House National Economic Council, said during a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In a C-SPAN interview last Friday, Kudlow predicted the Green New Deal — which calls for huge government spending programs to address climate change and inequality — could reduce economic growth by as much as 10 percent. White House aides said Kudlow is planning to continue hammering away at that message.

    In addition to name-checking authoritarian communist nations, this week’s White House economic report also takes aim at Democrats’ “Medicare for All” proposals, claiming that, if the measure were funded through higher taxes, U.S. gross domestic product would plunge 9 percent — or about $7,000 per American — in 2022.

    The report even takes pains to knock down the common leftist retort that Nordic countries have fared well economically despite their socialist-minded political traditions.


    “Participants in the American policy discourse sometimes cite the Nordic countries as socialist success stories,” the report says. “However, in many respects, the Nordic countries’ policies now differ significantly from policies that economists view as characteristic of socialism.”

    During a briefing this week with a small group of reporters, Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett, who oversaw the report, defended the decision to devote so much of the report to socialism, arguing, “We as a council judged that there’s lots of confusion out there, and the confusion is on both sides.”

    “We’ve got college students approving of socialism without perhaps understanding what its record is,” he added.

    It’s not the first time that Hassett — who had an apolitical reputation before coming to the Trump White House — has targeted socialism. Last year, the CEA published a report outlining the economic costs of socialism. (“Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse,” the report began.)

    People close to the president also believe the focus on socialism will put pressure on more moderate Democratic primary candidates reluctant to embrace their party’s left wing. “As we run up to this presidential [election], we need to show that Democrats, as a whole, are not socialists,” Rep. Katie Hill, a freshman Democrat from a traditionally Republican-held district in California, told POLITICO recently.

    An ancillary part of the president’s economic message will include a told-you-so approach, said a second informal adviser to the campaign. The campaign intends to highlight the way voters feel about the economy now versus the way people talked about it in 2016 to showcase how much economic growth has improved over the past two years under Trump’s leadership.

    “We look forward to sharing President Trump’s undeniable record of success,” said the Trump campaign’s national press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. “Because of President Trump, unemployment rates have hit generational lows; 466,000 manufacturing jobs have been created, reversing the disastrous Obama-era decline; and paychecks have risen for Americans in the bottom half of the income spectrum. It's no wonder 71 percent of Americans rate the economy as ‘in good shape,’ according to the latest CNN poll.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    Trump set to sign executive order on campus free speech

    Trump set to sign executive order on campus free speech


    President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Thursday that addresses campus free speech as well as other higher education issues, according to several sources familiar with the White House’s plans.Trump said earlier this month he...


    President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Thursday that addresses campus free speech as well as other higher education issues, according to several sources familiar with the White House’s plans.

    Trump said earlier this month he would issue an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

    But it’s not clear how the policy set to be unveiled on Thursday would work. Trump, who previously threatened to withdraw federal funding to the University of California, Berkeley, has said he wants "very costly" penalties for schools that don’t “support free speech.” At the CPAC speech where he mentioned the executive order, he brought to the stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was punched in the face while recruiting on the UC Berkeley campus for the conservative youth group Turning Point USA.

    The White House said Trump would sign an executive order and make "remarks on improving free inquiry, transparency and accountability on campus" on Thursday afternoon in the East Room.

    Among those invited to the White House event is Kristan Hawkins, who is the president of Students for Life of America. Hawkins said her group has met twice with Vice President Mike Pence to tell him about the times their activists have been shut down on college campuses.


    “Probably no other campus group has had more free speech issues than the pro-life movement,” Hawkins told POLITICO. “I’m really excited for the spotlight that’s finally being shed on this issue.”

    While Republicans have widely criticized colleges and universities for stifling free speech rights on campuses, some conservatives have also cautioned against creating new federal restrictions.

    "I do not want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything defining what a speech code should be or should not be, what you can say, or what you shouldn't," Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander said in September.

    Similarly, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said she doesn’t believe “government muscle” should be used to address campus free speech issues. “A solution won’t come from defunding an institution of learning,” she said last fall.

    White House officials for months have signaled their plans to craft an executive order on higher education.


    Apart from campus free speech, the order on Thursday is expected to include other issues, including a push for student outcome data broken down by academic programs at colleges and universities, according to people familiar with the plan.

    DeVos previously announced a plan for the Education Department to detail program-level outcomes, such as graduates’ median debt and median earnings, for all colleges and universities.

    The executive order comes just a few days after White House adviser Ivanka Trump released the Trump administration’s priorities for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

    Benjamin Wermund and Kimberly Hefling contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine