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George Papadopoulos claimed last year that Donald Trump telephoned him to discuss his new position as a foreign policy adviser to his presidential campaign and that the two had at least one personal introductory meeting that the White House has not acknowledged.
Papadopoulos also claimed that he’d been given a “blank check” to choose a senior Trump administration job and was authorized to represent the candidate in overseas meetings with foreign leaders, and at a campaign event in New York.
Papadopoulos made the claims in several interviews with two Greek journalists during and since the 2016 election, one of whom detailed them for POLITICO. They contradict assertions by Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Trump officials that Papadopoulos was a bit player in the campaign whom they barely remember.
One person close to Papadopoulos told POLITICO that his claims about personal interactions with Trump were untrue, but declined to elaborate. The two Greek journalists were skeptical as well, saying Papadopoulos was prone to self-aggrandizement. “Everyone knows I helped him [get] elected, now I want to help him with the presidency,” Papadopoulos said in one text message published by the newspaper.
But they also reported that Papadopolous reveled in the benefits of his newfound fame — at least in Greece — as an adviser to a major party nominee for the U.S. presidency. “He had acquired a new status in Athens,” wrote the newspaper, Kathimerini, which noted that Papadopoulos had been “bestowed with awards, wined and dined by prominent Athenians and even appointed to the judging committee of a beauty pageant on a Greek island.”
The true nature of Papadopoulos’s role on the campaign and relationship with Trump is important now that he has emerged as a key figure — and cooperating witness — in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the election. In court documents unsealed last month, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about his communications with individuals claiming to represent the Russian government and who may have been trying to infiltrate or influence Trump’s campaign by offering him “dirt” and incriminating emails about rival Hillary Clinton.
Among Papadopoulos’s claims to a Kathimerini reporter and editor was that Trump called him personally in March 2016 after he had been tapped for Trump’s foreign policy advisory team. Papadopoulos said he had been recommended for the job by Trump’s former Republican primary rival, Ben Carson.
During an “informal” five-minute phone conversation, Trump made small talk and invited the young campaign aide to travel from his Chicago home to Washington to attend his March 21 campaign event at Trump’s still-unfinished Pennsylvania Avenue hotel several days later, said Marianna Kakaounaki, an investigative reporter for the well-regarded Greek language daily. It was there that Papadopoulos said he was personally introduced to the future president.
“When he left the race and supported Trump, [Carson] suggested that the young Greek-American join the team,” according to an English translation of Kakanouaki’s Dec. 11 2016 article.
Papadopoulos and Trump then had “a telephone appointment, which did not last for more than five minutes, but shortly before closing, the candidate then invited him to a speech,” the article explained.
The timing proved fortuitous for Papadopoulos, as March 21 was also the day Trump was asked to name his foreign policy advisers during a meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board. Papadopoulos wasn’t just one of the five named by Trump, he was also the only one singled out with a personal endorsement.
“He's an energy and oil consultant,” Trump told the editorial board. “Excellent guy.”
From that day on, the two Kathimerini journalists would write in several articles, Papadopoulos exploited Trump’s personal endorsement, and his unpaid position on the National Security Advisory Committee, as much as possible.
Kakaounaki and her executive editor, Alexis Papachelas, were interested in tracking the apparent success of the young Greek-American campaign adviser and his potential influence on issues involving Greece and Greek-Americans.
Because some of their articles were for the Greek-language edition of the paper, they never reached a wider audience. And the journalists never published some key details of what he told them about his role on Trump’s campaign and presidential transition team. “My angle was always the Greek angle. This wasn’t part of my story,” Kakaounaki said in reference to Papadopoulos’ claimed interactions with Trump.
Trump officials have said that Trump only met Papadopoulos fleetingly as part of a large group of advisers who joined the president at a March 31 meeting of the advisory committee at his Washington hotel for what was mainly a photo opportunity. (In a puzzling twist, Papadopoulos insisted to Kakaounaki and Papachelas that the meeting — a photo of which Trump tweeted that day — actually occurred on the day they met: March 21, after Trump held a campaign event at the hotel.)
It was at that meeting that Papadopoulos pitched Trump on his ongoing efforts to set up a meeting with the candidate and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After the Oct. 30 disclosure that Papadopoulos was cooperating with authorities, Trump tweeted that “few people knew the young, low-level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar."
Papadopoulos' lawyer, Thomas Breen and Trump’s then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, declined to comment about his claims. White House officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Sessions, who chaired the foreign policy advisory committee, at first denied remembering Papadopoulos’s comments at the meeting both men attended. But in his Tuesday testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, he said that he recalled telling Papadopoulos not to pursue contacts with Russia.
In interviews with POLITICO, Kakaounaki portrayed Papadopoulos as a young man enjoying a heady moment of fame, particularly in his ancestral homeland.
“During our interview, I felt that he was probably lucky, having just met Trump in person and then Trump being interviewed and mentioning his name,” said Kakaounaki. “That mention opened a lot of Greek doors for him, and probably in other countries too.”
Papadopoulos agreed with that assessment in an interview with Kakaounaki, she said. “He acknowledged that he was lucky, because they [had] just met” when Trump gave him his personal endorsement.
Trump’s selection of the young and inexperienced Papadopoulos — along with another little-known energy consultant, Carter Page — followed months of criticism about his lack of national security expertise, but also struck foreign policy insiders as odd.
Trump’s glowing endorsement of Papadopoulos as an “excellent” guy was surprising given that Papadopoulos had just a few months of experience as a volunteer adviser for Carson, and more so after reports that he had embellished his resume — including his role at the Model United Nations and as a research fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
Papadopoulos shared his different version of events with Kakaounaki and Papachelas over a period of several months, as they traveled through the U.S. last year to profile prominent Greek Americans working for the various campaigns.
After Trump went from dark horse to front-runner and ultimately president-elect, seeming to make Papadopoulos an influential Greek-American, Kakaounaki and Papachelas interviewed the Trump adviser in person, by phone and via text message.
They also interviewed him in Greece, where Papadopoulos traveled at least twice to meet with senior government officials, including President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, as a Trump representative.
Papadopoulos’ international travels are of interest to congressional investigators trying to understand the Russian influence operation in the U.S. and Trump associates’ potential roles in it, according to two sources familiar with those probes.
The House intelligence committee is interested in the Greek newspaper reports, as they provide a window into Papadopoulos’ activities and relationships with the campaign in real time.
“Obviously, the committee is interested in the role that Papadopoulos played in the campaign, especially given the way that the White House has downplayed his role,” one committee source told POLITICO, noting that Papadopoulos still hadn’t provided testimony before it. “We certainly want to know about any meetings he had with senior campaign officials, including the president, about his travel abroad, and about any meetings he took part in with foreign counterparts or government officials.”
During his trips abroad during and after the campaign — including to Israel, Greece and Cyprus —Papadopoulos often dropped names of campaign officials and tried to impress people with his connections, Kakaounaki said in her stories and in interviews.
"All this time, I inform him of the Greek and Cypriot issues,” he also said, in one reported remark after Trump won the election, “but the positions or the strategy that will follow in the White House are not finalized."
Two weeks before the election, Papadopoulos informed the journalists that he had “left the campaign” because he had “done his piece.” A week later, however, he said he had come back to the campaign, but that he had to follow the campaign directive that no one was to talk about anything but the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
And two days before the election, Papadopoulos attended a campaign event in Astoria hosted by a local association representing Greek Cypriot Americans.
“Mr. Trump considered it important to come and talk to you,” he told the crowd in his introduction, before sitting and nodding approvingly when the rally organizer spoke, according to the Kathimerini story.
Earlier this year, as Trump prepared for his inauguration, Papadopoulos boasted to the reporters that he had Trump's ear, was on the transition team and that Trump had written him a "blank check" for whatever position in the administration he wanted.
After serving the next eight years in the Trump administration, he said, he planned to move to Greece to work on energy issues of mutual interest to the U.S. and Greece.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this story.
Republicans were able to muscle their tax-rewrite plan, through the House exactly two weeks after it was unveiled, but they are already facing far tougher sledding in the Senate.
GOP leadership is confronting mushrooming demands from individual senators with much more power to bollix up the tax plans, thanks to the party’s super-thin majority.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has already said he won’t vote for his colleagues' proposal because of how it treats small businesses, leaving Republicans with just one vote to spare when the plan hits the Senate floor after Thanksgiving.
Deficit hawks like Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are worried the plan will cost far more than advertised thanks to its liberal use of “temporary” tax provisions that will likely be eventually extended, and say they are working on changes to bring down the cost.
Moderate Susan Collins (R-Maine) has her own concerns, including with plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to have health insurance as part of tax reform.
Others like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have been wildcards, avoiding taking a public position on the proposal.
Murkowski told Roll Call on Thursday that if lawmakers are going to repeal the individual mandate as part of the tax plan, they "absolutely" must pass separate health legislation aimed at stabilizing health care markets and controlling costs.
"If that tax cut is offset by higher premiums, you haven't delivered [a] benefit," she told the newspaper.
But Murkowski said in a statement late Friday that passage of a bipartisan deal to fund Obamacare's cost-sharing program is not a precondition to her support for the GOP's tax reform package.
The Alaska Republican said she was planning to review the Finance Committee tax reform bill over the Thanksgiving holiday and will review "the entire package before coming to any conclusion on the legislation."
McCain praised the Finance Committee, which approved a draft of the plan last night, for “taking another step forward in providing much-needed tax relief,” while also serving notice that he wants plenty of time to offer amendments when the plan reaches the Senate floor.
House Republicans have their own red lines, warning a Senate proposal to end a long-standing deduction for state and local taxes is a nonstarter with their colleagues.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been teeing off on the plan, especially after the official Joint Committee on Taxation said Thursday that while everyone’s taxes would initially go down under the plan, some middle-income people would eventually see tax increases.
Senate leaders acknowledge they have their work cut out for them, with Majority Whip John Cornyn singling out the small business issue as “particularly challenging.”
“We still have quite a bit of work to do there,” he said Thursday night, as the Finance panel wrapped up its consideration of the plan. “This is still just the beginning of the legislative process.”
The result is there could still be substantial changes to the proposal in the Senate in the coming weeks. That risks dragging lawmakers further away from the “Big Six” framework that was designed to keep the House and Senate on the same page, and avoid a repeat of the Obamacare repeal debacle, when the House approved a plan only to watch the whole effort collapse in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he will bring the plan before the entire Senate when lawmakers return from a week-long Thanksgiving recess.
Republicans want to complete as much work on the plan as they can before they have to turn to funding the federal government and also before Alabama’s Dec. 12 special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ old seat. Some Republicans worry that Republican Roy Moore will oppose their tax plans if he's elected or that Democrats will steal the seat.
Their tax plan cleared the Finance Committee Thursday night on a party-line vote after four days of consideration, during which Republicans made major changes to the plan while killing dozens of Democratic amendments. The debate was sometimes contentious, with Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch at one point exploding at Democrats’ repeated complaints their tax plans would be boon to the rich.
“This bull crap that you guys throw out here really gets old,” he said. “I come from the poor people and I’ve been here working my whole stinking career for people who don’t have a chance, and I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich — give me a break.”
“I think you guys overplay that all the time, and it gets old,” Hatch said.
The House cleared a competing draft Thursday on a 227-205 vote. Republicans aim to get a compromise plan to President Donald Trump's desk by the end of the year.
Corker said Thursday that he and other lawmakers are working on changes aimed at bringing down the cost of the Senate, now pegged at $1.4 trillion.
They’re worried the bill includes more than 35 temporary provisions that Congress has no intention of actually allowing to ever expire, ballooning the cost far beyond it’s supposed sticker price. He declined to discuss specifics.
“There are several of us that are trying to figure out a way to make sure this doesn’t hurt us relative to deficits,” he said Thursday. “We’re looking globally at the whole thing and trying to do what we can to make it more fiscally palatable.”
That will be difficult to address, with the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimating the Senate plan includes a whopping $515 billion in budget gimmicks aimed at artificially reducing its cost.
Another vexing issue will be dealing with small businesses and other so-called pass-throughs, whose owners pay taxes on their business's earnings through the individual side of the tax code. To the consternation of Johnson and others, many of those companies would pay higher taxes than corporations under the Senate plan. Republicans have been struggling for months to come up with a plan to allow pass-throughs to tap their lower proposed business tax rate without creating a loophole for the wealthy to avoid paying taxes.
"I know that there are members that have concerns about that," said Sen. John Thune, the chamber's No. 3 Republican.
Kevin Hassett, the head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, said he met with Johnson on Thursday to discuss the issue.
“He has some serious concerns,” Hassett said. “I’m hopeful that people can work it out.”
Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.
When candidate Donald Trump waged a Twitter war against Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who rebuked him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were sent in for a “tough-love talk” about the efficacy of the tweets, two former campaign officials recalled.
Controlling potentially damaging tweets was a job left mostly to the legal team in the early days of the administration. Marc Kasowitz, a former Trump attorney, and Jay Sekulow, a current member of the president's legal team, gave Trump one simple rule to guide his tweeting habit: Don’t comment online about the Russia investigation. “The message was, tweet about policy, tweet about politics, but don’t attack the special counsel,” recalled another former aide.
None of the advice seemed to have any lasting effect on a president who views acting on his own impulses as a virtue. And these days, the staff has basically stopped trying: There is no character inhabiting the West Wing who is dispatched to counsel the president when he aims the powerful weapon of his Twitter feed at himself.
On Thursday night, Trump appeared to do just that.
After keeping silent for more than a week about mounting sexual misconduct allegations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, the president weighed in on the sexual harassment claim against Democratic Sen. Al Franken — a pair of tweets that drove a late-night news cycle but were greeted internally at the White House with a shrug and a yawn.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” he tweeted. “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?” The president was referencing a joke Franken once suggested, in his previous life as a “Saturday Night Live” writer, about raping the “60 Minutes” correspondent.
The tweet appeared to open up a major vulnerability for a president with his own “caught on camera” moment that almost tanked his presidential bid — the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about kissing and groping women without their consent.
But White House aides and friends saw it as in line with Trump’s tendency to go on offense — and accuse other people of the very acts he himself is guilty of. “When he sees an opportunity to hit, he will hit,” said one White House official.
Another former administration official said the attack on Franken was par for the course of a “White House with a sub-40 job approval rating with a tough midterm cycle ahead. It doesn’t matter if there are vulnerabilities on their own side: They’re going to take anything they can get.”
The late-night tweet was not, however, without consequences — especially landing in the midst of a fraught moment in which the country is reckoning with stories from women reporting unwanted sexual advances from powerful men in politics, media and Hollywood. It meant the White House had to spend a day fielding questions about why Franken, and not the president, should be investigated for allegations of sexual misconduct.
“Sen. Franken has admitted wrongdoing and the president hasn't,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained at Friday’s briefing, highlighting why the situations were different. “I think this was covered pretty extensively during the campaign. We addressed that then. The American people, I think, spoke very loud and clear when they elected this president.”
Earlier in the day, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was dispatched to Fox News to try and explain away the inconsistency of weighing in on Franken while keeping mum about Moore. “Al Franken was a brand new news story yesterday, and the president weighed in as he does on the news of the day often enough,” she said. “The Roy Moore story is eight days old and the president put out a statement during his Asia trip on that.”
Some Republicans have expressed concern that chief of staff John Kelly doesn’t try to control the president’s Twitter feed, which often distracts from enacting his legislative agenda. “Someone, I read the other day, said we all just react to the tweets,” Kelly told reporters traveling with the president in Vietnam last week. “We don’t. I don’t. I don’t allow the staff to. Believe it or not, I do not follow the tweets.”
But Kelly’s strategy makes sense to the people who have been around Trump the longest, and who have seen that the talks and guidelines never succeeded in holding back the flood of the president’s opinions for long.
Trump lasted only until mid-June when — against the advice of his attorneys and amid news reports that a grand jury had approved the first charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — he went all caps in his anger. “You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people! #MAGA," he tweeted on June 15.
Last March, Trump accused President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, while offering no evidence to back up the incendiary allegation. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Those are considered some of the high-water marks of self-destructive Trump tweets, compared with which the Franken fracas could be seen as a forgettable sideshow.
But while the White House sought to downplay the significance of Trump’s tweet about Franken, some allies said dredging up a conversation about the women who have accused Trump of sexual assault could backfire on a president who is desperate to hang onto his base.
“I know a lot of women who held their nose and voted for the guy because they thought Hillary Clinton is a criminal,” said one person close to the administration. “This just reminds them that they had to hold their nose and vote for him, and they won’t do it again because he won’t be running against Clinton.”
NEW YORK — Kirsten Gillibrand is having a moment, whether she meant to or not.
Going where no other prominent Democrat had before on Thursday evening by declaring that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the New York senator and potential 2020 presidential contender yet again found herself the face of a national conversation with the potential to dominate headlines and divide her party.
At a time Democrats are desperate to keep the focus on accusations against President Donald Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Gillibrand’s stand shocked even some of her close allies. They had no inkling that she was planning to make news — let alone news that would invite questions about her own ties to a political power family that has dominated her party’s consciousness for nearly three decades.
The comment also put new, awkward distance between two women whose careers have been politically intertwined since Gillibrand — then a second-term House member — took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat upon her ascension to the State Department in 2009.
Yet it allowed Gillibrand to act as the tip of the spear on a position that many Democrats suspect will slowly become more popular in the party.
The longtime Clinton ally’s answer to The New York Times' question neatly encapsulated how Gillibrand has placed herself front and center on the dominant issue of the day, even if it forces a debate her own party is uncomfortable confronting. And it highlighted the political dexterity that her critics and rivals often deride as opportunism: A former conservative Blue Dog House member, Gillibrand has reinvented herself as a leading progressive and face of the Trump resistance ahead of a potential presidential run.
"I admire her for speaking out and for being really honest and blunt and brutal about it, even when it comes to Democrats and even when it comes to President Clinton," said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, a former Hillary Clinton aide.
But, Cardona said, Gillibrand's fight is far from a straightforward one even within the party: "President Clinton is beloved."
Gillibrand’s comments in a New York Times podcast interview came as a surprise even to people close to her, according to multiple Democrats in her tight political circles. Asked whether Clinton should have stepped down, the senator paused and responded, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.”
However, she then pointed to the difference between the late 1990s and now, highlighting the dramatically changed social and political environments.
“Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances, there should be a very different reaction. And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him,” she said.
Gillibrand tried to pivot to safer ground, pointing to the many accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Trump. But Clinton’s allies were unimpressed. Neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton’s spokesmen had any response, but much of their political circles were buzzing with confusion over Gillibrand’s statement. They speculated about whether her intention was to distance herself from the Clintons ahead of a 2020 presidential run, or whether she had misspoken.
A handful of aides to both Clintons declined to comment for this story, citing the political danger of weighing in on such a delicate matter between influential figures in the party. But Philippe Reines — a longtime aide to the former secretary of state — lashed out at Gillibrand on Twitter.
“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob,” he wrote, referring to the investigation into Bill Clinton. “Senate voted to keep [President Clinton]. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand? Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
The message was later retweeted by former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala after a reporter pointed it out.
“The problem with adding Bill Clinton to these things is you were implying that there was no consequence, that nothing happened — there’s arguably no one in American political history who has gone through a greater scrutiny of their personal life when they were in office,” Reines subsequently told POLITICO on Friday.
“You might not like what [Clinton] did, but the idea that he got away with something in the context of what’s being discussed now is a little absurd, and I don’t think [Gillibrand] was trying to do anything, but for her to allow it to be put in the context of a Roy Moore is not right,” he added
Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate, was accused of pursuing — and in two cases assaulting — minors.
But the remark put the spotlight on New York, not Alabama.
Gillibrand and Clinton were never close personal friends — 20 years separate them in age, and they never served in the same legislative body. But a range of Democratic operatives have worked for both of them, and Gillibrand has appeared repeatedly in public and private events with both Clintons, including during the 2016 campaign.
The Republican National Committee was quick to note that fact in an attempt to further isolate Gillibrand on Friday.
The blowup lands at a politically sensitive time for the senator, who is regarded as a potential top-tier presidential candidate should she decide to run in 2020 — as many of her donors and political allies expect. The New Yorker often deflects questions about a presidential bid by pointing to her 2018 reelection campaign, but she is unlikely to face any serious opposition then.
Gillibrand has been positioning herself as a leader of the national resistance to Trump’s administration ever since the women’s marches in January and her subsequent votes against nearly every one of the president’s high-profile Cabinet nominees.
Now, one of her signature issues, combating sexual harassment, is at the forefront of the national discussion, making her a natural voice to emerge from the scrum.
Gillibrand has been introducing versions of a military sexual assault bill since 2013 while also pushing campus sexual assault legislation. And she introduced another bill to reform Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment complaint procedure just this week.
Her political work has also focused primarily on elevating women in recent years.
She has helped raise over $6 million for female candidates since 2011, said an aide. And on Friday, her PAC announced it would take the unusual step of backing Marie Newman, a challenger to sitting Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who has long been criticized by Democrats for his views on abortion.
Before the Times interview on Friday, Gillibrand became one of the first Democrats to condemn the behavior of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was accused of groping a fellow entertainer when he was a comedian. She promised to send his $12,500 worth of donations to her to Protect Our Defenders, a group that combats military sexual assault.
"One of the things that I have always loved about Senator Gillibrand is that she has never shied away from tough subjects," said her pollster, Jefrey Pollock. "Listening [to] and hearing [about] suffering is what drives her to action."
Gillibrand's remarks have put other Democrats in the uncomfortable position of being asked about their former president at a time when they — and she — would prefer to be putting pressure on the GOP over Moore and Trump himself.
Even some Democrats who are close to Gillibrand were wary of defending her remarks outright on Friday. Placing the former president in the same conversation as others like Trump, Moore and Harvey Weinstein is not fair, they maintain.
"I think we should not get careless in the process of judging and lumping things together that — although they are indefensible on one level — do not rise to the level of some of the things we’re hearing about today,” said Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic Party chairman who led New York’s Democratic Party during Gillibrand’s first three years as a senator.
But, he said, “I think Kirsten Gillibrand doing what she’s doing to promote what I’ll call the cleaning up of the workplace is a good thing.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened a speech at a Federalist Society gathering Friday by asking the audience if there were “any Russians” in attendance.
“I just was thinking, I want to ask you: Is Ambassador Kislyak in the room? Before I get started here, any Russians?” Sessions said, eliciting laughter and applause from the crowd. “Anybody been to Russia? Got a cousin in Russia or something?”
The joke came just days after Sessions sparred with members of Congress over apparent discrepancies in his previous testimony regarding his interactions with Russians during the 2016 campaign, including former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions offered an unprompted assurance that he “never met with or had any conversations with any Russians or any foreign officials concerning any type of interference with any campaign or election.”
When the Washington Post reported weeks later that Sessions had met multiple times during the campaign with Kislyak, the attorney general announced that he would recuse himself from any Justice Department investigation related to the 2016 election.
Despite his recusal, Sessions explained away the meetings with Kislyak by arguing that what he had meant in his Senate testimony was that he had not met with any Russians in his capacity as a surrogate for Trump’s campaign. He told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that “my story has never changed” and that “I certainly didn’t mean I’d never met a Russian in the history of my life.”
Senate Republicans on Thursday personally lobbied President Donald Trump to support a bill to shore up Obamacare markets while repealing the law's individual mandate as part of tax reform, according to GOP sources.
There is growing concern among Senate Republicans that repealing the requirement that most Americans have insurance without funding a separate Obamacare cost-sharing program would cause too much havoc in already shaky insurance markets. But they need to repeal the mandate in order to have enough money to cover new tax cuts.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana attended the White House meeting, which was arranged by Graham, according to GOP sources.
Senate Republicans want Trump to get behind a bipartisan deal Alexander crafted with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to fund Obamacare’s cost-sharing program. They argue that enacting Alexander-Murray as part of a year-end spending deal would make up for some of the anticipated damage done to the insurance markets by repealing the mandate. But House Republicans are skeptical of Alexander-Murray, dubbing it a “bailout” of insurance companies.
“There is a growing recognition if we repeal the individual mandate, then Republicans have some responsibility to fix health care — not Obamacare,” an aide said.
Repealing the mandate would raise $338 billion but also cause insurance premiums to spike 10 percent, resulting in 13 million more people uninsured in a decade, according to the CBO. Many Republicans and some outside experts doubt the impact would be that big.
A White House spokesman said Trump and the senators “discussed the ongoing efforts to pass historic tax reform and other legislative objectives."
“The president is pleased with the momentum that has gathered behind finding solutions to these important issues and looks forward to continued cooperation with Congress in order to enact them as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
Alexander and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — a key vote on tax reform — have separately cited concern about repealing the mandate without funding the cost-sharing program.
“It would be a very bad idea to repeal the individual mandate and not pass Alexander-Murray,” Alexander said this week.
“If the Congress is going to move forward with repeal of the individual mandate, we absolutely must have the Alexander-Murray piece that is passed into law,” Murkowski told the Roll Call newspaper.
Collins has gone even further, saying she’s concerned about the very idea of repealing the individual mandate as part of tax reform.
“I think it greatly complicates our efforts to combine tax reform and changes in the ACA,” she told reporters earlier this week.
Graham said in a statement that he had a “great meeting” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, but his office refused to share additional details.
“They remain fully committed to passing meaningful tax reform and repealing and replacing Obamacare. President Trump and Vice President Pence were focused like a laser on success in the Senate,” Graham said. “I appreciate the President and Vice President for being generous with their time and looking for ways to close the deal on these important issues for the American people.”
After Alexander and Murray announced a deal on their bill last month, many Republicans and Democrats speculated it would be included in a year-end spending deal. But Senate Democrats this week warned that they may no longer support Alexander-Murray if Republicans repeal the mandate.
Democrats and supporters of the Affordable Care Act say Alexander-Murray would not make up for the damage caused by repealing the mandate, with Murray likening it to trying to douse a fire with penicillin.
President Donald Trump felt compelled to tweet out his thoughts on allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Al Franken because they represented a “brand new news story,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said Friday, explaining away the difference between the president’s Franken tweets and his relatively couched comments on allegations against Republican Roy Moore.
“Al Franken was a brand new news story yesterday, and the president weighed in as he does on the news of the day often enough,” Conway told Fox News Friday morning. “The Roy Moore story is eight days old and the president put out a statement during his Asia trip on that. And since then, our press secretary has spoken on behalf of the president saying that he believes the people of Alabama will sort out what to do with Roy Moore and with that election.”
Allegations against Franken (D-Minn.) that date back to 2006 surfaced on Thursday when broadcaster Leeann Tweeden said the senator and comedian had kissed her against her will and groped her breasts while she was asleep during a USO tour. A photo of Franken groping Tweeden, apparently taken aboard a military aircraft, was published along with Tweeden’s account.
Franken issued a statement apologizing for his conduct, but Trump still piled on, writing online that “The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?”
While Trump was quick to attack Franken, his comments on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore have been relatively muted. Beginning last week with a story in The Washington Post, Moore has been accused of sexually assaulting girls as young as 14 years old, allegations he has denied. A growing list of Republicans have denounced Moore and expressed belief in the accounts of his accusers, but Trump has said little in public about the accusation, issuing a statement through the White House press office that Moore should step aside “if these allegations are true.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday pointedly did not call on Moore to drop out of the Alabama special election to fill the seat previously occupied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, telling reporters that “the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.”
Trump himself has been accused of a range of sexual misconduct by at least 16 women, allegations that he vehemently denied during last year's presidential campaign.
President Donald Trump has a new nickname for Al Franken, hours after the Minnesota senator was accused of sexual misconduct: Al Frankenstein.
Trump weighed in on the latest congressional scandal Thursday night, tweeting about a photo that appeared to show Franken groping Los Angeles-based radio host Leeann Tweeden.
“The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps? …..” Trump tweeted.
Trump continued: "And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?"
Trump appeared to be referring to resurfaced rape jokes Franken made in the past about journalist Lesley Stahl. The comments were reported in a 1995 New York Magazine article.
Franken apologized earlier on Thursday for the accusations from Tweeden. She had accused Franken of forcibly kissing and groping her in 2006 during a USO trip to Afghanistan.
Trump’s acknowledgement of the accusations against Franken comes at the same time that he has distanced himself from Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of pursuing and harassing teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Donald Trump loves nothing more than a good controversy. But the president isn’t touching the Alabama Senate race, the biggest talker in American politics right now.
Resisting the entreaties of GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump has steered conspicuously clear of the firestorm surrounding Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate accused of pursuing, and in some cases harassing, teenage girls.
Trump’s absence from the race has compounded GOP worries the party is about to lose a seat it has no business relinquishing to Democrats. Republicans say a denunciation of Moore from Trump, a beloved figure in Alabama despite his problems elsewhere, offers the only hope of keeping the seat in the party’s hands.
But Trump sees nothing but negatives in getting involved, according to three White House aides, who say they consider the options laid out by McConnell and his team far-fetched. Many Alabama Republicans are also beginning to view the race as a referendum on McConnell and the Republican establishment more broadly, and Trump’s advisers say they fear any White House intervention is likely to backfire.
At the same time, Trump’s refusal to confront the disaster playing out in his own party is not without risk, and the president may face accusations that he abdicated his authority at a critical time for the GOP, which faces an uphill battle in next year’s midterm elections.
The tension between the White House and Republican leadership has underscored the desperate nature of the situation. Moore has refused to step aside even as accusations of sexual impropriety pile up against him. The Alabama Republican Party has stuck by him, and the state’s governor isn’t providing any relief to frustrated D.C. Republicans, either.
“I think the president is rightly being advised to stay out of this for now,” said a source close to the president and familiar with White House thinking.
“The president believes that these allegations are troubling and should be taken seriously, and he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday.
Trump’s reluctance stems in part from the fact that, from the White House’s perspective, they are confronting a host of bad options. McConnell and his aides on Thursday were furiously assembling a memo for White House chief of staff John Kelly laying out various avenues for legal recourse to pre-empt the Dec. 12 runoff between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones — or to keep Moore out of the Senate if he wins that race, which GOP leaders consider an increasingly remote possibility.
Trump’s advisers view many of these options with skepticism. Beyond that, White House advisers have come to believe that the involvement of Washington Republicans has become counterproductive.
“This is a guy where, the more people do in D.C., the less of a desired outcome one has a chance of getting,” said a senior White House aide.
Sanders said Thursday that the president finds the allegations against Moore “disturbing.”
“If those do happen to be true, then he should step aside,” Sanders said, adding that the president supported the Republican National Committee’s decision to sever its joint fundraising agreement with the Moore campaign.
But the president himself has studiously avoided the matter.
The latest option floated by McConnell and his team to push Moore out of the race is for interim Alabama Sen. Luther Strange to step down. They say that would trigger trigger a new special election that would pre-empt the Moore-Jones contest next month.
But Strange and state officials in Alabama rejected that idea out of hand. “I don’t think that’s even an option,” Strange said. “Not legal, and the governor said she wouldn’t move [the election] anyway.”
Alabama officials also waved off the possibility, saying that, were Strange to resign, his replacement would serve only until the Dec. 12 election. According to Alabama secretary of state Jim Merrill, “The person that succeeded him would have six or seven weeks to serve in that role. He was not elected by the people, he was appointed as the temporary successor.”
On Thursday, McConnell and his aides were scrambling to identify other options available to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, though local officials dismissed the idea that she would employ them.
Under Alabama law, the governor has the power to call a special election, and legal experts disagree about whether she could call another special election while the current one is ongoing — though it may not matter.
Ronald Krotoszynski Jr., a professor of law at the University of Alabama, said Ivey has the power to delay the special election until a date of her choosing. But Ivey was unlikely to move the election, he said, because she is running for reelection and faces a primary in which many of Moore’s supporters will vote.
“I think her options legally are pretty wide,” he said. But, he noted, Ivey is “on the ballot in the late spring of 2018, and she’s going to face these same Republican voters.”
And local officials say Ivey is not considering postponing the election. “I can tell you that is not a discussion that will receive any more attention for the rest of this cycle,” said Merrill, the secretary of state.
Ivey has already shown reluctance to intervene in the race, which has become a source of frustration for McConnell and his team.
“The election date is set for Dec. 12. Were he to resign I would simply appoint somebody to fill the remaining time until we have the election on Dec. 12,” Ivey told AL.com in response to an inquiry about how she would respond were Strange to resign.
The Alabama Republican Party continues to stand by Moore even as national Republicans have abandoned him en masse. The party’s steering committee met Wednesday evening and said in a statement afterward that the party “trusts the voters as they make the ultimate decision in this crucial race.”
A Fox News poll released Thursday evening showed Jones with an 8-point lead over Moore.
White House aides have dismissed the options presented by McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence and his chief of staff, Nick Ayers, as well as congressional liaison Marc Short and presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway, were seriously weighing the idea of a write-in candidacy.
But they have since concluded the idea — which would have required the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the only Alabama Republican with the name ID to launch a write-in campaign — is not feasible.
“McConnell has pushed for a lot of things that have not turned out to be based in fact or law,” said the senior White House aide.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
TRENTON—Chris Christie had some thoughts on how I should write this article.
“You should break out of leading with ‘the most unpopular governor in galactic history’ and all this other shit that everybody hits F2, F3, F4 [on and] bang, bang, bang, the paragraphs flip in,” the outgoing New Jersey governor said on a recent afternoon, tapping his conference room table like a keyboard. “You should do something different.”
Christie had spent almost three hours reminiscing on his meteoric political rise, the bridge saga, his failed 2016 campaign and his controversial Donald Trump endorsement, his subsequent White House adventures and some of his more infamous misadventures, like sitting on a beach he had ordered closed and being caught by a photographer’s long-lens camera.
So, with 68 days left in his governorship and the interview winding down, he urged me to forget all that and focus on the good things he had done for his state—and perhaps memorialize him as the pragmatic Republican governor who had cleaned up New Jersey and won a second term in hostile territory. He essentially wanted the story to ignore much of what happened afterward.
And yet, any fair assessment of Christie’s legacy has to reckon with the highs and the lows. For four years, from 2009 until 2013, he was a political rock star. Iowa activists wooed him to run for president in 2012, even flying to New Jersey to make their case. Magazine covers hailed his brilliance. (“THE BOSS,” blared one TIME cover he loves read.) He screamed at people on the boardwalk while carrying an ice cream cone. It didn’t matter. His approval rating soared above 75 percent in a reliably blue state. After two stinging defeats to Barack Obama, some in the GOP saw a potential winner in Christie’s combination of raw talent, fundraising prowess and ability to woo minorities and Democrats. Many on his team thought him a shoo-in GOP nominee. But he passed up a run in 2012, figuring he wasn’t ready.
Then, for the next four years, Christie became something of a national punching bag. Everything people loved about him seemed to become what they hated. The bridge lanes closed. Investigations mushroomed around his office. Allies and aides were convicted in the closings. His presidential ambitions cratered. Christie, who prides himself a prodigious fundraiser, couldn’t attract donors to his campaign. He was beaten by Trump, a political novice, and then mocked for fetching Trump McDonald’s—even though he didn’t do that—and for looking like a hostage during his endorsement of Trump, even though he says he wasn’t. His musical hero, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen, even sang a duet mocking him with Jimmy Fallon, his favorite late-show host.
“They shut down the toll booths of glory because we didn’t endorse Christie,” the two men sang to the tune of “Born to Run.” “We’re stuck in Gov. Chris Christie’s Fort Lee, New Jersey traffic jam.”
In the longest interview Christie has given in years, as he dropped oyster crackers into a large vat of chili, he said the story of his rise and fall had not been told accurately. He was never as good as depicted—nor as bad.
“I never felt 78, and I don’t feel the 22,” he said of his approval ratings. “What I hope at the end of the day is that this really is about my eight years, and the bridge stuff is part of that, and the Trump stuff is part of that, but it’s only a part.”
The apex for Christie was Nov. 5, 2013.
Voters would head to the polls the following day and grant him a resounding re-election victory—61 percent of the vote, including 50 percent among Hispanics, rare for a Republican. His campaign was exultant: They had hoped for 60 percent to show Republicans he was the 2016 force to be reckoned with.
The moment seared into Christie’s mind is the night before Election Day. His campaign organized a raucous rally in the Democratic, Hispanic stronghold of Union City. Streets were closed for the occasion. He was greeted by thousands of Hispanic voters blowing vuvuzelas and carrying union signs and pictures of Christie on sticks when he rolled up to City Hall, on a bannered campaign bus with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. She spoke in Spanish; he spoke Christie, his uniquely pugnacious argot of New Jersey mannerisms and brash self-confidence.
Brian Stack, the Democrat mayor, gave a rousing endorsement that broke against the New Jersey Democratic political machine. Christie’s operation had wooed Democratic mayors for months. “I want to send a shock wave through the state,” Christie said onstage.
“No one can ever take that away from me, and whatever is happening now doesn’t make that any less real,” he told me in our interview, calling the rally a defining moment of his political life.
“What I really thought was, like, ‘Let the good times roll.’ It wasn’t even that good things were coming. They were all happening, and I didn’t expect them to stop. But you never do,” Christie said.
Christie had ruled Trenton with an iron fist and a gaze toward the national stage. Republicans had bent to his will, voting for whatever he wanted, whenever he demanded. There were no juicy stories of palace intrigue, even among his advisers, who sometimes privately disagreed. Most of his team came from the U.S. attorney’s office, and they were fiercely loyal to their longtime patron.
Christie has often been a volcanic boss, sometimes screaming and cursing at aides in humiliating episodes they vividly remember years later. But those didn’t make the public eye.
“That first term, he ran a hermetically sealed operation,” said Charles Stile, the state’s preeminent political columnist for the Bergen Record. “There were no leaks. I’ve never seen an administration operate with that much discipline.”
Christie’s political specialty was the town hall—where he delivered virtuoso, and sometimes emotional, appearances that fueled his reputation as a bold truth-teller. His office turned the format into a polished performance worthy of a touring Broadway show. He gave the same script every time. The same aide introduced him. He tossed the jacket the same way to the same aide. The crowd was often stacked. “If you’re going to give it, you’re going to get it back,” he warned would-be hecklers at every event. They were all filmed. But for all that, they never felt inauthentic: Christie would leave voters in tears with stories about his tough-knuckled mother on her deathbed, his friend who died of overdoses, his emotions after Sandy.
On policy, Christie was both hard-nosed and pragmatic. He capped property taxes in a notoriously high-tax state. He cleaned up a budget mess left by his disgraced predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine. He persuaded Stephen Sweeney, a burly ironworker’s union official who leads the State Senate, to make a compromise on pensions that would require unions to pay more.
“He came to my union office and we sat down the second day,” Sweeney recalled. “And his comment to me, are we going to get anything done, or do what is always done and fight? He wanted to get things done, and so did I.”
At the time, New Jersey’s pension system was among the most underfunded in the country, and Christie’s predecessors didn’t pay. (Christie also has a checkered record—while paying more than his predecessors, he also skipped some payments.) Stile, a sometimes fierce critic of the governor, said, “The time of practically skipping and significantly shorting the pension system has pretty much stopped. It went on for 15 years leading up to him. He deserves credit for that.”
Christie also made dramatic gestures signaling he was a different kind of Republican—as when he appointed a Muslim judge, Sohail Mohammed, to the bench and loudly defended him against sharp attacks on his religion. Liberals applauded.
He won praise for restructuring the state’s medical colleges. He showed particular interest in the impoverished city of Camden, forging an alliance with Democratic Mayor Dana Redd and pushing new charter schools far and wide.
Perhaps more than anything, there was Superstorm Sandy. When the storm walloped New Jersey and left billions in damage, it may have been Christie’s shining moment back home. He was everywhere, all the time, for months, surveying devastated towns, destroyed wastewater systems, broken bridges, flooded streets and funerals. He greeted President Obama as a hero in a famous embrace, even though for years, his aides ferociously denied it was an actual hug.
Aides say the storm’s aftermath was when Christie was the sharpest, the most unhealthy and the most stressed out. He would convene daily meetings and schedule calls after midnight. Trekking across the state, he became seen as a New Jersey everyman, profane and gruff, devastated and jubilant, in the muck and on the television.
“His immediate goal was to get the state to some semblance of normal as quickly as he could,” recalled Marc Ferzan, the New Jersey storm czar and a Christie friend. “He was as hardworking as anyone who worked on Sandy, and he had great instincts.”
It all coagulated in Union City. Two days after the election, Christie sent Matt Mowers, a longtime aide, to New Hampshire to lead the party—and begin plotting his 2016 run. Others, like bridge mastermind David Wildstein, said they were going to Iowa. His team was counting the days.
“You could not have told anybody who was a Christie supporter that he wouldn’t be the Republican nominee,” said Rich Constable, a longtime senior aide in the governor’s office. “This is a remarkable talent who is wicked smart. It felt like however people must have felt about Bill Clinton in Arkansas in 1991. Everyone felt it. This is about to happen.”
Christie sometimes calls his world “Rancho Christie,” and life was good on the ranch.
Fast forward two months, and Christie hit bottom.
Explosive emails brought a full-bore scandal to his doorstep—the closure of the world’s busiest commuter bridge, allegedly to punish a Democratic mayor who wouldn’t endorse him as governor, into full view. The Wall Street Journal and the Bergen Record had trickled out damaging stories for months, but the emails from David Wildstein changed it all when they were released in early January.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Kelly, a senior Christie official, wrote. “Got it,” Wildstein returned. The emails also implicated Bill Baroni, a top Port Authority official.
Christie had been scheduled to attend a Sandy event with Constable that morning. Constable said he remembers turning his car around on the highway when the event was canceled.
He talked to a round-robin of aides: longtime spokeswoman Maria Comella, who broke the news to the governor just after his morning workout, and political adviser Mike DuHaime, who paced the parking lot of the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton as the governor surveyed the damage and vented.
Christie convened senior staff at the governor’s mansion around an upstairs table, where they’d met dozens of times before. They read the stories breaking online and the emails and watched the wall-to-wall TV coverage. Christie went through long periods of silence.
Who knew what, Christie asked? Could he survive? What should he say to the public? Whom should he fire? Was it going to get even worse? “It was all about sheer survival,” one person present said.
There were arguments: Should they fire Bill Stepien, the governor’s top political aide, or David Samson, the Christie-appointed head of the Port Authority, who later pleaded guilty on a separate felony charge? Was Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary mentioned in the emails, a liability?
Stepien, who is now the White House political director, was axed, and DuHaime was given the duty to tell him, even though he disagreed with the decision. Samson survived. Drewniak met with the governor's senior staff for two hours and managed to save his job.
No one ate much of anything, several aides remember. Christie made none of the firing calls himself. Nor did he yell or shout, people present say. He was ashen and looked ghostly and appeared on the verge of tears for much of the day. His brother Todd Christie, a Wall Street type and informal adviser, stopped by. Samson popped in. So did Bill Palatucci, a longtime confidant.
Eventually, he slept—badly—and decided to have a marathon news conference denying any involvement in the lane closures. Then he went underground for months. It didn’t get better.
Everything Christie had done in his first term—the hard-nosed tactics, the micromanaging at the Port Authority, calling mayors to cancel meetings when he was mad, his outbursts and the blurry line between his political and policy operations—was under fresh scrutiny. He had won a huge electoral victory, but Democrats still controlled the legislature and most major cities—and they saw blood in the water.
Soon others were launching fresh charges against his administration, like the mayor of Hoboken, who accused him of holding Sandy money hostage. The U.S. attorney’s office eventually said her claims were without merit. “Frankly, she should have been charged for providing false information,” Christie told me.
In following months, friends say, he was sullen and quiet on the phone, rare for the voluble Christie. He stayed largely out of public view. During one event at Times Square promoting the Meadowlands Super Bowl, he was booed loudly. Christie hopped into the car devastated and rode back to New Jersey silent.
For a while, allies and aides say, Christie feared he was going to be charged himself over what became known as Bridgegate, though he always denied involvement. He demurred when I asked him about it repeatedly. “I always tried to have confidence in the process and in the system,” he said.
Inside the governor’s orbit, people still debate his exact role—what he knew, and when. Several aides told me they believed he knew more about the closures than he ever let on, even if he didn’t plan them. Why did he delete the texts he had exchanged with a senior aide, Regina Egea, during a particularly bad day of testimony? For months, he’d known that something seemed kinky at the bridge and had talked to aides about it. There was a photo of Wildstein and Baroni at the Sept. 11 ceremony that year—which happened while the closings were underway—when the men said they told the governor. Wildstein said he laughed about it.
Christie told me the speculation was hogwash. He says he doesn’t even remember the texts with Egea. He said he only learned about the nature of the closing from the emails. And as for Wildstein, he says they didn’t tell him that day.
Christie said that if he were going to exchange sensitive conversations with Egea, why would he text her when she worked two offices over? He referenced a famous—and now mocked—answer, where he told a reporter he was “moving the cones” one month before the emails came out, when asked about the lane closures.
“But would I have ever gotten up and said, “Oh, yeah. I was in disguise that morning in overalls and a hat and I was the one moving the cones.” Now, if I had known that something was actually going on, do you think I would have actually done that?” he said.
The investigation lasted more than a year. Wildstein pleaded guilty and cooperated. The trial of Kelly and Baroni drove Christie crazy. He would sometimes call aides and friends several times a day to vent and swear. On several occasions, he thought about firing back and ordering up statements.
“I was on trial,” he explained to me. “I wasn’t allowed to be there, I wasn’t allowed to respond, but the case was tried against me, not against the people who actually were sitting with the courtroom—with absolutely no evidence I had any involvement.”
Christie said neither side had called him to the courtroom because “the government told David Wildstein’s version of the truth. The defense told Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni’s versions of the truth.”
“I don’t even think the true story has ever been told about why it was done,” he said. “I don’t buy the fact and I’ve never bought the fact that this was done to penalize the mayor of Fort Lee.”
He declined to say why he thought it was done, saying he didn’t know.
Wildstein, who is now taking playwriting courses in Florida as the appeals process continues, declined to comment on the record about the bridge. He is expected to become more involved in politics in upcoming months.
But he did take a parting shot at Christie: “Among my regrets is I got snookered by this guy.”
Nothing makes Christie aides cringe more than one quote he gave on the governorship: that he wanted to “squeeze all the juice out of the orange” for himself and his family.
“Chris Christie was always prone to self-inflicted wounds. Some of the optics we had to deal with were so disappointing because they were avoidable,” said Michael Drewniak, his longtime spokesman.
There was, of course, this summer’s embarrassment of being photographed sitting on a closed beach, lounging in a beach chair as New Jersey residents stewed at home.
Before that, there was the time Christie flew to the desert and stayed at a posh resort with the king of Jordan, taking a $30,000 gift and explaining the Hashemite monarch was a “personal friend.” The time he took a state helicopter to his son’s baseball game so he could also meet with donors urging him to run for president. That time he went to Disney World during a snowstorm, even with his lieutenant governor out of state. The times he screamed at New Jersey residents and officials—calling for a grandmother legislator to be hit with a bat, chasing a man while carrying an ice cream cone, calling a Navy Seal a jerk. The time as U.S. attorney that he stayed in such luxurious hotel rooms and took such expensive limos that the federal government came out with new guidelines for all U.S. attorneys.
Christie loved showing off pictures with celebrities and taking lavish vacations. He loved being on the sideline, in the owner’s box, wherever he could go that was closest to the nexus of it all. He was starstruck with his fame, several longtime aides said.
His penchant for getting what he wanted at all times was so ingrained that it once even led to a showdown between Buckingham Palace and Wildstein—which Wildstein won. When Queen Elizabeth II was coming to ground zero, her office blanched at a request to add the governor’s children to a list of people meeting the queen. Wildstein told the palace the visit could not happen. Eventually, a compromise was worked out, and the queen met the Christie kids.
For these more sympathetic former Christie aides, they find his behavior puzzling: How could such a talented politician, with such an innate understanding of politics and perception, make such boneheaded decisions? Even to some of his staunchest defenders, the episodes fueled an image of a out-of-control, out-for-myself executive who could not give a damn about the public.
Here’s what Christie has to say about that: “I understand that people obsess on optics. I’ve never been a guy who obsesses on optics.”
Christie has rarely apologized, and told me that most of his outbursts at New Jersey residents were strategic. He seemed to grow happy talking about a recent encounter in which he got into a heated argument with a voter at the polling station near his house. Nor does he regret chasing the man on the boardwalk while carrying an ice cream cone, saying the man had used the F-word in front of his children.
Asked whether such episodes are emotional, uncontrolled outbursts, Christie responded: “A lot of the dummies in your business think it is.” His own associates don’t see it that way; Drewniak said that many of the outbursts were “spontaneous” episodes that led to weeks of headaches rather than calculated strategy. Others said he couldn't control his temper.
The one outburst he regrets, Christie said, was calling a Navy Seal who challenged him at a town hall a “jerk”—but even then, he insisted he was fundamentally in the right: “I think he merited the comment, but I shouldn’t have said it.”
At one point in our conversation, he ticked through each well-known incident and explained himself, growing animated and at times profane.
“I assume that the king of Jordan doesn’t put people up at the Motel 6. He’s the king of Jordan,” Christie said. In a mocking tone, he added: “Your Majesty, is there a Motel 6 in the area so I won’t offend anybody?”
Most New Jerseyans are either Eagles or Giants fans, and Christie drew particular derision for flying on a private plane owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to several games and taking luxury box seats. Some critics raised concerns that Jones had business in front of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which Christie partially controlled. After weeks of headaches, Christie begrudgingly agreed to fly commercial to a Cowboys playoff game. Aides said he still wanted to take the free plane.
“I became governor and got to know Jerry. He invited me to the games, and where am I supposed to sit when he invites me to the games? He’s going to sit me with them,” he said.
The beach incident annoys Christie maybe the most. He was sunning in a chair with his family, in the middle of a budget standoff this July 4 weekend. He had ordered the beaches closed because there was no state budget. The Star-Ledger sent a photographer down the shoreline in a private plane and snapped pictures that went viral on the internet. Children made Halloween costumes of Christie on the beach.
“Could you imagine that I could see the long lens?” Christie said, asked if he knew the plane was carrying a photographer to snap pictures of him. “Of course not.”
Even so, Christie insisted he didn’t regret the shoreline excursion. He had worked the rest of the day, and had promised his children and their friends a vacation for months on July 4 weekend.
Nothing made his longtime circle angrier than the beach.
“There have been so many times I wanted to pummel him,” one longtime aide said. “I would have pummeled him in the face that day.” Another called his decisions “completely and totally fucking inexplicable.”
“Those things became distractions,” said Mike DuHaime, his top political adviser. “They were bigger distractions than anyone anticipated.”
“He overreached often,” Drewniak said. “He would get his blinders on and just be incredibly stubborn.” He added: “I don’t regret working for him. He was the best boss I ever had. It was all part of the package.”
In the words of Christie’s favorite singer, Bruce Springsteen, his political fortunes were stuck somewhere in the swamps of Jersey by 2014.
He was diminished by Bridgegate but still thought he had a chance in 2016. Many of his aides were skeptical but went along with the plan: He would chart his course as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, travel the country, raise money, build alliances and try to put together a presidential campaign infrastructure. He raised record amounts of cash for the RGA and helped win more than 30 gubernatorial races. He could still make national headlines anytime he wanted.
Christie entered the presidential race in June 2015 at his New Jersey high school. “I saw a path, but we were under no illusions about how difficult it was going to be,” DuHaime said. “And none of us saw the Trump phenomenon coming.”
Christie and his team knew he had little chance in Iowa and South Carolina, so they cast their lot in New Hampshire, where, it was thought, his ideological pragmatism and skill at retail politics would be huge assets. Drawing on the playbook that had worked so well back home, Christie crisscrossed the state in a bus and held more than 100 town halls. He was able to secure more endorsements than any other candidate. There were a number of times it looked like he had momentum: He won the coveted Union-Leader endorsement. A clip of him talking about opioid addiction went viral. His prosecutor bona fides became useful amid terrorist attacks, and he slashed Marco Rubio at the final debate before the vote.
“I’ve always been good at it and I’ll always be good at it,” Christie said of his stage performances.
By Christmas, Christie’s hustle seemed to have paid off: He found himself in second place, where he thought he would ultimately finish. But that turned out to be the high-water mark of his campaign. He soon was inundated with money from super PACS linked to Rubio and Jeb Bush, and Trump dropped his friendly stance and ripped him over the bridge.
“The GW Bridge, he knew about it,” Trump said. “How do you have breakfast with people everyday of your lives. … They’re closing up the largest bridge in the world. They never said ‘Hey boss, we’re closing up the George Washington Bridge.’ So they’re talking about the weather? He knew about it. He totally knew about it.”
Instead of firing back at Trump, who he figured couldn’t be beaten in New Hampshire, Christie lashed out at Rubio, who was competing for the same pool of educated, moderate voters. Other candidates and their teams said Christie, who prided himself on taking on difficult challenges, shirked the ultimate political one.
“You saw so many other candidates try and fail at that tactic and strategy,” Matt Mowers, Christie’s New Hampshire director, said of attacking Trump. “You would see those candidates lose support in the polls. It never seemed strategically advantageous.”
Mowers said it was almost impossible to gain traction in the state with such a crowded field and Trump’s uncanny ability to earn media attention and blot out the sun. Voters would love Christie and say he was on “their list,” Mowers said, but they would eventually go with Trump, who was even more “tell-it-like-it-is.”
DuHaime said the calculation was to only swing at Trump hard if it was a one-on-one field, and that the governor knew Trump was going to win. His attack on Rubio didn’t work; the Florida senator’s voters defected, but to other candidates.
Christie’s strategy was falling apart. He couldn’t raise enough money, a particularly painful shortcoming for a once-prolific fundraiser. After the onslaught of ads attacking him, he continued to fall in the campaign’s daily tracking polls—and he didn’t have the resources to hit back.
The governors he’d raised money for as RGA chair didn’t support him in return, infuriating his team. DuHaime called it “cowardly.”
“I think it was an enormous leadership opportunity lost for the Republican governors,” Christie said. “They just sat on the sidelines for reasons that I’ll never completely understand because there were a lot of good candidates to pick from.”
And back in New Jersey, Christie was haunted by home-state problems: sagging poll ratings, a crumbling NJ Transit system, credit downgrades, a steady stream of headlines from the ongoing Bridgegate trial, a separate investigation into Samson, the wobbly financial fortunes of Atlantic City. Even his widely praised response to Superstorm Sandy had became a negative.
“That hug was never forgiven by so many people in the Republican establishment,” said DuHaime, who thinks Christie’s embrace of Obama hurt him with hyperpartisan GOP primary voters even more than Bridgegate.
Christie sat stoically as the returns came in, him finishing sixth. He stared at his father. His children cried. He knew he was going to drop out but decided to wait a day after talking to Larry Hogan of Maryland, a friend and one of the few fellow governors who had campaigned with him.
He returned to New Jersey and posted a statement on Facebook, dropping out on Feb. 10.
Before Christie flew to Dallas to endorse Donald Trump two weeks later, he didn’t tell some of his most senior aides. They learned about it from his secretary while he was in the air.
Christie had assured aides after New Hampshire that he didn’t plan to endorse in the race, and they looked forward to trying to salvage his legacy in New Jersey.
After he learned the news, Kevin Roberts, then communications director, called his team into an emergency meeting and told them. He was met with silence.
“We’re fucked,” Roberts said, according to attendees. The decision was widely loathed in his circle. DuHaime, his top political adviser, declined to follow his lead. Maria Comella, his top aide for years, later came out with a statement endorsing Hillary Clinton.
By this time, Christie had already grown so unpopular that the governor found a novel way to punish one of his adversaries after one of their volcanic fights. He called into a radio show and praised Sweeney, the state Senate leader and a Democrat, describing him as a great governing partner. “He was praising me to hurt me, and I knew exactly what he was doing, and he did too,” Sweeney said.
Christie explains his endorsement of Trump as a pragmatic move. “I was the first,” he reminded me. “And I turned out to be right.”
The endorsement gave him a chance to be in the game—and Christie couldn’t stand the idea of being a lame-duck governor on the sidelines. Now he talks to Trump several times a week. He loved playing Hillary Clinton in debate prep. When Trump won, he was onstage. At the same time, several aides said, it was essentially a white surrender flag on his governorship.
“One, I wanted to make him a better candidate—and two, I wanted him to beat Hillary Clinton because I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president and I thought he was the guy who was going to give us the chance to do that,” Christie told me.
But, he hastened to add, “It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything Donald Trump does. I don’t. But I agree on a hell of a lot more with him than I do with Hillary Clinton, right?”
Former aides say Christie made the decision after Trump courted him extensively, asking him frequently to endorse. Christie was angry with the other candidates and frustrated with the whole ordeal of running. “Trump worked him harder than anyone else in trying to get it. He called him repeatedly,” DuHaime said.
DuHaime said Christie called him the night Trump won South Carolina. The two men agreed the billionaire developer would be the nominee—so Christie decided to endorse.
“The right thing for him to do was to endorse Trump at the time. That is not what I wanted to do for myself, so I didn't go work for him,” DuHaime said.
Some aides and allies say he endorsed early in hopes of getting a plum job if Trump won. Christie denied that.
“I know that whatever a candidate may say to you before they’re elected means little once they’re elected. Because everything changes. A whole bunch of different people get in their ear and everything else. So, no. I wouldn’t make that calculation because I know from my own experience that candidates will say anything, and you can’t count on that beforehand,” he said.
During a news conference soon after the endorsement, Christie stared blankly behind Trump, his eyes blinking. Twitter wags instantly pronounced that he looked like a hostage. The clips went viral on the internet and infuriated Christie.
“My job was to introduce him, and the original plan was to introduce him and go offstage,” Christie said. “I introduce him, he comes up the stage, he goes, ‘Stay here with me.’ ‘OK.’ So I stood back there. I was like, ‘All right.’”
“I’d love for somebody to actually do that and stand behind someone at a press conference and have any other look on your face,” he said. Had he laughed or smiled, Christie said, he would have been called a “goofball.”
Christie agreed to helm the transition, but he craved a certain spot in the administration: attorney general. And he didn’t get it. Instead, he suffered a series of fresh humiliations.
There was the time Trump told a large crowd in Christie’s home state that the governor would no longer eat Oreos. There was the time The New Yorker reported an aide saying that Trump had made Christie fetch him McDonald’s, a nugget that instantly went viral. (Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide, told me he made up the story to embarrass Christie—and that it spread like wildfire. “The sad reality is that it was believable,” Nunberg said, chuckling.)
There was the time, at a rally in February 2016, that Trump told him to get on the plane and “go home” before Trump spoke, seeming to mock his own campaign surrogate.
Christie sees the Tennessee tarmac incident differently. “People were acting like it was a fucking punishment. The guy gave me his smaller plane and said, ‘Leave early so you don’t have to wait for me, because you’ve been so great to me the last two days doing this for two days.’ And then asshole reporters write that he was like, ‘Get Chris off the stage,’” the governor said. “That’s the stuff that drives you crazy.”
Christie said even he was taken aback by Trump’s nice gesture to send a second plane after two days on the trail. “Just when you think you’ve got him figured out, like in a bad way, he does something really generous and over-the-top that makes you go like, ‘He is a good guy in his heart,’” he said.
Christie’s generous interpretation of Trump’s treatment of him even extends to his own ouster. Two days after Trump’s surprise win, Steve Bannon and Christie were seen arguing for several hours in a glass office in the transition headquarters in New York. Bannon was firing him as chair of the transition, and Christie wasn’t taking the news well. He wanted to know who was behind it, and he suspected Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father he had prosecuted as U.S. attorney.
“Oh, I asked,” Christie said, referring to Bannon. “He didn’t answer. But [based on] subsequent conversations I’ve had with the president, I just don’t believe this was the president’s decision.”
Aides later threw his transition materials in wastebaskets.
Christie, who often attributes his habit of feuding to his “Sicilian mom and Irish dad,” insists he holds no grudges. He said the president had made a smart decision to get rid of some aides—he named Bannon and Reince Priebus—and said others would be soon to go. Chief of staff John Kelly, he said, was doing much better. He declined to take a shot at Kushner when asked about the Trump son-in-law’s diminished White House role. “I would never underestimate Jared’s ability to be involved in whatever he wants to do be involved in,” Christie said.
Christie, who is only 55, won’t say what is next. He says he wants to make money and doesn’t plan to run for president again. He says he has no immediate plans to join the White House under Trump.
“He’s offered me two different Cabinet positions and three other really senior positions in the administration, and I’ve turned them all down because they weren’t stuff I was interested in,” he said.
He said there could be opportunities in media, at law firms and on Wall Street. He has joked that Mary Pat Christie, his investment banker wife, has told him he needs to realize his “earning potential.” But power and fame motivate Christie more than money, those closest to him say, and they think he’ll be back in the public glare.
When I came to see him, he was sitting in a conference room with two Coke cans, that large bowl of chili, a basket of wavy potato chips, gifts lining the walls, newspapers praising his ascent and Springsteen and a Notre Dame football sign outside the door reading, “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY.” His daughter goes there, and he has become a fan.
I hadn’t seen Christie in two years since I covered him for the Wall Street Journal, but he started the conversation almost mid-sentence. His photographer had told me downstairs that Christie, a mercurial man, was in a fantastic mood. He only asked to go off the record twice.
Before I saw him, Christie was meeting with Phil Murphy, the next governor and a former Goldman Sachs executive who cast much of his campaign on a referendum against Christie. The New Jersey press corps no longer had much interest in Christie, instead clamoring outside in the cold to meet his successor.
Christie no longer holds court from his sprawling governor’s office; he closed the State House for repairs earlier this year, and is serving out his final days from a makeshift fifth-floor office in a drab, gray government building. One of his spartan walls has a lonely “Born to Run” Springsteen poster. A large sign on the streets of desolate Trenton notes where you can find Christie, when he is there.
He wasn’t in a bomb-throwing mood about Murphy and seemed to be still sizing him up—and looking for weaknesses. “I have no way of knowing,” he said when asked if Murphy was prepared for the job. “But I’m sure he’ll be ready and he’ll be fine by Inauguration Day. He’s a little overwhelmed now.”
His tight circle of aides is no longer with him. Many have been gone for years. Christie often keeps his own schedule and trusts his own counsel above all. In fact, some of his aides had no idea I was even on his schedule until the night before.
In person, Christie is eminently likable and convincing. He can say something that is not true without blinking an eyelid—and can almost convince you it is, even if you know better.
He still possesses all the assets that made him a rising GOP star and all of the flaws that led to his astonishing fall: relentless ambition and pragmatic competence, shrewd political instincts tempered by inexplicable blind spots, a penchant for vengeance and a volcanic temper, a keen sense of humor and an ability to project empathy, an obsession with fame but humility enough to keep up with old high school friends on Facebook.
“He is a dynamic, complicated figure that is too easily caricatured,” said Comella, who was at his side for all of it.
What Christie wanted me to see was that he was content, and proud of his record as governor.
The economy has improved, with unemployment falling from about 10 percent to about 5 percent. He ended the estate tax. He brought bail reform to New Jersey, a move widely hailed and followed by other states. He shined a light on opioids and eventually led the national commission while boosting funding to address the crisis at home.
Years from now, Christie said, people won’t hate him so much.
“I think the situation at the bridge started it. Then I think committing to being the RGA chairman, which led to a lot of travel being outside the state, it led to people believing I wasn’t able to do my job, which is kind of ridiculous. Then running for president. Again, which leads you beyond the state more and then lastly, endorsing the president—and he’s not popular here. That probably doesn’t make me popular in the state where he lost by double digits,” Christie said.
He added: “I never stopped my forward momentum, right? I may have slowed but you saw me back then. I didn’t get in the fetal position and say, ‘Please leave me alone,’” Christie said. “I kept moving.”
Those who have known Christie the longest tend to have the most complicated feelings about him.
Like Tom Kean—the former governor who nurtured and mentored Christie, only to become a critic.
Their connections run deep. After he said he wanted to get into politics, Christie’s mother drove him to Kean’s house and had her teenage son shadow Kean. Both families lived in Livingston. Kean, then a local politician, eventually became governor for two terms and was Christie’s biggest supporter. He swore him in to county government. He wrote a heaping letter praising Christie to become U.S. attorney. He was a trusted adviser.
Things changed as Christie rose. In 2013, Kean celebrated the governor’s re-election backstage. Two days later, Christie started a campaign to unseat Tom Kean Jr., the governor’s son, who was Senate minority leader. The two men had fought over state Senate races, and Christie wanted a more loyal ally in the job.
“I was happily congratulating him on his election one night. Two days later, he didn’t tell me—all of a sudden, guess what he’s doing, he’s making calls against your son,” Kean said.
But Republicans bucked him and kept Kean’s son in power. “It was the first time he’d been beaten in New Jersey,” Kean said of Christie, with a bit of familial pride.
Eventually, the two men talked, and Christie “came close to an apology,” Kean said. “I’m not sure he apologized, but that might be as close as you get from Chris Christie.”
The two men haven’t talked in over a year, Kean said. He said the governorship went downhill because Christie spent too much time out of state, didn’t listen to his staff and stopped caring in the past year, “spitting in people’s eyes.” Still, he praised some of Christie’s accomplishments, particularly on taxes.
“He’s not someone who likes criticism,” Kean said. “His problem is he had too many yes men on his staff.” Kean added: “He’ll resurface because he has too much ability not to.”
“This why it’s sad in a sense. He’s the most able politician I know, with possibly the exception of Bill Clinton,” Kean said. “I thought if he made use of that properly, he was going to be one of the state’s really great governors. He could have been one of the great governors.”
Sweeney, the state Senate president, paused for a few seconds when I asked him whether Christie was a good governor. Christie had met with Sweeney for 15 minutes in the middle of our interview, and he later suggested Sweeney, despite being a Democrat, might offer a solid testament to his success.
Sweeney said Christie was a tough fighter who had usually been honest with him, and that he was “pragmatic” and that “he’s a governor that used every inch of the power that was given to him by the constitution.”
“I think he did a good job at times. At times, he made mistakes,” Sweeney said. “He took some tough shots at some people on the way up. When you’re on your way up, everyone is with you. When you’re punching people, when you’re on your way down, those punches are coming back at you.”
After seeing Christie in Trenton, I reunited with Drewniak and Roberts, his former communications director, for dinner at the Langosta Lounge on the Asbury Park boardwalk.
Drewniak, towering and bald, had a reputation in Trenton as pugilistic. Yet deep down, Drewniak is a bit of a softie—he has two yapping dogs named Peanut and Lilly and can grow emotional on a dime. He is a master fisherman who grills a mean steak—and is ready to spend more time grilling and fishing than fighting political battles. He is also planning a move to Florida.
"I was thinking about talking to you,” Drewniak told me. “And he still freaks me out.”
Smoking cigarettes outside, with the famed Stone Pony in sight and waves crashing in, we made small talk with two locals. Both of them began torching Christie and praising Phil Murphy, the new governor, who threw his celebration party on the boardwalk Tuesday night. Christie threw his there four years ago.
Almost out of habit, Drewniak jumped in to defend the outgoing governor, his record and charisma. He introduced himself as “Mike,” leaving out his last name and longtime affiliation.
A federal judge is considering whether President Donald Trump’s own tweets could force the federal government to reveal more information about its efforts to verify the claims in the controversial privately compiled dossier about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.
Trump has taken to his favorite social media forum to denounce the so-called dossier as “fake” and “discredited,” while also calling repeatedly for investigators to make public details about who funded creation of the document containing accurate, inaccurate and unverified assertions about the president.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta heard arguments Friday in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit testing whether Trump’s public statements foreclose the government’s ability to refuse to even confirm that officials attempted to verify the claims in the so-called dossier. The lawsuit was filed by this reporter along with a pro-transparency group, the James Madison Project.
“When the president says Mr. Comey — former director Comey — brought the dossier to me, isn’t that an acknowledgement that the FBI possesses the dossier?” the judge asked, referring to comments Trump made in a New York Times interview.
Justice Department lawyer Charles Glass said the statement was still too vague to force the government to respond in greater detail to the FOIA requests and lawsuit, filed by this POLITICO reporter along with a pro-transparency group, the James Madison Project.
Much of the 40-minute hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., turned on whether Trump’s statements could or should be read to mean that government agencies had investigated the claims in the dossier and found them wanting.
“There’s no inference that is possible,” Glass insisted. “It could be based on other things.”
An attorney for the requesters told Mehta that, while Trump’s statements might have been based on his personal knowledge or media reports, without further clarification from the White House, the court should assume the president was communicating in his official capacity based on official knowledge.
“He’s saying it is discredited. It has been discredited,” lawyer Brad Moss said. “If the White House or whatever defendant wants to clarify it, that’s their prerogative, but until that, there’s a factual discrepancy.”
Mehta responded by venturing into a subject rarely raised publicly in court: Trump’s calls for Hillary Clinton to be investigated and jailed.
“He’s also said his opponent did break the law,” the judge observed, asking whether that was Trump relaying an official Justice Department conclusion or just offering his personal opinion.
When Moss suggested that the court might need to order some sort of fact-finding exercise to figure out whether the president’s statements about the dossier were based on official or unofficial information, Mehta jumped in.
“How do you propose doing that? Do you want to depose the president?” the judge asked.
“As much as I would like that, that is not necessarily something I would think is necessary at this point,” Moss replied.
The so-called dossier was compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, at the request of Washington-based private investigation firm Fusion GPS. One or more copies eventually ended up in the hands of the FBI last year. Intelligence officials have acknowledged giving President Barack Obama and then-President-elect Trump a two-page synopsis of the dossier’s allegations, which include salacious claims Trump has denied about his conduct during a visit to Russia.
Glass acknowledged that Trump could speak on behalf of federal agencies, but said the law requires agencies changes their approach on disclosure only when he discussed precisely what is sought in the FOIA request.
“The standard as we perceive it is there has to be an exact match,” the Justice Department lawyer said, noting that some of the requests refer to a two-page synopsis of the dossier and not the dossier itself. Glass also said there was “a lot of lack of clarity” on what the dossier consisted of.
Glass also argued that Trump’s calls for the Justice Department and FBI to reveal who paid for the dossier did not mean those agencies actually had such information. “He is not admitting the FBI or Justice Department necessarily know who’s paying for it,” the DOJ lawyer said.
The judge seemed to reject some of the finer distinctions the government was trying to draw.
Mehta repeatedly pointed out that in a 2013 case involving records about drone strikes, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that statements President Barack Obama and top advisers made on the topic essentially foreclosed the CIA’s efforts to refuse to confirm or deny whether it had any records on drones.
The judge said the statements from Obama and the other officials were not an “exact match” but led to a logical inference that agencies like the CIA had to have records on the subject.
Asked about that appeals court case, which is binding law for Mehta and other district court judges, Glass replied: “It’s seems to us that was a one-off.”
Moss noted that the D.C. Circuit case appeared to presume that Obama and the other officials were speaking based on official knowledge and not other kinds of information.
“None of them said where they got their information from,” the attorney said.
However, Mehta referenced Justice Department policies limiting contacts with the White House and said those might require him to presume that Trump’s statements did not come from official DOJ information.
But when the judge asked whetherf any similar policy would preclude intelligence agencies from briefing the president on allegations about him, Glass demurred.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Mehta offered no clear indication Friday of how he plans to resolve the issue. As he wrapped up the hearing, he simply said: “Lot of food for thought,” before promising to release a ruling soon.
President Donald Trump released a new list of potential Supreme Court justices on Friday, adding five new judges to his previous compilation of 20 jurists.
The White House said Trump, who was “elected to restore the rule of law and to Make the Judiciary Great Again,” is “refreshing” his list.
“President Trump will choose a nominee for a future Supreme Court vacancy, should one arise, from this updated list of 25 individuals,” the White House said in a statement. “The president remains deeply committed to identifying and selecting outstanding jurists in the mold of Justice Gorsuch. These additions, like those on the original list released more than a year ago, were selected with input from respected conservative leaders.”
As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Trump initially released a list of 11 potential justices in May 2016. He added 10 names during the general election in September, including Neil Gorsuch, the man Trump successfully tapped in January to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the high court.
The updated roster omits Gorsuch and adds judges Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Britt Grant of the Georgia Supreme Court; Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Kevin Newsom of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Patrick Wyrick of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
White House counsel Don McGahn announced the new additions in remarks to a lawyers convention hosted by the Federalist Society later Friday.
McGahn said the jurists all “have a demonstrated commitment to originalism and textualism.”
“They all have paper trails. They all are sitting judges,” McGahn said. “There’s nothing unknown about them. What you see is what you get.”
The Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo played an outsize role in helping vet Trump’s original list of judges, as well as in selecting Gorsuch for the Supreme Court seat left vacant by Scalia’s death in 2016.
“Our opponents of judicial nominees frequently claim the president has outsourced his selection of judges. That is completely false,” McGahn argued. “I’ve been a member of the Federalist Society since law school — still am. So, frankly, it seems like it’s been insourced.”
“But seeking advice from Leonard Leo and many members of the Federalist Society is not outsourcing the judicial selection process,” he added. “The fact is we all share the same vision of the judicial role, and we welcome input from many sources.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has opted not to invite reporters to the CIA’s annual holiday party this year, ending a years-long streak of inviting the intelligence press corps to the upscale event.
The event has historically provided a rare opportunity for reporters to mingle with agency officials who typically shun or avoid them — but that the idea has been nixed by Pompeo, who has been openly critical of the news media, was hardly surprising. The annual decision on whether or not to invite the press to the early-December event is a director-level call. The CIA declined to comment.
As far as the Washington holiday party scene goes, the CIA's is one of the top billings, with a limited invite list that's coveted among diplomatic, congressional and media circles. In recent years, the inclusion of reporters at the annual event has been the norm rather than the exception. The last documented time reporters were excluded appears to be 2011, when then-CIA Director David Petraeus scaled back the party due to budget issues.
The party, held in the agency’s iconic headquarters lobby, is also a famously bizarre Washington exercise. Reporters, closely minded by the CIA’s press staff, are able to mingle in the hors d’oeuvres line with station chiefs, foreign partners and occupants of the CIA’s executive offices.
The small talk can get awkward: Undercover agency officials don't often have much to share when they realize they're sipping the CIA's signature cocktail concoction next to a journalist.
Even so, the party is a rare opportunity to demystify the CIA — especially for reporters who otherwise have few opportunities to visit the agency’s heavily secured Northern Virginia compound, except for unclassified analytical briefings.
The list of reporters the agency has invited in the past has ebbed and flowed. Writing a story that displeased the agency could get a scribe blacklisted. But CIA officials consider it important to present a positive, human face for reporters who must often be given a terse “no comment” for their stories.
"I think we all found it useful and you all found it useful,” one former Obama administration official said.
Some observers suggested the holiday snub may be a reflection of a changing attitude toward the media under Pompeo.
“Frankly, I would have been more surprised if [Pompeo] hadn't ended that tradition," the official said.
Pompeo , a former Republican congressman, tapped to run the agency by President Donald Trump, has made little secret of his disdain for the media. During a July appearance at the Aspen Security Forum, also attended by dozens of reporters, Pompeo referred to the “fuzzy little First Amendment thing we’ve got going on here.”
“I love the First Amendment," he added with a touch of sarcasm. "I’m all about it.”
President Donald Trump met Friday with a parade of NCAA championship teams at the White House, marking the occasion by spiking a volleyball, striking a wrestling pose and pausing for a prayer.
Trump did not reply to shouted questions from the pool reporter, who relayed details of the NCAA event, about why he had tweeted about allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) but not about allegations against Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama.
Altogether, the president met with 18 college championship teams, including the University of Utah’s ski team, the Texas A&M women’s equestrian team, the University of Florida baseball team and the Arizona State University women’s triathlon team. The photo-ops were held in a series of White House venues, beginning in the Rose Garden and wrapping up almost an hour later in the State Dining Room.
In the Rose Garden, Trump struck a wrestling pose with the Penn State University men’s wrestling team. On the South Lawn, a member of the University of Washington women’s rowing team joked about the president being surrounded by women — to which Trump’s response was inaudible to the pool reporter watching the event. The president was joined on the lawn by White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, an Ohio native, who joined in congratulating the Ohio State men’s volleyball team.
After taking a thumbs-up photo with the Buckeye volleyball players, Trump grabbed a ball and spiked it toward the last row of players, where one of them caught it.
With the University of Maryland men’s lacrosse team, Trump posed with Dylan Maltz, an attackman from nearby Ashburn, Virginia, who wore a tie whose pattern read “Trump.” With the Maryland women’s team, the pool reporter relayed that Trump may have made an off-color joke, “based on both the gasps and laughter of the team,” but that the president’s remarks were inaudible.
The parade of teams then moved into the East Room, where Trump was joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. There, the president prayed with the University of Oklahoma softball team. In the Red Room, Trump met the University of West Virginia’s co-ed rifle team, entering the room and remarking, “Second Amendment, right? Save the Second Amendment!"
One West Virginia student athlete joked with the president about being interested in a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, to which Trump asked, “Do you like the choice of [Jerome] Powell?”, the president’s pick to chair the Federal Reserve. Trump added that Powell was “going to be good.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader, announced Friday that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, saying in a statement that he would continue his advocacy work even as he engaged in therapy to slow the disease’s progression.
“Throughout my career of service, God has kept me in the embrace of his loving arms, and protected me and my family from dangers, seen and unseen,” Jackson said in a statement released by his Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “Now in the latter years of my life, at 76 years old, I find it increasingly difficult to perform routine tasks, and getting around is more of a challenge. After a battery of tests, my physicians identified the issue as Parkinson’s disease, a disease that bested my father.”
Jackson first rose to prominence during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, working closely with other leaders, including The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson was with King when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
The Baptist minister gravitated toward the U.S. political landscape, twice running for the Democratic nomination for president in the 1980s. He also has appeared often in the media and continued to advocate civil rights, work he said in his statement would expand to include a search for a cure for Parkinson’s.
“God continues to give me new opportunities to serve,” he said. “This diagnosis is personal but it is more than that. It is an opportunity for me to use my voice to help in finding a cure for a disease that afflicts 7 [million] to 10 million worldwide. I will continue to try to instill hope in the hopeless, expand our democracy to the disenfranchised and free innocent prisoners around the world.”
Lawmakers are moving to rein in John Sopko, the special inspector general who has angered many government officials with his bombastic claims about waste, fraud and abuse in the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan.
A provision tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both houses of Congress this week, requires inspectors general overseeing a key U.S. fund for Afghanistan to adhere to strict government auditing and inspection standards for all of their reports and other products.
A POLITICO investigation in 2016 detailed how Sopko had tried to get around those standards by establishing a "special projects" division whose publications, in particular its so-called inquiry letters, were at times misleading about U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.
In one infamous case in 2015, Sopko claimed that a special Pentagon task force had spent $43 million building a compressed natural gas station in the majority Muslim country, spurring outrage among lawmakers. But the cost, it was later revealed, was actually less than $10 million and the project more complex than Sopko described.
Congressional sources declined to comment on whether Sopko inspired the NDAA provision. It also was not clear who came up with the provision, although Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, have been concerned about Sopko's work and whether it meets government standards.
A Senate aide, however, said the provision "addresses the need for high quality [inspector general] work products prepared with uniform standards so that Congress is able to carry out its oversight role with the best information available."
The legislation does allow some waivers on the requirement to follow the government standards, but the decision on that rests with the lead inspector general, who is based at the Department of Defense, the aide explained. Sopko runs a different shop, known as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. And any product that is issued a waiver must still note that it was not conducted according to the government standards and offer a reason why.
The NDAA provision also appears to be limited to projects financed by the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, a major conduit through which the United States has funneled billions of dollars to help build up Afghanistan's army, police and affiliated units.
A spokeswoman for Sopko did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
Since he took over at SIGAR in 2012, Sopko has uncovered many genuine problems in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to security-related projects.
But officials at the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Pentagon have long complained that Sopko paints a misleading portrait of much of their work and that he aggressively uses the media along the way.
In the wake of POLITICO's investigation and intense questioning from lawmakers over the gas station report, Sopko's special projects division appears to have become more careful in how it has framed its reports and letters of inquiry.
But Sopko still occasionally makes questionable statements.
In June, he was quoted as saying that 98 percent of Afghanistan was desert.
It was not clear how Sopko was defining "desert," but analysts consulted by POLITICO disputed that description. The CIA World Factbook describes the country's terrain as "mostly rugged mountains."
Sopko and his aides did not respond to numerous requests from POLITICO over the course of several weeks during the summer that he explain his source for the 98 percent figure.
The NDAA is now headed to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature.
A pro-Obamacare coalition that spent big during this year's health care battle is going back on the airwaves, urging the three GOP senators who tanked their party's Obamacare repeal plan to vote against the massive Republican tax bill.
The left-leaning Save My Care group is focusing on Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska now that Senate GOP leaders have added a repeal of Obamacare's individual health insurance mandate to their tax bill. Next week's six-figure ad buy from Save My Care comes as liberal activists nationwide seize on the tax bill's Obamacare attack to mobilize their grass roots against the legislation.
The McCain-focused ad praises the Arizona Republican for having "been a hero for Arizona and the country" by opposing the GOP's Obamacare repeal bill in July, according to an advance copy shared with POLITICO, and the Alaska ad uses similar language to address Murkowski. The ad running in Collins' home state takes more direct aim at the GOP tax bill for using repeal of Obamacare's insurance mandate to help pay for tax cuts for individuals and corporations.
"President Trump and Republicans in Congress are ignoring bipartisan opposition and trying to sneak health care into their tax plan," the ad states. "Why? To pay for more tax breaks for billionaires and big corporations."
Senate Republican leaders have portrayed the mandate repeal as a de facto tax cut for lower-income individuals who would otherwise have to buy health insurance or pay a fine. The Senate is expected to consider the tax bill on the floor when lawmakers return to the Hill the week after Thanksgiving.
Save My Care was a major presence on the airwaves during this year's Obamacare repeal fight, spending seven figures in a single April TV ad buy against House Republicans. The coalition opened its pocketbooks again Friday after Senate Republicans added the mandate repeal to their tax plan.
Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore is not leaving the race to fill now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat, Moore’s wife, Kayla Moore, told a crowd of supporters Friday.
“Let me set the record straight,” Moore said, capping a Women for Moore rally in Alabama at which a group of women spoke favorably about the beleaguered former judge. “Even after all the attacks against me, against my family, against the foundation and now against my husband, he will not step down. He will not stop fighting for the people of Alabama. In his words, and I quote, ‘I will not stop until they lay me in that box in the ground.’”
Roy Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct decades ago, when he was in his 30s and reportedly pursued relationships with teenagers, including a 14-year-old girl he allegedly had sexual contact with. The former state Supreme Court judge has denied the allegations, which first surfaced last week in a deeply reported Washington Post story. The number of accusers has since grown to six.
A number of Washington Republicans have called on Roy Moore to step aside, while the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have cut fundraising ties to the campaign.
Kayla Moore said the family has “been inundated with so much positive response from the people of Alabama.”
“For the record,” she added, “it’s about 90 percent positive, and most of the negative is from out of state. The people of Alabama understand what’s going on here.”
Kayla Moore described her husband, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court, as a Christian fighting for the acknowledgment of God, for the Second Amendment and for life. Meanwhile, the news media, she said, referring specifically to the Post, endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential campaign and have also endorsed Democrat Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 special election against Moore.
Jones, Kayla Moore charged, is an “ultra-liberal” former Barack Obama delegate whose support for abortion, gun restrictions and transgender rights pits him “against everything we in Alabama believe and stand for.”
She alleged that the Post had joined the campaign with the Human Rights Campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the so-called Washington establishment to take down Roy Moore. She said the Post has called everyone she and her husband have known over the past 40 years.
“They print whatever anyone says without checking to even see if it is correct,” she said (The Post has denied such charges). “So, to the people of Alabama, thank you for being smarter than they think you are. They will call you names. They will say all manner of evil against you, and I would say consider the source.”
Kayla Moore also had advice for President Donald Trump, who has largely been silent on the controversy enveloping the campaign of the candidate on whose behalf the president had said he would campaign if he prevailed over appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the special election’s primary.
“All of the very same people who were attacking President Trump are also attacking us. I personally think he owes us a thank you,” she said. “Have you noticed you’re not hearing too much about Russia? To the president, I would say now is a good time to get some things done in Congress.”
Lawmakers, who left town Thursday, are on Thanksgiving recess through next week.
Democrat Doug Jones has an 8-point lead over embattled Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama special Senate election, according to a new poll released Thursday that shows voters are equally divided on the accusations of sexual misconduct against the GOP nominee.
The Fox News poll — conducted Monday through Wednesday — shows Jones leading Moore among likely voters, 50 percent to 42 percent. Just 2 percent would vote for another candidate, and 7 percent are undecided.
The special election is on Dec. 12. The Fox News poll is the first public survey conducted by live telephone interviewers since four women leveled the first allegations against Moore in a Washington Post story last week. Since then, a number of other women have come forward to allege that Moore physically assaulted them or made unwanted sexual advances — in many cases when the women were just teenagers. Moore has denied the most serious allegations of abuse and said that he did not generally date women in their teens.
Jones leads Moore in the Fox News poll, despite Alabama’s Republican lean, on the strength of his advantages among Democrats, young voters and women. Jones wins 91 percent of Democratic voters, while Moore is at 78 percent among Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats say they will vote for Moore, but about 13 percent of Republicans say they will vote for Jones.
Among voters under age 45, Jones has a 31-point lead, 61 percent to 30 percent. Moore has only a slight edge with voters 45 and older, 48 percent to 44 percent.
Moore leads Jones among male voters, 53 percent to 41 percent. But Jones has a wide advantage among women, 58 percent to 32 percent.
Moore has a 19-point lead among white voters, 56 percent to 37 percent. Jones is competitive among white voters with a college degree — Moore leads by just 4 points among them — but Moore has a 64 percent to 29 percent lead among white voters without college degrees. Among white voters who identify as evangelical Christians, Moore leads, 73 percent to 20 percent.
Likely voters in the Dec. 12 special election are divided on whether the allegations against Moore are true, with 38 percent saying they believe the allegations, and 37 percent saying they don’t. Five percent of likely voters think it’s too soon to say, and 20 percent are undecided.
Nearly three-quarters of likely Moore voters, 74 percent, say they don’t believe the allegations against him; only 7 percent of Moore voters believe the allegations. Among likely Jones voters, 64 believe the allegations against Moore, and 10 percent do not.
Still, a 54 percent majority of voters say Moore should remain in the race. Just 38 percent of likely voters think Moore should drop out.
While members of the Senate Republican leadership from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner have called for Moore to drop out of the race, President Donald Trump has not gone that far. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, said Thursday that the president believes “the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.”
Trump is far more popular among Alabama GOP voters than McConnell, the Fox News poll shows. More than 9-in-10 Alabama Republicans, 91 percent, approve of the job Trump is doing as president. McConnell’s approval rating among Alabama Republicans is only 29 percent, with 59 percent disapproving.
The Fox News poll also pours cold water on a potential write-in candidacy from interim Sen. Luther Strange, whom Moore defeated in the GOP primary runoff in September. Strange would actually trail Jones by a slightly larger margin in a head-to-head matchup — 10 points, compared with Moore’s 8-point deficit.
And despite the allegations against Moore, the former chief judge of the state Supreme Court maintains higher image ratings than Strange. Fully 43 percent of likely voters view Moore favorably, compared with 50 percent who have an unfavorable opinion of him, while only 37 percent have a favorable opinion of Strange, and 54 percent view him unfavorably.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who resigned the seat earlier this year, triggering the special election — has a positive image rating: Fifty-one percent view him favorably, while 40 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the longtime Alabama politician.
Jones’ image rating is even stronger: Fifty-three percent of likely voters view him favorably, and 33 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic nominee.
The Fox News poll surveyed 649 likely voters, contacted from a list of all registered voters in Alabama, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
After allegations broke last week that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had pursued relationships with several (and sexually assaulted at least one) teenage girls some 40 years ago, when Moore was in his early 30s, Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler reached for one of the most reliable weapons in the religious right’s defensive arsenal: the Bible. “Take Mary and Joseph,” Ziegler told the Washington Examiner when he defended the morality of Moore’s conduct on November 9, just hours after the Washington Post story broke. “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
But those who ascribe to Ziegler’s reading of Scripture—and many of Moore’s evangelical supporters could be among them—should read more carefully. The Bible offers no evidence that Joseph was older than Mary. “We know virtually nothing about Joseph, and no age is mentioned for either Joseph or Mary in the Gospels,” says Paula Fredriksen, professor emerita of scripture at Boston University, and author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. In fact, according to Jewish law and customs of the day, Mary and Joseph probably would have both been young when they married. “Girls were usually engaged sometime between the ages of 12 and 15, and would be married sometime thereafter, at 15 or 16, and boys would have been 19 or 20,” Fredriksen says.
But what of the many classic paintings and illustrations, not to mention countless church yard Nativity displays and Christmas cards featuring Joseph as a grey-bearded, almost grandfatherly figure, in contrast to Mary’s eternally glowing, post-natal youth? That has nothing to do with the biblical record, it turns out. The reason for the “superannuation of Joseph” in art and the popular imagination, as Fredriksen puts it, was a later response to early church debates about Mary’s perpetual virginity. If Mary had sexual relations with Joseph, she would lose that pure and chaste status which was foretold in Scripture. So to remove all doubt, theologians aged Joseph.
The controversy over Joseph’s age centers around the issue of Jesus’ siblings, who appear in Mark (6:3) and Matthew (13:55-56). If the siblings were the product of unions between Mary and Joseph, then Mary could not have remained a virgin after Jesus had been born. But many in the church believed that Mary lived as a virgin throughout her life. Her perpetual virginity represented her full and everlasting commitment to being the mother of Christ.
The issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity came to head in the 4th century, around the time the books of the Christian Bible were being assembled. Some heretical bishops—mostly located in the Byzantine East—concluded that the only way to explain Jesus’ siblings was through sexual relations between Joseph and Mary after Jesus had been born. The mainstream church pushed back, with an organized media campaign of texts known to scholars as “Apocrypha.” Among the campaign’s key weapons was a 2nd century Greek document titled the “Protoevangelium of James,” meaning the first gospel of the apostle James. It was one of several “infancy gospels” circulating during the first few centuries CE that did not make it into the final 4th century version of the Christian Bible because they contained teachings inconsistent with Scripture. But the “Protoevangelium of James,” proved useful when pushing the wide generation gap between Joseph and Mary.
In the text, Joseph is described as the now-familiar, elderly partner of Mary: a widower with adult children from a previous marriage, which helped explain away Jesus’ pesky siblings. The elderly saint claims he is not up to the task of caring for a youthful, pregnant wife out of sheer exhaustion, and the potential embarrassment. “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel,” Joseph complains to the high priest. “The Protoevangelium of James was a way of reasserting, in a very emphatic way, the virginity of Mary,” says Princeton University’s Elaine Pagels, professor of the history of religion. It wasn’t the only document that did so. In another early text, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, which was composed in Egypt between the 6th and 7th centuries, Christ himself tells the story of his step-father, claiming Joseph was 90 years old when he married Mary and died at 111.
The theory caught on. During the Middle Ages, Joseph the senior citizen became a stock figure in literature and art. Portrayals of Joseph as old and grey reached their height in Renaissance and Baroque-era paintings, such as Guido Reni’s 1640 “St. Joseph and the Christ Child,” in which a kindly, grandfatherly Joseph cradles the baby Jesus in his arms. Such images were a far cry from the earliest depictions of the saint. In the 5th century mosaics at Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Joseph appears hale and hearty and somewhat buff, in keeping with his stated profession in the Gospels as a tekton, a Greek word which could mean carpenter, but might more accurately be translated into modern English as “construction worker.”
Gradually, in the wake of plague and political turmoil that threatened to tear Europe apart during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, some religious orders started honoring and embracing Joseph as a strong protector and Joseph once again and soon began to regain some of his youthful vigor. St. Teresa of Avila entrusted the spiritual task of reforming the Carmelite order in 16th century Spain to Joseph, dedicating monasteries in his name. In 1729, he was enrolled in the Vatican’s official Litany of Saints,. By 2006, when Hollywood released the film The Nativity Story, Joseph was back as Mary’s near contemporary; Oscar Isaac, then 27 years old played the stepfather of Jesus.
But overall, the myth of the old Joseph has stuck—a historically inaccurate reading of the Bible still evoked by religious conservatives like Zeigler. The irony, though, is that even if one accepts the classic image of Joseph as a geriatric, then comparing Moore to the stepfather of Jesus doesn’t quite work either. The concept of an older Joseph was developed only to underscore his non-sexual relationship with Mary, as opposed to supporting some vaguely moral, May-December romance.
Either way, says Fredriksen, what remains clear to her is that comparing Moore to Joseph not only pushes the envelope: It rips it to shreds. “There is nothing either in the Gospels, or in the apocryphal stories that evolved later, that Joseph ever groped Mary,” she says.
Depending on what corners of political journalism you read, it looks like a new party has shown up in American politics. This week, after the Washington Post published allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had a history of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon lashed out against a nebulous foe: “the Uniparty.”
“This is an orchestrated hit from the Uniparty,” Bannon said on Monday in an interview with Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow on the satellite radio show Breitbart News Daily.
In calling out “the Uniparty,” Bannon was just agreeing with Marlow, who had led off the broadcast by saying, “The more I think about this Roy Moore story, the more this does feel like a political witch hunt, the more this does feel like a total orchestrated, colluded hit between the Republican establishment, the establishment press, the Democratic Party, the Washington swamp Uniparty.”
“The Uniparty” is the latest populist buzzword to seize the imagination of the drain-the-swamp crowd, those who see grand conspiracies in the machinations of the “deep state” and globalist-corporate forces. It has a crisp clarity, instantly conveying the idea of an establishment cabal, Democrat and Republican alike, arrayed against their outsider hero, Donald Trump.
But while “the Uniparty” may be trendy among the Breitbart set, it wasn’t born there. In fact, if you go back to the contentious presidential race of 2000, you’ll find it arose as a political barb among supporters of Ralph Nader, running as the nominee of the Green Party.
Numerous posts on the Usenet newsgroup alt.politics.green from that year railed against “the two-headed UniParty,” “the money-driven media/political uniparty environment,” “the corporate Uniparty grip on the civic polity,” and so forth.
Nader himself used the expression in his book “Crashing the Party,” reflecting on his experience running in 2000. “We gave heart to many committed Americans from a wide variety of backgrounds that there is a springtime party ready for them to grow at the local, state, and national levels in future elections and ready soon to be a watchdog party over the corporate uniparty,” he wrote.
Even before Nader, the word “uniparty” occasionally reared its head in American politics to suggest unsavory collusion between Republicans and Democrats. In 1944, a letter surfaced purporting to show that Wendell Willkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican rival in the 1940 election, was in fact selected by Roosevelt’s close adviser Harry Hopkins. An editorial in a Pennsylvania newspaper warned that the letter (which proved to be a forgery) could “indicate an attempt to create a uni-party government—totalitarianism—in the United States.”
But it took Nader and his followers to elevate “the Uniparty” into a proper noun—a nefarious entity representing the Washington establishment. It fit in with various other Naderite buzzwords: One Green Party loyalist in 2000 excoriated “the status-quo Corporate Republicrat Uniparty Duopoly that has taken our votes for granted.”
“Republicrat” and its twin “Demican” have an even longer history in American politics. Way back in the summer of 1872, at a reception for visiting Japanese diplomats in Boston, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the poet and father of the Supreme Court Justice) presented some light verse intended to explain the country’s muddled political situation to the visitors:
For things are so mixed, how’s a fellow to know
What party he’s of, and what vote he shall throw?
White is getting so black and black’s getting white.
Republic-rat, Dem-ican—can’t get ’em right!
At the time, the parties truly were hard to tell apart, as the Democrats decided to support Horace Greeley as their candidate to oppose the incumbent Republican Ulysses Grant, even though Greeley represented the Liberal Republican faction that had split off from the GOP. (Holmes’ “black” and “white” imagery evidently betrayed his anxieties about race-mixing in the Reconstruction era.)
The major parties in Great Britain have been subject to similar ribbing over the years. A 1960 cartoon in the Evening Standard portrayed politicians at a LIB-LAB-CON-ference, blending the Liberal, Labour, and Conservative parties into one. The cartoon features a Mr. Butskell, whom British readers would have recognized as an amalgamation of the Tory politician Rab Butler and his Labour counterpart Hugh Gaitskell. The Economist had introduced Mr. Butskell as a comic figure in 1954 and was soon decrying “Butskellism,” as the policies of party leaders seemed to converge.
Americans have engaged in their own political name-blending, particularly in 2012, when the candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney morphed into “Robama” and “Obamney.” Criticism was especially fierce from Romney’s Republican rivals from further on the right, who painted the Massachusetts health care plan, “Romneycare” as no different from the much-reviled Obamacare. In the GOP primaries, Tim Pawlenty tried out both “Robamacare” and “Obamneycare” as epithets against his opponent, to no avail.
The 2012 campaign season was when the “Uniparty” slam moved away from its Green Party roots and began to be embraced by right-wing Republicans unhappy with a moderate bureaucrat like Romney as the party torchbearer. Libertarians especially took to the term: In an editorial for Reason, Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation wrote, “The two parties—actually the two divisions of the uniparty that represents the permanent regime—agree on all fundamentals.” The following year, Angelo M. Codevilla argued on the Law and Liberty site that “the Republican Party’s leaders have functioned as junior members of America’s single ruling party, the UniParty.”
In 2016, progressives in the Nader tradition still occasionally returned to the “Uniparty” theme, as when Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein tweeted ominously, “We’re now seeing many Republican leaders join Hillary Clinton in a neoliberal uni-party that will fuel right-wing extremism.” But for the most part, “the Uniparty” became the province of the Bannon-Breitbart wing of Trump supporters, attacking mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike.
Marlow, the Breitbart editor, has been particularly enamored of the expression. In an August 2016 interview with Ann Coulter, he said, “I’m becoming more obsessed with this Uniparty in Washington, where the Republicans and Democrats seem to be fusing together.” Coulter agreed with Marlow’s assessment and started using “the Uniparty” herself, including on Politico's “Off Message” podcast a few weeks later. Lately, Coulter has fretted that Trump’s agenda “has been drowned out by the agenda of Washington’s Uni-Party.” Meanwhile, references to “the Uniparty” have spread like wildfire among Trump loyalists on social media and Reddit, particularly the Trump-loving subreddit, r/The_Donald.
So when Bannon uses the term, denizens of Trumplandia knows exactly what he’s talking about—but they might be nonplussed to learn that it was Ralph Nader who paved the rhetorical road for them.
Jared Kushner is still working with an interim security clearance 10 months into President Donald Trump’s administration, according to White House officials and others with knowledge of the matter.
The top adviser and Trump son-in-law, who joined Trump for part of his Asia tour this month, has continued to work on sensitive foreign policy issues and other matters while his application for a permanent clearance remains under review, these people said.
On Thursday, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein — who jointly oversee the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Russia probe — requested documents from Kushner including “transcripts from other committee interviews, additional documents from previous requests, communications with (former national security adviser) Michael Flynn and documents related to his security clearance.”
Grassley and Feinstein said Kushner, citing confidentiality, declined to produce documents connected to his security clearance application, which includes a form that has been repeatedly amended to list Kushner’s contacts with foreign officials.
Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that Kushner “will be open” to responding to requests from the committee.
Many senior White House officials have obtained a permanent security clearance — some received the clearances five months ago or longer — but interviews and paperwork continue for Kushner, a senior campaign adviser who joined the administration on Day One.
People familiar with the situation say Kushner’s interim clearance allows him to view sensitive material, and that it is valid unless revoked.
A White House official said there is a backlog given the number of officials in Trump’s administration who joined the government for the first time and did not previously hold security clearances.
A White House official also said the Kushner timeframe is “completely normal” and that the process can often take 300 or more days. Officials added there is heightened scrutiny for officials like Kushner who need the very highest clearance.
Several experts said that each situation is different.
“As a general rule, with respect to clearances, when you have people who have never had one before and they have massive financial and foreign connection and a staggering amount of business interests, like some of the people accompanying Trump, it wouldn’t be unheard of,” said Mark Zaid, a prominent security clearance lawyer.
To obtain a security clearance, officials must complete an SF-86 form, which delineates foreign contacts. They must provide a robust financial history. Then, officials are interviewed extensively — and their family members, friends and former colleagues and bosses are also contacted. The interviews often begin within weeks of the application.
Kushner was interviewed this summer, according to people familiar with the matter, after other officials were interviewed.
He has a number of complicating factors, including complex financial transactions involving his family’s real estate business as well as the changes to his form listing foreign contacts, which now includes more than 100 meetings, including with Russians during the transition.
“I have never seen that level of mistakes,” Charles Phalen, the director of the National Background Investigations Bureau, said in a congressional hearing earlier this fall.
Leslie McAdoo Gordon, a lawyer who has worked on security clearance cases for years, said they are often prioritized for senior White House staff. “The goal has always been 90 days,” she said. “Some of them get resolved in 90 days, but many of them don’t. It can take months. It can occasionally take years. You just have to work the system.”
McAdoo Gordon said the president could eventually approve Kushner’s clearance. She also said there are waivers to expedite the process, and that those who the president needs immediately are often moved to the front of the line.
“From everything you read, it’s apparent there are issues there,” she said. “It’s a labyrinthine process, but it’s usually pretty fair and transparent.”
A former aide to Hillary Clinton attacked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as a “hypocrite” late Thursday night over comments the lawmaker made to The New York Times that former President Bill Clinton should have resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Ken Starr spent $70 million on a consensual blowjob. Senate voted to keep POTUS WJC. But not enough for you @SenGillibrand?” Philippe Reines, an adviser to Hillary Clinton during her tenure in the Senate, at the State Department and during last year’s campaign, wrote on Twitter. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
Included in Reines’ online post was a link to the Times story, in which Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said it would have been the “appropriate response” for Bill Clinton to resign in response to revelations that he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Lewinsky, while he was president. Gillibrand couched her statement to the Times by saying Clinton’s scandal occurred in a different era and that it would have played out much differently had it happened today.
A spokesman for Gillibrand emphasized that point in a follow-up with the Times. Gillibrand’s office did not immediately return a request for a comment on Reines’ online attack.
Gillibrand’s answers on the subject of inappropriate sexual behavior in politics come as the issue has come to the forefront not just in Washington, but around the country, as a growing list of men in the entertainment industry have been forced to answer for a range of accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
In the political realm, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore has struggled over the last week to convincingly refute allegations that he sexually assaulted teenage girls as young as 14 when he was a district attorney in his 30s. Likewise, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) on Thursday issued an apology in response to an accusation, accompanied by photographic evidence, that he groped broadcaster Leeann Tweeden while she was sleeping during a 2006 USO tour. She also accused Franken of forcibly kissing her.
Beyond the Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton has been accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual misconduct, including rape, although the former president has denied all the allegations. Trump, too, has been accused of sexual assault by as many as 16 different women and was recorded on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes in 2005 bragging about how his celebrity status allowed him to sexually assault women without consequence.
Trump has denied the accusations of sexual misconduct and, in response to The Washington Post’s publication of the “Access Hollywood” recording, chalked up his comments to “locker room talk” that he had never acted on.
Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate in 2009 by then-New York Gov. David Paterson, who picked Gillibrand to fill the seat left vacant by Hillary Clinton, who had been nominated to serve as secretary of state.
Sen. Bob Corker, having already turned on the president, has a new target for his frustration: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The Tennessee Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman has voiced concerns about Tillerson’s management of the State Department and his still-fuzzy plans to restructure it. At a Senate hearing earlier this week, Corker agreed with several criticisms of Tillerson and his team expressed by Democrats, adding that lawmakers need to be “much more focused on holding them accountable.”
Tillerson’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s staff and budget have drawn growing bipartisan fire from Capitol Hill for months. But Corker’s criticism stands out.
Until recently, Corker has been a steadfast ally of Tillerson, whose nomination he championed and whom he has described as one of the adults around Trump who “separate our country from chaos.” In October, Corker defended Tillerson against what he called Trump’s efforts to “castrat[e]” his secretary of state.
Corker has not gone after Tillerson as harshly as he has Trump, whom the senator has publicly lambasted since announcing in September that he will not seek reelection.
But Corker’s annoyance with Tillerson also has turned heads because both men have business backgrounds — Tillerson is a former ExxonMobil CEO and Corker make a fortune in real estate — and both wish to make government more efficient. Corker shares Tillerson’s basic goal of reshaping the State Department. But he is frustrated with Tillerson’s execution of the plan, observers said.
“Corker saw in Tillerson a kindred spirit,” said Tom Hill, a former senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee now with the Brookings Institution. “But the more that this has played out and looked so fumbled, he, as a former businessman himself, feels that these opportunities are being squandered.”
An aide to Corker dismissed the notion that he’s unhappy with Tillerson.
“While Sen. Corker is obviously concerned about the pace of reorganization efforts at the State Department, any notion that he is souring on Secretary Tillerson is way off base. He still has full confidence in the secretary,” said Todd Womack, Corker’s chief of staff.
Asked about the relationship, Tillerson aide R.C. Hammond said, “Secretary Tillerson has enormous respect for Sen. Corker and values his counsel.”
Corker is far from the only one expressing concern about Tillerson’s plans.
Last week, a bipartisan group of Senate staffers met with Tillerson aides to get an update on Tillerson’s plan to reshape his department. The State staffers shared a presentation, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, that infuriated the Senate aides with its lack of substance.
“Part of the frustration is that they briefed entirely on process as opposed to what they actually plan to do,” said a Senate aide who attended the session. “At one point, in frustration, staff offered them the rumors they had been hearing, which the State briefers said they put in the ‘under consideration’ mode but shed no light on."
In a hearing Tuesday, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Tillerson, pointing to reports of an exodus of senior diplomats from the Foreign Service. He also slammed Tillerson for being slow or simply unwilling to answer lawmakers’ questions about what is happening to America’s diplomatic ranks.
Corker said he agreed with “many” of Cardin’s criticisms and mentioned the “unsatisfactory” meeting between Senate and Tillerson aides.
“I don’t think they’re anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms they want to make there,” Corker said. “And I do think that we need to be much more focused on holding them accountable.”
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also weighed in Wednesday with a letter to Tillerson that urged him to lift limits on hiring and promotions and to consult more with lawmakers about his plans. “While we support reasonable steps to improve the efficiency of the State Department, such efforts must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing, not diminishing, American diplomacy,” the senators wrote.
Other lawmakers and staffers have also urged more consultation with Congress because it’s possible that some of the changes Tillerson wants to make will require legislation.
Corker, a relatively moderate, pragmatic Republican, was once one of the most prominent voices in the GOP to support Trump, and was in the running to be secretary of state.
But in recent months, Trump and Corker’s relationship has derailed over differences on the Iran nuclear deal, taxes and other matters. Corker has questioned Trump’s mental fitness for the Oval Office, saying the president needs “adult daycare” and warning that the Republican commander in chief could lead the United States into World War III.
Tillerson’s relationship with Trump has also encountered turbulence. The secretary of state reportedly called the president a “moron,” a claim Tillerson hasn’t denied. But, while engaged on major foreign policy issues ranging from how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program to preventing a genocide in Myanmar, Tillerson has appeared most happy when discussing his desire to restructure the State Department.
“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient and for all of you to take greater satisfaction in what you do day in and day out,” Tillerson told a group of U.S. diplomats in September.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker can make Tillerson’s life even more difficult than it is now. He could schedule more public hearings to demand details on Tillerson’s plans for State. He could also promote legislation that restricts what changes Tillerson can make, a move toward greater micromanagement of the department by Congress.
Already this week, Corker announced a delay in the confirmation vote for Eric Ueland, a budget expert nominated to serve as undersecretary for management at State. It was not clear which lawmaker requested the delay, but many Democrats worry Tillerson is bringing in Ueland to find clever but legal ways to slash State’s funds.
Some observers note that delaying confirmations and threatening funding cuts — traditional tools used by lawmakers to coerce the executive branch — may not work on Tillerson or Trump because they desire a smaller, less cash-flush State Department. The administration is reportedly offering $25,000 buyouts to State employees to get more to leave. Trump himself recently dismissed concerns that leaving slots at State empty would hurt U.S. foreign policy, saying, “I’m the only one that matters.”
Although lawmakers from both parties have rebuffed Trump's proposal to slash State’s budget by roughly a third, Tillerson appears to be moving ahead as if the Trump budget plan will become the law. And lawmakers worry that in his zeal to reduce State’s size and budget Tillerson may ignore budget directives from Congress.
Cardin, in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, said lawmakers have already started thinking about what legal options they have if Tillerson ignores congressional mandates on spending. The problem, Cardin said, is that the State Department has dragged its feet on sharing its plans with lawmakers.
“We have yet to get answers to our questions, so I think it’s premature for us to say what step will go next. We have been told by senior officials in the executive branch that they intend to carry out the laws,” Cardin said. When a reporter pointed out that the administration’s stalling could be a deliberate tactic, Cardin smiled and said, “We understand that.”
One area in which Tillerson has been somewhat more forthcoming is his plan to cut the ranks of special envoys at the State Department. There have been around 70 such positions, and, in a letter sent earlier this year to lawmakers, at their insistence, Tillerson said he’ll cut about three dozen of the slots.
Sources inside the State Department have told POLITICO that at least two special envoy offices — one dealing with sanctions and one dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan — have been shut down. But, despite multiple requests for an official update, the department has declined to offer any specifics about where the culling process stands.
"We have not moved any funds nor positions regarding the special envoys and representatives,” a department spokesman said in an email. “The State Department continues to carry out the work of the various offices. We are continuing to work with Congress in anticipation of moving forward."
President Donald Trump got a boost Thursday with passage of the House tax bill, but the biggest winner may be Speaker Paul Ryan.
Loathed by the Breitbart wing of the Republican Party — which sees Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as Trump’s biggest obstacle to making America great again — the Wisconsin Republican scored a major victory in Thursday’s 227-205 vote to pass a massive tax-cut package that dramatically alters the U.S. tax code.
While the Senate still has to pass its own version of the bill, and the two chambers then have to cut a deal to resolve key differences, it’s a win for Ryan. Like repealing and replacing Obamacare, Ryan can claim the House has done its job, and it’s over to you, Mitch McConnell.
And it’s worth pointing out that even in the Trump era, the biggest legislative win so far for Trump is an issue that Ryan has been working on for virtually his entire career.
“The speaker has been plowing the field for years for this moment. Decades, perhaps, for this moment,” said Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas). “He’s made the case to lawmakers, thought leaders, the country, forever. It’s because of his hard work and leadership we’re here at this moment.”
“This is his bill. This is Ryan’s bill. ... This is what he came for,” Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) added. “What cements things is winning. You don’t win, you’re not invited back.”
Yet there are vocal opponents to the tax bill, both inside the House GOP conference and out.
A bloc of House Republicans from blue states like New York and New Jersey voted against the bill over a proposal to limit the deduction for state and local taxes, a major issue for their constituents. Democrats unanimously voted against the package, saying that Republicans are hurting the middle class to give rich people and corporate America a huge gift.
And Ryan himself had to make the final step from deficit hawk to full-fledged supply-sider, as the bill will add nearly $1.5 trillion to the deficit over a decade. During the Obama era, Ryan voiced strong opposition to boosting budgets deficits; now under Trump, those concerns apparently have disappeared. National polls also show the American public is not in favor of the legislation.
"This is a shell game, a Ponzi scheme that corporate America will perpetrate on the American people," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared of the GOP tax plan. "But if you're the wealthiest 1 percent, Republicans will give you the sun, the moon and the stars, all of that at the expense of the great middle class."
Ryan — a former chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means panels — has essentially staked his job on this bill.
Ryan has been under tremendous pressure from Trump and party donors to pass a tax cut, a feeling made only more urgent by the summer’s Obamacare debacle. The Republican trouncing in the recent Virginia elections also have spooked the entire GOP as their favorability ratings have cratered. If House Republicans can’t pass a tax cut, many GOP lawmakers admitted in private, there really isn’t any reason for them to be in the majority anymore.
"This is one of the most historic and the biggest things that we will ever do," Ryan said on the floor before the vote. "And the reason is because this is one of the biggest things we can do to improve people's lives, to revitalize that beautiful, American idea, to spread liberty and freedom."
For Ryan, the past two weeks leading into Thursday’s vote have actually been fairly calm. As he has all year, Ryan did a barrage of TV interviews pushing the GOP plan, including another televised “townhall” to discuss it. He’s focused on it at every news conference, swatting away questions about Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to focus on this measure. In the end, there was little drama as House GOP leaders had the votes locked up for days.
Ryan’s role in much of the tax debate was as a “facilitator,” according to GOP sources, helping to keep everyone focused on the end goal rather than getting too bogged down in contentious policy fights. He also helped smooth the rough spots between the White House and tax-writing committees that drafted the legislation.
This was the case in the “Big Six” talks over taxes throughout July, August and September, as its members crafted the framework for what eventually became the House and Senate bills. That high-powered group — which included Ryan, Brady, McConnell, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn — wrestled with thorny issues, including how much to cut taxes for the wealthy; whether to make any such cuts permanent or phase them out; what to do with Obamacare taxes; and how much they can slash the corporate rate, a big priority for Trump.
Another important moment occurred last month, when the House agreed to take up the Senate budget resolution that outlined the parameters of the package. Passage of the budget resolution was critical since it allows Senate Republicans to evade Democratic filibusters and consider the tax bill under a 51-vote threshold, rather than 60.
Taking up the Senate resolution was a major concession by House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and many conservatives. The House’s budget plan would require the tax reform bill to be deficit neutral and would force Congress to find more than $200 billion in savings from changes to mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare, provisions not favored by the Senate. Ryan spoke to both Black and Trump over the need to move quickly to get taxes done and they signed off on the move.
One other touchy topic was the Alaska delegation, which wanted to include language allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of the Senate budget resolution. But doing so would have slowed down the process of approving the House package. Ryan spoke to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as well as Rep. Don Young, and persuaded the GOP trio to wait and include it in the Senate tax cut plan, which is what occurred.
Ryan pressed his own members to back the Senate budget, saying, "It comes down to this: If we want to start 2018 with a new tax code and the wind at our backs, I think we need to be out of the House by Thanksgiving,” Ryan told his members in Oct. 19 conference call. “And to realistically be out of the House by Thanksgiving, we need to pass a final budget next week.”
Ryan and other GOP leaders, cognizant of the criticism they received from the rank-and-file over their handling of the Obamacare repeal proposal, let Brady take the lead inside Ways and Means on drafting a tax bill. While leadership knew what Brady was trying to do, they explicitly did not attempt to dictate the outcome. This helped build broad support for the package, although Brady was forced to make some changes to the legislation during the markup.
“Absolutely it’s a huge success,” said Rep. Tom Reed, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and a New Yorker who voted in favor of the package, adding, Ryan’s ability to “keep people focused and trying to deal with their fears and anxiety has helped us a great deal.”
The national conversation about sexual harassment has hit the clubby halls of the Capitol with a vengeance.
Democrats faced their own internal reckoning on Thursday when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) apologized to a radio anchor who said he forcibly kissed and groped her in 2006. Once a potential presidential hopeful, Franken quickly submitted to a Senate Ethics Committee investigation.
The Franken bombshell came amid a deluge of news coverage in recent days of Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, who is accused of harassing or sexually assaulting multiple teenage girls and young women. Earlier Thursday, the chief of staff to a House lawmaker leading the charge against sexual harassment in Congress resigned in the face of sexual misconduct allegations by former aides.
And earlier this week, a pair of female lawmakers said that several current members of Congress have sexually harassed women.
On a day when the House passed the most far-reaching tax bill in decades, and when jurors in New Jersey deadlocked in a corruption trial involving a sitting senator, Robert Menendez, Capitol Hill was consumed instead by the issue of sexual harassment.
And it prompted a rare bout of soul-searching in an institution not exactly known for that.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading advocate for Congress’ recent shift from voluntary to mandatory sexual harassment training, said it was depressing that such a move was even necessary.
“That’s a sad commentary, you know, that you have to do it,” Grassley told reporters.
More than 1,500 former congressional aides have signed an open letter to leaders in both parties declaring that Congress' policies for deterring and acting on harassment cases are “inadequate and need reform.” Yet, despite the Republican condemnation of Moore and Democratic dismay at Franken, legislation that would impose that reform has yet to reach a critical mass of bipartisan support.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has two GOP backers for a proposal to overhaul the congressional workplace misconduct system. But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) remains in search of a Republican partner for the same bill in the upper chamber.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) on Thursday decried Franken’s “inexcusable conduct” and said he hopes Capitol Hill’s culture is on the verge of changing as more stories surface.
“I think it’s important every office have a policy in place like I’ve had for years now on this issue,” Casey told reporters.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) was one of the few Democrats who responded to the sexual misconduct allegations against Franken, which he criticized as “deeply troubling and disappointing,” by recalling Donald Trump’s many accusers. It was a rare instance of partisan finger-pointing on the matter, which both parties acknowledge has no party affiliation.
“Assertions of deplorable behavior by President Trump have been made by many women over many years, and I deeply regret those allegations will never be scrutinized the way they should be,” Carper said in a statement.
The Senate Ethics Committee had not formally announced an investigation into Franken’s behavior toward radio anchor Leeann Tweeden as of Thursday afternoon. But a probe appears all but inevitable after both Senate leaders called for one and the Minnesota senator said he would cooperate.
The Senate Ethics Committee’s work could spread even further. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that if Moore was elected Dec. 12 and sworn in, he would immediately face an Ethics Committee process.
McConnell oversaw the effort to expel former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) nearly two decades ago over sexual harassment allegations. Packwood resigned before he could be formally ejected from the chamber, however.
The most recent Senate Ethics probe involving sexual allegations was into ex-Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who had an extramarital affair with the wife of a former top aide, for whom Ensign arranged lobbying work. Ensign resigned before the committee could finish its investigation, at which point Ethics no longer had jurisdiction.
“It could lead to any number of things,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of an Ethics probe into Franken, which the Illinois Democrat said he supports. “It’s not fair to prejudge it, or to judge what the committee will do.”
Franken, with his dash of celebrity and reputation for humor, had become a sought-after Democratic fundraiser in recent years. Earlier this month, he traveled to St. Louis for the Missouri Democratic Party’s annual Truman Dinner. Introducing him, Sen. Claire McCaskill praised Franken as her friend, and said he was in town to “to motivate us, to make us understand that we’re not done in Missouri as Democrats.”
On Thursday, McCaskill, who has spoken openly of her own experiences with sexual harassment, was the first senator to announce she would donate campaign cash she received from Franken to charity, just hours after the accusation hit the internet.
Other senators, facing reelection in 2018, quickly followed. Ohio’s Sherrod Brown donated $28,100 to charities across his state. Montana Sen. Jon Tester gave $25,000 to the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey each pledged $10,000 in donations. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson canceled a fundraiser with Franken scheduled for Saturday.
In the past, campaigns often waited until days after a scandal broke to donate tainted campaign funds to charity. On Thursday, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee pressuring them and few Democrats stepping forward to defend the Minnesotan, there was no delay.
By the end of day, essentially every vulnerable Democrat facing reelection in 2018 had said they were donating money from Franken to charity.
Back on Capitol Hill, Grassley — a lead architect of the 1995 law that created the Hill's office in charge of workplace misconduct complaints — was optimistic that required training could create significant change.
“I’ve got great faith that prevention training is going to help a great deal," Grassley said, "and everybody has to do it now."
At the Department of Justice, there have been 31 sexual harassment complaints through the third quarter of 2017, a number in line with recent years. At the CIA, there were six sexual harassment complaints from 2012 to 2016, according to its federal reports.
But there are no comparable records for the White House, thanks to a 2002 law — the No FEAR Act — that exempts the Executive Office of the President from filing requirements that apply to other executive branch agencies.
As Congress and the private sector move to improve reporting procedures and increase transparency amid multiplying revelations of widespread harassment, the White House remains uniquely opaque — and reliant on guidance lawyers say falls short of common standards for shielding employees from abuse.
Employees joining the White House are provided with new-hire documents that contain two pages that define sexual harassment and discrimination, and give directions for reporting such incidents.
The document, which was obtained by POLITICO, lists three “strategies for addressing discrimination”: “Talk to the individual about any behavior, actions or decisions that appear discriminatory; Discuss the situation or incident with an appropriate supervisor; Seek EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] counseling.”
The paperwork had not been substantially updated or changed from what the Obama administration was using when President Donald Trump took office, according to a White House source.
Five lawyers who reviewed the document for POLITICO raised concerns.
“It’s a complete failure if this is their actual policy,” said Carolyn Wheeler, a former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawyer. “Other than giving you a definition of what harassment is, I’d say it’s useless.”
Typically, employees at federal agencies are directed to file sexual harassment complaints with the agency’s equal employment opportunity officer. Almost every office in the sprawling federal bureaucracy — from big agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services to much smaller federal offices, like the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation and the Marine Mammal Commission — has one.
For workers at all those agencies, it’s easy to find out who that person is, because contact information for all federal equal employment officers is listed on the EEOC’s website — but not for the White House, which is missing.
“EEOC maintains the list on www.eeoc.gov as a courtesy and it is not comprehensive,” Brett Brenner, a spokesman for the EEOC told POLITICO in a statement.
At the White House, the official’s name, Clara Patterson, is not specified in the new employee document provided to POLITICO. The back of the handbook contains a web address for more information, but that address is incorrect.
The White House is in the process of updating it, according to the White House source.
“If it were my client, I would say you haven’t focused enough on the internal complaint procedure,” said Deborah Kelly, a labor and employment lawyer who represents employers. “You shouldn’t have to sit in your desk or your cubicle and say, ‘Oh my god I don’t know who to tell.’ It should be crystal clear to you.”
Kelly added: “It’s not incorrect, but it is not as user-friendly as I think you would want it to be to show how seriously you take this issue.”
Beyond specifying whom to contact, such documents should also outline what happens next, lawyers said. Ensuring employees that their complaints will be confidential and investigated in a timely manner — and that they are protected from retribution — is crucial to creating an environment in which people feel comfortable coming forward, they said.
“They need to tell you where to go and what happens after that, what to expect, that there will be no retaliation that their complaints will be handled confidentially,” Wheeler said.
The White House provided POLITICO with the following statement: “The White House is committed to a workplace environment free from discriminatory behavior and one that embraces diversity. Providing the workforce vital information required to recognize and prevent one form of discriminatory behavior, in this case, sexual harassment, is part of the Executive Office of the President’s ongoing commitment to educating its staff on broader Equal Employment Opportunity issues. The Executive Office of the President has robust policies, guidance and guidelines on the serious issue of sexual harassment — that it is inappropriate and against the law.”
The White House source said that “written guidance on preventing sexual harassment” is available in a handbook for new employees and on the White House intranet.
White House employees are not required to undergo sexual harassment training. Three current senior White House officials confirmed to POLITICO that they had received no such training.
While sexual harassment training is not required by federal law, it is highly recommended, according to lawyers who spoke with POLITICO.
“If you’re the federal government, you should live by and model the best practices that you want the rest of the country to follow,” Kelly said, which would some form of include sexual harassment training for all employees and in-person training for top managers and leaders.
“A commitment to inclusion and nondiscrimination starts at the top and where the leader of an organization is known to harass or discriminate it is much tougher to convince employees that they will be taken seriously or protected if they complain about harassment or discrimination,” said Wheeler.
The idea of President Donald Trump sitting through harassment training, however, had some raising their eyebrows.
“How would you like to be the trainer to face the challenge of providing training to the president?” asked David Fortney, an employment lawyer and partner at Fortney & Scott in Washington.
WEST NEW YORK, N.J. — In his first public appearance after his federal corruption case ended in a mistrial, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez said Friday the deadlocked jury sent a “powerful message to the government."
“I think it sends a powerful message to the government if, after years of preparation of this case, if after years of prosecuting, if after hundreds of agents, millions of taxpayer dollars, the result is that ten of the twelve jurors simply said that they did not believe any of the charges,” Menendez, a Democrat, said at an event at a federally qualified health center to encourage Obamacare sign-ups.
A juror leaving the federal courthouse in Newark on Thursday after the mistrial was declared said the Menendez jury was split, 10-2, with the majority believing New Jersey's senior senator was not guilty on most of the 18 counts he faced.
Returning to Hudson County on Friday, the place where he first launched his political career, Menendez was greeted with cheers and applause at the North Hudson Community Action Corporation.
He smiled as he hugged and shook the hands of those gathered in the crowded lobby.
The U.S. Department of Justice had charged Menendez with doing official favors for his friend and co-defendant Salomon Melgen, a Florida eye doctor, in exchange for expensive hotel stays, private jet flights and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
While Menendez walked out of the courthouse a free man, the cloud of the corruption trial still hangs over him. Federal prosecutors have not yet said if they will re-try the case but the Senate Ethics Committee plans to resume its own investigation of Menendez.
On Thursday, Menendez said the trial had taught him about the weight and power of the federal government.
“I understand now better why many Americans feel that justice is elusive,” he told reporters on Friday when asked to elaborate on those comments. “But for supporters from across the country and New Jersey … I could never have afforded the opportunity to defend myself and the millions that it has cost. That being said, it’s the system of justice not that I thought it was. It’s the system of justice you can afford.”
Fellow Hudson County Democrats Rep. Albio Sires, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and state Sen. Nick Sacco lauded Menendez as a “true champion” of the residents of New Jersey.
Joan Quigley, president of the health center, called Menendez a "good friend."
Throughout the 2 1/2-month long trial, Menendez's defense team did not dispute that the senator did favors for Melgen, but argued they were borne out of a 20-year friendship rather than an act of bribery.
"He understands the meaning of friendship. Friends help friends," Quigley said of Menendez. "And he has always been a friend to those of us he knows well and to some people he hasn’t even met you."
The purpose of Friday’s event was to encourage people to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans, given the fast approaching Dec. 15 deadline.
Standing in the lobby of the health center beneath the block letters emblazoned on the wall declaring it the Menendez pavilion, the senator decried the “sabotage” of the Affordable Care Act by President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans.
“President Trump is rooting for higher uninsured rates, higher premiums, higher deductibles in order to say that the Affordable Care Act failed,” Menendez said. “It’s the most cynical approach to government that I have ever heard of.”
He also took shots at the GOP tax reform plan. The Senate version includes a provision that would eliminate the Obamacare individual mandate, which requires all Americans to purchase insurance or pay a penalty to the Internal Revenue Service.
"It is really cynical to include in a tax bill, a provision that ultimately undermines health care for all Americans, in order to give corporations permanent tax cuts," Menendez said.
Menendez hasn't officially said if he’ll seek re-election next year, but had a defiant message upon leaving the courthouse on Thursday.
"To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” he said.
On Friday, Menendez declined to elaborate on the message, saying "it speaks for itself. They know who they are and I know who they are."
Asked if he plans to run again in 2018, he replied: “This would not be my idea of a campaign kickoff.”
NEWARK — Relieved but not officially vindicated, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez stood in front of federal courthouse on Thursday and delivered a blunt message to anyone thinking he’d been weakened by his 2 1/2-month corruption trial that had just ended in a hung jury.
"To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” the Democratic senator said.
It was easy to identify at least one person for whom that message was meant: former Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli, who retired in 2002 amid his own ethics scandal and has spent the last two years working to shore up support from New Jersey power brokers to succeed Menendez if he was forced from office.
But Menendez’s message was about more than that. The state's senior senator is the ultimate survivor of New Jersey politics, having come up through the rough and notoriously corrupt Hudson County Democratic political machine. He’s faced his share of scandals before and with his re-election coming up next year, he was telling anyone listening that they'd better get out of his way.
Menendez hasn’t officially said if he’ll seek another term, but before his trial began, he was was raising money as if he would.
The senator was not convicted, nor was he acquitted, of advocating for co-defendant Salomon Melgen’s business interests at the highest levels of the U.S. government in exchange for private jet flights, luxury hotel stays and about $750,000 in political contributions.
It remains to be seen if the Justice Department will re-try Menendez. But the fact that Ed Norris, one of the jurors who listened to dozens of witnesses and looked over countless documents during the trial, told reporters the jury was deadlocked, 10-2 in favor of a not guilty verdict on most counts can’t give the department a confidence boost.
Menendez also faces a misconduct inquiry from the Senate Select Committee on Ethics that was started nearly five years ago, but was put aside when it became clear the FBI was investigating him.
Torricelli said in a phone interview he had “no regrets” about feeling out a Senate run.
“I’m pleased for Bob Menendez personally that he survived this ordeal. The system has run its course, and I believe in the system,” Torricelli said. “But there was every reason to prepare in case there was a vacancy. Preserving a Democratic majority in the United States Senate is of paramount importance.”
Torricelli said he never wanted to challenge Menendez in a primary.
“That was never the plan. This was always about a vacancy,” he said.
So far, the most powerful Democrats in New Jersey show no signs of abandoning Menendez.
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Assembly Speaker-designate Craig Couglin and Democratic power boss George Norcross all said they would support Menendez if he decides to seek re-election.
"Senator Menendez is a strong voice for New Jersey," Murphy said in a statement. "I look forward to working with him to stand up for our people against President Trump's disastrous tax hike and further efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act. Should he decide to seek re-election, he will have my full support."
Norcross called Menendez "a great champion for New Jersey, and we look forward to his continued work in the United States Senate.”
It remains to be seen, however, if that support will continue if Menendez’s poll numbers don’t improve.
His approval rating dropped as news that the federal government was investigating him spread in late 2012 and early 2013, and again after he was indicted in 2015. But in the two years that passed between his indictment and trial, Menendez's poll numbers improved substantially, typically with pluralities approving of his job performance. Once the trial started, though, his poll numbers dropped again. A Quinnipiac University poll late last month found just 31 percent of New Jersey voters approved of the senator's job performance, while 49 percent disapproved.
An unpopular, scandal-stained incumbent isn’t welcome news for Democrats in a year when they’re already fighting an uphill battle to retake control of the Senate. But Menendez can’t be counted out in New Jersey, which is solidly blue when it comes to federal elections. The state hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1972.
New Jersey Democrats have seen Menendez bounce back before.
He has long been a target of federal authorities, including in 2006 when, two months before his first U.S. Senate election, then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie subpoenaed a nonprofit group that rented space from Menendez in Union City. Nothing ever came of that investigation, but the subpoena made big headlines while Menendez was enmeshed in a competitive race against Republican Tom Kean Jr.
Menendez defeated Kean by a nine points.
Democrats weren’t afraid to show support for Menendez during the trial, with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey's junior senator and a potential presidential candidate in 2020, testifying as a character witness. Local Democratic officials, from mayors to congressmen, frequently turned up in court to sit with the senator’s friends and family. One Republican, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also testified on Menendez's behalf.
Menendez acknowledged that some politicians kept their distance. “To those who left me, who abandoned me in my darkest moment, I forgive you,” he said outside the courthouse on Thursday.
Menendez adviser Michael Soliman said the senator will make an announcement about his re-election “in the coming weeks.” But, Soliman said, “all things indicate to him running for re-election."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley is burning the blue slip for some judicial nominees.
The Iowa Republican announced Thursday that he is going ahead with a confirmation hearing for a nominee to the powerful appellate courts despite the objections of a Democrat who had been blocking the nomination for months.
The move will likely escalate the judicial wars in the Senate.
Grassley says he has scheduled hearings for David Stras, a nominee to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Stras’ home-state senator, said earlier this year that he would not return the so-called blue slip for Stras because of his conservative ideology.
“The Democrats seriously regret that they abolished the filibuster, as I warned them they would,” Grassley said in his floor speech. “But they can’t expect to use the blue slip courtesy in its place. That’s not what the blue slip is meant for.”
The blue slip asks whether a senator approves or disapproves of a nominee.
Along with the Stras hearing, Grassley will announce that he will hold a hearing for Kyle Duncan, picked by President Donald Trump to serve on the 5th Circuit. His home-state senator, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), has returned a blue slip, but he noted that he was undecided on the nomination as he submitted the paper.
The blue slip process is a century-old Senate tradition that says the Judiciary Committee doesn’t hold a confirmation hearing for potential judges without approval from the candidate’s home-state senators. Senators return an actual blue slip to the committee.
It is also one of the Democrats’ last major leverage points over Trump’s judicial nominees, after they voted to kill the filibuster for most nominations four years ago. The Republicans abolished the 60-vote threshold for filibusters on Supreme Court picks earlier this year.
At least four Democrats have not returned blue slips for Trump’s circuit nominees: Franken, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
Previous committee chairs have rigidly adhered to the blue-slip rule for district court nominees, whose courts span just a single state. But they have been more flexible for the more influential and powerful circuit courts.
“I’ll add that I’m less likely to proceed on a district court nominee who does not have two positive blue slips from home-state senators,” Grassley said. “But circuit courts cover multiple states. There’s less reason to defer to the views of a single state’s senator for such nominees.”
In his speech Thursday, Grassley noted that just two out of 18 previous chairmen allowed one senator “to wield veto power over a nominee” — including former Vice President Joe Biden, a former Judiciary Committee chairman himself.
But Democrats pointed out that Grassley, as chairman during the final two years of Barack Obama's presidency, declined to hold hearings for nine of Obama's judicial picks because of the blue slip policy. Four were to the appellate courts, while five were district court nominees.
“Chairman Grassley’s decision do away with a 100-year old Senate tradition just 10 months into the Trump administration couldn’t be more troubling," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “The lengths to which Republicans are going to jam extremely conservative and controversial nominees through the Senate is unprecedented."
Grassley also argued that the blue slip is “not meant to signify the senator’s ultimate support or opposition to the nominee," but merely whether the person should receive a hearing.
“Some of my Democratic colleagues and left-wing outside groups mistakenly assert that the blue slip affords a home-state senator veto power over a nominee,” Grassley said. “That is not true.”
Ideology isn’t the sole reason why some Democratic senators have tried to obstruct a handful of Trump judicial nominees. For example, Wyden and Merkley said the White House went against Oregon’s standard tradition of using a bipartisan nominating commission to come up with potential candidates.
“I won’t allow the White House to just steamroll home-state senators,” Grassley said. “But, as I’ve said all along, I won’t allow the blue slip process to be abused. I won’t allow senators to prevent a Committee hearing for political or ideological reasons.”
The hearing will be held Nov. 29. Grassley says both Duncan and Stras “appear to be well-qualified” and deserve to be considered by his committee.
The move immediately infuriated liberal advocacy groups focused on the judiciary.
“Senators from both parties have used the blue slip process to demand meaningful consultation when it comes to choosing nominees for their own states," said Marge Baker, executive vice president for People For the American Way. "And Republicans used blue slips for years to block President Obama’s nominees for the flimsiest reasons. Simply put, this was a test of Charles Grassley’s moral character. He failed.”
When the Art of the Deal meets the KGB, the KGB will always win. That’s the main thing I took away from this past weekend’s strange episode of President Donald Trump appearing to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin actually believes Russia did not meddle in our 2016 election.
After his meeting with Putin in Vietnam, Trump initially gave the impression that he accepted Putin’s assurances. The president later sought to clarify that he continued to accept the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies (“as currently led by fine people”) that Russia had interfered but thinks Putin actually believes Russia did not. Along the way, the president took a swipe at intelligence agency leaders from the Obama era—specifically, James Clapper (director of National Intelligence), John Brennan (CIA director) and James Comey (FBI director)—calling them “political hacks.”
What to make of this bizarre chapter?
First, in all likelihood, the president probably really believes what he first said. Hard as it is to apply logic to Trumpisms, let’s try. If the intelligence community assessment was produced under the leadership of “political hacks” and if the president means it when he calls the Russia investigation a “hoax” (his most frequent characterization of it), then it’s only logical that he doubts the intelligence assessment and finds Putin’s denial congenial.
Prediction: It’s only a matter of time before he returns to his first instinct—that it’s all a “hoax.” That was the pattern of the Charlottesville controversy. After his clenched-teeth, teleprompter reading of a walk-back of his imprudent first remarks, he eventually went on a rant that, rightly or wrongly, raised questions about his earlier condemnation of neo-Nazi groups.
Second, the president is either incredibly naive and uninformed or Putin is a remarkably good KGB-trained case officer—or all of the above. Dissembling is part of the intelligence art, but practiced nowhere better than in Russian intelligence and foreign policy. Facts, the evidence even of our eyes, do not get in the way. Recall that Putin with a straight face denied in March 2014 that Russia had forces in Crimea, then part of independent Ukraine, even though we could see on TV that this was false. He then said Russia would not annex Crimea, which it proceeded to do almost immediately. He admitted a month later that, well, Russian forces actually had been there. He might find it irresistible to repeat this pattern with the U.S. election if, at some point in the future, he stands to gain advantage by taking credit.
What the president doesn’t get is that it’s OK to tell the Russians you know they are lying. It actually doesn’t have to get in the way of dealing with them. Just get it out of the way and move on to business. They respect you most when they know that you know what you are talking about. I have personally had to deliver tough messages in Moscow on behalf of the U.S. government when I knew that Russia would deny what we knew to be true. What works best is to just make that clear forcefully—in a “business-like” manner, as the diplo-lingo goes—and move on. You don’t really need an admission; they just need to know that you know. That’s enough. This works.
Third, Trump crossed an important line in personally attacking the intelligence community’s previous leaders. Disagreeing with their views on substantive grounds is fair game—anyone working in the intelligence arena is used to vigorous and contentious debate on that basis. But to my knowledge, no president in the American intelligence community’s 70-year history has ever called its leaders “political hacks.” Playing politics is the ultimate sin in American intelligence, and the ones most likely to call out the offenders are intelligence rank and file themselves. The three attacked by the president are among the most dedicated public servants I’ve known; they inspire broad respect among that rank and file. Intelligence officers are thick-skinned; they will show up every day and do their jobs, but cannot help but find the president’s comments dispiriting.
Fourth, the more the president continues to muddy the issue of Russian meddling, the less likely it is that we will take the steps urgently needed to defend ourselves from further attack on our election system and other aspects of our political life. Lord knows we are not doing enough nitty-gritty cyber defense work—as Attorney General Jeff Sessions acknowledged during this week’s testimony—while most political energy is going into the question of what Americans might have done to help the Russians. Until the president forcefully demands a federal effort to tighten our defenses for the 2018 and 2020 elections, the federal, state, and local efforts will move slowly and without sufficient urgency. That’s just how our system works.
Finally, the sad fact in all of this is that the president is right to think we are going to need to work with the Russians on some issues of mutual interest. Much as we might not want to deal with them on Syria, for example, Putin’s successful defense of the Assad regime has created facts on the ground that, realistically, we cannot avoid in seeking a political settlement. The problem is that so long as the president persists in his current approach to Putin, few will trust him to exercise his vaunted Art of the Deal—which at this point is looking like just a clever book title.
During his Hall of Fame career for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jack Ham was renowned as one of the canniest, fastest linebackers ever to play, doling out his share of bruising punishment to opposing ball carriers.
These days the man still celebrated as “The Hammer” has a very different relationship with pain: He’s committed to helping people treat it.
Ham is one of a number of Pennsylvania’s pro-athlete aristocracy, including Franco Harris, his former teammate on the Super Bowl-winning teams of the 1970s, who have quickly embraced medical marijuana as a cure for a scourge that has decimated economically depressed parts of the state: opioid addiction. It’s a cause that has special resonance for pro athletes like Ham because they know many players whose chronic injuries made them dependent on painkillers.
When voters in Pennsylvania approved medical marijuana in 2016, Ham was quick to see both the financial promise of bringing a new industry to moribund coal country but also the therapeutic benefits of letting people manage their pain with a substance that some doctors say is less toxic and less addictive than opiate-based painkillers like Oxycodone.
Opioids, including heroin, kill 59,000 a year nationally and the number is climbing. Ham, who grew up in Johnstown, had watched the opioids ravage his home state. Roughly 1,400 people died from opioids in Pennsylvania in 2015. So when he was contacted by a startup medical marijuana company called Agrimed to be its spokesman, he was more than willing to lend his still-considerable name recognition to give it a boost.
”There’s got to be a better way. And I just knew half the medication that these guys were on,” he says. Two of his former teammates—Dwight White and LC Greenwood—died after surgeries they had had for back pain, and Ham says he just kept thinking, “What other things could they do to manage their pain?”
Ham lives in an enormous home outside Pittsburgh that is a cross between a Tudor hunting lodge and a new-age curiosity shop, all antlers and crystals. Ham, 6 feet, 2 inches, has a weathered face and a whole lot less hair than he did when he played 35 years ago. But the 68-year-old is 10 pounds lighter than his playing weight, the benefits of a macrobiotic diet. He is a minority owner of a junior hockey league team and does color commentary for Penn State football games. He invests in coal companies in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but it’s medical marijuana where he sees the potential for real growth. In fact, Agrimed’s operation, a planned 80,000-square-foot greenhouse, is rising up from the gray slag of an abandoned mine.
Ham adds, “I try to tell everybody – I’m not talking about, in my era, going to Woodstock and getting high. We’re talking about medical cannabis.”
AgriMed’s chief creative officer, Mark Kaminski, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, says that when his seventy-something aunt, who sings in the choir of her Catholic church, heard that Jack Ham was advocating for medical marijuana, she said, “Well, then, I’m behind it,” Kaminski says. “That’s relatable to her.”
Ham says he does not use medical marijuana himself, but he is not the only former athlete to tout medical marijuana as a solution to addiction. Former Steelers fullback Franco Harris also signed on to be a spokesman for a company that sought to grow medical marijuana in Braddock, an economically distressed former steel town near Pittsburgh.
“We have a unique opportunity to transform Braddock into a center for state-of-the-art urban agriculture and, at the same time, become a first mover in the United States in researching the efficacy of marijuana in replacing opioids for the long-term management of pain,” Harris said in a press release. Ultimately, that company did not get one of the 12 licenses awarded by the state in the first round.
Medical marijuana, which is now legal in 29 states, has many constituencies—cancer patients who appreciate how it tamps down nausea from chemotherapy; libertarians who favor decriminalization of drugs generally, among them. But athletes are one of the more notable groups. As Harris said in his press release: “The life of a professional football player is one intrinsically tied to long- term pain management.”
Many pro athletes discovered the analgesic benefits of marijuana during their playing careers, which meant that they were violating their league’s drug policies as well as state and federal law. But now, as the trend toward legalization has picked up pace, those same athletes, now retired and free of their contractual obligations are beginning to speak out together. One of the lobbying groups is called Athletes for Care, an organization of former and current professional athletes who support medical marijuana. Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive guard Todd Herremans and former Philadelphia Flyers hockey player Riley Cote. Cote was connected to one of the 177 companies that applied for—but did not receive—a license to grow.
A former offensive guard with the Philadelphia Eagles, Herremans, 35, smoked pot to deal with his various injuries. He kept getting caught. Herremans was twice put on a two-year substance abuse program for marijuana use.
When he smoked pot, he says, he didn’t have to use anti-inflammatory drugs every morning and was able to cut back on both painkillers and alcohol. Since the drug testing was an annual thing, also, it was easy to get clean before the test. But somehow Herremans failed.
“The second time they said to me, ‘Todd, what’s going on? Did you forget about the test?’” He says he was surprised that it was such a big deal for the NFL, and was put on yet another two-year program.
When he left the NFL, he went back to using pot. “Some smart alecks said, you just want to keep smoking pot,” and so he retired, he says. “I just want it to be a healthier game.”
The jury is still out on the overall efficacy of marijuana as a replacement for powerful opioids, says Beatriz Carlini, a research scientist and professor of health services at the University of Washington. Since marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance and thus prohibited by federal law, scientists in the U.S. have been prohibited from running randomized studies on its effects, says Carlini.
Using international research from 10,000 scientific abstracts, however, a January 2017 report from the National Academy of Sciences found some evidence that use of medical marijuana was effective in treating chronic pain. It also could be used to prevent patients from building up a tolerance to the more addictive and powerful prescription drugs, says Carlini. In addition, a 2014 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that opioid overdose-related deaths would increase by 25 percent if medical marijuana was prohibited in the 29 states and District of Columbia that have legalized it.
Pro athletes, however, don’t need studies to know that marijuana helped them deal with the pain that came with the job—and without the dangerous side effects of prescription painkillers.
Riley Cote was an enforcer for the Philadelphia Flyers, assigned the brutal duty of defending his team’s star players by any means necessary, usually fighting. That often meant smashing his bare fists against another player’s helmeted head.
“Fighting is pretty taxing, not only on your hands and body, but also emotionally,” Cote says. Being in a constant state of “fight or flight” created anxieties, too. He estimates he got in about 250 fights on the ice and had “a ton” of repeated head traumas in his eight-year career. He averaged about a surgery a year. His solution was smoking pot. Many of his teammates, he said, very quietly did the same.
“I was constantly battling pain and inflammation, and that’s when I started becoming passionate about cannabis,” he says. Growing up in Canada, he was comfortable using pot in what he calls “extreme recreational settings.” Later he started understanding the drug’s therapeutic effects, helping him with pain, anxiety, and insomnia.
“Cannabinoids are the ultimate recovery tool,” he says. The prohibition of cannabis is the cause of the opioid epidemic, he says.
Today Cote, 35, says he feels better than he ever did. He weighs about 20 pounds less than he did when he swung a hockey stick, he eats a mostly plant-based diet, and has gotten into yoga.
“I spent my whole life being a meathead,” he says. “Now my mental clarity and mental health is as good as it’s ever been.”
AgriMed’s Kaminski says that although the company’s application promised an initial greenhouse covering 80,000 square feet, that size operation is impossible to achieve by the state’s December 20 deadline for being operational. (Kaminski adds that the state is likely to give companies an extension if they can prove by that point that they are “making good progress,” he says. A temporary building on the site will be about 20,000 square feet (growing about 4,000 plants initially).. The company plans to invest at least $25 million in the site and projects, in the beginning, to create 60 new jobs.
There’s no telling just how many ill Pennsylvanians will go through the process of getting medical marijuana, which involves a certification from their doctor as a result of one of the 17 conditions – everything from glaucoma to autism – that the state says could be treated with cannabis. There’s also been some concern that even with patients signing up, not enough doctors will take the four-hour training needed to provide the certification. The marijuana will be processed into pills, ointments and oils, not for smoking.
“We’re not going to put up a 160,000-square-foot building, if there’s no demand for it,” Kaminski says.
Before John Koskinen became the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in 2013, he was a successful corporate turnaround artist, a specialist in fixing large and distressed organizations. That’s why President Barack Obama asked him to cut short his second retirement to fix the embattled IRS, which was reeling from allegations that it inappropriately scrutinized conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. That’s why he spent four tumultuous years trying to bolster the agency’s reputation, even as Republicans repeatedly shredded him at hearings and even threatened to impeach him.
This week, the 78-year-old Koskinen began his third retirement. And he says the IRS is still a distressed organization. “When Eisenhower left office, his message was: Beware the military-industrial complex,” Koskinen said. “My message is: Beware the collapse of the IRS.”
But its problems, Koskinen said, have nothing to do with politics; a recent inspector general report found no evidence of political bias in the agency’s decisions. Koskinen believes its real problems stem from underfunding and understaffing, which have imperiled its ability to nail tax evaders and collect the tax revenues that fund the government.
In an hourlong conversation with POLITICO Magazine’s Michael Grunwald, Koskinen also discussed Democratic concerns that President Donald Trump and his appointees could breach the independence of the IRS, using the agency to harass or persecute his enemies. Koskinen doesn’t share those concerns—not because of his faith in Trump, but because of his faith in the IRS staff and the strict rules governing the integrity of its audits and investigations.
Koskinen basically believes the IRS and its professional culture are virtually impregnable to political agendas. He hasn’t spoken to Trump or anyone in the White House in 2017, even though he’s known the president since they negotiated the sale of the Commodore Hotel in New York City in 1975. He’s never looked up Trump’s tax returns—legally, he can’t, and neither can any other IRS employee who isn’t working on them—and says the agency not only keeps them in a locked cabinet in a locked room, but is replacing the cabinet with a safe.
Koskinen also detailed some of the pros and cons of the various Republican tax reform plans, as well as his disappointment that the IRS wasn’t invited to help craft them. The former president of the U.S. Soccer Foundation also waxed philosophical about the men’s team’s shocking failure to qualify for the World Cup. But his biggest disappointment is still the ongoing cuts to IRS funding and staff, which he warns could end up creating a massive explosion of the deficit and a crippling crisis of confidence.
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Michael Grunwald: Congratulations on finally getting to retire again. You certainly had an interesting run.
John Koskinen: Yeah, in the Chinese curse sense of “may you live in interesting times.” It was actually fun, although some say I have a masochistic sense of fun.
MG: You were brought in to clean up after the “IRS scandal” over excessive scrutiny of the Tea Party groups, and Republicans in Congress tortured you about it for four years. This latest inspector general report seems to suggest it wasn’t much of a scandal.
JK: Remember, it all started as a claim that this was a political program, dictated out of the White House or the Justice Department. But there were no emails or any evidence of that. Then the claim was political operatives inside the IRS. But nobody found any emails about that either. There’s been literally no evidence of any politics at all. But there was evidence of poor management. It was clear that some groups had their applications for tax-exempt status held up for a long time—not just conservative groups, a wide range of groups. Nobody should have to wait two years for an answer about anything from the IRS.
MG: The IRS scandal was groups having to wait too long to be tax-exempt?
JK: They didn’t even have to wait. Everyone’s finessed this, but you can become a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization without an IRS determination. They didn’t need our permission. Nobody was stopping them. They wanted a determination letter, so there would be less chance that we’d come in after the fact and say they’re doing too much political intervention. The rule is, you can’t spend more than 50 percent of your time on politics if you want to be tax-exempt, whether we’ve written a letter or not.
MG: Republicans are trying to do a big tax reform now, which would presumably change some of those rules. What do you think of their plans?
JK: Well, we don’t know what the final bill will look like. But anything that would simplify the tax code would be terrific for taxpayers and the IRS.
MG: Do the Republican plans simplify the tax code?
JK: Some of the proposals would make things more complicated. The biggest would be adjusting the tax rate for pass-through businesses. But increasing the standard deduction would make filing a lot simpler. The estimate is that only 10 percent of taxpayers would itemize. Right now, it’s closer to 40 percent. I always try to remind people that the IRS doesn’t have a dog in the fight over tax policy. We just want the leaders in Congress to take advantage of our expertise in drafting the legislation.
MG: Have they?
JK: Not much. We have a lot of career employees who were here for the 1986 tax reform, when the legislative leaders and the Reagan administration and the IRS were all at the table together. This time, we’ve been asked questions once in a while, but we haven’t been at the table.
MG: You were one of the last Obama holdovers leading a federal agency. There’s been some concern that Trump could use the IRS to harass his enemies, the kind of thing Republicans unfairly accused Obama of doing.
JK: I don’t think that’s a risk with Dave Kautter [Trump’s assistant secretary for tax policy, who is now serving as interim IRS commissioner as well]. He’s a widely respected tax lawyer, and I don’t think he’s been viewed as a political operative. He also has a day job at Treasury. I assume our two deputy commissioners will continue to be responsible for running the agency day-to-day, and they’re career employees. The only other political appointee is the chief counsel, and that’s empty right now.
MG: But they could bring in political people. The permanent commissioner could be political.
JK: It would be very difficult to push a political agenda. We’ve lost good people, which is a real problem, but we still have 80,000 career employees, and they’re dedicated to the mission of the agency. Anyone who knows anything about the IRS knows the staff wouldn’t put up with political interference. I’d be very surprised if anyone tried to muscle the IRS politically, and if they did it would end badly for them.
MG: You mentioned the IRS is down to 80,000 employees. Down from what?
JK: At the peak, 130,000. We still had 100,000 in 2010. Now look, we’ve moved more processing online, and we’ve gotten more efficient. But since 2010, we’ve lost $900 million in funding, even though we have 10 million more taxpayers, plus new responsibilities like the Affordable Care Act and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. And it’s not like we can stop doing anything. We still have to worry about information security, battling crime syndicates that are trying to steal information. We still maintain a huge technology system that processes over 200 million returns a year. We have to do audits and examinations. And we have to answer the phone when people call. When the budget gets cut, everything suffers.
MG: What exactly suffers?
JK: Look, 60 percent of our hardware and 22 percent of our software is out of date. We’re still running applications from when JFK was president. Our audit rate has been cut in half; it’s 0.6 percent, and next year it will be 0.5 percent. It was 1.2 percent in 2010. We’re leaving $6 billion on the table every year from audits we know we should do that we don’t have the resources to do. We’re down 7,000 revenue agents, revenue officers and criminal investigators. Even our most aggressive critics agree that if you give us money, we’ll get you more money back. When I was dealing with distressed businesses, I never met anyone who thought it was a good idea to starve their revenue side. I keep trying to warn people that we just can’t keep losing employees and absorbing budget cuts. We’ll fail.
MG: What would failure look like?
JK: Maybe our IT systems stop functioning. Or our compliance rate starts to drop, because people don’t think they’ll get caught if they don’t pay taxes. Every 1 percent drop in compliance costs $33 billion a year. The amount of money the government loses every day by underfunding the IRS is already five to eight times the amount of money it’s saving on the budget. It’s a poster child for penny wise, pound foolish.
MG: I assume the basic problem is that people hate taxes and the IRS. You’re the jackbooted thugs taking their hard-earned money.
JK: I really think if we could get the political distrust over the social welfare issue solved, so everyone was confident they would get treated fairly, we could have a more appropriate discussion about funding. [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin has been very supportive. He doesn’t think underfunding the IRS makes sense.
MG: But the Trump budget had more cuts for the IRS. Have you talked to the president about it?
JK: I talked to him once before the inauguration, but not about this. I haven’t talked to anyone in the White House since the end of last year.
MG: What did you talk to him about before the inauguration?
JK: Oh, just how nobody would have guessed the two guys negotiating the sale of the Commodore Hotel 40 years ago would end up in the jobs we ended up with.
MG: You know I’ve got to ask: Are his taxes really being audited?
JK: I can’t tell you anything about anyone’s taxes, so you’ll have to go with whatever he says.
MG: You’re not going to give up his return?
JK: It’s in a locked cabinet in a locked room that nobody’s in. You’ll need a key to the room and the cabinet to get it. We’re in the process of turning that cabinet into a safe. We keep all the returns from every president in there.
MG: So have you looked at his return?
JK: I had no authority to look at anybody’s returns. Nobody can, unless you’re authorized for the process of examination. I couldn’t look at my own return. Anyone who looks at anyone’s return is subject to termination. We take this stuff seriously. Everyone’s aware of the history of the Nixon enemies list. No individual employee can even select a return for audit; we get automated referrals, and they go straight to a committee. But people need to be confident in that. Even with our limited resources, we’ll do a million audits this year. It’s so important that people don’t feel like they’re getting audited because they said something or gave to a certain organization.
MG: Right, with the Tea Party stuff, even the perception was a problem.
JK: The inspector general looked at 120 cases where individuals said they were personally audited because of their affiliations and found zero evidence of politics or any improper basis for the audit. And the part of the IRS that deals with tax-exempt organizations is just 1 percent of the agency. But the entire agency got attacked for some management problems in a small section.
MG: So the IRS gets an even worse rep, and Congress cuts your budget again, and then you’re outgunned when you go after the tax havens in the Paradise Papers.
JK: We’re not outgunned when we do an individual audit. We prosecute Swiss banks. We chase people hiding money in the Caymans. We’ll put agents on the Paradise Papers, and there’s increasing international cooperation. But yeah, we’re outgunned in terms of tracking down every lead. Ultimately, we’re limited by resources. When Eisenhower left office, his message was: Beware the military-industrial complex. My message is: Beware the collapse of the IRS. We’re at the edge.
MG: What would the IRS do with more resources?
JK: First, we’d stop shrinking. We’d upgrade the IT system. We’d provide better service to taxpayers on the phone. We’d hire more revenue agents and criminal investigators—we don’t need 20,000 more people, but definitely 5,000 or 6,000 more. I’m sure there are some members of Congress who think it would be great to bankrupt the government, but the vast majority understand that the deficit is just going to grow if we can’t collect the money owed. I don’t think anyone wants a bigger deficit.
MG: But when you testified before Congress, those members made it sound like you were orchestrating a cover-up bigger than Watergate.
JK: It comes with the territory. The complaints were so off the beaten path that you had to chuckle about them. My fear was that anyone watching those hearings who might be interested in public service would say: That doesn’t look like much fun.
MG: We haven’t even mentioned the real crisis: The U.S. missing the World Cup.
JK: It’s disappointing. There’s certainly a lot of debate right now in the soccer community. But we feel a little better now that it happened to Italy, too. You know, in my career, I’ve been around a lot of failure, and my experience is that people often say, oh, we need to start over. It doesn’t usually do any good. The U.S. has been in every World Cup since 1990. The quality of play is light years ahead of where it was. It’s worth thinking hard about what we need to do, but it’s not as if the system is totally broken. This young American kid [Christian] Pulisic is going to rival Ronaldo and Messi someday. He’s the best player that’s ever come out of the U.S. system.
MG: And he doesn’t have Messi’s tax evasion problems.
ASHEVILLE, N.C.—The Gerrymander 5K wasn’t even a 5K. It was a quarter mile too long. It wasn’t timed. There was no exact finish line. The beginning was improvised. “I’ve never done this before,” shouted the starter, “so let’s just do 1-2- 3 go, OK?”
I knew going in the race wasn’t meant to be competitive. It was a publicity gimmick, dreamed up by the League of Women Voters in Asheville, North Carolina, to draw attention to what it considered an egregious example of gerrymandering by Republicans after the 2010 census. The race course, which featured a slightly sadistic series of speed-sucking hills and tight turns, followed the meandering dividing line between North Carolina’s 10th and 11th congressional districts. The route might have been challenging for runners, but it was perfect if you were running a campaign as a Republican.
A little history. Before 2011, the 11th District included all of Asheville, a redoubt of liberalness in an otherwise conservative western end of the state. This made the district one of the most competitive in the South. From 2007 until 2013, it was represented by former NFL quarterback-turned-Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler, whose moderate, compromising approach was the only way forward in a decidedly purple district. In 2011, after Republicans won control of both houses of the North Carolina Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, they got the added bonus of being in control of redistricting after the 2010 Census. They shifted political districts large and small, and North Carolina’s congressional delegation turned from 7-6 advantage for Democrats to today’s 10-3 GOP majority.
A big key was Asheville. To dilute its impact, Republican mapmakers grafted most of the city onto the 10th District, safely held by Republican stalwart Patrick McHenry, and shifted some staunchly Republican counties in the foothills into the 11th. “They cut into McHenry’s vote share,” said Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, “but not enough to give him competitive elections.” Overnight, the 11th, the most up-for-grabs congressional district in North Carolina, became the most safely Republican. In 2012, with Shuler deciding not to run, Republicans crowded the primary field, and a relatively unknown real estate developer named Mark Meadows won the seat. He went on to co-found and then chair the Freedom Caucus, the group that shut down the government in 2013 over a budget dispute and has battled more moderate, establishment Republicans.
“If this district hadn’t been redrawn,” said Cooper, “there’s still a chance that John Boehner is still Speaker of the House.”
Back to the race. The Gerrymander 5K, as the League of Women Voters envisioned it, was designed to put gerrymandering under the microscope in West Asheville, a hipster enclave of tattoo parlors and biodiesel stations that Thrillist once described as North Carolina’s Brooklyn. The point of the race was to mock the absurdity of the tiny contortions the redistricters had performed to engineer such an obviously self-serving electoral map. Looking at the course, it was easy to see what they were talking about: Much of the line sliced up the neighborhood along main roads, but in two spots it swerved to surgically grab about two dozen homes and pull them into the 11th District.
“It doesn’t really make any sense,” said Alana Pierce, the president of the local League of Women Voters, told me when I asked her about it. She was most perplexed by one place in the line, where it plucks only a handful of houses from the 10th District and puts them in the 11th. “It doesn’t look like one house is strongly partisan Republican or Democrat or anything,” she said. “It’s six houses! It can’t make a difference!”
What I discovered, after running the slowest 5K time of my life, was that those houses actually do make a difference. But it wasn’t the difference the organizers thought. To figure out their significance, I had to do some detective work. The answer I found explains something about modern political mapmaking. It’s not always about what districts look like, or whom they include or exclude, or how they split counties, or neighborhoods. It’s not about whether you think they’re gerrymandered. It’s about whether those lines will hold up in court.
As a race, the Gerrymander 5K was unsatisfying. We had to run on the sidewalks; one poor woman nearly decapitated herself when she ran right into the guywire of a telephone pole. Since I knew I wasn’t going have an official time, I tried to pick up some clues as I ran, but with the course’s frequent twists and turns, my brainpower was mostly being used to keep me from getting lost. So, an hour after I finished, I drove back out to the neighborhood in question—a rectangle formed by Louisiana and Majestic avenues and Brucemont Circle—and knocked on the door of every house on the block, six in all.
One was brick veneered and nicely kept, with a pair of Japanese maples in the front yard. Another was a bungalow with a porch crowded with enough gardening debris and junk to gave it a sort of hoarder feng shui. Nobody was home at either one. At what seemed to be a vinyl-sided duplex, a young, skinny, bearded guy came to the door. He’d just moved in and couldn’t tell me much about the neighborhood. Same with a guy at a brand new white two-story. “I’m new,” he said, before saying he still had to unpack. Next door, Aaron Nadler came up to the edge of his chain link fence and filled me in on the neighborhood, called Brucemont. “I’m not sure you’re going to find anything for your story,” he said. I asked him what was the difference between individual houses. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing.” Nadler is a rare conservative here, and he pointed out where he thought other conservatives lived—mostly, he figured, in the older, slightly shabbier homes owned by older, longtime residents. He also had no idea about the 5K, or the meaning behind the route. “I thought they chose it because I have a bunch of Halloween stuff all over the place,” he said.
Walking the streets, I picked up a lot of subtle details of Brucemont life: The smell of charcoal, the barking dogs, the young kids skateboarding, the older Asian couple waving as they walked. You can see which house has a Honda Accord in the driveway, and which one has a Kia with a Thule bike rack. You can track yard signs for local city council races, but Aaron was right: There was really no major difference between one house or the next. It’s not like a mansion is sitting next to a row of crumbling mill houses. I finished my second tour of the neighborhood no wiser about redistricting than I before I’d laced up my running shoes.
Maybe, I thought, it simply wasn’t possible for a human to spot the differences or patterns. Over the past decade, political mapmaking has turned from an art into a science, backed by reams of data, demographic and political, public and private. Political parties can target individual homes and people beyond voting patterns and party affiliation. Now, they can assign you a number that says how likely you are to vote a certain way based on a myriad of data points, as deep as magazine subscriptions or even whether you own a cat. But it’s unclear if that data filters its way into the maps. In August, North Carolina lawmakers released the raw data used to redraw their highly contentious General Assembly districts, and they stuck mostly to vote totals in presidential, U.S. Senate, and state-level races.
Still, maybe the computer had become sentient. I’d had a theory that this little notch in the map might be completely computer generated and therefore unexplainable—in the way that an engineer at Facebook wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly why your News Feed displayed the exact stories it did in a specific order. But Jane Pinsky, with the Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform in Raleigh, told me the machines have not taken over completely. A human definitely drew that line, she contended, and there’s a definite reason why it’s there. She also gave me a helpful piece of information. Nearly every state in the country uses the same program to draw its districting lines. It’s called Maptitude. And it’s really expensive.
Pinsky suggested I mess around with a free open-source facsimile of Maptitude named, nerdily, Dave’s Redistricting. It’s like SimCity for politically motivated geography geeks. So I started creating my own makeshift 11th District, watching the numbers change with every new chunk I added. I understood the nuance: A box showed, in real time, whether the district was becoming more red or more blue with every click. But it still didn’t tell me anything specific, and I couldn’t get down to house level, anyway.
I stumbled across more clues, but they, too, didn’t get me any closer to an answer. The dividing line followed the edges of precincts through West Asheville, and split only one of them, Precinct 14.2, where Brucemont lies. But shifting individual houses into Meadows’ district didn’t seem to help him very much. In fact, of the mere 12 votes cast there in the 2016 general election, 10 went to Meadows’ Democratic opponent. The reason for this tiny tweak, then, wasn’t overtly political.
Things made sense after I called a guy named Blake Esselstyn. Until 2015, Esselstyn was the GIS director in Asheville’s planning department, meaning he’d looked at complex data-rich maps of the city nearly every day for more than a decade. Recently, he’d left to go into the private sector, but became obsessed with political districts, started blogging, and attended redistricting conferences. There was a simple explanation, he said, and it had nothing to do with what sort of people lived in which house, but how many.
Up until the 1960s, some states almost never touched their political boundaries, despite the fact that population growth and shifts to urban areas made their populations wildly unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Baker v. Carr in 1962 allowed the court to have a role in declaring whether legislative districts were constitutional. Two years later, the court decreed in Wesberry v. Sanders that states should draw congressional districts to make them nearly identical in population, and a slew of cases afterward held that each district in a state should have as equal a population as possible, to hew to the concept of “one person, one vote.”
With modern mapping, it’s now possible to make districts not just close to equal, but exactly equal. In North Carolina, nine of the 13 districts have a population of 733,499, according to the 2010 census. The other four each had one fewer person. Court decisions have shown that if districts’ populations are not equal, a state has to have a compelling reason why. Thus, many states, including California, Connecticut, Florida and Indiana, drew congressional districts with the exact same number of people in them statewide. By making each district’s population precisely the same, a mapmaker takes that argument out of a legal challenger’s arsenal.
What’s another way to make districts more court-friendly and lawsuit proof? By following county lines, whenever possible. North Carolina has 13 congressional districts, but splits just 12 out of 100 counties. Most of those splits are in urban areas. Activists say the same vote-splitting that’s at work in Asheville is also at work in other Democratic neighborhoods in places like Fayetteville and Greensboro. In those places, the density also makes it easier to subtly weave in and out of neighborhoods, methodically tweaking until you get the population exact, and your work is unable to be seen until you zoom in. That’s what Esselstyn thinks was at work in Brucemont. If all of West Asheville is blue, it doesn’t matter exactly where you zig or zag, so long as you get the population equal on both sides. “It is a fair amount of trial and error,” he says. At some point, the mapmaker needed to shift 12 people from one district to the other. He found them along Louisiana Avenue in West Asheville.
There was only one man who could, with absolute certainty, confirm all of this: Tom Hofeller, the prolific Republican mapmaker who drew the last two sets of North Carolina’s maps and created that line. He picked up the phone at his home in Raleigh, and we had an amiable chat for more than an hour, but he refused to go on the record for any of it, citing pending lawsuits over redistricting. Other than depositions, he’s spoken on the record at length only for a 2012 profile in the Atlantic, where he mentioned that political maps that aggressively tilted the landscape in one party’s direction, like Texas’, could get tossed out in federal court.
So, out of all of the answers, the equal population explanation is both the most likely and the most boring. And that, really, is the point.
To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, most people consider gerrymandering to be like pornography: They know it when they see it. In North Carolina, it used to be easy to see. A Democrat-controlled state Legislature created the 12th District in 1992 as a majority-minority district to satisfy the Voting Rights Act. In order to get enough black voters, the district followed interstates and back roads from Gastonia to Durham, branching off to grab African-Americans in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro. In some spots, it was only as wide as a lane on I-85. The move worked. Democrat Mel Watt, an African-American, easily won election in 1992 and had no serious challenger until he resigned in 2014 to take a position in the Obama administration.
The old 12th District was held up as a textbook case of egregious racial gerrymandering, and its shape and makeup went before the U.S. Supreme Court five times. In May, justices said that the district was unconstitutional because it packed too many black voters into it, but by then, it had been redrawn by Hofeller in 2016 to satisfy a lower court decision. It now fits inside the most Democratic section of North Carolina’s most populous county, Mecklenburg, where whites hold a slight majority now. The partisan effect is the same statewide: The packing of Democratic-leaning voters into the 12th makes the surrounding districts safer for Republicans.
(The redrawing of the 12th district in 2016 did have a ripple effect on the dividing line in West Asheville. To keep the official population in each district at 733,498 or 733,499, the line moved from a point farther west to its current location, which could be more proof that the overall intent wasn’t to split the neighborhood’s votes in half, but rather to put just enough of Democratic Asheville into the hyper-Republican 10th District to keep the 11th safely Republican as well.)
The 10th and 11th districts are overwhelmingly white and thus haven’t been challenged on racial grounds, which the Voting Rights Act makes easier to strike down. Lawsuits claim they’re a partisan gerrymander, and many North Carolina lawyers are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision in a Wisconsin case, Gill v. Whitford, to see whether new rules on political data will be put into place. But so far, challenges to the 11th District haven’t gone anywhere, said Pinsky, whose group has filed lawsuits over many state and federal boundaries. “The only route we’ve had to play this out in North Carolina is racial,” she said.
On a broader scale, the move that shifted Asheville into a new district hasn’t gotten much national attention. When zoomed out, the district doesn’t look nearly as contorted as others, has held up legally, and all but guarantees a GOP winner. If you’re a Republican mapmaker, you couldn’t have done a better job.
At the post-race gathering, the author David Daley, who’d run the race and was selling his book on gerrymandering at $20 a pop, jumped onto a bench to speak to the runners, who were, by now, drinking beer. “This is one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country,” he shouted to a crowd of more than 300.
But it’s hard to say, legally, what gerrymandering even is, because judicial decisions are constantly shifting the rules. One Republican consultant told me that when a judge tosses out one set of data, like race, it’s possible to use different data to get the same outcome, and indeed, when North Carolina lawmakers redrew districts in 2016 to comply with a court order, the result was largely the same. An Associated Press analysis in June still found the maps to be among the most Republican-skewed in the country.
Yes, both sides do it. In our current climate of whataboutism, Republicans can point the finger back at, say, Democrats in Maryland, who are fighting off gerrymandering claims in that state. And yes, mischief in mapmaking has been around for as long as we’ve been drawing districts. It’s just now that technology is far better than ever, and people are quick to blame gerrymandering for our current polarized state.
“It still doesn’t change the United States Senate, it still doesn’t change governors’ mansions,” said Cooper. “It is a piece of this larger puzzle of American politics. And I worry, sometimes, a little bit, that people are beginning to think that it’s the biggest piece, or if it’s the one piece that we fix, that everything else will fall into line. I don’t know that that’s the case.”
There is a case to be made that gerrymandering is getting more sophisticated and harder to spot with the naked eye, even from the course of a 5K race. You might know something is wrong, but be unable to explain it, even though the proof is there, hiding in plain sight. “It doesn’t look bad,” said Pinsky, “unless you know what they’ve done.”
I was a magazine guy.
After eight years as managing editor of Time, I left at the end of 2013 to become under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. It’s a fancy title, but that job is one of the few in Washington that’s tailored for someone with a media background like me. After I was nominated, some of my colleagues joked that I was now “head of U.S. propaganda,” but I thought of myself instead as the chief marketing officer of brand America. I figured I’d be spending a lot of my time combating America’s negative image in the Muslim world—and I did—but then the Russian annexation of Crimea happened in early 2014. What I saw Russia do online and in social media around this grave violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty was a revelation to me—and nothing short of a trial run for what they did to manipulate our presidential election in 2016. Few Americans realized it back then, but we were already in a global information war with Russia.
But some did know.
On a Saturday morning after I’d been in the job for two months—about four weeks after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Crimea—I got a call from the State Department operations center saying they had the secretary on the line. Only it wasn’t Secretary John Kerry, my boss, but former Secretary Hillary Clinton. I had known, liked and admired Clinton for a long time, and I assumed she was calling belatedly to say congratulations. I was wrong. After a perfunctory hello, she launched right into it: We’re losing the information war with Russia. She urged me to stand up a much stronger and more robust messaging machine to compete with the firehose of Russian propaganda and disinformation that was besmirching America’s image and undermining democracy around the world. “They’re using the old techniques of repeating lies over and over but doing so on 21st century platforms,” she said. You need to fact-check what they are saying and expose Russian disinformation in real time, she continued. We need to do much more. I remember how she ended the call: “The State Department is still issuing press releases while Putin is rewriting history.”
She was right.
But it was still new to me. Even though I had been in media all my life, it wasn’t until after Crimea that I saw the power and effectiveness of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the information war, as one U.S. three-star told me, “The Russians have the big battalions.”
It all began with reports of “little green men” — at least that’s how TV news described the masked men in unmarked uniforms who skulked into Crimea in March 2014.
In fact, they were “Spetsnaz,” Russian special operations forces. At the time, Putin vehemently denied they were Russian troops. He claimed they were patriotic local militias defending the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
This, of course, was an unblinking lie. Within days, Putin had illegally annexed a piece of Ukraine into the Russian federation and copped to the fact that they were indeed Russian soldiers. The White House condemned the violation of Crimea’s sovereignty and began the process of imposing sanctions on Russia. At the time, I thought that at the very least we should marshal social media against this historic trespass. Some folks made fun of what they called #hashtag diplomacy, but heck, it was something. I started tweeting against Putin and Russia’s actions and urged everyone in the State Department with a social media account to do the same—"The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of #Ukraine determine their own future."
Not exactly fire-breathing words. At the same time, we started a small social media group called the Ukraine Task Force to rebut Russian lies in real time. And then a funny thing happened: I started getting dozens and then hundreds of tweets calling me a fascist propagandist and a hypocrite and much, much worse. And almost all of them had terrible spelling and worse grammar. In addition, there were tweets from scantily clad young women who, in syntactically challenged English mixed with Cyrillic, inquired about my political views and breathlessly told me theirs. I received screeds about Russian babies being kidnapped in Crimea, unrepentant Nazis who were behind the protests in downtown Kiev, and how the CIA had created the AIDS virus.
When I published a diplomatic note on the State Department site accusing Russia of an “intense campaign of disinformation” and referred to Russia Today as “a propaganda bullhorn,” I was attacked on-air by RT and in an editorial by its editor-in-chief accusing me of cramming dozens of falsehoods into a few hundred words. (You can always tell what the Russians are doing because they accuse you of doing the same thing.) I had never watched RT before, and soon discovered that it was an often entertaining mélange of fact and fiction depicting a toxic America riven by corruption and racism featuring experts without expertise spinning wild conspiracy stories. RT stories suggested it was the democratic right of the people of Crimea to be part of Russia and that the U.S. had fomented the color revolutions in Ukraine and the Russian periphery.
I hate to tell you, President Trump, but RT was calling American media fake news long before you did.
All of this was eye-opening and a bit bewildering, and now seems sadly familiar to Americans who saw a similar pattern of information warfare during the 2016 election.
But this is not new for the Russians. The annexation of Crimea, the soft invasion of eastern Ukraine and the social media tsunami around these events are all part of a long-term KGB military strategy known as “active measures”—a bland term for the weaponization of information to achieve strategic goals. The idea goes back to Soviet days, but the modern tools of social media have made it far easier and more effective. After all, you don’t have to pay spies to plant false stories in American newspapers anymore—you can do it yourself from a troll farm in St. Petersburg. In short, “active measures” seeks to create a world of “alternative facts.”
But the goal of “active measures” is even grander than influencing an election: It uses disinformation, propaganda and cyberware to weaken the West, foment division in NATO and undermine America’s image around the world. The social media that accompanied Crimea wasn’t so much to support Russia’s point of view, but to sow doubt about anyone understanding what was happening. Russian digital disinformation is post-modern: It’s less the propagation of lies than the idea that there is no truth. Ultimately, “active measures” seeks to undermine the very concept of empirical facts.
Last week, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Clint Watts, a former FBI officer who is an expert on Russian disinformation, said that what Russia did on social media in 2014 around Ukraine was a “dry run” for the 2016 election. He called it “capabilities development.” And it was. They seeded false stories about a 3-year-old ethnic Russian boy crucified by the Ukrainian military, about how Ukrainian bakeries were refusing to sell bread to Russian speakers, and how the new Ukrainian government was going to cancel the May 9 World War II commemoration and stage a gay pride parade instead. These efforts presaged the internet ecosystem of 2016: Disinformation is launched on Twitter; it is then covered by Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik; those stories are loaded up on YouTube and are then pushed out to sympathetic Facebook communities. At the time, our most senior NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, told me this was “an information blitzkrieg unlike anything in the history of information warfare.” In military terms, Russia was preparing the information battlefield for 2016.
The hundreds of Russian ads recently revealed on Facebook and Google are also examples of “active measures.” The ads, ranging from ones that seem to support Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers to ads saying “The South will rise again” to the headline, “Satan: If I win Clinton Wins!,” fit into the Russian goal of sowing confusion and doubt. The Russians like “frozen conflicts”—a term that applies to territorial disputes like eastern Ukraine or Transnistria in Moldova, but could easily describe the stalemate in Congress, the polarization of American politics, or the debate about Russian “collusion.” It’s these divisions the ads are meant to exploit. Yes, there are plenty that were pro-Trump, but in the early stages of the campaign, the ads were more focused on creating controversy and division than on supporting any one candidate. And that’s the idea—to reveal an America riven by different and irreconcilable points of view, to show modern democracy as a dysfunctional mess. What Russian would want to live in such a society?
While the delivery system for disinformation is very 21st century, the way Russia uses it hearkens back to Soviet WWII artillery strategy: Shoot fast, aim everywhere and don’t stint on the ammunition. The Russians have an army of botnets and sock puppets and honey pots. They use troll factories to create thousands and thousands of tweets, which cleverly mix political news with apolitical posts about fashion and sports. They exploit all the laws of online social science: Multiple sources are more persuasive than a single one; emotionally resonant content is passed on more frequently; and repetition leads to familiarity which leads to acceptance. I was impressed with how quickly the Russian propaganda machine was on top of the news—but, of course, it takes less time to make up a fact than to check one. And they use our own bias for “objectivity” against us: They know American media will dutifully report Russian fictions, however far-fetched, and try to balance them with accurate reporting.
Putin has been the impresario of this information war. In 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell, there was a KGB operative in East Germany who saw that the great Soviet Union, which had spent trillions of rubles on tanks and missiles, had fallen without firing a shot. He realized that American soft power—he has even used the term—had trumped Soviet hard power. When he became president of Russia in 1999, the first thing Putin did was take over the state television network. He had learned the lesson.
When I interviewed Putin in 2006 for Time, he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the unraveling of the Soviet Union. His unstated goal is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again by uniting the Russian diaspora, keeping his neighbors unstable, and undermining the appeal of the U.S. and the idea of democracy itself. Russian investment in media of all kinds—from television stations in the periphery, to reality TV to VKontakte, a sort of Russian Facebook—is a giant loss-leader and is meant to topple what he once called the “Anglo-Saxon monopoly” of media. The autocrat’s strategy is always to have an enemy, and Putin’s enemy is always the U.S.
I wish I could say that we figured out what to do about Russian disinformation and that we had seen what Russia would do in the 2016 election. We didn’t and I didn’t. But the writing was on the screen. The Ukraine Task Force became the Russia Information Group, where we supported credible counter-Russian voices in the region. We pretty much stopped creating content ourselves. After all, the State Department isn’t exactly a media company, and the Russians were crushing us on volume. We had been working with the big tech companies, Facebook, Google, Apple, on countering ISIS’ content online, but they just weren’t as interested or as knowledgeable about Russian disinformation. It wasn’t yet on their radar as a problem in the U.S. But in 2016, with the rise of “fake news,” wild conspiracy stories, botnets and paid ads on social media, we saw the Putin playbook in action here in the U.S.
Before I left the State Department, we had transformed the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications—a small entity created by Secretary Clinton to counter Al Qaeda and then ISIS messaging (she was ahead of that one, too)—into the Global Engagement Center, a larger group whose ultimate goal was to combat disinformation around the world, with a special focus on Russia. Earlier this year, in the Defense Authorization Act, Congress expanded the GEC’s mission to counter state and non-state propaganda aimed at undermining national security and told the Defense Department to transfer up to $80 million to this new entity. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked for some but not all of the money from the Pentagon, but it’s hard to imagine this State Department using any of those funds to counter Russian propaganda.
Particularly when the head of the American government seems so often to rely on their talking points.
Are liberals having a moral awakening? Watching the political contortions of Republicans to defend a candidate accused of sexually molesting teenage girls, Democrats and liberal pundits are reckoning publicly with their own history of fervid rationalizations on behalf of a recent president. But this should be just the beginning of a painful re-examination.
This new consciousness was glimpsed first in a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, a commentator of a stoutly progressive persuasion. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right's ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it's also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
It was glimpsed in passing in a New York Times editorial, Ground Zero of conventional liberalism. “Remember former President Bill Clinton, whose popularity endures despite a long string of allegations of sexual misconduct and, in one case, rape—all of which he has denied,” it said.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, where coastal elitism is a badge of honor, acknowledged the elephant in the room this way: “That so many women have summoned the courage to make public their allegations against Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly—or that many have come to reconsider some of the claims made against Bill Clinton—represents a cultural passage.”
And in full-throated, unvarnished form, it appeared in a piece Monday in The Atlantic by the redoubtable Caitlin Flanagan, who is unbound to any specific ideology. In a piece titled, “Bill Clinton—The Reckoning,” Flanagan pointed not to the Monica Lewinsky story, nor to Gennifer Flowers, nor to any other story of consensual behavior, but to a darker series of stories from as far back as 1978.
“It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks. But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced,” Flanagan wrote. “Rather, he was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation and it was willing—eager—to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur.”
These allegations have long been a part of the right-wing media’s talking points. Sean Hannity invoked them on an almost daily basis during the 2016 campaign, and they were used by Donald Trump as a protective shield, to ward off the charges of serial sexual harassment and the boastful confessions of same on the “Access Hollywood” tape. During the 2016 campaign, Trump brought these three women to a presidential debate, as living, breathing arguments for “whataboutism.”
But from the political center leftward, those allegations never reached critical mass. Maybe it was the very way the Right not only seized on the stories, but made them part of a much broader, far less credible series of accusations. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell spent years peddling “the Clinton Chronicles,” a series of videos that charged the Clintons with complicity in any number of murders. A congressional committee chair used a rifle and a watermelon to try to show that White House aide Vince Foster had been murdered, rather than taking his own life; As late as last year, the fever swamps were rife with stories of a pedophilic sex trafficking ring operating out of the basement of a popular Washington pizza parlor. Any one of these flights of lunacy acted as the 13th stroke of the clock, casting doubt not only on itself, but on every other allegation.
So what changed? Three people: Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
The first factor is obvious. In the fallout from the thermonuclear explosion that was Weinstein, words and deeds are now being viewed through a radically different frame. From literary lions to famous political journalists to editors to CEOs, careers have been suddenly, thoroughly obliterated because of past behavior that is now seen as beyond the pale. And that has meant that the alleged behavior of a one-time attorney general, governor and president are no less vulnerable to re-examination.
There's no better illustration of how the ground has shifted than to look at Gloria Steinem’s 1998 New York Times op-ed piece, “Why Feminists Support Clinton.” Published as the Lewinsky story was on full boil, the piece talked not about that story, but about the charges of harassment leveled by Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. What she argued was that even if the allegations were true, they did not amount to harassment. Why not? Because, in the cases of of Willey and Jones, he took no for an answer.
“He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life” Steinem wrote of Willey. “She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again.” In her original story, Jones essentially said the same thing. She went to then-Governor Clinton's hotel room, where she said he asked her to perform oral sex and even dropped his trousers. She refused, and even she claims that he said something like, ‘Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do.’’
“As with the allegations in Ms. Willey's case, Mr. Clinton seems to have made a clumsy sexual pass, then accepted rejection,” Steinem wrote by way of excusing him. Even 19 years ago, Steinem’s assertion was not received all that well. It was labeled the “one free grope” theory.
Now restate the story with today’s frame: The governor of a state sends his security detail to summon a $6.35 entry-level employee to his hotel suite. If we follow Steinem and accept the allegations, he drops his pants, exposes himself and asks for oral sex. Would his acceptance of her refusal immunize him—or a TV producer, or an actor, or an advertising executive from swift and strong retribution?
What’s also notable about the Steinem essay is that it made no mention of the most serious charge against Clinton: that as attorney general in 1978, he had persuaded a nursing home operator to invite him to her hotel room—a last-minute change of venue—where he set upon her and raped her. Juanita Broaddrick’s story—from which she has deviated only once, falsely repudiating the story, she said, so as not to be dragged into the Jones lawsuit—has been consistent and has the kind of credibility we have been taught to recognize (a friend saw her just after the alleged incident and saw her with a bruised lip and torn clothes). This allegation—that Clinton did not take “no” for an answer—has always unsettled even some of the former president’s strongest admirers. (I remember asking a Clinton aide about it on CNN many years ago and was struck by the fact that there was no pushback, no denial.) But in the wake of what Weinstein has taught us, some of the gaps in Broaddrick’s story now seem explicable. Of course she didn’t file a complaint; he was the chief law enforcement officer of the state. Of course she denied the story at one point; she had no interest in becoming a public figure.
At the height of the Lewinsky impeachment melodrama, Clinton’s defenders always argued that the president’s behavior was a private matter. To this day, you can find references to Clinton’s “dalliances” and “peccadilloes.” It is also true that in each of these three cases, there are grounds for doubt. Broaddrick changed her story; Jones could not accurately describe the presidential package; Willey also accused Clinton of murdering her husband, and wanted to publish a book. And all three became ardent political foes of the Clintons. But the fact that some of Weinstein’s accusers agreed to stay silent in return for a settlement or even stated that he was innocent of harassment as part of the settlement deal no longer are seen as mitigating Weinstein’s behavior. And in the Weinstein context, the inconsistencies and political involvement of Broaddrick, Jones and Willey can be seen as much as a desire for justified revenge as an alliance with conspiracy-minded extremists.
But there’s another, broad question that progressives and other Democrats need to confront, one that reaches beyond Clinton. And it’s an issue triggered by the response on the Right to Trump’s campaign, and (to a lesser extent to former Judge Roy Moore: Are they going to let partisan politics warp their capacity for clear moral judgment?
All through 2016, figures on the Right debated over what to do about Trump. His character, his temperament, his history, his knowledge (or lack thereof) made him as unfit a candidate for president as any in our history. Many refused to endorse him; some even publicly backed Hillary Clinton. But among those who did, one of the most powerful arguments went this way: “Yes, he’s wrong in all sorts of ways, but if Clinton wins, we will have a liberal federal judiciary for decades, we will have intrusive health care, and we will have no chance to cut down the size of Big Government, and anyway, she’s a crook.” If the exit polls are right, a lot of voters bought this argument; crunch the numbers, and it turns out that several million voters who saw Trump as neither qualified nor fit for office voted for him anyway.
We are seeing this same argument about Moore (although his support does seem to be slipping by the hour). The Alabama state auditor has said in so many words that he will vote for Moore even if the charges about molesting a 14-year-old girl are true. Conservative writer David Horowitz put it this way: “In my view Moore is guilty as accused. But 1) it happened 30 years ago, & 2) he can't be removed from the ballot, & 3) electing a Dem strengthens a party that defends these criminals: Obama, the Clintons, Holder, Lynch, Abedin, Cheryl Mills etc. & their crimes are far far worse.”
Now for the hard part. How different is this “transactional” approach to voting different from what Bill Clinton’s supporters did in brushing aside the serious questions not of philandering, but of predatory sexual behavior?
Clinton was a feminist; he named a liberal woman to the Supreme Court; he was pro-choice; he put record numbers of women in his administration; he fought for child care, the earned-income tax credit, environmentally progressive policies. By focusing on Clinton’s private “dalliances,” and by ignoring the more serious allegations, the center-left argued that the removal of Clinton was not just anti-democratic (overturning an election), but would be a victory for the forces of reaction. (This argument always lacked a certain force, given that Al Gore would have replaced Clinton). It also represented a complete reversal of a central feminist argument that “the personal is political,” that the behavior of men, and not just their pronouncements and policies, had to be taken into account. The new version was, “the personal is political unless the person in question embraces my politics.”
Clinton himself raised this argument when he told his Cabinet in August 1998 that his earlier assurances of innocence in the Lewinsky affair were false. His Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala upbraided him for his conduct, and noted that had he been a professor at the university she once ran, he would have been bounced for such conduct.
To which Clinton replied, according to the Washington Post, “that if her logic had prevailed in 1960, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected president instead of John F. Kennedy.”
This is, you may recognize, the mirror image of the argument Trump’s supporters made to skeptics, and what Moore’s supporters are making even as their man takes serious incoming fire. The political defense of Moore goes like this: “If Moore loses, that’s one less vote for tax cuts, conservative judges, traditional values. (Well, they might want to shelve that one). We can’t let our problems with personal conduct override the enormous political stakes.”
But Clinton’s reply to Shalala raises one final, highly unsettling question: Given today’s terrain, how should we regard the conduct of President John Kennedy? We have known for several decades that he was not simply a “womanizer” (a word that may need to be retired) but a man of compulsive, reckless, dangerous impulses. Some of his behavior was simply contemptible, telling the 19-year-old White House staffer he was sleeping with to “take care” of his aide and occasional procurer Dave Powers with oral sex.
But some of it carried clear public consequences, like bedding the mistress of a powerful Mafia don while his brother was launching an all-out war on organized crime, or frolicking with a suspected East German agent. The fact that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had full knowledge of JFK’s behavior—knowledge he delighted in sharing with his nemesis Robert Kennedy—meant that there was no way for President Kennedy to remove a racist, politically fanatical director of the FBI. (Disclosure: I worked in Robert Kennedy’s Senate office and for his presidential campaign in 1967-68.) Moreover, contrary to the myth that the press threw a protective shield around his behavior, Kennedy in the last weeks of his life had become the focus of some serious investigative reporting, most notably by Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register. It is at least possible that had Kennedy lived, his private life would have become distinctly unprivate, jeopardizing his hold on the White House. We’ll never know what apologies might have been written to absolve him of those sins, but we can well imagine given the prevailing attitudes of the time.
And yet … there is more than a little realpolitik force to Clinton’s question. For all of his recklessness in matters of sex, Kennedy was a cautious, prudent man when it counted most—in his role as commander in chief. In his refusal to go into Laos in 1961, in his refusal to provide American air cover for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, in his conduct during the Cuban missile crisis, in his call for a thaw in the Cold War and a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and in his increasing doubts about Vietnam, there was no sign of recklessness. It may not be too much to say that a different president during the Cuban missile crisis would have meant the difference between life and death for tens of millions of people.
In the end, though, neither Clinton nor Kennedy can escape the “reckoning” of which Hayes and Flanagan refer. In the case of Kennedy, his treatment of women was not simply callous, but jeopardized his presidency. In the case of Clinton, his public policies cannot erase the serious doubts about whether a sexual predator occupied the White House for eight years. And even measured by partisan concerns, Clinton’s behavior materially, perhaps fatally, wounded the campaigns of Gore and Hillary Clinton.
For many of us, it is easy to look at Weinstein, Trump and Moore as case studies in pathological behavior. Looking closer to home is a lot more painful; it is also compulsory. Unless and until partisans across the board stop justifying unconscionable behavior out of political self-interest, the more likely it is that the pervasive cynicism about the process, and everyone involved in it, will fester and grow.
Is there such a thing as a black American?
This is a really easy question that the United States has yet to answer correctly. And it’s for this reason that I am worried about the future of our country.
That last statement can feel cliche given our current environment, where partisans spin routine conflicts into existential threats and describe every election as the final verdict on the nation’s fate. But something different is happening in our politics today.
There seems to be a subtle but concerted effort to paint black citizens who criticize President Donald Trump or the United States as un-American. Black people who dare suggest that the country is not living up to its professed ideals are offhandedly deemed unpatriotic and ungrateful for the blessing of being born in the “shining city upon a hill.” If our critiques are not met with a crude suggestion to buy a one-way ticket “back” to Africa, we’re accused of rent-seeking in laziness and victimization. It’s as though some political strategist discovered the best way to counter claims that our leaders are indifferent to pervasive racial inequalities is to imply the accusers hate the nation and the troops.
After all, in the American parade of horribles, unpatriotic ingrates are worse than any racist could ever be because, well, at least the racists love America. Why do you think they want it so badly for themselves?
There is no lack of incidents that create cause for concern. When black NFL players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, the president called them “sons of bitches” who are disrespecting the nation, the flag and veterans. He then invited the professional hockey champion Pittsburgh Penguins to the White House and called the all-white assembly of mostly non-American players “incredible patriots.”
As a black man in Northern Virginia, I was well aware that the state’s gubernatorial race was seen as a bellwether for white identity politics and the electoral expediency of racial animus. For weeks, we were bombarded by Republican nominee Ed Gillespie’s campaign ads with dog-whistled soundtracks about the preservation of Confederate statues and taking stands on Election Day to tower over the lot of heathens who’d dare take a knee during the national anthem. So some view Democrat Ralph Northam’s win as a repudiation of the politics of racial resentment. I remain worried because questioning black people’s allegiance to the country is still seen as a viable political strategy.
When Rep. Frederica Wilson, a black congresswoman from Florida, chastised the president for making insensitive comments to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson who was killed in Niger, White House chief of staff John Kelly called her an “empty barrel” and others labeled her a national disgrace. The White House then contrasted Kelly and Wilson, saying it was “highly inappropriate” to question a four-star general and that we should all “thank God for patriots like Gen. Kelly.”
The list goes on. Black Lives Matter has been characterized as “un-American” by Trump emissary and former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani. During Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing, witnesses testified that he’d once called the NAACP un-American. Trump likened majority-black inner cities to violent foreign countries. Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka recently made the dysphemistic suggestion that the major issue facing black America is not systemic racism, segregated communities or socioeconomic disparities, but “black African gun crime against black Africans,” conveniently leaving out “American.”
And, of course, few things compare with Trump’s insistence that the nation’s first black president was, in fact, not an American at all. And he was quite pleased that Arizona’s embattled former Sheriff Joe Arpaio volunteered to look into Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Trump recently pardoned Arpaio from a criminal contempt conviction during a racial profiling case, calling him a “great American patriot.”
In my previous life as a military officer, my job was to be preoccupied with threats to America’s well-being. And it is precisely for this reason that the current political rhetoric around race and patriotism feels especially acute and inappropriate.
This tactic—the attempt to disentangle blackness from patriotism and America—is extremely dangerous. It is born of the ugliest parts of our history and presents the most dire threat to our political stability.
Let us never forget that the only thing that has ever broken the Union in half was the question I began with: Should there be such a thing as a black American?
We went to war over that question. More than 600,000 of our countrymen died over that question. A president was assassinated over that question. The notion of a black American was so controversial that our Founding Fathers avoided it altogether. Citizens turned their guns on each other. Racist state regimes violently suppressed constitutional rights. And the Army’s elite 101st Airborne Division had to be deployed just so nine black teenagers could go to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
So when the patriotism of black Americans is questioned—even if it’s done simply to reframe a debate on more favorable terms and avoid uncomfortable conversations about race—the nation’s worst impulses resurface. It fosters the perception that black people in the United States are less American than their white neighbors. Being seen as less American means one has less of a claim on citizenship, civil protections and equal opportunity. It’s what creates voting laws that complicate the voting process for black communities instead of making it easier. It’s a rationale for the aggressive policing of minority communities. It’s at the core of the view that black achievement in the United States isn’t a product of intellect and hard work, but of white magnanimity.
And as a veteran, I take deep offense at any attempt to separate blackness from America and patriotism. Black people in the United States have fought in every war since the nation’s inception—even before they could access citizenship. Black troops left their families, took up arms on foreign shores, and risked their lives for an idea, a promise. They fought in the Revolutionary War for American independence, in the War of 1812 for American self-determination and in the Spanish-American War of 1898 for American expansion—all with the hopes that their service would compel the nation to recognize their rights to full citizenship. What higher form of American patriotism is there than fighting for the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness when you can’t access it? That is the very Spirit of ‘76 that led to the nation’s creation. And, out of necessity, this spirit is still very much alive and well in black America because we have yet to realize the fullness of the American promise. These are not signs of lesser Americans, but the signature of superlative citizens.
And yet, despite fighting for unrealized freedoms, scores of black veterans returning home from conflict were denied access to veterans benefits and the other rights of full American citizenship. Jehu Grant was an enslaved man in Rhode Island who fought in the Continental Army. But when Congress passed the Pension Act of 1832, Grant’s annuity was denied because America determined slaves couldn’t be soldiers. When black World War II vets returned home, nearly all of them were denied access to the GI Bill, which helped white veterans buy homes and get more education that helped create the atrocious racial wealth gap today. This is what happens when black people—even those willing to put their lives on the line—aren’t seen as real Americans.
This—this inability to allow black Americans to be fully black and fully American—is our national weakness. And our enemies know it. The recent revelations that Russia took out fake ads on Facebook and used fake Twitter accounts to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States should come as no surprise. The fact that other countries have long sought to exploit racial discrimination in order to weaken the United States is not shocking. Racism is our fault line; it is our Achilles' heel.
So this tactic of labeling black citizens who are critical of our government and leaders as un-American is dangerous ground. It is playing with a fire that’s consumed us in the past and is the one domestic threat that can dismantle us again.
I am worried about our country.
Not because some myopic and lazy politicians decide to play on people’s fears and prejudices to win elections. Not because white nationalists march across university campuses with discount Tiki torches. Not because we are so polarized in our politics that each side sees the other as evil and destructive.
I am worried about our country because it has not yet decided whether a black American is a paradox or a fellow citizen. We cannot be both, and history has proved the country cannot survive the former. Either the United States will be preserved and made more perfect by those who believe it can be the world’s largest multiracial democratic republic bound together by a notion of equal access to our founding ideals, or we will squander the opportunity and the republic will slip through our grasp.
After the Washington Post reported Thursday that Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama had allegedly tried to initiate sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old county prosecutor, national Republicans quickly distanced themselves. The National Republican Senatorial Committee severed fundraising ties with Moore’s campaign. More than a dozen of Moore’s would-be Republican colleagues so far have questioned whether he is fit to be in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Even Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, called on Moore to step aside from the December 12 special election if the charges are true. President Donald Trump also questioned Moore’s continued candidacy amid the allegations, which Vice President Mike Pence likewise said he found “disturbing.” Senator John McCain didn’t equivocate: “He should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.”
But here in Alabama, the reaction has been very different. One state representative told an Alabama newspaper that Moore’s accuser should be prosecuted. The state auditor said a romantic relationship between an older man and a younger woman is biblical. Many elected and party officials questioned the accuser’s motivations and timing, dismissing the Post report as dirty politics and “fake news.” True, some Republicans, especially among the establishment set who didn’t want Moore in office in the first place, called on Moore to resign if the allegations are true. Asked Friday whether the stories told by Moore’s accusers were trustworthy, Governor Kay Ivey said, “Why wouldn’t it be?” But one longtime Republican told al.com Moore would have to be “caught on video with a dead boy or a goat” to lose the support of his fervent fans.
What’s going on? Partisanship often overrides religious or moral values in Alabama—which largely accounts for the divergent responses to Moore’s scandal in the state versus the rest of the country. But that also makes Moore’s case an interesting litmus test for Alabama, amid a national outing of sexual abusers in entertainment, government and the media. Will the state stand by a man who promises policies that much of the electorate wants and who holds similar religious views, or will it abandon him?
Moore, who has made a career touting the Ten Commandments and defying federal authority, is a hero to many voters in Alabama, a deeply conservative and religious state where half the residents identify as evangelicals and say they oppose both abortion and LGBTQ rights. Moore, to say the least, has been outspoken on these issues. And an estimated one-third of voters in the state Republican Party, which dominates in Alabama, consistently support him.
“Voters in this state have a history of ignoring sexual misconduct,” says Larry Powell, a professor of communications studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a political consultant and the author of books on state politics. “They voted for Trump, and he still has strong support in this state.” Steve Flowers, a former state representative turned political commentator, also cites “Big” Jim Folsom, who had a penchant for kissing women on the campaign trail, saying he would start “with the 16-year-olds” and work his way to older ones from there. Folsom fathered a child out of wedlock while Alabama’s governor in the 1940s and was again elected governor in 1954.
Thursday’s story in the Washington Post—in which an Alabama woman said that in 1979, Moore, then 32, had stripped to his underpants, touched her bra and panties and tried to get her to touch him when she was 14—is the talk of Alabama. Three other women also told the Post that Moore, now 70, tried to date them when they were between 16 and 18 and he was in his early 30s. Two of the four said he served them alcohol as minors. On Saturday, a former colleague of Moore’s told CNN it was “common knowledge” that Moore dated teenagers at the time.
Moore vehemently denies the charges and says he did not even know his main accuser. In a series of Twitter posts, he called the article “the most vicious and nasty round of attacks against me I’ve EVER faced!” and said his campaign is in a “spiritual battle” for conservative Christian values. “The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal – even inflict physical harm – if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives,” Moore wrote. “I will NEVER GIVE UP the fight!” But while telling Fox News host Sean Hannity on Friday that dating teenagers “would have been out of my customary behavior,” Moore added, “I don’t remember dating any girl without permission of her mother.”
Polling conducted after the Post article was published suggests support for Moore among state voters might be eroding. The survey, conducted Thursday by the Atlanta-based research firm Opinion Savvy, put Moore and his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, in a virtual dead heat, with 46.4 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Moore and 46 percent saying they would cast ballots for Jones. The previous Opinion Savvy poll on the race, from late September, had Moore with a 5.7-point lead.
But as the reactions of many Alabama officials suggests, that might not be enough to sway the outcome of the special election to fill the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Many see this as an attack by the Washington establishment,” says Bill Britt, editor-in-chief of the Alabama Political Reporter. “They conclude this is McConnell’s side of the party coming after Moore’s side.” Flowers estimates that 30 percent of Alabama Republicans would vote for Moore “come hell or high water. … They’re not going to give these accusations any credibility.”
And in what is expected to be a low turnout in a crimson-red state, Moore’s base may be enough to carry him to victory. “Some moderate Republicans who are dismayed by all this may stay home,” Powell says. “But I think Moore’s supporters are going to turn out in droves.”
To be fair, many in Alabama—Republicans and Democrats—are extremely disturbed by the allegations that Moore as an adult tried to initiate romantic relationships with underage girls. The fact that he was a prosecutor at the time when he is alleged to have served alcohol to minors, tried to have sex with a minor and took two to his home in an attempt to have sex—all either misdemeanors or felonies under Alabama law—makes it even more disturbing to them. Powell, for one, argues that most voters in the state, where the age of consent is 16, believe a much older adult seeking sex with a 14-year-old is simply wrong: “That’s definitely too young by anyone’s standards in Alabama.”
Not quite anyone, though. Jim Zeigler, the state auditor and former chairman of the Conservative Christians of Alabama and the state League of Christian Voters, told the Washington Examiner on Thursday that there is nothing wrong with a man in his early 30s dating a teenager. He cites both John the Baptist and Jesus, saying they were the progeny of men with much younger wives. (The Bible actually says that Jesus’ mother, Mary, had a virgin conception.) Moore married his current wife in 1985, when he was 38 and she was 24. “They’re blessed with a wonderful marriage, and his wife Kayla is 14 years younger than Moore,” Zeigler told the Examiner.
Five county Republican party chairs the Toronto Star contacted Thursday said they believed the allegations are false. Bibb County Republican Party chair Jerry Pow might have had the most cynical take. He told the Star he would vote for Moore regardless of whether the allegations are substantiated, later adding he’s not saying he supports sex with minors, he just opposes Democrats. Another county GOP head said he would consider voting for Moore in that case. Ed Henry, a state representative from the northern Alabama city of Hartselle, called Moore the true victim. “If they believe this man is predatory, they are guilty of allowing him to exist for 40 years,” Henry told the Cullman Times. “I think someone should prosecute and go after them. You can’t be a victim 40 years later, in my opinion.”
There is already a sustained campaign among some state GOP officials and supporters to dismiss the allegations as fabrications desperately cooked up by the liberal media and the Democratic Party. They point to media reports that one of Moore’s accusers was a sign-language interpreter for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats as evidence of a conspiracy. “A lot of people here won’t believe anything the Washington Post prints,” Flowers says. “Their attitude is, ‘If the Jasper Daily Mountain Eagle says it, I will believe it.’”
Many Republicans note the allegations are decades old and question the timing during a high-stakes election when Republicans hold only a thin margin in the U.S. Senate. None of the accusers went public when Moore was elected chief justice in 2000 and 2012 and when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010, making the women’s stories even more suspicious, many Republicans here say. In media interviews, the lawyer for Leigh Corfman, the woman who told the Post about a sexual encounter with Moore when she was 14, has said Corfman was afraid to come forward earlier out of concern for her now-adult children.
Jones, who denies prior knowledge of the Post story, has said very little about the allegations against Moore. He issued an eight-word statement Thursday: “Roy Moore needs to answer these serious charges.” Accusations of molestation normally would be fodder for attack ads. But Flowers bets Jones is unlikely to use the allegations to attack Moore. “He knows if you go negative on Moore it only will make his people more fervent, so it’s best to leave it alone.”
The state Republican Party’s executive committee could vote to withdraw the party’s nomination. That is unlikely, absent a surprise confession by Moore, Flowers says. Because ballots already have been printed and absentees mailed, Moore’s name will remain before voters on December 12, regardless of whether he withdraws or is booted out by the party, according to the Alabama secretary of state’s office. In that scenario, if Moore gets the most votes, the result will be voided and a new election held.
As the week wore down, many in Alabama wondered why it took so long for the allegations to become public.
“This has been the one that got away for more than one Alabama political reporter,” says Kyle Whitmire, a reporter and political columnist for al.com, which serves Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile. “The rumors have been there, but tracing them back to their sources has always led to dead ends and leads gone cold.”
Whitmire says he was approached a few years ago via social media by a person he described in an email to POLITICO Magazine as “a woman who claimed to be a friend of a friend of the woman in the Post’s story.” The friends encouraged her to step forward, Whitmire wrote in the email, “but as I understood it at the time, she was very afraid of potential blowback—which has now proven all too warranted—and decided against going public.”
Moore will lose only if enough moderate Republicans, many of whom consider him an embarrassment, vote for Jones, Alabama political experts say.
“They think he has been a dirty spot on the party for some time,” says Powell, the professor and political consultant. “But their quandary is: Can they bring themselves to vote for a Democrat?”
It’s like the fabled divide between fans of the Alabama and Auburn collegiate football teams, says Britt, the political editor. “If you’re an Alabama fan, you just don’t go to the other side and root for Auburn.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday denied Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s membership bid, the latest volley in a nasty dispute between the Florida lawmaker and some members of the all-Democratic caucus.
The CHC voted to oppose Curbelo’s bid to join after weeks of back-and-forth between him and some members of the group who have questioned whether his intentions were politically motivated. Curbelo represents a Latino-heavy district in Miami that is a top target for Democrats in 2018.
“I think it was pre-cooked,” Curbelo said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “I will stand up to bigotry and discrimination no matter whether it comes from the right, the left, the middle.”
The move comes as both the CHC and Curbelo are pushing for congressional leaders to secure a legislative fix by the end of the year for Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who could face deportation as soon as March.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said he doesn’t want to tie Dreamer negotiations to a year-end spending bill but many lawmakers say they see that as the only viable option for addressing the issue before January.
Some CHC members were turned off by Curbelo’s refusal to back the DREAM Act, their bill to grant legal status to Dreamers. Curbelo has said he would vote for the Dream Act if it made it to the floor but has resisted CHC pressure to cosponsor the bill.
Curbelo told POLITICO he doesn’t expect their spat to hamper efforts to get a solution for Dreamers by the end of next year — while taking a shot at the CHC.
“I will not allow their bigotry and discrimination and penchant for segregation to hurt the young people they claim they want to help and I certainly want to help,” Curbelo said.
CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said the group’s decision wasn’t just based on the Dream Act but also Curbelo’s support for Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and the GOP tax bill.
“Many of those votes in this climate gave members who voted no, and maybe other members, pause about whether or not this was a good time for changing membership,” Lujan Grisham told reporters after the meeting.
Members also said a private argument between Curbelo and Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) recently, in which he accused her and the caucus of discriminating against him, soured their feelings.
“Everything else is resolvable,” said one member about the disagreement over the Dream Act. “Once you make it personal — the policy you can grapple with — the personal, now caucus members have to make a decision.”
Curbelo gave a brief presentation before the vote but did not engage in a back-and-forth with members. Several members had already declared their opposition to Curbelo publicly in recent days.
In a statement after the decision, group spokesman Carlos Paz tried to dispel the notion that the CHC should admit Curbelo simply because he is Hispanic.
“This vote reflects the position of many of our members that Rep. Curbelo and his record are not consistent with those values,” Paz said.
Curbelo has been pushing to join the CHC since January, first joining the caucus’ nonprofit arm to boost his chances. Many caucus members were initially supportive of letting him join their ranks but their support dissolved in recent weeks as the jabs between Curbelo and some members of the group grew increasingly personal and public.
Lujan Grisham would not say how she voted but seemed to indicate she supported Curbelo.
“I have been a member who has been on the record being favorable to membership by both Senate and House Republicans and I’ve been consistent in that effort,” she told reporters.
Republican strategists are warning that some of the party’s veteran House incumbents aren’t adequately preparing for the 2018 election, putting the GOP majority at risk by their failure to recognize the dangerous conditions facing them.
Nearly three dozen Republicans were outraised by their Democratic challengers in the most recent fundraising quarter. Others, the strategists say, are failing to maintain high profiles in their districts or modernize their campaigns by using data analytics in what is shaping up as a stormy election cycle.
“There are certainly incumbent members out there who need to work harder and raise more money if they want to win,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s top super PAC. “They’re fundamentally not prepared for how they’re about to be attacked.”
After Democrats’ sweeping victories last week, Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, wrote a pointed memo — titled “Surviving the 2018 Election” — addressing Republican incumbents. The firm counseled incumbents to start their reelection campaigns earlier than planned, to do early message testing and to begin planning their voter turnout operation now, as opposed to next fall.
“Some [members] get it and some don’t,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with POS. “First thing we’re saying to them is, ‘Don’t be in denial, this can happen to you.’”
Bliss said that while most perennial battleground incumbents are taking precautions, a number of Republican House members aren’t preparing seriously enough.
CLF is already fortifying weak spots in the GOP’s 24-seat majority — including territory Republicans have held for a generation — as it builds a massive field program to defend Republican-held districts next year. The group has opened offices in 20 Republican congressional districts around the country and plans to open 10 more in the coming weeks, highlighting an emerging 2018 battlefield heavy on suburban seats where Hillary Clinton outran President Donald Trump last year.
The data-driven super PAC plans to spend over $100 million in those districts — even targeting some Democrats in Trump country.
Bliss declined to identify specific members who appear to be lagging, but the super PAC’s recent actions speak loudly. CLF recently opened new field offices in the districts of Texas Rep. John Culberson and New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, both veteran incumbents who have cruised to reelection without serious opposition in recent years. But Culberson and Lance have raised less money than any Republicans running for reelection in Clinton districts, alarming GOP strategists.
“We're trying to do a better job in fundraising,” Lance said in an interview. “We're something like 55 percent ahead of where we were at this time two years ago, and we're doing a better job, and obviously [we] want to continue with that.”
Lance said the recent gubernatorial and legislative elections in New Jersey made fundraising “a tad bit more difficult” this year. But his campaign also noted that Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno still carried Lance’s district in the governor’s race despite losing statewide by double-digits.
Culberson, who outspent his 2016 Democratic opponent roughly 20-to-1 but won just 56 percent of the vote, was outraised in the most recent quarter by two Democratic challengers.
“Culberson’s problem — and other congressmen like him — lies more with motivating their own base, because if they can’t deliver their own conservative agenda, it’s 100 percent a problem for them,” said Luke Macias, a Republican consultant based in Texas.
“A lot of people feel like he’s not as connected to his district and he doesn’t spend as much time there as he could,” Macias said. “That’s a common criticism from political activists, Republican and Democrat, across the board.”
Culberson’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Beyond fundraising, some House GOP members haven’t upgraded their campaign practices. In recent weeks, Chris Wilson, a Republican consultant, met with several House members who don’t currently use data analytics — campaign modeling technology commonly used in races up and down the ballot.
“If you do not, at this point in the cycle, have an understanding of who’s going to vote in 2018 based on data analytics, then you’re way behind,” Wilson said.
In past elections, struggling incumbents often looked for outside help to help them across the finish line. This year, however, strategists are issuing early warnings that the cavalry might not be coming.
The POS memo warned that members should “not assume that, if you are floundering, that the party or super PACs will step in and rescue you.”
Bliss reiterated that tough-love message: “We’ll do whatever it takes to maintain the House, but if members don’t do their job, then we can be very strategic on how we allocate, and where we allocate CLF’s resources.”
Of the 20 CLF offices already up and running, two-thirds are in seats Clinton won in 2016. They include a handful of battleground seats that have been staples of recent congressional elections, like Rep. John Katko’s seat in upstate New York and several districts in the Philadelphia suburbs. But the 2016 election results also highlighted a handful of Republican seats that have not always been contested, including districts represented by Reps. Ed Royce of California, Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, as well as Lance and Culberson’s — all of which now have CLF field offices and figure to be key 2018 bellwethers.
“Whatever data they’re looking at is going to lead the way [for office locations],” said Bill Cortese, a Republican strategist. “They’re not doing it on a hunch or a gut feeling, but they’re doing it because they see there are issues popping up in those districts.”
Super PACs typically stay out of the get-out-the-vote business, preferring to spend their millions on waves of negative TV ads. But CLF is engaging volunteers — especially high school and college Republicans — and knocking on voters’ doors months before the 2018 elections really kick off in earnest. In Nebraska, CLF volunteers showed up at former Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford’s campaign launch with signs that read: “Ashford = Pelosi’s puppet.” Last month, CLF volunteers dressed as clowns and attended a Democratic debate in California’s 10th District.
The group test-ran the on-the-ground strategy this spring in Georgia’s special House election, where more than one-third of its spending to help Republican Karen Handel went into its field program and other non-TV work. The super PAC will likely need to do the same next November for GOP voters, who have grown frustrated with Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare.
Democrats say it’s a sign of GOP weakness to have the super PAC showing up in their neighborhood the year before the election.
“It reflects that this district is looking for new leadership and Republicans have a reason to be worried,” said Alex Triantaphyllis, one of the Democratic challengers who outraised Culberson last quarter. “Culberson has not been engaged with this community ... he’s focused more on upholding national Republican ideology.”
Democrats also criticize CLF’s strategy, saying that running a field program through a super PAC is wasteful compared to more candidate-centered tactics.
“When it’s completely paid for by a super PAC, not only is it not authentic, but lacks any depth,” said Dan Sena, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Would a voter rather have a neighbor you’ve known for 10 years [canvass for a candidate] or a paid 15-year-old kid?”
But Republicans insist it’s all part of the early prep work that could help them keep the House in 2018 — assuming their members are up to the task.
“We lost a dozen seats in 2006 that were preventable had incumbents had done their work, and at this point, we may be seeing the same thing in some seats,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who once chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We don’t know what a year from now will look like, but if you’re interested in coming back, you better plan on it getting worse.”
Sen. Tom Cotton was about to enter the White House early this month to discuss immigration policy when he got an unexpected call from President Donald Trump to talk about a different topic.
For days, the Arkansas senator had been working behind the scenes to convince Republicans that reigniting a battle over repealing Obamacare in the tax fight wasn’t as crazy as it seemed. But Trump, still smarting from GOP’s failures to dismantle the law whom Cotton had first pitched on the idea four days prior, needed little persuading.
“I am with you 1,000 percent on this,” Trump told Cotton over the phone. Trump tweeted twice that Republicans should repeal the mandate, putting pressure on the GOP to tuck it into tax reform, despite the idea being widely dismissed at the time.
That Nov. 2 conversation illustrates how the GOP rank-and-file methodically coaxed their leadership to embark on what seemed — and could still become — a fool’s errand to try again to take down Obamacare. In a surprise move, Senate Republicans said Tuesday that they would repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate with their tax plan, using the savings to plow into more tax cuts.
“Hesitant would be kind,” Cotton said of leadership’s initial reaction to his pitch. It was “skeptical to outright opposed … many people were burned by our experience on health care not once, but twice in July, but again with Graham-Cassidy in September,” referring to another failed attempt to repeal Obamacare earlier this fall.
At the very least, the strategy throws the political grenade of health care into the already-complicated task of overhauling the tax code. At least one influential swing vote on tax reform, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, has expressed concerns about adding Obamacare into the tax mix. Democrats vowing to kill the GOP’s tax efforts are convinced that Republicans have only given them more ammunition.
And the GOP will have to reckon with the consequences of striking the individual mandate, which the Congressional Budget Office says would cause health care premiums to spike and would lead to 13 million fewer people having insurance in the next 10 years.
But Republicans argue it this way: It actually smooths passage for tax reform by giving them a pot of cash to play with for popular tax breaks. One GOP senator said Republicans might have had to set the corporate rate at higher than 20 percent if not for the savings from the mandate. The move also allows them to avoid killing popular tax breaks — such as the adoption tax credit — as the House initially had to do.
“Some of the skeptics finally decided that … we were going to have to put some pretty unpalatable things in the bill and $338 billion alleviates some of the ugliness,” said the Republican senator.
Senate Finance Committee members had frequently brought up the idea of repealing the mandate in their regular meetings ahead of the release of the original bill. But the public push to repeal the mandate — from Republican senators including Cotton, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rand Paul of Kentucky — helped drive momentum to repeal the mandate, according to GOP aides.
In an interview with POLITICO, Cotton said he became convinced that the GOP had to target the individual mandate during an Oct. 26 meeting with Senate Finance Committee members. Republican senators detailed what Cotton described as a “parade of horribles” — a series of popular tax breaks they would need to rescind — that would result absent the hundreds of billions in savings from nixing the health care requirement.
“I started seeing the looks of hesitancy and outright terror on the faces of my colleagues,” Cotton recalled. “[I] spoke to some of them over the next few days and just realized that if we wanted the tax bill to work within the constraints of the budget, we had to repeal the mandate.”
Cotton had already mentioned his idea offhand to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor. But then the senator quickly got to work on crafting a way to inject Obamacare repeal into the tax fight, as unlikely as it seemed.
Cotton spoke privately with White House officials including legislative director Marc Short and Jonny Hiler — a former Cotton aide who leads Vice President Mike Pence’s legislative operation — as well as from the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Even as the Senate GOP rank and file began to coalesce around the idea, there were other areas to smooth out before leadership could decide to include it in their tax plan.
Cotton, Toomey and Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Mike Crapo of Idaho met privately with CBO Director Keith Hall to make sure that repealing the mandate would yield at least $300 billion in savings. (The figure ultimately was $338 billion.)
“Ten days ago, I think people were a little surprised at the impact of what it would have in terms of the fiscal side,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), adding “$338 billion to begin with is a lot of dollars and it really does make tax reform a lot easier to put together.”
Now, GOP leaders say publicly that they have the votes for including the mandate repeal, even if it causes complications with the likes of Collins. The cash went to new provisions such as boosting the size of the child tax credit, as Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) wanted.
Republicans are also framing the mandate repeal as a tax cut, say GOP aides. According to IRS figures, nearly 80 percent of Americans who paid the penalty in 2015 made less than $50,000.
“What members saw is an opportunity to help middle-class families,” a Senate Finance aide said. “Here is a pot of money sitting here and negatively impacting people trying to help.”
Still, the GOP plan would allow key tax cuts for individuals to expire, while business cuts would be permanent. That opens the party to criticism from Democrats for tilting their plan toward corporations while going after the health care law, yet again.
“It’s not done in the abstract,” Cotton said. “Once you have to compare it to popular, widespread deductions like the mortgage interest deduction or the state and local tax deduction, then a lot of members who might be otherwise reluctant will see that’s the simplest way to deliver more tax cuts for working families.”
Senate Republicans have other concerns they need to satisfy on their path to 50 votes, however. Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, have raised concerns about the deficit impact of the tax bill. And on Wednesday, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin became the first GOP senator to say outright that he opposes the tax bill.
And even if the mandate repeal clears the Senate, it will have to contend with the House, whose plan does not include the provision. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is concerned that injecting controversial health care provisions into the tax package — a top priority for Republicans — will sink the entire bill. But House Republican sources say if the Senate can repeal the mandate, the House will almost certainly follow suit.
Nonetheless, no one expected even a few days ago that the party would try again on health care.
“Things,” mused Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), “change quickly around here.”
The headline changes in the new Senate tax bill released late Tuesday night were a bigger child tax credit and the sunset of all individual tax cuts after 2025—but behind those, the new version of the bill includes dozens of carveouts and special provisions that will arrive like a gift for some industries and taxpayers.
Thanks in part to the complexity of the tax code, and in part to Congress’s need to stuff lots of priorities into any law likely to pass, the bill contains measures that touch on almost every part of U.S. society. Congress hasn't legally been able to dole out pork since earmarks were banned in 2011, but there are other ways to pack goodies into a law. The newest draft of the Senate bill includes everything from a new tax credit for paid family leave to a tax break for citrus growers to a big reform of craft beer regulations—even a gift to the three largest U.S. airlines in their ongoing fight against the Gulf airlines.
Here’s a look at the miscellaneous tax provisions added to the Senate bill:
The Sinai Peninsula
Half a page of the tax bill is dedicated to "any member of the Armed Forces of the United States” in the Sinai Peninsula that is “subject to hostile fire or imminent danger, ” making them eligible for a major tax break enjoyed by military personnel serving in a combat zone.
What's going on? This is actually part of a long-running argument within the Pentagon about whether Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula should be considered a war zone. For the past 35 years, hundreds of U.S. peacekeepers have been stationed on the Sinai Peninsula to guard against the possibility hostilities could reignite between Egypt and Israel. The mission has been generally peaceful, but in recent years the 700 U.S. soldiers stationed there have faced a new threat from terrorist groups.
Despite multiple attacks on U.S. soldiers, the Department of Defense has declined to officially label the area a conflict zone. Lawmakers have pushed back on that ruling. It may sound like a bureaucratic debate, but for the U.S. military personnel in the Sinai, it’s had real consequences: In 2015, an Army review ruled that the soldiers had been incorrectly claiming multiple tax breaks that are reserved for military personnel serving in a combat zone. That meant the troops owed thousands of dollars in additional taxes each year.
Luckily for them, Congress took notice and Republicans have included a provision in the most recent draft of the Senate tax bill to extend those tax breaks to soldiers serving in the Sinai. In effect, the section lets the 700 troops claim their tax break, even if the Pentagon never officially labels the region a combat zone.
Paid Family Leave
For the past few years, Democrats have made paid family leave a central point of their economic agenda, proposing a new workplace benefit for all workers. Ivanka Trump took up the issue during the presidential campaign, convincing her father a slimmed down paid leave plan that provoked sharp criticism from many Democrats. Now that debate has been folded into the Senate bill.
The newest draft includes legislation from Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska that would offer companies a tax credit equal to 25 percent of an employee’s earnings during their leave for offering two weeks of paid family leave to their workers. The bill is something of a lite version of legislation offered by House Democrats that would give workers up to 12 weeks of family leave, funded by a 0.4 percent payroll tax split between employees and employers. Conservatives have argued that those proposals impose unnecessary costs on companies, which will ultimately hurt economic growth and cost jobs. Fischer’s legislation is an effort to encourage companies to offer paid family leave, without a mandate.
But it’s not clear whether many companies will actually offer new leave benefits in response to the legislation. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the proposal will cost about $1 billion a year, a fraction of Democratic proposals which cost tens of billions of dollars each year. Since it only offsets a quarter of the costs, it doesn't make leave that much more affordable for companies to offer. And, like other individual tax provisions in the law, this program would end after just two years.
Over the past few decades, the tax code has become something of a second federal budget, with roughly $1 trillion spent every year on a variety of government programs. Republicans have promised to clean up the tax code, but it’s not so easy to get rid of many of these decades-old programs—and it’s even easier to add to them.
The Senate bill makes a few additions. It adds a new program, created by Sen. Tim Scott, to direct capital to economically distressed regions. Under the proposal, investors in venture funds that invest at least 90 percent of their assets in certain “qualified opportunity zones,” which are chosen by the secretary of the treasury and must meet certain conditions, can deter capital gains taxes. If they hold the investment for five years or longer, they will receive a tax break on capital gains.
The Senate bill also doubles a deduction for teacher expenses, raising it from $250 to $500—the House tax bill eliminates the deduction altogether—and provides a tax break for people affected by the recent hurricanes who live in the Mississippi River Delta. And it also provides additional money for a government program to help low-income Americans pay their taxes.
Industry Tax Breaks
Apparently, the Senate has a thing for craft brewing. The updated bill includes what is effectively a major new piece of alcohol legislation, cutting taxes on beer produced in the U.S.—and especially on small breweries. Taxes on the first 60,000 barrels of beer produced domestically by small brewers would be cut in half, from $7 to $3.50. The tax rate on the first 6 million barrels produced would fall from $18 to $16 per barrel. Anheuser-Busch produces tens of millions of barrels of beer a year; a small brewer like D.C. Brau produces around 15,000. The reforms also cut taxes on certain wines and make other technical changes to federal alcohol rules.
The Senate also likes oranges and movies. Elsewhere in the bill, GOP tax-writers included a tax break for certain citrus growers that were hurt by the recent national disaster. They also extended to film, TV and theater production companies a provision—called full expensing—that allows companies to write-off the full cost of their investments in the first year. That expansion, which sunsets after 2022, would cost the government around $1 billion each year, according to JCT estimates.
A quiet attack on the Gulf airlines?
Buried at the very end of the bill summary is a provision that would end a tax exemption for certain international airlines that fly into the United States. Under current law, most countries have reciprocity agreements so that a foreign airline that briefly enters a domestic country’s airspace and lands at an airport doesn’t have to pay tax during its time in the country. The idea is to avoid the messy process of determining how much an airline owes for a brief stop.
The proposal would newly require certain airlines to pay the U.S. corporate tax under two conditions: if the country where the foreign airline is headquartered doesn’t have a tax treaty with the U.S., and if major U.S. airliners make fewer than two weekly trips to that foreign country. Tax lawyers and lobbyists are still working to understand the provision, but a half dozen who spoke to POLITICO said they think it targets the Gulf airlines—Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways, in particular—who major U.S. airlines allege have been unfairly subsidized by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The amendment was offered by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia who represents the state where Delta is headquartered. Delta declined to comment and a spokesperson for Isakson did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts are also still working to understand the exact consequences for the affected airlines, but they didn’t expect the additional taxes to be too substantial. But the compliance costs of understanding U.S. corporate tax law and filing the correct paperwork could prove more of a nuisance. And, experts warned, while the provision is narrowly drafted, it could affect airlines in other countries, including potentially Saudi Arabia, Singapore and others.
In 1977, with the economy struggling and unemployment above 7 percent, Congress launched a new job-creation program. It was done through the tax code, offering employers up to a $2,100 credit for each new hire. Over the past 40 years, the program has cost tens of billions of dollars and been reformed dozens of times. Today, it’s small and targeted: Employers receive the subsidy only for hiring specific individuals, including food-stamp recipients, disabled veterans and, as of 2015, the long-term unemployed.
Helping the most disadvantaged Americans find work is the kind of thing that Democrats and Republicans agree on, even in today’s politically charged atmosphere. But as part of their once-in-a-generation tax overhaul, House Republicans want to eliminate the decades-old program. If their plan passes, employers will stop receiving a tax credit for hiring disabled vets and long-term unemployed people—a change that experts believe would make it harder for people in some of the toughest situations to find work.
“It would be a significant barrier to us trying to encourage people to hire people with autism,” said Tammy Morris, chief program officer for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, which opposes the provision.
The Work Opportunity Tax Credit is one of dozens of small programs on the chopping block in the GOP tax plan—and whose upset beneficiaries are making tax reform a political minefield. The plan would also cut tax breaks for teachers who buy supplies for their classrooms, for investments in impoverished areas and for workers who move for a new job. As more analysts read through the 429 pages of the bill, released last week, it has become clearer that “tax reform” entails an en-masse rollback of such small-scale benefits—programs that go unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans, but are crucially important to their beneficiaries.
The large number of impacted groups are already causing significant friction for the reform, and it’s likely just beginning. Disability-rights groups, like the Autism Alliance for Michigan, and veterans’ groups, including Veterans for Foreign Wars and the American Legion, are speaking out against the removal of the WOTC, which “definitely incentivizes employers to hire veterans,” said Ariel DeJesus, an assistant director at the American Legion. Housing groups and state and local governments are fighting to keep a tax break that supports the development of low-income housing. Pro-life groups already convinced House Republicans to restore a $3.8 billion tax break for adoptive parents, which was repealed in the original bill.
And these calls are only likely to grow louder and more numerous now that the Senate GOP has released its own tax plan, which is expected to repeal or limit many similar tax breaks.
If the sheer number of interest groups might seem to make ambitious tax reform impossible, there’s a very simple reason, and the blame lies with Congress: As the 1977 law suggests, Congress for decades has been using the tax code to stash subsidies that could never get in through the front door of the budget process. Thanks to both Democrats and Republicans worried about being tagged as spendthrifts, the U.S. tax code has grown into a vast shadow budget, a massive law stacked with social programs, incentives for economic growth, and even special subsidies for sports stadiums and rum manufacturers.
Since the early 1990s, such shadow spending – known to budget wonks as “tax expenditures”— have grown from around $600 billion to $1.2 trillion, after adjusting for inflation. Much of this growth has come from large, well-known tax breaks, like the exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance and the mortgage interest deduction, which would be limited under the GOP bill. But the sheer number of tax expenditures has also grown by more than half during that period as well.
Since these social programs are buried in the tax code and don’t look like spending, they are politically popular and make tax reform devilishly difficult, said Michael Strain, director of economic studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It shows up as a decrease in their tax bill rather than an increase in the amount of government spending they receive,” he said. “But it is government spending.” He added about the huge number of tax expenditures, “It’s so big and comprehensive. How do you get arms around it?”
The result is that the GOP’s tax plan is running afoul of dozens of groups—including numerous small but sympathetic constituencies who benefit from the nearly $1 trillion worth of breaks in the existing tax code. Morris described a small cleaning company that her organization works with that relies on the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to offset the costs of recruiting and training people with disabilities. “They would have to stop that practice, which means that those individuals will go back on state-funded support,” she said.
It’s popular on both sides of the aisle to portray the tax code as filled with special interest giveaways, and the GOP plan does eliminate some tax breaks that accrue almost entirely to the rich, like a subsidy for sports stadiums. But many of the tax breaks targeted by the House Republican bill have clear social purposes, encouraging certain behaviors that are widely seen as beneficial for American society. That includes a deduction for employer-provided dependent care, which helps workers afford care for their children or spouses with disabilities, as well as a tax exclusion on interest on private activity bonds, which state and local governments use to fund low-income housing and has helped attract billions of dollars in private financing. The plan also eliminates two deductions for work-related moving expenses; economists believe such labor market churn is crucial to a strong labor market. Other tax breaks targeted for repeal include a deduction for employer-provided transportation benefits, a credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings and a credit for small businesses to improve accessibility for disabled individuals.
Christopher Howard, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary and author of “The Hidden Welfare State” about social policies buried in the tax code, described this process as “how we build a welfare state when we don’t really trust government that much.” He added, “Often Republicans and Democrats meet in the middle, where Democrats would like to expand government directly and Republicans don’t want to expand it. And so they agree to expand it indirectly.”
The House GOP plan is guided by the philosophy that eliminating tax breaks and cutting tax rates will unleash economic growth, creating better economic outcomes for everyone. They want to reduce the size of the tax code by wiping away special interest giveaways and limit even broadly popular tax breaks, like the mortgage interest deduction, to partially pay for their tax overhaul. But within that broad framework, there are plenty of inconsistencies.
For instance, the GOP plan eliminates the New Markets Tax Credit, which encourages businesses to invest in economically downtrodden areas, but doesn’t affect a very similar tax credit for investing in so-called “empowerment zones,” which are poor urban and rural areas. (Empowerment zones were championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s mentor, former Rep. Jack Kemp.) Originally, it eliminated a deduction for adoption expenses—but it leaves untouched a tax exclusion for payments to foster parents.
Republican leaders argue that, broadly speaking, increased economic growth from lower and simpler taxes will offset any other the losers. Asked at a POLITICO Playbook event last week about the proposed repeal of the tax break for adoptive parents, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, who is the father of two adopted sons, called it a “tough choice.” He added, “These are tough calls and the call is this, do we want a tax code that has special provisions you may use once in your life, or do we want a tax code that lowers rates and you get help every year of your life?” On Thursday, facing pressure from pro-life groups, Brady introduced an amendment to retain the adoption credit.
Many experts believe that for the people affected, no amount of additional growth will make up for the loss of these targeted tax breaks. It’s near impossible for economists to tally the costs of the veteran who doesn’t get a job because the WOTC was repealed or the fast food worker who can’t afford to move to a better paying job. But for individuals, those costs are real, even if they are just a small piece of a $1.5 trillion tax cut that would reshape the U.S. economy.
This problem isn’t unique to the GOP tax plan. All politicians talk about cleaning up the tax code and eliminating special interest loopholes. But any plan that wants to significantly reduce the number of tax breaks is inherently going to face tough choices about deductions and credits that serve real social purposes and for which the government doesn’t have ready replacements.
There’s a way to address these programs, of course, but it wouldn’t help Republicans hold their plan to $1.5 trillion in revenue losses, which is required by their budget. Instead of simply wiping away these tax breaks to pay for other tax cuts, they could be converted into government spending programs, funded each year by Congress through the annual budget process. For instance, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit could become a subsidized employment program; funded at the same level as the tax credit, it would cost around $400 million a year. Congress could do the same with other tax breaks, from the deduction for adoption expenses to the subsidy for workers who move for a new job. Such a plan could be deficit-neutral and more transparent, while giving lawmakers a chance to fix the flaws that many of these programs have built up over the years. And it would simplify the tax code. But there’s a reason Congress is unlikely to take that route anytime soon: It would give the spending nowhere to hide.
It was another wild political week, as Democrats racked up electoral wins across the country on Tuesday and The Washington Post published allegations that Judge Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate in Alabama, had a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl. In Congress, the Senate released its counterpart to the House tax plan, and President Donald Trump met with the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan on his first trip to Asia.
Did those change any real policies? Not yet. But behind the headlines, the Trump administration did — pushing through some major changes to Obama-era policies on everything from the protection of organically raised livestock to the rules for state Medicaid programs. And three departments reversed a major legacy of the Obama era: the opening to Cuba. Here’s how Trump changed policy this week.
1. Big changes coming for Medicaid
Buried in almost every version of the Republican health care legislation this year was a little provision that would have enabled states to make a major change to their Medicaid programs, by requiring people to work if they’re going to get coverage. When those bills died, it appeared that Medicaid work requirements died with them.
But this week, Seema Verma, the head of the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services and a longtime supporter of work requirements, sent a strong message that work requirements are back on the table. In a speech to the country’s Medicaid directors, Verma lambasted the Obama administration’s approach to Medicaid, calling it a “tragic example of the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and argued that requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to work would improve the program.
The speech doesn’t result in any immediate policy changes, but CMS is reviewing at least seven waiver proposals from GOP-led states that would impose work requirements on their Medicaid populations. The details around each waiver vary and it’s unclear whether Verma, who helped design a work requirement policy in Indiana that was rejected by the Obama administration, will ask states to tweak their submissions or when she will approve the first waiver. But her speech this week was a clear sign that big changes are coming to Medicaid — even without any help from Congress.
2. USDA delays organic livestock welfare rule
The day before Obama left office, the Department of Agriculture made one last attempt to improve conditions for organically raised animals, publishing new requirements on everything from that ensuring animals have daily access to the outdoors to acceptable euthanasia methods to bedding material during transport.
Conservation groups, animal welfare groups and many organic farmers cheered the news and USDA officials made a public case for the rule. But this week, those arguments came up short when the agency announced that it was delaying the rule until May 2018—the third delay since Trump took office—and said it found both legal and policy issues with the Obama-era rule, including errors in USDA’s original cost-benefit analysis of it. The move is a victory for many large egg producers, who had sharply criticized the rule as unnecessary and argued that it would raise costs for consumers.
But it’s also likely to disappoint a lot of people: The USDA also revealed that the vast majority of the 47,000 commenters on the proposed delay supported the rule. Just a few dozen wanted it withdrawn or suspended. And just a single person supported delaying the rule — the action ultimately chosen by the agency.
3. New Cuba sanctions
In June, Trump appeared before cheering supporters in Miami to announce a rollback of Obama’s opening to Cuba, saying that he was “canceling” the “one-sided” deal, imposing new travel restrictions on Americans visiting the island and cutting off transactions with companies connected to Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services. But for months afterward, the agencies responsible for implementing Trump’s directive — the Treasury, Commerce and State departments — were quiet.
Finally, on Wednesday, the agencies released rules announcing the policy changes. Americans can no longer visit Cuba individually for educational purposes — tourism is banned by law — and instead can do so only as part of a licensed group. The State Department also released a list of roughly 180 Cuban entities with which Americans and U.S. companies cannot conduct direct financial transactions, including multiple Cuban drink companies that trade experts said would be nearly impossible to enforce. Contracts signed before Thursday, when the new sanctions took effect, were grandfathered in, so hotel chains like Marriott won’t have to withdraw from agreements with entities on the State Department list.
Supporters of the Obama-era Cuba policy lambasted the move, saying it would set back efforts to open Cuba’s economy and political system, and they said Trump was hypocritical to issue the changes during a trip in which he was visiting two Communist countries, China and Vietnam. But the new rule also provoked sharp words from the two biggest Cuba hawks in Congress, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart who were both at Trump’s June speech. In separate statements, Rubio and Diaz-Balart both criticized bureaucrats for watering down Trump’s directive and said they expected the three agencies to reform the new rules. A State Department official defended the rule in a statement, saying the agency “examined a range of sources” in compiling the list — but also said that the agency will review the list periodically and potentially add new entities to it.
4. DHS ends protected immigration status for Nicaraguans, extends it for Hondurans
Trump’s immigration crackdown has largely focused on undocumented immigrants, including the so-called Dreamers who were effectively protected from deportation during the final years of the Obama administration. But Trump also has some levers of power over immigrants residing in the country legally — but, as a big move this week showed, using those powers can prove complicated.
On Tuesday night, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was ending a special immigration status for 5,300 Nicaraguans, giving them until January 2019 to leave the United States. But the agency also announced it was extending the protected status of 86,000 Hondurans for six months. Temporary Protected Status, as it is officially known, allows foreign nationals whose home country is hit by a war or natural disaster to temporarily live and work in the U.S. The Trump administration has argued that the TPS program has been abused and promised to crack down on it.
The highly watched move drew a sharp rebuke from Democrats, who said many of the Nicaraguans had lived and worked in the U.S. for decades and deserve to stay here. It also appeared to draw an opposite rebuke from White House chief of staff John Kelly, who reportedly called DHS Acting Secretary Elaine Duke to ask her to revoke TPS for the Hondurans as well. Duke angrily rejected Kelly’s request, and the episode quickly leaked to multiple news agencies, an inside look at the complications the White House faces implementing its immigration crackdown.
5. USDA withdraws Obama-era rule on genetically engineered products
On Sept. 16 of last year, the Obama administration released a new, far-reaching framework to clarify the regulatory roles of the three agencies overseeing biotechnology products, from chemicals to pharmaceuticals, the first comprehensive update in almost 30 years. Currently USDA, FDA, and EPA share responsibilities for overseeing biotech products, which have gone from a scientific novelty to a multibillion-dollar industry since the rules were introduced in the 1980s. As part of the new framework, USDA released a 32-page rule on the day before Obama left office, creating new restrictions around biotech products, including genetically engineered crops.
The ideas was to streamline the regulatory process and ensure that genetically engineered products did not pose a risk to consumers. But industry groups protested the new framework, arguing that the rules contradicted one another and imposed unnecessary costs on companies. On Tuesday, the USDA officially reversed course and withdrew the rule. Secretary Sonny Perdue argued that the Obama-era plan imposed unnecessary costs on the industry and would restrict innovation, and promised to work with stakeholders to develop a new rule. It’s just the latest regulatory rollback in the Trump era.