The chair of the Republican Party in Chicago last year passed on allegations of voter fraud to a member of President Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission, using a top Justice Department official as intermediary, newly released emails reveal.
The emails, which were obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center via a Freedom of Information Act request, suggest that Republican officials sought to use the commission as a clearing-house for allegations of voter fraud from around the country, no matter how unsubstantiated.
In one email, Christy McCormick, who was a member of the voter fraud panel, told Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Gore that she was seeking to have the voter fraud panel investigate the allegations.
“Hopefully between DOJ and the Commission we can clean up the voter rolls,” McCormick said in one email. McCormick, a Republican, is also a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the federal agency that helps states administer elections.
As the voter fraud commission became a flashpoint for controversy, Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups sought information about the level of communication it had with the Justice Department.
Testifying in front of a Senate committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied coordination, but alluded to some level of contact.
“I don’t know that coordinating is correct,” he responded. “We’ve been asked for assistance on several issues.”
Over the course of four months, Chris Cleveland, the chair of Chicago’s Republican Party, reached out to Gore repeatedly about what he described as “discrepancies” between the number of voters on Chicago’s voter rolls and the votes cast in the November 2016 election. Cleveland’s first email to Gore in the FOIA batch was in May, soon after the commission was launched.
Before he was brought on to the Justice Department, Gore was a top Republican elections attorney. Gore was also the DOJ official behind a request that the Census include a citizenship question on its 2020 census — a move civil rights advocates fear will depress minority participation in the survey, which in turn will shift political power to rural and white communities.
The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.
Gore forwarded Cleveland’s emails to McCormick, who said in response that she intended to bring the issue up at the voter fraud commission’s first meeting in July. In another email to Gore in September, before the commission’s second meeting, McCormick said she had sent “the info on the Chicago issue (deleting your email address and messages from it) to the staff of the presidential commission a couple of months ago so we can co super [sic] it and hopefully investigate it.”
Neither McCormick, nor a spokesperson for the Election Assistance Commission, responded to TPM’s questions, including whether there was further investigation of Cleveland’s claims. The issue does not appear have come up at either of the public meetings held by the presidential voter fraud commission before it was disbanded, according to minutes from those meetings.
The Chicago Board of Elections did not respond to TPM’s inquiry, but its spokesperson has previously said that the Republicans’ claims were based on incomplete records of voters.
“Not all voters were entered electronically into the system at first,” board spokesman Jim Allen told the Chicago City Wire last August. “They have since been added.”
Gore eventually put Cleveland directly in touch with McCormick, who told Cleveland in September that she would follow up with commission staff to “find out what they are doing to investigate it.”
“Is Cook County also involved in this particular issue? It does not surprise me at all that they are working on behalf of Democrats,” McCormick said. She asked Cleveland to write up his experiences and suggested he could be brought in front of the voter fraud commission as a witness.
(Chicago is in Cook County, but has its own elections board.)
Cleveland had even harsher words for Chicago’s elections officials:
Cleveland did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment.
During the exchanges, McCormick also referenced, in a July email, a letter the Justice Department sent to states concerning their list maintenance efforts under the National Voter Registration Act. That letter that went out the same day as the controversial request from Kris Kobach, the voter fraud commission’s vice chair, for state voter roll data.
“I’ve been reading the stories/conspiracy theories about your NVRA letter and the Commission’s letter going out to the States on the same day and am amused at all the speculation and conclusions in them,” McCormick said. “Hopefully between DOJ and the Commission we can clean up the voter rolls. For the life of me, I don’t know why people should be against cleaning them up. Of course, that’s a rhetorical statement, because I do know why some people are against it. In any case, here’s to continuing to do what’s right for our country and the voters!”
Corrected: This story has been corrected to clarify that the allegations referred to the Chicago Board of Elections, not Cook County Clerk’s Office.
The wife of Matthew Heimbach, who leads the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, told police that during a domestic altercation, her husband kicked a wall, grabbed her face, and threw her violently on a bed, according to a police report obtained by TPM. The incident occurred in the presence of the couple’s two young sons.
As TPM reported, Heimbach, 26, was arrested early Tuesday morning and charged with one felony count of domestic battery in the presence of a child under 16, and one misdemeanor count of battery.
The arrest followed a bizarre sequence of events stemming from an extramarital affair Heimbach was conducting, according to the police report.
The white nationalist leader is married to Brooke Heimbach, the step-daughter of Matt Parrott, the Traditionalist Worker Party’s chief spokesman. Matthew Heimbach was also carrying on an affair with Parrott’s wife, Jessica Parrott. Per the police report, when Brooke Heimbach and Matt Parrott confronted Matthew Heimbach about the relationship, Matthew physically attacked both of them.
The group all live in the same trailer park compound in rural Paoli, Indiana, where the Traditionalist Worker Party is based. In statements to the police, all four listed their professions as “white nationalists.”
Per the report, Brooke Heimbach and Matt Parrott tried to set Matthew Heimbach up to see if he would continue the affair after agreeing to call it quits. On Tuesday, they spied on him and Jessica Parrott through the window of the Parrotts’ trailer.
Matt Parrott and Matthew Heimbach got into a physical confrontation, and Matt Parrott later told the police that Matthew Heimbach grabbed him and “choked him out,” leaving him briefly unconscious.
Shortly after police arrived on the scene, the officer heard Matthew Heimbach arguing with his wife and “scuffling.” Brooke Heimbach told the police that her husband kicked the wall, grabbed her face, and “threw me with the hand on my face onto the bed” — a violent exchange she said she recorded on her cell phone. The couple’s two young sons were present for the altercation.
Matthew Heimbach was released from Orange County jail Tuesday on $1,000 bond, according to court records.
This complicated situation leaves the future of the Traditionalist Worker Party, one of the most outspoken groups in the modern white nationalist movement, uncertain. Matt Parrott announced last week that he is resigning his post and leaving the group.
Matthew Heimbach is already on probation for a previous violent incident. Last year he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for shoving a young black protester at a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, agreeing to pay a $145 fine, take anger management classes, and stay out of trouble with the law for two years.
White nationalist figurehead Matthew Heimbach was arrested on felony domestic violence-related charges Tuesday, according to court records filed in Orange County, Indiana.
The online records show Heimbach was charged with one count of battery and another of domestic battery committed in the presence of a child under 16 years old. He was released on $1,000 cash bond.
Heimbach, 26, is the head of the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group that advocates for the establishment of an “independent White ethno-state in North America.” He lives in rural Paoli, Indiana with his wife and young sons.
The Orange County prosecutor’s office and court were both closed by the time TPM reached out on Tuesday afternoon. Heimbach did not respond to TPM’s call, email or text message requesting comment.
Heimbach last year pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for shoving a young black protester at a Trump campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky. He had to pay a $145 fine, take anger management classes and stay out of trouble with the law for two years—a provision he may have violated with his latest domestic violence arrest.
Heimbach has been a fixture at other recent white nationalist events, helping organize a “White Lives Matter” rally in Tennessee last fall and brawling with counter-protesters outside of Richard Spencer’s speech at Michigan State University last week.
That event exposed deep fissures in the already strained U.S. white nationalist movement. Spencer announced that he’s quitting his flailing college tour as the events, which are often met with mass protests by anti-racist activists, are no longer “fun.” Spencer’s longtime ally and attorney Kyle Bristow quit the movement outright.
Traditional Worker Party spokesman Matthew Parrott, who is Heimbach’s father-in-law, has announced that he is walking away from the group. In a Monday night post on Gab, a social network popular among the racist far-right, Parrott announced that he would “fully and permanently resign.”
Reached by the Southern Poverty Law Center on Tuesday, Parrott said, “I’m done. I’m out. SPLC has won. Matt Parrott is out of the game.”
A witness of the deadly car crash at last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia is suing Infowars and other far-right purveyors of “fake news conspiracies” for instigating a targeted harassment campaign against him.
Counter-protester Brennan Gilmore alleges that he was defamed by false stories after sharing a video he’d captured of neo-Nazi James Fields allegedly ramming his car into a crowd, injuring 36 and killing anti-racist activist Heather Heyer. Fields was charged with first-degree murder in December. Georgetown Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic on Tuesday filed the defamation suit in federal court in Virginia on Gilmore’s behalf.
“Defendants thrive by inciting devastating real-world consequences with the lies they publish as ‘news,’” the suit reads. “From ‘Pizzagate’ to the Sandy Hook and Las Vegas shootings, Defendants have subjected innocent people to relentless threats of violence and death, bullying, and online harassment.”
Gilmore’s cameraphone video of the August 2017 attack went viral on Twitter, making him a target of online conspiracies alleging that he was part of a “deep-state” plot to undermine the Trump administration by staging the deadly incident.
Infowars’ Alex Jones and Lee Stranahan; Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft; and former congressman Allen West are among the defendants accused of promoting these bogus stories.
The defendants seized on details of Gilmore’s personal life, including his work as a foreign service officer, to allege that he was a “deep state shill linked to George Soros” and that he had “foreknowledge that this event was going to happen.”
As a result, per the complaint, Gilmore faced death threats, hacking attempts and the publication of his and his parents’ personal information. His career as a diplomat was “compromised,” and he was sent a letter containing suspicious powder.
Gilmore is seeking monetary damages for his “emotional distress” and “reputational, emotional, and professional injuries.”
Georgetown’s civil rights clinic last October sued the organizers of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and the militia groups that guarded them, pointing to an obscure provision of the Virginia Constitution barring the formation of armed paramilitary groups who intend to commit violence.
Both suits use innovative legal arguments to try to hold the perpetrators and defenders of the chaotic event accountable.
As the latest complaint alleges, Jones and Hoft have smeared victims of tragedies before, most recently pushing reports that the teenage survivors of the mass shooting at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas high school were hired “crisis actors.”
Jones responded to the filing in one of his characteristic rambling first-person videos, alleging that he was targeted for “questioning leftist PR surrounding Charlottesville.”
Other defendants told Reuters that they stood by their comments on Gilmore.
Editor’s Note: The New York Times report on Haspel’s role in the torture program, cited in the TPM story below, has been corrected. The Times now reports that Haspel didn’t begin supervising the Thailand facility until after the water-boarding of Abu Zubaydah had ended.
The correction does not affect reporting on Haspel’s role in the torture of al-Nashiri, or in the later destruction of tapes showing the torture.
President Trump’s nominee to replace outgoing CIA director Mike Pompeo had a key role in the agency’s clandestine torture program, running the US’ first overseas detention center.
Gina Haspel was nominated to lead the CIA on Tuesday morning after Trump abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, reassigning Pompeo to serve as as the country’s top diplomat.
As the New York Times reported last year when Haspel was named CIA deputy director, the post she currently holds, she oversaw the torture of two high-profile terrorist suspects at the agency’s secret prison in Thailand in 2002, and helped destroy videotapes documenting their gruesome interrogations.
One of the suspects, Abu Zubaydah, was subjected to waterboarding 83 times in one month and had his head repeatedly slammed into walls. The other, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, had a handgun loaded and a power drill revved next to his hooded head in order to frighten him into talking.
Haspel was also instrumental to the coverup of these brutal sessions, which were recorded on tapes that were stored in a safe at the Thailand facility until 2005. At that time, Haspel was working at CIA headquarters, and her name was on a cable carrying the order to destroy the tapes. The agency has said Haspel’s then-boss Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, was behind the decision to destroy the recordings.
In brief remarks to the press pool on Tuesday, Trump praised Haspel, emphasizing that she was the first woman picked to lead the agency.
“She’s an outstanding person who also I have gotten to know very well,” the President told reporters, as he prepared to embark to California to review prototypes for his signature border wall.
His nomination of Haspel, who will need to be confirmed by the Senate, will revive debates over the CIA’s secretive interrogation program. The 2012 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the program determined that so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence, and detailed shocking instances of abuse including forced rectal feedings, “mock executions,” and days-long sessions of standing sleep deprivation.
In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who led the committee at the time, blocked Haspel’s promotion to run the CIA’s clandestine operations over her role in the torture program.
Democrats were quick to condemn Trump’s decision.
Noting her opposition to Pompeo’s nomination for his failure to condone the torture program, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said Haspel has “done much worse.”
“Her reprehensible actions should disqualify her from having the privilege of serving the American people in government ever again, but apparently this President believes they merit a promotion,” Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, said in a statement. “I could not disagree more.”
Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-OR) told the Daily Beast that Haspel’s “background makes her unsuitable to serve as CIA director.”
KANSAS CITY, KANSAS — A proposal Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach took to a meeting with then-President-elect Donald Trump in November 2016 included a proposal to amend the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to “promote proof-of citizenship requirements.”
The phrase referred to an idea Kobach was seeking to propose to incentivize states to enact their own proof of citizenship requirement, Kobach said in a deposition video played at the trial for a challenge to Kansas’ version of the requirement.
The original NVRA encouraged states to adopt same-day registration by waiving for those states some of the NVRA’s provisions. Kobach’s idea was that a hypothetical newly amended NVRA would have provisions that would be waived for states if they adopt a proof of citizenship voter registration requirement.
Kobach said in his deposition that in his meeting with Trump — which included top members of Trump’s incoming administration — they did not get to discuss that proposal. A copy of the proposal was handed to all of the meeting participants.
Kobach said in the deposition that the topic of non-citizens registering to vote was discussed in general terms.
Over the course of the trial, Kobach’s legal team fiercely fought the playing of the video in the courtroom. Right before it was played, they successfully sought for it not to be included as a public exhibit. (The transcript of the deposition will be in the transcript of the trial instead.)
A portion of the transcript of the deposition had been previously unsealed, but the video that was played also went into portions of the deposition that until this point have been made public.
Kobach was photographed with Trump at a November 20, 2016 meeting at Trump’s golf resort in New Jersey holding an outline for his “DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY KOBACH STRATEGIC PLAN FOR FIRST 365 DAYS.”
From the photograph could be seen a line from the proposal to “Draft Amendments To” what appeared to be the National Voter Registration Act, the law that the ACLU alleges Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship requirement violates.
Kobach was ordered by the court to turn over that and other documents related his proposal to amend the NVRA, and sit for a deposition about the documents, producing the video that was played Friday.
In the video, Kobach denied that a proposal he had written in the summer or fall of 2016 and shared with the members of his staff to amend the NVRA was written with the intent of superseding a preliminary injunction that had been placed on his requirement. He also denied that, for the proposal, he cribbed language from an ACLU brief laying out how the NVRA would need be amended for his requirement to be permissible — even though his language and the ACLU’s was identical. He called the idea that he copied the ACLU’s language “inconceivable.”
He said it was “interesting” that the language was so “similar.”
“I don’t consult your legal writing” in anything I do, Kobach claimed to Dale Ho, the ACLU attorney deposing him.
He said that the proposal was only for the “contingency” that the ACLU was successful at the appeals court in their lawsuit. and the Supreme Court decided not to take up the case. (Kobach indicated that he believed that if Supreme Court took up the case, it would likely side with him).
Kobach was also asked about an email he sent Gene Hamilton, who like Kobach was on the Trump transition, days after the election. After mentioning “legislation drafts” the transition team was putting together “for submission to Congress early in the administration,” he said “some already started” for the NVRA and proof-of-citizenship requirements “(based on my ongoing litigation with the ACLU over this)”.
Kobach was asked in the deposition if the NVRA proposal the email referred to was among legislation he was seeking to submit to Congress early in the administration.
He said no, and reiterated that he had no intention of pushing the proposal before the case was fully litigated. He said that “legislation drafts” for early in the administration was a reference to the other proposal mentioned in the email, concerning in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. He also said he didn’t know of anyone on the transition drafting legislation for his NVRA proposal to be submitted in Congress.
Throughout the video, Kobach looked frustrated, exasperated and annoyed. He was often looking down, and at times he rested his head on his fists.
Then the video turned to Ho’s questions about Kobach’s Nov. 20 meeting with Trump. Some of that back-and-forth was in the portion of the transcription already unsealed.
Kobach said he met with Trump to discuss his plan as well as the possibility of Kobach becoming Trump’s DHS Secretary. He was asked if the proposal about promoting proof of citizenship was a reference to the draft proposal he had shared with his staff.
He said that a “yet uncreated” amendment to “modernize” the NVRA might include such a provision — again, stressing that it would only be necessary if he lost the case at the appeals court level and the Supreme Court didn’t take it up.
Asked about what he meant by “promote” proof of citizenship, Kobach referenced a provision in the original NVRA that allowed states with same-day registration to waive some of its requirements. He said that was a way for the NRVA to incentivize states to adopt same day registration.
The hypothetical amendment to the NVRA might work the same way, he suggested.
Ho asked what parts of the NVRA states would be allowed to waive. Kobach suggested that this hypothetical amendment to the NVRA would impose new mandates, but states with proof-of-citizenship requirements would perhaps be able to opt out of some provisions. He said that even though it appeared on a proposal for the first 365 of the Trump administration, that hypothetical NVRA amendment wasn’t meant to fall within the first 365 days.
Kobach said they did not ultimately discuss this proposal at the meeting, which included Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner.
He said they did discuss the “problem” of non-citizens voting illegally and the potential that illegal votes could swing a close election. A week later, Trump would suggest illegal voters were what swing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) is the latest member of Congress to ask the National Rifle Association for answers about its ties to Russian officials close to the Kremlin.
Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, pointed to a spate of recent news reports about Russia’s efforts to cultivate relationships with members of the influential gun group and associates of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Particular threads of interest are a 2015 trip to Moscow taken by NRA top brass, and the reported FBI investigation into whether Aleksander Torshin, a Russian banker and accused criminal, illegally funneled money to the NRA to boost Trump’s campaign.
“This complex web of Russian officials, NRA officials, and Trump campaign associates raises serious concerns,” Lieu wrote.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has sent two letters to the gun rights giant asking similar questions.
In a Feb. 15 response to Wyden, NRA general counsel John Frazer said the group has procedures in place to prevent it from accepting foreign money for political activities. And Frazer said Torshin, not the NRA, was the target of the FBI probe.
“As the article itself makes clear (and as the author of the article has made clear to counsel for the NRA) the article refers to an investigation of Mr. Torshin, not of the NRA,” Frazer wrote, referring to a McClatchy report that broke news of the FBI investigation.
“There has been no contact between the FBI and the NRA,” Frazer added.
Lieu wants to know whether the NRA communicated with Torshin or other “Russian-linked individuals” about efforts to interfere with the 2016 election; whether the NRA facilitated meetings between Trump associates and Russians; and whether the NRA received money from Russia or Russia-linked individuals during the presidential race.
Nearly a decade ago, Republicans launched REDMAP, an audacious bid to win key statehouses and governorships in order to give themselves control over the redistricting process that followed the 2010 Census, so they could gerrymander district lines in their favor.
The project succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, giving them a major edge in successive election cycles.
Now, they’re looking to do it again.
The GOP has launched its first ever national group focused exclusively on how congressional and state legislative maps are drawn, with an eye on the next round of redistricting, which will follow the 2020 Census. And they have help from deep-pocketed, state-based super PACs devoted to holding onto their gains.
Last September, Republicans created the National Republican Redistricting Trust (NRRT) as an umbrella group for its redistricting plans—and an answer to Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which aims to give Democrats a louder voice in the redistricting process this time around.
The NRRT bills itself as the hub for a 50-state effort “solely focused on redistricting legal and data matters,” freeing up other GOP entities like the state legislative and congressional campaign committees to “focus on winning races and expanding their Republican majorities.” It says it plans to raise $35 million by 2020. (A spokeswoman didn’t respond when asked how much it had pulled in so far. Holder told the New York Times in February that his group had raised a bit over half of the $30 million it hopes to have by the same date.)
The group will work closely with the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which masterminded REDMAP. In 2015, it launched REDMAP 2020, which aims to repeat the GOP’s success last time at winning statehouses and governorships in key redistricting battlegrounds.REDMAP 2020 initially had a $125 million fundraising goal through the 2022 cycle, but Matt Walter, the RSLC’s president, told TPM in a Thursday phone call that the number would balloon to counter Democratic efforts.
“That number was set in advance of this effort that has been robust and well-funded and highly focused by the left, so the commitment to match that by Republicans, conservatives and the right of center world is imperative,” Walter said.
“We see a variety of areas where the left of center world is focused on redistricting: state level offices beyond the legislative level, the advancement of ballot initiatives, and the courts as well,” Walter added. “The field of engagement and connection points have expanded.”
In addition to this centralized effort, there are local groups like #ProjectRedTX, a super PAC run by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s former campaign manager that recently pulled in $500,000 from a single donor.
The group did not respond to TPM’s request for comment, but its website features a pledge “to make sure that those that seek to turn Texas into a leftist haven cannot get a foothold by mis-using the redistricting process.”
Last time around, in 2010, Republicans poured money into winning control of key redistricting battlegrounds like Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Virginia. Then, they used that control to draw district lines in their favor in those statehouses and in Congress. The result was to skew political outcomes in each of last three elections: In 2012, for instance, Democratic congressional candidates got over 1 million more votes that Republicans, but, thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP came out with 33 more seats.
That gerrymander also means Republicans have key advantages baked in for next time, as David Daley, the author of “Ratfucked,” an account of the GOP’s most recent redistricting master plan, told TPM.
“Republicans are really sitting pretty,” said Daley, now the communications director for the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Vote. “A blue wave really is going to have to be a blue tsunami in these states. And it’s going to take two of them. It’s not going to be enough for Democrats to have a blue wave in 2018; they’re going to need to replicate it in 2020.”
Republicans sound unconcerned by charges that they’re planing to once again enthusiastically rig the system in their favor. For one thing, they note that Democrats have gerrymandered on their own behalf in blue states like Maryland and Illinois. A brief launch memo for the NRRT devotes a page to criticizing Obama for denouncing GOP gerrymandering, after using redistricting to create a more favorable map for himself while serving in the Illinois legislature.
Republicans could still be stymied, in part, by the Supreme Court, which is considering three major redistricting cases that could impose limits on how extreme partisan gerrymanders can be.
Voting experts agree that the courts are the best hope for Democrats and those who want less partisan maps. But they caution that the lawsuits against the last round of maps wound through the courts for years. In some states, 2018 could be the fourth cycle in which voters cast ballots in districts that courts have deemed unconstitutional.
As Holder has said, “success” for Democrats going into the next two cycles is primarily a matter of shattering GOP trifecta control of state legislatures and governorships. For Republicans, it means painting an already-red national map several shades darker.
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort pleaded not guilty Thursday to the federal grand jury indictment brought against him in Virginia in his first appearance in that case. The trial for the case is set to begin July 10.
Manafort will continue to be on home confinement with electronic monitoring. He can leave the house to consult with his lawyers, go to the doctor and go to church. Because Manafort’s attorney’s have declined to combine the two cases brought against him, Manafort will be forced to wear two monitoring devices.
“He wears two bracelets now,” the judge overseeing the case, Judge T.S. Ellis III told the courtroom as he finalized Manafort’s conditions of release.
The 32-count indictment includes charges of making false statements on tax returns, failing to report foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud.
Manafort pleaded not guilty last week to a separate superseding indictment brought against him in Washington, D.C., which includes charges of conspiracy against the United States, money laundering, failure to register as a foreign agent, and making false statements. That trial is set to begin Sept. 17.
One of the attorneys for the prosecution, Andrew Weissmann, said that the special counsel’s team would prefer a trial starting around May 17. However, Manafort attorney Kevin Downing argued that with a complicated case along with another in Washington, D.C., the trial should take place later than that.
Ellis then proposed a June date, and adjusted it to July after Downing argued that it is a complicated case. Downing later told the judge that in his “rosy glasses” view, the trial would not take place until November.
“You need to go back to the optometrist,” Ellis retorted before finalizing that the trial will begin on July 10.
The cases brought against Manafort in Virginia and Washington, D.C. will remain separate for now. Ellis asked the prosecution if there was discussion with Manafort’s legal team about combining the cases or dealing with any overlap. Weissmann, the lawyer speaking for the special counsel’s team, told the judge that they gave Manafort’s attorneys the option of bringing the charges in one case, but that Manafort’s legal team opted not to. The prosecution indicated as much in Manafort’s hearing in Washington, D.C. last week.
The separate cases in Virginia and Washington, D.C. use overlapping evidence, but prosecutors do not have venue to bring certain charges included in the Virginia case against Manafort in Washington, D.C. Manafort could choose to waive venue and combine the cases, but he has not.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team brought 32 counts against Manafort and Rick Gates in the Virginia indictment. Weissmann told the judge on Thursday that he plans to slim down the indictment to just 18 counts against Manafort now that Gates has pleaded guilty. Weissmann also said that as of right now, prosecutors plan to bring somewhere between 20 and 25 witnesses during the trial. But he said that they plan to work with the defense on stipulations, which would help reduce the number of witnesses the prosecution calls.
Downing, the attorney representing Manafort, told the judge that he plans to bring motions to dismiss in both cases against Manafort, noting that the deadline to do so in the Washington, D.C. case is March 14. Manafort’s attorneys have already filed a civil lawsuit against the Justice Department, Mueller, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, arguing that the special counsel overstepped his authority.
Though Manafort will be subject to home confinement and electronic monitoring for the time being, his conditions of release could change down the road, as Ellis told Manafort’s lawyers that he is happy to return to the subject at a later time. Downing told the judge that he plans to submit the bond package he is working on in the Washington, D.C., case to Ellis, and Ellis indicated that he could be willing to change the conditions of Manafort’s release if the judge in the Washington, D.C. case is satisfied with that bond package.
Ultra-conservative super-attorney Chuck Cooper likes to talk about his ability to maintain amicable relationships in even the most polarizing circumstances. When he and Ted Olson, a former colleague of his from the Reagan Justice Department, found each other on opposing sides of the high-profile Proposition 8 same-sex marriage case, they hugged before trial every day.
A December 2016 breakfast with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was no different. Cooper, a top campaign advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), had watched Sessions, a fellow Alabamian and longtime friend, endorse then-candidate Donald Trump in what would turn into an extremely bitter primary.
“We went to our separate corners during the campaign,” Cooper recounted to TPM in an interview last month.
But when Sessions, who Trump had picked for attorney general, reached out to Cooper for help with the confirmation process, they quickly reconnected. Dining at Bistro Bis, a restaurant attached to the tony George Hotel near the Capitol, Sessions and Cooper discussed not just Sessions’ nomination but the shape his Justice Department should take under Trump and who should fill its leadership ranks.
Since then, Cooper has been one of Sessions’ most important allies, with him at every step of his tumultuous tenure. He prepared Sessions for his brutal confirmation hearing and, during the transition, the two even contemplated Cooper joining Sessions at the Department as his solicitor general, the only government job for which Cooper would consider leaving his highly successful private practice. By that June, Sessions retained Cooper as his private attorney for the various Russia probes, and Cooper was at Sessions’ side when special counsel Robert Mueller’s team interviewed the attorney general in January.
“I am representing him in connection with anything that is a threat,” Cooper said of Sessions.
For an attorney who likes to call himself the “happiest lawyer in private practice,” Cooper faces a precarious task. Not only have Democrats targeted Sessions, accusing him of obscuring Russian contacts during the campaign, but Sessions is often now the subject of unprecedented ire from the President who appointed him over his decision to recuse himself from the federal Russia investigation.
Yet both Cooper’s supporters and his critics agree that he’s a perfect fit for the job. The epitome of a Washington insider, Cooper has spent the last two decades leading a boutique D.C. law firm with the motto “victory or death.” Before that, he was a top official in the Reagan Justice Department, where he navigated thorny and at-times controversial questions about the separation of powers.
“Jeff is incredibly fortunate to have a lawyer as talented and skilled as Chuck Cooper, along with a lawyer that has careful and sound and sober judgement,” Cruz — who, early in his career, worked at Cooper’s law firm — told TPM.
“I was interested in helping my old friend”
While they both grew up in Alabama, Cooper and Sessions did not meet until the 1980s, when they both worked for the Reagan administration. They have remained friends since. Cooper contributed financially to Sessions’ political ambitions, and over the years he has served as a sounding board for Sessions, as they share a deeply conservative ideology.
But the two found themselves on opposite sides of the 2016 Republican primary.
“I was pleading with [Sessions] to support Ted [Cruz] and not endorse Trump, and I failed to persuade him, unfortunately,” Cooper told TPM. He unsuccessfully lobbied Sessions over a few phone calls and texts not long after Trump’s August 2015 rally in Alabama.
While Sessions helped lead a crusade with Cruz to defeat the 2013 bipartisan immigration bill, he also found himself drawn to the New York real estate mogul-turned-reality TV star. By Cooper’s account, Sessions and then-candidate Trump were more “simpatico” on trade, and the presence of a former Sessions aide, Stephen Miller, on Trump’s campaign brought the Alabama senator even closer into the fold.
Sessions’ February 2016 endorsement of Trump – his first from a sitting senator — was a major achievement for Trump’s campaign.
“I didn’t realize that it was a losing cause from the beginning,” Cooper said, referring to his efforts to get Sessions to endorse Cruz instead.
What was a losing cause for Cooper was a winning bet for Sessions, whose early support of Trump secured him an attorney general appointment — a previously unthinkable ascent for the 71-year-old hard-right conservative, 30 years after the Senate rejected his nomination to be a federal judge.
Despite an ugly intra-party fight between their respective candidates, Cooper and Sessions maintained “friendly adversarial contact” during the GOP primary, though Cooper admitted that “it wasn’t easy.”
“Trump of course was extraordinarily hostile, scornful, ridiculing Ted in every possible way — ‘Lyin’ Ted’ — so those things bruise, but it didn’t affect the relationship,” Cooper said, though he and Sessions did fall out of contact during the general election.
After Sessions was nominated for attorney general, however, he sought his old friend’s assistance to prepare for what was shaping up to be a grueling confirmation process.
“I was interested in helping my old friend, who I thought and believed then — and think today — would be and is a terrific attorney general, a man of consequence, a man whose conservative values I share, and who is energetic and forceful and firm in his beliefs and would advance them, even at some costs,” Cooper said.
Cooper, 65, has been involved in a number of high-stakes congressional hearings, including the successful effort to put Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, the failed nomination of Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and his own successful confirmation as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
An exchange “that would come to haunt him”
For Sessions, Cooper led an intense preparation period over five weeks that included six “murder boards”— sessions of mock grilling — that Cooper said lasted a half day each.
“I was very proud of his performance and I was proud of our team for how well-prepared he was,” Cooper said.
He said that after the marathon confirmation hearing, he loved watching news anchors “who were very much not friendly to the idea of Jeff Sessions becoming attorney general” sound “despondent” when they described Sessions’ performance.
“‘Well, he didn’t say anything, he was so prepared,'” Cooper said, recalling the news coverage. “You’re damn right.”
He said the confirmation hearing “was a great triumph” for Sessions.
“Little did we know that there was this exchange with [then-Minnesota Sen. Al] Franken that would come to haunt him — and me — in one congressional hearing after another,” Cooper said.
During the now-notorious exchange with Franken, Sessions said he did not have “communications with the Russians” during the campaign. At the time, his claim did not cause much of a stir — even Cooper didn’t think about it in the moment. But less than two months later, the Washington Post reported that Sessions had met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016, in two separate interactions.
Sessions’ spokespeople scrambled to explain the omission, which also occurred in a written confirmation questionnaire, by arguing that Sessions met with Kislyak in his capacity as a senator, not in the context of the campaign. Under pressure from Democrats for that revelation and others, Sessions publicly announced his recusal from the federal Russia probe — a recusal that has continued to tax his relationship with Trump.
What remains most puzzling about Sessions’ slip-up is that he answered a question that Franken hadn’t even asked him. Franken’s wind-up included a monologue about allegations that Trump campaign surrogates communicated continually with intermediaries for the Russians, but he asked Sessions what he would do as attorney general if evidence of such communications came to light.
“That was the one moment in the confirmation hearing when his discipline and his preparation may have lagged,” Cooper told TPM.
“Instead of answering the question — and hearing the question and answering the question — which is of course, your witness, you want your witness to do,” Cooper said, “he heard the thing that was threatening and that his mind arrested on or seized on in this lengthy statement by Franken, and the one thing that he wanted to put on the record and make clear, there could be no doubt or confusion about, was that he was such a surrogate.”
After Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, with Sessions recused, the DOJ official next in the line of leadership — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — made the call to appoint Mueller as special counsel in charge of the federal Russia probe.
Mueller’s ongoing investigation has continued to dog Trump — reportedly prompting outbursts of anger from the President — while it continues to rack up charges against members of Trump’s circle. Two of his campaign associates, as well his former national security advisor Michael Flynn, have entered guilty pleas and are cooperating with Mueller’s probe. Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort faces a slew of charges, and Mueller has filed indictments against Russians who allegedly mounted a social media campaign to influence American voters.
Sessions has been swept up in the probe not only because of his experience on Trump’s campaign but due to Mueller’s investigation of obstruction of justice allegations. As the probe has gained public momentum, Trump and his allies have attacked Sessions for not cracking down on what they claim to be DOJ abuses in the federal investigation. Trump’s public and private attacks on Sessions have attracted the special counsel’s attention, the Washington Post reported last week, as part of the obstruction inquiry.
Besides Mueller’s investigation, congressional committees are pursuing a series of competing probes that have featured closely watched hearings, partisan infighting and plenty of leaks.
Cooper told TPM that he sees parallels between the current moment and the Iran-Contra affair, which he recalled “threatened the very foundations” of the Reagan administration.
Cooper was part of a small group including DOJ officials Brad Reynolds and John Richards that then-attorney general Ed Meese assembled in 1986 and tasked with undertaking an internal investigation over the Thanksgiving weekend into the secret arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. After Reynolds and Richards found an incriminating document among National Security Council deputy director Oliver North’s files detailing the diversion of profits from the arms sales to Nicaragua’s contras, they told Meese and Cooper over lunch at Old Ebbitt Grill. The group, in turn, confronted North that Sunday evening in an interview that Meese led.
“We did a herculean job over the Thanksgiving weekend. Our families were not too happy about it. And then we went to the President and said, guess what, we’ve got a problem here,” Reynolds recounted to TPM.
By Cooper and Reynolds’ accounts, Meese and Reagan’s decisions to act quickly on what they learned from their internal investigation may have saved Reagan’s presidency. Other top DOJ officials questioned why a group of Meese’s closest advisors — rather than Criminal Division attorneys and FBI investigators — were put in charge of the initial probe in the first place.
Regardless, what they uncovered kicked off a congressional investigation that included months of hearings as well as an independent counsel investigation that resulted in a dozen convictions. Cooper appeared in front of a select congressional committee just before North testified; he told lawmakers he wouldn’t trust North to tell the truth, even under oath.
“All roads lead to Chuck”
Cooper was hired to the Justice Department after graduating first in his class from the University of Alabama (a few years after Sessions) and served a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. He grew up aspiring to be a professional baseball player and considered a legal career his “Plan B.”
At the Department of Justice, Cooper started in the Civil Rights Division, where he worked under Reynolds, and then moved to the Office of Legal Counsel, a powerful office responsible for providing the executive branch with legal advice.
His Reagan administration colleagues remember Cooper as being extremely hard-working, meticulous and thoughtful — a fan of “noodling,” as one DOJ attorney remembered Cooper calling his practice of thinking through tough issues.
“He speaks with great care and formality, in sort of a Southern way, if you will, he’s kept as part of his persona,” Doug Kmiec, a top Office of Legal Counsel attorney under Reagan, told TPM. He added that Cooper was “very comfortable” dealing with unsettled legal questions.
Meese, in an interview with TPM, praised Cooper as a “a very good trial attorney” with a “great legal mind” and “very good judgment.” He said that Cooper is “able to get along well with others,” which could be helpful for Sessions as he deals with lawyers on the other side of the investigation.
Roger Clegg, who worked at the Justice Department with Cooper, said Cooper was “among the very smartest and the very most conservative” lawyers in the Reagan Justice Department.
“What distinguished him was not that he was different, but just that he was better, in terms of legal talents and commitment to principle,” Clegg told TPM.
At times, Cooper’s legal decisions prompted division and attracted controversy to the department.
He signed one memo that defended the government’s right to turn down job applicants on the basis of them having AIDS. Another brief he signed argued that the IRS did not have the legal authority to deny Bob Jones University a tax exemption due to its ban on interracial dating. The Supreme Court rejected Cooper’s position 8–1.
“The two of us didn’t always agree on legal outcomes,” Kmiec, who opposed Cooper’s position on the AIDS memo, said. “But I will say, when we disagreed, it was a disagreement with civility and he would match me toe-to-toe doing research for an opinion.”
More broadly, the Justice Department that Cooper served is remembered for weakening civil rights enforcement, fighting affirmative action programs and curtailing the power of consent decrees.
After the Reagan administration, Cooper kept himself firmly in private practice. He co-founded his own firm Cooper, Carvin & Rosenthal in 1996. The firm evolved into Cooper & Kirk a few years later. Over the course of his private practice, Cooper has represented an assortment of high-profile clients.
He counseled former attorney general John Ashcroft during an investigation into the so-called “torture memos” from former President George W. Bush’s administration; he led an unsuccessful defense of California’s same-sex marriage ban Proposition 8; he’s been a go-to outside attorney for the NRA in a number of big cases. Most recently, Cooper defended a Texas county’s bail system that courts have found to be discriminatory towards poor people.
“He’s very much, certainly since leaving DOJ, has been the go-to legal warrior for the far-right,” said Elliot Mincberg, a fellow for the progressive group People for the American Way. “It’s hard to think of major cases and issues that he hasn’t had some involvement in one way or another in his career.”
Cooper’s firm has also served as a launching pad for a number of conservative legal stars. In addition to Cruz, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) worked there, as did Rachel Brand, who recently stepped down as assistant attorney general, the third-ranking post in the department. Jesse Panuccio, who is serving as acting assistant attorney general after Brand’s departure, is also a Cooper & Kirk alumnus.
“You could argue that all roads lead to Chuck when it comes to the conservative legal movement,” David Lat, founder of the legal blog Above The Law, told TPM.
Cooper’s firm gives its lawyers cuff links with its logo, a laurel and a sword, for its motto “victory or death.” Associates have also been given actual swords. Cotton, who called Cooper “one of the best lawyers of his generation,” confirmed to TPM that he still has his sword, while Cruz’s sword is displayed in his Senate office.
“People were attracted to the firm, they were inspired by Chuck, first and foremost,” Derek Shaffer, a former Cooper & Kirk attorney who started there in 2001 and eventually rose to partner, told TPM. “Chuck did build this remarkable firm that handled these very high profile intellectually interesting important cases.”
“At the end of the day, the risk-reward on this isn’t working”
It is not a coincidence that some of Cooper’s proteges ended up working for the Trump administration. While Cooper prepared Sessions for his confirmation hearing, they also discussed who should lead his Department of Justice. Cooper was involved not only when it came to the selection of his own former colleagues; he was also with Sessions when the latter interviewed Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who now oversees the Mueller investigation.
Rosenstein has become a common target of Trump and his allies. The antipathy toward him has gotten so intense that a political group has launched an ad campaign accusing him of being a “a weak careerist” who was “protecting liberal Obama holdovers and the deep state, instead of following the rule of law.”
Cooper did not know Rosenstein, then a U.S. attorney in Maryland, before the interview. “The fact that he had served for eight years in the Obama administration as a U.S. attorney was a question, I wanted to hear how he could explain that,” Cooper said. “He did, certainly to my satisfaction.”
He called Rosenstein “a man who truly loves public service, who truly loved being a prosecutor.”
When asked by TPM about Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department, however, Cooper declined to comment.
Cooper’s conversations with Sessions about the shape Trump’s Justice Department would take also included the possibility that Cooper would become solicitor general.
As much as Cooper has enjoyed private firm life — which has allowed him to work extensively from Florida, where he has a second home — he called the DOJ position the “only job better” than his current one.
His name was on the reported shortlist — along with George Conway, senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s husband. But Cooper said that “there were powerful forces in the White House who had different candidates.” He told TPM that he had not even started the vetting process within the White House when he pulled his name from consideration.
“After seeing what Jeff went through and knowing that the support I’d get — I would not have the benefit, as I did once, of a White House machine in all likelihood caring a lot about me, having come out of the campaign, out of the Cruz campaign tradition — it just seemed to me, look, this is not something that — at the end of the day, the risk-reward on this isn’t working,” Cooper told TPM.
His move surprised outside observers, and some speculated that a Rachel Maddow segment on Feb. 8, 2017 — where she ran him over the coals for the AIDS memo and Bob Jones brief — played a role in his decision, which Cooper announced the following day.
Cooper told TPM that he had already decided to withdraw, but that the Maddow segment prompted him to announce it more quickly than he would have preferred, given that Sessions himself had just been sworn in.
“I didn’t want Rachel Maddow night two or Washington Post editorial or a New York Times editorial and the rest of basically the organized attack on the next bad idea from the Trump administration to start taking root,” he said. “Don’t think for a minute that I wasn’t fully aware that if I had gone through with this that I would have been a regular feature on Maddow’s show.”
The job ultimately went to Noel Francisco, who, it so happens, was also the second associate Cooper ever hired at his firm.
Cooper said that his decision to turn down the DOJ job came down to a calculation of “known costs” and “unknown costs.”
“I was willing to pay the known costs,” he said, which included the tough confirmation process, the media scrutiny and the family sacrifices. But Cooper said that the political antagonism has risen to “a different and new level.”
“I could foresee the organized challenge to me that had just failed to stop Jeff,” he said. “But some things you can’t foresee. Did Rod Rosenstein foresee that he’d be a subject of an advertising campaign that he has now been the subject of? That’s an unknown.”
Corrected: A previous version of this story misspelled Ted Olson’s name.