Special counsel Robert Mueller has only just begun investigating whether President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in last year’s election and whether Trump himself obstructed justice, but there are already fears that he’ll face pressure to reveal his conclusions before the 2018 midterms.
While it’s unclear how long it will take Mueller to wrap up his investigation, veterans of past White House scandals say that with the midterms already being framed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, both Republicans and Democrats can be expected to push Mueller to go public with whatever he has before voters go to the polls.
But Mueller will also be shadowed by the criticism heaped on former FBI Director James Comey over his public statements about the Hillary Clinton email probe in the days before the 2016 presidential election.
“It’s going to be déjà vu all over again with respect to everyone being angry whatever he has to say,” said Douglas Kmiec, a former top Justice Department lawyer during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and U.S. ambassador to Malta under President Barack Obama.
The special prosecutor doesn’t face a set deadline, and the regulations establishing Mueller’s office only say he must issue a final report to the Justice Department when he’s finished investigating spelling out why he believes criminal prosecutions are warranted or not – and nothing prevents him from pressing charges or speaking out before the entire report is complete.
Most other major modern scandals involving the White House have dragged on for years, colliding with election campaigns. It took more than 1,200 days between the break-in at the offices of the psychiatrist for Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, for example, and the final convictions of senior Nixon White House aides. During that time period, Nixon won a second term and he became the only president in U.S. history to resign from office.
President Bill Clinton was under investigation for more than 1,850 days over two terms as special prosecutors examined everything from his Whitewater land dealings while serving as Arkansas attorney general to his sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Democrat was impeached by the House but the Senate acquitted him in early 1999 after a five-week trial.
A former senior Obama-era Justice Department official said the complexity of the case in front of Mueller could take considerable time because of international financial and intelligence information that won’t be easy to track down. But the source, who has worked with Mueller, said the former FBI director is well known for pushing staff to work overtime.
“If he has one flaw or virtue it’s impatience. He moves people very hard and moves them very quickly,” the former DOJ official said. “The team will be sleep-deprived and sweating bullets as he drives them to wrap it up.”
Any public disclosures on the Russia probe will be prime fodder for both Democrats and Republicans heading into the midterms. “It’s going to be hanging over every single congressional candidate,” said Bradley Moss, a Washington-based national security attorney. “Do you believe the president obstructed justice? Do you believe the president should be impeached?”
Mueller so far has tried to operate out of the media spotlight as he learns the intricacies of what the FBI and Congress have already done on the Russia case, prepares his budget and hires a team of experienced investigators who have pursued such high-profile targets as Al Qaeda, Enron executives, the Mafia and Watergate. His spokesman, Peter Carr, declined comment for this story.
At least five congressional committees have also launched investigations into different aspects of Russia’s election meddling – and Republicans running the probes say they’re in no rush to wrap them up.
“If I talk to one witness and they give me someone else’s name, I’ve got to go find that witness and talk to them,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, the Texas Republican leading the House Intelligence Committee’s probe. “You’ve got to run the daisy chain of witnesses out.”
The congressional investigators and Mueller are all dealing with some complicated legal issues, exploring everything from the financial connections between Russia and Trump and his associates and questions about favorable policy treatment that the Republican president may have given to the United States’ longtime Cold War adversary. Investigators are looking into Russian influence on viral “fake news” and its spread on social media, as well as how Russian hackers got into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account.
Trump’s move to fire Comey in early May – and Comey’s subsequent public testimony that the president had asked him to “let this go” regarding the Russia probe’s examination of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn – is also within Mueller’s jurisdiction to investigate.
Mueller, a former George W. Bush-era FBI director, has been on the job as the Russia special prosecutor for less than six weeks himself. But he’s already come under sharp criticism from Trump and his surrogates, who have been blasting away at his integrity and even floating the prospect he could be fired before he’s even got his probe off the ground.
“We’ll have to see,” Trump told Fox News in an interview last Thursday where he also called it “very bothersome” that Mueller and Comey are “good friends” – a relationship that people close to the two men say is not accurate.
“Jim and Bob are friends in the sense that co-workers are friends,” said Comey’s attorney, David Kelley. “They don’t really have a personal relationship. Jim has never been to Bob’s house and Bob has never been to Jim’s house.”
Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor, said that it’s not too soon for Mueller to consider the heated political environment his team is working in over the coming year.
“I think it would be impossible for any smart lawyer in Mueller’s position not to be thinking about timing with respect to the political process,” Buell said. “You can’t let it affect you in getting the investigative job done right, but to the extent there ends up being any discretion to exercise on the timing to things, you bet they will consider whether election season is underway.”
The re-registration of domain names continued after Trump’s inauguration, with hundreds of sites kept for potential new businesses in Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, China, India and Indonesia once he was already in the Oval Office. Three weeks before Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida, the Trump Organization renewed its licenses for MarALagoClubAsia.com and theMarALagoClub.Asia.
There’s also TrumpOnIce.com and TrumpDrone.com.
Publicly available internet directory records analyzed by POLITICO from the domain registration database website WhoIs.com show thousands of sites registered by the Trump Organization’s general counsel, with many for existing Trump businesses, including some that have since been shuttered, but many that instead direct to holding pages.
They appear to provide a road map for ventures the president’s company has been considering, though some are in places that are now trouble spots for his presidency: TrumpRussia.com and TrumpUkraine.com were both renewed on June 29, 2016, while DonaldJTrumpSignatureCollectionVenezuela.com, TrumpApparelVenezuela.com, TrumpClothingVenezuela.com, TrumpHomeBathVenezuela.com, TrumpBeddingVenezuela.com and TrumpHomeAccessoriesVenezuela.com were updated on Oct. 14, 2016.
Trump has always been ambitious to expand, and his interest in building a Trump Tower in Moscow dates back at least as far as a visit to the Russian capital in 1996, during which he said he’d like to build a replica of his signature Fifth Avenue skyscraper there. While registration for TrumpTowerMoscow.com was renewed as recently as June 29, 2016, there do not appear to be any short-term plans to move forward on such a project, especially given that Trump is facing multiple investigations into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin ahead of the election. Currently, TrumpTowerMoscow.com, like most of the domains registered by the Trump Organization that aren’t active businesses, goes to a standard GoDaddy landing page.
Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara Law School and director of its High Tech Law Institute who’s written about corporate use of domain registration, said the Trump Organization’s activity could represent “very long-range planning or preemptive registration.”
Goldman said most companies tend to use holding companies or individuals for this kind of activity, which would be harder to track. Given the relatively minimal costs of buying hundreds of thousands of domain names at once, many companies also use automated systems which buy up thousands of variations on names, as well as all of them as .com, .info, .net and more.
The Trump Organization does not appear to have done either: a smaller, directed set of names can be traced back directly to its general counsel.
“It could be because the company’s thinking about moving in a particular direction and it wants to make sure it had had the domain name space to expand,” Goldman said, “or it can be to preempt a squatter, to avoid something else taking the domain name.”
Some of the registration renewals are perplexing. The president’s company renewed 79 site name variations of Trump University first registered from 2007 to 2009, from TrumpUHartford.com, TrumpUniversityTN.com to TrumpUniversityWealthBuilding.com, though Trump University had officially been shuttered in 2010 and was by last summer deep in the lawsuit that ultimately led to the president’s decision to settle for $25 million after being elected.
From TrumpExam to TrumpUNY
Trump’s company also renewed 59 other site names to potentially extend the Mar-a-Lago brand beyond Palm Beach, most first registered in 2012, from Chicago to Las Vegas to Panama and Toronto.
Since Trump’s election, membership fees have doubled to $200,000 annually at the original Mar-a-Lago in Florida, where the president flew to on Air Force One nearly every weekend during the early months of his presidency, often popping in to functions held there.
According to his personal financial disclosure filed this month, since he became president, Trump’s profits have spiked by millions of dollars at Mar-a-Lago and the Bedminster, N.J., golf course where he is spending most of his weekends in recent months.
Other sites renewed by the Trump Organization appear to reflect plans to leverage the personality that Trump marketed into a shocking self-propelled White House run, including LiveLikeATrump.com, LiveTheTrumpLife.com and ThinkLikeATrump.com, or for those looking for more permanence, TrumpInk.com and TrumpTats.com. Alternatively, people might have been able sign up for DownloadTheDonald.com, a site registered despite the president’s dislike of that New York tabloid-born nickname.
Then there are site names which, though registered in the same way as the others, may be defensive domain squatting to keep others from starting troublemaking websites, like TrumpNetworkPonziScheme.com, DonaldTrumpPyramidScheme.com, TrumpIsFired.com and TrumpVodkaSucks.com–the last registered all the way back in December 2005.
Old political sites like TrumpIsHired2012.com (registered Jan. 24, 2011) and DonaldTrump2012.com (registered Sept. 15, 2010) have been annually renewed, while new ones have popped up, including Trump2016.com (registered Sept. 2, 2014) and MakeAmericaGreatAgain.us (registered March 26, 2015)—both months before he launched his campaign. There are many in the names of Trump’s children and grandchildren as well.
But a large chunk of the domain names registered by the Trump Organization over roughly the last 5 1/2 years are more than 900 that point the way to potential foreign ventures. Many relate to known projects, like his golf course in Scotland and his apartment development in Mumbai.
From TrumpRussia to TrumpBelize
There are sites for 32 different Trump Tower ventures around the world, some of them built, and some of them not previously public, like TrumpTowerRome.com, TrumpTowerLondon.com and TrumpTowerBangkok.com, with apparent ambition for further expansion in both China and India.
Trump said during the transition that he was voluntarily turning over all management of his company to his two older sons, and they have said that they would not start any new overseas ventures while he is in the White House—but no proof has been provided that either is happening.
Trump also pledged during the transition that he would donate all profits to his businesses from foreigners to the Treasury Department. He never provided a structure for that, and earlier this month, his Justice Department argued in court that he can accept money from foreign governments.
Without information about what business ventures the privately held Trump Organization is continuing to pursue or the tax returns that the president is refusing to release, there’s no way to know to what extent his company is continuing to pursue projects. His financial disclosure released earlier this month indicated that he had resigned from official leadership of his corporations.
Bruce Boyden, an associate law professor at Marquette University who teaches copyright and internet law, said the Trump Organization reserving a domain name related to a possible business venture is not itself a signal that the company is actually pursuing it.
“Even if companies don’t have firm plans or even vague plans” to start a particular project, Boyden said, “they might just want to keep their options open.”
Most of the websites came up for renewal at the end of June 2016, when Trump had secured the Republican nomination but was still considered a long shot to win—a sentiment shared by the candidate himself and most of the people working on his campaign.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not respond to an email with questions about the domain registrations, if the president keeps his decisions on policy areas like Russia independent from interest in potential future projects like TrumpTowerMoscow.com, or if he has separated from decisions about pursuing them. Representatives from the Trump Organization did not respond to separate questions about why all the domain names were re-registered after Trump secured the nomination, if the company is pursuing these projects, or whether the domains’ registrations will be renewed again now that Trump is in the White House.
With many of the sites up for renewal at the end of June, it could be telling to see which domains the company chooses to refresh while Trump is in the Oval Office and combating criticism about conflicts of interest. Already since the inauguration, the Trump Organization decided not to renew about 100 sites it had registered, including IvankaTrumpWindows.info, IvankaPillows.org, EricTrumpFoundation.com and TrumpRent.com.
But as of now, the rest remain Trump Organization property, from TrumpBloodyMary.com and TrumpSparklingWine.com to TrumpHomeBeddingBolivia.com.
On May 30, after yearsof planning, the Department of Defense intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile, the first successful test of its ground-based program against an ICBM-range target. Top Pentagon officials hailed the test, with Vice Adm. Jim Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, calling it “an incredible accomplishment for the [Ground-based Midcourse Defense] system and a critical milestone for this program.”
An effective missile defense system could, in the short term, offer an extra layer of protection against North Korea. But the gradual buildup of the United States’ missile defense program could lead to something much more dangerous: a new arms race with Russia.
The truth is that successful arms control was built not just on controlling offensive weapons, but on restraining defense systems, as well. However, over the past 30 years we’ve seen the U.S.-Russian consensus on the importance of limiting missile defense dissolve — and though it gets less attention than nuclear weapons, this represents a destabilizing development that could hinder cooperation on arms reductions.
Ground-based missile defense is an attractive technology because, in theory, it could protect America from limited missile attacks. It uses radar to detect an incoming missile and then launches an interceptor to collide with the missile and destroy it on impact. Although this method, known as hit-to-kill, seems simple, it is extremely challenging to execute, as both the missile and interceptor move more than 20 times faster than the speed of sound. Experts have likened successfully intercepting an incoming ICBM to hitting a bullet with another bullet.
For that reason, it’s very hard to successfully intercept an ICBM, even after lots of testing. Instead of protecting the homeland, missile defense systems provide a false sense of security and undermine crisis stability by giving each side an incentive to strike first and encouraging adversaries to deploy additional offensive weapons to offset each other’s defenses.
During the Cold War, Russia and the United States understood the counterintuitive risks posed by missile defense systems. In 1972, President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the number of missile defense systems that each country could deploy initially to two sites per side and subsequently to one. And it worked: Over the next 30 years, the ABM Treaty helped create the conditions for nuclear stability and thereby enabled the negotiation of a number of important arms control agreements. Those agreements led to reductions of 50 percent in the American and Soviet strategic arsenals.
In 2002, however, President George W. Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty in order to develop a Ground-based Midcourse Defense. At the time, the Pentagon wanted a homeland missile defense capable of defeating a “limited ballistic missile attack,” likely from a rogue state like North Korea or Iran. When the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty, the Russian response was muted: President Vladimir Putin called the move “a mistake” but said it “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.”
Since then, both the number of interceptors the United States deploys and the projected role of missile defense have expanded. Last December, Congress broadened the role of national missile defense to “maintain and improve an effective, robust layered missile defense system” that can defend the United States, allies and other assets abroad. This was a marked contrast to the previous “limited” mission of ground-based missile defense and raised the possibility that the United States would try to defend itself against an attack from a country like Russia.
In March, a group of senators introduced a bill that would increase the number of interceptors the United States deploys from the 44 scheduled to be deployed by the end of 2017to 72 and potentially up to 100. The bill also requires the Missile Defense Agency to accelerate the completion of a third interceptor site to defend against increased North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities. Although the authors of the bill have not gone so far as calling for the use of missile defense against small-scale attacks from Russia, other proponents of missile defense have.
Not only are these ideas dangerous, but they are also unproven at best. Despite the successful test in May, it’s not clear that our missile defense system could successfully intercept a North Korean missile, much less neutralize the entire Russian arsenal. According to current and former government officials, it would likely take four or five interceptors to destroy one incoming ICBM even in the best-case scenario. Currently, Russia has more than 1,700 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. We will have 44 interceptors by the end of 2017. Simply put, our present ground-based missile defense system poses virtually no threat to Russia.
Yet, if Congress expands the system, it will increase the odds of an arms race and decrease the chances of future nuclear armsreductions. High-level Russian officials have stated on numerous occasions that they may respond to any major expansion of American ballistic missile defensecapabilitiesby building more offensive weapons. In a 2015 interview, for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty “a destabilizing factor of global significance” that “provokes an arms build-up.” After the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 2010, Russia claimed that the treaty would be “effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up in the missile defense system capabilities of the United States of America.” It is unclear whether Russia’s concerns about ground-based missile defense represent a legitimate fear or political posturing; regardless, these concerns have hindered cooperation on arms control.
Of course, North Korea has been rapidly developing the capability to strike the United States. But the truth is that our anti-missile defense system won’t be able to stop a North Korean missile attack. Should North Korea attain the ability to mass produce ICBMs, it would be easier and cheaper for Pyongyang to deploy more missiles than we have interceptors, despite our financial and military advantages.
Even if we could somehow keep up with Pyongyang, it would be a mistake. The goal of our missile defense system isn’t simply to protect against North Korea. It’s to keep Americans safer overall, and a huge increase in our missile defense capabilities will only create additional tension with Russia, which would increasingly believe that the build-up threatened its strategic stability with the U.S. Thus, if the U.S. actually builds an “effective, robust layered missile defense system,” as some in Congress hope, there is only one logical conclusion: an arms race.
Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He was involved in every major international nonproliferation and arms control negotiation in which the U.S. took part from 1970 to 1997. Bernadette Stadler is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Montgomery, Alabama—Ask a taxi to take you from the airport here to the downtown headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and your driver will start telling tales of the group’s founder, local legend Morris Dees. “He’s a hell of a man around here,” mine informs me on a Friday morning in late April. “He’s the one who got the Klan straightened out. He fought the cause.” The driver adds, as an aside, “He made plenty of money doing it.”
These are the twin legacies of Montgomery’s most famous nonprofit: Since 1971, the SPLC has fought racial discrimination in the South and established itself as the nation’s most prominent hate-group watchdog, most notably winning legal fights that put some of the last nails in the coffin of the Ku Klux Klan. It has also built itself into a civil rights behemoth with a glossy headquarters and a nine-figure endowment, inviting charges that it oversells the threats posed by Klansmen and neo-Nazis to keep donations flowing in from wealthy liberals.
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Now the election of Donald Trump has vaulted the SPLC back into the center of the national conversation, giving the group the kind of potent foil it hasn’t had since the Klan. Trump swept into the Oval Office by disparaging Mexican immigrants, fanning Islamophobia and activating a resurgent strain of racism rebranded as “alt-right.”Suddenly the SPLC, whose biggest fights seemed to be behind it, is all over the news—warning of an increase in hate crimes, publishing sleek reports about anti-Muslim extremists and taking the leaders of the alt-right to court. The group is in the process of adding 50 staffers, expanding legal services for immigrants facing deportation across the South and bringing a legal hammer down on alt-right trolls. Since the election, the SPLC says it has more than doubled its following on Twitter and jumped from 650,000 Facebook followers to more than a million.
The rise of Trump is a moment made for Dees, the SPLC’s 80-year-old founder, who is more than a little Trumpian himself. Smooth, publicity-savvy and detail-averse, Dees is a marketing genius whose greatest success may be selling his own persona as a crusader—a skill on display across the street from the SPLC’s office, where a black granite memorial to the casualties of the civil rights movement proclaims it was built by the Morris Dees Legacy Fund. Inside the memorial’s gift shop, visitors will find on the wall a framed photo of Dees staring off into the distance, looking equal parts pensive and saintly. On a shelf next to SPLC-branded water bottles and mugs, the same image of Dees reappears in another frame; it’s also printed on nearby postcards, which are available for purchase.
Touches such as these have led some journaliststo nickname Dees, with irony,“the Mother Teresa of Montgomery.”And as Dees navigates the era of Trump, there are new questions arising around a charge that has dogged the group for years: that the SPLC is overplaying its hand, becoming more of a partisan progressive hit operation than a civil rights watchdog. Critics say the group abuses its position as an arbiter of hatred by labeling legitimate players “hate groups” and “extremists” to keep the attention of its liberal donors and grind a political ax. Which means that just as the SPLC is about to embark on its biggest fight in decades, taking on rising racism and prejudice across the country, its authority to police the boundaries of American political discourse is facing its greatest challenge yet.
“I do think there is a desperate need for more objective research on hate crimes and domestic extremism—especially now,” says J.M. Berger, a researcher on extremism and a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at The Hague. But like many observers, he worries that the SPLC has gone too far in some of its hate group characterizations. “The problem partly stems from the fact that the organization wears two hats, as both an activist group and a source of information,” he says.
In October, the SPLC faced explosive blowback when it included British Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” The targeting of Nawaz—a former Islamist turned anti-extremism campaigner who is considered a human rights leader by many in the mainstream—even sparked critical coverage in the Atlantic, creating the unusual spectacle of a publication founded by abolitionists going after a group founded to fight the KKK. In December, after the SPLC urged Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer not to attend a dinner hosted by anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, Dermer used his speech at the dinner to condemn the SPLC as “defamers and blacklisters.” In February, the group again raised eyebrows by adding to its list of hate groups the hard-line Center for Immigration Studies—an anti-immigration think tank criticized for pushing bogus claims about the dangers of immigrants, but which has also been invited to testify before Congress more than 100 times.
Is tough immigration control really a form of hate, or just part of the political conversation? Does rejecting a religion make you an extremist? At a time when the line between “hate group” and mainstream politics is getting thinner and the need for productive civil discourse is growing more serious, fanning liberal fears, while a great opportunity for the SPLC, might be a problem for the nation.
You might imagine the Southern Poverty Law Center as a handful of scrappy lawyers in a dingy office suite somewhere. In fact, it boasts 250 staffers and offices in four states, and its headquarters is testament to the fact that, in America, even fighting racism can be very good business. The building—a six-story postmodern edifice that could be the outhouse for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao—is the most architecturally striking structure in downtown Montgomery. Across the street, the group has erected a black granite Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin—the architect of D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial—and a museum dedicated to the victims of hate crimes.
Dees founded the SPLC in the early 1970s with his law partner Joseph Levin and the activist Julian Bond, a future chairman of the NAACP, to see that the legal gains of the civil rights era were enforced in court. Early victories included forcing the state of Alabama to reapportion its legislature to enfranchise black voters more fairly and reversing the convictions of three young black men who had been sentenced to death for the rape of a white woman they did not commit.
A certain PR savvy was baked in from the beginning. Dees got his start in the direct-mail marketing of consumer goods, a pursuit that earned him a small fortune in the 1960s and a spot in the Direct Marketing Association’s hall of fame. When he founded the SPLC, he was also putting his marketing skills to use on behalf of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign—in exchange for McGovern’s mailing list. (The SPLC has maintained this marketing edge into the 21st century with top-notch search engine optimization: Throw terms related to the recent controversy over its anti-Muslim extremist list into Google, and the first several results reliably come from the SPLC’s own website.)
By the end of the 1970s, the organization was pioneering a novel legal strategy, suing Klan affiliates for damages for the hate crimes committed by their members, an approach that bankrupted several of them.
Since then, the SPLC has steadily expanded the scope of its activities.The group makes critically acclaimed documentaries about civil rights and other materials that have been distributed free of charge to more than 100,000 schools nationwide. It has shared information about civil rights with the FBI and Justice Department, and maintains arobust legal shop that, in addition to suing hate groups, takes on cases related to criminal justice reform, LGBT rights, immigration law, the rights of the poor and public education. Over the years, the SPLC has mounted numerous successful legal interventions against former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, the Christian fundamentalist jurist, including for instructing state judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and for erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments on state courthouse grounds—just across the street from the SPLC’s headquarters.
But today, the group is best known for its “Intelligence Project,” which has essentially cornered the market on identifying and tracking hate groups, as well as extremists and “hate incidents.” The Intelligence Project’s 15 full-time and two part-time staffers (it’s in the process of hiring five more) pump out reports that are regularly cited by just about every major mainstream media outlet, including Politico, and their researchers have become the go-to experts for quotes on those topics.
The SPLC’s hate group and extremist labels are effective. Groups slapped with them have lost funding, been targeted by activists and generally been banished from mainstream legitimacy. This makes SPLC the de facto cop in this realm of American politics, with all the friction that kind of policing engenders.
The organization has been criticized for spending more of its money on fundraising and overhead and less on litigation than comparable groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. And it has taken flak for amassing a huge endowment—more than $200 million—that is disproportionately large for its operating costs. SPLC President Richard Cohen defends the endowment as necessary to ensure the group can survive legal battles that might last for years. (As for Dees himself, he made $337,000 in 2015, according to the watchdog group Charity Navigator; Cohen made $333,000 the same year.) In 1994, the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, ran a series investigating the group’s marketing, finances and personnel practices that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. (Dees responded—according to a transcript from a 1999 Nieman Foundation discussion on journalism about nonprofits—by mobilizing prominent liberal politicians for whom he had raised money to lobby the Pulitzer Board not to award the prize to the Advertiser.)
Other critics say the SPLC picks its causes with its bottom line in mind. In the 1980s, the group’s entire legal staff quit to protest Dees’ obsession with the remnants of the KKK—which still captured the imagination of the group’s liberal donor base—at the expense of lower-profile but more relevant targets. In its marketing, the SPLC still touts seven-figure judgments it has won against Klan organizations, even though the plaintiffs have been able to recoup only a tiny fraction of that from the groups, which possessed paltry assets. It has also been criticized for marketing that exaggerates the threat posed by the moribund Klan.
The complaints have trailed the SPLC as the group has expanded beyond its crusade against racial discrimination in the South, increasingly taking up the left flank of the culture wars on issues like LGBT rights, church-state division, Islam and immigration. The new approach has prompted accusations of overreach: The SPLC has includedSenator Rand Paul and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson among theneo-Nazis and white supremacists on itsextremists lists (Paul for suggesting private businesses shouldn’t have to adhere to the Civil Rights Act and criticizing the Fair Housing Act; Carson for his views opposing same-sex marriage). The group did back down after it put Carson on the 2014 “extremist watch” list—removing his name and issuing an apology that earned a lot of coverage in the conservative media. “This week, as we’ve come under intense criticism for doing so, we’ve reviewed our profile and have concluded that it did not meet our standards,” the organization’s statement said, “so we have taken it down and apologize to Dr. Carson for having posted it.”
But the SPLC did not back down after it labeled Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council—one of the country’s largest and most established Christian conservative advocacy groups—a “hate group” for its positions on homosexuality, and even after an unhinged gay-rights supporter named Floyd Corkins subsequently shot up the FRC’s lobby in an attempt to murder its staff, in 2012. Corkins said he had read on the SPLC’s website that the FRC was an anti-gay group. The episode prompted fierce condemnation of the SPLC from social conservatives, who view FRC’s stances on homosexuality as legitimate and consistent with Christian teachings. But the FRC remains on the SPLC’s list of hate groups, along with a blurb explaining, “The FRC often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.”
William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell and critic of the SPLC, says the group has wrapped itself in the mantle of the civil rights struggle to engage in partisan political crusading. “Time and again, I see the SPLC using the reputation it gained decades ago fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents,” he says. “For groups that do not threaten violence, the use of SPLC ‘hate group’ or ‘extremist’ designations frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers,” Jacobson adds. “It taints not only the group or person, but others who associate with them.”
Ken Silverstein, a liberal journalist and another critic of the group who authored a scathing investigation of its marketing and financial practices for Harper’s in 2000,attributes the growing scope of the SPLC’s censures to a financial imperative to wade into hot-button issues that will rile donors. “The organization has always tried to find ways to milk money out of the public by finding whatever threat they can most credibly promote,” he says.
The attacks that seem to preoccupy Dees are not ethical critiques.On the concrete entrance ramp of SPLC’s headquarters, a beefy security guard with the look of a Southern sheriff stands guard, greeting you with an intimidating scowl that breaks into a smile once you confirm yourself as an expected visitor. Lest you suggest that the building’s conspicuous, round-the-clock security might be overkill, a display in the lobby featuring a melted clock and scorched legal tomes stands as a reminder of the 1983 incidentin which Klansmen entered the SPLC’s old headquarters just before dawn, doused the inside of the building in petrol and lit it ablaze.
On this Friday morning, Dees and Cohen look refreshed and relaxed in their Friday casual—Dees in an unbuttoned blue dress shirt over a coffee-stained white undershirt, a pair of glasses tucked into his breast pocket; Cohen in a faded blue collared shirt—as they await the arrival of their board for a weekend of meetings. The board last convened the day before the election, when it cemented plans for a Hillary Clinton administration: continuing to coordinate with the federal government as it did during Barack Obama’s administration. “We thought we would have allies in the Justice Department and our job would be to keep hate at bay, out of the mainstream,” Cohen says. “Now, hate is in the mainstream.”
The shock of the election did not interrupt the steady barrage the SPLC has trained on Trump. During the primaries, the group highlighted his support among white nationalists and issued a report on “The Trump Effect,” attributing to him increased racial tension in American schools. It marked the opening chapter of his administration with a report titled “100 Days in Trump’s America,” saying that his presidency had normalized hate. The group has declared that “Betsy DeVos is simply not qualified to be the next education secretary” and that the nomination for labor secretary of Andy Puzder, who ultimately withdrew, was “deeply troubling.” It has demanded, quite simply, “Stephen Bannon must go.”
For the SPLC, though, the most worrisome administration appointee has been Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department oversees federal civil rights policy. Dees and Cohen have long been familiar with Sessions, who was Alabama attorney general and a U.S. attorney here before he became a senator.Under fire for his record on civil rights during his confirmation process this year, Sessions cited a case from the early 1980s, when as a U.S. attorney he prosecuted a lynching that formed the basis for a landmark civil case the SPLC won against the Klan.
In 1991, Dees, who has the same baby-blue eyes as Sessions, published an autobiography, A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees, that was updated and reissued 12 years later as A Lawyer’s Journey. Dees says that after Sessions read the book, the politician called him to confess, “I got tears in my eyes. That book moved me. The way you lived your life moved me.” (Sarah Flores, a spokeswoman for Sessions at the Justice Department, declined to comment on the alleged crying episode.)
But the tender moment has not softened the group’s stance on the new AG, who Dees and Cohen say was far from outstanding in combating the Klan, has been an opponent of voting rights, and has come to embrace anti-Muslim extremism and racist immigration policy. “Jeff Sessions is not ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis; he’s simply mad,” Cohen says, prompting Dees to interject, “He said that. Don’t quote me on that.”
“You said he was the worst thing that ever happened to our country!” Cohen exclaims in response. Indeed, minutes earlier, Dees had said, “He is probably the worst mistake that Trump could have made for the United States of America, to make him attorney general.”
“He won’t quote me on that,” Dees says. “Don’t quote me on that. I don’t want to piss him off.”
Cohen, though, is not done trash-talking the Trump administration. In 2005, the SPLC’s civil rights documentary Mighty Times: The Children’s March, about anti-segregation youth activists in Birmingham, was nominated for an Oscar for best short-form documentary. Cohen says he met Trump, who was then reinventing himself as a reality television star, at the Vanity Fairparty after the awards ceremony, and the two chatted briefly. “He congratulated me for our work, and he said he loved our work,” Cohen recalls. “I’m not sure he knew a lot about our work.” Trump had his new wife, Melania, in tow, but Cohen says that she did not speak during the interaction.
Cohen says he was reminded of that encounter last summer, when Trump insulted the wife of Khizr Khan—the father of a slain Muslim war hero who denounced Trump at the Democratic National Convention—by suggesting that Ghazala Khan, who stood by silently during her husband’s speech, had not been permitted to speak.
“I didn’t think, ‘Maybe Melania wasn’t allowed to say anything,’ until he said that,” Cohen tells me. (White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to requests for comment.)
While it goes after the Trump administration, the SPLC is also escalating its offensive against the alt-right leaders who rode Trump’s coattails to relevance. In April, it filed suit against Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, for inciting harassment against a Jewish real estate agent named Tanya Gersh in Whitefish, Montana. The real estate agent had called for the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer, standard-bearer of the alt-right, to sell an office building she owned in the town—drawing accusations of “extortion” from Anglin, who encouraged his followers to target Gersh and her family with a “troll storm.”
Gersh says that the campaign of harassment included messages to her 12-year-old son directing him to crawl into an oven and phone calls to her in which anonymous callers fired off guns. She says she now attends trauma therapy twice a week and that her business has all but ground to a halt because of the harassment. SPLC lawyer David Dinielli says Anglin, who did not respond to requests for comment, is currently hiding out to avoid being served with the suit.
The Klan may be out of commission, but Dees says these new tactics of organized American racism are “just as bad as burning up this building. He just burned up an individual in a small town.”
Trump supporters, of course, would disagree. Trump campaigned as a rebel against political correctness, and in a sense his election was a backlash against the power amassed by liberal groups like the SPLC—a rejection of the idea that liberal activists should determine what views are considered out of bounds in American politics.
The SPLC fields tips and scours websites, message boards and news reports to compile its directory of 917 mostly ring-wing hate groups. But finding and defining hate groups is not exactly a science, leaving the process open to criticism even under the best of circumstances. Berger says that defining a hate or extremist group is notoriously problematic when using extensive, technical criteria, and that the problem becomes greater in the case of the SPLC, which reserves discretion in how and when it applies those labels. “There’s no consensus academic definition of extremism, and the SPLC’s methodology for making that call isn’t clear,” he says. “So it’s very subjective even within academia, and even more so for a motivated organization.”
The SPLC’s leaders say they are aware of the various critiques lodged against them but have no plans to change their approach. Heidi Beirich, the head of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, says the group’s criteria are clear and transparent, pointing to the definition published on its website of hate groups as ones that “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” While Beirich cites several left-wing organizations the SPLC has designated as “hate groups,” she concedes that the SPLC prioritizes the other end of the political spectrum. “We are focused, whether people like it or not, on the radical right,” she says. “We believe that it’s uniquely threatening to democracy.”
In the case of the Center for Immigration Studies, the think tank has long been considered to the right of the mainstream and has been consistently criticized for misleading methodology. The SPLC labeled it a hate group this year, saying, “The designation resulted primarily from their move to start publishing the work of discredited race scientist Jason Richwine … and their shocking circulation of an article from one of America’s most prominent white nationalist websites and another written by a fringe Holocaust-denier in their weekly newsletter.” But Mark Krikorian, president of the CIS, dismisses that reasoning as a weak pretext for a hate group designation and says he believes the label was motivated more by a desire to capitalize on political opposition to Trump than by sincere conviction.
“I think the SPLC has jumped the shark,” he says. “The idea that a think tank on K Street is comparable to some skinhead group is laughable.”
Krikorian contends that it’s not just conservatives like him but that even liberals are now professing to him a growing skepticism of the SPLC’s labels. “If our being designated a hate group is a step along the way to their delegitimization,” he says, “then maybe it’s worth it.”
While Krikorian dreams of his downfall, Dees is still rearing for a fight. As he steps back into the ring, his critics may have their points, but the SPLC has something more potent: a bulging war chest, one replenished, most recently, with $3.2 million hauled in from a May charity auction of the late Jerry Garcia’s guitar.
A string of decidedly conservative rulings from new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch has Democratic senators grumbling: We told you so.
During his less than three months he has occupied late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the high court, Gorsuch is sending signals that he could be one of its most conservative jurists. He has often aligned himself with the judicial stalwarts of the right, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
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Gorsuch publicly disagreed with his colleagues’ decision to pass up a challenge to the McCain-Feingold law’s ban on so-called soft money. He dissented from a ruling enforcing same-sex couple’s rights to have their names on their children’s birth certificates. He lamented the court’s refusal to hear a case about the right to carry a weapon in public. He took a strong stand in favor of churches’ right to public subsidies. And he signed an opinion saying he would have allowed President Donald Trump’s travel ban to go into effect now, in full.
“We’ve got another Scalia,” declared Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Feinstein told POLITICO she’d looked at Gorsuch’s early rulings and saw no sign of moderation from conservative orthodoxy. “Right down the line. Everything — everything,” she said. “I’m surprised that it’s so comprehensive.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — a former Supreme Court clerk — said Gorsuch’s early record on the court is in tension with the humble and evenhanded approach he touted during his confirmation hearings in March.
“In a way, I’m surprised that he hasn’t demonstrated more independence. I am surprised because in his demeanor and his tone he really made a huge effort to show his openness — which some of us thought might be more an act than it was a real persona,” Blumenthal said, before adding: “So far, I have to say I’m disappointed.”
While some thought Gorsuch’s history of concern for religious freedom might give him pause about Trump’s travel ban executive order seen by critics as part of a ban on Muslims, the new justice joined Thomas and Alito in an opinion issued Monday saying Trump had a strong chance of prevailing in the litigation and should be able to move ahead with his plan.
“On the travel ban, I think he’s fulfilling the worst expectations so far of his opponents and probably the best hopes of his supporters,” Blumenthal said. The conservative faction “gave every indication they were ready willing and able to uphold the travel ban in its entirety. So as for any objection he has, he seems to be firmly in the administration’s corner.”
At Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, some Democrats like Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said the enthusiastic support the 10th Circuit judge was getting from groups like the Federalist Society, the National Rifle Association and others showed that they had very solid indications that he would back their views on issues like campaign finance or gun rights, even though his record of writings and rulings on those topics was slim.
“It sure looks like I was right,” Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Tuesday. “It’s too early to draw any final conclusions but the early signals are ominous about him being the tool of the creepy billionaire coalition.”
Whitehouse said Gorsuch’s indication last month that he wanted to consider overturning the ban on soft money was the “most alarming” of his actions thus far.
“When you look at what the Supreme Court has done to enable the dark money deluge that the Republicans’ backers profit so much from, he sent a pretty strong signal that he’s all for unlimited money, dark money and the rest of the pestilence that Citizens United unleashed,” the Rhode Island Democrat said, referring to the high court’s 2009 ruling that set in motion the rise of Superpacs and a flood of undisclosed political donations.
Like some Democratic nominees before him, Gorsuch was cagey about many of his views during his hearings. But Whitehouse said there’s a complex method of signaling, second-hand reports and vouching that informs key leaders on where a nominee stands.
“When the power brokers see enough semaphore, they can draw the logical conclusion that this is going to be our guy,” Whitehouse said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans had a sharply different assessment of Gorsuch’s early tenure.
“He’s fantastic. He’s awesome. I’m a huge fan,” gushed Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a former Supreme Court clerk and the only lawmaker on Trump’s list of potential justices. “It’s going as I expected and my expectations were high and I’ve not been disappointed in the least.”
“I think he is performing as a principled constitutionalist, which is exactly what we hoped for and expected,” added Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another former clerk.
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Gorsuch’s early moves were “stretching the thinking of the justices.”
“He’s going to go down in history as one of the great ones,” Tillis said confidently.
Tillis also said he’s sure Gorsuch will demonstrate independence from the Trump administration. “I have no doubt in my mind. ,” the North Carolina Republican said. “Justice Gorsuch has a lifetime appointment. The beauty of it is: nobody can fire him. I think he’s been independent and is going to continue to be independent.”
Some Democrats did say they are still holding out hope on that front, to some degree or another.
“There may be some issues I think where you see the loyalties of the Republican appointees tend to be more toward the right-wing billionaire coalition than to a particular president, so if Trump does something dumb or flagrantly unconstitutional, I don’t see him getting a big pass on that,” Whitehouse said.
Blumenthal noted that the justice he clerked for, Harry Blackmun, started out conservative and grew more centrist or even liberal over the years.
“The jury is still out. He has yet to finish a full term. We’ll see what his profile is on a lot of cases,” Blumenthal said. “The big question will be whether he veers away from the ideological lane where he started and grows in the job.”