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The Violent Rhetoric of Trans Activists Should Stop

Real Clear Politics -

It's hard to make sense of this week's mass shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, no matter what revelations may lurk in the shooter's manifesto. But it is possible to understand the context for this outbreak of violence. The truth is that the subculture that has grown up around trans identities too [...]Read More...

Casualties reported after Army helicopters crash in Kentucky

Politico -

Two Army helicopters crashed in southwestern Kentucky during a routine training mission, causing several casualties, military officials said.

The two HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, part of the 101st Airborne Division, crashed around 10 p.m. Wednesday in Trigg County, Kentucky, according to a statement from Fort Campbell.

The 101st Airborne confirmed the crash, saying on Twitter it resulted in “several casualties” but did not specify whether those were injuries or deaths.

“Right now our focus is on the Soldiers and their families who were involved,” it added.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear had said earlier that fatalities were expected, adding that police and emergency officials were responding.

The crash is under investigation.

“The crash occurred in a field, some wooded area,” Kentucky State Police Trooper Sarah Burgess said at a news briefing. “At this time, there are no reports of residence damage.”

Fort Campbell is about 60 miles (97 kilometers) northwest of Nashville.

Last month, two Tennessee National Guard pilots were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed along an Alabama highway during a training exercise.

How TikTok built a ‘team of Avengers’ to fight for its life

Politico -

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was certain to face a blistering onslaught when he testified before the U.S. Congress.

And so as he prepared to face the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chew enlisted all the right people to help him get ready.

The Singaporean executive was prepared by former committee staffers and aides to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He received counsel from Andrew Wright, former director of legal policy for the Biden-Harris presidential transition and now a partner at the well-connected law firm K&L Gates. Ahead of the March 23 hearing, Chew scheduled meetings on the Hill with help from several former lawmakers, including Republican Jeff Denham, Democrat Bart Gordon, a former E&C member, and Joe Crowley, who was once a senior member of Democratic leadership.

But despite hiring a large group of savvy friends, Chew and his company failed to win over the panel. The sheer number of seasoned Washington operatives and firms in TikTok’s employ was no shield against a barrage of bipartisan denunciations.

TikTok’s battle for survival has become a vivid study in how a wealthy, foreign-owned corporation can use its financial might to build an impressive-looking network of influence — and also in the limitations of what lobbying can do to protect a company at the center of a geopolitical firestorm.

The campaign to save TikTok has been years in the making. A POLITICO investigation revealed an effort by TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, dating back to at least 2018, long before concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership reached their current pitch. Interviews with more than two dozen people, including lobbyists and lawmakers, in the United States and Europe illuminated the architecture of a lobbying apparatus that has moved TikTok and its parent company closer to institutions of government, including European lawmakers, leaders of both American political parties and even the White House.

In 2019, one recruiter representing TikTok described the company’s goal in superheroic terms: The recruiter said it wanted to build a “Team of Avengers,” according to one Washington lobbyist approached for a job, who like a number of others was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations with a powerful company.

TikTok has tried to overcome some firms’ reservations with a willingness to pay handsomely. The company recently approached a second Washington lobbyist who works for Big Tech clients and, according to the lobbyist, asked flatly: “How much will it take?” The lobbyist declined the overture.

But that approach has worked on others in Washington, London and Brussels, where the company is facing serious though seemingly less existential regulatory threats than in America.

In Washington alone, about three dozen people lobbied the federal government for ByteDance and TikTok in the last quarter of 2022, including former senators and House members, according to disclosure reports.

Across the Atlantic, TikTok’s public affairs staff includes just under 40 people in Europe, spread between cities including Brussels, London, Dublin, Paris and Milan. To lead its European strategy, the company in late 2019 recruited Theo Bertram, a former top lobbyist for Google and a veteran adviser to the U.K. prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In the fall of 2020, it appointed Caroline Greer, a seasoned lobbyist with experience lobbying for telecom companies and U.S. cloud firm Cloudflare, to head its Brussels operation.

And in Washington in recent months, the company finally succeeded in hiring SKDK, the public affairs firm that boasts an imposing Democratic alumni network, including senior figures in the Biden administration. The firm turned down an initial overture from TikTok during the 2020 campaign, according to two people familiar with the firm who explained that the decision was due to concerns around the company’s ties to China. Now, in a moment of existential danger for TikTok, SKDK has agreed to help with communications on policy matters.

The company has also enlisted Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as an important part of its legal team, according to four people familiar with the matter, including a TikTok spokesperson. Leiter, a partner at the law firm Skadden, is helping deal with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an interagency board that recently told TikTok that it must separate from ByteDance if it wanted to avert an American ban.

The app remains a pervasive presence in the political world, even as the prospect of a U.S. ban grows more realistic by the week. Indeed, the app is so popular that the White House has repeatedly acknowledged it as an unavoidable channel for political communications.

Ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address in February, White House senior adviser Anita Dunn pointed allies toward the app as an influential messaging tool during a “Women’s Community Engagement Update” hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement. Dunn is a founding partner of SKDK and under the White House ethics policy, she is currently barred from participating in matters involving SKDK.

During the call, Dunn told participants that the White House wanted people to brandish the administration’s accomplishments on social media, according to two people on the call.

Of course the White House could not use TikTok, Dunn said. But she suggested that if people on the call were users of the app, then they should share parts of the president’s speech on TikTok.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesperson, said there was nothing in Dunn’s remarks that did not reflect what the administration had openly maintained “for years: that we work with outside supporters to spread our message on the major social media platforms, including TikTok.”

The White House declined to address other questions about the administration and TikTok, including whether the administration believed TikTok was deliberately hiring advisers with links to the Biden operation and whether Dunn had been aware of SKDK’s decision to work for the embattled company.

The political tide is running against TikTok and ByteDance, both in the United States and in Europe. The company has not managed to assuage lawmakers’ worries that TikTok’s ownership could make American and European user data vulnerable to the Chinese Communist Party, a charge both the company and the Chinese government have denied. Last week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, said the government had never asked companies to “collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.”

Washington remains unconvinced. Momentum is building on Capitol Hill for legislation that could allow Biden to ban the app. In the European Union, company executives were blindsided by the news that TikTok had been banned from the work devices of EU Commission staff.

“At no point was it ever said that: ‘hey, we have this investigation going on, we’re looking into this, you might want to be aware, we’ll get in touch,’” Greer said.

In a statement to POLITICO, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the company was “focused on educating lawmakers and stakeholders about our company and our service,” and pointed out that other tech companies spend far more on lobbying than TikTok does.

“We plan to continue briefing members of Congress about our company and about the details of our robust and comprehensive plans to address national security concerns,” she said. “We work to engage policymakers and stakeholders across the political spectrum on issues that are important to our business and to the diverse and vibrant community on our platform.”

In that endeavor, the company has one great advantage: the sheer popularity of its product.

A person familiar with TikTok’s strategy said that in conversations with Democrats on the Hill, the company has privately compared banning the app to “Prohibition,” the early 20th-century effort to outlaw alcohol — like TikTok, a highly addictive consumer product seen as dangerous by federal lawmakers. The ban on alcohol lasted about 14 years and generated enormous backlash from voters. Oberwetter disputed that this was an approved part of the company’s message.

But the implication seems clear enough: more than 150 million users in the U.S. enjoy TikTok’s hypnotic interface, and many could vote in 2024 when Biden and members of Congress are on the ballot.

TikTok and ByteDance have spent more than $16 million on federal lobbying in the U.S. since 2019, according to public disclosures. But the total that the company has expended to save its existence in the United States is almost certainly dramatically higher. That figure does not include lobbying at the state level, or the company’s spending on PR firms and in-house communications staff responding to its crisis.

TikTok and ByteDance’s registered lobbying spending is still dwarfed by that of Meta, a powerful competitor which has been lobbying in Washington for more than a decade. In 2022, TikTok and ByteDance spent just about $5.9 million compared with over $23 million for Meta (though both companies dwarf Twitter, which spent about $1.7 million).

But TikTok’s operation is only just reaching the rapid-growth phase. Getting its influence network to this point took years. The project began even before the app was called TikTok, when ByteDance realized it needed help from people who understood the inside of the government bodies that would soon be regulating it.

So the company set out on a recruitment drive in Washington. A job description from the time, obtained by POLITICO, noted that ByteDance was searching for someone who could “Source and manage outside counsels and lobbying firms,” among other responsibilities.

The qualifications for the job stated that “Experience in internet industry and regulatory bodies is preferred, e.g. EU Commission, FTC” and “Experience with NGOs, international organizations, industrial associations would be a big plus.”

In early 2019, TikTok brought on Eric Ebenstein as director of public policy. It may have been a telling choice for a company anticipating scrutiny of its ownership: Ebenstein previously worked for the Chinese drone manufacturer DJI and would have been familiar with some of the political challenges of operating in the United States. Before and after Ebenstein’s departure, DJI has faced criticism from U.S. officials, including allegations that it took money from the Chinese government and that its drones could be tools for spying. DJI has denied taking direct government funding and said it could not control how customers use its products.

But Ebenstein was only the start. In 2019, the company intensified its outreach to staffers across the tech sector, doing a combination of recruitment pitches and conversations that seemed more like intelligence-gathering. At a moment when other social media companies, including Google and Facebook, were many years into struggling with the federal government, ByteDance was doing research of a more basic kind, according to the first lobbyist, who heard the “Team of Avengers” sales pitch at the time.

“They were looking to understand how American tech companies were organized, what sort of consultants they hired, who controlled those consultants, how that reported up into the executive structure,” said the Washington lobbyist, who kept contemporaneous notes of at least one of the person’s conversations with the company.

In 2019, it was looking for someone who could “Build strong relationships with government officials,” according to the lobbyist’s notes of a conversation with a recruiter.

A series of high-profile hires showed the company was making headway. In 2020, it enlisted Michael Beckerman, a former congressional aide who led the Internet Association trade group, to take a leading role in building a Washington influence machine. The company also hired Crossroads Strategies, a D.C.-based bipartisan firm. Former senators Trent Lott, a Republican who was the Senate majority leader, and John Breaux, a conservative Democrat from Louisiana, would make the company’s case, among others. The firm has been paid $910,000 since 2020, according to public records.

With the 2020 election approaching, the company seemed to want to hedge its bets on the outcome. CFIUS had reportedly begun an investigation into the company. Early that year, ByteDance succeeded in hiring David Urban, a prominent Republican lobbyist who was also an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Urban first worked as an outside consultant and then later as an executive vice president at ByteDance. (He is now an outside consultant again.)

But the company needed Democratic help, too, since the party figured to have significant power on the Hill after 2020 even if Trump were reelected.

Fears about TikTok’s foreign ownership were growing, not receding, as the campaign advanced. Not only did SKDK, the Biden campaign-linked firm, reject an overture to work for TikTok, but in the summer of 2020 it instructed employees to delete the app from their phones as a security precaution. Memories of foreign cyber-intrusion in the 2016 campaign, when Russian hackers breached the Democratic National Committee, were still fresh in the minds of Democratic campaign operatives.

Around 2020, the second Washington lobbyist, who was then in touch with the company, said that TikTok was in search of someone who could push back on the narrative that they were collecting data and giving it to China.

In 2021, a third Washington lobbyist, who is a Democrat, recalled being approached by a TikTok consultant with the message that the company was willing to put a lot of money on the table for Democratic talent.

Since the 2020 presidential election, TikTok has had considerably more success enlisting lobbyists and firms with close ties to the Democratic Party. In addition to SKDK’s recent about-face decision to work for TikTok, the company has enlisted FGS Global, another PR agency with ties to Biden’s political network. It also retained the public relations giant Edelman, a powerhouse firm with relationships across both parties. Jamal Brown, former national press secretary to the Biden campaign who more recently was deputy press secretary at the Pentagon, is now a company spokesperson.

Many of those working for TikTok and ByteDance, including SKDK, FGS, Edelman, Crowley, Denham, Gordon, and Leiter, the former counterterrorism official, did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment on the record.

ByteDance’s lavish spending goes beyond generous salaries and retainer fees for lobbyists. It also extends to schmoozing, particularly in Europe where there is less fear among politicians about being seen as cozy with Chinese companies.

Indeed, in Brussels, lawmakers in the European Parliament and officials of the EU Commission, the EU’s executive arm, describe TikTok’s team as articulate and ingratiating, and careful to strike a more conciliatory tone than the representatives of American companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google. They had an agenda to push, but they would not make aggressive threats about EU laws like the Digital Services Act.

“Their lobbying was not confrontational compared to American companies,” one official said. “They always said they wanted to cooperate.”

In Europe, at least, TikTok has used the aversion toward American Big Tech to its advantage. Bertram, the vice president of government relations and public policy for Europe, told POLITICO the question of TikTok’s ownership “feels like a red herring … As Europeans, I don’t think we share the belief that every big company needs to be a Silicon Valley tech company.”

Earlier this year, Chew, the TikTok CEO, appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos and toured Brussels to meet with European policymakers. In Belgium, he met with around two dozen European lawmakers and policy officials from the EU Commission in a closed-door session at De Warande, an elite members-only club located near Belgium’s Royal Palace and the American embassy. He snapped pictures with tech-focused politicians like Dita Charanzová, a vice president of the European parliament, and Andreas Schwab, a German member who negotiated the Digital Markets Act, a law to limit the market power of large tech companies.

The TikTok executive tried to send a reassuring message at the event. Even as the company has confronted growing political hostility in the U.S., many European lawmakers have continued to see the company in less adversarial terms — as a social media goliath that needs to be regulated, but perhaps not a uniquely problematic one.

Chew was “very clear about the strong concern in the U.S. about China,” said Schwab, adding: “They wanted to explain a bit about their legal structure, their precaution measures, knowing that there might still be doubts.”

After doing a speech about TikTok’s business model, the CEO wanted to listen, said Charanzová. “He wanted to understand concerns in Europe.”

Chew’s mission of reassurance seemed to go well, or at least that was the impression of TikTok’s lobbyists in Europe.

The company was stunned when scarcely a month later the EU Commission banned TikTok from the government phones of commission employees. The measure sparked a domino-like effect across Brussels where the EU Council — the institution representing the 27 EU governments — and the European Parliament quickly followed suit, along with national governments including those of Belgium and the United Kingdom.

TikTok’s team immediately contacted the EU institutions to try to understand what had happened and hopefully to reverse the policy. The company didn’t hear anything for several weeks before the Commission said in late March it had sent the company a letter and was open to a meeting. At the end of the month the device ban was still in place.

“We’ve been trying to reach out to the institutions to understand what the problem is and to see what we can do to mitigate it and to tell our story, as well as hopefully to get unbanned, since it has been presented as a temporary suspension,” said Greer, the Brussels lobbyist.

To address those concerns, the company unveiled a European plan that had been in the works for several months to secure European users’ data. TikTok said it would operate in the coming years three data servers in Ireland and Norway and work with a European security company to audit cybersecurity and data protection controls under “Project Clover.” The company sent its top executives to tour European capitals such as London, Paris and the Hague to present the plan, which mirrors a similar idea presented in the U.S. and branded “Project Texas.”

“We can’t control the geopolitical situation, but we can continue with the work that we have been doing to help bridge that trust deficit, if it’s there,” said Greer. “We’re not running away from this.”

But TikTok doesn’t seem to have an option. And the power of its lobbying, PR and legal operations is being put to the test in other, even more strenuous ways.

The Irish data protection authority is set to decide on its investigation on TikTok’s data transfers to China. TikTok will also have to open up about its recommendation algorithm and show the EU Commission how it limits a range of problematic issues like cyberbullying, disinformation and illegal content or face multi-million euro fines under the Digital Services Act as soon as this summer. The EU Commission could potentially order a large fine or a temporary banning of the app if it repeatedly and seriously infringes on its obligations.

For now, the company is projecting confidence that it can halt any broader ban in Europe — one that would disrupt its relationship with consumers and not just government employees. Bertram said using the app was a matter of “freedom of speech for the public.”

“You’d have to have a very strong legal basis to ban any app in any country in Europe,” he said in an interview.

In Washington, the company is trying to meet with a wide range of lawmakers to head off legislative action that would ban the app. But TikTok’s core strategy is in a precarious state. The company had been arguing that Congress should defer to the Biden administration and let the regulatory process take its course — a way of sapping momentum for potentially stronger congressional action.

But the CFIUS decree insisting on a separation between TikTok and its Chinese owners made plain that punting the issue to the executive branch would not necessarily guarantee gentler results for the company.

The company’s best hope in Washington at this point may be drumming up enough indignation from its vast horde of users to give pause to elected officials — maybe even including the president — about cracking down on a cherished app in the run-up to a national election. And there are Democrats who sincerely worry about enraging the young voters the party depends on.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, a progressive Democrat who opposes a TikTok ban, told reporters last week that the seemed driven by xenophobia and favoritism toward American tech giants. But he noted the political context, too: “Young voters were the reason why we were able to keep things decent, like almost even in 2022, in terms of the House.”

Those arguments have not resonated with the lawmakers most determined to eliminate the app from American life. When TikTok’s Washington team met recently with the leaders of the new House select committee on U.S.-China relations, it made no headway in convincing them that there were reasonable precautions it could take to protect Americans’ data from the Chinese Communist Party.

“The CCP ultimately having access to user data and control of algorithms and potentially content on the platform is deeply problematic,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to ban TikTok.

The company is still looking for more help, including a head of policy communications in Brussels. In the U.S., TikTok is recruiting public policy managers and ByteDance is currently accepting applications for a “Global Head of Policy Communications.” The person in that role will be charged with developing communications strategy for both policymakers and users. The gig, focused on government relations, requires “significant experience” on communications and with complicated regulatory, legislative, and policy matters.

That new head of policy communications must also have “significant experience” with “crisis issues.”

DeSantis’ pitch to New York donors: I’m not a chaos agent

Politico -

New York’s political status as a deep blue state rarely deters Republican hopefuls from casting about for wealthy backers — and Ron DeSantis is no exception.

The Florida governor — who is expected to announce his presidential campaign following his state’s legislative session — has been privately reaching out in recent months to a bevy of potential supporters in the Empire State. DeSantis visited the Long Island estate of billionaire cosmetics heir and GOP donor Ronald Lauder several months ago, two people with direct knowledge of the sit down told POLITICO.

DeSantis’ message was simple: He is the only Republican who could defeat President Joe Biden in a general election.

In meetings with other wealthy businessmen, DeSantis has been even more explicit, portraying himself as an obvious choice for anyone frustrated by the former president Donald Trump’s legal troubles and antics.

In the case of Lauder, DeSantis’ audience was well-chosen. The businessman has not been shy about his frustration with Trump, whom he backed in past races.

Through a spokesperson, Lauder declined to comment.

DeSantis’ spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“I’m no drama. I’m no chaos,” one New York businessman said in paraphrasing the pitch the Florida governor made to other well-heeled New Yorkers. “I’m calm, cool and collected. Very focused.”

That businessman, who continues to support the former president and counts him as a friend, said DeSantis has reached out to New York real estate moguls who own property in Florida. To that end, both DeSantis and Trump attended the wedding of real estate investor Steve Witkoff’s son in Palm Beach last year.

In meetings, DeSantis emphasizes his military background and his record of getting “points on the scoreboard” as governor of the increasingly Republican state, said the person — who was granted anonymity to share details of private discussions.

“From what I’ve heard, he does not say President Trump is drama and chaos. He just says he’s not. So, what is that implying?” the person said.

The message mirrors DeSantis’ comments in a recent interview with Fox Nation’s Piers Morgan, during which he questioned Trump’s style and said: “I have what it takes to be president and I can beat Biden.”

The outreach by DeSantis provides a window into the early calculations he and his team have made as they ready themselves for a presidential run. The governor has made a name for himself castigating corporate America, while also leaning on top finance figures for financial support. His team sees New York donors as prime turf, not only for their deep pockets but also because many of them backed Trump out of convenience rather than a shared ideology with his MAGA base.

“Governor DeSantis is a conservative who is widely viewed as being far more electable than Trump in a general election. Given that he has the conservative policy minus the baggage, minus the legal problems, it’s no surprise that he would find some success among New York’s most important conservative donors,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic political consultant, said in an interview.

DeSantis, who plans to deliver remarks on Long Island Saturday evening, has recently been struggling with sagging poll numbers, news cycles dominated by Trump and an initial statement casting skepticism on support for the Ukraine war that disappointed some Republicans.

Just how big a draw DeSantis is for the New York crowd could be revealed in upcoming filings of super PACs that are boosting his expected candidacy, including one chaired by former Trump official Ken Cuccinelli. A filing for that committee is expected next month.

Interviews with six people across senior levels of Wall Street’s biggest banks revealed an intense desire for a GOP candidate who could deny Trump the nomination. While the finance industry appreciated Trump’s tax cuts — partially designed by former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn during his time in Trump’s White House — they grew to loathe his protectionist trade policies, penchant for attacking individual companies and firing off market-shaking tweets. His unwillingness to forcefully condemn white nationalist groups further alienated him from the industry.

“Look there is no question that some of what he did was good for us,” a top executive at one of America’s largest banks said on condition of anonymity so as not to draw Trump’s fire. “But he’s bad for America. And ultimately that’s bad for us. And most of our employees can’t stand him.”

Ben White and Sam Sutton contributed to this report.

Sex ed, birth control, Medicaid: Republicans’ ‘new pro-life agenda’

Politico -

Republicans in staunchly conservative states are championing some atypical legislation this session — promoting sex education, government welfare and more birth control.

The proposals are part of what some governors and lawmakers have referred to as a “new pro-life agenda” for the post-Roe era — one that is increasingly breaking with their party’s socially conservative approach to maternal and reproductive health in favor of one more commonly pushed by Democrats.

The flurry of legislation stands to extend health insurance to tens of thousands of low-income people, boost access to contraception and rethink how sex is discussed in public schools. And it could help Republicans soften their image with moderate voters now that abortion is illegal in nearly all circumstances in a quarter of the country and after the issue helped Democrats win several key midterm races.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is pushing legislation to allow pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives without a prescription. Indiana and Oklahoma are advancing similar GOP-sponsored bills.

In Indiana and South Carolina, Republican lawmakers proposed lawmakers proposed bills that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed to be taught in the states’ schools starting in grade 5 or 6 — instead of their current abstinence-based approach.

And in Wyoming and Mississippi — two of the 10 states that have not expanded Medicaid — Republican Govs. Mark Gordon and Tate Reeves recently signed 12-month extensions of Medicaid postpartum benefits into law, in what Reeves referred to as a “philosophically uncomfortable” move that overcame fierce conservative opposition to boosting government welfare.

“What I can tell you is that the governor was more vocal in his support for [postpartum extension] and was much more outwardly supportive of this idea in the wake of the Dobbs decision,” said Gordon spokesperson Michael Pearlman. “He is a pro-life governor and supports life, but Governor Gordon wanted to emphasize that being pro-life, to him, goes beyond simply being pro-birth.”

Some GOP-controlled states embraced these policies before the fall of Roe v. Wade last summer, and Republicans argue there isn’t anything inherently liberal about them.

“The most important thing for people to realize is we need to be pro-life and not just pro-birth. That means investing in our families. That means taking a more meaningful approach to policy and forget about the politics. Let that go out the window and let’s actually do things that help people have successful families,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Jessica Garvin, a Republican who sponsored two birth control bills this year that passed the state Senate last week. “If we’re going to say we can’t have abortion for women in Oklahoma, what are we going to do to help support these women that can’t have an abortion?”

Some Democrats chafe at Republicans for taking credit for proposals they have long supported, particularly those aimed at underserved communities.

“This has been a long time effort specifically led by Black women in the legislature,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani. “Republicans are trying to give off the impression that they’re championing issues for women and families while they strip away our bodily autonomy and rights.”

And while some maternal health advocates welcome the growing number of conservatives backing these policies, they also argue that these broader maternal and reproductive health policies can’t undo the harm being caused by the lack of abortion access in these states.

“In my career — I’m in my mid-40s — I can probably count on one hand Republicans that have been out in front on access to contraception,” said Jamila Taylor, president and CEO of the National WIC Association and a longtime women’s health advocate. “So yes, we are pleased with some of the progress that we’re seeing even in red states, but that’s never going to replace the need or, quite frankly, our fight to ensure abortion rights in this country.”

‘A good thing’

Anti-abortion groups said they are happy to see lawmakers introduce legislation focused on helping families and have endorsed some of these policies, such as postpartum Medicaid extension, alongside the usual types of bills that accompany abortion bans, such as funding for crisis pregnancy centers.

“This kind of legislation that protects pregnant women and new moms, this is one of our key focuses of 2023, and it’s been awesome to see momentum in a lot of pro-life states this year,” said Kelsey Pritchard, director of state public affairs for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. “We’ve been really happy to see states step up the plate and say, ‘Yeah, we need to do more to help pregnant women and to help our new moms in the state.’”

Several female Republican lawmakers told POLITICO that while they’ve long understood the need to increase access to contraception, Roe’s fall provided an opening for them to talk with their male colleagues about the importance of such policies.

“It’s not necessarily that they’ve been against it. They didn’t know they needed to be for it because they didn’t know it was a problem,” said Garvin, the Republican state senator from Oklahoma.

Garvin’s two birth control bills — one that allows pharmacists to dispense hormonal contraceptives without a prescription and another that makes clear the state’s abortion law does not restrict access to contraceptive drugs — cleared the GOP-supermajority state Senate with significant support.

“I think the overturn of Roe v. Wade has forced the issue to become more of a dinner table conversation, and people are more open about sex and family planning, and I think those are becoming more of conversation pieces within families, and it’s a good thing,” Garvin said.

In Iowa, lawmakers are taking another shot at expanding access to birth control, something the governor has wanted to do since 2019. While Reynolds’ bill to allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraception cleared the Senate that year, it did not receive a vote in the House that year.

“There’s some very, very far right conservatives that just really didn’t believe in birth control, period,” said Iowa state Sen. Chris Cournoyer, a Republican. Since then, “we’ve had more conversations about why it’s important and why it factors in not just for maternal health but also for women's health in general. I mean, there’s a lot of non-contraceptive reasons why you would get on birth control.”

A similar bill in Indiana also received enthusiastic support when it passed the House in late February.

“Allowing pharmacists to prescribe hormonal contraceptives is a simple, yet critical step to providing care to more Hoosier women, especially those who don't have a primary care doctor, or can't afford transportation to a different city or county,” said Indiana Republican state Rep. Elizabeth Rowray.

In two conservative states that have not passed Medicaid expansion, abortion helped Republicans who remain highly skeptical of anything that even vaguely resembles such a policy to pass legislation this year extending postpartum benefits from 60 days to a year after birth.

In Mississippi, Reeves, who is up for reelection this year, announced his supportfor the policy in February after months of opposition, calling it a part of the “new pro-life agenda” and saying that Republicans may have to do things that make them “philosophically uncomfortable” in the post-Roe era.

In Wyoming, legislation extending postpartum benefits passed by slim margins in the House and Senate — and legislative leaders in both houses attempted to kill the bill at multiple points during the session. Both GOP lawmakers supportive of the bill and the governor’s office pitched the proposal during hearings and debate on the bill as “pro-life.”

Exceptions to the rule

Not all of these proposals have reached a critical mass of Republican support. The two comprehensive sex ed bills introduced this year in Indiana and South Carolina — two states that have an abstinence-focused sex ed curriculum — have not received hearings.

But South Carolina Republican state Sen. Tom Davis said he is not giving up. He plans to bring his sex ed legislation forward as an amendment to another education-related bill.

“If we want to reduce unwanted pregnancies and, by that, reduce the number of abortions, we need to do a better job of providing factually correct scientific information that’s age appropriate,” he said.

And some Republicans are trying to separate maternal health from abortion. In Florida, for instance, the Department of Health requested more than $12.6 million in its budget this year for the Closing the Gap program, which became the centerpiece of a plan to expand telehealth postpartum services to people of color. The proposal received unanimous support from state lawmakers in 2021, and the department is now asking for a boost to its current $5.4 million budget to expand the pilot program.

But Joseph Ladapo, who oversees the state Department of Health, has emphasized that the increased postpartum funding predates the efforts pushed by Florida Republicans to tighten abortion controls. State lawmakers approved a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy last year, and they are now poised to pass a six-week ban by the end of this year’s legislative session in May.

“For the last two decades, they’ve been taking it more seriously and the Department of Health has been involved in that area for years,” Ladapo said.

Maternal health advocates said they struggle with the fact that these advances come hand-in-hand with anti-abortion laws, which they believe threaten to worsen existing maternal health disparities.

“We’re glad that more states are starting to pay attention, but in light of the maternal health crisis, the point really is that Rome is burning, and states are not centering the full range of reproductive health needs,” said Ben Anderson, director of maternal and child health initiatives at Families USA, a consumer advocacy group.

But advocates also welcome the growing bipartisanship on these issues.

“What I do see as a pattern is reasonable conversations about some of these safety-net programs that should have long been part of the overarching public health dossier of programs, Medicaid expansion being one of them,” said Terrance Moore, CEO of the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs. “I don’t want to go on a limb and say folks are all going in the right direction, but there’s been real education, deep education.”

Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

Opinion | Trump’s Huge Jan. 6 Mistake

Politico -

The philosopher Eric Hoffer famously wrote, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

What he evidently didn’t count on was great outrages becoming causes.

From the perspective of the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6 it was hard enough to believe that Donald Trump would survive the event, let alone make it a plank in a powerful comeback bid just a few years later.

But there was Trump in Waco, Texas, opening his inaugural rally of the 2024 campaign with a recording of the song “Justice for All” that he performed with the J6 Prison Choir, with some scenes of Jan. 6 playing on the jumbotrons.

Among those favorably inclined toward it, the bloody riot at the Capitol has progressed from something to be minimized — and blamed on others, whether antifa or federal informants — to closer to something to be celebrated, almost, if not quite, Stop the Steal’s Bastille Day.

For Trump, a master at appropriating the catch lines and attacks of the other side, reversing the meaning of Jan. 6 would be his most audacious move yet. How long is it before that day, in an echo of the phone call with Volodymyr Zelenskyy that got him impeached, becomes “the perfect protest?”

This is a huge mistake in every way, most importantly on the merits, but also on the politics.

Yet Trump’s stance isn’t surprising. He still hews to the two premises of the Jan. 6 riot — that, as a general proposition, the 2020 election was stolen and, more particularly, former Vice President Mike Pence could have stopped the counting of the electoral votes if he weren’t so weak. This is why, in a contradiction, Trump blames Pence for an event that he also portrays as not so bad.

Trump has talked about pardoning the rioters, who are “great patriots,” and floated the idea of the government apologizing to many of them.

Now, it is true that the insistence by Democrats and the media on referring to Jan. 6 always and exclusively as “the insurrection” is tiresome and politically motivated. (Insurrection suggests a sustained campaign, whereas this was a one-time spasm of violence more appropriately referred to as a riot.)

The Justice Department has gone out of its way to run up the number of prosecutions to make a political point about the seriousness of the event, and defendants have been denied bail in a highly unusual manner — if we grant bail to mafia hit men, and we do, we should grant it to someone who punched a cop on Jan. 6.

And there is a rank hypocrisy in the treatment of political violence. The same people on the left who were willing to look the other way during the “mostly peaceful” riots after the killing of George Floyd are outraged by Jan. 6. (Of course, hypocrisy is a two-way street: If it’s wrong to burn down a gas station in the name of Black Lives Matter, it’s not any better to storm the Capitol in the name of Stop the Steal.)

All that said, making excuses for or valorizing Jan. 6 is deeply wrong.

First, there’s the matter of principle. Riots are bad and never justified (except in the rare case when they are a precursor of a just and well-founded act of revolution — for example, the American War for Independence). They hurt people and destroy property, while achieving nothing or setting back the cause they were supposed to advance.

Disorder at the heart of the U.S. government, disrupting a long-standing ritual connected to the peaceful transfer of power, is particularly egregious.

Second, justifying or excusing political violence has a deranging influence on the republic. The more reason both sides have to physically fear each other, the easier it is to justify extreme measures in response, in a widening gyre of escalation.

Third, it’s simply terrible politics. If the other side is desperate to portray you as in bed with fanatics and rioters, it’s best not to go out of your way to prove them right. It’s perverse for Republicans that just as the Jan. 6 Committee has been put out of business and is no longer in a position to constantly remind the public of Jan. 6, here comes Donald Trump to remind people of Jan. 6.

It’d be a little like Richard Nixon running for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, and campaigning with a barbershop quartet made up of the Watergate burglars.

Or Ulysses S. Grant deciding to run for third term while extolling the unappreciated virtues of the organizers of the Whiskey Ring scandal.

What Trump is doing flies in the face of the lessons of the midterms. Jan. 6 lent emotional power to the Democratic argument that democracy was under threat, and Stop the Steal candidates proved radioactive. Trump wants, in effect, to repeat November 2022’s failed political experiment on a larger scale in 2024.

On top of his natural inclinations, Trump may be making a calculation that in a primary race with Ron DeSantis to be the most MAGA Republican candidate, he can’t lose by staking out the most pro-Jan. 6 position. That’s not a crazy bet, but if Trump is going to be beaten it will probably be, in part, on grounds that he carries too much baggage and is an electability risk. By embracing rather than skirting one of his major vulnerabilities, he gives his adversaries more ammunition on both counts.

Jan. 6 is an outrage that shouldn’t become a cause.

Sinema can't quit the powerful online Democratic fundraising machine

Politico -

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is no longer a Democrat. But her willingness to truly quit the party has its limits.

After POLITICO first reported that she's been deriding fellow Democratic senators in recent private fundraisers with Republican donors, the independent Arizona senator rolled out a new online fundraising page with Anedot, a platform that has also been used by Republican and third-party candidates.

But her ActBlue page is still active and in use by her campaign committee. The Democratic fundraising platform is the most important fundraising portal in all of politics, and access to it can mean a substantial small-dollar fundraising advantage.

Sinema's continued presence on the platforms shows the limits of her disdain for the Democratic Party: She might dislike sitting next to the party's senators during lunch, but she's still willing to take money from its small-dollar donors. Access to ActBlue could be hugely beneficial if Sinema runs for reelection — and in a three-way race in a state with a large independent vote share, Arizona's seat could well tip control of a closely divided Senate.

An ActBlue spokesperson confirmed this week that the Arizona senator is still eligible to use the site as an independent with a record of caucusing with Democrats. Sinema was a substantial fundraiser on ActBlue during her 2018 Senate campaign, bringing in more than $11.7 million via the platform that cycle, according to FEC data, although her small-dollar support has largely dried up in the past few years. Between her Dec. 9 announcement that she was leaving the Democratic Party and the end of the year, she had raised a bit shy of $25,000 via the platform.

ActBlue — which has long served candidates facing each other in primaries — has looked to position itself as a neutral actor within the party’s broader fundraising ecosystem. The Arizona senator, who has yet to formally declare a 2024 run, puts that to a new test.

“At the end of the day, ActBlue is an incredibly important technology platform inside an incredibly formidable big tent,” ActBlue CEO Regina Wallace-Jones said in an interview with POLITICO last month. A longtime tech executive and former city councilor from East Palo Alto, Calif., Wallace-Jones was named ActBlue’s new leader in January.

She added: “It would be inappropriate in any way for us to be first movers bearing who is on the platform versus not. And we do have partners inside that tent that we will be taking cues from. So I do not imagine that we will be making that kind of a statement, and I do know that we’re in deep communications with others who have decision-making authority.”

Adding a new fundraising platform is a sign that Sinema is preparing for the possibility of running for reelection, likely as an independent. A spokesperson confirmed Sinema’s campaign is currently using both Anedot and ActBlue, but declined to address what that could mean for her 2024 plans.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) announced his own Senate campaign in January, and is widely viewed as the likely Democratic nominee. No major Republicans have declared they are running, although former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has expressed interest.

ActBlue’s policies, which pre-date Wallace-Jones’ time at the head of the organization, say that independent or third-party incumbents can remain on the platform provided they have a “proven record” of caucusing with Democrats. Sinema no longer attends weekly caucus meetings, although she accepted Democrats’ committee assignments.

Sen. Angus King, another independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is permitted to use ActBlue under the organization’s policies. His campaign website links to the platform NationBuilder, although he also has an active ActBlue page. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent though also a former Democratic presidential candidate, is among ActBlue’s most prolific fundraisers.

Compared to other fundraising platforms, ActBlue is a unique tool in part because so many candidates use it, which allows campaigns to split donations with ease. For repeat donors, who make up a large share of the Democratic donor base, it saves credit card information, making transactions easier.

“So many times where we would test using one processor or another, and just every time ActBlue would raise more for a variety of reasons,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, a longtime Democratic fundraising professional and founder of New Blue Interactive. “We never found anything that could net more for folks.”

ActBlue also currently hosts Marianne Williamson in her longshot bid against incumbent President Joe Biden. In rare cases, the platform has kicked off candidates, such as Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) who switched to the Republican party in 2019.

ActBlue has grown exponentially since its launch in 2004. The platform, which hosts federal, state and local candidates as well as progressive-aligned committees and nonprofits, reported processing donations from more than 7.4 million distinct donors last cycle.

In the 2022 calendar year, ActBlue processed more than $1.4 billion for federal campaigns and causes. That’s more than twice the roughly $620 million raised at the federal level through WinRed, the Republican counterpart that launched in 2019, according to the groups’ filings with the FEC.

Stanford Law School-Exposed

Real Clear Politics -

On March 20, my friend and former Justice Department colleague J. Christian Adams published the first article in our series of exposes, Do They Teach Law? We examine what's actually being taught at...


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