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Senior House Republicans are breaking with Donald Trump over the president’s legal claims that Congress can’t investigate whether a commander-in-chief violated the law.
That view, advanced by Trump’s personal attorney and White House counsel late last week, would upend long-held understandings about Congress’ ability to scrutinize presidential conduct — especially alleged criminal activity.
“I’m in Congress. I’m aligned with Congress. I’m not aligned with the executive branch. And I think we have oversight authority over the administration,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “And if the president has acted illegally, then I think we have oversight authority.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a veteran lawmaker who first came to Capitol Hill in the early 1980s as a congressional staffer, also said he didn’t agree with Trump’s legal theories.
“Obviously there is such a thing as congressional oversight,” Cole said.
Institutionalist-minded Republicans are increasingly uncomfortable with the far-reaching arguments Trump and his lawyers are using to make their case, amid fears the claims of near-immunity from congressional scrutiny will set dangerous precedents.
But these lawmakers also are not preparing to act in any way that constrains Trump. They roundly support the president’s rejection of House Democrats’ investigations and subpoenas, arguing Democrats are taking their investigations of the president too far — particularly those targeting his business dealings and personal finances.
“[Democrats] are taking too broad of a view of the investigative powers of Congress and the administration’s taking way too narrow of one,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Cole added, “I think the executive branch has a right to [say] whether it’s legitimate or not. And I think it’s very hard with a straight face to argue that what we’re seeing now is legitimate oversight and legitimate investigation.”
Trump and Attorney General William Barr's handling of Mueller's conclusions motivated one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, to call for his impeachment over the weekend.
"We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees—on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice—depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump," Amash tweeted on Saturday.
Amash argued that Mueller's report proved Trump had obstructed justice and that he only escaped indictment because of Justice Department rules that prohibit the indictment of a sitting president.
Trump argued through his personal lawyers in federal court and in a letter from his White House counsel to House Democrats last week that the executive branch can deem what is or isn't legitimate oversight, embracing the notion that Congress has limited ability to investigate presidential conduct and potential violations of the law.
"Say for example if a president had a financial interest in a particular piece of legislation that was being considered … in your view Congress could not investigate whether a president has a conflict of interest?” asked U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta, who will soon decide whether the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subpoena for eight years of Trump’s financial records is valid.
The subpoena stems from allegations that the president artificially inflated the value of his assets when he sought a loan from Deutsche Bank in 2014 to purchase the Buffalo Bills NFL team. Those allegations and others were made public by Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, during an Oversight Committee hearing earlier this year.
"It would lack legitimate legislative purpose,” replied Trump lawyer William Consovoy.
Consovoy’s argument comes just weeks after Barr declared that Trump — or any president — could shutter an investigation into himself he deemed unfair, advancing yet another expansive view of presidential power.
Responding to Consovoy’s claims, Mehta seemed perplexed by the reasoning and wondered whether that rationale would have rendered the investigations of the Watergate and Whitewater scandals illegitimate. Consovoy said he would have to examine the cases further, but later suggested that they weren’t valid investigations when he said it was a “law enforcement” issue that Congress, by its nature, can’t probe.
Consovoy similarly said Congress would have no valid reason to investigate whether a president falsified his or her financial disclosures — the very issue that prompted the Oversight Committee to issue a subpoena to accounting firm Mazars USA for Trump’s financial records. Consovoy added that Congress can’t investigate a president’s conflicts of interest or violations of the law unless there’s a clear “legislative purpose” to the probe.
Mehta cast serious doubt on those claims, strongly suggesting that he would eventually rule in House Democrats’ favor. A ruling in the case could come as soon as Monday.
But a day after that court hearing, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone advanced the same legal theories, arguing that a House Judiciary Committee investigation of potential obstruction of justice and abuses of power by Trump exceeded Congress’ authority.
“[T]he committee’s inquiries transparently amount to little more than an attempt to duplicate — and supplant — law enforcement inquiries, and apparently to do so simply because the actual law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice did not reach a conclusion favored by some members of the committee,” Cipollone wrote to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “That is not a proper legislative purpose.”
Cipollone cited precedents including the Senate’s subpoena for President Richard Nixon’s White House tapes, as well as the legal arguments offered by former Attorney General Eric Holder in his resistance to House inquiries related to the Fast and Furious gun-running operation. A Republican Congress ultimately held Holder in contempt for refusing to turn over documents.
“In addition, even if the committee were to attempt to articulate a legitimate legislative purpose for some of its inquiries, the authority of congressional committees to explore in detail any particular case of alleged wrongdoing is limited,” Cipollone added.
Speaking to reporters, Nadler derided the theory as “nonsense” and predicted it would be eviscerated in court.
“Frankly the American people ought to be astonished by a claim by the White House that a president cannot be held accountable, that he is above the law, that he is in fact a dictator,” said Nadler, who also pointed to the Justice Department’s longstanding policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.
Though Republicans have uniformly panned Nadler’s efforts to investigate Trump, many also see a White House that has become unmoored from the traditional back-and-forth between Congress and the executive branch.
Republicans say Trump’s claims, through attorneys, that Congress can’t investigate a president’s use of executive power are flawed and overly broad — but they believe the courts should ultimately resolve the disputes.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), who led the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe in 2017 and 2018, said he’s content allowing federal judges to decide how much deference to provide Congress or the executive branch in these disputes.
“Nobody being investigated likes it. President Obama didn’t like it. Attorney General Holder didn’t like it. That’s why we have a third branch of government to litigate it,” said Conaway. “It’s exactly the normal tug of war.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Donald Trump’s aides and allies are moving aggressively to shore up his support in three Rust Belt states that propelled him to the presidency — but where his own polling shows him in trouble heading into 2020.
Trump will travel to Pennsylvania Monday for a rally that comes after recent visits to Wisconsin and Michigan, two other states at the center of his reelection strategy. Those appearances are just the most public display of his team’s efforts to fortify his standing.
Behind the scenes, they've rushed to the aid of languishing state Republican Party machines and have raised concerns that a potential GOP Senate candidate in Michigan could hurt the president’s prospects there. They are also scrutinizing the map for opportunities to fire up his base in the trio of states.
The moves come at a time of growing anxiety over the geographic linchpin of his 2020 hopes. The Trump campaign recently completed a 17-state polling project that concluded the president trails Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to two people briefed on the results. America First Action, the principal pro-Trump super PAC, is expected to conduct its own polling and focus groups in Pennsylvania and Michigan later this summer.
People close to the president insist they’re not panicked. They think Biden’s numbers will drop once the honeymoon stage of his campaign wears off. Earlier this month, the president convened his top advisers, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Jared Kushner for a dinner focused on 2020 that was described as an upbeat affair.
Yet there’s nagging concern after a midterm election in which Republicans across the Midwest got clobbered — and as Trump’s trade war is threatening farmers and factory workers who helped put him in office.
The president won each state by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.
“The fact that the president and vice president are frequent travelers to Michigan — I think that shows that everyone gets the math,” said former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Trump supporter who recently joined the president for a rally in Grand Rapids. “Do the math: You’ve got to carry a state like a Michigan, a Wisconsin, a Pennsylvania.”
Wisconsin is also getting special attention from the campaign.
Former Trump White House chief of staff and ex-state GOP Chairman Reince Priebus was among those who pushed for a post-midterm study to assess what went wrong for the GOP. It resulted in a scalding, 15-page autopsy concluding that the Wisconsin Republican Party had “drifted from its roots as a grassroots organization and became a top-down bureaucracy, disconnected from local activists, recklessly reliant on outside consultants and took for granted money that was raised to keep the party functioning properly.”
To fix the financial woes, the report said, “we need to understand the missteps fully and put a ﬂag in the ground to say ‘this ends now.’”
Released last week, the autopsy followed a brutal midterm election that saw Republicans lose the governorship, traditionally a key organizational and financial asset in presidential elections. The report detailed a series of steps the state party needs to take ahead of 2020.
Priebus, who still speaks with the president, is expected to brief major contributors on the report next month in Milwaukee. Efforts are already underway to pay off the party’s post-midterm debt: Republican megadonor Diane Hendricks, a Trump 2016 fundraising committee vice chair, recently gave the state party $500,000, two people familiar with the donation confirmed.
“At its core, we did the autopsy because 2018 didn’t go the way we wanted it to go,” said Wisconsin GOP Chairman Andrew Hitt, an attorney for Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It really became clear that some things just fundamentally didn’t go right and so we wanted take a deep dive and look at them and correct them.”
Republicans also lost the governorship in Michigan last year. Afterward, the reelection campaign took the unusual step of intervening in the race for state GOP chair, with Parscale issuing a public endorsement of former state legislator Laura Cox. This spring, Michael Ambrosini, a former Trump White House aide and ex-RNC official, took the No. 2 post at the state party.
Trump advisers, meanwhile, are on alert for anything else that might diminish the president’s prospects in the state — including, they worry, a Senate bid by Iraq War veteran John James.
Republican Senate leaders are aggressively courting the rising GOP star to challenge Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. But Trump aides have warned Senate GOP officials that a statewide campaign by James could force Democrats to spend more money in the state, driving turnout on the other side and potentially hurting the president. The Trump team has argued it would be safer for James to run for a House seat.
James has met with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in recent weeks to discuss his options.
In Pennsylvania, where Republicans have been mired in turmoil and infighting since the midterms, Trump campaign officials traveled to the state capital last month to discuss turnout and field plans with state party leaders.
The Trump team deliberately chose Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County for Monday’s rally, where the president will campaign with a Republican heavily favored to win a special House election this week. Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote there in 2016, and his advisers hope to mobilize his hardcore supporters well ahead of the general election season.
Pence has embarked on his own foray into the Rust Belt, flying to Michigan in April and doing a multistop tour in Wisconsin last week. He’s slated to headline a fundraiser for the Pennsylvania GOP in Hershey next month.
Pence, the former Indiana governor, is focusing on trade during his travels, visiting manufacturing plants and farms. He has reported back to the president on concerns he’s heard from workers about tariffs.
Despite the concern about Trump’s Rust Belt standing, his supporters insist the president’s appeal to blue-collar workers remains strong.
Lou Barletta, a former Pennsylvania congressman who’s expected to attend the Monday rally, argued that polling understates the president’s popularity — just as it did in 2016.
“If people haven’t learned anything from the last election,” said Barletta, “they’re going to get burned again.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
DES MOINES, Iowa — Andrew Yang bounces from leg to leg on the stage at Franklin Junior High School, cloaked in his campaign-trail uniform of blue jacket and navy “MATH” cap, warning the crowd about the threat that robots pose to the American heartland.
If you have some vague sense that you’ve heard of Yang but that’s about it, you’re not alone. While the entrepreneur turned novice politician’s name recognition hovers around 50 percent, he hasn’t broken 1 percent in most polls after a year and a half of running for president in a crowded pack of Democrats. But on a cold Sunday night in April, there are 300 or so Iowans here feeling Andrew Yang and his message of what’s gone wrong.
“How many of you notice stores closing around where you live?” he asks, raising his own hand. Scores of others shoot up in the crowd. “And why are those stores closing?”
“Amazon!” shouts someone.
“Amazon, that’s right,” Yang says.
Minutes later he calls out, “How much did Amazon pay in taxes last year?”
“Zero!” the crowd shoots back, as if it had practiced the response.
“Zero,” Yang echoes.
He curls his fingers into a circle and then points into the seats. “You’re looking around and seeing stores closed, and you’re going to get back zero,” he says. “When they automated your call center jobs, zero. When they automate the truck driving jobs, zero.”
Viewed from a great distance, Yang’s candidacy has a lot in common with the two political comets that streaked across the 2016 presidential campaign: Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. Yang runs essentially the same playbook: embracing economic grievance, hammering the tech giants and other darlings of the “new economy,” selling his case directly to the working American. Since he launched his campaign in November 2017, he has been retailing a vision of America in which educated, entitled elites have rigged the system and hoovered money away from middle America and toward the coasts, giving little in return. With no prior political experience or prominent backers, Yang is nonetheless gaining a peculiar traction, including some true believers who want him to be president and others who are mostly just intrigued.
Unlike Trump and Sanders, however, Yang, 44, comes precisely from the same corporate, tech-soaked world he is trying to attack. Educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, he made his money prepping students to get into MBA programs and, in recent years, has spent months at a time living in Silicon Valley. He was once a successful startup CEO and head of a group that trains budding entrepreneurs, but in the wake of 2016 presidential election Yang soured on an industry that wreaths itself in promises of prosperity and transformation; he rejects the conventional policy wisdom—popular on the left and the right—that out-of-work Americans should retrain for jobs in tech. And in a Democratic Party reveling in its diversity, the Taiwanese-American candidate says he worries most about how displaced white men will react to their declining fortunes—a stance that has, strangely, won him some fans from the “alt-right.“
Yang has a very specific solution for those who feel displaced: Use the money from taxing companies like Amazon to give every American adult a guaranteed monthly $1,000 check. The idea, known by economists as the universal basic income, or UBI, has been rebranded by Yang as the “freedom dividend.” (“Who can be against the ‘freedom dividend?’” Yang has joked. “What kind of an asshole do you have to be?”)
Hardly anyone expects Yang to come close to winning the primary. But he has met the requirements to appear in next month’s kickoff Democratic debate in Miami, where he could share the stage with the likes of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In that throng of nearly two dozen Democratic contenders, Yang has carved out a unique role: He is offering what may be the single most specific diagnosis of the problem at the heart of the American economy, and has proposed a solution that no other candidate has fully embraced. In the 2020 campaign, Yang is the self-appointed explainer-in-chief for an age rattled by technology.
He can talk in vivid detail about specific, scary, looming problems, such as the 3.5 million trucking jobs that stand to be automated by companies like Tesla. (Yang predicts riots from truckers who could soon be out of work.) As automation comes for American jobs en masse, Washington politicians are, he says, failing to offer concrete solutions that match the scale of this disruption. There has been local experimentation in the U.S. with the kind of cash transfer Yang is proposing, but the idea hasn’t broken through on a national level.
The zeal of some of Yang’s fans comes in part from the unconventional strategy he has adopted for getting himself in front of them for the first time: podcasts. His appearances on various programs over the past year have helped fuel online donations that, while totaling less than those collected by other candidates, were enough to make Yang one of the first candidates to qualify for the Democrats’ late June debate.
Nicholas Der, a 27-year-old financial coach who showed up at the Iowa rally, said he had heard of Yang only a week earlier, on the podcast of former “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan—and is now ready to make him president.
“Two minutes in, I was like, ‘I love this dude,’” Der said. “He is the truth.”
If you track online polls, you’ll find that Yang does surprisingly well. His campaign manager, Zach Graumann, rejects the idea that the campaign is “astroturfing” to boost Yang’s performance. “The Yang Gang just finds them, because there’s millions of them,” Graumann says, using the unofficial, now ubiquitous name for the candidate’s supporters.
What explains Yang’s improbable appeal? Part of it is the bumper-sticker simplicity of his pitch; part of it is that he’s a performer with a funny streak. At an April rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Yang matched crowd yells of “Andrew Yang!” with “Chant my name!” In Des Moines, he got laughs when he joked that the signs lining the school hallways made it look like he was running to be president of Franklin Junior High. He’s a marketer, too. MATH, he says, stands for “Make America Think Harder,” but Graumann admits the campaign came up with the acronym retroactively, when the $30 hats started flying off the shelves. Yang has said he decided to call his central plan the “freedom dividend” because it tested better than “universal basic income.”
More than that, Yang has sought to position himself as the clear-thinking candidate willing to tackle the age’s biggest problems. He can talk at great length about universal basic income, but his website lists more than a hundred other detailed policy proposals, from reviving Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment to a rural-urban American “exchange program.” When he is talking with someone about how to solve a problem, he frequently mimics twisting a dial on imaginary machinery. He comes across as a problem solver: When, over lunch in Iowa, I complained that I couldn’t hear from my left ear because of airplane congestion, Yang had staff retrieve from his car a red rubber ear bulb. (I was desperate; it mostly worked.)
Podcasts have been key to Yang’s election strategy, unlike just about any other candidate‘s. Yang himself isn’t a much of a fan: “I prefer to read, I suppose.” And the campaign assumed in the early going that he would be a Rachel Maddow darling. But he couldn’t talk his way onto cable news, so he tried a different route, with stops on programs such as “Freakonomics” and neuroscientist Sam Harris’ “Making Sense.”
In some ways, it was a perfect marriage. Podcasting’s popularity is exploding: When Barack Obama first ran for president, 13 percent of Americans said they had listened to a podcast. Now it’s 44 percent. It helps that most people carry around mobile phones all day, but audio experts point to how well listeners respond to the intimacy of the medium.
To those who think of Rogan as the handyman on the 1990s TV sitcom “NewsRadio,” it can be startling to learn that his 10-year-old show, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” is routinely the No. 1 podcast in Apple’s iTunes store, beating about a half-million other programs. Rogan, who arguably leans libertarian, has nonetheless said he strongly supports government programs for people “born with a terrible hand.”
In February, Yang flew to Rogan’s Los Angeles studio and, for an hour and 52 minutes, unspooled his plan for remaking the American economy. The YouTube video of the interview has been viewed 2.95 million times. “There’s no bigger media outlet in the world than Joe Rogan,” Graumann says.
Tim Chwirka, 33, told me he considers himself a Republican, but he turned out to see Yang at Franklin Junior High after hearing the candidate on Rogan’s show. Would he vote for Yang? “Not yet.”
Yang grew up in Westchester County in New York and earned a degree from Columbia Law School. But he was so worried that the dull routine of his corporate law firm job would leave him a “desiccated version” of himself that he quit after five months. He started or joined a few companies that flopped, eventually becoming the CEO of an education prep company called Manhattan GMAT. Its acquisition by Graham Holdings Co.-owned Kaplan Inc. in 2009 left him flush enough to try out a long-held belief: Young people need to be steered away from profitable but soul-crushing corporate jobs.
In 2011, he started Venture for America, a nonprofit aimed at persuading young people to avoid Wall Street jobs and the like in favor of starting companies in other parts of the country. The work took him to Birmingham, Alabama, Baltimore, St. Louis and other cities, with trainees starting everything from a social platform for landlords to a chickpea-pasta company. He spent months raising funds in Silicon Valley each year and wrote a book called Smart People Should Build Things. In 2015, the Obama administration named him a global ambassador for entrepreneurship.
But meanwhile, Yang was beginning to think he had it all wrong. Fixing America by encouraging people to launch software startups in Detroit, he came to believe, was adding water to a bathtub with a gaping hole in it. After contemplating a number of concepts, he landed on giving Americans cash, no strings attached. It’s not a new notion: Advocates have ranged from Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King Jr. But the concept of universal basic income is having a revival among figures like Sam Altman, the president of tech incubator Y Combinator; Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes; and former labor leader Andy Stern.
Yang says he decided to run for president after a lunch with Stern at a Manhattan Chinese food spot in 2017. Stern told him no one was running for president on a platform of universal basic income. Yang would do it. The country, he believed, was hurtling toward a crisis that was at once economic, social and political. Silicon Valley was quickly getting close to producing artificial intelligence indistinguishable from humans; soon, AI would replace jobs once thought out of robots’ reach.
Already, the tech-triggered economic upheaval had produced what to Yang was the country’s cry for help. “I look at the numbers,” Yang says. “The reason why Donald Trump is our president today is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri.“
“The only logical solution is to start distributing the economic value much more quickly and broadly, unless you genuinely do want a disintegrating population and trucking riots and the rest of it,” Yang said over pork ribs at Big Al’s BBQ in Des Moines.
That idea is that cash would let citizens bridge employment gaps, start businesses or move, he says, adding that it would also free them from having to make irrational decisions under financial stress, such as voting for “a narcissist reality TV star.”
And to pay for it, a President Yang would slap onto Silicon Valley companies and other corporate giants a 10 percent value-added tax, with the rest made up from cuts to federal programs, increased tax revenue from job growth and consumer spending, and reductions in social costs such as incarceration. (Critics of value-added taxes argue that they’re a drain on economic activity.)
Everyone has to have the option of getting a check, Yang says. “We’re going to extract billions of dollars from Jeff,” he says, referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose estimated $150 billion net worth makes him the world’s richest person. “So, then if we send him a thousand bucks a month just to remind him he’s an American, it’s fine.”
Yang pitches his basic-income proposal as the antidote to the diminishing status of white American men, who he fears could turn violent as their jobs go to robots. That focus has gotten him traction in online forums like Reddit, where tech’s economic effects are a hugely popular topic and white male users dominate. And some portion of that population wades into the territory of the so-called alt-right, which pines for the return to white American dominance. In March, in response to offensive memes backing his candidacy, Yang disavowed any supporters who promote “hatred, bigotry, racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and the alt-right in all its many forms. Full stop.” Yang tells me he’s “befuddled” by the support he’s gotten in those quarters.
Some of the crossover appeal between Yang and more moderate forces on the right is easier to understand against the backdrop of so-called coal-miner-to-coder programs that have grown popular in recent years. Mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike have advocated for retraining hard-up Americans for jobs in the tech industry. Yang isn’t one of them: “It irritates the heck out of me,” he says of the idea that the solution to the economic displacement of millions of Americans is teaching them to build iPhone apps. That puts him in league with those who see “learn to code” advocacy as symbolic of how removed Washington is from the realities of American life.
Yang is poised to face off against his fellow Democrats on these issues in the summer. In February, the Democratic National Committee said one route to participating in the first presidential debate was to gather 65,000 donations from people in at least 20 states. Yang acted fast, parlaying his podcast tour into asking people to kick in a buck or two to boost his contributor count. “As soon as the criteria were announced, we looked at it and said, ‘OK, we’re going get to through that number-of-individual-donors threshold as fast as possible,’” Yang says. It worked, with Yang pulling in $1.8 million in the year’s first fundraising quarter, more than three-quarters of it from small-dollar donors. Not only has Yang qualified for the debate by crossing the grassroot donor threshold, he’s managed to qualify via the DNC’s polling criteria, too. (The DNC will cap the debates at the top 20 candidates, however, meaning some candidates could be left out.)
Yang says he’s not at all nervous about bringing his case for redistributing the tech industry’s wealth to the debate stage. Most of the Democratic candidates have been vague on universal basic income or outright dismissive; Democratic front-runner Biden has warned it would “strip people” of their dignity. Yang has already calculated how much time he’ll have to make his case at the debate, given the bevy of contenders: 10 to 12 minutes, five of them to explain the basics of universal basic income.
Silicon Valley is likely to come up, too, and could be a point of contention for Yang. Yang balks at Senator Warren’s proposal to break up big tech firms—“If you were to break up Amazon into four mini Amazons, that would not magically revive the main street economy”—but stresses that he is a Warren fan. He has been mixing with other White House wannabes on the campaign trail, including South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whom he calls “a very good, smart, earnest man” and who Yang thinks has potential as a vice presidential pick.
Does Yang really think he’ll be the next president of the United States? “Do I think we can win? Yeah, sure,” he says, before switching into a characteristic Yangian specificity. “But also do I recognize that right now the probability of my being president of the United States is less than 51 percent? Sure.”
He is, he says with a laugh, “a reasonable person.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Sweeping new protections for religious health care workers and an overhaul of family planning programs to effectively cut out Planned Parenthood represent something unusual in the Trump administration: a clear spotting of the fingerprints of Vice President Mike Pence.
From topics ranging from trade to the president’s scorched-earth attacks against the Mueller investigation, Pence has been the loyal foot soldier while often appearing uncomfortable amid the administration’s biggest fights.
Despite having earned Trump’s gratitude for his loyalty, Pence has had a far lower profile than his recent predecessors.
But behind the scenes, Pence has developed his own sphere of influence in an agency lower on Trump’s radar: Health and Human Services. It’s also the agency with the ability to fulfill the policy goal most closely associated with Pence over his nearly 20 year career in electoral politics: de-funding Planned Parenthood.
Numerous top leaders of the department — including Secretary Alex Azar, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Medicaid/Medicare chief Seema Verma — have ties to Pence and Indiana. Other senior officials include Pence's former legislative director from his days as governor and former domestic policy adviser at the White House.
“He has clearly recruited people connected to him who share his very extreme views on sexual and reproductive health care," said Emily Stewart, the vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood. "This has been one of the most active administrations ever on rolling back reproductive rights and there's no way that happens unless you have people in the White House driving the effort to put out policies at such a rapid clip.”
Had courts not stepped in, HHS was set to implement this month newly rewritten federal policies to curb abortion and cut funds to Planned Parenthood, tightening rules of the Title X federal family planning grants so clinics can’t even refer women to a separate abortion provider. In addition, the agency this month boosted religious conscience protections for providers who refuse on moral grounds to perform certain medical services, including abortion.
The changes to Title X are the culmination of a battle Pence waged first as a member of Congress, then as governor and now in the White House. The Title X rules, which force providers of federally funded family-planning programs to separate themselves from abortion providers, are aimed squarely at Planned Parenthood, which relies heavily on such funding. The Title X changes don’t cut off Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood — although cutting off that big pot of money is on the GOP wish list as well.
In 2007, as a U.S. congressman, Pence introduced the first bill to strip federal funding from the organization, creating an issue that eventually became almost a litmus test for GOP candidates.
“I don’t think the largest abortion provider in America should be the largest recipient of Title X family planning funding,” he said at the time.
Despite the clear link between Pence’s agenda and the administration’s changes to Title X, multiple current and former officials insist Pence isn’t dictating policies to HHS, though the White House credited him with pushing its anti-abortion health agenda.
“There have been many staff level meetings on pro-life issues with HHS. He and the president will always advocate for pro-life policies," a White House official said of Pence's involvement at the health department.
Pence doesn't need to dictate policies, however, to have his priorities advanced at HHS. Rather, the cadre of officials that one HHS official called “Indiana mafia” make policies that advance Pence's — and their own — agenda.
Azar, who succeeded ousted HHS Secretary Tom Price in January 2018, was a top executive at Indiana-based drug company Eli Lilly when Pence was governor; Verma was his Indiana health adviser, and is now championing Medicaid reforms around the country that he embraced in Indiana; Verma’s deputy chief of staff, Brady Brookes, is Pence’s former Indiana legislative director; Adams, the surgeon general, is a former Indiana public health official. Rebekah Armstrong, who oversaw domestic policy in the vice president’s office at the start of the Trump administration, is also now stationed at HHS’ legislative affairs office.
At the outset of the Trump administration, Pence was involved in identifying like-minded nominees “particularly in roles Trump didn’t really care about,” as one GOP operative put it.
Other allies say his state’s efforts to reduce regulation and federal oversight of health programs, defend religious conservatives who refuse to carry out policies antithetical to their opposition to LGBTQ rights or abortion rights, and impose coverage restrictions for recipients of federal aid are models for Trump administration initiatives.
Pence was “perhaps the key leader, or one of them” in the GOP effort to scrap Obamacare, said Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, a Koch-funded group that pushes free-market policies but doesn’t get involved in social issues. But beyond any particular policy, Phillips said, Pence is “an invaluable source of intelligence gathering for the administration for where key constituency groups and key Senate and House groups stand.”
“I think that’s probably the most important role he plays,” he added.
Pence is far from the only administration official with deeply held anti-abortion views; HHS and the White House staff include numerous appointees with roots in anti-abortion organizations or the offices of conservative Republican lawmakers most active in opposing abortion rights.
“Pro-lifers have more of a seat at the table now,” said Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, an influential anti-abortion group that has met with the White House several times. “We have more active pro-lifers now in the West Wing and throughout the administration, and that’s a definitive shift from past administrations.”
The new Title X rules mark a major victory for these officials — as much as Pence himself — even though multiple federal courts have blocked them from taking effect until courts can resolve legal challenges by the state officials and abortion rights groups. The Trump administration is confident it will win in the end, particularly because similar, though less restrictive, funding rules signed by President Ronald Reagan were upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1990s. And with higher courts increasingly packed with recently appointed conservative judges, the administration may have an even better chance of prevailing than in the Reagan era.
Advocacy groups are also considering litigation to halt new HHS “conscience” rules issued this month that make it easier for health care workers to refuse to provide care that violates their religious or moral beliefs. Even somewhat smaller projects appear to bear the vice president’s ideological imprint — for example, a recent HHS decision to grant South Carolina a waiver that allows foster care providers to reject potential families who have different religious beliefs.
These conservative and religious views have played into the administration’s foreign as well as domestic policy. Internationally, Trump and Pence have gone beyond even other Republican administrations in curbing access to abortion and contraception by expanding the so-called Mexico City policy barring U.S. foreign aid to groups that promote or provide abortion.
“With some people, it’s a political calculation. With Mike Pence, it’s a personal conviction and there’s never been any doubt about how sincerely he believes it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), referring to Pence’s efforts to fight abortion. “So he’s helping the president, not hurting him, and he’s doing things that most of us in the House who served with him are glad he’s doing.”
“He believes very strongly that this is the direction we need to go in,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), who was part of Pence’s incoming class in the House. “I’m pleased he hasn’t really backed off from that any since he first came to Washington.”
This record has made Pence Enemy Number One for Planned Parenthood. For years the group has encouraged supportersto make donations in Pence’s honor and flood his office with thank-you notes. To date, more than 87,000 people have done so, and 11,000 have set up recurring monthly donations in Pence’s name, Planned Parenthood told POLITICO. In the month following the 2016 election, more than a quarter of all donations to the women’s health organization were made in the vice president’s name. The group has also utilized a Pence impersonator to raise more money, and consistently refers to the “Trump-Pence administration” in its press releases in order to highlight the vice president’s role.
“Our supporters across the country recognize the dangerous impact of Mike Pence’s policies,” Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen said in an interview. “So we make sure that every donation goes towards specifically countering his misogynistic policies.”
Meanwhile, LGBTQ groups have held Madonna-blasting, glitter-strewn dance parties outside the vice president’s Washington home to call attention to his efforts to expand religious exemptions to people violating gay and transgender rights. Protesters dressed as the “handmaids” from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have also repeatedly shown up at Pence’s events, equating the vice president’s anti-abortion views with the system of forced pregnancy and breeding described in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.
Pence’s war with Planned Parenthood began in earnest during the four years he spent almost single-handedly building opposition to the group until his defunding amendment finally passed the House in 2011. The bill never made it out of the Senate.
Still, Pence’s efforts helped elevate the idea of defunding the network of clinics to the top of the Republican agenda. Since then, the House has voted nearly a dozen times to strip the group’s public funding, and conservatives nearly shut down the government in 2011 and again in 2015 over Planned Parenthood’s continuing receipt of federal dollars.
“There is a clear pattern dating back many years,” Wen said in an interview. “He has worked relentlessly to cut off access to women’s health care.”
After he was elected governor of Indiana in 2012, Pence pushed the state to be first to cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood — although the courts prevented it. He also signed several bills curtailing access to abortion, some of which were also blocked by federal courts. Nonetheless, a law Pence signed spurred funding cuts to several Planned Parenthood clinics and the closure of at least one, which some Pence critics have cited as a contributing factor to the state’s HIV outbreak from 2011 to 2015.
As vice president, Pence has on a handful of occasions cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, including in 2017 when he weighed in to ensure passage of a bill that makes it easier for states to cut federal funds to Planned Parenthood. Pence also hosted two recent meetings at the White House for anti-abortion groups and faith leaders, and maintains close ties to Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion juggernaut Susan B. Anthony List, according to multiple sources. A spokesperson for the group declined to make Dannenfelser available for an interview.
“You can definitely tell the VP has been behind the scenes working to fulfill his promises to the pro-life movement,” said Students for Life’s Hawkins, who has met twice with Pence since he took office. “And he assured us they’re doing all they can in the administration to defund the nation’s largest abortion vendor.”
In contrast to Pence’s decades-long anti-abortion crusade, Trump is a relative newcomer to the cause. The president, who described himself in a 1999 interview as “very pro-choice,” was as recently as 2017 unaware of major anti-abortion touchstones like the annual “March for Life” -- which takes place on the national mall to mark the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade — and has reportedly relied on Pence to explain their significance to him.
However, many administration allies insist that Trump has come around to the cause. For example, Trump decided to attack Democrats in New York and Virginia for pushing controversial legislation expanding women’s access to abortions later in pregnancy, and made the issue a feature of his State of the Union address. In a proclamation declaring this week National Women’s Health Week, the White House highlighted opioid addiction, heart disease, surprise medical bills and even maternal mortality, but made no mention of abortion or reproductive health issues.
“I think President Trump really believes in the life issue. I think secondly, he knows that the pro-life community supported him in the last election and he has their support now and he wants to retain his support,” said Travis Weber, vice president for policy for the Family Research Council.
While Pence’s influence reverberates through HHS via the “Indiana mafia,” individuals in and outside HHS emphasize that Trump, too, exerts significant influence over certain parts of the administration’s health care agenda, such as the push to lower prescription drug prices.
Still, the president’s No. 2 is never far behind when the president touts HHS’ work.
“Just today we finalized new protections of conscience rights for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, teachers, students and faith-based charities,” Trump said earlier this month in a Rose Garden speech on the National Day of Prayer.
“They’ve been wanting to do that for a long time, right, Mike?”
Gabby Orr contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
LACONIA, N.H. — Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Kirsten Gillibrand hail from all over the country and fall across the spectrum of Democratic politics. But they’re linked by the latest test in the Democratic presidential primary: All decided to participate in Fox News town halls.
Whether to appear on the channel has suddenly become a polarizing decision for the sprawling field of Democratic presidential contenders, since Elizabeth Warren declined a town hall invitation and called the network a Trump-aligned “hate-for-profit racket” last week. Kamala Harris’ campaign also said she wouldn’t participate. Still other Democrats are pledging to go on the network, if they only could score an invite.
The town halls have become an unlikely inkblot test for Democratic presidential candidates. They have carved up the field partly along the lines of who wants or needs the most press attention — but especially based on how the candidates envision their path to the presidency: appealing to Obama-Trump voters who may watch the network, or activating Democratic base supporters who believe Fox’s primetime “gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists,” as Warren said.
“Each candidate will make their own decisions about what they want to do in their own campaigns, but I’m someone who really wants to talk to everybody and that means meeting them where they are,” Gillibrand, who’s scheduled to appear in a Fox News town hall on June 2, told POLITICO in defense of her decision. “A lot of Americans watch that network, and those are people whose votes I hope to earn as well.”
On Sunday night, Buttigieg parried questions from Fox News host Chris Wallace, facing pushback on abortion and several other issues. But the friendly crowd in a New Hampshire high school gym greeted many of Buttigieg’s answers with applause. And he took the opportunity to echo some of Warren’s comments about Fox while enjoying the network’s airtime.
“A lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this with Fox News,” Buttigieg said.” And I get where that’s coming from, especially when you see what goes on with some of the opinion hosts on this network,” criticizing Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham by name.
But Buttigieg, along with the three other 2020 candidates who have done or scheduled town halls so far, is betting that there are persuadable voters who watch Fox News.
“Maybe some of it comes from being in a purple state, where you have to think about how you’re going to reach people,” Klobuchar said in an interview with POLITICO. “If you’re going to make change, if you want to be a proven progressive, [then] you do that by not just talking to the base.”
That messaging tracks with the narrative that these candidates have been selling voter to voter: They can win elections deep in Trump country. On the campaign trail, Gillibrand reminds voters that she won her first House race in a two-to-one Republican district. “"I think we need someone who will do the hard things that other people are unwilling to do," Gillibrand said, "and sometimes that means crossing party lines and sometimes that means finding common ground."
“Everyone is trying to make their own electability argument, and we’re seeing that through these Fox News town halls, who’s accepting them and who’s not,” said Lucinda Guinn, a Democratic strategist. "For those who’ve chosen to do it, it’s on brand for what they’re trying to say. And for those who aren’t, it’s also on brand for them.”
On Sunday afternoon, Klobuchar told Democrats at a crowded house party in Salem, N.H. that she turned 40 rural Minnesota counties blue in 2018 — counties that Trump had also won in 2016.
“I started my morning with Fox News Sunday, talking immigration and abortion. What could go wrong?” Klobuchar said to laughter and cheers among several dozen voters gathered.
“I don’t think that if you’ve got a message that serves everyone then you should shy away from sharing it everywhere,” said former Ambassador Jim Smith, who hosted Klobuchar at the house party. “Life is full of gotcha questions — deal with it.”
Sanders used his town hall – the first of any 2020 candidate – to bounce into a Midwestern swing of states Trump won in 2016, while Klobuchar landed a jab at her Democratic primary opponents during her town hall: “"The last time I checked, if you want to be a progressive and support progressives, then you're supposed to make progress."
Sanders, too, has argued that he can win over white, working-class voters in deep red states. The Vermont senator’s goal for his own Fox News town hall was to “enhance our argument about Bernie Sanders’ electability,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. “He believes you need to have a credible case to try to win over people who may have voted for Trump or who are disaffected by politics.”
But some Democratic strategists said it comes down to strategy for who each contender is trying to appeal to: “The candidates who are saying 'yes' to the town halls are either at barely 1 percent in the polls or they’re the candidates who need a supermajority of white voters to win the nomination,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic consultant who works with progressive clients. “The candidates who are saying 'no' are the ones that are building a broader coalition of the traditional Democratic Party.”
Warren, for her part, sent a fundraising email out soon after her statement that she would not appear on the network. Fresh off trips to West Virginia and Ohio, two states where Trump is popular, Warren also argued that she doesn’t need to go through Fox News to reach Trump supporters.
Going on Fox News, for those who choose to do it, presents high risk and high reward, Democratic strategists said.
“Part of the prep going into a Fox News town hall is about creating a moment — a counterintuitive moment — where you say something that won’t necessarily resonate with the traditional Fox News audience, but it works for your base,” said Karen Dunn, a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller who prepared former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for presidential debates. “Then, you can go back into the primary and say, ‘I feel so strongly about this, I went and said it on Fox News.’”
And simply, an hour of TV time with millions of viewers is another persuasive reason for 2020 candidates to show up. Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, a frequent cable news guest, complained that Fox News rejected his town hall offer, though a spokeswoman disputed his characterization and left the door open for a future event. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard sent a fundraising email with the subject line: “I’m ready to be on Fox News,” adding that she’ll “sit down with anyone, anywhere.”
“When you’ve got enough Democratic presidential campaigns to field two soccer teams, you need to take basically any media exposure you can get, whenever and wherever you can get it,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist.
Fox News declined to comment on ongoing conversations with presidential campaigns about future town halls.
The Fox town halls have also turned up one other positive side effect, from the point of view of Democratic presidential candidates: They seem to trigger the president.
Hours before Buttigieg’s appearance on Sunday night, Trump tweeted that the network is “moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering Dems” and “Alfred E. Newman [sic],” his nickname for Buttigieg, “will never be President.”
Buttigieg’s campaign welcomed the attention.
Holly Otterbein contributed reporting.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg shrugged off insults President Donald Trump has lobbed at him over Twitter and in a recent interview, saying he just didn't care.
The comments by Buttigieg came Sunday evening during a live town hall in New Hampshire hosted by Fox News' Chris Wallace on his network. Earlier in the day, the president tweeted that “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems. They got dumped from the Democrats boring debates, and they just want in.”
But Buttigieg said that didn't get under his skin.
“The tweets are — I don't care,” he said, triggering applause from the audience at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H.
“It's a very effective way to command the attention of the media,” Buttigieg said. “I think that we need to make sure that we're changing the channel from this show that he's created. ... And I get it, look — it's mesmerizing and hard for anyone to look away. Me too. It is the nature of grotesque things that you can't look away.”
The comments and loud applause came during one of the more lively exchanges in the wide-ranging event, which also featured biographical footage of the mayor from Indiana. It underscored the approach Buttigieg has taken in dealing with Trump and Fox News, an approach that contrasts with some other Democratic presidential candidates.
By appearing on Fox News, Buttigieg — who’s quickly risen from an almost complete unknown to one of the top-tier Democratic 2020 candidates — further introduced himself to an audience that might otherwise not know him.
Buttigieg is one of the few prominent Democratic presidential candidates to do a Fox News town hall so far, following in the footsteps of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Others, most notably Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have declined to participate in a town hall with the network, which has traditionally been unsympathetic to liberals. The Democratic National Committee has said it will not hold debates on Fox News.
A day before the town hall, Buttigieg sent out a fundraising email titled, “Why I'm going on Fox News.”
“If we ignore the viewers of Fox News and every news platform that doesn’t share our worldview, we will surrender our ability to speak directly to millions of American voters,” he wrote.
Buttigieg, responding to Wallace‘s question about Trump’s tweet, sought to look beyond the president’s preferred social media platform.
“Every time that we’re looking at the show and the latest tweet and the latest insult, what we’re not looking at is the fact that we’re the ones trying to get you a raise and they’re the ones blocking it,” Buttigieg said of Democrats working in opposition to the Trump administration.
“We’re the ones trying to preserve your health care and they’re the ones trying to take it away,” Buttigieg said. “We are the ones who are actually prepared to deliver on something like paid family leave and they’re against it.”
“Their positions, as a general rule, are unpopular — and as we focus on what’s going to happen in your life,” he said. “In other words, if we make it less about him or about you, paradoxically, I think that’s actually the best way to defeat him.”
Buttigieg also criticized some of the more prominent hosts on the network.
“The other thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to find people where they are. A lot of folks in my party were critical of me for even doing this. And I get where that’s coming from,” Buttigieg said.
“I mean when you’ve got Tucker Carlson saying immigrants make America dirty ... you’ve got Laura Ingraham comparing detention centers with children in cages to summer camps. Summer camps. Then there is a reason why anybody has to swallow hard and think twice before participating in this media ecosystem.”
To someone who doesn't regularly watch Fox News, the setting might have been surprising. The audience was receptive to some of the most liberal lines Buttigieg offered and despite some crosstalk between the host and the South Bend mayor, the interactions were fairly cordial.
The discussion also touched on abortion, when Buttigieg was asked how he would protect reproductive rights as president. That question came a few days after Alabama enacted a highly restrictive abortion law that top Republican officials have said goes further in some respects than they would prefer.
Buttigieg conveyed to Fox viewers his clear support for abortion rights.
“Being a Democrat with pro-choice values who lives and governs in Indiana, I get that there are lots of passionate views on this ... Even some of my supporters believe differently than I believe,” Buttigieg said. “But that's what I believe, and I believe that the next president needs to be ready to protect those rights.”
“First of all, and the simplest thing, is appointing judges and justices who recognize that that is part of American freedom,” he said. “Another is to make sure that we‘re not starving America of resources — not just for that kind of reproductive care, abortion care.”
Trump himself, in an interview with Steve Hilton of Fox News taped before the town hall, was asked about Buttigieg running as an openly gay candidate. Trump said he didn't care about the mayor's sexuality but still snickered at pronouncing the South Bend mayor's name.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Sen. Kamala Harris pledged Monday to eliminate the gender wage gap, releasing a campaign proposal billed as “the most aggressive equal pay proposal in history.”
“This has got to end, and it is an outrage,” Harris (D-Calif.) told a crowd in Los Angeles on Sunday.What would the plan do?
Companies would face a 1 percent profit fine for every 1 percent wage gap that they allow to exist in their ranks. The fines would total $180 billion in the first decade, according to the campaign‘s projections, with smaller takes in later years as companies come into compliance. The money would support paid family and medical leave under the FAMILY Act, a bill widely embraced by Democrats and sponsored by one of Harris’ rivals, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
To avoid paying fines, businesses with 100 or more employees would have to achieve a new type of “equal pay certification“ every two years under a new federal program headed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Harris campaign, in its announcement, said her plan would require employers to prove they’re not engaging in discrimination. The current system, by contrast, puts the burden on employees to prove individual cases of discrimination — a process that can take years and run up monstrous legal fees.
“Our current equal pay laws rely exclusively on proving instances of individual discrimination and place the burden entirely on employees to hold big corporations accountable,” the campaign’s fact sheet says. “But too often, individual cases of discrimination go unnoticed or are too difficult or expensive to prove in court, and workers face increasingly high barriers in banding together to prove their claims.“
Harris’ plan would also require companies to report the percentage of women in leadership positions and the percentage of women who are their top earners. In addition, it would require federal contractors to prove equal pay certification in order to bid for contracts over $500,000.
How would it work?
Harris says she won’t wait for Congress — “she’ll take executive action herself.“
But it’s unclear how that would work. Harris’ plan effectively proposes a new tax on employers, a power that the Constitution gives to Congress alone. She also promises to “significantly strengthen and expand anti-discrimination protections“ under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but doesn’t provide more detail on what she would do absent changes to the law.
Harris‘ plan builds upon changes made by the Obama administration to collect detailed data from companies on race, ethnicity and gender through an expanded EEOC reporting form, called the EEO-1. A federal judge recently instructed the EEOC to collect the expanded data by Sept. 30, but the Trump administration has signaled it won’t be able to comply and has appealed the order.
Furthermore, the EEOC has for years been criticized as ineffective, strapped by backlogs and a shortage of cash (though Harris says the penalties from companies would strengthen the commission). The EEOC's work ground to a halt earlier this year when Republican Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) held up the nomination of a Democratic member, resulting in the loss of a quorum for the five-member commission. The EEOC could find itself in the same situation come July, when commissioner Charlotte Burrows’ term is set to expire.
While Harris claims she could end-run Congress, it‘s conceivable that Senate Republicans could stonewall her nominations and gut the commission altogether.
Harris also says her plan would ban companies “from implementing policies that perpetuate the pay gap,” including forced arbitration agreements for pay discrimination complaints. It doesn’t specify how she would do that without changes to the law, or whether the ban would extend to sexual harassment complaints.What have other Democrats proposed?
Most Democratic candidates support the Paycheck Fairness Act, House-approved legislation that would strengthen penalties for businesses that pay unequal wages and protect employees from retaliation for sharing information about their salaries. They also support the FAMILY Act for paid leave and a $15 minimum wage.
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Kamala Harris released an ambitious proposal Monday to punish companies that don’t pay women equally — taking an aggressive stand on a pay parity issue that has seen some advances in Congress but persists at the highest levels of corporate America.
Harris’ plan, which broadly mandates that companies prove they aren’t discriminating against women, proposes to fine corporations that don’t close their pay gaps between women and men — with the proceeds going toward building out universal paid family and medical leave.
Several studies have shown that women earn less than men, with the gap larger for Latinas and black women. Harris previewed the plan at a Sunday rally in Los Angeles, taking aim at the pay gap. “This has got to end!” she said.
Embedded in the white paper is an overhaul of anti-discrimination laws and an expansion of discrimination investigations. The proposal also comes with another stick, of sorts: If Congress doesn’t enact on the sweeping policy, Harris plans to take executive action applying the standards to certain large federal contractors.
Unequal pay has often been cited by a 2020 Democratic field that features a record number of women. Yet, while others have called for increasing transparency among corporations — including required reporting of their wage gap — experts including New America’s Vicki Shabo told POLITICO that Harris’ policy is the most specific.
Harris wants to require companies with more than 100 employees to obtain “Equal Pay Certification,” according to the outline. Companies would also have to disclose whether they are “Equal Pay Certified” on the homepage of their websites. In the case of pay gaps, it would fall to the corporations to show that the disparities are solely based on merit, performance and seniority.
Companies would also need to report the percentage of women in high-ranking leadership roles, and the percentage who are among their highest paid. “They will also be required to report the overall pay and total compensation gap that exists between men and women, regardless of job titles, experience, and performance,” the plan states. “These statistics will be reported by employees’ race and ethnicity.”
“Right now, so much of the onus is on women to figure out if they are being paid unfairly and take action,” said Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, who reviewed the plan. She said it would hold employers “directly accountable.”
Companies would be fined 1 percent of their average daily profits for every 1 percent of wage gap during the last fiscal year, after accounting for differences in job titles, experience and performance. It would generate an estimated $180 billion over a decade.
Under Harris’ executive order, federal contractors would need to be equal-pay-certified within two years. If they don’t comply, they’ll be barred from competition for federal contracts of $500,000, or more.
Harris’ plan builds on past legislation, including a 2009 law signed by President Barack Obama, and named for Lilly Ledbetter, that clarifies the statute of limitations on pay discrimination cases. This year, the House passed the latest version of the Paycheck Fairness Act with votes from Republicans, but it has not come up in the Republican-controlled Senate, Kashen said.
“We know that equal pay has support from voters of both parties,” Kashen said.
“It’s easy to imagine the public demand for equal pay influencing congressional action on this important equal pay proposal, too.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump is doing everything he can to soften the economic blow of his trade battle with China, doling out billions of dollars in farmer bailouts and telling Americans that the Chinese are paying the tariffs he’s slapped on U.S. importers.
It’ll be a tough trick to execute, especially if Trump can’t cut a deal and the fight escalates to a full-scale trade war. All available evidence so far suggests it is American businesses and consumers — not the Chinese — paying Trump’s tariffs. And the farm bailout is running into political and logistical headaches.
If the president moves ahead with 25 percent tariffs on everything China exports to the United States, it could amount to a tax hike of more than $2,000 on the average American family, swamping the reduction they won from Trump’s signature legislative achievement — the 2017 tax law.
“It’s sort of like when you have a bad leak in a boat and you are trying to plug it up,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at Standard & Poor’s, of efforts to ease the pain of a trade war. “Water is going to win every time. The impacts from the trade dispute with China, especially if it snowballs from here, are going to be felt and there is going to be a lot of pain. And I don’t think the federal government can catch up to it.”
Trump came into office vowing to fundamentally reshape the U.S. economy. But the economy he has overseen so far has been propelled largely by tax cuts, deficit spending and deregulation, the traditional hallmarks of a Republican president.
Now he’s left with a fundamental reorganization of trade — especially the U.S. relationship with China — as one of his biggest unfulfilled promises. If he fails, the economy is likely to suffer as the stimulus from his tax cuts and spending hikes fades.
The pain will be felt most acutely by lower-income voters who rely on cheap imports and Midwestern farmers who make up critical slices of Trump’s political base and will help decide the outcome of the 2020 election.
Trump’s central political narrative so far has been that the tariffs he’s levied — now at 25 percent on over $200 billion in imports — are being paid by the Chinese, money he’s said he will use to aid farmers now largely unable to sell soybeans, pork, sorghum and other products into the Chinese market due to retaliatory tariffs.
But studies done so far using actual data on prices for American businesses and consumers show that the opposite of Trump’s argument is true.
“The strong conclusion is that so far, U.S. consumers have borne substantially all of the tariff increase,” Deutsche Bank chief economist Michael Spencer wrote in a recent note analyzing available data.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates the China tariffs amount to a tax hike of about $550 per American family. If Trump goes to 25 percent tariffs on over $500 billion in Chinese imports — hitting nearly every category of consumer goods from clothing and diapers to electronics — it could mean a $2,200 tax hike on the average family of three. By contrast, Trump’s tax cut gave middle-income families a tax cut of about $800, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Recent polling data also suggests Trump’s messaging about how his tariffs are good for America and bad for China is not breaking through. A Fox News poll out last week found that by a margin of 11 points — 45 percent to 34 percent — Americans think the tariffs will do more to hurt the economy than help it.
Just last week, retailing giant Walmart warned tariff increases will cause prices for consumers to rise. An analysis by CNBC found that revenue from Trump’s China tariffs, now estimated at around $72 billion, would amount to the largest tax hike as a percentage of the economy since 1993.
All of that comes against a mixed consumer backdrop. The Commerce Department last week said retail sales dropped 0.2 percent in April as consumers reduced spending on clothing, appliances and other items, a potentially worrying signal for a U.S. economy driven mostly by domestic consumption.
But consumer sentiment rose to a 15-year high in the University of Michigan‘s consumer sentiment index out last week, highlighting the whipsaw nature of recent data — and what Trump stands to lose if the trade war spins out of control.
Price hikes are not limited to retailers directly hit by the tariffs. Much as gas stations hike prices when they see others doing it, competitors of those selling goods hit by tariffs often raise their own prices to match those of tariffed goods.
“The costs of U.S. tariffs have fallen entirely on U.S. businesses and households, with no clear reduction in the prices charged by Chinese exporters,” analysts at Goldman Sachs wrote in a note last week. “Second, the effects of the tariffs have spilled over noticeably to the prices charged by U.S. producers competing with tariff-affected goods.”
If the China trade war escalates, Goldman estimated the hit to economic growth could be as much as 0.4 percent — worse if the stock market takes a big hit. Trump is banking much of his reelection campaign on delivering growth of over 3 percent in 2019 and 2020, and such a hit would make it much harder — if not impossible — to get there.
Trump has also made a rising stock market a key metric of his own success, repeatedly touting new highs. But stocks often sell off when it appears China talks are going poorly. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down around 1,000 points since peaking last October. While most Americans are not directly impacted by daily stock market gyrations, any big declines should the China trade war escalate would amount to a direct hit on Americans’ confidence, as well as a shot to Trump’s own ego.
In the farm sector, Trump is invoking the patriotism of those hit by China’s retaliatory tariffs and promising billions in bailout money to make up the difference in lost exports. The Trump administration last year set aside roughly $12 billion in aid for farmers in the first assistance package. About $9.5 billion was in the form of direct payments to farmers and ranchers. Another $1.2 billion was used to purchase surplus commodities to donate to federal nutrition programs and food banks.
Now it’s planning between $15 billion and $20 billion worth of financial assistance in response to the latest U.S.-China tariff escalation. U.S. agricultural products, of which the U.S. is a net exporter, have been in the crosshairs of countries slapped with tariffs, as governments search for ways to retaliate and hit Trump where it hurts politically.
Farmers — also hit by Trump’s trade battles with Mexico, Canada and the European Union — complained that last year’s aid was insufficient to deal with lost export revenue and crashing commodity prices. And many don’t want to rely on the government.
“Many farmers are really uncomfortable with the word ‘bailout’ and taking this help,” said Bovino.
The aid program has also been hit by problems including a report last week that $62 million went to a Brazilian meatpacking conglomerate owned by a pair of brothers who have confessed to bribing government officials in Brazil. The administration also drew fire for using bailout money to buy ham products from pork producer Smithfield, which is Chinese-owned.
Farm state Republicans have largely backed Trump’s tariff battle with China, but that support may not last indefinitely.
“There is great anxiety among farmers about it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in an interview. “But also the same farmers that have the anxiety know that China has been cheating the rest of the world for a long period of time and it's got to stop.”
China has a history of targeting politically sensitive areas when it retaliates against the U.S., and the Chinese are highly attuned to Trump’s vulnerabilities heading into his reelection campaign.
Some of the farmers hardest hit by the tariffs are deep in red-state Trump country. Iowa is likely to be a swing state in 2020, as are other states in the Midwest hit by retaliatory tariffs including Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Democrats, meanwhile, sense a strong opportunity to roast Trump’s farm bailout program. The president is in effect borrowing money from the Chinese, who are big buyers of U.S. debt, to pay farmers who would otherwise sell to China.
“Trade is one of Trump's strongest issues. It helped him win over those Obama voters in 2016,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who served as communications director under President Barack Obama. “Democrats have a golden opportunity to erode a key strength by hitting him hard on a poorly executed trade war.”
Adam Behsudi contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel leaves the Chicago mayor’s office defiant toward his critics on the left and encouraged — though noncommittal — about Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden’s campaign.
Emanuel, who passes the reins to Lori Lightfoot Monday after an often-tumultuous second term, sat down last week with POLITICO for an exclusive interview as he prepared to exit City Hall. Emanuel joins a long list of former Obama soldiers saying it’s “way too early” to endorse a 2020 candidate. But he said Biden is “focusing on Trump, ignoring Democrats and not making a mistake where his prior lack of discipline in prior races" comes back "to haunt him. He’s learned that lesson by being disciplined.”
Among the nearly two dozen Democrats in the presidential hunt, including first-timers like Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, no one has a political resume longer than the former vice president. “The problem with Biden, expectations are here,” Emanuel said with his hand high in the air. “For Mayor Pete, Beto and others, expectations are down here. So far, Biden’s biggest challenger is Joe Biden.”
Emanuel, who served as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 following a six-year tenure in the House, says that progressive concerns about Biden’s record are proving overstated. “Joe Biden was being told three months ago by activists, ‘You need to apologize for the Violence Against Women Act, for the assault weapons ban, for community policing, for the biggest investments in the crime bill,’” Emanuel said.
Instead, Democrats need to “focus on ideas, not on the ethnicities and backgrounds,” he said. Voters, Emanuel said, are “focused on winning. And whoever can help them win, that’s their ideology.”
And he argues that attacks lobbed at Biden over his hand in crafting the 1994 crime bill have not actually undercut his standing among African-Americans in crucial primary bellwethers like South Carolina.
“All the activists are missing that voters are pragmatic. Activists aren’t pragmatic,” Emanuel said. “That’s what Joe Biden has shown. He’s shown that Democrats want to win. It’s not about ‘You’re not for Medicare for all.’ C’mon.”
Emanuel has had his own strained relationship with progressives in a city where he’s considered too moderate. Even after achieving a $13-an-hour minimum wage in Chicago, “I got yelled at for not getting $15 — meanwhile, Illinois was at $7.25,” he said. “I would just say to the left: It explains sometimes why you don’t win.”
As he wrapped up his work in Chicago’s City Hall, Emanuel said he doesn’t care about how critics assess his record as mayor.
“Sometimes all these people who talk about who they’re trying to fight for don’t even know them. They swirl their white wine, their Chablis, and they sit around and nibble little crackers and brie and they talk about what you have to do. And they’ve never been in the neighborhoods and communities,” he contends.
“Here’s what I do know about politics. Facts have weight,” Emanuel said — suggesting he cares more about his legacy than he might want to admit. He then ticked off what he called his successes. Graduation rates are up: “Fact!” Reading and math scores are up: “Fact!” High school teens enrolling in community college programs are up: “Fact.” Mentoring is up: “Fact.” And poverty is down, he said, waving his arm for the final “Fact!”
And while Emanuel drew criticism for closing underutilized schools, the corruption conviction of one of his schools chiefs and a seven-day teacher strike, he can still point to victories. The teacher strike resulted in securing his campaign promise to lengthen school days for Chicago public school children and full-day kindergarten and universal pre-K.
Later, in the midst of the state’s years-long budget morass and cuts, Emanuel and his Chicago Public Schools chief led a successful campaign to get state lawmakers to boost education spending that ultimately helped underfunded schools across Illinois. It was a hard-fought battle with former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, once a friend to Emanuel, but came at a time when it seemed possible that Chicago schools might not even open for one year.
“Income inequality — which is the biggest challenge we have — is really a diploma dive,” he said. “We’ve made education a bridge to a future, rather than a dividing issue. ... We positioned Chicago for the future."
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
A Trump administration regulator on Monday moved to bless T-Mobile’s $26 billion merger with Sprint, a deal that critics say will reduce wireless competition and raise prices for consumers.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he would recommend approval of the transaction, based on a series of commitments made by the two companies. That signals he likely has the FCC's Republican majority lined up to give the green light. The Justice Department, which is conducting its own review, declined to comment.
The development represents a positive sign for the two companies and T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who made headlines for his frequent stays at the Trump International Hotel in Washington during the merger review. Approval would mark a sharp contrast with the administration's approach to another recent deal involving T-Mobile rival AT&T. The Justice Department unsuccessfully sought to block AT&T's $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which President Donald Trump, a frequent critic of Time Warner's CNN, opposed.
In a statement Monday, Pai pointed to commitments made by T-Mobile and Sprint, including deployment of a 5G network covering 85 percent of rural America within three years. The companies are also committing to delivering specific data speed benchmarks, which would be verified by sending cars with testing gear out across the post-merger footprint. The companies also agreed to divest a prepaid wireless service, Boost Mobile, to address concerns about the competitive impact of the deal.
Failure to meet the obligations could lead to a $2.4 billion penalty.
"I believe that this transaction is in the public interest and intend to recommend to my colleagues that the FCC approve it," Pai said in a statement. "This is a unique opportunity to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States and bring much faster mobile broadband to rural Americans."
GOP commissioner Brendan Carr quickly sided with Pai, saying in a statement that the "proposed transaction’s investment in rural 5G will help close the digital divide—this FCC’s top priority." Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, meanwhile, said she has "serious doubts" about the deal, tweeting that the FCC should seek public comment on the commitments, “so the public can tell us just what they think about this new proposal.”
And public interest group Free Press argued the Boost spin-off won't actually preserve competition in the low-cost wireless market. “If and when that brand is actually cleaved off from T-Mobile and Sprint, it’ll no longer have access to those companies’ networks," Free Press general counsel Matt Wood said. "It would, like other wireless resellers, need to lease capacity from the new T-Mobile, and that means that this divestiture would do nothing to address the vast market power T-Mobile is accumulating.”
T-Mobile and Sprint, the third- and fourth-largest U.S. wireless carriers, announced their $26 billion merger in April 2018, saying that by combining forces they could create a strong and lasting competitor to industry behemoths Verizon and AT&T.
From the beginning, the companies tailored their pitch to appeal to Trump. They said the merger would give the U.S. a leg up on China in the race to develop next-generation 5G networks, which promise super-fast internet speeds.
During the Obama administration, officials at the Justice Department and FCC resisted the idea of a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile in 2014, because they believed it would reduce competition by eliminating one of the top four U.S. wireless carriers. The DOJ moved to block a combination of AT&T and T-Mobile in 2011 over similar concerns.
But T-Mobile and Sprint decided to give it another shot in the Trump era. The companies beefed up their lobbying operations with Washington insiders and also received advice from Trump veterans like Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski. Legere and Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure, now an executive at Sprint parent SoftBank, made numerous trips to Washington to meet with regulators.
Before the 2016 election, Legere and Trump traded insults on Twitter, with Trump slamming T-Mobile's service and Legere complaining about one of Trump's hotels. But Legere, after announcing the Sprint bid, repeatedly stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. T-Mobile executives spent a total of $195,000 at the property since the merger was announced, The Washington Post reported in March.
House Democrats sharply questioned Legere about his lodging choices at a March hearing, with one saying the situation "doesn’t pass the smell test with the American public." And other opponents of the deal kept up pressure.
Satellite TV provider DISH, the Communications Workers of America, the Rural Wireless Association and others formed a coalition to oppose the transaction, arguing it would lead to higher prices for consumers and make the market less competitive. CWA warned that the merger would guarantee the loss of thousands of U.S. jobs.
Legere promised in February that prices for T-Mobile and Sprint subscribers would remain the same or better for three years following the merger, but critics were quick to point out potential loopholes in that commitment. DISH said the language used by T-Mobile left room for the company to replace cheaper legacy plans with more expensive ones as it makes network improvements.
Despite its pro-corporate leanings, the Trump administration has not always looked kindly on mega mergers. The Justice Department, under antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block AT&T's $85 billion deal for Time Warner, which Trump, as a candidate for president, promised to kill.
Over at the FCC, Pai has also doomed some large transactions, including Sinclair Broadcast Group's bid for Tribune Media and the proposed merger of two prison phone companies, Securus Technologies and ICSolutions.
The T-Mobile-Sprint deal has already cleared two national security reviews. The companies in December said they won approval from both the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and Team Telecom, an interagency group made up of the Justice, Homeland Security and Defense departments that assesses the national security implications of mergers. T-Mobile is owned by German company Deutsche Telekom and Sprint's parent SoftBank is based in Japan.
SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son has actively courted Trump, pledging at a December 2016 meeting with the then-president-elect to invest $50 billion in the U.S. and create 50,000 jobs. The concession delighted Trump, who took credit for the announcement, but it appeared to align with the company's previously disclosed business plans, raising questions about whether SoftBank was simply recycling old news in a Trump-friendly package.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Call him “Cocaine Mitch,” “Nuclear Mitch” or the steward of the “legislative graveyard.” Mitch McConnell says he’s the “Grim Reaper” anyway, so he’s loving every minute of it.
While his critics have tried to make the Kentucky Republican public enemy No. 1, the Senate GOP leader has embraced the demonization in a bid to protect his Senate majority, his own seat and his title as longest serving Senate GOP leader in U.S. history.
“We need to have a little fun in this business,” McConnell said in a brief interview. “I used to call myself Darth Vader when I was back in the campaign finance wars.”
McConnell’s recasting as a cartoon villain to the left is a dramatic transformation from the tight-lipped, low-key Republican leader who was once the scourge of conservatives and even, at times, President Donald Trump.
But McConnell has renovated his reputation on the right with his blunt exercise of power — confirming two Supreme Court justices and dismantling portions of the filibuster while developing a knack for driving his Democratic and GOP opponents mad.
Now he’s portrayed by House Democrats as the worst thing about Congress — a “coward,” according to Rep. Max Rose of New York — and by Senate Democrats as a destructive force hellbent on changing the Senate forever. It’s a stark contrast to the public persona of caution, deliberation and risk aversion he’s long maintained.
“His enemies have given him more personality than he’s given himself,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “And he’s smart enough to play the game.”
McConnell’s colleagues, who cite his sense of humor in private, may not be surprised by the turn. Most members of Congress don’t run for reelection as the opposition party’s biggest foe, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.
The move is likely to help McConnell ward off the kind of conservative primary challenge he’s faced in the past. And it fits neatly with the national strategy he’s helped devise for his party heading into 2020, presenting the GOP as a bulwark against socialism even as Senate Republicans appear to have no real legislative agenda.
So when he hears liberals complain about him killing their priorities on health care, the environment and gun control, McConnell can’t help but crack a smile.
“I appreciate they’ve picked up on what I call myself, which is the Grim Reaper when it comes to things like the 'Green New Deal' and 'Medicare for None,'” McConnell said. “I appreciate the attention.”
To Democrats, it’s no laughing matter.
“No one should be proud of being the Grim Reaper of middle-class legislation that Americans desperately need,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is leading a bicameral messaging war against McConnell as running a “legislative graveyard.”
It doesn’t appear to be getting under his skin. McConnell has no plans to take up most legislation from the House and has instructed his own committee chairmen to devise bipartisan bills, though it’s unclear when or if they would come to the floor. Amid the criticism, the Senate is sticking to its streamlined schedule, coming in on Monday evenings, often voting on a few judicial nominations until the weekend starts on Thursday afternoon.
In his offices, the GOP leader keeps a full wall of political cartoons, many unflattering, and associates said he occasionally asks the cartoonist to sign them. Aides track how many prominent political cartoons have been run about him: 592, with 16 just this year.
McConnell doesn’t even seem to care about being compared to a turtle, according to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a suggestion that was most recently made in a "Saturday Night Live" skit that showed a McConnell impersonator snapping his teeth on a piece of lettuce. McConnell watched the skit, which depicted him as supporting Trump through anything, and “loved it,” an aide said.
“He seems to embrace it. He’s a savvy, shrewd and effective guy. I just think he lets it run off his back like water on a duck,” Cornyn said.
Ever since West Virginia Republican Don Blankenship slammed him as “Cocaine Mitch,” citing reports that drugs were found in a ship owned by McConnell’s father-in-law’s shipping company, McConnell has occasionally answered the phone as “Cocaine Mitch.”
Aides say he is sometimes called that by passersby at the airport, and his campaign recently started selling T-shirts based on the attack. The nickname has become a rallying cry among some activists on the right who view McConnell as a folk hero — a status that appeared unlikely six years ago when he faced a serious conservative primary challenge — and which still surprises some colleagues.
“He calls himself that? It’s good if he can laugh about it, whatever it is,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “The fact is, he has changed the Senate in ways that I think may never be the same.”
Durbin has dubbed McConnell “Nuclear Mitch” for leading Republicans to unilaterally change the Senate rules to speed Trump’s nominees this year, a move that came after McConnell triggered the “nuclear option” to kill the filibuster on Supreme Court confirmations. But McConnell doesn’t seem to mind that one either, associates say. And McConnell’s self-proclaimed status as the Grim Reaper of Democratic priorities is arguably an even darker moniker than Democrats’ claims that he runs a “legislative graveyard.”
The gridlock fueled by McConnell has Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) considering, yet again, whether to leave Capitol Hill and run for governor.
“It can be very unpleasant at times,” Manchin said. “‘I’m stopping everything that’s good for this country’ is what [McConnell] should run [on]. Because that’s what he does.”
For all his hardball tactics, McConnell has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, according to senators and aides. He believes that fighting public perceptions and insults of him would only give his enemies what they desire, so he subsumes them instead.
“Most politicians are pretty insecure. He’s obviously very secure,” said Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, one of the newest GOP senators. “There’s no better way to deflect an insult than to embrace it.”
Yet McConnell also sees a real utility in all of it. If the GOP leader is seen as the guy on the front lines beating back the left, there’s almost no downside unless he somehow he finds himself in a competitive general election.
For now, that appears unlikely. And McConnell is predicting his blockade of liberal legislation will help keep him as Senate majority leader come 2021, regardless of what happens in the presidential race.
Democrats’ health care and climate change agenda is “not going to pass the Senate,” McConnell said. “And it won’t pass the Senate after we retain our majority in 2020.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell today introduced legislation to broadly raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21 — now a bipartisan effort that addresses some of the criticism public health groups had of an earlier proposal they saw as too industry-friendly.
McConnell‘s bill is now joined by Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who has sponsored legislation to raise the age in the past. The version released would raise the age to 21 for everyone, backtracking on McConnell’s April promise to exempt “men and women who served in uniform." And his Tobacco-Free Youth Act does not block states from taking more stringent steps on tobacco.
Anti-smoking advocates have fought states' T21 — the shorthand for Tobacco at 21 — bills that they say include tobacco industry-backed provisions to weaken enforcement or prohibit local moves to raise taxes and ban flavored cigarettes or other tobacco products.
The bill also encompasses all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, a provision that the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky declared a win after pushing for e-cigarette regulations in a meeting with McConnell last month.
"Since Sen. McConnell stood in our offices just last month and announced plans to file this bill, new data has come out showing that youth e-cigarette use in Kentucky doubled over the past two years," said Foundation president and CEO Ben Chandler.
Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Vice President Mike Pence on Monday called upon Congress to pass the new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico by the end of this summer, putting pressure on House Democrats now holding up a vote on the pact.
"The president has done his job. It's time for the Congress to do its job and pass the USMCA this summer," Pence said in a speech in Jacksonville, Fla., using the abbreviation for the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
The push comes as Democrats in Congress say they still have a number of concerns about the agreement's labor, environmental and pharmaceutical provisions, as well as the pact's overall enforceability.
Pence did not acknowledge any of those concerns in his speech, nor did he mention the possibility of President Donald Trump withdrawing from NAFTA if Congress balks at ratifying its intended replacement this year.
Instead, Pence argued the USMCA must be approved to correct NAFTA's deficiencies and to spur U.S. economic growth.
"I'm here to ask for your help," Pence told the crowd. "We can't afford for Congress to do nothing. We need Congress to approve the USMCA this summer to keep America growing."
Pence hailed a deal struck with Canada and Mexico last week that lifted U.S. tariffs on their steel and aluminum exports in exchange for those countries dropping retaliatory duties they imposed on U.S. agricultural goods and other exports.
"Our great farmers can begin doing business again in Canada and Mexico. The retaliatory tariffs are gone. It's a big deal," Pence said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The four top party leaders will meet on Tuesday morning to begin talks on a potential deal to raise the budget caps, as well as a possible boost to the debt ceiling, according to multiple sources, although any agreement will be hard to reach.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will attend the session, as well as their top aides.
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will take the lead for the Trump administration in the negotiations, the sources added.
Without action by Congress and the White House, the Pentagon faces a cut of $71 billion under current law, while domestic programs would be slashed $55 billion.
President Donald Trump has agreed to initiate the negotiation after lobbying from McConnell and McCarthy, who warned Trump that defense spending increases obtained under his presidency would be in jeopardy without a spending caps agreement.
Both GOP leaders and senior Democrats want to avoid a replay of the disastrous 35-day partial government shutdown from earlier this year.
Yet the two sides remain deeply divided over spending priorities, and Democrats are still furious over Trump's decision to declare a national emergency and divert billions of dollars in Pentagon funding for his border wall along the Southern border. Democrats have sued Trump over the move.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday that he believes Iran is behind recent attacks on pipelines and ships around the Middle East, and warned that Tehran should expect "an overwhelming military response" if it harms "American personnel and interests” in the region.
“Just received a briefing from National Security Advisor [John] Bolton about escalating tensions with Iran,” the South Carolina Republican wrote on Twitter. “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq.”
“The fault lies with the Iranians, not the United States or any other nation,” Graham continued. “If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response. Stand firm Mr. President.”
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have been ramping up in recent weeks. Bolton announced the deployment of a Navy strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East earlier this month, saying it would send a "clear and unmistakable message" to Iran’s government.
Members of Congress, including Graham, had expressed frustration that they were out of the loop on what intelligence the Trump administration was seeing on Iran. After briefings on Capitol Hill last week, Democrats voiced fears that Trump could slide into war with Iran, while Republicans expressed concerns about Iran's actions.
Senior administration officials including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford are planning to provide all members of Congress briefings on Iran beginning as soon as Tuesday.
The New York Times reported last week that Shanahan presented President Donald Trump’s national security team with a plan to deploy as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East in response to U.S. intelligence that suggested Iran might be planning attacks on American people and facilities in the region.
Trump, however, said that there was no such plan and that he would send “a hell of a lot more troops than that” if he decided to project a more aggressive posture toward Tehran.
Trump again threatened Iran’s government on Sunday, warning that a military conflict would bring about “the official end” of the Middle Eastern nation.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
A network embed’s primary job — capturing whatever a candidate does and says on the campaign trail — hasn’t changed much over time. But in 2020, NBC embeds' reporting "is going to be used 7,000 different ways," political director Chuck Todd said.
Every four years, the networks pick a stable of young journalists who obsessively follow a campaign or move to an early voting state, racking up airline miles and hotel points while serving as the news division’s eyes and ears on the ground.
This cycle, the NBC embeds’ video and written work, once meant largely for internal consumption, will be spread across the broadcast network, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, NBCNews.com, on podcasts and on platforms such as Snapchat and YouTube, Todd said.
On Monday, NBC announced its 2020 embed class, a group of 10 reporters and producers selected from more than 300 applicants: Maura Barrett, Micki Fahner, Amanda Golden, Gary Grumbach, Jordan Jackson, Julia Jester, Ben Pu, Marianna Sotomayor, Deepa Shivaram and Priscilla Thompson.
Todd, who hosts "Meet the Press" and oversees the embed program with NBC News Politics managing editor Dafna Linzer, said the group, combined with a new stable of national political reporters and veteran TV correspondents, will allow the news division to broaden its national footprint from four years earlier.
“Maybe we covered this country too much from the air only, and we were not on the ground in enough places,” Todd said. “Now, we can be on the ground arguably in twice as many places as we were in 2016, four times the places as we were in ‘12.”
The sprawling 2020 Democratic primary field, with nearly two dozen contenders, presents a unique challenge to political directors and editors. But Todd said if he deployed his entire team, NBC News could assign a reporter to every candidate.
“If we really needed to put a person on everybody, we could right now put a person on everybody,” he said. “Is that how we’re going to cover this? No, that’s not the smart way to cover this.”
Todd expects some candidates will be covered daily by embeds or national political reporters. There will also be zone coverage, with embeds assigned to key states or regions. Those assignments could shift as the Democratic field changes.
Life on the road for upward of 18 months can be grueling, but the embed gig is also a traditional stepping stone. NBC political reporters and editors such as Monica Alba, Shaq Brewster, Carrie Dann, Garrett Haake, Vaughn Hillyard, Jo Ling Kent, Ali Vitali, Alex Moe and Mike Memoli, who is currently covering former Vice President Joe Biden, all served as embeds.
CBS News came under scrutiny earlier this year when it announced its team of a dozen journalists, which didn’t include any African-Americans. “Unacceptable in 2019,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Try again.”
The NBC embed team for 2020 includes eight women and several journalists of color. “We have the 10 best people here, regardless of what they look like and where they came from,” said Todd, who said the network considered “all sorts of diversity, including geographic.”
“I think if you don’t look like 21st century America,” he added, “then you can’t cover American politics very well.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump lashed out at The New York Times on Monday, disputing the paper’s reporting on his relationship with Deutsche Bank and launching into a broader criticism of the news media.
The president appeared to be responding to a Times report that anti-money laundering experts at the German bank noticed suspicious activity in accounts belonging to Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in 2016 and 2017. According to the Times, bank executives blocked employees from reporting the suspect transactions to the U.S. Treasury and one former employee says she was fired for raising concerns about the bank’s scrutiny of certain clients.
In a string of tweets Monday, the president pushed back on the paper’s characterization of his relationship with the German lender, which has given Trump's and Kushner’s companies billions of dollars over the years, showing a willingness to work with Trump despite his rocky financial history in the 1980s and ’90s.
“The Failing New York Times (it will pass away when I leave office in 6 years), and others of the Fake News Media, keep writing phony stories about how I didn’t use many banks because they didn’t want to do business with me,” Trump wrote, kicking off a flurry of posts. “WRONG! It is because I didn’t need money. Very old fashioned, but true. When you don’t need or want money, you don’t need or want banks. Banks have always been available to me, they want to make money.”
Trump also appeared to criticize reporting from a year ago that cast suspicion on his transition over the past decade or so to using cash for real estate purchases, a break with industry norms.
“Now the new big story is that Trump made a lot of money and buys everything for cash, he doesn’t need banks,” he claimed in a subsequent tweet, before offering praise for Deutsche Bank’s service. “But where did he get all of that cash? Could it be Russia? No, I built a great business and don’t need banks, but if I did they would be there...and DeutscheBank was very good and highly professional to deal with - and if for any reason I didn’t like them, I would have gone elsewhere....there was always plenty of money around and banks to choose from. They would be very happy to take my money.”
“Fake Media only says this to disparage,” Trump claimed, railing against the media's reliance on unnamed sources even though members of his own administration routinely request not to be quoted by name.
David Enrich, who authored the Times story, pushed back on Trump’s denial.
“This is not true. I have spent a long time looking into this, and @DeutscheBank was the only bank willing to lend to @realDonaldTrump for 20 years because of his pattern of defaults and the bank’s hunger for growth in the US,” he wrote in a tweet.
A spokeswoman for the Times said Monday that the paper stands by its story.
Trump’s history with Deutsche Bank has become a renewed focus as Democrats in Congress battle the White House for the release of his financial records and tax returns. Last month, Trump and his family sued Deutsche Bank and Capital One to block them from turning over those records in response to congressional subpoenas.
On Monday, Trump turned his ire on news outlets who have churned out damaging stories about the president, proclaiming that “the Mainstream Media has never been as corrupt and deranged as it is today.” He reiterated his claim that the press and congressional Democrats were ignoring the “REAL Russia Hoax,” which he claimed were “all of the crimes committed by Crooked Hillary and the phony Russia Investigation.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Swedish authorities on Monday issued a request for a detention order against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is now jailed in Britain, a Swedish prosecutor said.
Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson says if the Swedish court decided to detain Assange “on probable cause suspected for rape ... I will issue a European Arrest Warrant.”
The development sets up a possible future tug-of-war between Sweden and the United States over any extradition of Assange from Britain.
Assange was evicted last month from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had been holed up with political asylum since 2012. He was then immediately arrested by British police on April 11 and is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Britain for jumping bail in 2012.
The Australian secret-spiller also faces a U.S. extradition warrant for allegedly conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer.
Persson said Monday that British authorities will decide any conflict between a European arrest warrant and U.S. extradition request for Assange.
On May 13, Swedish prosecutors reopened a preliminary investigation against Assange, who visited Sweden in 2010, after two Swedish women said they were the victims of sex crimes committed by Assange.
While a case of alleged sexual misconduct against Assange in Sweden was dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired, a rape allegation remains. Swedish authorities have had to shelf it because Assange was living at the embassy at the time and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.
The statute of limitations in the rape case expires in August next year. Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting that the allegations were politically motivated and that the sex was consensual.
According to the request for a detention order obtained by The Associated Press, Assange is wanted for “intentionally having carried out an intercourse” with an unnamed woman “by unduly exploiting that she was in a helpless state because of sleep.”
The request added there was “an aggravating circumstance” because Assange didn’t use a condom.
The 47-year-old Australian met the two Swedish woman in connection with a lecture in August 2010 in Stockholm. One was involved in organizing an event for Sweden’s center-left Social Democratic Party and offered to host Assange at her apartment. The other was in the audience.
A police officer who heard the women’s accounts decided there was reason to suspect they were victims of sex crimes and handed the case to a prosecutor. Neither of the alleged victims has been named publicly.
Assange faces a maximum of four years in prison in Sweden if he is convicted of the rape.
Persson said the day and time for the detention hearing regarding Assange at the Uppsala District Court north of Stockholm that will make the decision has not yet been decided.
“However, in my view, the Swedish case can proceed concurrently with the proceedings in the U.K.,” Persson said in a statement.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump is facing a new lawsuit accusing him of obscuring his personal debts by burying them among his businesses’ financial obligations on annual disclosure forms.
The suit, filed Sunday by Washington lawyer Jeffrey Lovitky, is a reprise of a complaint he filed in 2017 leveling similar allegations at Trump. At issue is that the president mixes his personal debts with his businesses’ debts on his disclosure forms, making it impossible to tell how much he personally owes and to whom.
The earlier suit was dismissed after a district court judge ruled that Trump’s commingling of his personal and business debts was permitted under federal law and regulations.
A federal appeals court panel agreed that the suit was defective, but left open the question of whether Trump’s disclosures were legally acceptable. The D.C. Circuit panel ruled that since the suit challenged a financial disclosure Trump filed as a candidate, when he was not yet president, the case was misframed as one against Trump in his official capacity as president.
Seeking to dodge that obstacle, the new suit zeroes in on personal financial disclosure forms Trump filed last May and earlier this week, after he assumed office.
Lovitky alleges that the forms not only muddle details about Trump’s debts, but prevent the public from learning if one of Trump’s lenders suddenly agrees to relinquish any recourse against Trump for money his companies’ owe.
“Due to the lack of disclosure of personal liabilities, Plaintiff will be unable to evaluate the nature of any changes to those liabilities that may be reflected on any subsequent disclosure statements,” the new suit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington says.
“If a lender were to curry the President’s favor by extinguishing his liability for any of the loans identified in the May 2018 report, it would be impossible to detect that information from the President’s subsequent reports, because it is impossible to know which of the liabilities listed on the May 2018 report were personal to the President,” the 21-page complaint adds.
A White House spokesman had no immediate comment on the suit Sunday night.
Trump’s latest financial disclosure, signed Wednesday and released Thursday, showed a decline in revenue at his Mar-a-Lago resort last year to about $22 million, down from about $25 million in 2017. He reported more than $315 million in debts on the new form.
The new suit to clarify Trump’s financial disclosure comes as Democrats in the House are pressing hard for access to information on Trump’s finances and Trump is mounting a full-court press to block those inquiries.
Lovitky also filed a separate suit in 2017 challenging financial disclosure forms filed by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom are also senior advisers to the president. That suit claims that the forms failed to provide sufficient detail on the holdings of various investment vehicles. That case was put on hold while the one against President Trump proceeded.
White House spokespeople have noted that all the forms Lovitky is challenging have been formally approved and certified by the Office of Government Ethics.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Americans hate politics, right? The disingenuousness, the backstabbing, the sycophancy, the preening and posturing, the empowered elite, the way wealth buys influence, its dynastic nature, the sense that good people get torn apart, the way it feels disconnected from the concerns of the people.
But we love to watch all that on TV.
When Game of Thrones airs its final episode Sunday, it will end the last watercooler show on television—it was ubiquitous, inescapable and era-defining. And it also marks the end of an astonishing run of political TV. For all the medieval froofery and baroque violence, GoT was fundamentally a political drama—a show built around the quest for power, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, and the uncomfortably blurred lines between hero and villain when it comes to exercising real power.
Its counterpart on the comedy side was Veep, the sitcom that ended last week, known for its acidic, rapid dialogue, venal characters and inside-Washington jokes. For all its slapstick, people who work in politics tend to see it as cutting painfully close to reality, far more so than high-toned power dramas such as The West Wing or House of Cards.
Monday morning, political obsessives will wake up bereft of both shows, with no destination for the next gut-wrenching turns of the wheel of power, nothing to click on for crisp mockery of their day jobs. So what to watch next?
Here’s POLITICO’s guide to filling that hole, with shows new and old:If you miss: The dark arts of political maneuvering
Imagine there’s a velvet-glove invasion of your country, in which the democratic government is overthrown in a Russian plot you don’t see until it’s already happened. Your nation’s allies are quiet because they value global stability. The government-in-exile still has some power and needs to choose carefully how to use it; it doesn't know who it answers to. The voters? Its new Russian overlords? Even so, partisan wrangling continues and the public splits deeply.
That, broadly, is Occupied, a Norwegian TV show that was a smash hit in Europe and has flown under the radar in the U.S., where it is available on Netflix. The series imagines a scenario in the near future, in which the U.S. has withdrawn from NATO and instability in the Middle East has choked off oil production. Norway elects an environmentalist prime minister promising to end oil and gas production in the country—but the European Union really needs that energy, and so the EU doesn’t bat an eye when Russia quietly takes Norway under its control. Welcome to the first episode.
From there, it’s a rollicking, complicated journey, as the prime minister strains between his idealistic vision of politics and what he needs to do to stay in power. As Russia’s authority in the country tightens, the threat of military conflict escalates and the show plunges further into the kind of murky moral territory that makes the best political dramas truly compelling.
The Americans (FX/Amazon Prime)
The premise of The Americans is pretty straightforward: During the 1980s, a pair of Soviet spies (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) are deep undercover in the Washington suburbs. The show is based loosely on the arrests of a real set of sleeper agents in 2010, and its characters have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades while posing as Americans; not even their children, natural-born citizens, know the truth. While the Cold War rages, their marital relationship struggles as they balance their obligations to country, family and each other—all while an unsuspecting FBI agent moves in across the street.
Tense, sometimes heartbreaking, and always immaculately executed, The Americans is one of the few shows that can match GoT in its richness and complexity. As on Thrones, there’s a mix of family drama and geopolitical strategy, the threat of violence and the constant worry of exposure. But unlike GoT, it’s also a very intimate portrait of a marriage. Characters are deeply drawn, with beliefs, anxieties and ambitions that shift over the seasons and shape their stories. And when they must “do vile things for the good of the realm,” to borrow Varys’ phrase, it has consequences—for their marriage, their friendships, their family, their homeland, their adopted nation and their own consciences.If you miss: That tug of war between idealism and power
Game of Thrones fans were apoplectic after the penultimate episode of the series, protesting that one of their favorite characters took a sudden pivot to become a genocidal maniac. In political terms, you might say her arc from political idealist to fire-breathing, Harry Kissinger-style realist was too abrupt, lacking the nuance for which the series was previously known — something its Sunday night programming companion, Barry, has in spades.
If you’re looking for a more thorough portrait of how the preternaturally gifted among us tend to conveniently forget their better angels in the face of a potential threat, look no further than Saturday Night Live alumnus Bill Hader’s pitch-black satire about a hit man—and Afghanistan veteran—trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood. Hader’s Barry repeatedly tells himself that he’ll forsake his violent ways and honor his inner creative type “starting … now,” and it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that it frequently doesn’t go as intended. The realpolitik of Game of Thrones has long lent itself to a real-life political comparison, and Barry’s inability to stop himself from cracking a few eggs for the sake of self-preservation is surely familiar to Washington’s political class.
OK, bear with us. Parliamentary dynamics don’t get everyone jumping out of their seats, especially those of us raised in the winner-takes-all showmanship of American presidential politics, but a parliamentary government—in which coalitions are necessary and which requires elected leaders to compromise on the issues most important to them, making for results that don’t always have widespread public support—makes for compelling drama. That’s especially true when, as happens to Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) on Borgen, you quickly and unexpectedly go from being a minor politician to the prime minister of Denmark, where the show was produced. Her hold on power is tenuous, and the abrupt nature of her ascension means that it is all quite new—for her as well as her advisers and family.
It’s a less-Sorkin-ish version of The West Wing set in a country tiny enough that the head of the government goes home to her family’s small apartment at the end of the workday and cooks dinner. We see Nyborg struggle to bend without breaking, and while we root for her, we’re also mindful of how she owes some of her successes to her conniving and unethical communications strategist, who Thrones fans will recognize as Pilou Asbæk, the actor who played Euron Greyjoy. Here, he's given a role that asks more of him than cartoonish, mustache-twirling villainy. He has a hot-and-cold relationship with a TV journalist (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who had a minor role as a wildling in Season 5 of Game of Thrones. Everyone compromises their ethics all the time, the show seems to say, asking the question: Is what they get worth it?If you miss: Powerful women battling societal expectations
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC/Netflix)
Being a woman in public life has always come with its irritating double standards, whether one is attempting to conquer territory as a real-life or fictional presidential candidate. Game of Thrones was driven by powerful women for much of its eight-season run, and Veep’s whole central half-joke is watching Selina Meyer manipulate the male-dominated landscape that also genuinely hems her in. AMC’s not-quite-a-hit Halt and Catch Fire provided one of the most nuanced, 360-degree portrayals of two women attempting to traverse an even more bloodthirsty world than a Democratic primary: the 1980s tech industry.
After a charming first season that mainly won fans among the tech-obsessed and '80s-culture geeks, showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers broke the mold by refocusing the series around its two female leads, portrayed by Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé. Cantwell, Rogers, and their team of writers and designers built their show into a peerless dramedy that captured its characters’ anxieties, performances, and triumphs as women in a decidedly male-dominated milieu of gamers and hackers. The four-season series is now available on Netflix.
Big Little Lies (HBO)
If you were to cut Cersei Lannister from Westeros and paste her among the monied Monterey Bay elite, she’d fit right in. She would sip wine with Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) while scheming up a plan to exact revenge on the parent of her daughter’s classmate for a trivial slight anyone else would let slide. She’d quietly judge Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) for being a single parent of a different economic class. She’d roll her eyes at the hippy-dippy yoga instructor Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) married to a much older man. And she’d envy Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) for the picture-perfect life she appears to have, never knowing what’s happening behind the oceanfront facade.
Big Little Lies is a show about many things, but foremost among them is its interest in the societal assumptions placed upon women. It’s a theme that will resonate with any Thrones viewer who has noticed the way that characters on the show treat Dany or Cersei or Sansa differently than they would a similarly minded male character. Season 2 of Big Little Lies debuts on HBO on June 9, giving newcomers plenty of time to catch up.If you miss: The relentless pursuit of power, with wit
The medieval chessboard George R.R. Martin constructed for Game of Thrones was, in many ways, a meritocracy so pure it had to be fictional — as long as one’s standard of merit is the ability to stab competitors and allies alike in the back toward no greater end than the accumulation of more power. Swap “money” for power, and you have the hedge-fund world depicted in Showtime’s Billions.
Prestige drama will be short a great deal of its bloodthirstiness in the absence of Thrones, but the existential clash between antihero Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, an eccentric hedge fund conquistador played by Damian Lewis, and Paul Giamatti’s crusading prosecutor Chuck Rhoades is plenty ruthless and zero-sum. The flaws of either man would fill a novel, and the show’s barrage of insidey, highbrow references will scratch the itch of Veep watchers who relish the game of figuring out just who’s based on whom and how the story tracks the actual world we get served up in our daily news coverage. As the series has progressed, the threads between New York-style and Washington-style ambitions have grown even tighter, and its winks at real-world events more deliberate. Its comedy is darker than Veep’s, but its view of human nature every bit as unrelievedly cynical.If you miss: Slow-burn stories where power is won incrementally over time (or lost in an instant)
Wolf Hall (BBC/Amazon Prime)
Considering how heavily medieval history influenced George R.R. Martin while he crafted his A Song of Ice and Fire book series, it should come as little surprise that a story about the real people surrounding King Henry VIII of England would make such for such easy viewing for Thrones fans.
Born to an abusive father, Thomas Cromwell rose from poverty to become a top adviser to Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey (played by Jonathan Pryce, familiar to GoT watchers as the High Sparrow). Wolsey is the Catholic cardinal who was perhaps the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s early reign as king. But after he is unable to get the pope to annul the king’s first marriage, other advisers push Wolsey out of power—which begins Cromwell’s long and unassuming climb to power, with an assist by Anne Boleyn, and to exact revenge on all those who turned against Wolsey. For students of back-room operators—those Thrones fans who thrilled to watch Varys, Littlefinger or Tyrion Lannister scheme and execute a plan—Cromwell’s exquisite use of leverage is utter catnip. And unlike those characters, the man actually existed.If you miss: Satire of the shallow people in power
The Newsroom (CBC)
Not to be confused with the wordy Aaron Sorkin-created HBO drama of the same name, CBC’s The Newsroom is a blistering sitcom from the late '90s and early 2000s that follows the producers of a major news show in Canada as they navigate the petty bureaucracy and egotism of the media industry.
George Findlay, the main character, could well be the Canadian cousin of Veep's Selina Meyer.He's a bright and ambitious man drunk on his own power, mindful of his own status symbols—e.g., making constant and ostentatious calls to his BMW dealer for his perpetually being repaired car—and paranoid about even the slightest criticism or suggestion that his own self-image doesn’t match what other people see.If you miss: A cuttingly profane and sardonic look at politics
The Thick of It (BBC)
Before writer and director Armando Iannucci created Veep, he was best known as the mind behind its abrasively funny British predecessor, The Thick of It, a wicked satire of the inner workings of the U.K.’s government, starring Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the human buzz saw who works as a spin doctor for the prime minister.
In many ways, the series is instantly familiar to fans of Veep. It has the same scorched-earth insults and fast-paced rhythm, similar character archetypes and the naked aggression of people whose reach for power exceeds their grasp. And once you watch The Thick of It, try its spin-off film, In the Loop, in which Capaldi reprises his role but the cast expands to include future Veep actors Anna Chlumsky and Zach Woods.If you miss: Intrafamily posturing
To get it out of the way: Succession is a compelling series about a very thinly fictionalized Murdoch family. Yes, those Murdochs, of Fox News and phone-hacking fame. That alone should be enough of a hook to get political insiders on board with HBO’s byzantine family drama, but if the dynastic posturing and sniping of Game of Thrones and the virulent profanity of Veep kept you watching from week to week, Succession might be even more compelling, especially to the hybrid cable news-watchers and tabloid-junkies among us.
Though much of the action lies among its protagonists — a diffuse group of sparring, wayward definitely-not-Murdoch children — the series’ true power lies in the performance of legendary British character actor Brian Cox as their definitely-not-Murdoch patriarch Logan. Logan Roy is an addled figure so contemptuous and vain that his power plays register as desperate efforts to puff up his own fading grandeur. And in 2019, it's not hard to see the series as a long troll of the family occupying the White House.
Of course, if that doesn’t appeal, patient GoT fans can always wait for one of the three Game of Thrones prequel series HBO is developing. The first of them, tentatively titled Bloodmoon, is rumored to be arriving on TV in 2020 or 2021. Until then, there are always reruns.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
If you are thinking about Facebook or questions of political economy, an important and telling hearing took place recently in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Democratic leaders Frank Pallone and Jan Schakowsky did an oversight review of Facebook’s regulator, the Federal Trade Commission, with all five commissioners, including Chairman Joe Simons, advancing ideas on how to address privacy rules in America today.
And yet, sitting in that room, you’d have no idea, except for a few people in the audience holding protest signs sharply dismissed by Schakowsky, that there is deep anger from all over the world toward Facebook. This includes calls from multiple former corporate insiders, such as co-founder Chris Hughes, to break up the company as a monopoly. FTC Chairman Joe Simons didn’t seem to notice. He offered a self-satisfied observation about his commission’s work, its “vigorous and effective” programs, and its “significant” impact to keep markets open and free.
But it wasn’t just Simons who was out of touch. The Democrats offered little criticism of the commission, and actually called for the FTC to get more money and more authority. “Too often,” Pallone lamented, “the FTC can do little more than give a slap on the wrist to companies the first time they violate the law.” What Pallone ignored is that Facebook has broken the law, multiple times, and the FTC has authority to act. But the commission just won’t. Instead of acknowledging the unwillingness of regulators to do their jobs, Pallone is rewarding the agency for failure.
Pallone and Schakowsky are sophisticated policymakers who understand there are serious problems with Facebook, yet even they cannot seem to recognize that the problem is the regulators in charge of the problem aren’t doing their job. How did we get to the point where people who could actually do something about this problem don’t seem to realize their own power to address the situation in the first place?
The rationale for Pallone to avoid FTC failures is clear. For one thing, Democrats want to pass a federal privacy bill which would place rules on companies that handle personal data. They need new authorities and a regulator to implement such a bill, and the regulator on hand is the FTC. So they can’t very well acknowledge that the regulator is an institutional catastrophe, and at the same time call for more of it. (It brings to mind the old joke, “this restaurant’s terrible, and the portions are so small.”) The second reason Democrats have a problem pointing the finger at the FTC is because the failures at the agency largely happened under the Obama administration.
And yet, recognizing that the privacy problem is really because of failures at the FTC is an essential first step to solving it. Facebook doesn’t encompass everything that’s wrong with our privacy regime, and clear rules around privacy wouldn’t address all of what people fear about Facebook. But generally speaking, Facebook and Google are the best examples of how business models based on pervasive surveillance structure our culture.
Facebook makes its money from behavioral targeted advertising. This means tailoring ads to each user based on what it knows about them, generating traffic through incendiary content so it can have a lot of ad slots, and then placing ads in the least expensive ad slot possible. This means the company has the incentive to collect as much personal information about each user as possible, and it has the incentive to prioritize poor quality content. Users and advertisers have nowhere else to go to an increasingly poor quality product, because Facebook has bought up its competition. Addressing a broken market structure like this one is the kind of problem the FTC was set up to address.
A a result, Facebook is now dominant in the social networking market. If you don’t like Facebook’s main product, which is an increasingly bad consumer experience, there is, as Senator Lindsey Graham made clear when questioning Mark Zuckerberg, no alternative not owned by Facebook.
The FTC is in charge of blocking anti-competitive mergers, and perhaps the most consequential failures had to do with the mergers that enabled Facebook to become a monopoly. It bought Instagram in 2011 and WhatsApp in 2014. It bought Onavo, a spyware tool that allowed the company to surveil its competitors, watch their traffic and copy their best features. The FTC blocked none of these. The Demorats had a monopoly friendly posture during the Obama-era Democrats; it was an open secret that Sheryl Sandberg was likely to be in Hillary Clinton’s Cabinet.
Facebook’s model is also the result of lax regulatory choices that also happened under previous administrations. Facebook users weren’t always so apathetic about privacy. In the mid-2000s, there were broad, vibrant debates on the site about privacy. As tech entrepreneur Dina Srinivasan reminds us, Facebook beat its competitor MySpace by portraying its site as a safe space for college students, in contrast to the anything goes mantra of the existing social networking systems of the time.
From 2007 onward, in both the Bush and Obama eras, Facebook abused the privacy of its users and did not disclose its terms and conditions. In response to a massive user group titled “Facebook Users Against the New Terms of Service,” the company banned the use of Facebook in the title of groups. Marc Rotenberg from the Electronic Privacy Information Center routinely issued complaints and sued the FTC to get the commission to enforce the law. Finally, in 2011, the FTC and Facebook signed a consent decree, settling charges that the company’s practices were “unfair and deceptive, and violated federal law.”
Joe Simons, when he was appointed to run the commission in May 2018 by President Donald Trump, pledged to look back at mergers, to see if the FTC’s merger policy made sense. So far, Simons hasn’t bothered to follow through on his promise, though the FTC does have economists who spend their time attacking critics who engage in merger retrospectives.
Democrats are right that the FTC does have regulatory gaps, like the ability to issue fines on the first offense. And courts are often hostile. But they are wrong to chalk up failures to resource and authority limits. Violations of consent decrees have teeth. As Commissioner Rohit Chopra has noted, the FTC has powerful tools to address repeat offenders, including fines of roughly $40,000 per violation. Given that privacy violations usually number in the millions, a repeat offender that has signed a consent decree with the FTC is basically at the mercy of the commission. But since 2011, the commission has done virtually no follow-up or enforcement on Facebook (or Google, which signed a decree in 2011, as well). There are other levers, such as research capacity, and so-called Section Five authority to bar unfair methods of competition, but it hasn’t used those either.
The reason the FTC has done little is not because it lacks authority, but because its officials simply do not believe there is a problem to be solved. As the New York Times reported last year, the official in charge of the Facebook investigation, James Kohm, sees Facebook as a legitimate business offering free services, and doesn’t believe the company has violated its promises to the commission. And far from holding him accountable, Chairman Simons gave Kohm a Presidential Rank award. The FTC might kick a scam artist once in awhile, but when it comes to big companies, FTC officials don’t want to use the authority they have. They see themselves not as cops but as deal-makers.
Public global pressure on the FTC is changing how the commission operates. Despite Kohm’s belief that Facebook didn’t do anything wrong, the FTC is negotiating for a multibillion dollar fine against the company. The fine itself is embarrassing, because it’s based on the FTC’s desire for a good headline rather than any meaningful change in market structure. As one ex-FTC official put it, such a fine would not be transformative, but it would be “symbolic of the gravity” of the situation. In other words, the FTC is embarrassed and wants Congress to leave it alone.
Many Senators seem aware of the problem. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for instance, denounced the settlement as a “bargain” for Facebook, and demanded the commission use its authority more coherently. But too many Democratic leaders seem unable to fathom the need to criticize government regulators who refuse to use the authority they already have, because they do not want to seem opposed to government.
Unless Democrats are willing to take on this rotten philosophy at the FTC, offering more authority and funding without changing the leadership of the agency will make the problem only worse, for two reasons. One, suggesting the problem is a lack of money and authority is a built-in excuse for inaction to use what authority the commission does have. And as I’ve shown, it has a lot. If it didn’t, Facebook wouldn’t be willing to pay a large fine just for public relations purposes. Two, if the FTC gets extra money and authority, it won’t do anything with it. It doesn‘t believe in standing up to powerful businesses, and that’s not going to change until Congress starts kicking it in the teeth.
Democrats have been here before. In the 1920s, the FTC spent its time organizing price-fixing cartels among big businesses, angering anti-monopolists. And yet Democrats wanted to extend regulatory authority over the stock market, with no institution that could handle the rule-making and administration, except for a degraded FTC.
They pursued a two-party strategy. They were critical and hostile. In 1933, populist Democratic Congressman Wright Patman organized enough members of Congress to cut $100,000 from the FTC’s proposed budget (a significant sum back then). But they extended, grudgingly, its authority. Congress tasked the FTC with regulating the stock market, but micromanaged the agency by giving the commission virtually no discretion over how to do it. The next year, Congress further humiliated the FTC, creating the Securities and Exchange Commission to take power from the commission.
By 1936, the strategy worked. The FTC had nearly doubled the percentage of its budget dedicated to anti-monopoly work, and it pursued price discrimination cases against the most powerful chain store in the economy at the time, A&P, all the way to the Supreme Court.
This assertive anti-sloth posture became a core part of the Democratic Party mantra. Before and during World War II, leaders like Senator Harry Truman used aggressive oversight to humiliate and undermine badly performing regulators and cheating business leaders. They encountered much of the same nonsense we hear today about the difficulty of acting, but they didn’t fall for it. As Clifford Durr, a key actor involved in building war plants capacity to defeat the Nazis put it, “Complexity was not nearly so great a problem as reluctance to do the obvious and simple things.”
We don’t have to go back 70 years to find good examples of institutional creativity. In the 1990s, it was state attorneys general in Iowa and Texas who brought the first case against Microsoft. The FTC had earlier deadlocked on whether to do anything about the company, and the DOJ had negotiated a useless settlement in 1994. In 1998, the Senate, in a hearing chaired by Orrin Hatch (and organized by Trump’s current antitrust chief), helped encourage the Department of Justice to join the states and bring the famous case that nearly split apart the company.
Today, there are officials acting to constrain Facebook, both abroad and in Washington. They just aren’t located at the Federal Trade Commission. Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine recently brought a consumer protection lawsuit against the social networking giant for its breaches of privacy. I was in the courtroom listening to some of the arguments last month, and I watched Facebook’s lawyer argue the prosecutor was out of step with the key regulator of privacy in America, the FTC. There are more state officials investigating, and you can be sure Facebook will continue to point to the FTC as its shield.
There’s a crisis right now, and Congress must step in.
On an institutional level, it can move money to Racine or other state attorneys general who have the willpower but not the resources. It can and should investigate the crisis of legitimacy at the commission, perhaps cutting the budget for travel so commissioners don’t jet off to Europe or Japan for fancy antitrust conferences, or increasing the budget for honoring Freedom of Information Act requests the commission ignores. To address the problem the FTC won’t, Congress should break up Facebook through statute, or be detailed and explicit about what to do to the social networking space rather than deferring to failed regulators. More broadly, it’s time to start imagining what a functional FTC, a functional government, and in turn, a manageable Facebook, might look like.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
No one in American politics understands the dark art of ridicule better than Donald Trump. (“Welcome to the race, Sleepy Joe.”) And when it comes to seeing himself on the receiving end, nobody in American politics has a thinner skin. His fury at President Barack Obama’s roasting of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner may have motivated his own run for the presidency. More recently, his sensitivity to ridicule has been on sharp display in his seething reaction to Alec Baldwin’s running impression over the past three years on “Saturday Night Live.”
Baldwin has carved out a late-career niche as the nation’s highest-profile interpreter of Trump. For most viewers, his performance, all preening and bluster, has settled into comedy-staple territory. And for most presidents, rolling with SNL’s punches is just another part of the job. Neither is true for this particular viewer-in-chief. The performance gets further under Trump’s skin with each passing season.
“Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!” he tweeted on October 16, 2016, three weeks before winning the election. By early 2018, safely ensconced in the White House, Trump was still taking it personally: “Alec Baldwin, whose dying mediocre career was saved by his terrible impersonation of me on SNL, now says playing me was agony. Alec, it was agony for those who were forced to watch.”
This year, Trump was back decrying the unfairness of it all, to the point of calling for an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. “Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution.”
The SNL season wraps up on Saturday, with many fans wondering whether Baldwin will make an appearance. His sketches are by now guaranteed crowd-pleasers, expertly crafted portraits of the inner boob behind the blowhard. They’re eye and ear candy for the mostly liberal urban sophisticates at whom the show is aimed. But if those viewers think they’re watching an evisceration of Trump, they should look more closely at what the sketches are really saying about their nemesis. And while it’s certainly within the president’s rights to refuse to laugh along, he’s dead wrong in suggesting that Baldwin’s portrayal is politically damaging. In fact, it may be one of the best things he has going for him.
The sheer relentlessness of Trump’s disdain suggests that Baldwin’s impersonation must go beyond satire into something more subversive—that the 61-year-old actor is spewing poisonous propaganda against a duly elected leader. But to look back over the full Baldwin/Trump oeuvre since 2016 is to realize just how tame it is—and, in an important way, what a favor it does the president. Baldwin’s Trump bears a closer resemblance to the befuddled governor on the old “Benson” sitcom than it does “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Manchurian Candidate” or any other of the darker historical figures to whom he’s been compared. In Baldwin’s hands he’s foolish and self-deluded, all right, but he also sometimes seems abashed by the reactions he provokes and the trouble he accidentally stirs up. (“It’s awful. Everything’s falling apart. Sometimes I wish I had never been president,” he moans at the start of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” parody; “All alone again. No one understands me,” he sighs in a skit on his trip to South America.)
By giving Trump qualities he’s shown little evidence of in public—conscience, introspection, even regret— “SNL” does him an enormous favor. It offers a glimmer of sympathy about his motives, inviting the generous assumption that there’s a better and more self-aware man lurking behind the Twitter feed. In portraying the president as a beleaguered figure, it even allows the conclusion that the real threat to democracy isn’t Trump’s venomous rhetoric or disregard for constitutional norms, but the ruthlessness of the Washington system that confronts this blustering, fumbling uncle.
Now, as House Democrats debate the level of the president’s culpability for a series of actions that might reasonably appear to be attempts to obstruct justice, the “SNL” skits seem like grounds for exculpation. In the wake of the Mueller report, politicians, along with average Americans, are struggling to separate two competing notions of Trump—the fast-talking interloper who just got in over his head on some legal stuff, and Trump the deliberate lawbreaker. For instance, when the new president asked Chris Christie to tell then-FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, how much he liked him and considered him “part of the team,” did he know—as Christie, a former U.S. attorney, immediately did—that the request was inappropriate?
Baldwin’s characterization, as harshly as it may be intended by the actor and the writers who shape it, offers up an answer to that kind of question: No, of course, he had no idea. It’s a picture of the president as an uncomprehending naif. In the high-stakes argument about his fitness for the presidency, it amounts to an exhibit for the defense. Perhaps Trump should be thanking Baldwin, not threatening him.
The hidden influence of this kind of comedy, the widely seen late-night material that ends up as YouTube clips and watercooler fodder, lies in its ability to shape a narrative outside the news, interpreting people’s motives rather than just character. The comedian professes to peel off coats of varnish and reveal an essential but hidden truth. Often that truth is anodyne but amusing, and becomes an instant trope—a predictable laugh line, like Bill Clinton’s lustfulness. Baldwin’s vain but incompetent Trump is well within this tradition, with the audience chuckling along with his every ego-shattering overreach. But the long history of late-night comedy, especially the 44 years of “SNL,” shows that sometimes these comedy missiles really do land on the target. That’s the charge that Trump is leveling against Baldwin and “SNL.” He’s right about the power of late-night hit jobs. He’s just wrong in pitching himself as a victim.
Like many great satirical portrayals, Baldwin’s Trump is built around a single mannerism that isn’t so much copied from life as interpreted to express an inner truth. When this Trump messes up, his lips turn into a stupefied O. This gesture of surprise—the signature of Baldwin’s portrayal, which draws the biggest guffaws—usually comes when Baldwin/Trump does something impetuous (such as naming Kanye West his new strategist) or merely embarrassing (picking up a phone and finding Stormy Daniels on the line).
The narrative that emerges from three years of Baldwin’s Trump skits is that of an overeager salesman who gets swept up by a political wave he can’t control and washes ashore at the White House, the unintended victim of his own stunt. There he is, armed with nothing but his reserve tank of bluster and bravado, trying to brave his way through a job for which he is manifestly unprepared.
Like the subgenre of political movies in which average guys accidentally end up president, typified by “Dave,” the Trump sketches on “SNL” are essentially fish-out-of-water comedies. The humor comes from watching the imposter fake his way through the White House obstacle course. That may not be entirely flattering to Trump, but it is closer to his own view of his situation—which he once described as “surreal”—than to that of his most worried critics. For the jokes to work, the audience has to sympathize, at least a little, with his predicament.
For a franchise built on having an edge, especially when it comes to culture and politics, it might feel like “SNL” has gone soft. But despite its reputation for pushing boundaries, earned mostly in its early, pathbreaking days, “SNL” has only rarely been a source of political blasphemy. When it comes to public figures, it draws more giggles than gasps.
Over its four-plus decades, the show has cut down eight presidents (nine, if you count its early retrospective Nixon skits) and dozens of candidates, all without drawing much electoral blood. Its skits about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were built around great comic turns by Darrell Hammond and Will Ferrell, but otherwise tracked closely to other late-night depictions of Clinton as louche and Bush as a dim-witted cowboy; “SNL” only added to the archetypes. That was better than it fared during the eight-year presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, who were their own archetypes. The show failed to produce consistently funny portraits, striking pure comedy gold only once in those years, in the late Phil Hartman’s memorable “Reagan Mastermind” sketch at the height of the Iran-Contra era. The joke then, unlike today, was that the president might actually be a master of self-control.
Dana Carvey’s memorably wacky, way-out-there take of George H.W. Bush remains a milestone of comic impersonation, though it’s arguable whether it had any political impact; the same with Dan Aykroyd’s know-it-all Jimmy Carter.
In retrospect, the show’s most politically lethal presidential portrait was its very first. When what was then known as “NBC’s Saturday Night” went on the air in October 1975, Gerald Ford had been in the White House a little more than a year, and America still wasn’t sure what it had gotten in its first unelected president. The amiable Ford arrived with a barrel full of goodwill from his decades as a popular House leader, but struggled to project himself on a broader stage. “Saturday Night” filled in the gaps. A former college football player (at the University of Michigan, no less), Ford was one of the country’s most athletic chief executives. Assuming the presidency at 61, he spent his vacations slaloming down the slopes of Vail rather than sipping wine on Martha’s Vineyard. But one of those ski trips included a rather mundane spill caught on camera, which combined with another slip when he carried his own umbrella down the rain-soaked steps of Air Force One to make a trend.
Enter Chevy Chase, the floppy-haired, insouciant writer and sketch comedian who became the show’s first star. He started interpolating falls in which the president tumbles within an inch of his life only to emerge with his chin high, his expression a Peter Sellers-like deadpan. Pretty soon, the show’s opening act every week was Ford falling down, and Chase began enacting other made-up gestures of presidential clumsiness, like hearing a phone ring and putting a full water glass to his ear. The message sank in: The unelected president was truly an accidental president.
Ford never quite survived that depiction; Chevy Chase’s falls cut him down to size, emphasizing his ordinariness. They became the physical expression of his illegitimacy and lack of charisma. When Ford lost the 1976 election by 2 percentage points, one could argue that “SNL”’s role in shaping his image had really hurt him.
Nonetheless, the good-natured Ford praised Chase and even appeared briefly on the show, thereby cementing his nice-guy reputation. In so doing, he started a trend in which the targets of “SNL” skits gritted their teeth and pretended to play along with the joke. George H.W. Bush invited Carvey to perform for his White House staff; in characteristic Bush fashion, a friendship ensued that lasted 25 years.
No doubt someone told the stories about Ford and George H.W. Bush to Sarah Palin, the subject of an epic impersonation by Tina Fey that was both as inspired as Carvey’s Bush and as devastating as Chase’s Ford. The real-life Alaskan governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate appeared on the show, looking like she’d rather be elsewhere, and offered a few uneasy one-liners, but the good-sport vibe didn’t carry over: Viewers kept laughing at her, not with her.
Palin’s flop didn’t deter the Hillary Clinton of 2016 from trying her own version of the Ford approach for dealing with “SNL,” appearing as a world-weary bartender while Kate McKinnon, playing Clinton, soaked up her advice. It was a funny moment, and the real Clinton looked reassuringly human standing behind a bar and calling herself Val. But like a dash of spritzer in a very dry wine, it barely reduced the acidity of McKinnon’s years of skits mocking Clinton as power-hungry and insincere. In interviews, McKinnon has expressed her admiration for Clinton, and no one doubts her sincerity. But McKinnon happens to be the most unsparing of caricature artists, a sketch-comedy assassin. Just ask Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, Lindsey Graham or many other targets of her image-shaping lacerations.
Trump may have been the one grumbling, but Clinton was on the losing end of 2016’s “SNL” primary. A transparently phony, cackling laugh; a finger wave that managed to be both withholding and condescending; an unquenchable thirst for power that provided the undercurrent for almost every skit: This was the Clinton-from-hell of voters’ nightmares, just plausible enough to settle over the campaign like an indictment. (If you aren’t convinced, just compare with the far more flattering, earnest Clinton portrayed by Amy Poehler during her 2008 run.) Yes, McKinnon’s Clinton was better-informed and far, far smarter than Trump—that was the rub, however. Where was her moral core? McKinnon provided an answer: ruthless ambition.
Like Chevy Chase and Tina Fey, Kate McKinnon is a writer as well as a performer, and her characterizations seem to come from somewhere outside her own persona: They’re like a few devastating paragraphs in a satirical novel. Alec Baldwin followed a different path to fame. He was a cinematic leading man who grew into a character actor. He learned in the proving ground of situation comedy how to show glimpses of humanity in otherwise objectionable figures—thus securing at least a winking share of the audience’s affection. That put Trump in the hands of a gentler satirist.
Despite his well-known aversion to the president—he has said it pains him to play Trump, and has described the president as a con man, a stooge of Russian President Vladimir Putin and worse—Baldwin unconsciously allows some of himself to spill over into his Trump. When Baldwin’s Trump listens to a barely coherent ramble from Kanye West in a sketch from late last year, he is in on the joke. “Oooh, this guy might be cuckoo,” he says to himself, in one of Baldwin’s verbal thought bubbles. He compares West to Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong Un (“and they made a lot more sense than him”) before musing, “He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t listen to anyone but himself. Who does he remind me of? Oh my God, he’s black me!”
If these types of self-aware interior monologues serve a humanizing function, warming up Trump’s image, why is he complaining? One reason is, of course, Trump’s renegade populism, which requires enemies. Trump has to appear as the victim of powerful elites in order to define himself by what he’s up against. His assault on Baldwin and “SNL” is of a piece with his similar rants against Jim Acosta and CNN.
There’s also vanity. Attacks on Trump’s competence and intelligence land on sore spots. For a candidate who scores his best numbers, by far, among the demographic that never attended college, he’s surprisingly quick to assert his Ivy League bona fides. He even ordered Michael Cohen to keep his educational transcripts under wraps, lest any bad grades from half a century ago find their way into the media.
These two possible explanations for Trump’s attacks on Baldwin frame the key question of his presidency, the one people are grappling with in post-Mueller Washington: Is Trump calculating, or is he improvising?
Trump-the-calculator presumably knew that his out-of-the-box praise for Putin during the 2016 campaign would increase his chances of a lucrative score with Trump Tower Moscow, using one of the sacred rituals of American democracy for his business advantage. Trump-the-improviser was just faking his way through, letting politics and business become intertwined mostly because he was acting on instinct and didn’t know the guardrails.
What appears to be authenticity is one of Trump’s greatest electoral calling cards, and Republicans tend to take it at face value. He’s an amateur in a professional game, and that explains why he sometimes breaks the rules. There’s a kind of everyman logic behind his actions, and his supporters want him to shake up the system. Despite their antipathy toward him, there are many Democrats who assess him on similar terms. In their eyes, Trump is woefully, agonizingly, even dangerously unqualified for the presidency, but he’s not fundamentally ill-intentioned, except perhaps in some of his prejudices. This may seem to them like a devastating judgment, which is embedded in Baldwin’s portrayal on “SNL.”
But there are, of course, much harsher assessments of Trump. One, suggested by the Mueller report, is of a man who willfully used the tools of his office for his personal benefit, who demanded illegal and unethical acts from his subordinates, threatened them and tried to replace them when they refused to go along and shredded legal and political norms in the process. In trying to save himself, that version of Trump isn’t some rogue elephant acting on instinct, but a narcissist who puts his own interests ahead of the country’s. There is, presumably, no twinkle in Trump’s eye when he orders his Treasury secretary to refuse a congressional subpoena of his tax records, no sharp intake of breath when he invokes executive privilege to shield an investigation into his own campaign. His mouth doesn’t twist into a petrified O when he maligns Robert Mueller or calls on Republican appointees of the Supreme Court to protect him.
This Trump isn’t the stuff of caricature, or the hapless figure of fun portrayed on “SNL.” He’s the one who shows up on TV nearly every day, president of the United States despite the disdain of all those knowing elites, bending Washington to his will.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Donald Trump’s unmatched facility at bleeding sense and meaning from words and concepts until only a heap of husk and stalk remains reared up again this week.
Having previously established himself the foe of the First Amendment—calling defenders of free speech on the internet “foolish people,” coercing White House staffers into signing nondisclosure agreements, attacking the mainstream press as the enemy of the people and urging the jailing of flag-burners—Trump has seemingly switched sides. Now he’s presenting himself as a free-speech proponent, introducing a new White House web survey whose purported fact-finding goal is to “advance FREEDOM OF SPEECH” and deter bias on social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook by getting you to file a complaint about how they’ve treated you.
Of course, all this talk about free speech is a Trumpian dodge, designed to advance his political ends: He doesn’t believe in free speech on social media any more than he believes in open borders or free trade, as he’s demonstrated. Suppressing free speech in the name of free speech, he has jawboned Google News search results, demanding the company surface more flattering coverage of his administration. “I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people, and I think that’s a very serious thing. That’s a very serious charge,” Trump said last summer, adding that Google, Twitter, Facebook and others “better be careful, because you can’t do that to people.” He has berated social media platforms for suspending the accounts of his supporters, like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, for violating terms of service. He’s accused Twitter of “shadow banning” prominent Republicans.
He even brought Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to the Oval Office recently to lecture him on how to run his platform, telling him the site was “very discriminatory” and “hard for people to sign on.” Accusing Twitter of “playing their political games” (on Twitter, no less), Trump writes, “No wonder Congress wants to get involved—and they should,” a statement that all but threatens regulation of speech.
I would go on, but there’s a certain futility in marshaling arguments against someone who can make words mean whatever he wants them to mean. When there’s no national emergency on the border, he climbs onto his pulpit and declares one. One day he praises special counsel Robert Mueller for acting honorably and says the report has exonerated him; several days later he invokes executive privilege to block the release of the unredacted report. One day he’s preparing the country for war with North Korea or Iran; the next day he’s meh. Other examples abound. The wall, which he says the Mexicans will build, but they aren’t, or which he says he’s already building, but he isn’t. The tariffs, which he says the Chinese are paying, but they aren’t. The Syria reversal. His contradictory recent statements on immigration. His defense of Putin and his walk-back.
Trump turnabouts look like flip-flops, tune-changing, contradictions, post-truth in action—or lies, if you want to exercise your high dudgeon. Without a doubt, Trump lies. But Trump’s method is greater than just lying. He intentionally blurs the meaning of words to make them mean whatever he wants them to mean, resetting definitions and inverting their meaning whenever it suits him. When he accused Democrats of treasonous behavior for their border policies, he wasn’t really claiming they were working with a declared enemy against their own country. He was doing what he always does, drawing shocking words from his inventory to make a splash. Sometimes when people press him for saying outrageous things—that President Barack Obama was the founder of ISIS; that he desires absolute power; that he envies Kim Jong Un’s rule; or that he should be president for life—he claims that he was “joking.” The words he spoke, you see, didn’t mean what they mean in the dictionary. They were for entertainment purposes only.
Trump’s co-optation of the language of free speech to suppress the free speech rights of social media companies isn’t the last straw, but it might be the ultimate one. He’s given us his operational definition of free speech: If it flatters and fluffs Trump, it’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, it must be damned. It’s enough to make Orwell blush.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
A block away from the former Capitol Hill headquarters of Breitbart News — known in Washington as the “Breitbart embassy” — sits a second-floor apartment its occupant calls “the Consulate.”
Here, surrounded by memorabilia of the British empire, two right-wing entrepreneurs — a protege of Steve Bannon’s and a social media activist — are rebooting a dilapidated conservative publication from around a dining room table.
This month, the duo relaunched the 75-year-old Human Events, once Ronald Reagan’s favorite newspaper. Their efforts to reinvent it as a thriving digital media enterprise driven by “tabloid intellectualism” represent the latest test of whether President Donald Trump’s haphazard insurgency can mature into a durable political movement.
“It’s Trump as a philosophy, not Trump as a man,” said co-founder Raheem Kassam — the posh, bespectacled, former editor of Breitbart London — of the publication’s guiding light. “Where is the movement going after Trump? How do we keep the good — the pugilism? How do we tie up the fraying ends? Because remember: This was not supposed to happen. Trump was not supposed to get elected.”
Kassam’s publishing partner, Will Chamberlain, a 33-year-old former litigator turned activist — also bespectacled, with a no-nonsense demeanor — bought the moribund publication for $330,000 this winter, announcing the purchase during the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Now, the duo are positioning it as an alternative to what they derisively call “Conservative Inc.” — the movement conservative heirs of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — who are more accepted in the cultural mainstream and make up the right’s shrinking, anti-Trump intellectual vanguard.
The disdain is mutual. Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes, who serves as the editor-in-chief of the new Never-Trump publication the Bulwark — the spiritual successor to William Kristol’s shuttered Weekly Standard — called Chamberlain and Kassam “woolly conspiracy mongers,” and expressed doubts that their venture will get very far. “Isn’t the crackpot lane already kind of crowded?” Sykes asked.
David French, a senior fellow at the National Review, another outpost of pre-Trump movement conservatism, said he was unaware of the relaunch, and expressed his own skepticism about the publishers’ vision of a publication built around some sort of Trumpist philosophy.
"Trumpism is solely defined as advancing the interests of the man Donald Trump,” French said. “People are trying to put some sort of intellectual frame around the ambitions of this one guy, who doesn’t even have a particularly coherent ideology himself."
He added, "If they can make something that is utterly incoherent coherent — more power to them."
Since launching at the beginning of this month, the new publishers are claiming some modest early success. Ten days in, the group had amassed roughly 600,000 pageviews and more than 750 paying members, or “Founding Fathers.” The early ranks of members — who pay $17.76 a month — include Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney. Kassam ran into Giuliani at the Trump Hotel last week and helped the former New York City mayor purchase a membership on his iPad.
Giuliani said this fixation on de-platforming has drawn him back to the publication, which he became a fan of in the ’80s . “I like making the issue of censorship relevant and educating everyone that free speech even includes people right of center,” he said.
Members get access to an invite-only chat room on Discord — a private messaging app favored by the alt-right — and to exclusive insider content. Most of the outlet’s articles will be freely available, because the publishers hope to influence public discourse, a goal that has pushed them towards a Twitter-centric strategy that caters to the chattering classes.
To that end, the new Human Events has taken up social media censorship, a hot-button issue on the pro-Trump web, as its first cause célèbre. Among its first articles was an essay by Chamberlain titled, “Platform Access is a Civil Right.” And when a handful of right-wing figures, along with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, were banned by Facebook and Instagram for being “dangerous” extremists, Kassam authored an article calling it the “the Day of the Long Knives,” an allusion to a deadly purge of German officials overseen by Adolf Hitler.
“Of course it’s hyperbolic,” Kassam acknowledged. “That’s tabloid. But at the same time, assaults on individuals and assaults on people for political wrongthink are not just murderous assaults. They can be rhetorical.”
Days after the social media purge, the publication generated more buzz by publishing a salty retort to Facebook from one of the banned, Alex Jones’ English sidekick Paul Joseph Watson, in which the InfoWars personality condemned “feverish authoritarians” and threatened legal action.
Kassam, 32, was briefly banned from Facebook himself in February, an episode that led Donald Trump Jr. to complain in a tweet about conservative figures getting locked out of social platforms. Though Kassam was reinstated after a matter of hours, he found himself locked out of his account again in late April, just as he was preparing to re-launch Human Events. Kassam said that this time, he was told he had been banned for calling a critic “dumb” in a comment on his page, and that he was reinstated after three days.
A spokeswoman for Facebook attributed the incident to a misunderstanding. "This profile was removed in error and was restored as soon as we were able to investigate,” she said.
Human Events is not the first pro-Trump Breitbart spinoff. In 2017, one of the outlet’s former reporters, Patrick Howley, launched Big League Politics, a site best known for breaking the news that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook included a photo of a young man in blackface. While Big League Politics has hewed closer to a supermarket tabloid sensibility, Human Events aims up-market and has been imbued with Kassam’s vaguely royalist sense of Anglo-American identity.
The site cheers on Brexit, and recently featured a knighted English intellectual’s call for the abolition of universities.
In fact, Kassam keeps a photo of himself, Trump and the so-called “Bad Boys of Brexit” on the wall of his home office. The photo came about two days after the 2016 election, he says, when he was “shooting the shit” with Bannon at Trump Tower and then-UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage texted him asking if he could come up to say hello.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, obviously,’” Kassam — Apple AirPods sticking out from his ears — recalled telling Farage. So the Brit came up along with fellow Leave campaigners Arron Banks, Andy Wigmore and Gerry Gunster. Spotting the Brexit crew, the president-elect embraced Farage in a bear hug, briefly lifting the smaller man off the ground, and posed for a photo with the collected Brits.
The ‘Consulate’ also features a map showing the British empire at its largest extent and a red hat that says “Make America Great Britain Again.”
Over the dining room table where the duo works looms a framed print of the Boston Massacre, prominently featuring the shooting of Crispus Attucks, considered the first black man to die in the American Revolution. But Kassam has not stuck it there as a celebration of American liberty. Instead, he said, he forces his American dinner guests to sit facing the print to shame them with the memory of the massacre, which he blames on the mobbish antics of colonial Bostonians, while praising the discipline of the Red Coats who fired upon them.
“They were far more restrained than one would have expected under the circumstances,” Kassam said of the soldiers — of whom six were acquitted of murder charges and two were convicted of manslaughter.
Though this pronounced Anglophilia was not a feature of the original Human Events, the unapologetic contrarianism was. Founded in 1944 by former Washington Post editor Felix Morley, the paper developed a reputation for stubbornly sticking to hard-right ideas, even when its peers took more moderate positions on say, arms control treaties. After taking a critical line on Richard Nixon for most of his presidency, the publication became a favorite read of Ronald Reagan’s.
“Ironically, precisely because H.E. never cared about political access, it became the newspaper of record in the Reagan White House — the only newspaper the president read cover to cover every week and insisted be placed in the Oval Office waiting rooms,” wrote far-right commentator Ann Coulter, a longtime contributor to the old Human Events, in an email.
But the publication’s cachet faded after the Gipper left the scene. It was purchased by the conservative publisher Eagle in 1993, and it ended its print run in 2013. By the time Chamberlain and Kassam purchased it this year, it was no more than an online repository of weekly musings from Coulter and an Eagle employee named Paul Dykewicz.
The new Human Events aims to fuse Kassam’s sense of flair with Chamberlain’s aggressive style of argumentation. Chamberlain came to Washington to attend law school at Georgetown in 2012. He went on to practice law for two years before calling it quits in 2017 to focus on politics — a shift that led him to devote a great deal of time to joining culture war squabbles on social media, where has a amassed a sizeable-for-politics Twitter following.
The sensibility of the new Human Events owes much to the back-and-forth of Trump-era Twitter bickering on which Chamberlain, a Bay Area native, has cut his teeth. “There’s a lot of peacetime conservatives out there,” Chamberlain said. “We’re not peacetime conservatives.”
On Tuesday, the site featured a piece from Federalist contributor David Reaboi, another right-wing Twitter pugilist, in which Reaboi responds at length to criticism he drew online for a Tweet he sent disapproving of a another tweet, one by the cookie-maker Chips Ahoy that featured a drag queen.
Kassam left Breitbart last year and briefly went on to oversee “The Movement,” Bannon’s effort to create a pan-European nationalist front. But the strategist and his protege had a falling out over Kassam’s management, as captured in the new Bannon-centric documentary “The Brink,” and Bannon fired Kassam.
Kassam said he and Bannon keep in close touch, but he thinks “the Movement” was poorly thought through. "It's gone fantastically well, Steve" Kassam deadpanned sarcastically. This prompted a chortle and a “No comment” from Chamberlain. (Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.)
Chamberlain and Kassam first became aware of each other online. They met in person at at the Northwest D.C. townhouse of Catharine O’Neill, an heiress to the Rockefeller fortune who works for Trump’s State Department and regularly throws parties that draw a young, Trump-leaning crowd.
Within days of the launch, the pair began working to expand. Already, they are on-boarding their first hire — quixotically, a part-time ombudsman. For the task, they have selected a liberal, West Coast Bernie Sanders supporter who Chamberlain met through college debate.
The idea is to have the ombudsman vet the site’s arguments. “We want to know when our ideas are bullshit,” Chamberlain said. “We want to tighten our arguments.” The ombudsman will write for the site under a pseudonym in order to hide his true identity. “He doesn’t want to lose his friends,” Chamberlain explained.
The pair hopes to hit $1 million in annual revenue, and if they enjoy success this year, to begin publishing a quarterly glossy magazine in 2020. They believe there exists a fervent group of Trump supporters who do not feel connected to “Conservative Inc.” that will make up their base of paying members, while they reach a much larger audience of non-paying readers by pumping out timely takes on politics and culture-war issues.
They also hope to hold a “Fake News” gala this fall at which they will offer awards for the mainstream media pieces they disdain the most.
But for all their big plans, a publication built on Trumpism may find its fortunes are at the mercy of Trump himself, and his ability to hold on to power.
"If he wins in 2020, this thing called Trumpism is likely to endure and could conceivably have the kind of resonance with people that Reagan conservatism had,” French said.
On the other hand, if Trump goes the way of Jimmy Carter and gets booted after one term, it could kneecap the new Human Events. There has been little appetite for movements built around one-term presidents, French noted.
“There wasn’t much Carter-ism left,” he said, “after 1980.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
When President Donald Trump made good on his promise to be “Tariff Man” this week, he sent economists into a lather, pushed the stock markets onto a wild and largely downward ride, and thrilled parts of his political base, who saw a president finally willing to use his bluntest policy weapon against America’s biggest economic rival. Trump claims that imposing as much as $60 billion in new duties on Chinese goods will hurt China more than it hurts American consumers. Both are quite likely to be hurt, at least in the short run. But the tariffs have an unexpected beneficiary as well, one that Trump is surely less excited to talk about. In an ironic twist, Trump’s tariffs might make Mexico great again.
The easy, and wrongheaded, pro-tariff argument made by Trump and his fellow China hawks is that when he slaps a tax on goods from China, it makes the good less attractive for companies to manufacture there and less appealing for consumers to buy here. That creates an incentive to make more goods in the United States. So, America wins, right?
But the reality is that America and China are both going to lose, and they aren’t haggling in a vacuum. There are dozens of players ready to swoop in to take advantage when two titans start wounding each other.
The entire network of production, with China as an assembly hub for parts sourced globally and shipped to the United States, has been the product of more than 20 years and trillions of dollars of investment. Changing that isn’t going to happen quickly. Companies can’t just snap their fingers and rejigger their supply chains overnight. The cost of abandoning them is many multiples greater than the amount of the tariffs, no matter who pays them.
Still, China is no longer the low-cost producer globally, even if its infrastructure and expertise in multiple areas of manufacturing are second to none. Just as years of volatile oil prices and vulnerability to the erratic politics of oil led many companies to invest in domestic substitutes like natural gas, the uncertainty surrounding American tariffs is forcing manufacturers to rethink their supply chains. Companies are reconsidering China as a primary place to manufacture.
But that has not led those companies to bring factories and manufacturing jobs to the United States. Instead, they’re looking elsewhere for low-cost, efficient hubs, to places like Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and, of all places given Trump’s rhetoric, Mexico.
If Trump’s trade war against China does disrupt the U.S.-China economic fusion, the main beneficiary will not be American manufacturers. The winners will be other countries, including one very prominent country that borders the U.S. and that Trump has denounced for what he has said are its unfair trade deals with the United States under NAFTA. Already, Hasbro and GoPro have shifted production from China to Mexico, along with hundreds of other companies totaling tens of billions of dollars. Other countries that are seeing new investment include Indonesia and Egypt.
Mexico in particular stands to gain because it is easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to relocate manufacturing there than to build new factories elsewhere for the kind of goods now produced in China. Mexico has the infrastructure from years of trading under the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as ease of transport to and from the United States. That isn’t necessarily bad for the United States, but then again, it wasn’t necessarily bad that manufacturing that was no longer economically feasible in the United States went to Japan and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s and to China in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. And it certainly isn’t what the political proponents of tariffs, both Democratic and Republican, promise will happen.
Faced with such facts, Trump might be inclined to impose tariffs on goods from everyone, everywhere in the hopes that enough economic walls will force a complete rejiggering of the global economic system and lead to a return of a 1950s halcyon moment when, after the global destruction caused by World War II, U.S. manufacturing accounted for nearly half of all world production. To accomplish even a fraction of that, the U.S. would have to impose tariffs far higher than 25 percent. Tariffs would have to be so high that companies simply could not manage the costs of producing abroad. Only then would it be economically sensible to produce lower-cost goods domestically—at much higher cost than most other countries.
Trump the Tariff Man would need tariffs of more like 100 percent to make that attractive to companies. He probably would support that. Of course, tariffs in excess of 100 percent would wreak havoc on our economy, and would then require, oh, many trillions of dollars of domestic spending to stave off the decimation, help companies build new supply chains and provide a cushion for citizens facing a doubling of the cost of living. One could, in theory, craft a rational argument for just that, for a government-triggered economic revolution, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone making that case, and very few would ever support it.
Contrary to popular perception, the United States is still a manufacturing behemoth, but it tends to make higher-end goods like automobiles, medical devices, industrial equipment and pharmaceuticals. The U.S. accounts for 18 percent of global manufacturing output, China 20 percent. But because of robotics and automation, U.S. manufacturing requires far fewer workers. And of course, the U.S. also exports a considerable portion of what it makes, and that exporting is also imperiled by a trade war. Tariffs might increase inflation in the United States by making goods more expensive, but even with some onshoring of manufacturing, they aren’t likely to raise either wages or jobs. A factory that employs 150 people and 50 robots will not bring Toledo back.
The best-case scenario is that tariffs will lead companies to alter their supply chains in ways that aren’t overly painful for them or consumers. But they also will not return or recreate the manufacturing economy of yore, which in any event has already been replaced in the United States by a vibrant, high-end, lucrative manufacturing of today that does many things but does not create large numbers of jobs. China is already focusing more of its manufacturing energies on supplying its own 1.5 billion people and not exporting to the world, regardless of tariffs. It will feel a sting, but its domestic economy has now reached something a break-away point, tariffs or not, deal with the United States or no deal.
This trade war, therefore, is likely to be no more effective than the phony one Trump waged before he got serious about tariffs. It seems likely that this skirmish will end with both sides declaring some sort of victory. It seems even likelier that those declarations will be hollow and that the ones cheering will be doing so quietly, south of China’s borders and south of ours.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
For more than a decade, the United States had a problem: three Rwandan men, sitting in jail in Virginia, who had stood accused of brutally murdering tourists in Africa—but now had a chance of winning release onto American streets.
The three had been rounded up after a bloody 1999 attack that made headlines across three continents, in which two Americans and six other Western tourists on a gorilla-watching visit to the Ugandan rainforest were killed with machetes and axes. The crime was so horrific that U.S. prosecutors charged the men under terrorism statutes, extracted them from Rwanda and then took the rare step of demanding the federal death penalty.
But in 2006, the prosecution went off the rails: A judge in Washington ruled the men’s confessions were obtained through torture in Rwandan detention centers, and the case was dropped. The men fell into immigration purgatory, fighting their return to Rwanda out of fear they’d be mistreated by the government there but lacking the right to stay in the U.S.
The three became examples of a thorny issue that arises when the U.S. takes custody of terrorism suspects abroad. Harsh treatment they received overseas, or claimed to have received, can derail the cases against them—but once they’re on American soil, U.S. law gives the government no clear Plan B. Much like the terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, they can languish in limbo for years without being convicted of any crime, becoming a frustration for authorities and a human rights black eye for the U.S.
But in the case of two of the Rwandans, POLITICO has learned that the U.S. government has solved the problem by relocating the men—thanks to an undisclosed deal with one of its closest allies. Last November, without any public announcement, the pair packed up their things at an immigration detention center in rural Virginia and prepared for a trip that must have been almost impossible for them to fathom. After more than 15 years in U.S. custody, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani were headed for new lives in Australia.
Attorneys for the three men did not respond to repeated questions about the transfer, while U.S. and Australian officials initially declined to comment. After this story was published, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about the allegations at a press conference in Canberra. Morrison did not deny any of the facts in the story, saying only: "Every single person that comes to Australia under any such arrangements are the subjects of both character and security assessments."
He added: "I don’t intend to make a commentary on allegations that have been made ... but simply to assure Australians that they are the process we undertake, and these are the same security agencies that have thwarted 15 terrorist attacks." Pressed again, Morrison said: "I've given you my answer."
The secret arrangement seems certain to spark controversy in Australia, where immigration and refugee policies have been a political tinderbox for nearly two decades—and which faces a national election Saturday. The transfer also sheds light on the high-profile tensions between the Trump administration and the Australian government.
Under a murky pact struck between the Obama administration and then-Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016, the U.S. agreed to take in as many as 1,250 migrants that Australia was holding in offshore refugee centers, while Australia agreed to accept a smaller number of refugees in Central America as part of a U.S.-organized effort to relocate people fleeing drug-related violence. President Donald Trump tried to back out of the deal soon after taking office, prompting a heated phone conversation in which Trump said the deal made him look like “a dope” and Turnbull pleaded with him not to abandon it—one of Trump’s first foreign-policy controversies in office.
While details of the so-called people swap remain classified, the leaders’ extraordinary exchange contained a little-noticed, cryptic remark by Turnbull, one that implied Australia was doing some significant undisclosed favors for America. “Basically, we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States,” Turnbull told Trump, according to a transcript of the call leaked to the Washington Post. “We will take more. We will take anyone that you want us to take.”
Two sources indicated to POLITICO that the Rwandan relocation was discussed as a reciprocal gesture that could nudge the swap deal along, although because of the unusual secrecy around the deal, it’s difficult to know whether the transfer of the Rwandans was explicitly included in the refugee trade-off or was arranged separately. Both sides had reason to keep it quiet: Given the Rwandans' history, any public mention of them could have dramatically reshaped perceptions of the U.S.-Australia deal and unleashed a backlash from survivors and family members of victims of the 1999 attack, making the move far more politically costly for the Australian side.
For survivors of the attack and families of the victims, emotions are still raw. “That’s just insane,” Mark Ross, an American safari leader taken hostage and beaten with bamboo canes during the attack two decades ago, said when informed of the relocation. “It’s almost like if you want to get out of a bad situation in a third-world country, murder someone from the country you want to go to and then you’ll get there—which is just so ironic.”
The March 1, 1999, attack at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was shocking for its brutality. Vacationers, some on an upscale Abercrombie & Kent safari, came to the preserve to enjoy the idyllic scenery and observe the rare subspecies of mountain gorilla featured in the film Gorillas in the Mist. Tourists expecting to be awakened by the sounds of the forest instead heard gunfire and saw a band of 100 to 150 fighters—armed with AK-47 assault rifles and makeshift weapons such as spears—charging into the campground and rounding up petrified visitors.
“I was listening to the birds and watching the light slowly come up when I heard trees splitting and crashing down. It was not windy. There was no storm. So, it surprised me. Then, I heard shots,” recalled Ross, who has spent decades on African safaris as guide and pilot and was in the park overnight accompanying a small tour. “They had just shot the senior warden and killed him. Eventually, they poured fuel on him and burned him … in front of some of us.”
Within minutes, all hell broke loose at the mountainside camp where Ross’ group and a couple dozen other Westerners were staying. “I heard yelling down below us. Rebels came up the hill shooting at us. A bullet went past my right shoulder. I heard it slap the branches and leaves, and then I was taken prisoner,” Ross told POLITICO.
It was the beginning of a terrifying 18-hour ordeal. Their captors were members of the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, an offshoot of that country’s feared Interahamwe militia, who wanted the American and British governments to end their aid to the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda. The rebels seemed to have a plan to kill any American and British visitors they found, while sparing others. Some tourists scattered as soon as the attack began, while a French diplomat managed to negotiate the release of others, but about 17 were taken on a forced, shoeless jungle march toward the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
One American woman managed to escape the march by faking an asthma attack. Others were left behind on the march because they couldn’t keep up. Eventually, Ross persuaded the fighters to abandon many of the hostages and let them go to deliver a message about the rebels’ goals. But on the return to the campground, the tourists came upon a horrific scene: Two women who had turned back from the march were dead. Among them was one of the Americans, Susan Miller, 42, an executive for Intel in Oregon.
“I found two of the bodies. I found Susan,” Ross said. “They were lying on the path pretty much where we had left them.” Her husband, Rob Haubner, 48, also had been killed.
Nearly all the victims had been bludgeoned. The indictment later filed in the U.S. case alleged Miller had been raped. Ross said the rebels wanted to keep shooting to a minimum to avoid alerting Ugandan government troops or police while the raid was underway. “This is the punishment for the Anglo-Saxons who sold us out,” a note the rebels left at one of the murder scenes said.
The FBI and Scotland Yard swung into action, traveling to the scene in Uganda to investigate the killings and hostage-taking of U.S. and British citizens, but the investigation proved challenging because no eyewitnesses among the tourists had lived to attest to the murders. The FBI even offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the killers. While some individuals in neighboring Congo were reportedly seen with belongings looted from the Westerners, there was little or no physical evidence linking anyone to the murders.
Rwandan officials began canvassing refugee camps and detention centers where Hutus, including former Army for the Liberation of Rwanda fighters, were being held. They looked for individuals who had mentioned the Bwindi attack or said they knew of others who did. Suspects and informants were moved to the Kami military camp, outside the Rwandan capital Kigali, then brought to a police headquarters in the city for questioning by Americans.
Bimenyimana, Nyaminani and a third man, Francois Karake, all confessed to being involved in the murders of the Americans, U.S. prosecutors said. In mid-2002 and early 2003, the Justice Department brought sealed indictments against the men for the murders of the two Americans, Haubner and Miller.
After protracted negotiations with the government of Rwanda, the three defendants were flown out of the country. They made their first U.S. court appearance in Puerto Rico, and then appeared in federal court in Washington. At a March 2003 news conference at Justice Department headquarters, the Bush administration portrayed the case as striking a blow for the U.S. in the war on terrorism. "This indictment should serve as a warning," said Michael Chertoff, who was chief of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division at the time. "Those who commit acts of terror against Americans will be hunted, captured and brought to justice."
A year and half later, the Justice Department announced that it was seeking the death penalty in the case, citing the “especially heinous, cruel and depraved” acts involving torture of the victims. Prosecutors said Bimenyimana, Nyaminani and Karake posed “a continuing and serious threat to the lives and safety of other persons, including … citizens of those countries which support the Rwandan government.”
The men’s defense attorneys told a different story. They said their clients’ confessions were the product of torture by Rwandan officials, including the commander of the Kami camp, Capt. Alex Kibingo.
U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle held an extraordinary pretrial hearing that lasted 22 days over five weeks in May and June 2006, featuring testimony from the defendants and Kibingo. The three defendants offered details: Nyaminani said he faced a form of torture known as “kwasa kwasa” in which a rope was used to tie one of his wrists over his shoulder to another behind his back. Bimenyimana claimed he had been shackled and beaten with a sock containing a brick.
Prosecutors insisted that their stories were fabricated. They said American officials had already interrogated each of the suspects in Rwanda and heard only a single claim of abuse: Nyaminani claimed that on one occasion in which he had failed to confess, Kibingo hit him four or five times on the lower back with a flip-flop. Even that incident was false, prosecutors insisted.
In August 2006, Huvelle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, issued a painstaking and devastating 150-page opinion that torpedoed the government’s case. She said scars and other damage to the bodies of the three defendants amounted to “telltale signs of abuse.” Defendants testified they were kept in dark pits known as “go-downs.”
“Completely nonsensical … totally implausible,” the judge wrote about the testimony of the government’s key witness, Kibingo.
By contrast, Huvelle found the defendants’ accounts “highly believable.”
The situation had strong parallels to military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps the suspects were guilty of this crime, perhaps not. As members of Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, they may well have been involved in brutality, even atrocities. But the torture Huvelle concluded they suffered in custody so tainted the case against them that their responsibility for the gruesome murders in the Bwindi forest would likely never be established.
Initially, prosecutors fought the ruling, appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and saying they remained convinced of the men’s guilt. “These were some bad, bad dudes,” said one former U.S. official involved in the case. Investigators said the defendants provided details about the victims that could only have been known to those at the scenes of the killings, but defense attorneys said those details might have been fed to the defendants by Rwandan interrogators.
Without the confessions, prosecutors stood little chance of proving their case. They soon dropped the appeal and moved to dismiss the case entirely, while leaving open the theoretical possibility of refiling it in the future.
By February 2007, the criminal case was over. But the defendants were not free men. Had they been American citizens, they would have walked out of Huvelle’s courtroom and onto the streets. But two of the men would remain behind bars for another 11 years—and the third even longer.
Before the criminal case was even complete, defense attorneys served notice that their clients wanted asylum in the U.S.—a kind of nightmare scenario that critics of U.S. terrorism prosecutions have long warned about.
The three said that as Hutus, they feared they’d face persecution if returned to Rwanda, whose government was now led by rival Tutsis. The men also feared being brought up on charges related to the murders and subjected to a sham trial or further torture. The dispute crystallized into asylum cases in which the U.S. government fought to return the men to Rwanda and the men sought to stay in the U.S., or least not be sent back to the country of their birth. The court battle wound its way to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, teeing up an unresolved issue under U.S. law: whether executive branch officials have a free hand to credit another country’s assurances of humane treatment, which Rwanda was offering, or whether judges are entitled to examine the plausibility of such promises.
In March 2015, an array of human rights groups weighed in on behalf of the three Rwandans, warning about the dangers of allowing U.S. officials unfettered discretion to deport foreigners in similar circumstances. The onslaught of critical attention—much of it from organizations generally friendly to the Obama administration—seems to have prompted the government to scramble to reconsider its stance in the case and look for a way out. Both sides asked the court to put off oral arguments and allow for talks about a settlement that would involve sending the men to a third country.
From the U.S. government’s perspective, there were strong reasons to explore such a deal—not least the prospect that an unfavorable ruling by a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court could limit officials’ options in future cases. But finding a country to take the men proved daunting, former officials and people close to the three told POLITICO. Again, there were echoes of Guantanamo Bay. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously branded the war-on-terror prisoners sent there as “the worst of the worst.” When U.S. diplomats later called on foreign governments to take the men, Rumsfeld’s words proved a major obstacle to finding willing nations.
The U.S. decision to brand the Rwandans not only as murderers but as depraved killers worthy of the death penalty similarly made it tough for State Department officials tasked with finding a country willing to resettle the three. The case of the three Rwandans also involved another complicating factor: citizens of Great Britain, New Zealand and Uganda died in the Bwindi attack. Tourists from Canada, Switzerland and elsewhere were among those taken captive. If the U.S. turned to some of its closest allies, it could be effectively asking them to take men once accused of butchering or kidnapping their own citizens.
For more than three years, the court challenge to the planned deportation was deferred. Monthly reports filed with the court said negotiations were underway with an unidentified third country to take the men without disclosing the country. Finally, on Nov. 8, 2018, there was a dramatic change: Bimenyimana and Nyaminani dropped their court cases and agreed to a deal with the government under which they would never seek reentry to the U.S.
But where were they going? On that, the court papers were silent. Officials at the Farmville, Va., immigration detention center where the men had spent the better part of a decade said two of the men, Bimenyimana and Nyaminani, had been released, but offered no other details. Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement referred questions to a Justice Department spokesperson, who declined to comment.
However, three people familiar with the case later told POLITICO that Bimenyimana was sent to Australia. Two sources confirmed that Nyaminani was also taken in by the Australians. Though their precise living arrangements remain unclear, the men went to Australia voluntarily and there’s no indication they were jailed or detained by authorities there.
In response to POLITICO’s request for an interview about the transfers, the Australian Embassy in Washington referred questions to the country’s Home Affairs Department, which declined to discuss the decisions involved. “The department does not comment on individual cases,” a spokesperson said.
However, an Embassy official sent an email statement responding in general terms about the country’s process for granting “humanitarian” visas in cases involving “persecution or discrimination that amounts to a gross violation of … human rights.” Pointing out that Australia plans to accept nearly 19,000 foreigners on humanitarian grounds this fiscal year, the official highlighted an official guide that said the process involves assessing the “character” of potential admittees and includes “checks related to national security, criminality, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” It also said Australian officials work “closely with … international partners in conducting checks.”
For the United States, the deal solved two-thirds of the problem. The remaining Rwandan man, Karake, is being held in an ICE detention center about 20 miles west of downtown Miami. The facility, at the end of a road on the fringes of the Everglades and behind a military-style security checkpoint, holds hundreds of detained immigrants, including some of the most violent and emotionally troubled. Karake will turn 55 in June.
In phone interviews with POLITICO, Karake said that he, too, was considered for asylum in Australia. He recalled in broken English that, around September, a woman from the Australian Embassy visited and told him he was being offered residence in Australia on “humanitarian” grounds.
“She said the Australian government will allow me to resettle in Australia,” Karake said. “She asked me questions for more than two hours—whether I would be happy to be an Australian. I said, ‘Yes.’” Australian officials declined to discuss the visit. U.S. Homeland Security officials declined to comment about Karake’s status and refused POLITICO’s request for an in-person interview with him.
Karake said the diplomat even discussed what benefits he’d be eligible for. “She said the Australian government will do everything possible to protect me and give me the help—for a full year,” he said. But, after the meeting a half a year ago, Karake has heard nothing. Karake’s co-defendants boarded planes bound for that country. But Karake never got the call or even a firm no, he said.
It’s unclear why Australia balked at taking Karake, but one reason might be an altercation he got into with a guard at the Virginia immigration detention center in September 2015, as talks about resolving the appeals were underway. “Mr. Karake became irate and attacked the guard striking him multiple times on the head with his fists. He also used a pencil to inflict wounds, as well as biting the guard,” a police report said.
Karake was charged in a Virginia court with malicious wounding. The case was continued repeatedly before being dropped last March, shortly after Karake’s defense attorney died at home. Karake was moved from Virginia to Florida a short time later.
U.S. officials working on resolving the Bwindi case were aware of what they called Karake's “pencil stabbing.” The Australian diplomat’s visit to him last fall suggests the country was willing to consider taking him despite the episode. However, Australian officials would also have been aware that any indication of violence on the part of the Rwandans—beyond the original murder charges—would heighten the political risk of agreeing to take the men from the U.S.
Karake, now entering his 17th year in U.S. detention, closed a recent letter to POLITICO with a plea: “I am tiered and only want to be released as soon as possible.”
In Australia, the arrival of the Rwandans is not public knowledge, in keeping with the secrecy surrounding many of the U.S.-Australian interactions over refugee issues.
The decision to accept the two men poses obvious risks for Australian leaders involved at various stages of the process, heightened by the extreme political pressure that has surrounded immigration issues in that country for nearly two decades. At the time the U.S. began seeking a destination for the Rwandans, in 2015 and 2016, Australia was courting U.S. help to resolve a refugee-related crisis that had become a longstanding stain on its international reputation: the country’s policy of sending shipborne migrants to offshore camps on New Guinea and Nauru.
The air of desperation at the grim outposts was so thick that at least two prisoners set themselves on fire, with one dying and about 50 more trying to kill themselves. The hard-line policy of keeping seaborne migrants in camps was driven by fear that allowing migrants easy entry to Australia by sea would unleash a massive wave of refugee boats. Scenes at the Australian-funded offshore centers fanned international outrage: More than 120 children were housed at the camps, with some as young as 8 or 10 attempting to harm themselves. “Nauru refugees: The island where children have given up on life,” the BBC titled one story on the crisis last year.
That was the backdrop for Australia’s readiness to cut refugee deals with the United States.
“Turnbull was desperate,” University of Melbourne foreign policy analyst Jay Song said. “People were dying. There was mounting criticism among civil society, NGOs and academics. … It looked really bad for the Australian government.”
President Barack Obama was open to helping Australia by taking many of the migrants and resettling them in the U.S., but it was less clear what the Australians could do in return. In September 2016, Turnbull made an unexpected, public pledge to take part in a U.S.-led effort to resettle migrants fleeing drug cartel-related violence in Central America who might otherwise have ended up as asylum-seekers at the U.S. border. A former U.S. official said Obama administration officials also wanted Australia to do more—to make a series of gestures on refugee-related issues, not simply a one-off promise to accept some Central Americans.
“The Australians felt like they were making a pretty big ask of us. … Ultimately, we were concerned about on some level being seen as validating the Australian policy, so in that context, we wanted them to do stuff,” the former official said. “We certainly encouraged them to do a lot of different things, [but] it was never a quid pro quo.”
During those talks, the former official said, the issue of the Rwandans was raised with the Australians. “This issue would be raised along with other issues,” said the former official, who asked not to be named and declined to elaborate on the Australians’ response. “This was absolutely brought up in lots of different conversations.”
Shortly after the U.S. elections in 2016, Australia announced that the U.S. agreed to take in as many as 1,250 of the offshore migrants. The deal was quickly billed by the media as a “people swap,” but officials on both sides denied any explicit linkage between the U.S. and Australian actions. The terms of the refugee transfers are contained in two separate, parallel documents that remain classified. Former and current officials familiar with the negotiations refused to say whether the agreements mention the Rwandans.
Turnbull’s announcement of the deal five days after Trump’s surprise victory was long on celebration of the the United States' commitment to take in the refugees from Australia’s offshore camps and short on detail about what Australia had agreed to do in return. But the deal was soon on the rocks, thanks to Trump, who’d campaigned on reducing illegal immigration and the United States' own intake of refugees.
When the two men spoke in late January 2017, Trump made clear he viewed the deal to take Australia’s migrants as at odds with the policies he was trying to advance. “This is a stupid deal. This deal will make me look terrible,” Trump told Turnbull, according to the transcript leaked to the Post. “This shows me to be a dope.”
Because of the unusual secrecy surrounding the deal, it’s unclear whether Trump knew something former U.S. officials have emphasized to POLITICO: Australia’s pledges went beyond taking in the Central American migrants. It remains unclear to whom Turnbull was referring when he sought to sell Trump on the pact by mentioning Australia was taking individuals that the Obama administration was “very keen on getting out of the United States.”
Asked whether the transfer of the Rwandans was explicitly part of the deal, one source familiar with the situation pointed POLITICO to that portion of Turnbull’s comments and said: “The prime minister understood the deal completely. President Trump did not.”
It seems unlikely that Australia ever signed an ironclad commitment to the Obama administration to take the three Rwandans—in part because only two ended up going and in part because Turnbull also stressed during the call that both the U.S. and Australia retained the right to reject any individual migrant on security grounds. Trump was persuaded to abide by the agreement and backed down from his threat to scuttle it, although he insisted that the migrants from Australia’s offshore centers be subjected to “extreme vetting.”
A White House spokesman referred questions about Trump’s understanding of the deal to the State Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
With Australians heading to the polls for a general election Saturday in which the two major parties are polling neck and neck, it’s unclear how the revelation that Australia took in the Rwandans on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s watch could affect his chances of reelection.
Turnbull, who spearheaded the deal with the U.S., was forced out of the prime ministership last August by a challenge from within his own Liberal Party and replaced by Morrison, a former immigration and border protection minister known for his hard-line approach.
Several Australians were at the Ugandan gorilla park on that day in 1999 and were caught up in the attack, although none was killed. They include Payton Roocke, then a 23-year-old sometime student on an all-expenses-paid trip he’d won. He ran from the scene in his underwear and wound up in a rock crevasse.
Told that two of the Rwandan suspects were relocated to Australia, Roocke suspected a connection to Australia’s long struggle with its policy of holding refugees on islands. “It sounds like a political thing. … It sounds like a swap,” Roocke said.
Now 43, Roocke said he doesn’t know enough about the men who were resettled to say whether he’d object. “I don’t know these people. … I don’t know why they were in that particular spot at that particular time,” he said. “I can’t imagine having 15 years in jail helped them. I think mentally it probably destroyed them. I can’t imagine being in limbo like that.”
Ross, the American tour leader caught up in the tragedy, was taken aback by the move. “That is strange—wow,” he said, adding: “There must be a larger picture. … These guys have ended up being bargaining chips, or pawns, in something bigger.”
Several relatives of those killed who talked to POLITICO for this story also reacted with shock and outrage to the relocation. “You’re joking,” said Jean Strathern of New Zealand, whose 26-year-old old daughter, Michelle, was among those killed in the massacre. “You’re not kidding me, are you? We are absolutely blown away, absolutely. Wow. It makes shivers run down your spine. They’re only two, three hours away on a plane. … We’re a bit too close for comfort.”
Not all the foreigners who were at the park that violent day are outraged that the two men were settled in Australia. From the beginning of the prosecution, at least one American who was on hand during the attack had doubts that, out of the 150 fighters who attacked the park, the FBI had managed to find the three who specifically killed the Americans.
“I was deeply suspicious that they had actually confessed legitimately,” said Elizabeth Garland, then a 29-year-old doctoral student living at the park campground and studying the effects of tourism on the community and who survived by hiding in her tent.
Many in the Obama administration came to share those doubts about whether the men played any role in the murders, another former official said, fueling the drive to find the men a home outside Rwanda.
Garland called her feelings about the three “complicated,” but said she’s relieved they won’t be returned to Rwanda. To her, it seemed unjust to pluck three individuals out of the decadeslong wave of killing and reprisal in that part of Africa and subject them to a death-penalty prosecution in the U.S.
“I don’t have that kind of understanding of good and evil in that region,” she said. “It’s not simply, ‘These guys are good guys and these guys are bad guys.’ There are layers and layers.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The Joe Biden polling surge has raised the frightful specter of Democratic rationality.
What if Donald Trump hasn’t driven Democrats insane, sending them into a spiral of self-defeating radicalism, but instead made them shockingly pragmatic?
Biden’s early strength suggests it may be the latter, that the reaction to Trump is so intense that it has crossed some sort of event horizon from fevered fantasy of his leaving office early via resignation or impeachment to a cold-eyed, win-at-any-cost practicality.
If this is true, one of the exogenous factors that could appreciably increase Trump’s odds of reelection — a zany Democratic nomination contest leading to a nominee much too far left for the American electorate — may not materialize.
The commonsense play for Democrats has always been to nominate a nonsocialist with appeal to Obama-to-Trump voters in former blue wall states — if not necessarily Biden, then someone with a similar relatively moderate profile.
If hardly dispositive, Biden’s robust numbers at least suggest that this play is more likely than it seemed in the very early going, when candidates were stumbling over one another apologizing for sundry alleged offenses in the Woke Olympics.
If that’s not going to be the true dynamic of the race, I’m as surprised as anyone, having written often about the leftward lurch of the party. What’s extraordinary, though, is that almost every Democratic candidate might have been misreading it as well and chasing the wrong rabbit down the track.
Bernie Sanders dominated the intellectual and policy debates in the wake of his surprising run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, driving other 2020 presidential candidates to embrace his signature proposals. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a genuine political star. Between them, socialism has gotten more traction in the U.S. than at anytime in the past 50 years.
It’s only because the center of gravity of the party has clearly moved left that Biden, always a standard liberal, now sounds like a centrist when he calls himself an Obama-Biden Democrat.
But, as Harry Enten of CNN, among others, has been insisting for some time, the average Democrat is older, more moderate or conservative, and less likely to have a college degree than you’d guess from following Twitter or cable TV.
These voters were underserved by the rest of the field, and Biden is taking dead aim at them with the simple message that he can beat Trump.
Electability is usually a wan, uninspiring rationale for establishment campaigns that flame out in the primaries, but Trump may have transformed into something more urgent and exciting for Democrats in 2020.
In this scenario, fear and loathing of Trump doesn’t drive Democrats into a politically risky dead end such as impeachment — although that’s still possible — but a sensible appraisal of how to beat him at the ballot box, even at the cost of ideological purity.
In a recent CNN poll, about half of Democrats said it’s “extremely important” that a candidate have a good chance of beating Trump, much more than any other candidate quality. Journalists on the trail have reported hearing the same thing from Democratic voters.
Of course, if we learned anything from 2016, it’s that pundits know much less about electability than we think. Biden’s paper strength may dissipate.
How often in American politics has the older candidate promising a restoration won? History shows that Democrats have had better electoral luck when they fall in love with a youthful candidate promising a fresh start. Think Bill Clinton, not Walter Mondale; Barack Obama, not Hillary Clinton.
Biden’s long record has plenty for Trump to shoot at, and after he gets beaten over the head and shoulders over his past positions on busing and crime, he may have some of the same trouble Hillary Clinton had turning out the Democratic base.
Biden’s electability will have to be proved not just in general election polling matchups with Trump, but day-by-day campaigning during the primaries with much more incoming than he’s experienced to date.
All that said, Biden’s level of support out of the gate has already changed the narrative of the race. It may be that he’s understood how Trump is shaping the 2020 landscape better than his more with-it Democratic competitors.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
For a huge swath of political observers, from pundits to Democratic activists, it was obvious that Joe Biden was going to flop. Before the former vice president entered the race, he was written off as a relic. He was too old (a problem for a party pulsating with millennials and Generation Z). He was too undisciplined (a flaw exposed during his short-lived presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008.) And he was too wedded to a bygone era of bipartisanship—a centrist out of step with rising progressive stars like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
“I think there’s going to be a lot less air in the room than it looks like for Biden. The reality is that Biden’s time is passed,” predicted Democracy for America chairman Charles Chamberlain.
But it was Joe Biden’s moment, and it sure still seems to be Joe Biden’s moment. He has dominated the polls since he entered the race last month. Before Biden announced, he was at a measly 29 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, only 6 percentage points ahead of progressive favorite Bernie Sanders, who not all that long ago looked like a genuine co-front-runner. Since then, Biden has surged to 40 percent, kicking Sanders down to the mid-teens. In the past week, Biden has posted intimidating double-digit leads in polls from the early-contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. His dominance of the Democratic Party’s moderate wing has helped stall the rise of Mayor Pete Buttigieg while also squeezing the ability of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris from positioning themselves as more viable progressive alternatives to Sanders.
It’s not just Biden’s rising poll numbers that suggest that the activist left is out of step with most Democrats; it’s the ideological makeup of the entire Democratic Party. Fifty-six percent of Democrats self-identify as “moderate” and 9 percent even embrace “conservative,” according to an April poll from the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. While leftist activists pine for the end of the legislative filibuster to grease the skids for partisan legislation, a December GW Politics poll found that 66 percent of Democrats said they prefer elected officials who “make compromises with people they disagree with” over those who “stick to their positions." Only 36 percent of Republicans said the same.
It’s too early to declare this the year of anything, whether progressive change or centrist Bidenmania. But Biden’s commanding lead has left the party’s resurgent left with a question: What to do if it never stops being Biden’s moment. Despite circulation of Biden's 1970s opposition to school busing and Anita Hill's rejection of his apology for his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, his appeal crosses nearly every demographic group, with the mild exception of voters under 35; he still leads with young voters, just not by as much as with other groups.
And Biden’s lead is at least in part because of his relative moderation and not in spite of it. Even voters who disagree with him seem to be drawn to his centrism. Polls from CNN and Monmouth University found that Democratic primary voters put the ability to defeat Trump ahead of ideological purity when picking a presidential nominee. It’s true that a recent poll from ABC and the Washington Post seemed to show the opposite result, with 47 percent of Democrats saying they preferred a candidate “whose positions on the issues come closest to yours” and only 39 percent said they favored one “most likely to defeat” Trump. But the cross tabulation showed that it was largely moderate and conservative Democrats who wanted an ideologically like-minded candidate, while liberal Democrats tilted toward the more electable candidate. Democrats in both ideological camps, it seems, are nervous about a nominee too far to the left.
Beyond the polling data, there were other indicators that the Democratic base wasn’t quite ready for the revolution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps throwing brushback pitches at Ocasio-Cortez and her allies without suffering any significant loss in popularity among Democrats. Despite all the attention around single-payer health care, there are fewer House Democrats co-sponsoring such legislation in this Congress than in the last Congress, even though there are more House Democrats, suggesting that many elected Democrats aren’t feeling pressure from their base to check the democratic-socialist box.
In theory, political tacticians confronted with this kind of data would recalibrate, reassessing their strategies for how to get the Democratic moderate majority to overcome its bout of Biden fever. Yet, when I contacted a number of the leading progressive activists who had previously dismissed Biden’s prospects, they saw no need for Plan Bs (at least, among those who were willing to respond.) Biden’s initial strength was always expected, they said. They maintain that the progressive nature of the Democratic electorate will soon make itself known, to his detriment.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia for the Obama-Biden administration,” said Chamberlain, whose progressive outfit, Democracy for America, grew out of Howard Dean’s insurgent 2004 presidential bid. “The problem is Obama’s coattails only last so long for Joe Biden. And as people start to investigate his track record, and continue to see how Joe Biden campaigns,which we’ve seen before, isn’t very good … then I suspect we're going to see the wheels come off the cart.”
Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, argued that it’s too early to conclude that Biden’s history of not-so-progressive positions won’t be his downfall. “There’s this issue of penetrating with actual voters,” Green said.
He is looking forward to seeing Warren confront Biden about the 2005 bankruptcy reform bill, which Biden supported and Warren has long believed was friendly to credit card companies. “Given how many millions of people are suffering with … debt at the hands of banks and credit card companies,” Green said, “let’s see him try to defend that,” as well as his support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, “point/counterpoint in front of millions of people.”
Chamberlain expects Biden will be hammered on race issues during the debates: “I think you should expect that Bernie Sanders is going to hold him accountable for his racist rhetoric during the push for the crime bill. He’s going to hold him accountable for opposing school desegregation, which is something Bernie was arrested trying to stop.”
Green disputed the importance of the number of Democrats who identify as moderates and conservatives. Ideological “labels are overblown,” he told me, citing his group's polling of Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats: “While people might not use the word liberal or progressive as a kind of self-label, 80 percent of primary voters want Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, and 70-something percent want the 'Green New Deal.' A very high percentage support 'Medicare for All.' …. When the issue debate actually is litigated, even self-professed moderates will instinctively support the Elizabeth Warrens of the world who advocate ideas like universal child care that benefit their family.”
Green said his group’s think-tank arm, the Progressive Change Institute, plans to conduct “some very deep-dive polling testing the back-and-forth arguments on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal” to prepare supporters for the toughest attacks and arm them with the best rebuttals.
Yet anxiety about the Trump administration seems to be making Democrats more cautious and less radical. Progressives “have misread the mood,” Wason Center political scientist Rachel Bitecofer told me. “The current mood of the Democratic electorate is ‘terrified.’ When people are terrified, they seek safety and become risk-averse.”
Bitecofer warned progressives not to view the relative success of Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign as a harbinger for 2020. “Turnout in 2016 for the Democratic primary was low because Democrats were unmotivated and uninterested after eight fat and happy years not having their sensibilities attacked during the Obama years,” she said. “Many simply assumed Obama would be replaced by eight years of Hillary. As such, the 2016 electorate was slightly more ideological than I expect the 2020 electorate to be. I am expecting extremely high turnout in this primary. That increase will come primarily from moderates and liberals, not from the progressive base.” Bitecofer defines “progressive” as further to the left than “liberal.”
Five months ago, when Al Gore’s former running mate, Joe Lieberman, said he didn’t believe Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would be the future of the Democratic Party, she memorably shot back, “New party, who dis?” After the Biden surge, progressives should be less sure that they own the party.
So far, they are not ready to concede. They believe that Trump has given Democrats a hunger to dream big on policy and to exploit America’s polarization, not temper it. It’s indisputable that such a faction exists among Democratic primary voters. But if the left is wrong about its breadth, it will take more than a good clapback tweet for them to figure out what to do next.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump showed his skill at trolling last week, sending his critics into a frenzy when he re-tweeted Jerry Falwell Jr.’s assertion that “Trump should have 2 years added to his 1st term as payback for time stolen by this corrupt failed coup.” The idea of a lunge for extra-constitutional power was then embraced by none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who reportedly said she “does not automatically trust the president to respect the results of any election short of an overwhelming defeat.”
It might sound absurd, but for people who understand the mechanics of the U.S. electoral process, her fears have an edge of plausibility.
It’s extremely unlikely that a defeated Trump would literally barricade himself in the Oval Office, denouncing the millions of undocumented immigrants and corrupt Democratic election officials who led to his downfall at the ballot box while loyal aides bar the new president from entering the White House. (Something like that actually did happen in 1946 in Georgia, though, when three men claimed to be the governor, and one of them even set up an office down the hall.)
Less far-fetched is that a president unconcerned with the consequences of chaos for American democracy could cannily exploit our creaky, sometimes incoherent set of rules about how to deal with a disputed presidential election—and turn the ensuing chaos into a claim to reelection regardless of the vote.
What would that look like? The key moments would happen at three post-Election Day stages, as long as the vote in one or more decisive states was close enough to trigger the kind of chaos we saw in Florida in 2000.
Is that a reach? Hardly. Back in 2016, the three states that gave Trump his Electoral College majority—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan—all were decided by less than 1 percent of the vote. If the race is that close again, here’s what could happen next.
1. A state legislature decides to buck the electoral vote.
It’s safe to presume that the 2020 election will be fought with a barrage of charges and countercharges about a “rigged” election and that these charges will be especially fierce in swing states. As it happens, those three key states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—all have Democratic governors. But their state legislatures are controlled by Republicans. And the Constitution puts the power to choose electors squarely in the hands of legislatures. It’s right there in Article II, Section 1, Clause 2. And it says the legislature can do this “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” A governor has no say whatsoever about this.
Indeed, there’s no requirement that a legislature has to allow the citizens of its state vote at all. In their Bush v. Gore concurrence, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas appeared to muse that a state legislature would be allowed, under the Constitution, to consider the popular vote merely advisory and to allocate the state’s electors to another candidate, in defiance of the public’s ballots. “There are a few exceptional cases in which the Constitution imposes a duty or confers a power on a particular branch of a State’s government,” they wrote. “This is one of them.”
Is it fanciful to think a legislature might step in to resolve a contested count in a presidential election? No—it’s history. In 2000, as the Florida Supreme Court was ordering recounts, the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature moved to take over the process, scheduling a special session to give George W. Bush its decisive 25 electoral votes. “I'm afraid there is little we can do to prevent this horrible outcome from happening,” Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County, then the minority leader in the state House, said at the time. “It's inevitable now.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore put an end to the dispute before the Florida Legislature could act. But if there’s a similar too-close-to-call result in 2020, it’s not hard to imagine that Republican legislators would have little compunction in taking a similar vote. A Democratic governor might try to certify a competing slate of electors, but she would face serious obstacles in the courts. Wisconsin, for example, has a conservative, politically activist majority on its Supreme Court.
Would the legislators fear the blowback created should they choose to pick a winner in a too-close-to-call recount? The behavior of Republicans in the Senate over the past two years suggests otherwise. As with every assertion of executive dominance by the president, Senator Susan Collins might express “dismay,” and Senator Ben Sasse might offer a homily about his “concern,” but that’s about it.
2. Democrats in Congress fight back.
The chances for chaos would not end with the swing-state legislature’s machinations. The ultimate judge of the process is Congress, which meets in joint session in early January to receive the report of the Electoral College votes and to decide if those votes are kosher— “properly given,” in legalese. The process is set down in the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a law passed in the wake of the disputed election of 1876. That battle, between Rutherford B. Hayes and popular-vote winner Samuel Tilden, didn’t end until a few days before the inauguration.
So what if furious Democrats object to the swing state legislature’s antidemocratic overturning of the state’s popular vote? If one senator from any state and one representative from any state object, the members withdraw to their respective chambers. If Congress renders a split decision, then those disputed votes would count. But if both houses vote to reject a state’s electors—which could happen in the event Democrats keep the House and take the Senate in November 2020—the state’s electoral votes would be discarded.
And if that unlikely event happens—let’s say the votes of Michigan or Pennsylvania or Wisconsin are thrown out—what then?
3. One vote per state. Seriously.
Discarding the votes of a decisive state would leave neither candidate with the 270 electoral votes needed to win a majority. (That’s what would have happened had Congress rejected Florida’s electoral votes in 2000). If no candidate won an electoral majority, the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives, where each state—not each member of Congress—would cast one vote. Right now, even though Republicans have only a minority of House members, they have a majority of state delegations. And in this scenario, Wyoming’s lone House member would have the same clout as California’s 55 members. If that holds true after November 2020, House Republicans might possess the power to give Trump a second term.
In 2000, Al Gore’s decision not to fight the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore allowed for a peaceful resolution of the election, and not a single Democratic senator objected to the slate of Florida electors. In today’s climate, it’s hard to imagine that happening. A narrow Trump defeat could well move Fox News and company to assert that the result was due to voter fraud—especially if such assertions had been echoing from Drudge to Breitbart to “Hannity” to the president for weeks on end, from August to November. For that matter, a narrow Trump victory likely would be met with charges of voter suppression by Democrats.
But unlike Democrats, Republicans have a powerful arsenal of weapons—key state legislatures in swing states—should they decide that Election Day should be the start, not the end, of the real fight.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Jack Brooks, Democrat of Beaumont, Texas, served in the United States House of Representatives for 42 years. His tenure in Congress spanned the terms of 10 presidents. His early career in Washington was shepherded by Texas legend and longtime Speaker Sam Rayburn. He was in John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when the president was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, and hours later, Brooks stood behind his close friend Lyndon Johnson when the 36th president took the oath of office on Air Force One.
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Brooks was also the author of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.
Because Nixon resigned before the the full House could vote on impeachment, the impeachment articles themselves have been relegated to a footnote in Watergate history. But the articles, and their author, played a key role in the downfall of the president—one worth understanding at a time when impeachment is once again on the lips of Congress.
Brooks’ toughness in going after Nixon, his experience with impeachment and his focus—insisting on including in the articles only the most specific, provable offenses that were known at the time—are all qualities that changed the course of Watergate.
Because of those impeachment articles, and his broader role in pushing for impeachment, Brooks became the person Nixon later called his “executioner.” Three of the impeachment articles passed out of the committee to go to a vote by the full House. Then controlled by Democrats, the House was certain to impeach Nixon, but the disclosure of Watergate tapes that had begun with the Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas eventually produced the “smoking gun”: the tape that proved Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in before the details had become public and obstructed the investigation into it. It was this tape that made Nixon’s own party turn against him and led to his resignation in 1974.
While it was the release of the tapes that turned the tide of public opinion, especially among Republicans, and prompted Nixon’s resignation, it was Brooks’ articles that would have made impeachment a genuine threat to Nixon had he stayed. In other, less careful hands, the articles of impeachment could have looked weak enough or ill-defined enough that Republicans knew they could dismiss them when a vote came to the House—a possibility that might have encouraged Nixon to take his chances and stay.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the possibility of impeaching President Donald Trump at a talk at Cornell University on Tuesday morning, but, echoing earlier statements she has made on the subject, she urged caution on the decision and called the process divisive. The story of Brooks during Watergate is a timely example of what an opposition party can do not only to face down the president’s party but its own members who fear looking too partisan or corrupt to pursue impeachment forcefully and unapologetically.
Lawmakers began openly discussing impeaching Nixon in the summer of 1973 after the conclusion of the Senate’s Watergate hearings. The idea continued circulating through the fall and peaked after Oct. 20, the date that became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was adamant about receiving full, unedited tapes of the president’s conversations in the Oval Office and had refused to accept summarized material in their stead, so Nixon told Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. When he refused, Nixon accepted Richardson’s resignation and then demanded that his second in command, Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, fire the special prosecutor. When he refused, Nixon accepted his resignation as well and called upon an even lower-ranking official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, suddenly promoted to acting attorney general, who finally fired Cox and abolished the office of special prosecutor.
Jerome Waldie, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said outright that he would bring forward impeachment resolutions once his committee reconvened. Within days, more than 60 congressmen had signed resolutions calling for impeachment. Brooks himself had not yet gone public with his position on the issue, but even many Republicans in Congress were openly admitting that impeachment proceedings were now very likely.
A list of 37 potential charges against Nixon, introduced in various resolutions and including crimes ranging from domestic surveillance to illegal campaign practices, were now the subject of intense debate in Congress. House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino and special counsel John Doar equivocated on how to decide the official charges against Nixon. Neither felt confident, and the committee’s proceedings seemed to languish month after month, capturing headlines but moving nowhere. Observers wondered whether the chairman was unwilling or just inept.
Brooks, on the other hand, felt assured. In early July 1974, he seized the initiative by drafting the articles himself, along with the help of staff. As far as Brooks, the tough-talking former Marine who relished legislative fights, was concerned, Rodino “wasn’t worth a shit” in the impeachment process, as Brooks later told an interviewer. Rodino was fair and experienced as a legislator, but Brooks thought he “didn’t have the guts a chairman needs to have.”
While other lawmakers were concerned about looking overzealous or too partisan, Brooks’ concerns were larger. Nixon was clearly guilty of impeachable offenses, had violated his oath and needed to be removed, regardless of any future political fallout the Democrats might suffer for it. Brooks made it no secret that he was enthusiastically pursuing impeachment and conviction. At a Democratic Caucus amid the Judiciary Committee hearings for his impeachment articles, for instance, someone asked about the theme of the second article concerning Nixon’s alleged misuse of the FBI, CIA and IRS. Brooks, as one staffer remembered it, was leaning way back in his chair and smoking a cigar. He came down on the chair hard, took the cigar out of his mouth, and said, “The theme of this article is we’re gonna get that son of a bitch out of there!”
To Brooks, the Judiciary had been chosen to be the tip of the spear. Brooks was determined that it be a sharp one.
There was reason for Rodino and others to be trigger-shy when it came to starting impeachment proceedings. Actual impeachment experience was scarce in Washington. The authorities and guidelines for an impeachment are loosely laid out in the Constitution, but there had not been an impeachment of a president for over 100 years, since Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868. Lawmakers who understood the practical implications of such archaic and vague terms as “high crimes and misdemeanors” were few and far between.
Brooks was an exception. In 1970, at the urging of then-Rep. Gerald Ford from the floor of the House, 25 representatives submitted a resolution to the Rules Committee to impeach the staunchly liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on the grounds that he had misbehaved while on the court and had accepted speaking fees from a private organization with income from casinos. Ford also alleged that the jurist had written “revolutionary” articles for left-wing and pornographic magazines. The resolution charged Douglas with high crimes and misdemeanors and misbehavior in office.
Brooks sat on the special subcommittee responsible for the Douglas impeachment investigation. In the subcommittee’s first report, several distinctions were presented that would later have significance in Nixon’s impeachment proceedings, all of which were highlighted in Brooks’ copy of the report.
Impeachment resembles a regular criminal indictment and trial but it is not the same thing. It relates solely to the accused’s right to hold civil office … the framers of the Constitution clearly established that impeachment is a unique political device; designed explicitly to dislodge from public office those who are patently unfit for it, but cannot otherwise be promptly removed … About the only thing authorities can agree upon … is that an offense need not be indictable to be impeachable. In other words, something less than a criminal act or criminal dereliction of duty may nevertheless be sufficient grounds for impeachment and removal from public office.
So Brooks already knew just how murky the question of impeachment could be—that in some instances, a felony criminal offense might not rise to the level of grounds for impeachment but that politicians had been removed from office for activities that broke no state or federal laws. For example, if the president had misused the FBI or directed the CIA to act outside his authority as president, that would not have constituted a crime. However, in that it undermined his duty as president, Brooks and most Democrats were adamant that it would be an impeachable offense.
Further complicating matters was the fact that the official in question now was not just any public servant but the president, whose standing at the top of the executive branch made this case without precedent.
This experience paid off as Brooks drafted the articles and fought off others’ efforts to push him to define impeachable offenses according to their agendas. Nixon’s defense attorney, James St. Clair, and Edward Hutchinson, the most senior Republican on the Judiciary, wanted the committee to define an impeachable offense as a felony, a strictly criminal offense. That would be the more severe charge and also harder to prove, especially given the wide berth of executive powers typically granted a president. The White House and Republican members of the Judiciary also fought to have the investigation delineated very clearly around the Watergate cover-up. Anything further, they argued, was beyond the scope of what the House inquiry had been set up to investigate. Brooks, most of the Democrats and even some Republicans disagreed. They were concerned with what was described as a pattern of behavior that was unbecoming to the office of the presidency and perhaps criminal in nature.
Brooks was fully aware of the rights granted to the House in an impeachment, and he would not have the inquiry proceedings encumbered by anyone. He proceeded with the now-established criteria, which are political offenses that prove an individual unfit to hold public office—not necessarily crimes.
The wording had to be perfect, too. Brooks was determined that if Nixon was going to beat these charges, it was not going to be because of a technicality in the language. Brooks marked up and crossed out drafts repeatedly before distributing the articles of impeachment among committee members.
By July 18, leaked copies were in the hands of the Associated Press and the New York Times. The next day, a young Rep. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) was chosen to read them aloud, formally introducing them before the committee and assembled media. The first three articles—and the only ones that passed out of committee before Nixon’s resignation—read:
“ … Richard M. Nixon, using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation of such illegal entry; to cover up, conceal and protect those responsible; and to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”
Article II—Misuse of Presidential Power
“. . . Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposed of these agencies.”
Article III—Disobeying Subpoenas from Congress
“Nixon. . . in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives on April 11, 1974, May 15, 1974, May 30, 1974, and June 24, 1974, and willfully disobeyed such subpoenas.”
On July 24, in a case that had worked its way up from Nixon’s refusal to comply with the Judiciary Committee’s original subpoenas, the Supreme Court justices, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Nixon must turn over the full Oval Office tapes.
Attention immediately turned to Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building, where the Judiciary Committee was set to begin 10 hours of formal debate on the first and most important article of impeachment. Though there would be others considered, if even just one article passed, it meant the full House would be compelled to vote on impeaching the president. Watching them intently were over 100 reporters, 75 other spectators and an entire nation glued to its televisions. Each member was given 15 minutes to speak.
When Brooks spoke, it was clear why he had thrown himself so fully into drafting the impeachment articles. “This is not a pleasant duty, but it is our constitutional duty,” he said. “Its performance may mean ignoring personal and political relationships of long standing. But we as well as the president are on trial for how faithfully we fulfill our constitutional responsibility.”
On the night of July 27, 1974, a Saturday, the Judiciary Committee convened to consider the first article of impeachment. When the vote was finally cast, six Republicans joined all 21 Democrats to pass the obstruction charge. Nixon was swimming at his home in San Clemente, Calif., when the vote passed. When an aide called to relay the news, the president was standing barefoot in his beach trailer getting dressed, wearing old trousers and a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the presidential seal.
There were still other articles to consider, and during the next three days the committee would pass two more.
On July 31, the sixth and final day of open debate, Brooks said, “No man in America can be above the law. It is our duty to establish now that evidence of specific statutory crimes and constitutional violations by the president of the United States will subject all presidents, now and in the future, to impeachment.”
One week later, under incredible pressure on all sides, even from the leadership of his own party, Nixon released the transcripts of three conversations he had had with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman one week after the Watergate break-in, in which the president demanded that the FBI stop investigating. This was explicit proof that Nixon had been involved in Watergate and then knowingly obstructed the investigation.
The tide had shifted. Even hard-line supporters of Nixon who had fought every attack against him were now speaking publicly about their decisions to vote for impeachment. And thanks to Brooks’ skilled handiwork, the issue of impeachment was now a loaded gun. Nixon finally saw that it was time to step down.
This article is adapted from THE MEANEST MAN IN CONGRESS: JACK BROOKS AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CENTURY, published by New South Books this week.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
AMES, Iowa—The presidential run of Beto O’Rourke is a profoundly personality-driven exercise, his charisma and Kennedy-esque demeanor the topic of one profile after another, so it’s surprising to listen to his speeches on the stump in which he doesn’t talk a whole lot about himself. In Iowa recently, over several days in a rainy, foggy, uncertain stretch of spring, O’Rourke delivered a series of speeches and held question-and-answer sessions in which he spoke at length about unity, civility and inclusivity, and only rarely touched on his personal story. There was one notable exception: When he did offer up bits of his biography, he leaned most heavily on his run last year against Ted Cruz for a spot in the United States Senate.
He recounted for the crowds tales of the places he went and the people he met during his barnstorming, freewheeling, attention-getting campaign, coming back to two numbers: 254, the number of counties in gargantuan Texas, all of which he visited … and the percentage-point margin by which he was defeated.
“We lost by 2.6 percent,” he said in a basement music venue here at Iowa State University.
“We lost that Senate race in Texas by 2.6 percent,” he said in a downtown greasy spoon in Storm Lake.
“We came within 2.6 percentage points of defeating Ted Cruz,” he said in a community college cafeteria in Fort Dodge.
“So close,” the local party leader said in introducing O’Rourke one morning at a brewpub in Carroll. “So close.”
The part of his past that he talked about the most, by far, was a race that he lost.
O’Rourke, 46, campaigns with the wanderlust of the wannabe punk rocker he once was and the vigor of the regular runner, hiker and cyclist he still is. His hair is somehow simultaneously boyish and salt-and-pepper-streaked. He drives himself around in rented Dodge minivans, dressed almost always in plain brown shoes, Banana Republic chinos and blue oxford shirts with no tie and the sleeves rolled up just so. He often dons locally appropriate dad hats, from a maroon Iowa State cap at Iowa State to an orange Clemson cap at Clemson and so on. He holds microphones with his right hand kind of like a singer, and he extends his left arm into the air kind of like a preacher, and he punctuates his points with grins that flash perfectly imperfect teeth.
After Iowa, I dropped in on O’Rourke on the trail in South Carolina and Virginia, listening to him rat-a-tat-tat through his airy, often alliterative talking points about “common cause” and “common ground” and “common good” and “conscientious capitalism” and “our aspirations” and “our ambitions” instead of the “pettiness” and the “partisanship” of politics today, along with planks of a nascent platform like a new voting rights act, citizenship for Dreamers, “world-class public education” and “guaranteed, high-quality, universal health care.” And almost always, when he did talk about himself, it would be back to the time he fell just short. “We lost by 2.6 percent,” he said to a small, low-key gathering in rural Denmark, South Carolina.
Celebrating defeat is unusual for a politician, and doing so makes O’Rourke notably different from the rest of the unwieldy field of Democrats running for president. In contrast to the 20 or so other 2020 candidates—all of them in various ways overachievers who tout the litanies of their successes—O’Rourke instead presents his loss to Cruz as a prominent selling point. More than his ownership of a small business. More than his six years on the city council in his native El Paso. More than his next six years as a back-bench House member in Congress. His near-miss against a prominent Republican in a red state was such a high-quality failure, so epically heroic, he seems to suggest, that it should be considered something of a victory. And he’s not wrong to do it. His failed Senate bid, after all, is singularly what made him famous, what got him an interview with Oprah, what put him on the cover of Vanity Fair—and what’s put him in the top handful of aspirants angling for a shot to topple President Donald Trump.
But while it might be his most spotlit miss, it’s not an aberration.
There’s a reason his biography doesn’t feature much in the campaign. For O’Rourke, the phenomenon on display in that race—failure without negative effects, and with perhaps even some kind of personal boost—is a feature of his life and career. That biography is marked as much by meandering, missteps and moments of melancholic searching as by résumé-boosting victories and honors. A graduate of an eastern prep school and an Ivy League rower and English major, the only son of a gregarious attorney and glad-handing pol and the proprietor of an upscale furniture store, the beneficiary of his family’s expansive social, business and political contacts, O’Rourke has ambled past a pair of arrests, designed websites for El Paso’s who’s who, launched short-lived publishing projects, self-term-limited his largely unremarkable tenure on Capitol Hill, shunned the advice of pollsters and consultants and penned overwrought, solipsistic Medium missives, enjoying the latitude afforded by the cushion of an upper-middle-class upbringing that is only amplified by his marriage to the daughter of one of the region’s richest men.
“With a charmed life like his, you can never really lose,” an ad commissioned by the conservative Club for Growth sneered last month. “That’s why Beto’s running for president—because he can.”
“A life of privilege,” David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, told me.
It’s not just Republicans who think this. “He’s a rich, straight, white dude who, you know, married into what should politely be called ‘fuck you money,’” Sonia Van Meter, an Austin-based Democratic consultant and self-described “raging feminist,” told me. “His biggest success is by definition a failure,” she added. “He’s absolutely failed up.”
Even by the experience-light standards of the most recent occupants of the White House—a first-term senator followed by a real estate scion and reality TV star—the notion of O’Rourke’s uneven résumé blazing a path to the presidency is new and remarkable. For the moment, he is trailing and slipping in the polls, but it’s early, and he is still attracting besotted fans. The support O’Rourke built that even allowed this run in the first place did not depend on traditional concepts of meritocracy and diligent preparation. To look deeper into his past, to talk to his friends from his teens and his 20s, to read distant clips from money-losing media ventures, and to talk to voters, too, is to see a different kind of claim to excellence. In the end, O’Rourke’s best recommendation that he can win might be that he knows how to fail big—and then aim even higher.
O’Rourke’s ascent in some sense started more than 20 years back. In the summer of 1998, he made the choice to quit New York. He had graduated in 1995 from Columbia University, then spent most of the next three years playing, listening to and talking about music, reading the Economist and the New Yorker, drinking Budweiser, riding in cramped subway cars. He had worked for short periods as a nanny, a copy editor, a hired-hand mover of art and antiques, and in a series of odd jobs around the city that let him split cheap rent in a sparsely furnished Brooklyn loft where he liked to jump on a rooftop trampoline. Now, though, he wanted out, and so he bought a used pickup and drove home, steering toward more open road. He was, he has said, “young” and “happy” and “carefree.”
This decision to leave New York, his longtime friend Lisa Degliantoni told me recently, was and remains O’Rourke’s biggest, most consequential accomplishment—not just a learning experience or a tail-between-his-legs withdrawal, she believes, but an accomplishment. In her mind, it unleashed O’Rourke, allowing him to be “transformational”—first for his city, then for his state, and now potentially for his country.
Trading the bright lights and the bustle for the relative ease and isolation of the desert by the Mexican border, Degliantoni said, was risky, “because as soon as you’re there, you’re off all the radars.” That risk was mitigated significantly, however, by what he was heading home to, according to interviews with nearly two dozen people who have known him or worked with O’Rourke. Riding shotgun in the cab of that pickup was Mike Stevens, another one of his best friends, and when they logged the last of those 2,200 or so miles, Stevens told me, waiting for O’Rourke in El Paso was far from certain success but also “a pretty large safety net.”
He used it. Upon his return, he worked at first in the warehouse of his mother’s store. That fall, he was arrested after driving drunk in his Volvo at 3 a.m. and sideswiping a truck at “a high rate of speed” on Interstate 10. He went to “DWI school,” finishing the next spring.
It was his second arrest. Three years before, he had been apprehended by the police at the University of Texas El Paso after tripping an alarm trying to sneak under a fence at the campus physical plant while “horsing around” with friends. Prosecutors didn’t pursue the charge. (“No consequences,” said McIntosh from the Club for Growth.)
The next year, in 1999, O’Rourke started the Stanton Street Technology Group, an offshoot of which was StantonStreet.com. The website covered the arts and food and local politics and endeavored to be “the most comprehensive, interactive, and entertaining home page in the Southwest.” In the summer of 2000, it was registering 32,000 monthly “impressions,” according to O’Rourke at the time, a figure whose impact is hard to gauge given the early era of the internet and the size of El Paso—but the site also was bleeding money, taking from the coffers of the web design business. Even so, in January 2002, he launched a weekly print version. Bob Moore, the former editor of the El Paso Times, told me he used to rib O’Rourke that one of his few advertisers was his mother—“his only advertiser,” he said, “for the longest time.” It lasted 15 issues.
The newspaper was, said Degliantoni, who worked on it with him, O’Rourke’s “love letter to his hometown” but also “probably in hindsight not the best move.” Even O’Rourke joked about it recently in his remarks in Storm Lake. “In a brilliant stroke of genius, just as print newspapers were in decline,” he told the standing room only, shoulder to shoulder, coffee shop throng, “I started a print newspaper.”
The result? “We bankrupted the operation,” O’Rourke said to what sounded like good-natured, forgiving titters.
He had run the website and started the paper “to be as engaged as I possibly could,” he later explained. “The logical conclusion,” he continued, “was to run for office.”
He ran for City Council in 2005 and won, and won again in 2007, backed by El Paso’s business elite, and then he ran for Congress in 2012, challenging in the primary Silvestre “Silver” Reyes, an eight-term incumbent who would have the endorsements of a pair of presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and never before had had even a close call in a reelection. It was, political analysts in the area agreed at the time, a bid that smacked of audacity and risk. “It’s close to impossible to get a sitting member of Congress out of office because of the privilege and power,” O’Rourke said early on in his campaign.
But O’Rourke, of course, had a share of both as well, hailing from “an old El Paso political family,” as a local columnist pointed out, calling O’Rourke “just as ‘household’ around here as the stately congressman himself.” A company owned by his father-in-law, the real estate tycoon Bill Sanders—he’s worth at least an estimated half a billion dollars—gave $18,750 to a PAC that supported O’Rourke’s campaign. Reyes threw around the words “family wealth” and charged that O’Rourke was “a show pony” and “part of the 1 percent.”
In the end, though, painting Reyes as an aging Washington insider, and employing block-by-block door knocking, O’Rourke won with 50.5 percent of the vote.
Friends and admirers say O’Rourke is nothing if not a hard worker, wearing out shoes and racking up miles. “I think he’s the hardest-working man in U.S. politics,” said Steve Kling, a Democrat who lost last year running for the Texas state Senate. They describe him as an exceptional listener.
In his three terms in Washington, O’Rourke compiled a moderate to centrist voting record, which in this left-leaning primary could become problematic. He was known in D.C. as sufficiently affable but also something of a loner, say Capitol Hill staffers, a floating, unthreatening member who had undercut his clout by pledging to stay no more than four terms.
When he began his race against Cruz, it’s easy to forget, O’Rourke was close to unknown—even in Texas. Cruz, on the other hand, was one of the most prominent Republicans in the nation, and no Democrat had won a statewide campaign since 1994. Texas Senator and Majority Whip John Cornyn dubbed it “a suicide mission.”
But what, strategists and operatives say now, did O’Rourke really have to lose? He had engineered his own congressional exit, anyway, 2018 was shaping up to be a favorable year for Democrats, and Cruz was a legendarily unpopular foil against whom he could rally support. And the worst-case scenario? Something O’Rourke had done before. Just go home. Go back to El Paso. Failure, in fact, was an option.
“Beto,” Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson told Texas Monthly in March 2017, “lives life with a cushy net beneath him.”
“It wasn’t that big of a risk,” Texas-based GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser told me.
The biggest risk he took in the Senate bid, in the estimation of politicos in Texas and beyond, was to listen to people who lived in all 254 of the counties in Texas more than he did to people who could have armed with him with more targeted data. He tended to rely on feelings more than numbers. It was a root of his populist allure—and also perhaps the reason he didn’t win.
In his concession speech, he positioned himself at the center of a stage decked out with floodlights and speakers and drums, a scene evocative of a rock concert more than a convening of the dejected supporters of a failed candidate and campaign.
“I’m so fucking proud of you guys!” he hollered, eliciting squeals from his fans.
They chanted his name.
“Beto! Beto! Beto!”
After O’Rourke’s recent event in Sioux City, Iowa, I talked to two people who had traveled from different states to see him specifically because of that night. Because they had been inspired by how he spoke about losing. Chris Untiet, 35, had come from California. He works for Habitat for Humanity, and he told me he had watched the speech on the screen of his phone while on a trip to build houses in Vietnam. “I was really moved to tears,” he told me. The other was Claire Campbell. She’s 17. She saw the speech sitting in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and will vote for the first time in next year’s presidential election. And she hopes she can pick O’Rourke. “I literally love him,” she told me. In the question-and-answer session, she raised her hand and asked him to her prom.
“So, he had to lose the Senate,” Kim Olson, a Democrat and staunch O’Rourke ally who last year lost her bid to be Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, was telling me as I hurtled ahead on a ribbon of road slicing through flat fields, from one Iowa campaign stop to the next. “He had to get the nationwide name recognition. He had to do the hard work. And let me tell you: It’s fricking hard work running as a statewide candidate—as it’s going to be countrywide … grind, every day, all day—and here he is, after losing in a hard-fought race, he said, ‘I’m still going to serve, I’m still going to go, and I’m going to run for president.’ So, yeah, you could say his greatest accomplishment was to lose by, you know, 300,000 votes to a guy who almost won a primary for the president. But that wasn’t his greatest accomplishment. It wasn’t the loss—it’s how he did it—that was his greatest accomplishment. It was going to everywhere, all the time, speaking to people, getting out there, not being afraid of anybody or anything and doing that hard grind that it takes. That’s why it makes him an incredible candidate for president, I think.”
Olson, affable and voluble, in essence attempted to redefine the idea of failure. O’Rourke hadn’t failed. Because he had tried and worked so hard. Because the experience had opened other doors.
At many of the dozen or so O’Rourke events I attended of late, most of the people I talked to knew not a whole lot about him—hardly anything, really, about what he had done, or not done, before the race against Cruz. Maybe they had seen what he said about the kneeling National Football League players in a clip that lit up the internet. Maybe they had seen the Oprah interview. Maybe they had seen the Annie Leibovitz shot on the cover of Vanity Fair. The conversations were a reminder that most people not in Washington or even Texas have basically just met him.
“Is he a lawyer?” 70-year-old Ruth Lux from little Lidderdale, Iowa, asked me after O’Rourke’s pit stop in nearby Carroll.
“No,” I said.
“What did he do before he got into politics?” she asked.
I provided a speedy rundown to the Cruz race.
“I think the fact that he came so close to unseating Cruz, that’s pretty important,” Lux said. “A lot of people are relating to what he’s saying, you know.”
I asked her if she was bothered by O’Rourke’s lack of experience compared with other candidates in the Democratic field. She wasn’t. “I don’t know that Obama had much more,” she said. “Did he really have much more experience than this guy? Really probably not.”
The man who introduced O’Rourke at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge responded similarly. “I heard the same thing in 2008 when I was supporting Obama,” David Drissel, a professor of social sciences, told me. O’Rourke, he pointed out, has not only more congressional experience than Obama but “more congressional experience than the past four presidents combined.” I did the quick math. Trump. Obama. The second Bush. Clinton. True enough.
Obviously, the bar for the requisite experience for the Oval Office has been recalibrated over the past decade or more of presidential campaigns, and doesn’t necessarily run through Congress at all. But voters haven’t entirely abandoned their desire for a candidate to win—and then actually do something. For all the shrugging over his résumé, people at O’Rourke’s town halls clearly, too, were pressing for specifics. I listened to multiple people ask him explicitly to put meat on the bones of his ideas.
Their questions to him often boiled down to one word: How?
Then, when I asked them if they had heard from him what they had wanted to hear, their answers often boiled down to one word as well: No.
Jason Levick, 27, who had driven from Omaha to see O’Rourke, wanted to know how he would cut down on wealth and income inequality.
“A little bit rambling and not really to the point or concrete,” Levick told me.
Brendan Grady, 26, asked O’Rourke in Denison how he would address the “lack of social cohesion.”
“Didn’t really address it,” Grady told me.
Mike Poe, 64, asked O’Rourke in Marshalltown how he would manage to enact meaningful gun control.
“Vague,” Poe told me.
I heard the same thing in South Carolina. In Denmark, at O’Rourke’s town hall in a threadbare auditorium on the campus of tiny Voorhees College, Sailesh S. Radha from Columbia stood up and expressed his frustration that so many presidents can’t seem to make good on their promises after they get elected. How would O’Rourke, Radha wondered, turn his words into actions? Into accomplishments?
After the event, when I asked him what he thought of the answer, Radha shook his head and made a face. “I need to hear more from him,” he said.
And yet, and in spite of a stage of the campaign that’s started to feel more like an ebb than a flow, if I had to divide every crowd into two groups—the squinty, not-quite-satisfied versus those inspired by O’Rourke’s table-hopping battle cries and open to the viability of his candidacy—there was no shortage of dewy-eyed believers.
Many people were struck by his energy and his charisma and his gauzy optimism. They heard echoes of iconic Democrats from the past and saw, they said, a possible path forward—a potential winner—somebody who might be the one to take on Trump. “I’m thinking back to the first encounter with President Obama here at Morningside College,” retiree Mike Goodwin told me after the event in Sioux City.
Lux, meanwhile, the woman in Carroll who thought maybe O’Rourke was a lawyer, waited in line after the event and shook his hand and told Robert Francis O’Rourke he reminded her of … Robert Francis Kennedy. O’Rourke told her thank you. He told her RFK is one of his heroes.
“The charisma,” Lux said when I asked her about the comparison. “The compassion for people at the bottom. Actually, even the physical appearance—the hair, the rolled-up shirt sleeves.”
She told me she had entered 2007 enthused to vote for Hillary Clinton in the caucuses and then for president. But she ended up going for Obama.
“You know, always, it comes down to: How do you present yourself? How charismatic are you?” Lux said. And she said something I heard from many others as well. She was less interested in policy proposals than she was in the possibility of victory. Especially now. “I am more interested,” she said, “in who can unseat Trump.”
It’s one of the few things, it seems, all Democratic voters seem to agree on. “I think that what caucus-goers are looking for is to defeat Donald Trump,” said Norm Sturzenbach, O’Rourke’s state director in Iowa. “That’s ultimately what’s driving it.”
Steinhauser, the GOP strategist from Texas, agreed. “I wouldn’t want to run a campaign against O’Rourke,” he said. He pointed to what he was able to do in … almost beating Cruz. “Look back at what just happened here. It’s pretty incredible. Who else out there on the list really excited people in that way and is the young-looking guy? He reminds a lot of people of Obama or John F. Kennedy or those kinds of candidates.”
Even with his thin résumé? His hazy policies? Steinhauser cut me off.
“Nobody cares,” he said.
“Donald Trump’s policy positions did not matter,” he added, although it should be noted that his visceral pitches in areas like immigration mattered a lot. “I think Democrats want to beat Donald Trump. I think that they’re smart enough to know they need somebody who can win, whatever that means.”
Whether the failed-upward O’Rourke can be that “somebody,” of course, very much remains to be seen. The Iowa caucuses are nearly nine months away, and there’s a long year and a half to go between now and November 2020.
But one recent morning at a seafood restaurant in Ladson, South Carolina, all the booths jammed full, people standing in the back and all the way toward the door, an O’Rourke aide handed the microphone to 69-year-old Stephen Johnson from Mount Pleasant for the last question of the event.
“Congressman O’Rourke,” Johnson said. “I really like you a lot. But there’s one thing I want to know. If you get the Democratic nomination, will you beat Trump?”
O’Rourke answered the question almost before Johnson could finish getting it out of his mouth.
“Yes,” he said.
The people roared.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Beto O’Rourke is adding a pair of seasoned strategists to his campaign, injecting a measure of establishment credibility that was lacking in his improvisational Senate bid against Ted Cruz last year.
Lauren Brainerd, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s field director in 2018, has been hired as national organizing director. And Lise Clavel, who worked in former Vice President Joe Biden’s office as director of public engagement and for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection, has been named states director, campaign sources told POLITICO.
The moves are an attempt by O’Rourke to shift toward a more mainstream operation after a Senate run in which his campaign focused heavily — almost indiscriminately — on voter turnout. Though O’Rourke’s effort in Texas resulted in a closer-than-expected loss to Cruz, his advisers have acknowledged that campaigning against a field of other high-profile Democrats will require a more precise targeting of voters, especially in early-nominating states.
O’Rourke’s efforts to bring veteran staffers on board has come as a relief to supporters who feared his unorthodox campaign in Texas — largely an effort to turn out hundreds of thousands of inactive voters — lacked the discipline necessary for a presidential campaign.
Still, O’Rourke is trying to replicate successful elements of his Senate run. That includes some version of a “distributed organizing” model of field organizing in which the campaign recruits and trains volunteers to run their own outreach programs on O’Rourke’s behalf.
In addition to Brainerd and a yet-to-be-named deputy, O’Rourke has hired seven staffers for the national organizing arm of his campaign, all of whom worked on O’Rourke’s Senate race.
“Our campaign started out with the benefit of one of the most innovative and remarkable organizing teams in Democratic politics,” campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, an Obama veteran and data expert, said in a statement. “These folks dramatically raised the bar on voter engagement and turnout in Texas for the first time in generations. With Lise and Lauren joining our growing team, our grass-roots campaign is ideally positioned to make history across the nation in the same way: by reaching every household in every neighborhood in every community, and talking with Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds about Beto’s vision for a united, prosperous, and secure America.”
The transition from O’Rourke’s Senate campaign to his presidential run has not always been smooth. O’Rourke’s recent hires come after the departure of Becky Bond and Zack Malitz, two senior strategists who worked on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential effort — both evangelists for the distributed organizing model. Their exits, along with the arrival of Obama and Clinton alums in leadership positions, drew skepticism from some progressives about the influence of establishment forces on O’Rourke’s campaign.
O’Rourke is also starting relatively late in the primary season to assemble his national staff. O’Malley Dillon only recently moved to El Paso, Texas, to begin working at his headquarters there.
But O’Malley Dillon, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and deputy campaign manager to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, is bringing on a roster of staffers with long experience in the Democratic Party.
Clavel, a former chief of staff to then-Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), was Virginia state director for Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Brainerd worked as a regional organizing director for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and campaign director for the Virginia Democratic Party.
Before Brainerd and Clavel were unveiled, the campaign announced the hiring of Jeff Berman, Obama’s venerated delegate selection director and a delegate strategist for Clinton in 2016, as his senior adviser for delegate strategy.
Rob Flaherty, the former deputy digital communications director for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and creative director of the progressive super PAC Priorities USA, has also joined O’Rourke.
Despite a hoopla-filled campaign launch and frenzied few months on the stump — O’Rourke’s done more than 150 events since March — the former Texas congressman slumped to about 5 percent nationally in the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. He acknowledged last week that he needs to “do a better job” reaching a national audience and is set to participate in a CNN town hall Tuesday.
“What the hell happened?” President Donald Trump said of O’Rourke last week. “Beto’s falling fast.”
But supporters and Democrats familiar with his Senate campaign say his recent hires are an encouraging sign he recognizes the flaws of his Senate run and is determined to correct course.
“If he did not learn from his last race, that would be shocking malpractice, and it sounds like he has,” said Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz in the 2018 Senate campaign.
O’Rourke eschewed the modern trappings of a typical campaign apparatus last year, set on doing it his way. “It was an incomplete campaign. And I mean that mechanically. They should have had consultants. They should have had pollsters. They should have gone negative, much more negative, much, much faster,” Lippincott said.
Despite O'Rourke's slide in most polls, his campaign has been touting a recent CNN survey that showed him beating Trump in a hypothetical matchup by a wider margin — 10 percentage points — than other top-tier Democrat. The $9.4 million that O’Rourke raised in the first quarter of the year will likely keep him competitive deep into the primary regardless of his position in the polls. And he is assembling seasoned staffers in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire to prepare ground operations in those early-nominating states, even as he continues to build out his national operation.
“I just think it’s a strong signal to Beto’s fans that he’s not messing around,” said New Hampshire Democratic activist Jay Surdukowski, who co-chaired Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign in the state. “And I think that’s good. He can be as much of a maverick as he wants, and at the end of the day there are certain things you have to do to win, and I think he’s doing them.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on May 20 released his plan to fight climate change, making him the third candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee to unveil a broad proposal on the issue this cycle.What would the plan do?
Bennet’s plan aims to put the nation on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 or earlier, but it does not outline specific policies such as a carbon tax or clean energy mandates. Bennet says specifics policies would come “in the first 100 days of the administration” through talks with Congress and voters.
Instead, the plan calls for a “Climate X Option” that would require utilities to provide “zero-emission energy to every household and business,” a new national conservation initiative and a “Climate Bank” to spur private investment. A net-zero goal would require any greenhouse gas emissions to be offset by reforestation or other techniques.
If Congress does not pass climate legislation, Bennet said he would use the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory powers to drive carbon reductions.
“I think the Clean Air Act is a very strong and flexible tool for requiring reductions from individual sectors,” the senator said on a press call Monday.How much would it cost?
$1 trillion in federal spending over a decade.
Bennet would use that federal funding to launch a Climate Bank to “catalyze $10 trillion in private-sector innovation and infrastructure investment in climate technologies at home and abroad," according to the plan.Who would it help?
Bennet says the “Climate X Option” will expand opportunities for Americans to choose clean energy technologies, and the Climate Bank would create “new markets for American businesses not just at home, but also around the world.”What have other Democrats proposed?
Bennet’s plan is less detailed than recent policy announcements from two of his rivals, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Early in May, Inslee released a plan for 100% clean energy, including mandating carbon-neutral power from the nation’s electric utilities by 2030 and a goal for zero-emission cars and small trucks by 2030. Last week, he bolstered those proposals with his Evergreen Economy Plan, a slate of 28 policies that he says will support the transition.
Late last month, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke unveiled his vision for the government and private sector to spend $5 trillion over 10 years on clean energy infrastructure. That plan, however, did not detail how the U.S. would reach dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of the other candidates have coalesced around ambitious climate action along the lines of the Green New Deal advanced by activists and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).Who opposes it?
Republicans and the fossil-fuel sector are likely to oppose a nationwide mandate for carbon-free power from electric utilities. They also are likely to fight any greenhouse gas regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency in court.
Progressive Democrats and activists, conversely, are likely to call for more ambitious and specific plans from presidential candidates than Bennet's initial plan lays out. In particular, activists in the Sunrise Movement and other left-of-center environmental groups have called for policies to end fossil fuel consumption.How would it work?
Bennet’s plan leaves much of the detailed policymaking for the first days of his potential administration. In the first 100 days, he would launch an initiative to “engage people from across the country” to develop the particulars of his climate policy. He also would convene world leaders for a “global climate summit.”
If Congress does not pass climate legislation, Bennet said on Monday that his EPA regulations could look similar to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut carbon from electric utilities before it was rolled back by President Donald Trump.
“Although it’s our strong preference that Congress take on this issue, if a corruption of inaction continues to prevent it, we will act through the authority the Clean Air Act and other statutes grant the President,” the plan reads. “And we will commit the resources necessary to the Departments of Justice and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to defend that action in court.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
BURLINGTON, Vt. — It’s 1988 and newlywed Bernie Sanders is in the Soviet Union with his wife, Jane, handing out gifts to the mayor of a midsized city they’ve befriended. The mood is festive as the two bestow the items: A Beatles album, a red “Bernie for Burlington” button, “delicious Vermont candy” and a tape of tunes Sanders recorded himself with fellow artists from Vermont, among other goodies.
“I have met many fine mayors in the United States,” Sanders says, “but I want to say that one of the nicest mayors I've ever met is the mayor of Yaroslavl.”
At another point, a member of Sanders’ delegation hands a Russian woman a small American flag.
“If you’re wondering what’s wrong with capitalism, it’s made in Hong Kong," he jokes. "Sorry about that.”
The scene is part of 3½ hours of raw, never publicly seen footage of the trip Sanders took to the Soviet Union that year — his “honeymoon.” POLITICO viewed the tapes this week, along with a forgotten hourlong episode of a TV show created by Sanders that featured the same trip, at the offices of a Vermont government access channel.
Earlier this year, two minutes of the long-lost videos went viral when a staffer at Chittenden County’s Channel 17 posted a compilation of the station’s archival footage online. The clip featured a shirtless Sanders and other Americans singing “This Land Is Your Land” to their hosts after relaxing in a sauna. A few minutes later, Sanders doled out the gifts to his Russian friends with a towel wrapped around his waist.
But that’s only the beginning. The hours of footage include a scene of Sanders sitting with his delegation at a table under a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Sanders can also be heard extolling the virtues of Soviet life and culture, even as he acknowledges some of their shortcomings. There are flashes of humor, too, such as his host warning the American guests not to cross the KGB, or else.
The video also paints a fuller picture of why Sanders ventured to the land of America’s No. 1 enemy in the midst of the Cold War, the anti-war idealism that fueled his journey, and what he found when he got there.
Over the course of 10 days, Sanders, who was then the mayor of Burlington, and his dozen-member delegation traveled to three cities: Moscow, Yaroslavl and Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. Their goal was to establish a “sister city” relationship with Yaroslavl, a community along the Volga River home to about 500,000 people. At the time, the Soviet Union was beginning to open itself to the world, if only slightly — and Sanders was a self-described socialist with an unusually large interest in foreign affairs for a mayor.
“It wasn’t as outlandish as it looks in the pictures,” William Pomeranz, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, said after hearing a description of the footage. “It’s the height of Glasnost and Perestroika, where there are genuine efforts by Americans to reach out to Soviet cities and try to establish these relationships.”
At the time, Sanders was 46 and nearing the end of his eight years as Burlington mayor, which tracked precisely with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Two years later, Sanders would be elected to Congress.
As mayor, Sanders worried about a potential nuclear war and railed against the bloated military budgets of both the United States and the Soviet Union. A year before the trip, he laid out his vision for a sister-city relationship. "By encouraging citizen-to-citizen exchanges — of young people, artists and musicians, business people, public officials, and just plain ordinary citizens," he said in a speech, "we can break down the barriers and stereotypes which exist between the Soviet Union and the United States.”
Sanders’ opponents, though, will likely find much in the tapes to call outlandish. And in a campaign season in which Democrats are concerned about nothing more than defeating President Donald Trump, there’s plenty of material that Democratic voters might worry the Republican Party could spin into a 30-second negative ad.
Sanders is seen living it up with Russians. There are, naturally, shrines to Lenin everywhere. In one scene, Sanders and his wife, as well as other couples, boogie to live Russian music. “I brought my special dancing shoes!” Sanders exclaims.
Later, he tells a Russian man, “I’m not very happy about this, but there are not many people in the state of Vermont who speak Russian. In fact, one of the things that we want to do is to see if we can develop a Russian studies program in our high school.”
At another point, one of Sanders’ hosts jokingly warns the delegation to not upset the KGB: “Those who don't behave move to Siberia from here."
For now, many of the videos will remain available for viewing only in CCTV’s archives. POLITICO learned about the tapes after reporting on a TV show Sanders created while mayor called “Bernie Speaks With the Community.” The government-access channel is not planning to put the raw tapes documenting the Soviet Union trip online because they never aired, said executive director Lauren-Glenn Davitian. However, she does intend to post the lost episode of Sanders’ TV show online soon.
The tapes also reveal Sanders and his team being wooed by the Soviet Union: They eat nice-looking meals, tour a decorated subway station, take horse-and-buggy rides and watch professional dancers. A cab driver serenades members of Sanders’ delegation — it’s unclear whether Sanders was in the car — with songs for minutes on end. When they return home, the Americans said the cabbie liked them so much that he didn’t charge a fare.
“The Soviet Union always treated foreign guests very, very well,” said Pomeranz said. “They always wanted to show off the best side of their country and that invariably included a big table with a lot of food.”
At times, though, Sanders’ team saw behind the curtain: The tapes showed people who appear to be waiting in line for food as well as the Soviet Union’s shabby housing stock. Inside one Russian’s apartment, Sanders addresses the poor conditions.
“It’s important to try to translate this,” he says. “In America, in general, the housing is better than in the Soviet Union.”
There are also mundane scenes of everyday life — cars rolling around traffic circles, townspeople walking down the street, athletes playing sports on TV — rendered fascinating because of the moment in which they occurred.
According to a newspaper account at the time, members of Sanders’ mayoral team paid for the trip but also received their regular salary while abroad.
Throughout the videos, as well as in the final episode of “Bernie Speaks With the Community,” Sanders speaks at length about his dream of reducing conflict between the two nations by building relationships between ordinary citizens. While being interviewed by a Russian man on a bus, he says he would “love” for young people to participate in exchange programs between the two cities.
Sanders suggests a similar initiative for media outlets. He tells the man that a Vermont editor is coming to the Soviet Union soon and that “I have asked her to drop in [to] your newspaper.”
Sanders’ wife also talks to teachers in the Soviet Union over tea. She asks them detailed questions about their work and proposes a teacher and student exchange program.
“One thing we are very impressed with is the cultural life,” she tells them. “We strive in Burlington to enrich the cultural life as much as possible. But we have much further to go.”
Bruce Seifer, a top economic development aide to Sanders when he was mayor, said that 100 residents from Yaroslavl immigrated to Burlington after the trip and others visited.
"Over time, it had a positive impact on to the economy,” he said. “Businesses started doing exchanges between Burlington and Yaroslavl.”
Davitian, who lived in Burlington at the time, said progressives were thrilled by Sanders' trip to the Soviet Union, while everyday residents didn’t mind. “As long as the streets were getting paved, there wasn’t opposition to him as an activist mayor,” she said.
When Sanders’ delegation returned to Burlington, CCTV captured the group on film in a hopeful mood, applauding the Soviet Union’s after-school programs, low rent costs and hospitality.
At the same time, they admit the poor choices of available food. Sanders says he was impressed by the beauty of the city and Soviet officials’ willingness “to acknowledge many of the problems that they had."
“They’re proud of the fact that their health care system is free,” he says, but concede that the medical technology is far behind that of the United States.
Later that year, the relationship was officially established. Since then, “exchanges between the two cities have involved mayors, business people, firefighters, jazz musicians, youth orchestras, mural painters, high school students, medical students, nurses, librarians, and the Yaroslavl Torpedoes ice hockey team,” according to Burlington’s city government. A delegation traveled there as recently as 2016.
“They were just as friendly as they could possibly be,” Sanders said at a news conference at the airport after returning from the trip. “The truth of the matter is, they like Americans, and they respect Americans, and they admire Americans.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Sen. Amy Klobuchar is pledging to beef up antitrust oversight and consumer protection in her presidential campaign’s latest round of policy proposals, issues that have animated her during her tenure in the Senate. She also floated the possibility of investigating tech company mergers that have already happened, like Facebook.
“That’s one example,” Klobuchar told POLITICO in an interview, adding that there are also “huge competitive issues” with drug and online travel companies.
“We want to be a capitalist society that works for everyone, and that means real competition that brings down prices, brings in new products and ideas, and that’s not going to happen if we have a few big guys dominating various industries in the United States,” Klobuchar said. “We have to look at it going forward, and then we also have to look at it looking backwards.”What would the plan do?
The Minnesota Democrat's proposal calls for broad reforms — without getting heavily into specifics — at agencies charged with enforcing antitrust policy, as well as protecting digital consumers with more aggressive protections online.
On antitrust, Klobuchar called for reexamining mergers where “the integration of services insulate tech companies from competition.” It’s the type of consolidation for which Facebook, which bought Instagram and WhatsApp, has recently come under fire. She also pledged to increase the filing fees for mergers, “so that the largest deals start paying their fair share.”
On consumer protection, Klobuchar named a series of improvements across the digital landscape. In particular, Klobuchar promised to give consumers more control over their data by requiring an “opt-out” option on data collection and “requiring notice within 72 hours when a data breach occurs.” But Klobuchar doesn’t detail exactly how — or through what mechanism — she’d return control to consumers. She also committed to taking on “digital redlining and racial bias built into algorithms.”
The plan also reiterates Klobuchar’s commitment to rural broadband, a subject she’s talked about frequently on the campaign trail and in her first campaign policy release on infrastructure. She calls for connecting all Americans to broadband by 2022 and restoring net neutrality rules.
Klobuchar’s plan also calls for updating the tax code to support “gig workers” by establishing a national paid leave program, mandatory sick leave and portable retirement savings accounts, funded by employers.
How would it work?
Klobuchar broadly pledged to add muscle to antitrust and consumer protection agencies, but it’s not yet clear whether she would seek these changes through executive action or new legislation.
On antitrust, she cited “creating a more stringent legal standard” for approving mergers by “shifting the burden of proof” to companies to show that a merger won’t reduce competition. And Klobuchar said that courts should take not only price but considerations like vertical integration when approving major mergers.
On consumer protections, Klobuchar said she would establish “digital rules of the road” for privacy, but she doesn’t clarify how she would go about doing it. She also called for stronger enforcement authority for agencies, but does not detail what she would specifically change.How much would it cost?
Klobuchar’s new policy plan didn’t include exact pricing details. But she said she would pay for reforms that require new spending, as well as related programs in the policy proposal like expanding rural broadbrand access, by taxing wealthy Americans. In particular, the plan calls for “equaliz[ing] the tax treatment of capital gains and dividends” for people who earn $200,000 or more, as well as implementing the “Buffett Rule” — an Obama-era proposal for a tax on incomes above $1 million.
What have other Democrats proposed?
Elements of Klobuchar’s plan overlap with several other 2020 contenders. Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposed breaking up major tech companies, like Facebook and Amazon, in her regulatory proposal earlier this year. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a one-time brewpub owner, has also called for strengthening antitrust enforcement and ban employers from asking employees to sign non-compete agreements.Who would it help?
The plan centers on consumer protections and aims to help regular internet users. But tech companies, particularly Facebook, would likely protest an aggressive plan to reexamine their company’s status.Who opposes it?
So far, no Democrats have expressed opposition to this kind of a plan.
Cristiano Limo contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
TORONTO — The demand for exit-poll data has always outweighed exit polls' predictive accuracy.
The network-sponsored, election night exit polls serve two purposes: guiding the news media as it covers national elections in real time and serving as a standing record of the composition of the electorate and what it thought about the candidates and issues.
But their problematic history has spurred a schism among America’s top news organizations, which have spent decades pooling their resources to conduct one universal exit poll. Now some outlets have splintered off to launch their own project, which debuted in last year’s midterm elections.
The 2020 elections will feature two parallel polls of voters designed to measure who voted, for whom they cast their ballots and why. And both providers — the National Election Pool and its exit poll, along with The Associated Press’ new VoteCast project — claim they’ve solved many of the problems that have confronted exit pollsters for decades.
It’s led to something of an exit polling arms race — with both camps, while collegial and collaborative in general, claiming their recent work has produced more accurate data for news organizations to project elections. The war of words kicked off in Toronto at the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s annual conference, at which papers were presented at back-to-back panel discussions on Saturday.
“I do believe we have better data,” David Scott, AP’s deputy managing editor for operations, said in an interview.
“We achieved what we wanted to do in the two things that VoteCast is really designed to deliver,” Scott said. “We need really great data on election night to power the AP’s decision desk and to tell the story of the electorate and why the winners won.”
But new doesn’t actually mean better, said Joe Lenski, vice president of Edison Research, which conducts the exit poll for the TV networks.
“I think the exit poll data is the data of record for election analysis,” he said, referring to the work by media outlets and academics well after the election occurs.
The history of exit poll failures is well-documented, even if the slip-ups aren’t that frequent. If the exit polls in 2004 were accurate, John Kerry would have been elected president. And exit poll data suggested Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump in 2016.
As a record of the composition of the electorate, the exit polls have been plagued for years by a number of historical biases — namely the overrepresentation of younger and more-educated voters, which, in recent elections, has led to a Democratic skew in the results.
And the exit polls have been under siege from external forces, too, with more voters casting ballots before Election Day or through the mail nationwide, making them unreachable by interviewers positioned outside polling places. In general elections now, roughly 4 in 10 voters cast their ballots in ways other than in person on Election Day.
So now there will be two exit polls. If you watch the election returns on the three major broadcast networks, CNN or MSNBC, you’ll see the traditional exit poll that mostly consists of interviewers approaching voters leaving their polling places on Election Day. But if you’re watching Fox or the Fox News Channel or consuming news from any of The Associated Press’ thousands of affiliates across the country, you’ll get VoteCast.
Moreover, the members of the National Election Pool — ABC News, CBS News, CNN and NBC News — also get their election results from Edison, while the vast majority of other news organizations, including POLITICO, get their results from the AP. That means if the polls or the election results differ, Americans might get two diverging pictures of the election as results pour in that Tuesday night in November 2020.
But researchers on both projects say they’ve cracked the code, producing results on election night 2018 that were, on average, only 1 percentage point off from the final vote count. At a panel discussion Saturday, Courtney Kennedy, the director of survey research at Pew Research Center, said that 2018 improvements and innovations to the traditional exit poll were tremendous.
“You made the national exit poll more accurate,” Kennedy said.
Meanwhile, the AP and its partner at NORC, a research institution that’s part of the University of Chicago, are celebrating what they consider a wildly successful 2018 launch. They’re throwing a party at the Hockey Hall of Fame, featuring an open bar and photo opportunities with the Stanley Cup.
While both are polls of voters and serve similar purposes, there are important differences between them. The National Election Pool’s exit poll combines the traditional exit polling approach — interviewing voters on their way out of the polling place — with telephone surveys in states with all-mail voting or robust in-person early voting.
Edison made two key changes in 2018, Lenski said. It experimented with in-person interviewers at large and early-vote centers in Nevada and Tennessee. And most importantly, Lenski said, Edison tweaked the way it asks voters about their own levels of educational attainment and adjusted the survey to reflect a truer balance along educational lines, producing a more accurate result early in the evening that carried through until all the votes were counted.
“We felt that those adjustments we had made based on education have done a really good job of giving us top-line numbers at 5 o’clock and at poll closing that told the story,” Lenski said in an interview. “Our members had the story on election night. We knew at 5 o’clock it was going to be a really good night for Democrats in the House and not-so-good night for Democrats in the Senate.”
AP VoteCast, on the other hand, looks more like a typical preelection poll, combining traditional, probability-based polling with an online, opt-in survey of voters. VoteCast — which involves more complicated statistical modeling than the traditional exit poll — includes both those who say they voted and those who say they didn’t.
The 2018 midterms marked VoteCast’s debut, and Scott, the AP editor in charge of the project, said it couldn’t have gone much better. AP and NORC researchers will present their results at the conference on Saturday; in a public report, they’re calling VoteCast’s launch “an impressive success.”
“At that period between 5 o’clock on the East Coast and when polls close, the data for VoteCast was showing the right winner in 92 percent of the races that we looked at,” Scott said in an interview. “And our average margin of error was around 1 percent — still leaning toward the Dem, but still just a 1 percent margin of error. At that same time in our history with the exit poll — especially our recent history with the exit poll — you know, we’re looking at average errors of double digits in some states.”
The next test for VoteCast will be the 2020 presidential primaries and caucuses — contests that pose unique challenges. Unlike in general elections, primary electorates shift drastically from cycle to cycle, and there are few historical benchmarks to use in calibrating to get the right mix of voters. And since VoteCast begins being conducted days before the vote, late-breaking events in the campaign — a candidate dropping out in the days between primaries in different states, for example — may be harder to measure.
“The scalability and infrastructure works a lot better when we’re doing all 50 states all in one night, as opposed to a series of events,” Scott said. “There’s also the technical: We’re in the field, looking for early voters at the same time that you might have an election going on.”
Lenski, who leads the traditional exit poll, thinks he has an advantage come next year’s primaries.
“I can’t speak for how AP VoteCast is planning on doing this, but I know the type of modeling they use in a general election is much tougher to do in a primary because there’s no really good history for a 23-candidate Democratic race to model what the electorate is going to look like,” he said.
“I know what we do works for a primary,” Lenski added. “It’s worked for 40 years. And we have the infrastructure in place to do event after event, week after week. It’s going to be a real grind. Starting Feb. 3 with Iowa, going through March 17 — it’s just about every Tuesday, and sometimes Saturdays, and sometimes Mondays — there’s going to be an event. And we have the infrastructure in place to cover state after state.”
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary race consists not of one Election Day but a series of elections, beginning with the Iowa caucuses. That increases the chance, with different sources of voter polling and election results, that the trajectory of election night could look different based on where Americans get their news — a dangerous turn given Americans’ already declining faith in institutions of government and media, sometimes amplified by political leaders.
“I think that’s possible,” said Emily Swanson, the AP’s polling editor. “And I think that we would have a lot of confidence in the story that we’re telling.”
But Lenski maintains the traditional approach used for the network pool is best.
“We still believe that the best way to report voter opinions on Election Day is to actually talk to voters right after they voted,” he said.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump on Sunday again threatened the government of Iran, warning amid escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran that a military conflict would bring about “the official end” of the Middle Eastern nation.
“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” Trump tweeted.
The New York Times reported last week that Trump was considering sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East, after U.S. intelligence that suggested Iran might be planning attacks on American people and facilities in the region.
The president dismissed the report, adding he would send “a hell of a lot more troops than that” if he decided to get more aggressive with Iran.
Asked Thursday by a reporter outside the White House whether the U.S. would go to war with Iran, Trump replied: “I hope not.”
Later Sunday, in an interview with Steve Hilton that aired on Fox News, Trump reiterated that he had no intention of letting Iran obtain nuclear weapons. "I don’t want to fight. But you do have situations like Iran, you can’t let them have nuclear weapons — you just can’t let that happen," he said.
The president’s tweet on Sunday is not the first time Trump has sought to intimidate Tehran via his favored social media platform. In July 2018, Trump fired off an all-caps warning to President Hassan Rouhani, cautioning him to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
Earlier Sunday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) expressed confidence that war with Iran would be averted.
“Going to war with Iran, not going to happen,” Romney, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”
“I don’t believe for a minute that either the president or John Bolton or, frankly, anyone else in a serious senior position of leadership in the White House has any interest in going to the Middle East and going to war," Romney continued.
“The president made it very clear that he thinks the greatest foreign policy mistake, probably in the modern age, was the decision by President [George W.] Bush to go into Iraq,” the Utah Republican said. “The idea that he would follow the same path by going after Iran, a more difficult enemy, if you will, militarily — that’s just not going to happen.”
Romney’s colleague Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also downplayed the threat of military conflict with Iran in an interview Sunday.
“No one, to my knowledge, is proposing what you saw in Iraq with 150,000 troops mass to invade a country, overthrow its government and try to govern 80 million Iranians,” Cotton told the host Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“We’d like to see the regime change its behavior,” he continued. “But my point about the first strike and the last strike is, the United States is not going to take the first strike here. But if Iran attacks the United States or our allies in the first strike, then it will be up to America in a time and a manner of our choosing to take the last strike because our military will devastate theirs.”
When asked by Todd about the potential for Trump to meet with and negotiate directly with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Cotton demurred.
“We’re focused on trying to deter military action against the United States personnel and our allies in the region,” Cotton said. “And that’s not very fruitful conditions for sitting down with any foreign leader.”
Lawmakers will receive a briefing on Iran this week from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, CIA Director Gina Haspel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, POLITICO reported Thursday.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump on Saturday night indirectly addressed the nation’s recent spate of new abortion legislation, saying he was “strongly pro-life.”
“As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions — Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother — the same position taken by Ronald Reagan,” the president wrote on Twitter.
New restrictions on abortion in Alabama and Georgia, among other places, have upped the nation’s ongoing battle over abortion rights by putting strict restrictions on the procedure and creating new legal penalties.
Some of the recently enacted laws or pending pieces of legislation go beyond Trump’s formula; Alabama‘s new law, for instance, only allows exceptions when the mother’s life is in danger.
Those pieces of legislation have likely set up legal battles that are expected to head to the U.S. Supreme Court and possibly lead to a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the law of the land since 1973. Abortion foes are hoping the additions of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will lead to abortion being heavily restricted or eliminated.
Trump indirectly addressed those prospects as well in his tweets.
“We have come very far in the last two years with 105 wonderful new..... Federal Judges (many more to come), two great new Supreme Court Justices, the Mexico City Policy, and a whole new & positive attitude about the Right to Life. The Radical Left, with late term abortion (and worse), is imploding on this issue. We must stick together and Win.... ....for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!“
Trump’s statement about Reagan doesn’t precisely capture Reagan’s position on abortion. At the start of his term of governor in California in 1967, Reagan signed legislation that liberalized abortion laws. He subsequently became stridently anti-abortion though, as Trump pointed out, he said he would allow limited exceptions.
“Let us unite as a nation,” Reagan said in his 1988 State of the Union address, “and protect the unborn with legislation that would stop all Federal funding for abortion and with a human life amendment making, of course, an exception where the unborn child threatens the life of the mother. Our Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes the right of taking a life in self-defense. But with that one exception, let us look to those others in our land who cry out for children to adopt.“
Reagan also appointed Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, who affirmed the central principles of Roe v. Wade in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 decision.
Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also mentioned Reagan.
“I personally believe life does begin at conception,” he told host Chuck Todd. “That's the standard that most Republicans who have held the presidency in modern times have held as well. Now they understand that there are certain tragic cases like rape or incest or when a mother's life is endangered that we ought to make an account for. That was the position that Ronald Reagan has as well. But I personally believe that life begins at conception.“
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
As a member of Congress more than a decade ago, Mike Pence unveiled an immigration proposal offering a chance for legal status to people who had come to the country illegally.
Hardline conservative activists were furious.
Tom Tancredo, then a firebrand Republican congressman from Colorado, called the vice president’s proposal both “amnesty” and “an atrocity”: A political action committee he co-founded set up a running “Pence Watch” online. The populist pundit Pat Buchanan likened Pence’s call for “a principled consensus on immigration reform” to a betrayal from “The Godfather” and said it could mean “the end of Mike Pence as a rising star of the GOP.”
Pence’s 2006 plan, which he insisted did not amount to amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally, died quietly and has been mostly forgotten in Washington.
But not by those hawkish advocates, who suspect that Pence is quietly seeking to have a moderating influence over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including what the president introduced as his new “pro-immigrant” plan on Thursday.
Although Pence largely echoes Trump’s talking points and has given few public hints that he sees things any differently, his critics have noticed with growing alarm that he is playing a greater behind-the-scenes role in Trump’s immigration policy than has been previously understood, a fact confirmed by people close to Pence.
Immigration hawks say Pence’s involvement is a warning sign that “establishment Republicans who are interested in more workers — and not more relief for American workers” — are making inroads into Trump’s policymaking, said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, who attended a meeting with Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law.
Vaughan and her influential allies are in constant battle with what they see as Chamber of Commerce-style establishment Republicans, who are far more interested in ensuring an ample labor supply than in Trump’s themes of secure borders and national identity. That approach is at odds with the plan Trump released Thursday, which does not aim to reduce the overall number of immigrants allowed in the U.S. legally or address the illegal immigration population — issues he had rallied against for years.
Though the latest immigration proposal was crafted by Kushner, the vice president and his staff attended discussions at the White House over the past several months as it was being shaped. Those meetings included at least two meetings between Kushner and various advocacy groups, including business and agriculture organizations, according to four people who attended the meetings. He has held at least one call with activists on immigration. More recently, he has spoken at a series of immigration events focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Pence was primarily observing when he sat in one of Kushner’s meetings earlier this year, according to an immigration activist, who supports more enforcement, though he did mention several times the plan he proposed while in the House.
A person close to the vice president said that some themes of Pence’s old bill had been discussed as part of the new effort, while the activist also said Pence had been involved in the developmental phase of the plan and had attended other meetings more recently.
“He’s been an active participant in the discussions that Jared has led, trying to find a good balance between, for example, guest worker programs for agriculture workers, things like that,” the person close to Pence said. That same person said that some themes of Pence’s old bill, including providing skilled labor in critical industries such as agriculture and retaining talent trained in American universities, particularly in STEM, were discussed as part of the new effort.
A White House official said that Pence has attended meetings for months about immigration, primarily about border security, but also about the issue broadly as well as Kushner’s developing plan. Some of his staff, too, have attended meetings, the official said. But the official said that while Pence and his team had been involved in some discussions, they had not played a leading role in Kushner’s plan.
Instead, Pence was tasked with helping solve the impasse over border wall funding that led to the longest federal government shutdown in history and ended with a bill that funded new barriers on the border, more detention space, surveillance equipment and immigration judges. Since then, Pence has traveled to nearly a dozen states thanking homeland security employees for their work.
Still, other people who are either close to Pence or involved in the negotiations see it differently.
Pence brings a more pragmatic approach to a subject that Trump sees in uncompromising, almost good-and-evil terms, according to one former White House official familiar with the situation.
“There’s a solid respect for what the VP brings to the table,” the former official said, adding that Pence had been “figuring out how to do this legally, figure out how to do it in a way that makes sense.”
House members and governors often air their private feelings on a range of issues with Pence, according to someone close to him.
In some ways, Pence is an unlikely understudy to an extreme immigration hardliner like Trump. Associates say his views on immigration in large part stem from a grandfather who immigrated from Ireland, whom he was very close to, and the large agricultural community in his home state of Indiana.
“As the grandson of an Irish immigrant, I believe in the ideals enshrined on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor,” Pence wrote in a June 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed. “America always has been, and always will be, a welcoming nation, welcoming under the law any and all with courage enough to come here.”
The new White House proposal doesn’t quite invoke that sort of language. But it would move the U.S. toward a process that welcomes immigrants through a merit-based system, as well as boosts border security.
Pence “recognizes the crisis on the southern border but also understands that there are people who add to our economy and are doing this because they’re seeking employment and, frankly, in jobs that Americans aren’t willing to do at this point, so there is a need,” the person close to Pence said.
The new White House plan would increase the number of migrant workers while reducing the number of family members whom U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor to come to the country under the current system — a zero-sum plan that would leave overall immigration levels unchanged.
“If anything … I think the vice president is more invested in the outcome than Jared is,” said one of the people who attended a meeting with Pence. “He’s a regular old-style Republican. He’s a regular Chamber of Commerce Republican.”
While Pence hasn’t advocated for a specific plan, he offered specific thoughts — including support for J-1 visas, a program that allows for short-term work experience in the U.S. — according to a person familiar with the situation. Trump officials have argued that the visas can reduce summer job opportunities. The White House official said there had been no direct vice presidential involvement in advocating for or against J-1 visas.
Pence’s 2006 House bill would have allowed immigrants who were in the country illegally to apply for legal status by leaving the U.S. and returning briefly to their home country.
When Trump tapped him to be his running mate, some immigration groups pushing for enforcement were worried.
“Pence was very much a part of the Republican establishment that paid lip service to the public’s concerns about immigration enforcement, while promoting the agenda of the Chamber of Commerce,” the Federation for American Immigration Reform said in a statement at the time.
The White House official said Pence had made no effort as vice president to revive his 2006 House plan.
During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Pence has served as a point person on legislative issues. He helped build the White House legislative affairs office, held weekly calls with select Republican members of Congress during the transition, and visits regularly with Senate Republicans for lunch.
“If it’s a legislative issue, Pence is going to be involved,” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House.
The vice president has a vested interest in the final White House immigration proposal because, like other major policy plans, including healthcare and tax cuts, he will be expected to try to sell it on Capitol Hill.
“We are calling on the Congress to act,” Pence said recently at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Baltimore. “We have a broken border. We have a broken immigration system.”
Gabby Orr contributed to this story.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The White House cautioned congressional leaders Friday that the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border has “continued to deteriorate” since President Donald Trump first requested $4.5 billion in emergency funding this month and that $1.4 billion more could be needed.
In a letter to leaders on Capitol Hill obtained by POLITICO, the acting White House budget director said the number of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the nation’s Southern border “has increased dramatically to unprecedented levels” and is “exceeding the previous high-end estimate.”
At this rate, the Department of Health and Human Services will soon burn through all money available for services that involve the “immediate welfare” and “safety of human life," said OMB's Russell Vought.
The missive raises the stakes as the two parties work to strike a deal on disaster aid that is likely to include an emergency infusion to fulfill part of Trump’s request earlier in May for more cash to handle humanitarian needs. Democratic leaders privately told Republicans on Thursday that they are willing to include money the president seeks for humanitarian assistance, but not for keeping immigrants in detention facilities.
If Congress honors the White House’s prior request for $2.9 billion in emergency money for humanitarian assistance, the Trump administration might have enough money to fill the void, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in testimonial included in Friday's letter to congressional leaders.
But that cash will only be enough if the inflow of immigrants does not “significantly exceed” the Department of Homeland Security’s prior “high-end scenario” prediction, Azar said.
Already this spring, the number of unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the border has surpassed the DHS predictions for April and to this date in May, Azar said. “As a result, I am concerned that the size of the deficiency could grow further, and be closer to the worst-case scenario HHS had proposed,” the HHS secretary said, noting that an extra $1.4 billion would be needed under those circumstances.
Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The Trump administration on Friday rejected House Democrats’ subpoena for the president’s tax returns, pushing the two sides closer to a major court fight.
In a letter to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who issued the subpoena last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reiterated what he told Neal in earlier letters: The administration does not believe Democrats have a “legitimate legislative” reason for seeking the tax filings.
“For the same reasons, we are unable to provide the requested information in response to the committee’s subpoena,” he said.
The decision was no surprise, with Mnuchin indicating earlier this week that he expected the dispute to be settled by the courts. Also, the administration is defying subpoenas from Democrats on several other fronts.
The announcement shifts the focus back to the House, where Democrats intend to try to enforce their subpoena.
They have not said exactly how they intend to do that — that will be up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She could have the entire chamber vote to authorize the House general counsel, Douglas Letter, to file suit against the administration. Another potential, and likely faster, option would be to have a group of House leaders known as the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group vote to authorize the suit, though there are questions about whether that is allowable under the chamber’s rules.
Either way, a Democratic aide said, it will likely be weeks before a suit is filed in court.
"Given the Treasury Secretary’s failure to comply today, I am consulting with counsel on how best to enforce the subpoenas moving forward," Neal said in a statement Friday, noting that a subpoena was also issued to IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.
"Issuance of these subpoenas should not have been necessary," he said. "The law provides clear statutory authority for the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee to request and receive access to tax returns and return information."
Neal has been demanding six years worth of Trump’s personal tax records, along with those of several of his businesses, since early April.
Democrats, complaining Trump has thumbed his nose at a decades-old tradition of presidents voluntarily releasing their tax filings, are trying to seize his records by relying on a 1924 law allowing the heads of Congress’s tax committees to examine anyone’s confidential tax information.
Republicans say Democrats just want to search Trump’s taxes for things they can use to embarrass him politically. They are pointing to court decisions in which judges have said lawmakers’ investigations must have some purpose related to their official duties as policymakers.
The administration is likely to try to drag out any court fight in hopes of pushing the issue beyond the 2020 elections. By then, Republicans may retake the House, allowing them to quash the suit. Trump could be in his second term by then, when the issue will be less important, or he could be voted out of office next year.
A case would likely begin in federal court in Washington, D.C. If the administration loses there, it could appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court and, from there, to the Supreme Court.
Although a legal fight is likely to be lengthy, it’s conceivable that delaying could prove a bad strategy for the administration if it is forced to turn over the documents just ahead of next year’s elections.
It also would not be unusual if a judge were reluctant to decide such a politically charged case, and instead pushed the two sides to compromise.
The House has only sued the executive branch a handful of times in its history.
“In the last 20 years, there have been maybe five suits, and, prior to that time, there had been none,” said Michael Stern, a former senior counsel in the House’s Office of General Counsel.
“It is obviously something that is happening much more frequently now, but it is still, historically, extremely rare,” he said.
Democrats have other options when it comes to trying to enforce their subpoena, though they are generally considered less appealing.
They could vote to hold Mnuchin in criminal contempt, though that would ultimately be referred to the Justice Department, which is unlikely to prosecute him.
There is an "inherent contempt” option where lawmakers could have the House’s Sergeant at Arms arrest Mnuchin, though that is improbable, not least because he has Secret Service protection.
They could try to attach riders to the annual budget bill funding Treasury that dock Mnuchin’s salary, though they’d need Republicans to agree to go along with that. Democrats could also impeach Mnuchin and Rettig.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
The White House is reassuring conservative leaders that it has no plans to hike the gas tax to help fund a massive infrastructure package that President Donald Trump hopes to negotiate with Congress.
Both acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Russ Vought, Trump’s budget director, have repeatedly downplayed the possibility in private meetings with fiscal conservatives who are expressing alarm that Trump might embrace a massive tax increase. Concerns have specifically centered around a potential gas tax boost, an idea that Trump has flirted with during his presidency.
“It is my understanding that they are not going to be agreeing to any tax increases,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist in an interview. Norquist said he has discussed the matter with White House officials in recent days, but did not disclose specifics. He was spotted at the White House on Friday, where he attended a meeting with Vought in which conservative leaders discussed upcoming spending battles, according to two attendees.
In a rare moment of bipartisan comity, Trump agreed last month in a meeting with Democratic leaders to devise an infrastructure plan of up to $2 trillion to build things like roads, bridges and high-speed rail. But the feel-good gathering punted the vexing question of where the massive sum of money would come from, prompting competing ideas and speculation from across the political spectrum.
One long-simmering rumor that took off after the meeting was that Trump might endorse an increase in the gas tax to help fund the infrastructure package. It’s a prospect that deeply unsettles conservatives and some administration officials, who oppose any tax increase to pay for the projects. Bloomberg reported Friday that a draft internal document mentioned a gas tax increase as an option for financing the plan, intensifying the jitters in conservative circles.
The notion that Trump might break with conservative anti-tax orthodoxy has also gotten traction because of reports that he expressed support for a 25 cent-per-gallon tax during a meeting with lawmakers in early 2018.
Although officials called the fears overblown, they also concede that — as with any policy issue — Trump could always change his mind.
The private discussions come as Trump is planning to meet next week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democrats to discuss options to pay for the plan. The meeting is currently scheduled for Wednesday, according to two administration officials. Pelosi and Schumer previously met with Trump at the White House in late April.
“On Wednesday, the president will welcome congressional Democrats to the White House to continue the discussion on rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. He otherwise declined to comment.
While the two sides originally settled on a $2 trillion price tag, the president subsequently seemed to backtrack in a tweet in which he put the cost at between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.
Senior White House aides and members of Congress are deeply skeptical that a massive infrastructure bill can get approved. While both Democrats and Republicans agree in theory on fixing the country’s aging roads and bridges, they have been fighting for years about how to pay for such a plan.
The political reality could result in a standoff between Trump and Democratic leaders, with both sides publicly going through the motions of negotiating an infrastructure deal in hopes of pointing the finger at the other side if it falls apart. Both Democrats and Republicans are keen to at least appear productive, reasonable and bipartisan heading into the 2020 presidential election.
“It’s all about positioning themselves it in a way that you can blame the other side for nothing happening,” said a person close to the White House who has been involved in the infrastructure discussions.
Part of the reason White House officials remain wary of delving into specifics about the best way to pay for infrastructure improvements is because they have yet to develop a concrete plan internally. They also fear Democrats will use anything discussed in the meeting to score political points.
Trump acknowledged as much in an interview with Fox News set to air on Sunday, insisting he is interested in an infrastructure deal, but that “I also think we're being played by the Democrats a little bit.”
“I think what they want me to do is say, ‘Well what we’ll do is raise taxes, and we'll do this and this and this,’ and then they'll have a news conference — ‘see, Trump wants to raise taxes,’” he said in a clip released Friday. “So it's a little bit of a game."
The president also appeared to criticize Mulvaney for publicly downplaying the prospects of passing an infrastructure bill.
“If Mick Mulvaney said that, then he has no right to say that,” Trump said. “He tells me he didn’t say that and he didn’t mean it. He said it’s going to be hard to finance.”
A senior administration aide said the president and Mulvaney remain 100 percent on the same page on infrastructure.
Inside the White House, officials have been making the case that a hypothetical gas tax would not raise anywhere close to the $2 trillion needed. And, they’ve argued, it would ultimately undercut the gains consumers received from the Republicans’ 2017 tax bill.
Conservative groups say they will be closely watching Wednesday’s meeting between Trump and congressional leaders. “I don’t think anyone has gone so far to rule it out ahead of time, because no one wants to get ahead of the president,” said one conservative following the talks.
The administration is weighing other options to raise anywhere from $1 to $2 trillion to fund an infrastructure package. It’s unclear how much of that money would come from the federal government versus the private sector.
Policy ideas that have been floated include selling off government assets to raise additional funds, or re-introducing spending offsets from the president’s past budget proposal as part of the negotiation. Staffers from the White House’s National Economic Council, Vought’s Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department have all been part of the discussion.
Outside conservative groups have latched onto a bipartisan bill from Reps. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.), William Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-Mo.) and Ted Budd (R-N.C.) that could pay for at least part of the infrastructure package without raising taxes. The proposal would direct the Agriculture Department to sell its distressed assets and then direct the proceeds toward infrastructure projects. Anti-tax advocates have pitched the bill directly to White House officials in recent days, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Trump has always been interested in an infrastructure package, viewing it as an extension of his career as a real estate developer and a concrete way of building a legacy as president.
Even as far back as May 2015 — a month before launching his campaign — Trump tweeted: “The only one to fix the infrastructure of our country is me - roads, airports, bridges. I know how to build, pols only know how to talk!”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
Just months into a cooperation agreement with special counsel Robert Mueller, former national security adviser Michael Flynn sent an unsolicited text message to one of President Donald Trump's top allies in Congress, urging him to "keep the pressure on."
"You stay on top of what you're doing. Your leadership is so vital for our country now," Flynn wrote to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Congress' most vocal critics of the Mueller investigation. "Keep the pressure on."
POLITICO confirmed the details of the exchange, first reported by CNN, which came in April 2018, just five months into Flynn's cooperation agreement with Mueller. Flynn began assisting Mueller's probe after a Dec. 1, 2017 guilty plea on charges that he made false statements to the FBI about contacts with Russia's ambassador.
Flynn sent Gaetz a separate set of messages on Feb. 14, 2019, the day Attorney General William Barr was confirmed: images of a bald eagle and an American flag. Gaetz confirmed the substance of the messages and said he didn't reply. He also emphasized he had no past relationship with Flynn or his son, Michael Flynn Jr.
It's unclear if Mueller was aware of Flynn's outreach to lawmakers, particularly to one of the special counsel's top antagonists on Capitol Hill. It's also unclear if Flynn sent messages to other lawmakers. Flynn's attorney did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The special counsel's office declined to comment.
Flynn is still ostensibly cooperating with prosecutors, and his testimony is expected in the July trial of a former business partner charged as part of a scheme to lobby on behalf of Turkish officials seeking to take custody of a cleric who has been living in the United States.
A newly unsealed court filing Mueller submitted to a federal judge in December revealed that prosecutors believe at least one person "connected to" Congress made communications to Flynn or his attorneys that seemed geared toward limiting his cooperation with Mueller. The comments "could’ve affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation," the special counsel wrote.
There's no indication that Flynn's outreach to Gaetz — which went unreciprocated — had anything to do with Mueller's assertion.
Gaetz was an early and frequent critic of Mueller's probe, and a regular guest on Fox News delivering broadsides against the investigation. He has also voiced his concerns with Mueller's probe directly to Trump and embraced some of the most hot-blooded criticisms of Mueller.
Flynn faces a status update and possible sentencing in his case next month. He was due to be sentenced in December — with Mueller's team endorsing a lenient sentence in the matter, praising his cooperation — but Flynn sought to postpone the decision after the judge, Emmett Sullivan, hinted he might recommend jail time.
"Arguably, you sold your country out," Sullivan said to Flynn at the time.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
House Democrats are backing away from plans to hold a blockbuster hearing this month with Robert Mueller after talks stalled out with the special counsel and his representatives.
Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and a senior Democratic committee aide told POLITICO on Friday that there’s no Mueller hearing planned for next week, though that could also change at a moment’s notice if the special counsel said he’s ready to testify.
“I would assume not,” Nadler replied when asked whether Mueller would be appearing before the upcoming Memorial Day recess, which starts next Friday.
A Judiciary staffer later added, “Mueller could always call us and say, ‘The heck with it, I want to come in Wednesday,’ and we would make time. But at the moment, no Mueller planned for next week.”
But the prospect of a Mueller hearing before Nadler’s Judiciary panel, or a separate hearing with the House Intelligence Committee, has been stuck in limbo ever since a broader fight between Democrats and the Trump administration over access to documents and testimony tied to the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
President Donald Trump earlier this month wrote on Twitter that Mueller “should not testify” and his administration has invoked or threatened to invoke executive privilege on a range of outstanding congressional requests, including for access to a full unredacted version of the special counsel’s report and its underlying evidence.
In an interview Thursday with The Wall Street Journal, Attorney General William Barr said it’s up to Mueller to decide whether to appear before lawmakers. “It’s Bob’s call whether he wants to testify,” said Barr, who Nadler’s Judiciary Committee earlier this month voted to hold in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over a copy of the full Mueller report.
So far, Democrats and Mueller have yet to reach an agreement on the details or timing for a hearing with the special counsel. Peter Carr, a Mueller spokesman, declined comment when asked Friday about the special counsel making a public appearance before lawmakers.
Mueller remains a government employee and still has a small staff assisting him with closing down his office, Carr has confirmed. But Carr also had no further explanation for the discrepancy from an earlier comment he gave reporters in mid-March, upon the announcement that the Russia probe was over, that Mueller planned in the “coming days” to leave the Justice Department.
Congressional hearings with Mueller are expected to cover a wide range of topics, from his conclusion that he found no evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election to his decision to not charge the president with obstruction of justice.
Republicans eyeing a Mueller hearing see it as a chance to press the special counsel on the underlying motivations for the investigation and his reliance on FBI agents who shared anti-Trump text messages. Democrats, meantime, have signaled interest in pressing Mueller to see whether there’s any additional daylight between him and Barr, whom the special counsel criticized in writing for failing to “fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the Russia investigation during its public rollout.
Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
President Donald Trump on Friday added fuel to his claims that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was designed to undermine his presidency with a tweet musing why intelligence officials did not inform him they were investigating Michael Flynn before tenure as national security adviser.
Court records released Thursday showed that Flynn assisted Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump and his allies obstructed justice by interfering with the special counsel’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
The court filings also detailed Flynn’s extensive cooperation with Mueller’s investigation of WikiLeaks' dumping of stolen Democratic emails and the interaction between Trump's transition team and Russia.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to making false statements to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador before Trump was inaugurated. In a December 2016 call, which was intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Flynn discussed the Obama administration’s newly imposed sanctions on Russia — and encouraged the Kremlin not to retaliate, with Trump poised to take office.
“It now seems the General Flynn was under investigation long before was common knowledge,” Trump said in a tweet Friday. “It would have been impossible for me to know this but, if that was the case, and with me being one of two people who would become president, why was I not told so that I could make a change?”
Trump offered the post of national security adviser to Flynn in the same month he was elected in 2016. Flynn resigned from the position in February 2017 amid buzz that he had misled administration officials about his conversation with the Russian ambassador a few months before.
Then-President Barack Obama urged Trump not to hire Flynn in a meeting two days after the election, claiming he was problematic and prone to having crazy ideas, according to officials from both administrations. Sally Yates, Trump’s acting attorney general until he fired her days after taking office, testified to senators in 2017 that she had warned Trump that Flynn could be “compromised” by his ties to the Russians.
Documents unsealed Thursday ordered the government to provide a public transcript of a voicemail left for Flynn's lawyer by one of Trump’s attorneys in 2017, which Mueller referenced in his report. The message suggests Trump has warm feelings for Flynn and asks for a “heads up” if he chooses to cooperate with investigators.
But the president’s tweet seeks to distance himself from his former national security adviser, who went on to provide key information to Mueller.
Trump has repeatedly characterized Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt” designed by Democrats who want to hamper his presidency. In the wake of the publication of the special counsel's report, Trump has called for an investigation into the probe’s genesis.
The special counsel’s 22-month investigation did not conclude there was a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Mueller did not take a stance on whether the president obstructed justice, though Attorney General William Barr later declared there was not enough evidence to pursue charges.
Mueller’s team recommended little to no jail time for Flynn for lying to the FBI because of his cooperation during the investigation. His sentencing is still pending.
Flynn has also largely received the support of Trump allies, unlike other witnesses who worked closely with Mueller.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine