Sperryville, Virginia. July 2017.
If there is a uniting theme to President Trump's first 100 days in office, it is this: Our president has no use for the norms, expectations, and traditions of the office. He refuses to divest from his businesses. He flings unfounded accusations of spying at his predecessor on Twitter. He says one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, shrugging off the difference. It's no exaggeration to say that Trump has behaved unlike any other president before him.
The unenviable job of mopping up after Trump's messes falls to a fellow named Donald McGahn, the top lawyer in the White House. But as my new profile of McGahn for Mother Jones suggests, Trump's counsel may be more inclined to find new and creative ways to let Trump do what he pleases than to keep the commander-in-chief honest.
Clean Up on Aisle Trump
White House counsel Don McGahn has the hardest job in Washington: keeping the president on the right side of the law.
Mother Jones | May/June 2017
IN EARLY MARCH, a procession of lawyers in boxy suits and overcoats crowded into a chandeliered dining room at Tony Cheng's in Washington, DC's Chinatown. Justice Department attorneys passed heaping plates of beef with broccoli and spring rolls to corporate law firm partners and think tank fellows in bow ties. A sign taped to the restaurant's entrance announced the event was sold out, and regulars of the Federalist Society's monthly luncheon marveled at the turnout. The featured guest was Donald F. McGahn II, who had recently ascended to one of Washington's most influential legal perches, White House counsel.
After the fortune cookies were distributed, C. Boyden Gray, a former White House counsel to George H.W. Bush and a Federalist Society board member, approached the microphone. McGahn was stuck at the White House dealing with a "pressing matter," he informed the disappointed audience. Gray didn't elaborate. He didn't need to: The night before, the Washington Post had revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had told the Senate that he had no contact with Russian officials during the presidential campaign, had in fact met twice with Russia's ambassador.
Hours after the Federalist Society luncheon let out, Sessions recused himself from ongoing investigations into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. President Donald Trump spent the next day fuming at his staff—particularly McGahn, who had to explain to the incensed commander in chief that Sessions' recusal was the AG's decision alone. Early the next morning, Trump rattled off a series of tweets accusing Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. McGahn was soon on a plane to Mar-a-Lago; his surreal task was to figure out how the administration might retroactively prove an explosive allegation that Trump had tossed out without evidence.
As the top legal adviser to the president, the White House counsel is one of the most vital positions in any administration. The counsel vets executive orders and nominees, reviews the legal aspects of national security matters, and monitors compliance with federal ethics laws. Rarely does an order or a memo leave the White House without the counsel's sign-off. Gray says that during his time as counsel, his office received four times more paperwork than any other White House department. (This was before email.) A former Obama White House counsel told me, "People used to say to me, 'You and the chief of staff are the only two people who really touch everything.'"
Above all, the White House counsel's role is to keep the president out of trouble, legal or otherwise. With Trump, that's a Herculean task. McGahn has represented scandal-plagued Republicans—Tom DeLay was a client—but the controversy and chaos engulfing the Trump White House are another order of magnitude. McGahn represents the most conflict-ridden commander in chief in the nation's history. He has spent his short time in the White House constantly rushing to put out fires.
"We have all heard about this order President Trump has given," Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts shouted.
We have all heard about this order President Trump has given, the crowd replied.
"It is illegal."
It is illegal!
"It is unconstitutional."
It is unconstitutional!
"And it will be overturned!"
It was January 28th, a day after President Donald Trump had signed his executive order temporarily banning entry into the U.S. for refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Thousands of people flocked to airports nationwide to protest the order. Warren arrived at Boston's Logan airport on the evening of the 28th to be with the protesters, and she finished her remarks by vowing to "fight shoulder to shoulder" with those in the crowd.
If the the anti-Trump resistance movement in the Democratic Party has a face, it is Warren's. For the April issue of Boston magazine, I wrote about Warren's role as the leader of the opposition and the tightrope she must now walk as she runs for reelection in Massachusetts, a state where Warren's support is not as enthusiastic as you might think.
Why Is Elizabeth Warren So Hard to Love?
With her populist proposals and fierce criticism of President Donald Trump, Senator Elizabeth Warren has become the new face of the Democratic Party and a favorite for the 2020 presidential race. So why are so many Massachusetts voters souring on her?
Boston Magazine | April 2017
IT'S A LATE afternoon in February, and Senator Elizabeth Warren is talking about Donald Trump and what she calls “the Twitter business.” Surely you’ve seen her tweets. For much of last year’s presidential race, she went blow for blow, tweet for tweet with the Republican nominee. After Trump complained that the polls were rigged against him, Warren fired back: “You’re not losing because it’s rigged. You’re losing because we see through your creepy bullying.” After Trump denigrated a former Miss Universe in a series of early-morning tweets, Warren replied, “Is this what keeps you up at night, @realDonaldTrump? Thinking of new & interesting ways to call women fat or ugly or sluts?”
At first, the idea of shaming a presidential candidate in 140-character bursts struck her as “pretty lame,” she tells me, sitting in her third-floor office in Washington. “But it was his tool of choice, and I believed he needed to be bloodied with his own tool.”
Now that Trump is president, Warren, more than any other Democrat, has taken up the mantle of antagonist in chief. Her schedule is so packed that I’m told she’ll be able to meet with me at some point during a two-day span and that I’ll get a 10-minute warning before having to drop everything and hustle over to her office. When we do finally talk, the news has just broken that Andrew Puzder, the fast-food executive who was Trump’s pick for labor secretary, has withdrawn his nomination. Senate Democrats, led by Warren, had barraged Puzder with criticism over his company’s questionable labor practices and old allegations (since withdrawn) made by Puzder’s ex-wife that he’d hit her. Puzder’s exit is the first big win for Democrats. Warren looks gleeful at the news, beaming from ear to ear.
Here’s the thing about interviewing Elizabeth Warren: It isn’t so much a conversation as a stump speech to an audience of one. (Two, if you count the spokeswoman who is sitting in on our conversation.) She swats and jabs at the air, talking about “what we fight for every single day” and “what defined America was the idea of opportunity.” I’m reminded of what a friend of hers told me: “The public persona is the private persona. There is no other person.” When I ask Warren about Trump’s first few months on the job, she leans back in her chair, awed by the chaos so far. “They can’t run the White House right now, and they can’t run the country. However,” she says, “that does not mean they can’t do a lot of damage.”
Warren has had a busy few months of her own. She’s a fixture at protests against Trump—railing against the president’s travel ban at Logan airport and speaking out in favor of the Affordable Care Act at Faneuil Hall. On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans refused to include her witnesses at confirmation hearings, so Warren held shadow hearings during which working men and women offered testimonies critical of Trump’s appointees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to silence her on the Senate floor during the debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination to be attorney general—and Warren’s refusal to be silenced—became a headline-grabbing controversy that her allies cheered as a bold act of resistance and her enemies dismissed as shameless grandstanding. Nearly 13 million people have watched the video of Warren reading Coretta Scott King’s letter outside the Senate chamber. McConnell’s admonishment of Warren became a full-blown meme—the Warren campaign is selling “Nevertheless, She Persisted” T-shirts and women have been lining up to get “Nevertheless, She Persisted” tattoos.
All of this, every battle cry and tweet, has elevated Warren to de facto leader of the anti-Trump resistance. If you’re a true believer, a liberal who has felt cheated every day since November 8, she is the antidote to your despair. And for a hobbled Democratic Party in need of an answer to Trump and Trumpism, Warren is seen by many as a potential torchbearer, someone who can reach voters in Dayton, Ohio, and Macomb County, Michigan. Her life story seems ready-made for the Rust Belt campaign trail. She sounded the alarm about the vanishing middle class long before it was fashionable, championing the cause of those squeezed out by globalization back when Trump was still a registered Democrat. In the early betting for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Warren is the frontrunner.
But first there is the matter of her reelection. After four years in the liberal vanguard, Warren is possibly the most deeply polarizing figure in the state. Massachusetts is often depicted as a left-wing mecca, but we’re also the state that rocketed Mitt Romney to political prominence and now has a Republican governor with a 59 percent approval rating. Despite our liberal reputation, our dirty little secret is that once you leave the coast, the state’s political sensibility is closer to that of western Pennsylvania than Brookline. So as much as Massachusetts Democrats adore Warren’s brand of fiery populism, to a certain type of independent voter—let alone a conservative—her rhetoric can seem just as over the top, vitriolic, and off-putting as Trump’s.
Unburdened by fact or reality, President Trump this past week vowed to investigate the mythical claim that three million people or more voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election. One of the states he singled as a supposed hotbed of voter fraud was California, in effect firing the first shot in what will be a years-long fight between the Trump administration and the largest state in the union.
In California, the preparations for Trump began on the night of his election. Politicians and lawyers and activists there are set to lead the resistance to the Trump agenda from immigration and health care to climate change and education. Just as Texas played the part of chief antagonist to the Obama administration, expect California to do the same with Trump. My story is the cover of the February issue of The California Sunday Magazine and the first of more dispatches chronicling the battle between California and Trump's Washington.
The Great Exception
California vs. Trump. Part One.
The California Sunday Magazine | January 17, 2017
AFTER THE NETWORKS had called it, Kevin de León walked out onto the balcony of his suite at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles for some fresh air. Darkness had settled over the city. De León was a mess — gutted, angry, confused. Back inside the suite, staffers sat hunched over their laptops monitoring election returns from around the state. As the president pro tempore of the California State Senate, de León, a Democrat, had reason to feel good about many of the results — it was possible his party would claim a supermajority in the Senate when all the votes were counted. But as someone who began his political career in the early 1990s organizing against the passage of Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant referendum, he felt a sickening sense of history repeating itself as he watched Donald Trump claim victory.
De León thought of the people in his district, a swath of Los Angeles that includes Filipinotown, Thai Town, Little Tokyo, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, and the Latino bastion of Boyle Heights. He represents one of the largest populations of Koreans outside of the Korean peninsula and one of the greatest concentrations of Central Americans outside of Central America. This was the United States he knew and believed in: welcoming, tolerant, where people of radically different backgrounds worked and lived side by side. California Democrats, he decided, had to respond to Trump’s election; they had to reassure their voters. De León reached for his cellphone.
Three hundred sixty miles to the north, Anthony Rendon, the Democratic speaker of the California State Assembly, had just left the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, where people had gathered to watch the returns. His party had won back three seats in the Assembly, reclaiming its supermajority. But the good news did little to lift the pall over Rendon. The scene at the governor’s mansion had felt like a wake. One of the few who had spoken was Governor Jerry Brown. Like most Democrats, he had expected Clinton to win. The country has seen worse, Brown told everybody. California has a strong constitution. It can protect itself.
Rendon was back in the Democrats’ war room a dozen blocks from the mansion when his phone rang. It was de León. The two men had been talking throughout the evening, and now they came up with a plan: a joint statement by the Assembly and Senate responding to Trump’s victory. The chambers rarely joined forces like that, and their leaders weren’t personally close, but both seized on the idea. Rendon drove home and typed out a few thoughts and sent them to his communications director, who forwarded them to speechwriter Dave Sebeck, asking for a draft first thing in the morning.
At 6 a.m., Dan Reeves, de León’s chief of staff, got into his car to drive back up to Sacramento from L.A. He stopped at a Carl’s Jr. to help with a hangover and then started making calls. As drafts of the joint statement flew back and forth between the two offices, Reeves had each version read aloud to him while he was driving the I-5. Cut that line. Too slow. Good, good, good. Rendon’s people wanted more time, but Reeves insisted the statement go out as soon as possible. The staffs settled on a final draft at 10:57. Rendon and de León signed off an hour later, and at just past noon, the two offices hit send.
The statement, released in English and Spanish, had come a long way from de León’s phone call and Rendon’s late-night riffing. But the opening line had remained intact just as Rendon had first written it: “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land ….”
President-elect Donald Trump just named his pick for secretary of education: Betsy DeVos. The name won't register for most people, but it's an all too familiar one for me. The 58-year-old DeVos is a lifelong Republican activist and donor and the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince. She's a leader of the school choice movement that favors vouchers, charters, and parochial schools. And she's a member of the most politically influential family in my home state of Michigan.
A few years ago, I went back to my old stomping grounds to write about Betsy's and the DeVos family's massive influence on Michigan politics. I focused especially on how the DeVoses led the fight to pass a so-called right-to-work law in Michigan, the cradle of organized labor. My 2014 story on the DeVoses is a good place to start if you want to learn more about Trump's pick to run the Department of Education.
All The Right Moves
They beat Big Labor in its own backyard. Next up: your state?
Mother Jones | January/February 2014
IN THE PREDAWN TWILIGHT of December 4, 2012, Randy Richardville, the Republican majority leader of the Michigan Senate, called an old friend to deliver some grim news. Richardville's two-hour commute to the state capitol in Lansing gave him plenty of time to check in with friends, staff, and colleagues, who were accustomed to his early morning calls. None more so than Mike Jackson.
Jackson and Richardville had grown up in the auto town of Monroe, 40 miles south of Detroit. Jackson now headed Michigan's 14,000-member carpenters and millwrights' union, which had endorsed Richardville, a moderate Republican, for 10 of the 12 years he'd served in the state Legislature.
"Guess where I was last night," Richardville said.
Jackson wasn't in a guessing mood—and it wasn't just the early hour. Since the election a few weeks earlier, Republicans had been aiming to use the current lame-duck session to ram through a controversial piece of legislation known as right-to-work. Such laws, already on the books in 23 states, outlawed contracts requiring all employees in a unionized workplace to pay dues for union representation. Jackson and other labor leaders were scrambling to head off the bill, widely regarded as a disaster for unions. Richardville, who had once told a hotel conference room filled with union members that right-to-work would pass "over my dead body," was one of the votes they'd counted on.
Richardville said he'd spent the previous evening at a fundraiser in western Michigan. At one point during the event, he was escorted into a private room where a dozen wealthy business moguls were waiting for him. Some he recognized as heavy hitters in Michigan politics; others had flown in from out of state.
One of the men in the room glared at Richardville. "You gotta grow a set and move this legislation," the man said, referring to right-to-work. Had he ever run for office? Richardville asked. The man said no. "Well, when you grow a set and give that a try," Richardville snapped, "then you can talk about the size of my testicles."
Jackson was wide awake now. "Good for you," he said. "How'd it end?"
"Mike, you're fucked," Richardville said. "They've got all the money they need, they're going up on the air, and they're going to push this freedom-to-work thing."
Wasn't there some way to head off the bill? Jackson asked. "They've got my caucus," Richardville replied. "You can't imagine the pressure I'm under."
The pressure came largely from one man present at that fundraiser: Richard "Dick" DeVos Jr. The 58-year-old scion of the Amway Corporation, DeVos had arm-twisted Richardville repeatedly to support right-to-work. After six years of biding their time, DeVos and his allies believed the 2012 lame duck was the time to strike. They had formulated a single, all-encompassing strategy: They had a fusillade of TV, radio, and internet ads in the works. They'd crafted 15 pages of talking points to circulate to Republican lawmakers. They had even reserved the lawn around the state capitol for a month to keep protesters at bay.
A week after Richardville's early morning call to Jackson, it was all over. With a stroke of his pen on December 11, Gov. Rick Snyder—who'd previously said right-to-work was not a priority of his—now made Michigan the 24th state to enact it. The governor marked the occasion by reciting, nearly verbatim, talking points that DeVos and his allies had distributed. "Freedom-to-work," he said, is "pro-worker and pro-Michigan."
President-elect Trump. Never thought I'd write that. But here we are, staring down four long years (at least) of a Trump White House and the god-knows-what that comes next. It's hard to know what to worry about, where to apply one's energies. A white nationalist with the ear of the president. An enemy of the Voting Rights Act leading the Justice Department. Anything involving Rudy Giuliani.
Scarier still was one of the earliest announcements from the incoming Trump administration: The president-elect had chosen Myron Ebell, one of the most notorious climate deniers out there, to lead his transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is leading the US government's fight against climate change. If that doesn't chill you to the bone, I don't know what will.
That any Republican, any reasonable person at all, can still deny the overwhelming science of climate change and the urgent need to act boggles the mind. It's a subject I tackle in my latest story for Rolling Stone magazine—one that, sadly, couldn't be more timely.
Gospel of the Climate Deniers
Why do Republicans still reject the science of global warming?
Rolling Stone | November 3, 2016
ONE DAY IN 2009, Henry Waxman, the Democratic congressman representing Santa Monica and Malibu, paid a visit to one of his Republican counterparts, a ruddy-faced Texan named Joe Barton. After Democrats had won back the House of Representatives the previous year, Waxman staged an intraparty coup and seized the chairman's gavel of the Energy and Commerce committee, which oversees most legislation on the environment. He vowed to address what he saw as the gravest threat facing the planet: climate change. As an opening gesture, Waxman approached Barton, the committee's top Republican, about finding a way to work together on the new legislation.
Barton, a guy who once called Al Gore "totally wrong" about global warming and advised people to "get shade" to adapt to rising temperatures, was incredulous. Waxman recalls Barton asking why he should work on a solution for a problem he didn't believe existed. Waxman pressed on, but Barton wouldn't budge. "It would be like me working with you to try to eliminate U.S. support for Israel," the Texan finally said.
The comment stopped Waxman cold. Aid to Israel is, of course, an article of faith in both parties. You commit political seppuku to suggest otherwise.
Waxman, who retired from office two years ago, realized something important in that moment. For the modern-day Republican Party, protecting fossil fuels wasn't a pet issue; it was a religion. The Church of Carbon. And he didn't have a chance in hell of persuading someone like Barton to join his cause. "It has always been amazing to me that the Republicans as a party have taken the view that climate change – if it even exists – is not caused by man-made pollutants, and it's not really much of a problem," Waxman says. "It's an open hostility to science and evidence and facts that are becoming more and more undeniable."
I spoke at a political journalism conference in Chicago in late 2014 about life on the campaign money beat. David Axelrod, the longtime adviser to President Obama and a former journalist himself, sat in the front row. Afterward, Axelrod stopped me. He said he’d enjoyed my remarks but wanted to impress something upon me. Today’s money-in-politics coverage, he said, does a fine enough job reporting on big donations and even bigger personalities. But it misses the bigger picture. “It’s about connecting the money to results, to outcomes,” he said. “What are these people getting for their money?”
It was in that spirit that I approached profiling Haim Saban, the Israeli-American billionaire and media mogul who is arguably the biggest donor to Bill and Hillary Clinton throughout their careers. Saban, as I report, has given tens of millions in donations and other financial support to the Clintons, not to mention all manner of non-monetary—but no less valuable—help over the years. Now, with Clinton poised to win this year's presidential contest, no donor is better positioned to push his agenda and realize his goals (read on to see what exactly those are) than the 72-year-old Saban.
The Billionaire Creator of the Power Rangers Has Invested Millions in Hillary Clinton. So What Does He Want?
Haim Saban's not-so-secret agenda.
Mother Jones | November/December 2016
ON AUGUST 22, a convoy of blacked-out Suburbans, flanked by police escorts, sped west along Sunset Boulevard and then headed north into the Hollywood Hills. The motorcade finally pulled up to the gated entrance of Beverly Park, an exclusive enclave that is home to an array of famous actors, rockers, and other Los Angeles A-listers. Hillary Clinton's destination that evening was the palatial compound of Univision chairman Haim Saban, a billionaire most famous for creating the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Saban's sprawling mansion was built in the style of a French country manor, and the meticulously tended grounds, in which he took special pride, were modeled on the gardens of Versailles.
Over a late dinner, Clinton regaled Saban, his wife, Cheryl, and 100 guests—including Disney CEO Bob Iger, DreamWorks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and basketball legend Magic Johnson—with war stories from the campaign trail. "Well, the latest one they have on me is that I'm dying," she said, referring to the elaborate conspiracy theories about her health ginned up by conservative media. "That's a new one." The price of admission to the Sabans' fundraiser—their second for Clinton during the 2016 race—was $100,000 per couple. After a few hours of mingling, Clinton had raised more than $5 million—one of the most lucrative hauls of her campaign.
Saban, who is solidly built with slicked-back wavy black hair, is worth an estimated $3.5 billion, earning him the 453rd spot on Forbes' ranking of the world's richest people. The 72-year-old holds dual Israeli-American citizenship, and his office—which occupies the top floor of a 26-story tower in LA's Century City—is a testament to his divided loyalties. An Israeli flag and an American flag adorn his conference room, next to photographs of Abraham Lincoln, David Ben-Gurion, Theodor Herzl, and John F. Kennedy. A framed Golda Meir quote in the lobby ("We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us") greets visitors. There's also a mock version of Monopoly called Haimopoly on display. The play money bears the Power Rangers logo, and the properties on the board include some of Saban's current and former business interests—the Paul Frank designer brand, TV network Univision, the Israeli telecommunications company Bezeq.
Saban has the self-made mogul's way of both downplaying and reminding you of his clout. In one breath he'll name-drop "Angela" (German Chancellor Angela Merkel) or "Bibi" (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); in the next he'll describe himself as a mere "former cartoon schlepper" or "just a guy."
But there is one subject on which Saban does not hold back: his relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. No single political patron has done more for the Clintons over the span of their careers. In the past 20 years, Saban and his wife have donated $2.4 million to the Clintons' various campaigns and at least $15 million to the Clinton Foundation, where Cheryl Saban serves as a board member. Haim Saban prides himself on his top-giver status: "If I'm not No. 1, I'm going to cut my balls off," he once remarked on the eve of a Hillary fundraiser. The Sabans have given more than $10 million to Priorities USA, making them among the largest funders of the pro-Hillary super-PAC. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, he vowed to spend "whatever it takes" to elect her.
In a business—politics—that attracts more than its fair share of eccentrics, egomaniacs, and outsized characters, Terry McAuliffe stands alone. There is no one quite like the Macker, as his friends call him. McAuliffe has lived and breathed politics since, well, the day he was born, the son of a Democratic county pooh-bah in Syracuse, New York, and he's never stopped. What got me interested in McAuliffe, though, was the leap he'd made from fundraiser/party chairman/"Friend of Bill" (Clinton) to elected official after he got elected governor of Virginia in 2013. It's a leap not many behind-the-scenes types (if you can call McAuliffe, a man who never saw a TV camera he didn't like, behind-the-scenes) make, and I wanted to see how it'd worked out for him. Little did I know that I was walking into McAuliffe's life at a particularly dramatic juncture.
Terry McAuliffe Wants to Prove He’s Not a Crony. But First He Has to Get Hillary Elected.
Washingtonian Magazine | September 6, 2016
BY THE TIME Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, finishes barraging me with talking points and factoids about education funding, highway-widening projects, the presidential campaign, and Twitter (“They don’t let me near it”), McAuliffe’s spokesman is looking anxious. We’ve blown past our allotted time, and the governor is expected at an event in five minutes.
“Before we wrap up,” the spokesman interjects, using the kind of verbal nudge toward the door familiar to PR pros everywhere, “would it be possible to offer just a sketch of where do we go from—”
McAuliffe suddenly bolts upright. “Have you seen the mansion yet?”
I have not.
He turns to the spokesman. “What do we got tonight, a Hispanic—what is tonight?”
“It’s the Asian American Heritage—”
“Yeah, well, c’mon over,” McAuliffe tells me. “Get yourself a drink, see the mansion.”
First, a detour. As the staff packs up for the day, McAuliffe leads me into the adjacent conference room. Inside is a blown-up state map and a photo of McAuliffe with a Middle Eastern crown prince. “I just got the poultry ban lifted in Kuwait and Oman,” he says. “First time ever. Big deal.”
Spend any amount of time with the governor and you’ll get an earful about all the “firsts” and “mosts” and “greatests” he’s amassing before his four-year term ends. McAuliffe claims to be the first Virginia governor to visit all 23 community colleges and 36 state parks, the first to inspect the state’s two juvenile-justice facilities, and the first to drive the pace car at a NASCAR race. He’s the first Virginia governor to support same-sex marriage publicly—and to officiate at one. Virginia, he loves to say, is the “greatest state in the greatest nation on Earth.” Virginia farmers are the “greatest farmers in the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world.” The mayors of Norfolk and Newport News are, respectively, the “greatest mayor in America” and the “other greatest mayor in America.”
McAuliffe is 59 years old and six-foot-one, with big hands and a wide-shouldered build that brings to mind a retired tight end who now runs a local steakhouse. Yet he has the twitchy attention span of someone a generation younger. Confine him to the leather chair in his office, too small for his frame, and he’ll fidget and slouch, draping a leg over the side like an insolent teenager in pinstripes and wingtips.
In conversation, he combines the salesmanship of an infomercial host with the jargon of a corporate thought leader and the intensity of a high-school football coach on his third can of Monster Energy. He doesn’t get excited—he gets JACKED UP. He says, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” to underscore the magnitude of what he’s just said. He often abandons one line of thinking for another, mid-sentence, no warning.
The 72nd occupant of the Commonwealth’s highest office, McAuliffe may be the most antic governor in the 240-year history of the position. He’s also one of the most improbable. Not long ago, America knew him as the Macker—the Clinton-family crony, the partisan warrior carrying the Democratic Party banner on the Sunday talk shows, the titanic political moneyman dubbed “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe” by Al Gore. But for the past 2½ years, he’s been in the actual business of governing, with its finance negotiations and its legislative skirmishes, and, especially, its opportunities to turn on the charm in public instead of in private. And, on this May afternoon in Richmond, he wants me to know it.
Informed that his guests are waiting, McAuliffe fetches his jacket and marches into the hallway. “C’MON, EVERYBODY,” he says. “LET’S GO.”
At the end of the hallway, we squeeze into his private lift. “Of course, you get your own elevator as governor,” he tells me.
As the doors close, he introduces his security detail, Scott and Dana of the Virginia State Police.
“Dana’s single,” McAuliffe says.
“I may not be,” Dana says. “Who knows?”
“Well, you’re not down the aisle, let me put it that way.”
The elevator beeps once, twice.
McAuliffe, again: “Scott’s single.”
“Not really,” Scott says, a touch offended.
“You’re not down the aisle.”
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say McAuliffe has gotten more mileage out of the official residence than probably the previous 71 governors combined. He invites lawmakers over for drinks during the legislative session, hosts receptions for constituents, and dines with foreign dignitaries and business executives. Oil paintings and historic artifacts abound, but the crowds flock to the mansion bar, which is stocked with Glenfiddich, Woodford Reserve, and other high-end spirits, all paid for by the Irish Catholic governor himself. Next to the bar sits a Kegerator that pours Virginia craft beer most days of the year. (On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Guinness.)
“HIYA, EVERYONE,” McAuliffe says as he enters the house.
At the Dole Institute of Politics, University of Kansas, September 1, 2016.
I first learned of Jim Gilliam sitting at a bar in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the sidelines of the 2012 Democratic convention. I was meeting with a source who ran a prominent political technology firm. As always, I ended the conversation by asking what else I should be looking into. What were the juiciest overlooked stories out there? Who were the most intriguing people in the industry? The exec didn't hesitate. Look up this guy named Jim Gilliam, she said. He gave this speech a few years ago, about how he almost died twice, he used to be an evangelical Christian, and about religion and the internet.
The tip lived up to its hype. Gilliam's story—the subject of the following profile, first published in 2013—is so improbable and wild, you couldn't make it up. At its core is a fierce debate about technology in our polarized times, who gets access to it and who doesn't. Do liberals guard against anyone other than their allies using their technology? Or should such advances be available to everyone, regardless of the ideology of the technology's creator? Who gets to decide such things?
It's a debate that still rages, with Gilliam's company, NationBuilder, being hired by none other than Donald Trump's presidential campaign. I hope you come away from this story with at least a recognition of why Jim Gilliam believes technology should be available to all—and how Gilliam literally beat the odds (and beat them, and beat them again) to stay alive.
Jim Gilliam of NationBuilder says his software will "democratize democracy." So why do many of his progressive friends consider him a traitor?
The American Prospect | October 9, 2013
TWO YEARS AGO on a summer morning, Jim Gilliam stood offstage at New York University’s Skirball Center. It was the second day of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual gathering of civic-minded coders, hackers, and online organizers. Many in the crowd knew Gilliam as much for his appearance—he’s six-foot-nine, bald, ivory-pale, and impossibly thin—as for his brilliance as a programmer and his passion for progressive causes. Gilliam, who was 33 years old, had never spoken before such a large audience, and as he strode across the stage and looked out on all the people, he was terrified.
“Growing up,” he began, “I had two loves: Jesus and the Internet.” He had titled his speech “The Internet Is My Religion,” and he was surprised the conference’s organizers had agreed to let him give a talk steeped in God and faith. Even though he’d rehearsed for weeks, he expected to bomb. Still, he had to do this. His entire life, he believed, had led him to this point. “I was born again when I was eight,” Gilliam told the audience. Wandering the stage TED-talk style, he wore thick-lensed Oakley glasses, a T-shirt depicting Abraham Lincoln, and skinny jeans cinched tight at the waist. He had grown up in Silicon Valley, he continued, where he was “quite the precocious young conservative,” who went to church three times a week, called in to talk radio, and listened to Rush Limbaugh. Gilliam’s mother homeschooled him and his two sisters, shielding him from the secular world.
One day, his father brought home a weird-looking phone and plugged it into the household computer. “It made a bizarre screeching noise like it was trying to mate with a rhinoceros or something. Instead, it attracted me, and that’s when I found out that computers could talk to each other.”
The story that followed was improbable, and few people in the audience, including many who were friends of Gilliam, were aware of its outlines. In 1994, his family moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he attended the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. In his first year, Gilliam was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Two weeks into chemotherapy, Gilliam learned that his mother had cancer. “I survived, my mom didn’t, our family fell apart, and my faith in God was shattered.”
Gilliam dropped out of Liberty and fled to Boston to join an Internet start-up. Within months, the cancer returned; he had leukemia. Near death, lying in the intensive care unit, he would hit a button at his bedside that injected him with dilaudid (otherwise known as “hospital heroin”) to blunt the pain. “Every time I pressed it, I felt defeated and broken,” he said. “I just wanted it to end. God had forsaken me.”
The doctors had not. A bone-marrow transplant saved Gilliam’s life. “I couldn’t waste another second of my life, so I gave myself to the Internet, what I loved most.” He established himself as a wunderkind coder during the first dot-com boom. Then September 11 happened, and he gave up his tech career for liberal activism. “I had no illusions at all that I could change anything,” he said, “but knew … that if I didn’t at least try, I would look back in ten years and regret it.” He volunteered first for the anti-war group MoveOn and then went on to co-found Brave New Films with left-wing documentary director Robert Greenwald, where he pioneered online fundraising and distribution. Then, just shy of his 28th birthday, Gilliam found himself struggling to breathe. Doctors told him he needed a double-lung transplant. The chemo that had saved his life had destroyed his lungs.
On a cloudy February morning in 2007, he received the lungs of a recently deceased 22-year-old man. As he headed into surgery, he had a revelation. When he awoke—if he awoke—he would have the DNA of three different people: The marrow donor’s, the lung donor’s, and his own. “And that’s when I truly found God. God is just what happens when humanity is connected.”
He would be dead, he said, if not for the people who had sacrificed to save his life. “We are all connected. We are all in debt to each other. We all owe every moment of our lives to countless people we will never meet. The Internet gives us the opportunity to pay back a small part of that debt.” Raising his hands to the ceiling, looking down at his feet, pausing for emphasis, Gilliam could have been a preacher offering a prayer. “What the people in this room do is spiritual. It is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion. We have faith that people connected can create a new world.”
When he finished speaking, Gilliam ran off the stage to a standing ovation. Audience members mobbed him in the hall. “Not a dry eye in the house,” tweeted the tech writer Cory Doctorow. The website Business Insider called the talk “a modern epic.” The video became a YouTube sensation, with eventually more than 500,000 views. Capital New York declared it “the best video on the Internet.”
I spoke with ITV's "Good Morning Britain"—the UK equivalent of "Good Morning America" (or so I'm told)—about President Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Watch it above, if only to admire my inability to properly knot a tie.
"The fine art of hanging out." That's what Gay Talese called it. He was talking about reporting, spending serious time in the presence of your subject, time to observe the story unfold before your eyes. I thought of Talese and hanging out as I was reporting this piece in Arizona.
A few weeks ago, an editor of mine asked if I had any ideas for political stories set out west. I pitched him on traveling to Arizona and writing about the voter registration efforts by left-leaning groups focused on Latinos. This is the year of Donald Trump, and Democrats are hoping to translate the widespread anger in Latino communities at Trump's anti-immigrant vitriol into votes for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. Could Arizona finally turn purple?
My editor's boss at the magazine came back with a better, counter-intuitive idea: Let's find out what enlightened Republicans, the ones who believe the GOP needs Latino voters to survive, are doing to win over Latinos in this Republican annus horribilis. I flew to Arizona. I went to phone banks, interviewed poli sci profs and consultants, tagged along with volunteers. I ate a lot of great Mexican food and In 'n' Out. But I didn't have a story. I hadn't found the right scene or the right figure that captured our idea.
Then I met Sergio Arellano, the guy in charge of Latino outreach for the Arizona Republican Party. "Your timing couldn't be better, my man," he told me on the phone. "One of our biggest events is July 4th down in Nogales. Big-time Democratic city. You gotta come." My photographer, Caitlin O'Hara, and I drove down to Nogales and spent a long, hot, and fascinating day watching Sergio and his team try to convince Latinos in a historically Democratic border town to vote GOP. Six days of nerve-jangling hanging out and I'd found my story.
Persuading Latinos to vote Republican in the year of Trump
The California Sunday Magazine | July 12, 2016
On the Fourth of July, Sergio Arellano dragged himself out of bed before sunrise and pulled on baggy jeans and a T-shirt that read "REPUBLICAN ACTION TEAM." As the strategic initiatives director for the Arizona Republican Party, Arellano is responsible for Latino outreach, and he was headed for Nogales, a border town whose population of 20,000 is overwhelmingly Latino and Democratic. In other words, he was going into enemy territory to promote Donald Trump, Senator John McCain (who is seeking a sixth term), and several other Republican candidates running for local office. Latinos make up 31 percent of Arizona’s population. That number is growing so rapidly that many think it’s only a matter of time before what was once a solidly red state shades purple and then turns blue. It is Arellano’s job to prevent this from happening.
This year, huge sums of money will flow from small donors—those $27 givers Bernie Sanders can't stop talking about—and large ones into the war chests of Hillary Clinton's and Donald Trump's campaigns, into super PACs and dark-money outfits, into U.S. Senate races and state-level elections and ballot measures spanning the country. In an ideal world, the country's top cop on the money-in-politics beat, the Federal Election Commission, would be on high alert for wrongdoing and abuses by donors, candidates, consultants, and the rest.
But the current state of affairs at the FEC is far from ideal. Like so much of American politics, the commission is bitterly divided along ideological lines and so barely able to act on the most pressing matters that come before it. With the presidential race revving up and the big money getting ready for the fall, I wanted to share my 2015 profile of the FEC's commissioners, a lawyer and reformer who believed she could fix the FEC—from the inside. This is the story of what happened when Ann Ravel went to war with her own agency.
The Chairwoman Who's at War With Her Own Agency
Ann Ravel says the Federal Election Commission is badly broken. But is her very public crusade the way to fix it?
National Journal | October 13, 2015
ON A THURSDAY morning in June, the six commissioners of the Federal Election Commission—three Republican appointees, three Democratic appointees—convened at their headquarters in downtown Washington for their monthly open meeting. On the agenda was a provocative item: The group’s Democratic chairwoman, Ann Ravel, and one of her Democratic colleagues, Ellen Weintraub, had filed a petition with their own commission—as if they were ordinary citizens rather than two of the six people who actually run the place. The petition urged the FEC to beef up disclosure of anonymous campaign spending and to crack down on the increasingly commonplace practice of coordination between candidates and supposedly independent super PACs.
It was a highly unorthodox move—and that was precisely the point. “People will say: ‘You’re the chair of the commission. You should work from within.’ I tried,” Ravel told CNN at the time. “We needed to take more creative avenues to try and get public disclosure.”
Now the six commissioners had before them a technical question: not whether to act on the petition—which was unlikely to happen, given their 3-3 divide on major questions and the substantial partisan enmity among them—but merely whether to publish the text of the petition in the Federal Register. This formality set off what was surely one of the most bizarre exchanges in FEC history. In the view of Matthew Petersen, one of the three Republican commissioners, because Ravel and Weintraub were sitting commissioners neither qualified as a “person” eligible to petition the FEC. Caroline Hunter, another Republican commissioner, agreed, saying there was “a lot of common sense” in Petersen’s reasoning.
Ravel and Weintraub were taken aback. “First of all, let me say, I cannot believe that you are actually going to take the position that I am not a person,” Weintraub said. “A corporation is a person, but I’m not a person? … That’s how bad it has gotten. My colleagues will not admit that I am a person.”
“My children,” she later remarked, “are going to be really disappointed.”
“I think you’re not an alien,” Hunter deadpanned, “at least not today.”
Welcome to the 2015 iteration of the Federal Election Commission, the agency that ostensibly oversees political campaigns but in fact has largely become a rancorous, demoralized, and polarized bystander to our cash-drenched elections. As of June 30, there were 78 pending enforcement cases languishing on the FEC’s books, according to Commissioner Steven Walther, one of the three Democratic appointees. Twenty-three of those cases have been unresolved for more than a year, and five of them date back to the 2012 campaign, which might as well be ancient history. “On most major issues, the commission is unable to muster four votes to do much of anything,” says Anthony Herman, the FEC’s general counsel from 2011 to 2013. Phrases that get tossed out to describe the FEC include “toothless,” “the poster child for a broken Washington,” and “worse than dysfunctional.”
That last sentiment came from the mouth of Ann Ravel, who has chaired the commission since January. Ravel, who is 66, first arrived at the FEC in the fall of 2013, after a three-decade career as a public litigator and legal adviser in California. With no plans to hang around the Beltway once her stint at the commission is over, Ravel didn’t have much to lose in Washington—which may help explain why she has taken the unusual step of publicly going to war with her own agency.
Mention the existence of a secret society in Hollywood and people's minds will jump to the obvious: the Church of Scientology. But in fact, there's another underground network in the entertainment industry, one that fills many of the same needs as Scientology but with none of the strange rituals and bizarre mythology. It's a network of showbiz conservatives, a breed that's less rare than you might think in famously liberal Hollywood. And it's the subject of my first story for The California Sunday Magazine, a kick-ass publication that I'll be writing for more this year.
In liberal Hollywood, Republicans have formed one of the industry’s most influential (and most discreet) political organizations.
The California Sunday Magazine | May 19, 2016
DAVE BERG WAS invited to Friends of Abe during a commercial break on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Berg was a producer on the show, and one of his many duties included keeping Leno’s guests company between segments — making small talk, coaching them through their appearance, asking if there was anything they wanted Leno to mention. During a taping in 2007, Berg sat down next to the actress Patricia Heaton, who was promoting a new sitcom. Before he could say anything, Heaton leaned over and said in a playfully conspiratorial tone, “I hear you’re a conservative.”
Berg felt his face flush. A trim, sandy-haired native of Chicago who’d run CNBC’s Los Angeles bureau before landing at The Tonight Show, Berg went to great lengths to keep his political views to himself. “How did you know?” he asked. Heaton wouldn’t say but told him about a group starting up where he could speak freely. “We’re going to have a meeting at my house,” she said. “Would you like to come?”
Buddy Sosthand was unwinding at a bar in Albuquerque after a day of stunt work when the discussion turned to the 2004 presidential election. Sosthand told a fellow stuntman he had supported Bush. “I can’t believe you, as a black person, would vote for George W. Bush,” the other man said. Their argument became so heated that the two nearly had to be separated.
After Sosthand had cooled off, an actor named Chris Ashworth approached him. “Were you saying what I thought you were saying?” Ashworth whispered. Sosthand asked why Ashworth’s voice was so low. “You got to watch yourself,” replied Ashworth, who mentioned something about an industry group called Friends of Abe that he might want to join.
Clint Howard, a longtime character actor, found himself seated next to stand-up comedian Tom Dreesen on a flight back to Los Angeles from a charity golf tournament several years ago. The two men began to talk politics, and Dreesen asked if Howard had heard of Friends of Abe. Howard, the younger brother of director Ron Howard, said he had always wanted to become a member but didn’t have an in. Dreesen gave him the phone number of actor Gary Sinise and told him to call. Not long after, Howard rang up Sinise. “I was waiting for you, brother,” Sinise said.
Howard told me this story recently over tostadas and Coronas at an old Mexican joint tucked among the studio lots of Burbank. Even in the dimly lit dining room, I recognized him right away. He’s that guy from that movie, the face you recognize but can’t for the life of you remember from where. (In Howard’s case, it’s probably Apollo 13 or The Waterboy.) Bald on top, Howard has grown out what hair remains into gray ringlets that wouldn’t be out of place at a Renaissance Fair. His wife hates it, he told me, but the wacky-guy look — his words — has led to steady work playing characters with names like Creepy Rodney and Drug Dan.
There are many misconceptions about Friends of Abe, Howard explained. The group doesn’t endorse candidates or raise money for campaigns. It doesn’t get out the vote. There’s no party line. Within the group are libertarians, evangelical Christians, Donald Trump supporters, Donald Trump opponents, moderate Republicans, gay Republicans, atheist Republicans, Tea Partyers, and military veterans. Yeah, a lot of people get the wrong idea about the group because it’s a secret society, he said, but more than anything, Friends of Abe is a safe haven and a fellowship — sometimes even a therapy session — for conservatives in show business.
Secret society. Safe haven. Fellowship. Therapy session. Whenever I talked to Friends of Abe members, I heard this kind of language again and again, and there’s no question the group is all of these things. It’s also a place for members to find work, swap ideas for a project, even meet a romantic partner. But what these descriptions overlook is that Friends of Abe — a group few people in or out of Hollywood have heard of — has become one of the most influential political organizations in the entertainment industry. What began in 2004 as a regular lunch among Sinise, Dreesen, and screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Hanoi Hilton) has grown to nearly 2,500 members, including Clint Eastwood, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Jon Voight, Jerry Bruckheimer, Dennis Miller, Robert Duvall, and Tom Selleck.
Over the years, Friends of Abe has become an essential stop on the Republican Party circuit. Nearly every Republican candidate for president in the past decade has spoken at the group’s monthly gatherings. Donald Trump considered Friends of Abe so important that one of his earliest events after he announced he was running for president was a speech before the group. Ted Cruz turned to members for help shooting commercials, writing lines for speeches and debates, and obtaining celebrity endorsements. Although the group does not support individual candidates — until recently, it was a 501(c)(3)-designated charity — members have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republicans running for office.
This past January, Howard spent three days in Iowa campaigning for Cruz. “I did phone banking,” he told me, as the waiter brought our food. “I checked out the campaign bus — it was just like a writers’ room — and I attended some rallies. What Cruz believes in, what he stands for — he’s my guy.”
Is it hard to be a conservative in Hollywood? I asked. “It’s a money business,” he said. “The people who have most of the power and most of the control, they’re liberals. I would never tell a young actor who’s conservative to come out of the closet. It would put their career at risk. Imagine the industry that you love and make a living in has gotten to the point where you have to hold your tongue every day. That’s awful.”
We finished our lunch and stepped out into the blinding afternoon light to say our goodbyes. That evening, as I read through my notes, I realized that Howard had avoided saying the words Friends of Abe throughout our two-hour lunch. He had kept to protocol. “The first rule of Friends of Abe,” members are told at their induction meeting, “is don’t talk about Friends of Abe.”
On the eve of Donald Trump's first major foreign-policy speech, I dove into the national security world to better understand how the men and women in uniform, the spies and the bureaucrats, the four-stars and the reservists view our political man of the moment. Let's just say anxiety would be a gross understatement. Here, the military confronts the thought of Commander-in-Chief Donald J. Trump.
Trump at War
How the military is preparing for the possibility of a very different kind of Commander in Chief.
Huffington Post Highline | April 25, 2016
When Donald Trump launched his bid for the White House, one of his earliest initiatives was a promise to help Americans who had gone to war for their country. Or, as his campaign put it, to take care of “all Veteran complaints very quickly and efficiently like a world-class business man can do, but a politician has no clue.” Last summer, about a month after declaring his candidacy, Trump unveiled a hotline for veterans to share ideas about how to overhaul the bureaucracy that served them. A campaign aide said that Trump himself would personally respond to some of the messages. “I love all veterans and will help them finally lead the kind of lives that they should be leading,” Trump declared at the time.
Many of the veterans who called the hotline—855-VETS-352—say they were sent to an automated voicemail message telling them to email the campaign. Those who reached a live human were similarly instructed to send an email, or to mail their medical records to campaign headquarters at Trump Tower. It soon became evident that Trump had no actual plan in place to help anyone who contacted him through the hotline. Calling it a “publicity stunt,” one veteran wrote on PopularMilitary.com, “We are not sure what the estimated wait time is, but it is probably safe to say you should hold on to your [Veterans Affairs] card for now.”
This perfunctory effort was perhaps to be expected, since Trump has a long and colorful history of showing disrespect toward men and women in uniform. He did not serve himself, avoiding the Vietnam War via four education deferments, followed by a medical deferment for bone spurs in his feet. (His campaign notes that Trump received a high number in the draft lottery and was unlikely to ever be called up.) But on numerous occasions, he has dismissed the experiences of those who did. In the 2015 biography Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, Trump is quoted as saying, “I always thought I was in the military” because of his time at the New York Military Academy, an expensive boarding school 60 miles north of New York City where Trump brought women onto campus so often that his yearbook nickname was “Ladies’ Man.” The author, Michael D’Antonio, writes that Trump believed the academy “provided him with more military training than most actual soldiers.”
In the 1990s, Trump made headlines for lobbying the New York State legislature to ban disabled veterans from working as street vendors around Trump Tower. “Do we allow Fifth Avenue, one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?” he wrote to a state assemblyman. Thirteen years later, he appealed again to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Whether they are veterans or not,” he wrote, “[the vendors] should not be allowed to sell on this most important and prestigious shopping street.”
At times, his remarks on veterans and military service have veered into outright mockery. In a 1997 interview with Howard Stern, Trump likened his determination to avoid sexually transmitted infections to serving in combat. His sex life in the 1980s was “my personal Vietnam,” he said. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” Last summer, he declared that Senator John McCain—a former Navy pilot who was held prisoner for five and a half years and tortured by the North Vietnamese—was “not a war hero.” His reasoning: “I like people that weren’t captured.”
Meanwhile, when Trump has weighed in on national security questions, his remarks often reveal either ignorance or disdain for military expertise and the codes of conduct that govern the armed forces. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me,” he boasted in one speech, adding, "I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war." His foreign policy prescriptions include proposals to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” to “take out” the families of ISIS members and to torture terrorism suspects. (“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would,” he told one crowd. “And you know what? If it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway, for what they're doing.”) When it was pointed out that soldiers couldn’t legally carry out those last two actions, Trump was unconcerned. "They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.” (He walked back that last statement the next day.) The Geneva Conventions, he recently observed, have made American soldiers “afraid to fight.”
Trump’s pronouncements on foreign policy, combined with his years of broadsides, have set off a very real fear within military circles about what might happen were he to become president. In the last two months, I spoke with dozens of people in the national security realm—current and retired officers, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and former White House, State Department, Pentagon and CIA officials. The words they used to describe their mood: Terrified. Shocked. Appalled. Never before, they say, has a candidate gotten so close to the White House with such little respect for the military.
It's a cliché for a writer to say he left something of himself on the page, but that's how it felt with this story. Six months in the works, the product of many lonely hours spent criss-crossing Missouri, many sleepless nights on the road and at home, and many heart-wrenching conversations, this is the first full account of the life and death of Tom Schweich, a man you've surely never heard of but whose story deserves your attention.
Death and Politics: Did a Vicious Campaign Drive a Candidate to Suicide?
A Republican kingmaker, Ted Cruz's campaign manager and questions of faith hounded an "anti-corruption" crusader until his tragic end
Rolling Stone | February 26, 2016
FOR ALL OF Tom Schweich's accomplishments — degrees from Yale and Harvard, partner at an international white-shoe law firm, chief of staff to three U.S. ambassadors, second-ranking international law enforcement official at the State Department, professor, author and twice-elected auditor of the state of Missouri — the first thing you noticed about the guy was that he sure didn't look like a politician. He probably stood five foot four on a good day, with a receding hairline, sunken eyes and big jug ears. He never weighed more than 140 pounds, partly due to the fact that he suffered from Crohn's disease, a gastrointestinal condition that diminishes appetite. His suits draped over his slight frame and his ties hung down to his fly. Harry Otto, who served as Schweich's number two in the auditor's office, remembers first laying eyes on his future boss and thinking, "He doesn't look like he could fight his way out of a wet paper bag."
Schweich didn't act much like a politician either. He stepped on his applause lines. He let reporters into the little corners of his life, his collections of rare coins and autographed Hollywood memorabilia. Nor was he temperamentally suited for the rough-and-tumble of electoral politics. Tightly wound and thin-skinned, he took slights and insults personally and spoke his mind with refreshingly little filter. "Tom never thought about what the reaction would be," says his former campaign treasurer, Joe Passanise. "He would just act."
That's certainly what he did on the evening of January 28, 2015, when Schweich announced his candidacy for governor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, in a speech the likes of which Missouri had never heard. The 54-year-old lifelong Republican told the audience that Missouri's government had been held captive by lobbyists, political consultants and outside interests. Corruption and cronyism were endemic. Over the objections of his advisers, he singled out his opponents by name: His main Republican rival, former Missouri House speaker Catherine Hanaway, whom he referred to as "Catherine Layaway," had been "bought and paid for." The Democratic favorite, Attorney General Chris Koster, who allegedly gave preferential treatment to corporations after taking donations from those same companies, was the "poster child for selling his office to contributors." (A Koster spokesperson denies any wrongdoing by Koster and says the campaign has "implemented what we believe is the strongest conflict of interest policy in the nation.")
Schweich's sharpest barbs, though, were saved for St. Louis mega-donor Rex Sinquefield, the wealthy investor and closest thing Missouri has to its own Koch brother. The "Sinquefield machine," Schweich warned, sought nothing less than the takeover of the state. Despite representing opposing parties, Koster and Hanaway had each counted Sinquefield as their top contributor over the span of their careers. "Rex Sinquefield is trying to buy himself a governor," Schweich said. "You have my word that as long as I can stand on these two feet, I will fight to keep the Republican Party from becoming the Rex-publican Party."
It was a startling thing to behold, a campaign rollout speech built around shaming the state's largest donor and two of its most well known politicians. And yet this was the essence of Schweich's candidacy: He was running as "a true anti-corruption expert." A Kansas City Star columnist hailed him as "the disrupter." Schweich's entry into the governor's race signaled the beginning of a fight not just for Missouri's highest office, but for the soul of the state's body politic. And despite his unassuming stature and jittery disposition, Schweich looked ready to wage that fight to the end.
But in truth, Schweich was coming apart. In the weeks following his speech, he became obsessed with what he believed was an "insidious" effort to damage his name and undermine his campaign, an obsession that hounded him until he took his own life. Mental health experts agree there is almost never a simple answer for why someone chooses to commit suicide, but in an effort to better understand the tragedy, I spoke with nearly 50 people who knew him (some of whom spoke on the record for the first time). I also obtained previously unpublished private notes, emails and texts that provide new details of the events leading up to Schweich's death.
It was the day before Halloween. Senator Bernie Sanders—the "charmingly charmless pugilistic socialist from Vermont," as Marin Cogan so wonderfully put it—had finished speaking at a senior center in Manchester, New Hampshire. I asked an older couple in attendance, Doris and Michael Manning, why they liked Sanders. Their answer was honest and personal.
"I was just prescribed a prescription," Doris said, "and I wouldn't get it because I couldn't afford it."
"Two hundred and what?" Michael asked.
"Two-hundred-sixty-five for a month," Doris said. "And I said no I can't afford it. And there's nothing else to substitute for it for what they wanted to give me. I said, Sorry, I'm not taking it." The Mannings had medical insurance, they told me, but their insurer, Humana, wouldn't cover the prescription.
Michael had had a similar experience with a shingles shot he needed. "For some reason it falls into the wrong category of drug," he told me. "It's a Class B or whatever. Because it's not covered, it's two-hundred-something dollars out of pocket. OK, I'm just gonna take my chance and hope I'm one of the two in three that don't get it."
The Mannings liked Sanders' pledge to reduce the cost of prescription drugs."You have those difficult choices to make," Michael said, "and that's why we tend to support people who tend to support us. It makes perfect sense."
As a political reporter, it's easy to get sucked into the horse race, the tit-for-that on Twitter, the latest super PAC filing, the newest poll. Conversations like the one I had with the Mannings are a reality check, a gut punch. There are lives and livelihoods at stake in any election, a presidential election especially. It's partly for that reason, I'd argue, why Bernie Sanders has done as well as he has. He's laid out lofty goals like tackling income inequality and breaking up big banks, but he's also campaigned on the quotidian: Prescription drug prices, cost-of-living increases, ATM fees.
Sanders enters Tuesday's New Hampshire primary on track for his first win of '16. Last fall, I traveled the country hoping to understand Sanders' appeal. I like to think my story, for Yahoo! News, sheds some light on why Sanders has surprised so many (including myself) this presidential race.
The Bernie Revolution: What’s so appealing about a grumpy 74-year-old?
Yahoo! News | December 3, 2015
IT'S A DRIZZLY Wednesday evening in October and the presidential campaign has descended on a college campus in suburban Virginia. The line of students begins way out in the parking lot, a procession of flannel and hoodies and trendy rain boots winding up the stairs and through the doors of the campus rec center, snaking down polished hallways until reaching the gymnasium. Attendees scribble their names and email addresses on pledge cards and drop them in a box on the way in. Young volunteers in campaign T-shirts corral the unwieldy masses, and the late arrivals plead for a seat inside.
We’ve seen this hundreds of times before: The gymnasium filled to the rafters, the handwritten banners and the phalanx of TV cameras, the klieg lights aimed at center stage, the rock music blaring as the candidate makes his or her entrance. But the setting of tonight’s rally, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., isn’t some hotbed of ivory tower liberalism on fire for the latest Democratic rock star. If anything, George Mason is known as a bastion of libertarianism and a magnet for major donations by right-leaning luminaries such as the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The headliner of tonight’s student town hall, the object of affection for all these college kids, isn’t quite whom you’d expect either: a rumpled, irascible democratic socialist from the state of Vermont named Bernie Sanders.
Take a look at him: Sen. Bernard Sanders, age 74, is not young, handsome or polished like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama were when they ran for president. He doesn’t care much for working rope lines or rah-rah chants. The closest thing he has to an official slogan is the legally required fine print on his website and campaign lit: “PAID FOR BY BERNIE 2016 (not the billionaires).”
His stump speeches steer clear of the typical campaign pabulum. No city-on-a-hill imagery. No spit-shined paeans to the “greatest country on earth.” Sanders prefers to rattle off one grim fact after another about the dire state of our union — 2.2 million people incarcerated; $1 trillion in student debt; the vast gap between top 1 percent and everyone else. His transitions — “Now, there’s another issue I want to discuss” — send Ted Sorensen spinning in his grave. If Obama campaigned in poetry, then Sanders employs the prose of a Union Square pamphleteer telling anyone who’ll listen all the reasons why our country is going to pot.
And the college kids — they love it. At George Mason, they pump their fists and leap out of their seats and scream “I love you, Bernie!” They love him because he doesn’t sugarcoat it, doesn’t coddle them. As he rattles off the bad news, many students boo but others cheer; some cheer and boo. It’s almost as if they can’t help but applaud a candidate who has the nerve to give it to them straight.
No matter the setting or the audience, Sanders’ fundamental message is the same: The political system is broken, corrupt. Passing this or that new policy won’t fix it. In the mold of populists past, Sanders wants to tear it all down and rebuild it anew.