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Bannon-sponsored candidates often picked for Trump loyalty

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 — Wisconsin Senate candidate Kevin Nicholson, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, doesn’t look much like the renegade outsiders whom political strategist Steve Bannon says he’s recruiting for his war on the Republican establishment. But Nicholson has Bannon’s backing anyway, thanks to his loyalty to President Donald Trump.

As Bannon drafts his team of challengers to the old guard, the new guard is increasingly aligned not by ideology, but by its history of support for the president. Republicans who have criticized the president or been slow to embrace him are out.

One particular test for the Breitbart News chairman and former Trump White House strategist is how such Republicans reacted during the campaign to the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video showing Trump bragging about sexually imposing himself on women. Those who kept quiet about it or stuck with him earn Bannon’s favor now even if it means looking the other way on some policy positions and affiliations. Nicholson, for example, has backing from wealthy free-trade advocates, an awkward policy fit with Trump’s economic nationalism.

“If you were never-Trump, refused to ever endorse the president or withdrew your endorsement following ‘Access Hollywood’weekend, don’t even bother walking through Bannon’s door,” said Bannon adviser Andy Surabian.

Bannon hopes chiefly to topple Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he has blamed for obstructing Trump’s agenda, especially efforts to dismantle Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law. Bannon has threatened to find a Republican primary opponent for almost every GOP senator seeking re-election in 2018.

“The United States Senate in particular has done, I think, a terrible job in supporting President Trump,” Bannon told the California Republican convention last month.

In Wisconsin, state Sen. Leah Vukmir is opposing Nicholson for the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination. In last year’s presidential campaign, she first supported Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s short campaign before shifting to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. She helped record a pro-Trump radio ad a week before the election — perhaps too little, too late, in Bannon’s eyes.

“The voters know I have been a supporter of Donald Trump,” she told The Associated Press last month. “I’ve traveled around this state and talked to countless people who want to see the president’s agenda move and are frustrated that it’s not happening.” She hasn’t said publicly whether she supports McConnell.

Nicholson only recently swung against McConnell. He’s backed by the pro-trade Club for Growth, and in 2000, spoke to the 2000 Democratic National Convention as the national president of College Democrats.

In September he said: “I have no issues voting for Mitch McConnell.”

But the following month, after meeting with Bannon, Nicholson publicly called for “new leadership.”

While Surabian said Bannon is generally “looking for candidates who support the president and his America First agenda,” policy unity is not a prerequisite.

“You don’t have to be perfect,” Bannon told the California convention. “This is not a commoditized product like Procter & Gamble.”

Nor is it a free-for-all. Some positions, such as supporting a route to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, would be a big problem for Bannon.

Bannon thinks his nascent insurgency is already having results, thanks to the retirement announcements of two sharp critics of Trump, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona. In Tennessee, Bannon supports Rep. Marcia Blackburn, a popular conservative House member bidding for the Senate. She has McConnell’s backing, too.

Bannon also has endorsed former Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward, who lost her 2016 primary challenge to Sen. John McCain. Republican Rep. Martha McSally, who never endorsed Trump, is weighing a campaign for Flake’s seat.

Bannon is also looking to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who opposed Trump last year and opposed legislation in July aimed at dismantling “Obamacare.”

Yet Heller’s challenger, Danny Tarkanian, has supported trade treaties, specifically the Trans Pacific Partnership. Trump pulled out of the Obama-era treaty in January, a move Bannon praised.

In Montana, Bannon is supporting the state auditor, Matt Rosendale, hardly an anti-establishment figure as the former majority leader in the Montana House. But he runs without the trail of tweets left by rival Troy Downing, who last year described Trump as “not electable” and having a “tenuous relationship with the truth.”

In West Virginia, Bannon is supporting Attorney General Patrick Morrisey over Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat who switched parties four years ago to run for Congress. Morrisey, however, is no Washington newcomer, having been a lawyer for a Washington lobbying firm and later a lawyer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee before he moved to West Virginia.

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

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Politics

FBI director counters Trump’s attacks on his agency

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By SADIE GURMAN and ERIC TUCKER

WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI Director Christopher Wray on Thursday countered strident attacks on his agency by President Donald Trump, saying, “There is no finer institution than the FBI.”

Wray testified before the House Judiciary Committee as Democrats and Republicans clashed over the significance of Trump’s attacks on the agency. In a storm of tweets last weekend, Trump called the nation’s top law enforcement agency a biased institution whose reputation is “in Tatters — worst in History!” and urged Wray to “clean house.”

Democrats pushed Wray to respond forcefully, while Republicans echoed Trump in suggesting they worry about political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Like Trump, they seized on revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Mueller’s team because of anti-Trump texts.

“There is no shortage of opinions out there, but what I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe,” Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months. “The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm.”

Wray conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.

His defense of the FBI came after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he was concerned by reports about Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Clinton investigation, being removed from Mueller’s team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation,” Goodlatte said. “Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, predicted Trump’s attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mueller continues investigating. “Your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle,” Nadler told Wray.

Wray’s tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult enough even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation. Since he was sworn in on Aug. 2, the U.S. has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and an attack seen as terrorism in Manhattan.

Trump’s weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Wray. With his bosses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Wray to defend the agency. But FBI directors traditionally have been low-key and stoic — with Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, a notable exception.

And Trump’s firing of Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonizes the president.

Wray repeatedly deflected questions about the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, saying the entire matter was under review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Republicans repeatedly pressed him on reports that Strzok tweaked the language of the FBI’s finding from “grossly negligent” — the standard laid out in the relevant statute — to “extremely careless,” which was the language that Comey ultimately used in discussing the Clinton case with the public.

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Announcement coming from Sen. Franken amid fresh accusations

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By ANDREW TAYLOR

WASHINGTON (AP) — Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, facing fresh allegations of sexual misconduct and vanishing support from fellow Democrats, appears on the brink of resigning from the Senate.

Franken’s office said he will make an announcement at 11:45 a.m. Thursday in a speech on the Senate floor. His office tweeted Wednesday evening that he had not made “a final decision” on resigning.

But a majority of the Senate’s Democrats called on the two-term lawmaker to quit after a woman emerged Wednesday morning saying he forcibly tried to kiss her in 2006. Hours later, another woman said Franken inappropriately squeezed “a handful of flesh” on her waist while posing for a photo with her in 2009. That brought the number of women alleging misconduct by Franken to at least eight.

Franken, the former comedian who made his name on “Saturday Night Live,” faces a chorus of calls to step aside, and Democratic senators said they expected their liberal colleague to resign.

“Enough is enough,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is OK, none of it is acceptable, and we, as elected leaders, should absolutely be held to a higher standard.”

Gillibrand was the first to call for Franken’s resignation on Wednesday, but a torrent of Democrats quickly followed.

“I’m shocked and appalled by Sen. Franken’s behavior,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state. “It’s clear to me that this has been a deeply harmful, persistent problem and a clear pattern over a long period of time. It’s time for him to step aside.”

Though the writing appeared to be on the wall, Franken’s departure was not certain. A tweet posted Wednesday evening on Franken’s Twitter account said: “Senator Franken is talking with his family at this time and plans to make an announcement in D.C. tomorrow. Any reports of a final decision are inaccurate.”

Late in the day, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York added his voice.

“I consider Senator Franken a dear friend and greatly respect his accomplishments, but he has a higher obligation to his constituents and the Senate, and he should step down immediately,” Schumer said.

The resignation demands came in rapid succession even though Franken on Wednesday vehemently denied the new accusation that came from a former Democratic congressional aide, who said he tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006.

The woman, who was not identified, told Politico that Franken pursued her after her boss had left and she was collecting her belongings. She said that she ducked to avoid his lips and that Franken told her: “It’s my right as an entertainer.”

Franken, in a statement, said the idea he would claim such conduct as a right was “preposterous.”

But it was clear his position had become untenable.

Fellow Democratic Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who spoke to Franken, wrote on Twitter, “I am confident he will make the right decision.”

The pressure only mounted Tuesday, when Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., resigned after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct. Rep Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., faces pressure to resign as well over allegations reported by Buzzfeed that he repeatedly propositioned a former campaign worker.

While Franken apparently is departing, Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore could be arriving, if he prevails in a Dec. 12 special election. Multiple women have accused the 70-year-old Moore of sexual misconduct with them when they were teens and he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s. If Moore is elected, it could create a political nightmare for Republicans, who have promised an ethics probe.

A national conversation about sexual harassment has intensified this fall after the heavily publicized case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of many acts of sexual misconduct, including rape, by actresses and other women. Just on Wednesday, Time magazine named as its person of the year the “silence breakers” — women who have come forward on sexual harassment.

Punishment has been swift for leaders in entertainment, media and sports while members of Congress have tried to survive the onslaught of allegations.

Franken already faced a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into previous claims by several other women that he groped them or sought to forcibly kiss them.

The allegations began in mid-November when Leeann Tweeden, now a Los Angeles radio anchor, accused him of forcibly kissing her during a 2006 USO tour in Afghanistan.

Other allegations followed, including a woman who says Franken put his hand on her buttocks as they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010. Two women told the Huffington Post that Franken squeezed their buttocks at political events during his first campaign for the Senate in 2008. A fourth woman, an Army veteran, alleged Franken cupped her breast during a photo on a USO tour in 2003.

Franken has apologized for his behavior but has also disputed some of the allegations.

___

Associated Press writers Juliet Linderman in Washington and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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Report: 2 women claim Franken touched them inappropriately

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 — Two women are alleging that Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken touched their buttocks during events for his first campaign for Senate.

The women spoke to Huffington Post on condition of anonymity. The women said the events occurred in Minneapolis in 2007 and 2008.

Franken said in a statement, “It’s difficult to respond to anonymous accusers, and I don’t remember those campaign events.”

Last week, Franken was accused of forcibly kissing a woman while rehearsing for a 2006 USO tour. Franken also was photographed with his hands over her breasts as she slept. A second woman came forward, alleging Franken grabbed her buttocks during a photo op at the Minnesota State Fair.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for an ethics investigation of Franken, which Franken says he supports.

 

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