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Democrats are hoping to kickstart a comeback in the Midwest in Tuesday’s primaries, picking candidates to take on Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and succeed Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton in Minnesota.
President Donald Trump’s victory in Wisconsin and narrow loss in Minnesota spurred renewed Democratic activism in both states. Party leaders hope to channel that enthusiasm into both governor’s races and reelecting Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), one of 10 Democratic senators up for reelection in states Trump carried. A wide field of Democrats led by state education official Tony Evers jumped in to face Walker, their longtime nemesis, while several prominent Minnesota Democrats leaped at the open governor’s race there, including Attorney General Lori Swanson and Rep. Tim Walz, as well as party-endorsed state legislator Erin Murphy.
Fielding strong candidates who can win those gubernatorial races would help Democrats rebuild their diminished party in the Midwest and, crucially, guarantee them a seat at the table for the next round of congressional and state legislative redistricting in 2021 and 2022 — eight years after Wisconsin Republicans locked in major midterm gains by controlling the redistricting process.
“It's a classic midterm election where the ‘out’ party has a terrific opportunity to win,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “That's what happened the other way in in 2010 and 2014. Now it's our turn. We don't want to go overboard but I think we are very hopeful of reversing a lot of the Republican gains over the last several cycles.”
But Republicans want to keep building on Trump’s 2016 showing. They’ve spent more than $12 million in the primary to pick Baldwin’s opponent and could potentially re-nominate ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his old job in Minnesota. The GOP is also targeting two Democratic-held House seats in Minnesota, where both parties are watching Tuesday’s primaries for signals about the competitiveness of the fall general elections.
Republicans are also eyeing Connecticut, where retiring Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy has low approval ratings, as an opportunity to pick off a governorship in the usually-blue Northeast. Five Republicans are jockeying for the nomination, including David Stemerman, a hedge fund founder who loaned his campaign $10 million and has cast himself as “a pure outsider and turnaround specialist,” said Phil Cox, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Another New England primary offers a chance at history: Vermont Democrats could nominate Christine Hallquist, who would be the first openly transgender governor in the country if she wins, to run against Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in Vermont, 8 p.m. in Connecticut and 9 p.m. in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Here’s a state-by-state look at what’s on the ballot:
Evers, the state superintendent of education, has led in polls of the Democratic gubernatorial primary thanks to wide name recognition. But a number of other candidates are also seeking to take on Walker, including former state legislator Kelda Roys and firefighters union president Mahlon Mitchell.
The crowded Democratic primary for governor split the donor money in that race, but outside money has poured into Republicans’ Senate primary. State Sen. Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, a veteran and businessman, each have their own billionaire super PAC-funding backers. The Wisconsin GOP Party and House Speaker Paul Ryan are also backing Vukmir, but megadonor Richard Uihlein has spent $10 million to boost Nicholson, who has cast himself as a political outsider. Recent public polling shows the race essentially tied with a chunk of undecided voters.
Another top House race will decide House Speaker Paul Ryan’s replacement in southeastern Wisconsin, after Ryan announced that he would not seek reelection in 2018. Ryan endorsed Bryan Steil, a state board of regents member, in the Republican primary, but he must first emerge from a crowded race, which includes Paul Nehlen, a businessman who’s made anti-Semitic comments.
Randy Bryce, an ironworker who has raised millions of dollars after going viral on social media last year, and Cathy Myers, a Janesville school board member, are battling for the Democratic nomination.
Democrats hope to hold on to the governor’s mansion, but the primary highlights all the tensions currently at play in the party.
Public polling shows Swanson and Walz as frontrunners, despite state Rep. Erin Murphy’s support from the state party after winning the convention vote earlier this year. But Walz, who represented a red-tinted, rural district, has come under fire for his one-time “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Murphy is tacking to the left, running on a progressive, Medicare-for-all platform.
On the Republican side, Pawlenty is trying to make a comeback. But the one-time presidential candidate and head of the Financial Services Roundtable, where he oversaw the finance industry’s lobbyists in Washington, has to handle a primary from Jeff Johnson. And if Pawlenty nabs the nomination, he’ll be forced to walk a careful line between alienating the Trump base and the president’s falling approval numbers in the state.
Meanwhile, Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) is running in her first primary, seeking to complete former Sen. Al Franken’s term after he resigned over sexual harassment allegations. Republican voters are choosing GOP nominees to go up against both Smith and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, who jumped into the attorney general’s race, has also come under fire since the weekend, after the son of an ex-girlfriend accused the congressman of domestic violence. Ellison denies the allegations, but it’s not clear what kind of impact they could have on the primary to succeed Swanson as attorney general.
Down the ballot, both parties are eyeing a handful of House primaries. Republicans, hoping to offset losses elsewhere in a tough midterm election, believe they have a shot at flipping two open Minnesota House seats that Trump won by double-digits. Democratic incumbents opted against seeking reelection in both seats.
In Minnesota’s 1st District, businessman Jim Hagedorn and Carla Nelson, a state legislator, are battling to replace Walz in a district Trump carried by 15 points. Democrats expect Dan Feehan, a veteran and former Obama administration official, to carry their banner, but he’ll face an uphill battle in a rural seat that has trended rapidly away from his party.
Republicans are already touting St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, their candidate to replace retiring Rep. Rick Nolan for his Iron Range-based seat that backed Trump by 16 points. Democrats, for their part, are hoping to see former state Rep. Joe Radinovich survive a five-candidate primary, seeing him as the only Democrat with the resources to take on Stauber in the fall.
A pair of perennial battleground matchups will also be settled on Tuesday. Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) is expected to face off again against his 2016 opponent, health care executive Angie Craig. Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) will likely face Dean Phillips, a businessman, for his suburban Minneapolis seat.
Malloy’s poor job approval numbers have put Republicans on offense. Five GOP candidates are running for a shot at the open governorship, including Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, former banking executive Bob Stefanowski, Trumbull First Selectman Tim Herbst, consulting executive Steve Obsitnik and David Stemerman, a self-funding hedge fund founder.
Democrats nominated Ned Lamont, a businessman who shot to fame in 2006 when he defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in a primary, before Lieberman won the general election as an independent. Lamont has distanced himself from Malloy.
An insider-versus-outsider primary is playing out in the race to replace Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty, who retired after mishandling a sexual misconduct claim against a former staffer. Jahana Hayes, a first-time candidate who was named “National Teacher of the Year” in 2016, would be the first African-American to represent the state in Congress. But Mary Glassman, a longtime local politician, is seen as the frontrunner in the race.
Democrats in the state are poised to pick Christine Hallquist, the former Vermont Electric Coop CEO, as their nominee, who if elected, would be the first openly transgender woman to serve as governor.
“Christine will be a historic figure if she wins the nomination, whether or not she becomes the governor,” former Houston Mayor Annise Parker told POLITICO earlier this month. “If she becomes the governor, she has the potential to be a role model for every trans kid in America.”
But Scott, first elected in 2016, holds a wide margin in name recognition over his Democratic opponents in public polling, even though his job approval rating dropped off in the last year.
Daniel Strauss contributed reporting.
The most expensive Senate primary of 2018 and a pair of gubernatorial primaries key to Democrats’ Midwestern comeback attempt are up for grabs Tuesday, along with a handful of contests crucial to the battle for House control in November.
In Wisconsin, Republicans have seen more than $12 million in outside spending before they choose between two candidates competing to take on Sen. Tammy Baldwin, one of the 10 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection in states President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Democrats in the state will pick a candidate to face Gov. Scott Walker, a longtime nemesis who has weakened public-sector unions.
The parties are also clashing over four of Minnesota’s eight House districts, and primaries Tuesday in two of them — on opposite ends of the state — could go a long way in determining which party has the advantage in the general election.
Meanwhile, Tuesday also presents chances at political comebacks for two bold-faced names from the last decade: Ned Lamont in Connecticut, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in Vermont, 8 p.m. in Connecticut and 9 p.m. in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Here are six things to watch as the results come in:
Outside-versus-inside in Wisconsin
State Sen. Leah Vukmir has the backing of the state Republican Party, House Speaker Paul Ryan and key allies and even family members of Gov. Scott Walker. But businessman and veteran Kevin Nicholson has one very deep-pocketed backer: GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, who has financed several groups that spent around $10 million on the airwaves boosting Nicholson.
Vukmir also has a billionaire backer, Diane Hendricks, but she has leaned more on a May endorsement from the state GOP, calling herself a proven conservative and campaigning on her role enacting Walker's conservative agenda. Walker himself has stayed neutral in the race — he'll share the ballot with whoever wins — but his wife endorsed Vukmir, his son is working on her campaign and operatives from his past campaigns are running a pro-Vukmir super PAC.
Nicholson has branded himself as a political outsider and on his record as a businessman and Marine, hoping to catch fire with Trump supporters who liked his anti-Washington message. Pro-Vukmir groups have attacked him for his past as a Democrat, but he's attempted to use his conversion to the Republican Party as a positive.
Recent polls have shown a close race with a substantial group of undecided voters. Democrats are hoping the negativity of the race will leave the nominee bruised and broke heading into the general election against Baldwin.
But Republicans have already prepared themselves for the quick turnaround after the primary. The state GOP has specifically avoided going negative in the race so it is prepared to activate on behalf of Nicholson if he prevails. And Uihlein and Hendricks are co-chairing a fundraiser Friday for the primary winner.
Democrats’ picks in the upper Midwest
If it’s an even-numbered year, Scott Walker is running. First there was his 2010 election, which wrested the Wisconsin governor’s mansion from Democrats. Then it was the 2012 recall, when Democrats, angry over Walker’s move to strip public unions of collective-bargaining rights, unsuccessfully tried to boot him from Madison. After Walker won a hard-fought reelection in 2014, he quickly trained his eyes on the White House — but flamed out early in the nominating process. He returned to Wisconsin seriously wounded, with plummeting approval ratings.
Walker’s poll numbers have recovered somewhat, but Democrats still believe that the national environment, combined with voters’ Walker fatigue, gives them a good chance to deny him a third term.
First, Democrats have to pick a candidate among the 10 on the ballot. There’s been very little reliable polling of the race, but those surveys show only one candidate gaining much traction at all: Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction.
Meanwhile, Democrats will also pick their nominee for governor in Minnesota, where the party is looking to hold onto the governor’s mansion after Mark Dayton’s two terms; the Democrat isn’t seeking a third. The race is a three-way contest between state Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Tim Walz and state Rep. Erin Murphy.
The state’s Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement process has loomed large in the race. Murphy captured the imprimatur at the state party convention this year, while Swanson entered the race only because the party endorsed a challenger to her candidacy for reelection as attorney general.
‘Sam’s Club’ Republican meets the Trump era
When Pawlenty first ran for governor of Minnesota in 2002, he said the GOP had to be “the party of Sam’s Club, not the country club.”
Now he’s running for governor again, after years working for the financial industry in Washington, seeking the nomination of a party whose leader just spent two weeks governing and golfing at his own, eponymous country club. But despite that dissonance, the Republican Party has changed — and in the general direction Pawlenty had prescribed.
Trump put Minnesota on the map in the 2016 presidential race by turning traditionally blue, working-class corners of the state red — but he also ceded ground in the Twin Cities suburbs, as more-educated white voters fled the GOP nominee. Trump ended up losing the state by 1.5 points.
In order to win back the governorship, Pawlenty must unite those two wings of the party. But the one-time White House hopeful faces a fight just to capture his party’s nomination. Limited polls give Pawlenty a slight edge over Jeff Johnson, the GOP nominee against Dayton in 2014.
But Johnson has a lot of material with which to work against Pawlenty, and so will the Democratic nominee in the fall, if the man known as “T-Paw” wins the nomination. After his aborted 2012 presidential bid, Pawlenty became president of the Financial Services Roundtable — essentially serving as the financial industry’s chief lobbyist in Washington.
Pawlenty isn’t the only aughts-era politico looking to make a comeback on Tuesday: Lamont — who unseated then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in a Democratic primary in 2006, only to lose in the general election when Lieberman ran as an independent — is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Connecticut governor.
A GOP opportunity in Connecticut
While Lamont is favored in the Democratic primary, five Republicans have been battling for months for the GOP nomination.
The candidates are Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton; Tim Herbst, the 2014 GOP nominee for state treasurer; Steve Obsitnik, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Jim Himes in 2012; former GE executive Bob Stefanowksi; and former hedge fund manager David Stemerman, who has loaned his campaign $10 million.
Republicans sense an opening despite the state's Democratic lean, given retiring Gov. Dannel Malloy’s putrid approval ratings. And a victory in Connecticut could allow Republicans to increase their ranks in New England, even as the party struggles elsewhere.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott faces one challenger in the Republican primary on Tuesday: Keith Stern, a grocer. Scott is favored to win reelection this fall.
Gov. Charlie Baker is virtually assured of reelection, even in bright-blue Massachusetts. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is a more narrow favorite to earn a second term to the north. A Suffolk University poll released last week showed a tied race in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage is term-limited.
In addition to Connecticut, the GOP is on offense in Rhode Island, where a rematch is anticipated between Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo and Allan Fung, whom she defeated in 2014. A WPRI-TV/Roger Williams University poll released last week showed the two candidates neck-and-neck in the general election.
A changing of the guard in Minnesota
Tuesday’s primaries could go a long way in determining whether Republicans can pick up a few House seats that could offset Democratic gains elsewhere in November, as the GOP tries to protect its fragile 23-seat edge in the House.
Walz, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has represented the 1st District in Southern Minnesota for 12 years. But he chose to mount a statewide campaign rather than seek a seventh term in a district Trump carried by 15 points. The political ground shifted right under Walz’s feet in the mostly rural district: In the 2012 election, then-President Barack Obama won the district by a point.
Democrats are likely to nominate Dan Feehan, an Army veteran and former Obama administration official. Republicans are choosing Tuesday between Jim Hagedorn — who lost to Walz in both 2014 and 2016 — and state Sen. Carla Nelson. Most observers see Nelson as the stronger general-election candidate, but Hagedorn maintains name ID in the district and earned the endorsement of the state GOP.
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) made the same calculation in Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range as Walz down south: A statewide candidacy is preferable to running for another term in a district Trump won by 15 points. (Nolan is running for lieutenant governor on Tuesday.) Republicans have been touting their likely candidate: St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who also got the coveted Trump Twitter endorsement on Monday.
Democrats, on the other hand, are hoping former state Rep. Joe Radinovich emerges from a five-way primary on Tuesday. They believe Radinovich, who managed Nolan’s 2016 campaign, is the only Democrat with the resources to take on Stauber in the fall.
The race for Paul Ryan’s seat
While the shock waves from Ryan’s retirement announcement earlier this year have subsided in Washington, they are still roiling his southeast Wisconsin congressional district, with competitive primaries in both parties.
On the Republican side, Ryan has endorsed Bryan Steil, a former Ryan aide and University of Wisconsin regent. But Steil faces four other opponents for the seat, including Paul Nehlan — Ryan’s 2016 primary challenger, who has made a series of racist and anti-Semitic comments.
Also on the ballot is Jeremy Ryan, who challenged Paul Ryan in 2014 and was described by the Janesville Gazette last week as “an enthusiastic marijuana smoker.”
The race for the Democratic nomination is between two candidates: ironworker Randy Bryce and Janesville school board member Cathy Myers. Bryce has been a fundraising machine, but he’s spent a lot, too: As of July 25, Bryce had raised $6.3 million for the cycle — and spent $4.6 million of it. Bryce would also bring some baggage to the race: He was arrested in 1998 for driving under the influence and later had his license suspended.
Trump carried the district by 10 points in 2016, and the GOP nominee will likely enter the general election as a slight favorite.
Wisconsin Democrats on Tuesday will choose from a field that once swelled to over a dozen candidates — an array of businessmen, state legislators, the mayor of Wisconsin’s most liberal city and the chief of the state firefighters union — to realize their long-elusive goal of defeating Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
But the clear frontrunner is state education superintendent Tony Evers, a 66-year-old white man who stands out in a year when Democrats have put forward high numbers of women, young people and first-time candidates for office. What Evers lacks in sizzle, Democrats are hoping he compensates for with a record of clashes with Walker over education that could energize his party and deny the Republican governor a third term.
After years of doing battle with unions and pushing conservative legislation, Walker may be the one Republican who gets Wisconsin Democrats as agitated as President Donald Trump does. And that, say some Democratic officials in the state, might be enough in a year like this.
"If there's a rub on Tony Evers, it might be that he's too nice," said Joe Wineke, a former Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman. "But I'm not convinced Midwestern nice is going to be a bad thing in the year of Trump.”
While talk of rolling back Walker’s accomplishments has dominated the Democratic primary, Republicans have already sought to define the terms of the campaign. The Republican Party of Wisconsin has already focused attack ads on four candidates: Evers, former Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, former state Rep. Kelda Roys, and Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin President Mahlon Mitchell.
"I do think this is our big opportunity. This is a favorable year for Democrats. It's a year in which women candidates and women voters are more energized and are being more successful than ever in modern political history," said Roys.
The Democratic primary has hardly been the bareknuckle brawl one might expect from a big field in a divided state. But it has split money and endorsements over a broad range of candidates, leading the Democratic Governors Association to task a operative with building fundraising infrastructure for the eventual primary winner, to assure the nominee is able to compete with Walker’s campaign machine. That has given an edge to Evers, who has been elected statewide three times since 2009.
“We had a gubernatorial primary that really didn't ever take off, and so for that reason Evers is a perfectly acceptable statewide figure who's probably going to win,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.
Evers has also embodied the anti-Walker mood, bashing Walker as “anti-education” and vowing to bring back funding for after school program and kindergarten in the next 2019 and 2021 budget.
“To beat Scott Walker we need a stronger vision for our future. Instead of investing a billion dollars in handouts to companies like Foxconn, I’m going to invest in our kids and our workers,” Evers said in an ad. The narrator adds: “What’s best for our kids is best for our state.”
The biggest criticism aimed at Evers came from Matt Flynn, another primary candidate, who’s argued that Evers, along with Mitchell and Roys, have run ineffective campaigns and would lose decisively against Walker in a general election matchup. Flynn has accused Evers of being a “politically naïve” candidate.
Mitchell, the labor leader, has rallied most of the other major Wisconsin unions to his side. He has run as a pragmatic liberal candidate who, as an African American, can appeal to minorities in the state and rally labor unions like no other candidate in the field.
But Roys, a former state representative, has highlighted her appeal to female voters with endorsements from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her experience as the executive director of the NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. Roys ran a celebrated primary ad that featured her breastfeeding her child.
As the Democrats have scrapped for votes within their party, Walker has been preparing for the sprint to the finish in the general election, amassing $4.8 million already. Since it's never been completely clear who he will face in the general election, Walker and his team have worked to highlight his policy accomplishments, framing him as an education-focused governor, while also bashing as many of the Democratic candidates as possible.
"Scott Walker has delivered results and traveled the state tirelessly to share his vision with the people of Wisconsin, and now he's built a campaign to win," Walker senior adviser Brian Reisinger said in a statement. "Tens of millions of dollars in big government special interest money is lining up to distort his record of reform, but the governor will continue to offer a conservative model for others by running on his accomplishments and vision to keep Wisconsin working for generations to come."
Once there's a Democratic nominee, the contrast between Walker and the Democrat will crystallize, said Republican strategist Mark Graul.
"The governor has been in sort of a vacuum. Either you're for Scott Walker or you're not for Scott Walker. And after Tuesday I think it'll be 'either you're for Scott Walker or whether it be Evers or Roys or Mitchell,'" Graul said. "So there will be a clear contrast of what people's choices are going to be in November."
A daily trickle of revealing internal conversations between staffers. Growing anxiety about what one might have once said. No sense of how long it will go on.
Omarosa Manigault Newman’s slow release of secretly taped conversations from inside the Trump campaign and White House is having the same effect on staffers as the daily dumps from WikiLeaks had on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, when chairman John Podesta’s emails were trickled out during the final stretch of the race.
“People are terrified,” one former Trump aide said of the tapes. “Absolutely terrified.”
On Tuesday, the fifth day of her one-woman news cycle, Manigault Newman released a taped conversation from the 2016 campaign, in which former spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and another African-American Trump adviser, Lynne Patton, discussed the possible existence of an N-word tape.
“He’s said it,” Pierson says on the recording. “He’s embarrassed.”
The latest reveal indicates that Manigault Newman isn’t just trying to discredit President Donald Trump, who is the subject of her book, “Unhinged.” In her crusade for publicity and payback, she’s willing to embarrass and expose her former colleagues along the way.
The result is the same type of psychological warfare that gripped the Clinton campaign two years ago with staffers — and anyone tangentially in their orbit — waking up every morning bracing themselves for what potentially embarrassing missive might be made public, and waiting for the onslaught to end.
Like the WikiLeaks dump — which severely damaged the Clinton campaign by taking it off message, but never produced a smoking gun — Manigault Newman's tapes, according to someone who has listened to them, are juicy to listen to but ultimately don't contain any bombshell about the president or his family.
Former senior staffers also said they felt safer because Manigault Newman was not included in small, high-level meetings. And they doubted that she taped the one broader senior staff meeting that she attended, which included about 25 people.
“But if I was on the communications staff, where she was interacting more with people,” said another former senior administration official, “I can see how people might be nervous.”
There are, of course, many differences between Manigault Newman’s tapes and the WikiLeaks emails. Where the Clinton campaign was targeted by a shadowy outside force trying to disrupt the election, Trump’s hacker is a known knife fighter he willingly brought into the house because, as he tweeted earlier this week, she said flattering things about him.
While WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dumped thousands of pages of documents for the public to make sense of, Manigault Newman — who in an MSNBC interview on Tuesday called herself a whistleblower — is dribbling out bits and pieces in building her case against Trump, cherry-picking the evidence to bolster her own argument and not delivering a full picture. In the world of whistleblowers, Manigault Newman is just playing a few notes on a flute.
While White House staffers have nothing but their own recollections to count on as they brace for a next tape, the Clinton campaign had the ability to know what could, potentially, come out.
“We had John’s emails,” recalled Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “We were worried they would start making stuff up. But we had something to work from. We had the ability to figure out what the universe might be.”
Palmieri said another plus was the more sober characters that populated her campaign.
“Nobody had to be worried that there was an email where Hillary used the N-word,” she said. “And John doesn’t say crazy stuff. But for other people on the campaign, especially younger people, it was really upsetting because every staffer’s greatest fear is that they do something that becomes a problem for their candidate.”
There were, however, embarrassing moments for longtime Clinton aides in the WikiLeaks dump. Longtime Clinton adviser Neera Tanden groused in one email about the boss that “her instincts are suboptimal” and said of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, “I find him a bit insufferable.”
While the email hack left donors with bruised egos, and some friendships slightly frayed, other Clinton loyalists said there is a stark difference between a foreign adversary stealing personal emails and a colleague leaking dialogue from meetings.
"Unless Omarosa is a Russian plant," said Tanden, "these are night and day."
That's also true of how the two situations are being handled.
In Clinton world, Palmieri started every day with a readout on what had come across the Wikileaks transom that morning. In this case, the White House strategy so far — with the exception of the president — has been to try and ignore Manigault Newman and her tapes.
“I think it would be great if every single person in this room and this administration never had to talk about this again,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the press briefing Tuesday afternoon, studiously avoiding referring to Manigault Newman by name. When pressed on whether she wanted the president to stop tweeting about his former staffer, she added, “I think it’s better for all of us to walk away.”
Despite the administration’s attempts to pivot away from the topic, the fear about the tapes is still hanging over people inside and outside the administration.
One former Trump adviser said he already assumed every conversation he was having in the White House was being recorded in some fashion, and went so far as to purchase a Faraday box, which blocks electromagnetic fields, to store his government phone.
The only people breathing easy this week are those who had little to do with Manigault Newman at all. “Luckily I spoke to her approximately four times ever,” said another former White House official.
Former White House adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman says she has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The ex-"Apprentice" reality television villain is on a publicity blitz for her new tell-all book about her time working for President Donald Trump in the White House. Appearing on MSNBC on Tuesday, when asked whether she was interviewed by Mueller, she said "I have."
In the days leading up to the book's release, Manigault Newman has released tapes she secretly recorded during her time on the Trump campaign and in his administration. She also says there is a tape of Trump using a racial slur from his reality television show "The Apprentice," but she has offered no proof, and the president and his staff deny the allegation.
Manigault Newman would not say whether she has appeared before a grand jury in Mueller's investigation into the 2016 election, but she did say the special counsel's team interviewed her.
"There is a lot of corruption that went on both in the campaign and the White House. I am going to blow the whistle on all of it. I am very interested in exposing what was happening behind the scenes," Manigault Newman told MSNBC host Katy Tur.
Manigault Newman would not say whether she has more audio recordings from her time working for Trump, but added she would hand over anything of interest to the Mueller investigation.
The former reality star's appearance came just hours after she appeared on CBS News to release a tape that she says features campaign staff allegedly strategizing how to handle then-candidate Trump using a racial slur. The president fired back on Twitter on Tuesday morning, calling her a "lowlife" and a "dog."
The staffers allegedly featured on the tape, Katrina Pierson and Lynne Patton, denied Maniagult Newman's allegations on Tuesday and said the rumored "N-word tape" does not exist. Later in the day Tuesday, Trump's campaign filed for arbitration against Manigault Newman as her accusations escalated.
Manigault Newman was fired by White House chief of staff John Kelly late last year after a tumultuous tenure. She secretly recorded Kelly firing her in the Situation Room and released the tape last weekend, which raised questions about White House security.
"It is interesting that he is trying to silence me," Manigault Newman said. "What is he trying to hide, what is he afraid of? If he had not said anything that is derogatory or demeaning to African Americans and women, why would he go to this extent to shut me down?"
Donald Trump's presidential campaign has filed for arbitration proceedings against former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman after she released a tell-all book from her time on the president's 2016 campaign and in the White House.
The move is the latest escalation between the former "Apprentice" star and the president, who has labeled Manigualt Newman "wacky," "deranged" and a "dog" in posts to his Twitter account this week.
"Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. has filed an arbitration against Omarosa Manigault-Newman, with the American Arbitration Association in New York City, for breach of her 2016 confidentiality agreement with the Trump Campaign," a campaign official said.
While Manigault Newman has said that she refused to sign the White House’s non-disclosure agreement, she did acknowledge during an interview with PBS on Monday that she signed one for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and another one in 2003 when she was on "The Apprentice."
Those other NDAs have been described as more restrictive than the White House agreement, with potentially more legal heft.
A copy of the Trump campaign NDA that was obtained by POLITICO included a non-disparagement clause to ensure staffers did not release information, confidential or detrimental, about Trump, his business, his family members including grandchildren, and even family members’ companies.
Trump tweeted Monday that Manigualt Newman had signed a non-disclosure agreement, but did not specify if it was for the White House or his campaign.
During an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday afternoon, Manigualt Newman said she does not believe she violated her 2016 agreement.
"I don't believe that I have violated, but I will leave it to the lawyers to sort that out," she said during her first interview since the arbitration move was announced. "It's interesting that he is trying to silence me, what is he trying to hide or be afraid of?"
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a Tuesday press briefing that she would not disclose whether she signed an NDA but said it was common practice to have employees sign those type of agreements.
"I'm not going to get into the back and forth on who has signed an NDA here at the White House," she said. "I can tell you that it's common in a lot of places for employees to sign NDAs, including in government, particularly anyone with a security clearance."
When later pressed that the act is common for corporations rather than for government, Sanders said the White House's policy is consistent with past administrations.
"It's also, despite contrary opinion, it's actually very normal, and every administration prior to the Trump administration has had NDAs, particularly specific for anyone that had a security clearance," she later added.
It is illegal for those with security clearances to share classified information, but they typically would not sign an NDA.
Manigualt Newman has made several media appearances this week to promote her new book "Unhinged," in which she claims that Trump regularly used racial epithets and is a “racist, misogynist and bigot.”
The president has countered Manigualt Newman's claims with attacks launched via Twitter as well as from his cable-news surrogates,
"When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!" Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.
Manigualt Newman continued to push back on Tuesday afternoon, saying that she will continue to blow the whistle on Trump to expose him as "the misogynist and bigot that he is."
She added that she had been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller for his Russia probe, but would not provide any details of what she was asked.
"I will say that there is a lot of corruption that went on in both the campaign and the White House, and I'm gonna blow the whistle on all of it," she said.
In a Tuesday interview with "CBS This Morning," the former reality star released a recording she took of herself and campaign officials Katrina Pierson and Lynne Patton discussing during the 2016 campaign how to respond to an inappropriate comment Trump had said, but did not specify what words he had used.
Manigualt Newman said on CBS, which aired the recording Tuesday morning, that the three staffers were discussing an alleged recording of Trump using the n-word from his time hosting NBC's "The Apprentice."
Pierson said in a statement that the rumors about the alleged tape were "always being circulated by Omarosa and her alone."
"In her secret tape-recording of me, it was one of many times that I would placate Omarosa to move the discussion along because I was weary of her obsession over this alleged tape," she continued. "That discussion was nothing other than sifting through unconfirmed rumors regarding the Apprentice tape and the transcript supports my statement. Omarosa fabricated the story by conflating numerous discussions."
The president also pushed back on Manigault Newman's claim Monday evening, writing online that "there are NO TAPES of the Apprentice where I used such a terrible and disgusting word."
Sanders said on Tuesday, however, that she could not "guarantee" whether Trump had actually used that word and that "the president addressed this question directly."
"I can tell you that I've never heard it," she said. "I can also tell you that if myself or the people in this building serving this country every single day doing our very best to help people all across this country and make it better, if at any point we felt that the president was who some of his critics claim him to be, we certainly wouldn't be here."
Earlier this week, Manigualt Newman also released a recording taken in the White House Situation Room of chief of staff John Kelly firing her. She also revealed a recording of Trump expressing his surprise that Manigualt Newman was leaving the White House, though the former White House aide has contended that Trump knew that she going to be fired.
Manigault Newman was fired from the White House in December 2017 after a tumultuous tenure during which she served as the administration's highest-profile liaison to the African-American community.
During Tuesday's briefing, Sanders said that Trump did talk to Kelly about giving him full authority to let Manigualt Newman go if they could not get along.
"The president wanted to give her a chance, and he made clear when General Kelly came on and he voiced concerns that this individual didn't have the best interests of the White House and the president and the country at heart, the president said do what you can to get along," Sanders said. "And if you can't, he gave him full authority to carry out the decision to let her go."
Annie Karni and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
A new recording released Tuesday by former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman appears to feature a discussion between three Trump campaign officials strategizing over a response to an embarrassing remark by the president that Manigault Newman claims was a racial slur.
The recording appears to show Manigault Newman, along with Trump campaign aides Katrina Pierson and Lynne Patton, discussing during the 2016 campaign how to respond to something inappropriate candidate Donald Trump said, although they do not specify on the tape what word or words he used. Manigault Newman has alleged that there is a recording of Trump using the N-word from his time hosting NBC's "The Apprentice" and that that is what she, Pierson and Patton were discussing.
"I'm trying to find out at least what context it was used in, to help us maybe try to figure out a way to spin it," a woman, identified as Pierson by Manigault Newman, said on the tape.
"I said, 'Well, sir, can you think of any time this might have happened?' and he said 'No,'" Patton said, according to the tape, to which Manigault Newman replied, "Well, that's not true."
"He goes, 'How do you think I should handle it?' and I told him exactly what you just said, Omarosa," Patton continued, "which is 'Well, it depends on what scenario you're talking about.' And he said, 'Well, why don't you just go ahead and put it to bed.'"
"He said it," Pierson interjected. "No, he said it. He's embarassed."
After the recording was made public Tuesday by CBS, Pierson said rumors about the alleged "n-word tape" had been created and circulated by Manigault Newman. Appearing Monday night on Fox News, Pierson denied having a conversation that Manigault Newman wrote about in her book about Trump's alleged usage of a racial slur.
“During the 2016 campaign, we heard rumors about an alleged tape from 'The Apprentice.”' It’s clear now that those rumors were always being circulated by Omarosa and her alone. In her secret tape recording of me, it was one of many times that I would placate Omarosa to move the discussion along because I was weary of her obsession over this alleged tape," Pierson said. "To be clear, I never organized a conference call with Jason Miller to confirm Mr. Trump said anything. That discussion was nothing other than sifting through unconfirmed rumors regarding the Apprentice tape and the transcript supports my statement. Omarosa fabricated the story by conflating numerous discussions."
Patton also spoke out Monday night via a statement issued on Twitter denying allegations made by Manigault Newman.
"To be clear, at no time did I participate in a conference call with Katrina Pierson advising me, Jason Miller and Omarosa Manigault-Newman that Frank Luntz had heard President Donald J. Trump use a derogatory racial term - a claim that Luntz himself has also denied," Patton said, referring to a passage in Manigault Newman's book. "It should be abundantly clear to everyone that not only is her book a complete work of fiction, but that the existence of this elusive 'N-word' tape is a figment of her imagination and merely a destructive tool of manipulation applied only when it best serves her interests."
The tape released Tuesday is the latest in a string of recordings released by Manigault Newman, who is currently promoting her new memoir of her time in the White House. She also recorded chief of staff John Kelly firing her in the White House's Situation Room, which has prompted concerns among White House security experts.
The president, too, has called Manigault Newman's credibility into question in recent days, labeling her on Monday as a liar and suggesting that she tearfully begged him for an administration position. He blasted her on Twitter after her appearance on CBS News on Tuesday morning.
"When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn’t work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!" Trump said in a tweet.
The incendiary claims in Manigault Newman's book have prompted questions about her credibility, not just from allies of the president but from the media as well. But the former reality TV star said Tuesday morning on CBS that everything printed in her book inside quotation can be corroborated with other evidence, including audio recordings. With publicity around Manigault Newman's allegations escalating, the Trump campaign filed for arbitration proceedings against her on Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway questioned Manigault Newman's allegations on Fox News, saying she has never heard Trump use a racial slur. In her book, Manigault Newman accuses Trump of using racial slurs to describe Conway's husband, George Conway, who is half Filipino. George Conway called that allegation "absurd" and "ridiculous."
"I have never heard the president issue a racial slur about anyone in the two-plus years I've been working alongside him without interruption," Kellyanne Conway said. "I know her mother, I know her husband, I always thought I had a good relationship with them and with her. So I want to say, she never pulled me aside, never said to me, 'Listen, I heard the president say this and I don't know what to do with it.' Not only did I never hear it, but I think she is out there saying she never heard it, either."
Asked why she would secretly record her conversations in the Trump campaign and White House, Manigault Newman told CBS that she did so to cover her back.
"In Trump world, everyone lies. Everyone says one thing one day and they change their story the next day. I wanted to have this type of documentation so that in the event I found myself in this position where, as you said, they're questioning my credibility, saying they never discussed the N-word tape, they had never heard these accusations, the president had never heard these accusations, when, in fact, this tape proves that they discussed it at high levels of the Trump campaign," Manigault Newman said.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos allegedly said the students who booed her May 2017 commencement speech at a historically black college didn't have the "capacity to understand" what she wants to accomplish, according to the tell-all book by former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Manigault Newman describes DeVos' comments during a conversation with her after the May address at Florida's Bethune-Cookman University as "meaning, all those black students were too stupid to understand her agenda."
Manigault Newman trashes DeVos throughout the book and calls her "woefully inadequate and not equipped for her job." She alleges President Donald Trump referred to the education secretary as "Ditzy DeVos" and promised to "get rid of her" after the Bethune-Cookman event.
In the book, "Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White House," Manigault Newman also blames DeVos for confusion around an annual conference in D.C. for historically black colleges and universities, which the administration downsized in September 2017. She writes that DeVos was the "number one driver for cancellation."
"This disgraced former White House employee is peddling lies for profit. The book is a joke as are the false claims she’s making about Secretary DeVos," said Liz Hill, press secretary to DeVos.
The White House has pushed back strongly against the book and the president has labeled Manigualt Newman "wacky," "deranged" and a "dog" in posts to his Twitter account this week. Trump's presidential campaign has also filed for arbitration proceedings against her.
The Trump administration — and DeVos in particular — have had a rocky relationship with black colleges. DeVos famously issued a statement equating the history of the schools — founded during an era of racial segregation — to “school choice” policies. She later apologized.
Manigault Newman, an HBCU graduate who spearheaded the Trump administration's outreach to those schools, was herself a polarizing figure in that role.
But she says in her book that she was the one who drove Trump to sign a much-ballyhooed executive order designed to woo the schools. That order said his administration would move an initiative aimed at boosting HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House — a move that many college leaders had hoped would give them a direct line to the president.
Manigault Newman writes that she tried to forge a relationship with DeVos — though she said she sat near DeVos in Cabinet meetings and determined "there is no way she should be the secretary of education" — because Manigault Newman "was on a mission for increased education funding for HBCUs and wasn't ready to give up on involving the secretary of education in the pursuit."
She traveled with DeVos to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the Bethune-Cookman commencement address, despite writing that it was clear "[no] one wanted DeVos to speak at their school, and her visits were written off as photo ops only."
The trip did not go well in Manigault Newman's telling.
"Betsy got up onstage to give her speech and was immediately, loudly booed by the entire audience," Manigault Newman writes. "Graduating students and their families stood up and turned their backs on her. I was seated onstage watching this travesty unfold. When the booing started, she should have wrapped it up, but she went on and on for twenty minutes, talking over the booing. I was thinking, It’s not about you! Abandon your full speech! Adjust, woman!" Manigault Newman described it as "painful to experience."
After the speech, Manigault Newman writes that she asked DeVos how she thought it went, to which she says DeVos responded, "I did great!"
"I must have looked stunned," she writes. Then DeVos allegedly added: “They don’t get it. They don’t have the capacity to understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”
"Meaning, all those black students were too stupid to understand her agenda," Manigault Newman writes.
Manigault Newman says she told DeVos, “Oh, no, Madam Secretary. They get it. They get it, and they aren’t happy about you or your goals.”
The next day, Manigault Newman writes, she was ditched at the hotel by DeVos, who allegedly told her, "sorry, we had to leave early. Change of plans. Take an Uber.”
Manigault Newman says she returned to D.C. and complained directly to Trump, who, she says, "shook his head in disgust" and said, “She is Ditzy DeVos, what do you expect? In a very short period of time, I will get rid of her. Believe me, believe me.”
Later in the book, Manigault Newman claims that DeVos "went to John Kelly and asked him to force me to cancel" the annual HBCU conference, referring to Trump's chief of staff.
The administration was under pressure from college leaders and some members of Congress to delay it after Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va.
But Manigault Newman writes that she was determined that it go on. She convinced Kelly to let it continue, but "that if it failed, I would own it solely."
"I heard from a member of the HBCU staff that DeVos was livid that the event was moving forward," she writes. "A week after my meeting with General Kelly, Betsy DeVos tried to shut down the event by sending out a blast notice that it was off, and then she canceled the contract with the conference’s hotel. By doing so, she cost the US government $75,000 in cancellation fees. She did not care!"
Manigault Newman claims she turned to Trump for help and he supported her. The administration hosted a much smaller event at the White House, organized by Manigault Newman. But she claims that "Secretary DeVos refused to give opening remarks" at the event.
"I turned to the president again," Manigault Newman wrote. "As a result, the head of Cabinet Affairs, Bill McGinley, told her she had to give the opening remarks."
Paul Manafort’s defense rested Tuesday without calling any witnesses — including Manafort himself — a decision that sends the tax- and bank-fraud trial into its final stages.
Closing statements will begin Wednesday, with jury deliberations to follow.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III rejected a last-minute bid by the defense to toss out the charges against Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller's team brought the charges as part of its investigation into Russian interference during the election.
Manafort spoke for the first time during the Alexandria, Virginia, trial on Tuesday in response to a short series of questions from Ellis ensuring he was aware he had the right to testify on his own behalf. Dressed in a dark suit, the longtime GOP operative stood at the podium next to his lawyer, Kevin Downing, and confirmed he had discussed the matter with his attorneys and was satisfied with their advice.
Asked if he had decided whether he wanted to testify, Manafort answered in the affirmative.
"I have decided," he told the judge. When Ellis then queried him whether he wanted to testify, Manafort responded, "No, sir."
Shortly after lunch, jurors returned to the court room briefly to hear Ellis ask whether the defense planned to call any witnesses.
“No, Your Honor. The defense rests,” Downing said.
With that, jurors were instructed to return for closing arguments at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Outside the courthouse, Downing made a rare statement before the TV cameras, explaining the former Trump campaign chairman’s decision not to mount a defense.
“Mr. Manafort just rested his case. He did so because he and his legal team believe that the government has not met its burden of proof,” Downing said.
Jury instruction debate reopens wounds
Later Tuesday, Ellis convened the prosecutors and defense lawyers to haggle over the language of instructions that Ellis will give the jury when it begins deliberations.
But the only point of contention was not between the opposing legal teams. Rather, the brief discussion reopened the barely healed wounds of the prosecutors' complaints about Ellis' offhand comments to the jury during the tensest moments of the trial.
When prosecutors proposed slightly revising the instructions regarding how the jury should consider any of Ellis' comments in their deliberations, the judge emphasized that he has "the right as the judge to comment on the evidence."
Ellis also noted that he would instruct the jury on how to consider those comments along with everything else they heard. After reviewing the prosecutions' recommended language, Ellis had another complaint: The writing wasn't good.
"That's not the way I speak," he said, complaining of a split infinitive in the text.
Ellis challenged prosecutors on whether they could recall a specific comment he made that raised concerns.
"Several," interjected prosecutor Greg Andres.
Andres referenced an incident in which Ellis had admonished the prosecution's star witness, Rick Gates, who was Manafort's longtime deputy.
When Gates said on the stand that Manafort was very careful with his money, Ellis cut in to note that Gates had admitted to stealing money from Manafort, potentially undercutting Gates' assertion.
Reminded of this exchange by Andres, Ellis said sarcastically, "That really hurt the government, didn't it?"
Keep it short
Looking ahead to Wednesday's proceedings, Ellis urged Mueller's prosecutors to try to pare down the time they need to deliver their closing arguments.
The special counsel's team has requested at least two hours to wrap up its case — which revolves around hundreds of pieces of evidence and 18 criminal counts — but the judge warned prosecutors that could be "excessive."
"It's very, very hard for anybody, any jurors, to pay attention for two straight hours," Ellis said, urging them to at least aim for a 90-minute closing.
Manafort's attorneys on Tuesday assured the judge they could make their final appeal in an hour and a half.
Another mysterious delay
The Manafort lawyer's announcement that they would call no witnesses followed an unexplained two-hour delay Tuesday morning as lawyers and the judge apparently haggled behind the scenes over an unspecified defense motion.
It was the third consecutive day that Ellis took the court into a secret session. The judge said Monday afternoon that the closed hearing was needed because of a sealed motion filed by the defense. He did not elaborate, but insisted that transcripts of the hearing eventually would be made public.
"It will remain under seal for the time being. Not permanently," Ellis said as he convened a private hearing on the defense motion Monday afternoon.
It appeared that hearing continued Tuesday morning, leaving a crowd of more than 100 onlookers to mill around outside the doors of Ellis' ninth-floor courtroom at the Alexandria courthouse.
Manafort's spokesman Jason Maloni was at the front of the line, along with Manafort's wife, Kathleen, and several of her friends. Prosecutor Uzo Asonye and lead FBI agent for the trial Sherine Ebadi crossed through the crowd at least once and returned to the courtroom. Jurors also seemed to be cooling their heels and moved back and forth between the two rooms to which they have access.
A court security officer repeatedly called for quiet as the restless crowd's conversations grew increasingly loud.
A similar scenario played out Friday, when the judge effectively delayed the opening of the public court session until afternoon. In that instance, lawyers and a court reporter joined Ellis in his chambers. Ellis at one point crossed the courtroom and went into a door near the jury room, accompanied by a court reporter, prompting speculation that the issue involved a juror.
No public explanation was given for that day's delay, nor is it clear whether Friday's holdup and the sealed motion are related. Prosecutors filed another brief Tuesday opposing the sealed defense motion, but the response was not made public.
In another development Tuesday, Ellis rejected a defense motion to have the judge acquit Manafort on all 18 counts he faces on the grounds that the prosecution failed to present adequate evidence for any reasonable juror to convict.
Such motions are routine and are rarely granted. But Manafort's team attacked in particular four felony charges the longtime lobbyist faces over alleged fraud in applying for $16 million in loans from the Federal Savings Bank in Chicago. The defense contends prosecutors never showed that Manafort's alleged misstatements were actually relevant to the bank's decisions.
Instead, Mueller's team has presented evidence that the bank's CEO, Stephen Calk, was insistent on granting the loans regardless of any issues flagged by his subordinates. Calk was seeking a senior Trump administration post at the time.
In an audacious argument filed with the court late Monday night, defense lawyers contended that Calk's desire to make the loan was so unwavering that it rendered trivial any alleged falsehoods on Manafort's part.
"The evidence in the record has clearly established that any inconsistencies in the information supplied in connection with Mr. Manafort’s loan applications were not material to [the bank’s] decision on whether or not to approve the loans," the defense wrote, adding that Calk's "interest in doing business with Mr. Manafort" was at least part of the reason the bank approved the loans.
Ellis said from the bench Tuesday morning that he thought the defense’s argument was “significant,” but not enough to have him throw out that charge.
“Materiality is a matter for the jury,” the judge said.
A verdict in Paul Manafort’s Virginia trial could come as early as this week, but it will hardly be the last word on his fate.
A conviction would threaten to jail Manafort, 69, for the rest of his life. But he would have the option to appeal — or hope for a politically explosive pardon from President Donald Trump. Even if a jury acquits the former Trump 2016 campaign chairman on the tax and bank fraud charges that special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors have detailed out over the past two weeks, Manafort is hardly out of the woods.
Most notably, the longtime GOP operative still faces a second federal trial slated to begin in mid-September in Washington. And that case, accusing Manafort of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent while lobbying for the government of Ukraine, could be even more challenging.
“Even if, against all odds, [Manafort wins] here, they’re right back at it in a month so,” said a defense lawyer who has worked on the Russia investigation.
Things can always get worse still for Manafort. Mueller’s team of investigators have been examining him for more than a year as part of their probe into 2016 Russian election meddling, and federal prosecutors can always file new charges separate from the ones already on the books. (The current charges against Manafort are largely unrelated to the 2016 election.)
“Mueller’s got so many different ways to win. He’s got limitless resources,” said a second attorney with a Trump official mired in the case.
First, both Mueller and Manafort need to get through the trial now underway in an Alexandria, Virginia, courtroom. Prosecutors spent the past two weeks laying out details of Manafort’s lavish spending, including a now infamous $15,000 ostrich jacket purchased with profits he made from political consulting work in Ukraine several years ago. Mueller’s team also introduced evidence showing that Manafort concealed the millions he made through that work in a bid to evade U.S. taxes.
Their case — charging 18 counts in all — was bolstered by the cooperative testimony of Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates, whose credibility Manafort’s five-man legal team has already started to hammer as they mount their defense.
Still, many legal experts say, the evidence against Manafort is powerful and winning his acquittal will be a daunting task, even if the quarrelsome judge presiding in the case has caused unexpected problems for the prosecution team.
The prosecution is expected to rest its case as early as Monday, giving the floor to Manafort’s lawyers.But as U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III has repeatedly told the jurors, the defendant is not obliged to call any witnesses and his attorneys could simply ask that the trial move straight to closing arguments once the prosecution finishes. That could have jurors deliberating by midweek.
Still, Manafort’s lawyers have signaled they do plan to put up a fight: They obtained subpoenas before the trial calling for a half dozen witnesses. They also may make motions to acquit Manafort before the case even goes to the jury. (Lawyers call that a longshot.)
Although none of the charges against Manafort directly involve President Trump, the conviction of his former top campaign aide would be a political embarrassment for Trump and a potent political retort against Trump’s claim that Mueller is conducting a “witch hunt.”
Manafort can always appeal a conviction. But his lawyers have so far had little success fighting Mueller’s prosecution, including through a defeated motion this summer which sought to toss out all of the charges against Manafort on the grounds that the special counsel’s very appointment was legally flawed.
But with other court challenges playing out against Mueller on Constitutional grounds, some legal experts predict Manafort could challenge any convictions through an appeal that reaches the Supreme Court.
Manafort’s best chance at salvation after a conviction could lie with Trump’s executive clemency powers. The president has already granted pardons to several notable conservative figures, including Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. And some Trump allies say he’d be justified in using his unchecked power to keep Manafort out of jail.
Trump in June declined to rule out a pardon for Manafort. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, that month also said clemency remains on the table for the ex-aide. “When the whole thing is over, things might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons,” he told the New York Daily News.
“I’d certainly pardon Manafort, because he’s been totally screwed as a result of having been associated with the Trump campaign,” said Joseph diGenova, an informal Trump adviser who nearly joined the president’s personal legal team in the spring.
Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor, said Trump shouldn’t be in any rush to pardon Manafort. That decision could come later in his term and should really “depend on what Manafort does” after a potential conviction.
Another intriguing scenario discussed by some legal experts: the possibility that Manafort, if convicted, would surrender and offer his cooperation to Mueller in exchange for a potentially lighter sentence. (Mueller can ask Ellis for leniency, although Ellis, the presiding judge, would make the final decision.)
“Manafort flips after conviction,” Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor, predicted on Twitter Saturday.
In an interview last week, Giuliani told POLITICO that he believes Mueller team hopes to flip Manafort into a government witness who might offer damaging revelations about Trump himself.
“Whether he did anything wrong or not, there’s no way they’d have raised it to this level to prosecute it if they weren’t basically trying to put excessive pressure on him to cooperate against the president,” the former New York mayor said.
It’s not clear whether Manafort has incriminating information about Trump or, if he does, why he would not have offered it already.
Nor is it clear whether Manafort’s cooperation would be of use to Mueller after he has been branded a federal convict, especially with Trump’s own lawyers already warning that Manafort may lie to avoid prison.
“If the guy was going to go ahead and lie and cooperate he’d do it to get himself out of jail,” Giuliani said. “What’s his testimony look like after he’s convicted?”
It is also possible that Manafort — especially if he is convicted in Virginia — could plead guilty to the charges he faces in the second trial, if only to avoid another public ordeal.
But one defense attorney working with a Trump official in the Russia probe said Manafort may conclude that maintaining his innocence, even after a conviction, might be preferable to a guilty plea that still earns him a long prison sentence.
Refusing to plea allows Manafort to “maintain [his] innocence to the grave,” said the lawyer. “You can make a respectable case when you’re a defendant and make a statement that people know you were wronged. Once you plead guilty, that’s gone. Your legacy is done.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s star witness in the Paul Manafort trial confessed last week to an extramarital affair that he was never even asked about, according to a new court transcript.
Rick Gates’ bombshell acknowledgment that he’d had an affair a decade ago marked a dramatic high point during the second week of a bank- and tax-fraud trial that was otherwise filled with bureaucratic testimony about Manafort’s tax returns, bank loans and foreign consulting work.
But Gates’ admission last Tuesday came about only after a Manafort defense attorney during cross examination alluded to his “secret life” and without any specific question from the lawyer about an affair.
“He, unsolicited by me, he blurted it out, and that it was over a short period of time,” Kevin Downing said the next day during a private bench conference with U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III and Mueller’s prosecutors.
Moments earlier, Downing had suggested in open court that Gates had as many as four extramarital affairs during his time working as Manafort’s longtime deputy running an international political consulting firm. The attorney insisted the topic was legitimate because Mueller’s team had stressed that a plea deal Gates had struck could be tossed out if he lied on the witness stand.
"It's going to go to your ripping up his plea agreement for lying yesterday," the defense attorney said.
That comment prompted an immediate objection from the special counsel’s office and a lengthy sidebar discussion out of earshot of the jury and the public. That sidebar was released Tuesday as part of the official trial transcript.
During the bench conference, Ellis refereed a spirited exchange about Gates’ initial response and whether the witness had opened the door to additional questions about his affair since it was tied to his related acknowledgment in the trial that he’d embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from Manafort's business.
“Your honor said that we weren’t going to discuss any of this stuff,” Mueller prosecutor Greg Andres told Ellis, noting the judge had indeed previously ruled that there would be no mention of extramarital affairs without first discussing the matter at a bench conference.
“Mr. Downing has violated that, obviously, but what is the possible relevance of whether or not Mr. Gates had other extramarital affairs?” Andres added.
Downing countered that Gates had told Mueller’s team during pretrial interviews about his multiple affairs and that the admission “goes to the motivation, his secret life, for embezzling the money. So it all ties into that.”
The Manafort lawyer said his affairs were fair game for follow-up questions once Gates brought the topic up at the mere mention of his “secret life.”
“I apologize because I thought since he opened the door to it by blurting it out unsolicited, that it wasn’t a violation of our agreement, so I apologize,” Downing said.
“Well, that wasn’t a violation,” Ellis responded. “It’s not relevant because I don’t see how it bears on his credibility here.”
Downing then explained that Gates was trying to “minimize the reason or the basis which caused him to decide to embezzle the funds. He made it sound like it was a very short period of time and that it was over.”
Ellis ultimately ruled that he wouldn’t allow any questions about Gates having multiple affairs but said Manafort’s team could establish Gates’ “secret life spanned years.”
But before the bench conference broke up, Mueller’s team continued to press the case that any questions on the extramarital affairs didn’t belong in the trial.
“Mr. Gates had, I don’t know what to call it, but he had sex with other women aside from his wife more than once. That is not something that’s relevant in any way,” Andres said.
Ellis shot down the special counsel lawyer’s argument.
“It is relevant if it’s inconsistent with any other testimony he’s given because this jury has to decide whether or not to believe this witness,” the judge said. “So if he has been less than candid, less than truthful in his testimony, they have an opportunity to bring that out.”
Looking at one of the Mueller attorneys in the gaggle, the judge, who has quarreled with the prosecutors throughout the trial, then added, “You have a wonderful brow furrowing.”
When court resumed, Downing asked a more generic question about Gates’ “secret life,” and whether it spanned the five years over which Gates admitted embezzling funds.
“I’d say I’ve made many mistakes over my years .... ” Gates replied before Ellis could cut him off.
“This isn’t the time for that,” the judge said, before Gates confirmed that his “secret life” took place during the period he was pilfering money.
The Trump administration is preparing to unveil its plan for undoing Barack Obama’s most ambitious climate regulation — offering a replacement that would do far less to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, according to POLITICO’s review of a portion of the unpublished draft.
The new climate proposal for coal-burning power plants, expected to be released in the coming days, would give states wide latitude to write their own modest regulations for coal plants or even seek permission to opt out, according to the document and a source who has read other sections of the draft.
That’s a sharp contrast from the aims of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a 2015 regulation that would have sped a shift away from coal use and toward less-polluting sources such as natural gas, wind and solar. That plan was the centerpiece of Obama’s pledge for the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide emissions as part of the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump has said he plans to exit.
The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that both carbon emissions and pollutants such as soot and smog would be higher under its new proposal than under the Clean Power Plan. And Trump’s critics call it a recipe for abandoning the effort to take on one of the world’s most urgent problems.
The proposal would be “another, more official, sign that the government of the United States is not committed to climate policy,” said Janet McCabe, EPA’s air chief under Obama.
McCabe said based on a description of the proposal, it would offer "a significant amount of discretion to states to decide that nothing at all needs to be done."
Many red states and several companies sued over the Clean Power Plan, and a federal appeals court was nearing a decision when Trump’s EPA asked for time to rewrite the rule. McCabe said the proposal could be meant to eat up time and stall a future president from quickly regulating greenhouse gases.
EPA was widely expected to write a far less stringent replacement rule. Trump promised to nix the Clean Power Plan and exit the Paris deal during his campaign. But the draft offers the first look at the specifics since the agency released a broader notice that it would reconsider the rule in April.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has finished reviewing the draft and sent it back to EPA this week.
The rule would allow states to write rules to make coal plants more efficient, enabling them to burn less coal to produce the same amount of electricity. But that could be bad for the planet, people familiar with state air programs say, by making it cost-effective for power companies to run those plants more often.
EPA looked at the outcomes of various scenarios that could be possible from state-proposed plans in 2025, 2030 and 2035, implying that the plans could be in place before 2025.
Obama's plan was meant to see greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. power sector fall to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The nation has already achieved much of that reduction because of trends such as the closures of dozens of older coal plants.
EPA intends to argue that the Obama administration rule illegally sought to regulate the broader power sector, beyond coal plants, and that the compliance costs would have been big and the climate benefits negligible, according to the draft POLITICO reviewed.
Environmental advocates and blue states plan to wage war on the proposal once it is final. But while the legal fights play out, the regulation will be a placeholder that could stall a future president from regulating power plants.
States will be able to present reasons for why they don’t want to regulate coal plants, including considering how many more years they have left before they would probably shut down, according to a source who reviewed a different section of the document.
In another contentious portion of the proposal, EPA is looking at letting states decide whether they want to adopt changes to pollution reviews that kick in when a plant makes upgrades. Existing rules are meant to keep plants from making changes that cause more pollution.
Conservatives and industry groups have long argued that the review process, called New Source Review, makes it too expensive for operators to make improvements to plants.
Six years before he was exposed for allegedly managing a covert agent on U.S. soil, the Russian politician Alexander Torshin hosted young Americans visiting Moscow as part of two cultural exchange programs, including one that has drawn the FBI’s scrutiny.
The gregarious Torshin regularly hosted U.S. visitors in the ornate chambers of Russia’s parliament, where he gushed about his love of guns, bourbon and America.
“He was friendly, traveled to the U.S. often and enjoyed sharing his experiences of visiting small-town America,” recalls one participant who went on two trips sponsored by the Russian government.
A photo posted on Facebook by one of the exchange programs shows several young visitors, including the student body president of Princeton University, meeting with Torshin over tea and cookies. (The FBI is not known to have investigated that program. None of the students, or Torshin, has been accused of wrongdoing.)
It wasn’t until years later that Torshin would emerge as a major figure in the Trump-Russia saga — a man whom federal prosecutors say oversaw the accused Russian operative Mariia Butina’s efforts to infiltrate Republican Party circles, including the National Rifle Association, to push them toward more pro-Russia policies. Torshin himself has attended annual NRA meetings dating back to at least 2011.
Many of the first-class student exchanges were officially organized by the Russian Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., and included top-flight meals, airfare and hotel accommodations. But the center’s exchange programs abruptly stopped in fall 2013, after FBI counterintelligence agents urgently located dozens of trip participants and told them the program was an elaborate cover for a Washington-based Russian spy recruiting effort.
The agents said the Russians had prepared dossiers on some of the most promising participants, two of the former students told POLITICO. They pressed for every detail of the program, including whom the students met, where they went and what they discussed. They also said that Russian government official who oversaw the program — from a mansion about a mile and a half from the White House — was a suspected spy and would be kicked out of the U.S. soon.
“They said they had a great degree of confidence that the trips were part of an effort to spot and assess future intelligence assets,” the participant, a former student government leader and Russian-language student, said of the three FBI agents who questioned him for more than an hour. “They told us it was standard Russian spycraft.”
The FBI’s interest in that cultural exchange program for young American political and business leaders was reported at the time, including a single, passing reference to Torshin. But the details of his involvement in the exchanges is a new revelation, as is his participation in the second exchange program for student body presidents at American universities dating back to at least 2010.
The new detail fills out the picture of the Russian lawmaker — now deputy governor of his country’s central bank — who is a longtime close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It shows that Torshin’s collaboration with Butina was not his first connection to a Kremlin-linked effort to recruit Americans, and underscores that covert Russian spy operations in the U.S. have been underway for years, well before Trump launched his 2016 presidential bid.
While Torshin is not identified by name in the Butina court filings, several sources close to the investigation told POLITICO he is the Russian official described as directing Butina’s alleged efforts to establish “unofficial lines of communications with U.S. politicians and political organizations" and “to send reports, seek direction, and receive orders in furtherance of the conspiracy” from Moscow.
His name has also shown up in investigations by Congress, the Federal Election Commission and, reportedly, special counsel Robert Mueller, into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. Those include examinations of possible attempts to establish a back channel between Trump and Putin, as well as possible efforts to illegally funnel Russian campaign contributions to Trump.
But his meetings with American students earlier in the decade, coupled with the government’s recent allegations in the Butina case, suggest that Torshin may be a more significant Kremlin operative, and for a longer time, than was previously understood.
“All of that needs to be explored now through the lens that Torshin is a handler for Russian intelligence operatives,” said Max Bergmann, a State Department senior international security adviser in the Obama administration. “The suspicion has to be raised, given what is laid out in [the Butina] indictment, that this wasn’t his first rodeo.”
Torshin did not respond to requests for an interview, but has denied any wrongdoing related to the current investigations. The 29-year-old Butina, indicted by federal prosecutors in July, has pleaded not guilty to charges of acting as an illegal foreign agent — including, according to prosecutors, by using sex as a means of influence.
U.S. government Kremlinologists have tracked Torshin, 64, for years, at least since his first known visit to the U.S. in 2004.
As a rising star in Putin’s United Russia Political party, Torshin became an ally of the Russian leader. Putin tapped him that same year to run a sensitive parliamentary investigation investigating the horrific terrorist siege of a school in the Russian town of Beslan; many observers considered the resulting report a whitewash that absolved Russian security forces.
By 2010, Torshin had become a leading United Russia voice in the Russian Duma, a trusted Putin aide on sensitive security issues and, most likely, a go-to ally for important missions that didn’t fall under his official portfolio, according to Bergmann and other former officials.
Later that year, for instance, Torshin helped orchestrate a secret spy swap between the U.S. and Russia after the FBI arrested 10 Russian operatives who had been living undercover in America for years.
Also in 2010, Torshin met with a delegation of 15 student body presidents from American universities as part of an exchange program paid for, and sponsored by, a Russian government agency focused on “youth affairs.” Because the trip was designed to mirror a popular and high-profile congressional exchange program, the students were given a briefing by top White House and congressional Russia hands, including Michael McFaul, then the National Security Council’s director for Russian affairs and later the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
On the conference call, which has not previously been reported, McFaul and others gave the students background about Russia — but also cautioned them to be on guard about unusual overtures, including from their Russian student counterparts, said one participating student who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear the trips risk could taint their professional reputations. McFaul told POLITICO he doesn’t recall the discussion, but his role in the pre-trip briefing was referenced in some university news releases at the time.
Thanks to the briefing, “we went in with our eyes open” about how, in Russia, even a friendly interest in sharing information or establishing long-term relationships, might not be what it seemed, the former student said. He added that the trip went smoothly and nothing appeared suspicious about meetings with Torshin and at least two other Putin allies connected to the current Trump-Russia saga.
The next March, Torshin met with another set of students on an exchange program organized through the same youth affairs agency, in the meeting posted on Facebook.
And the year after that, he met with older groups of young leaders sponsored by the Russian Cultural Center, according to the participant on two trips and another person who went on one exchange.
By the fall of 2013, the FBI was well into an investigation into that exchange program, and had come to believe it was a front for developing young Americans as assets, the two participants said. The D.C. chapter is just one of more than 80 Russian cultural and science centers in various countries that U.S. intelligence officials suspect of being a front for all manner of spy operations.
The cultural center trips were popular among well-connected young Washingtonians interested in spending a week in an exotic foreign country with everything, down to the visa application fee, covered by the sponsor.
But the young former student government leader, who went on two trips in 2012 and 2013, said the organizers also “recruited on their own and made the determination who to select.”
“They had a specific type of person they were looking for,” he said. “Future leaders.”
When the FBI began contacting trip participants in late September and October of 2013, many were shocked at what the agents were telling them. The agents began by reading from a printed card with details of about what they were investigating, including how they believed Russian Cultural Center Director Yury Zaitsev was overseeing the alleged spy recruitment operation, according to the two participants, both of whom shared details of their trips and FBI interviews with POLITICO.
The discussions were “very frank,” according to one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officials at the time. The official said the agents’ interviews were exhaustive, in part because Russian intelligence operatives excel at being unobtrusive and patiently laying the groundwork for relationships they hope to develop over years or even decades.
In hindsight, the second trip participant said there were indications that the group’s extremely generous Russian hosts might have had ulterior motives.
During his interview, that participant told the FBI agents that he thought it was “unusual” that the group had been granted such high-level meetings, including with top-ranking officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The agents were particularly interested in any details about those meetings, he said, “and why are these kids meeting with these super high-level people.”
“It seemed like they were trying to foster the exchange in a professional and productive way,” the second participant said. But, he added: “If one person out of a group of 20 becomes an asset for them, then I suppose it’s worth it for them to pay the whole group for the trip.”
After hearing from the FBI, some students backed out of the next scheduled trip. The former participant on two trips, who remains active in other efforts to promote U.S.-Russian relations, said he believed the FBI investigation — reported at the time by Mother Jones and the Washington Post — effectively ended the Russian Cultural Center exchange programs.
In all, the FBI believes that at least 125 people went on cultural exchange programs involving Zaitsev and the Russian Cultural Center, including grad students, non-governmental organization staffers, political aides to national and state officials and business executives. The former FBI official declined to comment on whether agents have investigated other cultural exchange programs, such as those sponsored by Moscow’s youth affairs agency, that also included Torshin.
As Butina and Torshin allegedly ramped up their U.S.-based influence operation ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Butina attended numerous events at the Russian Cultural Center. She even met with the organization’s director for a dinner that was caught on camera by FBI officials, as POLITICO recently reported.
That director was a suspected Russian intelligence operative just like his predecessor, Zaitsev, and also left the U.S. following FBI investigations, federal authorities allege in Butina’s case. Both men denied wrongdoing.
Robert Driscoll, Butina’s lawyer, scoffed at the notion that Torshin is a master spy, and said his client’s connections to the Russian Cultural Center were merely social. He added that in his frequent talks with Butina, she has described Torshin as someone who genuinely has come to love America — especially Nashville, where the two attended an Alan Jackson country music concert while there for the NRA convention.
“My impression of him from knowing Mariia is that she viewed him as a mentor and as someone who was helpful to her, with her gun rights group and personally,” Driscoll said. “He helped raise her profile, and she got to travel and attend different events with him.”
The participant on two of the cultural trips said Torshin was especially popular with U.S. visitors, in part because he seemed most interested in small talk and sharing his tales of traveling to the far corners of the United States.
“He was always eager and happy to meet with Americans,” he said.
Long before Omarosa Manigault Newman lodged explosive claims against her former boss, President Donald Trump’s White House foresaw the potential problems with ex-staffers’ tell-all books.
Embedded in the White House’s two-page non-disclosure agreement was a seemingly innocuous clause that prohibited top aides from disclosing confidential information in any form including books, without the express permission of the president, according to a former administration official and an official familiar with the document.
And if aides violated those terms, the non-disclosure agreement stipulated they would have to forfeit to the U.S. government any royalties, advances or book earnings. It’s not unusual for former administration officials to negotiate with the White House over the anecdotes and insider details of their books. But the terms of the White House’s NDA — and even the decision to compel government officials sign an NDA at all — are unprecedented.
NDAs are not typically used for federal government workers including White House officials because presumably they are supposed to serve the public and the institution of the president, not any one particular person.
The White House required all of its political appointees to sign this broad-ranging agreement as a condition of employment, a move mostly championed by the president who has leaned on these agreements dating back to his days running the Trump Organization, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials and people close to the White House.
But Manigault Newman says she refused to sign it.
In senior staff meetings, the White House’s top attorney, Don McGahn, also left aides with the impression that the agreement was legally murky and not enforceable as a nudge to push them to sign it, according to two of the people familiar with the agreement.
One former administration official cast the effort as an attempt to "pacify" a president who was used to relying on NDAs as a businessman. Another former administration official – who showed the White House document to a lawyer friend – said it resembled the type of agreements typically given to reality show contestants. “It’s meant to scare and intimidate but not easily enforceable,” the official said.
And in the chaos of the first 100 days of the Trump White House and the ongoing turnover among White House staff, not everyone got around to signing the document for the White House counsel’s office, multiple people said.
The White House press office declined to comment on whether Manigault Newman had signed a specific White House non-disclosure agreement that included the clause regarding books. She has also claimed that after she was fired last December, she refused a $15,000-a-month offer to work for Trump’s campaign that also came with a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement.
A representative for Manigault Newman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The revelation that Trump’s White House tried to minimize the risk of sensational tell-alls adds a new dimension to the furor around Manigault Newman, who claims in her book “Unhinged” – due to be released on Tuesday – that Trump is a “racist, misogynist and bigot.”
On Monday morning, President Trump tweeted out that Manigault Newman — who he called “Wacky Omarosa” — had signed a non-disclosure agreement, though former administration officials cautioned he could have been referring to the ones Manigault Newman likely signed as a high-level campaign or transition official.
Indeed, Manigault Newman said during an interview Monday on PBS’ NewsHour that she refused to sign the White House’s NDA, though she acknowledged she signed an NDA in 2003 when she appeared on “The Apprentice” and during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“I never signed that draconian NDA that they presented to me when I walked into the White House,” she said, adding that she knew it “was not something that was acceptable.”
The White House’s agreement, however, is the most lenient of the suite of Trump political non-disclosure forms.
It instructed aides to keep all information confidential, even long after they’d left their jobs, and indicated anyone who violated it could be sued for “damages” – though it did not specify any financial amount, according to three former administration officials who described the broad outlines of the document. Other than that, the White House NDA largely referenced existing law and criminal statutes about classified information, which would have applied with or without the NDA.
A copy of the Trump campaign non-disclosure agreement, obtained by POLITICO, went much further and included a non-disparagement clause to ensure staffers did not release information, confidential or detrimental, about Trump, his business, his family members including grandchildren, and even family members’ companies.
One of the former administration officials said Manigault Newman would face more legal exposure from any non-disclosure agreements she likely signed during the campaign, or during her appearances on Trump's reality shows like “The Apprentice” because those carried more legal heft.
The campaign NDA was written by Jason Greenblatt, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, and others, said one administration official, while the White House NDA was run through the White House counsel’s office including its top ethics lawyer, Stefan Passantino.
A Trump transition non-disclosure agreement, obtained by POLITICO in December 2016, demanded that if anyone on the team suspected a colleague of leaking material, he or she must tell transition leadership or risk being fired.
Former and current administration officials have tried to characterize non-disclosure agreements as standard practice. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway called them “typical…in any place of work” during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
“I think if you have been in the headlines for that many years, that is part of the Trump mindset. It is kind of like how some people are into prenuptial agreements,” said a fourth former administration official.
It’s unclear how other top former aides — such as former press secretary Sean Spicer — handled the clause restricting former officials’ ability to write books. Spicer and others could have simply been granted permission from the president — or ignored the clause altogether.
But to lawyers and ethics experts, the Trump White House’s use of non-disclosure agreements is unprecedented — and another sign of the way Trump is tweaking the norms of the presidency. For one, experts worry that the agreements violate the First Amendment by attempting to restrict the speech of key political appointees. It also seems like an attempt to import the practices of the corporate world, like the Trump Organization, onto the public-facing White House.
“You want to have people inside the government who feel empowered to reveal wrongdoing,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan group devoted to government transparency. “The White House NDA is probably not enforceable, but it is also not harmless because it does create a chilling effect, and it is yet another example of trying to get public employees to have a loyalty oath to a person rather than to the integrity of the government.”
The White House’s use of non-disclosure agreements busted back into public view during the multi-day news cycle surrounding Manigault Newman’s salacious new book in which she admits to secretly taping White House conversations.
Trump has long used NDAs on his reality shows and throughout his businesses, and during the campaign in the spring of 2016, he previewed to a few reporters that he intended to use them if elected president.
“When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that,” Trump told the Washington Post in April 2016.
President Donald Trump and his administration are cranking up the pressure on special counsel Robert Mueller to end his Russia investigation after FBI agent Peter Strzok, who shared anti-Trump text messages, was booted from the bureau.
The president has long called Mueller's probe into whether the Russian government colluded with Trump's 2016 campaign, as well as related issues such as possible obstruction of justice by the president, a "witch hunt." But Strzok's firing has added fuel to Trump's push to end the investigation that has served as a drag on his presidency.
"Fired FBI Agent Peter Strzok is a fraud, as is the rigged investigation he started," the president tweeted Tuesday morning. "There was no Collusion or Obstruction with Russia, and everybody, including the Democrats, know it. The only Collusion and Obstruction was by Crooked Hillary, the Democrats and the DNC!"
Strzok was fired Friday after FBI Director Christopher Wray overruled an internal disciplinary review that recommended Strzok's demotion and a 60-day suspension. Strzok, along with former FBI attorney Lisa Page, have recently been Trump's main targets after text messages between the two became public and revealed anti-Trump sentiments.
Strzok was central to the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server, in addition to the Trump campaign's contacts with Russians. Since the release of Strzok's text messages, Republicans have alleged that both probes have been tainted.
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway during an interview on Fox News on Tuesday morning said that Strzok was "political" about the investigations he worked on and "started digging up dirt" on Trump because he was worried that "Hillary Clinton was such a weak, pathetic candidate."
"He took action against a sitting political candidate," Conway said in an interview on Fox News. "He didn't just put his thumb on the scales of justice as a very high-up person at the FBI. He just sat on it and put his whole body and slammed into it."
The White House also has a new target that they are turning to: Bruce Ohr.
"Bruce Ohr of the 'Justice' Department (can you believe he is still there) is accused of helping disgraced Christopher Steele 'find dirt on Trump.' Ohr’s wife, Nelly, was in on the act big time - worked for Fusion GPS on Fake Dossier. @foxandfriends," Trump wrote on Twitter.
Ohr, a senior Justice Department official, has come under scrutiny after it was revealed he had contact with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson and former British spy Christopher Steele during the 2016 election. Ohr's wife, Nellie, also worked for Fusion GPS during the 2016 election. Steele compiled a dossier that described a complex conspiracy by Trump and his campaign to work in concert with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election, which the president has strongly denied.
Conway on Tuesday also questioned why Ohr was still at the Justice Department.
"We've been very patient as this investigation has gone over 1.2 million documents, 33 witnesses, and yet we see every single day that revelations are coming out on the pro-Hillary left side of the ledger here," Conway said.
The president on Tuesday also freshly blamed Jeff Sessions, labeling him as not a “real” attorney general.
It was the latest attack from Trump, who has regularly blasted the attorney general for recusing himself from the Russia probe. On Saturday, the president accused Sessions of being “scared stiff” and “missing in action.”
On Tuesday morning, Trump quoted Fox News analyst Gregg Jarrett and added a swipe at Sessions.
“’They were all in on it, clear Hillary Clinton and FRAME Donald Trump for things he didn’t do.’ Gregg Jarrett on @foxandfriends," Trump wrote on Twitter. "If we had a real Attorney General, this Witch Hunt would never have been started! Looking at the wrong people."
Sen. Bill Nelson holds a narrow 44-41 percent lead over Gov. Rick Scott among Latino voters in Florida’s Senate race, according to a new poll that’s raising fresh concerns among Democrats that the incumbent is in a dicey position with a core group of voters he needs to carry by bigger margins.
The poll of 400 Florida Hispanics, commissioned by a coalition of Democratic-leaning Latino outreach groups, showed that Scott topped Nelson among Cuban-American voters, who tend to vote Republican, by 24 percentage points. But Nelson’s advantage over Scott among Puerto Ricans, who tend to vote Democrat, was smaller: 7 points.
For Democrats, those numbers are a problem because a Republican who wins as much of the Hispanic vote as Scott is taking usually wins statewide in Florida. Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the survey by 40-33 percent.
Still, Democrats say, there’s time. But it’s running out.
“Nelson has a lot of work to do,” said Mayra Macias, political director for the group Latino Victory Fund, which helped fund the survey along with Alianza for Progress and Power 4 Puerto Rico. The poll was first reported by the Orlando Sentinel.
“But the good news is that Latino voters are more motivated now," Macias said. "There’s this metaphor of the Latino voter in Florida as the sleeping giant. The numbers are there. What has been the missing piece is motivation. There seems to be a very, very high level of motivation."
According to the poll, 78 percent said the "current situation in the U.S. motivating them to vote," 65 percent said they're more likely to register others to vote, 45 percent said they'll attend political functions, and 44 percent said they would get involved more in political campaigns.
The error margin for the survey, conducted by Global Strategy Group between July 30 and Aug. 5, is plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Focus groups and other surveys show Scott might have a major weakness with non-Cuban Hispanic voters, who tend to vote Democrat: President Donald Trump.
By 58-28 percent, Hispanic voters in the new survey said Trump hasn’t done enough to help welcome Puerto Ricans to Florida after Hurricane Maria. The feeling is particularly acute among Puerto Rican voters in Florida, but Cuban-Americans also share the sentiment.
When it comes to Scott, 41 percent of respondents said he has done enough to welcome Puerto Ricans to the state, compared to 33 percent who say Nelson had done enough.
Scott made inroads with the Boricua community soon after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He opened welcome centers in Florida for evacuees, visited them frequently, stood by Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, advertised in Spanish and snared the endorsement of the island’s secretary of state and its nonvoting member of Congress.
Nelson, lacking the governor’s bully pulpit and the independently wealthy Scott’s campaign money and private plane, initially took a lower-profile approach to the island's difficulties and was slower to ramp up Spanish-language outreach. He has been endorsed by Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, a former governor of the island. And Nelson last week went on a Spanish-language media blitz.
After being outspent nearly 3-1 by the better-funded Scott, Nelson’s campaign plans to begin campaigning in earnest in two weeks. At that point, Democrats hope, he’ll start to solidify his base — both with Latinos and Democrats in general — and make more of a play with independent voters.
Overall, Scott is leading Nelson in recent polls.
Regarding Florida Hispanics, the new polls shows they say their top issue is jobs (83 percent), followed by expanding health care coverage (76 percent), addressing the issue of migrant family separation (72 percent) and then rebuilding Puerto Rico (64 percent).
Except for the issue of jobs — a top issue for Scott since his 2010 election as governor — most of those top concerns of Latinos play more in Democrats’ favor because of Republican resistance to expanding Medicaid and the Trump administration’s role in separating immigrant families at the border while being blamed for not doing enough to get Puerto Rico reconstructed.
Even among Cuban-Americans, rebuilding Puerto Rico is an important issue for 58 percent of those surveyed.
Cuban-Americans are among the most-reliable voters in Florida midterm elections and experts estimate they could account for a third of all registered Hispanic voters in the state, where 16 percent of those registered to vote identify as Latino. Another third might be of Puerto Rican descent.
More than 1 million Puerto Ricans are believed to live in Florida and they likely outnumber Cuban-Americans. But though they typically vote Democrat, Boricua voters and non-Cuban Hispanics tend to have relatively poor turnout rates.
Without outsized non-Cuban Hispanic support, Nelson has a slim chance of winning, said José Dante Parra, CEO of the Hispanic outreach group Prospero Latino.
“He needs to be winning by double digits. He needs to run up the score with his base,” Parra said. “But Scott is leading but by razor-thin margins. So once Nelson starts advertising, it should change. And what we all need to see is if Scott has hit his ceiling already."
There’s an under-the-radar perk being offered to staffers in President Donald Trump’s administration — discounts on Trump-branded merchandise sold at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club.
White House staffers who have a Secret Service hard pin identifying them as administration officials can flash it at the pro shop — where Trump-branded driver headcovers retail for $40 and a Trump golf polo tee sells for $90, according to the online Trump store — and receive the same discount available to club members, who pay a reported $350,000 to join the club.
Those discounts range from 15 percent off of any merchandise sold in the store, to 70 percent off clearance items, according to two staffers and a receipt reviewed by POLITICO.
The practice is the latest indication that being a public servant in this administration comes with special perks to sweeten the deal. The discounts available at the Bedminster club were originally pitched by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump and the president himself as a nice gesture to aides, according to the recollection of someone familiar with the setup. (White House officials denied Ivanka Trump's involvement and said she was not even aware the discount existed.)
But ethics experts say the arrangement only highlights how Trump remains more entangled in his commercial properties than any president in American history. Those blurry lines between his government work and his private business, from which he never divested, are perhaps most fuzzy when the president is spending time with government officials on the grounds of his own properties.
Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and a former associate counsel in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said the practice of offering any discounts to people identified by their Secret Service pins was “absolutely wrong.”
Discounts are not prohibited by the Office of Government Ethics if they are available to all government employees, or if it’s a standardized discount. But if they are not, the discount is considered a gift. Federal officials are also prohibited from accepting gifts in excess of $20 and are urged to decline any gifts "when accepting them would raise concerns about the appearance of impropriety."
“It's prohibited under the standards of conduct for any government employee to accept a gift because of their official position,” said Canter. “The fact is, people's access to that facility is extremely limited. It's not open to all government employees. It’s limited to staff who have access to the facility and second of all, who are given access to the Secret Service pin. It’s not OK.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders would not comment about the discount.
But getting perks in the pro shop goes beyond White House staffers.
Trump has pilfered his own store to charm Republican lawmakers and their aides, whom he frequently invites to join him for rounds of golf at his properties in Sterling, Virginia, and Palm Beach, Florida. GOP aides have been directed to the pro shop to pick up golf apparel — gratis — when the president saw they were not outfitted for golf. It was not clear whether Trump later personally picked up the tab or the business ate the extra expense.
The discounts remain under the radar even within the White House. One former senior administration official said he never knew about the price chop and had always paid full price for pro-shop merchandise. “I overpaid, big time,” the former official said. “Part of me wishes I knew. Part of me is glad I didn’t.” Other aides said they learned of the discount through the grapevine only after having paid full price.
The discounts are also not available across-the-board at all Trump clubs — each pro shop sets its own rules, and staffers who recently shopped at the Turnberry resort in Scotland while working for the president on his most recent foreign trip said they were expected to pay full price for the goods they brought home.
POLITICO reviewed a recent receipt that showed a current White House official receiving a 70 percent discount on a piece of merchandise that was a clearance item, and a 30 percent discount on an item from the current collection.
Norm Eisen, who served as the ethics czar under former President Barack Obama, said Trump’s habit of doling out discounted goods from his personal business is an abuse of office.
“It does have an effect on how Trump tries to secure personal loyalty and woo people away from what should be their primary and their only loyalty — to the Constitution, to public service and to the people of the United States,” Eisen said. “This is another small inducement, apparently contrary to federal law, that he uses to bind his staff to him personally.”
Trump, who throughout his life has been accused of regularly stiffing contractors and failing to pay his debts, is often a fan of generous gestures when he’s relaxing at one of his own properties. If he sees a table of staffers dining, he’ll often send over a dessert on the house, or pick up the check, another aide said.
Those gestures would be allowed if he, himself, is paying out of his own pocket to cover the meal. But they would also be prohibited by federal gift rules if he simply charged those meals to the club.
A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, Amanda Miller, did not return calls and emails for 12 days.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer conceded defeat to Trump-backed Secretary of State Kris Kobach in their Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday, after a week of vote-counting in the close race.
“This election is probably the closest in America,” Colyer said in brief remarks Tuesday evening. “But the numbers are just not there, unless we were to go to extraordinary measures. But Kansas is too important.”
Kobach stretched his narrow primary lead to 345 votes as late ballots were tallied for a week after the August 7 primary.
Colyer pledged to not challenge the results in court or ask for a recount. He endorsed Kobach during his remarks.
“I just had a conversation with the secretary of state, and I congratulated him on his success,” Colyer said. “And I repeated my determination to keep this seat in Republican hands.”
Kobach will face Democrat Laura Kelly in November.
President Donald Trump had waded into the race late, endorsing Kobach the day before the primary. “Kris Kobach, a strong and early supporter of mine, is running for Governor of the Great State of Kansas,” the president tweeted on Aug. 6, the day before the primary. “He is a fantastic guy who loves his State and our Country.”
Colyer, the former lieutenant governor, was running for a first full term after taking over from unpopular ex-Gov. Sam Brownback, who took a job in the Trump administration.
But Trump and Kobach have a long political history, though Trump's endorsement still came as as surprise to some aides who had advised him not to meddle in the Kansas primary. Kobach backed Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries, while many of the state’s other Republican elected officials instead opted to back Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Kobach served as the vice chair of the president’s commission to investigate voter fraud, which failed to turn up any evidence backing up the president’s claim that millions voted illegally in the 2016 election.
Oral arguments have been scheduled for Sept. 10 in a Texas lawsuit seeking to strike down Obamacare as unconstitutional.
The case was filed in February by 20 Republican state attorneys general. They’re seeking a preliminary injunction halting enforcement of the federal health care law.
The Trump administration has partly sided with the plaintiffs in seeking to strike down the Affordable Care Act’s insurance protections, including the prohibition on denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions.
The lawsuit is certain to factor in the mid-term elections. Democrats have already pilloried Republicans for trying to eliminate one of the most popular provisions of Obamacare. Polling shows widespread support for pre-existing condition protections across party lines.
The arguments are scheduled to take place at 9:30 a.m. before Judge Reed O’Connor.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday refused to say whether she signed a non-disclosure agreement when joining the White House, and claimed that the confidentiality agreements are “common” even for government officials.
Asked in the White House press briefing whether she had signed an NDA, she punted.
“I’m not going to get into the back and forth on who has signed an NDA here at the White House,” she said. “I can tell you that it’s common for a lot of places including in government, particularly anyone with a security clearance.”
Obtaining a security clearance typically makes it illegal for a cleared person to disclose classified information, but those rules do not usually constitute an NDA.
Pushed on why Trump administration officials would be barred from speaking negatively about the president or his family, a practice more commonly found in corporate environments, but that have been used by the White House and Trump campaign, Sanders defended the administration’s use of the agreements.
“Despite contrary opinion,” she argued, “it's actually very normal and every administration prior to the Trump administration has had NDAs,” again claiming that they are frequently used for those with a security clearance.
The Trump campaign on Tuesday filed for arbitration against former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, who just released a tell-all book about her time working under Trump and has been releasing secretly recorded conversations with President Donald Trump and chief of staff John Kelly.
Manigault Newman has said that she never signed the White House’s non-disclosure agreement, but she did acknowledge that she signed one during Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 and when she appeared on "The Apprentice" in 2003.
A copy of the Trump campaign NDA obtained by POLITICO included a non-disparagement clause to ensure staffers did not release confidential or damaging information about Trump, his businesses or his family.
Sanders referred more questions about the necessity of the NDA likely signed by Manigault Newman to the campaign. “It's certainly not a question I can answer as someone that’s in an official government capacity,” she said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday she had not heard President Donald Trump utter a racial slur, although she could not guarantee that Trump never used a derogatory term for African-Americans.
Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former presidential adviser, is accusing Trump of using the N-word before he was elected. In her new memoir about her time in the White House, Manigault Newman claims there is a recording of Trump using the slur during a taping of his reality television show “The Apprentice.”
Sanders was pressed by reporters on the accusation during a White House press briefing on Tuesday afternoon. Although she called Manigault Newman’s allegations “salacious” and “ridiculous,” Sanders did not guarantee that Americans would never hear Trump saying the N-word.
“I can’t guarantee anything,” Sanders said. “I can tell you that I’ve never heard it.”
Sanders said she had not asked Trump directly whether he had used the racial slur. “I didn‘t have to because he addressed it to the American people all at one time,“ Sanders said, referring to Trump’s denial on Twitter the night before.
Earlier in the day, Manigault Newman released the latest tape she secretly recorded during her time working under Trump. She says the tape shows campaign staffers discussing how to spin Trump’s use of a racial slur. Both staffers who were taped, Katrina Pierson and Lynn Patton, deny the existence of such a tape. Rumors about the alleged “N-word tape” first circulated during the 2016 campaign.
Trump quickly fired back on Twitter after the tape aired Tuesday morning, calling Manigault Newman a “dog.“ Reporters repeatedly questioned Sanders on that characterization, asking whether the comment had racial undertones.
“Look, the president has said this has absolutely nothing to do with race and everything to do with the president calling out someone‘s lack of integrity,“ Sanders said. “He has made a number of comments about plenty of people, and to try to single that out to one group is frankly silly because I think if you did a comparison, he‘s probably got a lot more nasty things out there about some other people.“
Sanders was also asked whether she thought the insults Trump slung at Manigault Newman on Tuesday were appropriate.
“The president is somebody who is always going to fight fire with fire,“ Sanders said.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen underscored her administration’s focus on “freedom and democracy” during her two-day stopover in the United States, shrugging off mounting pressure from Beijing to return to its fold.
Addressing supporters and US officials at the Berlin Wall monument at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library just outside Los Angeles on Monday, Tsai quoted the late American president, saying: “Everything is negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future.”
Beijing sees Taiwan as a wayward province subject to eventual union, by force if necessary, and has ramped up pressure on Tsai to accept the “one China” principle, an understanding that there is only one China but each side has its own interpretation of what that means.
Beijing considers the understanding the foundation for any cross-strait talks but, unlike her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai has resisted going down that path since she became president in May 2016.
As a result, Beijing has held a series military exercises near the island, wooed away four of Taipei’s allies, and pressured international airlines to not refer to the self-ruled island as a non-Chinese territory.
“Freedom and democracy are important values for Taiwan, and Taiwan abides by its commitment to promote regional stability under the principles of national interest, freedom, and democracy,” Tsai said in her address on Monday before leaving for Paraguay and Belize, two of Taipei’s 18 remaining allies. “This is what all Taiwanese people feel.”
During her two days in Los Angeles, the Taiwanese president was given an unprecedentedly high level of courtesy, according to Taiwanese media.
Apart from visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Tsai also toured the Cultural Centre of Taipei Economic and Cultural Office and state institutes. In a break with the past, the media contingent travelling with her were also allowed to report on all of her activities, including her meetings with U.S. congressmen and New Mexico governor Susana Martinez. Previously, aides or Taiwanese lawmakers travelling with the leader would brief the media after the event.
Taiwanese analysts said Tsai’s warm reception in the U.S. included U.S. President Donald Trump’s signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act, which opens the door to bigger arms deals and military exchanges with Taiwan.
Beijing protested against the signing of the act, saying it violated the one-China policy that Washington had agreed to.
Alexander Wang, a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said Washington might offer an even higher level of courtesy next time Tsai visited as long as such “small progress” did not overly provoke Beijing.
“[Tsai] was probably given such courtesy because of the attitude of the U.S. Congress in the past few years that Taiwan should not be treated unreasonably, and Beijing’s more recent persistent suppression of Taiwan,” Wang said.
He said it was not in line with American interests for Taiwan to bow to pressure from Beijing, given Washington’s desire for Taipei to stand with it to counter the Chinese mainland.
NEW YORK — Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, says Republicans will hold the House this fall and the economy will be a big reason why.
“These are very good times and the midterms will be a report card on that,” Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said in an interview, dismissing concerns that relatively flat wages and a soaring deficit will cut into enthusiasm for the economy.
“The confidence indices are telling a very important story, and POTUS is polling in the low to mid fifties on the economy,” Kudlow said just before returning to the White House after some time off. “The great blue wall has crashed. I think GOP will lose seats but keep the House.”
Republicans are counting on faster growth and a low jobless rate to help them hold off expected Democratic gains in swing districts where Trump polls poorly. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake the House.
But so far, the economy has not played a major role in special elections, with Republican candidates talking more about guns, immigration and other hot-button social issues while painting Democrats as liberal extremists.
Trump himself often touts strong economic numbers — including the second-quarter growth rate of 4.1 percent — but also gets repeatedly sidetracked by the Russia investigation and stories like the recent tell-all book from his former top aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Republicans also have to deal with a tax-cut bill that focused on lowering corporate rates and remains widely unpopular with the public. A poll in June by POLITICO and Morning Consult found that just 37 percent of voters supported the tax cut, down from 44 percent in April.
Democrats are also hammering at any signs that Trump’s tariff battles with China and his levies on steel and aluminum are costing U.S. jobs while driving up prices for consumers. And they note that when adjusted for inflation, earnings are flat over the last year, if not slightly lower.
Kudlow rejected that measure of wages and said workers were feeling better about the economy in ways that will help the GOP.
“All you have in [the Consumer Price Index] is a bump up in oil prices,” he said. “And energy prices are already coming down. The dollar is strong. The more important measure is real disposable income and it’s booming.”
Kudlow added that he continued to see real momentum in talks with European Union leaders to avoid a tariff war and lower existing levies.
“We set up a process and they are coming back here. And I’ll be going to Brussels,” he said. “I grabbed ahold of this and I’m not letting go.”
Intensifying a dispute over superdelegates ahead of a Democratic National Committee meeting next week, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond on Monday urged committee members to oppose a plan to weaken superdelegates’ influence in the presidential nominating process.
In a letter to DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Richmond (D-La.) said the proposal would “disenfranchise elected officials” who serve as superdelegates.
“There should be enough room in the process to include the perspective of local party activists and officials, and Members of Congress,” Richmond wrote. “One group should not be harmed at the expense of the other.”
He added, “to add insult to injury, it appears that this is a solution in search of a problem. Unelected delegates have never gone against the will of primary voters in picking Democratic presidential nominees.”
Many House Democrats previously expressed concerns about efforts to curb the influence of superdelegates, and Richmond’s opposition was not unexpected. But his letter signals the likelihood of a contentious gathering when the DNC meets in Chicago next week. A group of superdelegates outside of Congress has been organizing an opposition effort, as well.
The proposal, passed overwhelmingly by the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, would prohibit superdelegates from voting on the first presidential nominating ballot at a contested national convention. The overhaul has been a priority of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters since the 2016 election and was backed by many Hillary Clinton supporters, as well.
President Donald Trump said on Monday night that he’d never used the N-word and that no tapes existed of him saying other inflammatory material, rebutting the claims made by former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman that Trump repeatedly said the word during the filming of his reality-TV series “The Apprentice.”
“[email protected] called to say that there are NO TAPES of the Apprentice where I used such a terrible and disgusting word as attributed by Wacky and Deranged Omarosa,” the president wrote on Twitter, claiming he talked to Burnett, who produces the series. “I don’t have that word in my vocabulary, and never have. She made it up.”
Manigault Newman has unleashed a torrent of criticism of her former boss, claiming in a new book that his mental faculties are declining and that he is ill suited for the presidency. The White House has scoffed at her claims as tawdry efforts by a disgruntled former employee to boost book sales. Trump has echoed the pushback with personal attacks on Manigault Newman, who first gained public attention as a contestant on “The Apprentice.”
“Look at her MANY recent quotes saying … such wonderful and powerful things about me — a true Champion of Civil Rights — until she got fired,” he continued in the two-part tweet. “Omarosa had Zero credibility with the Media (they didn’t want interviews) when she worked in the White House. Now that she says bad about me, they will talk to her. Fake News!”
In addition to claiming that she has recordings of White House aides, Manigault Newman has reignited the search for outtakes from “The Apprentice” in which Trump reportedly used the N-word at least once, if not multiple times.
Burnett, who could not immediately be reached for comment, has previously said he does not have the ability to release outtakes himself.
“MGM owns Mark Burnett’s production company and ‘The Apprentice’ is one of its properties,” a statement from MGM and Burnett, released in October 2016, said in part. “Despite reports to the contrary, Mark Burnett does not have the ability or the right to release footage or other material from ‘The Apprentice.’ Various contractual and legal requirement also restrict MGM’s ability to release such material.”
Internet bots—those automated scripts that do everything from gathering stock prices to commandeering innocent computers to launch cyberstrikes—have recently come under attack as threatening the web, democracy and our very way of online life. During the 2016 presidential election, Russia unleashed an army of bots to troll Facebook and other sites, amplifying political division in support of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Twitter reported in May alone it found nearly 10 million bots each week. Some of these Twitter bots posed as fans in order to enhance the popularity of celebrities (when the bots were stricken from the rolls, former President Obama, Katy Perry, and Oprah suddenly became about 2 percent less popular). Ever ready to wield a legislative remedy, California is considering laws to formally define and regulate all manner of online bots.
If these bots are so terrible, why not simply outlaw them?
Well, for starters, the internet could barely function without them. Google, for example, can only index the web and present search results through the use of bots—it calls the process “Googlebot”—which it describes as a spider that crawls nearly every website on the internet, often every few seconds. Say what you will about the fairness of algorithms that order search results, but you’re not going to have much patience for a search engine that depends on humans laboriously copying data from individual websites to craft its rankings. Businesses commonly use bots to crawl and scrape the websites of competitors for real-time pricing information. But there’s another argument in favor of bots that gets far less attention, at least outside of a courtroom in Washington. And it is challenging the notion that all bots—even fake accounts—are evil.
The case unfolding in the federal district courtroom of Judge John D. Bates was filed by a group of civil rights researchers who depend upon crawling and scraping bots, along with thousands of fake accounts, to uncover persistent and pernicious discrimination—based on race, gender, or age—on employment and housing platforms, and across the very web itself. In their hands, internet bots are a potentially unparalleled tool for social justice, albeit one that happens to run afoul of the terms of service of platforms like Facebook and Twitter that prohibit bots and fake accounts.
In a preliminary ruling in March, Judge Bates held that these researchers could well enjoy a First Amendment right to create fake accounts, along with their attendant bot automation, to crawl web platforms, scrape their contents and use the data to statistically measure discrimination. He might as well have said, when it comes to bots, we must learn to tell good from bad.
If there’s such a thing as a good guy with a bot, it’s someone like Christian Sandvig. He’s one of a number of researchers in this new field of “algorithmic accountability” and he’s a plaintiff in the pending DC litigation. Sandvig’s mission is to detect online discrimination in housing or employment opportunities on online platforms and on the web writ large. Do women see fewer ads for high-paying CEO jobs than men? Do white couples see ads for apartment rentals that black couples do not? Preliminary studies suggest the answer to both questions could quite possibly be yes, and often the cause might be an algorithm rather than a deliberate choice by an employer or a landlord. As Sandvig puts it, what do we do “when the algorithm itself is a racist”?
We have known for a little while now that on certain social media platforms there was a potential for people to do what people have done from time immemorial—discriminate. In a series of recent articles, ProPublica showed how Facebook allowed advertisers to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age, or status as a parent—all categories protected by law—in placing ads for housing. In 2016 and part of 2017, an advertiser could exclude African-Americans from seeing housing ads; when Facebook fixed this setting, ProPublica reported in 2018 it was still possible to exclude based upon gender by checking a box to exclude moms with children, for example.
But these earlier ProPublica studies showed only that one could check these boxes, not that employers, landlords or realtors actually were. Moreover, these studies, telling as they are, do not address the big data algorithms that now dominate advertising. They do not tell us whether, for reasons that are not directly attributable to a person, the algorithm has determined based upon past data to show CEO jobs more to men than women.
Andrew Selbst, a scholar of online discrimination and big data algorithms, explains the problem. If you train an algorithm on past data about who holds the top CEO jobs, the data will include far more men than women. The algorithm, detached from all concern for workplace fairness, will conclude that maleness is a qualification for the job, and therefore show ads for those jobs to men more than women. Maleness ends up “being coded as merit. But it’s baked into centuries of discrimination. You’re tech-washing this old claim of seeing merit as this neutral idea.”
To test whether algorithms are racist, researchers adapt old-school civil rights testing—“audit testing”—to the vast and ever-shifting expanses of the web. Ordinary civil rights testers will send a white couple and a black couple—identical in every way except race—to apply for apartments. An online audit proceeds the same way, but with the repetitive speed of a modern processor operating at billions of cycles per second. Such “pair-audit tests” are a “really critical part of testing,” says Rachel Goodman, a civil rights lawyer with the ACLU who represents the plaintiffs on the DC litigation.
But when applied online, these pair-audit tests must often be automated with bots and fake accounts because, as Sandvig points out, web pages and their ads are entirely personalized, different for each person visiting a site, and even different each time the same person visits the site. “Each of us is seeing a webpage no one else sees and will never be seen again,” he says. This discrimination is hidden because no one knows what they don’t see. Women will never know they weren’t shown that ad for CEO of a company because the ad was personalized for them by an algorithm that concluded they were less qualified than a similar man.
To detect this hidden and fleeting discrimination—as fleeting as when a person leaves a webpage—researchers need to create fake accounts on major platforms for housing and employment. They need to create bots, automated computer scripts that will visit these websites, thousands or hundreds of thousands of pages, and record what they find, before they evaporate.
For example, in a foundational 2015 study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon (among other universities) created 1,000 personas by starting a fresh web browser and clicking a setting that allowed them to set the gender. They set half male, half female. Each fresh browser became a new, virtual online person, and they built these virtual beings, using automated bot scripts, by having the browsers visit the same sites—in this case, the top 100 employment websites. This behavior primed the internet advertising universe—the so-called “persistent tracking cookies” advertisers use to identify a person’s interests—to recognize them as job-seekers. These web browsers, these 500 John’s and 500 Mary’s, then visited several websites including The Times of India—useful because its site contained so many text ads—and the researchers recorded the ads each browser was shown. (This account greatly simplifies but captures the thrust of the study, according to co-author Michael Carl Tschantz.)
The study found that the Google ads treated the genders differently, showing “women” fewer ads for high-paying jobs than “men.” In one finding, Google showed an ad for a career coaching service for jobs paying more than $200,000 to the “men” 1,852 times versus only 318 times to “women.” The study did not show that anyone acted intentionally. It did not even attribute blame for the discrimination. “We can’t be 100 percent sure why it happened,” said Anupam Datta, another of the study’s authors. It could arise from numerous sources, such as the algorithm used to generate the ads, the data set upon which that algorithm was trained, or even intentional discrimination by at least some of those placing the ads. But to really determine many of the causes would require “insider access,” Datta said. But it is this inside access that many platforms are unlikely to grant, according to Datta, “because of IP considerations.” Which brings us back to outsiders using bots—a realization that may have led the Knight First Amendment Institute to send Facebook a public letter last week requesting an exception from its ban on certain bots and research accounts often used by journalists.
This 2015 ad study measured cross-platform discrimination facilitated by tracking cookies that allow advertisers to follow a person from site to site. But it did not create fake accounts or use bots to crawl and scrape data from the employment or housing platforms themselves. The researchers didn’t need to. Since that study, interestingly, Google has changed its settings to prevent anyone from creating an anonymous browser and set the gender—one must set up an account. Today, to perform the same research, researchers would need to create fake accounts, according to Datta. Moreover, to perform research for discrimination in housing and employment would likely require fake accounts on those platform sites themselves. But that’s where researchers fear they might run up against federal criminal law.
Indeed, Sandvig had so much concern the research he would like to conduct would violate federal law that he teamed up with other researchers and lawyers at the ACLU to bring a lawsuit against the Department of Justice seeking judgment that the First Amendment protects their research into discrimination online. Two of these researchers told the court that they would like to create fake accounts—“sock puppets,” as they called them—at an employment website, half male and half female, but otherwise with identical attributes, to uncover discrimination, particularly in the ads shown by the platform algorithms.
But these techniques, the use of fake accounts and automated bots to scrape the results, violate the express terms of service of nearly every major platform website. LinkedIn, for example, says, anyone using the service “agrees” that the account “must be in your real name.” Facebook—a major advertiser for jobs and housing—also says in its terms that any user must “use the same name as in real life.” Worse, the federal hacking statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under at least some interpretations, incorporates these terms of service. To violate the terms of service is to gain “unauthorized access” to a computer and thus to commit a crime. As Judge Bates put it in the DC litigation, “to knowingly violate some of those terms, the Department of Justice tells us, could get one thrown in jail.” While the DOJ argued such criminal prosecutions are quite rare, and that it won’t prosecute harmless terms of service violations, Judge Bates concluded there was a credible threat of prosecution against the plaintiffs.
Bates’ decision is preliminary only—denial of a motion to dismiss—but its language runs broadly. He ruled, essentially, that the researchers’ use of bots to scrape information from platforms would not violate federal law, and that their proposed creation of fake accounts through deception is an activity likely protected by the First Amendment. The government has little interest in criminalizing such activity, he wrote, and the harm to the target platforms from such fictitious accounts, created for research only, is minimal, assuming the facts in the complaint are true.
But his decision sets forth broader principles about the nature of online platforms. The DOJ argued in the Sandvig case, and online platforms such as LinkedIn or Facebook themselves have often argued, that these platforms are merely private property. A platform can deny access to anyone it wishes, for any reason, including if a visitor creates fake accounts or uses automated bots. If the government criminalizes a person who accesses such a website in violation of the website’s rules, they have merely criminalized a trespass analogous to a criminal trespass in the real world that would occur if a person refused to leave the premises after being told to leave.
Bates rejected the argument that the researchers are trespassing; he wrote, essentially, that the public portions of platforms, including the profiles of its users, constitute a public place of sorts. Researchers, at least, may have rights to enter these public portions of the platform, even with fake accounts and bots. After all, he reasoned, a bot merely does what an individual could do in visiting a website: it goes to the site, goes to a particular page, and records what it finds there. As Rachel Goodman, an ACLU lawyer representing the plaintiffs, put it, “It’s not an argument about them as public forums in the traditional sense that they have to accept any comments. What the judge was saying is the internet is a ‘critical medium of communication,’ [and that] the analogy to private property doesn’t hold up.”
Judge Bates’ preliminary protection for researchers falls within a very specific context. It applies to legitimate researchers who visit the public portions of major platforms. But how far should that view extend, and how can we draw the lines when it comes to other uses of scraping, as for economic competition? How do we tell a good bot from a bad? And is it fair to say that a bot does no more than what an individual human being might do, only on a larger scale?
After all, bots allow businesses to scrape information from competitors’ sites at a scale far beyond what an individual human being, or a team of human beings, could hope to accomplish. For example, in a closely watched lawsuit in California, a startup company called hiQ’s entire business model revolves around scraping data from LinkedIn and using that information to perform high-level analytics of trends for their corporate customers. Its “Keeper” function uses big data analytics to alert an employer if one of its valued employees is about to jump ship. hiQ uses bots to visit the public portions of LinkedIn, the public portions of individual’s profiles, so one could argue that these bots are simply viewing what any ordinary person signed onto LinkedIn could observe. On the other hand, the bots crawl over hundreds of thousands more profile pages than a human could, and scrape the information there with a speed and accuracy beyond any human’s, and return that information to hiQ for high level processing. Basically, hiQ would not exist if it couldn’t use bots.
LinkedIn configured its platform to block hiQ, arguing that it was merely protecting its private property. hiQ sued, arguing that LinkedIn’s public facing profiles of users are essentially public property. The court sided with hiQ, writing that LinkedIn is more like, “a storefront window visible on a public street.” It issued a preliminary injunction requiring LinkedIn to allow hiQ to continue scraping its site for this public information. Like Judge Bates, the California court held (preliminarily) that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act did not criminalize its use of bots, even over LinkedIn’s objections; but going far further, it held that California’s unfair competitions laws required, for now, that hiQ be allowed bot-access to LinkedIn. The case remains on appeal.
These cases raise the fundamental question: To what extent are dominant platforms such as LinkedIn public spaces, and to what extent do the platforms have the power to control access as if they are private property? When those seeking access are civil rights researchers, their cause is somewhat sympathetic. But when those seeking access are Russian bots posing as Americans seeking to sow discord in elections, we may want and even demand that the platforms patrol their access. When the example lies somewhere in the middle, as in the hiQ case against LinkedIn, we will have to await the decisions of the courts.
Nothing flatters an independent journalist less than the sight of him forming a line to drink from the same fountain as his colleagues. Such a spectacle will unfold on Thursday, August 16, as 200 or more editorial pages will heed the call sounded by Boston Globe op-ed page editor Marjorie Pritchard to run editorials opposing President Donald Trump’s unrelieved press-bashing. Participating dailies include the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Miami Herald and the Denver Post, as well as the Globe. Joining the movement are the American Society of News Editors and the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Dan Rather is on board, as is the Radio Television Digital News Association.
“Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming,” Pritchard’s appeal declared.
It goes without saying that press bashing, Trump-style, is alarming. His critiques rarely point to genuine inaccuracies in the press. Instead, his method is to dismiss any news that impedes his agenda or disparages him as fake and dishonest. With demagogic bluster, he routinely deploys “enemies of the people” rhetoric against journalists, which some say has inspired physical threats against journalists. Early this month, he tweeted that reporters are “dangerous & sick” and accused them of causing war (!) and purposely causing “great division & distrust.” Early in his presidency, Trump said, “I’ve never seen more dishonest media than, frankly, the political media.”
Most journalists agree that there’s a great need for Trump rebuttals. I’ve written my share. But this Globe-sponsored coordinated editorial response is sure to backfire: It will provide Trump with the circumstantial evidence of the existence of a national press cabal that has been convened solely to opposes him. When the editorials roll off the press on Thursday, all singing from the same script, Trump will reap enough fresh material to whale on the media for at least a month. His forthcoming speeches almost write themselves: By colluding against me, the fake media proved once and for all, that they are in cahoots with the Democrats and have declared themselves to be my true political opposition …
The Globe’s anti-Trump project is also an exercise in redundancy, not to mention self-stroking. Most newspapers have already published a multitude of editorials and columns rebuking the president for his trash-talking of the press. Most major editorial boards opposed Trump’s election, according to this tally by Business Insider. The largest of the 19 newspapers to endorse Trump was the Las Vegas Review-Journal, owned by one of his faithful donors, Sheldon Adelson. More than 240 endorsed Hillary Clinton. Editorial-page sentiment against Trump remains largely unchanged since the election, making the call for a collective reprimand all the more pointless.
Another problem with a nationally coordinated pro-press catechism is that the audience likely to reap the greatest benefit from the haranguing—Trump and many in his base—tends not to read newspapers in the first place. While there’s always value in preaching to the choir—that’s why churches hold services every Sunday—the combined weight of 200 pro-press editorials is not likely to move the opinion needle or deter Trump from defaming and threatening reporters.
Most newspaper editorials are already a watered-down product of groupthink. It’s unlikely that expanding the size of the group and encouraging everybody to bake and serve a tuna-fish casserole on the same day will produce editorials that are more interesting and persuasive than the normal fare.
But maybe I’m wrong. If a single day of pro-press editorials is a good idea for a collective assignment, then maybe newspapers should set aside next Saturday for 200 editorials on tariffs and next Sunday for 200 editorials on global warming and next Monday for 200 editorials on Afghanistan. Surely these issues are as compelling and urgent as press freedom.
For all its faults, the American press refuses the commands from critics who would have it operate like some monolithic entity. Almost daily, our best newspapers express their independence by rejecting the marching orders issued by corporations, politicians and governments. Editorial pages of America, don’t unite! Think for yourselves! Reject this stupid pro-press assignment!
Send collective assignments to [email protected]. I will ignore them. My email alerts endorsed George Papoon for president in 2016. My Twitter feed wrote in Alfred E. Neuman. My RSS feed voted for whatever knucklehead the Libertarian Party put up.
BAGHDAD—As soon as the most recent round of U.S. sanctions, announced by the Trump administration on Aug. 7, hit Iran, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi said his country would reluctantly comply. But a week later, reality has sunk in and many Iraqi officials have pushed for Baghdad to maintain trade relations with Tehran.
The reason: Iraq, which shares a 1,458-kilometer border with Iran, could be badly hurt by the sanctions. Iraq relies on its eastern neighbor for everything from gas supplies to electricity to water and foodstuffs. Not only is Iraq in a no-win position, but it is the United States, which still maintains some 5,200 troops in Iraq, that put it there: The country’s dependence on Iranian trade and public services is largely due to the U.S. invasion in 2003.
When the international community imposed sanctions on the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from 1990 to 2003, next-door Jordan was exempt. The United Nations excused Jordan from sanctions that banned it from buying oil from Iraq, for instance. So there’s a strong precedent for exempting Iraq from the Iran sanctions.
If that doesn’t happen, and Iraq violates sanctions and is hit by U.S. penalties, it is likely to place the country further into Iran’s sphere of influence—exactly what President Donald Trump’s administration says the United States wants to combat in the broader Middle East, where Iran is becoming increasingly powerful.
Even Abadi, who is considered to be more pro-American than his predecessor, cannot afford to comply with sanctions. He has been backpeddling since last week. On August 13, he said: “I did not say we abide by the sanctions, I said we abide by not using dollars in transactions. We have no other choice,” the prime minister told reporters in Baghdad.
The U.S. has re-imposed sanctions on precious metals, including gold, the automobile industry, and the purchase of U.S. dollars. Beyond what Abadi announced about trade in dollars, the government in Baghdad says it has not come to agreement on whether to comply with other sanctions—a buzz phrase for non-compliance. Abadi has already faced a significant backlash from Iraqi and Iranian politicians merely for suggesting at first that Iraq would comply with sanctions.
According to Iraqi media reports, U.S. Treasury officials visited the Central Bank of Iraq in July and said the U.S. would sanction any Iraqi bank that conducted financial transactions with Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Iraqi government has bank accounts with the U.S. Federal Reserve, where its dollars are kept. And these dollars, which the Iraqi economy relies upon, could be frozen should Iraq violate sanctions.
Despite such possible hardships, Iraq has no choice but to violate sanctions, for several reasons.
First, Iraq needs Iran’s refined gas. Iraq’s electricity minister said in July 2017 that Iraq would be reliant on Iranian gas to generate electricity for at least seven years. Iraq does produce natural gas of its own, but lacks the facilities to process it into fuel for local consumption. The gas Iraq receives from Iran constitutes approximately 20 percent of the electricity it produces. Already, Iraq meets only 70 percent of its electricity demand. Iraq has been sending Iran oil to pay for its gas imports and to pay its electricity debt.
Second, Iraq’s water supplies are dependent upon the flows of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from where it gets 98 percent of its surface water. If it chose to do so, Iran could divert 13 percent of Iraq’s water resources. Iraqi Deputy Water Minister told Gulf News in April that 20 to 30 percent of the Tigris River’s water in Iraq originates in Iran. If Iraq complied with sanctions, Iran could easily cut the flows of water, as it already has done in the northern Kurdistan area in Sulaimaniyah province, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Ministry of Agriculture. At a time of serious drought in Iraq, this is no idle threat.
Third, Iran has deliberately flooded the Iraqi market with cheap imports, such as foodstuffs. This has undercut Iraqi agriculture by decreasing demand for homegrown products that are more expensive. Even if Iraq were to stop buying these goods, farmers would not be able to produce enough supplies at home. Over several years, Iraqi farmers have fled to urban areas due to a lack of demand and conflict with the Islamic State. At the moment, a decline in the numbers of farmers is also an obstacle.
Iran has political leverage, too. Since the May 12 national election, Iraq’s political elites have been unable to form a government in part because of enormous pressure from Tehran to install politicians in their favor. If Iran’s loyalists succeed and dominate the new government, Iraq’s rulers will definitely make decisions that support Iranian interests.
The Gulf states and Turkey would seem to be a logical alternative to Iranian trade. However, Iran has loosened Iraqi restrictions against it by greasing the palms of local border and trade officials for years. It seems unlikely that corrupt officials will seize the opportunity to broaden Iraq’s list of trading partners.
In general, while Gulf states object to Iraq’s economic reliance on Iran, governments have done little to help Iraq become more independent. The Kuwait-sponsored reconstruction conference to help Iraq, held in February, has yielded no results, according to Iraqi sources, even though millions of dollars of pledges were made.
Once again, Iraq is finding itself controlled by outside forces and without any recourse at a time of widespread civil unrest in the country over water and electricity shortages. In penalizing Iran, the United States is unintentionally encouraging Iraq to drift away Washington and into the arms of Tehran.
Every time Democrats lose a presidential election, blue America promptly collapses into civil war—and never more so than in the aftermath of 2016. Progressive Democrats, buoyed by a number of high-profile victories, insist that if the party is to have any hope of fending off Trumpism, it must decisively move to the political left by embracing the populist messaging and agenda of insurgent outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Establishment Democrats (egged on by eye-rolling pundits and concern-trolling never-Trumpers) dismiss that idea as electoral suicide, contending that now more than ever is the time for the party to reclaim the political center by championing an agenda that pragmatically appeals to voters on both sides of the aisle.
And you know what? They’re absolutely right. All of them. The Democratic Party must reclaim the political center. And the only way to do that is by boldly moving toward the so-called “radical” left.
If this strikes you as counterintuitive, you’re not alone. By respectively attempting to purge the center or marginalize the left, progressive and establishment Democrats alike have displayed a willful ignorance of where and what the center actually is. This is not mere wordplay. Over the past several decades, Democrats have allowed a mistaken and self-destructive definition of centrism to become party orthodoxy. It continues to undermine party unity at a time when a unified Democratic Party is more essential than ever.
In fact, there are two kinds of political centers: There’s the ideological center—the one that Democrats are waging a civil war over. And there’s the majoritarian center—the one where most of the people are. If Democrats hope to be a majority party, it’s the majoritarian center they need to embrace. And to understand the difference between these two strains of centrism, it’s important to understand exactly what the center is measuring.
Imagine lining up every person in America on a yardstick, with the poorest person standing to the far-left edge of the stick (zero inches) and the wealthiest person standing to the far right (36 inches). Assuming that people are equally spaced, and that there is no correlation between wealth and weight—if you could balance that yardstick on the tip of your finger, the fulcrum would fall on the 18-inch mark, the exact center of the yardstick, with exactly half of all Americans standing to the left, and the other half standing to the right. Clustered on and near that 18-inch mark are the median American families—the middle-middle class—the majoritarian center of the American electorate, at least from an economic perspective.
Now imagine that very same yardstick with every American standing in their very same spots… only this time, rather than balancing people, we are balancing their personal wealth, stacked up in $100 bills. But because 2 percent of Americans (of which I am one) own 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, to balance this yardstick you’d now have to slide your finger nearly all the way over, beyond the 35-inch mark, just inside the far-right edge. This fulcrum balances the interests of capital, not people. And unfortunately, this is the yardstick of our current ideological center—a centrism informed by the bad economic theories that have guided the policies of both parties for more than 30 years.
This precarious balancing act helps explain why policies that would clearly benefit the majoritarian center are so often rejected as ideologically “far left;” for a centrism that seeks to balance the interests of capital is a centrism that seeks to balance the interests of the very wealthiest Americans against those of everybody else. It’s this sort of “one dollar, one vote” logic that led to Citizens United—a logic that threatens to subvert American democracy itself. For a system that justifies the wealthiest 2 percent purchasing the same political influence as the other 98 percent, isn’t really a democracy at all. I’m not saying that self-described “centrist” Democrats are any more greedy or corrupt than their progressive colleagues, but if they’re honest with themselves, they should recognize how much they have internalized this orthodox ideological bias. Indeed, this is what they mean by “pragmatic centrism”: an economic policy agenda that necessarily balances the interests of business (the few) versus the interests of labor (the many), in an attempt to best serve the interests of all. Yet as pragmatic as such an approach might at first appear, when viewed from a majoritarian perspective, the ideological center consistently fails to hold.
Take, for example, the minimum wage, a stereotypically lefty policy if there ever were one. But is it really so lefty? In fact, the federal minimum wage is extraordinarily popular, with 71 percent of Americans supporting a raise to at least $10 an hour… even according to a partisan survey conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz on behalf of the minimum-wage-hating National Restaurant Association! Ouch. In a country as politically polarized as ours, I’d say that 71 percent support for anything is about as majoritarian centrist a policy as you’re likely to get.
But what about a $15 minimum wage? Surely, the higher we raise the minimum wage the more extremist the policy becomes, right? Again, not from a majoritarian perspective. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, a majority of registered voters—52 percent—favor raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour (support far stronger than the 41 percent approval rating currently enjoyed by President Trump). But more importantly, a $15 minimum wage would benefit far more workers. At $7.25 an hour, the current federal minimum wage provides a floor under only 1.3 percent of all wage and salary workers—a cohort one might fairly characterize as occupying the far left of our economic yardstick. By comparison, a hike to $15 an hour would directly or indirectly benefit 29.2 percent of workers. And with half of all American jobs paying less than $18 an hour, a $20 minimum wage would directly cover a majority of workers, while indirectly pushing wages higher for many millions more. From a majoritarian perspective—a perspective that asks, “Who does it benefit?”—the higher you raise the minimum wage, the more centrist the policy becomes!
And the same holds true for many other policies routinely caricatured as “far-left.” After 40 years of erosion, the current $23,660 overtime threshold now guarantees time-and-a-half overtime pay to only 8 percent of workers, but a return to a 1970s-level threshold would cover 66 percent. Less than 30 percent of college graduates manage to get through school without accumulating often-crushing levels of student debt, but tuition-free public college would offer an affordable higher education to every qualified student. And with an enrollment age of 65, only 15 percent of Americans enjoy the privilege of purchasing affordable health insurance through Medicare, but “Medicare for All” would deliver exactly what its name implies. All three of these proposals enjoy majority support, while directly benefiting the majority of Americans. So to mischaracterize these policies as “lefty” rather than “centrist” would be to abuse those words. Small wonder that “socialists” like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have gained so much traction with mainstream voters. “This race is about people versus money,” says Ocasio-Cortez. “We’ve got people, they’ve got money.” That’s as clear a declaration of majoritarian centrism as voters might hope to hear.
You self-described “pragmatic” Democrats who publicly fret that such policies would be far too costly to taxpayers or to employers should remember that there is nothing pragmatic about losing elections. You can’t be the grownup in the room if you’re not in the room. That’s why you never hear Republicans worrying about how to pay for their $1.5 trillion tax cut for the rich: it’s a losing argument. And besides, your trickle-down instincts are wrong! The U.S. economy was never as strong, nor its middle class as secure, as during the three decades when the real minimum wage and the overtime threshold and public subsidies for higher education were at their peak. Medicare for All wouldn’t burden employers; it would relieve them of their costliest employee benefit. And if we do need to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to rebuild the middle class, so what? There is simply no correlation between top tax rates and growth. Stand up for the middle class for a change and you might be rewarded. But there is absolutely nothing to gain—economically or electorally—by aping a trickle-down narrative that just isn’t true. On economic issues, the Democratic Party has long embraced an ideological definition of centrism that simply has nothing to do with the center. And both the party and the nation have suffered as a result.
There once was a time when both parties vied to occupy the majoritarian center, an era when American politics was more a struggle over means than of ends—until, after three decades of unprecedented and broad-based post-war prosperity, the Republican Party lurched violently to the right, and the age of New Deal centrism came to a close. Supply-side tax cuts, attacks on unions, a crusade against “big government” and other tactics of the “Reagan Revolution” helped put us on the road to a new Gilded Age. And while Republicans certainly led the way, we wouldn’t have gotten here as quickly had Democrats not kept driving in the same direction every time we managed to get our hands on the wheel.
Sure, we drove a bit slower and made a few detours before delivering the working class to a neoliberal paradise of billionaires and paupers. And we offered an occasional helping hand to the millions of Americans we left behind in a ditch. But while we tried to strike a more compassionate balance than our GOP counterparts, our deference to the tenets of neoliberal orthodoxy kept our economic agenda firmly tilted toward the interests of the super-rich.
Under Bill Clinton, the wealthy got financial deregulation and capital gains tax cuts worth hundreds of billions of dollars, while our most vulnerable citizens got a higher Earned Income Tax Credit and CHIP—benefits worth just tens of billions. Under Barack Obama, the Wall Street titans who had used their regulatory freedom to crash the global economy got bailouts and bonuses and a monetary policy that inflated their assets, while some in the middle-class got affordable (or, at least, less unaffordable) health insurance, and millions of homeowners were left to drown in their underwater mortgages.
This isn’t to say that the Affordable Care Act and EITC expansion weren’t worthwhile programs. I’m a Democrat for a reason. But “we suck less than the Republicans” just doesn’t cut it, politically or economically. Reagan’s class war left the economic center in ruins. Restoring shared prosperity required nothing less than a Marshall Plan for the middle class. Instead, centrist Democrats let them eat charter schools.
In the golden age of New Deal liberalism, organized labor delivered shared prosperity for the middle-class, and electoral success for the Democratic Party. A mountain of studies have shown that strong, private-sector unions reduce inequality and raise middle-class wages for workers who belong to them and for those who don’t. Other studies have shown that when unions decline in a state, the Democratic Party’s share of that state’s vote declines along with them. Thus, upon returning to power in 1992, it should have been a no-brainer for Democrats to rewrite the nation’s labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize—and harder for bosses to stop them.
But they didn’t. In the 1980s, as Reaganism was ascendant, “centrist” Democrats started blaming much of their party’s struggles on organized labor: By doing the bidding of that “special interest group,” centrists argued, Democrats had alienated the middle. So, instead of taking its policy cues from a labor movement it dismissed as corrupt, lazy, and market-distorting, Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party let Wall Street set its agenda. The Bob Rubin wing of the White House believed that working-class Americans didn’t need collective bargaining rights to force their employers to pay a living wage, or redistributive programs to guarantee them a fair share of after-tax income. No, what the economic center really needed was for government to wage war on the deficits, trade barriers and financial regulations that were holding back economic growth. Labor law reform was out; welfare reform, NAFTA, and deregulated derivatives markets were in.
Some of these measures might very well have contributed to the late-1990s growth spurt—but they also set the stage for the 2008 crisis while accelerating the decline of American manufacturing, and the labor movement with it. And though median wages did rise during the Clinton expansion, so did economic inequality. And unlike this brief spike in wages, inequality has been relentlessly rising ever since.
Centrist Democrats weren’t blind to this inequality. They just refused to believe that it was a product of the economic rules they helped write. Working people weren’t falling behind because markets were structured to funnel all the rewards of growth to the top, centrists told themselves; the middle class was falling behind because it lacked the skills to compete in the new “knowledge economy.” After all, wages were rising for highly-educated Americans—you know, like centrist Democratic politicians—so middle-class Americans just needed to become more like them. Companies said they were desperate to give high-paying jobs to American workers, if only they could find workers who were qualified to do the jobs. None of this meant that centrist Democrats were blaming the middle class for its struggles. They didn’t expect working Americans to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” without any help from Uncle Sam (they weren’t Republicans, after all.) They just thought that the median worker needed a better education or retraining, not a modicum of bargaining power with her employer. It wasn’t rapacious economic elites who were preventing workers from getting reasonable wages and benefits. It was the damn teachers unions.
Of course, minting more college graduates didn’t reduce inequality; it just produced a new class of extremely well-read baristas with crushing college debt. The “skills gap” was always a lie told by corporations who just wanted to pay less for high-skill labor. Still, the myth survived well into the Obama presidency, when a unified Democratic government once again declined to modernize labor law, while selling education reform as an elixir for inequality.
It’s been three decades since centrist Democrats abandoned the majoritarian economic center, and the consequences for the middle class have been devastating. Since 1980, the bottom 80 percent of American workers have effectively been bypassed by economic growth while absorbing most of the costs of public disinvestment in housing, education, and the social safety net. After-tax corporate profits have doubled from approximately 5 percent of GDP to 10 percent—about a trillion dollars a year—while wages as a share of GDP have fallen by about the same amount. Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of Americans went from collecting 9 percent of personal income to about 22 percent today. Taken together, these changes amount to a shift of more than $2 trillion a year from middle-class paychecks to the bank accounts of corporations and the very rich.
Some of my fellow filthy-rich capitalists would like you to believe the middle class has actually benefited from having us gobbling up more and more of America’s annual income gains. After all, they claim, we “job creators” know best how to productively invest wealth: The more capital we get to control, the more economic growth we’ll be able to produce—and the benefits will trickle down!
Yeah, right. Contrary to popular wisdom, America hasn’t enjoyed drastically higher economic growth since 1980 than more egalitarian Western countries. And a moment’s glance at how the “job creators” are currently investing their windfall illustrates why: Right now, roughly 55 percent of corporate profits (about $1 trillion, or 5 percent GDP) is going into stock buybacks—the signal marker of corporate malfeasance and self-dealing—while another 37 percent goes to dividends. This means that 92 percent of the profits that American businesses make this year will be spent on enriching the small, elite fraction of the population that owns significant amounts of corporate stock. Meanwhile, at a time of so-called “full employment,” inflation-adjusted wages for the bottom 80 percent of American workers are actually declining.
After the corporate elite slices off its giant share of the income pie, the median American family—those standing near the 18-inch halfway mark of our majoritarian yardstick—is left with about $59,000 a year. Had inequality held constant since 1980, that figure would be $86,000. Had middle-class incomes grown with productivity (as they had in the previous three decades), the median American family would be earning over $100,000 a year.
Let me underscore this point: America owes the median family a raise of somewhere between $25,000 and $40,000. Per year. This—not the fictional entitlement crisis—is the inconvenient economic truth that elites in both parties lack the political courage to confront. And only by enacting policies that right this wrong can Democrats lay claim to being a truly centrist party.
Of course, Democrats never quite gave up their belief in redistribution. But because they stubbornly stayed beholden to their ideological center, these redistributive measures were always too little, too late—and of little help to the majoritarian center. The ACA expanded Medicaid to millions of low-income Americans—but it condemned the median family to complicated, costly, and uncertain health insurance exchanges. Similarly, Obama proposed raising the minimum wage, but at first only to $9 an hour, and eventually to $10.10—a change that would have raised the wages of just a small percentage of workers at the very bottom of the income distribution, many of them non-voters. Attending to the needs of the most vulnerable is a fine thing, of course. But it is impossible to build a winning coalition out of the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. The rich get tax cuts, the poor get scraps, and the middle is left to fend for itself.
Is it any wonder then that so many working- and middle-class voters could see little practical difference between the policies of Democrat Hillary Clinton (one of the more qualified presidential candidates ever to win a major party nomination) and those of a lying, racist, vainglorious, authoritarian, know-nothing like Republican Donald Trump? Clinton was correctly seen as the leader of a Democratic establishment whose “centrist” policies had long served to undermine the legitimate interests of the middle class. So why not take a flyer on Trump? It is in this way that three decades of Democratic ideological centrism helped lead our nation down the neoliberal road to Trumpdom.
All is not lost. Well, not quite yet. There is still an opportunity for a unified Democratic Party to retake Congress in November and remove Trump from office in 2020 (if not sooner). But being anti-Trump is not enough. To build an electoral majority Democrats must come together and embrace an economic policy agenda that boldly and decisively reclaims the majoritarian center. And this will require sacrifices from progressives and centrists alike.
For you centrist Democrats who have long dominated the party establishment, it is time for you to admit that a “pragmatically centrist” agenda that enjoys neither majority support nor serves a majority of voters, is neither pragmatic nor centrist. In fact, it’s suicidal. Indeed, when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz earnestly insists that Democrats must “go after entitlements” (“Medicare for Fewer” rather than “Medicare for All”), his only real chance of uniting voters is in opposition to Howard Schultz. And don’t you dare think for a moment that you somehow know better than voters what’s good for them, because “Econ 101!” or something. Econ 101 is bullshit—at least in the way that it’s been relentlessly misapplied to public policy these past 40 years. And as for trickle-down economics—"a rising tide lifts all boats” and all that—well, that’s a demonstrable con: Tax cuts for the rich don’t create growth (if they did, Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax giveaway wouldn’t have resulted in declining wages and record stock buybacks). A higher minimum wage doesn’t kill jobs (if it did, the job market wouldn’t be booming in Seattle and San Francisco and New York and in every other city or state that has recently hiked its local wage floor). Deregulation isn’t a magical potion of market efficiency (unless if, by “efficient,” you mean efficiently wiping out the savings of millions of working- and middle-class families through a predatory lending and derivative-fueled economic collapse).
As for progressive Democrats, it’s time for us to stop trashing the very notion of centrism itself. The “centrist” wing of our party (and to be clear, it’s a wing, not the center) isn’t uniformly evil or corrupt. They’re not bad people. They’re just wrong. They believed what economists told them, and then tried to govern accordingly. But they’re still Democrats, and as such, we all broadly share the same inclusive values and goals. Moreover, by relentlessly reviling the center, progressives needlessly cede it. Which is stupid. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is already the largest Democratic caucus in Congress. So you know what that makes them? The center!
Free from the elitist constraints of ideological centrism and refocused on the wants and needs of the majoritarian center, a unified Democratic Party has an opportunity to build an electoral wave strong enough to swamp the gerrymandered seawalls of the Republican-controlled Congress. And what would a truly centrist Democratic agenda look like? A $15 minimum wage, a restored overtime threshold, affordable public college, Medicare for All, paid family leave, crucial infrastructure investments, modern labor laws, and substantially higher taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals would be a good start. If that sounds like the platform of lefties like Ocasio-Cortez, it’s because it is. But when ideologically “lefty” ideas are both broadly popular and broadly economically beneficial, they occupy the majoritarian center from which electoral majorities are built.
Democrats need to stop balancing the economic interests of the top 2 percent against the interests of everyone else and start focusing on the needs of the majoritarian center—the 80 percent of families who have been left behind by 40 years of trickle-down economics. Raise wages now. That’s the kind of pragmatic centrism the majority of Americans truly want, and that our economy needs.
Nick Hanauer is a Seattle-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and the founder of Civic Ventures, a public-policy incubator.
You’re not strip-searched when you walk into the Situation Room, the windowless chamber beneath the White House where the most sensitive conversations in the country take place. There’s no electronics detector or recording device scanner guarding the door of secure spaces where sensitive content is discussed and viewed.
Instead, White House personnel are briefed on security protocols and trusted to do their jobs—which includes mitigating the risk of unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information. This, at the most basic level, entails trying to keep our most sensitive places free from foreign objects like hackable devices.
There are multiple reminders—from the Situation Room receptionist reminding visitors to drop their devices in special boxes to visual signs in key locations around secure facilities—but at the end of the day, it works on an honor system: Staff are hired, and trusted, to put American national security ahead of everything else, whether it’s a desire to sell books or being able to check email during a long meeting.
Which is why it was so disturbing to learn that Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former Trump aide whose forthcoming White House tell-all has already prompted the president to call her a “low life,” a “loser” and “wacky,” was able to record her own firing by chief of staff John Kelly: It speaks to a culture of calculated disregard for rules that I certainly never encountered in serving across two administrations, Republican and Democrat alike.
White House staff members’ cellphones and other personal devices are basically beacons beckoning foreign intelligence agents. If Omarosa or any other White House personnel brought unauthorized devices into the Situation Room or any of the other secure spaces on the White House grounds, we should assume that intelligence agents from sophisticated intelligence services in China and Russia—who have been hacking U.S. devices for years—were listening.
Hacking electronics isn’t a new spy game, and our biggest adversaries are really good at it. That’s why security professionals sweep spaces abroad when President Donald Trump goes to foreign meetings and why most government personnel, in my experience, if they accidentally bring a device into a secure space, get it scrubbed for bugs to limit any damage.
Omarosa knowingly made herself a more vulnerable foreign asset by repeatedly bringing a recording device into a secure space. White House personnel like Omarosa are highly valuable and highly vulnerable targets for foreign intelligence services because of their access to content that foreign agents want to collect on. That makes every electronic device used by White House personnel a prime hacking target. Cellphones, iPads—and yes, especially Trump’s personal cellphone—are high-value targets in general, and that goes double for devices that penetrate the Situation Room.
All White House staff are supposed to go through security clearance investigations that review counterintelligence risks and get regular security briefings on what to watch out for and how to do their jobs in a manner that mitigates the risk of counterintelligence penetration. Foreign intelligence agents want to make White House staff their witting or unwitting assets, and Omarosa knew the risks, ignored them, and knowingly opened herself to exploitation.
The security rules don’t change in secure spaces, by the way, based on how highly a conversation is classified. So it doesn’t matter that Kelly was merely firing Omarosa and speaking about unclassified information. She still violated the security of the space by bringing in an unauthorized device. Foreign intelligence services are good at what they do, and we have no way of knowing what a “recording device” can do to systems and cameras in the secure space that it penetrates well after Omarosa left the room.
In fact, Omarosa was likely not the only one to treat the rules with shocking callousness. If she felt brazen enough to bring a prime hacking target into a secure space like the Situation Room or other offices in the White House that are secure, we don’t know how many other staffers felt similarly and taped other conversations.
The damage is already done in terms of foreign intelligence relationships. America’s foreign intelligence partners share sensitive information with us based on the premise that it will be treated responsibly. Some of that foreign intelligence ends up in secure conversations in places like the Situation Room, and now our intelligence partners know that hackable devices violated the security of these spaces, opening them up to unauthorized listeners. So this isn't just about us: It’s also about our partners’ content and sources and methods. This could lead to diminished intelligence sharing.
And it could lead to internal mistrust, too: I went to work every day, for four years, trusting that my conversations with colleagues were private. The Situation Room was the safest place I knew—that’s why we worked on the Iranian nuclear deal in that room, sensitive operational discussions, and more. Now, every White House staffer has more reason to question whether their colleagues are yielding to some ulterior motive and recording conversations for future use. This could lead staff to talk less, share less and suspect each other more.
The Omarosa episode unfortunately is only the latest example of rule-breaking in this president’s White House. The abuse of the security clearance system, which came to light after former staff secretary Rob Porter was granted an extended interim clearance and access to highly classified information despite his history of alleged domestic abuse, was an earlier example of playing dodgeball with established processes and procedures. Only the president can fix this culture—he can start by giving up his cellphone. There’s no time like the present to lead by example.
Let me tell you a story about Stephen Miller and chain migration.
It begins at the turn of the 20th century, in a dirt-floor shack in the village of Antopol, a shtetl of subsistence farmers in what is now Belarus. Beset by violent anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army, the patriarch of the shack, Wolf-Leib Glosser, fled a village where his forebears had lived for centuries and took his chances in America.
He set foot on Ellis Island on January 7, 1903, with $8 to his name. Though fluent in Polish, Russian and Yiddish, he understood no English. An elder son, Nathan, soon followed. By street corner peddling and sweatshop toil, Wolf-Leib and Nathan sent enough money home to pay off debts and buy the immediate family’s passage to America in 1906. That group included young Sam Glosser, who with his family settled in the western Pennsylvania city of Johnstown, a booming coal and steel town that was a magnet for other hardworking immigrants. The Glosser family quickly progressed from selling goods from a horse and wagon to owning a haberdashery in Johnstown run by Nathan and Wolf-Leib to a chain of supermarkets and discount department stores run by my grandfather, Sam, and the next generation of Glossers, including my dad, Izzy. It was big enough to be listed on the AMEX stock exchange and employed thousands of people over time. In the span of some 80 years and five decades, this family emerged from poverty in a hostile country to become a prosperous, educated clan of merchants, scholars, professionals, and, most important, American citizens.
What does this classically American tale have to do with Stephen Miller? Well, Izzy Glosser is his maternal grandfather, and Stephen’s mother, Miriam, is my sister.
I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.
I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses— the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom. The Glossers came to the U.S. just a few years before the fear and prejudice of the “America first” nativists of the day closed U.S. borders to Jewish refugees. Had Wolf-Leib waited, his family likely would have been murdered by the Nazis along with all but seven of the 2,000 Jews who remained in Antopol. I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.
Like other immigrants, our family’s welcome to the USA was not always a warm one, but we largely had the protection of the law, there was no state-sponsored violence against us, no kidnapping of our male children, and we enjoyed good relations with our neighbors. True, Jews were excluded from many occupations, couldn’t buy homes in some towns, couldn’t join certain organizations or attend certain schools or universities, but life was good. As in past generations, there were hate mongers who regarded the most recent groups of poor immigrants as scum, rapists, gangsters, drunks and terrorists, but largely the Glosser family was left alone to live our lives and build the American dream. Children were born, synagogues founded, and we thrived. This was the miracle of America.
Acting for so long in the theater of right-wing politics, Stephen and Trump may have become numb to the resultant human tragedy and blind to the hypocrisy of their policy decisions. After all, Stephen’s is not the only family with a chain immigration story in the Trump administration. Trump's grandfather is reported to have been a German migrant on the run from military conscription to a new life in the United States, and his mother fled the poverty of rural Scotland for the economic possibilities of New York City. (Trump’s in-laws just became citizens on the strength of his wife’s own citizenship.)
These facts are important not only for their grim historical irony but because vulnerable people are being hurt. They are real people, not the ghoulish caricatures portrayed by Trump. When confronted by the deaths and suffering of thousands, our senses are overwhelmed, and the victims become statistics rather than people. I meet these statistics one at a time through my volunteer service as a neuropsychologist for the Philadelphia affiliate of HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), the global nonprofit that protects refugees and helped my family more than 100 years ago. I will share the story of one such man I have met in the hopes that my nephew might recognize elements of our shared heritage.
In the early 2000s, Joseph (not his real name) was conscripted at the age of 14 to be a soldier in Eritrea and sent to a remote desert military camp. Officers there discovered a Bible under his pillow which aroused their suspicion that he might belong to a foreign evangelical sect that would claim his loyalty and sap his will to fight. Joseph was actually a member of the state-approved Coptic church but was nonetheless immediately subjected to torture. “They smashed my face into the ground, tied my hands and feet together behind my back, stomped on me, and hung me from a tree by my bonds while they beat me with batons for the others to see.”
Joseph was tortured for 20 consecutive days before being taken to a military prison and crammed into a dark unventilated cell with 36 other men, little food and no proper hygiene. Some died, and in time Joseph was stricken with dysentery. When he was too weak to stand, he was taken to a civilian clinic where he was fed by the medical staff. Upon regaining his strength, he escaped to a nearby road where a sympathetic driver took him north through the night to a camp in Sudan where he joined other refugees. Joseph was on the first leg of a journey that would cover thousands of miles and almost 10 years.
Before Donald Trump had started his political ascent promulgating the false story that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim, while my nephew, Stephen, was famously recovering from the hardships of his high school cafeteria in Santa Monica, Joseph was a child on his own in Sudan in fear of being deported back to Eritrea to face execution for desertion. He worked any job he could get, saved his money and made his way through Sudan. He endured arrest and extortion in Libya. He returned to Sudan, then kept moving to Dubai, Brazil and eventually to a southern border crossing into Texas, where he sought asylum. In all of the countries he traveled through during his ordeal, he was vulnerable, exploited and his status was “illegal.” But in the United States, he had a chance to acquire the protection of a documented immigrant.
Today, at 30, Joseph lives in Pennsylvania and has a wife and child. He is a smart, warm, humble man of great character who is grateful for every day of his freedom and safety. He bears emotional scars from not seeing his parents or siblings since he was 14. He still trembles, cries and struggles for breath when describing his torture, and he bears physical scars as well. He hopes to become a citizen, return to work and make his contribution to America. His story, though unique in its particulars, is by no means unusual. I have met Central Americans fleeing corrupt governments, violence and criminal extortion; a Yemeni woman unable to return to her war-ravaged home country and fearing sexual mutilation if she goes back to her Saudi husband; and an escaped kidnap-bride from central Asia.
Trump wants to make us believe that these desperate migrants are an existential threat to the United States; the most powerful nation in world history and a nation made strong by immigrants. Trump and my nephew both know their immigrant and refugee roots. Yet, they repeat the insults and false accusations of earlier generations against these refugees to make them seem less than human. Trump publicly parades the grieving families of people hurt or killed by migrants, just as the early Nazis dredged up Jewish criminals to frighten and enrage their political base to justify persecution of all Jews. Almost every American family has an immigration story of its own based on flight from war, poverty, famine, persecution, fear or hopelessness. Most of these immigrants became workers, entrepreneurs, scientists and soldiers of America.
Most damning is the administration's evident intent to make policy that specifically disadvantages people based on their ethnicity, country of origin and religion. No matter what opinion is held about immigration, any government that specifically enacts law or policy on that basis must be recognized as a threat to all of us. Laws bereft of justice are the gateway to tyranny. Today others may be the target, but tomorrow it might just as easily be you or me. History will be the judge, but in the meantime the normalization of these policies is rapidly eroding the collective conscience of America. Immigration reform is a complex issue that will require compassion and wisdom to bring the nation to a just solution, but the politicians who have based their political and professional identity on ethnic demonization and exclusion cannot be trusted to do so. As free Americans, and descendants of immigrants and refugees, we have the obligation to exercise our conscience by voting for candidates who will stand up for our highest national values and not succumb to our lowest fears.
A few weeks before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her New York congressional primary, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley spoke to a roomful of young Democrats at the Bell-in-Hand, a Boston tavern that dates back to 1795. She was explaining why she should unseat a congressman who, she suggested, might as well have been in office for that long.
It wasn’t that her opponent in Massachusetts’ 7th District, 10-term Rep. Michael Capuano, had a voting record that was objectionable, or had neglected the district for a national profile—the standard complaints you hear in a primary challenge. Instead, it was a question of approach, of personal history translated to legislative priorities, of the value in filling Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district—currently served by a 66-year-old white man—with a 44-year-old black woman who has experienced the struggles of the inner city. Pressley talked, with a lyrical lilt, about growing up in Chicago with a single mother; her father’s incarceration; her survival of sexual assault. She said she’d draw renewed attention to the economic and social disparities within the district, the way income and life expectancy vary precinct by precinct.
“Voting the right way is one thing,” Pressley told the group. “But I want to lead, and I want to legislate our values.”
The Pressley-Capuano contest, which takes place September 4, is not just another battle in the civil war between the Democratic Party’s progressive left and its moderate center. Instead, this race tells a different story about the party, and its clogged pipeline of talent.
After a powerless spell in Donald Trump’s Washington, Democrats are standing on the brink of a majority—at least in the House. Now, they have to think about standard-bearers as well as standards. As loyal congressional soldiers like Capuano have waited for a crack at leadership, the party’s generational rift has grown. The would-be 2020 front-runner, Joe Biden, is 75. The average age of a Democrat in Congress, at the start of the current term, was 61. The top House Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, are pushing 80. And more than 50 Democratic candidates have said they won’t support Pelosi for speaker if they win, saying it’s time for a new crop of leaders to take the party forward. Democrats across the country are wondering: Is the current congressional leadership a fount of institutional knowledge and skill, or a calcified establishment? To combat Trump effectively, do you need a seasoned hand, or do strange times demand new faces and new voices?
Those are among the party’s most pressing divides, says Marquette University political scientist Julia Azari, who notes that today’s ideological fault lines are far narrower than they were in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton took unorthodox stances on NAFTA and welfare reform. Today’s progressive-versus-moderate debate might make headlines, Azari says, but “my read on the majority of the Democratic races is that this is not the debate people are having. The debate they’re having is about process and the power of the party.”
Pressley, whose campaign slogan is “Change can’t wait,” hopes to capitalize on the Democrats’ self-reflection, and on the wave of enthusiasm that propelled so many women and minorities into politics this year.
“She’s not so much pointing the finger and saying, ‘Michael Capuano, you stink.’ She’s asking the voters in the district to hold themselves accountable. Is it OK that we’re voting right and not getting it done? Is the way it’s working enough?” says former Massachusetts Democratic Party chair John Walsh. “And it doesn’t have to be a choice between good and bad. It can be a choice between good and better.”
But in practical terms, that’s a hard pitch for a primary challenger to make. For all the buzz Pressley has gotten among national Democrats, especially on the left, Capuano leads her in fundraising and has won most of the race’s high-profile endorsements (though some politicians have been conspicuously neutral). The most recent polling has him up by 13 points. Incumbency is powerful, and for Democrats, that creates an internal challenge: A party with a bench problem, and a stated desire to diversify, still offers few chances for a promising newcomer to edge her way in. Ayanna Pressley is talented enough to be the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a progressive sensation who energizes the left in races all over the country. But first, she needs to actually win.
If your politics run progressive, there are few better places to live than Massachusetts’ 7th, which cuts a north-south line through some of the most left-leaning precincts in America. The district includes the limousine-liberal paradise known as the “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” the increasingly unaffordable hipster haven of Somerville, the racially diverse suburbs of Chelsea, Everett, Milton and Randolph, and 70 percent of the city of Boston. It is Massachusetts’ only majority-minority district. In the 2016 election, 84 percent of its voters supported Hillary Clinton.
Capuano, who served as mayor of Somerville in its pre-hipster gritty days, has represented the district since 1999 (prior to the post-2010 redistricting, it was Massachusetts’ 8th, with similar boundaries). Pressley is Capuano’s first primary challenger, and the race has drawn a flurry of national attention, especially in the hours after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, when the two women exchanged supportive tweets.
On the surface, the contests look similar: younger woman of color taking on white male establishment figure. But like most congressional races, this one is its own beast. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley is neither unknown nor anti-establishment; she has spent nearly a decade on the Boston City Council, after years as an aide for Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Joe Kennedy II.
And unlike Rep. Joe Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez’s ill-fated opponent, Capuano, who has the low-key bearing of a likable neighborhood guy, is hardly ignoring the primary challenge. He’s attending debates, holding events across the district, maintaining that voters—seeing little difference in the candidates’ political positions—will stick with someone who’s reliable, visible and known. And to his liberal constituents, he’s making the case that he is best-placed to stand up to the president. Capuano is the antithesis of Trump on every issue, often outspokenly so. He refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, instead holding office hours for residents worried about the new president’s policies. This summer, at the height of the separation of immigrant families, he toured a border patrol facility in McAllen, Texas, and posted missives about it on his Facebook page.
But for all that, he’s laser-focused on his district. “A national message has never worked, and it never will, in a congressional race,” he said after a recent event at a senior center in Chelsea. “It’s one-to-one, old-fashioned street work.”
Part of Capuano’s confidence comes from the power of incumbency, measured in relationships built and raw dollars won. He has racked up the vast majority of the race’s big endorsements, from teachers unions, nurses unions and high-profile politicians such as former Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. (Massachusetts’ rising-star attorney general, Maura Healey, is a notable exception.) Supporters say he has helped secure funding for many progressive causes: affordable housing projects, community health centers and rail lines that serve minority neighborhoods. They also note that he is the only Massachusetts member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and, in a future Democratic majority, is poised to chair influential subcommittees on the transportation and finance committees.
If Democrats take back the House, reelecting Capuano would be in "Boston’s best interest, the region’s best interest, and that can’t be underscored [enough],” says Roy Avellaneda, a Chelsea city councilor and former aide to a Massachusetts state senator. He joined Capuano at a senior event in his immigrant-heavy, often-struggling city, and ran off a litany of projects Capuano has helped secure.
“There are so many institutions in the greater Boston area that rely on federal support,” Avellaneda says. “I don’t think we should be risking all of those benefits for a change of face.”
That’s one reason much of the political establishment blinked when Pressley announced her candidacy at the end of January. Beating an incumbent is notoriously hard. Capuano was well-liked and scandal-free. Why even try?
One answer lies some 30 miles north, in Massachusetts’ 3rd District, where six-term Rep. Niki Tsongas announced last summer that she wouldn’t run for reelection—and a flood of candidates rushed into the race. They range from a veteran state senator to a 20-something Latina state representative, several local business owners, Marty Walsh’s deeply connected former chief of staff, and a onetime finance chair for President Barack Obama who served as ambassador to Denmark.
In the 7th, by contrast, Pressley stands alone. And for an ambitious political player, her candidacy is a rational move, says John Walsh, who knows from experience: He managed Deval Patrick’s 2006 campaign when Patrick was a long-shot candidate for governor.
“You can just wait for somebody to get tired, or they get sick and die, and you can jump into a 13-person field,” Walsh says. “Or, if you have something to say, you can just run.”
On the Boston City Council, Pressley’s signature work has hewed close to her personal history. Her biggest projects have ranged from supporting pregnant teens and revamping sex education in schools to expanding liquor licenses in minority neighborhoods—which she pitched as an issue of economic justice.
“I believe that those closest to the pain should be closest to the power driving and informing the policies of our government,” she told a group in May at Boston’s African Meeting House, to broad applause.
But what Pressley, on the trail, calls “lived experience,” Capuano has called identity politics. “Look, I cannot be a woman of color,” he told local NPR affiliate WBUR in February. “And if that’s what people care about, that’s fine. I accept that, I understand that. I just don’t think there are that many people who will vote for me because I’m a white male or vote against me because I’m a white male.”
Indeed, Capuano’s signs, like Pressley’s, are abundant in Boston’s black neighborhoods, and he has won endorsements from the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and representatives Maxine Waters and John Lewis, the civil rights icon. In May, Lewis, in town to deliver Harvard’s commencement address, also headlined a joint event with Capuano at Boston’s historic Twelfth Baptist Church, praising his colleague for support on issues like gun control and urging the crowd to “turn out and vote like we’ve never voted before.”
For a few days, the Lewis event was the talk of political Boston, with some calling it out as cynical political theater—among them the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, the church’s outspoken associate pastor and a Pressley supporter.
“A white representative, you know, grabs a black person of national prominence, and an organization of national prominence, to get them to endorse him so that it would make black people in his district feel that it was all right to vote for him,” Brown says. “That has been an action that has been played repeatedly over the years by white candidates … but yet you accuse Ayanna of identity politics.”
Pressley, for her part, claimed to be unfazed. “We’re doing something disruptive,” she said in an interview, matter-of-factly.
Political animals—of which Pressley is unquestionably one—understand the inherent tension between protecting incumbency and encouraging a pipeline of new talent. The wall of support incumbents receive is a barrier to entry. But it’s not insurmountable, and Massachusetts has recent proof: In 2014, Iraq War veteran Seth Moulton waged a successful Democratic primary challenge against longtime Rep. John Tierney, who was vulnerable due to a family scandal, but still had his party’s institutional support. (Moulton has remained neutral in this race.)
“The voice of the Democratic Party will say we have to encourage new voices, new people, diverse voices, and all that,” says political consultant Scott Ferson, who advised Moulton in that race. “Which is true, but it’s not the party’s job to do that. It should be, but it can’t be. Because the party is there to protect incumbents. It just is.”
Still, many progressives this season are arguing that the playbook needs to change—and that successfully combating Trump requires a different type of opposition.
“We clearly don’t have enough women and people of color in office,” says Mike Lux, co-founder of the progressive consulting group Democracy Partners, who says Democrats need “people who have new and different ideas—not just about issues, of course that’s great, but about how to do things, how to shape things, how to stir the pot.”
At moments like these, some point to term limits—a pet issue for Trump—as a way to ensure that change. Polls show term limits as broadly popular, but political scientists warn against the unintended effects; Azari says a churn of personnel in Congress would give far more power to moneyed interest groups. Even John Walsh, a veteran of renegade races, scoffs at the idea of forcing fresh blood. “To me it’s like, well, the voters are too stupid to pick the right person, so we have to remove options from them,” he says.
This season, as political insiders squabble, voters have been making their own choices—and despite the hype over Ocasio-Cortez, Democrats across the country have been breaking moderate and pragmatic at least as often as they’ve gone for upstarts. For every Kara Eastman, who defeated the establishment candidate in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, there is a Laura Moser, a progressive who lost badly to moderate Lizzie Fletcher in Texas’ 7th.
In Massachusetts’ 7th, in a quiet off-year primary, past voting patterns seem to support the status quo, says Massachusetts pollster Steve Koczela, who conducted the most recent WBUR/MassINC poll of likely voters in late July. While the district is majority-minority in terms of residents, Koczela notes, it has a high volume of nonregistered voters, immigrants and nonvoters. His latest poll showed that Pressley leads Capuano among nonwhites and voters under 49. But in the 2014 primary, two-thirds of the people who turned out on Election Day were white.
So Pressley’s challenge is to bring new people to the voting booths, translating vague frustration with the status quo into a pressing sense that change requires a changing of the guard. At the Bell-in-Hand in June, where moderate Democratic activists mingled with more outspoken progressives, Pressley gained at least one fan: Caesar Nuzzolo, 24, who said he was moved by “this really being a fight for the soul of our party.” He doesn’t live in the district. But he’s “excited by this one particular race, especially because this doesn’t really happen so much in Massachusetts.”
A year ago Sunday, crowds of far-right and white supremacist protesters descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. They marched toward a statue of confederate General Robert E. Lee carrying tiki torches, swastikas and semi-automatic rifles and chanting slogans like “White lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us!” By the end of the day, Heather Heyer was dead, mowed down by a white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. When the nation turned to President Donald Trump, he provoked outrage by declaring that there are “very fine people on both sides.”
A year later, we’ve asked some of the most thoughtful people we know—from historians to a former CIA director to researchers of extremism—to put this shocking moment in context: What did Charlottesville change? Was it a moment of reckoning for our society? Did it fracture the movement known as the “alt-right,” or did it strengthen it? As new crowds of white supremacists descend on Washington and other U.S. cities this weekend, and as invigorated counterprotesters come to meet them, here’s what they had to say.
After Charlottesville, ‘the alt-right movement is at once lower-profile and more violent.’
Ryan Lenz is an investigative reporter covering the alt-right. He was formerly a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The deadly “Unite the Right” rally one year ago in Charlottesville was supposed to be a coming-out party for the alt-right, a moment when disparate ideologies could openly unite and feel true grass-roots political power. Instead, the rally left one person dead and fissured a movement whose followers were, until then, certain the political age of Trump would resurrect ideas long thought to be fossilized—and not at underground metal shows or in street brawls like American History X-era nationalism, but in public squares and think tanks. “We definitely put ourselves off in this ghetto where we are now this thing, and we burned any bridges that we had to the wider right,” Mike Peinovich, a white supremacist blogger who uses the pseudonym Mike Enoch, said on his podcast in March.
The rally was a moment when the language of the alt-right changed, from demonstration to street violence, returning to the underground—but more brutal—realm that such strains of thought had in the 1990s and 2000s with skinheads and old-fashioned Nazis. The alt-right movement is at once lower-profile and more violent. Just last weekend in Portland, Oregon, groups led by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist fight club, came looking to brawl in the name of “free speech.” It was the second time they came to Portland, a city that knows well the presence of racist and far-right street violence, having earned the nickname “Skinhead City” in the 1980s and 1990s. Two months ago, in June, a similar rally led to violent clashes with anti-fascist protesters, and city officials declared a riot.
Welcome to the new alt-right, which might not be so new at all.
‘Where America still sees Nazis and flaming torches, I see the first stirrings of the thing that comes after.’
Dahlia Lithwick is the senior legal correspondent for Slate.
I lived in Charlottesville for 16 years before Charlottesville became “Charlottesville.” It’s never ever going to seem normal again that a word that signifies “Nazis and torches” to most Americans was just “home” to those of us who had our babies in the hospitals, hiked the trails, ate Bodo’s bagels on Sundays and name-dropped John Grisham. A year later, I think that for most of the country, Charlottesville signaled the end of something—innocence, exceptionalism, tolerance. After Charlottesville, “Charlottesville” came to mean that someone in the White House thought there were two sides, and nobody else in the White House stopped him.
But if you lived through Charlottesville, 2017, you realized that it wasn’t the end of anything. It was the start of something. It was the start of peeling off the scales about what a seemingly perfect, sleepy Southern college town had obscured; it was the start of a faith-led resistance that lights up the dark a year later. It was the start of reckonings and accountings by state and local government. It was the start of a clear-eyed view of what America has been built on and where it might go. Nobody thinks that Charlottesville handled Charlottesville perfectly. But where America still sees Nazis and flaming torches, I see the first stirrings of the thing that comes after.
Charlottesville was the beginning of a new fight.
Cornel West is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Race Matters, among other books.
Charlottesville means we have to refortify ourselves to fight for truth and justice!
‘Charlottesville is not an anomaly. … It is a symptom of a greater moral malady.’
The Rev. William J. Barber II is the architect of the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement, president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro.
A year after Charlottesville, America’s conscience has been stirred, but we have yet to reach a true moral awakening. The same politicians who quickly denounced the violence and murder in Charlottesville as an act of hate and racism remain complicit in passing racist public policy. Denouncing acts of racism is good public relations, but dismantling the works of racism is the true challenge facing our leaders.
When 23 states pass voter suppression laws, purge voter rolls and draw racialized, gerrymandered districts, furthering the disenfranchisement of black, brown and white voters, that’s racism. When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and for five years since House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have refused to restore it, that’s racism. And when we see the Trump administration rip Latino children from their parents and deport them, that’s racism.
Charlottesville is not an anomaly. It is not a flashpoint. It is a symptom of a greater moral malady afflicting our nation. We are a nation that allows 140 million of our neighbors to live in poverty, a nation that disproportionately incarcerates black and brown people, continues to segregate public schools and housing. This is not the America we were meant to be.
If as a nation we are willing to denounce Charlottesville, then we must be equally willing to denounce and restructure the systems that create the animus and ignorance that ignite events like it. Ultimately, racism is a denial of the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under law regardless of wealth, creed or color. Movements in our history—from emancipation to suffrage, civil rights to workers' rights—have not been about challenging individual groups or actors. Those movements were about forcing systemic changes to our moral and civic structures. Many people will never say they are racist, but every day they participate in policies that align with the policy agenda of white nationalists. This is the racism we must address for a true revolution of values.
Trump’s response to Charlottesville ‘put the concept of nation as “blood and soil” back into play for the first time since Appomattox.’
Michael Hayden is a retired four-star general and the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.
For me, Charlottesville highlighted the basic question of American self-identity. Will we continue to see ourselves as a creedal people, identified by the values we believe in and enshrined in our foundation documents and in the Federalist Papers? Or, are we changing our self image to be a people defined by blood, soil and even shared history? There are good nations that seem to be the latter; Germany comes to mind. But, that has not been our traditional view of self. The Irish rock star Bono has said that for the rest of the world, America was really an idea, and I think that most Americans for most of our history would agree with that: Believe in and swear allegiance to the idea, and you can be as much an American as anyone else.
But, for me, the president’s response to Charlottesville put the concept of nation as “blood and soil” back into play for the first time since Appomattox. After all, he said there were “very fine people on both sides,” and the president’s affinity for the “blood and soil” approach has since been reinforced by his actions toward immigrants, refugees and our international responsibilities.
After Charlottesville, ‘the public finally connected Silicon Valley’s hubris to its culture of toxic masculinity.’
Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy.
As we reckoned with violent white men swarming my town, Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, we could no longer ignore the fact that they all found each other and whipped each other into a frenzy because digital tools made it so easy. After that, 2018 was destined to be the year that we finally confronted the monsters we had unleashed.
The ideology of Silicon Valley reflects a shallow, unarticulated libertarianism that rests on the assumption that government functions, and all the democratic accountability that supports them, are archaic and inefficient. Within Silicon Valley, of course, there has always been a stronger, full-throated libertarianism voiced by investors like Peter Thiel and Marc Andreesen—both members of the Facebook board of directors. CEOs like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are not libertarians, but they are fellow travelers who operate within those boundaries of imagination, so their companies reflect their commitment to make the world better. There is a fine line between wanting to do no evil and believing you can do no wrong.
These ideas are extensions of the arrogance of masculinity—the deep belief many men have that they and they alone can handle challenges. The “take-charge” attitude, fueled by Red Bull and testosterone, flourishes in an environment largely devoid of women with authority.
So what happened since the white supremacists marched on Charlottesville? The public finally connected Silicon Valley’s hubris to its culture of toxic masculinity. Concerted attention to the “alt-right” and its connection to the “manosphere” revealed how complicit Reddit, Twitter, Google and Facebook have been to the spread of violent hatred. Uber’s corporate culture of almost institutionalized sexual harassment became public. Meanwhile, women around the world used the tools that men provided them to spread their own stories of harm and humiliation via testimony and hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp.
We can’t separate the deflation of the myth of omnipotence that Silicon Valley has suffered in 2018 from the society-wide confrontation with toxic masculinity. Silicon Valley has finally started reforming and confronting its own sordid history. But there is so much more to do.
Charlottesville ‘left countless communities of color truly seeing the president for who he is.’
Christina Greer is a professor of political science at Fordham University.
The events of 2017 Charlottesville shocked many Americans, in that far too many believed that this country was indeed in a post-racial moment. After the election of Trump, many Americans soothed themselves by saying that the racists in this country were old and would die off soon enough—and our country would be restored. The events in Charlottesville, literally in the backyard of slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, illustrated the very real deep-seeded new generation of racist and white supremacist individuals. As they marched and chanted about blacks, Jews and immigrants, their words and subsequent actions made it very clear that they felt they were being displaced and replaced in “their” country. What made matters worse was the president’s empathy for these individuals after news stories of counterprotesters being beaten while police stood idly by; an innocent white woman, Heather Heyer, being run down by a white supremacist who had driven down to the protest from Ohio; and the Nazi and Confederate symbols worn so proudly by (primarily) men who would leave the protests and continue their lives as teachers, engineers, law enforcement officers and other occupations of import.
For many Americans of color, the events of Charlottesville were not shocking or surprising. This nation has a long and bloody history of white mobs, across time and place, who suffer no consequences or punishment for their actions. What was jarring was a president and his administration who were so obviously sympathizers of these white supremacists in our nation in the twenty-first century. It was the president’s speech following the protests and beatings that left countless communities of color truly seeing the president for who he is. At that moment, many people linked Trump’s obsession with the following: the denigration of the innocent Central Park Five members, his eight-year race baiting of President Barack Obama, his insistence on his “good German genes,” his years of racial profiling in his businesses, his obsession with NFL players and the anthem, his appointment of some of the most racist and xenophobic members to his administration that this country has seen in decades, his insistence that Mexicans are rapists and Muslims are terrorists, his rallies that harken back to Klan mobs of the early and mid-20th century, and the list could go on and on … and on.
Charlottesville exposed the plain fact that no one in this administration is going to see people of color as equal, deserving or worthy of being in America. The white supremacist project currently underway by Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and even Trump is a direct correlation to the Charlottesville marches. In order to “Make America Great Again” they must indeed make America solidly majority white. That will be accomplished by deportations of nondocumented and now even documented immigrants. Shortly after Charlottesville, Obama made a statement that this is not who we are as a nation. Sadly, this is who America has always been. Luckily, we have had leaders and hardworking individuals who confronted their biases and ignorance to change longstanding opinions. We are currently in a fight for the soul of this nation, and, sadly, the current president of the United States believes we should go back to the good old days. The protesters in Charlottesville chanted, “The Jews will not replace us! The blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!” We must now mobilize to replace Trump and the members of his party who believe in his exclusionary ideals. I just hope it is not too late. The president and his party seem to enjoy this version of America, as does Russia.
‘We have seen a huge number of people saying, “I’m off the sidelines now”’
Tim Kaine represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and was governor of the commonwealth from 2006–10.
In Virginia, we’ve known the pain of hatred, bigotry and racism, but we’ve seen a community and a Commonwealth that has been able to come together and say this is not who we are and we will not be dragged backward.
In response to the events last year, we have seen a huge number of people saying, ‘I’m off the sidelines now. I’m going to get involved to show that no matter what the president says, no matter what anybody says, we’re not a nation of division.’
We saw it in new, energized activists who really showed up in November 2017 when we elected a ticket that included the second African-American statewide elected official in Virginia, 11 new women delegates, and legislators who are African American, Asian-American, Latino-American, immigrants and LGBTQ.
We’ve still got work to do, but last fall, we showed who the Virginia of today is, and it sent a powerful message that we reject hate.
It sent the alt-right to ‘a steady stream of smaller, somewhat quieter events.’
JM Berger is a research fellow at VOX-Pol Network of Excellence, a postgraduate researcher at the Swansea University School of Law and the author of Extremism (The MIT Press, August 2018).
Unite the Right’s primary aim was to plant a flag for the alt-right in real-world spaces, outside of its online center of gravity. This was part of a sea change starting in 2016, after many years during which white nationalists and other far-right adherents could barely muster enough people for a basketball game in a public space. Charlottesville was a proof-of-concept for the idea that the alt-right umbrella could unite right-wing factions that have very significant ideological differences.
If not for the murder of Heather Heyer, the alt-right’s organizing efforts would almost certainly have accelerated after the turnout in Charlottesville. Instead, they faced a fresh round of infighting and a public backlash. At that point, a strong condemnation from Washington might have been able to set the movement back significantly, but instead, Trump gifted the alt-right with “some very fine people on both sides.” There was little need for the movement to withdraw after that, although it did slow its roll.
Since then, we’ve seen a steady stream of smaller, somewhat quieter events, as well as a couple of very large and violent events, most notably in Portland. We’re also seeing skyrocketing hate crimes and hate rhetoric around the fringes. The rally in D.C. on August 12 will be an opportunity to take the temperature of the movement. It’s clear that the American far right, to some extent under the alt-right umbrella, is trying to claim a place at the table in our political system. What happens at the polls in November will probably be more consequential for the far right than what happens in D.C. on Sunday, but the country is in a tense and volatile state, so here’s hoping law enforcement will keep things under control.
‘Charlottesville revealed … racism continues to power much of American life.’
Eddie Glaude is a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton.
Charlottesville did not change much. It only made explicit what many Americans—at least those who do not have their heads buried in the sand—already knew. Donald Trump rode the third rail of American racism straight to the White House, fueling anxieties, hatreds and fears along the way. His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was (and is) a nostalgic longing, in the face of demographic change, for an unambiguous white America.
We knew something like Charlottesville was about to happen. Two years of protests across the country (especially in Berkeley, Huntington Beach, Sacramento) foreshadowed the violence. It was only a matter of time before things would explode. Heather Heyer lost her life because we ignored the warning signs.
In the end, it is relatively easy to condemn the white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. The one-year anniversary of the violence becomes another ritual occasion to denounce villains and displace our national sins onto their shoulders. We declare ourselves innocent. They are the guilty ones. It’s all part of America’s racial melodrama.
But what Charlottesville revealed, and it is something that cannot be denied, is that racism continues to power much of American life. We remain profoundly segregated in our schools and neighborhoods, and in our intimate spaces. We don’t really know each other (even as stereotypes lead us to believe we do), and that fact has deep, historical roots. Too many dead people and too much harm and injury rest unresolved at the heart of the matter. Mistrust clouds our political conversations. The loud racists in Charlottesville, then, are only symptoms of a much deeper national malaise. I am not sure we see that problem, though. We’re too busy condemning the obvious villains when the problem may very be the person looking at you in the mirror.
Since Charlottesville, ‘the gulf between whites and minorities’ has ‘gotten worse.’
Larry Sabato is the director of the UVA Center for Politics and the author, most recently, of The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.
As I write this, I am working in my home on the University of Virginia Lawn, where hundreds of menacing neo-Nazis paraded a year ago with tiki torches and hateful chants right out of Hitler’s Third Reich. You’ve heard some of them: “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” You haven’t been exposed to one that will never be erased from my memory: “Into the ovens!” You can see why I had to hide Jewish and African-American students in the basement of my Pavilion.
So understandably, the barricades are going up now at UVA to prevent another disaster this weekend. I have been told that the police presence will be even more impressive than expected, and this time law enforcement will actually engage protesters to stop violence before these sick white supremacists intimidate innocent people—and take more lives.
How disheartening that it has come to this on one of America’s most beautiful campuses. And similar preparations will happen annually, or more frequently, for many years to come.
Since August 2017, “Charlottesville” has become a symbol of rising racism and antisemitism in America. Has anything changed over the past year? Yes. It’s gotten worse, with the gulf between whites and minorities widening. The lack of national leadership on this issue has been striking, and so disgraceful that any good history of the Trump administration will emphasize it. But then how could Trump provide leadership when he has been racially insensitive or outright racist for much of his career, from the Central Park Five to his birtherism crusade against his predecessor?
Trump had a chance to redefine himself, at least a bit, after Charlottesville. He failed miserably, unwilling to alienate his alt-right cheering section in the neo-Nazis and KKK. Having emboldened and energized these extremists with his rhetoric, he threw a few more winks and nods in their direction post-Charlottesville. Trump has continued to stir the pot with his nasty tweets about famous but “dumb” African-Americans.
People, even some Trump backers, understand what has happened. In a new Reuters/Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics poll, Americans believe by 57 percent to 15 percent that race relations have become worse since Trump’s election. By contrast, respondents were evenly divided about Barack Obama’s time in the White House, with 38 percent believing race relations had improved and 37 percent saying they had gotten worse.
About this part of his persona, as with most others, Trump is very unlikely to change, so it’s difficult not to be pessimistic. With deepening polarization, and Trump’s utter indifference (or worse), the races may drift even further apart than Democrats and Republicans already have.
‘America’s white supremacist movement is still less in a state of defeat as a state of regrouping.‘
George Selim is senior vice president at the Anti-Defamation League. Previously, he was head of the countering violent extremism Task Force at the Department of Homeland Security.
The backlash that followed the bigotry and violence of Unite the Right resulted in real-life consequences for many of the organizers and attendees, and badly damaged the movement at large. But the alt-right is still gathering steam, just in more splintered and less visible ways.
In the wake of Unite the Right, scores of attendees were “doxxed” (their identities exposed), fired, ejected from universities and shunned by families and friends. The larger coalition suffered, too, as feuding broke out between “hard right” National Socialists—who carry Nazi flags and display swastika tattoos—and the less overt white supremacists who think that an “American Nationalist” spin with flags and patriotism will make their white supremacy more palatable. The factions still share an identical goal—a white ethno-state—but disagree on “optics” or the issue of how, exactly, to achieve that goal.
That is, America’s white supremacist movement is still less in a state of defeat as a state of regrouping—the danger of which cannot be overstated.
Prominent recently formed alt-right groups remain very active, particularly Identity Evropa and Patriot Front, founded in 2016 and 2017, respectively, as have other types of older white supremacist groups, such as the League of the South. Moreover, they are evolving and developing new tactics, such as using flash demonstrations to avoid counterprotesters. For example, Richard Spencer led a flash demo in Charlottesville in October 2017, in which about 40 people participated. Smaller, local alt-right groups have also formed in the wake of Charlottesville. This activity illustrates the extent to which rank-and-file alt-righters tend to be relatively unaffected by infighting or upheaval among some of the movement’s figureheads.
The alt-right, energized by the political climate, has experienced explosive growth since 2015, delivering thousands of new recruits to the white supremacist movement, many of whom are young and relatively well-educated. These enthusiastic new members are unlikely to abandon their hateful beliefs simply because some of their leaders are fighting with each other or getting booted from Twitter. Less likely to have “skinhead” tattooed on their foreheads, but equally likely to share those views while wearing a polo shirt, the new generation of white supremacists is emerging.
‘The movement has collapsed … but it’s important to resist complacency’
Nicole Hemmer is assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, author of Messengers of the Right and editor of the Washington Post history blog, Made by History. She has just released a podcast series on the events in Charlottesville last year and the history behind them.
In the year since the alt-right descended on Charlottesville, the movement has collapsed. Organizations like the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party have disbanded, Richard Spencer has abandoned his campus tour and Jason Kessler, the organizer of last year’s Unite the Right rally, has found himself an outcast from the movement he’d hoped to define.
It’s easy to mistake that collapse as a natural consequence of the terrorism unleashed on Charlottesville last year. And the chaos and violence did take their toll. But much more credit is due to the lawyers and anti-racist activists who have spent the past year ensuring that armed white nationalists couldn’t terrorize Charlottesville—or any other American city—again.
Using a legal strategy first devised by Philip Zelikow and the Southern Poverty Law Center in the 1980s, former prosecutor Mary McCord and her team at Georgetown Law School sued the groups that came to Charlottesville on behalf of the city on the basis of a centuries-old state law against armed “unauthorized militias,” citing the guns, clubs, sticks and other weapons the demonstrators carried. Most of the groups that came to Charlottesville last year are now barred from ever returning to town in groups of two or more bearing any sort of weapon. McCord’s team is also training other cities in how to disarm groups before they even come to town, restraints that have dampened white nationalist enthusiasm for large public gatherings.
That, combined with the overwhelming show of opposition by anti-racist activists everywhere that racist groups appear, have ruined any chance for white nationalist groups to achieve the sort of PR victory Kessler and Spencer had hoped to score in Charlottesville. Having believed they were building toward legitimacy after Trump’s election, they instead found themselves once again relegated to the fringe.
So the alt-right, at least as it existed on August 10, 2017, has fizzled. But that observation comes with a caveat: Large public events like the one in Charlottesville are only part of the white supremacist movement, and rarely the part where the deadliest violence takes place, as Kathleen Belew, an expert on the white power movement of the 1970s and 1980s, explained to me. In those years, the deadliest acts seldom happened during white-power speeches or rallies, but rather as terrorist violence: random murders of people of color, firebombing of synagogues and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Which is why, even though the white-nationalist rally in Washington this weekend is likely to be more pathetic than frightening, it’s important to resist complacency about the forces the alt-right represents.
‘Charlottesville was where white supremacists were welcomed back into the mainstream’
Issac J. Bailey is the author of the memoir My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South (Other Press, May).
Charlottesville was a boon to the alt-right movement because it was defended by the man in the White House. At a press conference the day after the demonstration, Trump responded to reporters’ questions by saying there were bad people “on both sides.” After that now-infamous comment, white nationalists’ rise on the political stage in America was solidified.
Even before Charlottesville, white nationalists had been growing more emboldened every time Trump won a state primary during the 2016 presidential election cycle, every time he called Mexicans rapists and proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, every time he and his advisers cooked up yet another way to try to slow the browning of America by curtailing immigration.
But Charlottesville stands out because it revealed that there were a lot of white Americans who agreed with these extremist views. Most white Americans opposed the bigoted “Jews won’t replace us” chants and the killing of a protester by a white supremacist and his car. But multiple studies have shown that Trump maintains a historically high level of party support, in part because of the kind of racial resentment and racial anxiety those white supremacists were fueled by last year in Charlottesville and will be again this year at a one-year anniversary demonstration in Washington, D.C.
Make no mistake about it; Charlottesville was where they were effectively welcomed back into the mainstream as “very fine people” by the most powerful man on the planet. There is no undoing that.
That’s why they plan to march again, because they know they still have more to gain in a country that refused to show Trump and his open bigotry the door the moment the real estate mogul came down that escalator. They’ve convinced themselves that the real victims of discrimination are white men and women, and they are thriving in a political era where there are plenty of white people who believe the same. It is no coincidence that even non-white-supremacist white people are expressing these kinds of ideas at the same time Nazis are holding public marches. Trump has opened up space for both, and he continues to do so.
No matter the turnout for this second rally, we will be suffering from the effects of the first for the foreseeable future.
‘The core assumption at the heart of the “You will not replace us” chant is disturbingly widespread’
Heather McGhee is a distinguished senior fellow and former president of Demos and Demos Action.
The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville—the menacing, torchlit march to the Robert E. Lee statue and the armed and ultimately murderous rally the next day—was alarming for what it revealed not just about the torch-bearers, but about us. The neo-Nazis chanted “You will not replace us,” claiming a continuity between their white tribal allegiances and the monuments to Confederate icons threatened with removal. But while their violence may have marked them as fringe, the core assumption at the heart of their chant is disturbingly widespread.
A landmark study published in 2014 by psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson found that white people’s anxiety about a changing America is politically determinative: “making the changing national racial demographics salient led White Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly.”
The pundit class assumed that when Trump revealed his sympathies for white supremacists and Nazis—groups which, he said, included some “very fine people”—it would mark a line past which accountability would soon follow. It hasn’t. And that’s in part because stoking racial division and a sense of white grievance has become the core political strategy of Trump’s Republican Party.
You see this acutely in the thousands of anti-immigrant campaign ads GOP candidates have paid for this election cycle—ads like one run by Troy Balderson, the Ohio Republican who won a special election last week, which promised to “stop illegals from taking our jobs.” It draws on the same logic of “you will not replace us”—a belief which researchers have found is widespread among white people (but not among black people): that we live in a zero-sum game of racial competition. When people of color progress, it necessarily comes at white people’s expense.
The people to whom this Trumpian message appeals don’t see themselves as hateful; they see themselves as law-abiding Americans looking out for their own. That’s nothing new: America has always had a material investment in the myth of our innocence, in championing our founding words and not our founding deeds.
There is no better example of this mythmaking than the flourishing of monuments to America’s traitors, who brought millions to war to defend a system that enriched a few at the expense and enslavement of many. In Charlottesville and 1,728 other places across the country, Confederate monuments teach not history but a subtle moral lesson that America will not just tolerate white supremacists, but find ways to justify their cause as one of noble self-preservation.
A year after Charlottesville, it’s time to replace the statues and tell the truth about America. The truth is, the South flourished economically after the civil rights movement unleashed the contributions of her black citizens. The truth is, new immigrants disproportionately create jobs and enrich communities. The truth is, America’s multiracial future is coming, and there don’t have to be two sides—we can make an America for all of us.
‘These purveyors of hate and bigotry were emboldened to take their message public by a president who has refused to categorically condemn their message.’
Mark Warner represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and was governor of the commonwealth from 2002–06.
The deadly rally that occurred a year ago in Charlottesville was a reminder that some of the darkest parts of our nation’s history—regarding racism, bigotry and hate—are very much alive today.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, we saw a group of white nationalists come to a peaceful Virginia town seeking to use hate and division to incite violence against strong, fair-minded, loving and innocent civilians. Their words and their actions betrayed President Abraham Lincoln’s appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” forcing us to confront some of the demons that still plague our society today. These purveyors of hate and bigotry were emboldened to take their message public by a president who has refused to categorically condemn their message and actions in clear terms.
A year later, we have learned it is not enough to stand back and allow hateful and dividing rhetoric to permeate in our political discourse. Our leaders and elected officials must do better and set an example for others, rejecting the type of dog-whistle attacks that say it is OK to disparage members of certain groups such as immigrants, LGBT Americans or even members of the press. It is time for us to redefine American unity and show that what sets us apart as citizens of this country are our values of respect, openness and tolerance toward one another. Without this perspective and a leader at the top who embodies those same values, we cannot begin to heal the racial wounds of our past and make progress in delivering the promise of a more perfect union.
John Derek had become keenly aware of his mortality.
In the summer of 1986, the 59-year-old writer-director who had recently turned his eye to B-movie smut and, occasionally, outright pornography, suffered a mild heart attack at his home in Santa Barbara. Derek survived, but the experience moved him enough to add a touch of autobiography to his next grand feature—1989’s Ghosts Can't Do It.
That film turned out to be an execrable, ill-conceived, comically offensive sex comedy wherein a widow (portrayed by ‘80s pinup and Derek’s real-life spouse, Bo Derek) attempts to find a young man to murder so that the ghost of her deceased husband can possess him and regain his virility. A senescent Anthony Quinn plays the John Derek stand-in, who spectrally advises his wife in a key business dispute with a young wheeler-dealer who clearly has designs on the widow.
But who to cast in such a role? Who could possibly bring the right combination of authority, suavity, and acumen that Quinn’s character would be moved to simultaneously possess and destroy?
See if you can guess, from this contemporaneous description of his on-set behavior:
“’They shot around him,’ said [a production] aide. ‘He'd come in and out of meetings and shoot a take or two, then leave. They gave him a script, but I don't think he ever sat down and learned his lines. I think he ad-libbed most of it, but everybody seemed pleased.’”
No points for getting it right. Derek’s skeezy romp marked the first screen credit for our ad-libber-in-chief himself, the pathological crowd-pleaser and cue-card scofflaw we now refer to as Mr. President. Donald J. Trump’s appearance in Ghosts Can't Do It was the first of more than a dozen cinematic cameos spanning the last four decades. From family fare like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York to the Sandra Bullock rom-com Two Weeks Notice, Trump appeared repeatedly as himself, mostly in New York-centric films, attempting to maintain his public reputation at a time when his business empire was on the brink.
Over the course of the 1990s, Trump’s film (and a few television) cameos reinforced his imperious, world-beating persona at a time when his personal life and balance sheet were crumbling. By imprinting himself in the cultural consciousness, against all empirical evidence, as a near-omniscient mogul, Trump carved out a space that would lead to his Apprentice run and, ultimately, the White House.
The films that comprise the Trump Cinematic Universe tell the story of how Donald Trump went from an actual businessman to a guy who played one on TV. Once that performance was beamed into millions of households on a weekly basis, the narrative superseded reality. Trump has, by now, turned that phenomenon into a governing philosophy. For longer than we’ve maybe been aware, the president has been the triple-threat producer-writer-star in the drama of his self-construction, and we’re tossing popcorn in the cheap seats—whether we willingly paid for a ticket or not.
With a few vocal exceptions, Hollywood isn’t as tolerant of the current president as it once was. In November 2017, Ben Affleck, our current Batman, totemic national sad dad and Hollywood liberal par excellence, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a pointed anecdote about Trump’s filmic history:
“I heard that in order to get permission to film at his properties, he insisted on being put in the movie as an extra,” Affleck explained. “So you had to go through this whole ritual of pretending, ‘OK, now is the scene, Donald. Action!’ And then they’d say ‘Cut,’ and he’d go home, and it never ended up in any of the movies.’”
Affleck running buddy Matt Damon shared a similar story with The Hollywood Reporter last September:
“[Midnight Run director] Martin Brest had to write something in Scent of a Woman—and the whole crew was in on it,” Damon told them. “You have to waste an hour of your day with a bullshit shot: Donald Trump walks in and Al Pacino’s like, ‘Hello, Mr. Trump!’—you had to call him by name—and then he exits.”
While Affleck and Damon clearly have an axe to grind as dyed-in-the-wool members of the Californian #Resistance, in the process of dunking on the president’s vanity they illuminate a key aspect of his cultural staying power: major studios and directors wanted to film on Trump’s properties. Trump Tower, the Plaza Hotel, the Trump International Hotel in Chicago—they all feature in Trump’s cinematic tableau, and whether they were selected by filmmakers due to their location, their aesthetics or their prestige, Trump had the vision to realize what cultural cache would come with their ownership, whatever the personal cost.
The first example of this is in the aforementioned Home Alone 2, the sequel to the smash hit 1990 Christmas movie. In what serves as the establishing shot for a doe-eyed Macaulay Culkin’s ascent to the gilded Manhattan big time, the child star wanders into the Plaza Hotel, which had been recently purchased in real life by Trump in a heavily leveraged deal that would lead him to bankruptcy in the same month as the film’s release. Director Chris Columbus shows off the Plaza’s opulent golden trim, crystal chandelier, and oriental carpet in a single tracking shot that lulls you into the kind of rococo sensory overload for which Trump has always strived with his properties.
And out of the wings, then, our hero: Trump enters, in his first cinematic cameo since Ghosts Can't Do It (that is to say, his first in respectable company). Trump’s appearance in Home Alone 2 is a tribute to his beneficence that’s both understated and comically overblown at the same time. Culkin’s naïf, completely unaware of whose presence he’s in, asks the sauntering mogul to point him to the lobby, to which Trump automatically responds “down the hall, and to the left” —just before turning, in the background, to stare in mock bemusement at the kid so unfazed by his radiant presence as owner. When Trump insisted to CBS’s John Dickerson in 2016 that he boasts “More humility than you would think, believe me,” it might be exactly this kind of visual humblebrag he had in mind.
That appearance makes a sort of triptych with two other New York-centric films he appeared in during the mid-1990s, the Whoopi Goldberg vehicles Eddie and The Associate. (During this period, he also made a brief cameo in Penelope Spheeris’ Little Rascals film, as the father of an unlikable rich kid he describes as “the best son money can buy.” One hopes a young Don Jr. and Eric weren’t stung too hard.) In Eddie, Goldberg plays a rabid New York Knicks fan who improbably becomes the coach of the sad-sack team, dragging them to greatness—after which Trump appears in a television interview, claiming her hiring was his idea in the first place. Today, the tweet would write itself. The Associate follows a similar formulaic fish-out-of-water plot, with Trump’s eagerness to do lunch with Goldberg serving as evidence of her rise to greatness.
In all three films, Trump is put forth as an avatar of power and authority in New York, even as he made a series of questionable business decisions that left him in dire financial straits. Trump was already a celebrity, but his symbiotic relationship with Hollywood turned him into a national brand—millions of VHS tapes going out into the world’s Blockbusters and Suncoast outlets, wound and rewound in living rooms and rec centers far outside his East Coast-tabloid feudal domain. And all of this at the precise moment when the fortune that built that brand threatened to evaporate before his eyes (and those of federal bankruptcy courts).
But Hollywood needed Trump, too. The connective tissue between the films in which he’s appeared, with a few exceptions, is that… they’re not very good. Nine of the films in which Trump has appeared have been rated by review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes’ “Tomatometer.” Their average approval rating from critics? 34 percent. (The average audience rating, on the other hand, is 54 percent—maybe evidence of Trump’s populist instinct at work.) Trump’s appearances were beneficial to him insomuch as they allowed him to manicure and amplify his image; they were beneficial to filmmakers because they served as both lazy shorthand for “wealth” and a cheap celebrity gag—the live-action equivalent of the Family Guy- or Shrek-style pop culture cutaway.
Trump is an infamously zero-sum thinker, but his almost-lifelong arrangement with the media seems to be a rare win-win.
As the 1990s wore on and Trump’s glitzy 1980s heyday receded in our cultural memory, his screen appearances began to reflect the changing nature of his celebrity. This meant fewer on-screen business negotiations, more self-reflexive tributes to his own fame—an interview with a tabloid reporter in Woody Allen’s forgettable Celebrity, an appearance on the red carpet singing the praises of the titular male model in Zoolander. (More interesting than Trump’s appearance in the latter is the model on his arm: a 31-year-old, starry-eyed Melania Knauss.)
His most recent screen credit, aside from an appearance in a music video by Azerbaijani Putin-world scion Emin Agalarov, is in the same tradition: an entirely gratuitous and mercifully cut scene with Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Included as a DVD extra, it was largely forgotten to history until the 2016 campaign, when Newsweek reported on a leaked email from a Trump assistant to the Wall Street crew, going over in painstaking detail Trump’s demands for how he was to be portrayed.
Some choice excerpts: “Lighting, warm golden lighting (no red tones please)… The result is golden blond hair, warm golden (even tone) tan skin and a more defined jaw-line… A great reference for Mr. Trump’s look is always the boardroom scenes in Celebrity Apprentice.”
Laugh, sure. But then watch the scene. The Trump who swaggers into the barbershop and takes a seat next to Douglas’ iconic Gordon Gekko is indistinguishable from the Trump who’s dominated cable news for the last three-plus years now—the red tie, the bronzer, the unctuous smile. With a palette swap for the tie, it’s like he could have walked off the set and onto the backdrop for his election-night headshot.
By the time the Wall Street sequel was filmed, Trump had completed his Apprentice-fueled transmogrification from a prime mover in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world into a licenser, a brand, a hawker of steaks, mid-shelf vodka, and above all himself. That version of Trump is the one who won election in 2016—the performative megawatt celebrity, not the Trump & Son five-boroughs dealmaker. The cinema is where he established credibility, and the modicum of celebrity brought by the latter as foundation of the former, projecting it on a more national scale.
The celluloid Trump is both a meticulously curated yet paper-thin idealization of a businessman, and a simple black hole of attention and celebrity that reduces the subtext of any scene in which he appears to “Hey, that’s Donald Trump.”
In other words, it’s the role he was born to play: himself.
All the yelping by Rudolph W. Giuliani and Jay Sekulow about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III setting a “perjury trap” for President Donald Trump ignores the fact that their client, who has tweeted and spoken 4,229 (and counting) alternative facts since the inauguration, knows how to tell the truth when placed under oath. Deposed in his libel suit against journalist Timothy L. O’Brien in 2007, Trump conceded 30 whoppers he’d told over the years—lies about his debts; his wealth; the size of his stake in a Manhattan development; what he charges to give speeches; the size of the Trump Organization; and so on.
Trump wasn’t entirely truthful in the deposition. You’d be disappointed if he had been, right? According to O’Brien, he lied about his business relationships with organized crime figures. But setting that fib aside for a moment, Trump isn’t so much afraid of being caught lying to Mueller’s investigation and prosecuted for perjury. Having grown accustomed over his long career of telling a dozen different versions of events, he’s mortified at the consequences of having to tell a binding truth that leaves him no space for obfuscation or creative doubling-back.
This is why he refused to release his income tax returns (after having promised to do so!). Releasing them would pin him down to a single, definable group of facts. Trump thrives in environments of the moment where he can pitch whatever version of reality that best suits his needs and temperament.
Trump reportedly thinks he can demonstrate his innocence if allowed to sit and jaw with Mueller, but I doubt it. What he likes to do is set down tangled, conflicting versions of the same story that confuse his critics (and investigators) and consume their hours as they attempt to unknot the conflicts. A classic example of this version-shifting followed the New York Times report on the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians peddling Hillary Clinton campaign-dirt to Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. It took Trump two full years, and multiple revised takes, to go from his original explanation that the meeting was about Russian adoptions to an unambiguous admission that the meeting was about dispensing Clinton dirt. Trump’s unique relationship with the truth makes a mockery of the idea that a prosecutor would have to construct a perjury trap for him. For decades now, Trump has behaved so recklessly you could say his main hobby is fashioning bespoke snares that fit his neck perfectly.
The truth sets the average man free. For Trump, the lie is the great liberator. Going into an interview with Mueller, Trump would know that his interlocutor has as good a handle on the facts behind the Russia investigation as he does and that all of his usual escape routes would be blocked. Even worse for Trump, Mueller is likely to know the background facts and chronologies even better than the president. Those who’ve ever told a lie (can I get a show of hands?) know that working under such conditions can be daunting.
For the past eight months, Trump’s attorneys have been dickering with Mueller to limit the scope and nature of the questions the special counsel could ask the president. “Mr. Trump’s lawyers do not want him answering questions about whether he obstructed justice,” a source tells the New York Times. Mueller, the paper reports, wants Trump to answer questions about his team’s contacts with Russia; coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin’s election meddling; and obstruction of justice issues, most notably the sacking of FBI Director James Comey. If Trump doesn't agree to a sit-down, Mueller might subpoena him, which Trump will surely fight in court.
Writing recently in the Washington Post, legal scholar Stephen Bates noted that while Mueller probably has the legal and constitutional authority to subpoena the president, it would be dumb to do so. “The president says no. Mueller goes to court. The judge orders Trump to comply. He still refuses. The judge, treating him like any other defiant witness, holds him in contempt of court. Then what?” Bates writes. Mueller can’t very well use contempt charges to throw Trump in jail if he resists. “Up against an irresponsible president, a responsible prosecutor will pick his battles,” Bates concludes: A subpoena death-match is not the hill Mueller wants to die on.
“This should be over with by September 1,” Giuliani said of the Mueller investigation this week. “We have now given him so many of the answers he has been seeking.” He wants to speed up the clock on the investigation because the Democrats might get lucky in the midterm elections and take control of the House and rev-up the current investigation of Trump that the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has throttled. Nunes acknowledged in remarks at a political event that were secretly recorded and aired on Rachel Maddow‘s MSNBC show this week, that Republican control of Congress was Trump’s last defense against legal probes.
Fear of a blue wave also stirred Nunes to oppose the impeachment of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Impeachment of Rosenstein was a hot ticket this summer among some Republicans of the Freedom Caucus variety, but Nunes branded it a bad idea because it might overload the congressional docket and interfere with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
If Mueller has set a perjury trap—and what self-respecting prosecutor doesn’t keep one in a back pocket for emergencies?—it won’t resemble a rabbit snare as much as a fisherman’s trotline with multiple hooks, the better to catch the big and small fish who have schooled with Trump. Trump might be able to stop the interview, but he can’t stop the hunt.
After a week of exhausting travel in London, I wanted nothing more than to see my wife and children.
Customs and Border Patrol at Dulles had other plans.
On Aug. 6, I landed on UA919 from Heathrow to Dulles wearing my Ahmadiyya Muslim Community logo-embroidered press jacket. I cleared passport control with my Global Entry card, and called an Uber as I headed for the exit.
That’s when Customs and Border Protection, as one of the officers I encountered put it, “randomly selected” me for additional screening. What I experienced next involved harassment, threats of further interrogation, allegations that I was non-compliant and breaking the law, an attempt to confiscate my travel documents and childish stalling tactics — all courtesy of officials hired to protect Americans like me.
There’s a deep irony of my experience with the CBP that day. At an extremely busy Dulles airport, the CBP interrogation hall was virtually empty. A middle-aged white woman in a ponytail singled me out of the crowd.
“Hi sir, can I check your passport?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and quietly handed her my passport.
She flipped through my passport and asked without looking up, “Where did you travel and for how long?”
“UK. One week.” I showed no emotion.
“OK sir, you’ve been randomly selected. Follow me.”
I let out an exasperated sigh. It wasn’t the first time I’d been “randomly selected”—an experience that’s all too common among my fellow Muslim Americans.
We walked into the vacant interrogation room. “Sir, have you handled any livestock while in the UK.”
“Are you smuggling any fruits or vegetables, seeds, things of that like?”
“OK sir, place your luggage on the X-Ray belt and pick them up on the other side.”
I complied without saying a word and walked to the other side to await my luggage.
My luggage appeared and the CBP agent remarked, almost disappointed, “Well, your luggage cleared. You can go.”
I grabbed my things to walk away, grateful that the ordeal was over after my now second screening since landing. Bizarrely, another CBP officer walked up—a male.
“What’s the problem here?” the man asked.
“Nothing. I’m leaving,” I responded, eager to get home to my family.
He wasn’t satisfied. “Why are you giving us attitude?”
Confused as to what his question had to do with anything, I responded bluntly, “Can I go now?”
“No,” he snarked. “I need to check your bag again.”
I let out another sigh, but complied.
As I set my bags back on the steel counter, I added, gesturing toward his colleague, “Look, I have Global Entry. This officer checked my things. She cleared me. What’s the issue?”
The second CBP officer didn’t respond. Instead, he opened my bag and took out the chocolate I had brought from London for my children.
“What's this?” he asked, as if he’d never seen chocolate before.
“It’s … chocolate.”
“Where’d you buy it?”
“Heathrow. Here’s the receipt.” (When I’m traveling, I always keep receipts, especially of what I buy at airports, for this very purpose.)
“OK,” he said. “We have to do an explosives check.”
Now I was getting frustrated. “My kids’ chocolate is a matter of national security now?” I asked. “Seriously?”
“I’m opening this chocolate whether you like it or not.”
He proceeded to rip up the chocolate with a pocketknife. Apparently that’s the CBP test for explosives. (Spoiler alert: The chocolate, a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk, was non-explosive.) I stood there with a blank look on my face.
“OK, you can go,” he finally conceded.
Grateful my third screening was finally over I grabbed my things to dash out as fast as possible—but not fast enough. Another CPB officer approached us.
“Sir we’re just doing our jobs.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Bye.” I turned to walk away and yet again was instructed to stop despite having been cleared now three times. I complied and turned around.
“Give me your Global Entry card.”
“OK...” I said quizzically. I handed him my card.
“I'm confiscating this.”
“Because you’re being non-compliant.”
“Pardon? I’ve been cleared three times now. How am I non-compliant?”
“You mocked us for checking your chocolate for explosives.”
“Well, yeah, I mean ... seriously? And you didn’t answer. How was I non-compliant?"
“You’re breaking the law.”
“What? How? Asking a third time. How am I non-compliant? What law have I broken?”
Rather than answering, he walked away. I called out, “I’d like to speak with your supervisor please.”
“He is the supervisor,” one of the other CBP officers responded.
“Then I want to speak to his supervisor,” I shot back.
I asked at least five more times: How, exactly, I was non-compliant?
I knew I was on camera being recorded. Everyone knew. They would have to prove somehow that I hadn’t complied—when in fact I clearly had.
No one answered.
Still, my mind began to wander. What if he doesn’t return my ID card? What if they arrest me? These are the same people who are ripping migrant children from their parents and throwing them in latter-day concentration camps—there’s no telling what they can do to a minority this president has tried to ban from entering the country.
As I sat there and maintained an external calm, inside I was furious that this blatant discrimination and profiling persisted under the guise of “security.”
Finally, a fourth CBP officer approached me, followed by the officer who took my Global Entry card.
"I’m the supervisor on duty. So you think because you have Global Entry you’re exempt from screening?”
“What? No. I said I’ve been screened and cleared three times so far. But despite that, your officer took my Global Entry card and said I’m being non-compliant. And he said that I’ve broken the law. But he refuses to give me any example of non-compliance or cite what law I’ve broken. Please explain this to me.”
The supervisor turned to the confiscating officer and asked, “Why’d you stop him?”
“Well, he was laughing at us.” (It’s true, I did chuckle in disbelief. Guilty as charged.)
“But did he refuse orders?”
“No, I mean, he harassed us.”
I didn’t yell at this point, but I raised my voice. “This is ridiculous. You have the power. You’re detaining me. You have my property. But somehow I’m harassing you? What? Do you hear yourself?”
I turned back to the supervisor. “I’m asking for about the 10th time now. How was I non-compliant and what law did I break?”
“Well those are his words—not mine,” the supervisor said. Now we were getting somewhere.
“Great, so you won’t even stand by your own officer’s words. Meanwhile, you have my Global Entry card. I’m still detained. Why am I still here, then?” At this point, facing my fourth screening since landing, I wasn’t about to let the supervisor off without answering me.
“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.
I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t—because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works—they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.
As all this flashed through my mind I looked directly at the supervising CBP officer and said, “I’m a civil rights lawyer with expertise on racial and religious discrimination and profiling.”
He grew silent. I continued. “I’m asking for the last time. What law have I broken? How was I non-compliant?”
Rather than answer, he responded, “Well, I think everything checks out. You can go.”
I grabbed my Global Entry card and left before they could call me back for a fifth interrogation.
I’m a U.S. Citizen, an attorney. I understand American culture, the English language, and the law—and CBP still tried to intimidate me with lies and threats. Relatively speaking, I’m a lucky man.
Now, imagine you’re an undocumented asylee who doesn’t speak English, after a 2,000 mile trip with a baby—and you have to face CBP? What possible chance do you stand at receiving fair treatment?
I share my story of profiling not for sympathy, but for two crucial reasons. First, people have rights and should know their rights. Second, people of color have a habit of not sharing our stories publicly. This isn’t my opinion; it’s fact: Hate crimes and discrimination incidents are severely underreported—making reform more difficult. If we want to ever be safe in this country, people of color and minorities in general must share our stories.
But let’s revisit the deep irony of the CBP detaining and repeatedly harassing me on suspected terrorism claims. I’d just spent the previous week at the 52nd annual Jalsa UK—Britain’s longest running and largest Islamic peace conference. Hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK and presided over by the Khalifa of Islam, this year the Jalsa UK drew 38,510 Muslim women, men and children from 115 countries to collaborate for peace, service to humanity and love of God. In other words, I’d just attended a conference dedicated to promoting human rights and eradicating terrorism, only to be detained and harassed on suspicion of terrorism via exploding chocolate. Human rights are my passion—it’s a key element of my Re-Sight Islam podcast. That’s a major vehicle through which I share my story. If a guy like me faces discrimination and harassment at the airport, anyone can be treated similarly—or worse.
The bottom line is this: If we want change, we must write our own story. Otherwise, we cede the field to people with sinister motives to write it for us.
On May 6, 2011, retired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Cowan appeared on Fox News to talk about the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, which he opposed. At the time, Cowan had been a respected Fox News military analyst for a decade; his combat experience in the Marine Corps and background in special operations made him a favorite of Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto and other hosts.
Although Cowan was in his 60s, the grizzled Vietnam veteran was no armchair analyst. “Just got back from Jordan,” he announced on the broadcast that day, “where I did meet with some senior Iraqi military people.” Cowan said he went there “to talk about business and what was going on inside Iraq.”
In fact, Cowan went as a covert operator on behalf of the U.S. military, as part of a highly classified program contracted out by the Pentagon. Over the next year, he would make more than a dozen such trips to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, he told me, as part of a larger black ops portfolio for the Defense Department that began in 2002. That was the same year Fox News signed him to an exclusive contract to talk about terrorism, Islamic militants and, as time wore on, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—all areas that intersected with his clandestine activities.
His work for the Pentagon was so secret that only about a half-dozen people in the U.S. government were aware of it. According to Cowan and three former Pentagon officials and associates of his, the Pentagon tasked Cowan with running numerous unacknowledged “special access programs” (SAPs)—secretive assignments that “others couldn’t and wouldn’t do,” Cowan told me; these included, he says, working with the Iranian opposition in 2008 and helping to take down a so-called high-value target in Afghanistan around the same time. “The intel world is complex,” Cowan said to me in one email. “The office I supported had unusual latitude.”
The Pentagon declined to comment about Cowan’s contracts while he was a Fox contributor: “We don’t discuss Special Access Programs with the public,” a duty officer wrote in an email. Cowan says he never told anyone at Fox News about his undercover work for the Pentagon while he was being paid by the network to comment on military matters, which many in the journalism world would consider a conflict of interest. A Fox News spokesperson confirmed that Cowan did not inform the network of his clandestine government work. “Had he done so,” the spokesperson said, “Fox News would not have allowed him to serve as a contributor.”
Other Fox News commentators have had ties to the Pentagon, but national security and intelligence professionals I spoke with said Cowan’s case is unique: It’s odd for someone to work undercover on classified programs for the government while simultaneously being a public figure in the media. “It’s a gamble,” says retired Army Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, who served as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence between 2002 and 2007 and knew of Cowan’s double life when he was at the Pentagon in the 2000s. “If you’re going to get into the world of espionage, you want to stay low profile.”
Now in his mid-70s, Cowan would likely still be pulling off this dual existence if not for a series of personal and professional troubles that beset him several years ago, primarily related to an unmet divorce settlement. The nadir came on September 24, 2015, when two police officers arrested him in front of his youngest daughter’s elementary school, in Leesburg, Virginia, after he had surprised her with a lunch visit. Cowan spent the next 45 days in the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center—he still owed his ex-wife $273,000.
By then, the Defense Department had already severed its relationship with Cowan—he believes it was retaliation for his outspokenness on TV. It’s been a hard fall for the hard-bitten Marine, whose legal and financial woes have mounted since his 2015 arrest. Last year, he was so short on cash that he briefly took a job stocking shelves at a supermarket. Today, there are outstanding warrants for his arrest in South Carolina and Virginia. Cowan says he is currently living in an unfurnished apartment somewhere out West to avoid being arrested again. A man who made his career on risky foreign operations is now carrying out one last mission: living on the lam.
How does someone with Cowan’s chops, who not that long ago was earning well north of six figures as a wily covert operative and popular Fox News pundit, wake up one day to find himself broke and on the run? Even more curious: How does such a highly visible media figure keep his military work secret? “I never let on to anyone, anywhere, that I was involved in some really sensitive stuff,” he told me.
That appears to be true. I have talked with many of his family members, friends and former business associates, plus more than half a dozen others who have served with Cowan in the military dating back to the Vietnam War. I have also spoken to people who worked closely with him in the “black” world, such as Boykin.
Although Cowan’s downward spiral is largely a product of his personal life, his story opens a window into the workings of a clandestine world walled off inside the government, known to few and seemingly accountable to none—so much so that a man regularly on TV could do some of the Pentagon’s most covert work.
Then again, maybe there was something strategic about Cowan’s double life. As Boykin explains to me, when Cowan was traveling overseas for clandestine work, his Fox News profile gave him (in tradecraft terms) what is known as “cover for status”—reason for being in a particular foreign land. And if he happened to be spotted meeting with anyone under surveillance, then his Fox status gave him “cover for action.”
Cowan’s advanced age and pleasant demeanor on air at Fox News also “worked to his advantage,” Boykin says: “People looked at him on TV like he was an avuncular uncle, when in fact, he was a steely-eyed killer.”
I first became aware of Cowan’s peculiar saga in 2016, shortly after he reached out to me by email, under a pseudonym. He said he had information about a former employer who was refusing to pay him—a Virginia woman named Michele Ballarin, who had cultivated ties to East African politicians, warlords and members of the U.S. intelligence community and whom I had profiled for the Washington Post magazine. Soon enough, Cowan, who sports a white goatee and alternates between a shaved head and a crown of thinning hair, revealed himself; we met twice for lengthy interviews, in Maryland in the spring of 2017 and then a few months later at his home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and spoke many times on the phone thereafter.
Cowan’s career dovetails with some of the most troubled chapters in American military history over the past 50 years, from Vietnam to Iraq. Over the course of that career, as the number of countries where the U.S. military has troops ballooned to some 150, Cowan often found himself in the thick of the fight.
After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1966, Cowan was shipped to Vietnam—at the height of the war—as a young Marine officer and platoon commander. On his last tour, Cowan spent more than two years in the Rung Sat Special Zone, a 400-square-mile crocodile- and snake-infested mangrove swamp (nicknamed the “forest of assassins”) that the Viet Cong used for staging attacks. There, Cowan collaborated with the CIA in a notorious counterinsurgency initiative dubbed the Phoenix Program, which aimed to root out communist operatives and their supporters who had melted into rural hamlets. One of the program’s main components was the use of “Provincial Reconnaissance Units” (PRUs), local paramilitary militias comprised of Vietnamese soldiers and trained by the U.S. army and CIA. Rampant abuses within these units, including torture and assassinations, became synonymous with the Phoenix Program.
Cowan insists that the PRU unit he ran in the Rung Sat Zone had a purely military objective. “With me, the PRU were focused on enemy elements and base camps in the mangrove,” he says. “Our focus was always prisoners. A prisoner had much more to offer than a body.”
After returning stateside and starting a family, Cowan went where the military directed him, which included an educational stop at the Defense Intelligence College (since renamed the National Intelligence University). In 1983, he was recruited into a super-secret new U.S. Army unit called the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). The group had been mandated to carry out covert intelligence collection and targeted military operations. Cowan was immediately deployed through the ISA as an undercover operative in Beirut, amid a brutal stretch of Lebanon’s civil war. One of his missions was to help track down those responsible for the truck bombing on the Marine barracks there, which had killed more than 200 U.S. military servicemen. The ISA drew up a plan for retaliatory strikes, but he says top Pentagon brass rejected it.
Disenchanted, Cowan left the unit and the military in 1985. Several years later, he vented about his Beirut experiences to journalist Steven Emerson for his book Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era. Former ISA members tell me Cowan’s blabbering got him excommunicated from the unit’s fraternity. “Word went out that no one was to have anything to do with Bill,” I was told by one retired ISA agent, who requested anonymity because he still consults for the Pentagon and retains a top-secret clearance. “He couldn’t be trusted.”
Cowan again began a new chapter, as a legislative staffer to Republican Senator Warren Rudman. In 1987, he helped write legislation that established the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida. Today, special operations are a heralded, core component in the fight against terrorism—think Delta Force or Seal Team Six—but back then, special ops commandos were treated like the military’s bastard children, a threat to the traditionalists. “The Pentagon fought [SOCOM] tooth and nail,” Cowan recalls. “They didn’t think it was necessary.”
Still blackballed by his old special operations comrades—ironically, at a time when he was helping to elevate their standing—Cowan decided to put his black ops skills to use in the private sector. In 1991, William Colby, the ex-CIA director who had also run the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, enlisted Cowan to oversee a private clandestine mission that rescued American businessmen stranded in Kuwait after Saddam Hussein had invaded the country. The operation became the subject of an episode on a Discovery Channel documentary show in which Cowan was interviewed.
Cowan bounced around in the 1990s between Washington and California. By then, his first marriage, of 17 years, had collapsed. He needed a new high-adrenaline outlet and perhaps a new band of brothers. So Cowan tricked out a Harley and joined a motorcycle club for Vietnam veterans. He shaved his head, grew a Fu Manchu mustache and openly embraced his club name, Bezerk, displaying it on his Harley and his car license plates. “All the big clubs were nervous about the Viet Nam Vets,” as the group was known, Cowan proudly says. “They didn’t fuck with us.”
Lucky for Cowan, not everyone in the military intelligence community got the memo that he was, as one former member of his old ISA unit put it to me, “persona non grata.” Once George W. Bush’s war on terror commenced, there was a need for crafty old hands like Cowan, who was now nearing 60 and long removed from his last government-sanctioned clandestine mission. Feeling duty-bound to serve his country, he told me, he agreed in 2002 to run a top-secret unacknowledged SAP that the Pentagon was taking over from the CIA.
The U.S. military has authorized SAPs for more than half a century (the ISA itself was born as an SAP). These secretive programs fall into three general categories: weapons or technology acquisition, intelligence collection and tactical support. SAPs are either “acknowledged” (but still classified) or “unacknowledged,” meaning information about them is restricted to only those with an absolute need-to-know clearance. “Program funding is often unacknowledged, classified, or not directly linked to the program,” according to a 2007 Special Access Security Manual.
Cowan wouldn’t tell me exactly what his assigned unacknowledged SAP was designed to do except to emphasize its “national strategic level” importance; he said it is still ongoing without him today. “Disclosure would create an international crisis of sorts,” Cowan says. Boykin told me Cowan had a contract with the Pentagon before Boykin arrived as undersecretary for intelligence in 2002, and that the contract was renewed during his tenure there, which ended in 2007. But he said he couldn’t give me “any specific or operational details about what [Cowan] was contracted to do. … It’s very sensitive.”
As Cowan describes it, his original SAP contract grew into multiple “tasks.” Some of them were actionable covert missions; others died in the planning stage—for example, an operation against Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group that has dominated Lebanon’s political landscape for decades. Cowan says he put together a team of advisers that included former journalists, such as his friend Richard Carlson (father of Tucker), who decades ago was the director of the Voice of America and then president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “Nothing kinetic,” Cowan says. “All psy-ops and info-ops. Just mess with their heads a little bit, mess with the heads of people supporting them. Get pornographic magazines in their trash, alcoholic bottles, things like that.” Cowan says he also proposed using disinformation techniques, such as planting phony information on Facebook and other social media platforms. The schemes never came to pass, he says, because Pentagon higher-ups “don’t like creative thinking.”
At the Pentagon, there is zero tolerance for those in the know who discuss SAP work publicly, though Cowan seems surprisingly unconcerned. In 2006, a British journalist named Michael Smith published a book about ISA’s history and exploits. Cowan cooperated with the author, and, again, word went out—this time from the highest levels at the Joint Special Operations Command, according to a former ISA operative who served with Cowan, that no one in ISA, past or present, was to have any contact with Cowan.
Yet there he was, working in the black ops world for several more years—while also serving as a paid military analyst for the most watched cable news network in America. After 9/11, the late Roger Ailes, then the chairman and CEO of Fox News, assembled a roster of camera-ready retired military officers. Ailes wanted Fox to ooze muscular gravitas as the Pentagon went after the Taliban in Afghanistan and then Saddam in Iraq. Retired Army Major General Paul Vallely told me he was directed by Ailes to put together the team of military analysts and got a Fox contract for Cowan, who had already appeared on “60 Minutes” and “PBS Frontline.” Cowan distinguished himself at Fox as “a highly regarded go-to guy,” says retired Navy Captain Chuck Nash, another member of the Fox military analyst team at the time.
During this period, many of the military analysts seen on Fox and other networks, including Vallely and Cowan, were granted private Pentagon briefings and access to classified information in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and during the war. It was part of a coordinated Pentagon information campaign to “generate favorable news coverage of the [Bush] administration’s wartime performance,” the New York Times revealed in a blockbuster 2008 story.
In an unpublished, unfinished autobiography Cowan gave me, he writes that his media perch at Fox was a useful front while working secret government programs in the 2000s. “My public persona was in my being a Fox News Channel contributor,” he writes. “My real persona was something else.”
But when I mentioned this dual life to one former ISA agent who had served in Cowan’s unit, the source was incredulous: “I find it a little hard to believe that Bill would be allowed a [security] clearance, let alone working on an SAP, while being such a visible, vocal talking head on Fox.”
“Maybe they [the Pentagon] didn’t care,” says Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “The people who knew what he was doing may have been saying, ‘Good for you, buddy, what a great idea.’ I don’t think it is a conflict for them the way it is for journalism.”
Cowan, for his part, doesn’t see any conflict between his black ops work and his frequent appearances on Fox as a paid military analyst. He says he never considered himself a journalist. “I was a commentator,” he asserts. But that distinction doesn’t hold water for Dalglish. “No, if you’re an employee of Fox or any media organization, you have a certain duty to your employer under your contract, and one of those duties is not to essentially lie to them about your other contracted work.”
I tried to explain this to Cowan, but he rationalizes what he did. With the exception of a half-dozen times he accompanied country music singer Aaron Tippin to Iraq for charity events, Cowan says he never flashed his Fox News ID while he was working abroad for the Pentagon. “I went as a businessman. I went as a car salesman,” he says. “I have a briefcase full of Motor Trend and Car and Driver magazines.”
Cowan juggled his double life for well over a decade, until a series of events in his secret and private lives collided, with disastrous consequences.
The first big hit came shortly after he and his business partner got the green light from the Pentagon for a new, separate $85 million unacknowledged SAP. Boykin helped facilitate the contract just before he left the Pentagon, Cowan says. (Today, Boykin is executive vice president of the Family Research Council, an influential conservative Christian organization.) At the time, Cowan’s second marriage was collapsing; he would soon be on the hook for a six-figure alimony settlement, as well as child support for three young children.
Cowan and his business partner spent six months laying the groundwork for the program, which he told me was designed to gain access to technology in China and Iran. But shortly after Boykin left, in 2007, a new senior Pentagon supervisor took over the program and terminated it, Cowan says. Cowan thinks the supervisor—who could not be reached for comment—was jealous of his Fox position or angry at him from a previous run-in.
In such a furtive, walled-off environment, supervisors of SAP programs have a lot of discretion and little accountability, says John Smith, who was deputy general counsel for intelligence at the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. There is an SAP oversight committee comprised of a few select officials in the Pentagon who are supposed to meet every six months to review all SAPs. But Smith says that SAP program managers “know that there is little chance, any chance, of them being accountable to someone above them who will say, ‘What is it that you are doing?’”
Despite losing the new $85 million contract, by the time Barack Obama became president in 2009, Cowan still held on to another contract, the SAP he had been working since 2002. Cowan had occasionally dinged President Bush on Fox and conservative radio shows, but he began denigrating Obama frequently on air, and often in biting terms. An associate of Cowan’s became concerned, asked him to dial down his rhetoric and, when that failed, enlisted “some fairly significant people—high-ranking folks” to do the same, the associate told me.
It didn’t work. In the waning months of the 2012 presidential campaign, Cowan and a group of former special operations soldiers and retired spies appeared in a short film called Dishonorable Disclosures, and accused the Obama White House of leaking details about the Osama bin Laden raid for PR purposes. The Obama administration denounced the video, and the central accusations against Obama were quickly refuted by the journalist Peter Bergen and rated “mostly false” by PolitiFact. The video still got attention for a few news cycles, particularly one soundbite near the end of the film from a smirking Cowan, who tells Obama to “shut the fuck up.” Cowan amplified his cutting remarks on Fox News, seeming to revel in the controversy.
According to Cowan, in early fall of 2012, he was handed a pink slip by his program manager, who, like Cowan, was a retired military officer contracted by the Pentagon. Cowan says he was told by this manager that the order came from top Pentagon brass, and that his dismissal stemmed from his harsh public criticism of Obama. Although Boykin had been retired by then, he told me Cowan had “pissed off people in SOCOM with that video.”
“He was bashing the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” added the individual who had tried to get Cowan to dial down his rhetoric. “They got tired of the criticism. It was clearly payback.” (The Pentagon declined to comment.)
The ultra-secret work had been Cowan’s livelihood and the primary source of his income: He had made roughly $300,000 that year from the SAP, he told me, clocking in 12-16 hours a day while on his undercover trips in the Middle East. As his income plummeted over the next several years, he fell behind on alimony payments to his second wife. She sued him, according to Virginia Circuit Court documents, triggering legal proceedings that would not go well for Cowan.
There was one bright spot in his increasingly tumultuous life: He got married again, on New Year’s Eve 2013, to his third wife, Velvet Leigh Shelton; she was 38, and he was 66. They moved to a sumptuous country house on five acres in Mount Airy, North Carolina, Velvet’s home state. She was active in the Tea Party and Republican politics there. Cowan remained in good stead at Fox, taping segments at the local affiliate in Winston-Salem, and he became a popular speaker on the local Tea Party circuit and wrote columns for the Daily Caller, continuing to criticize Obama.
But the media gigs weren’t enough to dig Cowan out of his deepening financial hole. He thought he would find relief in a procurement deal that he says had been in the works for some years, but in 2015, his conduit to Pentagon decision-makers, Richard Hagen, was indicted for a massive fraud scheme and shot himself dead in his New Jersey house. Another lucrative offer, working a vague project in East Africa with Michele Ballarin and her business partner Greg Christos, never materialized. (In an unrelated matter, Christos was arrested by federal agents in November 2017, after being charged with a 23-count indictment that includes money laundering and wire fraud.)
In June 2015, Cowan skipped out on a hearing related to his wife’s lawsuit. He was cited for contempt of court. He went about his life, remaining in contact with his three little girls from his second marriage. (Their mother, Cowan’s ex-wife, declined to comment.)
Then, one day that fall, Cowan paid a surprise visit to his youngest daughter at her Virginia elementary school. Two county deputies were waiting for him.
Cowan spent more than a month in the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center. He was ashamed. “I’ve never been in trouble with the law in my life. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was in jail,” he says.
The night before he was arrested, he had been on Hannity discussing Afghanistan.
It was Cowan’s friend Richard Carlson who bailed him out, loaning him $25,000 to make a good-faith payment to his ex-wife. Carlson had visited Cowan in his first week in jail. “We talked through a glass for 10 minutes,” he told me. “It was pretty bizarre.” The two men have grown close over the past decade and collaborated frequently on projects. In 2014, they co-authored a “satirical novel” premised on the kidnapping of Hillary Clinton. Until recently, they also co-hosted a weekly radio show called “Danger Zone.” It was billed as “insider information” on the troubled hot spots of the world.
Cowan’s arrest and incarceration in 2015 didn’t initially sideline him. He went back to making Fox appearances right away and continued to appear at Republican events. (At one South Carolina Tea Party gathering in 2016, Steve Bannon, the Donald Trump aide, introduced Cowan as an “American hero, a great patriot, a colleague and a friend … one of the great warriors in our country.”) At the end of 2016, Fox did not renew his contract; several other retired military analysts have seen their Fox contracts expire in recent years. Last year, a children’s court in Virginia stripped Cowan of all visitation rights to his three daughters. By then, he and Velvet had moved to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in search of a fresh start. But his legal woes dogged them.
In July 2017, Cowan emailed me to say another warrant had been issued for his arrest in South Carolina after he had missed the deadline for an agreed-on $104,000 payment to his ex-wife. As of today, Cowan says, he lives in a small city about a two- or three-day drive from his Myrtle Beach home, where his third wife has remained. His Facebook page says he’s in Silver City, New Mexico. In emails to close friends who are familiar with his current situation, Cowan signs off as “fugitive.” He says he spends his days on the phone in a nondescript office, trying to sell cars and heavy equipment overseas. He stays in periodic touch with a small circle of family and friends, including Carlson, who wrote about Cowan’s situation (without ever naming him) for a local paper in South Carolina paper, in an opinion article titled “Courtroom Savagery Worse than the Vietcong.”
The abrupt cancellation of Cowan’s $85 million SAP a decade earlier still eats at him. He believes that money—which was specifically earmarked for his SAP—got diverted to other pet black programs run by friends of the program manager who stripped Cowan of the contract. “It’s waste, fraud and criminal negligence,” he says.
He hoped to convince the Trump White House to do an audit of ultra-classified SAPs, and floated the idea to Rich Higgins, who joined President Trump’s National Security Council in 2017 as a director for strategic planning. But Higgins was fired from the NSC last summer because of a controversial memo he wrote that “globalists,” “Islamists” and the “Deep State” were trying to sabotage Trump.
Carlson and Cowan, however, have a new idea up their sleeves. The two told me they are now shopping around a proposal for a reality television show. Cowan described it to me as “true stories of people using guns to defend themselves,” with the title “The Right Side of Justice.” (They initially called it “Grannies with Guns.”) When I checked in with Carlson about it recently, he told me that a Hollywood producer has expressed interest in the idea.
But Cowan isn’t waiting around for a silver bullet to solve his problems. He seems resigned to his situation. “At some point, I’m going to get arrested and thrown back in jail,” he says. When that happens, Cowan figures he’ll finish the autobiography he started a few years ago, which he has titled Livin’ the Life: A Warrior Story of Excitement, Adventure, and Fox News.
She says she’s got Javanka on tape, too.
Jilted ex-“Apprentice” star and former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman has told friends and associates that she has tapes of private phone calls from first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, according to two sources with whom she has discussed the recording.
She claims her stash of recordings — which she is dribbling out to keep the publicity machine going around the release of her new book, “Unhinged” — includes a condolence call she received from the couple the day after she was fired by chief of staff John Kelly last December.
Both Trump and Kushner can be heard wishing Manigault Newman the best and telling her they had no idea her head was on the chopping block, according to the people with whom she has discussed the call.
Manigault Newman’s claim about the new tape provides additional confirmation that she was looking to build a case not only against Trump, whom she alleges has been recorded by others using the N-word, but also against his top aides and family members. Though she said the president dispatched Kelly to push her out of the White House, she has also argued that “Donald Trump has no idea what’s going on in the White House.”
The Kushner-Trump tape would indicate that two of his senior advisers were not clued in on key personnel changes — or claimed not to be. And it would show them offering emotional support to Manigault Newman even after Kelly pushed her out for ethical breaches — capturing on tape the power play between the family and the retired four-star general that has played out in the White House since Kelly joined the administration.
Neither Manigault Newman nor the White House immediately responded to a request for comment.
On Monday, Manigault Newman released a tape of a phone call on which the president claims ignorance she had been axed. Trump, who has recently taken to calling her a “lowlife,” responded with a series of tweets blasting Manigault Newman, who earned nearly $180,000 as a White House staffer, as somebody who “would constantly miss meetings & work” but who “said GREAT things about me.”
Manigault Newman is in the midst of a media blitz surrounding the publication of her book, set for release on Tuesday, which recounts her time in the Trump White House. In the book, she describes watching what she believes has been the president’s precipitous mental decline. She is selling herself as the ultimate Trump insider, who has known Trump, as well as family members like Ivanka, for 15 years.
She also says her time in the White House, where she worked for just under a year and ran defense for the president, even backing him in the wake of last year’s Charlottesville fiasco, opened her eyes to the president’s racism. In a tell-all interview on Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she copped to complicity not only in covering for the president on race but in deceiving the American people.
“I was complicit with this White House deceiving this nation,” she said. “They continue to deceive this nation by how mentally declined he is, how difficult it is for him to process complex information, how he is not engaged in some of the most important decisions that impacts our country. I was complicit, and for that I regret.”
Manigault Newman’s primary target may be the president, but she has also taken shots at Kelly, arguing that he intimidated her and threatened to destroy her reputation. She released a tape Sunday, recorded in the White House Situation Room, on which Kelly can be heard urging her to leave the White House without a fuss.
“I’d like to see this be a friendly departure,” Kelly says on the tape. “There are pretty significant legal issues that we hope don’t develop into something that, that’ll make it ugly for you.”
When Manigault Newman asks whether the president is aware of what’s transpiring, he replies, “The staff, and everybody on the staff, works for me and not the president.”
On Sunday, Manigault Newman took issue with that statement, asking NBC News’ Chuck Todd, “You don’t have a problem with that, Chuck? It tells you that Donald Trump has no idea what’s going on in the White House.”
The Trump-Kushner tape, if or when she releases it, will serve to demonstrate that his daughter and son-in-law claimed ignorance, too.
Several times in the first year of his administration, President Donald Trump wanted to call Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the middle of the afternoon. But there was a problem. Midafternoon in Washington is the middle of the night in Tokyo — when Abe would be fast asleep.
Trump’s aides had to explain the issue, which one diplomatic source said came up on “a constant basis,” but it wasn’t easy.
“He wasn’t great with recognizing that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11 p.m. their time,” said a former Trump NSC official. “When he wants to call someone, he wants to call someone. He’s more impulsive that way. He doesn’t think about what time it is or who it is,” added a person close to Trump.
In the case of Abe and others, Trump’s NSC staffers would advise him, for instance, that “the time is messed up, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning” and promise to put the call on his calendar for a more diplomatically appropriate time. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster would assure him: “We can try to set it up.”
Trump’s desire to call world leaders at awkward hours is just one of many previously unreported diplomatic faux pas Trump has made since assuming the presidency, which go beyond telephone etiquette to include misconceptions, mispronunciations and awkward meetings. Sometimes the foibles have been contained within the White House. In one case, Trump, while studying a briefer’s map of South Asia ahead of a 2017 meeting with India’s prime minister, mispronounced Nepal as “nipple” and laughingly referred to Bhutan as “button,” according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.
A White House official said others who were at the meeting don’t remember Trump making those remarks and that he asked appropriate questions.
The mistakes may not be surprising for a leader inexperienced in foreign affairs and accustomed to flouting convention. But some seasoned former diplomats say they risk doing real harm to America’s image — and interests — overseas.
“The underlying premise of protocol is respect for other people,” said Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “When the president doesn’t follow protocol, it’s a sign of disrespect.”
Trump’s defenders call such talk overblown, noting that all presidents learn on the job and that Trump has never been a stickler for fine etiquette.
“The president has developed strong relationships and good rapports that are not only friendly, but also allow for candid conversations with many of America’s closest allies,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told POLITICO. “He has even worked the phone with our competitors, injecting stability into bilateral relationships that are undergoing contentious, but necessary readjustments to place American interests first. Foreign leaders appreciate that the President is willing to take their calls day and night.”
“The president has made clear that when leaders reach out for calls, [aides should] set them up right away. He has had foreign leaders calls very late at night and never wants another leader to wait before their call is returned,” she added.
James Carafano, who was an adviser to Trump’s State Department transition team, acknowledged that Trump has had a learning curve as president but said he isn’t about to change his style to satisfy Washington elites.
“If people are looking for more polish and more kind of conventional statecraft and that’s their metric for Trump learning, I think they’re going to be disappointed,” said Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. “I don’t think he sees those as faux pas; I think he sees them as, ‘Look, I do things differently.’ If you say, ‘That’s not how things are done,’ he says, ‘Who says? Where is it written down that I can’t do that?’”
A White House official said Trump, as a former jet-setting global businessman, understands how time zones work but doesn’t dwell on such details when he wants to talk to a foreign leader. “He’s the president of the United States. He’s not stopping to add up” time differences, the official said. “I don’t think anybody would expect him or Obama or Bush or Clinton or anybody to do that. That’s the whole reason you have a staff to say ‘Yes, we’ll set it up,’ and then they find a time that makes most sense.”
Trump’s apparent ignorance about world affairs, geography and leaders has also repeatedly emerged in internal staff meetings. Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2017 White House visit, Trump asked his national security aides whether Modi would be bringing along his wife. Staffers explained that Modi has long been estranged from his wife. “Ah, I think I can set him up with somebody,” Trump joked, according to two people briefed on the meeting. It was in that same meeting that Trump appeared confused by Nepal and Bhutan, which lie sandwiched between India and China.
“He didn’t know what those were. He thought it was all part of India,” said one person familiar with the meeting. “He was like, ‘What is this stuff in between and these other countries?’”
Another former Trump NSC official said Trump sometimes avoids saying certain words or names when talking to a foreign leader because he’s unsure whether he can pronounce them properly. The White House official said Trump always wants to be respectful and make sure he gets pronunciations right.
At times, he wings it with unfortunate results. Meeting with a group of African countries at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump, in public remarks, referred to the country of Namibia as “Nambia.” (Trump did impress some of his own aides in the meeting, however. “He did a very good job of saying Côte d'Ivoire,” said one.)
Trump also raised eyebrows during the same gathering when he announced that “I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you” — prompting cringes among some aides aware how such talk would resonate on a continent that well remembers the exploitations of its colonial era. (Some African entrepreneurs said they appreciated the comment.)
When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the White House last month, Trump congratulated him on his “tremendous victory,” even though the Italian had never campaigned for office or run in Italy’s election. (Conte was a compromise candidate by two parties who came out on top in the election.)
Trump at times also betrays an ignorance of regional history and rivalries. During a meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump repeatedly praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to a former NSC official from a prior administration.
“Everyone was cringing because Japan and China are rivals, and the Japanese and the Chinese are nervous about the president tilting too far towards the other side,” that person said. A White House official said Trump explained to Abe that his relationship with Xi would be useful in dealing with North Korea and insisted it “wasn’t considered a negative” by the Japanese side.
At times Trump has done more than make ignorant slips: The Washington Post reported in January that he sometimes puts on an Indian accent and imitates the way Modi speaks. And in an infamous Oval Office remark in January that sparked a global furor, Trump branded several African nations, along with Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.”
Some foreign diplomats report positive experiences with Trump. One who has met with Trump at the White House praised him as a “gracious” host. Another recalled a warm personal welcome from the president, who showed him and colleagues around the White House.
And it is true that every president makes mistakes in dealing with foreign leaders as they learn on the job. President Barack Obama made his share of incorrect pronunciations, including by mangling the name of former longtime Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew in 2016. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously stumbled through a TV interviewer’s pop quiz on the names of several world leaders.
Past presidents have also called foreign leaders at odd hours — in their own time zones. President Bill Clinton was notorious for that practice, according to James P. Rubin, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Before the signing of a key 1999 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, Clinton placed overseas calls until 2:30 a.m. Washington time — well after most of his aides were asleep.
Trump’s love of talking on the phone has created special problems for his top national security officials, who say that he sometimes places calls that have no clear diplomatic purpose.
Trump has what one former Trump national security official calls a “bizarre” fascination with calling French President Emmanuel Macron. “He wanted to talk to him constantly. ... Macron would be like: ‘Hey, what are we talking about?’ These are very busy people. You don’t just call to check in,” the official said. (The White House official said Macron has requested a majority of the calls.)
The former official said that, in his first year at least, Trump would often call foreign leaders having done little preparation or ensured pre-planned outcomes known to diplomats as “deliverables.”
“The standard is you don’t have your principal call unless you’re asking for something or trying to reward a behavior, either a carrot or a stick. You don’t just randomly call,” the former official said.
The same can apply to meetings. While Trump’s aides have successfully prevented him from rousing Abe out of bed, Japanese officials — though eager for a close relationship with the president — have also been exhausted by him.
Abe has met with Trump one-on-one seven times, but a former NSC official from a prior administration said Japanese diplomats joke that “he’s had one meeting with Trump seven times because he’s got to go back over the same issues every time.” Abe and his aides have avoided telling Trump that he contacts them too often for fear of harming their friendly relationship, according to another former NSC official. The White House official said that trade and North Korea come up in every meeting between Trump and Abe and that the men have a strong relationship.
Before foreign calls and meetings, Trump often peppers staffers with questions about the country’s economy and trade balances with the U.S. In discussions with foreign leaders, Trump often cites the trade deficit between the U.S. and the other leader’s nation. His figures are sometimes inaccurate, according to two foreign policy experts with ties to the Trump White House. In one case, Trump has openly admitted to fabricating trade figures, bragging to GOP donors that he had knowingly told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the falsehood that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada.
Trudeau challenged Trump on his trade data. But some foreign leaders are reluctant to speak up. “Some world leaders feel like he goes on autopilot and makes factual errors but they don’t want to correct him and don’t want to set him off,” said one of the foreign policy experts.
Trump also has a keen interest in U.S. arms sales abroad. “Who do we sell more weapons to?” he asked during one conversation about two nations. NSC officials have had to explain to Trump that some arms sales pitches were likely to fall flat, particularly in the case of nations that are major weapons producers themselves. The White House official pointed out that Trump has had recent success in agreements to sell American weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, the Netherlands and Finland.
Trump’s disregard for diplomatic convention can have some unexpected — even humanitarian — results. After a major foreign earthquake last year, Trump told aides he wanted to send a fleet of aid-bearing Air Force planes to the scene immediately, according to a former national security official.
“And everybody’s like, that’s not appropriate, wait until [that] government asks us for stuff, they may not need these planes,” the official said. “‘No, I want to send something now,’” Trump insisted.
The White House official added that Trump doesn’t want to navigate “9,000 layers” of bureaucracy in a crisis.
“The president doesn’t like to be constrained by past practices and protocols,” the official said.
The West Wing is expected to lose one of its most prominent minority aides in the coming months, opening President Donald Trump’s inner circle up to new scrutiny as he continues to stoke racial tensions.
Deputy press secretary Raj Shah, an Indian-American, is expected to step down following the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, according to multiple people familiar with his plans. He has told associates that he only planned to stay in the White House for 18 months, but extended his tenure to lead communications on the Kavanaugh nomination. Shah declined to comment.
Shah, who is among the dwindling number of original staffers remaining in the West Wing, is widely seen as a stabilizing presence in an administration known for chaos.
His resignation would follow the departure of two other minority White House aides: communications staffer Steven Cheung, who was one of the last remaining veterans of the Trump campaign to work in the White House, and Helen Aguirre Ferré, director of media affairs.
Trump will still have a handful of senior aides who are minorities including director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp, who is Cuban-American, and deputy chief of staff Zachary Fuentes. But the overwhelming share of people who advise the president on a daily basis, from his most trusted senior staffers to many of his Cabinet secretaries to his former campaign staff, are white.
Of the 55 highest-earning White House staffers, POLITICO was able to identify only a half-dozen who are not white. Along with Schlapp, that includes director of management and administration Marcia Lee Kelly, who is Korean-American, and Joyce Meyer, a Filipino-American who is a senior member of the legislative affairs team.
There are several minority aides among the more junior White House staffers who don’t earn top salaries of $150,000 a year or more and weren’t included in POLITICO’s analysis.
“Having diversity in a leadership team is clearly necessary for top performance,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit that advised the Trump transition team as it set up the government. “The proverbial group think, which is a real problem, becomes less of one when you have a diverse team.”
He added: “It’s not something that’s going to get better by accident. It’s something that gets better when people at the top prioritize it.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Friday about the diversity of its staff.
Aides pointed to Trump’s outreach to black pastors, as well as statistics that show black and Hispanic unemployment is at an all-time low, figures that the president regularly cites in speeches and in tweets.
In a post on Friday night, Trump invoked the music star Kanye West, who has expressed admiration for the president: “Thank you to Kanye West and the fact that he is willing to tell the TRUTH. One new and great FACT - African American unemployment is the lowest ever recorded in the history of our Country. So honored by this. Thank you Kanye for your support. It is making a big difference!”
Yet the president has continued to inflame racial tensions, even after coming under fire last year for his response to the deadly clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump has repeatedly criticized NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racism, most recently on Friday.
Former White House official and “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman is also leveling allegations in a new book that Trump used the word “n-----” in private conversations. The White House denied the allegations.
Manigault Newman, who was fired last December, was the most prominent black staffer in the White House, and has spoken publicly about the lack of diversity in the West Wing. She said in a 2017 interview with ABC News that it was “very lonely” working alongside mostly white aides in the Trump White House.
“We have a really diverse team across the board at the White House,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters late last year after Manigault Newman was fired.
Many White House staffers and others close to the president have grown to detest Manigault Newman, who they believe is out to sell books and boost her own profile. George Conway, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway's husband, dismissed another claim from Manigault Newman’s book that Trump used racial epithets in reference to Conway, who is half Filipino. Conway, who has sometimes been critical of Trump, called the allegation “not credible” and “ridiculous” on Twitter on Friday.
And GOP pollster Frank Luntz denied on Friday that he heard Trump use the word “n-----,” as Manigault Newman claimed she heard in the book. “Not only is this flat-out false (I’ve never heard such a thing), but Omarosa didn’t even make an effort to call or email me to verify. Very shoddy work,” he wrote on Twitter.
Trump has several outspoken black defenders, including Pastor Darrell Scott, who recently called Trump “the most pro-black president that we've had in our lifetime” during an interview on Fox News.
Other Trump allies echoed that assessment.
“I one thousand percent stand behind his comment,” said Bruce Levell, a prominent Republican businessman in Georgia and the executive director of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump.
“I don’t have a motive to not be truthful. There’s absolutely no doubt in my heart that this president loves all types of people,” added Levell, who has talked to Trump throughout the campaign and his presidency.
Asked about the lack of racial diversity in the top ranks of the White House, Levell said, “The president is very aggressive on getting the best talent to run the nation and I think, respectfully, most people of color would rather have good quality people that would be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money than worry about quotas.”
But many activists and civil rights groups disagree vehemently with Levell and Scott.
“He’s demonstrated -- both in words and in deeds and in policy implementations -- racist tendencies,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a recent interview with POLITICO. “Therefore, I have no other conclusion but to say he is a racist.”
Trump has faced accusations of racism for years. Even before announcing his most recent run for president, Trump asserted falsely that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Throughout the presidential campaign, he repeatedly used divisive rhetoric to rile up his conservative base, describing Mexicans immigrants as rapists and calling in 2015 for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Manigault Newman’s allegations come one year after protesters and counter-protesters clashed in Charlottesville. During remarks to reporters soon after the rally, Trump drew an equivalence between the white supremacists who chanted racist slogans during the rally and the counter-protesters who opposed them.
"I think there is blame on both sides," Trump said, infuriating Republicans and Democrats alike and setting off one of the lowest points of his presidency.
On Sunday, white nationalists will rally near the White House, marking Charlottesville's one-year anniversary.
“The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” Trump wrote on Twitter Saturday morning. “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”
Manigault Newman wrote in her book that she never personally heard Trump use slurs. But she wrote she was told by multiple people that Trump was caught on tape using the word while filming “Celebrity Apprentice.” In an interview with NPR, she contradicted what she wrote in the book, asserting that she has heard the alleged tape. “Hearing it changed everything for me," she said.
“Instead of telling the truth about all the good President Trump and his administration are doing to make America safe and prosperous, this book is riddled with lies and false accusations,” Sanders said in a statement on Friday. “It’s sad that a disgruntled former White House employee is trying to profit off these false attacks, and even worse that the media would now give her a platform, after not taking her seriously when she had only positive things to say about the President during her time in the administration.”
Nothing can change your mind about a person as quickly as getting dumped or fired.
In season one, Omarosa Manigault Newman, “The Apprentice” villain-turned-senior White House official, crowed that Donald Trump’s critics one day would be proved wrong about him and forced to “bow down to President Trump.”
In season two, the former communications director for the White House Office of Public Liaison has penned a tell-all book in which she calls the president a “racist, bigot and misogynist” and slams his daughter for ordering up lists of leakers to fire.
The story behind Manigault Newman’s change of heart sold for a modest advance, according to people in the publishing world, in part because she spoiled the surprise in February, when she appeared on the reality show “Celebrity Big Brother,” likening her exit from the White House last December to being “freed from a plantation” and calling Trump “a special kind of fucked up.”
But during a sleepy week in August, Manigault Newman’s book, “Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House,” out Aug. 14, appears to have a full news cycle to itself. She is set to make her debut media appearance Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Manigault Newman is selling herself as the ultimate Trump insider, with the best dirt on the president of the United States going back 15 years. She knew Ivanka before the first daughter knew Jared Kushner, she has bragged to people; she knew Melania when she was just a little-known Knavs.
She is aware, people who have spoken to her said, that there will be efforts to dismiss her as a fabulist.
But Manigault Newman is using the threat of taped conversations with the president and with his family members to gird against attacks on her credibility. She is also teasing her book as an appetizer, telling friends and acquaintances she has held onto explosive material that she intends to release later — such as the names of illegitimate children she claims Trump has fathered.
The most salacious charge to emerge from her book is that Trump often used the N-word during taping of “The Apprentice,” and that there are tapes to prove it. She also blames Ivanka Trump, who publicly tries to portray herself as above the fray, as the person who ordered up a list of “suspected leakers” to fire after a Make America Great Again rally in Youngstown, Ohio.
Manigault Newman does not have the tape but writes that she has confirmed its existence from three anonymous sources.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on Friday that while he was named as one of the sources, he had never heard the president use the slur: “I’m in @OMAROSA’s book on page 149. She claims to have heard from someone who heard from me that I heard Trump use the N-word. Not only is this flat-out false (I’ve never heard such a thing), but Omarosa didn’t even make an effort to call or email me to verify. Very shoddy work.”
Rumors of the “N-word” tape have haunted Trump staffers since the campaign, when they would hold regular meetings to discuss a strategy if the alleged tape ever came out. “We were living in a constant state of fear of the N-word tape coming out,” recalled one former senior campaign official. While nobody knew for sure whether such a tape even existed, the post-“Access Hollywood” mind-set in Trump Tower meant that “anything seemed possible,” the former official added.
The president, at a photoshoot with the group Bikers for Trump at his Bedminster resort on Saturday, called Manigault Newman "a lowlife."
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Manigault Newman's book “riddled with lies and false accusations,” and she took a shot at the media for covering it. “It’s sad that a disgruntled former White House employee is trying to profit off these false attacks, and even worse that the media would now give her a platform, after not taking her seriously when she had only positive things to say about the President during her time in the administration,” Sanders said.
As Sanders bashed the book in a statement, former aides were cheering the project, however flawed its messenger might be.
The campaign, one former aide said, was staffed by people who took massive reputational risk working for Trump and developed a bunker mentality because of it. When those people were later forced out by newcomers to Trumpworld, they felt used. “They’ll never go out and nuke people like Omarosa did,” said the former staffer, “but the anger is there. This book never gets written if Omarosa wasn’t treated like shit both in the White House and on her way out.”
A publicist for her publisher, Simon & Schuster, declined to comment. Manigault Newman also declined to comment.
Many presidents have former staffers who turn on them after they leave — and there’s a cachet and payday for the first turncoat willing to peel off and expose the leader of the free world in a negative light. In fact, the tell-all from onetime aides has become a literary genre of its own.
James Fallows, who served as a speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter, wrote a magazine article called “The Passionless Presidency: The Trouble With Jimmy Carter’s Administration,” after leaving the administration. Scott McClellan, the former press secretary to George W. Bush, published “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” criticizing his former boss for the way he sold the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
The former Bill Clinton whisperer Dick Morris is another classic example of someone who flipped on his former boss once he realized that the only place to cash his check was on the other side.
But Manigault Newman is a special case for a special kind of presidency.
She was treated poorly in the White House, according to former colleagues. But she also often behaved in ways that seemed out of line, even in Trump’s rule-flouting administration.
Last year, before her dismissal, the White House counsel’s office wrote up a report on the behavior surrounding her dismissal, which included an attempt to bring her wedding party onto White House grounds and an abuse of the White House car service, according to a senior administration official.
Manigault Newman, who was married in November 2017, arrived at the White House after her wedding ceremony to take pictures in and outside the White House. In tow were her wedding guests, including Trump-loving YouTube stars Diamond & Silk. When she was barred from entering the White House campus, the bride threw a tantrum and told people that “the president wouldn’t be in the White House if it wasn’t for her,” the senior administration official said.
A report by the White House counsel’s office about the entire incident was prepared to present to the president. When Manigault Newman was fired by chief of staff John Kelly the following month, she locked herself in her office, called the general “John,” and hung up on him when he tried to deliver her the news, according to a second administration official.
Manigault Newman’s reputation for deceit has also made people fear her. “I don’t know what tapes she has on me,” said a former colleague, explaining his reluctance to comment on her accusations.
But Manigault Newman has lately been telling people that she’s the one who should be afraid — and that she has given copies of her taped conversations with Trump to family members for safekeeping in the event that she is murdered, said a person familiar with the conversations. She has also said she is taking meetings in disguise — dressed in a baseball hat, sunglasses and baggy clothes — out of a growing paranoia that the president will come after her.
President Donald Trump made race an overt issue in American politics. Now Democrats are ready to meet him head on.
Some of the party’s top potential 2020 candidates are testing a barrage of early — and unusually explicit — race-related appeals in the run-up to the next presidential campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pledged not to be “shut up” by critics of “identity politics.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has drawn attention to the disproportionate number of nonwhite people incarcerated in a system he said has “criminalized poverty.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) invoked Martin Luther King Jr. when he called unemployment a “form of brutality.” And while Booker described inequities in the criminal justice system as “the biggest cancer on the soul of this country,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called the system “racist … front to back.”
Democrats with 2020 aspirations are preparing for an uncharacteristically overt, racially pointed campaign against Trump, seeking to capitalize on major points of contrast with the Republican president. It's a marked departure from the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, who often downplayed race, long an undercurrent in presidential politics.
“Donald Trump has changed the conversation because he so regularly sort of mines the great divides of race and thumbs his nose at what are injustices in the system that need to be redressed,” said David Axelrod, who was a top adviser to Obama. “So, I think he is provoking a response.”
When Obama was president, Axelrod said, “his life, his life commitments and so on, his commitment to social justice was manifest and … he didn’t need to say it. I think that people understood it.”
Now, Axelrod said, “I do think we’re in a different environment.”
Advisers to several prospective Democratic candidates say that issue of race is unavoidable in a campaign against Trump. They're buoyed by polling suggesting widely held concerns about the state of race relations.
“I think we have to, given that Trump has been race-baiting for the last 18 months,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a potential long-shot 2020 contender, said of Democrats’ plans to confront Trump directly on race.
Not all Democrats agree.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton spoke regularly about “systematic racism” and criminal justice reform. But Clinton’s effort to turn out the coalition of young people, nonwhite voters and women who propelled Obama to the White House fell short in key states, including in the Midwest.
Some Democrats fear playing on Trump's terms could alienate those same voters. In 2016, race worked to Trump’s advantage more than it did to Clinton’s, and if Democrats in 2020 press a match-up with Trump on issues of race, it is unclear they will prevail.
“The best available political science says white identity was a bigger motivator in voting for Trump than nonwhite identity was for voting for a Democrat,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist.
Even now, he said, “when we talk about identity politics, the strongest tug is for white identity.”
Democrats seized their latest opportunity to engage with the issue on Sunday, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Foreshadowing a campaign in which Democrats will remind voters of Trump’s initial response to Charlottesville — when Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” — former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said on CNN, “It wasn't both sides.”
“You had one side of neo-Nazis wearing Adolf Hitler T-shirts, the white supremacists screaming obscenities at the African-American community, walking down the streets,” he said. “They came armed. This wasn't both sides.”
Trump, said McAuliffe, a potential 2020 candidate, failed to demonstrate “moral leadership.”
Trump marked the anniversary with a tweet, saying that “we must come together as a nation” and that “I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence.” But Trump’s early reaction to Charlottesville, in addition to his comments about Mexican “rapists” and immigrants from “shithole” countries, have kept race at the forefront, even before the presidential campaign.
“When you have such a blatant bigot … it has put the Democratic contenders in a way that they cannot ignore it, and [race] has become a mainstream issue because Donald Trump has mainstreamed bigotry,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview. “There’s no way to run for president now and not deal with race.”
In April, Sanders, Harris, Warren, Booker and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) all appeared in New York for a conference of Sharpton’s National Action Network. Though Sharpton has not ruled out running for president again himself, the civil rights activist said, “I’m not likely to be a candidate, but I’m likely to be prodding the candidates and can’t be ignored.”
Race relations remain fraught one year after Charlottesville and about 18 months before the first Democratic nominating contests of 2020. A CBS News poll released Sunday found 61 percent of Americans say racial tensions have increased over the past year, with 58 percent disapproving of Trump’s handling of racial issues. The finding echoed a Quinnipiac University Poll last month, in which 49 percent of voters said they believe Trump is racist, including 86 percent of Democrats.
The polling points to a wide opening for Democrats weighing a 2020 campaign. Democrats have credited a surge in nonwhite voters for victories last year in Alabama and Virginia, and politicians preparing for a presidential campaign are eager to court those same voters.
Earlier this year, after the Trump administration’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sanders, Warren and Harris, among other progressives, urged an overhaul or re-examination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, while Gillibrand said the agency should be abolished.
“I think a lot of political observers have noted the difference that African-Americans, or the African-American vote, has made in a lot of consequential elections,” said Akunna Cook, who advised former Attorney General Eric Holder on his National Democratic Redistricting Committee efforts.
Cook, now executive director of the Black Economic Alliance political group, said, “I think that the moment is causing politicians to really focus on how they can message and speak to and turn out black voters.”
The political opportunity presented by a confrontation with Trump on race is especially apparent in the Democratic presidential primary. Following nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the election will run through states with significant nonwhite populations, including South Carolina, Nevada and California.
“Obama was in a unique situation as a sort of pathfinder, trailblazer, and he acknowledges it, that for many years he felt that he needed to de-emphasize the whole question of race,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster. “Now, I think that given that the first competition ultimately is going to be in a primary, I think that a variety of candidates … are going to talk about it much more openly.”
Earlier this month, after Trump lashed out at basketball star LeBron James for a CNN interview in which James criticized Trump’s governing style, Harris contrasted James’ work with schoolchildren with a Trump administration she said “continues to keep migrant children separated from their families.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told CNN it is “hard to argue” that Trump’s criticism of James wasn’t racist. And at a gathering of progressive Democrats in New Orleans recently, Ryan said to cheers, “I’m with LeBron James.”
“We’re not going to let you come to Ohio, President Trump, and do your race-baiting and make your racial statements against people in Ohio or anywhere across the country, whether it’s LeBron James or Maxine Waters or anybody else,” Ryan said. “That ain’t playing anymore, President Trump.”
Tony Fabrizio, the Republican pollster who worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign, said Democrats are talking about race not to defeat Trump, but to “corner the market on large blocs of Democratic primary voter constituencies.”
For a Democratic contender, he said, “If I can stand out and … be the hero of the nonwhite Democratic primary voter, that gives me a leg up in a lot of states like California, like New York, like the South.” But he said that if every major candidate is talking about race, the benefit to anyone is likely only to be marginal.
And Fabrizio said Democrats’ efforts so far to confront Trump on race have failed to gain traction, including in the immediate wake of Charlottesville. “They thought that was going to be his death knell, kill his numbers,” Fabrizio said.
Yet any effort by centrist Democrats to moderate racial messages in an effort to appeal to white, working-class voters will be met by stiff resistance from the party’s base.
“Donald Trump talks about race all the time,” said Rashad Robinson of Color of Change PAC. “To have the other side, which is getting the votes and support of people of color, and particularly black folks, not talking about it and hoping that it doesn’t come up, that hasn’t worked. And it won’t work.”
Sharpton, similarly, said prospective 2020 Democrats cannot “have their cake and eat it, too.”
“I think that they’ve got to stand up and go after people of color’s vote unapologetically,” Sharpton said, “because you’ve got to turn people on to turn them out.”
In a 2020 matchup with Trump, Sharpton said, Democrats “only can fight him with a street fight, and anybody who does not want to deal with the race part of that street fight should stay out of this fight.”
What blue wave?
While it’s notched four consecutive wins in local bellwether races, Florida’s Democratic Party has lost a share of its registered voters in Florida since 2016 and the percentage of Democrats casting vote-by-mail absentee ballots this month trails those mailed in by Republicans, according to new figures from the state’s elections division.
A Democratic blue wave might still come. But so could a Republican red tide.
After all, this is purple Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state, where hard-to-predict elections are won on the margins and a 2-point win for a top-of-the-ticket candidate can look like a landslide.
“If a blue wave is forming, it certainly hasn’t crested. Maybe there’s a red tide coming in and affecting the blue wave?” said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who studies the state’s voter rolls and trends.
So far, there’s enough data to show that some of Democrats’ hoped-for advantages — concerning Hispanic voters, Democratic voter registrations, Democratic ballots cast or young voters — haven’t clearly materialized heading into the Aug. 28 primary. With close Senate and gubernatorial races, Florida is one of the most important states for both parties in the 2018 midterms.
For this election, the percentage of active registered Democrats is down by nearly 2 percentage points compared with 2016, according to Florida Division of Elections data published Sunday for the primary. Because Florida doesn’t allow last-minute voter registration, the figures are final.
Some Democrats are worried, but they won’t say so publicly. They haven’t occupied the governor’s mansion in 20 years, and the only statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking reelection, is slightly trailing Gov. Rick Scott in recent polls as the Republican has unloaded on him in a broad TV ad campaign.
“None of us will admit this publicly, but we’re worried. Where’s the blue wave?” a Democratic consultant tied to a major Florida campaign said about Florida‘s 2018 election. “The party has no money. The Republicans do. ... But, thankfully, Republicans have Trump, and he’s a disaster when the elections are close. And this election will be close.”
President Donald Trump‘s approval rating is about what it was when he won Florida in 2016. Trump's unexpected win in 2016 in Florida also unsettled some Democrats who thought they had a better handle on the pulse of the electorate. Trump has been a major factor in the Republican gubernatorial primary, all but catapulting Rep. Ron DeSantis to a commanding lead over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who had been the clear front-runner.
And though voters have a tendency to punish the party of the president in power in a midterm, the last time a Republican sat in the White House in a midterm, in 2006, Democrats won only two statewide races: Nelson’s contest against a weak Republican opponent and Alex Sink’s single win for chief financial officer. In 2002, Democrats were crushed at the polls, as they were during former President Barack Obama’s 2010 and 2014 midterms.
Democrats now account for 37 percent of the rolls, compared with 35 percent for Republicans, who have not lost any proportional ground since 2016. The share of third-party voters has marginally increased, and no-party-affiliation voters, nicknamed NPAs, have increased their ranks by 3 points in Florida.
In all, Florida has more than 13 million active registered voters eligible to cast ballots in the primary.
Despite tens of thousands of Hurricane Maria evacuees flocking to Florida after the storm pummeled Puerto Rico, the overall proportion of active Hispanic voters — 16 percent — on the voter rolls has remained nearly the same since the 2016 general election.
Though the elections data show registration by race and ethnicity, they don’t indicate place of origin of voters. So it’s unclear just how many are of Puerto Rican descent or who have roots in other Latin American countries.
About 17 percent of the Democratic Party’s voter rolls are now Hispanic, a roughly 1-percentage-point increase since 2016. But the percentage of black voters registered as Democrats, 28 percent, is down about a point. Overall, Hispanics prefer to register as NPAs, accounting for 22 percent of the rolls.
The Democratic Party is also becoming a majority nonwhite party, with 48 percent of its registered voters in Florida identified as non-Hispanic white.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, is disproportionately white — 83 percent — when compared with the state overall or its voter rolls. Republican voters also tend to be older. And white, older voters have the highest turnout rates in Florida, especially during midterms. Their numbers are being replenished at high rates by conservative retirees flocking to communities like The Villages.
Then there are vote-by-mail absentee ballots that are already being cast.
As of Monday morning, 572,000 absentee ballots had been mailed in, 47 percent from Republicans and 39 percent from Democrats. The 8-point margin in Republicans’ favor this midterm compares with a 6-point Republican advantage over ballots cast by Democrats 15 days from the 2014 midterm primary.
Republicans’ total early ballot lead is expected by many to shrink as in-person early voting gets underway in select counties, especially large, Democratic-leaning urban counties. Also, the Republican race for governor, involving just two candidates, is a far more stable race than the Democrats' primary, involving five major candidates, which could be giving Democrats more pause before they mail in their ballots.
Matt Isbell, one of the Democrats’ top data analysts, said all the numbers indicate it’s just going to be another close election in November.
“There’s nothing I can say other than this is going be a dogfight,” he said.
The voter registration numbers could also change drastically in the coming months now that political groups, campaigns and the public are more engaged. Voter registration drives should begin in earnest. The November elections also include far more voters than Florida’s closed primaries, which are limited to registered members of the major political parties. About 28 percent of the voters in the state are neither Republican nor Democrat, and many are viewed, as a result, as more persuadable independents. So the swing voters of the swing state will play a large, but harder-to-determine, role in selecting the winner.
Isbell noted that some of the decline in Democratic voter registrations, relative to 2016, is part of a natural progression of Dixiecrats dying off and turning to the GOP after Trump. “It’s a rebalancing,” he said.
Nor does Isbell see a significant boom in voter registrations by young people after the students from Parkland captured the nation’s attention following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
According to an analysis last month, performed for POLITICO by Smith, the University of Florida professor, and the Republican-leaning Associated Industries of Florida, the net growth in voters ages 18-29 since the Parkland massacre was 5 percent, while the overall voter registration rolls grew 10 percent. A spokesman for the students said they had no numbers concerning how many voters they registered on their recent bus tour in Florida.
AIF’s vice president of political operations, Ryan Tyson, closely tracks early vote returns and polls and said that, so far, the midterm election resembles others. And that’s good for Republicans, who tend to vote in higher numbers in midterms. As a result, the past 21 of 25 midterm races in Florida have been won by GOP candidates. Three of those elections lost by the GOP have been at the hand of one Democrat: Nelson.
Some bathrooms have signs urging people to wash their hands. But at the Democratic National Committee, reminders hanging in the men’s and women’s restrooms address a different kind of hygiene.
"Remember: Email is NOT a secure method of communication,” the signs read, “and if you see something odd, say something.”
The fliers are a visible symptom of an increased focus on cybersecurity at the DNC, more than two years after hackers linked to the Russian military looted the committee’s computer networks and inflamed the party’s internal divides at the worst possible time for Hillary Clinton. But the painful lessons of 2016 have yet to take hold across the campaign world — which remains the soft underbelly for cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the American political process.
Despite making some strides in cybersecurity protections since 2016, cyber experts and researchers say, many candidates and campaigns have yet to implement standard safeguards to prevent breaches of their computer networks, websites and emails.
“It just doesn’t seem to be as urgent of a concern in the conversations I’ve had,” said Ronald Bushar, government chief technology officer for FireEye, which has long tracked the Russian hacker group that U.S. intelligent agencies say targeted the Democrats and Clinton.
Over the past two years, Bushar has consulted with numerous campaigns, political committees and Capitol Hill staffers on cybersecurity issues and advocated for greater investments in email security and defenses such as 24-hour website intrusion monitoring. But he said, “I don’t see a ton of that happening.”
Meanwhile, a former FBI official told POLITICO that hackers are continuing to target campaigns in an attempt to undermine November’s midterm elections. At least two senators have recently discussed a spate of cyberattacks targeting Congress.
But lawmakers and the country’s top intelligence and law enforcement agencies haven’t offered campaigns the same coordinated cybersecurity assistance they’re providing to state governments, which are receiving $380 million to safeguard their voting machines, voter databases and other election systems.
Even with that federal help, states are largely unprepared to improve their security before this November’s elections and are off to a slow start to gird for 2020, a POLITICO survey found last month. The situation may be even more dire for political campaigns — short-lived, often shoestring operations.
When the Trump administration paraded out some of its highest-ranking officials on Aug. 2 to reinforce the government’s commitment to secure elections, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made it clear politicians are under attack, too. “We ... know the Russians try to hack into and steal information from candidates and government officials alike,” he said.
In recent weeks, Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire both said email attacks have targeted their Senate offices. McCaskill, a critic of both Trump and Russia, is up for reelection this year in a deep-red state and has blamed Moscow for the cyberattacks on her staff.
“It's pretty obvious what Russia's trying to do. All of us have had plenty of warning now,” McCaskill told POLITICO last week. “I don't think my office and my campaign are the only ones that are taking extraordinary efforts to try to protect our information.”
The former FBI official with knowledge of cyberattacks on campaigns told POLITICO that the assaults are ongoing and “campaigns are being targeted.” The former official said it was unclear where these efforts originated but that they are specifically targeting the midterms and “in support of continuing to undermine the democratic process.”
Essentially, the former official said, the new attacks on campaigns are similar to those that targeted the DNC and Clinton’s staff in 2016: remote-access attempts to penetrate emails.
In interviews, lawmakers and campaigns insisted they have made the right security investments and have raised awareness on digital threats enough to stop hackers and foreign adversaries. Neither the DNC nor the Republican National Committee would specify the steps they have taken, citing security concerns.
Still, both parties have publicly disclosed some of their actions, such as hosting security workshops with tech companies like Microsoft. The DNC opened an “I Will Run” marketplace that directed potential campaigns to use secure communication apps made by Signal and Wickr. Some campaigns are also taking advantage of enhanced security features that Google is offering for free to high-profile targets.
“The bottom line is that campaigns are both smarter about cybersecurity than they were two years ago, take it more seriously, and, on balance, have mitigated some of the cybersecurity risk that is out there,” said Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“That said, when you’re starting from a very low bar, it’s easy to show lots of improvement,” added Rosenbach, who leads the center’s Defending Digital Democracy Project, a bipartisan effort devoted to election cybersecurity.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said cybersecurity demands “constant vigilance” from campaigns.
“It really is a real-time, ongoing effort to make sure people have the tools they need to safeguard themselves and the process,” he told POLITICO, adding that the NRSC’s digital team has had “very lengthy, detailed conversations” with candidates, campaigns and vendors about online threats.
Gardner said the candidates he’s talked to “absolutely” understand the risk of not protecting their sensitive data from hackers. “If they don’t, they’re not running a good campaign.”
In addition to the increased attention to security among campaigns and candidates, many people working in politics and on the midterms feel a growing sense of urgency and paranoia about the issue.
Hence the fliers in the DNC’s bathrooms, which offer a raft of cybersecurity advice including the proper use of Dropbox or Google Drive and a warning against sending passport numbers by email. Elsewhere in DNC headquarters, warnings give employees tips about topics like enabling two-factor authentication — a step beyond passwords to protect accounts.
Similar cybersecurity alerts are posted in the bathrooms at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, another organization Russian hackers breached in 2016.
The RNC is working to raise security awareness, too. "Every email that’s external gets marked as ‘external’ in the subject line,” a development that’s taken place within the last couple of months, according to a source at the RNC. (This can foil intruders who pose as colleagues or bosses while trying to trick people into giving up sensitive information.) In addition, committee staffers have to take an online security test that runs them through “a bunch of different scenarios” to assess their knowledge of best cyber practices.
One Democratic operative, some of whose emails were stolen and released during the 2016 DNC hacks, said she now avoids complaining about other people in work emails. "Everyone has people they don’t get along with, so we don’t bitch about people in email anymore," she said.
Another Democratic operative told POLITICO that many people working on campaigns now use secure messaging apps such as Wickr and Signal.
“We’re getting more robust trainings on digital security, every six months,” the person said. “People are more afraid, there's more people using password managers and being more cautious about these sorts of things."
Since April, Wickr has seen a three-fold increase in the number of campaigns that use it, according to CEO Joel Wallenstrom. He said more than half of Senate campaigns and over 70 political consulting teams use the platform.
The firm’s political and government lead, Audra Grassia, said that “the vast majority of campaigns and political committees are 180 degrees from where they were in the 2016 cycle” when it comes to cybersecurity.
But that said, “there’s no doubt” campaigns are “going to have a target on their back as long as elected officials make huge policy decisions,” Grassia added.
In a statement, David Bergstein, the national press secretary of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the organization has “invested significantly in information security, has certified information security professionals on staff who provide training and we work with Senate campaigns to increase their cybersecurity awareness.”
Rosenbach of the Belfer Center cautioned that while it’s important for the tech firms to provide tips and capabilities for campaigns to improve their security, “it’s much more important the campaign managers and the leaders of the organization to make cybersecurity a priority.”
“As counterintuitive as it sounds, cybersecurity is a human problem, it’s a leadership problem, it’s not a technical problem,” said Rosenbach, whose organization last year published a campaign cybersecurity playbook.
Campaigns, he said, “should just assume from here on out, for the next several decades at least, that they will be targets for cyberattackers, both nation-state intelligence services and other nefarious individuals, who are trying to have some influence on the political situation in the United States.”
Tim Starks and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.
Female candidates are signing up to run for Congress at a record-breaking pace this election cycle. But will 2019 be the year women make huge gains on Capitol Hill? Not so much.
Despite record-shattering numbers of women waging campaigns at the House, Senate and statewide executive levels, women will still lag far behind men in the proportion of those elected offices they occupy — no matter what happens in November.
Currently, women make up nearly 20 percent of the House, while 23 of the 100 senators are women. Those figures may well see an uptick after the election, but the increase will be nominal.
Indeed, in an election year in which female candidates have ascended to prominence — particularly Democratic women buoyed by a wave of anti-Trump resistance and a fervent liberal base — it's easy to overlook that they still make up less than a quarter of all House candidates, according to data tracked by the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics.
“With record levels of women running this year, we are hopeful that we will see gains in the proportion of women in Congress in 2019, but there will still be much progress left to be made to achieve gender parity,” said CAWP Director Deborah Walsh.
Many of the female candidates in the vanguard of this election cycle acknowledge that, as encouraging as this moment is for women running, it won’t tip the scales overnight. But that doesn’t mean the gains aren’t significant.
“Every bit counts, and the fact that we have just more women this cycle” makes a huge difference for the future, Cori Bush, a Democratic House candidate in Missouri, said in an interview.
Bush, a nurse and pastor, rose to prominence as a community activist after the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. She fell short Tuesday in a bid to unseat Rep. Lacy Clay, an entrenched Democratic incumbent. Clay and his father have represented the St. Louis district for the past 50 years.
“Even if only a handful make it in, that’s a handful we didn’t have two years ago. We’re going to be the ones who inspire a whole other group to run,” Bush added.
Bush was one of 48 female candidates — nearly three-quarters of them Democrats — who competed in congressional primaries Tuesday in Washington, Kansas, Missouri and Michigan. That total includes incumbents. To date, 36 states have held their primaries, and nine more states will hold primaries by the end of August.
“This year, the record number of women running won't erase the inequality that exists right now, but it is a huge step forward,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said in an interview.
Sewell played a pivotal role in helping to elect Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator from Alabama in decades, by mobilizing black female voters. And in May, Sewell led the charge to persuade the Federal Election Commission to allow child care to count as a campaign expense, helping ease one of the many barriers women in particular face when running for office.
Even accounting for the disparity between the number of men and women running, female candidates do continue to break records. In the Senate, 54 women signed up to run this cycle, eclipsing the 2016 record of 40 female candidates. The numbers are even starker in the House, where 476 women filed to run, far surpassing the 2012 record of 298 female candidates, according to CAWP data.
Women broke another record Tuesday, securing the most female House nominees ever. There are now 185 female House nominees, breaking the previous record of 167, set in 2016. With more than a dozen primaries left, that number is expected to rise.
“We should place this year into proper context — we are seeing a record number of women running and winning, and that is something that will help us get to parity” over time, Sewell said. “We’ve got to crawl before we run.”
In the House, women make up 24 percent of all candidates this cycle, a significant jump from 18 percent in 2016. Thirty years ago, women comprised just 8 percent of all House primary candidates, according to CAWP.
“We’ve still got a ways to go to get to a point where even just the candidate pool reflects parity, let alone the pool of elected members," said CAWP scholar Kelly Dittmar.
POLITICO is closely following women running for office this cycle via the Women Rule Candidate Tracker, a research collaboration with the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers-New Brunswick and the Women in Public Service Project at The Wilson Center.
Women who have already broken through the barriers facing female candidates, like Sewell and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), predict that momentum from this cycle will carry through to 2020, when President Donald Trump will likely be on the ballot again.
“It’s hard for me to say that Trump is helpful for anything,” said Jayapal, the first woman to represent her Seattle district. “But the urgency of the moment, what he has put at stake with his cruelness and discrimination … does clarify for people how important it is that we have their voices.”
The success of female candidates this year isn’t limited to historic firsts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York set to become the youngest woman ever sent to Congress once the general election is done.
In Michigan on Tuesday night, Gretchen Whitmer defeated two male primary challengers — one of whom, Abdul El-Sayed, was backed by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. She now advances to take on GOP nominee Bill Schuette, hoping to follow Jennifer Granholm as Michigan’s second female Democratic governor.
Kansas GOP candidate Caryn Tyson fell short after competing against a half-dozen male challengers in her primary on Tuesday, all of whom were vying to replace another Republican woman, retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins.
Also running in Kansas was an Ocasio-Cortez-style record-setter, Sharice Davids. The progressive, lesbian ex-mixed martial arts fighter won her primary and will challenge Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) this fall. Davids would be the first Native American woman elected to Congress if she can topple Yoder.
Another woman competing Tuesday was Rashida Tlaib, who could become Congress’ first female Muslim-American member after prevailing in her Michigan House Democratic primary.
Tlaib, who does not have a Republican challenger, would replace former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Conyers, who represented the district for more than 50 years, resigned in December amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations.
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the progressive PAC Justice Democrats, said that this year’s surge in female candidates is only a first step toward more systemic change in the demographics of national politics.
“Like anything, it’s not a fix overnight,” said Rojas, whose PAC backed Ocasio-Cortez and Bush and has made an effort to spotlight women as half of its slate. “Hopefully we can do it this cycle, but this is a long game.”