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The already meager ranks of female House Republicans had just been further decimated in the midterms when Rep. Ann Wagner was readying a play to head the party’s campaign arm — in the hopes of leading a recovery.
Wagner was indisputably well-credentialed for the job: The Missouri Republican had just won in a competitive district. She had experience raising money as finance director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as past success helping Republican women win campaigns. A band of supportive lawmakers stood ready to vote her into the position.
But there was one major problem: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t want her leading the NRCC. The California Republican called Wagner to express his preference for a far less prominent male lawmaker, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, according to three sources familiar with the conversation. Wagner could have defied McCarthy — some lawmakers and aidesthought she’d win if she would have — but she realized doing so would create tension and would be counterproductive as the party tried to pivot toward 2020.
Wagner decided not to run.
“The leader had a different plan,” was all Wagner would say about her decision.
Some House Republican women are frustrated that their male counterparts aren’t taking the party’s problem with women seriously. After brutal midterm elections — in which suburban moms broke heavily from Republicans to back Democrats, and the number of GOP female lawmakers shrank from 23 to 13 — Republican women are telling their overwhelmingly male colleagues that if they don’t solve their women problem they won’t win back the majority.
Several Republican women are preparing their own plans to help their female colleagues, support women candidates and woo suburban women just in case nobody listens. Wagner, for example, is about to relaunch a “suburban caucus” in the House. The group will craft an agenda aimed at winning back suburban women by promoting issues like paid family leave and child care tax credits.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) also announced last week she would leave the NRCC for which she recently recruited a record number of GOP women to run. Instead, she’ll be building her own political operation helping those very Republican women win in primaries.
“I am going to keep pointing out to my colleagues that we are at a crisis level forGOP women,” Stefanik said in a recent interview. “This election should be a wake-up call to Republicans that we need to do better … We need to be elevating women’s voices, not suppressing them.”
In interviews with POLITICO, Republican women were divided about whether GOP leaders and their male colleagues were getting the message. In one of his first moves as NRCC chairman-elect, for example, Emmer told a reporter Stefanik’s idea to help female candidates in primaries was “a mistake.”
The backlash was swift. Emmer had to quickly clarifythat he meant specifically that the NRCC should not get involved in primaries. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), tweeted his support for Stefanik’s idea. And a group of GOP women rebuked Emmer for the comments.
“I’m sorry — Tom Emmer is wrong on this one,” said retiring Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, who supported Stefanik in her first election and supports her primary idea. “To say what Elise is doing is a mistake? We need to applaud her. She’s filling a void.”
She added: “OK, the NRCC’s policy is that they are not going to help in the primary ... But if [women] don’t get out of the primary, what good is that?”
Stefanik, for her part, tweeted Emmer’ comments out with a bit of her own sass.
“NEWSFLASH I wasn’t asking for permission,” she wrote with red sirens inserted into her feed.
Stefanik later told POLITICO in an interview that “Emmer’s tone has changed and has been a bit more respectful and encouraging of my efforts.”
In fact, Stefanik said she’s received a lot of support from colleagues since bringing upher concerns when lawmakers returned to Washington following the midterms. Stefanik is close with McCarthy, even nominating him to be minority leader. And shesaid the California Republican has been receptive to her message and is encouraging her to speak out.
Indeed, the NRCC has been on the defensive since Emmer’s comments, which come as the number of House GOP women is set to drop to the lowest number since 1994. When he takes office, Emmer plans to sit down with all 13 remaining GOP women for a candid tell-all “listening session” about what went wrong in 2018, according to an NRCC aide.
“You can’t not recognize the problem, the numbers are so terrible,” said an NRCC aide.
But it’s unclear whether that will be enough. Some women like Wagner are still frustrated that the gravity of the situation has yet to sink in, arguing that “I have seen no sign” of reflection. Even Stefanik is pushing her colleagues to conduct an “autopsy” of what happened and why they lost so many female voters and lawmakers this year.
“The next election should have started the night of Nov. 7, that’s how passionate and dedicated to it I am in moving toward building a conference that looks more like America — and certainly adding more women and diversity to our numbers,” Wagner said in a recent interview. “And if they get around to doing an autopsy and ‘lessons learned’ discussion, then great. But there are a number of us who are just going to forge ahead.”
Black and Wagner both support Stefanik’s plan to try to help GOP women win in primaries. Last cycle, Stefanik recruited around 100 female candidates to run but most of them lost in primaries.
Stafanik's plan includes both financial support but also a sort of “boot camp” for female candidates with a focus on political strategy. Stefanik will also encourage women to embrace what makes them different. Some GOP women in the past have preferred to de-emphasize their gender, but some GOP women think maybe now they should talk about it more.
“When I ran in 2014 the first time, a lot of the advice was: ‘You need to sound like, act like, dress like a typical member of Congress,’ when the average age was about 60,” Stefanik said. “And I realized that was really bad advice. People are looking for authenticity so you should lean into what makes you different and what makes you unique.”
Black and Wagner both helped GOP women win elections in 2012, though it went largely unnoticed on Capitol Hill. The duo went on the road together to promote as many Republican women as possible ahead of the next midterms.
“We kind of looked at one another one day and said, ‘Let’s just do it, the NRCC isn’t gonna do it. Let’s go recruit us some good women,” Black said.
Wagner added: “You want the best candidate, you want the best person. But if in that field there’s a woman who does have the skills and the capacity and the ability to serve in Congress, we should be doing whatever we can to support her.”
As they crisscrossed the country, Black and Wagner coached roughly two dozen female GOP candidates as they battled tight primary races. They helped fund many of those campaigns — including Stefanik’s — and were successful at growing the number of GOP women in the House by five.
Now all but one are gone, including Reps. Mia Love of Utah, Mimi Walters of California and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who just lost in November. “The only one left standing is Elise, and that’s disappointing,” Wagner said.
At the time they traveled the country, Black said she focused on teaching first-time candidates how to raise money. It’ssimply harder for women, she said, because they are still dealing with sexism from a male-dominated donor class.
One tip she swears by: If you’re asking for money from a man, invite his wife to lunch.
“Businessmen sometimes are a little bit cautious about giving women these big checks. If they’re married, they say they have to talk to their wife,” Black said. She added that she decided to start meeting with couples, which often yielded bigger checks.
After four successful congressional races, Black said fundraisingcan be infuriating for female candidates who are just as, if not more, qualified than men running in the same races. Over the years, she’s learned that a man can ask for $1,000 and receive the full amount, while she asks for $1,000 and will get only half.
Black took office in 2011, the same year the House designated its first women’s bathroom off the House floor. Then, there were 76 women serving in the chamber. When she leaves, there will be 103, nearly 90 percent of whom are Democrats.
“It’s so disappointing I could just scream,” Black said of the dwindling number of GOP women. “We have got to grow the women in our party.”
Trump-aligned Republican activists in New Hampshire are quietly maneuvering to fortify his standing and avoid a potentially disruptive primary challenge in 2020.
In the most far-reaching move, Donald Trump’s allies are looking to scrap the state GOP’s tradition of remaining neutral in the primary — to clear the way for an endorsement of the president. They’re also moving to install one of their own as head of the state Republican Party.
The efforts wouldn’t stop a moderate Republican like John Kasich from taking on Trump. But they are designed to shield the president from the kind of damage that a serious primary fight could do to him heading into the general election. An endorsement would provide much more than just a verbal statement of support: It would enable the New Hampshire Republican Party to throw the weight of its entire apparatus behind Trump against any GOP rival.
A top strategist to Kasich said the attempt to stack the deck for the incumbentwill have no bearing on whether the outgoing Ohio governor decides to run, or on his ultimate success given the significant bloc of independent voters there.
But the early moves on behalf of Trump, which are being closely monitored by the president’s 2020 reelection campaign and outside advisers, demonstrate the degree to which the state party has coalesced behind the president and is working to head off a serious problem before one emerges.
One of the endorsement measure’s proponents, Bruce Breton, said he was motivated by the “hundreds of Trump supporters” he’s heard from since he declined to seek the state GOP’s vice chairmanship because of the “flawed” neutrality requirement.
“They don’t want [a] primary fight,” Breton, who is close to former Trump campaign manager and New Hampshire native Corey Lewandowski, said of his state cohorts. “I think it will galvanize the president’s supporters."
The alarm among Trump backers about a potential primary brawl is rooted in history. Two presidents who failed to win reelection were pushed into competitive primary fights in New Hampshire: George H.W. Bush by Pat Buchanan in 1992 and Jimmy Carter by Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1980. President Lyndon Johnson dropped his 1968 reelection bid after Sen. Eugene McCarthy finished a close second in New Hampshire’s primary and prompted Sen. Robert Kennedy to jump into the race.
Trump’s aides say they aren’t behind the moves to help him in New Hampshire. Regardless, Kasich strategist John Weaver said none of the maneuvers would dissuade the departing Ohio governor and longtime Trump critic from running.
Kasich has visited New Hampshire twice in recent months and has been courting party leaders and other officials since he finished a distant second there to Trump in 2016. While Weaver offered no timeline for a Kasich decision on 2020, he cast the proposed bylaw change as a sign of desperation coming from the president’s camp and compared the tactics to those of a schoolyard bully.
“This is all they know,” Weaver told POLITICO.
In an interview, Breton said he hasn’t discussed the proposal with Lewandowski or any formal aide to the Trump campaign. But he added that it’s caught the attention of Trump backers across the nation, which he hopes will translate to local support when he brings it before the party for review in January. He anticipates it will take a position at a meeting later this spring.
“The [Make America Great Again] crowd just keeps tweeting it,” Breton said. “People have been sending me messages from all over the country.”
“They don’t want change,” he added. “They want four more years.”
The possible modification comes amid a series of recent developments in the Granite State that Trump aides and allies view as beneficial to the president — and demonstrate sustained loyalty after he lost the state to Hillary Clinton. This week, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a 21-term incumbent who faced criticism for serving on Trump’s since-disbanded “voter fraud” commission last year, survived a challenge by a well-funded fellow Democrat who sought to capitalize on Gardner’s Trump ties.
Though Trump privately favored Gardner, New Hampshire Republicans said the vote came down to the state elections official’s advocacy for staying first in the primary sweepstakes, decades of impartial service to the state and ability to attract moderate Democrats.
Gardner backers contend he joined the Trump voter fraud commission to ensure New Hampshire had a voice in the process. Also earlier, they noted that Gardner took aim at Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that voters were being bused into the toss-up state from bluer points south to boost the number of Democratic voters.
Another shift in the works could prove more instrumental come 2020. Trump backers there are also pointing to the president’s large war chest to fend off challengers while cheering the anticipated election of longtime presidential supporter Stephen Stepanek as state GOP chair. He would become the 12th party leader since 2001 — a measure of deep instability compared with the state’s Democratic Party leadership ranks. Stepanek, a former state lawmaker and power broker in the state, lined up behind Trump in early 2015 and has remained loyal to him during some of the roughest patches of his campaign and White House.
Asked whether Stepanek’s elevation to party chair will embolden Trump supporters, state Rep. Al Baldasaro, another early backer of the businessman-turned-president, said “Big time.” (Stepanek has pledged to remain neutral and serve as a unifier for Republicans as long as the state party rules remain.)
“Steve Stepanek is a go-to guy that makes things happen,” Baldasaro said. “He’s a well-respected conservative.”
Baldasaro showed less deference to Kasich, whom he dismissed as a “RINO”— Republican in name only.
“He’s got to realize the American people are winning so many times with Trump on so many issues that [Kasich doesn’t] stand a chance.”
Baldasaro also had tough words for Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who visited the state amid increasing speculation that he might challenge Trump after he leaves the Senate. “I think Flake is trying to make a name for himself. He can’t even get elected in his own state,” Baldasaro said of Flake’s decision not to seek reelection in 2018, allowing the seat to fall into Democratic hands.
Several New Hampshire Republicans said a more unified pro-Trump position from the party would attract attention from Trump himself, who would in turn come to their aid on in-state political priorities. But not everybody wants to see a break from its time-honored neutral posture. Outgoing GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald warned the rank and file not to allow the party to be overcome by partisanship and move too closely to the incumbent president.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, told POLITICO that while “one can have a favorite in your heart, you still have to be fair and neutral.”
“If the Republican Party becomes an arm of the Trump reelection campaign, that’s certainly problematic,” Buckley said of the GOP measure, which is still in the crafting stage.
It’s an open question whether the bylaw change will pass. Jim Merrill, who spearheaded incoming Sen. Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, said he doesn’t think it will. Taking stock of the state, Merrill said there seems to be significant interest among Republican voters for a primary contest, noting Kasich’s efforts to cultivate influential Republicans and GOP activists in the state.
Still, Merrill cautioned, “I have not seen anything other than talk that anything is happening.”
If President Donald Trump is reelected in 2020, he will win more than another four years in the White House. He might also delay or even dodge any criminal prosecution.
A Friday Justice Department filing underscored the depth of the president’s potential legal exposure, after prosecutors found that Trump directed his then-personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to silence two women ahead of the 2016 election who claimed to have had affairs with the businessman-turned-politician.
Prosecutors say Cohen’s payments to the women constituted illegal campaign contributions, and some legal experts say Trump could be vulnerable to criminal charges as a result. But long-standing Justice Department protocol dating to the Watergate scandal holds that a sitting president can’t be prosecuted when he’s in office.
That would change as soon as Trump transitions from sitting president to former president.
“Once he’s out, he is like any other citizen and he can be indicted,” Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told POLITICO on Monday, while noting that he did not expect that outcome.
That means the presidency itself may amount to Trump’s best legal defense.
While some legal scholars and defense attorneys with clients mired in the Russia probe argue that a sitting president can be indicted, prominent figures on both the left and right are increasingly focusing on Trump’s post-presidential jeopardy.
Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated the Clinton presidency, said in a recent interview with Vice News that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe would either end with an impeachment referral to Congress or an indictment once Trump is no longer president.
“Those are the two avenues that I see,” Starr said.
"My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him. That he may be the first president in quite some time to face the real prospect of jail time," California Rep. Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor and the incoming Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, added Sunday on CBS’s "Face the Nation.”
Concerned Trump might be able to outlast the threat of criminal charges under current law, Rep. Jerry Nadler, who in January will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s looking at passing legislation that would extend the statute of limitations to encompass crimes committed during Trump’s presidency.
“If he can’t be impeached for improper conduct, if there are crimes, he should be made to be prosecuted,” Nadler said last week on MSNBC.
Trump’s defenders say that such talk has gotten far ahead of the facts. Giuliani insisted that, when it comes to Cohen’s payoffs of two women who allege they had sex with Trump, the president is on firm legal standing.
“If they proceed on [the] theory that the payments to the two women were campaign contributions, there’s a big body of [Federal Election Commission] and experts’ opinion that it isn’t a campaign contribution,” Giuliani said.
But Trump does pop up repeatedly in court documents alleging that the payments were illegal campaign contributions. Federal prosecutors based in New York, who took the Cohen case on a referral from Mueller, named Trump more than 20 times in their Friday filing, using the term “Individual 1.”
It remainsunclear whether Mueller might find criminal charges of his own to lodge against Trump in the course of his investigation, which launched 19 months ago with a mandate to examine whether the Republican’s 2016 campaign conspired with a foreign power to win the presidential election, and also covers whether Trump obstructed the Russia probe by firing FBI Director James Comey.
Giuliani told reporters earlier this year that the Mueller team had informed the president’s lawyers they would follow DOJ guidelines and not indict a sitting president. While Mueller’s office hasn’t commented on Giuliani’s version of events, other legal experts say prosecutors could use the threat of a post-presidency indictment to force his early removal from office.
“Getting a criminal president out of office is sufficiently important that a prosecutor might let a president off scot-free in exchange for a resignation,” Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview.
“At some point the only thing standing between Trump & indictment is his presidential status,” Neal Katyal, the former acting Obama solicitor general, also wrote on Twitter. “The moment that ends, his criminal exposure is yuge. Not just campaign finan[ce] but tax too.”
“At some point he & prosecutors should talk about a deal where he resigns to avoid jail time,” Katyal added.
Past White House scandals have also dealt with questions about legal liability for a former president.
During Watergate, a Washington-based grand jury named President Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator in the cover-up of the Democratic National Committee break-in. Special prosecutor Leon Jaworski was still weighing the pros and cons of indicting Nixon as a former president before President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor.
Decades later, President Bill Clinton’s lawyers were concerned that their client’s legal troubles would extend well beyond his time in the White House, even after they helped the president fend off impeachment for lying under oath and obstructing justice tied to his affair with a White House intern.
“I fully expect Starr to indict William Jefferson Clinton January 21, 2001,” David Kendall, then a Clinton personal attorney, told the president’s associates, according to a passage in Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”
Ultimately, Clinton and Robert Ray, Starr’s successor as independent counsel, reached a deal announced on Clinton’s last full day in office that ensured the Democrat wouldn’t be indicted after his presidency. In exchange, Clinton admitted to giving false statements to prosecutors, accepted a five-year suspension of his Arkansas law license and later paid a $25,000 fine.
In Trump’s case, one big question will center around whether any potential crimes fall within the statute of limitations — which in most federal cases lasts for five years.
Discussion over the hush-money payments at the heart of Cohen’s case appeared to have started in the summer of 2014, when the publisher of the National Enquirer met with Cohen and Trump to pitch their plan to purchase and kill negative stories about Trump’s relationships with women.
That deal continued through the 2016 campaign, when Cohen paid off adult film star Stormy Daniels and ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal. The last reference to the hush money in court documents describes $420,000 in reimbursement payments made to Cohen “during the course of 2017.”
Nadler said his legislative proposal would “in effect suspend the timing of statutes of limitations on any offenses applying to a sitting president so the clock would stop ticking.”
Still, Nadler’s measure is a longshot. Even though he will lead the Judiciary Committee in a Democrat-led House, the measure would still need the GOP-led Senate’s approval and Trump’s signature to become law. In a text, Giuliani previewed what the president’s push back would be.
“Extend statute of limitations would violate the spirit if not the letter of the constitutional protection against ex post facto legislation,” the former New York mayor said. “Did any of these anti-Trumpers read the constitution or care about [it?]”
In December 1992, then-Attorney General William Barr faced a decision for the history books: Should he recommend presidential pardons for senior government officials accused of crimes in a massive, headline-grabbing White House scandal, even though the pardons would be criticized as the final act of a cover-up to protect the incumbent president?
The decision, Barr later said, was not so difficult. He urged President George H.W. Bush, then in his final weeks in office, to grant Christmas Eve pardons to six men, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who had been caught up in a criminal investigation of the so-called Iran-Contra affair. The Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, was outraged by the pardons: “The Iran-Contra cover-up has now been completed.”
A quarter century later, Barr, a Republican lawyer who is a veteran of the revolving door between the federal government and a private legal career, is entitled to more than a passing sense of déjà vu.
Last week, President Donald Trump announced he was nominating Barr to return to the Justice Department for a second stint as attorney general.
And if confirmed by the Senate, it won’t just be the attorney general’s grand, wood-paneled suite of offices overlooking Constitution Avenue that might feel familiar to Barr. He will—once again—almost certainly have the legally and politically perilous job of overseeing the work of a hard-charging, high-profile investigator taking aim at the White House: this time Robert Mueller, who is probing possible Russian collusion in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Barr would succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Russian investigation because of his work on the Trump campaign. White House officials have suggested that Barr faces no such conflict and could oversee Mueller’s work.)
And in overseeing Mueller, Barr is likely—once again—to be asked to weigh in on the legality and political wisdom of presidential pardons to people who are the targets of the special counsel’s work. Trump has repeatedly dangled the idea of pardons for former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and others from Trump’s orbit who have become ensnared in Mueller’s investigation.
For the moment, Barr—a spry, dark-haired 42-year-old when he left the Justice Department in January 1993, now a gray-haired 68—is not answering questions about how he might deal with the Russia probe and the possibility of pardons to people like Manafort and Flynn. Barr did not respond to emails to his law firm asking for comment.
That silence cannot last much longer, however, since Barr will soon be called to testify in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, probably early next month. He can expect to get plenty of questions from senators about the details of what happened in the early 1990s, when Barr, as attorney general, oversaw Walsh’s independent counsel investigation of the Iran-Contra affair—and whether his bad blood with Walsh could signal similar trouble for Mueller.
By the time the Iran-Contra pardons were issued in 1992, Walsh had spent six years investigating the Reagan administration’s illegal sales of military arms to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to fund the Contras, the anti-communist militia in the Nicaraguan civil war.
In his memoirs, Walsh, who died in 2014 and spent most of his career as a dogged Wall Street litigator, described Barr as having been “outspokenly hostile” to the special prosecutor’s investigation. The relationship was so difficult, Walsh wrote, that in late 1991, he and his staff rushed to complete a final report because they feared that Barr was about to shut down their investigation. “The attorney general had the power to remove me from office,” Walsh wrote. “I wanted to be able to file my report promptly if our office was closed down.”
For his part, Barr, a long-standing champion of executive-branch powers who has been skeptical of the concept of special prosecutors, described Walsh as a “headhunter who had completely lost perspective and was out there flailing about on Iran-Contra—with a lot of headhunters working for him.”
In an interview in December 1992, in his final weeks as attorney general, Barr suggested he shared a widely held view in the Bush administration that Walsh was trying to convert foreign policy differences—involving American interests in Central America and the Middle East—into criminal offenses. “I think people in the Iran-Contra matter have been treated very unfair, many of them,” Barr said. “People in this Iran-Contra matter have been prosecuted for the kind of crimes that would not have been criminal or prosecutable by the Department of Justice.”
In a separate 2001 oral history for the University of Virginia, Barr suggested that he personally came up with the idea of pardons for Weinberger, President Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary; McFarlane, the former national security adviser; and the others: former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams and former CIA officials Clair George, Alan Fiers Jr. and Duane Clarridge.
“I asked some of my staff to look into the indictment that was brought” against Weinberger, as well as into the cases of “other people I felt had been unjustly treated” by Walsh’s office, Barr said. “Based on those discussions, I went over and told the president I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others.”
Weinberger had been awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress about his knowledge of the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to the Contras. The other five had pleaded guilty to, were convicted of, or were awaiting trial on similar charges.
When the pardons were announced, Walsh was furious and suggested they were Bush’s attempt to protect himself from being directly implicated the Iran arms sales, which took place when Bush was Reagan’s vice president.
At his confirmation hearings, Barr can also expect questions about his personal and professional relationship with Mueller, a fellow Republican who worked for Barr at the Justice Department from 1991 until both men departed in 1993 at the end of the George W. Bush administration. Mueller was then an assistant attorney general and ran the department’s criminal division.
Former Justice Department officials said the two men had a cordial relationship at the time, although Barr has surprised some of his former department colleagues with his willingness to speak out over the past two years to defend Trump and criticize Mueller’s investigation. Last year, Barr told the Washington Postthat he questioned why Mueller had hired so many lawyers for the special counsel’s team who had made political donations to Democratic campaigns. “In my view, prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party,” Barr said. “I would have liked to see him have more balance on this group.”
Barr has also been outspoken in support of Trump’s May 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey, a decision now under investigation by Mueller as possible evidence of obstruction of justice by the president to derail the Russia investigation. “It is not surprising that Trump would be inclined to make a fresh start at the bureau,” Barr wrote in a Post op-ed days after Comey’s dismissal.
Not everything will be so familiar to Barr if he returns to the Justice Department. In fact, he faces a situation unlike any he confronted at the department in the 1990s—and that few attorneys general have faced in the nation’s history. Last week, prosecutors for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan alleged that during the 2016 campaign, Trump directed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to violate federal campaign-finance laws by making hush-money payments to two women who alleged sexual encounters with Trump, including porn star Stormy Daniels.
The prosecutors making those allegations don’t work for Mueller; they’re with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and answer up the chain of command to the Justice Department in Washington. That would mean that, if confirmed, Barr would have ultimate oversight for a federal criminal investigation that would appear to target Trump, identified in the court documents in New York last week as “Individual-1.” In that case, the president’s fate might not rest with Mueller and his team. Instead, it might end up in the hands of the attorney general who Trump himself put in place.
Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, his father-in-law, said on Monday that the American intelligence community was still “making their assessments” regarding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but that the administration was “focused now on the broader region” in the Middle East.
“I think our intelligence agencies are making their assessments, and we’re hoping to make sure that there’s justice brought where that should be,” Kushner said during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. “We’re focused now on the broader region, which is hopefully figuring out how to bring a deal together between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
Following the October killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, at the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, by a team of Saudi operatives, Kushner has come under increased scrutiny for his close relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whois widely believed to have directed the assassination.
Kushner’s comments on Monday followed areport by The New York Times over the weekend that he has “continued to chat informally” with the crown prince since Khashoggi’s death, and has even advised the young royal on how best to “weather the storm” of international condemnation bearing down on Riyadh.
Kushner also told Hannity that the administration was hopeful that its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan would be released “in the next couple of months,” but cautioned that “not every side is going to love” the proposed agreement.
“There’s enough in it and enough reasons why people should take it and move forward,” Kushner said. “And this plan will keep the Israeli people safe and give them a good future, but also give a real opportunity and hope for the Palestinian people so that they can live much better lives.”
A bipartisan group of nearly four dozen former senators warned current and future members of the Senate on Monday that the United States is “entering a dangerous period,” and urged them to defend America’s democracy by serving national interests rather than political ideologies.
“We are on the eve of the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the House’s commencement of investigations of the president and his administration,” the 44 ex-lawmakers wrote inan op-ed published by The Washington Post. “The likely convergence of these two events will occur at a time when simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations continue to threaten our security, economy and geopolitical stability.”
The senators continued: “It is a time, like other critical junctures in our history, when our nation must engage at every level with strategic precision and the hand of both the president and the Senate. We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake, and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld.”
The senators — 32 Democrats, 10 Republicans and two independents — also stressed the importance of casting aside party differences in confronting impending challenges, noting that during their time in Congress, “we were allies and at other times opponents, but never enemies.”
“At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defense of our democracy,” the senators wrote. “Today is once again such a time.”
Though the op-ed did not refer to President Donald Trump by name, its ominous tone and solemn appeals were reminiscent of another opinion piece that recently riled up Washington — the anonymous letter published by The New York Times in September alleging that a “quiet resistance” within Trump’s executive branch had banded together to “frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
John Cornyn is facing a grievous insult during a last-ditch effort to pass criminal justice reform: Senate Republicans can’t trust their own whip’s count.
The Texas Republican and Senate majority whip has worked on the issue for years and is trying to win over the National Sheriffs’ Association in the latest effort to build more GOP support.
Yet Republicans pushing the sentencing and prison reform bill privately and publicly say he’s essentially undermining the push by not accurately assessing support for it or supporting it himself, a charge Cornyn rejects.
Cornyn has to juggle his personal views of the effort with his job as deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been reluctant to take up the bill because it sharply divides his conference — even with a coveted endorsement from President Donald Trump.
The result is that Cornyn finds himself in the middle of an internal GOP firefight in the final days of the lame duck. And with his vote-counting acumen under attack from outside the Capitol, Cornyn said he finds the criticism “bizarre” as he deals with the warring factions of his party and a year-end time crunch.
“This is something I’ve supported a long, long time. I had a conversation as recently as this morning with National Sheriffs’ Association and the head of the Texas Sheriffs’ Association to try and get this thing where actually more of the Republican Conference would support it,” Cornyn said Monday. “The criticism is either from people who don’t understand what the job of the whip is, or how actually legislation gets passed.”
He added one last brushback to his critics: Advocates’ “energy is best channeled into trying to get more votes. And not attack the messenger.”
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Cornyn and McConnell’s internal whip count hasn’t moved even as Republicans have continued to build support for the bill. Grassley said his effort has “gone from a lot less than 30” Republicans to 30 of 51 in the Senate GOP and that he’s puzzled at why Cornyn isn’t one of them when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsed the bill last week.
With Democrats taking back the House and a fragile compromise hanging in the balance, as Grassley put it: “What more do you need from a law enforcement standpoint than a guy like Cruz?!”
“His state has been very successful at reforms. And that’s saving lots of money. So I’m just a little confused. I’m just a little confused,” Grassley said. “Common sense tells me he needs to be for it.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Cornyn is “navigating” a difficult situation as well as he can. But he, too, said GOP leaders are underestimating the bill’s support.
Cornyn’s “hotter on it than the majority leader is,” Flake said of the criminal justice reform. But according to his “unscientific” whip count “there’s a pretty good majority for it.”
The skirmish comes at an inflection point for Cornyn. He has just three weeks left in the party leadership because of term limits and is beginning to prepare for a reelection campaign after Democrats’ strongest performance in Texas in decades. He’s also dealing with a fight over Trump’s border wall and must make sure the GOP has the votes to prevent a partial government shutdown.
McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has repeatedly stated there’s probably not enough room in the schedule to move the criminal justice bill. Yet he’s also not entirely ruled out action, giving advocates a ray of hope for the latest version of the bill, which still has not been introduced.
Cornyn was a lead sponsor of sweeping criminal justice reform during Barack Obama’s presidency that never become law, but argued for a narrower proposal when the law-and-order Trump took office. But now Trump is endorsing a broader package that includes both prison and sentencing reforms and is urging passage of the bipartisan agreement before the GOP loses unified control of Congress.
The No. 2 Senate Republican says he hopes Congress can get it done. But given his track record on the issue and unique position of influence, advocates for the sentencing reform bill say Cornyn should be doing more, even as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offers biting criticisms of the bill.
Grassley and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have publicly touted the swelling support, in contrast to Cornyn. The Dallas Morning News asserted Cornyn has been “tepid” in his leadership on the issue. And longtime reformers say Cornyn is getting cold feet.
“I have no sympathy for John Cornyn. None. If he’s in an awkward spot it’s because he put himself here,” said Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a supporter of the reform bill who also blamed McConnell for not scheduling a vote. “If we don’t get this across the finish line, the person I will blame is John Cornyn.”
Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, accused Cornyn of providing McConnell with an inaccurate whip count last week. On Monday, Harris seemed more optimistic about Cornyn’s involvement, though she said because of the “craziness of the competing whips, there’s a lot of frustration in the reform community.”
“We’re hearing very positive things about his engagement,” Harris said as the bill’s supporters prepared to release their final compromise. “Sen. Cornyn is a powerful man. He hails from a place that is considered the birthplace of criminal justice reform. … You always have a complicated situation when you’re a member of leadership.”
Indeed, Cornyn’s role in the GOP at this moment would be difficult for anyone: McConnell is “really reluctant” to bring the bill to the floor, Grassley said. And Cornyn’s job is to assess support for the legislation in the caucus. He can’t exactly twist arms for the bill if McConnell is simply trying to get a dispassionate view of the conference, even if supporters think a lot of undecided Republicans would vote “yes” if forced to.
“My job as whip is to give Leader McConnell an accurate count of where the conference is. Because he doesn’t want to put anything on the floor and be surprised,” Cornyn said. “A majority of the conference either whipped ‘no’ or ‘undecided.’ And we need to get those undecideds into the ‘yes’ column to get at least a majority of a majority in favor of the bill. And I think that will be persuasive.”
A GOP senator said that internally many Republicans are declining to take a firm position, making it more difficult to truly gauge support. Cornyn’s allies also believe Grassley and Lee are being overly optimistic in how they are reading backing for the bill.
But Cornyn’s influence alone could help Republicans get over the top given his reputation as a leader on the criminal justice issue.
“If they’re able to get it done it’s because, in part, he brought people on,” said one Republican senator, who estimated 20 of the GOP’s 51 members are locked in as supporters of the bill. “He’s one of the few who could.”
In some ways Cornyn is hamstrung by his role in leadership and deference to McConnell. But if there’s ever a time for him to exert his influence on a topic he’s passionate about, now might be his last, best shot.
“He’s part of leadership. And he probably has to do what leadership asks him to do,” Grassley said. “And I don’t know anything about that.”
House Republicans released a substantially revised year-end tax bill today, though the odds of it reaching President Trump’s desk seem to have only gotten longer.
Facing complaints from conservatives, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the chamber’s top tax writer, added some of their top priorities, including language repealing the decades-old Johnson amendment, which bars nonprofits from engaging in political activities.
He also added controversial language backed by abortion opponents stipulating that "unborn children" may be designated as beneficiaries of 529 education-savings accounts.
At the same time, he dropped provisions reviving a batch of tax “extenders” — hated by many conservatives, though they enjoy broad backing in the Senate.
All of that will help shore up support among House conservatives who forced party leaders to shelve a previous draft of the plan, but it is sure to antagonize Senate Democrats whose support will be needed to get any plan into law — and who were already unenthusiastic about Brady’s plans.
Asked about the controversial changes, Brady said: “Adding a couple provisions that are important to a Republican House, I think, is appropriate.”
“The Senate clearly can eliminate any provisions that doesn’t have bipartisan support and send it back,” he said. “It hasn’t been the first time.”
“The question is: Do our Democratic colleagues want to govern or simply obstruct?”
Other changes to the legislation would suspend three Obamacare taxes while killing a fourth. A so-called Cadillac tax on generous health insurance plans would be delayed by one year, a medical device levy would be postponed for five years and a fee on health insurers would be called off for two years. A tanning tax would canceled under the plan.
Brady also added provisions expanding assistance to disaster victims.
The plan would cost about $80 billion, he said, up from the previous draft’s $55 billion price tag.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance committee, slammed the revised plan. “This bill sends a very clear message to Democrats: That they aren’t serious about negotiating a real bill.”
“It’s filled with ideological trophies and things that are on their wish list,” he said. “This is like putting up a white flag of surrender at the end of the session.”
Even if the 254-page package goes nowhere, lawmakers could still move the tax extenders as part of separate must-pass legislation needed to fund federal agencies beyond Dec. 21.
Brady also dropped provisions opposed by the coal industry that would have extended an increase in an excise tax on coal that expires at the end of this year. The tax, which funds a program providing benefits to about 25,000 people affected by lung disease related to mining, is scheduled to automatically decline next year by 55 percent, which will punch a big hole in the program’s budget.
“It’s a separate track,” Brady said of the tax. “We’ll wait to see what the discussions produce with the Senate.”
Other parts of the legislation are holdovers from the previous draft, such as plans to address some glitches in last year’s tax-code rewrite, restructure some IRS functions and revise retirement-related sections of the code.