Steve King claims ‘better insight’ into Jesus’ suffering after Congressional censure

Congressman Steve King said Tuesday his that his recent ostracization by his House colleagues for defending white supremacy has made him identify with the strife a more famous leader went through some 2,000 years ago: Jesus Christ.

The exchange took place at a town hall event in Iowa, when one attendee stood up to tell the nine-term Republican that in her view, “Christianity is really being persecuted, and it’s starting right here in the United States.”

In his response, King told her that after being formally censured by the House and stripped of his committee assignments, he had gleaned insight into what Jesus went through before his crucifixion, referring to his House colleagues as “accusers.”

“It’s been, for all that I’ve been through, it seems even strange for me to say it, but I’m at a certain peace, and it’s because of a lot of prayers for me,” he said. “And when I had to step down to the floor of the House of Representatives and look up at those 400-and-some accusers — you know, we’ve just passed through Easter and Christ’s Passion — and I have a better insight into what he went through for us, partly because of that experience.”

King continued, saying the experience made him thankful for the fellow Christians in his district and had opened his eyes to how it’s possible to draw biblical parallels in the modern day.

“I’m grateful that we are the people we are and we not only — we have a strong Christian ethic here and a high percentage of people that are true believers, we have all of that going for us, but it’s also in our culture," he said. "And we don’t think about it very often, how much the Christian faith echoes through who we are as a people.”

King was roundly rebuked in January when he asked, in an interview with The New York Times, how terms like “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” became “offensive.” The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning his comments, with King voting in favor of the measure as well.

The congressman has a history of using racist and denigrating rhetoric about minority groups and immigrants, and has amplified the voices of personalities on the right fringe where much of that rhetoric can be traced back to. His rhetoric on race had been mostly tolerated by his colleagues until the Times interview earlier this year.

But the congressman, despite trying to distance himself from his comments to the Times and claiming he’d been misquoted, asserted later that “I have nothing to apologize for.” He’s resisted calls even from his own colleagues and party leaders to step down and has maintained that he will run for reelection again in 2020.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Ukraine’s New President Just Won the First Ever Successful Virtual Campaign

KYIV—Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected president of Ukraine by a landslide on Sunday, is probably the least prepared individual to head a democracy in world history.

Until this weekend, his main experience in politics was playing a schoolteacher who becomes the president in a satirical television program. He ran with no party affiliation. Until two days before voting began, he had no clear team of expert advisers—not even on foreign policy and national security, the president’s key constitutional responsibilities. And, remarkably, Ukraine’s nearly four-month long election campaign did little to provide answers as to who Zelensky is and what he truly thinks.

This is because Zelensky ran the world’s first successful presidential campaign that was entirely virtual. He not only traded on the image of a complete outsider, he also did no face-to-face campaigning, made no speeches, held no rallies, eschewed travel across the country, gave no press conferences, avoided in-depth interviews with independent journalists and, until the last day of campaigning, did not debate.

And now this virtual candidate is about to become the president of a country at the epicenter of a hybrid war that could easily ignite into a major European conflict.

Before he ran for office, Zelensky was omnipresent on Ukraine’s most popular TV network, 1+1, filling hours of weekly programming with his variety shows, comedy talent contests and his series about an outsider elected president, “Servant of the People.” When he announced his candidacy in a New Years’ 2019 video greeting, after opinion polls showed him to be among the favorites, many assumed he would run a typical celebrity campaign—full of public appearances and stump speeches.

He didn’t. Unlike President Donald Trump, who staged regular rallies and appeared in Town Halls and in televised debates, Zelensky avoided human contact with his electorate. He addressed voters through short YouTube and Instagram posts and appearances on TV. (One of his online videos, calling for a debate he postponed until the last minute, garnered 14 million views.) Instead of preparing for the presidency and holding substantive public meetings, he traveled with his comedy troupe and performed in variety shows. He also spent much of the first month of the campaign producing the next three episodes of his TV series.

After winning a first-round election that required a runoff—Zelensky played table tennis at his campaign headquarters with a reporter, made a vague one minute statement laced with platitudes and followed by just three minutes of Q and A. As the election continued, a 15 minute interview on his home TV station, and a softball interview of his wife and him at home, were the most detailed press scrutiny he faced.

Zelensky’s virtual-first strategy allowed him to run his campaign on general themes and vague promises and to avoid issuing detailed positions on policy issues. His political messaging focused on discontent with the way things are—and lambasting Ukraine’s business and political elites for making them that way. Some voters even appear to have conflated him with his TV persona, a high-school teacher whose viral Youtube rant against corruption and government incompetence gets him elected Ukraine’s president.

Those searching for detailed policy positions searched in vain. While he solicited advice from voters on a campaign website, his platform published online contains only a few anodyne sentences each on key issues of security, the economy, health care, education and the fight against corruption. Throughout the campaign, short video blogs showed Zelensky interacting with a range of informal advisers, usually well-regarded reformers or NGO leaders who over the course of three months explained to the public what they thought the candidate might believe. But many had no official status in his campaign until three days before voters went to the polls. His inner circle seems to be mainly made up of longtime colleagues from show business, partners in his comedy troupe, and a handful of lawyers linked to his main backer, the Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who is accused by the Ukrainian government with defrauding Ukraine’s banking system of $5.6 billion.

When outsider celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers typically run for office, they usually try to allay fear about their inexperience by showing a command of the issues. Zelensky did the exact opposite. While trading on his celebrity, he also embraced his inexperience, suggesting this meant he was open to fundamentally new approaches. He called on the public to help him devise his platform virtually and, scarily, preached plebiscitary direct democracy.

In many ways, Zelensky’s campaign eerily resembled an episode from the Netflix Series Black Mirror-entitled “The Waldo Moment”—in which an animated blue bear satirizes and degrades politicians competing in a British by-election, and eventually joins them in the quest for office, campaigning semi-virtually from a video display on a truck that interacts with voters on the hustings.

The big difference is that the bear came in second. Zelensky won. In the end, the Ukrainian public proved so tired of the status quo, characterized by slow growth, widespread poverty and significant corruption, that the voters of a country partly under Russian occupation and subject to regular military attacks rejected an experienced incumbent—President Petro Poroshenko, who had rebuilt Ukraine’s military and competently marshalled international aid and diplomatic support—and took a chance on a political novice. Plus, Zelensky’s vague and laconic platform meant that he was able to appeal to both the Ukrainian-speaking West and Center and the to the Russophone East and South, to rural and urban voters, and rich and poor, alike.

But now, Zelensky, who has since launched a new political party named after his TV program, must deal with a whole new challenge: Governing. His base of support is likely to narrow as soon as he starts making clear policy choices. And while he captured nearly three-quarters of all votes in the presidential runoff, he had the backing of only 30 percent of voters in round one, the lowest level of support for a first round leader in any of Ukraine’s seven presidential contests. He is unlikely to create a working majority in Ukraine’s parliament. That leaves him the option of trying to force a snap election this summer or waiting until late October, when the current legislature’s mandate expires. Meanwhile, his lack of knowledge about personnel and policy could lead to early missteps, especially in the spheres of defense, national security and foreign policy.

All this makes Zelenky’s assumption of power full of potential peril. The entire architecture of Europe’s defense and security rests on a stable Ukraine. An unsteady and inexperienced leader in Ukraine could tempt Russia to escalate its military actions in a bid to restore Ukraine to its sphere of influence or control.

A Ukraine back in Russia’s sphere of influence would give new impetus to Russia’s global ambitions, would enhance the Kremlin’s capacity to project power regionally, and interfere in and further disrupt the politics of the U.S. and the West. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”

That said, there is also huge potential upside in Zelensky’s election. A novice politician, especially one willing to shed some of his oligarch patrons, can be more open to implementing fundamental reforms that can accelerate Ukraine’s transition into a transparent and stable market economy. A leader from outside the existing political system might be able, with some assistance, to assemble a capable team of reformers.

Given this, as well as the ongoing military threat from Russia and Putin’s likely interest in testing Zelensky’s mettle early in his tenure, the U.S. and the West must do all they can to help an unprepared politician rapidly transform rapidly into a competent and self-assured commander-in-chief. U.S. policymakers and their European colleagues should offer to Zelensky and his nascent team a program of technical assistance that could accelerate their learning curve and enable them to govern competently and intelligently.

Ukraine’s wide array of think tanks and globally networked reformers should also join this effort. And the West should encourage the experienced hands present in Ukraine’s government—which include reformist ministers running finance, transportation, education and health care, as well as competent defense and foreign ministers—to cooperate constructively with the new president, at least until parliamentary elections scheduled for late October yield a new political configuration.

By taking these steps, the U.S. and the West can help ensure that the choice Ukrainian voters have taken in electing an ambitious but untested political newcomer pays off, and doesn’t plunge Europe into an accelerating conflict with Russia.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Larry Hogan derides Trump as ‘dear leader’

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan continued to needle President Donald Trump Tuesday, derisively referring to him in a New Hampshire speech as "dear leader," the sycophantic title given to Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Hogan, who’s weighing a challenge to Trump in the 2020 Republican primary, said he’s unafraid to stand up to the president but is in no rush to jump into the race.

Contrasting himself with the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president, Hogan said he’s got plenty of time to decide on a 2020 bid. The deadline to get on the first-in-the-nation primary ballot in New Hampshire is in November.

"People have asked me to give this serious consideration, and I think I owe it to people to do just that," Hogan said during a speech in Manchester on Tuesday. "I’ve been to 10 states in the past few months and I have 16 more on my schedule."

Hogan‘s New Hampshire visit comes on the heels of a March visit to Iowa, another early presidential voting state. And in February, Hogan slammed the Republican National Committee for trying to protect Trump from a primary challenge after the RNC passed a resolution giving the president its “undivided support” ahead of the 2020 election. The White House has kept careful watch on Hogan’s moves for months as a result of his criticisms and heightened national profile.

The two-term governor opened his remarks by saying he wasn’t at St. Anselm College to make any official announcements regarding a challenge to Trump, but nevertheless delivered a speech that criticized the president’s leadership and called for more optimism and bipartisanship in politics.

“I still believe what unites us is greater than what divides us,” Hogan said. “My last four years have blessed me with optimism, not burdened me with dread."

Addressing special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Hogan said the redacted document reveals "unsavory stuff" about Trump that didn’t make him proud of the president, and that the report "did not completely exonerate the president." But Hogan asserted Congress should not begin impeachment proceedings because they would not be productive. Hogan also contrasted himself with Republicans in Washington and across the country in their approach to Trump.

"There are a number of my colleagues, both governors and senators, members of the House, who will say privately that they’re very concerned. They won’t say it publicly and I think it’s because they’re afraid. There are no profiles in courage here. They’re afraid of being primaried, they’re afraid of being tweeted about. Very few of us are willing to stand up and do the right thing," Hogan said. "I don’t think there should be Democratic overreach and I also don’t think there should be a cover-up from the administration."

Acknowledging the difficulties of challenging a president who remains popular with the party base, Hogan said he would not run without proven support, and would not go up against Trump just to damage him.

"I’m not going to launch some kind of suicide mission," Hogan said. "I care about the future of my party, I care about the country, but I would not run just to be a spoiler to the president. I’ve got a state to run."

If he does run, Hogan sees a path forward in states that hold open primaries, where Democrats and independent voters can cast whichever ballot they choose. The strategy is similar to the one pursued by GOP presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who hopes to garner support among independent voters rather than Republicans who staunchly support the president.

A day before his stop at St. Anselm College, Hogan had lunch with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, another blue-state Republican who is popular among independent and Democratic voters. Like Hogan, Baker has been critical of some Trump administration policies and did not vote for Trump in 2016. Both governors, who face considerable Democratic legislative majorities, have kept the national party at arms’ length, calling instead for bipartisanship and a no-drama approach to governing

"We just had lunch. He gave me good advice. We’re good friends," Hogan told reporters after the speech. "I don’t want to discuss an exact private conversation with him." But asked whether they talked about the 2020 presidential race, Hogan said "a little bit."

Baker served as a cabinet secretary in the Weld administration in the 1990s.

“Bill Weld called me just before he announced," Hogan said. “I thanked Bill Weld for stepping up. I think others ought to consider it.”

Trump continues to hold strong support among Republican voters. In New Hampshire, the president has an 80 percent approval rating among Republicans likely to vote in the primary. He’s also raised $30 million in the first quarter of the year. Hogan said it’ll take time to introduce himself to early-state voters and get his poll numbers up, and pointed to polling data that indicates even Republican voters want to see a primary challenge to the president.

"I’m pretty good at retail politics, and that’s how I won my state with no money," Hogan said. "Who knows."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


How the Intercept Is Fueling the Democratic Civil War

Captain Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, has a picture-perfect political résumé: the Space Shuttle commander and veteran of the U.S. Navy became a gun control advocate after his wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot and suffered a severe brain injury.

For a broad swath of Democrats, a Kelly campaign is precisely what the party needs. He’s a patriotic, mediagenic, center-friendly liberal who has a rare chance to turn the longtime Republican stronghold of Arizona into a state with two Democratic U.S. senators.

But on March 5, a missile came for Kelly—launched, improbably, from the left. Reporter Akela Lacy revealed that Kelly, who like many progressive hopefuls claimed he was running a campaign free of corporate PAC donations, had made at least 19 paid corporate speeches in front of audiences including Goldman Sachs. A follow-up story dinged Kelly for another swampy tradition: a planned appearance at a fundraiser hosted by lobbyists from Capitol Counsel, a major Washington firm.

The stories were published by the Intercept, the five-year-old left-leaning online news outlet, and they stung. The state’s largest paper, the Arizona Republic, waded in. CNN began asking questions. Initially dismissive, the Kelly campaign returned the $55,000 he was paid for a speech in the United Arab Emirates. In the interest of transparency, the Kelly camp also published the transcript of a typical paid speech. (A spokesperson for Kelly declined to comment for this article.)

For the Intercept, it was another notch on an increasingly crowded belt—mostly decorated with attacks on Democrats.

Founded in 2014 by muckraking national security journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, the Intercept is still best-known for its first incarnation as an obsessive anti-surveillance reporting enterprise, and an activist voice for privacy and civil liberties—more anti-government than partisan. It built its reputation by publishing stories based on top-secret National Security Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden; it also exposed the controversial U.S. drone strike program and revealed how a British intelligence agency sought to digitally surveil every Internet user.

But in the past few years, and especially in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, the Intercept has taken a sharp turn into party politics. With a hard-charging Washington bureau chief, Ryan Grim, driving its political coverage, the Intercept has taken a more classic “gotcha” approach to campaign reporting, and landed in a unique spot in the media ecosystem—as the loudest voice attacking Democrats from the left.

As the party grapples with fractures emerging in its coalition, the Intercept is a crowbar working those fractures apart, probing hard at fault lines like criminal justice reform, “Medicare for All,” the “Green New Deal,” racial justice and corporate funding of candidates like Kelly. The outlet has become a routine headache for the Democratic establishment and its leadership. It published a leaked recording of then-House Democratic Whip now-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer pressuring a progressive Colorado primary candidate to drop out of a race. By far its favorite target has been the party organization that works to elect Democrats to the House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which the Intercept has repeatedly pilloried for seeking to kneecap a new wave of insurgent lefties. In a March story, the Intercept hammered the DCCC for moving to blacklist consultants working with primary challengers to Democratic incumbents.

The Intercept has also offered a platform to the candidates it favors. During the 2016 presidential primary, the site was one of the few outlets to take Bernie Sanders seriously early on, and its coverage of the 2018 midterms helped to promote progressive outsiders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

In today’s fast-moving media environment, seemingly every election elevates a new publication to the center of the conversation. In 2008, there was the Huffington Post and Politico; 2012 saw the rise of BuzzFeed; in 2016, Breitbart transformed the conservative media landscape. As 2020 approaches, some see the Intercept as the political site of the moment, a disruptive force focused on one of the most important political stories of our time, the Democratic identity crisis.

“I think they have played an extraordinary role in covering issues that don’t often get attention from other outlets, and they are often ahead of the curve in identifying issues that may resonate with other progressive voices,” says Congressman Ro Khanna, a progressive who has been on both sides of the Intercept treatment.

But as it gears up for 2020, the Intercept faces some big questions. One is whether its owner supports the war it is waging. The Intercept is almost totally funded by a single billionaire backer, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who supports the site through parent organization First Look Media. Omidyar, who through a spokesperson declined to comment for this story, appears to live in a different political reality from his own publication. Intercept links are noticeably absent from his Twitter feed, which is filled with reflections on a supposed Trump-Russia conspiracy—pitting Omidyar against Intercept co-founding editor and columnist Greenwald, a deep skeptic of the media’s coverage of the Russia scandal. And unlike the heroes of the Intercept’s political coverage, Omidyar isn’t some left-wing outsider; he’s a mainstream Democratic donor and was even a supporter of the conservative “Never Trump” super PAC. Several people I spoke to—sources inside the company and other media observers—are now asking: How much longer will the billionaire patron bankroll a news outlet so clearly at odds with his own politics?

The Intercept faces a political question, as well: As the Democratic Party strives to mount a coherent attack against a president it loathes, will the site’s belligerent strategy be effective, or will it handicap the only Democrats who have a serious chance of capturing the White House? Depending on whom you ask, the Intercept is either cleansing the Democratic Party and pushing it to be more accountable to voters and regular people—or it is a Breitbart of the left, trafficking in drive-by hit pieces, an approach that will ultimately undercut the larger goals the site supports. Says one Democratic operative, frustrated with the Intercept’s relentless attacks on the Democratic center: “Grim apparently doesn’t ever want to win an election again and is dead set against anyone who does.”


Much of the Intercept’s recent shift can be traced to Grim’s arrival. A HuffPost veteran hired in 2017, Grim took a site with strong gadfly tendencies and nudged it in a more aggressive and political direction. He’s pugnacious on Twitter, and occasionally in real life—he became a kind of folk hero among the left for scrapping with Fox News host Jesse Watters in a caught-on-tape fistfight at a 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner afterparty.

From the Intercept’s Washington bureau, kitty-corner from the White House, Grim leads the site’s nine-person political team. He sees himself less as a partisan warrior than a serious journalist whose politics and understanding of the left helped him to train his sights on particularly important targets. “The first goal is to break news,” he said in an interview, “but where we focus is where other outlets are afraid to go.”

For some in the media world, it’s a shock that the Intercept made it to its fifth birthday at all. Since its founding as mostly a home for the Snowden archive, it has published some massive, deeply reported scoops and developed a reputation as a hub for serious national security wonks. But it has been as notable for its internal dysfunction, finding itself the subject of flaming first-person takedowns by ex-staffers over the years. One of its early seminal investigations was a deep dive into its own newsroom and how journalist Matt Taibbi, who was hired to launch an ill-fated satirical digital magazine, left the company on extremely messy terms.

In 2016, Intercept reporter Juan Thompson was fired from the site for fabricating quotes and sources, and he was later convicted for making bomb threats to Jewish community centers. The Intercept has also been embarrassed even on its supposed area of expertise; its mishandling of leaked documents helped get a source, whistleblower Reality Winner, thrown in prison. This past March, the company laid off members of its research staff and—in a move that prompted a fresh round of anguish from the Intercept’s original true believers—decided to stop managing the enormous archive of leaked Snowden documents.

Along the way, however, the site also managed to build expertise in progressive domestic politics. Part of that move was deliberate: Early staffers say the Intercept was never meant to be exclusively a niche national security site, and from its younger days the publication covered topics like criminal justice, technology and politics. But there was also an editorial drift. The 2016 election, and Donald Trump, gave rise to intense reader interest in politics and a new energy on the progressive left, and the Intercept’s political outfit had already built a stable of left-savvy journalists, like Lee Fang, a well-known bomb-throwing reporter.

As the Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton ideological chasm became clearer to the rest of the media in 2016, those in the Intercept’s newsroom saw an opportunity. “A lot of the mainstream media was definitely operationally closer to the Democratic establishment,” says Betsy Reed, the Intercept’s editor-in-chief since 2015. “It seemed we had an opening to cover aggressively the divide within the Democratic Party.”

After the election, Reed hired Grim to take over in D.C. Since 2009, Grim had worked in HuffPost’s D.C. bureau, departing the publication as that newsroom’s leadership shifted in the wake of Arianna Huffington’s exit. Grim was—and is—seen in Washington as hardworking, talented and, depending where you sit, something of a left-populist attack dog. “A lot of the legacy liberal media was basically in the establishment Democratic tent,” says Zaid Jilani, a former Intercept reporter. “Ryan was a [Ralph] Nader voter. It’s probably unique to have someone like that running your shop.”

Under Grim, the Intercept more clearly carved out its terrain on the political map. Today’s Intercept melds together a collection of policy interests that feels almost unique in today’s media, providing a one-stop-shop for progressive welfare state enthusiasts, anti-interventionists and surveillance paranoids. “There’s always been some element of left media that had both an interest in growing the capacity of the state to take care of people and to address social concerns, while also being skeptical of state power when it comes to police and immigration enforcement,” Grim told me. “That’s not necessarily new, but what’s new is that there’s now a mass audience … for that perspective.”

The site has enjoyed a flurry of political scoops in recent months, like Grim’s revelation that the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee had requested to view a “document” related to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court—a story that set in motion the gripping public testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Grim and Intercept reporter Alleen Brown also landed a mammoth White House scoop when they (along with the Daily Mail) reported that former Trump aide Rob Porter’s ex-wives both alleged that he had physically abused them.

The Intercept’s fans credit the outlet with dedicating resources to covering big issues that often get little attention elsewhere or emerge later in the mainstream media, from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to the “Abolish ICE” movement. Some of the site’s biggest wins go under the radar, like in March, when the Federal Election Commission handed out its third-largest financial penalty in history in the wake of an Intercept report into foreign money used in support of Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential candidacy. The FEC fined the pro-Bush super PAC and a Chinese-owned corporation after Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit, filed a complaint that cited the Intercept’s reporting of the donation.

Intercept headlines tend toward the flashy, with stories that are hyperaggressive toward those the publication deems too moderate. That approach can lead to clumsiness, as when the site last year had to walk back a story that originally reported as fact that DCCC-backed candidate Gil Cisneros had left a message on the answering machine of his competitor saying he was about to go negative. The Intercept also dedicated plenty of favorable coverage to a host of progressive candidates who lost their primaries or—perhaps more damaging to the party—lost winnable races to Republicans in 2018 (Intercept haters often point to Kara Eastman in Nebraska and Dana Balter in New York). Grim says it’s not the Intercept’s job to guess winners, and that he likes to cover interesting races that have the potential to be close.

The Intercept has, however, picked some victors, and its top claim to progressive credibility can be summarized in three letters—AOC. In May of last year, reporter Aída Chávez and Grim wrote a long story with a bold headline: “A Primary Against the Machine: A Bronx Activist Looks to Dethrone Joseph Crowley, The King of Queens.” For many readers in Washington, it was the first they had heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That story kicked off more assertive Intercept reporting on her long-shot campaign, and the Intercept published a series of punishing stories about AOC’s competitor, incumbent Democrat Crowley. (Sample headline: “How People Close to Joe Crowley Have Gotten Rich While the Queens Boss Has Risen in Congress.”)

Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee that backed AOC, says the Intercept was crucial to Ocasio-Cortez’s election. What makes the Intercept important, Shahid says, is that it has an outsider, accountability approach, but also “[occupies] the space where they are actually part of the Washington media scene.”

To some readers on the left, the Intercept’s expertise gives it a competitive advantage. “It’s a very rare media organization that understands and cares to understand the progressive perspective and, at the same time, is taken seriously in Washington,” says Cenk Uygur, founder of progressive YouTube staple The Young Turks, where Grim is a contributor. Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of socialist magazine Jacobin, adds: “I often feel like when it comes to this space, Jacobin and the Intercept are the only reliable places that left politicians have—which is funny because neither of us existed 10 years ago.”

Khanna, the progressive congressman and frequent recipient of positive Intercept coverage, says he first heard about AOC through an Intercept story. But in the primary, he hedged his bets, choosing to endorse both her and Crowley. In a long article about his decision, the Intercept wrote that it would “leave a mark on Khanna as he navigates his future in Congress and within the progressive movement.” Khanna said he thought the story was fair, and he now calls the double endorsement a mistake: “If I had read more of their AOC coverage, I may have endorsed her earlier and may have avoided endorsing Crowley.” He also offered his colleagues a piece of advice: Read the Intercept to stay ahead of “spotting the progressive flash points.”

For some on the left, it’s a point of pride not to worry about what the Intercept has coming. “Superficial talking points are not going to get you through—in fact [Intercept journalists] are often jumping on those and carving those up,” says Faiz Shakir, 2020 campaign manager for Sanders. Other Democratic staffers for candidates who have been on the receiving end of the Intercept treatment question whether it’s all that influential. “I think they have a singular and very influential purpose. They drive attention and money to challengers in different races,” says one aide to an establishment Democrat who has been on the receiving end of the Intercept treatment. This aide doesn’t much see the Intercept moving the needle among people making “power decisions,” but rather thinks the site functions chiefly to “torpedo candidates.”


That’s a charge many political operatives echoed to me—if offered a chance to do so off the record. The Intercept’s “out for blood” approach, some Democrats argue, is totally wrong for a moment where the party’s sole focus should be on beating Donald Trump in 2020. “The Intercept at its best is when it’s doing the hard work that others will not do, and it’s not an oppo drop,” says one Democratic operative. “The Intercept at its worst is when it’s ideology with a little work.”

Even progressive voices in the trenches have their doubts. “The sort of antagonistic style of journalism that you have to do to report on surveillance abuses and police abuses, I think, doesn’t necessarily translate as well when you’re doing intra-Democratic Party things,” says Sean McElwee, co-founder of progressive think tank Data for Progress, and a lefty warrior frequently in the mix on intramural Democratic squabbles. “Democratic voters don’t think that Kamala Harris is the equivalent of the surveillance state. I think a lot of people are concerned about her prosecutor record, but they still like her.”

Fang, a longtime reporter at the Intercept covering influence peddling and policy, says he thinks most of the Democratic criticism of the Intercept is unfair. “The same people who want to vilify us for championing progressive causes and holding business-friendly candidates under close scrutiny are at the same time happy to use our investigations to pummel Republicans,” he says.

Although some Intercept staffers find the site’s political turn inspiring—“We have found our sweet spot,” says Maryam Saleh, a reporter and editor in the Intercept’s D.C. bureau—others worry the site is becoming too much a tool of the emergent Sanders-AOC-Elizabeth Warren left, particularly given that the Intercept was founded on an editorial ethos explicitly antagonistic to any sort of power. “When I worked there, I also felt like I was taking a side more than I wanted to, looking back at it,” says Jilani, the former reporter who left the publication last year and now works as a writing fellow at University of California, Berkeley. “The editorial leaning has become so strong.” (In response to Jilani’s accusations, Grim chuckled and said, “I love Zaid.”)

If the Intercept had a fairly clear hero and villain in the 2016 Democratic primary, 2020 is already proving to be more complicated. Or at least more crowded. Warren is most certainly on the site’s good side, whereas candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Cory Booker have received tougher coverage. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden—a former prosecutor and a onetime opponent of school busing, respectively—have no shot at winning the Intercept primary. The publication has criticized Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for defending the filibuster, published a 35-minute leaked recording of Booker speaking with activists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and dove into Harris’ first race in San Francisco, where she campaigned on a tough-on-crime platform.

As in 2016, Sanders is a clear Intercept favorite. In March, Briahna Gray, a columnist and senior politics editor for the site, joined the Sanders campaign as national press secretary—no surprise to anyone reading her Intercept coverage. (Her final column was headlined, “Bernie Sanders Asks the Right Question on Reparations: What Does It Mean?”) But the publication has also picked its moments to go after the senator, like a recent story by Grim calling on Sanders release his tax returns, which the senator ultimately did.


Much of the inherent distrust of the Intercept among the mainstream Democratic apparatus stems from the long shadow of the publication’s co-founder, the singular Glenn Greenwald. Today, he functions as a columnist—both Greenwald and the editorial staff agree that he has no control over the news reporting. But he remains the Intercept’s best-known personality, thanks to his high public profile and his routine hits on Fox News. Greenwald has also been a large line-item on the site’s budget; as the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, citing the site’s publicly available financial disclosure forms, he took in $1.6 million from 2014 to 2017.

As one of the leading voices pooh-poohing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation into the Trump campaign and condemning the media frenzy around it, Greenwald has been on a Twitter victory lap to his more than 1 million followers in recent weeks, provoking eye rolls from not only much of the Democratic left but also many of his colleagues in the Intercept newsroom.

Reed and Grim argue that the Intercept can—and does—credibly cover the Russia story, even if the site’s most famous employee is also one of the most vocal Russia skeptics on the Internet. He’s an island, the defense goes, and letting your employees openly disagree is a more transparent approach than at most other outlets. “We used to joke early on that we were Glenn Greenwald’s blog, but I think we have graduated from that,” Reed says. “He respects that he is not in management, and he’s not an editor here.”

But internally, some employees say Greenwald’s presence undermines the site’s work. “People assume Glenn’s tweets reflect some sort of internal consensus, but the truth is I don’t think there’s a single other person here who agreed with him on Trump/Russia,” says one Intercept staffer. “I’d hope people don’t view us as less legitimate just because of one guy.”

Greenwald himself says the internal disagreement is healthy. “By and large, the Intercept is now perceived as a serious midsized news outlet that definitely does have its own identity separate and apart from me,” he says. When it comes to his hits on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, he says, “Three million people still watch Fox News, and I believe that if you believe in things you’re saying and believe in the power of reason and dialogue—which I do—you should want to maximize the number of people you’re speaking to.”

As a counterbalance to Greenwald, the Intercept in 2017 brought on veteran New York Times national security reporter James Risen, who has written about the Mueller investigation from the opposite perspective. The site has even hosted debates between the two. Under the circumstances, it’s fairly cordial. Greenwald says Risen is one of his journalistic heroes. Risen told me: “Not to be too flip, but there were lots of op-ed columnists at the New York Times that I disagreed with, but I continued to do my own job.”


Just as the Intercept has come into its newfound political identity, it is also facing questions about its long-term viability. The Intercept is still a relatively small site, averaging about 4 million unique visitors a month, according to a company spokesperson. It is currently housed under First Look Media Works, the nonprofit arm of Omidyar’s media business. The nonprofit also operates Field of Vision, a documentary film unit, and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, which offers legal support to reporters and whistleblowers. (The broader First Look also operates two other properties, the visual storytelling site Topic and the Nib, a comics publication).

Reed says she speaks with Omidyar—who, according to Forbes, is worth $12.4 billion—once or twice a year. “He’s very much focused on making sure the overall institution is healthy, but he doesn’t get involved at all in any way in any editorial matters,” she says.

According to tax filings recently highlighted by CJR, Omidyar poured $87 million into First Look from 2013 to 2017. When the Intercept had its splashy launch, he promised to invest $250 million of his personal fortune into the enterprise—which suggests it still has some running room, though his generosity won’t be unlimited. Recently, like many media outlets in search of new revenue streams, the site began a paid membership program, which a company spokesperson says has reached 22,000 members. Still, Omidyar contributes the vast majority of the site’s funding, and the site’s future is almost wholly linked to his continued interest.

“We are grateful for the ongoing financial support of Pierre Omidyar, who founded FLMW with the mission of fostering, promoting and strengthening independent journalism,” the company spokesperson says.

Five years on, the Intercept is growing other parts of its business—a more robust opinion section and a podcast unit—to bring in a bigger audience. In 2017, the publication hired Mehdi Hasan as a columnist, and his role has expanded to hosting “Deconstructed,” an interview-format podcast and a complement to the site’s other podcast, hosted by Scahill. “Deconstructed,” like other liberal podcasts such as “Pod Save America,” has quickly become a stopping point for candidates trying to reach a young, progressive audience. So far, Hasan has interviewed Warren, Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as they embark on their early 2020 media tours.

Still, the recent March layoffs—a 4 percent cut in staff—coupled with the decision to ditch the Snowden archive have raised fears inside the Intercept about the future of the company. In this the Intercept isn’t unique; there is deep uncertainty across the entire media spectrum, and the Intercept’s newsroom is among a wave of digital publishers that have unionized in an effort to protect employees. Now that it is clear there are “budget constraints,” as Reed described the situation to me, some in the company wonder what would happen, for instance, if Omidyar decided to pull the plug. Would the Intercept survive?

Reed says Omidyar is completely committed to the site’s mission and editorial independence. When it comes to the cutbacks, Reed says the publication still has researchers on staff; she adds that the company devoted lots of resources to the Snowden archive over the past five years, but the nature of the news cycle has meant that it had yielded a diminishing return over time.

With Grim as bureau chief, the Intercept’s Washington office has become a more typical, fast-paced D.C. newsroom, eclipsing the slower, magazine-like investigative operation in New York, where the majority of the site’s 54 employees are based. Some staffers told me they have begun to wonder if a new Intercept has taken shape—one focused more on politics than its national security DNA. Reed says the site is still “totally committed to national security reporting,” and that the company has revised its guidelines for whistleblowers, to prevent future leakers from suffering the fate of Reality Winner.

The Intercept has clearly gone all-in on the 2020 race, however, placing itself at the center of a major story on the left, as the Democratic Party redefines itself in a changing America. As for the future of the site itself, Grim is at least somewhat sanguine.

“I always assume that the world is going to fall apart the next day,” Grim says. “And that every day you’ve got is a gift.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Mueller’s done. But Trump’s still offering evidence.

Special counsel Robert Mueller may be done, but President Donald Trump and his team are still adding to an already hefty record of evidence that could fuel impeachment proceedings or future criminal indictments.

Team Trump’s bellicose tweets and public statements in the last few days are potentially exposing Trump to fresh charges of witness intimidation, obstruction of justice and impeding a congressional investigation — not to mention giving lawmakers more fodder for their presidential probes — according to Democrats and legal experts.

Already, a fusillade of verbal assaults aimed at former White House counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in the Mueller report, have sparked questions about obstruction and witness intimidation as Democrats try to get McGahn to testify.

“This is risky,” said William Jeffress, a prominent Washington defense attorney who represented President Richard Nixon after he left the White House. “I find it surprising because he’s taking these shots at witnesses who gave information to Mueller, and I think he’s got to be careful because there’s an explicit federal statute punishing retaliation against witnesses.”

It’s a lesson some thought Trump would have learned during the Mueller investigation.

Examples litter the special counsel’s 448-page report describing how the president ignored the advice of his lawyers and senior staff by tweeting about the Russia probe and discussing sensitive material with other White House aides and even the FBI director. Mueller made clear that those statements and tweets can be used as evidence to support a criminal charge.

But Trump and his lawyers haven’t hit the mute button.

The president has tweeted about the Russia probe more than 50 times since last Thursday’s release of a redacted version of the Mueller report. And attacks in recent days have turned forcefully against McGahn, who is mentioned more than 500 times in the Mueller report and who delivered damaging testimony about Trump’s attempts to shut down the Russia investigation. Democrats have subpoenaed McGahn to appear next month before the House Judiciary Committee.

The months ahead are also littered with a bevy of opportunities that could entice Trump to offer more barbed opinions — and more material for his investigators. His longtime associate Roger Stone goes on trial this November, tempting Trump to weigh in like he did during Paul Manafort’s trial, when the president posted tweets that were later cited in the Mueller report as evidence of obstruction.

And allies of Manafort and Michael Flynn, Trump’s brief national security adviser who faces prison time for lying to the FBI, are likely to amp up the calls for Trump to issue pardons or commute the sentences for the president’s former aides, each of which Democrats would interpret as additional obstruction evidence.

“A bank robbery is just as much a robbery if everyone sees it, as if nobody sees it,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told POLITICO.

“The president and his team may think that the Mueller report represents the sum total of what’s in play with Congress,” Raskin added. “But from our perspective, the Mueller report just sets the table for an analysis of what’s been taking place.”

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have more leeway than in the courtroom to introduce evidence if they pursue impeachment. For now, the party’s leaders are urging a go-slow approach, fretful that an unsuccessful attempt to remove the president would only help him win re-election in 2020.

But the president’s taunts and missives directed at their investigations — and the potential witnesses they may call — could end up serving a double purpose: goading Democrats into taking the plunge on impeachment and also delivering them evidence to support the case.

“It is unrealistic to expect that the president is going to suddenly change his behavior or suddenly manifest respect for the rule of law,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), another Judiciary Committee member. “The president ought to be accountable for any additional conduct that may constitute an attempt to impede or interfere.”

“We ought to consider not only the full contents of the Mueller report but any subsequent conduct,” Cicilline added.

Trump’s allies say the president feels emboldened by the Mueller probe’s conclusions and doesn’t fear potential legal implications going forward.

“I don’t think he’s afraid of anything,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump associate and former 2016 campaign aide who thinks Trump is indeed engaged in a “briar patch strategy trying to tempt the Democrats into a suicidal venture of impeachment.”

“After enduring the beating he’s endured for two years and watching it crumble into rubble, he sees this as a risky opportunity to do exactly what he’s doing,” Caputo said.

Joe diGenova, an informal Trump legal adviser, also shrugged off the potential legal exposure that comes with the president swinging away at the events depicted in the Mueller report and any of the witnesses whom Democrats are interested in calling.

“The president is doing exactly the right thing,” he told POLITICO, before amplifying Trump’s recent calls for a sweeping investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe. “This narrative is going to be overtaken by the largest scandal in the history of this country, and it ain’t about Trump.”

Legal experts disagree, and many see the president’s continuous chatter as ripe material for federal prosecutors if they decided to take the monumental step of pursuing Trump after he’s out of office.

While Mueller nodded to longstanding Justice Department legal opinions that a sitting president can’t be indicted as he explained his decision not to conclude whether Trump obstructed justice, he also included a footnote near the end of his report highlighting the risks that Trump nonetheless faces in both Congress and the courts.

“A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a President leaves office,” Mueller wrote. “Impeachment would remove a President from office, but would not address the underlying culpability of the conduct or serve the usual purposes of the criminal law.”

Essentially, legal experts say, Mueller is signaling that Trump could face criminal charges even if he was impeached.

Any prosecutors who indict Trump after he’s out of office would be working with a five-year statute of limitations on obstruction of justice cases. That means the president could only be exposed for any behavior during his first term if he doesn’t win re-election next November. But anything Trump does from here on out would keep restarting that five-year clock, meaning a second term wouldn’t make him bullet proof.

“I don’t think Trump ought to be relying on the statutes of limitations at the moment,” Jeffress said.

To bring an obstruction case against Trump after leaving office, the Justice Department would need to prove both his intent and knowledge of an existing criminal probe.

Trump is certainly aware of the various tendrils of Mueller’s criminal investigations, which have spawned numerous probes in federal offices in Washington, D.C., New York and Virginia. And as for intent, Mueller’s report lays out granular detail about much of the president’s mindset over the past two years.

“Yeah, you’d be monitoring what he’s saying and doing and what his interactions are with potential witnesses,” said a former prosecutor from the Southern District of New York, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan that continues to examine Trump’s campaign, business and inauguration.

Mueller’s team has also already made the legal argument for using Trump’s tweets as potential evidence for obstruction of justice and witness tampering. He specifically pointed to Trump’s effort to intimidate his former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, in a way that would prevent him from testifying on Capitol Hill earlier this year.

“No principle of law excludes public acts from the scope of obstruction statutes,” Mueller wrote.

Mueller’s prosecutors also laid out a template for the pursuit of witness tampering charges. For example, one of the charges against Stone alleges that the longtime GOP operative pressured a witness, radio host Randy Credico, to mislead lawmakers.

A House Intelligence Committee Democratic source argued that the panel is “uniquely positioned” to investigate obstruction of its own probes should the commentary continue.

“It’s clear that the White House plans to obstruct all legitimate congressional oversight, just like Trump obstructed in Mueller’s probe at every turn and witnesses previously obstructed our committee,” the source said.

Despite the risks, Trump has continued to use his preferred social media platform to blow off steam and blast his political opponents and journalists. He has tweeted dozens of times to his nearly 60 million followers his thoughts — or retweeted others’ — since the redacted Mueller report’s public release last week. The posts range from benign criticisms of the news media to encouragements to investigate members of the Obama administration.

But it’s Trump’s veiled references to McGahn — he complained on Twitter about “people that take so-called ‘notes,’” which McGahn memorably told Mueller he had done extensively — that have caught lawyers’ attention.

Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, also leveled his own direct charges at McGahn this week, telling the New York Times that he questioned the former White House counsel’s motives and memory.

“This is a cross examination a law student could perform — by the time he’s finished, you would come to the conclusion he’s hopelessly confused,” Giuliani said. “We have no choice to attack because the Democrats say there is impeachable material here.”

In a text message to POLITICO on Tuesday, Giuliani called it “ridiculous” to consider the president’s comments about the Mueller report as new evidence that could harm Trump.

“President’s tweets merely repeat and emphasize points made in report,” he wrote.

McGahn “has two or three versions of the conversation regarding Mueller,” Giuliani added. But Trump and his former personal counsel, John Dowd, “have a different but singular recollection” that runs counter to what McGahn told Mueller, he said.

Caputo, the former Trump campaign aide, brushed off the notion that Trump could face legal liability in his post-White House years.

“To the people who want to take on the president after he’s served out his term, my advice to them is pack a lunch because they’re in for the fight of their lives,” he said. “This kind of analysis is designed to intimidate lesser men and the president is unintimidatable.”

But the president’s critics welcome the Trump team’s double-down approach.

“I’m pleading with Rudy Giuliani. Please stay on television,” said Lanny Davis, the former Bill Clinton White House scandal manager who now represents Trump’s ex-lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Added Julian Epstein, a chief counsel for House Judiciary Committee Democrats during the Clinton impeachment fight, “They’re acting like a scene out of ‘America’s Dumbest Criminals.’ They just keep fueling a fire that has been the bane of their two years in the White House.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Mueller fails to detonate for endangered Republicans

DENVER — The Mueller report is no Access Hollywood tape.

While the 2016 bombshell sent Republicans sprinting away from then-candidate Donald Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller’s explosive findings that the president may have committed obstruction of justice is causing a far more muted reaction from Republicans.

Not even the most vulnerable Republicans who have pledged to support Trump have abandoned the president. And there is no sign any will.

“Look, it’s clear there were no merit badges earned at the White House for behavior,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in an interview downtown here. “You have to focus on the heart of this conclusion, which is there is no collusion, no cooperation. That’s where the focus ought to be and how we prepare for the next elections to protect us from Russian intrusion and interference.”

Sure, at-risk GOP lawmakers don’t love the portrayal of Trump’s repeated attempts to kill the probe into pro-Trump Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

But beyond conceding there are some embarrassing details, Republicans don’t feel the need to create any new space between them and the president. The desire to stay in Trump’s good graces and keep his supporters appears to override any interest in using the episode to appeal to swing voters.

Democrats believe Gardner is perhaps the most endangered incumbent senator given Democrats’ sweeping wins in Colorado in 2018, Trump’s loss here in 2016 and Gardner’s own narrow victory in 2014, a GOP wave year. But Gardner is showing no signs of distress with having Trump at the top of the ticket.

In fact, he said he’d be happy to campaign alongside Trump next year as the president seeks to make the Rocky Mountain State a battleground.

“He’s going to campaign here. Every state matters, every voice should be heard. I mean look what happened when Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign,” Gardner said, explaining why supporting Trump is not a difficult call. “This is not a socialist country and that’s what [Democrats] want.”

Gardner’s position as a relatively conservative lawmaker running for reelection in Clinton Country is a unique one, but his view of the Mueller report is not.

Republican operatives working on Senate races say that if House Democrats move to impeach Trump it will activate conservative voters. And if Speaker Nancy Pelosi gets her way and Trump avoids impeachment, then the Mueller report’s effect on 2020 politics will likely be underwhelming, they argue.

Those factors are driving Republicans up for reelection to take the report seriously, but not make waves over it. Vulnerable Republicans in the House are taking a similar tack.

“This is a fair report. And I’m not going to criticize Bob Mueller for the report,” Gardner said, in a striking contrast to Trump’s attacks this week on “the worst and most corrupt political Witch Hunt.”

Fellow battleground Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said people should be “very pissed” that the Russians interfered in the election but had little to say to a local Fox television station in Arizona about the president’s potential obstruction. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has not endorsed Trump for reelection, said on Maine Public Radio that Trump’s orders to aides to end the Mueller report resulted merely in an “unflattering portrayal of the president.”

A spokesman for swing state Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Tillis believes “pursuing the path of endless investigations and impeachment would be a bitterly partisan move that would further divide the country.” And Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said she doesn’t view hearings with Mueller as necessary and only barely conceded the report paints a “brash” portrayal of the president.

“We all know how the president is,” she told reporters in the Capitol on Monday.

In 2016, it’s not clear Republicans who bailed from Trump’s campaign won any edge, and some strategists believe it cost them by deflating the GOP base. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Nevada candidate Joe Heck both lost close races after abandoning Trump.

This time around, the harshest words about Mueller’s conclusions have come from newly-elected Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was “sickened” by the report’s details. But he has the advantage of never having to run alongside Trump. Those who do could face Trump’s wrath in a primary, leaving little political upside for Republicans to focus on Mueller as they fight to keep their seats.

“Republicans should put the Mueller report behind them and move forward. They should get to work on tightening cybersecurity and election protections so they have real accomplishments to point to on protecting elections from outside interference,” said Dan Eberhart, a top GOP donor.

That’s exactly what Gardner is pledging to do — alongside calls to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terror and increase sanctions.

“What we have to move onto is to make sure we are protecting this country’s elections. We have a country (Russia) that is hell bent on the demise of the West. And we can’t stand for that,” Gardner said. “Some are going to push for impeachment and do everything they can to strike that revenge; we need to protect people in this country.”

The subtext to many of Gardner’s comments is that the president has his own view, and he has his. Even as he refuses to break with Trump over the Mueller report, Gardner said he will occasionally be at odds with the administration; he helped derail Herman Cain’s appointment to the Federal Reserve and has pushed for more muscular stances toward Russia and North Korea.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also sought to put the Mueller report behind him.

“I think the American people would like to move on from this,” the GOP leader said in Kentucky on Monday. “They’ve learned quite enough about it.”

In the House, the GOP has been even more reluctant to break ranks with Trump. Mueller’s findings hadn’t been publicly released yet before most House Republicans were gleefully declaring victory and telling Democrats that it was time to move on.

Some vulnerable House Republicans — who are back home in their districts for the Easter recess and far away from prying reporters in the Capitol — have largely avoided the post-Mueller media spotlight. Several members said they were too busy for an interview or directed POLITICO to boilerplate statements that were put out right after the report’s release.

"The less that Republicans say about the Mueller report the better it is for their re-election chances,” said Alex Conant, a former adviser for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

But other endangered Republicans have forcefully defended the president, emphasizing that Mueller determined there was no collusion with Russia.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who represents Long Island, said that Trump isn’t perfect, but argued that the president didn’t obstruct justice because he didn’t actually end up firing Mueller.
“Is it ideal? Donald Trump is not a saint. Nobody ever said he is,” King said in a telephone interview. “But… he never did stop the investigation.”

And centrist Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) predicted that if Democrats end up impeaching Trump, it could galvanize the GOP heading into 2020. “It’s sort of Machiavellian,” Davis said, “but it could help Republicans and the president.”

GOP senators had warned the president not to stop Mueller’s investigation, and the fact that he ultimately didn’t may have buoyed Trump from further criticism from the likes of Collins and Gardner, who are likely to need split-ticket voters to put them over the top next year.

But like the rest of the 2020 class of GOP senators, Gardner, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, is going to shy away from blunt rhetorical barrages against Trump. A full-frontal attack over Mueller’s findings would upset what Gardner backers say is a delicate balance.

“Among people that are strong Trump supporters, they know that Cory is beneficial to the president,” said conservative state Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Colo.). And “he’s capable of inviting other people into the party, people that might be from the center of the political spectrum, in a really meaningful way.”

Melanie Zanona reported from Washington. James Arkin and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report from Washington.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Trump camp descends on Pennsylvania as alarms grow over 2020

Senior Trump 2020 advisers are headed to Harrisburg on Wednesday to meet with Pennsylvania GOP officials amid mounting concerns about the president’s prospects in the critical battleground state.

Trump’s campaign is moving to shore up the state after 2018 midterm elections that saw Republicans get blown out in races up and down the ballot. Compounding the situation is a state party organization riven by turmoil and infighting.

The private meeting, confirmed by a half-dozen party officials, underscores the high stakes for the president in the state. Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, and reelection aides view the state’s 20 electoral votes as crucial to his 2020 hopes. Pennsylvania also has symbolic significance: In 2016, Trump geared his campaign toward the state’s large proportion of blue-collar voters, many of whom had traditionally voted Democratic.

The Trump contingent is expected to include political director Chris Carr, who is orchestrating the campaign’s national field deployment, as well as Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who are overseeing outreach to delegates and state party organizations. Republican National Committee officials are also expected to attend.

The meeting is the first of what Trump aides say will be a series of visits to battleground states. The fact that Pennsylvania is the first stop underscores the state’s importance, they say — and the level of concern about it.

“The party is not in great shape,” said Rob Gleason, a former Pennsylvania GOP chairman. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.”

The meeting is expected to focus on field deployment, voter data and coordination between state and national officials.

Among those expected to be on hand are Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val Digiorgio and RNC member Bob Asher. Ted Christian and David Urban, who helped spearhead Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state, are expected to join, as is former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, an ally of the president who waged an unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump 2020 spokesman, declined to comment on the meeting other than to express confidence in the president’s prospects in the state.

“The voters of the commonwealth were there for President Trump in 2016 and will be with him again in 2020,” he said.

The Trump campaign has been focused on Pennsylvania for months. In January, DiGiorgio traveled to Washington to privately huddle with reelection aides. The chairman presented a sweeping 2020 blueprint, detailing how he planned to recruit volunteers, target swing voters who bolted the party in 2018 and boost the state party’s lackluster fundraising.

DiGiorgio said in a text that the state party is working closely with Trump’s campaign and that he’s confident the collaboration will produce "another victory" in Pennsylvania next year.

Wednesday’s meeting comes after months of bad news for the Pennsylvania GOP. In March 2018, Republicans lost a special election in a conservative southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district. In November, Republicans lost Senate and gubernatorial races by double digits as well as three House seats, partly because of a redrawn congressional map that favored Democrats.

Democrats also flipped 16 state legislative seats in the midterms.

The bleeding hasn’t stopped since then. In a special election this month, Democrats won a state Senate seat in a district that Trump carried in 2016. Nationally, it was the first such legislative seat that Democrats flipped this year, prompting grumbling among some Republicans that the state party did not invest enough in turning out voters.

A power struggle, meanwhile, has consumed state GOP leadership, with some Republicans complaining that DiGiorgio lacks fundraising skills and has failed to unite the party after a bruising election for state party chief in 2017.

There have been other black eyes. Last week, Fox News held a town hall with Democratic contender Bernie Sanders in Northampton, a traditionally Democratic county that Trump won in 2016. Prime-time viewers were treated to visuals of Sanders getting cheered in Trump country, leading some to wonder whether Republican organizers failed to lure fans of the president to the event.

Still, there are some indications the party has begun to stabilize. After rumors swirled for months that DiGiorgio critics might stage a vote of no confidence at the state party’s winter meeting, it never materialized.

Bruce Hottle, a state party committee member from western Pennsylvania, had called for state party leadership “to be looked at” before the event. Since then, he’s changed his tune.

“Leadership has taken a hard look at what worked and what didn’t work in the fall campaign and has made efforts to correct it so we don’t fall in that same trap again,” he said.

Others contend that the challenges the party faces in the state aren’t simply operational. A Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last month said just 34 percent of the state’s registered voters approved of Trump’s job performance — a precarious standing for an incumbent.

To win Pennsylvania again in 2020, party officials say Trump will need to pull off a repeat of his 2016 performance by again carrying traditionally blue areas that had gone for Obama four years earlier.

Asher, a longtime GOP official and fundraiser, lavished praised on Trump’s reelection campaign for “getting everybody together from all corners of the state and all parts of the party” for Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m not going in with any preconceived notions,” he said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine


Ireland is supposed to be the world’s privacy policeman. Instead, it’s catering to Big Tech.

Last May, Europe imposed new data privacy guidelines that carry the hopes of hundreds of millions of people around the world — including in the United States — to rein in abuses by big tech companies.

Almost a year later, it’s apparent that the new rules have a significant loophole: The designated lead regulator — the tiny nation of Ireland — has yet to bring an enforcement action against a big tech firm.

That’s not entirely surprising. Despite its vows to beef up its threadbare regulatory apparatus, Ireland has a long history of catering to the very companies it is supposed to oversee, having wooed top Silicon Valley firms to the Emerald Isle with promises of low taxes, open access to top officials, and help securing funds to build glittering new headquarters.

Now, data-privacy experts and regulators in other countries alike are questioning Ireland’s commitment to policing imminent privacy concerns like Facebook’s reintroduction of facial recognition software and data sharing with its recently purchased subsidiary WhatsApp, and Google’s sharing of information across its burgeoning number of platforms.

Interviews with scores of privacy experts, data watchdogs, academics and regulators in other countries reveal increasing concern that the landmark General Data Protection Regulation, the product of years of wrangling with data companies, is vulnerable because of the one provision on which the tech companies prevailed: That the lead regulator be in the country in which the tech firms have their “data controller” – in most cases, Ireland.

“We need to be careful and ensure that the margin for maneuver given by the GDPR doesn’t lead to an attractiveness competition between EU countries, as is already the case for taxation,” Marie-Laure Denis, France’s new chief privacy regulator, warned the French parliament in January, in a clear reference to Ireland. “I don’t want to see a race [between EU countries] to attract or keep the headquarters of the big tech actors.”

Leaving open a loophole

Ireland’s willingness to crack down on the companies that dominate its economy has long been questionable, even when its regulatory officials spot a potential violation. Such a situation developed with Facebook in 2011, in events detailed here for the first time.

Years before the social-media giant unwittingly released the personal data of 87 million users that made its way to Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 Trump campaign, Ireland’s data-privacy regulator found that it was failing to screen applications in a way that could have prevented the breach.

The then-head of Ireland’s Data Protection Commission recorded his complaint in a 2011 audit report that zeroed in on how Facebook was allowing outside app developers to gain access to oceans of “friend” data. Facebook pushed back on the finding, according to the agency, and the Irish regulator backed off, issuing an almost perfect score for Facebook’s privacy practices in a follow-up report a year later. The rampant exposure of data wasn’t corrected until years later — too late to prevent the Cambridge Analytica breach.

Ireland’s failure to safeguard huge stores of personal information looms larger now that the country is the primary regulator responsible for protecting the health information, email addresses, financial records, relationship status, search histories and friend lists for hundreds of millions of Americans, Europeans and other users around the globe.

Already, regulators in other countries are expressing concern over Ireland’s failure this year to crack down on Facebook’s sharing of data with the messaging tool WhatsApp, which it purchased in 2014.

According to the EU, Facebook misled European officials into believing the two networks would not exchange information, thereby allaying concerns at the time of the merger that WhatsApp users could be drawn into Facebook’s web. In 2016, a German court found that the two networks were indeed sharing data, and barred Facebook and WhatsApp from exchanging information about German users. The ban became unenforceable when the GDPR took effect and Ireland became the lead supervisory authority. Now, German authorities say the sharing has resumed and Ireland must crack down. For their part, Irish officials said in a statement they’re satisfied that Facebook and WhatsApp aren’t sharing information for the purposes of “friend suggestion or enhanced advertising.”

Meanwhile, Facebook took advantage of Ireland’s assumption of the lead regulator role last May to reintroduce its facial recognition tool, which had been banned in the EU out of fear that photos would be used to track people without their permission. Facebook says it will not utilize the photo data until it receives consent from individuals. But other EU regulators and privacy lawyers contend that merely storing the photographs amounts to an unauthorized taking of data under GDPR rules. Although Irish authorities have suggested they share many of the lawyers’ concerns and have begun a preliminary “examination,” they have yet to launch a formal probe.

Google, meanwhile, aroused the ire of regulators in other countries last year by failing to obtain consent before sharing data among its fast-growing line of networks and products — from YouTube to Google Photos to Gmail and more. Irish regulators declined to open a probe against Google, which had consolidated most of its operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa in Ireland, arguing that the company had not yet finished the paperwork that would give Irish regulators “lead supervisory authority.” The paperwork was finished in January, but Ireland has yet to announce an investigation.

Critics, including German authorities, insist that the Irish Data Protection Commission had the authority to launch a probe without Google’s consent, and should have done so. Meanwhile, France stepped in to issue its first-ever fine under GDPR against the company for €50 million.

The head of the Irish Data Protection Commission, Helen Dixon, declined requests for interviews. Her spokesman, Graham Doyle, wrote in an emailed response to POLITICO’s questions that the commission takes its regulatory responsibilities seriously and has 16 investigations underway, probing complaints against networks including Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Apple, along with seven probes involving Facebook.

The Irish Data Protection Commission is “one of the most strongly resourced data protection authorities in Europe” and stands ready to impose “fines and firm remedies when appropriate,” he wrote.

Doyle said the commission, which earlier this decade was so obscure it was headquartered in a small office above a convenience store in the tiny village of Portarlington, is recruiting state-of-the-industry experts to join its staff of approximately 140 people currently working out of temporary offices in Dublin, with a goal of eventually employing 180 people.

He noted the agency’s tough new enforcement powers include fines of up to 4 percent of a company’s annual worldwide revenues and cited the agency’s willingness to enforce privacy rules by pointing to a pre-GDPR case in which Irish regulators ordered LinkedIn to delete data on nonmembers.

He rejected any suggestion that the agency is being overly deferential companies under its purview, but added: “Those with an interest in data protection don’t always agree on every point, and we respect that.”

Nonetheless, regulators in other EU countries, particularly Germany, remain skeptical, maintaining that Ireland is letting major complaints slide and creating the risk of a regulatory safe zone in Europe. So, too, are independent experts who are familiar with the actions of the Irish Data Protection Commission.

“It’s the appearance of an investigation rather than the substance of one,” said the independent Dublin-based data management consultant Daragh O’Brien, referring to the Ireland’s data enforcement culture, which he scrutinizes closely.

Max Schrems, an Austrian privacy advocate behind some of the most successful legal challenges against major technology companies, said he believes Ireland’s approach to regulation is more or less unchanged since 2012.

“They’ve basically gotten smarter about not doing things,” said Schrems, whose initial complaint about transatlantic sharing of data was thrown out by the Irish regulator in 2013, only to succeed in European courts, bringing down the transatlantic data flow known as Safe Harbor.

Ireland continues to take a more corporate-friendly approach to regulation than many of its EU counterparts, openly favoring negotiation over sanctions and lists of questions over on-site inspections.

For example, as of last October, the Data Protection Commission had yet to dispatch any regulatory agents to Facebook’s Dublin headquarters, despite its multiple investigations, according to a person close to the matter who spoke under the condition of anonymity. Rather than seek answers more aggressively, the regulator has been satisfied by “updates” from Facebook’s headquarters that often reveal little more than what’s been said in public statements. Both Facebook and the DPC declined to say whether any on-site visits had taken place since 2011.

Around the same time, France posted its own regulatory officers inside Facebook’s offices to monitor the network’s efforts to police hate speech and terrorist content, a core concern in many countries where terrorists have connected via social media and hate speech encouraged racist or sectarian violence. But France has no authority to enforce standards beyond its borders.

Privacy watchdogs also voice concerns about the 2014 appointment of Dixon, an Irish civil servant with no prior experience in regulatory enforcement, to replace Billy Hawkes, the regulator who initially presided over the finding of Facebook’s over-sharing of data with researchers and developers of third-party apps.

If Ireland were serious about cracking down on privacy violations, some legal professionals said, it would have followed the lead of the United Kingdom and appointed an outside specialist with a history in law enforcement or regulatory investigation. Moreover, they said, Dixon’s budget is overseen by the Irish Justice Ministry, while other data regulators, like the U.K.’s, are financed through fees on the companies they oversee. That could make her, or any future chief regulator, more susceptible to interference by government officials, who have long cultivated close relationships with tech executives.

In 2014, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, personally lobbied Enda Kenny, then Ireland’s prime minister, over the selection of a data protection chief, according to emails revealed by the Irish Independent.

Now, just as some of its investigations should be wrapping up — with Dixon telling Bloomberg News in January that her office would announce decisions by midyear — the Data Protection Commission is launching an “international consultation on regulation strategy” that some critics fear will be an invitation for corporations to critique its practices.

Doyle said the agency will reach out to a broad range of as yet unnamed parties to weigh in on how Ireland should apply regulation. Doyle declined to say whether those consultants would come from the tech industry, only specifying that the panel would be “international.”

The call for advice is symptomatic of what Dixon’s critics among privacy advocates, lawyers and other EU data protection authorities argue is a preference for resolving issues amicably over public enforcement actions, which Dixon, in speeches, has suggested might expose the regulator to extremely costly legal battles. It’s a reasonable fear in a place where the tech companies’ resources far outstrip the government’s. Google’s market capitalization, by itself, is twice the size of Ireland’s gross domestic product. Facebook’s is larger by about a third.

“Regulation is a particularly fraught area for a country like Ireland because they have less leverage [over companies] than a bigger country,” said Josephine Wolff, a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “If Facebook announced tomorrow, ‘We’ve had it with Ireland, we are closing down our office,’ that would be a huge deal with political and economic consequences for the whole country.”

Bringing Silicon Valley to Europe

The story of how a country known for poetry and dark ale ended up in the unlikely role of global tech policeman stretches back to the aftermath of World War II.

As a neutral power, Ireland had emerged physically undamaged from the war but with a sputtering economy and bleak prospects. It had limited access to U.S. reconstruction funds from the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan, due to its neutral position, and no industrial base to speak of, thanks largely to Britain’s long-held interest in keeping Roman Catholic southern Ireland in a firmly agrarian state. (Ireland won independence from Britain in 1919.) There was little chance of jump-starting domestic manufacturing 250 years after the rest of Europe, so Irish leaders turned to the next best thing: nurturing ties with countries that had flourishing industries of their own.

Spurred on by an economist and central banker named Thomas Kenneth Whitaker, Ireland’s leaders oversaw an economic transformation starting in the late 1950s — away from protectionism, toward free trade and encouraging foreign investment. The most obvious partner was the United States, to which generations of Irish people had emigrated and whose Irish-origin population already far surpassed the population at home.

So began Ireland’s epic and enduring courtship of U.S. corporations. Via the Irish Development Agency, a powerful entity that acts as a sales office for the country, the Emerald Isle established missions across the United States, dispatching dozens of agents to start preaching the good word about Ireland to U.S. companies from New York to San Francisco.

One of these investment missionaries was Larry Mone, a former accountant who joined the IDA in the late 1970s because he was, in his own words, “really bad at” accounting.

After a brief stint in Chicago, Mone was sent out to join the IDA’s office in what was already known as Silicon Valley. In an office that overlooked a golf course, Mone and his colleagues spent their days trying to coax emerging digital giants — Microsoft chief among them — over to Ireland. Working from an alphabetical list of the important companies in the region, they spent their days cold-calling executives in an atmosphere he describes as “boiler room-like.”

“We had an almost messianic zeal to bring jobs to Ireland,” Mone, who’s now retired and lives in Palo Alto, said in a telephone conversation.

Mone’s section of the list covered companies with names from the letter G to the letter O and included giants like Microsoft and Intel, which would both go on to establish major footholds in Ireland. Apple set up its first manufacturing plant in Cork in 1980, setting off a wave of tech companies coming to the country.

The pitch, as Mone recalled, was “very simple.” Any product exported from Ireland would be totally exempt from taxation. That was later updated, under EU pressure, to a 10-percent flat rate that could be offset in other ways. When added to the promise of cheap labor, cheap land and an English-speaking workforce, this amounted to an almost unbeatable argument for locating sales operations in Ireland, because it would allow U.S. firms to reach hundreds of millions of European consumers without facing the heavy corporate taxes in France, Germany or even the Netherlands.

The IDA’s approach had other refinements, like inviting top tech executives over to Ireland for country tours during which they would be entertained, fed whiskey and “sent home punch-drunk, in love with the country,” according to Mone. It didn’t hurt that Ireland shares a common-law legal system with the United States.

But the basic argument — which remains Ireland’s unique selling point today, despite intensifying scrutiny of its tax practices by the European Commission — never varied: not having to hand over a significant portion of income to the Irish taxman.

“At the end of the day, these are profit-drive companies, and they go where the offer is the most profitable,” Mone said.

Data regulation wasn’t an issue at the time when most of the companies were recruited, but Ireland did everything in its power to create an industry-friendly landscape.

“Back in those days there really was not much thought given to regulation of the technology industry, more what could be done to foster its development and bring it on shore,” he said.

The pitch was so seductive that, over the next 30 years, Ireland morphed into what Mone calls “the 51st state of the United States.”

Google and Facebook both landed in Ireland during the first decade of the new century. While the highly advantageous tax arrangements they enjoyed came under pressure from the European Commission (Apple was forced to pay the Irish government $13 billion in back taxes that Ireland had neglected to collect), regulation was just starting to become a concern.

Ireland’s 1995 Data Protection Act lacked significant enforcement mechanisms — so much so that Billy Hawkes, then the head of the Irish Data Protection Commission, had no legal power to apply any sanctions or penalties against the companies he was regulating in the years leading up to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. His successor, Dixon, herself acknowledged the lax culture in 2015, one year into her job, mentioning the problem of “forum-shopping” and perceptions that companies locate where “soft, incompetent or under-resourced regulators are.”

In the event that any regulatory issue should arise, as it did in the 2011 audit involving Facebook’s sharing of data with app developers, U.S. companies had a powerful insurance policy: access to top Irish politicians via direct contacts or through the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland in Dublin, which continues to play an outsize role in shaping the direction of Irish policy. Top tech executives had Hawkes’ cellphone number and could access him directly whenever they had a need, according to two people with knowledge of such calls.

This welcoming atmosphere explains why Facebook, in particular, kept doubling down on its Irish presence throughout the 2000s, according to Sandy Parakilas, former operations manager for Facebook who left the company in 2012.

“It was simply the country with the least regulatory scrutiny,” he explained in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, where he is now senior product marketing manager, privacy, for Apple.

That statement was put to the test during Ireland’s 2011 audit of the company. Prompted by a groundswell of complaints against Facebook, Hawkes’ deputy, Gary Davis, undertook what is likely to have been the most in-depth review of Facebook’s privacy practices ever. In his capacity as lead regulator not just for Europeans but Facebook users worldwide, Davis’ staff spent three months scouring the company’s machinery, including sending officers to its Dublin headquarters to investigate first hand.

His first report, published in December 2011, called for dozens of changes and upgrades to Facebook’s privacy practices, including its practices for screening third-party apps.

“We do not consider that reliance on developer adherence to best practice or stated policy in certain cases is sufficient to ensure security of user data,” the report stated. “This is not considered sufficient by this Office to assure users of the security of their data once they have third party apps enabled. We expect FB-I [Facebook Ireland] to take additional steps to prevent applications from accessing user information other than where the user has granted an appropriate permission.”

Parakilas, who was Facebook’s “point person” on privacy matters at the time, said the criticism did not rile the company. Facebook responded to the audit in a “professional manner” but did not feel pressure to make fundamental changes, he said. When Parakilas tried to escalate concerns about the key critical findings in the original audit report, he was brushed off by senior executives.

At the time, Facebook expressed its concern about the audit to Irish officials, according to later testimony by Dixon before a government committee. Afterward, the Data Protection Commission appeared to go out of its way to give Facebook a clean bill of health.

In a 74-page follow-up report published in 2012, the commission declared that “most of the recommendations [had] been fully implemented to our full satisfaction.” On its call to improve screening of third-party apps, where major problems later emerged, the report stated: “Satisfactory response from FB-I.” A year later, Davis left the commission to join Apple as its chief privacy officer.

"They didn’t go anywhere near as far as you would have hoped," Parakilas said, referring to the Irish commission. Parakilas, who left Facebook in 2012, added that he doubts Ireland’s approach to regulation has changed substantially.

“Facebook is certainly the one that has the leverage in that relationship,” he said.

Asked whether Ireland had done enough to stop the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Doyle said the commission had gone as far as it could, within its legal limitations, in simply flagging the problem with app developers and seeking changes to Facebook’s privacy practices. He pointed to comments Davis had made outside the report saying there were “still a number of items on which progress has not been as ‘fully forward’ as hoped,” although the issues flagged did not have to do with third-party apps. In 2017, Helen Dixon told the Irish parliamentary committee that Facebook “did not agree with the recommendation” for significant changes to its privacy rules in 2011, and that the changes were made only through an “iterative process” 18 months later.

Facebook disputes that account.

In comments to POLITICO, a spokesperson said that the company had “complied fully” with all requested changes, and claimed that the Irish regulator had never requested any changes that would have prevented the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Hawkes, who at the time was the top Irish regulator, declined to comment on the matter, according to a spokeswoman at the International Association of Privacy Professionals, a nonprofit association that brings together people working on data protection. Gary Davis did not respond to repeated requests for comment and a spokesperson for Apple, where Davis now works, did not respond.

Facebook flexes its muscles

The years that followed Davis’ audit brought Facebook’s relationship with Ireland to new levels of closeness.

In 2013, the commission dismissed Schrems’ claim against the company over data transfers to the United States, calling the suit frivolous. The company then won an award of funds from Ireland’s national asset management agency — the so-called “bad bank” that took over assets on troubled lenders during the financial crisis — to build its Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Dublin.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in 2018, the U.K. launched an investigation and fined the company, while Ireland merely issued recommendations. A few months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Congress and European Parliament to answer questions from lawmakers, the company announced the construction of a new 14-acre campus in Dublin and the opening of several new data centers in County Meath, north of Dublin.

As far back as 2014, the question of how Ireland would handle the new privacy rules under the GDPR was on the minds of Facebook’s leaders. As it happened, Ireland was in the process of choosing a new chief data regulator to replace Hawkes. Sandberg took it on herself to investigate the matter, lobbying then Irish Prime Minister Kenny on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos and also at her offices in Menlo Park, Calif.

According to emails obtained by the Irish Independent via Freedom of Information requests, Sandberg wanted to know that Hawkes’ successor would be “as strong as” he had been in the role. But if the wrong choice was made, Sandberg suggested, there would be consequences for Ireland’s attractiveness as a destination for tech investment.

“The risk is that companies will revisit their investment strategies for the EU market,” she wrote in a June, 2014, email to Kenny, adding that Ireland’s regulator should be a person who would “establish a strong collaborative working relationship with companies like ours.”

The choice of Dixon, a former Irish civil servant with a law degree but no background in law enforcement or regulatory investigation, was in line with Sandberg’s wishes. Before she became one of the most important privacy regulators in the world, Dixon had spent four years working for U.S. software company Citrix, followed by a stint at the business-friendly Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

While the regulator’s statutes called for the appointment of three co-equal directors in order to properly separate the agency’s enforcement and adjudication roles, the other two were never named.

TJ McIntyre, a law professor at University College Dublin who sued the government over the process under which Dixon was chosen, complained that she’s “not coming from that investigatory and enforcement perspective.”

Instead, he said, Dixon was chosen to supervise the DPC’s development into a more substantial regulator than the one housed above a convenience store in Portarlington, building a bureaucratic structure rather than targeting specific issues.

In speeches and interviews, Dixon has emphasized the need to engage with tech companies to help them understand the law, rather than cultivate adversarial relationships.

“We are very committed to this approach of engaging with the multinationals,” she told the Irish Times in 2016. “We do firmly believe the way in which we work with them produces much better safeguards for data subjects.”

That approach yields good results in terms of compliance, said Bojana Bellamy, who runs the Centre for Information Policy Leadership, an industry-backed privacy think tank whose members include Facebook and Apple.

“I do believe that constructive engagement is incredibly important to build that trust,” she said. “Sticks and enforcement — that doesn’t create the best behavior in the marketplace.”

Ireland’s more conciliatory approach is now fueling tension with other EU regulators. After France’s data watchdog fined Google €50 million in January for failing to comply with GDPR, Germany’s prominent Hamburg data regulator told the regulatory-analysis publication MLex that Ireland should be investigating the company. In a separate statement to POLITICO, the German watchdog underscored “differences” in the way Irish and German authorities interpreted and enforced EU rules, singling out “face recognition techniques by Facebook” and the “exchange of data between WhatsApp and Facebook.”

“Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible to set up the data protection we have enforced in national court proceedings against Facebook at the EU level,” wrote professor Johannes Caspar, head of the Hamburg regulator. “After the transmission of user data between WhatsApp and Facebook was stopped, they [Facebook] took the entry into force of the GDPR as an opportunity to return to their former practice.”

Zuckerberg’s announcement of plans to merge WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram messaging were also “reason for concern,” added Caspar, echoing the German Justice Ministry’s warning that such a merger would create a “monopoly” and call for enforcement of European antitrust rules.

While the Irish regulator said it would examine the implications of such a merger, France echoed the German concerns.

“In general, in relation to Facebook, you have a pattern where other regulatory authorities have been much more active and found themselves thwarted by the fact that Facebook was headquartered in Ireland,” said McIntyre, adding that “enforcement has been lax.”

Jimmy Stewart, an adjunct professor of finance at Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin, said less rigorous regulation is part of Ireland’s strategy.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies like them make their money by harvesting vast amounts of data on users that is used to target them more precisely with advertising. Thanks to the data collected on Facebook, an advertiser can pinpoint categories of users down to hyper-minute criteria including their age, sexual orientation, health issues or political beliefs. This technology has allowed tech platforms to corner the global market for online advertising, turning them into juggernauts worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

But those dollars could disappear if regulators interfere with the tech giants’ ability to collect and hold that information.

“Regulatory arbitrage is an important part of the country’s arsenal” to attract tech companies “along with tax incentives,” Stewart said.

Feuding over facial recognition

Ireland’s handling of new technologies such as Facebook’s facial recognition tool will go a long way toward determining how seriously it intends to scrutinize tech companies.

Last spring, just as the GDPR was about to take effect, Facebook prepared to reintroduce its banned facial recognition tool, this time promising to ask users if they wanted the tool switched on, so that the platform could match their names to photographs of them posted by friends online. But when senior executives, including Chief Data Protection Officer Stephen Deadman, disclosed the plans to a small group of privacy specialists and journalists in Dublin, the meeting did not go exactly as planned, according to multiple participants who asked not to be named out of respect for the meeting’s private nature.

The journalists and privacy watchdogs peppered the executives with questions about whether the tool violated GDPR principles, suggesting that Facebook may be unlawfully “processing” biometric data on users even if they chose to opt out of the tool, because the data was being gathered and stored anyway — a process that would go against GDPR rules.

"They are analyzing every photograph, even those where they don’t have permission, and their argument is this is not processing biometric data because they don’t take the final step of identifying the person,” said Dublin-based privacy lawyer Simon McGarr. “From a privacy standpoint, this is cloud cuckoo land.”

After a brief exchange, Facebook executives ended the meeting stating that they needed to catch planes, the participants said.

Facebook representatives told POLITICO last year that the meeting had gone as planned. They also said they had discussed the facial recognition tool with the Irish Data Protection Commission and not been informed of any concerns. Yet Doyle contradicted that account, saying that while no initiative was taken to halt the rollout, an “examination” — as distinct from a statutory investigation — was launched.

“It is standard practice to conduct an examination on this basis to determine whether a statutory investigation is warranted,” Doyle said in his email. “In the case of FB’s facial recognition facility, that determination has not yet been made.”

In the following months, Facebook was rocked by a series of scandals, data breaches and PR disasters that included Zuckerberg being grilled by lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, and The New York Times revealing the firm had hired a public relations firm to attack critics, including by such dubious tactics as linking them to Hungarian-born investor George Soros.

Yet in Ireland, the going was relatively quiet. In early October, the commission announced the launch of its first official investigation of Facebook, over a data breach that compromised the private messages and data of an estimated 50 million users. The commission has since disclosed it is carrying a total of seven investigations into Facebook, which Dixon told Bloomberg were all “substantially advanced,” and should lead to the first decisions being taken in “June or July.”

However, as of late October, it had yet to send any officers to visit Facebook’s Irish headquarters and was receiving its information mainly via “updates” from the company, which often coincided with its disclosures to the public, a person close to the matter said. Asked whether any visits had taken place, both Facebook and the commission said such visits had taken place “in the past” but did not specify whether any had taken place in the past year. The last publicly disclosed site visits took place in 2011, under Billy Hawkes.

“We visit companies being audited or investigated when we need to, and regular meetings often take place in the normal course of our supervised engagement with companies at their premises,” Doyle said. “Such visits have taken place to Facebook Ireland’s offices in the past but we won’t be disclosing any details on these for operational reasons.”

For Daragh O’Brien, whose Castlebridge consultancy routinely carries out privacy audits on companies, not sending an officer to Facebook is the equivalent of “police investigating a crime from the doughnut shop.”

“You miss the opportunity for someone to grab you and tell you something they can’t do in writing … It happens all the time, especially in the context of complex investigations,” he said.

Asked whether it intends to launch any probes into data-sharing by the various networks controlled by Google, the commission said that it gained jurisdiction over the search giant only on Jan. 22 and still is not the lead supervisory authority for Google’s search engine and indexing service.

But Caspar, the German regulatory chief, said that Ireland had a responsibility to investigate any privacy complaint lodged in the European Union. (Google is appealing the French fine. In previous comments to POLITICO, a spokesperson for Google said the company had been under no legal obligation in 2018 to finalize the steps for its “main establishment” in the European Union.)

As for the scandals that rocked Facebook over the past year, Doyle pointed to the commission’s limited mandate as a regulator of data security as a reason to defer action or public communications. The spread of hate speech and the use of micro-targeting for online political advertising — both of which have been identified as major areas of concern by the European Commission — are outside its purview as a data regulator, Doyle said.

Yet such an interpretation of the regulator’s role and responsibility does not sit well with privacy professionals. In addition to being responsible for compliance with data protection statutes, Dixon and her staff have an “ethical duty” to lead debates on where and how regulation should be applied in response to emerging issues, O’Brien said.

“It’s not just about the letter of the law, but also anticipating where problems may be coming from,” he said, adding that the next big problems would crop up if and when facial recognition technology is combined with targeted ads to beam commercial messages at people in public spaces. “The sort of scandals and breaches we’ve seen over the past few years are just a prelude to what may be coming as 5G [next generation] networks come online.”

I’m continuing to report on data privacy issues with Big Tech. If you have a tip for me, you can reach me at

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine