The Slime Machine Targeting Dozens of Biden Nominees
In an escalation of partisan warfare, a little-known dark-money group is trying to thwart the President’s entire slate.
by: Jane Mayer, The NewYorker
In the end, the attacks failed to diminish public support for Jackson, and her poised responses to questioning helped secure her nomination, by a vote of 53–47. But the fierce campaign against her was concerning, in part because it was spearheaded by a new conservative dark-money group that was created in 2020: the American Accountability Foundation. An explicit purpose of the A.A.F.—a politically active, tax-exempt nonprofit charity that doesn’t disclose its backers—is to prevent the approval of all Biden Administration nominees.
While the hearings were taking place, the A.A.F. publicly took credit for uncovering a note in the Harvard Law Review in which, they claimed, Jackson had “argued that America’s judicial system is too hard on sexual offenders.” The group also tweeted that she had a “soft-on-sex-offender” record during her eight years as a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. As the Washington Post and other outlets stated, Jackson’s sentencing history on such cases was well within the judicial mainstream, and in line with a half-dozen judges appointed by the Trump Administration. When Jackson defended herself on this point during the hearings, the A.A.F. said, on Twitter, that she was “lying.” The group’s allegation—reminiscent of the QAnon conspiracy, which claims that liberal élites are abusing and trafficking children—rippled through conservative circles. Tucker Carlson repeated the accusation on his Fox News program while a chyron declared “jackson lenient in child sex cases.” Marjorie Taylor Greene, the extremist representative from Georgia, called Jackson “pro-pedophile.”
Mudslinging is hardly new to American politics. In 1800, a campaign surrogate for Thomas Jefferson called Jefferson’s opponent, John Adams, “hermaphroditical”; Adams’s supporters predicted that if Jefferson were elected President he would unleash a reign of “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest.” Neither the Democratic nor Republican Party is above reproach when it comes to engaging in calumny, and since at least 1987, when President Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully nominated Robert Bork to be a Justice, the fights over Supreme Court nominees have been especially nasty. Yet the A.A.F.’s approach represents a new escalation in partisan warfare, and underscores the growing role that secret spending has played in deepening the polarization in Washington.
Rather than attack a single candidate or nominee, the A.A.F. aims to thwart the entire Biden slate. The obstructionism, like the Republican blockade of Biden’s legislative agenda in Congress, is the end in itself. The group hosts a Web site, bidennoms.com, that displays the photographs of Administration nominees it has targeted, as though they were hunting trophies. And the A.A.F. hasn’t just undermined nominees for Cabinet and Court seats—the kinds of prominent people whose records are usually well known and well defended. It’s also gone after relatively obscure, sub-Cabinet-level political appointees, whose public profiles can be easily distorted and who have little entrenched support. The A.A.F., which is run by conservative white men, has particularly focussed on blocking women and people of color. As of last month, more than a third of the twenty-nine candidates it had publicly attacked were people of color, and nearly sixty per cent were women.
Among the nominees the group boasts of having successfully derailed are Saule Omarova, a nominee for Comptroller of the Currency, and Sarah Bloom Raskin, whom Biden named to be the vice-chair for supervision of the Federal Reserve Board. David Chipman, whom the President wanted to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and David Weil, Biden’s choice for the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, both saw their nominations founder in the wake of A.A.F. attacks. Currently, the group is waging a negative campaign against Lisa Cook, who, if confirmed, would become the first Black woman to serve on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.
Tom Jones, the A.A.F.’s founder and executive director, is a longtime Beltway operative specializing in opposition research. Records show that over the years he has worked for several of the most conservative Republicans to have served in the Senate, including Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin; Ted Cruz, of Texas; Jim DeMint, of South Carolina; and John Ensign, of Nevada, for whom Jones was briefly a legislative director. In 2016, Jones ran the opposition-research effort for Cruz’s failed Presidential campaign. When I asked Jones for an interview, through the A.A.F.’s online portal, he replied, “Ms. Meyers . . . Go pound sand.” Citing an article that I had written debunking attacks on Bloom Raskin from moneyed interests, including the A.A.F., he said, “You are a liberal hack masquerading as an investigative journalist—and not a very good one.” Jones subsequently posted this comment on his group’s Twitter account, along with my e-mail address and cell-phone number.
A decade ago, Bill Dauster, a Democrat who is now the chief counsel to the Senate Budget Committee, helped Jones organize a bipartisan Torah study group for Jewish congressional staffers. Dauster recalls him as “soft-spoken and cordial,” and finds it hard to reconcile the man he knew with Jones’s current persona. “I find what he appears to have done quite distasteful,” he said.
In interviews with right-wing media outlets, Jones hasn’t been shy about his intentions. Last April, he told Fox News, which called A.A.F.’s tactics “controversial,” that his group wants to “take a big handful of sand and throw it in the gears of the Biden Administration,” making it “as difficult as possible” for the President and his allies on Capitol Hill “to implement their agenda.” When asked why his group was bothering to attack sub-Cabinet-level appointees, he explained that people in “that second tier are really the folks who are going to do the day-to-day work implementing the agenda.”
Last year, an A.A.F. member infiltrated a Zoom training session for congressional staffers about the ethics rules surrounding earmarks—pet spending projects that lawmakers write into the federal budget. The infiltrator asked leading questions during the meeting and then posted a recording of it online. The attempted sting backfired: nothing incriminating was said, and the A.A.F.’s underhanded tactics became the story. Evan Hollander, then the spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, told The Hill that, “for a group that purports to concern itself with ethics, using fake identities, misrepresenting themselves as Congressional staff and surreptitiously recording meetings is hypocritical in the extreme.”
Jones made no apologies. He told Fox News, “I’m never doing anything illegal. But just because it’s impolite to log into an earmark-training seminar and offend the morals of Capitol Hill staff, that’s not going to stop me from doing it.” He added, “If I’ve got to trail someone on the ground to find out what they’re doing, I’m totally going to do it. Because people who are making decisions need to have this information—they need to understand who they are trusting with the reins of government. And sometimes that means we will use unorthodox methods.”
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