‘I do not know this woman’: Trump allies rally to Kavanaugh’s defense

President Donald Trump was counting on being able to deliver on one core promise to his supporters ahead of November’s crucial midterms: Locking in a conservative Supreme Court majority.

The White House went into overdrive late Sunday trying to keep that pledge alive, even as Republican senators joined Democrats in calling to delay a committee vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination after Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward to publicly to accuse the judge of sexual assault decades ago.

Immediately after The Washington Post published an explosive story featuring an on-the-record interview with Ford that detailed her allegations, Trump’s allies – both inside and outside the White House – launched a campaign to cast doubt on her account.

More than half a dozen current and former White House officials or people close to the president said that Trump will continue to stand behind Kavanaugh, even as they were increasingly resigned to the likelihood that the Senate Judiciary Committee will be compelled to examine the allegations in detail.

“Of course we’re not going to pull the nomination,” said one White House official involved in the confirmation process after retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told POLITICO that he wasn’t comfortable moving ahead on the original timetable.

Four people close to the White House said they expected Republicans to question Ford’s vague recollections of some parts of the episode and why California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on Judiciary, sat on the accusations for months.

Three of them also said they expect the president – still shadowed by the pre-election “Access Hollywood” tape scandal – to go after Ford rather than to turn on Kavanaugh, who was among the judicial candidates pre-vetted and offered to Trump by the Heritage Foundation. They pointed to Trump’s history of denouncing his accusers and those who accused others, including the women who came forward last year to say then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had assaulted them years ago.

Kavanaugh’s defenders on Sunday included Meghan McCaleb and Stephanie Conway McGill, two of the 65 high-school acquaintances of Kavanaugh who signed an open letter last week vouching for his character after the allegations were first reported.

“I stand by the letter I signed. I do not know this woman,” said McGill by email on Sunday, referring to Ford. McCaleb added, “I absolutely stand by the letter we signed.”

More than two dozen of the women who signed onto the letter did not immediately respond when contacted by POLITICO on Sunday about whether they still stood behind their defense of Kavanaugh. Two of the women who signed the letter declined to comment.

Trump has become convinced that many of the negative developments that have plagued his administration are the result of an all-out assault by Democrats to undermine his presidency at any cost, according to the people close to the president. The people close to the president said he’s likely to see the allegations against Kavanaugh as simply another element of the supposed conspiracy against him.

Ford told the Washington Post that Kavanaugh groped her, tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream at a party in Maryland more than three decades ago.

The White House issued the same statement Sunday on Kavanaugh’s behalf that it did last week when the allegations against him first surfaced: “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

A lawyer close to the White House said the nomination will not be withdrawn. “No way, not even a hint of it,” the lawyer said. “If anything, it’s the opposite. If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. We can all be accused of something.”
This lawyer added: “It’s not even going to slow him down if that’s all she’s got.”

The lawyer, who was in touch Sunday with White House staffers, pointed at Kavanaugh’s steadfast denials that anything happened: “It’d be one thing if Kavanaugh said I made out with her. But Kavanaugh is saying this didn’t happen. He’s saying this is not true.”

Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary panel were already at odds over Democratic complaints that Kavanaugh’s nomination was being rushed through with incomplete access to records of his service in President George W. Bush’s White House.

It’s highly unusual for Supreme Court nominees to withdraw. The last to do so was Harriet Miers, who was nominated in 2005 by Bush to replace departing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The nomination drew a sharply negative reaction from conservatives, who feared Miers, who was Bush’s White House counsel, was too moderate, lacked a record of originalist legal interpretation and was appointed chiefly because she was a “crony” of the president.

Bush aides were taken aback by the criticism and initially tried to move ahead. But after more than three weeks of withering criticism, the White House pulled the nomination, ostensibly at Miers’ request. Four days later, Bush nominated 3rd Circuit Judge Samuel Alito, who was confirmed after an uneventful three-month process, 58-42.

The Ford allegations have raised stark parallels to the harassment claims made in 1991 by Anita Hill shortly before the scheduled vote on Clarence Thomas’ nomination.

Hill’s gripping public testimony set a potentially dangerous precedent for Trump – though Trump allies said they were confident that if Ford speaks to the committee, it would be in a closed session.

One outside Trump adviser was quick to suggest an effort to have Ford testify publicly amid the ongoing #MeToo wave would backfire on Democrats. “They’re playing a high-stakes game right now,” this adviser said. “You know there are a lot of people in this country who are parents of high school boys. This is not Anita Hill.”

Rettig takes over IRS amid budget challenges, regulatory crunch

Veteran tax lawyer Chuck Rettig has an overflowing plate awaiting him as IRS commissioner after the Senate confirmed him Wednesday for the agency’s top job.

While assessing budget needs and reviewing its information technology and security weaknesses, Rettig will also need to immediately make sure the IRS is ready for the upcoming filing season and continue the guidance assembly line that’s producing rules and regulations for the new tax cuts law which took effect this year.

Rettig could also find himself in an uncomfortable position if Democrats take control of the House and try to force the release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns to lawmakers, as some have threatened to do.

“People used to sometimes ask, ‘How complicated is tax administration? People file or they don’t file,'” said former IRS commissioner John Koskinen, Rettig’s immediate predecessor. “I’d tell them to just sit in my office for a day, any day of the week, and look at the range of issues.”

The Senate voted 64-33 to approve Rettig’s nomination, which Trump announced in February, giving the IRS a full-time leader for the first time since November, when Koskinen exited the post at the end of his five-year term. David Kautter has been serving as acting IRS commissioner in addition to his duties as the Treasury Department’s top tax policy official.

Preparing for next year’s tax filing is likely to consume much of Rettig’s early attention, according to Koskinen.

The upcoming filing season is particularly fraught considering the lower personal and business tax rates and myriad other changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Trump signed at the end of last year. No one wants a filing mess-up on their watch, especially with all the moving parts in play this season, said a former IRS official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of current job sensitivities.

The agency, along with Treasury and the OMB, is still in the midst of preparing many crucial regulations, notably for some complex international provisions of the new law. Some commissioners have been more hands on than others when it comes to rulemaking, and while it’s not clear where Rettig may fall on that spectrum, he’s at least expected to take stock of how the process is progressing and who’s involved in the effort for the IRS as taxpayers seek clarity as soon as possible.

Improving data security and combating tax-related identity theft are also part of Rettig’s portfolio, and he is certain to keep close tabs on those issues. As Kautter and others have noted, the IRS is subjected to more than 2 million attempted cyberattacks a day.

Outdated information technology systems at the IRS will also garner Rettig’s attention. Part of the system crashed on the last day of this year’s tax filing season. Though it was traced to a newer piece of equipment, parts of the overall setup at the IRS infamously date to the 1960s.

As an initiative is under way to install a more modern, agency-wide case management system for taxpayers, Koskinen said it’s important that IT staffers continue coordinating with the agency’s business staff to optimize the end product.

To support all of this, the IRS will need sufficient resources from Congress, which has starved the agency of funding, cutting it by some 20 percent since 2010. Increases this year and next year are tied to implementing the new tax law, and largely fail to address chronic underfunding for the agency.

Rettig, at his confirmation hearing in June, said he wouldn’t be shy about pushing to boost spending for the IRS, which stands to get between $11.3 billion and $11.6 billion for the 2019 federal fiscal year.

Koskinen, who clashed frequently with Republicans in Congress, mostly over the aftermath of a political targeting controversy during the Obama administration, expects his successor to have an easier time securing better spending levels for the agency.

“A new commissioner with a clean slate will be able to have meaningful discussions with members of Congress, particularly the appropriators, about the challenge of underfunding the IRS,” Koskinen said.

Rettig, a tax controversy specialist who’s been with the same California law firm for more than 35 years, is the first tax lawyer to helm the IRS since the late 1990s, when a series of business management executives began leading the agency following a 1998 law that restructured IRS operations.

Congress is again contemplating a raft of changes to how the IRS operates, and Rettig has a chance to weigh in now that he’s confirmed. Among provisions he signaled support for at his Finance Committee confirmation hearing is funding for employee training, language to regulate paid tax preparers, and authority for a more competitive and accelerated hiring process known as streamlined critical pay, which the agency has previously used to bring on new IT employees.

Rettig will also get the chance to surround himself with new deputies, should he choose to make changes, and select a handful of tax technicians from within and outside the IRS to help guide decisions, the former IRS official said. (Tax attorney Michael Desmond is still awaiting confirmation as IRS chief counsel, the only other political appointee at the agency.)

The new commissioner is also expected to take the measure of the agency’s legislative and public affairs staff to ensure their effectiveness in advocating his vision for the agency, the former IRS official said.

While Rettig’s confirmation wasn’t in doubt, it was long coming, most recently due to some Senate Democratic opposition not connected to Rettig’s professional credentials. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, and some of his colleagues protested a recent Treasury decision to stop most donor disclosure requirements for nonprofit groups, as well as a legal limit on the federal deduction for state and local taxes imposed this year. Both policy changes were made without Rettig’s involvement.

Wyden and 30 other Democrats, along with the chamber’s two independents, voted against Rettig’s confirmation. Another 15 Democrats voted for him, as did every Republican voting.

Trump Is Russia’s Weapon—Not Its End State

For half of a divided America, it’s conventional wisdom that Vladimir Putin had a master plan to install Donald Trump as president. A measured 2017 analysis from the intelligence community documents just how Russia intervened in the U.S. system. More breathlessly, New York magazine has floated the theory that Putin was Trump’s active handler.

It’s not incorrect that Russia gave Trump a boost. But it’s now clear that his presidency isn’t the Kremlin’s endgame at all. He is a useful disruption in a broader campaign—and that’s the one we need to worry about.

In July, Facebook shut downdozens of pages and profiles whose activity resembled previously identified false Russian accounts. These weren’t pro-Trump groups, but feminist, minority rights and “anti-fascist” groups. This is consistent with the patterns observed in 2016, when Kremlin information campaigns supported Trump but also Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein; amplified “white nationalist” groups but also fomented protests against them; engaged veterans and military but also antiwar groups. If there were two sides of a thing, Russia was on both.

It’s chaotic—but chaos is the strategy. Putin’s goal isn’t a puppet president so much as a U.S. society permanently at war with itself. Russia can’t compete in the rules-based international order, but if the American bulwark of that order fractures, a weakened Russia has more space to act as a global power. Its new form of warfighting is evident in the details of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments and across the Russian investigation writ large: information warfare conducted by the Internet Research Agency and Russian intelligence; widespread hacking of campaigns and election systems by Russian military hackers; the new informal “illegals,” represented by Mariia Butina and Konstantin Kilimnik, each of whom has been the focus of an indictment.

Now it appears that the metrics of success for the Kremlin’s online campaigns have shifted from likes and clicks to physically mobilizing Americans—and that should worry us, deeply. Multiple lines of effort are underway—targeting us as individuals, as citizens, testing us to see how we react. And right now, unfortunately, they like what they see.