Trump spikes the football on Gonzalez retirement

Former President Donald Trump on Friday reveled in Rep. Anthony Gonzalez’s decision to not seek reelection rather than face a bruising primary after he voted to impeach Trump earlier this year.

“RINO Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who has poorly represented his district in the Great State of Ohio, has decided to quit after enduring a tremendous loss of popularity, of which he had little, since his ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me,” Trump said in a statement issued by his PAC.

Trump has been prolific in doling out his endorsement since leaving office to dozens of Republican candidates, though he has reserved special attention to targeting politicians he believes have crossed him like Gonzalez and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Gonzalez, 36, is the first of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump to bring their congressional careers to a close. Gonzalez told The New York Times, which first reported his retirement plans Thursday, that the animus he and his family has faced from Trump’s fervent supporters played a role in his decision.

“Politically the environment is so toxic, especially in our own party right now," he said. “You can fight your butt off and win this thing, but are you really going to be happy? And the answer is, probably not.”

Trump has already endorsed a Republican challenger, former White House aide Max Miller, though Ohio — like all states — is in the process of redrawing district lines after last year's census.

“This is no loss for Ohio or our Country and, most importantly, we have a great candidate who was substantially leading Gonzalez in the polls, Max Miller, who I have given my Complete and Total Endorsement,” Trump said in his statement.

Ohio is losing one of its 16 congressional districts. Gonzalez insisted that had he run, he would have been victorious, though he conceded he may not have been happy continuing to serve in a party increasingly made in Trump’s visage.

“Good riddance to Anthony,” Trump said.

Waters presses Biden to drop plans to replace housing regulator

House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters is urging President Joe Biden to keep the current regulator of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, creating a potential clash with the White House as it considers naming a replacement.

The California Democrat made the rare public intervention into executive branch personnel late Thursday with a statement endorsing acting Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Sandra Thompson, who took on the role in June after Biden fired a Trump appointee.

“We will not find a more qualified, more dedicated, or more deserving public servant than Ms. Thompson to lead the FHFA at this moment in our nation’s history,” Waters said. “Appointing Ms. Thompson as director of FHFA is an opportunity that should not be missed.”

Fannie and Freddie — the government-controlled companies the FHFA oversees — buy mortgages from banks and resell them as securities to investors, making the firms and the agency critical to the functioning of the U.S. housing market.

Waters, one of the most influential Washington voices when it comes to housing policy, threw her weight behind Thompson as the White House considered nominating Center for Responsible Lending President Michael Calhoun for the job, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Thompson's initial actions in her first months leading the FHFA have tracked closely with the Biden administration's priorities to expand affordable housing and address racial homeownership gaps. Thompson is the first Black woman to head FHFA — a point that Waters tried to elevate in her plea to Biden. Calhoun is a white man.

“It is in part due to the past and ongoing lack of representation of people of color in the senior ranks of our financial services regulators that we see stark racial and economic inequities throughout our country today,” Waters said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Trudeau’s big bet

OTTAWA — If Canadians elect a minority government next week, Liberal or Conservative, Justin Trudeau loses.

The Liberal prime minister gambled on an election he did not have to call. If the Conservatives win, he’ll suffer the worst kind of bad beat. And if the Liberals scrape by, he’ll still take heat for Canadians calling his bluff.

It’s a Mr. Magoo-esque situation for Trudeau whose political objective was to turn a double-digit lead in pre-election polls into a majority government.

That lead crumbled early. And Trudeau is now in a tight race against Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole in the final stretch of a 36-day campaign that ends Monday.

Trudeau survived the 2019 election with a weakened minority after campaigning in the shadow of the SNC-Lavalin and ethics controversies. Revelations that he wore racist garb decades earlier didn’t help either, hurting his image as a progressive leader.

Then and now, former President Barack Obama tweeted a campaign endorsement in the final stretch. In 2021, after leading Canada through the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trudeau should not have needed the backing.

A Liberal party insider says it’s too early to discount Trudeau because the same people who worked with the Liberal leader through the last election are on the campaign team this year.

“Being up, being down, being behind, having the campaign not go the way you want. Jeez, that sounds an awful lot like 2019, doesn't it?” they said.

Trudeau’s proposition that the election needed to happen now, two years early and in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, has drawn repeated scrutiny. His critics have blasted the campaign as an exercise to feed the prime minister’s ego rather than an act of good governance.

Éric Grenier, author of The Writ, said Trudeau’s favorable trend lines started to turn as soon as the election was called in mid-August, the same day Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul fell.

People’s voting intentions are unlikely to move solely because they’re upset about the timing of the election, Grenier offered. However, the perception that calling the election is in Trudeau’s self-interest could influence how people vote, he said. “I think that it raised the question of why are we doing this?”

This was supposed to be an election about policy, a referendum on the future of Canada, the prime minister said. But to many observers it seems more about Trudeau’s ego and cynical vote-buying.

Just before the campaign, Ottawa raced to lock national early learning and child care deals with vote-rich provinces, including British Columbia and Quebec. They’re two regions where the Liberals hope to make electoral gains.

“More ambition on climate change” was another explanation Trudeau gave Canadians.

The party’s platform includes promises to ban the export of thermal coal by 2030, cut methane emissions and reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector. While the New Democrats and Greens have proposed more aggressive emissions-reduction targets, climate policy experts give Liberals higher marks for backing their platform with policies and costs. Conservatives have made inroads to the center with a comprehensive climate plan with the lowest emissions reduction target, but policy experts have flagged it to be short on details around costs and timelines.

Instead of talking about the economics of climate and energy, Trudeau and O’Toole, the campaign frontrunners, have devoted more time to raising perennial wedge issues such as gun control and abortion.

The political gamble has left some federal Liberal Party insiders with a sense of regret over calling the election at all.

Trudeau was leading a minority government that was able to work with opposition parties to launch new, massive relief programs during a pandemic. But the election’s spotlight has put new attention on Trudeau’s record on campaign promises.

His government came through on a 2015 pledge to legalize marijuana, but high-profile promises to bring about electoral reform, to end all long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021, and to implement universal national pharmacare have been either abandoned or delayed.

It’s possible Trudeau could end up back where he started with a minority government. The results would again challenge the need for the C$600 million election and raise questions about his leadership and future prospects.

“We may not have a clear outcome, in which case we may be going back to the polls in the spring,” said Michael Wernick, former clerk of the Privy Council, of one potential scenario that could await Canadians on the other side of election day.

If a government leads with a minority, it must look across the aisle for support from one party or another to maintain the confidence of the House and continue governing. An election can be triggered if the government loses the confidence of the House. This test traditionally happens every spring when the government tables its budget, or any other bill it considers a matter of confidence, for MPs to vote on.

To add to the intrigue, in Canada’s parliamentary system, should Conservatives land a minority on Monday, Trudeau will still have a shot at leading. The incumbent prime minister gets first crack at retaining the confidence of the House of Commons. Trudeau would have to strike deals with other parties such as the federal New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and Greens for a coalition government.

But this election wasn’t supposed to be about compromise; it was about cementing Trudeau’s legacy as a political unicorn. The problem is the unicorn has made enemies — some within his own party.

After six years of governing, some of Trudeau’s loudest critics include former members of the federal Liberal caucus and cabinet. Trudeau, who has championed himself a feminist, made headlines in 2015 for appointing Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

In the few years since, some of the same women who led some of the toughest files in Trudeau’s cabinet are now among the prime minister’s strongest critics.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Liberal justice minister who was kicked out of caucus by Trudeau, wrote in her new book that she told the prime minister “I wish that I had never met you” after he asked her to move on from the SNC-Lavalin affair. Liberal cabinet minister Jane Philpott was also kicked out of Trudeau’s caucus for supporting her friend.

When Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a former Liberal MP who quit Liberal caucus after breaking rank to support Wilson-Raybould, said she’s supporting the Conservative candidate running in the riding she used to represent. Former Liberal MP Michelle Simson responded online saying, “Trust me, she’s likely not the only one.”

Simson and Trudeau were both first elected in 2008. She sat beside the future prime minister in the House of Commons for a term before she was defeated in 2011.

“He was a lot of sizzle and no steak. That was my personal observation,” Simson said. She recalled Trudeau being “totally disengaged” during the Canada-Colombia trade deal more than a decade ago.

She said the centralization of power has increased under Trudeau’s tenure as leader — that government is directed by the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s a trend grassroots members have long flagged as a concern, reminiscent of “big U.S.-style centralized campaigns” that risk alienating Canadians from getting involved in local ridings.

Federal Liberals rely “less and less on the membership except for election time when they want volunteers on the street,” Simson said. It’s one factor that motivated her to let her party membership lapse last year — though she still identifies as a Liberal.

“He's been losing support from women,” Simson said and referenced the prime minister’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould. “I think he got a bit of a pass in 2015. I think the luster started coming off in 2019.”

Trudeau, being the son of a former long-serving prime minister, has spent his entire life more or less in the public eye. He has become a brand unto himself, idealized as a progressive leader. It’s good for allies when he’s winning, but six years of governing have left their marks in Trudeau’s brand.

Abacus Data pollster David Coletto said it’s expected that a leader’s brand eventually weaves with their party’s over time. “Stephen Harper and the Conservative brand were deeply interwoven at the end of his 10 years in office. Chretien and the Liberal brand were deeply linked,” he said.

“Right now, I don't think you're gonna have many voters out there who say, ‘I love the Liberals, but I hate Trudeau’ or ‘I love Trudeau and I hate the Liberals,’” Coletto said. “The two [go] hand in hand.”

Asked Thursday if he would consider a return to power with a reduced minority an endorsement or indictment of his approach to policy and governing, Trudeau ducked the question.

“We are confident that Canadians want to move forward,” he said, working in a keyword of his party’s campaign slogan into his response.

Milley: Calls to China were 'perfectly' within scope of job

ATHENS, Greece — The top U.S. military officer said Friday that calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the final stormy months of Donald Trump's presidency were “perfectly within the duties and responsibilities” of his job.

In his first public comments on the conversations, Gen. Mark Milley such said calls are “routine” and were done "to reassure both allies and adversaries in this case in order to ensure strategic stability.” The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke to The Associated Press and another reporter traveling with him to Europe.

Milley has been at the center of a firestorm amid reports he made two calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to assure him that the United States was not going to suddenly go to war with or attack China.

Descriptions of the calls made last October and in January were first aired in excerpts from the forthcoming book “Peril” by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The book says Milley told Li that he would warn Li in the event of an attack.

Milley on Friday offered only a brief defense of his calls, saying he plans a deeper discussion about the matter for Congress when he testifies at a hearing later in September.

“I think it’s best that I reserve my comments on the record until I do that in front of the lawmakers who have the lawful responsibility to oversee the U.S. military,” Milley said. “I’ll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into in a couple of weeks.”

Milley and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are scheduled to testify Sept. 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in what initially was going to be a hearing on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation of Americans, Afghans and others from that country.

Now, however, Milley is expected to face tough questioning on the telephone calls, which came during Trump’s turbulent last months in office as he challenged the results of the 2020 election. The second call, on Jan. 8, came two days after a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden's White House victory.

A special House committee that is investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol has asked for details about Milley’s calls. U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., leaders of the committee, have also sought records related to the November election, the transfer of power from Trump to Biden and the riot.

Milley was appointed Joint Chiefs chair by Trump in 2019 and has remained in that post in the Biden administration. As chair, Milley is the top military adviser to the president and to the defense secretary.

The White House and the Pentagon chief have said they continue to have full trust and confidence in Milley.

The new book says Milley, fearful of Trump’s actions late in his term, twice called his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the U.S. was not going to attack China. One call took place on Oct. 30, four days before the American election. The second call was on Jan. 8, less than two weeks before Biden’s inauguration and two days after the insurrection at the Capitol by supporters of Trump.

Some U.S. lawmakers have said Milley overstepped his authority, and they have called for Biden to fire him. Trump blasted Milley as treasonous, called him “a complete nutjob” and said Milley “never told me about calls being made to China.”

Biden told reporters after the disclosures in the book that “I have great confidence in Gen. Milley.”

Milley’s office, in a statement this week, said the calls were intended to convey “reassurance” to the Chinese military and were in line with his responsibilities as Joint Chiefs chair.

The statement from Milley spokesman Col. Dave Butler also said that the calls were “staffed, coordinated and communicated” with the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

According to the book, which the AP obtained, Milley assured his Chinese counterpart in the first call that “the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay.” It said he told Li, “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”

“If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” Milley reportedly said.

Milley spoke with a number of other military leaders around the world after the Jan. 6 riot; they included leaders from the United Kingdom, Russia and Pakistan. A description of those calls in January referred to “several” other counterparts that Milley spoke to with similar messages of reassurance that the U.S. government was strong and in control.

The second call was meant to placate Chinese fears about the events of Jan. 6. But the book reports that Li wasn’t as easily assuaged, even after Milley promised him: “We are 100 percent steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

In response to the book, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged Biden to fire Milley, saying the general worked to “actively undermine" the American commander in chief, Trump.

How Joe Biden’s Green Agenda Threatens the Alaskan Wilderness

A little-known and controversial road project in Alaska highlights the Biden administration’s struggle to protect environmentally sensitive areas while promoting a green-energy economy that depends on vast quantities of copper and other minerals.

Pelosi vs. everybody: Dems’ high-wire health care act

As Democrats' massive reconciliation bill makes its way through the machine, one item is getting all the attention: health care.

It’s a fight that basically boils down to Nancy Pelosi versus … everyone else — with the legacies of Pelosi, Sanders and Biden at stake.

Playbook co-author Rachael Bade and POLITICO's Alice Miranda Ollstein take us to Capitol Hill, where the knives are coming out over policies lawmakers have agreed on for years — or thought they did — with plenty on the line: $3.5 trillion, the future of the Affordable Care Act and dueling visions for the Democratic Party.

On Democrats’ health care conundrum

“Progressives are feeling like they've already compromised so much and given up so much to get where we are now. They began with wanting to really move towards a ‘Medicare for All’-style system. Then they reduced their demands to just lowering the age of Medicare so that more people can enroll. And then they reduced that to just having more Medicare benefits for people. And now even that is getting chipped away because you have leadership in the House, led by Speaker Pelosi, saying, ‘We really have to focus on making the Affordable Care Act what we originally wanted it to be, with the full Medicaid expansion and having it be solid in the face of potential future Republican attacks.

“Something I think can't be emphasized enough is just how many lawmakers up on the Hill, Pelosi top among them, feel so tied to the Affordable Care Act. It is their baby. They have seen it almost die and be reborn many times, and they just feel so invested in making sure it can last into the future, whether they're in power or not. And they see attempts to redirect funding to other things as somewhat of a threat to that. ... Meanwhile, progressives always saw the Affordable Care Act as something they sort of settled for. It was not their preference.

“I think one of the big, overarching themes here is that when Democrats are in the minority, they're able to paper over a lot of these differences by just saying, ‘We're united against Trump. Trump is trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. We have to unite to stop them.’ And now that it's their turn in the majority, all of these divisions and ideological differences about what to actually do on health care are really exposed.” — Alice Miranda Ollstein

On Bernie vs. Nancy … and Nancy vs. everyone

“The conventional wisdom in Washington is, ‘Don't bet against Nancy Pelosi.’ … I've covered her for 10 years, and she's been the leader of the party for so long. She's so used to getting her way. And it's just really interesting to see her having to fight against a person who just a few years ago was considered a gadfly in the Senate. Obviously, Bernie Sanders has this enormous power on the outside of the Hill, this enormous progressive following around the country from his run for president. Seeing these two people go up against each other, it's not something we often see.

“Right now, [Pelosi is] up against Bernie. She's up against the White House. She's up against [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer, who is typically her ally. And it's going to be really a test of her power here. She's obviously in legacy mode; she’s going to be retiring in a couple of years, and she sees shoring up Obamacare as one of the final things she wants to do before she leaves Washington. And so she's going to be fighting for this tooth and nail.” — Rachael Bade

On health care and the 2022 midterms

“There's a lot of pressure to at least extend the Obamacare subsidies, if not make them permanent — which is what Pelosi and her allies want — because they're now set to expire around the midterms. And so if Democrats are not in power after that, you could see millions of people losing these subsidies, having more trouble affording some of these plans. And so that's a huge consideration there.

But it's also, what can they pass that would make a strong argument to take to voters to say, ‘You need to keep us in power because you gave us control of Washington, [the] House, Senate and White House for the first time in a really long time'? And Democrats feel that if they're not able to really show anything for that — anything concrete — if people are not feeling these policies, they will not see a political benefit. So I think it's both a consideration of, ‘How do we ensure that these programs won't get messed with by a future Republican majority?’ But also, ‘What can we pass so that there is no future Republican majority, so that we have a strong political argument to make?’” — Alice Miranda Ollstein

Jan. 6 probe request sends hundreds of pages to Trump team for review

Joe Biden’s White House is about to face the tricky choice of how much material from the Donald Trump White House — if any — it gives to the Jan. 6 select committee.

The National Archives and Records Administration has sent hundreds of pages of documents requested by the Jan. 6 select committee to the former president’s legal team to review, according to a person familiar with the situation.

That move kicks off a process that will result in some tough decisions for Biden’s White House counsel, both politically and legally. That’s because the office will have to decide whether to sign off on any efforts from Team Trump to keep sensitive White House communications from becoming public.

When it comes to document after document relevant to the Jan. 6 panel’s expansive request, Biden White House lawyers will likely face the same tough dilemma: They can either send Congress the material over Trump’s objections, entering unprecedented legal territory about the treatment of former presidents; or they can withhold materials from Hill allies, thereby stymieing investigators’ access and potentially generating significant political fallout.

Here’s how it’s playing out:

On Aug. 25, the committee investigating the Capitol attack sent a 12-page document request to the National Archives. The committee asked for materials that could be highly sensitive, including any internal communications on Jan. 6 related to a host of officials, including top White House lawyers, the president’s national security adviser and the president’s chief of staff.

The House select panel on the insurrection, led by Chair Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), also asked for all notes summarizing the president’s meetings that day and for all documents sent to and from the White House Situation Room on Jan. 6. That’s just a small sampling of the committee’s sweeping bid for materials.

Much of what the committee seeks could be covered by executive privilege — a legal doctrine shielding presidents’ communications with their advisers from becoming public. The privilege exists so that presidents can have candid and uncomfortable conversations with their top aides without worrying about future embarrassment or repercussions.

And the law governing White House records, called the Presidential Records Act, says former presidents have the right to weigh in on whether executive privilege should be asserted to prevent their administrations’ materials from going to Congress. But only the current president can formally assert executive privilege to block the National Archives from releasing White House records, according to a subsequent executive order on the process.

Archivists are now working to find records that are responsive to the committee’s request, according to the source familiar with the process, who addressed it candidly on condition of anonymity. As those records are found, they are sending them to Trump’s legal team on a rolling basis.

As those Trump lawyers receive records, they have 30 days to decide whether or not to ask the Biden White House to assert executive privilege and block the archivists from sharing with the Hill. Then the Biden administration has 30 days to decide whether or not to assert the privilege.

If the Biden team decides to override the Trump team, another 60-day window opens in which the Trump team can try to change Biden lawyers’ minds, or go to court. But the Presidential Records Act and the executive orders interpreting it include sometimes-fuzzy language, and experts may take different views on some of the finer points of this process, including the timelines involved.

It is unclear if Trump’s lawyers have yet asked Biden’s lawyers to assert executive privilege regarding any of the materials they’ve received so far. But Trump himself has said they will.

“Executive privilege will be defended, not just on behalf of my Administration and the Patriots who worked beside me, but on behalf of the Office of the President of the United States and the future of our Nation,” he said in a statement last month.

A White House spokesperson, in turn, noted that Biden has praised the select committee.

“As President Biden has said, the events of January 6th were a dark stain on our country’s history, and they represented an attack on the foundations of our constitution and democracy in a way that few other events have,” said White House rapid response director Mike Gwin in a statement. “The President is deeply committed to ensuring that something like that can never happen again and he supports a thorough investigation into what occurred. That’s why his Administration has been engaging with Congress on matters relating to January 6 for several months now and will continue to do so, including with the Select Committee.”

David Rivkin, who served in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, said the Biden team should assert privilege over at least some of the materials in question.

“They go to the highest levels of deliberative process in the administration,” said Rivkin, who practices constitutional and appellate law.

Other experts concurred, saying Biden is likely to side with Trump and against the select committee led by his fellow Democrats in at least some cases. That’s because all presidents know that they will eventually be former presidents — and most are loath to weaken the privilege they may someday want to assert. One person familiar with the negotiations between the select committee and White House said to expect Biden’s team to err on the side of disclosure given the gravity of the Jan. 6 attack.

The decision is up to Biden. And if he chooses not to assert executive privilege on Trump’s behalf, he will be in uncharted territory. Rivkin said he wasn’t aware of any instances when a sitting president chose not to assert the privilege on behalf of a former president.

“I think not asserting executive privilege, given the nature of the documents they’re asking for, would set a very bad precedent,” he added. “But the current occupant of the White House can set all sorts of bad precedents.”

Annie Owens, a former Democratic staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee who helped seek records from now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s time in the White House, said in an interview that Biden may decide some interests outweigh the importance of executive privilege.

“In this instance, where you’re investigating an insurrection that occurred at the Capitol and whether anybody in the White House knew about it ahead of time, then there’s a pretty compelling argument that Congress’ need for the information outweighs any White House interest in withholding it,” said Owens, who also helped the House sue to compel former Trump White House ounsel Don McGahn to testify.

If Trump and Biden disagree about whether to send a document to the committee, the former president could take the further and dramatic step of going to court, according to Owens. Under the Presidential Records Act, former presidents can sue if they believe materials from their administrations face unlawful release. It’s never happened before, and Owens said she thinks any such effort would be a long shot.

She added that she thinks Biden’s White House will probably greenlight the release of some, but not all, materials the Hill wants. Saikrishna Prakash, a law professor at the University of Virginia, took the same view.

“You can imagine them honoring some and not others,” he said in an interview. “And it sounds like the president will then try to go to court and say, ‘You can’t release these materials.’”

Litigation could slow down the process enough that it wouldn’t even matter to Trump if he ultimately won or lost in court, Prakash added.

“In all these situations, the key is to delay if you’re the president or the former president,” he said. “Executive privilege is partly strategic. If you can delay the release of information, that’s to your advantage because the House may change hands and there ain’t going to be a committee on Jan. 6.”

Democrats struggle to unearth Afghanistan failures without hitting the White House

Congressional Democrats are promising rigorous investigations of the Biden administration’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. It might come back to bite them.

President Joe Biden’s Hill allies are already plotting a potentially risky gamble in fulfilling Congress’ traditional oversight role, with at least six Democrat-led congressional committees promising to investigate various aspects of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

They’re charging ahead regardless of the possible political consequences for a president who is already facing significant hurdles for his domestic agenda as well as sagging poll numbers — a dynamic that has some top Democrats worried.

“As usual, a lot of Democrats are choosing to play on the ground created by Republicans, are choosing to fit into the narrative that they’ve constructed — and I think that’s a mistake,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), among the Biden team’s most vocal defenders amid a sea of bipartisan criticism. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be prepared to go on the offensive to talk about why we got to the summer of 2021.”

While the congressional probes will initially focus on the Biden administration’s missteps, Democrats leading them have promised a broad look at the failures by officials who served in previous administrations of both parties. It’s how Democrats plan to head off a GOP-led campaign to pin the Afghanistan collapse solely on Biden, whom his allies say inherited a flawed diplomatic agreement with the Taliban from former President Donald Trump that tied his hands.

Still, Democrats’ keen interest in investigating the withdrawal of American troops is a reflection of the widespread bipartisan anger over how America’s longest war ended — and, for many, questions about why it was dragged on when it became clear long ago that the war was unwinnable.

Congress’ oversight machine — which has been relatively dormant since Trump left office — is booting up for the first time under Biden’s presidency to tackle Afghanistan. Democrats are already grappling with how to conduct investigations without making it a liability for Biden, especially as Republicans fixate on the issue to portray the president and his party as incompetent ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“What we’re trying to do is a careful, thorough and objective review of what happened, and learn lessons,” Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said in a brief interview.

When asked if it could become a headache for Biden, Reed quipped: “Well, I hope not. It’s more just us doing our jobs.”

Murphy, who chairs the Foreign Relations panel’s Middle East subcommittee and therefore could be charged with spearheading some of the investigation, said "we can concede that an operation this size doesn’t happen without mistakes" but that Democrats shouldn’t allow the GOP to dictate the scope of the probes.

"I do worry we’re falling into this trap created by Republicans who are trying to create the impression that the administration had the ability to manage a smooth, chaos-free evacuation," Murphy lamented. "That was impossible.”

Still, Biden is facing the brunt of the criticism over the way the U.S. left Afghanistan — including a frenetic, deadly evacuation operation that ultimately left hundreds of Americans and thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind, which his detractors blame on poor planning and intelligence failures.

The oversight effort began in earnest this week when Secretary of State Antony Blinken testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he vigorously defended the Biden administration from bipartisan criticism over the withdrawal.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was unsparing with Blinken, calling the withdrawal “clearly and fatally flawed” and even threatening to subpoena Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for declining to appear before the panel.

Menendez said he wouldn’t shy away from criticizing the Biden team in part because his panel intends to conduct an exhaustive inquiry on the failures of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan over the past two decades. However, he said he thought Biden’s decision-making might be “redeemed” in the end.

“What I envision as oversight goes beyond this administration. In that respect, I don’t see it being a political liability [for Biden],” Menendez said in an interview this week. “From my perspective, chips fall where they may as it relates to the whole process.”

Menendez, in his third term in the upper chamber after serving 13 years in the House, isn’t afraid to criticize members of his own party on foreign policy. He frustrated the Obama administration with his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and the détente with Cuba, for example, and his hawkish views have informed much of his criticism of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Menendez, though, supported Biden’s April decision to pull all U.S. troops out of the country.

“I think he feels [an] institutional responsibility ... I don’t think he’s thinking about the politics of it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a Foreign Relations and Armed Services committee member, said of Menendez. “So, I don’t have advice for Democrats. I think we’re just trying to give an issue of importance the attention and care it deserves.”

Menendez isn’t alone. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has skewered the State Department for its “delay and inaction” and “inexcusable bureaucratic red tape” that has prevented the swift evacuation of some Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan in recent days, in particular from Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where some planes carrying evacuees have been grounded.

He escalated that critique this week, telling reporters that “we are tanking America's reputation around the world, but more importantly abandoning essential honor and moral imperative by failing to do more to evacuate American citizens and Afghan allies who put their lives on the line.”

Blumenthal, too, said he simply wants to hold the Biden administration to its word and suggested that intra-party politics shouldn't be a factor.

“We need to speak the truth to power and hold the administration accountable for honoring its promises and commitments,” he said. “The president has committed that he will enable Afghan allies and American citizens to evacuate from Afghanistan, and all I’m doing is trying to raise the profile of this issue and show that we want to encourage the administration to do the same.”

The next few weeks could be a rough patch for Biden’s national security brass. Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28.

That means the focus of the Afghanistan oversight effort will remain on the Biden administration’s missteps for the time being, even as Democratic committee leaders vow to pull the camera back to examine previous administrations. Once it's underway, that work could involve hauling in former Bush, Obama and Trump administration officials for testimony.

Trump endorsements stoke dissension in GOP ranks

Staten Island borough president. Michigan state Senate. Arizona secretary of state.

Donald Trump is endorsing candidates in party primary elections all the way down the ballot, a level of involvement that’s virtually unheard of among recent former presidents.

What’s remarkable about Trump’s picks isn’t just their breadth — he’s endorsed close to 40 candidates so far in 23 states — it’s their seemingly random quality. What’s even more unusual is that the political goals of the GOP’s de facto leader aren’t necessarily in sync with his own party — in some cases, they are starkly at odds.

If there’s a thread running through nearly all of Trump’s endorsements, it is his habit of rewarding allies and punishing enemies. So far, at the national level, he’s backed primary challengers to four House GOP incumbents and one sitting senator — all of whom voted for impeachment.

When it comes to state and local races, Trump’s seal of approval is often linked in one way or another to his failed efforts to have the 2020 election results overturned. In the three secretary of state contests where he has endorsed — Arizona, Georgia and Michigan — the common denominator is that his claims of election fraud were dismissed in those places by the current secretaries of state due to a lack of evidence.

In Arizona, where Trump endorsed state Rep. Mark Finchem’s bid for secretary of state this week, Finchem fits the Trump model. He’s not the only Trump supporter in the GOP field, but he’s arguably the most committed. He contends the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, participated in the “Stop the Steal” movement, attended the Jan. 6 rally at the U.S. Capitol and has pushed conspiracy theories promoted by QAnon.

In Georgia, where three of the state’s top Republicans have incurred Trump’s wrath for resisting his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s win there, Trump has been especially active.

He is backing Rep. Jody Hice in a primary challenge against GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who resisted Trump’s entreaties to “find” more votes for him than were counted in Georgia — as well as Burt Jones in the open GOP primary for lieutenant governor. Jones is one of a group of state senators who called on Gov. Brian Kemp to call an emergency special session as part of an effort to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results after Biden’s victory.

Trump hasn’t yet endorsed in the governor’s race. But after publicly excoriating Kemp for months, there is little doubt where the former president stands.

To some Republicans, Trump’s efforts to take down GOP incumbents in federal and state races are at odds with the party’s interests in a midterm election where Republicans are within striking distance of recapturing control of Congress. While the party is focused on the November 2022 general election, Trump’s gaze is fixed on the primary election season that begins next spring.

“Donald Trump is continuing to add to the chaos in the Republican Party. It’s confusing the average Republican voter,” said Georgia GOP Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Trump critic who is not running for reelection. “The only question that seems to matter when Trump is making his endorsements is: ‘Are you with us on the election conspiracy stuff?’ Not, ‘Do you believe in smaller government? Do you support law enforcement? Do you believe in lower regulations?’ Instead, it’s, ‘Are you with me?’”

In Michigan, where Trump recently endorsed a primary challenger to veteran GOP Rep. Fred Upton and picked favorites in two other state races, the former president’s influence is already being felt.

“His early endorsements have had an instant impact inside Michigan political circles, raising some from completely unknown status into candidates to be reckoned with,” observed John Sellek, a top Michigan-based Republican consultant.

“[Trump’s] early picks clearly come with a tinge of revenge,” he said. “How the primaries turn out is still up in the air, due to redistricting and how the races evolve. But his impact on nominations decided at the state GOP convention is likely total and complete. We should expect more endorsements to come."

With dozens of endorsements in House, Senate, gubernatorial, attorneys general, and state legislative contests — not to mention his long-standing involvement in cherry-picking state GOP chairs — Trump stands to continue remaking the party in his image. Those efforts would prove helpful to him in the event he runs for president again in 2024.

Many Republicans view that as a welcome prospect since the party base has moved in a direction that’s more closely aligned with Trump’s politics.

“Prior to 2015, there’s a good case to be made that the Beltway version of the Republican Party had been moving away from the base,” said Drew McKissick, the Trump-endorsed chair of the South Carolina GOP.

“What you saw in 2016 — with Trump beating 16 other qualified Republican candidates — was the rubber band snappin’ back. The base hadn’t moved. The Beltway had,” he said. “So there’s a continued ongoing reset; people are having to reorient themselves to where the base of the party actually is.”

To McKissick’s point, half of primary voters identify themselves as “Trump First voters” and only 43 percent identified as having primary loyalty to the GOP, according to a recent Echelon Insights poll.

“It’s what the base wants,” said Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Army veteran running against Washington state Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach Trump. “The only good that came out of the election in 2020 and the impeachment votes is that we were able to really identify the establishment Republicans, country club Republicans, Republicans in name only, and make them vulnerable.”

Trump’s hands-on approach of choosing sides in party primaries contrasts with the style of his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, who typically refused to wade into contested primaries.

Tim Murtaugh, the former communications director for Trump’s campaign, said Trump’s endorsements are a manifestation of what party voters want.

“President Trump’s America First philosophy has very much become one of the core principles of the party,” said Murtaugh, who is serving as a spokesperson for Kelly Tshibaka, a Trump-backed primary challenger to Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “He’s supporting candidates who believe in the same thing. That’s where the party is now and it’s because of Trump.”

Murtaugh is also working for the Wyoming primary campaign of Harriet Hageman, who was endorsed last week by Trump to take on his top Republican target, Rep. Liz Cheney, the most recognizable Republican to vote for his second impeachment.

“President Trump maintains unprecedented influence over the Republican Party. As we see in elections across the country, there is only one lane for candidates to be successful: the Trump lane,” said a spokesperson for Trump. “Unsurprising, President Trump is already 10-0 in Republican elections. He will continue to weigh in to races to elevate the best candidates, while also continuing to weed out RINOs and sellouts.”

To varying degrees, Trump’s involvement in Senate and House primaries against incumbents puts him in conflict with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who have a mandate to protect their members.

Trump’s aggressive role in open Senate primaries is already exacerbating tensions with McConnell, who has made clear that electability — not fealty to Trump — should be the top standard in supporting a candidate.

In swing-state Pennsylvania, where support for Trump has become a litmus test in the crowded GOP primary to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, the former president recently endorsed military veteran and author Sean Parnell.

So far, Trump has done little beyond issuing statements of support. He has given some candidates a boost in the form of a mention at rallies, or an appearance at a fundraiser, but strategists say he will have to start investing far more of his time and money into endorsed candidates to see any kind of significant impact.

A Trump endorsement is “table stakes,” said Matt Gorman, a GOP strategist and former communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The real key is what else he's willing to do for you. A rally? Raise money? Ads on your behalf? That's where the breakthrough most of the time really happens.”

Former Rep. Ryan Costello, who is considering a bid for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat and has criticized Trump since retiring from the House, said Trump has made so many endorsements in so many races that it’s impossible to tease out the net effect of it all.

“Obviously, Trump is a score-settler,” he said. “Is Trump a kingmaker in a Republican primary? In many cases, yes. In a safe Republican seat, you’ll have a certain type of candidate he endorses who will win. But in swing seats, you could have a Trump candidate win the primary and lose the general because Trump is so toxic. That doesn’t bother Trump. But it’s a problem when we want to win more seats in the midterm.”

Voting begins in crucial Virginia governor race

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Voting officially kicks off Friday in the most competitive statewide election since Joe Biden became president.

This November’s race for Virginia governor isn’t only one of the earliest barometers of the political environment heading into the 2022 midterms. It will also be one of the first signs for how permanent Americans’ shift away from Election Day voting is, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday marks the kickoff of in-person early voting in Virginia, 45 days before the Nov. 2 faceoff between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. It's the first gubernatorial election in which both in-person early voting and no-excuse mail voting are available for all Virginians, after the Democratic-controlled state government passed a law last year scrapping a requirement that previously required voters have a valid excuse to do so.

The change has brought a jolt to the typical off-year election calendar, leading both campaigns to recalibrate their strategies for persuading swing voters and juicing turnout among their own supporters.

“The 45-day window has changed things dramatically,” said Rick Michael, the chair of the Chesterfield County Republican Committee. “It's new to the people in the registrar's office. It's new to the people who are in the political arena. It's new to the constituents and the voters throughout the commonwealth.”

Michael said his party had been working to recruit more volunteers earlier this year and educating voters on their options.

This year’s election actually marks the second for the new rules, which were almost immediately put under a stress test in 2020 when voters across the country looked for alternatives other than voting in person on Election Day during the pandemic. Over 2.8 million Virginians did so, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, accounting for over 60 percent of the votes cast last year. That was a dramatic increase from the roughly 15 percent of voters who did so in 2016, when an excuse was still required.

This year, the test will be just how sticky that shift in voting methods was, which will significantly impact both parties’ planning for 2022, 2024 and beyond.

Both candidates are on the trail Friday to mark the early-voting kickoff. McAuliffe is starting his day in the vote-rich Northern Virginia, a Democratic bastion key to any victory statewide. And Youngkin is ending his with an early-vote rally in Chesterfield, the state’s fourth largest county just south of Richmond — a long-time Republican stronghold that flipped to Biden last year.

Candidates and operatives on both sides of the aisle say there’s an increased focus on educating voters about the still-unfamiliar process, even though it was used last year.

“People will tell me, for instance, ‘I really appreciated the chance to vote early last time. Is that still around?’” said state Del. Dan Helmer, a Democrat who flipped a state House seat in 2019 and is running for reelection this year. “People don’t necessarily know if that was a pandemic-related thing, or if it was permanent.”

This November’s election in Virginia does, however, bring a new change from last year’s election: early voting on Sunday. Earlier this year, Virginia Democrats backed that as well, giving localities the ability to opt in to early voting.

Da'Quan Marcell Love, the executive director of the Virginia NAACP, said his organization has put extensive resources into encouraging counties to sign up for Sunday early voting.

“If you would have asked me in the middle of August, I would have told you that well, there are only 12 localities that are scheduled to even have Sunday voting. But we were able to expand that,” he said. Love said that the NAACP and partner organizations would work to organize some of the state’s first “Souls to the Polls” events that will encourage Black voters to head to the polls after Sunday church services.

And Love, who said that this year’s election has brought the largest off-year investment from his organization in 15 years, said how they talk to voters has also shifted away from promoting “voter protection” programs to educating voters about the bevy of options they now have to cast their ballots.

But he also said there are warning signs among Black voters heading into early voting. “There may be a sense of complacency amongst them, that, ‘Yeah, you know, maybe I can sit this election out,’” he said. “The lack of enthusiasm in the Black community is something that we have been ringing the alarm about as it relates to this election.”

The new voting calendar in Virginia also speeds up the schedule for campaigns, which now need to allocate more staff hours, volunteers and advertising dollars earlier in the year to try to get as many of their supporters to vote early.

Neither McAuliffe nor Youngkin is short on cash: The former Democratic governor raised $11.5 million over the last two months and entered the closing stretch of the race with $12.6 million in the bank, according to campaign finance disclosures filed earlier this week. And Youngkin raised $15.7 million, buoyed by a $4.5 million personal loan, and has $6 million left in the bank. Youngkin has now contributed $16.5 million of his own money to his campaign.

But the sped-up calendar does present campaigns new opportunities to reach voters that would otherwise be missed if regular voters are convinced to cast their ballots early, said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.

“It saves them so much money, because you can remove [voters] from your universes. You don't have to mail them. You don't have to knock their doors. When people participate early it updates in the voter file almost immediately,” Tribbett said. “Then the money that you spend towards turning people out gets much more highly targeted down to who hasn't voted.”

With early voting still in its relative infancy in the commonwealth, it is unclear how much Virginians will use it.

"The question becomes, how do people take advantage of it?” said Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a longtime Virginia politico. “What is turnout going to actually look like with early vote, because we've never really had it before. We had it last year, but it was also the pandemic. It was a presidential year, which is a very different year.”

Rexrode said he believed most Virginia Republicans will vote on Election Day this year, and noted that historically it is the “hard partisans” that showed up to vote during the early days of early voting.

Of the 2.8 million people who voted early in 2020, about 1.8 million voted during in-person early voting, and just over 1 million voted via the mail, according to the VPAP data. Virginia does not have party registration, but modeling data shared with POLITICO by TargetSmart, a prominent liberal data firm, suggests that Democratic-aligned voters were more likely to cast a ballot early compared to Republicans.

In the modeling, Republican and Democratic voters in 2020 cast ballots early in-person at about the same rate: 39 and 42 percent of those who cast voted, respectively. But Democrats were far more likely to cast a mail ballot: 28 percent to 17 percent. For voters modeled as unaffiliated with either party, 37 percent voted early in-person and 25 percent by mail.

Virginia state Democratic Party Chair Susan Swecker said that the party has been focused on educating voters in the run-up to the early-voting kickoff. “We’ve gotten better at communicating to our voters the options that they had,” she said at a press conference on Thursday to mark the first gubernatorial debate on the eve of early voting. “It was a very short time frame last year to get a lot of that up to speed.”

Even still, the party is hoping to at least use data from the 2020 election as a jumping off point when contacting voters. The state coordinated campaign plans on using Virginia voters’ 2020 “voting plans” — which the party pushed to collect across the country during the last election — to help determine what method to push Virginians to vote this year, and the McAuliffe campaign has already started running social media ads encouraging voters to request absentee ballots, dinging Youngkin over abortion in the process.

Swecker said this year’s election will be a “good test” on how many voters have switched to preferring to cast their ballots before Election Day. “I think a lot of them will, just for convenience sake,” she said.

Does ‘Conservatism’ Actually Mean Anything Anymore?

You’d be hard pressed to think of too many people more warmly ensconced in the “Washington establishment” than George Will.

Over the span of 48 years at the Washington Post, he has authored some 6,000 or so columns during 10 presidencies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and written 16 books — his latest, American Happiness and Discontents, is out this week. For at least a generation, he has been the most prominent intellectual conservative voice in mainstream media, so well-known that he was once the topic of a joke on “Seinfeld.” A week prior to President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration, Will hosted the Illinois senator for dinner and had him drink from a cup that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln; dinner with Will was the ultimate outsider’s welcome to Washington — few could give a similar establishment-approved imprimatur.

And yet, in 2021, George Will is in some ways a man on the outside looking in. Yes, he still has one of the most prominent columns in one of the world’s most powerful newspapers. Yes, he is still part of the Washington scene. But politics have changed, and the intellectual conservatism he embodies is without an obvious political home.

The Trump years, Will told POLITICO in an interview this week, “made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked.” Conservatism, to Will, is a whole ethos with a proud intellectual tradition in American life. What it means to conserve, he says, is the American founding.

That’s conservatism,” said Will. “And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, ‘No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans,’ or whatever he says.”

Now, what society thinks of as “conservatism” is different. To Will, this is not unlike the trend of self-identified conservative evangelical Christians whose identity is based not in scripture but in cultural totems. In one sense, yes, they’re Christians, but in another, what does that term mean if divorced from scripture? What does “conservative” mean when politics is, as Will describes it, now “cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good”?

To Will, this is a fundamental change in what society understands politics to be. “Grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with ‘politics’ understood as ‘legislation and policy,’” Will said. “If people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. … What do you do politically? I don’t get it.”

Will is introspective about how we got here. Yes, there are some easy and obvious targets that sped up the decline of American political discourse — he cites social media that is “often high-velocity lunacy and vituperation and just plain ugliness,” and later volunteers that he doesn’t use Twitter: “if someone said, ‘Tweet, or I’ll kill you,’ I’m done” — but there’s also a not-insubstantial role that conservative intellectuals themselves played in stoking the fires of conservative populism.

“After the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow … it was an extremely bookish persuasion,” Will said, name-checking thinkers like William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk. And as the Republican Party became the “party of ideas,” that necessarily put a target on their backs: overturning “the so-called ‘Republican establishment’ meant overturning the bookish side of it, overturning the intellectual side of it,” Will said.

None of which is to say that George Will has gone moderate. He hasn’t. He thinks government does far too much, spends far too much and that politics occupies far too much of the national mental bandwidth. He’s upset about some of the same things that animate other conservatives, like the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” But he’s also critical of those conservatives who want to “airbrush the past.”

“There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education, and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots,” Will said. “There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom.”

What does American conservatism mean in 2021? How did George Will hear about the Tulsa massacre? And what is his advice for those vying to replace Donald Trump? To talk through all that and more, POLITICO Magazine talked to Will via Zoom. A transcript of that conversation follows, condensed and edited for length and readability.

I want to read to you something that you wrote in 1976: “A nation that feels a democratic imperative to celebrate the lowest common denominator sooner or later will get the lowest common denominator everywhere, including its legislatures. The empty-headed celebration of the common man will produce many leaders who are, to be polite, common.” Do you think we are seeing the lowest common denominator right now in our legislatures, in our politics?

Oh, you’re too optimistic with the word “lowest.” You’re forgetting “Will’s First Law,” which is: “There’s no such thing as rock bottom.”

What I was saying was Tocquevilleian — he worried about this — but also I was saying this at a time when Jimmy Carter was running for president and making a big deal out of the fact that he carried his own suitcase to show what a what a “regular guy” he was.

I didn’t quote it at the time, because I hadn’t yet come upon it, but someone once said to Senator Robert Taft’s wife, “Is your husband a ‘common man’?” She said, “Good God, no: first in his class at Yale; first in his class in law school. The people of Ohio don’t want a ‘common man.’” And, in fact, we don’t! (Jimmy Carter also, to his credit, said, “Why not the best??” It was one was one of his slogans because we really don’t want common people. We want the uncommon.

Over the last few years, as we saw the rise of Trumpism, is that whole strain of politics because — as you suggested — we’ve celebrated the common man too much, or because the common man feels ignored by institutions, and that makes it easier to play to the politics of grievance?

Yes — which is to say: both. There’s no question that people feel ignored. And there’s no question that we have too uncritically said the populist trope — which is that people know what they want and the people are wise and they therefore ought to get what they want — instead of H.L. Mencken’s famous belief that “democracy is the conviction that people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”

But there’s a third factor nowadays, and that is social media, which gives velocity to appetites and to passions that are unnatural. It’s also the case that when the mainstream media was everything, that sort of offended our democratic sensibilities, but it had the advantage that there were gatekeepers. So if you were stark raving mad and overflowing with conspiracy theories, it was pretty hard to disseminate it. Now it’s easy. Gene Volokh, who runs the Volokh Conspiracy website and teaches law at UCLA, has written a wonderful piece on the cost of cheap speech — which is often high-velocity lunacy and vituperation and just plain ugliness. The “bad old days” had something to be said for them.

So how do we balance that against the embrace of free speech, which is a bedrock American ideal?

It was a bedrock American ideal. For the last 60 years, almost all the jurisprudential thinking about the speech clause of the First Amendment has been to justify balancing free speech against competing values — comity, communitarian values, etc. So it’s far from a bedrock American value now, particularly on [college] campuses, where you would have thought free speech was safe. In fact, what’s most protected on campuses nowadays is freedom from speech.

Let’s dig into that. In your book, you write that “America’s most dispiriting intellectual phenomenon is the degradation of higher education.” What’s behind that? There has always been some degree of culture war over academia and its place in society, but it seems like over the last few decades, it has morphed into something different.

It took 800 years of the evolution of the great research universities — through thickets of ecclesiastical and political interference — to get to where they became the great ornaments of Western civilization. And it can take about one generation to kick all that away.

Now, part of the problem is that a lot of the radicals in the 1960s went to work on campus, got tenure and through the tenure system, reproduced themselves. There are a lot of people on campus nowadays who just don’t belong there — they shouldn’t be teachers; they should be political activists. Fine! Go out and do your thing, but don’t pretend that you’re going to be teachers.

This isn’t just on campuses. There’s a common academic culture from Harvard Graduate School to kindergarten in Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s spread across the country as evenly as honey on toast. And it affects everything. Everyone is an activist nowadays. The head of the Los Angeles teachers union recently said that all this business about “learning loss” during the pandemic is nonsense. So your children — “your babies,” she said — so your babies don’t know their times tables; they learned the meaning of the word “insurrection” and “coup.” Oh, please! That’s not what they’re supposed to learn in third grade.

There’s a monochrome ideological culture on campus, often enforced through cultural signals in the name of diversity — diversity in everything but thought. Now on campuses, it’s déclassé to be a conservative. You’re not just mistaken [in your beliefs]; you’re somehow vulgar. And it’s this sense of condescension to the vulgarians that infuses a certain high-octane bitterness into our politics these days.

One of the striking things to me about our politics is that the grievances — which multiply like rabbits and cause people to be constantly furious — are very difficult to address with “politics” understood as “legislation and policy.” I mean, if people feel condescended to, how do you write a bill and take care of condescension? It’s very hard to address, which is why politics becomes sort of cut off from the normal stuff of politics. Donald Trump says, “these people despise you and we should despise them.” What do you do politically? I don’t get it.

Did the success of Donald Trump make you reconsider what you thought of as “conservatism”?

No. No, no, no. It made me realize that conservatism was a label that could be hijacked. But no: Conservatism, by golly, is what I say it is. [Laughs]

In my last book before this one, “The Conservative Sensibility,” the common question — and it’s a good one — was: What do conservatives want to conserve? The answer is the American founding, which is basically three things. First, there is a constant human nature — we are not just creatures who acquire the impress of whatever culture we’re situated in. Second, there are natural rights — that is, rights that are essential to the flourishing of creatures of our constant human nature. Third, governments are, as the declaration said, instituted to “secure” — the most important word in the declaration —those rights, which preexist government. And the structure of government must be such that, in our Madisonian way, government is strong enough to protect the rights, but not too strong to threaten our rights.

That’s conservatism. And along comes Mr. Trump, who says, “No, conservatism is beating up on the Mexicans” or whatever he says.

This brings to mind a conversation I had earlier this year with a devout Christian who expressed alarm at the number of people who self-identified as evangelical Christians but whose idea of what that means is entirely cultural instead of being rooted in scripture. It feels like you’re describing something similar with Trump: That there are self-identified “conservatives” whose idea of what conservatism means is entirely based on cultural identity and cultural grievance instead of those tenets of conservatism as a philosophy. Do you think that that’s a fair comparison?

I think it is. Donald Trump is the purest expression of the current pandemic of performative politics — politics cut off from anything other than making one’s adherents feel good. And people nowadays feel good by disliking the other team.

Long ago, when I was a child and the world and I were young, there was a radio program called “Fibber McGee and Molly.” And Molly would say to her husband, “Fibber, if it makes you happy to be unhappy, then be unhappy.” A lot of people are only happy when they’re unhappy now. It makes them feel alive to define themselves not in terms of positive affirmations, but of hostilities. And I don’t know what to do about it.

Personnel matters — that is, who’s up and who’s down in politics. One of the things we’ve learned from Donald Trump is the enormous capacity of one individual to alter the tone of our civic life. You can’t unring the bell and you can’t unsay the things he said — and they have consequences. However, you can get someone different to ring a different bell.

It’s not easy for people who are not demagogues to have the kind of dramatic effect a demagogue can have. But I do think someone with Eisenhower’s smile or Reagan’s chuckle would make a big difference. If someone came along and said, “Really, now. Calm down. Deep breaths.” I think the country would be so ready for that.

Let me ask about something else you wrote in 1976: “The best history is distinguished by an awareness that there is much more to the lives of nations than the free decisions of politicians and electorates.” What do you think that we’re missing or ignoring right now as we survey the life of our nation and focus on Trump or the ups and downs of the day?

We’ll go from the small to the more particular: The small is the swollen presidency. Presidents [were] magnified first by radio, which I think probably had a bigger effect on politics — particularly in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s — than television has had because it gave an immediacy to strong figures. But because of modern technologies — radio, television, now the Internet and all that — the presidents are ubiquitous. They’re in our living rooms at all times. Michael Jackson dies, and the president is supposed to say something. How did that happen? The president is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. He is definitely secondary to those who make the laws that he has to see are faithfully executed.

The swollen presidency is part of this. It permeates us. That’s partly because, famously, the United States doesn’t distinguish head of government from head of state the way the British did. The British could push all that ceremonial stuff off on the House of Windsor, let them do it, and let [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson embody the national spirit. That’s at the pinnacle of it: the conspicuousness of the head of the executive branch.

Flowing from that is an excessive belief that politics determines happiness. Whereas in fact, what makes America so interesting and so creative — what explains the fecundity of American freedom — is the spontaneous order, to use a good Hayekian concept that is so creative and rich. It’s a version of what Tocqueville marveled at: an amazing American genius for creating intermediary institutions. You know, the wagon trains would head out from St. Joseph, Missouri, and about the first night, they’d circle the wagons and start electing officers. That’s just the way we are. And it’s the bottom-up richness of American life that gets eclipsed when we focus instead on senators.

Is it that we think of senators and presidents almost more as cultural figures than political ones?

When [Franklin] Roosevelt sat down to deliver his first fireside chat, the first words he spoke —which are not on the text up at Hyde Park — were: “My friends…” Now imagine George Washington saying, “my friends.” It’s inconceivable. Calvin Coolidge? Never: “No, no. I’m not your friend; I’m your employee, frankly.” But people loved it — this is my friend — and we’ve been intimate with these guys ever since.

So, to be glib about it, there’s a direct line one can draw from FDR to Trump?

Uh, no. [Laughs] Roosevelt understood that the nation was demoralized. And he understood the people had this staticky, crackling, large gadget called a radio in their living rooms, and it changed everything. He understood that. It’s part of his genius. No one said FDR was a common man. He was a genuine American aristocrat. But he had the common touch.

When you look back how the conservative elite has talked about populism in the past — William F. Buckley famously said that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the first 2,000 names on the Harvard faculty — it had at the very least tinges of anti-intellectualism. And it shares that trait with what happened on the right during the rise of Trump — with the notable change being that the intellectual conservative elite was overthrown by the very anti-intellectual populists they glorified. Do you think that that’s an accurate way to think of it?

I do. You know, after the Second World War, when conservatism began to grow — and began to refute Lionel Trilling’s famous statement in “The Liberal Imagination” that there is no conservative thought in America, only “irritable gestures which seek to resemble ideas” — it was an extremely bookish persuasion: Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences"; Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind"; Bill Buckley’s “Up From Liberalism”; Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom.” Bookish people! It was to the point that the man who became my very best friend — the best thing that I’ve had in 50 years in Washington was getting to know Pat Moynihan — said in the 1970s that “something momentous” has happened: the Republican Party has become the party of ideas.

So to overturn the so-called “Republican establishment” meant overturning the bookish side of it, overturning the intellectual side of it. It’s natural, if disreputable, that populism would say, “Enough of these ideas. We want passions.”

Do you think of yourself as part of the “establishment"?

[Pause] Let me give you two answers.

People are always talking about the “Republican establishment.” I tend to think the Republican establishment died at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in the summer of 1964, when they decided to stop [Barry] Goldwater, and they said, “Bill Scranton, come on down.” There was an establishment up to that point. They had a newspaper: the New York Herald Tribune. They had a bank: Chase. They had the Rockefeller brothers. They had Bill Scranton. It was an establishment — and Goldwater beat them. The Herald Tribune died, as I recall, in April ‘66, and it hasn’t been quite the same since.

That said, the phrase “Republican establishment” is a little bit like Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about the “international community” — as though that phrase actually denoted something. Rwanda and Denmark? I mean, what are we talking about?

But on the other hand, yeah! Look: I’ve been in Washington for 50-some years. I love Washington. It’s my home now; I’m a Washingtonian. I love the monuments. I love driving around the city and seeing them. And I suppose in some sense, someone who appears regularly in the hometown newspaper — and in a few hundred others — is part of the establishment. Guilty.

You’ve alluded to these fights that happen at universities over history. There was the 1619 Project, which you write about in the book, and then the 1776 Commission that that Trump convened. Are these fights really just about competing visions of patriotism and history? Conservative patriotism often has this sense of a great, noble national history and belief that we need to live up to the glories of the past, while liberal patriotism, to some degree, is about overcoming the inequities of the past, about a history of America getting better and breaking free of the past through struggle and activism.

Yeah. Professor Steven Smith of Yale published a book recently on patriotism. He’s not a conservative, but he says that there’s a kind of aspirational patriotism by progressives — they say, “We love America because we think someday, it’s going to be worth our love.”

That won’t do. Just as it won’t do for conservative patriotism to airbrush the past.

There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education, and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots. There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom. That’s what we called that when it happened in Cologne.

How did you learn about Tulsa?

Around the anniversary, the centennial of it, some of the papers were doing what journalism should do — which is write not just about the future but about the past. And it was healthy. I’d vaguely heard about it, but I had no idea. And it should have come to my attention.

Orwell said in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that he who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past. When we argue about history, we’re arguing about the future.

When we argue against the 1619 Project, we’re arguing against it because it is fundamentally preposterous. The essence of it, as expressed by [Nikole Hannah-Jones,] who won a Pulitzer Prize for it, is not just that America was really founded in 1619 with the arrival of slaves, but that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery because Lord Dunmore had promised that slaves who escaped and joined the British side would be emancipated. Well, by the time Dunmore talked, Lexington and Concord had already occurred; the Stamp Act, the Boston massacre, the Boston Tea Party had occurred; George Washington had been appointed commander of the Army. All of this before that. There’s a deep, almost cynical, illiteracy about the 1619 Project. The revolution was about big stuff. Read Bernard Bailyn. Read Gordon Wood. People took their ideas seriously. We had a rich newspaper culture, and a rich pamphlet culture. How many things published in America have sold, comparable to the proportion of the population, anything like “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine?

I take it you don’t look at Twitter and see a lot of Common Sense-type pamphlets being circulated?

I never look at Twitter. I don’t tweet. I don’t know how to tweet. If someone said, “Tweet, or I’ll kill you,” I’m done.

Someone on my staff tweets from my columns twice a week. That’s it. I’m told I have a Facebook Page; I’ve never seen it.

You don’t feel like you’re missing out?

I know exactly what I’m missing, and I’m delighted to miss it.

You’ve been writing for the Washington Post since 1973 — more than 48 years, 6,000 or so columns. What do you get out of writing, and is it different at this point in your life than it was when you started?

First, I get intense, almost tactile pleasure out of putting sentences together. I have a metabolic urge to write. I think a lot of writers hate to write; they like hanging out in the journalistic subculture and they like seeing their name in print at the end, but the actual writing is painful. Red Smith, the great sportswriter, said: there’s nothing to writing, you just open a vein and bleed. I think that’s nuts. I can think of nothing more fun than writing.

And is that true even when the subject matter itself isn’t necessarily fun?

Yes, it is true. I think the columns I write today are generally more complicated than they used to be. I write a lot more about legal briefs and Supreme Court issues and all. So it’s a little bit more demanding, but that’s part of the fun. I’ve got 750 words to make clear to people why they ought to be concerned about this — not just as the news of the day, but because in that news there is a nugget of principle that that is larger and timeless.

The majority of Americans don’t read newspapers, and a majority of the minority who do read newspapers probably don’t read the op-ed pages and columns. A lot of people say, “that’s kind of depressing.” No! It’s liberating. We have a small but selective audience, a self-selected audience. And it is demonstrably — it seems to me — intellectually upscale. And because they are interested, they have acquired knowledge, so you don’t need to use many of your 750 words to reinvent the wheel every day saying, “there of three branches of government,” etc. They’ve got that. You can write obliquely and with intimation, and make the most of your 750 words.

What, in your mind are, the most meaningful differences in our politics now compared to when you started writing for the Post?

Absence of friendships, I guess I’d say. It’s a good question. People were friendlier. They didn’t get so lathered up.

One of the nice things about turning 80 — I’m looking for the other ones — is you say, “What was it that had me so lathered up during the Carter administration? Can I remember? No.” A sense of perspective descends on you, and you take a deep breath.

So when I’m 80 and looking back at my Twitter feed, I’ll be wondering what I was so worked up about all those years ago?


Gonzalez, House Republican impeach-backer, won't seek reelection

Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump earlier this year, has announced he won’t run for reelection in 2022.

Gonzalez, who represents a Northeast Ohio district, cited the need to focus on his family, including his two children. But the second-term congressman, in an interview with The New York Times, also said the strain placed on his family since his impeachment vote in January played a role in his decision.

Gonzalez, 36, is the first of the group of 10 to step aside after a perilous few months, in which anti-Trump Republican lawmakers faced harassment in airports and censure votes in their home states.

He said he knows supporters will find the news disappointing, “given the political realities of the day.”

“While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision, it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party, is a significant factor in my decision,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Gonzalez, who insisted he could win his seat, was set to face what he said would be a “brutally hard primary” against Max Miller, a former Trump White House aide who was endorsed by the former president earlier this year. The district will be redrawn before next May's primary, and Ohio is losing one of its 16 congressional districts, likely scrambling the new map.

Even if he were to win in 2022, Gonzalez questioned if he would truly be happy holding public office in a fractured Republican Party largely dominated by Trump backers.

“Please know that every word has meant the world to me and given me hope that the chaotic political environment that currently infects our country will only be temporary,” he said in the statement.

DeSantis opens new war with Biden over Covid treatments

TALLAHASSEE — First came masks. Then a feud over vaccine mandates.

Now a new front has opened in the Covid battle between President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: Covid-19 antibody treatments.

On Thursday, DeSantis ripped into Biden’s plan to distribute doses of monoclonal antibody treatments to states across the nation. Florida and six other Southern states have relied on the therapies to treat patients infected with the virus but also took up 70 percent of the orders in early September.

That lopsidedness prompted the Biden administration to start redistributing the more than 158,000 doses made available this week — and provoked DeSantis to attack the president for taking the therapies away from Floridians.

“We've been handed a major curveball here, with a really huge cut from HHS and the Biden administration,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Broward County. “We're going to make sure we leave no stone unturned. Whoever needs a treatment, we're going to work like hell to get them the treatment.”

He added that Florida is being punished for peddling the Covid-19 antibody treatment before the White House while the highly transmissible Delta variant began spreading in Southern states like Florida, Texas or Louisiana.

“I think we could have averted, in this country, a lot of people going to the hospital,” DeSantis said. “I think it would have saved a lot of lives.”

DeSantis has prioritized monoclonal treatments such as Regeneron in his Florida pandemic battle plan, spending the past several weeks flying across the state supporting the treatments. Monoclonal antibody treatments are considered effective if administered early in an infection. At the same time, he has opposed Covid-related restrictions such as requiring students to wear face coverings, vaccine passports or mandatory vaccine mandates for workers. That has put him repeatedly at odds with the Biden administration.

DeSantis’ opposition to Covid mandates has raised his profile, with conservatives across the nation cheering him on as he prepares to run for reelection and possibly challenge Biden in 2024. But the summer surge in Florida’s Delta variant cases pose a threat to DeSantis’ electoral ambitions, with the governor’s approval ratings dropping as the state broke grim Covid milestones such hospitalizations and new infections almost weekly.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday defended Biden’s plan to cut Florida’s allotment of the antibody treatments, saying the administration is increasing the distribution of antibody treatments in September by 50 percent. But she also warned that the supply isn’t unlimited.

“Our role as the government overseeing the entire country is to be equitable in how we distribute,” she said during a press briefing. “We're not going to give a greater percentage to Florida over Oklahoma.”

Federal records show that Florida is due to receive 27,850 does of Regeneron this week, which is still the most in the country. It’s down from the state’s weekly average of 72,000, according to DeSantis’ office. Florida and the six other states that were receiving 70 percent of the federal supply are now receiving more than 55 percent, while the rest are shared among the other states, districts and territories including Oklahoma, which will receive 2,840 doses.

But Biden’s plan didn’t sit well with Florida’s Republicans beyond DeSantis. GOP Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday took to Twitter to condemn the White House, posting that the redistribution of antibody treatments “reeks of partisan payback against states like Florida.”

More than 49,000 people in Florida have died from Covid-19 since the pandemic first hit the state in March 2020. The Delta surge over the summer led to more than 9,600 deaths in August, and more than 818,000 new infections, according to weekly reports from the state Department of Health.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw told POLITICO that Florida health officials told the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Monday that the state would need at least 36,000 doses of the antibody cocktails for the state’s 25 treatment sites, not counting locations where it’s offered privately statewide. In an email sent by HHS on Tuesday, which Pushaw provided a copy, federal officials told the state to expect about 30,000 doses.

Notably, DeSantis on Thursday said Florida is seeing a drop in new cases, and demand at the 25 therapy sites has waned. But the state historically has seen another spike around the holiday season.

“We're going to work like hell to make sure we can overcome the obstacles that HHS and the Biden administration are putting in,” DeSantis said.

China howls at perceived threat of new 'AUKUS' agreement

Beijing is denouncing the U.S. government’s new “AUKUS” technology-sharing working group with the U.K. and Australia as a threat to peace in the Indo-Pacific region.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Thursday slammed the grouping as a reflection of “outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception” that "intensified" a regional arms race and harmed international non-proliferation efforts.

That rhetoric — including Zhao’s reference to “cliques” designed to target “third party” countries — reflects the Chinese government’s recognition that the U.S. has been able to rally allies in the Indo-Pacific to counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive moves in the region. The AUKUS deal makes no explicit reference to China, but two U.S. officials noted that the subtext of the announcement is that this is another move by Western allies to push back on China’s rise in the military and technology arenas. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday responded to questions about the AUKUS agreement’s focus on China by insisting that it “is not about any one country,” adding that “we do not seek conflict [with China].”

Zhao hinted that the Chinese government may accuse Australia of violating its commitment under the Treaty of Rarotonga, which includes prohibitions on the production, possession or acquisition of nuclear weapons.

That tactic would ignore or misconstrue the fact that the AUKUS deal includes equipping Australia with technology for nuclear propulsion, not nuclear weapons. Both President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphasized that Australia doesn’t seek a nuclear weapon. The three countries will undertake discussions over the next 18 months to figure out how best to deliver the technology, which the U.S. traditionally has only shared with the U.K.

But the Chinese state media platform Global Times took a more extreme position on Australia’s membership in the AUKUS grouping. Citing unnamed “military experts,” the Global Times warned that Australia’s deployment of nuclear-powered submarines will “potentially make Australia a target of a nuclear strike if a nuclear war breaks out, even when Washington said it won't arm Canberra with nuclear weapons, because it's easy for the U.S. to equip Australia with nuclear weapons and submarine-launched ballistic missiles when Australia has the submarines.”

That threat reflects the perception among elements of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army that the U.S. wants to use its Indo-Pacific relationships to militarily encircle China.

Those sensitivities were already heightened on Monday when the White House announced that the leaders of "the Quad" — the U.S., India, Australia and Japan — will meet in person on Sept. 28. The spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C., Liu Pengyu, implicitly referenced such concerns in an emailed statement to POLITICO on Thursday that warned against the creation of “exclusionary blocs” bound by “ideological prejudice.”

The prospect of Australia deploying long-range nuclear-powered submarines will inevitably intensify concerns about military miscalculations in the region that could lead to potential conflict.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned last month about “worsening frictions with China” in the South China Sea and said that a U.S-China military conflict there “would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce.” The sources of those frictions include China’s increasingly aggressive stance toward the self-governing island of Taiwan and China’s refusal to comply with a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that rejected China’s claims of sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea.

Multiple former senior U.S. military personnel have told POLITICO that the potential for an unintended U.S.-China conflict is growing due to bilateral military crisis communications systems that remain highly unreliable. They warn that lack of regular communication could fuel a U.S.-China military confrontation at a time of heightening bilateral tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The foreign ministry’s Zhao also warned of such negative unintended consequences. Those countries that don’t “do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development … will only end up shooting themselves in the foot,” Zhao said.

Iowa Republicans face dilemma after commission scrambles congressional map

Iowa finally has a proposed congressional map — now Republicans in Des Moines just have to decide if they can tolerate it.

Nonpartisan state legislative staffers unveiled their first stab at redrawing the political boundaries with a draft that upended the political slant of key districts and lumped some state legislators into new seats together.

GOP legislators huddled on Thursday as the proposal was released but have yet to give an indication of whether or not they will vote to adopt it or send the commission back to the drawing board.

"I'm going to study it. I'm going to see what I and my colleagues think is best for the state as a collective whole," said state Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, who chairs the state government committee. "And then we'll make a decision in the next couple of weeks about whether to do a yes vote, or roll the dice and say no and see what map two brings."

Their choice could have huge implications for the battle for control of Congress. Back in D.C., Republicans privately griped that it left them worse off in their quest to reclaim the House. But legislators are still analyzing the state legislative maps, and they must reject or approve them all in union in a process that the state holds up as a "gold standard" for nonpartisan redistricting.

This new congressional map takes two current swing seats in the east and makes them less competitive — with one leaning toward each party. The Des Moines-based district of Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne remains a true toss up, and the western Iowa seat held by GOP Rep. Randy Feenstra stays firmly in the Republican column.

The biggest loser in the proposal could be GOP Rep. Ashley Hinson. While a seat like hers in the state's northeast corner is better for Republicans, her home county is shoved into a new, Democratic-leaning district farther south. Much of that territory overlaps with GOP Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks' current seat, but Miller-Meeks' home is in the more Republican district.

Trump carried Hinson’s and Miller-Meeks' current districts by 3 and 4 points, respectively. In their new configurations, Joe Biden would have won the southeastern seat where Hinson lives by a significant margin, while the northeastern seat became even more Republican. Though members are not required to live in their districts. Hinson could run in the more GOP-friendly seat that absorbed more of her territory.

If the legislature rejects the first map, the agency produces a second. If that one is rejected, they create a third and — unlike the first two — this map can be amended or changed by the legislature. Iowa has used one of the commission-created maps without amending it since this process began in 1980.

But the congressional delegation has no say in the maps. And the state legislators are perhaps more likely to make a decision based on their own fates.

An initial tally devised by a source in the legislature found that over 50 of the state's 150 incumbents would be drawn into districts with at least one other current member. But Iowans are used to that every redistricting cycle, and incumbent-on-incumbent pairings haven't been a strong deterrent in the past. Many legislators either move into a new district or use the new maps as an excuse to retire.

"There are a lot of districts that either stayed or got more conservative," Kaufmann said. "That's the positive. The negative is that there are a lot of Republicans that are now living in the same districts as their friends. There's six one way, half dozen the other, to use an old farm term."

Democrats in the state were more willing to tip their hand. The state House Democratic caucus leader, Jennifer Konfrst, came out in the support of the proposed map.

Iowa has been a rare bright spot for congressional Democratic recruitment this year. They finally landed state Sen. Liz Mathis, a former TV anchor who the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had long hoped would run. She launched a bid against Hinson.

Miller-Meeks eked out a victory in a swing seat in the southeast corner of the state by the slimmest of margins: six votes. State Rep. Christina Bohannan has filed to run in that seat.

These new maps would shake up the boundaries of those two districts — so much so that Mathis, Hinson and Bohannan would all live in the same district.

Axne’s district maintains a similar partisan lean. Though it no longer reaches all the way to the Missouri River, which forms the border with Nebraska, Axne keeps the city of Des Moines.

In D.C., Republicans are privately hoping their counterparts in the legislature decide to reject the map and some operatives believe they will.

"It's kind of like the allure of the unknown, that you always think it can be better," said Doug Gross, a longtime GOP operative in the state. "And I think just looking at the congressional side, I think they'll think it could be better."

K Street counting on Senate to pare back Democrats’ tax plan

Business lobbyists have described House Democrats’ ambitious new tax plan as an “existential threat,” but for all the dire warnings, K Street isn’t freaking out — yet.

In interviews this week, lobbyists representing a range of business interests said they aren’t too worried about the party’s opening salvo on tax increases, confident the bill — and the threats their clients insist it poses — will be pared back in order to thread its way through a narrowly divided House and Senate.

“This is the beginning of the process,” said Arshi Siddiqui, a partner at one of Washington’s top lobbying firms, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and a former aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We are talking about landmark legislation and a legislative centerpiece for the Biden administration,” she added. “By definition, signature pieces of legislation require a healthy give and take throughout the process.”

House Democrats have proposed just over $2 trillion worth of tax increases in legislation unveiled Monday, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, roughly split between corporate tax provisions despised by powerful Washington business groups and individual rate hikes aimed at the country’s biggest earners. The increases, along with money for increased IRS enforcement and drug pricing reforms fiercely opposed by the deep-pocketed pharmaceutical lobby, are meant to offset what could be a once-in-a-generation investment in climate change mitigation and expansion of the social safety net.

The draft text released by House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) this week included milder tax hits in most circumstances than the White House proposed earlier this year. And his Senate counterpart, Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has proposed his own tax plans, despite efforts by Democrats in each chamber to “pre-conference” their bills to minimize differences and speed the process wherever possible.

President Joe Biden warned earlier this month that Democrats’ plans to hike taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans earlier would face well-funded opposition.

“Some big corporations are spending millions of dollars in — legitimately, I mean, they’re lobbying — to try to escape their obligation to pay the taxes they owe, leaving working families to pay a larger share of the burden,” he said at the White House in remarks on the August jobs report. As he predicted, business groups and industries impacted by the tax increases slammed the House bill this week, with Neil Bradley, the top lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, calling it an “existential threat to America’s fragile economic recovery and future prosperity.”

A number of interest groups have launched six and seven-figure ad buys in vulnerable members’ districts targeting parts of the Democrats’ bill, including the drug, manufacturing and fossil fuel lobbies.

In an open letter Wednesday morning signed by every member of PhRMA, the trade association representing drug makers contended that Democrats’ plan to allow the government to directly negotiate the cost of some drugs amounted to an “attack” on an industry that’s built up an enormous amount of goodwill during the pandemic.

The plan, which was projected to generate close to $700 billion in government savings over the next decade, hit a major stumbling block Wednesday afternoon when a trio of centrists blocked it from advancing out of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats hope to pass the bill using a procedure known as reconciliation, which would allow them to sidestep a Senate GOP filibuster. But with some Democratic lawmakers like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin calling for as much as $2.5 trillion to be knocked off the measure’s price tag and the cadre of House centrists opposed to leadership’s drug pricing proposal, K Street is feeling good about their prospects of successfully slimming down the tax proposal.

“The question is the size and scope of what ultimately passes Congress,” said Siddiqui. She predicted “a fierce competition not only on which provisions survive, as well as ensuring that some of the revenue offsets strike the right balance on policy and politics,” leading into next year’s midterms.

One former Democratic Senate staffer who’s now a lobbyist was more blunt. “It’s not passing at all like this in the Senate,” they said of Neal’s tax plans, calling it “laughable” that House Democrats are “even thinking about this.”

The lobbyist expressed surprise that Democrats would put vulnerable House moderates in the position of voting on a corporate tax rate higher than what Manchin, who could single handedly sink the bill in the Senate, previously said he would support.

House Democrats’ draft would raise the rate large corporations pay to 26.5 percent, up from the 21 percent Republicans lowered the rate to in their 2017 tax bill. But that’s still less than the top rate prior to that bill (35 percent), and lower than Biden’s preferred top rate of 28 percent.

In interviews this week, lobbyists were also bewildered by House Democrats’ plans to enact nearly $100 billion in new taxes on tobacco and nicotine products, calling the proposal hard to square with Biden’s campaign vow that no taxpayer earning less than $400,000 a year would see their taxes increase as a result of the reconciliation bill.

“That's absolutely going to affect people that are making less than $400,000,” said Mark Williams, a principal at Ferox Strategies and a former House GOP aide.

While K Street was largely in agreement that Democrats’ lofty tax and spending plans will be scaled back, there is less consensus around the final price tag, if the bill even makes it to Biden’s desk at all.

Williams said there's a sentiment that Democrats can’t fail to pass the bill, which is being loaded up with as many of the party’s priorities as possible ahead of the midterms. But “they've got to figure out how to get it done,” he said. “I just don't know that anyone has any clarity on how to get it across the finish line.”

Others downtown were more confident in the political prowess of Democratic leadership, including Pelosi, who has shown time and again the ability to keep her fractious party in line and navigate delicate political dynamics to pass major legislation. Biden has begun to personally intervene, too. He hosted two of Senate Democrats’ biggest wild cards — Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the reconciliation package.

The president and top administration officials have also been combing the country as they try to sell the reconciliation bill, along with a separate trillion-dollar bipartisan bill investing in roads, bridges and other more traditional infrastructure items. In the last month, Biden has visited hurricane-ravaged states in the South and Northeast as well as wildfire-scorched Western states, where he’s framed the reconciliation bill’s climate investments as a matter of dire economic importance.

House Democratic leaders are looking to tie passage of the bipartisan measure, which is enthusiastically supported by the business community, to passage of the reconciliation bill in order to retain leverage.

With House committees finally finishing marking up their portions of the package, lobbyists now must scramble to figure out where they can begin chipping away at provisions their corporate clients despise or how to preserve those their clients have fought to have inserted.

It’s a process that’s “been like drinking out of a firehose,” Siddiqui said. She added that this bill is particularly unique because of how drastically it’s likely to change from the time each piece is approved by committees to the time it actually hits the floor.

One key challenge for K Street has been determining who to target for the changes they seek, given all of the moving parts. That can also work in their favor, as it only takes one senator or a few House members to throw a wrench in the process.

And cutting at least a trillion dollars from the bill will be a painful experience for both clients and lawmakers, said one veteran K Street hand who has worked on every major tax bill for the last four decades.

Typically, “whoever gets burned in the House runs to the Senate [and] screams the loudest,” the veteran tax lobbyist said. “And the Senate historically listens to those screams. So you'll see the Senate probably showing where they see political pain is coming from and trying to start making adjustments accordingly.”

But lobbyists also need to be wary of focusing their efforts on one chamber of Congress at the expense of the other.

“As you get later and later in these negotiations, it'll be harder to impact the process,” Siddiqui said. “So time is of the essence. Obviously, those who laid the groundwork for their strategies earlier in the process are better situated. But, ultimately it is one of those things where it isn't over till it's over, and you cannot take anything for granted.”

There’s still a “narrow window” for securing revisions, said David Skillman, a former Ways and Means staffer now at the law and lobbying firm Arnold & Porter. “People are working and working fast on closing these issues out.”

Even the Biden administration is lobbying the House on favored provisions. In a letter to Neal on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen dinged the panel for failing to include a provision requiring financial institutions to disclose certain bank account activity to the IRS. Supporters say that would help the IRS reduce tax evasion among the wealthy, who Yellen wrote are responsible for 30 percent of unpaid taxes.

"We are in conversations with the administration on reporting proposals that target sophisticated tax avoidance and evasion without impacting middle class and working Americans,” Neal said at the Ways and Means markup.

Another factor that could play into what stays in the bill and what gets stripped at this point is the complexity of the provision.

“Things that are less well understood, from a policy perspective, are easier to drop out of consideration, and the things that are more well understood are harder to dislodge,” he noted. One example he offered was a border-adjusted carbon tax, which would be applied to imports from high polluting countries, but was left out of the bill.

On the revenue-raiser side, it may be less politically painful to tweak corporate taxes than individual ones. Neal’s bill already doesn’t eliminate loopholes targeting the so-called step-up basis — the ability of the rich to pass assets on to heirs tax-free — or the lower tax rate capital gains on a form of compensation called carried interest championed by the private equity and hedge fund industries. And it steers clear of taxing wealthy Americans’ vast assets, in favor of taxing their income.

On some of these fronts, opposition there came from friendly faces.

Former red state Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Max Baucus and former congressman Collin Peterson have all warned that taking away the step-up basis break that could crush family farms, an assertion Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has sought to counter.

On the corporate side, former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln is leading Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably Coalition, whose members include AT&T, CVS Health, FedEx, Lockheed Martin, the National Retail Federation, Toyota and Verizon and which has lobbied against raising corporate tax rate.

Opponents of the plan are likely to cling to every poor economic indicator possible as the country grapples with a resurgent coronavirus, supply chain issues and increasing consumer prices to try and pick off votes.

“I've seen 16 state polls where the number one issue is the price of items,” the Democratic lobbyist said. The White House “can trot out Austan Goolsbee,” the Obama administration’s top economist and a frequent cable news presence, “to make them feel good about themselves and come up with numbers that show that inflation isn't real, but it doesn't matter, people think inflation's real.”

And even as much of corporate America howls at Democrats’ tax plans, the response from the left has been tepid, underscoring the treacherous path ahead for the party. Patriotic Millionaires, a group of hundreds of wealthy investors and businesspeople that lobby lawmakers to raise their taxes, is so incensed that it’s prepping an ad blitz attacking Neal back home in his Massachusetts district, accusing him and fellow Democrats of letting the ultra-wealthy off the hook.

“Richie Neal and his friends in Washington are rewriting the tax code, and billionaires like Jeff Bezos are popping champagne,” the ad’s narrator says, alongside a photo of the laughing Amazon founder. The spot closes with a photo of Bezos in a space suit. “This isn't rocket science, Richie,” the narrator says. “Tax the rich, save America.”

Special prosecutor John Durham charges ex-attorney for Clinton campaign with lying to FBI

The special prosecutor probing the origins of the federal investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, John Durham, has charged Washington lawyer Michael Sussmann with lying to the FBI during the early stages of the inquiry.

Sussmann, who worked as an attorney for the Hillary Clinton campaign, is accused in a grand jury indictment returned Thursday of a single felony count of making a false statement during a September 2016 meeting with FBI General Counsel James Baker.

Prosecutors allege Sussmann lied by denying that he was representing any client as he told the FBI about digital evidence allegedly linking computers in Trump Tower to Russia’s Alfa Bank.

In a statement issued prior to the indictment, Sussmann’s lawyers insisted that their client is innocent and they suggested that politics were at work in the decision to charge their client.

“Mr. Sussmann has committed no crime,” defense attorneys Sean Berkowitz and Michael Bosworth said in the statement. “Any prosecution here would be baseless, unprecedented, and an unwarranted deviation from the apolitical and principled way in which the Department of Justice is supposed to do its work.”

Sussmann’s lawyers also contend that he never made such a statement, that the evidence in the case is weak and that there’s no sign the alleged falsehood affected the FBI’s work.

The charge against Sussmann from a Washington grand jury is the first outward sign of activity in Durham’s investigation in nearly nine months. Republicans have grown impatient with the probe, while still hoping for a report that will vindicate former President Donald Trump’s charge that the original inquiry was a thinly veiled and unfounded political attack.

“Does everybody remember when we caught the Democrats, red-handed, SPYING ON MY CAMPAIGN? Where’s Durham?” Trump wrote in a statement emailed to reporters last month.

Sussmann, a former federal prosecutor and cybersecurity expert who became a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie, is the second defendant facing charges brought amid Durham’s long-running investigation. The first, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty to altering an email used to obtain a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Clinesmith’s alterations, Durham charged, obscured Page’s prior relationship with the CIA. Clinesmith was sentenced in January to probation.

Then-Attorney General Bill Barr tapped Durham in May 2019 to examine how the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia began.

Last year, Barr converted Durham’s probe into a special counsel investigation under Justice Department regulations.

That move effectively took Durham out of the normal Justice Department hierarchy and supervision, although after the Biden administration assumed office, Attorney General Merrick Garland retained the right to overrule any of Durham’s major decisions, such as the effort to seek an indictment of Sussmann.

A spokesman for Garland did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his role in the case.

The precise scope of Durham’s mandate has never been clear. Some close to the investigation have said Durham appeared not simply to be seeking out potential crimes, but conducting a broader review of the quality of the intelligence that led the FBI to begin investigating people tied to the Trump campaign.

Some former intelligence community officials have said those sorts of judgments were better reviewed by inspectors general of the intelligence agencies and not by a federal prosecutor.

The case against Sussmann was assigned on Thursday to Judge Christopher Cooper, an appointee of President Barack Obama.

Biden blocked from expelling migrant families using Title 42

A federal judge on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from continuing to use a Trump-era public health order to expel migrant families arriving at the U.S. southern border.

In a 58-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan found that the Title 42 policy does not authorize the expulsion of migrants — and, in turn, does not allow for those removed to be denied the opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. The judge’s order will go into effect in 14 days.

The ruling is a major victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, human rights organizations, immigrant advocates and asylum seekers, who have long argued that the use of Title 42 is unlawful, inhumane and not justified by public health. The ACLU led the legal challenge pressing for Biden officials to stop using the public health authority to expel migrant families.

“President Biden should have ended this cruel and lawless policy long ago, and the court was correct to reject it today,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

For months, the ACLU had put on hold its lawsuit in order to negotiate with the Biden administration. But early last month, those talks fell apart and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an updated order that maintained there is still a public health justification for the Biden administration to continue kicking out migrants. The order can remain in effect indefinitely.

Sullivan’s order applies only to families, meaning the Biden administration can continue to expel single adults arriving at the U.S. southern border. Unaccompanied children have been exempt from being expelled using Title 42.

In August, U.S. border agents apprehended more than 86,000 families at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the latest Customs and Border Protection figures. Of those, more than 16,200 families — about 19 percent — were expelled using the Title 42 order.

In recent months, Mexico has been increasingly resistant to accepting families expelled from the U.S. under Title 42, resulting in a majority of families entering the U.S. to be permitted to remain in the country.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is in talks with Mexico about potentially restarting a version of the controversial Trump-era "Remain in Mexico" policy. It comes after the Supreme Court issued an order last month effectively forcing Biden to restore the policy, which his administration ended earlier this year. Administration officials have said they are working to reinstate the policy while they go through the appeals process.

Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.