Progressives hunt down one of the last conservative Democrats

CHICAGO — Powerful interests are lined up against him. Outside spending groups are forming to advocate for his defeat. National political figures have endorsed his opponent.

And that’s just within Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski’s own party.

Lipinski, one of the few remaining conservative Democrats in Congress, is under siege from the left, battling for his political life against progressives who are teaming up to replace him with a candidate far more in line with liberal orthodoxy.

That candidate, Marie Newman, a businesswoman and former marketing consultant, already has high-profile endorsements from feminist icon Gloria Steinem and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — an unusual show of opposition against a fellow Democratic congressional incumbent.

Newman has also received a rare joint endorsement from a handful of influential progressive groups: NARAL,, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Human Rights Campaign.

While Lipinski is accustomed to drawing primary challenges in his Chicago-based district, he’s never before been targeted with so much local and national firepower.

“Dan Lipinski has a real, formidable challenger like he’s never had before. The environment is different … The energy is palpable,” said Sasha Bruce, vice president for campaigns and strategies with NARAL, referring to the energy created by resistance to President Donald Trump. “This is a staunchly progressive values-Democratic district.”

First elected in 2004, Lipinski is something of an exotic species: a Democrat who opposes abortion and cast votes against both the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act, which sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants.

He was the only Democrat to cosponsor the “First Amendment Defense Act,” which protects those who refuse services to same sex couples, and the only Illinois Democrat to support drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits — a move that has at least some union leaders considering opposing his reelection.

According to one analysis, Lipinski has voted in line with Trump’s positions 34.5 percent of the time — a legislative record that is begging for a primary challenge in a highly polarized era.

Some of those votes have left a bitter aftertaste in his solidly Democratic district, which includes Latino working class neighborhoods in Chicago — the district is roughly one-third Latino — and suburbs south of the city. Until recently, Lipinski was the only Illinois Democrat not to commit to supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

"There are quite a few precincts in the district that are heavily Latino, where immigration issues are of primary concern and he’s just never been anyone who has supported immigrants," said Democratic state Rep. Theresa Mah, whose own legislative district overlaps with the congressman’s.

Progressives long frustrated with Lipinski’s habit of siding with Republicans view the March 20 primary as the best chance they’ve had in years to unseat him. Some still harbor bad feelings toward Lipinski for the heavy-handed way his father, 22-year Congressman William Lipinski, engineered his son’s succession to the seat more than a decade ago.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has already aired a TV ad in his district that asks "Who is Dan working for? It sure isn’t us.” Along with other national progressive groups, they plan to put feet on the ground to knock on doors and campaign for Newman.

Lipinski pushes back against the characterization that he’s conservative — in fact, in 2016 he supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. The congressman notes that he and Sanders both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

Lipinski instead casts himself as a moderate voice in Congress who is willing to find middle ground on issues instead of adding to a polarized debate.

“There are people who just want me to follow in line and vote however the party says … We have gotten to a point where everything is black and white. You are either for something in theory or against something in theory, when a lot of these things come down to: what are the details? Let’s try and get the policy right,” he said. “I think my constituents see that is how I’ve always been… I think that’s a real hunger that a lot of Americans have. I’m not just going to be an automaton.

He maintains that he’s long cared for the needs of his constituents, bringing back tens of millions of dollars for transportation. He also points to his work to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the military and a requirement compelling the administration to publish a manufacturing strategy.

Lipinski said he won’t support a repeal of Obamacare, but doesn’t regret his vote against it — and notes he was reelected three times since then.

“There are Democrats who are a lot more conservative than I am on issues. I wish there were more moderate Democrats,” Lipinski told POLITICO. “I’m pro-life. I make no bones about that. Always have been. I think this painting me as somebody who is really conservative — I have a strong environmental record,” as well as support for seniors, Medicare and Social Security, he said.

Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury defends Lipinski, calling him an elected official who does all the little things right, like showing up to both parades and meetings with seniors.

“Of all our representatives in Congress, I have found him highly responsive, always engaged. He’s hands-on in the community… especially to some in the population, seniors, kids, veterans,” she said. Bury noted that Lipinski helped bring back a $1.35 million federal grant for fire protection. “I can’t speak for everybody, but Congressman Lipinski is very beloved in Oak Lawn.”


Why Democrats failed to tank tax reform

The tax fight has all the ingredients that helped Democrats kill Obamacare repeal: party unity on Capitol Hill, energized liberal activists and legislation that polls in the toilet. But this time it doesn’t appear to be enough.

Democrats haven’t given up hope of stopping the Republican tax plan on the 1-yard line — relentlessly flogging the substance and process of the bill — but the reasons for their likely failure are becoming clear.

While stripping people of health insurance strikes at a visceral human need, a debate over taxes tends to bog voters down in wonky details. Meanwhile, Democrats struggled to break through a media environment crowded with an intensifying Russia investigation, a wave of sexual harassment scandals and a fight over young undocumented immigrants. And while liberal grassroots activists sought to bring pressure to bear on GOP swing votes, the Republican Party held together this time, desperate for a major legislative victory after a year in total control of Washington.

Cutting taxes "is who they are," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of Republicans recently.

Pelosi argued that the GOP is in a "lose-lose situation." While donors are "not going to answer their calls anymore if they don’t pass the bill," she told reporters, "they’ll lose in the court of public opinion" if it does pass.

But after the morale boost that Democrats got from saving Obamacare earlier this year, it will be a real blow if the sweeping tax code rewrite makes its way to President Donald Trump’s desk as expected. The bill’s massive corporate tax cuts, which will help drain the Treasury of an estimated $1 trillion-plus over a decade, go against everything the party stands for. And Democrats’ next chance at serious revenge will be at the polls next year. Though they deployed the same playbook that took down Obamacare repeal, this time they met a very different outcome.

The tax debate “does feel different, I’ll acknowledge that,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview.

Ellison pointed to the emotional gap between Obamacare and taxes as being a critical factor.

“Everybody has sat in a hospital room with a loved one and felt that tension, that anxiety, that raw emotion of how critical it is to have health care,” Ellison said. “But when you start talking about taxes, it’s complicated.”

Republicans have focused their pitch for the tax bill on the singular message of a promise to pad Americans’ wallets. While some will ultimately see tax increases — which the minority has used to help drag down the bill’s popularity — Democrats say it’s much harder to explain that without getting in the weeds and seeing voters’ eyes glaze over.

"We understand how tough this is, to talk about taxes compared to health care," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Finance Committee, told reporters. "The tax code is a dense, complicated document which I sometimes compare to prolonged root canal work."

"But this tax bill is extraordinarily unpopular," Wyden added.

Voters disapprove of the Republican tax bill by a whopping 55-26 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. And 47 percent of independent voters reported being less likely to vote for any lawmaker who supports the bill.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), one of three House Democrats in charge of the caucus’ messaging, also pointed to the hyperactive pace of the news cycle as a hurdle.

In addition to taxes, lawmakers are confronting major developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe and sexual harassment allegations that have roiled Capitol Hill and led to the resignations of Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and the retirement of Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

Congressional leaders and female lawmakers have mobilized a long-dormant effort to overhaul Capitol Hill’s harassment policies. And lawmakers are bracing for the next allegations to come out.

“I think Washington is all-consumed by what’s going on with sexual harassment,” Bustos said.

Some Democrats have also privately grumbled that their party — particularly in the Senate — should have done more to stop Republicans from passing a two-week funding bill to keep the government running through Dec. 22. That, some Democrats say, gave Republicans two weeks of unfettered time to negotiate a tax bill and move it through the House and Senate before having to again deal with a potential government shutdown.

Republicans have also had fewer town hall events lately, giving liberal activists fewer opportunities to mobilize voters against the tax bill — a tactic they used to great effect against Obamacare repeal.

The left has tried to beat back the narrative that its grassroots is less interested in fighting tax cuts than saving Obamacare. While progressive groups acknowledge their opposition to the tax bill has generated less media attention, they argue activists are still making their voices heard. Protesters have ventured out to the Capitol in frigid temperatures, with dozens of activists risking arrest on the Hill during recent civil disobedience actions.

"Even though they haven’t been dominating the story in the press, I think members of Congress are well aware that their constituents oppose this thing with every cell in their bodies," Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview.

But the GOP senators who ultimately balked at Obamacare repeal — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona — came around to supporting the tax bill relatively easily. While Republicans never truly came to a consensus on a post-Obamacare health care system, the party has long been united around a desire to cut taxes.

Even Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the sole Republican to vote against the Senate’s version of the bill, has now decided to support the final compromise. Republican leaders are expressing confidence that they’ll be able to send the bill to President Donald Trump’s desk by Wednesday.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to surprise a few people by the size of the vote we have here,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told a Dallas radio station Friday a few hours before Corker announced he was on board. “The vice president is staying in country so if we need him he can cast a tie vote, but I’m betting we won’t need him.”

Indeed, even though Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) kept moderate Blue Dog House members and vulnerable Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia from providing bipartisan cover to the bill, Republicans can pass the tax bill all on their own using powerful procedures that sideline the minority.

And Democrats sense an urgency within the GOP to get taxes done that wasn’t there on health care.

“Part of it was the context,” said Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. “They needed a victory.”

Why We Shouldn’t Let the #MeToo Movement Change History

As if by unspoken assent, we’ve adopted a name for our overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault: It’s the “Me Too Moment.” “Me too,” everyone knows, comes from the Twitter hashtag by which women are sharing their experiences with sexual predators of various sorts after the New York Times’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein. But the word “moment” is significant as well. It reminds us that there’s a time factor at work, a historical element. Starting now, it promises, we’re taking a harder line against these offenses than we did in the past.

Most of us take some satisfaction in seeing women emboldened to speak out where they had once been intimidated and seeing justice finally delivered to rank offenders. But for those concerned about history, there’s also a danger in some of the arguments being tossed about. If we’re not attentive to the history implicit in the “Me Too Moment” phrase—the reality that people and the press viewed aberrant sexual behavior differently in other eras—we risk misinterpreting the past. If we expect historical actors to have abided by codes of behavior we set out in 2017, we betray the historical project of understanding why people acted as they did. This concern comes to mind with the deeply confused suggestion, now touted as a form of virtue-signaling, that Bill Clinton should have been removed from office during independent counsel Ken Starr’s jihad-like investigation of his sexual behavior in 1998.

There are lots of reasons why feminists and other liberals were in fact correct to defend Clinton during the impeachment saga. One is that the charges against him—lying about a consensual if still wildly inappropriate affair—just didn’t rise to the level of impeachment, the way Nixon’s constitutional crimes in Watergate had. To have countenanced Clinton’s impeachment or resignation would have dramatically lowered the bar for cashiering a president and legitimated the already rampant process of using scandal-mongering as a proxy for electoral politics. A second reason, newly hard to recall in this feverish moment, is that the claims of assault that a few people now regret downplaying were never established as true, and not even Starr saw fit to include them in his referral to Congress.

But perhaps the most profound if subtle reason for rejecting the retrospective support for impeachment or resignation is that it substitutes the norms of 2017 for those of another time. It’s one thing to wish that society had overall taken sexual harassment more seriously in the past (though it was hardly ignored in the 1990s, as some seem to think)—an innocuous though historically meaningless assertion. But it’s another to selectively readjudicate one specific political crisis by the standards of a different historical era—an act that risks distorting our understanding of how and why people acted as they did.

History requires reconstructing the thought processes of historical actors, which are invariably different from our own. The way people acted in the past was shaped by assumptions, conditions and norms, some of them deeply embedded in their culture. Those norms shift over time, and it can be surprising to see how differently people in other ages thought about any number of problems, including the intersection of sex and politics. The Gilded Age, for example, boasted a rowdy political culture in which the yellow press splashed tales of politicians’ philandering on its front pages, with respectable papers like the New York Times often hard on its heels. Today we remember little more from that era than the taunt that greeted presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in 1884—“Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”—when he copped to fathering a child with an unwed woman. (He weathered the story, prompting the riposte from his supporters, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Two years later, at age 49, he married a 21-year-old, Frances Folsom, in the White House.) Yet debate swirled over how much politicians’ sexual transgressions should be publicly aired and censured. In a famous 1890 law article, Louis Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren called for a “right to privacy” to shield individuals from having their personal lives unduly vetted.

In other periods, though, people saw things differently. In the mid-20th century, a time of societal deference to authority, politicians’ sex lives were usually deemed private. In an article from the Journal of American History in 2000, journalist John H. Summers, then a history Ph.D. student, asked, “What Happened to Sex Scandals?” Summers noted that where Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Cleveland and other 19th-century leaders had to tend to their reputations for “sexual rectitude,” 20th-century presidents such as Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—and, he might have added, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson—“benefited from this more circumspect pattern in political speech.” People today sometimes say that the press “covered up” for Kennedy, or these other politicians, but that wording misconstrues how norms work. Kennedy’s womanizing wasn’t reported because it wasn’t news, according to what people thought at the time. Tales of behavior by these men that today might be called harassment, or at least lecherous, emerged only after their deaths.

But if mid-century public mores tolerated adultery (and more) by political figures, other behaviors were, confusingly, frowned upon. Many voters looked askance at Adlai Stevenson’s divorce when he ran for president in the 1950s, and when New York governor Nelson Rockefeller left his wife for a younger woman, it seemed to hurt his White House bid (in fact his support for civil rights may have hurt him more). By Ronald Reagan’s election—never mind Donald Trump’s—that concern would seem quaint, at best. And of course homosexuality in these years was not just stigmatized but persecuted—seen, according to the prevailing prejudices, as tantamount to subversion or easy grounds for blackmail. The Eisenhower administration barred gays and lesbians from government employment, leading to a purge at the State Department.

The 1960s unraveled that dominant morality. A new generation revolted against strictures on sex and the deference accorded to authority figures. The skepticism fueled a muckraking renaissance, symbolized by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting but embodied as well by innumerable cases of audacious investigative journalism. Although this new “literature of exposure” focused mainly on policy and corruption, journalists began reporting on politicians’ sex lives in ways that had been verboten just years before. In 1974 Congressman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was caught with a stripper name Fanne Foxe, and although reelected, ended up resigning. (His public drunkenness hurt him too.) Two years later Wayne Hays of Ohio resigned after he was found to have put on his payroll a mistress who told the Washington Post, “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.” These scandals, which might once have been kept under wraps, showed that the old regime of privacy was starting to collapse.

Sexual behavior now became highly contested. Feminist scholars developed the legal concept of sexual harassment, which gradually worked its way into the law. Debates over open marriage, pornography and even a lower age of consent—to acknowledge the sexuality of teenagers—scrambled left/right political lines and confounded easy claims about the correct liberal, enlightened or feminist position. In Decade of Nightmares, criminologist and historian Philip Jenkins showed how post-Kinsey Report views about the varieties of sexual experience led professionals in the 1960s to defend even pederasty under certain conditions; “little of the expert writing on child abuse published between about 1955 and 1976 can be read without embarrassment,” he wrote. But in the late 1970s, a newfound concern with children—anxiety about latchkey kids, teen sex and drug use, and abduction—swung the pendulum the other way.

By the 1980s, as social taboos against the open discussion of sexuality and other restraints on behavior fell away, a politician’s sex life became fair game for reporters—though, notably, it was still considered wrong to reveal a politician’s homosexuality. (That bright line, too, would grow cloudy in the 1990s, as radical gay-rights activists “outed” closeted politicians with reactionary voting records.) Journalists rationalized their feeding frenzies by invoking the ill-defined concept of “character.” They asserted, never very convincingly, that lying about sex automatically meant that a politician was thoroughly dishonest or utterly reckless and irredeemably hypocritical—and unfit for office.

The shifting standards about sexual conduct yielded new sex scandals: In 1983, the House of Representatives censured two congressmen, Democrat Gerry Studds and Republican Dan Crane, for having sex with 17-year-old pages—a boy in Studds’ case, a girl in Crane’s. Studds’ constituents reelected him; Crane’s bounced him. But the most famous case from the 1980s was surely that of Colorado senator Gary Hart, the front-runner for the upcoming Democratic presidential nomination, who was hounded out of the race in 1987 after news broke of his extramarital romp with a younger model. No one alleged anything worse than infidelity, but it added up to “bad character.”

Although sexual harassment had figured in assorted political scandals in the 1980s, in 1991 it became a household word. That year the Senate, despite having concluded its hearings on Clarence Thomas’s appointment to fill Thurgood Marshall’s old Supreme Court seat, reopened them when a former colleague of his at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Anita Hill, charged him with harassment. (So did other women, but their cases were, astonishingly, never heard.) Broadcast round the clock, the Thomas hearings proved a watershed, elevating public awareness about harassment (even if the public tended to believe Thomas over Hill). But it also encouraged the use of sexual wrongdoing as a political cudgel. The Democrats’ decision to try to keep Thomas off the bench on account of his boorish character, rather than his conservative ideology, was a mistake that opened a can of worms.

There was, to be sure, a logic to that strategy. Since the 1960s, senators had forsaken their onetime deference to the president in court appointments, challenging and at times blocking nominees under Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan; but the pretense, maintained by both parties, that ideology should play no role in assessing a potential justice had led everyone to disingenuously pin their objections to various nominees on whether someone bought a house with a restrictive covenant, smoked marijuana, engaged in financial wrongdoing or committed other non-political offenses. Like those sins, sexual harassment could be used against a nominee without seeming overly political. The only problem was that the pretense was tissue-thin: Anyone could see that the weight that someone placed on any given charge correlated heavily with which side of a political fight he or she was on.

That sexual harassment charges (and other non-political allegations) had come to constitute politics by other means provides the context for the Bill Clinton sex scandals in the 1990s. Post-Weinstein, longtime Clinton-haters like Maureen Dowd and Andrew Sullivan, conservative moralists like Ross Douthat, and with a few liberals like Jeff Greenfield, have urged Democrats to reassess their support for the president during the impeachment crisis. Michael Tomasky has called that revisionism ahistorical (he actually said “insane”) because it omits this crucial context. Those who didn’t live through it or haven’t studied the history need reminding that just as Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, despite his confession of youthful pot and cocaine use, represented a public rebuff of the policing of politicians’ past drug consumption, so Clinton’s election in 1992 amounted to a call for restraint in the feeding frenzies over candidates’ sex lives. Ever since Clinton made a veiled admission of adultery at the famous Sperling Breakfast, and he withstood the uproar after Gennifer Flowers went public during the 1992 campaign with stories of her affair with him, voters—at least those who backed him—acknowledged his flaws as a man while being impressed with his accomplishments and talents as a politician.

That verdict remained in place during his presidency, when Starr investigated first the Whitewater land deal and, when that probe foundered, Clinton’s sexual past. Though the news in January 1998 that the president had had an affair with a young former intern, Monica Lewinsky, outraged many people, most Americans soon decided it hardly warranted his resignation. (Most of his supporters, it is now forgotten, did condemn his actions.) On the contrary, as the year went on, calls mounted for Starr and the impeachment-crazed Republicans to desist, while Clinton’s popularity, remarkably, climbed.

Sexual harassment? It was never part of the impeachment case. Paula Jones’s separate lawsuit against Clinton for harassment became intertwined with Starr’s investigation only because of collusion between the two legal teams, via Ann Coulter and other conservative lawyers knows as “the elves” who served as conduits; they realized that Clinton’s January 1998 deposition in the Jones suit provided an occasion to air a series of relationships he allegedly had with other women, including Lewinsky, and maybe trap him in a lie. But in April 1998, Judge Susan Webber Wright concluded that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones, whatever the truth of her account, didn’t amount to harassment. And almost no one argued that Jones’s claims, if true, warranted Clinton’s ouster from the White House. To suggest otherwise is to impose the thinking of 2017 on that of 1998.

As for Juanita Broaddrick, her late-1970s allegation of rape, which she had previously recanted under oath, was trotted out by House Republicans at the eleventh hour only because they saw their case for impeachment crumbling. Fished out of Starr’s supplementary files after he had submitted his report to Congress, her disputed claim was officially kept secret because Starr hadn’t used it in his impeachment referral to Congress. Republicans began leaking it to the press in a desperate last-ditch effort to turn public opinion against Clinton. “Suddenly,” writes Ken Gormley, in his definitive history of the crisis, The Death of American Virtue, “a steady stream of congressmen, mostly Republican, were digging into this top-secret stash and, in the cloakrooms of Congress, whispering about ‘rape.’” Any of us today can choose to believe or disbelieve Jones and Broaddrick or a third accuser, Kathleen Willey—or, as seems wise, to remain agnostic—but those alleged incidents never formed the argument for removing the president, as some today wrongly suppose. One can assert that they should have mattered more, but that’s an empty wish. There are many aspects of past eras we might disown today and wish had been otherwise, but the political culture of a bygone era has to be considered in toto in order to understand the past.

When we do reimmerse ourselves in the political culture of the late 1990s, we see that Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate represented a necessary and widely praised rebuke to the Republicans’ scorched-earth politics and the media’s willingness to delve limitlessly into politicians’ sex lives. It affirmed a vital constitutional principle that impeachment shouldn’t be used for mere political purposes; to have supported his impeachment or resignation would have encouraged the continued politicization of the process and the further destabilization of Washington politics.

But did the acquittal also set back the cause of pursuing sexual harassment by high officials, as some argue today? The evidence suggests not. There’s no question that many cases of harassment over the years were ignored or tolerated. But the new century saw numerous cases in which charges of sexual harassment—as well as assault, sex with minors, and other forms of sexual misconduct—were aired, debated and in many instances punished. A list of the most prominent would include Gary Condit, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim McGreevey, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign, Mark Souder, Eric Massa, Herman Cain, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and—lest we forget—Al Gore.

In these years, we as a society hadn’t yet attained post-Weinstein levels of wokeness, but neither were we as indifferent to harassment as revisionists suppose. Most of these politicians resigned their offices or saw their election campaigns fail. Vitter, who was revealed to have frequented prostitutes, won reelection in 2010 only to have the episode damage his 2015 gubernatorial bid, pushing him toward retirement. Only Schwarzenegger, who won election as governor of California despite a barage of charges, escaped unscathed. And of course Donald Trump. But the idea that feminists who defended Clinton are responsible for a generation of indifference to sexual harassment is demonstrably false.

The testimonies of so many women in recent weeks have suddenly made it harder than ever before to ignore or excuse the gross sexual misbehavior of powerful men. But it’s also suddenly harder than before to recapture—as historians must—the frame of mind, the ways of thinking, that prevailed in other eras, even in the recent past. In our understandable eagerness to make sure that justice is served, we should take care not to misread the past in the expedient service of the moment—however satisfying, overdue and pressing it may be.

Jeff Sessions Isn’t Giving up on Weed. He’s Doubling Down

A year ago, when president-elect Donald Trump announced Senator Jeff Sessions would be his attorney general, advocates for marijuana law reform were suddenly seized with panic. The longtime Alabama senator, they knew, had once joked that he considered the Klan to be OK guys until he found out they smoked pot. Only they weren’t quite sure he was kidding.

Sessions’ appearance at his confirmation hearing in early January did little to allay those fears. During testimony best remembered for the attorney general’s commitment to recuse himself from any investigation related to the 2016 election, the nominee was asked about medical marijuana by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy: “Would you use our federal resources to investigate and prosecute sick people who are using marijuana in accordance with their state laws, even though it might violate federal laws?”

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law, Senator Leahy,” Sessions replied, suppressing a slight smirk. That double negative tightened the knot in every drug policy reformer’s gut. Exactly how vulnerable were the nascent marijuana industries in the 29 states where it was now legal? Would Sessions, who rarely misses an opportunity to bemoan the scourge of marijuana, sweep aside the paper-thin order imposed by the Obama administration that had stayed the enforcement hand of the Department of Justice? Would SWAT teams arrest wheelchair-bound medical marijuana patients, raid marijuana dispensaries and shut down the high-tech growhouses that supplied them?

The dreaded crackdown never materialized. Sessions, perhaps preoccupied with other priorities like keeping his volatile boss from firing him, remained largely inactive on the subject. Meanwhile, a series of incremental advancements on the pro-marijuana front helped to further enmesh the $9.7 billion industry into the commercial fabric of the nation, 60 percent of whose residents support some form of legal pot. California opened the doors to recreational marijuana and issued regulations for outdoor marijuana festivals; Florida began its implementation of a medical marijuana program; and Denver and Las Vegas are vying to become the first city in America to legalize “marijuana consumption lounges” (think high-end bars with expensive weed choices instead of booze). Sessions, for his part, has spent his time in testy exchanges with DOJ interns and convening meetings with small groups of like-minded anti-pot activists determined to roll back state-level momentum. “I do believe … that the public is not properly educated on some of the issues related to marijuana,” he told one such group on Friday.

But things are suddenly looking rosier for Sessions. Thanks to Congress’ fumbling over the spending bill, the AG’s yearning to battle legal marijuana may get a major boost without him having to lift a finger. That’s because Rohrabacher-Farr, a little-known and even less discussed amendment that protects state-legal medical marijuana programs from federal interference, is close to expiring. If the government shuts down at the expiration of the current continuous resolution on December 22, or if negotiations in an upcoming appropriations conference committee fail to insert it in the final draft of the spending bill—entirely possible given House Republicans’ hostility to marijuana—Sessions would be free to unleash federal drug agents on a drug, which according to federal drug law, is considered the equal of heroin and LSD.

The politics on this issue has shifted so dramatically that reform advocates, instead of quaking in their boots at Sessions’ saber rattling, are actually itching for the fight.

“Part of me just thinks: Let ‘em try. There will such a ferocious backlash,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Oregon, told POLITICO Magazine in response to a question about a potential Sessions-led crackdown. (Blumenauer replaced Sam Farr as the amendment’s Democratic co-sponsor after Farr’s retirement, so in a turn that does not help its branding efforts, Rohrabacher-Farr is now called Rohrabacher-Blumenauer.)

Morgan Fox, communications manager of the Marijuana Policy Project, agreed with Blumenauer: “There’s no way that Sessions can start rolling back medical marijuana policies or attacking patients and providers without looking like the bad guy.”

Still, with the legislative barrier gone, there would be plenty of ways for Sessions to make life difficult for marijuana businesses without creating dramatic footage for the nightly news. Fox worries less about SWAT team raids than the possibility the Department of Justice would quietly send letters to landlords who rented to legal marijuana businesses to threaten them with asset forfeiture.

People would be forgiven for thinking that state-legal medical marijuana was a settled issue, but in fact it is hanging by a thread, and Congress is poised to hand Jeff Sessions the scissors.


From the beginning of his tenure, Attorney General Sessions’ public rhetoric seemed to promise that he would waste no time before he undid the protections of the Cole Memo, the four-page memorandum issued in 2013 to all U.S. attorneys that granted them a great degree of prosecutorial discretion as to how to use the federal government’s limited crime-fighting resources.

“I, as you know, am dubious about marijuana,” Sessions told the National Association of Attorneys General in February. “States can pass whatever laws they choose, but I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.” In early April, he announced that the DOJ’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety would include a new subcommittee to evaluate marijuana enforcement policy, marking, in the eyes of many marijuana observers, the start of Sessions’ effort to roll back the needle-threading compromises of the Obama administration.

Less publicly, Sesssions was going after Rohrabacher-Farr. In May, he wrote a letter to members of Congress asking them to undo the protections provided by the amendment: “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime,” Sessions wrote in the letter, which was first obtained by Tom Angell, an advocacy journalist and founder of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority, and confirmed by the Washington Post.

First introduced in 2001 as Rohrabacher-Hinchey, the amendment was first passed as Rohrabacher-Farr in 2014 after seven tries, and reauthorized with a greater majority in 2015. But after the near-passage of a gay rights-related amendment in June 2016 that embarrassed House leadership, Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee and no relation to the attorney general, shut down the amendment process, leaving measures like Rohrabacher-Farr unprotected even though it could easily pass given that 66 members of the House signed a letter addressed to House and Senate leadership urging its passage. (Pete Sessions declined multiple requests for comment.)

Sessions isn’t the only one fighting against Rohrabacher-Farr. He has help from Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, an anti-legalization group run by Kevin Sabet, one of the handful of attendees at Sessions’ meeting December 8 at DOJ. “We’ve been fighting behind the scenes to remove Rohrabacher-Farr because it really ties the hands of law enforcement,” Sabet told POLITICO Magazine. “On the Hill this year, we’ve had really good progress, like what we did in the Rules Committee.”

During the summer, all signs pointed to Jeff Sessions’ imminent action against legal marijuana, but in August, the DOJ’s Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which had been at work behind closed doors since April, reported back with no new policy recommendations to curb legal marijuana programs, advice that would have remained secret if the Associated Press hadn’t obtained the documents. It signaled that maybe that the federal prohibition on marijuana was practically unenforceable without state and local police doing the feds’ dirty work.

“I will push back on any federal effort to interfere with our laws and not share information if it’s not related to a criminal investigation under our own law or ordered by a court,” Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and fierce advocate of marijuana legalization, said on Monday in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread. “So as long as we don’t cooperate it would be hard, almost impossible, for there to be a major federal-only enforcement action.”

As recently as late November, Sessions signaled that his Justice Department remains committed to re-evaluating the Cole Memo: “In fact, we’re working on that very hard right now. We had meetings yesterday and talked about it at some length,” he said during a press conference meant to highlight the DEA’s new tools in fighting the opioid crisis. Exactly what he plans to do remains a mystery.

With Sessions keeping his cards close to the vest, it’s hard to say what might happen because of the otherwise chaotic nature of this administration. Where is the president on this issue? In February 2016, candidate Donald Trump told FOX News host Bill O’Reilly, “By the way — medical marijuana, medical? I’m in favor of it a hundred percent.” At CPAC later that month, Trump responded to a question on Colorado’s legalization of marijuana by saying, “I think it’s bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad,” seeming to draw a line between medical use and adult recreational use.

In March of this year, President Trump put “solving the opioid crisis” in the basket of responsibilities for his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, who then handed off the opioid crisis to his reported frenemy, Chris Christie, the soon-to-be-former governor of New Jersey, in the form of a task force called the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. One of the first acts of Christie’s task force was to seek public comment for suggestions. Its interim report touted “more than 8,000 comments from the public,” of which the ONDCP later admitted to Vice News that more than 7,800 were suggestions to legalize marijuana as a means of combating the opioid crisis. It was a suggestion the task force promptly ignored. In May, Christie said taxes collected on medical marijuana was “blood money,” and that the whole concept of medical marijuana was “beyond stupidity.”

Kevin Sabet is encouraged. “When you have [the task force] agreeing that marijuana legalization is a bad idea and that it would not help the opioid epidemic, the White House hears that. They hear that loud and clear,” Sabet told POLITICO Magazine. Translation: Sabet thinks Trump will do what Sessions wants when it comes to marijuana.


With the threat of a government shutdown delayed until December 22, there is now some breathing room, but Rohrabacher-Blumenauer is still at risk of not making it through the conference committee because of Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions have bottled up the amendments process in the House.

“I don’t know what went through his head, in terms of preventing us from having a vote on the floor of the House,” Blumenauer said, referring to Pete Sessions. “I think before the year is over that Pete is going to find out that position is not popular in Texas.”

For now, marijuana amendments are out of order. That means that the extension of these protections rests squarely on the shoulders of the Senate, where a companion amendment to Rohrabacher-Blumenauer sponsored by Pat Leahy passed by a voice vote in July without much fanfare or controversy.

Leahy’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but Leahy’s counterpart, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, told POLITICO Magazine through a spokesman, “As you know, medical marijuana-related provisions in the Senate bills were approved with bipartisan support,” a statement that is sure to leave House Republican leadership feeling a little frosty with their Senate Republican colleagues seemingly unwilling to back them up on a fight that House leadership has picked.

It’s still unclear how marijuana reform will fare in the conference committee. “It all comes down to how much Leahy cares to fight about this behind closed doors,” Tom Angell told POLITICO Magazine. “That’s what it comes down to.”

At time of writing, Congressional leaders had not yet settled upon top line numbers for military and nonmilitary spending to even begin negotiations that would lead to a conference committee, where smaller issues like marijuana will get sorted out. Still, with a certain amount of confusion in the air, optimism for continued reform was winning the day.

“It’s more trouble than it should be, but I think it will ultimately be protected,” Blumenauer told POLITICO Magazine. “And what’s going on right now is going to accelerate further reform.”

Looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections as Congress continues to hemorrhage incumbents (including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a powerful anti-marijuana voice), even safe Republican seats are likely to be filled by younger Republicans who tend to support marijuana law reform. “Just by the generational shift, replacing older members with younger members, is going to put us in a better situation whether or not those districts flip parties,” Angell said. “If you look towards next year, there’s like 35 gubernatorial races, and there’s a ton of major party candidates who are on the record in favor of legalization.”

As for Kevin Sabet and his anti-marijuana group SAM, “We have raised more money this year than ever before,” Sabet said, meaning they will be out there fighting against the forces of legalization in 2018. That’s a challenge Blumenauer welcomes.

“The public is behind us. Both chambers of Congress are behind us, and if they choose to make it a partisan issue,” Blumenauer said, “it won’t go well for them.”

No matter what happens, one can guarantee that the status quo won’t hold for long: Congressional leaders will soon tire of the drama surrounding the annual reauthorization of Rohrabacher-Blumenauer, and the Cole Memo is dust in the wind as soon as Jeff Sessions says so. “If I was a betting man, I’d say that the Cole Memo will not be the final word. Everyone knows that,” Sabet said. “It’s like ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

Of course, we know what happened after that was struck down.

Trump After Dark: Nearly There edition

Republicans have their votes. Tax reform, it seems, is just days away — and so is President Donald Trump’s first significant legislative accomplishment.

GOP leadership put the finishing on a compromise tax bill and won over a few stragglers in the Senate and with the House set to vote early next week, POLITICO’s Brian Faler, Seung Min Kim and Colin Wilhelm report. The compromise unveiled today makes concessions to various constituencies.

“The legislation would cut both business and individual taxes as part of the biggest tax revamp in 30 years. It is poised to be carved into law next week when Congress sends it to President Donald Trump for his signature.”

The legislation is long and complicated and could have a number of different consequences. And it also already has some defined winners and losers, as POLITICO’s Aaron Lorenzo reports. Among them: Businesses, wealthy heirs and big, global companies. Among the losers: New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and Californians.

The bottomline?: “The tradeoffs, lobbying and special interests have allowed the bill to create a new set of haves and have-nots when it comes to the tax code.”

Elsewhere in President Trump’s orbit:

MAN ABOUT TOWN?: A judge has cleared the way for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to leave house arrest on bail and move to South Florida head of his trial next year.

CHIP CRUMBS: Amid the tax push, lawmakers have not renewed funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which funds health insurance for 9 million children and may not be renewed until next year.

CRINGEWORTHY: In video that went viral, President Trump’s nominee to serve on the U.S. District Court in Washington, Matthew Petersen, struggled to answer basic questions. (NPR)

HELP WANTED: Jared Kushner’s legal team has put out feelers for a crisis public relations firm. (Washington Post)

MOORE-TALLY WOUNDED: President Trump said today that Roy Moore should concede his election to Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.

FLIRTING WITH FLYNN: President Trump wouldn’t rule out pardoning Michael Flynn when asked today, instead saying, “we’ll see.” (CNN)

There you have it. You’re caught up on the Trump administration. Happy Friday!

Justice Department watchdog details role in sharing anti-Trump texts

The federal official overseeing a probe of the FBI’s handling of last year’s Hillary Clinton email investigation confirmed Friday that he had no objection to the Justice Department giving Congress controversial anti-Trump text messages turned up during the investigation, but says officials didn’t consult him before sharing those texts with the press.

In a letter to lawmakers sent late Friday and obtained by POLITICO, Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted that he’d told a House committee last month that his office had no concern about giving Congress information gathered during his review of potential election-related bias. The inspector general also acknowledged he’d "conveyed" that stance directly to Justice officials.

However, the inspector general said his office did not perform an analysis of what was permissible to share with lawmakers.

"The Department did not consult with the [Office of the Inspector General] in order to determine whether releasing the text messages met applicable ethical and legal standards before providing them to Congress," Horowitz said.

Justice officials "did not consult with the OIG before sharing the text messages with the press," Horowitz said, respond to a letter Democratic House members sent him Thursday.

Testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the IG had signed off on turning over the 375 text messages exchanged by top FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page.

“When this inquiry came in from the Congress, we did consult with the Inspector General to determine that he had no objection to the release of the material," Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee. "If he had, I can assure you we would not have authorized the release.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said there was no daylight between Horowitz’s letter and Rosenstein’s claims.

"The letter released by the IG tonight is entirely consistent w my earlier tweets & DAG’s testimony," Flores wrote on Twitter. "IG had no objection to release to Congress. We then consulted senior career legal/ethics experts to determine there were no issues w releasing texts to either Congress or press."

Horowitz highlighted testimony he gave last month — reported at the time by POLITICO — that DOJ could share records from his investigation with lawmakers, but only after officials there were able to "determine whether there were any restrictions, such as those affecting grand jury information, that limited its ability to produce certain records to Congress."

The messages are now at the center of an intensifying argument by Republicans in Congress that members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe are biased against President Donald Trump.

Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team over the summer after Horowitz unearthed the text messages. Page had already left the probe. The texts reveal that the two agents viewed Trump with disdain, along with other prominent political figures on both sides of the aisle. Strzok was also a key figure in the Clinton probe and was detailed to Mueller’s investigation after he was appointed to lead the criminal probe in May.

The release of the text messages by DOJ poured fuel onto already escalating claims by Republicans that Mueller’s probe of Trump associates’ ties to Russia could be tainted. They’ve called for a new special counsel to be appointed to examine the potential that bias has affected the Russia inquiry.

Democrats have rejected those claims as a pretense to discredit Mueller as his probe reaches further into Trump’s inner circle. FBI agents are permitted to hold political views, they argue, and there’s no evidence that either Strzok or Page took action to affect the investigation.

Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.