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Biden issues first veto, knocks Marjorie Taylor Greene

President Joe Biden on Monday vetoed his first bill, blocking the repeal of a Labor Department rule that permitted retirement investing tied to environmental and social goals.

The veto was expected, after the Biden administration fought Republican-led efforts to pass the rollback three weeks ago. The House and Senate votes attracted support from three Democrats, including Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia— moderates who are up for reelection next year.

"This bill would risk your retirement savings by making it illegal to consider risk factors MAGA House Republicans don't like," Biden said on Twitter Monday. "Your plan manager should be able to protect your hard-earned savings — whether Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene likes it or not."

While Republicans who led work on the repeal didn't get it signed into law, it marked a partial victory for conservatives who have targeted the rule and other policies that they say encourage major corporations to elevate climate and social goals in their business practices.

"This is trying to parallel financial return with an ideological push," Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who led the rollback push with Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), told reporters in February. "I don't like that."

The Biden Labor Department rule at issue attempted to undo Trump-era policy that discouraged retirement plan managers from incorporating environmental and social factors into investment decisions. The Biden rule allows them to do so but does not require it.

Wall Street firms and their trade groups largely stayed on the sidelines during the fight, despite being the subject of criticism from Republican lawmakers. Lobbyists were confident that Biden would veto the repeal, and the industry is also laying low as the issue makes its way through the courts. The state of Texas is leading a multi-state lawsuit to block the rule.

“There's just no upside,” said one trade association representative, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Why bother, especially when you've got 25 state attorneys general who have already said they’re going to pony up and litigate?"

The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on overturning the veto, per a floor schedule circulated Friday. Near-unanimous Democratic opposition makes it unlikely the effort will garner the two-thirds support needed.

Lobbyists were confident that President Joe Biden would veto the repeal of a Labor Department rule that permitted retirement investing tied to environmental and social goals.

Is the United States Creating a ‘Legion of Doom’?

Moscow has directed a lot of vitriol toward the West over the past year. The volume of that rhetoric sometimes drowns out an awkward fact about Moscow’s foreign policy reorientation away from the West and toward allies like China and Iran: Russian elites are not exactly thrilled with their new partners. In my conversations with Russian academics, there has been plenty of grumbling about the meager quality of Chinese support, for example. This reflects a longstanding Russian hubris toward its eastern neighbor dating back to the days of Stalin and Mao. The Russian disdain directed toward Iran is even greater.

These feelings are mutual. In my conversations with Chinese diplomats, they express considerable exasperation with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. For them, the invasion upset a strategic situation that they believed was favorable to China. Ordinary Chinese people still harbor resentments toward Russia; I have heard Chinese students vent in great detail about territorial land grabs by 19th century tsars that have yet to be reversed. Similarly, my Russian colleagues have complained that their bilateral relations with Iran have been stymied by Tehran’s historical grievances.

Despite these lingering resentments, however, the past year has taught all of these countries an important lesson: as much as they might have issues with each other, they have much bigger issues with the United States. Over the past year, while imposing extensive sanctions on Russia, the United States has also taken an extremely hawkish turn on China. The policies expressing this sentiment range from stringent export controls to public support for Taiwan to the possible banning of TikTok. At the same time, the Biden administration has essentially continued status quo policies toward Iran. Efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement have failed.

This leaves all three countries under various degrees of U.S.-led sanctions regimes — and, unsurprisingly, they are starting to work more closely together. Iran is in the final stages of achieving full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum led by China and Russia. China helped broker an entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is “increasingly concerned” that China might supply weapons to Russia to assist Ukraine. The relationship between Iran and Russia has mushroomed during the course of the war in Ukraine, with NSC spokesman John Kirby labeling it “a full-scale defense partnership.”

The United States has valid reasons to oppose all three countries. China is a peer competitor that has behaved in an increasingly autocratic and bellicose manner during Xi Jinping’s rule. Iran’s regime remains wildly illiberal, pursuing policies that have threatened U.S. allies in the Middle East. Russia’s actions in Ukraine speak for themselves. Still, when you throw in allegations like North Korea allegedly selling weaponry to Russia, it sometimes seems as though the United States has inspired its own less comical Legion of Doom.

This nascent alliance feeds into an American predilection for lumping all U.S. adversaries into the same basket. During the heyday of the Cold War many U.S. policymakers assumed that the communist bloc was monolithic. In this century, parts of the foreign policy community have frequently posited that the United States faces an Axis of Something. In January 2002, George W. Bush called out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in his State of the Union address, warning that “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” While none of these countries were paragons of virtue, neither were they cooperating with each other or with Al Qaeda. A decade later during the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy warned about an emerging axis of authoritarianism. Romney’s warning was dismissed at the time, but over the past year observers from across the politicalspectrum have wholeheartedly embraced the idea. The vague unease that U.S. observers feel because most of the Global South is not on board with the sanctioning of Russia feeds into this fear that much of the world is uniting against the United States.

In the current moment, it is difficult to deny that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, et al are taking actions that run contrary to U.S. interests. It is not obvious, however, that the cooperation between these countries is anything more than tactical in nature. For Iran and North Korea, any opportunity to tweak the United States’ hand and break out of their current economic isolation is a welcome move. Similarly, Russia is desperate for assistance from any quarter as a means of combatting the toll that sanctions and the war are inflicting on the Russian economy. All of the historical grievances and anxieties that Russia, China and Iran have in dealing with each other have not magically disappeared, they have simply been sublimated by their collective resistance to U.S. pressure.

The United States can respond to this emerging coalition in one of two ways, both unappetizing. One approach is to embrace the Manichean worldview and continue to adopt policies that oppose these cluster of countries for the foreseeable future. When one examines each country in this nascent Legion of Doom, the United States has valid grounds for sanctions and other forms of containment. Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapons program and a ballistic missile program, and expended considerable funds to destabilize U.S. allies in the Middle East. Russia has repeatedly invaded its neighbors and bears responsibility for starting the largest land war in Europe since World War II. Beyond that blatant fact, Vladimir Putin has been quite willing to make mischief in NATO countries, ranging from disinformation campaigns to assassination attempts on dissidents. China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy abroad and increased repression at home do not square with being a responsible stakeholder. North Korea is… well, it’s North Korea.

While lumping America’s adversaries together might feel conceptually appealing, it also creates complications. First, it makes it that much harder to build coalitions of containment. India might be on board with containing China, for example, but historical ties will make it harder to oppose Russia. The U.S. will have little choice but to rely on ad hoc coalitions that do not entirely synch up.

The bigger problem is that the Manichean worldview overlooks the myriad ways that U.S. foreign policy has thrived when it divided rather than united opposing coalitions. A key element of George Kennan’s doctrine of containment was exploiting fissures in the communist bloc. This led to warming ties with Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s and Mao’s China in the 1970s. Neither of these countries resembled anything close to a liberal democracy, but the United States found common cause with them to focus on the greater threat — the Soviet Union. (In a weird way, this point lies at the root of GOP opposition to supporting Ukraine against Russia. For some in the MAGA crowd, China is the bigger threat and therefore any opposition of Russia is either wasted effort or pushing the two largest land powers in Asia closer together.)

The paradox for American policymakers is that of all the countries opposing the United States, China is simultaneously the biggest threat and also the country that would be ripest for more positive outreach. By any metric, China is the only country that comes close to being a peer competitor to the United States. Opposing China is one of the few foreign policies that inspires genuinely bipartisan support. At the same time, compared to the likes of Russia, or North Korea, China is the Legion of Doom member with the greatest equities in the current international system. The primary reason China’s support of Russia has been limited to date is because Beijing benefits far more from its trade with the rest of the world than with Russia. This week’s summit between Putin and Xi should offer some clues about just how robust their partnership is growing.

For U.S. policymakers, the question going forward will be to choose from a set of unsavory options. They can continue to implement a foreign policy that midwifes an anti-American coalition. They can prioritize containing China and soften their approach toward countries that pose a more proximate threat to the United States and its allies and partners. Or they can decide that China is the devil they know best and try to foster a new equilibrium in the Sino-American relationship.

Given the unsteady state of the world, repairing the Sino-American relationship is the option that offers the most promise. Given the unsteady state of American politics, however, it is regrettably the option that both President Joe Biden and his Republican opponents may be least likely to embrace.

This week’s summit between Vladimir Putin (left) and Xi Jinping should offer some clues about just how robust their partnership is growing.

Opinion | The Lessons of the Great Depression Are Being Ignored

President Franklin D. Roosevelt could teach today’s regulators and politicians a lot about how to deal with a banking crisis.

Two aspects of his leadership from his first year in office stand out.

First, FDR understood the danger of excessive government protection of banks and would be dismayed by the extent of it today. He solved the 1933 bank meltdown with smart regulatory policy and real government oversight, not a bailout as is currently being done. He agreed to the use of deposit insurance reluctantly and kept it limited. It was not the reason for his success.

Second, he knew what it took to deal with a banking crisis, and, specifically, how to restore public confidence in the banking system. At the worst moment of the Great Depression, he faced a much more daunting challenge than the problems of the present — and he succeeded in turning things around almost immediately. In contrast, policymakers and regulators today dither, hoping that empty words and weak measures can restore confidence. The FDR mirror is very revealing of the inadequacies of the current policy response.

Many people are surprised when I tell them that FDR explicitly opposed federal deposit insurance during the 1932 presidential campaign. In the heart of the banking upheaval, with many bank failures producing depositor losses in 1931-1932, his 1932 letter to the New York Sun stated that federal deposit insurance “would lead to laxity in bank management and carelessness on the part of both banker and depositor. I believe that it would be an impossible drain on the Federal Treasury.”

FDR here makes an important, and empirically correct, point: Good bank risk management depends on depositors’ discipline, which depends on their having skin in the game.

Later, Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to create FDIC insurance, at the insistence of Rep. Henry Steagall, as part of a larger political deal, but he kept the agency’s coverage limited to small deposit balances. Furthermore, he had closed all banks in March 1933, and they were permitted to reopen and have access to insurance coverage only after they had undergone a thorough examination to establish that they were in sound financial condition.

FDR did not handle the banking panic by throwing deposit insurance at the problem, or by waiting for more banks to be shut down by worried depositors. He first put an end to runs by closing banks and established a credible process for them to reopen upon demonstrating their strength. Because regulators’ examinations were demonstrably credible to independent observers, and often accompanied by increased capital, confidence in the system was restored and many banks were able to reopen quickly. Runs did not return — not because of the small coverage of the new deposit insurance system, but because FDR had actually addressed the problem of bank weakness that was driving the runs.

What would a similarly effective policy response for the current crisis look like? The problem today is much less severe, making the solution easier.

There are only about 200 U.S. banks that are clearly vulnerable because of securities losses similar to those of Silicon Valley Bank. Regulators should have met with those banks individually last weekend, required them either to immediately come up with credible recapitalization commitments, or put them into conservatorship (beginning Monday morning). In conservatorship, they would have had limits placed on their activities until it was determined whether they could offer adequate recapitalization, or, if not, be placed in receivership. In the meantime, they could have been allowed to pay out all insured deposits, but only to pay out a fraction of uninsured deposits (based on the potential losses of uninsured depositors at each bank). This would have put pressure on those banks to resolve the problem quickly, and would have limited the illiquidity problem to a portion of the uninsured deposits at a small number of banks.

If that had been done, industry and academic experts would have been able to immediately reassure relatively uninformed depositors that the government policy response had been effective and that there was no cause for further alarm. I believe some uninsured depositors would still have wanted to move their funds, as a long-term precaution, but the short-term urgency of these disruptions would have been substantially reduced.

Instead, the Biden administration has done nothing about the 200 vulnerable banks, thereby encouraging continuing panic. The two measures they did undertake last Sunday have clearly failed to calm the market. First, the bailout of uninsured depositors at Signature and SVB has no clear implication for the risk of loss to uninsured depositors at other banks, especially given how much criticism those bailouts have received for being politically motivated and unfair. No uninsured depositor worried about their own potential losses will think that their money is necessarily safe now.

The second policy announcement was also ineffectual. The Federal Reserve created a new special lending facility for banks, allowing them to borrow for up to one year against qualifying Treasury and Agency securities. Banks can borrow an amount equal to the face value of those securities, which exceeds their market value. This implies a partially noncollateralized loan (the opposite of the typical “haircut” applied to collateral in central bank lending).

These loans provide no reason for worried uninsured depositors to rest easy. The decline in the value of securities at vulnerable banks is not temporary but is fundamentally the result of the Fed’s interest rate hikes, which are not only going to persist but will be increased going forward. Securities used as collateral are not going to increase in value as the result of the Fed stepping in here. Second, the loan is only for a year, so after the end of that year, a bank that is insolvent today because its securities have fallen in value will still be insolvent. For these reasons, the Fed lending program will not cause uninsured depositors at an insolvent or deeply weakened bank to decide not to withdraw their funds immediately, if they were already predisposed to do so.

It is time to take FDR’s example to heart, address the banking problem immediately and directly, and give U.S. depositors a real reason to believe that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

At the worst moment of the Great Depression, FDR faced a much more daunting challenge than the problems of the present — and he succeeded in turning things around almost immediately.

When Silicon Valley Libertarians Realized They Needed the Government, and Vice Versa

For years, Silicon Valley and Washington have been going through an acrimonious political divorce.

An industry that had long been subsidized by government investment, going back to the inventions of the internet and the computer itself, became ever more libertarian in its orientation. The capital fell out of love with the culture and products of Silicon Valley moguls, and became increasingly focused on checking their power.

Now, with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the dramatic federal rescue of its depositors, economic reality has forced them into a shotgun reconciliation.

Libertarian tech investors who had been busy waxing about Washington’s inevitable obsolescence like it was last year’s iPhone suddenly began shouting at Washington to save Silicon Valley.

“Where is Powell? Where is Yellen? Stop this crisis NOW,” investor David Sacks, who led the VC class response on Twitter, demanded last Friday afternoon.

Washington, where the bipartisan political will for a crackdown on tech companies has been building for years, responded by doing just that. The Biden administration and the Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures to keep tech-world depositors whole — effectively raising the $250,000 limit on federal deposit insurance to infinity.

Suddenly, the intertwined fortunes of the Silicon Valley tech set and Washington policymakers are more apparent than they have been in years. The Valley and the District were suddenly forced to reckon with how much they still need each other.

In hindsight, though, the breakup may never have been as real as it looked on the surface.

As people who work at the intersection of the two power centers describe it, the rhetorical divergence in recent years has only masked a growing inter-dependence that, if anything, has been cemented by the events of the past week.

Not so long ago, Washington and Silicon Valley were happily teaming up.

While Al Gore touted his role in supporting the development of the internet, George W. Bush wooed many Dem-leaning tech executives with his pro-business take on the web, raking in Bay Area campaign contributions on the way.

President Barack Obama overtly surrounded himself with tech-savvy aides, hoping to capture the magic of the West Coast’s internet marvels. When it came to both campaigning and governing, Obama world and the tech world mostly stuck together, bound in part by a technocratic optimism that government could work as smoothly as a Google search.

Tech was working, and Washington strove to imitate it. Obama embraced the mantle of the “first tech president,” launching the United States Digital Service to upgrade government services. Politicians on both sides of the aisle were getting ahead by aping Silicon Valley’s language of “innovation.”

Then came Donald Trump. Despite the role social media played in his rise to power, once in office, Trump found West Coast internet giants an irresistible target for populist bashing.

On the left, social media platforms were blamed for enabling Trump and his right-wing populist uprising: They had also platformed hate speech and disinformation.

“Many policymakers went from seeing tech as a darling to pretty suddenly seeing it as a threat,” said Adam Kovacevich, a former aide to Joe Lieberman who oversaw lobbying activity at Google and now leads Chamber of Progress, a tech trade group.

Elements in both parties began talking of breaking up tech giants and revoking legal immunity for internet platforms that host illegal content. Congress did its best to put tech leaders in the hot seat.

A certain class of successful investors and entrepreneurs came to increasingly define themselves in opposition to Washington.

Despite taking a reputational hit in recent years, Silicon Valley’s business continued to thrive, while public confidence in established institutions like the Supreme Court and news outlets declined.

In the view of the libertarian VC set, as SPAC king Chamath Palihapitiya once opined to fellow investor Jason Calacanis, “If companies shut down, the stock market would collapse. If the government shuts down, nothing happens and we all move on, because it just doesn’t matter. Stasis in the government is actually good for all of us.”

By last year, 26 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in large tech companies, compared to 7 percent who held that much confidence in Congress, according to surveys by Gallup.

Few in Silicon Valley — or anywhere else — thrived more than venture investors, who perfected a method for finding, and getting a piece of, businesses with the potential to become the next Google or Facebook.

In cryptocurrency, they even had their own anti-government, computer-based money. Its value skyrocketed just as lockdowns, civil unrest and the storming of the Capitol roiled the country.

Tech investors and entrepreneurs became politically emboldened, and increasingly came to view themselves as the rightful successors to Washington elites in guiding the country.

Surely, they reasoned, with all their savvy and the power of new software systems, they could do better than the people currently in charge.

PayPal and Palantir founder Peter Thiel — who for a time had kept a lower political profile after courting controversy with his 2016 support of Trump — appeared at a Bitcoin conference in Miami last April and called for a “regime change” away from a monetary system controlled by the Federal Reserve. Elon Musk took over Twitter in October, vowing to push back on recent cultural shifts at American institutions, or as he described it, to defeat “the woke mind virus.”

Lesser-known tech and VC figures needled the East Coast establishment while promoting their own libertarian vision.

On Twitter and their “All In” podcast, Musk buddies Sacks, Palihapitiya and Calacanis drew a growing audience as they opined about D.C.’s backwardness while challenging the U.S. response to Russia’s Ukraine invasion.

Last summer, Balaji Srinivasan, a former executive at crypto exchange Coinbase and partner at a16Z, published “The Network State,” which offered a vision for supplanting national governments with online, crypto-enabled tribes. Following the success of the Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS, business model, the book proposed that the next logical step was “Society-as-a-Service.”

The message was clear: The 21st century will not belong to Washington.

The problem was that these investors were not the only ones who had spent the Obama and Trump years pioneering daring new business models. In response to the 2008 global financial crisis, the Federal Reserve had embarked on an innovative approach to central banking in which it flooded the economy with unprecedented volumes of money and pushed interest rates close to zero.

In an environment where money is plentiful like never before, risky business propositions with long, vague paths to profitability become more viable. Venture investing boomed.

In 2021, at the height of easy money and with interest rates near zero, U.S. venture investing exceeded $300 billion, doubling the record set in 2020. Silicon Valley Bank took in huge deposit in-flows and invested much of it in safe, low-yielding bonds.

Then, when the Fed belatedly began tightening the money supply last year, tech took the hardest hits. Crypto crashed first and hardest, losing about two-thirds of its market cap from its highs in late 2021. NASDAQ lost a third of its value last year. Large tech companies, which staffed up aggressively during the pandemic, have led the way in layoffs.

Silicon Valley Bank’s customer base was not spared. Investor funding of startups fell by nearly two-thirds in the fourth quarter of 2022 compared to the prior year, according to data from Crunchbase.

In the investor update that set off the panic, the bank disclosed on a Wednesday that depositors had been spending more money than anticipated.

Meanwhile, with the rapid rise in interest rates, the bank’s low-yielding bonds had rapidly lost value.

Panic spread at lightning speed via Twitter and online group chats. On Thursday morning, Thiel’s VC firm, Founders Fund, advised portfolio companies to get their money out. On Friday, federal regulators took control of the bank.

That’s when the talk of libertarians on tech Twitter turned from the growing irrelevance of Washington to the all-caps DIRE NEED of Washington.

They called, desperately, on D.C. politicians to come save the startups and investors who had left billions of dollars that were not federally insured inside a failed bank.

“WE ARE DRIFTING INTO DERELICTION OF DUTY TERRITORY @POTUS @SecYellen @SenSchumer @VP” Calacanis tweeted on Saturday, when no rescue had materialized. Another Calacanis post declared, “YOU SHOULD BE ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED RIGHT NOW.” And so on.

The “All In” ALL CAPS tweet blizzard quickly defined public perceptions of Silicon Valley’s response, overshadowing the basic concerns of small business owners and employees — many not in the tech industry at all — about their deposits.

For a group of people eager to position themselves as thought leaders this was not exactly a PR triumph. Others in the industry saw the display as counterproductive.

“There’s a universal agreement that libertarian VCs screaming for bailout money was not helpful,” said one person involved in managing Silicon Valley’s response to the crisis, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about tech industry peers. “Elevating startup founders or even business owners outside of tech — those are better faces for the industry than a guy in Atherton who’s scared that his portfolio companies might get hit.”

At the same time, anticipation was growing for some VC comeuppance, among tech critics on Washington Twitter.

“Uninsured depositors — who are sophisticated risk-managers — are going to take a loss. There is no bailout here,” tweeted Matt Stoller of the Economic Liberties Project, which advocates for more aggressive federal intervention to counter monopolies.

The stage looked set for a big, messy collision between two countervailing forces. Except that turned out to be little more than a revenge fantasy.

In fact, Washington was ready and willing to step in. Coming off a historically bad year for bond markets, Silicon Valley Bank was far from the only depository institution to take a huge hit on its bond portfolio. And Silicon Valley startups were far from the only businesses with huge piles of uninsured cash inside banks.

And most of Silicon Valley was earnestly happy to have the help. “Good news,” Sacks tweeted, with an applause emoji, when the Fed, Treasury and FDIC announced their rescue plan.

Does this mean the end of the sparring between the Valley and the capital? Of course not.

Now that Silicon Valley has what it wants from Washington, the VCs may be free to go back to plotting the capital’s planned obsolescence. And members of Congress want to keep hauling Big Tech CEOs before them for browbeatings.

But both sides have quite a bit at stake, and — as the SVB collapse makes clear — they know it.

Washington needs tech entrepreneurs to stay in the U.S., and not get too disillusioned. As the current generation of Silicon Valley offerings make it easier than ever to start a global business from anywhere, the possibility that the next generation of global tech giants arise somewhere other than the U.S. has become more real.

As for Big Tech — as those once-nimble startups have matured into corporate giants, they’ve become more and more tethered to the federal government. As Amazon and Facebook explore fields like drone delivery and payments, their collisions with government policymakers — like the FAA and state money transmission authorities — become more frequent and consequential.

 This has affected their corporate cultures, according to Nu Wexler, a former congressional aide and veteran of Google and Facebook who now works in public relations. “The companies were more libertarian just because they were operating in more unregulated spaces,” he said.

Last year, even as Elon Musk railed against the powers that be on Twitter, his network of satellites was helping to keep Ukraine online as it responded to Russia’s invasion. Even Thiel, despite his libertarian provocations, is financially intertwined with the Pentagon and the intelligence community, some of the biggest customers for his data analytics company, Palantir.

The libertarian ethos of startups and their most vocal backers may be in for some tempering, too. Last year, A16Z’s Katherine Boyle published an investing thesis titled “Building American Dynamism” that called for “building companies that support the national interest,” including in national security. Once, in Silicon Valley, the idea of “American dynamism” might have seemed cornily patriotic. Today, at A16Z, it’s just the name of a fund.

With the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the dramatic federal rescue of its depositors, economic reality has forced Silicon Valley and Washington into a shotgun reconciliation.

Opinion | The Ousted Reporter Was Right to Call Out Ron DeSantis’ Propaganda

Reporters have been brawling with public relations flacks since the late 1800s when railroads and other corporations established press bureaus to wrangle their relationships with the media. These face-offs can be as light and collegial as a garden party. Or, the scene can be thick with bloodied fur and detached scales, as when a mongoose and king cobra fight to the death.

Such a mongoose and cobra match played out in Florida this week. Florida state flacks emailed a press release to reporters about a diversity, equity and inclusion roundtable hosted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that called DEI a “scam in higher education.” Axios Tampa Bay reporter Ben Montgomery promptly replied, “This is propaganda, not a press release.” A state flack tweeted a screen-shot of Montgomery’s response, and other members of the communications staff for the all-but-certain GOP presidential candidate tweeted their shared outrage to Montgomery’s email. Then Montgomery’s boss called him, and he said she canned him.

As is usual in personnel matters like this, Axios has confirmed Montgomery no longer works there. But as Poynter’s Tom Jones reports, Axios won’t explain why. Were there extenuating circumstances behind Montgomery’s departure? If so, the reporting from Poynter, the Washington Post, the Wrap, the New York Post, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay and Fox News has failed to uncover such evidence. For all we know, Montgomery may be a menace to society and in need of home detention and 24-hour surveillance. But I think not. Until greater resolution arrives, we can proceed on the assumption that a very good reporter got bumped off 1) for doing what reporters do every day; and 2) for doing what reporters are supposed to do.

It’s easy to take Montgomery’s side in this dispute. Flacks have never been in the truth-telling business, a non-controversial observation that doesn’t need to be defended. From public relations’ earliest days, the flack’s job has been to bathe the client in the cool flattery of the north light and undermine anybody who opposes him. Call it advocacy, call it persuasion, call it spin or call it propaganda, but a flack’s primary job is to frame selected facts into a context that will make his client shine. Ask any salesman.

Most government press releases contain a dose of propaganda, a statement that doesn’t need much defending, either. Government press releases are designed to present information that will advance the agency’s political point. We depend on reporters to puncture this flackery, to do additional reporting and to give readers the full story the government spokesmen deliberately elide. This requires reporters to push back when a politician’s staff dumps a load of manure in a press release and then expects the press to choke it down like hot butter biscuits. Just set aside for a moment your politics and your personal views on DEI and DeSantis and read the press release Montgomery teed off on. Then decide for yourself whether its aim was to honestly explore an issue or to spin coverage to the benefit of a predetermined agenda.

If Montgomery’s response to the press release strikes you as histrionic, be advised that histrionics run both ways in the mongoose and cobra war. Government flacks often give reporters the bluest and darkest tongue-lashings when news stories run that displease them. Many of these tirades make Montgomery’s email response look like a curtsy in comparison. It’s only natural for source-reporter relations to sometimes grow tense if the goal is to find news. The real worry is when sources and reporters get too cozy and the tough questions stop coming. When that happens, the news turns to mush.

Now, as a matter of etiquette — and in order to maintain a working relationship that will benefit readers — it’s best for journalists to toughen their hides and refrain from overreacting when a flack distributes propaganda or material of marginal newsworthiness. The key to pushing back is not to put the flack "in his place" but to elicit valuable information for readers. “The world would be better off if more reporters responded to more politicians’ press releases with, ‘This isn’t news and don’t waste my time with this drivel,’” my former editor Garrett M. Graff tells me.

Along these same lines, can we persuade more flacks to wear body armor? Most of the PR people I’ve worked with in my career have not been as brittle and vengeful as DeSantis and his press people appear to have been in their press relations. I know of no PR person who is such a delicate flower that they turn furious if I called a communique from their office “propaganda.” Most would smile and say, “That’s my job.” How necessary was it for the Florida flacks to turn this skirmish into a battle royale that cost Montgomery his job? Of course, fueling a maelstrom may have been precisely the point: It gave DeSantis another opportunity to show off to the GOP’s press-loathing base as he prepares to jump into the 2024 presidential race.

That said, there’s no reason to inflate this skirmish into a case of martyrdom for Montgomery. Nor is there any evidence that he seeks such a benediction. “I regret being so short,” Montgomery said. “In the style of Axios, I used smart brevity and it cost me.”

Pushing back is an essential part of journalism, as Jim VandeHei, Axios co-founder, accomplished journalist, and a former big boss of mine here at POLITICO, recently wrote in Axios. VandeHei recounts the time about a decade ago when things had soured between POLITICO and Roger Ailes of Fox News. As a POLITICO executive, VandeHei attempted to quiet the waters, but nothing worked. Then in 2013, a POLITICO piece made Ailes fume and holler at VandeHei in a phone call, his response being the sort you might receive from a furious flack. VandeHei offered this retort:

“Roger, go fuck yourself.”

Ailes’ screaming continued until he hung up.

VandeHei did the right thing that day. And he wasn’t fired for doing it.

Message to flacks: Send flowers or email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. Or have me fired for my impudence. No new email alert subscriptions are being honored at this time. My Twitter feed wears body armor. My Mastodon and Post accounts think life is a Montessori school. My RSS feed floats like a mongoose and stings like a cobra.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 10, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.


Pat Schroeder Mastered Using Humor in Politics, Long Before Social Media

Pat Schroeder was never supposed to win her congressional seat. As she recounted in her 1998 book 24 Years of House Work … and the Place Is Still a Mess — a title that hints at the irreverent public figure she cut in Washington — she was recruited as a “kamikaze” anti-war candidate for Colorado’s 1st Congressional District in 1972. In the primary, she faced a well-funded state senator; in the general election, an overconfident Republican district attorney.

More to the point, she was just 31, with a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old.

“The consensus, even from some of my most liberal friends, was that I was trying to do too much too fast,” Schroeder, who died this week at 82, wrote in her book. The National Women’s Political Caucus, which she had helped to found previously, encouraged her to run for city council or school board instead. After she won, with 52 percent of the vote, New York Democratic Rep. Bella Abzug called Schroeder on the phone and offered a warning: “I hear you have little kids. You won’t be able to do this job.”

“So it wasn’t even just being a woman,” Schroeder recalled in a 2015 interview with the House’s Office of the Historian. “It was being a young woman with little kids, and that really threw people for a loop.” Entering Congress, at her stage of life, seemed not just subversive, but absurd.

Schroeder would wind up serving 12 terms in Congress, cementing herself not just as a trailblazer — she and Abzug were among only 14 women in the House when she was elected — but a symbol of what can happen when people, and particularly women, in the thick of life experience get a seat at the table of power. Among her highest-profile legislative victories were the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which protected women from being fired for being pregnant (following a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that denied that protection under gender discrimination law), and the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, which entitles most employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family members or themselves. (The original bill Schroeder filed asked for 26 weeks, with pay.)

What hard-fought success Schroeder got — “It took nine months to deliver each of my children and nine years to deliver FMLA,” she’d later say — came from “her humanity and her persistence and her humor,” says Ellen Bravo, the former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, one of many national groups that worked for the bill’s passage. Year after year, Schroeder leaned into the absurdity of Washington, deploying a brand of witty straight talk that drew attention to her causes, well before social media and viral memes.

“She was able to not just withstand obnoxious attacks on her, but to direct withering responses at the people” who went after her, Bravo says. “She handled them in a way that ate right through the veneer of authority.”

Schroeder was the one who declared that Ronald Reagan had a “Teflon-coated presidency” (an idea that reportedly came to her while frying eggs on a nonstick pan) and dubbed George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle members of the “lucky sperm club” because they were able to run for office with the benefit of family wealth.

And she faced her own indignities with humor and theatrics. When she won a seat on the House Armed Services Committee early in her tenure, the chair, a Louisiana Democrat named F. Edward Hébert, was angry that she and Ron Dellums, a Black Democrat from California, had been placed on the committee against Hébert’s wishes. He provided only a single chair for the two of them, so Schroeder and Dellums squeezed into it together — “cheek-to-cheek,” she would later write — and sat that way for two years. “Barney Frank used to always say it’s the only half-assed thing I did when I was in Congress, but I’m not sure that’s true,” she quipped to the House historian years later.

Even as Schroeder grew in influence, eventually launching a short-lived bid for president in 1987, she faced doubts and digs about her demeanor: the time she wore a bunny suit to entertain kids in the U.S. Embassy during a 1987 Armed Services trip to China, the fact that she would sometimes sign her name with a smiley-face in the “P.” Some of the biggest scrutiny came when she dropped out of the presidential race and openly cried at the press conference, launching 1,000 think pieces about gender, politics and public norms.

But Schroeder had never feared wearing her motherhood or womanhood on her sleeve, down to bringing her children — and sometimes a pet bunny named Franklin Delano Rabbit — back and forth with her to Denver and on official international trips. “They’d usually spill at least two Cokes and a glass of milk on me before I got off [the ground],” she told the House historian years later. “I was always sticky … People would just be horrified, but that’s how we were.”

That unapologetic approach to parenthood is less rare today, in many public spheres. But there are still plenty of barriers to women with young children running for office, says Liuba Grechen Shirley, who ran for a New York congressional seat in 2018 with two toddlers at home and went on to form the group Vote Mama, which supports young mothers in politics.

And on the congressional level, at least, the family-friendly policies Schroeder championed at the height of her influence have largely been frozen in time. While the FMLA was game-changing 30 years ago, most of its advocates consider it woefully incomplete. As Grechen Shirley and Bravo point out, the law covers only 60 percent of workers, due to restrictions on eligibility. Many eligible people aren’t able to take advantage of it because they can’t afford to take the time off. (Bravo notes that state laws mandating paid sick leave are gaining momentum — they’ve been passed now in 11 states and the District of Columbia.)

Grechen Shirley attributes the lack of progress to a lack of representation. The 118th Congress has a record number of women and yet that's still only 153 of 540 voting and nonvoting members, or 28 percent of the body. But it’s not just that there aren’t enough women in Congress, Grechen Shirley contends, echoing what Schroeder discovered 50 years ago. It’s that there aren’t enough mothers.

“It’s because our policies were not made by people who have the lived experience. If we want to change the system, we have to change the system-makers,” she says. “So many women will wait until their children are grown before they consider running, so it’s difficult to build that political power to get tenure, to get those leadership positions.”

During her own race, Grechen Shirley successfully petitioned the Federal Election Commission to allow the use of campaign funds for child care. And in her own campaign and afterward, she would often repeat a political line, something she’d heard that a congresswoman once said — “I have a brain and a uterus, and I use both.”

“Dammit, I love that quote,” Grechen Shirley says, though for years, she didn’t know the source.

Of course, it was Pat Schroeder.

Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who died this week at 82, at a National Organization for Women convention in July 1987.

Mike Pence Shows the World That Washington Is a Bunch of Cheap Dates

If the crowd watching Mike Pence’s routine at Washington’s venerable Gridiron Dinner was unduly bothered by the homophobic implications of his Pete Buttigieg zinger, they didn’t show it when it came time to applaud at the speech’s end.

The former vice president’s appearance at the 138-year old journalistic organization’s celebrated annual gathering earned a rapturous response — partly for his self-deprecating laugh lines (who knew the schoolmarmish Hoosier had such good comic timing?), but even more for his shots at Donald Trump.

At the after-party, person after person raved about Pence’s ability to poke fun at his religious-zealot media image with lines about how his preferred pronouns are “thou” and “thine,” while few people I spoke to made any mention of the awkward, now controversial reference to Buttigieg’s “maternity leave.” (It had landed with a dud at the time.)

Even more than the humor, this gathering of Washington worthies seemed smitten with the moral seriousness of his Trump criticisms.

“His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day, and I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable,” Pence had said, before deploying his own January 6 steadfastness to flatter the Beltway media: “We were able to stay at our post, in part, because you stayed at your post. The American people know what happened that day because you never stopped reporting.”

It brought down the house.

It also demonstrated anew that Washington in 2023 is a cheap date.

How else to explain the rapture about a speech whose key applause line — “The American people have a right to know what took place at the Capitol” — is undercut by Pence’s own ongoing legal efforts to avoid testifying?

This isn’t to take anything away from folks reporting on the speech’s 2024 political implications. It genuinely is news that the man once known for abject loyalty has assumed a new, righteous, fighting posture that has thus far eluded fellow onetime administration loyalists like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo.

But at the same time, the glow in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel may have said less about Pence than about his audience, a collection of reporters, dignitaries, eminences and also-rans gathered for one of the great rituals of an endangered bipartisan social calendar — part of a broader fading Washington whose gatekeepers can appear grateful when a Republican merely shows up.

That sense of being endangered, I suspect, had a lot to do with the immediate inclination to see the best in Pence’s speech.

The 2023 status quo where ambitious Republicans steer clear of Beltway insiderishness is a real threat to permanent Washington’s bipartisan sense of itself. It almost guarantees that someone like Pence — not a RINO, but a genuine conservative true believer — has to clear an astonishingly low hurdle to win praise.

Sometimes, all you have to do is show that you’re willing to play ball — that is, to do things as normal as show up at capital traditions, deliver self-deprecating remarks and note that an attempt to overturn a democratic election by force actually happened (and was bad). The sugar-rush of seeing someone graciously join the ranks quickly overwhelms any skepticism.

How old-school and friendly is the annual affair graced by the ex-veep? At least one of Pence’s self-deprecating one-liners made a circuitous way to his script via onetime Biden speechwriter Jeff Nussbaum.

Nussbaum declined to comment, and Landon Parvin, a veteran of many Gridirons who has helped Pence’s team, allowed that “most speakers would steal a line off a dead man.” But the sort of cross-aisle riffing among pro wordsmiths that leads to a Democrat’s kernel of a joke winding up in a Republican’s stand-up routine is the sort of thing that seems altogether in-place on an evening when people dress up in white tie to watch comic song-and-dance routines before singing “Auld Lang Syne” and toasting the president — and seems altogether out-of-place anywhere else in 2023.

Even when politics reappeared this week — the White House disparaged the Buttigieg gag as homophobic; Twitter piled on — nothing undercut the idea that Pence had done something brave and honorable in hitting Trump about January 6 before an elite Beltway audience.

I don’t disagree with anything Pence said when it comes to January 6, yet the platitudes seem a little much. Yes, Pence did the right thing, in the face of real danger, when it came to Americans’ right to select their government without insurrectionists’ interference. On the question of our right to know what happened that day, though, his record is a lot less admirable.

Even as he was basking in the approval of the white-tie crowd, Pence’s lawyers were fighting a subpoena for testimony about Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election — something he’s vowed to go all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent. The logic of Pence’s argument is that, in his constitutional role as president of the U.S. Senate, he was protected by the Constitution’s speech-and-debate clause. He said it’s about protecting the legislative branch from the executive. In one press event, he called the effort to secure his testimony a “Biden DOJ subpoena,” the sort of divisive slam at professional prosecutors that official Washington typically hates.

Courts will decide whether this argument passes muster. But you don’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that this legalistic stuff is not the posture of a man who is determined to shed sunlight on every detail of that horrific day in order to prevent it from ever happening again. At the very least, it’s incongruous with the striking, almost martial, language of duty that Pence used when talking about the obligation to “stay at our post” in the face of grave danger.

I’ve heard a bunch of theories as to why Pence is fighting the subpoena. The one that’s the most forgiving — and simultaneously the most cynical — is that he expects to lose, and that the public show of not looking like an anti-Trumper champing at the bit to testify will make him more credible once he does, possibly to jurors (that’s the forgiving version) and almost certainly to Republican primary voters (there’s the cynical one).

Even if that works out brilliantly, it also looks like a man wanting to have it both ways.

Which brings us back to the white-tied crowd at the Gridiron, an audience that included senators, governors, generals, cabinet secretaries and heads of international institutions. It’s a slice of Washington that is very keen on feeling bipartisan, with balanced displays of Democratic gags and Republican gags, topped with retro homages to things we have in common (color presentation by a military band; toast to the president).

What it didn’t include, this year, was any sitting GOP member of the House or Senate.

The only sitting GOP elected official was last year’s Republican speaker, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, whose own star turn at the 2022 dinner involved a much more comic skewering of Trump — and who has also benefited from the establishment’s eagerness to welcome a conservative who will join in the traditional pastimes and occasionally punch right.

We’ve entered a moment in our country where the political logic inside one of our two political parties is to steer well clear of officially non-partisan legacy institutions, from media to culture. Leading GOP politicians like Ron DeSantis limit their media appearances to conservative outlets, nixing even the Sunday shows that used to get derided as milquetoast. The incentive structure in Republican politics encourages candidates to dis shared American institutions from Disney to the NFL for allegedly being captured by the wokes. A night out with Washington elites dressed up like 1920s-era maitre d’s is not exactly a surefire political winner. (Luckily, it takes place off-camera.)

We’ll find out soon enough whether this separation will matter when it comes to a general election where you need to win votes from people outside conservative culture. Once exposed to mainstream platforms, might a GOP candidate come off like a boxer who hasn’t had enough advance sparring practice?

But I think we already see the impact among people who exist in traditional institutions that rely on being seen as bipartisan. We, too, are out of practice, easily wowed by a modicum of bonhomie.

It’s pretty clear, by the way, that Pence’s team knew it, too. Pence advisor Marc Short told my colleague Adam Wren over the weekend that they believed the appearance would improve the disposition of a political elite who had already written off the former vice president. “This was a different audience for him,” Short said.

Of course, there’s still a bar for the humor, says Parvin, a veteran of 40 years of Gridiron routines: “You live or you die by the joke.”

“Pence got a standing ovation, which tells me that people want to feel better about each other and for life to return to normal once again,” he told me this week by email. “Humor can help do that.”

The former vice president’s appearance at Washington’s venerable Gridiron Dinner earned a rapturous response.


The Federalist Society Isn’t Quite Sure About Democracy Anymore

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas sun was just beginning to rise over central Austin as groups of neatly-dressed law students arrived at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, a beige monolith plopped on the southwestern corner of the University of Texas’s sprawling campus. Once inside the lobby, the students ascended two flights of stairs, crossed a courtyard, descended two more flights of stairs and rode two escalators down to a subterranean ballroom, where members of one of the most maligned organizations in American politics were gathering for breakfast.

It was the start of the second day of the Federalist Society’s National Student Symposium — an annual gathering of conservative and libertarian law students hosted by the conservative legal behemoth  — and as I sidled up to one group of attendees, I got the sense that they were caught off guard to find a reporter in their midst.

“People think we’re some sort of shadowy cabal, but all we really do is invite speakers to campus and then go to Chipotle for tacos,” one of the attendees, a first-year law student from Georgetown University, assured me as we drank coffee and picked at mini croissants. “Or least, that’s all I’ve seen of FedSoc so far.”

And to be fair, the symposium — which is part academic conference, part high-powered networking event, and part extended cocktail party — was hardly shrouded in mystery. At a reception the night before, gaggles of fresh-faced law students had sipped frozen margaritas and piled their plates with barbecue from a nearby buffet. Many of the students accessorized their suits and cocktail dresses with cowboy boots and Stetsons. Peals of laughter rippled around the room. It was the type of event where you’d expect everyone to slink back to the hotel afterward to get drunk and hook up, except that most of the students I talked to were either married or engaged. A few of the young attendees had brought their infant children along with them.

But the event, which took place the first weekend in March, wasn’t merely a multi-day schmooze-and-booze fest, either. Built around a series of panel discussions with prominent legal scholars, lawyers, and federal judges, the annual gathering offers up-and-coming conservative lawyers a prized opportunity to rub elbows with the leading lights of the conservative legal movement — and, as an added benefit, to meet face-to-face with potential future employers. This year’s symposium wasn’t lacking in political star power, either, with Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott slated to give a keynote address to cap off the programming on Saturday evening.

“The people I met at student conferences a decade ago are now sitting federal judges,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law and a fixture of the Federalist Society speaking circuit. “The people you meet here and the networks you build up over years — they’re very, very important.”  

This year’s gathering was even more important than most. As the first student symposium since the Supreme Court handed conservatives a historic package of victories on gun rights,religious freedom,environmental deregulation, and, of course, abortion, the weekend offered a window into the shifting priorities and preoccupations of the youngest and most elite members of the conservative legal movement, at a time when the future of the movement as a whole is quietly unsettled. 

The first major clue about those preoccupations came from the symposium’s theme, which the organizers had designated as “Law and Democracy.” As the programming unfolded over the next day and a half, it became alarmingly clear that, even among the buttoned-up young members of the Federalist Society — an organization not known for its political transgressiveness — the relationship between those two principles is far from settled. From radical new theories about election law to outlandish-seeming calls for a “national divorce” the symposium-goers were grappling with ideas that raised fundamental questions about American democracy — what it means, what it entails, and what, if anything, the conservative legal movement has to say about its apparent decline.

‘That Ship Has Sailed’

As the symposium kicked off in Austin, another group of conservatives was gathering halfway across the country in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where the annual Conservative Political Action Conference was getting underway. The reports coming out of CPAC were worrisome for establishment conservatives: Before a visibly thinned-out audience, the MAGA faithful dutifully leaned heavily into culture war tropes and parroting Donald Trump’s baseless claims about fraud in the 2020 election. 

In Austin, meanwhile, there were no red, white and blue sequined blazers — or at least none that I saw — and Donald Trump’s name went almost entirely unspoken, except for the occasional mention in hushed tones. 

“I don’t know where I’d be if Trump hadn’t won,” I overheard one Federalist Society staffer confide to a colleague as we milled around the foyer outside the main ballroom, apparently referring to the 2016 election. “Probably working some corporate job that I’d hate.” 

The symposium, however, mirrored CPAC’s ambivalent assessment of the future of American democracy — even if that ambivalence was expressed in slightly more elevated terms. 

To those who have followed the Federalist Society closely since its triumphs at the Supreme Court last year, the symposium’s focus on law and democracy may hardly seem incidental. Since its founding in 1982, the Federalist Society has championed “judicial restraint,” the notion that judges should limit their roles to interpreting the law as written, leaving the actual business of lawmaking to democratically elected legislatures. 

That approach made sense for conservatives when they still saw the federal judiciary as a liberal force dragging the country to the left. But now that conservatives have secured a solid majority on the Supreme Court — and voters in several red states have soundlyrejected hard-line positions on abortion — a spirited debate is underway within the Federalist Society about the wisdom of deferring to democratic majorities as a matter of principle.

“From our very beginning, there has been an aspect of judicial restraint, and there has been an aspect that it’s judges’ jobs to interpret the Constitution, that whatever it says, that’s what they should do — and those two can sometimes be in tension,” said Eugene Meyer, the president and CEO of the Federalist Society, as we spoke in a back hallway of the conference center. 

I had only convinced Meyer to talk with me after assuring him and his handler that I wasn’t trying to back him into answering specific questions about cases currently before the Court. At Meyer’s urging, the society goes to great lengths to emphasize that it does not take policy positions or weigh in on the merit of individual cases, preferring to present itself as a neutral “debate society” for right-leaning intellectuals. But Meyer — who tapped his foot nervously as we spoke — was willing to admit that the intellectual winds within the organization are shifting.

“I think it would be fair to say there’s been some movement over time more in the direction of interpreting the Constitution and less in the direction of pure judicial restraint,” he told me.

When I spoke with Blackman, the South Texas college of law professor, he noted that that tension was neatly captured in two of the headline-making decisions that went conservatives’ way in the last Supreme Court term. In the Dobbs ruling, the conservative majority returned the abortion question to state legislatures, limiting federal judges’ role in determining the extent of reproductive rights. Meanwhile, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen —  which struck down a New York law that set the requirements for individuals to receive a concealed carry permit for handguns — the Court trumped the decision of a state legislature in favor of conservatives’ preferred reading of the Second Amendment. 

But Blackman’s assessment of the direction of the intellectual current within the Federalist Society was even more candid than Meyer’s.

“The norm that judges be restrained and moderate — that ship has sailed,” he said. 

Inside the cavernous ballroom, panelists took turns delivering their remarks from a raised platform, flanked on one side by the American flag and by Texas’s Lone Star Flag on the other. The symposium is hosted by a different law school every year, but there was a tidy irony to the fact that this year’s gathering landed in Texas, which has in recent years seen an influx of conservative transplants seeking refuge from what they see as the insanity and incipient authoritarianism of Blue America.

“Democracy is what philosophers call an ‘essentially contested concept,’” said Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of law emeritus at UCLA and an expert in election law, during a panel on Friday evening. "Differences that seem on their surface to concern the meaning of the word ‘democracy’,” he added, are actually struggles to advance particular and controversial political ideas."

What democracy does not mean, Lowenstein argued, was “plebiscitary democracy,” or simple rule by democratic majorities. Citing the Federalist Papers — the namesake of the Federalist Society — Lowenstein suggested that governance based on simple mathematical majorities would enable “tyrannical domination of the minority by the majority.” 

“The assumption that only plebiscitary forms [of government] are truly democratic is fallacious, and should be openly and directly contested by those supporting non-plebiscitary positions,” he added. 

Behind me, somebody whispered, “We’re a republic, not a democracy” — a tongue-in-cheek slogan that some conservatives have adopted as a way to slyly signal their approval of minority rule.

Later on in the same panel, Joel Alicea, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, diagnosed the apparent threats facing American democracy today — political violence, abuses of governmental power, and attempted election subversion, to name a few — as symptoms of a deeper malaise. 

“At this point in our society, we can’t even agree whether somebody is a man or a woman, which suggests such a deep level of moral disagreement — and even disagreement about basic notions of reality — that to say that society can form an overlapping consensus is hopelessly naive,” he said. Faced with such fundamental disagreements, Alicea said that citizens have to choose between two approaches: coercion, suppressing disagreements by means of force and intimidation, or conversion, the slow and steady work of persuading people who disagree with you to come around to your point of view. 

Alicea advised the attendees to embrace conversion rather than coercion, but in the question-and-answer session after the panel, an audience member proposed a third option: a full-scale national divorce, of the sort recently proposed by Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

On the dais, the panelists squirmed at the invocation of such pedestrian political ideas, and Alicea offered some high-level philosophical objections to the idea that America should fracture into independent ideological entities. But the question seemed to linger in the room: If the disagreements over democratic first principles are as serious as Alicea had suggested, then was the idea of a wholesale political rupture really so radical? 

The possibility of dramatic changes to America’s democratic order also hung over a panel on election law, where Richard Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University, briefed the audience on Moore v. Harper, a case that is currently awaiting judgment from the Supreme Court. The case, which arose from a challenge to North Carolina’s redistricting plan, is widely viewed by legal scholars as a referendum on the controversial independent state legislature theory, which posits that state legislatures should be allowed to exert broad control over the execution of federal elections. 

From the stage, Pildes — who testified about the dangers of the theory before the House last year —  seemed confident that the justices were not poised to endorse the theory in its most radical form. But even as the several panelists acknowledged the disruptive nature of the theory, none of them seemed eager to acknowledge that the four members of the Court who have flirted with the idea — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — all maintain close ties to the Federalist Society. 

That omission hinted at a deeper dilemma facing the Federalist Society. Despite accusations from liberals that the society is merely the eggheaded puppet of the Republican Party, many of the society’s members genuinely view themselves as independent-minded intellectuals, committed to the principles of individual freedom, judicial restraint and the rule of law. For the past two decades, the society’s members have pointed to those principles to justify the conservative movement’s efforts to weaken democratic norms and institutions, without having to go so far as to explicitly argue that a minority of Americans should be allowed to impose their will on the whole country. 

But now, as the American right lurches toward a more explicitly anti-democratic position,  the society’s members are face to face with a troubling possibility: that most conservatives couldn’t care less about their high-minded principles, and, even worse, that many of their allies view their attachment to those principles as a quaint — and slightly embarrassing — relic of the bygone era when conservatives still had to be coy about what they actually believed. And whether or not those criticisms are true, there was a definite sense of cognitive dissonance at the conference, where many of the panelists appeared willing to endorse the logic of anti-democratic arguments but shied away from those arguments’ more radical conclusions.

The next morning at breakfast, I met a law student from the University of Tulsa named James Carroll — who was, like me, one of the few male attendees not wearing a suit and tie. He told me he had grown up in Arizona before moving to Tulsa for law school, where he had fallen in love with Oklahoma, married his long-time girlfriend, and set down roots. He had recently accepted a job at the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office, where he had worked as an intern in law school. 

As we got talking, he described a vision of democracy that I hadn’t heard much of from the panelists the day before — democracy as something immediate, something pragmatic, something that people interact with in their daily lives and not just in philosophy textbooks.

“On the national level, democracy’s just a construct, but on the local level, it’s not a construct at all,” he said. 

I asked him what a functioning local democracy meant to him.

“Keeping your community safe, keeping murderers off the street, making sure people who need mental health support can get connected with those services,” he answered. He said his favorite part of his internship in the D.A.’s office during law school had been helping people who were struggling with mental health problems, and that his work on that issue had been part of what led him to join the office after graduation.

“Democracy,” he said, “works best on a small scale, in your community.”  

‘Maybe We Need More Shitposters’

The Federalist Society was founded by law students, and advancing the careers of ambitious, right-leaning lawyers has remained a major element of its work. That work begins on law school campuses, where local chapters host speakers and events, and it extends all the way to Washington, where the Federalist Society has become the GOP’s go-to clearinghouse for major judicial appointments. Although much of the national media attention has focused on the organization’s role in supporting Republican Supreme Court nominations, its presence on law school campuses has also been a source of controversy, especially since the Dobbs decision. Just last week, a Federalist Society event at Stanford Law School made national headlines after protesters heckled U.S. Circuit Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, a Trump appointee to the Fifth Circuit, causing him to cut his remarks short.

In recent years, however, the Federalist Society has come under fire not only from its traditional opponents on the left, but also from some erstwhile allies on the right. According to these conservative critics, the Federalist Society has excelled at training monkish young lawyers to fill the ranks of the federal judiciary, but it has been less successful at inspiring those same professionals to eschew prestigious clerkships and partner-track jobs in favor of manning the front lines of an all-out war on the American political establishment. 

Or as Theo Wold, a former Trump administration official who now works for Idaho’s attorney general, recently put it during an interview on the American Moment podcast, which is popular with young conservatives, “Maybe [conservatives] don’t need any more well-credential lawyers. Maybe we need more shitposters from Twitter.” 

At the student symposium, none of the panels focused explicitly on shitposting — one breakout session provided an introduction to the Federalist Society’s lawyers division, and another offered advice on “becoming an academic” — but there was a palpable sense that many young attendees were hungering for some juicer political red meat.

“I think the students wanted it to be fierier than it was,” Carroll said, reflecting on the first panel. 

That hunger is partly a function of the iconoclastic energies that Trump introduced into the American right, and partly a function of generational divides within the conservative legal movement itself.

“I think the older generations had been beaten so many times that they felt sort of defeated,” Blackman, who is in his thirties, told me. “They lost Roe, they lost Casey and they weren't so eager to overrule those decisions, so it was largely the younger generation — who didn't have those sort of battle scars — who were pushing hard for the court to overrule Dobbs.” 

The students at the conference did get a taste of face-to-face conflict on Saturday evening, when a group of about 30 law students from a liberal student group at UT showed up outside the conference center to protest Greg Abbott’s speech. As the protesters waved hand-drawn signs and chanted “Get that sexist out of Texas!”, a small group of conference attendees gathered inside the hotel lobby to take jeering selfies with the protesters through the glass double doors. 

“I mean, I do support the First Amendment,” I overheard one conference-goer say, clearly relishing the opportunity to own the libs. 

Back in the ballroom, Abbott leaned into the conservative culture war rhetoric, telling the audience that he was on “a recruiting mission” to enlist young conservative lawyers in the fight against “the social justice warriors and the anti-constitutionalists” who are seeking to subvert the rule of law and undermine America’s constitutional order. 

“Those who believe in the rule of law are outnumbered…but I believe we are still winning, because we are on the side of the righteousness,” Abbott thundered. It wasn’t entirely clear what he meant by “winning,” but the audience didn’t seem to mind. They offered up another round of thunderous applause. 

Abbott’s speech went on in more or less the same fashion for the next half-hour, bouncing between punchy anecdotes from his legal career and perfunctory exhortations to defend the country from tyrannical social justice warriors. The audience applauded and laughed through mouths of salad and dinner rolls, and the whole room leapt to its feet as Abbott’s remarks drew to a close.

As the ovation died down, I left the hall for the foyer, where a team of hotel staff was clearing cocktail tables and emptying garbage cans. On one side of the room, a group of women in evening gowns took pictures in front of a FedSoc-branded backdrop. At the other, a group of men gathered around a table for a drink.

As I made my way to the bar, the men raised their glasses for a toast. 

“To America,” said one of them. 

“To America,” said the others.

Despite accusations from liberals that the Federalist Society is merely the eggheaded puppet of the Republican Party, many of the society’s members genuinely view themselves as independent-minded intellectuals.

DOJ: Trump cannot save Navarro from contempt of Congress prosecution

Donald Trump never asserted executive privilege to block Peter Navarro from testifying to the Jan. 6 select committee — and even if he did, it wouldn’t have excused the former Trump trade adviser’s decision to blow off the committee entirely, Justice Department prosecutors argue in newly filed court papers.

“[N]o assertion by former President Trump could have covered most of the information that the Committee asked the Defendant to produce in documents or at his deposition,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Aloi wrote in the 26-page brief.

The brief is a bid by the Justice Department to convince U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta to keep Navarro’s criminal contempt of Congress trial on track. Navarro had been slated to go to trial in January, but Mehta put it on hold amid a tangle of legal issues related to Navarro’s claim that Trump — more than a year after leaving office — had privately asserted executive privilege. Navarro claims that the purported assertion prevented him from responding to the select committee’s subpoena.

The trial proceedings have renewed extraordinarily complex issues surrounding the immunity presidential advisers enjoy from being forced to testify to Congress, as well as the relatively untested puzzle of what courts should do when a current and former president disagree on assertions of executive privilege. While the Nixon-era Supreme Court has ruled that the incumbent president’s determination carries far more weight, courts have never drawn precise lines — and the issue has remained dormant until Trump’s post-presidential efforts to stymie investigations of his bid to overturn the election.

The issues were similarly prominent during the contempt of Congress trial for Trump ally Steve Bannon, also for defying the Jan. 6 committee. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols largely rejected Bannon’s arguments that he believed he was immune from testifying to Congress. Bannon was convicted by a jury in July. He’s currently appealing the verdict.

Navarro, unlike Bannon, was a sitting presidential adviser at the time of Jan. 6, which has added additional complexities to his case

But DOJ said there’s no need for Mehta to resolve those thorny issues. Navarro, Aloi noted, hasn’t shown any evidence that Trump actually did assert privilege over his response to the committee’s subpoena. A Jan. 23 letter from Trump’s lawyer — a belated effort by Trump to suggest Navarro was correct to defy the select committee — failed to make the case, she said. That’s because the majority of the select committee’s questions for Navarro had little to do with his role as Trump’s trade adviser, or indeed with Trump at all.

“The committee informed the Defendant that most of the information it was seeking did not concern communications he took in his capacity as presidential adviser at all, but instead related to matters undertaken in his personal capacity with persons outside the government,” the department argued. “Executive privilege, in this case, therefore could not justify a complete default on the Committee’s subpoena.”

The select committee subpoenaed Navarro in early 2022, seeking information about his efforts to support Trump’s bid to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election. Navarro, whose primary official role at the time was responding to the Covid pandemic, spent weeks after the election compiling a report that leveled discredited claims of election fraud. Trump cited that report in the same tweet he urged supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6 for a “wild” protest.

Navarro had also publicly described strategizing with Bannon and House Republican lawmakers on a strategy they dubbed the “Green Bay sweep,” a tactical plan for House and Senate Republicans to formally object to Joe Biden’s election during the certification of Electoral Votes on Jan. 6.

The select committee subpoenaed Navarro on Feb. 9, 2022, and Navarro responded almost immediately that he would not comply because of executive privilege. After weeks of failed discussions between the committee and Navarro, Biden’s White House counsel issued a letter indicating that Biden had determined not to support any claim of privilege over Navarro’s testimony. Navarro then blew off a March 2 deposition date. The House soon held Navarro in contempt and recommended that DOJ pursue criminal charges, which it did in June.

“At no time did the Defendant provide the Committee with any evidence supporting his assertion that the former President had invoked executive privilege over the information the Committee’s subpoena sought from the Defendant,” Aloi noted in her Tuesday night brief. “And at no time in his communications with the Select Committee did the Defendant raise the issue of testimonial immunity, nor even suggest that former President Trump had requested that he communicate any assertion of such immunity to the Committee.”

Mehta appeared to largely align with the Justice Department’s thinking on the matter until late January on the eve of trial, when he raised new questions about whether Navarro might fit within the realm of close presidential advisers who DOJ has long said are “immune” from compelled testimony to Congress. If so, he said, it’s possible DOJ would be barred from bringing contempt of Congress charges against Navarro.

But the department said its prior analyses about immunity — which all pertain to current and former advisers to a sitting president — aren’t applicable to Navarro, a former adviser to a former president.

Mehta is also contemplating whether questions about Trump’s claim of executive privilege should be resolved by the jury in Navarro’s forthcoming trial. But DOJ said this was a purely legal determination that should be resolved before trial begins.

“[W]hile a valid assertion of executive privilege may provide a bar to prosecution, a subpoenaed witness’s mistaken belief that executive privilege was asserted or excused compliance is not a defense at all,” Aloi wrote. “The Defendant should not be permitted to testify about contrary and mistaken beliefs before the jury.”

“Were a jury confronted with credible evidence both that there an invocation by the former President, and that there was not an invocation (and/or an express decision not to invoke) by the current President,” she continued, “there is no fact finding the jury could do that would resolve the conflict.”

Former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro leaves federal court in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Opinion | Biden Should Listen to Zelenskyy on China

The White House welcomed the news on Friday that China had facilitated a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “We support any efforts to de-escalate tensions there and in the region. We think it’s in our interests,” said spokesperson John Kirby. So why hasn’t Washington expressed the same openness to efforts by China to promote its peace deal for the war in Ukraine?

The Chinese plan was met with reflexive dismissal by the national security advisors to both President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump. Jake Sullivan suggested the first point of the 12-point plan — i.e., to respect the sovereignty of all countries — made the other points moot. “This war could end tomorrow if Russia… withdrew its forces,” he concluded. When a Sullivan predecessor, John Bolton, was asked about the plan, he went so far as to say China poses a greater threat to Ukraine than it does to Taiwan, because “China’s in this with both feet on Russia’s side.”

If that’s true, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy certainly didn’t get the memo. He reportedly sees merit in parts of China’s plan, and looks forward to discussing it with China’s leaders. In fact, it was just reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to meet virtually with Zelenskyy when he’s in Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Zelenskyy, “The more countries, especially… large ones, influential ones, think about how to end the war in Ukraine while respecting our sovereignty, with a just peace, the sooner it will happen.”

Ukraine’s openness to China’s involvement makes sense. The plan isn’t stacked in Russia’s favor, despite the two nations’ supposed “friendship without limits” (a characterization that has proven overblown). Besides urging respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, it contains quite a few elements which also should make Russia bristle: protecting civilians, condemning threats to use nuclear weapons and ending interference with humanitarian aid.

Importantly, Ukraine will also want to maintain good relations with China when the war is over. The cost to rebuild its infrastructure will likely exceed what the West is willing or able to provide, and the plan concludes by stating China’s desire to join the international community in supporting post-conflict reconstruction.

To be clear, this isn’t an argument for the Chinese plan itself. The plan is thin on details, and an immediate ceasefire could freeze Russia’s territorial gains in place and sap Ukrainian battlefield momentum. When China didn’t vote with the majority of countries at the United Nations to condemn Russia’s invasion as illegal, China’s judgment and impartiality were rightly questioned. Beijing also might be motivated as much by a desire to boost its international reputation as a desire to effect peace.

But when creative diplomacy is the only alternative to a costly and expensive forever war, no diplomatic effort should be summarily brushed aside. The Biden administration should see this as an opportunity to work collaboratively with China, to combine the clout each has with one of the combatants to, say, co-host negotiations which ultimately reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty and assure its future security. Unfortunately, Washington seems so allergic to the prospect of China playing a major diplomatic role that it is blind to the reality that U.S. interests might be well served by a Chinese diplomatic success.

Many analysts and U.S. officials have long believed that Ukraine will be unable to retake all of its territory by force, and that ending the war will require a diplomatic settlement. Well-entrenched Russian forces cannot be expelled from Crimea without the sort of Western-backed Ukrainian offensive which would risk triggering Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. Though it publicly supports Ukraine’s right to recapture Crimea, the Biden administration shrewdly refuses to supply Ukraine’s military with the long-range missiles such an effort would require, and privately asked Zelenskyy to remain open to negotiations.

Within the administration, the military leadership has shown the most prudence. I recently sat down with Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an upcoming episode of Eurasia Group Foundation’s None Of The Above podcast, and he said neither Russia nor Ukraine is likely to achieve their “complete political objectives through military means.” Instead, he insists the war will probably end when “somewhere, somehow, someone’s going to figure out how to get to a negotiating table.” When asked if the U.S. should take any peace plan seriously, regardless of whether it came from Italy, Turkey or even China, Milley didn’t disagree.

A negotiated outcome would be morally unsatisfying compared to a decisive defeat and Russia’s full withdrawal from occupied Ukrainian territory. But such a withdrawal remains improbable given the harsh realities of Russia’s degraded but still-considerable military capacity, continued resolve to fight and nuclear posture. The decision about whether and how to negotiate ultimately belongs to the leaders of Ukraine and Russia alone, not the U.S. (or China). But we should not automatically dismiss peace overtures from perhaps the only country which possesses both close diplomatic ties with and considerable economic leverage over Russia.

If Putin’s battlefield failures continue to mount, pressure from China could help bring him to the negotiating table. America’s approach to ending the war in Ukraine should recognize these realities. It should also recognize the hypocrisy inherent in touting Ukraine’s agency when it prosecutes war, but not when it pursues peace.

The Biden administration’s tendency to cast international politics as a grand struggle between democracy and autocracy could muddy its strategic calculations. The president stated it would not be “rational” for China to assist with peace negotiations, reinforcing a notion that autocratic countries simply can’t play a constructive role in resolving the war which happens to pit an autocracy against a democracy.

Such an ideologically inflected approach ignores the possibility that successful diplomacy is often based on shared interests, not just shared values. China might not share America’s frustration with Russia’s challenge to the Western-led geopolitical order, but Chinese leaders want to limit economic disruptions and nuclear escalation risk. We can criticize China’s form of government and human rights violations while appreciating their rational interests in ending the war.

Ukraine is fighting a just and courageous battle, and the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv has been at turns generous and judicious. But as the stakes, costs and risks increase, the U.S. will want to accelerate the end of hostilities.

If China can actually help Ukraine reach mutually acceptable terms with the country that invaded it, killed scores of its people and occupied its territory, surely the U.S. can muster the humility to permit its main geopolitical rival a diplomatic victory. After all, true diplomacy requires working with competitors, not just friends. In his State of the Union address, Biden said he is “committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.” This could be the first real test of that commitment. In Ukraine, China’s win need not be America’s loss.

Xi Jinping, left, plans to meet virtually with Volodymyr Zelenskyy when the Chinese president is in Moscow next week to meet with Vladimir Putin.

Senate Dems confident they can repeal Iraq war authorizations — despite absences

Senate absences have complicated an otherwise straightforward vote to kill two decades-old Iraq war authorizations. Advocates still predict it will clear the chamber without too much drama.

Senators will vote Thursday on whether to advance the bill, which would repeal both the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq’s government, formally concluding the conflicts and marking the end of an authority that many argue is antiquated and now unnecessary.

It has to clear a filibuster in order to pass, a threshold that appeared simple enough before Democratic Sens. John Fetterman (Pa.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) — and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — were hospitalized recently with health concerns. And Senate passage is only the first step, as the House would still need to take up the legislation before sending it to President Joe Biden's desk.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who sponsored the measure along with Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), was still confident Tuesday that the measure would pass.

“We feel like we're gonna have well north of 60 votes,” he said in a brief interview.

On its face, the math looks good for the legislation, with 12 Republicans backing the bill — enough to hit the necessary 60 votes, provided Democrats hang together. Plus, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has indicated he plans to join the group to support the bill, although he is not a cosponsor. A senior GOP aide said Republicans who are supporting the legislation are confident that it will pass, despite the absences.

“I think after 22 years, it's about time that we look at our engagements, not based on some 20-year-law, but on current certain situations, and I think we're way beyond what we needed for Iraq,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a co-sponsor of the legislation.

The measure itself is just two pages and is largely symbolic, though proponents argue it represents a formal reassertion by Congress of its ability to declare — and end — military conflicts.

“This is the week the Senate will begin the process to end the legal authority for the Iraq war two decades ago,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “Every year we keep them on the books, it’s another chance for future administrations to abuse or misuse them.”

McConnell, who is currently in a rehab facility after a fall last week that left him hospitalized for a few days and with a concussion and is not expected to return to the Senate this week, has opposed repealing the war authorizations in the past.

And he's far from the only Republican who's against the measure. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former member of Senate GOP leadership, pronounced himself skeptical of the push.

“I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” Cornyn said. “They think that Joe Biden is going to abuse the AUMF?”

House lawmakers in June 2021 voted to repeal the 2002 war authorization on a bipartisan268-161 vote — with 49 Republicans joining all but one Democrat in support. The measure was not taken up by the Senate.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has twice voted in the past three years to repeal both authorizations on a bipartisan basis, most recently by a 13-8 vote earlier this month.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request on whether the House plans to take up the legislation.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who co-sponsored the bill to repeal authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq’s government, was still confident Tuesday that the measure would pass.

Trump prepares an extensive opposition file on ‘Ron DeSanctimonious’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has not yet officially entered the 2024 presidential arena but former President Donald Trump’s campaign is preparing a grenade to launch his way.

Trump’s team and his allied PAC are preparing an expansive opposition research file by poring over DeSantis’ record as a prosecutor, member of Congress, and Florida governor. Among the items a Trump-allied group has drilled into is DeSantis’ record while serving as an assistant U.S. Attorney before running for congressional office, with plans to accuse him of being an “extremely lenient prosecutor” in cases involving, among other things, child pornography.

They have recently conducted focus groups and looked at polling to hone in on the best messaging to take on DeSantis. And they’re wasting no time to get organized and scoop up talent in key primary states.

“The team itself has felt like he has had a free ride without scrutiny for a number of years,” said Bryan Lanza, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and remains close to Trump’s team. “Just because he’s aggressive and willing to fight doesn’t make him MAGA. MAGA is the policies and there is a tremendous amount of sunlight between Trump policies and DeSantis policies. The more and more that gets highlighted the more DeSantis is going to get exposed as just another member of the establishment and compared to Jeb Bush.”

The preparations are the latest sign of a bruising primary fight to come, one that could make the 2016 primary fireworks look tame in comparison. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play. The child pornography charges, for one, mirror those used by Republican Senators against then Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. And in the case of DeSantis, his contemporaries have insisted that the plea deals he signed were not unordinary.

“To make any allegation that he was soft on any kind of case, especially child pornography, is just ludicrous. It defies the logic of what I saw in the office or what my office would let happen,” Ronald Henry, a retired assistant U.S. Attorney who served as supervisor to DeSantis when he was special assistant U.S. Attorney, told POLITICO. “He wasn’t a lone wolf on his own making deals without the entire weight of the U.S. Attorney’s office overseeing what he was doing.”

Already, Trump has seen several notable defections from his camp, with former allies citing the ex-president’s “childish” antics.

“Trump was a good policy guy and I’d put him up there with Ronald Reagan on policy, but presidentially he was a disaster the way he acted, the calling people names,” said former congressman Tom Marino, who co-chaired Trump’s 2015 campaign in Pennsylvania but is now supporting DeSantis. “He’s just not a nice person…If he thinks he had trouble getting elected before, there are more and more people out there across the country who said I was for him the first time, the second time, but what’s going on and his problems I don’t think I can support him.”

Trump hasn’t waited to get started on what is expected to be a major anti-DeSantis broadside. He’s made digs at the Florida governor’s backpedaling on raising the retirement age and privatizing Social Security and Medicare, has floated unsavory questions about DeSantis’ time as a teacher in Georgia, and has considered different nicknames for the governor including “Ron Establishment” and “Tiny D,” which he told reporters he likes. For now he is settling on “Ron DeSanctimonious,” or, for short, “DeSanctus.” Trump denied he was ever considering another oft-mentioned nickname — “Meatball Ron” — and told reporters it is “too crude.”

“I’m a very loyal person,” Trump told a small group of reporters on his way to Iowa on Monday. “There’s no hostility but I think it’s a strange thing he was out of politics, he was dead…I don’t think it’s nasty. I’m a very loyal person so I don’t understand disloyalty but you do see it in politics.”

Trump even released a video on Tuesday praising past Florida governors and claiming the state was “doing fantastically” before DeSantis. “Sunshine and ocean are very alluring, it’s not too hard to work with those factors.”

The Trump campaign’s goal is to capitalize on the months before DeSantis announces by rolling out new attacklines on the Florida governor and painting him as the handpicked establishment favorite, not the heir apparent to the MAGA throne.

DeSantis himself has brushed off Trump’s attacks as mere noise.

A spokesperson for DeSantis declined to comment.

“DeSantis doesn’t need to promote himself,” Marino said. “He’s a leader. He doesn’t call people names. He doesn’t make fun of women. That’s an easy one. I truly meant Trump was a genius on policy and he really blew it. I told him about it. He knows it all.”

In public remarks, DeSantis has drawn a contrast with Trump without naming him by emphasizing his overwhelming win in 2022, noting that he doesn’t rely on polls — a favorite tool of Trump’s — to dictate decisions, and that his administration is leak free.

But the rivalry that has been simmering for months could start to boil over as the two men criss-cross the country, hob nob with donors in the wealthy enclaves of Palm Beach, and start to unveil key campaign support.

On Friday, DeSantis made two stops in Iowa as part of a tour for his book, “The Courage to be Free,” and visited Nevada on Saturday. Trump visited Iowa on Monday for a roundtable on education policy.

As DeSantis spoke to Iowans, Trump went after the Florida governor on Truth Social, taking aim at his “very small crowds,” his support for ending an ethanol mandate, and his votes on Social Security and Medicare.

DeSantis did not mention 2024 during his speech in Iowa, but his decision to visit the state that holds the first contest in the Republican nominating calendar indicated he is doing more than flirting with a run. DeSantis is not expected to make a presidential announcement until Florida’s legislative session ends in May.

DeSantis’ Iowa visit came as a new aligned group, Never Back Down PAC, launched on Thursday. That group is being led by Ken Cuccinelli, one of Trump’s former administration officials. And in a potential sign of defections to come, Marino and another former Trump booster, Lou Barletta from Pennsylvania, also announced they plan to support the committee.

Some Trump allies acknowledge DeSantis has been able to attract deep-pocketed donors and some establishment Republicans who are eager to move on from the constant chaos of Trump. They say it could be challenging for him to bring together that cohort and some of the populist, right-wing voters who have been a part of the ex-president’s base in the past.

Trump’s team has tried to drive a wedge between the two by highlighting DeSantis’ voting record in Congress on support for military involvement overseas and entitlement cuts. They’re also keen to go after DeSantis’ response to Covid, although it is unclear how potent of an attack line that will be to voters who saw thousands flock to the Sunshine State during the pandemic.

But they also plan to highlight what’s described as the “personality factor.” Trump allies say the Florida governor can be awkward and mechanical in public, and note he has largely avoided the press. To contrast that, Trump’s team organized a trip to East Palestine, Ohio to bring attention to the train derailment there and interact with residents affected by the crash. They have given local and national media opportunities to ask Trump questions, and have scheduled unannounced stops in places like McDonald’s where he can interact with the public.

Trump’s team also sees an inherent advantage within their ranks. The top lieutenants for Trump’s campaign and aligned PAC, including Susie Wiles, Jason Miller, Taylor Budowich, Justin Caporale, and Tony Fabrizio, all of whom have past experience working for DeSantis.

One of Trump’s aides noted that it was a reflection of DeSantis’ high staff turnover, although Trump himself has cycled through dozens of top aides over the years, often in very messy and public ways — a fact DeSantis has referenced. Indeed, some of Trump’s top administration officials like Haley, Pence, and Pompeo, have announced a presidential run or are actively considering it.

“You look at my administration, part of the reason we’re able to do well, they’re not leaking to the media, we don’t have palace intrigue, we don’t have any drama. It’s just execution every single day, and we end up beating the left every single day for four years,” DeSantis said in Des Moines.

When asked by POLITICO at the recent CPAC gathering what that might say about his own leadership, Trump described his former cabinet officials as “ambitious” and said he was “proud” of their accomplishments working under him. “The more the merrier,” he added of them entering the campaign.

Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report from Davenport, Iowa. 

Donald Trump’s team and his allied PAC are preparing an expansive opposition research file by poring over Ron DeSantis’ record.


Democrats in 'frontline' districts put hopes of retaking the House in jeopardy

As Democrats begin their mission of re-taking the House of Representatives from a razor-thin, single-digit deficit, one thing may be making that harder: the ambition of members of their own party for higher office.

So far, five members have already announced plans to run for Senate in just the first few months of the 2024 cycle including Democratic Reps. Katie Porter (Calif.) and Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), both of whom are leaving "frontline" — or highly competitive — districts.

Slotkin, of Michigan’s 7th District, and Porter, of California’s 47th, were both elected in the Democratic wave year of 2018. They won their reelections by 6 and 3 percentage points, respectively, in 2022. Reps. Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, of California, and Arizona’s Rep. Ruben Gallego, also announced retirements in a bid for higher office — but they all represent safer Democratic-leaning districts.

“Elissa came along in 2018 and had the perfect blend of temperament, experience and ability to raise money to win that seat back,” said Thomas Morgan, Michigan’s Democratic Party 7th District chair. “This is a competitive seat, it’s a very diverse population here — everyone from MSU students to auto workers to farmers — so I expect it’ll be extremely competitive to fill Elissa Slotkin’s shoes — which seems insane to even say because it’ll be really difficult to do.”

These open seats were a welcome sight to Republicans. “The path to growing the Republican majority runs through seats like Elissa Slotkin’s. The NRCC is all hands on deck to add this seat to the Republican column in 2024,” said Jack Pandol, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that with the right resources, Democrats will continue representing these districts.

“I think we’ll win all those seats,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) of the California open races. “I think in a presidential year, we’ll have a good showing. But we’ll have to work hard to make sure we keep it.”

The incumbent advantages in fundraising and campaigning

One big advantage Slotkin and Porter had was that they were both excellent fundraisers.

“People just have a lot of assumptions [that] because I was a good fundraiser that it must have been like a nothing burger,” Porter said, describing how competitive her reelection was.

Porter raised $26 million in 2022 and spent $18.5 million on advertising compared to about $1 million spent by her opponent, Scott Baugh, who raised just $3 million, according to the FEC and AdImpact, a service that tracks political advertising.

Slotkin was also an elite fundraiser, bringing in almost $10 million compared to Republican opponent Tom Barrett’s $2.7 million. There was a parallel disparity in each candidate’ advertising spending: $8.6 million from Slotkin’s committee against $888,000 for Barrett, according to AdImpact.

Losing incumbency advantage translates to losing more established community connections and campaign infrastructure. Coupled with a shrinking number of competitive House seats thanks to redistricting, these factors weigh more heavily on a party when control of the House could be decided by a single-digit number of seats.

Having a strong presence on the airwaves was coupled with a competitive field operation. Porter stressed the amount of work that was needed to meet constituents in her newly drawn district last year and how important it was to introduce herself to voters.

In Michigan’s sprawling 7th district, Livingston County Chair Judy Daubenmier said building enthusiasm around a new candidate will be part of the challenge with Slotkin’s eventual replacement.

“That doesn’t happen overnight. You have to show up, show up all the time, show up everywhere. When we have a candidate officially announced I’ll be making that point to them. They need to be at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, the Fourth of July parade,” Daubenmier said.

Seeking higher office is 'just the nature of this place'

Still, losing strong incumbents like Porter and Slotkin is something parties have had to deal with many times in the past. In addition to these five now open races, Democrats will have to defend 29 additional "frontline" members, outlined in a list recently released by the DCCC, including fellow Michigander Rep. Dan Kildee.

“It happens every two years. It's just the nature of this place,” Kildee said of how the retirements impact winning back a majority. “It's just a reality we have to face but knowing that there are good candidates back home gives me — at least in that district — some reassurance that we’ll be competitive.”

Democrats boost deep benches in both California and Michigan. Several local Democrats in Slotkin’s district have already indicated interest in running although none have declared yet. In California, Porter has already endorsed state Sen. Dave Min as a possible replacement, and nine Democrats have registered with the FEC to run for Schiff’s old seat.

Thirty-year incumbent and former House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) has seen many retirements in his tenure in the House and Democratic House leadership. This year’s list so far gave him no pause.

“Anytime you've got an incumbent that opens up a seat, that's a challenge, but I don't know that it’s anything unusual — especially in California. In California, it might be easier,” Clyburn said with a laugh.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin was an elite fundraiser in her 2022 House race, bringing in almost $10 million compared to Republican opponent Tom Barrett’s $2.7 million.


Sharpton dodges the spotlight on latest push to ban menthol cigarettes

NEW YORK — When the New York City Council tried to ban menthol cigarettes in 2019, Rev. Al Sharpton lobbied aggressively against the bill.

He went on local television, fielded press queries and called council members, who ultimately agreed with his concerns that it would criminalize menthol smokers who are predominately Black.

Now that Gov. Kathy Hochul is trying to outlaw flavored tobacco this year, Sharpton — who’s faced criticism for taking money from the tobacco industry — is no less involved, but is keeping a low profile. This time he's allowed powerful surrogates like the mother of Eric Garner and the brother of George Floyd to speak in his place so he can influence the issue without having to answer questions about his involvement or how it conflicts with the positions of other civil rights leaders.

The debate, part of budget negotiations in Albany, pits Sharpton against NAACP NY President Hazel Dukes, who supports the ban because of the high lung cancer rate in the Black community. So far, it appears that Sharpton’s side will prevail in what could be a preview of the coming battle around a similar ban proposed by President Joe Biden’s Food and Drug Administration.

“It’s a good bill with bad consequences,” Garner’s mother, racial justice activist Gwen Carr, said at a City Hall rally last week. She believes the ban would increase the underground market for untaxed cigarettes and lead to more police stops in communities of color.

“They say it’ll only be a civil penalty,” Carr said about Hochul’s proposal that would fine retailers who sell flavored tobacco, but not individuals who purchase it. The City Council has proposed a companion bill.

“When my son was murdered, that’s all that should have been — a civil penalty. But he paid for it with his life. We know it’s no such thing as, ‘It’s just civil, they going to play nice.’”

An NYPD officer put Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014 during a crackdown on people hawking untaxed cigarettes. Hochul’s bill would indeed allow regional health departments to contract with police officials to enforce the ban, but officers would only be handing out fines, not making arrests.

If the bill were to pass, New York would become the third state after California and Massachusetts to ban menthols. The flavored cigarettes can be easier to smoke, more addictive and harder to quit, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black New Yorkers make up 85 percent of menthol smokers, according to the CDC. Flavored cigarettes account for nearly 40 percent of all tobacco sales nationwide and 378,000 premature deaths between 1980 and 2018, the CDC said.

Tobacco companies have long targeted Black consumers, from pouring advertising dollars into periodicals like “Ebony” and funding civil rights groups, including Sharpton’s National Action Network.

But the money lavished on Black lobbyists in California, who also cited the deaths of Floyd and Garner in their campaigns against the ban, failed to defeat a 2020 measure outlawing flavored tobacco. Voters last year rejected a subsequent ballot initiative to overturn the law. The defeat did not deter Sharpton from attacking the F.D.A. ban that’s pending at the federal level, saying it would “exacerbate existing, simmering issues around racial profiling.”

Leaders like Sharpton, with his Harlem-based National Action Network, and Carr whose son’s death in Staten Island sparked a national movement against police brutality, have outsized influence in New York.

“People are listening, and they’re listening because Gwen Carr had this terrible tragedy in her family and has been a voice,” David Paterson, New York’s first Black governor, said in an interview.

Paterson favors the bill, describing tobacco-related deaths as a “health crisis.” But he still thinks Sharpton and Carr, who are close, have been effective in spreading their concerns.

“I would admit that, if not for Rev. Sharpton and Gwen Carr, I wouldn’t have even thought about the ancillary effects,” he said.

Their involvement has also created tensions with other Black leaders, who are usually on the same side of racial justice issues.

NAACP NY’s Dukes and former National Action Network regional director Rev. Kirsten John Foy led a rally by NYPD headquarters supporting the ban last week, less than an hour after Carr’s anti-ban demonstration at the nearby City Hall.

“I’ve been to jail holding the police accountable with Reverend Foy. Why would I, at this age and this time, bring police into my community knowing the tragedies that have occurred?” Dukes, 90, said.

Foy added, “Big tobacco has been lying to people like my friend Gwen Carr, they’ve been lying on the other side saying you have to accept the status quo because if not then the bad police are going to come and they’re going to get you.”

Carr said in an interview she hasn’t taken any funding from the tobacco industry. “Nobody is paying me to do anything. I’m just doing what I feel is right,” she said.

Sharpton declined multiple interview requests. A spokesperson, Rachel Noerdlinger, would not say if his organization NAN still accepts tobacco funding, but pointed out that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who backs anti-smoking efforts, also donates to Sharpton.

“NAN is unequivocally against smoking but has real concerns about the unintended consequences as Rev. Al Sharpton has expressed in the past,” Noerdlinger said. “Rev. Sharpton has 127 chapters in 35 states and he doesn’t show up all the time to local issues. Nor does the national president of NAACP.”

While Dukes, a past national president of NAACP, and Foy were joined by dozens of anti-tobacco advocates, Carr’s group numbered closer to 10 people.

George Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, and his wife, Keeta, flew to New York from their home in Houston to join Carr at the rally. Philonise Floyd quickly pivoted from remarks against the ban to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that received renewed life in Congress following the death of Tyre Nichols, who in January was fatally beaten by Memphis police.

Floyd invoked former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) as a backer of the act that seeks to eliminate racism and the use of force in police departments. Reynolds American, the company behind the popular menthol cigarette brand Newport, paid Meek to lobby against the California and the FDA ban, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Dukes, at a rally in the state Capitol last week, explained why she presumed Sharpton wasn’t out front against the ban this time.

“I think that Reverend Sharpton is hearing about the death rates and probably rethinking it,” she said in an interview after the event. Black men are 10 percent more likely to die from lung cancer than their white counterparts, according to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.

At the Manhattan rally a few days later, Dukes told POLITICO she was “having conversations” with Sharpton and Carr about changing their position.

Paterson said the disagreement between the civil rights leaders actually speaks to how much political power the Black community has gained in New York over the past decades.

“Years ago when similar issues came up, there was a feeling that we had to stick together or no one would hear us,” he said.

Dukes acknowledged the bill faces steep opposition in the Legislature where the Senate and Assembly are unlikely to include the proposal in their own budget priorities due out this week.

Hochul has indicated she will continue to push for the measure in the final budget deal — where she would have the power of the state’s purse strings to try to include the ban.

“What we're concerned about is the highly addictive properties of menthol, because it has more soothing ingredients that makes it easier to smoke more,” she told reporters earlier this month. “And it's more of an attraction to young people to start out on the path of a lifetime of smoking addiction.”

Mary Bassett, the state’s former health commissioner and a longtime backer of the ban, said in an interview she was hopeful about its fate. She noted that Carr’s fears haven’t been borne out in states where menthol bans are in effect.

“We have an example in Massachusetts where it hasn’t given rise to the concerns, legitimate concerns, that have been raised about the potential for increased police encounters,” said Bassett, a physician who now runs Harvard University’s Center for Health and Human Rights.

Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.

The Rev. Al Sharpton has previously come out against a ban on menthol cigarettes, but isn't publicly taking a stand against Gov. Kathy Hochul's proposal to prohibit the sale of flavored cigarettes in New York.

Former NATO Chief: Trump Could Sabotage the War

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary-general of NATO, packs his prognosis for Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign into one loaded word.

“I think President Trump will be a loser,” he tells me.

It is a notoriously triggering term for the former president, evoking deep humiliation. Rasmussen uses it casually.

“His baggage is too heavy, too controversial,” says Rasmussen, 70, who was Denmark’s prime minister for most of this century’s first decade.

Yet Rasmussen, a right-of-center politician who is now a white-shoe international consultant, remains scared of Trump. What disturbs him more immediately than the idea of Trump back in the White House is a far likelier scenario: Trump winning the Republican presidential nomination.

It may seem counterintuitive to fear Trump’s nomination more than his return to power, a less probable but vastly more dangerous outcome. But Rasmussen’s mind is on the war in Ukraine — and what Trump’s candidacy might do to sabotage it.

The former NATO chief serves as an adviser to the Ukrainian government and recently came to Washington to see members of Congress and Biden administration officials. He is lobbying them to supply more and heavier weapons and to make long-term security guarantees to Ukraine.

That’s where the Trump angst comes into play.

Just by winning the Republican nomination Trump could shatter the bipartisan front in favor of Ukraine, Rasmussen fears. Trump has been forthright about his views of Russia’s invasion, praising Putin as a clever strategist in the early days of the war and recently suggesting that Ukraine should have ceded “Russian-speaking areas” in a deal with the invader.

Rasmussen says Trump’s apparent Ukraine policy would amount to “surrender.”

“I call it a geopolitical catastrophe if Trump were to be nominated, because in the campaign his influence would be destructive,” Rasmussen says. It would move Trump’s terrible ideas closer to the mainstream and make it harder to secure congressional support for the war.

Already, he notes, opinion polls show “a weakening of the support for Ukraine” in the United States. Trump’s nomination could accelerate that, Rasmussen argues: “The mere fact that his thinking appeals to a certain element, a certain segment of the American public, will push American politics in the wrong direction.”

“I really hope that Republicans will get their act together,” he says. “I do hope, I would say not only from a European perspective but from a global perspective, that Republicans will nominate a candidate that is much more attached to American global leadership than Trump and Trumpists.”

There are only a few candidates circling the Republican race who fit that description. The most promising may be Mike Pence, the former vice president who has called for aiding Ukraine extensively and denounced “apologists” for Russia in his own party. Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador, has endorsed giving Ukraine all the weaponry it needs and describes the war as a fight for freedom. Neither is polling in the double digits right now.

Trump’s top rival on the right, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, has echoed him on Ukraine, denouncing what he calls Biden’s “blank-check policy” of generous aid and saying that the fate of Ukraine’s border regions is not an important American concern. This week he described Russia’s savage war of aggression as a “territorial dispute.”

That “blank check” language has become a go-to formulation for Republicans (sometimes including Haley) who want to keep some distance from the war without going full Trump. The catch phrase is about the extent of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s stance. When he declined an invitation to Ukraine this month from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, McCarthy said he did not need to travel to confirm he “won’t provide a blank check for anything.”

It is not clear what that means as a matter of policy, which is not exactly reassuring for Ukraine and its allies.

It is not that the Republican Party lacks committed defenders of Ukraine. There are plenty, but like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell they have tended to speak softly and carry a big omnibus spending bill. An unbending Ukraine hawk, McConnell assured European leaders at the Munich Security Conference last month that Republican leaders value a “robust trans-Atlantic alliance” — whatever other raucous voices in the gallery might say.

“Don’t look at Twitter — look at people in power,” McConnell told them, listing influential House and Senate committee chairmen who have locked arms with Ukraine.

The problem is that there is not much in the last decade of Republican politics to indicate that senior legislators can be relied upon to stick to their principles when the most strident factions of the G.O.P. base are moving in another direction. And when it comes to the war, right-wing Twitter bears an uncomfortable resemblance to real life.

There is a pronounced partisan gap on Ukraine: A Gallup poll published in February, around the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, found 81 percent of Democrats wanted Ukraine to reclaim its lost lands even at the risk of drawing out the war, versus 53 percent of Republicans. Only 10 percent of Democrats believed the United States was doing too much to back Ukraine, while almost half of Republicans thought American support had gone too far.

These are consequences of letting people like Trump and Tucker Carlson, the Fox News personality who is the Ukrainian government’s most caustic American antagonist, become the loudest right-wing voices on the most urgent security issue of the day.

That may be why Rasmussen and some other center-right foreign leaders have taken it upon themselves to make a case to the American right in favor of the war.

Most visible has been Britain’s Boris Johnson, the former Tory prime minister who is pressuring governments on both sides of the Atlantic to supply fighter jets to Ukraine. In late January he earned a rousing welcome from Republicans on Capitol Hill, one suspects more for his disheveled Mr. Brexit stage persona than for his dogged pro-Ukraine activism.

At an Atlantic Council event, Johnson lamented the shrinking spirit of American conservatives. “I’ve been amazed and horrified by how many people are frightened of a guy called Tucker Carlson,” Johnson said. One deadly effective provocateur can spot another.

Rasmussen has made three trips to Washington since last fall, using each to press the argument for Ukraine and promote a plan for Western security guarantees. He says he has met with a number of influential Republicans, including Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs — all avowed supporters of the fight against Russia.

Actual Ukraine skeptics have been more elusive. I ask Rasmussen if he met war critics like Senator Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican who has called the war a distraction from a larger struggle with China, or Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, a new arrival in Washington who as a candidate last year professed indifference to the Ukrainian cause. The answer is a rueful no.

Rasmussen tells me that before visiting Washington he made a list of lawmakers who had criticized the war and requested meetings with some of them. He was ready to tell them that ensuring Russia’s failure in Ukraine was not a distraction from the contest with China, but rather a crucial opportunity for the West to show its collective power and resolve. He wanted to explain how European governments are doing their part against the Russian menace and to stress that “isolationism has never, ever served the interests of the United States.”

Not one war critic agreed to meet him, he says. Unfortunately for me, Rasmussen declines to “name and shame” the specific members who blew him off.

Rasmussen says he tries to go on Fox whenever he’s in the United States, though he has not managed to get on air in months. When I ask if he tried for a slot on Carlson’s show, he chuckles: “Not Tucker Carlson.”

Even a war effort can ask too much.

If American voters’ enthusiasm for the war may not continue forever, then Rasmussen believes we must make it count now. That means giving Ukraine fighter jets, longer-range missiles and other arms Biden has resisted sending. If Trump’s opponents cannot beat him in the primary, Rasmussen hopes that perhaps Ukraine can defeat Russia first. He predicts Biden will wind up sending warplanes, calling it merely “a question of time.”

The former NATO boss has nothing critical to say about Biden. When I suggest the president might do more to explain the war to American voters and address their skepticism, he shrugs off the idea. Biden is the best thing the transatlantic alliance has going.

“We are blessed,” Rasmussen says, “by having a true internationalist and globalist in the White House.”

Units of one of the territorial defense brigade participate in military drills on a training ground in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, on March 14, 2023.

Trump who? Ohio’s Mike DeWine doesn’t have time to talk ageism, partisan rancor or 45

A few weeks into his second term, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine took a spill while inspecting the damage in the East Palestine community where a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed last month. He suffered a displaced fibula fracture walking down the steps at a church that had set up a medical center for residents.

It hurt and he wore a boot, but the 76-year-old governor has suffered worse trying to navigate his place in a splintered Republican Party.

In a wide-ranging interview with POLITICO, DeWine talked about the East Palestine disaster, maneuvering within the Republican Party and how he’s approached policy issues related to education and abortion.

On the issue of East Palestine, DeWine says the federal government needs to do more to prevent similar accidents in the future.

“There are some things we can do, but I don’t want to mislead anybody. They’re only a fraction of what can be done,” the governor and 20-year veteran congressman said. “Railroads are preempted by the federal government, so the answer, frankly, lies with Congress now. The federal government has a major responsibility.”

In the meantime, Ohio has added $800,000 in grants toward hazardous materials training.

It’s the sort of low-flair approach DeWine has taken throughout his nearly 50 years in public office in the Midwest’s biggest swing state. Along with serving as governor, he’s held positions as a senator, lieutenant governor, congressman, state senator, attorney general and county prosecutor.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You criticized President Trump’s involvement in Jan. 6 and then he didn’t endorse you until after your primary last year. Do you think that lack of support undercut your ability to negotiate with your GOP-led legislature?

I've been very successful with our Republican Legislature in getting budgets every two years. We’ve had two budgets, and now we’re on to our third. But if you look at the first two, we got 97 percent of the things that we asked for in the budget, so I think we're doing fine with the Legislature.

POLITICO has reported that local election officials all over the country are preparing to be challenged by people who are aligned with Trump's stolen-election conspiracy. What are you or your Legislature doing to address that?

I haven’t seen much of that in Ohio, but the Legislature passed and I signed some modest changes in our voting laws. We do a very good job in Ohio in conducting elections. And there's not been a great groundswell for changes. We count our votes quickly. We have a great opportunity for people to vote. We've not had the problem that some states have had about absentee ballots being counted.

When it comes to Covid, you were the first governor — Democrat or Republican — to close schools when the pandemic started, even before Illinois and New York. What is the biggest issue that Ohio schools and students are struggling with now after so much remote learning?

Our urban schools were particularly hit because they did not go back as quickly as our rural schools and our suburban schools. To get the urban schools back, candidly, was to offer them and all the school personnel to be put in front of the line in regard to vaccines right when the vaccines came out. So we were successful in doing that.

There is no doubt that we have kids that are behind as a direct result of being out of school. Our urban children have been particularly hard-hit by that. One thing we always worry about, even before the pandemic, is reading. It’s really the key. In my budget, we have a provision that says the science of reading is what should be taught in all of our schools. We also budget to train teachers in regard to the science of reading. We think the evidence is abundantly clear that this is the best way, the fastest way to help kids read.

What do you say to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to change how Black history is taught in AP classes?

I don't know enough about what's going on in Florida to make a comment about that. In Ohio, we want our history taught. We want to help kids understand the history of the good and the bad. My major in college was education. I student-taught. I thought I was going to be a social studies teacher. So I'm a believer in teaching about government and focusing on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Switch to politics, do you think age matters in running for office? You’re 76. And at various times it's been suggested that President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are too old to run.

I really feel that I'm in my prime as far as my ability to make decisions and get things done. It just depends on the individual. I feel that for me, at least, I'm in the prime time of my life or at least my career as far as being a public servant.

In terms of policy, a young Ohio girl last year drew national attention when she wasn't able to get an abortion. You called it “gut-wrenching” at the time. Are you or the Ohio legislature doing anything to address that this year?

What I've said to the state Legislature is we need to look at the issue. Need to look at the bill that was passed. And the goal should be to try to [see] if there are areas that are not clear — and don't give proper guidance to physicians, to the public — then we should go in and make them clear.

I have a long career of being pro-life. I'm very pro-life, but I think that our concern is saving the most lives. The best way to do that is to have a clear statute that is not ambiguous in any way. And also that recognizes that the voters are going to be able to go to the ballot and express their will and we want to build a law that will be sustainable over a long period of time.

How do you break through in a bipartisan way? 

Politics had nothing to do with dealing with how we clean up the mess from the train, for example, or how we hold the train company liable and accountable for this. So Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and I both from the point of view of, “Hey, we got a problem. And let's go fix it.” So yeah, I think there's plenty of opportunity for people to work in a bipartisan way.

Another example is Gov. Steve Beshear, in Kentucky, another Democrat. He and I are going to build a bridge across the Ohio River. We got the federal government and we got our money and his money, and we're going to build a bridge. We’ve worked exceedingly well together.

So, yeah, I think people want us to get things done. I think they don't like partisan battles. You know, there are gonna be things that parties just are going to disagree about. And that is what it is. I have always found in my 20 years in Congress, particularly my 12 years in the U.S. Senate, as well as my time now as governor for the last four years, that you can find common ground. You can get things done.

What are your policy goals for your second term?

Since I took office, I have put an emphasis on mental health and fulfilling John Kennedy's pledge in 1963, 50 years ago, to have mental health services available in every community in the country. From Day One, I put an emphasis on this. I provided in my first budget, my second budget now my third budget about $650 million for schools to use for mental health.

When the pandemic hit, we put money directly into our colleges and universities for mental health for students. We continue to have a very aggressive budget. In regard to mental health, we’re also taking this into the communities. We have additional money in this budget, for example, if it's approved by the legislature, in regard to the research. We're not doing enough research in the area of mental health. So, that's a priority.

Prenatal care and pre-K education is also a priority and getting kids ready for school. Reading, as I told you, is important.

Another area is community development. We have a proposal in our budget this year that I think is unique. And it is to set aside a half billion dollars in what we call the Ohio Future Fund and that is to help local communities when they have a prospective site that needs to be cleaned up or that needs to be gotten ready for developments. They can tap into that fund. I consider it a window of opportunity for Ohio.

We are in a great position. Not only have we brought Intel chip fabrication plants into Ohio, but we're having a groundbreaking for a new Honda facility to make electric batteries. This is really, I think, Ohio's time.

Finally, and more personally, you have eight children, more than any other sitting governor to my knowledge. How has being a father affected your ability to be in public office?

It keeps me grounded. You know, now we have 26 grandkids. And most weekends we're going to basketball games or soccer or something with some of our grandkids. Along with keeping me grounded, it also keeps informed of what different generations are thinking and what they're doing. There’s diversity in our family, a diversity of views, and that's always helpful as well.

Mike DeWine talked about the East Palestine disaster, maneuvering within the Republican Party and how he’s approached policy issues related to education and abortion.

Bank failures revive bitter Senate Democratic infighting

Five years to the day after Senate Democrats clashed bitterly over Donald Trump-backed bank deregulation, the failure of two banks is reigniting the old tension.

President Joe Biden on Monday criticized the former president’s loosening of bank regulations, when Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress approved a measure to roll back parts of the 2010 post-financial crisis reform bill known as Dodd-Frank. Biden didn’t mention that his own party played a significant role, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is well aware.

“I wish I’d been wrong. But I knew I wasn’t,” Warren said in an interview this week about her opposition to the 2018 law. She’s now calling for repealing it: “Both parties participated in rolling back the rules. Now both parties need to participate in strengthening the rules.”

The current Senate Democratic discord is especially acute because the caucus had the numbers to block the 2018 effort — but under heavy pressure to cut a deal to help community banks in an election year, 17 of them supported it. The collapse of two banks with roughly $300 billion in total assets over the past week has animated those internal divisions among Democratic senators, who usually pride themselves on policy unity. And it starkly contrasts with Senate Republicans, who uniformly supported the last big banking bill.

Asked whether he regretted his vote, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) told reporters: “No. I voted for a bill that was a bipartisan compromise.”

“Sometimes members choose policy positions and wait to see if history serves them,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who opposed the legislation. “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

In case it was unclear, he added: “I was on the right side of it.”

Republicans instantly ruled out passing new bank regulations on Tuesday, arguing federal regulators are already empowered to increase scrutiny of those banks. So Democrats will have to decide whether it’s worth taking their internal fight to the Senate floor again.

Several Democrats said they want to see either repeal of the 2018 legislation or other tougher laws. But at the moment there is no apparent solution that would get 51 Democratic votes, much less the 60 senators needed to vault a filibuster.

“We’re going to try,” Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told reporters. But he added that “I don't know how we do a legislative fix.”

Exacerbating the internal fight: Democrats don't agree whether the rollback was actually to blame for the present bank failures. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who cut that 2018 deal with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho.), said in an interview Tuesday that he stands by his vote and disagrees with those blaming his legislation: “I don’t see it the same way. If you read the bill, you’ll know that it doesn’t let them off.”

“Would I vote the same way [today]? Yes,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats and voted in favor of the 2018 legislation. “Because of the important help to smaller banks and community banks; that was my mission.”

The 2018 law peeled back parts of Dodd-Frank to exempt smaller banks from federally administered “stress tests” that weighed their ability to weather economic downturns. Its enactment meant Dodd-Frank's stricter federal oversights only applied to a handful of bigger banks.

And the issue is already becoming a cudgel in Senate races. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is running for the Arizona Senate seat, went after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) for her vote in support of the 2018 law, calling the votes the “most salient example of how we’re different.” Of the most vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection next fall, Brown, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania opposed the 2018 law, while Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Tester and Sinema supported it.

“It was obviously a mistake,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), another incumbent senator, who missed the 2018 vote but criticized the bill then. “It was ill-advised, these are big banks … and they need to have some backstops."

Asked whether he sensed a divide among Senate Democrats, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) replied: “That question answers itself. Because there were some in 2018 who thought it was a good idea … and I put myself in that category; I was listening to my community banks.”

Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, both of which qualified for the 2018 exemption, had lobbied hard for the measure by assuring lawmakers they were not big enough to pose systemic risk. Yet federal authorities cited that exact problem on Sunday when they announced they would backstop all of Silicon Valley Bank’s deposits after it collapsed thanks to a large-scale run.

“Working together, a good job — a miraculous job — has been done to stem the possibility of systemic risk,” Rep. Maxine Waters said in an interview. The Californian is the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and opposed the 2018 law.

She also warned against jumping to conclusions on whether congressional action had prompted the bank failures: “I don't know what could be said about what has happened here with this; the collapse of Silicon Valley as it relates to Dodd-Frank.”

As it stands, the toughest regulations apply only to banks with more than $250 billion in assets. Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank held around $209 billion and $110 billion, respectively, when regulators took over. Summing up the back and forth, Warren said midsize banks were acting like “little community banks, and should be only lightly regulated. That was laughable on its face.”

It's made a painful issue for Democrats for years now, ever since a group of party centrists went around Brown, then the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, to cut a deal with Republicans. Brown said on Bloomberg Radio on Tuesday that some Democrats “don't fight hard enough,” but then he went into peacemaking mode.

“I think that it's been illuminating to a lot of people,” Brown told reporters later. “I think all the Democrats [now] realize we need stronger rules.”

Even with their entrenched positions, Democratic senators are trying to avoid a replay of the backbiting five years ago when Warren called out her colleagues that supported deregulation in a fundraising email. That move prompted a contentious meeting among Democratic chiefs of staff in which Dan Geldon, then Warren’s top aide, cited nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warnings that more bank failures could result from rolling back Dodd-Frank, according to three people familiar with the meeting.

Geldon argued at the time that Warren was fighting on principle and not just to target other senators, while aides to senators that supported the bank bill blanched at her tactics and said they were merely reacting to banks back in their states, according to those three people.

Now Democrats can at least face that dispute from the majority, when they're able to choose what comes to the floor. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been careful about how he characterizes a potential congressional response, saying Capitol Hill will “look closely” at next steps. He opposed the bank bill five years ago.

New Hampshire Democratic Sens. Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen both said they’d be willing to reexamine the 2018 law, which both supported, if investigations find that was the cause of the failures. But they evinced no regrets about their position.

“The reality is, it was very bad management at SVB. And you can’t fix that with any regulation,” Shaheen said.

Democratic senators are trying to avoid a replay of the backbiting five years ago when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called out her colleagues that supported deregulation in a fundraising email.

Biden mourns with families of California shooting victims and moves to close gun loophole

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — A solemn President Joe Biden signed an executive order to close gun registration loopholes as he delivered what amounted to a eulogy for 11 people shot to death as they celebrated the Lunar New Year in a Southern California suburb.

Biden recited names of the mostly immigrant victims, recalling the love of family and community that brought them to the dance hall in January, as well as the pain that will linger with their families and made the small city another in a long line of places made infamous by violence.

“As a nation, we remember them — immigrants from China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan — all of whom found a home in America,” Biden said before meeting privately with some of the families at a Boys and Girls Club near the site of the Jan. 21 shooting.

His remarks framed what the White House portrayed as a significant advance in gun safety, an executive order intended to move the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.

The executive action directs Attorney General Merrick Garland to close a gray area in existing gun sales laws that have allowed some vendors to operate without conducting background checks. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which Biden signed into law last summer, requires anyone who sells firearms for profit to run background checks. Garland will be tasked with defining who qualifies as a gun dealer.

“It’s just common sense to check whether someone is a felon, a domestic abuser before they buy a gun,” Biden said.

Among other directives, the executive order asked Biden’s Cabinet to focus on public awareness campaigns around red flag laws and safe gun storage and encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to publish a report on how manufacturers market firearms to adults and minors. The action also calls for his administration to speed up the implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

The president’s move comes as state leaders renewed calls for federal action amid a violent start to 2023, which has already witnessed 164 victims in 110 mass shootings — incidents where at least four people are shot.

“I know what it’s like to get that call,” Biden told the crowd on Tuesday. “... I know what it’s like to lose a loved one so suddenly. It’s like losing a piece of your soul.”

While the White House has made historic strides on gun policy, the flurry of mass shootings this year has spurred a renewed pressure campaign from gun safety advocates. Now with a split Congress, gun safety groups have said Biden has a responsibility to roll out further reform. Advocates have pushed administration officials on Tuesday’s executive order for months.

Biden used his speech to re-up his calls for lawmakers to take further action on gun violence.

“Let’s be clear: None of this absolves Congress from the responsibility of acting,” he said. “Pass universal background checks. Eliminate gun manufacturer immunity and liability. And I’m determined, once again, to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines.”

Two of the three deadliest mass shootings this year have taken place in California, according to the Gun Violence Archive, despite the state having some of the country’s strictest firearm policies and a gun death rate 37 percent below the national average. Just days after the Monterey Park shooting, a disgruntled worker killed seven people at a mushroom farm in rural Half Moon Bay.

In the case of the Monterey Park shooting, Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna has said the semi-automatic handgun used by the 72-year-old gunman was most likely acquired illegally.

State leaders nationally have also said more needs to be done at the federal level in light of a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down New York’s concealed carry law. That has given rise to subsequent challenges to state gun laws, including California’s longstanding ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and a provision barring 18-to-20-year-olds from buying semi automatic weapons.

After Tuesday’s speech, Biden was scheduled to meet with first responders and victims’ families as he has done so many times before in the wake of a mass tragedy. He’ll once again be surrounded by immense grief, just as he was in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, N.Y., less than a year ago.

But he ended Tuesday’s remarks with a line of hope. It’s a piece of advice he’s shared with other survivors and family members along the way — something he draws from his own experiences with grief.

“It takes time, but I promise you,” Biden said. “I promise you, the day will come when the memory of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.”

President Joe Biden told the crowd, “I know what it’s like to lose a loved one so suddenly. It’s like losing a piece of your soul.”

Senators from both parties press Austin on sending F-16s to Ukraine

A group of senators from both parties is pressing the Pentagon for more information on what it would take to send F-16 jets to Ukraine.

The fresh push came in a letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from eight senators, and obtained by POLITICO, as top administration officials from President Joe Biden on down have poured cold water on bipartisan calls to send U.S.-made fighters into the fight for now.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is "now at a critical juncture," the senators wrote, arguing F-16 fighters could give Kyiv an edge as Moscow's full-tilt invasion enters a second year.

"After speaking with U.S., Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the U.S. needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine," the senators wrote. "This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield."

The letter was organized by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

The senators requested Austin provide them with assessments by the end of the week on a variety of factors needed to successfully transfer F-16s to Ukraine.

Among their questions, the lawmakers asked how high Ukrainian officials are ranking fighter jets when making requests for weapons and how the F-16s might be sourced if approved — either newly produced or from current inventories. They also sought the military's assessment of what impact F-16s would have on the conflict and how quickly Ukrainian pilots could be trained on the jets.

The group hailed reports that two Ukrainian pilots came to the U.S. for a fighter skills assessment at Tucson's Morris Air National Guard Base, in Kelly's home state, which they called a "critical step in gauging" their readiness to fly F-16s.

Also signing onto the letter were Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Jacky Rosen of Nevada as well as Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama and Ted Budd of North Carolina.

Bipartisan efforts to convince the Biden administration to send F-16s, or facilitate other countries sending them to Ukraine, have been bolstered by assessments such as those of Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Europe. Cavoli told lawmakers behind closed doors at the Munich Security Conference last month that sending advanced weapons, including F-16s and long-range missiles, could help bolster Ukraine's defenses.

But top civilian officials, including Biden and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, say fighters aren't an immediate battlefield need compared to other capabilities.

Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl also defended the administration's stance, telling the House Armed Services Committee last month that the most optimistic timeline for delivering older F-16s would be roughly 18 months, while producing newer jets could take three to six years to deliver.

"It is a priority for the Ukrainians, but it's not one of their top three priorities," Kahl testified. "Their top priorities are air defense systems ... artillery and fires, which we've talked about, and armor and mechanized systems."

The Senate letter follows a bipartisan effort in the House, spearheaded by Maine Democrat Jared Golden, to convince Biden to send Kyiv F-16s or similar aircraft.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is "now at a critical juncture," the senators wrote, arguing F-16 fighters could give Kyiv an edge as Moscow's full-tilt invasion enters a second year.