Trump denies asking Whitaker to put ally in charge of hush money investigation

President Donald Trump denied asking then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker about putting a sympathetic U.S. attorney in charge of an investigation into pre-election hush payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with him.

Trump responded to a New York Times report that the president asked Whitaker if Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, could oversee the investigation into the payments made during the 2016 campaign. Whitaker knew he could not put Berman in charge of the investigation, from which Berman had already recused himself, the Times reported.

Taking questions from reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump flatly denied making any such inquiry.

“No, not at all, I don’t know who gave you that," Trump told reporters Tuesday, after taking a noticeable pause. "That’s more fake news. There's a lot of fake news out there.”

Trump went on to praise Whitaker, who was replaced by William Barr last Thursday.

"He's a very fine man and he should be given a lot of thanks by our nation," Trump said Tuesday.

Federal prosecutors at the time of Trump's reported request were investigating hush money paid by Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to women who claimed to have had sex with the president. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison last year for multiple counts of lying and tax fraud.

The Times' Tuesday report went on to say Trump grew irritated with Whitaker that he could not use connections at the Justice Department to put the investigation into more sympathetic hands. Whitaker denied to the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 8 that the White House ever asked him to tamper with an investigation.

"At no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation," Whitaker said during the committee hearing.

The Justice Department further denied to the Times that Trump had asked Whitaker to interfere in the investigation, citing his remarks to the House committee.

"Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony," Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told the Times.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Warren: Tax millionaires to pay for free child care

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday rolled out a plan that would tax millionaires to fund free child care for millions of low-income children and affordable care for others.

"In the wealthiest country on the planet, access to affordable and high-quality child care and early education should be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich," Warren (D-Mass.) wrote in a Medium post.

Warren said the proposal would be paid for by an "ultra-millionaire tax" that would apply to families with a net worth of more than $50 million.

"Experts project that the Ultra-Millionaire Tax will generate $2.75 trillion in new government revenue over the next ten years," she wrote. "That’s about four times more than the entire cost of my Universal Child Care and Early Learning plan."

Warren is among Democrats, including fellow 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who support higher taxes as a way to fund Democratic priorities.

Similar to how the federal Head Start program works, Warren said her plan would require that the federal government work with local partners to create a network for child care options available to families who choose to participate. She said participating teachers would be paid wages comparable to public school teachers.

The local partners that would work with the federal government to create a child care network include states, cities, school districts, tribes and faith-based organizations. Locally licensed child care centers, preschool centers and in-home child care providers could participate.

With the announcement, Warren described her own challenges as a mother in Houston teaching at a law school and struggling to find quality child care — until her "Aunt Bee" from Oklahoma flew in to help.

"Finding affordable and high-quality child care has gotten even harder since my children were growing up — and not everyone is lucky enough to have an Aunt Bee of their own," Warren said.

She noted that in more than half of all states, a year of child care costs more than a year of in-state college tuition.

"My plan will guarantee high-quality child care and early education for every child in America from birth to school age," Warren said. "It will be free for millions of American families, and affordable for everyone. This is the kind of big, structural change we need to produce an economy that works for everyone."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Has the Supreme Court Already Decided the Wall Case?

We’ll “see you in court.” So said California Governor Gavin Newsom hours after President Donald Trump signed a proclamation of emergency to redirect funds to a southern border wall without the consent of Congress. California, along with 15 other states, filed that suit on Monday. The advocacy group Public Citizen didn’t even wait until close-of-business on Friday to sue. The ACLU lags not far behind.

But what if the script and the endings for these lawsuits have already been written? What if following that script means these suits challenging the emergency as beyond the president’s fiscal powers will do nothing to enlarge Congress’ control over the federal purse? What if instead it has the main effect of giving Trump an electoral boost in 2020?

For there is another recent case that tracks, issue-for-issue and beat-for-beat, the filed and impending litigation challenges to the wall—and Trump won it.

That earlier case is the challenge to Trump’s travel ban. Like the wall, the travel ban fulfilled a 2016 campaign promise. Like the wall, the ban on entry by citizens from Muslim-majority nations was challenged within days. If the legal challenges to the wall anticipated in Trump’s Friday Rose Garden speech arrived quicker, it simply shows that all concerned have settled comfortably into a predictable dance of provocation and resistance. The travel ban litigation ended in a 5-4 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the policy mere months before Americans returned to the polls in 2018.

The parallels between the travel ban and the wall cases are too precise and too plural to be ignored. Even if you think the court’s endorsement of the travel ban wrong—as I have argued—it would be a grave error to ignore its predictive quality.

To begin with, both the travel ban and emergency funding for the wall rest on Trump’s reliance upon a very broad delegation in a federal statute. In both cases, that is, an earlier Congress voluntarily handed over wide-ranging power for presidents to respond to novel circumstances. In both cases, the president has used this power to double down on hardening the border in light with his campaign rhetoric.

Not only is the president’s legal theory in the two cases alike, the arguments against the president’s two policies also run along parallel tracks. Those arguments have two parts.

First, in both cases there also are powerful arguments that Congress did not anticipate the kind of policy Trump has pursued—a blunderbuss border control bearing down hardest on non-white migrants. The statutory delegations given by Congress in the two cases, to be sure, may have been broadly written. But neither the immigration provision at issue in the travel ban case nor the military construction provision in the wall case is a blank check: In both cases, there were conditions that the president likely failed to satisfy. When the president reallocates spending to the wall, for instance, he is supposed to show under the statute that the wall is “necessary” to support the armed forces. It is not easy to see how he shows this.

Second, in both cases the president’s own words about his reasons for declaring an emergency—his admission that the declaration was a strategic political decision and thus not necessarily brought on by a real emergency—and the data released by his own administration fatally undermine the factual justifications for emergency, unilateral action. In February 2017, the Department of Homeland Security—hardly the heartland of a bureaucratic “resistance”—concluded that citizenship in banned nations was “likely an unreliable indicator” of terrorism risk. Data from the same department today shows an 80 percent decline in Border Patrol apprehensions on the southern border since 2000. The number of families presenting at the border has also declined since last year.

So what will the Supreme Court do when confronted by (1) the president’s invocation of a broadly worded statute, (2) to enact a scattershot, arguably racialized form of border control, (3) where there are colorable arguments that president has not satisfied the statute’s triggers for extraordinary action, and (4) in any case, the executive’s own words and data show that the policy is unwarranted?

Here’s an answer using only a few choice quotes from the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the revised and slightly narrowed travel ban: It would start by observing that the statutory basis for the wall “exudes deference to the president in every clause.” It would build on this by asserting that “the admission and exclusion of foreign nationals” is a “fundamental sovereign attribute exercised by the Government’s political departments largely immune from judicial control.”

Then the kicker: If the policy’s challengers point to the president’s own statements on Friday, or his own past conduct in the context of budget negotiations to show that there is no border emergency, or that the real motive at work is to fulfill a campaign promise with 2020 in mind, the court would then remind them, again quoting the travel ban decision, that it is not “the statements of a particular president,” but rather “the authority of the presidency itself” that is at issue. In effect, the court here said that it would refuse to take Trump at his word, and instead ignore evidence of either flawed motive or insufficient justifications. English law had a Latin maxim that nicely captures the court’s thought here: “rex non potest peccare,” or the king can do no wrong.

Under this doctrine, the fact that the president’s aim of circumventing Congress’s control of appropriations is arguably unconstitutional matters no more than the president’s expressions of animus mattered in the travel ban case.

In this manner, the Supreme Court’s opinion from last year can be applied point for point to the statutory and constitutional arguments against the wall emergency proclamation. The expected result is that the president prevails. The Kavanaugh confirmation only makes this more likely given the new justice’s record of voting in favor of expansive presidential powers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am no fan of the wall. My point is not here that the Supreme Court’s travel ban decision is correct. Rather, it is probative of the justices’ likely action: A court that aggressively evades real opportunities to parry presidential lawlessness will once again look away. Racial and ethnic minorities, never winners in the Roberts Court, will again lose out.

The real winner from the litigation, I think, will not be Congress. Nor will it be “the presidency itself.” If Democrats hope to pursue their own immigration priorities through the same means when a Democrat takes the White House, they may well not have the same luck. The Roberts Court showed itself capable of intense skepticism of a Democratic president’s immigration initiative when it almost invalidated President Barack Obama’s “DAPA” program, which granted work permits and deportation stays to thousands of noncitizen parents. Lawyers can carve an explanation for its different treatment of Obama’s and Trump’s policies. Results, though, speak louder than casuistry. I have little doubt that the Roberts court, and future courts, will continue to find in the case reports enough material to uphold policies perceived as desirable, while invalidating policies perceived to be undesirable.

Rather, the winner from this litigation will be the “particular president” who sits in the Oval Office now: The Supreme Court, if it follows the script set by the Travel Ban case, may well let him pursue his immigration policies unhindered.

There’s another potential upside for him: The timing of the judicial review will likely ensure that the wall case, like the travel ban case, immediately precedes the 2020 election. (The present solicitor general has been very aggressive about fast-tracking cases to the Supreme Court. Just last Friday, he succeeded in getting the court to fast-track a challenge to the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census.) The travel ban was supported by a “clear majority” of Americans. And though the wall lacks similar support, a decision validating it may well be a boon to candidate Trump in the crucial months before the 2020 poll. Of course, it may also have the opposite effect, energizing liberals and sending them to the polls in droves.

So with both sides digging in, the fighting seems more a matter of political theater than legal principle. Given the strong signals of which way the Supreme Court is likely to rule, moreover, it’s a play that should generate little or nothing by way of suspense. Just a dismaying sense that season two is pretty much the same tale told in season one.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Marc Short to return to White House as Pence's chief of staff

Former White House legislative affairs director Marc Short will return to the Trump administration as Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff.

Short left the White House last summer after serving as the president’s top aide on Capitol Hill for most of his first two years in office. Short has a history with the vice president predating the Trump administration — he was chief of staff to Pence when he served in the House, and he was a part of the vice president’s 2016 campaign staff.

"I am pleased to announce that Marc Short will be returning to the White House to serve as my chief of staff," Pence tweeted. "Marc will be joining the Office of the Vice President in March and we look forward to welcoming him to our great @VP Team!"

Upon leaving the administration, Short took a position at Guidepost Strategies consulting firm and was lecturing at the University of Virginia. He will fill a role left empty by Nick Ayers, who was expected to become the president’s chief of staff after the departure of John Kelly but decided not to accept the job.

Short took a different approach to serving as legislative director than many of his predecessors by making frequent media appearances to defend the president and his policies on air. He rejoins the administration as it begins to gear up for the 2020 campaign.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump: I never called McCabe's wife a 'loser'

President Donald Trump claimed Tuesday that he never called Andrew McCabe's wife a "loser," attempting to rebut the account of the former FBI deputy director, who said the president used the term to describe his wife over her failed campaign for Virginia's state Legislature.

"I never said anything bad about Andrew McCabe’s wife other than she (they) should not have taken large amounts of campaign money from a Crooked Hillary source when Clinton was under investigation by the FBI," Trump tweeted. "I never called his wife a loser to him (another McCabe made up lie)!"

McCabe, who worked for the FBI for 21 years, was fired last March for allegedly lying to investigators about his interactions with reporters.

The former FBI deputy director, who is on a press tour to promote his new tell-all book about his time serving in Trump's administration, said in an interview that aired Sunday that Trump asked the then-acting FBI director about what it was like for his wife losing her state Senate race.

"'It must have been really tough to lose,'” McCabe said the president had told him. McCabe said the president then asked him: “'What was it like when your wife lost her race for state Senate?'"

Trump went on to say, "‘Ask her what it was like to lose. It must be tough to be a loser,’” McCabe told CBS' “60 Minutes."

Jill McCabe in 2015 ran for but did not win a state Senate seat in Virginia, accepting nearly $675,000 from the Virginia Democratic Party and groups connected to then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a close ally of Hillary Clinton.

Trump has since bashed Andrew McCabe and the FBI's handling of the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server, pointing to the money McCabe's wife received during her campaign. McCabe did not have any connection to the Clinton probe during the time of his wife's state Senate race.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Washington Post fact checker hits back at Trump for bashing the column

The Washington Post's fact checker hit back at Donald Trump on Tuesday after the president criticized the newspaper's truth-squad column as being "only for the Democrats."

"The Washington Post is a Fact Checker only for the Democrats," Trump tweeted. "For the Republicans, and for your all time favorite President, it is a Fake Fact Checker!"

Glenn Kessler, the Post's fact-checker columnist, responded in a tweet that Trump has in the past cited his team's work when it plays to his advantage.

"Reminder: Trump cites the @washingtonpost Fact Checker when we give Pinocchios to Democrats," Kessler tweeted.

The Washington Post uses a scale of one to four “Pinocchios” to rate false statements, with four-Pinocchio statements considered the falsest "whoppers." In mid-December, the paper created a new category inspired by the president called the "bottomless Pinocchio."

The president has in the past tweeted about the Post's fact checker, including in 2013 when he tweeted twice about the Obama administration getting three Pinocchios "for lying about Benghazi emails."

More recently, Trump in January joked that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be given Pinocchios after they recalled a meeting in December about a southern border wall in which Trump allegedly slammed a table, cutting cut short the gathering.

High-profile Democrats have also been given Pinocchios by the Post. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is running for president, last week was given four Pinocchios for her tweet claiming that "the average tax refund is down about $170 compared to last year."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Federal judge says Roger Stone could be jailed after Instagram post

The federal judge presiding over Roger Stone’s case said Tuesday she’s considering gagging or jailing the longtime Donald Trump associate after he posted images on Instagram targeting her.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered Stone to appear at a Thursday afternoon hearing in Washington, D.C., to explain why his social media posts shouldn't change the terms of Stone’s bond and why she shouldn’t impose harsh new restrictions on his speech.

Jackson last Friday issued an order allowing Stone to discuss special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 presidential election, so long as he does not do so around the D.C. courthouse where his case is being heard.

But the judge, an appointee of President Barack Obama, said in that order that she’d be paying close attention to Stone’s commentary and didn’t rule out changing the terms.

Stone, who faces charges of lying to Congress and obstructing its investigation into Russian election meddling, put himself in his latest predicament after posting an image of Jackson on Instagram on Monday with what appeared to be crosshairs in the corner.

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

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

Jackson’s reactions in other Mueller-related cases could be a sign that Stone is in for a rough hearing Thursday. The same judge slapped a gag order on Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, as well as their attorneys, in the fall of 2017, just days after the special counsel’s initial indictment against the former Trump campaign chairman and his deputy. She also jailed Manafort last June — he’s remained in federal custody ever since — after prosecutors accused him of witness tampering.

Mueller's team indicted Stone late last month on charges of lying, obstruction of justice and witness tampering and had sought a gag order on Stone out of fear his comments would impact the fairness of a trial. Stone has decried the case as a sham, calling it a "show trial" orchestrated by the "deep state" in his Instagram post.

Stone, who was released from custody on a $250,000 bond after his arrest, is currently under court restrictions that limit his travel to south Florida, New York and the Washington D.C. area. He’s also not allowed to contact any potential witnesses in his case.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Supreme Court won’t head off former Rep. Schock's trial

The Supreme Court has turned down a request from former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) to forestall the criminal trial he’s facing on corruption charges, although one justice went out of her way to caution the court handling the case to keep a tight rein on one sensitive aspect of the charges against Schock.

In an order issued Tuesday morning, the justices rejected Schock’s request that the high court hear his arguments that the case charging him with fraud, making false statements and theft of government funds unconstitutionally intrudes into the internal affairs of the legislative branch.

Eight of the justices offered no written explanation for the decision turning down the former Congressman’s petition, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a two page statement concurring with he colleagues while expressing concern about one of the issues Schock’s lawyers raised.

Last May, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Schock’s effort to head off his trial. The judges said Schock’s arguments that the prosecution violated the protections of the Constitution’s speech-or-debate clause for members of Congress were unpersuasive.

The appeals court said Schock’s argument about using the criminal process to enforce legislative rules could be addressed after any conviction as part of the usual appeals process.

Sotomayor said she was troubled that the 7th Circuit held that the issue could wait until after a trial, even though the D.C. Circuit said in a case involving the late Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) that the issue could be appealed in advance of trial.

“Although this question does not arise frequently — presumably because criminal charges against Members of Congress are rare — the sensitive separation-of-powers questions that such prosecutions raise ought to be handled uniformly,” wrote Sotomayor, an appointee of President Barack Obama.

Sotomayor said it was unclear whether the Schock case “cleanly presents” that question because only part of the charges appear to involve House rules and a judge tossed out the count most directly related to those regulations.

The liberal justice also cast some shade on the government’s case, noting in a footnote that prosecutors told the 7th Circuit that the House’s rules were both “necessary” and “important” to some of the remaining charges.

Sotomayor noted that Schock was free to continue to raise the issue with the trial court and added that the government’s arguments to the appeals court “may be pertinent” to future rulings by the trial judge.

Schock resigned in 2015 following a series of reports in POLITICO and elsewhere raising questions about his use of official House expense accounts and campaign funds. He was indicted the following year on a slew of federal charges, including wire and mail fraud, filing false federal tax returns, deceiving the Federal Election Commission, making false statements and stealing government funds.

Schock’s prosecution has hit a series of unusual stumbling blocks with both the prosecution team being removed from the case and it passing through the hands of multiple judges.

While the ex-congressman was originally indicted in Springfield, Ill., the Justice Department replaced the lead local federal prosecutor on the case after defense attorneys and a judge complained about the government lawyer’s conduct.

The case was eventually reassigned to federal prosecutors in Chicago.

A Springfield-based federal judge, Sue Meyerscough, recused from the case in 2017 because of indications Schock was involved in discussions related to her appointment.
The Urbana-based judge who picked up the case, Colin Bruce, was pushed off of it last year after he was removed from all criminal cases because of improper email discussions about a pending case with a former clerk connected to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

All other judges in the Central District of Illinois apparently begged off the case, prompting its reassignment last August to Judge Matthew Kennelly in Chicago. He has set a trial date of June 10.

Schock’s defense team did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the Supreme Court’s action.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Ex-Sessions spokeswoman to join CNN as political editor

President Donald Trump has derided CNN as a leading purveyor of “fake news,” and now, a recently departed administration official is joining the network in a senior role.

Sarah Isgur, who served as the Justice Department’s leading spokeswoman under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is joining the network as a political editor next month, where she will coordinate political coverage for the 2020 campaign.

Isgur joined the administration in 2017 after overcoming resistance from the president, who balked at bringing on a political operative who had trashed him on the campaign trail. As deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina’s presidential campaign, and in the months after Fiorina bowed out of the race, Isgur repeatedly laced into Trump.

“Saying you will criminally prosecute your political opponent when you win is a scary and dangerous threat,” she wrote on Twitter in October of 2016, in reference to Trump’s repeated threats to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Isgur, who did not respond to a request for comment on this story, was equally critical of Clinton during the campaign.

While it is common for departing administration officials to join cable news networks as analysts or contributors, it is less common for them to oversee news coverage. Isgur has no experience in news but a long history as a political operative, most recently with the Trump administration and the Fiorina campaign. Before that, she worked for the Republican National Committee and on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, according to her LinkedIn profile. She began working with Sessions before his confirmation hearing, guiding him through the process and preparing with him in mock hearings.

At CNN, Isgur will not play a role in covering the Department of Justice, according to a CNN official, who also said she will occasionally appear on air analyzing politics.

After Sessions recused himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe in March 2017, causing an irreparable rupture in his relationship with the president, Isgur took on an awkward role inside the administration. She served not only Sessions’ public defender in the face of news reports that the president was routinely deriding him, but also as the spokeswoman for Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who assumed ownership of the Mueller probe and has had a similarly tense relationship with the commander in chief.

Isgur’s discussions with the network have sparked a whisper campaign among Trump supporters in and out of the government who are arguing — with no evidence — that she was the source of damaging leaks against the administration.

The president’s latest clash with CNN came on Friday when he dismissed a question from CNN’s chief political correspondent, Jim Acosta, calling it “a very political question.”

“You have an agenda, you’re fake news, you have an agenda,” Trump said.

Disclosure: Eliana Johnson is a political analyst at CNN.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

House report lays bare White House feud over Saudi nuclear push

A consulting firm once linked to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is continuing to push President Donald Trump to endorse a plan to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, despite warnings from whistleblowers that their earlier efforts appeared to violate U.S. law, House Democrats said in a report Tuesday.

The consultants from the firm IP3 International, which organized a White House meeting between the president and nuclear industry executives last week, were involved in pushing a "Middle East Marshall Plan" in the early days of the Trump administration that sparked concerns about Flynn's conflicts of interest. That plan would have involved building dozens of nuclear reactors across the region, in a way that would have circumvented U.S. laws designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to unrelated charges of lying to the FBI, has acknowledged he advised a subsidiary of IP3 about its nuclear plan.

"The whistleblowers who came forward have expressed significant concerns about the potential procedural and legal violations connected with rushing through a plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia," the report prepared for Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said.

In addition, the panel said, "They have warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes."

The report does not indicate IP3 did anything illegal, but it is the most thorough accounting to date of how the firm used its connections to advance its concept through potentially conflicted Trump administration officials.

The report's release comes amid the Trump administration's efforts to beat out competitors from Russia and China to develop multibillion-dollar nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia — and after Trump drew sharp criticism for downplaying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey last year.

And it comes ahead of a trip by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, to the Middle East later this month to discuss economic development.

IP3 organized a meeting with Trump last week where executives from companies such as Westinghouse, General Electric, Exelon, Centrus Energy, NuScale, TerraPower and LightBridge pitched the president to help them win contracts in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Trump administration is already on board with that effort, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry traveled to Saudi Arabia as recently as December to discuss a nuclear power deal, including developing a so-called "123 agreement" that would limit the Saudi nuclear program to civilian uses.

That 123 agreement, named for a section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, an increasing source of tensions in the Middle East following Trump's decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear pact. Saudi's Mohammed bin Salman has said the kingdom would quickly move to develop nuclear weaponsif Tehran succeeded in obtaining them.

But IP3 executives were preparing to move ahead with a deal to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia without an agreement to limit the country's program to a civilian energy production, according to the House report.

Based on accounts and documents provided by whistleblowers, the report said one of IP3’s top officials delivered the firm's nuclear plan to Flynn on Jan. 28, 2017 to pass along to Trump, and another document at the same time for Trump to recommend to the National Security Council. The firm kept pushing its idea through various channels even though political and career officials warned it circumvented national security protocol.

In another letter to Mohammed bin Salman, IP3's co-founders boasted of the inroads the firm had made with the Trump administration, even after the president forced Flynn out in February 2017 for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia. Three of the officials who signed the letter — retired Gen. Jack Keane, retired Rear Adm. Michael Hewitt and former Reagan administration National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane — attended last week’s meeting with Trump.

“The agreements by President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have established the framework for our unique opportunity to take the next steps with IP3 and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Keane, Hewitt, McFarlane and retired Gen. Keith Alexander wrote in a March 17, 2017, letter to the crown prince.

Also pressing the case for the Saudi plan at the White House were former NSC official Derek Harvey, as well as Trump confidant Tom Barrack — who has major business ties in the Middle East — and ex-Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, a former Paul Manafort associate who has since pleaded guilty to conspiring against the United States and making false statements.

But whistleblowers warned the White House against the nuclear plan. One unidentified official in the Democrats' report told NSC staff they “absolutely should not include the issue” in Trump’s briefing materials and called IP3’s plan “a scheme for these generals to make some money.”

Now, with a civilian nuclear program push gaining steam at the White House, security experts have raised concerns about the process, and the re-emergence of IP3 similarly troubled them.

“I see a problem that the Trump administration is giving time to IP3 and their ideas,” said Chen Kane, director of the Middle East nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, in an interview with POLITICO.

“The fact that the people previously pushing this scheme got the meeting with the president after all their attempts to get meetings elsewhere throughout the administration is suspicious,” said a former senior congressional staffer who worked on nuclear matters.

The White House and IP3 did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

IP3 has repeatedly denied that it ever employed or paid Flynn in any capacity despite the fact Flynn listed that he served as an adviser to its subsidiary, IronBridge Group Inc., on his financial disclosure.

“Mike Flynn was never in IP3, he was never paid by IP3, he never advised IP3, he never had a stake in IP3,” Hewitt told POLITICO after last week’s meeting with Trump.

IP3 officials, however, acknowledge they have a relationship with Flynn and that they continue to support efforts to build reactors in the Middle East. McFarlane said they were all connected through ACU Strategic Partners, a company that for years had pushed a similar idea of building nuclear reactors in the Middle East through a consortium of companies. McFarlane said he, Hewitt and others left ACU when its managing partner, Andrew Copson, suggested they partner with Russia for the project.

“Mike [Flynn] then was chosen, appointed to the job in the Trump administration and it’s fair to say we had — IP3 as individuals — had said, 'Mike, we’re not up for working with Russia,'” McFarlane, who described his role at ACU as “participating in meetings,” told POLITICO last week.

The report released Tuesday covers a period through March 2017, which the committee acknowledged was a narrow timeframe. But its contents underscore experts’ worries that Flynn and his administration allies are continuing to push for a rushed and politically compromised nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia.

Those security and ethical quandaries compelled NSC legal adviser John Eisenberg to issue a directive stopping all work on the IP3 nuclear plant proposal and the Middle East Marshall Plan concept, the report said. Another source familiar with IP3’s activities during this period separately told POLITICO that NSC staff were forbidden from meeting with IP3 officials.

“According to the whistleblowers, on March 24, 2017, multiple employees raised to the NSC Legal Advisor their concerns, including a detailed description of reported unethical and potentially illegal actions by General Flynn and Mr. Harvey,” the report said. “In response to these concerns, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster reportedly informed NSC staff that they should cease working on the IP3 proposal. However, NSC staff remained concerned because the same individuals continued their work on IP3’s proposal.”

McFarlane told POLITICO that around that time, it became "impossible" to get meetings with NSC officials.

McFarlane sent the firm's nuclear expansion plan to Flynn and Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland on Jan. 28, 2017, eight days after Trump's inauguration. It was a ghost-written memo from Flynn to Trump and another draft memo “for the president to sign” directing other agencies to give Barrack the lead on implementing IP3’s plan.

“Tom Barrack has been thoroughly briefed on this strategy and wants to run it for you. He’s perfect for the job. Rex and Jim are supportive of Tom’s focus on this also,” the draft memorandum with Flynn’s name on it said. “Rex” and “Jim” apparently referred to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

“In the enclosed memo you would call upon the relevant cabinet officers to lend their support to this historic program. I recommend that you sign it,” the memo continued.

IP3 has its eyes on Saudi Arabia’s plans to build two nuclear reactors, as it hopes the companies it collaborates with could provide security training, workforce development and other services should a U.S. firm land the contract, McFarlane said. He said IP3 has “no formal relationships” with companies. Westinghouse Electric Co., considered the only U.S. firm that could readily build reactors, is in the running for a Saudi contract.

But Saudi Arabia has stymied the efforts by refusing to sign an International Atomic Energy Agency protocol to permit expanded inspections beyond verifying the location of nuclear material. The U.S. has never signed a 123 agreement with a nation that hasn’t committed to that step.

Saudi Arabia also has said it won’t forswear uranium enrichment and reprocessing, the steps necessary to make nuclear weapons. The United Arab Emirates inked a 123 agreement with such a provision. But Saudi Arabia noted that the Iran nuclear deal that Trump walked away from did not forever ban that country from those steps, as the terms were due to sunset after 2031. That’s put U.S. negotiators in a tight spot.

“The U.S. has an interest in not seeing the expansion of enrichment and reprocessing technology in the region. It would be a mistake to compromise these principles too far,” said Thomas Countryman, who was President Barack Obama’s top arms control and nuclear proliferation official at the State Department. He nonetheless called the interest from U.S. nuclear companies in building Saudi reactors “a natural partnership” given the nations’ long-standing economic relationship.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

DeSantis: Use Trump tax plan to expand charter schools

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to leverage a tax incentive championed by President Donald Trump to launch a five-fold expansion of charter schools in the state.

Some 250 Florida communities could be candidates for the new charter schools under the DeSantis plan.

The DeSantis budget proposed linking the state‘s Schools of Hope program to federal "opportunity zones"created by Trump’s $1.5 billion tax plan. The zones, which were championed by policymakers on the left and right, offer tax incentives to encourage private investment in economically distressed and lower-income communities.

At least 247 Florida communities would be eligible for Hope schools, up from 47 currently, if lawmakers approve the DeSantis plan. The governor’s budget also includes additional incentives to charter schools, such as money for construction.

Hope schools currently are permitted to open their doors only near “persistently low-performing schools” that fail to earn a grade of C or better from the state three years in a row. The program was championed in 2017 by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

About 50 schools were on the list in 2017-18.

Opportunity zones were created by the federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 with the goal of reducing taxes for job creators while encouraging investment and attracting business to underdeveloped communities. Former Gov. Rick Scott recommended 247 communities across Florida for the program.

DeSantis wants to give Hope charter schools more turf by expanding program guidelines to allow charters to open in areas Scott designated as opportunity zones last year.

In addition to opening more communities to Hope schools, DeSantis recommended changing the definition of a low-performing school to give charters even more opportunity to expand. In the DeSantis budget, “persistently low-performing schools” would be those receiving a grade below C for three out of five years, as opposed to three consecutive years.

DeSantis also recommended allowing Hope charters to receive charter school capital outlay funding during their first year of operation, something not allowed by current rule. Hope schools would be eligible for state money to lease a facility under the DeSantis proposal.

Lawmakers in 2017 created Schools of Hope as part of a controversial measure that cleared the way for established charter school companies to open their doors near struggling traditional public schools.

The state Board of Education so far has granted four charter companies tax-exempt hope Operator status: Democracy Prep Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP New Jersey, and Somerset Academy.

As of December, however, no operator has committed to opening a school, according to the state.

The state set aside $140 million for Schools of Hope in 2017-18 and 2018-19, and the Department of Education is requesting the same amount for next school year.

Some of the funding was awarded to supplement the resources of low-performing traditional public schools. About $40 million of the fund went to traditional public schools in 2017-18, while $12.8 million was spent in 2018-19, according to the state.

The rest of the money is allocated for Hope charter schools.

The 2017 state law also established a fund and set aside $100 million in tax dollars to kick-start construction on charter schools by letting companies borrow up to 25 percent of the cost to build or renovate a campus. The state expects to dole out two loans for charter schools every year once the kick-start program is established later this year.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

The Real National Emergencies Trump Is Ignoring

In its landmark report condemning the U.S. government’s failure to prevent the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission noted that the “most important failure was one of imagination.” President Donald Trump’s declaration of a state of national emergency to fund a border wall may go down as the opposite: the triumph of one man’s imagination over reality.

Trump’s vision of the southwest border as a lawless region teeming with immigrants, gangs, drug dealers, gun runners, human traffickers and terrorists trying to burst through and do the U.S. and its citizens harm underlies his insistence on a wall as the sine qua non of homeland security. This approach amounts to a willful misreading of the true threat landscape facing the U.S. nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks.

Here are the facts about the 1,954-mile border between the U.S. and Mexico: illegal crossings are the lowest they’ve been in decades. Technologies like sensors and drones are being deployed to enhance the capabilities of the Border Patrol and are receiving increased funding in the recently signed appropriations bill. And all but around 50 miles of border barriers previously identified by experts as necessary have already been constructed. The small remainder crosses either private land or lands held by sovereign Indian nations, making their suitability for barrier construction very doubtful.

The supposed national emergency at the southern border also makes little sense in the post-9/11 era, when our adversaries can infiltrate our society and our institutions through digital networks, when armed Americans kill more Americans through acts of mass violence than does ISIS, and when the emergent ravages of climate change threaten every community in the U.S.

By declaring a national emergency to fund a border wall, the Trump administration is diverting financial and military resources and the attention of policymakers to prepare for threats that are far more real, pervasive and deadly. It also impedes the public’s ability to accurately understand the likelihood of threats against which they need to protect themselves.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created after the 9/11 attacks and assigned a vast portfolio of national security, law enforcement and public safety responsibilities. DHS is responsible for immigration and border security, including not only our border to Mexico, but also Canada, as well as all land, sea and airports of entry, 328 in all. It’s worth noting that 2018 statistics from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that the majority of illegal drugs enter through one of these legal ports of entry.

DHS manages nearly two dozen major government agencies, including FEMA, TSA, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Secret Service, ICE, USCIS and a workforce of 240,000 employees. It leads the federal response for all natural and human-caused disasters; the cybersecurity of the government’s nonmilitary data networks and the protection of U.S. critical infrastructure -- the energy, financial and communications networks that underpin the U.S. economy and the voting systems that are supposed to secure our democracy.

Homeland security is a matter of assessing risks and assigning resources to mitigate them, in proportion to the likelihood they will occur. Every hour spent on photo ops related to the border wall is an hour not spent on other mission-critical tasks that matter far more to making America safe. (News of the resignation of the acting FEMA director Brock Long last Wednesday was overtaken by border wall coverage within hours, yet his job touches a lot more Americans made vulnerable by increasingly severe natural disasters. And the president said nothing about the nearly three dozen school shootings since 17 were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida, just over a year ago.)

As the third secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (2009-2013), I have thought deeply about my tenure and focused on one question in particular: How safe are we today? The threats we face have evolved significantly since September 11, 2001, when the smartphone had not been invented and social media was the arcane province of geeks. Today’s terrorists, both foreign and domestic, recruit adherents online, inspiring them to radicalize and commit acts of violence, but Trump’s claim before last November’s midterm elections that they were infiltrating migrant caravans from Central America and Mexico and heading to the U.S. border is widely understood to be inaccurate. It is directly undercut by government data showing that of the 3,755 actual or attempted entries by known or suspected terrorists into the U.S. in fiscal year 2017, very few attempted entry via Mexico.

More Americans have died or been displaced by increasingly extreme weather events related to climate change since 2001 than by terrorists, foreign or domestic. If Trump wants to build a wall to make America safe, he should start with a seawall.

The public understands these realities far better than President Trump. A new poll this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that climate change is the top security concern of people in 13 of 26 countries surveyed, including the U.S. More than 60 percent of respondents across all countries viewed cyber-attacks as a serious concern, up from 54 percent in 2017. And the number of countries that saw the Islamic State as a primary threat fell by double-digit percentage points in the U.S., Israel, Spain and Japan.

The 9/11 Commission urged the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to prevent another catastrophe on American soil. To do that, we must face today’s facts, apply our will, and spend our resources to create a future that truly makes Americans safe.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Ruth Bader Ginsburg returns to the Supreme Court

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will return to the Supreme Court on Tuesday to hear oral arguments, eight weeks after undergoing surgery to remove cancerous nodules from her left lung, The Associated Press reported.

Ginsburg, 85, had the surgery in December and has spent most of her time since resting at home. The justice missed oral arguments for the first time in January while recovering, but still worked from home using transcripts and written briefs.

Ginsburg is the oldest justice on the court, and her health has been under increasing scrutiny after she broke three ribs in a fall late last year. Doctors found the disease while examining Ginsburg after her fall , the court said.

The justice was treated for colorectal cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009. Ginsburg has said she has no desire to retire during the Trump presidency.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump slams California for lawsuit against border emergency declaration

President Donald Trump took a swing at California on Tuesday morning with tweets criticizing the state for leading the legal charge against his efforts to fund a border wall by declaring a national emergency.

“As I predicted, 16 states, led mostly by Open Border Democrats and the Radical Left, have filed a lawsuit in, of course, the 9th Circuit,” Trump tweeted.

The president forecast legal challenges when he announced his use of emergency powers during a White House news conference Friday, when he called the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit “disgraceful.” The West Coast court is home to some of the country’s most left-leaning jurists and has become a strategic spot for cases against the Trump administration.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday, calls the emergency declaration a “manufactured crisis” structured to redirect federal dollars toward the construction of the border wall Trump has promised since his campaign.

In his tweets, Trump also slammed California for its plans to build a high-speed rail train, a project that’s drawn national attention in recent weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom said in his State of the State address that construction of the full route — which would have connected San Francisco to Los Angeles — would not be feasible due to climbing costs and logistical challenges.

“The failed Fast Train project in California, where the cost overruns are becoming world record setting, is hundreds of times more expensive than the desperately needed Wall!” Trump tweeted.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

McCabe: No one in Gang of Eight objected to counterintelligence investigation of Trump

Fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said on Tuesday that no members of the Gang of Eight congressional leaders “objected” when he informed them in May 2017 that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into President Donald Trump over his ties to Russia.

McCabe, who was serving then as acting FBI director in the wake of Trump’s sudden decision to fire Director James Comey, said in an interview on NBC’s “TODAY Show” that no one in the briefing objected to the bureau’s inquiry of whether Trump was being used as a Russian asset — “not on legal grounds, constitutional grounds or based on the facts.”

The initial purpose of the briefing with the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate as well as the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees “was to let our congressional leadership know what exactly what we’d been doing” in the wake of Comey’s firing, McCabe said.

The former deputy director's comments come as he’s embarked on a press tour to promote a new tell-all book from his time serving under Trump, before he was fired from the FBI for allegedly being untruthful with investigators about his interactions with reporters.

Allies of the president’s have seized on McCabe’s public confirmation that he opened an counterintelligence investigation, as well as a criminal obstruction of justice investigation, to point to a conspiracy against the president. They’ve argued that McCabe's revelations, if true, underscore Trump’s accusations of bias within the agencies investigating his campaign.

On Tuesday, McCabe disputed the insinuation made by some of his critics that he had made the decision to investigate Trump on his own, arguing that the decision was not a spurious one.

“Opening a case of this nature, not something an FBI director — not something that an acting FBI director would do by yourself, right? This is a recommendation that came to me from my team,” he added. “I reviewed it with our lawyers. I discussed it at length with the deputy attorney general… and I told Congress what we’d done.”

The former FBI deputy director warned that just because investigations had been opened it did not mean the agency had drawn any conclusions about them thus far.

But, he argued, “you have to ask yourself, if you believe the president might have obstructed justice for the purpose of ending our investigation into Russia, you have to ask yourself why. Why would any president of the United States not want the FBI to get to the bottom of Russian interference in our election?”

In an excerpt of the book published last week, McCabe described the Gang of Eight briefing, which then-deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also attended, as the moment when the appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation was first announced.

The office of Senate Intelligence Ranking Member Mark Warner (D-Va.) declined to comment on McCabe’s characterization of the briefing, and spokespeople for other lawmakers who were present in the briefing did not immediately return requests for comment.

McCabe on Tuesday also defended his dismissal from the FBI, which came last year just hours before he was set to retire. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited a DOJ inspector general’s report that found McCabe was dishonest multiple times about leaking information about an investigation to a reporter, which many have argued undermines McCabe’s credibility.

The former deputy director said he plans to sue over his dismissal, and claimed Tuesday the report was skewed to justify political motives. He claimed that prior to the watchdog report, he had enjoyed a long and blemish-free tenure at the FBI.

“I've been writing and reading investigative reports for over 20 years. That report was not like anything I have ever read before,” he said. “An investigative report includes all of the evidence. It includes all the information, not just those facts that support the conclusion that you'd like to draw.”

He declined to go into further detail, citing his pending lawsuit.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Crowley and Shuster head to K Street

Former Reps. Joe Crowley and Bill Shuster are heading to K Street, making them one of the rare bipartisan pairs of former lawmakers to team up as lobbyists after leaving office.

Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, are joining Squire Patton Boggs, one of the largest law and lobbying firms in Washington.

The hiring of Crowley and Shuster gives Squire Patton Boggs a second bipartisan duo of former lawmakers, along with former Sens. John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who joined Patton Boggs in 2010. (The firm later merged with Squire Sanders to create Squire Patton Boggs.)

“We kind of look at them as a younger House version of Breaux-Lott,” Lott said in an interview.

Crowley spent two decades in Congress, rising to become the No. 4 House Democrat before losing his primary last year to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He was particularly sought after on K Street after leaving office last month as the highest-profile House Democrat leaving Congress as the party took control of the chamber. He held preliminary discussions with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Hogan Lovells, among other firms, before deciding to head to Squire Patton Boggs, according to people familiar with the matter.

“We were honored to hear from many of the great firms in town since leaving Congress, and chose what we think is the very best place to continue our careers,” Crowley said in a statement.

Two of Crowley’s former aides, Kevin Casey and Kate Winkler Keating, have also landed on K Street since Crowley left office.

Shuster didn’t run for reelection last year after nearly 18 years in Congress, the last six of which he served as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

He attracted attention in 2015 when POLITICO reported he was dating Shelley Rubino, a top airline lobbyist, and nearly lost his seat in a primary challenge the following year. (Shuster said at the time that Rubino didn’t lobby his office.)

In a statement, Shuster said he planned to continue to work on infrastructure issues.

Squire Patton Boggs is also home to former House Speaker John Boehner and former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), although Boehner doesn’t do any lobbying. The firm’s dozens of lobbying clients include Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and UnitedHealth, according to disclosure filings, as well as the governments of Cameroon, China, Croatia, Qatar and South Korea and the Palestinian Authority.

Crowley and Shuster plan to register as lobbyists, according to the firm. They’re banned from lobbying Congress for nearly 11 more months under House ethics rules, although they’re free to lobby the administration immediately. They’re also allowed to advise clients on how to navigate Congress as long as they don’t do work that qualifies as lobbying.

The pair is the latest to land on K Street out of the dozens of members of Congress who left last month.

Former Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), Luke Messer (R-Ind.), Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), Tom Rooney (R-Kan.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) have all joined lobbying firms, although not all of them plan to register to lobby. Former Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) have started their own consulting firms.

Crowley and Shuster were represented in their search by Robert Barnett and Michael O’Connor of Williams & Connolly, who also represented Breaux and Lott during their own search years ago. Axios first reported last week that Crowley and Shuster were talking to firms together.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

New Hampshire gives Harris a hard time for rarely showing up

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Kamala Harris herself referred to it as the “elephant in the room.”

The question of whether the California Democrat will genuinely compete in the first-in-the-nation primary hung over her President’s Day town hall in Portsmouth — even after 1,000 people packed the church to see her, and 500 more were turned away because the space was too full.

Harris, at the event, went out of her way in pledging to be active in the state: “to shake every hand that I possibly can,” as she put it.

But history is not on her side. And her chances of capturing New Hampshire were viewed with such a jaundiced eye by local media that one of Harris’ first exchanges during a two-day swing — with an in-state reporter — included a not-so-subtle reminder that she waited weeks after announcing her White House bid to travel here.

“We’re glad you’re here,” the reporter told Harris. He then asked if her absence helped feed the perception that New Hampshire isn’t a high priority.

Speaking separately with ABC-affiliate WMUR-TV, another interviewer was more direct: “We haven’t seen much of you in the previous two years. Why was that?” he asked. “The narrative is out there, I guess, that ‘Senator Harris is focusing elsewhere.’”

New Hampshire has been the province of New Englanders back to John F. Kennedy — with the notable exception of Ted Kennedy in 1980. Ahead of the 2020 primary, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have spent months courting support from the nearby state.

“It’s going to be tough for her,” Stefan Mattlage, of the progressive grassroots group Kent Street Coalition in Concord, said of Harris. “I think there’s a home-area advantage here.”

Cory Booker has tried to make inroads, pitching in on the ground ahead of the midterms, and returning for a December victory lap where the state Democratic chairman praised the New Jersey senator as “the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018.”

Booker held six events here over the President’s Day weekend, including a packed house party Monday morning in Nashua, where he channeled former President Barack Obama while mopping sweat from his head. “All of us have to decide to be agents of hope,” Booker told a rapt room.

Others have been dashing in and out, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar sitting for a CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Monday night. “I am someone that comes from the heartland, a north country state a little similar to New Hampshire,” she said at one point.

Harris didn’t campaign in New Hampshire in the midterms — and her team has sketched out paths to the Democratic nomination that run though the other early states and onto Super Tuesday. Harris traveled to South Carolina before her presidential announcement, and again after, and was in Iowa for her recent CNN town hall. She launched her campaign in Oakland, California, and has returned to her home state to raise money and lock down endorsements.

Some of it may be structural. New Hampshire’s open primary, which allows independents to participate, can favor mavericks and ideologues. Harris doesn’t fit in either camp.

Asked by a reporter Monday if she considered herself a democratic socialist, Harris said she doesn’t, putting some distance between herself and Sanders, who maintains a following here.

“The people of New Hampshire will tell me what’s required to compete in New Hampshire, but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,” Harris said before posing for selfies at a bookstore.

“I believe that what voters do want is they want to know that whoever is going to lead, understands that in America today, not everyone has an equal opportunity and access to a path to success, and that has been building up over decades and we’ve got to correct course,” she added.

A Saint Anselm College Survey Center poll released last week found Joe Biden, at 80 percent, with the highest favorability ratings. Sanders and Harris, at 65 percent and 63 percent, respectively, were ahead of Booker and Warren, who were at 61 percent and 60 percent.

Democratic State Rep. Kris Schultz, who leads a group of progressives, said she and her neighbors relish the opportunity to size up Harris and the others from outside the region.

“If you’re going to vet more than one woman for president, what better place than New Hampshire?” she asked, noting her state had two former women governors serve in the Senate, a female speaker of the House and state Senate leader, and an entire congressional delegation made up of women. “I’ve been impressed with her, but I like several others, too.”

Harris lunched at the Common Man in Concord with Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire, who has been helping sherpa other 2020 Democratic hopefuls. Speaking at Gibson’s Bookstore, Kuster introduced Harris as being from California. “She’s excited about the weather,” the congresswoman joked as snow fell outside the window.

Harris appeared to appreciate her host. “Those of us who are not from New Hampshire know that if we want to enter New Hampshire and have any information about how one should enter the state, you call Annie,” she said.

While New Hampshire has favored New Englanders, it hasn’t always picked the winner: Bill Clinton earned his “comeback kid” nickname by finishing second to Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts in 1992. Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama in the Granite State in 2008. And Sanders won big here over Clinton in 2016.

Harris, as she told reporters, and reminded at her town hall Monday evening, isn’t close to giving up.

“I intend to compete for the votes here, and I’m going to put a lot of effort into doing that,” she said. “It’s an important state. It is a state of people who have a lot of needs and need to be seen and heard.”

At the town hall in Portsmouth, she drew cheers after committing to issues taken up by liberal activists in the party. Harris touted her support for Medicare for all and the Green New Deal, along with pledging to push for automatic voter registration and making Election Day a federal holiday, and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Added Harris, at the event: “I want to talk with you. I want to listen to you. I want to be challenged by you. I want to ensure that at the end of this process we are relevant, and the only way that will be achieved is by spending time with leaders such as those in this church.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Sanders campaign takes aim at doubters who say he's too extreme to win

When Bernie Sanders was mulling a 2020 campaign last year, he said he would likely pull the trigger if he thought he was the “best candidate” to defeat President Trump.

Now that he’s officially in the race for the White House, a key element of his argument is that he is — in a way that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. His campaign is gearing up to take direct aim at one of the central cases made against him: That the 77-year-old democratic socialist, far from being unable to win a general election, could blaze a non-traditional path to victory on the electoral map unlike any other Democratic candidate.

This month, Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster, circulated a memo about an online survey he conducted in late 2017 for progressives who were hoping to flip state legislative seats in West Virginia. The poll found that Sanders would beat Trump by 2 percentage points in the state — despite the fact that Trump won West Virginia, 69-27, and that no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since 1996.

To operatives in both parties, the notion that Sanders could defeat Trump in one of the president’s strongholds strains credulity. But the Sanders team is convinced the Vermont senator’s appeal to independent voters, the white working class, and people of color is underestimated — and could pay dividends in unexpected places in a general election. They argue that his anti-establishment and populist economic message, as well as his many years of representing rural voters, makes him competitive in not only the Rust Belt states where Hillary Clinton faltered but also potentially in deep-red states, too.

They’re not just talking about West Virginia. Some in the Sanders camp envision possibly making a play for Iowa, Ohio, and Indiana, as well as states such as Kansas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Montana — six states that, together, have voted for the Democratic nominee just twice in the past half-century.

“It could just radically change the map,” Tulchin told POLITICO. “As Bernie has showed, as Trump has showed, I don’t think we are in a binary, two-dimensional, left-right paradigm anymore.”

Convincing the primary electorate that he can defeat Trump in a general election looms as one of Sanders’ biggest challenges in 2020: His rivals, as well as pundits from both parties, will likely paint him as an extremist who could never win over the moderate voters who helped Democrats take back the House in the 2018 midterms.

With Democrats desperate to oust Trump, “electability” is a major concern for voters at this stage of the race, particularly among some groups that Sanders struggled to win over in 2016.

A recent Monmouth University poll showed a majority of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters of all ages prioritize the ability to win the general election over ideology in a 2020 nominee. However, larger percentages of older voters, women, and people of color want a candidate who can conquer Trump, even if they disagree with most of their platform.

Most older voters, especially those of color, favored Clinton over Sanders in 2016 — and Sanders’ top allies and aides have acknowledged that he has much to do to change that.

“His peer group is harder on him across the board,” said Nina Turner, president of the Sanders-founded Our Revolution, referring to older voters. “He’s definitely going to have to work on bringing his peers into the fold.”

One adviser to the Vermont senator said those efforts will likely need to include a persuasive argument that he can oust Trump.

His aides argue that he is well-liked in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — the three Rust Belt states that helped hand Trump the keys to the White House — so Sanders begins with a foothold.

“I don’t think anybody can dispute with a straight face that Bernie Sanders is very popular in those places,” said Jeff Weaver, an adviser to Sanders. “That’s because he’s popular with the progressive base, he’s increasingly popular with the emerging electorate in the Democratic Party, and he is popular with traditional, working-class, industrial workers in those places.”

Sanders’ aides also point out that he has years of experience speaking to rural voters, and has enjoyed crossover appeal in his home state of Vermont. They hold up his 2016 primary victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as his rallies with candidates in the 2018 midterms in those states, including with now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“It’s no secret that many candidates throughout the Midwest wanted him to campaign for them in 2018,” said Weaver.

Among the soft spots in the campaign’s case: In the Pennsylvania primary, Sanders lost to Clinton by 12 points. And Sanders’ has had past troubles connecting with key components of the Democratic coalition, whose turnout will help determine the nominee’s fate.

According to an analysis of exit polling in 25 primaries, Sanders narrowly won black voters under 30 in 2016, but lost older African-Americans by large margins, who turned out at higher rates than their younger counterparts. To beat Trump, the Democratic nominee will need robust support from black voters, the most loyal part of the party’s base.

Sanders’ team believes he’s in a much stronger position among black voters now than in 2016: They argue he has high favorability ratings among African-Americans, and unlike in his first presidential bid, starts with strong name ID.

Sanders’ aides also note his current position among Latinos: In several recent 2020 surveys, he is in first place among Latinos, placing better than even former Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s unlikely that Sanders, who eschews talking publicly about political strategy, will argue much if at all about “electability” himself.

"I think he needs to stay on his message," said Turner, "and that message is going to make people aware that he is electable."

But his advisers may make the case for him, directly and indirectly. Surrogates can address the “electability” issue in their messaging, and staff could strategically place primary rallies in red states and throughout the Rust Belt.

Other candidates have taken that route: When Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar kicked off her 2020 bid earlier this month, she said her first two stops would be in Iowa and Wisconsin, adding that “we’re starting in Wisconsin because, as you remember, there wasn’t a lot of campaigning in Wisconsin in 2016.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has highlighted her time representing a rural New York district. And Biden’s allies have argued that he can win back white working-class voters who have strayed from the Democratic Party, touting the positive reception he received while campaigning for 2018 candidates in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

Even Sanders, if not talking about electability outright, is hinting at it.

“Together,” he wrote in one of the final paragraphs of his email announcing his 2020 campaign, “we can defeat Donald Trump and repair the damage he has done to our country.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine