POLITICO - TOP Stories
When President Barack Obama announced the “one-time gesture” of releasing Iranian-born prisoners who “were not charged with terrorism or any violent offenses” last year, his administration presented the move as a modest trade-off for the greater good of the Iran nuclear agreement and Tehran’s pledge to free five Americans.
“Iran had a significantly higher number of individuals, of course, at the beginning of this negotiation that they would have liked to have seen released,” one senior Obama administration official told reporters in a background briefing arranged by the White House, adding that “we were able to winnow that down to these seven individuals, six of whom are Iranian-Americans.”
But Obama, the senior official and other administration representatives weren’t telling the whole story on Jan. 17, 2016, in their highly choreographed rollout of the prisoner swap and simultaneous implementation of the six-party nuclear deal, according to a POLITICO investigation.
In his Sunday morning address to the American people, Obama portrayed the seven men he freed as “civilians.” The senior official described them as businessmen convicted of or awaiting trial for mere “sanctions-related offenses, violations of the trade embargo.”
In reality, some of them were accused by Obama’s own Justice Department of posing threats to national security. Three allegedly were part of an illegal procurement network supplying Iran with U.S.-made microelectronics with applications in surface-to-air and cruise missiles like the kind Tehran test-fired recently, prompting a still-escalating exchange of threats with the Trump administration. Another was serving an eight-year sentence for conspiring to supply Iran with satellite technology and hardware. As part of the deal, U.S. officials even dropped their demand for $10 million that a jury said the aerospace engineer illegally received from Tehran.
And in a series of unpublicized court filings, the Justice Department dropped charges and international arrest warrants against 14 other men, all of them fugitives. The administration didn’t disclose their names or what they were accused of doing, noting only in an unattributed, 152-word statement about the swap that the U.S. “also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.”
Three of the fugitives allegedly sought to lease Boeing aircraft for an Iranian airline that authorities say had supported Hezbollah, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization. A fourth, Behrouz Dolatzadeh, was charged with conspiring to buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles and illegally import them into Iran.
A fifth, Amin Ravan, was charged with smuggling U.S. military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore for use in Iran. U.S. authorities also believe he was part of a procurement network providing Iran with high-tech components for an especially deadly type of IED used by Shiite militias to kill hundreds of American troops in Iraq.
The biggest fish, though, was Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili, who had been charged with being part of a conspiracy that from 2005 to 2012 procured thousands of parts with nuclear applications for Iran via China. That included hundreds of U.S.-made sensors for the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Iran whose progress had prompted the nuclear deal talks in the first place.
When federal prosecutors and agents learned the true extent of the releases, many were shocked and angry. Some had spent years, if not decades, working to penetrate the global proliferation networks that allowed Iranian arms traders both to obtain crucial materials for Tehran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs and, in some cases, to provide dangerous materials to other countries.
“They didn’t just dismiss a bunch of innocent business guys,” said one former federal law enforcement supervisor centrally involved in the hunt for Iranian arms traffickers and nuclear smugglers. “And then they didn’t give a full story of it.”
In its determination to win support for the nuclear deal and prisoner swap from Tehran — and from Congress and the American people — the Obama administration did a lot more than just downplay the threats posed by the men it let off the hook, according to POLITICO’s findings.
Through action in some cases and inaction in others, the White House derailed its own much-touted National Counterproliferation Initiative at a time when it was making unprecedented headway in thwarting Iran’s proliferation networks. In addition, the POLITICO investigation found that Justice and State Department officials denied or delayed requests from prosecutors and agents to lure some key Iranian fugitives to friendly countries so they could be arrested. Similarly, Justice and State, at times in consultation with the White House, slowed down efforts to extradite some suspects already in custody overseas, according to current and former officials and others involved in the counterproliferation effort.
And as far back as the fall of 2014, Obama administration officials began slow-walking some significant investigations and prosecutions of Iranian procurement networks operating in the U.S. These previously undisclosed findings are based on interviews with key participants at all levels of government and an extensive review of court records and other documents.
“Clearly, there was an embargo on any Iranian cases,” according to the former federal supervisor.
“Of course it pissed people off, but it’s more significant that these guys were freed, and that people were killed because of the actions of one of them,” the supervisor added, in reference to Ravan and the IED network.
The supervisor noted that in agreeing to lift crippling sanctions against Tehran, the Obama administration had insisted on retaining the right to go after Iran for its efforts to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads and cruise missiles that could penetrate U.S. defenses, and to illegally procure components for its nuclear, military and weapons systems.
“Then why would you be dismissing the people that you know about who are involved in that?” the former official asked.
A SHREWD CALCULATION
The saga of how the Obama administration threw a monkey wrench into its own Justice Department-led counterproliferation effort continues to play out almost entirely out of public view, largely because of the highly secretive nature of the cases and the negotiations that affected them.
That may be about to change, as the Trump administration and both chambers of Congress have pledged to crack down on Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a government-wide review of U.S. policy toward Iran in the face of “alarming and ongoing provocations that export terror and violence, destabilizing more than one country at a time.”
On Thursday, President Donald Trump declared that even if Iran is meeting the terms of its deal with the Obama administration and other world powers, “they are not living up to the spirit of it, I can tell you that. And we’re analyzing it very, very carefully, and we’ll have something to say about that in the not-too-distant future.”
Such reviews are likely to train a spotlight on an aspect of the nuclear deal and prisoner swap that has infuriated the federal law enforcement community most — the hidden damage it has caused to investigations and prosecutions into a wide array of Iranian smuggling networks with U.S. connections.
Valerie Lincy, executive director of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, said Obama administration officials made a shrewd political calculation in focusing public attention on just those seven men it was freeing in the United States, and portraying them as mere sanctions violators.
That way, she said, “They just didn’t think it was going to make too many waves. And I think they were right.”
But Lincy, who closely tracks the U.S. counterproliferation effort against Iran, said that by letting so many men off the hook, and for such a wide range of offenses, Washington has effectively given its blessing to Iran’s continuing defiance of international laws.
Former Obama administration officials deny that, saying the men could still be prosecuted if they continue their illegal activity. But with their cases dropped, international arrest warrants dismissed and investigative assets redirected, the men — especially the 14 fugitives — can now continue activities the U.S. considers to be serious threats to its national security, Lincy said.
“This is a scandal,” she said. “The cases bear all the hallmarks of exactly the kinds of national security threats we’re still going after. It’s stunning and hard to understand why we would do this.”
Even some initial supporters of negotiating with Iran said the disclosures are troubling.
“There was always a broader conceptual problem with the administration not wanting to upset the balance of the deal or the perceived rapprochement with the Iranian regime,” said former Bush administration deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate, who later turned against the accord. “The deal was sacrosanct, and the Iranians knew it from the start and took full advantage when we had — and continue to maintain — enormous leverage.”
Most, if not all, of the Justice Department lawyers and prosecutors involved in the Counterproliferation Initiative were kept in the dark about how their cases were being used as bargaining chips, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials.
So were the federal agents from the FBI and departments of Homeland Security and Commerce who for years had been operating internationally, often undercover, on the front lines of the hunt for Iranian arms and weapons smugglers.
It wasn’t just that prosecutors and agents with years of detailed knowledge about the cases were left out of the consultations about the significance of the 21 men let go in the swap. The lack of input also meant that negotiators were making decisions without fully understanding how the releases would impact the broader and interconnected matrix of U.S. investigations.
At the time, those investigations were providing U.S. officials with a roadmap of how, exactly, Tehran was clandestinely building its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and maintaining its military with the unwitting assistance of so many U.S. weapons parts and technology companies. The cases were also providing key operational details of how the Iranian procurement networks operate, and who in Tehran was calling the shots.
“So when they downplayed it, it really infuriated people,” said Kenneth MacDonald, a former senior Homeland Security official who helped establish the multi-agency coordination center at the heart of the National Counterproliferation Initiative.
“They’d spent months or years on these cases and the decisions were made with no review of what the implications were,” said MacDonald, who retired in 2013 but keeps in contact with agents as co-principal investigator at the DHS-affiliated Institute for Security Policy at Northeastern University. “There was absolutely no consultation.”
A SYSTEM IN LIMBO
In a series of interviews, senior officials from the Obama White House and Justice and State Departments said the prisoner swap was a bargain for the U.S., given the release of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and three others. Iran also promised cooperation on the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who had disappeared in Iran nearly a decade earlier and was believed to be either imprisoned or dead.
Those senior officials acknowledged that all but a handful of people were kept in the dark, but said top representatives of the Justice Department and FBI helped vet the 21 Iranian proliferators and that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch herself participated in blocking some other individuals demanded by Tehran from inclusion in potential prisoner trades.
“The condition was that they not be engaged in anything remotely attached to violence or proliferation activities,” said one senior Obama administration official familiar with the swap negotiations. “And none of them were in any stage where they were providing assistance to the [Tehran] government.”
That may be true for the seven men granted clemency in the United States, but it certainly wasn’t the case for the 14 fugitives.
“These were people under active investigation, who we wanted very badly because they were operating at such a high level that they could help us begin to find out what was happening inside the black box of how Iran’s procurement networks really operate,” said Aaron Arnold, a former intelligence analyst at CPC2, the FBI’s special Counterproliferation Center unit dedicated to thwarting Iranian nuclear and weapons smuggling. “Without that kind of strategic insight, it leaves our analysts, but more importantly, our policy-makers just guessing at what Iran is up to and how to stop it.”
Fifteen months later, the fallout from the nuclear deal and prisoner swap — and questions about the events leading up to them — continue to reverberate through the Justice Department and the specialized units at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Commerce Department created to neutralize the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and military ambitions.
The National Counterproliferation Initiative, created with much fanfare a decade ago, has suffered greatly, many participants said, even as they acknowledged that metrics are hard to come by. Much of the work is done in secret, and in long-range efforts that can’t be publicly disclosed, much less measured in annual arrest or conviction statistics.
But key enforcement efforts are in limbo as the result of stalled or stymied investigations and prosecutions, and the trail of some high-value targets has gone cold, numerous participants said.
At least six times in the run-up to the nuclear deal, federal investigators scrambled to get Justice and State Department approval to lure top Iranian targets into traveling internationally in order to arrest them, according to one top Obama administration Justice Department official and other participants. But the requests weren’t approved and the targets vanished, depriving the U.S. of some of its best opportunities to gain insight into the workings of Tehran’s nuclear, missile and military programs, the sources said.
“We would say, ‘We have this opportunity and if we don’t do it now, we’ll never have the opportunity ever again,” the recently departed Justice Department official recalls. But, he added, “There were periods of time where State Department cooperation was necessary but not forthcoming.”
Obama Secretary of State John Kerry declined to comment through a former senior State Department official, who said certain requests might have been delayed temporarily because they came at particularly sensitive times in the negotiations, but only with the concurrence of the White House and Justice Department.
But even now, many experienced agents and prosecutors say they are reluctant to pursue counterproliferation cases for fear that they won’t go anywhere. They say they have also received no helpful guidance on what they can — and cannot — investigate going forward given the complicated parameters of the Iran deal and lifting of nuclear sanctions. Some said they are biding their time to see how hard-liners in the new administration, including Trump himself, deal with Iran.
But others have grown so frustrated that they have moved on from the counterproliferation effort, taking with them decades of investigative experience and relationships cultivated with other government agencies and cooperating U.S. companies, a number of current and former officials said.
And critical momentum has been lost, many say, as the 10-year anniversary of the initiative in October approaches.
“This has erased literally years — many years — of hard work, and important cases that can be used to build toward other cases and even bigger players in Iran’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs,” said former Justice Department counterproliferation prosecutor David Locke Hall, adding that the swap demolished the deterrent effect that the arrests and convictions may have had. “Even though these men’s crimes posed a direct threat to U.S. national security, the [Obama] administration has essentially told them their efforts have produced nothing more than political capital that can be traded away when politically expedient.”
One senior Obama administration official who served at the White House and DHS disagreed, saying much of the intelligence about Iranian networks remains usable even though the 21 cases were vacated, and that counterproliferation agents are a resilient bunch who will continue to do their jobs.
When asked whether the counterproliferation effort has struggled, one current Justice Department spokesman said no and quipped, “We are still in the export violation prosecuting business.”
That may be the case, said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a physicist and former weapons inspector whose decades of scientific research into Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program brings him into regular close contact with federal authorities.
But like others involved in ongoing U.S. counterproliferation efforts, Albright said he witnessed many instances since late 2014 in which important investigations and prosecutions were hindered. Albright, who serves as an expert witness in Justice Department Iran trafficking prosecutions, added that federal agents have told him of numerous cases of “lure memos” and other requests never approved by the State Department.
“You can’t keep turning these down and expecting them to want to keep doing this,” said Albright, who added that efforts to lure suspects to countries where they can be arrested are essential in getting beyond the lower rungs of middlemen for Iran. He said he could not disclose specific details, but said, “The amount of rejections has risen to the level where people were worried that it would kill the counterproliferation effort.”
“They had wanted all of these things prosecuted, they were on a roll, they were freaking out the Iranians and then they were told, boom, stop,” Albright said of the Obama administration’s counterproliferation efforts. “And it’s hard to get them back again. We are shooting ourselves in the foot, destroying the infrastructure that we created to enforce the laws against the Iranians.”
The repercussions from the prisoner swap are especially strong in Boston, where authorities had worked for years to build the case against Jamili, the suspected Iranian nuclear procurement agent, and his China-based associate Sihai Cheng.
The two were secretly indicted in 2013 along with two Iranian companies, and Cheng pleaded guilty in mid-December 2015 to four criminal counts. He acknowledged conspiring with Jamili to knowingly provide more than 1,000 high-tech components known as pressure transducers to Iran, which authorities say advanced its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Less than a month later, though, as the prisoner swap unfolded, Boston prosecutors got orders from Washington to file court papers vacating the charges against Jamili and dropping the Interpol arrest warrant for him.
It wasn’t until later that the case agents and prosecutors learned that the Iranian negotiators had specifically demanded that Jamili be included in the swap, said Arnold, the former analyst at the FBI’s Counterproliferation Center Iran unit, where he headed a financial intelligence team tracking the money flows of the Iranian networks.
A GLOBAL CAT AND MOUSE GAME
By the time of the nuclear deal and prisoner swap, the U.S. government had spent 35 years in pursuit of Iran’s ever more sophisticated web of smugglers, traffickers, transport operatives and procurement agents.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter declared that Iran constituted an unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. security after Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostage 52 Americans. Tehran began calling the United States “the Great Satan” and vowed its destruction, in part by using proxy forces like Hezbollah.
A raft of economic sanctions against Iran and Iranian entities were put in place, followed by other restrictions on U.S. parts and technology that Tehran needed for military or other restricted applications, including its squadrons of F-class fighter jets that Washington sold it during friendlier times. Its ambitious ballistic missile program became a grave concern over the years, especially when it became apparent that Tehran was using U.S. commodities to engineer inter-continental versions that could reach the United States, and to top them with nuclear, conventional or even chemical and biological weapons.
And as Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program ramped up, so did the U.S. effort to stop it.
Overseas, U.S. intelligence operatives shadowed Iranian procurement agents, cultivated informants and used cyberweapons to sabotage Iran’s clandestine program. The U.S. military tried to interdict illicit shipments headed for Tehran. The Treasury Department issued endless rounds of targeted sanctions, but each time it restricted access to global markets for suspect individuals and companies, Tehran would simply create new ones. And successive administrations tried the diplomatic route to slow or stop Iranian proliferation, including Tehran’s efforts to share weapons and research with other enemies of the United States, without success.
In response, federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors were deployed to shut down the Iranian procurement networks and dam the rivers of U.S. parts and technology illicitly flowing to Iran in violation of export control laws.
That proved virtually impossible, given the hundreds of trading, shipping and transport companies Iran employed, and the complex payment schemes and often unwitting procurement agents it used to get the products via other countries with lax export controls.
Meanwhile, since at least 1982, the Government Accountability Office began issuing stinging reports about how the lack of coordination and information-sharing among U.S. agencies severely hampered efforts to bring criminal cases against traffickers.
After the 9/11 attacks, those turf battles intensified. The cases often took years to investigate, and federal agents from two or even three agencies would sometimes discover they were conducting international undercover operations against the same target, a top former Homeland Security official recalls.
Securing convictions from American juries was also a huge challenge given the complex nature of the cases, especially when the procurement networks were buying so-called dual-use components that also could be used for less nefarious purposes.
Two post-9/11 cases exposed gaping holes in the global counterproliferation safety net. In the United States, Israeli-born trafficker Asher Karni was arrested for illegally shipping suspected U.S. nuclear components to Pakistan for its atomic bomb arsenal. And in Pakistan, metallurgist Abdul Qadeer Khan was caught selling his country's nuclear capability to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Both cases ratcheted up Washington’s fears that the vast underground of WMD trafficking rings could sell their wares to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
In 2007, the Bush administration responded by establishing the National Counterproliferation Initiative, charging the Justice Department with coordinating and expanding U.S. efforts to dismantle the procurement networks.
Task forces were established around the country, with special training for prosecutors and agents in how to collectively build cases that would not only put front-line traffickers in prison, but also map the illicit networks and target their leadership.
From the outset, Iran cases were front and center, especially in cities like San Diego, Houston and New York with large military, industrial or technology sectors. Boston, in particular, seemed a favorite of the Iranian networks.
Soon, the multi-agency teams were homing in on key players in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and another network procuring the IED components that Tehran’s fearsome Revolutionary Guard used to assist Iraqi insurgents killing American troops in Iraq.
An early high-value target was Amin Ravan, who by 2008 was working with a Singapore firm on behalf of the Aerospace Industries Organization, described by a secret State Department cable that year as “the umbrella organization and key procurement center for all Iranian industries responsible for developing and manufacturing missiles.”
Another was Behrouz Dolatzadeh, the suspected assault weapons buyer for Tehran. Authorities say he had been active as far back as 1995 in illegal arms smuggling and other illegal activities in connection with a sprawling business empire linked to Iran’s hard-line leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By 2011, the Justice-led task forces had developed so many promising leads that the FBI, Commerce and Homeland Security Department had created special units to better coordinate efforts. Together, they also improved liaisons with overseas law enforcement agencies instrumental in interdicting shipments headed for Iran.
And working with U.S. intelligence agencies and the State Department, the task forces successfully lured several key Iranian operatives out of Tehran and China for capture elsewhere, including two who would end up on Obama’s prisoner swap list.
Dolatzadeh was indicted under seal in Arizona in February 2012, lured to the Czech Republic to inspect weapons en route to Iran, and arrested. And Ravan, already linked to the IED network, was secretly indicted in Washington in November 2012 and captured soon after in Malaysia.
And after a three-year undercover investigation, U.S. authorities lured a major Iranian proliferator named Parviz Khaki to the Philippines in May 2012 and arrested him on charges of conspiring to smuggle nuclear-related U.S. equipment to Iran.
“By dismantling this complex conspiracy … we have disrupted a significant threat to national security,” John Morton, then-director of DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at the time.
All three investigations provided U.S. officials with unprecedented insight into Iran’s secret procurement efforts, current and former task force members said. But Dolatzadeh and Ravan were released by courts overseas, and Khaki died in custody, before the U.S. could extradite them.
The counterproliferation teams also enlisted the help of American companies, providing them with Iran’s massive shopping list of needed items and hotlines to call when they got a nibble.
“It took a long time to mature, but by 2013 to 2014, it became very evident that we were getting a lot of great leads,” recalls Randall Coleman, who as assistant FBI director oversaw the bureau’s fledgling Counterproliferation Center and special coordinators in all 56 field offices.
“We were very aggressive, and as a result of that, our caseload went up about 500 percent,” Coleman said. “It really exploded. We were rocking and rolling.”
One of the most promising cases was in Boston, where federal agents were deep into their investigation of the illicit flow of parts to Iran from a Massachusetts firm, MKS Instruments, and its Shanghai subsidiary.
With help from MKS, which was not suspected of wrongdoing, agents initially focused on Cheng and gathered evidence that he had been indirectly supplying Iran with components with nuclear applications for years. The trail led to Eyvaz Technic Manufacturing, an Iranian company designated by European authorities as an entity involved in developing and procuring parts for Iran's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
“Time is important, not only for you, for me, for your end user, but also for your nation,” Cheng wrote in a 2010 instant message to a suspected Iranian accomplice. “I personally believe the war will break out in 2 years and that will be the start of World War Three.”
But the agents’ curiosity was also piqued by another message from back in 2007, in which the Iranian accomplice, Seyed Jamili, asked Cheng for thousands of pressure transducers, for “a very big project and secret one.”
The project, authorities determined, was Iran’s clandestine uranium nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, where the transducers helped run thousands of gas centrifuge cascades to reach weapons-grade capability. There was even a photo of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touring Natanz, with the centrifuges — and MKS transducers clearly visible — in the background.
International U.S. arrest warrants were secretly issued for the two men, and authorities nabbed Cheng when he traveled to London to watch a soccer match in February 2014. After he was extradited and brought to Boston that December, authorities began to realize that Jamili was a far more important cog in Iran’s proliferation network than they had suspected.
It was Jamili who had recruited Cheng with the promise of big and easy money, they determined, and who had been using his Iranian import-export firm as cover for personally recruiting other procurement agents on trips to China and possibly other countries.
Around that same time, negotiations over a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran were heating up, and so were the top-secret prisoner swap talks on the sidelines of them.
AN OPERATIONAL SLOWDOWN
By the winter of 2014, federal agents and prosecutors began to detect waning support at the higher rungs of the Obama administration for their counterproliferation efforts against Iran, according to numerous officials involved. Also, they said, Justice Department management — and an interagency Iran working group — suddenly were scrutinizing Iran cases more closely, asking a lot more questions and holding up requests and approvals that in the past had been routine.
No specific guidance or order was given, some said, but the message was clear.
“They didn’t want to have cases just popping up in the workup to the agreement or shortly after the agreement. The administration would not look good if there were [cases documenting] these acquisition attempts. And the Iranians kept doing it,” MacDonald, the former senior Homeland Security official, said of Tehran’s illegal procurement efforts.
“They were never told no, just to wait,” MacDonald said of the agents. “It was a common theme among the people working these cases. The official response was that nothing had changed, that if you brought the case forward, it would be worked. But unofficially, that was just not the case.”
Some of the cases involved significant investigations into nuclear and missile proliferation that required State Department approval, including visas to lure suspects to the U.S. for arrest, said MacDonald, who had also served on the White House Task Force on Export Control Reform. “I’ve been told that the highest levels of the State Department weren’t processing those, and the cases couldn’t move forward.”
A former senior State Department official said that in most cases, State Department and White House could only provide nonbinding guidance on how ongoing law enforcement operations might affect the sensitive negotiations. Ultimately, he said, the Justice Department was responsible for pushing back and protecting the integrity of its investigations and prosecutions.
And while it’s possible that federal law enforcement officials missed opportunities as a result of State Department delays, “I am not aware of a single case where they lost out on some key arrest or information, or some proliferation activity was allowed to continue,” the former senior State Department official said, adding that some lures and extraditions were approved “until the very end of our tenure.”
Richard Nephew, a former top Iran sanctions official at the State Department and National Security Council, said any delays were “much more a case of managing the diplomatic initiative than letting the bad guys get away with stuff. If we found out in the NSC that something involved active law enforcement activity, then we were advised to stay the hell away from it.”
A top Obama Justice Department official rejected the notion that the State Department didn’t undermine important cases. He said prosecutors and investigators sometimes acceded to requests for delays they believed to be reasonable. But they became infuriated at times, he said, especially when opportunities to lure and arrest key Iranian proliferators were lost due to delay or outright rejection by State.
“The impediment was not the leadership of DOJ but the other agencies that DOJ has to work with to bring these cases successfully,” the Obama Justice official said. “They can kibosh it, they can pocket veto it, they can tell us no, they can punt it down a couple of steps.”
Justice Department officials demanded “high-level conversations” with the State Department and White House, but “not a whole lot” changed, the Obama Justice official said. “Did it fix the issue? I don’t think it did. I remember people up and down at DOJ being frustrated with the inability to move things.”
A senior former federal law enforcement official involved in counterproliferation efforts agreed, saying the FBI was especially impacted. “Did some of these other agencies’ actions … undermine what we were trying to accomplish in terms of the Iran network in the U.S.? Yes. But you are treading into waters where people don’t like what you are doing because it affects other things they are trying to do, diplomatically and politically.”
Ultimately, the dysfunction created by the slowdown spread far beyond the enforcement agencies and damaged relationships with partners in private industry and foreign governments, former DHS official MacDonald and others said.
By early 2015, the Obama administration’s oft-publicized desire for securing an Iran deal “was politicizing all of the ongoing investigations,” Arnold said. He visited his former CPC Iran Unit colleagues that August while briefing Treasury and FBI officials on the Iran deal, reached a month earlier, as a counterproliferation expert at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“There was a fear that as negotiations went on, the White House wouldn’t want to get caught in a flap” created by a high-profile arrest or criminal case, Arnold said.
For agents and prosecutors, the headlines such an incident would create would antagonize not only their superiors but also a White House intent on proving to Tehran that it was committed to reaching an accord. On the flip side, it could also provide ammunition to the proposed deal’s many critics in Congress and elsewhere, who were claiming that Iran was aggressively continuing its clandestine procurement efforts even as it pledged good behavior.
But agents and prosecutors had an even more powerful reason to throttle back on Iran proliferation cases, according to Arnold and others.
Despite repeated requests, many were not given guidance or reassurances that the nuclear deal being negotiated in secret wouldn’t render unprosecutable new and ongoing cases, especially high-priority ones against nuclear traffickers, Arnold said. So agents had no confidence that their work would bear fruit.
“It was absolutely insane,” Arnold said. “People didn’t know what to do.”
“From the summer of 2015 on, there was a serious slowdown” as many counterproliferation officials shut down prosecutions and investigations voluntarily, Arnold said. “During that time, CPC wasn’t as aggressive as it should have been.”
The senior Obama administration official acknowledged that the twin sets of negotiations influenced the overall U.S. counterproliferation effort against Iran, especially the timing of individual investigations, prosecutions and international efforts to bring suspects to justice.
Such competing equities are unavoidable when high-level matters of diplomacy and geopolitics are under consideration, the official said. At those times, the White House must be guided by broader policy objectives, in this case de-escalating conflict with Iran, curbing its nuclear weapons program and freeing at least four American prisoners.
“The White House wouldn’t be getting involved in saying yea or nay to particular arrests or cases or the like” that are the purview of the Justice Department, the administration official said. “It was not uncommon, though, that before we were going to undertake a law enforcement action that we thought would have foreign policy implications, we would alert folks at the White House so that there could be appropriate notice given to a foreign government. That happens.”
The former official also acknowledged the complaints by agents and prosecutors about cases being derailed but said they were unavoidable, and for the greater good.
“It’s entirely possible that during the pendency of the negotiations, that folks who were doing their jobs, doing the investigations and bringing cases, having no understanding of and insight into the other process, were frustrated because they don’t feel like their stuff is moving forward,” said the Obama official. “Or they were not getting answers, because there are these entirely appropriate discussions happening on the policy side.
“That doesn’t strike me as being, a, unusual or, b, wrong,” the official added. “But I completely understand why it’s frustrating.”
The Justice Department refused repeated requests to make available for interviews anyone related to the counterproliferation effort since the Iran deal, or to provide information about its role in the negotiations.
But in a statement to POLITICO, the Justice Department said the negotiations “did not affect the Department’s determination to investigate and charge worthy cases” and that it continued to “investigate, charge, and prosecute viable criminal cases … throughout negotiations of the JCPOA,” the formal term for the Iran deal. The Justice Department said it filed federal charges against 90 individuals and entities for violations of export controls and sanctions implicating Iran between 2014 and 2016, many under seal. It did not provide information about cases under seal for those or other years, making it impossible to place those numbers in the proper context.
Also, some of those cases involve the 21 Iranians let go in the swap. And because numerous individuals and entities often are charged in a single case, the statistics suggest a slowdown in counterproliferation efforts, according to current and former investigators and a POLITICO review of DOJ cases.
The timing of arrests, prosecutions and other investigative activities “may be informed by a variety of factors, including, especially in the national security context, collateral foreign policy consequences and impacts on American lives,” the Justice Department said. “Once an individual is charged, the Department works to ensure that the defendant, whether located in the U.S. or abroad, is held accountable. In seeking to apprehend defendants located abroad, however, we need assistance from other departments, agencies, and countries, and sometimes we cannot accomplish an arrest without it.”
Senior Obama administration officials also said the negotiations over the nuclear deal and, even more so the prisoner swap, required such extraordinary secrecy that only a tiny number of people were involved.
But as the nation’s top law enforcement official — and as a participant in the negotiations —Lynch failed in her responsibility as attorney general to protect the integrity of the Justice Department’s investigations and prosecutions from any political interference, some current and former officials believe.
Lynch, through an aide, declined to comment.
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, raised the issue of Justice Department independence in 2015, when as a senator he asked incoming Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates about whether she knew that she had “the responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper?”
Earlier this year, this issue arose again when Trump fired then-Acting Attorney General Yates for doing just that and refusing to defend his executive order on immigration. By doing so, Trump had “placed the independence of the Justice Department at stake,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). “The attorney general is the people’s attorney, not the president’s attorney.”
Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis also emphasized the importance of such a firewall recently when addressing Trump’s claim that Obama had ordered wiretaps of him or his campaign. "A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice," Lewis said.
Many front-line current and former authorities disagree, and say the Iran deal and prisoner swap is a glaring example of that.
“A lot of people were furious; they had cases in the pipeline for months, in some cases years, and then, all of a sudden, they were gone — all because they were trying to sell the nuke deal,” a former Department of Commerce counterproliferation agent said. “Things fell apart after that. There are some really good cases out there and they are not going forward. They just let them die on the vine.”
A MASTERMIND EMERGES
Top Obama administration officials insist that the nuclear deal does not impede any of the broader U.S. efforts to go after Iran’s vast nuclear, missile and conventional weapons procurement efforts. Even so, many participants said the way forward is still sufficiently unclear that they can’t, or won’t, proceed.
Over the past year, the system has kicked back into gear, with some new cases filed and movement in existing ones. Some, however, involve activity dating to 2008, including the prosecution of some of Ravan’s suspected associates in the Iraq IED case. Privately, some prosecutors and investigators are hopeful that the Trump administration’s more hard-line approach to Tehran will mean more support for their efforts.
Like many others, though, Albright said he is concerned that the counterproliferation effort has suffered significant and lasting damage, even if much of it involves classified efforts that may never become public.
“How much damage was done to the law enforcement side of this from us pulling back from these prosecutions?” he asked. “We have to pick up the pieces.”
Albright said that is especially the case in Boston, where he testified for the government against Cheng.
A few weeks after the prisoner swap, a judge sentenced Cheng to nine years in federal prison, even more than the prosecutors asked for, for his role in the conspiracy.
Cheng’s lawyer, Stephen Weymouth, accused federal prosecutors of unfair treatment, saying they threw the book at his client, a relatively small fish, while dropping all charges against the “mastermind,” Jamili.
Since the swap, federal authorities have learned more about Jamili, including intelligence tying him directly to Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a top Iranian nuclear official who supervised a key “commercial affairs” initiative at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, according to officials familiar with the case. Authorities believe Jamili was on the phone with Ahmadi-Roshan on Jan. 11, 2012, when unknown assailants on a motorbike killed him by attaching a bomb to his car. Tehran accused Israel’s Mossad in the attack.
But the federal agents’ efforts to pursue such leads, even in the U.S., have been complicated by the general uncertainty hanging over the broader counterproliferation effort, according to Arnold, the former FBI analyst.
“Part of the frustration is that there is strong evidence Iran is still conducting illegal procurement operations and the FBI can’t really go forward with these cases,” said Arnold, who has been closely following the Jamili-Cheng case as part of a Harvard research project into nuclear proliferation networks.
That frustration is especially acute when it comes to Jamili and the 13 other fugitives. When dropping the charges, the Justice Department said it was doing so in large part because it was unlikely that the U.S. would ever be successful in capturing or extraditing them anyway.
Some federal officials familiar with the cases scoffed at that, noting that they have lured many Iranians to places where they could be arrested, and that others were tripped up by sealed Interpol warrants while traveling. In Jamili’s case, said one, “he has traveled so we know there’s a chance we could get him.”
Despite decades of intensive investigations, Arnold said, U.S. officials still have a “major air gap” when it comes to understanding the intermediaries like Jamili involved in the Iranian networks — who are between foot soldiers like Cheng and government officials running the nuclear and weapons programs.
“All of a sudden, we’re no longer playing whack-a-mole, and we suddenly have this key player who is directly involved and has insider knowledge as to how this whole process works,” he said. “So to see him being traded away is frustrating.”
On Jan. 17, 2016, President Barack Obama went on national TV to announce the formal implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, and another top-secret deal that secured the release of four Iranian-Americans imprisoned by Tehran.
In exchange, Obama said, he was granting clemency to six Iranian-Americans and one Iranian man convicted or awaiting trial in the U.S. for violations of U.S. sanctions laws, and that none of them were charged with “terrorism or any violent offenses.”
Here’s a snapshot of those involved, including details of the seven cases in the U.S. and the 14 Obama didn’t mention – Iranian fugitives wanted by the U.S. that the administration dropped charges and international arrest warrants against, citing “significant foreign policy interests” and the low probability of capturing them.
Those who were awaiting trial or appeal in the U.S., and the Iranian-Americans held by Iran, have all asserted their innocence and portrayed themselves as political pawns in the often-contentious relationship between the U.S. and Iran.
The four Iranian-Americans freed:
Jason Rezaian, of Marin County, Calif. The Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post, imprisoned in July 2014, convicted in October 2015 and sentenced to an undisclosed prison term for alleged offenses that included spying.
Amir Hekmati, of Flint, Michigan, an American of Iranian descent and Marine who served in Iraq. Detained in 2011 while visiting relatives in Tehran, he was convicted of espionage, initially sentenced to death but then convicted of aiding a hostile country, the U.S., and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Saeed Abedini, of Boise, Idaho, a naturalized American citizen and pastor, arrested in 2012, convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for subverting Iran’s national security by creating a network of Christian house churches, or private religious gatherings.
Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, a mystery captive whom the U.S. identified as part of the swap but provided no details. A news service run by expatriate Iranian journalists said the former California-based carpet seller may have been an FBI consultant and possibly linked to the case involving the disappearance of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson. He is believed to have stayed in Iran.
Matthew Trevithick — a Hingham, Massachusetts, student detained for 40 days while doing research in Iran. Although his case was cited by Obama, he was released independently of the prisoner exchange.
Robert Levinson — A private investigator and retired FBI and DEA agent who disappeared a decade ago, on March 9, 2007, while on the Iranian island of Kish while on secret assignment as a CIA contractor. For years, federal law enforcement officials – the FBI in particular – had been lobbying for Levinson’s release as part of any deal with Iran, especially after rumors intensified that he had died at the hands of Iranian security forces. In March 2015, the FBI increased the reward for information leading to his return to $5 million. FBI officials were outraged that his case was not part of the prisoner swap, and the bureau issued a statement the day Obama announced it, saying, “Today, the United States celebrates the safe return of four American citizens detained by the government of Iran to their families and loved ones. Unfortunately, the family of retired FBI agent Robert “Bob” Levinson still waits.’’
The seven Iranians freed in the U.S:
The seven men freed by the U.S. were given pardons or commutations depending on whether convicted or awaiting trial, according to a Justice Department news release that described them as violating the Iranian embargo and Export Administration Regulations but made no mention of the prisoner swap – or the dropped cases of the other 14 Iranians. Here are the details of what the seven were accused or convicted of, with links to their cases where possible.
Bahram Mechanic — A dual U.S. and Iranian citizen and accused ringleader of a Houston-based procurement network operating since at least 1985. A 24-count indictment unsealed in April 2015 charged Mechanic and alleged associates Khosrow Afghahi and Tooraj Faridi with illegally supplying Iran with U.S.-origin microelectronics and other commodities “frequently used in a wide range of military systems, including surface-air and cruise missiles.” Prosecutors said Mechanic’s network, including four corporations also indicted, sent at least $24 million worth of commodities to Iran between July 2010 and early 2015 alone. “The proliferation of sensitive U.S. technologies to Iran and the direct support to their military and weapons programs remains a clear threat to U.S. national security,” then-Assistant FBI Director Randall Coleman said when the charges were announced. A report by the Institute for Science and International Security said the case highlighted how skilled Iranian procurement agents “continue to seek sensitive goods from inside the United States and increase the sophistication of their schemes in order to reduce chances of detection.” All three pleaded not guilty, and were in custody or on bail and facing more than 20 years in prison when pardoned.
Nima Golestaneh — An Iranian national accused of spearheading an elaborate October 2012 conspiracy to steal for Iran millions of dollars worth of sensitive information from a Vermont-based defense contractor, including proprietary software to help its customers with aerodynamics analysis and design issues.
U.S. cybersecurity experts said the case was part of a broader campaign by Iran to hack aerospace firms, airports and airlines around the world. The government of Turkey had turned over Golestaneh, reportedly in an effort to persuade the U.S. to extradite Pennsylvania-based activist and cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was wanted in Turkey on charges of trying to overthrow the government. Golestaneh had pleaded guilty to wire fraud and computer fraud; he was in custody and scheduled to be sentenced when freed.
Nader Modanlo — A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran and living in Potomac, Maryland, Modanlo was convicted in June 2013 of charges arising from a conspiracy to illegally provide satellite hardware and technology to Iran over many years, and with receiving $10 million as part of a secret effort to help Tehran launch its first-ever satellite. When Modanlo, who also had worked for NASA subcontractors, was sentenced to eight years in federal prison, senior Defense Criminal Investigative Service official Robert E. Craig, Jr. said the case showed how the U.S. will “aggressively and tirelessly pursue and prosecute anyone who willfully violates laws that are designed to preserve and protect our nation’s most critical technologies and resources … [to ensure] the safety of America’s warfighters and all Americans.” Modanlo initially refused the deal, citing his pending appeal, but accepted it after authorities dropped their $10 million claim on his assets.
Arash Ghahreman — A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran, Ghahreman was a former engineer for the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, which has been sanctioned by the U.S., United Nations and EU for advancing Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Ghahreman headed a U.S.-based Iranian procurement network that acquired a wide array of American goods and technologies with possible military and weapons uses for users in Iran. A years-long undercover operation produced video of the Staten Island, New York, resident discussing with federal agents posing as prospective suppliers how some items could be used for electronic warfare, and how the initial deal could lead to a lucrative business relationship because his associates needed “reliable, trustable partners.” After a San Diego jury convicted him in April 2015, the Justice Department’s top national security official, Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, said “these violations of the Iran Trade Embargo have the potential to harm U.S. national security objectives …” Ghahreman was serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence when freed.
Ali Saboonchi — A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran and living in Parkville, Maryland, Saboonchi was accused of setting up the Ace Electric Co. at the behest of an Iranian co-conspirator, and using it as part of a procurement network that illegally shipped industrial parts and components to Iranian users. After he was convicted in August 2014, FBI’s Baltimore chief Steve Vogt said, "This case and trial gave the public a rare view into the lengths Mr. Saboonchi and others like him will go to break the law of this country and aid our foreign adversaries. We work every day to keep what may seem like benign technology and ideas created here in America from being used against us.” Saboonchi was serving a two-year sentence in a federal prison in Virginia when released.
The 14 fugitives whose cases and international arrest warrants were dropped:
The Justice Department and other U.S. agencies never provided details of the 14 cases against Iranian fugitives that it dropped as part of the deal, including the names of the defendants or the charges against them, only confirming the cases of the seven men granted clemency by Obama. These case histories have been compiled from federal court documents and other records, based on identities of the men initially disclosed by Iran’s FARS news service. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari initially told reporters in Tehran that a total of 28 Iranians “were freed or were relieved of judicial restrictions within the framework of the agreement," but did not identify the other seven, and those cases have never been confirmed. U.S. officials had no comment.
Seyed Abolfazl Shahab Jamili — An Iranian import-export businessman charged with procuring nuclear-related equipment for Iran from 2005 through 2012, including conspiring with Chinese associate Sihai Cheng to obtain hundreds of U.S.-made pressure transducers for the gas centrifuges Iran used to secretly enrich uranium. “As this case illustrates, the FBI will do everything it can to keep U.S. weapons technology and other restricted materials from falling into the wrong hands and hurting our nation’s security,” the FBI’s Boston director Harold Shaw said after Cheng pleaded guilty Dec. 18, 2015 and was sentenced to nine years in prison. But on Jan. 16, 2016, the same Boston prosecutors who charged Cheng, Jamili and two Iranian companies in 2013 were told by superiors to dismiss all charges against Jamili “based upon issues regarding securing extradition of the defendant and significant foreign policy interests.”
Amin Ravan — An Iranian citizen known to be a long-time procurement agent for Iran, Ravan and his Iran-based company IC Market Iran were charged in 2011 with smuggling U.S.-made military antennas to Hong Kong and Singapore. Authorities alleged that Ravan worked with a Singapore firm, Corezing International, to acquire the antennas and a wide array of other components for users in Iran. They also say he was involved in a sprawling Iranian procurement network that was charged with helping Iran acquire U.S. radio frequency modules and other components that ended up in a particularly deadly form of IED that was responsible for killing many American troops in Iraq. Ravan was arrested in Malaysia in 2012, and released before U.S. authorities could have him extradited.
Behrouz Dolatzadeh — An Iranian citizen and longtime weapons smuggler for Iran, Dolatzadeh is suspected by U.S. authorities of being active as far back as 1995 in a wide range of procurement activities, some in connection with a secretive business empire linked to Iran’s hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was indicted under seal in Arizona in February 2012, lured to the Czech Republic by an undercover agent, arrested and charged in connection with an alleged scheme to buy thousands of U.S.-made assault rifles for ultimate use in Iran. Dolatzadeh was convicted by a Czech court on local arms smuggling charges but released, after claiming entrapment on appeal. Authorities said Dolatzadeh was also charged in a 1995 case in Ohio with being part of a seven-person conspiracy to ship sensitive military radios, scramblers and decoders to Iran. One senior Justice Department prosecutor called the network “a serious threat to national security'' at the time. Dolatzadeh was identified as an official with the Iranian Defense Ministry, according to a 1995 report on the indictment by The Associated Press.
Hamid Arabnejad, Gholamreza Mahmoudi and Ali Moattar — Three Iranian citizens and executives at Mahan Air, they were indicted in 2014 in connection with a conspiracy to illegally obtain by lease agreement as many as six Boeing airplanes on behalf of the private Iranian airline. The Treasury Department officially sanctioned Mahan Air in 2011 for providing financial material and technological support to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its elite Qods Force, saying the paramilitary group transported personnel, weapons and goods on behalf of Lebanese Hezbollah. Arabnejad was individually sanctioned for allegedly overseeing Mahan Air’s efforts to evade U.S. and international sanctions, for working closely with Qods Force to coordinate Mahan Air’s support and services for it and for facilitating illicit cargo shipments to Syria. Mahmoudi, authorities alleged, was a corporate director who worked closely with Arabnejad, including “on sanctions evasion strategies to acquire U.S. aircraft.” Treasury also sanctioned front companies it said served as “part of the procurement backbone of Mahan Air, enabling the sanctioned airline to continue ferrying significant quantities of weapons and other illicit cargo into Syria on its own passenger aircraft to support the Assad regime’s violent crackdown against its own citizens.”
Matin Sadeghi — A Turkish national indicted in April 2015 as part of Bahram Mechanic’s Houston-based procurement network, Sadeghi allegedly used his Istanbul trading company as an intermediary shipping point for dual-use U.S.-origin electronics exported illegally to Iran, including commodities “frequently used in a wide range of military systems, including surface-air and cruise missiles.” Sadeghi played a key role in helping Mechanic’s procurement network ship at least 28 million parts — worth $24 million — to Iran from 2010 to 2015, buying them from companies around the world and shipping them via third-party countries Turkey and Taiwan to evade U.S. restrictions, the indictment said.
Koorush Taherkhani — An Iranian national and alleged co-conspirator in Ghahreman’s procurement network, Taherkhani was the managing director and founder of TIG Marine Engineering Services in Dubai, which was indicted along with him. Prosecutors said he used the firm as a front company to acquire U.S.-made navigation equipment for ultimate use in Iran. Like Ghahreman, he was an engineer for various Iranian shipping companies, including the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and its subsidiaries. Taherkhani was also accused of hiring a fifth co-defendant, German national and Dubai resident Ergun Yildiz, to be the “face” of the front company to hide the Iranian connection. Yildiz ultimately assisted U.S. authorities and won early release.
Alireza Moazami Goudarzi — An Iranian citizen, Goudarzi was charged in November 2012 in connection with an international conspiracy to illegally procure U.S. aircraft parts to Iran, including rotor blades for attack helicopters and other military and restricted aviation components. He was arrested after meeting with an undercover U.S. agent in Malaysia to purchase parts. Goudarzi’s indictment “reinforces HSI’s commitment to dismantle foreign procurement networks seeking to obtain sensitive technologies and components,” James Hayes, Jr., who headed DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations unit, said at the time. “These procurement networks pose a serious threat to our national security.” The Malaysian government refused to extradite Goudarzi to the U.S. and released him. His was the only case in which a federal judge questioned the Justice Department’s request to drop the charges, but the judge later approved it.
Jalal Salami — A dual U.S. and Iranian citizen who allegedly used his San Marco, California, firm in a conspiracy to procure U.S. electronic components for ultimate use in Iran through Malaysia. He was charged in 2011 with 29 counts related to the conspiracy. Two others, Iranian citizens Sajad Farhadi and Seyed Ahmad Abtahi, were also part of the procurement network, prosecutors said. Both worked for a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, firm that acted as a transshipment point for the U.S.-origin components. Authorities allege that Farhadi oversaw the Malaysia operations while Abtahi managed operations from Iran and identified specific components to be procured from U.S. companies. All three faced charges that could lead to long prison terms when the cases were dropped.
Mohammed A. Sharbaf — An Iranian citizen indicted with two others in 2005 for allegedly being part of a conspiracy to procure U.S.-origin forklift parts in violation of U.S. sanctions. Authorities said Sharbaf, president and managing director of Sepahan Lifter Co. in Iran, sought to illegally import forklift parts via a Dubai trading company.
Mohammad Abbas Mohammadi — An Iranian citizen charged in 2013 with conspiring to illegally procure U.S.-origin aircraft parts – including engines – for use in civilian and military aircraft in Iran. The indictment alleges that Mohammadi was working on behalf of Iranian Aircraft Industries, a company controlled by the Tehran government, and that the parts were for the Iranian government’s military and civilian aircraft fleet.
Republicans say President Donald Trump needs to turn things around fast — or the GOP could pay dearly in 2018.
With the party preparing to defend its congressional majorities in next year’s midterms, senior Republicans are expressing early concern about Trump’s lack of legislative accomplishments, his record-low approval ratings, and the overall dysfunction that’s gripped his administration.
The stumbles have drawn the attention of everyone from GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who funneled tens of millions of dollars into Trump’s election and is relied on to help bankroll the party’s House and Senate campaigns, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Adelson hasn’t contributed to pro-Trump outside groups since the inauguration, a move that’s drawn notice within the party, and McConnell is warning associates that Trump’s unpopularity could weigh down the GOP in the election.
Potential GOP candidates whom party leaders want to recruit are afraid of walking into a buzz saw, uncertain about what kind of political environment they’ll be facing by the time the midterms come around — and what Trump’s record will look like.
As tumultuous as Trump’s first 100 days have been, there’s still plenty of time for him to correct course. The president is projecting confidence that the GOP can resuscitate its stalled repeal of Obamacare, pass tax reform and work with Democrats on a major public works package. Success on those fronts would no doubt calm the GOP’s current jitters.
But interviews with more than a dozen top Republican operatives, donors and officials reveal a growing trepidation about how the initial days of the new political season are unfolding. And they underscore a deep anxiety about how the party will position itself in 2018 as it grapples with the leadership of an unpredictable president still acclimating to Washington.
“It’s not the way you’d want to start a new cycle,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia. “At some point, they’ve got to find some kind of rhythm, and there is no rhythm yet.”
“They’ve got to put some drives together,” he added.
Appearing Sunday on NBC's “Meet the Press,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus pushed back on the suggestion Trump has accomplished little. Among other things, Priebus pointed to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and reports that border crossings have plummeted since the start of the new year.
“He is fulfilling his promises and doing it at breakneck speed,” Priebus said.
Behind the scenes, the administration is keeping a watchful eye on the 2018 election. Priebus remains in touch with his political allies from his time as party chairman. There’s talk Priebus may attend an RNC meeting in San Diego next month and a Mitt Romney-hosted donor summit in Park City, Utah, slated for June. The midterms are likely to be front and center at both events.
Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon are carefully tracking the special election for a Republican-leaning Georgia House seat, a contest the administration sees as a key early test of the president’s political standing. White House officials were heartened that Democrat Jon Ossoff — whom Trump attacked on Twitter and robocalls — fell short of an outright victory in the first round of voting, triggering a June runoff against Republican Karen Handel.
Yet as Republican strategists examine that special election, and one for a conservative Kansas seat a week earlier, they’re seeing evidence of a worrisome enthusiasm gap. In the run-up to the Georgia election, low-propensity Democratic voters — people who in years past did not consistently turn out to the polls — cast ballots at a rate nearly 7 percentage points higher than low-propensity Republicans, according to private polling by one Republican group.
In Kansas, the chasm was wider. Infrequent Democratic voters cast ballots at a rate of 9 percentage points higher than low-propensity Republicans did. The GOP nonetheless held the seat.
Former Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican who won a 2014 special election that was a precursor to a broader GOP sweep in that year’s midterms, said the Georgia race was rife with warnings for his party.
“It's a verdict on Trump's first 100 days,” Jolly said. “Ossoff simply has to speak to the president's failure, while Republicans have to wrestle with whether and how to defend Trump's historically low approval ratings and how closely to align with a president who, at any moment, could undermine Handel's entire messaging strategy with an indefensible tweet or an outright lie.”
Jolly, who lost reelection in 2016 and is considering running again, said he and other would-be GOP midterm contenders are struggling to take measure of what they’d be getting themselves into. The election is bound to be a referendum on Trump’s first two years. Two Republicans, Reps. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and Susan Brooks of Indiana, recently announced they will be forgoing Senate runs.
"If you're a prospective candidate, boy, it's tough," Jolly said.
Republicans are far more concerned about the House than the Senate. The GOP has a four-seat edge in the Senate and a map tilted heavily in its favor. House Republicans, by contrast, have a 24-seat margin but must defend dozens of swing districts. It’s a scenario not entirely unlike the first midterm election of Barack Obama’s presidential tenure, when Democrats lost control of the House.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of GOP leadership, said the lack of legislative progress so far has imperiled his party’s hold on the House. But Cole doesn’t point the finger at Trump: Instead, he said, fellow Republicans unwilling to compromise on key agenda items like health care are to blame.
“The majority is not safe,” he said. “We need to be more constructive legislatively, and there are going to be political implications if we don't."
“I'm confident President Trump and the Congress will deliver meaningful results for the American people,” said Henry Barbour, an influential RNC member from Mississippi and the nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour. “We don't have another option, particularly as it relates to the House in 2018.”
Not every Republican is confident about the Senate, either. McConnell has privately expressed concern about Trump’s approval ratings and lack of legislative wins, according to two people familiar with his thinking. A student of political history, the Senate leader has warned that the 2018 map shouldn’t give Republicans solace, reminding people that the party in power during a president’s first term often suffers electorally.
“We do have to do something with our full control of the government,” said Scott Jennings, who served in the George W. Bush White House and oversaw a pro-McConnell super PAC during his 2014 reelection. “Doing nothing is not an option. There’s time — the midterm elections aren’t until November 2018 — but at some point we have to finish the things we ran on.”
Republican fundraising, bolstered by the party’s full control of the federal government, has been robust. The RNC reported raising $41.5 million during the first quarter of the year, a record.
Yet Trump’s rocky start is causing restlessness in some corners of the donor world. Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul, has privately complained about Trump’s failure to fulfill his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, three people close to the billionaire said. Adelson is also rankled that some people he recommended for administration posts haven’t yet been tapped.
More fundamentally, Adelson is dismayed by what he sees as a state of chaos in the administration, these people said. In what some Republicans are interpreting as a sign of his frustration, Adelson has yet to give money to any of the pro-Trump outside groups set up to boost the president’s agenda.
An Adelson spokesman, Andy Abboud, said the billionaire is “overall not angry or unhappy” with the president and is pleased with his decisiveness on certain issues. Adelson, he said, is waiting patiently for action on the embassy.
Others are less forgiving. Texas businessman Doug Deason and his billionaire father, Darwin, have become so annoyed with the lack of progress that they have told Republican members of Congress they will not donate to them until the president’s agenda is approved. The younger Deason, a member of the Koch brothers’ political network, said he blames House and Senate Republicans for the impasse, not Trump.
"I think generally people are happy, but we're in a rare position where we have the presidency and both houses of Congress, and we want to get things done," he said.
In recent weeks, party leaders have taken steps to assure nervous donors that the political environment remains stable for Republicans and that the president’s agenda is on track. During a recent donor summit in Palm Beach, Florida, hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan, organizers stressed that health care and tax reform could still get done.
Indeed, some Republicans say it’s premature to start fretting about an election 18 months away, regardless of Trump’s early blunders.
“This is part of the growing pains of the new administration. It’s like fumbling a football in the first three minutes of the game,” said Ken Abramowitz, a New York businessman and major GOP donor. “It’s not great. But if you’re going to fumble the football, it’s good to do it in the first three minutes.”
Iraq might descend into “chaotic violence”—or worse. The broader Middle East could “go to hell” all over again.
If the United States doesn’t step up under President Donald Trump, Paul Wolfowitz warns in a new interview for The Global POLITICO, our weekly podcast on world affairs in the Trump era, it would represent an “opportunity” blown, a missed chance that would result in “lost American influence” and a win for “hostile actors.”
Wolfowitz, a hawkish Republican known as the architect of the Iraq war for his role in advocating President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion, rarely wades back into the public fray these days over the troubled Middle East, and he insists he’s well aware that the American political consensus—in both parties—is now very much against deepening involvement in the region. “I don’t think we’re up to heroic ventures in the Middle East,” he tells me.
Yet Wolfowitz has not entirely given up on the idea that the United States is essential to stability in a region that has seen very little of it. Without American involvement, for instance, he fears Iraq could splinter apart entirely. “The alternative is to let a very important, critical part of the world go to hell literally and lose American influence,” he says. “We may not like to talk about oil, but this is the engine of the world economy and if it’s dominated by the wrong people, the consequences here in the United States are very serious.”
To liberals and other critics, Wolfowitz would be the last person they want Trump to listen to. Long a lightning rod because of the havoc unleashed by the Iraq invasion, Wolfowitz has never apologized for advocating the war, although he has said—and repeated in our conversation—that it was not carried out as he would have wanted it to be. In recent days he‘s jumped right back into the public debate, nudging President Trump from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to follow up his bombing strike in neighboring Syria with more aggressive action—and, he tells me, privately emailing with Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security advisor H.R. McMaster, both longtime contacts since his Bush days, in hopes they will pursue a U.S. strategy of stepped-up engagement in the Middle East.
“I think there is a fantastic opportunity here. It’s only a first step, it’s only an opportunity,” he says of Trump’s surprise decision to unloose an American Tomahawk missile strike in Syria after President Bashar Assad’s regime again unleashed chemical weapons on civilians, a strike that turned Wolfowitz and many of his fellow neoconservatives into unlikely cheerleaders for the actions of an administration they had previously viewed as a threat. “If nothing is done to follow up on it, it will start to seem a little bit silly in retrospect; certainly the enthusiasm will seem silly. But more importantly it will look like a lost opportunity in retrospect.”
Like many other hawkish Republicans—“do me a favor,” he says, and don’t call him a “neocon,” which he believes is a charged word wielded by critics—Wolfowitz adamantly opposed candidate Trump in 2016, put off by his “America First” rhetoric, his rejection of the Iraq war as a disastrous mistake and his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other autocratic leaders.
Indeed, Wolfowitz tells me that he did not vote for Trump because he feared he would be “Obama on steroids” given Trump’s campaign-trail reluctance to project American power and leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere—and that he decided not to vote for Hillary Clinton either because he was not sure she would pursue tougher policies and thought she had joined Obama in misjudging Putin with their failed Russia “reset” policy.
But he’s now wondering whether the Trump presidency may offer more than he initially thought possible as Trump talks tough on North Korea, proclaims willingness to take further military action in the Middle East and seems to have marginalized anti-free trade, neo-isolationist advisers in favor of his more conventionally Republican national security team, led by CEO-turned-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Generals McMaster and Mattis, whose worldviews are very much shaped by their own participation in the Iraq war.
When I ask about Trump, Wolfowitz waxes surprisingly optimistic about his chances in a region that has humbled many an American president before him. “Look, he’s said a lot of things. He’s changed a lot of things,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s opportunistic, and I don’t think anyone would deny that he would like to be ‘the greatest president in modern times’ or ‘huge’ or you pick your adjective. And I think to achieve a Dayton-like peace settlement in Syria would not only be something that would be widely acclaimed, it would be hugely in the interest of the United States.”
It’s a reminder of what a head-spinning few weeks it’s been for anyone paying attention to American foreign policy, with Wolfowitz and others who openly proclaimed Trump unfit for the presidency now contemplating the opportunity his presidency presents to advance their policy agenda, and even those who were Trump’s harshest critics within the Republican Party only a few weeks ago now praising him.
“I am like the happiest dude in America right now,” Senator Lindsey Graham said the other day, citing Trump’s Syria strike as well as his tough rhetoric against Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea; this winter, Graham and his close ally Senator John McCain were issuing near-daily warnings about Trump’s foreign policy. Now, he says, “we have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.”
Still, Wolfowitz, perhaps tempered by the bruising experience of the Bush administration’s foray into Iraq, is far more measured than Graham.
Even his hopes in effect boil down to not believing what the president of the United States says, and he tells me repeatedly that he understands the United States is in no position to put major new troops into the Middle East or dictate a solution to the region’s troubles from afar. Besides, he acknowledges without much apparent irony, “there’s something a little weird in a world where people in Washington can come up with prescriptions for how to make peace in a strange country a long way away when it’s been through such a traumatic experience.”
Now 73, good-humored and gray, Wolfowitz has returned to the conservative American Enterprise Institute as a scholar since his time in Bush’s Pentagon and a short, rocky tenure as president of the World Bank. When we meet in a studio at AEI’s grandly renovated new headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue, he picks up on the phrase making the rounds in Washington that Trump’s critics take him literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters take him seriously but not literally.
“I think Mattis and Tillerson will take him seriously,” Wolfowitz says, “we already see that they don’t take him literally. They know that they can. I don’t know of a president who has tolerated—if that’s the right word—such strongly differing statements from his cabinet officers on national security issues from his own public pronouncements, which tells you something about how he takes those statements himself, it seems to me.” And that means, he says, “in many ways it matters much more what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson think it means than what the president had in mind when he said it.”
Wolfowitz came of age as a foreign policy aide to the hawkish Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and he still has the blood of a cold warrior running through his veins—Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, he says, is “something very serious, to be taken very seriously.” And he hopes that Trump’s recent clash with Moscow over Syria heralds a broader turn against Putin, noting: “[I]t’d be ironic now that he got somebody who is much harder on him than Hillary might have been.”
Still, he admits to a nagging fear that the United States will fail to challenge authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and Iran with the full force of its moral power, long a Wolfowitz theme. “If we give up the Western idea of freedom,” he warns, “we’re giving up one of the most important diplomatic tools in our arsenal.”
Glasser: This is Susan Glasser for The Global POLITICO. Delighted to be back here with Paul Wolfowitz, our guest for this week. Paul, you’ve jumped back into the fray as it were with what appears in hindsight to be an extremely well-timed intervention in the Wall Street Journal, saying Donald Trump should go ahead and do something in Syria, should intervene militarily in some way to respond to the chemical weapons strike. Miraculously enough, perhaps, he surprised much of the world by going ahead and taking your advice and doing so.
Wolfowitz: I’m not sure he took my advice, but I think he did the right thing. Let’s put it that way. I was afraid that he was going to think he could get away with saying it’s all Obama’s fault. And I happen to think that’s 90 percent correct, but it’s not a basis for going forward. So I use that, I think, marvelous Yogi Berra line, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it.” Which apparently comes from giving people directions to his house where there was a fork and both forks end up at his house.
Glasser: Can I tell you a story? I live on Highland Avenue. I grew up on Highland Avenue in Montclair, which is the road that Yogi Berra lived on. And, indeed, there is a double fork—
Wolfowitz: That comes back together?
Glasser: —that goes up to Highland Avenue from Upper Mountain Avenue, and you can go either way, and you’ll get there, although truthfully you should take the left-hand fork. [LAUGHTER] My parents still live there, half a mile away. So I was delighted that you began that piece with Yogi Berra. And in a way it’s kind of a Yogi Berra-like presidency, right? You know, there’s no one particular guide except the quirky personality of Donald Trump at times, it seems. How do you navigate understanding who this guy is when it comes to foreign policy?
Wolfowitz: Well, it’s certainly unpredictable, as an understatement. But at the same time you have in his national security team two individuals who are nearly the opposite, who have a long consistent record of thinking clearly, strategically. I’m talking about McMaster and Mattis. Then you have another uncertainty factor in Rex Tillerson, except by all accounts and I think so far [he has] demonstrated for the most part a pretty smart guy. And I think he’s picking up in important ways on dealing with this issue. And I think this latest line of saying that what Putin’s signing up with Assad is signing up with a loser, that it’s bad for Russia as well as bad for the world, I think is a good way to put it. It may not get through any better than telling him that what he’s doing is criminal and immoral, but I think at least may resonate a little bit better with people around him.
Glasser: Now, it’s interesting. So you wrote this initial piece, and then, boom, Trump let the Tomahawk missiles fly. You then followed it up by saying, well, this is a good start in effect, but now you need to pursue a broader basically diplomatic offensive as well as military offensive to get Assad out of power. Now a lot of people would say, “How has regime change as a policy worked out for you, Paul Wolfowitz, in the Middle East?” Is that really a viable policy? I mean, Barack Obama, that was his policy, to get Assad out of power, and he didn’t find—
Wolfowitz: Well, it was his pronouncement, but he didn’t do anything to make it happen. And I think to be fair to John Kerry, poor John Kerry was left to negotiate something with no leverage whatsoever. I think a better, more useful model to look to actually—although every historical “model” had its limitations because every new situation is different—but it’s worth thinking back to 1995. After three years of dithering, first by the Bush administration and then by President Clinton, to do anything about the catastrophe that was taking place in Bosnia, which I think left something like 200,000 people killed, mass graves for which Clinton was still apologizing 10 years later, finally under pressure from both Senator Dole and people in the Congress and internally from former ambassador, the late Richard Holbrooke, Clinton decided to take military action.
And suddenly the picture switched dramatically for Milošević, from feeling that he could get away, literally, with murder to suddenly having to fear that he was going to lose a war. And that changed the whole environment for negotiation. And it seems to me that that’s the first thing to think about, is that what has been created: The U.S. now has an opportunity for a completely different environment in which to negotiate, where the calculations of not only every Syrian whose fate may be tied to Assad, where also Putin’s future is at stake, where also the calculations of Iraqis who have been sort of, I think to some degree, forced to go along as quasi-proxies of Iran, now suddenly comes forward with these pretty remarkable statements from even Muqtada al-Sadr saying, “Assad has to resign. This genocide has to end. We can’t have it start in Iraq again after Mosul.” I mean, some of those statements are amazing.
But bear in mind—because Americans tend to forget this—Assad’s father was responsible for the single worst act of terrorism against the United States, the attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1982, followed by another attack on the American Embassy in Lebanon. All of these happened when Lebanon was basically under Syrian domination. The son has continued that marvelous record by shipping foreign fighters, suicide bombers into Iraq. He’s responsible not only for the deaths of huge numbers of Americans but much larger numbers of Iraqis, and I don’t think the Iraqis have forgotten that. I don’t think they believe that he’s a Shia to whom they owe some kind of religious loyalty whatsoever.
Glasser: What I’m struck by—and these are clearly possible avenues and ways in for the new Trump administration, but what evidence do you have that this is anything that is actually of interest to Donald Trump? You talked about the future of Iraq, for example. Trump has said, basically, the Iraq war was a terrible mistake and that we should have just gotten in, taken the oil, and gotten out. So why would he care?
Wolfowitz: Look, he’s said a lot of things. He’s changed a lot of things. Look, I think the main thing here has to be getting people to think of the possibilities, to think of the opportunities. I don’t think anyone would deny that he’s opportunistic, and I don’t think anyone would deny that he would like to be the greatest president in modern times, or huge or—you pick your adjective. And I think to achieve a Dayton-like peace settlement in Syria would not only be something that would be widely acclaimed, it would be hugely in the interest of the United States because it would stem these refugee flows which are very dangerous. This is a complicated thought to express, but the fact is that I think if you look around the Arab world, there are more young Arabs who are angry at the West because of Syria than who are angry at the West because of Palestine. It’s become the cause of, “See how the West treats Arabs.”
So I think the national interests of the United States are at stake here in a way that is easy to dismiss. In a way, it’s almost counterproductive that—I’m not criticizing him for saying this—but that Trump’s reaction seems so focused on the murder of babies. It’s a humanitarian tragedy. It’s disgusting from that point of view, but I think it’s also important not to confuse it as pure sentimentality. There are big national interests at stake here, and I think a lot could be achieved.
Glasser: Well, you think that it’s not pure sentimentality, but the record so far is not clear whether, in fact, it was that that actually drove the strike on the part of Donald Trump. But obviously we can talk about Syria more, but let’s just talk about the reaction here in Washington a little bit and what it tells us about the state of foreign policy. A lot of people were amazed at how quickly Trump was able to turn a group that had been his fiercest critics, which are traditional Republican military-interventionist types—hawks, neocons—into cheerleaders for this limited Syria intervention. We don’t really know yet what it means. A lot of people are talking about it. Your friend Elliott Abrams wrote a piece in which he actually said, “Today was the day that Donald Trump embraced the mantle of Leader of the Free World,” capital L, capital F, capital W. Was this overheated rhetoric? I mean, are you—
Wolfowitz: I think Fareed Zakaria said “he became president.”
Wolfowitz: But do me a favor; drop this word neocon because no one knows what that word means.
Glasser: I know it’s infuriating to you guys.
Wolfowitz: You know, it’s peace through strength and promotion of freedom. It’s the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy. So that’s where we should be.
Glasser: Labels aside, call it The Blob, if you will, which is what Barack Obama’s adviser, Ben Rhodes, called it. Are the affections of The Blob so easily won that all Donald Trump has to do is launch 59 Tomahawk missiles and everybody is cheering him?
Wolfowitz: Let me try to speak for myself. As I’ve said already, I think there is a fantastic opportunity here. It’s only a first step, it’s only an opportunity. If nothing is done to follow up on it, it will start to seem a little bit silly in retrospect; certainly the enthusiasm will seem silly. But more importantly it will look like a lost opportunity in retrospect. I mean, imagine if we had simply walked away from Bosnia after that first, initial military strike and not done anything and the war then continued. I mean, that would be the model of what not to do in Syria, I think. And it fortunately wasn’t done in Bosnia.
Instead you got the Dayton Accords, which was a very complicated negotiation. It produced a result that could not have been defined in advance. That’s one of the things I think people need to understand when they say, “Well, what’s going to come after Assad?” There is no way to know that until you sit down with people who have an interest in defining what comes after Assad. And in my view you’ve got, a bit crudely speaking, two groups. And, frankly, we’re too crude about trying to define everything in terms of a religious difference that no American can explain to you, which is, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” when in fact they may care much more about who was killing whom 10 years ago, or three years ago in this case.
But you’ve got the group of people who have been fighting Assad now for five years, six years. It’s amazing.
Glasser: It’s amazing that it’s been that long.
Wolfowitz: It’s amazing how long it’s been running on. And who don’t believe they can survive in Syria if he’s still in charge. Might be persuaded with a different sort of—with a regime composed of somewhat similar people but not such bloody-minded, awful people, and with him gone to be an example of what not to do as a Syrian leader, that they might be able under certain conditions which probably include some degree of territorial autonomy. You can’t define this until you sit down with people.
And then the other group are people who I think genuinely believe that if Assad goes, they’re going to be in danger of being massacred by Sunni mobs. And they are heavily minority; they’re heavily Alawite, heavily Christian, but in general just people who fought on what I would call the wrong side of this battle. So you need to find some middle group that provides assurance to both. That can’t be done until you sit down with them and sit down with them in a pretty intense negotiation.
And I would say also that I don’t know how you’d—one of the first questions would be, “Who do you sit down with?” And I think these big gaggles in Geneva probably are not the place to try to get that kind of work done; something more focused and, I would say, that has more involvement from local countries, particularly our allies in the region and very definitely including Iraq.
Glasser: Although certainly there’s a strong sense among a lot of people in the region that it’s the involvement of the outside countries in the Syrian war that has perpetuated and allowed it to go on for so long? You know, you have the involvement of the Saudis and the Qataris and the Emiratis and people backing their own factions, not to mention, of course, the Iranians next door, and that that might have been in this vacuum-like situation, especially earlier on in the war, what caused it to be such a confusing mess in the first place.
Wolfowitz: No question about that. And in some countries that you might list and some that you just listed you might want to leave them out of the negotiation to start with. At least start with people that genuinely share an objective of bringing peace to Syria. And I think you can write Iran off that list right away, unfortunately.
Glasser: Well, that’s a pretty small—I mean, if you want to talk about being genuine, you pointed out in your piece—and I think lots of people would agree with you. You said in your piece that the United States is in a good position here because, in fact, we don’t want anything, a long-term military presence there or carving out a piece of this. But that’s not the case with the Russians; it’s not the case arguably with the Iranians, and potentially it’s not the case with others of our Sunni Gulf Arab allies. Who is an honest broker in the Middle East today?
Wolfowitz: Well, one of the things I tried to emphasize in that second article is to a surprising extent Iraq is in that position. Iraq shares our interests in a peaceful Syria. They don’t share Iran’s interest in a Syria that’s dominated by Iran. I think that’s a reasonably good bet to place. Nothing is certain in that part of the world in this life, and there are leaders like Maliki who might in fact be tools of Iran. But I think even Maliki was much more willing to confront Iran when he had the U.S. at his back than he was later on when we walked away from him.
So I think you need a very intimate dialogue with selected partners who really think—I think the most important thing is agreement on the fundamental premise that peace in Syria is in the interest of everybody. I think the Saudis would say that. I think the UAE would say that. I think most Iraqis would say that. And it actually would be not a bad thing if it became a political issue in Iraq: “Are you for peace in Syria or are you for Iran in Syria?” Let that be part of Iraqi politics.
It’s fascinating that both Abadi, who is the very moderate prime minister, and Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been a pain in the neck for years, have said the same thing. Of course, Sadr says foreign countries should get out of Iraq and Syria.
Glasser: Right, but putting aside Syria for a second, I do want to talk about Iraq and how viable of a state do you see it being. After the fight in Mosul is done, there certainly are plenty of people who believe that this is when a real new political crisis could really get under way in Iraq as people put aside—in the short term they’ve worked together to fight ISIS and the Islamic State in Mosul: the Kurds and the militias are there along with the Iraqi army itself. There’s a lot of people who think it could all fall apart now, that politically Abadi might be seen as a moderate prime minister, but he might also be seen as a weak prime minister who is constantly under threat of having his own party pull the rug out from under him.
Wolfowitz: I find it bizarre that I’m in a position of quoting Muqtada al-Sadr favorably, but in that same—
Glasser: I wish our listeners could see the big smile on Mr. Wolfowitz’s face.
Wolfowitz: He also warned about the danger of genocide, and I think he used the word genocide in Iraq after the liberation of Mosul. I don’t know if he used the word liberation for the fall of Mosul. To have that kind of concern coming from him—we talked about opportunists. I’m sure he’s an opportunist—that must mean that he senses something within the Iraqi society that would, even for Iraq, like to see some end to all of this, that they’ve paid a terrible price, I think, for many things, including the sectarianism that drove the Sunni population into the arms of ISIS.
So, I would say what happens in Iraq going forward probably depends a lot on what role the U.S. chooses to play. And if we walk away, as we walked away five years ago, six years ago, I think the results will be much worse than if we stay there to insert leverage and support for sensible positions and let people know that if they do take sensible positions they will have support from the United States.
Glasser: So you think it is possible that Iraq could splinter apart after the fall of Mosul, depending on what the U.S. does?
Wolfowitz: I do, actually. And in a way splinter apart is the fear that it’ll break up into pieces. I’m much more fearful that it will descend into chaotic violence. And I think probably the key to avoiding that is—I say this with hesitation because there’s something a little weird in a world where people sitting in Washington can come up with prescriptions for how to make peace in a strange country a long way away when it’s been through such a traumatic experience. But I think there has to be some significant degree of local autonomy and local security so that Sunnis don’t have to fear Shia, Kurds don’t have to fear Arabs. There are limits to how much you can, at this stage in history, force Iraqis to live in peace side by side.
Glasser: You’ve said a couple of observations in the course of this conversation so far that are clearly critical of Obama’s policy when it comes to the Middle East and expressed some hopes for what Trump could do differently. What are some of the lessons that you take away from the Bush administration’s foray into the region? And it’s almost painful in a way to go and look back at some of the speeches, some of the writing, some of grand vision that George W. Bush expressed in his Second Inaugural for a new period of democracy and human rights across the broader Middle East. Obviously, that’s not the world that we’re living in now. What are some lessons that you take away, both from your own and the Bush administration’s experience in the Middle East that could apply to Trump and then also from the Obama era and what it did wrong from your point of view?
Wolfowitz: I think one pretty dramatic lesson—and the irony is that you could have taken this away from the later experience in Vietnam, when we went away from this search-and-destroy business—where we probably created more enemies than we killed—to a genuine counterinsurgency strategy that recognized the most important thing in a counterinsurgency is to provide security for the population. And interestingly, one of the people who sort of—I don’t know if rediscovered is the right word—who applied that idea that population security comes first, even before General Petraeus came to Iraq, was General McMaster, who was then just a colonel running a very important but difficult area in northern Iraq. So there’s a man who—
Glasser: Tal Afar.
Wolfowitz: Tal Afar, yes. He understands that perfectly. So does General Mattis, Secretary Mattis now. And I think that’s something not to be forgotten at all and something that needs to be worked on with any new Iraqi military that we train to be more effective than they were when ISIS went after them a few years ago.
Glasser: Is nation-building dead, though, as an American foreign policy?
Wolfowitz: I think nation-building—I’m not sure what it means, but I would say also—my second observation would be to say I think it was a mistake to think of Iraq on the model of Japan or Germany. One of my colleagues, the late Peter Rodman, wrote a, I thought, prescient memo back in, I think, before we went into Iraq, saying the model for Iraq should not be Germany or Japan, it should be France, where there was an indigenous leader named de Gaulle who gave French an alternative between the radicals, namely the communists who had been in the resistance, and an American occupation force.
France was not a defeated country. Germany and Japan were. It was a completely different situation. And I think on the whole for a country as complicated as Iraq—well, we’re past the point where anybody would, anyway, accept an American proconsul in Iraq. So it’s a question of how to maneuver the Iraqi leadership to follow better policies. And we do have a model there. I think it’s a model that worked dramatically. When Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker was Bush’s last ambassador to Iraq and General Petraeus was there commanding the U.S. forces, the two of them—they had offices, I think, in the same building deliberately. I think every night they would go to Maliki when he was, I think the way they put it, too tired to fight back. They would tell him about things going on in his country that he didn’t know about because the U.S. had a knowledge of the situation that exceeded what he had. And basically tell him, “You need to fire this general. You need to stop these corrupt practices that are going on in this province.” They were very specific about what they told him to do and by and large very successful.
Glasser: But a lot of people would say that’s the problem not the solution. Right? A lot of people would say, “OK, we get it that American engagement at that level might be able to produce, in a tactical sense, better results or less corruption, more information, more transparency, but the point is that we can’t be micromanaging another county’s affairs.” And interestingly, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump—obviously they’re very, very different people. They communicate in a very different way. They use different language. But in a way they’ve both expressed the sentiment of a broad swath of the American people in both parties that they don’t want our best and brightest, they don’t want David Petraeus sitting there whispering in Maliki’s ear, that they think that that’s not a good use of American resources. And that’s what I think they mean by, “We don’t want to be involved in any more quagmires in the Middle East.” Why would we be doing that?
Wolfowitz: Well, you’ve brought in a lot of words in one—
Glasser: Fair enough.
Wolfowitz: You know: “quagmire,” “micromanage.” I mean, I would say all of those things are very different. And it doesn’t take great resources to have a good ambassador and a good general go and meet with the leadership of a country and try to steer them in the right direction, recognizing, by the way, that this is not American dictation. You’re steering a guy or woman, maybe, sometimes. You’re steering a leadership that has their own reading of their domestic situation but can be reinforced in a good direction or a bad direction by some advice from Americans.
00:24:17 And I would offer, in that respect, I think over a course of many years, not anything quick, the U.S. and South Korea did very much what you’re sort of complaining about here with no American lives lost. It was not a quagmire. It was a long-term commitment and a long-term engagement and involvement. Not always successful. Sometimes we got ourselves involved with some ugly people like the former president Chun Doo-hwan, who was called the Butcher of Gwangju. That tells you a lot about the kind of people you had to deal with. But we dealt with him. We eventually persuaded him, actually, to step down voluntarily and to honor his commitment not to try to seek a second term, which I’m sure was in his mind when he took the first term.
00:25:03 So that’s the kind of influence the U.S. can exercise. And the alternative is to let a very important, critical part of the world go to hell literally and lose American influence, allow hostile actors to take over what is—we may not like to talk about oil, but this is the engine of the world economy. And if it’s dominated by the wrong people, the consequences here in the United States are very serious.
Glasser: To be clear, I wasn’t characterizing my own views as much as the politics of this.
Wolfowitz: I know you weren’t.
Glasser: And right now you have a new president and the last president not putting a big emphasis on the need for human rights or democracy-building as a pillar of American foreign policy going forward.
Wolfowitz: To take your absolutely fair point, but whether it’s your view or it’s the general sentiment of the tide, which it certainly is, I don’t think we’re up to heroic ventures in the Middle East. I think the point is that a lot could be done with relatively little. And when Trump said recently, “We’re not going into Syria,” of course it’s ironic because we already have 500 troops on the ground in Syria, courtesy of his predecessor. And they need to be there, because I think taking ISIS out of Raqqa is important in the U.S. national interest. I’m assuming what he meant is we’re not going to have an American occupation of Syria like we did in Iraq.
And, by the way, I don’t think we should have had an occupation in Iraq. We should have just had a military presence. That’s a different matter. But I think the point is we can do an awful lot in Syria with leverage from the outside. He’s talked about safe zones. Creating zones in Syria where Sunnis don’t have to then flee to other countries would be a big step forward, and it doesn’t have to be done with an American ground force. At least I don’t think it does.
Glasser: Help me understand—because you’ve worked with many presidents—what we should make and how seriously we should take President Trump at what he says, given he’s now changed his position on many different issues, not just whether to intervene in Syria, but he called NATO “obsolete.” Now he says that NATO is indispensable. He’s called China a “currency manipulator.” A week later he says, “No, it’s not anymore.” What is the weight that we should attach to presidential statements, especially in their first terms? And how do you personally—what’s your decoder ring for trying to understand what’s coming out of this White House?
Wolfowitz: That’s an interesting question. I make no pretense to decoding the statements of this president. I would say in general probably we attach far too much weight to the words of presidents as divorced from their actions. And very often, especially I think in the last couple of decades, it seems to me there has been a tendency to think once the president has made a speech we have a policy. You only have a policy if it’s followed up with a strategy to implement it and with actions that implement that strategy. And that’s why I think in many ways it matters much more what Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson think it means than what the president had in mind when he said it.
Which reminds me of this comment that I heard a lot by domestic political analysts about Trump on the campaign trail, that his critics take him literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters take him seriously but not literally. I think I understand what they meant by saying that. And I think Mattis and Tillerson will take him seriously and perhaps not—we already see that they don’t take him literally. They know that they can—and this is very interesting.
I mean, I don’t know of a president who has tolerated—if that’s the right word—such strongly differing statements from his Cabinet officers on national security issues from his own public pronouncements, which tells you something about how he takes those statements himself, it seems to me.
Glasser: Well, that’s an important point. The other thing I was thinking of when you mentioned Mattis and Tillerson and, of course, H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, right, there’s an old Russian saying—I lived there for four years: “The cadres decide everything.” This was Stalin’s phrase. And I’ve often been thinking of that.
Wolfowitz: That’s from a man who decided everything himself.
Glasser: Right. Well, ironically. But the cadres, right? You know: A.Did Trump have cadres of his own who really believed in his vision of the world as he had articulated it? It seems like the answer is no or at least not sufficient to fill up an administration. So now he’s hired a national security team that more or less reflects a more mainstream Republican view of foreign policy, perhaps a muscular one, but certainly not a neo-isolationist one. Do you think they have an uncommonly high level of power in this administration, given the inexperience of the president?
Wolfowitz: I think it’d be a mistake to think that he is not going to assert strong views when he feels that something is not where he wants to be headed. And I think that probably puts a lot of severe limits on long-term American military commitments in that part of the world. I also think it can be explained to him what a more limited commitment might look like and why it could be used usefully. So I do think, by the way, in trying to understand his reaction to the chemical weapon attack, it’s partly humanitarian and sentimental. But I think it’s also—I have this feeling it hit him in the gut that this is a test of American seriousness and strength, and he doesn’t want to fail that kind of test. I think that fits our understanding, you know, my outsider understanding of his personality. And maybe he has sent a message to other people who might be inclined to think he doesn’t have to be taken seriously.
Glasser: Right. So it’s not actually some abrupt break, as it seems, but actually it could be argued—and I agree with that—that it’s consistent with what we already know of his personality.
Wolfowitz: And, after all, you can’t go denouncing Obama’s red-line retreat as much as he has and then have your own red-line retreat.
Glasser: So have you ever met Donald Trump?
Wolfowitz: I haven’t.
Glasser: Have you talked with anyone in his White House since they have been set up and trying to figure things out?
Wolfowitz: I have some. I know McMaster quite well from before. And Mattis actually was my senior military assistant when I first came to the Pentagon in 2001, and I worked with him quite a bit later on in his various later capacities, including in Iraq. So I know them pretty well, but I haven’t—I’ve occasionally emailed them, but I have not had direct contact with them.
Glasser: What should we understand about General Mattis in his new role that might not yet be widely understood publicly?
Wolfowitz: You notice that he asked the president to stop calling him “Mad Dog.” I think that tells you actually quite a lot about him. I think he is genuinely a peacemaker. I think he would like to be known as somebody who brought peace through strength. I think he has some deep thinking about how you do that. And I think he’d be a great partner for a good secretary of state, and I hope that’s what Tillerson will be and what he will he see he has there.
Glasser: Do you know Tillerson?
Wolfowitz: I don’t know him at all. I know some people who—it’s interesting. The people I know who know him best, and they wouldn’t say they know him well, had him as a client for an investment bank many years ago. And they said he asked very penetrating, very good questions without any arrogance at all, which is an interesting set of qualities to have.
Glasser: Well, it might be an asset in dealing with Donald Trump. We’ll see, I guess. You know, it’s interesting how low profile he’s been and this seeming downgrading of the State Department. A lot of people, in particular at the Defense Department, your old haunt, have been speaking up and saying that’s a mistake. Do you have a viewpoint on these proposed cuts, very deep cuts, in the State Department?
Wolfowitz: Well, my hero, George Shultz, said it was a mistake too. And it is a mistake to think that the secretary of state’s role is just an internal role or just a negotiating role. It is very much a public diplomacy role. And when I wrote about what the U.S. needs to do next with respect to this opportunity that I think has been created through the Syrian action, I put a lot of emphasis on public diplomacy.
And let me put in a little plug here. I think public diplomacy also can support a healing of Iraqi-Saudi relations, which got very bad and should not have gotten so bad, partly because of a myth that the Saudis were opposed to the rebellions that took place in 1991 when, in fact, I think, tragically, the United States ignored their advice to support the rebels. But there’s a lot to be done publicly by a secretary of state and by the department.
And I think part of what we’re seeing though is a man who is relatively new to these issues and may therefore realize there’s more room for mistakes than for constructive action, plus with very, very little in the way of his own people. I think one of the urgent priorities—and this is a cliché by now—is both Defense and State need to staff up with people who have some of the trust and confidence of the White House and professional skill and capability, whether that means they’re career people or they’re what George Shultz called “non-career professionals”—that is what I was happy to hear him call me.
Glasser: A non-career professional? But there clearly has been somewhat of a loyalty test imposed by President Trump himself. He really didn’t take the criticism in the campaign well from this national security world, especially. And he’s personally vetoed people for jobs because they were against him in the campaign. You were critical of him in the campaign. You even said at one point that you were thinking of voting for Hillary Clinton. Did you go through with it?
Wolfowitz: No, but I didn’t vote for either of them. That’s a separate subject. But I would say this—
Glasser: Wait a minute. I want to just follow up. Why didn’t you vote for Hillary Clinton in the end? She would have given you a foreign policy more to your liking, right?
Wolfowitz: I’m not at all sure she would have gotten this one right, for example, just the one right now, so—
Glasser: Oh, I disagree with you on that one. Don’t you think that many of her advisers were the ones who were Democrats publicly supporting Trump for the very first time with this, on Syria?
Wolfowitz: Let’s not do counterfactual history.
Glasser: Fair enough, but you didn’t vote for her. Why didn’t you pull the trigger for her?
Wolfowitz: Look, my big reservation about Trump, and I said it, was that he was sort of like Obama on steroids, particularly with respect to Russia and Ukraine. And I really can’t forgive her for that reset. I mean, I don’t think her record on Russia was what she would like to rewrite it as having been. And it looks as though maybe when confronted with an evil Putin, something is coming out of Trump that we didn’t see before.
But the real—I mean, I didn’t get personal about criticizing him, and I think one of the things we’re dealing with now is people who unfortunately were very personal in their criticism. And I don’t like loyalty tests. I wish he could find a way to get past that, but maybe he will.
Glasser: So I’m glad you brought up Russia. You were an early person who saw in the collapse of the Cold War both the opportunity for the United States as a lone superpower in the world and what that would mean, but also you were pretty prescient in warning people that the outcome of democratization and a Russia that joined the West was not preordained and was not inevitable even if it seemed to be going that way. How does it look from this vantage point now, when clearly we’ve been marking this anniversary since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 25 years? It didn’t turn out the way a lot of people hoped that it would. Why were you already skeptical in the late 1980s and in the first Bush administration about where Russia might end up?
Wolfowitz: I was both skeptical and optimistic. I mean, I thought there was a lot still that could be accomplished of a positive kind. And I was in some ways overly optimistic, I think, about Boris Yeltsin. And I think what sort of turned things bad in Russia was his own corruption and his family’s corruption, which then brought in this former KGB guy to protect Yeltsin from his own misdeeds and at the same time to put Russia under the thumb of a really criminal kleptocracy.
And I think that’s what Putin runs in Russia today. And I think that a good deal of what we’ve encountered in the last few years has been his unhappiness with the fate of his comrade in Ukraine, not wanting to see him go the way of the kleptocrat in Kiev. And if you trace when Russia started getting belligerent and very difficult, it seems to me—and including in Crimea—a lot of it began when he saw the threat to him from the Ukrainian people-power and decided, “I’m going to make sure that Ukraine doesn’t succeed, and I’m going to be tough in the eyes of my own people because that’s the way I became president in the first place, by bombing Chechnya into smithereens, and now I’m going to take Crimea back, even though it was formally conceded under an agreement.”
People forget this, and Obama never mentioned it that I know of. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for its territorial integrity, including Crimea, actually gave the Russians a naval base as well.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. And Russia guaranteed that was the exchange, in its borders.
Wolfowitz: And guaranteed it even as recently, I think, as 2010, and then turned around and it’s shredded, tear it to shreds.
Glasser: So is any reset possible ever with Russia? I mean, you’re saying now that you voted not for Hillary Clinton because of her efforts during the Obama administration to reconcile with Russia. Never mind you didn’t vote for Donald Trump because he said during the campaign he was going to openly embrace Vladimir Putin. Is that—
Wolfowitz: Let’s not make too much of how I voted or who I voted for.
Glasser: Fair enough. But my point is more on the question of Russia and whether you believe there is no possibility, period, full stop, while Vladimir Putin is president to reset relations.
Wolfowitz: I happen to agree with a lot of Democrats and also with former Vice President Cheney that Putin’s interference in our elections was something very serious, to be taken very seriously. And I think what he was after was not simply to elect a favored candidate. And it’d be ironic now that he got somebody who is much harder on him than Hillary might have been.
Glasser: Cheney called it akin to an “act of war.” Do you agree?
Wolfowitz: He used words like that, but he wasn’t saying it should be responded to with military action. But certainly it required more than just expelling 39 diplomats and closing down a couple of resorts that they had in Maryland or wherever they were. I don’t think those sanctions that were imposed amounted to very much. But I think what could really make a difference is two things, one which is largely in the control of the government and may not happen, but I think this was Tom Friedman had a sort of humorous column in which he speculated on the idea of announcing more details about Putin’s own corruption. Because I think that is his Achilles’ heel. And you can say, “Well, everyone in Russia knows it.” It’s one thing for everyone in Russia to know it, and it’s another thing for the U.S. to come out with hard facts about it.
Glasser: Yes. Look at the protests in Russia just a couple of weeks ago.
Glasser: Which came after Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, produced a documentary, which was viewed by many Russians around the country on YouTube, that was talking about allegations of corruption against Dmitry Medvedev. And that alone seemed to be a motivating force in bringing thousands of young Russians into the streets in a very unusual way.
Wolfowitz: And it happens in spite of the virtually complete control of the mass media by the regime. You know, former President George W. Bush has said jokingly, when somebody confronted him about Putin’s popularity, he said, “I could be popular too if I owned NBC.”
Glasser: Now, all right. We are—
Wolfowitz: I think it’s also important for the media to recognize that if Putin interfered in our election it was mainly by manipulating our own free press. And our free press could do a lot, I think, to put much more focus on him as being the killer, that, ironically, it was Bill O’Reilly that confronted the president with that fact. And it was one of the most unfortunate things, I think, that Trump has said in the last couple of months was to say, “Well, we kill people, too.” We don’t kill people the way Putin kills people. And there should be no equivalence there. But I think calling attention to why was it so important to him to murder Litvinenko, poison him in London? Was it because Litvinenko was talking about the fact that Putin may have been responsible for those terrible bombings in Russia in—
Glasser: —1999 that helped bring him to power?
Wolfowitz: Exactly. There could be more attention to that in our own media, and it would penetrate into Russia.
Glasser: In many ways, the Russiagate scandal as it’s been unfolding here in Washington is almost more about America than it is about Russia, right? It’s about our own political process and whether the Republican Party is going to come to terms with this intervention in our election and how seriously to take that.
Wolfowitz: It is. And I think Americans should recognize that what Putin wants to do is to discredit our system of government because he wants to present his own system to his own people as somehow superior or at least there’s not a better alternative out there. And I think restoring the integrity of our system is very important, I think, for our impact on the whole rest of the world. And it affects American interests outside as well.
Glasser: So I think Russia in some ways is a good point to end on in the sense that we talked a little bit about your thinking way back at the end of the Cold War about what this period in history would be like. It has come to be dominated in many ways not only by the U..S.. but by the U.S.’ adventures and misadventures in the Middle East and the role that you have played. Looking back in hindsight, do you—a lot of people worry, well, this is the end of whatever that post-Cold War era was, a lot of people are worrying that overall we’re seeing the breakdown of the institutions that have led us since World War II. You were the president of the World Bank. Do you buy in to any of this sort of almost apocalyptic fears for the decline of the West? Is that the moment that we’re in?
Wolfowitz: I wouldn’t say I buy into them. I share some of the fear, but I think it’s a big mistake to write ourselves off so prematurely. I think we’re facing very serious enemies/competitors—I would use the world enemy with more reservation—both in Europe in the form of Russia, in the Middle East in the form of Iran, in East Asia in the form of China. Every one of those regimes is itself threatened by the idea of freedom. If we give up the Western idea of freedom, we’re giving up one of the most important diplomatic tools in our arsenal.
Glasser: A big note to end it on. Thank you so much, Paul Wolfowitz. This has been a stimulating and wide-ranging conversation. And I’m really appreciative that you took the time to join us. I’m appreciative to all of our listeners at The Global POLITICO. I hope that you will subscribe to the podcast, rate us, give us feedback. And, of course, you can email me any time at [email protected] I’ve heard lots of great suggestions from all of you on what other guests we should have on. And I hope you’ll keep them coming. And thanks again to all of you for listening, and to you, Paul Wolfowitz, for joining us this week on The Global POLITICO.
Wolfowitz: Good conversation. Thanks, Susan.
Glasser: Thank you.
With the ambassadors to the United Nations Security Council gathered around him in the White House Monday, President Donald Trump labeled the UN “an underperformer” and appeared to both heavily praise and jokingly jab at his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley.
"I also want to say to you that I have long felt that the United Nations is an underperformer, but has tremendous potential,” Trump said, according to the press pool that was ushered into the White House’s state dining room for the beginning of his working lunch with the Security Council ambassadors. “We must also take a close look at the U.N. budget. Costs have absolutely gone out of control."
Trump called himself “a budget person” but suggested that “if you do a good job at the United Nations,” his concern about the UN’s spending might diminish to some extent.
While Trump heaped praise on Haley, one of the loudest voices on foreign policy from his administration thus far, he also jokingly threatened to replace her if the other ambassadors in the room did not get along with her.
“I want to thank Ambassador Nikki Haley for her outstanding leadership and for acting as my personal envoy on the Security Council. She is doing a good job. Now, does everybody like Nikki?” Trump said. “Otherwise she could be easily replaced, right? No, we won't do that. I promise you we won’t do that. She’s doing a fantastic job.”
He also accused the U.N. of being unwilling to tackle the world’s most challenging problems, telling the ambassadors that “the United Nations doesn't like taking on certain problems,” naming Syria’s use of chemical weapons as an example. Trump called North Korea “a big problem” and said “people have put blinders on for decades.”
Both Syria and North Korea have been the beneficiary of protection from permanent Security Council members who have shielded the two repressive states with their veto power. The regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, widely blamed for chemical weapon attacks inside its own borders amid a years-long civil war, has been protected from U.N. consequence by Russia, which maintains one of its few foreign military bases in Syria and is a longtime ally of Assad’s.
And China has long protected North Korea, wary of destabilizing the region and of any conflict that might lead to the downfall of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a scenario in which South Korea would likely absorb the North and put a U.S. ally and partner right on China’s border.
BERKELEY — Charging that the University of California has attempted to “restrict conservative free speech’’ regarding author Ann Coulter’s appearance on campus, two Berkeley student groups filed suit Monday in federal court to challenge the university’s efforts to reschedule her April 27 event.
The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California on behalf of two organizations — the national Young America’s Foundation and the UC Berkeley College Republicans — names UC President Janet Napolitano and university officials, including the head of the campus police department, as defendants.
San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member who is representing the student groups, said in an interview that progressive leaders including Sen. Bernie Sanders, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and Rep. Keith Ellison have all spoken up for the right of the student groups in Berkeley, the "birthplace of the Free Speech Movement" to schedule Coulter's address.
"It's the right thing to do,'' she said. "The students have a right to hear different voices on campus. They have a right to invite speakers we have a right to hear."
Her suit maintains that UC Berkeley officials “freely admit that they have permitted the demands of a faceless, rabid, off-campus mob to dictate what speech is permitted the center of campus during prime time — and which speech may be marginalized, burdened, and regulated out of its very existence by this unlawful heckler’s veto.”
The controversy over Coulter’s appearance erupted when the two groups announced plans for an April 27 speech by Coulter, a best-selling conservative author.
University officials, citing recent politically-generated violence on campus and in the city, at first said they had received information that suggested Coulter’s personal safety would be at risk and canceled the event. Then they rescheduled the event for May 2 — prompting both the conservative groups and Coulter herself to balk, contending that the new date, during the university’s “dead week,’’ was unacceptable.
University officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Dhillon’s filing charges that at one of California’s leading public universities, UC Berkeley officials have consistently aimed “to restrict and stifle the speech of conservative students whose voices fall beyond the campus political orthodoxy.”
“Though UC Berkeley promises its students an environment that promotes free debate and the free exchange of ideas,'' the lawsuit argues, it has "breached the promise" simply because that "expression may anger or offend students, UC Berkeley administrators, and/or community members who do not share Plantiffs’ viewpoints."
Coulter, on Twitter, announced "our lawsuit" Monday, but Dhillon told POLITICO that she does not represent the author — only the two student groups seeking to schedule her talk.
Press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that the White House’s priority on legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare is to “get it done right” instead of rushing a bill through in order to meet a created deadline or claim a legislative victory.
The patience urged by Spicer from the briefing room podium Monday marked a departure from White House efforts last week to reintroduce real-and-replace legislation this week, hoping to quickly shepherd the legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk before his benchmark 100th day in office. A successful vote on the legislation would give the president a win early on his presidency, which thus far has been marked most notably by the failure of White House-backed legislation last month.
“I think that whenever the speaker and the leadership over in the House tell us that they feel confident that they have the votes, then we would encourage them to move forward,” Spicer said. “We have been very clear from here and I think the president has been clear in his comments that our goal is to get it done and get it done right and to get it done to make sure that we have the votes.”
The press secretary insisted that reports of a White House push to move healthcare legislation this week do not reflect the Trump administration’s true thinking and that House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise will make any call on scheduling a vote on healthcare legislation.
“If it happens and we have the votes this week, great, if it's next week or the week after,” Spicer said. “But I think we want to make sure that we’ve got the votes and we’re headed in the right direction before putting some kind of artificial deadline.”
The Trump administration is ratcheting up sanctions against the Syrian government in response to the chemical-weapons attack earlier this month.
The Treasury Department said Monday it is targeting 271 employees of Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center, which American officials said was the agency responsible for developing and producing chemical weapons.
"These sweeping sanctions target the scientific support center for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women and children," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
Treasury said the move was one of the largest sanctions actions in the history of its Office of Foreign Assets Control and more than doubles the number of individuals and entities penalized by the U.S. under Syria-related executive orders.
The sanctions will restrict U.S. persons from engaging in financial transactions or other business dealings with the science agency employees. Treasury is taking aim at highly educated chemistry experts who might travel abroad and use the U.S. financial system.
"The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will hold the entire Assad regime accountable for these blatant human rights violations in order to deter the spread of these types of barbaric chemical weapons," Mnuchin said.
President Donald Trump has postponed plans to host a dinner this week for the justices of the just-back-to-full-strength Supreme Court, White House officials said Monday.
A week-ahead schedule distributed to reporters on Sunday said Trump would attend a dinner Thursday evening with the justices, "including his successfully confirmed nominee Justice Neil Gorsuch."
However, a later version of the outlook dropped the Supreme Court event.
A Trump aide said Monday that the dinner was put off due to scheduling issues during this busy week where officials are going all-out to mark the president's accomplishments in his first 100 days in office.
"It is being moved to a later date. We are just shifting the schedule a bit this week," said the official, who asked not to be named.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman referred questions about the event to the White House.
Asked by a reporter Monday whether the rescheduling of the event was prompted by a reluctance by the justices to be seen as part of Trump's "first 100 days" messaging, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that wasn't a factor.
"No, I think having a relationship and meeting with the Supreme Court at some point would be a great idea and something that we hope to have on the schedule at some point soon," Spicer said.
Another White House official said the dinner had been tentatively set on the president's schedule, but should have been removed before the weekly outlook was shared with reporters over the weekend.
"There were preliminary discussions at a staff level, but no invitation was extended or accepted," the second Trump aide said.
Madeline Conway contributed to this report.
President Donald Trump will name Howard Lorber to be chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board that oversees the Holocaust museum in Washington, according to a White House official and a transition official.
Lorber, the chairman of real estate brokerage Douglas Elliman, is a longtime friend of Trump’s who arranged for him to be the grand marshal of the 2004 Salute to Israel parade on New York’s Fifth Ave. He declined to comment on his appointment.
The choice comes ahead of Trump’s speech Tuesday at the museum in recognition of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner and other influential Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—including ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump's special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt—pushed for Trump to speak at the museum, according to a former transition official.
“Expect a carefully scripted speech by POTUS,” said the transition official, who asked to remain anonymous in order to discuss the plans freely. “He is going to stick to the script.”
The White House has committed repeated gaffes with regard to the Jewish community. Earlier this month, press secretary Sean Spicer’s was forced to apologize after making reference to “Holocaust centers” during a briefing, in which he also claimed that Adolf Hitler hadn’t gassed “his own people.”
In January, the White House omitted specific mention of Jews in its statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump was also criticized for failing to denounce vandalism at Jewish cemeteries earlier this year, though Vice President Mike Pence subsequently traveled to one in St. Louis, Missouri, to help with cleanup.
“All Trump has to do tomorrow is obviously not repeat any of the previous gaffes, mistakes and simply display an accurate understanding and sensitivity to this monstrous nightmare in Jewish history,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “He doesn’t have to apologize, just say what’s correct now.”
On Sunday, Trump delivered a video address to the World Jewish Congress. “We mourn, we remember, we pray, and we pledge, never again, I say it, never again,” Trump said in his remarks.
The Holocaust Memorial Council was chartered by Congress in 1980. The council’s chairs, appointed by the president to five-year terms, have typically been prominent Jewish leaders with close White House ties. President George W. Bush chose Houston businessman Fred Zeidman, a prolific Republican fundraiser, for the council chairmanship. The current chair, developer Tom Bernstein, was appointed to consecutive terms by President Barack Obama.
President Donald Trump and Congress are on a collision course over government funding this week, as the White House demands money for a border wall with Mexico and Democrats vow it will never see a penny.
But just five days out from a government shutdown, Trump appears headed for disappointment. Democrats are signaling they’re unlikely to cave, and Hill Republicans are already pressing the administration to fight another day.
That means the White House is largely on its own in a high-stakes game of political chicken, weakening its negotiating position. Even Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former Homeland Security Committee chairman who wrote the 2006 law authorizing the wall’s construction, said the White House should push for it later in the year.
“There’s going to be compromises going on,” King said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.” “Once the government is up and running, and stays open and running, then we have to fight this out over the next year.”
The face-off comes as lawmakers return to Washington following a two-week Easter recess. Government funding expires Friday, leaving Congress little time to strike a deal. A White House push for progress on repealing Obamacare will also consume energy on Capitol Hill, even as a vote on legislation this week appears unlikely.
White House officials and several senior House Republican sources say a short, one-week stopgap may be needed to buy more time to negotiate on a larger bill to fund the government through September.
In the meantime, both sides are puffing up their chests, refusing to budge from their hard-line positions on one of Trump’s most famous campaign pledges. Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly both reiterated during Sunday interviews that Trump would need a down payment on his wall as part of a government funding package.
“It goes without saying that the president has been pretty straightforward about his desire and the need for the border wall,” Kelly said on CNN. “He’ll do the right thing for sure, but I would expect he’ll be insistent on the funding.”
On cue, Democrats scoffed.
“The Democrats do not support the wall,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press." “The burden to keep it open is on the Republicans. The wall is, in my view, immoral, expensive, unwise.”
Meanwhile, sensing the judgments of pundits and politicians surrounding Trump’s 100-day mark this Saturday, the White House is also cranking up the heat on Speaker Paul Ryan to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replacement this week, another heavy lift for the House.
Mulvaney suggested Sunday the chamber could pass both a health care and government funding bill in the coming days, and he said he’s even “heard rumors” that House lawmakers may work through next weekend to get the repeal passed. That’s a notion most popular among increasingly impatient White House officials; House Republicans have no plans at this time to hold lawmakers in town through the weekend.
Ryan also downplayed the possibility of a health care vote this week during a conference call with Republican lawmakers Saturday. While GOP leaders are more optimistic about reaching a deal to win over their fractious conference, a vote won’t be held until party whips are confident they have the votes for passage.
Plus, the focus on Capitol Hill is the still-unsettled negotiation to avoid a shutdown.
The White House’s hard-line insistence on wall money in the final stages of talks has perplexed some lawmakers, particularly after Trump's vows that Mexico would pay for the wall, not taxpayers. Numerous senior Hill Republicans don’t think the White House request — a $1.4 billion down payment on a construction project that might ultimately cost more than $20 billion — is worth such extensive political capital at this time.
Most GOP lawmakers say they’re confident there will be no shutdown, echoing comments Ryan expressed to House members Saturday. But they will need significant Democratic votes in both chambers, especially with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold.
“We have to find eight votes in the Senate to avoid the Senate filibuster,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said on “Sunday Morning Futures.” “We’re going to have to find the way we bring Senate Democrats along.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said it would be dangerous for the United States to flirt with a shutdown during a time of instability in Europe, the rising threat from North Korea and an ongoing conflict in Syria.
“We cannot shut down the government right now,” Rubio said on CBS' "Face the Nation," later adding that the border fight is “worth having for 2018” funding rather than for the current fiscal year. “The last thing we can afford is to send a message to the world is that the United States government, by the way, is partially functioning.”
Privately, numerous Hill Republicans believe the White House will eventually cave on the wall — though Trump is expected to win some extra money for the Pentagon and border security that don’t relate to wall construction.
Some administration officials, however, are adamant that they could pin fault for a government shutdown on Democrats. Mulvaney said Sunday that Republicans would blame the left for “holding hostage national security.” White House legislative liaison Marc Short said “the American people have been clear that they want the border secured.”
"I think the president’s been clear, and the American people elected him on wanting border security,” Short said in an interview Friday. “We don’t see how that’s a controversial element in our minds. … The American people elected us based on that.”
Still, a shutdown showdown is a risky gamble for Republicans, as they control all the levers of power in Washington and would likely shoulder blame, too.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus took a slightly less aggressive approach than other Trump officials, saying on “Meet the Press” that he believes the government will stay open and that he’s “pretty confident we’re going to get something satisfactory” for border security.
He also would not say that Trump will veto a bill that does not explicitly include wall funding. But Republicans on Capitol Hill say they aren’t sure whether Mulvaney, Kelly or Priebus represent Trump’s true position. That complicates the job for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Ryan as they try to move a funding bill that can pass the House and Senate and be signed by Trump.
“Hard to know whom is speaking for Trump,” said a Republican familiar with negotiations. “No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.”
The wall money isn’t the only spending sticking point for Congress and the White House. Democrats have demanded the administration commit to funding Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies either in law through the appropriations package, or via executive branch actions by the Health and Human Services Department.
The White House had threatened to cut off funding the subsidies, a stance Trump doubled down on through a Sunday tweet: “ObamaCare is in serious trouble. The Dems need big money to keep it going - otherwise it dies far sooner than anyone would have thought.”
Trump is using the threat as a negotiation tactic to bring Democrats to the table. Mulvaney and senior White House officials have offered Democrats a dollar of Obamacare subsidy funding for a dollar of wall funding.
But so far, Democrats haven’t budged.
“I hope the president will back off,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber. He called Trump’s hard-line tactics on the wall a “political stunt” and said a shutdown “would be the height of irresponsibility. He would not want that to define his first 100 days.”
Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.
President Donald Trump pushed for the construction of a wall along the Mexico-America border Monday as the deadline looms for a government funding bill that could come down to funding for the construction project.
In a set of two tweets sent over the course of three hours, Trump advocated for the wall, which was one of his major campaign promises during the 2016 presidential election. Trump, who first said Mexico would pay for the wall, is seeking funding from Congress to pay for the construction, something that could prompt a government shutdown.
“The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If … the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be! #BuildTheWall,” Trump tweeted.
The tweets follow another series of tweets Trump sent Sunday attacking Democrats for opposing the wall and insisting that Mexico would pay for its construction “in some form” and “at a later date.”
Members of the Trump administration have been on a media blitz advocating for the wall’s funding to be included in the government spending bill that legislators need to pass this week to avoid a government shutdown. The administration is seeking $4.1 billion in initial funding for the project, which ultimately could cost about $22 billion.
But the administration, which is hard-pressed to push through some of Trump’s policy goals by the 100-day mark, has not said that Trump would reject spending bills that do not include funding for the wall. Some members of the administration have suggested that the administration would try to withhold funding for the Affordable Care Act if Democrats do not support the wall.
Democratic legislators have been vocal in their opposition for the wall’s construction, saying that the project would be too costly and would ultimately be ineffective. Some Republicans have also expressed reservations about the cost and effectiveness of the wall, and others have said funding for the wall is not a priority.
Even though they contained “some very positive info,” President Donald Trump on Monday decried a set of polls released over the weekend as “fake news” conducted by media outlets whose polling about last year’s presidential election had proven incorrect.
“The two fake news polls released yesterday, ABC & NBC, while containing some very positive info, were totally wrong in General E. Watch!” Trump wrote on Twitter Monday morning.
Topline numbers in both polls showed Trump with poor approval numbers: 54 percent of those polled by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal said they disapproved of his performance as president so far, while 53 percent said the same in the survey by ABC News and The Washington Post. Just 40 percent and 42 percent of respondents said they approve of his job performance thus far, respectively.
Other figures from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, including the share of respondents who feel Trump is honest and trustworthy, those who feel he is effective and getting things done, and those who feel he is changing the culture of Washington are all trending downward relative to a survey released in February.
But as Trump noted, the polls were not without good news for the president. The ABC/Washington Post poll showed that Trump would win a rematch of the 2016 election, with 96 percent of respondents who voted for him in November saying they would do so again compared with 85 percent who said the same of Clinton. The ABC/Washington Post poll also indicated that if the 2016 race were run again, Trump could possibly win the popular vote, which he lost to Clinton last November.
In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, more than 60 percent said they supported the president’s decision to order missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for its government's use of chemical weapons against a rebel-controlled region of its own nation.
President Donald Trump on Monday pledged that his yet-to-be-unveiled health care plan will cause premiums to “start tumbling down” and produce “real” health care.
“If our healthcare plan is approved, you will see real healthcare and premiums will start tumbling down,” Trump said on Twitter. “ObamaCare is in a death spiral!”
Republicans’ first attempt to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act failed last month, and the White House indicated last week that it was preparing a revised version of the House health care bill to debate as early as this week, ahead of Trump’s 100th day in office.
Republicans have not yet presented their proposal publicly, however, nor has it received a score from the Congressional Budget Office.
Obamacare is frequently criticized because some insurance premiums have risen since its enactment.
The CBO’s report on the failed House Republican bill, the American Health Care Act, predicted that the legislation would increase average premiums in the insurance marketplaces before 2020 and lower them after that point, “relative to projections under current law.”
Democrats and Republicans agree the word of the week will be "promises." As President Donald Trump's 100th day in office nears, the battle will be over whether they've been kept or broken.
After angst from the president and senior aides over the 100-day mark — and anticipation that press coverage will be dominated by his failure to change Obamacare — the White House plans to spend the week telling Americans he has kept his promises from the 2016 campaign, according to senior administration officials and a planning document reviewed by POLITICO.
The White House has a packed schedule for the president. With reelection in 2020 already on their minds, aides noted that even though recent polls show Trump has a lower approval rating than any modern president at the same point, they also show his base believes he is delivering.
Meanwhile, Democrats’ theme for the week will be “100 Days of Broken Promises to American Families,” a strategy party leaders say will focus on contrasting the “bold commitments” of Trump’s campaign with what they consider a “historic lack of accomplishment” in office.
Democrats so far have been divided on how to peel supporters away from Trump, but this week’s strategy will launch a broader effort heading into the midterm election cycle to convince voters he is a phony, congressional aides said.
"So far, the president's first 100 days have been defined by broken promises to America's working class,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Democrats will center their attacks on Trump’s record on jobs and trade, health care, “draining the swamp” and their perception that he has boosted the wealthy at the expense of the working class, beginning with a joint news conference Monday and daily events all week.
Trump has packed his next six days with meetings and meals with prominent senators, ambassadors from United Nations Security Council countries, and U.S. Supreme Court justices. Higher-profile Cabinet secretaries will hit the road to promote his agenda, and the president plans to woo his base with a White House reception for conservative media figures and a speech at the National Rifle Association conference.
The White House hopes the hectic schedule drowns out coverage of the misfires and highlights his successes. Administration officials spent much of the weekend huddling on a strategy and are shooting for a week of "us being busy every day," one administration official said.
His administration plans to particularly tout the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a name chosen from a list of potential justices he released during the 2016 campaign. He’ll also tout the elimination of regulations and a vow to grow the military.
The fight will play out online as well: The White House will launch a 100-days web page, with graphics and videos that officials hope his followers will share. Democrats are planning Facebook Live sessions and heavy social media messaging. "President Trump’s first 100 days have been a disastrous parade of broken promises to working people, handouts to wealthy special interests, and deep damage to the health and economic security of America’s families,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Trump will cap off his first 100 days in office with something he enjoys: a rally on Saturday evening in Pennsylvania, scheduled to conflict with the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, which he is making a point of boycotting this year. The point of the rally is to highlight kept promises and his continued support outside Washington, administration officials said.
He tested out that message at a rally in Nashville last month, where volunteers handed out blue signs: "Promises Made, Promises Kept."
Seeing the signs delighted the president, he told the crowd, urging them to keep waving them. "We're keeping our promises," he said, praising the signs.
But following through on the pledges has been difficult for the first-time politician.
During the campaign, Trump released a “Contract with the American Voter,” a list of things he said he’d accomplish in office. But of 18 pledges in the “100-day action plan” that didn’t require movement by Congress, Trump has achieved roughly seven. Of the 10 legislative measures he pledged to introduce and fight for, he’s at not-quite-one, depending on how one grades the stalled effort to repeal Obamacare.
Among the changes he promised but hasn’t touched: a Constitutional amendment for term limits for members of Congress, a full ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections, and legislation to address violent crime. He has not released a plan on cybersecurity, as he said he’d do within 90 days.
The White House said Trump will be “outlining principles for tax reform” on Wednesday, but there’s been little substantive work so far on what would be extremely complex legislation.
Last week, the White House began a last-minute push to revive health care legislation — an effort that seemed doomed from the start. Speaker Paul Ryan told lawmakers on Saturday not to expect a vote this week, several people who were on the conference call said.
Trump is also arguing for funding for his proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, an early campaign pledge, as Congress comes back to town. But Hill leaders say that push could backfire, leading to a government shutdown on the 100-day mark.
At the Trump rally in Nashville in March, Trump quietly dropped his pledge that Mexico would pay for the wall. (He tweeted Sunday that the U.S. neighbor would pay “at a later date.”) He didn’t mention that he’d hired lobbyists despite pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington, nor did he explain that he’d made no moves to jail former rival Hillary Clinton when the crowd chanted “lock her up.”
But he did brag, just one week before the effort fell apart, that he would keep his promise and overturn the 2010 Obamacare law.
"Remember all the broken promises?" he said of Democrats who voted for Obamacare. "Those in Congress who made these promises have no credibility whatsoever.”
Earlier this month, 11 weeks after his inauguration, in the aftermath of bungled attempts at instituting a Muslim travel ban and “repealing and replacing” the Affordable Care Act, and in the midst of sinking approval ratings, steady reports of Russian influence on the outcome of last fall’s election, staff strife in the White House and growing inner-circle alarm that the first 100 days of his administration would be seen as a failure, President Trump sauntered to the rear of Air Force One to make sure the reporters traveling with him had the story straight. “I think,” he told them, “we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.”
The following week, in an interview with Fox Business, he doubled down. “I don’t think that there is a presidential period of time in the first 100 days where anyone’s done nearly what we’ve been able to do,” he said.
And last Tuesday, in a speech in Wisconsin, Trump held firm: “No administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.”
Critics have expressed amazement at this self-assessment. How, wonder people who are even fleetingly familiar with presidential history, can Trump look back at the past three months and seriously say they were the best ever?
To others, though, who have worked with him, have been watching him for decades and know him well, nothing could be more familiar. “I just shake my head,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me the other day, “and I say, ‘Well, that’s Donald Trump.’”
These three statements, 53 words in all, are potent shots of unadulterated, time-tested Trump—short, confident declarations of success, in spite of objective evidence of failure, uttered with total disregard for the parsing and fact-checking that constitutes so much of the coverage of him and his administration. Biographers, ex-employees, veteran New York City gossip columnists, public relations professionals and political operatives from both major parties say recognizing this well-established pattern of behavior—stumble, proclaim victory, move on—is imperative to understanding Trump.
He flopped as an owner of a professional football team, effectively killing not only his own franchise but the league as a whole. He blew up his first marriage, married his mistress, and then divorced her, too. He bankrupted his casinos five times over the course of nearly 20 years. His eponymous airline existed for less than three years and ended up almost a quarter of a billion dollars in debt. And he has slapped his surname on a practically never-ending sequence of duds and scams (Trump Ice bottled water, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump magazine, Trump Mortgage, Trump University—for which he settled a class-action fraud lawsuit earlier this year for $25 million). Other risk-taking businessmen might periodically cop to falling short while pivoting to what’s next. Not Trump. He has dealt with his roster of losses largely by refusing to acknowledge them as anything other than wins.
More than a belief in the power of positive thinking or the casual audacity of a tireless salesman, Trump has perfected a narrative style in which he doesn’t merely obscure reality—he tries to change it with pronouncements that act like blaring, garish roadside billboards. Unrelenting in telling his own story, he has defined himself as a success no matter what—by talking the loudest and the longest, and by insisting on having the first word and also the last. And it’s worked. Again and again, throughout his adult life, Trump in essence has managed to succeed without actually succeeding.
This, not his much-crowed-about deal-making prowess, is Trump’s most singular skill, I’ve heard in more than a dozen recent interviews.
“He’s not successful at what he claims to be successful at,” said Tim O’Brien, the author of TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald. “He is, however, arguably the most successful self-promoter in United States business and political history. And that’s a form of success.”
“He knows of no other way,” former New York Daily News scribe George Rush said, “and that is to spin until he’s woven some gossamer fabric out of”—he searched for the right word—“garbage.”
Even his admirers, who dispute the notion that Trump has not accomplished important things in this first stage of his first term, grant that his ultimate success will depend in no small measure on his ability to convince people that he has succeeded. “I think by the power of persuasion he’s going to end up getting things done,” said Sam Nunberg, a political adviser early in his campaign who credits Trump with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and a flurry of executive orders that have undone or loosened Barack Obama-implemented policies and regulations. “He certainly could sell ice to an Eskimo—and I mean that as a compliment. He’s the spinner of all spinners.”
And he’s only upped the ante over the past month.
“I don’t lose,” he told the Financial Times.
“It’s been very much misreported that we failed with health care,” he said in the Fox Business interview. “We haven’t failed. We’re negotiating …”
“We will be stronger and bigger and better as a nation than ever before,” he assured parents and their children by way of introducing them to the White House for the Easter Egg Roll. “We’re right on track. You see what’s happening.”
But what’s happening, many think, is that he’s failing, and that his transparent strategy to distract from his manifest lack of preparation is being exposed on this blinding-bright, highest-stakes stage. This is, after all, the hardest job Trump has ever had, and even he occasionally has alluded to that. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” he memorably said back in February as his reform efforts floundered.
In one significant way, though, Trump’s never had it easier. Attention is his oxygen, and always has been, and for most of his professional existence, especially before the hit debut of The Apprentice in 2004, he had to work for it. Now he doesn’t. He’s the president, which he views (not wrongly) as a kind of proof in and of itself of success. “I can’t be doing so badly,” he explained to a reporter from Time, “because I’m president, and you’re not.” And when he asserts his versions of reality, they come, unlike in the past, with an immense governmental apparatus to back them up and the inherent authority of the office he inhabits. Trump no longer can be ignored. He has to be listened to.
“He creates his own reality,” said Barbara Res, a Trump Organization vice president in the 1980s and ’90s. “He created the reality that he was this big, successful businessman, and now he’s creating the reality that he’s a big, accomplished president.”
“He’s gotten away with this game his whole life,” Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson said.
It worked for him as a businessman, and it worked for him as a presidential candidate—and if it doesn’t work for him in the long run as president as well, it will be a first.
Trump has been preparing for this for a long time.
In 1983, in a bid to grow his fame, he bought the New Jersey Generals of the second-tier United States Football League. In three years, he plunged $22 million into the endeavor. Angling for a giant payday or a spot in the National Football League, he spearheaded with Roy Cohn an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. It was defeated in court. The suit sought $1.69 billion. A jury awarded $3.76. The embarrassing outcome led directly to the demise of the USFL.
“We’re dead,” said the vice president of the team from Memphis, Tennessee.
“We lost,” said a spokesman for the team from Jacksonville, Florida.
No, Trump said. “We expect to win a total victory.”
A judge in an appeals court upheld the initial ruling and pinned blame on Trump. At one point, in what he wrote, he likened decisions made by the owner of the Generals and USFL officials to “suicide.”
Trump was undaunted. In 1990, when $3 billion of debt racked up in a willy-nilly late-’80s spending spree and through over-leveraged Atlantic City casinos caused a financial calamity that coincided with the high-profile implosion of his marriage to the mother of his first three children, he scoffed that any of it would be a setback. The coverage of his divorce, his affair and the negotiations surrounding his prenuptial agreement were making his name “hotter than ever,” he told a reporter from New York.
“The business has never been better,” he said to the Associated Press.
Everything was “running flawlessly,” he added in a story in the New York Times, which appeared under a headline that read, “An Empire at Risk … Debt Forcing Trump to Play for Higher Stakes.”
The Trump Taj Mahal casino filed for bankruptcy in 1991.
The Trump Castle and the Trump Plaza casinos filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
“I’m doing great,” he told the Times in 1993.
And he was right in that it could have been worse. Trump ended up not ever having to file for personal bankruptcy and escaping from his “blip,” as he would come to call his not-quite-Waterloo of the ’90s, because of family money and because the banks had lent him such staggering sums he was effectively too big to fail. The banks let him defer payments and put him on an allowance—of $450,000 a month. Trump then completed his comeback partly by going public with his casinos and shifting restructured debt to shareholders who would rue placing their trust in Trump. Nobody made much money off Trump in Atlantic City other than Trump himself.
“I’m intelligent,” he told a reporter from Fortune in 2000. “Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.”
In 2004, after not quite a decade in which Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts failed to turn an annual profit, not even once, the company filed again for bankruptcy. Shares that had traded at more than $35 in 1996 now were at less than 50 cents. His casinos were $1.8 billion in debt. The business was in shambles. “The business has been great,” Trump told a reporter from the Washington Post.
By this time, these predictable go-to tactics were bolstered by the success of his new reality show, making NBC all but an official PR partner. The network was portraying Trump to tens of millions of viewers in precisely the way he always had wanted to be seen—as one of the country’s premier managers, executives and entrepreneurs. But Trump, as ever, remained his own best, most committed publicist. Bankruptcy, he argued to the AP, is not a bad thing: “I don’t think it’s a failure. It’s a success.”
“You are what you think you are,” he wrote in his book called Think Big in 2007. “Oftentimes,” he added, “perception is more important than fact.”
Trump’s casino company filed for bankruptcy again in 2009.
“I never went bankrupt,” he said on ABC in 2011.
“I’ve done an incredible job,” he told The Atlantic in 2013.
And in 2015, of course, he announced he was running for president. “They all said, a lot of the pundits on television, ‘Well, Donald will never run, and one of the main reasons is he’s private and he’s probably not as successful as everybody thinks,’” he said in his speech at Trump Tower. “So I said to myself, you know, nobody’s ever going to know unless I run, because I’m really proud of my success. I really am.”
Can this work? Can Trump succeed even if he doesn’t succeed when he’s not the president of the Trump Organization but the president of the United States of America? In my conversations of late with people who have worked with him, studied him and know him well, opinions varied. Some said sure. Others said maybe. But nobody said no chance.
“Yes,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair said matter-of-factly when I asked her the question. She’s seen it work too much for too long to dismiss the possibility.
“I can’t think of anything he hasn’t been able to spin into some kind of success,” said Res, the former Trump Organization vice president. “I’ve always said he must have sold his soul to the devil. Because he wins all the time. He always wins. He seems to get away with everything.”
Being the president is, though, so different from anything he’s ever done, many of the people I spoke with maintained, in terms of difficulty, scrutiny and accountability. The rules are different in this arena—or have been.
“Clearly you can campaign, and win, by being P.T. Barnum,” O’Brien said. “That’s because elections have become celebrity contests. But I think governing is different than campaigning.
“And I think the 100 days benchmark does matter for him,” he continued, “because he promised swift action: ‘I will come to the slow-moving, ossified bureaucracy that is Washington, D.C., and—presto—I will make it move quickly.’ Lo and behold, his 100 days have come and passed with no significant legislation. … I don’t know that he can get away with abracadabra for four years.”
“It’s true he has often been able to turn failure into success, or at least claim success,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told me. But he stressed that the presidency is not the same: If Trump fails, Shrum said, “it will not be like the collapse of an apartment development in Puerto Vallarta. It’s not 200 people who lose their apartment deposits—it’s 24 million people who lose their health care. It’s not 500 people who lose their casino jobs—it’s millions of people who have been left behind and thought he was going to fix things for them.”
“We’re not even close to how bad it’s going to get,” said Wilson, the GOP strategist from Florida who’s been a vociferous Trump critic. “It’s going to get substantially more difficult to keep selling this crap. He’s not dealing with some random vendors in New Jersey. He’s dealing with the American people. But I will say this: His cult has shown a great willingness to be a cult.”
The degree of difficulty is higher, and so, without a doubt, are the stakes—but Trump has not altered his fundamental approach. He is doing what he’s done best. This is why people are starting to focus on his track record as a seller of success at least as much as an achiever of it. And if anybody can pull this off, if any person can get re-elected as president if the rest of these four years go something like the past three months, say Wilson and many others, it is him.
“It’s the unwillingness to lose,” said Nunberg, the former Trump political adviser. “I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up being very successful.”
In the political sphere specifically, said Tim Miller, who was the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, “this has been tested at this point for two years, right?” And the upshot is clear: “His voters aren’t going to abandon him in the face of failure, as defined by the political elite, the media and pundits.”
PR professionals, too, seem skeptical that his failure in office necessarily would result in his failure at the ballot box come November 2020. They have been watching him work for decades with a mixture of horror and awe.
“The great lesson of Trump’s career is that what goes around does NOT come around, not even a little,” Eric Dezenhall, the CEO of Dezenhall Resources in Washington and one of the country’s experts in crisis and damage control, wrote to me in an email. “It is wrong to hold him to the same standard as other presidents. The pundit consensus is that if he fails to deliver on jobs and key legislation that he will be punished for it. Wrong. His main mission is to vex the political and media elite, period. It’s essentially a mandate to entertain. If he does that, most of his supporters—and the people who will never admit they are his supporters—will be satisfied for quite some time. If he fails to deliver in other areas, well, that’s the fault of the deep state or some other villain. There is always the possibility that his run at the tables will end at his presidency, but I’m not so sure.”
The question of whether Trump can use his usual M.O. to similar effect in this new, infinitely more important role raises a basic question: Success as defined by whom? Because the truth is there is nothing absolute or agreed upon here. Assessments of presidents aren’t unilateral or fixed. They shift over time, depending on who’s writing them, when and why. And the group that traditionally has the first crack at it, the people who have penned the initial reviews for many of Trump’s 44 predecessors—the press—Trump has spent most of the past two years trying to delegitimize. And with a significant portion of the electorate, it has worked. He’s never waited for others to write his own history, and he’s not waiting now. After saying in his announcement speech two Junes ago that he would “do various things very quickly,” like “repeal and replace the big lie, Obamacare”—“mark my words,” he said—Trump this week denounced on Twitter “the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days.” It “doesn’t matter,” he told reporters.
Eventually, of course, there will be a longer list of campaign pledges kept or not kept, and more and more actual numbers, hard statistics, showing his success or failure on health care and crime and infrastructure improvements and tax reform and wages and jobs and on and on—all of which voters can use to gauge his performance. But will they? And which voters? Because this, too, is part of Trump’s unwavering conviction in his ability to control the narrative.
“I inherited a mess with jobs, despite the statistics, you know, my statistics are even better, but they are not the real statistics because you have millions of people that can’t get a job, OK,” he said in his recent interview with Time, appearing to reference the sustained job growth the country experienced under Obama while simultaneously using this bewildering, punctuation-free sequence of words to shift blame and cloud facts.
His most zealous fans, a base that has polled consistently somewhere south of 40 percent, will believe him, and in him, forever, argued many of the people I talked to. So how many independents and moderates or on-and-off, in-and-out voters, then, can he keep convincing? How many of the people in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin, the people who in the most purely mathematical sense made him the president—how many of them will get the jobs he promised throughout the campaign? Will their lives get measurably better? Will it matter? It’s impossible at this point to say for sure.
Past presidents, including some seen as the best presidents, have conceded failure and expressed contrition when that’s what was called for. “The power of the presidency is often thought to reside within this Oval Office, yet it doesn’t rest here. It rests in you, the American people, and in your trust,” Ronald Reagan said in his 1987 apology for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. “Your trust is what gives a president his powers of leadership.” Watch what Reagan said that night and try to imagine Trump doing the same. Almost everybody I talked to agreed: He will never fail and say so. He is absolutely and unquestionably going to try to do what he’s always done. It’s what’s gotten him here, say the people who know him the best.
O’Donnell, the head-shaking former casino executive, recalled the week in April 1990 in Atlantic City when Trump’s Taj Mahal rushed to open to create cash flow to start servicing the suffocating debt Trump had taken on to make the $1.1-billion project happen. The staff was unprepared and overwhelmed. Machines malfunctioned. Customers fumed. “This is a lot of baloney!” shouted one woman. “We came all the way from East Orange.”
“It was just a disaster,” O’Donnell said. “A monumental failure.”
Trump, though, went on CNN in that summer of 1990 and told Larry King it was “doing great” and described it as “a tremendous success.” He explained that the chaotic launch only looked like a failure because it was actually exactly the opposite. So many people were gambling so much money, he insisted, the machines simply couldn’t handle the demand. “They blew apart,” Trump said to King. “They were virtually on fire.”
O’Donnell remembers watching the interview aghast.
“If you or I were sitting there,” he told me, “we would have trouble staring into the camera and lying. He doesn’t.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hit back at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for last week calling the New York Police Department “soft on crime.”
“My daughters, you know, they’re young adults, but they ride the subway at 4 a.m., and I’m perfectly happy about it,” Schumer, the senior Democratic senator from New York, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday. “We are a safe city.”
“And by the way, New York has grown from 7 million people in 1990 to 8.5 million today, the largest of any city, because crime went down,” he continued. “Mothers from Denver and Dallas were not sending their daughters and sons to New York in 1990. Now they’re happy to do it.”
Sessions, who was appointed attorney general by President Donald Trump, was heavily criticized after his department sent out a news release last week threatening to withhold federal funding from New York for being a sanctuary city, in which the department characterized the NYPD as being "soft on crime."
Several New York officials quickly lambasted Sessions and the Justice Department for the comments, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill. Sessions later backed off the statement, praising the police department and calling New York a “fabulous city for law enforcement.”
Schumer, who in March called for Sessions' resignation over the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's communications with Russia, said the “unfortunate” comments still concerned him.
“Here’s the greatest thing I worry about in this country,” Schumer said. “We’re no longer fact-based. The founding fathers created a country based on fact, and we debated the facts. We debated them at the constitutional convention. We debated them in town halls throughout America, and we were supposed to debate them in the legislature. We don’t have a fact base. If, say, Breitbart News and The New York Times are regarded with equal credibility, you worry about democracy.”
“But I’ll be happy to ride the subway at 4 a.m. with Jeff Sessions,” Schumer added.
BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to the White House last month may have been filled with awkward moments, but she left with one key takeaway -- identifying the first daughter as her back-channel to President Donald Trump.
The White House was broadly criticized for seating Ivanka Trump, who at the time held no official government position, next to the German leader during a meeting on workforce apprenticeship, essentially elevating a family member with no political experience to the level of Europe’s most important leader.
But for Merkel, a skilled political operator forging relations with the third American president to gain power during her 12 years in office, it was a useful signal of how to work the Trump White House.
She followed up by elevating Ivanka Trump even higher, inviting her to speak Tuesday at the W20 Summit in Berlin alongside Queen Maxima of the Netherlands and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, among others, for a panel on women’s entrepreneurship.
A White House official said the panel will be more in the weeds and wonky than sweeping and symbolic; Ivanka Trump has been prepping for the meeting for weeks, immersing herself in McKinsey & Company reports on women in the workforce, rather than searching for soaring language with a speechwriter.
Her inclusion on a panel of world leaders gives as much insight into Merkel’s strategy for diplomacy with the U.S. president -- who during the 2016 election called her “insane” and accused her of “ruining” Germany – as it does about the ambitious first daughter. But it provides Ivanka Trump with her biggest international platform yet.
“The Germans are as bemused as everybody else is, in attempting to navigate how this White House manages its official relationships,” said Constanze Stelzenmuller, an expert on German policy and politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But knowing how heavily the president relies on his family members as top West Wing advisers, Stelzenmuller said, “it seems obvious that you would engage Ivanka Trump. Merkel is saying, ‘This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and this looks promising.’”
James Jeffrey, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and a former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq under President Barack Obama, said Merkel is working out how to approach an atypical U.S. leader.
“Merkel is sly as a fox. The unorthodox road to this guy is Ivanka. That’s the person you go to, not the second secretary in the embassy in Berlin,” Jeffrey said.
In this case, Merkel doesn’t have much choice: Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to Germany (an Obama-era deputy, Kent Logsdon, is currently filling the role in an interim position). She will appear on a panel about democracy with Obama next month.
In seeking to reach the president through his daughter, now a special assistant in the White House, Merkel has given Ivanka Trump an opportunity to prove to skeptics at home and abroad that she is the serious, policy-minded, moderating political force she aims to project, not just a softer saleswoman for her father’s ideas.
It’s not a symbolic opportunity to speak truth to power abroad, the way Hillary Clinton did when she traveled to China as first lady in 1995 and proclaimed, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Instead, Ivanka Trump’s trip is seen here as an opportunity to ease fears among Europeans about the new U.S. administration.
The visit is particularly fraught as Europe reels from Sunday’s vote in France. Emmanuel Macron, a novice political centrist, and far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who has proposed calling a referendum on France’s membership in the European Union, qualified for a run-off to decide the next president.
In Berlin, Ivanka Trump faces a skeptical audience, one that views the new presidency with fear and suspicion and is unsure of what to make of the first daughter.
“What does a daughter with no political experience have to do in the White House?” said Andrea Seibel, an opinion editor at Die Welt, the influential conservative-leaning Berlin daily, where editors huddling in the newsroom Monday afternoon planned to give front-page coverage to the visit.
“We have family clan experiences in autocracies,” said Seibel. “Ivanka Trump isn’t elected, she is a daughter. She didn’t say anything in the elections when he was saying nasty things about women and migrants. She is his voice, but somehow she has a nicer face.”
The coverage of Ivanka Trump in the German press in the days leading up to her speech was similar to that at home, where she has been criticized on late night programs like “Saturday Night Live” for being “complicit” in her father’s agenda.
The front page of one daily newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, featured a photograph of Ivanka Trump under the headline “First Flusterin,” or “the first whisperer.” The story questioned whether the first daughter would push her father toward a moderate course or act as a “loyal accomplice.”
And abroad as at home, the interest level in all things Trump is high. About 400 reporters were expected to cover the women’s conference at the Intercontinental Berlin, CNN reported.
Merkel isn’t the first world leader to try and influence the president through the family member he has made clear is one of his most trusted advisers. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in March invited Ivanka Trump to attend the Broadway show “Come From Away” with him, a play whose central theme is about embracing foreigners.
And a White House official said Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands have both reached out with requests for public events with Ivanka Trump. (Both are participants in Tuesday’s W20 summit.)
Merkel laid the groundwork for her own outreach in February, when she approached Vice President Mike Pence at a Munich security conference.
When she came to Washington in March, she told Pence, she wanted to participate in a roundtable on apprenticeship, according to a person familiar with Merkel’s thinking and a White House official. Merkel hoped to discuss how American and German private sector companies could better train workers.
One of her aims in picking that issue, according to the person familiar with her thinking, was to engage the first daughter, who has expressed in working with CEOs to improve conditions for women in the workforce. Appealing to Ivanka Trump was an easier target for Merkel than the president's top political adviser, Steve Bannon, an anti-globalist who supported last year’s ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom and is critical of the European Union.
In Berlin Tuesday, the White House official said, Ivanka Trump plans to stick to the basics: Highlighting the role of women in the global economy and discussing the importance of access to capital for female entrepreneurs. It’s an issue she has studied since before the campaign and one that she has focused on since moving to Washington, where she has been on a listening tour of sorts with CEOs such as Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and General Motors’ Mary Barra.
After the conference, Ivanka Trump, a converted Orthodox Jew, is scheduled to tour manufacturing company Siemens and visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.
She will be accompanied by three White House aides: Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser and senior economic counselor; communications adviser Hope Hicks; and her new chief of staff, Julie Radford.
Even with Europe’s future in turmoil, Ivanka Trump’s visit dominated front pages in Berlin. “Who knows,” said Oliver Michalsky, deputy editor-in-chief of Die Welt. “Maybe she’ll become America’s first female president.”
Former President Barack Obama made his public return on Monday at an event at the University of Chicago, leading a conversation among young community leaders here that he says will kick off a focus of his post-presidency and taking aim at gerrymandering, money in politics, and low civic participation.
“What is the most important thing I can do for my next job? What I’m convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues that I care about, and all kind of issues that I intend to work on, the most important single thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said, taking the stage.
Ticking off economic inequality, lack of opportunity, criminal justice reform, climate change and reactions to violence, Obama said, “all those problems are serious, they’re daunting, but they’re not insoluble. What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.”
He is aiming to avoid direct discussion of President Donald Trump, but he decided to address his successor with a joke to kick off the event. “So…uh, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” he said, taking the stage.
Seven days before Donald Trump took office, the inauguration festivities got off to a low-key start inside a modest conference room at the Capitol Hill offices of the American Trucking Association. There, a hundred-odd familiar faces from the Washington set gathered to fête one of their own, incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
The party spilled out into the hallway as entrepreneur Susanna Quinn, ubiquitous Republican consultant Ron Bonjean and Spicer’s wife, Rebecca, a staffer at the National Beer Wholesalers Association, rubbed shoulders with CBS’ White House correspondent Major Garrett and its political editor Steve Chaggaris, Time’s Zeke Miller and several journalists from CNN, including Washington bureau chief Sam Feist. Spicer arrived late, but in good spirits, and after 20 minutes of schmoozing he strode to the front of the room to deliver brief remarks.
In public, Trump’s team and the press had been engaged in bitter clashes for months. Just two days earlier, during a contentious transition-team news conference, Spicer had threatened to eject CNN’s Jim Acosta from Trump Tower. But in the end, ratings were up and Trump was president-elect.
The overlit conference room was a safe space, not a war zone. Spicer made light of the Acosta incident, jokingly threatening to eject Feist from the room. Feist took Spicer’s teasing in stride, briefly turning as if to make for the exit, and the room laughed along. Spicer cracked that he looked forward to serving in his new post for “eight years,” an unheard-of tenure in the notoriously trying job of White House press secretary. This prompted more knowing laughter. One heckler shouted, “Tell the truth!”—an arch reference to the angry chant Trump supporters had been raining down on reporters at campaign rallies.
Then, a week later, a grim-faced Spicer took to the podium in the White House briefing room for the first time and angrily denounced the news media’s reporting of Trump’s inauguration crowd, uttering several easily debunked falsehoods. “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period,” he said, flanked by twin monitors displaying a deceptively flattering overhead photo of the crowd on the National Mall—instantly becoming a national punchline on Twitter and late-night television. He did not take questions, let alone make jokes.
“It was a bit of a shocker,” said one veteran Washington journalist who had attended Spicer’s party. “Especially given what had happened that night at the get-together.”
In societies around the world, anthropologists have observed a phenomenon called “ritualized warfare,” a sort of pantomime of battle most famously observed among the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, who would regularly line up in formation to shout insults and shoot arrows at warriors from rival villages with no decisive outcome. The practice results in a lot of noise and relatively little bloodshed, allowing both sides to advertise their courage and vent emotion while avoiding catastrophic loss of human life.
The practice might look familiar to the new president. On the campaign trail, Trump called the press “dishonest” and “scum.” He defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin against charges of murdering journalists and vowed to somehow “open up our libel laws” to weaken the First Amendment. Since taking office, he has dismissed unfavorable coverage as “fake news” and described the mainstream media as “the enemy of the American people.” And there's been a string of symbolic, almost gratuitous little slaps: He not only rejected the traditional invitation to the White House Correspondents Association dinner, but announced the Saturday beforehand that he'd be holding a rally the same night, meaning some reporters will have to skip their own professional event to cover his. Not since Richard Nixon has an American president been so hostile to the press—and Nixon largely limited his rants against the media to private venting with his aides.
But behind that theatrical assault, the Trump White House has turned into a kind of playground for the press. We interviewed more than three dozen members of the White House press corps, along with White House staff and outside allies, about the first whirlwind weeks of Trump’s presidency. Rather than a historically toxic relationship, they described a historic gap between the public perception and the private reality.
When he is not fulminating on stage or on Twitter, the president himself has mustered a number of cordial interactions with reporters since taking office, often showing them more courtesy than he grants his own staff. When White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is not labeling the media “the opposition party,” he can be found sending crush notes to journalists to let them know they’ve nailed a story. And when Spicer is not popping off from his podium, he is often busy maintaining old relationships with journalists and building new ones. (Spicer did not respond to requests for an interview for this article or to a long list of questions.)
As much as West Wing staffers might fantasize about breaking the backs of the mainstream media, they are too divided and too obsessed with their own images to do so. And for all the frustration of covering an administration with a shaky grasp on the truth and a boss whose whims can shift from one moment to the next, reporters have feasted on the conflict and chaos. The White House is a viper’s nest of intrigue and suspicion, a place where aides wage their daily battles via the press and eagerly devour the resulting coverage each morning. The great secret of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that Trump’s war on the media is a phony one, a reality show that keeps his supporters fired up and distracted while he woos the constituency that really matters to him: journalists.
“He built his career by being media-friendly. The last 18 months have been something of an aberration in his approach,” said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a Trump confidant who has known the president for 20 years. “I’ve always said he’s just creating a negotiating position by calling the press the enemy of the people. I don’t think he believes that deep down.”
The main stage for the Trump team’s daily skirmish with reporters is the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, a cramped space that was converted from a swimming pool for its present purpose by Nixon in 1970 and renamed for Ronald Reagan’s press secretary in 2000, years after he was shot by would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley. In the 1990s, first lady Hillary Clinton proposed reopening the pool—which until recently could be reached from a trap door in the briefing room floor—and moving the press to a subterranean space under the West Wing driveway. The idea was dropped, but in 2006, the room was closed for a major renovation, reopening the following year.
As the room stands now, behind the seats for the press and just in front of the camera risers, a small ledge juts down from the ceiling. The ledge offers a sort of shelf visible only to the camera operators and is lined with knickknacks: a Presidente beer-branded travel thermos; a carved wooden tribal mask; a metallic statuette of the Twin Towers; a Buck Showalter bobblehead; a Hawaii license plate that reads “OBAMA”; the green humanoid Gumby and his equine sidekick Pokey; two magazine covers with Obama’s face on them; a green toy football; a green plastic army figurine; some small Obama figurines and a sticker that says “HOME TEAM.” The import of this display is clear: The media live here. Everyone else is just visiting.
In his notorious first appearance before the press, Spicer appeared determined to mark his territory. Zeke Miller, a Time reporter and a member of the White House Correspondents’ Association, mistakenly relayed information to a pool reporter on Trump's first day in office that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the room. The error was quickly corrected, but not before it set off a furor online. Spicer excoriated Miller from the podium, calling the mistake “deliberately false reporting.” Trump could not let the bust incident go, rehashing it at a Black History Month luncheon two weeks later and fuming in private.
After bragging about the number of Time covers he has appeared on, Trump also dwelled on the incident during a speech at CIA headquarters. “So Zeke, Zeke from Time magazine, writes a story about ‘I took down.’ I would never do that because I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Trump at Langley. “But this is how dishonest the media is.”
But as with other public spats in the weeks that followed, the White House’s outrage toward Time would quickly subside and give way to other concerns: Namely, which members of the administration would be included on Time’s 100 most influential people list in April, and who would write their tributes? The press office and other corners of the West Wing expressed concerns about what would happen if Bannon, Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner or senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway were included on the list, but chief of staff Reince Priebus or Vice President Mike Pence were not. Far from dismissing the list as “fake news,” White House officials were concerned that the president would take it as a blueprint for governing, and give short shrift going forward to top aides who did not make the cut.
In the meantime, Trump’s staff has had its hands full just finding its footing. Every new administration takes time adjusting to life in the White House, about as high-pressure a work environment as they come. But after an outsider campaign that alienated much of the Republican operative class, the new president’s West Wing staff is greener than most, and the logistical snafus began as soon as Trump was elected, when a shell-shocked campaign team was slow to make accommodations for the transition press pool, the system by which a small, rotating group of journalists tracks every doing of the president-elect on behalf of the entire press corps.
In the early days of the administration, journalists have been piqued by some of the more quotidian concerns of their profession: unanswered emails, delays in obtaining the “hard passes” that ensure convenient access to the White House grounds and the staff’s initial inability to operate the in-house speaker system that notifies journalists in their workspaces about impending briefings.
The Monday after the inauguration, a group of some 30 reporters stood at their usual entrance to the White House grounds on Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting to file into the briefing room. But the minder sent by the new administration to let them in did not know where the room was. So the minder turned to Kaitlan Collins, the Daily Caller’s 25-year-old correspondent, who had the advantage of having covered the final few weeks of the Obama administration. Collins led the Trump staffer across the grounds to the briefing room, a pack of reporters in tow.
Since then, the White House press shop has continued to give the impression that it is a little lost. Official press releases have been riddled with typos and factual errors. In a hallway outside the briefing room, staffers hung a photo of Trump’s inauguration crowds with an inscription that dated the event to January 21, which was in fact the day after Trump’s inauguration, when hundreds of thousands of women marched on the mall in protest of his presidency. A list published by the White House of “under-reported” terror attacks misspelled “attacker” as “attaker” 27 times. In March, the press office published a statement ringing in the Iranian New Year that cited an apocryphal quote from Cyrus the Great. And a White House email newsletter touting support for Trump’s budget linked to a satirical Washington Post article that mocked the budget, suggesting it would kill children.
Out loud, Trump has quoted an “Irish proverb” at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration that actually came from an amateur poem posted online by a Nigerian banker. Spicer has mistakenly accused Iran of attacking an American vessel, before being corrected by a reporter, and repeatedly referred to a nonexistent terror attack in Atlanta, when he apparently meant Orlando. Conway, for her part, repeatedly lamented a nonexistent “massacre” by two Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky, amid a ham-handed effort to defend the president’s travel ban.
These sorts of basic slip-ups leave White House correspondents skeptical that the administration has any master plan to neuter the press. “Mostly they’re just reactive and incompetent,” said one. “They don’t have time, man. They don’t have time. Their ass is on fire all day, every day. These are not evil geniuses. … It’s not some sort of wonderful, malevolent plot to destroy the media. These people are in a 24-7 state of panic.”
Indeed, reporters have found press office staffers are out of the loop and often know less about what’s happening inside the building than they do. Sometimes, this dynamic spills out into public view. In February, CBS’ Major Garrett reported that Philip Bilden, Trump’s pick for Navy secretary, was likely to withdraw his nomination. Spicer immediately responded to the story on Twitter, saying it was wrong and that Bilden was “100% commited [sic] to being the next SECNAV.” Bilden withdrew eight days later.
“It may or may not persist, but I would be willing to give this administration some time to sort that out,” Garrett said of the press shop’s woes, “because many people arrived with no particular history or professional comprehension of the things they needed to sort out in terms of information flow.”
On top of the sloppiness, there is the lying. One veteran White House correspondent said he was warned by a transition official to be wary of good color emanating from the Trump camp on background. “They will screw with you,” the correspondent was told. “They will feed you things that are not true.”
Bannon, it is worth noting, is a devoted reader of the “neoreactionary” internet philosopher Curtis Yarvin, an advocate of the strategic benefits of spreading misinformation. But two people close to the administration say that White House staffers do much of their lying for sport, rather than to further any larger agenda.
“They all lie,” said a conservative journalist with close ties to the West Wing, who described an informal contest to smuggle the biggest whoppers into print. “It’s a game to them.”
A conservative activist close to the administration said a member of the White House communications team recently divulged the same to him over drinks. According to the activist, the staffer described the attitude inside the press shop toward lying to reporters as: “They’ll print what they want anyways, so we may as well have fun.”
All of this has combined to make the press office useless in the eyes of much of the press. “I don’t trust anything I’m told by a comms person,” said one correspondent. “If they’re telling me something’s wrong, I’m going to keep checking.”
A Trump White House official contended that the press has been hypercritical in the administration’s first days. The official attributed some confusion to reporters directing their inquiries to the wrong communications staffers and said that staffers were also becoming more efficient at dealing with the deluge of questions they receive each day. “Things have definitely gotten smoother,” the official said.
But is the West Wing also intentionally screwing with reporters? “Probably not,” said the official with a smirk. “I’m kidding. I’m kidding.”
With 49 seats and some risers at the back for camera operators, the White House briefing room is smaller than you would imagine. The Doric columns that flank the podium suggest a grand scale to television viewers, but in person, they more resemble the comically undersized Stonehenge props that descend onto the stage in This Is Spinal Tap.
The ease of access to the room and its openness to journalists of all types—including, oftentimes, those who lack any apparent affiliation or audience or history of producing journalism—remains both a quirk and a marvel of American democracy. Almost anyone can show up, and they often do—a fact the administration has exploited to implement some of its more successful digs at the mainstream media: mixing up the latest season of the daily press briefing with fresh faces and zany new characters.
In the week before Trump took office, one of the first suggestions floated for shaking up the White House press corps involved moving briefings from the West Wing to a larger space in the Old Executive Office Building next door. Spicer later argued that the intention was merely to allow more reporters to participate, but journalists took this trial balloon as an attempt to undermine their access to the West Wing, and loudly protested the idea.
“Everybody threw a fit,” recalled a White House official, who said the administration is not currently eyeing any plans to move the briefings.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, the small room was packed to the gills, with reporters spilling out the door at the back of the room and into the workspace beyond. By March, the numbers had come down, but Spicer was still drawing as many reporters as presidents themselves drew in prior administrations. At one packed Wednesday afternoon briefing that month, frustrated photographers shoved through the crowded aisles to get their shot. “Jesus,” one muttered under his breath. “What the … ” exclaimed another.
In addition to insatiable public interest in the Trump presidency, high attendance has been driven by innovations that make the briefings more valuable to more reporters, at the expense of the biggest mainstream outlets. Recent administrations have tended to grant the first question at each briefing to the Associated Press and to lavish the most attention on the first two rows—the networks, the wires and the three most prominent national newspapers—which generally can be counted on to focus on the big issues of the day. Playing favorites to one degree or another is standard operating procedure for any administration, and one correspondent pointed out that the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper, regularly had its questions answered at Obama-era briefings.
Spicer’s briefings, though, are more freewheeling and include questions to more reporters than in the past. Right-leaning outlets especially—like the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller, the Christian Broadcasting Network, Breitbart and Newsmax—have found themselves more reliably in the mix.
“Reporters know they can come in every day and know they have a pretty good chance of getting called on, which was not the case with the Obama administration,” said Jennifer Wishon of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which has seen its access improve under Trump. “From my perspective, the briefing room is a much more pleasant place to be.”
The other noticeable change to protocol is the introduction of occasional questions asked by video conference from smaller outlets outside Washington. More predictable grumbling aside, even some members of the first two rows look favorably upon the new practice. While some questioners, like the talk radio host who addressed his question to “Commander Spicer,” can be fawning, others, like an Arkansas business editor who pressed Spicer on the administration’s plans for enforcing federal marijuana laws, have extracted big news.
These changes offer two benefits to the administration: They align with Trump’s message that he will pierce the Beltway bubble with the priorities of the rest of the country, and they weaken mainstream outlets’ control of the political narrative.
Spicer’s innovations have garnered mixed reviews from reporters. “It creates a carnival-like atmosphere in the briefing room,” said one veteran correspondent, who speculated that this plays into the administration’s desire to portray the press as a pack of unruly animals.
“During the Obama administration, we were called on during nearly every press briefing,” said CNN’s Jim Acosta. “During this administration, we have gone four briefings in a row without a question.”
But grumble as they might about the increased attention lavished on conservative outlets like Newsmax, mainstream reporters do not dispute the legitimacy of their presence in the briefing room.
The same cannot be said for the Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog with ties to Bannon known for running National Enquirer-style headlines about Hillary Clinton’s alleged maladies and having to retract an unusual number of its posts after they turn out to be based on internet hoaxes. At the invitation of the Trump administration, the site has stood up its first White House correspondent, Lucian Wintrich, a former advertising agency creative who has no background in journalism and first entered politics by exhibiting erotic photographs of scantily clad men in “Make America Great Again” hats at last summer’s Republican National Convention. The publication is viewed as the administration’s fifth column inside the briefing room, even more so than Breitbart, which has trashed Priebus and helped derail Trump’s health care bill.
Indeed, Gateway Pundit’s primary mission in setting up a White House correspondent is to take on the White House press corps it is joining. “What fucking idiots,” Wintrich said of his new colleagues, recalling one mid-March briefing. “They were totally fixated on Trump’s tweets.”
A year after opening the briefing room, Nixon made another innovation in press handling with the creation of the White House “plumbers” on July 24, 1971. Formed to root out executive branch leakers, the plumbers would quickly spin out of control and bring down Nixon’s presidency when news of their crimes leaked, drip by drip, in the pages of the Washington Post.
Half a century later, the biggest change ushered in by this White House, and the one welcomed by reporters across the board, is the weakening of its control over the narrative through indiscriminate leaking.
In the first days of the Obama administration, there were no encrypted messaging apps, and Gchat was blocked on White House computers. To communicate with reporters in a form that would not be recorded, staff had to truck across the street to a coffee shop or find a quiet place for a cellphone conversation, enough of a hurdle to force them to pause and reconsider making the call. “Now,” said a reporter, “these people can sit at their desk and fire off a Gchat and not really have to think, ‘Should I be doing this?’”
According to National Journal’s veteran correspondent George Condon, George W. Bush and Obama maintained tight message discipline in their White Houses, while Ronald Reagan’s and Bill Clinton’s administrations were undisciplined and leaky. Nothing, though, compares with the Trump deluge.
Embarrassing details of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders, including a threat to invade Mexico and a cranky hang-up on the prime minister of Australia, have leaked. Endless stories about the administration’s imperious handling of the National Security Council have leaked. The fact that Trump approved an ill-fated military raid in Yemen over dinner with Bannon and Kushner leaked. It seems that every Trump mood swing and personal foible has leaked, along with endless details about the rivalries and distrust among aides.
Even the fallout from leaks inevitably leaks. When Breitbart News’ Matt Boyle reported that Priebus’ job could be in jeopardy due to poor performance, citing sources close to the White House, Bannon berated Boyle for the story on a conference call with other top administration officials. Details of Bannon’s call soon leaked. When Spicer moved to crack down on leaks by forcing staffers to hand over their phones for examination, news of the incident quickly leaked. When Trump berated his inner circle for their missteps at an Oval Office meeting in March and details of the meeting leaked, Priebus spent much of his afternoon attempting to kill stories about the meeting, a gambit that both failed and leaked.
The spectacle has Washington veterans in awe. “If I ever saw six White House aides quoted in a story and didn’t know who they were, I would freak the fuck out,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s first director of White House communications. “The fact that they got 18 in a [recent Washington Post] story is phenomenal.”
“This is the most porous administration I have observed,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who has studied the messaging of every administration since Gerald Ford’s. “The leaks seemingly come from everywhere.”
Even on this point, there is tension between the press corps and the White House. The communications team feels it does not get enough credit for the level of access it offers reporters, both to officials and to the president. According to figures compiled by Kumar, Trump held more news conferences in his first 50 days—five—than Obama, George W. Bush or Reagan did in their first 50 days. (One of Trump’s pressers was an epic, impromptu performance for the history books, while the other four were tightly controlled joint news conferences with foreign leaders.) Trump held more short Q&As with reporters—seven—in his first 50 days, than Obama, George H.W. Bush or Reagan, though not nearly as many as either George W. Bush or Clinton, who held 47 in 50 days. And Trump gave 17 interviews, fewer than Obama’s 25, but more than his other four most recent predecessors.
But access does not always produce insight. Reporters contend that while White House officials seem to have all day to talk about internal grudges, basic policy questions tend to go unanswered. When the Associated Press obtained a memo in mid-February that apparently showed the Department of Homeland Security considering a plan to mobilize the National Guard to assist in deportations, the White House ignored the wire service’s inquiries and waited for it to publish a story before bothering to deny its contents. Yet when New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi texted Kellyanne Conway to ask her if the president had un-followed his famous White House counselor on Twitter, Conway ensured the president followed her account within minutes.
“If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue, they are crazy cooperative,” said one reporter, voicing a common observation. “But if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”
“As anti-establishment as all the Trump people are, I’ve never seen a group of people so conscious of their standing in Washington that they’d spend so much time talking to reporters about who was up and who was down,” Pfeiffer said.
Amid all of this intrigue, White House officials have turned to the only people they can trust: reporters, who have started getting calls from senior Trump aides asking whether other senior Trump aides have been leaking dirt on them.
The administration contends that the obsession with who’s squabbling with whom originates with the press corps. “It’s hard to answer substantive questions when they’re rarely asked,” complained one White House official. Of course, much of the access comes in the form of unsanctioned leaks, a source of continuing frustration to the White House. According to one White House correspondent, communications staffers spend a good deal of their time puzzling over blind quotes in news reports, trying to identify the leakers by their grammar and syntax.
The White House is particularly sensitive to any hint of daylight between Priebus and Bannon, two men who represent opposite wings of the Republican Party and whose unclear lines of authority have been an endless source of press fascination. In early February, when a reporter began poking around on their relationship, the White House reached out with an unsolicited offer of a joint interview with both men, according to a person familiar with the episode. Bannon and Priebus made themselves available to what seemed like half the press corps to broadcast their mutual affection.
The White House’s focus on perceptions of the Bannon-Priebus relationship has come with opportunity costs—a particular source of frustration to Conway, who feels the building will come to a screeching halt to defend their images while she is hung out to dry. (Conway has proved more than capable of promoting her brand and courting reporters herself, most recently lavishing access on Nuzzi and Molly Ball of the Atlantic.)
In one-on-one interactions, reporters from some of the administration’s least-favored outlets have found Bannon shockingly friendly, cheerily offering his apocalyptic denunciations of the press as casual asides in the course of pleasant conversations. But performing onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon stuck to his “opposition party” line about the media. “It’s not only not going to get better,” he said of White House-press relations. “It’s going to get worse every day.”
Chris Ruddy—who flaunts his direct access to Trump, to the chagrin of many West Wing staffers—predicts things will get much better, however, as the president adjusts to the feedback he is receiving. And Trump’s lieutenants, as Ruddy has learned, have their hands full enough dealing with perceived threats from within Trumpworld without adding reporters to their lists.
In February, Ruddy set off a panic in the West Wing when he publicly lambasted Priebus’ job performance. To minimize the damage, White House officials including Priebus and Spicer told reporters on background that Ruddy was a poseur with little real access to Trump, a gambit that backfired when the Newsmax chief was subsequently seen palling around with the president at Mar-a-Lago and inside the Oval Office.
“What they try to do is discredit sources—‘Don’t talk to Ruddy, he’s full of shit’—and then you see Ruddy with his arm around Trump,” said one reporter on the receiving end of the anti-Ruddy pitch. “It destroys their credibility.”
Ruddy attributed the incident to a misunderstanding. “People like Reince and Spicer weren’t aware of how much contact I’ve had with the president since the election,” he said. “I think they’re aware now.”
White House officials have further damaged their credibility by decrying anonymous sources, as Priebus did in February, when it is widely known that he and every other member of the senior staff speak regularly to reporters on background. One senior White House aide complained that in late March, Priebus worked furiously to spin how he would be portrayed in a New York Times article about Pence and then walked into a Thursday afternoon meeting and lectured his colleagues about the importance of avoiding reporters. “He was, like, running around trying to kill the piece and get the quotes changed,” said the aide. “Then he comes into the senior staff meeting and says, ‘This is why we don’t talk to the press.’”
One reporter said he has been surprised to find that background information from Trump White House officials is more reliable than what they say on the record, a reversal from previous administrations that he has covered. Especially unreliable is anything said on camera, as it is most likely to be seen by Trump, who watches television religiously. By the end of March, according to a Politico Magazine analysis, Spicer had uttered 51 unique falsehoods or misleading statements in his press briefings, on topics ranging from voter fraud to Obamacare to Trump’s Russia ties.
The on-camera obfuscation has made it more important for journalists to seek off-camera clarifications from Spicer, drawing throngs to Upper Press, the communications staff offices that sit up a small ramp from the briefing room in the West Wing. One veteran journalist said he has learned not to wear heavy clothing up there because of the body heat.
The crowds have caused more tension with the White House staff, and the issue has been compounded by the fact that while Obama generally accessed the Oval Office from the outdoor portico, Trump makes more use of the indoor hallway, making the reporters a greater nuisance.
They also make for useful props. Priebus has been known to pluck individual reporters from the throngs waiting outside Spicer’s office and take them by the arm to his own office to have a chat, strolling through real estate that puts them in view of the national security adviser’s office, the vice president’s office, and those of Bannon and oftentimes Kushner, the president’s powerful son-in-law.
“That’s as much for him to help the reporter as it is to show everyone else in the building that he’s talking to that reporter, too,” said one journalist familiar with the routine. “To flex his muscles, to show he still has some juice with that reporter, so don’t try to make an end run around him and tell that reporter something that’s not true.”
On the last Friday in February, the day after Priebus and Bannon took their buddy act to CPAC, Spicer, back at the White House, offered a briefing to an “expanded pool” inside his office that included several friendly outlets but barred Politico, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and others. Demonizing the press in general is one thing. Excluding specific outlets from basic access strikes a rawer nerve, and the move prompted fierce protests.
Behind the briefing room podium, there is a door leading to Upper Press and, beyond that, the rest of the West Wing. For most of the room’s existence, the door has remained unlocked, giving reporters unfettered access to the administrations they covered. Just after noon on January 20, 1993, Billl Clinton’s staff took control of the briefing room and locked the door, setting the tone for eight rocky years.
The hostility between Trump’s White House and the press may be unusually acute, but it is not interrupting any decades-long streak of bonhomie. For all of the perceptions of Obama as a media darling, his time in office was marked by an unprecedented crackdown on leakers and new restrictions on basic access for reporters.
Obama-era press briefings tended to be staid affairs, but acrimony was common behind the scenes. “Jay Carney used to call editors and scream at them,” said Condon of Obama’s second White House press secretary. “And if he was doing that complaining about headlines in National Journal, I could only imagine what he was doing with the bureau chiefs of the networks who reach millions of viewers.”
Under Trump, the door to Upper Press has remained unlocked. The door to the Oval Office has also remained open to the newspapers that Trump lambasts the most, including the Washington Post, whose Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker have been whisked inside during the course of other West Wing meetings for an off-the-record chat with the president while a White House photographer snapped photos.
When things really go south in the relationship, the real losers don’t seem to be Trump or the press. Instead, the brunt falls on Trump’s staff, the people caught in between.
Working for Trump, especially in communications, is tough. Just as he marks up printouts of news stories in sharpie with feedback for their authors, he also uses printouts to grade the performances of his surrogates like a persnickety schoolmarm. One senior White House aide reported receiving only positive notes from the president’s sharpie, such as “Good job!”
And television performances deemed insufficient by the boss can demand do-overs: When Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on ABC’s “This Week” on a recent Sunday to defend Trump’s early morning Twitter claims that a bad (or sick) President Obama had tapped his phones, her defense apparently left something to be desired. On Monday morning, she was back on the same network, ABC, to defend the exact same claims, this time more forcefully. Sanders did not respond to a request for comment about the episode. A senior White House aide who declined to comment directly on the episode said, “He’ll review things after we’ve said them on TV. He’s a TV guy.”
The mulligan, according to a person familiar with the episode, was ordered by Trump. “I have sympathy for her because she’s an adult. She knows what she’s been doing to this point is not helping her brand,” said the person. “But she gets told to go out there and say things.”
And Trump has had no problem undermining his staff in front of others. The day after the Politico article about Spicer’s leak-busting strategy was published, Trump taped an interview with “Fox & Friends” in which he took exception to Spicer’s leak crackdown, saying he “would have done it differently.” In the midst of it all, Trump and Spicer sat down the next day with the enemy, participating in the traditional White House luncheon with network television anchors ahead of his first joint address to Congress that night.
The last time Trump had gathered privately with media representatives, for a meeting in Trump Tower during the transition, he had torn into an NBC executive for using an unflattering photograph of him online and criticized CNN. The participants were unsure what to expect inside the State Dining Room. “You walked in and you didn’t know if there was going to be a scolding of Jake Tapper,” said one attendee.
This time, Trump was cordial with the anchors, including CNN’s Tapper. But he did talk about being “treated fairly,” and he looked pointedly at Tapper and his colleague Wolf Blitzer when, according to another attendee, he said, “There are some networks, and I’m not going to mention names, I’m surprised I don’t watch them, because I want to find out what they’re saying, but I feel better not watching them.” (Trump was still watching CNN at least as of December, when according to Ruddy, the president called to thank him for defending him after an appearance on the network’s show “Reliable Sources.”)
Trump saved his most pointed remarks for his own staff. When Fox’s Bret Baier asked Trump about the C+ grade he had given himself on messaging during a recent “Fox & Friends” interview, there was one person the president seemed to blame: Spicer.
“He looked directly at Sean and said, ‘We can do better, right, Sean? I know, Sean, we can do better, right?’” recounted the second attendee. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, if that was my boss who said that to me … ’”
Through it all, Spicer has been unfailingly loyal—defending all of Trump’s most risible lies and baseless contentions despite the snickering of his frenemies in the press corps. He has defended Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election (though not vigorously enough for Trump, who took his press secretary’s initial milquetoast defense as “disloyal,” according to one journalist plugged into the administration). To back up Trump’s claim that Obama tapped his phones, Spicer suggested that Obama had asked Britain to spy on Trump for him, a claim that originated with a commentator on a Russian propaganda network and earned angry on-the-record rebukes from the British government and a senior National Security Agency official. And as news was set to break about Paul Manafort’s past work to further the interests of the Russian government, Spicer said the former chairman of Trump’s campaign had played a “minimal role” in electing Trump despite saying months earlier, “Paul’s in charge.”
“He is probably not long for this job anyway, so he should be more conscious about his own personal credibility for the day he leaves the White House,” Pfeiffer said of Spicer. “No one wants to spend the rest of their life being an internet meme, and that’s the path Sean is on now.”
While Spicer has, in the words of one White House correspondent, “beclowned himself” in the course of defending the indefensible, his West Wing colleagues have paid him back for his service with a stream of vicious leaks: about Trump’s disapproval of Spicer’s briefing performance and the fact that he is portrayed by a woman, Melissa McCarthy, on “Saturday Night Live.”
Media companies, meanwhile, have been laughing all the way to the bank. In the weeks after the election, the New York Times reported it was adding new subscribers at 10 times the normal pace. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike in new subscriptions on the day after Trump’s victory.
Shows like “Morning Joe” and “The O’Reilly Factor” have boosted their advertising rates—some by as much as about 50 percent—because Trump and his advisers are known to watch them. Rachel Maddow experienced a nine-year record in March when she revealed details of Trump’s 2005 tax returns, with more than 4 million people tuning in. According to CNN, the network’s total audience in the first quarter of 2017 is the highest it has been in any first quarter since 2003, when the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. As for Trump’s preferred network, the first quarter of 2017 was the best three months Fox News has ever had.
There are no magical forces guaranteeing that ritualized warfare stays within its prescribed bounds. Only sufficiently abundant resources and a rough balance of power keep such encounters from turning deadly.
Likewise, beneath the surface of Trump’s phony war lurks the potential for a real one, the kind that that threatens careers, business models and presidencies.
Before taking office, Trump expressed his opposition to AT&T’s proposed merger with CNN parent company Time Warner, and raised the prospect of pursuing antitrust measures against Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post, a frequent subject of the Manhattan mogul’s ire. Trump aide Omarosa Manigault has reportedly spoken of “dossiers” being assembled on journalists—Spicer has denied this—and rumors are rife among White House reporters that a member of the press team is conducting opposition research on them.
“Like any other work relationship, it would be prudent and easy to adhere to that old adage, ‘It’s not personal,’ but so much of it is,” said a senior White House aide. “So much of it between the press and this administration is personal.”
If the Trump team’s ties to Russia or some other scandal develops into an existential threat, the administration could lash out in increasingly desperate ways. Conversely, a major terrorist attack or the outbreak of a real war could rebalance the distribution of power in the briefing room and give Trump the leverage to pursue his fantasies of controlling coverage and punishing perceived media adversaries.
The president’s extreme rhetoric has already laid groundwork for the sort of crackdown not seen since the Alien and Sedition Acts. “There’s no comparison between what’s happening now and any previous White House,” says Condon. “There’s not a single American president who didn’t really dislike his press coverage. But none of them, not a single one of them, declared war on the press in the first week.”
For now, the leaks and the access and the chaos are providing an accidental public service, even if they’re doing little to advance Trump’s own agenda. “The American people are being incredibly well-served because it’s this real-time history,” said one journalist. “The president isn’t being served.”
Fittingly, when the first major item on the president’s agenda, health care reform, went up in flames in late March, the first thing Trump did was pick up the phone and call the two newspapers he has publicly maligned the most. First, he called Bob Costa at the Washington Post. Then he called Maggie Haberman, a reporter he had recently complained about in conversations with Ruddy, at the New York Times, a paper he had recently singled out as an enemy of the people.
In doing so, Trump was only obeying the one iron rule of the Trump White House: Keep your friends close, and the reporters closer.
His first date with his future wife was spent in a New Hampshire motel room drinking Wild Turkey into the wee hours with Hunter S. Thompson. He stood several feet away from Martin Luther King Jr. during the “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to China with Richard M. Nixon and walked away from Watergate unscathed. He survived Iran-Contra, too, and sat alongside Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavík Summit. He invaded America’s living rooms and pioneered the rhetorical combat that would power the cable news age. He defied the establishment by challenging a sitting president of his own party. He captured the fear and frustration of the right by proclaiming a great “culture war” was at hand. And his third-party candidacy in 2000 almost certainly handed George W. Bush the presidency, thanks to thousands of Palm Beach, Florida, residents mistakenly voting for him on the “butterfly ballot” when they meant to back Al Gore.
If not for his outsize ambition, Pat Buchanan might be the closest thing the American right has to a real-life Forrest Gump, that patriot from ordinary stock whose life journey positioned him to witness, influence and narrate the pivotal moments that shaped our modern world and changed the course of this country’s history. He has known myriad roles—neighborhood brawler, college expellee, journalist, White House adviser, political commentator, presidential candidate three times over, author, provocateur—and his existence traces the arc of what feels to some Americans like a nation’s ascent and decline. He was 3 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and 6 when Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now 78, with thick, black glasses and a thinning face, Buchanan looks back with nostalgia at a life and career that, for all its significance, was at risk of being forgotten—until Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.
A quarter-century before Trump descended into the atrium of his Manhattan skyscraper to launch his unlikely bid for the White House, Buchanan, until then a columnist, political operative and TV commentator, stepped onto a stage in Concord, New Hampshire, to declare his own candidacy 10 weeks ahead of the state’s presidential primary. Associating the “globalist” President George H. W. Bush with “bureaucrats in Brussels” pursuing a “European superstate” that trampled on national identity, Buchanan warned his rowdy audience, “We must not trade in our sovereignty for a cushioned seat at the head table of anybody’s new world order!” His radically different prescription, which would underpin three consecutive runs for the presidency: a “new nationalism” that would focus on “forgotten Americans” left behind by bad trade deals, open-border immigration policies and foreign adventurism. His voice booming, Buchanan demanded: “Should the United States be required to carry indefinitely the full burden of defending rich and prosperous allies who take America’s generosity for granted as they invade our markets?”
This rhetoric—deployed again during his losing bid for the 1996 GOP nomination, and once more when he ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000—not only provided a template for Trump’s campaign, but laid the foundation for its eventual success. Dismissed as a fringe character for rejecting Republican orthodoxy on trade and immigration and interventionism, Buchanan effectively weakened the party’s defenses, allowing a more forceful messenger with better timing to finish the insurrection he started back in 1991. All the ideas that seemed original to Trump’s campaign could, in fact, be attributed to Buchanan—from depicting the political class as bumbling stooges to singling out a rising superpower as an economic menace (though back then it was Japan, not China) to rallying the citizenry to “take back” a country whose destiny they no longer dictated. “Pitchfork Pat,” as he was nicknamed, even deployed a phrase that combined Trump’s two signature slogans: “Make America First Again.”
“Pat was the pioneer of the vision that Trump ran on and won on,” says Greg Mueller, who served as Buchanan’s communications director on the 1992 and 1996 campaigns and remains a close friend. Michael Kinsley, the liberal former New Republic editor who co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” with Buchanan, likewise credits his old sparring partner with laying the intellectual groundwork for Trumpism: “It’s unclear where this Trump thing goes, but Pat deserves some of the credit.” He pauses. “Or some of the blame.”
Buchanan, for his part, feels both validated and vindicated. Long ago resigned to the reality that his policy views made him a pariah in the Republican Party—and stained him irrevocably with the ensuing accusations of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia—he has lived to see the GOP come around to Buchananism and the country send its direct descendant to the White House.
“I was elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush,” he tells me. “And then he goes and uses my slogan? It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Buchanan, who has published such books as The Death of the West, State of Emergency, Day of Reckoning and Suicide of a Superpower, admits that November’s election result “gave me hope” for the first time in recent memory.
But none of this means he’s suddenly bullish about America’s future. Buchanan says he has “always been a pessimist,” and despite Trump’s conquest, two things continue to color his dark forecast for the nation. First, Buchanan harbors deep concerns over whether Trump, with his off-topic tweeting and pointless fight-picking, has the requisite focus and discipline to execute his nationalist agenda—especially over the opposition of a media-establishment complex bent on his destruction. Second, even if Trump delivers on the loftiest of his promises, Buchanan fears it will be too little, too late. Sweeping change was needed 25 years ago, he says, before thousands of factories vanished due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, before millions of illegal immigrants entered the country, before trillions of dollars were squandered on regime change and nation-building.
He’s not unlike the countless Trump voters I met across the country in 2016, many of them older folks yearning for a return to the country of their youth, a place they remember as safer, whiter, more wholesome, more Christian, more confident and less polarized. The difference is that Buchanan refuses to indulge in the illusion that a return to this utopia of yesteryear is even possible. Economically and demographically and culturally, he believes, the damage is done.
“We rolled the dice with the future of this country,” he tells me. “And I think it’s going to come up snake eyes.”
The living room of Buchanan’s home in McLean, Virginia, a wealthy suburb of Washington, could be mistaken for a museum. Between this wood-paneled space and his red-carpeted basement there must be 3,000 books on the shelves, meticulously categorized by genre, author or time period, a classical backdrop to Buchanan’s extensive collection of historical guns (including a rare replica of Robert E. Lee’s revolver) and a lifetime’s accumulation of family photographs, newspaper clippings, campaign keepsakes and miscellaneous relics.
His house is a monument to failed uprisings against the political establishment. Above the mantel rests a spectacular painting of Buchanan gazing out a bus window during a ride through scenic Iowa. Across the room, encased in wood and glass and standing some 4 feet tall, is the gilded pitchfork he received from “the Buchanan Brigades,” a group of campaign supporters, symbolic of his populist insurgency (and, unintentionally, of his paradoxical existence as a Georgetown-educated tormentor of the Washington elite). Resting on the coffee table is the most delicate souvenir of all, a piece of pristine stained glass gifted to him by a New Hampshire voter. The size of a nightstand surface, its craftsmanship is immaculate, with a dove’s red-and-white tail weaving through blue scrawl in memory of the year, 1992, and the motto of his presidential campaign: “America First.”
It all feels like ancient history, and Buchanan himself these days looks, well, rather ancient; the wrinkles run deep across his brow, and untamed wisps of gray hair shoot divergently from the back of his head. This aging exterior should not fool anyone. He is as mentally agile and rhetorically sharp as he was during his heyday on CNN and PBS, before the star commentator turned into a presidential candidate. As we talk for hours, Buchanan recalls those three campaigns—and the rest of his half-century in public life, not to mention his childhood, adolescence and early career—with a vivid clarity and a command of detail.
Buchanan has had plenty of titles over the years, from spokesman to candidate, but his favorite is historian. He cherishes history not just for its drama but for the lessons bequeathed and the parallels he can extract: the seductive appeal of populism, the rising tide of nationalism, the similarities between the current president and the two he worked closely alongside. Above all, Buchanan loves history because, in his mind, it contains our civilizational apex; he treasures the past because he is convinced that his beloved country, these United States, will never again approach the particular kind of glory it held for a middle-class family in the postwar years.
Such assured pessimism is somewhat surprising, given that Buchanan’s boldest achievement—and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy—was being Trump before Trump was Trump.
“The ideas made it,” Buchanan tells me, letting out a belly laugh. “But I didn’t.”
There is some sad irony in the fact that Buchanan, whose vision is finally penetrating and driving the uppermost echelons of government, has seen his public profile diminished to an all-time low. This is somewhat intentional: Since being fired from MSNBC in 2012, he has hunkered down, content to make occasional Fox News appearances, write two columns a week for Creators Syndicate and spend more time at home with his wife, Shelley, binge-watching television shows such as “24” and “Homeland.” (“I dated a girl who reminded me of Claire Danes,” Buchanan grins. “She was crazy as a hoot owl.”) The couple doesn’t get out too often. They attend 9 a.m. Sunday Mass at Saint Mary Mother of God Church near Capitol Hill, then shop at their local Safeway and settle in for the coming week. They have an occasional dinner out at J. Gilbert’s steakhouse in McLean but mostly have simple meals at home; when it’s not Lent, Buchanan has two glasses of Grgich Hills Chardonnay each night. The slower pace suits a man who has battled heart problems and had several hospital stays in recent years.
His intellectual metabolism, however, remains turbocharged. After he walks a half-mile each morning around his neighborhood, Buchanan and his wife—Nixon’s former secretary, whom he calls “junior” and “kiddo” despite the fact that she is slightly older than he is—brew eight cups of coffee in a pot that is often finished by noon. In those intervening hours, Buchanan reads and annotates copious amounts of news; he begins with Drudge Report and AntiWar.com—two aggregators of reporting and opinion, one from the right and one from the libertarian-leaning left—before weaving his way, red markup pen at the ready, through the print editions of his five preferred newspapers: the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. (He used to read USA Today, too, but recently canceled the subscription.) This daily intake informs Buchanan’s well-considered stances on every current event we discuss during our conversation and provides fodder for his columns, which, however distasteful they may be to many on the left (and some on the right), cannot possibly be mistaken for material poorly researched.
Buchanan loves to write; he spends more time on his columns today than ever before, he says, about five hours on each one. The rest of his time, in recent years, has been consumed by books. He offered an ode to his former boss Richard Nixon in 2014 with The Greatest Comeback, an unappreciated tale of Tricky Dick’s political resurrection, and this May will release his 13th book, Nixon’s White House Wars, which is something of a sequel, offering a thorough and mouthwatering insider’s account of one of history’s most bellicose presidencies. “The first one had a happy ending,” Buchanan says. He shrugs his shoulders. “The second one, not so much.”
The path Buchanan took to becoming one of Nixon’s key loyalists was unusual, to say the least. Raised in a middle-class Roman Catholic family of nine children in Washington—back when the District of Columbia was “a sleepy and segregated Southern city,” he once wrote—Buchanan excelled in his parochial-school education and, despite an appetite for troublemaking and partying while he was a student at Gonzaga High School, he earned a scholarship to attend Georgetown University a few miles away. When Buchanan was expelled from Georgetown in his senior year for hospitalizing two D.C. cops during a traffic altercation that degenerated into fisticuffs, he and his father successfully petitioned the university to reduce his expulsion to a one-year withdrawal. Buchanan went to work in his father’s accounting firm during the suspension, began rethinking his life ambitions and, upon returning to finish college, decided to pursue a career as a columnist. (He had developed an interest in journalism as an 11-year-old boy, when he wound up in a full-body cast thanks to a football injury and spent four months doing nothing but reading newspaper and magazine coverage of the Korean War.) After Georgetown, Buchanan won acceptance to Columbia University’s journalism school, where he was surrounded by brilliant liberals who would go on to populate the nation’s most prominent newsrooms—an experience that shaped Buchanan’s distrust of the media’s objectivity. Upon earning his master’s, he sent out 17 job applications and fielded offers from three other newspapers—the New York Daily News, Charlotte Observer and Albuquerque Journal—before packing his bags for the Globe-Democrat, a conservative newspaper in St. Louis.
His break arrived quickly. After five weeks of reporting for the business section, an editorial writer position opened, and Buchanan never looked back. Three-and-a-half years later, in 1965, when Nixon came to town for a local party function, Buchanan cornered him in a kitchen and offered his services ahead of Nixon’s imminent 1968 campaign. “The Old Man,” as Buchanan still calls Nixon—“He was like a father to me at times”—hired him, and they became conjoined: Buchanan was a speechwriter, political adviser and special assistant in the White House. He gave famously defiant testimony in front of the Senate Watergate Committee and remained loyal to Nixon until the end, yet somehow emerged with his reputation enhanced even as, in his own recollection, “All those friends of mine went to the penitentiary.”
For all the comparisons of Trump to his own campaigns, Buchanan argues the more relevant parallels are between the 45th and 37th presidents. “They both confronted bureaucracy and a hostile media that hated Nixon and hates Trump,” he says. “The ‘deep state’ wants to break Trump’s presidency, just like it tried to break Nixon’s.” One difference between the two men is restraint: Whereas Trump appears consumed by “irrelevant things and peripheral attacks,” Buchanan says, “Nixon told me, ‘Don’t ever shoot down. Always shoot up.’” He lets out a sigh. “I feel for the guys that are in there,” Buchanan says of Trump’s team. “The problem is the president is distracted—and his adversaries know it. If I were them, I’d keep egging him on.”
Certainly, though, Nixon—and nearly every other former president—benefited from the absence of social media and the insatiable, 24-hour news cycle. Buchanan remembers his old boss occasionally calling him late at night, raving about some perceived slight and asking him to write and distribute something in response. By the next morning, Nixon had cooled off. “You didn’t do that, did you?” the president would ask him. (Buchanan recalls a former colleague once joking, “Watergate happened when some damn fool came out of the Oval Office and did exactly what Nixon told him to do.”)
Buchanan says Trump has “tremendous potential,” but adds, “This is my great apprehension, that the larger issues—the taxes, the Obamacare thing, the border security agenda, the trade agenda—could be imperiled by unnecessary fights.” He thinks for a moment. “It’s not a bad instinct to be a fighter. But sometimes you have to hold back.”
When it comes to Trump’s fight with the news media, however, Buchanan wants the president to keep swinging. Not only is it justified, he says, based on recent coverage, but Buchanan—a journalist by training—believes undermining the media’s legitimacy is essential to winning popular support for the president’s agenda. Here again, he speaks from firsthand experience in yet another American political war, the Nixon administration’s assault on the Fourth Estate. After the president’s November 1969 speech responding to nationwide protests against the Vietnam War was panned by all three major television networks, Nixon asked Buchanan to craft a memo detailing the president’s successes in his first year; instead, the young speechwriter advised the White House to wage “an all-out attack on the media.” Nixon liked the idea, but he didn’t want to be the messenger. Buchanan drafted the speech, and 10 days after Nixon’s nationally televised address, Vice President Spiro Agnew, an imposing figure who was then one of the most popular Republicans in America, delivered his now famous speech in Des Moines slamming “a small and unelected elite” who possess a “profound influence over public opinion” without any checks on their “vast power.”
Conservatives loved it, especially on the heels of Nixon calling them “the great silent majority,” a phrase Buchanan had coined. The entire sequence remains one of Buchanan’s career highlights—“it was a sensation,” he says of Agnew’s speech—and he says it holds important lessons for Trump. For starters, the president needs a strong and reliable surrogate. “Nixon would give Agnew all the lines he wanted to say, but couldn’t say because he was the president. Trump needs somebody like that—he’s doing it all by himself,” Buchanan says. He smirks. “Is Mike Pence going to do that?”
Moreover, Buchanan argues, calling out media bias has consistently worked in the 48 years since Agnew’s speech—and still does. “What we did was call into question their motives and their veracity. We said they are vessels flying flags of neutrality while carrying contraband,” Buchanan tells me. “And that’s a message that is still well received today, because people know it’s true.”
The architect of Nixon’s “all-out attack on the media” never strayed far from the media himself. He went on to became one of the best-known television personalities of the modern political era, a celebrity pundit who parlayed his popularity and visibility into a presidential bid two-and-a-half decades before Trump did the same.
After a brief stint as a holdover in President Gerald R. Ford’s administration, Buchanan returned to writing, pouring himself into a syndicated column that quickly became an acerbic must-read on the right. Radio opportunities weren’t far behind, and after five years of co-hosting a D.C.-based program alongside liberal journalist Tom Braden, the two took their act to CNN for an experiment called “Crossfire.” It was a hit, and so was “The McLaughlin Group,” an argumentative public affairs panel show that also began airing in 1982. Buchanan, suddenly the star conservative on two of political television’s premier programs, had emerged as one of the most influential media voices in the country. There was a vacuum of compelling content in those early days of always-on news—and Buchanan eagerly filled it with forceful opinions that were encouraged by producers who discouraged compromise and common ground. It’s the one element of his legacy to which he attaches some regret, repeatedly citing the poisonous tone of cable news discourse as a culprit in our societal and cultural disunion.
A decade after Buchanan left, the White House again came calling. This time, Ronald Reagan wanted him to serve as communications director. Buchanan had no choice but to accept—“the Gipper himself!” he recalls of receiving the offer—and spent two years, starting in the winter of 1985, steering the 40th president’s press operation. Buchanan sees fewer parallels between Reagan and Trump, though he offers two cautionary notes from his experience in that administration. First, he says, Trump must be “conscious of the coalition that brought him here” the way Reagan was responsive to the concerns of working-class cultural conservatives; Buchanan is particularly concerned that Trump, in addition to not following through on border security and protectionism, could hurt his own older and blue-collar voters with any type of dramatic health care overhaul. Second, Buchanan, in a nod to Trump’s testy public demeanor, remembers that Reagan’s famously sunny disposition wasn’t always on display—he just made it seem that way. “I saw Reagan explode a number of times in private. He was an Irishman, and you could see that temper go off,” Buchanan tells me. “But he never let the anger show in public.”
Eleanor Clift, the liberal longtime Newsweek journalist, first met Buchanan while covering the Reagan White House. “Everybody knew where he was ideologically,” Clift recalls, “and he was far to the right of President Reagan, and you could get him to tell stories about Reagan making fun of him and tasking him with selling things to conservatives.” She says Buchanan wasn’t much of a source for mainstream reporters because most of his energy was spent wooing the right. It was several years later, when the two began sharing the set on “The McLaughlin Group,” that Clift realized Buchanan’s gift for framing a political argument. “When he puts his analyst hat on, there’s nobody better,” she says. (Clift and Buchanan are in talks with television executives to bring “The McLaughlin Group” back on air, they tell me, but decline to elaborate.)
Buchanan was such a lucid communicator, in fact, that some conservatives wanted him to run for president. Having remarked shortly before leaving the White House in 1987 that “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan,” Buchanan re-entered the media realm—resuming his roles on “Crossfire” and “The McLaughlin Group”—only to face mounting pressure from the right to enter the race for the Republican nomination in 1988. He ultimately declined, but published a page-turning autobiography in that presidential year, Right From the Beginning, that seemed a preliminary step toward a potential run for something, someday. The book is fascinating for its glimpse at Buchanan’s idyllic America, the earnest age of sprawling middle-class families and booming church attendance and fistfights at the local hangout after one six-pack too many. What it barely mentions, in making the case for a return to this safer and gentler society, are the dangers of trade and immigration—two issues that would animate Buchanan’s campaign against George H.W. Bush four years later.
“Between the years on ‘Crossfire’ and the years he ran for president, he was conservative but became very protectionist and nationalist, and that was of course a surprise,” Kinsley tells me. “The Republican Party stood for free markets completely and the Democratic Party stood for protectionism, and the idea that Pat Buchanan, who had worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, would become an ardent protectionist was shocking.”
When I ask about the transformation, Buchanan tells me the story of his uncle, a Republican activist who hailed from industrial Pennsylvania, confronting him at the 1976 GOP convention. “Free trade is killing us, Pat,” he told him. Buchanan says the incident “planted a seed in my mind,” but that a decade later he was still an avowed free-trader working in the Reagan White House. It was the winding down of the Cold War in the twilight of Reagan’s presidency that Buchanan says refocused his attention away from international dilemmas and toward those at home. Free trade had never seemed problematic; nor had Reagan’s 1986 amnesty that legalized some 3 million undocumented immigrants. The more he studied domestic policy problems, though, the more convinced Buchanan became that the country needed a drastic course correction. “We had carried the load for the West all throughout the Cold War. All of these allies had been essentially freeloading off the United States,” he recalls thinking. “And I said, ‘If the Russians are going home, it’s time for us to come home and look out for our own country first.’”
His only regret is that he didn’t take up the fight sooner, when he could have had a greater impact, and maybe could have headed off some of the decline he sees when he gazes across the modern American landscape. “Look at Detroit in 1945 and Hiroshima in 1945. And look at the two of them today,” Buchanan says. “Something went wrong.”
By 1992, the evolution was complete—“I was a full-fledged economic nationalist,” Buchanan says—and his crusade against the embodiment of globalism, President George H. W. Bush, became a surprise 10-week proxy war for the future of the Republican Party. Buchanan’s allies held out hope he could pull a historic upset in New Hampshire that would throw the entire nominating process into turmoil. But they knew it was terribly unlikely, and were thrilled when Buchanan captured 37 percent of the vote, even though it was still a double-digit defeat. He wound up winning nearly 3 million votes nationwide against Bush, and though he carried no states, was invited to speak at the party convention. When he delivered his fire-breathing “culture war” speech, urging Republicans to “take back” the country from the alien forces of militant secularism and liberal multiculturalism, Democrats said it was proof of a GOP tacking hard and fast to the right. That was the whole idea: Buchanan, unlike Trump 25 years later, was a committed social conservative who saw crusades against gay rights and abortion as part of the campaign to restore his ideal America. But they also limited his appeal, and some in the party establishment hold a grudge to this day, convinced Buchanan scared off independents and jump-started the Clinton dynasty. Buchanan dismisses this notion, but long ago made peace with the fact that he would need to damage Bush in order to shape the future of Republicanism. “He wasn’t going to remove the sitting president from winning the party’s nomination,” says Terry Jeffrey, Buchanan’s research and policy director that year. “But the question was: Which direction is the party going to go?”
It was an open question in 1996, when Buchanan mounted a second and more viable campaign, this time against establishment favorite Bob Dole, as well as Southern son Phil Gramm and publisher Steve Forbes, among others. Doubling down on the nationalist rhetoric—which, unlike Trump, Buchanan continued to combine with heaping doses of social conservatism—he carved out his role at the far right of the field. Things looked good when he won a nonbinding contest in Alaska and even better when he upset Gramm in the first official contest in Louisiana. Dole edged him by 3 percentage points in the much-anticipated Iowa caucuses, but eight days later, Buchanan’s political career climaxed with a 1-point win in the New Hampshire primary. “We’re going to recapture the lost sovereignty of our country,” Buchanan cried in a victory speech, “and we’re going to bring it home!”
It was the closest he would ever come to the presidency. Buchanan won just one of the remaining contests as Dole coasted to the nomination. Four years later, Buchanan broke from the GOP after years of tension with its establishment wing and sought the Reform Party nomination. He won it, over the objections of some activists, but bombed in November, winning fewer than 500,000 votes nationwide. (Ralph Nader’s Green Party tallied roughly 2.5 million votes more.) Buchanan, however, once again put his imprint on history: He won 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, Florida—a liberal, heavily Jewish community—thanks to the “butterfly ballot” famously confusing many voters. George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes, and Buchanan makes no bones about what happened. “The Lord intervened,” he says, grinning. “We sunk Al Gore and won the election for Bush.”
Less memorably, the 2000 campaign also brought Buchanan into contact for the first time with Trump. The New York real estate tycoon and tabloid favorite was also mulling a run for the Reform Party’s nomination at the urging of Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who had won Minnesota’s governorship on the third-party ticket in 1998. Trump never followed through, but true to the form he would display 16 years later, the future president took pleasure in brutalizing his potential competition. Trump devoted portions of a book to highlighting Buchanan’s alleged “intolerance” toward black and gay people, accused him of being “in love with Adolf Hitler” and denounced Buchanan while visiting a Holocaust museum, telling reporters, “We must recognize bigotry and prejudice and defeat it wherever it appears.”
The irony today is unmistakable. “What Trump said about Pat at the time is precisely what Trump’s opponents are saying about him now,” says Justin Raimondo, editorial director of AntiWar.com, who gave a nominating speech for Buchanan at the Reform Party convention.
Trump’s attacks stemmed from Buchanan’s suggestion in a book that year that World War II had been avoidable and that Hitler did not want conflict with the United States or its Western allies. Buchanan, who loathes international aggression—he vigorously opposed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, further distancing himself from the GOP—has written and repeated similar sentiments about World War II over several decades, which, on top of his criticisms of Israeli influence over U.S. foreign policy, have led to charges of anti-Semitism. (Most damaging was William F. Buckley writing in National Review, shortly before Buchanan joined the 1992 race, that he could not defend his fellow conservative against such accusations. That said, some Jews in the media who are critical of Buchanan’s politics, including Kinsley, have defended him on this front.)
Buchanan has faced his share of critiques, but no one has hit him harder than Trump. In retrospect, it’s astounding that the man who used Buchanan’s playbook to win the White House had previously bashed him in the most ruthlessly ad hominem terms imaginable—yet Buchanan used his columns to cheerlead Trump’s 2016 candidacy from Day One. The explanation for this became clear once I accepted that Trump had done something entirely out of character: According to multiple sources, Trump called Buchanan out of the blue some five years ago, when the former candidate was a regular guest on “Morning Joe,” and apologized for all of the hurtful things he had said. “He made amends,” Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister and former campaign manager, says of Trump. “Long before he got into the presidential [race], he reached out to Pat and apologized for what he’d done, realizing it had been wrong. … My brother is a very forgiving guy, and if someone asks for forgiveness, he’s going to deliver it.”
Buchanan himself refuses to comment on private conversations with Trump but does tell me the president would call occasionally during the 2016 primary to thank him for kind words during a TV appearance or make small talk about the campaign. Buchanan also says Trump mailed three “Make America Great Again” hats to his home—two of which he gifted to childhood friends, while keeping the other one for his extensive collection of presidential memorabilia.
“Did you ever offer him any advice?” I ask.
Buchanan begins to shake his head no, then stops himself. “I gave him some advice once,” he says, a smile spreading across his face. “I think he took it.”
Controversy has been a constant in Buchanan’s life, and will surely be part of his legacy. Buchanan, his friends say, suspected that powerful people at MSNBC were looking for a reason to fire him from the day he started there in 2002, reuniting with liberal commentator and former “Crossfire” co-host Bill Press for a similarly formatted program, “Buchanan & Press.” Ultimately Buchanan lasted a full decade at the left-wing cable news outlet before he published the book that would, finally, end his national broadcast career. In early 2012, months after Buchanan published Suicide of a Superpower, MSNBC fired him over provocative passages in the book relating to demographic change in America. Officials at 30 Rock were exceptionally disgusted with one chapter, “The End of White America,” in which Buchanan warned of the dire consequences brought on by what he had often called the “mass invasion” of immigrants from poor countries.
“Can Western civilization survive the passing of the European peoples whose ancestors created it and their replacement by Third World immigrants?” Buchanan wrote in his column the day of the book’s release, pre-emptively defending what he knew would be a polarizing thesis. “Probably not, for the new arrivals seem uninterested in preserving the old culture they have found.”
Of course, Buchanan’s views were well known by that point; he had presented identical arguments in several previous books, which explains why some of his highest-profile colleagues were furious with MSNBC’s decision. “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski issued a statement saying that they “strongly disagree” with Buchanan’s firing, and that his statements “should have been debated in public.” Chris Matthews dedicated a segment of “Hardball” to Buchanan in the wake of his dismissal, saying, “I miss him already,” and adding: “To Pat, the world can never be better than the one he grew up in as a young boy. … No country will ever be better than the United States of America of the early 1950s.”
Buchanan will go to his grave believing exactly that. He swears he has no personal animus toward people who don’t look like him; in fact, he says, the immigrant groups he interacts with in northern Virginia are “always smiling” and seem like wonderful members of the community. “Obviously they love America,” Buchanan tells me. “The question is, what is it that holds us together? The neocons say we’re an ideological people bound together by what Lincoln said at Gettysburg and what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and that’s what makes us one nation. But my tradition of conservatism says it’s not; it’s the idea of culture and faith and belief and history and heroes and holidays.”
He takes a long pause. “Can you have a nation that consists of all the people in the world—and be one people?”
Buchanan has spent decades researching and thinking and writing about the threat he believes recent immigrants pose to America’s identity, and he comes to the subject armed with reams of statistics and arguments grounded in his reading of history. There are three main problems with the latest immigration trends, he says. First, whereas the Europeans were “never going back” and therefore put down permanent roots, millions of recent immigrants in the United States hail from Mexico and Central America and have easy access to their original home. Second, the vast numbers of new arrivals are stifling opportunity and mobility for the waves of immigrants who came before. And third, that stifling of opportunity and mobility causes prolonged concentration in closed-off communities, which robs those immigrants, Buchanan argues, of the chance to work their way out of ghettos and assimilate into American culture.
“This is why we argued in 1990 for a moratorium on immigration—those folks coming in poor could have been like the ethnic Irish and Italians and German,” Buchanan says. Instead, “they keep coming, and now you’ve got 60 million Hispanics living here, many of them in enclaves that can sustain themselves culturally and economically and socially. And it’s like they’re at home. A little piece of Mexico has been moved over here. … You look at the 24 counties from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas: Are they part of the United States or part of Mexico?”
A minute later, Buchanan adds, “You think you can go to Tucson, to what they call ‘Little Mexico,’ and ask them what the Constitution says? You think they know what the Constitution says?”
It’s this type of talk that has earned Buchanan the ugliest of labels—racist, bigot, xenophobe. He says it used to bother him but doesn’t anymore. “Everybody’s a racist. The curse words of the left [are] losing their toxicity from overuse,” Buchanan says. “Those accusations used to be cause for a fight. Now they’re just tossed out.” What’s interesting is that his many friends on the left have grown similarly numb to the hullabaloo. At this point, they are resigned to rejecting Buchanan’s views while remaining convinced of his inherent respectability as a person.
“I’ve learned to live with the fact that Pat has some very abhorrent views, which I strongly, strongly object to, while at the same time I know him to be a very good, very solid, decent man, who is loyal to his friends and loves his country,” Press, his former MSNBC co-host, tells me. “I know that may be an impossible distinction, but I really don’t think Pat has a racist bone in his body. I think he just gets carried away with his view about threats to Western civilization.”
Kinsley recalls his old colleague renting a vacation home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that had an extra bedroom, where Buchanan could store boxes of books he would read while there. “Pat might be a nut, but he’s not a con man. Trump is both a nut and a con man,” Kinsley tells me. “You have to give Pat a certain amount of credit for intellect. He really thought through policy problems, and that’s where he’s not like Trump at all.”
Trump or no Trump, Buchanan has only become more alarmed about America’s political trajectory. The Republican Party is “running out of white folks,” he says, and historically immigrant groups have voted overwhelmingly Democratic. “If you bring in 100 million people and they vote 60 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, you’re buried,” Buchanan tells me. “What I’m saying is the America we knew and grew up with, it’s gone. And it’s not coming back. Demographically, culturally, socially, in every way, it’s a different country. And I think it’s come to resemble more of an empire than a nation and a people.”
Buchanan’s friends say that deep down he wants to be wrong about these predictions. And he admits that sometimes his pessimism gets the better of him: He never believed Trump would win in November. On Election Day, in fact, he bumped into Virginia Congresswoman Barbara Comstock’s mother at the polling station and suggested that her daughter would soon be running for higher office—to replace Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Instead, he found himself up at 3 in the morning celebrating, basking in congratulatory emails, and convincing himself that maybe, just maybe, America isn’t doomed yet.
“But this,” Buchanan tells me, “is the last chance for these ideas.”
When an election ends, the question we most often ask is “why?” Did Barack Obama put together a “coalition of the ascendant”—newly powerful numbers of blacks, Hispanics, college-educated young? Did Donald Trump shock us by summoning an army of the left-behind, who carried economic insecurity and racial resentments to the polls?
But often, there’s another, much simpler answer: Just look at the rules.
The “terms and conditions” of a political race may well matter more than any other factor. And if you really need a reminder of how crucial the rules of an election are to its outcome—how, for example, a candidate can win 3 million more votes than her opponent and lose—two current examples from across the Atlantic should make the case strikingly clear.
In France, with a presidential election being watched around the world for the chance a right-wing nationalist or a far-left populist could win, the only certain outcome of the vote Sunday is that there will be no winner: The top two finishers will meet in a decisive runoff two weeks later.
Then there’s Great Britain, which will have a general parliamentary election years earlier than expected—on June 7, to be exact—because Prime Minister Theresa May exercised her power to call a “snap” election. The entire campaign season will run about six weeks from start to finish—a length unimaginable here, where prospective 2020 presidential candidates are already checking flight schedules to Des Moines and Manchester.
Either one of those systems would lead to radically different outcomes in U.S. presidential elections—where a winner can (and often does) become president without a majority of the popular vote, and where the length of the campaign puts huge emphasis on finances, backing, media campaigns and pure stamina.
The French system is based on a simple premise: No one should lead the nation unless he or she commands an absolute majority of voters. If nobody achieves a majority in the first round, the two winners face off one-on-one. In the U.S., many of our elections—for mayor, governor, House and Senate seats—are held under the same standard. But our presidential campaigns aren’t: They require a majority of the Electoral College, which isn’t the same as the popular vote. While the champions of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are painfully aware of the results this system can produce, the full story of how “absolute majority” voting would change American politics is nothing less than eye-opening.
Since 1960, no fewer than five presidents have been elected even though more total votes were cast against them than for them: John F. Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, and Trump in 2016.
Now imagine if we had a runoff in place, to assure that our presidents had popular majority backing. Who would have their portraits on the wall?
It’s highly likely that Al Gore would have won such a contest in 2000; the center/left candidates (Gore and Ralph Nader) outpolled the center/right candidates (Bush and Pat Buchanan) by some 3 million votes. It’s likely that Hillary Clinton, flawed as she was as a candidate, would have bested Trump in a runoff with voters who had chosen Gary Johnson and Jill Stein or who had stayed home the first time, but now realized that Trump might actually win.
Other alternate outcomes are foggier. Given the historic closeness of the 1960 popular vote—JFK had an official plurality of 0.1 percent—a Nixon victory in a runoff would have been at least plausible. There’s a persistent myth about the 1992 campaign that Ross Perot’s 19 percent of the popular vote cost George H.W. Bush the win, although exit polls then showed that Perot voters would have split evenly between Bush and Bill Clinton. So a Clinton victory in a runoff would have been the likely outcome. Even discounting for speculation, it’s still striking that a different system would have given us Nixon instead of Kennedy, Gore instead of Bush, and Hillary Clinton instead of Trump, and likely some very different history.
Now look across the ocean to Great Britain, and the prime minister’s call for a “snap” election. This concept is radically alien to us Americans, where fixed terms for office are more or less universal. In this case, May brushed aside her own promise not to go to the polls until 2020, arguing that she needed a clear mandate to proceed with the “Brexit” divorce from the European Union. Under a 2011 law, she no longer has the power to call an election unilaterally, as previous prime ministers did, but can still do so if two-thirds of the House of Commons approves, which in this case is a near-certainty.
Look at the advantage that snap elections give the government in power. Right now, the opposition Labour Party is hopelessly divided. A clear majority of MPs reject the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who remains in power because of the broader party membership. Instead of having almost four years to regroup, the party must scramble to compete in constituencies across the country with a huge deficit of finances and even candidates. Moreover, a system with no absolute fixed terms means a government can pick its own moment for reelection: It can watch for such weakness in an opposition, and announce: “OK, we're going to the polls in six weeks.” Or it could wait for a moment of singular success on its part. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had been able to order up an election six weeks after the triumphant end of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, with a Kuwait liberated and a U.S. standing proudly astride the world stage. (Instead, he tried to get re-elected in the teeth of the next year’s recession.) No wonder President Kennedy is said to have remarked that if he had the power to call snap elections, he could have remained in power more or less permanently.
These systems might sound strange to us, but then our own Electoral College system looks downright exotic, not to say mystifying, to most other democracies. If you measure these overseas examples against our system of nominating and electing presidents, you can see just how much the rules of the game matter. This even extends to primaries: Had the Republicans been operating by the Democratic Party’s rules—no winner-take-all contests, hundreds more unbound “superdelegates”—Trump’s path to the nomination would have been much harder. And if we allocated electoral votes by congressional district, the 2012 race would have been much closer; Mitt Romney won 226 districts to Obama’s 209.
It’s a lesson at the heart of politics, one as clear as it is overlooked in so much political analysis: the rules of the road are often the most critical factor in determining who wins. Presidents who trumpet their victories and claim a mandate should be careful what they’re claiming: Often it’s the rules, as much as the people, that put them there.
In 1973, a strange apocalyptic novel imagined the Southern coast of France suddenly overrun by hundreds of boats “piled high with layer on layer of human bodies” carrying hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Indian continent. Within 24 hours, as the military response fails, political elites capitulate and the French native population collapses morally, poisoned by their “damned, obnoxious, detestable pity” for “other races,” the West falls to the “black and brown” invasion “swarming” across its land.
Much has been made recently about this grandiloquent, often verbose and violently racist 325-page dystopia, The Camp of the Saints, written by the French novelist (and royalist) Jean Raspail. Forty-four years after its release, the book is said to have sold 500,000 copies, at least according to Raspail himself, and has become the bible of alt-right circles in the United States and in France.
It is also the surprising common denominator between two political figures who might well be among the most powerful actors in the years to come: French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, currently predicted to make it to the second round of the French presidential election after Sunday’s vote, and President Donald Trump’s controversial political adviser Steve Bannon. Both have cited the book with admiration as key to understanding the refugee crisis in 2015 and, more generally, the supposed threat to Western civilization posed by immigration. For them, the book is neither an allegory nor science fiction. It is a vivid description of today’s “migratory submersion” (Le Pen’s words) or “invasion” (Bannon’s), and the failure of political “elites” to respond with the necessary resolve to preserve what Bannon calls the “underlying principles of the Judeo-Christian West.”
But Le Camp des Saints, to use the original French title, wasn’t always seen this way. In fact, it was initially panned by critics in France and sold poorly, only to rise in popularity since its first reprint, in 1985—exactly as the French far-right likewise ascended. To trace the novel’s popular trajectory over the past half-century is, in a sense, to trace the rightward political shift in France—and much of Europe and the United States—and to watch the trivialization of hostile rhetoric against immigrants and other “cultures.”
When Raspail wrote the book more than 40 years ago, he was taking a break from a string of adventures in the Americas exploring far away countries. His anti-modernist philosophy took him to track ancient civilizations such the Incas and Indian tribes from the Andes that had been forced into extinction by the brutal force of the modern world. One day, gazing at the sea from his villa overlooking the Mediterranean, he pondered: “What if ‘they’ came?” The novel is the brainchild from that epiphany.
At the time that Raspail’s novel was first released, France was still sailing on the tail end of 30 years of post-war economic growth, and was still forcefully importing workers from the former colonies to fuel that growth. The far-right National Front had just been founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen (Marine’s father) and a handful of former Vichy regime supporters and fighters for the French Empire—with limited success, though: The party garnered barely 1 percent of the votes the first time it presented candidates in a national election, in March 1973. That same year, Raspail’s book was ignored by liberal and leftist literary critics. Even France’s biggest right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro, where Raspail was a contributor, tore apart the novel. Only a few far-right fringe publications like Minute and Rivarol, praised the novel as “visionary.” After it sold a disappointing 15,000 copies in its first year, its publisher, Robert Laffont, soberly said the book had not found its audience.
It’s not hard to see why many in France were turned off by Raspail’s volume. Opening it, they would have read putrid descriptions of “the terrible stench of latrines that heralded the fleet’s arrival” and of nameless Indian savages eating, literally, their own shit. They might have gasped at Raspail’s account of the “legions of the Anti-Christ” ready to rape and massacre the native French, and those already in Paris—the “Métro-troglodytes, black crabs with ticket-punching claws; the stinking drudges who mucked around in filth”—waiting in the shadow for “a new kind of holy war.” The true “heroes” of the novel, meanwhile, are those who believe in “scorn of people for other races, the knowledge that one’s own is best, the triumphant joy at feeling oneself to be part of humanity’s finest.” According to Raspail, “man never has really loved humanity all of a piece—all its races, its peoples, its religions—but only those creatures he feels are his kin, a part of his clan, no matter how vast.” (These quotes are taken from Norman R. Shapiro’s English translation of the novel.)
Over the course of its steady career, The Camp of Saints has been translated into a dozen languages, including an English version published in 1975 by Scribner and translated by Shapiro, the respected translator of Charles Baudelaire, Paul-Marie Verlaine and Jean de La Fontaine. But it is only in recent years that the book has started to be perceived less as a madman’s fantasy, and more as a metaphor for the times, at least in France’s conservative circles. The book’s flavor of transgression has not entirely evaporated, but it clearly now seems more palatable, thanks to the acclimatization of its once polemical ideas. It even has companions—on bookshelves and on the internet—that similarly speak of an increasing fear of the demographic “replacement” of native French people. Media figure Éric Zemmour’s 2014 French Suicide, for instance—a collection of essays that criticized the country’s sense of “national repentance” for colonization and what Zemmour calls the “religion” of human rights—sold more than 500,000 copies within a year.
A key moment for The Camp of the Saints was the release of its 2011 reprint edition, which sold more than 70,000 copies within four years. It also received extensive media coverage, including interviews in popular talk shows, and lavish reviews in mainstream weeklies like Le Point and L’Express, as well as the more conservative Valeurs Actuelles. The same Le Figaro that, 40 years earlier, had destroyed Raspail’s book, opened its columns to a long, genial interview with its author.
More recently, especially as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East began arriving in Europe in 2015, Raspail’s title has become something of a catchphrase in both the United States and France for Breitbart-like pundits, signalling a ready-made argument against “politically correct” humanitarianism and a warning against immigration’s deadly consequences for Western (read: Christian, white) people. On his radio show in October 2015, Bannon, then the head of Breitbart, referred to “a Camp of the Saints-type invasion” when describing the wave of refugees arriving in Europe.
The primary peddler of Raspail’s ideas in France, meanwhile, has been Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party. She first read the book, which was routinely sold at National Front’s rallies throughout the 1980s and 90s, when she was 18, and again in 2012; today, she keeps a dedicated copy by her desk in her office. But it was only at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015 that she decided to bring it to the attention of the general public. On September 2, 2015, in the middle of the worldwide outcry caused by the picture of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on the coast of Greece, face down in the sand, Le Pen tried to replace that image with another, scarier vision. On French radio, Le Pen, by then the leader of the National Front, spoke of the “hundreds of thousands of migrants who will come tomorrow”—what she called a “real migratory submersion.” Then came the pitch: “I invite the French to read, or read again The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, because the images of cargo ships throwing hundreds of migrants—that’s The Camp of the Saints.”
Le Pen’s public admiration for the novel—which describes immigrants as “microbes” and uses race, in its most basic biological sense, as the key factor that explains individual motives and values societies’ fates—caused a stir in circles on the left. But today, public opinion in large part has been immunized against such indignations. A 2016 survey by Ipsos for the Institute of Political Science in Paris found that 65 percent of the French population polled believed there were too many foreigners in France, while 63 percent approved the statement “Today we don’t feel at home in our own country as we used to.” And Le Pen’s anti-immigration party has scored record electoral successes in the past few years, earning 25-28 percent of the vote in the past three national elections.
Today, in France and other Western countries, decrying the “unceasing flow of illegal immigration” or the “massive wave of illegal immigration washing ashore the coasts of France,” as Le Pen does in most of her rallies, has started to sound predictable. Worse: trivial, and almost dull.
At a rally in Paris on Monday, in the last few days of an increasingly tight presidential race, Le Pen announced, for the first time, a plan to temporarily ban all legal immigration on Day One of her presidency, if she is elected. A jubilant crowd of 6,000 supporters chanted, “France to the French” and, “It’s our home” (“On est chez nous”) in response. The National Front’s previous anti-immigrant proposals—cutting the net balance of immigration down to only 10,000 entrees per year, drastically limiting the possibility of being naturalized as French and taxing jobs held by foreigners an extra 10 percent—were apparently not seen as harsh enough. For nearly two years straight, Le Pen has led the polls in the presidential election. But her numbers had started to erode over the past couple weeks, as far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has risen and the right-wing François Fillon has stubbornly held on despite of his indictment for fraud in March. Instead of trying to accommodate voters at the political center, Le Pen took a sharp turn further to the right. She played it à la Trump and invented an even more extreme version of the “Muslim ban” to get the media’s and the voters’ attention.
It was a move right out of the Raspail playbook. It’s true that Le Pen has made a point of eradicating the “r”-word—“race”—from the new National Front’s vocabulary. (The word is still taboo in France because of its nefarious use during World War II.) Last year, she insisted to the conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles, “Whether one’s skin color is black or white, whether one comes from the islands or Ardèche, one is French.” Yet her very next statement in the same interview was right in line with Raspail’s views: “But to be French cannot be reduced to simply ‘having been born in France,’” she added, confirming her intention to abolish the current right to citizenship for anyone born and raised in France. To Le Pen, blood, or jus sanguinis—the right to citizenship based on one’s parents’ or ancestors’ status—is the only legitimate way to be French. Blood, and a phobia for racial interbreeding, is also the subtext of Raspail’s book. In his preface to the 2011 reprint, he took pains to list all the names of his ancestors back to the age of Louis XIV, to prove that not one ounce of non-European blood runs in his veins. “[T]here is not a single name that could indicate any exotic ascendance,” concluding, with a sigh of relief, “I am not mixed-race!”
Raspail, for his part, seemed unfazed when he learned that Bannon had adopted his novel as a roadmap. “I’m not surprised. Other presidents read it. Reagan read The Camp of the Saints, so did François Mitterrand in France,” he declared in a March 9 radio interview on France Info. Was he proud of the book? “Proud? No. I was useful. It took to heart, unknowingly, what is, was and will be for a very long time the issue of the Western world.”
By choosing Le Pen as France’s next president—or not—French voters will soon tell us whether they agree.
SYRACUSE, N.Y.—It was a nightmare scenario: As thousands of Syracuse University basketball fans poured into town on February 1, 2014 for a big match against arch rival Duke, a water main break flooded Armory Square, surrounding the city’s iconic 24-second shot clock monument. Days before the game, there were 11 other water main breaks around the city.
Mayor Stephanie Miner was desperate for help to get a handle on the problem; on average, water lines in the city were breaking 332 times a year, nearly once every day. But she couldn’t get the state to help foot the bill for the onerous costs of updating the city’s underground infrastructure. She even tried to shame state officials with a “Hunger Games”-style ad campaign that showed her wading in thigh-high water wielding a wrench. Miner says that when she started asking federal and state officials for help, she got a lot of eye rolling. “They would say, ‘Stephanie, you can’t cut a ribbon with it. Stephanie, it’s not sexy,’” she says. She had to get creative.
That’s when she turned to big data. To get to the bottom of the problem of catastrophic water main breaks, Syracuse first had to understand what was happening underground and where. Using an algorithm developed by a team at the University of Chicago, the city put reams of information, scattered among various departments, to work. With a predictive system that can point to the hotspots along its 550 miles of pipes, the city hopes to save millions of dollars a year by fixing mains before they break. For other cities dealing with the same whack-a-mole approach to infrastructure repair, a proactive approach could change everything.
The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, estimated that the U.S. endures 240,000 water main breaks a year on more than 1 million miles of pipes, many of them laid in the early to middle years of the 20th century. If cities keep up their average of replacing pipes at 0.5 percent a year, it would take about 200 years to replace them all. If they last that long, of course.
Other cities could use Syracuse’s big data approach to anticipate their own water delivery problems. Flint, Michigan, for example, which is facing a few more issues than water main breaks, is hoping that as it replaces its old damaged lines a good data management approach will help prevent other nightmares.
“Where they are in Syracuse is the direction we want to go,” says Mayor Karen Weaver. Syracuse sent its innovation team to Flint, where they looked at the city’s mapping system and records of water main breaks and realized that the Syracuse formula could be useful there, too. Sam Edelstein, chief data officer for Syracuse, says, “The hope is that the solutions that we come up with are scalable and can be used elsewhere.”
Syracuse is a city that cares about water. Syracuse is one of only two cities in the state—the other is New York City—that has such a clean water supply that it does not need a filtration plant. Syracuse water comes in a gravity-fed line from Skaneateles Lake, a Finger Lake about 30 miles southwest of the city, and is considered by some to be one of the cleanest lakes in the U.S. Miner’s press secretary Alexander Marion notes that newcomers are offered a glass of “Skaneateles on the rocks”—tap water, in other words.
A quick reality check, though: Syracuse is also adjacent to Lake Onondaga, which the New York State Department of Energy and Conservation has named the “most polluted lake in America,” thanks to industrial waste related to the city’s salt-mining history and years of untreated sewage dumping.
In short, Syracuse is an aging industrial city with a dwindling population, a crime problem, and bitter cold winters typical of upstate New York. It averages nearly one water main break a day, which is not unusual for an older northern city but which costs the city $1 million a year for repairs and replacement. Its water main system has parts that are more than 100 years old. Miner, the first woman to serve as mayor in the city’s 169-year history, has been known to call in water main breaks from her car, before anyone else has notified the public works department.
When Miner took office in 2010, the city started experiencing a surge of breaks—338 before the end of the year, almost 100 more than the previous year. “It just happened to be my luck,” she says, combined with deferred maintenance on a system that was, as she puts it, “old and cold.”
Miner, 46, called out Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2015 over funding. She wanted the state to use $800 million of its legal and financial settlement money to fix sewer and water systems, rather than focus on the economic development Cuomo touted. (That’s when she deployed the Hunger Games parody.) Miner’s logic was simple: “Why would we spend millions of dollars on economic development above a system and then not pay any attention below and a month later have a road blow up because we didn’t replace the water mains?”
The bigger question was, what would be the smartest way to spend the city’s limited resources? The search for an answer was helped along in 2015 by a three-year grant of $1.35 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create the City of Syracuse’s i-team, which is focused on infrastructure improvement. Using the know-how of a team from the University of Chicago’s Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good program, Syracuse began a laborious project to first gather and enter the data into a digital form, and then create an algorithm that would predict just where those mains were most likely to break.
This machine-learning system, an application of artificial intelligence, homed in on 50 (out of 5,263) of the city’s most break-prone blocks and pointed to 32 blocks that were most likely to break in the next three years.
To get to that formula, researchers applied a series of factors—age of pipes, construction material, previous breaks and pipe dimensions—to breaks that happened in the past as a way to “predict the past,” or test whether the formula, working blind, could accurately guess which mains would break. Rayid Ghani, director of the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good summer fellowship, says, “If you have 10 years of data, you take nine years and hide the tenth year from the system. So you pretend it’s 2015 and you try to predict what would have happened.”
One surprise in the findings, notes Ghani, was that pipes that had broken recently tended to be more likely to break again, possibly because of some intrinsic flaw that hadn’t been corrected with a repair. Keep in mind that the city expects to see 500 to 600 breaks over the next few years, says data officer Edelstein. When the city does replace some mains in the 32 hotspots, “we’d be pretty sure we are replacing the ones most likely to break,” he says.
One of the more complicated tasks was collecting the data to begin with. Syracuse had a hodgepodge of records that included 100-year-old field notebooks hand-written by engineers, Excel spreadsheets, items in a Word document on one person’s desktop computer, and rolls of paper piled up in a closet, says Andrew Maxwell, head of the innovation team that ran the project. That information was added to a geographic information system mapping city streets, property tax reports and records of past breaks—all of it then funneled through an algorithm that made predictions about the next break.
In the year and three months since the test run began, there have been 21 breaks on 14 mains (some broke more than once) in the targeted spots, says Edelstein. In other words, “we’re right about on pace” with predictions, he says.
Eventually, Syracuse also wants to incorporate a sensor system, which uses acoustic waves on monitors magnetically attached to pipes and joints to detect where leaks are happening, how big they are and whether they warrant immediate repair. “The idea is to fix it before it becomes catastrophic,” says Miner. Using sensors in this way is not new, but feeding that data into a larger predictive model would be.
Yet another aspect of the plan is Syracuse’s “dig once” policy. “If we dig into the ground,” says Miner, “we want to be able to replace the sewer mains, the water mains, the utility lines, and hopefully broadband—and do it all at once.”
The city is also using data to determine which of its roads are in bad shape, which it will coordinate with the water main information. “You take those maps and you overlay them with the water maps. All of a sudden, you’re looking at infrastructure in three dimensions,” says Miner. Doing that in two pilot projects last year saved the city almost $500,000, she says.
At this point, however, most of Syracuse’s ground plan is still in the theory and testing phase. A more extensive proposal has been added to the city’s 10-year capital plan.
Eventually, other cities might be able to plug in their own data and create predictive systems. The code for the Syracuse project is available as open source software on Github.
While it will be many years—if ever—before water main breaks are not a nasty surprise that shut down businesses and disrupt lives, a data solution could be a step toward being proactive rather than reactive. Avishek Kumar, a member of the data science team at the University of Chicago, notes that Syracuse is not the only city facing devastating main breaks. “We should be able to solve this problem for any city.”
Ethel Kennedy opened the door in her bathrobe, welcoming us in from the blizzard. The snowstorm had made it impossible to reach Harpers Ferry, where a retreat had been planned for a gaggle of Washington-based Generation Xers, as we were called then. So one participant, Doug Kennedy, asked his mother to let us relocate to their Hickory Hill estate. Over the next hour that Saturday morning in March 1993, twentysomethings of diverse stripes including Jon Karl, now of ABC News, Jon Cowan, now of Third Way, and Eric Liu, now of Citizen University, streamed in for a weekend of debate.
The confab was hatched by a man much older than we were—William Strauss, a charming, gray-haired congressional staffer known in Washington for founding the Capitol Steps, a troupe of Hill aides who performed mildly funny political satire in a small Georgetown theater. One typical parody featured a George Bush Sr. impressionist lamenting his lack of the common touch with a song called “If I Weren’t a Rich Man.”
Strauss (who died in 2007) and his collaborator, Neil Howe, another onetime Hill aide, have vaulted back into the news lately as intellectual influences on Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist. Their 1997 historical manifesto The Fourth Turning, an iteration of their generational theories, posits that the tides of history have placed America on the cusp of a world-historical crisis—akin to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II—that could plunge the nation into disaster. And Trump’s self-styled intellectual guru reportedly is so taken with the book that, according to the New York Times, he has read it three times and shelves a marked-up copy alongside his most admired volumes at his father’s Virginia home. Bannon has described the book’s arguments as central to his worldview, and his 2010 documentary, “Generation Zero,” rested on its claims. As a result of his reported regard for it, The Fourth Turning is now a No. 1 Amazon best-seller—in the category of “divination.”
Back in 1993, though, Strauss and Howe didn’t yet have a cult following. They were just getting to be known for their first book, Generations, a best-seller that analyzed all of American history as the experience of successive generations, to whom the authors assigned distinct, coherent and predictable personality types. More recently, they’d published 13th-GEN, which sought to capitalize on the baby boomer-dominated news media’s sudden and faddish interest in my generation. Strauss, a fiscally conservative centrist, believed that his generation, for all their change-the-world idealism, had screwed things up royally by saddling their children with insurmountable debt, environmental disaster and other long-term headaches. By gathering our group, he thought he could orchestrate a Port Huron Statement for the Gen-X era, one that would, in line with his book’s picture of our cohort, preach solutions that were pragmatic, middle-of-the-road and “post-partisan” (a buzzword at the time)—ideas of the sort Ross Perot might have espoused in the previous year’s presidential campaign.
Of course, Perot had finished third in the 1992 election while waltzing to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” and, despite the best efforts of a few Strauss disciples at Hickory Hill, the weekend’s project also collapsed in incoherence. Most of the policies that the conservatives proposed were anathema to the liberals, and vice versa. (I remember one of the ideological conservatives present being demolished in an impromptu debate by a young Andrew Cuomo, who had dropped in out of curiosity; he was visiting with his then-wife, Kerry Kennedy.) At one point, Cowan and Rob Nelson, of a deficit-reduction group called Lead or Leave, proposed that we all accept their idiosyncratic mix of proposals, but that didn’t satisfy anyone. By the end, I had become convinced that the members our supposedly “post-partisan” generation had no more in common with one another than did the members of Congress. Although some participants in the end crafted a document, not everyone was happy with it and not everyone signed. It got a little attention and was then forgotten.
One lesson of the failed post-partisan manifesto was that political differences matter a lot more than generational differences. And as I went off to study history in graduate school, I came to see even more clearly just how superficial Strauss and Howe’s ideas were. Their books argue that major political or social events will provide shared foundational experiences for people of a certain age—think of the G.I. Generation of World War II, or the baby boomers coming of age in the turbulent 1960s. That’s true enough. But what they didn’t appreciate is that the resulting sensibilities are always far from universal, and don’t always align with the prevailing popular-culture images. The young 1960s radicals of Students for a Democratic Society, after all, may have turned out to be less important than those of Young Americans for Freedom, and Generation X turned out to be much more diverse—politically, and in every other way—than Strauss and Howe’s typology allowed.
In the wake of reports about Steve Bannon’s esteem for The Fourth Turning and Strauss and Howe’s generational theories, some alarmist pieces have warned that his interest in its prophecy of a bloody cataclysm bespeaks a dangerous eagerness to court some kind of catastrophic sequence of events that will remake the global order. (“Steve Bannon Wants to Start World War III,” blared a Nation headline.) Others discern a dark religious apocalypticism. I don’t think either worry is very credible. But Bannon’s interest in the book still matters—because its hyper-confident yet shoddy amateur history speaks to the fly-by-night thought process of the brash autodidact who, for all the recent reports of Trump-palace intrigue, still has a West Wing office and the president’s ear.
The Fourth Turning is not just a disaster prophecy, like the 1970s best-seller The Late, Great Planet Earth. Couched in learned language, it argues that not only American history but all history proceeds in predictable cycles of about 80 years or the duration of a human life—a “saeculum,” in the authors’ pseudo-scholarly nomenclature. Each saeculum, in turn, moves through four stages of roughly 20 years as inexorably as the seasons of a year: a spring-like “high” of civic optimism (think postwar America); a summery “awakening” of spiritual enthusiasm (ie., the 1960s); an autumnal “unraveling” of retrenchment and alienation (the Reagan era); and finally, a wintery “crisis” in which the old order is swept aside amid total war or some other transformational event. Written in 1997, The Fourth Turning prophesied an unspecified crisis around 2004. Bannon reportedly considers the 2008 crash to have begun this “fourth turning,” which will continue to play out over these next 10 to 15 years—until the last stage of the cycle is complete.
And there’s more to the theory: In each stage, a generation is born with identifiable collective traits. The children born during crises, in Strauss and Howe’s idiosyncratic and imprecise terminology, are “artists,” unassuming and upstanding technicians who work within the system. Then, during the highs, “prophets” are born: passionate and moralistic doers, like the baby boomers. The third generation, which is born during the “awakening” and comes of age during the “unraveling,” comprises “nomads,” who are alienated, pragmatic and suspicious of high ideals (Gen X). Finally come the “heroes”—today’s millennials, if you can believe it—who in their young adulthood use their propensity for teamwork and optimism to help the country to triumph amid major crises.
At first blush, The Fourth Turning—or any book you might pick up from the Strauss-Howe oeuvre/cottage industry—is beguiling in its cleverness. There’s something nifty in the tidy way it bundles into tidy boxes not only all four “saecula” of American history, dating to 1704, but all of Euro-American history since the Late Medieval period. In short order, however, most readers will find the book maddening in its strict schematization and its hopscotching across history in search of convenient examples.
The dream of formulating a scientific theory of history, with predictive capacities, was once a common project. In the 19th century, as the field of history, like other intellectual pursuits, professionalized, many practitioners sought to put the discipline on a scientific footing by elucidating laws or grand patterns in the past—laws and patterns that might also foretell the future. From Auguste Comte and Karl Marx up through Arnold Toynbee, historians proposed assorted theories about the development of civilization. Ironically, however, the hard-headed empiricism that became central to reputable history also exposed the philosopher-historians’ sweeping assertions as deficient in many of their specifics and untenable as prophecy. Today, most serious historians shy away from all-encompassing philosophies of history, while the works of Comte, Marx, Toynbee and others are studied as intellectual artifacts, notable for what they said about their own times, not what they predict about ours.
To be sure, there’s nothing controversial about the basic idea that wars and other conflicts may be followed by bouts of calm, or that eras of far-reaching reform may produce backlashes or cooling-off periods. But few historians today take seriously the idea that an inner logic guides the course of history like a gyroscope, whether it’s a Whiggish theory that assumes a mostly linear progress, a dialectical theory like that of Marx or Hegel or a cyclical theory like that of Toynbee—or Strauss and Howe.
The problems with the predictive schematic history of the sort laid out in The Fourth Turning start with their determinism. One giveaway are the charts, tables, diagrams and bulleted lists that litter the book, which find a way to fit every consequential figure and event into neat patterns. If history unfolds as inevitably as this, then the study of human decision-making in the past—or even in the present—becomes all but irrelevant. This determinism, moreover, introduces all kinds of contradictions for the theory: The Fourth Turning holds out many American presidents as paradigmatic and consequential figures of their eras, for example, but according to its own logic it shouldn’t really matter whether the nation elected Herbert Hoover or Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale in 1984, or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump last year, because history was headed in a certain direction regardless.
The Fourth Turning also, like an astrologer or fortune teller, plays fast and loose in shuttling between its big claims and specific evidence. Its contentions are vague enough that it’s easy to justify them with a handful of illustrative examples, with contrary cases simply omitted. It also mistakes symptoms for causes. Consider this paragraph:
Viewed through the prism of generational aging, the mood change between the late 1950s and the late 1970s becomes not just comprehensible, but (in hindsight) predictable: America was moving from a First Turning constellation [a “high”] and into a Second [an “awakening”]. Replace the aging Truman and Ike with LBJ and Nixon. Replace the middle-aged Ed Sullivan and Ann Landers with Norman Lear and Gloria Steinem. Replace the young Organization Man with the Woodstock hippie. Replace Jerry Mathers with Tatum O’Neal. This top-to-bottom alteration of the American life cycle tells much about why and how America shifted from a mood of consensus, complacency, and optimism to one of turbulence, argument, and passion.
But does this idiosyncratic smorgasbord of pop culture references actually explain anything about why American culture changed between the late 1950s and the late 1970s? In circular logic, it posits the “mood change” as the result of a move from one stage to another. And would their story be different if their portrait of the 1950s had included Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley, Jackson Pollock and Jack Kerouac?
Finally, there are errors and inaccuracies committed in the blind search for coherence. In the opening pages of The Fourth Turning, written in 1997, the authors hold up soaring public debts and deepening welfare dependency as signs of the coming crisis—even though the late 1990s were an era of broad-based prosperity, budget surpluses and declining welfare dependency. At the same time, they insist they’re “not reassured” by the official claims at the time about a national drop in crime—even as, a few pages later, they pooh-pooh predictions that “today’s kids will come of age with a huge youth crime wave.” They hedge their bets, too, by shifting their hopes from one generation to the next. After my pragmatic Hickory Hill Gen Xers didn’t deliver the political solutions they sought, they pinned their hopes on the millennials to deliver the country from its impending crisis.
Needless to say, no one should believe, based on The Fourth Turning, that, as the authors ominously wrote, “history is seasonal, and winter is coming.” But it’s not unreasonable to worry that ideas like these are gaining traction. Over the years, the book has developed an astonishing following, tapping into some kind of popular hunger to find a tight logic within the vagaries of history or to forecast the future. It’s not too different from the cult followings of writers like Ayn Rand or Gore Vidal, or of futurists like Alvin Toffler or Hal Lindsey. As Eric Hoover of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes, the generations books made Strauss and Howe into “media darlings, best-selling authors, and busy speakers.” Howe went on to found a consulting business called LifeCourse Associates and advise colleges, universities schools, businesses (Ford, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Kraft Nabisco) and public agencies on demographics, social change and the profile of new generations.
If businesses waste money on bogus futurism and visionary claptrap, it’s not particularly remarkable; enterprising consultants have always found ways to tap into corporate fund streams while their buzz is strong. But when the president’s chief strategist is enamored of half-baked theories of history, that’s another matter.
The problem isn’t that Bannon will want to launch a nuclear war; even someone who takes a clash-of-civilizations view of radical Islamism isn’t necessarily jonesing for mass destruction, and, besides, Bannon doesn’t have the power to initiate that if he did. The problem is that admiration for these kinds of crackpot theories reveal, or confirm, the dangerous amateurism about in the White House.
Autodidacts like Strauss and Howe—or Bannon—tend to fall in love uncritically with the seductive insights they stumble upon. They tend to disdain the reasons that more expert students of their subjects may offer for rejecting their overly simplistic claims. The penchant for grand explanatory theories frequently reflects an inflexibility of thought, a resistance to contrary evidence, an eagerness to fit everything into an all-encompassing system. But successful policy making depends on intellectual nimbleness and pragmatism, on being able to revise your ideas based on new events and information, on understanding history as a set of contingent choices. The type of person enchanted by The Fourth Turning’s overly neat diagrams and mechanistic arguments, who isn’t compelled to pick apart its glib generalizations, is not someone whose intellectual instincts encourage confidence.
But then I would argue something practical like that. I’m a Generation X nomad.
House Democrats are heading toward the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency with the kind of feel-good unity they haven’t experienced since the election.
Coming off a rowdy recess during which Republicans continued to be skewered by constituents on everything from health care to Russia to Trump’s tax returns, Democrats say walking through the political wilderness isn’t so bad — at least for now.
It’s a stunning reversal from the despair dominating the caucus just a few months ago when Trump entered the White House and Republicans seemed poised to wreak havoc on Democratic priorities.
“Donald Trump’s administration is a complete and utter disaster. And Paul Ryan’s leadership is so lackluster and weak,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a frequent thorn in his own leadership’s side, said in an interview. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in the Democratic Party.”
House Democrats are ready to flex their muscles, providing a list of demands Republicans must meet if they want Democratic votes to keep the government running beyond Friday. And they could be key players on tax reform and infrastructure in the coming months, if Trump ends up needing bipartisan buy-in.
“It’s a great time to be a Democrat,” said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, warning Republicans that even if they do achieve some of their biggest goals — like dismantling Obamacare — they will pay at the polls.
“We know we’re going to lose some battles between now and 2018, but every one of those losses costs the other side votes,” he said.
A surge of energy rippled through the Democratic caucus last month after Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare crashed and burned in dramatic, multiday fashion.
The party is also bolstered by its competitive streak in a pair of special elections in long-held GOP districts in Georgia and Kansas, which they hope could signal a Democratic wave in 2018.
“The president is coming up to his first 100 days with very little to show for it,” said New York Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “I think Democrats are buoyed by what they see happening.”
House Democrats emerged from the election shell-shocked — Trump had won the White House, Republicans still controlled the Senate, and House Democrats picked up only a handful of seats, despite boasting about the potential for double-digit wins.
But after a series of self-inflicted stumbles by the administration and Congress, including the Obamacare repeal implosion and botched travel ban, Democrats say they haven’t faced the doomsday they were forecasting in November.
The turnaround is remarkable for a caucus that just a few months ago, fearing several more years in the House minority, saw a brief challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership.
Now, some members are even talking openly about the possibility of taking back the House in 2018. They would need to pick up two dozen seats, an uphill battle to say the least. But the chatter speaks to the optimism the caucus is feeling.
And Gallego, who voted against Pelosi in last year’s leadership race, said the good fortune will lead to high expectations in November 2018.
“I’m happier than I was a couple months ago,” Gallego said. "[But] if we cannot pick up the 24 seats within the first two years of this presidency, then we need to reevaluate our whole leadership structure. Because we are essentially going to be in a long, prolonged legislative desert.”
In the immediate future, House Democrats have significant leverage in ongoing talks to keep the government open beyond the April 28 deadline.
With hard-line conservatives frequently opposed to spending bills, Republican leaders will likely need a number of Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown. And Pelosi is nothing if not an expert vote counter.
Democratic leaders say they won’t accept a Republican proposal that funds Trump’s proposed border wall, pours federal dollars into a “deportation force” or blocks federal grants for so-called sanctuary cities, all top priorities for a White House looking for its first big legislative win.
Democrats also say Republicans must agree to maintain Obamacare subsidies for lower-income people in the spending bill, a program Trump has threatened to derail.
Some members are also threatening to withhold support for any short-term funding extension, which is likely to be needed, unless the broad outlines of a larger deal are already agreed to by both parties.
With a spending deal elusive, Democrats also say a Republican push to hold an Obamacare repeal vote soon, possibly in the middle of bipartisan funding talks, isn't helping negotiations.
“I think, once again, it’s tough to ask for Democratic cooperation on one [issue] when you’re engaged in this wrecking ball mission on the other, especially since the two may very well be linked,” Connolly said.
At best, in Democrats’ minds, Republicans fall on their face again on health care, dealing another embarrassment to House GOP leadership and Trump. At worst, the bill makes it through the House, after which they think it has a good chance of dying in the Senate.
“I think it’s foolhardy to try to resurrect that bill,” Crowley said. “The likelihood of that bill passing the Senate is so remote …it’s not even remote. It’s not going to happen.”
But for every House Republican who votes in favor of repeal, Gallego reasoned, the 2018 campaign ads will have written themselves.
Voting for an Obamacare repeal “gives us our specific targets,” Gallego said. “If they want to write their own obituaries, we shouldn’t get in the way of that.”
House GOP leaders during a members-only conference call Saturday vowed to avoid a government shutdown and said they're closer to a deal to repeal and replace Obamacare, according to members who participated on the call.
But Speaker Paul Ryan also downplayed the possibility of a vote next week, the same sources said. The Wisconsin Republican said the chamber will vote on a conference-wide deal when GOP whips are confident they have the votes for passage — but not until then.
The comment was a subtle retort to a narrative being pushed by top White House officials, who told reporters this week that the House would hold the health care vote on Wednesday, before the close of President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office. The public expectations-setting from the White House has created pressure for Ryan to move the bill swiftly and secure a win for the president.
But Republican leaders want to avoid an embarrassing repeat of what happened last month, when Ryan had to pull an earlier health care bill from the House floor because he didn’t have enough votes to pass it. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus bucked the leadership and committed to voting no, and moderates also started peeling off. This time, Ryan and other GOP leaders want to nail down the votes before calling the legislation to the floor.
The call was initially scheduled to discuss plans to pass a spending bill. Government funding expires on Friday, leaving lawmakers just four legislative days to pass an appropriations package.
Ryan and his top lieutenants were adamant that they will keep the government open, as expected. They did not specify how exactly they intend to avoid a shutdown.
White House officials insisted this week that Republican leaders include funding to build Trump’s border wall with Mexico. Democrats have vowed to block any deal that includes funding for that project, which Trump repeatedly said on the campaign trail he’d force Mexico to pay for. And since the Senate requires at least eight Democrats to pass the bill, GOP leaders eager to avoid a shutdown fight have been trying to persuade the White House to drop its demands for wall funding.
Ryan, however, did not delve into details about the wall money and whether it would be included.
The Saturday afternoon conference call, which lasted about 25 minutes and did not include a question-and-answer session, was vague, according to people who were in on it. Lawmakers who spoke included Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.).
One member who participated described it as “most generic” and “milquetoast.”
The speaker and his team projected an air of optimism about passing their stalled GOP Obamacare replacement now that the White House has struck a new accord with conservatives. Outside groups that had previously supported members who blocked the earlier legislation have quietly signaled in recent days they’re open to the revived legislative push.
While members of leadership said they have to deal with government funding this week, they said they’d be working on a parallel track on finalizing the health care agreement crafted by Vice President Mike Pence, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Tuesday Group leader Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.).
The language is still being finalized with top negotiators and is being run by the Senate to ensure it survives the scrutiny of strict Senate rules. GOP leaders told lawmakers they will have more details during a Wednesday conference meeting in Washington.
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.
Deep-pocketed conservative groups that helped fuel the downfall of the House GOP’s Obamacare alternative are now quietly signaling they won’t oppose the White House’s renewed push to pass the bill.
Some of the most influential — and usually loudest — groups have privately told conservatives they want to see a deal go through, according to several people familiar with the conversations.
Two large and influential groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch have signaled to Freedom Caucus members that they hope to be able to support the bill and want to see the tide turned after an embarrassment for the Republican Party.
While The Heritage Foundation hasn’t taken a position, its president, Jim DeMint, has told House members he would be more open to compromise this time around — so long as the compromise looks like ideas floated to conservatives over the past few days. The Club for Growth has also stepped in, running ads attacking moderates who might oppose a new White House deal.
The shift marks a sea change for President Donald Trump and Republican leaders, who had to contend with the same outside groups calling the earlier bill “Obamacare lite” — a label that made it all but impossible for the most conservative House members, many of whom campaigned on Obamacare repeal, to support a deal.
When Speaker Paul Ryan first introduced the earlier bill in March, the Koch groups, Heritage and others cheered on Freedom Caucus members who opposed it, encouraging them to kill the legislation. Within days of the rollout, the groups staged protests. They complained to the White House that Ryan hadn’t brought them in. And, to make it easier for members to publicly break with the president and House leadership, they created a seven-figure fund to support Republicans who voted no.
Leaders of these groups now say they’re willing to go along with a potential agreement struck by the White House, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Tuesday Group co-chairman Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.), so long as the legislative text reflects ideas offered to them by the White House. The changes include waivers for states that wish to opt out of major Obamacare regulations. Those promises appear to be on the brink of winning over some of the most vocal opponents of the previous bill.
"We are encouraged by continuing discussions to repeal Obamacare and replace it with common-sense solutions," said DeMint.
A Freedom Partners official said the group looked forward to seeing the text and working with Congress and the White House but had taken no official position on a new bill.
Legislative text was still being finalized on Friday afternoon. Meadows has privately told people he expects to reach a deal on which most of the House Freedom Caucus can vote yes.
But winning the support of conservative outside groups and members of the Freedom Caucus might cause new problems this time around.
Republican moderates are unhappy with many of the proposed changes, fearful that they would undermine protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Losing more of those votes could sink the bill, which the White House is pushing the House to send to a floor vote next week — something senior Republicans say isn’t feasible.
The latest effort to woo conservative groups started weeks ago, almost immediately after Ryan pulled the first, unpopular bill from the House floor. Top Trump officials started calling conservative group leaders to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to discuss how they got where they were in the days following the bill’s demise. Senior White House officials say Ryan didn't do enough outreach the first time around, so they began aggressively courting outside groups themselves.
Vice President Mike Pence made dozens of calls and negotiated privately with the influential, well-funded outside groups before leaving on his Asia trip last weekend. Marc Short, the White House's legislative director, who once worked for Freedom Partners, a Koch-backed group, gathered specific suggestions and tested compromise language.
Ryan has also stepped up his outreach to his party’s right flank. Within a week of the earlier legislation failing, some of the groups were huddling in late-night meetings with Ryan in his Capitol suite, scheduled as late as 9 p.m. to evade public scrutiny, according to people familiar with the meetings. Ryan told the groups he wanted to find a solution they could all support, the people said.
Freedom Caucus members and leaders of the outside groups have responded by pulling together to discuss what they could accept and what they could let slide. Their aides came up with a plan to try to loosen Obamacare insurance regulations they believe will lower premiums. And they agreed, if they get the changes written into bill text, that they’d all support a final bill.
“We’re all going to support or we’re all going to oppose, most likely ... because we have the same end goals,” said a Freedom Caucus member, when asked about the group's work with conservative groups. “If it’s something that is palatable for them, it’s probably going to be palatable for us.”
With health care reform back on the table—and possibly up for a House vote next week—the nation’s attention is turning back to just what President Donald Trump’s long-term plan for fixing health care is. The president has promised a three-phase rollout in which the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is only the first step. One of the next steps, which he promises will reduce costs and give more people insurance, is an opening up of the state-by-state insurance system.
The president and his staff have returned to the topic multiple times. During his February address to Congress, the President ticked off his approach to health care reform, ending with a plan to “give Americans the freedom to purchase health insurance across state lines.” Later, within hours of Republicans outlining their legislation for replacing Obamacare—which didn’t include such a provision—Trump tweeted, “Don’t worry, getting rid of state lines, which will promote competition, will be in phase 2 & 3 of health care rollout.” White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeated the promise after the Congressional Budget Office delivered a tough score on the GOP’s original replacement plan.
The president clearly is committed to the state-line policy. If he wants a small win on health care to distract from the challenges of getting a large-scale repeal through Congress, this idea might meet that goal. But there’s one big problem: No one in the health care universe, on either the policy side or the business side, actually thinks selling plans across state lines will make a difference.
How do I know this? I chair the Zetema Project, whose mission is to foster open dialogue and debate on U.S. health care issues. Panelists include Republicans and Democrats, policymakers from the Obama White House and both Bush administrations, current Capitol Hill staffers, and senior executives representing hospitals, insurers, pharma, organized medicine, employers, patients and other key stakeholders. The group comes together in candid, off-the-record meetings not to work out solutions but to argue about issues deeply to make sure everyone understands their differences. You would think that this group couldn’t agree on much of anything, and you’d be right—almost.
At our January meeting, held days before Trump''s inauguration, we discussed more than a dozen potential reform ideas, including all the health care changes you’re hearing about these days: tax credits, block grants, high-risk pools and many others. We engaged in robust discussions, even heated debates, on every issue, save one: selling health insurance across state lines. It was on the agenda. But I couldn’t get the group to generate more than a collective yawn.
That may be surprising. After all, it sounds like a big disruption in a highly regulated insurance system. And it makes business sense that adding competitors to existing markets—which show wide variations in state health insurance costs—should benefit consumers. Back in 2010, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) claimed that a New Jersey resident could go to Wisconsin and save 74 percent on an insurance policy, if only the law allowed it.
Still, my group had no interest in this solution, one way or the other: The liberals weren’t worried about it, the conservatives wouldn’t push it, and the industry representatives wanted to move on to something that mattered. To be fair, there was one moment of excitement during that part of the discussion: When one of the authors of Obamacare mentioned that she had written it into the current health care law.
That’s right: It’s already possible to sell insurance across state lines. This key plank of Trump’s health care vision was authorized in 2010 by the very law he’s trying to replace, and it remains in effect. The law leaves the decision up to states themselves, and since then, several states—both red and blue—have passed laws that allow insurers to sell policies in other states with similar laws. But the number of insurance companies that have taken advantage of this exciting new opportunity is exactly zero.
Why? Some say that Obamacare didn’t go far enough to make interstate insurance sales feasible. State-by-state regulation persists. Any proposed sales must meet or exceed Obamacare’s standards and can’t increase the federal deficit. Perhaps what the president really means is that he’ll strip away these regulations and others that allow states to regulate health insurance, making it easier for insurers to sell plans across state lines. Even if this seems antithetical to traditional conservative notions of states’ rights, it certainly would grease the skids for interstate insurance sales. An enterprising insurer in a lightly regulated state could create a bare-bones health plan with limited coverage and very high deductibles and co-payments. The company could offer this plan at a low premium to consumers all over the country. Sure, consumers who didn’t read the fine print when they enrolled would have some unpleasant surprises when it came time to actually get health care, but that’s the reality of a free market, right? (This is what concerns liberal policy wonks: Most recent articles on this topic have focused on a regulatory “race to the bottom” across states should consumer protections be eviscerated in even one state.)
But the members of my group didn’t think these changes would make much difference. Why? Because the primary obstacle to selling insurance across state lines today isn’t regulatory, it’s operational. Think about it: When you buy health insurance today, you gain access to a network of providers in your state. If you are a New York resident and wanted to save money by buying a cheaper policy from Arkansas (33 percent less for family coverage in 2011, just before Obamacare kicked in), a change in law would give you access to doctors and hospitals in Arkansas. For most New Yorkers I know, that would be a nonstarter.
Why wouldn’t that insurer set up provider networks in the Empire State? There are at least two big reasons: First, doing it requires a huge, multi-year undertaking that involves contracting with providers that already have established relationships with other insurers, as well as creating a marketing presence with consumers. Second, there are those New York prices. Why is health insurance so much cheaper in Arkansas, anyway? Are insurers there really 33 percent more efficient than those in New York? More likely, if an Arkansas insurer invested heavily to set up shop in New York State, it would suddenly be facing New York costs—and wouldn’t really be able to offer that cheaper policy that interested New Yorkers in the first place.
This is the real obstacle to interstate insurance sales, and the reason neither side gets exercised about it: It’s unlikely to be profitable. Established insurance companies consistently tell me that they wouldn’t pursue this opportunity under any regulatory circumstances. Even if state and federal legislators were to do all the heavy political and regulatory lifting, at best a few niche startups would try selling stripped-down policies in high-cost states—probably under the intense scrutiny of the dismayed insurance commissioners from those states. And since these changes wouldn’t apply to most people currently covered by their employers or traditional Medicare or Medicaid, or the Veterans Affairs health system, or the Department of Defense, the opportunity for profit is quite small.
Which explains why even the group I convened specifically to argue couldn’t muster the energy to fight about this issue. Not only couldn’t I get any Republicans to support the idea, I couldn’t even find a Democrat to oppose it. The GOP has been pushing the idea for years, but when I ask Republican policy advisers about this, they admit off the record that this really is more of a talking point, and then they change the subject. It’s the same with the Democrats, who quickly segue to something more interesting. There’s just no there there.
Despite the failure to pass the American Health Care Act, Republicans have some ideas truly worth debating. If the president, who prides himself on his business savvy, really wants to score a win on health care, he should skip the notion of interstate insurance sales and focus on issues that really matter.
Mark Zitter is Chair of the Zetema Project.
This week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to curb abuse of the H-1B foreign worker visa program. While H-1B visas were designed to fill a shortage of specialized Ph.Ds and engineers, employers, predominantly in the tech industry, have instead used them to fill entry-level programming and software development jobs.
The rationale for the H-1B program is clear: if there aren’t enough qualified American workers for these positions, then to compete and innovate, companies should be able to import them from abroad. In practice, it hasn’t always worked out this way. That Trump has prioritized reducing abuse of the H-1B program is welcome news. But that solves only one part of the problem. Tough talk and punitive measures alone though won’t do anything to actually grow the pool of high-skilled American workers and connect more of them to the good paying jobs tech can offer.
Is it possible to kill two birds with one stone—to help companies fill critical skills needs today while also getting them to invest in developing homegrown talent? Maybe so, through a more ambitious reform of the H-1B program that ties it to creating more apprenticeships. A fuller solution would leverage companies’ interest in H-1B visas to encourage employers to invest in the skills of American workers, and pull their weight to build a globally competitive domestic workforce. If he handles it right, Trump could accomplish an elusive win-win for American workers and employers.
Designed in the 1990s to help companies fill high-skill workforce shortages, the H-1B program provides more than 65,000 visas each year to tech employers. The application period opened this year on April 3 and in a mere four days the annual visa cap for the year had been hit, selected by lottery from among 199,000 applications received during that four-day window. Employers need pay workers only a minimum of $60,000 a year—a good distance from the going market rate, especially on the tech saturated hubs on the coasts. This low salary baseline not only disadvantages American workers who demand a higher salary, but it also discourages employers from doing what they are supposed to do when skills are scarce: invest in training.
In many industries, when employers cannot find qualified workers, they raise salaries or partner with local schools or nonprofit organizations to train workers for those positions. For technology jobs, however, where the competition is particularly fierce, salary wars and poaching among a limited pool of current talent is the norm, and educating the next generation takes time since employers still overwhelmingly choose to recruit from four-year colleges. Against that backdrop, the H-1B program was designed to serve as a stopgap, but never to be a long-term skills solution for employers or the country.
The U.S, however, continues to struggle to build a robust domestic pipeline of tech talent to fill today’s tech jobs. For that reason, the Trump administration and lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle support expanding tech apprenticeship programs, a time-tested workforce strategy undergoing a renaissance in the U.S. With big unmet demand for specialized skills and a willingness to embrace new education models beyond the traditional college, the tech industry is ripe ground for expanding apprenticeship. There’s also some recent and visible interest among tech-sector leaders, with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff just weeks ago challenging the president to accept a moonshot goal of 5 million apprentices in five years.
Despite recent interest, tech apprenticeships in the U.S. have yet to take off. Of the roughly half-million apprentices in the U.S. today, a growing but still small portion of them are in the tech sector. Why the lack of uptake? First, apprenticeship means a big culture change for tech, including recruiting more diverse talent from more diverse places than the industry is accustomed. Second, apprenticeship isn’t a free ride and demands employer investment. You can’t have more apprentices without employers willing to hire and train them. That’s a challenge for tech employers used to a dynamic workforce, knowing well the risks of losing the apprentice they invested in to someone across town. In recent years the Obama administration, Congress and governors across the country have used public dollars to incentivize more employers to invest in apprenticeship and defray some of their costs and risks. But those much-needed resources for apprenticeship remain modest and cannot transform the way tech sources talent alone.
This is where the Trump administration has the chance to finally tackle tech’s skills challenge. But the president has to look beyond the current executive order, which simply directs specific agencies to recommend reforms to combat abuse. Cracking down on the misuse of H-1B won’t be enough to help more Americans tap into the tech boom, unless they also have the skills to fill those jobs. Instead, Trump should recognize that tech employers have a responsibility to invest and train the workforce they need both today and tomorrow. He can work with Congress to leverage the H-1B program to encourage companies to undertake such efforts.
What would those reforms look like?
It starts with raising the fees that employers already pay to bring in H-1B workers from abroad. Today’s fees, which range between $1,200 and $6,500 per worker, are too low to meaningfully incentivize employers to give a first look at H-1B alternatives like apprenticeship. Higher fees could nudge more tech employers to forgo H-1B and instead invest in homegrown talent through apprenticeship.
For employers that still choose to pay the higher H-1B fees, those funds can be used to expand tech apprenticeships. In fact, a portion of H-1B fees already support grants to public-private partnerships that train American workers for in-demand jobs. Higher fees would expand this pot of money and could be dedicated to fuel apprenticeship expansion in tech.
In fact, Trump already has a model to look at for how this can work. Seeded with a H-1B grant in 2015, Washington-based Apprenti works with employers across the tech sector to start apprenticeship programs that fill entry-level IT jobs that mirror the top H-1B occupations. Apprenti makes it easier for employers to start an apprenticeship, and as a result is diversifying the tech workforce by connecting American women, minorities and veterans to good-paying tech jobs.
More resources to support organizations like Apprenti could also be complemented by new H-1B program requirements to help wean employers off H-1B over the long term. As a precondition for H-1B eligibility for entry-level IT occupations, policymakers could require employers to sponsor an apprenticeship program or partner with organizations like Apprenti. Or, since employer demand each year for H-1B visas far exceeds the 65,000-plus cap, policymakers could create an H-1B visa priority line for the employers that do.
Rather than focusing exclusively on cracking down on bad actors, H-1B reform should present apprenticeship as a viable and sustainable workforce alternative to fill entry-level tech jobs. Such reforms should not choke off America’s access to global talent nor keep us from retaining the talent educated here in our colleges and universities. In a fair and open system, we should have the confidence that American workers can compete and succeed. But to succeed, American workers need a fair shot, and to ensure that, Trump also needs to focus on strategies that invest in the American people and their skills. More tech apprenticeship is a proven way to get there, and Trump should not miss the H-1B opportunity to ignite a boom that could benefit American workers and employers for years to come.
Brent Parton is deputy director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America and a former senior policy adviser at the Department of Labor.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump offered the clearest hint as to why he had broken his key campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator: "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” he tweeted. “We will see what happens!”
It’s an extraordinary message—an explicit confirmation that the U.S. may overlook currency manipulation to benefit our foreign policy interests. Whether China is actually manipulating its currency doesn’t seem to matter; it only matters that China is working with the U.S. to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. If Beijing continues to cooperate, the tweet implies, Trump will take a more lenient stance on China’s currency policy.
Critics have seized on Trump’s tweet as selling out his supporters, saying that currency manipulation is a narrow issue, with clear definitions and consequences for violations, and shouldn’t be used as leverage for other policy goals. But presidents have never used currency policy in this way and the actual decision over labeling a country a “manipulator” has always involved political considerations. Trump, then, is simply continuing this policy—with one big change: In the past, the president has never confirmed this transactionalism. In other words, Trump is just being more honest.
To critics of traditional U.S. trade policy, Trump’s honesty is of little comfort. They had hoped that Trump would offer a decisive break from past U.S. trade policy, which has almost never labeled China, or any other country, a currency manipulator. In fact, the last time Treasury officially designated a country a currency manipulator was China in 1994, despite widespread belief among economists that China artificially held down the value of the yuan for many years since.
Why? Lori Wallach, a trade expert at Public Citizen, has a simple answer: In the U.S.-China relationship, the United States has long subjugated currency issues for other issues, such as protections of intellectual property or market access. “It was a political decision,” said Wallach about Trump’s decision not to label China a manipulator, “and it was one that the president shockingly admitted was a foreign policy trade-off, one that he attacked past presidents for making with China.” In this telling, the U.S. prioritized the economic interests of Wall Street over those of Main Street. And whenever geopolitical considerations were at stake, such as China’s aggressions in the South China Sea or its veto at the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. deprioritized currency policy even further. So, even as China depressed the value of the yuan, reducing U.S. exports and costing American jobs, Treasury never officially labeled China a currency manipulator.
Brad Setser, who worked on international issues as a senior Treasury official in the Obama administration, doesn’t exactly reject this argument, but believes it misses a key point: labeling China a currency manipulator could have undermined attempts to persuade Beijing to stop artificially holding down the value of the yuan. “There undoubtedly has been a recognition that a label could contaminate the broader relationship,” he said. “But I also think there was a specific concern that labeling China a currency manipulator might—and this is eminently debatable—impede progress on currency, particularly when China was allowing some level of appreciation.” After all, the “currency manipulator” label comes with no direct consequences, but would greatly anger the labeled country.
A former Treasury official rejected the idea that past administrations traded off currency policy for other economic or geopolitical goals. But, he said, “I’m not saying this was some pure, technical, analytical exercise that only a bunch of beanie heads were involved in because that was definitely not the case. There were political discussions and meetings going on to think through consequences but you did try to utilize the analysis as it stood to come up with your conclusions.”
Trump enters office at an even more difficult moment in the U.S.-China relationship. North Korea is rapidly developing the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon and has conducted more nuclear tests since Kim Jong Un came to power. That has meant Trump’s relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been dominated by trade issues but by North Korea. In early April, Xi met with Trump in Florida and Pyongyang’s nuclear program was a top topic of conversation. And as North Korea prepared for another missile test—which failed a few seconds after launch on Saturday—Trump directed an aircraft carrier to reposition off the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing has taken some steps against North Korea, suspending coal imports from the country for 2017, cutting off a critical source of financing for the regime. Last week, a Chinese newspaper with close ties to the government suggested that “another provocation” might cause China to restrict oil imports into North Korea. But Beijing could also reverse those policies if the U.S-China relationship deteriorates on other issues, such as labeling China a currency manipulator. Even among critics of trade policy, the need for cooperation with Beijing on the issue of North Korea has some salience.
“I'm sympathetic of the idea of trying to prevent nuclear war, but I am inclined to think there are other items that we can give to China first in order to encourage their cooperation,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who has long criticized U.S. trade policies.
There is another reason not to label China a currency manipulator: it isn’t manipulating its currency anymore. Years of negotiation and subtle pressure led to the slow appreciation of the yuan. If anything, the currency is overvalued now and China has been taking steps to prop it up. (Experts also note that China continues to hold trillions in U.S. reserves, affecting currency markets.) When Treasury released its semi-annual report on foreign exchange practices last week, China met only one of three criteria to potentially be labeled a currency manipulator. Under the Obama administration, Beijing would have been removed from Treasury’s currency “monitoring list”—a list of countries that meet two of three criteria—but the Trump administration tweaked the rules so that China remained on the list anyway.
Still, it isn’t clear that Trump believes China isn’t manipulating its currency. He told the Wall Street Journal last week that the Chinese “are not currency manipulators.” But in late February, he called Beijing the “grand champions” of currency manipulation. It’s tough to know what he actually believes—whether his policy has changed because the underlying facts no longer support it, or whether he thinks he’s bending on a principle in the interest of making a deal. His interview with the Journal suggest the latter: “Solve the problem in North Korea. That’s worth having deficits,” Trump said in the interview. “And that’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make.”
When it comes to currency manipulation in Asia, a tougher case may be one of our closest allies: South Korea, which the International Monetary Fund said in its most recent assessment is undervaluing its currency and is listed on Treasury’s “monitoring list.” Many trade experts have long held that Seoul keeps the won undervalued, but Treasury hasn’t labeled South Korea a currency manipulator since 1988. As with China, the United States has a significant interest in maintaining good relations with the Koreans and a label of currency manipulation could certainly put that at risk.
Presidential candidates don’t have to balance currency policy and foreign policy; they can bash Chinese trade policies without causing a diplomatic incident. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both were China hawks on currency issues when they ran for president. But that immediately changes once a candidate becomes president, as Trump is quickly realizing.
In a sense, Trump is actually better prepared for this shift than most new presidents. He’s taken pride in his “flexibility” on different issues and been willing to backtrack on almost any campaign promise, whether labeling China a currency manipulator or becoming more involved in the Syrian civil war. But whereas Trump’s flip-flops on most issues represent a break from past presidents, who haven’t sharply changed their positions once in office, his flexibility on currency is perfectly in line with past presidents. It’s a business-as-usual currency policy, where everything is negotiable and all issues are connected.
And to Trump, that’s exactly how policymaking should be.
President Donald Trump leaves large blocks of "private time" on his Oval Office schedule for spontaneous meetings and phone chats with ex-aides, friends, media figures, lawmakers and members of his Cabinet — an old habit he’s carried over from his business days that has frustrated some West Wing aides.
Trump wrote in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” that his loose scheduling practices as a real estate magnate at the Trump Organization helped him be “imaginative.” Still, nine White House officials, former aides and personal confidantes interviewed by POLITICO were split on whether the freewheeling set-up, which can allow friends and unofficial advisers to whisper in the president’s ear on policy issues, is productive.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump’s schedule has fixed linchpins, which include national security briefings, meetings with Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, roundtables with business executives and public bill signings.
"He has very structured things that take place throughout his schedule, but I think to try to change who he is as a person would be a mistake,” Sanders said. “I think it would be a mistake to cut the president off…I think it allows him to be a better president by engaging and having some flexibility."
But other aides said Trump’s free time poses a concern. "There may be a block of time, two hours of staff time, who knows what’s going on during that time, anything could happen,” said one White House official.
Tommy Binion, director of policy outreach for The Heritage Foundation, said he was part of a group of about 40 conservative leaders that was meeting with Vice President Mike Pence for a routine listening session in March, when their host started getting notes from staff. Soon, the group was escorted into the Oval Office for a surprise audience with Trump. A White House official confirmed Trump’s appearance was unplanned.
“It was a jaw-dropping experience,” Binion said told POLITICO.
The conservative leaders were not the only ones summoned on short notice to see the president. David Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager who launched pro-Trump nonprofit “America First Policies,” has been called to the White House on several occasions for Oval Office meetings with just a few hours’ notice, according to two people familiar with the meetings.
Some visitors go through the typical channels to meet with the president, while others reached by POLITICO said they called the cell phone of his longtime bodyguard Keith Schiller. Some old friends still go through his Trump Tower assistant, Rhona Graff, as POLITICO previously reported.
Trump regularly calls ex-aides such as Roger Stone and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and POLITICO reported last week that he talks as often as twice a week to informal adviser Steve Schwarzman, the chief executive of Blackstone Group who helped convince the president to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or Dreamers, program.
The president has a standing block of time on his schedule each work week that he uses as legislative affairs outreach. It's an hour during the week in which he writes notes to or calls legislators, or has one or more of them in the White House to maintain an ongoing relationship with the Hill.
Trump also uses his downtime to watch television. Earlier this month, he spotted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher defending him on Fox News. Moments after the California lawmaker left the set, Trump was on the phone, inviting him to the Oval Office. Other times he’ll call in his own advisers to discuss something he saw on the news, one White House staffer said.
"Number one, he's lonely. It's part of why he's reached out to me," said one confidante of the president who Trump has contacted many times by phone since taking office. "He's always been a creature of routine."
That routine traces back at least to his days in real estate. "I try not to schedule too many meetings," Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” "I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to work each day and just see what develops. There is no typical week in my life.”
Staffers said in the White House, former Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh implemented a system of leaving half-hour to three-hour blocks labeled “private time” or “private dinner” on Trump’s schedule. White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs Rick Dearborn has been overseeing scheduling since Walsh’s departure, according to two White House officials.
It is not unusual for presidents to have some down time carved into their schedules. President Barack Obama scheduled free time for basketball and golf. Staff members had different level of access to Obama's schedule, so lower-level aides within the West Wing would see blocks called "POTUS time" with details that only senior staff could view, one former Obama White House official said.
A former George W. Bush aide described a rigid schedule, with back-to-back appointments and little time for impromptu meetings. He kept a separate schedule for private meetings, such as talks with his minister, his doctor, his personal lawyer or family friends.
Bush’s then-chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter said Bush reserved that time for truly personal activities, not for spontaneous meetings about official business.
"It sounds like a lot of what he's saying is private is still official business of the president,” Painter, who sits on the board of the Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said of Trump.
Painter said that could keep the public from seeing who is shaping administration policy. The White House decided last week not to release visitor logs voluntarily, meaning the public won’t see who is entering the White House until five years after Trump leaves office.
White House spokeswoman Sanders said not everyone who visits Trump needs to be disclosed.
"You choose to run for president and be in the limelight, but if you are passionate about a particular issue and you want to engage the president, you shouldn't have to be in the limelight as well,” Sanders said. "It allows you to have conversations with people that you might not otherwise."
Some of those meetings go public anyway. Americans found out Trump had dinner with former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and musicians Ted Nugent and Kid Rock Wednesday night because participants posted photos on Facebook. In March, news leaked that Trump had invited TMZ founder Harvey Levin to the Oval Office.
POLITICO has reported that Trump sometimes has dinners with Cabinet members. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been a repeat guest.
"President Trump has already demonstrated that he is one of the most accessible and open presidents the country has had in recent times," said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend who has met with Trump in the Oval office. "He's going out of his way to invite business leaders, Democrats, union leaders, world leaders, to meet with him either at the oval office or his home in Florida.
Aides said Trump’s schedule is beginning to become more structured now, regardless of his preferred way of doing business. As offices in the White House fill out, officials request more time with the president.
But after about 6:30 pm, when the president goes back to his residence, there's a general acceptance that his time is his own.
"They need to keep him busy or he starts calling CEO types like Steve Schwarzman," said one person who has been invited to visit Trump in the Oval Office.
"They're trying to fill his schedule up because he gets into mischief."
President Donald Trump on Friday claimed that he won’t get the credit he deserves for the first 100 days of his administration, seeking to manage expectations around what he called the “ridiculous standard” of the upcoming milestone date.
“No matter how much I accomplish during the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days, & it has been a lot (including S.C.), media will kill!” Trump tweeted on Friday morning.
By Friday afternoon, Trump went further, arguing that next week is irrelevant.
“Next week doesn’t matter,” he told reporters.
In fact, Congress returns from a two-week Easter recess next week facing a Friday deadline to fund the government or risk a shutdown. Trump said earlier Friday that his administration would unveil its tax reform plan next Wednesday. And there’s also a possibility that GOP leaders could hold a vote on legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare in the hopes of giving the Trump administration a major legislative victory as it marches toward Day 100.
But Trump on Friday afternoon said there’s “no particular rush” to push health care reform through and that it “doesn’t matter if it’s next week” or comes after his first 100 days.
Trump’s dismissive tone toward the 100-day mark is a notable shift from his campaign rhetoric, considering he issued in late October a contract with voters that included a “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.” On some points, like green-lighting the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and instituting a temporary hiring freeze on all federal workers, Trump has already followed through.
On others, like his promise to label China a currency manipulator on Day One of his presidency and his pledge to cancel all funding to so-called sanctuary cities, Trump has yet to deliver or has reversed himself. On some points in the contract, including those limiting lobbying by White House officials, it is unclear to what extent directives from the president are effective in fighting the government corruption Trump railed against on during the campaign.
While Trump has made good on some major campaign promises — including nominating and securing confirmation for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — his early presidency has also been marked by some high-profile failures.
Most notably, the first attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed amid resistance from conservatives who thought it didn’t go far enough and moderates who were anxious about voters losing health care coverage. Newly eager to claim a victory before the 100-day mark on April 29, the White House this week began pressuring Congress to pass a new version of the repeal legislation by the end of next week, even though it is unclear whether such a bill would have more success than the GOP's initial version.
Trump’s travel ban, the policy version of a proposal that began during the GOP primary as a promise to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S., also has stumbled. The rollout of the initial executive order prompted mass confusion and massive protests at U.S. airports and some green card holders were barred from entering the country. That iteration of the ban was stayed by a federal judge, as was a second version signed by the president that was intended to circumvent the first judge’s stay order.
Despite those shortcomings, Trump and others in the White House have publicly suggested that his administration has been more successful through its opening months than any in history. During a day trip to Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week, Trump declared that “no administration has accomplished more in the first 90 days.”
“That includes on military, on the border, on trade, on regulation, on law enforcement — we love our law enforcement — and on government reform,” he continued, touting success even though his administration cannot yet boast of a major legislative victory.
Short on wins when it comes to domestic policy, Trump has seemingly turned his attention abroad in recent weeks in a series of moves that have been mostly well-received. Without lawmakers to get in his way, the president has flexed his foreign policy muscle in dealings with other world leaders and in strikes against terrorist networks.
The president has received mostly positive marks for his decision to launch a missile strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for its use of chemical weapons in a rebel-controlled region of Syria. That move drew a sharp contrast between Trump and his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who threatened action against Assad should he use chemical weapons but did not follow through when the Syrian dictator did just that.
The missile strikes against Assad also put Trump in direct opposition to the Russian government, positioning that could benefit a president whose campaign has been accused of colluding with the Kremlin to win the White House (Trump has denied such allegations). The president’s warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, relatively common during last year’s election, have also come to an almost complete stop.
Faced with the most recent bout of saber-rattling from the North Korean government, Trump has sought to pressure China, North Korea’s principal international benefactor, into corralling the bellicose rhetoric and nuclear ambitions of dictator Kim Jong Un.
To do so, Trump has seemingly backtracked from the get-tough-with-China approach to foreign policy he prescribed on the campaign trail. Seeking cooperation with the Chinese, the president has already backed away from his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator on Day One and has said publicly that he would be willing to offer more favorable terms in his promised renegotiation of trade policy with the Chinese government if they are able to rein in North Korea.
Maintaining some portion of his past hard-line stance, Trump has warned that if China is unwilling or unable to corral North Korea, the U.S. and its allies are prepared to do so on their own. Echoing that sentiment, Vice President Mike Pence said this week that “the era of strategic patience is over” when it comes to U.S. policy toward North Korean provocations.
And just as tensions with the Kim regime seemed to peak last week, The U.S. military dropped one of its largest non-nuclear bombs, dubbed “the mother of all bombs,” on a system of caves and tunnels maintained by the Islamic State in a remote region of Afghanistan. The bomb was delivered apparently without any civilian casualties and the White House was vague as to whether the president personally approved its use.
It was the first time the U.S. had used the weapon and asked what its deployment might convey to North Korea, Trump said, “I don't know if this sends a message. It doesn't make any difference if it does or not. North Korea is a problem. The problem will be taken care of.”
But Trump’s successes abroad have not yet been replicated at home. Republican lawmakers are skeptical that Congress can fulfill Trump’s wishes of both passing an Obamacare replacement bill and a funding bill that would keep the government open beyond a deadline of next Friday at midnight.
Still, when asked during a news conference on Thursday about whether health care or avoiding a government shutdown was a higher priority, Trump refused to choose.
“I wanna get both,” Trump said alongside Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. “Are you shocked to hear that?”
Trump also tried to minimize the previous failed effort on health care, reminding reporters that Obamacare was an effort that took roughly a year-and-half, and, he noted, he’s only had about two months to negotiate a better health deal.
“This has really been two months, and this is a continuation. And the plan gets better and better and better, and it’s gotten really, really good,” Trump said. “And a lot of people are liking it a lot. We have a good chance of getting it soon. I’d like to say next week, but it will be — I believe we will get it, and whether it’s next week or shortly thereafter.”
“As far as keeping the government open,” he added, “I think we wanna keep the government open. Don’t you agree? So yeah, I think we’ll get both."
Nolan D. McCaskill contributed to this report.
Ivanka Trump is quietly staffing up, and she’s filling out her team in the West Wing with former officials from President George W. Bush’s administration.
In addition to her close adviser Dina Powell, who served as assistant to the president for personnel in the Bush White House, the first daughter — who now serves as a special assistant to the president — has hired a chief of staff who worked under Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings.
Julie Radford — who like her boss is a mother of three young children — was chosen to work for the first daughter after being recruited in February by Powell.
A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Radford, 34, first connected with Powell as a consultant to Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses initiative, which was overseen by Powell in her previous job. Based in New Orleans, Radford oversaw Goldman Sachs’ entrepreneur-boosting programs in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
“She’s one of the most talented women I have ever worked with,” Powell, who is now deputy national security adviser and a senior economic counselor, said in a brief phone interview Friday morning. “I saw firsthand her ability to both creatively develop new and innovate programs and execute them based on measurable results.”
Radford’s role as an official chief of staff to a first daughter is unique. Ivanka Trump is focused on women’s issues, but shealso has been described by her attorney as a looming presence who serves as “her father’s eyes and ears” in the White House. Ivanka Trump also has an assistant, and she continues to work closely with her father’s longtime senior communications adviser, Hope Hicks, who worked for the Trump Organization before joining the campaign. She also retains an outside spokeswoman. A White House official declined to comment on how many more staffers she planned to hire.
“We’re all one team,” Powell said of the group developing around Ivanka Trump in the West Wing. “We all work on these initiatives together.”
Ivanka Trump’s husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner, has also been staffing up. Earlier this month, Kushner recruited Hollywood publicist Josh Raffel to work in his burgeoning, though still vaguely defined, Office of American Innovation.
Radford reached out to Powell in February, expressing her support for Ivanka Trump’s message about women’s empowerment that she touted on the campaign trail to help her father defeat Hillary Clinton.
Radford, who has 8-month-old twins, has yet to move her family to Washington.
Along with Powell and Hicks, she’ll be accompanying Ivanka Trump to Berlin Tuesday, where Trump is scheduled to participate in a W20 women's summit organized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel is one of a number of foreign leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who have reached out directly to Ivanka Trump, seeking to work the family angle as they forge ties with the Trump administration.
“I think Ivanka Trump has a good eye for policy, especially around women’s issues,” said Spellings, who was Radford’s first boss out of college. “Julie is a wonderful person, with a can-do attitude.”
Former President Barack Obama will make his first public appearance Monday, hosting an event on civic engagement on his old stomping grounds at the University of Chicago.
The event, open to the public but with limited tickets, will bring together younger leaders and students “for a conversation on community organizing and civic engagement.”
It won’t be an explicitly political event.
As an Illinois state senator, Obama once represented the neighborhood where the campus is located and also was a law professor at the university. He last stopped by the campus in 2016, using an event at the law school to make a push for his failed attempt to appoint Antonin Scalia’s replacement on the Supreme Court.
“This event is part of President Obama’s post-presidency goal to encourage and support the next generation of leaders driven by strengthening communities around the country and the world,” the event program states.
The focus on younger leaders will be a significant part of his post-presidency, much of which is still being formulated. According to people familiar with the plans, Obama will talk about how people like those who are part of the event inspired him to get into politics when he was a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
Obama’s last event in Chicago was his farewell address just before the end of his term, in which he stressed the idea of being an active citizen. Monday’s event continues that theme.
Obama’s largely been on vacation since leaving office with trips to the Caribbean with Richard Branson and more recently in the South Pacific with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah and Tom Hanks. He also has started working on his memoirs.
As it became clear late Tuesday evening that Jon Ossoff would fall just short of the 50-percent mark in the first round of voting in a suburban Atlanta special election, Democrats back in Washington started leafing through their calendars and asking: When does the winning start?
Ossoff’s moral victory — capturing 48 percent of the vote in a conservative-oriented district — was welcome, but after two successive close-but-no-cigar finishes in House special elections in Georgia and Kansas, a new worry is beginning to set in.
For all the anger, energy, and money swirling at the grass-roots level, Democrats didn’t manage to pick off the first two Republican-held congressional seats they contended for in the Trump era, and the prospects aren’t markedly better in the next few House races coming up: the Montana race at the end of May, and the South Carolina contest on June 20.
Their best shot at knocking Donald Trump down a peg appears to be Ossoff’s runoff against Republican Karen Handel, also scheduled for June 20. But the Democrat will be an underdog in that contest, when there won’t be a crowded field of Republicans to splinter the vote.
After that, it’ll be a further five months before the New Jersey and Virginia elections for governor, leaving some strategists and lawmakers wondering how to keep the furious rank-and-file voters engaged in fueling and funding the party’s comeback — especially given the sky-high expectations that surrounded Ossoff’s ultimately unsuccessful run at the 50-percent threshold that was necessary to win the seat outright.
“The resistance has it right: They are fighting mad, but they find joy in the fight. And so it’s not that anybody should be expected to gloss over the challenges that we have, or be Pollyanna about our situation as a country or as a party,” said Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, decrying some of the party’s messaging describing the prospect of an Ossoff loss as devastating. “It’s just that there has to be a sense of momentum that builds over time and that requires that we define our objectives tightly — and that we are prepared to lose more than we win for the time being, but that we understand that we have the vast majority of the American people on our side, and history on our side.”
Democrats have posted a few successes in the opening months of the Trump era. They’ve slowed the new president’s agenda and overperformed in a slew of low-profile state legislative races. By any measure, Ossoff’s strong performance in Georgia and the 20-point swing toward the Democratic nominee in last week’s Kansas special election are impressive accomplishments given the conservative orientation of those districts. But they still fall under the category of loss mitigation, not concrete victories against a president the party loathes.
Now, with Ossoff falling short of an outright win despite an unprecedented surge of campaign cash and national attention — in a district which Hillary Clinton lost by just 1 percentage point in 2016 — comes the potential for another round of fingerpointing within the party. The worry: that if operatives and voters continue their practice of quietly blaming one another for losses, as they did after a narrow defeat outside Wichita last week, the current level of runaway enthusiasm and budding trust in the national party leadership could sputter out long before the 2018 midterms.
“Whatever happens over the next few weeks, it’s critical that rank-and-file Democrats feel like the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] left it all on the playing field,” said longtime party strategist Simon Rosenberg, president of the NDN think tank.
After attorney James Thompson came within 7 points of winning the race for CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s old seat in Kansas last week, some leading progressive voices, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, were quick to blame national Democrats for not spending enough time and energy to help Thompson. Since then, DCCC and Democratic National Committee officials have been sure to detail the work they’ve done for the party ahead of Ossoff’s race.
With the approach of a Montana contest that will see national resources poured in while political celebrities like Sanders descend on the state to support candidate Rob Quist, the question Democrats are asking themselves is whether it will be enough — and how to keep the grass-roots energy stoked as Trump’s administration passes the 100 day mark. Trump won Montana by 21 points, after all, and the race in Georgia to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price illustrated that a combination of Republican infighting, the Trump factor and an avalanche of campaign cash still isn’t enough to guarantee Democratic success.
The South Carolina race to replace Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney will take place under similarly difficult conditions — in a district Trump won by 18 points, and in a state where he won by 14.
One way to avoid a letdown, some Democrats say, is to train the focus on legislative fights where Democrats have slowed the White House, from its travel ban to the attempt to repeal Obamacare. Party operatives figure pushes like that might be enough to keep the base energized as opportunities to push back on individual policies surface.
“People are responding to Trump, and as long as Trump is in office they will continue to respond,” said Democratic pollster Margie Omero. “There are plenty of other avenues for engagement. Constant meetings and groups popping up all over the country. You have corporate motivated efforts that people are taking to make sure that companies they support have political views that line up with their own. You have the groundswell of activism against [Neil] Gorsuch, and then you have the protests like the tax protest or the climate ones coming down the pike. So there’s lots of opportunity for opposing the president. [Yes,] as long there’s voting, people are going to be paying a lot of attention to it. But it goes beyond that.”
The fact that Democrats have picked themselves up off the ground since Election Day to mount a resistance at all creates a positive feedback loop, they believe — pointing to local legislative races as evidence of an optimistic trend.
“The biggest driver of enthusiasm right now is the rejection of Trump and the Trump agenda,” said party strategist Jesse Ferguson, a former top official at the party’s House campaign wing. “There have been far more successes in resisting the Trump administration than anyone would have expected on November 10, whether it’s beating back the health care repeal or some of these special elections in state legislatures, or closer-than-expected congressional races.”
With the political map glaringly free of obvious near-term win opportunities, Schatz believes the party’s messaging needs some refining. In his view, that means officials at the DCCC should cut the doom-and-gloom messaging in their fundraising emails — a significant way the party communicates with backers.
“I don’t mind the occasional call to action that is based on a negative emotion, it’s the declaring final defeat at the start of the third quarter that bugs me. ‘All is lost’ is a preposterous thing to say to a voter or a donor, and to use words like ‘crushing’ is a total misunderstanding of how to motivate people,” he said on Tuesday, just hours before the DCCC sent out a Nancy Pelosi-signed note with the subject line "crushing loss."
“The point to be made here is this is Tom Price’s seat,” he added. "One of the most conservative people in the United States House. And when he vacated his seat nobody thought it was going to be a problem for national Republicans and competitive for us. So if we can keep up this competitiveness, it’s going to be a really interesting year in 2018. But if we define our success as winning in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia, we’re setting ourselves up for potential disappointment.”
The progressive group that grew out of former President Barack Obama's campaigns is making its first big move since Obama left office, targeting potential swing votes in Congress with digital ads ahead of a government funding fight over President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.
Organizing for Action's digital ad campaign is focusing on heavily Latino districts and states represented by Senate and House Republicans. The aim is to pressure members not to go along with the White House's demand for funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which the administration has said will cost $21 billion. (Senate Democrats estimate the actual cost is closer to $70 billion.)
The Trump White House is pushing for the border wall in a new government funding bill, but Senate Democrats have said they can't support additional cash for one of the administration's biggest priorities. Government funding runs out next Friday, giving both parties little time to find a solution.
The group's ads, which will start appearing on Facebook on Monday, tell users to call their representatives and ask them "not to fund the administration's wall and deportation force." The ads target Nevada Sen. Dean Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the two Senate Republicans considered most vulnerable to Democratic challengers in 2018.
They'll also run in a slew of districts represented by House Republicans: Arizona Rep. Martha McSally; California Reps. Jeff Denham, David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Steve Knight, Ed Royce and Darrell Issa; Colorado Reps. Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman; Florida Reps. Brian Mast, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent; and Texas Reps. John Culberson, Will Hurd and Pete Sessions.
Hillary Clinton carried most of those districts in the 2016 election. Trump carried the districts of Nunes, Tipton, Mast, Diaz-Balart and Dent.
"This administration wants to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on a massive border wall and a cruel deportation force, but only Congress can actually appropriate that spending," Organizing for Action spokesman Jesse Lehrich said. "We want key members to know that if they vote to fund this discriminatory immigration agenda with their constituents' money, they'll be held accountable."