05 May The Slime Machine Targeting Dozens of Biden Nominees
During the autos-da-fé that now pass for Supreme Court confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate, it’s common for supporters of a nominee to dismiss attacks from the opposing party as mere partisanship. But, during the recent hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, Andrew C. McCarthy—a Republican former federal prosecutor and a prominent legal commentator at National Review—took the unusual step of denouncing an attack from his own side. When Republican senators, including Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn, began accusing Jackson of having been a dangerously lenient judge toward sex offenders, McCarthy wrote a column calling the charge “meritless to the point of demagoguery.” He didn’t like Jackson’s judicial philosophy, but “the implication that she has a soft spot for ‘sex offenders’ who ‘prey on children’ . . . is a smear.”
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.”
Liberal and conservative political groups habitually scrutinize a prominent nominee’s record or personal life in search of disqualifying faults. But the A.A.F. has taken the practice to extremes, repeatedly spinning negligible tidbits or dubious hearsay into damning narratives. The group recently deployed its unorthodox methods, Politico has reported, while “desperately pursuing dirt” on Lisa Cook, the nominee for the Federal Reserve. Cook, who has been a tenured professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University since 2013, has attracted bipartisan support. Glenn Hubbard, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers during the George W. Bush Administration, has said, “Cook’s talents as an economic researcher and teacher make her a good nominee for the Fed, adding to diversity of perspectives about policy.” In college, Cook won a Marshall Scholarship. She subsequently obtained a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and served as a staff economist on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. She also held appointments at the National Bureau of Economic Research and at various regional Federal Reserve banks. The A.A.F., though, has portrayed her as unqualified, and suggested that her tenure at Michigan State is undeserved.
On April 13th, Jones sent out the latest of at least three e-mail blasts from the A.A.F. to about fifty of Cook’s colleagues at Michigan State. In the most recent of these messages, which were obtained by The New Yorker, Jones said that Cook “did not warrant” tenure. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the A.A.F. obtained records showing that the school’s provost had granted Cook full professorship in 2020, overruling a decision not to give her that title the previous year. Jones sent these personnel records to dozens of Cook’s colleagues, and asked, “Are any of you concerned that . . . she’s not good enough to sit on the Federal Reserve Board?” He urged any detractors to “not hesitate to” contact him. Meanwhile, Jones fished for further information by posting a message on an anonymous online gossip forum, Economics Job Market Rumors, which has been decried by one prominent economist as “a cesspool of misogyny.”
Some of the A.A.F.’s attacks on Cook carried racial overtones. Cook had made donations to bail funds for impoverished criminal defendants, including racial-justice protesters who had been arrested; she was following a tradition of activist lawyers in her family, and considered it a form of charity. The A.A.F. argued on Twitter that she had made “racist comments” and “even bailed out rioters who burned down American cities.” Cook’s reputation was sullied enough that the Senate Banking Committee vote on her nomination resulted in a tie, with no Republicans supporting her. Cook’s nomination can still proceed to the Senate floor, but her confirmation remains in limbo, as one conservative news outlet after another repeats the A.A.F.’s talking points. A writer for the Daily Caller, Chris Brunet, said in a Substack column that Cook is a “random economist at Michigan State University who has shamelessly leveraged her skin color and genitalia into gaining the backing of several key White House officials.” Brunet tweeted proudly that his critique had been promoted on Fox News by Tucker Carlson.
The A.A.F.’s treatment of Cook has been mild compared with what several other Biden nominees have gone through. Late last year, Saule Omarova—a leading academic in the field of financial regulation, who is a law professor at Cornell and holds doctorates in law and political science—withdrew her name from consideration as Biden’s Comptroller of the Currency. She did so, she told me, because an opposition-research campaign against her, which the A.A.F. took credit for, had, among other things, falsely portrayed her as a secret communist.
Born in Kazakhstan, in what was then the Soviet Union, Omarova received an undergraduate degree from Moscow State University, but she became a naturalized American citizen in 2005. Yet, during her confirmation hearing, in a moment reminiscent of the Joseph McCarthy era, the Republican Senator John Kennedy, of Louisiana, declared that he didn’t know whether to call her “professor or comrade.” Omarova replied, “Senator, I am not a communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.” Omarova’s résumé is hardly anti-capitalist: she worked at the corporate law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell and served in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department.
Omarova told me, “There were so many accusations. A.A.F. was at the forefront of making my life extremely and unnecessarily difficult.” The group discovered that Omarova, after she’d read an article in The Economist about potatoes, had tweeted fondly about a time she helped farmers harvest potatoes outside Moscow. The A.A.F. proclaimed that the Biden Administration had “nominated a woman who waxes nostalgic for the good ole days of poverty, hunger, and forced labor in communist Russia.” Conservative outlets pounced on similar tweets about her past. “The A.A.F. made it into this big deal,” she told me. “They said, ‘She wants to make America into the Soviet Union.’ It was a complete absurdity. But people who have no idea who I am jumped in and said, ‘Go back to the Soviet Union!’ ”
Digging into a person’s past—especially someone who isn’t that well known—takes time and money. “Somebody must have paid them a lot,” Omarova said, of the A.A.F. “They went through all my public speeches and academic writings to find any kind of phrase they could use against me.” She’d been featured, along with other professors, in an obscure 2019 documentary based on “Assholes: A Theory,” a whimsical treatise by Aaron James, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Irvine. The A.A.F., without acknowledging the film’s satirical tone, promoted a snippet of Omarova calling the financial-services industry “the quintessential asshole industry.” She told me, “They didn’t cite the film. It made me sound unhinged, nasty, and, like, a rude person.” A compilation of clips from the documentary had been taken off YouTube owing to copyright violations; during the pre-hearing process for Omarova’s nomination, Republican staffers insinuated that she’d personally concealed the footage. “I don’t know what kind of relationship those senators had with A.A.F.,” she told me. “But clearly they knew of that clip.”