The latest political news and analysis from the campaign trail:
Senate Democrats still looking for answers on agency cooperation with probes
WASHINGTON — Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is asking the heads of four government agencies if President Donald Trump is “weaponizing” federal agencies by forcing them to cooperate with investigations into Trump’s 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
In a letter to the heads of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Treasury and the National Archives, obtained by NBC News, Murphy asks if they are “applying different standards” to congressional requests for documents and information, suggesting that the agencies are cooperating with Republican investigations while stonewalling probes into the president.
“I am troubled that President Trump may be weaponizing the executive branch in advance of the 2020 elections by directing agencies to comply with congressional investigations designed to hurt his political opponents," Murphy wrote, "while stonewalling legitimate oversight investigations into the actions of his own administration.”
The letter is Murphy's second attempt to receive the information. The senator wrote to the inspectors general of the four agencies in March, asking them the same questions. Three IGs — from State, Treasury, National Archives — told Murphy that his request was not in their purview but that agencies should reply to his request.
Treasury Inspector General Joseph Cuffari wrote that the Treasury “can provide the factual information underlying your concern” and then-State Department Inspector General Steve Linick wrote that the State Department “may have relevant information” related to his request.
Trump fired the State Department IG, Steve Linick last Friday at the urging of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Democrats have pointed to the refusal of the executive branch to comply with congressional requests under President Trump, particularly during the impeachment process last year.
In contrast, the State Department has handed over thousands of pages of documents to Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, chairman of committees investigating Hunter Biden’s work on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. The National Archives has promised to hand over thousands more documents.
Johnson’s committee, the Homeland Security Committee, is expected to take a significant step in its investigation Wednesday and hold a vote to subpoena Blue Star Strategies, a Democratic consulting firm who worked with Burisma when Hunter sat on the company’s board.
In a separate Republican-led investigation into the “unmasking” by Obama administration officials of Michael Flynn during the Trump transition, Sens. Grassley, Johnson and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina released an email of Obama’s former national security aide Susan Rice declassified by the Acting Director of National Intelligence Director Richard Grenell at their request.
Attack ads and bear hugs of Trump dominate airwaves in Tuesday's contested Oregon House GOP primary
WASHINGTON — While the coronavirus pandemic has upended elections across the country, it's business as usual in Tuesday's Oregon primary — that's because the state has voted entirely by mail since 2000.
The most competitive federal election Tuesday is the GOP primary for the state's 2nd Congressional District, where a crowded croup of Republicans are looking to replace the retiring Rep. Greg Walden.
It's been busy on the airwaves in the sprawling district that covers most of Eastern Oregon, with $1.7 million spent on television and radio through Tuesday, according to Advertising Analytics.
Two candidates have spent significantly more than the rest of the field — Knute Buehler (the GOP's 2018 nominee for governor) and Jimmy Crumpacker (an energy investor).
And those ads have gotten fierce — Buehler calls Crumpacker "a fraud with a trust fund" in one ad and a "Portland pretender" in another, hits fellow primary candidates Cliff Bentz (a former state lawmaker) and Jason Atkinson (a former state senator) as "Portland-loving liberals" in a third ad, and Bentz a "tax-and-waste politician" in a fourth.
Besides trying to rhyme his last name with "Trump-backer," Crumpacker has gone on offense too. He calls Buehler, Atkinson and Betnz as allies of "Never Trumpers" in one spot and Buehler a "career politician" who campaigns on "liberal lies" in a second.
Bentz's ads play him up as a "conservative Republican" who helped to "lead" one of the walkouts of Oregon Republican lawmakers aimed at frustrating legislative efforts on gun control and vaccines.
A handful of outside groups have jumped into the race too, lobbing bombs and promoting the top candidates.
So now all that's left is deciding who will be the GOP's nominee, who will have the inside track for the Republican-leaning seat.
Federal appeals court orders New York to hold Democratic presidential primary
A federal appeals court ordered Tuesday that New York’s presidential primary be reinstated, and that the names former presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders be among those allowed on the presidential primary ballot.
The new order is the latest, and possibly final, development in a months-long fight between members of the New York State Board of Elections and a handful of former presidential candidates like Yang and Sanders over whether a candidate who has suspended their campaign should be allowed to remain on a ballot and thereby eligible to collect delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
The New York State Board of Elections confirmed to NBC News they do not plan to appeal this morning's decision, setting the stage for the presidential primary to return to ballots for the state's June 23 primary.
Last month, the board removed Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders from the ballot, pointing to his decision to drop out of the presidential race and a recent law that gave the board the power to remove candidates from the ballot after they dropped out.
That move effectively canceled the state's Democratic presidential primary.
But Sanders' lawyers had argued against removing him, arguing that he was still fighting for convention delegates to have influence at the convention despite having ended his quest for the nomination.
Yang brought a lawsuit against the board over the decision, and the Sanders camp hired a lawyer and penned a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the challenge.
A federal circuit court judge disagreed with the board's decision, ruling on May 5 that the primary proceed with the candidates who were on the ballot as of April 26. This includes Sanders, Yang, Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.
And on Tuesday, the 2nd District Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court that covers New York, upheld the lower court's decision.
In a tweet responding to the decision, “America’s Promise,” a super PAC formed by former senior Sanders advisors after his campaign ended, wrote “Democracy prevails.”
Democratic super PAC Priorities USA says it's on track to spend more than $200 million in 2020
WASHINGTON — Priorities USA, one of the chief outside groups working to boost Democrats’ hopes for recapturing the White House this November, says it is on pace to exceed its $200 million budget for the 2020 cycle — and is putting that cash to use with a new set of ads blasting President Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The super PAC said Tuesday it has obtained commitments for more than $25 million since April on top of the $126 million it already raised for November, with the pace of fundraising picking up in May. Priorities says it is already outspending the Trump campaign online and on air in targeted battlegrounds, and will look to expand its role to “go toe-to-toe with the Trump disinformation machine.”
"Donald Trump and his allies have started advertising in battleground states and it's imperative that Priorities gives Joe Biden the air cover he needs as he builds his general election campaign," Guy Cecil, Chairman of Priorities USA, said in a statement to NBC News. "This election is going to be very close and this early period will be key to a Biden victory.”
While another pro-Biden super PAC, Unite The Country, has turned toward positive advertising promoting Biden’s middle class message, Priorities’ newest ad continues its focus on countering the president, accusing him of “failing America."
“With over 90,000 Americans dead, Donald Trump continues to downplay the threat, ignoring experts who warn of a larger second wave with more death and devastation to our economy," one of two new ads says, featuring Trump recently saying the coronavirus would “go away without a vaccine.”
That spot will air in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania on broadcast and cable television, part of the previously announced $65 million reservation through Election Day.
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.