Trump's National Security Adviser: Indictment Shows Evidence Of Russian Meddling Is "Incontrovertible"
Sat, 17 Feb 2018 10:33:33 -0500
Ralph Orlowski / Reuters
The indictment of 13 Russian citizens and three companies on Friday is "incontrovertible" evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said Saturday.
The indictment, prepared by special counsel Robert Mueller, claimed that "operations to interfere with the US political system" began in 2014, with Russians using fake social media accounts to target US audiences and "traveling to the United States under false pretenses" to collect intelligence.
Although President Trump has wavered publicly on whether or not Russia interfered, his national security adviser says the indictment shows the US is becoming "more and more adept at tracing the origins of this espionage and subversion."
"As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain," McMaster said at a security conference in Munich.
McMaster made his comments shortly after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the indictment out of hand at the same conference.
"Until we see the facts, everything else is just blabber — I'm sorry for this expression," Lavrov said, adding he had "no response" when asked for comment on the allegations.
Ralph Orlowski / Reuters
"You can publish anything, and we see those indictments multiplying, the statements multiplying," the Russian foreign minister said, arguing that Vice President Mike Pence and other US officials have said no country influenced the election results.
In a statement on Saturday evening, Trump undercut McMaster's remarks, tweeting that his national security advisor "forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!"
Friday's indictment contained no allegation that the Russian conduct altered the outcome of the election, nor did it allege any American was a "knowing participant." However, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters that Mueller's investigation was continuing.
In Washington, however, White House spokesperson Raj Shah told Fox News on Friday night that the indictment "proved there was no collusion."
He also said the indictment did not mean that the Russian trolls had favored Trump over Hillary Clinton.
"All of these efforts were about sowing confusion in the electoral process and undermining the next president, not about supporting one candidate over the other." he told Tucker Carlson.
In fact, although Friday's indictment stated that the Russians sought to organize pro- and anti-Trump marches after the election, it also states that the defendants worked actively to support Trump and then-US Sen. Bernie Sanders during the race.
"They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the indictment reads.
"Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them)," the Russians were directed, according to the indictment.
Another White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said those pushing a collusion narrative posed a bigger threat to the US than the Russians.
"There are two groups that have created chaos more than the Russians and that’s the Democrats and the mainstream media, who continue to push this lie on the American people for more than a year," he told Fox News on Saturday.
In another Saturday tweet, Trump himself falsely implied the indictment definitively determined there was no collusion.
In Moscow, Russian officials also doubled down in denying the allegations.
"There are no official claims, there are no proofs for this. That's why they are just children's statements," said the presidential envoy for international information security, Andrei Kutskikh, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
When asked whether Washington would consider working with the Kremlin on cybersecurity issues, as President Trump proposed on Twitter last year, McMaster joked: "I'm surprised there are any Russian cyber experts available based on how active most of them have been undermining our democracies in the West."
"So I would just say that we would love to have a cyber dialogue when Russia is sincere," he added.
Mitt Romney Has Launched A Senate Bid In Utah — And Some Republicans Are Playing The Carpetbagger Card
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 14:27:22 -0500
George Frey / Getty Images
Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is now a Senate candidate in Utah — and the announcement of his candidacy shows he’s sensitive about being labeled a carpetbagger.
“Utah,” the Republican says at the beginning of a video he shared Friday morning on social media, “is admired not only for its beauty, but also for the character of its people. Utahns are known for hard work, innovation, and our can-do pioneering spirit. But more than these, we’re known as a people who serve, who care, and who rise to any occasion.”
It goes on like this for more than two minutes. One reporter joked on Twitter that he lost count of how many times Romney said “Utah.” The strategy telegraphed in recent days is clear and multipronged: Romney, who fell short in two previous White House bids and emerged as one of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics, is trying to persuade voters that he is laser-focused on his adopted state and not on the president or the job he’s pined for in the past.
Though on paper this should be a cakewalk — Romney is hardly a stranger in Utah, and Democrats have little chance of picking up the seat — two prominent Republicans have made an issue of Romney’s Trump-bashing and his relocation to the West. One of them, State Auditor John Dougall, told BuzzFeed News that GOP activists in and outside Utah have been encouraging him after he said this week that he was seriously considering challenging Romney.
“Some of the key things in Utah are that we want to make sure we have a senator who understands Utah issues, and those are clearly different than Massachusetts issues, for instance,” Dougall said Friday morning in a brief telephone interview.
Dougall added that Romney had called him Thursday evening to inform him of his imminent announcement, which has been anticipated since Sen. Orrin Hatch made his retirement plans known last month. “I wished him all the best,” Dougall said of Romney.
A Romney spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dougall declined to say who is encouraging him to run. But he suggested support would come from those concerned about electing someone who would not be aligned with Trump. For weeks on his Facebook page, Dougall has been arguing against a “coronation” of Romney.
“What we need is not somebody who doesn’t like the president,” Dougall told BuzzFeed News. “I think the key thing right now is folks need to know what he stands for.”
After the phone interview, Dougall added via email: “I should have also mentioned that ‘It's clear that Utahns have a very favorable view of Mr. Romney. The odds are strongly in his favor.’”
Earlier this week, Utah Republican Party Chair Rob Anderson noted Romney’s criticism of Trump and spoke dismissively of his Utah credentials in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune: “I think he’s keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let’s face it, Mitt Romney doesn’t live here, his kids weren’t born here, he doesn’t shop here.”
Anderson later apologized to Romney.
“I’ve no doubt that Mitt Romney satisfies all qualifications to run for Senate,” said Anderson in a Wednesday statement posted on Twitter, “and as chairman of the Utah Republican Party, I will treat all candidates equally to ensure their path to the party nomination is honest and fair.”
Federal Grand Jury In Special Counsel Probe Indicts Russian Troll Farm And Individuals For 2016 Election Meddling
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 13:01:44 -0500
Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters
The special counsel's office announced a federal indictment against the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), two other Russian entities, and 13 Russian individuals Friday, accusing them of "interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016."
The special counsel's office, which is investigating Russian interference in the election, provided the following statement:
A federal grand jury in the District of Columbia returned an indictment on Feb. 16, 2018, against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes. The indictment charges all of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States, three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft.
Beginning in 2014, according to the indictment, the IRA began "operations to interfere with the US political system," including by "creating false US personas" to operate "social media pages and groups designed to attract US audiences" and "traveling to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants' operations."
By mid-2016, the operations, according to the indictment "included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ("Trump Campaign") and disparaging Hillary Clinton." Specifically, "Some Defendants, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities."
At a news conference Friday afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel's work due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal, announced the indictment sought by Mueller — laying out the alleged social media efforts and the alleged fraudulent ways in which the effort was organized and implemented. He said the defendants had characterized their activities as "information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general."
The indictment charges the IRA and others with a conspiracy to defraud the United States. Rosenstein specifically noted how the efforts included efforts to defraud the Federal Election Commission, Justice Department, and State Department. The additional charges — against some but not all of the defendants — include conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, as well as several counts alleging identity theft.
Rosenstein said on Friday that there were no allegations in the indictment "that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity" — he said the Russian nationals charged took "extraordinary steps" to make it appear that they were ordinary activists — or that the alleged criminal acts had "any effect on the outcome of the election."
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet," Rosenstein said.
Several hours after Rosenstein announced the indictment, President Donald Trump tweeted, "Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President," and he repeated his oft-made declaration that there was "no collusion."
@realDonaldTrump via Twitter / Via Twitter: @realDonaldTrump
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that Trump "is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates — that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected."
According to the indictment, social media entities associated with the IRA “contacted people through large social media groups focused on U.S. politics.” The statement is consistent with information reported by BuzzFeed News this past fall.
Regarding the charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, the Justice Department charged three IRA members for allegedly using stolen identities to open accounts at a bank and online payments company PayPal. The indictment noted that the defendants allegedly used the names, addresses, social security numbers, and birth dates of unwitting people to open four accounts at an unidentified US financial institution in the summer of 2016.
Some of that same information was used to register four accounts at PayPal, which according to its website, only requires a bank account and an email address to sign up. The defendants also allegedly opened 14 other PayPal accounts by buying credit card numbers and bank information that had been created with the stolen identities of real people. That operation used a combination of 14 unique bank accounts, six banks, and 11 email addresses.
“PayPal is intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use of our services," a company spokesperson said in a statement. "We work closely with law enforcement, and did so in this matter, to identify, investigate and stop improper or potentially illegal activity.”
The indictment notes that stolen identities were used to maintain the PayPal accounts, as well as accounts on unnamed cryptocurrency exchanges. Accounts at an unknown bank and with PayPal were used to pay for “certain organization expenses” such as advertisements on Facebook to promote its social media presences. Other expenses included paraphernalia including “buttons, flags, and banners for rallies.”
Some of the accounts were also used to receive money from US citizens for promotions and advertisements on IRA-owned social media pages. The defendants charged some US businesses $25 to $50 per promotional post on its fake accounts — including Being Patriotic, Defend The 2nd, and Blacktivist.
In October 2016, as BuzzFeed News previously reported, Russian trolls contacted activists associated with legitimate grassroots organizations through a fictitious Facebook page, BlackMattersUS, to plan and speak at protest in Charlotte, NC following the shooting of Keith Scott, a black man killed by police. After the initial rally, the page remained in contact with an activist and invited them to a “Charlotte Against Trump” protest on November 19, 2016. The indictment information echoes the date detailed in another earlier BuzzFeed News report. The same group also organized a second “Charlotte Against Trump” rally on November 26, 2016, according to flyers and posts from the BlackMattersUS site.
Facebook pages associated with the Internet Research Agency also promoted a similar rally against then president-elect Donald Trump in New York on November 12, 2016, which was attended by thousands of New Yorkers who marched from Union Square to Trump Tower, reported on previously by BuzzFeed News and described in the indictment. A protest against the electoral college and Donald Trump, not mentioned in the indictment, was planned by another IRA-associated account on Dec. 3, 2016 in Union Square.
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement that the indictment was "an important step to hold Russia accountable." He noted that senior intelligence officials had testified earlier this week that Russia was "still using social media to attack our democratic institutions and sow division amongst Americans," and he expressed frustration with the extent of the intelligence community's efforts to monitor Russian disinformation campaigns.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation "is ongoing," Rosenstein said. He did not provide any additional details. Rosenstein did not respond to shouted questions at the end of the press conference about whether the indicted defendants had a connection to the Russian government or Russian intelligence operations.
Asked if the United States had received any assurances from the Russian government about turning over the charged individuals into US custody, Rosenstein said there had been no communications with the Russians about that. The US government would pursue the normal process of seeking extradition, he said.
A new guilty plea
The special counsel's office on Friday also unsealed a criminal case against Richard Pinedo, a California man who pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud. According to the documents outlining the offense, Pinedo ran a company called "Auction Essistance" that was "designed to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies." Pinedo would buy and sell bank account numbers, including many that were created using stolen identities, according to court filings.
Pinedo's charging papers don't reference the Internet Research Agency, but the IRA indictment accuses the defendants in that case of buying credit card and bank account numbers from online sellers to evade security measures at PayPal — language that is similar to the special counsel office's description of the activities that Pinedo was accused of facilitating.
The timing of the announcement also indicates the two cases are related. Prosecutors asked to have Pinedo's case sealed when they first filed the charging papers on Feb. 7, according to the now-public court docket. They explained to the judge that temporarily sealing proceedings and documents in the case was necessary to avoid possible prejudice to the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, particularly into "a Russian-backed operation that used social media platforms, through fraud and deceit, to interfere with the U.S. political system."
Pinedo was arraigned during a sealed hearing on Feb. 12. On Friday, the special counsel's office asked the judge to unseal the case.
Pinedo's lawyer, Jeremy Lessem, said in a statement that Pinedo had "accepted full responsibility for his action" but "had absolutely no knowledge of the identities and motivations of any of the purchasers of the information he provided."
"To the extent that Mr. Pinedo’s actions assisted any individuals, including foreign nationals, from interfering in the American presidential election was done completely without his knowledge or understanding," Lessem said.
A spokesman for the special counsel's office, Peter Carr, said in an email to BuzzFeed News that, "Ricky Pinedo admitted in his plea to selling bank account numbers over the internet, and that he knew many of the buyers were outside the United States. We have no evidence and there is no allegation he was a witting participant in the Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections and political processes.”
While the Auction Essistance site has been been taken offline for maintenance, a cached version of the web page show offers for customers to buy “stealth accounts” on eBay and PayPal for as little as $35. “We offer services that will enable you to get back onto eBay or Amazon ranging from pre-made eBay & Paypal accounts or verification tools,” the website read. “We guarantee our accounts are legitimate and not hacked or stolen like most other sellers offer.”
BuzzFeed News could not reach Pinedo at a Santa Paula, Calif. phone number listed for him, which had been turned off. An internet search for Auction Essistance shows a still accessible LinkedIn page and an online slideshow presentation detailing a step-by-step process for what users could do if they had been banned from eBay. A Facebook page for the company had already been taken offline.
Authorities allege that California man Richard Pinedo ran a company called "Auction Essistance" that was "designed to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies." This is a slide from an online presentation made by that company.
A screenshot from a presentation of Auction Essistance.
The indictment announced on Friday has been mostly brushed aside as US posturing so far in Russia. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia's foreign ministry, posted on Facebook calling the idea that 13 people had taken on the US government "absurd."
"It seems there were 13, in the opinion of the US Justice Department," she wrote. "13 people took part in meddling in the US election?! 13 against the billions-dollar budget of the special services? Against spying and counter-spying, against the latest methods and technologies? ... Absurd? Yes. But this is the modern American political reality."
Evengy Prigozhin, who is listed as a defendant in the indictment as the owner of the Internet Research Agency, appeared nonchalant when speaking to Russian outlet RIA. "Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see," he said. "I relate to them with great respect. I'm not upset at all that I'm on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see it."
Read the indictment:
This is a developing story. Please check back at BuzzFeed News for the latest.
Hayes Brown and Ryan Brooks contributed to this report.
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 12:43:27 -0500
AFP / Getty Images
The former spokesperson for President Trump's legal team spoke with special counsel Robert Mueller on Thursday, his lawyer confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
Mark Corallo served as the spokesperson for Trump's outside legal team for a short period this past summer but left in July. In January, the New York Times reported that Corallo was involved in senior-level discussions about how to respond to the news that Donald Trump Jr. had attended a meeting at Trump Tower during the campaign with a Russian lawyer who he had been told had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
The Times also reported that Mueller was looking to talk with Corallo and that he had agreed to do so. The Daily Beast first reported that the meeting happened Thursday.
"I'm not going to talk about the substance," Corallo's lawyer, Victoria Toensing, said, though she did confirm that he spoke with Mueller for two hours Thursday and that he is not expected to speak with the special counsel again.
Asked what that latter information means, Toensing said simply, "It means it's through," noting that any other insight on the special counsel office's plans would have to come from the special counsel's office.
According to the Times' report, Corallo planned to testify about a conference call that led him to have concerns that Trump's campaign staffer and current White House communications director Hope Hicks was allegedly "contemplating obstructing justice," according to sources who spoke with the Times — a claim that Hicks's lawyer said is "completely false."
Asked to comment on Corallo's interview with the special counsel, Hicks's lawyer, Robert Trout, said, "I have no comment beyond what I’ve already stated on the record, and that comment stands."
This is a developing story. Please follow BuzzFeed News for the latest news.
Fri, 16 Feb 2018 09:14:48 -0500
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department argued in court this week that officials don’t have to turn over certain information and documents about President Trump’s announced decision to bar transgender people from serving in the military — citing executive privilege.
The judge hearing one of the lawsuits challenging the policy pushed back against the Justice Department lawyer's claim. The judge said Trump administration officials were incorrectly arguing that an “absolute” privilege — meaning one that the judge could not rule against — protected the administration from having to turn over certain information regarding meetings or conversations the president had in advance of his July 26, 2017, tweets announcing an end to transgender military service.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts,” Trump wrote in a series of three tweets, “please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
Nearly a month later, Trump issued a further policy that directed the end of transgender service this year.
In a docket entry detailing the outcome of a telephone conference, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly stated that she hopes to move the issues forward in a follow-up telephone conference Friday. The judge laid out that both sides should be ready to discuss issues relating to two types of executive privilege raised by the Justice Department in the case: information the federal government “contend[s] is covered by the presidential communications privilege” and a dispute “regarding the deliberative process privilege.”
Executive privilege, while a term familiar to most Americans, is much more complicated — and dependent on the facts of specific cases — than often portrayed. It’s a rarely invoked set of different, but related, privileges that are available to protect executive communications from disclosure to courts, Congress, and often — ultimately — the public.
Often, the privileges, even if they cover the communication, are not enough to keep some documents from being turned over or testimony from being compelled if the information at issue is necessary for a congressional or legal matter to be able to proceed, it isn't available elsewhere, and the branch seeking the information is willing to fight for it. At the same time, judicial and congressional officials often negotiate out executive privilege–related disputes before they get to a final court ruling, due to concerns about separation of powers — meaning there isn't always clearly established law on specific executive privilege–related issues.
The presidential communications privilege and deliberative process privilege have related purposes: keeping executive branch decision-making private. As the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit put it in a 1997 case, “Both are executive privileges designed to protect executive branch decisionmaking, but one applies to decisionmaking of executive officials generally, the other specifically to decisionmaking of the President” and his senior advisers, as the court held in that opinion.
Of the two, the deliberative process privilege is more limited. It only protects “predecisional” material that is “deliberative” in nature, like drafts of materials and policy recommendations to superiors. Because of these limits, factual material, like raw data collected by an agency, generally is not protected — and the privilege can be overcome with “a sufficient showing of need” for the material by the requesting party. Notably, the privilege generally does not protect against disclosure when misconduct is alleged.
The presidential communications privilege, on the other hand, is a more robust privilege that the Supreme Court addressed in the 1974 case over then-president Nixon’s White House audio tapes — and whether a court could order that they be turned over for a pending criminal trial of one of Nixon’s associates. The Nixon administration — citing the importance of protecting “the independence of the Executive Branch within its own sphere” — claimed an absolute privilege against disclosing the tapes as part of an ongoing criminal prosecution.
Former president Richard Nixon
Handout / Reuters
The Supreme Court held that “high respect” must be given “to the representations made on behalf of the President” — justifying a “presumptive privilege” for presidential communications, including factual communications. The court nonetheless ruled that a “generalized” assertion of the presidential communications privilege is not absolute and must be weighed against the need for the material by the other party seeking it — whether it be a court or Congress. In the Nixon case, the court held that the “demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial” outweighed Nixon’s invocation of executive privilege.
In the case over the transgender military policy, the Justice Department lawyer, Ryan Parker, raised the presidential communications privilege in response to a request from the challengers, who have asked for information from the president about the identities of the consulted general and military experts referenced in the tweets, and what relevant meetings and conversations took place about the issue.
“[Y]ou've taken the position, it seems to me, or almost the position that it's an absolute privilege, and that's not correct,” Kollar-Kotelly said, criticizing the Justice Department’s position. At another point, she explained further: “[I]f you assert [the presidential communications privilege], it's presumptively so, but that is not the end of the inquiry. And the problem that I'm having is, you're not willing to have the rest of the inquiry with me.”
As a way of addressing the government’s concerns, Kollar-Kotelly discussed the possibility of the department turning over a log detailing the relevant meetings and conversations — not the content of the communications, just the fact of their existence — for her to review in an effort to determine if the privilege applies, but the DOJ lawyer kept insisting that the department’s position was that such a document would be covered by the privilege.
The DOJ lawyer didn’t budge.
After significant back and forth, the judge said, “I'm not talking about giving it to the plaintiffs. You keep going back to the plaintiffs. I am talking about giving it to the Court so the Court can make a decision as to whether or not this actually falls into the presidential communications privilege.” Finally, Kollar-Kotelly said, “[A]nswer it yes or no and give me an explanation. Are you willing to provide any information whatsoever about what might have transpired?”
“Your Honor, to answer in one word, the answer is no,” Parker responded.
Concluding the discussion a few minutes later, Kollar-Kotelly said, “I will figure out how I want to proceed with this, but this is not a good way to go about this.”
The deliberative process privilege discussion, surrounding withheld documents and redactions to documents that have been turned over, was more brief and less contentious, focusing in large part on a dispute over what constitutes a “decision” — given that the privilege only protects predecisional matters.
The dispute, as Kollar-Kotelly put it, appeared to be over “whether the tweet was the decision or the memorandum was the decision.” She suggested that decision-making is fluid at times and that, “instead of going off on whether the tweet is the final decision or his memorandum is the final decision,” the lawyers should focus on whether the material at issue looks like the matter discussed is the type of material that usually would be seen as predecisional.
The challengers’ lawyer, Paul Wolfson from WilmerHale, said the government needed to specify what decision is at issue so it can be determined if the redacted material truly is predecisional or if it is “really just people reacting to a decision that was already made, which would make it postdecisional.”
Parker’s response was a bit winding, but it, in effect, said that the tweets set off a cascading series of decisions — “the tweet was a decision and that that decision itself gave rise to a series of additional decisions” — and that the redacted materials are all “deliberative material” protected from disclosure because the redactions represent predecisional material as to at least one of those decisions.
Kollar-Kotelly asked the parties to confer on those issues in an attempt to narrow down the number of documents at issue before she has to determine how to address the privilege claims.
Over the course of the hearing, lawyers for both parties referenced letters that were submitted to the court and each other, laying out their positions on the arguments. Neither letter was posted on the court's docket, however, and both lawyers for the challengers and for the government declined to provide a copy of the letters to BuzzFeed News — saying the decision was up to the judge to make the letters public. On Friday morning, just before publication of this story, BuzzFeed News was informed that the court would be placing the letters on the docket at the request of the parties — but it had not done so by the time of publication.
“I will figure out how I want to proceed with this, but this is not a good way to go about this.”
This week’s court dispute is not the first time the Trump administration has raised the argument that documents sought in litigation should be protected from disclosure by executive privilege. In December, in the course of defending the administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a discovery dispute arose in one of the challenges to the decision. A federal judge ordered the Trump administration to turn over documents in a challenge, claiming the decision violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The Justice Department went to the Supreme Court to halt that order from being enforced, making several arguments regarding why the order was inappropriate, but one of its final arguments was that at least some of the documents were covered by executive privilege and should not have to be produced.
The Supreme Court granted the Justice Department’s request on the grounds that the discovery order was premature, but the court added a warning regarding privilege issues. Near the conclusion of its order, the court noted, “In any event, the District Court may not compel the Government to disclose any document that the Government believes is privileged without first providing the Government with the opportunity to argue the issue.”
Of course, executive privilege issues also are expected to come up — and already are coming up — in the course of the special counsel and congressional investigations into Russian influence into the 2016 presidential election. While these other disputes are important in their own right, the government’s arguments in other cases shed light on what might be expected, should special counsel Robert Mueller seek information the administration doesn’t want to turn over or, as could happen with Steve Bannon, if a chamber of Congress votes to hold someone in contempt in response to a refusal to answer questions or provide documents.
Thu, 15 Feb 2018 11:05:42 -0500
Leah Millis / Reuters
A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that President Donald Trump's third attempt at a travel ban is likely unconstitutional, writing that it "continues to exhibit a primarily religious anti-Muslim objective."
The US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld a lower court injunction that blocked the Trump administration from enforcing key parts of the travel ban, but put its order on hold while the US Supreme Court takes up the issue of the ban.
The president's third travel ban is already before the Supreme Court, after the 9th Circuit ruled in December that it violated federal law. The 9th Circuit did not rule on the issue addressed by the 4th Circuit — whether the ban amounts to religious discrimination in violation of the US Constitution's Establishment Clause — but the justices asked for briefing on the constitutional question as well.
The 4th Circuit sided in favor of the groups challenging the ban in a 9–4 decision. Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the majority opinion that the government's "proffered rationale for the Proclamation lies at odds with the statements of the President himself."
"Plaintiffs here do not just plausibly allege with particularity that the Proclamation’s purpose is driven by anti-Muslim bias, they offer undisputed evidence of such bias: the words of the President," Gregory wrote.
Gregory cited Trump's "disparaging comments and tweets regarding Muslims," the president's repeated references to a Muslim ban, the fact that Trump's previous travel bans were focused on majority-Muslim countries, and statements by Trump and his advisers that the latest order has the same goals as the previous ones.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that, "Nothing is more important to the President and the Attorney General than the safety and security of all Americans. The President’s lawful order remains critical to accomplishing that goal. The Fourth Circuit’s decision does not alter the status quo, and we look forward to ultimate resolution of these issues by the Supreme Court.”
Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case for the travel ban challengers in the 4th Circuit, said in a statement, that, "President Trump’s third illegal attempt to denigrate and discriminate against Muslims through an immigration ban has failed in court yet again. It’s no surprise. The Constitution prohibits government actions hostile to a religion.”
After federal courts struck down the president's first two attempts at a travel ban, Trump on Sept. 24 signed the latest set of travel restrictions. It in large part suspended travel to the US by nationals of five majority-Muslim countries covered under the previous travel bans — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — as well as two new countries, Chad and North Korea. The presidential proclamation also placed travel restrictions on certain government officials in Venezuela and their family members.
In October, federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued injunctions blocking enforcement of the ban, which the Trump administration appealed. The Supreme Court issued an order on Dec. 4 allowing the ban to go fully into effect while the appeals in the 9th Circuit and the 4th Circuit went forward. The justices wrote at the time that it expected that the appeals courts would rule "with appropriate dispatch."
The 9th Circuit, which heard arguments on Dec. 6, issued its opinion on Dec. 20. But the 4th Circuit, which heard arguments two days later, did not rule until Thursday.
Gregory wrote in the main opinion that even if the proclamation was "facially legitimate" — that the text on its face didn't run afoul of the constitution — it failed the test of whether the government had a "bona fide" reason for adopting it. The administration argued that the proclamation was rooted in national security concerns, but Gregory wrote that Trump's statements undermined that.
Gregory said that even setting aside Trump's statements during the campaign calling for a Muslim ban, the president had continued to make statements that "convey the primary purpose of the Proclamation—to exclude Muslims from the United States." He quoted Trump's tweets supporting his original travel ban executive order, which multiple courts determined was likely unconstitutional, as well as a tweet expressing support for an unverified story about a general who killed Muslims using bullets dipped in pig's blood and his retweets of anti-Muslim videos.
"Plaintiffs offer undisputed evidence that the President of the United States has openly and often expressed his desire to ban those of Islamic faith from entering the United States. The Proclamation is thus not only a likely Establishment Clause violation, but also strikes at the basic notion that the government may not act based on 'religious animosity,'" Gregory wrote.
The court upheld US District Judge Theodore Chuang's preliminary injunction, which blocked enforcement of the proclamation's travel restrictions with respect to nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen who have a "credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States."
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Wed, 14 Feb 2018 15:00:35 -0500
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Aaron Josefczyk / Reuters
John Kasich’s brand is built around the idea of “two paths” for the Republican Party: one for center-right pragmatists like him, the other for flamethrowers like Donald Trump.
But as the Ohio governor considers a rematch with Trump in 2020, he is weighing two more-tactical paths. Does he challenge Trump, the sitting president, in primaries where Kasich won’t find much institutional GOP support? Or does he leave the party, go down a route littered with ballot-access hurdles and fundraising challenges, and run as an independent?
Sources close to Kasich’s political team have told BuzzFeed News in recent weeks that both options are in play. Deliberate or not, Kasich’s moves as the 2018 midterms approach reflect that. In Massachusetts, his still-active Kasich for America committee and Doug Preisse, one of his longtime advisers, have donated to Rick Green, who is seeking an open House seat as a Republican. In California, Kasich has encouraged Steve Poizner, who this week launched a campaign for state insurance commissioner as an independent.
Kasich and his team are identifying other midterm races where he can be helpful, return the favor to those who backed his 2016 White House bid, and collect chits for 2020.
“We’ve talked about it, but there have been no decisions made,” Bob Klaffky, a member of Kasich’s inner circle, said in an interview this week. “If there are people out there he believes in, and they ask for help, and he wants to do it, then he’ll do it.”
Others close to Kasich caution against seeing the tea leaves pointing to 2020 in such activity. They note that Green and Poizner supported Kasich in the past, and that any investment in their races should not necessarily be viewed as building blocks for another presidential run.
Kasich has been frustrated with the Republican Party since losing its nomination to Trump two years ago. Earlier this month — when the New Hampshire GOP chair responded to word of an upcoming Kasich visit to the nation’s first primary state by pledging to support the president — Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, acknowledged thoughts about an independent run. “Why,” he wondered, “does everyone assume the only option is running in a GOP primary?”
“I think we are all watching things closely,” Klaffky said this week. “This is just my opinion, but I think the time could be right for an independent bid. I think there’s a growing middle.”
Kasich discussed Poizner’s plans to wage a nonpartisan bid for insurance commissioner — a post he was elected to as a Republican a decade ago — before his announcement Monday, a Poizner adviser told BuzzFeed News. It’s not yet certain how much Kasich will do for Poizner, who was a national co-chair of his 2016 campaign. Also of note: Weaver wrote a December guest column for the Kansas City Star promoting Greg Orman as an independent candidate for Kansas governor. (Neither Weaver nor Kasich is involved with Orman’s team.)
A viable independent presidential bid would be tricky. Kasich would need the resources to win ballot access in all 50 states and to advertise a message that breaks through the traditional two-party system. But fundraising beyond Ohio always has been a challenge for Kasich, and he does not have the personal wealth that businesspeople such as Poizner and Orman bring to their campaigns. Poizner, a former Silicon Valley executive, was a top donor to Kasich in 2016. But Kasich would need many more like him to bankroll an independent 2020 effort.
“The legal hurdles you can get over,” Klaffky said. “It’s the money” that’s a big challenge.
Kasich’s interest in New Hampshire and neighboring Massachusetts, where the Boston media market reaches much of New Hampshire, suggests groundwork for a Republican primary — an option that may be more likely if Trump for whatever reason doesn’t seek a second term. He will visit New England College on April 3, and this week he was booked as the May graduation speaker at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
His team also keeps in touch with past New Hampshire aides, including Dante Vitagliano, his former operations director in the state.
But Kasich’s tenuous standing in the GOP — Trump is popular among the party rank and file, and many remain upset that Kasich never supported him — means his help is not always wanted. Several Republicans working for 2018 candidates who backed Kasich in 2016 acknowledged that a Kasich assist could do more harm than good. Even in Ohio, where Kasich is term-limited but enjoys high approval ratings, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor has downplayed his endorsement of her as she attempts to score an upset in a gubernatorial primary.
Kasich could be more of an asset in Massachusetts, where Green is running to succeed retiring Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas. Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican, carried the district in 2014, giving GOP leaders hope that they can pick up the seat with the right candidate. Green chaired Kasich’s presidential campaign in the state, and Vitagliano is managing Green’s bid. Kasich’s committee has donated $5,000 to Green. Preisse chipped in $1,000.
“I don’t have any poll numbers on that,” Vitagliano replied when asked if a Kasich campaign visit would be welcome. “But we certainly appreciate the governor’s help for Rick’s campaign.”
Wed, 14 Feb 2018 14:02:44 -0500
Letitia James speaks at a memorial gathering in Brooklyn for those killed in Orlando in 2016.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Letitia "Tish" James, the public advocate for the city of New York, has told people in recent days that she intends to run for New York City mayor in 2021, according to two sources familiar with the communication.
Asked in a text message by BuzzFeed News if the rumors were true — that she made her intentions known to a small cadre of supporters — James texted back, “No comment.”
A spokesperson for James, however, did not deny that she has reached out to supporters.
“Tish is focused on continuing her work to be an effective public advocate, standing up for working families and the most vulnerable New Yorkers,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Her potentially running wouldn't be a shocking development in New York City politics. Bill de Blasio, who was reelected mayor last year, was formerly the city’s public advocate. The office is widely viewed as a launching pad for politicians with designs on Gracie Mansion, and the public advocate is first in line to succeed the mayor. If elected, James would be the first black woman mayor of New York City.
Her early missives do appear to be a signal that James is eager to get the wheels turning on a contentious mayoral primary, even if it's years away. Formidable candidates could include Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, and possibly even Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat currently serving in Congress.
In a brief conversation with BuzzFeed News in Washington last September, James said she looked forward the next step in her career, suggesting that while she understood questions surrounding her possible candidacy for mayor, she was not yet prepared to talk openly about it.
It’s not stopping people in New York from needling her, however. Last month, James spoke at Rev. Al Sharpton’s annual MLK Day celebration, a must-stop for the New York’s political elite. According to a source who was present, longtime observers and friends of hers took turns, half-jokingly, referring to her as "Madame Mayor."
Wed, 14 Feb 2018 13:04:34 -0500
Pool / Getty Images
The White House press corps has become used to briefing-room spin, cleanups after Trump tweets, and flat-out falsehoods about presidential fixations like crowd size.
But for reporters covering the Trump administration, something feels different about the Rob Porter scandal. White House reporters say that the incident has transformed into the most infuriating and baffling episode in an administration whose communication strategy has often been defined by chaos and warring factions.
Day after day, since the Daily Mail first reported that the now-former White House staff secretary’s two ex-wives said he was physically and emotionally abusive, the White House has repeatedly contradicted the timeline of events that led to Porter’s departure. After originally praising Porter in a statement, for instance, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told staff to say he had been tossed 40 minutes after he learned about the allegations, according to the Washington Post. That version of events was then challenged by press secretary Sarah Sanders at a White House briefing this week.
“There’s the extraordinary situation where the White House chief of staff and the White House press secretary are telling completely different stories about what happened,” said one White House reporter. “That’s wild even by Trump White House standards.”
The scandal has inherently damning components: Domestic violence (including photos) coupled with the fact that Kelly knew “several weeks ago” that Porter, who handled confidential material given to the president, would eventually be denied permanent security clearance, according to Politico. FBI Director Chris Wray complicated matters further when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday morning, once again contradicting White House statements. (Porter has denied the allegations and resigned.)
But the event, and particularly the clumsy handling, has redefined Kelly’s image both within the West Wing and the White House media, where he has been frequently portrayed as a steady hand. The groundswell of anti-Kelly leaks coming out of the White House in recent days has demonstrated how some frustrated underlings see this as a good chance to weaken a controlling chief of staff, White House reporters say. There has also been a growing anger recently among some reporters that Kelly has not been an honest broker in dealing with the press.
“This story offers a convenient vehicle to run Kelly over with his own lies and not have it look like it’s driven by reporters’ or a newsroom’s personal frustrations,” one reporter said.
Reporters, who preferred to speak anonymously about the people they have to cover, also say they feel as though they are being gaslit, almost comically, by people who should know better. For all the public talk of “fake news,” White House officials deal with the press daily and, in many cases, have normal working relationships with reporters covering the beat. The media’s reaction to the misleading Porter timeline, some reporters say, has therefore been stronger than something like an errant Trump tweet. “Normals lying is treated normally, as opposed to Trump lying,” said another reporter.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
There’s another inconvenient fact for the White House: No other big story has emerged as a news cycle competitor in the past week, which has allowed the media to continue to focus on the changing Porter account. “It’s amazing Trump hasn’t done something ridiculous to change the subject,” said a White House reporter.
Sanders has a few tried-and-true tactics to divert attention in the briefing room from what the press wants to ask about. On Tuesday, she brought Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to the briefing for a Q&A. And in the past, when reporters are bearing down, Sanders often has a handful of conservative reporters she can call on to reliably change the subject. But White House reporters say that hasn’t been the case this time — the briefing room has become united in searching for answers on Porter.
“I think we are so animated about it because the level of fuck-up all around, from Trump and Kelly on down, is just so monumental and baffling, even by their exalted standards,” said another White House reporter.
Wed, 14 Feb 2018 09:01:02 -0500
Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images
The most recognizable protester to emerge from the movement against police violence in the middle part of this decade has landed a book deal with Viking, the publisher told BuzzFeed News.
DeRay Mckesson, who came to national prominence after participating in weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, of the shooting death of 18-year-old Mike Brown at the hands of a police officer, will publish On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, due out in September and is now available through preorder.
A Viking spokesperson declined to confirm the terms of the deal.
The publisher characterizes the book as part-memoir, part-manifesto that will lay out "the intellectual, pragmatic political framework for a new liberation movement."
The news is yet another marker of Mckesson’s ascent from protester to the forefront of progressive activism around social justice, as well as something of a darling of the monied, liberal classes in Washington and Silicon Valley. Mckesson announced his intent to leave his position as head of human resources for Baltimore's public schools to pursue activism full-time last summer. He’s launched a podcast with the liberal media group Crooked Media called Pod Save the People. That podcast — hosted with fellow Campaign Zero organizers Samuel Sinyangwe and Brittany Packnett, as well as Clint Smith III, a PhD candidate at Harvard — will have its first live show in Washington on Feb. 18.
A Viking spokesperson said the book project's auction was "highly competitive," confirming to BuzzFeed News it had 17 bidders. The book’s North American rights were acquired by Georgia Bodnar, a rising publishing industry star, and Wendy Wolf, who recently acquired work from the author of the No. 1 New York Times best-seller Hidden Figures. Bodnar and Wolf acquired the rights from CAA, the publisher said.
Mckesson will discuss meetings with figures like President Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, Mckesson endorsed Clinton before the election, for which he received some criticism from other activists.
In a brief interview with BuzzFeed News, Mckesson said he'll also offer reflections on meetings Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch against a broader backdrop of contextualizing for readers contrasts in grassroots engagement in different cities where he helped organize protests. That context will also include the experience of "being in conversation" with activists from the civil rights movement, said Mckesson.
He views the book as an extension of an ongoing conversation he's tried to facilitate mostly on Twitter, where he has over a million followers. "I love Twitter and have used the platform to process and reflect, and to challenge power over the past three years," he said. "The book is an opportunity to share a host of ideas and stories about resistance, blackness, and a pathway to freedom in a fully developed way."
Tue, 13 Feb 2018 12:48:49 -0500
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is pledging to refuse contributions from corporate PACs — a move that puts her in a small group of national Democrats and sets a new bar on the issue of campaign finance for other potential presidential candidates in 2020.
Gillibrand stopped accepting corporate PAC money on Jan. 1, an aide said.
The New York senator made the pledge in conjunction with End Citizens United, a Democratic group named after the 2010 Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited political spending by corporations and labor unions. Gillibrand, up for reelection this year, secured End Citizens United's endorsement with the pledge — and became one of just four sitting senators to vow off corporate PACs, according to the group.
"She wanted to do something to show her leadership," said Tiffany Muller, the president and executive director of End Citizens United.
Other sitting senators who decline corporate PAC money include Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Maria Cantwell of Washington.
End Citizens United officials describe Gillibrand's pledge as part of a growing response by voters and candidates to the issue of money in politics, set off in part by Donald Trump's anti-establishment message that helped him pull support from Clinton among independent, non-college-educated, and unaffiliated voters.
According to End Citizens United, about 70 candidates running in 2018 races — most of them challengers in House races — have declined to take corporate PAC money. The figure marks a significant uptick since 2016, when only three top-tier House candidates, designated "Red to Blue" candidates by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, made similar pledges, officials said.
"This is a national trend that we're seeing," said Muller, the group's president. "The reason that they're all doing this and campaigning on the issue is they see how much voters feel shut out of the system — like their voice is drowned out."
In 2016, End Citizens United did not endorse Hillary Clinton until after the Democratic primary. Speaking by phone, Muller praised Clinton for her platform on campaign finance as the "most progressive plan on the issue that we'd ever seen" — with goals to overturn the Citizens United decision, increase disclosure laws, and create a federal system to match small-dollar donations in presidential and congressional elections. Still, Clinton's campaign accepted thousands of dollars from corporate PACs.
For Gillibrand, the pledge comes as the latest in a series of aggressive and progressive stands since Trump took office. The Albany-born Democrat came to Washington in 2007 as a representative from New York's rural 20th District, with a moderate bent and a high rating from the National Rifle Association. A decade later, the 51-year-old claims one of the most liberal records in the US Senate: She cosponsored this year's single-payer health care plan, voted against most of President Trump's cabinet nominees, and set off calls for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, her Democratic colleague, after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct.
"People tend to focus on the political reasons behind why this makes sense," Muller said of Gillibrand's pledge. "One of the key reasons Sen. Gillibrand did this is it's just the right thing to do." (Muller noted that Gillibrand has long shown interest in issues of transparency: She was the first member of Congress, for instance, to publish a list of her official meetings, earmark requests, and personal financial disclosures.)
The End Citizens United pledge will apply to Gillibrand's Senate campaign and her PAC, Off the Sidelines.
Glen Caplin, an aide, said the senator has already turned down checks this year. He estimated that as a result of the pledge, Gillibrand's campaign could have raised an additional $800,000 to $1 million in donations from corporate PACs in 2018.
Still, Caplin said, much of Gillibrand's fundraising is focused online.
At the end of last year, the average contribution to her Senate campaign was $48.34. Ninety-seven percent of contributions came in increments of $100 or less. Eighty-eight percent came in increments of $25 or less. Her online donations totaled more than $4.4 million.
Ahead of the midterm elections, 18 candidates have taken End Citizen United's No Corporate PAC pledge, including high-profile challengers such as Rep. Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat running against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, and Randy Bryce, running against House Speaker Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin home district.
So far, the group has endorsed a total of 114 candidates.
Hours after Gillibrand announced her pledge, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tweeted that he would also stop accepting money from corporate PACs.
Booker, another potential 2020 candidate, is now the fifth sitting senator to take a stand against corporate PAC contributions.
Between 2013 and 2014, a period in which Booker ran in a special election followed by a reelection campaign, he received more money from Wall Street than any member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This story has been updated.
Tue, 13 Feb 2018 10:08:12 -0500
Pete Marovich / Getty Images
Last month, federal prosecutors decided not to retry Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez after a lengthy corruption case against him ended in mistrial.
Menendez is a free man, but is still facing a renewed Senate Ethics Committee investigation and is somewhat at odds with more left-leaning Democrats. It’s the kind of situation that could lead to a contentious primary with a number of challengers, especially with an energized grassroots base motivated to run for office in the age of Trump.
But Menendez has drawn just one primary challenger: activist and pundit Michael Starr Hopkins.
Hopkins said the speed with which the New Jersey Democratic establishment endorsed the senator following the mistrial drove him to challenge the senator’s reelection bid — as well as Menendez’s post-mistrial statement. (“To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” Menendez said in front of the federal courthouse.)
Menendez had faced legal scrutiny over his relationship with a major donor, a Florida ophthalmologist. During the trial, former US senator Robert Torricelli (who faced his own scrutiny over a donor) worked behind the scenes to position himself as the successor of Menendez’s seat if he was forced to resign from office. But little momentum for a challenge — primarily against New Jersey's Democratic machine — has materialized.
John Wisniewski, a former progressive candidate for governor and NJ assemblyman, said there’s a slim chance of success for anyone looking to challenge Menendez, who’s already shored up support from Democratic power players including current governor Phil Murphy and popular New Jersey junior senator Cory Booker. The senator also has a hefty amount of cash ($4.1 million) on hand ahead of the April filing deadline.
“Fundraising is going to be tough. We’re not going to go dollar for dollar with Menendez,” said Hopkins, whose campaign has raised $26,268 according to Federal Election Commission data, but he hopes that New Jerseyans will connect with someone running for office “who isn’t a party insider.”
Despite the quick lineup behind Menendez, a poll, conducted by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll, found that 51% of New Jersey voters thought that Menendez didn’t deserve reelection and 49% thought that he should resign. The poll surveyed 600 New Jersey adults after the mistrial was declared last November.
The poll also found that New Jerseyans who were informed about the senator’s corruption trial first were more likely to say he didn’t deserve reelection, and Hopkins doesn’t shy away from mentioning the corruption charges. Hopkins says that he’s running partly because he wants to protect the Senate seat for Democrats. “Losing this one seat, this one vote” could have a major impact on policies (like health care) that protect lots of Americans, Hopkins said.
He’s also running on the heels of Murphy’s 2017 campaign, in which he ran on a litany of liberal goals, from a $15 minimum wage to legalized marijuana. Foreign policy progressives have already complained that Menendez — who holds somewhat more hawkish views on Cuba and Iran than some Democrats — has regained his position as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Menendez's campaign didn't immediately respond for comment.
Fri, 09 Feb 2018 17:39:30 -0500
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand — the third-ranking official at the Justice Department — is leaving the department after less than a year on the job, two senior Justice Department officials told BuzzFeed News.
The Justice Department confirmed Friday evening that Brand would be stepping down "in the coming weeks." Brand is currently the number three official at the Justice Department, but she is next in line to take on oversight of the special counsel investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the official currently in charge, left or was fired.
Brand is going to Walmart Inc., where she’ll become the head of global governance, a job that involves overseeing the company’s legal functions, investigations, and ethics compliance, according to a source familiar with Brand’s decision. Walmart later confirmed Brand's new role. The New York Times first reported Brand's coming departure earlier Friday.
"Rachel has shown real leadership over many important divisions at the Department," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in the statement, pointing specifically to her work on "human trafficking, protecting free speech on campus, and fighting sexual harassment in public housing," as well as Section 702 re-authorization. "I know the entire Department of Justice will miss her, but we join together in congratulating her on this new opportunity in the private sector."
Brand has kept a low profile at the department since she was confirmed in May. She hasn’t been publicly linked to the Russia probe. The associate attorney general traditionally is in charge of managing the day-to-day operations at the department. Her portfolio has included hate crimes prosecutions, tribal justice issues, and deregulation.
Brand’s departure would mean that Solicitor General Noel Francisco would become the next highest-ranking official in line to take over the Russia probe, according to an internal DOJ succession memo adopted by former attorney general Loretta Lynch in November 2016 that was obtained by government watchdog group American Oversight from the Justice Department in September via a Freedom of Information Act request. That attorney general–designated succession list remains authorized under the most recent DOJ succession executive order signed by President Trump.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. The news that Brand was leaving came as a surprise to several senior Justice Department officials contacted by BuzzFeed News.
Brand brought a more politically connected résumé to the Justice Department than Rosenstein's — she previously worked in the White House and Justice Department under former president George W. Bush, and served as vice president and chief counsel for regulatory litigation at the US Chamber Litigation Center.
Trump has publicly and repeatedly expressed his frustration with Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller as special counsel last year, leading to speculation that he might fire Rosenstein — a move that would put Brand in a high-profile and politically volatile position.
The fact that a memo prepared by Republican staff on the House Intelligence Committee alleging law enforcement abuses in connection with surveillance applications to the Foreign Surveillance Court named Rosenstein again raised questions about whether Trump would want to remove him. The memo, which was released on Feb. 2 after Trump declassified it, stated that Rosenstein had signed off on at least one application to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.
On the day the memo was released, Trump was asked if he would fire Rosenstein and whether he still had confidence in the deputy attorney general. Trump replied, “You figure that one out.”
Jamie Gorelick, a former DOJ official under former president Bill Clinton who worked with Brand at the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and was aware of Brand’s decision to leave, told BuzzFeed News that the offer from Walmart was one that “doesn’t come up that often.”
“Walmart reached out to her with a job that is a perfect fit for her and she decided that she needed to take it,” Gorelick said. Gorelick did not know when exactly Brand would be leaving the Justice Department.
One of Brand’s former Justice Department colleagues from the Bush administration, Dan Bryant, is senior vice president for global public policy and government affairs at Walmart.
The New York Times also reported that Brand's assistant Currie Gunn had left the department. Gunn recently took a job working for Judge Gregory Katsas of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit as his judicial assistant, a court official told BuzzFeed News. Katsas, who served in the White House counsel's office starting in January 2017, was confirmed to the court in late November.
Chris Geidner contributed reporting to this article.
Fri, 09 Feb 2018 12:27:15 -0500
The Washington Post / Getty Images
When Axios reported last month on President Trump’s light daily schedule — cushioned by plenty of leisurely “executive time” — one particular Tuesday stood out.
Among a trio of meetings there was, as to be expected, one with White House chief of staff John Kelly and another with H.R. McMaster, the top national security official in the country.
And then, just before Trump called it a day, there was a half hour with Johnny DeStefano.
“Anyone else would be walking around with a head like a zeppelin after seeing that,” one former coworker said after spotting DeStefano’s name in the story. “But Johnny’s Johnny.”
DeStefano always thrives, in another friend’s estimation, by gravitating toward “the unmanageable and unwinnable” — and managing to win. That helps explain his rising status in a Trump White House dominated by loud conflict. DeStefano outlasted the Republican National Committee veterans who brought him into the fold, and survived a feud with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His title, director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, undersells his widening influence. Recent reports had him assuming at least temporary leadership of three other departments: Intergovernmental Affairs, Public Liaison, and Political Affairs.
For weeks the White House had not confirmed the moves publicly, though administration officials had acknowledged that DeStefano had taken on a larger role in executing the political agenda. Friday evening, after this story had published, and amid a Trump administration crisis involving other top staffers, the White House announced that DeStefano now oversees the offices of Political Affairs and Public Liaison, in addition to Personnel.
So, in a midterm year that could turn on Trump’s unpredictable judgment — the president’s involvement in last year’s Senate race in Alabama and his intention to play favorites in GOP primaries fray the nerves of vulnerable Republicans — DeStefano stands as a quiet center of power.
“You’re not going to get him to talk for this story,” one longtime colleague, who is familiar with the inner workings of the White House and national party, predicted to BuzzFeed News. “He knows that his utility is that he’s going to be trusted.”
DeStefano, who indeed declined interview requests, largely keeps the full scope of his duties a mystery to those on the outside. Originally, Reince Priebus, the former RNC chair and Trump’s first chief of staff, saw in DeStefano a steady establishment hand who, as personnel director, could help hire the right government for an anti-establishment president.
His long history of going by “Johnny” — friends text DeStefano mockingly whenever they see him identified as “John” — and his attention to appearance complement a reality TV celebrity turned president who favors aides who look and sound the part. His friends say this also endeared him to his old boss, former House Speaker John Boehner. “Johnny always looks great, always has a tie on,” said Deborah Pryce, a former Ohio lawmaker. “He just kind of had the Boehner Way.”
But DeStefano knows he’s not the star of the show. On that score, interviews with more than a dozen friends and coworkers were an exercise in déjà vu.
“He’s no-drama,” said Guy Harrison, who worked with DeStefano at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “There are bed wetters and drama queens in politics. Being the person who is calm in the face of chaos always helps.”
“Remember the guy in Entourage, Johnny Drama? This is like Johnny No Drama,” offered Kevin Madden, a fellow Boehner alum.
“He doesn’t get involved in a lot of drama,” observed a third Republican.
DeStefano has earned a reputation for tackling tricky jobs in politics. When Pryce was facing a brutal reelection race in 2006, GOP leaders were nervous her team lacked the high-end political chops to survive a Democratic wave. DeStefano, who served as coalitions director for the Pryce-led House Republican Conference, was called in as campaign manager. Pryce won by 1,062 votes.
“They sent him here to get things organized. And that’s a difficult thing to do in Columbus, where you have all these super-geniuses,” said Matt Borges, a longtime Republican strategist in Ohio. “But Johnny did it, and he won.”
The victory impressed Boehner. Then the House minority leader, the Ohioan brought DeStefano into his inner circle. For the next six years, DeStefano held a variety of key jobs at the Capitol and in the wider political network of Boehner Land. Later, in the speaker’s office, he handled member services. Often that meant DeStefano was the bearer of bad news, like when a lawmaker didn’t get a preferred committee assignment or some other plum from Boehner.
“It’s really a tough job, because whether you’re Nancy Pelosi as speaker or Paul Ryan as speaker or John Boehner as speaker, you’re chief of the complaints office,” said Pat Tiberi, a recently retired congressman from Ohio who bonded with DeStefano. “Johnny was a fixer. He tried to fix problems and anticipate problems.”
Next, DeStefano was picked to run Data Trust — an organization that crunches voter data for the RNC — after the disastrous 2012 election that laid bare Republican deficiencies in data. DeStefano steered improvements that delivered better results in 2014 and 2016, during Priebus’s tenure running the party.
And from there it was on to the Trump White House. Many of DeStefano’s friends confess they were surprised the job was offered to and accepted by a veteran of Boehner Land. The former speaker was a symbol of the swamp Trump promised to drain, and he was hardly shy in his criticism of the billionaire, whom he called “barely a Republican.”
DeStefano, said one old friend, “was the quintessential guy who was telling everyone, ‘We’ve got to have good people there’ — justifying it.”
Others believe the establishment vs. anti-establishment dynamic is overblown.
"Is he establishment? Yes. But he’s not establishment to the degree that someone who was a senior George W. Bush White House staffer or someone who had worked for [the] Bush family in multiple iterations,” Brett Loper, a former top Boehner aide, said of DeStefano. “He’s not a disciple of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. He grew up through the ranks of the party, not the policy side of the party."
DeStefano overcame some bumps in his first year. Tillerson, according to a report in Politico, lashed out at him in a meeting for not filling State Department positions quickly enough. (A spokesperson for Tillerson declined to respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.)
“Even when Johnny was being criticized for how things were being handled, he never went public to defend himself,” one DeStefano ally said. “He absorbed the bullets.
“What he learned was to always put the boss first.”
Tarini Parti contributed reporting.
Wed, 07 Feb 2018 16:52:15 -0500
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Justice Department lawyers have told a federal judge that they will be defending a new policy regarding transgender military service that will be "disclosed" by the Trump administration on Feb. 21, the federal judge wrote in an order this week.
No further information about what that policy will be was included in the order, and federal officials declined to provide any further information about the substance of the forthcoming policy.
There are currently several cases challenging Trump's policy that called for an end to open transgender military service. US District Judge Marvin Garbis, who is overseeing one of those cases, noted the new policy development in the course of a brief ruling on when the government must turn over certain information to those challenging the policy.
The Feb. 21 date referenced is likely referring to a date set by President Trump's August memorandum that set the policy. Under the memorandum, the defense secretary is supposed to submit an implementation plan for the three portions of the memo — recruitment rules, retention, and health care — to Trump by Feb. 21.
All three of those provisions have been put on hold by various federal courts — including by Garbis in a challenge backed by the ACLU — and the administration stopped fighting a Jan. 1 deadline for accepting new military recruits who are transgender days before the deadline went into effect.
This week, Justice Department lawyers argued in one of those challenges that the defendants could not comply with obligations to turn over the required information "because they will not be defending the policy now at issue but will be defending the policy to be disclosed on February 21, 2018," Garbis wrote in a Tuesday order, summarizing what the Justice Department's lawyers had said in a telephone conference from earlier in the day. A lawyer for the challengers who was on the call confirmed the accuracy of the judge's account.
Asked about the statement that a new "policy" would be "disclosed on February 21, 2018," Maj. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesperson, said that the Pentagon only would be preparing "recommendations," but that a final decision on the "new policy" would come from the White House.
"The panel that was established by the Secretary of Defense is presenting their recommendations to him. At the end of this month, The Secretary will make his recommendations to the President, who will then make a decision and establish the new policy on transgender [service] in the military," Eastburn told BuzzFeed News.
Regarding its defense of that policy, noted by Garbis, Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec told BuzzFeed News, "We will continue to defend the President's and Secretary of Defense’s lawful authority in district court."
Under Garbis's order, the Justice Department is to fulfill their evidentiary obligations in the case "shortly after February 21, 2018."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, and the Defense and Justice departments did not provide any additional clarification on the plans or timeline for making them public.
Tue, 06 Feb 2018 21:04:22 -0500
Stacey Abrams speaks at the 2016 DNC.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Democrats have begun to worry that a contentious and expensive primary in Georgia’s governor’s race could majorly disadvantage the eventual nominee — in a race that some believe is winnable amid President Trump’s unpopularity.
Three months remain until Georgia’s May 22 primary and Georgia Democrats have two choices in the race for governor: Stacey Evans, a lawyer and former state legislator who hails from the northern part of the state, and Stacey Abrams, a tax attorney and former House minority leader of the Georgia state legislature.
Abrams advisers told BuzzFeed News worry that if the primary runs its full course, it will get harder for the campaign to go into a potential general election at full strength. That’s in part because of a big gamble by Abrams: running an expensive, aggressive field campaign almost from the very start. The campaign so far has spent nearly everything it’s taken in, but national Democrats say they understand the necessity. “She’s doing a November field campaign in January because she’s a black woman,” a campaign adviser told BuzzFeed News.
That’s required a lot of fundraising, as well, including in places like Washington where Abrams is a well-known figure, after years of organizing voting rights and registration efforts. Abrams, for instance, recently drew a large audience at a fundraiser at The Park at 14th, a four-level nightclub frequented by a young political class. Servers held out plates of jerk wings and macaroni and cheese, and music blared before a slate of speakers addressed the crowd, including a very young white woman. The idea of Abrams becoming the nation’s first black female governor has been the driving force and primary currency of her campaign. (The campaign is expected to announce about $1.7 million in donations during the last period, from about 14,800 donors — which would make the average donation a little over $100.)
Her argument is that any Democrat not working as hard as she is to expand the voter base is going to continue to lose elections, citing successful efforts in Alabama and Virginia as examples. “When you start a company or when you begin any type of project, your responsibility is to cultivate customers,” she said, invoking her business background.
“You do not reach customers by raising money and holding it and hoping your customers come to ask how much money you have,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Any startup that went out for seed capital to put it in the bank and hold it just ’cause would not find new investors. They would not find traction because they would not find customers, which in this case are voters who have not been targets of campaigns.”
Meanwhile, there was a rumor circulating in recent weeks that Stacey Evans might drop out of the gubernatorial primary and run for attorney general or lieutenant governor instead. She’s not getting out, though.
“That,” in the words of an Evans adviser to BuzzFeed News, “is a lie.”
Her campaign has shown a willingness to take chances. In Atlanta’s tumultuous mayoral runoff election, Evans endorsed Keisha Lance Bottoms over Mary Norwood, a white independent candidate who had an overwhelming majority of the white vote and who was backed by a black city council president and former mayor Shirley Franklin. The risk paid off. Bottoms declared victory when ahead by a slight margin on election night, and Norwood conceded the election two weeks later. (A Democratic source said Bottoms was heard speaking about Evans in glowing terms at the US Conference of Mayors’ 86th Winter Meeting last month.)
But it hasn’t been without controversy. Last month, the Evans campaign filmed a digital ad inside Ebenezer Baptist Church depicting Evans as a welcome guest. The campaign was swiftly rebuked by the church, which asked the campaign to remove the ad from its social media, but it had already gone viral. Through the pastor, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, the church released a statement: “Our church leadership and administration does not condone such use of the church's iconography or worship space.” The political commentator Jason Johnson called the apparent effort to superimpose Evans’ face on Martin Luther King Jr.’s at the end of the video “political blackface.” Since then, she rolled out, formally, the endorsement of a well-known district attorney who is a black woman.
In the background of all of this, the top Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, raised a whopping $7 million according to his most recent filing.
That’s not all that’s giving the Democrats in the race anxiety. The deadline to file if you intend to run for governor in Georgia is March 9.
Mon, 05 Feb 2018 13:39:57 -0500
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Maryland Rep. John Delaney, the first Democrat to announce a presidential bid against Donald Trump, is now running two TV ads in the early-voting state of Iowa.
Delaney, a three-term congressman and former financial services executive, launched his presidential campaign last July in a Washington Post op-ed, more than a year and a half earlier than candidates typically jump in the race to become their party's nominee. This weekend, he also became the first candidate to buy airtime.
The 54-year-old candidate is running two ads for four weeks across Iowa — part of a $1 million campaign, according to Delaney spokesman Will McDonald.
The first ad began Sunday, timed to the Super Bowl, as reported in the Des Moines Register. The second, titled "Early," will begin airing Monday on network and cable in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, McDonald said. “How do we bring our country together?” Delaney asks in the ad. “How do we begin to heal a fractured nation?”
“The work starts now.”
The ads were made by the firm Siegel Strategies, according to McDonald.
Both spots pitch Delaney to Iowa voters as a pragmatic, no-gimmicks lawmaker willing to work across the aisle. It’s a message seen more often in a general election than a Democratic primary — a signal that the little-known Delaney will not try to compete with left-leaning candidates for the progressive mantle. He has shied at times from labels like "moderate" and "centrist," but described himself as a pro-business candidate who understands both the need for regulation and the value of the free market.
Delaney made his sixth trip to Iowa over Super Bowl weekend. He has said he plans to hold up to 500 events there before January 2019. His presidential campaign is among the earliest in the history of the Iowa caucuses. He plans to finish serving his third term in Congress before stepping aside after the 2018 election to focus on his presidential campaign — one he is willing and able to fund himself. (Delaney's estimated net worth stands at more than $91 million.)
"No games, no cat-and-mouse, no backup plan at the 11th hour if a focus group goes badly," he wrote in his 2017 Washington Post op-ed. "My approach goes beyond party and partisanship; I am first and foremost an American."
Fri, 02 Feb 2018 21:23:01 -0500
Mari Matsuri / AFP / Getty Images
Supporters of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that would lead to new congressional maps — likely to the benefit of Democrats — for the 2018 elections urged the US Supreme Court on Friday to stay out of the state court matter.
Republican lawmakers and some Republican voters have asked the US Supreme Court to take the unusual step of putting the state high court's order on hold, and Justice Samuel Alito asked parties in the case to respond to the stay request by Friday afternoon. Alito denied the requests without comment Monday and without referring the requests to the full court.
"Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has held that the 2011 map 'clearly, plainly and palpably' violates Pennsylvania’s Constitution," lawyers for the League of Women Voters wrote in opposing the stay request Friday. "It would be unprecedented for this Court to interfere with the state court’s determination about its own state's law."
On Jan. 22, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a brief ruling that the congressional map violated the state's constitution in a case brought by the League and others arguing that it was an unconstitutional "partisan" gerrymander. Under the map, only five of the state's 18 congressional districts are represented by Democrats — despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the swing state. That ruling was 5–2.
One of the justices in the majority, however, would have delayed the implementation of the ruling due to the closely approaching time for candidates to file to run for Congress in the state and potential confusion that could result. On a later 4–3 vote, reflecting that view, the state court denied a request to stay its ruling.
Republican lawmakers, however, also asked the US Supreme Court to put the ruling on hold, arguing that the ruling violates a federal constitutional provision known as the Elections Clause. As they detailed in their request, "The Constitution’s Elections Clause provides that '[t]he Times, Places and Manner' of congressional elections 'shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof' unless 'Congress' should 'make or alter such Regulations.'"
Normally, a state supreme court's ruling on state constitutional issues cannot be reviewed by the US Supreme Court. The Republican lawmakers — who are supported in their request by Republican voters in Pennsylvania and eight states and legislative leaders in a ninth state — argued that the US Supreme Court can and should step in because, they claimed, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's actions went too far in light of the Elections Clause.
"This is not simply a question of a state supreme court interpreting its state constitution," the Republican lawmakers argued, "but a state supreme court usurping that state’s legislature’s authority expressly granted under [the Elections Clause." Specifically, the Republican lawmakers argued that the state high court justices were "legislat[ing] from the bench" in the ruling, that doing so violates the Elections Clause, and that "the question of what does and does not constitute a 'legislative function' under the Elections Clause is a question of federal, not state, law."
The lawmakers also relied heavily on a 2004 opinion from Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas disagreeing with the court's decision not to hear a case challenging a state court's ruling on a redistricting question. Referring to the three-justice dissent, the Pennsylvania lawmakers' lawyers wrote that "multiple Justices of this Court have previously suggested [this issue] is ripe and appropriate for resolution in this Court."
In Friday's responses, state executive branch officials urged the US Supreme Court to deny the stay request.
"[T]he Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution, and ordered an appropriate remedy," lawyers for Democratic Gov. Thomas Wolf and other officials wrote. "That should be the end of this matter: This Court is not and should not be in the business of policing the correctness of state courts' interpretation of their own constitutions."
Even if the issue could be reviewed by the US Supreme Court, the Democratic executive branch officials argue that the Republican lawmakers' claim that the state high court improperly took on a legislative role is wrong. "The order below represents an ordinary exercise of the judicial review power, not a usurpation of legislative authority," they wrote.
The League of Women Voters' opposition to the stay request went further, arguing that the Republican lawmakers' would "have no chance of success on the merits" if the US Supreme Court were to hear the case.
"Their stay applications are just a ploy to preserve a congressional map that violates Pennsylvania’s Constitution for one more election cycle," the League's lawyers argued.
Fri, 02 Feb 2018 14:20:51 -0500
Cruz greets supporters at the Republican Convention in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 2016.
Jason Connolly / AFP / Getty Images
Ted Cruz’s microlevel attention to delegate math in 2016 kept him alive longer in the race for the Republican presidential nomination and prompted eventual winner Donald Trump to stew over what he called a “crooked deal” and “rigged system.”
The kind of insider politicking that Cruz mastered at state caucuses and conventions now appears to be the target of a rule change the Republican National Committee is exploring.
Under a proposal discussed this week during the party’s winter meetings, states that hold primaries for rank-and-file voters — rather than those less-accessible contests — could receive extra delegates to the national convention.
It’s not certain that the incentive will be placed before the full RNC later this year. RNC officials downplayed the idea as one of many tossed around Thursday during the Presidential Nominating Process Committee’s closed-door session.
The panel is consulting with the Trump White House on rule changes for 2020 and will issue recommendations in the coming months. Addressing members Friday, RNC cochair Bob Paduchik, who is leading the panel, described the gathering as “very productive.”
Members who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the extra delegate proposal was pitched as a way to encourage primaries, which are far more inclusive, and not as a way to block a Cruz-like strategy from a Trump challenger in two years. The Iowa caucuses, which traditionally kick off presidential nominating season, are known for low turnout among registered voters.
Participating in a caucus can involve spending hours at a caucus site rather than minutes in a voting booth. Candidates who invest heavily in organizing and mobilizing caucus voters often reap the benefits: Cruz won Iowa in 2016, as well as caucuses in Kansas, Maine, and Utah.
State conventions are even more exclusive, reserved for hardcore party insiders. Cruz’s aggressive approach to this format two years ago prolonged a nomination fight with the frontrunning Trump and raised the prospects of a contested convention that never materialized. In Wyoming, for example, Cruz won all 14 of the state’s delegates up for grabs at a state convention. The Texas senator swept similar contests in Colorado.
Voters are "going absolutely crazy because they weren't given a vote,” Trump said on Fox & Friends after Cruz’s Colorado triumph. “It's a crooked deal ... It’s a rigged system.”
A few days later, Trump tweeted, “Biggest story in politics is now happening in the great State of Colorado where over one million people have been precluded from voting!”
Nevada — which, along with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, has been one of the first four “carve-out” states on the primary calendar — held caucuses (won by Trump) in 2016. There has been speculation among RNC members at recent meetings that Nevada could lose its status. But Michael McDonald, the state’s GOP chair and a member of the nominating process committee, told BuzzFeed News that no such change is on the table.
“I don’t ever take anything for granted,” McDonald said. “I feel good about it. But, respectfully, I want to remain there. I’m fighting for everything we can, along with the other carve-out states.”
McDonald, like his counterparts in those early states, said he hasn’t heard from any Republicans interested in challenging Trump. He also doesn’t believe incentivizing primaries over caucuses and state conventions would change the playing field in 2020.
“Either way it goes,” McDonald said, “caucus or primary, what this president is doing — it’s not going to matter.”
Thu, 01 Feb 2018 13:23:01 -0500
Then–presidential candidates Donald Trump and John Kasich at a Republican debate in 2016.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
John Kasich — the Republican governor of Ohio, unsuccessful candidate for president, and perpetual Donald Trump scold — is planning another trip to New Hampshire. And that's renewed speculation that he (or another Trump critic, like Sens. Jeff Flake or Ben Sasse) might be eyeing a challenge to the sitting president, something that hasn’t seriously happened in decades, and comes with significant hurdles.
Striking a blow to President Trump’s reelection chances almost certainly would require an upset victory or better-than-imagined showing — think Eugene McCarthy chasing LBJ in 1968 — in New Hampshire or one of two other key early voting states: Iowa and South Carolina.
But would-be Trump challengers won’t find many friendly GOP leaders there. In interviews this week at the Republican National Committee’s winter meetings, top party officials from these states pledged allegiance to Trump and questioned why anyone would bother to try to wrestle the nomination from him.
“If and when that would happen, I have confidence that the South Carolina Republican Party would endorse President Trump,” said Drew McKissick, that state’s GOP chair.
New Hampshire GOP Chair Jeanie Forrester at first seemed puzzled when asked if any Republicans had reached out to her about a possible primary bid. “Against the president?” she replied.
“I’d have to really think about that,” she said later when asked if the party would endorse in a contested primary. “My general thought is that he is the president, and I would support him.”
The dynamics are a bit different in Iowa. There the state party officially is expected to remain neutral because it oversees the influential first-in-nation caucuses. But former Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, the state chair, has lit into Sasse. And Steve Scheffler, Iowa’s RNC national committee member, is on record saying that individual Republican leaders in the state should stand behind Trump.
“You never say never,” Scheffler said Thursday when asked about the viability of a primary challenger in Iowa, “but I just don’t see it happening.”
John Weaver, Kasich’s political strategist, told BuzzFeed News in an email that “many respected Republicans, independents, and some disaffected Democrats … including influential opinion leaders in those states with early primaries” have urged Kasich to run in 2020. He said Kasich is focused on finishing his second and last term as governor and has made no decision.
"No one,” Weaver added, “decides to run or not run for president based on the views of a few party insiders.”
Kasich's 2016 campaign and his refusal to support Trump in the general election remain sore spots for the president, and the 2020 rumblings have accelerated the feud. During a private RNC dinner Thursday evening, Trump blasted Kasich and a former Ohio Republican Party chair who had been a Kasich loyalist and Trump critic, according to sources present.
The mechanics of a primary challenge are messy, even in the most tempting of circumstances and regardless of whether Kasich is the right candidate. (Others seen as potential Republican rivals include Flake, who will soon retire from the Senate, and Sasse, who has spoken at GOP events in Iowa in recent months.)
But Trump is unpopular, unpredictable, and untethered to the old-school GOP. He’s flirted with enough disaster in his first year to invite not only doubts about the power of his incumbency, but also speculation about impeachment, resignation, or a decision against standing for a second term. No one knows where the Trump presidency will be in two years, let alone two months. Still, with the exception of Kasich’s enduring interest in New Hampshire and Sasse’s speeches, there’s no evidence that anyone other than Trump is preparing for a primary.
Take next week's off-year caucuses in Iowa. The Trump reelection campaign printed 16-page pamphlets promoting the president and sent them to the Iowa GOP for distribution at caucus sites. An Iowa GOP official told BuzzFeed News that the state party would provide the same service if another presidential contender sent literature, but no one besides Trump has.
In South Carolina, GOP event organizers have struggled in the past year to book speakers — many high-profile Republicans don’t want to send the wrong signal, McKissick said. An appearance last year by Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado merited this line from the Charleston Post and Courier: “South Carolina political party dinners usually attract future presidential hopefuls to gauge their interest in an early primary state.” (As McKissick put it to a reporter: “You could come down and speak and people would think you were running.”)
Also complicating the path for any Trump challenger: the RNC itself. It’s tightly aligned with the White House. And this week’s meetings in Washington include another gathering of the Presidential Nominating Process Committee, which is expected to make the 2020 primary a cakewalk for Trump. RNC Co-Chair Bob Paduchik, who developed an adversarial relationship with Kasich while serving as Trump’s Ohio campaign director in 2016, is steering the process.
McKissick said no one has sought his advice about a 2020 bid. But if someone did?
“First off, they’re on their own,” he said. “I’m going to tell them we support the president. … I speak at county party meetings, Republican women’s club meetings, and all around — once a week, at least — somewhere around the state. I ain’t running into any South Carolina Republicans who are looking to buy anything right now that ain’t Donald Trump.”
Kasich, with his book last year lamenting what’s become of the Republican Party and a national TV lap this week that included Late Night With Seth Meyers and Morning Joe, is the least shy about his interest. His April 3 speech at New England College will be his second visit to New Hampshire in less than a year. Kasich finished second to Trump in the state's 2016 primary, and it was the high point of his campaign. But when he was asked on Morning Joe if someone would challenge Trump for the nomination, he danced around the question. “If you can’t raise the money and make a good case, you don’t run, unless you just want to do it for the heck of it,” he replied.
The governor also has signaled he might be interested in running as an independent: “Why,” Weaver wondered in his email to BuzzFeed News, “does everyone assume the only option is running in a GOP primary?”
Forrester acknowledged that Kasich’s moves have drawn attention, but like McKissick, she said Kasich and other potential candidates have not asked her for advice.
“I like to think back to when I first decided to run for office,” Forrester said. “I had a lot of people telling me to stay out of it. I would never discourage anyone. I would lay out all the hurdles — can you raise enough money? — not as discouragement‚ just as the facts.”
“I couldn’t tell [Kasich] what to do,” she added. “And if I did, it’s not like he’d listen to me.”