Why some Palestinians are backing Trump’s peace push

Some prominent Palestinian activists and politicians are quietly rooting for Jared Kushner as he prepares to unveil the first part of his Middle East peace plan next month.

That's not because they think the plan will resolve their decades-long conflict with Israel. It’s because they hope it will hasten the onset of a “one-state” solution they are coming to support.

The push for one state with equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis has gained steam in recent years as the Trump administration has been preparing its peace plan, which Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, is expected to unveil at a June conference in Bahrain. Kushner has signaled that his plan abandons America’s decades-long official support for a “two-state solution,” in which the Palestinians are given a sovereign nation of their own.

Many Palestinian supporters of a single state — whose ranks now include Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a Palestinian-American — wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing the creation of two independent, full-fledged states in the region. But they don’t consider that outcome realistic, nor do they believe that the international community ever truly backed the idea.

Some argue that due to Israeli actions on the ground, including the construction of settlements in the West Bank, Palestinians already live in a de facto single state, but one in which they lack the same rights as Israeli Jews. Many liken the situation to apartheid South Africa and say Trump’s policies are simply exposing that reality.

“Trump is now not only burying the two-state solution, which was not viable anyway, but he’s gladly dancing on its grave, thus forcing people to end their denial,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “It’s important for us to respond very clearly that we need equal rights in one state.”

Surrendering the fight for two states could mean short-term pain for Palestinians, one-staters admit. But they hope to draw the world’s attention over time to the implications of one Israeli state in which Palestinians lack full voting and freedom-of-movement rights, bolstering their demands for one state with equal rights for all citizens.

The push for one state with equal rights is also fueled by a series of other strongly pro-Israel actions by Trump, including recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel despite its contested status. If the Palestinians are not given sovereignty, an Israel that absorbs millions of them indefinitely may ultimately be forced to choose between its democratic character and its Jewish identity — especially if demographic growth favors Palestinians.

“I don’t think it’s the intention of Mr. Trump to help Palestinians, but indirectly I think it is [helping]," said Hamada Jaber of the One State Foundation, an organization that launched last year to argue that a single state is actually in the Palestinians’ interest. “There is no two-state solution. It’s pushing us as Palestinians to think about an alternative.”

The growing calls among far left Palestinians and other advocates for “one state, equal rights” comes as Israeli and Palestinian officials acknowledge that the decades-long efforts at achieving a political solution has stalled, and that the two sides’ respective positions on issues like borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees may be irreconcilable.

Even so, many close observers of the conflict say, a one state, equal rights approach may prove an even more impractical goal.

“It’s not a real-world solution,” insisted Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the left-leaning Jewish advocacy group that supports the two-state model. “It may sound nice in an academic hall. In a real world, this is not going to become one democratic state with equal rights.”

Israeli politicians won’t stand for an outcome in which they could lose political power, critics of the one-state idea say. Then there’s the fact that Palestinian leaders still say they want two separate states. Tensions between Palestinians and Israelis run so deep, some two-staters argue, that they could not co-exist peacefully under one government.

Israeli leaders have long blamed the lack of progress in past peace talks on Palestinians, saying they’ve repeatedly refused generous offers that would have helped them create their own state while supporting violence against Israel. The militant group Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip — from which it launches attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians — hasn’t helped inspire Israeli confidence in a potential peace deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered only tepid support for the creation of a Palestinian state in the past, and more recently, he’s made statements that seem aimed at derailing that possibility, including reportedly telling Trump that he will not evacuate “a single person” from any West Bank settlements and saying that he might move to annex parts of that territory. The conservative Israeli’s recent reelection led to headlines such as, “Netanyahu won. The two-state solution lost.”

But Israelis say they’re not worried the Trump-Kushner plan will hasten a one-state, equal rights model. “We have confidence in the Trump administration to try and present a plan that will enable Israel to maintain its security interests and on the other hand help improve the life of Palestinians and put an end to this conflict,” an Israeli official told POLITICO.

Officials with the Palestinian Authority did not respond to requests for comment, but they have repeatedly said the Trump administration is not an honest broker. The White House did not provide a comment for this story.

Meanwhile, there are signs that even people traditionally linked closely to the pro-Israel camp are worried about what the Kushner-led proposal will contain.

For instance, Rob Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has urged the administration to scrap the proposal, arguing it could spur a chain of events that leads to adverse long-term repercussions for Israel’s global standing.

In an interview, Satloff told POLITICO: “It would be a shame if any American initiative advances the idea or contributes to the idea that a single binational state is the solution for the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Satloff’s stance has drawn attention across Washington. "It's an interesting world in which people such as Rob Satloff urge the administration not to release a plan that almost certainly will be heavily tilted toward Israel's position and others more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are far less alarmed," noted Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group.

Malley agreed that the one-state, equal-rights idea is gaining traction in various corners, especially younger Palestinians who seek a more "rights-based discourse.” “I don’t want to overstate it, but there is a shift,” he said.

One prominent supporter is Rashida Tlaib, a newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Michigan who is of Palestinian descent.

Tlaib has been accused of anti-Semitism for some of her remarks, a charge she vehemently denies, and she declined to comment for this story. But in comments last year to In These Times, a progressive publication, Tlaib compared the push for one-state, equal rights to the American civil rights movement.

“It has to be one state,” she said. “Separate but equal does not work.”

Other Middle East observers are not confident that the one state, equal rights camp will prevail.

“The idea that you’ll end up with apartheid state and it’ll eventually raise sympathy: This is too linear a view of history,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority official now with the Washington Institute. He and others stressed that they’re trying to keep an open mind about the Trump peace proposal given that very few people know its contents.

Early on in his presidency, Trump casually tossed aside decades of official U.S. support for a two-state solution, declaring that he “can live with either” a one-state or two-state solution so long as Palestinians and Israelis agree.

More recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when pressed by lawmakers, declined to say if the U.S. still supports a two-state solution. Kushner, meanwhile, said the peace proposal will not include the phrase “two-state solution.”

“If you say ‘two-state’, it means one thing to the Israelis, it means one thing to the Palestinians,” Kushner said during an event hosted by Satloff and the Washington Institute. “We said, ‘You know, let’s just not say it. Let’s just say, let’s work on the details of what this means’.”

From what little Kushner and his team have revealed, the specifics appear focused more on economic matters than political rights. The first phase of the plan is expected to be rolled out in Bahrain in late June at an “economic workshop” that will convene business leaders among others to discuss ways to help improve Palestinian lives materially.

Trump administration officials say the plan will also cover political issues, including sensitive topics such as borders, but have not offered a time frame for revealing those details.

The release of the plan, which at one point was around 50 pages, according to a Western diplomat, has been delayed several times.

During that time period, Trump has taken several steps that appear to undercut Palestinian hopes for their own state while pressuring them to come to the negotiating table, including by declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a cutoff of financial aid to the Palestinians, and recognition of sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Trump administration officials have also not contested Netanyahu’s recent suggestion that he will move to annex parts of the West Bank, home to millions of Palestinians.

Palestinian activists say that move would clearly signal that Israeli leaders have given up on a Palestinian state.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Media tries to avoid 2016 mistakes with massive 2020 field

Marianne Williamson is a spiritual author whose most high-profile previous foray into politics was an unsuccessful run for Congress as an independent. In a field of nearly two-dozen Democratic presidential candidates, she wouldn’t normally warrant much press attention.

But Williamson’s campaign says she’s hit the 65,000-donor threshold to qualify for the upcoming primary debates. And after 2016 — when the media was accused of anointing winners too early and missing the rise of Donald Trump — news executives and editors are anxious to make sure they give every would-be president a fair look.

“I feel compelled to give everybody a chance to prove that they’re worthy of coverage,” said Chuck Todd, who hosts NBC’s “Meet the Press” and serves as political director.

“I don’t even want to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, we’ll never have an embed on Marianne Williamson,’” Todd said. “How do I know that? She may get on that debate stage and suddenly have a following, and there we will be.”

The 2016 campaign featured a total of 17 Republican candidates and a much slower ramp-up — Trump wasn’t even in the race by this point four years ago. This year, newsrooms are hiring bigger teams, sending reporters to more places and thinking of new ways to cover the massive field.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading national and key-state polls, already has something resembling a traditional press corps, with news organizations such as the New York Times, Associated Press and NBC News assigning beat reporters to cover him exclusively, and he has formed a press pool to cover his fundraisers.

But most newsrooms can’t afford — or don’t want — to assign a reporter to every candidate. That’s prompting some creativity in how to cover the 2020 race.

CNN is offering every candidate who wants one a chance to participate in a televised town hall, even though the events aren’t always ratings hits. Williamson has done one this year, as have 13 other Democratic candidates, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has one scheduled for Tuesday. The network also has announced plans for events with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, and California Rep. Eric Swalwell.

CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist said he expects the network to spend “more money than we ever have in the past” on this election cycle, including staging and producing the town halls and sending reporters out into the field.

“To cover all the candidates, to cover the policy, the big picture, and the stories that involve multiple candidates in any one day — and to cover all the events — it takes an army,” Feist said. “So, we’ve deployed an army to cover this election.”

Other newsrooms are expanding for 2020. The Washington Post has about 10 reporters who travel regularly with candidates, plus a bigger political investigations team and more editors than in 2016, Washington Post national editor Steve Ginsberg said. The Post has also added a seven-days-a-week breaking news desk dedicated solely to covering politics.

Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel has interviewed or attended events with more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates this election cycle, a feat that took him from Washington to Montana, California and Iowa in the last week alone.

“I woke up before 4 a.m. three days in a row in three different time zones,” he said, adding that his "electorate first" approach is focusing on taking the pulse of Democratic voters rather than zeroing in on individual candidates.

“We don’t have a reporter on all 23 candidates, but we have by far the biggest team the Post has ever had covering an election, and we’re able to be out with quite a lot of people at any given time,” Ginsberg said.

Wall Street Journal political editor Ben Pershing also said his paper is fielding a “much bigger” campaign team in 2020. He added three political reporters earlier this month and is still hiring. Still, Pershing isn't planning to assign candidates to beat reporters any time soon, saying the paper's focus is on "broad and thematic stories" that cut across the field.

New York Times political editor Patrick Healy said writing daily about every Democratic candidate “just risks being a blur” for readers. So, while the paper has assigned reporters to closely track many in the field, the team is focusing more on “stories that illuminate who the candidates are and what they stand for and help readers think about the policy issues and political dynamics at stake,” Healy said.

Healy, who has been engaging with readers on Twitter about the Times’ early 2020 coverage, said he’s heard requests for “more on policy, more on issues.”

Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, sees going beyond Washington as one of her outlet’s core strengths. The AP’s politics team has reporters focused on the race from Washington, New York, Chicago, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Georgia, and a political editor is planning to move from Washington to Minnesota. Plus, the broader wire service has reporters in all 50 states.

“The advantage there is we don’t have to parachute people in to take the pulse of the Midwest or get the vibe of women in the South,” Pace said. “We have reporters that live there. They raise their families there. They go to church. They send their kids to school with voters there. And so we’ve tried to make that core to our coverage.”

Pace noted that “one of the lessons from 2016 is that news organizations didn’t pay enough attention to what voters outside of the coasts are saying.” But “our team lives outside of the coasts, and we’re in all these states and in these communities,” she said, adding that these assignments “will really resonate in our coverage of the election.”

None of the newsroom executives was bemoaning the size of the field, which is brimming with stories for reporters to tell. Still, Pace admitted, “I wouldn’t be looking forward to covering a 40-person field.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

I Watched 20 Hours of Robert Mueller Testifying. Here’s What Congress Would Be In For.

The first thing you notice during a marathon spree of watching Robert Mueller testify before Congress is his voice. This is not because his voice is striking—although it is, in a way, a crisp and direct tenor—but because you're hearing it at all.

For two years, the special counsel running the Russia probe, the man at the center of the most talked-about and speculated-upon American investigation in decades, has said not a word in a public forum. His team's official pronouncements came via indictments and courtroom arguments, as well as a couple of on-the-record statements pushing back against media reports or other critics. Neither Mueller nor any of his prosecutors gave an interview, and Mueller himself was spied only occasionally, at the airport or walking down a Washington, D.C. street, or dining with his wife at his go-to casual restaurant, never speaking to the public.

That's likely going to change soon: Mueller has been called before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, who want to grill him on the findings from his lengthy investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump. Democrats and the special counsel’s representatives have been haggling for weeks to set a date to commence the blockbuster hearings, and the expectation is that he will appear by next month.

So what can we expect? It’s impossible to know how Mueller will respond to questions Democratic and GOP lawmakers are teeing up for him. But when it comes to the character at the center of the drama, there's actually some evidence for how it’s going to go. Over his most recent 12 years in public life, as the FBI director under two presidential administrations, Mueller testified more than 50 times before Congress. He was hauled before a joint House-Senate panel to talk about intelligence gathering and counterterrorism surrounding the events of Sept. 11, 2001; he presented plans after the terrorist attacks for a sweeping FBI reorganization; and a dozen years later, during his 2013 retirement hearings, discussed everything from the Boston Marathon bombings to a suite of controversial government surveillance programs. They're all archived on C-SPAN—more than 140 hours of video footage starring the man Americans have been waiting to hear from.

I watched more than 20 hours of that footage, a representative sample of big and small hearings on a range of issues spanning the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, before both friendly and hostile lawmakers.

When you watch the clips, the images feel immediately familiar: Cable news has been showing the same Mueller footage on a loop since his appointment in May 2017. But it’s always with the sound turned off. That’s a mistake. Listening to Mueller speak helps pierce some of the mythology that’s seemed to only grow in the absence of any news conferences or public speaking appearances while he’s been the special counsel. What do they show us? And what does Congress need to know as it goes toe-to-toe with one of the most respected, bulldog law-enforcement officials in the nation?

Mueller has worked complex issues before. A lot.

The Russia investigation feels totally unique, and in some ways it is. But there's a reason then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein picked Mueller for the job in the first place: He's a specialist in high-level, complex investigations.

Mueller took over as FBI director one week before 9/11, and his first months on the job were dominated by an examination of the missed warning signs that led to the terrorist attacks. He spearheaded the bureau’s reorganization from a straight-up law enforcement agency to a national security organization. And he implemented controversial intelligence-gathering and surveillance policies in the face of serious civil liberties concerns.

He's also dealt with complicated matters involving Russia. Mueller spoke during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2001 about helping the FBI redeem its reputation after several “serious and highly publicized problems” that included agent Robert Hanssen being outed as a Soviet and Russian mole. A decade later in June 2011, Mueller testified about the persistent threat of Russian espionage, noting the arrest the previous summer of 10 Russian spies who’d been living for years as sleeper agents in the U.S.

That fall, when asked which nation states are the “biggest actors” in espionage against the U.S, Mueller replied, “It’d be hard to pick out some. I think it’s been raised in other hearings, but you have countries such as Russia and China, others, Iran perhaps.”

He's also cautious when it comes to investigations, relying on his past experience as a federal prosecutor in Boston, Washington and San Francisco and leading the Justice Department’s criminal division. Answering a question in 2001 from then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) about how he goes about not infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights when conducting politically sensitive probes, Mueller said he thinks of investigations very conservatively—not as gotcha campaigns, but as “a series of steps” to determine “whether or not you’ve got sufficient reason to go forward to the next step.”

Mueller has thought about targeting presidents before.

With the Bill Clinton impeachment saga not very far back in the rearview mirror, senators in 2001 pressed Mueller in his nomination hearing to talk about how he’d handle a high-level criminal probe in which the chief executive himself was the target. “Would you, as FBI director, exercise the authority to withhold information from the president on national security matters, because the president was the subject of a criminal investigation?” asked then-Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican at the time.

“There may be an occasion where it's possible, yes,” Mueller replied.

And then there’s this remarkable exchange from the same hearing with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who asked Mueller whether he’d be willing to use the independence that comes with a 10-year term leading the FBI to go around the Justice Department brass “if something serious occurs and there has been a threat to the orderly operation of justice.”

“I do not exclude the possibility that the circumstances would be such that I would feel it necessary to circumvent the ordinary course of proceedings by, which would be to go to the attorney general first before I made perhaps a disclosure to Congress,” Mueller answered. “But I am not precluding the possibility that given the necessary independence of the bureau in investigation, that there might not come a time where one seeks an alternative where one believes that political pressure is being brought to bear on the investigative process.

“That may be somewhere else in the executive, beyond the attorney general,” Mueller added. “It may be Congress, but I would look and explore every option if I believed that the FBI was being pressured for political reasons. And if that were the situation as described here, I would explore other alternatives or a variety of alternatives in order to make certain that justice was done.”

Watching that response—cautiously worded as it is—is striking in light of more recent events: Mueller’s appointment happened only after Sessions himself, as Trump’s attorney general, had to recuse himself from Russia-related matters because of political conflicts.

He's well-mannered and disciplined, but can't quite fix his tie.

Mueller attended boarding school with John Kerry, and later served four years in Vietnam with the Marine Corps, and both kinds of training come across in his physical presence. He’s quite polite, and typically makes direct eye contact with his questioners. He thanks staffers who bring him a glass of water.

He can also be funny and, despite the seriousness of a job that required chasing down terrorists and all manner of bad guys, Mueller does crack a smile. “I’m sitting here, that’s all I can say,” Mueller said to laughter during his late July 2001 Senate confirmation hearing when asked how he did after taking a polygraph required for FBI managers.

Mueller’s preferred wardrobe—dark suit, red or blue tie and always a white shirt—has been closely scrutinized, even admired in the two years since he took the special counsel job. He frequently wears his watch like a military man, with the face on the inside of his wrist. He rarely diverges from that signature put-together look, but in almost every appearance I watched, his tie is slightly askew, with a noticeable cockeyed tilt to the left.

Mueller does not suffer fools gladly.

Mueller can also get testy, and clearly doesn’t like to be interrupted when he’s answering a question. And he won’t hesitate to correct members of Congress, as evidenced by a heated exchange in 2013 with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who pressed repeatedly why the FBI had not checked out a tip that the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing frequented a local mosque. “Your facts are not altogether … ” Mueller said as the two men talked over each other, before the FBI director added a moment later that his agents had been there and spoken to “imams several months beforehand.”

As Gohmert pressed on, Mueller drew a line. “I’ve answered the question, sir,” he said.

Mueller can also be frank. He’ll admit it when he doesn’t know an answer. And he’ll be brutally honest too, even when the response he’s giving doesn’t sound very politically appealing.

“Well, it depends on your definition of accountable, but I would say, I would say that I have not held somebody accountable in the sense of either disciplining or firing somebody,” Mueller told then-Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) during a marathon joint bicameral hearing in 2002 over five hours long examining the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

None of that may prepare us for this week's hearings.

Mueller is a famously by-the-book operator, and many congressional insiders expect him to stick to the script from his investigation and not elaborate much beyond the 400-plus pages in his report.

But Mueller also has access to information that even Congress hasn't seen, and that means he could really make news at any moment. So his upcoming hearings likely won't follow the usual playbook.

“This will be a very different hearing from how Congress typically works,” said Ted Kalo, the former Democratic general counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. While members generally have a good idea what a witness’ answers will be to their questions, all bets are off for the special counsel. “Here, no one knows what will happen from minute to minute in terms of Mueller’s answers,” Kalo said.

“He’s going to bring the report to life,” added Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, when I asked what he was expecting from a Mueller hearing.

Some even say Mueller’s appearances, carried wall-to-wall live on the television networks, have the potential to open up new lines of inquiry, and perhaps even pave the way for impeachment.

“Oftentimes, public hearings can change minds,” said Greg Brower, former head of the FBI congressional affairs office. “I know this is a long shot given the current reality, but there’s even some Republicans on the Hill, if they heard Bob Mueller testify and explain the details, they too might decide that impeachment is in order.”

He knows a lot of the players already.

There’s a lot of churn on Capitol Hill, but 14 of the members who questioned Mueller on the House Judiciary Committee during his visit in June 2013 are still around. There, he faced Rep. Jerry Nadler, now the chairman, who wondered aloud whether he was getting bad information from Mueller about a post-9/11 surveillance program that Edward Snowden had just revealed details about a week earlier in a leak to The Guardian.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), then a freshman, is now the Judiciary panel’s ranking member. (Back on that occasion, the two men ended up in agreement on the need to update federal surveillance laws.)

Another senior Democrat on the panel, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, pressed for details during that 2013 hearing about how the FBI in its pursuit of classified information leakers differentiates between journalists who publish sensitive material and their sources.

“We quite obviously don’t consider that category that you listed as criminals in any way, shape or form,” Mueller replied in reference to reporters and editors, adding: “If you go to court on this, you have to show that this particular set of materials that were leaked went to a particular person for publication, but the focus is on the person who is doing the leaking.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, now a senior GOP Judiciary member, faced off against Mueller in 2013, grilling the departing director for not knowing who at the FBI was leading an investigation into the IRS singling out conservative Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny. “This is the most important issue in front of the country the last six weeks, you don't know who's heading up the case? Who the lead investigator is?” Jordan complained.

“At this junction, no, I do not know who the ... ” Mueller replied, before Jordan cut him off.

When I caught up with Jordan recently to ask about Mueller’s upcoming return to Congress, the Ohio Republican said his memory remained fresh of that six-year-old exchange.

“It wasn’t an impressive performance by Mr. Mueller,” he said. “I do remember that.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Governor’s feud with party boss rocks New Jersey politics

TRENTON — A long-simmering intraparty fight among Democrats in New Jersey has turned into an open civil war, pitting the state’s political novice governor against an old-school political boss who has ruled for more than two decades — and potentially reordering the political landscape in what’s become a national Democratic stronghold.

The protagonists come from very different wings of New Jersey’s political sphere: Gov. Phil Murphy, a 61-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama appointee who succeeded Republican Gov. Chris Christie nearly 18 months ago pledging to clean up New Jersey government, and George Norcross, a wealthy 63-year-old insurance executive who is the state’s most powerful unelected official — and whose political wrath is so feared he has taken on an almost mythical status in Jersey circles.

Now the governor has launched an unprecedented public attack on Norcross, who has nearly uncontested control of South Jersey’s Democratic machine and is among the people targeted by a Murphy-commissioned inquiry into the state’s multi-billion dollar tax incentive programs.

Norcross has responded by opening fire on the governor, breaking his typical silence to compare Murphy to the king of England and call him a “liar” and “politically incompetent.” Norcross claims Murphy is trying to undermine his efforts to revitalize impoverished Camden, and has even recruited Christie, who was a key ally and signed the tax incentive law, to join the battle against Murphy.

In a state where Democrats have a nearly one-million-voter advantage over Republicans and control two branches of government, the dispute is all that matters for the political class.

It threatens to derail major legislation — it’s being blamed for delivering the final blows to a bill that would have legalized marijuana — and could put a full stop on Murphy’s already-slowed progressive agenda. It could lead to a government shutdown when the state budget comes due next month. And virtually any other major bill is sure to face a Murphy-Norcross litmus test.

Politically, many Democrats will be forced to choose sides — Sens. Cory Booker, a presidential candidate, and Bob Menendez have already come to Norcross‘ defense. There are even suggestions of a possible primary challenge if Murphy, who’s never held elected office before, seeks a second term in 2021.

“It could easily reshape the Democratic Party,” said Carl Golden, who served as a top staffer to former Republican governors Thomas Kean and Christine Todd Whitman. “Whoever emerges as the perceived winner is going to have control of the party.”

The dispute between the two men is the ultimate manifestation of tensions that have existed since before Murphy took office last year. It now appears to be all-consuming, permeating every issue in Trenton and turning half-hearted rivalries into bitter feuds.

“It’s the biggest conflict I’ve seen, and I’ve been through many of them in my 40-year legislative career,” said former state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, one of Murphy’s 2017 primary opponents. “I’ve never seen it anywhere close to this.”

Norcross, whose insurance brokerage has millions of dollars in public contracts across the state, is undeniably one of the most powerful people in New Jersey. He holds sway over a major legislative delegation from South Jersey, giving him the ability to make or break any piece of legislation.

The son of a local labor union leader, Norcross built on the family’s influence in Camden and other nearby counties in South Jersey. In the 1990s, he consolidated his control over most of the state’s southern political machines, becoming so influential that he expects all governors to kiss the ring.

“In the end, the McGreeveys, the Corzines, they're all going to be with me. Not because they like me, but because they have no choice,” Norcross boasted in a secretly recorded conversion in the early 2000s, referring to now former governors James McGreevy and Jon Corzine.

It stayed that way until 2017, when Christie was preparing to leave office after two terms.

Murphy, who previously served as finance chair for the Democratic National Committee and was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, managed to clear the primary field of top-tier contenders despite being virtually unknown in New Jersey. He pushed aside state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross and his highest-ranking ally in state government.

That in itself didn’t appear to upset Norcross. It was what happened when one of Murphy’s biggest labor allies made a move on Sweeney.

Bitter and angry over a broken promise related to their pensions, the state’s largest teachers union — the New Jersey Education Association — backed a Republican, MAGA-wing candidate who was running against Sweeney in the general election.

Sweeney’s reelection, typically a pro forma matter, turned into what may have been the most expensive state legislative race in U.S. history, costing nearly $19 million. A super PAC associated with Norcross, General Majority, funneled $2.3 million to another PAC that supported Sweeney.

Murphy said nothing publicly about the race, not once asking the union to give up on its quest to unseat Sweeney. It wasn’t until the week of the election that the soon-to-be governor showed up to campaign with the Senate president.

While Murphy is said to have worked privately to get the NJEA to back down, the perception by those around Sweeney and Norcross was that he did nothing.

“It got started when Governor Murphy and his allies first tried to defeat Steve Sweeney, and then tried to remove him as Senate President — and he repeatedly denied they [were] doing so,” Daniel Fee, a spokesperson for Norcross, said in an emailed response to a question about the source of the tensions.

Before Murphy even took office that January, Sweeney had already said he would kill one of the governor-elect’s biggest policy proposals: a millionaire’s tax. The two nearly shut the state down last June as they fought over the issue, ultimately agreeing to a proposal that hued toward what Sweeney had sought.

Within days, Norcross took his first public shots at Murphy, telling POLITICO he thought the governor had been “served poorly” by his inner circle and that infighting among Murphy's aides had been so bad that the governor was “suffering from a Trump-like administration.” (Norcross, it’s worth noting, is a member of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.)

But, at the time, Norcross still had kind words for the governor, labeling him “a gentleman.”

What’s changed since then? A dispute over tax policy, of all things.

Murphy, on a mission to reel in New Jersey’s corporate subsidy programs, which expire in July, has created a task force to investigate how the credits have been awarded and whether recipients misled the state. The task force — chaired by the former dean of Rutgers Law School — has set its sights on companies tied to Norcross, though it has also targeted other firms.

The programs were written in 2013 and approved by Christie in a deal with Sweeney and other legislative leaders. Since then, some $11 billion in credits have been promised to companies that have agreed to create jobs.

For Norcross, the program has been a family affair: His brother Donald, now a congressman, said he led the charge to pass the bill in the state Legislature. An attorney working for a firm run by Norcross’ other brother, Philip, made major changes to the bill before it was passed — an issue first written about in The New York Times.

Those changes were written in a way that benefited the firm's future clients, including George Norcross' insurance brokerage, Conner Strong & Buckelew, which is about to open a new office tower in Camden with the help of incentives it is yet to collect. It also benefited Camden-based Cooper Health System, which Norcross chairs. He portrays it all as part of a coordinated effort to lift up the beleaguered city.

Camden, once among the most dangerous and impoverished cities in America, has indeed made strides since Norcross and other officials turned their attention to improving the community on the banks of the Delaware River. Crime is down and the skyline is being reshaped. Norcross and others call it a "renaissance." But Camden still faces daunting challenges, from block after block of vacant properties to a population struggling to make enough money, with more than a third living in poverty.

In April, Murphy’s task force announced it was making a criminal referral to law enforcement authorities and said it had “uncovered evidence of unregistered lobbying on behalf of special interests, which materially affected the legislation and regulations governing New Jersey’s tax incentives granted to businesses.”

Then, earlier this month, the task force suggested in a public hearing that Cooper Health and Conner Strong, along with two companies it is partnering with, gave the state disingenuous office lease quotes to claim jobs were at risk of leaving New Jersey if they did not get the tax incentives.

Norcross denies wrongdoing, and said his company was serious about a potential move to Philadelphia, where it has a dual national headquarters. And he points to a letter he received from the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey that said the prosecutors had looked into conduct “pertaining to the procurement of tax credits" and “concluded that no further action is warranted.”

More broadly, he and his allies — including Christie and Corzine — have responded by portraying the work of the task force and Murphy’s efforts to overhaul the incentive programs as an attack on Camden, where many of the credits have gone.

Norcross has taken it all quite personally. In an interview with The Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, he called the task force “McCarthy-like” and unleashed his wrath on Murphy and his wife, Tammy.

“What’s the end game for this guy?” Norcross asked in the interview. “Well, I’m telling you: He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England, and they don’t have to answer to anybody. And they’ve gone out there recklessly, stupidly and incompetently time and time again.”

Norcross’ company and others to which he has ties hired an all-star legal team to fight the task force. The team includes former U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, along with some of New Jersey’s most prominent attorneys, including a former state attorney general and a former U.S. attorney.

And his longtime lawyer, William Tambussi, also sent a “litigation hold notice” directly to Murphy’s family home in Middletown, N.J. — a highly unusual move.

Norcross declined to be interviewed for this story, but had Fee, his spokesperson, answer written questions on his behalf. Fee said the task force investigation is illegal, noted Conner Strong hasn’t received any money from its tax incentives and described Murphy as “widely unpopular” — a claim not supported by public polling.

“The Governor wants to make it clear to anyone and everyone that he is not to be questioned or challenged,” Fee said. “Like every schoolyard tough, he wants to pick a fight with the bigger, more successful guy to prove his own mettle. The problem is, the people the Governor really risks hurting are the people of Camden who are seeing the unprecedented investment and opportunities the city is experiencing put at risk.”

Murphy, in his second year as governor, has said little publicly. But he has said he has a responsibility to track down “every last penny” spent on the tax programs and has called out the “very privileged few on the inside” who have benefited.

"Very hard for an Irish man to be referred to as the King of England," he cracked when asked about the Norcross interview.

The governor says a report released earlier this year by the state comptroller that found issues with the tax incentive programs forced him to launch the investigation. He’s essentially washed his hands of the matter since, calling it an “independent” inquiry.

“I was elected because the people of New Jersey saw a broken system — one that worked very well for a small group of the wealthy and well-connected, but not for the middle class,” Murphy said in a statement to POLITICO. “There’s no bigger example than what’s been uncovered lately about our tax incentives programs and how this system was vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of a select few.

“This debate isn’t about any one person or one city. It’s about moving our state forward in a way that responsibly grows our economy by putting the middle class first,” he said.

No one knows how this will all end. It’s a fight some expect to last for years — at least until Murphy’s reelection in 2021. That’s assuming he doesn’t leave office earlier to join a new Democratic administration in Washington, a move some expect Murphy — the chairman-elect of the Democratic Governors Association — would be tempted to make if Trump loses next year.

Few expect the Democratic civil war will cost the party any of its legislative seats or the governor’s office, despite the fact a Democratic governor hasn’t been reelected in New Jersey in decades. Christie left the state Republican Party in shambles after neglecting it for his own national ambitions.

But no one argues the state’s political environment will be anything short of treacherous in coming months and years. Every issue, from big to small, could play into the feud.

“I think we’re spending a lot of energy weaponizing things and not a lot of energy doing real, cool, good, substantive progressive policy right now — on both sides,” said Bill Caruso, a lobbyist and former top legislative staffer who is often allied with Norcross. “We’re doing a really good job of weaponizing things on both sides.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Republicans outraise Democrats in April fundraising

The Republican National Committee raised $15.9 million in April, according to new campaign finance disclosures, as the committee prepared for President Donald Trump’s reelection — a sum that is more than double the $6.6 million raised by the Democratic National Committee during the same time period.

The RNC ended the month with $34.7 million cash on hand, while the DNC ended the month with $7.6 million cash on hand.

But the RNC raised big money from two donors who are embroiled in recent controversies. Financier John Childs — who has been accused of being involved in a Florida prostitution ring — gave the committee $100,000. Childs also donated to the RNC in February shortly before news of his alleged involvement in the prostitution ring broke. He has denied the allegations.

And casino mogul Steve Wynn — who was accused of sexually assaulting employees at his casinos — donated $248,500 the RNC. Investigations into Wynn have concluded and Wynn denies all wrongdoing, and “at this point, there is no reason for refusing his support,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told POLITICO last week. The RNC did not respond to a request for comment on Childs.

Other big-ticket donors to the RNC in April included GOP megadonors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, who combined gave the committee $710,000.

The DNC‘s big donors included Silicon Valley philanthropist Karla Jurvetson, who gave the committee $100,000; financier Bernard Schwartz, who also gave the committee $100,000; and Zumiez chairman Thomas Campion, who gave the committee $75,000.

The RNC spent $14.3 million overall and ended the month with $34.7 million cash on hand. The RNC spent $2.1 million on legal bills in April, making legal fees one of the committee’s biggest expenses. Of the $2.1 million, the committee paid $2 million to the law firm Jones Day, the Trump campaign’s go-to law firm.

The RNC also spent heavily on ramping up its texting capabilities in April: The committee spent $384,000 on “list acquisition ” — $294,000 of which was paid to two companies specializing in peer-to-peer texting and text message marketing, Opn Sesame and Tatango.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

In newly revealed transcript, McCabe says he decided to remove Strzok from Mueller team

It's long been gospel in the Russia probe: When special counsel Robert Mueller learned of the inflammatory anti-Trump text messages sent by FBI agent Peter Strzok, he immediately removed him from his team.

But in a newly released transcript of a December 2017 interview, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told lawmakers that he's the one who made the call to oust Strzok from the probe, worrying that Strzok's involvement could taint the special counsel's work.

In a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, McCabe said he learned of Strzok's text messages July 27, 2017, and made a quick decision.

"I made the decision to remove him from the investigation that evening," McCabe said at the time.

"That very day you decided to remove him?" wondered Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)

"I came back from my meeting with the inspector general. I met with a very small group of my fellow leaders. We discussed Peter's reassignment, and we discussed where we would place him," McCabe replied. It’s not clear if Mueller was informed at the time.

McCabe's role in Strzok's ouster from Mueller's team is a newly disclosed wrinkle in the saga for the former counterintelligence agent. Strzok played a central role in the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server and helped launch the counterintelligence investigation into links between President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Russians. Mueller absorbed that investigation as well as a criminal probe shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. Strzok was removed barely two months into Mueller's 22-month investigation.

Strzok himself omitted any mention of McCabe's role in his removal when he discussed it with the same congressional committees in June 2018.

"My recollection is that there was a brief discussion between me, the special counsel, and one of his attorneys, a discussion of his desire and, you know, expression that he thought it would be appropriate for me to return to the FBI," Strzok recalled under questioning from Rep. John Ratcliffe (D-Texas).

Strzok said Mueller indicated that his text messages were the reason for his removal but that they didn't discuss specifics. "My recollection was there was a sense of regret. There was a sense that Special Counsel Mueller absolutely wanted to run an investigation that was not only independent but also presented the appearance of independence, and the concern that these texts might be construed otherwise," Strzok recalled.

After Strzok was removed from Mueller's team, his office put out a statement that attributed Strzok's removal to the special counsel's office. "Immediately upon learning of the allegations, the Special Counsel’s Office removed Peter Strzok from the investigation," said spokesman Peter Carr in a Dec. 2, 2017, statement, shortly after the details of some of Strzok's anti-Trump comments became public.

According to Strzok, the texts caused the precise scenario that Mueller feared.

When Strzok's anti-Trump texts were released publicly in late 2017, he became the epicenter of allegations by Trump and his allies that the FBI's Russia probe was a politically motivated effort to block his election. Strzok has rejected that characterization and told lawmakers in public testimony that his private political views never materialized in his work on either the Clinton or Trump probes. He noted that had he wanted to harm Trump, he could have leaked the existence of the investigation before the 2016 election, but its details remained secret until after Trump had won.

Though the inspector general of the Justice Department, Michael Horowitz, said he didn't find evidence to show Strzok's politics influenced the Clinton investigation, he's still probing Strzok's work on the Russia probe. Strzok, though, was fired from the FBI last year.

McCabe, too, was fired last year after Horowitz concluded he lied to investigators about a press leak related to the Clinton probe. Trump has long sought to vilify McCabe as politically biased against him, and used his ouster — which came hours before McCabe was set to retire — as justification for his claims of a conspiracy against him. But McCabe's decision to sideline Strzok has so far not been told publicly.

McCabe told lawmakers in his December 2017 interview that Strzok was entitled to his personal views but that he knew the agent was already being investigated for "potential political bias" by the Justice Department inspector general.

"And simply the existence of that investigation I felt was — could place in jeopardy the work of the special counsel's team, and I did not — I could not possibly take that risk," McCabe said.

He said he worried that Strzok's presence on Mueller's team could create the appearance of bias — especially if the inspector general found cause for concern. "I made the decision that Peter should not be involved in the work of the —" McCabe said, before Raskin cut in with another question.

Raskin then asked if McCabe felt Strzok tainted the entire Mueller probe because of the appearance of bias.

"Not in any way that I am aware of," McCabe replied.

A spokesman for Mueller and an attorney for Strzok were not immediately available for comment.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

House Freedom Caucus condemns Amash over impeachment comment

The House Freedom Caucus on Monday night formally condemned one of its founding members for declaring that President Trump committed impeachable offenses, but stopped short of kicking Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) out of the hard-line conservative group.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee and a former chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said that every single member in attendance during a weekly caucus meeting was unified in their opposition toward Amash’s comments. The group, which took a show of hands, needs the support of 80 percent of its members to take a formal position on an issue.

“It was every single person who totally disagrees with what he says,” Jordan said after the meeting.

Amash did not attend the meeting, but Jordan said he spoke to Amash Saturday night to ask, “What are you doing?”

GOP lawmakers who attended Monday night’s meeting said lawmakers vented their frustrations with Amash, who made waves over the weekend for becoming the first Republican to say that Trump could be impeached for his conduct during special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and that Attorney General William Barr "deliberately misrepresented" the report.

Amash, a 39-year-old libertarian, has long been a lone wolf in Congress, routinely bucking GOP leadership and defying Trump on a number of issues throughout the past two years.

But fellow Freedom Caucus members said his latest comments were “dead wrong”, “shocking” and went too far, even as they simultaneously called Amash a friend and emphasized that he has the right to his own opinion.

Some lawmakers even complained during the private meeting that he still technically belongs to the group — and has been cited as a Freedom Caucus member in the press — despite not showing up for meetings nearly the entire year, according to sources.

And Amash threatened to quit the group last year after the caucus did not stand up for former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who lost his primary race after being attacked by Trump.

But the Freedom Caucus did not vote on whether Amash should keep his membership in the group, according to Jordan. It's also unlikely Amash will lose his seat on the House Oversight Committee.

"He can keep his spot on committees,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “But in the committee its always been a challenge, because he won’t ask questions.”

Amash, however, could be in jeopardy back home, with Michigan state Rep. Jim Lower announcing a primary challenge against Amash on Monday.

The conservative Club for Growth also put out a statement criticizing Amash, though did not indicate whether they would back his primary challenger.

Yet Amash appears to be unfazed by all the backlash, doubling down on his comments in a string of Monday tweets.

“People who say there were no underlying crimes and therefore the president could not have intended to illegally obstruct the investigation—and therefore cannot be impeached—are resting their argument on several falsehoods,” Amash said.

McCarthy said Amash was just seeking “attention” and would find few, if any, defenders in the GOP conference.

“The only people who I saw come up and congratulate him were Democrats,” McCarthy told reporters.

Indeed, pro-impeachment Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) was seen shaking Amash’s hand on the House floor Monday night.

But McCarthy said Amash’s standing in the GOP conference wouldn’t be impacted because he doesn’t “participate much as is.”

“If you see a 'no' or 'present' vote, it’s a very good chance that it’s him,” McCarthy said.

Trump, who discussed Amash’s comments with McCarthy, also slammed the Michigan lawmaker on Twitter, calling him a "lightweight" and "loser."

"Never a fan of @justinamash, a total lightweight who opposes me and some of our great Republican ideas and policies just for the sake of getting his name out there through controversy," the president wrote.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump rallies in Pennsylvania ‘deep state’ territory

MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. — President Donald Trump alleged fake “suppression polls” had been used to discourage his Pennsylvania supporters from voting in 2016 and accused those responsible for investigating him of “treason.” It was not an unusual message for Trump, but he picked an unusually fitting setting to deliver it in on Monday night.

The president came here to rally supporters from an airport hangar to juice turnout ahead of Tuesday’s special House election in central Pennsylvania’s 12th District. But Montoursville was an appropriate stop for another reason: Two decades ago, the town became an early center of the same potent mix — of internet theorizing, disdain for national media and distrust of the federal government — that today fuels Trump’s populist insurgency. The mogul gained political prominence by promoting false internet conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birthplace and won the presidency by channeling the worldviews of disaffected voters who had become profoundly alienated from the nation’s power centers.

In places like Montoursville, the conditions for that rise were on display long before Trump himself arrived to capitalize on them. In July 1996, a Paris-bound Boeing 747 taking off from John F. Kennedy Airport exploded and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island. Among those killed were 16 student members of the Montoursville High School French club and five of their chaperones. The mysterious crash became an instant national news phenomenon with a novel twist: Internet adoption was just becoming mainstream in the U.S.

It also rocked the town to its core.

On Monday, as she sold pizza to rallygoers out on Broad Street, the town’s main drag, Montoursville native Tia Fisher, 46, recalled the aftermath of the crash. At the time, she worked for an early, local internet business called Penn Net, which helped customers use email. She said the business fielded a torrent of emailed condolences from around the world after the tragedy, relaying them to others in the town of 5,000.

The internet did not just allow well-wishers to reach Montoursville. It also allowed a new sort of freewheeling conspiracy theorizing and questioning of official narratives to take hold. The crash was initially assumed to be an act of terrorism, and some eyewitnesses reported seeing a projectile rising from the sea just before the plane exploded. But the exact cause was a mystery that became a source of international fascination. While the primitive websites for national media outlets enjoyed sustained traffic boosts from their coverage of the event, obscure message boards burst with alternative interpretations of events.

Among the most popular ideas was the theory that the U.S. military accidentally shot down the plane and then scrambled to cover up the fatal mistake. At one point, Pierre Salinger — a former John F. Kennedy press secretary who was then in his 70s and working as a journalist for ABC — went public with allegations that the Navy had shot down the plane. Salinger said he based the assertion on what he’d heard from a French intelligence source, but also on documents he had found online that turned out to be fake.

Today, many in the town remain hazy about where exactly the officially explanation ended up.

“There was so many accusations,” Fisher recalled. “It was a missile. It was fuel tanks. It was sabotage.”

Fisher said she was unaware that in 2000, the National Transportation Safety Board had officially concluded that the probable cause of the disaster was an accidental short-circuit that caused a fuel tank to explode. “I don’t believe that,” she said. “Someone was firing out missiles, and one hit the plane.”

A friend helping Fisher sell pizza, Christopher Janusis, wore a shirt that depicted a cartoon Trump urinating on CNN’s logo — a popular style among Monday’s rallygoers.

Such anti-media sentiment also echoes Montoursville’s experience with the TWA crash.

Sitting on a folding chair in the shade nearby, Kathy Shipton, the retired proprietor of a sub shop and a hairdresser, recounted her disgust at seeing the arrival of news vans the morning after crash. “How are you invading our town like this?” she recalled thinking to herself.

Shipton also does not believe mainstream media successfully got to the bottom of the incident. “I still think the real truth didn’t come out,” she said.

Shipton and a friend, 48-year-old Wendi Sterner, did believe in what they said they saw with their own eyes: On the Sunday following the crash, a cluster of clouds shaped like an angel formed in the sky over the town. “That gave a lot of people comfort,” Shipton said.

On a peaceful plot next to the town’s high school, blocks away from the road where thousands of rallygoers lined up Monday, a statue of an angel stands as a memorial to the town’s 21 victims. An inscription at its base describes the original celestial apparition, adding, “At the angel’s feet were 21 smaller white clouds, at first in a circle then appearing in two straight rows.”

Today, few in the town remain eager to relitigate the cause of the crash. But as late as 2016 — when Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Lycoming County, besting Mitt Romney’s 2012 total here — one father of a Montoursville girl killed on the flight, Don Nibert, continued to act as a prominent public skeptic of the official explanation. That year, he told local news site Penn Live that he believed there had been attempts to kill him over his investigation of the accident.

Meanwhile, as Trump’s “witch hunt” response to scrutiny of his Russia ties fuels rising suspicion of the national security establishment on the populist right, some have looked back to TWA Flight 800 as an episode deserving more scrutiny.

In September, a piece published on the Federalist, a pro-Trump political opinion site, called on the president to reopen the investigation of the crash. The piece claims that it closely resembled Trump-era investigations perceived as deep state plots or cover-ups. “The political and investigative similarities between the TWA 800 and Hillary Clinton server cases, as well as the anti-Trump investigation, are eerie and deeply disturbing,” the piece argued.

Since the ‘90s, the power of the internet to fill the vacuum left by distrust of media and government has reached new heights. In the Trump era, millions of Americans have been drawn to QAnon, a sort of mother-of-all internet conspiracy theories, which posits Trumps and Robert Mueller are secretly working together to thwart an attempted coup by elite pedophiles and other nefarious deep state actors, among other fantastical claims.

QAnon has gained popularity — in some cases marked by an obsession verging on religious fervor — far from power centers in many of the same rural areas where Trump’s support is strongest.

“I don’t listen to mainstream media anymore,” said Christine Witmer, 61, a part-time gym worker who drove 100 miles north from Reading, Pa., and wore a Q-shaped button imprinted with an American flag pattern on her chest. She has instead become a devotee of Q, she explained after discovering a YouTube channel on which a woman who goes by the pseudonym “Red Pill” compares the pronouncements of Q — the anonymous author of QAnon — to Bible passages.

Indeed, at a time when Americans are struggling to come to a coherent consensus understanding of public affairs, the rally was a magnet for skeptics of the official line from all over.

On Monday afternoon, a topless rallygoer with shoulder-length hair and a gray goatee pulled up to Broad Street in a red Mercedes convertible.

The man, who declined to provide any identifying information, said he was not familiar with the TWA crash. He had just driven 150 miles from Johnstown, Pa. The plane crash he was most familiar with was the downing of United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, in Somerset County, near his home.

“Where the flight went down and where they have it marked as going down, is two different areas,” the man volunteered, claiming government authorities have misplaced markers of the crash site by about 300 yards. “I was there when it went down, and I was there later, and it was two different places.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Kamala Harris says she now backs independent probes in police shootings

Kamala Harris said police shootings and cases of alleged brutality by law enforcement officials should be handed off to independent investigators, breaking with her long-held resistance to taking prosecutorial discretion away from locally elected district attorneys.

Harris, a former career prosecutor and California attorney general, had long advocated in favor of preserving prosecutorial discretion, taking heat from civil rights activists and African American leaders in her state. While running for Senate in 2016, she was criticized for withholding her support for state legislation requiring the Attorney General’s office to independently probe fatal police shootings. Now, campaigning for president, Harris was asked about her stance amid calls for more scrutiny over the investigative process.

“I believe the best approach is to have independent investigations,” Harris said in a Monday interview on MSNBC.

When Harris addressed the question head-on in 2014, she took the opposite approach. Harris said she didn’t think it good public policy to take the discretion from elected district attorneys. “I don’t think there’s an inherent conflict. ... Where there are abuses, we have designed the system to address them,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harris never took over an officer-involved fatality investigation while serving as attorney general. But late in the 2016 Senate run, a spokeswoman for Harris told the Chronicle that the then-attorney general did advocate to the governor and Democratic legislative leaders for money in the state budget to create three new teams within her office to conduct criminal investigations of officer-involved shootings. The goal, which was never fulfilled because the budget request was denied, was to deploy state attorneys in deaths resulting from these cases, a Harris aide told POLITICO.

Harris’ remarks on the subject Monday appear to be the first time she’s advocated for a blanket approach to independent probes. Pressed on her evolution on the subject, Harris pointed to a seminal case from early in her elected career. As district attorney of San Francisco, she recalled how she refused to seek the death penalty against a gang member who fatally shot a city police officer in 2004, sparking criticism from both sides. Harris noted there were calls at the time for the marquee case to be taken away from her.

“I had a very real, personal experience where I had to fight to keep my case — and my argument was, ‘I was elected to exercise my discretion, and no one’s going to take my case from me,’” Harris said in the MSNBC interview. “It was that personal experience that informed my principle, which is that these cases shouldn’t be taken from the person who was elected to exercise their discretion.”

But Harris said it’s now clear to her that there needs to be an independent entity brought in to probe the recurring shootings and brutality by police officers from the beginning. Such probes are needed, Harris said, “from the first moments of the incident so that we can be certain and sure that there has been a thorough investigation that is not informed by bias, and so that there will be justice for all of the people concerned.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump reveals alarm over Biden in Pennsylvania: ‘He left you folks’

MONTOURSVILLE, Pa. — President Donald Trump on Monday told supporters that he’s “got to win” Pennsylvania in 2020, and took specific aim at former Vice President Joe Biden, a native of the state who could threaten his prospects here.

“I'll be seeing a lot of you over the next year. I'll be here a lot,” Trump told an audience of thousands at a local airport hangar. “Got to win this state. We've got to win this state. We did great last time.”

Trump narrowly carried Pennsylvania in 2016, but recent polling by the Trump campaign has shown Trump trailing in the state to Biden, who was born here and represented neighboring Delaware as a U.S. senator.

Betraying anxiety about Biden’s standing here, Trump sought to undermine Biden’s local credentials. Biden was born in Scranton in 1942, but his family moved from the state in 1953.

“He's not from Pennsylvania,” Trump said. “I guess he was born here, but he left you folks. He left you for another state. Remember that, please....He left you for another state, and he didn't take care of you, because he didn't take care of your jobs. He let other countries come in and rip off America. That doesn't happen anymore."

Trump also said that foreign leaders who have urged the former vice president to run merely want to take advantage of him.

“Sleepy Joe says he’s running to save the world,” he said. “He’s going to save every country but ours.”

The rally, in an especially pro-Trump pocket of one of three of Rust Belt states that carried him to victory in 2016 came after a day of setbacks in Trump’s fight against congressional Democrats investigating him. But Trump barely made a reference to them or special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into interference in the 2016 election.

Thousands of people turned out for the rally at the airport hangar, some arriving 10 hours earlier to get a spot. At least three people collapsed from the heat, with others leaving early to get some fresh air.

Trump was joined by his son, Donald Trump Jr, who spoke before his father arrived. When Trump mentioned him, people in the crowd began to yell “2024!”

The president spoke while campaigning for Fred Keller, who is running against Democrat Marc Friedenberg in a special congressional election for Pennsylvania's 12th District being held Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Tom Marino, who represented the district, resigned shortly after the new session started.

But the star of the show was undoubtedly Trump. As usual, he described his win in 2016, which caused the crowd to beak out in a familiar chant of “lock her up!” referring to his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

Trump praised Keller, who told the cheering crowd his election was necessary to help Trump win again in 2020. Trump called the special election a "referendum" on his presidency.

Trump spoke glowingly of the size of the audience, saying, "It looks like the Academy Awards used to look before they decided to go political against us."

The president's aides are scrambling to fire up support in the state as well as in Wisconsin and Michigan — two other swing states that supported Trump in 2016.

Trump otherwise stuck with his favorite talking points during the rally, touching on health care, the Iran nuclear deal and immigration.

Just last week, Trump introduced a new immigrant proposal that he called pro-immigrant because it welcomes high-educated and high-skilled workers to the country.

But at his rally, Trump reverted back to his former talking points on immigration. “Our country is full,” he said. “We don’t want more people here. Our country is full.”

He urged people to get out and vote so he could get legislation passed.

“I must tell you some of it's not going to happen unless you vote for Republicans in the upcoming election," he said. "And I will tell you it's not very far away.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

GOP: Trump doesn’t want war with Iran

Senate Republicans say that for all his bellicose rhetoric, President Donald Trump doesn't want a war — and neither do they.

Some Republican hawks are pushing for an aggressive approach with Iran, arguing that military conflict may be unavoidable. Yet their vocal warnings are obscuring the fact that many in the GOP don’t want to fight and that Trump himself is deeply reluctant to entangle the United States in foreign interventions.

Entering a critical day of briefings on Capitol Hill, Trump has broad support in the Republican Party for a show of strength in the Middle East. They’re standing behind his multiple threats that any provocation by Iran would essentially be the end of the country.

“They've been very hostile,” Trump told reporters on Monday evening. “We have no indication that anything has happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force. We'll have no choice."

But there are limits to how much support Trump could count on from his own party should military action be seriously considered.

Some libertarian-minded Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) would require a congressional authorization to support any strike on Iran, something that GOP leaders have typically ignored. But more mainstream members of the GOP like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah have also expressed skepticism with action against Tehran.

Many in the GOP are therefore putting considerable faith in Trump’s past remarks distancing himself from the Iraq War and his moves to wind down the U.S. presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Indeed, Republicans said on Monday that Trump’s provocative language and military movements likely mask a reluctance to strike Iran.

“You’re always concerned about it if it escalates. But I really don’t see that. The president is trying to get us out of every armed conflict we’re in. I can’t imagine him escalating into a new one,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

Congress is filled with Iran hawks, mostly Republican but some in the Democratic Party. The partisan divide on national security has accelerated in recent years: Every Senate Democrat, other than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and three of his colleagues, supported President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. The GOP uniformly opposed it, and most in the party have supported the Trump administration’s crushing sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic.

The president has fashioned himself far more in the mold of Paul than the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was shocked by Trump’s plans to pull out of Syria and only was able to convince Trump to leave a small force in the country.

Trump’s hiring of John Bolton as national security adviser may have changed the approach inside the White House, but Trump's dovish core hasn't changed, senators said. Perhaps that can't prevent conflict with Iran if it strikes first, but they said they were confident that Trump's aggressive posture is far more about a Trumpian brand of diplomacy than it is about marching to war.

“Every president in their right mind tries to avoid a military conflict,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Iran doesn’t to go to war with the United States. We don’t want to go to war with Iran. But we’re simply not going to let them rule the roost.”

Yet Democrats are warning that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and military positioning has emboldened the party’s hawkish wing and sparked a series of escalations. After speaking with Bolton, Graham warned of an “overwhelming military response” if Iran follows through on threats to the United States.

“We’re dangerously close to this place where each of us think the other is the aggressor. And that’s how really dumb wars start,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s typical that the hawks in the Republican Party are always the dominant voices here. And hopefully they’re masking some quieter disagreement.”

A small slice of the party, including senators like Lee and Paul, as well as Todd Young (R-Ind.), the party’s campaign chairman, are warning that they will demand Congress take a vote to underpin any military strike. Romney has warned that Trump’s previous reluctance to military conflicts should be viewed as instructive as to how he’s viewing Iran, deeming it “close to inconceivable” that Trump would enter into a new armed conflict.

Party leaders are taking a deliberative stance heading into the briefings, saying the administration can and should present a menu of options to potential responses. The Senate and House will each hold separate briefings on Tuesday afternoon with Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and representatives of the intelligence community. Bolton is not expected to attend.

“First and foremost, this is not anything we’re initiating. This is simply a response to anything that Iran might attempt to do. The question then is, what’s the proportional response and how much,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “We want to hear about what the options are.”

Yet to hear more hawkish Republicans tell it, the intelligence of Iran’s movements and actions will be far more revealing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he hopes he emerges from the briefing flanked by members of both parties who agreed with him that there’s a “potentially imminent threat” in Tehran.

Still, he was also eager to downplay all the comparisons to the disastrous Iraq War that have been made in recent days.

“This is very different. No one is proposing a unilateral U.S. offensive against Iran,” Rubio said. “If Iran attacks, there’s going to be a response. If they don’t attack, there will be no more war. It’s not like people are making a case of an invasion.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pelosi clashes with fellow Dems in closed-door debate on impeachment

House Democratic leaders sparred internally on Monday over whether to begin an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies rejecting the call to move forward for now, according to multiple sources.

Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) — all members of the Democratic leadership — pushed to begin impeachment proceedings during a leadership meeting in Pelosi's office, said the sources. Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) — one of her key allies and a member of leadership herself — rejected their calls, saying Democrats' message is being drowned out by the fight over possibly impeaching Trump.

And in a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meeting, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) stood up and demanded Trump's impeachment. Pelosi then countered, "This is not about politics, it's about what's best for the American people," said a member who attended the meeting.

While Pelosi and her top Democrats argue that a majority of Democrats don't want to impeach, she is under heavy pressure from some of her most hardline members to move more forcefully against Trump.

Several members and aides said an impeachment inquiry resolution could be introduced in the House Judiciary Committee in the next several days, spurring more Democratic debate over how to respond to Trump.

The latest Democratic battle over impeachment began after the White House formally declared that former White House Counsel Don McGahn — a key figure in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation — would not attend a Tuesday hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

The White House decision to block McGahn's appearance infuriated some Democrats, who said it was the last straw following Trump's refusal to honor other Democratic subpoenas.

Cicilline said he supports impeachment inquiry if McGahn doesn't show tomorrow.

"I think if this pattern by the president continues, where he's going to impede and prevent and undermine our ability to gather evidence to do our job, we're going to be left with no choice," Cicilline said about initiating an impeachment inquiry. The Rhode Island Democrat insisted that simply beginning an inquiry doesn't mean that there will be a formal vote to impeach Trump.

"It's a means where we can collect that information... We need to have the ability to gather the evidence," Cicilline added.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), another member of the Judiciary Committee, is also in favor of an impeachment inquiry if McGahn doesn't appear on Tuesday.

"If McGahn doesn't show tomorrow, I think we're at an inflection point," Lieu said. "If we can't get information, I think we have to start proceeding down this path."

Judiciary Committee Democrat are scheduled to meet later Monday night to decide how to handle their response to McGahn's non-appearance.

“We have a Judiciary Committee discussion later on today, I don’t want to prejudge that," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). "But the situation is becoming more serious by the minute.”

Trump and White House officials have blocked Democrats attempts to obtain the president's taxes and a record of his personal finances; an unredacted version of the Mueller report, as well as testimony from Mueller directly; more information of Russian interference in the 2016 election; and internal documents on Trump's immigration and environmental policies, among other issues.

The Trump administration has refused to honor the Democratic subpoenas, with Attorney General William Barr failing to even show up for a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller report. The Judiciary Committee then voted to hold Barr in contempt.

Democrats won a legal victory on Monday when a federal judge ruled against Trump's attempt to prevent the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from obtaining Trump's financial records from his accounting firm. Trump's lawyers had argued that the committee was not entitled to the records and would immediately appeal.

Yet impeaching Trump, or even beginning an impeachment inquiry against Trump, is a huge risk for Democrats. Pelosi and her allies complain the anti-Trump fervor is overwhelming Democratic messaging on their agenda, and claim that most of the rank-and-file is against the move.

Democratic leaders also fear that impeaching Trump in the House, only to see him acquitted by the Senate, would strengthen his hand in 2020.

But there is a growing chorus of pro-impeachment Democrats, and they're being egged on by outside groups that argue Trump needs to be removed from office.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Shelby: Trump ‘pretty positive’ on budget caps deal

President Donald Trump seemed “pretty positive” Monday afternoon about the idea of striking a deal with Congress to prevent billions of dollars in sequestration cuts over the next two years, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said tonight.

The Alabama Republican met with Trump at the White House to discuss a potential deal on lifting budget caps, as well as the disaster relief package congressional negotiators are racing to finalize before Congress' week-long Memorial Day recess.

The Senate spending leader said he mainly emphasized to the president that $71 billion in defense cuts will take effect next fiscal year if lawmakers fail to reach a deal. Non-defense spending would be slashed by $55 billion.

“I thought it was a positive meeting. I’ve been to a lot of meetings that were not positive,” Shelby told reporters. “I don’t think the president wants to rein in spending at the cost of national security.“

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting White House budget director Russ Vought also attended the meeting. Shelby said he requested that Mulvaney, who has urged Trump to hold firm on allowing budget cuts to take effect, attend the gathering.

“He’s in a powerful position with the president. I think he needed to be in there,” Shelby said, adding that Mulvaney mostly listened while the president spoke.

Congressional leaders will meet with Trump administration officials on Tuesday to discuss a deal to sidestep the rolling budget cuts Congress mandated eight years ago under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

While Shelby said he would like to see a two-year deal to raise the caps, it is unclear if the president supports a one- or two-year solution.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Ben Sasse expected to run for reelection in 2020

Ben Sasse is expected to run for reelection next year and is likely to announce his campaign this summer, according to three Republicans familiar with the matter.

While no final decision has been made and the Nebraska Republican still has to discuss the matter with his family, Republicans believe Sasse has every intention of running for his seat despite intense speculation to the contrary. One source who spoke to Sasse recently said the senator is committed to running but is taking his time with making his decision official.

The GOP senator has been linked to an open position heading the University of Nebraska, whose president is retiring, while some senators have privately wondered if he would retire rather than seek reelection after tangling with President Donald Trump and expressing frustrations with the Senate and U.S. politics. Sasse has long said he would evaluate whether to run again midway through his fifth year in the chamber.

But Sasse has been raising money and helped Republicans campaign in the state during last year’s midterm elections. He also has high approval ratings in the state among Republicans, according to a recent survey.

James Wegmann, a spokesman for Sasse, said the senator has “a rock-solid conservative record, a team that’s up and running, and a mega war chest already nearing $3 million.”

“But, most importantly, he's got a family meeting with Melissa and his kids on the calendar this summer and, like he's said a hundred times since he was elected in 2014, they're not making their formal announcement until that final family meeting,” Wegmann says.

Nebraska and Washington Republicans said they would be shocked if Sasse has come this far only to announce he’ll retire or seek other employment.

“I think the senator plans to run for a second term and frankly he’s doing everything right a candidate would do to succeed at that,” said J.L Spray, an RNC committeeman for Nebraska.

One of the biggest questions facing Sasse if and when he gets in the race is whether or not he will endorse Trump. Sasse was one of Trump’s most prominent critics in the 2016 election, but has said since that he speaks to the president fairly regularly in private and has generally shied away from antagonizing Trump, though he still occasionally splits with him.

Sasse did not break with the president on his national emergency declaration at the border, but did vote to maintain sanctions on Russian companies. He also voted against a criminal justice reform bill that the president supported.

James Arkin contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pollsters rush to patch fraying methods for Trump's reelection race

TORONTO — When veteran pollster Scott Keeter appeared at a recent gathering of industry professionals, he began his presentation with a somber caveat about the methods at the center of his life’s work.

Telephone polling — for decades the backbone of efforts to measure public opinion and the subject of his new study — are in “wheezing condition,” Keeter told a roomful of colleagues. And experiments to prolong their use are akin to putting on “a great party for the deck of the Titanic.”

The impending death of the telephone poll comes just as the 2020 presidential election is approaching — and without enough time for a tested and trusted alternative to replace it. That raises serious concerns about the reliability of polling results heading into the election, other survey researchers told POLITICO on the sidelines of their conference, with scrutiny of the industry set to be heavier than ever after President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016.

Fewer Americans than ever are willing to pick up the phone and talk to pollsters, sending costs skyrocketing to roughly double what they were four years ago. Despite enjoying a largely successful 2018 election, pollsters are furiously experimenting to fill the void left by the slow failure of the telephone poll, looking at everything from internet-based solutions to snail mail.

But the possibility of another polling miss in the 2020 presidential race looms, and the next election could present new, unforeseen challenges that polls may struggle to address as they test new methodologies under exacting scrutiny. Both parties are framing the race as an existential contest over the country's future. Voter engagement is at record highs for this stage of the election cycle. And pollsters are already facing blame for recent election surprises in Israel and Australia.

Steve Koczela, who conducts phone polls in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for Boston’s NPR affiliate, described 2020 as a year “full of promise and peril” as the polling industry transitions from phones to something else.

“It doesn’t seem live phone polling is going away anytime soon, but its place as the clear gold standard is a thing of the past,” Koczela said.

But, for now, most of those other methods are still in development, pollsters at the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s annual meeting said.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey, is releasing phone surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire — while, at the same time, conducting as-yet-unreleased experiments with web surveys in which he sends invitations over email. And he says he isn’t alone in testing new methods.

“What I was really surprised at [the conference] this year are the number of traditional pollsters like myself who have, independently of one another, been starting to dip our toes in that pool,” Murray said. “So, right now, while I’m releasing my telephone polls in the early states, I’m also simultaneously conducting online polls using a list sample where I can validate the voters using an email address. And I’m looking to see how that holds up against the telephone survey.”

The eventual replacement for phone polling may not be any one method. It’s more likely to be a patchwork of solutions trying to keep up with the rapidly changing ways Americans communicate with one another. Pollsters at the conference presented research on sending voters invitations in the mail to participate in a web survey and texting voters with links to online polls. Another study even had live interviewers texting back and forth with respondents — a 21st century twist on the telephone conversations long underpinning survey research.

But none of the methods seem ready for prime-time deployment — or the widespread trust of pollsters, campaigns and media organizations — between now and 2020. U.S. news outlets and academic institutions are doing a lot of testing, but the polls governing the presidential race thus far don’t reflect that experimentation. Of the 18 polls conducted so far this year that the Democratic National Committee is counting for qualifying for the first two presidential primary debates, all but one of them are telephone polls conducted by live interviewers.

Many of these innovations are actually coming from the private campaign world. A pollster with the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group presented research his firm had done on reaching voters via text message and directing them to a web survey about ballot measures in Nevada. The all-text-message interview poll study was also from a Democratic firm, Survey 160.

That means the gap between the public polls of the 2020 presidential race and those conducted privately by political groups and campaigns could be significantly greater than in past elections. Virtually all private election polls are conducted by calling people from lists of registered voters, but a number of public polls — including most national surveys — still involve randomly dialing phone numbers.

So far, the spirit of innovation in campaign polls appear to be coming more from Democrats. “I don’t think that quite exists on the Republican side yet,” said Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini, who attended the conference.

Neither party is giving up traditional phone surveys entirely for 2020, though the cash crunch remains a major factor for campaigns — and the media — in deciding where and how frequently to poll, in what candidates and their supporters are calling the most important election in years.

“Our fear is that, if you don’t solve this, it’s going to mean fewer surveys — both on the public side and on the campaign side,” Ruffini said. “It’s not like people are not going to do it — they’re just going to do it less. There’s going to be less situational awareness. I think that’s the urgent problem that needs to be solved.”

The problems surrounding telephone polling and response rates aren't new, but the urgency around them is.

“I think this year is the year that it’s become inevitable,” said Murray. “We’ve been building towards it, and I think anybody who’s being realistic right now realizes that we now see the horizon for using telephones for election polling.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Disaster relief package on fast track after Shelby relents

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby is caving on his demand to add a key parochial provision to a long-stalled disaster aid bill, potentially clearing the way for its passage later this week.

The Alabama Republican agreed to drop the fight — which had held up a deal for weeks and even begun to rattle members of his own party — after a meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday yielded a commitment to address harbor maintenance provisions outside the disaster relief package.

Shelby, who met with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought to discuss disaster aid and other spending measures, denied he had held up disaster aid negotiations.

“We got a commitment from the president today that he's going to work with us on another avenue toward that so we'll go from there,” he said. “I'm not holding up anything. I want to get to yes.”

Shelby's demand to boost harbor maintenance was starting to annoy House Republicans, who considered going into their own negotiations with Democrats as both parties sought to close out talks on the disaster relief measure this week, according to multiple congressional sources.

Shelby added that Senate and House leadership will meet with White House officials on Tuesday.

The harbor conflict — which has persisted in several of Congress’ funding negotiations over the past two years — has spurred angst within the House GOP caucus and among White House officials, who are eager to dole out cash to storm-stricken farmers in states such as Georgia and Alabama that have already seen a full growing season go by without aid.

Republican and Democratic leaders have made it a priority to send a massive disaster aid package to Trump’s desk this week, before Congress decamps for a week-long recess.

“We’re going to get there this week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a brief interview Monday.

But talks once again sputtered this weekend, as the GOP’s intraparty spat over Shelby’s harbor fund provision, among other minor issues, kept Republican leadership from presenting a new counteroffer to Democrats.

“They cannot come to an agreement amongst themselves,” one aide familiar with the negotiations said.

The delay over the weekend threw into doubt whether Congress can approve long-delayed aid for a half-dozen states from California to Florida by week’s end.

"If it’s going to be done this week, it’s got to move fast between now and tomorrow," Shelby said.

Some believe that reaching a deal in the House first would be the quickest way to make sure the funding package gets out the door before the Memorial Day recess.

Democrats and Republicans have already settled most of the sticking points in the sprawling aid bill, which includes billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to tackle the migrant crisis at the southern border.

That includes the dispute over aid to Puerto Rico — which for weeks had been the biggest hurdle for congressional negotiators, with Trump himself weighing in every few days on Twitter.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) confirmed Monday that negotiations over Puerto Rico have largely been resolved but said there were some issues related to the White House’s emergency funding request for the southern border.

“Puerto Rico’s going to be in good shape. We’re trying to come to an agreement on the border. There were some things they asked for on the border, and some not,” Schumer said.

Asked about the holdup over the harbor fund, Schumer declined to comment.

Senate Republican leaders — who have, so far, backed Shelby — have argued that it’s the poison pill language from House Democrats that have complicated the talks.

Democrats have sought certain changes to the White House’s immigration policies, including treatment of asylum seekers, that some Republicans have opposed.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), said the border funding request remains the biggest problem.

“Progress has been made on the other elements of it,” Thune said. “If the House and the president figure it out, the House can send us something this week, and if it’s something the president can sign, we can get it done pretty quickly.”

Shoring up the harbor maintenance trust fund — which was created to dredge and deepen waterways nationwide — could result in billions of dollars of potential business in Shelby's home state. The port of Mobile, Ala., has been the largest recipient in recent years, in part because the delta makes it costly to maintain.

It’s far from the first time that Shelby — who holds one of the Senate’s most powerful gavels — has dragged budget talks to a halt at the 11th hour as he’s pushed to preserve the harbor money.

The same issue has been one of the final sticking points in multiple rounds of budget talks as congressional leaders tried to close out a deal, including earlier this year.

Some Republicans have objected to Shelby’s demand — exempting the fund from Congress’ stiff spending caps — which they see as yet another budget gimmick that balloons the deficit.

White House officials, too, have argued that it’s unnecessary because the harbor program is already paid for by fees.

Melanie Zanona and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Michael Cohen told lawmakers that Trump's attorney asked him to give false testimony

Michael Cohen privately told lawmakers earlier this year that Jay Sekulow, President Donald Trump's current attorney, asked him to falsely testify to Congress that negotiations to build a Trump Tower Moscow ended on January 31, 2016, according to a person familiar with Cohen's closed-door interview.

The negotiations actually continued through June 2016, and Cohen briefed Trump and his family repeatedly on the progress, Cohen told the House Intelligence Committee during an open hearing in February.

The House Intelligence Committee Monday released the transcript of Cohen’s closed-door interviews with the panel earlier this year.

Trump’s former fixer and attorney, who is currently serving a three-year prison sentence for lying to Congress and financial crimes, testified for more than 16 hours over a two-day period earlier this year. Cohen also provided documents showing that Sekulow edited Cohen’s false 2017 testimony to the committee about the negotiations for the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Sekulow has denied the claim, but Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) recently asked Sekulow and other Trump attorneys to hand over documents as part of the committee’s investigation into Cohen’s allegations surrounding the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen admitted that he lied to congressional committees about when the Trump Tower Moscow effort “fizzled.”

Sekulow notably declined to share his side of the story with special counsel Robert Mueller, who revealed his efforts to probe the matter in his extensive report released last month.

Schiff said after Cohen’s final appearance in March that the former Trump attorney and fixer “cooperated fully” and “answered every question we asked of him.” He also said Cohen “provided important testimony and materials relevant to the core of our probe and that will allow us to advance our investigation substantially.”

In his public testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee in February, Cohen said he briefed Trump Jr. several times about the status of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations, despite Trump Jr.’s public statements to the contrary.

Cohen also implied to lawmakers that Trump Jr. was keeping his father in the loop about a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer in June 2016. That lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, offered dirt on Hillary Clinton ahead of the meeting.

“Don Jr. would never set up any meeting of significance alone and certainly not without checking with his father,” Cohen told lawmakers.

The Intelligence Committee isn’t the only congressional panel seeking to corroborate allegations made by Cohen.

The Oversight Committee issued a subpoena for Trump’s financial records from an accounting firm, stemming from Cohen’s claim that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the values of his assets to suit his financial benefit. Trump has sued to block that subpoena.

Republicans have argued that Cohen’s admitted lies discredit his testimony about Trump Tower Moscow and other transgressions of which he has accused the president.

Cohen’s deception materialized in the House GOP’s 2018 report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. In that report, which Democrats dismissed as a partisan effort to protect Trump, they cited Cohen extensively for his knowledge of the Trump Tower Moscow Deal.

“It appears the Trump Tower Moscow project failed in January 2016,” according to the report. “The Committee determined that the Trump Tower Moscow project did not progress beyond an early developmental phase, and that this potential licensing dear was not related to the Trump campaign.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Democrats rue rough primary before key governor’s race

Kentucky Democrats think they can beat unpopular Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. But they’re worried a long, tense and expensive primary could undermine their chances of flipping a prized red state.

Despite approval ratings lower than any governor in the country, Bevin has the advantage of running a state that President Donald Trump won by 30 points in 2016, a GOP edge that has grown in recent years. And instead of stockpiling cash to take on Bevin, the top Democrats running against him have spent the months ahead of Tuesday’s primary embroiled in a tense three-way contest.

Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, has been the Democratic front-runner since he entered the race. But he's facing a strong challenge from former state Auditor Adam Edelen and state Rep. Rocky Adkins in a primary featuring a slew of negative TV ads and forcing the Democrats to spend down their campaign treasuries.

"There is a Democrat in this primary that could beat Bevin given the right circumstances. The question is, are these gonna be the right circumstances?" said Phil Thompson, a former deputy campaign manager for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes' 2014 campaign for Senate.

The few public polls of the primary have shown Beshear with around 40 to 50 percent support and double-digit leads in the Democratic primary. That has made him the main target for Adkins and Edelen — both vying for second place in different surveys — and their supporters.

A pro-Edelen super PAC last week pulled down an ad attacking Beshear over his handling of a sexual abuse case involving the Boy Scouts of America. The ad was the latest example of Edelen's campaign and his supporters trying to bring down Beshear by attacking his legal background and his campaign finance history, two nonpartisan issues that Republicans could pick up and run with in the general election.

It's left Democrats unsure who will win the primary on Tuesday and how the nominee will step forward into the fight against Bevin. Beshear has picked up late support from NARAL, the pro-abortion rights group, in the final days of the primary, while Edelen won the endorsement of the Courier-Journal, the largest newspaper in Kentucky.

"If Rocky wins then there's going to be no hard feelings because he was able to stay out of the battle and emerge without anyone attacking him. If Andy wins, he's been kind of the one being attacked and it's not on ideological issues it's more on personal stuff," said Democrat Jonathan Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer who’s now a Democratic donor. "Now the concern would be if Adam Edelen won, would the Beshear supporters turn their nose because of the negative campaign?"

Adkins, who is anti-abortion, has set himself apart from Edelen and Beshear on social issues.

Spending has been heavy in the primary. Edelen's campaign has spent over $2 million on advertising while Beshear's campaign has spent $1.3 million on TV ads, according to Advertising Analytics. The pro-Edelen super PAC has spent about $1 million and Adkins' campaign has spent about $900,000. That spending won't let up in the general.

"Both sides will have gobs of money because it's a bellwether for the next year, said Terry McBrayer, a lobbyist and former Democratic member of the Kentucky state House.

The tough primary has followed a tough few years for Kentucky Democrats generally, from Bevin’s 2015 gubernatorial win to Trump’s 2016 victory to star House candidate Amy McGrath’s narrow loss to GOP Rep. Andy Barr in 2018. And a former Democratic officeholder, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said the combination has sapped energy from the party, even when considering that the governor’s election is an off-year race that typically has lower turnout than presidential years.

"One of the problems right now is I don't see a whole lot of Democratic enthusiasm, period," the former Democratic elected official said. "All the years that I've been involved and watched Kentucky governors races I've never seen anything quieter."

All the while, Bevin is preparing for a serious fight to keep his job. Republicans see the infighting as a helpful twist to help them prepare for the general election.

“While the Democrats have been busy fighting amongst themselves, we’ve had a perfect opportunity to begin laying the groundwork for the general election,” Republican Governors Association communications director Amelia Chasse Alcivar said.

Bevin has also maintained a helpfully close relationship with Trump, regularly phoning the president directly. Vice President Mike Pence has made multiple trips to the state and Trump is expected to campaign for Bevin after the primary — the biggest asset a red-state Republican governor could have.

"There's going to be a Republican, Gov. Bevin, who is President Trump's top partner in the country, against a Democrat who brags about Hillary Clinton who pushes socialist policies that Kentucky rejects," said Bevin campaign manager Chip Englander.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine