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    When they go low, Beto can too

    When they go low, Beto can too


    EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke says he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run for president. But here in his hometown, his supporters are bracing for a combative primary. And they point to a previous campaign — his 2012 run for Congress — as...



    EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke says he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run for president. But here in his hometown, his supporters are bracing for a combative primary. And they point to a previous campaign — his 2012 run for Congress — as evidence that he can hold his own in an intraparty brawl.

    Six years before the high-minded Texas Senate run that lifted his national star, O’Rourke felled an eight-term incumbent House Democrat, Silvestre Reyes, casting him in a bruising primary campaign as ineffectual and unethical. The race pitted O’Rourke against not only Reyes but also then-President Barack Obama, who endorsed the sitting congressman, and former President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for Reyes in the West Texas border district. In a stunning result, O’Rourke went to Congress, while Reyes became the only Texas incumbent to fail to win renomination that election year.

    Among Democrats in El Paso, the race laid bare a rare asset for a Democratic presidential contender: the ability to cut at his opposition while simultaneously carrying the flush of an idealist.

    Knocking on thousands of doors in 2012 — a precursor to his tireless trek across Texas in 2018 — O’Rourke, then a former city councilman, highlighted reports that his fellow Democrat Reyes used campaign funds to pay family members. And he blamed him for long wait times at border crossings from Juárez, Mexico.

    “He hit Reyes,” said Steve Ortega, a friend of O’Rourke who served on the El Paso City Council with him. “Reyes hit him as well. They went after each other. He wasn’t bashful about exposing some of the negative things that Reyes had done.”


    For O’Rourke's supporters, the contest has become instructive ahead of a presidential primary in which he is already taking hits from the left, with progressive activists freshly scrutinizing his House votes and lack of involvement in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. O'Rourke said Friday he does not know whether he is a “progressive Democrat,” explaining he is “not big on labels.”

    But while Democrats here predict he will be far less likely to criticize rival Democrats in an open primary — as opposed to his campaign against an incumbent in Reyes — the 2012 campaign demonstrated to them that he has the stomach to do it.

    The election, said Danny Anchondo, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party in El Paso, "was very tough, it was very controversial, it was very heated.”

    By 2012, O’Rourke had already established a strong record on liberal issues while on the El Paso council, calling for the legalization of marijuana and championing a then-controversial proposal to provide health benefits to partners of gay city employees.

    In the House race, Anchondo said, O’Rourke effectively outflanked Reyes on the left, withstanding withering attacks on a past arrest for DUI while pummeling Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran, for shortcomings at the local veterans health care system.

    Reyes’ inability to secure more federal funding for veterans health services was “not necessarily … his fault,” Anchondo said. Nevertheless, he said, O’Rourke “used that very effectively, and that was one of the key issues that he used.”

    O’Rourke also benefited from outside money, with the nonpartisan super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability spending heavily to defeat Reyes. And he accepted limited PAC money himself, before electing in 2015 to no longer accept such contributions.

    The campaign tore at the local Democratic Party establishment, in which Anchondo said Reyes has “been a very loyal Democrat,” raising money for the party and voting “correctly” on partisan issues. During the campaign, Reyes — who did not return calls for comment — called O’Rourke and local allies “pacoteros,” telling the El Paso Times that they had united to “gang up on one person because they can't do it one-on-one."


    O’Rourke’s supporters dismissed Reyes’ complaints, and Eliot Shapleigh, a former Texas state senator and longtime friend of O’Rourke, blamed Reyes for negativity in the campaign.

    “Reyes was ugly,” Shapleigh said. “Reyes put an ad on TV about Beto’s DWI, and he ridiculed the name ‘Beto’ because he thought he was trying to get the Hispanics to vote for him.”

    Still, though Shapleigh walked precincts for O’Rourke, he said he “didn’t really think he could win” because of Reyes’ tenure and institutional support.

    “I had no idea he was such a dynamic campaigner,” Shapleigh said. “He was energetic like he was in the Senate campaign. I think he went to 17,000 households in El Paso, which is a lot.”

    The race served as a contrast to a Senate campaign in which O’Rourke was reluctant to go negative against a Republican senator, Ted Cruz. And for some observers of the 2012 House campaign, that shift was puzzling. Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz, said O’Rourke “comes from a community … where people pay attention to politics and they’re engaged, and people are not afraid to sharpen their elbows and deploy them.”



    “They view politics as a contact sport in El Paso,” he said, and in 2012, O’Rourke “was willing to be tough.”

    But in the race against Cruz, Lippincott said, “He didn’t go negative until the last possible second, and I think that cost him. … I think the fact that he did not have consultants cost him.”

    If he runs again — whether for president or some other office in Texas — Lippincott said O’Rourke should “go negative faster … just do a better job on the attack.”

    Speaking to reporters here Friday, O’Rourke maintained that he “never [has] run against somebody or against something,” and will not if he runs for president.

    “I’m just not a negative guy,” he said. “I’m not turned on by bringing other people down. I’m excited about the big things that we can do in the future, and how we pull people together to achieve them.”

    Asked whether he had drawn any lessons from his 2012 campaign about how he might approach the 2020 field, O’Rourke said, “We haven’t really thought much about what our next steps are. I want to make sure that I’m focused on the job that I’ve got today.”

    However, he said, “I’ll tell you, any time that I have run for office — for city council, for Congress, for Senate — we’ve just listened to the people that we want to represent and serve, reflect back what we learn, and have the courage of our convictions.”

    O’Rourke is in a much stronger position than he was six years ago. He raised more than $80 million in his Senate campaign this year, mostly from a national network of small donors. And after his narrower-than-expected loss to Cruz in deep-red Texas, his consideration of a presidential campaign immediately reshaped the field. O’Rourke vaulted ahead of several more established Democrats in early presidential polls, with many activists and donors awaiting a decision from O’Rourke before committing to another candidate.


    Obama, who supported Reyes in 2012, has since spoken with O’Rourke and lauded him publicly, drawing comparisons between O’Rourke and himself.

    But running against the euphoria have come the earliest signs of criticism from fellow Democrats — and a reminder of the intraparty divisions that O’Rourke was forced to navigate in 2012. Blossoming in progressive circles in recent days, a series of critiques have challenged O’Rourke on issues ranging from his membership in the centrist New Democrat Coalition to his 2015 vote granting Obama “fast track” trade promotion authority for a controversial Asia-Pacific trade agreement.

    “Certainly, in a race where 30 or more Democrats might run, there’s benefit to some to attack Beto,” Shapleigh said. “His record is what it is. … He is as progressive as you can get.” In addition, he said, his politics are “tailor-made for Iowa and New Hampshire,” two critical early-nominating states that put a premium on face-to-face, retail campaigning.

    “If he got going in Iowa in January or February, that place would be on fire,” Shapleigh said, echoing a sentiment common among Democratic activists in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

    A veteran of O’Rourke’s Senate campaign told POLITICO that if O’Rourke runs for president, he would likely adhere to a positive tone similar to the one he employed against Cruz. However, the person said, “I think he would hold people accountable for their record and their votes … and whether their ideas are realistic moving the country forward.”

    Recalling O'Rourke's 2012 success, Ortega said, “He took out one of the highest-ranking Democrats, someone who had been in office for close to 15 years-plus.”

    If O’Rourke runs in 2020, Ortega said, “There will not be any candidate in the primary who outworks him. … He’s the hardest-working campaigner that I’ve ever seen in my life.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    ]]>
    When they go low, Beto can too

    When they go low, Beto can too


    EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke says he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run for president. But here in his hometown, his supporters are bracing for a combative primary. And they point to a previous campaign — his 2012 run for Congress — as...



    EL PASO, Texas — Beto O’Rourke says he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run for president. But here in his hometown, his supporters are bracing for a combative primary. And they point to a previous campaign — his 2012 run for Congress — as evidence that he can hold his own in an intraparty brawl.

    Six years before the high-minded Texas Senate run that lifted his national star, O’Rourke felled an eight-term incumbent House Democrat, Silvestre Reyes, casting him in a bruising primary campaign as ineffectual and unethical. The race pitted O’Rourke against not only Reyes but also then-President Barack Obama, who endorsed the sitting congressman, and former President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for Reyes in the West Texas border district. In a stunning result, O’Rourke went to Congress, while Reyes became the only Texas incumbent to fail to win renomination that election year.

    Among Democrats in El Paso, the race laid bare a rare asset for a Democratic presidential contender: the ability to cut at his opposition while simultaneously carrying the flush of an idealist.

    Knocking on thousands of doors in 2012 — a precursor to his tireless trek across Texas in 2018 — O’Rourke, then a former city councilman, highlighted reports that his fellow Democrat Reyes used campaign funds to pay family members. And he blamed him for long wait times at border crossings from Juárez, Mexico.

    “He hit Reyes,” said Steve Ortega, a friend of O’Rourke who served on the El Paso City Council with him. “Reyes hit him as well. They went after each other. He wasn’t bashful about exposing some of the negative things that Reyes had done.”


    For O’Rourke's supporters, the contest has become instructive ahead of a presidential primary in which he is already taking hits from the left, with progressive activists freshly scrutinizing his House votes and lack of involvement in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. O'Rourke said Friday he does not know whether he is a “progressive Democrat,” explaining he is “not big on labels.”

    But while Democrats here predict he will be far less likely to criticize rival Democrats in an open primary — as opposed to his campaign against an incumbent in Reyes — the 2012 campaign demonstrated to them that he has the stomach to do it.

    The election, said Danny Anchondo, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party in El Paso, "was very tough, it was very controversial, it was very heated.”

    By 2012, O’Rourke had already established a strong record on liberal issues while on the El Paso council, calling for the legalization of marijuana and championing a then-controversial proposal to provide health benefits to partners of gay city employees.

    In the House race, Anchondo said, O’Rourke effectively outflanked Reyes on the left, withstanding withering attacks on a past arrest for DUI while pummeling Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran, for shortcomings at the local veterans health care system.

    Reyes’ inability to secure more federal funding for veterans health services was “not necessarily … his fault,” Anchondo said. Nevertheless, he said, O’Rourke “used that very effectively, and that was one of the key issues that he used.”

    O’Rourke also benefited from outside money, with the nonpartisan super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability spending heavily to defeat Reyes. And he accepted limited PAC money himself, before electing in 2015 to no longer accept such contributions.

    The campaign tore at the local Democratic Party establishment, in which Anchondo said Reyes has “been a very loyal Democrat,” raising money for the party and voting “correctly” on partisan issues. During the campaign, Reyes — who did not return calls for comment — called O’Rourke and local allies “pacoteros,” telling the El Paso Times that they had united to “gang up on one person because they can't do it one-on-one."


    O’Rourke’s supporters dismissed Reyes’ complaints, and Eliot Shapleigh, a former Texas state senator and longtime friend of O’Rourke, blamed Reyes for negativity in the campaign.

    “Reyes was ugly,” Shapleigh said. “Reyes put an ad on TV about Beto’s DWI, and he ridiculed the name ‘Beto’ because he thought he was trying to get the Hispanics to vote for him.”

    Still, though Shapleigh walked precincts for O’Rourke, he said he “didn’t really think he could win” because of Reyes’ tenure and institutional support.

    “I had no idea he was such a dynamic campaigner,” Shapleigh said. “He was energetic like he was in the Senate campaign. I think he went to 17,000 households in El Paso, which is a lot.”

    The race served as a contrast to a Senate campaign in which O’Rourke was reluctant to go negative against a Republican senator, Ted Cruz. And for some observers of the 2012 House campaign, that shift was puzzling. Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz, said O’Rourke “comes from a community … where people pay attention to politics and they’re engaged, and people are not afraid to sharpen their elbows and deploy them.”



    “They view politics as a contact sport in El Paso,” he said, and in 2012, O’Rourke “was willing to be tough.”

    But in the race against Cruz, Lippincott said, “He didn’t go negative until the last possible second, and I think that cost him. … I think the fact that he did not have consultants cost him.”

    If he runs again — whether for president or some other office in Texas — Lippincott said O’Rourke should “go negative faster … just do a better job on the attack.”

    Speaking to reporters here Friday, O’Rourke maintained that he “never [has] run against somebody or against something,” and will not if he runs for president.

    “I’m just not a negative guy,” he said. “I’m not turned on by bringing other people down. I’m excited about the big things that we can do in the future, and how we pull people together to achieve them.”

    Asked whether he had drawn any lessons from his 2012 campaign about how he might approach the 2020 field, O’Rourke said, “We haven’t really thought much about what our next steps are. I want to make sure that I’m focused on the job that I’ve got today.”

    However, he said, “I’ll tell you, any time that I have run for office — for city council, for Congress, for Senate — we’ve just listened to the people that we want to represent and serve, reflect back what we learn, and have the courage of our convictions.”

    O’Rourke is in a much stronger position than he was six years ago. He raised more than $80 million in his Senate campaign this year, mostly from a national network of small donors. And after his narrower-than-expected loss to Cruz in deep-red Texas, his consideration of a presidential campaign immediately reshaped the field. O’Rourke vaulted ahead of several more established Democrats in early presidential polls, with many activists and donors awaiting a decision from O’Rourke before committing to another candidate.


    Obama, who supported Reyes in 2012, has since spoken with O’Rourke and lauded him publicly, drawing comparisons between O’Rourke and himself.

    But running against the euphoria have come the earliest signs of criticism from fellow Democrats — and a reminder of the intraparty divisions that O’Rourke was forced to navigate in 2012. Blossoming in progressive circles in recent days, a series of critiques have challenged O’Rourke on issues ranging from his membership in the centrist New Democrat Coalition to his 2015 vote granting Obama “fast track” trade promotion authority for a controversial Asia-Pacific trade agreement.

    “Certainly, in a race where 30 or more Democrats might run, there’s benefit to some to attack Beto,” Shapleigh said. “His record is what it is. … He is as progressive as you can get.” In addition, he said, his politics are “tailor-made for Iowa and New Hampshire,” two critical early-nominating states that put a premium on face-to-face, retail campaigning.

    “If he got going in Iowa in January or February, that place would be on fire,” Shapleigh said, echoing a sentiment common among Democratic activists in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

    A veteran of O’Rourke’s Senate campaign told POLITICO that if O’Rourke runs for president, he would likely adhere to a positive tone similar to the one he employed against Cruz. However, the person said, “I think he would hold people accountable for their record and their votes … and whether their ideas are realistic moving the country forward.”

    Recalling O'Rourke's 2012 success, Ortega said, “He took out one of the highest-ranking Democrats, someone who had been in office for close to 15 years-plus.”

    If O’Rourke runs in 2020, Ortega said, “There will not be any candidate in the primary who outworks him. … He’s the hardest-working campaigner that I’ve ever seen in my life.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    ]]>
    Pelosi tries to buy Mueller time

    Pelosi tries to buy Mueller time


    Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top allies are trying to stamp out the impeachment chatter spurred by a rapid-fire series of revelations that have brought special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe ever closer to the Oval Office.Their goal:...



    Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top allies are trying to stamp out the impeachment chatter spurred by a rapid-fire series of revelations that have brought special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe ever closer to the Oval Office.

    Their goal: Give Mueller space and time to finish his work before considering impeachment proceedings while satisfying the Democrats’ burning desire to aggressively investigate Trump in the meantime.

    “We must wait to see the entire picture and then engage the American people about how we go forward as a nation,” Pelosi told POLITICO in a statement. “We must protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation, so that the American people can get the full truth.”

    For now, Pelosi seems to be pulling off the balancing act. Progressive Democrats who voted to begin an impeachment debate last year are now calling for patience. House staffers met with the special counsel’s office earlier this month to sort out which witnesses they could begin calling in 2019 without causing any problems. Democratic leaders are planning oversight hearings starting in January to highlight any White House attempts to interfere with Mueller’s work.

    "It becomes harder and harder to make the case that this president hasn’t committed impeachable offenses. However, that information still has to get out to the American people," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, a member of the Judiciary Committee and one of the roughly 60 Democrats who voted to begin impeachment debates last year.

    “You really stand to lose something if you try to move impeachment before you have everything on the table,” added Jayapal, also a leader of the Democrats’ progressive wing, in an interview. "We don’t have everything on the table yet.”


    Party leaders, including Pelosi and incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, fear that appearing overeager to use their new levers of power to begin the process of removing President Donald Trump from office could blow back on Democrats and damage their chances to win the White House in 2020.

    Pelosi, Nadler and many other Democrats want to see more from Mueller before committing to anything on impeachment — and they’re particularly sensitive about doing anything that would be seen as either undercutting Mueller or making the former FBI director appear to be in league with Democrats.

    Top Democratic aides say they can already envision the @realDonaldTrump tweets that expand from attacks on Mueller and his “17 Angry Democrats” into a much broader attack lumping in the House members who are sending subpoenas to his top aides, business associates and family members, not to mention trying to pry loose his personal tax returns.

    "My hope is that we would be very careful not to take any action which would interfere or disrupt in any way the ongoing investigation of the special counsel," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee and did not vote to begin impeachment debate last year. "It's been reported that he's nearing conclusions. I do think it's important for us to await that report and not do anything that would slow that down or impede it in any way."

    Part of the challenge is just maintaining patience.

    Federal prosecutors have already said the president — identified in court filings as "Individual-1" — directed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to buy the silence of adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who both claimed to have had affairs with Trump, in the final weeks of the 2016 election. The revelation essentially made Trump an unindicted co-conspirator after Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws over the payments.

    But some Democrats warned that the hush-money scandal alone shouldn't justify impeachment.

    "If we’re only talking about payments to porn stars, we shouldn’t overserve the public with a sugary appetizer," said California Rep. Eric Swalwell, an outspoken Trump critic who serves on the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels. "There’s much more alarming conduct out there that we should investigate."

    Indeed, new investigative fronts seem to appear almost daily, and members and aides say they must keep adjusting their oversight plans accordingly.


    This past week brought yet another new — and potentially expansive — area of investigation into Trump world: news reports suggesting prosecutors are pursuing allegations that foreign money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere was secretly funneled into Trump's inaugural committee and a super PAC supporting him.

    The situation surrounding Mueller’s probe is also constantly changing, with open questions about who oversees the investigation, how quickly it will wrap up and whether the president will try to fire the special counsel.

    “Protecting the special counsel investigation from presidential interference is key to ensuring that the American people get the answers they deserve,” Pelosi said in her statement to POLITICO. “We are at a critical moment for our country. Preserving the integrity of our institutions and democracy is our obligation.”

    Party members say they expect to come across as supersensitive, but they want to avoid charges of hypocrisy after spending the past 19 months castigating Trump and his Republican allies for anything that was seen as meddling with the special counsel.

    The plan is to stay in close contact with Mueller’s team. Appearing on MSNBC earlier this month, Nadler said his panel would keep Mueller apprised of its work “to make sure we’re not, by accident … stepping on the investigation in any way, because we are dependent on that investigation to give us a lot of the facts.”

    A senior Democratic aide told POLITICO that Mueller’s hard-nosed lead congressional liaison would speak up if anyone on Capitol Hill made a move that meddled with the ongoing investigation. “I have no doubt if we were about to cross a red line in any public way, Stephen Kelly would show up in my office and tell me about it,” the staffer said.

    House Democrats know they face other pressure points, too. Their party’s 2020 presidential candidates are likely to start lining up soon after the start of the new year, and their stance on impeachment is a likely litmus test for some progressives.


    Republicans are also eager to exploit the earliest whiff of Democratic overreach, while Trump himself has warned of violent consequences if anyone tried to remove him from the White House.

    “It’s hard to impeach somebody who hasn’t done anything wrong and who’s created the greatest economy in the history of our country,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview last week. “I’m not concerned, no. I think that the people would revolt if that happened.”



    Some of the Democrats’ provocations are of their own making. Asked about the hush-money scheme at the center of Cohen’s guilty plea, California Rep. Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS News this month that Trump “may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time.”

    Nadler, who has long signaled plans to dive headfirst into all the tentacles of the Russia investigation, said in a CNN interview that if Trump violated campaign finance laws — which would likely require proof that the candidate was aware that the hush-money payments skirted regulations — it “would be an impeachable offense.”

    But, the New York Democrat quickly added, “Whether they’re important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”

    In the meantime, Nadler and other Democratic leaders are lining up an aggressive schedule for when they take control in January. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the incoming House Oversight chairman, said Sunday on CNN that he’s trying to arrange for public testimony next month from Cohen before the president’s ex-lawyer begins a three-year prison sentence.

    Cummings wants Cohen to “tell the American public what he has been saying to Mueller and others, without interfering with the Mueller investigation.”

    The Judiciary Committee’s first hearing next month is expected to center around testimony from acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who took on oversight of the Mueller probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in November. Other sessions are planned to examine interactions on the Russia probe between Trump’s White House and his Justice Department.

    The impeachment dilemma facing Democrats isn’t a new one for the party in power in Congress. Pelosi beat back Democratic calls for President George W. Bush’s impeachment when she became speaker after the 2006 midterms. She also saw first-hand how Republicans intent on impeaching President Bill Clinton before the 1998 midterms ended up defying historical norms and losing seats in that election, while the Democrats’ public approval ratings soared in the wake of the proceedings.

    “She knows the lessons well,” said Rick Tyler, a former top adviser to Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz. “I think she’s going to play her cards very well. She knows what her hand is. Her caucus needs to trust her. She does know what she’s doing here. She needs to rein in the impeach-at-all-cost crowd.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Flynn business associates charged with illegally lobbying for Turkish government


    Two former business partners of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn have been charged with failing to register as foreign agents as they covertly lobbied on behalf of Turkey.Bijan Rafiekian, a former partner at Flynn’s shuttered lobbying firm,...


    Two former business partners of ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn have been charged with failing to register as foreign agents as they covertly lobbied on behalf of Turkey.

    Bijan Rafiekian, a former partner at Flynn’s shuttered lobbying firm, the Flynn Intel Group, is being charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government and conspiracy for his work trying to get a Turkish cleric accused of inciting a failed coup in 2016 extradited from the U.S.

    The cleric, Fethullah Gulen, has been living in Pennsylvania while the Turkish government has accused him of plotting to overthrow the government and leading a terrorist group. Gulen has denied the claims.

    A Turkish businessman, Ekim Alptekin, who allegedly helped bankroll the lobbying using his Dutch firm as a cover, has also been charged with conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent, as well as with lying to investigators.

    Both men are accused of trying to conceal the Turkish government’s involvement in their efforts to “discredit and delegitimize” Gulen in the American public and political spheres.


    The Trump administration earlier this year reportedly considered allowing his extradition to Turkey to ease pressure after the murder of a Washington Post journalist in the Saudi consulate there, and Turkey's foreign minister claimed just a day ago that President Donald Trump was working on Gulen's extradition.

    Flynn, who was forced out of the Trump administration for lying about his contacts with Russians during the presidential transition, pleaded guilty in a separate case for lying to investigators last year about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and admitted to lying about his lobbying work.

    The indictment unsealed on Monday morning refers to a “Person A,” who appears to be Flynn, who worked with Rafiekian and Alptekin on the effort to have Gulen transported back to Turkey.

    The charges against Rafiekian and Alptekin were brought by a grand jury in Alexandria, Va., at the request of prosecutors there, under the authority of U.S. Attorney Zach Terwillinger.

    Rafiekian appeared in court in Alexandria briefly Monday morning, accompanied by his attorney Robert Trout, according to court records, and he was released on his own recognizance. He is expected back in court Tuesday for a formal arraignment before the district court judge assigned to the case, Anthony Trenga, a George W. Bush appointee.

    Court records show no indication that Alptekin is in custody, though the charging documents say that he currently resides in Turkey, and chances are slim that Turkey would extradite him in a case like this.


    Prosecutors outline a scheme in which Alptekin allegedly coordinated with Turkish government officials to determine a budget for the project they began calling the “Truth Campaign.” The name of the project was later changed, and after securing funding from the Turkish government, Rafiekian changed the name of his and Flynn’s client to a Dutch company owned and operated by Alptekin, rather than Turkey, prosecutors allege.

    As part of the project, prosecutors say, Flynn, Alptekin and Rafiekian met with Turkish ministers in New York in September 2016 to discuss Gulen and Turkey’s attempts to secure his extradition, which the Department of Justice had rejected.

    Former CIA Director James Woolsey, who joined the meeting after it was underway, told the Wall Street Journal in March 2017 that the discussion broached the idea of “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.”

    However, Woolsey later said there was no explicit discussion of a kidnapping in his presence, although it was his impression that what was being contemplated was improper.

    The indictment makes no mention of any kidnapping or other use of force. “The conversation centered on the Turkish citizen [Gulen] and the Turkish government’s efforts to convince the U.S. government to extradite the Turkish citizen to Turkey,” the indictment says.

    Prosecutors also say Rafiekian lobbied a member of Congress, a congressional staffer and a “state government official” on the issue, urging the member to hold hearings on Gulen’s predicament.

    During this time, which occurred in the run-up to the 2016 election, Alptekin was keeping high-level officials in the Turkish government apprised of the project’s progress, the indictment says.


    The indictment also refers to an op-ed that ran on The Hill on the day of the 2016 presidential election. Though the editorial carried Flynn’s name as the author, prosecutors say it was drafted by Rafiekian and sent to Alptekin the same day the latter complained that Flynn and Rafiekian’s firm had not publicized enough negative information about Gulen.

    The op-ed contained several of the same talking points Alptekin and Rafiekian discussed in their initial outline of the lobbying effort, as well as those prepared for the trio’s meeting with Turkish officials earlier in the year.

    That op-ed drew the attention of investigators to Flynn, who claimed to have written the piece of his own accord. Nevertheless, the attention resulted in Flynn retroactively registering as a foreign agent. Flynn’s attorney wrote in the original filing that though the client, Alptekin’s company, was Dutch, Flynn’s work on Alptekin’s behalf “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey."

    The indictments of Flynn’s former associates leave his fate up in the air. As part of his coordination with special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, Flynn admitted to lying on the forms he used to retroactively register.

    Two weeks ago, Mueller’s team wrote in a sentencing memo that Flynn had provided “substantial assistance” to investigators in its Russia investigation as well as two unnamed criminal investigations, and as such recommended little or no jail time.

    Flynn is set to be sentenced on Tuesday.

    Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Pennsylvania meltdown triggers Republican alarms

    Pennsylvania meltdown triggers Republican alarms


    PHILADELPHIA — A GOP implosion in Pennsylvania has Republicans alarmed about President Donald Trump's reelection prospects in a state that proved essential to his 2016 victory.The enfeebled state party — still reeling after a devastating midterm...


    PHILADELPHIA — A GOP implosion in Pennsylvania has Republicans alarmed about President Donald Trump's reelection prospects in a state that proved essential to his 2016 victory.

    The enfeebled state party — still reeling after a devastating midterm election where Republicans lost three congressional seats and whiffed gubernatorial and Senate races by double digits — is tangled in a power struggle messy enough to capture the attention of the White House.

    The chaos threatens the president’s chances in a state where there’s no room for error. Trump, the first Republican presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988, won by less than a percentage point.

    “He has to win Pennsylvania in order to win the presidency,” said Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, a one-time rising star from the Philadelphia suburbs who is retiring from Congress after just two terms. “And I don’t think he’s the favorite to win against a generic Democrat.”

    Since Trump’s stunning 2016 win, Pennsylvania Republicans have gotten almost exclusively bad news. First, Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs flipped seats in 2017 local elections for the first time in decades — and in some cases, in history. Then came an election year from hell, beginning with Democrat Conor Lamb’s House special election victory smack dab in the middle of western Pennsylvania’s Trump Country.


    A #MeToo scandal ended one congressman’s career. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court blew up the state’s gerrymandered congressional map and redrew it to the Democrats’ benefit, leading Costello to announce he wouldn’t run for reelection. Then Nov. 6, 2018, happened.

    GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who tied himself closely to the president, lost by nearly 700,000 votes in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. The result in the governor’s race was even worse: Republican Scott Wagner lost by more than 800,000 votes.

    “These weren’t just defeats. They were bad defeats,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Charlie Gerow. “The party has to be unified in order to win in 2020.”

    The bleeding has led a faction of Republicans to point their fingers at the state party chairman: Val DiGiorgio, who hails from populous and increasingly Democratic southeastern Pennsylvania.

    “The 2018 results clearly indicate that leadership needs to be looked at — there’s no doubt in my mind there,” said Bruce Hottle, a state party committee member from western Pennsylvania, a Trump stronghold.

    The list of complaints about DiGiorgio is long: He’s a bad fundraiser. His staff is anemic. Though he eventually got behind Trump in 2016, he initially backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary. And after a bruising election for state committee leader in 2017 — DiGiorgio won by just two votes — his critics say he hasn’t put the party back together.

    “Our position was much better two years ago. A blind man would see that,” said Mike Cibik, a state party committee member living in Philadelphia. “There isn’t sufficient staff … and they aren’t raising money.”

    DiGiorgio’s supporters argue that he did everything he could in a year that was devastating for Republicans across the country, and that his critics are merely bitter after backing his opponent in the 2017 election for state party leader. They also point out that the state GOP’s two committees brought in roughly the same amount of money during the 2017-18 midterm cycle as in the 2013-14 period, though the party relied more on funding from the Republican National Committee this time around.


    “During tough times this cycle, Chairman Val DiGiorgio was a sure and steady leader for Republican candidates up and down the ticket,” said Republican Joe Scarnati, the state Senate president pro tempore.

    The Trump White House, which has a history of intervening in state party leadership fights, is well aware of the Pennsylvania unrest. Top Trump allies are eager to have a strong Trump voice atop the state party in 2020. In Ohio and Michigan — two battleground states that, like Pennsylvania, were critical to Trump’s election — the president and his allies helped put loyalists at the helm of the state GOP committees ahead of the midterm election.

    But in Pennsylvania, the Trump team sat out the election for state party chairman in 2017 — and some state Republicans now fear that was a mistake.

    In 2016, the Trump campaign, RNC and state GOP worked together closely to build a ground operation for the president. DiGiorgio’s critics fear that, in particular, could be at risk if the party isn’t fortified.

    “The ground game was important and took resources, people power, and money,” said Cibik. “We’re going to need that again in 2020, and right now, I don’t feel good about it.”

    A source familiar with the Trump campaign, though, dismissed concerns about the issue: “The RNC is going to execute a [ground game] plan through the state party whether Val raises $100,000 or $100 million.”

    The Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania only has $94,000 on hand, according to campaign finance reports — almost $1 million less than the party had at the same point four years ago. The party’s headquarters staff has shrunk from between 16 employees in 2014, according to the previous chairman, to seven. DiGiorgio said he prefers "we put money into the field."

    The state GOP also has a separate federal committee with about $320,000 on hand, about $50,000 more than it had in the bank four years ago.


    Rumors are swirling that DiGiorgio’s critics may try to force a vote of no confidence at the state party’s next meeting in early 2019, though it’s unclear how that would work procedurally or what would come next if the rebels were successful. DiGiorgio’s term is not over until 2021.

    But there’s already been fallout for DiGiorgio: Since taking the reins at the state committee last February, he has faced criticism for not relinquishing his position as GOP leader in his home county of Chester — an affluent, highly educated, historically Republican collar county that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Earlier this month, after Chester County suffered some of the biggest GOP losses in the state in November, he stepped down from that role.

    Trump campaign officials were in touch with DiGiorgio this month and plan to meet with him in the coming weeks, DiGiorgio’s team confirmed.

    Chris Carr, political director for the Trump reelection campaign, said in a statement: “In a difficult year, the PA GOP was able to overcome many challenges. The organization supported Republican candidates up and down the ballot, made record-setting number of voter contacts, helped maintain majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and deployed new campaign technology. All these programs are a good start on the efforts the PA GOP will bring to the table to help President Trump get reelected in 2020.”



    To some Republicans, especially those who lost reelection in November, Trump himself is largely responsible for the GOP’s shellacking in Pennsylvania.

    Costello, who has been critical of the president, said the GOP’s double-digit losses in the state House in Harrisburg are “probably the best example of reverse coattails” this year.

    “You’re talking about well-liked, experienced state representatives who worked their districts well and lost,” he said. “And they lost because people were just disgusted with Republicans.”

    DiGiorgio has fought back aggressively against his critics, characterizing them as “people who have a sour-grapes agenda who lost the chairman election” and arguing that "there's no one in the state who's been more supportive of President Trump than I have." His team shared a list of positive statements from some 10 elected officials, candidates, and donors.

    Bob Asher, a top GOP fundraiser in Pennsylvania and an RNC member, called “on all sides to put aside their petty differences and work together.”

    “These comments and allegations are counterproductive to what has been done and what we are continuing to try and accomplish in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It is a detriment to party unity and will only serve to hinder the president’s and congressional candidates’ chances in 2020.”

    Republicans haven’t hit the panic button just yet. A top Pennsylvania political operative with close ties to the Trump campaign said “you may not get the door-knocking out of the party apparatus in the suburbs like you used to,” but “there’s still plenty of time to address those issues” before the presidential race.

    Still, the last thing Republicans need in 2020 in a must-win state for Trump is a civil war.

    “The only Republican who’s won Pennsylvania twice in the last 60 years-plus was Ronald Reagan,” said Gerow. “A divided party won’t prevail.”

    Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Want to run an agency? It helps to know Mitch McConnell


    The Trump administration, staring down a $54 billion pension crisis, is placing its faith in a man who is a stranger to most of Washington but for one big connection: His brother-in-law is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his sister-in-law is...



    The Trump administration, staring down a $54 billion pension crisis, is placing its faith in a man who is a stranger to most of Washington but for one big connection: His brother-in-law is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his sister-in-law is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

    Gordon Hartogensis has little professional paper trail, and has largely just managed his family’s sprawling investment portfolio after striking gold in a '90s startup and retiring by the time he was 29. But he is expected to gain Senate confirmation by the end of the year to run the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the troubled government backstop for people whose pension plans have become insolvent.

    Hartogensis, 48, who’s married to Chao’s sister, will oversee an agency with nearly 1,000 employees that manages $100 billion in assets and handed out $5.8 billion to more than 861,000 retirees in 2018. He’ll also have to deal with lawmakers as they contemplate a bailout plan that can avert a shortfall of tens of billions of dollars in the corporation’s cash reserves.

    Hartogensis’ low public profile and his lack of government and management experience sets him apart from previous occupants of the job, who have typically worked in politics and at federal agencies such as the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget before taking over. The nomination has drawn criticism for that reason.


    Retirees “need and expect leadership and expertise from the director position [and] I don’t believe that Mr. Hartogensis has the qualifications necessary to provide that leadership,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who voted against Hartogensis’ nomination in the Finance Committee, in a written statement.

    The in-law connection “may be why they’re appointing him, as a family favor,” conceded George Hartogensis, his cousin. “The administration is not known for great people, but … he has a lot of experience in business and he’s smart.”

    The cousin, who describes himself as politically liberal, added: “It’s like if your family member is a made man in the Mafia. I mean, I’m proud of him, but they’re still a band of criminals.”

    Exactly how Hartogensis’ name surfaced for the job isn’t publicly known. President Donald Trump nominated him in May, ousting Tom Reeder, an Obama appointee whose five-year term was not set to expire until October 2020. The White House did not to respond to requests for comment on the decision to replace Reeder.

    Hartogensis’ supporters note that he’s conversant with the investment world, having founded and then sold two tech companies before retiring in 2011. His family connections could prove advantageous as Congress weighs a $3 billion-a-year pension bailout from the Treasury Department, said Joshua Gotbaum, who ran the PBGC before Reeder.

    Funded entirely through premiums paid by pension funds, the PBGC will be bankrupted if even one of a few very large and insolvent funds, mostly in Rust Belt industries where retirees outnumber employees, goes belly-up. That prospect has lawmakers scrambling to come up with a fix as the corporation faces a $54 billion gap in its reserves.


    “Given this is a guy who has started companies from zilch, I think he has the energy and the smarts to do it,” said Gotbaum, who ran the PBGC from 2010 to 2014. “I don’t know what the relationship is between him and his brother-in-law,” he said, “but hopefully it’s one that could help.”

    As very wealthy people go, Hartogensis leaves a small footprint. Despite having a Twitter profile, he’s never tweeted. The account, formed under his name in 2009, follows a handful of celebrities, including Justin Bieber and Lindsay Lohan, and one politician: Donald Trump.

    “I don’t even know much about him, honestly,” said Rachel Greszler, a seasoned pension analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

    People close to Hartogensis describe him as intelligent but introverted, rarely contributing more than a few words to conversations. He did not respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this article, and his mother, who lives in a Washington suburb, shooed a reporter off her porch last week.

    “He’s a really private guy,” explained his sister, Martine Hartogensis. “He doesn’t tend to publicize things very much.”

    Chao did not describe recent qualifications when The Washington Post asked her about Hartogensis shortly after his nomination last spring. She did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

    “Secretary Acosta made the selection and hired him, and I think he's an excellent choice,” Chao said, referring to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. Her brother-in-law, she said, was “quite accomplished, he's quite an entrepreneur. He went to Stanford, was valedictorian of his high school class, and he retired before the age of 29 because of his great success."

    Most of Hartogensis’ wealth comes from Petrolsoft, a niche software company that he and two friends started in 1989, when they were still undergraduates at Stanford. The company, which helped oil and gas companies forecast consumer demand, was valued at nearly $60 million when it was purchased by Aspen Technology in 2000, according to news reports at the time.

    Hartogensis moved to New York after selling Petrolsoft and, in 2004, he started another software company called Auric Technology, state records show, before selling it to a Mexico City-based company in 2011.

    “He’s very, very smart,” said Rita Hartogensis, Gordon Hartogensis’ aunt by marriage. “He once said he wanted to be the next Bill Gates.”

    The family trust that Hartogensis has been managing since 2011 includes “private equity, venture capital, and real estate assets,” according to his LinkedIn profile. Among the ventures it’s invested in are “immunotherapy, artificial intelligence, cryptography, streaming video, financial services, and marketing automation.” Hartogensis has also “acted as an advisor to several angel portfolio companies.”

    Hartogensis’ financial disclosure form — nearly 60 pages in total — lists investments in hundreds of businesses, from Amazon to Nike. In a letter to ethics officials, Hartogensis said he would divest from only a dozen companies, a decision that’s raised eyebrows among critics.


    Only two Democratic senators opposed Hartogensis in the Finance Committee, after a confirmation hearing that most of the committee didn't attend, scheduled on the same day that controversial hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court were absorbing all of Washington’s attention. Ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he was impressed by the technical knowledge Hartogensis demonstrated of the PBGC during his confirmation hearing in September — a rare compliment for a Trump appointee.

    “Frankly, that has not always been the case with Trump nominees,” Wyden said ahead of the vote last month.

    Hartogensis has given brother-in-law McConnell $11,600 in political contributions since 2001, according to a database compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s also given $50,000 to the Kentucky GOP since 2007, and occasionally he’s donated to Republican Senate candidates in key races.

    Registered as a Republican in Connecticut, Hartogensis occasionally ventures into liberal circles. In May, one of his daughters was confirmed through an affiliate United Church of Christ, a left-leaning branch of Protestantism that supports abortion. Hartogensis and his wife provided cake to the congregation, according to a church bulletin, though it’s unclear whether he is also a member. The church did not return calls seeking comment.

    “He is obviously conservative, but he’s not afraid to speak up to do the right thing,” said his sister, Martine Hartogensis. “Whether that aligns with the current political climate, I don’t know.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Reports show Russia mounted sweeping effort to sow divisions, support Trump


    Russia’s disinformation campaign during and after the 2016 presidential election touched nearly every top social media platform as it sought to sway U.S. voters, according to a pair of reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee that offer...


    Russia’s disinformation campaign during and after the 2016 presidential election touched nearly every top social media platform as it sought to sway U.S. voters, according to a pair of reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee that offer the most detailed look yet at the Kremlin's interference effort.

    The reports, commissioned by Senate Intelligence leaders, shed light on the breadth of the Russian strategy, which included posting content on not only Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr and Pinterest. The findings corroborate the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller's team that Russiacarried out a long-term, comprehensive effort to sow political divisions in the U.S., including over racial issues — but in some ways find it was even more sweeping than Mueller has portrayed it.

    Russian influence operations extended well beyond the presidential race and into the 2018 election cycle, the researchers found,with Kremlin-linked trolls consistently pushing narratives supportive of President Donald Trump and critical of impeachment talk. And as the major tech companies moved to curb the spread of online disinformation after 2016, the trolls evolved their strategies and shifted their resources to other platforms.

    "The goals of active measures are to undermine citizens’ trust in government, exploit societal fractures, create distrust in the information environment, blur the lines between reality and fiction, undermine trust among communities, and erode confidence in the democratic process," according to one of the reports by the research firm New Knowledge. "This campaign pursued all of those objectives with skill and precision. The IRA exploited divisions in our society using vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem."


    That report also suggests the tech firms were less than fully cooperative in sharing information with the research teams tapped by Congress to investigate Russian interference. The researchers wrote that Facebook and Twitter excluded and in some cases removed data from the information they supplied to Congress, adding, "This hints at the possibility of deciding to provide the bare minimum possible to meet the Committee’s request."

    The findings from New Knowledge and another team of researchers at the University of Oxford and Graphika provide the most sweeping view yet of how Russian trolls sought to manipulate divisions in U.S. society and boost the candidacy of Donald Trump, adding fresh details to a picture that's been emerging over the last two years through media reports and Mueller's indictments of Russian hackers and officials.

    The reports also give fresh ammunition to critics of the tech industry, which is already under intense pressure in Washington over election interference as well as privacy violations and conservative accusations of bias. Democrats and Republicans appear poised to dial up their scrutiny of Silicon Valley next year in the divided Congress.

    In total, Russian operations included over 10 million tweets, over 1,000 YouTube videos, roughly 116,000 Instagram posts and more than 60,000 unique Facebook posts, New Knowledge found. That translated to a reach of over 120 million people on Facebook and 20 million on its subsidiary, Instagram.

    While online manipulation efforts on Facebook and Twitter have been well chronicled, the findings show the Kremlin campaign focused much of its effort on platforms like Instagram. “Instagram engagement outperformed Facebook,” the report says, indicating the service may be “more ideal for memetic warfare” — disinformation that plays on online tropes.


    According to the New Knowledge report, “there appeared to be a strong and consistent preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, beginning in the early primaries,” in the influence operations run by the IRA. By comparison, almost no Russian content favored Trump’s challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the Russians generated an array of anti-Clinton messages in social media posts that appeared to be both left-leaning and right-leaning.

    The reports, however, found that a majority of the Kremlin content “focused on societally divisive issues, most notably race.” The IRA’s campaign, Oxford and Graphika wrote, sought to convince African-American voters to “boycott” the elections and turn away from political institutions “by preying on anger with structural inequalities … including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration.”

    A representative for Facebook on Monday said the company had “not seen” the findings and declined to comment on its specifics. “We continue to fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRA's activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election,” the spokesperson said.

    Google declined to comment. A spokesperson for Twitter said the company has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service.” Representatives for Tumblr, Pinterest and Reddit did not immediately respond.

    Senate Intelligence leaders called for action from Silicon Valley in the wake of the findings. The panel's chairman, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said the reports "are proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

    Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committee's ranking Democrat, said addressing foreign influence operations will "require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media."


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Sen. Lamar Alexander will not run for reelection


    Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will not run for another term in the Senate, a decision that represents a body blow to the institution and comes as a surprise to many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill.A former governor, Cabinet member, presidential...


    Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will not run for another term in the Senate, a decision that represents a body blow to the institution and comes as a surprise to many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

    A former governor, Cabinet member, presidential candidate and now the chairman of the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander decided to call it quits after three terms despite polls showing him in strong position in 2020. He’d be running in a conservative state and on the same ballot as President Donald Trump.

    "The people of Tennessee have been very generous, electing me to serve more combined years as governor and senator than anyone else from our state. I am deeply grateful, but now it is time for someone else to have that privilege," the 78-year old Alexander said on Monday. "I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have. I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term.”

    Alexander is widely respected by Democrats and Republicans, the rare senator who is close to both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. With his retirement, the Senate will lose a key negotiating conduit during times of crisis.


    It also means the Tennessee delegation is losing significant seniority in the Senate. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is retiring at the end of this year.

    “I often tell him he is the legislator of the decade because of the effective way he has worked across the aisle to pass legislation that directly affects the lives of so many throughout our state and around the country,” Corker said. “As one of the finest statesmen our state has ever seen, Lamar will leave behind a remarkable legacy.“

    Alexander has two more years as committee chairman ahead of him. His recent tenure has been defined by an ability to negotiate new health care and education laws with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) on the HELP Committee. But since the failure of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal, Alexander has had little success negotiating a bipartisan bill to shore up health insurance markets with Murray.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    California vows to fight Obamacare ruling, fears impacts at home


    California will challenge the ruling of a federal judge in Texas who late Friday struck down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra arguing that the federal health care law can remain in place even without...


    California will challenge the ruling of a federal judge in Texas who late Friday struck down the Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra arguing that the federal health care law can remain in place even without a tax penalty for Americans who forego health coverage.

    Though Obamacare remains in place — Californians have until Jan. 15 to enroll in Covered California plans — it could be in jeopardy, threatening health care for 5 million people in the state. The closely-watched case is likely headed for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and, potentially, the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Leading the legal battle will likely be California, which intervened in the Texas case to defend the Affordable Care Act. Becerra plans to vigorously defend the federal health care law.

    “The courts essentially left it to the Trump administration and states to decide how to respond and with the health of millions of people at risk, we won’t stand for this backwards and dangerous determination,” Becerra said in a statement to POLITICO. “Every American could be impacted this decision — adults, whether they have employer-sponsored care or get covered through Medicaid, seniors who benefit from prescription drug discounts, young people age 26 or under on a parent’s plan and more.”

    Becerra's argument is that the Republican-controlled Congress, when it passed the federal tax overhaul in late 2017, never intended for its zeroing-out of the tax penalty associated with the individual mandate to invalidate the entire health care law.

    On Friday, Judge Reed O'Connor ruled that the individual mandate is unconstitutional and that it cannot be severed from broader provisions in Obamacare, which include a prohibition on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and federal subsidies for those without employer-sponsored plans.

    Without a tax penalty, O'Connor argued, the mandate can't be upheld and without the mandate, the entire law is unconstitutional.

    Becerra has acknowledged the case could wind up at the Supreme Court. He believes that even if judges strike down the mandate, the rest of the law should survive.

    “Why, whether Congress puts a dollar in or doesn't put a dollar in, does that mean that every other aspect of the Affordable Care Act collapses?” Becerra said in an October interview. “Why would you now allow any insurance company to discriminate on pre-existing conditions because the tax revenue coming in under the personal responsibility part of the Affordable Care Act is now down to zero?”

    The ruling prompted immediate backlash Friday night from California Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

    "California will vigorously fight this wanton and cruel action," Brown said in a statement. "This Texas judge has no right to deprive millions of Californians of their health care by invalidating the Affordable Care Act."

    Newsom, who takes office Jan. 7, echoed Brown, calling the ruling "outrageous and misguided."

    "Have no doubt — CA will fight back," Newsom wrote on Twitter.

    Their comments suggest the state's immediate action would take place in the courts, but the ruling no doubt has elected officials scrambling behind the scenes to identify possible actions the state could take should the law be invalidated, said Larry Levitt, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit think tank.

    "Given the breadth of this judge's decision, it makes sense for state officials and interest groups to step back and figure out what the implications would be for California," Levitt said in an interview. "California is at the front and center in defending the Affordable Care Act in court, so the political and policy [effects] are huge."

    Levitt said the judge's ruling could throw a wrench into any of Newsom's health care plans, as he readies to unveil his budget in early January.

    "There are high health care expectations for the new governor, but I also think there are a lot of forces pushing for him to go slow, and this may be one more reason why we shouldn't expect much action quickly on health care," Levitt said. "It introduces a big element of uncertainty into the health care environment, which may make it difficult for Sacramento to move fast on any changes.

    "There's a lot of ideas floating around in Sacramento to expand coverage and build on the Affordable Care Act, but if the entire law is now potentially threatened, it'll complicate the whole debate," he added. "Any new initiatives to expand coverage cost money, and there may be some hesitation now to spend that money if the underlying funding of the Affordable Care Act is now threatened."

    Coverage for at least 5 million Californians who have gained coverage under Obamacare is in peril. That includes about 3.5 million people who have received coverage under the expansion of Medi-Cal, the state's low-income health program, and roughly 1.4 million people who purchase insurance on the exchange, according to Covered California, the state-based marketplace.

    It also poses far-reaching threats to coverage for millions of Californians covered by employer-sponsored plans, which also must comply.

    "The unfortunate thing about this ruling is so much of the nation had moved beyond the Affordable Care Act being a political football, and this in many ways puts that ball back in play," said Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee in an interview with POLITICO. "It's far from perfect, but the improvements needed are to expand subsidies and make it better, not to kneecap it."

    Covered California is "working closely" with the state Department of Justice to identify its next steps, said spokesperson Amy Palmer. She emphasized that nothing would change immediately, saying open enrollment is open in California through Jan. 15.

    "Our main effort at this time is reassuring people that their coverage is valid, and they can sign up without hesitation," Palmer said.

    Lee said Covered California is working on a report due to the Legislature by Sept. 1 analyzing options to make health care more affordable, but if the law is overturned, the state would likely backslide. California's uninsured rate has dropped roughly 10 percentage points since Obamacare took effect, to about 7 percent today — with about 3 million people remaining uninsured.

    "We are not creating models based on what if there is not Medicaid expansion dollars. Also what do we do if there is not the $5 billion in federal tax credits that make health care affordable for middle-class Californians?" Lee said.

    "The idea that California could go it alone is a pipe dream," Lee said.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    It’s Boehner’s turn: Inside D.C. memoir on the way

    It’s Boehner’s turn: Inside D.C. memoir on the way


    The next big political memoir isn’t coming from inside the Trump White House. But it is likely to offer eye-popping tales from inside another important D.C. institution. Former House Speaker John Boehner is at work on a memoir about his time in...



    The next big political memoir isn’t coming from inside the Trump White House. But it is likely to offer eye-popping tales from inside another important D.C. institution.

    Former House Speaker John Boehner is at work on a memoir about his time in Washington, which stretched nearly two and a half decades, from 1991 to 2015. Then he was chased out of office by the right flank of his party.

    The tentative title, “Notes From a Smoke-Filled Room,” suggests that Boehner intends to portray himself as an anachronism, a creature from a bygone era when bipartisan deals were negotiated by party leaders behind closed doors rather than in front of the cameras and on Twitter — and when a politician’s habit for enjoying one too many glasses of expensive Merlot was indulged not excoriated.

    “I get the question every day: What was the proudest accomplishment of your time in Congress? And I think it’s that I walked out of there in October 2015 as pretty much the same jackass I was when I walked in almost 25 years earlier. I walked out of there with no regrets … and a hell of a lot of good stories,” Boehner told POLITICO in a statement.

    Following the Republican Revolution of 1994 and, during his career, Boehner served alongside the major political figures of the past three decades, from Newt Gingrich and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Reflecting on his former colleagues, he has since remarked that one “doesn’t know how to dress,” called another a “total phony” and decried a third as a “legislative terrorist.”


    “I’ve never really been interested in doing your typical political-memoir kind of book. And this won’t be that kind of book,” Boehner said Monday. “This is going to be a book people might want to actually read, no matter where they’re coming from politically, or where they’re coming from in life.”

    Boehner, of course, was one of the most high-profile political leaders of the last three decades. He first came to Washington in 1991 as a self-styled political reformer from Ohio. He, along with other young Republicans like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, called themselves the Gang of Seven, and helped expose the House banking scandal.



    When Republicans won the House in 1994, Boehner became the chairman of the House Republican Conference, but was booted from the leadership in 1998. He re-entered the leadership in 2005, later chairing the Education and Labor Committee, where he partnered with Kennedy, a Democrat, to write No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education law.

    But some of Boehner’s most consequential stories came between 2011 and 2015, when he was the speaker of the House in a sharply partisan and divided Washington. Boehner was the top House Republican during the majority of Obama’s presidency, and wrestled with him over debts, deficits, taxes and spending.

    He was also criticized by the right wing of his party for being too eager to strike deals with Democrats. And he caught flak constantly for his close ties to business and lobbyists. He was criticized in 1995 for passing out campaign contributions on the House floor.


    Boehner was represented in the book deal by Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer of the Javelin agency, who have also represented other spirited and controversial memoirists, including former FBI Director James Comey, and other Republican lawmakers like Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Ted Cruz of Texas.

    “John Boehner is, in many ways, the last of a breed,” Boehner’s publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, said in a statement. “In a world of kale chips, cold-pressed coffee and soul cycles, he’s a man of Camels, good wine and frequent tee times. He doesn’t chase political fads or play to the cameras. Despite being second in line to the presidency, he thought of himself as a regular guy. A happy warrior. There could hardly have been, at that time, a more diametrically opposed figure to represent the opposition party during Barack Obama’s presidency.”

    The book is tentatively scheduled for publication in spring 2020, in the middle of the next presidential campaign.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    House Dems eye quick action on guns in new Congress


    House Democrats are planning to move several high-profile bills to combat gun violence soon after they take power in January, underscoring their belief that the political landscape has shifted dramatically on an issue that's plagued American society for...


    House Democrats are planning to move several high-profile bills to combat gun violence soon after they take power in January, underscoring their belief that the political landscape has shifted dramatically on an issue that's plagued American society for decades.

    With backing from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and key chairmen, Democrats will move to require federal background checks on all gun sales, part of a broader effort by the party to advance long-stalled gun control measures.

    While the proposal won't get through the Republican-run Senate, much less become law, getting through the House will be a win for the gun-control movement, which has little to cheer about since President Donald Trump was sworn into office.

    Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.) — head of a Democratic “gun violence prevention task force” that will have more than 140 members next year — says he’ll introduce the universal background checks bill early next year.

    “It will be strong legislation to expand background checks, and I will have a very respectful show of [co-sponors],” Thompson said in an interview. “I think you will see it happen in the first 100 days.”

    “The new Democratic majority will act boldly and decisively to pass commonsense, life-saving background checks that are overwhelmingly supported by the American people,” Pelosi said in a statement.


    Thompson, a close Pelosi ally, said the bill would have bipartisan sponsorship, although he declined to name the Republican lawmakers who'll sign onto it. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has co-authored background checks bills with Thompson in the past, has already told reporters that he will back this latest effort as well.

    Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue, said he plans to move “very quickly” to get the background checks bill to the floor.

    “It’s very important to us, it’s one of our top priorities. We told the American voters that we do mean to do this, and we do mean to do it,” Nadler told POLITICO, adding it would move through his panel in late February or early March. A floor vote in the House will come soon after.

    Thompson's legislation will require federal background checks on all gun sales, including private transactions. There likely will be some small exemptions, such as transfers between family members, or temporary use of a gun for hunting. Gun-control groups estimate that roughly one-fifth or more of gun sales don't include background checks.

    Thompson, King and more than 200 other lawmakers — including 14 Republicans — introduced similar legislation in November 2017, but it went nowhere.

    "The American people want this. They're way ahead of the Congress, they're way ahead of the White House," Thompson insisted.

    Thompson's proposal, like many that House Democrats will pass in the new majority, may end up more as a messaging bill meant to show the American public that they listened to those who marched for action after the February 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida, as well as proving they won't shy away from talking about gun control ahead of ahead of the ultimate 2020 battle with Trump.


    Any legislation will be loudly opposed by the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups, who suggest it's the opening move by gun-control advocates in a campaign to create a national gun registry.

    Such a registry, they argue, could eventually lead to the federal government taking away citizens‘ guns. It’s the thread that runs through virtually every argument made by gun-rights groups — the government first wants to know whether you have a gun so it can take it away from you someday — and continues to mobilize their activists in the never-ending struggle over gun laws.

    "Universal background checks has always been a red herring," said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a key NRA ally in the House. "It's something that sounds very commonsense and probably polls very well, but there's not a single commercial gun transaction in America that doesn't have a background check."

    "People who are putting this forward, I think they have good intentions. They don't want the wrong people to have guns," Hudson added. "But the wrong people are not going to report gun sales. So you will need a registry to know where every gun is."

    While the NRA will staunchly oppose the Thompson bill — as it has opposed calls for expanding background checks in the past — this debate comes at a critical time for the organization, and the broader gun-rights movement.

    The NRA has suffered a steep decline in fundraising during the last few years, according to its own reports. While the organization still spent millions of dollars during the 2018 midterms — and its endorsement is eagerly sought by GOP candidates and incumbents — its spending has dropped steeply from previous cycles.


    In addition, the NRA has found itself embroiled in a Russian spy scandal. Maria Butina, a Russian gun-rights advocate, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Russian government. Butina tried to infiltrate the NRA and conservative political circles in 2016.

    Sources close to the NRA downplay the impact of the Butina case, and they say that any attempt to restrict gun rights will damage Democrats in the long run.

    "[Democrats] will overreach like they always do," said a source close to the NRA. "They will push this too far, and it will backfire on them."

    Yet gun-control groups such as Giffords and Everytown for Gun Safety argue that the political environment has moved decisively in their favor. They point to the fact that Democratic candidates who embraced gun-control measures did well in November, especially with suburban voters horrified by repeated mass shootings targeting children or schools.

    "For the first time in years, the House of Representatives is going to be able to debate,” and pass strong gun-safety laws, which is something they haven't been able to do during this modern gun-safety movement," which began with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, said Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs at Giffords. Giffords was founded by former Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords (Ariz.), who was severely injured in a January 2011 shooting that left six people dead and 13 wounded.

    "The public has been demanding commonsense gun laws for years," added John Feinblatt, Everytown's president. "The public is ready for the Congress to act. The new leadership that's coming to the House in 2019 is listening to voters, and that's what they should be doing."

    Everytown was started by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor. Bloomberg dumped tens of millions of dollars into the midterms to help Democrats, and he's now considering a run for the White House in 2020.

    Democratic presidential hopefuls will also have to be much more aggressive in talking about gun control, even if proponents can't get such measures through Congress, say lawmakers and party activists.

    “Any Democrat running for president or dog catcher has to be talking about gun policy,“ said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has led the drive for more restrictions of guns since Sandy Hook.

    “Republicans can’t win the House back if their position on guns doesn’t change,” he added. “This is now a top two or three issue for swing voters in suburban districts and until Republicans break from the NRA, they’re not going to win back the seats that they lost in 2018.“


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Coons: Trump sounds 'more like a mob boss than president' with Cohen attacks


    President Donald Trump’s use of the word “rat” to attack his former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen is more evocative of a “mob boss” than of a president, a Democratic senator said Monday.Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate...


    President Donald Trump’s use of the word “rat” to attack his former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen is more evocative of a “mob boss” than of a president, a Democratic senator said Monday.

    Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, painted Trump’s claims that the FBI “broke into” Cohen’s office earlier this year — though the bureau had a warrant to do so — as a clear attempt to undermine law enforcement and mislead Americans about the various investigations into the president's dealings.

    Trump on Sunday wrote on Twitter that Cohen “only became a ‘Rat’ after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable & unheard of until the Witch Hunt was illegally started." He falsely claimed that the FBI "BROKE INTO AN ATTORNEY’S OFFICE” and rhetorically asked his followers why the FBI had not done the same at the Democratic National Committee to investigate email hacks there, or for Hillary Clinton, who at one point was under investigation by the FBI for her use of a personal email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

    “The idea that the FBI broke into his attorney's office runs right up against the foundation of our law, which is the FBI was executing a duly authorized warrant,” Coons said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day.”

    “They were executing a warrant issued with the approval of a judge. This is part of how investigations work. His use of the term ‘rat’ for Michael Cohen and mischaracterizing this as a break-in to his attorney's office frankly makes him sound more like a mob boss than president of the United States.”


    Spokespeople for the president did not immediately return an email seeking a response to Coons' remarks.

    In April, the FBI conducted a raid on Cohen’s office and his apartment in Manhattan, carrying out a search warrant that had been approved by a federal judge.

    Cohen, once a staunch Trump loyalist, came under the microscope as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russians looking to influence the 2016 election.

    After agreeing to flip on Trump and cooperate with prosecutors, Cohen was sentenced last week to three years in prison for charges of tax evasion and fraud, lying to Congress and campaign-finance violations that Cohen says were hush-money payments made at Trump’s direction to women who alleged having affairs with him.

    Trump repeatedly has lashed out at Cohen, calling him “weak” and suggesting that he lied to investigators to receive a more lenient sentence. Cohen, in turn, has said that he is finished lying for the president and no longer feels compelled to cover up Trump’s “dirty deeds.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump ups pressure on Fed to hold off on rate hikes


    President Donald Trump exerted more pressure on the Federal Reserve on Monday, saying it’s “incredible” that the Fed would consider another interest rate hike given the current economic and political situation.“It is incredible that with a very...


    President Donald Trump exerted more pressure on the Federal Reserve on Monday, saying it’s “incredible” that the Fed would consider another interest rate hike given the current economic and political situation.

    “It is incredible that with a very strong dollar and virtually no inflation, the outside world blowing up around us, Paris is burning and China way down, the Fed is even considering yet another interest rate hike. Take the Victory!” Trump tweeted.

    Trump has continually pestered the Fed to hold off on rate hikes, breaking from past presidents who sought to maintain the Fed’s independence.

    The president has said he “maybe” regrets nominating Jerome Powell as Federal Reserve chairman and that Powell “almost looks like he’s happy raising interest rates.”

    The Fed is expected to raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point at its two-day meeting this week but is expected to then ease up on any future hikes.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump says he would work with Democrats on 'great' replacement if Obamacare is scrapped


    President Donald Trump on Monday predicted that Democrats would work with him in the event that the Affordable Care Act is struck down, echoing promises he’s made in the past that have not come to fruition.A federal judge in Texas on Friday ruled that...


    President Donald Trump on Monday predicted that Democrats would work with him in the event that the Affordable Care Act is struck down, echoing promises he’s made in the past that have not come to fruition.

    A federal judge in Texas on Friday ruled that without the individual mandate, which Republicans stripped from the law in its tax overhaul last year, former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement violates the Constitution.

    The controversial ruling, which fell right before the final day for open enrollment for coverage under the law, is expected to swiftly draw appeals that could send the case to the Supreme Court, where some legal experts say it could be overturned.

    Trump hailed the ruling on Friday as “great news for America” and urged congressional leaders to work together on replacement legislation.

    He continued on Monday to bash the law — widely referred to as Obamacare — suggesting there is room for compromise between the two parties.

    “The DEDUCTIBLE which comes with ObamaCare is so high that it is practically not even useable! Hurts families badly,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “We have a chance, working with the Democrats, to deliver great HealthCare! A confirming Supreme Court Decision will lead to GREAT HealthCare results for Americans!”

    Republicans have railed against Obamacare since its inception, and furor over the law is credited with sweeping the GOP into power during the Obama administration and fueling a two-week government shutdown in 2013, though public opinion about the law has improved in recent years.


    Trump pledged during his presidential campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act on “Day One” of his presidency, but doing so proved easier said than done.

    Republicans in Congress were unable to agree on a measure to take the place of the ACA, stemming from divisions over protections for those with pre-existing conditions, funding for abortions and concerns about the cost of a replacement law.

    Even fellow Republicans slammed their party’s efforts to force a replacement bill through, with the late Sen. John McCain ripping his colleagues’ lack of transparency and ultimately providing the decisive vote to sink the effort in a move that Trump still publicly derides him for.

    Democrats, who grabbed 40 new seats in this year’s midterms in large part by relying on a message of health care, have not shown an appetite for crafting a new law, vowing instead to fight Friday’s ruling.

    Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the weekend ripped the decision as “absurd,” claiming that it lays bare the “monstrous endgame of the GOP’s all-out assault” on protecting coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.

    She and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said they plan to call for a vote in the next Congress to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the law and urge for the ruling to be overturned.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Google to invest $1B in newly unveiled New York City campus


    Google today is announcing plans to invest more than $1 billion in capital improvements to build a 1.7-million-square-foot campus in Lower Manhattan, dubbed Google Hudson Square.As part of the New York City expansion, Google and Alphabet Chief Financial...


    Google today is announcing plans to invest more than $1 billion in capital improvements to build a 1.7-million-square-foot campus in Lower Manhattan, dubbed Google Hudson Square.

    As part of the New York City expansion, Google and Alphabet Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said in a blog post this morning that the company "will have the capacity to more than double its staff" in the city over the next 10 years.

    The company plans to start moving into two properties on Hudson Street by 2020, and into a newly created building on Washington Street by 2022. "Google Hudson Square will be the primary location for our New York-based Global Business Organization," Porat said.

    The Google exec said the company will also "continue to deepen our commitments in STEM education, workforce development and access to technology," including by creating a program to train workers in digital skills. "We believe that as our company grows, we have a responsibility to support the communities we call home," she wrote.

    The move comes as other tech giants, like Amazon and Apple, have moved to expand their presence outside the West Coast.

    Amazon in November said it would split its highly anticipated second headquarters between Crystal City in Northern Virginia and Long Island City in Queens, New York. And last week, Apple said it would invest $1 billion in a new campus in the Austin, Texas, metropolitan area, as part of the company's U.S. expansion plan.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Saudis reject Senate resolutions on Khashoggi, Yemen


    The kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday denounced a pair of resolutions passed by the Senate last week that rebuked the Arab kingdom over its military campaign in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, labeling the resolutions an attempt to...


    The kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Monday denounced a pair of resolutions passed by the Senate last week that rebuked the Arab kingdom over its military campaign in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, labeling the resolutions an attempt to interfere in Saudi internal affairs based on “unsubstantiated claims and allegations.”

    “The Kingdom categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs, any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership ... and any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

    The Senate on Thursday agreed by unanimous consent to a resolution that formally blames Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for orchestrating Khashoggi’s murder. It also voted 56-41 to pass a resolution that would withdraw U.S. support for Saudi forces in the civil war in Yemen. Both pieces of legislation await action in the House, where Republican leaders have effectively blocked them from coming up for a vote.

    The votes put a GOP-controlled Senate at odds with the Trump administration, which has argued that withdrawing support for Saudi coalition forces in Yemen would undermine peace talks there.

    The Khashoggi resolution, too, is a direct rebuke of President Donald Trump, who has led his administration in backing the crown prince despite reports of CIA intelligence that overwhelmingly implicates the him in the plot to kill Khashoggi. The journalist, who wrote columns for The Washington Post and was a U.S. resident, was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October.


    Trump has claimed that there is no smoking-gun evidence linking the crown prince to the murder and has insisted that the Saudi-U.S. alliance is too important to compromise with tougher consequences for the kingdom.

    The Saudi statement released Monday expressed disdain at the "blatant interferences" the monarchy said were contained in the resolutions, and the kingdom’s “concern regarding the positions that were expressed by members of an esteemed legislative body of an allied and friendly government, a government that the Kingdom … holds at the highest regard."

    Still, Saudi Arabia vowed Monday that it will work to continue improving its relationship with the U.S., touting its role in helping the U.S. fight terrorism in the Middle East and its clout in global energy markets while pledging that it will continue to seek a diplomatic resolution to the civil war in Yemen.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Child’s death highlights communication barriers on border


    Shortly before a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died in U.S. custody, her father signed a form stating that his daughter was in good health. But it’s unclear how much the man understood on the form, which was written in English and read to him in Spanish...


    Shortly before a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl died in U.S. custody, her father signed a form stating that his daughter was in good health. But it’s unclear how much the man understood on the form, which was written in English and read to him in Spanish by Border Patrol agents.

    The death of Jakelin Caal highlights the communication challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border as agents come in contact with an increasing number of migrants who speak neither English nor Spanish.

    Her father’s native language is the Mayan tongue known as Q’eqchi’. His second language is Spanish. It’s unclear whether something was lost in translation or whether it would have made a difference in saving Jakelin after the two were detained and underwent a health screening along a remote stretch of U.S.-Mexico border. But the case raises questions about the Border Patrol’s use of English-only forms.

    All agents are required to speak Spanish, and they receive formal Spanish training. Reading forms in Spanish is often enough to pose basic questions. But some other Spanish-speaking migrants reported signing paperwork that they later said they did not understand.

    Scores of immigrant parents who were separated from their children after crossing the border in the spring said they signed forms agreeing to be deported with the understanding that their kids would be returning with them, only to find themselves deported without them. Many had to wait months before being reunited with them in their homelands.


    Jakelin and her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz, were part of a group of 163 migrants arrested Dec. 6 near a border crossing in New Mexico. Hours later, they were placed on a bus to the nearest Border Patrol station, but Jakelin began vomiting and eventually stopped breathing. She later died at a Texas hospital.

    Border Patrol officials on Friday said agents did everything they could to save the girl but that she had not had food or water for days. An initial screening showed no evidence of health problems, they said, and her father spoke to them in Spanish and signed a form indicating she was in good health.

    Attorneys in Texas representing Caal criticized U.S. officials for asking him to sign Form I-779, which asks a series of questions with check boxes of “yes” or “no.” In the additional comments section on the form was written “claims good health.”

    “It is unacceptable for any government agency to have persons in custody sign documents in a language that they clearly do not understand,” the attorneys said in a statement.

    The family also disputed the accounts offered by U.S. officials that the girl walked for days in the desert without food or water before crossing. The father’s lawyers said Caal took care of his daughter, giving her sufficient water and food, and she appeared to be in good health.

    Jakelin’s family is asking for an “objective and thorough” investigation to determine whether officials met standards for taking children into custody.

    Border Patrol officials did not immediately respond to the family lawyers’ statement. The father, who is staying at a shelter in El Paso, Texas, has asked for privacy.


    Authorities are conducting an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Results are expected in about a week, said Tekandi Paniagua, the Guatemalan consul in Del Rio, Texas.

    Paniagua, who spoke with Jakelin’s father, said the two had walked with the other migrants for about 90 minutes before crossing and Caal told him he had no complaints about how agents treated him and his daughter.

    Caal speaks broken Spanish. In his impoverished village in Guatemala, Spanish is needed only occasionally, such as when the community deals with schools and health care or for work, Paniagua said.

    More than two dozen languages are spoken in Guatemala, and the consulate tries to send interpreters as soon as possible to help detained migrants, Paniagua said. But sometimes by the time they get there, the migrants have already signed forms.

    “We’ll ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ And they’ll say yes,” he said. “Then we’ll ask, ‘But do you understand Spanish?’ And often they’ll say, ‘No, I need an interpreter.’”

    Caal asked the Guatemalan consulate in Texas, which had reached out to him, if he could see his daughter one last time before her body was sent back to her homeland. That request prompted special arrangements at a private funeral home on Friday, when he said goodbye to Jakelin.

    The consulate asked him if he wanted an interpreter who could explain everything, including the repatriation of her body, in Q’eqchi.′

    He said he did. After listening to the interpreter, Paniagua said, Caal thanked the consulate and said “he felt more comfortable in his own language.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump adviser: We will ‘do whatever is necessary to build the border wall’


    White House senior adviser Stephen Miller on Sunday said the Trump administration would “do whatever is necessary” to build its signature wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, even if it means shutting down the government.“We're going to do whatever is...


    White House senior adviser Stephen Miller on Sunday said the Trump administration would “do whatever is necessary” to build its signature wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, even if it means shutting down the government.

    “We're going to do whatever is necessary to build the border wall to stop this ongoing crisis of illegal immigration,” Miller, a well-known immigration hard-liner, said in an interview on CBS' “Face the Nation.”

    Asked by interviewer Margaret Brennan whether that meant forcing a partial government shutdown, Miller replied, “If it comes to it, absolutely.”

    Building a border wall to stop illegal immigration, and making Mexico pay for it, was a signature issue in President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Funding the wall is at the epicenter of a battle over funding a slew of federal agencies that will come to a head later this week.

    Funding for numerous federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department, runs out after Friday — though the majority of the government, including massive bureaucracies like the Defense Department, Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs, is already fully funded through next fall. Trump has demanded $5 billion for the wall as part of a deal to prevent a shutdown.


    In a televised Oval Office meeting last week with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Trump said he’d be “proud” to shut down the government over the wall

    Miller called the dispute “a very fundamental issue.”

    “At stake is the question of whether or not the United States remains a sovereign country. Whether or not we can establish and enforce rules for entrance into our country.”

    “The Democrat Party has a simple choice, they can either choose to fight for America's working class or to promote illegal immigration,” Miller argued. “You can't do both.”

    Along those same dramatic lines, the president tweeted on the subject of immigration Sunday morning.

    “The Democrats policy of Child Seperation on the Border during the Obama Administration was far worse than the way we handle it now,” Trump tweeted. “Remember the 2014 picture of children in cages - the Obama years. However, if you don’t separate, FAR more people will come. Smugglers use the kids!“


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump to review case of ex-commando facing murder charge


    President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that he would review the case of a former Army Special Forces officer facing a murder charge, apparently after he watched a segment about the ex-commando on Fox News.“At the request of many, I will be...


    President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that he would review the case of a former Army Special Forces officer facing a murder charge, apparently after he watched a segment about the ex-commando on Fox News.

    “At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder,” the president wrote on Twitter. “He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas. @PeteHegseth @FoxNews”

    Earlier Sunday, “Fox & Friends” co-host Pete Hegseth interviewed Mathew Golsteyn’s wife on air.

    The former Green Beret is being prosecuted on one count of premeditated murder after twice acknowledging that in 2010 he killed an unarmed detainee suspected of being a Taliban bombmaker — first during a polygraph test for a job interview with the CIA in 2011, and then in a 2016 interview with Fox News.

    Any interference by the White House could complicate the military’s prosecution of Golsteyn, The Washington Post reported Sunday, potentially resulting in his case being thrown out.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Incoming House Oversight chair wants Cohen to testify in January


    The incoming chairman of the House’s top watchdog committee said Sunday he wants Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former attorney, to testify before Congress in January."I'm hoping that Mr. Cohen will come before the Congress, where he can...


    The incoming chairman of the House’s top watchdog committee said Sunday he wants Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former attorney, to testify before Congress in January.

    "I'm hoping that Mr. Cohen will come before the Congress, where he can tell the American public exactly what he has been saying to Mueller and others, without interfering with the Mueller investigation,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the next chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I think the American people just voted for transparency and integrity in our hearings. They want to hear from him.”

    "I certainly would like to see him come in the month of January ... before the Congress, and so that the people's representatives will have an opportunity to ask him questions," he said.

    Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison last week after pleading guilty to eight federal crimes, including charges related to making or helping carry out hush money payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. Federal prosecutors in New York allege Trump directed Cohen to make the payments.

    Cohen's sentence is the longest handed out so far stemming from special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.


    Cummings called the former Trump attorney potentially appearing before Congress "a watershed moment," likening it to White House counsel John Dean's testimony amid the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

    "Remember John Dean, with regard to the Nixon tapes and the testimony that he provided, he changed the course of America," Cummings said. "A lot of people said that he would not — called him a liar and everything else. But the fact is, is that he came forward.

    "And I think, surely, Mr. Cohen should come forward and let us know what he has on his mind," Cummings added. "But I think the public needs to know exactly what happened. And I think that he can shed light on it."

    Though he argued “the evidence is piling up,” the Maryland Democrat also said kicking off impeachment proceedings against Trump would be “premature” and that Mueller should be allowed to “complete the job.”

    Cummings added that his committee will “more than likely” look into Trump’s inaugural committee amid reports it has come under federal scrutiny for its spending and whether its donors sought to influence administration policy.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Welcome to Rosslyn, Team Trump. Here’s All You Need to Know.


    Rosslyn, Virginia, sits on a bluff above the Potomac River overlooking one of the most beautiful cities in the world or, as Team Trump calls it, “The Swamp.” President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign recently leased a floor of elevated...


    Rosslyn, Virginia, sits on a bluff above the Potomac River overlooking one of the most beautiful cities in the world or, as Team Trump calls it, “The Swamp.” President Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign recently leased a floor of elevated office space here for its semi-headquarters. (The primary HQ will be Trump Tower in New York.) For the several years between now and the 2020 election, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and his colleagues will be able to look down upon the people of Washington in real time.

    They had a lot of empty space to choose from among the many tall office buildings that make Rosslyn look more like a modern city than Washington does. It got that way by not being included in the District of Columbia—the result of political decisions that propelled the two neighboring cities in vastly different directions over the centuries. After all, Rosslyn wasn’t always this glossy—far from it.

    Arlington County—formerly known as Alexandria County—didn’t used to be independent from the capital. In 1790, President George Washington needed congressional votes to pass Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s financial program. He secured one of those votes by promising Alexandria’s congressman—a member of the powerful Lee family—to include his town within the new District of Columbia. That meant that Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had to rejigger the plan for the District, swiveling the Constitution-mandated 10-mile-square around until it encompassed the little town and 25 square miles of its hinterland, making Alexandria County part of D.C.

    This constitutionally, legislatively and judicially confirmed three-party contract existed for over 50 years until some Alexandria businessmen and politicians determined in 1846 that it had been a bad deal. Most importantly, Alexandria’s major business, the slave trade, was being outlawed in the District. By way of a hastily organized and barely advertised referendum, the leaders authorized themselves to unilaterally withdraw from their binding contract with the District of Columbia and Maryland. D.C. lost a voteless population and, thanks to its new county, Virginia gained a seat in Congress.

    Among the unintended consequences of the county’s separation from the District was that the Virginia edge of the Potomac River suddenly became the border between two different police jurisdictions. Gambling barges and floating houses of prostitution soon found moorings along the Virginia riverfront because the Washington police would not tread on Virginia soil to reach the boarding ramps for the bobbing pleasure palaces. There was no effective municipal government or police force on the Virginia end of the Aqueduct Bridge, the new shortcut from Georgetown, so eventually, the river-borne vice spread into Rosslyn, whose largest legitimate business was a brewery.

    The county was a local embarrassment for more than half a century, from the 1850s until 1904, when a few leaders began to express the will of a growing middle-class population in opposition to the local crime machine. Their efforts at restructuring the government culminated in the 1920s, when the progressive county-manager form of governance was instituted and the county began about 40 years of prosperity and population growth. In 1920, Alexandria County’s name was changed to Arlington County—in honor of Arlington House, which George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, had built on the hill behind Rosslyn as a private memorial to the first president that could be seen from across the Potomac. Arlington Cemetery had also been created on Custis’ property during the Civil War.

    Over the years, Rosslyn’s pool halls, saloons, brothels and gambling houses were replaced by lumber and coal yards, auto repair shops and oil storage tanks. The Aqueduct Bridge was replaced by Francis Scott Key Bridge in 1923, and Rosslyn’s ugly reputation improved, but it didn’t rise above the level of pervasive seediness, as typified by the pawnshops that still lined its streets into the ’60s. The most popular restaurant in Rosslyn for many years as it was rebounding was “The Pawnshop.”

    Some small amount of city planning took place in the 1950s. One plan called for Key Boulevard to cut through a lumber yard to connect it with Fort Myer Drive. At that time one of the lumber yard’s owners, William P. Ames, wanted to replace the small frame chapel that he and some fellow Methodists attended nearby. One result of the county’s negotiations with Mr. Ames was that, instead of a street going through his property, a church was placed there, with a gas station as a kind of perpetual endowment built underneath it. So now, when you turn right off Fort Myer to go up Nash Street, you are confronted by the Arlington Temple United Methodist Church, with a steeple and cross up above, a sanctuary in the middle, and a couple of sets of gas pumps down below.

    During the federal government’s expansion following the Korean War, Congress opened up competition for leasing office space outside of Washington on lower-priced land. Rosslyn was so unattractive in so many ways that it had a great price-to-location ratio. Rosslyn instantly qualified as developable real estate, and its prosperity depended upon getting a lot of office space built in a hurry.

    Enter the Pomponio brothers. A young Arlingtonian and his even younger twin siblings made the space that the government needed, both right across the river in Rosslyn and just downriver in the Arlington railroad yards that were suddenly transformed into Crystal City. The Pomponios acquired control of underused properties and built 15 of the stubby buildings known locally as high-rises in Rosslyn during the ’60s. The federal Heights of Buildings Act of 1910 had given D.C. a unique character at the cost of real estate value. The land across the river was not only far cheaper than in the District, but it was unconstrained by federal height limits. County planning policies incentivized developers to plan expansively.

    Unfortunately for the Pomponio brothers, the constrained financial conditions of the ’70s introduced closer inspection of the books to the process of development. Ultimately, all three brothers spent time in jail for their imaginative interpretation of tax law. But the threesome had helped boost Rosslyn and Crystal City into becoming major regional office building enclaves—all before the brothers were 40 years old.

    For many years, Arlington’s planners required developers to widen and improve the streets in front their properties. When different projects were underway on both sides of a street, drivers often had to swing back and forth across the centerline to get onto a paved surface. When finished, Rosslyn’s widened streets helped get auto traffic through the new canyons of concrete and glass, but they offered little to pedestrians. The planners’ solution to dull utilitarian streets was a system of skywalks connecting buildings above the level of the traffic. Separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic had become an unchallenged article of faith among modernist planners early in the 20th century, and Rosslyn’s characterless streetscape was ripe for the experiment on a pretty large scale. Concrete pedestrian bridges ultimately connected scores of Rosslyn’s second floors during their heyday, but people just didn’t like them—or use them. Many were removed early on, but many stayed in place until their sites were redeveloped after 2000. There are still a couple of the pedestrian bridges in place to help people get to Arlington Gateway Park, lying between Rosslyn and Key Bridge—and surrounded by many lanes of traffic.

    The automobiles for whose convenience Rosslyn seemed to be developed needed to be housed on a large scale, and so most every office building built a garage to store its own population’s vehicles. But after hours, the garages of office buildings were usually deserted. Deep Throat selected the garage beneath a pair of office towers at 1401 Wilson Boulevard for meeting Bob Woodward in 1972 and ’73. He probably figured that a deserted garage in Rosslyn was going to be even more deserted than its equivalent in D.C. He was right.

    Arlington planning came of age in the mid-’70s when the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor was designed to accommodate Route 66 and Metro. Both circulation routes were threaded through the county to serve Rosslyn and four other newly urbanized centers on their way to Falls Church. Rosslyn became a major transit hub for Metro and street transportation. One Metro line also served Crystal City, whose quantity of enclosed new office space exceeded Rosslyn’s.

    In the 1980s, a pair of aluminum and glass airfoil-shaped office towers by the architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum should have led the way in construction of higher quality architecture that acknowledged its position in the regional landscape, but most developers were slow to follow their lead toward better-quality design. The increasing price of land eventually brought better architecture into the development mix. Developers justified the necessary rise in price-per-square-foot of rental space by the up-to-date overall appearance and feeling of specialness in the lobbies that a design-oriented architectural firm could provide. Much of the recent construction in Rosslyn has been first rate, and projects on the boards are even better, but market fluctuations have always held Rosslyn development on a shortish leash, and several projects are currently looking for optimistic buyers.

    Rosslyn has been competing from behind with Crystal City and its neighbors for over a half-century, but now that Crystal City has won the contest for an Amazon headquarters, Rosslyn is no longer in the same league with its nemesis. Development activity in the next few years is going to be centered on South Arlington at the newly minted National Landing mixed-use neighborhood. In the future, Rosslyn’s leasing agents are likely to tout the convenience of its five-minute drive time to National Landing as a great amenity. Rosslyn will continue to improve, for sure, but cheap office space will still be available for any presidential campaign that wants to look down on Washington in 2024.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Week 82: Far from Winding Down, Mueller’s Probe Feels Energized


    Like excited stock pickers calling the end of a bull market, journalists, lawyers, legal analysts and other specialists in Washington jabber have been predicting the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s 18-month-long investigation into Russian...


    Like excited stock pickers calling the end of a bull market, journalists, lawyers, legal analysts and other specialists in Washington jabber have been predicting the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s 18-month-long investigation into Russian futzing with the 2016 campaign for almost as long as it has been running.

    Some of the most vocal predicters are Trump supporters who think that by shouting “hurry up” they can coerce Mueller into finishing before he’s truly done. Some of the journalists filing predictions are responding to the demands of editors, who love to print extrapolative what-if stories. As the late New York Times columnist Tom Wicker hinted in his 1978 book, On Press, journalists—especially political journalists—rush toward the predictive because what might happen makes a better story on slow news weeks than what actually did.

    Perhaps the first seer to spot Mueller’s end was former White House special counsel Ty Cobb. He dramatically predicted an early close to the probe in August 2017, when Mueller’s investigation was only three months old. “I’d be embarrassed if this is still haunting the White House by Thanksgiving and worse if it’s still haunting him by year end,” Cobb told Reuters. “I think the relevant areas of inquiry by the special counsel are narrow.”

    In April 2018, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told the New York Post that it wasn’t “going to take more than a week or two to get a resolution. They’re almost there. … I’m going to ask Mueller, ‘What do you need to wrap it up?’” Writing for Politico in May 2018, on the probe’s first birthday, former federal prosecutor Nelson W. Cunningham asserted that “Mueller will likely wrap up his investigation this summer.” Cunningham took two other fat swings before he struck out and returned to the dugout: Trump would testify or take the Fifth Amendment, and Paul Manafort would plead guilty rather than go to trial.

    In August, Trump adviser and former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova predicted an end for the inquiry. When October arrived, my colleague Darren Samuelsohn quoted an anonymous defense attorney working on the Russia investigation who, reading the tea leaves of departures on Mueller’s staff, said, “I think they wouldn’t be letting people go unless they’re winding down, especially the way these things work.” In late November, my former boss and practiced Mueller-watcher, Garrett M. Graff, sighted the Mueller probe’s “endgame,” and at the beginning of December, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News reported that Mueller prosecutors were telling defense attorneys that they were “tying up loose ends.”

    The great thing about prognostication is that if you guess often enough, you might eventually get it right. After all of those expired predictions, Washington Post reporter Devlin Barrett appears to come closest. On Friday, he wrote that prosecutors don’t ordinarily sentence guilty defendants because they might need them to testify later and sentencing will give them leverage to continue cooperating. That Mueller’s team has arranged quick sentencing for Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen and Manafort indicates he might be approaching his finish line. Only Rick Gates awaits the sentencing machine.

    The winding down of the Mueller machine doesn’t mean that his show might end soon. The much rumored—and predicted—indictments of Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi have yet to be handed down. With both Gates and Cohen still willing to sing, Mueller might convert some of their warblings into new or expanded charges. Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump have come under Mueller’s gaze, says Yahoo News, for their work on the Trump Tower project in Moscow, which we now know was pursued by the Trump Organization until June 2016, six months longer than Cohen had told federal investigators. John Dean and Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano have speculated that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner will be indicted, perhaps in connection with the back channel work he did with a foreign government during the Trump transition. And then there’s the mystery witness who has been fighting one of Mueller’s grand jury subpoenas under cloak of secrecy in the federal courthouse. Main event or sideshow? Nobody knows. The Watergate investigation lasted four years. The Iran-Contra investigation went on for more than six years, and Whitewater for more than seven. In fact, were Mueller to call it a day before New Year’s, as some suggest he will, it would make this one of the shorter probes ever.


    If Mueller has downshifted, that hardly spells the end of the investigations into Trump world—Russia is only one of the dishes on the investigative smorgasbord. New York prosecutors are examining spending by the Trump inaugural committee and donations by foreign nationals, specifically from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The New York attorney general has put Trump Foundation finances under the lens. Emoluments clause lawsuits against Trump are ongoing. The Trump Foundation faces legal scrutiny. Summer Zervos’ defamation suit against Trump is still alive, too. (For a good roundup of the Trump-related investigation, see this Bloomberg News piece.)

    Other targets of investigations on the Trump periphery include Maria Butina, the alleged Russian spy who trafficked in NRA and Republican circles in recent years and who pleaded guilty this week to charges of conspiracy against the United States. She promises to cooperate with prosecutors. Trump friend David Pecker, who controls the National Enquirer, secured a nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in the Cohen case in exchange for admitting his company’s role in funneling “catch and kill” hush money to one of Trump’s paramours. According to news reports this week, Trump was in the room when Cohen and Pecker discussed how best to squelch stories about Trump’s philandering. Should Trump not win reelection, he might be prosecuted for violating campaign finance laws by authorizing the payoffs (Cohen has already pleaded guilty). Speaking on CNN, correspondent Brian Todd said Trump hasn’t helped himself by changing his hush money story from I didn’t know to It’s not my fault to It’s not illegal. Longtime Pecker observer Ann Louise Bardach predicted in August (I’m sensing a theme here) that investigators will find more damning Trump material in Enquirer vaults if they excavate.

    Criminal investigations, as Trump is learning, aren’t played against a clock, like a football game or a hockey match. They’re more like baseball games, which are played until completed. I think I’m on safe ground to predict that the Trump inquiries have many, many more innings to go.

    ******

    Send your predictions on when the investigations will end to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts predict that my Twitter feed will go to jail before they do. My RSS feed never predicts because it’s always wrong.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    The Next Koch Doesn’t Like Politics

    The Next Koch Doesn’t Like Politics


    Last May, Chase Koch, the 41-year-old son of billionaire businessman Charles Koch, gathered about two dozen wealthy young professionals for a weekend retreat in Vail. This was no regular Koch get-together, the kind of uber-elite gathering of big ideas...


    Last May, Chase Koch, the 41-year-old son of billionaire businessman Charles Koch, gathered about two dozen wealthy young professionals for a weekend retreat in Vail. This was no regular Koch get-together, the kind of uber-elite gathering of big ideas and bigger checkbooks that Charles and his brother David have made a feature of their political activity for the better part of a generation. It was six months before the most consequential midterm elections since the mid-1990s. President Donald Trump was threatening massive tariffs on steel and aluminum. House Speaker Paul Ryan had just announced he would retire from Congress. But the group assembled in Colorado’s swankiest resort wasn’t there to talk about how to block the impending blue wave, or to listen to seminars promoting free trade, or debate the future of Republicans in the House of Representatives. In fact, politics barely came up. And yet this meeting—which received no media attention at the time—was the most important Koch-sponsored event of the year.

    That’s because this meeting, unlike the traditional Koch network event later that summer, wasn’t focused at all on policy and political giving. It was looking at the future of the Koch network itself, a club of several hundred donors founded by two of the country’s wealthiest businessmen that has marshaled its collective resources to influence American life. And that future increasingly looks like a pivot away from the field that has made the Kochs major players on the right and boogeymen on the left: politics and policy.

    Speaking with a hint of a western drawl, Koch welcomed his guests, many of whom had traded the typical Koch network weekend uniform of sport jackets, slacks and polished loafers for mountain chic sneakers and fleece, delivering a brief speech on the value of authenticity. Making an impact on society, he told them, starts with personal transformation. Guests had prepared for the weekend by reading The Alchemist, an allegory about a young shepherd on a quest for self-realization: “Wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure,” the book reads. For much of the weekend, Koch blended in at workshops and “sprint” sessions where he and his guests shared their “North Stars,” or driving passions, and brainstormed ways to help nonprofits.

    Two months after the gathering in Vail and 100 miles southeast, the full club of 500 Koch network donors, whose secretive ranks have included ultrawealthy founders of everything from Citadel to Franzia wine, filled the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The weekend culminated with Koch officials delivering a fire-and-brimstone sermon to the crowd that included projecting the photo of North Dakota Senate candidate Kevin Cramer on a 20-foot screen as they announced they would not spend money to help someone with his protectionist ideas about trade. It was a name-and-shame visual guaranteed to grab headlines. “Why would Cramer or any other Republican feel like they need to listen to this network if they know we’ll support them anyway?” posited Emily Seidel, a top Koch operative.

    The differences between the two meetings were more than stylistic.



    They are clues to the direction in which the Koch network will move over the coming years as Chase Koch assumes a larger responsibility for the sprawling network, which spent $400 million on policy and politics alone over the past two years, and millions more on educational and philanthropic initiatives. And they come at a time when succession is suddenly top of mind. Earlier this year, Chase Koch’s uncle David, who is 78 years old and in declining physical and mental health, according to people familiar with his situation, left his roles at the Koch network and Koch Industries. Though Charles, 83, remains in control of the network, it is widely expected that his leadership role will be taken on by Chase, with help from several longtime Koch aides. While Chase Koch is unlikely to play the singular role his father did in leading the network, he is at the moment the only Koch currently ascending the organization’s ranks. That makes him its lone option for keeping a member of the family at the helm. His older sister, Elizabeth, has no official involvement with the network or business, and David Koch’s children are all younger than 25.

    Chase Koch, who prefers to work from Wichita rather than the network’s headquarters near Washington, is already steering his work within the Koch network in ways that avoid the hard-charging political gamesmanship that the Kochs used to further the Republican Party over the past decade—and that made Charles and David Koch household names. In a word, he’s no partisan.

    “I have found that focusing on the things you can agree on can lead to amazing opportunities to solve problems, even if you disagree on a whole host of other issues,” Koch told POLITICO Magazine in a phone conversation and via email this fall, adding that he aims to be a bridge-builder and an innovator focused on civil society. It was the first time the low-profile heir to the Koch fortune has spoken publicly about his work and goals for the network. “I start with the idea that to learn and grow, you’ve got to be open to other peoples’ ideas.” Koch confessed that politics, while important, is “not at all what I’m passionate about.”

    The notion that the Koch network’s next leader could put Washington in the back seat is almost unimaginable to those inside the Beltway who have watched the network collectively spend billions of dollars to sway politics and policy, especially over the past 10 years as the Kochs’ political network ballooned to resemble a shadow political party, complete with its own field offices and national voter database. But the Koch network is changing, too.



    In more than 20 interviews with Koch network officials and donors, as well as Republican operatives, insiders described a Koch network that has moved well past the years when it was laser-focused on dislodging the Affordable Care Act—which the libertarian Kochs saw as an affront to their free-market philosophy—and reelecting Republicans to Congress. Koch network officials now emphasize bipartisanship and coalition-building, praise policy over politics and openly say they may spend less and less outright on politics in future elections—a series of changes they refer to in shorthand as “the shift.”

    Already, efforts made by the network to reassert its independence from the Republican Party in the wake of the election of Donald Trump—whom the Kochs conspicuously declined to support—have energized some network donors and begun to draw in a new generation, while perplexing and angering those for whom the Kochs’ political operation is the single reason they write six- and seven-figure checks.

    Chase Koch is meanwhile building a new playbook, centered around what one might call kinder, gentler libertarian philanthropy. In addition to recruiting donors to the Koch network, he has been involved with a three-year-old antipoverty initiative (branded by the Koch network as “venture philanthropy” aiming to “revitalize civil society”) that teaches Koch business principles to nonprofits. He also helps nurture the Koch network’s partnerships with high-profile allies, such as former NFL star Deion Sanders, who don’t fit the mold of the typical network donor.



    But eventually, the Koch heir is gearing up to lead not just these pieces of the Koch network but the full machine. Who he gets to follow him will affect not only the future of the Koch empire, but the American political landscape as well. After all, who but the Kochs could outspend the entire Republican National Committee during the 2018 midterm election cycle?

    “I do not envy him for one second. The pressure,” said Frayda Levin, a board member at Americans for Prosperity and a longtime network donor. “It’s a huge network. And not that it’s dependent upon him, but it certainly will have an easier time going on knowing that Chase Koch will take it over.”

    ***

    In many ways, the evolution of the Koch network has tracked Koch’s life. The year Chase Koch was born, in 1977, his family was on the cusp of its first big foray in politics. Charles Koch had for years been involved with libertarianism, but that year he helped seed the Cato Institute, a fiercely free-market think tank that was angling to become a new hub for the burgeoning movement. Two years later, his brother David ran for vice president on a long-shot libertarian presidential ticket, spending more than $2 million of his own money on the effort and winning just over 1 percent of the vote. The Kochs didn’t do more splashy election spending for years to come. Instead, they took a quieter approach by spending millions of dollars on think tanks like Cato, activist groups, and academic faculty posts and institutes.

    Chase Koch was there, in 2003, by then a young man in his mid-20s, when his father first gathered a small group of acquaintances at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel for what would become the birth of the Koch network. By enlisting other like-minded 1-percenters, he hoped to have a multiplying effect on the libertarian initiatives he and his brother, David, supported. Several years later, after President Barack Obama was elected and the Tea Party was ascendant, the network’s meetings ballooned into full-throated strategy sessions on how to block Democratic policy priorities, especially on health care. “I had no idea what it was going to become,” Chase Koch said.

    The rise of Trump, and the populist revolt he ushered in, helped spark changes in the network that echo Chase Koch’s interests. When Trump was closing in on the GOP nomination for president during the summer of 2016, Chase Koch and his sister, Elizabeth, watched with concern the polarizing national debate about race and police violence, which Trump appeared to be fomenting.

    Koch voiced concern from both sides of the issue, telling Koch operative Evan Feinberg that the wave of shootings of young black men showed there are “clearly injustices that happened” in black communities, but the killings of five white officers in Dallas seemed just as tragic. The siblings were moved to act. An aide to Elizabeth (who runs a publishing house called Catapult and doesn’t have a role within the Koch family businesses) helped organize a call with Koch network officials and a Dallas-area nonprofit called Urban Specialists that enlists former gang members to work as mentors in unsafe schools and neighborhoods. It was still a “very raw” moment in Dallas when the Kochs called, said Urban Specialists founder and CEO Omar Jahwar. Chase Koch in particular, he said, was inquisitive about how the group did its work. “His demeanor was so unassuming, it’s amazing that he is who he is.”

    Not long after, Koch visited Jahwar with a group to walk through some of the violence-plagued neighborhoods that Urban Specialists works in. Urban Specialists became a flagship example of a nonprofit that was receiving support from the Koch network’s burgeoning philanthropic endeavor, called Stand Together. In addition to access to the Koch network’s universe of donors, Chase Koch began offering Jahwar business lessons in Market-Based Management and how to scale up, and the program expanded to Atlanta and Baton Rouge.

    Koch, to be sure, has not avoided politics altogether. His publicly available donations include hundreds of thousands of dollars given to Republican congressional candidates and party committees in recent years—including Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Tim Scott of South Carolina—though no money donated to Trump. Still, Koch seems determined to make his mark elsewhere. The young donor group he has formed doesn’t require proof of allegiance to the GOP—only an interest in innovation and solving society’s ills. Koch tends to be a wide-ranging conversationalist, but “almost never about politics,” one participant in the group noted, “and he’s never really tried to influence me in that direction.”



    In early October, two weeks after speaking with Koch on the phone and during the heat of a midterm election in which his family was helming a massive effort to reelect Republicans to Congress, I emailed Koch for some follow-up questions. I had heard him and others discuss his aversion to the arena in which his family had done so much combat. But I wondered if it were overstated. So I asked him: Do you consider yourself politically minded?

    “Politics is just a small part of what the overall network does—it’s an important part because government plays a critical role in society—but that’s not at all what I’m passionate about,” Koch wrote in reply. “My passion is to bring people together to solve some of the major challenges facing society today, including in education and in many different aspects of our communities. Bottom line—I’m focused on removing the barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve extraordinary things.”

    It was an answer flecked with familiar Koch family language about opportunity and cutting back on impediments, be they regulatory or partisan. But it split from his father’s longtime belief in influencing policy and politics, either directly or via institutions like the Cato Institute, that feed the public debate. Without a leader who thinks those investments are worthwhile, it’s hard to imagine the Koch network placing big bets in the future on politicians or movement politics—a sometimes frustrating, fruitless way to spend money.

    I asked Brian Hooks, who has spent close to 20 years working at parts of the Koch network and rose recently to become one of Charles Koch’s top deputies, how to imagine the Koch network under Chase Koch’s leadership. Hooks, who replaced longtime Koch aide Richard Fink, also plans to work closely with Chase in the future, according to Koch network sources.

    Part of Hooks’ answer was structural. The Koch network, Hooks and others say, has been both institutionalized and decentralized in recent years. Though Charles Koch is its nerve center, it relies on a large team of professional staff—some of whom focus solely on raising and spending political dollars—who will help helm the network in the future, as well as donors across the country who also play leadership roles of their own.

    But he also said something else: The future of the Koch network may look a lot like the past.



    The notion of the Koch network as a political dynamo has caught on among onlookers during the past “five or six” years, Hooks said, but “if you actually look at the overall history of the network’s efforts, since the 1960s, since Charles got engaged, the vast majority of the resources have been on ways to help people that have nothing to do with politics.” In other words, the investments in think tanks and universities, combined with other nongovernment spending on programs like school choice, are already a large part of the Koch network and will become even more of a focus as the Koch brothers’ years as patrons of the Tea Party recede into the past. Koch network skeptics have dismissed talk of “the shift” as a massive public relations stunt, but there’s a financial truth that some Koch insiders acknowledge: After nearly 10 years of unfettered spending to defeat Obamacare, for example, the network simply hasn’t gotten a sufficient return on its investment.

    Hooks couldn’t make the statement without adding a reminder that the Kochs can always change their mind. “We haven’t taken anything off the table,” he said, and the Koch network will always be “a dynamic operation” that puts “resources to the highest-value use.”

    ***

    If there is an issue that animates Chase Koch more than any other it’s education. And the roots of Koch’s interest reach back to his own childhood and the unusual tutoring his father gave to him and his sister. As children, Chase and Elizabeth Koch spent many Saturdays at home in Wichita listening to books on tape selected by their father. It was not the time for The Wizard of Oz. The sandy-haired Koch children listened to recordings of famous thinkers like F.A. Hayek, the Austrian economist and forefather of the modern libertarian movement, and they discussed values like courage and equal rights. Chase, not yet a teenager, sometimes nodded off.

    “I can’t say I was as passionate about these ideas when I was 12 years old,” Koch recalled recently. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a little young for this.’”

    But Koch has, in the years since, embraced many of the same thinkers whom his father drew on to shape both his political outlook and Koch Industries. And though he skips the books on tape, Koch now focuses on the same ideals he learned as a child, like courage and equal rights, routinely in conversations his own sons, who are 4 and 6, respectively. (His year-old daughter is still a little young to join.) He also believes a well-rounded education involves music; in August, he took his oldest son to see Pearl Jam play at Wrigley Field.

    Charles Koch was deeply involved in the board at Koch and Elizabeth’s school, Wichita Collegiate School, which completed the Koch Upper School after donations from the family. Charles Koch and his allies even tried to persuade the school to implement Koch Industries’ signature business style, called Market-Based Management, according to an account published in the book Sons of Wichita and confirmed by a former student. After the strategy failed to take, Koch left the school’s board.

    Chase Koch took his first summer job at Koch Industries at 15, working at a cattle feed yard.

    “It my first job ever. And it was kind of like a ‘Welcome to Koch, here’s a shovel’ sort of thing,’” Koch said. He kept working during the summers while attending Texas A&M and returned to the company three years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business, eventually settling into a role in Koch Industries’ fertilizer business—a corner of the sprawling business that surged during the 2000’s. For Koch, working in fertilizer became an education in technology. The goal was always to figure out how to “do more with less,” he said, and how to “feed the world but do it in an environmentally sensitive way.” He traveled frequently to Silicon Valley, New York and Boston, looking for new tech that could help the business. This year, he launched a Koch business-within-a-business of his own called Koch Disruptive Technologies. The investment fund invests in startups that are well-suited to Koch Industries’ business portfolio, either because they could benefit from capabilities at Koch or because they have something to offer.



    Koch married his wife, Annie Breitenbach, in 2010, and the couple purchased 70 acres in Wichita shortly afterward. Not unlike Koch’s own childhood, Annie and Koch are now taking a hands-on role in their children’s schooling. This fall Annie, a former neonatal nurse, and Zach Lahn, a former Koch network fundraiser, opened Wonder, a private school located on the Wichita State University campus serving preschool and elementary school students. The couple are financing the school, where students also pay $6,500 to $10,000 a year in tuition, and Annie Koch and Lahn have the titles of co-founders.

    Wonder draws inspiration from other novel schools including Ad Astra, the campus Elon Musk founded for his children on SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif., campus. At Wonder, students learn in Montessori-style classrooms and teachers, called “coaches,” don’t make declarative statements but instead teach via asking students questions.

    During the July Koch network meeting, Annie spoke to the crowd about Wonder in light of how traditional schools have failed, saying she wanted a school that would allow her children to “discover who they are and what they love, and what they’re good at, and how they’re going to put all those things together to find fulfillment and what they love in the world.” The school opened up 35 slots this fall, but received interest from more than 500 students, and will expand to have a high school in future years. “There really is a huge tidal wave out there of people looking for something different,” she said.

    ***

    Some of the donors who comprise the under-50 set are specifically hoping that Chase Koch’s Silicon Valley-tinged libertarianism will help bring a different era to the Koch network. They praise Koch for being “authentic” and “open-minded.” They represent a new Koch network in which donors might go to the Colorado Springs retreat in July, then head to Burning Man in August. Right now, some of them cut smaller checks to groups supported by the network than their older counterparts, not unlike a junior membership at a country club, as they continue to amass their millions.

    Those same donors tend to agree with Koch about politics: They’ve watched Washington gridlock and think their time and money is best spent elsewhere.

    “What I’ve seen is people really engaged in is, how can we stop some of the negative declines we’re seeing in the county?” said Kevin Lavelle, founder of a Dallas-based menswear startup and a recent addition to the network who works with programs like Urban Specialists and attended the retreat of young donors last May. “If we’re going to make an impact on these cyclical problems, it’s not going to be a politician, and it’s not going to be a party.”



    Then there’s the rest of the Koch network, from longtime personal friends of Charles Koch who have been attending gatherings for more than a decade to more recent newcomers who were drawn in by the network’s unparalleled political spending prowess. To much of the Koch network, Chase Koch is still relatively unknown.

    “I think I may have met him. I know nothing about any changes,” said billionaire donor Stan Hubbard, the chairman and CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, a private company that operates 13 television stations and 46 radio stations. He said he applauded the Koch’s interest in issues like criminal justice reform but wanted no part in it. “I hope they’re not spending our money on anything but politics,” Hubbard said. “I think they aren’t.”

    Even small steps that the network has recently taken to reassert itself as separate from the Republican Party have irked other donors. For example, one of Kevin Cramer’s chief fundraisers was in the crowd at the Broadmoor in July. A major GOP donor, he had recently started attending meetings, though he had not yet contributed money. He wasn’t pleased to see his candidate shamed on the big screen.

    “I thought it was a cheap political stunt to show they were independent from the Republican Party,” said Dan K. Eberhart, CEO of the oilfield services company Canary LLC. “It makes me less likely to want to give to the Seminar Network in the future.”

    But many Koch network donors, many of whom joined the network as its size ballooned during the height of its political, anti-Obama years, said they had not yet considered how the organization might someday change under its new leader. The possibility just seems too far off, despite Charles Koch’s advanced age.

    For now, the changes within the network have thrilled many participants who see an opportunity to expand the group’s work and attract new donors. Chase Koch may change over time, too, following in Charles Koch’s footsteps to become slowly more engaged with Washington after he learns firsthand the limits of avoiding it. After all, Charles Koch was entering his late 60s when he gathered the first Koch network meeting in Chicago and began swaying a generation of American politics.

    The young donors meanwhile convened again this fall, at Chase’s behest, shortly before the midterm elections. This time, they came to Wichita, the center of the Kochs’ universe and a city where the broader pool of Koch network donors do not gather. One of the featured events? A tour of the Wonder School.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Bloomberg News Should Cover the Hell Out of Bloomberg 2020


    Michael Bloomberg, who has been campaigning for president since 2006, just purchased a new pair of running shoes and flew to Iowa to break them in for the 2020 contest.This brings cheer to the political press corps because it has covered the Bloomberg...


    Michael Bloomberg, who has been campaigning for president since 2006, just purchased a new pair of running shoes and flew to Iowa to break them in for the 2020 contest.

    This brings cheer to the political press corps because it has covered the Bloomberg for president story for so long that the new stories write themselves. All reporters need to do is revisit their archived notebooks and freshen their clips with new quotations from the 76-year-old financial data and news baron.

    The best addition to the Bloomberg story came in an interview with Radio Iowa during his pilgrimage in which he mused about his plans for his company, Bloomberg LP, if he ran. He’d either sell it or place it in a blind trust. “I think at my age, if selling it is possible, I would do that,” Bloomberg said. “At some point, you’re going to die anyway, so you want to do it before then.”

    “We’ve always had a policy that we don’t cover ourselves. I happen to believe, in my heart of hearts, you can’t be independent and nobody’s going to believe that you’re independent,” said Bloomberg, whose net worth of $44.9 billion makes him the 11th-richest man in the world.

    “And quite honestly, I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me! I don’t want them to be independent. So you’re going to have to do something,” he added.

    Spoken like a true oligarch.

    This lack of faith in Bloomberg News’ ability to report on his candidacy without fear or favor speaks poorly for an organization that Bloomberg built in his own image and from scratch in 1990 with the assistance of Matthew Winkler. The pair was so controlling that Winkler banned the use of the words “but” and “however” because he thought they added only muddle.

    Two former Bloombergers, Kathy Kiely, former politics editor, and Rich Jaroslovsky, former executive editor, took almost immediate exception to their boss’ belief that his news organization couldn’t readily cover his candidacy. In her Washington Post op-ed, Kiely cited the decent job the Post has done in covering Amazon, founded and controlled by Post owner Jeff Bezos.

    Kiely explained the mindset of journalists that appears to be beyond Bloomberg’s comprehension. “The reporters may get paid by the person with the checkbook, but they work for the readers—or the viewers, or the listeners,” she wrote.

    Jaroslovsky, who left Bloomberg in 2013, wrote in Facebook that when his boss flirted with a White House run in 2008 Jaroslovsky cooked up a plan in which Bloomberg News “could fairly report on his role in the campaign while being transparent about the inherent conflict.”

    “I had little confidence that I would have been allowed to implement that plan, however, and was frankly relieved when he opted not to run,” Jaroslovsky wrote. “If he had, I strongly suspect my Bloomberg career would have ended five years before it did.”

    Bloomberg’s disinclination to have the reporters on his payroll write about him comes from the recognition that they know him better than the average journalist. If Bloomberg really thinks that nobody is going to think that his news organization is independent of his influence, he could easily remedy that by placing it in a trust before he announces his candidacy but leaves them with one final order to report the hell out of this Michael Bloomberg fellow. If Bloomberg News reporters were to follow through and break real news on him, these questions of independence would vaporize overnight.


    In hopes that Bloomberg takes my advice, allow me to give his reporters a starter list of story ideas. No Bloomberg profile is complete without noting that he refuses to adhere to any set of political principles. For instance, he was once a vehement critic of ethanol subsidies. But in his Radio Iowa interview, he said he now thinks “ethanol and biofuels are a part of the mix.” He was a lifelong Democrat who ran successfully for the New York City mayoralty as a Republican before becoming an independent in 2007 just in time for his last term. In October, he re-registered as a Democrat once again! This isn’t a crime. Many politicians have flipped to another party in their careers, but show me somebody who has flip-flop-flipped his way to the presidency.

    What sort of allegiance to Democratic Party values can Bloomberg claim? During the 2004 Republican National Convention that renominated George W. Bush, he gave a speech to delegates in which he said, to much applause, “The president deserves our support. We are here to support him. And I am here to support him.”

    Unless the Bloomberg campaign slogan is “Pick a Republican for the Democratic Nomination,” Mayor Mike has a lot of explaining to do. Not even our flip-flop king, Donald Trump, has vacillated this vigorously. Like Trump, Bloomberg’s changeability makes him a wild-card candidate, subject to whim. We’ve had two years of that. Who wants four more?

    ******

    Send your great ideas for Bloomberg coverage to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts will vote for Bloomberg if he hands over $250,000. My Twitter feed can’t be bought. My RSS feed doesn’t vote.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Why Trump Can’t Kill the Electric Car


    The electric vehicle revolution, after years of hype that outpaced reality, finally seems to be taking off in the United States. The best five months for plug-in sales in American history have been the past five months. Tesla’s Model 3 has been one of...


    The electric vehicle revolution, after years of hype that outpaced reality, finally seems to be taking off in the United States. The best five months for plug-in sales in American history have been the past five months. Tesla’s Model 3 has been one of America’s top five selling passenger cars this fall, surging ahead of fossil-fueled mainstays like the Ford Fusion and Nissan Sentra. The U.S. put its 1 millionth electric vehicle on the road in September, not a large chunk of the nation’s 260 million vehicles, but not too shabby considering production started only in 2010.

    The question is: Can President Donald Trump stop this trend?

    The Trump administration is already trying to roll back strict fuel-efficiency rules that have helped encourage automakers to produce electric cars. Now the president, angry at General Motors for closing U.S. plants, is vowing to eliminate tax credits that have helped encourage consumers to buy electric cars. And his protectionist trade policies could create additional burdens for EV manufacturers. The electrification of transportation was a key element of President Barack Obama’s strategy to cut U.S. carbon emissions and fight climate change, but Trump doesn’t care about cutting emissions, and he doesn’t like things associated with Obama.

    So far, Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and fossil-fuel-friendly policies have failed to even slow down America’s transition to a clean-energy economy. For example, the president has repeatedly vowed to revive the coal industry, by pushing to weaken air pollution rules and putting a coal lobbyist in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, but utilities have continued to shut down dirty and uneconomical coal plants. U.S. coal consumption has dropped to its lowest level since 1979, while zero-emission wind and solar power are booming; they now account for 10 percent of U.S. generating capacity, up from about 1 percent a decade ago.

    Trump won’t be able to kill the federal tax credit for electric vehicles without cooperation from Congress, and his efforts to ease fuel-efficiency standards will face serious legal and bureaucratic obstacles. But while the clean power revolution is in its adolescence, the electric vehicle revolution is only in its infancy, and Washington could conceivably help strangle it in its cradle. EV sales are up nearly 80 percent this year, but they’re still under 2 percent of all vehicle sales. EVs still cost more upfront than internal-combustion vehicles, and with gas prices low, it takes longer for EV drivers to make up the difference in fuel savings. Lithium-ion batteries keep getting better and cheaper, but “range anxiety” still scares away many potential EV buyers, and there still aren’t many charging stations on the roads. As tough as it has been to persuade utilities that have a legal obligation to select cheaper options to abandon expensive coal plants, it has been far tougher to persuade consumers who are accustomed to gasoline to spend extra money to change their lifestyles.

    “There’s so much inertia working against us,” says Chris Nelder, who runs an electric vehicle program at the clean-energy Rocky Mountain Institute. “People don’t know a lot about EVs. They don’t know where there’s a charging station. The dealers don’t keep EVs on the lots. And it doesn’t help when the president is making threats.”

    The next big political fight over electric vehicles will involve the federal tax credit of up to $7,500 that Trump vowed to kill last week. Congress created the credit in 2008 and expanded it in 2009 in an effort to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil as well as carbon emissions and other pollutants. By all accounts, it has helped to jump-start the industry, spurring automakers to invest in EVs and consumers to buy them. But the credit quickly phases out for automakers that sell 200,000 EVs, a milestone that both Tesla and General Motors reached in 2018; as a result, even if Trump did manage to kill the credit, GM would barely be affected.

    Then again, this fight isn’t really about climate policy or transportation policy or even Trump’s pique at a company that made him look bad. EVs have become yet another battleground in America’s ubiquitous culture wars, targeted by many Republicans as eco-elitist Obamamobiles. Even before Trump took aim at the tax credit, GOP Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming had introduced a bill that would not only kill it but also would slap new federal fees on EV owners. At the same time, Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont has filed a pro-EV bill that would remove the 200,000-car threshold and extend the credit for 10 years. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he’ll demand that any bipartisan infrastructure bill include permanent tax credits for EVs, while climate-conscious Democrats like incoming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are pushing a “Green New Deal” that would bolster government support for EVs.

    The most likely result is probably the status quo, which would keep the tax credit afloat, but in reduced form for buyers of GM’s all-electric Chevrolet Bolt—GM is discontinuing its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt—as well as Tesla’s Model S luxury sedan, Model X sports-utility vehicle and Model 3 mass-market sedan. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has pledged to sell the Model 3 for $35,000 sometime next year, but the current version is still listed at $50,000, and the loss of the tax credit will diminish its appeal to more cost-conscious consumers. At the same time, Trump’s steel tariffs are boosting prices for all U.S. vehicles, and the auto provisions in the new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement could create additional costs for electric vehicles that rely heavily on imported electronics and other parts from abroad.

    Electric vehicles tend to have higher safety ratings and customer satisfaction than their internal-combustion counterparts; they’re unusually peppy, and Tesla in particular has received consistently rapturous reviews. Just this Tuesday, Musk tweeted about a Detroit News auto reviewer who doesn’t believe climate change is real but nevertheless bought a Model 3: “Not everyone can be convinced about global warming, but if an electric car is the best product, they don’t need to be.” The Model 3’s production delays nearly brought down Tesla, but the kinks seem to have been worked out: Tesla has sold more than 90,000 of them in the U.S. in the past five months, accounting for nearly half the nation’s EV sales.

    Brett Smith, a manufacturing expert at the Center for Automotive Research, says most EV buyers are thrilled with their cars. But the vast majority of Americans know nothing about EVs, he says, because they’re still a niche technology outside California, where generous state rebates and an extensive network of charging stations has boosted them to nearly 10 percent of all vehicle sales. Smith is skeptical that EVs will hit critical mass in the rest of the country without more federal help. “They’ve expanded their market share and opened some eyes, but with gas prices this low, they’re not going to have mass market appeal,” Smith says. “They’re a political football, and this administration is obviously punting that football.”

    Still, most automakers seem to believe “the future is electric,” as Volkswagen USA’s CEO put it last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show. There are already 43 plug-in models for sale in the U.S., with dozens more expected in the coming years, and there’s even more investment happening in China and Europe, where governments are more concerned about a carbon-constrained world. The main obstacle to mass adoption has been battery costs, but they’ve plunged more than 80 percent in the past decade, and they’re expected to keep plunging through technological advances and economies of scale. Another obstacle has been the lack of electric options for pickup trucks and SUVs, the vehicles of choice for most Americans in recent years, but those options are expected to expand as well.

    Now that electric vehicles are on the verge of going mainstream in the U.S., federal policy could become the primary obstacle to their spread. The Obama administration made a concerted effort to promote all kinds of alternatives to fossil fuels, from solar panels to advanced biofuels to LED lighting, and its 2009 economic stimulus bill included more than $2 billion to charge up a battery industry for electric vehicles in the U.S. By contrast, the Trump administration has aggressively promoted fossil fuels by opening new areas to mining and drilling, relaxing restrictions on air and water pollution, even floating a plan to bail out uneconomical plants.

    Trump’s most consequential initiative for the electric-vehicle market could be his effort to reverse Obama’s stricter fuel-efficiency standards, which could dramatically reduce the pressure on automakers to replace gas-guzzlers with cleaner models. “That could be devastating,” says Mary Lunetta, a San Diego-based activist who leads an electric vehicle initiative for the Sierra Club. “The science shows we need to reduce emissions so quickly, and to do that we need to electrify transportation. It’s crazy that we’re even talking about going backwards.”

    Trump rejects climate science and withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord. Just this week, the U.S. joined with fossil-fuel-friendly nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia to block action at a global climate conference in Poland. Meanwhile, as electric vehicles have advanced from nothing to novelty to potential threat in less than a decade, the oil industry has taken notice and started to fight back, portraying government support for EVs as a subsidy to rich hobbyists. Frank Macchiarola, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, told me that EV subsidies and mandates distort the free market, an argument that Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow recently echoed at a White House briefing. Macchiarola said Georgia was one of the leading states in EV sales until it ditched its EV subsidies—and then it faded back into the pack.


    “We want consumers to decide what to drive, not bureaucrats in Washington or some state capitol,” Macchiarola said. “Sure, reducing emissions is an important aspect of energy and transportation policy, but it shouldn’t be the only aspect.”

    Environmentalists point out that U.S. taxpayers lose more money from tax breaks for fossil fuels than they spend on subsidies for alternatives to fossil fuels. Studies have also shown that federal subsidies to promote nuclear power and hydraulic fracking were more generous than comparable subsidies for renewables. And those kinds of analyses leave out some of the most important perks for fossil energy, like America’s military and diplomatic commitment to protecting the free flow of oil, not to mention the lack of a tax or other price on carbon pollution.

    Still, electric vehicles have come a long way in just eight years in a country with 150,000 gas stations. EV drivers tend to be EV evangelists, raving about the joy of torque and the thrill of no longer spending money at the pump, posting photos of their pets in the “frunks” where traditional cars have engines. They’re worried that Trump will slow the progress of a cleaner, better, and soon-to-be-cheaper technology, but they’re confident he won’t be able to stop it.

    “Trump couldn’t bring back coal, and he won’t kill the electric car,” says David Reichmuth, who runs a clean-car program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The transition will happen. It just needs to happen a lot faster.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Theresa May's Job Just Got Harder


    Theresa May is not safe yet.Her victory by 200 to 117 in Wednesday night’s confidence vote leaves the British prime minister weakened and empowers her Euroskeptic critics—but paradoxically, it also makes a second referendum much more likely.Ever...


    Theresa May is not safe yet.

    Her victory by 200 to 117 in Wednesday night’s confidence vote leaves the British prime minister weakened and empowers her Euroskeptic critics—but paradoxically, it also makes a second referendum much more likely.

    Ever since the 2017 general election, when she lost her majority, May has been living on borrowed time. Few in her party wanted her to lead them in to the next election. But shortly before the confidence vote, May told colleagues that she would step down before the next general election, taking that issue off the table. The vote was about the Brexit deal May negotiated with the EU 27 and nothing else. On Monday, May pulled the House of Commons bill on the Brexit deal, knowing she lacked the votes. Shortly thereafter, rebels from within May’s Conservative Party secured the 48th signature (representing 15 percent of their MPs) they needed to trigger a leadership confidence vote. One became a proxy for the other.

    The embattled prime minister hoped that the result of the vote would show that the 48 rebels were largely alone—that they represented the maximum number of votes against the deal. That would have still left her short but it would have given her momentum—she would have contained the insurgents and left them exposed. She would be free to soften the deal in the hopes of peeling off some MPs from the opposition Labour Party or to pile pressure on the 48. Instead, it was revealed that she has lost 127 votes for her deal (the 117 rebels plus 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs), far more than many believed.

    May now has about six weeks to turn things around before the next deadline, January 21, for a parliamentary vote. She will intensify her diplomatic overtures to the EU 27 but can expect little in return. The EU has a track record for how it deals with setbacks of this nature. When Ireland rejected EU treaties in referendums, the EU would issue a protocol that clarified that the treaty did not affect some of the issues the Irish were concerned about. For example, one protocol clarified that Ireland would not be asked to participate in a European Army. But these protocols were always about matters marginal to the agreement. The problem here is that what the rebels want is a change to one of the most significant elements of the deal—the Irish border backstop, which keeps the UK in the Customs Union to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And that the EU cannot and will not give.

    So what’s May’s next move? She has three options.

    She could call a general election—but her party is overwhelmingly opposed to it because it could bring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to power. Corbyn also has no idea of how to solve the Brexit puzzle—he has promised a better deal but has no plan for how to exact additional concessions from Brussels. If May won, she might come back with the same problem—with a large number of Euroskeptic MPs opposed.

    She could simply do nothing and let the clock expire on Brexit Day, March 29, 2019, hoping that the EU 27 will blink first and make unilateral concessions. Her calculus here might be that Ireland will back down for fear of what a no-deal Brexit would mean for its economy. But, that’s quite the gamble to take—Ireland has intensified preparations for a no-deal Brexit and the EU 27 is unlikely to respond well to rebels led by Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, May’s primary antagonists.

    Her most likely gambit is to come back in the New Year, or sooner, and argue that she has tried everything but this is the most that she can get. She will then play the one card she has held back—threaten the rebels with a second referendum if they do not vote for her deal. She may calculate that much as they detest her deal, the rebels will back it to avoid the risk of a reversal.

    That would then put the onus on the rebels. Do they vote against the deal and effectively for a second referendum? They may try to have it both ways—reject the deal and then oppose a second referendum in parliament. But May could cobble together a majority with most of her 200 supporters and the backing of opposition parties.

    The wording of the referendum would be a nightmare because there are at least three choices—remain in the EU, leave with the prime minister’s deal, or leave with no deal. Britain has a tradition of first past the post—whoever receives a plurality wins. But imagine if Remain received 35 percent, leave with a deal got 33 percent and leave with no deal got 32 percent. Then the UK would remain despite 65 percent voting for differing versions of leave. So that means either a preferential system whereby voters ascribe a preference to each outcome or two questions: leave versus remain; and if leave, then deal or no deal.


    A narrow win for Remain might leave nothing settled in the long-term but it would buy some time. A more decisive win would settle the matter as would a narrow win for leave. Yes, a catastrophic no-deal Brexit is a possibility, but the people are entitled to make mistakes and at least they would do so in full knowledge of the consequences.

    All of this is frightfully un-British. Their centuries-old tradition is one of parliamentary democracy and avoiding referendums, which have been much more common in the rest of Europe. But this may be the only way the prime minister obtains the leverage to get her deal through, however imperfect it might be.

    It is frequently said that history can yield insights for how to tackle the problems we face today, so an enterprising analyst might be tempted to mine the archives to understand how the British government might escape the Brexit crisis. The Irish border backstop has split the Conservative Party, but a little over a century ago British politics was also torn asunder by a different Irish question—home rule for Ireland. Three decades of controversy culminated in a crisis that appeared headed for second civil war, this time over the future of the province of Ulster. So, how was it averted? The answer is in the timing—the crisis took place in the summer of 1914 and was quickly swept away by the unexpected outbreak of World War I. Perhaps history isn’t much use in this case. A referendum may be the only way out.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    The real obstacles to Trump's prosecution


    The most legally fraught part of the Russia probe now revolves around payments to an American porn star. After two years of obsession with Russia, including speculation in respectable quarters that Donald Trump might have been a Russian spy going back to...


    The most legally fraught part of the Russia probe now revolves around payments to an American porn star.

    After two years of obsession with Russia, including speculation in respectable quarters that Donald Trump might have been a Russian spy going back to 1987, there is a sense of delight in the press and among Democrats in nailing the president on something completely different.

    As of yet, instead of a dastardly scheme to participate with the Russians in the hacking of Democratic emails to subvert the election, prosecutors have uncovered a dastardly scheme to try to keep from the voters — as if they weren’t aware — that Trump is a womanizer with low scruples.

    The advantage of the story of the hush payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal is that they actually happened and always passed the plausibility test. To credit the payoffs, it didn’t require believing in a well-coordinated scheme between a foreign intelligence service and the most shambolic presidential campaign of the modern era. All it took was imagining Trump, Michael Cohen and a checkbook, operating on a fairly routine basis.

    What is a fixer for, if not to fix something like this?

    Everyone should agree that the payments to the women, not to mention the underlying conduct that occasioned them, were sleazy and, given the timing so close to the election, suspicious.

    But that’s not the live issue. Because Democrats want to see Trump impeached or even jailed (Adam Schiff over the weekend spoke of the latter possibility), the question is whether the payments were flat violations of campaign-finance law. More specifically, it is whether Trump can be successfully prosecuted for them once he leaves office, since current Department of Justice guidance says a sitting president can’t be indicted.

    The law, and common sense, suggest the answer is “no.”

    The idea that Trump is going to lose reelection in November 2020, then having suffered the humiliation of getting booted by the voters, get indicted and stand trial on a dubious campaign-finance violation dating from 2016 is fantastical. This would be a banana-republic move, and is more a Democratic revenge fantasy — or should be — than a realistic scenario.

    There are major legal obstacles to Trump’s prosecution. One is whether he had the requisite intent of violating the law, and here the standard is very high. Trump can plausibly plead ignorance of the niceties of the law and say he was relying on the advice of his lawyer.

    The other is even more fundamental. Did the payments constitute campaign contributions at all? Bradley Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and current head of the Institute for Free Speech, argues persuasively that they do not.

    Federal law defines a contribution as “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.”

    That would seem straightforward enough, but Smith points out that another part of the law defines what is a expenditure for personal use, namely anything “used to fulfill any commitment, obligation, or expense of a person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s election campaign.”

    “Irrespective of the campaign” is the key phrase. It is meant to keep campaign monies from being used for things that might influence a campaign, but that a candidate would spend on anyway — food and supplies, clothing, and mortgages, are cited as a few examples.

    Payments to mistresses don’t make the list, but the rules weren’t written with Trump in mind. He didn’t undertake his flings with Daniels or McDougal as part of his campaign, and it‘s easy to imagine him paying them off even if he weren’t running. He is a past master at nondisclosure agreements and other tactics of celebrities with potential embarrassing stories to keep under wraps.

    Cohen, who has had every incentive to accede to the prosecutor’s interpretation of the law and cooperate against Trump, made a noteworthy point in his sentencing memo. He said he acted to stop stories from getting out that would “adversely affect the Campaign and cause personal embarrassment to Client-1 and his family.”

    The latter would have been a strong incentive to buy off Daniels and McDougal, regardless. Indeed, Bradley Smith makes a telling point: If Trump had paid off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal with campaign funds, certainly all of his critics would be screaming that he’d improperly diverted campaign resources for personal use.

    There are key factual differences, but the case against Trump is a close cousin of the failed campaign-finance prosecution against John Edwards for payments by his contributors to his mistress.

    In that case, two former FEC commissioners said they would have advised Edwards that the payments meant to avoid personal embarrassment weren’t campaign expenditures.

    The ethics outfit CREW filed a brief opposing the prosecution noting some of the same absurdities that the case against Trump raises. If any payments to maintain a candidate’s image are campaign contributions, can a candidate concerned with his family image pay for child care with campaign funds, or with his reputation for probity pay business debts with campaign money? Would Edwards have been on the right side of the law if he had made the payments to his mistress from the campaign coffers?

    CREW concludes that the government’s skewed interpretation of the law would invite campaign spending on all the personal expenses that the law is explicitly meant to exclude.

    With Trump, evidence of something like Russia collusion still might emerge, but in the meantime his opponents will work with whatever material they have, no matter how tawdry or removed from the alleged offense that got the investigative ball rolling.



    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Did Trump Just Move a Step Closer to Unindicted Co-conspirator?


    Michael Cohen got three years in prison Wednesday for his role in what the judge called “a smorgasbord” of crimes, including hush money payments that violated campaign finance rules. But the most consequential development from the hearing had to do...


    Michael Cohen got three years in prison Wednesday for his role in what the judge called “a smorgasbord” of crimes, including hush money payments that violated campaign finance rules. But the most consequential development from the hearing had to do with a person who was not even in the courtroom: Donald Trump.

    In sentencing the president’s former fixer, federal judge William H. Pauley III said in open court that Trump had directed his then-lawyer to commit a federal felony. This was in some respects a formality, a confirmation of a conclusion that prosecutors and the United States Probation Office had reached last week. But while it might have been a formality, it was important. No one in that courtroom, including the judge, disagreed that Trump directed Cohen to commit crimes.

    Trump has downplayed his role, calling the payments a “simple private transaction” and, “only a CIVIL CASE” that would result in liability for Cohen and not him. But he and his Republican supporters do not appreciate what legal analysts do: that the president is in serious legal jeopardy and it is mounting.

    No competent lawyer would tell a client who was publicly implicated in a crime by federal prosecutors that the client was not at very serious risk of being indicted. Even Republicans like frequent Trump defender Andrew McCarthy concluded that Trump is likely to be indicted.

    I am less convinced that we can be confident a direct indictment of Trump is coming. The conclusion reached by Judge Pauley, federal prosecutors and U.S. Probation was based on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, meaning that they concluded it is more likely than not that Trump directed Cohen to commit a crime. That is well below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in a criminal trial.

    Nevertheless, news reports make clear that their investigation of the crimes Cohen was convicted of are not over. That means others in the Trump Organization are still vulnerable to indictment and therefore it is entirely possible Trump himself would be formally named as an unindicted co-conspirator. (Numerous Trump critics have used the Cohen sentencing memo to contend that Trump already is one, but an unindicted co-conspirator can be named only in a charging document.) So let’s look at why that might happen for real.

    When federal prosecutors told Judge Pauley that “[i]n particular, and as Cohen himself now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of [Trump],” they were in effect representing to the judge that their evidence supported that conclusion. There is no question in my mind that the federal prosecutors, particularly their accomplished leader, Robert Khuzami, would have hedged their language if the conclusion were a close call.

    The language they used strongly implies that they possess evidence beyond Cohen’s say-so. They wrote that “in particular, and as Cohen himself now admitted,” suggesting they had evidence pointing to Trump’s involvement before Cohen confirmed it. If they relied solely on Cohen, they would have made clear that Cohen asserted Trump’s involvement and they had no evidence to corroborate him.

    Instead, they cited the pre-sentence report prepared by U.S. Probation after a thorough investigation by a probation officer, indicating that in its report Probation concluded Trump directed Cohen. Judge Pauley adopted the findings of that report today.

    There can be no serious question that the evidence relied upon by federal prosecutors, the Probation Office and Judge Pauley will be used by federal prosecutors as they continue their investigation. They are investigating the Trump Organization and have granted immunity to cooperator Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, as well as David Pecker, who runs the company that owns the National Enquirer and was fingered in the charges against Cohen. That indicates prosecutors are pursuing additional charges.

    The ultimate target of the New York federal criminal investigation may be the Trump Organization official dubbed “Executive-2” in the charges against Cohen. In paragraph 38 of the Cohen charges, Executive-1 (reportedly Weisselberg) sought approval for payments to Cohen from Executive-2, and then told another employee to “pay from the Trust.”

    Who would the chief financial officer need approval from? If it was for a payment from Trump’s own trust, Executive-2 could be Donald Trump Jr. (Trustee) or Eric Trump (Chairman of the trust’s advisory board). Because the payments described in the charges against Cohen involved false statements in the books and records of the Trump Organization, other crimes—including state crimes—could be implicated, and Cohen’s attorney told Judge Pauley that Cohen is cooperating with the New York Attorney General.

    An indictment of Executive-2 could potentially include Trump as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” an allegation that the recent conclusion of federal prosecutors strongly suggested could be made. Unindicted co-conspirators, as a matter of Department of Justice policy, will not be named but even with the use of generic titles such as “Individual-1,” the person’s true identity could be obvious. An allegation in an indictment that Trump conspired with Executive-2, Cohen and others to commit a crime could have a significant political impact, as it did when President Richard Nixon was alleged to be an unindicted co-conspirator in 1974. An indictment of Trump could cause Congress to remove him from office prior to the 2020 election, but that isn’t in the offing, given longstanding Justice Department guidance that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

    That doesn’t mean an indictment will never come, however. The statute of limitations for the campaign finance crime at issue would not run until late 2021, after Trump would leave office if he is defeated in 2020. And former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal claims (initially during our conversation on my “On Topic” podcast) that the statute of limitations would be automatically stayed (i.e., frozen) if Trump were reelected.

    That does not mean that prosecutors will necessarily develop sufficient evidence to prove Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump almost certainly does not have a formal “advice of counsel” defense, and it does not appear that Cohen was acting as a lawyer. But the fact that Cohen was a lawyer would make it harder to prove that Trump had the state of mind required to convict him because Trump presumed that Cohen, as a lawyer, would not get involved in illegal activity.

    In the meantime, however, you can expect this federal investigation to continue and for Trump’s legal jeopardy to continue to grow. And that may well change his political jeopardy. For now Republican lawmakers are defending the president—Rep. Tom Reed (R-Ill.) said he was “disagreeing” with the fact that Trump is implicated, while Senator Orrin Hatch bluntly admitted, “I don’t care.” One wonders how their stances might change if Trump, like President Nixon before him, were to be named an unindicted co-conspirator.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    How the Migrant Caravan Built Its Own Democracy


    The caravan migrants who arrived at the border nearly a month ago don’t have a country. But they do have a government.In the time since the caravan left Honduras in mid-October, the asylum-seekers have fashioned a proto-democracy out of their group of...




    The caravan migrants who arrived at the border nearly a month ago don’t have a country. But they do have a government.

    In the time since the caravan left Honduras in mid-October, the asylum-seekers have fashioned a proto-democracy out of their group of some 6,000 migrants overwhelmingly from Central America, most of whom have walked for most of the trip, at times hitching rides in the backs of cars or trucks.

    To hear President Donald Trump tell it, the caravan is nothing more than a “lawless” mob of potentially violent criminals. But dozens of phone interviews and WhatsApp conversations with advocacy groups and migrants, as well as social media updates from groups on the ground, show that the migrants have organized a surprisingly sophisticated ruling structure, complete with everything from a press shop to a department of public works.

    When the migrants needed to make public announcements, debate the best routes and vote on different plans, they established a nightly general assembly as a forum open to all, Athens-style. Their legislative floor was an abandoned truck parking lot or an unused sports stadium. Some of the migrants even took turns as communications directors, drafting press statements that were transmitted through a media group of more than 370 journalists on WhatsApp.

    When a few of the men started drinking in the evenings to distract themselves, and mothers worried the noise was keeping their children awake, the general assembly set up a kind of internal police force made up of about 100 unarmed volunteers with megaphones to reprimand the men and keep them out of the migrants' makeshift camps after the 7 p.m. curfew.

    And when they needed to lobby higher-level entities, such as immigration advocacy groups, human rights watchdogs and local governments, the migrants elected a nine-person Governance and Dialogue Council to press for their most basic needs: food, shelter and safety. (The council formed after a group of migrants spoke with a phalanx of federal police who were blocking the route on the way from the southern state of Chiapas to the state of Oaxaca and persuaded them to let them through.) Some of the representatives have served as secretaries of transportation at times, speaking directly with state and city governments to try to secure buses or rides to take them to the next stop in the meandering route. In Veracruz, the migrants petitioned the local government to get them transportation to Mexico City, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

    Now, with most of these migrants stuck in tent camps on the border in Tijuana, the government waits, too, planning for what comes next.

    Ask some on the right to define the caravan and they might conspire about highly organized hordes of criminals funded by the Venezuelan state or billionaire philanthropist George Soros who want to rush the American border. (“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Trump said Oct. 31 in reference to the Soros claim, one day after the migrants elected their Governance and Dialogue Council.) Some liberals, on the other hand, will try to convince you that this is a hapless, hopeless lot with no agency, no rights and no recourse for help.

    The nuanced reality is far from either ideological extreme. In between one dysfunctional home country and one openly hostile destination country—at the end of November, the U.S. Border Patrol launched tear gas canisters into Mexico when a group of migrants from the caravan tried to rush the border—these thousands of caravaneros are proving that they can organize themselves to respond to their own needs, the same ones that the broken Central American governments they fled from were often unable, or unwilling, to meet.

    “Life is practically worthless [in Tegucigalpa],” says Walter Coello, a Honduran migrant who has emerged as a de facto leader and spokesman for the migrants and who was elected to the Governance and Dialogue Council on Oct. 30. He left Honduras because of rampant gang violence. As a cab driver there, he was targeted by MS-13 members who demanded increasing extortion payments and eventually killed one of his colleagues. “The government won’t do anything. As soon as you file a police report about it, [the gangs] kill you. … If you protest the lack of food, the cops themselves will kill you.” Many in this first of at least four caravans with sights set on the United States cite similar experiences dealing with their own governments.

    For people like Coello, the caravan government might be the first time they have trusted a government to be responsive and representative—even if it’s one they threw up essentially overnight.

    ***

    When bus and cab drivers in Oaxaca gave in to local and federal government pressure and rescinded an offer for free transportation in late October, the caravaneros were split about what to do next. The able-bodied single men and young boys wanted to continue on to Oaxaca, though making the trek through hilly roads and narrow paths would be difficult for a group mostly on foot. The parents, some of them with ailing children, preferred going through the flatter terrain of Veracruz, despite the risk of traversing an area full of organized crime.

    The officer presiding over the general assembly called the vote. The migrants raised their hands. Through Veracruz it was, no matter the danger.

    In defending the Veracruz decision, which could have endangered the migrants’ lives, the caravan’s press shop put out a statement: “We hold the state government of Veracruz and federal authorities responsible for every person who is wounded, falls ill, faces extortion, is kidnapped, forcibly disappeared, trafficked, or murdered on this route that we are being forced to take.”

    By holding Mexico responsible for any harm, the migrants were exercising a right that they had been arguing was inalienable all along: that they should be guaranteed the ability to move through Mexico freely without facing violence. If Central American, Mexican and American governments were going to deny them this right, the caravan’s thinking went, it would create a system in which it was recognized.

    Many of the migrants are familiar with these sorts of informal, hyperlocal governments, says Tristan Call, an anthropology Ph.D. student from Vanderbilt University who came to Mexico to volunteer with the migrant advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras. Because Central American governments have been broken for so long, Call says, these migrants are used to solving disputes through face-to-face conversations, without the intervention of a reluctant higher authority.

    Call points to a rich history of alternative and autonomous governance structures in Central America. Several constitutions in Central America, as well as the Mexican magna carta, recognize the usos y costumbres—norms and traditions—of indigenous communities. That is, they allow natives to govern and administer their own territories—at times because the natives have asserted their own rights, and at others because the state has never made contact with the peoples in what it calls zonas abandonadas. The communities take care of building water infrastructure and establishing schools with instruction in indigenous languages. In Totonicapán, Guatemala, for example, the local people administer a 52,000-acre forest that is one of the last remaining stands of endangered fir trees.

    Call sees parallels between these structures, designed to give historically marginalized communities an alternative avenue for decision-making, and the caravan’s sets of rules and processes. “It’s not necessarily super romantic, but it’s familiar,” he says.

    And though it is on a comparatively microscopic scale, the caravan government has been surprisingly successful in areas where actual democracies are not, such as with ensuring the representation of minority groups. One week before the United States elected its most diverse Congress in history, the migrants were also giving voice to underrepresented communities. The Governance and Dialogue Council at first had seven people: three men, three women and one representative from the caravan’s 100-strong LGBTQ community, a gay man. But the council quickly expanded to nine when a group of trans women approached the leaders and said they felt that a gay man could not represent their specific needs; transgender migrants have faced catcalls and incessant sexual harassment along the way. The assembly elected a trans woman and another man to sit on the council.

    And with men, women and children from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua—including a handful of migrants who made their way into the caravan from Cameroon—the group’s makeup also cuts across ethnic and racial lines.

    That’s not to say it’s perfect. In fact, this informal governing structure has struggled with the same kinds of shortcomings that most other established democracies have. For one, civic participation is low, according to Margarita Núñez, an anthropology Ph.D. student from Mexico who was in the middle of her field work for her dissertation on migration when she left to volunteer with the caravan. Núñez observed that only about 600 members participated in the assembly that elected the nine-person council to represent a caravan of more than 6,000. She also says women are often disenfranchised from the process because the meetings take place when they are lulling their children to sleep.

    Then there are the logistics of trying to govern a fully mobile population. Because the road to Tijuana was long, the caravan would often break up into smaller groups that traveled at different paces, which meant that the Governance and Dialogue Council wasn’t able to meet consistently to discuss important decisions.

    And already, some migrants are feeling disconnected from the institutions—and becoming more susceptible to the promises of outsiders. While in Mexico City, a Honduran journalist came to foment tensions in the caravan and persuade some to protest in front of the UNHCR headquarters to demand transportation, a move unsanctioned by the council. His strident speeches could be seen in the Facebook page of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, which livestreams all the assembly sessions. “[UNHCR] has to tell us by tonight whether they will be giving us buses or not. … Nothing can stop you!” he says at one point in the footage, to uproarious cheers.

    Núñez was miffed that he had come in and hijacked the weekslong work of the council and other human rights organizations. The buses never came. The same night, the journalist mysteriously vanished.

    ***

    More recently, the council, staying at the border with the rest of the migrants, still tries to meet every day. It has been preoccupied with the day-to-day survival of the asylum-seekers and their efforts to persuade official governments to pay attention to their needs. To counter some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric the migrants have encountered daily at the border, the caravan’s assembly voted to set up a task force of cleaning squads to sweep the streets of Tijuana in goodwill, akin to a department of public works. Recently, some women on the Dialogue and Governance Council launched a hunger strike, which others across the caravan later joined in on.

    The asylum-seekers are preparing for when they might be allowed to cross into the United States, a day that is months—if not at least a year—away. Migrants have to get in line, literally writing their names in a ledger and waiting to be called on by other migrants who have volunteered to oversee the process. Once called, the migrants can cross the border for preliminary interviews with border authorities. (U.S. officials reportedly set the number of those allowed to cross at 30 to 90 each day.) By the time the caravan’s migrants got in line, the ledger already had thousands of names.

    Despite the obstacles, the migrants are determined to stay and wait to be called. Two days after the tear gas incident, the council convened a news conference to address it. Its members were unyielding in their determination to continue onward. “We don’t want to go back to violence,” a statement from the caravan said. “It has not been easy to leave our countries, leave part of our families, expose our children and walk through unknown places to have a chance at living in the United States,” the statement continued. “We want [our children] to have access to an education, to health care and to a life without threats.”

    If the asylum-seekers want to build that kind of life, they’ll need an official state’s help. And right now, none seems eager to offer that. The Mexican and U.S. governments have kept their discussions about how to deal with the humanitarian crisis mostly behind closed doors, attempting to fashion a plan to keep migrants in Tijuana while their claims are processed stateside. When asked if the U.S. Department of State had spoken with caravan leaders, a spokesperson wrote only: “We appreciate Mexico’s cooperation and efforts to increase immigration enforcement and border security to reduce the flow of caravan immigrants to the United States.”

    The only U.S. government representative who has taken action so far has been Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who traveled to the border in early December and helped broker the passage of five asylum-seekers across the border. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) swiftly criticized Jayapal, blasting her as a “congressional coyote.”

    Coello, the Honduran migrant who once had to negotiate for his life with MS-13, thinks he could rise above the classic Washington mudslinging and appeal to a higher sense of humanity. He knows exactly how he would lobby Trump if he was sitting across from him.

    “First, may God bless you,” Coello would say. “We want work. We are not criminals. We hope that God will soften your heart.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Biden Should Run on a Unity Ticket With Romney


    Last summer, John McCain told the world that he regretted not picking Joe Lieberman, the former senator and Democrat, to be his vice presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential election. A McCain/Lieberman ticket might not have won the White...


    Last summer, John McCain told the world that he regretted not picking Joe Lieberman, the former senator and Democrat, to be his vice presidential running mate in the 2008 presidential election. A McCain/Lieberman ticket might not have won the White House, but it could have diverted us from the dangerous polarization now plaguing our political system.

    Joe Biden should learn from McCain’s regret.

    The former vice president is clocking in well above the closest competition in the latest 2020 presidential polls. And, as he said last week, he is the “most qualified person in the country to be president.” Yet in a Democratic primary he could be cannibalized by his own kind. Other Democratic candidates with more ambition than ability to win a general election against Donald Trump will inexorably and gleefully erode his standing by rehashing the Anita Hill hearings, pushing him to the left on domestic policy and endlessly reminding voters of his support for the Gulf War. Biden is the clear front-runner now—with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at 13 percent—but plenty of early favorites have ended up as also-rans (i.e. Jesse Jackson in 1988, Jerry Brown in 1992, Howard Dean in 2004 and Hillary Clinton in 2008). Running in a Democratic primary could deeply damage Biden’s legacy.

    Biden knows all this, and it has got to give him pause. He is one of our most esteemed and admired leaders. His favorability ratings have touched the 60-percentile range. He appeals to the kind of working-class voters Democrats have been bleeding to Republicans over the years. Most important, he could make a good president, and not just because he has a deep mix of domestic and foreign policy experience; he also has the character for the job. His eulogy at the McCain funeral was not just a riveting and poignant tribute to his good friend, but a testament to Biden’s own genuine grace and good humor. The speech salved some of the grief of those in our nation who worry that McCain’s passing has left a gaping hole in America’s moral fabric.

    Now here’s what Biden should do next: Pick a Republican running mate in a “trans-party” third-party run for the White House.

    Should Trump run again, this could be a “break-the-glass” moment for many Americans, creating an opening for a radical departure from our malfunctioning two-party political system. By injecting some ideological innovation into the process, we can break the hidebound precedents of two narrow parties running their ceremonious and illogical nominating process to select a candidate. (Why do Iowa and New Hampshire play such outsized roles? Why do independents, who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans, have only a binary political choice?) The system certainly suffered a critical failure in 2016, with both parties producing terribly flawed candidates in a race to the bottom.

    The Democratic primary is shaping up to be cacophonous and chaotic. Biden should capitalize on his status as one of America’s most popular politicians, skip the risk and potential indignities of running and losing in what will be a vicious and mulish, leftward-lurching primary, and slingshot straight to the general election debate stage on a third-party ticket. Biden may not know it, but he is already well-positioned to win a three-way election outright. Here’s how:

    Biden could run as the major third-party candidate with a principled conservative by his side (Lieberman, a one-time Democrat, technically categorized himself as an independent at the time McCain ran for president). A number of Republicans stand out: Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich and newly minted Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. Many past third-party bids have failed because they came from the lunatic fringes—think Jill Stein and Ralph Nader of the Green Party or Ross Perot with his quirky North American Free Trade Agreement obsession. Biden, by picking someone from the principled wing of the GOP, would instantly signal that he intends to run from the center.

    And Biden, as a two-term vice president, has another characteristic past third-party candidates have lacked: enough name identification to make him an instant contender. Building the name to run nationally outside the two-party system is just too long and expensive of a process to accomplish in the 24 months before the 2020 election. Instantaneous recognition is crucial because the candidate must start out in striking distance in any three-way poll against Trump—who has the ability to command the news cycle with a single tweet—and a fill-in-the-blank Democratic nominee.

    The top of the ticket needs to come from the center-left, because he or she needs to get a plurality of the vote in the blue states Hillary Clinton won (227 electoral votes), yet be moderate enough to win a plurality in some combination of Trump states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan (another 119 votes). A bipartisan ticket might even put purple states like North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana in play. A right-leaning candidate at the top of the ticket won’t work, though: He or she would meet the same fate as a primary challenger to Trump. Around 36 percent of voters won’t be cleaved from Trump under any circumstances, so the deep-red states would be off the table entirely.

    What about policy? A Biden-led bipartisan ticket would pledge to serve a Cincinnatus-like single term and address all of the U.S.’s ticking time bombs like Social Security, Medicare, health care reform, climate change, money in politics, immigration, gerrymandering and infrastructure investment in four years. Why this pledge? It decouples a president from the demands of reelection politics while simultaneously easing concerns about age—Biden would be 78 on inauguration day. It also ensures governance unpolluted by campaign finance concerns and narrow special interests inherent to maintain a winning coalition. This ticket would promise to force decisions on all the underlying structural policy matters damaging America’s long-term prospects and distorting our democracy. No more kicking the can down the road.

    Biden and his running mate could also promise to break through the debilitating stalemate on Capitol Hill by pledging to push for laws that reflect the will of simple majorities in Congress. Recent Congresses allow bills to move forward only when a “majority of the majority” in either house supports the policy, leading to gridlock and deepening partisanship. On many levels, this seems fundamentally undemocratic, and it makes the public more cynical about their representatives—the same widespread bitterness across the country that got us an unqualified, outsider president like Trump with his vows to bust up Washington.

    A third-party presidency would be genuinely disruptive. Today’s ironclad party discipline could well break down, and moderates on both sides could form a powerful, decisive block willing to work with the new president. The policies passed into law may not be ideal for either Democrats or Republicans, but that’s precisely the point: The major agenda items that must be addressed for America’s long-term fiscal health require each party to make sacrifices.

    And if no candidate secures 270 electoral votes in a three-way race for the White House? The House of Representatives would choose the next president. In 2016, Michael Bloomberg apparently declined to run on a third-party ticket for fear of splitting support from Hillary Clinton and throwing the election to the House. The fear was that the GOP-controlled chamber would have just elected Trump.

    Yet Democratic control of the House may not be a roadblock to a second Trump presidency. No matter which party has the speaker’s chair, the GOP would certainly have the upper hand as the GOP has the majority of seats in far more states than Democrats. Would the members of Congress from various states choose to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their own states, or make their own calculations as to who is best for America? Precedent suggests a secret ballot, so individual lawmakers may vote their consciences. This scenario may not be terribly reassuring for those seeking a surefire means to keep Trump from a second term. But throwing the election to House seems just as risky as relying on the Democrats to nominate someone who can win 270 electoral votes.

    Done right, a Biden-led, third-party bid with a TV-savvy campaign team and a pledge to serve only four years with a nonpartisan agenda could win outright. Americans can manifest their support for such a third-party campaign in the same way they have contributed to a yet-to-be-nominated Senate challenger to Maine Senator Susan Collins: by pledging to donate only if he runs, and with a Republican running mate. So far, a putative Collins challenger has already raised at least $4 million in pre-loaded campaign funds, with more on the way. A fund like this would be crucial for Biden or any third-party bidder, as gaining access to 50 state ballot takes time and hard work—which means money.

    Do I expect Biden to embrace this idea right away? No. Right now, only polls showing a third-party candidate winning a plurality of votes in some configuration of states adding up to close to 270 will upend conventional wisdom. I would wager a lot that something like a Biden/Romney ticket would have a shot at doing just that. With 2020 now in range, pollsters will be fielding all sorts of candidates in the coming weeks. Let’s see how this and other atypical tickets fare. If this type of bipartisan ticket appeals to voters, everyone will notice—including Biden—and those in a position to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the effort.

    I know: It sounds crazy. But the narrow path to electing Biden as the first president outside the two-party system in 168 years is more navigable than most think. Just look at the numbers. A historic high of 61percent of Americans would like to see a third-party bid, according to Gallup. Trump’s approval rating is holding steady below 50 percent. The Democratic Party seems to be drifting inexorably leftward, suggesting an opening in the center.

    Legacy political strategists will say that the structural impediments of ballot and presidential debate access, the overwhelming advantages of the two parties’ fundraising and voter turnout operations preordain failure. But they were wrong about Trump and they’re wrong now; with the right candidates, these legal and logistical hurdles are surmountable. All it takes is lawyering and money.

    Biden said recently that he is willing to “break his neck” to make sure Trump doesn’t serve a second term. That maybe a bit of a malapropism (Biden’s characteristic gaffes are part of his charm), but it’s accurate to say that something may have to be broken to ensure Trump isn’t re-elected—it’s the two-party system.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    How Trump’s Next Attorney General Could Derail the Mueller Probe


    In December 1992, then-Attorney General William Barr faced a decision for the history books: Should he recommend presidential pardons for senior government officials accused of crimes in a massive, headline-grabbing White House scandal, even though the...


    In December 1992, then-Attorney General William Barr faced a decision for the history books: Should he recommend presidential pardons for senior government officials accused of crimes in a massive, headline-grabbing White House scandal, even though the pardons would be criticized as the final act of a cover-up to protect the incumbent president?

    The decision, Barr later said, was not so difficult. He urged President George H.W. Bush, then in his final weeks in office, to grant Christmas Eve pardons to six men, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who had been caught up in a criminal investigation of the so-called Iran-Contra affair. The Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was outraged by the pardons: “The Iran-Contra cover-up has now been completed.”

    A quarter century later, Barr, a Republican lawyer who is a veteran of the revolving door between the federal government and a private legal career, is entitled to more than a passing sense of déjà vu.

    Last week, President Donald Trump announced he was nominating Barr to return to the Justice Department for a second stint as attorney general.

    And if confirmed by the Senate, it won’t just be the attorney general’s grand, wood-paneled suite of offices overlooking Constitution Avenue that might feel familiar to Barr. He would—once again—almost certainly have the legally and politically perilous job of overseeing the work of a hard-charging, high-profile investigator taking aim at the White House: this time, Robert Mueller, who is probing possible Russian collusion in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Barr would succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russian investigation because of his work on the Trump campaign. White House officials have suggested that Barr faces no such conflict and could oversee Mueller’s work.)

    And in overseeing Mueller, Barr would likely—once again—to be asked to weigh in on the legality and political wisdom of presidential pardons to people who are the targets of the special counsel’s work. Trump has repeatedly dangled the idea of pardons for former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice; former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI; and others from Trump’s orbit who have become ensnared in Mueller’s investigation.

    For the moment, Barr—a spry, dark-haired 42-year-old when he left the Justice Department in January 1993, now a gray-haired 68—is not answering questions about how he might deal with the Russia probe and the possibility of pardons to people like Manafort and Flynn. Barr did not respond to emails to his law firm asking for comment.

    That silence cannot last much longer, however, since Barr will soon be called to testify in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, probably early next month. He can expect to get plenty of questions from senators about the details of what happened in the early 1990s, when Barr, as attorney general, oversaw Walsh’s independent counsel investigation of the Iran-Contra affair—and whether his bad blood with Walsh could signal similar trouble for Mueller.

    By the time the Iran-Contra pardons were issued in 1992, Walsh had spent six years investigating the Reagan administration’s illegal sales of military arms to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to fund the Contras, the anti-communist militia in the Nicaraguan civil war.

    In his memoirs, Walsh, who died in 2014 and spent most of his career as a dogged Wall Street litigator, described Barr as having been “outspokenly hostile” to the special prosecutor’s investigation. The relationship was so difficult, Walsh wrote, that in late 1991, he and his staff rushed to complete a final report because they feared that Barr was about to shut down their investigation. “The attorney general had the power to remove me from office,” Walsh wrote. “I wanted to be able to file my report promptly if our office was closed down.”

    For his part, Barr, a long-standing champion of executive-branch powers who has been skeptical of the concept of special prosecutors, described Walsh as a “headhunter who had completely lost perspective and was out there flailing about on Iran-Contra—with a lot of headhunters working for him.”

    In an interview in December 1992, in his final weeks as attorney general, Barr suggested he shared a widely held view in the Bush administration that Walsh was trying to convert foreign policy differences—involving American interests in Central America and the Middle East—into criminal offenses. “I think people in the Iran-Contra matter have been treated very unfair, many of them,” Barr said. “People in this Iran-Contra matter have been prosecuted for the kind of crimes that would not have been criminal or prosecutable by the Department of Justice.”

    In a separate 2001 oral history for the University of Virginia, Barr suggested that he personally came up with the idea of pardons for Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s Defense secretary; McFarlane, the former national security adviser; and the others: former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former CIA officials Clair George, Alan Fiers Jr. and Duane Clarridge.

    “I asked some of my staff to look into the indictment that was brought” against Weinberger, as well as into the cases of “other people I felt had been unjustly treated” by Walsh’s office, Barr said. “Based on those discussions, I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others.”

    Weinberger had been awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to the Contras. The other five had pleaded guilty to, were convicted of, or were awaiting trial on similar charges.

    When the pardons were announced, Walsh was furious and suggested they were Bush’s attempt to protect himself from being directly implicated the Iran arms sales, which took place when Bush was Reagan’s vice president.

    At his confirmation hearings, Barr can also expect questions about his personal and professional relationship with Mueller, a fellow Republican who worked for Barr at the Justice Department from 1991 until both men departed in 1993 at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration. Mueller was then an assistant attorney general and ran the department’s criminal division.

    Former Justice Department officials said the two men had a cordial relationship at the time, although Barr has surprised some of his former department colleagues with his willingness to speak out over the past two years to defend Trump and criticize Mueller’s investigation. Last year, Barr told the Washington Post that he questioned why Mueller had hired so many lawyers for the special counsel’s team who had made political donations to Democratic campaigns. “In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr said. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”

    Barr has also been outspoken in support of Trump’s May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey, a decision now under investigation by Mueller as possible evidence of obstruction of justice by the president to derail the Russia investigation. “It is not surprising that Trump would be inclined to make a fresh start at the bureau,” Barr wrote in a Post op-ed days after Comey’s dismissal.

    Not everything will be so familiar to Barr if he returns to the Justice Department. In fact, he faces a situation unlike any he confronted at the department in the 1990s—and that few attorneys general have faced in the nation’s history. Last week, prosecutors for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan alleged that during the 2016 campaign, Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to violate federal campaign-finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who alleged sexual encounters with Trump, including porn star Stormy Daniels.

    The prosecutors making those allegations don’t work for Mueller; they’re with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and answer up the chain of command to the Justice Department in Washington. That would mean that, if confirmed, Barr would have ultimate oversight for a federal criminal investigation that would appear to target Trump, identified in the court documents in New York last week as “Individual-1.” In that case, the president’s fate might not rest with Mueller and his team. Instead, it might end up in the hands of the attorney general who Trump himself put in place.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Distrustful, Desperate and Forgotten: A Recipe for Election Fraud


    ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C.—In the back office of the only liquor store within 30 miles of this low-lying town in eastern North Carolina, behind a window where he can see out better than customers can see in, Mark Gillespie was paying bills. “They never...


    ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C.—In the back office of the only liquor store within 30 miles of this low-lying town in eastern North Carolina, behind a window where he can see out better than customers can see in, Mark Gillespie was paying bills. “They never stop,” the manager of the ABC Store said. He looked up occasionally to see who was coming in: friends and family, coaches from the Dixie Youth Baseball league program he runs, parents of the Boy Scout troop he oversees.

    They’re the reason, he said, he had to be careful with his words when I asked about his county’s new status as the epicenter of election fraud in the United States.

    “I’m just mad about the whole thing,” the former county commissioner told me. “It really is embarrassing for my county, my little tiny county, to be on national news. Where I grew up at and call home.”

    In the two weeks since Thanksgiving, Bladen County has been the focus of investigations into irregularities in the race to represent North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Specifically, how did the Republican, Mark Harris, win 61 percent of the absentee-by-mail votes when Republican voters requested only 19 percent of all absentee ballots? How did he manage to win the county at all, given the fact that it has three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans?

    The numbers are close enough to jeopardize Harris’ apparent 905-vote victory over Democrat Dan McCready and might even force a redo of the election. That a small-scale fraud in a rural county of only 35,000 people could have fudged the result of one of the most watched congressional races in the country is a reminder once again of the outside influence of economically-left-behind places like Bladen County, where the poverty rate is 20 percent and the median household income of $32,396 is about half the national median.

    Local and national news outlets have done a fairly convincing job assigning blame for this fraud to a man named Leslie McCrae Dowless. A lifelong county resident, Dowless took money from an organization that took money from Harris’ campaign and, in turn, handed that money out to anyone willing to go door-to-door and persuade people to request and then hand over absentee ballots. A few of the foot soldiers have confirmed their parts, and several voters signed affidavits saying someone took their unsealed and incomplete ballots, which is illegal.

    But over the course of two days and a couple of dozen interviews, everyone I talked to in Bladen County said it would be shortsighted to assign all blame to Dowless.

    “They pick these people who’ve self-destructed their life, then they’re guinea pigs for whatever comes along to make a dollar,” said Sarah Jane Benson, whose family owns a restaurant in Bladenboro. “If it hadn’t been McCrae, it’d been somebody else. They’d have found somebody else to do it.”

    Out-of-town commentators have had fun with clips of people standing outside mobile homes in their socks, speaking in heavy Southern accents, but the sad truth is that regardless of how high up the fraud goes, the ground game is a portrait of poverty in America—people who need $100 for reasons that range from Christmas presents to opioid addictions going to the homes of poor and elderly neighbors who trust their ballots in the hands of strangers.

    I didn’t come to look for election fraud; that’s more or less an accepted fact now. I came to understand what makes a county like this susceptible.

    Some answers are plain. Bladen County is a petri dish of rural America’s problems: It has lost about 5 percent of its population in the past seven years, more than any other county in the region. It’s a farming community where the biggest employer, Smithfield Foods, runs the world’s largest pork processing plant, with 4,400 employees working in a factory that slaughters about 35,000 hogs a day. The company contracts with surrounding farms to raise the animals, and waste and smell are the focus of environmentalists and 26 lawsuits making their way through federal courts. Over the past three autumns, Bladen has been inundated by two of the worst hurricanes in history, Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, leaving downtowns flooded and farmers without crops. And it’s a place where the rate of unintentional deaths due to drugs is about 29 percent higher than anywhere else in North Carolina.

    This is a county that a hundred years ago was the center of a booming agricultural economy but that now has grown accustomed to being forgotten. It’s a place where people don’t trust that big institutions—government agencies at the federal or even state level—have their backs. It’s a place where local races mean everything. Indeed, lingering feuds over a handful of hotly contested elections from years past combined with a few hundred unsuspecting voters may turn out to be the Achilles' heel of an election that saw 282,717 votes cast.

    Local Republicans believe that for years Democrats have been rounding up absentee ballots from people to sway elections in the other direction. And although the state board of elections has yet to release findings from a 2016 investigation into activity by a local Democratic PAC, it’s clear that people from both parties lost faith in the election system long before this year.

    Take Gillespie, for instance. He’s a black Democrat who voted for Dan McCready. He’s a father of two and an optimist who devotes all his free time to volunteer work. He said of the increasing likelihood of a new election: “I don’t know what it’s going to solve.”

    When I told him that it could change a seat in Congress, he said, “That’s crazy. It shouldn’t have gotten to that. Yeah, that scares me.”

    ***

    Before Dowless shot to stardom in the past two weeks, the most famous person from Bladen County was probably Guy Owen. The late novelist grew up on a tobacco farm near Clarkton in the 1920s. His most well-known work was the lighthearted 1965 book The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man, which became a George C. Scott movie. It’s the story of a con artist named Mordecai Jones who travels eastern North Carolina weaseling money out of unsuspecting people.

    Early on in the film version, the con man tells his accomplice about a plan to hustle people in a local card game.

    “That’s your line, is it?” the accomplice asks.

    “Greed’s my line, lad. Greed.”

    When I told people around Bladen County that McCrae Dowless has become a Mordecai Jones-type figure, they laughed.

    “I know Dowless. I don’t speak to him,” said Charles DeVane, a 76-year-old general contractor and longtime Republican. “I don’t shake his hand. He stuck me.”

    Stuck you? I asked.

    “I used to be in the jewelry business,” he said. “And he stuck me twice back in the '60s. He bought something and didn’t pay for it. He [did it] one time under McCrae Dowless and then one time under Leslie Dowless." The second time, "I said, ‘Do you know McCrae Dowless?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s my brother.’”

    But even a flim-flam man needs an accomplice.

    In interviews with local television stations, several people have admitted to going door-to-door to gather absentee ballots and take them to Dowless. Most of them pass off the blame. “I don’t know what happened after I dropped them off,” one woman who was paid by Dowless told a WSOC-TV reporter. “I dropped ’em off and what they do, that’s on them.”

    The apparent beneficiary of this scheme, Mark Harris—the candidate who hired the firm that hired Dowless—also claimed ignorance on Friday. In a video statement, he said he was “absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”

    But just about everyone in Bladen who pays attention to politics knows there has been wrongdoing in the past. And the moment many people point to is the local election of 2010.

    That year a group called the Bladen Improvement Association PAC, which had formed in 1989 to promote black candidates for local office, spent $15,500 to “get the vote out.” The payments were small, $62 here and $262 there, and spread out to more than 60 people. They worked, too. While the state swerved hard for conservatives that November, in Bladen County, Democrats swept every office from U.S. Senate to register of deeds.

    To hear Republicans like Charles DeVane tell it, it all came down to absentee ballots. “They would go to nursing homes. They would get people unconscious to get an absentee ballot. They’d go to the graveyard,” DeVane said. “The Bladen Improvement Association does not represent the majority of the black people in Bladen County. The majority of the black people in Bladen County would have nothing to do with something if it was illegal. But they take the poor and the ignorant and lead ’em.”

    Not surprisingly, the members of the PAC, representing a voting bloc that had enjoyed very little in the way of representation over the years, view their work quite differently. “We’re the minority population; we’re the minorities on the board,” J. Michael Cogdell, a county commissioner and active Bladen Improvement PAC member, tells me. “We just hope and try to keep things on a fair playing field that deal with civil rights. Make sure everybody has representation.”

    Nevertheless, after that, Republicans began to organize their own get-out-the-vote efforts. “It’s the only way they could get anybody elected,” DeVane said. “You had to fight fire with fire.”

    This appears to have been Dowless’ motivation, too. After serving six months in jail for insurance fraud in 1995, he built a reputation as a passionate political observer who’d gladly jump in and work for either party, as long as it paid. In that 2010 election, he worked for Harold “Butch” Pope, a Democratic candidate for district attorney. But one group irked him more than others. After the 2016 election, he filed a complaint with the state elections board, alleging the Bladen Improvement PAC illegally obtained absentee ballots. But during the hearing for his complaint, in a bizarre scene documented in an episode of “This American Life,” Dowless actually revealed details of his own scheme to gather votes, and the board opened an investigation against him. The board sent its findings to federal prosecutors, state investigators and the district attorney. But no charges were filed.

    Pat Melvin doesn’t believe Dowless did anything illegal this time. Melvin’s family started the most famous restaurant in town, Melvin’s Burgers, in 1938. Pat sold it in the early 2000s. I met him in his small office a quarter-mile away, where he runs his real estate business. Melvin does believe the state board of elections needs to “get off their ass” and investigate all the years of election fraud in Bladen County. He has no doubt they’ll find wrongdoing among the Democrats, too. And the contest that he says proves it is the 2010 contest for county sheriff.

    The sheriff’s race that year burned conservatives most. Democrat Prentis Benston eked out a close victory in a primary runoff and then defeated unaffiliated candidate Billy Ward by 554 votes out of 12,242 cast in the general election. Benston became the county’s first black sheriff.

    Melvin had the results of that race printed and sitting on his desk for me when I arrived.

    “Prentis had about 600 absentee ballots,” Melvin told me. The implication was clear: Someone on the Democratic side had rigged the absentee count to elect Benston.

    “But we’ve got this hullabaloo about absentee ballots,” he said, the umbrage rising in his voice.

    Just then, his phone lit up and the jaunty notes of a ring tone filled the small office.

    “That’s McCrae right there,” Melvin said, smiling to me.

    “Hey, McCrae,” he said into the phone.

    Dowless—a man now known around the world as “Republican operative,” who had been holed up in his house, avoiding reporters from around the country—came through clearly on the phone.

    “What’s happenin’, buuud?" he said.

    “Well, actually I’m in the middle of an interview with a guy from Politico. Name is Michael.”

    A couple of seconds passed before Dowless spoke again, this time softer and more difficult to hear from where I sat. He was telling Melvin about a reporter who was trying to interview him. But he wasn’t talking.

    ***

    Before 7 a.m. on Friday morning, it was cold as I drove toward a blazing pink sky that decorated the top of sweeping fields, headed east to Tar Heel Baptist Church for a men’s prayer breakfast. The only things that don’t come to life at daybreak in farm country are the inflatable Christmas decorations, lying crumpled in front yards.

    Charles Ray Peterson, the Republican county commission chairman, invited me to join him at the breakfast. But around the low-ceilinged fellowship hall were about 35 men of different races and political persuasions. The most difficult choice was in the Hardee’s bags. “Ham biscuits on the right,” a man told me, “sausage on the left.”

    The main portion of the breakfast involved a local pastor telling the group that their mission this December is to “go throughout Bladen County and tell people that God loves them.” They passed around an offering plate, with all the money going to a local drug and alcohol treatment center.

    Afterward, several people approached me with a mission of their own in mind: They wanted to tell me what’s good about Bladen County.

    Dennis Troy, a retired postmaster and Bladen County Community College board chairman, said that on Wednesday the college hired a new president, picking her from a pool of nearly 70 candidates. “We had a list of 68 candidates who wanted to come to Bladen County!” Troy said.

    “One bad man don’t make a county,” Colon Roberts, a chicken and beef farmer, said, unprompted, of McCrae Dowless. “It’s all the good people. You saw what these men did this morning. They took money out of their pockets and gave it to people hooked on drugs.”

    I turned and asked the group’s organizer how much was in the offering plate.

    “One hundred fifty-six dollars,” he said.

    ***

    Just before I returned to Charlotte ahead of a winter storm, I stopped at Melvin’s for lunch.

    In the parking lot, I ran into an elderly black man who was getting into his car after a stop at the hardware store. “Got some spray,” he told me. “Roaches tryin’ to get in the house.” William Tatum is an 82-year-old who retired from the logging industry with a bad leg but bright and trusting blue eyes. He lives in White Oak, a few miles from Elizabethtown.

    I asked him what he thinks about all the talk about fraud. He told me someone came to his house, too.

    “Three head of ’em,” he said.

    I asked him what they had said.

    “They asked me, did I want to early vote?” he said. “And I didn’t know. Yeah.”

    He said all three were black women. He said they came back weeks later. He doesn’t remember their names. But he remembers telling them he wanted to vote for all Democrats.


    “They filled it out for you?” I asked him.

    “Yeah, they filled it out,” he said.

    He said he saw one of the women on the news.

    “I really don’t know what happened. … I don’t know if they tried to get the old people that didn’t know nothing or what. You know how that can be,” he said. “I know it ain’t right. If it’s wrong, it can’t be right.”

    I said goodbye and headed for my last stop, the county board of elections, just a few blocks away. I wanted to fact-check Pat Melvin’s claim that there were enough absentee ballots in 2010 to turn the election that helped turn the course of elections in Bladen County. Valeria Peacock, the interim director, greeted me. I asked how she was doing.

    “This is not the day to ask that,” she said. (Later Friday evening, a WBTV reporter learned that the board’s vice chairman resigned that day, right around the moment of my visit.) “This is not the week to ask that.”

    I told her I was looking only for vote counts for the 2010 sheriff’s race. She gave me a puzzled look; that wasn’t the election people are screaming about, after all. Moments later, she handed me the results, all on one page. I ran my pen down the list to see if Prentis Benston had indeed won more than 600 absentee votes that year, as Pat Melvin had said. It’s a big what-if, but it occurred to me that a different result in that sheriff’s race would have changed not just the course of politics in this little county, but maybe even the U.S. Congress.

    The number of absentees, though, was 441. Benston’s margin of victory was 554. Even without the absentees, he would’ve won.

    Later, I called Melvin to tell him what I’d found. He was gracious.

    “I’m glad you corrected me,” he said. “Again, though, I think, how did Prentis get more votes than Billy? They worked harder. That’s what still works today—whoever works hardest gets the votes.”

    CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story said the North Carolina board of elections took no action after it opened an investigation into alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 2016 election. The board referred the matter to federal, state and local authorities, but no charges were filed.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    GOP feels heat in wake of Obamacare ruling: 'It's all the downsides'


    Congress was ready to move on from Obamacare.The midterm elections took repeal off the table, and Democrats were gearing up for a party-defining fight over “Medicare for all.” But Friday night’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas that the...


    Congress was ready to move on from Obamacare.

    The midterm elections took repeal off the table, and Democrats were gearing up for a party-defining fight over “Medicare for all.” But Friday night’s ruling by a federal judge in Texas that the Affordable Care Act must be scrapped once again puts the law front and center as Democrats prepare to take back the House just weeks from now.

    The ruling is sure to be appealed, and the Trump administration says it's business as usual in the meantime. But the decision spells bad news for Republicans, by allowing Democrats to replay a potent health care message that helped them flip 40 House seats: that the GOP remains hellbent on gutting Obamacare and rolling back protections for pre-existing conditions.

    “Republicans are never going to give up on trying to take away health care,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told POLITICO. “And it’s hard to figure out how Trump and Mitch McConnell would come up with any strategy to put the pieces back together.”

    Republicans have been on the defensive since the failure of their repeated efforts to dismantle Obamacare while having control of Congress and the White House. While President Donald Trump and lawmakers such as incoming House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) cheered the development, some in the party called for bipartisanship to address the failings of the country’s health care system.

    “We have a rare opportunity for truly bipartisan health care reform that protects those with pre-existing conditions, increases transparency and choice, and lowers costs,” Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement.


    But that doesn't appear likely if Friday's ruling is working its way through the courts during the 2020 election cycle. House Democrats had long planned to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the ACA and will likely introduce a resolution directing the House counsel to defend the law during the first days of the new Congress. People familiar with the conversations say the Democrats will quickly put it to a floor vote that will force GOP lawmakers to either signal support for Obamacare or endorse its elimination — along with the law’s most popular patient protections.

    Trump and other key Republicans' hailing of the ruling as vindication of their belief that the law is unworkable and needs to be jettisoned also doesn't set a constructive tone, said Rodney Whitlock, a former top Republican Senate health care staffer.

    “He’s got to lead,” Whitlock said of the president. “I don’t think you’ll see congressional Republicans wanting to go that route when it’s far from clear that they’d have support from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

    The result is likely to be a split GOP caucus that draws flak from both the right and the left. Republicans who survived the midterm elections by vowing to protect people with pre-existing conditions will find themselves in a particularly tough spot, feeling intense pressure to make good on that pledge.

    “It’s all the downsides,” a House GOP aide said. “Politically, I don’t think that it helps us at all.”

    But Democrats will face their own reckoning. Liberals were eager to push the debate forward on health care and put universal coverage through a government-run system at the center of the 2020 campaign. However, the renewed threat to the ACA’s survival is certain to keep the focus on the current law and require Democrats to devote the next several months to protecting Obamacare's coverage gains.


    Already, Democrats are exploring how their GOP repeal message will play against Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020. Those lawmakers voted to gut Obamacare’s individual mandate as part of the tax bill, argued Brad Woodhouse, executive director of the pro-Obamacare group Protect Our Care, effectively laying the groundwork for the Texas lawsuit’s winning argument.

    “In some ways, this starts not just the legislative discussion around health care for 2019 and 2020, but it also starts the political discussion,” Woodhouse said, ticking off a list of 2020 Republican targets that included Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine, along with Trump.

    The ruling came just over a day before the deadline for people to sign up for Obamacare coverage for 2019. Enrollments heading into the last week were down roughly 10 percent, sparking concerns among the law’s supporters that the Trump administration’s policies — including gutting marketing and outreach efforts — are further undercutting the law.

    The legal fight ahead is sure to intensify anxiety for health care groups with a stake in Obamacare. They’ve already navigated the disastrous initial rollout of HealthCare.gov, incessant regulatory and legislative changes, failed repeal efforts and eight years of court battles.

    “Sadly, we have seen this movie before,” said Ceci Connolly, CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans. “It is uncertainty that leads to instability and, in this situation, potentially chaos.”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Obamacare ruling delivers new shock to health system


    Expanded Medicaid for millions. Penalties for poorly performing hospitals. Even the Trump administration's own plans to lower drug prices.Those and many other initiatives would all be illegal under a federal judge’s sweeping decision that the entire...


    Expanded Medicaid for millions. Penalties for poorly performing hospitals. Even the Trump administration's own plans to lower drug prices.

    Those and many other initiatives would all be illegal under a federal judge’s sweeping decision that the entire Affordable Care Act must be struck down — the latest shock to the nation’s health system after a decade of upheavals, including two fights over the ACA that reached the Supreme Court.

    Friday night’s surprise decision — the Trump administration had asked U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor to wait until after the ACA’s open enrollment period ended early Sunday morning — doesn’t require all ACA-created projects and health coverage to immediately cease. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra already has vowed to appeal, and administration officials say the law will remain in place while the legal challenges play out.

    But the case, seemingly bound for the Supreme Court's new conservative majority, now threatens to complicate a wide array of policies, from state decisions on Medicaid expansion to HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s national health agenda.

    The decision’s timing also throws another wrench into ACA enrollment, a campaign that was showing signs of new strength after former President Barack Obama and others tried to boost flagging sign-up numbers this week. And it raises new uncertainty for the entire U.S. health care system, as hospitals, doctors and patient groups have increasingly reoriented around the numerous provisions buried within the 2010 health law.

    "The judge got it wrong,” said Chip Kahn, the head of the Federation of American Hospitals. “This ruling would have a devastating impact on the patients we serve and the nation’s health care system as a whole.”

    Among the pressing questions ahead:


    Who appeals and how fast?

    Friday night’s ruling raises a number of decisions for the White House: Will the government appeal, how quickly and will its agencies continue to enforce the law in the meantime?

    It’s not clear what the Trump administration will choose to do, given its legal strategy to date. Career Justice Department lawyers this summer were told to drop their defense of the law — a near-unprecedented decision that led three lawyers to remove their names from the government’s brief and prompted the senior attorney, Joel McElvain, to resign.

    While some senior officials inside the administration have lobbied to preserve elements of the ACA, President Donald Trump’s public jubilation over Friday night’s ruling may complicate that outcome.

    “As I predicted all along, Obamacare has been struck down as an UNCONSTITUTIONAL disaster!” the president tweeted. “Great news for America!” he added.

    The Trump administration bears some responsibility for Friday night’s decision because it failed to protect the law in court, said Tim Jost, an emeritus professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law. But, he noted, “the judgment goes far beyond what they asked for” by invalidating all of the ACA — including parts that the Trump administration has used to achieve its own goals.

    Democratic-led states immediately said they will challenge the decision, ensuring that the court fight stays alive — although it’s not clear how quickly they will move.

    How will higher courts, including the Supreme Court, view the case?

    The lawsuit was brought by the attorneys general of Texas and other conservative-led states, who are expected to continue the legal fight for years.

    But if the case is appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, legal scholars — including Jonathan Adler, a law professor who was the architect of a previous challenge to strike down the ACA — say they’re deeply skeptical that the arguments will sway Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the court’s newest addition.

    “The states would be lucky to get two votes at SCOTUS, and there's no way Roberts or Kavanaugh goes along,” Adler told POLITICO.

    Notably, O’Connor ruled on Friday night that the entire ACA should be struck down because the health law’s mandate was repealed. That verdict takes direct aim at the majority ruling Roberts wrote in 2012 that the law could stand even though Roberts believed that part was unconstitutional — a decision that is unlikely to endear O’Connor’s decision to the chief justice.


    What happens to in-progress reforms?

    The Trump administration has increasingly oriented its strategy around using the ACA to test new pilot projects.

    “The biggest things we’re going to be launching, coming soon, are going to be these demonstrations that Adam Boehler — our head of the Center for Medicare And Medicaid Innovation — has been working on,” Azar said on Wednesday. Those projects would involve “testing new models of how we pay in Medicare for services… and then getting out of the way.”

    Those projects — and Boehler’s entire center — would be illegal if Friday night’s ruling stands.

    The Trump administration also has repeatedly pledged to lower the nation’s high drug prices, with the president vowing to “bring soaring drug prices back down to earth.” Azar has steadily rolled out a multi-part strategy this year, pushing ideas like changing how Medicare pays for some drugs.

    But “Secretary Azar's most ambitious plans to lower the price of prescription drugs are only possible because of authority conferred on the department by the ACA,” said Rachel Sachs, a Washington University in St. Louis law professor. “Without that power, his ability to deliver what he has promised is severely limited.”

    When does the Trump administration hash out its strategy?

    The White House and its key health agencies issued short, vague statements in the wake of Friday night’s ruling — largely because health officials were caught flat-footed by the timing, multiple HHS officials told POLITICO, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    “There are a few dusty plans in a drawer, but we didn’t think a ruling was coming down this week,” said one official.

    “There’s been no messaging, no nothing,” said another official.

    Administration officials late Friday indicated it would be business as usual, pending legal appeals.

    How will this affect Democrats' 2019 health strategy?

    House Democratic leaders already had planned to immediately file to intervene in the case upon taking control of the chamber in January — a largely symbolic move intended as a signal to voters after health care helped carry the party to victory.

    But the latest legal threat to the ACA could be a pressure point to do far more on Obamacare, even as fissures emerge over whether Democrats should focus their energies on preserving the law or fight for universal government health care, which many new House members campaigned on this fall.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Judge rules Obamacare unconstitutional, endangering coverage for 20 million


    A federal judge in Texas threw the health coverage of some 20 million Americans in limbo by ruling Obamacare must be scrapped because Congress struck the penalty for failing to obtain insurance coverage.The invalidation of the landmark 2010 law is...


    A federal judge in Texas threw the health coverage of some 20 million Americans in limbo by ruling Obamacare must be scrapped because Congress struck the penalty for failing to obtain insurance coverage.

    The invalidation of the landmark 2010 law is certain to send shock waves through the U.S. health system and Washington after a midterm election seen in part as a rebuke to Republican efforts to tear down Obamacare.

    “Wow, but not surprisingly, ObamaCare was just ruled UNCONSTITUTIONAL by a highly respected judge in Texas,” President Donald Trump wrote in a tweet celebrating the verdict. “Great news for America!”

    The decision will be immediately appealed, said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who led several blue states in intervening to defend the ACA. It could ultimately become the third major Obamacare case to be taken up by the Supreme Court, which has twice voted to uphold the law.

    U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee in Fort Worth, Texas, issued the decision gutting the law in response to a lawsuit from 20 conservative-led states that sought to have the Affordable Care Act tossed out. They successfully argued that the mandate penalty was a critical linchpin of the law and that without it, the entire frameworks is rendered unconstitutional.

    “In sum, the Individual Mandate ‘is so interwoven with [the ACA’s] regulations that they cannot be separated. None of them can stand,’” O’Connor wrote.

    The decision came a little more than 24 hours before the sign-up period for 2019 Obamacare coverage is set to close — and roughly a month after voters upset over Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace the ACA swept House Democrats back into the majority. O’Connor did not issue an injunction, leaving it unclear whether the Trump administration can continue to enforce the ACA in the near term. Obamacare enrollment will continue up to the Saturday deadline, administration officials said.


    "We expect this ruling will be appealed to the Supreme Court. Pending the appeal process, the law remains in place,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

    Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who oversees Obamacare's insurance marketplaces, tweeted late Friday that Obamacare exchanges are still open for business and that open enrollment will continue. "There is no impact to current coverage or coverage in a 2019 plan," she wrote.

    Democrats late Friday decried the decision as reckless and urged an appeals court to overturn it, while also tying it to the GOP’s broader efforts to eliminate the ACA.

    “Republicans want to gut healthcare. It’s not a talking point, it’s not an exaggeration,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted on Friday. “For ideological reasons, and because many can’t stand that it’s named Obamacare, they are causing millions to feel anxiety and possibly suffer. Shame on them.”

    Republicans zeroed out the mandate penalty as part of their 2017 overhaul of the tax code, after failing throughout last year to repeal and replace the ACA in full. The penalty is slated to disappear next year.


    The ruling puts the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers in a bind. They've promised to save the health law's pre-existing condition protections if the court threw them out, but for years they've been unable to agree on an alternative that would maintain the law's stringent safeguards.

    Trump on Friday urged Congress to negotiate a bipartisan health care bill that would replace the ACA and protect pre-existing conditions.

    “Now Congress must pass a STRONG law that provides GREAT healthcare and protects pre-existing conditions. Mitch and Nancy, get it done,” he tweeted, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi.

    Yet lawmakers on either side have shown little inclination to compromise on health care. Democrats for months said Republicans would be responsible for any fallout from the verdict since they brought the case in the first place and spent a year trying unsuccessfully to repeal the ACA.

    Some Republicans similarly criticized the lawsuit as unnecessary and “far-fetched,” yet the party has not developed a workable alternative. An August proposal from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) would have codified some ACA protections outside of the health law. But it was quickly panned after health care analysts said the legislation would do little to ensure protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

    The Justice Department took the unusual stance of partially siding with the conservative states seeking to strike down the federal law. As a result, 16 mostly Democratic-led states intervened in the case to try and save Obamacare. But O’Connor didn’t agree with their argument that by striking the tax penalty but leaving the rest of the federal health care law in place, Congress had clearly indicated its belief that they weren’t inseparable.


    “In some ways, the question before the Court involves the intent of both the 2010 and 2017 Congresses,” O’Connor wrote. “The former enacted the ACA. The latter sawed off the last leg it stood on.”

    Many legal experts are skeptical that the lawsuit will ultimately succeed — including Jonathan Adler, one of the architects of the last major legal challenge to Obamacare. Adler on Friday night tweeted that O’Connor’s opinion was “completely unmoored from the relevant legal authorities and doctrine.”

    But the victory at the lower court level means that there will be a cloud hanging over the future of the law for months, if not years, to come.

    House Democrats, who won back the chamber after campaigning heavily on defending protections for pre-existing conditions, plan to quickly pass a resolution authorizing the House general counsel to defend the health care law on the chamber’s behalf.

    "We will take immediate action in the new Congress to intervene in this case and appeal this decision,” House Ways and Means Committee Democrats said in a statement. “House Democrats will do whatever it takes to make sure the protections enshrined in the Affordable Care Act endure.”

    The Supreme Court upheld Obamacare as constitutional in 2012 and 2015, though the first of those challenges did strike down a provision requiring states to expand their Medicaid programs. Trump appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch have since joined the high court, replacing the late Antonin Scalia and retired Anthony Kennedy.

    Verma told reporters late last month the administration had a backup plan if the court overturned the law. She declined to provide specifics at the time.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    A holy mess: Churches, other nonprofits confront parking tax


    Republicans’ tax overhaul is going to have religious leaders across the country suddenly contemplating the finer points of their parking lots.Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the parking benefits that churches, synagogues, hospitals, colleges and other...


    Republicans’ tax overhaul is going to have religious leaders across the country suddenly contemplating the finer points of their parking lots.

    Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the parking benefits that churches, synagogues, hospitals, colleges and other nonprofits offer their employees are now taxable. That’s causing headaches for nonprofit administrators trying to figure out complicated new rules that can require them to calculate everything from snow removal costs to what percent of spaces are used by employees. It will likely all end up with pastors losing their reserved spots and competing with the congregation for parking before services.

    “All over America — it’s no longer going to say, ‘This space reserved for Pastor Smith,’” predicts Steven Woolf, senior tax policy counsel for the Jewish Federations of North America. “Those signs will be coming down.”

    A host of religious groups and other not-for-profit organizations are demanding Congress repeal the provision requiring the new tax.

    House Republicans have recently backpedaled and now are proposing to kill the levy as part of a year-end bill — one of the first moves to rescind any part of the massive tax code overhaul that went into effect this year. But it’s unclear whether Congress will approve any more tax legislation before quitting for the year.

    Figuring out how much organizations owe is no small task, and the Treasury Department last week unveiled long-awaited rules explaining how exactly the tax is supposed to work, setting off a new wave of confusion.


    Though the department says it was trying to minimize the impact on nonprofits, its 24-page guide is nevertheless densely written, thick with acronyms and references to individual sections of the tax code. Nonprofits might need to track everything from the cost of maintaining their parking lots, to their property taxes, to how much they spend on snow removal, to how many of their spots are typically used by employees.

    Critics of the tax say it will be difficult for many groups — not used to dealing with the IRS — to understand.

    “You have to look up different parts of the tax code to know what they’re even referring to,” said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations at the National Association of Evangelicals. “A volunteer who counts the offering and does the bookkeeping in a local church — they’re not going to know what to do.”

    “They’re going to have to hire someone,” he said.

    One likely effect of the new rules: a lot fewer reserved spaces. Under the new rules, dumping assigned parking spots is one way a group can reduce its exposure to the tax.

    The provision was added to last year’s tax law, because Republicans also took away tax breaks for transportation-related fringe benefits from for-profit companies, and they wanted to treat all employers equally. The 21 percent tax also applies to mass-transit benefits such as subway passes, though the new regulations focus on parking.

    In the meantime, nonprofits face the question of how to calculate their parking tax.


    It’s relatively easy if an employer is paying someone else — maybe a garage across the street — for their workers’ spots. In that case, the tax is applied to however much is spent on those spots.

    It’s been less clear how the tax works when a group owns its own parking lot. How much does it cost a church to provide a spot to a pastor in a parking lot it has owned for 100 years?

    Treasury tried to ease the burden by telling groups they could use any “reasonable” method for calculating the tax.

    “An employer wants to come up with his own method — they can do that so long as it's reasonable,” said a senior Treasury official. “That will be acceptable to the IRS.”

    The department also explained how organizations might go about it, offering a multi-step process for calculating their bill.

    First, they figure out how much they spend on parking in total.

    That includes the cost of “repairs, maintenance, utility costs, insurance, property taxes, interest, snow and ice removal, leaf removal, trash removal, cleaning, landscape costs, parking lot attendant expense, security, and rent or lease payments or a portion of a rent or lease payment,” the regulations say. It does not include depreciation or expenses related to nearby property, such as bushes planted alongside a parking lot or lighting.

    The groups then have to figure out what share of those costs are attributable to its workers’ spaces.

    If they have reserved spots — “by a variety of methods, including, but not limited to, specific signage (for example, ‘Employee Parking Only’) or a separate facility or portion of a facility segregated by a barrier to entry or limited by terms of access" — then those are automatically taxable. So if 10 percent of spaces are reserved for employees, then the tax is applied to 10 percent of the group’s total parking lot costs.

    The group then calculates who is using the remainder of the lot. If more than 50 percent is being used by the general public, then they owe nothing more.


    But if, say, 80 percent of the spaces are used by the group’s workers, then it owes taxes on 80 percent of their parking lot costs.

    Treasury does not expect many churches to have to pay. The agency devised that 50-percent test on the assumption that most churches have relatively few employees and lots big enough to accommodate congregants.

    It is also giving groups until March 31, 2019, to remove assigned spacing.

    Treasury is also allowing groups providing minimal benefits to skip the tax.

    The tax is more likely to affect organizations in urban areas than rural ones because the higher cost of living means parking benefits will cost more — think of a church in Manhattan, for example. Organizations in cities might also have fewer spots for the public, making it harder to meet that 50-percent test.

    “I think most churches will not be affected by it, but there will certainly be some that have to pay,” said Mike Batts, managing partner of an accounting firm that specializes in religious nonprofits.

    Even if they end up not having to pay, they will still have to do some legwork to figure out where they stand.

    “Determining whether an organization is subject to the tax still requires an analysis and, in some cases, that analysis is not simple,” said Batts.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Anti-abortion clinics tapping into federal funds under Trump


    PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Anti-abortion family planning clinics are increasingly vying for the same federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood, signaling a major change in federal policy being pushed by the Trump administration.This new front in the...


    PORT ANGELES, Wash. — Anti-abortion family planning clinics are increasingly vying for the same federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood, signaling a major change in federal policy being pushed by the Trump administration.

    This new front in the abortion wars comes as conservatives have largely given up on completely defunding Planned Parenthood, so they’re trying to use the rules to their advantage, pushing for faith-driven women’s clinics to apply for those same federal funds to push an anti-abortion agenda.

    “They’re getting more sophisticated,” said Kinsey Hasstedt, a policy expert at the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute, referring to “crisis pregnancy centers” and other women’s health centers that oppose abortion.

    “Now they have an administration that’s supportive of the work they’re trying to do, and that’s setting the stage to open the door for more sources of funding for these sites,” Hasstedt added. Critics say these clinics can be confusing to women who seek care or advice about a pregnancy without realizing their religious and anti-abortion orientation.

    One controversial administration proposal, which could be finalized in the next month or so, would let faith-based clinics compete for Title X family planning money — much of which now goes to Planned Parenthood. That move is being challenged in a federal appeals court.


    So-called crisis pregnancy centers, which offer limited services such as pregnancy testing, ultrasounds and certain supports for women with unplanned pregnancies, have been increasing in number for several years; there are now about 2,530 of them, according to a mapping project from the University of Georgia College of Public Health — or around 2,750, according to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

    Now, some are trying to become anti-abortion, abstinence-promoting alternatives to Planned Parenthood clinics.

    “I didn’t recreate the wheel,” said Kathleen Eaton Bravo, the CEO of the Obria Group, a nonprofit chain of clinics that’s now expanding beyond the West Coast. The chain has been adding medical services as part of its long-term vision — one that also lets it bill insurers and qualify for government funds. "I’m using Planned Parenthood’s model, and it’s working."

    Scrapping the quotes from Scripture displayed on their walls, some pregnancy crisis centers are becoming licensed clinics by adding health services like prenatal care, sexually transmitted disease testing or treatment, and “natural family planning” or fertility awareness — though not FDA-approved contraceptives like birth control pills or condoms, and certainly not abortions or abortion counseling.

    The federal government rejected Obria this year for Title X family planning grants because, under the current rules, the Trump administration still requires grantees to include a provider that offers hormonal birth control. Obria plans to reapply by partnering with a health center that provides contraception, though not abortion.

    “There’s a growing trend of these centers becoming more medicalized,” said Andrea Swartzendruber, an assistant professor who led the Georgia survey of the clinics. So far only a fraction have switched from pregnancy counseling sites to clinics — about a fifth offer STD testing — but the numbers are growing. Lozier’s Chuck Donovan said the number of clinics offering STD testing and treatment had more than doubled over the past decade, to 487 in 2017.


    Once licensed, the clinics can bill Medicaid and private insurers and tap into some federal grants for women and babies’ health. So far they haven’t gotten money from Title X — the $260 million federal family planning program — but that could change under the administration policy now being finalized.

    Based in Orange County, Calif., the Obria Group is on the front lines of this trend. Bravo, the founder, calls her clinics a “holistic” and “comprehensive” alternative to Planned Parenthood. She recently visited some pregnancy crisis centers in Port Angeles, Wash., a city of just under 20,000 on the Olympic Peninsula, that are going to add medical services as they come into Obria’s fold.

    Growing from three centers and a mobile van, Obria now has 30 clinics in five states — the more liberal California, Oregon and Washington and the more conservative Iowa and Georgia — and aims to reach 200 sites by 2021. That would cost about $90 million — $300,000 to $500,000 per clinic for upgrades. Obria would raise a lot of that through donations, but also hopes to finance expansion with Title X funds, according to Mauricio Leone, Obria’s chief operating officer, who is transitioning into a new role as executive director.

    Backers of fuller reproductive health services for women see nothing comprehensive or “holistic” about clinics that don’t offer a broad range of contraceptive choices, including condoms, and oppose abortion in all circumstances. They also see the move away from vaguely religious-sounding names — like My Choices or Life Choices — to a more corporate sound like Obria as a way to confuse women who go to these clinics not realizing they will be steered away from abortion as an option.

    “Their core is as a ‘fake’ women’s health center,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California.

    HHS’ embrace of these centers has critics in Congress, too.

    “The challenge with this administration is they want to eliminate the ability of women to make that decision on their own, with their families, with their medical providers,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). “And that’s the objection I have.”

    The build-out of these clinics comes as conservatives, who failed to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress, take their battles to the courts and the states. If they can’t cut off Planned Parenthood completely, they may be able to shift some of the money to places like Obria.


    “I love the Obria model because they’re trying to take it to scale,” said Joneen Mackenzie, president of the Center for Relationship Education, a Denver-based organization that promotes abstinence-oriented sex ed. MacKenzie praised Obria’s “corporate-driven” and “professional” structure. The Lozier Institute’s Donovan, who is a member of Obria’s national advisory board, praises the marketing savvy that Bravo, who used to run an engineering contracting company, brings to her mission.

    Bravo can survey a crisis pregnancy center, like the My Choices center that’s aligning with Obria here in Port Angeles, and see exactly how to convert it into a licensed clinic with a revenue stream. Turn the room in which baby clothes and new mom accessories are stored into a lab, she said. Transform meeting rooms into exam rooms, so they have four places, not one, for doctors and nurses to see patients — and bill for services.

    A mother and grandmother who harbors deep regrets over her own abortion 38 years ago, Bravo knows that having Obria rely primarily on donations is not sustainable. To bill Medicaid and insurers, Obria needs to install electronic health records and practice management systems. Some of its clinics are already licensed and accredited; others are in the works.

    The group also wants to tap into federal grants, and most recently won $450,000 in Title V funding out of the Sexual Risk Avoidance Education program — sometimes still called “abstinence education” — in Obria clinics, public schools and other settings.

    Although Obria is open to partnering for Title X money, the Obria clinics themselves have an unyielding stance on contraception — or, as Bravo colorfully puts it, they cater to “women who want no drugs, plugs, jellies or jams.”

    Her regrets about her abortion, which came after the birth of her first son, and her return to the Roman Catholic faith led Bravo to the anti-abortion movement. She operated “maternity homes” for homeless mothers and in 1986 founded pregnancy resource centers in Orange County under the name Birth Choice.

    About a decade ago, she began envisioning a more professional, medical version, and Birth Choice started hiring physicians and nurse practitioners in 2006. About three years ago, a branding company she hired came up with the name Obria, and last year she officially established The Obria Group, the umbrella for the national network, and began growing it.

    Bravo insists her clinic staff does tell women about their three choices: parenting, adoption or abortion. She won’t refer for abortions, though, assuming women can figure that option out on their own.

    “It’s about her, and not us. We listen to her instead of giving our agenda,” she said, adding that she once fired a nurse at one of her clinics for proselytizing.

    But the clinics promote only natural family planning, and although they test for and some treat STDs, they don’t distribute condoms to prevent them.

    Abstinence, Leone notes, beats condoms at disease prevention, and he considers hormonal birth control dangerous. He promotes options like Natural Cycles, a mobile phone app approved in August by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to help women track their body temperature and cycle to avoid pregnancy.

    Bravo is unperturbed by those who say Obria can’t be a women’s health clinic if it doesn’t support contraception (other than the natural system) and abortion rights.

    Borrowing the language of the abortion rights movement, Bravo defines it as “choice” — no different than having a McDonald’s across the street from, say, Wiener schnitzel. Hamburgers for some, hot dogs for others.

    “There’s a huge need for women’s health care,” she said, “and everybody doesn’t have to do it the same way.”

    Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Zinke’s likely replacement has been 'the man behind the curtain'


    Like former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt before him, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has an experienced deputy steeped in the world of bureaucratic infighting ready to fill his shoes — one with longstanding ties to the energy...


    Like former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt before him, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has an experienced deputy steeped in the world of bureaucratic infighting ready to fill his shoes — one with longstanding ties to the energy industry he now regulates.

    Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil, gas and water industries that rely on Interior’s decisions, is poised to become acting secretary following President Donald Trump's announcement Saturday that Zinke will leave by the end of the year. And that’s already alarming environmentalists, some of whom had said they might prefer to see a distracted, scandal-plagued Zinke stay in the job.

    Bernhardt, who joined the Trump administration last year, has taken the lead in softening the department’s protections for endangered species, a move that will make it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on ecologically sensitive lands. "He knows how to make that agency work, and he is why Interior is now considered 'best in class' in terms of agency performance," said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist at RBJ Strategies.

    Green groups quickly called for more scrutiny of Bernhardt's record.

    “The bottom line is that Bernhardt is too conflicted to even be acting secretary,” said Chris Saeger, executive director for Western Values Project, a conservation group that filed a lawsuit in July demanding access to Bernhardt’s official communications. “At the very least, the American public deserves to know more about the man behind the curtain who is actually running the show at Interior and could soon be fully responsible for managing our country’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”

    “If Ryan Zinke was bad, his likely replacement, David Bernhardt, is even worse,” the Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement Saturday.


    And Bernhardt may end up with the post permanently, according to a source who said Trump has been happy with his effectiveness in running the bulk of the agency on Zinke's watch. The source said it might be too problematic for Trump to find another Interior candidate amid a series of other high-level vacancies in his administration.

    Other names have been floated among industry representatives and green groups, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), whom Trump had reportedly considered for the job two years ago — but who had been quick to criticize Trump's leaked boasts about sexual assault a month before the 2016 election. McMorris Rodgers is not interested in the job now, a source said Saturday.

    The consensus is that picking Bernhardt — already confirmed by the Senate — would be the path of least resistance.

    On the other hand, Bernhardt might not want the job, said one lawyer who has business in front of Interior.

    “Some folks think he [Bernhardt] may not want to stick around for another two years and may actually see all the of the ceremonial and speech-making functions of the secretary as a distraction from getting done the things he wants,” said the lawyer, who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel issues.

    Bernhardt has been on notice for quite some time that he might need to step in for Zinke, whose troubles included an ongoing investigation of a land deal in Montana — first reported by POLITICO — tied to the chairman of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest energy companies. Interior’s inspector general has referred that probe to the Justice Department for potential further investigation or even prosecution, according to several media reports.

    "For the last month, if not longer, it has been a common reference, even from the secretary, that David needs to be ready," a source close to Interior’s senior staff told POLITICO for a story published in October. The source requested anonymity to discuss internal department matters.


    Bernhardt, a former lobbyist known as “a lawyer’s lawyer” in the industry, could wind up playing a role similar to the one that longtime Washington lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has played since becoming acting administrator of the EPA this summer. In contrast to former EPA chief Pruitt, who had alienated even many Republican lawmakers with his cascade of personal scandals, Wheeler has kept a relatively low profile while continuing to methodically roll back environmental rules and promote coal and oil production.

    Bernhardt worked at Interior as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, a time when the department had also been rocked by scandal over its division overseeing energy leases. He then went to lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he worked for a client seeking to pump water from the Mojave desert to Southern California.

    Many environmental activists fear that Bernhardt would be more effective than Zinke in executing Trump’s agenda. In fact, they contend he’s already doing it, having taken meetings with appropriations staff and led policy on top-tier items like overhauling the Endangered Species Act and reorganizing the department.

    “Why would I want him to take over? I can’t say that I do,” said Aaron Weiss, media director with the Center for Western Priorities, told POLITICO earlier this fall.

    “There are so many parallels with the Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler situation [at EPA] and the Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt situation. Andrew Wheeler knows exactly how to pull the levers of policy," Weiss added. "Dave Bernhardt is the exact same way. He is a walking conflict of interest."

    Zinke’s tenure has been under a cloud formed by multiple investigations into his behavior at Interior. The IG office has been looking at his ties to Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar, who met with Zinke at Interior headquarters to discuss a real estate deal involving land owned by a nonprofit Zinke established that is now controlled by his wife.


    The IG is also looking into whether Zinke bowed to political pressure in blocking requests from Native American tribes to open a Connecticut casino. That probe was requested in response to POLITICO's report on lobbying by the tribes' business rivals.

    The heat on Zinke was only going to ratchet up in January, when Democrats take control of the House and with it the power to launch new probes into Trump's Cabinet.

    While the investigations kept Zinke’s names in headlines, Bernhardt has quietly been taking on much of the responsibility for pushing Trump’s agenda, sources have said.

    Bernhardt has taken a lead role in what had been Zinke’s signature policy effort — reorganizing the department and sending more staff to Western states. Bernhardt has become "the main point of contact" on the reorganization, Jay Tilton, a spokesperson for Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats, told POLITICO in October.

    Requests for records have turned up scant communication from Bernhardt — raising additional fears among green groups.

    The watchdog group American Oversight urged the investigators who have spent the past year and a half probing Zinke’s abundant alleged conflicts of interest and potential misdeeds to turn their attention to his replacement.

    “It is high time for the glare of sunlight to focus on Deputy Secretary Bernhardt,” the group’s Austin Evers said Saturday. “We’ll see if he has the spine to answer questions that Zinke lacked.”

    Eliana Johnson and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Giuliani on Trump interview with Mueller: ‘Over my dead body’


    Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, cast doubt Sunday on whether the commander in chief would sit for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating Russian influence in the 2016 presidential...


    Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, cast doubt Sunday on whether the commander in chief would sit for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.

    “Over my dead body, but, you know, I could be dead,” Giuliani said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”

    Asked by interviewer Chris Wallace whether Mueller’s team had been in touch about an in-person interview, the former New York City mayor, who has long said there is no evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump, again slammed the Justice Department probe, citing the treatment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

    “Good luck after what they did to Flynn, the way they trapped him into perjury. And no sentence for him? Fourteen days for Papadopoulos. I did better on traffic violations than they did with Papadopoulos.”

    “There are several unpaid parking tickets ... that haven’t been explained,” Giuliani quipped when asked about a Trump interview.


    Giuliani also slammed former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to a series of eight federal crimes, including making or helping carry out hush money payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. The longtime Trump attorney said he did so out of loyalty to the real estate mogul.

    “This man is lying. Is that a big surprise to you? ... The man got up in front of the judge and said, ‘I was fiercely loyal to Donald Trump.’ Nonsense. … He taped him, lied to him,” he argued.

    “The man is a complete pathological liar,” Giuliani said.

    The president tweeted repeatedly Sunday about Mueller’s investigation, making use of the phrase “witch hunt” as he has often before. His comments fit with the theme of Giuliani’s comments, about so-called perjury traps.

    “The Russian Witch Hunt Hoax, started as the 'insurance policy' long before I even got elected, is very bad for our Country,” Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon. “They are Entrapping people for misstatements, lies or unrelated things that took place many years ago. Nothing to do with Collusion. A Democrat Scam!“


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    FBI releases part of Russia dossier summary used to brief Trump, Obama


    The FBI released for the first time Friday night a two-page summary former FBI Director James Comey used to brief President-elect Donald Trump nearly two years ago on a so-called dossier about Trump’s ties to Russia.The version made public Friday could...


    The FBI released for the first time Friday night a two-page summary former FBI Director James Comey used to brief President-elect Donald Trump nearly two years ago on a so-called dossier about Trump’s ties to Russia.

    The version made public Friday could reignite previous criticism from Republicans and Trump allies that the FBI was too vague in its description of the fact that the dossier was funded by the campaign of Trump’s nemesis in the 2016 presidential election, Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as the Democratic National Committee.

    Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, acknowledged during a book tour earlier this year that he did not inform Trump who paid for the research.

    The brief passage the FBI left unredacted in the newly released memo gives some background on the former British intelligence officer who compiled the dossier, Christopher Steele, although Steele’s name does not actually appear in the newly released version. The released portion of the synopsis is vague about who financed the project, referring to it as sponsored by “private clients.”

    “An FBI source … volunteered highly politically sensitive information … on Russian influence efforts aimed at the US presidential election,” the memo labeled as “Annex A” says. “The source is an executive of a private business intelligence firm and a former employee of a friendly intelligence service who has been compensated for previous reporting over the past three years. The source maintains and collects information from a layered network of identified and unidentified subsources, some of which has been corroborated in the past. The source collected this information on behalf of private clients and was not compensated for it by the FBI.”

    “The source’s reporting appears to have been acquired by multiple Western press organizations starting in October,” the document from January 2017 declares.

    Comey has said he did not show or give Trump the memo, but used it as a reference when briefing him on the dossier, which U.S. intelligence officials feared Russia might try to use as blackmail against Trump. The synopsis was also used to brief President Barack Obama, officials have said.

    Republicans had previously complained that the FBI failed to inform a federal court about the dossier's provenance — that Steele's work was commissioned by Fusion GPS, a research firm that had been hired by the Clinton campaign's law firm, Perkins Coie, to dig up information about Trump's business relationships overseas. Based in part on the dossier's information, the court granted an FBI application to surveil a former Trump campaign associate in October 2016.

    Aspects of the FBI's surveillance application have since been released and revealed that the FBI did inform the court that Steele had political animus toward Trump and that it was funded by a politically motivated backer.

    The document was released Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by a POLITICO reporter and the James Madison Project, a pro-transparency group.


    In January, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta ruled that that the FBI was legally justified in refusing to confirm or deny the existence of any records related to the dossier, despite several tweets from President Donald Trump that described the document as “fake” or “discredited.”

    However, shortly after that ruling, Trump declassified a House Intelligence Committee memo that included various claims about the FBI’s handling of the dossier. In August, Mehta said the official release of that material vitiated the FBI’s ability to claim that it had offered no public confirmation of its role in vetting or verifying the dossier, a collection of accurate, inaccurate, unverified and sometimes salacious claims about ties between Russia and various figures in Trump’s circle.

    “It remains no longer logical nor plausible for the FBI to maintain that it cannot confirm nor deny the existence of documents” related to attempts to verify information in the dossier, Mehta wrote.

    The FBI withheld the remainder of the two-page synopsis on a variety of grounds, including that the material remains classified either Secret or Top Secret. The law enforcement agency also indicated the information is exempt from release because it pertains to ongoing investigations or court proceedings, originated with a confidential source or describes confidential investigative techniques or procedures.

    The FBI said Friday it lacked any records indicating final conclusions about any information in the dossier, said Brad Moss, one of the attorneys pressing for release of the records.

    “After two years of legal games, the FBI today finally confirmed two pieces of speculation about the scandalous allegations regarding which Director Comey briefed President Trump in January 2017: all of those allegations remain part of the ongoing Russian ‘collusion’ investigation, and the FBI has not rendered final determinations about the accuracy of any of them,” Moss said. “Far from being debunked, the issues that raised concerns for the Intelligence Community in 2017 remain unresolved to this day.”

    Moss said he plans to challenge the FBI’s withholdings in the case and to ask Mehta to order more of the information released.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Mueller: FBI agents didn't dupe Flynn


    Special counsel Robert Mueller's team said Friday that the FBI acted appropriately when agents questioned former national security adviser Michael Flynn in January 2017, batting down theories that Flynn was the victim of partisan FBI officials bent on...


    Special counsel Robert Mueller's team said Friday that the FBI acted appropriately when agents questioned former national security adviser Michael Flynn in January 2017, batting down theories that Flynn was the victim of partisan FBI officials bent on taking down the president.

    That meeting, in which Flynn later said he lied to bureau investigators about his contacts with Russian officials, eventually led the ousted national security adviser to plead guilty to lying to the FBI.

    Since then, Flynn's allies — including family members, defenders in Congress and President Donald Trump himself — have claimed that Flynn was essentially set up, noting that the agents encouraged Flynn to speak to them without a lawyer and never warned him that lying to the FBI was a crime.

    The issue has jumped into the spotlight ahead of Flynn’s expected sentencing next week for the lying charges. The retired military officer’s lawyers mentioned the issue in a filing last week that asked for leniency for their client, arguing that Flynn should receive no jail time because of his “extensive cooperation with Mueller,” “exceptional record of military service” and “genuine contrition” for his actions.

    On Friday, Mueller’s team replied that the FBI officials had followed protocol, considering they were conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 election.


    And, they added, Flynn’s senior position in government — he had previously run the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama — had brought him into contact with investigators before, making it highly unlikely that he wouldn't be aware of the legal consequences of lying.

    "A sitting National Security Advisor, former head of an intelligence agency, retired Lieutenant General, and 33-year veteran of the armed forces knows he should not lie to federal agents,” Mueller’s team said in its filing.

    Trump fired Flynn 24 days into his stint as national security adviser after Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. Flynn told administration officials that calls between him and the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the transition were a simple exchange of pleasantries — and senior officials then touted that line publicly.

    Mueller's team noted that Flynn told the same false story to multiple colleagues before his FBI interview, beginning when he asked colleagues to pass false information to The Washington Post indicating that Flynn's calls with Kislyak may have undercut Obama administration sanctions on Russia.

    "Over the next two weeks, the defendant repeated the same false statements to multiple members of the Presidential Transition Team, including Vice President-Elect Michael Pence, incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer," they continued.

    Flynn later admitted that the call included a discussion of sanctions the Obama administration had leveled in response to Russia's interference in the election.

    Mueller’s filing Friday includes a Jan. 24, 2017, memo drafted by former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe describing how he set up the Flynn interview.

    “I explained that in light of the significant media coverage and public discussion about his recent contacts with Russian representatives, that [FBI] Director [James] Comey and I felt that we needed to have two of our agents sit down with the General and hear from him the details of those conversations,” McCabe wrote in a partially redacted memo appended to the filing.

    Flynn, according to McCabe, “stated that I probably knew what was said.” Flynn also raised concerns about possible leaks of his calls.

    “I replied that we were quite concerned about what we perceived as significant leaks," McCabe's memo added.


    Prosecutors have also noted that Flynn faced criminal exposure for lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government — and advocating for the extradition of a Turkish dissident residing in the United States — without disclosing those ties.

    Mueller on Friday said Flynn also admitted to making "materially false statements" in a later interview with the Justice Department about those activities, despite having a lawyer present for that discussion.

    "The defendant made those false statements while represented by counsel and after receiving an explicit warning that providing false information was a federal offense," Mueller's team noted. "The defendant was equally responsible for telling the truth to both Department of Justice entities, and under both circumstances he chose to make false statements. "

    After Flynn's guilty plea, the ex-Trump official became an immediate and routine cooperator with Mueller’s Russia probe. During a series of 19 interviews with prosecutors, Flynn provided significant assistance in their ongoing look into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, as well as other ongoing matters. Citing this assistance, prosecutors urged the federal district court judge in the case — Emmet Sullivan — to impose a sentence that includes little to no jail time.

    Flynn's attorneys, though, while seeking a light sentence as well, raised questions about the FBI's handling of Flynn's case. They noted that McCabe — who had suggested that Flynn proceed to the interview without a lawyer to avoid having to involve the Justice Department — was later investigated for misconduct, as was Peter Strzok, one of the two agents who interviewed Flynn, after a series of text messages revealed anti-Trump bias.

    "As General Flynn has frankly acknowledged in his own words, he recognizes that his actions were wrong and he accepts full responsibility for them," his lawyer Robert Kelner wrote in a pre-sentencing filing last week. "There are, at the same time, some additional facts regarding the circumstances of the FBI interview of General Flynn on January 24, 2017, that are relevant to the Court’s consideration of a just punishment."


    The judge signaled his interest in the matter Thursday, requesting copies of the FBI notes that described the conditions and circumstances or a memo from prosecutors — the one Mueller's team filed Friday afternoon — explaining the situation.

    Mueller's team batted down the speculation about Strzok in a separate memo filed that was a July 2017 debrief of Strzok about his Flynn interview. The memo showed that McCabe told Strzok to interview Flynn. It also revealed that when Comey informed then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates that the FBI planned to interview Flynn, “she was not happy.”

    “Flynn was unguarded and clearly saw the FBI agents as allies,” according to Strzok’s interview. “He talked about various subjects, including hotels where they stayed during the campaign and the President’s knack for interior design.”

    “Flynn was so talkative, and had so much time for them, that Strzok wondered if the National Security adviser did not have more important things to do than have such a relaxed, non-pertinent discussion with them," the memo added.

    Strzok also revealed that as Flynn guided him and a fellow agent through the West Wing for his interview, Trump walked past them with movers “discussing where to place some art work.”

    “[B]ut nobody paid attention to the agents," Strzok recalled. "Flynn did not introduce them to anyone."

    Flynn's family members — and most pointedly his son Michael Flynn Jr. — have mounted an aggressive public attack against Mueller and his team, suggesting they were corrupt partisan operators and calling on Trump to pardon Flynn. Republicans on Capitol Hill also questioned the circumstances surrounding Flynn's interview.

    "They gave General Flynn a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated — the FBI said he didn’t lie and they overrode the FBI," Trump tweeted, suggesting erroneously that the FBI claimed Flynn didn't lie. "They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. Sad....."

    In particular, Flynn's defenders pointed to reports that Flynn gave no physical indications of lying during his FBI interview, according to the agents who questioned him. They interpreted this finding as proof that Flynn intended to be truthful but may have forgotten certain details — while prosecutors had access to a transcript of Flynn's phone calls with Kislyak. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley demanded documents related to Flynn's FBI interview in May and complained that the bureau seemed to be withholding the information.

    But during a congressional deposition last week, Comey noted that agents concluded that Flynn was "obviously" lying — even if he didn't show physical signs of it, like shifting in his chair or sweating.

    "The conclusion of the investigators was he was obviously lying, but they saw none of the normal common indicia of deception," Comey said.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Reporters shooed away as mystery Mueller subpoena fight rages on


    Special counsel Robert Mueller appeared to be locked in a subpoena battle with a recalcitrant witness Friday in a sealed federal appeals courtroom, the latest development in a mystery case that has piqued the curiosity of Mueller-obsessives and...


    Special counsel Robert Mueller appeared to be locked in a subpoena battle with a recalcitrant witness Friday in a sealed federal appeals courtroom, the latest development in a mystery case that has piqued the curiosity of Mueller-obsessives and scoop-hungry journalists.

    Oral arguments in the highly secretive fight played out behind closed doors under tight security. Officials at the U.S. Courthouse in Washington, D.C. even took the extraordinary measure of shutting down to the public the entire fifth floor, where the hearing was taking place.

    More than a dozen reporters who had been staked out in the hallway adjacent to the courtroom — in the hopes of eyeballing attorneys for Mueller or the mystery appellant’s lawyers — were kicked off the floor and lost their best chance to spot anyone involved in the months-long legal dispute as they were entering or exiting the chambers.

    Journalists relocated to other stakeout spots, but few new details emerged after several hours of waiting.


    POLITICO originally broke the story in October that Mueller’s team — which is investigating whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russians trying to influence the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump tried to impede the ongoing probe — had been dragged into court by a witness battling a subpoena. POLITICO discovered the Mueller connection after a reporter sitting in the court’s clerk office overheard a man request a document in the case from the special counsel’s office. The man declined to identify himself or his client when approached by POLITICO.

    Another clue linking the case to Mueller came a few weeks later when lawyers for the witness fighting the subpoena asked the full bench of the appeals court to review a lower court decision on the case. A notation in the legal docket said only nine of the court's 10 active judges participated — Judge Greg Katsas, the court's only Trump appointee and who had worked on the Russia probe while serving in the Trump White House, had recused himself. During his confirmation hearing, Katsas said he would take a broad view of his recusal obligations stemming from that experience.

    The enigmatic case took another twist when POLITICO Magazine published an opinion piece by former federal prosecutor Nelson Cunningham suggesting Trump himself was the person who had gotten a subpoena and was fighting Mueller.

    “At every level, this matter has commanded the immediate and close attention of the judges involved — suggesting that no ordinary witness and no ordinary issue is involved,” Cunningham wrote.

    Mueller’s office has repeatedly declined comment about the case, and a spokesman for the special counsel did so again on Friday.


    Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyers denied in early October that the president had anything to do with the case, and Trump himself insisted he wasn’t locked in any kind of subpoena battle with Mueller when pressed by reporters later that month.

    More anticipation had been building in recent weeks about who had gotten the subpoena after a series of additional tantalizing clues were filed in the docket, including sealed multi-page briefs and sealed letters updating the judges on recent events affecting the case.

    Friday’s long-scheduled oral arguments had long been seen as the best opportunity yet to identify the litigants.

    More than a dozen reporters lined up in the hallway outside the courtroom about an hour before the first of three cases were set to be argued before U.S. Court of Appeals Judges David Tatel, Thomas Griffith and Stephen Williams.

    Reporters and members of the public were free to enter the courtroom during the first two cases. But the secrecy clampdown quickly followed as the court shifted gears to the sealed grand jury case. A security officer wearing blue rubber gloves checked the chambers for any devices left behind. The live audio feed went dead.

    And then the clerk kicked the journalists off the entire fifth floor.

    Determined to keep covering the story, reporters spread out around the courthouse and quickly set up a group email chain to pool their resources and communicate about who saw what in the hallways, elevators, staircases and entrances throughout the building. One television network reporter even stood guard at the top of a ramp leading to a secure parking garage where Mueller’s team has been known to bring in clandestine grand jury witnesses.


    As the media played cat-and-mouse with the courtroom security guards — several reporters were reprimanded for waiting in stairwells — the additional measures undertaken Friday surprised many people familiar with the federal building’s practices.

    “It’s not the norm, that’s for sure,” Manuel Retureta, a Washington-based defense lawyer not involved in the Mueller probe but who is frequently at the courthouse, said as he observed the scene.

    After about 90 minutes, court security officials allowed the journalists to return to the fifth-floor hallway, where the courtroom doors were still closed. A few minutes later, reporters spotted the judges walking back to their offices. No one with any apparent ties to the case was spotted leaving the building.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Cohen: 'Of course' Trump knew hush money payments were wrong


    Donald Trump's longtime attorney Michael Cohen said the president directed him to orchestrate hush money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign to women alleging affairs because he was concerned that those allegations might damage his electoral...


    Donald Trump's longtime attorney Michael Cohen said the president directed him to orchestrate hush money payments during his 2016 presidential campaign to women alleging affairs because he was concerned that those allegations might damage his electoral changes.

    Cohen, a longtime loyalist and fixer for Trump who flipped on the president earlier this year, told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired Friday that Trump was “very concerned with how this would affect the election” if the alleged affairs came to light.

    Trump, who initially claimed he did not know about the payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, has insisted that the payments were wholly unrelated to his 2016 campaign and therefore not illegal. He has also argued that if the payments were illegal, it was Cohen's responsibility, not his, to know the law and therefore it is Cohen who would be legally liable.

    Cohen strongly disputed that defense.

    “I don't think there's anybody that believes that. First of all, nothing at the Trump Organization was ever done unless it was run through Mr. Trump,” Cohen said. “He directed me as I said in my allocution.”

    He also said Trump "of course" knew the payments were wrong, refuting the president's possible defense that he didn't engage in a "knowing and willful" violation of campaign finance law.

    Cohen’s comments, aired Friday morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," are his first since he was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison for tax and fraud charges, lying to Congress and a pair of campaign finance violations stemming from the hush money payments, which prosecutors have also alleged were carried out at Trump’s command.


    Cohen has portrayed his entanglement in investigations of Trump and his decision to flip on the president as enlightening, and attributed his actions throughout his decade of work with Trump to “blind loyalty.”

    In response to the rhetorical lashing he’s received from his former boss on Twitter over his cooperation, Cohen has begun to push back, telling Stephanopoulos he will not allow Trump to make him a scapegoat for his wrongdoing.

    “I have my freedom and I will not be the villain as I told you once before, I will not be the villain of his story,” he said.

    Cohen said in the interview that “I knew that what I was doing was wrong” when he arranged payments to Daniels and McDougal. Asked whether Trump also knew the payments were wrong, Cohen said “of course” he did, noting that the payments were made in the final weeks of the 2016 race, following the release of the “Access Hollywood“ tape that almost derailed his campaign.

    The president's former lawyer also said it was “correct” that Trump tried to conceal the payments to “help him and his campaign.”

    Though prosecutors appear to have implicated Trump in the payments to McDougal and Daniels — he is apparently referred to in legal documents as "Individual 1" — he has not been charged with a crime. A long-standing Justice Department policy dictates that a sitting president cannot be indicted, but even so, prosecutors would need to prove that Trump made a “knowing and willful” attempt to break the law in regard to campaign finance violations.

    In pushing back against Cohen, Trump and his allies and legal team have sought to challenge Cohen's credibility, describing him as a hustler and accusing him of lying to get a lighter sentence. Cohen, in his interview with ABC, defended himself by pointed to the sentencing memo submitted by prosecutors for special counsel Robert Mueller, who contend that Cohen was able to provide credible assistance that was backed up by investigators.


    “There's a substantial amount of information that they possess that corroborates the fact that I am telling the truth,” Cohen said.

    Cohen also asserted that Trump’s history of misstatements has damaged his own credibility in the case, calling it “sad” the president would not own his alleged mistakes.

    “He knows the truth. I know the truth. Others know the truth and here is the truth, the people of the United States of America, the people of the world don't believe what he is saying. The man doesn't tell the truth and it's sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds.”

    In addition to lying about the hush money payments, Cohen on Friday said he believed Trump was not being forthcoming in the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 presidential election.

    Cohen pleaded guilty to charges in that probe of lying to Congress about his work on a real estate deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, but investigators for Mueller also found that Cohen had contact with a Russian during the campaign who wanted to establish “political synergy” with the Trump campaign.

    Asked if he thought Trump was telling the truth about “everything related to Russia,” Cohen curtly responded, “No.”

    Cohen declined to predict how either investigation into Trump would turn out, citing "respect for the process," but he suggested that he was still cooperating with investigators and would continue to do so.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump ducks for legal cover after Cohen sentencing


    President Donald Trump on Thursday ended his silence on Michael Cohen's prison sentencing, claiming he never directed his longtime attorney to break the law and that he bears no responsibility for Cohen's campaign finance violations.In his first tweets...


    President Donald Trump on Thursday ended his silence on Michael Cohen's prison sentencing, claiming he never directed his longtime attorney to break the law and that he bears no responsibility for Cohen's campaign finance violations.

    In his first tweets since Cohen was sentenced to three years for a series of tax fraud and lying charges on Wednesday, Trump argued that Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws to get a lighter sentence. The president also questioned whether any legal violations even occurred.

    “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called ‘advice of counsel,’ and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid," Trump wrote on Twitter across a flurry of posts Thursday morning. "Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly stated that I did nothing wrong with respect to campaign finance laws, if they even apply, because this was not campaign finance."

    "Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me, but he plead to two campaign charges which were not criminal and of which he probably was not guilty even on a civil basis," the president continued. "Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did-including the fact that his family was temporarily let off the hook. As a lawyer, Michael has great liability to me!”

    Trump appeared on Fox News later on Thursday and made many of the same points, claiming prosecutors added the campaign finance charges to Cohen's case to "embarrass me."

    "I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong," Trump said.


    Cohen pleaded guilty in August to violating campaign finance law when he made hush-money payments ahead of the 2016 election to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and helped arrange a similar payoff to Playboy model Karen McDougal, both of whom claimed they had affairs with Trump.

    Trump’s ex-lawyer stated that he made these arrangements at the direction of then-candidate Trump and that they were intended to sway the election.

    The president first denied advance knowledge of the payments but has since shifted his position to state that even if he was aware of the payments, they had nothing to do with the election.

    Trump’s prior claims that the payments were not intended to sway the election conflict with Cohen’s statements as well as a non-prosecution deal between federal prosecutors and American Media Inc., the publisher of the tabloid National Enquirer, which coordinated the hush-money payment to McDougal.

    On Thursday, Trump appeared to argue that he relied on Cohen to know the statutes and that he himself lacked the necessary criminal intent to violate any campaign finance laws.

    Generally, federal prosecutors seeking to prove a criminal campaign finance case must show a “knowing and willful” attempt to flout the statute. There has been no public indication that Cohen ever explicitly discussed with Trump the idea that the payments could be illegal.

    Asked Thursday whether Cohen ever told Trump that the arrangements were unlawful, Cohen adviser Lanny Davis said he wasn’t sure.

    “I don't know what his advice was to Mr. Trump,” Davis said. Davis maintained that Trump knew secrecy was part of the plan and that a recording Cohen made of Trump indicates Trump wanted one of the payments made in “cash.” Trump’s attorneys have disputed that interpretation.

    Former Clinton and Obama Justice Department official Neal Katyal said Trump’s claims about what he did or didn’t discuss with Cohen are essentially worthless.

    “Reminder: 100 percent lied when he said in April he ‘did not know about the 130k payment to Stormy Daniels’ — why should we believe him now?” Katyal wrote on Twitter.

    Some legal experts have also questioned whether payments to suppress evidence of an affair could be considered campaign donations under federal law. Federal Election Commission rules forbid spending campaign funds on “personal” expenses.

    The last time federal prosecutors charged a high-profile political figure with campaign finance law violations related to attempts to cover up an extramarital affair, the case foundered and was eventually dropped.

    Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) was indicted in 2011 on charges that he facilitated nearly $1 million in payments to Rielle Hunter, a videographer with whom the candidate secretly had an affair during his 2008 presidential campaign. The money from two wealthy Edwards supporters was used to pay for medical, travel and living expenses for Hunter, who became pregnant and delivered the child just after the campaign ended.

    Edwards’ legal defense — headed by Abbe Lowell, now an attorney for Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — included many of the same points made by Trump and his allies. However, it was harder for Edwards to plead unfamiliarity with the ins and outs of campaign finance law since he is a trial lawyer who ran several campaigns for federal office.

    A federal jury in Greensboro, N.C., heard the case in 2012, acquitting Edwards on one charge and deadlocking on five others. The Justice Department did not pursue a retrial.


    The outcome of the Edwards case clearly demonstrates the risk prosecutors take in bringing such charges. On the other hand, the Justice Department did authorize the indictment on such a theory and has never repudiated it. Some lawyers think that means prosecutors would seek to do so again in Trump’s case.

    Whether such a case should be brought may be a largely academic question for the moment, though, because a Justice Department legal opinion from 2000 and an earlier one from 1973 say the president should not be indicted or tried while in office, leaving impeachment as the only apparent remedy. DOJ could overrule those opinions, but there’s been no indication it plans to do so.

    Trump’s broadsides against Cohen, a longtime attack dog for the president who once said he would take a bullet for Trump, have been particularly scathing in the aftermath of the announcement that he would cooperate with investigators from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.

    In remarks at his sentencing hearing, Cohen was unsparing toward his former boss. Responding to previous claims by Trump that he was “weak,” Cohen countered that his only weakness was “blind loyalty” to the president.

    Despite the near certainty he would have to serve jail time, Cohen told the judge that his sentencing date ironically would be the day he was getting his freedom “back.”

    “I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired,” he said.

    And on Thursday, Cohen wasn’t the only Trump associate on the president’s mind. He also used the case of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn to claim that Mueller is coercing people into lying about their activities.

    “They gave General Flynn a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated - the FBI said he didn’t lie and they overrode the FBI,” Trump tweeted later Thursday morning. “They want to scare everybody into making up stories that are not true by catching them in the smallest of misstatements. Sad!”

    Attorneys for Flynn, who pleaded guilty last December to lying to the FBI during the early stages of its Russia probe, asked a federal judge on Tuesday to spare him any jail time because of his “extensive cooperation” with Mueller.

    But Flynn’s lawyers also came close to suggesting that the misstatements at the center of his guilty plea might have been inadvertent and the result of the way his initial FBI interview arose just a few days after the inauguration and well before there was a publicly acknowledged investigation into Russian interference.

    House Republicans earlier this year wrote in a report that FBI agents initially did not believe Flynn lied to them about his interactions with Russia’s ambassador during the transition. But last week, former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers that agents had concluded Flynn was “obviously lying” to them, even though he didn’t show any of the common physical traits of deception, such as sweating or hesitating to answer.

    On Thursday, Trump quickly followed up his tweet about Flynn — his first about his former adviser since April — with a familiar message: “WITCH HUNT!”

    Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    The Mueller indictments so far: Lies, trolls and hacks


    At least 33 people and three companies have been charged so far as a result of the special counsel’s investigation into 2016 election...

    At least 33 people and three companies have been charged so far as a result of the special counsel’s investigation into 2016 election tampering.
    ‘He would have given up a very valuable appendage to get that job’

    ‘He would have given up a very valuable appendage to get that job’


    Chief of staff to President Donald Trump was seen by many as the job that no one wanted, a thankless post with an impossible mission. But when Trump soured on his former chief, John Kelly, Mick Mulvaney didn't see a quagmire — he saw his next gig....


    Chief of staff to President Donald Trump was seen by many as the job that no one wanted, a thankless post with an impossible mission. But when Trump soured on his former chief, John Kelly, Mick Mulvaney didn't see a quagmire — he saw his next gig.

    Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, who has also moonlighted as the head of a consumer protection agency conservatives hate, had angled for the job for months. He had a backup plan, too, pitching himself as a potential successor to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the event Mnuchin was tapped to be Trump's chief of staff.

    “He would have given up a very valuable appendage to get that job,” a Republican close to the White House said of Mulvaney's desire to be Trump's chief of staff.

    Mulvaney has a résumé that would appear to make him the man for the moment. A former congressman who has steered clear of scandal and remained a favorite of the president, he was tapped for the job at a time when Trump will need a politically minded partner who understands Congress. Mulvaney has maintained relationships with influential members on Capitol Hill and may be able to help him deal with the Democratic House takeover in January.

    The position has proved challenging for others, first Reince Priebus, the consummate insider and connected former party chairman, and then John Kelly, the retired Marine general who made futile attempts to impose discipline in the West Wing.


    The failures of his predecessors and the daunting year ahead did not deter Mulvaney, who, according to several current and former White House officials, has spent several months openly lobbying for the job. Reports that he was uninterested in the job, these people said, were in fact an effort to increase his chances of landing it by playing hard to get.

    Mulvaney didn’t initially have a natural rapport with Trump — Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the sort of Republicans against whom Trump had campaigned, and about whom he remains skeptical, pushed him for budget director. But Mulvaney developed a relationship with Trump on the golf course, often staying in Washington over weekends rather than returning to his native South Carolina, to hit the links with Trump at his Virginia country club.

    Mulvaney has developed a good relationship with the Trump over time — enough so that the president named him acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when the post became vacant. White House aides say he is unlikely to attempt to reform the president’s habits of spending much of his time watching television and tweeting, or to curtail the influence of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, on the policymaking process.

    Instead, Mulvaney is expected to get Trump on the road as much as possible heading into his reelection campaign, capitalizing on the president’s love of campaign rallies while trying to sprinkle into the events as much policy talk on taxes and regulation as he can.

    Despite his experience on Capitol Hill, both Republicans and Democrats questioned how effective Mulvaney would be as a liaison between the White House and his former colleagues.

    Mulvaney, 51, made a name for himself on Capitol Hill in 2013 as a founder of the House Freedom Caucus. He was a perpetual thorn in the side of the Republican leadership, opposing government funding measures, debt limit increases and bipartisan budget agreements. He hounded speakers John Boehner and Ryan to shut down the government in order to secure conservative victories, even urging Republican leaders to risk a credit default in order to force Democrats to accept spending cuts.

    But everything seemed to change for Mulvaney when Trump won. While he was always a reluctant Trump supporter — once calling candidate Trump “a terrible human being” — Mulvaney saw Trump's victory as an opportunity to rise in Republican ranks and advocate for his positions from a more prominent perch. With few Republicans willing to work in a Trump administration, Mulvaney made an aggressive bid for Office of Management and Budget director, striking an uncharacteristic détente with Ryan just as his Freedom Caucus friends were planning to boot him from the speaker’s chair.

    Ryan recommended Mulvaney to top Trump officials for OMB, giving his candidacy added heft. Mulvaney in turn nominated Ryan to return to the speakership, a conservative endorsement that infuriated the Freedom Caucus.


    Republicans sent mixed messages over the weekend about whether they think Mulvaney will be able to tame the president’s impulses, keep spending in check and improve the White House's relations with Capitol Hill. The self-described “right-wing nutjob” who helped chase Boehner out of his job has shown over the past two years that he is willing to put his personal ideology aside to secure Trump wins or help other officials advance their agendas. Indeed, some conservatives on the Hill see him as a sellout, a ladder climber who puts career advancement over principle.

    Mulvaney allies argue that he has done the best he can, given the president he serves, and has advanced conservative priorities where he could.

    They point in particular to his yearlong stewardship of the the CFPB, where he curtailed funding and imposed a six-month freeze on data collection, the lifeblood of nearly all the organization’s operations.

    No aspect of the bureau, the brainchild of Trump nemesis Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), was too small for Mulvaney’s attention. He even required employees to call it the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection and rearranged the letters in the agency’s front office, insisting he was merely following the statute as he worked to undo years of Democratic branding.

    But Trump has never pretended to be an ideological conservative interested in reducing the national debt or overhauling entitlements, even though Mulvaney has tried to convince him on the merits.

    “He has taken the shape of the offices he’s held, but I think you have to do that when you take an administration job, and he’s been a voice for conservative priorities internally. This could’ve been much worse for conservatives,” said Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, the leading conservative policy journal.

    “What he always says is, as long as he’s comfortable that the president has been presented all the options and all the arguments, then he’s comfortable with whatever decision the president makes,” said one person who worked closely with Mulvaney at the budget office. “If a member wants to call him a hypocrite for that, fine, but he’s not the president.”

    The former South Carolina congressman will take the reins at a challenging time. The coming year will bring a Democratic takeover of the House, a potentially damaging report from special counsel Robert Mueller, and a plethora of additional investigations into Trump’s businesses and practices.

    Mulvaney’s first test comes next week, when Trump will have to decide whether to shutter the government to get the funding he wants for his border wall with Mexico. Hill conservatives, including Freedom Caucus leaders Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Mulvaney’s old Hill pals, have urged Trump to embrace the fight. But while Mulvaney used to cheerlead shutdown showdowns as well, he was already urging Trump to kick the deadline into January.


    Jordan praised Mulvaney’s promotion in an interview Saturday, calling the move an “ideal selection” for conservatives.

    “I think he’s a great pick — and, oh, by the way, he happens to be one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus. ... He also happens to be conservative. … I think that’s good for the country and good for the president.”

    Mulvaney’s history as a member of the Trump administration is, in part, why some conservatives may be worried. On his watch, the budget deficit grew by $113 billion in fiscal year 2018 due to the Republican tax bill and increased federal spending on defense, Medicaid and Social Security, which Trump has refused to cut.

    Some, however, are pleased to see Mulvaney has displayed a willingness to compromise. And he has quietly maintained tight relationships with top Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy, the incoming House minority leader; Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina; outgoing Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina and Sen. Tim Scott, also of South Carolina.



    “Personally, I think it's a great choice. He'll do a great job for the president," said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a former foe. Mulvaney is "incredibly smart" and "full of great strategic advice."

    Yet like other GOP lawmakers, Hudson described Mulvaney's relationships on the Hill as "a mixed bag.”

    “Everyone respects him,” Hudson said. “Some members didn't appreciate the way he handled himself in the House, but I think most members liked him."

    Hill Republicans hope Mulvaney will be the voice of fiscal restraint in Trump’s ear when House Democrats are dangling a massive infrastructure bill before his nose next Congress. Trump campaigned on a promise to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges. And Republicans want Mulvaney to remind the president of the more than $20 trillion national debt when Democrats offer to back an expensive infrastructure package next year.

    Democrats, however, are blasting Mulvaney's promotion, pointing to it as sign that Trump won’t work across the aisle.

    "President Trump’s choice of Mick Mulvaney as acting Chief of Staff is a deeply troubling indication that he is choosing confrontation over compromise,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in a Saturday statement, noting Mulvaney’s previous support for government shutdowns.

    Mulvaney has been involved in the biggest Capitol Hill fights of Trump’s presidency, from the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare to the successful tax overhaul and, now, budget negotiations that may lead to a partial government shutdown next Friday.

    As those events have unfolded, he has done two things that have helped him endear himself to the president. He has avoided the sorts of scandals that have felled several of his colleagues, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who told the president on Friday that he plans to leave the administration at the end of the year.

    Secondly, if Mulvaney was considered a showboat in Congress, he has kept a lower profile since joining the Trump administration, going out of his way to avoid attention as he twisted arms of his former GOP colleagues to win their votes, people close to him say. When he made visits to the Capitol, he has opted to take back hallways instead of marching through the Rotunda in front of the cameras.

    This spring, Mulvaney quietly helped persuade House Republicans to dramatically increase their budget for Trump’s border wall — coming up with the $5 billion figure that’s at the center of next week’s potential shutdown fight. The House spending panel in charge of Homeland Security was planning to include just $1.6 billion for the wall, which matched Trump’s initial request. But Mulvaney knew that Trump wanted more, and he helped drive the figure up to $5 billion.

    He has never once talked about that victory publicly.

    Sarah Ferris, Katy O'Donnell, John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

    ]]>

    Mulvaney called Trump a 'terrible human being' ahead of 2016 election


    Mick Mulvaney called then-candidate Donald Trump “a terrible human being” in a video from November 2016 that resurfaced Friday, hours after the president named him acting White House chief of staff. The remarks came one week before the presidential...


    Mick Mulvaney called then-candidate Donald Trump “a terrible human being” in a video from November 2016 that resurfaced Friday, hours after the president named him acting White House chief of staff.

    The remarks came one week before the presidential election during a debate between Mulvaney, then a Republican congressman from South Carolina, and his Democratic challenger at a middle school in York, S.C., according to The Daily Beast, which first published the footage.

    Asked whether he was supporting his party’s candidate for the White House, Mulvaney replied: “Sure. If I have any chance to accomplish what the majority of the Fifth District of South Carolina sent me to Washington to do, Donald Trump has to be president. Period. That’s it.”

    Revising America’s health care system, balancing the federal budget and other policy goals popular among his constituents could be accomplished only if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was defeated on Election Day, Mulvaney argued.

    “Do I like Donald Trump? No,” Mulvaney said, insisting that the real estate mogul and reality TV showman was “absolutely not” a role model for his two sons. But Mulvaney also said that Clinton was not a role model for his daughter, adding: “I don’t like her very much, either.”

    “We have perhaps two of the most flawed human beings running for president in the history of the country,” Mulvaney said. “So I have to step back and look and say, ‘OK, what do y’all, the majority of the folks who vote for me, want me to do?’ In order to accomplish that, I have to support Donald Trump, and he has to win.”


    Mulvaney warned that Clinton’s election would not be an extension of her husband’s time in office, but instead would amount to a third term for the more liberal agenda of former President Barack Obama. “That’s a four years we can’t take,” he said.

    “Yes, I’m supporting Donald Trump,” Mulvaney said. “I’m doing so as enthusiastically as I can, given the fact that I think he’s a terrible human being. But the choice on the other side is just as bad.”

    Trump, in a tweet Friday, announced that Mulvaney would take over as his top aide following White House chief of staff John Kelly’s departure in January. Mulvaney has served as the director of the administration’s Office of Management and Budget since the outset of Trump’s presidency.

    “I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction. Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration....” Trump wrote online.

    In another post, the president continued: “....I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! John will be staying until the end of the year. He is a GREAT PATRIOT and I want to personally thank him for his service!”

    Mulvaney, quoting Trump’s message later Friday evening, tweeted: “This is a tremendous honor. I look forward to working with the President and the entire team. It’s going to be a great 2019!”


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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    Trump names Mulvaney acting White House chief of staff


    After eliminating one contender to be his next White House chief of staff, and being turned down by another, President Donald Trump announced on Friday that Mick Mulvaney, the right-wing congressman who has served as his budget director for the past two...


    After eliminating one contender to be his next White House chief of staff, and being turned down by another, President Donald Trump announced on Friday that Mick Mulvaney, the right-wing congressman who has served as his budget director for the past two years, would take on the role in an acting capacity.

    The decision does little to remove the uncertainty that has consumed the White House this week, as Trump cast about for someone to replace chief of staff John Kelly, who is leaving his post at the end of the year.

    It is unclear how long Mulvaney will serve in the role — a senior administration official said there was no time limit, and a source close to Mulvaney confirmed there was no timetable for his exit — and the decision to bring him on in an acting capacity suggests the president may have been running out of options. Six days ago, the president failed to reach an agreement with his first-choice candidate, Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, when Ayers wouldn’t agree to serve in the role for two years.

    Without a backup plan, however, the president’s bargaining position softened. Though Trump told reporters this week that “over 10” people were vying to be his chief of staff — on Thursday, he indicated the number was five — they have gradually been eliminated or fallen away.

    The president told North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows on Wednesday that he was too valuable in the House, where Democrats are set to take control in January. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, had also expressed reservations about his trustworthiness, according to a source familiar with the conversations.


    Then, after taking a train ride to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with the president, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took himself out of the running, announcing it was “not the right time for me or for my family to undertake this serious assignment.” Another contender, former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, lunched with the president on Friday.

    For his part, Mulvaney told allies as late as Thursday evening that he wasn’t eager to take the job and didn’t think he’d get it, and he said he expected to learn of the president’s decision on Twitter “like everybody else.”

    While Trump's tweet caught some White House officials off guard, it came after he spent time with Mulvaney Friday afternoon at the White House, where the two had a pre-scheduled meeting to the discuss the federal budget.

    "He got picked because the president liked him," the senior official told reporters. "They get along."

    Asked about why Trump had applied the "acting" tag, the official simply said: "Because that’s what the president wants."

    In a statement late Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said: “Mick Mulvaney will not resign from the Office Of Management and Budget, but will spend all of his time devoted to his role as the acting Chief Of Staff for the President. Russ Vought will handle day to day operations and run OMB.”

    Mulvaney, who was first floated as a candidate for chief of staff over the summer, is a central player in negotiations with Congress to avert a partial government shutdown. If the president cannot reach an agreement with Congress before next Friday, several agencies will close. That was the subject of Mulvaney's meeting with the president on Friday.

    Shortly after the meeting wrapped, the president said in a series of tweets:


    “I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction. Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration...I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

    Later Friday, Trump tweeted: "For the record, there were MANY people who wanted to be the White House Chief of Staff. Mick M will do a GREAT job!"

    The tweets — guaranteed to upend the weekend news cycle — capped a week of headlines about the chaotic chief of staff search that were compounded by a spate of revelations tied to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

    On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer, was sentenced to three years in prison for financial fraud and violating campaign finance laws. Cohen accused the president of directing him to break the law during the election by ordering him to buy the silence of two women alleging affairs with Trump in the hopes of protecting the GOP candidate's presidential bid. Trump has denied the accusation, but the National Enquirer's publisher, which had a hand in the payments, corroborated Cohen's account.

    Trump has long told associates he wants a chief of staff who is more attuned to politics. Mulvaney, who served three terms in the House before joining the administration, fits that bill, though he remains a controversial figure on Capitol Hill among both Republicans and Democrats.

    He is among several OMB directors who have gone on to serve as White House chief of staff, including Leon Panetta in the Clinton administration and Josh Bolten in the George W. Bush administration.

    Russell Vought, OMB deputy director, will take over as Trump's budget chief, a senior official said.

    Vought has been one of Mulvaney's closest advisers in the administration, along with Emma Doyle, Mulvaney's chief of staff. Mulvaney has also leaned on Jonny Slemrod and Al Simpson, both lobbyists now working outside the administration.

    Nancy Cook and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.


    Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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