Politico

Trump: Kavanaugh accuser should have filed charges if assault 'was as bad as she says'

President Donald Trump said Friday that Christine Blasey Ford should have filed charges against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh if the attack she alleges occurred when they were in high school “was as bad as she says.”

“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” he wrote on Twitter. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”


‘Trump won’t back down’: US president plans to make trade war unbearable for China and bigger than ever, Steve Bannon says

This story is being published for Pros as part of a content partnership with the South China Morning Post. It originally appeared on scmp.com on Sept. 21, 2018.

US President Donald Trump’s strategy is to make the trade war with China “unprecedentedly large” and “unbearably painful” for Beijing, and he will not back down before victory, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said in an exclusive interview.

Bannon said the aim was not just to force China to give up on its “unfair trade practices” – the ultimate goal was to “re-industrialise America” because manufacturing was the core of a nation’s power.

He also took aim at the “Made in China 2025” plan – an attempt by Beijing to catch up with the West in 10 key technology sectors, saying China was using generous government support to reduce its reliance on the West for future technology.

Bannon, who claimed to have helped Trump draw up the trade war plan, said that in the past, tariffs had been limited to imports of between roughly US$10 billion and US$30 billion but the sheer magnitude of the more than US$500 billion in question this time had “caught Beijing off guard”.

“It’s not just any tariff. It’s tariffs on a scale and depth that is previously inconceivable in US history,” Bannon said.

He said Beijing had relied on “round after round of talks” to take the momentum out of the US punitive measures, but the delaying tactics would not work.

“They always want to have a strategic dialogue to tap things along. They never envisioned that somebody would actually do this.”

He and Trump were convinced the US would win – and there were signs the Chinese elite were too, with “so many senior Chinese officials exhausting all channels” to move their money out of China and into real estate in San Francisco, Los Angeles and midtown Manhattan.

“Why [does there have] to be massive capital controls placed on Chinese money? Otherwise all will flee to midtown Manhattan ... They want to buy real assets in the US. That shows you a dramatic lack of confidence in their own economy.”

Bannon, who left the Trump administration after a tumultuous seven-month stint, said trade had always been at the top of the campaign strategy – first discussing the idea five years ago with then senator Jeff Sessions, who later become Trump’s attorney general.

“This is where Jeff Sessions and I sat in 2013 as we were trying to imagine what the 2016 presidential election would look like,” Bannon said in his “Breitbart Embassy” townhouse near the Capitol Building in Washington. “We made trade the top issue, when trade was not even among the top 100 issues of the others.”

Trump and Bannon have a turbulent and complex relationship. Although Trump fired Bannon in January and criticised him for his involvement in Fire and Fury, journalist Michael Wolff’s book about the 2016 campaign and early days of the administration, the president was back in contact with Bannon in May, according to The Wall Street Journal. Bannon also insisted that he and the president “see eye to eye” on trade.

He said there was little difference within the US political elite – either Democrat or Republican – on the issue of international trade, and in his first meeting with Trump in 2015, both men agreed that the Washington and Wall Street establishment would “side with China” in the upcoming trade war.

The two decided to change the international trade regime to “dramatically reduce [the US] trade deficit” and to re-industrialise America, especially the so-called rust belt states.

He said Trump would “never back down in the trade war [with China]”, even though the president anticipated the policy would face “massive resistance domestically and internationally”.

He accused “Western elites” of working with Beijing to make themselves rich. “Our factories got shipped out of here. Wall Street made a fortune. The private equity made a fortune. Right now President Trump’s focus is on stopping it.”

Apart from imposing the unprecedented tariffs, the Trump administration would use Section 301 of the Trade Act to press China on intellectual property rights and stop Beijing from forcing American companies to transfer their technology to Chinese partners, the former chief strategist said.

Section 301 authorises the US president to retaliate against any action that violates an international trade agreement or is unjustified, unreasonable or discriminatory, and that burdens or restricts US commerce.

Bannon said Washington should also retain some ability to “cut off” some key parts of the supply chain with China when necessary – as it did in the case of Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

Trump banned sales of American technology to the company in July, almost bankrupting it and putting up to 100,000 highly paid Chinese jobs in danger before lifting the ban.

“It is very important to the Chinese audience [to remember] the case of ZTE. The central theme of Made in China 2025 is that the Chinese are trying to get off the supply chain – the component parts of the supply chain – of the West. The Chinese are very vulnerable there. Their government should never allow them to get into a situation with all this aggressiveness in their trade policies.”

But in the end the trade war and US tariffs were about more than the economy and rebuilding American manufacturing.

“The elites and the media are trying to convince you that this inexpiable leaving of the factories and jobs is but a law of physics. The opposite is actually true – it is the human action which did it. It can be reversed and it will be reversed,” he said.

“[The] tariff is about human dignity and human pride ... Not everyone wants to work for an insurance company.”


Biden: Kavanaugh accuser 'should not have to go through what Anita Hill went through'

Former Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that Christine Blasey Ford “should not have to go through what Anita Hill went through” if she chooses to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegation that she was sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“She should not have to go through what Anita Hill went through,” the former vice president told NBC’s “Today” show. “And some of the questions she was asked and the way the right went after her on national television and question her integrity and question her, not just her honesty, questioned her behavior. I mean, that's just not appropriate. You shouldn't have to be twice put through the same exact thing."

Hill famously accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment and faced withering questioning from Republicans during Thomas’s 1991 confirmation hearings. Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over those hearings and has expressed regret over his handling of them.

Hill’s case has returned to the spotlight in recent days in the wake of allegations brought by Ford, that Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed and groped her while a friend watched and laughed when the two were high school students in the early 1980s. Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegation.


Biden said he hopes that Ford is not victimized by her potential Senate Judiciary committee testimony. Ford has not yet agreed to appear before the committee and has sought certain conditions, while the committee’s GOP-controlled leadership has thus far held fast to its insistence that Ford appear at a hearing on Monday.

“What should happen is the woman should be given the benefit of the doubt and not be, you know, abused again by the system," Biden said. “I hope that they understand what courage it takes for someone to come forward and relive what they believe happened to them and let them state it, but treat her with respect.”

The former vice president told NBC that when he was Judiciary chairman, he had a hard time using the Senate rules to protect Hill during her testimony against Thomas.

“My biggest regret was I didn't know how I could shut you off if you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hills' character. Under the Senate rules I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question although I tried,” Biden said.


POLITICO Playbook: The case for Trump to shut down the government





THE POLITICAL CASE FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP TO SHUT DOWN THE GOVERNMENT … If you’re Trump, is there any cogent case to NOT shut down the government one week from today? Here is what a few of the president's allies are whispering to us.

-- IT WOULDN’T HURT TOO BADLY ... Congress has already passed a bunch of government spending bills, ensuring a shutdown would only be a partial stoppage of government funding. Trump has bills on his desk that fund critical parts of government. Much of the money Trump wants would come in Department of Homeland Security appropriations. So if he wanted to take a stand, it would be narrowly targeted to one department.

-- THIS IS WHAT HE PROMISED … If you are a Republican lawmaker who believes that the 2016 election was about Trump’s hard-line immigration policies -- as many conservatives tell us they do -- shouldn’t you take a stand on that while you can? Shouldn’t Republicans fear their base is going to stay home if an all-Republican Washington blows it on the wall?

-- WASHINGTON MIGHT NOT BE RED FOR LONG … This could be the president’s last chance to get a wall. The House is looking like it could be lost come January. No chance in hell that the leftward-drifting House will give him the wall if they get the majority in 2019. Zero. Zip. Zilch. If Ds win the House, there is no chance the president will get a wall in the lame duck, either.

-- WON’T HILL REPUBLICANS FIND A WAY TO FOLD? … Think of this: in this scenario, DHS will have no money 39 days before the election. Who is more likely to fold: Trump, who is still fuming he folded last time? Or House Republicans, who will be incentivized to put the episode behind them so they can get home to campaign? And Senate Republicans seem to be drifting ever closer to the president.

OF COURSE, Hill Republicans say they’re adamantly against a shutdown. And there would be other political and substantive pain that came along with a narrow government shutdown. But you can easily see Washington getting there. And Democrats are running on government dysfunction, so if Republicans get close, the minority have no incentive to help out.

46 DAYS until Election Day. (Phish has a song called “46 Days,” in case you are into that.)

Good Friday morning. JUST POSTED … WHAT TEAM PELOSI IS DEVOURING ... BLOOMBERG’S JOSH GREEN: “Internal GOP Poll: Pelosi Beats Trump in a Head-to-Head Matchup”: “President Trump likes to mock Nancy Pelosi, but a private survey conducted for the [RNC] finds that she’s actually more popular—and beats the president when the midterm election is framed as a contest between the two.

“The internal poll, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, asks registered voters who they support ‘when the November election is framed by Trump and Pelosi.’ Overall, respondents prefer Pelosi-aligned candidates over Trump-aligned candidates by 5 points, 50 percent to 45 percent. Among independents only, Pelosi still prevails by a 4-point margin. The poll was completed on Sept. 2.” Bloomberg

-- BLOOMBERG’S SAHIL KAPUR and JOSH GREEN: “Internal GOP Poll: ‘We’ve Lost the Messaging Battle’ on Tax Cuts”

THE NRCC reported raising $5 million in September, compared to the DCCC’s $15 million.

THE LATEST ON BRETT KAVANAUGH …

BURGESS EVERETT and ELANA SCHOR: “Accuser’s camp floats Thursday testimony, other conditions in talks with Senate”: “Christine Blasey Ford’s attorneys held a high-stakes call with Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday night that ended with no decision on when or if Ford will testify about allegations that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

“One source described the call as ‘positive,’ though there is no ironclad agreement to have Ford appear and Ford’s attorneys made some requests that the committee won’t accommodate — such as subpoenaing Mark Judge, whom Ford alleged was in the room when Kavanaugh groped and forced himself on her while both were in high school. Senate Republicans had planned a Monday hearing and sought an agreement by Friday morning to appear, though those are no longer viewed as a hard deadline.

“Ford lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks spoke to staff from Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about possible scenarios for an appearance next week. And Ford seems amenable to a public hearing after being offered a private one, though with some stipulations.” POLITICO


WHAT EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT -- WaPo’s Seung Min Kim, Josh Dawsey and Emma Brown: “Ed Whelan, a former clerk to the late justice Antonin Scalia and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, pointed to floor plans, online photographs and other information to suggest a location for the house party in suburban Maryland that Ford described.

“He also named and posted photographs of the classmate he suggested could be responsible. Ford dismissed Whelan’s theory in a statement late Thursday: ‘I knew them both, and socialized with’ the other classmate, Ford said, adding that she had once visited him in the hospital. ‘There is zero chance that I would confuse them.’

“Republicans on Capitol Hill and White House officials immediately sought to distance themselves from Whelan’s claims and said they were not aware of his plans to identify the former classmate, now a middle school teacher, who could not be reached for comment and did not answer the door at his house Thursday night. Whelan did not respond to requests for comment.

“He had told people around him that he had spent several days putting together the theory and thought it was more convincing than her story, according to two friends who had talked to him. Whelan has been involved in helping to advise Kavanaugh’s confirmation effort and is close friends with both Kavanaugh and Leonard Leo, the head of the Federalist Society who has been helping to spearhead the nomination. Kavanaugh and Whelan also worked together in the Bush administration.” WaPo

-- @GarrettVentry, communications adviser for Senate Judiciary: “To reporters asking: The Senate Judiciary Committee had no knowledge or involvement.”


WHERE PRESIDENT TRUMP’S AT ... via Brent D. Griffiths: “President Donald Trump on Thursday night questioned why ‘somebody’ did not contact the FBI 36 years ago when Christine Blasey Ford alleges she was sexually assaulted by now-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“‘You could say why didn’t someone call the FBI 36 years ago?’ Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity in a live interview before a rally in Las Vegas. ‘You can also say, when did this all happen? What is going on?’ Since Ford came forward on Sunday night, Trump has defended his Supreme Court pick, but had not explicitly criticized Ford. …

“Trump added that he still wants to hear [what] Ford has to say, but cautioned that the Senate Judiciary Committee has delayed its consideration of Kavanaugh long enough. ‘I don’t think you can delay it any longer. I think they have delayed it a week already,’ Trump said.” POLITICO

-- JEREMY PETERS and ELIZABETH DIAS on NYT A1: “Evangelical Leaders Are Frustrated at G.O.P. Caution on Kavanaugh Allegation”

YA CAN’T MAKE IT UP -- “SC GOP congressman jokes about Abraham Lincoln groping amid Kavanaugh Supreme Court drama,” by The Post and Courier’s Jamie Lovegrove: “South Carolina Republican congressman Ralph Norman made light Thursday of the ongoing drama surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, opening an election debate by joking that another judge has emerged with her own accusations of sexual assault. ‘Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings?’ said Norman, R-Rock Hill, at a Kiwanis Club debate.

“‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.’ ... Norman’s line appeared to elicit some scattered laughter and applause from the Kiwanis Club of Rock Hill crowd but sparked immediate condemnation from South Carolina Democrats and many others on social media.” Post and Courier

-- L.A. TIMES’ JOE MOZINGO: “Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, in a tight race to retain his Orange County seat, ridiculed the decades-old allegation of sexual assault that has thrown the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh into turmoil, according to a recording acquired by Talking Points Memo.

“‘This guy who’s going to be our Supreme Court justice … and he better be our Supreme Court judge, he’s a perfect candidate. And what do they say? ‘Well, in high school you did this.’ High school? Give me a break.’” L.A. Times

REPUBLICANS WE SPEAK TO say if it appears Ford is willing to testify, the Judiciary Committee can’t say it’s Monday or bust. They need to be a smidge more accommodating than that.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK -- HOW THE DEMS ARE GOING TO ATTACK -- ULTRAVIOLET is releasing a new TV ad in West Virginia, Nevada and Arizona and digital ads in Maine, Alaska and Texas targeting Republicans on the Kavanaugh appointment. Called “Senator, You’re Mistaken,” the ad says Republicans are “still blaming a survivor of sexual assault instead of believing her” and “Don’t put another sexual predator on the Supreme Court.” It is expected to run until the hearing. The West Virginia ad

MORE THREATS -- WSJ’s Kristina Peterson, Peter Nicholas and Natalie Andrews: “Judge Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, also has faced threats, which are being investigated by the U.S. Marshals Service, a senior administration official said Thursday. She has received two profane notes on her work email account in recent days, the official said. Both notes, which have been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, were sent from the same email address.

“One of the notes to Mrs. Kavanaugh, a town manager in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., reads, ‘May you, your husband and your kids burn in hell.’ The other, whose subject line reads, ‘Hi, Ashley,’ says she should tell her husband to ‘put a bullet in his…skull.’ One person close to the confirmation process said that while Mrs. Kavanaugh is upset by the attacks on her husband, she doesn’t want him to withdraw.” WSJ

CALLING FOR BACKUP -- “Kavanaugh accuser leans on Democratic operative for advice,” by Annie Karni: “Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers, is being advised by Democratic operative Ricki Seidman. Seidman, a senior principal at TSD Communications, in the past worked as an investigator for Sen. Ted Kennedy, and was involved with Anita Hill’s decision to testify against Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas.” POLITICO

INSIDE THE MONEY RACE … DCCC got $100,000 from Eli Broad and $10,000 from Shonda Rhimes. … RNC got $33,900 from Stephen Schwarzman. … SENATE MAJORITY PAC (Senate Democrats) got $1.4 million from George Soros, $1 million from Seth Klarman, $500,000 from Ron Burkle, $200,000 from Steven Spielberg, $125,000 from Steven Rattner. …

… DNC got $333,900 from Seth Klarman. SENATE LEADERSHIP PAC (Senate Republicans) got $1 million from the Pilot Corporation and $500,000 from Koch Industries. HOUSE MAJORITY PAC got $3,053,000 from Reid Hoffman and $2 million from Seth Klarman.

2018 WATCH -- NYT’s KATIE ROGERS and MAGGIE HABERMAN, “Trump Sees a ‘Red Wave’ Where His Party Sees a Red Alert”: “During a discussion about his party’s legislative high points this year with a small group at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week, Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, expressed a new concern about an old habit of President Trump’s. The many ‘distractions’ generated by the president, Mr. McConnell said during the dinner, were preventing Republicans from having a coherent message for the midterm elections focused on the booming economy, according to multiple people who were briefed on the remarks.

“Representative Paul D. Ryan, the House speaker, who also attended, expressed another concern — that the president’s talk with his supporters of a ‘red wave’ in November was unfounded. All agreed that he should instead be sounding the alarm about the possibility of big Democratic gains. The two congressional leaders were only echoing the worries of many Republican strategists and Mr. Trump’s own advisers.” NYT

-- “Democrats threaten GOP governors’ dominance in Midwest,” by Daniel Strauss: “Democrats are surging back in the Midwestern states where President Donald Trump cut deepest into their old coalition in 2016, led by a class of candidates for governor that have Republicans on their heels.

“The Republican Governors Association cut the size of its ad buys in Minnesota and then in Michigan, according to Advertising Analytics data reviewed by POLITICO. That’s given Democrats increasing confidence that Gretchen Whitmer, their nominee in a state Hillary Clinton lost in stunning fashion, will capture the governor’s mansion.

“In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has not led a public survey in three months, and the most recent gold-standard poll from Marquette University showed him trailing Democrat Tony Evers by 5 points. And in Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray has overcome early complaints about his campaign to pull even with Republican Mike DeWine in one of the most competitive races in the country.” POLITICO

COMING ATTRACTIONS -- “Post-election House Dems could quiz Trump Jr., Hicks and others on Russia,” by Darren Samuelsohn and Kyle Cheney: “Several lawmakers in line to take powerful committee posts have prepared lists of people to summon for what could be the House’s first public hearings on the subject. The House Intelligence Committee quizzed several associates of President Donald Trump about alleged collusion with the Kremlin, but only behind closed doors.

“Those likely to be hauled over to Capitol Hill include close Trump associates like the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., former White House communications director Hope Hicks and the current White House social media director, Dan Scavino. Trump Jr. and Hicks have appeared before the House intelligence panel but, Democrats complain, gave incomplete answers in their testimony.” POLITICO


THE INVESTIGATIONS -- “Hackers Went After a Now-Disgraced G.O.P. Fund-Raiser. Now He Is After Them,” by NYT’s David D. Kirkpatrick: “Republican fund-raiser Elliott Broidy ... is not going quietly. His lawyers said this week that, after more than 80 subpoenas and months of forensic analysis, they had managed to identify as many as 1,200 other individuals targeted by the same cybercriminals.

“The list of names the lawyers compiled, they argue, will bolster Mr. Broidy’s case that the rulers of Qatar — the tiny Persian Gulf emirate that is a nemesis of the U.A.E.— had targeted him for his advocacy against them. Many of the other targets are well-known enemies of Qatar: senior officials of the U.A.E. and also of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria; American, British and Dutch commentators known for their criticism of Qatar; and two former employees of a Washington public affairs firm with U.A.E. ties.” NYT

-- “Michael Cohen spoke to Mueller team for hours; asked about Russia, possible collusion, pardon: Sources,” by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Eliana Larramendia and James Hill: “President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, has participated over the last month in multiple interview sessions lasting for hours with investigators from the office of special counsel, Robert Mueller, sources tell ABC News.

“The special counsel’s questioning of Cohen ... has focused primarily on all aspects of Trump's dealings with Russia -- including financial and business dealings and the investigation into alleged collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign and its surrogates to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, sources familiar with the matter tell ABC News.

“Investigators were also interested in knowing, the sources say, whether Trump or any of his associates discussed the possibility of a pardon with Cohen.” ABC

TRUMP’S FRIDAY -- The president will participate in a supporter roundtable in Las Vegas this morning before heading to the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System, where he will deliver remarks and participate in a signing ceremony. In the afternoon, he will fly to Springfield, Mo., where he will participate in another supporter roundtable and headline a political rally Afterward, the president will fly to Newark, N.J., en route to Bedminster.




SUNDAY SO FAR …


SPORTS BLINK -- “LeBron James Is Already Winning Hollywood,” by The Hollywood Reporter’s Marisa Guthrie: “Asked if it bothers him that the president called him dumb, James just laughs. ‘No, because I’m not,’ he says. ‘That’s like somebody saying I can’t play ball. That doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me is that he has time to even do that. He has the most powerful job in the world. Like, you really got this much time that you can comment on me?’” THR

BUSINESS BURST -- “Wells Fargo to Cut Jobs Over Next Three Years,” by WSJ’s Emily Glazer and Josh Beckerman: “Wells Fargo plans to cut as many as 26,500 jobs over the next three years as it adjusts to changing consumer behavior and works to recover from a series of scandals that have gripped the bank for the past two years.

“The bank on Thursday said it expects head count to fall by about 5% to 10%, including layoffs as well as typical attrition. Wells Fargo had about 265,000 employees at the end of the second quarter. The cuts are occurring as Wells Fargo contends with a number of federal and state investigations after a fake-account scandal in its consumer bank exposed problems throughout all of its major business units.” WSJ


VALLEY TALK -- “Google Workers Discussed Tweaking Search Function to Counter Travel Ban,” by WSJ’s John D. McKinnon and Douglas MacMillan: “Days after the Trump administration instituted a controversial travel ban in January 2017, Google employees discussed ways they might be able to tweak the company’s search-related functions to show users how to contribute to pro-immigration organizations and contact lawmakers and government agencies, according to internal company emails.

“The email traffic, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, shows that employees proposed ways to ‘leverage’ search functions and take steps to counter what they considered to be ‘islamophobic, algorithmically biased results from search terms ‘Islam’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Iran’, etc.” and “prejudiced, algorithmically biased search results from search terms ‘Mexico’, ‘Hispanic’, ‘Latino’, etc.’

“The email chain, while sprinkled with cautionary notes about engaging in political activity, suggests employees considered ways to harness the company’s vast influence on the internet in response to the travel ban. Google said none of the ideas discussed were implemented.” WSJ


MEDIAWATCH -- Fin Gomez is joining CBS as a White House producer, and Katie Watson has been named White House reporter for the CBS website. Gomez spent 13 years at Fox News and most recently was the lead producer for Fox's chief White House correspondent, and Watson has been a politics reporter for CBSNews.com.

-- Fred Barbash will cover legal affairs for The Washington Post. He most recently has spent almost four years as the editor of WaPo’s Morning Mix.



SPOTTED: Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on the 5:40 p.m. Southwest direct to Austin, talking on his cellphone as he made his way to the A1 boarding position. “He was watching Bret Baier ... on his iPad with big silver headphones. (Topics: the ‘Kavanaugh Controversy’ and Trump declassifying Russian stuff),” according to our tipster ... Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) ordering Dunkin’ Donuts at DCA before boarding the 2:30 American Airlines flight to Boston -- pic ... Kellyanne Conway eating lunch on Thursday at the Oval Room on Connecticut Avenue.

TRANSITION -- FIRST IN PLAYBOOK: JONATHAN SMITH is joining Uber’s federal policy team in October. He was most recently chief of staff to Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.).

SPOTTED at Ben and Ashley Chang’s D.C. going-away party last night at the Gibson: Rebecca Cooper, Gloria Dittus, Natasha Bertrand, Craig Gordon, John Hudson, Lynn Sweet, Emily Horne, Steve Clemons, Evelyn Farkas, Mark Tavlarides, Izzy Klein, Kevin Griffis, Steve Rademaker, Betsy Woodruff, Josh Meyer, Richard Parker, Mike Dorning, Jay Newton-Small, Susan Toffler, Luis Miranda, Marcus Brauchli and Maggie Farley, Kevin Cirilli, Andrew Albertson, Brad Klapper, Brad Bosserman, Megan Devlin, Moira Whelan, Alice Lloyd and Scott Mulhauser.

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard and an Obama WH alum who is working on a new book about human error with Daniel Kahneman and Olivier Sibony, is 64. A fun fact about Cass: “I am an avid squash player, and occasionally play in professional tournaments (the smallest ones, I hasten to add). I’m now ranked 462 in the world. Of course there are lots and lots of people who are much better than I am who haven’t joined the professional tour -- still, I love the game.” Playbook Plus Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Brianna Keilar, CNN senior Washington correspondent and anchor ... Kiki Burger, account director in the LA office of Sunshine Sachs (hubby tip: Tim) ... Shealah Craighead, the White House photographer (hat tip: Peter Watkins) ... Mike Walsh, chief of staff for the Department of Commerce (h/t Becca Glover) … Maggie Dougherty, senior policy adviser for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley … Dean Baquet is 62 ... former CIA Director James Woolsey is 77 … Melanie Steele, legislative counsel for Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) ... former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is 74 ... former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is 61 ... Ashley Tate-Gilmore is 35 ... POLITICO’s Karey Van Hall and Jessica Andrews … Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) is 53 … Anna Greenberg, partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner (h/t Jon Haber) ... former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, now a professor at Harvard Kennedy School (h/t Ben Chang) ...

… Brian Roehrkasse, VP of external comms at BAE Systems (h/t Blain Rethmeier) ... Massachusetts GOP’s Andrew Mahaleris is 24 (h/t Drew McCoy) ... NBC News PR’s Dominique Cuce ... Georgette Spanjich, VP of Plurus Strategies, is 3-0 (h/t Sarah Litke) … Charles Garrison ... Ian Russell, principal at Beacon Media ... Erin Graefe Dorton of Prime Policy Group … Zeke Turner ... Patricia Summers Edwards, head of comms at the British Consulate General in NYC ... Elizabeth Wiebe ... Laurel Ruza ... Monica Carmean ... Matt Thorn ... Justin Reilly ... CQ Roll Call’s Toula Vlahou ... Lydia Stuckey ... John Celock ... Jonathan Robinson ... Rachel Barth ... Lisa King ... Daniel Webber ... Sarah Sibley … John McKechnie … Chelsie Paulson … Kelly Lindner ... Dan Turrentine is 41 ... Mike Veselik ... Soren Dorius



Kent Sorenson Was a Tea Party Hero. Then He Lost Everything.

Inmate No. 15000-030 is released into the frigid January morning at 8:46, a gray custodial suit of sweatpants and long-sleeved thermal clinging to his immense frame, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard wrapping around his face, a guard escorting him with a high-powered rifle slung over his right shoulder. Most politicians would appear hopelessly—dangerously—misplaced in a federal prison. Kent Sorenson is not most politicians. Standing over six feet tall and weighing every bit of 270 pounds, with 11 tattoos and a cleanshaven head, Sorenson is probably the only state senator to have ever been mistaken for a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. That happened during his first stop on the penal turnpike, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (“The MCC”) in Chicago, an administrative facility with maximum-security lodging where the “fish” was viewed warily by fellow inmates. A white supremacist, they figured, sizing him up. It didn’t take long—as soon as he opened his mouth, really—for them to realize otherwise. The neighborly disposition, bug-eyed gape and pitched, nasally voice cleared Sorenson of suspicion.

That feels like a life sentence ago. Sorenson has spent the last 10 months here at his second post, the minimum-security United States Penitentiary at Thomson (USP Thomson) in Thomson, Illinois, just over the border from his native Iowa and a four-hour drive from his home in the central part of the state. Today he’s getting out and going back—not home, exactly, but to a halfway house in Des Moines, where he’ll be able to look for work and enjoy long weekend furloughs with his wife, Shawnee, and their six children. As we wait in the parking lot for her husband to appear, the engine of their aging Toyota SUV straining to keep warm in the nine-degree chill, Shawnee tells me how brutal Kent’s incarceration had been on the kids. She is particularly worried about their two sons.


Just then he appears, toting a small cardboard box of personal effects and striding purposely toward the SUV. Shawnee jumps out, kissing her husband and apologizing for forgetting his winter coat. He engulfs her in a bear hug before turning to the stranger a few steps behind. “Hey, nice to meet you,” Sorenson tells me, extending a hand. “Could you do me a favor and drive? I haven’t seen my wife for a long time.” Caught off guard—this wasn’t the plan—I say “sure,” as long as my recorder is rolling. “Just don’t look in the backseat,” he adds. Sorenson grins. He stayed up late last night with the “homeboys” debating how to mess with the reporter picking him up from prison. Now he can’t stop laughing. It’s the happiest I’ll ever see him.

Shawnee takes the wheel instead, navigating toward Interstate-80 West, and her husband’s humor abruptly turns to melancholy. “I’m going to miss those men,” Sorenson says. It sounds trite, obligatory. And yet his eyes are moist. For the next 20 minutes, emotion chokes at his voice as he describes in detail the captive brotherhood forged with the sorts of criminals Sorenson would have once gladly banished from society without a second thought. Now he knows them, their struggles, their stories. There was Ricky, the self-described “pharmaceutical salesman” from Chicago who is doing 10 years for what should have been a petty drug crime—and whose son was shot during his imprisonment. There was Juan, who got suckered into entering a drug house by an undercover fed and was busted inside holding a stack of cash. And there was Chad, who became Sorenson’s best friend at USP Thomson, a Des Moines native who grew up in a meth house and is doing a 20-year stretch for a nonviolent drug crime he committed as a young man. Chad, who carries photos of his two children, ages 11 and 17, has already been locked up for nine years—and despite exemplary behavior and obvious rehabilitation, he won’t get out for at least another nine due to federal sentencing guidelines.


Sorenson emphasizes that he is not naïve. He understands that some people belong in prison, that not everyone’s story should be believed. But having spent the past year in two different institutions, learning about the lives of the inhabitants and the circumstances surrounding their detentions, he developed a burning animosity for the criminal justice system.

His melancholy soon turns to outrage. “There’s no rehabilitation happening in there. There’s no teaching, there’s no training,” he says. Worse, Sorenson adds, were the atrocious conditions: expired food, foul bathrooms, decrepit living quarters. Finally, there’s the underlying sickness plaguing the Bureau of Prisons, race relations—specifically, the entrenched, systemic approach of facilitating and fueling ethnic rivalries in service of the accepted notion that a divided community of inmates is incapable of uniting in the pursuit of a more humane environment.

This, at last, is when Sorenson’s outrage turns to guilt. It’s not that he could have done more from the inside; it’s that he should have done more from the outside, when he had the power, when he was a policymaker with authority and influence, before he became just another discarded member of society. Sorenson, the Republican state senator and Tea Party superstar with a clear path to Congress, had heard about disparities in sentencing. He had read about the statistical inequalities and crooked economics that are foundational to the American prison system. He had watched the demonstrators on television chanting about the devastation wreaked on the minority communities by mass incarceration. And he didn’t buy any of it. Sorenson was a conservative—not just any conservative, but a fiery, in-your-face ideologue who preached punitive justice and individual responsibility. He was a law-and-order dogmatist. And he was, if he’s being honest, “a little bit racist,” with no time for the “bullshit propaganda” being peddled by the likes of Black Lives Matter.


Shame envelops Sorenson’s face as a thick snowfall begins to blanket the interstate. Shawnee warns that a blizzard is in the forecast and asks her husband to call the halfway house. He’s supposed to arrive in four hours, but this weather is bound to make him late. Kent picks up her cell phone and stares at it blankly. Shawnee senses his confusion, reaches over and unlocks the screen for him. She dials the number and hands it back. While it rings, Sorenson glances at me. “One year and I’m a zombie,” he shrugs. “Can you imagine coming out after 20 and seeing an iPhone?”

I can’t imagine a lot of things. How someone like Sorenson—a roughneck high school dropout with a winding rap sheet—won elected office as a Tea Party darling and became one of America’s most sought-after presidential endorsements. How the novice state legislator found himself starring in the biggest political scandal in Iowa’s history. How the defendant wound up sharing a cell with cartel members despite the federal prosecutors recommending probation. How the inmate with a hardened worldview had his eyes opened. And how, after enduring so much turmoil and tragedy, Sorenson is supposed to pick up the pieces.

Several weeks before we met in Illinois, Sorenson agreed to give his account for the first time—on my condition of complete and total disclosure. We wound up talking on-the-record for more than eight hours. From those conversations, as well as interviews with dozens of friends, foes, legal acquaintances and veterans of Iowa’s political scene, and hundreds of pages of police reports, court records and federal indictments, I hoped to answer the questions surrounding Sorenson’s rise and fall—and achieve some closure on a story that still confounds the most powerful people in a state that picks our presidents. Little do either of us know, as we rumble westward toward Des Moines, that Kent Sorenson’s punishment has only just begun.

***


The man behind the desk sifted through stacks of processing forms, finally glancing up. “What are you gonna say you’re in for?” he asked Sorenson. The new inmate blinked. “Don’t tell them what you’re actually in for,” the MCC official clarified. “It sounds weak.” Sorenson was stunned. Of everything he’d researched online about prison life—the gangs, the food, the unwritten rules—explaining his crime had never come up. “What should I say I’m in for?” he sputtered. “That’s up to you,” the man replied. “I just won’t tell them anything,” Sorenson shrugged. “That won’t work,” the man said. “They’ll think you’re a chomo.” Sorenson already knew what “chomo” meant: a child molester, the lowest form of life in the penal ecosystem, a likely target for beatings or worse. “Try bank fraud,” suggested the man behind the desk.

When he arrived at his new residence—the 19th floor of the MCC—Sorenson was met with pandemonium. The sleeping arrangements had, some time ago, been rearranged by the highest-ranking inmate on the floor, a lieutenant to the Mexican cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The lieutenant had recently been transferred, but the arrangements remained. Now, with a new inmate, the guards restored the nominal structure of the floor to ensure that Sorenson had a bed. There was just one problem: Another inmate was on Sorenson’s assigned bunk and refused to budge. Taking it all in, the decibel level spiking around him, Sorenson feared for his safety sooner than he’d ever imagined. Quickly, though, he realized the threats weren’t directed at him; it was the obstinate inmate who was holding up the program. Sorenson felt relief, and later pity: The stubborn man, in his 40s, had the mental capacity of a child and was rumored to have been raped. He belonged in an institution, not a federal prison.

Where did Sorenson belong? Not here, he told himself. I’m a family man, a business owner, an elected official. But he knew this was a sanitized version of himself—Kent Sorenson 2.0, the archetypal good guy cheated by a bad system. In truth, for most of his life, the penitentiary had been a far likelier destination than the legislature.

Sorenson grew up a hellion. The son of simple Iowa folks—his father owned a janitorial operation—he began smoking marijuana in 6th grade, selling and using harder drugs soon after and drinking heavily by age 14. He would lie to his parents about sleepovers and spend late nights and long weekends cementing a rotten reputation. He built a considerable rap sheet: assault, disorderly conduct, drug possession and delivery. He dropped out of high school at 17 and married Shawnee, then 16. But the marriage, and the births of their first two children, did little to change Sorenson’s destructive ways. “I was a horrible husband and a horrible father,” he says. “The turning point was our third child. I knew if I didn’t change I’d lose my family.”


Sorenson moved his wife and young kids to Oklahoma, hoping to start over by enrolling in Bible school. That never happened. He became disillusioned with their Tulsa church and providing for the family became an all-consuming priority. Still, somehow, Sorenson got his life together, and a few years later returned to Iowa a changed person. He visited the local cops to apologize for past indiscretions. He made things right with his parents. He opened a small business. And he involved his family in the community—church, sports, homeschooling groups.

But politics? Sorenson had no interest. This, despite growing up in caucus-crazy Iowa, with outsized attention paid to the state by every president in the modern era. The extent of his partisan engagement was nodding along to socially conservative sermons and sporadically tuning into local talk radio. His general perception of politicians was harsh—they were all liars and leeches, playing word games to deceive the public and enrich themselves in the process. It was only when the former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee caught fire in Iowa that Sorenson felt moved, for the first time, to caucus in January 2008. A few weeks later, when Shawnee asked him to accompany her to a rally at the state capital in Des Moines, he snickered. No way. He believed in the cause—amending the state’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage—but standing outside the capital on an icy January afternoon was not his idea of time well spent. Shawnee was unrelenting. She told him it was their moral responsibility. She told him it was about what kind of state their children would grow up in. He sighed and agreed to go along.

Once there, a switch flipped inside of Sorenson. He was swept up in the emotion of the event, galvanized by the notion of a culture under siege, inspired by the powerful oration of Rev. Keith Ratliff, then the president of Iowa’s chapter of the NAACP. Storming the capitol building on a whim, Sorenson and a group of friends demanded an audience with the officeholders who represented them: Representative Mark Davitt and Senator Staci Appel, both Democrats. Waiting and waiting, having pestered their staffs, Sorenson expected the lawmakers to eventually oblige him. Neither one did. He was apoplectic. Sorenson spent the car ride home fuming. He vowed to help organize campaigns to defeat both Davitt and Appel.

There was one problem: Iowa Republicans didn’t think defeating either of them was possible. This was 2008, already shaping up to be a monster year for Democrats, and the state GOP wouldn’t waste money trying to flip moderate districts around Des Moines when there were endangered red seats in rural areas to defend. Informed that Davitt, a well-connected Democrat whose wife worked for the Des Moines Register, would likely win reelection uncontested, Sorenson decided he would run himself—an unknown small businessman without staff, campaign infrastructure or major donors, much less any political experience.

Republican officials rolled their eyes. Democrats ignored him. But Sorenson was an inferno, campaigning around the clock, knocking on nearly every door in the district, hammering the issues of marriage and abortion and traditional values. He tapped into Iowa’s vast network of faith-based homeschoolers, which in turn connected Sorenson with some of the state’s evangelical heavyweights. “The Christian conservative community in Iowa had been disappointed for years with Republicans who made promises but didn’t deliver,” explains Jamie Johnson, a well-known activist who befriended Sorenson when both ran for the legislature in 2008. “Kent delivered, and he became a rock star.”

The evangelical community became one of the two organizational pillars supporting Sorenson. The other was Ron Paul—or, more accurately, the remnant of his Iowa operation that in the aftermath of the 2008 caucuses was eager to flex its grassroots muscle on behalf of candidates who could prove valuable as allies down the road. The combination—Paul’s ground game and social conservatives’ enthusiasm—caught everyone sleeping. On election night 2008, as a Democratic wave crushed Republicans nationwide, just two blue seats in the Iowa legislature turned red. Sorenson defeated Davitt by 163 votes.

***

The biographical makeover didn’t age well. After his bed was finally vacated and Sorenson was allowed to settle in, he started chatting with a nearby neighbor. One of few other white inmates, the fellow traveler asked Sorenson what he was in for. “Bank fraud,” he replied. The man smiled. “Me too.” Except he was telling the truth. Sorenson listened for a minute as his new companion detailed his offenses. “Actually, I’m not in for bank fraud,” Sorenson declared, almost desperately, unshouldering the burden of sustaining a double identity behind bars. Consequences be damned, the newest resident of the 19th floor unloaded the whole story to a captive audience, murmurs of the tale gusting throughout the crowded cells.

It was the best thing that could have happened to him. The processing officer had it backward: To the inmates of the MCC—and particularly to the Latin Kings, who ran the floor—Sorenson was an honored guest. “For those guys, a corrupt politician is the gold standard,” he says. The new inmate was promptly given his nickname, a right of passage in a world that eschews the use of Christian monikers: “Senator.”

And yet Sorenson was still a fish—one very much out of water, unfamiliar with the codes and customs of federal prison. Shortly into his stay, while waiting in the pill line for his melatonin (he had always depended on marijuana for sleep), he unwittingly cut in front of “Wall Street,” a battle-scarred young man doing time for narcotics distribution. Wall Street was a member of the Gangster Disciples, the prison’s black clique that rivaled the Latin Kings. He shoved Sorenson and they exchanged words. The new inmate retreated, hoping the incident was over. But he had made an enemy. Wall Street kept after him, day after day, harassing Sorenson and threatening violence.

Skills are the currency of a prison. Inmates use them to forge partnerships, improve their circumstances and stay alive. Some men cook. Some men tattoo. Some men smuggle. Sorenson’s skill was paperwork—and it might have saved his life. Though his fellow inmates were “some of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” many were illiterate. As word of his background spread, Sorenson heard them talking as though he were a Rhodes Scholar—a perception he wasn’t about to dispute. Days before the run-in with Wall Street, Sorenson had been approached by “Dough Boy,” the Latin King boss running the 19th floor. Dough Boy was the shot-caller, or the leader of his respective tribe, responsible for everything from negotiating with other factions to approving a well-placed shiv in someone’s abdomen. Yet he, like many inmates struggled with the paperwork needed to request things like family visits or to file official grievances with the Bureau of Prisons. Sizing up Sorenson, Dough Boy had asked for help with the forms. The new inmate obliged—to the displeasure of the guards—and in so doing he gained protection.

When the beef with Wall Street began, Dough Boy advised Sorenson to confront him before it escalated. Sorenson demurred repeatedly. And then it happened: Wall Street, perched above Sorenson one day, spit downward on his rival’s head. Rushing up to face him, Sorenson was flanked by both Dough Boy and the Gangster Disciples’ shot-caller. With an open fist, Sorenson reached back and struck Wall Street across the face. He braced for a return volley. Instead, the young man looked at his shot-caller and stood down. The gang leaders were in charge of enforcing the code, and in this instance, Wall Street was out of line. He did not have permission to fight; his beef with the new inmate, a white man unaffiliated with any crew, served no purpose or principle. “Prison is its own little government—rules and regulations and bylaws, and inmates abide by them very carefully,” Sorenson explains to me.

Wandering back to his cell, Sorenson felt proud of his restraint—he’d done just enough to send a message, nothing more—and wondered where it came from.


He had been deliberately rash as a legislator—spouting off, locking horns for fun, antagonizing equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. He sponsored a birther bill and advocated a return to the gold standard. He shouted down party leaders and called into radio programs to leak details from just-adjourned caucus meetings. He strutted around the capital with a Bluetooth ear piece. “Everyone hated me, and I deserved it,” he says. Not quite everyone. In Sorenson the evangelical right found its champion, someone who fought unapologetically and had a knack for exploiting cultural conflict. Matt Strawn, who was elected chairman of the Iowa GOP just after Sorenson’s 2008 victory, recalls a 2009 event highlighting “rising stars” in the party. The guest speaker was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He preached inclusion, urging Republicans to build a coalition party rather than fighting each other over social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. When the event ended, and Sorenson was invited on stage, he made a show of refusing to shake Barbour’s hand.

“Kent seemed to draw his political life force from not only picking fights, but from letting everyone know that he was picking those fights,” Strawn recalls. “He possessed a finely tuned political antenna when it came to tapping into the anti-establishment sentiments in the party. He was a crusader who wouldn’t compromise on anything—and his people loved him for it.”

Sorenson knew as much. His gumption—for a freshman legislator—was obnoxious bordering on reckless. When the state’s longtime U.S. senator, Chuck Grassley, was negotiating a health care package with Democrats in 2009, Sorenson asked for a private meeting. “If you vote for an Obamacare bill,” the first-term state representative told Grassley, a living Iowa legend, “I will primary you in 2010.”

Grassley ultimately voted against the Affordable Care Act, though Sorenson doubts he was the reason why. It was an empty threat anyway; Sorenson already had plans for 2010. Days after his 2008 victory, Sorenson had received a call from Terry Branstad, the venerable former Iowa governor who still controlled the state’s GOP establishment. Branstad said 2010 would be a better year for Republicans and suggested he challenge Staci Appel for her state Senate seat. To Branstad’s surprise, Sorenson said he’d already decided to do exactly that. “I had two goals when I got into politics: Beat Mark Davitt and beat Stacy Appel,” he recalls. “I didn’t really have any desire to serve in the House, and I definitely didn’t have any desire to serve in the Senate. I know it sounds crazy. But as soon as I won the House seat, I was running to win the Senate seat.”

It was no sure thing. Appel was the Senate’s assistant majority leader, a congresswoman-in-waiting with deep ties to the party establishment and a husband serving on the state Supreme Court. Appel had raised north of $300,000 for her 2006 campaign and won reelection unopposed in 2008; Sorenson, by comparison, raised less than $50,000 for his 2008 House bid. But the newcomer was a force of nature. His power, consolidated in startlingly short order, was on display at the Iowa GOP convention in June 2010. Branstad, returning to the political arena, had survived a brutal primary to win the gubernatorial nomination over evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. Branstad had chosen Kim Reynolds, a centrist state lawmaker, as his running mate, but Vander Plaats was challenging her at the convention. When the 1,349 delegates filed into the hall, they found letters on every seat, signed by Sorenson, endorsing Reynolds. She secured the lieutenant governor’s nomination a few hours later.

It was a power-play from Branstad and a flash of strategic pragmatism from Sorenson. Already in Republican circles there was speculation about the Tea Party sensation running for U.S. Senate in 2014, and now his alliance with Branstad gave him a foothold on both sides of the party’s ideological divide. It paid more immediate dividends: After giving less than $5,000 to his 2008 bid, the Iowa GOP dumped nearly $70,000 into his 2010 campaign. He didn’t really need it: Having united the party’s factions with an astonishing ease—championing the religious right, harnessing the structural support of the libertarian movement, and now, coopting the GOP elite—Sorenson demolished Appel by 18 points.

Three years removed from political anonymity, Sorenson was the hottest name in Iowa politics.

***

Email is one luxury that federal inmates enjoy, and for Sorenson it was both an outlet and an escape. As often as was allowed, he would seize an open computer—with the blessing of Dough Boy, whose crew controlled the media center—and fire off notes to Shawnee complaining of the prison’s subhuman standards and begging for updates from the outside world. The emails sparked parallel developments: Shawnee, horrified by her husband’s description of the MCC, began lobbying Grassley’s office to have her husband relocated; meanwhile, MCC officials monitoring the communication grew wary of the new inmate’s unflattering accounts.

Sorenson was wearing out his welcome—and fast. He got word that the warden was unhappy with his emails and annoyed at the assistance he continued to lend fellow inmates in filling out paperwork. And then, one day, he was pulled aside by a prison official: The MCC had been contacted by Grassley’s office, and Sorenson needed to sign a waiver giving the prison permission to discuss his status with a third party. (A spokesman for Grassley confirmed this account.) He scribbled his name at light speed. Sorenson would be leaving the MCC—but not as soon as he hoped. One day after he signed the waiver, the prison went on lockdown in response to a female guard being abducted and sexually assaulted. The lockdown dragged on for days, and Sorenson was left agonizing over whether a potential transfer had fallen through.


“Sorenson! You’re packing out!” The declaration came without warning, cutting through the fog of a florescent sunrise. The inmate called Senator jumped up, grabbed his few belongings and followed the guards. The destination was USP Thomson in Illinois. (When his fellow convicts heard, they offered him cookies that weren’t on the commissary list at his new residence; they would fetch a premium in trades.) The journey was three hours by bus, made sweeter and slower for Sorenson when the driver told him, “We weren’t supposed to make this trip until next week. Guess you’re special.”

It had been a long time since he felt “special.”

As the GOP presidential field took shape in early 2011, with nascent campaigns building out networks of activists, consultants and operatives, hardly anyone in Iowa was more coveted than Sorenson. He took meetings with former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; Herman Cain, the onetime pizza CEO; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and Ron Paul, whose Iowa team from 2008 was still largely intact. (Establishment favorite Mitt Romney, aiming for a strategically light footprint in Iowa, never reached out; Sorenson had no interest in helping the moderate Mormon anyway.)

All of these campaigns wanted him onboard, and Sorenson claims that all of them suggested payment in return for his endorsement and his services. The rules governing this established Iowa practice were somewhat arbitrary. For members of the state House, no restrictions existed on payments for political work—they could take payments like any private citizen or campaign consultant. For members of the state Senate, however, an ambiguously worded guidance issued after the 2008 campaign forbade compensation from political action committees—the result of a rich history of Iowa state senators peddling their endorsements to the highest bidder.

Still, the new Senate rule seemed to many like a token suggestion. For decades in Iowa, everyone from elected officials to religious leaders to philanthropic activists have found ways to profit off the presidential caucuses. There was always a loophole, always a work-around. (It’s good work if you can find it; Romney aides recall paying a handful of neutral Iowans $10,000 per month in 2008 just to say positive things about him to the national press corps.) Ever since the presidential race began blasting off in Iowa—in 1972 for Democrats, 1976 for Republicans—money has been the rocket fuel. Campaigns buy the best office space, buy the best consultants, buy the best endorsements, and, in some cases, even buy votes on caucus night.

When the New York Times published a story in 2016 with the lead, “Is Iowa for sale?”—tied to the rumors of Republican old-timer Sam Clovis endorsing Donald Trump in exchange for a fat paycheck, despite harboring grave reservations about the candidate himself—insiders responded with a collective shrug. “Everything here is for sale,” says Steve Deace, a longtime conservative Iowa radio host and a close friend to Sorenson. “That’s how it’s done in Iowa. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, you’re essentially buying people for their relationships and access.”

Here it’s worth emphasizing that while money buys relationships and access and networks, it doesn’t necessarily buy victories; Huckabee and Santorum were dead broke in 2008 and 2012, respectively, and both defeated wealthier opponents thanks to hustle and grassroots enthusiasm. And certainly, there are plenty of states with pay-to-play political cultures. But one state kicks off the presidential nominating process, and unique to Iowa are the accompanying plagues—consultants who prey on campaigns, lawmakers who aim to capitalize on their influence, candidates whose presidential dreams hinge on a top-three finish in the state, and a wild-west atmosphere that was tolerated for far too long.

Once upon a time, until it was cancelled in 2016, the biggest fundraiser for the Iowa GOP was the Ames Straw Poll, a trough of electoral venality for public consumption. Not only would campaigns bus in their subsidized supporters and cut cloak-and-dagger deals in hopes of winning the event—thus earning invaluable headlines and momentum—but the party itself was fueling the cash frenzy, holding an auction to allocate space at the fairgrounds. Whichever candidate paid the most money to the state party was awarded the biggest, most convenient lot—at an event that winnowed the field of candidates to lead the free world.

There are other conspicuous examples of the corrupting influence of money in the caucuses. Ethanol subsidies, a central economic issue in the state, has tainted Iowa politics for years. In 2016 the governor’s son, Eric Branstad, followed Ted Cruz around the state in an RV, paid for by the renewable fuels industry, harassing the Texas senator for his anti-subsidy position. A year earlier, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker sat atop the Iowa polls, one of his top campaign aides was called to Eric Branstad’s office. Thinking it was a friendly invite, the aide was slack-jawed when the younger Branstad showed him the page proof of an advertisement that would run in the Des Moines Register slamming Walker unless he revised his own anti-subsidy stance.

It was in this environment that Sorenson found himself being courted by numerous campaigns, most of them offering payment through a consulting firm to keep the candidate’s hands clean. Sorenson wasn’t surprised by any of this. Iowa’s legislature is part-time, with lawmakers earning a salary of $25,000 plus benefits and a per diem; most of them had other jobs, and some did just fine for themselves by affiliating with industries that trafficked on their insider knowledge. Sorenson knew of the Senate rule but was told it was toothless. Besides, he needed the money. Sorenson was bringing in less income since stepping away from his business, but he had nonetheless moved his family onto a sprawling farm lot in Milo, 30 miles south of Des Moines. Politics was a full-time job, with travel around the state to broaden his following and boost his name identification, as he moved full speed ahead toward a U.S. Senate bid in 2014.

Sorenson wanted two things—an infusion of cash and a presidential apparatus that could be reactivated on his behalf two years later. Sorenson claims that Chuck Larson, a former Iowa lawmaker working for Pawlenty, offered him $10,000 per month. (Larson disputes this. “Kent wanted money, and I remember telling him it wasn’t an option because it wasn’t legal.”) Sorenson alleges that Cain’s campaign suggested $8,000 per month. (Former Cain officials did not respond to requests for comment.) He talked with Gingrich and Santorum as well, but Sorenson soon narrowed his decision to the two favorites: Paul and Bachmann.

***


For an incarcerated Iowa farm boy, pulling into USP Thomson was a taste of home. There were no sirens encircling a maximum-security urban high-rise; just a flat campus of simple structures encased by emerald fields and country roads for miles in every direction. There was another welcome sign: white inmates. The federal prison system, Sorenson had learned, was catalogued almost entirely by race. And it had never escaped him, from the moment he stepped foot on the 19th floor at the MCC, that as a white man he was an unaffiliated soldier walking into a war between the Latinos and blacks. Arriving at Thomson and surveying the scores of white inmates, he figured the racial tensions were now behind him.

That assumption proved ignorant. If anything, Sorenson thought after settling into USP Thomson, this place was more segregated. Maybe it was the larger white population; maybe it was the greater autonomy inmates had to roam the premises. But he was struck by the brightness of the racial lines. “It was like stepping back into the 1950s,” he recalls. Soon after he arrived, Sorenson found himself chatting with Officer Hanson, the head of USP Thomson’s Special Investigative Services, the B.O.P. branch that supervises both inmates and officers. Sorenson says he shared his observation about the degree of racial segregation at the MCC and admitted to being surprised at how pronounced it was at his new home. “Racism is good for the B.O.P.,” Hanson replied. “We use it to our advantage every day. The more they focus on hating each other, the less they focus on hating us.”(USP Thomson declined to make Officer Hanson available for an interview. The prison’s warden also declined to comment.)

Sorenson was blindsided by the remark. Quizzing Hanson further, he discovered that the officer wasn’t just describing efforts to head off a physical confrontation with inmates, but also efforts to preemptively undermine any coordinated push for better conditions and better treatment. The biggest concern for prison officials, Sorenson began to realize, wasn’t riots or violence; it was the airing of dirty laundry, tales of neglect and suppression that could make their way to the public. What Hanson was saying, Sorenson recalls, is that by obsessing over petty beefs and turf wars, the prison’s warring racial tribes could not make a coherent, organized case for reform.

Tribalism was not foreign to Sorenson.

At the time of his political rise, the Iowa GOP was being subdivided into three sects: libertarian, evangelical, and establishment. The latter two factions had long warred for control of the state party, but it was the “liberty movement” that was muscularly ascendant in 2008 thanks to Ron Paul’s iconoclastic campaign. Much of the underlying organization was imported into Iowa: It was the members of National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), the anti-union group, who provided the money, the training, the infrastructure and the tactical expertise. Cultivating young politicians was paramount for the NRTWC crew. These relationships allowed them to appropriate a lawmakers’ political clout as well as their network of supporters. For NRTWC, it was an investment—not just to benefit future campaigns, but to grow their empire of affiliated groups that were raking in millions of dollars in digital solicitations on fighting everything from abortion to regulations to spending.

Sorenson, green and desperate for assistance in his 2008 campaign, walked unwittingly into this trap. Hardly a libertarian—save for his self-interested belief in legalizing marijuana—the rookie politician was, at his core, a classic Christian conservative. Yet he was in no position to turn down help. When the NRTWC cabal offered its services, promising entrée into the Paul grassroots powerhouse, he signed up. “It was as Ron Paul Inc. and it was a cash cow,” Sorenson says. “They called it ‘running program.’ They would go find candidates, like me, and promise to ‘take care of you’ and help build a network in your state. … They travel around, they teach operative training classes, they use guerilla-style politics in state races. Then those networks are used to prop up their fictitious groups. They build out their email lists, they send out surveys and letters and requests for money to fight on issues, and it turns into a money-making machine.”

The NRTWC operation has been weakened, but the scheming continues: Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Ron Paul and staffed by his loyalists, sent a fundraising email in May—signed by the former presidential candidate himself—alleging that Republican senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham were “teaming up with Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ram through one of the worst nationwide gun confiscation schemes ever devised.” Accompanying this utter falsehood were three requests for a “generous contribution.”

“None of these guys thought Ron Paul was going to be president,” Sorenson says. “It was all about making money.”


Sorenson didn’t think Paul would be president, either—but he definitely wanted to make money. He talked in early 2011 with Drew Ivers, who chaired Paul’s 2008 Iowa effort and was preparing for an encore. Sorenson was ready to work for Paul in 2012, but Ivers wasn’t interested. This caused tension between Ivers, running the Iowa operation, and the NRTWC players atop Paul’s national organization who badly wanted Sorenson. Ivers wouldn’t budge. “I didn’t want him as part of the campaign,” Ivers tells me. “It was a judgment of motive, character, modus operandi, standards, convictions.”

Sorenson was spurned, if somewhat relieved: He believed the Tea Party movement was more sustainable than the libertarian phenomenon, and this freed him to follow his natural instincts. Having met with Bachmann several times in early 2011, he concluded that she was, as the Weekly Standard crowned her, the “Queen of the Tea Party.” He signed on as her state chairman in March. It was hailed by Iowa insiders and national pundits as a significant coup for Bachmann, though some in the state whispered about potential red flags. “Even though he supported many of the positions we supported, he had this bull-in-a-china-shop mentality,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “He struck me as arrogant and unethical.”

Team Bachmann heard the rumblings, but felt the rewards far outweighed the risks. “He was on top of Iowa. He had high name ID, he could deliver the social conservative vote, he knew everyone, and everyone knew him,” recalls Alice Stewart, who served as Bachmann’s communications director. “That said, he was known as the kind of politician who looked at everything as though the ends justify the means.” This perception was confirmed months into the campaign: Sorenson was involved in stealing an email list from the computer of a Bachmann staffer who worked for a homeschooling organization but was forbidden from using its resources for political purposes. The theft and deployment of the list provoked a crisis in the Iowa homeschooling community and resulted in an ugly lawsuit with gag-orders galore—an early indicator of malfeasance and dysfunction in the campaign.

Sorenson, for his part, was genuinely taken with Bachmann during their initial conversations. That didn’t last. “I think she’s a nice lady—she’d make a good grandmother. But I could never see her as a head of state,” he says. “She was kooky, unpredictable, tough to work with. A diva.” (Numerous attempts to reach Bachmann for comment were unsuccessful.)

All the while, Sorenson’s NRTWC friends—who had descended on Iowa—were unrelenting. They had been furious when Ivers spurned Sorenson, and even more so when their ally signed on with Bachmann. But when they heard murmurings of Sorenson having buyer’s remorse, the cunning commenced. Recognizing that scoring a defection from Bachmann would upend the race, they began to work over Sorenson, whispering that he had picked the wrong horse. It backfired—at least, initially. Looking ahead to the Ames Straw Poll in August as a cosmic clash between the forces of Paul and Bachmann, he poured himself into the effort, desperate to vindicate his decision and silence his friends. Bachmann prevailed, but it was a case of peaking too early. Texas Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign the same day, stomping on Bachmann’s news cycle. The next evening, both candidates were slated to speak at a county Republican dinner. But Bachmann stayed on her bus while Perry spoke, refusing to enter the event until he finished, a breach of decorum (and an example of her unpredictability) that irritated attendees and sparked widespread negative news coverage.

With Bachmann’s campaign suddenly in a sharp downward spiral, Paul allies intensified their recruitment efforts. At church, at community events, at kids’ baseball games, they would remind Sorenson: “You should be with us. She’s done.” His resistance wore down. He was tired of Bachmann and exasperated with her campaign. They were frustrated with him, too: Sorenson had promised to deliver the support of prominent conservatives—activists, media personalities, pastors and other faith leaders—but he had mostly come up empty. “There was a lot of pressure on him,” Deace recalls. “Kent was pissed at me because I wouldn’t endorse Bachmann.”

There was a much bigger fish he couldn’t reel in: Vander Plaats. The evangelical chieftain, who since his failed 2010 gubernatorial run had launched a group called The Family Leader, was Iowa’s critical endorsement for those conservatives seeking the anti-Romney mantle. But he refused to tip his hand. Many believed this was because Vander Plaats wanted to back the winner, and thus was waiting to see who gained late momentum. But there was another theory: Vander Plaats needed money in exchange for his support and was patiently soliciting offers. Sorenson believes this was the case. “I was told that Bob Vander Plaats wanted $300,000 for his endorsement, and I know people on other campaigns who were also told that,” Sorenson tells me. He claims there was an informal agreement between officials with the Bachmann and Santorum campaigns to go public with Vander Plaats’ request, and that it abruptly fell apart—one day before Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum.

“Absolutely not true,” Vander Plaats tells me. “Didn’t that number used to be higher? I thought it was a million,” he says, laughing at the pay-to-play rumors that have long swirled around him. Indeed, numerous Iowa Republicans I spoke with said they heard a figure closer to $500,000, suggesting a ballooning urban legend. At the same time, four other 2012 campaign operatives confirmed hearing the amount of $300,000. One of them, a high-ranking Santorum aide, recalls the poorly funded candidate joking aloud, “Pay him? With what?”

In October, before a pumpkin farm event in Grinell, Bachmann was told that a group of LGBT college students were protesting. Sorenson says she locked herself in the house on the property and refused to come out. (Stewart disputed this, saying Bachmann simply cut the event short.) The next morning, Sorenson hinted to Kesari that he might quit Bachmann’s campaign. Kesari relayed the message to other Paul advisers, including Jesse Benton, the political consigliere married to the candidate’s granddaughter; and and John Tate, the campaign manager. On Halloween, Benton emailed Sorenson with the specifics of an offer to work for Paul; they would pay $7,500 per month, the same as Bachmann had paid him, and would also fly him to subsequent states after Iowa to serve as a campaign surrogate. The email sparked a two-month stretch of tortured internal conflict. Sorenson teetered back and forth, flirting capriciously with the Paul team while simultaneously suggesting to Bachmann officials that he might quit at any time—alienating both parties in the process. “I always called Michele flaky,” he says. “But I was being really flaky.”

The night after Christmas, with the caucuses closing in, Kesari met the Sorensons for dinner at Claxon’s Smokehouse and Grill in Altoona. Bachmann was toast, Kesari told them, polling at less than 10 percent—whereas Paul was on the verge of winning. A late endorsement from Sorenson could put him over the top. As the meal concluded, Kesari slid a check across the table. It was drawn from the account of a family-owned jewelry store—in the amount of $25,000. Dizzy with fear, Kent shook his head and excused himself to use the restroom. When he returned, Kesari and Shawnee were waiting with their coats on. The Sorensons drove home and Shawnee showed the check to her husband. More upset with himself than with his wife, Kent insisted that they would not cash the check—and that he was sticking with Bachmann. They argued late into the night.

***

Hanson’s words had shaken Sorenson. The racial callousness aside, he questioned why a prison official would confide so casually in an inmate. And then it occurred to him. “He thought I was a good old boy, a white Republican politician who would laugh along with him,” Sorenson says. In fact, he once might have. Sorenson freely admits that before entering the penal system, he had no time for the discussion of racial imbalances in America—the disparities in convictions and sentencing, the socioeconomic handicaps, the cyclical, cross-generational devastation of incarceration. “I thought it was all a bunch of media hype,” he says. “I don’t think I was racist—” he stops himself. “OK, maybe I was a little racist.”

His eyes opened, Sorenson sought an audience with the USP Thomson warden and demanded answers for what Hanson had told him. “What other employee in the federal government could get away with saying that?” Sorenson asked. The warden was dismissive. Soon after, Sorenson found himself in the crosshairs—watched warily by the guards, given unique treatment during certain situations. Once, when Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois toured the prison, Sorenson says officials quarantined him to an area Durbin would not visit, fearful that he would call out to the senator and receive an audience based on their shared profession.

The treatment didn’t faze Sorenson. He knew what it meant to be distrusted—and to feel like an outcast.

The morning after Kesari offered the check, Sorenson arrived at Bachmann’s campaign office feeling guilty. He had decided not to defect. Still, showing up at headquarters, greeting his comrades, Sorenson felt ashamed at having been so tempted—and having gone so far. He informed Kesari that morning that he was staying put; Kesari, in turn, told Benton and Tate that their prized recruit was getting “cold feet.” Benton exploded. “Fuck him,” he replied in an email. Later, Benton added, “Either he honors his commitment or we have to expose him as the money-grubbing shakedown artist that he is.”

Around that same time, Sorenson had broken down in tears at the Bachmann headquarters, sharing his secret with several campaign officials, including Michele’s husband, Marcus. His confession—the conversations, the dinner, the check—was met first with anger, and then, as the Bachmann aides realized how close Sorenson sounded to abandoning them, persuasion. They urged him to stick around. They reminded him of all they had been through together. They promised he would be taken care of long after the campaign—whether it was through a political action committee, or a consulting gig, or Bachmann’s congressional office. Relieved and reassured, Sorenson told them he wasn’t going anywhere.

His serenity was shattered a day later. Having risen early for a scheduled root canal, Sorenson arrived that afternoon in his hometown of Indianola for a Bachmann event. Still in discomfort and buzzing off painkillers, he stepped into the pizza joint and felt the eyes of everyone on him. Word had spread that he was threatening to quit the campaign—and that Paul was offering him money to switch teams. Everyone seemed to know, including Bachmann herself; there was no mistaking the glares in his direction. When the event ended, Sorenson rushed out to his car. Tamara Scott, the co-chair of Bachmann’s campaign, saw Sorenson leave and raced over to his vehicle. He lowered the window. “Are you OK?” she asked. Sorenson shook his head. “Please don’t do anything rash,” Scott said. He grimaced and sped away. It was the last time they ever spoke.

Sorenson pulled into the Iowa fairgrounds 30 minutes later and gazed at the cavernous pavilion. Paul was holding a rally inside. Six days remained before the caucuses. It was now or never. He grabbed his phone, having silenced it on the drive over to clear his head, and saw numerous missed calls—from Marcusand other campaign hands. Ignoring them, he dialed Kesari, who answered on the first ring. “You guys still want me?” Sorenson asked. Kesari came zooming out of the building. He grabbed Sorenson by the arm, yanking the man twice his size toward the pavilion. “So we’re good?” Sorenson asked, referencing the payment structure that had been discussed. “Oh yeah,” Kesari grinned.

Once inside, Kesari paraded Sorenson in front of the Paul campaign’s high command. They were shocked to see him. “Are you guys gonna take care of me?” Sorenson asked Benton. “You’re bleeding for us,” Benton responded. “We’ll take care of you.” Paul himself came over to greet him (though he later testified to being unaware of the payment scheme). Before he knew it, Sorenson was being swept toward the stage. Waiting there, wide-eyed, was Ivers—who had no knowledge of what the national staff had been up to. “It was my state, and my campaign, and they deliberately kept me in the dark,” he says. The Paul team wasn’t taking any chances: Once Sorenson spoke at the rally, there was no turning back. Ivers coughed up a quick introduction, then Sorenson was shoved onto the stage. “Um, tonight’s a little tough for me,” Sorenson said, looking colorless and confused. Stammering through an unrehearsed, 67-second homily, he concluded that switching from Bachmann to Paul was “difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.”


The moment was surreal for everyone involved—and for everyone who had ever been involved. “Never seen anything remotely like it,” recalls John Stineman, an Iowa GOP consultant who managed Steve Forbes’ 2000 race. “I’ve had friends who worked for three presidential campaigns in one cycle, but I’ve never seen anyone jump to a new one before the previous one ended.” Strawn said it was a singular moment in Iowa’s political history—and not in a good way. “It made us all look bad. Take it from the guy who was party chair, here I was spending every minute defending to the nation and the political class why Iowa gets to go first every four years. And this made it a hell of a lot harder.” Johnson, the longtime activist who served on the Iowa GOP central committee, says Sorenson’s switch “did far-reaching damage to the cause of Christian conservative activism in Iowa. It made it look like Christian conservatives’ endorsement was sale. I cannot tell you how much pain this moment caused us in Iowa.”

“It felt like a hallucination,” Sorenson recalls. “I was sleep-deprived, I was in a lot of pain, I was angry, I was upset.” Still, it was a weight off his shoulders. Sorenson thought that finally, it was over—he was rid of Bachmann, he was reunited with his Paul friends, and he was ready to enjoy the home stretch of the caucuses. No such luck.


“Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign,” Bachmann told reporters outside of her campaign bus, barely three hours after Sorenson’s speech. “Kent said to me yesterday that 'Everyone sells out in Iowa, why shouldn’t I?’”

The split in Iowa political circles was immediate—between those who didn’t believe what Bachmann was accusing Sorenson of, and those who had no doubt it was true. “All these voters thought, ‘Oh, that’s crazy Michele Bachmann—the wheels are coming off her campaign, so she’s taking Kent down with him,’” says Nick Ryan, who was running Santorum’s super PAC in Iowa. “But most of us close to the caucuses knew Kent was getting paid and knew he wouldn’t switch for free.”

Sorenson, for his part, was shell-shocked. His phone exploded—friends, colleagues, reporters. He turned it off. He wanted to disappear. Heading to Paul’s headquarters the next morning, he readied a proposal—to work behind the scenes, stay out of the spotlight, refuse to become a distraction. They laughed him off. Sorenson was their eleventh-hour salvation. They needed him front and center, marketing his endorsement, selling Paul to every undecided caucus-goer for the next four days. Benton informed Sorenson that he would do two television interviews that day—one with CNN, one with Fox News—and to expect questions about Bachmann’s accusation. “I can’t lie on national TV,” he told them. “Everyone will see right through me.”


But lie he did—and see through him, everyone did. First on CNN, and then on Fox News, Sorenson delivered one of the most tragically unconvincing performances in the history of political theatre. On CNN, Natalie Allen reported Bachmann’s remarks and asked Sorenson if he was a “sellout.” He replied: “Absolutely not, Natalie. I, uh, you know, I, I, I, do not reco—I, I, have no—that conversation never happened.” The silver lining of that implosion was that he was speaking from a studio in Newton. Things were different two hours later when Sorenson joined Megyn Kelly for a live interview on Fox News. Standing just off a street in Des Moines, Sorenson struggled to focus on Kelly’s questioning as a black truck hoisting a “Bachmann for President” sign circled around him. He stuttered about his history with Paul. He called Romney a “frugal socialist.” He invoked the words of Wes Enos, a friend and Bachmann’s state director, who had come to Sorenson’s defense amid the payment allegations. (Sorenson says he still feels “sick” about lying to Enos and then utilizing his friend’s unwitting defense of him.) As the interview wound down, and Kelly’s interrogation intensified, Sorenson’s eyes shot from side to side. Pressed to clarify whether anyone affiliated with Paul had offered him money, he replied, “I was never offered a nickel from the Ron Paul campaign.”

It was rock bottom—or so he thought. “I became everything that I hated about politicians: the lying, the playing with words. ‘I didn’t take a nickel, technically, because I took 70 grand,’” he says in a self-mocking tone. “I knew what I was saying wasn’t true. I lied, and I justified the lie. It felt like there were hundred-dollar bills falling out of my pockets on live television and I was trying to shove them back in. I just wanted it all to end. I wanted out of that life.”

***


The routine became predictable at USP Thomson: Breakfast, free time, lunch, free time, dinner, card games that lasted until lights out. What began to gnaw at Sorenson, even in the lax atmosphere, was the lack of rehabilitation. USP Thomson is a facility for inmates who don’t pose a major security risk, those typically serving shorter sentences and thus ostensibly preparing to re-enter society. “But there’s nothing being done to help them, to educate them—literally, nothing,” he tells me. “There’s an English-as-Second-Language class in there once a week for about 40 minutes. Do you know what they use? ‘Walking Dead’ comic books. I’m not joking.”

Even more appalling, Sorenson adds, were the conditions: food that spoiled years ago, bathrooms that were wholly unsanitary, living quarters that stank of who knows what. He says the cereal they ate each morning was two years expired, with ants frequently spilling into their bowls and floating in the milk. “This is in the United States of America,” he says. “I was just dumbfounded.”

Sorenson decided to act. He had Shawnee ship him copies of used homeschooling textbooks, passing them out to the younger, less literate inmates. He helped his comrades file grievance forms—free of charge, turning down macaroons (the prison’s official currency) when they were offered in return for his services.. He even worked to bridge racial divides. Sorenson couldn’t hope to transcend the prison’s color barriers—the white inmates still played Pinochle and the black inmates still played Spades—but he spent time with minority inmates whenever possible, absorbing their stories and learning more intimately of their circumstances. “Prison will make you more racist if you let it. But I wanted to learn about their issues,” he tells me. “I’m a small-town Iowa guy. You meet these guys from Chicago and you have no idea what they deal with. I was totally blind to their reality. You cross the wrong block and you get shot. You get shot for no reason at all. That doesn’t seem real to someone from small-town Iowa.”

The hardest story for Sorenson to stomach was that of a white man—Chad Nicholson, who was serving a 20-year sentence for a drug offense in his mid 20s. Nicholson was nine years in and clearly rehabilitated—a man of faith, of conviction, of remorse. But federal sentences require at least 85 percent of time served, meaning Nicholson, a father of two, would not see his children for at least another nine years. “Here’s a guy whose family can’t afford to drive out and visit. It costs $61 a month to use all your phone minutes, and he gets paid $20 a month,” Sorenson says. “They say if you’re incarcerated your children are seven times more likely to be incarcerated, and it’s killing our society. It’s crazy that when an inmate acts up, the first thing they do is take away phone calls. How does that help? You’re not just punishing inmates, you’re punishing kids who need to hear from their fathers. It’s disgusting.”

As Sorenson’s time at USP Thomson drew to a close, having been informed of early release to a halfway house, he promised Nicholson that he would help arrange visits from his family. He felt terrible for his friend. He spent sleepless nights questioning why Nicholson was still imprisoned. The only thing that vexed Sorenson more was the question of why he was imprisoned at all.

The year following his dramatic switch had been uneventful. Paul’s deflating third-place finish in the caucuses, joined with Sorenson’s calamitous cable news appearances, made the Iowa senator of little use to the presidential campaign. Sorenson pleaded with Benton and Kesari to make him work, to travel with them, to do something. They mostly ignored him, save for the one thing he could uniquely help with: Sorenson traveled around meeting with potential congressional challengers, “running program” for the NRTWC. His duty was to talk them into their races, to promise that Ron Paul Inc. would take care of them. He recalls two targets in particular: Lee Bright, a state lawmaker in South Carolina; and Steve Stockman, a Texas congressman. Both went on to challenge incumbent Republican senators in 2014 primaries—Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn, respectively—and both got demolished. Their defeats only helped grow the Paul machine. “It’s a shell game,” Sorenson says. “They know these guys aren’t going to win. They’re making money off the races because of the email lists.”

The payments came as promised—$73,000 total between January and June of 2012, drawn from Paul’s presidential campaign account, funneled first through a dummy audio-visual production company and then into the coffers of Grassroots Strategy, Sorenson’s consulting firm. Yet there was little satisfaction for the Iowa senator. Romney had become the Republican nominee, Paul and his allies were treating him like a bad punch line and his colleagues in the legislature had begun keeping a contagious distance. Beneath all of this, Sorenson felt a lingering sense of dread—a hunch that the scandal wasn’t entirely behind him.

He was right. In January 2013, just over a year removed from the caucuses, Peter Waldron, a former Bachmann staffer with a mysterious past—he was a former pastor who had once been arrested in Uganda for terrorism charges—filed a complaint with the Iowa Senate. He alleged that Sorenson had violated the body’s rules by accepting payments from Bachmann and her affiliated political action committee. The Senate Ethics panel initially dismissed the complaint. But a few months later, with rumors of a potential federal investigation swirling, the committee appointed Mark Weinhardt, a prominent Iowa lawyer, as a special investigator to handle the case. Waldron then filed a second complaint with the committee in August—this one alleging that Sorenson had also taken improper payments from Paul’s operation.

The tension swelled as summer turned to fall, with the rumored federal probe now a certainty. One day in September, Kesari turned up at Sorenson’s house and asked his old friend whether he was wearing a wire. When Sorenson said no, Kesari asked him to prove it. Then, satisfied, he demanded back the $25,000 check he had given Shawnee nearly two years prior. (The Sorensons had never cashed it, and Kent was clinging to the check as potential evidence if needed.)

Sorenson’s implosion began in earnest later that month when Weinhardt deposed him, inquiring about suspicious sources of income listed in his tax returns. Sorenson lied—this time under oath—saying that he personally was not paid by any presidential campaign or political action committee. Sorenson said this on the advice of his attorney, Ted Sporer, who felt it was legally defensible because the money had been routed through the audio-visual company to Sorenson’s LLC, not directly to the senator himself. But this is disingenuous: Several of Sorenson’s friends recounted conversations shortly before his deposition in which they urged him not to mislead the special counsel. That he did so anyway speaks to Sorenson’s recklessness with the truth—a criticism that dogged him from his earliest days in the legislature—and to his naivete about the consequences.

The guillotine fell on October 2 when Weinhardt issued his report: It was “manifestly clear” Sorenson had gotten paid, the special investigator concluded. He had violated Senate rules—first by taking the money, then by perjuring himself.

This, to Sorenson’s friends and enemies alike, is the strangest aspect of his downfall—how maddeningly avoidable it was. “Kent earned that money from the campaigns. He worked for it. He should have just admitted it,” says Montgomery “Monty” Brown, who would later defend Sorenson in federal court. “He should have dared the Senate to impeach him for breaking a rule that Weinhardt himself said was ambiguous.” Ryan, the Santorum super PAC chief and a seasoned Iowa strategist, agrees. “The truth was not that controversial, because by then most people in Iowa knew the truth. It was the lie that brought him down. This wasn’t about corruption. It was about dishonesty.”

Sorenson resigned from the Senate hours after the report. He told allies that he was being railroaded, that it was a “witch hunt” conducted by his opponents. There was just enough pre-dawn glow in December of 2011 for Sorenson, ambling through his kitchen in response to a booming thud against the front door, to see the yellow “FBI” lettering through the window. The raid of his house, in full view of his children, rid Sorenson of the notion that his lie had been harmless. Sorenson fired Spores and hired Brown, a highly respected Iowa defense attorney. He wasted no time in their first meeting. “Kent, your previous counsel was incompetent,” Brown said. “You lied under oath. And you’re in deep shit.”

The ensuing three years were a blur. Sorenson cycled from terrified to angry to defiant, holding out his cooperation from investigators. In August 2014, with his dying father looking on, he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and causing a campaign to file a false financial report. The charges carried up to 25 years in prison. Around that same time, on a parallel investigative track, Benton and Tate were called in for questioning—and gave false statements to the FBI, denying that Sorenson had been paid by the campaign. With his former comrades on the hook, and staring down a long prison sentence, Sorenson turned state’s witness. He implicated Benton, Tate and Kesari in the payment scheme, leading to a federal indictment in August 2015 that contained charges against all three men. Sorenson wound up testifying on several separate occasions—before a grand jury and in court trials—and when the dust settled from the endless legal proceedings, all three were convicted of, among other things, causing false campaign expenditure reports and conspiracy to cover it up with false statements. Tate and Benton received probation; Kesari was sentenced to three months in prison.

All the while, Sorenson’s own sentencing was repeatedly delayed due to his cooperation. It was an uneasy time. In the fall of 2014, while negotiating his deal with the feds, Sorenson violated the terms of his pre-sentencing probation by testing positive for marijuana—the first of multiple failed tests. (Sorenson insists he really had quit, but says his fatty cells were saturated with THC from years of chronic use.) In an alternate script, November 2014 would have represented the climax of Sorenson’s political rise: winning a U.S. Senate seat that many Iowans still believe was his for the taking. Instead, as Republican nominee Joni Ernst won the general election that fall, Sorenson was burying his father and awaiting federal sentencing. “I had finally turned a corner in my life and made him proud of me, and then I threw it all away,” Sorenson says, tears filling his eyes. “The last thing I whispered to him was, ‘It’s all going to go away.’ I wanted him to pass in peace not worrying about me.”

The following spring, he defaulted on the mortgage of his family’s previous home, in Indianola, which they still owned. A few months later, he was hit with bank petitions for not paying off his rising credit card debts. Things were falling apart. Kent and Shawnee started drinking heavily and fighting often. Things got ugly in July 2015 when Kent broke some difficult news to her: The feds had seized his computer drive containing years of explicit photos they had taken as husband and wife. Those photos were now part of the evidence package available to both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for Benton, Tate and Kesari. Drunk and infuriated, Shawnee attacked Kent, they both tell me, and Kent made contact with her in self-defense. The police found Shawnee crying and intoxicated walking alone down a county road. They saw redness around her eye and she gave them permission to enter their home. After knocking, the cops entered through an open window—only to be confronted by Sorenson in a hallway. Enraged, he screamed that they were not allowed in his house—and refused to remove his hands from his pockets when they so ordered. The potentially fatal standoff ended when Sorenson surrendered to being handcuffed. He was charged with domestic abuse. During the drive to the police station, he wept and slammed his head into the cruiser’s metal cage.


All of this was fair game to be used against Sorenson when he was finally sentenced in January 2017. Federal judges are free to consider the totality of a defendant’s actions, even those not germane to the case at hand, when deciding their fate—latitude that’s colloquially known as “the kitchen sink.” Yet there was cause for optimism. The domestic incident had been pleaded down to disorderly conduct. Neither it, nor the failed drug tests, were mentioned in the prosecutors’ pre-sentencing report. The best news of all: The feds were recommending probation and community service. They believed Sorenson’s assistance with their investigation, and his repeated testimony against the others, had set a valuable example of defendant cooperation.

Judge William Pratt wanted to set a different sort of example. Calling the Iowa senator’s actions “the definition of political corruption,” he sentenced Sorenson to 15 months in prison. When I ask Monty Brown how common it was for a judge to ignore the prosecutors’ recommendation of probation, he measures his words. “We’re not in Las Vegas, but it’s very unusual,” he says. “In federal court, over the last 25 years, maybe once. It doesn’t happen very often.” For this reason, Sorenson believes Pratt, a Democrat appointee with close ties to longtime Senator Tom Harkin, had “political motivations” for sending him to prison. “He knows the two Democrats I beat,” Sorenson says. “I got screwed because of it.”

In his chambers this summer, Pratt tells me he struggled with Sorenson’s sentence. “The southern district of Iowa is not the southern district of New York,” he says. “We don’t get many political corruption cases here.” Pratt says he studied similar federal cases and felt that despite Sorenson’s cooperation, the former lawmaker needed to be held to a higher standard as an elected official than his co-conspirators. What about Sorenson’s charge of partisan payback? “I’m offended by the suggestion of it,” Pratt says. “Deeply offended.”

The long sentence, which was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court, was shocking enough. Then came the notification from the Bureau of Prisons: Sorenson was to self-report to the MCC. Everyone—Sorenson, Brown, even Pratt—was floored. “His placement at that Chicago facility was ridiculous,” Brown says. “I would imagine that his domestic abuse case, even though it got changed to a disorderly conduct, somehow suggested violence. That’s the only thing I can think of. He should have gone to a work camp in South Dakota.” Pratt adds, “I was surprised he went to a maximum facility, because he was allowed the privilege of self-reporting. I’d say 85 to 90 percent of the people we sentence don’t get the privilege of self-reporting.”

Indeed, when Sorenson showed up at the Chicago prison in March 2017, ready to begin his sentence, officials there were confused. They had never heard of anyone self-reporting to the MCC. “Sir,” an officer said to Sorenson, “nobody turns themselves in here.”

***


The halfway house knows Sorenson is running late, and the snowstorm is blinding by the time we pull out of the rest stop. Sorenson looks more relaxed now, wearing blue jeans and a dark gray sweatshirt, but he seems uneasy. “All that yellow and red in there—it’s crazy,” he says, referring to the Wendy’s restaurant we just visited. “It’s been a while since I saw anything that wasn’t white, black or gray.” Adding to the vertigo is the constant ringing and beeping of his wife’s phone. The kids are desperate to talk to their dad, but the car ride and the reporters’ questions are already overwhelming him. A combination of snow flurries and ice pebbles are attacking the windshield. Sorenson just wants to get to the Fort Des Moines, his new home for the next three months.

It will represent a leap of progress—one degree removed from the Bureau of Prisons, one step closer to his family. He has missed them terribly. He has so much planned for once they are reunited—dinners, discussions, vacations (within the geographic limits of his parole). He wants to start over, to put the nightmarish events of the past seven years permanently behind them. “Maybe we should move,” he tells Shawnee. “It would be a fresh start.” She shakes her head. Iowa is home. Moreover, it’s the best place for Kent to find work—and he knows it. “I’m a 45-year-old ex-con without a job,” he says. “All I want to do is provide, be a husband and a father.” He pauses. “And I want to find a way to help those men in prison.”

We pull into the Fort Des Moines, a constellation of two-story brick structures, nearly an hour past Sorenson’s due time. The snowfall is much lighter here. Climbing out into the 12-degree chill, he tells me he looks forward to visiting again in April when he’s set to be released to home supervision. I wish him good luck, and he sets off with Shawnee, hand in hand, plodding toward the entrance with their heads angled downward to avoid the gashing winds.

Things began looking up for Sorenson. Staff at the halfway house, known simply as “the Fort,” were friendly and accommodating. With help from Shawnee he put together a resume—the first in his life—and, to his surprise, was hired almost immediately by a commercial cleaning company not unlike the one he formerly owned. With employment secured, Sorenson was given considerable autonomy—he could go to work each day, see family on the weekends, run errands if needed, as long as he was checking in at the appointed times and playing by the rules. The transition was easier than he could have imagined. Sorenson was humming along, the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly bursting into full view, his dream of starting over and restoring his family’s bond tantalizingly close to becoming reality.

And then, while at work on the afternoon of February 15, his phone rang. It was his case manager. “You need to get back to the halfway house as soon as possible,” the voice said. Sorenson asked what was going on. “Kent,” the voice answered. “You need to get back to the halfway house as soon as possible.” He jumped in the car, fear flooding his heart. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but something wasn’t right. Then his phone rang again. It was his daughter. “He did it, Dad. He did it,” she wailed. Sorenson knew immediately. The night before, he had been on the phone with his daughter-in-law, who warned him that her husband, Kent Jr., was talking about killing himself. They agreed to stage an intervention the following day.

But it was too late. The 24-year-old married father of two had been struggling with his studies at Iowa State University and seemed distant in recent conversations with his father. Sorenson’s top priority, once released from the halfway house, was reconnecting with Kent Jr. and helping him navigate this rough patch. Now he was gone.

I learned of this from Shawnee when I called in late March to check on Kent’s progress and schedule a date to visit them. She was emotionally wrecked but unfailingly polite, explaining the situation and telling me that her husband would need some time to process the incident. She gave me his cell phone number and recommended that I call back in another month or so.

Waiting a bit longer, I tried Sorenson in early May. No answer. Texts, calls, nothing. Weeks went by. Worried, I backed off. Then, on a Sunday night, the phone rang. “I’m sorry. I’ve kind of been avoiding you,” Sorenson said quietly. I told him not to worry, asked how he was doing. “I’m OK,” he murmured. A long silence. “We used to be such a happy family,” he said. We talked a bit, and he asked for more time before I visited to complete the interview. I agreed. “You know, it’s weird,” Sorenson said, more to himself than to me. “This put into perspective how easy prison was. I would do another 20 years if I could get him back for one more day.”

***

On a perfect summer afternoon, Sorenson is back where it all began. We’re on the steps of the state capitol in Des Moines and he’s reconstructing his downfall, trying to pinpoint when and how everything began to fall apart. He was a “jerk” in the legislature, someone who “didn’t show Christ-like behavior” and was “arrogant” about his political celebrity. But the roots of his ruin go deeper—to the decision to enter politics in the first place. If anything, Sorenson says, the genesis of his demise can be traced to these very steps, to that rally 10 years ago, when he felt so moved to oppose gay marriage that he called out his local legislators and committed himself to their defeat.

“Politics was a waste of my life,” he says, shaking his head. The greater irony, he adds, is that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land—and it doesn’t bother him one bit. “If we’re secure in our faith as Christians, why should we care? It’s not like my kids are going to start wearing rainbow flags,” he says. “You can’t legislate morality. I spent so much time opposing same-sex marriage, and now, looking back, it’s like, why?” It’s not the only issue he feels differently about. Once the Iowa legislature’s champion for capital punishment, Sorenson is now adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “After going through what I went through, I’m fearful of putting anyone’s life in the hands of a judge,” he tells me. “I just don’t believe in the justice system like I used to.” (When I visited with Judge Pratt in his chambers, he explained that weighing the impact on family is the toughest part of sentencing. When I told Pratt of Kent Jr.’s suicide, the judge’s face went white. “Oh,” he whispered, visibly shaken. “That’s just what I needed to hear. Thanks a lot.”)

It’s late June and we’re finally completing our interview. After the May phone call, Sorenson disappeared again—this time for such an extended stretch I feared he wouldn’t resurface. But he finally did, apologizing once more for avoiding me, promising that he was now ready to talk. As we stroll the grounds of the capitol, he is reflective about the polarity of his experiences. “You know, I trust the guys in prison more than I trust the guys in the legislature,” he says. “I watched a senator steal oxycontin from an older senator who was suffering from breast cancer and later died. I had a Montblanc pen stolen off my desk in the chamber. But I never locked my locker in prison. If I gave someone a scoop of coffee, on commissary day, there was a scoop of coffee waiting for me.”

The reaction to his son’s death only confirmed his feelings about the respective institutions. Few former colleagues reached out to Sorenson with condolences. Yet a few weeks after Kent Jr. passed, without any idea of how the word could have gotten to USP Thomson, Sorenson received a sympathy card in the mail with handwritten notes from dozens of his former inmates. The effort had been organized by Nicholson—who, Sorenson later learned, lost 21 days of “good time” from his sentence because he had communicated with a paroled convict.

The card reminded Sorenson, however oddly, of happier times. “I don’t miss prison. I don’t want to go back. But there’s a simplicity about it,” he says. “A year without a cell phone. A year without TV. A year without the Drudge Report. There was some solitude in that. And I miss playing Pinochle with the homeboys.”


Sorenson treasures the card they sent. It’s a reminder of the pain he has endured, but also of the goodness that persists. He has another such reminder: a fresh tattoo on his left forearm honoring Kent Jr., with the initials “KES” embossed over a raven (symbolizing brilliance and tragedy) perched on an hourglass (the fragility of time) with a backdrop of mountains (his son loved to climb). I spot another tattoo farther up his arm. It’s prison ink, a drawing of his wife’s face courtesy of a friendly Latin King. Below it, on the inside of his bicep, is another—this one copied in his father’s penmanship from a handwritten note before he passed away: “I will always be there son. I love you. Dad.”

Sitting in a corner booth a few hours later, at a restaurant by the airport, Sorenson grasps for catharsis. His voice is weak. His eyes are watery. His parmesan-encrusted strip steak is getting cold. Composing himself after a long cry, Sorenson wonders aloud about the connection between his incarceration and his son’s suicide—if any. He and Shawnee have asked for a medical examination, questioning whether a brain injury he suffered during a sports incident might have contributed. The awful likelihood is that Sorenson will never have the answers about his son’s death. All that he has, for the time being, is grief and guilt. “Looking back, my biggest regret is I let politics consume me,” he says. “When I’m on my death bed, I’m not going to look back and say, ‘Boy, I’m glad I ran for the Senate.’ It’s going to be, ‘I wish I tucked my kids in more. I wish I was with my son for the last year of his life.’”

Sorenson is done with politics. He hasn’t communicated with his co-conspirators since testifying against them; all three lost appeals this summer to have the felonies expunged from their records. (Attempts to reach Kesari and Tate were unsuccessful; Benton told me by email, “I have leaned on my faith, forgiven and moved on.”) Sorenson tells me that he expects Benton to eventually be pardoned, courtesy of the president’s friendship with Rand Paul.

As for Iowa’s role in picking presidents, Sorenson says, “The caucuses are a curse on our state. It’s a corrupt fiasco that perverts the policy and the politics here. … It’s an environment that cultivates shady dealings. I got campaign contributions from every presidential candidate you can think of when I was in the legislature. They all send that money to Iowa legislators for a reason. It’s an honor to vote first in the nation. But our state would be better off without it.”


Having experienced an odyssey unlike any other in modern political history, Sorenson says he is equipped with a new set of convictions—though most of them are not inherently political. The most important lessons learned along his journey, Sorenson says, are “don’t take anything for granted” and “give people the benefit of the doubt.” Being incarcerated taught him both. “When I first got to prison, I looked at people and judged them. But then I got to know them, who they were, and they were nothing like they first appeared. Don’t throw people away.”

He wants nothing more in the future than to help those who have been thrown away. He is following the news of lawmakers building the case for both prison reform and sentencing reform. And he sees the serendipity in the fact that Grassley, of all people, is the Judiciary Committee chairman who is pushing for major changes in the criminal justice realm. But lending his voice to the effort won’t be easy. Sorenson is perhaps Iowa’s most recognizable criminal. When we go to eat—at a nice steakhouse, one he frequented as a legislator—he requests the far corner booth. It wasn’t until later that I realized he wanted to face away from the dining room.

For all the infamy that will follow him, it’s fair to wonder how many people will realize that Sorenson was less the Machiavellian schemer and more the political neophyte who got in over his head—a cautionary tale for Iowa’s next crop of ambitious politicians. “Kent is Icarus,” Brown, his attorney, tells me. “Way too close to the sun.”

Sorenson wants to get involved in the push for prison reform, and knows he’ll have to get used to the circus-freak stares. “I’m really not sure how I’d be perceived by people, especially people in politics,” he says. “But I made a promise to the guys in prison. They told me, ‘So many guys say they’re going to do something to help us once they get out, and they never do.’ If I can take the bad I’ve experienced, and turn it into good, that’s all I want.”

But first, Kent Sorenson has a more pressing task: salvaging a shred of hope from the wreckage of his life. His remaining five children are crushed; his two grandchildren are without a father; his wife is grasping for some semblance of normalcy. Before he can help anyone else, he has to help them. “This was supposed to be a year of restoration for my family. I don’t know if we’ll ever get the restoration that we hoped for,” he says. “Right now, I’m just trying to put my life back together.”


Democrats promise to investigate Zinke if House flips


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will face a barrage of congressional inquiries into his business dealings, travels, political activities and relations with industry if Democrats win the House in November, according to lawmakers who hope to lead the chamber next year.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has already unsuccessfully demanded a hearing this month on a “Culture of Corruption” surrounding the Cabinet secretary, including Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travels to political fundraisers and handling of an American Indian casino project in Connecticut.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who would be in line to chair the House Oversight Government Operations Subcommittee, listed a litany of possible starting points for probes by his panel, including a Montana real estate deal linked to the chairman of Halliburton that POLITICO first reported in June.

"Zinke is one the most ethically challenged members of the Cabinet and maybe one of the most ethically challenged secretaries of the Interior we’ve had in living memory," Connolly said in an interview. "[There’s] rich material here to look into his behavior and his fitness for continued service in the office."

An Interior spokeswoman said Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is ready for whatever Democrats throw at him.


“In his 23 years of military service, and continued public service after that, Ryan Zinke has dealt with far more formidable opponents and never quit,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told POLITICO. She did not answer specific questions.

Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told POLITICO he doesn’t think Democrats will win back control of the House in the midterms, and he scoffed at the rhetoric from some that Zinke’s the most scandal-plagued of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members.

“That’s probably at best an overstatement,” Bishop said, adding he has “no clue” how Democrats would approach Zinke if they led the panel.

Democratic leaders are still weighing the oversight priorities they would pursue if they seize control of the chamber, but they say Zinke stands out in an administration that has already seen a flood of officials resign amid scandal in its first two years.

The secretary faces several open ethics investigations, from watchdogs including the Interior Department’s inspector general, into his interactions with lobbyists and oil industry heavyweights. He has also pursued controversial policy choices like proposing to open vast new swaths of offshore waters to drilling and slashing national monuments.

Besides the Montana deal, Connolly said he’s interested in Zinke’s travel practices; allegations that he threatened Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) with reprisals to her state after she voted against repealing Obamacare; a news conference he held with Florida Gov. Rick Scott purporting to remove that state from an offshore drilling plan; efforts to remove climate change from agency reports; and multiple possible violations of the Hatch Act prohibiting the use of federal resources for partisan activity.

As chairman, Connolly would have broad jurisdiction to probe Zinke's conduct.

But the most intense scrutiny would come from House Natural Resources, where Democrats including Grijalva ratcheted up pressure this week for an ethics probe by the committee’s Republican majority.


Zinke "has accumulated more confirmed federal investigations than the four previous secretaries — Democratic and Republican — combined," Grijalva and 13 other committee Democrats wrote in a letter dated Tuesday. "This committee has been conspicuously silent on those investigations and the multitudes of legal and ethical issues they raise. The time for that silence is over."

No such hearings are planned before the midterms, a spokeswoman for the committee's Republicans said.

Grijalva has also amassed a long list of questions about Zinke he wants answered. Committee Democrats say the Arizona representative has received just two responses to the 27 letters he’s sent to Interior officials this calendar year. But a Democratic victory would hand him the committee gavel — and new leverage to demand documents and testimony from the administration.

Natural Resources Democrats have hinted at some of their plans in an ongoing series of Medium posts alleging Republicans have "managed to ignore almost every important environmental issue we face." They said the majority ignored news about new mass species extinction and removal of climate change information from government websites, while pursuing instead a "wasteful and offensive" hearing on Native American rights.

“We’re going to be asking oversight questions that we’ve been asking for two years but have gotten no response on,” Grijalva told POLITICO.

House Democratic leaders are leaning toward giving higher priority to policy decisions than questions around Zinke's ethics, but they have not yet had a “robust conversation” about what shape their investigations may take if they lead the chamber, said Ashley Etienne, communications director and senior adviser for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“This is one of the most ethically challenged administrations in history, but at the same time they’ve made policy decisions that have affected people’s lives in a short amount of time,” Etienne told POLITICO. “Our oversight would be on issues that directly affect people's lives.”

Zinke’s inner circle has already pushed back against some of the allegations that have led to investigations. His wife, Lola, has taken to Twitter multiple times to defend him from negative reports, including Interior‘s ordering doors for the secretary’s office that were reported to cost $139,000.


"Sec Zinke investigated for office doors ordered by previous administration too, no headline correction or apology- ever," she wrote in one tweet.

Zinke is certainly not the only prominent Trump appointee whose activities Democrats would put under a microscope. Others, like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and FEMA chief Brock Long, face their own alleged ethics problems, while the policy choices of officials like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler would surely fuel frequent congressional hearings. Democrats are also threatening to investigate sexual misconduct allegations against Brett Kavanaugh if the GOP-led Senate confirms him for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.

Several environmental organizations said they hoped the Natural Resources Committee would balance its oversight efforts evenly between Zinke’s ethics woes and policy decisions, especially the Interior Department’s proposed five-year drilling plan, efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil rigs and decisions to downsize several national monuments.

“The committee and the members on the committee who actually want to do their job have a big task ahead of them,” Nicole Ghio, fossil fuels program manager for Friends of the Earth, said in an interview. “It’s isn’t like there’s just one or two scandals facing Zinke and the other top members of the department. Where do you start?”

Still, some outside groups allied with House Democrats are reluctant to openly discuss possible approaches to oversight ahead of the midterms, in which Democrats must flip 23 seats to win back control of the chamber. They're anxious to avoid seeming overconfident with Hillary Clinton's upset defeat still in recent memory.

Not winning the House “may be unlikely, but Trump becoming president was unlikely,” said a source at one conservation group in talks with House Democratic staffers about possible Zinke investigation targets. “There’s still a hangover from 2016.”


Dems break open GOP hold on Midwest governorships


Democrats are surging back in the Midwestern states where President Donald Trump cut deepest into their old coalition in 2016, led by a class of candidates for governor that have Republicans on their heels.

The Republican Governors Association cut the size of its ad buys in Minnesota and then in Michigan, according to Advertising Analytics data reviewed by POLITICO. That’s given Democrats increasing confidence that Gretchen Whitmer, their nominee in a state Hillary Clinton lost in stunning fashion, will capture the governor’s mansion. In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has not led a public survey in three months, and the most recent gold-standard poll from Marquette University showed him trailing Democrat Tony Evers by 5 points. And in Ohio, Democrat Richard Cordray has overcome early complaints about his campaign to pull even with Republican Mike DeWine in one of the most competitive races in the country.

It’s a sharp turnaround from Trump’s Midwestern triumphs two years ago, when he capped years of state-level Republican dominance in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin by winning their electoral votes and lost Minnesota by just 1 point. The Democratic resurgence is set to give the party a seat at the table in the Midwest on everything from health care and tax policy to redistricting, after nearly a decade on the outside looking in.

Democrats came out of 2016 unsure exactly "what happened in the Midwest," said Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, speaking at a press conference this week. But those states are "very much in play" now, Pearson continued.


Republicans benefited from the Midwest’s swings against the president during Barack Obama’s administration, racking up decisive midterm wins in 2010 and 2014. But the region’s political volatility has persisted during the Trump era.

"The Midwest has no problem going from electing Obama in 2008 to a Republican governors sweep in 2010 back to Obama in 2012, and so on,” said Jim Hobart, a Republican pollster.

Prominent Democrats have been working overtime to try to swing these Midwestern races back into the Democratic column. Obama recently campaigned for Cordray and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and is traveling to boost Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania on Friday. Potential 2020 presidential contenders have made regular appearances as well, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

Meanwhile, Republicans have not been able to make headway in the states where Democrats retained a foothold during the Obama years. Pennsylvania's Wolf, a Democrat, has led his Republican opponent by double digits in the last eight polls. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) has maintained comfortable leads over GOP nominee Jeff Johnson in the race to succeed Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. And while Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was able to ride discontent with Democrat Pat Quinn to victory in 2014, Rauner has become unpopular after four years of battle with Democratic legislators and has been an underdog to J.B. Pritzker for the entire campaign.

In Minnesota, the RGA canceled ad spending slated for Minneapolis TV stations from late September through early October. (It still has several weeks of ads reserved for later next month.) In Michigan, the GOP governors committee cut $1.2 million out of its initial advertising plan as it moved money around the state earlier this month, according to Advertising Analytics.


Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said the GOP had largely not been able to find candidates who could overcome the national political environment.

“So much of that is based on the uniqueness of races, and I think we just drew a bad hand in governors races outside of Ohio this year" in the Midwest, Borges said. "In Ohio we ended up with a candidate who everyone knows, who’s built a brand in the state over the course of the last several decades. ... Trump’s still reasonably popular here. So we kind of have some insulation here. Structurally, Ohio’s different from some of these other states. That’s very much to our advantage in a year like this."

Indeed, DeWine is running neck and neck with Cordray, while in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds — the first woman to serve as governor of the state and a political protege of popular former Gov. Terry Branstad, now the ambassador to China — has maintained single-digit leads over Democrat Fred Hubbell in recent private polling, according to a veteran Republican operative with knowledge of the findings.

But Republicans in neither of those campaigns are taking their candidate's strength for granted, given the enthusiasm among Democrats to turn out and vote this year. Former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said that will be the deciding factor in many states.

“I think the Democrats have done a great job of demonizing Trump and created a unique situation where the left is very motivated, very intense. And if you take a look at the turnout models in virtually every special election we’ve had, Democrats have done a better job because their people tend to be more excited and fired up,” Anuzis said.


Steyer targets competitive House districts in new round of TV ads

Tom Steyer is going up with another round of ads — but this time he’s easing up on the impeachment talk and aiming them at top-target House districts.

The billionaire investor, who’s made a cause out of refusing to accept Donald Trump’s legitimacy as president, will hit Direct TV and the Dish Network on Tuesday with a new commercial that is part of his closing strategy in the final weeks before the midterms. It's a shift into races that his team believes he can help tilt toward Democrats.

“What’s at stake this November? Everything,” Steyer says into the camera. “Of course it’s our chance to stand up to this lawless president, but it’s also how to protect health care, how to stand up against bigotry and hate, how to protect our environment, and it’s the only way to stop the corporate takeover of our democracy.”

The impeachment-light script reflects what Steyer’s staff has been hearing from supporters: they want Trump gone, but they want to talk about other issues, too, and worry that even if they do remove the president from office it won’t be enough to change how he’s reshaped politics.

The Need to Impeach logo is relegated to the bottom right corner.

What hasn’t changed is that Steyer is still the star of the commercial.


He is starting with $1 million, though because he’s buying time on subscriber services, his team believes they’ll be able to guarantee more of their targeted voters see the ads than in a wider and more expensive buy. They expect some 500,000 of their targeted viewers to see the first ad.

They will then feed the data from these ads into a much deeper analysis underway at their headquarters, which is drawing on a list of sign-ups on their website nearing 5.9 million — making it the largest active list in politics owned by an outside political group. Steyer's team has built the buy around matching about 30 competitive districts and states to where people live, what their voting history is, and who has not been engaging much to date.

The initial $1 million will be used for market testing likely to lead to a much bigger campaign.

Kevin Mack, lead strategist for Need to Impeach, said this is the benefit of having the essentially unlimited resources Steyer is willing to put into this effort: they can spend massive amounts of money, but spend it first in research and analysis that allows them to get huge bangs for his bucks.

“There’s a big difference between being efficient and optimal,” Mack said. “His metric’s not efficiency. It’s winning.”

With the new TV ad, Mack said, “if something’s working, he just keeps investing in it.”

The ad has itself been honed through testing in focus groups and at the town halls Steyer has been holding around the country. It will be the latest plank in a campaign that includes a digital campaign that began earlier this year and direct mail that is just started going out.

Need to Impeach aides say the response has continued to surprise them, and they’ve blown through every goal for engagement. After expecting to produce 200,000 free stickers with a cartoon of Trump’s hair over a peach to send to anyone who’d signed up for Need to Impeach, they have already delivered 600,000, with more than 100,000 on back order.

Mack said that while the new ad is meant to help win House races, they never considered having anyone but Steyer be front and center in the ads, despite the suspicions among some Democrats that he’s buying them as part of an effort to increase his name identification ahead of a 2020 presidential run.

“Every movement needs a leader,” Mack said. “And with the Need to Impeach signers, Tom is the definitive leader.”


How Trump got talked out of hitting back at Christine Blasey Ford

It’s time for a new episode of Nerdcast, POLITICO’s podcast on the White House and politics. Tune in each week to geek out with us as we dive deep into the political landscape and the latest numbers that matter.

Subscribe and rate the Nerdcast on Apple Podcasts.


Datapoint: 3. There are three senators still serving on the Judiciary Committee who played a rose in the Anita Hill hearings about sexual harassment during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination some 27 years ago.

POLITICO reporting referenced in this segment:

"We're very confident:" Trump, GOP growing more bullish about Kavanaugh's survival

GOP presses Kavanaugh vote with accuser's testimony in doubt

Kavanaugh crisis bonds Trump with wary GOP

McCaskill to vote no on Kavanaugh confirmation

Trump claim that FBI can't probe Kavanaugh allegations is wrong, ex-officials say


Datapoint: 5. As in five races that are longshots but that could upend the control of the U.S. Senate.

POLITICO reporting referenced in this segment:

The longshots: 5 unlikely races that could tip the Senate


Biden confronts the ghost of Anita Hill


Joe Biden began the month by kissing foreheads and preaching unity at a breezy Labor Day march in Pittsburgh. He will end it under question about whether his decades-old record in Congress can withstand the withering scrutiny of the current political moment.

With a sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh roiling Washington, Biden’s handling of a similar matter — the Anita Hill hearings — has erupted back into public view, exposing a rare point of weakness for Biden in the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign.

It’s an issue that can’t easily be sidestepped in the post-Obama era Democratic Party, where the conversation surrounding sexual harassment is light years beyond where it was in the early 1990s when Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the grass-roots energy is in the progressive wing. If the former vice president decides to run, he’ll have to navigate a field that could exceed 20 challengers — almost none of whom will be burdened with the baggage of seemingly ancient political and culture wars.

Toi Hutchinson, president of the National Association of State Legislators and an Illinois Democratic state senator who helped launch a statewide #MeToo awareness effort, said Biden will face a tough road with the 2020 electorate if he doesn’t address the Hill hearings straight on.

“He in particular is going to have to find a way to connect to women voters and say, ‘This is what we have learned [since Biden’s time as Judiciary chairman]’, said Hutchinson, who wasn’t yet born when Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972. “It’s not going to be something he can charm out of. I think in 2018, you can’t just smile it away. I think what [Biden] does best is when he goes straight up the middle, takes it on directly. I don’t think there’s any other way. It offers an opportunity to look people square in the eye and take on this issue directly. And I think women in this country will respond to his directness.”


Now a front-runner in early Democratic primary polls, Biden was pilloried at the time for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas was accused by Hill of inappropriate sexual behavior, and Biden was criticized for failing to blunt attacks on Hill and for not calling witnesses who could have supported her.

“It certainly was not his best moment,” said former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), one of seven Democratic women who dramatically marched to the room where Senate Democrats were caucusing in 1991 in an attempt to make their case for why the vote on Thomas should be delayed as a result of Hill's accusations. “To have railroaded that through and not listened to the other three women and let his colleagues absolutely tear her apart was absolutely horrible.”

Schroeder said, “I don’t think people will be happy about it, the more they think about it. A lot of people probably forgot about it, but this brings it all fresh to mind again. We can all say the Republicans are messing up, but guess who messed up first?”

Biden’s management of the Hill testimony in Thomas' confirmation hearings has long loomed in the background of his political biography, viewed as a weakness when he considered a presidential run in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, the eventual nominee. But two years later, the weight of the #MeToo movement has only intensified the spotlight on politicians’ handling of issues related to sexual harassment and misconduct.

In an interview with Elle , published Tuesday, Hill noted that Biden last year acknowledged he owed her an apology. But he never took the next step.

“‘He said, ‘I owe her an apology.’ People were asking, ‘When are you going to apologize to her?’”’ Hill told Elle of Biden. “It’s become sort of a running joke in the household when someone rings the doorbell and we’re not expecting company. ‘Oh,’ we say, ‘is that Joe Biden coming to apologize?’”

Asked whether she was still waiting for Biden’s apology, Hill said: “There are more important things to me now than hearing an apology from Joe Biden. I’m OK with where I am.”

Patti Solis Doyle, who served as Biden’s campaign chief of staff in 2008, called the former vice president one of the most viable potential 2020 candidates in the Democratic field. Still, she acknowledged that if Biden doesn't apologize directly and put the matter behind him quickly, the issue threatens to hang over him in 2020, when the #MeToo issues are likely to play a prominent role in the presidential debate.

“If Anita Hill believes she’s owed an apology, then she’s owed an apology, without question. And he should give one,” Solis Doyle said. “Certainly, Joe Biden did not do the harassing. Joe Biden ended up voting against Clarence Thomas. But what was done to Anita Hill in those hearings … it was unseemly. And as chair of the Judiciary back then, he probably should have taken a bigger role in making Anita Hill feel safe and comfortable, and clearly, she did not feel that way.”


Solis Doyle said Biden would have an easier time touting his record on women’s issues and connecting with the surge of women voters if he put the matter to rest.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a disqualifying issue for Joe Biden, but he should address it and he should apologize,” she said. “What is happening with the very credible and serious allegations against Judge Kavanaugh has brought this to the forefront of our politics. I think if Judge Kavanaugh gets [confirmed], it will be a topic of discussion in the midterm elections … thereby making it a topic of discussion in 2020.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who lobbied the Senate on Hill’s behalf along with Schroeder in 1991, said the injustice of the Anita Hill hearings “wasn’t Biden alone” and that while Biden will be “examined for it” in 2020, he will also be credited for his work on the Violence Against Women Act, among other issues.

“I’m not sure the public will hold this against him given his apologies, and his advice from his own experience,” she said.

Norton said the Kavanaugh hearings may signal a broader shift in politics ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign. Following Hill's testimony in the Thomas confirmation hearings, she said, the country “turned on its heel, it became the Year of the Woman … And I must say, I’m seeing a redux of that.”

A Biden spokesman declined to comment Thursday, but pointed to the former Delaware senator’s extensive remarks on the issue in December in Teen Vogue. He told the magazine that month, "I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill … I owe her an apology."

That interview is among the clear signs that Biden understands he has not fully put the issue behind him — a necessity given the critical role women and black voters play in a Democratic primary. Earlier this week, the former vice president told a group of reporters at a reception, “The one regret I have is, I wish there had been a way I could’ve controlled the questions. But you can’t in a committee. Remember, when they went after the last victim [Hill], I kept trying to gavel, but there was no way to say, ‘You can’t ask that question.’”

The revisiting of Biden’s performance in 1991 has offered other potential Democratic candidates a wide opening as they jockey for position ahead of the 2020 campaign.

A lawyer for Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has said her client is “prepared” to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week, giving two high-profile Democrats, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Biden’s performance years ago.

“Everyone’s always wondered whether we were going to see a tail-off of this #MeToo stuff. And it’s not. It’s sticking,” said Amanda Renteria, a former top campaign aide to Hillary Clinton. “I do think anyone, no matter where you are, no matter where you’re running, needs to really think about whatever role they’ve played in the past, and how that will be viewed in a new world.”

If Biden runs for president, Renteria said, “This bucket of issues is obviously going to come up.”


Like many Democrats, however, Renteria suggested the Anita Hill hearings are far from insurmountable for Biden.

“He’s just so real and authentic — I think he’ll figure out that piece, if that’s what he wants to run,” Renteria said.

Biden’s broader record also shows a progression that will enable him to argue that his understanding as an elected official grew over the years, including authoring the Violence Against Women Act and spearheading the “It’s on Us” campaign, which raised awareness about sexual assault on collect campuses.

“I think starting with the crime bill and passage of the Violence Against Women Act, that was his first act of atonement, if you will, for what he did to Anita Hill,” said Christine Pelosi, a Democratic National Committee member from California and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's daughter.

Saying that Biden had exhibited a “series of awakenings,” Pelosi said, “You can draw a line from a disgraceful hearing to seeds of hope in the Violence Against Women Act to ‘It’s on Us’ as vice president.”

Adelaide “Tootsie” Dennis Kline, an attorney and founding member of the South Carolina-based I Believe Anita Hill group, said she, too, believed Biden could overcome the 1991 hearing — but only because she doubted the salience of sexual harassment as a voting issue.

“It’s accepted by a lot of voters without any problems, apparently,” she said.

Of Biden, Kline said, “I don’t know if Sen. Biden has become more mature about these issues since then. … I don’t think a lot of people have gotten it. It’s been a lot of time — 27 years — and I don’t see the landscape changing very much.”


Bill Maher gives $2 million to House and Senate Democratic super PACs

Comedian Bill Maher was among several wealthy backers of Democratic causes in August, donating $2 million to super PACs affiliated with House and Senate Democrats, new campaign finance disclosures show.

Maher, the outspoken host of HBO’s "Real Time with Bill Maher", donated $1 million each to House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC on August 20.

Though Maher sometimes writes smaller checks to candidates, he has not made a political donation in the six-or seven-figure range since the 2012 elections. Then, he donated $1 million to a super PAC supporting President Barack Obama’s reelection, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Maher was among other Democratic donors who made hefty donations in August with hopes of helping their party win back the House or Senate.

Newsweb Corporation Chairman Fred Eychaner donated a total of $8 million to House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, making him the biggest single donor to the groups in August. Billionaire financier George Soros donated a combined $2.8 million, and real estate broker George Marcus donated $2 million.


Seth Klarman, a Republican donor who has since the election of President Donald Trump begun giving money to Democrats, also donated a combined $2 million to House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC in August.

Maher also has some company from the Hollywood set: Director Steven Spielberg also donated a total of $400,000 to the groups.


Mystery super PAC that attacked McSally was funded by Senate Democrats

A mysterious super PAC that spent $1.7 million attacking Republican Rep. Martha McSally during the Arizona Senate primary was funded entirely by Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats, new campaign finance disclosures show.

Red and Gold spent money solely attacking McSally in the days leading up to the August Arizona primary, where McSally — the favored candidate to win — was battling two other candidates, Kelli Ward and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

If Ward or Arpaio had won, it would have given Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema a better shot at winning the open seat come November, which gave Democrats an incentive to attack McSally in the race.

The new disclosure shows that Senate Majority PAC, the main super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats, seeded Red and Gold with $1.7 million as it started attacking McSally in early August. Red and Gold ran attack ads that said McSally supported an “age tax” that led older people to pay significantly more for health insurance.

“It’s an age tax, plain and simple,” a woman said in one Red and Gold ad. “Martha McSally puts Washington ahead of Arizona.”


The attacks did not do enough damage to keep McSally out of the general election: she won the primary with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Super PACs are by law supposed to disclose their donors before primary elections. But Red and Gold used an increasingly common loophole of changing its filing schedule with the Federal Election Commission — switching from quarterly to monthly filing deadlines at a strategic moment — which allowed it to avoid having to file disclosures on certain dates before the primary.

Because of the loophole, Red and Gold first spent money in the Arizona primary on August 4, more than two weeks before the August 28 election, but filed its first disclosure on September 20, three weeks after the election was over.

After McSally won the primary, several other prominent Democrats contributed money to Red and Gold: Billionaire megadonor George Soros gave Red and Gold $600,000, Renaissance Technologies Founder James Simons gave it $500,000 and AWM Investment Company President Austin Marxe gave it $100,000.


Trump on Kavanaugh accusations: 'Why didn't somebody call the FBI 36 years ago?'

President Donald Trump on Thursday night questioned why "somebody" did not contact the FBI 36 years ago when Christine Blasey Ford alleges she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court nominee.

"You could say, 'Why didn't someone call the FBI 36 years ago?'" Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity in a live interview before a rally in Las Vegas. "You can also say, 'When did this all happen? What is going on?'"

Since Ford came forward on Sunday night, Trump has defended his Supreme Court pick, but had not explicitly criticized Ford.

Kavanaugh has denied the allegation that he sexually assaulted Ford at a party when the two were in high school.

Trump added that he still wants to hear what Ford has to say, but cautioned that the Senate Judiciary Committee has delayed its consideration of Kavanaugh long enough.

"I don't think you can delay it any longer. I think they have delayed it a week already," Trump said.

Trump's mention of the FBI underlines one of the biggest points of contention since Ford came forward. Both Ford and Senate Democrats have requested that the FBI look into her allegation as a part of Kavanaugh's background check.

Senate Republicans have responded that the FBI does not conduct such investigations, but former bureau officials told POLITICO that the FBI would probe such a thing if they were ordered to do so. Trump previously said the FBI was not interested in an investigation.

"Well, it would seem that the FBI really doesn’t do that," he told reporters on Wednesday. "They’ve investigated about six times before, and it seems that they don’t do that."

POLITICO reported Thursday night that Ford's attorneys spoke with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about their client possibly testifying next week, but a firm deal is not yet in place.


NSA: Security breaches of hacking tools curtailed snooping

The National Security Agency shut down expensive and vital operations as a result of top secret information being spirited out of its headquarters by a fired NSA computer engineer who claims he took the sensitive records home to work on bolstering his performance review, according to a report submitted to a federal court.

Admiral Mike Rogers disclosed the far-reaching fallout in connection with the upcoming sentencing of Nghia Pho, 70, who pleaded guilty last December to taking highly classified information from the NSA from 2010 to 2015, when the FBI raided his Ellicott City, Maryland, home and hauled away a large volume of material.

"The fact that such a tremendous volume of highly classified, sophisticated collection tools was removed from secure space and left unprotected, especially in digital form on devices connected to the Internet, left the NSA with no choice but to abandon certain important initiatives, at great economic and operational cost," Rogers wrote to U.S. District Court Judge George Russell, who is scheduled to sentence Pho in Baltimore on Monday.

Pho worked for the NSA's Targeted Access Operations division, which designs efforts to compromise computer systems to gather information about terrorism, national security threats and foreign government intentions. Some of the hacking tools designed and maintained by Pho's unit were published in 2016 by an obscure group known as the Shadowbrokers.


It's unclear how — if at all — Pho's case may be connected to the Shadowbrokers disclosures, which began more than a year after Pho's home was searched by the FBI. What is clear is that the disclosure and a later release of data on secret CIA technology led to a massive search for potential leakers and others who might have contributed to the breaches.

Experts called Rogers' letter unusual and surprising, even though it did not link Pho's case to the Shadowbrokers' release or any other specific disclosure.

"The letter from Rogers is actually quite extraordinary in its candor, both about the nature of signals intelligence ... and the consequences when it's not secured," said Steven Aftergood, who tracks classified information policy for the Federation of American Scientists. "This looks like a letter he wrote himself. ... It has all the hallmarks of deeply felt sincerity."

Berkeley computer science and security researcher Nick Weaver said Rogers' comment about the steps taken to mitigate the mishandling of the classified information gives hints of what was involved.

"That suggests it was specifically hacking tools. ... That sentence is actually a big deal," Weaver said. "NSA's response suggests that because of the possibility of compromise they had to redo a lot of platforms to prevent attribution [to the NSA.] That is interesting, although it could very well just be out of an abundance of caution."

There's no indication in public court filings that Pho intentionally disclosed any classified information to anyone. Rogers' public submission does not even assert that the materials Pho took home definitely made their way from there to unauthorized individuals. However, the NSA chief says the agency had to assume the programs were compromised and act accordingly.

"Once the government loses positive control over classified material, the government must often treat the material as compromised and take remedial actions as dictated by the particular circumstances," Rogers wrote. Simply cataloging the material Pho took was "tremendously expensive and diverted critical resources," the NSA head said.


Prosecutors are asking the judge to sentence Pho to eight years in prison, which would be the longest known sentence in a case involving unauthorized possession of classified information without an allegation of passing it on.

"The defendant admitted to a lengthy history of compromising some of the nation's most closely held types of intelligence. For a period of at least five years, the defendant admitted to a lengthy history of compromising some of the nation's most closely held types of intelligence," prosecutors wrote in their public submission Monday. "The defendant's criminal conduct demonstrated an extraordinary disrespect for national security.

Prosecutors also submitted a classified filing to Russell that is not available to the public. At least part of Monday's sentencing hearing is expected to be conducted behind closed doors.

Pho's attorney Robert Bonsib is asking the judge to impose no prison time, but "a substantial period of home confinement." The defense attorney stressed that Pho had no plan to disclose the information he took home.

"He had no contact with foreign nationals and did not seek to disclose or make available the information that he had to the news media, advocacy groups or anyone else," Bonsib wrote.

In a letter to the judge, Pho — a naturalized immigrant from Vietnam — said language barriers and limited social skills left him struggling to get good performance reviews at the NSA. He said he took the records home with the hope of crafting a review that would bring a raise that could boost his income once he retired.

"I did handle the information with care," Pho wrote. "I do not distribute it to the public or internet, I do not intend to harm the United States, the country accepts and gives our family to live in freedom, the country that is a base homeland for my children. ... I feel sad and how silly I am, just because to increase my retirement a little amount of money, I created a mess and get in trouble for me and my family."

Pho's defense compares his case to that of David Petraeus, the retired Army general and CIA director who pleaded guilty in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information, after admitting that he gave top secret information to an Army reservist who was his girlfriend, stored it without authorization at his residence, and lied to FBI investigators. He was ultimately sentenced to two years probation and a $100,000 fine.

Pho's lawyer also invoked the case of former CIA Director John Deutch who had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge for keeping classified information on a home computer, but was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

"Mr. Pho has worked hard over the years. He has contributed to assisting the United States with respect ... to national security matters. He was not, however, fortunate enough to have the title of 'General' or 'Director' when he was brought before the Court for mishandling classified information," Bonsib wrote.


Former FBI Director James Comey confirmed in his recent book, "A Higher Loyalty," that he argued that Petraeus should face a felony charge — in part because leniency would fuel claims of a double-standard with similar cases.

Since President Donald Trump took office and publicly called for a crackdown on leaks, at least two other individuals have been sentenced for illegal retention of classified information.

In March 2017, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency employee Mohan Nirala was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for having two sets of classified documents at his Maryland home. He said he was preparing a discrimination complaint against his employer.

And in June of this year, former defense contractor Weldon Marshall was sentenced to 41 months in prison for taking secret information while serving the Navy and for military contractors in Afghanistan.

Pho faces a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison. Prosecutors and the defense agreed that sentencing guidelines call for a term of between 78 and 97 months.

The eight-year sentence prosecutors are seeking for Pho is substantially more severe than one they agreed to earlier this year for Reality Winner, an NSA contractor accused of intentionally disclosing a top secret report to the media. Last month, a federal judge in Augusta, Georgia agreed to the term of five years and three months for Winner, 26.

Prosecutors are still pressing a criminal prosecution of a National Security Agency contractor, Hal Martin, who was arrested in 2016 following a raid on his Maryland home. Prosecutors said Martin, who also worked with the Targeted Access Operations unit later folded into NSA's Computer Network Operations team, had a massive quantity of classified information in his home and vehicle that he had gathered in various sensitive jobs over two decades.

Martin's lawyers have acknowledged he took the documents but said he suffers from psychological disorders, including compulsive "hoarding." After plea negotiations broke down, Martin moved last year to plead guilty to one of the ten felony charges he faces. A judge has ordered a series of sealed proceedings over the past nine months but it appears the plea was never entered.

The new court filings provide few additional details on Pho's work, but an honorary mention award he won in 2007 from the NSA's then-director Keith Alexander touts Pho's work on "computer network exploitation."

Rogers' letter is dated March 5, but it was filed in court on Monday. It appears the filing of the letter was delayed because Pho's sentencing was repeatedly postponed.


Democratic wave could reboot Hill's Trump-Russia probes

House Democrats stuck in the minority have spent months demanding more answers about Trump campaign contacts with Russians in the 2016 election, only to find themselves stymied by a lack of investigative power.

House Republicans ignored dozens of those Democratic requests for witness testimony, emails, documents and other evidence before shutting down the Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation altogether.

But the tables could soon turn.

Democrats appear poised to make major gains in the November midterms, with forecasters calling a House Democratic majority likely. That outcome would allow Democrats to re-open the House’s Russia probe and work through a checklist of witnesses and subpoenas Republicans refused to grant them.

Several lawmakers in line to take powerful committee posts have prepared lists of people to summon for what could be the House’s first public hearings on the subject. The House Intelligence Committee quizzed several associates of President Donald Trump about alleged collusion with the Kremlin, but only behind closed doors.

Those likely to be hauled up to Capitol Hill include close Trump associates like the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., former White House communications director Hope Hicks and the current White House social media director, Dan Scavino. Trump Jr. and Hicks have appeared before the House intelligence panel but, Democrats complain, gave incomplete answers in their testimony.


Such an approach comes with political risk. Republicans already accuse Democrats of being obsessed with Russia, to the exclusion of kitchen-table issues, and say the investigative zeal is merely a prelude to an inevitable impeachment push. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee even fretted earlier this year that Americans might soon grow “tired” of such probes.

And some Trump associates may be prepared to fight back.

“Contempt of Congress? I don’t really care,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump 2016 campaign adviser, one of more than 65 people identified earlier this year by the Democratic leaders of the House Intelligence and Senate Judiciary committees as someone who had information that Republicans refused to pursue.

Trump Jr., Hicks and former White House strategist Steve Bannon all declined to answer questions during the Republican-led Russia investigations by citing executive branch privileges that Democrats called dubious, and they could adopt the same position come 2019 — daring Democrats to escalate the standoff.

Democrats will also need to be careful about stepping on the toes of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose own Russia probe appears likely to spill into next year.

“They’d come in for immense criticism if they come in like the bull in the china shop and create more problems for Mueller,” said Douglas Letter, a recently retired senior Justice Department attorney who teaches at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who would chair the House Intelligence Committee, said he's looking forward to a productive relationship if Democrats capture the majority between the panel under his leadership and the special counsel’s office.

"It would certainly be a more cooperative relationship and we would want to have the special counsel aware if witnesses are committing perjury or if witnesses are providing information that would be relevant to their investigation," he said.

The Democrats’ ready-made roadmaps cover a number of other Russia-related topics too. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is in line to chair the House Judiciary Committee, has been demanding hearings on Trump's repeated disparagement of the FBI, as well as immediate action on a bill that would prevent Trump from unilaterally firing Mueller. The New York Democrat also wants briefings from the Justice Department on the prosecution of Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

At the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings has sought testimony from Trump's intelligence chief, Dan Coats, after Coats warned of the urgent threat of Russian interference in the 2018 election and beyond.


The Maryland Democrat has also asked for subpoenas for information connected to the Russia probe: including for testimony from Bannon, documents about former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn's foreign contacts and details about Republican data firms and any foreign payments received by the Trump Organization.

A driving factor for Democrats as they prepare for majority status is a concern that Mueller's investigation might not produce a public report anytime soon that helps clarify what happened in 2016 when Trump upset Hillary Clinton.

"There's no assurances we're going to get any answers from Mueller," said one Democratic leadership aide. "Maybe he would issue a report. Maybe he wouldn't. Who knows what's going to come from that whole process?"

Several Democrats said they are interested in reviving the idea of an independent commission to investigate 2016 Russian election meddling. They stressed that their interest is not simply the question of alleged collusion between Trump associates and Russia. One party leadership aide said a wider agenda would include protection against future cyberattacks on voting systems and infrastructure.

Several party officials warned that pushing for Trump’s impeachment, however much their base might demand it, is an imperfect solution. "Impeachment gets you nothing," the Democratic leadership aide said. "You lose all your capital.”

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is in line to become chair of the Judiciary Committee, has her own list of more than 40 people, as well as companies like Facebook and Twitter, who have not responded to her personal office’s information requests related to the Russia investigation. Her office declined comment on any specific oversight plans if Democrats won the Senate majority. “Too hypothetical for us to engage in now,” said a spokesman for the lawmaker.

On the Senate Intelligence Committee, ranking member Sen. Mark Warner earlier this month told CBS News that his panel’s bipartisan investigation on the Russia front would be “hard pressed” to finish its final report on collusion before the November midterms.

Warner also said he remained interested in obtaining more interviews, beyond the 100-plus that his committee has already conducted. He singled out both Cohen and former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopolous, whose contacts with Russians triggered the FBI’s initial investigation into the Trump campaign.


Warner has also suggested that Americans might be growing fatigued by the Russia investigations.

Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Warner warned “partisans” hoping that Democrats would “ramp up” investigations that “the American public will be tired of it if this is not wound down in this calendar year.”

Republicans and Trump allies, meanwhile, vow not to roll over for newly empowered Democrats.

“I’d think if my answers to the special counsel were sufficient then there really is no need for me to testify before Congress,” said Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team who has been identified by both Schiff and Feinstein as a witness they’d like to question.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump senior campaign adviser who has already voluntarily sat for interviews with both the House and Senate Intelligence committees, said he was reluctant to return again to Capitol Hill for more testimony.

“If the Democrats restart this bogus investigation, it’ll just be two more years of the same and at some point, you become numb to the dumb,” he said in an interview. “I have no legal exposure. It’ll just be financial exposure. And at some point, it has to end.”

Congressional Democrats are sure to face pressure from party activists clamoring for more answers, as well as a 2020 presidential field looking to please core Democratic voters, many of whom are convinced huge amounts of 2016 wrongdoing remains unknown to the public.

“Looking forward to this true Patriot @tedlieu getting subpoena power in January!” tweeted Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for adult film actress Stormy Daniels, citing the Twitter handle of Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Ca.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee.


White House plows ahead with Kavanaugh prep as Ford weighs testifying

Inside the White House and its war room devoted to the Supreme Court nomination fight, little has changed since the news broke Thursday afternoon that Christine Blasey Ford might eventually testify about her sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, according to one White House aide and one person familiar with the confirmation process.

For the past four days, former law clerks to Kavanaugh, White House lawyers and a handful of other aides have been prepping Kavanaugh for a potential public hearing next week and running through tough questions that could come up before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kavanaugh told committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a letter Thursday that he would attend the hearing scheduled for Monday.

Now the major outstanding questions include the time, date, and parameters of Ford’s testimony — her lawyer said Thursday she is willing to testify, but not Monday — as well as President Donald Trump’s response to it.

So far, the president has taken a measured and muted tone to the hour-by-hour changes in the Kavanaugh confirmation process since Ford came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were both in high school. Trump has tweeted about the Supreme Court position only once this week and expressed openness to hearing Ford’s story.


“I really want to see her. I really would want to see what she has to say,” Trump said on Wednesday. “If she doesn’t show up, that would be unfortunate.”

At the same time, he has gone to great lengths to stress the greatness of Kavanaugh’s character and has called him an extraordinary man with an unblemished record who’s been treated unfairly. His comments have increased in their frequency, aides and allies say, as he’s become more confident that Kavanaugh will end up being confirmed.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Trump will maintain that calm posture throughout the weekend and during two campaign-style rallies in Nevada and Missouri, followed by two days in Bedminster, N.J., at his golf club, especially as the pressure builds toward a potential vote next week on Trump’s second Supreme Court pick.

The president views his judicial nominations as a core part of his legacy and one that binds him to the evangelical and conservative parts of his base to ensure their loyalty. With the midterms just weeks away, the president and his team are attuned to the balancing act of pleasing the base without alienating female voters.

White House counsel Don McGahn has urged the president to maintain his current stance and has successfully argued that much of the confirmation process is the purview of the Senate, not the White House.

“I think Trump understands that this is the moment when the nominee needs to be front and center and not the president,” said the person familiar with the confirmation process.


Attacks on Feinstein backfire on California challenger

Kevin de León, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s November opponent, accused her last week of “gross misconduct” for waiting months to flag a sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh — seizing on the Supreme Court firestorm to jump-start his long-shot campaign.

Now de León is facing a backlash for his own handling of sexual harassment on his watch in the California legislature, which has been rocked by allegations of pervasive sexual misconduct.

Allies of Feinstein in California’s Democratic establishment have rallied behind the state’s senior senator, repudiating de León’s critiques as acts of political opportunism from a trailing candidate looking to build his profile.

“She’s trustworthy, calm, deliberate, and gets all the facts before she acts. Because of that, she’s simply more credible than someone who puts out a press release first and figures out what’s happening on the back end,” Dana Williamson, a senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, said in a text message to POLITICO.

And on Capitol Hill, Democrats have largely coalesced behind their senior member on the Judiciary Committee as she takes GOP heat for her handling of Dr. Christine Ford’s letter alleging that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while both were in high school.

De León characterizes the episode as a “failure of leadership,” saying Feinstein should have done more as the Judiciary Committee’s senior Democrat to question Kavanaugh’s character during confirmation hearings.


And as the Kavanaugh hearings have unfolded, de León has assailed Feinstein for abiding by the Senate’s institutional norms and not taking a more combative stance, faulting her in particular for apologizing to Kavanaugh for disruptive protesters.

But de León, the former state Senate President Pro Tem, has seen his criticism reflected back at him from detractors who charge he was too slow to address sexual harassment allegations in Sacramento. Multiple lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature have lost their seats in recent months after being accused of misconduct, including a former state senator with whom de León once shared an apartment (the former state senator, Tony Mendoza, has denied any wrongdoing).

“He has experienced his own issues with handling sexual harassment claims in the Senate, and for that reason, I find it curious why he is the designated spokesperson on how Senator Feinstein has done her job,” Shawnda Westly, a longtime strategist for the California Democratic Party, said in an email to POLITICO.

De León has faced blistering criticism from a Republican Assemblywoman, Melissa Melendez, who has noted that her bills to protect legislative whistleblowers from retaliation repeatedly ran aground in the Senate when de León was leader or controlled the committee that halted the bills. It finally cleared the Senate last year, fortified by language that specifically mentioned sexual harassment.

“My problem with Kevin de León’s assertion that he is this great champion for women’s rights…is that he is the very reason this bill took 5 years to get passed,” Melendez said in an interview.

Adama Iwu, a California lobbyist and cofounder of the “We Said Enough” movement that spotlighted sexual abuse in Sacramento, said de León was “lacking in credibility” after having presided over a legislative body roiled by accusations of harassment and rooming with Mendoza.

“Things were handled badly and things were swept under the rug pretty consistently, and his Rules Committee” — the panel that handled complaints and is overseen by leadership — “had a role in that,” she said.

Conversations with legislative employees bolstered that assertion: among those who have worked under Sacramento’s capitol dome, there is a widespread sense that the mechanisms for uncovering misconduct tended to downplay allegations and failed to hold the powerful to account.

That began to change after the #MeToo movement engulfed Sacramento, de León and allies said. In a statement to POLITICO, de León defended the legislature’s response, which included de León introducing a resolution to expel Mendoza — who resigned before a vote — and lawmakers sending Gov Jerry Brown a bill establishing a new unit to investigate complaints of workplace misconduct, which Brown signed this week.


“Our California legislature confronted some hard truths head-on over the last year, and I will put our record in responding to that crisis and swiftly disciplining offenders, implementing victim protections and providing independent oversight against Congress’s any day,” de León said.

Feinstein, for her part, has vocally defended her handling of Ford’s letter about Kavanaugh since her office first received it in late July. Her fellow Democrats on the Judiciary panel were in the dark about the letter until a vague media report last week prompted Feinstein to share more details, sparking Republican howls over why she waited until a leak to the press before reporting the letter to the FBI.

The process “hasn’t been easy,” Feinstein told reporters earlier this week. “We wanted to do it the right way.”

She explained that her staff had initially looked into an outside investigation of Ford’s claim about Kavanaugh before learning that it would require notifying the Senate Rules Committee, “which would have erupted the whole thing” by violating the 51-year-old college professor’s desire for confidentiality.

But neither Feinstein nor her staff has explained in full why she did not route Ford’s letter to the FBI, even on a confidential basis, before the first press report of its existence. Even so, Feinstein’s fellow Democrats have mostly defended her decision to keep a close hold on Ford’s letter out of respect for the younger woman’s request for confidentiality.

“A foundational principle in dealing with survivors of assault is that they are the ones to decide when and how they come forward and how their stories are told to law enforcement,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview.

In December of last year, de León acknowledged some measure of responsibility for his own role in Sacramento as he spoke about the “humbling experience” of confronting what critics called a deeply-rooted culture of misconduct and a sweeping lack of accountability. “Have I also contributed or been complicit collectively as men to this type of dynamic?” he said in a press conference.

Christine Pelosi, who is the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and heads the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus, recalled that moment in saying many of the women who signed a much-publicized letter detailing sexual abuse in Sacramento “are seething” that de León attacked Feinstein and portrayed himself as a defender of women’s rights in the Kavanaugh hearing.

Recalling a moment in the de León press conference when he put his hand on his heart and said, ‘I wonder sometimes what I have done to contribute to the culture,’” Pelosi said, “This would be a really, really good time for him to do it. Instead of adding to the pain, he needs to disarm instead of politicizing the situation.”


State Sen. Holly Mitchell, who served on a committee that crafted a new system for handling sexual misconduct, praised de León for moving swiftly to respond to the “highly volatile, highly publicized MeToo movement.” That response included hiring outside law firms to investigate harassment allegations and launching a hotline for victims.

“I thought he stepped up and did the right thing at the right time,” Mitchell said.

Complaints that the Legislature failed alleged victims over the years are “largely true,” Mitchell conceded, but she argued that “the finger can be pointed at a number of people” for a problem that has stretched back decades.

Echoing that point, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson said de León acted appropriately when the time for action arrived.

“I think that the responsibility is on an entrenched culture of objectification of women that has existed since probably the beginning of time, and that has flourished unnecessarily throughout the halls of power,” Jackson said, but “the setting up of this joint committee to deal with sexual harassment, the investigations that were undertaken, occurred under [de León’s] watch.”

But plenty of detractors remain unconvinced.

“He really has no ground upon which to stand,” said Micha Star Liberty, an attorney who is handling lawsuits against the legislature — including a woman who alleges she was fired in retaliation for complaining about Mendoza. “It betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what sexual assault victims go through and their process. He is using this, probably some of the worst moments in this woman’s life, as a political football to try and score points.”

Carla Marinucci contributed to this report.


How the U.S. Senate Became a Campus Kangaroo Court

Christine Blasey Ford deserves a hearing, although at the moment it’s not clear if she really wants one. What she doesn’t deserve is to be believed automatically just because she’s a woman making an accusation.

When our system of justice is at its best, it judges each individual—the accuser and the accused—fairly, on the basis of the evidence, and with an adversarial process that has proved over the centuries the best way to ascertain the truth.

Ford’s charge is serious by any standard, and despite the shameful way it was handled—Senator Dianne Feinstein sat on it for weeks, until it leaked out at the eleventh hour—Republicans appropriately agreed to delay a committee vote and hear from both Ford and Kavanaugh at an open hearing.

The problem is that Ford’s accusation doesn’t seem particularly provable—an alleged incident 36 years ago, with few details to check against—and the Democratic-media complex isn’t very interested in proving it. It wants to take Ford’s truthfulness as a given, as matter of cosmic and gender equity.

“I believe the survivor,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal says of Christine Blasey Ford, asserting her status without having any idea whether it’s accurate. The point here is to take rhetorical and political advantage of her alleged victimhood before it’s been established—indeed to use her assumed victimhood to foreclose any serious questioning of whether she is a victim or not.

What we’re seeing, in effect, is the importation of the infamous kangaroo-court apparatus for adjudicating sexual harassment and assault cases from college campuses—which often denies the accused basic protections of due process—to the United States Senate.

Without having any independent knowledge of whether Ford’s account of Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged attempt to rape her is true or not, Blumenthal is still a hanging judge. “This nomination will not only cast a shadow over Judge Kavanaugh, if he were ever to be confirmed,” he says, “it will also stain the United States Supreme Court irreparably.”

There you have it. The court weathered Roger Taney and Dred Scott, but it will be brought to ruination by Brett Kavanaugh.

If we aren’t going to simply assume Kavanaugh’s guilt, we have to be willing to challenge Ford’s account and ask questions about it. But we’re told this is risky, or even out of bounds.

Senator John Cornyn noted Ford’s fuzzy memory of key details, and—in a hardly inflammatory sentiment—concluded, “There are some gaps there that need to be filled.” Chris Cillizza of CNN deemed these kind of queries “walking a VERY dangerous line,” although they are obviously central to testing the accuracy of Ford’s account.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pronounced, “By refusing to treat her allegations properly”—her otherworldly description of an invitation to Ford to testify in an open or closed setting—“and by playing games to protect Kavanaugh’s nomination, they’re telling women across the country that they’re not to be believed. That they are worth less than a man’s promotion.”

No, that's not what they're telling women, or anyone else. The message is that they will try to find the truth before crediting an accusation. This once was a tenet of liberalism, back in the day when it celebrated the Arthur Miller play The Crucible and supported the old-school ACLU. Now, “liberal” means something different—braying for collective justice, regardless of the evidence, to right historic wrongs.

The ABC News commentator Matthew Dowd opined, “If this is ‘he said, she said,’ then let’s believe that ‘she’ in these scenarios. She has nothing to gain, and everything to lose. For 250 years we have believed the ‘he’ in these scenarios. Enough is enough.”

Putting aside the tendentious history, this is a call for people to subordinate their reason and their moral discernment to a social and political agenda. Not all women are to believed, whatever the past sins of the patriarchy. The Duke lacrosse players weren’t guilty. The University of Virginia fraternity story wasn’t true. The Columbia University student who carried a mattress around as a symbol of her alleged rape was found, by a campus tribunal, to have falsely accused her supposed assailant.

This obviously doesn’t mean that women should be disbelieved, either. Almost all the #MeToo allegations against high-profile figures in Hollywood and the media have been credible. It does mean accusations of sexual misconduct—like any other accusation—should be evaluated case by case, and on the basis of the evidence. This isn’t victimizing the accusers. It is serving the cause of justice.

Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii captured the current temper of the left when she said, “I want to say to the men of this country: Shut up and just step up and do the right thing.” This says much more about her—and her own suitability for high office—than Kavanaugh. He has no obligation to shut up—even if about half his Senate audience is losing its interest in due process or fair play.


Dems: We'll probe Kavanaugh allegations if we win in November

Congressional Democrats are threatening to investigate sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh from the highest bench in the land should he be confirmed without a probe and the party reclaim Congress.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said that “as soon as Democrats get gavels,” the party will vet the FBI’s handling of Ford’s claim against the Supreme Court nominee — even if Kavanaugh is already seated on the high court by that time.

Rep. Eric Swallwell (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, also said in an interview that the party could probe Kavanaugh’s denials of the allegations against him.

"If they ramrod this nomination through, and we win the majority, we can still investigate this on the House side, and certainly the question as to whether a Supreme Court justice committed perjury is something you could look at,” Swalwell said in an interview. "Hopefully it doesn’t come to that; hopefully they do this right."

"Because," he added, "it’s going to get investigated either way and it would be better not to have to investigate a sitting judge.”

Their comments point to a continued Democratic focus on Kavanaugh that could help turn out liberal voters in November, regardless of whether the GOP can confirm him.

“You can't ignore a crime victim's claim that something happened, refuse to investigate, throw her up into the stand without the least bit of support for her, without the least bit of effort to corroborate what she says and then walk away from that,” Whitehouse told CNN’s Jake Tapper.


Their comments suggest that Democrats are prepared to keep digging in on Kavanaugh, sustaining the bitterly partisan tone of this fall’s confirmation battle well into 2019.

And other Democrats echoed Whitehouse’s anger about the Republican push to confirm Kavanaugh as soon as this month, even if ongoing talks aimed at securing Ford’s testimony fail to bear fruit.

“They’ve made it very clear that they don’t care about facts of sexual abuse, or anything else,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a onetime Judiciary chairman and one of three members still on the panel who participated in 1991’s Anita Hill hearings, said in an interview. “They just want to ram it through.”

“It’s harmful to the court’s legitimacy and to Judge Kavanaugh’s legitimacy on the court to simply go through a confirmation vote” without conducting any FBI investigation, said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), also a member of the Judiciary panel.

Whether House Democrats, who have a far stronger chance than their Senate counterparts to take control of their chamber after the midterms, would echo that interest in Kavanaugh remains unclear. But a senior House Democratic leadership aide on Thursday floated the idea of investigating Kavanaugh's statements on Ford if Democrats win back that chamber. The party has no plans to do so yet but is clearly examining the idea.

Another senior House Democratic source said that while the issue is being discussed behind closed doors, talk about impeaching or investigating Kavanaugh is more of a warning shot to Republicans and the nominee. Democrats want Republicans to bring in other witnesses who could help corroborate the events at issue 35 years ago, including Kavanaugh classmate Mark Judge, who has written a memoir about heavy drinking at their former school, Georgetown Prep.

Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), declined to address the hypothetical question of how Democrats would address the allegation against Kavanaugh should the party win back power in November. But he aligned with Ford’s call for an FBI inquiry into her allegation that Kavanaugh tried to force himself on her when both were in high school.

“Dr. Ford is right — the FBI should conduct a background investigation of her serious allegations of attempted rape,” Hammill said. “Judge Kavanaugh should not fear a FBI investigation unless he is hiding something.”

Only 15 judges have been impeached in the history of the United States. One of them is current Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). He was impeached by the House in 1988, convicted in a Senate impeachment trial and removed from the bench the following year. Hastings — who had been earlier acquitted of criminal bribery charges — won a House seat in 1992.

Rebecca Morin and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.


U.S. blacklists Russian entities tied to election meddling

The Trump administration on Thursday blacklisted 33 Russian individuals and entities, including a billionaire and several companies accused of interfering in American politics, limiting their ability to conduct business internationally.

The Treasury Department also slapped penalties on a Chinese military department for purchasing jets and missiles from a Russian arms export entity that had been previously blacklisted.

The Trump administration made the move as part of a bill Congress passed last year to punish Russia for its 2016 election interference and military intrusions in Ukraine. The 33 individuals and entities will be added to a State Department list of blacklisted Russian military and intelligence operatives, meaning that anyone who partakes in "significant transactions" with the companies will now be hit with sanctions.

The actions follow up on a slate of sanctions the Treasury Department imposed in March over election meddling, and a round of sanctions the State Department announced in August over the attempted assassination in Britain of a former Kremlin spy. Moscow has denied involvement in the poisoning.

Among the individuals and entities blacklisted are billionaire Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and his companies Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering.


Prigozhin and Concord were accused in a February indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller of funding the Internet Research Agency, which Mueller said worked for years to sew distrust online for American government officials to influence the 2016 election. The IRA was also blacklisted Thursday.

Prigozhin, Concord and the IRA were also hit with sanctions in March for their role in election meddling.

Separately, the Trump administration on Thursday hit a Chinese military department for carrying out “significant transactions” with Russian entities that were already blacklisted.

The Economic Development Department and its director, Li Shangfu, will be barred from the U.S. financial system and U.S. visas after buying the equipment this winter from Rosoboronexport, Russia's main arms export agency, which is on the State Department list.

Though intended to warn others considering engaging with Russians on the State Department's list, the sanctions are primarily directed at Russia rather than China, a senior administration official said.

"The ultimate target of these sanctions is Russia. [They] are not intended to undermine the defense capabilities of any particular country," the official said.


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