Politics

How ‘San Francisco Democrats’ Took Over the Country


Not too long ago, the term “San Francisco Democrat” was shorthand for out-of-touch liberalism, a lefty fringe that was often on the losing end of the seesaw in its own state’s politics, which were dominated by Southern California’s conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Now, “San Francisco Democrat” stands for something else—a governing force that not only dominates the Golden State but has produced some of the defining figures of the Democratic Party. Nancy Pelosi is the most powerful House speaker in a generation. Dianne Feinstein is the doyenne of the Senate. Gavin Newsom, governor of California, is seen as future presidential timber.

And bidding for a spot at the top of that list is Kamala Harris, one of the highest-profile 2020 presidential contenders, and now on the shortlist of potential running mates for Joe Biden.


Longtime California political players say Harris’ ascendancy, from San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general to U.S. senator to presidential contender, reflects her political acumen and a sense of where the electorate is leaning. That combination of people skills and instincts allowed her to accumulate power in the Bay Area without being forced into the box of San Francisco liberal.

It is also a testament to how much Democratic politics has shifted, both in California and nationally. When Republican icon Ronald Reagan became the last Californian to occupy the White House, he launched his candidacy from the same power base that underlay his governorship: the then-conservative bastion of Orange County, which recoiled from student protests and chafed at the state’s high property taxes. Harris’ climb to national prominence, from Berkeley to San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general, was fueled by a different formula, and one that’s becoming key to understanding American political power: A combination of social and environmental progressivism, leavened by a commitment to economic growth through innovation.

In part, the San Francisco ascendancy is due to a shift in the politics of the largest state, as California has changed from a mixed electorate to deep blue. Local candidates used to struggle to break out of Bay Area politics. No longer. “The leap from Bay Area to statewide now is much different than it was 30 years ago, because California has changed,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist who ran the campaigns of former Sen. Barbara Boxer, who hailed from Marin County in the Bay Area. “It’s become so reliably Democratic in statewide races that your progressive credentials are a benefit, not a drawback.”

The dominance of San Francisco politicians in California—with its vast media and fundraising resources—give them a natural launching pad for national leadership. It helps that the very issues that once defined San Francisco as the lefty fringe of the Democratic Party are now close to the center of the party’s national platform—and, in some cases, go unchallenged by Republicans.

In 1984, when the Republicans nominated Reagan for a second term, the very words “San Francisco Democrat,” became a derisive refrain at their convention. In the rough parlance of the times, being a San Francisco Democrat was synonymous with concern for criminal defendants (in the city that was the setting for Reagan’s favorite film, “Dirty Harry”), pot use, gay rights, peace protests, cracking down on corporate polluters and a post-hippie culture shockingly, outrageously at odds with the rest of America.

Now, in President Donald Trump’s America, gay marriage is so widely accepted that even the Republican president doesn’t oppose it, his foreign policy is based around curbing “endless wars,” both parties agree on reducing mandatory minimum sentences for criminals and marijuana is legal across much of the country. Meanwhile, California has become the envy of many national Democrats for its aggressive fight against climate change, which is supported even by some Golden State Republicans.

The leaders of San Francisco’s Democratic Party have adapted themselves to being at the forefront of the national agenda. Newsom, whose career arc has long been intertwined with Harris’, was ahead of the national curve in presiding over gay marriages and enforcing emissions curbs as mayor of San Francisco. Newsom is seen in the Bay Area as a business-friendly centrist, and his easy 2018 gubernatorial victory helped prove that, as Kapolczynski put it, “30 years ago, being mayor of San Francisco was not helpful statewide. Now it’s not a liability.”

In ways, Harris has had an easier time avoiding reductionist portrayals than fellow San Francisco politicians like Newsom. While she was reared in deep-blue Berkeley—the college town that is still remembered for being a hotbed of protest in the 1960s and ’70s—and first won elected office across the bay in San Francisco, it was as district attorney. She was not signing or voting on bills, which in some ways inoculated her from the policy battles that consume San Francisco politicians.

“First and foremost is she started out as a prosecutor, and that’s not a typical résumé for a Bay Area politician to take on to a bigger stage,” said Douglas Herman, a California consultant who ran a pro-Harris PAC during her U.S. Senate run. “It’s antithetical to form.”


That’s not to say Harris floated above the fray. A longtime political hand, Brian Brokaw, argued that her background positioned her well for a long career by posing an early test of her toughness.

“From a political standpoint, there’s a reason so many successful statewide elected officials have come out of the Bay Area, and that’s because Bay Area politics is a contact sport,” Brokaw said. “San Francisco is not California. Most of the population is Democratic and the fights are between the progressives and the ‘moderates,’ and I say that in quotes. The battles are mostly civil wars, but you have to be able to navigate that sort of dynamic.”

Navigating those tumultuous waters isn’t just a matter of policy. It also requires forging interpersonal ties, and people who have known and worked with Harris said she had the ability to sustain relationships even in the rough-and-tumble of an insular political culture.

“San Francisco is a tough town for a politician, and to make it through San Francisco, you have to have thick skin and the ability to move forward after disagreements,” said Shawnda Westly, former executive director of the California Democratic Party, adding “she lets bygones be bygones for sure.”

At one time, San Francisco’s insularity condemned its politicians to a parochial career. Now, however, its very competitiveness has made it a crucial proving ground for Democrats, and a launching pad for political talent, much the way Boston was in the heyday of the Kennedys, Tip O’Neill, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, and the way it continues to be for leaders like Elizabeth Warren.

And much like Boston, San Francisco has grown vastly wealthier over the decades, adding to its clout.

The transformation of San Francisco politics over the past four decades has paralleled the emergence of neighboring Silicon Valley as the world’s technology hub. Suddenly, a corner of America that was once known for its quixotic causes and willingness to dissent from the mainstream was very much at the vanguard of the 21st century economy. The quaint city by the bay was also the global tech capital, and much of the power and accountability that goes along with global economic leadership took root in San Francisco.

For politicians like Feinstein, Pelosi, Newsom and Harris, the Bay Area served as a goldmine of campaign cash. That made it relatively easy to finance statewide campaigns in the largest and most expensive market in the country, but also—in the case of Pelosi, especially—to help spread the wealth among Democrats across the country, helping to attract a national following.

At the same time, longtime observers said, San Francisco Democrats became loath to offend the tech moguls who propelled the local economy, providing a business-friendly counterpoint to their social and environmental liberalism. In the Bay Area of the 21st century, economic growth and social progress could made ahead, arm in arm. Suddenly, San Francisco liberalism didn’t seem so quirky anymore—or, for that matter, so liberal anymore.

Harris, in particular, has demonstrated an ability to appeal to liberal voting blocs, both in San Francisco and statewide, without alienating moderate allies or inviting critics to pigeonhole her. That manifested most starkly in her prosecutorial career, when she overcame the opposition of law enforcement groups to win office.

As San Francisco district attorney, she declined to seek the death penalty for a cop killer. In that post and as state attorney general, she enacted some progressive reforms while falling short of the desires of some liberal voters—mollifying some of her base without excessively antagonizing the law-and-order forces that tend to be critical to the longevity of elected prosecutors.

“Part of the reason she has been so effective is she’s realized in order to get big things done you have to find partners. The police unions spent hundreds of thousands if not more than that opposing her when she was running for attorney general,” Brokaw said. “Then she won, and she recognized in order to get done a lot of the big policy changes she wanted to see through, she wanted to bring some of the people who opposed her in as partners.”

That hasn’t always worked to Harris’ benefit. During the presidential primary, she drew ample criticism from liberal voters who distrusted her law enforcement record and her advocacy for an anti-truancy bill that some believed scapegoated some minority parents. Criminal justice reform advocates fault her for not pushing for state legislation to have independent prosecutors investigate police shootings—a position she now supports. They notice that she opposed marijuana legalization before she supported it.

To her critics, that can look like political opportunism. But it has also earned her admiration from those who see has as a prescient political tactician. Republican consultant Tim Rosales recounted then-district attorney Harris opposing a 2008 ballot initiative to reduce criminal penalties. After having “played it cool” at first, Rosales said, Harris “helped provide a lot of credibility in the Bay Area” by joining the opposition as it gained momentum. It was the type of savvy move that Rosales said served Harris well in her career.

“I think what has been really instructive about her is she has been able to cultivate this broad-based appeal in California that’s much greater than just being identified with San Francisco. That’s something that I think was true in 2008, it’s true now and it’s been true throughout her political career,” Rosales said. “She doesn’t fit neatly into any one box. … She has had law enforcement support in the past, she is certainly someone who draws support from the progressive side as well—she’s really able to negotiate some of those political silos better than most.”

Observers argue Harris shed the Bay Area association long ago as she built out a statewide political network that powered multiple California runs. She’s long had a home in Los Angeles’ tony Brentwood area. Unlike Pelosi, Brokaw argued, the consummate San Francisco politician for whom the “San Francisco liberal” broadside has been “hammered on her by Republicans for so long that’s part of her brand,” Harris is “not very easily stereotyped into being just one brand of politician.”

When she ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris was viewed as the liberal option in a Democrat-on-Democrat general election matchup with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a self-described moderate from Orange County. But even in a race that lacked a Republican alternative, Harris was able to win in more-conservative counties that otherwise went for Trump.

“I think what a lot of people overlook about California is that we are a microcosm of the nation. We have rural areas, we have Trump areas, we have urban, tons of suburban areas,” Westly said. “Even though she’s from San Francisco, she was able to put together a statewide campaign where she took 23 of 25 Trump counties. That says something as to who she is and what she’s capable of.”

Since winning election to the Senate, and especially since launching her failed presidential run, Harris has become identified with the left. She has become a fiery antagonist of the Trump administration while backing progressive causes like “Medicare for All” and health care for undocumented immigrants. She forcefully argues for prosecuting wayward police officers, including by fortifying the nation’s use-of-force standard.


But in the end, Kapolczynski, the Democratic strategist, argued, it’s likely that Harris’ elevation to the presidential ticket would be more of a tribute to her personal qualities—“loyalty, character, campaigning ability” and the resonance of having an African American woman on the ballot—than the positions she took or the cases she prosecuted in her past roles.

“She’s leaping over all the barriers that are usually in the way of a liberal Californian running for president,” Kapolczynski said. “She won’t have to defend her progressive record because Biden’s agenda will be the subject of debate, not the Harris agenda. Vice presidential nominees are subject to scrutiny of course, but fundamentally it’s not their agenda and their record that’s the subject of debate, so it’s a perfect pathway.”

Republicans called her videos ‘appalling’ and ‘disgusting.’ But they’re doing little to stop her.


House GOP leaders raced to disavow a Republican congressional candidate who made racist Facebook videos and embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory. But less than two months later, the party has done little to block Marjorie Taylor Greene from winning a seat in the House.

Now, Republicans could be days away from adding their most controversial member yet to the conference in a runoff election in Georgia on Tuesday — a scenario that some lawmakers say should have been entirely avoided.

Of the top three GOP leaders in the House, only House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) has helped Greene’s opponent, neurosurgeon John Cowan, raise money and contributed to his campaign. Outside groups have not made any significant investments in the primary runoff for the solidly red seat, despite pleas from rank-and-file Republicans. And there hasn’t been a tweet from President Donald Trump that could signal to his supporters that they should oppose her.

POLITICO reported in June that Greene had posted hours of Facebook videos where she made a trove of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments — including an assertion that Black people “are held slaves to the Democratic Party,” and that George Soros, a Jewish Democratic megadonor, is a Nazi.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in June — through his spokesman, Drew Florio — that he found those comments “appalling,” and he had “no tolerance for them.” But Florio said last week that the California Republican is remaining neutral and letting the primary process play out — a stance that likely does not signal urgency to donors or outside groups.

“This is the kind of race and kind of situation where you need those groups,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), who is actively supporting Cowan. “So often, they only get involved when they have someone that they are trying to get in. But I think it’s just as important they get involved when there’s someone they’re trying to get out.”

The lack of intervention from national Republicans — despite their public rebukes of Greene — has frustrated and baffled GOP lawmakers, strategists and donors, who worry Greene’s victory would be a black eye for the party at a time when they are still grappling with a national reckoning over racial inequality.

And it would diminish the impact of the party’s successful efforts in June to oust GOP Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a member with a long history of racist remarks. If Greene, a vocal QAnon conspiracy theorist and businesswoman, earns the party’s nomination in the deeply conservative district in northwest Georgia, she is almost guaranteed to win a seat in the House.

“I have been very involved in the John Cowan race. I’ve pushed House leadership to get involved, without having success,” added one GOP lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters.

The reluctance of McCarthy — who could face a leadership challenge if Trump goes down in November — to get involved in the contest underscores the tough position that leadership is in: While they want to distance the party from the deeply controversial views espoused by Greene, they also don’t want to alienate the hard-line conservative voters who are a key part of Trump’s base heading into the election.

And it’s not just Greene’s race that has spooked House GOP operatives. The primary runoff field for Rep. Doug Collins’ (R-Ga.) neighboring open seat includes state Rep. Matt Gurtler, who came under fire after he posed for a photo with a man with white supremacist ties. But that race, which is also on Tuesday, has seen a rush of outside spending by various PACs.

GOP leadership and the party’s campaign arm don’t typically play in primaries, and it can be risky to take a shot at a fellow Republican and miss: GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.) recently came under fire from some House Freedom Caucus members and other Trump allies for supporting a primary opponent to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), among other comments that riled Trump’s most loyal House foot soldiers. Cheney — who was one of the most vocal Republicans in calling on King to step down — later pulled her endorsement of Massie’s primary opponent after past racist tweets from the candidate resurfaced.

When it comes to the matchup between Greene and Cowan, GOP lawmakers and strategists believe that outside help could easily tip the scales. While Greene won the first round of the primary in June by a wide, 19-point margin, the race has drastically tightened in the following weeks: An internal Cowan campaign survey from late July found a tied race between him and Greene.

Plus, Cowan has outspent Greene on TV by about $50,000, according to a source tracking media spending, and outraised her by nearly a four-to-one margin in July, signs that point to a well-run campaign.

In an interview, Cowan framed the outcome of the runoff in dire terms, warning that a victory by Greene would endanger Republican candidates who would have to answer for her comments up and down the ballot in Georgia, from the House battlegrounds in suburban Atlanta to the two Senate contests on the November ballot.

“I want to win this race,” he said. “But more than that I want to protect the Republican Party. She is the antithesis of the Republican Party. And she is not conservative — she’s crazy.”

And he warned that Democrats could use her comments to juice up fundraising for their candidates. “She deserves a YouTube channel, not a seat in Congress. She’s a circus act,” Cowan said.

Greene’s campaign did not respond to a request to interview the candidate for this story. Throughout the campaign, she has cast Cowan as insufficiently supportive of Trump because he donated to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the 2016 race. She has also accused him of misrepresenting his role as a reserve deputy in the Floyd County sheriff’s office.

Despite the slew of racist Facebook videos uncovered by POLITICO, Greene still has some high-profile support in Washington: She is backed by the House Freedom Fund, the political arm of the Freedom Caucus; Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a top Trump ally; and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and his wife, Debbie Meadows. When the seat’s incumbent, Rep. Tom Graves, announced his retirement, the Freedom Caucus encouraged Greene to abandon her run in the competitive 6th District, where former GOP Rep. Karen Handel was making a comeback bid, and run for the open seat, which was more conservative, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Greene said in a recent interview with a local news station that she and McCarthy have spoken “several times” since the POLITICO story was published, and they have a “great relationship.” She also claimed that McCarthy’s statement of condemnation — which was distributed by a staffer — was just a “miscommunication.”

McCarthy’s spokesman confirmed that he has “spoken several times on the phone with both Greene and Cowan in recent weeks” and has “a good and productive relationship with both,” but did not comment on the veracity of Greene’s statement.

Cowan described his communication with McCarthy as a “good conversation,” according to Carter. “Now, what happened after that, I don’t know,” Carter added.

But if Cowan was expecting the cavalry, it never came.

In the absence of national intervention, a dozen members have worked to boost Cowan through public endorsements, making calls on his behalf or joining his Zoom campaign events. That group includes Scalise, Carter and Reps. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), Austin Scott (R-Ga.), Rick Allen (R-Ga.), Greg Murphy (R-N.C.), Neal Dunn (R-Fla.), Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), James Comer (R-Ky.), Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) and Mark Walker (R-N.C.).

“John Cowan is a great candidate,” Carter said, but “we are very concerned about the other candidate as well. … And certainly, I don’t want someone making those kinds of comments in my conference.”

Scalise, who immediately endorsed Cowan after Greene’s previous comments — which he called “disgusting” — came to light, appeared at a virtual fundraiser for Cowan in late July. But no help has come in the form of major outside spending.

Walker, a former pastor who is retiring this year after court-ordered redistricting transformed his seat into safe Democratic territory, unsuccessfully lobbied the conservative Club for Growth to get involved, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The Club considered playing in the race and polled, but ultimately declined to endorse Cowan or spend. (It is, however, making a large investment in the primary runoff in Georgia’s 9th district for Gurtler.)

A new super PAC, dubbed A Great America PAC, formed in June, and operatives behind the group cut a TV ad casting Greene as a threat to Trump’s reelection. The group reported spending $30,000 on media production — but only booked about $17,000 on a cable buy, according to media buying sources.

Republicans in D.C. and Georgia attribute some of the lack of outspending to the worsening political environment. Donors are too distracted by Trump’s flailing poll numbers and the precarious Senate majority to pay attention to a congressional primary runoff for a deep-red seat — particularly because it seems increasingly unlikely that Republicans will reclaim the majority, and McCarthy has not publicly signaled that Greene should be stopped.

Some House Republicans are angry at the Freedom Caucus for boosting Greene’s candidacy in the first place and think the group should have rescinded their endorsement. Only Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) publicly pulled his endorsement; Jordan said in a brief statement he disagreed with her comments.

If Greene wins, she could create a constant stream of headaches — and controversies — for the House GOP. Republican leaders had to strip King of his committee assignments and formally rebuke him on the House floor after he defended white supremacy and white nationalism in an interview with The New York Times last year.

Democrats are ready to pounce on a Greene victory and yoke her controversial statements to Republican House candidates across the country — particularly Handel and Republican Rich McCormick, who is running in an open battleground seat in the Atlanta suburbs. McCormick’s wife donated to Greene when she was still running in the 6th District against Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.).

“Marjorie Taylor Greene is an extreme, far-right voice enabled and embraced by Georgia Republicans like Karen Handel and Rich McCormick and her views have no place in Congress,” DCCC spokesman Avery Jaffe said in a statement. “Georgia Republicans, and Republican candidates running across the country, will have to answer for her hateful views in their own campaigns.”

And Greene is already signaling that she has no interest in playing nice with her potential future colleagues, doubling down on some of her most controversial remarks and lashing out at Scalise and Cheney in her recent interview with a local news station.

“Steve Scalise, I was very surprised by, especially since he’s been called a racist and things like that in the past,” Greene said, an apparent reference to the Louisiana Republican’s 2002 speech to a white supremacist group. “Liz Cheney, I’ve never met or talked to her. I think that was unfortunate that they were pressured, probably pressured so to speak, maybe by people in the media, to make statements about me and they just hadn’t learned about me yet.”

Trump announces executive actions after stimulus talks break down


President Donald Trump on Saturday announced he would move forward with multiple executive actions designed to provide relief to millions of financially struggling Americans after talks between his aides and Democratic leaders on a new pandemic relief package broke down this week.

Trump laid out four actions that he said would cut taxes for workers through the end of the year, extend unemployment benefits but at a reduced rate, renew a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, and defer student loan payments and interest until the end of the year.

But Trump’s moves — one executive order and three presidential memorandum to federal agencies — don’t go as far as some White House officials had suggested they would in recent days. And the failure by the White House and Democratic congressional leaders fails to resolve questions over government support for schools and businesses that hope to reopen to this fall or provide immunity from lawsuits sought by Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The presidential action comes after a “last ditch” 90-minute meeting on Friday afternoon between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer led to no significant progress on a relief deal.

“We have repeatedly stated our willingness to immediately sign legislation providing extended unemployment benefits, protecting Americans from eviction and providing additional relief payments to families. Democrats have refused these offers, they want to negotiate, what they really want is bailout money for states run by Democrat governors and mayors, they’ve been on really bad for decades,” Trump told supporters in a politically charged address at his Bedminster, N.J., resort.

The president’s decision to do an end run around Congress underscores the deep tensions between Democratic leaders and the White House as the United States has failed to tame the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a surge in cases and economic devastation less than three months before Election Day.

Trump has consistently attempted to shift blame to others, while proclaiming that the United States has superior testing abilities and pressuring schools and businesses to reopen.

The collapse in the latest stimulus talks came after both sides refused to make any breakthrough compromises and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has largely stayed on the sidelines.

White House and Democratic leaders remained trillions of dollars apart on any deal, with Democrats pushing for the $3 trillion HEROES Act and the White House aiming to stay at $1 trillion. Senate Republicans also were divided on their own opening offer, with hard-line conservatives opposing additional federal spending.

Pelosi and Schumer said Friday that they were willing to cut down their ask by $1 trillion if the White House increased their offer by $1 trillion, a move administration officials rejected.

To cover the cost of the new federal unemployment payments — which could be as high as $400-per-week if states cover a portion of the effort — Trump diverted $44 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The federal government would cover 75 percent of the payment, with the states providing the remainder. It’s unclear how long the federal payments would last under this Trump order or how soon they can flow to eligible recipients, but Democratic aides suggested the amount of funds available would cover two to three months.

Congress and Trump agreed to $600-per-week federal payments to unemployed workers as part the $2.2 trillion Cares Act in late March, but those payments expired on July 31. The controversy over extending the benefit was a major sticking point between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders. Pelosi and Schumer wanted to continue the payments well into 2021 at $600-per-week, while the White House offered $400-per-week for five months.

The president also called for forgoing payroll taxes on Americans earning less than $100,000 per year. Trump said during his address that he would direct the Treasury Department to allow employers to defer payments of “certain” payroll taxes starting Aug. 1 until the end of the year. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress were opposed to a payroll tax cuts, fearing it could undermine the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

Trump, though, also expressed a willingness to make the tax cuts, which he has frequently voiced support for during negotiations, permanent if he wins re-election in November.

“If I win, I may extend and terminate, extend it beyond the year end terminate the tax,” Trump said. “So, we’ll see what happens.”

The president said his directive to extend a moratorium on evictions would include financial assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for struggling renters and homeowners.

“We don’t want people being evicted, and the bill I’m signing will solve that problem largely, hopefully completely,” Trump said.


Trump’s directive on student loans would allow borrowers to defer payments and interest until the end of the year, a date Trump appeared willing to consider extending as well.

“It’s not their fault the colleges have closed down and not their fault they are unable to get what they bargained for,” Trump contended.

The president’s politically-infused speech at his New Jersey golf club was akin to a campaign-style diatribe against his political opponents. Trump’s attacks on Pelosi, Schumer and likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were greeted by cheers and applause from supporters who were allowed to attend the announcement.

“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to hold this vital assistance hostage on behalf of very extreme partisan demands and the radical left Democrats and we just can’t do that,” Trump said. “This is a bill supported by Biden, and Biden is totally controlled now by the Bernie Sanders left wing of the party.”

Trump also railed against Democrats over their demands for a vote-by-mail provision in the now-stalled relief bill talks.

“The bill requires all states to do universal mail-in balloting, which nobody is prepared for,” Trump said. “Regardless of whether or not [states] have the infrastructure, they want to steal an election.”

The White House’s new executive actions will likely face legal challenges. Democrats promised last week to take Trump to court if he sidestepped Congress’ constitutional authority to spend federal funds.

When asked Saturday whether he expected Democrats to challenge the White House over the orders, the president said any lawsuit would go “very rapidly” through the legal system.

“Maybe we won’t get sued. If we get sued, it’s somebody who doesn’t want people to get money,” Trump said. “And that’s not going to be a popular thing.”

The president has circumvented Congress’ spending power before when he declared a national emergency in February 2019 and ordered the Pentagon to transfer congressionally appropriated military funds to pay for a wall along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border. In a 5-4 ruling last month, the Supreme Court refused to lift a stay it issued last year that allows the Trump administration to spend billions in federal funds on the wall while litigation over the plan’s legality is resolved.

Pelosi and Schumer released a joint statement shortly after the actions were announced, slamming Trump for refusing to negotiate with Democrats.

“Today’s meager announcements by the President show President Trump still does not comprehend the seriousness or the urgency of the health and economic crises facing working families,” the top Democrats wrote.

Congressional Republicans were split on Trump’s decision to take matters into his own hands.

“Struggling Americans need action now,” McConnell said in a statement. “Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) took to Twitter and said Trump “puts the American ppl first compared to nonstop political games by Democrats.”

“I applaud @realDonaldTrump executive actions to help the American ppl,” the Iowa Republican wrote. “Democrats all or nothing strategy jeopardizes the certainty Americans need to pay their bills.”

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chided Democrats for holding up the bill, didn’t support the president circumventing Congress.

“The president is doing all he can to help workers, students and renters, but Congress is the one who should be acting,” Alexander tweeted.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also criticized “Lawmaking by Executive Order.”

“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” Sasse said in a statement released Saturday night. “President Obama did not have the power to unilaterally rewrite immigration law with DACA, and President Trump does not have the power to unilaterally rewrite the payroll tax law. Under the Constitution, that power belongs to the American people acting through their members of Congress.”

John Bresnahan and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

The Man Determined to Deliver Trump’s Alaskan Oil Promise

Later this year, the Trump administration is expected to fulfill a decadeslong Republican dream. The Department of the Interior will likely sell the first leases for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, opening up to development the last remaining stretch of protected land along the North Slope.

For the oil and gas industry in Alaska, which has been especially hard hit by the global pandemic and economic downturn, it will be a bit of welcome good news. For Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose father spent much of his Senate career fighting to open the refuge, it will be a legacy-defining moment. And for Donald Trump, who campaigned on expanding domestic energy production, it will be a chance to claim a “promise kept” as voters head to the polls. Democrats continue to oppose development in the refuge. A recent amendment to an appropriations spending bill from Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) would bar any lease sale from happening, and, if elected, Joe Biden has promised to permanently protect the refuge.

The Interior Department has pushed aggressively to hold a lease sale before the end of Trump’s first term and has expedited the environmental review process in order to accomplish that goal. But the rushed review process—attempting to do in two years what typically takes twice as long—has led to allegations that the administration has interfered with the work of career scientists, sidelined Fish and Wildlife Service employees who oversee the refuge and failed to conduct needed research before holding a lease sale.


Steve Wackowski, the department’s senior adviser for Alaska Affairs and a former campaign manager for Murkowski, has been central to that effort. Though he’s little known outside of Alaska, Wackowski, a 38-year-old with connections to the oil and gas industry and no experience in federal land management, has played an outsize role in executing the administration’s priorities. And he has done so with a heavy hand, frequently clashing with agency scientists and using the power of his position—the only Department of Interior political appointee outside of Washington—to intimidate those who are seen as standing in the way. Early on in the environmental review process, FWS employees were told that if they raised concerns about the science or suggested overly protective measures for the refuge their name would be identified to Wackowski as an “obstructionist.” At one point, according to multiple sources, Wackowski threatened to fire the FWS regional director and transfer the refuge manager after an internal memo was leaked to the Washington Post .

According to interviews with more than a dozen current and former DOI employees, including three who previously held the position of senior adviser, Wackowski has frequently involved himself in scientific matters typically left to career employees and has often favored corporate interests.


“Part of the job is having the agencies carry out top-level policy directives,” said Pat Pourchot, who served as senior adviser for Alaska Affairs during the Obama administration. But he added, “You’ve got to keep a hands-off approach to honest, deliberate agency research and processes.”

Wackowski has done the opposite. In an unprecedented move, Wackowski was named co-chair of the international board that manages the Porcupine caribou herd, one of several important species the refuge was created to protect. The position has traditionally been held by FWS personnel. In that role, Wackowski has prevented the International Porcupine Caribou Board, made up of U.S. and Canadian members, from weighing in on the environmental review for oil and gas leasing in the refuge. Drilling in the refuge could disrupt the caribou’s traditional migration patterns and the way of life of native Alaskans who depend on them.

Wackowski, who previously worked for a company that conducts polar bear research on behalf of the energy industry in Alaska, has also been closely involved in the review process for seismic surveys of the refuge—used to locate oil and gas reserves—an activity that could threaten the already imperiled polar bear population in the southern Beaufort Sea. The federally listed subpopulation has declined by about 40 percent in the past few decades. By meeting with one of his former colleagues who works for a company that does polar bear surveys and sometimes provides data to FWS, Wackowski was found to have violated his ethics pledge, according to a recent investigation by the DOI inspector general. The report found that neither Wackowski nor the business benefited from the interaction and that Wackowski had acted under the mistaken belief that the communications were permissible. But one FWS employee in Alaska said Wackowski’s frequent contact with his former colleague was “very awkward” and raised concerns among staff internally. “He has done a lot of things prior special assistants haven’t done.”

DOI did not respond to detailed questions for this story. In a statement, a spokesperson referred to the allegations as “baseless” and a “disgusting” attack on Wackowski’s character. “Mr. Wackowski is a trusted member of Interior leadership who cares deeply about serving Alaskans and the American people,” DOI said.


But outside of the department and among some career employees, Wackowski’s performance has been viewed as the triumph of politics over science with long-term implications for the environment and public health.

“Given Wackowski’s background,” said Deborah Williams, who held Wackowski’s job for five years during the Clinton administration, “it is important to ask whether he, in his role as senior adviser, is representing the public interest.”

Caribou are one of the defining features of the Arctic landscape and also a staple of what is still predominately a subsistence diet among Native communities on the North Slope. The Gwich’in, who live just outside of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and oppose any development there, refer to the coastal plain as the “sacred place where life begins” because it serves as the birthing grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. The village of Nuiqsut, which sits west of the refuge and is now surrounded by oil development, has already seen notable changes in behavior of the central arctic herd, which, according to a recent USGS study, has begun to consistently avoid developed areas.


Not long after he was appointed in 2017, according to internal documents obtained by POLITICO from a former DOI employee, Wackowski took an unusually keen interest in the Bureau of Land Management’s approach to evaluating effects to caribou. He involved himself in the technical details of the environmental review process for oil and gas drilling in sensitive areas, sometimes dismissing the work of career employees and contractors who have worked with the department for decades, according to the documents. At one point, just three months into the job, he abruptly canceled a public meeting on the impact of development in the village of Nuiqsut without explanation, angering the tribal government. Meanwhile, DOI has also disbanded the North Slope’s subsistence advisory panel, which had been designed to foster communication and information sharing between the department and local governments.

According to the documents, Wackowski also has played a key role in shaping the department’s assessment of the impact of development on hunting and other resources, which will have long-lasting implications for the North Slope. In October 2017, when BLM was drafting its environmental analysis for the Greater Mooses Tooth 2 project—a major ConocoPhilips development in the National Petroleum Reserve west of the refuge—Wackowski effectively undermined the methodology used to evaluate how new infrastructure including roads, well pads and pipelines would affect subsistence use in Nuiqsut.

In a preliminary analysis largely drafted under the Obama administration, BLM had concluded the development would likely have a significant impact on when and where hunters pursued caribou—a finding that in theory could lead to the implementation of mitigation measures to make up for any losses. This is exactly what had happened with the earlier Greater Mooses Tooth 1 development in 2015 and it had prompted new mitigation rules by the Obama administration. In that case, ConocoPhillips paid $8 million into a reserve fund to offset a variety of negative effects on environmentally sensitive areas including wetlands and on subsistence use. (In one of his first executive orders, Trump rescinded the Obama-era policy and mitigation became voluntary.)

Wackowski largely rejected the BLM designations “major, moderate or minor” that had been used by the agency for years to indicate the estimated environmental impact on subsistence of the project under review. On a conference call in October 2017, he vigorously challenged the conclusions of the BLM experts and the contractor, whose research showed that just under 50 percent of Nuiqsut’s hunters were likely to modify their behavior if GMT2 were approved. Using DOI criteria and past practice, that would constitute a major impact. Using mostly anecdotal evidence, Wackowski argued that hunters in Nuiqsut had adapted to the ongoing development and that if fewer than 50 percent of them changed their hunting behavior then the impact would not qualify as major.

At one point, according to a transcript of the phone call obtained by POLITICO, Wackowski accused a BLM employee of “misusing” and “misrepresenting” the data. He also told the agency its “analysis was not sound.” The contractor said the findings were based on “hard data” and that impact criteria were “very useful.” Even though the BLM conclusions were based on 40 years of research and observation, Wackowski’s view ultimately prevailed, lowering the bar for oil and gas development across Alaska’s North Slope.

After receiving requests from ConocoPhilips and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, one of the largest landowners in Alaska and a Murkowski supporter, BLM agreed to remove the impact criteria from the draft environmental impact statement. “We received feedback from both DOI personnel, ConocoPhillips and ASRC that the impact criteria was too subjective and warranted review and refinement,” the project coordinator wrote in an email to the BLM Alaska state director.

One former BLM employee raised concerns that removing the impact criteria might violate scientific integrity. “Without knowing how far this will go, I would say that I seem to be verging on violating some of the core ethical principles of [my field],” the employee wrote to a supervisor.


Wackowski was appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as co-chair of the advisory board that provides recommendations on management of the Porcupine caribou herd, replacing a longtime Fish and Wildlife employee, though he appears to have no expertise in the subject. (Wackowski has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in science and technology intelligence.) The International Porcupine Caribou Board is made up of delegates from the U.S. and Canada and has long advocated for protecting the refuge’s coastal plain, where more than 200,000 caribou migrate and give birth every spring. After traveling across the coastal plain, the herd makes its way into the Canadian Arctic and is an important resource for First Nations people in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. According to the agreement that established the board in 1987, one of its primary objectives is to “conserve the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitat” and to minimize adverse long-term effects.

Sitting on the board has given Wackowski an opportunity to influence the group’s response to what will be the most profound change the refuge has ever seen. (At one point when the acting director of FWS was preparing for hearings on the refuge, Wackowski sent him background material in which he claimed that, “caribou do NOT calve in the 1002 area.” This was incorrect: the coastal plain, sometimes referred to as “the 1002,” provides critical calving habitat for the caribou.) “It was a surprise to us,” said Craig Machtans, the Canadian co-chair of the caribou herd board. “FWS had a member in good standing as chair. And they replaced him.” It was a surprise to the FWS, too, which was not notified of the change until a month after it happened, according to an FWS employee.

“What they were trying to do was shore up control and influence on anything related to the coastal plain,” that FWS employee told POLITICO.

One way of doing that was by preventing the board from weighing in on the environmental impact statement and suggesting a preferred alternative, which required consensus from members on both the Canadian and U.S. sides. Canadian members of the board were eager to submit comments on the draft environmental impact statement for oil and gas leasing in the refuge but needed the cooperation of their American counterparts. Though the Canadians were ready to move forward, Wackowski and other members on the U.S. side wouldn’t agree to submit comments, which effectively prevented the board from doing so. In the end, the Porcupine caribou board did not comment on what is the most important development to take place in the refuge since it was created 40 years ago.

Wackowski has also tightly controlled public information related to the refuge.

In August 2018, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the coastal plain—the largest ever recorded on the North Slope—rattling homes in the village of Kaktovik and sending tremors as far away as Fairbanks, hundreds of miles away. Normally the U.S. Geological Survey, which is part of DOI, would respond quickly to such an event, often fielding calls from reporters around the world and explaining any risks to the human population or nearby infrastructure. (In this case, there were concerns that the Trans-Alaska pipeline could have been damaged.)


But this time, USGS was slow to respond to several queries. According to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by POLITICO, early that morning Wackowski sent an email to the USGS regional director reminding her that any inquiries related to the wildlife refuge needed to go through him; this was a departure from the usual protocol for handling a major natural disaster, which allows USGS to bypass even normal channels of approval within the public affairs office “when timeliness is critical for public health and/or safety.” Instead, Wackowski told USGS he wanted to review media requests and be given time to “pipe up on any concerns” before interviews with staff scientists were granted.

More than 24 hours later, and long after the state’s earthquake center had put out a news release stating that it “anticipate[d] a very active aftershock sequence,” USGS officials were still asking Wackowski if the agency’s leading expert on the subject could share information with the media.

“What made this unusual is that USGS had to seek permission to talk about an earthquake,” a former USGS employee familiar with the department’s response told me. Even then, USGS had to assure DOI officials it would not comment on the potential impact of the earthquake on future oil and gas development in the refuge—one of the most important and politically sensitive priorities for this administration—according to emails leaked to POLITICO.

Because the quake happened in such a remote location and there were no injuries it barely registered outside of Alaska. But Wackowski’s attempt to control the messaging is part of a broader pattern in DOI to limit debate and discussion on anything to do with the refuge. Wackowski, according to several career employees, has made it difficult for them to freely share information that might be perceived as hindering the administration’s pro-development agenda. He has also suggested that FWS staff could be removed from the review team or even lose their jobs if they raised concerns about the science or imposed overly restrictive measures on oil and gas development in the region. “If you come across as not being on board with that, your name could get elevated to Steve Wackowski as an obstructionist,” one FWS employee who has since left the agency was told by a supervisor.

Even as Wackowski has influenced the flow of information within his agency, he has actively sought data outside the department from a former colleague, a violation of his ethics pledge, according to a report by the DOI’s inspector general. Wackowski has been intimately involved in the research and review process for seismic surveys in the refuge. He communicated and met with a former colleague who does polar bear data collection and mapping on the North Slope. This triggered an ethics investigation by DOI’s inspector general. According to the recently released report, a DOI ethics attorney said that if they had known about Wackowski’s contact with his former colleague “they would have advised against it.”

DOI wouldn’t confirm that Wackowski was the subject of the report but told The Hill in an emailed statement: “The report is clear that the senior interior official in question acted responsibly and with the highest integrity.” The statement also attributed the events to a “miscommunication and misunderstanding” between Wackowski and the ethics office.

Before he joined DOI, Wackowski spent several years doing drone-operated survey work for Fairweather Science, a company that provides an array of services to oil and gas companies operating in the region. Fairweather is one of the only companies that conducts polar bear den monitoring using infrared cameras, which has become an increasingly important part of the permitting process as sea ice diminishes and greater numbers of bears come inland to den during the winter months. The refuge’s coastal plain has become an especially critical region for polar bears, with the highest density of denning habitat along the North Slope.

According to the inspector general’s report, in late 2017, Wackowski requested polar bear data from his former colleague to be used for a “FWS/USGS/BLM science experiment.” The Trump administration’s ethics pledge prohibits political appointees from meeting with former employers for two years; Wackowski, who had been working for Fairweather until he joined DOI, was communicating with his former colleague just several months after he was appointed, which the IG’s report considered to fall under its prohibition. The following year, Wackowski participated in a meeting with the same colleague in which polar bear research and data was discussed. He did not contact the DOI’s ethic’s office on either occasion. Wackowski told the IG that he believed conflict of interest rules did not apply to communication involving “purely scientific data” even though no such exemption exists for current federal employees .

Transparency advocates and some career DOI employees point to the fact that the founder and vice president of Fairweather Science was also CEO of the company that is currently seeking approval to conduct seismic surveys of the refuge. Wackowski met with his former boss at least twice, including on one occasion in November 2018, with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, according to calendars and other records obtained by POLITICO. Notably, DOI ethics officials had approved the meetings reasoning that Wackowski’s former boss was not representing Fairweather but SAExploration, the company actually applying for the permit. “We found no evidence that the employee made anything less than a full disclosure of all relevant circumstances in discussions with ethics attorneys about the companies,” according to the report.

Delaney Marsco, the Campaign Legal Center’s general counsel focusing on government ethics and accountability, says it is precisely these kinds of meetings with former employers who currently have business before the department that government ethics laws are designed to prevent. “It raises very serious questions surrounding the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Marsco said.


SAExploration, despite being under investigation by the Securities and Exchance Commission for filing misleading financial reports, has received a nearly $7 million coronavirus-related loan. Wackowski’s former boss was placed on administrative leave and has since resigned. Meanwhile, Fairweather, Wackowski’s former employer, has also received between $2 million and $5 million, according to recently released federal data.

Deborah Williams, who held Wackowski’s job during the Clinton administration, says most Americans are not aware of just how massive the federal land footprint is in Alaska. Roughly 60 percent of Alaska’s lands are federally owned and the state is home to seven of the 10 largest national parks n the U.S. It has more offshore acreage than the rest of the country combined. The senior adviser position, as she viewed it, was designed to protect those resources and to serve the public interest.

In December 2019, just a month before the first coronavirus cases were reported in the United States, DOI held its most successful lease sale in Alaska in more than a decade, selling off about 1 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve and bringing in more than $11 million, half of which goes to the state. Under a recently released management plan for the reserve, the administration is expected to open up vast amounts of new acreage to development including the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, which provides important habitat for caribou. These plans have been finalized during the pandemic, with limited public engagement, despite calls by some tribal leaders and conservation groups to delay the process.

In May, as the number of coronavirus cases in the country surged past 1 million, Bernhardt told Bloomberg News that a lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was still likely. Sen. Murkowski has said she expects an announcement sometime this summer. And there’s little reason to doubt the administration would pass up the historic opportunity to achieve what every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has tried but failed to do. “Reagan tried to get it. Bush tried to get it. Everybody tried to get it,” Trump told reporters in December 2017 after the tax bill was passed. “So, we’re going to have tremendous energy coming out of that part of the world.”

Trump announces executive actions after stimulus talks broke down


President Donald Trump on Saturday announced he would move forward with multiple executive actions designed to provide relief to millions of financially struggling Americans after talks between his aides and Democratic leaders on a new pandemic relief package broke down this week.

Trump laid out four actions that he said would cut taxes for workers through the end of the year, extend unemployment benefits but at a reduced rate, renew a moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, and defer student loan payments and interest until the end of the year.

The development comes after a 90-minute meeting on Friday afternoon between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer led to no significant progress on a relief deal.

“We have repeatedly stated our willingness to immediately sign legislation providing extended unemployment benefits, protecting Americans from eviction and providing additional relief payments to families. Democrats have refused these offers, they want to negotiate, what they really want is bailout money for states run by Democrat governors and mayors, they’ve been on really bad for decades,” Trump told supporters in a politically charged address at his Bedminster, N.J., resort.

It’s unclear where Trump will get the money to pay for the actions, but they’re likely to face legal challenges from Democrats.

The president’s decision to do an end run around Congress underscores the deep tensions between Democratic leaders and the White House as the United States has failed to tame the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a surge in cases and economic devastation just months before the presidential election.

Trump has consistently attempted to shift blame to others, while proclaiming that the United States has superior testing abilities and pressuring schools and businesses to reopen.

The collapse in the latest stimulus talks came after both sides refused to make any breakthrough compromises and as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has largely stayed on the sidelines.

White House and Democratic leaders remained trillions of dollars apart on any deal, with Democrats pushing for the $3 trillion HEROES Act and the White House aiming to stay at $1 trillion. Senate Republicans also were divided on their own opening offer, with hard-line conservatives opposing additional federal spending.

Pelosi and Schumer said Friday that they were willing to cut down their ask by $1 trillion if the White House increased their offer by $1 trillion, a move administration officials rejected.

The new orders, some of which were passed by House Democrats in May as a part of their massive coronavirus relief package, would provide a payroll tax holiday to Americans earning less than $100,000 per year. Trump said during his address that he would direct the Treasury Department to allow employers to defer payments of “certain” payroll taxes starting Aug. 1 until the end of the year.

Trump also expressed a willingness to make the tax cuts, which he has frequently voiced support for during negotiations, permanent if he wins re-election in November.

“If I win, I may extend and terminate, extend it beyond the year end terminate the tax,” Trump said. “So, we’ll see what happens.”

The president said his directive to extend a moratorium on evictions would include financial assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for struggling renters and homeowners.

“We don’t want people being evicted, and the bill I’m signing will solve that problem largely, hopefully completely,” Trump said.

Trump also announced a $400-per-week supplemental payment for those who have lost their jobs, a decrease from the extra $600 unemployed Americans were receiving weekly before the benefit expired at the end of July.

States would be on the hook for covering 25 percent of the extra payments if they decided to extend them, Trump said. But those who opted in could use federal coronavirus relief funds to help offset the costs.

Trump’s directive on student loans would allow borrowers to defer payments and interest until the end of the year, a date Trump appeared willing to consider extending as well.

“It’s not their fault the colleges have closed down and not their fault they are unable to get what they bargained for,” Trump contended.

The president’s politically-infused speech at his New Jersey golf club was akin to a campaign-style diatribe against his political opponents. Trump’s attacks on Pelosi, Schumer and likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden were greeted by cheers and applause from supporters who were allowed to attend the announcement.

“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to hold this vital assistance hostage on behalf of very extreme partisan demands and the radical left Democrats and we just can’t do that,” Trump said. “This is a bill supported by Biden, and Biden is totally controlled now by the Bernie Sanders left wing of the party.”

Trump also railed against Democrats over their demands for a vote-by-mail provision in the now-stalled relief bill talks.

“The bill requires all states to do universal mail-in balloting, which nobody is prepared for,” Trump said. “Regardless of whether or not [states] have the infrastructure, they want to steal an election.”

The White House’s new executive actions will likely face legal challenges. Democrats promised last week to take Trump to court if he sidestepped Congress’ constitutional authority to spend federal funds.

When asked Saturday whether he expected Democrats to challenge the White House over the orders, the president said any lawsuit would go “very rapidly” through the legal system.

“Maybe we won’t get sued. If we get sued, it’s somebody who doesn’t want people to get money,” Trump said. “And that’s not going to be a popular thing.”

The president has circumvented Congress’ spending power before when he declared a national emergency in February 2019 and ordered the Pentagon to transfer congressionally appropriated military funds to pay for a wall along portions of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last month that Trump could legally spend the disputed funds.

Congressional Republicans were split on Trump’s decision to take matters into his own hands.

“Struggling Americans need action now,” McConnell said in a statement. “Since Democrats have sabotaged backroom talks with absurd demands that would not help working people, I support President Trump exploring his options to get unemployment benefits and other relief to the people who need them the most.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) took to Twitter and said Trump “puts the American ppl first compared to nonstop political games by Democrats.”

“I applaud @realDonaldTrump executive actions to help the American ppl,” the Iowa Republican wrote. “Democrats all or nothing strategy jeopardizes the certainty Americans need to pay their bills.”

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chided Democrats for holding up the bill, didn’t support the president circumventing Congress.

“The president is doing all he can to help workers, students and renters, but Congress is the one who should be acting,” Alexander tweeted.

Trump extends student loan relief through year’s end


President Donald Trump on Saturday signed an executive order continuing the pause on monthly payments and interest for many federal student loan borrowers until the end of the year.

Trump’s order is aimed at circumventing Congress to extend the emergency student loan relief granted in March under the CARES Act. That payment leeway is set to expire for roughly 40 million Americans on Sept. 30, just weeks before the presidential election.

“Today I’m extending this policy through the end of the year, and we’ll extend it further than that, most likely right after Dec. 1,” the president said before signing the order.

The White House memorandum said an extension of student loan leeway is “appropriate … until such time that the economy has stabilized, schools have re-opened, and the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.”

The executive action provides less expansive student loan relief than some Democrats and Republicans in Congress have sought. The policy will continue to exclude roughly 9 million federal student loan borrowers whose debt is held by private lenders or their colleges.

Congressional Democrats have proposed expanding student loan relief to cover more borrowers and extending the protections for at least another year.

The Senate GOP stimulus plan released last month would allow the CARES Act student loan relief to expire. But there have been increasing calls from Republicans to provide an extension of those benefits.

As negotiations over the next round of coronavirus relief remains stalled on Capitol Hill, Trump said on Saturday that he was taking immediate action to provide borrowers with relief because administration officials have “had it” with Democrats “obstructing” the deal-making.

Trump’s order directs Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to take the necessary steps needed to continue the temporary pause on payments and the waiver of all interest on student loans held by the Education Department until Dec. 31.

Trump in March unilaterally suspended interest on federally held student loans, and the Education Department said borrowers could stop payments if they first contacted their loan servicers. The CARES Act then codified that policy into law this spring and took it a step further, automatically suspending monthly payments.

The president’s executive action will likely prove complicated for the Education Department and the companies hired to implement the policy in the coming weeks.

The CARES Act, for example, requires the department to send out notices to borrowers about the Sept. 30 expiration of benefits. The department had been preparing to begin sending those warnings as early as next week, and it is unclear whether the administration has the authority to halt them.

The mishmash of student loan relief provided through Congress and executive action could also create challenges in implementing the freeze on payments and interest.

For instance, the CARES Act required the Education Department to treat suspended monthly payments as on-time payments for the purposes of federal loan forgiveness, including under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. It is unclear whether the Education Department will continue that benefit.

‘Like Groundhog Day’: Republicans fret over Trump’s fading fortunes


President Donald Trump is in an August, coronavirus-induced slump — and his team is feeling it.

The White House’s negotiations with Capitol Hill over a fourth economic stimulus package fell apart on Friday after three weeks of stalled talks, leaving aggrieved administration officials to suggest Trump just take unilateral action. The number of coronavirus deaths continues to rise, and Trump has yet to present a promised strategy to curb the spread of the virus. Trump and his team are having trouble settling on a daily message — or finding a way to effectively wound Joe Biden, the president’s presumptive 2020 rival.

It’s all added up to an ever-growing sense of doom and gloom about the president’s political future.

Recent national polls show Trump trailing Biden by anywhere from 3 to 10 percentage points, with swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania increasingly up for grabs. Some Republican donors and outside groups are even focusing their attention away from the White House to holding on to the Republican majority in the Senate, according to three Republicans close to the White House. Several Trump allies acknowledge if the election was held today, Trump would likely lose.

“It is kind of like Groundhog Day,” said one of the Republicans close to the White House. “You think it’s better, but then it is not.”

Trump’s allies and political advisers acknowledge the polling on Trump is not great but insist he can overcome the setback. A top Trump campaign official said the campaign was focused on its own internal polls, which the official said shows Trump either matched with or ahead of Biden in the 17 key states the campaign is monitoring. The official declined to offer more specifics.

One political adviser argued that If Trump can close the gap with Biden to just 4 percentage points in the coming months, he could win — even if it is by a small margin. The person noted Trump was similarly behind in the polls in August 2016 before prevailing in November.

“Trump is better at running behind than ahead because it makes him more aggressive. He won’t take it for granted,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Trump donor who runs an oil drilling company. “The lesson in 2016 supposedly was that the media and polling was wrong, but I throw away that line of thinking. The lesson I draw away from 2016 was Trump didn’t want to lose. He did not want to be a loser, so that motivated him.”

But with just three months until the presidential election, numerous Republicans and administration officials are not sure Trump will be able to pull off another upset win.

His administration’s handling of the coronavirus has hurt his standing with senior citizens, suburban voters, independents and women — and if schools do not reopen this fall, it will offer another illustration of how the U.S. has fallen behind other developed countries in combating the virus.

For months, top White House officials have battled over how to message the administration’s coronavirus work — arguing over the best language and debating over whether to hold Covid-19-specific briefings. Yet officials say the same level of attention has not been applied to the actual solutions associated with fighting a pandemic.

Several current and former senior administration officials said they feel the White House is obsessed with the president’s image at the expense of making meaningful policy decisions — on either fighting the virus or successfully working with Congress to pass another stimulus bill.

“They are so concerned with the optics right now, but where is the substance these days?” said one former senior administration official. “Who is working on the policy ideas we will tackle in the second term? Instead, we are too busy worrying about the messaging.”

One White House official said aides are working on the policy process for a second-term agenda, which will include continuing to respond to the coronavirus, rebuilding the economy, securing better trade deals and standing up for law and order — all while continuing to push policy priorities through executive orders.

The same aide added that stalled negotiations on the Hill are Democrats’ fault.

Morale inside the White House remains low — a throwback, officials say, to the early chaotic days under then-chief of staff Reince Priebus, when backbiting consumed officials’ time. These days, decisions are increasingly made by a tiny circle of top advisers, like Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law; Hope Hicks, the longtime Trump communications aide; and chief of staff Mark Meadows — leaving whole offices inside the White House sidelined.

The Office of Legislative Affairs, for instance, has largely been excluded from the negotiations playing out on Capitol Hill — even though its entire job consists of coordinating with lawmakers and their staff.

Several White House and administration officials have also started to reach out to other Republicans to try to find jobs in the private sector as quickly as possible — both because they feel their roles inside the White House have diminished and because there is consternation that they need to find new gigs in case Trump loses in November, drying up the market for Trump-connected aides.

“Anyone who underestimates or writes off President Trump does so at their own peril,” said White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere. “The president and his entire administration are focused every day on keeping the promises he’s made the American people, defeating the China virus, opening our economy safely and responsibly preparing for a second term that will ensure America is safer, stronger and more prosperous than ever before.”

A campaign official disputed the notion that anyone inside its headquarters feels a sense of pessimism about the president’s prospects.

“There are 86 one-day campaigns left in the race, and even fewer if you consider early voting,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign communications director. “Every day there is a game-day mentality inside the campaign. If we win more days than Joe Biden wins, President Trump will be reelected. It’s as simple as that.”

Several Trump allies and aides are happy with the new team running the campaign, including campaign manager Bill Stepien and senior adviser Jason Miller. Together, the duo brings a tactical knowledge of individual battleground states, as well as a good sense of how to sell ideas to a mercurial Trump.

The Trump campaign is also starting to settle on its message to hit Biden, attempting to define him as a candidate who will do the far-left’s bidding if he wins the White House.

The campaign is focused on rolling out advertising in states like Georgia, Ohio and Florida — all early voting states, and an official said the team has been heartened by Trump’s continued and strong fundraising and the recent drop in unemployment. Advisers are hopeful Biden’s upcoming vice presidential pick will give them new fodder to attack the Democratic ticket as overly progressive or part of the “deep state.”

“We are in a better position now than we were two weeks ago, and there are still 17 weeks left,” said another Trump political adviser. “The minute Biden announces a VP, there is no more hiding. That is the best moment for the Trump campaign to talk about this presidential campaign and make the contrast.”

Other Republicans argue that unless Trump becomes a more disciplined candidate, he will continue to fall behind in the polls — and staying on message has never been Trump’s strong suit.

Some outside conservative groups and donors are increasingly turning their attention and money away from Trump and toward maintaining Republican control of the Senate. But longtime operatives say it will be impossible to divorce Trump’s policies, proclamations and tweets from the fate of Republican senators, several of whom now occupy vulnerable seats in Colorado, Maine and Iowa.

“Back in the winter and spring, donors poured everything into Trump,” said a second Republican close to the White House. “But now all they are thinking about is the Senate. The Senate is the Alamo right now.”

Trump antagonizes GOP megadonor Adelson in heated phone call


When President Donald Trump connected by phone last week with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson — perhaps the only person in the party who can cut a nine-figure check to aid his reelection — the phone call unexpectedly turned contentious.

The 87-year-old casino mogul had reached out to Trump to talk about the coronavirus relief bill and the economy. But then Trump brought the conversation around to the campaign and confronted Adelson about why he wasn’t doing more to bolster his reelection, according to three people with direct knowledge of the call. One of the people said it was apparent the president had no idea how much Adelson, who’s donated tens of millions of dollars to pro-Trump efforts over the years, had helped him. Adelson chose not to come back at Trump.

When word of the call circulated afterward, Republican Party officials grew alarmed the president had antagonized one of his biggest benefactors at a precarious moment in his campaign. They rushed to smooth things over with him, but the damage may have been done.

Adelson’s allies say it’s unclear whether the episode will dissuade the Las Vegas mogul — long regarded as a financial linchpin for Trump’s reelection — from helping the president down the home stretch.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The president needs the money. With less than three months until the election, he is overwhelmed by a flood of liberal super PAC spending that his party has failed to match. Since this spring, outside groups supporting Joe Biden have outspent their pro-Trump counterparts nearly 3-to-1, an influx that’s helped to erase the president’s longstanding financial advantage.

Now, Republican leaders are pleading to billionaires for help. Trump advisers are pining for new outside groups to form, and the White House is growing anxious to see what Adelson, who has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican super PACs over the past decade, will do.

“It’s important that the word get out to donors that we need the super PACs and we need them to step up to the plate,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, whose group is poised to launch a $5 million TV campaign next week. “There hasn’t been the urgency on the super PAC side. But now we’re seeing that you’ve got to take care of that, too.”

The avalanche of spending on the left isn’t expected to end anytime soon. Pro-Biden groups have reserved over $70 million on the TV airwaves between now and the election, while Trump-allied groups have booked just $42 million, according to the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics.


The Trump-blessed America First Action has been outraised and outspent by the leading pro-Biden Super PAC Priorities USA, which has been running an array of blistering commercials hitting Trump over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans point to an array of reasons for America First’s struggles. Some of the president’s aides point out that, much to their frustration, he has shown less interest in super PAC fundraising than Barack Obama did ahead of his successful 2012 reelection. He’s also shown a reluctance to do the kind of glad-handing, cold-calling, and grooming of billionaires needed to cultivate a well-funded super PAC.

Others say big Republican givers are holding back checks because of the potential business fallout of being a major Trump contributor. After word surfaced that fitness company executive Stephen Ross was hosting a Hamptons fundraiser for Trump, patrons at his Equinox and SoulCycle chains staged a boycott.

With Trump trailing badly, some donors are more interested in bankrolling efforts to save the GOP’s Senate majority. Among the contributors who’ve cut checks to the super PAC for Senate Republicans but not Trump’s are hedge fund manager Paul Singer, investor Charles Schwab, and real estate developer Mel Sembler.

Others say there is simply exhaustion with Trump and disgust at his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who has contributed to America First Action, pointed to what he described as an “enthusiasm gap among super PAC donors.”

“We are getting clobbered,” he said. “The left-leaning super PACs are bringing a lot more air support to team Biden than the ones on the right are bringing to team Trump, unfortunately.”

The president’s advisers blame America First for its struggles. They point to its decision to wait until spring to take on Biden and to its $4 million investment on a TV commercial that spotlighted Vice President Mike Pence but made no mention of Trump. The move infuriated the president’s advisers; on the morning the commercial was launched, a Trump adviser reached out to a POLITICO reporter unprompted to blast the move.

America First Action President Brian Walsh said the organization’s nonprofit arm had chosen to feature Pence to highlight remarks he had made at an event it had hosted focused on the economic recovery.

“No other outside group has raised or spent more to help reelect Donald Trump. No other outside group has stood with our president since day one. Period,” Walsh said. “We have been on the air, online and in mailboxes since April and continue to be so today.”

While America First Action has the White House’s imprimatur, ongoing concerns about the group have triggered conversations about whether an alternative super PAC should form. While Adelson is unlikely to donate to America First Action, allies say, he is open to funding another pro-Trump outfit.

But some Republicans say that having multiple super PACs could cause confusion among donors about which outfit to support.

Christopher Ekstrom, a Dallas investor who backed Ted Cruz’s 2016 primary campaign, recalled that the Texas senator had an array of super PACs. Some potential givers, he recalled, wound up not giving to any of them.

“Team Trump was wise to centralize their super PAC after his victory and prevent their super PAC from being Balkanized,” said Ekstrom, who has given over $20,000 to pro-Trump causes this election cycle.

Republicans are confronting an array of liberal groups, ranging from Priorities USA to American Bridge to Future Forward, all of which have booked millions of dollars in TV spending. Even as Biden has struggled to keep pace with Trump on the fundraising front, there are concerns in Republican circles that the liberal organizations could do damage to the president.

Republican strategist Ken Spain noted that “neither candidate will lose because of lack of resources at this point,” but added: “The Democratic donor class has coalesced and built a rival apparatus to that of the Trump campaign and its allies.”

With both sides flush with cash, there will be no shortage of TV commercials from either side. Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican ad maker who helped to steer a pro-Trump super PAC in 2016, said voters would be more focused on the individual performances of Trump and Biden.

“The most powerful media driver in a presidential [campaign] is the candidate. The candidate makes news and drives the agenda. That’s the good news for Donald Trump,” Castellanos said. “Sometimes, that’s the bad news for Trump, too.”

How politics, personalities and price tags derailed Covid relief talks


What a difference five months make in the middle of a pandemic.

In March, as the coronavirus was beginning to hammer the United States, President Donald Trump and congressional leaders from both parties were able to quickly pass a $2.2 trillion relief package providing a financial lifeline to millions of workers and tens of thousands of small businesses facing an apocalyptic economic slowdown.

There were some bitter partisan disputes inside the Senate as the bill was crafted, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wore out a path trodding between the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) as they put together the final deal. In the end, though, one of the most expensive pieces of legislation in history sailed through Congress without a single “no” vote.

Fast forward to August. More than 160,000 Americans are dead, unemployment has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression while federal payments to laid-off workers have expired, millions more face possible eviction, and coronavirus cases continue to spike nationwide. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House are mired in their ancient, all-consuming gridlock.

Two weeks of closed-door talks — with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Schumer facing off against White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Mnuchin — failed to lead to a breakthrough on a new coronavirus relief package. The two sides remained hundreds of billions of dollars apart on overall spending for the new package, and even more importantly, were separated by a huge ideological chasm over what role the government should play at this point in the calamity.

“It would be nice to do [a deal] with Democrats, but they’re just interested in one thing — and that’s protecting people who have not done a good job in managing cities and states,” Trump said on Friday night during a press conference at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

Amid the deadlock, Trump said he would issue a series of executive orders in the coming days to address the economic fallout from the pandemic. The orders are likely to divert tens of billions of dollars in congressionally approved funds to reinstitute federal unemployment payments, reimpose an eviction moratorium, continue the suspension of student loan payments and defer federal payroll tax payments. The unilateral moves could easily draw challenges in court.

Pelosi and Schumer expressed dismay at Trump’s expected executive orders, which had been telegraphed by Meadows all week.

“It doesn’t cover [the] opening of schools. It doesn’t cover testing,” Schumer complained. “It doesn’t cover dealing with rental assistance. It doesn’t cover elections. It doesn’t cover so many things. There’s a long list, I could go on and on and on.”

But the massive failure by the nation’s leaders to find a consensus only months after a major bipartisan success comes down to a number of factors, both personal and political.

The elections are only 88 days away, and both sides are gambling that they’ve got more to gain from a stalemate than a deal. Personality clashes also infused the talks, with the presence of the conservative Meadows having a huge impact on the outcome. Many Republicans in both chambers didn’t want any deal in the first place, citing the growing national debt and arguing unspent money from March’s CARES Act should be pushed out before additional funds were approved. And then there was the growing emotional and psychological fatigue with the crisis itself, spurred on by a president who wants to see the country reopen as fast as possible to help his own political prospects.

Meadows, in particular, was singled out by Democrats as a major roadblock to any deal. Democrats point out that they were able to reach earlier agreements with the White House when Mnuchin was the point man and say Meadows’ presence in the talks has proven an unwelcome addition.

“[Meadows’] positions are quite hardened and non-compromising, more so than Mnuchin,” Schumer said of the co-founder of the hard-line Freedom Caucus. Democrats assert privately that Meadows was brought in “to blow up a deal,” while Mnuchin is there “to get something done.”

Meadows, however, wasn’t having any of it. The former North Carolina lawmaker — who became Trump’s fourth chief of staff in late March — said he and Mnuchin offered “many concessions” during the seemingly interminable round of face-to-face discussions, only to run into unreasonable Democratic resistance.

“I think it’s interesting just to hear the comments from Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi saying that they want a deal, when behind closed doors their actions do not indicate the same thing,” he countered.

Pelosi, meanwhile, lashed out at McConnell for only beginning negotiations in July. Pelosi noted that the House passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May. McConnell, though, scoffed at that legislation as nothing more than a Democratic wish list, and he repeatedly said the Senate would come up with its own plan.

“Mitch McConnell said pause, he pushed the pause button,” Pelosi said. “If we had acted in a closer time then so many lives and livelihoods would have been saved.”

In an interview with POLITICO this week, McConnell defended his decision to wait, arguing that a significant amount of the money from CARES had yet to be spent.

And McConnell also acknowledged that March’s political environment can’t be replicated now.

“It’s a lot harder now than it was four months ago,” McConnell said. “We’re that much closer to the election.”

At the end, though, the biggest problem was the price tag of a new deal.

Republican lawmakers and the White House wanted to keep the cost of what was likely to be the year’s last round of coronavirus relief legislation to $1 trillion. Pelosi and Schumer pushed a Democratic alternative that would cost well over $3 trillion, although they told reporters on Friday that the pair offered to cut a trillion dollars off that total in order to reach a deal. Schumer said he was dismayed when Mnuchin and Meadows didn’t leap at his proposal.

“And you should have seen their faces,” Schumer exclaimed.

With the election three months away, the political stakes of the impasse are high and it’s not yet clear which party will suffer most from the botched negotiations.

Trump is sinking in the polls and the GOP-controlled Senate is in play. Unlike when he was pushing the March CARES Act, McConnell now leads a deeply divided caucus, including incumbents facing reelection who want something to campaign on and fiscal hawks who want to see federal spending drastically cut back. If the economic misery increases, the party in power is likeliest to be blamed.

But Democrats are taking a risk too in rejecting any type of short-term agreement and could face some heat for the lapsed unemployment benefits in particular if they come to be seen as the roadblock.

The federal payments that expired at the end of July were $600 per week. The most recent White House offer was $400-per-week for five months, or state agencies would be allowed to determine a payment of up to 70 percent of a worker’s lost income with a $600 weekly cap. Pelosi and Schumer rejected the offer, saying they wanted $600-per-week into 2021.

Democrats are also seeking $915 billion in financial aid for state and local governments over two years, a staggering amount of money that the White House and Senate Republicans said was unreasonable. Republicans offered $150 billion for one year. That huge gap was a major area of disagreement.

There were other important policy disputes — election security funding, money to reopen schools, and aid to renters and homeowners, among others.

“I said come back when you’re ready to give a higher number,” Pelosi said.

Perhaps lost in the whole partisan dispute, however, was a sense of the scale of government aid being talked about here. The late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) was famous for his line, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” That’s a mere pittance in the current crisis.

“We come down a trillion from our top number which was $3.4 [trillion.] They go up a trillion, from their top number which was $1 [trillion], and that way, we could begin to meet in the middle, Schumer said after the negotiations had collapsed. “Unfortunately, they rejected it. They said they couldn’t go much above their existing $1 trillion, and that was disappointing.”

Negotiators fail to reach deal in coronavirus relief talks


Last-ditch negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package failed to yield a deal Friday, ending talks for now and leaving bitter feelings among White House officials and Democratic leaders.

After a 90-minute meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said they would tell President Donald Trump to take executive action to alleviate the economic fallout from the pandemic amid the impasse.

“[Meadows] and I will recommend to the president, based upon our lack of activity today, to move forward with some executive orders,” Mnuchin told reporters.

Mnuchin added that the president’s orders would address expired unemployment insurance benefits and eviction protections. It would also extend the current suspension of student loan payments and defer federal payroll tax payments. Members of both parties have opposed the payroll tax cut.

Friday’s meeting in Pelosi’s office capped off two weeks of closed-door negotiations between White House officials and Democratic leaders without a breakthrough. Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain unemployed and coronavirus cases and deaths continue to spike in many areas of the country.

Trump’s expected move to issue executive orders comes after Mnuchin and Meadows had publicly stated that Friday would be their deadline for a deal. The actions could draw legal challenges on whether Trump is exceeding his authority.

The president tweeted Friday that “Pelosi and Schumer [are] only interested in Bailout Money for poorly run Democrat cities and states.”

Clinching an agreement was never going to be easy. From the start, the White House and Democratic leaders were trillions of dollars apart, with Democrats pushing for the $3 trillion HEROES Act and the White House aiming to stay at $1 trillion. Senate Republicans also were divided on their own opening offer, with hard-line conservatives opposing additional federal spending.

Pelosi and Schumer said Friday that they were willing to cut down their ask by $1 trillion if the White House increased their offer by $1 trillion, a move administration officials rejected.

“There were only two choices for them. Negotiate with Democrats and meet us in the middle, don’t say it’s your way or no way, and if we do that, we can accomplish a whole lot of things,” Schumer said after the meeting. “The other choice is for them to do executive orders which by their own admission, they said it to us repeatedly is not close to as good.”

“I’ve told them come back when you are ready to give us a higher number,” Pelosi added.

Trump administration officials counter that Democrats showed only limited willingness to make compromises on some key issues. Meadows and Mnuchin pushed for a short-term deal that would address unemployment benefits and evictions, but Democrats said they did not want to take a piecemeal approach to negotiations.

Meadows said Friday that he was “extremely disappointed” to hear the same demands repeated from the last two weeks.

In their numerous discussions, Mnuchin, Meadows, Schumer and Pelosi made progress on narrowing their differences on unemployment insurance but remained far apart on state and local aid, election security funding and help for renters, among a host of other issues.

The impasse could not come at a worse time. The Labor Department reported Friday that the economy added 1.8 million jobs with the unemployment rate falling to 10.2 percent. But the rate of job growth has slowed, and 1.2 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week.

Adding to the economic pressure Americans are facing are the expiration of a moratorium on evictions and a $600 weekly federal boost in unemployment benefits from March’s $2 trillion CARES Act. Democrats sought to extend the $600 in the next coronavirus relief package, but Republicans argued the enhanced benefit provided a disincentive to go back to work.

The White House in closed-door negotiations this week offered a $400 weekly benefit until December, which Democrats rejected.

“It’s an opportunity,” Pelosi said Friday. “But we can’t have it be a missed opportunity to do that by settling for something so low, so beneath meeting the needs of the American people.”

Max Cohen contributed to this report.

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