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SAN FRANCISCO — A San Francisco school board decision to spend $600,000 to paint over a New Deal-era mural of George Washington as a slave owner is fueling a family feud among Democrats — with a growing chorus protesting that the controversial move may hand Donald Trump potent ammunition in his re-election bid.
“I think of myself as liberal, progressive, and have been all my life — but I’m just sort of stunned by this,’’ veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Sunday. “We have a little more important things to do — like defeating Donald Trump — than to whitewash a mural.”
Shrum, who today directs the Center for the Political Future and Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, set off a round of heated social media commentary Sunday when he tweeted: “I am a progressive Democrat, but this is nuts. Just because others are nuts, doesn’t mean we have to be.”
The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously last month to paint over all 13 panels of the 1600 sq. ft. mural “Life of Washington,’’ a historic work commissioned during the New Deal that depicts George Washington as a slave owner. The move came after several vocal protesters demanded the move at a public meeting, saying their children were “traumatized” by depictions of the nation’s first president standing over the images of dead Native Americans.
School board commissioner Mark Sanchez appeared to dismiss the estimated $600,000 cost for the covering, and insisted the school board retains the option of covering the mural temporarily with paneling. "This is reparations," Sanchez told KQED radio.
Democratic strategist Mike Semler — who has advised Senator Dianne Feinstein and who has taught public policy at Cal State University Sacramento — this weekend sent out an emergency email alert seeking support for an effort to back a ballot measure to save the mural. He said the effort, dubbed the Coalition to Protect Public Art, aims to solicit funds to initiate a ballot measure designed to protect this art, “and perhaps other New Deal art in San Francisco’’ which may also be targeted.
With their move, the school board is “saying we’re all going to jump in this ship together and paddle left,’’ says Semler. “This is Nancy Pelosi’s district. This is where Kamala Harris is from. Clearly, this is not San Francisco values.”
The presidential campaign of Senator Harris, and the Speaker‘s press office, did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.
The school board vote in June has set off a growing chorus of protest from Democrats — many in the political establishment — who say that the move to erase history is not only expensive folly, but could hand Trump fodder to suggest Democrats are out of touch with the mainstream headed toward 2020.
Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, the former head of the San Francisco Republican Party and now a national commentator on Fox News, said in an interview that the issue represents a political disaster for Democrats, who appear eager to squash history — and “a disaster on multiple levels; it’s un-American.”
Attorney Dhillon, who has represented a growing number of conservative commentators and figures who say their First Amendment rights have been violated by social media — and whom Trump recently introduced and praised at the White House social media conference — said that the move underscores an effort by progressives to tamp down competing points of view. “We’ve seen the negative impacts of that in universities,’’ where she said conservative commentators have had trouble gaining access to speak to students.
Some leading Democrats and progressives agree that the move to paint over the historic muralis outrageous.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, likened the school board supporters’ and tactics to the worst of Trump‘s backers. He noted the vocal group seeking to destroy the painting did so by bullying the recent school board meeting with a claim to be “traumatized by the mural.”
“They’re clearly traumatized by something,’’ he wrote. “They’d be horrified by the comparison, but they’re really no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.”
Brown said that his own daughter, Sydney, a Washington High graduate “was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting — as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred. It was a learning experience for her, and for me.”
Progressive former board president Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney for the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, noted in an op-ed for the San Francisco Examiner, that Arnautoff, a committed leftist, was once subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer for his political views. “Rather than attack a mural painted by an ally of theirs, opponents should focus on real villains — those who whitewash history by pretending terrible things didn’t once happen.”
Semler, who attended George Washington High, agrees that “The “Life of George Washington” was designed “to inform and educate students of Washington’s entire legacy; the noble and ignoble, his leadership in war and peace and his holding of slaves. It also tells students our country’s manifest destiny was built on conquering the frontier.”
“Was Washington a slave owner? Yes. Did he command troops that killed Native Americans? Yes,’’ says Shrum. “But George Washington — it seems stupid to have to say it — performed an incredible service for this country. We wouldn’t be here without him.’’
Republicans are steamrolling Democrats on judges. But the question of whether to be as cutthroat as the GOP is already splitting the party as the 2020 campaign ramps up.
The left has been radicalized by the Republican offensive, with activists and several presidential candidates eager for payback against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the next time Democrats take power.
But centrist Democrats and the handful of institutionalists still roaming the Capitol want the party to set a different example than the GOP, not mimic it.
“When you think about Merrick Garland and what McConnell has done to the Senate, there’s a lot of feelings of vengeance and revenge," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “We just hope the better angels of our nature will prevail.”
The party doesn’t have to settle the question just yet. But if Democrats take the Senate and the White House in 2020, their choice will determine whether the party can begin to reshape the federal judiciary after President Donald Trump and the GOP spent years stocking it with young conservatives.
And if Democrats do decide to embrace the playbook deployed by their Republican counterparts, it will ensure the Senate’s unique traditions continue their long erosion.
"I wish we could also get back to 60 votes,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who needs to appeal to Republicans to win reelection next year. “We need to aim higher. We need to get back to that.” Restoring the 60-vote threshold to confirm nominees would make it even harder to bend the judiciary leftward.
Liberals, meanwhile, are weighing whether to gut the few bipartisan norms still standing by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and completely eliminating the ability of senators to have a say on judges from their home states.
“Democrats should not play by a different set of rules from Republicans,” argues Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 candidate and member of Democratic leadership. “We can’t live in a world where the Republicans twist everything their way whether they’re in the majority or the minority and the Democrats just keep trotting along. That’s not working.”
Democrats are still seething over McConnell’s decision to block Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, from even getting a hearing. They’re also mourning what they say is a breakdown of other Senate customs, particularly on the so-called “blue slip” process that allows each senator a chance to veto nominations for judges in their home states.
McConnell has prioritized the courts in a way that’s essentially unheard of, first by stopping Obama from filling vacancies, then by prioritizing them over difficult legislative gambits. He’s also unilaterally changed Senate rules through the “nuclear option” to speed up confirmation of Trump’s judges.
Even as Trump captured the nation's attention last week with his attacks on four Democratic congresswomen, the Senate quietly confirmed its record-setting 43rd circuit judge. Incredibly, there are now only four Circuit Court vacancies and Republicans are shifting to filling the lower, 111 District Court vacancies.
The aggressive push has left Democrats smarting and powerless until they can grab back power. They concede that there’s not much they can do right now to stop Republicans from putting their stamp on the federal judiciary.
But the party is tossing out ideas both within the Senate and on the 2020 trail for how to reverse Trump’s influence on the courts, ranging from changes to the Supreme Court to pledging to only nominate judges who would uphold the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade to pressing conservative groups like the Judicial Crisis Network to reveal their donors.
“I don’t consider it vengeance,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “I consider it doing something about the reality of what’s happening to our courts.”
Some Democrats see the prospect of changes to Senate tradition as a balancing act.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 candidate and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, blamed Republicans for changing Senate rules and called many of Trump’s nominees “really problematic.” When asked if she would consider rotating or expanding the Supreme Court, Klobuchar said she was “open to looking at those” but also said that as president she hopes "to put forward good strong nominees that are going to follow the law and get [bipartisan] support."
But those who would lead the process say it makes little sense to make big plans until they win a majority.
“Our first job is to take back the Senate and then we’ll discuss everything else,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has no reason to spark a divisive fight within his caucus.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is in line to be Judiciary Committee chairman if Democrats win the Senate, said she hasn’t “thought about it. Because that jinxes it for sure.”
But Feinstein also signaled her reluctance to duplicating the GOP approach.
“I’m not into payback. I never have been. And I’d just do it as fairly as I possibly could, that’s all,” she said. Whether to sideline Republicans “has never been discussed. Much to our credit.”
Feinstein’s perspective is a source of frustration among progressive groups, which say that Democrats have conceded too much to Republicans on judges.
Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a liberal advocacy organization focused on the courts, said that Feinstein should be using her leverage now as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to remind Republicans that Democrats will borrow their tactics if and when they return to power.
“She won’t say that, she won’t threaten that, because she wants to preserve the option of punching ourselves in the face again and let Sen. Graham veto President Warren or President Harris’ judicial picks,” Fallon said, referring to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham.
Another issue that’s talked about less often on the national stage but is crucial on Capitol Hill is the blue-slip process.
Republicans have all but done away with that senatorial prerogative for circuit court judges, who represent multiple states, prompting a stark increase in “no” votes from Democratic senators, among the rank-and-file and presidential hopefuls.
Democrats are unsure whether they would restore that tradition to the appellate courts should they regain power or perhaps do Republicans one better and scrap the practice for lower level courts, too.
“My first instinct is to say we should go back to the blue slip but it’s hard to say that after many years of Leader McConnell exercising his authority in ways that had been previously unexplored,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). It’s tough to think “that if and when we take the Senate back that we’re supposed to think better of it and restore bipartisan traditions.”
Other Democrats like Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are more insistent about wanting to return to Senate tradition on blue slips.
“It ensures that judicial nominees respect the character and views of the areas where they serve and that the local bar has a say or impact because they know the nominees better than anyone else,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans are skeptical that Democrats would even consider restoring the Senate’s judicial traditions and have attacked them for being the first to go “nuclear.” A Democratic majority eliminated the 60-vote threshold for most judicial nominees in 2013; McConnell triggered the nuclear option on Supreme Court justices four years later.
When asked if Senate Democrats would restore blue slips for circuit judges, Graham replied: “Absolutely not.”
“They’re the ones that changed the rules to go to the majority vote,” Graham said. “We couldn’t get 60 votes for anybody for the circuit court and the Supreme Court. Those days are over.”
Just one Democratic senator remains who voted against the rules change in 2013, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who echoes Jones’ call to restore the 60-vote threshold.
While that’s unlikely, the sharp divide within the caucus shows how difficult it will be to get 50 Democrats to endorse anything if they win back a narrow Senate majority.
“It’s toxic now no matter what the party is,” Manchin said. “Fifty-one votes is dysfunctional, 60 votes gets this place where it’s supposed to be and lets the minority to participate and forces agreement. And now we don’t have that.”
How did the Koch Brothers become the Koch Brothers? The oil-company heirs had long held small-government, anti-regulation beliefs, but weren't always deeply enmeshed in the political world—until 1988, when the U.S Senate began looking into allegations their company was stealing oil from Indian reservations in Oklahoma.
For his new book, KOCHLAND, author Christopher Leonard unearthed the full story of what happened, from the workers under-reporting their oil pickups to the network of front groups, training centers and political operatives that the Kochs built to fend off the investigation—and which today have come to be both respected and feared in American politics.
On July 11, 1988, the president of Koch Industries, Bill Hanna, sent a companywide memo informing employees how to handle company records. He reminded employees at the oil company that there was a code of secrecy for internal records. Then, he ordered that “written materials which would be useful to our competitors should be destroyed by shredding, burning, or some equally effective method.”
At any other time, Hanna’s memo might have been standard advice for a secrecy-minded company. Coming when it did, it could also be seen as alicense to destroy evidence.
The U.S. Senate had just launched an investigation into Koch Industries for stealing oil from leases on Indian reservations. At the time, Koch Industries was the biggest purchaser of crude oil in the country, and Senate investigators believed that the company was stealing from its producers by misreporting how much oil it picked up from their wells. The allegations would be confirmed or disproven in part by the very documents Hanna was allowing to be destroyed. Under such circumstances, corporate lawyers and executives often order their employees to take special care to retain records that might be relevant to a lawsuit or investigation. Koch Industries did the opposite. It is unknown how many documents were destroyed because of that memo.
Don Cordes, Koch Industries’ general counsel, eventually reversed course and told company employees to retain evidence that might pertain to oil theft, but he didn’t do so until November of 1988, months after Hanna’s memo went out. The only reason that Cordes changed the policy was because an employee in Texas complained to Cordes that he had been told to destroy all written evaluations he had made of Koch Industries’ truck drivers and oil gaugers.
The investigation had been launched in October of 1987by the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs after a series of articles in the Arizona Republic alleged that big oil companies were stealing oil from Native Americans who owned oil wells. When the companies picked up crude oil from wells to take it to market, they falsified receipts to make it look like had picked up less oil than they really did, or that the oil was of a lower quality than it really was. The Senate hired prosecutor Ken Ballen to lead the investigation. He quickly sent out subpoenas and started building a case that not only would go on to last years but would also transform U.S. politics.
The Senate investigation intensified during 1989. As evidence came rolling in, it pointed in one direction, Ballen recalled later during an interview.Koch, more than any other company, had falsified tickets and taken more oil than it paid for. (The company later admitted in court that it collected about $10 million in crude oil each year without paying for it.) When Ballen’s team reviewed reams of records from big oil companies, Koch Industries’ records stood out—no other company had collected so much oil without paying for it. Senate investigators believed that Koch Industries had been caught red-handed, and the other companies had not. (Ballen said that a few other instances of oil theft were discovered, but they were isolated incidents perpetrated by very small companies.) Ballen said other oil companies were so frustrated with the company that they allowed Ballen’s investigators to access their private land, setting up surveillance of Koch Oil employees as they picked up oil. FBI Special Agent Jim Elroy did just that, hiding behind herds of cattle to snap surveillance photos. Elroy caught Koch Industries employees falsifying documents to underreport how much oil they’d taken.
In May of 1989, the Senate held a series of daylong public hearings about the oil theft and other problems on Indian reservations, in Washington, D.C. The issue of oil theft was the subject of one hearing, and that hearing focused exclusively on Koch Industries. The committee asked Charles Koch, CEO of the company, to testify, but he refused. When the Senate released its final report, it stated declaratively: “Koch Oil (‘Koch’), a subsidiary of Koch Industries and the largest purchaser of Indian oil in the country, is the most dramatic example of an oil company stealing by deliberate mismeasurement and fraudulent reporting.”
When the Senate hearings were complete, Ken Ballen and his team boxed up their evidence and sent it to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Oklahoma City. Elroy was assigned to the case, and later said he aimed to put Charles Koch himself behind bars.
Faced with the direst legal threat of his life, Charles Koch sprang into action. He was a wealthy industrialist from Wichita, Kansas who took control of his family’s company in 1967 at the age of 32, when his father died of a heart attack. By the late 1980s, he had co-founded the Cato Institute, supported a smaller, obscure group called Institute for Humane Studies, and was generally interested in spreading free-market philosophy. But heavoided taking a major role in U.S. politics beyond making a few campaign donations to favored candidates.
Charles Koch believed that government was basically dysfunctional, and that any government program, no matter how well intentioned, did more harm than good. He disdained the idea of employing a team of lobbyists in the nation’s capital because he saw lobbying as a betrayal of free market principles. He may have funded libertarian think tanks and free-market academic programs, but he believed that he could avoid the down-and-dirty business of engaging daily with Washington, D.C.
The Senate Investigation taught Charles Koch otherwise. Koch Industries claimed, in a written response to the Senate, that it was scapegoated by the investigation because the company was “politically unimportant,” and made an easy target. Charles Koch would ensure that Koch Industries was never “politically unimportant” again.
When he went to build a political influence machine, Charles Koch didn’t draw on conventional political wisdom. Instead, he drew on Koch Industries’ corporate playbook. The company specialized in mastering complex systems. It ran pipeline networks, oil refineries and commodities trading desks that operated in opaque markets. The key to success was knowing more than your competitors and operating in way that didn’t publicly expose your trading strategies to the outside world. Koch’s political network mimicked this philosophy. Rather than simply hire lawyers and lobbyists, Koch used a network of front groups, training centers, and political operatives to combat the legal threat.
In 1989, the newly built Koch network was focused on one tactical goal—derailing the criminal investigation into Koch’s oil gathering operations.
Three decades later, the impact of the Koch network in politics has been enormous. It stoked the fire of anti-government animus that remade U.S. politics in the ‘90s and 2000s. It played a vital role in derailing the last best chance to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Wal-Mart, General Electric and Boeing might all have lobbyists, but only Charles Koch has one of the biggest lobbying offices in America, combined with a grassroots army called Americans for Prosperity, that can knock on doors and send volunteers to town hall meetings; combined with a constellation of think tanks that can generate and amplify talking points; combined with a network of coordinated campaign donors that often raise enough money for an election cycle to rival the war chest of a political party. Even in the age of Trump, when the Kochs’ political influence is far smaller than it was earlier this decade, they still flex considerable muscle behind the scenes. In 2017, the network transformed the Republican tax plan by leading the charge to kill a tax benefit meant to benefit U.S. manufacturing (but that almost certainly would have hurt Koch’s oil refining operations) and turned it into a straightforward tax cut for big corporations and the richest Americans.
But before all of that—before Charles and David Koch became household names, at least in liberal households—they deployed a then-developing political network against a U.S. Senate investigation. And they brought the lessons they learned with them to all of their lobbying and influence work over the next 30 years.
When the U.S. Senate sent its investigation on to the U.S. attorney’s office in Oklahoma, the case landed on the desk of a federal prosecutor named Nancy S. Jones. She was a tough-minded woman from Independence, Missouri, with many years of experience investigating fraud: first for the New York state attorney general’s office and then for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District of New York.
Jones took over the case after getting a call from Agent Jim Elroy. She didn’t know the FBI agent very well but was receptive when he told her that he had one hell of a case involving theft and corporate fraud.
Jones empaneled a federal grand jury, which operated in secret to obtain evidence of any high-level conspiracy at Koch to steal oil. The grand jury investigated Koch Industries for many months. Jones wanted to know just how high up the chain of command at Koch Industries the culpability went.
By 1990, Jones was convinced that criminal wrongdoing was underway at Koch Industries. And she believed the theft might have been ordered from high levels in the company. Even at this early stage, Jones felt she had enough evidence to safely charge multiple low-level Koch Oil gaugers with theft. She believed there was also enough evidence to charge a group of higher-level managers with directing the criminal behavior. Jones and Elroy continued their investigation, however, because they wanted to push even higher up the chain of command at the company, maybe all the way to the executive suite. “There was too much at stake in the case, to settle for the underlings,” Jones recalled.
Koch’s first tactical goal was to change the political landscape around the issue of oil theft. In its final report on oil theft, the U.S. Senate had categorically accused Koch Industries of systematic theft. Koch needed to undermine that claim if it wanted to forestall future investigations and litigation.
A former Koch Industries employee named Ron Howell helped lead Charles Koch’s efforts to combat the investigation through politics. Howell was the ideal employee to spearhead Koch’s political reformation effort in Oklahoma. During his tenure at Koch, Howell had specialized in commodity trading. He knew how to work in murky networks and connect the needs of several parties in ways that could ultimately benefit Koch. He was well suited for operating in the world of politics.
After he left Koch Industries’ trading desk, Howell had become well-connected in Oklahoma politics. He remained a true believer in Koch Industries and was appalled when he heard that the company was accused of stealing oil from Indians. He was convinced the allegations were entirely false. He happily accepted the job to offer to join Koch’s political network and help burnish the company’s image.
“I’d been in the boardroom many, many, many times for many, many years,” Howell said later in an interview. “It’s just a very, very honorable company … So I got angry as much as anything else.”
Howell’s first job was to reshape the political narrative about Koch Industries in Oklahoma. His strategy was to reach the producers themselves, meaning the oil drillers who sold crude to Koch Industries. The Native American tribes who owned the oil well leases were the most important target. The tribes were the most visible victims of the theft, and they were also the most sympathetic. If the Indian tribes could be brought on board with Koch Industries, it would undermine the entire rationale for a criminal inquiry into the company’s measuring tactics. If there were no victims, then how could there be a crime?
One of the primary victims of Koch Industries’ alleged theft was the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. Charles O. Tillman, chief of the Osage tribe, said that a team of employees from Koch Industries came to talk to him about the oil theft allegations after the U.S. Senate released its report. Koch sent a team of auditors to review receipts from oil leases owned by the Osage tribe. These receipts were compared against Koch’s internal figures to determine if Koch had indeed been underpaying the Osage, as alleged by the U.S. Senate. Tillman said the tribe had little capacity to double-check Koch’s work. The tribe didn’t have an army of accountants at its disposal. The tribal members simply got checks in the mail for their oil leases and trusted the numbers.
“Koch was such a gigantic company,” Tillman said. “To me, they were doing good accounting.”
When Koch Industries completed its audit, the company returned to Tillman with surprising news: Koch Industries had not been stealing oil. In fact, the company found that it been over-paying the tribe. The audit showed that the tribe actually owed Koch Industries about $22,000. Koch’s interpretation was backed up by federal authorities at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Tillman said. He didn’t feel like the tribe could question it.
Tillman and other Osage leaders went public with their belief that Koch Industries had not stolen oil from them. In March of 1990 the local Osage newspaper, the Osage Nation News, published a story in which the Osage chiefs said the company was innocent. The story was quoted in the mainstream Daily Oklahoman newspaper, and Koch Industries made maximum use of the chiefs’ statements. Cordes, the company’s topattorney, told the Daily Oklahoman that the Osage statement “completely undermines the false allegations of the Senate subcommittee.”
Charles Tillman would later regret his role in tamping down concerns over the company’s practices. His mind was changed after he learned about testimony unearthed years later in federal lawsuits. He became convinced that Koch Industries had, in fact, stolen oil from Indian wells. “We were wrong,” Tillman said. “We were badly informed.”
Dudley Whitehorn, another Osage chief who worked with Tillman, said in an interview years later that he also had become disillusioned. Whitehorn recalled that several years after the Daily Oklahoman article appeared, he was sitting in a local auto shop waiting for his car to be repaired. He said that a former Koch Industries employee sat down next to him and struck up a conversation. Whitehorn said the employee eventually told him: “We did steal from you.” The man seemed contrite. Whitehorn didn’t dwell on it. He didn’t want to carry a grudge against the company. (Koch Industries was presented in February with Whitehorn’s recollections and did not comment on them).
The Osage chiefs might have felt duped later on, but their public comments in the early 1990s achieved an important goal. The government suddenly looked overzealous and unfair. This fed into Koch Industries’ broader efforts. While Howell was reshaping the story in Oklahoma, the company was working to do the same thing in Washington, D.C.
Koch Industries deepened its relationship with Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The Kochs already contributed to his campaigns and political causes, giving $245,000 between 1979 to 1994, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.David Koch, Charles’ brother and a major shareholder in Koch Industries, would abandon the Libertarian Party to become the vice chairman of Dole’s presidential campaign against incumbent Bill Clinton in 1996. By that time, the family would become Dole’s third-largest financial supporter, according to an investigation later published in Businessweek magazine.
Dole helped Koch Industries delegitimize the issue of oil theft. Dole submitted the story from the Daily Oklahoman into the Senate record and said that he was concerned that the Senate had rushed to judgment to condemn the company. Koch Industries amplified his concerns with the help of other senators, including Don Nickles from Oklahoma. (During an interview in 2016, Sen. Dole had a hard time recalling details about his relationship with Koch Industries.)
As senators fought against the findings of their own committee, Koch Industries put another piece of its plan into place. The biggest threat wasn’t emanating from the Senate but from the courts and the U.S. attorney’s office, two institutions that could not be influenced by campaign donations or lobbyists. In response, Koch’s political network initiated a long-term plan to reshape America’s judiciary system.
Ron Howell founded an obscure nonprofit group called Oklahomans for Judicial Excellence. It did something unheard of: It started grading local judges based on their fealty to free-market economic theory. The group created scorecards for state judges, measuring how well their verdicts conformed with the teachings of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. The group publicized these rankings with public opinion articles published in places like the Daily Oklahoman. The grading system created a way to embarrass judges in the local press by publicizing their low scores. Koch’s political network also offered them a way to escape this embarrassment: The company sponsored a series of free seminars that judges could attend if they received poor grades from the company’s rating system. The seminars were not held in stuffy classrooms. The Koch network paid for judges to travel to a ski resort in Utah or a beachfront condominium, among other locations, relaxing places where the judges might be more open to the company’s message. The company held lectures that emphasized the importance of market forces in society and warned against the consideration of things like “junk science” that plaintiffs often used to prove corporate malfeasance. The seminars were well attended, sometimes by more than 60 judges at a time, according to an account later published in the Wall Street Journal.
Koch networks’ efforts to sway judges evolved over many years. By 2016, it had transformed into a new program that offered free seminars to judges called the Law & Economics Center, which was housed at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, along with the Koch family-funded free-market think tank, the Mercatus Center. The Law & Economics Center claimed to have hosted more than 4,000 state and federal judges from all 50 states at its seminars. It offered up to a dozen events a year. Over decades, such programs have helped fill the judiciary with judges more sympathetic to Koch’s free-market views.
This long-term effort did little to solve the company’s immediate threat from Nancy Jones’ investigation. She and Jim Elroy were making strides in the case. They believed they were close to proving that Koch Industries’ oil theft was directed from the highest levels.
Then they hit a wall.
Jones and Elroy had zeroed in on one particular set of Koch Industries’ internal documents they felt would show how the oil theft was directed from the company’s senior leadership. They had subpoenaed those documents and were waiting for Koch Industries to supply them to the grand jury. Then Nancy Jones got a letter from the company’s lawyer. Those documents had been accidentally destroyed, the letter said.
This was puzzling to Elroy. He knew that Koch Industries kept backup copies of its corporate documents in an underground storage area; the kind of place where company papers were treated carefully. Koch Industries insisted to Jones that the documents in question had not been converted into digital files, as had many other corporate documents. “There was no reason why those records shouldn’t still exist. But when the grand jury wanted them, then they were not available,” Jones recalled. She couldn’t describe the documents due to the rules of grand jury secrecy.
Jones and Elroy discussed how to move forward with the case. Then something happened that arguably killed the investigation. Jim Elroy quit. He said it was for personal reasons. The FBI offered him a transfer to the Miami office and, a California boy, Elroy had a strong desire to return to the ocean. Decades later, Elroy would regret the decision. “It was really selfish. I should have stayed and finished this job,” he said. “I know if I had stayed, that Charles and David would be in jail now.”
In Elroy’s absence, however, the investigation took a sharp turn in Koch Industries’ favor. There was a growing body of evidence that the company might be innocent.
In the summer of 1990, the FBI interviewed dozens of Koch oil gaugers throughout Oklahoma and Texas. The gaugers all said essentially the same thing: Koch had never instructed them to steal, they had never heard of the “Koch method”—a method for stealing oil in which gaugers intentionally misreported the amount and quality of oil they collected at well sites —and they never falsified their measurements. The gaugers said this even when they were alone with their FBI interrogators—one gauger was interviewed in a Dairy Queen parking lot. The litany of interviews undermined the case.
Just as the interviews were clouding the picture, there was a management shakeup at the U.S. attorney’s office. Nancy Jones’s boss, U.S. Attorney Bill Price, quit his job to run for higher office.
Price’s replacement would be selected by Oklahoma senator Don Nickles, a close ally of Koch Industries. Nickles had previously spoken about the case with Koch Industries’ lobbyist Ron Howell, who remembered pulling Nickles aside at a luncheon to discuss the case. Nickles would later leave office and open a lobbying shop in Washington, D.C., where Koch Industries was one of his clients.
In 1989, Nickles chose a politician and lawyer named Timothy Leonard to fill the U.S. attorney’s job. Jones quickly developed her own opinion about Leonard. She considered him to be a “political hack.” Leonard was aware of her opinion, and the two of them never had an easy relationship.
Jones ended up quitting her job. Like Elroy, she said it was primary for personal reasons. She was tired of living in Oklahoma City, and didn’t like working for Leonard. It would be up to Leonard to determine how to pursue the case.
In April of 1991, as the Koch case was still moving forward, Nickles nominated Timothy Leonard to become a federal judge. In November, President George H. W. Bush confirmed Leonard’s appointment. Less than four months later, while he was still U.S. attorney, Leonard dropped the case against Koch Industries and his office sent a letter to the company saying that it would not be indicted. Leonard did not explain publicly why the case was dropped, even though Jones said that the grand jury had obtained evidence showing criminal conduct of Koch Industries employees and managers. Whatever evidence Jones obtained could never be made public because of secrecy rules that govern grand juries. Did Koch’s influence get the investigation killed? It looked that way from the outside, but there’s reason to believe it wasn’t that simple.
The company had obviously deployed its lobbyists and think tanks to influence public figures in Oklahoma, and the trail of influence between Koch Industries, Nickles, and Judge Leonard seemed straightforward: The company’s political ally Nickles appointed Leonard to the U.S. attorney’s office, then Nickles nominated Leonard to the federal bench and Leonard decided to drop the charges. It seemed to Koch..
If recent history is any guide, Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated Capitol Hill appearance on Wednesday will fizzle into a mix of political grandstanding by the questioners and frustratingly narrow answers from the star witness. Congress's biggest public chance to highlight the links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the president's acts of obstruction, will become a chance for members to showcase their wit, score politcial points and maybe even go viral with a dramatic exchange. This one was originally scheduled for last week, and a main reason for its delay is that the junior members of the Judiciary committee wouldn’t have enough time to get their own questions in.
So far, the solution has been to expand the hearing time. Here’s a better one: None of the members should ask the questions at all.
Their expert staffers should ask all the questions—not just to resolve the battle of egos, but to give Congress its only chance to make any real progress on the issue.
To go by Mueller's previous statements, the hearings aren't likely to turn up new information about the Trump campaign. But they could genuinely change the trajectory of the Trump-Russia story, by drawing connections between the report and Mueller's earlier rounds of indictments, and also by highlighting Mueller's legal errors—the opportunities he didn't take, and why he skipped them.
But that's only possible with the right format. The hearings are almost guaranteed to a waste of time if they stick to the format of disjointed five-minute rotating rounds of questions by elected members. This format has proved to be a failure in the high-profile hearings of the past two years. Time and again, just when a member starts to make headway with follow-up questions, time runs out. Republican members alternate with Democratic members who have totally different political agendas; real progress as the hearing continues is rare.
Even if the Democratic members agree to ask the same kinds of questions, it is hard for even the best lawyers to follow up on someone else’s line of questioning or set up someone else’s questions. Two or three expert staff lawyers working together would be the only efficient and effective use of such limited and interrupted time.
To have any real hope of getting deeper into the story of Trump and Russia, or clarity about Mueller’s confusing conclusions, they’ll need questioners capable of drilling into complex issues, who can professionally but tenaciously grill a respected public figure and highlight his mistakes.
It may seem surprising to suggest that the Democrats should highlight Mueller’s errors, but that should absolutely be part of their strategy.
The report was stunningly wrong, for instance, on the law of coordination in campaign finance law. The Department of Justice’s appointment letter assigned Mueller to investigate campaign “coordination.” His report stated that “ ‘coordination’ does not have a settled definition in federal criminal law. We understood coordination to require an agreement—tacit or express.” However, Congress explicitly aimed to avoid such a permissive interpretation. In 2002, Congress passed a statute declaring that campaign finance regulations “shall not require agreement or formal collaboration to establish coordination,” and any knowing and willful violations are criminal. The Federal Election Commission implemented the statute accordingly: “Coordinated means made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate,” without any requirement to prove agreement. The Supreme Court upheld these coordination rules in 2003: “[E]xpenditures made after a wink or nod often will be as useful to the candidate as cash.”
Mueller’s error in interpreting "coordination" has already had serious consequences. Mueller’s team prosecuted Paul Manafort and Rick Gates for separate crimes not directly related to the Trump campaign, but Mueller also found the evidence that these campaign officials committed felony coordination. It was a historic error to overlook such crimes, effectively inviting the same suggestions and winks-and-nods in 2020. A formal conclusion that the Trump campaign committed crimes would have made Trump’s obstruction more glaring and scandalous. Without such a conclusion, Volume II of his report, on the obstruction, fell flat.
Mueller made other legal errors that opened up loopholes for 2020 and beyond: suggesting that all “opposition research” might be protected by the First Amendment, and accepting a blanket defense of Manafort—a lawyer and a veteran campaign official of four presidential campaigns—as not “hav[ing] relevant knowledge of these legal issues.” If an operative like Manafort can't be assumed to have that knowledge, then who possibly could?
On the related facts, there are additional puzzles in the report’s omissions. Volume I, on the campaign and Russia, also surprisingly omits key facts that the Mueller team revealed elsewhere in prosecutorial documents, which when put in context make a case for criminal coordination. For example, the Mueller team's indictments of the Russian hackers showed a remarkable coincidence in dates between Trump campaign signals and Russian hacking and leaking efforts, often on the same day or even within hours. But the report itself either failed to note or failed to emphasize most of these.
In another tantalizing omission, the Mueller team’s indictment of Stone said a senior campaign official “was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” Who directed that campaign official? Who was coordinating with Stone? Presumably these answers are redacted from the report, and Mueller will be reticent. But given the significance to these events, an expert questioner might elicit more context.
In addition, many prosecutors would have drawn far different inferences from so much circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing and intent. And even if Mueller couldn’t indict Trump under OLC policy, why did this policy have a double-whammy of not even being able to make legal conclusions and deliberately writing cryptically and sometimes incomprehensibly?
Of course, Mueller is unlikely to reveal any information we didn't know before, but the hearing could play the valuable role of drawing connections, correcting errors and laying out their significance in the public record.
Mueller is rightly a respected, revered public servant, which makes any aggressive questioning like a cross-examination along these lines risky and awkward. He and his office professionally uncovered a president’s crimes, his campaign’s crimes, won a stunning number of convictions in a short period of time under tremendous political pressure and interference.
But the Mueller report’s legal errors are so significant that the House committees have a duty to press him to correct them through something like cross-examination. Cross-examining such is no simple task. Moreover, Mueller has promised to be such a reluctant witness that any questioning must be done by experienced experts with enough time for follow-ups. Cross-examining a smart and experienced lawyer —and rightly a hero to many—is a hard needle to thread legally and politically. And those complexities underscore the need for members of Congress to step aside and get some expert help.
Relying on expert questioners in place of elected officials isn't common, but shouldn't be so unusual. In moments of great national crisis—most notably Watergate, and also in the Iran-Contra scandal—members have been willing to concede the spotlinght and let more experienced lawyers handle the proceedings.
In Watergate, when members of Congress had questions for some of the most high-profile witnesses, or when they knew that the questions would produce bombshells, they didn’t keep the airtime for themselves. They graciously and wisely assigned the questioning to the committee counsel, and gave them time to probe and follow-up.
The result felt—and worked—like a real inquiry, in which trained lawyers followed full lines of questioning until they yielded real information. It was committee staff counsel, such as Sam Dash and Fred Thompson, who asked some of the most historic questions. They questioned White House lawyers H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean.
In part because of the committee's savvy use of advance interviews, Thompson’s questions to Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield prompted him to reveal on national television the existence of the Oval Office taping system. When Dash asked him who knew about it, Butterfield replied: “The president.” Gasps filled the hearing room. In a remarkable example of restraint in the public interest, some of the senators had known the televised questioning of Butterfield was likely deliver a historic bombshell—and they gave the questions to their staff counsel nonetheless. Staffers asking questions with sufficient time and expertise were pivotal in transforming Watergate from a third-rate burglary to a resignation in the face of impeachment.
Something similar happened again during the biggest scandal of the Reagan administration. In 1987, during hearings about illegal arms sales to Iran used to fund the right-wing Nicaraguan Contras, Senate committee chief counsel Arthur Liman and House committee chief counsel John Nields led the questioning for 40 days of televised hearings—most notably the high-profile interrogation of Col. Oliver North and Admiral John Poindexter.
Liman’s intense questioning got North to admit on national television that CIA Director Casey had ordered him to destroy the notes and records of the illegal arms sales, and that he had indeed shredded those records. This format permitted Liman to follow up and press North to such an extent that North’s attorney Brendan Sullivan lost his temper in one of the most famous moments of the hearings, shouting at Liman, ''Get off his back!''
Robert Mueller’s hearing obviously won’t yield the kind of information that came from Butterfield or Haldeman during Watergate, or Iran-Contra’s Poindexter or North. He’s not an eyewitness, nor a hostile witness in a colloquial sense. But he is a uniquely complicated mix of helpful, when it comes to the underlying facts of presidential crimes, and stubbornly reluctant and deliberately unclear, when it comes to his and the DOJ’s legal positions.
The Mueller team’s fact-finding is so thorough, so important, and so damning of Trump’s criminal behavior, that committees need to highlight and emphasize those aspects of his work without the exercise feeling like a partisan gang tackle. Whereas the members of Congress might have a hard time maintaining an even tone, veteran litigators are more likely to keep their cool while keeping up an intense line of questioning. Mueller is rightly a respected, revered public servant, which makes any tough question akin to cross-examination risky and awkward.
There is sometimes a risk in delegating questions to staff. In the Kavanaugh hearings, the Senate Republicans looked like they were dodging an awkward situation by handing their questions of a vulnerable-seeming female witness to an outside lawyer. But there isn’t the same risk here. The perception—rightly—is that the Democrats are too focused on their own publicity. Delegating is more likely to be seen as unselfish.
During Watergate, Sam Dash’s and Fred Thompson’s questions did not make Senator Sam Ervin or Senator Howard Baker look weak. Instead, their professional incisive questions played a key role in making the hearings a success, which in turn made these Senators into legendary figures to this day. Giving it to lawyer staffers actually could reveal the House members’ wisdom and lower some of their own political risks, and most importantly, the expert lawyers just might get Mueller to correct some of his errors, fix some of the loopholes, and reveal something that changes the trajectory of the report from dud to bombshell.
The House Democrats can treat the hearing like a campaign event, making sure they each have their five minutes of airtime, with all the risks of that format falling flat. Or they have a chance to be remembered more like the Watergate committees: as wise and effective public servants who stepped back when it mattered for the country.
Robert Mueller testified more than 60 times on Capitol Hill during his dozen years as FBI director, but none of those hearings packed anywhere near the amount of anticipation, partisan rancor, or political stakes as his appearance promises to on Wednesday.
And the former special counsel has relied heavily on one man to help him navigate this Washington landmine — Jonathan Yarowsky.
Over four decades as a Beltway attorney, Yarowsky offered impeachment advice to Bill Clinton, and worked for a lawmaker who Richard Nixon once called the “executioner.” He oversaw an unsuccessful push to get a 1990s-era Attorney General Bill Barr to appoint an independent counsel to probe the George H.W. Bush administration’s pre-Gulf War Iraq policies, and he handled fist-pounding document requests from Congress during the contentious Clinton years. Essentially, he’s been a part of some of the biggest “gate” controversies since Watergate — Iraqgate, Whitewatergate, Travelgate, Filegate.
And now, he’s a late entry to Russia-gate.
The 70-year-old lawyer who is a partner at WilmerHale, Mueller’s old law firm, has handled the drawn-out negotiations with House staffers over the contours of Mueller’s testimony. And he’s helped Mueller navigate a toxic Capitol Hill environment that is far more partisan than what the former Russia investigator experienced when he last testified there six years ago as FBI director.
Thanks to Yarowsky, both House Democrats and Mueller have made concessions. Initially, Mueller stated he did not want to testify at all, but facing the reality of a subpoena, the special counsel’s representative has been able to limit his latest client’s appearances before two panels to five hours. And notably, none of Mueller’s testimony will be behind closed doors — a precarious situation that would have allowed lawmakers to later skew his statements publicly.
“He’s the right guy to get. He understands the sand traps as well as anybody,” said Julian Epstein, who replaced Yarowsky in the mid-1990s as the Democrats’ top counsel on the Judiciary Committee. “He’s a good insurance policy to make sure the dialogue beforehand is what it should be.”
"Sounds like a wise move for Mueller to have such a Sherpa," added Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson, a senior Democrat on the House Judiciary panel who will be among the first to question Mueller.
Of course, Mueller is not a man who needs a roadmap to ready himself for Congress. A half-dozen people who know the long-time lawman described a studious and sober preparer who would conduct practice sessions before legal showdowns, hunker down by himself to go through notes and receive briefers one-by-one ahead of even routine oversight hearings.
But Mueller’s testimony this week will be his first as a private citizen. That means he’s without the deep bench of resources he had during dozens of Capitol Hill appearances as the FBI director under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Now, Mueller is relying on people like Yarowsky and a core group of top aides who were among his earliest hires in the Russia probe — longtime chief of staff Aaron Zebley and James Quarles, who took a lead role during the investigation working with lawyers for President Donald Trump and the White House.
While Zebley and Quarles are there to prep Mueller on the detailed and barbed questions he’s likely to get about his team’s final report, Yarowsky has been there to line up the logistics and offer other Capitol Hill guidance.
Perhaps most importantly, Yarowsky maintains lasting connections to the Judiciary Committee. He spent more than a dozen years as one of the panel’s top lawyers.
His boss for much of the time was Rep. Jack Brooks, the panel’s chair from 1989 to 1995. Brooks was a famous firebrand in Washington, intimidating to even the most bludgeoning of lawmakers. The Texas Democrat drew Nixon’s ire for his leadership role in the committee’s impeachment hearings and a 1977 Washington Post article quoted one of Lyndon B. Johnson’s former aides calling Brooks as “one of the few men LBJ was ever afraid of.”
Yarowsky’s work on the Judiciary Committee gave him ties to all sorts of figures who now run both Capitol Hill and the Trump administration.
He was an early boss for Perry Apelbaum, who has since risen to become the committee’s Democratic staff director and general counsel. And he was part of a Democratic team that clashed with Barr, who was serving his first stint as attorney general under the first president Bush.
The biggest stand-off with Barr came when the attorney general rejected a House Judiciary Committee request for an independent counsel probe into whether the Bush administration broke the law in the lead-up to the 1990 Iraq war. Barr’s refusal was the subject of outrage on the left — columnist William Safire called him the “Coverup-General” — and even led to calls for his impeachment from the lawmakers Yarowsky worked with.
Intriguingly, Yarowsky also had a hand in reauthorizing the independent counsel statute that governed the investigations into his future boss, Bill Clinton. And as those probes picked up steam, Yarowsky moved to the White House to work for Clinton. He arrived right after the Newt Gingrich-led GOP wave in 1994 that ushered in a new era of enmity between Congress and the administration.
Suddenly, Yarowsky, now a special counsel to the president, was on the other side, fielding demands from both Congress and independent counsel Kenneth Starr. They were looking into Bill and Hillary Clintons’ Whitewater real estate deals from the 1970s in Arkansas. And they also were training their focus on the White House itself, pressing for details on everything from the firing of White House travel office staffers, also known as “Travelgate,” to allegations the Clinton team improperly accessed FBI security clearance documents, also known as “Filegate.”
Sam Sokol, a former White House colleague who later worked with Yarowsky in private practice, said Yarowsky was the “key interface” between the GOP investigators, Clinton’s White House lawyers and his legislative affairs office during this time period.
“Basically, he spoke all three languages and could help folks with very different backgrounds and perspectives solve problems and get things done,” he said.
Eventually, Yarowsky shifted over to manage judicial nominations in Clinton’s second term, taking him out of the direct line of fire. But according to his former colleagues, Yarowsky remained a frequent informal adviser for Clinton as impeachment turned from a Republican talking point into a reality.
After the Clinton years ended, Yarowsky became a familiar lobbying face on Capitol Hill, working for everyone from Microsoft to the NFL Players Association and meeting with lawmakers and staffers across the political spectrum.
In sum, Yarowsky has spent decades at the intersection of presidential scandal, special counsel fights, impeachment and heated congressional probes — all factors set to collide on Wednesday. That makes him the ideal Mueller Sherpa, according to those who know him.
“Jon is going to avail himself of those constant contacts,” said Ted Kalo, another former top House Judiciary Committee lawyer. “This is a guy who has spent almost the entirety of his career attending congressional hearings and observing how Congress works. Jon is going to have a very unique ability to not only be a person who is able to leverage his relationships, but he’s able to forecast and prepare a person for what a hearing is going to feel like.”
Yarowksy did not respond to requests for comment about the role he’s playing with Mueller, which first surfaced when his name was listed as the lone contact for the former special counsel at the bottom of the congressional subpoena the Judiciary Committee issued for his testimony last month.
During the Mueller probe, Yarowsky wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But he was tuned in. During a panel discussion on Watergate last October in Ames, Iowa, Yarowsky, making a rare public appearance, described the similarities and differences between the scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency and the Mueller probe.
While both focused on potential obstruction of justice and the firing of senior law enforcement officials, he said that the country — and especially Congress — are in much different places politically today. He noted, for instance, how few moderate Republicans and Democrats serve on Capitol Hill today.
The resulting “interpersonal chemistry,” he said, is “why you saw incredible investigation and bipartisan action back then.”
Yarowsky’s newest client is no stranger to Capitol Hill. Mueller appeared dozens of times while holding some of the most high-ranking jobs at DOJ, including his Senate confirmation hearing to be FBI director in July 2001 and a session to discuss intelligence gathering and counterterrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His methods for preparing for big moments are unlikely to change, people who know Mueller say. He’s long used the same routines for any big moment — rigorous studying, in-depth briefings, and mock sessions to mimic the big event, whether it be a hearing or legal showdown.
“Even for relatively simple presentations, Mueller would prepare relentlessly,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a DOJ veteran who worked closely with Mueller and has known him for two decades.
Rosenberg recalled briefers from all corners of DOJ and FBI “lining up” outside Mueller’s conference room to go over various topics for something as simple as annual congressional oversight hearings, which are often a low-key affair.
“He doesn’t like public speaking,” Rosenberg added. “But he prepares assiduously and is extremely credible because he doesn’t try to spin, he doesn’t speculate and he doesn’t hypothesize.”
As FBI chief, Mueller’s staff would work on building out talking points and crafting an opening statement. They’d gather background material on what members wanted to talk about and brief Mueller directly on those findings. They’d also track the latest media stories, fact-checking them along the way, to keep him up to date.
“His style is ‘just the facts, ma’am,’” said Joe Campbell, a 25-year FBI veteran who worked for Mueller during his entire dozen-year stint as FBI director.
“He wants to be helpful, doesn’t want to obfuscate or create the appearance of obstruction. I’ve never known him to fall flat. He’s always been very direct and clear-thinking in his answers, and has tried to help members understand key points,” Campbell added.
Sometimes, Mueller would simply hide away by himself to pore over memos. “I’ve seen the door closed,” said Melinda Haag, who served under Mueller when he was U.S. attorney in Northern California. “He prepares extensively for everything, so this would be no exception.”
Wednesday’s back-to-back hearings before the Judiciary and Intelligence committees will present a whole new set of challenges for Mueller and his team, though. For starters, Mueller will have to address 63 total lawmakers between the two panels, although there is a little overlap. He’ll also need to have a facility with two distinct volumes of his 448-page report — one which details Russia’s election interference efforts and the other which lays out Trump’s potential efforts to obstruct justice.
As a witness, Mueller is more no-nonsense than natural storyteller. His former colleagues have even joked about his unyielding solemnity in front of Congress.
“The first time I testified with him, you know, he sat there like a choir boy and never moved,” recalled George Tenet, the former CIA director, during Mueller’s 2013 retirement ceremony from the Justice Department. “I said, you know, ‘Bob you have to learn how to emote a little bit.’ He said, 'I can't emote. I've been trained as a prosecutor. We're not allowed to show emotion.’”
Tenet said he even tried to get Mueller to crack a smile during hearings by covering his mouth with his hand and whispering something that no one else could hear.
“Everybody thinks we’re saying something profound to each other at the moment. Well, Bob and I would be in the middle of a testimony and I would cup my hand and look and say something to Mueller like, 'Bob isn't that the dumbest question you've ever heard in your life?'”
“‘Shut up,’” Mueller replied, according to Tenet.
Regardless of how formal Mueller appears during Wednesday’s hearings, the scene will be the “public spectacle,” Barr has predicted.
Pro-impeachment lawmakers say they’re optimistic the hearing will help them swell their own ranks, while Democratic leaders are trying to keep the focus on the special counsel’s findings and away from political theatrics. GOP members, for their part, want to pointedly question Mueller to cast doubt on his work’s integrity.
Yarowsky is well aware of these dynamics. At the panel discussion on Watergate last October hosted by Iowa State University, he set the scene for what’s unfolding in Congress as lawmakers inch toward trying to impeach Trump.
The “one thing” Watergate taught him, Yarowky said, “is that there’s absolutely no political purpose or benefit to mingle politics with what you do with impeachment.”
Ousting Nixon may have seemingly boosted the Democrats in the short term — the party won big in the 1974 midterms and took back the presidency in 1976 — but he recalled how the GOP came roaring back in 1980, as conservatives slowly started to cull moderates from the Republican ranks.
“They built a core group of very conservative identity in the Republican party which now I think has led to the current administration and the point of view, good or bad,” he said.
And he repeated the now-familiar refrain about how the GOP attempt to oust Clinton in the late 1990s only made him more popular as a lame duck president and into his retirement. Essentially, Yarowsky argued you can never tell what the long-term political ramifications will be from impeachment.
“My only point: Don’t assume there’s a political angle,” Yarowsky said, “though that’s what you’re going to hear all the way.”
Constant infighting among top officials. Sudden departures of senior staffers without explanation. A leader who is disengaged and prone to falling asleep in meetings.
The Commerce Department has reached its apex of dysfunction under Wilbur Ross, according to four people with knowledge of the inner workings of the department. The 81-year-old Commerce secretary, who has for months endured whispers that he is on the outs, spends much of his time at the White House to try to retain President Donald Trump’s favor, the sources said, leaving his department adrift.
He’s hardly the only top Trump official to seek the president’s approval. But department insiders say they’ve rarely seen Commerce so rudderless -- and they say Ross’s penchant for managing upward at the expense of his staff is leading to what one plugged-in observer described as “a disaster over there.”
“With our ongoing trade wars and the census looming, Commerce needs functional leadership in order to be effective, and right now they just don’t have it,” said Theo LeCompte, a former top Commerce official in the Obama administration who speaks often with former colleagues.
One common complaint: Ross, a successful investor before Trump tapped him for his current job, isn’t frequently seen in the building talking to employees or rallying them to do good work.
“He’s sort of seen as kind of irrelevant. The morale is very low there because there’s not a lot of confidence in the secretary,” said a former outside adviser to Commerce who is still in touch with many employees inside the department. “He’s not respected in the building.”
Ross doesn’t hold routine meetings with senior staffers, according to a person familiar with the department’s inner workings and a former outside adviser -- a departure from past practice that one source attributed to the secretary’s lack of stamina.
“Because he tends to fall asleep in meetings, they try not to put him in a position where that could happen so they’re very careful and conscious about how they schedule certain meetings,” said the former outside adviser. “There’s a small window where he’s able to focus and pay attention and not fall asleep.”
A Commerce official disputed that characterization, saying that Ross has frequent afternoon meetings, including “long” meetings on the census.
“He’s there all day long,” said the official. “He’s a micromanager. He’s deeply involved in the minutiae of decision-making. … It is breathtaking how much of the decision-making process he makes himself.”
Yet top Commerce officials have pushed to not have Ross called to testify at congressional oversight hearings, according to two sources close to the department, because they fear he isn’t up to the task. “There’s a great deal of effort to shield him from testifying ever again,” said one of the sources.
A Commerce official disputed this and said, “He’s obviously going to have to testify again. … You can’t get through the rest of [congressional appropriations] season without testifying again.”
Ross did testify at an oversight hearing on the census for nearly seven hours in March, and emerged through the ordeal generally unscathed. But according to one person familiar with the department, the consensus among the top ranks of the administration was that it would be best to avoid a repeat appearance.
“There was a great deal of concern to not have him testify expressed from the White House,” this person said, characterizing the instructions as: “‘Don’t do this, people. Don’t do this, he’s probably not the right guy to go there.’”
Ross certainly has other reasons to avoid Congress -- namely, the heated dispute between Hill Democrats and the administration over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
In April, Ross offered to send aides to testify on his behalf before a House Appropriations subcommittee, an offer the panel’s Democratic chairman, Jose Serrano, said showed “stunning disrespect.” Serrano’s Republican counterpart, Robert Aderholt, told Reuters that Ross refused to testify out of “concern that this hearing might focus more on political or legal issues than the budget itself.”
“His relationship with the Hill has deteriorated more and more and he’s just not interested in dealing with the Hill if he can avoid it,” said a person familiar with the department’s internal discussions.
A Commerce official noted that Ross talked to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) two weeks ago, and held a party two months ago that a number of senators attended. Another Commerce employee observed, “This administration is very hesitant to do oversight in general or to comply with oversight requests in general.”
There are public signs, however, of apparent unease with Ross as a spokesperson for the administration. At an appearance at the White House in mid-July on an announcement on abandoning the citizenship question in the census, the Commerce secretary stood next to Trump the entire time and was the only one of the three people who didn’t speak. Attorney General Bill Barr, on the other hand, spoke at length.
Ross’s relationship with the White House and with Trump was also damaged by stories that came out in the last 18 months showing that he wasn’t as rich as he had claimed and hadn’t fully divested some stock as he had promised, according to the former outside adviser. (The Commerce official disputed that, arguing that the White House has not cared about these issues.)
Ross’s deputies, meanwhile, are coming under fire of their own as tensions rise inside the department.
Political appointees sometimes close doors right in front of career employees to keep them out of meetings, one former Commerce official in touch with former colleagues said.
Meanwhile, “it’s totally infighting among the politicals,” said another person familiar with the department. “It’s just everybody fighting everybody.” In particular, the relationship between Ross’s office and the legislative affairs team is “clearly broken,” this person said.
Charles “Kolo” Rathburn, who had been acting head of legislative affairs, “was unceremoniously let go” and abruptly left earlier in July, according to a person familiar with Commerce and the outside adviser, who said it had to do with issues of professional conduct in the workplace. Another person familiar with Commerce also confirmed his departure.
“He wasn’t allowed to clean out his office,” said one of the people. Rathburn had replaced Mike Platt, who had left in early May.
A Commerce official said that Rathburn, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, is working to pass the bar exam and has an offer for a higher-paying position at a law firm if he does.
Ross Branson, who had been deputy assistant secretary of legislative affairs and was Platt’s deputy, also left Commerce on Friday, according to two people familiar with his departure. He had became “collateral damage,” according to one of the people, and was told that he had to look for a new job. He starts on Monday as head of legislative affairs at the Export-Import Bank, a position that a Commerce official described as “definitely a promotion.” Branson and the Ex-Im Bank did not respond to a request for comment.
Much of the tension inside the building has centered on Earl Comstock, who shepherded Ross’s confirmation on Capitol Hill and is one of the secretary’s top lieutenants as the department's policy director.
The disarray inside Commerce is drawing an intervention from Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and other White House officials, who are trying to figure out how to wrest control from Comstock, who increasingly seems to be involved in everything that happens inside the department.
“Things come to a screeching halt because he demands to be the final decision on everything whether it’s an email that goes out to the Hill or a letter to respond to X, Y and Z,” said a person familiar with Commerce.
Comstock, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has also been at the center of many of the spectrum battles between the Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Transportation, Education and Commerce and NASA and NOAA, according to an administration official. He has “literally been seeding bad intel and bad information to get other people agitated,” said the official.
He also tried to scuttle a joint White House-FCC summit on 5G, the wireless technology, in April by “calling everyone he could 24 hours before the event trying to get it to be canceled,” this person said. Comstock clashed in particular with former National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief David Redl, who left his post abruptly in May.
Critics of Ross’s leadership at Commerce also have a new target of concern: chief of staff Michael Walsh, who is described by some as inexperienced on policy and difficult to work with.
Walsh didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the Commerce official said that he has good relationships throughout the administration and on the Hill and visits the White House frequently. A second person familiar with Commerce also claimed, “People want his job so they’re spreading bad stuff on him.”
The chaos inside the department has had consequences for some employees.
“There’s great frustration among people who really want to use their skills and talents to help this country and are being marginalized by a White House who doesn’t need to ask any questions because it already thinks it has the answers,” said Roger Fisk, a Commerce official in the Obama administration. “All of that expertise is just lying dormant hiding in plain sight."
Margaret Harding McGill and Nancy Cook contributed to this story.
President Donald Trump on Sunday night said he “will set up a meeting ASAP“ with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on immigration.
The president wrote in a two-part tweet that he was happy the New York Democrat had visited the border (“This is a GREAT thing!“) and said Schumer had come out of the visit with a new eagerness to resolve the nation’s immigration problems (“He said he wants to meet. I will set up a meeting ASAP!“).
“Based on the comments made by Senator Schumer, he must have seen how dangerous & bad for our Country the Border is. It is not a ‘manufactured crisis,‘ as the Fake News Media & their Democrat partners tried to portray,” Trump tweeted.
The president has consistently and insistently blamed Democrats for issues on the border, sometimes attacking President Barack Obama, sometimes attacking current Democrats in the House and Senate, and sometimes attacking both.
Schumer and other senators toured a detention facility in Texas on Friday and posted video of the visit. Schumer said he was appalled by the conditions.
“If you listened to the president you’d think they were all criminals,” Schumer said. “They’re not. They’re people simply seeking some … honor, decency for their children.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced Sunday he will not be seeking re-election in 2020 and will step down as head of his party.
He did not, however, resign.
Rosselló’s announcement came as thousands of protesting Puerto Ricans have been demanding his resignation after hundreds of pages of offensive text messages and chats were leaked.
The leaked messages between Rosselló and some officials in his administration mentioned manipulation of public opinion polls, inappropriate comments about political rivals, and jokes about the death toll that resulted from Hurricane Maria.
At a news conference earlier this month, Rosselló apologized for the messages but has refused to resign despite the public furor and demands for him to leave office. On Sunday, he remained firm and said he would welcome the legislative impeachment proceedings that Puerto Rican legislators are considering, saying he would defend himself.
“To every Puerto Rican man and every Puerto Rican woman, I’ve heard you and I hear you today,” he said Sunday in a Facebook livestream. “I’ve made mistakes and I have apologized. I am a good man who has a great love for my island and for everyone.”
“Nevertheless, I understand that apologizing is not enough,” Rosselló said before he made his announcement.
LOS ANGELES — Paul Krassner, the publisher, author and radical political activist on the front lines of 1960s counterculture who helped tie together his loose-knit prankster group by naming them the Yippies, died Sunday in Southern California, his daughter said.
Krassner died at his home in Desert Hot Springs, Holly Krassner Dawson told The Associated Press. He was 87 and had recently transitioned to hospice care after an illness, Dawson said. She didn’t say what the illness was.
The Yippies, who included Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and were otherwise known as the Youth International Party, briefly became notorious for such stunts as running a pig for president and throwing dollar bills onto the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Hoffman and Rubin, but not Krassner, were among the so-called “Chicago 7” charged with inciting riots at 1968′s chaotic Democratic National Convention.
By the end of the decade, most of the group’s members had faded into obscurity. But not Krassner, who constantly reinvented himself, becoming a public speaker, freelance writer, stand-up comedian, celebrity interviewer and author of nearly a dozen books.
“He doesn’t waste time,” longtime friend and fellow counterculture personality Wavy Gravy once said of him. “People who waste time get buried in it. He keeps doing one thing after another.”
He interviewed such celebrity acquaintances as authors Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller and the late conservative pundit Andrew Breitbart. The latter, like other conservatives, said that although he disagreed with everything Krassner stood for, he admired his sense of humor.
An advocate of unmitigated free speech, recreational drug use and personal pornography, Krassner’s books included such titles as “Pot Stories For The Soul” and “Psychedelic Trips for the Mind,” and he claimed to have taken LSD with numerous celebrities, including comedian Groucho Marx, LSD guru Timothy Leary and author Ken Kesey.
He also published several books on obscenity, some with names that can’t be listed here. Two that can are “In Praise of Indecency: Dispatches From the Valley of Porn” and “Who’s to Say What’s Obscene: Politics, Culture & Comedy in America Today.”
For his autobiography, Krassner chose the title, “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture,” using a phrase taken from an angry letter to the editor of a magazine that had once published a favorable profile of him.
“To classify Krassner as a social rebel is far too cute,” the letter writer said. “He’s a nut, a raving, unconfined nut.”
What he really was, Krassner told The Associated Press in 2013, was a guy who enjoyed making people laugh, although one who brought a political activist’s conscience to the effort.
He noted proudly that in the early 1960s, when abortion was illegal in almost every state, he ran an underground abortion referral service for women.
“That really was a turning point in my life because I had morphed from a satirist into an activist,” he said.
His original career choice, however, had been music.
A child prodigy on the violin, he performed at Carnegie Hall at age 6. Later he all but gave up the instrument, only occasionally playing it as a joke during lectures or comedy routines.
“I only had a technique for playing the violin, but I had a real passion for making people laugh,” he would say.
After studying journalism at New York’s Baruch College, Krassner went to work for Mad Magazine before founding the satirical counterculture magazine The Realist in 1958. He continued to publish it periodically into the 1980s.
For a time in the 1950s, he also appeared on the stand-up comedy circuit. There, he would meet his mentor, Lenny Bruce, the legendary outlaw comic who pushed free speech to its limits with routines filled with obscenities and sexual innuendo that sometimes landed him in jail.
Krassner interviewed Bruce for Playboy Magazine in 1959 and edited the comedian’s autobiography, “How To Talk Dirty and Influence People.”
When the counterculture arrived in earnest in the ’60s, Krassner was working as a comedian, freelance writer, satirist, publisher, celebrity interviewer and occasional creator of soft-core pornography. To mark the death of Walt Disney in 1966, he published a colorful wall poster showing Disney cartoon characters engaging in sex acts.
When he and other anti-war activists, free-speech advocates and assorted radicals began to plot ways to promote their causes, Krassner said he soon realized they would need a clever name if they wanted to grab the public’s attention.
“I knew that we had to have a ‘who’ for the ‘who, what, where, when and why’ that would symbolize the radicalization of hippies for the media,” Krassner, who co-founded the group, told the AP in 2009. “So I started going through the alphabet: Bippie, Dippie, Ippie, Sippie. I was about to give up when I came to Yippie.”
As one of the last surviving Yippies, he continued to write prolifically up until his death.