Trump cheers on high school student from viral video over Washington Post lawsuit

President Donald Trump offered words of encouragement Wednesday for the Catholic high school student who is suing The Washington Post over its coverage of last month’s viral and hotly debated confrontation between the boy and a Native American elder.

Lawyers for Nick Sandmann, the teen who was front and center in the viral video, announced Tuesday night they are seeking $250 million in damages from The Post for what they say was defamatory coverage of the incident.

“The Post ignored basic journalist standards because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against President Donald J. Trump (“the President”) by impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the President,” the suit alleges.

Trump weighed in on Twitter Wednesday morning to cheer Sandmann on, referencing the above section of the suit and adding “go get them Nick. Fake News!”

Trump has voiced support for students of the all-male Kentucky school before, ripping the media for “smearing” the boys, who were in Washington to attend an anti-abortion march.

White House officials have appeared on television to defend the students, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reportedly did not rule out a White House visit by the students at a later date. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about a potential visit by the students.

The suit alleges that the Post, along with other media outlets, “targeted” Sandmann and his classmates because they were wearing clothing with the president’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, and declined to seek context outside of the short video that caught fire on social media before portraying Sandmann and his classmates as the aggressors in the clip.

The widely seen clip shows a smirking Sandmann surrounded by laughing classmates looking down at Nathan Phillips, a tribal elder and veteran, as Phillips beats a drum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Video surfaced later showed a fuller picture of the encounter, including that a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites hurled invective at both the students and the group of Native Americans alike.

The additional video caused handwringing among many who had shared the initial clip, some of whom apologized for jumping to conclusions — and accused the media of doing the same — about the students depicted in the incident.

After intitially condemning the students' behavior, a team of private investigators retained by the Covington Diocese concluded last week that the students did not instigate the confrontation and found no evidence that they made “racist or offensive statements” to Phillips.

Sandmann’s attorneys say in the suit they have put together a 15-minute long video that they say vindicates their client, but accuse The Post of engaging in “a modern-day form of McCarthyism” and causing “permanent damage to his life and reputation.”

A Post spokeswoman said Tuesday the paper is “reviewing a copy of the lawsuit, and we plan to mount a vigorous defense."

In a statement accompanying the text of the complaint at the top of Sandmann's lawyers' website, the attorneys hint at more legal action to come stemming from coverage of the incident. The statement says the attorneys "will continue to bring wrongdoers before the court to seek damages in compensation for the harm so many have done to the Sandmann family. This is only the beginning."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Putin says he's open to arms control talks, warns U.S. against hostility

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he wants his nation to mend its fractured relationship with the U.S. but also warned that Moscow is prepared to respond to what he described as hostile military moves from Washington.

“We don’t want confrontation, particularly with such a global power as the U.S.,” Putin said in his state of the nation address, according to The Associated Press. The Russian president also said his nation “remains open” to nuclear arms control talks, though he said those would need to be initiated by the U.S.

He called Washington’s targeting of Moscow with sanctions “destructive” policy, and fired a warning shot, cautioning U.S. officials to consider the “range and speed of our prospective weapons” when considering policies that could negatively affect Russia.

Putin on Wednesday also addressed the crumbling of the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, contending that U.S. officials used the Kremlin as a scapegoat to justify withdrawing from the pact.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced earlier this month that the U.S. would suspend its participation in the pact with the goal of pulling out completely within the next six months, sparking fears of a renewed arms race with Moscow.

While the Trump administration has argued that Russia has repeatedly violated its obligations under the treaty, which bars signatories from possessing intermediate range missiles, Putin rejected those accusations on Wednesday.

He also said that while Russia will not make the the first move to place intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Moscow will take retaliatory measures if the U.S. moves to do so, according to the AP. He added that retaliation by Russia could include targeting European countries playing host to the U.S. missiles as well as using new weapons to target U.S. decision-making centers.

In addition to detailing a new military landscape for a Russia and United States unbound by the INF treaty, Putin announced a new hypersonic missile that the Russian navy will affix to surface ships and submarines to work toward its goals of modernization and countering U.S. moves. He said that nuclear-powered weapons he announced last year had been undergoing successful testing.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

‘Sustained and ongoing’ disinformation assault targets Dem presidential candidates

A wide-ranging disinformation campaign aimed at Democratic 2020 candidates is already under way on social media, with signs that foreign state actors are driving at least some of the activity.

The main targets appear to be Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), four of the most prominent announced or prospective candidates for president.

A POLITICO review of recent data extracted from Twitter and from other platforms, as well as interviews with data scientists and digital campaign strategists, suggests that the goal of the coordinated barrage appears to be undermining the nascent candidacies through the dissemination of memes, hashtags, misinformation, and distortions of their positions. But the divisive nature of many of the posts also hint at a broader effort to sow discord and chaos within the Democratic presidential primary.

The cyber propaganda — which frequently picks at the rawest, most sensitive issues in public discourse — is being pushed across a variety of platforms and with a more insidious approach than in the 2016 presidential election, when online attacks designed to polarize and mislead voters first surfaced on a massive scale.

Recent posts that have received widespread dissemination include racially inflammatory memes and messaging involving Harris, O’Rourke and Warren. In Warren’s case, a false narrative surfaced alleging that a blackface doll appeared on a kitchen cabinet in the background of the senator’s New Year’s Eve Instagram livestream.

Not all of the activity is organized. Much of it appears to be organic, a reflection of the politically polarizing nature of some of the candidates. But there are clear signs of a coordinated effort of undetermined size that shares similar characteristics with the computational propaganda attacks launched by online trolls at Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the 2016 presidential election, which special counsel Robert Mueller accused of aiming to undermine the political process and elevate Donald Trump.

“It looks like the 2020 presidential primary is going to be the next battleground to divide and confuse Americans,” said Brett Horvath, one of the founders of Guardians.ai, a tech company that works with a consortium of data scientists, academics and technologists to disrupt cyberattacks and protect pro-democracy groups from information warfare. “As it relates to information warfare in the 2020 cycle, we’re not on the verge of it — we’re already in the third inning.”

An analysis conducted for POLITICO by Guardians.ai found evidence that a relatively small cluster of accounts — and a broader group of accounts that amplify them — drove a disproportionate amount of the Twitter conversation about the four candidates over a recent 30-day period.

Using proprietary tools that measured the discussion surrounding the candidates in the Democratic field, Guardians.ai identified a cohort of roughly 200 accounts — which includes both unwitting real accounts and other ‘suspicious’ and automated accounts that coordinate to spread their messages — pumped out negative or extreme themes designed to damage the candidates.

This is the same core group of accounts the company first identified last year in a study as anchoring a wide scale influence campaign in the 2018 elections.

Since the turn of the year, those accounts began specifically directing their output at Harris, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren, and were amplified by an even wider grouping of accounts. Over a recent 30-day period, between 2 and 15 percent of all Twitter mentions of the four candidates emanated in some way from within that cluster of accounts, according to the Guardians.ai findings. In that timeframe, all four candidates collectively had 6.8 million mentions on Twitter.

“We can conclusively state that a large group of suspicious accounts that were active in one of the largest influence operations of the 2018 cycle is now engaged in sustained and ongoing activity for the 2020 cycle,” Horvath said.

Amarnath Gupta, a research scientist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California at San Diego who monitors social media activity, said he’s also seen a recent surge in Twitter activity negatively targeting three candidates — O’Rourke, Harris and Warren.

That increased activity includes a rise in the sheer volume of tweets, the rate at which they are being posted and the appearance of “cluster behavior” tied to the three candidates.

“I can say that from a very, very cursory look, a lot of the information is negatively biased with respect to sentiment analysis,” said Gupta, who partnered with Guardians.ai on a 2018 study.

According to the Guardians.ai analysis, Harris attracted the most overall Twitter activity among the 2020 candidates it looked at, with more than 2.5 million mentions over the 30-day period.

She was also among the most targeted. One widely seen tweet employed racist and sexist stereotypes in an attempt to sensationalize Harris’ relationship with former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. That tweet — and subsequent retweets and mentions tied to it — made 8.6 million “potential impressions” online, according to Guardians.ai, an upper limit calculation of the number of people who might have seen it based on the accounts the cluster follows, who follows accounts within the cluster and who has engaged with the tweet.

Another racially-charged tweet was directed at O’Rourke. The Twitter profile of the user where it originated indicates the account was created in May 2018, but it had authored just one tweet since then — in January, when the account announced it had breaking news about the former Texas congressman leaving a message using racist language on an answering machine in the 1990s. That tweet garnered 1.3 million potential impressions on the platform, according to Guardians.ai.

A separate Guardians.ai study that looked at the 200-account group’s focus on voter fraud and false and/or misleading narratives about election integrity — published just before the midterm elections and co-authored by Horvath, Zach Verdin and Alicia Serrani — reported that the accounts generated or were mentioned in more than 140 million tweets over the prior year.

That cluster of accounts was the driving force behind an effort to aggressively advance conspiracy theories in the 2018 midterms, ranging from misinformation about voter fraud to narratives involving a caravan coming to the United States, and even advocacy of violence.

Horvath asserts that the activity surrounding the cluster represents an evolution in misinformation and amplification tactics that began in mid-to-late 2018. The initial phase that began in 2016 was marked by the creation of thousands of accounts that were more easily detected as bots or as coordinated activity.

The new activity, however, centers on a refined group of core accounts — the very same accounts that surfaced in the group’s 2018 voter fraud study. Some of the accounts are believed to be highly sophisticated synthetic accounts operated by people attempting to influence conversations, while others are coordinated in some way by actors who have identified real individuals already tweeting out a desired message.

Tens of thousands of other accounts then work in concert to amplify the core group through mentions and retweets to drive what appears, on the surface, to be organic virality.

Operatives with digital firms, political campaigns and other social media monitoring groups also report seeing a recent surge in false narratives or negative memes against 2020 candidates.

A recent analysis from the social media intelligence firm Storyful detected spikes in misinformation activity over social media platforms and online comment boards in the days after each of the 2020 candidates launched their presidential bids, beginning with Warren’s announcement on Dec. 31.

Fringe news websites and fringe social media platforms, Storyful found, played a significant role in spreading anti-Warren sentiment in the days after she announced her candidacy on December 31. Using a variety of keyword searches for mentions of Warren, the firm reported evidence of “spam or bot-like” activity on Facebook and Twitter from some of the top posters.

Kelly Jones, a researcher with Storyful who tracked suspicious activity in the three days following the campaign announcements of Harris, Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), said she’s seen a concerted push over separate online message boards to build false or derogatory narratives.

Among the fringe platforms Storyful identified were 4Chan and 8Chan, where messages appeared calling on commenters to quietly wreak havoc against Warren on social media or in the comments section under news stories.

“Point out that she used to be Republican but switched sides and is a spy for them now. Use this quote out of context: ‘I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets,’” wrote one poster on the 4Chan message board.

“We’re seeing a lot of that rhetoric for nearly each candidate that comes out,” Jones said. “There is a call to action on these fringe sites. The field is going to be so crowded that they say ‘OK: ‘Operation Divide the Left.’”

An official with the Harris campaign said they suspect bad actors pushing misinformation and false narratives about the California Democrat are trying to divide African Americans, or to get the media to pay outsized attention to criticism designed to foster divisions among the Democratic primary electorate.

Researchers and others interviewed for this story say they cannot conclusively point to the actors behind the coordinated activity. It’s unclear if they are rogue hackers, political activists or, as some contend, foreign state actors such as Russia, since it bears the hallmarks of past foreign attacks. One of the objectives of the activity, they say, is to divide the left by making the Democratic presidential primary as chaotic and toxic as possible.

Teddy Goff, who served as Obama for America’s digital director, broadly described the ongoing organized efforts as the work of “a hodgepodge. It’s a bit of an unholy alliance.”

“There are state supporters and funders of this stuff. Russia. North Korea is believed to be one, Iran is another,” he said. “In certain cases it appears coordinated, but whether coordinated or not, there are clearly actors attempting to influence the primary by exacerbating divisions within the party, painting more moderate candidates as unpalatable to progressives and more progressive candidates as unpalatable to more mainstream Dems.”

A high-ranking official in the Sanders campaign expressed “serious concerns” about the impact of misinformation on social media, calling it “a type of political cyber warfare that’s clearly having an impact on the democratic process.” The official said the Sanders campaign views the activity it’s already seeing as involving actors that are both foreign and domestic.

Both Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram, have reported taking substantial measures since 2016 to identify and block foreign actors and others who violate platform rules.

While Twitter would not specifically respond to questions about the Guardians.ai findings, last year the company reported challenging millions of suspect accounts every month, including those exhibiting “spammy and automated behavior.” After attempts to authenticate the accounts through email or by phone, Twitter suspended 75 percent of the accounts it challenged from January to June 2018.

In January 2019, Twitter published an accounting of efforts to combat foreign interference over political conversations happening on the platform. Earlier efforts included releasing datasets of potential foreign information operations that have appeared on Twitter, which were comprised of 3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA, that originated in Russia, and 770 other accounts that potentially originated in Iran.

"Our investigations are global and ongoing, but the datasets we recently released are ones we're able to reliably attribute and are disclosing now,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO. “We'll share more information if and when it's available."

Facebook says it has 30,000 people working on safety and security and that its increasingly blocking and removing fake accounts. The company also says it has brought an unprecedented level of transparency to political advertising on its platform.

At this early stage, the campaigns themselves appear ill-equipped to handle the online onslaught. Their digital operations are directed toward fundraising and organizing while their social media arms are designed to communicate positive messages and information. While some have employed monitoring practices, defensive measures typically take a backseat — especially since so much remains unknown about the sources and scale of the attacks.

One high-level operative for a top-tier 2020 candidate noted the monumental challenges facing individual campaigns — even the ones with the most sophisticated digital teams. The problem already appears much larger than the resources available to any candidate at the moment, the official said.

Alex Kellner, managing director with Bully Pulpit Interactive, the top digital firm for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, warns that campaigns that don’t have a serious infrastructure set up to combat misinformation and dictate their own online messaging will be the most vulnerable to attack in 2020.

“I think this is going to be a serious part of any successful campaign: monitoring this and working with the platforms to shut down bad behavior,” Kellner said.

Kellner said that even though platforms like Twitter and Facebook have ramped up internal efforts to mete out bad actors, the flow of fake news and misinformation attacks against 2020 candidates is already strong.

“All the infrastructure we’ve seen in 2016 and 2018 is already in full-force. And in 2020 it’s only going to get worse,” Kellner said, pointing to negative memes attacking Warren on her Native American heritage claims and memes surrounding Harris’ relationship with Brown.

The proliferation of fake news, rapidly changing techniques by malicious actors and an underprepared field of Democratic candidates could make for a highly volatile primary election season.

“Moderates and centrists and Democratic candidates still don’t understand what happened in 2016 and they didn’t realize, like Hillary Clinton, that she wasn’t just running a presidential campaign, she was involved in a global information war,” Horvath said. “Democratic candidates and presidential candidates in the center and on the right who don’t understand that aren’t just going to have a difficult campaign, they’re going to allow their campaign to be an unwitting amplifier of someone else’s attempts to further divide Americans.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Poll: Majority opposes Trump emergency declaration for building border wall

A majority of voters oppose President Donald Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency along the U.S.-Mexico border for the purpose of letting his administration shift money to build the wall Congress refused to fund, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.

Fewer than four in 10 voters, 39 percent, support Trump’s declaration, the poll shows — fewer than the 51 percent who oppose it. In fact, the percentage of poll respondents who “strongly oppose” Trump’s decision, 41 percent, is greater than the combined share of those who “strongly support” (26 percent) or “somewhat support” (13 percent) the national emergency declaration.

Most Republicans back Trump’s decision, however: 77 percent support the emergency declaration, compared with 18 percent who oppose it. But majorities of Democrats (81 percent) and independents (52 percent) oppose the president’s invoking the emergency provision.

Tyler Sinclair, Morning Consult’s vice president, said the poll numbers showed that GOP voters were strongly “in the president’s corner” on the issue.

“Over three-fourths of Republicans back President Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border, and 75 percent say it wasn’t an abuse of power,” Sinclair said.

The poll was conducted Feb. 15-19, beginning after Trump announced last Friday that he would use the emergency declaration and other executive actions to build a wall along the nation’s southern border, even after signing a government funding bill passed by Congress earlier in the week that largely spurned the administration’s calls for more than $5 billion for the border wall.

Despite opposition to the emergency declaration, voters continue to be split over the border wall itself: 45 percent support it and 47 percent oppose it. But half, 50 percent, say Trump’s emergency declaration to build the wall is “an abuse of power,” the poll shows, while only 37 percent say it isn’t.

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll is the second national survey to be released since Trump announced his decision to invoke his national emergency powers to build the wall. The other, conducted by Marist College for NPR and “PBS Newshour,” found support for Trump on the issue at a similar level: 37 percent among registered voters. But more voters, 60 percent, disapprove of Trump’s decision. And 58 percent say he is “misusing his presidential power,” according to the poll.

Trump’s overall approval rating in the new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll ticked down 3 points lower than last week. Now, 42 percent of voters approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53 percent disapprove.

The POLITICO/Morning Consult poll surveyed 1,914 registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Morning Consult is a nonpartisan media and technology company that provides data-driven research and insights on politics, policy and business strategy.

More details on the poll and its methodology can be found in these two documents — Toplines: https://politi.co/2TW1YSJ | Crosstabs: https://politi.co/2SfCa2q

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

If Dems Don’t Buck This Historical Trend, Trump Could Win in 2020

For the past three-and-a-half decades, a glaring paradox has infected the quest for the American presidency. In an age when citizens on both left and right have soured on politics and treated incumbents with thinly veiled contempt, sitting presidents have rarely been booted out of office before their eight years were up. They have survived, despite the raging animus toward incumbents. The only president since 1984 who failed to win a second term has been George H.W. Bush, in 1992.

Why? One significant reason is that opposition parties have generally nominated bad candidates to challenge presidents running for second terms. Of course, incumbents have built-in advantages, including their claims to a growing economy, their use of the Bully Pulpit to pulverize their opponents, and their skill at blaming Congress for stymieing the people’s will. But it’s also true that opposition parties have nominated a string of enfeebled candidates who have greased the re-election path for prior presidents. If Democrats want to have a shot at unseating President Donald Trump in 2020, they should avoid making the same mistakes again.

Consider the failed presidential challengers since 1984: Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry and Mitt Romney. This list shows that, in the modern era, both Republicans and Democrats have tended to prioritize decades of government experience or deep party ties ahead of far more salient characteristics and considerations like youthful energy and fresh ideas. Rather than selecting future-oriented/anti-establishment candidates to carry their party’s banner, opposition parties have tended to nominate politicians next in the cue—leaders who have paid their dues, by raising gobs of money for other partisans, building chits among activists and elected officials and incubating relationships with Iowa and New Hampshire political operatives.

This has been a mistake. Maybe these candidates would have made good, or perhaps even great presidents—and we’ll never know whether better nominees could have ousted the incumbents these candidates challenged—but these candidates were weak. They have all lacked appeal to an electorate that loathes longtime politicians and they were brought down at least in part by defects associated with a stale politics rooted in their parties’ respective pasts. (The electorate might dislike longtime pols, but given a choice between two establishment candidates, one incumbent and one challenger, incumbent advantage wins.) They show us how parties can become ossified, reliant on their longtime leaders, and how primary voters and partisan leaders can blind themselves to the demands of the political moment.

In general elections, voters have tended to punish experienced candidates with records of legislative achievement inside the Beltway. Somewhat perversely, the most deserving, qualified nominees have had a harder time winning than their far less qualified competitors. And in those elections since 1984 when incumbency has been out of the question, and two new candidates have run against another, the forward looking/anti-establishment candidate has won every time with one exception—George H.W. Bush, who in 1988 tore apart Gov. Michael Dukakis as an unpatriotic, soft-on-crime, pro-big-government Massachusetts liberal. (Although Dukakis was ostensibly the anti-establishment candidate in the race, Bush tarred Dukakis with the brush of ‘60s liberalism and pegged him as an establishment throwback to an earlier era.) In 2008, Barack Obama, then a first-term senator, defeated the far more experienced John McCain (in fairness, almost any reasonable Democratic candidate would have prevailed given Bush’s two unpopular wars and the great recession), and in 2016 Donald Trump assailed “stupid” politicians and the infinitely more qualified and knowledgeable nominee Hillary Clinton as emblematic of a “corrupt establishment.”

The converse has also held true when in 1976 and 1980 opposition parties did pick forward looking/anti-establishment nominees who were able to defeat incumbents. In 1976, Jimmy Carter—his slogan was “a leader, for a change”—vowed to “clean up the mess in Washington” and ousted President Gerald Ford, who had taken power after Richard Nixon’s resignation and saved Nixon from possible criminal convictions by pardoning his disgraced predecessor. Four years later, the shoe was on the other foot. Although he had served as California governor for eight years, Ronald Reagan claimed the outsider mantle by pitching himself to voters as “a boy growing up in several small towns in Illinois” who had “seen America from the stadium press box as a sportscaster, as an actor, officer of my labor union, soldier, office-holder, and as both Democrat and Republican.” “I am what I always have been and I intend to remain that way,” he insisted when a reporter asked Reagan if he was repositioning himself in the political center in anticipation of his White House run.

Ultimately, though, the candidates who failed to unseat incumbents since 1984—the bipartisan Mondale-Dole-Kerry-Romney quartet—underscore this anti-establishment dynamic and hold special relevance heading into the Democratic 2020 primary contest. Romney is arguably the most glaring example of how a weak challenger can hobble the opposition party as it seeks to unseat an incumbent. Although Trump has tweaked Romney for having failed to work hard enough in that campaign (a “choke artist,” he called him), Romney’s far deeper problem was that he became the personification of the age of economic inequality—the greedy, win-at-all-costs corporate raider who grew super-rich on the backs of struggling families. The problem was as much his longtime affiliation with the most elitist elements in the Republican Party as it was with Wall Street. Romney had had only limited government experience, serving four years as Massachusetts governor. Still, as the son of former Michigan governor and GOP presidential candidate George Romney, Romney had deep party roots. As the country struggled to rebuild after the Great Recession, Romney seemed someone out of the GOP of yore’s central casting—a 1930s-era titan of capital who helped define the party as pro-industry, anti-worker and dismissive of middle-class Americans. His nomination made it easier for Obama to win re-election by opposing what he said was Romney’s elitist, backward-looking economic approach.

In 1996, Senate Majority leader Dole failed to capture the hearts of the anti-Clinton right, came off as temperamentally cranky, and ran on a noble record of war service in a time after the Cold War had ended when voters prioritized other qualities in their presidents. Above all, Dole was quintessentially a wheeler-dealer, a career legislator and a party man to his core who had scant rationale for what his presidency would mean for most Americans. Lambasting Clinton as morally deficient (“Bozo’s on his way out!,” Dole assured one supporter after an October campaign rally in New Jersey), Dole communicated a bitter sense that Clinton’s moral defects had disqualified him for a second term—the antithesis of hope and change.

Reagan would have been tough to defeat in 1984 no matter whom Democrats had nominated. The economy was beginning to expand after a recession and tensions with the Soviet Union had diminished from the height of Reagan’s bombast and the war scares with the Soviet Union in 1983. Still, Mondale was easily caricatured as an unapologetic liberal with a static vision born of 1960s-big-government activism that voters had at least in part rejected in Reagan’s 1980 victory. Having served as Carter’s vice president and as a senator from Minnesota, Mondale ran on what he described as his government “experience” and his record as “the most active and influential vice president in history.” On Election Day, he carried only his home state and Washington, D.C., in the Electoral College.

Perhaps the strongest of the four challengers in question was Kerry, and he prosecuted the argument that Bush’s occupation of Iraq had failed with ardor. Yet his political experience and legislative record also became an albatross for him. He had served as a senator for decades, had voted for war in Iraq, and Republicans used his antiwar Vietnam activism and his patrician mien and background, a ‘wise man’ knowledgeable on foreign affairs and a symbol of his party’s establishment, to depict Kerry as vaguely anti-American. His career and class played into Bush’s structural advantage in the election as the incumbent commander-in-chief during wartime and made it easier for the Bush campaign to cast Kerry as unprincipled and a candidate of yesterday.

What does any of this recent history reveal about the Democratic Party’s prospects going into 2020? Trump plans to run for re-election by attacking “certain Democrats” and “politicians” who refuse to aid “women and girls…tied up in the back seat of a car or a truck or a van” in what he falsely labeled a immigrant-fueled crime wave, as he argued in his Friday remarks from the Rose Garden declaring a national emergency. Running against Washington may not be as easy for Trump as he wishes it to be. His norm-shattering presidency has squandered one of the advantages incumbents traditionally have enjoyed, as he has failed in his first term to persuade a majority of the public that the president is actually presidential. So it is thus conceivable that a nominee with deep experience—think former Vice President Joe Biden—may well be a safe harbor in a Trump-induced Category 5 storm. It’s not crazy to envision at least some significant slice of the electorate seeking a candidate with policy knowledge, Washington experience and a stable character, bucking the trends of the past four decades.

At the same time, the opposition party’s ignominious record since 1984 should factor in to any assessment of what is shaping up to be the deepest, most diverse crop of Democratic presidential candidates ever. The quartet of failed challengers reminds us that an electorate deeply hostile to Washington politicians will likely look askance at any Democrat whose legislative and political achievements define their quest for the American presidency. Democrats will need someone skilled at tapping people’s frustration with politics, someone credible on the central question of income inequality, someone who can speak to the party’s future rather than someone beholden to its past. Sadly, nominating the most qualified person to be president may squander a chance—perhaps the biggest since 1992—to oust an incumbent president.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Sherrod Brown’s opening: Less liberal than the liberals

In the Senate, Sherrod Brown is known as a scourge of Wall Street. But in a Democratic presidential primary with fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren thundering away at bankers, Brown is viewed by many in the industry as a reasonable alternative.

The Ohio senator has called for breaking up the big banks and has even fought against Democratic colleagues who supported financial deregulation. But according to bank representatives, Wall Street watchdogs and others who have worked closely with him in Congress, Brown has also earned a reputation as someone open to dialogue with the industry in his role as the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee. He has taken corporate PAC money and shown a practical streak focused on protecting workers in his home state, where finance is a major employer.

Brown’s nuanced relationship with the banking industry illustrates the leftward shift in the Democratic Party and the rationale of his possible presidential campaign, as he travels the country arguing that he is a consistent progressive who doesn’t go too far and has proven how to win in the red-trending Midwest. Warren and Sanders have taken more belligerent approaches to finance, while Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have all been criticized at times as too close to big banks.

And then, in the middle, there’s Brown, who has built a reputation as a fighter on finance but could yet be outflanked on the issue in a Democratic primary.

"The financial services industry knows where it stands with Senator Brown, which isn’t something that can be said for the entire Democratic presidential field," said Isaac Boltansky, the director of policy research for Compass Point, an investment bank. "Senator Brown has strong views on the regulatory regime, which often places him in diametric opposition to the banking industry during key policy debates. But he has an appreciation for the industry’s role in Ohio and the national economy.”

Brown told POLITICO he will take a step to further distance himself from big business if he runs for president: refusing corporate PAC money, which he has long accepted for his Senate campaigns.

“My head is not turned by that,” Brown said in an interview. “And I can prove it."

“It’s personal to me what Wall Street overreach and Wall Street greed can do,” Brown said, recalling the damage the foreclosure crisis wrought on Ohio. “It’s not personal that I aim at their executives or aim at them as a company as much as it is, how do we make good things happen? And we’ve had some success doing that.”

After the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, Brown led a bipartisan push to break up "too-big-to-fail" banks. It fell short after fellow Democrats refused to join the cause. He opposed appointees picked by former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump whom he saw as too cozy with corporate America. He prodded executives like JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon to pay bank tellers and other workers higher wages.

And last year, Brown led the charge against a landmark deregulation bill backed by 16 of his fellow Senate Democrats — a tense fight that played out for two weeks on the Senate floor. Brown was unable to stop the legislation, which became law in May.

But Brown isn't following potential rivals in the 2020 primary's progressive lane on some big financial issues. He does not plan to endorse a push by Warren and others on the left that would revive the Glass-Steagall law, a set of Depression-era banking restrictions that were undone during the Clinton administration. He said it was a good law but that reimposing it isn't the panacea some make it out to be.

“I do hear about Glass-Steagall oftentimes at town halls or whatever, but nobody’s convinced me it would make an appreciable difference,” Brown said. "Breaking up the banks is important. Consumer protections are important. Higher capital standards are important. Fighting deregulation is important. Glass-Steagall is well below that in importance."

In an interview, Warren said she's never tried to convince Brown to sign on to her proposal to revive Glass-Steagall but said the two "share the same values."

Brown has been willing to listen to the finance industry's concerns and sometimes take action, especially when it comes to smaller financial institutions that call Ohio home.

“If you look at the Democrats’ side of the ledger, he’s more attractive than many others out there,” said Michael Adelman, the president and CEO of the Ohio Bankers League.

One lobbyist for a large bank who declined to be named said Brown is "always willing to have the discussion."

Brown championed one of the first changes to Democrats' signature financial reform law, Dodd-Frank, leading to a revision in 2014 that benefited insurers facing stiff capital requirements. When Senate Republicans later sought to water down the law in significant ways, he fought back and rallied Democrats, including Warren, to back a counter-proposal targeted at helping the smallest banks.

And before Brown tried to tank last year's bank deregulation bill, which had big benefits for regional lenders with headquarters in Ohio, he was at the negotiating table trying to forge a potential compromise with the GOP chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

“Even when I disagree with him, what I find is we can both get into the weeds pretty quick, which is a more productive conversation than just slinging slogans," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who co-authored the deregulation bill that Brown opposed.

Brown is often on the opposite side of the "biggest, most dangerous banks on Wall Street," but most U.S. banks and financial institutions would agree with his view of the world, said Better Markets President and CEO Dennis Kelleher, who advocates for tougher finance industry oversight.

"There's nobody who says they could not get a fair hearing from Sherrod Brown," Kelleher said.

Brown already has ideas for how the finance industry would fit into a possible presidential platform, which is likely to revolve around the "dignity of work" theme that he's hitting on in a tour of early primary states.

The list includes breaking up big banks, strengthening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, scrutinizing the payday lending industry and reinforcing bank capital standards.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said there was "a helluva lot of distance" between Brown and other Democrats when it comes to Wall Street.

"Sherrod seems to be able to keep an appropriate distance in terms of dependency on the banking interests in a way that some of the others do not," he said.

But Brown is unsurprised that, to some bankers, he may be more palatable than others on the far left of the 2020 race.

Brown said he works "all the time to understand what they're doing" as he tries to change bank behavior that may hurt consumers. Brown said he knows many Ohio bankers personally but that he's spent no more than three hours in aggregate with any Wall Street CEO.

"I don't surprise people," Brown said. "My politics are what they are. If you deal with people honestly, they're more likely to understand what you're doing."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Rosen tapped as deputy attorney general

Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeff Rosen will be nominated as the next deputy attorney general, ending his stint as the second-in-command at the Transportation Department.

The White House announced his nomination, which has been rumored for weeks, on Tuesday evening. Rosen will replace Rod Rosenstein, who is stepping down next month amid continuing turmoil over ongoing Justice Department probes into allegations involving President Donald Trump and his aides' involvement with Russia.

Rosen is an experienced attorney with a deep resume, including prior stints in previous administrations as well as time in the private sector. He was easily confirmed to the post at DOT, though his confirmation hearing was not without some headaches from Democrats who mostly were concerned about his past stances on climate change and environmental issues.

As DOT deputy secretary, he was in charge of day-to-day operations, a role in which he led deregulatory efforts, including the push to roll back the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency rules. He also was involved with grant decisions.

He also criticized Senate Democrats (most of whom had opposed his confirmation) for holding up the nomination of Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory. New York and New Jersey lawmakers had delayed Batory’s confirmation because of the administration’s opposition to the contentious "Gateway" project to construct a new rail tunnel under New York's Hudson River.

He has been in the number two role at DOT since he was confirmed by the Senate in May 2017. Before that, he had been general counsel at DOT and at the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration. He’s also worked at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he briefly overlapped with new attorney general William Barr.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Teen in video face-off with Native American sues Washington Post for $250 million

The Kentucky teenager at the center of a confrontation last month with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial has sued The Washington Post, alleging that the newspaper made “false and defamatory accusations” against him in its coverage of the episode.

Nicholas Sandmann, 16, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., is seeking $250 million in damages from The Post — the same amount Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos paid for ownership of the paper in 2013, according to a copy of the suit Sandmann’s attorneys posted on their website.

Among various complaints, the suit alleges that The Post “engaged in a modern-day form of McCarthyism” to target Sandmann “because it wanted to advance its well-known and easily documented, biased agenda against” President Donald Trump.

In video accounts of the Jan. 18 encounter, a grinning Sandmann is depicted wearing a red Make America Great Again baseball cap as he stares down Nathan Phillips, an Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran who sings and beats a drum as Covington students laugh and jeer around him.

“The Post’s campaign to target Nicholas in furtherance of its political agenda,” the suit alleges, “was carried out by using its vast financial resources to enter the bully pulpit by publishing a series of false and defamatory print and online articles which effectively provided a worldwide megaphone to Phillips and other anti-Trump individuals and entities to smear a young boy who was in its view an acceptable casualty in their war against the President.”

Sandmann’s attorneys, Lin Wood and Todd McMurtry, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Covington, and suggested in a statement that additional litigation would be forthcoming.

“Lin and Todd will continue to bring wrongdoers before the court to seek damages in compensation for the harm so many have done to the Sandmann family,” they said. “This is only the beginning.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

As Beto and Trump trade jabs, immigration takes on bigger role for 2020

EL PASO, Texas — The feud between President Donald Trump and Beto O’Rourke over immigration resumed at a distance Tuesday, driving the politics of a border wall further into the 2020 presidential campaign.

After O’Rourke said on MSNBC last week that he would “absolutely” remove an existing stretch of border wall from his hometown of El Paso, Trump told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that the statement marked “probably the end of his political career.”

The opposite of that assessment appeared to be true nearly 2,000 miles away in the border town of El Paso, where O’Rourke did not announce his run for president on Tuesday — but might as well have.

Tying his political identity to this heavily Hispanic, heavily Democratic region of the Southwest, the former Texas congressman has seized on Trump’s border politics to create an opening for himself in the Democratic primary. In a speech accepting El Paso Inc.’s “El Pasoan of the Year” award, he said that on issues ranging from climate change to immigration, “El Paso is the answer.”

The call and response laid bare the durability of an issue that defined the 2016 presidential race — and is shaping the earliest stages of the 2020 campaign.

Trump’s and O’Rourke’s jabs came a week after the president appeared in El Paso to redouble his call for building a border wall, hosting a campaign-style rally that O’Rourke met with a massive march and protest. O’Rourke said Tuesday that while Trump “turned the focus of this country to the United States-Mexico border, … we stood up, not against him necessarily, but we stood up for ourselves.”

After the dueling rallies, O’Rourke traveled to the Midwest to meet with students in Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., before speaking at a gathering of the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago on Saturday. He has placed Trump’s call for border wall funding at the center of his likely campaign, arguing that walls are not only ineffective at reducing crime — a point supported by statistics in El Paso — but also that they endanger immigrants by encouraging them to cross the border in more remote locations.

“We don’t need another wall. We don’t need another fence,” O’Rourke said in Chicago. “Walls do not, as the president has claimed, save lives. Walls end lives.”

In recent weeks, O’Rourke has outlined proposals for extending citizenship to undocumented people known as Dreamers — who were brought the country illegally as children — and offering a path to citizenship for other undocumented immigrants. And his remark on MSNBC that he would remove existing barriers in El Paso forced other Democrats to respond.

Asked about O'Rourke’s statement on Friday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York told Fox News, “I’d have to ask folks in that part of the country to see whether the fencing that exists today is helpful or unhelpful.” But, she added, “I could look at it and see which part he means and why, and if it makes sense, I could support it.”

On Tuesday, O’Rourke expanded on his remarks to MSNBC, telling reporters that “there is a role for physical barriers in some places” and that he would not necessarily remove border fencing in areas outside El Paso.

“I would work with local stakeholders, the property owners, the communities, those who actually live there to determine the best security solution,” O’Rourke said. “We saw in El Paso a solution in search of a problem imposed on us by people who did not live here.”

For Democrats confronting a looming general election campaign against Trump, the politics of immigration are fraught. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll last week suggested that the American electorate is split on the construction of a border wall, while earlier polls indicated that the subject resonates more strongly with Republicans than Democrats. Even in El Paso, some supporters fret about O’Rourke focusing so heavily on a subject that Trump used to win election in 2016.

“I worry about the general election politics,” Hector Gutierrez Jr., an El PAso-based public affairs consultant, said. “But I admire the fact he’s willing to take a stand.”

Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster and strategist, said immigration “fits Beto’s brand” and “he’s kind of in a unique position on this, having been a congressman from that area.”

“I think the major reason that so many people are engaging on immigration is because it is a seminal contrast with Donald Trump,” Lake said. “And right now, Democrats want to go beat Donald Trump.”

Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican consultant and pollster, wrote in an email that “it makes perfect sense for the Democratic candidates to focus on immigration, not because they are anti-wall but because it allows them to be anti-Trump.”

He added, “I’m surprised none of them have come up with a chant like ‘scrap the wall’ for their supporters.”

O’Rourke’s attention to immigration comes even as other Democratic contenders refocus on health care, childcare and taxes — and as O’Rourke asserts more centrist elements of his profile. While lauding Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Tuesday for adding “so much to the national conversation,” O’Rourke said, “I’m a capitalist.”

Asked about the role of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party, he said, “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”

O’Rourke called climate change, one of the issues on which Sanders’ focuses, “the most immediate example of that.”

“If you’re going to bring the total innovation and ingenuity of this country to bear,” O’Rourke said, “our system as a country, our economy is going to have to be part of that.”

O’Rourke’s remarks came after Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, announced that he would run again for president in 2020. O’Rourke was a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton atthe 2016 Democratic National Convention and said he voted for her in the primary.

“I think it’s great that he’s getting in," O'Rourke said of Sanders. "I think he’s added so much to the national conversation, whether it is health care, whether it’s access to higher education, whether it’s the power of small-dollar donors vs. the concentration of power that you see in PACs and the very wealthiest in this country.”

O’Rourke, who has been in talks with potential campaign strategists about a 2020 run, said he plans to decide within two weeks whether he'll enter the race. But he said he “won’t be limited” by that timetable.

O’Rourke did not rule out running for Senate or some other office.

“I’m trying to figure out how I can best serve this country,” he said.

Speaking to about 600 people at El Paso’s Fort Bliss for the “El Pasoan of the Year” ceremony, O’Rourke called the award “the honor of a lifetime, and the pinnacle of what has made me who I am.”

O’Rourke talks about El Paso relentlessly, casting the West Texas city as an example of a diverse community reveling in its multiculturalism. Situated across the border from Juárez, Mexico, El Paso County has a population that is more than 80 percent Hispanic, and the region stands as a Democratic oasis in a heavily Republican state.

In a video played in the city Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) praised O’Rourke for the award he was receiving. Kennedy said that for as long as he had known O’Rourke, the Texan had always sought to “elevate” his hometown.

When O’Rourke took the stage, he joked that he wasn’t sure until he saw the video that Pelosi knew he existed.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump administration trying to claw back California high-speed rail money

The administration Tuesday threatened to withdraw almost a billion dollars in federal funds allocated to a high-speed rail line in California, but the state's governor counterpunched by suggesting the threat was retaliation for fighting President Donald Trump's "national emergency" declaration on a border wall.

On Tuesday evening, the Transportation Department threatened to cancel $929 million in federal funds earmarked for California's high-speed rail project, after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans last week to scale back the project.

And DOT said it wants to go even further, saying it's "actively exploring every legal option" to seek the return of $2.5 billion in federal funds that have already been granted for what the agency calls a "now-defunct" project. Newsom has said the state will still aim to complete a smaller segment of the route than had originally been envisioned, from Bakersfield to Merced.

In a statement, Newsom said it's "no coincidence that the Administration’s threat comes 24 hours after California led 16 states in challenging the President’s farcical 'national emergency.'"

Newsom further suggested that Trump himself "tied the two issues together" in a tweet earlier Tuesday. "As I predicted, 16 states, led mostly by Open Border Democrats and the Radical Left, have filed a lawsuit in, of course, the 9th Circuit! California, the state that has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion, seems in charge!" Trump tweeted.

"This is clear political retribution by President Trump, and we won’t sit idly by. This is California’s money, and we are going to fight for it," Newsom said.

The ill-fated project, originally envisioned to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, has seen skyrocketing cost estimates —the latest of which suggest it would cost at least $77 billion to complete — and repeated schedule overruns.

Federal Railroad Administration chief Ronald Batory wrote to California High-Speed Rail Authority chief Brian Kelly today outlining the decision, which takes effect March 5.

The letter says that the project has "materially failed to comply with the terms" of the agreement between the state and the federal government, and that Newsom's announcement "presented a new proposal that represents a significant retreat from the state's initial vision and commitment and frustrates the purpose for which federal funding was awarded."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Ross’ financial disclosure rejected by government ethics watchdog

The head of the Office of Government Ethics has refused to approve Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s 2018 financial disclosure report, citing an inaccuracy concerning the former investing mogul's holdings of BankUnited stock.

The action is the latest blow for Ross, who has repeatedly drawn scrutiny over his personal finances since he was nominated for the Commerce job. He is scheduled to testify next month before a House committee.

“OGE is declining to certify Secretary Ross’s 2018 financial disclosure report because that report was not accurate and he was not in compliance with his ethics agreement at the time of the report,” Emory Rounds, the OGE director, said in a Feb. 15 letter.

In an Oct. 31, 2018, report, Ross said he had “a mistaken belief” that an order to sell BankUnited holdings had been executed in 2017. That error was featured in a Campaign Legal Center complaint sent earlier this month to the Commerce Department’s inspector general that said if the false filing was knowingly made then that would be a violation of law.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ross said he held 100 BankUnited shares totaling about $3,700, “an amount that federal regulations deem de minimis and below the threshold of a possible conflict of interest.”

“While I am disappointed that my report was not certified, I remain committed to complying with my ethics agreement and adhering to the guidance of Commerce ethics officials,” Ross said.

The Campaign Legal Center on Tuesday applauded OGE’s action.

“It confirmed what we have been saying for a while now and it shows that OGE is also concerned about Secretary Ross’s commitment to upholding the public’s trust in government,” said Delaney Marsco, a legal counsel at CLC.

Last year, congressional Democrats asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate potential insider trading by the Cabinet secretary. He is set to appear before the House Oversight Committee on March 14.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

'A vastly different operation': Trump campaign tries un-Trumpian approach to 2020

President Donald Trump is assembling a sprawling, corporate-style reelection campaign with 10 divisions reporting to a single senior adviser, campaign manager Brad Parscale — a top-down structure that represents everything Trump’s improvisational 2016 effort was not.

The organization, described in interviews by a half-dozen Trump top political aides, prioritizes the campaign’s digital- and data-focused strategy, in keeping with Parscale’s expertise. The campaign has hired more than 30 full-time staffers so far and has begun building out a surrogate network devoted exclusively to putting pro-Trump talking heads on TV and radio and in newspaper op-eds — a move that reflects Trump’s fixation with how he’s portrayed in the media.

Nearly a dozen top advisers briefed Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the emerging structure Tuesday evening at the White House.

The setup has the hallmarks of a more traditional campaign associated with a president running for reelection. But coming from this ad-lib president — whose 2016 effort was wracked by constant infighting that spilled into the press, no apparent organizational structure, and unclear lines of authority — it marks a major departure from business as usual.

No organization by itself can inoculate the campaign from the omnipresent drama that’s surrounded Trump since he announced for president four years ago. But the campaign sees the structure as an attempt to run as functional an operation as possible.

“I was one of the few members of the original 2016 team with prior presidential campaign experience. While ultimately successful, the campaign was primarily staffed with inexperienced and untested political operatives and often lacked a cohesive organizational structure,” said Michael Glassner, a presidential campaign veteran who serves as chief operating officer on the reelect.

“For the 2020 reelection,” he added, “we have a vastly different operation.”

The plan isn’t without potential downsides. With such a large payroll at such an early stage of the campaign, the campaign runs the risk of over-spending before Democrats have even picked their nominee.

Even before the hiring spree, the campaign’s spending had drawn scrutiny. The reelect spent $2 million more than it raised between the beginning of October and the end of December.

But the Trump team had long planned for the early spending. In 2017, Republican National Committee and Trump campaign officials quietly decided to invest over $10 million — which would have otherwise been spent on midterm races — on a two-year program to identify small donors. The initiative was used to expand the campaign’s list of contributors, whose donations are being used to finance the Trump 2020 infrastructure.

To some extent, Trump is simply exploiting the natural advantages of incumbency. Sitting presidents have long used their perch to prepare for reelection by hiring staff, building a fundraising war chest, and developing a national campaign infrastructure.

Yet at a time when Trump’s poll numbers have ebbed, the intense early planning also reflects the political peril the president is confronting.

“He’s a different kind of president and you have to build a structure that supports him in a tough race,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who advised the Trump 2016 campaign and is expected to work on the reelect. “You have to be more flexible and you have to be more ready for things that are unexpected.”

The Trump political world remains deeply unstable and prone to changes in leadership. Many current and former Trump White House officials are convinced there will be turnover at the top as the 2020 campaign intensifies. There's also widespread concern tensions will flare between the campaign and the administration if either side is perceived as making a mistake.

Yet the new organization is intended to clarify the decision-making structure. And squarely at the top of that chain is Parscale. Each of the 10 department heads will report to the 43-year-old campaign manager, and he will serve as the main point person for Trump and his family.

The Trump campaign named three new department chiefs on Tuesday. White House aide Cole Blocker will serve as finance director, Agriculture Department official Tim Murtaugh as communications director, and Marc Lotter, a former Pence adviser, as director of surrogates.

Ten senior staffers are expected to take up residence in the campaign’s 21,000 square-foot Rosslyn, Virginia, headquarters by the end of the month. In total, the campaign expects to have nearly 100 people on payroll by the end of the year.

Parscale has quietly been conducting interviews since late last year and has reached out to an array of senior Republicans.

While the organization’s tight structure is reminiscent of past presidential reelection bids, Trump aides say the campaign will be non-traditional in some ways. They point out that two digital strategists, Parscale and Gary Coby, have been tapped for senior roles – an indication that digital and data will form the nucleus of the campaign.

Two other top campaign aides, meanwhile, have launched an unprecedented effort to stave off mayhem at the GOP convention and to ensure that its a smooth running pro-Trump infomercial. Another top official, Chris Carr, is overseeing a field deployment plan that, for the first time, is being run in conjunction with the RNC.

And in another break from precedent, the campaign, with the RNC, is planning an early and aggressive effort to brand the Democratic field as being out-of-the mainstream and socialist. The offensive is expected to be spearheaded by a handful of communications staffers working out of the Rosslyn headquarters, with assistance from others stationed in swing states.

At the campaign’s request, the RNC has begun funding video tracking efforts of Democrats while they campaign in early primary states.

“Now we’re an incumbent,” said McLaughlin. “But he’s really still a nontraditional president.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

‘He’s on edge’: Roger Stone silencing expected after barbed comments

Roger Stone scored a small legal victory last Friday, but it took him only four days to blow it.

Now, even Stone’s friends expect the longtime Donald Trump associate to get hit with a sweeping gag order preventing him from commenting about his case on Thursday at an emergency hearing in Washington that the judge called after him posting a threatening message about her on Instagram.

There’s even a worst case scenario in which District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson sends the self-proclaimed GOP dirty trickster to jail.

That’s the reality the 66-year-old Stone faces despite his attempts to walk back a Monday afternoon social media post that complained about “Deep State hitman Robert Mueller” and the “Obama appointed Judge” — and featured an image of Jackson with what looked like crosshairs in the corner — by deleting the message and then issuing Jackson a formal apology.

His post came less than 100 hours after Jackson decided to limit Stone’s commentary only while he was at the courthouse — widely perceived as a win for Stone at the time.

“He’s on edge. Roger probably needs to be slapped on the wrist,” said Tyler Nixon, a longtime friend and counsel to Stone.

Stone, whose barbed commentary has been tied to fundraising pleas, is “learning the contours of what he can get away with saying and legitimately raise money for his defense and frankly protest what he legitimately believes to be a miscarriage of justice in his prosecution,” Nixon said.

“It’s a fine line and I’d hope the judge will enable him to make the couple mistakes and take it seriously,” he added.

But it’s not clear Jackson will give Stone any more chances.

Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, has earned a no-nonsense reputation in the Mueller probe cases she has overseen, including charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Manafort’s campaign deputy. In that case, she slapped a gag order on Manafort and Gates, as well as their attorneys, just days after Mueller’s initial indictments were filled. She later sent Manafort to jail after the special counsel accused him of witness tampering — that’s where the 69-year old longtime GOP operative has remained ever since.

The judge has a wide latitude in terms of how to deal with Stone. Jackson can give him a stern warning or impose the same kind of restrictive gag order that she issued Friday for Mueller's and Stone’s lawyers — but not for Stone himself — and potential case witnesses. She also could impose restrictions on Stone like requiring him to wear a GPS monitoring device or limiting his travel — Jackson already has set parameters that require him to get the court’s permission to venture beyond South Florida, New York or the D.C. region. A fine or jail aren’t out of the question either.

“The gag order may be the lesser of his eventual problems if it turns out that when they investigate his conduct the prosecutors could decide that that constitutes an effort to intimidate or threaten the judge,” said Shanlon Wu, a defense attorney who previously represented Gates.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service said the department responsible for protecting federal judges is aware of the threat Stone allegedly made against Jackson. But it declined to discuss any specific threats or how it protects judges.

Even before his Instagram post, Stone was shaping up to be anything but a conventional defendant. He’s spent the weeks since his indictment last month going on national television and doing interviews from his South Florida driveway. In court, his lawyers have filed motions objecting to Jackson’s assignment to their case and accusing Mueller of releasing Stone’s indictment before it had secured court approval.

Stone’s legal strategy, his friends and allies say, was born after observing Manafort’s legal strategy.

“Roger watched other people defend themselves quietly and lose,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump 2016 campaign adviser and longtime Stone friend who has been questioned in the Mueller investigation. “He’s made the conscious decision to speak loudly and clearly about his innocence throughout the entire process.”

Mueller’s team indicted Stone late last month on charges of lying, obstruction of justice and witness tampering — crimes that could get him more than four years in prison if he is convicted. Preparing for trial, the special counsel’s prosecutors had sought a gag order on Stone out of fear his comments would affect the fairness of a trial.

Stone’s latest predicament is of his own making. The image of Jackson posted on Instagram on Monday seemed to feature crosshairs in the corner. Others noted that the picture came from a conspiracy theory website that has an anti-Jewish perspective.

He later deleted the photo and posted a version without crosshairs. By the end of the evening, though, Stone had deleted that photo, as well, and his lawyers submitted an apology to the court.

“Please inform the Court that the photograph and comment today was improper and should not have been posted,” Stone wrote in Monday night’s court filing. “I had no intention of disrespecting the Court and humbly apologize to the court for the transgression.”

In an email to POLITICO, Stone said he would attend Thursday’s hearing as ordered.

“I have no further comment at this time,” he wrote.

One of Stone’s lawyers, Bruce Rogow, said he’d also be in attendance Thursday but did not answer a question about a potential shakeup on Stone’s legal team in the wake of Monday’s incident. Two other Stone attorneys didn’t respond to requests for comment, though both are restricted from speaking about the case under the gag order.

In interviews on Tuesday, Stone’s friends chalked up the Instagram post to a mistake that’s been widely misinterpreted by the media as an attack on the judge. They say Stone was trying to get across that Jackson was appointed by Obama.

“That’s what he wanted to get across. But it can certainly be interpreted differently,” said Annemarie McAvoy, another attorney who was on Gates' defense team. “That’s why as an attorney you want the client to only speak through you or with close supervision.”

Stone needs to come to terms with the fact his every move is being scrutinized and could be used against him, Nixon said.

“I’m not going to defend what was put up. My advice is not to have done that,” he said. “There’s an adjustment period Roger is having to get used to.”

Wu, a former federal prosecutor, predicted Stone would eventually recognize the legal peril he faces by excessively commenting on his own case. “He might kick and fuss a little bit in the beginning but once he gets a whiff of reality he’s going to cave,” Wu said. “I don’t think he’s going to show himself to be some sort of warrior for a First Amendment cause.”

Others doubt whether Stone would ever take his lawyers’ advice and stop discussing the case. McAvoy said Jackson’s initial ruling Friday set up Stone for the legal morass he’s now in.

“She gave him just enough rope to get himself into trouble,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s capable of keeping his mouth shut. It’s just not in his personality and it’s very hard to force someone to change his personality.”

Jackson on Friday signaled she’d be keeping close tabs on Stone, noting that while her initial order allowed him to keep talking about the case, she retained the power to amend her order “if necessary.” She also warned Stone that any excessive public comments could come back to bite him if he complained later on about excessive pretrial publicity that he himself caused.

In the longer term, McAvoy said Stone should be mindful that has publicly targeted the judge who would be sentencing him if he ends up pleading guilty or a jury convicts him on Mueller’s charges.

“She’s not going to forget that,” McAvoy said. “There’s a fine line between an aggressive defense and upsetting the judge to the extent that you then have payback from the judge during sentencing.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

California Republicans look into the abyss

SACRAMENTO — California’s establishment Republicans are making their final stand.

After decades of decline and a devastating 2018 election that gutted an already decimated state party, the GOP’s more moderate wing is gearing up for a state convention this weekend that some argue is their last opportunity to avert total collapse.

A battle over the state party chairmanship offers two competing visions for the future. One tightly embraces President Donald Trump, while the other focuses more on the nuts and bolts of party-building and organizing.

The two approaches aren’t exactly complimentary. Trump, who lost California by a stunning 30 percentage points in 2016, remains highly unpopular here: Nearly two-thirds of voters disapprove of his performance as president.

“What it really comes down to is whether a party’s first obligation is to motivate its base — or to reach out beyond that base,’’ said Dan Schnur, a former GOP strategist and adviser to Sen. John McCain, and a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications who is now an independent. “We’ll see what they decide.”

As it stands, the Republican Party in the nation’s most populous state is barely breathing. The midterm election saw the landslide victory of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, a revived Democratic supermajority in both legislative chambers, and the flipping of seven GOP House seats.

Whomever California Republicans elect to succeed Jim Brulte, the former state senator who has led the party for six years, won’t be able to reverse the party’s fortunes anytime soon. But they might be able to halt the downward spiral. For weeks, the candidates have been lobbying, mailing, phoning and campaigning up and down the state to offer their prescriptions.

Jessica Patterson, the CEO of the California Trailblazers — a candidate-recruitment program blessed by House GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — has racked up the lion’s share of endorsements from state elected officials.

A Latina from a Southern California working class family, Patterson says she voted for Trump. But she argues that her leadership of Trailblazers has armed her with the experience and the strategic knowledge necessary to build the party back to its former strengths in California — and to reassure key donors regarding its rebound.

In her view, Republicans must “stay on message” — jobs, economy, education, pro-business policies — and concentrate on the damage she says the ruling party has done in Sacramento.

“Some people have already given up on my party and they say it’s not salvageable,’’ Patterson told POLITICO. “I don’t accept that. I love my party too much.’’

But the two conservative grassroots activists who are challenging her lay the blame for the 2018 battering partially at her feet.

Former gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, an ex-state assemblyman and a fire-breathing favorite of Tea Party activists, derides Patterson as part of a status quo that has "produced a record of abysmal failure in GOP politics in California. The GOP establishment has told Republicans for years that they need to look and sound more like Democrats — to be Republican-lite.’’

Allen argues that neither Brulte nor Patterson have shown the robust support for Trump that he deserves — and that he contends would fire up and energize the GOP base.

“Clearly, the Republican party must stand for Republican values — and the Republican president,’’ he said. “This is truly a Republican president who has delivered — and among the 4.5 million Republicans in California, I have yet to find a room that is not overwhelmingly in support of him.’’

Allen, who staunchly backs Trump's anti-illegal immigration rhetoric and his call for a border wall, is reprising the populist rhetoric that marked his failed GOP 2018 gubernatorial campaign — and helped him to amass an unprecedented mailing list of 25,000 activist GOP donors and supporters.

The eventual nominee, the more moderate multi-millionaire businessman John Cox, admitted he didn’t vote for Trump and lost in a landslide defeat against Newsom.

“I’m the candidate who has the energy to take back the entire state,’’ he said. “We need excitement in today’s California Republican Party..a bold new vision that is build by Republicans, for Republicans — and who believe in Republican values.”

But Allen may end up splitting the conservative grassroots vote with another anti-establishment Republican, Stephen Frank, the publisher of the conservative newsletter California Political Review.

A former party official whose roots in state GOP activism go back decades, Frank lambastes the current state party leadership, saying it “has unilaterally disarmed,’’ failed to mount candidates and voter registration campaigns, and was entirely outplayed by the Democratic Party in the 2018 election, which flipped House seats with the help of aggressive practices like ballot harvesting.

Worse, he said, the state GOP lacked a cohesive message on issues like key issues like education and job opportunities — even while it ran away from President Trump.

“We were being told Trump is so poorly liked in this state that we shouldn’t talk about him,’’ said Frank, who’s a regular on conservative radio stations. “We should have been talking about the miracle of the economic recovery under Trump, his willingness to stand up in trade negotiations, his ability to stop ISIS, and his creation of 400,000 manufacturing jobs…We were so afraid of saying “Donald Trump” that they forgot the great stuff that Trump did."

The current political demolition derby underscores divisions that have dragged at the party for years.

“It’s a nightmare election,’’ says Hoover Institution fellow Lanhee Chen, the former adviser to the presidential campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, who says the establishment-vs.-grassroots contest is “the same fight we’ve been having since [former Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger left office.’’

Those divisions mirror almost precisely the battles being waged in the national Republican Party, he said, where Trump’s loyalist base defends the president’s positions and see his leadership as the key to future electoral successes even as some mainstream Republicans in elected office wince at his rhetoric and his impact on the GOP brand.

GOP consultant Robert Molnar, advising Frank, says the 2018's disastrous results put the problem in stark relief. "We have lost seats every cycle...how are you touting that a success?’’ he said. “It’s been a total failure. They’re not even an opposition party at this point. Right now, the California Republican Party is as dead as you can imagine…it’s ashes.”

Leading Republicans claim the situation will deteriorate even more if either Allen or Frank claim the chairmanship. Former Assembly Minority leader Chad Mayes took to Twitter to push back against Allen's jabs at the GOP establishment and elected officials. He tweeted a prediction that if Allen wins the chairmanship, “more sitting legislators will leave” the California Republican Party.

“Winning in politics requires addition,” Mayes said. “Demagoguery and division proves to be a losing strategy.”

Brulte, the current chair, shrugs off the criticism from the grassroots candidates, saying that despite inheriting a party in disarray six years ago, he has rescued it from financial ruin and will leave the state GOP fully able to “pay all of its bills” by the time of the next chairman’s election on Sunday.

“Campaigns for party office can be just as rough and tumble as a campaign for public office,’’ he said, estimating that between the three candidates for chairman, they will collectively spend over $400,0000 reaching out to the 1,383 delegates at this convention.

Brulte rejects the notion that the party hasn’t supported voter registration efforts or done outreach to its own voters, calling that “factually incorrect.’’ He notes that in 2016 alone, independent groups backing GOP causes spent more than $2 million registering GOP voters in California.

The next chairman will have to address those criticisms — and some more immediate matters of party operations. After years of unpaid fundraising and oversight in the job, Brulte began receiving compensation — $21,000 a month — after new party new bylaws were adopted in October of 2017. Following Sunday’s election, the party’s board will decide if the new chair will hold a paid position -- and what the level of compensation will be.

“It’s incumbent on the delegates to decide which campaign and which candidate they believe and trust will do the job,” said Brulte, who’s not endorsing any candidate. “They are all part of the establishment. Don’t let anybody fool you..”

Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

‘Tom who?’: Dems brush off Steyer’s impeachment push

House Democrats are rallying behind Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler as he faces growing pressure from his left flank to launch impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Driving the campaign is billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who is spearheading a $40 million campaign to push key House Democratic chairmen investigating Trump and his administration to begin holding impeachment hearings.

Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” PAC held a town hall in Nadler’s Manhattan district Tuesday evening, and the group is running a 30-second television ad powered by a six-figure digital buy encouraging Nadler’s constituents to press him to back immediate impeachment.

Nadler is also facing rumblings of a primary challenge after skating to re-election last year in one of the most liberal congressional districts in the country; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley last year was a wake-up call for Democrats, and Steyer himself has left the door open to wading into Democratic primaries.

When asked about Steyer’s efforts targeting Nadler, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a fellow New York Democrat and Judiciary Committee member who has also found himself under scrutiny from the left, quipped: “Tom who?”

It’s a sign that even as Steyer’s involvement is causing some headaches for Democrats, lawmakers are uniting behind Nadler and dismissing demands among the Democratic base to go after Trump sooner rather than later.

Democrats are particularly frustrated that Steyer refuses to rule out backing challengers in next year’s House primaries less than two months after Democrats took the majority in the first place. In addition to Nadler, Steyer’s initial targets include Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — and the billionaire has vowed to take his campaign to rank-and-file Democrats’ districts, too.

“We should not be spending money now defending incumbents in primaries. It’s stupid,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member who has backed impeaching Trump and frequently skewers the president on Twitter. “I fully support the chairman, and to do a primary challenge against him is stupid.”

Nadler’s office declined to comment on the record for this story, but his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee — who uniformly backed the chairman’s reluctance to hold impeachment hearings until more evidence against the president emerges — remain in lock-step behind him as they dismiss the growing pressure campaign as irrelevant and counterproductive.

“His district, mostly the west side of New York — there’s not hardly a more liberal place in New York,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a member of the Judiciary panel. “Tom Steyer can run some ads, but it doesn’t compare to what people in the delis would say to Jerry in the west side of New York.”

Privately, Democrats — and their Republican counterparts — on Capitol Hill believe the committee will eventually hold impeachment proceedings against Trump. Those hearings would begin only when Democrats feel that they are on solid ground, based on facts and evidence that emerges, to do so.

But that’s not enough for Steyer. In an interview before his town hall event on Tuesday night, Steyer said his effort is simply giving voice to the tens of thousands of Nadler’s constituents who signed his petition indicating their support for impeaching the president.

“He needs to know where they stand. This isn’t about me for one second,” Steyer said. “There is a split here between the elected officials inside the beltway, and American citizens. We need these hearings to bring the truth to the American people.”

“They voted for Congressman Nadler because they want some action,” he added. “That’s why they turned out.”

When pressed about using his PAC’s resources to back challengers to Nadler or other House Democrats, Steyer wouldn’t rule it out.

“I’m assuming all of these Democrats are going to listen to their constituents and go, oh my gosh, we really need to get this show on the road,” he said.

In multiple interviews, however, the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members pushed back on Steyer and revealed a united front in favor of Nadler’s strategy on impeachment.

“It’s a lot easier to govern from the outside than it is from the inside,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a former police detective who praised Nadler’s “strategic and methodical” approach.

“Everybody’s frustrated,” Demings said of Steyer’s efforts. “But frustration alone is never enough to lead any type of hearing or investigation.”

Still, Nadler is taking concrete steps to placate his left flank, lawmakers say.

He’s vowed to continue pressing now-former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about his brief supervision of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, even threatening to subpoena him for a deposition. Earlier this month, Nadler hired Norm Eisen, a former White House attorney in the Obama administration, and Barry Berke, a criminal defense lawyer specializing in white-collar crimes, as legal consultants for the committee. Both have openly mused about Trump’s alleged crimes, including obstruction of justice. And later this month, Nadler is expected to spearhead a legislative effort to reverse the president’s use of a national emergency declaration to build a border wall.

“They know abuse of power, they know obstruction of justice,” Cohen said of Eisen and Berke. “You can’t say that Chairman Nadler is not proceeding in the right direction and doing it in any way but a scholarly, diligent method — and that’s what we need to be successful.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who counts Steyer as a constituent of her San Francisco district, said the billionaire’s efforts are a “waste of time and money,” and suggested that Steyer should focus his efforts on defeating Republicans rather than undermining Democrats.

“The fact is, you are by definition as an advocate dissatisfied, relentless and persistent. Whatever the electeds are doing is a compromise, it’s not the purity of what we want,” Pelosi said in an interview recently. “I understand that, but they have to also understand that if you're going to succeed on the path that you’re on, you have to do it right.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are giddy at the prospect that Democrats are grappling with an insurgency within their own party. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Nadler is already bowing to the pressure from donors like Steyer, citing the Eisen and Berke hirings as evidence.

“Tom Steyer was trying to impeach the president in November 2016 — I mean, let’s get a break here,” Collins said in an interview. “It’s sad that you’re taking a chairman who has just taken over the committee for the first time in eight years, and you’re forcing him to do stuff that he knows is not practical at this point. I think it’s affecting a lot of our committee. It’s just sad.”

Yet those close to Nadler on the committee say he’s not worried about the pressure campaign and doesn’t believe a credible primary challenger could emerge. But Democrats who have been down this road before warned that Steyer’s efforts could backfire.

Julian Epstein, who served as chief counsel for the House Judiciary Committee’s Democrats during the fight to impeach Bill Clinton, said if Nadler bends to pressure from Steyer, he risks mirroring Republicans’ unsuccessful playbook when they tried — and failed — to oust Clinton from office 20 years ago.

“You don’t get to impeachment by politicizing it and trying to strong-arm potential allies,” Epstein said. “That will only misserve the goal of impeachment by branding it as liberal billionaires’ pet project rather than a constitutional undertaking driven by facts and law.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Democrats contend DeVos deputy interfered with inspector general probe

Congressional Democrats said Tuesday they have uncovered evidence that the Trump administration tried to influence an internal watchdog's investigation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Five top House and Senate Democrats said that the Trump administration sought to remove the Education Department’s acting inspector general last month after she pushed back on a request to “reconsider” her investigation into DeVos’ move to reinstate a controversial accreditor of for-profit colleges.

The Democrats, who sit on committees with oversight of the department, said that a January letter from a top DeVos deputy to Sandra Bruce, the acting inspector general, about the inquiry amounted to a “clear attempt to violate the statutory independence” of the agency’s inspector general.

POLITICO reported that President Donald Trump in late January abruptly appointed Phil Rosenfelt, the department’s deputy general counsel, to replace Bruce as the department’s acting IG. The White House backtracked on the decision several days later amid backlash from Democrats.

Democratic lawmakers cheered Trump’s reversal but also vowed to investigate how and why the decision was made in the first place. On Tuesday, the Democrats said they’ve become "increasingly concerned" that Bruce's removal was an attempt to interfere with the IG's independence.

In the letter cited by Democrats, Mick Zais, the deputy secretary of education, asked the IG's office to “reconsider any plan that it might have to review” the Trump administration’s move to reinstate the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, known as ACICS.

Zais noted in his letter to Bruce that it was congressional Democrats who had called for the inspector general to open an inquiry of the ACICS decision. He wrote that it was “disturbing that your office appears to be responding to a Congressional request that is really a disagreement over policy and the merits of the Department’s decision.”

Zais also wrote that it was the Obama administration that should be investigated in connection with ACICS. A federal judge ruled last year that the Obama administration had illegally failed to consider tens of thousands of pages of evidence when it terminated the accreditor.

“Should you choose not to look into the previous Administration’s actions, I expect to receive a clear, written explanation with sound reasons why that will not be done,” Zais wrote in the letter, a copy of which the department provided to POLITICO. Zais delivered the letter to Bruce in person Jan. 4, according to Bruce’s response Jan. 7.

Bruce replied to Zais’ letter by telling him she planned to continue the review of the ACICS decision, according to a copy of her letter provided by the House education committee.

“At this time, we do not believe it is appropriate to engage further with the Department regarding our intended review of this matter,” Bruce wrote. “Independence (in appearance and fact) is key in the effective operation of an OIG.” Bruce also cited the federal law that prohibits agency leaders from preventing or prohibiting an inspector general from beginning or carrying out an investigation.

Several weeks later, Zais called Bruce to tell her that she was being removed from office. (He also later called to inform her that she was being reinstated.)

“Deputy Secretary Zais’ attempt to pressure Acting Inspector General Bruce into dropping the investigation into Secretary DeVos’s actions appears to be at odds with Congress’s clear intent that inspectors general should remain independent from agency leadership,” Democrats wrote in their letter on Tuesday.

Education Department spokesperson Liz Hill disputed Democrats’ assertion that the department had sought to pressure the inspector general into dropping an investigation.

“These claims are simply untrue and don’t match the actual sequence of events,” Hill said in an email. “The Department of Education, under Secretary DeVos’s leadership, would never seek to undermine the independence of the Inspector General. For anyone to insinuate otherwise is doing so with no basis in fact and purely for political gain.”

Hill said that the Trump administration’s appointment of Rosenfelt as acting inspector general “was made on the merits and intended to provide stable leadership.” She noted that Rosenfelt is a “highly-respected 48-year career civil servant.”

In addition, Hill said that discussions about replacing the acting inspector general predated Zais’ January letter to Bruce.

“These discussion began when the previous IG announced her retirement in October of 2018, long before [the] Department requested any investigation of ACICS include examining what led a court to overturn the prior administration’s decision of the ACICS matter,” she said.

The Democrats’ letter was signed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chairman of the House education committee; Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate education committee; Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the House oversight committee; Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing education.

The lawmakers asked DeVos to turn over more documents relating to the decision to install a new acting inspector general as well as communications between political appointees and the Office of the Inspector General during the Trump administration.

They asked the Education Department to provide the records and other information by March 5.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Judge OKs suit aimed at halting Obama library in Chicago

CHICAGO — A judge on Tuesday gave the green light to a lawsuit filed by a parks-advocacy group that aims to stop for good the delayed construction of former President Barack Obama’s $500 million presidential center in a Chicago park beside Lake Michigan.

Some supporters of the project fear the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks could force Obama — who launched his political career in Chicago — to build the Obama Presidential Center elsewhere. A 2016 lawsuit brought by another group helped to scuttle a $400 million plan by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas to build a museum on public land on Chicago’s lakefront. That museum is now under construction in Los Angeles.

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey heard arguments last week on the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and was largely focused on the question of whether the group had standing to sue. His ruling doesn’t mean the group will necessarily prevail, but confirms that the suit poses a formidable threat to the project.

Plans call for the center to be built in Jackson Park, which was named after President Andrew Jackson and was a site for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The site 7 miles south of downtown Chicago is near low-income neighborhoods where Obama once worked as a community organizer and is just blocks from the University of Chicago, where Obama was a law professor. It is also close to the home where the Obamas lived until he won the presidency in 2008.

The center was originally slated to open in 2021, though ground hasn’t yet broken because of the lingering litigation.

In its 2018 suit , Protect Our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring park land to a private entity, The Obama Foundation. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt long-standing laws designed to ensure residents had unobstructed access to lakeside parks.

“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way ... to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab,” the lawsuit says. It also described the city as “gifting” prized land to a Chicago favorite son.

To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $1. Illinois legislators amended the state’s Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there’s a compelling public interest. The Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-to-1 vote last May.

The Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit, would pay $10 to the city for use of the park land for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex and be responsible for covering operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the Obama Presidential Center’s physical structures would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would formally own the center but not control what happens there.

“They are essentially giving (property) to Obama ... for 10 cents a year for 99 years,” parks advocacy lawyer Mark Roth said Thursday.

City lawyers said Thursday that the city would also pay an estimated $175 million to reconfigure roads to manage traffic around the center.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, legal scholar Richard Epstein said public-trust doctrine places an extra burden on authorities to prove overwhelming public benefit when they offer the use of public parks to such well-connected figures as Obama, who remains hugely popular in the heavily Democratic city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once served as Obama’s White House chief of staff.

Among other assertions in the lawsuit is that the center would interfere with migrating butterflies and birds.

City lawyers said Protect Our Parks misread the law, misrepresented how the approval process played out and exaggerated potential environmental disruptions.

The center would comprise 20 acres (8 hectares) of the 500-acre park. Its centerpiece building would be a 225-foot museum tower, with a cluster of lower buildings around it, including a 300-seat auditorium. The center’s website says the complex would be “a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates our nation’s first African American President and First Lady (Michelle Obama).”

City lawyers said the center would provide significant benefits, including bringing a major economic boost to poor local minority communities. Backers estimate it will create 5,000 jobs during construction and over 2,500 permanent jobs. An estimated 760,000 people could visit each year.

Obama selected Chicago over other locations vying to host his presidential center, including Hawaii, where he was born.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump: 'I like Bernie' but he may have missed his shot

President Donald Trump welcomed Sen. Bernie Sanders into the 2020 fray Tuesday, telling reporters the Vermont independent may have “missed his time” after being defeated by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“I wish Bernie well. It will be interesting to see how he does,” Trump said in the Oval Office.

Sanders announced his candidacy Tuesday morning, but Trump argued that despite the senator’s self-proclaimed Democratic socialist ideology, which the GOP has vilified, the two would agree with each other on the issue of trade.

The Vermont senator espouses a more protectionist trade platform like Trump, and in 2016 was seen as pushing Clinton leftward on trade, ultimately resulting in Clinton withdrawing her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

But Trump posited Tuesday that Sanders wouldn’t have been able to translate his protectionism into policy like Trump has, presumably referring to his trade wars and his renegotiation of NAFTA.

“Personally, I think he missed his time,” Trump told reporters. “But I like Bernie because he is one person that you know on trade, he sort of would agree on trade, I'm being very tough on trade, he was tough on trade, the problem is, he doesn't know what to do about it.”

“We're doing something very spectacular on trade,” he added.

The White House has already sought to tie Sanders’ progressive ideology to the rest of the Democrats running for president in 2020, painting proposals championed by Sanders — like Medicare for all and raising taxes on the wealthy — that have become more mainstream as radical and impractical, though they have somewhat divided 2020 Democrats.

Trump also returned to a familiar refrain against Clinton, claiming again that Sanders was unfairly treated by the Democratic Party apparatus during the 2016 primary and by Clinton’s campaign.

“I think what happened to Bernie maybe was not so nice. I think he was taken advantage of. He ran great four years ago,” he said. “And he was not treated with respect by Clinton, and that was too bad.”

The president — along with Sanders — has complained that the Democratic National Committee unfairly had its thumb on the scales in Clinton’s favor, a claim that was borne out with the release of damaging DNC emails in 2016. Trump revived the accusations on Tuesday.

“I thought what happened to Bernie Sanders four years ago was quite sad as it pertains to our country,” he argued.

Sanders in launching his campaign has not had such kind words for the president.

“I think it is absolutely imperative that Donald Trump be defeated because I think it is unacceptable and un-American, to be frank with you, that we have a president who is a pathological liar, and it gives me no pleasure to say that, but it's true,” Sanders said Tuesday morning after announcing his candidacy. “We have a president who is a racist, who is a sexist, who is a xenophobe, who is doing what no president in our lifetimes have come close to doing, and that's trying to divide us up.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump in 'no rush' to denuclearize North Korea

President Donald Trump said Tuesday that there was “no rush” to denuclearize North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong Un, he’s meeting with next week.

“I have no pressing time schedule,” Trump said of full denuclearization by the North, adding that he would “like to see, ultimately denuclearization, of North Korea” and that he thought “we will see that, ultimately.”

The president is meeting with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27 and 28. The two leaders, who had their first historic meeting in Singapore last June, agreed to a framework to denuclearize the region.

Analysts and former U.S. officials, however, have cast doubt on Trump’s assessment of North Korea’s commitment to that pledge.

Trump told reporters while speaking in the Oval office that he believed “that North Korea and Chairman Kim have some very positive things in mind” about getting rid of nuclear weapons and “we’ll soon find out” what it is.

“I’m in no rush,” Trump said of denuclearization. “As long as there’s no testing, I’m in no rush. If there’s testing, that’s another deal. But there has been no testing.”

Top intelligence officials earlier this month told Congress that North Korea was unlikely to fully give up its nuclear weapons, despite Trump’s claim that it eventually will.

Earlier this month, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said that although there was a “significant reduction in tension” over missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, he warned that the country’s annual military exercises hadn’t changed in size, scope or timing.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine