Why Trump Slayed His Own Masters of the Universe

Donald Trump swept into the White House on a promise to run the government like a business and stock his administration with titans of industry.

The partnership hasn’t worked out.

Just over a year into Trump’s presidency, those titans are leaving, driven out by a chief executive who doesn’t want to hear no, doesn’t trust anyone but himself and can’t stand to share the spotlight, even with those he once hailed as “the best people” on earth for these jobs.

Trump humiliated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—the former chief executive of oil industry giant ExxonMobil, whom he once described as “the embodiment of the American dream”—firing him by tweet. He repeatedly rejected the advice of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, driving the former president of Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs nuts with his stubborn insistence on tariffs and hastening Cohn’s exit.

And he went ice cold on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, reportedly telling the Wall Street legend that his understanding of trade was “terrible,” as West Wing aides leaked stories about Ross dozing off in meetings. Remember those CEO councils Trump initially set up to get advice from America’s top executives? They shut down in August.

Trump’s penchant for publicly and privately torturing powerful leaders in his administration extends to military brass. National security adviser H.R. McMaster is likely on the way out, with chief of staff John Kelly, a retired four-star general, possibly to follow. But it is Trump’s break with his Masters of the Universe that undercuts most clearly a central premise of his appeal as a candidate: He knew what it took to be successful, and he would hire people in his own image. The breakup, say White House officials, outside experts and even the president’s close friends, was inevitable.

Trump for decades ran a private real-estate and branding empire in which he was the only star. He ran a personality-driven campaign in which he said and did whatever he wanted, a strategy that resulted in stunning primary wins and a general election victory that few saw coming. And now Trump is even more fed up with strong-willed advisers who tell him he shouldn’t declare trade wars, or take it so easy on Russia, or decide on a whim to stage a summit with a nuclear-armed North Korean dictator who, it turns out, might never have extended the invite in the first place.

Trump is simply returning to who he’s always been, a one-man reality show who prefers to be surrounded by admirers who will praise and fawn over him and confirm that all his instincts are correct and brilliant and certain to succeed. The wonder is that anyone is surprised.

“There is an enormous literature on narcissistic leaders who rise to power because of grandiosity and an overwhelming amount of self-confidence,” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s business school, told me. “They don’t tend to get along well with other strong leaders. Trump doesn’t want anyone to stand in his way, and he certainly doesn’t want anyone who takes up any of his light or disagrees with him. He wants people who are willing to ingratiate themselves and flatter him. This is the way it was always going to be.”


When Trump hired Cohn away from Goldman Sachs, the president couldn’t stop bragging about what a coup he pulled off by landing one of the top executives from the bluest of blue-chip Wall Street firms. Never mind that Trump’s final campaign ad treated Goldman as part of a global cabal out to destroy America.

“As my top economic adviser, Gary Cohn is going to put his talents as a highly successful businessman to work for the American people,” the president said after the hiring. In July of last year, Trump said in a Wall Street Journal interview that he was thinking of nominating Cohn to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve, possibly the most powerful finance job on the planet.

Then it all came crashing down. Cohn sharply and publicly criticized the president’s equivocating response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, leading to a tense Oval Office meeting, resignation threats and the end of Cohn’s Fed chances.

Things improved as Cohn helped drive through Trump’s signature tax-cut bill. But then the White House agenda moved on to trade, and Cohn began to push back hard against Trump’s instincts to slap giant tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Things came to a head in an Oval Office meeting in January at which Cohn told the president his tariffs would crush consumers and industries that rely on imported metals.

“These are the facts; where are your facts?” Cohn said to Ross and Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro, two of the administration’s leading protectionists, according to people familiar with the meeting. Trump rejected Cohn’s facts and pushed ahead with tariffs, announcing them in a rushed manner with no actual policy ready to roll out.

Days later, Cohn said he was leaving. And Trump slipped in a parting jab. “He may be a globalist, but I still like him,” the president told reporters. “He is seriously a globalist. There’s no question.”

In Cohn’s place, Trump has hired former CNBC host and longtime Wall Street economist Larry Kudlow, who is also an avowed free trader and predicted during the campaign that Trump’s trade policies would tank the stock market. In early commentary, Kudlow has moved closer to Trump on trade, applauding the idea of cracking down on China. The former Reagan administration Office of Management and Budget official may yet prove to be just as aggressive as Cohn in resisting Trump’s mercantilist impulses. But the reason Trump hired Kudlow is mainly because he often says nice things about the president on television.

“Trump says he wants to be surrounded by a diversity of opinion, but he doesn’t really mean it,” Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, told me. “He certainly doesn’t want to be told that he’s wrong.”


Trump’s treatment of Tillerson was even more brutal than his clashes with Cohn.

Stories began to leak last fall that the president strongly disliked the ExxonMobil CEO, who had different ideas on dealing with Iran, Russia and North Korea. Tillerson, accustomed to being the unquestioned boss himself (after all, he had led a 75,300-employee corporation for 11 years), chafed at Trump’s unwillingness to listen to his ideas or keep him involved in top diplomatic priorities. It was as if Trump was ignoring the very attribute that observers said made Tillerson appealing in the first place: He had negotiated with many key world leaders already—and succeeded at it.

In late September, after Tillerson said he was working on a dialogue with North Korea about its weapons program, Trump immediately took to Twitter to tell the world his secretary of state shouldn’t bother. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted, referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Shortly after this clash, reports emerged that at a July 20th meeting at the Pentagon, Tillerson referred to the president as a “fucking moron.” The secretary of state never denied the remark. He was then left twisting for months amid reports that he would soon be ousted.

The relationship cratered for good in recent days. While traveling in Africa, Tillerson said the U.S. and North Korea were “a long way” from direct negotiations on the nuclear program. A day later, Trump announced he would hold a summit with the North Korean leader and Tillerson admitted he had no idea the announcement was coming.

On March 13, with Tillerson just returning from Africa, Trump fired the secretary of state by tweet, announcing he would be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. He then also fired Tillerson’s chief spokesman for denying the White House line that Tillerson knew about the firing plans in advance. Trump’s pledge of running the nation like a business had totally gone off the rails.

“No board of directors at any big company would ever permit this type of treatment or this level of chaos,” says Pfeffer.

Following the split with Tillerson and Cohn, some officials inside the administration, on Capitol Hill and in corporate America increasingly fear that the president is entering a period in which he will cast aside any strong advisers—whether top executives or senior military officials—who disagree with him while increasingly making rash decisions on his own.

And they say his early hiring of former top executives with strong personalities never really worked because Trump didn’t care very much about what they had to say and didn’t want them taking high-profile roles.

“You never really could convince him of anything, and he doesn’t really listen to anyone but himself,” one senior White House official told me recently. “You need people around to make these alternate cases, but I don’t think he really wants that.”

Trump’s friends and defenders don’t really deny that the president is moving into a new phase of his presidency, one in which he will naturally be less inclined to rely on executives who have subject-matter expertise, like Cohn or Tillerson. The president is growing in confidence, these people say, and increasingly believes he is best served following his own instincts rather than relying on the savvy guidance of former top executives.

“I was not surprised that there have been a number of personnel changes in the White House beginning with the first year and continuing,” Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and a Trump confidant, told me. “Understandably, the president’s been going through an adjustment period after he left business life and went into political life. In politics, he started out with people having great credentials but discovered that track record is a better criteria.”


The question now is what the White House will look like once all the business titans are gone.

The biggest fear in the economic world is that Trump will no longer have any real constraints on his desire to impose major tariffs both on U.S. allies and on sometime-adversaries like China.

Cohn managed to get carve-outs for allies Canada and Mexico in the recently announced steel and aluminum tariffs. But once he’s gone, Trump may feel free to be Trump.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman banker and movie producer, comes out of the business world and is generally in favor of free trade. But he’s viewed both inside the White House and outside as someone very disinclined to buck the president, privately or publicly.

With Cohn gone, the U.S. is now at greater risk of trade wars and the possible end of the North American Free Trade agreement, a development most economists believe would be catastrophic.

“I think we are already marching down that path, and it’s not at all clear what will restrain him,” Galston told me. “He is under the illusion that trade wars are easy to win, and there is no historical evidence to support that. And my fear is that rather than back down, his inclination will be to plunge forward and double down in the face of adversity.”

The other major risk is that the exodus of business minds spreads to military and national security advisers and anyone else in the president’s orbit who dares to express a contrary opinion or urge caution to a chief executive who believes his gut instincts turned him into the one of the most successful people in the world.

“I think all of these types of people will be gone soon, and all for the exact same reason,” says Pfeffer. “Trump has gotten to where he is by basically being who he is, and if you are a strong-minded person yourself and believe you have something substantial to contribute, you don’t want to stick around and keep getting run over by the boss.”

Ayanna Alexander contributed to this report.

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/03/18/why-trump-slayed-his-own-masters-of-the-universe-217651


‘I Thought There Would Be More Jeff Flakes, More John McCains, More Bob Corkers’

Subscribe to The Global POLITICO on Apple Podcasts here. | Subscribe via Stitcher here.

What was it like inside the partisan hot mess that was the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of President Trump and the 2016 Russian election meddling?

Republicans abruptly shut down the probe last week, giving no notice to their Democratic counterparts before announcing they had not uncovered proof of Trump or his campaign’s “collusion” with the Russians and, what’s more, they did not even agree with the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia had interfered in 2016 specifically with the goal of electing Trump. Trump gleefully tweeted the news out, in all capital letters in case the point wasn’t clear.

But the timing seemed terrible. The sudden end to the House probe came the very same week the president himself—while stepping up his attacks on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt”—finally and belatedly authorized new sanctions to respond to the Russian hacking. Newspaper editorialists, angry Democrats and even a few Republicans had a field day; the Daily Beast summed up the mocking coverage by calling the Republican report the equivalent of a “half-researched term paper.”

The backlash was such that even on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace seemed to eviscerate the House exercise as little more than a coverup for Trump, pointing out that the committee had never heard from key witnesses ranging from former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadapoulos. “Your conclusion is not conclusive,” he said to one of the Republican members, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).

Gowdy—who, it must be noted, is planning to retire after his term is up at the end of the year—seemed to agree, essentially responding: Pay attention to Mueller’s probe and ignore this House report. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “Executive branch investigations have more credibility, they have more tools, and that’s what I think what my fellow citizens ought to be waiting for and have confidence in. Not congressional investigations that are run by guys running for the Senate in California who never met a camera they didn’t fall in love with.”

The TV-loving Californian Gowdy couldn’t resist bashing is Rep. Adam Schiff, the panel’s top Democrat and, over the last year, a reliably omnipresent public scourge of Trump and his Republican defenders on Capitol Hill on the subject of the Russiagate allegations. Schiff, a little-known former prosecutor before his committee began investigating Trump, is not running for Senate, but he is mentioned as a possible candidate for speaker if Democrats take back the House this fall, and he is now a favorite Twitter target of the embattled president, who loves to deride him as “Little Adam Schiff.”

Whatever you call him, Schiff certainly was not in charge of the Republican-led House Intelligence investigation, but instead chief witness to its dysfunction. If you want to understand what a congressional committee gone “off the rails” (as one of its Republican members, Florida GOP Rep. Tom Rooney, called it) looks like, Schiff offered a compelling account in an interview for this week’s Global Politico, recounting a committee process so broken that last week’s follies seemed the logical culmination of a “fundamentally unserious” House Intelligence investigation. Schiff argued that the probe, as incomplete as it was, in fact did turn up “ample evidence” of Trump’s collusion both with the Russians and with the panel’s Republican chairman, Devin Nunes.

“They announced their conclusions, which included among other things that the Russians had not intervened in the election to help Donald Trump. Now, that’s at odds with what the intelligence community has found. It’s at odds with what our committee has found. It’s at odds with what the Senate committee has found. It’s at odds with what Bob Mueller has found,” Schiff pointed out to me. It was “a political statement, not a finding,” which is why, as comments like Gowdy’s on Sunday suggest, “when they were forced to defend it… they couldn’t.”

And indeed, the sense of a Republican investigation shut down so quickly its members hardly had a sense of what they had decided to put out was underscored watching Gowdy and Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican ostensibly leading the probe on Nunes’ behalf, stumble through interviews on the Sunday talk shows.

Did he really mean it when he said the Russian goal wasn’t necessarily to elect Trump, NBC’s Chuck Todd pressed Conaway. “I got us off on the wrong track quite frankly,” Conaway responded.

Ironically, Schiff told me he and Conaway had worked well together in the investigation, blaming most of the breakdown on the committee chairman, Nunes, who said he would recuse himself after an early incident last year of coordinating with the Trump White House (“the midnight run,” Schiff termed it). Instead, Schiff said, Nunes had continued to run the show – and seemed to be openly coordinating with the Trump White House about it.

“Had Mr. Conaway and I been really given the latitude to run the investigation, it would have been a very different investigation,” Schiff said. “Chairman Nunes, even when he said he was stepping aside after the midnight run, never did, and continued to make all the key decisions—which witnesses would come in; when they would come; and what open hearings we would have; what open hearings we wouldn’t have; what subpoenas would go out; what subpoenas wouldn’t go out—all of these sideshow investigations of FISA abuse and Uranium One and all that—those were all decisions made by Chairman Nunes, not by Mike Conaway.”

Schiff and the Democrats issued their own 21-page memo days after being surprised by the Republican shutdown, offering a long list of witnesses never called and revealing avenues of investigation they were pursuing, including tantalizing hints about a potential NRA-Russia connection and “credible allegations” of Trump having engaged in money laundering on behalf of Russian “oligarchs, criminals, and regime cronies.” Schiff said he would pursue those if Democrats take the House this fall and he returns as the committee’s chairman. (Interestingly, Schiff did not deny reports he might be a candidate for speaker if the Democrats win, telling me only that it was his “hope” that the current Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will run again. When I said that sounded like a non-denial denial, he replied, “Well, I don’t know what my future holds.”)

Meantime, Schiff was left marveling over a partisan spectacle that seemed to confirm, if nothing else, how committed House Republicans remain to President Trump, despite his historically high disapproval ratings for so early in a presidency and the discomfiting facts that have piled up about the Russian plot to help boost Trump’s campaign. That includes, Schiff pointed out, House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he called “complicit in all this.”

“I think one of the really sad realizations over the last year is not what kind of a president Donald Trump turns out to be—I think it was all too predictable—but rather, how many members of Congress would be unwilling to stand up to him, and more than that, would be completely willing to carry water for him. That is a very sad realization,” Schiff said. “I did not expect that. I thought there would be more Jeff Flakes, more John McCains, more Bob Corkers—people who would defend our system of checks and balances, would speak out for decency, who would defend the First Amendment.”

We met for the interview in Schiff’s Capitol Hill office on Friday, before Trump spent the weekend tweeting thinly veiled threats against Mueller’s investigation. But Schiff’s observation still applies – few Republicans aside from the small handful who’ve made it their practice to challenge the president had anything to say about those presidential threats to Mueller this weekend. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of those who has spoken out, warned that if the president does in fact move to shut down the Mueller investigation, it would be “the beginning of the end of his presidency.” But I’m not so sure; if Trump really does ax Mueller, will there be a real outcry among the Republicans who run the House of Representatives?

Last week’s circus in the House Intelligence Committee suggests the sound may be a lot less than deafening.

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/03/19/i-thought-there-would-be-more-jeff-flakes-more-john-mccains-more-bob-corkers-217655

Democrats fume over Parscale’s limited answers on Russian digital meddling

Even as digital media guru Brad Parscale takes over President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, federal investigators have mounting questions about the high-tech “secret weapon” Parscale says was instrumental to Trump’s 2016 victory — including whether it might have played a role in Russian election meddling.

But Parscale isn’t talking.

That’s despite the fact that Democrats on at least three different congressional committees say they want to hear more from Parscale about potential data sharing between the campaign and Russian entities. Democrats say evidence of such collaboration — or even Russian manipulation of Trump campaign software that may have been unknown to Trump aides — would be highly explosive given its potentially direct impact on the election’s outcome and legitimacy.

While Republicans seem content with Parscale’s insistence he knows nothing about the Russian scheme, more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers and staffers interviewed by POLITICO say that no investigation into Moscow’s election interference can be complete without a full accounting from Trump’s 2016 digital campaign director — especially given that special counsel Robert Mueller has recently focused on Kremlin-linked efforts to manipulate election-related social media.

Over the weekend, several Democrats said they were extremely concerned about recent media reports that Cambridge Analytica, the conservative data analytics firm Parscale hired for the campaign, had improperly collected information on more than 50 million Facebook users and likely used it in the voter-targeting operation. The new reporting, in The New York Times and the Observer of London, also suggested that Cambridge Analytica has previously undisclosed connections to Russia.

A full accounting from Parscale is especially important now, the Democrats say, given his central role in both Trump’s 2020 campaign and, through that organization, in supporting Republican candidates in the 2018 congressional midterm elections.

Yet Parscale stonewalled lawmakers during his July testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic sources familiar with it tell POLITICO, in an account of his appearance that has not been reported before.

During his testimony, Parscale was unresponsive to some questions and referred most others to Alexander Nix, the chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, and to campaign senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who hired Parscale and worked closely with him on the targeting operation, according to several officials present.

“We got nothing,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) recalls. “Tapioca.”

More recently, Parscale has declined to cooperate with a January request for information and documents from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also asked him to voluntarily testify.

Parscale has denied any wrongdoing and insists that he has been cooperative. Before his House appearance, he tweeted that he was “unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations” of the campaign, and that he looked forward to “sharing with them everything I know.”

That hasn’t satisfied Democrats who say that, even if Parscale and his colleagues did nothing wrong, it is vital to understand whether and how the Russians might have exploited the Trump campaign’s online political machine — especially given U.S. concerns that Russia is already gearing up to meddle with the midterms.

“They still need to fully answer the question of where they got their information, and what they did with it,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a House Intelligence Committee member. "There is still a big cloud hanging over the digital operation.”

Added Rep. Adam Schiff, the intelligence committee’s ranking Democrat, “There are still a number of important questions about the Trump campaign’s digital operation that remain under investigation, the most significant of which is whether the Russian covert social-media effort was completely independent.”

Last Monday, Republicans on the intelligence committee announced they were ending their investigation of Russian election interference and declared they had found no evidence that members of Trump’s campaign team cooperated with the Russian scheme.

In response, Schiff released an “investigative status update” from committee Democrats that said the Trump campaign’s digital operation requires further investigation, including witness testimony and documents, “to determine whether the campaign coordinated in any way with Russia in its digital program.”

The document cites Nix and Cambridge Analytica, as well as two of Parscale’s campaign aides. One of them is Avi Berkowitz, a Harvard Law School graduate and Kushner protégé who served as assistant director of data analytics on the 2016 campaign and is now a special assistant to Trump at the White House. The committee Democrats said they had reason to believe Kushner “may have dispatched Mr. Berkowitz to meet with Russian Ambassador [Sergey] Kislyak in December 2016.”

The Democrats did not indicate what the purpose of the meeting might have been. Kushner himself is known to have met with Kislyak in December 2016 and reportedly discussed with the Russian the possibility of opening a secret communications back channel to Moscow.

Trump named Parscale to run his 2020 campaign in late February. "Brad was essential in bringing a disciplined technology and data-driven approach to how the 2016 campaign was run," Kushner said in a statement.

Parscale was a virtual unknown before he joined Trump’s 2016 campaign. He had been a struggling digital entrepreneur when he bid on building the Trump Organization’s website in 2010, and did similar work for the family until joining Trump’s 2016 campaign, where Parscale became a digital jack-of-all-trades — overseeing data collection, online advertising and messaging from a San Antonio bunker known as Project Alamo.

His most powerful tool, by far, was the sophisticated data-crunching effort known as microtargeting, which churned out tens of thousands of constantly changing Facebook ads every hour, all of them computerized and individually tailored to distinct demographic clusters of potential Trump voters throughout the country.

“I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win,” Parscale said in a CBS “60 Minutes” profile of him last October. “Facebook was the method — it was the highway in which his car drove on.”

The data operation underpinning Parscale’s targeting effort, he has said, also provided the campaign with the kind of surgically precise, real-time information it needed down the stretch to focus precious resources on swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, while Hillary Clinton focused elsewhere.

“I took every nickel and dime I could out of anywhere else. And I moved it to Michigan and Wisconsin. And I started buying advertising, digital, TV,” Parscale told “60 Minutes,“ which described him, and his targeting operation, as the campaign’s “secret weapon.”

His “secret weapon” wasn’t any proprietary software or algorithm, but the way in which Parscale marshaled various resources, including data provided by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook itself, to determine which versions of ads worked best when microtargeting voters. Parscale told “60 Minutes” he embraced an offer by Facebook — declined by the Clinton campaign — to send ideologically like-minded staffers to work in-house at the Trump campaign and teach him “every, single secret button, click, technology” available for microtargeting.

Some have criticized Parscale for using Cambridge Analytica and its controversial technology known as psychographics, in which huge troves of data are collected to microtarget potential voters based on personality traits, as divined from their social media profiles, rather than typical categories like race or age. Mueller has reportedly been examining Cambridge Analytica’s campaign role.

On Friday night, Facebook announced that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica and parent company Strategic Communication Laboratories Group after learning that Cambridge misled the social media giant and improperly kept user data for years in violation of policy. Hours later, reports in the New York Times and Observer suggested the violations were far more serious than what Facebook announced, and that they were tied directly to Cambridge’s work for the Trump campaign and its alleged entanglements with Russia.

The Times said Cambridge Analytica — whose board members included former Trump political strategist Steve Bannon and which was funded by the Trump-friendly GOP megadonor Robert Mercer — used the harvested information to turbocharge its microtargeting operation and sway voters on Facebook and other popular digital platforms.

Another Times report said Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, had contact in 2014 and 2015 with executives from Lukoil, the Russian oil giant. Lukoil was interested in how data was used to target American voters, the Times said, adding that SCL and Lukoil denied that the talks were political in nature.

The Times also reported that Cambridge Analytica included extensive questions about Russian President Vladimir Putin in surveys that it was conducting using American focus groups in 2014, though it said it was not clear why, or for which client.

The Trump campaign and Trump himself have denied colluding with the Kremlin, which denies meddling in the election altogether.

But Democratic lawmakers have focused on potential collusion in the microtargeting effort as one of their top priorities since launching their investigations, especially given what several called striking similarities between Trump campaign messaging and that of Russian operatives.

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Schiff called for congressional testimony from “numerous Cambridge Analytica personnel who may have knowledge of this and other issues” but who have so far refused to cooperate. Schiff also said that Cambridge Analytica’s ties to Russian entities and to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange need to be investigated, and that committee Republicans who have blocked such efforts, including subpoenas, need to approve them.

“People have been circling this since the beginning, because it doesn’t pass the smell test. Something is missing,” adds a former U.S. intelligence official who has spoken extensively to congressional investigators.

“How did it all happen? It’s what directly links Kushner to Parscale to Cambridge Analytica — and potentially to the Russians,” the former intelligence official said, adding that Parscale and Kushner brought in Cambridge Analytica over the objections of “everybody else” in the campaign.

Compounding lawmakers’ concerns is the fact that Russian hackers were able to penetrate at least 20 state election systems, perhaps double that amount. Initially, investigators were comforted by the fact that the Russians did not manipulate any voting results. But now they fear the real Russian objective could have been to steal voter information for microtargeting.

Democrats in Congress got nowhere when they tried to get answers about that from Parscale, as well as from Kushner and Nix, when they agreed, reluctantly, to testify before the House intelligence committee, several Democratic congressional officials told POLITICO.

“They were basically playing dumb,” said one congressional official who, like several others, was present but spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified committee matters. That official described the interviews of Parscale, Kushner and Nix as one giant exercise in circular finger pointing, in which they each referred questions to the others. “I can’t say we got details.”

In the past, Parscale has dismissed such accusations of collusion. “I think it’s a joke. Like, at least for my part in it,” he told “60 Minutes.“ But he also acknowledged that even his wife jokes that it was as though he “was thrown into the Super Bowl, never played a game — and won.”

That lack of experience has also drawn the attention of some investigators, who say they are also mystified by Parscale’s rapid trajectory from low-profile web developer to leader of a U.S. presidential campaign in just a few short years.

At a March 2017 hearing, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that in some key precincts in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, “there was so much misinformation coming talking about Hillary Clinton’s illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department or other [that it] completely blanked out any of the back and forth that was actually going on in the campaign.”

“Would the Russians on their own have that level of sophisticated knowledge about the American political system if they didn’t at least get some advice from someone in America?" Warner added.

Feinstein’s letter to Parscale suggested a similar interest. The California senator asked Parscale to provide any information involving Russian efforts “to identify voters or potential voters for targeted advertising, marketing or social media contact in support of the Trump campaign or other efforts to elect Donald J. Trump as president of the United States.”

She also asked for any campaign documents and communications concerning Russia, WikiLeaks, various shadowy intermediaries in the meddling effort, and hacked Democratic Party emails and data.

Two months later, however, Feinstein is still waiting for Parscale to appear, a congressional source said, and he has refused to turn over any of the wide array of documents Feinstein requested about the campaign and any connections to Russia, WikiLeaks or other entities suspected of being involved in the interference effort.

A 2016 Trump campaign official familiar with Parscale’s thinking said Feinstein and other Democrats will be waiting a long time.

Feinstein declined to comment for this story, as did Warner and his Republican counterpart on the Senate Intelligence panel, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Parscale, the former official said, has no intention of complying with any requests from congressional Democrats, because he believes he has cooperated fully with both the House and Senate intelligence committees in answering questions and providing emails, texts and other documents.

As far as he’s concerned, the former campaign official said, Parscale is moving on.

Parscale said he is too busy to comment, though he pointed to a November letter to Democrats on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees. In his response, Parscale said he had already “cooperated fully with those tasked with the primary responsibility for investigating these matters,” and believed the request was “duplicative.”

So far, Parscale has not spoken to Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department’s investigation into 2016 Russian election meddling, or been asked to provide documents, a person familiar with that aspect of the investigation said.

For the most part, the committees have split along party lines about whether those providing testimony have been cooperative, including Parscale. One senior Republican congressional official told POLITICO that Parscale had, in fact, been helpful, even providing advice on how lawmakers can institute safeguards in the upcoming election.

Numerous Democratic lawmakers disagreed. One noted that if Parscale had fully satisfied the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein — the former chairwoman and still a member of the panel — wouldn’t have pursued him from her Judiciary Committee perch.

“This matters,” Castro added, “because we must determine if the Trump campaign shared this data, or received data, from illicit sources."

There is little that frustrated Democrats can do to compel Parscale to provide more information, short of a subpoena — to which Republicans would have to agree.

Eric Swalwell of California, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the only way to verify whether Parscale and other Trump associates have been truthful is to “subpoena the communication logs, bank records, travel logs, and anything we can on the data operations.”

But, Swalwell said, “We’ve asked, and we were shut down in every request by the majority.”

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/19/trump-russian-digital-parscale-470263

Republicans bet their Senate majority on Trump

His approval rating is perpetually underwater, and the pandemonium surrounding his presidency only grows the longer he’s in the job.

But Senate Republicans are nevertheless making a counterintuitive, all-in bet that President Donald Trump will save their 51-49 majority — and perhaps even help them pick up a few seats.

Even as fears grow within the GOP that Trump will cost Republicans the House, Senate Republicans say the president will play a starring role in the closely contested campaigns that will decide control of the chamber. Trump will be front and center in every state that helped elect the president, according to GOP senators and strategists, making the case that Democrats are hindering his agenda.

“If you look at a race in a state like Missouri or North Dakota — or any of these states — he’ll be very involved,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the GOP’s campaign arm, who speaks with Trump about political strategy regularly. “He’ll be actively campaigning for a Senate majority. Absolutely.”

Republicans will lean most heavily on Trump in five deeply conservative states where the president remains highly popular and where he crushed Hillary Clinton: West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Montana. But they say they will also deploy Trump in the next tier of swing states that Trump won more narrowly: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida. And they expect him to help preserve GOP seats in Nevada, where he narrowly lost, and in Arizona.

In fact, despite his unpopularity on the national level, Republicans insist there isn’t a state on the Senate map where they are nervous about deploying Trump. Republicans reason that opposition to Trump is already baked into the Democratic electorate. They figure Democrats will be motivated to vote whether Trump shows up or not, so they might as well use him to fire up their base, too.

Republicans have “got to have some intensity in our base,” as Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) put it.

“Base mobilization is absolutely essential for victory, and there is absolutely no one better at energizing the GOP base than President Donald Trump,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The president can also help raise gobs of money for candidates, Republicans say.

There might be a difference between what Republicans say now and what Trump actually does on the campaign trail come September. No one knows where all the controversies swirling around him will end up.

Yet even if the GOP does follow through on its full Trump deployment plan, Democrats argue that the president’s personality and popularity among some voters is neither transferable to other Republicans nor enough to put their candidates over the top. Just look at the two latest examples, they say: Trump went all in for Rick Saccone in last week’s Pennsylvania special House election, and before that for Roy Moore’s Senate bid in Alabama.

Both lost.

“The pattern here is every time he goes in, they lose,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Still, Democrats are gearing up what are sure to be personal and vicious battles with the president, and some are already making their case to Trump voters. Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s first ad highlighted 13 bills he sponsored that Trump signed into law, even though Tester opposed Trump’s tax bill as well as the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, and his attempt to repeal Obamacare.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) similarly has noted 23 bills she has been involved with this Congress that Trump signed. But she doesn’t expect that to spare her from Trump’s scorched-earth campaign tactics.

“He’s going to trash me. Have you met him? His method in campaigns is to trash, in fact, do character assaults on opponents,” McCaskill said. Still, she noted there is an upside: “Nothing motivates our base more than Donald Trump.”

Seven of the 10 most vulnerable Senate Democrats said in interviews that they were prepared for Trump to come to their states and make a spectacle of them. Few said they expected it to change the trajectory of their race.

“If it were Ronald Reagan? Yes.” But Trump’s effect is “TBD,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is expected to face Republican Gov. Rick Scott this fall.

“I don’t think he will persuade many people. He barely won in Michigan. And frankly [it was] because 51,000 people voted for Jill Stein,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

If there is a wild card to the GOP’s Trump strategy, it’s whether the president can actually focus on promoting their candidates or going after Democrats. At the most recent Saccone rally, the president spent far more of the time talking about himself than the Republican hopeful.

Another factor: Trump enjoys warm relationships with some Senate Democrats, most notably Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“He does like Sen. Manchin,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “So it’ll be interesting to see when he does come — because I know he will — how he approaches” it.

Republicans predicted that Trump will be plenty motivated to take on those Democrats because they have opposed so much of his agenda. There was scant Democratic support for Trump’s most controversial nominees and his rollbacks of Obama-era regulations, and none for the president’s tax cuts and Obamacare repeal push.

“He’s learned his lesson. Trump thought there was going to be bipartisan support? Not happening. Supreme Court, [deregulation], circuit judges, tax bill — that’s a pretty long list,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

Republican Senate candidates have already given Trump a bear hug. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) has gone from “99 percent” against Trump to claiming that everything Trump has touched has been “incredible."

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) chose to retire rather than try to run as an anti-Trump Republican in Arizona, which is trending away from Republicans. The hopeful to replace him, establishment pick Rep. Martha McSally, has been using Trump in ads.

In Missouri, a state where Trump received a higher percentage of the vote than any GOP presidential candidate this century, Attorney General Josh Hawley said in his Senate campaign kickoff speech he hopes Trump comes to Missouri “often.”

“Look at the president’s popularity there in those states relative to his national popularity,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) of the top-tier races. “He’s doing much better.”

Even in Michigan, a state Trump won by less than a quarter of a percentage point, the campaign of John James, an Iraq War veteran who is challenging Stabenow, said he hopes to campaign with the president.

Though Trump may be a major drag on endangered House Republicans from the suburbs, who have to appeal to a concentrated set of moderate voters, statewide races in rural places like North Dakota and West Virginia are a far different story. So top GOP operatives see bringing Trump out to the states as a way to alleviate one of their biggest fears for 2018: that a depressed base will allow Democrats to run roughshod over them even in heavily conservative areas.

“There are some dangers in running away from the president of your own party,” Holmes said. “People don’t buy it, and you risk alienating your own base.”

Republicans also said Trump could help Republicans close the fundraising gap plaguing many of their candidates, which is forcing them to rely on outside groups for television ads.

But the biggest contribution he can provide is the attention that comes with a presidential visit and nonstop news coverage.

If there is an upside for Democrats in having the president campaign against them in their backyards, it’s that Trump’s presence also brings a reminder that Democratic moderates will be a more effective check on the president than a Republican who would replace them.

“It’s no mystery that if you want someone who’s going to vote with the president 100 percent of the time and do whatever the president wants you to do … then I am probably not someone you should elect in North Dakota,” Heitkamp said. That independence, she added, “is not what the president expects from Congressman [Kevin] Cramer,” her opponent.

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/19/donald-trump-republican-senate-majority-2018-midterms-467193

The biggest Republican megadonor you’ve never heard of

Democrats and many Republicans in Illinois were horrified by the ad: a 60-second spot released by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s GOP primary challenger, Jeanne Ives, featuring a parade of politically incorrect takes on thorny cultural issues. A deep-voiced man portraying a transgender woman tells Rauner, “Thank you for signing legislation that lets me use the girls bathroom.” Then a young woman thanks Rauner for “making all Illinois families pay for my abortions.”

But equally shocking to the content was the person who had made the ad possible: Richard Uihlein, a little-known Republican donor who had until recently been one of Rauner’s biggest supporters. After a fallout out with the governor over abortion policy, Uihlien gave $2.5 million to Ives in a single week this past January — essentially bankrolling her campaign to defeat Rauner in a Republican primary on Tuesday.

It’s the latest example of Uihlein’s burgeoning role as one of the most influential, but still little-known, political donors in the country. His early six- and seven-figure contributions to emerging Republican candidates, and penchant for disruptive politics, have been crucial to building a raft of anti-establishment Republicans seeking to emulate Donald Trump’s formula for success during this year’s midterm elections.

And Republicans say he has found a pitch-perfect political moment to push his rigorous social and economic conservatism on the national stage, to the detriment of opponents, like Rauner, who cross his path.

Uihlein and his wife Elizabeth are currently the biggest Republican donors of the 2018 midterm elections, having given $21 million to candidates for federal office and super PACs that will support them. And that doesn’t include their funding of state candidates, like Ives.

The Uihleins have long been a reliable source of mid-range campaign checks but hadn’t invested much in candidates outside Illinois and Wisconsin prior to the 2016 presidential election. Over the past year, they’ve shifted into a higher gear, according to operatives who have regularly courted the family for money over the years. "There is a sense," said one Republican operative familiar with Uihlein’s past support of candidates, "that he’s wanting to leave a mark."

Uihlein is filling a void created by the demise of Steve Bannon, whose GOP revolution — with Republican megadonor Robert Mercer as his supposed benefactor — was derailed when he became a party pariah. While Mercer and other big donors like Sheldon Adelson have so far been circumspect with their money this year, Uihlein has begun to shape Republicans’ efforts back the Senate. In addition to donating to tea party groups and the Club for Growth, which Uihlein has supported in the past, he’s given several million dollars to super PACs backing specific candidates in Senate races.

More than a dozen operatives in politics and the nonprofit sector who have worked with Uihlein spoke to POLITICO for this story, many of them requesting anonymity because of his influence over their work.

“Here is a passionate social and economic conservative who is willing to spend a large sum of money wherever he can in hopes of moving the needle, knowing he’s going to lose a lot of bets,” said an Illinois Republican with knowledge of Uihlein’s political giving. “He’s not measuring himself by wins and losses — he’s measuring himself by moving the debate.”

Uihlein is intensely private and has said little publicly about his goals in politics, or the steep increase in the amount of money he’s given starting during the 2016 elections. Neither Uihlein nor the packaging supplies company that is somewhat eponymously named after his family, Uline, retain spokespeople or staff to handle the press.

His giving has not followed a definitive ideological pattern. While Uihlein has given to establishment-backed Senate candidate Josh Hawley in Missouri, his stable of candidates this year consists mostly of conservative bomb-throwers like Ives, Chris McDaniel in Mississippi and Roy Moore in Alabama.

In Wisconsin, Uihlein’s support alone vaulted a long-shot Republican candidate to the front of the pack for the Republican Senate nomination. The candidate, Kevin Nicholson, was initially met with skepticism from fellow Republicans due to his past role as the president of the College Democrats of America — until Uihlein decided to support Nicholson after a meeting with him, brokered by a mutual friend. Eight different super PACs that receive Uihlein funds, including the Club for Growth, have signalled their support for Nicholson, convinced by Nicholson’s conversion story as Uihlein was.

Uihlein’s funds have similarly given heft to other candidacies across the country, especially in Senate races that could prove crucial to Republicans seeking to keep their majority in the chamber. Uihlein has spent six-figure sums in at least seven different Senate races thus far, including a super PAC supporting state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey over Rep. Evan Jenkins in West Virginia, and anti-establishment Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is running in a special for a soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat this fall.

Uihlein was also one of few donors to give money to a pro-Moore super PAC in last year’s special Senate election in Alabama — after Moore was accused of soliciting women as young as 14 years old.

In Tennessee, Uihlein put $500,000 into a PAC last August with an indeterminate purpose; the PAC’s operator, which is listed as failed 2014 Senate candidate Joe Carr, did not respond to requests for comment.

In Illinois, Uihlein works with a tight-knit group of operatives who also run two groups he funds heavily: Illinois Policy Center and Liberty Principles PAC. People who have solicited Uihlein for money describe him as detail-oriented and engaged with the causes he supports.

“He’s a more thoughtful donor than a lot of people — he pays a lot of attention and he checks up on things,” said Jack Miller, a longtime friend of Uihlein’s and namesake of the Jack Miller Center, a nonprofit focused on the teaching of America’s founding principles and history. Uihlein pays the center to have a staff member specifically to advise other donors on how to most effectively gift money to universities, Miller said.

“I know if we screwed up, he wouldn’t be so loyal then,” Miller added.

The Uihleins don’t often attend glitzy donor retreats, such as the twice-yearly summits for donors to the Koch network, to which they contribute money. They prefer to meet candidates in Lake Forest, Illinois, where they live, or across the Wisconsin border at Uline’s corporate headquarters, where Richard Uihlein sometimes gathers groups of friends and colleagues to have conversations with candidates.

His wife, Elizabeth, runs the day-to-day for the business that she and her husband started together in their basement in 1980 with money borrowed from Uihlein’s father, the grandson of one of the founders of Schlitz Brewing Co. The company is privately held and in some ways old school: Men are expected to wear suits to work.

Elizabeth Uihlein has also taken a strong interest in revitalizing the tourist economy in Manitowish Waters, a lake-dotted town in northern Wisconsin where the Uihleins operate a lodge, coffee shop and spa and have financed local construction projects. The Uihlein’s investments have earned them friends and critics, who worry they have too much control over the look an feel of rural Manitowish.

"I am not the kind of person who gives money and then walks away," Elizabeth Uihlein told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in 2015 in defense of her work to improve Manitowish. "I’m very entrepreneurial, dominating. Do you think I got this way by being subtle and introverted?"

Elizabeth Uihlein also opines on politics in a regular letter printed in the company catalog. She has lamented that “government regulations are costing us all,” complained about government spending (“Every time I turn around I hear someone mention they are applying for a grant to pay for this or that”) and called for a renegotiation of NAFTA, saying that current trade agreements “have not worked out so well.”

These views reflect her husband’s fervent belief in less regulation, lower taxes and cracking down on unions. They were indirectly on display last month when the Supreme Court heard Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, a case that could severely curtail unions’ power. Uihlein has been a major donor in recent years to the nonprofit representing the case’s plaintiff, Mark Janus.

The Uihleins’ interests in getting rid of government regulations and cutting taxes are well-aligned with the Trump administration’s goals. But like many big-ticket Republican donors, the couple did not originally line up behind Trump during the election, instead supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for president and later Sen. Ted Cruz. Richard Uihlein later signaled support for Trump by donating to the pro-Trump Great America PAC and giving $500,000 to Trump’s inauguration.

Uihlein donated heavily to Rauner when he first ran for governor in 2014. But after a falling out with the governor, he flipped his longtime allegiance and almost single-handily breathed life into Ives’ once-stagnant primary challenge. Now many Republicans worry that, win or lose in the primary, Ives is successfully damaging Rauner’s already wobbly reputation and creating an opening for Democrats to take back the governorship.

The circumstances of Uihlein’s break with Rauner underscore Uihlein’s commitment to conservative social causes: It was Rauner’s decision to sign a bill in 2017 expanding abortion coverage for women on Medicaid that ended their once-powerful alliance.

Uihlein has donated $2.6 million to Rauner in the past, and supported the governor’s work through the Illinois Policy Institute and Liberty Principles PAC, which primarily funds conservative candidates for the state legislature and has received more than $12 million from Uihlein. The groups supported pro-Rauner candidates and policies from the outside — until Rauner, reeling from an unexpected legislative setback, decided to shake up his administration and got help from the Illinois Policy Institute.

Rauner’s chief of staff, communications staff and chief campaign strategist, some of them former aides to former moderate Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), were fired or resigned in July 2017. And he brought in conservatives, such as former Illinois Policy Institute head Kristina Rasmussen, who became Rauner’s new chief of staff. All told, more than 20 Rauner staffers departed.

It was a major victory for Uihlein and officials at IPI, who had for years been prodding Rauner to govern more conservatively. A top Uihlein ally, Dan Proft, also offered Rauner help beefing up his forces in the legislature, according to reporting by Crain’s Chicago Business at the time: a $30 million investment from donors including Uihlein in state legislative races.

But Rauner’s turn to the right was rife with setbacks. He had to fire his new body man, who had interned at a nonprofit affiliated with IPI, on his first day on the job after past homophobic tweets on his Twitter account surfaced. The governor’s new communications staff bungled a response to a cartoon posted by IPI that critics denounced as racist, forcing Rauner to sidestep his own office’s public statements. Critics lambasted Rauner for, they said, being too slow to provide relief during a July flood.

Within a month Rauner changed tacks again: He asked his communications team to resign after the cartoon incident, and Rasmussen soon departed, too. Then in September, Rauner signed a bill expanding taxpayer-funded abortion that conservatives widely expected him to veto — a clear signal that conservative Republicans didn’t control the governorship. The incident was enough to give Rauner the label of “Benedict Rauner” in a Facebook post written by Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman, a close associate of Uihlein’s. “Whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, a politician loses when he gives his word to many people and goes back on it,” Tillman wrote.

Four months after Rauner signed the abortion bill, Uihlein cut $2.5 million in checks to Jeanne Ives, who had finished 2017 with less than half a million dollars in her campaign. Rauner, a wealthy self-funder, boasted more than $50 million. Ives ran the controversial television ad within days and is parroting IPI’s “Benedict Rauner” attacks.

“His support of Jeanne Ives was seen as her ability to really attract the GOP donor base,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It was major, and it was meaningful in that primary.”

The Illinois Policy Institute, which received $2 million from the family foundation operated by Uihlein in 2016, the most recent year available, has meanwhile encountered troubles of its own. A joint investigation by ProPublica and the Chicago Sun-Times described unusual accounting practices surrounding both non- and for-profit entities connected to Tillman and his associates.

Public officials have called for investigations into whether the group violated tax law. Illinois Policy Institute officials did not respond to interview requests for this story.

It’s not the first time that money that came from Uihlein has come under scrutiny: He is a major donor to Walker and outside groups that support him, which was the subject of an investigation as to whether the Wisconsin governor had illegally solicited donors to contribute to outside groups supporting him during his 2012 recall election. Ultimately, the Wisconsin Supreme Court closed the investigation.

Skeptics of Uihlein and IPI’s approach worry they’ve left the Republican Party fractured — and they wish he’d taken a less combative approach. And they look at Ives’ inflammatory campaign as a prime exhibit.

“If [Uihlein] wants to pull the party to the right I’m all for that. I want people to participate. I want more Republicans,” said Pat Brady, former chairman of the Illinois Republican party. “He could support candidates who are conservative that could probably win if they weren’t the fringe right, homophobic bomb-throwers that these people had convinced him early on to support.”

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/19/republican-megadonor-uihlein-470268

2 hurt as new explosion jolts Austin

AUSTIN, Texas — Two people were injured in another explosion in Texas’ capital Sunday night, after three package bombs detonated earlier this month in other areas of the city and killed two people and injured two others.

Austin-Travis County Emergency Management Services reported that an explosion in southwest Austin injured two men in their 20s who were hospitalized with injuries that didn’t appear to be life-threatening.

There was no immediate word on what caused the blast or if it was related to the previous ones. Those blasts began when a package bomb exploded at an east Austin home on March 2, killing a 39-year-old man.

Two more package bombs then exploded March 12, killing a 17-year-old, wounding his mother and injuring a 75-year-old woman.

Sunday’s explosion occurred far from the first three blasts, which happened in separate, suburban neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city.

Police blocked entrances to the neighborhood where Sunday’s blast occurred and put up yellow tape about half a mile from the home where it happened. They urged those living nearby to stay in their homes.

Despite that order, neighbors milled around just outside the tape, but they said they hadn’t seen or heard much. FBI agents were conducting interviews with some of them.

The latest explosion came hours after authorities raised the reward by $50,000 for information leading to the arrest of whoever is responsible for the first three explosions. It now totals $115,000.

Austin police Chief Brian Manley has said the earlier three bombings are related and could be crimes of hatred, but that investigators have not ruled out any possible motive or any clear idea “what the ideology is behind this.”

Manley said more than 500 officers, including agents from the FBI and other federal agencies, have conducted 236 interviews in following up on 435 leads.

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/18/texas-austin-explosion-blast-470275