Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday that he would introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, marking a significant shift in policy for the Democratic leader and lending the movement to lower government barriers to the drug a powerful ally.
The top congressional Democrat told VICE News in an interview set to air on Thursday night that legislation to increase access to marijuana was “long overdue” and that far “too many people” had been affected by the government’s crackdown on the drug.
“I’ll be introducing legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level from one end of the country to the other,” Schumer said, according to a clip of the interview released by the outlet.
He added: “I've seen too many people’s lives ruined because they had small amounts of marijuana and served time in jail, much too long. Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do. Freedom.”
Schumer’s announcement comes as the Trump administration has moved to limit the proliferation of legislation to decriminalize and legalize marijuana at the state level. Earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era initiative that paved the way for states to pass more laws expanding access to the drug.
“If smoking marijuana doesn’t hurt anybody else, why shouldn’t we allow people to do it and not make it criminal?” Schumer said.
Last week the push to lessen restrictions gained another prominent ally in former House Speaker John Boehner, who joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a firm that cultivates, processes and dispenses marijuana.
National Democrats launched a campaign Thursday to intervene in the upcoming West Virginia Senate GOP primary — an effort that could be designed to help recently imprisoned coal baron Don Blankenship win the Republican nomination.
Duty and Country, a Washington-based Super PAC, began airing TV and web ads savaging the two mainstream Republican candidates, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who are competing in the May 8 primary. Left off the group’s target list, however, was Blankenship, who spent one year in prison following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers.
In propping up Blankenship, the Democratic Party is wading into an intensifying GOP civil war. Republicans are growing increasingly worried about Blankenship, who has been gaining traction in the primary. GOP officials in Washington are concerned that if Blankenship wins the nomination, he’ll ruin the party’s prospects of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.
Last week, national Republicans launched a super PAC named Mountain Families PAC aimed at stopping Blankenship. The organization, which is staffed by consultants who’ve previously worked for a political group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has begun airing TV commercials accusing Blankenship of contaminating drinking water by pumping toxic slurry while setting up a separate piping system to his mansion.
The Democratic group is spending over $380,000 to air the commercials. One of the TV spots says that as the former head of West Virginia State Medical Association, Jenkins pushed doctors to use an insurance company that overcharged, allowing his organization to profit. Another ad describes Morrisey as a carpetbagger, calling him a “millionaire New Yorker and former lobbyist who came down here and ran for office with no idea of the real challenges West Virginians face.”
The Democratic group has also begun sending out mailers describing Jenkins as "part of the swamp, part of the problem."
A Duty and Country spokesman, Mike Plante, said the group had no plans to go after Blankenship and was instead focused on his two rivals.
“We made the strategic decision based on data that shows that either Patrick Morrisey or Evan Jenkins is more likely to be the nominee, so that’s where we’re focusing our attention,” he said.
Duty and Country appears to have close ties to the national Democratic Party. In its federal filings, it lists the same downtown Washington address as other major party groups, including Senate Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC devoted to electing Senate Democrats.
In another twist, West Virginia attorney Booth Goodwin, who served as U.S. attorney in the case against Blankenship, is listed as the group’s treasurer.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) got an executive endorsement on Thursday from President Donald Trump, who added that he would campaign for her in the race for Sen. Bob Corker’s seat.
“[email protected] is a wonderful woman who has always been there when we have needed her,” the president wrote on Twitter on Thursday afternoon. “Great on the Military, Border Security and Crime. Loves and works hard for the people of Tennessee. She has my full endorsement and I will be there to campaign with her!”
Blackburn is up against former Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, to replace Corker, who last year announced he would not seek reelection and reaffirmed that decision in February.
Corker on Wednesday spoke warmly of Bredesen, saying he thinks Bredesen has crossover appeal for Republicans and that he would not campaign against the Democrat. Corker estimated that Blackburn is trailing Bredesen by 6 percentage points, and he said he believes Blackburn faces an uphill battle in the campaign. However, Corker ultimately said he would vote for Blackburn and would contribute money to her campaign.
Trump has previously endorsed candidates vying to fill Senate seats, including Luther Strange in Alabama, who lost the primary to Roy Moore. The president went on to endorse Moore, who ended up losing the special election to Democrat Doug Jones.
The president also endorsed and campaigned for Rick Saccone in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District seat. Conor Lamb, the Democrat in the race, ended up narrowly defeating Saccone.
The Department of Justice is expected to send to Congress on Thursday afternoon copies of former FBI Director James Comey's memos documenting his interactions with President Donald Trump, according to a source familiar with the department's plans.
Comey has told lawmakers he drafted seven memos detailing his encounters with the president in person and on the phone. He has also publicly claimed that he felt pressured by Trump to back off the FBI's pursuit of an investigation into the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia as well as into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The memos are believed to be central to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump or his allies attempted to obstruct the Russia probe.
House Republicans had previously threatened to subpoena the Department of Justice to obtain the memos.
The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), had prepared the subpoena in the event Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein opted against forking over the memos. Republicans have complained that access to the memos for lawmakers has been limited even though Comey testified about the memos to Congress last year and has discussed some of their contents during an ongoing national publicity tour for his new book.
"There's an urgency there since Jim Comey's out there talking about the memos," said Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee.
The decision appears likely to avert a standoff between top House Republicans and Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller's probe. Trump allies in Congress have lashed out at Rosenstein for what they've described as stonewalling of their requests for sensitive documents related to the probe, as well as the FBI's 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server.
Trump himself has embraced the Judiciary Committee's fight in recent weeks, lashing out at his own Justice Department for failing to more rapidly comply with the committee's requests for unredacted files. The pushback has raised fears among Democrats and DOJ defenders that Trump is seizing on the document drama as a pretext for removing Rosenstein and exerting more influence over Mueller's investigation.
It's unclear if the memos that DOJ will provide to Congress will include significant redactions or other restrictions on access. Democrats have contended that the GOP document demands were intended to give Trump a pretext to fire Rosenstein and exert more influence over Mueller's investigation.
Goodlatte aides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Goodlatte's initial request for the memos was joined by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) on Friday.
"There is no legal basis for withholding these materials from Congress," they wrote in a letter to Rosenstein.
Though they initially demanded the files by Monday, the chairmen relented when Rosenstein asked for a few more days to weigh the request.
In a prior reply letter, Rosenstein emphasized that a select group of lawmakers and aides had already been allowed to see the memos under a strict guarantee that they not be publicly disclosed.
So far, Rosenstein wrote, they had abided that commitment. He also noted some material in the memos may already be known due to Comey's prior public comments.
"However, one or more of the memos may relate to an ongoing investigation, may contain classified information, and may report confidential Presidential communications," Rosenstein wrote, "so we have a legal duty to evaluate the consequences of providing access to them."
To support his argument, Rosenstein attached a 1941 opinion from then-Attorney General Robert Jackson, a 1989 memo from then-Assistant Attorney General William Barr, and a 2000 letter from Assistant Attorney General Robert Raben outlining the limits on congressional oversight of executive branch investigations.
A former Obama DOJ spokesman said the decision by Rosenstein to agree to the Republican demands could set a lasting precedent for the way Congress inserts itself into active investigations in the future.
"This cave by DOJ will have long-lasting ramifications," said Matt Miller, the former spokesman. "This is an area governed solely by precedent, and DOJ is setting precedent that it is OK for Congress to interfere with, and receive documents pertaining to, active investigations."
President Donald Trump's effort to crack down on sanctuary cities suffered another legal setback Thursday as a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld a nationwide injunction against making federal grant funding contingent on cooperation with immigration enforcement.
A three-judge panel—all of whom are Republican appointees—ruled that there were strong indications that the administration exceeded its legal authority in trying to implement the new conditions without approval from Congress.
The ruling came on a suit filed by the City of Chicago after the Justice Department imposed the new conditions last July in a bid to encourage state and local governments to provide more assistance to immigration authorities.
In a strongly worded opinion, Judge Ilana Rovner said allowing federal agencies to add conditions to grant funds without explicit congressional authority could lead toward "tyranny."
"The Attorney General in this case used the sword of federal funding to conscript state and local authorities to aid in federal civil immigration enforcement. But the power of the purse rests with Congress, which authorized the federal funds at issue and did not impose any immigration enforcement conditions on the receipt of such funds," Rovner wrote, in an opinion joined by Judge William Bauer. "It falls to us, the judiciary, as the remaining branch of the government, to act as a check on such usurpation of power."
One judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, Daniel Manion, said he would narrow the injunction to protect only Chicago.
"The nationwide injunction is simply unnecessary here," Manion wrote. "Other jurisdictions that do not want to comply with the Notice and Access conditions were not parties to this suit, and there is no need to protect them in order to protect Chicago. An injunction, particularly a preliminary injunction, is an extreme remedy. A nationwide preliminary injunction is more extreme still. One should only be issued where it is absolutely necessary, and it is far from absolutely necessary here."
However, the nationwide injunction freezing the Justice Department's effort will remain in place since Rovner and Bauer ruled that Chicago-based U.S. District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber's order that it apply across the country appeared to be justified.
The Justice Department has found little traction in court for its policy. Judges in Philadelphia and Los Angeles also blocked attempts to add the immigration-related conditions to new federal grants.
Rovner was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, Bauer by President Gerald Ford and Manion by President Ronald Reagan, all Republicans.
The Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed President Donald Trump’s pick to lead NASA, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, after a long and bruising partisan battle over the Oklahoma Republican’s qualifications to run the massive space bureaucracy and his controversial political stances as a congressman.
Bridenstine was approved on a 50-49 party-line vote, the culmination of a confirmation process that lasted more than six months and was uncommonly contentious for a NASA administrator.
Bridenstine faced staunch opposition from Democrats over his qualifications, led by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and a former astronaut.
Bridenstine, his critics contended, has no scientific background or other relevant experience to make the myriad engineering and budget decisions that come with the space job.
The staunchly conservative congressman also drew opposition for his past statements opposing LGBT rights and casting doubt on whether humans contribute to climate change.
He walked back those statements during a November confirmation hearing, pledging to treat employees equally and to allow science to drive NASA’s mission.
A Navy Reserve pilot who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Bridenstine was first tapped by Trump to be NASA administrator late last year. But his nomination was stalled by the heavy opposition.
Bridenstine’s confirmation wasn’t without some last-minute drama this week, either, as his nomination barely cleared a key procedural hurdle Wednesday.
The Senate eventually voted 50-49, along party lines, to cut off debate on Bridenstine's nomination. But Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) initially broke with his party, leaving the chamber deadlocked, with Vice President Mike Pence, who was traveling in Florida, unavailable to break the tie.
Flake eventually switched his vote, a move he later said wasn’t related to Bridenstine. On Thursday, he voted with his fellow Republicans for confirmation.
NASA, meanwhile, has been without a permanent director since the end of the Obama administration.
A federal judge raised doubts Thursday about the scope of the order used to appoint special counsel Robert Mueller to probe alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
During a two-and-a-half hour hearing in one of Mueller’s criminal cases against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson questioned whether Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s directive appointing Mueller granted him more authority than Justice Department regulations appear to permit.
Manafort’s lead defense attorney, Kevin Downing, noted that the May 17 order appointing Mueller grants him authority to pursue the Trump-Russia probe as well as other issues that “may arise” from that investigation. Downing said that was at odds with Justice’s rules, which say a special counsel must be told of the “specific factual matter” in his or her mandate.
“That’s a fair point,” Jackson said, adding later: “I don’t think that, as good as he is, that the deputy attorney general can see into the future.”
However, it’s far from clear whether whatever doubts Jackson may have about the appointment order will actually benefit Manafort in the criminal cases he currently faces: a five-count indictment in Washington on charges of money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent for Ukraine and an 18-count indictment in Virginia on charges of bank fraud, tax evasion and failing to report foreign bank accounts.
Manafort’s lawyers have argued that Rosenstein’s May 17 order exceeded his authority under regulations adopted two decades ago to replace an expired and much-criticized independent counsel law. Manafort’s defense also contends that Mueller has gone further than Rosenstein authorized.
Mueller’s team argued Thursday that criminal defendants and the public at large have no right to enforce those regulations. Manafort’s attorneys insist he can use violations of those rules to challenge the legitimacy of the indictment, but Jackson gave little indication Thursday that she agrees with them.
“It’s all happening within the Executive Branch,” Jackson noted. “I want to know if these [regulations] are actionable at all.”
Downing insisted that if there were flaws in Mueller’s appointment, it undermines his legal authority to bring the cases he’s filed.
“I don’t know how they can violate these regulations and we can still be here and it doesn’t matter,” the defense attorney said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
A senior Justice Department attorney working with Mueller's office, Michael Dreeben, defended Rosenstein's order and insisted that it clearly gave Mueller the authority to investigate and charge Manafort for his Ukraine-related business dealings.
"It's not a blank check. It's not carte blanche," Dreeben said of the appointment order.
Earlier this month, Justice Department lawyers gave the court a copy of a memo Rosenstein wrote last August detailing the scope of Mueller's authority. It revealed that Mueller was specifically authorized by Rosenstein to investigate and prosecute crimes related to Manafort's receipt of payments from the Ukrainian government.
Dreeben insisted Thursday that was not an expansion of Mueller's authority, but a description of what was originally in it.
"That order reflects confirmation of what was within our scope at the time of our appointment," he said. "It's not an after-the-fact justification order."
That issue could be significant because while Manafort's initial indictment last October came well after the August memo, Mueller's office took some key investigative steps before the memo, including carrying out a court-approved search in May of a storage locker linked to Manafort and another in July of Manafort's Alexandria condo.
In describing Manafort's relevance to the investigation, Dreeben also seemed to make explicit that investigators viewed Manafort as a potential backchannel between the Russians and the Trump campaign. "He has a long series of links to Russian-backed officials in the Ukraine," the veteran Justice Department lawyer said.
Jackson issued no ruling Thursday on the issue of Mueller's authority or on two other defense motions to dismiss individual counts in the indictment. However, she did not seem persuaded that the potential overbreadth of Rosenstein’s order had actually resulted in any harm to Manafort.
The judge said it seemed likely that that scrutiny of Manafort’s business ties to Ukraine was already part of the broader Trump-Russia investigation when Mueller was appointed last May. She also suggested Manafort’s activities in Ukraine would qualify as part of Mueller’s announced mandate to look at all “links” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Manafort is set to face trial in the Alexandria case on June 10 and the Washington case on September 17. Jackson’s rulings will technically apply only to the Washington case, but they could influence her colleague in Virginia, who is facing similar motions from the defense.
PLAYBOOK SCOOP … MASSIVE QUARTER for SENATE MAJORITY PAC … The top Senate Democratic super PAC raised $22,236,533 in the first quarter of 2018, and they have $26 million on hand. THIS IS AN EXTRAORDINARILY STRONG HAUL for the outside group.
-- THE STUNNER: Many of these super PACs have a sister non-profit group, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors. SMP is not releasing that group’s fundraising totals. BUT THIS IS IMPORTANT: The Democratic super PAC alone outraised Senate Leadership Fund and all of its sister organizations. DEM SUPER PAC: $22 million. CONSTELLATION OF REPUBLICAN GROUPS: nearly $13.9 million. BUT, BUT, BUT the GOP groups have $34.4 million cash-on-hand.
-- JB PORSCHE, the president of SMP: “Our opportunities in the Senate improve with every passing month.”
Good Thursday afternoon. CLICKER -- THE TIME 100 LIST -- Some notable profiles: The Parkland Activists by Barack Obama https://ti.me/2F0anwm … Jimmy Kimmel by Dick Durbin https://ti.me/2vrEPjn … Donald Trump by Ted Cruz https://ti.me/2vsaNMv … Sean Hannity by Newt Gingrich https://ti.me/2vo8idY … Robert Mueller by Preet Bharara https://ti.me/2EZHuQT … Nancy Pelosi by Cecile Richards https://ti.me/2vyoARs …
… Jeff Sessions by Mitch McConnell https://ti.me/2vqUbEG … Scott Pruitt by Christine Todd Whitman https://ti.me/2F3l15C … Ronan Farrow, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey by Ashley Judd https://ti.me/2EZ85O5 … Jeff Bezos by Jamie Dimon https://ti.me/2F042kp … Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie by Matt Vella https://ti.me/2vs8KIc … Maxine Waters by Yara Shahidi https://ti.me/2vrFHEF … The full list https://ti.me/2vv9lsN
SPEAKER PAUL RYAN talked to HUGH HEWITT this morning on the radio about his future: HEWITT: “If one of these bigs, like if Jeff Bezos, who’s a pretty smart guy, comes in and says hey, Mr. Speaker, come join the board of Amazon, or Google, or Netflix, one of the bigs, would you do that, because it seems to me Silicon Valley, as Mark Zuckerberg said, is so left wing.” …
RYAN: “I have no clue, Hugh. I, it’s weird. My mind, I’m a fairly disciplined person. And the way I do this stuff is that’s, those are things I’m going to figure out later. They’re, I’m a cause guy. You know, I’m a cause guy. I came from the think tank world, worked my way up, and then got elected to Congress when I was 28 years old. So I’m obviously going to keep staying involved in these causes that we all believe in. That’s the one thing I know.
“There’s charities I care about, causes I care about, upward mobility and poverty are issues that are really near and dear to my heart. And that’s what I know I’ll do. And other than that, you know, we’ll figure all that stuff out. And honestly, I just don’t think I should be spending my time thinking about that with all this work yet to do this year. And I can figure that stuff out in 2019, after taking my wife to the beach.”
-- THE “GUY” TICK: Ryan has a funny verbal tick. He describes himself as an “[insert noun here!] guy.” A policy guy, Wisconsin guy, regular order guy, etc. Above, he described himself as a “cause guy.”
MARK YOUR CALENDAR -- “Senate committee plans Monday vote on Pompeo as secretary of state,” by WaPo’s Karoun Demirjian and John Wagner: “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has set a vote for Monday on Mike Pompeo’s nomination as President Trump’s secretary of state. …
“To secure the committee’s blessing, Pompeo will need at least one vote from the 10 Democrats on the 21-member panel. That’s because the day after Pompeo’s nomination was announced, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), formally stated his opposition to Pompeo’s bid.” https://wapo.st/2vrgHNZ
TRUMP VS. CALIFORNIA, CONTINUED -- @realDonaldTrump at 11:23 a.m.: “Thank you San Diego County for defending the rule of law and supporting our lawsuit against California's illegal and unconstitutional 'Sanctuary' policies. California's dangerous policies release violent criminals back into our communities, putting all Americans at risk.” …
… at 11:28 a.m.: “Governor Jerry Brown announced he will deploy ‘up to 400 National Guard Troops’ to do nothing. The crime rate in California is high enough, and the Federal Government will not be paying for Governor Brown’s charade. We need border security and action, not words!”
A QUICK ELECTION! WONDER HOW THAT HAPPENED … “Cuba’s new president is the first non-Castro in 42 years. How much power will he have?” by the Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield and Nora Gámez Torres: “Cuba's new President Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel grew up in the Cuban revolution and it's clear his mission is to make sure it survives.
“In his first speech as president Thursday, Díaz-Canel emphasized continuity with the past and an important and ongoing political role for retiring Cuban president Raúl Castro, 86, who will remain at the helm of the Communist Party of Cuba.” https://hrld.us/2F0oSjM
COVER DU JOUR -- Bloomberg Businessweek: “Palantir Knows Everything About You: Peter Thiel’s data-mining company is using War on Terror tools to track American citizens. The scary thing? Palantir is desperate for new customers,” by Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman, and Jordan Robertson: “The LAPD uses Palantir’s Gotham product for Operation Laser, a program to identify and deter people likely to commit crimes. Information from rap sheets, parole reports, police interviews, and other sources is fed into the system to generate a list of people the department defines as chronic offenders, says Craig Uchida, whose consulting firm, Justice & Security Strategies Inc., designed the Laser system.
“The list is distributed to patrolmen, with orders to monitor and stop the pre-crime suspects as often as possible, using excuses such as jaywalking or fix-it tickets. At each contact, officers fill out a field interview card with names, addresses, vehicles, physical descriptions, any neighborhood intelligence the person offers, and the officer’s own observations on the subject.
“The cards are digitized in the Palantir system, adding to a constantly expanding surveillance database that’s fully accessible without a warrant. Tomorrow’s data points are automatically linked to today’s, with the goal of generating investigative leads. Say a chronic offender is tagged as a passenger in a car that’s pulled over for a broken taillight. Two years later, that same car is spotted by an automatic license plate reader near a crime scene 200 miles across the state. As soon as the plate hits the system, Palantir alerts the officer who made the original stop that a car once linked to the chronic offender was spotted near a crime scene.” https://bloom.bg/2qIUN3Y … The cover http://bit.ly/2vp8o5b
MEDIAWATCH -- “Cohen drops libel suits against BuzzFeed, Fusion GPS,” by Josh Gerstein: “Embattled attorney Michael Cohen has dropped a pair of much-touted libel suits against BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over publication of the so-called dossier detailing alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.
“Cohen abandoned the suits late Wednesday as he continues to fight to recover documents and electronic files seized from his home, office and hotel room last week by federal authorities as part of what appears to be a broad criminal investigation into his conduct.
“‘The decision to voluntarily discontinue these cases was a difficult one,’ Cohen's attorney David Schwartz said. "We believe the defendants defamed my client, and vindicating Mr. Cohen’s rights was -- and still remains -- important. But given the events that have unfolded, and the time, attention, and resources needed to prosecute these matters, we have dismissed the matters, despite their merits.’” https://politi.co/2voeWkk
-- AP: “FBI offers $1M for info on US reporter missing in Syria”: “Austin Tice, of Houston, Texas, disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria’s civil war. A video released a month later showed him blindfolded and held by armed men. He has not been heard from since. Tice is a former Marine who has reported for The Washington Post, McClatchy Newspapers and CBS.” http://bit.ly/2vscklI
-- Garance Franke-Ruta left Yahoo News to work on a memoir, which will be about living and working in NYC in the late 1980s and early 1990s as an anti-AIDs activist with ACT UP. She will complete residencies from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Writer’s Block bookstore.
AFTERNOON READ -- THE NYT’s OVERLOOKED OBIT SERIES -- “Harriott Daley, the Capitol’s First Telephone Operator,” by Alexandra Jacobs: “Before voice mail and voice recognition; before Siri and Alexa and their electronic sistren; before people cowered at the sight of incoming calls and hid behind blooping bubbles of text; before all that, there was Harriott Daley, the first telephone switchboard operator at the Capitol in Washington.
“When Daley, who worked for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, arrived in the capital in December 1898, many of the lawmakers there, all men, regarded this newfangled talking device that she heralded with the same skepticism, even horror, that today’s digital natives express toward their smartphones’ ‘talk’ function.” https://nyti.ms/2vycsAi
SPOTTED: Michael Flynn on the 6:50 a.m. Acela from D.C. to NYC this morning -- pic http://bit.ly/2qIxNly -- Flynn is speaking at a London Center event today as a part of their lecture series at the Union League Club in Manhattan … Mark McKinnon interviewing Roger Stone at Stone’s home in Ft. Lauderdale on Wednesday for this weekend’s episode of “The Circus” – pics via Myra Adams http://bit.ly/2HKVH7a ... http://bit.ly/2qIgVv3
OUT AND ABOUT -- Pool report: “David Stewart had his going away party in HC5, where Uncle Julio’s was served. Guests included Ways and Means staff past and present, Speakers' staff (Boehner and Ryan). Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) gave remarks, David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) also made an appearance. Amy Lozupone delivered remarks from Speaker Boehner who committed to being in Dallas with Bush. In the remarks, Boehner called David a ‘quiet rockstar’ and a winner.”
-- Pool report: “Meridian International Center and Ambassador Stuart Holliday hosted a reception last night to welcome the newly credentialed Ambassadors of the Bahamas, Croatia, Estonia, Korea, Libya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Saint Lucia and Uzbekistan to Washington, D.C.”
SPOTTED: Marie Royce, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Charlie Rivkin, Adrienne Arsht, former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), Carlos Gutierrez, Jim and Janet Blanchard, Michelle Kosinski, Ann Stock, Megan Beyer, Clara Brillembourg, Ben Chang, Susan Blumenthal, Fritz Brogan, Andy Keiser, Robb Watters, former Amb. Laurie Fulton, former Amb. Walt and Didi Cutler, Capricia Marshall, Lee Satterfield and Patrick Steel, Lloyd Hand, former Amb. Tom Korologos, Kevin Moley, Jay Perron, Jayne Sandman.
SPOTTED at EMILY’s List annual We Are EMILY conference and gala last night at the Marriott Marquis: Stephanie Schriock, Emily Cain, Ellen Malcolm, Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Tina Smith (Minn.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Democratic Reps. Nanette Barragan (Calif.), Don Beyer (Va.), Suzanne Bonamici (Ore.), Joe Crowley (N.Y.), Diana DeGette (Colo.), Suzan DelBene (Wash.), Lois Frankel (Fla.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Brenda Lawrence (Mich.), Michelle Lujan-Grisham (N.M.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Norma Torres (Calif.), former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Mayor Muriel Bowser.
TRANSITIONS -- Katie Wise has joined Invariant. She was previously VP of legislation of the Federation of American Hospitals. … Owen Burgess, a senior aide for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, is leaving to manage the Senate campaign for Nick Freitas. … David Banks, a former Trump White House special assistant, is joining Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs as an adjunct research scholar. …
… Christina Norton and Taylor Mullon have both joined GOPAC. Norton, who is the communications and political director, was last at the NRSC and Mullon, the finance director, was previously at the RSLC.
BONUS BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Alleigh Marré, senior adviser and chief of staff to the Secretary of the Air Force. What she’s been reading recently: “I recently read ‘Before We Were Yours,’ a historical fiction based on the story of Georgia Tann, a director of an adoption organization who kidnapped and sold more than 5,000 poor children to wealthy families for more than 20 years. I’m now reading a biography about Tann and have been down a rabbit hole learning about how the politics of the time allowed her to operate.” Read her Playbook Plus Q&A: https://politi.co/2vxOXas
President Donald Trump threatened Thursday to cut off federal funding for the deployment of California’s National Guard if Gov. Jerry Brown insists that the troops “do nothing,” an apparent jab at the state leader’s insistence that they not perform immigration enforcement duties.
Brown on Wednesday mobilized 400 members of the state’s National Guard to fight gangs and smugglers as part of the president’s push to beef up border security. The California governor said federal authorities agreed to fund the plan, which he announced last week, but that the troops would not enforce immigration policy.
“Governor Jerry Brown announced he will deploy ‘up to 400 National Guard Troops’ to do nothing,” Trump tweeted. “The crime rate in California is high enough, and the Federal Government will not be paying for Governor Brown’s charade. We need border security and action, not words!”
The president directed federal officials earlier this month to send troops to the border in a push to curb illegal immigration. Trump later revealed that as many as 4,000 guard members could be tapped to assist Border Patrol agents as part of the effort.
Pressed on whether the forces would be tasked with enforcement responsibilities, such as arresting undocumented immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters last month that they would not “as of now.”
The president initially praised Brown for “doing the right thing” by deploying the National Guard. But on Wednesday, Trump accused Brown of seeking to “back out” of his pledge to mobilize troops and ripped the state’s localities for serving as sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants.
The president also has claimed on Twitter that the governor, whose state borders Mexico, was “not looking for safety and security along their very porous Border.”
Brown, a Democrat, has been sharply critical of the president’s approach to immigration.
CHICAGO — A Republican state senator launched a third party bid for governor Thursday in what could be a death knell for Illinois GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner’s reelection bid.
State Sen. Sam McCann is running as what he called an “independent conservative,” telling POLITICO Thursday that he felt “called to serve” to counter the prospect of having only two “billionaires from Chicago” on the November ballot.
McCann denied that his run is an effort to settle a score with Rauner and ensure the embattled first-term governor is defeated in November.
“I’m in this to win it. I’ve never run a race not to win it. I don’t run against people, I run to win,” McCann said Thursday.
McCann, who represents a central Illinois district, has battled for years with the governor over union issues. McCann has enjoyed the support of organized labor, which helped him stave off an attempt by the governor’s political arm to unseat him in 2016. McCann backed Rauner’s opponent in the March primary where the governor barely eked out a victory, joining conservatives who said Rauner turned his back on them when he signed into law a bill expanding public funding of abortion in Illinois.
McCann said his bid is as much about economic issues, pointing to rising debt and pension liabilities under the Republican governor.
“As bad as [former Democratic Gov. Pat] Quinn was, Rauner’s worse,” McCann told POLITICO. “The state is worse off. The state of our bills, the pension liability. Not to mention the enmity that exists. A true leader brings people together to advance common causes.”
McCann is undoubtedly emboldened by a primary election in which little-known conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives almost defeated Rauner, who won by fewer than three percentage points. Having a conservative on the ballot in the general election threatens to take precious Republican votes away from Rauner, whose poll numbers are under water in what’s expected to be a Democratic wave year. McCann’s candidacy is not automatic; he still must collect 25,000 valid signatures to win a spot on the ballot. McCann said he expects to collect 50,000 to 60,000.
Rauner’s campaign came out swinging against McCann in the wake of the announcement.
“Sam McCann is the worst kind of political opportunist who is only running for governor to line his own pockets. McCann’s unethical record speaks for itself.” Rauner campaign spokesman Will Allison said. “Public service should not be for personal gain and Sam McCann’s new ‘campaign’ is just a thinly veiled attempt to profit off of politics.”
Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker suggested that McCann’s presence in the race validated his criticism of the governor.
“I welcome another voice to the race for governor at this critical time for our state,” Pritzker said in a statement. “Bruce Rauner is a failed governor who has done untold damage to communities throughout Illinois, and people from across the political spectrum are ready for change.”
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron says the West needs to rediscover its “democratic mojo,” but that it also must address the root causes of the populism that has emboldened authoritarians around the world.
Cameron, who oversaw the holding of the 2016 Brexit referendum that led the U.K. to decide to quit the European Union, was in Washington on Thursday to promote a new report on how best to help “fragile states” achieve a lasting democracy.
The report comes as many are questioning whether the appeal of Western-style democracy is fading, especially as populist sentiments have led to the rise of leaders with an affinity for strongman-rule, such as President Donald Trump.
Cameron dismissed the idea that Western democracy is in danger, but he said it could use a jolt of confidence.
“We need to rediscover our democratic mojo in the West, and be proud of the fact that we are real democracies,” Cameron said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters. “We don’t just have elections every five years. We have the rule of law, we have independent courts … we have the free press. These are the things that really mark us out.”
He acknowledged, however, that there’s been a backlash to the Western model. In countries such as Hungary, Poland and, some argue, the United States, populist and nationalist forces have gained ground in recent years. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, has complimented the Chinese and Russian models of governance and is pushing what's effectively one-party rule in his country.
The slim victory in the 2016 referendum by pro-Brexit forces has also been cited as the result of groundswell of nationalism. That referendum result prompted Cameron’s resignation as prime minister.
Cameron declined to answer questions specifically related to Brexit on Thursday morning. He argued more broadly, however, that the way to handle such situations is “to deal with the causes of populism.”
“We’ve got to make sure our economies are working for everybody, try and make sure people aren’t left behind by globalization,” he said.
In an earlier interview with CNN, Cameron said he didn’t regret allowing the 2016 referendum because he was keeping a promise, but that he wished the result had gone the other way.
Asked Thursday about Trump’s “America First” philosophy, which includes attempts to slash the amount the U.S. spends on foreign aid, Cameron said helping the developing world will simultaneously help the national security of wealthier states.
“If you want to have secure borders, if you want to control immigration, if you want to combat terrorism, then fragile broken states are something you should care about very deeply,” Cameron said.
Cameron has spent much of the past year chairing a commission looking at ways to help fragile states — loosely defined as poor countries with corrupt, ineffective governments — become stronger and more democratic.
One of the resulting report’s key recommendations is that Western countries should not push such fragile states toward holding elections before other key goals are achieved. Those goals may include creating more jobs and achieving some level of reconciliation among various feuding factions.
President Donald Trump and some of his closest allies, from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to Fox News host Sean Hannity, headlined Time magazine’s 2018 list of the world's most influential people — as did several of the president’s biggest political detractors.
The yearly listing, which chronicles the world’s “most influential pioneers, leaders, titans, artists and icons” debuted Thursday morning, naming various world leaders with whom the president has become cozy — Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France, Xi Jinping of China and Moon Jae-in of South Korea.
Among those selected were also members of the president’s administration and some of his most vocal public defenders. The list included the embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Hannity, whose tie to a Trump-connected lawyer has drawn scrutiny in recent days.
But the magazine also featured various figures who have sharply criticized the president or stand poised to inflict political damage against him. Among them are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, San Juan (Puerto Rico) Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, comedians Trevor Noah and Jimmy Kimmel, and special counsel Robert Mueller, who continues to probe ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials in 2016.
In an entry authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), once a critic of Trump as a candidate, the lawmaker describes the president as “a flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America.” Cruz writes that “President Trump is doing what he was elected to do: disrupt the status quo,” adding that the confusion he creates in Washington is “great fun to watch.”
Other entries, though, appeared to indirectly take aim at the president.
In a piece on the special counsel, former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara notes that "Robert S. Mueller III doesn’t seek deferments," an oblique reference to Trump's multiple draft deferments that kept him out of the Vietnam War. Bharara was fired from the Trump administration last March.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg writes that Khan, the British official who has called out Trump’s leadership and rhetoric on immigration, “rightfully denounced” the U.S. president when he retweeted anti-Muslims videos from a far-right political group.
In the entry on Carmen Yulín Cruz, a harsh critic of the Trump administration’s response to natural disasters in Puerto Rico, the San Juan mayor is described as the “voice of the disenfranchised citizens” who could not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Others named to the list had their influence directly linked to their proximity to the president.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich writes in his piece on Hannity that one of the host’s “biggest fans is President Donald Trump, who routinely watches the TV show and talks with Sean as a fellow New Yorker.” Gingrich adds that “Hannity played a major role in helping Trump get the [Republican presidential] nomination and win the general election” through his prominent perch at Fox News.
Hannity became the subject of scrutiny this week after he was named in court as a client of Michael Cohen, an attorney who is the president’s longtime associate.
Several of the student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida, were also selected by the magazine for their advocacy for increased gun-control measures.
Former President Barack Obama in an article for Time lauded the students for urging U.S. leaders to step up their efforts to combat gun violence, writing that “our children are calling us to account” on the issue.
“The Parkland, Fla., students don’t have the kind of lobbyists or big budgets for attack ads that their opponents do. Most of them can’t even vote yet,” Obama writes. “But they have the power so often inherent in youth: to see the world anew; to reject the old constraints, outdated conventions and cowardice too often dressed up as wisdom. The power to insist that America can be better.”
The students — Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez and Alex Wind — have risen to prominence as staunch advocates of gun-control reform. Several have been deeply critical of Trump’s response to the shooting, which left 17 people dead and numerous others injured.
Embattled attorney Michael Cohen has dropped a pair of much-touted libel suits against BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over publication of the so-called dossier detailing alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia.
Cohen abandoned the suits late Wednesday as he continues to fight to recover documents and electronic files seized from his home, office and hotel room last week by federal authorities as part of what appears to be a broad criminal investigation into his conduct.
"The decision to voluntarily discontinue these cases was a difficult one," Cohen's attorney David Schwartz said. "We believe the defendants defamed my client, and vindicating Mr. Cohen’s rights was — and still remains — important. But given the events that have unfolded, and the time, attention, and resources needed to prosecute these matters, we have dismissed the matters, despite their merits."
The dossier claims that Cohen met with Russian operatives somewhere in Europe, including Prague, to attend a meeting to “clean up the mess” created by public disclosures of other Trump associates’ reported ties to Russia.
Cohen denied the Prague meeting occurred.
In statements, both BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS said the suit was without merit.
"If there's one thing Democrats and Republicans agree on today, it's that the dossier was an important part of the government's investigation into potential collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russia," BuzzFeed News said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Fusion GPS said: "With his decision, it appears that Mr. Cohen can now focus on his many other legal travails.”
Dropping the suits could help Cohen avoid being questioned by lawyers from Fusion GPS or having to turn over evidence related to the case — both steps that could undercut his defense in the criminal probe.
The move could also bolster Cohen's effort to delay a suit brought in Los Angeles by porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had a sexual encounter with Trump about a decade ago. It could have been difficult for Cohen to convince that judge to put Daniels' case on hold while Cohen continued to press civil suits in other federal courts.
House Republicans told themselves 2018 would be better after getting swamped by Democratic cash in 2017. But Republican incumbents are actually in worse financial shape now than at the end of last year.
A whopping 43 House Republicans raised less money than Democratic challengers in the first three months of 2018 — nearly the same number of stragglers the GOP had at the end of last year, according to POLITICO’s analysis of the latest Federal Election Commission filings. An overlapping group of 16 Republican incumbents already have less cash on hand than Democratic challengers, up from the end of 2017, despite hopes that tax reform would open more donor wallets.
The fundraising totals are just the latest indicator of a November nightmare developing for Republicans: a toxic stew of poor presidential popularity, intense Democratic enthusiasm, and a chunk of incumbents whose FEC disclosures show they don’t understand how much trouble they could be in for in this political environment.
“The members who are getting outraised at this stage of the election cycle are the ones who present the biggest risk to the Republican majority,” said Ken Spain, a Republican consultant who served as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director in 2010. “Fundraising is an outgrowth of intensity, so I think this tells you that Republicans are clearly swimming upstream in a challenging election cycle.”
The outraised incumbents include some of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, like Reps. Dana Rohrabacher in California, Jason Lewis in Minnesota and Rod Blum in Iowa. But they also include Republicans who may not have expected to face tough races a year ago but have suddenly found themselves facing energetic and well-financed opponents, like the North Carolina duo of Robert Pittenger and Ted Budd.
It’s a mirror image of this time in 2010, seven months before Republicans picked up 63 House seats during President Barack Obama’s first term. At this point in the 2010 election cycle, 35 Democratic incumbents were outraised by Republican challengers, and more than a third lost their races in November.
Some incumbents “still haven’t gotten the memo,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist. “Members, sometimes, get lost in this perception that everyone in the district knows how great they’re doing. And then they’re surprised on Election Day when they lose.”
And for some, it might be too late to turn things around: “Key decisions are being made right now on where money will be spent this cycle, and I’d be pretty worried if I were one of these members,” said one top Republican strategist, granted anonymity to discuss party strategy. “Some people just can’t be saved.”
The Congressional Leadership Fund — the super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan — this week announced plans to spend $38 million on TV ads across 20 districts this fall. But the first round of reservations skipped over almost all of the battleground races featuring Republican incumbents who have already fallen behind opponents in cash, like Rohrabacher and Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett.
“It’s inexcusable for an incumbent to be outraised,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund. “We’re not investing in any more Rick Saccones” — the GOP’s Pennsylvania special election nominee, who was widely outraised by Democratic victor Conor Lamb.
CLF, which raised a record-breaking $66 million in 2017, and the NRCC will be able to shore up vulnerable Republicans with their own strong fundraising. But helping struggling members “takes away from offensive opportunities,” LaCivita said.
“Over the years, too many members have gotten increasingly reliant on third parties and outside groups to save them, and less dependent on themselves, and that’s a problem,” he added.
Party officials acknowledged that an energized Democratic base topped some Republican incumbents, but pointed out that some members outraised by opponents are in districts far from battleground territory, like Iowa Rep. Pete King and Texas Rep. Brian Babin, where President Trump won by 47 points in 2016.
The Republicans also stressed that Democrats will be forced to spend money on bruising primaries, leaving them “broke, battered and unelectable in national Democrats’ most sought after races,” said NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt.
The generic ballot has also recently narrowed, which Republicans credit to passing tax reform late last year and a strong economic environment. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found Democrats’ edge narrowed to 4 points, dropping by half since January.
But tax reform, which Republicans hoped would boost fundraising this quarter and get more incumbents back on level terms with challengers, hasn’t necessarily transformed into extra cash for candidates.
“It was as an excuse for [last quarter], but that only worked then, and now we’re running out of excuses,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster.
Former New York Rep. Thomas Reynolds, who led the NRCC from 2002 to 2006, said tax reform hasn’t “reached the candidate-level fundraising. But I’m sure it has at the RNC, at the NRCC and at other outside groups.”
“Republicans need to stay focused on selling their biggest accomplishment, which will help the overall atmospherics for them,” Reynolds said.
Plenty of Republican incumbents running in perennial battleground seats continue to post strong fundraising. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) both raised nearly $1 million in districts that Hillary Clinton won handily in 2016.
“When I was the political director at the RNC in 2006, our incumbents in the toughest districts survived,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican consultant based in New Jersey. “It was the second- and third-tier members who got swept away because they waited too long.”
And many Republicans, elected in conservative waves in 2010 and 2014, are running into political headwinds for the first time.
“This is a good jolt to these incumbents that they have to raise more money because they’re in the races of their lives,” Bolger said. “A lot of Republicans in Congress haven’t seen this kind of political environment. But if they think they can run the same campaigns as they’ve done before, they’ll find out soon that’s not the case.”
A little more than six months from now, on November 7, the sun will rise on a political landscape wrecked by President Donald Trump’s first midterm election. Thanks to a map that puts more Democratic than Republican seats at risk, our party will still cling to control of the Senate, but GOP House members lack insulation: They will crawl out from the smoking rubble of a 40- to 50-seat pounding to find they have lost their majority.
Paul Ryan will be gone. The former Great White Hope of the Republican Party sneaked out of town before reveille, leaving his troops facing extinction. Our remaining soldiers, stunned or wounded, will also have blown the bugle of retreat, fleeing to the shelter of the party's shrunken conservative base. Our eyes will turn to those survivors, the leaders of a broken party, one only they can restore. They will determine where the Republican Party goes next. How do we renew our party in the Age of Trump?
We don’t have to wait for November’s cataclysm. We can begin now with a strategy to harness Trump’s base and add swing voters, even as we remain faithful to our principles.
To begin, we need to recognize that, although Donald Trump often appeals to the worst in us, the fears that fueled his election are legitimate. They need to be respected. We need a Republican Party as big as those fears and as great as America’s challenges. We need a Republican Party to address the twin concerns that rocketed an inexperienced businessman past both irrelevant political parties and made him president of the United States.
Fear No. 1: Our country fears it is losing the future. A broad slice of working-class voters fear the American dream has become the American game. They believe it has been fixed by the big guys, for the big guys, against the man who drives an F-150 and built their mansions. It was rigged by the very political leaders Americans sent to Washington to guard the future’s gates.
Donald Trump not only harnessed the resentments of Roosevelt’s “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” but he also offered them a solution, resurrecting the old Reagan slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Like Trump, our most successful political leaders have always offered blue-collar America a transformative vision of their future—FDR and his “New Deal,” JFK and the “New Frontier,” Reagan and his “Rendezvous with Destiny,” Bill Clinton and his “Bridge to the 21st Century,” and Barack Obama with “Hope,” “Change” and “Yes, We Can!” Yet no leader in either political party today offers America’s working class a compelling vision to compete with that of our president. We’ve left Trump a monopoly selling sunrises. There are no rivals on the shelf.
Fear No. 2: Our country fears it is losing its identity. We’ve always shared common beliefs, tenets that unite us as Americans. Our flag and anthem bind us into a nation because of the principles they represent: freedom, individual responsibility, the rule of law and equality of opportunity for every American. We have been united by one inspired national culture, open to and supported by all Americans.
Uniting America is not about “going back” or preserving these values only for male or white Americans. Diversity, equality and an open society are all pretty darn “American” these days. However, our openness no longer seems to have a uniting purpose. There is no better example than Hillary Clinton’s procession for president. Instead of running one campaign, she ran a confederacy of them, micro-targeting groups because of their differences. She found no larger slogan to unite voters beyond the vacuous “I’m With Her.”
As Columbia humanities professor Mark Lilla notes, “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
Whether in politics, the media and entertainment businesses, or college campuses, our nation is sick with division because diversity no longer serves a larger purpose. There is no unifying national identity to bring us together or give our unique, individual contributions a common objective. Instead, the welcome ideas of “openness” and “diversity” have displaced what unites us. And when there is nothing to which we all belong, diversity becomes division. Openness, without a common, uniting culture, becomes chaos and America becomes a tribal combat zone, a scary, divided, self-segregated field of battle. Without the North Star of a unifying national identity, our country cracks into angry, razor-edged shards until its blood is drained.
When Americans fear they are losing both their future and their identity, what do they have left? Amid this great unraveling, a good but unnerved people become a mob and march on the walled fortresses of the establishment. They turn to the leadership of the autocrat. In 2016, a crowd-pleaser filled this vacuum with his strength.
It is unremarkable, at this point, to note that good Americans turned to Donald Trump, not because of his many flaws, but despite them. Trump’s threat and his appeal are identical: He is the undistilled reptilian brain.
Trump is all id, the oldest and most primitive part of our brain, concerned only with the evolutionary basics: sex, sustenance and survival. His brain is not filtered by our social and emotional brain, much less by the rational, pre-frontal cortex. He has no Jeb Bush brain to digest facts and figures, issues and policy. Instead, Trump is a predator. When something enters his world, he either eats it, kills it or mates with it. That is all his predatory instincts can do.
The president’s primitive nature is the root of his narcissism. Trump’s immediate and voracious appetites allow no concern for others or understanding of tomorrow. He reacts instinctively, not emotionally, morally or intellectually. He is insensitive to truth and incapable of discipline or strategy.
Yet Americans elected this predator, this T. rex president, as their last resort, in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the horde of smaller, slimier predators in Washington who were on the verge of devouring them.
We can all see that Trump is, at times, a disreputable human specimen. His supporters see it as clearly as his adversaries. In fact, Trump makes sure we see it. Our T. rex president is proud of his predatory triumphs. Yet this electorate thought that even Donald Trump was a better bet than the status quo both Republicans and Democrats were offering them. Trump’s victory measured our national frustration, our hunger for an alternative to the impoverished offerings of both parties.
Like the Bourbons after Napoleon, however, Republicans and Democrats “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Since the surprising day Trump was elected, neither party has learned or evolved, despite their humbling defeats at his hands.
The Republicans who make Donald Trump necessary are not the bootlickers like Corey Lewandowski who blindly follow his parade past Trump Tower, from Fifth Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue. His enablers are Bill Kristol, Steve Schmidt and Karl Rove. They are Jeff Flake and John Kasich. They count Jeb Bush and Paul Ryan. They include all of us in the Republican Party who left the vacuum Trump has occupied. Yet today, we still offer more of the same but expect different results. If we do not renew this visionless party, it will never lead again.
Issues and policy alone are not our answer. They may be the essential currency of governing, but they are not the foundation of leadership. Our country is looking for something larger. If issues and policy could solve our problems, Ryan would be a hero instead of roadkill, and Trump would not be president of the United States.
Somewhere over the horizon, there is a renewed Republican Party that has learned from Trump but is not limited by his person. If we can grant that “Trump has assembled the most conservative administration and agenda of any modern president,” it should not be difficult for the GOP to embrace Trumpism without its namesake. I’d chisel in stone five commandments for “Trumpism Beyond Trump” that every Republican campaign should observe.
1. A renewed GOP must be the party of change.
A new and better GOP must be a populist party of outsiders who will bring change to Washington and challenge our antiquated political establishment. The GOP must be the party of bottom-up solutions, not top-down government. We must be the party, not of the big guy or the little guy, but of everyone. To renew ourselves, Republicans must always be agents of change, outsiders on the side of the people and not the establishment that requires transformation.
What this means for GOP campaigns: The Republican Party needs to burn down the top-down, industrial-age structures that empower the political elite of Washington, even if they are controlled by Republicans. We must lead with an agenda to remove money and power from our archaic and imperial establishment. If GOP policy is more aggressive and disruptive than Mitch McConnell finds tasteful, put it in a campaign ad: Your campaign will be moving ahead.
2. A renewed GOP must admit it needs to change.
The American people can see what Republicans often ignore: The GOP was bankrupt long before Trump came along. The Reagan Revolution that still defines the GOP crested decades ago. That great cause became a movement, then a business, then a self-preserving racket. In 2016, the American people judged that Washington Republicans had been poisoned by their success and become the very thing they were sent to the Capitol to change.
Yet, too many Republicans today would rather wail about Trump on “Morning Joe” than admit their party is a shell full of hollow hopes and excuses. They are running out the clock, waiting for Trump to pass from the scene, so they can return to their old habits.
Voters won’t believe Republicans can fix the problem until we admit we are the problem. Your choice in 2018: Be change or get changed. Don’t campaign as yesterday’s Republican. Run against yesterday’s Democrats, instead.
3. A renewed GOP must be the party of the economic future, not the past.
Without an inspiring vision of the future, voters reach for the security of the nanny state and surrender to the strength of the autocrat. A renewed Republican Party needs a New Economy vision of economic growth and prosperity.
Today’s Republicans can express their economic policy only in an industrial age frame. Trump, for example, vows to bring back manufacturing. In Congress, yesterday’s GOP is still stuck advocating tax cuts as patent medicine, with the ability to grow hair, cure ED and heal every ill in society. And tax cuts are necessary—but they are insufficient. GOP tax policy is already built into our brand’s stock price. Tell people what they already know, and they stay where they already are. More of the same will not expand the GOP.
What can Republicans do to renew their brand? Our party’s future is not difficult to see: It lives in Silicon Valley. A new generation of Palo Alto entrepreneurs lives what Republicans believe. They, not Washington, are creating an open and innovative economy far beyond anything yesterday’s government could imagine. These visionaries vote against Republicans, however, because we have offered our principles, not as the key to the prosperity of the future, but as the source of the achievements of the past.
Republicans do have a message for millennials. In the communications age, freedom—the ability to connect, adapt and evolve—is indispensable. Republican principles that respect freedom do not need alteration. Our language expressing how these principles work in a connected world, however, does need to be updated. Millennials, women and minorities may call freedom “diversity” or “openness,” but in their new, hyper-related world, they need the liberty conservatives cherish.
At the super PAC NewRepublican.org a few years ago, we had the opportunity to test words that work to express GOP principles in the communications age. We learned that Republicans can employ their core beliefs to force a choice between the old system Democrats defend and the new world Silicon Valley is creating: a new, “open” economy versus an old, “closed" one. “Authentic, natural, organic economic growth” versus “outdated, artificial, political stimulus and programs.” “Bottom-up” versus “top-down” economic initiatives. A more open economy is the foundational principle of an Uber-generation Republican Party that can expand its appeal beyond Trump’s base of supporters to the voters of the future: the millennials, suburban women and minorities in the emerging Democratic majority.
Does an “open” economy require Republicans to accept unfair trade, illegal immigration or insecure borders? No, it doesn’t. We don’t have to become anarchists, throw out all the rules, and divorce ourselves from Trump on these issues. An open economy is not a borderless one, whether on immigration or trade.
The strategy for 2018 Republicans: Campaign like Elon Musk and govern like Ronald Reagan. Musk has JFK’s gift for finding symbols of the future and elevating them. A renewed GOP must do the same. After all, voters won’t follow us to The Promised Land if we can’t point them there. If November is a choice between the Democratic Party of the past and tomorrow’s reborn Republicans, we have a modest chance to survive 2018. With good campaigns, we might lose only 25 seats in the House and rebuild our party from there.
4. A renewed GOP must stand up for a uniting American identity.
Trump champions a strong national identity by inciting conflict and segregation. His divisive view of America is rooted in resentment and anger. A renewed Republican Party and its leaders must recognize people’s fear that America is losing its unifying identity—then argue that our shared belief in one nation is the only thing that can bring all Americans together.
The Republican Party is the party of American exceptionalism. There is a reason we all need to stand up for the national anthem: A renewed GOP should oppose the Democratic Party’s divisive identity politics and the cultural segregation it manufactures. We should support a larger, uniting American identity, open to and shared by every race, color, creed and gender.
Republicans need to learn from Trump and embrace his unapologetic nationalism, but campaign with a patriotism that unites, rather than divides, the nation. Much of what Trump is doing can expand the Republican Party if expressed with a loving heart instead of a reproving hand. Salute the flag. Stand up for the anthem. Say the pledge of allegiance. Make the case that requiring immigrants to learn English in schools is not punishment or an attack on their cultures. On the contrary, it is the greatest gift our country can give anyone, access to the American dream that brought them here. Teach the Constitution in our schools. Require that all federal employees take a course and pass a test demonstrating they understand the Constitution they have sworn to protect and defend before they can cash a paycheck. A uniting patriotism extends a common-sense proposal: America must be a nation before it can be great.
5. A renewed GOP must be the party of strength.
Many Republicans suffer terrible debilities in this primitive moment: They are creatures of reason. They respect procedure and tradition. But these civilized qualities can mislead a nation battling for its existence.
This year, Republican candidates are being tested in the Coliseum. The crowd believes strong leadership is indispensable. Learn from the apex predator who is president: Stand up for what you believe—and shoot your pollsters. Envision a great country’s future and lift our eyes there.
Donald Trump’s presidency is hidden behind the clouds, a storm of controversy of his own making. This president, more than anyone else, has made it impossible to credit him for his accomplishments. By any fair measure, there are many: He has crushed ISIS and increased our paychecks with a tax cut. He has erased regulations that were growing Washington’s economy at the expense of our economy. He has appointed a respected Supreme Court justice and transformed the judiciary to call balls and strikes. American manufacturing is growing. He brought China to confront North Korea. He is pressing for free trade that works fairly in all directions. He throws missiles at Putin once a year and he is making our military strong again. His ferociously incorrect talk has ripped away the pretension cloaking Washington’s decline and irrelevance.
When the long arc of history judges Trump, it will likely report he left behind a vicious inflationary spiral. That, alongside devouring the country’s expectations for a president’s personal conduct, may be the greatest cost of his T. rex presidency. He will be assessed as the bipolar leader he has become, both one of the worst and best presidents Americans have ever elected, perhaps the greatest president to be removed from the Oval Office in chains.
I doubt any other 2016 GOP candidate could have equaled this president’s accomplishments. He has stopped America’s decline and, in many areas, reversed it. Americans should be grateful he was elected president. If he is not disqualified from the ballot, I plan to vote for him again.
But what Trump has done can be undone. He is a man, not a movement. He is an instinct, not an idea. He crushed a hollow Republican Party, but he has not rebuilt it. The Republicans who come after Donald Trump must do what they have not yet done: Decide how to lead after this exasperating and heroic president leaves office.
And that is our problem: We don’t have a Republican Party. We ought to. Not long from now, our country is going to need one.
A leading progressive group is launching a campaign-style effort to paint Vice President Mike Pence as an extremist who wields unprecedented power in the White House — an early sign that as the vice president takes a lead role in midterm campaigning, he also risks making himself a target.
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT rights organization, is launching a sustained attack against Pence, with a website, videos and a lengthy report to be released on Thursday. The materials were shown to POLITICO early.
The attack from a key player in the Democratic base comes as Pence is campaigning heavily for Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterms. And as President Donald Trump’s legal troubles expand, from the special counsel probe to a federal investigation of his personal attorney, some Democrats are beginning to train their fire on Pence in case the president doesn’t run for reelection in 2020 or gets removed from office.
“Mike Pence has made a career out of attacking the rights and equal dignity of LGBTQ people, women and other marginalized communities,” Chad Griffin, the president of HRC, said in a statement. “Now as vice president, he poses one of the greatest threats to equality in the history of our movement. With the world distracted by Donald Trump’s scandal-ridden White House, Mike Pence’s nefarious agenda has been allowed to fly under the radar for too long. He has become not only the most powerful vice president in American history, but also the least scrutinized.”
“This is just another politically motivated attack on the VP by a left-wing organization closely aligned with the Democratic Party,” said Pence press secretary Alyssa Farah.
Internally, the Vice President’s office was largely dismissive of the campaign.
The broadside comes as Pence has taken on an outsize role in the Republicans’ work to prevent a Democratic wave in 2018. In the next week and a half, Pence will be making campaign stops in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and California. Those trips come after Pence has already crisscrossed the country stumping and fundraising for Republicans.
As Pence becomes a more visible part of the administration, Democrats have another incentive to lash out at him: cash.
“I think the most likely thing here is that Pence is an easy target for the Human Rights Campaign to raise money from,” said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, who served as communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential run. “Every special interest group, and Human Rights Campaign is not alone, has a boogeyman, and theirs is Mike Pence.”
The HRC effort highlights what it describes as Pence’s “extremist ideology”: his opposition while in Congress to Employment Non-Discrimination Act protections for sexual orientation; his opposition to ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which barred openly gay people from serving in the military; his opposition to hate crime protections for transgender individuals; and a statement on his 2000 campaign website that appeared to endorse federal funding for the controversial practice of “conversion therapy.”
The report, which highlights these positions, also hits Pence for his handling of an HIV/AIDS outbreak in Indiana during his governorship and for signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said would legalize discrimination against LGBT people and which nearly derailed his governorship.
Along with the report, HRC produced a series of videos, including one in which Pence decries the use of condoms and another in which he lobbies against hate-crime legislation. The videos feature ominous background music and black-and-white images of a malevolent-looking Pence. Clips of Pence speaking on the floor of the House — including one in which he says, “Abstinence and marital faithfulness before condom distribution are the cure for what ails the families of Africa” — are spliced in.
Pence is one of the more popular members of the administration, said HRC’s Charlotte Clymer, who helped draft the report, adding that Pence has received “less scrutiny” than other White House figures.
“We’ve seen Mike Pence fly underneath the radar,” said Chris Sgro, HRC’s communications director. “The unfortunate reality is that Mike Pence has tried to hold himself out there as the moderate, grown-up voice in the room. But we know, and this report exposes, that he’s anything but. He is a dangerous extremist.”
Tyler said even if HRC and other groups beat up on Pence as November approaches, he believes voters are more likely to make ballot-box decisions based on their views of Trump.
“When [House Speaker Paul] Ryan announced he wasn’t running for reelection, that was in many ways the end of the Republican Party the way I knew it and the way Ryan knew it,” Tyler said. “The cord is severed, this is now Trump’s party, for better or worse, for good or bad, and 2018 is now a referendum on his party.”
President Donald Trump and his outside advisers are increasingly worried that his longtime personal attorney might be susceptible to cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Two sources close to the president said people in Trump’s inner circle have in recent days been actively discussing the possibility that Michael Cohen — long seen as one of Trump’s most loyal personal allies — might flip if he faces serious charges as a result of his work on behalf of Trump.
“That’s what they’ll threaten him with: life imprisonment,” said Alan Dershowitz, the liberal lawyer and frequent Trump defender who met with the president and his staff over two days at the White House last week. “They’re going to threaten him with a long prison term and try to turn him into a canary that sings.”
FBI agents overseen by federal prosecutors in New York last week raided Cohen’s office and apartment, as well as a hotel room he’d been using. The Trump lawyer is a figure in the ongoing Russia investigation overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller in Washington, but Manhattan-based government attorneys said in court that he is also under separate investigation for his business dealings.
Cohen, who has not been publicly charged with any crimes, owns New York City taxi medallions. He has also been deeply involved in the $130,000 payment made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who has accused Trump of trying to cover up an affair she says the two had in 2006.
In an interview with CNN last week, Cohen called the raid “unsettling to say the least.” But he also said in the same interview that the federal agents were “extremely professional, courteous and respectful” — a dramatic departure from his usual combative style.
Those comments raised eyebrows among some in Trump’s inner circle, who noted that one of the president’s most ferocious attack dogs seemed unusually taciturn.
“When anybody is faced with spending a long time in jail, they start to re-evaluate their priorities, and cooperation can’t be ruled out,” said one Trump ally who knows Cohen.
Since the raid, the president and his advisers have been singularly focused on the risk of a potential federal prosecution of Cohen, which they view as a much bigger existential threat to the presidency than former FBI Director James Comey, whose book “A Higher Loyalty” has dominated headlines and even Trump’s Twitter feed even before its Tuesday release.
Trump has regularly ranted to friends and advisers about the investigation into Cohen, according to two other people familiar with the conversations. He believes strongly that the FBI raid has pushed the boundaries of attorney-client privilege, telling friends that he and his associates are being unfairly targeted.
“He’s not happy about it,” said one White House official.
The White House appears to be creating some distance from Cohen. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters earlier this week that though Trump and Cohen have “still got some ongoing things,” the president “has a large number of attorneys, as you know.”
Trump said Wednesday during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he wants the Mueller investigation “over with, done with.” He added that his administration is “giving tremendous amounts of paper” to investigators.
A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
In a court filing last week, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York explained the FBI raid was “the result of a months-long investigation” into the president’s lawyer and that prosecutors were looking for evidence of crimes related to his business dealings.
Trump and his allies fear that documents and recordings that the FBI swept up from Cohen’s home and office could come back to haunt the president, whose lawyers have joined Cohen’s in New York in asserting attorney-client privilege and are asking a federal judge to approve an independent review of the material.
“Who knows what Cohen has in those files,” said a person close to the White House.
But their concerns go beyond Cohen’s voluminous files. Increasingly, Trump’s outside advisers are worried about the risk posed by Cohen himself.
“I think for two years or four years or five years, Michael Cohen would be a stand-up guy. I think he’d tell them go piss up a rope. But depending on dollars involved, which can be a big driver, or if they look at him and say it’s not two to four years, it’s 18 to 22, then how loyal is he?” said one defense lawyer who represents a senior Trump aide in Mueller’s Russia investigation.
“Is he two years loyal? Is he 10 years loyal? Is he 15 years loyal?” the attorney added. “That’s the currency. It’s not measured in inches. It’s measured in years.”
Jay Goldberg, a longtime Trump lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal that he spoke with Trump on Friday about Cohen and warned the president against trusting Cohen if he is facing criminal charges. Goldberg said he warned the president that Cohen “isn’t even a 1” on a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 was remaining fully loyal to the president, the newspaper reported.
But others in Trump’s circle believe Cohen will remain loyal to the president, pointing to Cohen’s long, well-documented history of publicly defending the president, whether in business or politics.
Appearing on MSNBC on Wednesday, former Trump White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Cohen was not a risk to turn on Trump. “If you said to me and I had to flip a coin, is he going to turn on President Trump or turn on other people? I would say adamantly no,” he said.
Cohen and Trump’s relationship dates back a dozen years. He was one of the earliest backers of the president’s political ambitions, and during the 2016 campaign served as a prominent adviser and spokesman, despite disagreements with others on the campaign.
The two men reportedly had dinner together last month at the president’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in South Florida. They also spoke by phone last Friday as their lawyers were working together to try to shield materials seized in the FBI raid.
The fallout from the FBI raid continued Wednesday for Cohen, who dropped two much-publicized libel lawsuits against BuzzFeed and the private investigation firm Fusion GPS over publication of the so-called dossier detailing alleged ties between Trump and Russia.
Cohen’s attorney, David Schwartz, told the court the voluntary decision to drop the lawsuits was needed “given the events that have unfolded, and the time, attention, and resources needed to prosecute these matters, we have dismissed the matters, despite their merits."
Cohen and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts tracking the case say indictments against Cohen are possible for bank and wire fraud. He could also end up becoming a target in Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Mueller has already shown a willingness to play hardball. Former Trump aides Michael Flynn, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos have all pleaded guilty to various criminal charges and are cooperating. Onetime campaign manager Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to bank fraud and tax evasion charges and is set to face trial starting in July.
Legal experts noted that federal authorities face an uphill climb in turning lawyers against their clients. “It’s a bit of a moonshot if that’s what they are trying to do,” warned a second defense lawyer working on the Russia probe.
The prospect of years or even decades in prison might be easier to swallow if Cohen believes a presidential pardon is possible. White House officials and others close to the president insist that last week’s decision to pardon former Vice President Dick Cheney’s senior aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby on perjury charges dating to his service in the George W. Bush administration was not intended to send a message to Cohen — but it nonetheless could go a long way toward reassuring the president’s lawyer.
“They’re going to squeeze him like a grape. I think in the end he’ll pop unless Trump pardons him,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the nonprofit R Street Institute and a former senior counsel during independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation into President Bill Clinton.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant who has worked with both Cohen and Trump, said the ties binding the attorney and the president will go a long way. But he, too, wouldn’t rule out how the pressure of prosecution would influence Cohen.
“Here’s a guy who appears to be very tough, very loyal and has said publicly about how he feels about Mr. Trump. That shouldn’t change, but who knows what the future holds,” he said. “People change when pressure is put on them. He’s very loyal. He’s very stand-up. It’d be a difficult decision for him to make.”
Cohen flipping “would be Trump’s worst nightmare,” said John Dean, the former White House counsel whose cooperation with Watergate prosecutors helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“It would be as stunning and life-disrupting a surprise as his winning the presidency,” Dean added. “And if there is any prosecutor’s office in the USA that can flip Cohen, it is the Southern District of New York.”
The U.S. and Japan have agreed to start talks on a set of "free, fair and reciprocal trade deals" to promote economic development in the Indo-Pacific, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday after he failed to secure exemptions for steel and aluminum tariffs imposed in March by President Donald Trump.
"In order to benefit both Japan and the U.S., we'll further expand both trade and investment between the two countries," Abe said during a joint news conference with Trump after their summit meeting in Mar-a-Lago. "Building upon that foundation, we'll aim to realize economic development in the free and open Indo-Pacific region, based on fair rules. To make that happen at this time, President Trump and I agreed to start talks for free, fair and reciprocal deals."
Abe deliberately avoided saying Japan was going to start talks on a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S., emphasizing that Tokyo still believes that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the best choice for both countries. Trump withdrew from that pact on his third day in office.
Last week, news that Trump has asked senior administration officials to look into rejoining the pact caused a flurry of excitement and confusion in trade circles. But during his joint press conference with Abe, Trump made clear he really had no interest in reversing his decision.
"I don't want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can't refuse on behalf of the United States, I would do it," Trump said. "But I like bilateral better. I think it's better for our country, I think it's better for our workers. And I much would prefer a bilateral deal, a deal directly with Japan."
It was not immediately clear what type of "free, fair and reciprocal trade deals" the U.S. and Japan would work on. But Trump said he was interested in reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, which totaled $69 billion last year.
He also said the new U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs could be part of the talks, and expressed concern about low U.S. tariffs on the “millions and millions of cars” that Japan exports to the U.S. each year.
"If we can come to an arrangement on a new deal between the United States and Japan, that would certainly be something we would discuss, aluminum tariffs and steel tariffs. I would look forward to being able at some point in the future take them off," Trump said.
Abe used part of his opening statement to argue that trade relations between the two countries have already started to improve under Trump.
"Exports from the U.S. including energy, aircraft among others have already been increasing significantly," Abe said. "Further, following the tax reform by President Trump, Japanese companies' investments in the U.S. have been gaining momentum, which is creating large number of jobs in the U.S. and contributing to the expansion of the exports from the U.S."
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi will head up the new negotiations, reporting to Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.
Maya Parthasarathy contributed to this report.
If Republicans aren’t losing their congressional majority this coming fall, they are doing a good job of acting like it.
Dozens of Republicans are leaving the House in an epic exodus, and last week Paul Ryan said he is resigning as House speaker at the end of this Congress, and not even run for his congressional seat again.
If the high-water mark of Republican power came on the day last December that congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump celebrated the passage of the tax bill on the White House lawn, Ryan’s announcement is a clear sign that Republican clout has begun to recede.
“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lament over what he considers the lost opportunity of the Obama years. It may be that the story of unified GOP control of Washington will someday deserve to be written as, “We Were Two Years in Power: A Tragicomedy.”
In a gift for the ages, Republicans won all elected branches of the federal government in 2016. They had no reason to expect Trump to win the presidency, and, in fact, very few of them expected it. The initial ecstasy over Trump “signing their stuff” has given way to the reality that they don’t have stuff to send him.
Republicans couldn’t roll back Obamacare, in part because the party hadn’t thought through what the Republican alternative was — even though anyone could have known this would be the central question if the GOP ever got a legitimate shot at repeal.
They passed a tax cut that included important reforms that even the Democratic repeal bills don’t want to completely undo and that are boosting the economy.
That’s all to the good. But tax cuts aren’t a magic political elixir. First, Trump is right, as he said at an event a couple of weeks ago when he tossed away his script, that they are boring. They don’t have the emotive appeal of issues like trade and immigration. Second, there are limits to how effectively you can run on the one big thing you accomplished last year (and as of this November, it will be almost exactly a year ago).
This is the truly extraordinary aspect of the current situation. Republicans are content not to do anything else of significance in Congress this year. They passed an omnibus spending bill that was rightly denounced as a disgrace by Trump even as he signed it, and the Senate is working to confirm Trump appointees. That’s pretty much it.
They aren’t trying to wring every last ounce of what could be their waning months of unified control of Washington — for years to come. They aren’t determined to give their voters some other reasons to support them in November. They aren’t attempting to create other action in Washington besides Trump’s escalating feuds with Robert Mueller, James Comey and Stormy Daniels.
Republicans are resting on their laurels, when they don’t deserve any laurels. They are suffering from political exhaustion, when they haven’t truly exerted themselves. They are acting like they are lost in the wilderness, when they still occupy the commanding heights of American politics.
The Democratic majority in the run-up to 1994 had this autumnal feel, but it had been in power for decades and was running on fumes. The Republican majority, held at bay for six years under President Barack Obama, should be feeling its oats rather than stumbling toward the exits.
This is, in large part, a result of the bizarre circumstances of the GOP sweep in 2016. The party showed every sign of being on the verge of defeat amid a major identity crisis. Its establishment was ineffectual, its old verities up for grabs, and its voters in revolt. But instead of losing, the party won despite — or maybe because — of its identity crisis.
That crisis is not nearly as obvious as it would have been in the event of a Trump defeat, but it hasn’t been conducive to governing. The old Republican limited-government congressional agenda has less purchase in the era of Trump, while the president’s populist-nationalist impulse hasn’t come close to being refined into an actionable legislative program. Instead, it has been expressed almost exclusively through executive actions and in his speeches and Twitter feed.
Maybe Republicans somehow hold on to the House this fall (the generic ballot is encouraging lately, if nothing else is). There’s no doubt that the GOP will shed seats, though. At the very least, Republicans are going to lose their functional majority. The question at this juncture is, How would anyone notice?
Ted Cruz on Thursday became the sole Republican male to join the men of the Senate Democratic Caucus in calling for a vote on rewriting Capitol Hill’s workplace harassment rules — a public show of solidarity with every female senator in both parties.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) organized the planned appeal to the chamber’s leaders in both parties for a floor debate on modernizing the Hill’s misconduct policy in support of a recent push by all 22 female senators. Cruz, the chief GOP co-author of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) strict Hill harassment overhaul bill, was courted to sign on to the Democratic men’s letter and ultimately agreed in the final hours before its release.
"Senator Merkley is pleased to have Senator Cruz join this critical effort," Merkley spokesman Ray Zaccaro said. "There is no place for sexual harassment in Congress, and Senator Merkley looks forward to a broad bipartisan effort to make the Senate a harassment-free workplace."
Merkley's office was prepared to send the letter without having won any GOP signatures but extended the deadline for Cruz to sign on after the Texas Republican's spokeswoman made positive comments on the harassment push Wednesday night.
“Sen. Cruz appreciates Sen. Merkley’s efforts to urge a vote on Gillibrand-Cruz, and he told Sen. Merkley last week he’d be more than happy to sign a letter,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said late Wednesday. “In fact, Sen. Cruz has personally urged GOP leadership to mark up Gillibrand-Cruz, and he is working to get additional senators to sign the letter in support of the legislation.”
Asked earlier Wednesday whether he would join Democratic men on the letter pushing for a harassment vote, Cruz called the harassment legislation “the right thing to do.”
“We should have passed it weeks ago, and so anything I can do to encourage my colleagues — Republican or Democrat — to take it up on the floor of the Senate, I’m supportive of doing,” Cruz said in an interview.
The Thursday letter calling for changes to Hill harassment policy is addressed to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and is co-signed by 31 male Democratic senators as well as Cruz.
Schumer was the sole male Democrat to not sign on, as a leader on the receiving end, but he has long supported taking up the harassment legislation that the House passed on a bipartisan basis in February.
“If we fail to act immediately to address this systemic problem in our own workplace, we will lose all credibility in the eyes of the American public regarding our capacity to protect victims of sexual harassment or discrimination in any setting,” the male senators’ letter states.
The letter also aligns with all 22 female senators in expressing “disappointment” that the Senate has failed to follow the House in taking up workplace misconduct legislation.
Despite the absence of all but one male Republican from the letter, others in their ranks are vocal proponents of taking up the proposed modernization of Hill harassment policy that was first established more than two decades ago.
"I think we ought to pass it," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chief author of the 1995 law that first applied workplace safety regulations to Congress, told reporters Thursday.
The House-passed harassment bill, the product of extensive bipartisan talks in that chamber, would require lawmakers to personally pay the costs of harassment or discrimination claims filed by employees that stem from their behavior, among other reforms. The legislation stemmed from a wave of sexual misconduct scandals that gripped Congress last fall, forcing the resignation or retirement of a half-dozen lawmakers in both parties.
At the same time as it passed that legislation, which requires Senate action and President Donald Trump’s signature to become law, the House also passed a separate, immediately executed change to its own internal rules that creates an Office of Employee Advocacy to represent the interests of workplace misconduct victims, among other changes.
Senate negotiators in both parties had hoped to attach Hill harassment legislation to last month’s $1.3 trillion government spending deal. But sources said those talks ran aground amid resistance from some in the Senate to force lawmakers to pay out of pocket for discrimination settlements stemming from their behavior, as well as harassment claims.
House Republicans and Democrats have maintained support for their chamber’s more expansive lawmaker-liability language, while Senate Democrats have said they would raise no objection. A McConnell spokesman said in response to the female senators’ appeal last month that the majority leader “supports members being personally, financially liable for sexual misconduct in which they have engaged.”
A McConnell spokesman said Wednesday night that Senate negotiators in both parties were continuing to work on harassment legislation.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday had a half-hearted message for members of Congress concerned that he will soon fire special counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “They are still here.”
“As far as the two gentlemen you told me about, they have been saying I am going to get rid of them for the last three months,” Trump told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. “Four months, five months, and they are still here. So we want to get the investigation over with, done with. Put it behind us.”
The president also called the Justice Department’s examination of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election “a hoax” concocted “largely by the Democrats as a way of softening the blow” of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the race for the White House.
“There is no collusion,” Trump said. “There is no collusion with Russia other than by the Democrats. Or, as I call them, the obstructionists. Because they truly are obstructionist.“
“We are hopefully coming to the end,” he added. “It is a bad thing for our country. Very, very bad thing for our country. But there has been no collusion. They won’t find any collusion. It doesn’t exist.”
Regarding his compliance with Mueller’s investigation, Trump maintained that “nobody has ever been more transparent” than he has, and that his administration is “giving tremendous amounts of paper” to investigators.
This is still Cuba—so the only candidate on the ballot to assume the presidency as Raúl Castro leaves power is a 57-year-old Communist Party operative who looks to be straight out of revolutionary Cuban central casting. With a shock of silver hair and a calm, agreeable manner, Miguel Diaz-Canel looks nothing like the bespectacled Raúl or his fatigues-wearing late brother, Fidel. An electrical engineer by training, Diaz-Canel looks like a business executive on vacation and is known to regularly use an iPad and iPhone. But make no mistake: He’s very much a part of the Castro brothers’ regime. No important national service in Cuba of recent decades is missing from his résumé.
Diaz-Canel has revealed little publicly about his policy views or intentions, but his political and survival skills speak for themselves. During his long emergence to the top, he has performed with knowing skill. He has delivered relatively few speeches, traveled abroad infrequently (he is not known to have visited the United States), and received only limited attention in the Cuban media. To appear presumptuous as a successor to the Castros, he clearly understood, would be damning.
So, what should the U.S. expect from Cuba’s first post-Castro president? Initially, Diaz-Canel’s regime probably won’t seem much different from the previous 10 years, in which Raúl gently nudged his island nation away from a crushing, centralized bureaucracy. Any reform efforts will proceed slowly—a still powerful old guard will see to that. But over time, Diaz-Canel will have to allow greater economic freedoms—the country’s economic stagnation demands it.
How quickly he can make the transition from Castro protégé to president in his own right remains to be seen. But his survival skills are impressive, suggesting he has the political wherewithal to negotiate the passage to a fully post-Castro Cuba, as a brief tour of his career shows.
For three years, Diaz-Canel served as a military officer in missile air defense. He performed important “internationalist” service in revolutionary Nicaragua in the 1980s and later taught at a regional university. His political career began in 1987 in the Young Communists organization, where he impressed party elders. Two years later he was rewarded with a seat on the party’s central committee, the large political proving ground from which the powerful Politburo is chosen.
In 1994, Diaz-Canel began an extended tour as party secretary in Villa Clara, his home province in the center of the island. It was during a draconian period of economic and social stress, when, according to Nikolai Leonov, Raúl Castro’s Russian friend and biographer, “the capacity of leaders was put to the test.” Diaz-Canel’s style is said to have been casual and unpretentious.
In 2003 he moved to the larger, economically more important eastern province of Holguin, again as party secretary. He was also elevated that year to the party Politburo as its youngest member. In a speech introducing Diaz-Canel, Raúl Castro praised him “for his tenacious and systematic work, his critical spirit, and constant connection with the masses … and solid ideological firmness.”
Adding government experience to his impressive party profile, Diaz-Canel served concurrently as minister of higher education from 2009 to 2012. And in that latter year he was brought into the regime’s inner sanctum as a vice president. Just a year later he was elevated again, to first vice president under Raúl, becoming his presumed heir.
Clearly, for about three decades, Diaz-Canel was measured and tested by the national leadership, including Fidel Castro, still at the height of his power in the early 2000s. His legitimacy as president, and his chances of consolidating power in his own right, derive from the repeated blessings of the Castro brothers. He could not have been named to the top party posts without Fidel Castro’s imprimatur. Yet, by all appearances, he is Raúl Castro’s protégé.
With Raúl’s robust backing, Diaz-Canel will be safe for the time being from regime-threatening intrigue by potential rivals. His military and “internationalist” experiences will help immunize him from attacks by cynical veterans of the old guard. He may well prove to be an adept national administrator and decisive judge of others. His apparently unblemished record suggests that he is adroit at balancing competing interest groups and leaders.
Yet, Cuba’s constitution dictates that ultimate authority rests with the party central committee and 17-member Politburo. Raúl who will be 87 in June, remains the party’s first secretary. His longtime crony, 87-year-old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, is second secretary. Diaz-Canel is third in that hierarchy and there are no indications that it will be rejuvenated any time soon. So, in the short term at least, he will need to please the old guard and maintain their support.
Barring a destabilizing shock such as Raúl’s sudden death or the termination of Venezuelan economic support, Diaz-Canel will probably enjoy a honeymoon period with the relatively united backing of Cuban elites.
He knows he must soon begin to show results, especially for Cuba’s restive younger generations who are resistant to the regime’s incessant glorification of its hoary revolutionary past. He could win a measure of their good will by allowing greater access to the Internet and more freedom of artistic expression. He will likely depend on a new caste of younger officials, groomed like him in recent years for greater responsibility. But any hopes that he will reform the one-party political system in the foreseeable future are surely unrealistic.
Cuban foreign policy objectives and strategies will change little, if at all. Maintaining the mutually beneficial relationship with Venezuela will remain a compelling priority. Nonetheless, Diaz-Canel may want to wean Cuba from Caracas’ energy and financial benevolence, fearing that the unpopular regime of president Nicolás Maduro could collapse at any time.
Most likely, Diaz-Canel was kept informed of the progress in the secret negotiations with the Obama administration that resulted in temporarily improved relations. He will probably approach the now strained relationship with President Donald Trump pragmatically, with little of the ideological baggage that regime elders bear. Still, he can be expected to adhere to traditional tenets of Cuban nationalism, for example, by denouncing the U.S. economic embargo.
The greatest challenges will be in forcing modernizing economic change. Diaz-Canel has inherited an array of intractable problems and must also deal with a leadership class riven by disputes between economic reformers and old guard Marxist intransigents. The most divisive issues relate to how much wealth private sector Cubans should be allowed to accumulate.
Nearly 600,000 small service business people were licensed during Raúl’s 10-year presidency. They opened barber shops, ran small appliance services and set up street-side shopping stalls, many becoming successful entrepreneurs. The emergence of this new class of relatively wealthy Cubans has divided the leadership. Which side Diaz-Canel is on is almost impossible to know given how circumspect he has been so far.
Raúl’s reforms also boosted the booming tourist sector. Private restaurants have sprouted, especially in Havana, and private residences can now be rented online by foreign tourists. As a result, some Cubans have accumulated so much capital that they are said to be sending millions of dollars abroad.
But the national economy is stagnant and financially bereft, impaired by inefficiencies, low productivity and corruption. The agricultural sector has withered and export revenues are minimal. Even sugar sales, historically the largest source of hard currency, have fallen to negligible levels. Standards of living for Cubans working in the public sector have declined and disparities of wealth and income have worsened. More are living in poverty.
Public expenditures for health and education have been declining for several years. By 2012 the health sector had endured millions of dollars in budget cuts and tens of thousands of layoffs. University enrollments have fallen by almost 50 percent. Afro-Cubans are often the most affected by poverty and lack of opportunity, especially since they are the least likely to receive remittances from Cubans abroad. What’s driving all this economic distress? The simple answer is the inflexibility of central planning.
Demographic realities are equally dire. The population is aging and shrinking in absolute terms. Between 2001 and 2011, 327,000 Cubans obtained permanent residence in the United States. Most were young.
“We must be perfectly clear that the aging of the population no longer has a solution … society must prepare,” Cuba’s then-economic czar Marino Murillo told leaders in July 2012. The number of seniors is projected to nearly double to 3.6 million, or a third of the population, by 2035. The costs of caring for large cohorts of elderly are already becoming onerous.
To confront the economic malaise, Murillo and Raúl Castro pushed for a number of promising economic reforms. After assuming power from his brother in July 2006, Raúl began to speak of the urgent need for agricultural reform. Yet he was either too cautious or constrained by hard-line opponents (possibly including Fidel, then in retirement), so only limited changes occurred.
Raúl and Murillo also spoke of the need for the “gigantic paternalistic state” to shrink because cradle-to-grave benefits were no longer affordable. Social services and investment were cut drastically, but the bloated military and security services were not. Raúl committed to removing 50 percent of public sector workers but here, too, the results have been mixed. Much smaller numbers were laid off.
For several years, Cuban leaders have spoken of the need to attract at least $2 billion of foreign investment annually. Yet that objective has been met only rarely because of bureaucratic intransigence and the fears of public sector workers and enterprise managers that they will lose their livelihoods to foreign competition.
In a speech last December, Raúl spoke yet again about the need to eliminate Cuba’s unpopular two-currency system. State workers are paid in pesos, but many goods and services are paid for with “convertible pesos” that are pegged to the dollar. He raised expectations; yet, as before, he was indecisive and has bequeathed this and the other unfinished business to his successor.
Diaz-Canel surely recognizes that above all, his mandate is to generate economic growth and diversification. A cautiously executed reform agenda that enjoyed Raúl’s conspicuous support could begin to nudge the economy out of its doldrums. Confronting those who oppose further opening and who fear foreign investment will likely cause some tumult that could even result in intermittent displays of dissent. But with the support of the party and uniformed services, Diaz-Canel will likely prove to be a reliable choice as successor to the nearly 60-year reign of the Castros. But anyone looking for a revolution to shake up the status quo will likely be disappointed—at least for the foreseeable future.
Jared Kushner returned to the political spotlight Wednesday, visiting Capitol Hill to rally support for bipartisan prison reform — and rekindling a long-running internal GOP battle.
Kushner met with Republicans and Democrats to build momentum for prison legislation that could advance to the House floor as soon as next week. But he has a problem in the Senate, where members of both parties are pushing a more sweeping criminal justice package and are loath to scale it back despite entreaties from President Donald Trump’s son-in-law-turned-adviser.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is perhaps the most powerful proponent of a broader criminal justice bill that tackles both sentencing and prison reform. The Iowa Republican has shown little eagerness to accommodate the Trump administration’s interest in a smaller-scale bill, slamming Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February after Sessions came out against his bipartisan criminal justice bill.
Kushner proposed a strategy to bridge the divide during his meetings in the House, according to two attendees: Lawmakers should treat the prison reform bill as a down payment that would boost the prospects for an overhaul of sentencing rules.
“You get the rock rolling, [then] you can do other things,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said in an interview. “But first, you have to get the rock rolling.”
Kushner was given an expansive portfolio early in the Trump administration, from leading Middle East peace talks to overseeing a new Office of American Innovation, but he has yet to notch a significant policy win. Passage of a prison reform bill could change his fortunes, but the odds remain long.
Collins and others in the meetings said Kushner came off as sincere in his effort to see legislation enacted this year despite opposition from some fellow Republicans. Kushner noted that the narrow approach already has the support of both the White House and the Justice Department.
“Even in the political atmosphere this year — and there’s a little bit of a political edge here — this is something that can bring us to get something actually done,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to get it off the Hill.”
The legislation has a personal significance for Trump’s son-in-law beyond scoring a much-needed political win. Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, served 14 months in federal prison for illegal campaign contributions and witness tampering in 2005 before being released to a halfway house for the rest of his two-year sentence.
“He has very much of an interest in it [because of] his father,” Collins said, noting he’s been discussing the legislation with Kushner for more than a year. The bill is expected to be considered in the House Judiciary Committee next week and could move on to the floor shortly after that.
Kushner also talked about prison reform with Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday, a sit-down that the president's son-in-law requested, according to a GOP source familiar with the meeting.
In the meantime, Kushner and other supporters of prison reform, including conservative activist Grover Norquist, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and liberal commentator Van Jones, are trying to rally support from both sides of the aisle.
But the nonprofit group Jones leads, Cut50, wants to see the House bill "strengthened" before endorsing it and sees a potential House Judiciary Committee markup next week as "premature," according to national director Jessica Jackson Sloan.
While Collins was bullish about getting the bill to the House floor next week, his co-author, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, was less optimistic. The New York Democrat said a committee debate on prison reform is “possible” but called the bill a “work in progress” and said negotiators are still exchanging legislative language.
“We still have a long way to go to get it to the point where it could get substantial Democratic support,” Jeffries said. Some outstanding issues include ensuring medium- to high-risk offenders can take part in the training programs, the treatment of female prisoners and the “good time” credits that would allow a prisoner to serve part of a sentence in a halfway house or similar setting.
“If it’s going to move without sentencing reform, it’s got to be meaningful. If it’s not meaningful, what are we doing here?” Jeffries said, noting there is a good chance Democrats may win back the House and have more control over the legislation next year.
Jeffries said he doesn’t doubt Collins’ or Kushner’s dedication but worries about the motives of others, including Sessions. He added that talks have touched on the addition of a concealed carry provision that would allow federal prosecutors and judges to carry weapons, which would be a nonstarter for Democrats. Jeffries wouldn’t say whether Sessions was behind that push.
If the prison-only bill can make its way to the House floor, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a Wednesday interview that he would ask Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take it up on the Senate floor. Cornyn cosponsored a broader criminal justice reform effort in the past but has narrowed his sights to a prison-only approach this year, given the Trump administration's resistance to the more expansive bill.
"I know there's some division of opinion in terms of sentencing reform, but we know that's not something the president and the attorney general support," Cornyn said.
Whether Kushner's attempt to influence the criminal justice debate has any effect on senators supporting Grassley's broader package remains to be seen. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior Judiciary Committee member and backer of the bigger legislation, said Wednesday that he's "not particularly" interested in Kushner's pitch to advance the narrower bill.
"I want to do both. I guess something's better than nothing — I'll keep an open mind — but the criminal justice reform is equally important," Graham said.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Grassley's Democratic partner on the broader criminal justice bill, said in an interview that "we've certainly made that clear to everyone, including Mr. Kushner, that we want to see prison reform as part of real criminal justice reform, which would include" the bipartisan package.
The prison-only bill aims to help people who are currently incarcerated, devoting new funds to prevention of repeat offenses and helping federal inmates rebuild their lives. But supporters of the broader approach also "want to try to find a way to get some people out of prison who are probably over-sentenced," as Graham put it.
The broader bill that Grassley steered through his committee in February with support from a majority of Republicans would ease mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent offenders, while creating harsher new penalties for other criminal offenses, including opioid trafficking.
Liberal and civil rights activists are mounting their own pushback against the House's prison-only bill. More than 60 groups, including the ACLU and the NAACP, warned in a Friday letter to the House Judiciary Committee that any attempt to tackle only so-called back end of imprisonment rules without the front end of sentencing reform is "doomed to fail."
But Kushner is genuinely interested in breaking the impasse over criminal justice reform, according to Timothy Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor appointed by ex-President Barack Obama. Heaphy attended Wednesday's Hill meetings as a representative of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration.
Heaphy said in an interview that Kushner has "done a good job of elevating attention to this issue," making clear that he is open to more action on sentencing reform after the "first step" of passing prison reform.
Kushner "asked a lot of questions," Heaphy added, and "convinced me that he was personally engaged in this."
Wall Street, corporate America and the diplomatic world are settling on a strategy to deal with President Donald Trump’s rapidly shifting statements on critical issues like trade deals and Russia sanctions: Just ignore him.
Trump last week shocked the world by suggesting he might rejoin the giant Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation pact among nations representing 13 percent of the global economy. He reversed himself days later.
Beyond TPP, Trump in recent weeks has declared war on Amazon then not done very much about it. He settled on Russia sanctions only to ditch them, leaving American allies and members of his own administration completely befuddled.
In ordinary times, a declaration like the one Trump made about TPP would have sent stocks soaring, thrilled exporters and sent corporate strategists scrambling to assess the impact.
But none of that really happened.
Financial markets and America’s trading partners largely ignored the comments as a throwaway line, and the market wisdom proved to be correct when Trump tweeted that he did not "like the deal for the U.S," deflating the TPP trial balloon before it left the ground.
All of this has led investors, executives and diplomats to the conclusion that trying to act on any single thing Trump says or tweets is a fool’s game. The more effective strategy, these people say, is to look for trends in the broad sweep of Trump’s approach to governance and ignore all the noise.
“He’s clearly proven that he tends to shoot first and ask questions later and that is very, very difficult for anyone on Wall Street or really anywhere to navigate,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Wealth Advisors. “You can get free traders in the administration pushing stuff like rejoining TPP then he wipes it all out with a single tweet. So what we’ve tended to do is just look at the trends from 30,000 feet and shrug off the random tweets."
In the case of Amazon, Trump roasted the company for days on Twitter at the end of March, crushing its stock price. Since then he’s only asked for a review of Post Office contracts, including the one it has with Amazon. Investors consider the review unlikely to amount to anything. Fears of a full-bore assault on the online retail giant have evaporated and its shares are climbing again.
One of the wealthiest hedge fund managers in the world, who is a Trump supporter and did not want to be identified by name criticizing the president, said trading on any single Trump comment — whether Amazon or anything else — was ill advised given how quickly he can change positions or simply move on to another subject.
“He’s gotten pretty good economic results so far doing what he’s doing,” the hedge fund manager said. “ … He’s got a style that is not really presidential and you have no idea what’s going to come out of his mouth or whether he’s just going to change his mind. He’d be better off not tweeting, but that’s not going to happen."
Some of the United States’ closest trading partners were deeply skeptical that Trump meant what he said on TPP last week, even as they emphasized that they would welcome a U.S. change of heart if Trump did decide to follow through.
Taro Aso, Japan’s finance minister, told reporters that he “would welcome” the United States' return, “if it’s true.” But he added that Trump “is a person who could change temperamentally, so he may say something different the next day," Aso said, according to a Reuters report.
In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed the sentiment and said it would be "great" to have Washington rejoin the pact. But, he added, “we’re certainly not counting on it."
The back-and-forth nature of Trump’s policy pronouncements means that reaction to what he says is usually blunted unless it’s repeated by another official or put out through a more official channel, said Clayton Allen, vice president of special situations at Height Capital Markets.
Allen said markets increasingly look to external factors to determine how seriously to take a particular announcement — examining whether the president is "trying to use a policy pronouncement to leverage pressure or mollify some specific group with no intention to follow through."
While markets will never completely discount his tweets and off-the-cuff pronouncements, “people are coming to realize that these statements often signify nothing, and are learning to live with the sound and fury,” Allen said.
In the case of Russia, administration officials including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley believed the president had signed off on new Russia sanctions as part of the American response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Haley spoke of the sanctions on national television on Sunday.
By Monday, Trump had reportedly changed his mind and decided against the sanctions, leading his top economic adviser Larry Kudlow to suggest Haley had been confused. Haley fired back that she was not confused and Kudlow privately apologized to her.
The confusion over Russia echoed through global markets as Russian stocks trading in the U.S. and the Russian ruble initially dropped in anticipation of sanctions hurting the country’s economy. But they rebounded Monday when the White House reversed itself on the sanctions.
The whipsaw nature of the Trump presidency, in which obsessions come and go and positions change by the day, has flipped the old Wall Street maxim "buy on the rumor, sell on the news" on its head. The only way to handle Trump, investors say, is to wait for actions to become official.
“He has a tendency to fire off in all directions," Ablin said. “It’s hard to ever know what’s real."
Former Playboy model Karen McDougal has proof of her alleged affair with Donald Trump, and is prepared to sue the president if he calls her a liar, McDougal’s lawyer said Thursday.
“There is evidence and there are plenty of witnesses who were around at the time who know that this happened,” attorney Peter Stris told MSNBC. “The question is not, ‘Did the relationship happen?’ But, ‘What happened afterwards? What was the cover-up? Was she manipulated?’ And that's what this lawsuit has always been about.”
McDougal and American Media Inc., owners of the National Enquirer tabloid, reached a settlement Wednesday that will free her from a contract that barred her from openly discussing her alleged affair with Trump, according to court documents.
She sued in March to be released from an agreement that gave the Enquirer exclusive rights to her story about alleged romantic encounters with Trump — a story they never published — which effectively kept her silent about the relationship.
“Karen got to this point because there is a number of people … in her orbit who didn't have her best interests in their heart,” Stris said, citing the cozy relationship between McDougal and adult-film actress Stormy Daniels' former lawyer, Keith Davidson, and Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen. “There is a group of them who have essentially made her very uncomfortable — whether you want to call it blackmail or just sharp elbows in litigation — that if she moved forward with this, it was her up against a billion dollar company.”
The former Playboy model finalized the $150,000 deal in 2016 after Trump had sealed the Republican presidential nomination, one of several so-called hush agreements involving the president that have been brought to light in recent months.
Stris said Cohen — nor anyone else purporting to represent the president — has reached out to McDougal, and he still isn’t sure of the role Cohen played in arranging the deal for McDougal’s silence. He also obfuscated on whether McDougal had ever faced a tangible threat from anyone connected to Trump.
“I want to be very careful in the way I answer it because that is an important question,” he said. “This has been very difficult, and Karen has suffered a lot of abuse. There is no picture, there is no person who showed up in a parking lot and threatened her family. That is not the case. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that one person kind of going up against the National Enquirer and these other individuals had it easy.”
The news of the settlement, first reported by The New York Times, signals McDougal will be able to talk about her claims more freely without fear of legal repercussions for violating the terms of the deal. McDougal spoke out about her alleged relationship during a wide-ranging interview with CNN last month, claiming she had a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. The White House has denied the allegations.
Under the settlement agreement, reached in court in Los Angeles on Wednesday, AMI is entitled to up to $75,000 in profits from stories about her alleged affair in the future.
Trump’s legal team is currently locked in a dispute with Daniels, the porn star who claims to have had a sexual encounter with the president over a decade ago. Cohen has acknowledged paying $130,000 in 2016 to Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, in a deal to keep her quiet about the alleged affair.
Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, announced plans to file a defamation suit against the president on Wednesday after Trump questioned the validity of a sketch Daniels released Tuesday. That rendering depicts the man Daniels claims threatened her and her child in a Las Vegas parking lot in 2011, telling Daniels to “leave Trump alone” and “forget the story” of her alleged affair with the president.
“A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!” Trump tweeted early Wednesday morning.
Stris said McDougal wouldn't hesitate to launch similar litigation against the president if he attacked her credibility online.
“If Donald Trump tweets tomorrow and starts saying that she's a liar, I feel pretty confident that action will be taken. She is going to defend herself,” Stris said. “Part of getting out of this contract is feeling like if she needs to defend herself, she can.”
In the span of 24 hours, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has done what none of her colleagues in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet have before: successfully telegraphed to her boss that she will not quietly suffer his public humiliations.
Haley was initially blamed by White House aides for creating confusion by speaking on national television about the administration’s plans to roll out new sanctions against Russia that the president ultimately decided to defer.
But within hours of White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s statement Tuesday that Haley had fallen prey to “momentary confusion” and gotten “out ahead of the curve,” she’d exacted a public apology from her colleague. But that alone wasn’t enough for the former South Carolina governor, who issued a direct statement to make her point crystal clear: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
The incident met with silence from the president and his loyalists but has only helped to burnish Haley’s image outside the White House.
“She’s been a very forceful advocate and I would hope the administration really values that. She stood up for herself admirably, so hopefully that will end the story there,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) on Wednesday.
While Trump favorites like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have been careful always to air their disagreements with the president in private, Haley has at times charted her own path in public.
Early in her tenure, she called Russian meddling into the 2016 election an act of “warfare.” Months later, as Trump was facing criticism over his dismissive response to women who were accusing Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of assault, she was candid in her view that the women who accuse men, including the president himself, of sexual misconduct “should be heard.”
Some of these incidents have infuriated the president, who has nevertheless maintained a friendly relationship with Haley while griping to associates behind her back.
But with a reshuffled foreign affairs team — in the past month, Trump has brought in John Bolton as his new national security adviser and tapped CIA director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, as well as bringing in Kudlow to advise on trade as well as other economic affairs — Haley is likely to see her internal standing improve.
While she routinely clashed with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former oilman, she sees eye to eye with Pompeo, a hawkish former congressman, on most national security issues.
She established a working relationship with Bolton, himself a former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush who helped prepare her for her confirmation hearings in late 2016, and has echoed his criticisms of the organization.
“I know John Bolton well. I have gotten advice from him, I have talked to him. I know his disdain for the U.N. I share it,” Haley told students at Duke University earlier this month — a remark Bolton gleefully relayed to associates.
As for her working relationship with the president, by the end of the day Wednesday, Haley swooped in to put a final point on the week’s mess, telling reporters in New York that it is “perfect.”
From the outset of the administration, Haley has been one of its most visible voices on foreign affairs, outshining the media shy Rex Tillerson and now, with Mike Pompeo awaiting Senate confirmation, serving as Trump’s de facto secretary of state.
But the sanctions episode is a stark reminder that this president has little compunction about letting his top staffers and appointees dangle. As the White House scrambled to explain the president’s change of heart on issuing Russia sanctions, Haley became a convenient target for West Wing aides working to smooth a ragged decision making process without blaming the president himself.
Before Kudlow took a public shot at her, the White House said that while the president signed off on sanctions legislation last week, the announcement was delayed because the Treasury Department did not have the legislation ready. Yet the White House itself sent talking points to surrogates on Saturday, the day before Haley’s Sunday show appearance.
Haley is far from the first Trump aide who’s spoken on the administration’s behalf only to have the president undermine them — and while the latest incident has boosted her public profile, it isn’t clear whether the president will be more careful to keep on her side going forward, or vice versa.
“At the center of the story, this incident will raise questions as to whether she’s speaking for the administration when she speaks at the United Nations,” said Ely Ratner, who served as deputy national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden. “That’s something that has haunted Cabinet-level officials since the beginning of the administration.”
Indeed, after Tillerson announced in December that he was seeking talks with the North Korean government, Trump torpedoed the idea, dismissing it as a waste of time.Then, in March, Tillerson— traveling overseas — said the U.S. was “a long ways” from direct talks with North Korea, only to have the president agree the next day offer to hold a direct summit with dictator Kim Jong Un.
Trump chastised his then-national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, for his failure to tell a German audience that Russian interference in the 2016 election did not impact the results — something that McMaster, an active-duty military offer, was careful to avoid.
Haley’s advocates on Capitol Hill were not happy to see the Trump administration wipe away Haley’s declaration, worried a trend could develop that has the rest of the world doubting her words.
“It doesn’t help her credibility if, whenever she gets out there and is articulating the administration and the United States’ position, to have somebody undercut that,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader.
When asked about the state of her relationship with President Donald Trump, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave reporters a thumbs up on Wednesday and said, “It’s perfect.”
Haley has been caught up in the latest Trump administration internal battle after she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the administration would soon announce new sanctions on Russia in response to the Syria chemical weapons attack. Haley’s statement was walked back on Monday by the White House, which said Trump was still weighing further sanctions.
Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, escalated the flap on Tuesday when he told reporters during a Florida news conference that Haley's announcement was the result of “momentary confusion."
Haley fired back on Tuesday evening, saying, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused." Kudlow called and apologized to Haley, a White House official speaking on background told POLITICO.
Haley continued to take a hard line on Russia at a United Nations Security Council meeting on Wednesday, saying that “as we stated previously the U.S. agrees with the U.K.’s assessment that Russia is responsible for the chemical weapons in Salisbury.”
The stunning revelation this week that CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over Easter weekend is a stark reminder that the pieces of the puzzle posed by a nuclear North Korea are moving rapidly. According to President Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet, “Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed…Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
Most national security experts have criticized Trump’s decision to meet face-to-face with the North Korean leader at the beginning, rather than the end, of a long diplomatic process, and are predicting that the meeting will be a failure. In contrast, I see the potential for a significant win for the U.S. While forecasts about the unknown future are inherently uncertain, I sense the possibility of what I call a “six-win solution.”
In the swirl of tweets and images, it is easy to lose sight of the contours of the fundamental challenge the U.S. faces. The ugly, inconvenient question most critics fail to consider is: Starting from this point in North Korea’s nuclear odyssey, what are the remaining feasible alternatives? As I wrote last November, for North Korea in 2018 there are only three realistic outcomes. First, Kim could complete additional ICBM tests that enable Pyongyang to credibly threaten American cities with nuclear strikes. Second, Trump could attack North Korea to prevent outcome No. 1. Or third, there could be what I called a “minor miracle.”
At this point, Trump and Kim have opened the door to the third possibility. Down that path it is already possible to see the outlines of an agreement that would allow both men to declare victory to the audience they care about most—at home. And this solution would also give South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, China’s Xi Jinping, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin victories of their own. Sensing this potential, and knowing how unpredictable both Trump and Kim can be, each leader is scrambling to demonstrate that he was not left out of what could be declared a historic agreement. In this context, Kim’s recent visit to Beijing, which caught some observers by surprise, was predictable—China doesn’t want to be cut out. And with Moon already scheduled to meet Kim later this month, watch Abe’s and Putin’s moves in the weeks ahead. Should the Trump-Kim summit lead to a concrete agreement, Trump—who famously promised “too much winning” during his campaign—could boast of a six-win deal.
What would such a deal look like? In essence, Trump and Kim would announce they had agreed to a framework to verifiably denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, establish a peace regime in which the parties vow to respect each other’s sovereignty and security, and move toward normalization of relations and a peace treaty ending the Korean War.
Trump and Kim would instruct their personal envoys and negotiation teams to begin immediately working out the specific actions each would take to realize these objectives. They would agree that while negotiations are ongoing, North Korea will continue its moratorium on further missile and nuclear tests, and the U.S. will not further tighten sanctions. They would announce that progress toward the ultimate objectives would advance step by step, verifiable action for verifiable action. And to ensure that the interests of the other four nations are considered, the bilateral negotiators would be embedded in a larger six-party negotiating process similar to the so-called P5+1 negotiations that stopped Iran’s nuclear advance.
Furthermore, if Kim wants to make a big impression on Trump, he could offer, as a visible down payment, to eliminate one or even a small number of nuclear weapons. And Trump could agree that while the “maximum pressure” sanctions remain in place, an exception could be made for South Korea to provide humanitarian assistance.
In the course of negotiations, if a feasible way can be found for North Korea to verifiably freeze fissile material production and further reduce its existing stockpile, the U.S. and South Korea would offer additional sanctions relief and economic assistance. The U.S. would reiterate its long-held position that U.S. forces are present in Korea only at the invitation of the South Korean government and that if some future government of a confederal or unified Korea asked the U.S. to withdraw completely, it would do so expeditiously.
How would the deal-makers sell such an agreement to their citizens as a big win?
For Kim, the mere fact that the president of the United States has accepted his invitation for a one-on-one meeting has elevated him to a world-class player. Prior to this surge of diplomacy, he had already declared “mission accomplished” in establishing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, so he can extend the testing freeze indefinitely without significant objections. (After last November’s successful ICBM tests, Kim declared that North Korea had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”) And even if he gets only modest official relief from the onerous sanctions, he knows that enforcement of sanctions will erode in the afterglow of the deal.
For Trump, this deal would allow him to fulfill a key promise: He pledged to stop Kim from acquiring the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. Without further full-range ICBM launches to test the performance of the re-entry vehicle, Kim cannot definitively demonstrate the ability to hit the U.S. homeland with a nuclear warhead. Thus, as long as the deal prevents North Korea from conducting further ICBM tests, Trump will be able to claim that he stopped Kim short of America’s goal line—despite the fact that his predecessors failed to stop the Kim regime from marching down the field into the U.S. red zone. As one of the most skilled marketers in American political history, Trump could sell this as a huge win.
For Moon, the benefits of a deal are obvious: It prevents the U.S. from starting a war against North Korea that would likely result in retaliation against Seoul, killing hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. Moon can also rightfully take credit for the shrewd diplomatic maneuvering that led to this historic summit: inviting North Korea to the Olympics, sending a special envoy to Pyongyang, securing a commitment from Kim to meet, and artfully giving Trump credit for the pressure campaign that created conditions that brought Kim to the negotiating table. A successful summit would also be a huge political victory for Moon ahead of South Korea’s June 13 local elections, in which he hopes to bury the conservative opposition party in order to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda.
Japan’s Shinzo Abe will worry that this deal leaves North Korea with its current ability to conduct nuclear strikes against his country. But he knows that an American attack on North Korea could provoke North Korean retaliation against Japan, including nuclear strikes. So he will welcome anything that averts a second Korean War. Moreover, after multiple North Korean missiles flew over Japan last year, to which Japan responded with nothing but verbal condemnation, Abe will have been spared further provocations from Kim that make him look weak.
What about Xi? Until recently, China had found itself sidelined in the recent wave of diplomacy. But by persuading Kim to come to Beijing for his first international trip as North Korean leader, Xi has shown that he is a player. To fellow citizens, he is presenting himself as the responsible adult who is leading both the inexperienced Trump and the young Kim to make reasonable concessions that avoid war. Ultimately, Xi’s paramount concern on the Korean Peninsula is sufficient stability for China to pursue its bold domestic agenda. The combination of Kim’s antics and Trump’s threats have brought the peninsula closer to war than at any point since 1953. If Trump and Kim reach a deal that reduces the risk of war on China’s doorstep, Xi will have met his basic requirement.
The one leader who has been conspicuously quiet over the last month is Putin. But don’t expect him to stay on the sidelines. He will seek to capitalize on the prospect of any deal to assert himself as a global power broker. Look for Putin to invite Kim for a tête-à-tête, perhaps in Vladivostok, sometime in the next several weeks.
If a deal along these lines emerges from the Trump-Kim summit, it does not require a crystal ball to forecast that it will be attacked by American critics on both sides. Some will object that now is not the time to let up on the maximum pressure campaign that is finally starting to squeeze Kim. But we should remember what sanctions were designed to do in the first place: Force Kim to come to the table and make concessions. Pressure is not a strategy in itself, and it is not without costs. As Kim becomes more financially desperate, he grows more likely to sell whatever he has to the highest bidder. Aside from a direct attack on the U.S. or its allies, the greatest threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea is that a regime long-known as “Missiles R’ Us” also becomes “Nukes R’ Us” and sells a bomb to a rogue state or terrorist group. So perversely, the tighter the U.S.-led international sanctions squeeze North Korea, the greater the incentives for the cash-strapped regime to turn to the nuclear black market.
Others will object that this deal does not fully “solve” North Korea, as Trump had earlier promised, since it will allow North Korea to maintain its nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. While that is correct, statecraft requires leaders to choose the least ugly option. At this point, the only other alternative to seeing North Korea acquire a credible nuclear threat to the U.S. homeland is an attack on North Korea that would likely trigger a catastrophic war. By reaching a framework agreement with Kim, Trump will have started down a third path—at least for now. While I share the skepticism of most experts about the chances of this achieving a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, I suspect this may be the worst possible outcome except for all the others.
Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Michael Cohen on Wednesday suggested seven candidates who could be picked by a federal judge to review materials seized in an FBI raid of Cohen’s home and office last week and determine whether any should be protected under attorney-client privilege.
Attorneys for Donald Trump and Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, wanted to decide themselves which materials, seized as possible evidence in a criminal investigation by the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, should be shielded from federal prosecutors' view. Prosecutors, on the other hand, wanted to use a special team of investigators, who would be walled off from the team pursuing Cohen, to examine the materials and decide what qualifies for attorney-client privilege.
Federal Judge Kimba Wood said Monday that she would consider a third option, appointing a "special master" who could review the documents independently, and she asked both sides to suggest people who could take on the task.
The U.S. attorney's office suggested three candidates, all former magistrate judges from New York: Frank Maas and Theodore Katz, who are now affiliated with for-profit mediation and arbitration firm Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, and James C. Francis IV, who is currently a lecturer at City University of New York Law School.
All "have many years of experience in resolving disputes on the issue of privilege in the context of criminal investigations,” the U.S. attorney’s office said in its filing.
Cohen’s attorneys suggested four options, all former prosecutors with the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office: Bart Schwartz of Guidepost Solutions; Joan McPhee, an attorney at Ropes & Gray; Tai Park of Park Jensen Bennett and George S. Canellos of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.
Former federal prosecutors told POLITICO that Cohen’s team likely intended to appeal to Wood by suggesting members of the tight-knit club of former and current employees of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
Bart Schwartz, a former head of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney’s office, has a lengthy track record of conducting internal audits or acting as an independent monitor. In 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed him to conduct an investigation into his own upstate economic development program, after news broke that then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office was investigating the program. Prosecutors also appointed Schwartz to review General Motors in 2015 and Deutsche Bank AG in 2010, and Bharara’s office approved his hiring to monitor SAC Capital Advisors LP in 2014.
In 2000, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Schwartz to lead a task force to suggest ways to overhaul the city’s Buildings Department, after allegations of systemic corruption.
Norm Eisen of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that has dogged Trump over various ethical issues, said Schwartz would be a good choice.
“He has bipartisan cred,” Eisen said.
Prosecutors were still cool to the special master option Wednesday. In a court filing, acting U.S. Attorney Robert Khuzami said the office continues to believe a “special master is not warranted to review the seized materials for privilege and that a Government Filter Team would fairly and most efficiently accomplish this task.”
Khuzami argued a team tapped by the prosecutors could begin its review this month, while a special master might not be able to begin work until June.
Federal prosecutors also said they expect to begin handing over copies of all the documents and other material they seized to Cohen and his attorneys starting April 27, with plans to finish handing over most of the material by May 11, with the exception of several cellphones, which are locked and likely have to be decrypted by experts at the FBI crime lab in Quantico, Virginia.
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.
CHICAGO — Lawyers for ex-Rep. Aaron Schock and Justice Department prosecutors clashed in a federal appeals court Wednesday as the Illinois Republican seeks to derail his indictment on corruption charges.
But Chief Judge Diane Wood of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago — as well as Judge Frank Easterbrook — appeared unconvinced by arguments that the case against him should be thrown out. A trial for Schock is on hold while the legal issues are sorted out.
Schock was indicted in November 2016 for wire fraud, mail fraud, filing false federal tax returns, submitting inaccurate reports to the Federal Election Commission, making false statements and theft of government funds.
Since resigning from Congress three years ago, Schock has been fighting the indictment in court, arguing that federal prosecutors overstepped their bounds when they charged him. A district court judge rejected Schock’s motion to dismiss the case in October, but Schock’s defense team appealed that ruling.
A ruling by the appeals court could take weeks or months, with the losing side likely to file further appeals, so a trial does not seem imminent at this point.
Schock, who attended Wednesday’s court session along with his parents, didn’t offer any information about his activities since leaving office except to say that he is “doing well.”
In a statement issued after the hearing, Schock denounced the long-running federal probe.
“The government spent two years and two different grand juries investigating every aspect of my 14-year public service career. They investigated my business endeavors, from the age of 18 years old to the three years since leaving office, and they even investigated my personal life," Schock said. "It’s a sad day in America when our U.S. Justice Department will stop at nothing, not even trampling the Constitution in its zeal to prosecute. Thankfully we have the courts, and I am confident they will provide the necessary check on this out-of-control prosecution."
In oral arguments, Schock’s defense team claimed House rules for car mileage reimbursements are too vague to base criminal charges upon. Schock has been accused of pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements after submitting false mileage reports following a POLITICO report.
Benjamin Hatch, Schock’s lawyer, also asserted in a highly technical argument that it would be a violation of the separation of powers doctrine, as well as the Speech or Debate Clause, to prosecute Schock. According to Hatch, the executive branch shouldn’t be involved in interpreting internal congressional rules, stating it would be a constitutional violation to do so.
“Our position is an ambiguous House rule can’t be used as evidence to prosecute a member of Congress,” Hatch told the three-judge panel. “The House rules do not determine whether anyone, including Mr. Schock, violated” federal law.
In his presentation, Hatch relied heavily on a 1995 appeals court ruling that threw out some of the corruption charges against the late Illinois Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. Rostenkowski later pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, but the case was much narrower than the original indictment against him. The Justice Department now says that ruling was incorrect.
By attacking the mileage issue, Hatch and Schock’s other lawyers are trying to undermine the entire indictment, stating all charges should be dismissed if the appeals court knocks out that part of the indictment. Schock claimed, and was paid, more than $138,000 for "fraudulent claims for mileage reimbursements,” according to the indictment.
But Wood was clearly skeptical of Hatch’s assertion, engaging in several long exchanges with him over the issue. Wood asked whether it would be legal if the House passed a rule to pay members “$1 million each but they don’t have to report it on their income tax?” Hatch countered that would be a violation of federal law, but Wood didn’t appear convinced.
Wood noted that DOJ’s position is that Schock should face trial first, and then if any issues arise regarding House rules during those proceedings, they can be handled on appeal.
Easterbrook questioned whether “House rules should be treated differently” than similar internal rules from the executive or legislative branches. Easterbrook noted that officials from both those branches of government have faced criminal charges for violations.
William Glaser, who represented the Justice Department in the hearing, argued that “There is no constitutional right to avoid trial simply because the rules of the House or Senate are involved as evidence.”
While saying the Justice Department is cognizant that it can’t be seen as being involved in making rules for Congress — the Constitution leaves that up to each chamber — Glaser suggested Schock’s “underlying conduct” is the key to the case. Since Schock’s mileage claim so wildly exceeded his actual mileage, according to DOJ, there is no way that Schock could be in compliance with the House rule, no matter how vague.
Glaser also attacked the 1995 ruling, calling it “incorrect,” a position the Justice Department has taken in its legal motions in this case.
In his rebuttal, Hatch repeatedly returned to the separation-of-powers argument. Yet Woods questioned whether House rules would mean that Schock had to be only “partially honest’ on his mileage reimbursement claims. Easterbrook appeared to be unconvinced as well.
Eleven House conservatives are calling on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director Christopher Wray to mount criminal investigations into a slew of former Obama administration leaders and high-ranking Justice Department officials — including Hillary Clinton, James Comey and Loretta Lynch.
“In doing so, we are especially mindful of the dissimilar degrees of zealousness that has marked the investigations into Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter released Wednesday by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.).
The push represents the latest counter-attack from the right against the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — an investigation that Trump continues to rail against.
The lawmakers describe a variety of potential crimes in calling for the new inquiries. They accuse Comey of leaking classified information, Clinton of concealing campaign payments to an opposition research firm and Lynch of threatening an informant with “reprisal” if he came forward with anti-Clinton information in 2016.
They also demand new criminal investigations into top FBI officials who signed off on a surveillance warrant for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Those officials, they say, include former acting attorney general Sally Yates, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe and former acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente.
Boente, a former U.S. attorney, was recently tapped by Wray as FBI general counsel.
Citing a Wall Street Journal editorial, the GOP lawmakers also say two FBI officials — former senior counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and bureau attorney Lisa Page — should be criminally investigated for downplaying a reference to President Barack Obama in the statement announcing the FBI's decision not to charge Clinton.
The letter is largely a product of Trump's closest allies in Congress, including two — DeSantis and Indiana Rep. Todd Rokita — seeking statewide office. DeSantis is a candidate for governor in Florida where he’s counting on the support of Trump, who has endorsed him.
A slew of House Freedom Caucus members also signed on, including GOP Reps. Dave Brat, Andy Harris, Andy Biggs, Jeff Duncan, Paul Gosar, Jody Hice and Ted Yoho. GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz and Claudia Tenney signed on as well.
The letter is also addressed to John Huber, a U.S. attorney from Utah who was deputized by Sessions in November to assist a DOJ watchdog in a probe of the FBI's handling of the 2016 Clinton investigation.
She was the Silver Fox, the family enforcer, the wife of one president and the mother of another, whose Christmas card list built a political direct-mail dynasty and whose candor endeared her to ordinary Americans and so often outsmarted the chattering classes.
And when Barbara Pierce Bush died at 92 on Tuesday, with her husband of 73 years by her side, she was what she had been for decades: Ahead of the game, in a sly, on-her-own-terms way; society matron, faux-pearl-wearing mother to the nation, bestselling author, champion of literacy, polite but brutal truth-teller and the last of a breed, going out with class in an age of crass.
“I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world,” her husband George H.W. Bush, wrote her on their 49th anniversary in 1994. “But even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband. Mum used to tell me: ‘Now, George, don’t walk ahead.’ Little did she know I was only trying to keep up – keep up with Barbara Pierce from Onondaga Street in Rye, New York. I love you!”
So he did – grappling to keep pace with a wife whose compassion for children with AIDS in an era when stigma was common; whose unspoken but universally presumed stand in favor of abortion rights was in keeping with her husband’s patrician family’s longtime posture but out-of-sync with his post-Reagan electoral coalition; and whose bracing candor so often outshone her president’s Dana Carvey “Na gonna do it” reluctance to emote.
Was she perfect? No. She betrayed the biases of her class and place, famously saying that she couldn’t describe her true feelings for her husband’s 1984 Democratic vice presidential rival, Geraldine Ferraro, because the word she wanted to use rhymed with “rich.” Just as tone-deaf, she suggested that victims of Hurricane Katrina who fled to shelters in Texas were actually better off because they were “underprivileged anyway.”
But she endured tragedies that would have destroyed lesser women: The devastating death of her mother in a car accident, when she herself was pregnant with her first daughter, and forbidden to attend the funeral; the death to leukemia of that same daughter (named for her mother) before the girl’s fourth birthday; more than two dozen family moves in twice as many years as her husband pursued his business and political career.
Her hair turned white before she turned 30, but she went on. By her own description, she married the first man she ever kissed, after his return from valorous service in World War II in the Pacific, and on their honeymoon in New York they watched “Meet Me in St. Louis” at Radio City Music Hall, before heading to Sea Island, Georgia.
From the West Texas oilfields, to Congress, to a failed Senate campaign, to the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee amid Richard Nixon’s Watergate perfidy, to China, to the directorship of the CIA, she followed her husband: loyally, lovingly, knowingly. And when he became Ronald Reagan’s vice president in 1981, she endured eight solid years of Nancy Reagan’s social snubs, never once being invited to the private quarters of the White House for a drink or a meal.
She loved her four sons – and her late in life second daughter, Doro – equally, and grieved at their setbacks, threw high WASP shade at their critics, and cherished the brood of sometimes unruly grandchildren who adored her as “Gammy.” She styled herself as fat and unthreatening, but she raised millions for literacy, in part by adopting the voice of her beloved spaniel in a bestselling book. In her own finely wrought memoir of the White House years, she concluded that she and her husband “have been the two luckiest people in the world.”
She fiercely defended her tribe against the slings and arrows of others, but was capable of firing the devastating shot when least others expected it, candidly noting in 2013 that she opposed a presidential run for her son Jeb, though she thought him the best qualified man in the field, because, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”
By the account of the late Marjorie Williams in Vanity Fair in 1992, Barbara Bush’s own stepmother was afraid of her. Both she and her husband acknowledged that she played the bad cop so he could be the good. Her husband’s aides called her “The National Treasure” without irony, because they knew that she softened and burnished his flaws. She contrasted herself with her super-stylish predecessor Nancy Reagan during the week of her own husband’s inaugural by saying, “Please notice, hairdo, makeup, designer dress. Look at me good this week, because it’s the only week.”
In 1990, when Wellesley College, offered her an honorary degree, some protested that she was a retrograde example of a bygone age. She had the last laugh, with a commencement speech that has since entered the ranks of the classics.
“Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone,” she said, “ who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well.”
Who knows how history might have been different if, in December 1941, Barbara Pierce, in a bright new red-and-green dress, had not danced with a “wonderful-looking young boy” from Andover named Poppy Bush at a Christmas party in Greenwich, Connecticut. But she did, and what a long interesting dance it was.
The White House on Wednesday cast CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s meeting with North Korea’s leader as evidence of his qualification to be President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, putting a political spin on his act of high-stakes nuclear diplomacy.
Word of the trip, arranged to discuss an upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, leaked on Tuesday in the midst of the White House’s effort to ensure Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state. Trump has tapped Pompeo to replace the ousted Rex Tillerson, but his fate in a narrowly divided Senate is uncertain.
The revelation was timed to shore up Pompeo’s image as a diplomat capable of executing sensitive negotiations on the president’s behalf, according to a senior administration official—and to undermine Democratic efforts to portray him as a warmonger unsuited to lead the country’s diplomatic corps.
Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a leading GOP foreign policy voice, echoed that theme in a Wednesday conference call with reporters conducted by the White House. Pompeo’s meeting with Kim is “the best evidence imaginable that he is committed to diplomacy,” Cotton said, suggesting that blocking Pompeo’s nomination could derail talks aimed at dismantling Pyongyang’s swiftly advancing nuclear program.
“This is a good example of how critical it is on the merits to confirm Mike Pompeo. He’s already invested deeply in the upcoming summit between the president and Kim Jong Un,” Cotton said. “It would send a very bad sign and it would, I believe, set back the preparations and perhaps even the results of that upcoming summit for the Senate Democrats to oppose as a bloc Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be secretary of state.”
Trump confirmed on Twitter Wednesday that Pompeo had traveled to Pyongyang to help prepare for a summit with Kim that Trump agreed to last month. The White House says that meeting will likely occur in late May or early June at an undetermined location in Europe or Asia. The talks will focus on Trump’s demand that Kim dismantle his nuclear weapons arsenal and halt his long-range missile program and offer Trump the prospect of a historic diplomatic achievement.
Speaking to reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort Wednesday, Trump predicted Pompeo “will go down as truly a great secretary of state,” and said that his CIA director “got along with [Kim] really well, really great.”
If so, that would be a remarkable change of attitude for Pompeo, who has publicly expressed his hope that Kim—a brutal dictator who has had ordered the execution of family members—be removed from power.
“Nothing could better underscore the importance of getting America’s top diplomat in place for such a time as this,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted Wednesday morning. “Dems have an opportunity to put politics aside, acknowledge our national security is too important, and confirm Mike Pompeo. Statesmanship.”
But the news of Pompeo’s unusual visit with the reclusive Kim was not enough to prevent several leading Democrats from declaring their opposition to his nomination Wednesday.
In remarks at a Washington think tank Wednesday, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said he would oppose Pompeo’s nomination — and that Pompeo was wrong not to disclose the trip to him.
”Even in my private conversations with him, he didn’t tell me about his visit to North Korea,” Menendez said. “Now I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be Secretary of State, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit.”
The meeting between Pompeo and Kim marks the highest-level known talks between the U.S. and North Korean governments since 2000, when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Il, the now-deceased father of the current North Korean leader.
A summit between Kim and Trump would represent a significant shift in relations between the U.S. and North Korea, two nations that have been adversaries since the beginning of the Korean War.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members grilled Pompeo last week and will be the first to vote on his nomination. Republicans hold an 11-10 majority on the committee, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said he will vote against Pompeo, raising the prospect that his nomination will be sent to the full Senate with an unfavorable recommendation by the committee.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump suggested that Paul could have a change of heart.
“Rand Paul is a very special guy ... He’s never let me down, and I don’t think he’ll let me down again,” Trump said.
With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) away from Washington as he undergoes cancer treatment and Paul currently an expected no vote, Pompeo needs at least one Democratic supporter to be confirmed. Fifteen Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), voted to confirm him as CIA director, although it remains unclear whether any will support him for secretary of state.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also declared his opposition to Pompeo Wednesday. “I do not believe Mr. Pompeo will be an independent voice in advising the president, nor an advocate for leading our allies and friends around the world in support of the international norms and values that protect America and enhance our prosperity and security,” Cardin said in a statement.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, also said Wednesday that he will vote against Pompeo. “He just has a track record of statements that are sort of antidiplomatic,” Kaine told MSNBC.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday he expects a floor vote on Pompeo as soon as next week and that word of the Kim meeting “likely doesn’t have much effect” on his chances of winning Democratic votes.
Given that the U.S. has long “kept back channels to North Korea through intelligence” officials, Corker told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast, “I think it’s perfectly natural then that he would be the person that would have the first meeting and sit-down.”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Cotton and Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway noted that more than a dozen Democrats supported Pompeo’s confirmation as CIA director and suggested that he had earned more, not less, support from the party. Cotton noted that several Senate Democrats face tough 2018 reelection fights in states carried easily by Trump, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). Cotton also said he believes Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) will back Pompeo’s nomination.
Conway also noted positive words for Pompeo from former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Albright. Clinton recently said she saw a “glimmer of hope” in Pompeo’s reliance on career officials at the CIA, and Albright told NPR that she appreciated his efforts to show he values diplomacy during his confirmation hearing.
Cotton was highly critical of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, telling reporters that it is not representative of the Senate as a whole. He said Paul “has unusual foreign policy views that are not representative of the Republican Senate caucus” and called the Foreign Relations Committee Democrats “two-bit Tallyrands,” a reference to the 19th century French foreign minister famous for his wily cynicism.
Trump stunned the international community last month when he announced he had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim, breaking with the precedent set by his predecessors from both parties, who largely worked to isolate North Korea as punishment for its nuclear program and human rights abuses.
Trump warned on Tuesday that the summit is not guaranteed to take place, saying “it’s possible things won’t go well and we won’t have the meetings, and we’ll just continue to go on this very strong path we have taken.”
Trump has repeatedly said he might attack North Korea if it appears close to mounting a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S., a capability some officials say Pyongyang could achieve within less than a year, at one point threatening it with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Pyongyang, for its part, has conducted regular ballistic missile tests during Trump’s first year, and last September detonated its sixth test of a nuclear device, its most powerful to date.
Elana Schor, Eliana Johnson, and Michael Crowley contributed to this report.
It has been almost five years since Amazon founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos closed his purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million, and still we don’t know for certain why he bought it. President Donald Trump has been no help getting to the bottom of it, recently polluting the topic with his assertion—backed with zero evidence—that Bezos acquired the paper to “lobby” for Amazon.
Bezos himself has taken a few shots at explaining his motivation. Two years ago, when Post Executive Editor Martin Baron pitched the question directly at the world’s wealthiest man in a public conversation, Bezos swung the civic-responsibility bat, connecting cleanly. Citing what would later become the paper’s dopey motto, “democracy dies in darkness,” Bezos continued, “Certain institutions have a very important role in making sure there is light, and I think the Washington Post has a seat, an important seat to do that, because we happen to be located here in the capital city of the United States of America.”
His slender responses might qualify as an answer, except who can believe that Bezos believes it? His professed affinity for illumination rarely extends to his businesses, as David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney of the New York Times noted when he bought the Post. Bezos, they wrote, “has never seemed much of a fan of journalism or journalists.” Preferring the shadows to the bright lights, he gives interviews when he needs to promote some new Amazon product or other investment, and then remains rigidly on message. Even the company’s quarterly earnings calls with journalists and analysts “are festivals of vagueness,” the Times reporters continued. Amazon’s practice of stiff-arming journalists caused one former Amazon employee to tell the paper, “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.’” When the New York Times covered Trump’s denunciations of Amazon, Bezos and the Post this month, it asked Amazon for a comment and a chance to interview Bezos, getting the usual nothing from the company. In practice, Bezos aligns himself with 19th-century financier J.P. Morgan, who once said to a pesky reporter. “I owe the public nothing.”
Bezos isn’t the first tycoon to buy a newspaper at midcareer, only the richest. Again and again, the wealthy devote slivers of their fortunes to newspapers. Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the famous banking fortune, bought the Tribune-Review and turned it into Pittsburgh's conservative broadsheet at the beginning of the 1970s. Texas banker Joe L. Allbritton bought the Washington Star in 1974, convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon spent a billion on the Washington Times starting in 1982, and developer Mortimer Zuckerman acquired the New York Daily News in 1993. More recently, Denver investor Philip Anschutz purchased the San Francisco Examiner (eventually starting free dailies in Washington and Baltimore) (2004), commodities ace John Henry picked up the Boston Globe (2013), casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal (2015). Biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who totes a big philanthropic portfolio, will soon complete his purchase of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune. The stated aim of his ownership is to bind the Southern California community together. Michael Bloomberg has never bought a newspaper with his billions, primarily because the one he wants—the New York Times—hasn’t been for sale. Instead, he spent millions building a virtual newspaper and editorial page online. (See Dan Kennedy's new book, The Return of the Moguls, for more on the Bezos and Henry newspaper ventures.)
What do these bigshots hope to extract from their purchases? It goes without saying that buying a newspaper conveys new status. The egos of some newspaper owners overflow with psychic income. Like MLB and NFL franchise-holders, they become immediate players in their regions. Their phone calls to politicians not only get returned, but politicians also place calls to them, seeking approval, favors and endorsements. If they rescue a paper from folding, they’re embraced as civic heroes. Invitations to speak before groups and appear on television materialize as their opinion rises in value overnight. The competition composes profiles on them as they become boldface celebrities—Mort Zuckerman used the prestige of his Daily News ownership to join the TV commentariat and write a column. The rewards of ownership are so great, it’s a wonder that every multimillionaire doesn’t buy a publication. A newspaper can be a great toy.
Some newspaper owners become overt about their aims, infusing their papers with their own politics (Moon, Anschutz, Adelson). Others tread more softly (Scaife, Allbritton, Henry, Soon-Shiong). Up until now, Bezos has followed the second path, diluting speculation about what he expects owning the paper will bring him by mouthing civics class clichés about the Washington Post being an “important institution” worth preserving. “It’s pretty important who we elect as president, all those things, and we need to examine those people, try to understand them better,” he has said, adding that he’s intrigued by the business challenge a newspaper presents.
By retaining both the editor and the editorial page editor he inherited, Bezos has maintained the basic course plotted by the Post’s previous owners, the Graham family. He’s also kept his nose out of news coverage, which has delighted journalists because if there is one thing they can’t stand, it’s an owner who thinks the paper literally belongs to him. “I can’t say more emphatically he’s never suggested a story to anybody here, he’s never critiqued a story, he’s never suppressed a story,” Baron said recently. The main thing Bezos has brought to the Post is more: More resources, more reporters, more stories, more pages, more scoops and far more technical finesse in its digital editions. The only truly nutty thing he’s proposed, Adam Lashinsky reported in Fortune, was a Post game called “Disemvoweling“ that would permit readers to remove vowels from stories and others to restore them.
The president’s assertion that Bezos grabbed the Post so he could use it to lobby for Amazon has no basis in reality. Besides, lobbying via the Post would backfire, tarnishing the paper’s reputation while failing to advance Amazon’s views. After all, whenever Bezos feels the itch to lobby, he scratches it with paid lobbyists. Last year, Amazon spent more on political persuasion in Washington than any other tech firm except Google.
Given the paper’s improvement, questioning Saint Bezos’ motives out loud might seem a tad ungrateful. Perhaps we should busy ourselves by throwing garlands at his feet for financing a good paper instead! But the question of ownership matters because it conveys power, hard and soft. Even if owners could place their newspapers into blind trusts, they would still deserve our scrutiny because choosing a proxy to run their enterprise would still give them some control. That ownership matters is not a fringe idea pinched from a Marxist. The Washington Post thinks so, too. It reminds readers almost daily of Bezos’ position in its news coverage and editorials: Since he took over in 2013, Post stories naming Bezos or one of his enterprises have included a parenthetical disclaimer stating some variation of “Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns the Washington Post” more than 2,000 times. This proper act of disclosure only sharpens our Bezos curiosity.
Bezos resembles an earlier Post savior, the insanely rich financier and former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Eugene Meyer, who nabbed the failing paper at a 1933 auction. Like Bezos, Meyer bettered the Post by bringing “more” to it, especially to the editorial pages, as a 1944 Fortune magazine feature explains. Meyer cared about news, but his real passion was dictating policy to Washington elites through its editorials in a newspaper that President Franklin D. Roosevelt read daily. The proximity to the important didn’t allow the paper to wield power so much as it did influence—a smart newspaper never tells people what to think but concentrates on telling them what to think about. Well before Meyer assumed control of the Post, British publisher Lord Northcliffe had expressed the paper’s unique power to Washington. “Of all the American newspapers I would prefer to own the Washington Post because it reaches the breakfast tables of the members of Congress,” he said.
In other respects, Bezos resembles the one-time savior of the Washington Star, Joe Allbritton, who bought the paper in 1974 and sold it four years later when the FCC prohibited ownership of both a paper and a TV station in the same market. Allbritton was drawn to the paper by his love of politics. Active in the Democratic Party in Texas, he had backed Ed Muskie in the 1972 campaign. But he also viewed the purchase as a business opportunity as well as a chance to save a worthy paper, believing that the capital should have at least two. Allbritton professed to be amazed that buying the Star made him a celebrity. “I’ve been involved in multimillion-dollar business deals and no one has ever noticed it,” he told the New York Times. Four years after he unloaded the Star, Allbritton was lusting again for a big-city daily, and almost won the New York Daily News. (For several weeks in 1982, a 36-year-old developer named Donald Trump was considered the front-runner in the battle for the Daily News.)
A Texas politician speculated in the pages of the Times on why Allbritton bought the paper. “There are three basic sources of power: money, politics and the press,” the anonymous source said. “Joe has the money; now, with the Star, he can get the other two.” It’s a great line, but does it apply to Bezos, whose wealth makes the Allbritton fortune look like spare change? The world’s richest man doesn’t need a seat at the table when he already owns the table.
Best to think of Bezos’ Post acquisition as just another facet of the Washington identity the magnate has been constructing in recent years. In early 2017, he bought Washington’s largest residence, two large merged mansions that had previously housed the Textile Museum, presumably to regale the powerful and the plugged-in with cheese and wine. In recent years he’s knit himself tighter into the Washington establishment by attending the insider affairs hosted by the Gridiron Club and the Alfalfa Club, where captains of industry and politicians mingle socially. If he selects either Northern Virginia or the Maryland suburbs as the home for Amazon’s HQ2, his Washington profile will turn monumental. Recalling how official Washington tilted against Microsoft in the 1990s, attempting to use antitrust law to break it up, Bezos would be misguided to think that his time in the barrel might not one day arrive. Best to hedge against calamity by legitimately making friends and influencing people in government while you still can, right? So stop worrying about when Bezos might use the Post as his agent of influence. He already does.
“The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners,” Bezos said upon acquiring the Post. Well put. We should forever hold him to it.
Disclosure: Joe L. Allbritton’s son Robert owns Politico. Send your billions to [email protected] and I’ll buy a newspaper. My email alerts subscribe to four newspapers, my Twitter to none. My RSS feed used that free Wall Street Journal sign-off for years.
Austan Goolsbee worries about a lot of President Donald Trump’s economic policies. But the former top economic adviser to President Barack Obama is particularly concerned about Trump potentially putting political pressure on the Federal Reserve.
“It did feel like he was criticizing the Fed,” Goolsbee said on the latest episode of the POLITICO Money podcast. He was reacting to a Trump tweet on Monday in which the president criticized Russia and China for devaluing their currencies "as the U.S. keeps raising interest rates."
While cautioning against taking any single Trump tweet too seriously, Goolsbee said the president’s willingness to attack members of his own government raises concerns about the Fed, which historically operates in the best interest of the economy outside of direct political pressure.
“We need to start collectively ignoring what he tweets because 95 percent of what he tweets never comes to pass and doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “But this should raise alarm bells because from the first second that Donald Trump has been president, he has struck most of us who watch the Fed as not the kind of guy who would respect the independence of the Fed if the independent actions of the Fed started putting a crimp into his own designs.”
The Fed is executing a series of interest rate hikes as the economy continues to grow and unemployment reaches historic lows. Those hikes could theoretically cut into economic growth that Trump and other Republicans are hoping will boost them in the 2018 midterms and 2020 general election.
Asked to elaborate on what Trump meant with his Fed tweet, White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said, “The President respects the independence of the Federal Reserve.”
Goolsbee said Trump has set precedents that suggest he would not hesitate to take on Fed Chairman Jerome Powell — the president’s own pick — if he becomes upset about rate hikes. “He’s attacked his own attorney general. He’s attacked members of his government,” Goolsbee said. “I don’t think there is much that would stop him from attacking the Fed if he felt like the Fed was harming his reelection chances.”
Goolsbee also reflected on his own experiences in the Obama administration, especially leaving the White House on the day in 2011 when Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. debt for the first time ever in the midst of a bitter debt limit crisis.
As the downgrade unfolded, Goolsbee was driving back to Chicago with his wife ahead of rejoining the University of Chicago economics faculty.
“We were listening on the radio and the radio would be like, ‘Oh, they’re threatening default and the government’s been downgraded.’ And my wife turned to me and she was like, ‘Doesn’t it seem like there is a mushroom cloud in the rearview mirror? Just step on it; we’ve got to outrun the explosions.’”
Goolsbee also expressed concern over the rising debt and deficits following the GOP’s tax cut bill and recent increase in federal spending. “This is more objectionable because we are going to return to the big deficits of epic downturns, only we are doing it when it’s a boom,” he said. “So god help us if we have a recession in the middle of this because then all of those projections are going to be that much worse.”
Even as Bank of America finds favor with President Donald Trump over corporate tax cuts, the company’s vice chairwoman says it isn’t – and won’t be – in complete alignment with the White House on all other business matters.
“This is an unusual administration by any measure,” Anne Finucane said on the latest episode of Women Rule. “There are benefits and there are places where we don’t agree.”
One of the net positives of the Trump presidency for the bank: the $1.5 trillion tax law enacted late last year.
Immediately following the bill’s passage in December, the company celebrated by announcing that about 145,000 employees would see a bump in their paychecks, receiving a one-time $1,000 bonus. And according to one New York Times analysis, Bank of America is expected to save $2.7 billion in 2018 from the lower corporate tax rate.
For Finucane, the tax law meant that the bank “can invest more.”
“We can hire more people, better wages, et cetera,” she said.
But Finucane noted at least one major difference between the bank and the administration’s policy priorities: Bank of America, the vice chair said, would stay faithful to its environmental initiatives and would continue to invest in green businesses.
“We are going to stay the course on our environmental commitment on COP 21,” she said, referring to the Paris climate accord, which the White House pulled out of last year. “We’re aware that the administration is not favoring that, but we made the commitment. We feel that it’s a good business opportunity.”
The bank, which has pledged to invest $125 billion in green businesses and bonds by 2025, believes that “to be a citizen of communities, or a citizen of the world, that we have to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and it’s real,” Finucane said. “We all have to do our part.”
Asked how the bank is planning to deal with Washington more generally, Finucane preferred to remain administration-agnostic.
“I think that, happily, we have the ability to think independently,” she said. “We are trying to navigate it with an eye toward the long term, not toward one administration versus another.”
And Finucane noted that when it comes to partnerships with other branches of government, the bank was focused on some areas over others, like cybersecurity.
“I think we do have a partner in Washington,” she said. “The banks have put a lot of money - billions of dollars - into cybersecurity. And I do think there is an association both with legislative branch, administrative branch and security in general.”
A federal agency that regulates labor unions is engaged in something close to civil war as political appointees, career bureaucrats and its inspector general battle one another.
The agency is the National Labor Relations Board, created in 1935 to promote collective bargaining and adjudicate disputes between businesses and workers. An independent agency insulated — in theory — from partisan politics, the NLRB under President Donald Trump is consumed to the point of paralysis by fights over personnel policies, ethics rules and legal decisions that stem from ancient political disagreements over the proper balance of power between employers and workers.
The in-fighting is bad news for workers who seek the NLRB’s help to organize unions and increase corporate accountability for labor law violations — and also, paradoxically, bad news for employers who want to fight unionization and limit corporate liability by reversing pro-labor rulings issued under the Obama NLRB.
“This is like when Yugoslavia broke up,” said one employment lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You’re fighting over things that happened 10,000 years ago — you killed my ancestor so I’m going to kill you.”
At the center of the controversy, which has pitted civil servants against political appointees, conservatives against liberals and, on occasion, conservatives against other conservatives, are Peter Robb, the NLRB’s bare-knuckled general counsel, and board member William Emanuel, a controversial Trump appointee with deep ties to business.
Robb outraged the NLRB’s career staff in January by proposing a restructuring that would demote regional directors, whom the business lobby considers too pro-union. That prompted revolt from the NLRB’s employee unions. “Peter Robb is considering measures to ‘streamline’ the NLRB that will only make it harder to remedy federal labor law violations,” read a flyer that three New York union locals distributed at an event Robb attended in February.
Nearly 400 NLRB employees followed up March 15 in a letter sent to members of Congress that said Robb’s changes “strike us as unlikely to generate cost savings for the agency. What they do seem likely to achieve is the frustration of our efforts to provide members of the public with high quality, thorough investigation.”
The second and more elaborate NLRB controversy concerns Emanuel's decision not to recuse himself in December from Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, a pro-business ruling in which the NLRB’s inspector general later concluded Emanuel had a conflict of interest. After the inspector general issued his report, the NLRB vacated the ruling.
The two story lines crossed this month when Robb issued a legal opinion that said he “does not agree with the conclusions reached in the IG report,” and accused three NLRB members of breaking the law. Robb faulted the members — including the Republican chairman — for vacating Hy-Brand without consulting Emanuel, and urged the board to reinstate Hy-Brand. It’s highly unusual for an NLRB general counsel to criticize the board’s judgment so harshly. The White House, signaling apparent agreement with Robb, replaced NLRB Chairman Marvin Kaplan last week with the just-confirmed board member John Ring. (Kaplan will remain as board member.)
Meanwhile, the NLRB’s inspector general, David Berry, is investigating a second NLRB member, Mark Pearce, who is one of the board’s two Democrats. (By law, two of the NLRB’s five board members are chosen by whichever party does not occupy the White House.) Berry is following on a complaint filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative nonprofit, based on a Wall Street Journal editorial that accused Pearce of alerting in advance attendees at an American Bar Association meeting in Puerto Rico that Hy-Brand would be vacated. Pearce did not answer a request for comment.
Berry, in turn, stands accused by the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, the legal arm of the anti-union National Right To Work Committee, of disclosing confidential board deliberations improperly in his report on Emanuel, and in a follow-up report issued one month later. The right-to-work group asked an umbrella group, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, to investigate. Berry did not answer a request for comment.
“It’s sort of like 'Game of Thrones,'” said Roger King, a friend of Emanuel’s and senior labor and employment counsel for the HR Policy Association.
Or maybe three-dimensional chess. The National Right to Work Committee is a natural ally to Emanuel, but, remarkably, it’s come to regard Emanuel as a problem that must not be replicated in future NLRB nominations, lest pro-labor Democrats gain an upper hand through additional recusals.
In its March newsletter, the group revealed that the Trump administration ignored its advice “not to choose … another management attorney who would have to recuse himself or herself potentially from vast numbers of cases involving clients of the attorney’s former employer.” That advice, the newsletter complained, “went unheeded” when Trump nominated Ring, a partner at the management-side law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, “whose client list is even longer than Littler Mendelson’s.” The Senate confirmed Ring last week.
“For the next year and a half,” warned National Right To Work Committee vice president Matthew Leen in the newsletter, “two of the three NLRB members who aren’t profoundly biased in favor of forced unionism may have to recuse themselves from multiple cases.”
In effect, Leen was saying that the Trump administration was so blatantly anti-labor that it may be unable to fulfill its anti-labor objectives.
It’s hardly new for politicians to wrangle over the NLRB. In 2012, the board made headlines when President Barack Obama tested the limits of his executive power by bypassing Congress and granting three recess appointments to the NLRB even though the Senate was technically in session. Obama ended up losing in the Supreme Court.
This time, though, partisan warfare has penetrated the agency itself.
General counsel Robb sent senior agency staffers reeling after he announced in a Jan. 11 conference call that he wanted to consolidate the agency’s 26 field offices into larger “districts” overseen by officials hand-picked by him. Under Robb’s plan, regional directors would lose their classification as members of the Senior Executive Service — the civil service’s highest rank — and be replaced by a new layer of officials who'd be answerable to Robb.
The title “general counsel” makes Robb sound like a lawyer for NLRB management, but in fact it’s arguably the agency’s most powerful position. The NLRB general counsel is the agency’s gatekeeper, a sort of prosecutor who brings cases before the board. The vast majority of NLRB cases are processed at the NLRB’s 26 field offices and never reach the board. The field offices are staffed by career officials who don’t typically agree with the pro-management outlook of Robb, to whom they report.
In a letter to Robb shortly after the January conference call, the regional directors called his proposed changes “very major” and complained that they hadn’t “heard an explanation of the benefits to be gained.” They also warned that enacting such changes might prompt senior directors and managers to retire en masse — a clear shot across the bow.
In reply, another official from the general counsel’s office proposed by email additional restrictions on the decision-making power of regional officials, such as requiring all cases go through headquarters for initial review.
Robb declined to comment for this story and, according to a source familiar with his thinking, is upset that the controversy spilled into public view.
Marshall Babson, a former Democrat appointee to the NLRB, said that Robb’s proposed changes risk making the NLRB less efficient. “If you’re talking about injecting another level of review, that could slow things down,” he said.
Jennifer Abruzzo, who was acting general counsel before Robb, agreed. “I think that’s a mistake,” she said. “I think the regional directors know what they’re doing.”
Shifting rationales for the changes have intensified the career staff’s suspicions about Robb’s motives. At the March ABA meeting in Puerto Rico, Robb’s deputy John Kyle said they were intended to bring the agency in line with the White House’s proposed 9 percent budget cut for the agency. But the $1.3 trillion spending bill signed into law last month by President Donald Trump, H.R. 1625 (115), rejected that cut and maintained funding at current levels.
“It certainly undercuts the general counsel’s rationale for restructuring,” said Karen Cook, president of the NLRB Professional Association. “He will try to move forward with his plan, though, on the basis that he expects a severe cut to the 2019 budget.“
The budget picture grew more complex Tuesday when the White House budget office alerted NLRB that the agency should spend only $264 million of the $274 million it received in the spending bill, a 3.6 percent reduction. Such a rescission, were it to become permanent, would require congressional approval under the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act.
“I am unaware of a single instance in the past wherein the White House or OMB subjected the NLRB to the budget rescission process,” said Marshall Babson, a former board member.
Fevered though the Robb Revolt is, it hasn’t yet engulfed members of the board itself. The same can’t be said about the controversy surrounding Emanuel and his participation in the December Hy-Brand decision.
Hy-Brand narrowed the circumstances under which a business could be classified a so-called joint employer, jointly liable for labor violations committed by its contractors or franchisees. It reversed an earlier ruling in Browning-Ferris Industries, a 2016 decision by the Obama NLRB that broadened the circumstances under which a business could be classified a joint employer. Fast-food chains like McDonald’s were outraged by Browning-Ferris because it put them on the hook for maltreatment of employees over whom they didn’t necessarily maintain direct control.
Hy-Brand was rushed out along with several other pro-management decisions shortly before a Republican NLRB member’s term was about to end in December, leaving the board deadlocked, 2-2. The overturning of Browning-Ferris took many by surprise, because Hy-Brand wasn’t a case that had much to do with the joint-employer issue.
“It was a rush to judgment,” said Wilma Liebman, a Democratic board member under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
One week after the Hy-Brand ruling, congressional Democrats accused the NLRB of loading the dice by allowing Emanuel to participate. Emanuel’s former law firm, Littler Mendelson, had represented a party in Browning-Ferris, noted a Dec. 21 letter to Emanuel from Senate HELP Committee ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and others. In the letter, the six Democrats posed several questions to Emanuel about his participation in Hy-Brand.
In his response, first reported by ProPublica, Emanuel said he wasn’t aware at the time of the ruling that his firm had been involved in Browning-Ferris, noting Littler’s very long client list. Unfortunately for Emanuel, he’d already noted his firm’s participation in Browning-Ferris on a questionnaire submitted during his confirmation hearing. Emanuel scrambled to revise his response, but the damage was done, and inspector general Berry opened an investigation. The first report, issued Feb. 9, was scathing, finding “a serious and flagrant problem and/or deficiency in the board's administration of its deliberative process.” Emanuel, Berry concluded, should have recused himself from the decision to overturn the Obama-era standard.
The NLRB’s other three board members, including Trump-nominated chairman Marvin Kaplan, were persuaded by Berry’s reasoning and vacated Hy-Brand, waiting to act until after Emanuel departed for the ABA conference in Puerto Rico. Emanuel was stunned when a fellow attendee pulled up the ruling on a cellphone, according to a source who was present at the conference.
“You should have seen the look on his face,” this person said. “He had no knowledge of it in advance. He was totally floored.”
Emanuel, who declined to comment for this story, hired Zuckerman Spaeder, a prominent white-collar law firm that previously represented former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
Emanuel’s defenders insist he did nothing wrong because his firm wasn’t directly involved in Hy-Brand. Zuckerman Spaeder Chairman Dwight Bostwick argued in a letter to Berry that he'd evaluated Emanuel under an unusually strict standard that “has the potential to bedevil and frustrate this agency for years to come” and “‘weaponize’ the ethics rules for purposes of improperly excluding presidential appointees from doing the jobs they were sworn to do.”
Bostwick also wrote that one month after the Hy-Brand decision, the NLRB’s designated ethics official told Emanuel that she didn’t believe Emanuel should have been required to recuse himself in that case. According to the letter, Emanuel asked for that opinion in writing, but the request was denied at the OIG’s request.
Emanuel’s allies have cried foul, noting that former Democratic NLRB member Craig Becker participated in cases involving local chapters of the Service Employees International Union despite having previously been counsel to SEIU. In that instance, Berry raised no red flags. Becker declined to comment on the record.
The conflict-of-interest charge is “based on a house of cards and not a very strong one at that,” said King, the attorney with the HR Policy Association. “We see a long-term game plan to destabilize and undermine the NLRB.”
In his second inspector general report on Emanuel, issued March 20, Berry concluded that Emanuel violated the Trump administration’s ethics pledge, which states: “I will not for a period for two years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.” But in his letter to Berry, Bostwick said he “respectfully disagree[d] … with the determination the member Emanuel violated his presidential ethics pledge.”
Berry acquitted Emanuel of the most serious charge: lying to Congress about whether he was aware of a possible conflict of interest. But that did little to cool Congress' fury. After Berry issued the report, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) called on Emanuel to resign, saying he “no longer has the credibility” to serve.
The Freedom Caucus is prepared to exact a price from Kevin McCarthy if he wants to be the next speaker of the House — three years after foiling his first bid for the job.
A POLITICO survey of about 20 of the conservative group’s three dozen members found varying degrees of openness to the California Republican known as a deal-making pragmatist. But nearly all the hard-liners said he’ll have to make concessions to win their support. Without it, they could block his path to the speakership.
“We’re not just going to rearrange the deck chairs around this place and keep doing the same stuff with different people,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a caucus board member. McCarthy, currently the majority leader, “hasn’t earned my vote."
The demands of the conservatives differ widely. Some Freedom Caucus members — including even one of the most pro-McCarthy conservatives, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) — want to see one of their own installed in the ranks of Republican leadership. Others, like the group's outspoken leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) or Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), want allies named to plum committees or considered for chairmanships.
A huge chunk of the group wants a speaker who will push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) harder to take up conservative House-passed bills. And another slice, such as GOP Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan and David Schweikert of Arizona, are seeking legislative process changes, such as more amendments and debate, or specific conservative policy fixes.
“What I think you’ll hear from everybody [in the Freedom Caucus] at this point in time is that we’re not committing to anybody,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), one of the few Freedom Caucus members who has a seat on a powerful committee, House Energy and Commerce. “I want to have that conversation with Kevin if he is going to run and see what we can do to make sure that conservatives have a voice and that we manage the House a little bit more productively.”
The group has time to come up with a concrete set of demands. Speaker Paul Ryan is still on the job, and he's insisting he’ll lead the House GOP through Election Day.
Yet many Republicans think the horse-trading between McCarthy and the Freedom Caucus needs to happen sooner than later.
Though a handful of Freedom Caucus members say a longer courtship could help them extract even more from the next GOP leader, if Republicans lose the House in November, the group is almost certain to lose influence. Only a few dozen Republicans are needed to withhold the 218 votes required to become speaker; becoming minority leader requires just a simple majority of the Republican Conference, a much easier feat for McCarthy.
That’s why some Republicans are considering a deal with the front-runner to replace Ryan.
“I supported John Boehner, and I supported Paul Ryan under the right circumstances; I could vote for Kevin McCarthy on the House floor,” said GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, later adding, “It’s all a matter of comparisons.”
For McCarthy, the upcoming race is a test of the way he's wielded his influence in the Ryan era.
Since the HFC dashed his hopes of being speaker in 2015, McCarthy has assiduously tried to cultivate relationships with some in the group by working with them on legislation or raising money for their reelections. He’s donated to or held events for at least a half-dozen, including GOP Reps. Rod Blum of Iowa, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Alex Mooney of West Virginia, Andy Harris of Maryland, Gary Palmer of Alabama and Schweikert. And he’s worked with a handful of others to get their ideas on the floor.
Last fall, after Hurricane Harvey, McCarthy flew to GOP Rep. Randy Weber’s Texas district to spend time with him and his constituents. Today, the Freedom Caucus member is warming to the idea of a Speaker McCarthy. Asked whether he would back McCarthy for speaker, Weber paused for a full minute, took a deep breath and pondered aloud, “Do I want this in the news?”
“He has a good grasp of all the issues. He’s smart. He’s intelligent. He’s a good fundraiser,” said Weber. “Aren’t those all qualifications for a good speaker?”
That’s not the only relationship that’s paid dividends. About a half-dozen group members suggested they could back McCarthy — or seemed persuadable — should a race happen soon.
“He’s had an event for me in Texas; he’s always been responsive when I call him; he has a great relationship with my 12-year-old son, Jack; and he’s good on the issues,” said Barton, who wants the Freedom Caucus to haul in McCarthy to discuss how he’d run the conference. “I personally don’t have a problem with him.”
But for every conservative open to McCarthy, there’s one or more who’s skeptical. Asked whether he would back McCarthy, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) complained about leadership promising that one of his bills would get a Senate vote in return for his Obamacare repeal vote last spring. He’s still waiting a year later.
"Trust is a series of promises kept," Gosar said. "If you're auditioning for a job, you might want to start keeping some promises."
Others groused about the historic lack of floor amendments considered and lack of legislative victories under unified Republican control of Washington.
“We need some changes around here — and that is going to determine who we get behind,” said GOP Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia.
Some were more diplomatic than others. The often colorful and quotable Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) would say only “he’s a very able guy,” when asked twice about what he thought of McCarthy leading the conference.
At least two group members suggested that McCarthy was not going to win their votes.
“He’s not qualified,” said Amash, a more libertarian member and one of the group’s most outspoken leadership critics. “You need someone who is actually going to change the process, which has been broken under the recent Republican leadership.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) was no more generous, blaming McCarthy as much as Ryan for what he views as a top-down effort to scuttle legislative debate and jam through policy changes in massive spending bills.
"Kevin would have a hard time selling me," Biggs said.
Rep. Steve Pearce disagreed, and he bristled at the suggestion of a Freedom Caucus-McCarthy deal, saying he would not need any concessions. The New Mexico Republican also argued that most decisions were likely Ryan’s, and so blaming McCarthy for problems might be unfair.
“He’s been second in command,” Pearce said, notably not ruling McCarthy out. “You can never tell what the second would do, because they are sometimes directed by the [speaker]. So I don’t know exactly where he stands.”
That diverging view — whether McCarthy can be blamed for the problems the group had with Ryan — is only part of the greater divide in the group over McCarthy, which featured prominently at a closed-door Freedom Caucus meeting on Monday night. Schweikert, who sits on the prized Ways and Means Committee and has a good relationship with current House leaders, tried to convince the group that it should be focused on eliciting policy demands rather than their personal relationships with McCarthy or whoever is running.
“I’m trying to convince the Freedom Caucus members: ‘Let’s take the approach that this isn’t about personalities; it’s about policy. Let them earn it,’” Schweikert said. “Who is going to actually sort of have these intellectually robust ideas? This isn’t a personality contest, it’s a contest of ideas.”
That cuts both ways for McCarthy. GOP Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama, for example, said he has a great relationship with McCarthy. Indeed, Palmer spoke fondly for 10 minutes about negotiating with McCarthy on Medicaid block granting and work requirements during the Obamacare repeal standoff between leadership and the far right last year. He also talked about working with McCarthy to get to "yes" during a 2015 budget fight that pitted fiscal conservatives against defense hawks.
“We found a way to make it work,” Palmer said proudly. “If I trust that we can have an honest conversation and you’re going to give me a fair hearing on my views, you’re always going to have my confidence.”
But Palmer, too, wouldn’t say whether he thought McCarthy should be speaker, noting that “everybody’s got a different story.”
“Kevin and I are very good friends, but my decisions will be based on what I think is best for the conference, not just personal relationships. And I expect Kevin to do the same thing,” Palmer said. “That’s the sign of a real leader: the ability to put their own personal interest on hold for the good of everybody else.”
One challenge McCarthy might encounter when it comes to the Freedom Caucus: groupthink. Conservatives know their power is in numbers and often look to their Freedom Caucus leaders, Meadows and Jordan, to negotiate for them, as they did during the Obamacare repeal debate.
Leadership has learned over the years it’s difficult to peel off members from the group. And Meadows and Jordan drive a harder bargain than some other members.
Perhaps that’s why so many in the caucus — including GOP Reps. Dave Brat and Tom Garrett of Virginia, Warren Davidson of Ohio and Ted Yoho of Florida — refused to weigh in.
“We’re a long way off,” said Harris.
“I’m not going to engage in speculation and what ifs,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).
Biggs predicted that there will be efforts to divide the Freedom Caucus and prevent its members from voting as a bloc.
Asked whether those efforts could work this time, Biggs shrugged: "I don't know."
Patrick Kennedy, the former Democratic representative and scion of the liberal political dynasty, has emerged as the unlikely go-to player for companies seeking to benefit from the Trump administration’s multibillion-dollar response to the opioid crisis, reaping well over $1 million in salaries and equity stakes in the firms.
The 50-year-old son of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who stepped down from Congress in 2011 amid his own decades-long battles with addiction and mental illness, is a high-profile mental health advocate who sat on President Donald Trump’s opioid commission.
At the same time, he’s served as the CEO of the behavioral health nonprofit Kennedy Forum, which is funded in part by major drug makers and addiction-treatment companies. He received more than $1.1 million in total compensation from the organization between 2014 and 2016. The Kennedy Forum declined to provide details on his pay for 2017.
Kennedy also sits on the boards of eight corporations deeply invested in Washington’s response to the opioid crisis, from which he said he collects director fees and holds an equity stake in the firms. Many of those firms — along with the dozens who support the Kennedy Forum — stand to benefit from fresh efforts in Congress and the Trump administration to combat the opioid crisis by expanding treatment and speeding anti-opioid drugs to market. In the meantime, Kennedy has met regularly with his former congressional colleagues to advocate for higher levels of spending.
The companies for which Kennedy is a board member range from CleanSlate Centers, which primarily provides medication-assisted treatment to patients with alcohol and opioid disorders, to Axial Healthcare, a tech startup that sells pain and opioid management products. InteraXon, a company that makes a “brain sensing headband” that promotes meditation as an addiction rehabilitation aid, lists both Patrick Kennedy and his wife Amy Kennedy, a former teacher, as advisory board members.
The many entanglements make Kennedy a one-man nexus of government, private-sector and patient-advocacy work, which he defends as an expression of his lifelong goal to erase the stigma surrounding mental health and addiction. He acknowledged that his battles for more government funding and broader use of medication dovetail with the financial interests of the firms he advises and several of the Kennedy Forum’s corporate backers, but said the treatments are also medically sound.
“We’re about promoting policy and it so happens that in the case of supporting that policy, some people benefit and so they support our efforts,” Kennedy said. “But to say that we’re doing what we’re doing to kind of promote them, that’s not my MO.”
He also waved off criticism of the personal income that he’s made from his work on behalf of the Kennedy Forum and as a board member for various corporations.
“I spent 22 years as a public servant, and most of my colleagues can attest, with all these demands on us as electeds, you’re not making money in government,” he said. “I feel very grateful that I have the chance to continue to work on the issues I’ve always worked on and make a living for myself and family.”
Despite his extensive advocacy work, Kennedy said, he has not registered as a lobbyist because his activities don’t meet the legal specifications of lobbying.
“I think it can be said to be lobbying,” Kennedy said. “But that’s got such a pejorative sound to it, because we’re not lobbying for any specific interest to game some government contract or get some footing.”
Ethics specialists say the line between lobbying and advocacy can be blurred. But Roger Colinvaux, a Catholic University professor and expert on nonprofits, said that as long as Kennedy stops short of pushing for a specific piece of legislation, he’s free to advocate for policies or funding without crossing into lobbyist territory.
“Lobbying is a pretty technical term,” Colinvaux said, adding that advocates “can meet with members and talk about policy … if the whole purpose is to educate the public, and that would include members of Congress.”
Still, nonprofit specialists raised questions about who Kennedy is effectively representing in meetings with lawmakers or administration officials, and about the transparency of the Kennedy Forum’s funding. Kennedy also gives frequent speeches for which he said he’s typically paid between $15,000 and $40,000 apiece. He declined to estimate how much he makes per year from those speeches, but said they also give him the opportunity to promote his 2015 memoir.
“He’s got good intentions, but also is willing to take money from those who will expect him to do pretty much what he’s doing — which will benefit them either indirectly or directly,” said Paul Streckfus, a former IRS agent and expert on tax-exempt organizations. “Charitable giving by corporations is also about getting.”
Kennedy Forum Chief of Staff Kara Kukfa declined to disclose the largest financial supporters of the organization, which in 2016 reported revenues of a little over $1.1 million and currently employs five people. She also would not reveal how much the Kennedy Forum receives from drug lobby PhRMA or major drug makers like Janssen Pharmaceuticals — which is facing a lawsuit over allegations it contributed to opioid crisis — and Eli Lilly, which is developing a nonopioid pain drug aimed at beating back the epidemic. But Kukfa said neither PhRMA nor the two drug makers have cumulatively donated more than $50,000 to the Kennedy Forum.
Those three are among the 39 sponsors that the Kennedy Forum discloses, a group that includes an array of health care companies, trade associations and foundations. But the actual number of sponsors is greater. Kukfa said that “when donors wish to be recognized, they have been listed on our website.“ Others are not.
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s advocacy for anti-opioid drugs and medication-assisted treatment programs is likely to benefit a wide range of firms that make those products and provide those services, including some that support his nonprofit group. While nonmedication rehabilitation and recovery facilities have long dominated the addiction treatment space, Kennedy has provided a megaphone for more evidence-grounded approaches to countering substance use through medication.
“Bottom line is, we need more influence in this space,” he said. “I’m happy to be one of them, and I don’t mind doing what I know best, and that’s how to organize efforts to get a desired result.”
For instance, Kennedy met with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in November to press for greater enforcement of so-called parity laws requiring insurers to pay for mental health services, including opioid addiction treatment, on the same basis as other medical or surgical benefits. The meeting, which came out of his stint on Trump’s opioid commission, prompted Acosta to commit to supporting legislation expanding the Labor Department’s enforcement authority, Kennedy said.
He also touted his longstanding ties to the Trump administration’s mental health chief, Elinore McCance-Katz, a former state official in Rhode Island, which he represented in Congress, who now runs the nation’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“I’ve had the chance, obviously, to be with her on a number of occasions and work with her, and I’m a big fan of what she’s trying to do,” Kennedy said, characterizing their relationship as “symbiotic.”
“I whacked the administration for not putting more money behind [the opioid crisis response],” he added. “But I always say, if there’s anyone who knows how to spend it, it’s her.”
SAMHSA spokesman Chris Garrett said Kennedy and McCance-Katz have had one phone call since she took office, and that it was about a now-defunct program. They’ve also attended the same event on three separate occasions.
Kennedy said he’s spoken recently as well with lawmakers including Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) about forcing insurers to cover more mental health treatments. Cassidy said he spoke with Kennedy a couple weeks ago, but didn’t get into the details of the complex issue. A representative for Portman said he has never had an official meeting with Kennedy, but that he spoke at a Kennedy Forum event alongside Kennedy last fall.
Kennedy has also gone on the road to push state officials to toughen oversight of mental health coverage — where his family name and status as a celebrity who has wrestled with mental illness and substance abuse tend to draw crowds.
“I think his name and his work sort of precedes itself,” said Alexis Horan, the vice president of government relations for CleanSlate, for which Kennedy is a board member.
She recalled an open-house event that CleanSlate hosted at a new treatment center in Philadelphia. Because Kennedy came to speak at that opening, Horan said. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also showed up.
“These aren’t people who might come to see any old treatment program,” she said. “That’s Patrick’s value.”
Horan testified at a March hearing by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, for which Kennedy was also slated to testify, an invitation she said she was “thrilled” to receive as CleanSlate pushes for legislation raising the cap on the number of prescriptions physicians can write for the anti-opioid drug buprenorphine.
Horan said she doesn’t believe Kennedy engineered the invitation, but that she nevertheless appreciates any doors Kennedy can open for medication-assisted treatment providers.
“I wouldn’t say that was because of our relationship with Patrick,” she said of the hearing invitation. “If that helps, I can’t say it bothers me.”
CleanSlate declined to say how much Kennedy is paid for his work on the board, but acknowledged donating an unspecified amount of money to the Kennedy Forum.
Kennedy himself is unapologetic about receiving financial backing from companies with a stake in the policies he favors, arguing that the funding is necessary in a space where the government has devoted precious few dollars to addressing mental health issues. He describes his vision for the Kennedy Forum as an “AFL-CIO for mental health” that can serve as a national force for a disparate advocacy community that’s traditionally had little influence in Washington.
“Ultimately, I want to build a movement, and we’ve got to get money behind it,” Kennedy said. “I’m not running away from it. I’m fine with it.”
Many companies associated with Kennedy and the Kennedy Forum declined to reveal either his compensation or their donations to his non-profit, but some offered a few details.
An Eli Lilly spokesman said the company donated $25,000 to the Kennedy Forum in 2014, but has not contributed since then. A representative for Janssen disclosed a $5,000 payment the firm made in 2017 to sponsor one of the Kennedy Forum's events.
Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, where Kennedy is also a board member, disclosed in regulatory filings that it initially committed $900,000 to a separate nonprofit that Kennedy co-founded in 2016 called Advocates for Opioid Recovery, which promotes combating opioid use disorder through medication-assisted treatment. It contributed another $200,000 to the group in 2017, a spokesperson said. Kennedy said he does not receive any compensation from the nonprofit.
Braeburn makes long-acting implants that dispense buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder.
Among the other firms for which Kennedy is a board member, InteraXon declined to disclose its financial agreements with Kennedy or his wife, citing its status as a privately held company. Quartet Health, a tech startup designed to connect patients with both mental and physical health care, and Pear Therapeutics — which is developing a digital-based treatment for opioid use disorder — also would not disclose Kennedy's board compensation.
Axial Healthcare, the mental health tech company Medibio and Utah-based addiction treatment center Recovery Ways did not respond to questions about Kennedy’s director pay.
Carol McDaid, a mental health and addiction lobbyist who represents several major addiction treatment organizations, lauded Kennedy’s influence in giving the advocacy community a voice on Capitol Hill — an environment where mental health issues are often still stigmatized.
“He will expend his own political capital on these issues, and a lot of times other [former] members that are lobbyists are a little more cautious about not burning up chits,” she said, adding that he’s more than justified in receiving generous compensation for his work. “Should you have to take a vow of poverty to work on these issues? No, I don’t think you should.”
For Kennedy’s part, he described his work over the last decade as the continuation of a congressional legacy defined by his successful championing of mental health parity requirements and simultaneous personal struggle with addiction — and a broader family focus on mental health dating back to President John F. Kennedy.
“My credibility as an advocate in this space comes from three places,” he said. “One, the author of parity. Two, someone with lived experience who has suffered from and grapples with the chronic illness of addiction and depression. And then the absolute unbelievable aspect of this all is that it was my uncle, who was the president to sign the most sweeping mental health reform over 50 years ago when he signed the Community Mental Health Act.”
That’s allowed him to assemble what he describes as a dream team of top researchers, medical experts and organizations to push for the policy prescriptions that provide the best chance at beating the opioid epidemic. And if anyone, from drug makers to trade groups to treatment centers, want to support that mission, so be it.
“What I’ve done is basically, I’ve got everybody on my team,” he said. “Like it or not, the name’s got the ability to do that. And that’s what I’ve used it for. And that’s why people give to me, frankly. They love the legacy. They trace it back.”
Facebook asked conservative groups for help last week in heading off European-style privacy rules, just as CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepared to apologize to Congress for his company's data scandal.
The company's outreach comes as the European Union is preparing to enforce strict new privacy rules that take effect in late May. Among other things, the EU’s rules allow regulators to impose fines as high as 4 percent of a company’s global revenues for serious violations.
The emailed invitation to a sit-down to discuss the policy, obtained by POLITICO, also shows how Facebook is seeking an unlikely alliance with conservatives, who frequently accuse the the social network of bias against their views but oppose most forms of government regulation. The email did not disclose the recipients but came from Facebook's liaison to conservative organizations.
Facebook made its plea to conservative and libertarian groups last week, just hours before Zuckerberg went before a a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees to express contrition for the leaking of users’ data to Cambridge Analytica and tout new steps the company is taking to boost user privacy.
During that hearing and a second one a day later in the House, Zuckerberg hedged on whether Facebook would offer its U.S. users the safeguards required by Europe's sweeping new rule, known as General Data Protection Regulation. Many U.S. conservatives oppose such top-down EU-style mandates.
"I know it's not lost on anyone in the free market community that with GDPR on the way in Europe and the rapidly changing discussions here in Washington, there's an increased chance Washington will rush to regulate, with privacy concerns at the top of the radar,” Lori Moylan, a Facebook public policy manager who acts as a liaison to conservative groups, wrote in the email.
"It would be incredibly helpful for our privacy team to hear from you — we'd love to talk through any ideas/advice you have and run our thinking by you as well,” she added. She invited recipients to an off-the-record session later this month at the company's offices in Washington.
The head of one group that received the invitation, TechFreedom President Berin Szoka, said his criticisms of the EU's rule go well beyond Facebook's plight.
"Most of the people in that room will be much more concerned with how regulation will impact the next Facebook than Facebook," Szoka said. "Facebook has a huge compliance team. They can manage whatever comes out of the regulatory process. That’s not true for the startups that might try to unseat them."
Other conservative organizations declined to comment.
Asked for comment, a Facebook spokesperson didn't dispute the authenticity of the email. The spokesperson said the company is reaching out to experts across the ideological spectrum before the European privacy regulations go into effect May 25.
Facebook has been under heavy pressure over reports that it allowed Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that worked on President Donald Trump's election campaign, to improperly obtain information on as many as 87 million of the social network's users. Amid the controversy and increased talk of regulation in the U.S., Facebook has given mixed signals on whether it will apply the EU privacy protections across the Atlantic.
“I think regulations like GDPR are very positive,” Zuckerberg said in a call with reporters ahead of last week’s congressional hearings, but he cautioned that “we need to figure out what makes sense in different markets with the different laws and different places.”
Later, in testimony to U.S. lawmakers, Zuckerberg said he's committed to giving American Facebook users the same sort of controls over their data that are required by GDPR. But he added, “That might be different depending on the laws in specific countries in different places.”
Facebook's outreach to right-of-center groups for help in fighting regulation comes as the company continues to take heat from Republicans over alleged anti-conservative bias — complaints that were frequently on display at last week's Zuckerberg hearings.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) dug into the Facebook CEO over what he deemed a “pervasive pattern of political bias” against conservatives, and he was one of a number of GOP members who brought up the case of pro-Trump social media stars Diamond and Silk, who claim they were restricted by the social network.
Republican criticism of Facebook dates back years. In the spring of 2016, a firestorm erupted over allegations that Facebook employees routinely blacklisted conservative news and outlets in its "trending" section, prompting Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) to send a letter to the company asking questions about its policies. Some observers have argued that the intense blowback was so chastening that Facebook shied away from policing so-called fake news — much of it targeted at Hillary Clinton — during the 2016 election.
Now Facebook is trying to connect with conservatives on their dislike of regulation as the company sends mixed signals on the spread of privacy regulation from Europe. Some Republicans in Congress have recently shown concern about the privacy violations exposed by the Cambridge Analytica controversy, but the party has historically been resistant to regulating corporations, including those in the tech sector.
The worries on the right include concerns that European privacy rules would be burdensome to startups and small companies and that its provisions like the "right to erasure" — giving people a way to wipe away personal data — could be used to restrict free speech, said Charles Duan, associate director of technology and innovation policy at the R Street Institute, a right-of-center think tank.
“If they start complying with GDPR in the U.S., they would likely run into a whole lot of people saying, ‘Why are you censoring us?’” he said.
President Donald Trump gave approval last week for rolling out airstrikes in Syria as well as new sanctions on Russia, according to three senior administration officials — but U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley wasn’t briefed on changes to the sanctions plan before announcing it Sunday on national television.
The episode marks the latest instance of members of Trump’s team appearing out of sync with one another or with the president on foreign affairs.
“Russia sanctions were a part of the agreed-upon plan going into the strike and going into the weekend,” said a senior administration official. “As recently as Saturday, that was reconfirmed as part of the plan.”
The Republican National Committee distributed talking points on Saturday morning in the wake of Friday’s airstrikes that specifically mentioned new sanctions, though not a specific timeline, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO: “We also intend to impose specific additional sanctions against Russia to respond to Moscow’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, which has enabled the regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people.”
The president halted the sanctions plan on Sunday night, according to a Washington Post report.
The incident is part of a pattern, administration officials say, in which the president has signed off on policy proposals only to change course days, weeks or months later, undermining some of his closest advisers and Cabinet members and leaving them flat-footed.
Senior administration officials gave divergent explanations Tuesday for why the president backed off imposing sanctions on Russia after Haley’s public announcement.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Tuesday that Haley simply “got out ahead of the curve” on the sanctions, which she said on “Face the Nation” would be announced by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “on Monday, if he hasn’t already.” She also made reference to a Monday sanctions rollout during a separate appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”
“There might have been some momentary confusion,” Kudlow added.
Haley later pushed back against that characterization, saying in a statement: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” (A White House official, speaking on background, said on Tuesday night that Kudlow had called Haley and apologized.)
Another administration official suggested that the Treasury Department didn’t have the sanctions package ready to go. Russia’s muted response to Friday’s strike also gave the administration reason to hold off on the sanctions implementation, the official said.
Others, however, say the president simply changed his mind, though it’s unclear whether he did so before or after Haley’s television appearance.
Over the weekend, Trump also fumed over Vice President Mike Pence’s plans to hire Haley’s senior adviser, Jon Lerner, as his own national security adviser, due to Lerner's role producing anti-Trump television ads during the Republican primary. On Sunday, Lerner informed the White House he would not take the position.
Several national security officials said Haley did not learn of any decision not to move immediately on sanctions before she appeared on the Sunday television shows, a communications snafu that sparked a widespread response among foreign officials. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that the sanctions could be related to Russia’s support for the Assad regime and denounced them as “international economic raiding.”
The problem may have been compounded by recent churn on the National Security Council, which is meant to coordinate foreign policy decisions and announcements. Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, has been on the job for only a little over a week and numerous NSC officials — including communications director Michael Anton, who was in charge of messaging — have recently departed.
Some in the West Wing have called Haley’s statement an error, but she herself has not apologized for it.
Haley has at times departed from official White House talking points, telling CBS News late last year that women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct “deserve to be heard” while the White House has dismissed their claims out of hand.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday in a statement written with Mnuchin on the way to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the administration is still considering additional sanctions but has made no final decision. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future,” she said in a statement.
The White House course reversal came amid reports that Trump has been distracted in briefings and that his top aides have, at times, pushed him to take a tougher stance on Russia than he is comfortable doing. He fumed, for example, when he learned that the U.S. had expelled 60 Russian diplomats while the United Kingdom and France had pushed out just four.
Since the departure of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month, Haley has served as the administration’s de facto secretary of state as his nominee to the post, Mike Pompeo, awaits Senate confirmation.
The president has in the past decided to change course after allowing administration officials to outline plans he has approved. Tillerson in January outlined a plan for a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria only to have Trump declare 2½ months later he was ready to “let the other people take care of it.”
After a small-scale Syrian chemical attack in early March, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster drew up a series of punitive responses against Russia, including sanctions, at the president’s request. Later that month, the U.S. imposed a round of sanctions and expelled 60 Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in the U.K.
Nancy Cook and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
Escaping overseas as scandals explode at home is perhaps the oldest of political strategies. Japan’s Shinzo Abe hopes to make it seem new again as he arrives at Mar-a-Lago this week.
There are few better distractions—or shinier objects—than President Donald Trump. And Prime Minister Abe hopes getting a warm welcome at Trump’s “Winter White House” will remind 127 million Japanese back home he’s still got some diplomatic game.
Abe’s approval ratings show a distinct lack of faith. A year-long cronyism controversy involving a sweetheart land deal drove his numbers below even Trump’s. Nor are voters happy with Abe’s enthusiastic embrace of a leader whose bombast is bringing Japan nothing but grief—a scandal all its own. A month ago, Abe seemed a shoo-in for a third term, putting him on course to be Japan’s longest-serving leader. Now, Tokyo is buzzing about who’s next.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Abe’s April 17-18 Trump catchup. To save his premiership, he must return home with three vital deliverables.
One: Stop the Tariff Insanity. Japan’s government was just as shocked as corporate chieftains to see Abe’s pal refuse to give Tokyo an exemption on new levies. Equally shocking is Trump’s apparent U-turn on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In January 2017, three days into his presidency, Trump reneged on Barack Obama’s China-containing, 12-nation trade deal.
It humiliated Abe, who 67 days earlier hustled to Trump Tower to head off Washington’s TPP exit. Twelve months later, Trump added salt to those wounds by adopting a weak dollar policy and slapping duties on steel and aluminum—25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. He doled out exemptions to Canada, Mexico and others, but none for best-friend Abe. Then came Trump’s proposed $150 billion worth of taxes on goods from China, Japan’s main export market.
Trump’s sudden TPP flirtation could either end in triumph for Abe or ignominy. Obama’s trade deal was a cornerstone of “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s three-phase plan to defeat deflation and take on China. It meant cajoling powerful vested interests—including agriculture and fisheries – to lower defenses and modernize. Abe spent vast sums of political capital getting his Liberal Democratic Party, which has held power almost continuously since 1955, on board.
The first phase of Abe’s plan—aggressive monetary easing – began in 2013. Construction ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics took care of the second. But deregulation was always the most impactful step toward upping competitiveness. For Abe, TPP is a Trojan horse of sorts. Once inside Japan’s walls, fossilized industries have no choice but to internationalize. Abe got Tokyo’s notorious bureaucracy, farm lobby, the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, and powerful construction, finance and energy industries to lower their guards. And then Trump exited, taking with him the economy that matters most to any effort to check China’s dominance.
Trump could be bluffing. Ask Moon Jae-in how trusting the “Art of the Deal” president worked out for South Korea. First, Trump forced Seoul to reopen a trade pact in effect since 2012, claiming “we’re getting destroyed in Korea.” Moon agreed to increase imports of U.S. autos, and a new deal was struck. After all that, Trump refuses to sign it, tying the revamped document to Pyongyang’s nuclear program. So, how do you say “huh?” in Korean?
Either way, Abe must win assurances that Trump has Japan Inc.’s back.
Two: Get Tokyo Some Kim Facetime. Japan isn’t invited to the best show on Earth: Donald Trump meets Kim Jong Un. Sure, the summit might not happen—certainly not if John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, has a say. Whether it’s Kim doing the dissing or China’s Xi Jinping, Abe didn’t make the cut. Yet few countries have more at stake than Abe’s—or greater incentive to ensure its views are represented as the world confronts Pyongyang.
Yet Abe will try to cash the chip he earned Nov. 17, 2016, when, at Trump Tower, he did more to normalize Trump than any world leader since. The ask: Lobby Xi, Kim’s people—or both—to get Tokyo a seat. If not, Abe will ask Trump to put two topics on the table. One, Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea over the years. Two, Kim’s short-range missiles.
The first dates back to a spectacular blunder by Kim’s father. In September 2002, Abe accompanied then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a landmark visit to Pyongyang (Abe was then chief cabinet secretary). There, Kim Jong Il admitted something that had seemed like an urban myth. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least 13 Japanese nationals (Tokyo claims it’s 17) had been kidnapped and forced to teach Japanese language and culture at the Kim Dynasty’s spy schools. It’s a deeply sensitive issue for Japanese voters. Abe will press Trump to demand that Kim Jong Un provide details on survivors, if any.
Trump is expected to demand that Kim surrender his intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, along with agreeing to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Kim won’t, but it’s a necessary ask. Abe wants Trump to request greater transparency on Pyongyang’s short-to-medium range capabilities, too. After all, if Trump ever were to attack North Korea, Abe’s homeland is the easiest target for retaliation.
Three: Get His Mojo Back. Abe’s embattled premiership needs a serious reboot. His current plight concerns the sale of state-owned land at an 86 percent discount to Osaka school company Moritomo Gakuen, to which Abe’s wife, Akie, has ties. The scandal, which first broke a year ago, recently reemerged with leaked documents. Then came news that the Finance Ministry, run by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, doctored paperwork related to the deal.
Abe’s response has been rather Trumpian: deny, deny, deny with some “fake news” swipes by surrogates. But the drip, drip, drip of bad news pushed Abe’s support into the 30s and made for some volatile stock trading as investors wondered about the durability of Japan’s reform push. In their quiet moments at Mar-a-Lago, perhaps Trump and Abe will commiserate a bit.
What both need, though, is to look presidential. Abe hopes a series of summits will restore some popularity. He’s planning a May tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A three-way meeting with China’s Xi and South Korea’s Moon is in the works.
Yet no alliance trumps Tokyo’s relationship with Washington, the supplier of Japan’s security blanket. Abe could turn some heads back home by getting the dealmaker-in-chief to invest in Japan. Trump is prodding Abe to buy billions of dollars of U.S. military equipment. Why not seek a little reciprocity? Abe could request that the U.S. load up on Japanese bullet trains and Maglev technology. Surely, long-suffering Amtrak passengers might agree.
Why not seek tax breaks for Honda, Nissan and Toyota, which, by extension, provide more than 1.5 million U.S. jobs in places like Tennessee and Alabama? How about a preferential scheme for U.S.-Japan technology sharing?
This isn’t about altruism. No one arguably does infrastructure better than Japan—and America’s is crumbling. When Tesla’s Elon Musk opened his Gigafactory in Nevada, the battery engineers at Panasonic were among his first phone calls. SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, meanwhile, is revolutionizing the venture-capital game. Abe could lobby Trump for greater two-way investment between the No. 1 and No. 3 economies and return home with the spoils. And, perhaps, even make his own political prospects great again.
A woman from Honduras, who shall be identified only by her initials, L.C., was granted asylum in an immigration court in Chicago early this year. She came to the United States with her teenage daughter, fording the Rio Grande in Texas, after the girl had the extremely bad fortune of being a passer-by witness to a noonday massacre on a street near their home. Gunmen from the Mara 18 gang murdered eight people, mostly bus dispatchers, because the bus company was balking at paying a tax to the gang.
Soon the killers came to L.C.’s house, threatening to abduct her daughter for the sex trade and demanding that L.C. pay the gang for her child to be spared.
But that story of fear was not what convinced the immigration judge that L.C. had met the legal standard for asylum. Rather, it was her account of 16 years of beatings and sexual assault by her husband. In one of the last episodes before she fled, he had pressed a pistol to her temple to show how easy it would be to kill her.
Women in an exodus from Central America since 2014 have succeeded in winning asylum or other protections in the United States as victims of a pandemic of domestic abuse in that region. Because of recent cases that established fear of domestic violence as a legitimate basis for asylum, those claims often found more solid legal grounding in U.S. immigration court than claims of people who said they were escaping from killer gangs.
Now the Trump administration, determined to stop the stream of people to the border from Central America, is moving to curtail or close the legal avenues to protection for abused women like L.C. While the #MeToo movement has swept the country, bringing new legitimacy to women’s stories and consequences for men who abused, on immigration President Donald Trump is going the other way.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, from his position as the top official in charge of the immigration courts, is leading a broad review to question whether domestic or sexual violence should ever be recognized as persecution that would justify protection in the United States.
The president launched a new immigration blitz earlier this month in response to an Easter season caravan of migrants that was trekking across southern Mexico, which included hundreds of women and their children. In a fiery memorandum, Trump said the caravan represented a “drastic surge” of gang members and illegal migrants that “threatens our safety” and posed a challenge to “our American way of life.” Trump insisted in a volley of tweets that he had to shore up the “weak laws border.” While authorizing the dispatch of National Guard troops, he also ordered immigration officials to take new steps to end a policy he called “catch and release.”
In a speech in West Virginia on April 5, Trump decried the rampant sexual assault endured by women in the caravan, saying they were “raped at levels that nobody's ever seen before.” He did it not to arouse sympathy or extend a humanitarian welcome, but to insist he had been right all along when he said, in announcing his presidential run in 2015, that many Mexican migrants were rapists.
Sessions joined in with the president, instructing federal prosecutors along the border to show “zero tolerance” by bringing criminal charges against anyone caught crossing illegally. In a speech on April 11 to border sheriffs meeting in New Mexico, Sessions said crossings by asylum seekers were increasing this year because of “loopholes in our laws being exploited by illegal aliens and open border radicals every day.”
The attorney general had a blunt message for the migrants: “If you break into this country, we will prosecute you.”
Under current American law, migrants who come to the border saying they fear returning home have a right to an interview by immigration authorities and in many cases to be heard in immigration court. The spread of vicious gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has put them at the top of lists of the most murderous countries in the world. But Trump administration officials say most border crossers from the region present flimsy asylum claims to get into the country and game the system.
An April 4 information sheet from the Department of Homeland Security identified “the problem” as the surging numbers of women and children seeking asylum. Before 2011, it reported, over 90 percent of migrants who asked for refuge were “single adult males.” Now, 40 percent are “families and children.” (Most of the parents in what border officials call “family units”—parents apprehended with their own children—are mothers.) Border agents caught 104,999 people in family units in fiscal 2017, but only 2,605 were deported, a balance that administration officials say they are determined to reverse.
Refugee groups and women’s organizations have been worried by the review Sessions has undertaken since January to revise asylum case law that has been favorable to women. Since the immigration courts are part of the Justice Department rather than the independent federal judiciary, the attorney general has the authority to reach in and pick out cases he will decide on his own. If upheld on appeal, the attorney general’s decisions become binding precedents for the immigration courts.
Sessions has expressed his suspicion of asylum claims based on domestic abuse or gang predation. In a speech in October to immigration judges, Sessions said asylum was meant to protect people who fled their home countries “because of persecution based on fundamental things like their religion or nationality.” He said the immigration courts were “overloaded with fake claims.”
One case Sessions assigned to himself is a decision in 2016 by the immigration appeals court concerning a woman from El Salvador who was psychologically demeaned and sexually attacked by her husband, even after she divorced him. She presented statements from neighbors and a protective order from El Salvador. The appeals court, reversing a lower immigration judge, found she should be granted asylum.
Sessions said he would use the case to resolve a fundamental question: whether “being a victim of private criminal activity,” such as domestic violence, could ever fit the legal requirements for asylum.
In another case he took over, Sessions posed a procedural question—about when immigration judges can suspend certain deportation cases—which could have significant consequences for female migrants. He could make it more difficult for them to apply for visas as victims of trafficking, or to become permanent residents if they had been abused by a spouse or relative who might sponsor them. In all, Sessions has taken over four cases since January, an unusual number in a short period.
“You put all these cases together and the potential impact on vulnerable women is magnified,” said Toni Maschler, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. who has handled many asylum claims.
Sessions asked lawyers and immigration advocates on all sides to weigh in on questions he posed. But, in a move lawyers find baffling, he declined to open the underlying cases, which are confidential, specifically rebuffing requests from the American Immigration Lawyers Association to be allowed to study them. In one case, the lawyer for the asylum-seeker from El Salvador, Andrés López of Charlotte, North Carolina, stepped forward to share the appeals court decision with other lawyers, redacted to protect his client’s identity.
In other changes that will affect women seeking refuge, DHS officials want to reframe the initial interviews immigration officers conduct with migrants, to make it more difficult to pass the first hurdle for asylum.
To end “catch and release,” Trump last week ordered border authorities to detain virtually all asylum-seekers and speed the opening of new detention facilities, using military bases if necessary. Officials are exploring ways to circumvent federal court orders that have allowed most women with children to be released after no more than three weeks in detention. Last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it was ending a policy of generally releasing pregnant women.
This week, the Justice Department said it would halt at the end of April a program run by the Vera Institute of Justice of legal rights presentations in 38 detention centers. For many women, the orientation sessions were the first time they learned they could seek legal help to fight to stay in the United States.
Trump and Sessions have strong support from conservative Republicans in Congress for their efforts to trim the number of asylum cases going before the courts and to hasten deportations of asylum-seekers. Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill in January that would codify many changes the administration wants. But it has not garnered enough support to advance.
The case of L.C. (who asked that only her initials be used, as she and her daughter build new lives in Chicago) shows what women stand to lose. She recalled in an interview how her husband woke her in the morning pulling her hair and punching her. He lashed her with his belt to “teach her to be a good woman,” and forced himself on her sexually. She often went to her job as an accountant in a flour mill with visible bruises and lacerations.
L.C. won her case based on a 39-page brief painstakingly crafted by a team of volunteer lawyers led by the firm Kirkland & Ellis and the National Immigrant Justice Center. Without them, she said, she wouldn’t even have known to mention her history of abuse to immigration authorities.
“I feel peace,” she says, something she had never experienced in Honduras. “I want women who came here from my country to know that they are not kitchen utensils,” she said.
Some protections Trump is seeking to roll back are long established in international refugee law, said Karen Musalo, a professor who is director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She led the protracted legal battle that resulted in the courts recognizing that women who suffered domestic violence could gain asylum.
“If you put it all together,” Musalo said, “he is trying to cut back in every way on access to protection.”
The divide between those who want to open up and connect with the rest of the world—the globalists—and those who want to retrench behind barriers—let’s call them the localists—is deepening. There was Remain vs. Leave in the Brexit debate, then there was Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump. Today, the divide is visible in the battle raging between those who want to make trade agreements and those who want to start trade wars.
Both sides are fighting over what’s becoming a false dichotomy. Out of sight of these pitched partisan battles, a future is being invented in which we will no longer have to choose between global connectivity and local self-sufficiency. It is a future where anybody can make (almost) anything locally, while using knowledge that is shared globally. This future has important implications for politics today.
Digital fabrication—the process by which data are turned into things, and vice versa—is challenging fundamental assumptions about the nature of work, money and government. All over the world, people are already using a range of computer-controlled tools to make everything from food, furniture and crafts to computers, houses and cars. They’re sharing knowledge remotely, while moving toward community self-sufficiency locally. As these capabilities become widely available in the coming years, institutions and organizations will be caught flat-footed if they don’t start preparing now.
To understand the potential transformative impact of digitizing fabrication, a little historical context is helpful. Over the past 50 years, we’ve lived through two digital revolutions—one in communication and the other in computation. Together they have brought us personal computers, mobile phones and the internet, radically transforming our economy and lives. Digital fabrication is now a third revolution, building on the first two by bringing the virtual world of bits out into the physical world of atoms. The first two digital revolutions progressed at exponential rates, with computers going from filling buildings, to rooms, to desks, to laps, to pockets in the span of 50 years. Digital fabrication is now advancing in the same exponential way.
When you hear “digital fabrication” you might think of 3-D printers. Three-dimensional printers are indeed the most visible manifestation of this new phenomenon, but they are just one part of the current toolbox. There are also machines that cut precisely with lasers; larger rotating cutting tools to carve things like furniture; automated knives to plot out graphics; molds for casting parts, electronics tools to produce, assemble and program circuits; and scanning tools to digitize objects so that they can be transmitted and replicated. Together, these tools add up to a complete fabrication facility—a fab lab.
Fab labs function like town libraries for technology, supporting a mix of for-profit and nonprofit activities. Like a library, they’re used for education and entertainment, but like a factory they’re also used to produce products and create community infrastructure. The number of fab labs has been doubling for more than a decade, and there are now more than 1,000 worldwide, in locations ranging from the northern tip of Norway to the southern tip of Africa, from rural Alaska to urban Japan. Their impact inspired the city of Barcelona to make a 40-year pledge to produce everything it consumes, kicking off a Fab City commitment that’s been joined by more than a dozen cities and now whole countries.
Just as with early computing, the rapid rate of progression of digital fabrication is already apparent. The equipment in a fab lab today adds up to about $100,000 and weighs two tons, a civic-scale investment. But soon, fab lab machines will be able to make more fab lab machines, dropping their cost down to thousands of dollars—a number that early adopters will be able to afford for personal use. And while fab labs currently rely on a global supply chain for the materials that they use, laboratory research is currently developing “digital” materials that can be assembled (and disassembled) from a small collection of microscopic building blocks, reducing all of the inputs of a fab lab to a simple set of feed-stocks of these parts. This will drop the cost and complexity of the capabilities in a fab lab down to the equivalent of today’s ubiquitous tablets and smartphones. And even further out, research is merging the machines and materials to make possible the science fiction staples of programmable matter and universal replicators. These advances are analogous to how the internet progressed from connecting computers to connecting everyday objects.
This research road map will again take decades to complete, but the historical lesson is that its implications will arrive much sooner, disrupting global supply chains and their associated regulatory structures. Consider a simple example: acquiring a toaster. Today, the would-be customer requires a paying job in order to earn the money to purchase a toaster from a store, which arrives in a truck, driven on a highway, after being picked up from a train on a rail line, which comes in on a ship in a port, after being produced in a factory on the far side of the world. Each one of those steps carries with it policies, regulations, taxes, employment and administration.
What happens, then, if the toaster is made in a fab lab instead? That’s not a hard project. One tool can make a form to cast the body, another can embed the heating elements, and a third can produce the electronics to control it. The toaster design could be developed from scratch, customized to reflect personal preferences, or downloaded from a design repository. The work could be done by the person wanting the toaster, reducing the cost down to that of the raw materials, or the work could be done for them, as a gift, or for payment, or barter. But in all those cases the economic and educational impact remains local. And the construction of the toaster in a fab lab bypasses the need for all of those other logistical steps, from the trains and the ships to the trucks and the assembly lines.
As this example illustrates, fundamental economic assumptions are challenged when fabrication becomes personal. In contrast to launching businesses that create jobs that pay workers who can then consume, those workers can instead be empowered to personally produce products. This act bridges education, industry and entertainment in ways that will have far-reaching political implications. In addition to the direct economic benefits, the ability to make things also taps into a deep-seated human desire. Missed in many of the proposals for a universal base income (to cushion job loss in the face of accelerating technologies) is that people need purpose and meaning in their daily lives. This can come with making what one consumes at a personal and community level. In regions challenged by political, economic and social strife—from the Middle East to South Africa to Northern Ireland—fab labs have been an oasis where people gather to create. Fab labs in Belfast and Derry are bringing together people from opposite sides of the “peace” walls to collaborate on meeting local needs. Incite Focus runs fab labs in Detroit that are providing improved life outcomes for at-risk youth. In these and other cases, the value isn’t just the objects produced but the collaboration fostered.
The toaster example also shows that many centralized functions that governments now perform will either no longer be needed or will need to be reinvented for digital fabrication, such as trade regulation. But there are many distributed functions that governments don’t currently perform that will become necessary, such as providing the equivalent of workplace protections for safety and access in less formal settings like fab labs. And, because there are no central points of control for this technology, this will need to be accomplished by providing incentives to opt into a regulatory framework, rather than by expecting rules to be followed when they can’t be enforced.
Government will have an essential role to play in enabling access. The first two digital revolutions created deep digital divides, and the third digital revolution has the potential to exacerbate them. In anticipation, there is an emerging movement to ensure universal access to digital fabrication, and the literacies to use it. This is a rare issue that crosses the red-blue, rural-urban, coastal-middle divides. Congressmen Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) have introduced a bill chartering a National Fab Lab Network (H.R. 4948) as a public-private partnership in the national interest, and it’s being introduced in the Senate by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Looking beyond existing national labs with remote billion-dollar facilities behind gates and guards, the bill aims to create a new kind of national network of connected local labs. The goal is universal access to digital fabrication, provided through a public-private partnership, with a mix of commercial, philanthropic and impact-focused investment.
It took decades for leaders in governments to even realize that the first two digital revolutions were happening, and they have been playing catch-up ever since—struggling to deal with the unintended consequences of life increasingly mediated through digital devices. Today, governments and communities have a unique opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive with a remarkable new technology, digital fabrication. They can help resolve the divisive debate between globalism and localism by sidestepping it, by letting bits travel while atoms stay put. Instead of diverging realities, digital fabrication allows us to literally design realities.
Hours after Paul Ryan announced his retirement last week, President Donald Trump tweeted a photo of the House speaker and the rest of the GOP congressional leadership at dinner together at the White House. All did the traditional Trump-style smiling thumbs-up—a big show of unity to rebut anxiety about the party collapsing.
What Jennifer Rubin saw while looking at that photo: a Republican Party that “has become the caricature the left always said it was—the party of old white men. And that has become more so in the age of Donald Trump, when he is actively courting and stoking white resentment.”
Trump’s use of identity politics, Rubin told me in an interview for the latest episode of POLITICO’s Off Message podcast, “is a dead end for the party. It’s a dead end because it’s immoral and anti-American to base an entire political movement on one racial group, and it’s a dead end because that’s not America and [what America] is becoming.”
For Rubin, author of the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” blog, it’s been a fast trip from conservative apostle to apostate.
Rubin was hired in late 2010 to be a forceful conservative presence, the counterpart on the right to the Post’s liberal blogger, Greg Sargent. But since Trump’s election, she’s been one of the president’s most strident critics, attacking him multiple times a day as an “arrogant fool” and “flat-out racist.” In the process, she’s becoming a leading voice for a group of conservative intellectuals who don’t fit comfortably in either political party.
Before Trump, she says, being a conservative meant embracing American exceptionalism, forceful moral leadership of the world, promotion of the free market and “fiscal conservatism, which now is a hoot,” she said. “Conservatism, as opposed to Republicanism—and I think that’s an important distinction—was really about a temperament as much as a substantive list of issues. There was a certain modesty in approaching government … a certain humility about governance and a reliance on the structures of the Constitution to keep central government from getting to be too powerful.”
Rubin, who published a break-up letter to the GOP in May 2016 after Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination, says it’s the party that left her: “I don’t think I have changed at all.”
She’s not happy with Ryan, either—she thinks he has betrayed his principles in backing Trump. In fact, when I ask her to point to any member of the Republican leadership she views as a conservative leader, she’s stumped.
And it’s not just about the leaders.
“Republicans have permanently eliminated themselves from credibility to govern,” Rubin said. “You can’t be willing to sacrifice core American values for the sake of a tax cut and be deemed to be worthy of trust going forward.”
Fresh to journalism just over a decade ago after ditching her career as a Hollywood studio labor lawyer to move to Virginia in search of a community whose politics better aligned with her own, Rubin pitched a story to The Weekly Standard in the run-up to the 2008 campaign about how Mitt Romney was running as a very different kind of conservative than he was as governor of Massachusetts, and the betrayal some longtime supporters of his felt. She knows that in the age of Trump, that kind of debating about conservative principles seems quaint, as does a midlife switch to journalism that actually took off after that one article, leading her first to Commentary and then to the Post.
Detaching herself from her party and becoming a prominent critic has had its rough spots for Rubin. She’s had detractors for years, among both conservatives who said she was either a fake conservative or not smart enough, and among Democrats who saw her as a prime example of knee-jerk opposition to whatever President Barack Obama said.
But that ire is nothing like what she’s seen the past two years. Professional friendships have dried up. Hate and threats fill her inbox, spiking after a December 2015 tweet in which Trump called Rubin “highly untalented,” “a real dummy” and “low IQ.”
Not much about the state of politics today inspires Rubin, but she does seem taken by the young people who’ve seized on the moment to advocate changing America’s gun laws. In those student activists and the millennials who have mobilized against Trump—take Alabama’s special election for U.S. Senate, where voters ages 25-29 went with Doug Jones over Roy Moore by 27 points—Rubin sees a warning sign that Republicans ignore at their own peril.
“It matters greatly who is president and what the political environment is as you are coming of political age. When did I come of political age? As Ron Reagan was entering the White House,” Rubin said. “That was my conception of the Republican Party, and I hung on probably beyond the point which that [was] true.” As the party of Trump, Republicans may lose an entire generation, Rubin warns. And policy wins like the tax bill aren’t going to sway millennials’ opinions of the GOP.
“It is a remarkably idealistic generation. What motivates these people is not tax policy, is not party economics or party foreign policy; it’s issues that have a moral and a value-laden core,” Rubin said. “They look upon environmentalism as a moral issue, as a moral cause. They look upon guns as an issue of [whether] we as a society value children.”
Rubin says she’s not going back to the Republican Party. She has dreams of a new party rising from the charred principles of conservatism, or of the Democratic Party rushing in to fill the void left in the center, but she knows they’re dreams.
For all the trouble and turmoil Rubin has faced from finding herself out of place in domestic politics, her heart is in foreign policy. She was one of the most reliable critics of Obama’s presidency, attacking him for what she saw as a lack of commitment to the value of American leadership, blundering into the nuclear negotiations with Iran and pursuing a foreign policy “disastrous for America and disastrous or freedom around the world.”
“Many of the criticisms that I had about Obama’s foreign policy are now being replayed within the prism of Donald Trump,” Rubin said. “There are an awful lot of Democrats now who are saying, ‘America has to lead in the world, and America has to have a strong human rights policy, and America has to stand up for NATO, and America can’t lead from behind.’ Yeah, I agree with that.”
Rubin stands by that critique of the Trump administration, even though the president’s posture toward North Korea parallels one that she herself advocated all the way back in 2010: Accept that the George W. Bush-Obama approach of engaging North Korea didn’t stop the Kim regime from developing nuclear weapons, and replace that approach with a stepped-up military presence in the region and increased engagement with China.
So, I asked her, isn’t that exactly what Trump is doing?
“No. He’s threatening thermonuclear war,” Rubin said. “I have often observed that if you had the Trump administration without Trump, they would be doing a lot of sane things.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Donald Trump has a thing about women. In addition to his three wives, there are scores, perhaps hundreds, possibly thousands of women he’s hit on, dated, married, cheated on, employed, promoted, denounced and ridiculed.
But there’s another type of individual he has a thing for—some might even say it’s an addiction. And it’s a group that may be far more essential to his way of being: lawyers.
Most business executives tend to be lawyer-dependent, but for the better part of 50 years, lawyers have done everything for Trump except have his children. They have finagled unprecedented tax abatements, kept him going through multiple corporate bankruptcies (and out of personal bankruptcy), protected his finances from public scrutiny. They are so entwined with every aspect of his public and private life, it is unimaginable that Trump could have gotten anywhere close to where he is today without them. But now, in the aftermath of the FBI raid on the offices and residences of his most prominent personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen—he of the $130,000 pre-election payment to the porn star—the same techniques that Trump’s lawyers have employed for decades to smooth his business path are the very things that threaten to blow holes in his still-young political career. For perhaps the first time in his life, a lawyer has become Trump’s biggest problem—instead of his salvation.
Trump inherited his love of lawyers from his father, Fred Trump. In the 1930s, the elder Trump began to put together what would be the first Trump real estate empire. While other builders were still reeling from the Great Depression, Fred had a secret weapon: a beneath-the-radar attorney named Bill Hyman who used pseudonyms, stand-ins at auctions, even dummy subsidiary corporations to avoid tipping off Brooklyn landowners who might have held out for higher prices if they knew Fred Trump was assembling packages of adjacent lots for large-scale housing developments.
Ever the apprentice, young Donald followed suit and lawyered up. But he wanted more than behind-the-scenes, Bill Hyman-style competence. He wanted someone who would get right up in an opponent’s face and blast away. His dream came true when Eugene Morris, who had represented his father, introduced Donald to Morris’ first cousin, the infamous Sen. Joe McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who had stood trial multiple times for bribery, perjury and extortion but had never been convicted. “I think Donald was attracted by the fact that Roy had actually been indicted,” Morris told me when I was working on a Trump family biography. The famously pugnacious Cohn told a reporter in 1980 that Trump called him “15 to 20 times a day, always asking what’s the status of this, what’s the status of that?”
In 1973, when the U.S. Department of Justice charged the Trump Organization with housing discrimination. Cohn hit back with a $100 million countersuit, the quintessential Cohn move of punching back harder. In the end, Cohn pulled off a wrist-slap settlement that spared Trump and his father from a guilty plea or any financial penalty. Over the next decade, Cohn used his mob connections to smooth the younger Trump’s relations with construction unions; inked a stingy prenuptial agreement with Trump’s first wife, Ivana; leaned on city politicians to favor Trump deals; traded favors in Atlantic City’s notoriously corrupt casino industry; and tried to strong-arm the National Football League into a merger that would give Trump a first-tier team at a fraction of the going rate.
Sometimes things have gone badly for Trump—his football venture failed, and in an ensuing lawsuit, he received only a humiliating $3 in damages. But even when his ventures have tanked (Trump Air, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, his casinos, the Plaza Hotel, Trump Soho Hotel, and a string of never-opened Trump-branded ventures in Argentina, Brazil and Canada, among other places), to all appearances, lawyers have kept him solvent.
It’s been close to half a century since Trump retained Cohn (and more than 30 years since the iconic fixer, who died in 1986, performed an act of legal brutality for Trump). But at nearly every stage since then, Trump has hired a no-holds-barred lawyer to make a problem disappear. When he had to squeeze extra floors into a new building, he called Sandy Lindenbaum, a zoning-law guru who called himself “the last of the gunslingers”; when he needed the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to see things his way, he turned to Atlantic City fixture Nick Ribis; when he wanted to divorce Ivana (and, later on, her successor, Marla Maples), he retained Jay Goldberg, a self-described “killer” who says he can “rip skin off a body”; when it was tax time, he reversed decades of bragging about his billions and had tax attorneys say his properties were worth only a fraction of what he had publicly proclaimed (an ongoing tax appeal in Chicago declares Trump Tower Chicago “a failed business”); when he was in the market for a troubleshooter, he hired Michael Cohen, who has threatened journalists who’ve written about Trump with bodily harm. In the summer of 2015, Cohen told a Daily Beast reporter to “tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting,” and last fall he told Vanity Fair he’s “the guy who would take a bullet for the president.”
Perhaps most important, whenever Trump has seen anything that he thinks poses the slightest risk to his business or his reputation, he has sicced a lawyer on the offending party. Often such threats arrive in the form of a letter on heavy, cream-colored stationery, adorned with an embossed gold T and declaring that unless the addressee ceases and desists from all objectionable behavior, the Trump Organization intends to pursue said person to the full extent of the law, i.e., sue his or her pants off. I know. I got one of those missives when I published my book.
Sometimes, as in my case, the threat is all that happens. Other times, an actual lawsuit ensues, as when Trump retained attorney Marc Kasowitz to sue journalist Tim O’Brien for $5 million, claiming O’Brien libeled the notoriously image-conscious developer by asserting Trump was worth much less than he claimed. (They settled out of court.) And in still other cases, there has been a nondisclosure agreement, such as the one Cohen arranged for porn star Stormy Daniels (née Stephanie Clifford) after she claimed to have had an affair with Trump. According to an ongoing USA Today tally, as of April 2018, the Trump Organization has been involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits, far more than any other real estate developer—or any president, for that matter.
Apparently, after entering the White House, Trump felt entitled to the same robust legal protection that he enjoyed in his 26th floor office at Trump Tower. But things haven’t worked out that way. What Trump might euphemistically call “negotiating” in a boardroom runs the risk of becoming criminal obstruction when it’s done in the Oval Office. Unlike the lawyers Trump retained in New York, lawyers who work for the federal government aren’t his employees and can’t automatically cover for him when questions arise. He discovered this the hard way when Attorney General Jeff Sessions, once his most ardent supporter in the Senate, recused himself from the Russia investigation, paving the way for the special counsel investigation that continues to cloud the Trump administration. The lesson recurred when then-FBI director James Comey declined to swear loyalty or to let then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, accused of having lied about his contacts with Russians after Trump’s election, off the hook. Now Comey’s calling the president “morally unfit” in TV interviews to promote his book.
And there’s a corollary: Even Trump’s private lawyers don’t have the maneuvering room they had in the past. Last summer, Kasowitz had to step aside after laying into a critic with a profanity-filled email. John Dowd, whom Trump hired after being told he needed a Washington defense lawyer for the Russia investigation, has quit because he was being sidelined by other White House advisers. And despite Trump’s claim that plenty of lawyers and “top law firms” want to work for him, a growing number have passed on a chance to represent a client who contradicts them in public, changes his story repeatedly, expects them to lie and has a history of stiffing his employees.
Then again, perhaps Trump has come to the right place after all. According to the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal, Washington has a mind-boggling 773.8 registered lawyers per 10,000 residents (almost nine times as many as the second-most densely lawyered-up place in the nation, New York state, which has 88.7 registered lawyers per 10,000 residents). Surely at least one of them is willing to sacrifice reputation, sanity and perhaps a paycheck to defend the man who was elected to lead the country less than a year and a half ago. But it’s unlikely Trump will ever find another one willing to take out a home equity loan—and risk prosecution for bank fraud—just to spare his boss from an embarrassing sex scandal.
Having used both his book, A Higher Loyalty, and his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos to portray himself as the defender of truth, the paragon of integrity, the embodiment of ethical values and principles and as someone guided by a steady moral compass, former FBI Director James Comey has drenched the public discourse with the stink of sanctimony. Not to mention his heavy yammering about leadership, the likely topic he’ll be lecturing on at $60,000 a speech on the stemwinding circuit for the next couple of years.
As a former U.S. attorney, deputy attorney general, corporate attorney, hedge-funder and FBI director, you’d imagine that Comey had viewed himself through life’s mirror often enough to realize that overdressing himself in the vestments of truth and honor might backfire. But there he goes in the book and interview, posturing like the deacon of justice he obviously thinks he is.
In the Stephanopoulos interview, he drops the word “truth” at least 40 times. “We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded,” he writes early in his book. “Values—like truth, integrity and respect for others, to name just a few—serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions.” In describing his own conduct, he can see only a humble Reinhold Niebuhr-quoting man following the path of honor. People who oppose him, such as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, are guilty of acting “dishonorably.” In the book, he even gives himself moral credit for not cutting in line at the FBI cafeteria! If there’s a Nobel Prize for restaurant manners, he should claim it.
We should be willing to spot Comey a few points on the integrity front because his nemesis, President Donald Trump, runs such a deep deficit. As Comey friend and champion Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare told MSNBC on Monday, “The interview and the book more generally gives the country a chance to think hard about which of these two men, you know, tells the truth, and which of these two men they believe.” And it’s not as though Comey is void of self-reflection. He writes, “I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego.”
But the question of what kind of twit Jim Comey is can’t be answered by measuring him in Trump units, which obviously aren’t applicable to him. At one point in the interview, while discussing whether Trump should be impeached, Comey says, “I hope not, because I think impeaching and removing Donald Trump from office would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty bound to do directly.” [Emphasis added.]
On what planet are the American people on the hook? Does Comey mean to include the American people who voted against Trump? “People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values,” Reverend Comey continues.
Posturing like an above-it-all gentleman, Comey then spoils the effect in his book with a series of petty—and not very original—rips on Trump’s physicality. “His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles,” Comey writes on meeting him. His hair is “impressively coifed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his,” his “tie was too long, as it always is,” and Trump’s hands were “average size.”
Comey speaks repeatedly of the importance of “transparency” in his ABC interview and in his book. But as Garrett M. Graff writes in his Rolling Stone review of A Higher Loyalty, Comey frequently goes opaque after raising the topic. “Comey stops well short of the thorough and full-throated explanation of his own actions throughout the 2016 campaign that so many Americans hunger for,” Graff writes. When the memoir recounts the summer-long debate about whether to tell the public in 2016 of the FBI’s Russia investigation, Comey devotes only two pages. “Comey portrays himself and the FBI as all-but passive players in the debate—despite the fact that the DNC hack was an FBI investigation, the bureau a critical player in the discussions,” Graff continues.
Writing in the Washington Post, book critic Carlos Lozada roughs up Comey and scuffs his halo for citing “vague information to imply wrongdoing by the nation’s top law-enforcement official”—President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch—when “the very nature of the [classified] information” makes it hard for her to respond. This is transparency? This is integrity? These are ethical values?
By writing a book and flogging it on the networks, Comey deserves our hard-boiled scrutiny. By passing judgment on others, least of all President Trump, he invites ours. What’s perplexing about the Comey media blitz is that you would think that somebody with his familiarity with giving testimony and arguing criminal cases would have a better sense of how his message would go down. When your 304-page book and marathon interviews produce sympathy for Donald Trump—even a dollop of sympathy—you’re doing it wrong.
Donald Trump has outlived the “axis of adults” who was supposed to guide and shape his foreign policy. He’s run through two national security advisers, innumerable lawyers and lower-level aides, an attorney general, an array of Cabinet secretaries and, any day now, the second of two White House chiefs of staff. He’s dumped the ideologist who helped elect him and never really clarified what his “America First” campaign slogan was all about anyways.
But since we launched The Global Politico days after his inauguration, Trump has more than followed through on his election pledge to shake up the Washington establishment of both parties when it comes to America’s position in the world. Each week, we’ve watched as he’s reoriented – or tried to – U.S. policy toward everywhere from Iran to North Korea, Russia to our North American neighbors.
In 67 episodes over the last year and 85 days, I’ve been privileged to host NATO allies and Middle East leaders come to Washington in search of answers about the puzzling new president; members of Congress, both conservative and liberal, who spend their days trying to unlock that puzzle; and an array of brilliant thinkers and doers, elder statesmen and brash young activists, who are trying to make sense of this disrupted world we’re all living in. I thank all of them – and all of you – for listening, reading and commenting, and here’s one last Global Politico conversation from me, a final session of foreign-policy Trumpology before I sign off.
Read excerpts of my conversation with POLITICO Magazine Editor Blake Hounshell here:
Susan B. Glasser: Well, hi. This is Susan Glasser, and welcome to The Global POLITICO. This week something a little different. Sadly this is my farewell episode of The Global Politico, while I depart for The New Yorker. It’s episode number 68 of the podcast, since we launched in February of 2017, and we’ve had an incredible run of guests helping us make sense of this disrupted world we’re living in — from three former U.S. Secretaries of State to prime ministers; we’ve had artists and dissidents, senators and statesmen, everyone from Condi Rice to Ai Weiwei, Tony Blair to the architect of the Iran deal. We’ve heard about secret talks with the North Koreans and what it’s like to watch democracy die in Venezuela. And of course we’ve talked Russia, Russia, Russia. But the theme of The Global Politico is the extraordinary and unlikely American presidency of Donald Trump — and how it is disrupting Washington’s relations with the rest of the world. And it is to that theme I wanted to return in my final episode.
My guest is my colleague and partner in crime in The Global POLITICO from the very beginning, Blake Hounshell, the editor of POLITICO Magazine. He helped me start POLITICO Magazine; he’s now doing an amazing job running it. We go all the way back to our days together at Foreign Policy magazine, and to the extent that you’ve liked anything about The Global POLITICO, I would say it’s been his handiwork; to the extent that you didn’t like it, that’s all my fault.
No, seriously, Blake, I’m delighted that you’ll be with me on what, sadly, will be my last Global POLITICO, at least—it will go on hiatus, as I understand it, as POLITICO thinks about it. Global POLITICO is a project we started together, basically with the very birth of the Trump administration on January 20, 2017, more or less we launched the podcast about a week later, with Jim Baker, former secretary of state and all around wise man, as our very first guest. He was kind of prescient in a way, wasn’t he, Blake, about the troubles that Trump would have, especially, I thought, he was keen to see the emerging dysfunction in the White House, as already kind of a major theme in the Trump era. And that’s certainly proved to be true.
Blake Hounshell: Yes Jim Baker is sort of an under-appreciated genius, and I think that he really nailed it in saying that Trump was going to be this process fiasco, and I think he even couched probably what he really thinks because he didn’t want to put himself out there as an anti-Trumper, which I think is true of a lot of the foreign policy wise men.
And, I actually, though, I think maybe you and I disagree a little bit about the way things have played out since then. I sort of see a lot of disasters that haven’t happened, and I think maybe you can elaborate, but you see kind of a slow-growing disaster in foreign policy. And I’m just wondering if there is ever going to be the kind of crisis that people really worried about, or if Trump will continue to kind of muddle along and create problems, but there won’t be any sort of horrible national security fiascos.
Glasser: Well, look, I think one thing that has been a consistent theme for many of our guests from the very beginning of The Global POLITICO, and a line of analysis I broadly am in agreement with, is that the Trump story is fundamentally a drama about Donald Trump, and he has certain instincts and impulses which are pretty consistent when it comes to foreign policy. Many of those are disruptive, even potentially highly disruptive, but that we haven’t yet always seen the full consequence of what following through on those impulses is going to mean.
And I think 2017 was a year of taking the measure of Donald Trump, and also Donald Trump taking the measure of the office. 2018 has the potential for being a much more decisive year, and if you look at this remarkable purge of his team, in particular, his national security team, that Trump has undertaken over the last six weeks. He’s dumped his national security advisor; he’ll now have his third national security advisor in office as of this week.
He’s dumped his homeland security advisor. He’s dumped his secretary of state. He has marginalized both his White House Chief John Kelly and disregarded much of the advice of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. And so, he’s set up a situation where, A, he is in a position to act in a much more unconstrained way. And then also, the rest of the world has been carefully observing and monitoring Trump and seeing what he’s like, and I think both Russia and China, and other potential challengers to Trump on the international stage, are much more likely to act on the basis of their analysis of this very unconventional president this year.
So, you know, it has the possibility to be a much more active year, when it comes to international relations.
Hounshell: Right. But I think if I were Vladimir Putin, or if I were Xi Jinping—I mean, they obviously have armies of people that are trying to understand Donald Trump, you know, reading his tweets and analyzing them, and researching his background, intercepting communications.
But I think Donald Trump is a really hard person to read on foreign policy because I don’t think he actually knows what he thinks. I think he acts on impulse. Take, for instance, the debate over whether to put more troops into Afghanistan. Trump was dovish; he didn’t want to do it. He didn’t understand why he needed to put more forces in there. And he fought it.
He also wants to get U.S. troops out of Syria, and yet at the same time he’s bragging about these nice new missiles that he’s planning to send..
So, I think he’s very difficult to read. He’s the same guy who wants to withdraw from the rest of the world, and then he hires a guy like John Bolton, a very aggressive nationalist, to be his national security advisor. I don’t think Donald Trump has signed up for John Bolton’s agenda in many respects.
Glasser: Right. Well, so, I agree with you that I don’t think he’s signed up with John Bolton’s full agenda. But I think it’s a misreading of Trump to say that he is hard to understand when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, actually, Donald Trump has been often shocking, but very infrequently surprising, when he’s been president, over the last year and four months.
Hounshell: Give me an example of that.
Glasser: I think that if you pay close attention to Donald Trump’s background, psychology, and history—both as a private sector businessperson, as a reality show guy—his management, for example, of the White House is completely consistent with the way he managed the Trump Organization, the way he has managed his entire life.
And so, the idea that there is this enormous amount of chaos, that there’s a lot of people coming and going, that he places a huge premium on loyalty, that he wants people to follow him blindly, without always being able to articulate a clearly thought-through strategy that they could implement.
All of those are not in the least bit surprising to me. I think they’re very consistent, and that’s why, actually, going back to the campaign in 2016, I urged us to engage in what we called Trumpology, and early on in POLITICO Magazine we convened the four or five major biographers of Donald Trump.
Because the thing about Trump is not that he came as this mysterious cypher to presidential politics, even though he was a total newcomer. But he was probably one of the most investigated and written about public figures who wasn’t in politics in our lifetime. And I thought that those insights from the Trumpologists, the Trump biographers, have served me well in trying to understand Trump, and actually, that’s been one of the things from the very beginning that we tried to do in Global POLITICO was not just to talk to fellow members of the foreign policy Blob, the establishment here in Washington of really both parties, who have their views about the world.
But, to try to talk to people, both who were more supportive of Trump, but in particular, what I’ve been interested in doing, interviewing people who have engaged personally with President Trump, who are sympathetic enough to be in his orbit, or at least are trying to understand him, from a different vantage pint. And to me those have been some of the most valuable conversations.
We talked with Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, back at the very beginning, before he was a public critic.
Hounshell: Yeah, it’s been a real emotional roller coaster for Bob Corker.
Glasser: Exactly. Before he was a critic of Trump. And I thought his insights, which were based on talking with Trump and those around him, have helped me, again, to be not surprised by a lot of the things that Trump has done.
He said, from February of 2017, Look, Trump on foreign policy—he’s torn between two conflicting things. He wants to be a wrecking ball, and he wants to just destroy everything that basically both parties believe about American foreign policy, on the one hand.
On the other hand, he’s set himself up as this great deal-maker, and at some point those impulses become in conflict, and how is he going to resolve those? He identified that as one of the central tensions of Trump, as a foreign policymaker, back in early February of 2017. I thought that was a very useful insight that came from talking to Trump, being sympathetic.
I think we’ve gotten a lot of insights from talking to people like Senator Tom Cotton, who has been the very hawkish Republican up on Capitol Hill.
Hounshell: Very tied in with the Trump administration. Very influential at the White House.
Glasser: Very influential. For example, the Iran deal. That was specifically what we spoke with him about. I talked with him for The Global POLITICO just a couple of hours after he came from a long lunch at the White House with Donald Trump, in the middle of Trump’s key decision so far on the Iran deal, and that decision was to “decertify”—I’m putting quotes around that—the Iran deal to Congress, but not actually to withdraw from it at the United Nations, where the deal itself actually is.
Now, that’s basically where it’s laid ever since. That was Cotton’s recommendation. Cotton gave us, I thought, some really interesting insights into Trump that have proven useful. Loyalty, and the perception of loyalty is more important than agreeing with the whole ideological program. So, for example, Tom Cotton is a very similar foreign policy thinker, I think, to John Bolton. He’s an uber-hawk and a traditional conservative.
I don’t believe that Donald Trump subscribes to every element of the carefully-calibrated ideology each of those men have, but each of them has found a way to convince Donald Trump that they have his best political interests at heart, and that they are loyal to him, whatever that means.
Hounshell: Well, I think it means don’t contradict him and don’t criticize him.
Glasser: Well, I think they both see the possibility to lead him towards their preferred outcomes. That being said, am I going to be surprised—and I don’t think you or our listeners to Global POLITICO should be surprised. Will he come into conflict with John Bolton? In my view, absolutely.
Hounshell: John Bolton does not seem to me like the kind of guy who will make compromises to accommodate his boss. Up to a point, he might.
Glasser: Well, look. John Bolton had a very interesting falling out with his previous presidential boss, George W. Bush. In the first term he was appointed to senior positions by Bush, including ultimately to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He couldn’t get confirmed in that role. By the end of the second term of Bush, Bush was saying openly to people in the Oval Office, “I don’t consider him to be a credible figure,” and John Bolton was openly attacking him on TV and in op-eds.
Hounshell: Do you think we’ll see that with Trump?
Glasser: It’s certainly a likely outcome. Donald Trump has fallen out with almost all of the senior officials—
Hounshell: Steve Bannon—
Glasser: Officials he’s ever hired, even people that he substantially agrees with—and he probably agrees more ideologically with Steve Bannon in many ways than he does with John Bolton.
Hounshell: Whatever happened to that guy? We don’t hear very much from him anymore.
Glasser: Well, you know, he just gave an interesting interview this week to The New York Times talking about the decisions that Trump will face upcoming on China tariffs and the trade war, as a key political moment for the Trump presidency. He’s obviously trying to pressure Trump now from the outside, because he no longer, at the moment, has the inside track.
But, you know, Trump has a long history of falling out with people and then later reconciling with them.
Hounshell: It’s one of his most endearing attributes.
Glasser: I don’t find it endearing. I find it very consistent with him as a—as someone explained to recently—as a real estate developer. Hounshell: Unpack that for me.
Glasser: Yes, so, I find a lot of my best Trumpology comes from people who’ve really tried to study Trump’s biography, and tried to study what he does at other moments in his life. And this notion that Trump is at heart a real estate developer, or believes himself to be, is a really interesting notion.
Real estate developers might fight tooth and nail with other people over acquiring this parcel of land, or over the development rights—
Hounshell: But you’ve still got to deal the city council and city hall, at the end of the day.
Glasser: Well, also, you don’t know where your next deal is going to come from. So, the person who’s your opponent today could well be the guy that you’re teaming up with to redevelop the Upper West Side tomorrow.
Hounshell: Right. You might need those additional—
Glasser: So, you don’t burn permanent bridges if you’re in real estate. And I though that’s an interesting insight into why you and I think it’s puzzling he has these explosive fights with people—and then he’s friends with them several years later. So, I would expect that.
Hounshell: Except his wives.
Glasser: Well, we’ll see. That’s not true. Even Ivana Trump has been brought back into the fold, after a very messy and contentious divorce. Look at her these days. She’s not out there giving nasty interviews about Donald Trump.
Hounshell: That’s true, that’s true. But there might be legal reasons for that.
Glasser: Well, yeah, but they were in a very, very hostile situation that he somehow managed to crawl back.
Hounshell: All right. So, your main point here is that Donald Trump is not that surprising, right? So, let’s put some cards on the table. It’s your last episode of Global POLITICO, and I want to try to push you to make some predictions. I know this is an uncomfortable ground for a journalist, but it’s the last episode, so why not?
Give us some predictions for the rest of 2018. They could be scenarios, worst case, best case, but let’s have a little fun here. So, tell me about North Korea. What’s going to happen with North Korea?
Glasser: Well, okay, North Korea. First of all, it is true, journalists don’t like to make predictions; they like to make fun of other people for making bad predictions. I’m not going to get in the memorial Bill Kristol chair here. I think what’s happening with North Korea is very interesting, obviously. You already see a little bit of slippage in the timetable. Trump made this dramatic personal announcement, “I’m going to meet with Kim Jong Un,” and accepted the invitation that South Korean envoys brought to him in the White House, to the surprise and dismay of many of his advisors.
Hounshell: Rex Tillerson had no idea it was happening; he was in Africa.
Glasser: Well, and even those who did, who were sitting the room—go back and look at the faces of Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster, who were almost stricken, it seemed to me, if you look at the photograph.
Hounshell: We just did an interview an interview with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, and she had no idea. He said, “I’m going out at 7 p.m. and I’m making an announcement,” and she was like, “What the heck is this?” and she found out when he announced it.
Glasser: Right, what the heck is this? So, we recently had Jake Sullivan as a guest on The Global POLITICO, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser. He had an interesting scenario for the North Korean talks, which I think is one plausible outcome. Jake’s scenario was that both Kim and Trump have a lot personally invested now, a lot on the line, in this summit happening. So, for different reasons, they’ll make it happen.
And he envisioned a situation where they both come out and they proclaim victory, basically. But then, leave it to aides and advisers to negotiate the details, and that takes years or it never happens, right?
Hounshell: The details of what?
Glasser: Well, exactly. So that they both come out proclaiming that they’ve made some great deal that either, A, never really happens, or B, means something different to both the North Koreans and the Americans, and that ends in recriminations. So, that’s one scenario.
Now, Jake and I were speaking right before John Bolton was named as the national security adviser, so there’s also now, with Bolton’s presence, I think, an even more likely scenario.
Hounshell: He is, actually, very knowledgeable about North Korea.
Glasser: Well, knowledgeable about North Korea—North Korea and the Bush administration’s decision to talk with the North Koreans was John Bolton’s—
Hounshell: Right. Over Bolton’s dead body.
Glasser: Was John Bolton’s breaking point with the Bush administration. He called his fellow Republicans in the State Department “appeasers” for their willingness to engage in the six-party talks with North Korea. He believed this was selling out America, and he has recently—as just a couple months ago—published an article in The Wall Street Journal suggesting that a pre-emptive military strike would not be untoward or uncalled for in this situation.
So, certainly, we have to say the odds have gone up that what happens if this summit actually does happen at all is that Trump goes in there, lays down ultimatums for Kim Jong Un; Kim says no way, no how. They walk out; they say diplomacy has failed, and it actually increases the risk of a military conflict.
Hounshell: Right. Right. And you know, one thing that I don’t know if we’ve talked about is the “bloody-nose” scenario, and this was a big McMaster project, I understand, is that he was very interested in the idea that the U.S. could use some sort of limited strike on North Korea and signal somehow—I don’t know how you actually signal this with a country that we don’t really talk to—that we’re going to stop at some point, and that Kim is supposed to not retaliate, and then we just move on with our lives and they become more cooperative.
It doesn’t sound like that’s John Bolton’s thinking; it sounds like he wants to go—he’s kind of a maximalist; he would go to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap.
Glasser: Well, look. He is the national security adviser; he is not the secretary of defense; he’s not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in fact, one thing I would spotlight for you is watch the extent to which Bolton tries to get directly into the gears in the machinery of the American military machine, and will that create friction?
Hounshell: Oh, it will.
Glasser: Will he be ordering up specific war plans, which so far—as far as I can tell—Mattis and the chiefs have resisted?
Hounshell: The Joint Chiefs--
Glasser: Well, exactly.
Hounshell: They don’t report to the national security adviser. They report to the president.
Glasser: Exactly, so it doesn’t really—your scenario, though, that means it’s very unrealistic. It doesn’t matter what John Bolton’s military plan is, if such a war plan doesn’t exist in a practical sense from the Pentagon. And so, that friction emerging could be a big question mark. We don’t really have this ability. And we know that McMaster had promoted—he didn’t like it to call it the bloody-nose plan, and in fact, they denied this very aggressively when reporters would use that phrase.
I think there was military planning underway, as my best reporting shows. They deny that they used that term associated with it, so a classic Washington semantics game of saying, “Well, there was no ‘bloody-nose’ strike being contemplated, because we didn’t use that exact phrase,” but at any rate I think that the friction between Bolton and the military is something that everybody should look out for.
Like, you and I were just talking about the potential friction between Trump and Bolton, but it’s also, I think, likely that he’s going to get a lot of pushback from the existing bureaucracies, both at State and the Pentagon.
Hounshell: Yeah, no, I think that that’s a fair prediction. One thing that a former Clinton person told me very recently is that he thinks Bolton is going to kind of lay low for a little bit, try to shore up his base of power within the White House within the interagency process, but that at the same time there’s this tension between that and the idea that he doesn’t have much time in office.
He’s seen that Donald Trump is a high-turnaround operation, and he probably is aware of his own personality quirks and the idea that he and Trump will clash at some point. So, I think there’s a tension between the idea that he’s going to be cautious, and also the idea that he has limited time before he gets booted out, or resigns in anger, or something like that.
Glasser: Absolutely. If you look at it, the short clock on his tenure means that if you really want to accomplish something, you want to set that in motion quickly. And, by the way, even Steve Bannon was well aware of that. That was reported in the Fire and Fury book, but I actually had heard that from a source well before it was reported. I believe that to be a true aspect of Michael Wolff’s reporting, that Bannon told people very early on, “I’ll be lucky if I make it to the summer.”
Hounshell: Well, he saw himself kind of as a revolutionary, a Leninist who had only a few months to set up—
Glasser: Blow up the system, set off the bombs.
Hounshell: Yeah, drain the swamp and set off the bombs.
Glasser: So, on Bolton, the other thing that we should probably flag for people that I think is very relevant is the extreme time pressure right out of the gate that will affect his tenure one way or the other.
Hounshell: Right. He started on Monday.
Glasser: He started on Monday; we’re already talking about bombing Syria, number one. Number two, we have this convergence of the two major potential foreign policy crises of the Trump administration, North Korea and the Iran deal, in May. There is the deadline in May by which Trump once again needs to decide whether he’s going to just go ahead and pull out of the Iran deal altogether, or take some other as yet unknown course of action. He’s now surrounded by advisers who are extremely hawkish on Iran—that’s not just Bolton, but the potential incoming secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, as well.
Glasser: So that’s number one, in May. And also in May is this time frame that Trump himself has publicly committed to and stated this meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jon Un.
Hounshell: Have the Koreans actually agreed to that, though? I’m not sure.
Glasser: It’s unclear. It’s unclear.
Hounshell: Yeah. So it might never even happen.
Glasser: Of course. And I just saw just the other day now, administration people saying, “Well, June or May,” so, again, you can see some slippage already in that time frame.
Hounshell: Well, let’s talk about the Middle East; you’re a Middle East person; you spent a lot of time in Israel. I know you’ve been watching the Syrian situation closely. By the time this podcast comes out, we may have been already bombing Syria. Trump, as of Wednesday morning, was threatening to launch nice new missiles at Syria, smart missiles. I would assume that all of our missiles are smart nowadays, but maybe we have some new ones. And I’ve heard there was some consternation in the national security circle that said Trump was kind of giving away some classified information to the Russians in tweeting that.
But anyway, I’m curious what you make of Trump’s handling of Syria, because I know you have been critical of the way Obama handled Syria, as a lot of people have. And it kind of seems like Trump has had the same kind of ambivalence about the Middle East that Obama did, and there’s a lot of continuity that, when you strip away the bluster and the personalities, fundamentally the policies aren’t that different.
Glasser: Well, the nature of the presidents is so fundamentally different, I think perhaps I started out—this is an area where my thinking has changed. I think I started out at the beginning of 2017 believing that there was a certain similarity in the critiques of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump brought to foreign policy, and even the worldview that they reflected; in Obama’s case, in a very sophisticated way, in Trump’s case far more crudely, but that there was a real commonality in some ways.
Both of them have seen the Iraq War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a kind of original sin; both of them have been critical of the losses of blood and treasure in the Middle East, the distractions of the Middle East on American foreign policy, eager to find ways to get out of it, to be more focused on, in Obama’s case, a sunnier version of nation-building here at home; in Trump’s case, American carnage.
But again, I started out in 2017 thinking there was something shared in their at least critique of American foreign policy. That may well still be true, but I think I understated the extent to which Trump’s approach to how to do something about his critique of the world would be so fundamentally at odds, not only with Barack Obama’s foreign policy as he carried it out, but with every recent president.
Trump has made it more clear, I think, in the last year just the extent to which he actually is not a believer in the basic institutions of the international order that have undergirded American foreign policy, or even America’s role as a leader in those institutions. He’s not a believer in multilateral alliances; he shuns them wherever possible. He is a complete either unilateralist or at most one-on-one—you know, I’ll team up with Macron—
Hounshell: Right, he likes bilateral trade deals and relationships; he doesn’t like the WTO; he doesn’t like the U.N., but he loves his world leader buddies.
Glasser: Right. But that is profoundly disruptive and threatening to the world order in ways that we cannot even begin to judge the impact. Destroying those institutions also happens by failing to lead them, because those institutions, in fact, were structured in a way to require the United States to lead them. What’s going to be the long-term consequence of us basically saying never mind...?
Hounshell: Well, look what happened to the George W. Bush administration. They actually had a very similar approach to world institutions in their first term.
Glasser: In the first term.
Hounshell: Right? And I guess Bush came around to the idea that that created more problems than it solved. There’s that famous Bolton quote about the U.N. could do without ten floors in its building and it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference. And, having spent a little bit of time reporting and studying the U.N., there’s some truth to that. The place is full of kind of ridiculous things and inefficiencies. But at the end of the day, you need less friction; in order to get things done you need partners.
Glasser: Well, but also you need to want to do something, and that’s where I’ve never seen—
Hounshell: He doesn’t have a goal.
Glasser: American leadership so absent. And again, I can’t say yet what are the exact consequences of that going to be, but you look at pictures you talk about Syria—look at the picture last week of Vladimir Putin convening Turkey’s President Erdogan, convening the leader of Iran, to talk about what the post-civil war Syria should look like,
Hounshell: Put that on your—
Glasser: The United States was not at the table, and that is the post-American world that people have been talking about in many ways. It’s now happening, I think, in a much more speeded-up way in the midst of the Trump presidency.
So, Syria—that photograph, by the way, happened the exact same day that Donald Trump said, “I don’t want to be in Syria anymore; I want us to get out as soon as possible.” Then, of course, the chemical weapons attack by the Assad government occurred right after that. Trump once again sees these horrible photographs on television—
Hounshell: That’s really—that’s one of the things that is surprising about him, that he doesn’t really get emotional; he doesn’t really care about human rights so much, but then there’s something about these pictures of dead children that can move him for these one-off spasms of anger.
Glasser: Yeah. I feel like we already know that he watches a lot of TV, and he’s highly susceptible to manipulation. The difference is, is that he’s now somebody who possesses cruise missiles. But, in fact, if you look at his campaign, you could argue that that was all examples of watching some emotional pictures, for example, of evil, rampaging immigrants on TV, and then reacting to that, and creating policy pronouncements or campaign pronouncements on the basis of that.
That’s exactly what he’s doing now, I would argue, in foreign policy, except he also has aircraft carriers and cruise missiles at his disposal. But this is an amazing and revealing week in American foreign policy. His dilemmas, as you said, are not at all dissimilar to Barack Obama’s. Horrible things are happening in a far-off war where we have very few tools except maximalist tools that are—government is very hesitant to use, because it would enmesh us even further in this conflict very far away, where it’s uncertain what exactly our national interest is.
So, on one hand, a very similar set of dilemmas. On the other hand, I’ve never in my lifetime seen a president who has confused American foreign policy, not only to our allies and our adversaries, but even to his own government. The head of Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Votel, testified to Congress just one week ago. He was asked by Senator Lindsey Graham, “Well, sir, do you know, is it still our policy of the Trump administration that we are seeking the removal of Bashar Assad from office? That we are seeking an end to the Assad government, which was the official policy of the Obama administration?”
And General Votel said, “I don’t know, senator,” and Lindsey Graham said, “Well, if you don’t know—you’re the guy responsible for implementing and executing our policy on the ground—if you don’t know, nobody knows.” And the answer is, nobody has the first idea what our policy is in Syria, or in many other places in the world.
Hounshell: And probably not even Donald Trump.
Hounshell: He probably couldn’t articulate it. If you were sitting down with him like you’re sitting down with me, and you asked Donald Trump, “What is our policy in Syria?” what do you think he would say?
Glasser: To be tough. Not to be sucked in. To be letting someone else do the work there. That’s what he said. And that is the consistent theme, again. So, I think none of this is surprising in the sense that Donald Trump sees that everybody everywhere is always seeking to take advantage of us, and to rip us off—again, probably informed by his time in New York real estate.
He thinks other countries are trying to rip us off. He thinks that our allies are trying to rip us off and to get a good deal at our expense. He thinks that adversaries are trying to rip us off. And so, that’s what he said about Syria. Basically, it was that deal. We spent—he claimed the figure was $7 trillion; most people think it was probably closer to $1 trillion.
Hounshell: With Iraq.
Glasser: With Iraq, and Syria, and Afghanistan. He thinks it’s a bad deal.
Hounshell: But don’t the Americans think that, too? I mean—
Glasser: And he doesn’t want any part of it.
Hounshell: I mean, he’s kind of on politically solid ground here. I don’t think that there’s any groundswell of American support for military action in Syria, beyond what we’re—I mean, there are thousands of U.S. troops there.
Glasser: Right. Do you think that Americans support the United States of America being a pillar of democracy and human rights in the world?
Hounshell: I think they do in the abstract.
Hounshell: But then, when push comes to shove, when it involves sacrifice, you need a president who’s going to make the case about that.
Glasser: Right. Of course. Exactly. I think that’s a really good way of putting it, Blake, and I think in the end, that that’s what we don’t have anymore. What are the long-term consequences of America ceding away something that has been traditionally its major advantage on the world stage, is not to just be another country, but to be a country that was selling an idea of democracy and freedom and human rights.
We’ve now ceded that. What does it mean? I don’t know. But, Barack Obama found the same political imperative that you’re talking about that Donald Trump is finding, which is that there’s no groundswell of people. When Obama said—he didn’t say, “I’m not going to intervene in Syria,” by the way—and the result of the red line.
Hounshell: Right. He punted it to Congress.
Glasser: He punted it to Congress, which had zero appetite for doing anything.
Hounshell: And they called his bluff. Yeah.
Hounshell: And I think that’s the thing about American leadership in the world, is that it has always been an elite project; it has very rarely been a popular project. Right?
Glasser: Well, in the Cold War—
Hounshell: Americans were reluctant to get into World War I. Woodrow Wilson dragged us into World War I. Americans were reluctant to get into World War II, despite Hitler, despite the potential elimination of our closest ally, Britain. You know, FDR had to get us in by hook and crook, into World War II, through Lend-Lease and cracking down on the Japanese trading.
So, even in these celebrated cases, where America saved the world from tyranny, the American people were like, “I’m not so sure about this,” until push came to shove, and then the president led and forced the issue, right? I mean, Pearl Harbor obviously helped. But right now, when you’ve got a very multipolar, ambiguous world, and America has lots of problems at home, people are much more concerned about their health care and where their next paycheck is going to come from than they are about some dead kid on a beach in Syria.
Glasser: Well, look, Blake, that’s absolutely correct. That’s part of why this is happening now, 25 years after the end of the Cold War. The Cold War gave at least a perceived existential threat, and therefore made Americans much more willing both to sacrifice and to pay the cost of international engagement, because they perceived a much more direct existential threat, and a consequence of not doing. So, they broadly speaking bought into that vision of the world.
The Cold War could have ended differently; largely, it ended peacefully. What you’re now seeing, in my view, is across the board—not just in the United States, not just with Donald Trump—a coming to an end of that order. And we don’t know what’s going to come next.
And I think that’s where I would probably like to end it. I was just looking last night, actually, at the memoirs of George Shultz, who was one of the secretaries of state who really led American—
Hounshell: Reagan's secretary of state in the '80s.
Glasser: He led American foreign policy in this crucial period that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. And he starts his memoir with a quote from Isaiah Berlin: “At crucial moments, at turning points, when factors appear more or less equally balanced, chance, individuals, and their decisions and acts, themselves not necessarily predictable, indeed, seldom so, can determine the course of history.”
I think we’re living in one of those hinge-point moments. I think Donald Trump matters, one way or the other. This is a consequential moment in American foreign policy. And to have this most erratic and unpredictable leader in the White House—one way or the other, it’s my view—it’s really going to matter.
Hounshell: Let’s leave it there. Thank you so much, Susan, for all of the work you’ve done for The Global POLITICO, and for today’s conversation. I’ll be reading you at The New Yorker.
Glasser: Well, look, Blake, it’s a very bittersweet moment for me, and especially, I have to say, we really have, I think, the absolute best audience with The Global POLITICO. I’ve heard from so many of you personally. You’ve often taken me up on my offer to email me, and you are tweeting at me and you are sending great ideas for this. And I’ll still be writing, thinking, and talking about these issues that we’ve covered on The Global POLITICO, and I wanted to thank all of you for sharing some of your hard-won time with me, and with POLITICO. Thank you. Global Politico is produced by Bridget Mulcahy, and I also want to take this chance to thank her for her hard work, her great companionship and smart ideas, and for working hard every weekend to get this out to you our listeners. I also want to give a special shout-out to the entire team at Politico Magazine, including not only Blake for his great editing but especially to Katie Fossett and sometimes Zack Stanton, who have spent innumerable Sunday nights working to get this right and up and published for you on Monday mornings. And also I have to thank my family — Peter and Theo — and our wonderful friends and neighbors… we have a great tradition in our family of Sunday night dinner with these friends Martina, Alan, Max and Marshall, and for more than a year now they’ve put up with me frantically typing away to finish The Global Politico column and record the introduction… So I thank our “village” as we call it. And of course, thank you as well to our listeners, as I’ve said in this episode and in many episodes past. And listeners: Stay subscribed to this show, because POLITICO wants to keep serving you. As they say… Watch this space. Thank you. I’m Susan Glasser, and this is The Global Politico.
Joe Biden, who leads the Democratic 2020 presidential field in early polls, has all the markings of a front-runner. He possesses a sterling résumé, access to a donor base, name recognition and eight years of loyal service to a president who’s loved by the party base. There’s just one problem: He’s also a deeply flawed candidate who’s out of step with the mood of his party.
Biden hasn’t announced he’s running for president, of course, but he’s made clear he’s seriously thinking about it. On Sunday, he confirmed it again on MSNBC’s PoliticsNation. The decision, he said back in February, will be based on whether it’s “right for me to do.”
But that’s the wrong question. What Biden should be asking is whether the party wants him, and not just whether he should seize his last chance.
His advanced age—Biden would be 78 years old at the time of his swearing-in—isn’t the main obstacle. While Biden’s age would be a nonstarter in most presidential elections, if he continues to appear hale and hearty it would not be an insurmountable problem against Donald Trump, who would be 74 himself in 2020.
Trump would also provide cover for another often-discussed Biden drawback: the overly familiar mannerisms that seem terribly out of place in the #MeToo era. Next to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes and the litany of sexual misconduct charges levied against the president, Biden’s hands-iness barely registers.
The bigger issue is whether there’s a place for him atop the Democratic Party that’s taking shape after the ruinous 2016 election cycle. This new iteration is unsentimental and unforgiving, and Biden has more than a few conspicuous Senate votes that demand a reckoning in the Trump-era Democratic Party.
One of them is the bankruptcy reform bill that he championed for years, until it finally passed in 2005. The political taint from that law—favored by credit card companies because it made it harder for consumers to get debt relief through bankruptcy—shows no sign of subsiding on the left. It surfaced as a thorny issue during Biden’s vetting as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, and reappeared nearly a decade later to haunt Hillary Clinton during her 2016 Democratic primary.
One of the law’s leading critics, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has emerged as a top Democratic presidential contender herself. So has Sen. Bernie Sanders, who likewise taps into the populist, anti-Wall Street energy in the party’s grass roots.
Biden could argue that his views evolved over time—that as a senator, his legislative record reflected the need to represent the financial services companies that provide so many jobs in his home state of Delaware. But that isn’t likely to be convincing to progressives. Clinton tried a variant of that when she was accused of being too cozy with Wall Street—“I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York,” she said in one Democratic debate—but it did little to insulate her from Sanders’ persistent criticism.
And Biden’s competition wouldn't be a lone independent socialist. The Democratic field is expected to be historically large and is likely to feature more than a few candidates with nearly pristine records on the issues that animate the party’s foot soldiers.
The 1994 crime bill is another ticking time bomb from Biden’s past. As Obama’s vice president and a key member of an administration that sought to reorient criminal justice policy, Biden was never truly called to account for his leading role in passing a Clinton administration measure that many in the party believe exacerbated an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately affects racial minorities.
But there’s no dodging it in the next Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton was confronted on the 2016 campaign trail by Black Lives Matter activists merely for advocating the crime bill’s passage as first lady. Biden, meanwhile, has proudly referred to it as “the 1994 Biden crime bill.”
He still doesn’t fully comprehend its radioactivity. While Biden has pointed to provisions of the bill that have troubled him, as late as 2016 he was still defending it and insisting that he was “not at all” ashamed of the legislation.
There are other issues in Biden’s portfolio that would prove problematic with influential factions within the current Democratic Party—among them his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq and his history on abortion rights.
By the end of his Senate career, Biden was a staunch defender of reproductive rights, but there’s still a collection of votes and quotes over the years that will raise questions about his reliability. Consider the discomfort surrounding Tim Kaine in the run-up to his selection as Clinton’s running mate in 2016. Despite a perfect record on abortion rights while in the Senate, Kaine’s personal opposition to abortion and a checkered record on the issue as Virginia governor left many liberals uneasy with the prospect of him on the ticket. It’s not clear that he could have made the cut were the presidential nominee someone other than Clinton, whose commitment to reproductive freedom was never in doubt.
None of this is to deny there is a solid case to be made for a Biden candidacy. He begins with a deep reservoir of goodwill. His retail politicking skills are undeniable, and his qualifications for the White House are unrivaled—during a moment when preparation for the job is no small matter. He is, for the most part, a mainstream liberal who even publicly supported gay marriage before Obama did.
No one doubts Biden could take the fight to Trump. In fact, he’s already begun, calling the president “a joke,” telling him to “grow up” and, most recently, musing that he would “beat the hell out of” Trump if they were in high school.
Biden revels in his role as the party’s special emissary to the middle class, and he remains the rare national Democrat who can connect with blue-collar constituencies that have long since left the fold. When the party needs to speak to Green Bay or Youngstown or western Pennsylvania, Uncle Joe is the guy who gets the call.
Yet it’s a sign of the times that the familiar, out-of-power Democratic hand-wringing about how to win back the white working class has quieted. It’s no longer a universally held opinion that it’s necessary or even prudent for the party to chase voters who cast a ballot for Trump. Within some party circles, working-class whites are not viewed as essential to the racially diverse coalition that they believe represents the party’s future.
As a septuagenarian white male, Biden is a highly unlikely prospect to lead that new coalition. It’s a testament to his talents that it’s even subject to debate.
Ryane Nickens stood in a patch of grass as sleet rained down on one of the most historically troubled neighborhoods of Southeast Washington. It was the first time Nickens had come back to this spot in Washington Highlands since her brother, then 19, had been gunned down in the parking lot 22 years ago. A little boy, on his way to school, had found the body.
The buildings are newly painted, bright, crisp colors. Some had been torn down, to create more open space. There’s a playground nearby, though it’s empty on a cold wet day.
Around the corner we had just walked past, sirens blared and lights flashed as emergency vehicles converged. Another shooting, right near Hendley Elementary School. The kids there had been on lockdown 10 times since October, people in the neighborhood said. This made 11. (Hendley’s principal did not respond to an email request to confirm the frequency of lockdowns. Washington police records show 12 violent crimes including two killings within 1,000 feet of the school so far this year.)
Somebody had been “beefin,” Nickens said, referring to the ongoing disputes that travel from one apartment building in this neighborhood to the next—drug deals, turf wars, perceived slights that elsewhere may have been resolved with words, not with guns.
Nickens, 39, who grew up nearby, left, and returned, is all too familiar with this kind of scene. She lost a brother, a pregnant sister and an uncle to gun violence. Her mother, another sister and others close to her were all shot when a dispute with a neighbor escalated from shouting to shoving to shooting, but they survived.
Violent deaths like these might not make CNN headlines, captivate Twitter or spawn nationwide marches, but they leave scars. “You feel like you’ve been dropped into the ocean, this big ocean of grief, and you are trying to find your way to a peaceful time of your life when they were still there,” Nickens said, describing her struggles to survive it, in a recent speech to a community group.
Now, Nickens has made it her mission to address the pervasive trauma in poor, crime-ridden Washington neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Building on an idea she had as a college student in North Carolina, which she developed later as a divinity student at Howard University, Nickens recently started the TraRon Center—named for her late sister and brother, Tracy Hall and Ronald Nickens Jr.—to offer healing and to help prevent the repetitive cycle of violence from stunting another generation. Some people she works with have had friends and family members murdered; others haven’t experienced such direct personal loss but still have trouble getting through each day and each night on streets so riven by violence.
“When a community has suffered generational violence, its hope becomes fragile or nonexistent,” she told me as we walked away from the parking lot where her brother’s body had lain. “The community can become conditioned to accepting things as they are with no real hope for what could be.”
She wants to restore hope. She wants the TraRon Center to offer peer support groups, counseling and a summer camp. Ultimately, she wants to channel all that sorrow into something far more positive—a community-rooted movement to make neighborhoods safer and get rid of the guns. “I want people affected by gun violence to come and work through their trauma and find a place of healing and find their voice,” she said, sitting on an orange plastic chair in the community room of Atlantic Gardens, a subsidized apartment complex here, a few blocks from where her brother died. The first step is giving people a safe place to talk through today’s pain so they can face tomorrow.
The country is talking about—and marching about—gun violence with an intensity not seen since Columbine, the Million Mom March, and the effort to tighten gun laws that narrowly failed in Congress in 1999. But the focus now is primarily on massacres in schools, often in affluent neighborhoods. In neighborhoods like this one, there’s another kind of massacre, slow motion and ceaseless.
The kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are well aware of this. They talk about it and tweet about it; at the March for Our Lives last month, they broadened both the message and the messengers, the suburban kids sharing their stage with kids from inner-city Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, and yes, the poorer and blacker neighborhoods of D.C. Zion Kelly spoke of the murder of his twin brother, Zaire, at 16, victim of a robbery on his way home from school in the nation’s capital. “Just like all of you, I’ve had enough,” Zion told the crowd.
Nickens admires the Parkland kids—a lot. But here in D.C.’s Ward 8, the poorest part of the city, that activism, that animating and empowering cocktail of grief, anger and hope, feels distant.
Shootings, thefts and gang violence—the beefin’—isn’t as intense as it was a couple of years ago, but it’s still a part of everyday life, wearing down survivors and bystanders alike. Homicides in D.C. dropped last year, to 116, mostly in the eastern half of the city. But they’re ticking up; there were 31 murders as of April 6 this year, a 17 percent increase over the same time period of 2017. In March alone, there were at least nine homicides in Ward 8, according to D.C. police.
“You hear it, you duck and you go on,” said Cassandra Matthews, president of the tenant association at Atlantic Terraces, which along with nearby Atlantic Gardens has become a focal point of Nickens’ work. Matthews’ sister survived a shooting; her cousin did not. A few weeks ago, she ran into a young man, in his mid-20s, who had gone to school with her daughter. She’d watched him grow up; they shared a birthday which was coming up. Days later, he was dead.
“It becomes so normal,” said Matthews, who now meets with Nickens privately for an hour most weeks in an apartment common room. She knows that kids and 20-somethings get in fights. But when she was young, they could fight and be friends again a few days later. It’s different now. “You can’t make up once you’ve shot them dead,” she said.
Nickens understands all this. She witnessed violence, she endured grief, depression, rage, risky and self-destructive behavior as a teen and young adult. With help, from family, teachers, mentors and therapists, she got out of the community and went to college at North Carolina Central University. When she came back to D.C., her first instinct was to build a career, not to retrace her steps. She got a federal job, at the Department of Health and Human Services, a good income, with security and benefits.
But she moved back to Southeast D.C. “I could have moved to a different part of the city. But this is home,” she told me. “Ward 8 is where I stay. Where I buy a house. It’s easy to get up and leave. But if all of us get up and leave, our children and our young people don’t have the representation that they can make it out of their circumstances.”
Yet even as she settled and advanced in her career, something kept tugging at her Eventually she enrolled in Divinity School at Howard, still not quite sure where it would take her.
It brought her here. The TraRon Center is just a few months old. It doesn’t yet have an office or physical space of its own; it didn’t even have a website until a few weeks ago. Nickens is still trying to raise money, using goodwill she’s earned in the Washington interfaith community to speak at churches and synagogues. Some of her ideas haven’t borne fruit, at least not yet. When I first heard one of her talks—as it would turn out, a scant month before the shootings in Florida—she envisioned a place for survivors to come together, a blend of peer support and counseling. She had run a group like that for bereaved mothers while at Howard. But so far, with the exception of a few sessions at Anacostia Library, which are resuming this spring, the peer sessions haven’t caught on, not at Atlantic Gardens.
“There’s just not enough trust,” she said.
Yet she’s found champions in the community. Lopa Shah, the resident program director at the Atlantic Gardens apartments, heard about Nickens through another community group earlier this year. She invited her in, gave her space to hold sessions and began encouraging people in the building and in neighboring apartments to come meet with her. “I had been looking for someone like her,” Shah said. “And she appeared.”
By summer, Nickens wants to open a summer camp at Atlantic Gardens, and weave in activities that give children tools to heal and cope—art therapy, journaling, meditation. She’d like to keep it going as an after-school program for kids who attend places like Hendley Elementary, where even a police officer stationed right outside hasn’t deterred the nearby violence. She knows that violence and abuse in childhood increase the likelihood of violence and abuse in adulthood. She wants to break the cycle.
In the meantime, she’s meeting people like Matthews one on one. Some people who seek her out need more therapeutic intervention than her pastoral counseling skills can meet; many are distrustful of therapy, having had bad experiences, but they’ll usually take a referral to the therapists Nickens trusts, who will treat them pro bono.
The president of Atlantic Gardens’ tenant association—Matthews’ counterpart in the second apartment complex—Derrick Langley, also seeks out Nickens for guidance and support. After living in the building for nine years, he doesn’t want to leave his home. He does want it to change, though there are days he has trouble believing it can.
Too many tenants are too afraid to take on those that spread the violence, or too inured to it themselves to make the effort. He’s helped set up domestic violence programs for the residents, only to see abused women cling to their abusers. He knows what that does to them and their children; it’s what some of the young men doing the shooting outside were raised on.
Amid such a grim reality, some of Nickens conversations unfold in the language of faith, about finding God and meaning in a time and place of despair.
“The people here—they don’t know what hope means,” Derrick Brown, a maintenance man who encountered a drive-by shooting a few months ago, told Nickens in one of their regular conversations. “I don’t think they even use that word—I don’t think hope is spoken into their life.”
He has considered returning home to Atlanta; he grapples with his decision to stay, wondering aloud whether he wants to make his home in a community where an armed drug dealer has more status than an honest working man, where when kids start to fight, no adult tells them to stop. Nickens suggests that maybe he has a purpose here, and offers to connect him to community groups that need men like him to mentor boys. He’s intrigued but unsure, wondering whether God will show him what to do.
Nickens, though, has already found her calling. The despair is what drew here here—and the opportunity to build something better.
She remembers the vision of Biblical prophet Ezekiel who hears the voice of God promising to restore life in the Valley of Dry Bones.
“I was dry bones and someone breathed hope and encouragement into me,” Nickens said. “I’m going to breathe it into others. This is the breath that God has called me to breathe and I will breathe it.”