CPAC2014: Donald Trump, Birther Till Death
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—In the weeks since Donald Trump scrapped with BuzzFeed, and since he gave Breitbart an exclusive pack of lies about how the site and its reporter had screwed him, I've come to think it was a brilliant stunt. Well, "brilliant" might oversell it. But Trump isn't entirely ignorant about the media, and he's started to learn how the conservative movement works. Isn't it possible that he baited BuzzFeed so he could attack the site from the right?
If so, it worked. Trump got a remarkably positive response at CPAC, even though his speech was marked by his standard nativist incoherence. (Most reporters in the room mocked him for referring to "the late Jimmy Carter." Carter is not dead.) While at CPAC, he did another exclusive with Breitbart, and stopped by—deep breath here—
"Celebrating American Entrepreneurship Reception with Donald Trump, sponsored by Citizens United and Young America's Foundation."
I reached the reception long after the "crudites shooters" and mini-bratwursts were gone, but right in time for Trump to answer a question about Barack Obama's citizenship. The mogul/laughingstock insisted that "an ABC reporter, who I respect" had totally been bested by him when the question came up.
"Where do you think he was born?" said Trump, quoting himself. "Do you think he was born here? He was like, 'I don't know, I'm not sure.' When I walk down the street, I have more people screaming at me—'Don't forget the birth certificate. It's the craziest thing! I have more people that shout out their car windows—that is not an issue that has not resonated.
He went on, recalling how he'd demanded Obama's college records, offering a cash prize for them. "To me, it's one of the most interesting things that none of these colleges have turned [his records] in. I hope it's positive, because if not, we have a sham president. It could be a way of collecting $50 million and giving it to charity. Why does somebody spend $3.5 million on legal fees? Why, when he was a very young man, did he do a book and on the cover of the book, it said 'a young man from Kenya.' The next day he said it was a typo."
The last few claims weren't even true, but Trump made them out of sorrow, not anger. "Someday it'll come out," he said. "I hope it's not true."
CPAC2014: Ted Cruz and the Nightmare of Iranian EMP Attacks
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—It's a short but frigid walk from CPAC to a less scripted and more intense all-day event. This year, as they've done since at least 2010, a group of foreign policy hawks and critics of "creeping Sharia" have put on an alternative program, inviting conservatives who either aren't at the main event or being given only a little time there.
In the past, this event's usually amounted to the Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney reairing charges that Grover Norquist is a simp for the Muslim Brotherhood. It's more fascinating this year—Breitbart (which sponsored 2013's event) has teamed up with EMPact, a group that raises awareness of the danger of possible electromagnetic pulse attacks, to put on nine hours of national security speeches. Sen. Ted Cruz had given a pretty agreeable but rote speech at CPAC. He saved his best material for a 39-minute address at the alternative event.
"Speaking the truth speaks courage," Cruz said at the start, "and that's one thing that Frank Gaffney has an abundance of."
Cruz told a cynic's history of the Obama years, reading through the jargon the White House had used to describe various outrages. Kinetic action. Leading from behind. "These are the words of fools," said Cruz. Contrast them with the words of Ronald Reagan, which would be passed between prisoners of the Soviet state, asking each other, "Did you see what Reagan said?"
Not that Cruz was calling for interventionism.
"Are we war-weary?" asked Cruz. "As a consequence to that, does that mean we are no longer willing to defend ourselves? I think that is a profound misreading of the American people. The Republican Party—you can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle."
He gave some examples. "I agree with Rand Paul that we should not engage with military conflict in Syria," Cruz said. The Obama administration had lost him when it described a strike not to achieve a long-term goal but to punish the state for contravening international law. "Tut tut, you violated international law, you're no longer welcome in our faculty lounge," snarked Cruz.
But he agreed with John McCain on Iran. "When Iran describes Israel as the Little Satan, and America as the Great Satan, we have every interest to make sure they don't acquire the weaponry to kill millions of Americans." Cruz imagined a nightmare scenario in which Iran detonated a bomb over "Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles." Detonated here, the effects of an EMP attack could kill "tens of millions of Americans."
Tens of millions? This was an incredibly effective line in the room, which contained about 100 people, to CPAC's 11,000.
CPAC2014: Chris Christie Not Booed Offstage or Chased by Villagers
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The semi-official media narrative leading into this CPAC was that Chris Christie—shockingly denied a speaking slot in 2013!—would show up. How would he be received? How could he talk to conservatives?
People: Christie is an excellent politician. Of course he was received well, and of course he knew how to talk to the sort of audience that would approve the demotion of atheist and gay GOP groups. (Some of their flocks showed up anyway.) Christie informed the crowd that "only twice since Roe v. Wade" had a pro-life Republican been elected statewide in New Jersey. Hint, hint—his name was Chris Christie. Conservatives, he said, had to stop "letting the media" tell them how to behave. Why, for example, some snot-nosed J-school hyena had recently asked him if he could survive in a GOP that had so many social extremists.
"We've had people like Colin Powell, Tom Ridge, and Condoleezza Rice speak at our conventions," said Christie. "When's the last time you saw a pro-life Democrat speak at their convention?" Spoiler: "Never."
Christie did nothing that would upset his audience. No foreign policy talk apart from deriding the president for "letting other countries walk all over us." No mention of his Medicaid expansion, which he's defended many times, but a generic plea for Republicans to say "what we're for."
Live From CPAC: Day One
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—When I told Slate's editor-in-chief, David Plotz, where I'd be today, he expressed some characteristic surprise.
"It's always CPAC!" he said. "It's like Fashion Week—it's always happening."
Sometimes it seems like that. CPAC remains the marquee political conference in Washington, one that draws (this year) 11,000 activists and (every year) hundreds of journalists who want to understand the conservative movement the way a college freshman understands macroeconomics via one weekend of Adderal-fueled cramming.
Which is to say: It works! CPAC is always something of a challenge to insta-blog/insta-analyze—unless you want to be tethered to a chair in the dark, you can't do it. (There are plenty of people to blog the biggest gaffes/zingers/gazingers from the stage.) So I'm running around today, but have so far seen:
- Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey methodically walk the general audience through the defeat of Obama's DOJ/Civil Rights Division nominee, never mentioning his colleague, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. (I've noticed that Tea Party Patriots is also taking credit for marshaling grassroots opposition to the nominee. It's hard to see how the Fraternal Order of Police in Pennsylvania doesn't deserve the credit.)
- Sen. Mitch McConnell saying farewell to his colleague, retiring Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, by telling the audience that Coburn empties his pockets and goes through metal detectors at the Capitol. "He doesn't have to do it, but he does," said McConnell. "He's the only senator I know who does that every single morning." It was of a piece of McConnell's critique of the Democrats, that they were functionally elitists under whom "the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer."
- Sens. Ted Cruz and Tim Scott being chased by throngs of college students and international reporters, whipping up such a frenzy that security had to cut off the interlopers at a barrier. Escaping the scrum, I overheard some of the college students comparing notes.
"I just shook hands with Tim Scott."
"That just happened!"
Darrell Issa Is Tired of Democrats Ruining His Disappointing Hearings
Thank goodness for the crisis in Crimea and the agonies of health care reform, because the old Republican dream of bringing down the Obama administration via Darrell Issa's investigations is looking rough. Issa had an ultimately unsatisfying 2013, resorting at one point to twitpic-ing empty chairs at a hearing to imply that Democrats didn't care about Benghazi victims. Issa wanted headlines about Lois Lerner, who showed up and pleaded the Fifth; he got this.
This so angered team Issa that Kurt Bardella, formerly his spokesman and now an independent consultant, wrote a column for Breitbart about Elijah Cummings' "performance," and how he'd only come to serve as ranking member to throw the media off the real story.
Russia Today Anchor Quits Over Ukraine Coverage; Former Host Says Network’s Credibility Is “Destroyed”
One of the odd features of covering libertarians and conservatives in Washington is that you bump into RT. The Kremlin-funded news network has been here for years, building up staffs of young reporters, with some of its talent finding work at HuffPost Live and MSNBC. Easy to see why; when, you know, Russia isn't currently invading a sovereign nation, RT is covering America from a declinist, civil libertarian perspective. RT's all over the WikiLeaks and Snowden stories; RT's covering Rand and Ron Paul whenever they make a peep.
Currently, Russia is invading a sovereign nation. Its coverage of the Crimean crisis has been as slanted to the Putin side of things as the average Boston fan blog is favorable to the Bruins and Red Sox. So far, two of RT's American on-air talents have revolted. First, Abby Martin (whose previous reporting and activism had delved into conspiracy theories about 9/11) told her viewers that she opposed "state violence" and Russia's war.
Today, RT reporter Liz Wahl ended her broadcast by condemning the invasion and announcing her resignation, effective then and there.
Shortly after Wahl did this, as the video was getting around, I talked to former RT host Adam Kokesh. In 2011 the libertarian anti-war veteran and activist had hosted a series called Adam vs. the Man. It didn't last long. He returned to activism, eventually getting arrested for purposefully violating D.C's gun laws (he held a gun, on camera, coincidentally across the street from the D.C. Council), then getting out of jail.
"I've seen some of the horrendously biased coverage that's come out recently on RT," Kokesh told me over the phone. "When a news organization's becomes so that it challenges its credibility, people don't want to associate with it. I think that's what happened here. Their credibility is destroyed, and people who want to preserve their credibility will dissociate with them."
Kokesh had joined RT a while after the network covered Russia's intervention in Georgia. Had that bothered him, that association, at the time?
"When I was at RT, I maintain my standards and my editorial integrity absolutely," said Kokesh. "They knew that, and that was the primary reason they ended the show."
UPDATE: Jamie Kirchick, who definitely has earned dibs on all RT stories, talks to Wahl. She is torching anything that looks vaguely like a bridge.
“It actually makes me feel sick that I worked there,” Wahl says. “It’s not a sound news organization, not when your agenda is making America look bad.” As much as Wahl had to suppress her guilty conscience during the two-and-a-half-years she worked for RT, she believes it’s the networks viewers—1.2 billion on YouTube—who are hurt most by its constant and deliberate distortion of the truth. “In a way I feel bad for those people because they really believe strongly that we’re telling the truth and we’re on the right side. And that’s crazy to me.”
And Rosie Gray has a statement from RT, which labels its former host a grandstander who wouldn't "quit like a professional."
James O'Keefe Says a New Voting Rights Bill is Racist Against Whites
Rep. James Sensenbrenner isn't the easiest congressman to get hold of. He does not stop in the halls to talk, unplanned, with reporters. He does not beckon the national media into his town hall meetings. So, kudos to James O'Keefe for going undercover, in hunting gear for some reason, and posing as a constituent. It's just confusing what he decided to do when he got in the room. O'Keefe insists that Sensenbrenner's attempt to restore some version of voting rights law pre-clearance is de facto racist.
There is no mention of the "Voting Rights Act" in the intro. It's called "a part of federal law that gives Eric Holder the power to approve election law in 16 states," and Sensenbrenner's amendment is called "legislation to give Eric Holder back power over state elections." Framed that way, what conservative could possibly support it?
In the room, asking questions, O'Keefe does use the law's name. He asks Sensenbrenner whether it's true that the bill "removes white people from the protections of the Voting Rights Act." Sensenbrenner says it isn't -- a red buzzer goes off. We're directed to language in Sec. III, subsection 4 of the bill, which defines "the term 'minority' as used throughout.
This is strange. That's not the bill's only mention of race -- it's a pretty trivial one, actually. The meat is in Sec. II.
Types of Violations.-- Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973a(c)) is amended by striking ``violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment'' and inserting ``violations of the 14th or 15th Amendment; violations of this Act (other than a violation of section 2(a) which is based on the imposition of a requirement that an individual provide a photo identification as a condition of receiving a ballot for voting in an election for Federal, State, or local office); or violations of any Federal voting rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
Discrimination "on the basis of race" or "color" isn't limited to one race or to non-whites. Later, the bill describes a "voting rights violation" as when "any court of the United States has determined that a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority."
Sure, there's more to the bill. The SCOTUS decision on VRA ended "pre-clearance" for a group of states that had histories of discrimination in voting. The amendment doesn't restore that standard. Its new standard includes special scrutiny for states or counties if they had, among other things, "extremely low minority turnout during the previous 15 calendar years." Yes, that "minority" refers to non-whites. But it doesn't, say, immediately put Texas back under the microscope.
But most people who covered the bill have been over this already. O'Keefe's claims just don't wash. For real news value in the video, we're left with this odd statement from Sensenbrenner.
I hope the president vetoes the bill... if the president loses this bill, he will lose an awful lot of the African-American support that he has.
That's pretty cynical, and it implies that the bill is designed to be good for blacks. An odd bookend to a day that saw a nominee to run DOJ's civil rights division taken down because he defended a convicted cop killer and yammered too honestly about the Voting Rights Act. The more conservatives believe that the VRA will be rigged against them, the easier it'll be to block nominees or amendments.
McCain, Rubio, and Graham Appreciate Hillary Clinton’s Putin-as-Hitler Analogy
Yesterday Hillary Clinton spoke at a private event to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Long Beach—so, naturally, she talked about Hitler. The Long Beach Press-Telegram got audio of Clinton's comments about the strategy and precedent of the current Russian incursion into Crimea. This part understandably created some agita.
Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the '30s. All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right, I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.
This is not the official position of the Obama administration. It's also the sort of analogy that would light up Media Matters or your favorite conservative derp site if uttered by a Republican. Conveniently enough, after today's DOJ vote, some of the Congress's leading hawks were asked by reporters whether they agreed with Clinton.
"Good!" said Arizona Sen. John McCain, reacting to a paraphrase of Clinton's analogy. "I think I did that in the last couple days. The point is that if Putin is allowed to go into a sovereign nation on behalf of Russian-speaking people, this is the same thing that Hitler did prior to World War II. Went into the Sudetenland on behalf of German-speaking people. So I am pleased that Hillary Clinton is commenting on it."
What about you, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio?
"There certainly are similarities," said the senator, who'd been winning plaudits on the right for his reactions to the Crimea and Venezuelan crises. "I mean, I think Nazi Germany stands on its own as a unique and barbaric government. There's certainly no peer in terms of its brutality. I think the point she was making, was that in terms of the claims they've made, that they need to move into a neighboring country to protect an ethnic group tied to them are similar to the arguments Hitler made in the 1930s."
And what about South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham? He had the most deliberate answer of the three.
"I don't think that Putin wants to kill all the Jews," Graham said. "I don't think he wants to take over Europe. I think he does want to expand beyond his borders, and the justification he's using is just what Hitler used. I'm not saying he's Hitler—I'm saying he's an autocratic dictator who's suppressed freedom in his own country, and his goal is to snuff out efforts by people who live around him, under his sphere of influence, to have their freedom. She's right in this regard: The excuse given by Hitler, when going into the Sudetenland, was that he had to protect the German people. But I don't think either of us are saying Putin is Hitler."
And how did he take the comment coming from Clinton? "She understands that if she wants to run for president, she needs to drop this failed foreign policy like a hot potato. Well, good luck—she had her chance to influence it. Why is the Congress acting, why are they tripping over themselves to do something? Well, because we don't think the president will."
McCain said much the same thing. "The whole administration deserves the blame, everybody, for the weakness and total misperception of the nature of Vladimir Putin. Pushing the reset button is certainly a demonstration of that."
Senate Blocks Nominee Because He Defended Mumia Abu-Jamal
Six years ago, freshman Sen. Bob Casey took a risk and endorsed Barack Obama for president. He had little to gain. Hillary Clinton was always favored to win his state in the April primary, and she went on to do so convincingly. Casey would share a ballot with Obama in 2012, but he'd win more votes than the president. His constituency was stronger than Obama's, even if he was a less thrilling politician. He rarely needed to break with the president.
Until this month. Obama had nominated Debo Adegbile, a New York civil rights litigator, to lead the DOJ's Civil Rights Division. Conservatives would oppose Adegbile because of his views on voting rights, but that alone wouldn't stop the nomination of a former Sesame Street actor. What could? Well: In 2009, Adegbile was part of a legal team that represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of the murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner 28 years earlier. This was a horror to Pennsylvania's police unions, and the Fraternal Order of Police opposed Adegbile.
So did Casey. "It is important that we ensure that Pennsylvanians and citizens across the country have full confidence in their public representatives—both elected and appointed," he said last week. "The vicious murder of Officer Faulkner in the line of duty and the events that followed in the 30 years since his death have left open wounds for Maureen Faulkner and her family as well as the City of Philadelphia."
This gave conservatives an opening. On social media, they pre-emptively attacked Democrats who might support a "cop killer lawyer." And they won. The test vote today was 52–47 against. Harry Reid had voted "nay" to retain the ability to bring up Adegbile again, but Texas Sen. John Cornyn (newly victorious over one of history's worst primary challengers) was MIA. Point is, there were 52 hard votes to block Adegbile, including every Republican and Bob Casey, Chris Coons, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Mark Pryor, and John Walsh.
The latter two senators are fighting re-election bids this year in red states. Coons voted no, he said, because he was "respecting the concerns" of the police. Donnelly, Manchin, and Heitkamp aren't on ballots again until 2018. All of them were following the lead of Casey.
"I'm encouraged that people on their side are looking at the quality of the nominee," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. "This guy was just so over-the-top."
Here's a classic clip of Debo on Sesame Street. (He's the human boy, not the muppet.)
It’s the 11-Month Anniversary of Scott Brown Not Running for Senate
Let it not pass without notice: March 5 is a historic anniversary. It was 11 months ago today that Scott Brown, who'd just lost re-election to his U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, appeared in Nashua, N.H., and refused to "rule out" a run there. Democrats got a little worried. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who won the state's Senate seat in 2008, would be on the ballot again in November 2014.
No Republican then living in New Hampshire looked strong enough to challenge her. But Brown, by dint of his surprise win in Massachusetts' January 2010 special election, fills Democrats with unreasonable terror. And the media loves covering Scott Brown. There commenced a long period of speculation:
April 14, 2013: "Scott Brown Might Be Pondering Another Senate Run."
Aug. 19, 2013: "Former Sen. Scott Brown Has Funds to Spend."
Nov. 8, 2013: "Scott Brown Gets a Plea to Run in NH."
Dec. 5, 2013: "Will Scott Brown Run for Senate? Only He Knows For Sure."
Dec. 16, 2013: "Brown's Move to New Hampshire Fuels Talk of Senate Race."
Feb. 3, 2014: "Wondering if Scott Brown is serious about running in New Hampshire? This picture will clear it up."
Feb. 18, 2014: "Scott Brown no longer under contract with Fox News; Ex-senator mum on whether he will run in N.H."
Feb. 19, 2014: "Scott Brown Renews His Fox News Contract Despite Senate Rumors."
And today, finally: "Scott Brown Denies Fox News Host's Tweet That He's Running For Senate."
It's been 11 months. If Brown jumped into the race today, he'd have nine months to campaign. Plenty of time! But the total absence of a campaign doesn't mean the press can't speculate or Brown's rivals can't fulminate. Just this week, Shaheen's campaign sent its donor list an alert, headlined: "He's in." The "he" in question was Bob Smith, a two-term New Hampshire senator who lost in 2002, moved to Florida, ran for Senate for a while there, and moved back.