Why greens are turning away from a carbon tax

Taxing carbon to tackle climate change is one of those big ideas that have long held a kind of bipartisan sway in Washington — endorsed by Al Gore and former members of Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet, economists from both parties and even Exxon Mobil.

But environmentalists are increasingly ready to look elsewhere.

This month's fuel-tax riots in Paris and the defeat of a carbon-fee ballot measure in Washington state show the difficulty of getting people to support a levy on the energy sources that heat their homes and power their cars. Meanwhile, even the most liberal Democratic candidates this year gave carbon taxes scant if any mention in their climate platforms, focusing instead on proposals like a phaseout of fossil fuels and massive investments in wind and solar power.

The story of the carbon tax’s fading appeal, even among groups that like it in principle, shows the difficulties of crafting a politically palatable solution to one of the world’s most urgent problems — including greenhouse gas levels that are on track to reach a record high this year.

“This aversion to taxes in the U.S. is high and should not be underestimated,” said Kalee Kreider, a former Gore adviser and longtime climate activist. “I have a lot of scars to show for that.”

“I fear that the idea of a carbon tax is turning out to be a heavier lift than people envision," said RL Miller, founder of the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote. "As it is right now, starting from scratch, there is no constituency for it. ... And I think the climate movement needs to go through some rethinking."

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) pointed to the fate of Washington state's proposed carbon fee, which "failed miserably" at the polls last month despite the support of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

"If it can't pass in Washington state right now, I'm not sure that says that there's much of a pathway at this moment nationally," Merkley said.

Even some progressives who support a carbon tax, such as Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are promoting it as just one possible element of a sweeping "Green New Deal" that includes pouring huge money into renewable energy.

“There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” said Evan Weber, national political director with the Sunrise Movement, which has backed Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.”

A carbon tax, imposed on each ton of greenhouse gases produced by fuels like oil and coal, is meant to make businesses and consumers pay a price for their role in worsening climate change — and offer an economic incentive for switching to cleaner energy sources. That simplicity has won the endorsement of even some conservative economists, as well as major corporations such as Exxon Mobil.

“We need to put a price on carbon in markets, and we need to put a price on denial in politics,” Gore said in 2015, adding that “we are already paying an enormous cost in the form of floods, droughts, famines.”

Still, new taxes are toxic enough in Washington that former President Barack Obama never endorsed the idea. Instead, he backed unsuccessful legislation that would have created a more complicated cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon.

The notion has proven an equally tough sell elsewhere around the world: Only 11 countries have carbon taxes in place, and most of those were instituted more than a decade ago. Australia canceled its carbon tax in 2014 after three years, and Canada is in the process of imposing a carbon fee on some reluctant provinces.

Carbon tax supporters, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have typically sought to make their proposals more politically palatable by returning much of the money to citizens to offset the higher energy prices. Gore has proposed repaying the money to Americans “dollar to dollar” by eliminating payroll taxes.

Some plans would direct the money to investments in clean energy investments, or — in the case of Washington state's proposal — toward helping communities suffering from the effects of climate change or the closure of fossil fuel industries. Others, such as a plan backed by former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, would also phase out existing carbon regulations.

But the Washington state proposal won the support of just 43 percent of voters last month, after a barrage of oil and gas industry lobbying opposing the carbon fee. The reaction was even more violent in Paris, where days of riots forced French President Emmanuel Macron to scrap a 6.5-cent fuel tax that had been aimed partly at weaning motorists off diesel and gasoline.

The Washington state fee, whose supporters included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, would have charged a relatively modest $15 per ton of greenhouses gases. In contrast, the United Nations' climate panel has called for charging $135 per ton, and increasing the fee to $5,500 a ton by 2030, to keep the rise in global temperatures from reaching catastrophic levels.

"You do have this irony, and that is the policy that is overwhelmingly endorsed by economists of the right, the center and the left as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is inverse with what is politically feasible," said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan professor who has studied carbon taxes.

The failure to pass a carbon tax in Washington state stands in contrast California's voters' backing last month of a gasoline tax, revenues from which are directed to improving the state's clogged transportation infrastructure. California is one of more than two dozen states that have increased their gasoline taxes in the past five years to pay for road and bridge projects.

"People are sensitive to taxes, but they will approve them if they're perceived to be getting value, whether that be a road, a hospital, a school," said Kreider, the former Gore adviser. "Where I think environmental groups struggle is they approach carbon pricing in terms of environmental performance, instead of what service are they providing to the taxpayer?"

Green groups say there's still a place for a carbon tax in a broader climate change policy. But Ocasio-Cortez, one of the top progressives in next year's House freshman class, has said the climate crisis is far too urgent for a tax to be the main strategy.

"It's certainly possible to argue that, if we had put in place targeted regulations and progressively increasing carbon and similar taxes several decades ago, the economy could have transformed itself by now," she said on her campaign website. "But whether or not that is true, we did not do that, and now time has run out."

"Probably a price is not going to be enough," said Ana Unruh Cohen, managing director for government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need a larger, comprehensive approach."

The wave of Democratic governors and lawmakers elected in November seems to have picked up on this current. Aside from Washington state's ballot item, carbon taxes were mostly absent from campaign platforms despite candidates' emphasis on fighting climate change.

Others aren't ready to give up just yet, saying a revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most sweeping greenhouse gas-reduction policy that could both parties could support. Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) unveiled a bill on Nov. 27 to create such a tax. That was just months after Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) launched a plan that would have taxed emissions and use the revenue for highway projects and other programs, before he lost in the November election.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has sponsored his own carbon tax legislation, said two main strategies have emerged to limit climate change: regulating stricter greenhouse gases or putting a price on carbon. He doesn't see another path.

"There's the third category, which is 'something else,'" Whitehouse told POLITICO. "And until somebody shows me what something else is, I don't want to hear about something else."

Carbon tax backers say the approach has proven successful in places such as British Columbia, Ireland and Norway. And other strategies to price carbon have gotten footholds, such as the cap-and-trade program found in nine Eastern states.

Others say a carbon tax could easily become part of the Green New Deal or other broad-based plans as they get fleshed out.

"When you talk about the Green New Deal and 100 percent clean economy, I see those as values frameworks, and they don't have policy prescriptions on how to get there," said Alison Cassady, managing director for energy and environment at the liberal Center for American Progress. "In order to achieve a 100 percent clean economy, you're going to need a lot of tools. A carbon tax could get you there part of the way."

Some supporters say the biggest problem for carbon tax proposals has been how they were designed — and defeats in places like Washington state are not a rejection of the overall concept.

"I don't think we lost on the merits," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, which campaigned for the Washington ballot initiative. "I think we lost on the inability to transmit the message. I do think that, yes at some point, perhaps it might make sense to take the revenue generated from a carbon fee broadly defined and use it for other purposes."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Distrustful, Desperate and Forgotten: A Recipe for Voter Fraud

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

But occasionally he looks up and to see who’s coming in: friends and family, coaches from the Dixie Youth Baseball league program he runs, parents of the Boy Scout troop he oversees.

They’re the reason, he said, he has to be careful what he says to me when I ask about his county’s new status as the epicenter of election fraud in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Greed’s my line, lad. Greed.”

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

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

Stuck you? I asked.

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

But even a flim-flam man needs an accomplice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s happenin’, buuud?” he said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Three head of ’em,” he said.

I asked him what they had said.

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

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

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

“Yeah, they filled it out,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


‘You don’t just get to say that you’re progressive’: The left moves to defend its brand

MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — Progressive Democrats are beginning to confront an unintended consequence of their own success: Dilution of the brand.

So many Democratic presidential prospects are now claiming the progressive mantle in advance of the 2020 primaries that liberal leaders are trying to institute a measure of ideological quality control, designed to ensure the party ends up with a nominee who meets their exacting standards.

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are discussing policy platforms that could serve as a litmus test for presidential contenders. Progressive donors, meanwhile, are plotting steps — ranging from closer engagement with campaigns to ultimatums tied to fundraising — to ensure that Medicare for All, debt-free college and a non-militaristic foreign policy, among other causes, remain at the center of the upcoming campaign. In an effort to winnow the burgeoning field, progressive advocacy groups are beginning to poll supporters in the hopes of elevating candidates who gain the imprimatur of the left.

“You don’t just get to say that you’re progressive,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told progressive donors at a private conference here this week, a portion of which was opened exclusively to POLITICO.

Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, called the 2020 election a chance to “leverage our power.” But she called it critical “that we have some very clear guidelines about what it means to be progressive.”

For progressive Democrats, the 2020 primary carries all the markings of a watershed election. In a party that was once hesitant to fully embrace its left flank — particularly in presidential elections — the rise of progressive populism has manifested in top-tier candidates, several of whom believe the time is ripe to take their unalloyed liberal message to a national audience.

One sign of the new times: According to research by Elaine Kamarck and Alexander Podkul at The Brookings Institution, nearly 44 percent of House primary candidates this year identified themselves as progressives, up from about 29 percent in 2016.

In the presidential election that year, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — a backbench senator who rose to progressive icon status — were running from behind. But now, just two years after Sanders was defeated by a more centrist Democrat, Hillary Clinton, self-described progressive Democrats occupy the upper rungs of the 2020 field — potentially including Sanders, but also Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), among others.

Elbowing past one other in recent months, such top-tier Democrats have staked out increasingly liberal positions on immigration, criminal justice, tax policy and campaign finance — positions beyond where Barack Obama was willing to go to in 2008.

“We’re sort of in this really bizarre window where, for a number of reasons, many of the leading … candidates are sort of tripping over themselves to claim a progressive mantle,” said K. Sabeel Rahman, president of the left-leaning think tank Demos. “And we have to make sure that that progressive mantle means something really progressive. And that means we should set the table, and we should set that table now.”

The donor gathering in the Los Angeles area, organized by the progressive donor network Way to Win, served as a reminder of the growing influence of left-leaning donors and activists in a party long dominated by more centrist money and ideas. Way to Win steered some $22 million to political efforts in the 2018 elections, and its supporters’ aspirations were reflected in the prayer candles on hand at the conference featuring the images of three progressive champions: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Yet as the progressive movement expands, it has done so with limited definition, leaving progressive leaders to fret about more moderate Democrats — both in Congress and in the presidential race — claiming the label without supporting the cause.

“Not that we have to have 100 percent of people with us on 100 percent of votes,” Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, told POLITICO of her growing caucus. “We want to make sure that there is room for people to reflect the differences in their district. But at the same time, if you really are a progressive, then we don’t want you to be voting against progressive positions 30 percent of the time, much less 80 percent of the time.”

She said, “We’re figuring out exactly what that looks like, but we want to be protective of what it means to be a progressive, because I think if we don’t, we erode people’s trust in us as progressive leaders.”

Speaking to donors and activists here, Jayapal encouraged the crowd to push their representatives and 2020 candidates to endorse “bold platforms,” including one on immigration that she said she hopes to release soon. Other progressive Democrats are approaching the unusually large primary field as an opportunity to influence candidates' ideology from within their campaigns.

With a limited supply of staffers for presidential contenders, said Becky Bond, executive director of Real Justice PAC, which works to elect reform-minded prosecutors, “there’s just not enough hats to go around.” Bond, who served as a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign in 2016, said that “movement leaders and donors should really consider going into that vacuum, joining a presidential campaign early, and you can actually bend these campaigns towards the agenda that you really care about.”

For the greater number of donors who remain on the outside, activists last week discussed a range of possible demands that they could place on presidential candidates, from requiring them to share supporter lists with down-ticket candidates to requiring candidates to spend time with communities of color and working families.

“You’re in a position to actually make some demands,” Bond said.

In an early effort to identify and coalesce support around a progressive Democrat, the progressive advocacy groups MoveOn and Democracy for America recently opened their first online polls ahead of the 2020 election.

But the influence progressives will hold over the 2020 primary field remains unclear. There are questions within the party about just how far left the party nominee can be and still remain viable in a general election. Moderate Democrats are also organizing, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a centrist Democrat, remains at the top of most presidential polls.

The Democratic National Committee, a traditional funding arm in presidential elections, is hosting a major donor conference in Washington this week, including Democrats from across the ideological spectrum.

But even relatively moderate Democrats recognize the appeal of the progressive arm and the shifting balance of power within the party. Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania and DNC chairman, said that if he were not 74, “I would run and I would say, ‘Look, I’m progressive on A, B, C, D, E, F, G. But on talking about things that can’t happen … talking about things we can never get through the Congress, I’m not going to talk about those things. I’m going to talk about things we can get done.”

He said, “I think the American public is slightly left of center right now … they’re not going to pass wacky things, and we’re not going to say crazy things just to appeal to the base.”

To defeat President Donald Trump in the general election, he said, “Someone’s got to talk sense.”

One of the goals of Way to Win is to flatten traditional fundraising structures, funneling money to local groups more closely engaged in campaigns. Leah Hunt-Hendrix, one of the group’s co-founders, said the organization is not attached to the term “progressive” as much as it is “attached to racial and economic justice, to addressing climate change, to making sure everyone has access to health care and doesn’t go into debt because they’re trying to get a college education.”

Still, she said, the progressive label is an important “signal to donors.”

And as the movement grows, said Jenifer Fernandez-Ancona, another co-founder, “We feel that it is very important for us and the political movements that we’re building and funding to define what we mean by progressive, to more clearly define our principles.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Comey: I'm 'not friends' with Mueller

Former FBI Director James Comey told House lawmakers Friday that he and special counsel Robert Mueller are “not friends in any social sense,” dismissing President Donald Trump’s assertion that the ousted bureau chief is “Best Friends” with the leader of the Russia probe.

Comey appeared on Capitol Hill Friday to testify behind closed doors to members of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, following a legal scuffle over a subpoena from Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) mandating Comey’s hearing be private.

“Are you best friends with Robert Mueller?” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, asked Comey, according to a transcript of the hearing released Saturday by Goodlatte and Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).

“I am not,” Comey said. “I admire the heck out of the man, but I don't know his phone number, I've never been to his house, I don't know his children's names.”

Comey added: “I think I had a meal once alone with him in a restaurant. I like him. I am not a — I'm an associate of his who admires him greatly. We're not friends in any social sense.”

Hours before Comey’s session with members of Congress, Trump tweeted: “Robert Mueller and Leakin’ Lyin’ James Comey are Best Friends, just one of many Mueller Conflicts of Interest.” The president went on to call the special counsel’s investigation “A total Witch Hunt” in that same post.

Trump previously referred to Mueller as Comey’s “best friend” in a September interview with The Daily Caller, and claimed to have “100 pictures of him and Comey hugging and kissing each other.”

When the FBI in October was unable to locate any such images in the process of completing a Freedom of Information Act request for BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold, Comey quipped on Twitter: “My wife is so relieved.”

“I will not ask whether you've ever hugged and kissed [Mueller],” Nadler told Comey on Friday.

“A relief to my wife,” Comey replied.

Comey also told lawmakers he was largely unfamiliar with Mueller’s team of federal prosecutors, whom the president has repeatedly criticized as “12 angry Democrats.”

“I know by name some of them, and I think I've met some of them personally, but I don't know them well,” Comey said.

Asked whether any of Mueller’s lieutenants “are angry,” Comey added: “Not to my knowledge, but I'm sure they're like all normal humans; sometimes they're happy, sometimes they're sad, sometimes they're angry, but I can't comment on that characterization beyond that.”

Comey is set to testify before lawmakers again on Dec. 17 regarding the FBI’s handling of its investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of State, as well as its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Kelly exit helps position Trump for 2020

President Donald Trump’s Saturday confirmation that chief of staff John Kelly will soon leave the White House signaled more than the end of a tortured relationship. It was the latest sign of Trump’s singular focus on his 2020 re-election campaign.

Trump is likely to replace Kelly — a former Marine General who brought little political experience to the West Wing — with Nick Ayers, an ambitious young operative who is now Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. Where Kelly could be politically tone deaf, Ayers ran a presidential campaign before he was 30.

Trump has taken other recent steps towards a campaign mode. On Friday two senior White house aides — political director Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, the director of the Office of Public Liaison — announced they would move to his re-election operation. Brian Jack, the deputy White House political director, is expected to replace Stepien as White House political director.

White House aides predicted that Ayers, if tapped despite internal opposition to his selection, would focus the West Wing almost entirely on the president’s reelection effort. “You’re going to have a White House that’s all politics all the time,” said a former White House official, who predicted a transformation of the West Wing into a “quasi-campaign operation.

The personnel changes come as the Trump political operation organizes for 2020 in other ways. The president’s top advisers have decided to structure his reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee as a single entity — a setup aimed at fostering collaboration to avoid tensions that plagued the 2016 campaign.

Under the plan designed by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, the Trump team will split office space with the committee at offices in Rosslyn, Va. and Washington, D.C.

Trump aides are now looking to build out a 2020 communications operation. Jessica Ditto, a top White House press aide, is among those seen as likely to join the campaign.

Kelly’s departure after 17 months removes one of the few remaining military and business leaders who joined the administration last year with bipartisan support and were viewed as institutionalist checks on an impulsive president. Others include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom the president dismissed last March.

Trump has complained to friends and advisers that the generals who have staffed his administration “don’t understand anything except for military tactics.”

More recent additions to his team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, have been far more natural allies who challenge him gently, if at all.

On Friday, Trump announced that he will nominate State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to be his next United Nations ambassador. Nauert would replace the outgoing Nikki Haley, whose public words often conflicted with Trump’s positions on subjects like Russia and Saudi Arabia. Nauert is a foreign affairs neophyte not expected to serve as an independent voice.

The White House is also expected to downgrade the U.N. ambassador position from cabinet rank, formally diminishing the status of the post, according to two sources familiar with the plans.

Trump also said Friday that he will nominate for the job of attorney general Bill Barr, who held that job under President George H.W. Bush. Barr replaces attorney general Jeff Sessions, who lost the president’s respect after recusing himself from the Justice Department’s Russia probe.

The president clashed repeatedly with Kelly throughout his tenure, chafing at the constraints the retired Marine general sought to impose on him, from tracking his phone conversations to limiting access to the Oval Office. In the final days, Trump stopped speaking to Kelly altogether, according to two sources familiar with the situation.

“Over the last several days, when the president needs something, he’s been calling Nick,” said a person close to the president. While Ayers is respected for his political instincts, he is not known for pushing back on the president’s views.

“Just imagine the possibilities of what can happen if our entire party unifies behind him? If — and this sounds crass — we can purge the handful of people who continue to work to defeat him,” Ayers told a gathering of Republican donors last year, according to an audio recording obtained by POLITICO.

Kelly’s departure would put to rest one of the major personnel battles inside the White House. But it has already generated another. Kelly has spent the last year in a standoff with the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, after working to limit their participation in various White House initiatives, openly criticizing them in front of other White House aides, and suggesting they leave the White House altogether.

Among other things, Kelly knocked Kushner for trying to play a sort of “boy secretary of state,” according to a former White House official, and looked down on the first daughter for what he perceived were efforts to burnish her image at the expense of the White House, according to a former White House official.

They, in turn, encouraged the president to get rid of Kelly, eventually settling on Ayers as a replacement after observing that the president had developed a rapport with him. In what they considered a final affront, the pair blamed Kelly for fanning the flames of a controversy that erupted over reports that Ivanka Trump had used a private email account for official business in the early months of the Trump administration.

Ayers himself, however, is a polarizing figure within the West Wing whose rise has already sparked controversy. Several aides have told the president they would quit if he is tapped for the job, with one predicting a “melee of backstabbing” to come.

Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump's new favorite general

Army Gen. Mark Milley has warned that Russia and China represent “faint clouds of a coming storm” for the United States. He’s accused lawmakers who fail to approve regular Pentagon budgets of “professional malpractice.” And he's said he has found “zero” problems with transgender Army recruits, despite President Donald Trump’s claims to the contrary.

That was all before Trump chose Milley, now the Army chief of staff, to be the nation’s top military officer on Saturday, announcing his nomination to replace Marine Gen. Joe Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The job would put Milley, a physically imposing former hockey player, in the middle of some of the biggest debates of Trump’s presidency — from his proposed Space Force to the deployment of active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. And Milley, once known for his openness with reporters, has gone largely silent in his nearly four years as Army chief of staff, rarely appearing at media events or granting interviews.

Still, his background and past statements offer clues.

Milley has a record of tough deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He often notes that 242 soldiers have died under his command since 2001 — including some who have lost their lives “within arm’s reach of me,” as he said in an August speech.

As a one-star general in Afghanistan a decade ago, Milley was so eager to visit his troops in dangerous battle zones that his superior put limits on his travel. “He couldn’t go any further forward than my battalion headquarters when he visited,” recalled Col. Bill Ostlund, who currently director of military instruction at the U.S. Military Aacademy at West Point.

Milley also has a reputation for a powerful intellect: In addition to earning the green beret of the Special Forces, he holds degrees from Princeton and Columbia Universities.

Here's a snapshot of what’s important to him and his positions on some key policy issues — drawn from recent speeches and congressional testimony – and some of that blunt talk his fellow troops are so familiar with:

The military’s place in society

Milley has often stressed that the duty of soldiers and officers is to the U.S. Constitution, not any political party or figure -- a position rhetorically quite different from a president with a reputation for demanding unflinching loyalty from his team.

“We are the only military in the world…that does not take an oath to a king, a queen, a dictator, a president,” he told an audience in New Jersey this summer. “We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe or a piece of dirt. The very core essence of the Army is that we are committed to you, the citizens. We are willing to die, to give our life, for an idea.”

He explained to congressional staffers and ROTC cadets at Princeton in October that the America idea is one “we are hated for.”

“The Nazis hated us. The Soviet Communists hated us. Al-Qaida, ISIS, the Taliban. They hate us, not necessarily for who you are, but what you stand for — this idea.”

Competition with Russia and China

Milley was raising alarms about the Army losing its edge to fight a major war against a fellow big power long before the Trump administration issued its national defense strategy this year, which directed the Pentagon's focus to Russia and China as America’s most dangerous potential foes.

“We have to be able to fight guerrillas and terrorists all the way up through nation-state militaries,” he said in his first speech as chief in 2015. “If we do not maintain our commitment to remain strong in the air, on the sea and yes, on the ground, then we will pay the butcher’s bill in blood.”

In addressing the potential threats of Russia and China in more recent speech this October, he warned that “the faint clouds of a coming storm are visible on the horizon."

The defense budget

Before the Trump administration and Congress inked a two-year boost for the defense budget earlier this year, Milley was scathing in criticizing the years of stop-gap funding that lawmakers repeatedly inflicted on the military.

"Failure to pass the budget, in my view as an American citizen and the chief of staff of the United States Army, constitutes professional malpractice," he told the House Armed Services Committee in 2017.

When a lawmaker suggested the military should get used to short-term spending bills, he responded with characteristic bluntness: "The world is a dangerous place and is becoming more dangerous by the day. Pass the budget."

North Korea

Milley has compelled the Army to update its war plans for the Korean peninsula. The Army spent 2017 and early 2018 focused on refilling munitions stocks in the Pacific and selecting units to be ready to deploy to Korea if needed.

"We have been running those units pretty hard, getting them to a much higher level of readiness," Milley testified in March.

He has been candid about how dangerous and costly a conflict with there would likely be.

“It is on the Korean peninsula where, in my view, we find the most dangerous near-term threat to the U.S.,” he told reporters in late 2017, as Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were engaged in what many considered an irresponsible war of words -- before the current nuclear negotiations began.

"A full-blown war on the Korean peninsula will be horrific by any stretch of the imagination," Milley said. "No one has any doubts about that." He added: “This is extraordinarily difficult, extraordinarily dangerous. No one should underestimate it.”

Transgender soldiers

Milley and his deputy (and possible successor), Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, were closely involved in the six-month review that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered last year after Trump tweeted that he wanted to ban transgender troops.

The standard arguments against transgender troops include the expense of medical care and concerns that their presence could create conflict or distract other troops.

But in April, shortly after Mattis acquiesced to Trump’s demand by barring new transgender recruits from enlisting, Milley effectively said there was no military rationale for it.

He reported in congressional testimony earlier this year that he's "received precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale and all those sorts of things" as a result of the presence of transgender troops.

Connor O'Brien contributed reporting.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


When I Said NC Wasn’t a Democracy, People Called Me Crazy

In December 2016, I wrote a column for the Raleigh News & Observer stating that North Carolina could no longer be classified as a democracy. It went viral and global. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. The majority of feedback was positive, but in some quarters, I was described as a queer-communist-anti-American, and received scores of visceral email and voice messages to that effect and worse. Campus security were concerned about the specificity of some of the death threats.

The column was based on an analysis of the crumbling machinery of democracy in my state, drawing on my expertise as a professor of comparative politics at the University of North Carolina. I noted that a neutral expert scoring of North Carolina’s electoral integrity had placed the state on a par with pseudo-democracies such as Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Partisan gerrymandering and targeted voter suppression drove the score lower. Combined with that, the General Assembly had targeted the LGBTQ community for discrimination (you may remember the push to force transgender people to use the restroom for the sex listed on their birth certificate), and Republicans had sought to curtail executive powers after losing the governorship in the 2016 elections.

I argued then that as a state, we needed to “claw our way slowly toward democratic integrity … [and] address the institutional failures which have cost us our democratic ranking—districting, equal access to the vote and the abuse of legislative power.”

Two years later, the quality of democracy has declined further, and the decaying system has created a monster.

The North Carolina GOP is not particularly interested in what the voters think because they don’t have to be: They have effective detached themselves from the electoral accountability that underpins democracy.

The most egregious example of this is exploding now. There is a wealth of evidence that Republicans in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District systematically—and with malicious forethought and planning—stole the election. A paid Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, reportedly oversaw a team that fraudulently gathered absentee ballots, marked an unknown number for Harris and destroyed others. Once all votes were counted, Republican Mark Harris was 905 votes ahead (or four-tenths of a percentage point) over his Democratic opponent Dan McCready.

Dowless’ stomping ground is Bladen County, a relatively poor, rural, southern part of the state. Harris received an abnormally high number of absentee votes in the county, and a number of absentee voters have already complained that their votes were stolen. What’s more, it looks like Dowless has been doing this for Republican candidates for close to a decade. In the May GOP primary, Harris managed to receive 98 percent of absentee votes in Bladen, despite winning just 48 percent of the votes districtwide. In that primary, Harris defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Bob Pittenger by a mere 800 votes.

What happened in the 9th District is not an aberration. It is the foreseeable manifestation of a democracy that has lost its way.

Gerrymandering has allowed North Carolina Republicans to hold on to comfortable majorities in both houses of the State Assembly—and 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats—despite winning only half of the aggregate popular vote statewide. Now, in the last 2018 session of their supermajority legislature, Republicans have gone about gutting the democratic institutions of the state. Voter ID measures were introduced with the deliberate intent of suppressing lower-income and minority voters. There were attempts to take election administration appointments away from the governor, and a blatant power grab over judicial appointments was condemned by five former governors and six former state Supreme Court justices.

Key symptoms of incipient democratic breakdown include extreme demagogues being considered part of the mainstream, and public officials losing their moral center and trading in principles for gain. We see both in ample supply in North Carolina.

In 2017, Republican state Representative Larry Pittman said that President Abraham Lincoln “was the same sort [of] tyrant” as Adolf Hitler. He faced no repercussions from his fellow Republicans. Earlier this year, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Pittman said that school shooters were often “communist Democrats” seeking gun control—again, without consequence.

One former member of the GOP’s legislative caucus, Thom Goolsby, who left the state Senate under a cloud after having his investment adviser license revoked, was later appointed to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. From that perch, he’s made a vociferous case to re-erect “Silent Sam” on UNC’s campus—a statue that, in glorifying the Confederacy, celebrates violent attacks on the U.S. Constitution and American citizens.

But perhaps the best encapsulation of the GOP zeitgeist in North Carolina can be found in the case of Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state’s Republican Party, who has recently demonstrated that partisan considerations trump respect for the law. In 2016, when there were accusations of election fraud in the 9th Congressional District’s Republican primary, Woodhouse said that, “should the election board find that these are absentee-ballot mills, with the purpose of fraudulent voting, those people should go to jail.” But this past Tuesday, when that same Board of Elections cited “concerted fraudulent activities” in the election and declined to certify its results, Woodhouse railed against the decision and called for Harris to be seated immediately. Then, two days later, he decided that with such obvious cheating, a new election might be the only way to hold on to the seat, so he withdrew his objection to a new election in the district.

When the bond between the representatives and the represented is severed, you get mob rule in the offices of power. Sadly, North Carolina Republicans seem to see the principle of government based on the will of the people as subservient to the principle of clinging to power. They would prefer that the people’s will align with their own worldview, but don’t view the people’s support as necessary to govern; if they can get their way without a democratic mandate, then so be it.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Takeaways from a frenetic week of Mueller filings

A long-awaited series of court filings from Robert Mueller and other prosecutors this week seemed to rattle the White House, laying out a series of public hints that the special counsel’s team is closing in on President Donald Trump and his inner circle.

The documents offer a series of tantalizing but incomplete glimpses of Mueller’s probe, including new indications of how prosecutors believe Trump’s top aides and intermediaries for the Russian government engaged in a kind of courtship as the 2016 campaign unfolded.

Trump and his closest aides responded to the latest salvos with characteristic bravado Friday.

“Totally clears the President. Thank you!” Trump declared on Twitter.

A rare official statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who almost always defers questions about Mueller’s investigation to the president’s personal legal team — claimed there was nothing of note in the memos, which detail alleged lies by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the ongoing cooperation of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, both of whom have pleaded guilty to multiple federal felonies.

“The government’s filing in Mr. Manafort’s case says absolutely nothing about the President,” Sanders said.

“Fake News coverage can’t change the reality that Mueller’s late Friday dump demonstrates yet again no evidence connected to President,” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani added Saturday on Twitter, while also claiming Cohen is “still lying.”

None of those responses, however, addressed Mueller’s accounting of how Manafort lied about his contacts with the Trump administration, the special counsel’s note in another filing that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was still assisting the investigation, or the fact that prosecutors’ memos regarding Cohen mentioned Trump — described as “Individual 1” — no fewer than 30 times.

The deluge of often-vague references to the president and the people around him suggests a couple of possibilities: either Mueller and his federal prosecutor counterparts are growing more provocative in hopes of shaking something loose in the president’s orbit, or they are sitting on explosive charges that could put Trump himself at risk.

Here are eight takeaways from a frenetic week of Mueller filings:

1. Prosecutors say Trump was linked to serious campaign finance crimes, but they don’t accuse him of illegal activity

Trump has not been charged with wrongdoing, but he has faced accusations from the start of the Mueller probe, including claims he conspired with a foreign power to win the 2016 presidential election or obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey.

Enter Stormy Daniels.

Manhattan federal prosecutors on Friday, working in tandem with Mueller’s office, detailed an elaborate scheme in which Cohen made hush money payments to the adult film actress and another woman, both of whom claimed to have had affairs with Trump, in order to silence them in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.

As Cohen offered a series of guilty pleas in court last August, he said the payments were made at Trump’s direction. On Friday, prosecutors concurred that Trump had directed the payments, which the government attorneys portrayed as a grave breach of federal election law.

That immediately raised questions among legal experts about whether Trump would be charged with illegal activity as well.

“They can’t just drop it,” former Obama Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller wrote on Twitter of the prosecutors.

But noting long-standing DOJ protocol that says a sitting president can’t be indicted, Miller said federal prosecutors are essentially left with two options: sending an impeachment referral to Congress or waiting to prosecute Trump once he’s out of office.

“Theoretically you could wait and indict in 2021 (before the statute [of limitations] runs) if he loses re-election, but that’s both an abdication of responsibility & risks losing any mechanism for accountability,” Miller wrote.

2. But there’s a potential wrinkle in any legal case against Trump over the payments

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the documents released Friday “outline serious and criminal wrongdoing” that includes felony violations of campaign finance laws directed by Trump. Former Obama acting solicitor general Neal Katyal also interpreted the filing as concluding the president “has committed a serious felony.”

Former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi told POLITICO the Cohen filing had a “subliminal message” aimed at Trump. “If it were dealing with a private citizen, he would be receiving a target letter and soon be indicted for conspiring to commit campaign law violations,” he said.

However, several other experts weren’t so sure. While ignorance of the law is usually no defense, criminal campaign finance violations require proof the defendant knew what he or she was doing was unlawful. Prosecutors were silent about Trump’s knowledge of the law, and it could be tricky to prove a businessman in his first major run for political office was as versed in campaign-finance rules as Cohen, an attorney.

“I don't think we know yet that prosecutors have concluded Trump violated campaign finance law, given that Trump would have to know that his conduct was illegal,” former Justice Department official Eric Columbus wrote on Twitter.

3. Others at the White House could be in trouble

Veteran defense lawyers say Trump and his allies should be spooked by Mueller’s claims that Cohen and Manafort dished on their dealings with the White House. That kind of testimony could help build an obstruction of justice case against the president or others in the West Wing.

“Cohen provided relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period,” the special prosecutor’s team said.

They did not elaborate on those contacts, but they said among the topics Cohen discussed with administration officials was his plan to lie in congressional testimony about at what point during the election he abandoned attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The filing on the collapse of the plea deal with Manafort says he denied any contacts with administration officials, but evidence shows chatter through various intermediaries into 2018. The officials with whom he interacted are not named.

“There’s undoubtedly a number of people who are going to sweat this one out,” said Joyce Vance, an Obama-era U.S. attorney from northern Alabama.

4. So could others in Trump’s wider circle

Mueller’s sentencing memo for Flynn earlier this week listed a “non-exhaustive summary” of his interactions between “individuals” on Trump’s transition and Russia. Legal experts and several defense lawyers working with clients in the Russia probe said that should concern people in the president’s orbit.

“That’s a holy cow moment,” said Rossi, the former federal prosecutor. “It could be three items. It could be 30. We don’t know. That’s why ‘non-exhaustive’ would scare the living daylights out of me.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son in law and a top White House aide, and K.T. McFarland, who briefly served as deputy national security adviser, were two Trump transition officials who had discussions with Flynn and may have had knowledge about his contacts with Russian officials. Their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment about Mueller’s latest Flynn memo.

The filing also contained another potential warning for Trump’s administration: Mueller’s view that “senior government leaders should be held to the highest standards.”

5. Mueller is chipping away at Trump’s “no collusion” mantra

As Mueller’s investigation rolls on, racking up indictments and guilty pleas, Trump has offered one frequent retort: “No collusion!” or, more often on Twitter, “NO COLLUSION!

It has long seemed there were at least attempts by Trump’s associates to work with the Russians, particularly during a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York at which various Trump aides including Manafort, Kushner, and Trump’s oldest son met with a Russian offering damaging information about their Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

On Friday, Mueller said in court filings that Russians also pitched the Trump camp on plans that would align their business and political interests.

According to one filing, Cohen said he’d been approached around November 2015 by a Russian national offering “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level.” The individual repeatedly proposed a meeting between” Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying it promised a “phenomenal” impact, “not only in political but in a business dimension as well.”

Buzzfeed reported in June that the Russian official was Dmitry Klokov, an Olympic weightlifter who got in touch with Cohen through the president’s daughter Ivanka.

Cohen said he didn’t pursue the offer — but only because he was eyeing other channels at the time in hopes of building a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Cohen also told prosecutors that, while he had initially said Trump did not know he tried to arrange a confab with the Russian leader during the 2015 United Nations General Assembly session in New York, he had actually talked with Trump about the idea. The meeting never came to pass, prosecutors said.

Mueller made additional cryptic references to Moscow meddling in the heavily redacted Flynn memo earlier this week, noting he assisted their investigation “concerning links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” as well as “interactions between individuals in the Presidential Transition Team and Russia.”

Trump finally submitted written answers to Mueller last month after a year-plus negotiation over the special counsel’s questions about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. If his accounts differ significantly from anything his former aides told prosecutors, he could be in hot water.

6. Mueller is lenient with those who cooperate and he’ll excoriate those who don’t

Even before this past week, Mueller rewarded cooperators. Former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty in February after being charged alongside Manafort, has been granted a variety of freedoms — from travel to not having to wear a GPS ankle bracelet — as he meets repeatedly with prosecutors to explain what he knows about the president and Russia.

A similar scenario is playing out for Flynn, with the special counsel recommending little or no prison time because of his early cooperation.

Law enforcement veterans say Mueller is playing it by the book.

“Bob Mueller did not invent the cooperation agreement. He’s a god for many things. But that’s not his idea,” said Joe diGenova, an informal Trump legal adviser and former Justice Department official.

Manafort, however, might now be looking at a more severe prison sentence after Mueller lambasted the 69-year old longtime GOP lobbyist for allegedly lying to prosecutors about his contacts with the Trump administration and with a former business partner believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.

7. Mueller’s filings could provide a road map for Democrats intent on impeachment

Even if Mueller’s team does not make a legal case against Trump, Democrats have been rumbling about the possibility of impeachment for months. The public court filings are laying out leads that Democratic lawmakers are already planning to follow up on once they take control of the House in early January.

“@SDNY says @realdonaldtrump directed Cohen to commit a felony,” Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee, where impeachment proceedings would commence — tweeted on Friday, referring to the Southern District of New York prosecutors working on Cohen’s case.

Responding to questions about how he’d handle impeachment, Nadler earlier in the week told MSNBC he’d be looking at “all the evidence that the special counsel comes up with, the things that are being done in public, the things we find out are being done, and make decisions.”

Nadler said he “may very well” wait for Mueller to finish his investigation before launching any kind of impeachment process. “It depends how long the [Mueller] takes to complete that work,” the lawmaker said.

And Nadler cited a “three-part test” he plans to apply to the situation: First, having “real solid evidence” of impeachable offenses; second, whether the offenses are of “sufficient gravity” to justify a contentious national debate; and third, whether the evidence “is so sufficiently clear” that “an appreciable fraction of the opposition vote base will say, ‘They had to do this.’”

“You don’t want to tear the country apart,” Nadler said.

8. Mueller has plenty more work to do

This week’s filings came amid vague indications — like so many other tea-leaf reading attempts over the last year — that Mueller’s probe may be winding down.

Yahoo News reported that attorneys for witnesses in the case were told that Mueller’s team is tying up loose ends. And before the new filings emerged Friday, Trump seemed focused not on the threat of additional prosecutions, but on the challenge posed by a potential Mueller report alleging coordination between the campaign and Russia.

“We will be doing a major Counter Report to the Mueller Report,” Trump wrote Friday morning on Twitter, in one in a series of missives lambasting the special counsel. “This should never again be allowed to happen to a future President of the United States!”

However, there’s more on Mueller’s to-do list.

Manafort’s two sentencings are scheduled for February and March. And Mueller’s office said in mid-November that Gates, who remained in Trump’s orbit long after Manafort’s ouster in 2016, was still providing information in “several ongoing investigations” and told the court it wasn’t ready to put his sentencing date on the calendar.

Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone and his associate Jerome Corsi have both said they expect to be indicted by Mueller’s team.

And Mueller remains locked in at least two legal battles over subpoenas for witnesses. One case, involving Stone associate Andrew Miller, awaits a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, with Miller’s lawyers vowing to try for a Supreme Court hearing next year if they lose. Another challenge, involving a mystery appellant, is scheduled for oral arguments Friday.

From a historical perspective, Mueller’s investigation appears far more complex than the two other major independent counsel probes since Watergate: the Reagan-era investigation into secret U.S. arms sales to Iran and one into scandals surrounding Bill Clinton.

Both of those sprawling probes — from the investigator’s initial appointment to the release of a final report — took more than seven years to complete.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump: Chief of staff Kelly leaving by the end of the year

White House chief of staff John Kelly will leave his position by the end of this year, President Donald Trump confirmed Saturday, ending a tumultuous tenure in the West Wing that was riven with internal tension and constant questions about his future.

"He’s a great guy," Trump told reporters of the retired Marine general, according to a pool report. He said as he departed the White House that a replacement would be named in the next few days.

POLITICO and other news outlets reported Friday that Kelly’s resignation was imminent and that White House officials were trying to find a way to transition him out of his role. Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, is the leading candidate to replace Kelly.

But Ayers’ ascension has not yet been finalized. Trump and Ayers, who have repeatedly discussed the role in recent weeks, are still negotiating the terms of Ayers’ service, including how long he’ll commit to stay in the job, according to a White House official. The president wants Ayers to remain in the position through the 2020 election, but Ayers, who has young children, has told associates that he hopes to eventually move back to Georgia.

Another White House official said Trump and Kelly spoke Friday night about Kelly’s departure, adding that the president is planning to announce his next chief of staff on Monday.

Kelly had previously said he planned to stay on as chief of staff through the 2020 election, but few in the West Wing believed he would last that long. By Friday, senior administration officials said privately that Kelly's departure was a certainty, noting that his relationship with Trump had reached a low point.

The president has praised Ayers to aides in recent weeks, and he even informally offered him the job during an election night reception at the White House. Trump's advisers have encouraged him to choose a more politically savvy chief of staff than Kelly as his team gears up for his 2020 reelection campaign.

The two men had been in something of a stand-off in recent weeks. Trump was reluctant to directly fire Kelly and he was advised by some of his aides that pushing out a four-star general could result in political blowback, administration officials said. Meanwhile, Kelly made it clear that he had no plans to resign, leaving it up to the president to force him out. In the end, Trump’s announcement came like so many other personnel changes — in a brief remark to reporters instead of a formal announcement from the White House.

Trump’s disdain for Kelly reached a boiling point during the president’s recent trip to Paris, when the White House’s decision to skip a planned trip to a cemetery for American soldiers because of bad weather overshadowed the rest of the swing through France. Aides said the president was furious about the blowback he received and heaped much of the blame on Kelly.

For all of Trump’s frustrations with his chief of staff, Kelly often seemed equally discontented. He reportedly called it the “worst job I’ve ever had,” and aides said he sometimes seemed disengaged in recent months.

Kelly was installed in the chief of staff position by presidential tweet in July 2017 after Reince Priebus was pushed out. Despite frequent stories about tension with the president, Kelly lasted for a year and a half, exceeding the expectations of many in the White House.

"While it got rocky at times, he kept the government on the tracks more than people realize or he’ll get credit for achieving or preventing," said Blain Rethmeier, a former Republican official who advised Kelly during his DHS confirmation process.

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, initially won Trump over during a brief stint leading the Department of Homeland Security. As DHS chief, Kelly eagerly pushed forward with policies aimed at helping the president reach his goal of curbing illegal immigration, and he remained by Trump’s side during the messy roll-out of the president’s first travel ban.

Kelly also showed a willingness to spar with the media, quipping to the president at a military commencement ceremony early in Trump’s term that he should use a ceremonial sword “on the press.”

Initially, Kelly was hailed in the White House as a disciplinarian who could bring order to a chaotic West Wing. He cracked down on visitors wandering in and out of the Oval Office and instituted a review system of sorts to control the flow of documents crossing the president’s desk.

But Trump, who dislikes feeling managed, bristled at the new order, and Kelly reportedly settled on a more hands-off approach to the job by the end of his tenure, so much so that it lead staff to sometimes refer to him as “chief of staff in name only.”

Kelly was never able to clamp down on Trump’s rampant tweeting or his tendency to make unpredictable and narrative-derailing statements at public appearances. Kelly’s dour reaction to the president’s outbursts occasionally drew headlines, such as his glum expression as Trump insisted that “both sides” at the Charlottesville white nationalist rally had “very fine people.”

By October 2017, speculation about Kelly’s future had become so rampant that the chief of staff felt compelled to address the rumors head on. At a White House press briefing, Kelly smiled as he told reporters, “I’m not quitting today. I don’t believe, and I just talked to the president, I don’t think I’m being fired today.”

Though he attempted to avoid the spotlight in his role, Kelly came under fire in February for his forceful defense of Trump’s staff secretary Rob Porter in the wake of allegations of domestic abuse from two of Porter’s former wives. Kelly initially denied knowing about the allegations and said that Porter would remain in his job. He later said that he was unaware of the scope of the accusations until he saw photos, and Porter soon left the White House.

The incident irked White House communications staffers, who felt they were left to suss out what actually happened on their own.

Tensions spilled out into the open again this spring, when NBC News reported that Kelly privately referred to the president as an “idiot.” Kelly was forced to issue a denial, calling the report “total BS.” That report was later backed up by a White House exposé written by veteran reporter Bob Woodward.

“It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails,” Kelly said of Trump, according to Woodward’s telling. “We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

But Kelly did reportedly find a niche as the president’s tough talker. Despite gaining national acclaim for firing people on “The Apprentice,” Trump has recoiled from having some tough in-person conversations — including firing officials. Instead, Kelly often assumed that role.

It was Kelly who had bombastic communications director Anthony Scaramucci removed after just 11 days. Kelly also fired former aide Omarosa Manigault-Newman, according to a secret recording she made, and Kelly revealed to reporters that he fired Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while the latter was in the bathroom.

With Kelly out at the White House, the future of his replacement at DHS has also been thrown into question. Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen got the job with Kelly’s backing after she served as his chief of staff at DHS and as his deputy in the West Wing.

Nielsen spent several weeks in November fending off rumors of her imminent departure, as well as public criticism from Trump that she was not aggressive enough in pushing a restrictive immigration agenda. But Nielsen has adopted a hardline tone regarding the migrant caravan camped out on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, easing Trump’s concerns.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump announces Army chief Mark Milley as pick for next Joint Chiefs chairman

President Donald Trump on Saturday named Army Gen. Mark Milley as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Milley is set to replace current chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, who still has nearly 10 months left in his term.

"I am pleased to announce my nomination of four-star General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the United States Army – as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replacing General Joe Dunford, who will be retiring...." the president tweeted.

In another post, Trump wrote: "....I am thankful to both of these incredible men for their service to our Country! Date of transition to be determined."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump claims 'NO COLLUSION' after court filings detail campaign's contacts with Russia

President Donald Trump again insisted Saturday that his 2016 presidential campaign did not conspire with Russia, hammering the special counsel the morning after three long-awaited court filings shed more light on the Trump team's contact with Russian officials and others linked to the Kremlin.

“AFTER TWO YEARS AND MILLIONS OF PAGES OF DOCUMENTS (and a cost of over $30,000,000), NO COLLUSION!” the president tweeted.

According to a filing Friday from special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump’s longtime lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors that he reached out to Russia’s government to set up a meeting during President Vladimir Putin's visit to the United Nations General Assembly in late 2015, after conferring with Trump beforehand.

The filing from Mueller’s office also disclosed that Cohen spoke to an unnamed Russian national claiming to be a “trusted person” in the Russian Federation in or around November 2015. That person offered to help Trump’s campaign with “political synergy” and “synergy on a government level,” according to the filing.

As details of the filings emerged Friday evening, Trump tweeted: “Totally vindicates the President. Thank you!"

The president had also unleashed a series of tweets attacking the special counsel early Friday morning. He and his legal team have repeatedly claimed that Cohen is lying, and Trump has given various differing amounts of the cost of the Mueller investigation.

The president began tweeting just after 7:30 a.m. Saturday, hitting President Emmanuel Macron of France for recent protests in Paris over Macron’s planned hike of fuel taxes.

“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France,” Trump wrote online, referring to the 2015 multinational climate accord the U.S. withdrew from in June 2017.

“People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting ‘We Want Trump!’ Love France,” Trump wrote. There was little available evidence for Trump's claims.

Roughly 20 minutes later, Trump took aim at Macron’s comments last month that Europe should have its own army.

“The idea of a European Military didn’t work out too well in W.W. I or 2,” Trump tweeted. “But the U.S. was there for you, and always will be. All we ask is that you pay your fair share of NATO. Germany is paying 1% while the U.S. pays 4.3% of a much larger GDP - to protect Europe. Fairness!"

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Week 81: Mueller Plays Truth or Consequences

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 has worked the peripheries of the case since May 2017, scoring a conviction and a few of guilty pleas while peppering the ranks of Russian intelligence with criminal indictments. Mueller’s main subject of interest, President Donald Trump, escaped his lash if not his interest this week as four hotly anticipated court filings were handed down. The investigation finally placed Trump in its sights and telegraphed Mueller’s methods to all the president’s men: If you are good, like former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and provide “substantial assistance,” you might get a nice note from the special counsel and avoid prison time. Tell “discernible lies,” as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort did, and expect holy hell from Mueller. Do a little of both, as former Trump attorney Michael Cohen did, and expect a treatment somewhere in the median.

Lying, or in Cohen’s case, declining to tell the whole truth, has consequences for the liars. But, the consequences of these lies continue to pile up at the president’s doorstep too. Redacted and cagey as these filings are, each one has provided some new tidbit the reinforces the connections between Trump, his campaign and people trying to influence the 2016 election on his behalf—most of them Russian.

Last year, talking like a goomba, Cohen made a big fuss about how he'd take a bullet for Trump, if need be. But what has Cohen actually done now that the time has come for him to eat lead for Trump? According to Mueller’s addendum to the sentencing memo filed by the U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York, he fragged his old boss by tattling to prosecutors about the crimes they've committed together and about the Trump Organization's interactions with unnamed Russians during the 2016 campaign. These detonations leave the president's hide bloodied with legal shrapnel. If you need evidence of the extent of the wounds, just look at Trump’s twitter feed, always an excellent diagnostic for his mental pain. On Friday night, he tweeted: “Totally vindicates the President. Thank you!”

According to the SDNY attorneys, Cohen not only confessed to having broken campaign finance law by paying two of Trump’s paramours to keep silent about their affairs, but also literally fingered his former client as his partner in crime. “As Cohen has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1”—Individual-1 being Trump. I'm guilty, guilty, guilty, Cohen telegraphed, but so is the president of the United States. Every legal beagle and political commentator to speed read the sentencing memo spotlighted the fact that in no uncertain terms the prosecutors have accused—but not charged—Trump with a felony. Compared to the relatively forgiving tones of Mueller’s memo, the SDNY attorney poured their fury on Cohen for insufficient cooperation after he pled out, and called on the judge to sentence him to serious time.

Mueller’s memo details the nature of Cohen’s lies. He misled Congress about what he knew about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and about Trump's efforts to build a Moscow tower. And he told these lies, according to the memo, to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1 [Trump] … in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russian investigations.” Smells like obstruction of justice, doesn’t it?

In another Mueller filing, he documented the alleged lies told by Manafort, convicted by Mueller on eight counts of financial fraud in the summer. Manafort began cooperating with prosecutors after his August conviction and subsequent guilty plea to additional charges, but Mueller soon learned that the mendacious political consultant was an unreliable narrator. Seeing as Mueller had already successfully prosecuted him for lying, concealing and deceiving, Manafort should have known better than to fling a bounty of lies at the special counsel after promising to tell the truth. But he did, and like Cohen, his lies were serial.

Claiming to have had no communications with Trump administration officials, Manafort was found to have made multiple contacts with them, including an effort as late as May 26, 2018, to convey a message through an intermediary to an administration official. This is the sort of lie that would go down like a whiskey chaser after shopping for a pardon with the president, attempting to coordinate an alibi with Team Trump, or both.

A heavily redacted part of the filing alleges that Manafort lied about his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, his former business associate in Europe and suspected Russian spy. In one mysteriously redacted passage, Manafort is accused of having lied about a redacted topic “that was pertinent to an investigation in another district.” Nested like Russian dolls, this investigation is, as Yoda would put it. Returning to the Cohen sentencing memos, we find more explicit Russian intrigue. Cohen repeatedly lied about what he knew about the Moscow tower, twice to Congress and once to Mueller’s team. Not until he pled guilty to federal fraud charges in New York did he finally level with Mueller and “admit that his prior statements about the Moscow Project had been deliberately false and misleading.”

Last week, we learned that Cohen and others in the Trump Organization were still working on the Moscow project until June 2016, belying the previous timeline in which the organization was supposed to have bailed on the tower in January of that year. With the new timeline come additional Moscow facts that further bind Trump and his people to the Russians, who were known to be meddling in the election. According to Mueller, Cohen has spilled new details to him about whom he worked with on the proposed tower, whom he dealt with inside the Russian government (an assistant to Putin’s press secretary), and prospective plans he made about traveling to Russia to discuss the deal with the government figures who were essential for its completion. Cohen’s incentive to pursue the deal was the same as Trump’s. He told Mueller that “financial aspects of the deal would have made it highly lucrative for the Company and himself.” The intimacies with unnamed Russians disclosed in the memo whiff of Russian meddling in the Trump campaign if not straight up collusion. Trump was trying to have it both ways: Campaign for the presidency while pursuing a potentially lucrative business deal with an adversary’s government.

Russian nationals infest the Mueller memo like termites in rotten wood. They made repeated efforts to contact the Trump campaign, including one around November 2015, when Trump was leading the Republican field. Cohen was approached by a “Russian national who claimed to be a ‘trusted person’ in the Russian Federation who could offer the campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level.’” Last June, BuzzFeed reported former Olympic weightlifter Dmitry Klokov as the likely Russian go-between. Whoever he was, this Russian mediary repeatedly proposed a meeting between Trump and Putin, Cohen told Mueller, one that was promised to provide political as well as business payoffs. In a footnote, Mueller writes that Cohen once conferred with Trump about contacting the Russian government about its interest in a Trump-Putin meeting, but no meeting took place.

Like Manafort, Cohen remained in contact with the White House in 2017 and 2018. Although Mueller writes that Cohen “provided relevant and useful information concerning” these contacts, he doesn't spell them out. Was Cohen triangulating his story with Trump and associates? Was he pardon shopping?

After a year and a half of build-up, Mueller has now sketched out the framework of interlacing business collusion and political collusion by Trump with the Russians. If Trump has any pardons in stock, he might want to save them for himself.


If Trump won't build that tower, I will. Send your millions via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have learned its lesson. It will never lie to Robert Mueller. My Twitter feed is too dumb to lie, too smart to tell the truth. My RSS feed considers itself Non-Individual 1.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


This Weird Novel by Ralph Nader Predicted the Future

If you’re looking to shop a conspiracy theory to Breitbart or InfoWars, it would be hard to outdo this one: Warren Buffett, dismayed by our dysfunctional plutocratic government, summons 17 elitists to a Maui hideaway. They are rich (George Soros, of course, and Ross Perot), famous (Warren Beatty, Yoko Ono), plugged into the media establishment (Barry Diller). With their vast wealth and privileged status, they transform America by unionizing Walmart, driving private money out of elections, establishing single-payer health care and rewriting the Pledge of Allegiance (“with liberty and justice for some.”)

There’s a kicker to this fantasy. It was published almost 10 years ago, as a 733-page novel titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!. And the author was not Alex Jones or Newt Gingrich, but Ralph Nader—yes, the corporate-busting, Gore-undermining, Corvair-demolishing activist Ralph Nader. Most important, while the book is a tad heavy-handed—the right-wing radio voices opposed to these elitist liberal reforms are named “Bush Bimbaugh” and “Pawn Sanity”—Nader was more than a little prescient. The 2018 midterms demonstrated that a long-cherished belief on the left—that the ultra-ultra-ultra-rich pose a clear and present danger to our democracy—is fast being overtaken by events. It is not a fantasy to suggest that the next presidential election could involve a powerful push to the left by a handful of the richest people in America.

Ever since the 5-4 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC greatly reduced the government’s power to regulate—and in some cases curb—political messages, the Democratic Party has condemned the decision. In his State of the Union address delivered just days after the decision, President Barack Obama said, “Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections.” (That was when Justice Samuel Alito mouthed the response, “not true.” And Alito was right if he meant that the “floodgates” permitting huge amounts of independent expenditures was in fact opened more than 40 years ago in Buckley v. Valeo).

A determination to undo Citizens United is at the heart of the Democratic Party’s view of how to fix American politics. The party’s 2016 platform reads: “Democrats believe we must fight to preserve the essence of the longest standing democracy in the world: a government that represents the American people, not just a handful of powerful and wealthy special interests. We will fight for real campaign finance reform now. Big money is drowning out the voices of everyday Americans, and we must have the necessary tools to fight back and safeguard our electoral and political integrity. … Democrats support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo.”

Senator Bernie Sanders has been particularly tough on the decision, saying it was “corrupt and undermining American democracy,” and that it gave corporations the ability to “buy and purchase the United States government.”

Yet the facts, as they typically do, suggest a more complex picture. First, the rise of the internet has made a long-held dream of reformers a reality, going back to Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign: It is very possible now to raise huge sums of money one small donation at a time. There’s no better example than Sanders’ own presidential campaign. He raised $229 million, keeping him competitive with Hillary Clinton, and 58 percent of that total arrived in contributions of $200 or less.

The contrast between Democratic garment-rending and reality was even sharper in the just-concluded midterms. According to OpenSecrets.org, the Democrats out-raised the Republicans by $300 million, and 51 Republican incumbents found themselves out-raised by at least 2 to 1. The story is told dramatically by Corry Bliss, who was the field general for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP-allied PAC. In an interview with POLITICO Magazine’s Tim Alberta the day after the election, Bliss sounded like a commander leading troops through a valley, while the enemy constantly fires down from the commanding heights.

“The Democrats deserve credit,” Bliss says. “They did a great job with hard-dollar, small-dollar fundraising that helped their candidates get on TV early, start earlier than ever before. There were a number of these races that if we didn’t win August, it wouldn’t matter who was going to win October because the Democrats had record amounts of money and they did a good job recruiting good stories and good candidates.” Bliss also noted that the financial firepower enabled Democrats to throw resources into races at the last minute, into whatever terrain seemed most promising: direct mail, TV, social media.

But what about those deep-pocket Republican supporters, like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, those gazillionaires whose campaign donations liberal parents read to their children at night to frighten them? They were certainly present in the latest cycle. Adelson and his wife kicked in more than $113 million, all of it to Republicans and conservatives. But Tom Steyer, the liberal hedge-fund manager, gave almost $60 million to Democratic campaigns, much of it in the form of face-to-camera ads urging the impeachment of President Donald Trump. (This may not be entirely altruistic; Steyer has given hints that he may join the 436 other Democrats running for president.)

But if we’re looking for the real-life version of Nader’s fantasy plutocracy, it’s Michael Bloomberg, who really deserves our attention. The ex-mayor of New York spent some $80 million on House candidates, just about all of them Democrats, and donated $20 million to Senate Democrats in the last two weeks of the midterms. Bloomberg’s net worth is pegged by Forbes at $45 billion, give or take a billion or so. In his three mayoral runs (as a Republican), he spent more than $260 million of his fortune, according to the New York Times. And that doesn’t count the contributions he gave to various civic groups when he was trying (successfully) to get the City Council to change the law so that he could run for a third term. Nor did Bloomberg stop spending when the polls closed. The Times says that in his 12 years as mayor, Bloomberg contributed almost the same amount—$260 million—to a range of philanthropic and civic organizations, in some cases making up for public funds that were no longer available.

Perhaps Bloomberg’s most eye-opening contribution wasn’t political at all: a $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University so that its admissions office could be “forever blind” to the incomes of its applicants. If Forbes’ estimate of his wealth is accurate, Bloomberg’s gift to Hopkins adds up to 4 percent of his net worth. It’s also roughly one-third of the estimated total spent on all House and Senate races in 2018. If Bloomberg decided to run for president—or decided to support another candidate through the myriad of loopholes in what’s left of our campaign finance laws—he could equal the total amount of midterm campaign spending and still be left with roughly $40 billion.

With just a little imagination, a few other members of the top .001 percent could decide to join Bloomberg in an effort to move American politics on matters like the environment, health care, or—yes—getting big money out of politics. A handful of Americans at the very pinnacle of wealth could drown their opponents in campaign money, no matter how rich (by normal standards) these opponents were.

It’s a truism—because it’s true—to note that money is often not decisive in politics. Ask Jon Ossoff or Beto O’Rourke or Hillary Clinton. But a huge advantage in resources has a multiplier effect, as 2018 showed. Money enabled Democrats to test ads in midcampaign—something most campaigns simply lack the funds to do. Money means that a candidate can make an effort in neighborhoods and among constituencies that otherwise would simply be abandoned as a matter of triage. And if you think Democrats might recoil at the idea of putting a huge financial advantage to work—just remember that the first candidate to walk away from public financing, and its spending limits, in a general election for president was Barack Obama.

I don’t expect Bloomberg, or any other very well-heeled figure, will use Nader’s reimagining of Atlas Shrugged as a road map. Nor would I expect Bloomberg to embrace the tax-the-rich, bring-Wall-Street-to-heel outlook that characterizes the Democratic left. But the point is that he and others could if they wanted to. What Nader sketched out a decade ago as a fantasy is within rich liberals’ reach today. And if it does happen, don’t be surprised if Republicans suddenly discover the baneful influence of Citizens United and money in politics.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


GOP power grabs pour gas on 'resistance' in key Midwest states

Republican efforts to weaken incoming Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin have reignited the grass-roots fervor that flipped both states in November, turning the typically sleepy post-election period into a key organizing moment ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Liberal groups in both states are organizing demonstrations filling the capitols in both states to oppose GOP legislators stripping power from the governor’s offices before new Democratic governors take their posts. Local chapters of Indivisible, the national “resistance” group founded after President Donald Trump’s 2016 win, reactivated their members weeks after the election to protest the legislation, while MoveOn.org has texted members in key Wisconsin state Senate districts urging them to contact Republican politicians to complain. And Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Democratic Party have raked in money with online fundraising appeals highlighting the fight over the past two weeks.

The burst of activity comes as most political groups and activists around the country enjoy a hibernation period after November victories. But liberal leaders in Wisconsin noted that the renewed energy could carry Democrats into important off-year elections in 2019 — and set the stage for efforts to win both states in the 2020 presidential election, after Trump picked off both longtime Democratic states two years ago.

The furor is a “great bridge for the energy from the midterm into Trump reelect,” said Tom Russell, a veteran Democratic strategist in Wisconsin. “I think it’s going to be a very good tool for Democrats to keep the energy up, keep people focused, keep people engaged.”

In Wisconsin, the controversy stems from legislation in the final days of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s term to limit the window for early voting and weaken Gov.-elect Tony Evers, the Democrat who bested Walker in November. In Michigan, Republican lawmakers are trying to reduce the power of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. The GOP had controlled the latter two for over a decade and the governorship for eight years, but Democrats won all three offices in this year’s midterms.

Democrats also won the majority of votes cast for state legislature in both states. But they will still be in the minority next year in both legislative chambers in Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans drew the political maps at the beginning of the decade. That means Democrats won’t have the numbers in 2019 to reverse legislation passed in the waning days of this year.

“Normally, victory can result in a trailing-off of grassroots energy,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director for MoveOn.org. “But this kind of end-run around the electorate makes sure the progressive grassroots is going to stay in the fight for the foreseeable future.”

The GOP’s legislative actions could stay in the news for a while; the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is monitoring both states and considering whether it could take legal action if Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sign the measures into law. Protracted court battles could spur the activists for months, up to or potentially through a state Supreme Court race early next year — the type of off-year race at which the Republican Party excelled during the Walker years.

“Progressives have to defend a Supreme Court seat in April of 2019 — this will help them do that,” said Scot Ross, the executive director of One Wisconsin Now, a liberal outside group.

Liberals will then have the chance to take the majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court in 2020, as Trump tries to keep the state in his column in the fall’s presidential race.

In Michigan, there’s also more than executive power at stake for the new governor. State legislative Republicans have also taken steps to undo initiatives to raise the state minimum wage and paid sick leave in the state.

Both initiatives were set to be on the ballot this November before Republican lawmakers short-circuited the process by passing the language — before altering it during the lame-duck legislative session.

“Democrats and progressives both in and out of the party are really concerned about this and they’re really energized by it,” said Liano Sharon, a Democratic organizer in Michigan.

Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer has condemned the lawmakers, while promoting hopes of bipartisanship.

“This legislation needlessly divides and won’t deliver results. It won’t clean up our water. It won’t improve literacy or fix the roads. Instead of working to undermine the very leaders Michigan residents have chosen to get this job done, let's instead respect the voices of voters who have spoken clearly and decisively, and get back to building bridges.”

Whitmer’s power may be limited during her first years in office thanks to Republicans’ enduring legislative majorities. But in the meantime, activists could push to put new liberal initiatives on the ballot, including a more aggressive minimum wage hike. It could even push them toward contention to flip a state legislative chamber or more in 2020.

“I think the Democrats were energized in November, and now they’re going crazy,” said Barry Goodman, a Democratic National Committeeman from Michigan.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Juul tries to make friends in Washington as regulators circle

All the cool kids are doing it. And that’s bad news for the nation’s top e-cigarette maker.

Facing lawsuits from parents of teenage vaping-product users and threats of crackdowns from regulators over kid-friendly packaging and flavors, Juul Labs has gone on a hiring spree on K Street, ramping up its lobbying spending fourfold in recent months.

The San Francisco company that’s become synonymous with vaping — “juuling” is now a verb — has hired political hands in Washington and started a political action committee that has donated to members of Congress and state attorney-general candidates.

Twenty years after four big tobacco companies reached a massive settlement with 46 states over smoking-related health problems and marketing issues — which was followed by a series of tighter restrictions and led to the rapid decline of the industry in the United States — Juul is frantically trying to avoid a similar fate.

“You’ve got the impression that they’re scrambling. I would be,” said Liz Mair, a spokesperson for Vapers United, a coalition of e-cigarette users and vape shops.

Juul says it’s building out its staff “to drive awareness of our mission to improve the lives of the world's one billion smokers and to combat underage use.”

“The numbers tell us underage use of e-cigarette products is a problem that requires immediate action,” company spokesperson Victoria Davis told POLITICO in a written statement.

E-cigarette pioneers including Blu and Vuse sold products that looked like cigarettes, but Juul broke through with battery-powered sticks that look like flash drives. Teenage use exploded, and the company now has more than 70 percent of the market.

Juul touts its vaporizers, which contain nicotine but are considered safer than cigarettes, as a tool to help smokers quit. But early ad campaigns didn’t mention cessation, instead showing youthful models dancing with its vaporizers, lit by colorful backgrounds that made the images pop in social media feeds. That’s bought scrutiny from regulators in Washington and attorneys general in at least two states.

“Juul’s behavior is so often inconsistent with its public statements and rhetoric that it has no one else to blame for the regulatory steps that have been taken,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The biggest blow to the vaping industry came this fall, when FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and HHS Secretary Alex Azar declared teen vaping an epidemic and signaled a impending crackdown. Juul laid out a plan to voluntarily pull most flavored products from retail stores last month and end social media promotion, but it wasn't enough to put off FDA action. Days later, the agency ordered e-cig makers to pull all flavors except mint and menthol from convenience stores, gas stations and online sales.

Vape-makers and retailers are hustling to launch teen prevention plans before regulators tighten the screws on the industry.

Juul opened its Washington office in February, soon after the arrival of CEO Kevin Burns.

Burns himself upped his campaign-giving, contributing nearly $300,000 to GOP coffers before the November midterms, a fivefold increase from his activity during the previous cycle. And Juul’s employee PAC, which launched in March, has spent $97,400 so far this year.

In addition to spending by its PAC, Juul gave $25,000 to the Republican Governors Association and $50,000 each to the Republican and Democratic associations of attorneys general. More than 40 percent of the company's federal PAC spending was directed to the campaigns of more than a dozen attorneys general, including Alan Wilson in South Carolina, Mike Hunter in Virginia and Hector Balderas in New Mexico.

The company's marketing practices have faced scrutiny from state regulators. In April, Juul pledged $30 million for research and public education and endorsed state legislative efforts to raise the purchase age to 21. That announcement grew out of a surprising alliance with a potential antagonist, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a consumer crusader who helped negotiate the historic $200 billion settlement between states and tobacco companies in 1998.

Meanwhile, Juul has been staffing up with longtime Washington insiders. In June, the company hired Jerry Masoudi, chief counsel to the FDA under former President George W. Bush. A month later, Jim Esquea, an assistant secretary to HHS under former President Barack Obama, registered as the company’s in-house lobbyist.

Former White House deputy communications director Josh Raffel joined the firm in October, just days after the FDA conducted a surprise inspection of the company’s San Francisco office and confiscated more than a thousand documents related to the company’s marketing practices.

In recent months, Juul has retained InSight Public Affairs, Covington & Burling, Empire Consulting Group, Kountoupes Denham Carr & Reid and the S-3 Group to lobby. It spent $560,000 on lobbying in the third quarter, more than four times what it spent in all of 2017. The company also recently took out full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

After 11 senators sent a letter to Juul questioning its marketing approach and kid-friendly e-cigarette flavors like fruity medley, creme brulee and mango, Juul paid a visit to Capitol Hill. The company said it never intended its products to appeal to kids and didn’t realize they were using the products, according to a staffer for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

"They like to bill themselves as ‘not Big Tobacco,’ but everything they’ve done to date — resist FDA regulation, target children, spread misleading information — suggests the exact opposite," said the staffer.

The senator didn’t buy it. Durbin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) last month called for a ban on kid-friendly flavors, and Durbin recently met with Gottlieb to discuss more extensive regulations.

Scientists say it’s too soon to know whether e-cigarettes are a net positive or negative for public health. The nicotine aerosol from vaporizers is less toxic than cigarette smoke and can be a tool to help smokers quit. But that relationship could go both ways: Teenagers who get hooked on vaping might have a higher risk of taking up smoking.

And there’s no doubt teenagers are vaping in greater numbers. From 2017 to 2018, the number of high-school-age children using e-cigarettes rose more than 75 percent, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Use among middle-schoolers increased nearly 50 percent. In October, the Rand Corporation said teenagers who vape are more likely to take up smoking.

Defenders of e-cigarettes have criticized some of that research. On Tuesday, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report accusing health care charities including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society of conspiring with government agencies to scare the public off of e-cigarettes.

Other e-cigarette makers have also hired lobbyists. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based NJOY has hired A. Bradford Card of Card & Associates, according to a disclosure filing.

But Mike Hogan, a lobbyist for the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, which represents vapor manufacturers and retailers, said Juul’s recent flurry of activity might be drawing too much attention, feeding the narrative that flavored vapors are a problem. Hogan wants lawmakers to hold a hearing to examine whether a vape crackdown would push people back to smoking cigarettes.

“They’re definitely going their own way,” Hogan said of Juul. “We think that the superficial understanding on the Hill of the current dynamic will cause people to introduce legislation.”

Industry groups said they're still uncertain if the FDA, after its latest regulatory moves, will pursue further regulations. For instance, Gottlieb last month said the FDA could further crack down on mint- and menthol-flavored e-cigarettes, which were exempted from the new restrictions, if teens started flocking to those flavors.

“We’re getting left with a hell of a lot of regulatory uncertainty,” Vapers United’s Mair said. “That’s not a good thing in small business.”

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


The legal battle that could undermine law at center of Mueller probe

A little-noticed legal showdown in California poses a threat to a law seen as the backbone of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of 2016 Russian election interference.

Ravi Singh, an Illinois-based political consultant and self-proclaimed “campaign guru,” is challenging a decades-old federal law barring foreign involvement in U.S. elections. He calls the provision unconstitutional, insisting Congress can’t regulate the role played by non-citizens in state and local elections.

Legal scholars say the appeal represents a serious challenge to the statute. And while Mueller has yet to charge anyone with a direct violation of the law, his team alludes to the statute in several legal filings. And many legal experts have cited the foreign donations ban to rebut claims by some pro-Trump partisans and even Trump himself that “collusion” with Russia in the midst of a campaign would not be a crime.

At a time when the special prosecutor’s legitimacy is being attacked on various grounds, a ruling in Singh's favor would create even more uncertainty around the broader effort to shield U.S. elections from foreign influence.

“It shows there is a lot of untested ground surrounding the foreign national prohibition,” said Joe Birkenstock, a former Democratic National Committee general counsel now with law firm Sandler Reiff.

Singh is appealing a 2016 federal conviction on charges a Mexican real estate developer secretly footed the bill for a quarter million dollars-worth of digital campaign consulting that Singh provided two San Diego mayoral candidates.

The source of the funds for Singh’s campaign work, businessman Jose Azano, has homes in San Diego and Miami and spent much of his time in the U.S., but is not an American citizen or green card holder. He was allegedly hoping to gain influence in a bid to redevelop San Diego's waterfront.

Singh’s lawyers have leaned on the Tenth Amendment to support their appeal. The clause gives states and the people the powers that the Constitution does not expressly delegate to Congress.

“Congress’s effort to trample on the states’ ability to structure their political processes as they see fit violates the Tenth Amendment,” Singh attorneys Harold Krent and Todd Burns wrote in a recent brief.

Singh’s defense team notes that enforcing a ban on foreigners donating to virtually any U.S. electoral campaign has had some bizarre results. For instance, various localities including Takoma Park, Maryland, San Francisco and Chicago allow non-citizens to vote in local elections of some sort. However, under the broad federal ban, it is illegal for at least some of those foreigners to donate to candidates in those same races.

“If the eligibility of foreign nationals to vote in state and local elections is exclusively a state/local matter, it stands to reason that the eligibility of foreign nationals to make contributions related to such elections is also exclusively a state/local matter,” Singh’s defense wrote.

The legal fight has also highlighted the fact that until the early 20th century, many states had laws on the books specifically allowing for non-citizen voting.

“We’ve forgotten the last 100 or more years of our history — how foreign nationals participated so actively in the life of our country. … That’s a very important tradition,” Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law, told POLITICO. “Most states, some even in their constitutions, permitted foreign nationals to vote. It’s a lot richer history than I was aware.”

The Justice Department has a blunt response to that argument.

“It does not matter that some local jurisdictions may permit aliens to vote,” prosecutors wrote in a brief defending the conviction. “That is a matter of grace, not constitutional requirement.”

The prosecution also raised the specter that giving foreigners a green light to spend in non-federal elections could lead to foreign countries effectively taking control of local governments in the U.S, particularly along the border.

“It cannot be beyond Congress’s power to prevent foreign citizens from pumping funds into local and state governments to set up foreign enclaves within United States borders,” prosecutors wrote. “If Canadian citizens decided that they wanted to install favored officials in all towns on the northern border by flooding local elections with foreign national funds, Congress would certainly be acting within its power to thwart it.”

Legal experts are divided about how much traction Singh is likely to get for his argument that Congress went too far in banning foreigners without green cards from donating to state and local races.

“Regulating the activities of foreign nationals is not only a form of protecting self-government and democratic processes, but it’s also a form of protecting the country itself,” said GOP campaign finance lawyer Jan Baran of law firm Wiley Rein.

“I think there’s actually a pretty strong federalism issue here and it’s super interesting,” said Temple University Law Professor Peter Spiro, a leading expert on citizenship and dual nationality. “If non-citizen voting is constitutionally acceptable, I’m not sure I see what the government’s rationale here is. … It’s hard to see the national security explanation when you’re talking about state and local elections, and once you take that off the table it just looks like a federal diktat in terms of how states define their own political community.”

Asked to rate the chance of Singh prevailing, Birkenstock said: “It’s above zero, but I still think it’s uphill. … It’s certainly not frivolous. I think they’re raising worthwhile challenges.”

One reason not to dismiss Singh’s appeal out of hand: The judge who oversaw the trial turned down Singh’s request to put off his 15-month prison sentence while his appeal went forward, but a pair of 9th Circuit appeals judges took the unusual step of reversing that decision and letting the consultant stay out on bail. They said Singh’s defense was raising a “substantial question,” but they didn’t elaborate on whether that was the argument about the foreign national ban or one of several other issues in the case.

“It’s an indication the court takes this seriously,” Krent said.

It’s unclear how quickly the 9th Circuit will rule on the issue and whether a decision will come while Mueller’s probe remains in business. The appeals court announced last week that it may hear oral arguments on the case as soon as March of next year. While there are signs Mueller is wrapping up some portions of his probe, court timelines could easily take the investigation into spring of next year.

The political hot-potato is being handed to the same San Francisco-based appeals court, the 9th Circuit, that continues to draw fire from President Donald Trump and recently touched off an unusual public spat between the president and Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Everything goes to the 9th Circuit. Everything,” Trump complained to reporters last month.

Legal experts said that if the appeals court panel strikes down the foreign donation ban’s application to state and local elections, the judges would probably be careful to make sure their move wasn’t seen as undercutting Mueller’s probe or federal authority over federal elections.

“If the 9th Circuit judges rule on federalism grounds, they would probably try to satisfy any concern about tainting Mueller’s investigation by carving it off from what Mueller is doing,” said Spiro. The ban faced and survived a court challenge several years ago on First Amendment grounds, but the judges never wrestled with the question of whether the prohibition intrudes on state prerogatives.

The prohibition on foreigners donating to U.S. political campaigns dates back to 1966 and was originally enacted as part of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. A decade later, Congress made the provision part of federal campaign finance law.

After a scandal erupted over foreign donations to Democratic Party coffers during the 1996 presidential race, federal prosecutors accused several individuals of violating the ban.

When the so-called McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was passed in 2002, lawmakers cited the 1996 controversy as they reworded the foreign donation ban, making clear that it applied to donations “in connection with a Federal, State or local election” and expanding it to cover TV and radio ads mentioning federal candidates in the lead-up to an election.

But thus far the foreign donation ban has played an elusive role in Mueller’s investigation. Despite leveling more than 100 criminal charges at a total of 34 individuals and three companies, Mueller has yet to directly charge anyone with violating the foreign donation ban.

The foreign donation ban was cited in an early Mueller search warrant for the Alexandria condo owned by former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has since been convicted of bank and tax fraud and admitted to evading a federal law requiring registration of lobbyists for foreign governments.

Some have accused Mueller of deliberately avoiding charging a violation of the ban. A Russian firm that is the only defendant currently fighting a Mueller charge, Concord Management and Consulting of St. Petersburg, has alleged that the special counsel didn’t charge the company with violating the prohibition because prosecutors knew they couldn’t show the defendants knew their conduct was illegal, which the law requires.

A criminal complaint against a Russian accountant connected to Concord, Elena Khusyaynova, explicitly cites the foreign donation ban, but doesn’t charge any specific violation of it. (However, that case, focusing on alleged interference in the 2018 midterm elections, is being handled by prosecutors in Alexandria, Va. — not by Mueller's team.)

“The Special Counsel has pleaded around the knowledge requirements of all related substantive statutes and regulations," Concord’s American lawyers, Eric Dubelier and Kate Seikaly wrote in a filing earlier this year that accused Mueller's team of "sleight of hand."

Last month, however, U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich rejected Concord’s drive to throw out the conspiracy charge it faces.

Mueller's office declined to comment on any concerns about how a ruling against the foreign-donation ban could impact his probe. However, at least one Mueller investigator is intimately familiar with the San Diego probe. The FBI agent who oversaw much of the Manafort investigation, Omer Meisel, also played a key role in the probe that led to charges against Singh, Azano and others.

The central focus of the San Diego inquiry — Mayor and former Congressman Bob Filner — never faced a federal charge, but he was hit with state charges and resigned the mayor's post amidst a sexual harassment scandal.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


U.S. appeals court won’t immediately allow Trump asylum ban

A divided U.S. appeals court late Friday refused to immediately allow the Trump administration to enforce a ban on asylum for any immigrants who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

The ban is inconsistent with an existing U.S. law and an attempted end-run around Congress, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision.

“Just as we may not, as we are often reminded, ‘legislate from the bench,’ neither may the Executive legislate from the Oval Office,” 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, a nominee of Republican President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, Steven Stafford, did not have comment. But he referred to an earlier statement that called the asylum system broken and said the department looked forward to “continuing to defend the Executive Branch’s legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border.”

At issue is President Donald Trump’s Nov. 9 proclamation that barred anyone who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border between official ports of entry from seeking asylum. Trump issued the proclamation in response to caravans of migrants approaching the border.

A lower court judge temporarily blocked the ban and later refused to immediately reinstate it. The administration appealed to the 9th Circuit for an immediate stay of Judge Jon Tigar’s Nov. 19 temporary restraining order.

In a dissenting opinion Friday, 9th Circuit Judge Edward Leavy said the administration “adopted legal methods to cope with the current problems rampant at the southern border.” Nothing in the law the majority cited prevented a rule categorically barring eligibility for asylum on the basis of how a person entered the country, Leavy, a nominee of Republican President Ronald Reagan, said.

In his Nov, 19 ruling, Tigar sided with legal groups who argued that federal law is clear that immigrants in the U.S. can request asylum regardless of whether they entered legally.

The president “may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” the judge said in his order.

The ruling led to an unusual public dispute between Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts after Trump dismissed Tigar — an appointee of Trump’s predecessor — as an “Obama judge.”

Roberts responded with a statement that the federal judiciary doesn’t have “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine