The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Trump and Pence opt for battleground states as backdrop to coronavirus response
WASHINGTON — In the last six weeks, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have prioritized key 2020 battleground states to highlight their administration’s coronavirus pandemic response, sidestepping some hot spots that have been hardest hit by the health crisis.
The president has traveled to Pennsylvania and Arizona this month and will head to Michigan later this week. Pence has toured more extensively, visiting Wisconsin, Virginia, Minnesota and Iowa since the outbreak exploded and he’s slated to speak in Florida on Wednesday.
As the traditional campaign trail has effectively come to a halt, White House advisers see a two-fold opportunity in picking swing states as the backdrop for official events: touting their own efforts to re-open the country while reaching critical voters who could sway the election, all while earning important regional media coverage that the Trump campaign amplifies at every opportunity.
Trump and Pence haven’t yet been to any of the states with the most cases and deaths of coronavirus, partially because it may not be safe to do so: New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and California. None of them are considered battlegrounds, though the president has hosted the Democratic governors of New York and New Jersey in the Oval Office. Pence has also traveled to his home state of Indiana, which is not considered to be in play for 2020.
The White House doesn’t comment on upcoming travel and internal deliberations when it comes to the president and vice president’s schedules, but an official noted Trump and Pence wouldn’t go to counties that are still considered “hot zones” and the trips are mostly meant to “highlight the next phase of this recovery, showing states that have come out of the worst of it and are on a path to move toward safely reopening.”
The political strategy is not necessarily unique to this incumbent, even though the scale of the pandemic may be. Former President Barack Obama also strategically visited important places in his official capacity when he was running for re-election.
But Trump has often more obviously blurred the lines between the two entities. During remarks at a medical equipment factory in Allentown, Pa. last week, attendees would be forgiven for confusing the official event for a campaign one. The familiar rally playlist was blasting and Trump attacked “Sleepy Joe Biden,” which was met with scattered laughter in a somewhat muted reaction from the crowd.
Neither Trump nor Pence has participated in an official re-elect fundraiser since early March, which has presented a challenge to their massive war chest efforts. It’s unknown when either will return to the trail for any conventional travel. The Trump campaign, for its part, is eager to take advantage of any visits that help elevate their re-election pitch in key states.
“Americans want to see their president out front and leading in a crisis and that’s exactly what President Trump is doing. He is in command and looking to get the economy reopened as soon as possible. It’s a very positive sign for all Americans that he’s getting out into the country again,” communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a statement to NBC News.
Senior officials concede large rallies are likely impossible to hold until August, at the earliest, and it’s unclear what those would look like with health officials warning about the safety risks of mass gatherings. The president himself has said it “loses a lot of flavor” to have people socially distanced in large venues.
GOP governors balk at being used in ad by Kentucky Democrat
WASHINGTON — Two GOP governors evoked by Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath in a new campaign ad are criticizing the senate candidate for using their likeness in an ad that attacks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The spot, which launched Saturday, points to Republican Govs. Larry Hogan, Md., and Mike DeWine, Ohio, along with Democratic governors to argue that "they're all showing us what real leadership is, and political party has nothing to do with it."
Then, she pivots toward an attack on McConnell, specifically pointing to his past comments about preferring to see states struggling with coronavirus-related budget gaps declare bankruptcy instead of receiving what his office later called "blue state bailouts."
McConnell's comments about state aid initially drew bipartisan criticism from governors, and Hogan told ABC at the time McConnell "probably would regret making that comment."
The Kentucky Republican later said that he would be "open to discussing" more aid to states.
Hogan registered his disappointment with the ad in a tweet, saying that "campaign ads politicizing the coronavirus response are not constructive."
And DeWine called for McGrath to "remove my image from her advertising" in a statement, which added that McConnell "is focused, as I am, on the crisis and I appreciate his leadership."
McGrath is expected to win the Kentucky Senate Democratic primary in June.
In a statement, McGrath said "I strongly stand by my ad," framing the criticism as "exactly what's wrong with politics."
“Every comment is, unfortunately, examined through a red or blue lens. In this case, I'm pointing out that leadership doesn't depend on your political jersey color. It's about your actions. Governors on both sides of the aisle are doing important work. Governor DeWine is one of them. It is disappointing that he rejects sincere appreciation from a Democrat, and it shows how far we have strayed from our ideals as a nation," she said.
But McConnell's press secretary, Katharine Cooksey, accused McGrath of politicking in a statement.
“In the same 60 seconds, Amy McGrath claims the coronavirus pandemic response is not about politics while she exploits the image of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine for her own political gain. Governors across the nation, as well as Leader McConnell, are focused on navigating their states through this unprecedented pandemic regardless of approval ratings. Extreme liberal McGrath makes clear that she is only interested in shamelessly cozying up to popular leaders like Governor DeWine to score cheap political points," she said.
RNC plans in-person convention 100 days out
WASHINGTON — Despite warnings from health officials about the potential risks of mass gatherings this summer, the Republican National Committee says it's still planning an in-person convention for this August in Charlotte, N.C. The RNC expects as many as 50,000 visitors to gather to re-nominate President Trump.
“This 5-star event will play an integral role in promoting local businesses and generating millions of dollars across the region. It will leave a lasting impact,” the group said on Saturday — Saturday also marks the 100-day countdown to the event.
Earlier in May, the RNC announced it was adding a medical expert as a senior adviser to the convention planning team to develop “health and safety protocols.” That came after NBC News reported the group was considering alterations to the traditional four-day spectacle due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic National Committee already pushed back their Milwaukee, Wis. convention from mid-July to August because of health concerns. The DNC has left open the possibility that parts of the convention will be held virtually, but officials expect a portion of the event will be held in-person.
Biden veepstakes heat up with joint appearances, public backings
WASHINGTON — As the interest in who apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden will pick as his running mate grows more intense with each passing week, many of those whose names have been mentioned are also putting in some high-profile appearances while the political handicappers continue to dissect their strengths and weaknesses.
Here are some of the notable developments from this past week:
Abrams: Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has repeatedly and publicly promoted herself as a strong candidate for the job and on Thursday night she even made her case in a joint appearance with Biden on MSNBC at Biden's invitation.
“Stacey Abrams has done more to deal with the fair vote and making sure there is a fair vote than anybody,” Biden said when asked if the interview was an audition for Abrams. “She has a great, great capacity to explain things and to lay out exactly why it will be so critically important in this election.”
And when Abrams was asked why she was willing to be vice president but not run for the U.S. Senate, she emphasized her interests were in getting Biden elected. For his part, Biden chimed in and said she was “capable of doing any or both" jobs.
"My interest is, no matter what, that I help make certain that Joe Biden is the next president of the United States, that we win every election up and down the ballot so that we can right-size our country and move our nation forward,” Abrams said.
Rice: While Susan Rice, President Obama’s former national security adviser and U.N. Ambassador, is one of Biden’s more under-the-radar contenders, she told PBS Thursday that she “would say yes” if Biden asked her to run with him.
“I’m committed to do all I can to help him win and to help him govern. So I will do as I best can in whatever capacity makes most sense,” Rice said.
Rice doesn’t have the same name recognition as some of Biden’s other choices, but their relationship could already be simpatico — a key metric for the former vice president. The two served together for eight years in the Obama administration, and she has several years of foreign policy and Washington experience.
Whitmer: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's national profile has risen during the coronavirus pandemic — making headlines for controversial statewide orders and mentions in President Trump’s tweets — and Biden has heavily praised her.
On Thursday, during a town hall with Whitmer and the governors of New Jersey and Connecticut, Biden told Whitmer, “Well look, you'd expect me to say this, I know because I think you're such a great governor, I think you've done one hell of a job.”
“She didn't lengthen the list, she made the list in my mind two months ago,” Biden said.
Warren: Though Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been quieter in responding to speculation about Biden selecting her as his veep this week, there are signs that supporters of her former presidential primary rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, could unite around her.
California Rep. Ro Khanna, who served as Sanders’ national campaign co-chair, even tweeted Thursday that Warren “needs to be on the ticket” and listed examples of her legislative leadership throughout the pandemic. Khanna’s backing could signal a way for Biden to get progressives to coalesce around his candidacy.
Projection: $6.7 billion could be spent on advertising in 2020 election
WASHINGTON — The spread of the coronavirus has halted live campaign rallies, door-to-door organizing and traditional sit-down interviews with candidates.
But it hasn’t stopped TV, radio and digital advertising.
Far from it.
Advertising Analytics projects $6.7 billion will be spent on advertising in the 2020 election cycle. And here are some other numbers to consider via Advertising Analytics:
- So far, a cumulative $2.19 billion has been spent during the 2020 cycle
- This is over $1 billion more than what was spent at this point in 2016 and 2018
- Excluding Michael Bloomberg, the $1.58 billion spent so far is nearly 2 times that of any other cycle
- In 2016 and 2018, 54 percent of the cycle’s total cash was spent in the final 10 weeks
- $443 million has already been reserved for the Fall of 2020
Progressive Super PAC targets Sanders supporters, urges support of Biden in new memo
Former senior advisors to Sen. Bernie Sanders are sounding the alarm about a significant portion of Sanders' supporters who remain unsupportive of the apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, calling it a "clear and dangerous trend" in a memo obtained by NBC News.
“Despite best intentions, the Biden campaign and the DNC are far behind on digital organizing, Latino outreach and progressive coalition building," former senior advisor Jeff Weaver wrote in the four-page document from his newly formed "America's Promise" PAC.
In an interview with NBC News, Weaver said that it is with these three priorities in mind that his Super PAC will spend the next six months persuading Sanders supporters to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November.
“We have an opportunity in this election to elect somebody who certainly is not anywhere near as progressive as Bernie Sanders,” Weaver told NBC News, “but who will allow us to lock-in legislatively and institutionally, some of the gains that the progressive movement has earned through it's hard work of these last five or six years.”
While he said he is aware that not everyone who supported Bernie Sanders would be supporting Joe Biden, he pointed to issues including Biden’s support of a $15 minimum wage, making colleges and universities tuition free for families making less than $125,000 and expanding health care access as progress in the policy arena as common ground.
But it’s filling up the hypothetical arenas with Sanders supporters that Weaver’s super PAC is pledging to be laser-focused on, with recent polling of Sanders supporters showing less than favorable numbers for Biden. The super PAC’s memo points to an April USA Today/Suffolk University poll, which reported 1 in 4 Sanders supporters saying they would vote for a third party candidate, vote for President Donald Trump, not vote in November or were undecided about who to vote for, as a reason for the group to step in and provide support.
Currently an eight-person operation, Weaver said he hopes for the Super PAC to be able to replicate the robust digital operation of Sanders’ presidential runs, in support of Joe Biden. “We cannot afford to have these constituencies ignored or talked to in an ineffective way during this process,” Weaver said. He told NBC News there have been internal discussions about the reservation of digital buys, focused towards the latino voting base.
For Weaver, getting this super PAC off the ground was not without controversy. America’s Promise PAC was, until Tuesday, called “Future to Believe In” PAC. Sen. Bernie Sanders has famously been opposed to Super PACs and used his spokesperson to release a statement separating himself from this organization. He was unhappy with a name that mirrored his 2016 campaign slogan, leading to the renaming this week to “America’s Promise,” according to Weaver.
Tweet the Press: NBC's Ken Dilanian discusses Sen. Richard Burr and Chinese hacking
WASHINGTON — On this week's Tweet the Press, we spoke with NBC News national security and intelligence correspondent Ken Dilanian about Sen. Richard Burr vacating his post as the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman and reports that China is trying to hamper coronavirus vaccine development in the U.S.
The Republican senator from North Carolina announced Thursday that he's temporarily stepping aside from his post as the head of the powerful committee after the FBI seized his cell phone as part of a possible insider trading investigation. Dilanian explained that "the use of a search warrant means the FBI convinced a judge there was probable cause to believe a crime has been committed." Burr insists that his February stock sales were based on public information rather than classified information provided to Congress about the coronavirus.
On China, Dilanian tells us that the FBI and DHS "issued a rare public warning" that they have seen China attempting to hack government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and labs "seeking info about coronavirus vaccine and treatment research" amid the global race for a vaccine.
Click here to read the full conversation.
Steve King committee flap comes as GOP primary opponents hammer him for absence
WASHINGTON — A renewed dust-up over whether House Republicans will restore Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King's committee assignments comes as King's lack of standing on House committees has been a central issue in his primary race.
King said Monday at a forum ahead of next month's primary that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told him he would "advocate" to Republican lawmakers that they restore positions stripped from him after his comments about white supremacy.
But as prominent Republicans balked at the idea, a McCarthy spokesperson told NBC News that King's "past comments cannot be exonerated" and that King "will have the opportunity to make his case" to the committee that controls those assignments.
While King had held his seat comfortably since he first took office in 2003, Democrat J.D. Scholten gave him a scare in 2018 in a race King won by just 3 points as King weathered the fallout from his comments and his lost assignments.
Now, King faces another tough election, the 2020 primary, where his top opponent, state Sen. Randy Feenstra, has made King's lack of influence in the House a top issue.
When President Trump faced impeachment in the House, Feenstra argued that because King lost his seat on House Judiciary, "King is unable to help due to his bizarre behavior and his removal from key committees," a move that left Iowans "without a seat at the table."
In a recent ad sporting a delivery truck emblazoned with the words "Steve King Can't Deliver," Feenstra called King "the congressman who couldn't."
And it's a message that outside groups opposing King have embraced too.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dropped a recent ad criticizing King for getting kicked off the Agriculture Committee, "hurting our farmers."
And the Republican Main Street Partnership, which has endorsed Feenstra, has used similar language in explaining their endorsement. The group's affiliated super PAC has said it is spending $100,000 on direct mail, phone calls and social media advertising in the primary.
White House quietly sets up panel for possible Biden transition
WASHINGTON — Mark Meadows will helm the White House panel, required by law, to begin planning for a possible transition of power to a new Democratic administration, the Trump administration informed lawmakers on Wednesday.
A memo to House and Senate committee leaders from a representative in the General Services Administration was the first public acknowledgment by any administration official that the White House was fully complying with legal deadlines, only recently established, to ensure a smooth transfer of power in the executive branch.
Meadows, the new White House chief of staff and a former North Carolina congressman, will serve as chair of the White House Transition Coordinating Council. Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, will serve as vice chair.
The panel will also include Office of Management and Budget Director Russel Vought, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and other West Wing officials. There will also be a “transition representative for each eligible candidate” — this is likely to be former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee.
Four years ago, the Obama administration repeatedly touted the steps it was taking to help guide a new administration into office. In March 2016, then-chief of staff Denis McDonough convened a Cabinet meeting to outline the transition process and the steps agencies would be required to take throughout the year. The White House announced on May 6 that Obama signed an executive order establishing his White House Transition Council, two days ahead of that year’s initial deadline.
More than two weeks ago, after NBC News first reported concern among Democrats about whether the administration would comply with both the letter and spirit of legal transition requirements, Vought issued a memo asking executive departments and agencies to identify senior career officials who would serve on a separate Agency Transition Directors Council.
That council is led jointly by the Federal Transition Coordinator, Mary Gibert, and Michael Rigas, the acting deputy director of OMB, as specified under law.
Vought’s memo said the first meeting of agency council would occur on May 27. It is unclear yet if the White House council would also meet, or whether President Trump has played a role in creating the panel. None of the 20 executive orders published in the Federal Register this year relate to the transition process.
Biden said last month that he has already begun transition planning along with one of his closest and longest-serving aides, Ted Kaufman. Kaufman, who was appointed as a senator to fulfill the last two years of Biden's term in 2008, helped write the legislation that now guides these transition procedures.
“You can't wait until you win if you win. You've got to start right now,” Biden told donors last week during a virtual fundraiser. “How do we go out and find 2,800 employees, 2,800 employees that need to be filled right away?”
There are no immediate deadlines for the Biden campaign to meet under law. But come September, Biden would be offered more robust government resources to aid its own preparatory work, including office space near the White House for a designated transition team to begin work.
The GSA memo on Thursday identified the Department of Commerce headquarters as the location for such offices and said upgrades are now underway to the physical and IT infrastructure of that space.
The memo also said that the GSA is “preparing to convene meetings” with the Justice Department, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to begin transition planning, which would include the facilitation of security clearance requests for key Biden advisors who would need access to classified information. In 2016, the Obama administration began providing intelligence briefings for Trump and Hillary Clinton representatives after the nominating conventions.
The next legal deadline for the Trump administration will come after the parties’ nominating conventions, scheduled for August, when the administration has to enter into a formal memorandum of understanding with the Democratic nominee’s representatives, and also identify succession plans for federal agencies.
New Planned Parenthood ad campaign seeks to show coronavirus’ abortion access impact
WASHINGTON — Planned Parenthood Action Fund is launching an “accountability” campaign across eleven states, highlighting efforts to roll back, or expand, American’s access to reproductive healthcare during the coronavirus pandemic.
The $5 million buy, reported first by NBC News, includes digital, radio, mailers, and online organizing events in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Almost all of these states are battlegrounds in the coming November election. Some of the ads laud politicians for the work they’ve done; others urge voters to call their representatives to push back.
The awareness project is the first of several steps Planned Parenthood’s advocacy and political arms will undertake in the next several months, Rachel Sussman, Vice President of State Policy and Advocacy for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told NBC News, calling it “a starting point to help connect the dots for people” about actions taken in their states during the pandemic.
Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, blue and red states have, unsurprisingly, responded to questions of reproductive health access in non-uniform fashion.
Some states, including Iowa, Ohio and Texas, classified abortions as non-essential procedures, counting them among the elective procedures suspended until the public health crisis abated. Activist groups challenged these decisions in court, resulting in varying rulings and appeals. But those states stand in contrast to rules set by governors in states like New York, Virginia, and Washington, where abortion was deemed essential and allowed to continue during the pandemic.
Other states have tried to legislate around reproductive issues during the pandemic, something PPAF and their state partners are seeking to highlight in the campaign.
Pennsylvania, for instance, has seen what once was a bipartisan push for expanded tele-health access grind to a halt because of the addition of an amendment that would prohibit doctors from prescribing certain kinds of pills used to induce abortion. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf recently vetoed the bill, saying the added language “interferes with women’s health care and the crucial decision-making between patients and their physicians,” while Democrats and Republicans continued to spar over the inclusion of the amendment.
On the other end of the spectrum, Michigan’s Health and Human Services Department has taken steps to increase access to reproductive health tools — including a campaign where condoms can be mailed to Michiganders who request them via email.
House Republicans balk at idea of giving Steve King back his committee assignments
WASHINGTON — Top House Republicans are voicing opposition to allowing Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King to get his committee assignments back, including the highest-ranking Republican woman.
King was stripped of his spot on House committees last year after he made controversial comments about white supremacy and Western Civilization to the New York Times, which he claims were taken out of context by the newspaper.
A spokesperson for Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney told NBC News “Cheney does not support” giving King back his committee assignments. She was the first Republican leader to condemn King’s comments and even called for him to resign from Congress.
At a forum on Monday night in Spencer, Iowa, King claimed that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was going to advocate for giving him his committee assignments back, as first reported by the Sioux City Journal.
“On April 20, Kevin McCarthy and I reached an agreement that he would advocate to the steering committee to put all of my committees back with all of my seniority because there is no argument against my fact-check document, I have disproven all of those allegations," King said at the republican forum Monday.
“When Congress comes back into session, when the steering committee can get together, I have Kevin McCarthy’s word that then, that will be my time for exoneration."
In response, a McCarthy spokesperson told NBC News that "Congressman King’s past comments cannot be exonerated." But the spokesperson added that "committee assignments are determined by the steering committee and he will have the opportunity to make his case."
Former NRCC Chairman and Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, a current member of the Republican Steering Committee that controls the House GOP committee selection, wrote on social media Wednesday that he opposes restoring King to House committees.
"As long as I am a member of the Steering Committee, I will not allow that type of person or that type of ideology to influence the legislation passed by Congress. He will not be serving on any committee. Steve King does more to hurt Republican and conservative caucuses than help.”
King criticized Stivers in a statement to NBC News, calling him "only one vote on Steering" and a "Never-Trumper."
King is facing a competitive primary in Iowa on June 2nd following his controversial comments. His opponents are running ads pointing to his absence from committees, arguing that means he can't properly serve the district.