POLITICO Playbook: A way for Pelosi to win

NEW … ONE WAY FOR NANCY PELOSI TO WIN… There are 48 DAYS until Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to face a floor vote for the speakership, and she is facing resistance like never before. If you talk to Pelosi and her staff, she’ll be the speaker. If you talk to the rebels — the 20 or so Democrats who want her out — they say they will take their opposition to the floor and block her from returning to the speakership.

— BUT HERE IS HOW PELOSI COULD HANG ON: Most everyone says she would win handily if she just simply says when she’d leave. Pelosi has said she wants a “transitional” speakership, but if she gave a date certain — “I intend to serve until ____” — she’d win without much hassle, according to supporters and opponents. Of course, that would be close to a last resort. And there certainly are other ways she could win. But several “NeverPelosi’ers” say it would be hard to oppose her if she says she’d leave at a date certain in the next two years.

MEANWHILE … PELOSI ALLIES say she has always seen her leadership role as one term at a time. Further, they say what’s most important is the California Democrat has publicly made clear she’s preparing for generational change and is making explicit commitments to lawmakers about that.

BY THE WAY … When do we think BARACK OBAMA will start calling Democrats asking them to support Pelosi?

— MOVEON.ORG tweeted its support of Pelosi at 5:21 p.m.: “We strongly support and call on all members of the Democratic caucus to support @NancyPelosi for Speaker. Were it not for her skilled and effective leadership, the ACA would not be law today. Dems must reject attempts to defeat her and move caucus to the right.”

“COMPETENT FEMALES” … DREW HAMMILL, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff (@Drew_Hammill): “.@RepTimRyan on Nancy Pelosi: ‘There’s plenty of really competent females that we can replace her with.’ #CompetentFemales” Linking to this NYT story

FUDGE STRUGGLES TO FIND A CONSTITUENCY … “Black caucus members back Pelosi for speaker over their former chair,” by Rachael Bade, John Bresnahan and Nolan McCaskill: “‘She knows that, she knows that, she knows I’m for Pelosi,’ Clyburn said of Fudge in a brief interview in the Capitol. ‘She’s a great leader, and I support her more than 100 percent,’ said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, of Pelosi.” POLITICO

Good Friday morning. SPOTTED AT BLT PRIME at the Trump Hotel: Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and at a separate table Freedom Caucus members Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho). In the lobby: Trump 2016 campaign team Rick Dearborn, Scott Mason and Rob Wasinger.

21 DAYS UNTIL A SHUTDOWN … WAPO’S ERICA WERNER and DAMIAN PALETTA: “GOP leaders aim to avert shutdown over wall funding, but Trump makes no promises”: “President Trump did not commit Thursday to avoiding a partial government shutdown next month if lawmakers don’t give him money to build a border wall, a top Republican senator said, raising the potential for a high-stakes budget battle as the GOP prepares to lose its grip on Congress.

“Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) and other GOP leaders met with Trump on Thursday about ways to fund the government. Shelby said Trump did not commit to signing a bill that does not give him all the money he wants to fund construction of a wall along the Mexico border.

“Shelby said Trump was noncommittal about how he planned to proceed. ‘He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to keep the government open.’ We didn’t ask him that question,’ Shelby told reporters after returning from the White House. ‘We talked about avoiding a shutdown. … He seemed to agree with that.’” WaPo

BURGESS EVERETT and ELIANA JOHNSON: “GOP pushes Trump for new attorney general amid Mueller uproar”: “Senate Republicans are urging President Donald Trump to quickly nominate a permanent attorney general, hoping a new top law enforcement officer will blunt bipartisan concern over the future of special counsel Robert Mueller and boost the GOP ahead of tough government funding talks.

“Even after Trump’s latest attack on Mueller in a flurry of tweets Thursday, most Republicans argue the president will not fire Mueller or derail his investigation because the political consequences would be too great.

“But they said that naming an attorney general nominee as soon as possible — specifically one who would vow to preserve the Russia probe — would go a long way in halting legislative momentum to protect Mueller and Democratic messaging that acting attorney general Matt Whitaker will undermine the investigation.” POLITICO

THE THING THAT SEEMS UNLIKELY TO HAPPEN: CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM … EX: 1 … ELANA SCHOR, BURGESS EVERETT and ELIANA JOHNSON: “Cotton, Trump at odds on criminal justice overhaul”: “A bipartisan criminal justice overhaul backed by President Donald Trump ran into a formidable political obstacle in the Senate on Thursday: Tom Cotton, normally one of the president’s closest allies.

“The Arkansas Republican is a longtime critic of the sentencing reform provisions that negotiators added to a less divisive prisons bill, forming the compromise that Trump endorsed this week. But Cotton on Thursday stepped up his public potshots at what he’s called a ‘jailbreak’ proposal — a counter-campaign that one fellow senator believes came at the request of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. ‘We’ve had productive conversations all year long. If in the end we have a principled disagreement on it, then that’s where we’ll end up,’ Cotton said of his talks with the president and his allies.” POLITICO

“Booker throws his weight behind Trump-backed criminal justice deal,” by Elana Schor


— “AP source: Whitaker told Graham that Mueller probe to go on,” by AP’s Mary Clare Jalonick and Mike Balsamo: “Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker told Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in a meeting on Thursday that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will proceed, according to a person familiar with the meeting.

“The meeting with Graham and Whitaker comes as a bipartisan group of senators is pushing legislation to protect Mueller’s job. The senators are concerned about Whitaker’s past criticism of the Mueller probe, which is looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election and ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign.” AP

— DARREN SAMUELSOHN: “‘Preparing for the worst’: Mueller anxiety pervades Trump world”: “Lawyers for President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. insist they aren’t worried about special counsel Robert Mueller. But half a dozen people in contact with the White House and other Trump officials say a deep anxiety has started to set in that Mueller is about to pounce after his self-imposed quiet period, and that any number of Trump’s allies and family members may soon be staring down the barrel of an indictment. … Adding to the unease is a spate of anonymously sourced media reports suggesting Mueller’s self-imposed quiet period that started about two months before 2018 Election Day is about to transition into a Category 5 hurricane.” POLITICO

ABOUT LAST NIGHT — The Federalist Society hosted its annual dinner gala at Union Station where Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former White House counsel Don McGahn were honored.

SPOTTED: Justice Brett and Ashley Kavanaugh, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Sam Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, Jeff Sessions, Michael Mukasey, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), D.C. Court of Appeals nominee Neomi Rao, Leonard Leo, Ken Cribb, Dean Reuter, Suhail Khan, John Malcolm, David McIntosh, Gene Meyer, Boyden Gray, Steven Calabresi and Bader Lawson.


— SENATE LEADERSHIP FUND is spending $1 million on a TV and radio ad ahead of the Mississippi Senate runoff hitting Mike Espy as a “shady Clinton crony” and of being funded by out of state liberals. The group is also spending $130,000 on digital on the effort. The ad

— ANNIE LINSKEY is going to the Washington Post, where she will be a national political reporter as they expand their 2020 election coverage. She most recently has served as deputy bureau chief of the Boston Globe’s Washington bureau.

— FROM GABBY ORR: “Former White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn is joining the Heritage Foundation as a distinguished visiting fellow focused on federalism and the 10th Amendment. He will also advise Heritage on matters related to the Trump administration, serving as a liaison of sorts between the Executive Branch and the conservative think tank. Rick was instrumental in ensuring personnel recommendations were received by the appropriate teams during the presidential transition and filling dozens of vacancies with Heritage employees.”

TRUMP’S FRIDAY — The president is participating in a signing ceremony for the “Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act” at 11:30 a.m. in the Oval Office. He is presenting the Medal of Freedom at 1 p.m. in the East Room. And, he is meeting with SBA Administrator Linda McMahon at 3:15 p.m.


  • CNN

    “State of the Union”: Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), Rep.-elect Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Rep.-elect Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.). Panel: Amanda Carpenter, Karine Jean Pierre, Michael Caputo and Richard Ojeda.

  • FOX

    “Fox News Sunday”: President Donald Trump. Panel: Jason Chaffetz, Donna Edwards, Jerry Seib and Jonathan Swan.

  • CBS

    “Face the Nation”: New members-elect panel: Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.). Political panel: David Nakamura, Seung Min Kim and Paula Reid.

  • NBC

    “Meet the Press”: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) … Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) … Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Panel: Yamiche Alcindor, John Harwood, Hallie Jackson and Rich Lowry.

  • ABC

    “This Week”: Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Panel: Stephanie Cutter, Reihan Salam, Mary Jordan and Chris Christie.

  • CNN

    “Inside Politics”: Michael Shear, Julie Davis, Kaitlan Collins and Sahil Kapur.

TEXAS REP. BETO O’ROURKE pens a Medium journal entry on running on the National Mall. The article

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION MUSICAL CHAIRS — “Wilbur Ross leaving? Mulvaney is waiting, by Nancy Cook and Andrew Restuccia: “To hear Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his allies tell it, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

“Administration officials and close White House advisers say the 80-year-old Ross could be out of a job in a broader Cabinet shakeup as soon as January or as late as mid-2019. Ross, long said to be on thin ice with President Donald Trump, denies either scenario. ‘I’ll serve as long as the president wants and I have no indication to the contrary,’ he told an audience at a Yahoo! Finance event on Nov. 13.

“But in a sign of Ross’s perceived weakness, at least one influential Trump ally has begun speaking openly about his desire for the Commerce job if and when it becomes vacant: Office of Management and Budget chief Mick Mulvaney.

“Over the summer, Trump considered a willing Mulvaney as a potential replacement for his chief of staff, John Kelly. However, in recent days, Mulvaney has abandoned that ambition and told allies and other officials that he is now interested in succeeding Ross, according to several people familiar with the conversations. Trump and Mulvaney have not spoken specifically about the Commerce slot, a Mulvaney ally said.” POLITICO

HMM … NBC NEWS’ HEIDI PRZYBYLA: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began receiving around-the-clock security from the U.S. Marshals Service days after being confirmed, an armed detail provided to no other Cabinet member that will cost U.S. taxpayers $19.8 million through September of 2019, according to new figures provided by the Marshals Service to NBC News.” NBC News

2018 WATCH — DEMS GET NO. 5 IN CALIFORNIA — “Porter ousts Walters in southern California as Dems flip another seat,” by Brent D. Griffiths: “Southern California Rep. Mimi Walters was ousted Thursday night, the latest House Republican to lose their seat in the formerly deep-red Orange County.

“The Associated Press called the 45th congressional district race with Democrat Katie Porter leading Walters, a two-term incumbent who previously served in the California senate, by just over 6,000 votes as ballots continue to be counted.” POLITICO

OOPS — “Julian Assange has been charged, prosecutors reveal inadvertently in court filing,” by WaPo’s Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett: “WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been charged under seal, prosecutors inadvertently revealed in a recently unsealed court filing — a development that could significantly advance the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and have major implications for those who publish government secrets.

“The disclosure came in a filing in a case unrelated to Assange. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer, urging a judge to keep the matter sealed, wrote that ‘due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.’

“Later, Dwyer wrote the charges would ‘need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested.’ Dwyer is also assigned to the WikiLeaks case. People familiar with the matter said what Dwyer was disclosing was true, but unintentional. Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, said, ‘The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing.’” WaPo

OUT AND ABOUT — Friends and colleagues feted outgoing RIAA CEO Cary Sherman at District Winery last night to celebrate his 40-year career. SPOTTED: Mitch Bainwol, Michele Ballantyne, Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Chris Dodd, Cara Duckworth, Jason Everett, Dean Garfield, Mitch Glazier, Todd Flournoy, Shelley Husband, Amy Isbell, David Israelite …

… Joel Johnson, Charlie Rivkin, Ted Kalo, Jonathan Lamy, Lisette Morton, Stan Pierre-Louis, Chris Ortman, Daryl Friedman, Tyler Grimm, Mike Huppe, Michael Petricone, Sam Sokol, Hilary Rosen, Emery Simon and Morna Willens.

SPOTTED at Steve Scalise’s new member party at the Library of Congress last night: Newly elected Republicans Ben Cline (Va.), Lance Gooden (Texas), Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), Dan Crenshaw (Texas), Carol Miller (W.Va.), William Timmons (S.C.), John Joyce (Pa.), Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.), Greg Pence (Ind.), Jim Hagedorn (Minn.), Denver Riggleman (Va.), John Rose (Tenn.) and Tim Burchett (Tenn.). Elected members of Congress there included: House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, Reps. Patrick McHenry and Mark Walker of North Carolina, Anne Wagner (R-Mo.), Drew Ferguson (Ga.), Susan Brooks (Ind.) and Jason Smith (Mo.).

ENGAGED … Steven Gilleland, chief of staff for Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), proposed to Kara Hauk, who recently left House Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office to be a VP at Qorvis. Pool report: “Steven popped the question on Rehoboth Beach during a weekend away in Delaware that he planned. Steven hired a photographer who Kara thought was simply there to take her own photos of the beautiful sunset. Little did Kara know, the photographer was there to capture the moment she said, ‘Yes!’” PicAnother pic

BIRTHDAY OF THE DAY: journalist Elizabeth Drew. How she got her start in journalism: “I fell into journalism sideways by taking a ‘temporary,’ six-month job at CQ. I stayed five years and started writing for magazines then. Explored newspaper/newsmagazine jobs but was told ‘We don’t hire women.’ Honest.” Playbook Plus Q&A

BIRTHDAYS: Jay Newton-Small, founder of MemoryWell and author of “Broad Influence” (hat tip: Ben Chang) … Hannah Hankins, VP of Civic Advisors … Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks … Meg Campbell … Lisa Camooso Miller, partner at Reset Public Affairs … CNN’s Fredreka Schouten … Jillian Rogers of DOL … Michael Levi … Carly Coakley of Blue Engine Message & Media (h/t Erik Smith) … Jim Boyle, partner at Boyle Public Affairs … Kevin Herzik … Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA (h/ts Jon Haber and Beth Solomon) … Adrienne Schweer … American Express’ Caroline Emch … Timothy Lowery … Samir Paul … Ashley Dejean of Mother Jones … Heritage’s Ken McIntyre … Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) is 38 …

… Melissa Winter, who is celebrating on the road while traveling for Michelle Obama’s book tour (h/t Katie Levyleld) … Michael Smith, executive director at My Brother’s Keeper Alliance … DiAnne Graham … James Joyner … Ron Blackwell … Patrick Ryan … Dale Pfeifer … Griffith Waller … Shanti Shoji … Jennifer Eileen Giglio … Raul Damas, partner at Brunswick Group (h/t George Little) … Christopher Kilian Peace is 42 … Paul Rodriguez … Seth Obed … Mike Reuscher … Rachel Cothran … Melody Johnson … Robbi Dickens … Mike Reynard … Marty Ryan … Paul C. Barton … David Pepper … Zerlina Maxwell … Libby Gerds … Jason Perkey (h/ts Teresa Vilmain)


McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill On The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board Senior GOP senator warns Trump against partial shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcCain would have said ‘enough’ to acrimony in midterms, says Cindy McCain Senate GOP discussing Mueller vote Trump rightly fears the Fed will smother the economy MORE (R-Ariz.) clashed during a closed-door lunch meeting Thursday, with McConnell challenging Flake’s effort to force a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.  

McConnell pressured Flake to back off his strategy of blocking judicial nominees in the Judiciary Committee in an effort to force a vote on his bill that would protect the special counsel from being fired without good cause. 

Flake, however, dug in his heels and made clear that he’s not going to budge. 


McConnell was equally implacable, according to senators who witnessed the argument. 

“It’s a standoff,” said a Republican senator who attended the lunch. 

Their fight reflects a larger divide win the GOP conference. 

Some GOP senators argue the chamber should pass legislation to protect Mueller. 

Flake and Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham: Trump’s new AG has ‘concerns’ about criminal justice bill Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Border deployment ‘peaked’ at 5,800 troops | Trump sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | Senators offer bill to press Trump on Saudis | Paul effort to block Bahrain arms sale fails Senators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill MORE (R-S.C.) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDem Senator: McConnell is running interference for Trump by blocking Mueller bill Bill to protect Mueller blocked in Senate McConnell: Mueller probe should be allowed to finish MORE (R-N.C.) have co-sponsored legislation that would codify Department of Justice rules requiring that a special counsel only be fired for good cause.

Critics, however, contend that there’s no danger of Trump firing Mueller and predict the bill would die in the GOP-controlled House. 

The fate of the Mueller investigation became a more pressing concern to some Republican senators after Trump forced Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Graham: Trump’s new AG has ‘concerns’ about criminal justice bill Kentucky shooting suspect charged with federal hate crimes MORE to resign immediately after the election. 

He then named Mathew Whitaker, a critic of the probe, to serve as acting attorney general. 

McConnell argued at the lunch meeting that the legislation would chew up precious floor time during the lame-duck session and leave less time for must-pass bills such as the unfinished spending bills and the farm bill, according to sources familiar with the conversation.

Flake, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, didn’t buy that argument. 

He replied that Democrats wouldn’t object to speedy consideration of the special counsel protection bill because their entire caucus supports it, sources said. 

Flake argued that the bill could be dealt with in a day as long as other members of the GOP conference didn’t object to it and force McConnell to waste time getting through a filibuster.

Some Republican senators floated the compromise of crafting some kind of non-binding resolution that would express support for protecting Mueller and future special counsels from unjustified dismissal. 


But Flake rejected that option, too. He argued that the Judiciary Committee passed the Special Counsel Independence and Integrity Act in April by a 14-7 vote and the Senate should act on it, instead of some non-binding measure that hasn’t yet received committee review. 

Flake, a member of the Judiciary Committee, tried to force McConnell’s hand Thursday by saying he would continue to object to moving Trump’s judicial nominees to the floor unless the special counsel protection bill gets a vote. 

McConnell is telling colleagues he’s standing firm. 

Asked if there’s any chance that McConnell will let Flake have a vote, Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOn The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board Senior GOP senator warns Trump against partial shutdown The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — House, Senate leaders named as Pelosi lobbies for support to be Speaker MORE (N.D.), who was elected Wednesday as the next Senate Republican Whip, said “I don’t think he has any intention at this point of going down that path.”

McConnell has stated repeatedly that there is no danger of Trump firing Mueller and says he supports the special counsel completing his investigation. 

Flake said after the lunch that while some colleagues have tried to pressure him, others have voiced support.

Asked Thursday if fellow GOP senators are unhappy with his hardball approach to getting a vote, Flake said, “that’s a safe assumption.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenators introduce Trump-backed criminal justice bill Congress should ban life without parole sentences for children  Grassley: McConnell owes me for judicial nominations MORE (R-Iowa) held over 15 judicial nominees at a committee business meeting Thursday after Flake declared he would block them. 

Speaking to reporters afterward, Grassley said he didn’t think he could move any more nominees without Flake’s support unless he can convince Democrats on the panel to vote with him. 

Republicans control 11 seats on the committee while the Democrats have 10. That means if Flake votes no and Democrats stay unified, Republicans can’t report nominees with favorable nominations.

McConnell could try to bring those nominees to the floor without committee approval but it would break precedent and undermine the panel’s role. 

“That’s never been done as far as I know,” Grassley told reporters Thursday morning. “I don’t think that would be done.”

McConnell has made confirming Trump’s judicial nominees his top priority in 2018 and regularly touts how many judges the Senate has confirmed to federal appellate and district courts. 

Grassley suggested on Thursday that the many of the nominees pending in committee might have to wait until next year and that the Senate should focus on the 35 nominees already passed out of committee. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerElection Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend – the ‘friend-raiser’ | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Trump, California battle over climate and cause of fires The Hill’s Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — Dems prepare to aggressively wield new oversight powers MORE (R-Colo.) predicted that McConnell would find some way through the impasse because he places so much importance on nominees. 

“Mitch McConnell is a judicial nominations machine … so anything that’s going to slow that down he’s obviously going to [fix],” he said. 

Flake says there is growing support within his conference for passing a bill to protect Mueller. 

“Ultimately the pressure will build for us to bring this bill to the floor or to put it as part of the spending bill so it’s part of must-pass legislation,” he said.

Grassley, who voted for the special counsel protection bill on the committee level, said Thursday that it deserves a vote. 

“It’s legitimate that the bill be brought up,” he said. “It would satisfy me if it became law because I voted for it.”

“There are some who are not on the committee who will vote for this,” he said of Senate GOP colleagues. “It will pass on the floor.”

The legislation would codify existing Department of Justice regulations requiring that the special counsel can only be fired for good cause by a Senate-confirmed Justice Department official.

It would also create a 10-day window for a judge to decide whether any termination of a special counsel is for good cause and stop the firing if it fails to meet the cause requirement.

It passed out of the Judiciary Committee in April by a 14-7 vote. 


Julian Assange could see charges, U.S. court filing suggests

Julian Assange

Julian Assange 47, has resided in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for more than six years in a bid to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was wanted to sex crimes, or to the United States, whose government he has repeatedly humbled with mass disclosures of classified information. | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department inadvertently named Julian Assange in a court filing in an unrelated case, suggesting prosecutors have prepared charges against the WikiLeaks founder under seal.

Assange’s name appears twice in an August court filing from a federal prosecutor in Virginia, who was attempting to keep sealed a separate case involving a man accused of coercing a minor for sex.

Story Continued Below

In one sentence, the prosecutor wrote that the charges and arrest warrant “would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter.” In another sentence, the prosecutor said that “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.”

Any charges against Assange could help illuminate the question of whether Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election. It would also suggest that, after years of internal wrangling within the Justice Department, prosecutors have decided to take a more aggressive tact against the secret-sharing website.

It was not immediately clear why Assange’s name was included in the document, though Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Eastern District of Virginia — which had been investigating Assange — said, “The court filing was made in error. That was not the intended name for this filing.”

The Washington Post reported late Thursday, citing people familiar with the matter, that Assange had indeed been charged. The Associated Press could not immediately confirm that.

It was not immediately clear what charges Assange, who has been holed up for years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, might face.

But recently-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year declared the arrest of Assange a priority. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating whether Trump campaign associates had advance knowledge of Democratic emails that were published by WikiLeaks in the weeks before the 2016 election and that U.S. authorities have said were hacked by Russia. Any arrest could represent a significant development for Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the election.

Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, told the AP earlier this week that he had no information about possible charges against Assange.

The filing was discovered by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who posted it on Twitter hours after The Wall Street Journal reported that the Justice Department was preparing to prosecute Assange and said, “To be clear, seems Freudian, it’s for a different completely unrelated case, every other page is not related to him, EDVA just appears to have assange on the mind when filing motions to seal and used his name.”

Assange, 47, has resided in the Ecuadorian Embassy for more than six years in a bid to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he was wanted to sex crimes, or to the United States, whose government he has repeatedly humbled with mass disclosures of classified information.

The Australian ex-hacker was once a welcome guest at the Embassy, which takes up part of the ground floor of a stucco-fronted apartment in London’s posh Knightsbridge neighborhood. But his relationship with his hosts has soured over the years amid reports of espionage, erratic behavior and diplomatic unease.

Any criminal charge is sure to further complicate the already tense relationship.

Ecuadorian officials say they have already cut off the WikiLeaks founder’s internet, saying it will be restored only if he agrees to stop interfering in the affairs of Ecuador’s partners – notably the United States and Spain. Officials have also imposed a series of other restrictions on Assange’s activities and visitors and – notably – ordered him to clean after his cat.

With shrinking options — an Ecuadorian lawsuit seeking to reverse the restrictions was recently turned down — WikiLeaks announced in September that former spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic journalist who has long served as one of Assange’s lieutenants, would take over as editor-in-chief.

WikiLeaks has attracted U.S. attention since 2010, when it published thousands of military and State Department documents from Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning. In a Twitter post early Friday, WikiLeaks said the “US case against WikiLeaks started in 2010” and expanded to include other disclosures, including by contractor Edward Snowden.

“The prosecutor on the order is not from Mr. Mueller’s team and WikiLeaks has never been contacted by anyone from his office,” WikiLeaks said.


Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

In the sweaty, waning days of August, I went to a Cheesecake Factory in the Virginia suburbs to learn about a conspiracy that would rock the FBI, if true. The two men who met me for lunch, a retired CIA agent and a former National Security Council official in the Trump administration, were wearing shorts and flip-flops. Otherwise, they were all business, and utterly serious. “There’s substantial evidence that ISIS was involved in this,” the former NSC staffer told me, a few minutes after we had settled into our booth at the back of the restaurant.

He was referring to the worst mass shooting in American history, which happened last year in Las Vegas when Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded more than 800 others at an outdoor concert. According to a final report issued by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on August 3, Paddock’s motive was unclear, but he “acted alone” and had no links to “any hate group or any domestic or foreign terrorist organization.”

Story Continued Below

My two lunch companions believe otherwise. They belong to a small group of about a dozen members from the intelligence and special operations community pushing the theory that Paddock’s rampage was part of a coordinated anti-Trump plot involving the Islamic State and Antifa, or left-wing “anti-fascist” activists.

I know, it sounds nuts.

The idea sprang from the twisted, feverish mind of Infowars’ Alex Jones days after the Vegas attack. “They found Antifa information in the room,” Jones claimed in one telecast. “The whole thing has the hallmarks of being scripted by deep-state Democrats and their Islamic allies using mental-patient cutouts,” he said. Others of his ilk then amplified the unsubstantiated Antifa-ISIS allegations on social media in what became a frothy concoction of phony tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos.

But weeks later, the theory took on a life of its own in an ad hoc “alternative” investigation spearheaded by my two lunch companions—Brad Johnson, a retired CIA officer, and Rich Higgins, a former Pentagon official who last year served for a few months in the White House as director of strategic planning for the National Security Council. (Yes, the same Rich Higgins who infamously got tossed off the NSC for writing a controversial memo warning that “Islamists,” “globalists” and the “deep state” together were trying to subvert Donald Trump’s presidency.) A month after the October shooting in Vegas, Johnson, Higgins and a handful of associates collaborated on a 51-page PowerPoint document based, according to its executive summary, on “open source information with tactical counter terrorism analysis, cyber intelligence, and digital data mining capabilities.” Higgins and Johnson told me they sent the document to contacts in the CIA and FBI, as well as to conservatives in Congress and the media. Higgins claims a current FBI agent in his and Johnson’s circle—who he says had input on the document—“filed it as a formal report with the bureau.”

So far, however, nobody with any real standing has taken the document seriously, much less acknowledged having received it. The findings of the Las Vegas police investigation—in which the FBI was of assistance—directly contradict Higgins and Johnson’s theory. In response to questions about the theory, Sandra Breault, an FBI spokesperson, said only: “The FBI Las Vegas office has the utmost confidence in our agents and analysts’ investigative techniques.” The CIA declined to comment.

Even as there appears to be no evidence supporting Higgins and Johnson’s theory, it is having alarming, real-world effects. At least one member of Congress whom Higgins says he briefed about the theory appears to have parroted its contents on television.

I learned about Johnson’s and Higgins’ effort months ago, while interviewing Higgins for a previous article. I said I would look into the story only if he and his co-authors put their names and faces to the document, which they had not yet done. And so, on a broiling late summer day, I met him and Johnson at the Cheesecake Factory in the Fair Oaks Mall in Northern Virginia. I made it clear at the outset that I was skeptical. Higgins sat stone-faced beside me in the booth, as Johnson explained why I should read between the lines of the final law enforcement report that found “no evidence” linking Paddock to any terrorists. “When they say there is no evidence of terrorist involvement, what they are saying is, at the level of proof, they have found no evidence,” Johnson asserted. He paused for an instant, keeping his eyes tightly locked on me. “Now, at the level of intelligence, it is frickin’ chin deep in it.”

Even as there appears to be no hard evidence supporting Higgins’ and Johnson’s theory, and very little support for it outside the authors of the document, it is having alarming, real-world effects. At least one member of Congress whom Higgins says he briefed about the theory appears to have parroted its contents on television. And, as with conspiracy theories that have arisen in other national tragedies, from 9/11 to Sandy Hook, the Vegas theory has caused measurable damage: the Higgins and Johnson report, which was posted online anonymously earlier this year, goes so far as to name an individual they allege was Paddock’s accomplice and had “possible ties to Islamic organizations and possible Islamic State linkage.” That man, Brian Hodge, an Australian native based in Los Angeles who was at the Mandalay Bay on the night of the shooting, spoke with me—and vehemently denies any involvement. He also told me the attention he has gotten from Higgins’ and Johnson’s claim—their report contains detailed personal information about him—has led to death threats and strangers showing up at his home. “It’s been a living nightmare,” Hodge told me by phone.

What’s also alarming about this particular conspiracy is that it’s being driven by people who not long ago held senior positions in the intelligence community and who still have access to members of the government. One day in late September, Higgins texted me via Signal: “I was told by a fairly senior former official that the Bureau has placed everyone knowledgeable on Vegas under a gag order with threats of polygraphs. Even formers have been told, ‘Shut the fuck up’.” In other words, the government, Higgins claimed, wasn’t allowing officials to follow up on his and Johnson’s supposed leads. I don’t know if this is true. What’s clear is that Higgins’ very ties to a network of intelligence officers, analysts, agents and contractors have fed into his conspiracy theories—and reinforced his and Johnson’s determination to stay on the case, with little regard for the consequences.


At a news conference on October 5, 2017, Las Vegas Sheriff Joseph Lombardo was still reeling from the heinous magnitude of the carnage. Days earlier, Paddock had fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition into a crowd of 22,000 country music fans gathered on the Las Vegas strip. It was a chillingly premeditated act: Paddock had stockpiled an arsenal of weaponry in his suite on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, which overlooked the concert venue. In addition to the 24 high-powered rifles in his hotel room, police found explosives in his car parked in the hotel’s garage. (Paddock shot himself dead before police got to him.)

“Do you think this was all accomplished on his own?” an anguished Lombardo asked at the news conference. “You’ve got to make the assumption he had to have some help at some point.” Such speculation ran wild in the days and weeks after the shooting. Part of this stemmed from the Islamic State’s “news” agency having declared a role in the attack; as some experts observed at the time, the propaganda arm of the Islamic State tends not to make false claims about such events. But no evidence was ever offered by the jihadis, and the FBI ruled out the possibility. Lombardo also moved away from the possibility that Paddock had help.

Still, it was hard for some observers to accept that Paddock had acted alone. Within weeks of the massacre, Higgins and Johnson’s small hive of like minds in the intelligence and special ops community—among them a retired Delta Force troop commander and a former member of Seal Team 6, according to Higgins—informally teamed up to examine data they thought investigators were ignoring. The work was done mostly in conference calls and via email, Higgins told me. It included an analysis of acoustic signatures from cellphone videos recorded during the shooting and posted on YouTube, which led them to believe a second gunman was likely involved. This conspiracy theory had spread on the internet days after the Vegas tragedy, and was firmly rebuffed by law enforcement and independent fact-checkers.

No matter. The document authored by Higgins and Johnson argues that Paddock was likely killed by another collaborator in the room with him in “an op gone bad.” No evidence from the hotel room supports this theory; Paddock’s death was ruled a suicide. Nonetheless, the supposed collaborator is identified in the PowerPoint document: Brian Hodge.

Hodge, who moved to the United States from Australia in 2013, was in Las Vegas for business the night of the massacre and was staying in the same hotel as Paddock, in a room on the same floor. According to Hodge, he was returning to his room as the shooting unfolded, so he fled downstairs and hid in some bushes outside the hotel, posting on social media in real-time about what he thought was happening. Although he was not an actual witness to anything, he talked about being onsite and disseminated faulty information he pulled off the internet. At one point, he posted, “There are multiple shooters with automatic weapons.” All this caught the attention of Australian media, who knew of Hodge because of his career in the entertainment industry, and Hodge gave a series of interviews in the hours after the shooting in which he talked about hiding in those bushes for hours, until a Las Vegas SWAT team led him to safety. Unfortunately, Hodge also made misstatements—for instance, mistakenly saying his hotel room was next door to the shooter’s, rather than just on the same floor.

Hodge says an FBI agent from the Las Vegas field office called him the day after the shooting to ask him about the media statements he had made. (An FBI spokesperson says the Bureau does not confirm, much less discuss, interviews with any of the witnesses in the investigation.) While nothing appeared to come from the interview, Hodge found himself the subject of wild speculation on the internet in the days after the shooting. YouTubers and bloggers dissected his media appearances, raising questions about his various misstatements and assertions.

Soon enough, all this became gruel for Higgins and Johnson, who examined Hodge’s digital footprint on social media and, in turn, came to believe he was “the go-between ISIS and Antifa,” as Higgins told me over lunch. The unsubstantiated conjecture is based on a hodgepodge of spurious assumptions. For example, this is how the authors infer in their PowerPoint that Hodge is somehow connected to Antifa: “While not excessively political, it is clear from his Facebook activity that Mr. Hodge supports left wing issues such as transgender rights, support of gay marriage, and that he holds some anti-right wing views.” One piece of evidence given for Hodge’s supposed ISIS ties is that he allegedly ate at a Turkish döner kebab restaurant in New Mexico in the days after the attack. Except even that is untrue, according to Hodge, who insists he never traveled to New Mexico, much went to the restaurant.

In the days and weeks after the shooting, when Hodge saw that he was becoming the focus of conspiracy theories, he changed his social media privacy settings so that only select friends and family had access. To Higgins and Johnson, this was suspicious. In their document, they write that in some cases, “the purposeful deletion of data is evidence of consciousness of guilt,” and “since the Las Vegas attack, Mr. Hodge has attempted to conceal his electronic Social Media presence, locking down his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts.” Hodge insists he has never deleted any of his social media posts. Regardless, instead of thinking that Hodge might be scared—since many people experiencing internet wrath withdraw from social media—the authors became so suspicious that they recommended in their report that Hodge be put under “National level surveillance” via FISA. When I asked whether they had ever simply tried to contact Hodge as they constructed their speculative narrative, they admitted they had not. “That’s not my job,” Higgins said to me recently. “That’s the FBI’s job.”

For a while after the shooting, Hodge was unaware of the unofficial attention he had attracted from various former members of the intelligence community. He tried to put the episode behind him. But he noticed that Laura Loomer, a notorious internet conspiracy monger, had started to become obsessed with him on Twitter. (Loomer is a regular guest and contributor at Infowars, where she has spun numerous conspiracies related to the Las Vegas shooting.) Hodge says a friend in the media and entertainment industry advised him it was best to ignore the fringy elements inhabiting the dark underbelly of the internet.

Then, sometime this past spring, Higgins’ and Johnson’s document got posted online. It was so unnerving to Hodge—particularly because it contained his personal information—that he called the FBI switchboard, asking for help. Hodge told me that an agent from the Los Angeles field office responded to him over the phone and told him there wasn’t anything the Bureau could do about the anonymous conspiracy theories circulating on the internet. The document was soon seized on by Loomer and other far-right conspiracists, triggering another round of vitriol. Panicking, Hodge emailed the same FBI agent he had spoken with on the phone: “I really need some help from the FBI to shut this down,” he pleaded. “It is getting very scary and is having a massive impact on my life.” In a response email, which Hodge provided to me, the agent advised Hodge to report any threats or harassment to his local police department. Hodge told me he never personally filed a police report but that a friend—who he says is a “high-profile” figure in the entertainment industry—contacted the LAPD threat unit on his behalf. An officer I spoke with at the unit couldn’t tell me over the phone whether anyone connected to Hodge had filed such a report, but he did say that it is very rare for the department to investigate claims made through a third party.

Both Higgins and Johnson claim they did not post the document online. Of course, none of this is any consolation to Hodge, who is most upset by the privacy violations with which he has contended. “His complaint is valid,” Higgins acknowledged to me. “I don’t think his shit should have been posted all over the internet.”


At lunch, Higgins, a 44-year-old former Army serviceman, wore a black T-shirt with a logo for Operation Restored Warrior, a religious veterans’ organization. He credits the group with helping him steady his life in 2011, after a turbulent stretch in the Pentagon. According to Ed McCallum, the former director of the Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office and Higgins’ boss from 2002 to 2010, Higgins distinguished himself as a brash, innovative thinker—but often butted heads with leadership and “made some enemies” at the Pentagon. Higgins left the Defense Department in 2013. He says he wanted to make more money in the private sector, but McCallum says Higgins was also feeling besieged. “I protected him for a while,” McCallum told me, “but they went after him hard.”

Higgins has a history of propagating controversial ideas. An ally of Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s first, short-lived national security adviser, and Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political strategist, Higgins was an early Trump supporter and traveled with the 2016 presidential campaign before joining the administration. The controversial memo he penned while at the National Security Council distills his worldview: “Cultural Marxist narratives,” he wrote—that is, the “forced inclusion of post-modern notions of tolerance” such as “transgender acceptance”—are destroying America’s “Judeo-Christian culture.” Higgins argued that this was all part of a larger “political warfare campaign” waged by “Islamists” in concert with the “hard left.” McCallum told me that Higgins developed these ideas (some of which McCallum agrees with) while writing his 2010 National Defense University master’s thesis, in which Higgins describes Islam as “a threat to the United States.”

Higgins has kept a mostly low profile since his memo leaked last year and was widely ridiculed. (Slate called it “face-melting gibberish.”) Remarried and recently having become a father for the third time, he told me he splits his time between government contract work and strategic communications for a new nonprofit called Unconstrained Analytics. On his résumé, he describes himself as “an expert on information age unconventional warfare.”

Higgins says he “was brought on to the Vegas thing” by Johnson, with whom he had worked at an interagency level when Johnson was at the CIA in the 2000s. Johnson, retired a decade ago after a 25-year career as a senior operations officer and chief of station in various overseas assignments. “I made things go bump in the night,” he said with a grin, as we sipped our coffee. Several years ago, he founded a nonprofit organization called Americans for Intelligence Reform, which according to its website, was created to draw attention to “political corruption and diminished capabilities within the intelligence community.” Johnson is among those who are convinced that an entrenched “deep state”—both Obama administration holdovers and establishment Republicans—is trying to sabotage Trump. He periodically expounds on this view and his Las Vegas theories in interviews with fringe media outlets, most notably Jack Posobiec of One America News network, who helped to spread the “Pizzagate” conspiracy in 2016.

Higgins’ and Johnson’s views about the so-called deep state, the left and Islam are clearly at the heart of their Vegas conspiracy. The official police investigation of the shooting suggests that Paddock, a reclusive 64-year-old gambler, had psychological problems—his personal doctor thought he was manic-depressive. According to the final police report, “Paddock would often complain of being sick and told [his girlfriend] that doctors couldn’t cure him.” The report says he would get bad headaches from chemical smells and took to wearing cotton gloves. Family members noted that he had grown “irritable” in recent years and that he did not look well. (The FBI says it will release its own psychological profile of Paddock—a “behavioral analysis report”—later this year, which will “piece together the why,” as Aaron Rouse, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Las Vegas field office, put it in a recent radio interview.)

Higgins and Johnson, however, say the attack was all about “anti-Trump bias,” in Higgins’ words. He and Johnson told me Paddock was a registered Democrat in Florida. (In fact, this was an internet rumor; according to his family, Paddock had no political affiliation.) Johnson also told me Paddock had “targeted” country music fans, which he characterized as a natural Trump fan base. To Higgins, the timing of Paddock’s apparent plotting—just before Trump was elected, he began purchasing dozens of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition—was the biggest “indicator” of the anti-Trump sentiment Paddock apparently was motivated by.

Perhaps, I countered at lunch, it stemmed from personal demons eating away at Paddock—something unknowable that, as one of his brothers said, “drove him into the pit of hell.” Johnson grew perturbed. “I don’t think you’re set up to absorb and process what you’re being told,” he said.

As Higgins and Johnson see it, this deep-state machinery is also what’s preventing the FBI from pursuing their “leads” in the Vegas shooting. Higgins believes this lack of interest can be traced to then-acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe allegedly giving the order to “bury the investigation.” Higgins offers no proof but speculates that it was done to save face because the FBI had “not been following up on these anti-Trump activists.” (A spokesperson for McCabe declined to comment.)

OK, but McCabe has left the FBI, I noted. So, what would be preventing the Bureau from following up now, if there were good reason to do so?

“It’s too late,” Higgins said. “The Bureau isn’t going to go back. … It would just rip the country apart.”

“McCabe is gone, but everything remains the same,” Johnson chimed in. “[Deputy Attorney General] Rod Rosenstein isn’t going to want this to come out.”

I mentioned that hundreds of agents from multiple federal and state agencies had participated in the official Vegas investigation. Were they all part of a massive cover-up?

Higgins and Johnson were silent for moment. “Everybody does what you’ve been doing,” Johnson said. “Sitting here and talking to us right now, saying, ‘How could the FBI be denying? How could they all be misleading us?’ And so forth. But it’s all bullshit. Almost nothing you think is true is true.”


Not everyone has been as skeptical as I am. In January, Congressman Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to talk about what he considered to be “credible evidence of a possible terrorist nexus” regarding the Las Vegas shooting massacre. Perry didn’t offer any specifics when pressed by another guest on the show—a lawyer for the shooting victims—and he wouldn’t say where he got his information. His remarks were denounced across the political spectrum, including by members of Nevada’s congressional delegation, who demanded an apology. According to Higgins, Perry—who did not respond to requests for comment for this article—was referring on-air to the document compiled by Higgins and Johnson. Higgins told me that Perry was one of about a dozen Republican members of Congress he and Johnson briefed about the Vegas theory, and that Higgins briefed Perry himself.

Since then, only alt-right fringe media figures have been willing to take the document at face value—people like Loomer and Posobiec, who have clashed over who deserves more credit for propagating the theory first. (Loomer, for her part, remains fixated on Hodge, and also insists that ISIS is responsible for the Las Vegas shooting.) At the Cheesecake Factory, Higgins was palpably frustrated that his group’s “alternative analysis” could not get traction beyond the internet’s backwaters. I told him it didn’t help that the other contributors to the document refused to come out from the shadows.

“Why should they?” Johnson said. He launched into an anti-media rant. “What do you represent to them? Trouble. Liars. You’re going to sabotage them in the press. That’s what always happens.”

“He’s been talking to me,” I said, pointing to Higgins.

“Don’t use me as an example,” Higgins said with a chuckle. “I’m like Swiss cheese over here. I’ve already been shot to shit. I can say anything now.”

Brian Hodge knows this all too well. He told me he has hired a lawyer to help him figure out a way forward, and that experts he has consulted have told him, “This is never going away.” He feels that the FBI hung him out to dry, and the whole ordeal has made him distrusting and fearful. “I look over my shoulders all the time now,” he says. He believes his phone is being tapped.

The paranoia that has overtaken him is, oddly enough, a trait I also detected in his two accusers. At one point during our lunch, Johnson said, “I get death threats all the time,” and talked about being “targeted by the Chinese.” Higgins likewise believes his phone is being monitored.

Still, they remain undeterred, and hopeful they can persuade influential—and somewhat more mainstream—conservative allies to take up the case. “We talked to Tucker Carlson,” Johnson confided over lunch. “He found it very exciting and wanted to do it, but it got spiked.” Carlson told me by phone that he did talk with Higgins—but he categorically denied wanting to run the story and being overruled. “I’ve never talked to any supervisor at Fox about this story,” Carlson told me. “So, nobody put the kibosh on it. The reason we couldn’t do the story is we couldn’t prove it.”

That leaves Higgins in the company of the Infowars crowd. It’s a place no one with any standing in the intelligence community wants to be, and Higgins knows this. “The Loomers of the world are devastating to folks like me,” he says. “Everything is a conspiracy to them.”

Keith Kloor is a writer in New York and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.


Michelle Obama Wants to Save Politics By Staying Out of Them

Michelle Obama is not running for president, people close to her insist. And she’s not running for mayor of Chicago, or for Congress, or for the Board of Overseers at Harvard, where her older daughter Malia started last year. She’s made that clear, repeatedly and painstakingly, describing how she was dragged “kicking and screaming” into the political arena by a husband for whom deflecting speculation about her hypothetical political career has become a part-time job in its own right.

“I think I have as much of a chance of dancing in the Bolshoi Ballet in 2020 as the likelihood of her running for office,” says David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist.

Story Continued Below

Oh, and in case that’s not clear enough: “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever,” she writes in her new memoir, “Becoming,” released this Tuesday.

And yet: During a month in which the former first lady has launched a massive tour for her said memoir, seen the most intimate details of her personal life become breaking news notifications, and leveraged her celebrity in service of a voter outreach program that was part of the highest midterm turnout since the advent of universal suffrage, the political class still can’t cease its chatter about Michelle 2020. A recent poll featured her at the top of the heap among Democratic women facing President Trump in a theoretical 2020 matchup, beating him by a whopping 13 points. Just a day after the 2016 election, CNN’s Chris Cillizza tweeted: “Throwing it out there: Michelle Obama in 2020? It’s not totally crazy … ”

But as Hillary Clinton can attest, absence from the field of presidential candidates tends to make voters’ hearts grow fonder—once the former secretary of State, who at one point was more popular than Barack Obama or Joe Biden, declared her intention to run, she saw her ratings plummet. Or just ask her husband, who entered the White House with a not-inconsiderable 41 percent approval rating among Republicans—only to leave office with that number at 14 percent.

Then there’s the sheer soul-crushing misery of running for office in the era of 24/7 cable news, social media and Donald Trump—and the very qualities that make Michelle Obama such an appealing alternative to so many voters are what make her exceedingly unlikely to run.

“There’s a lot about politics she doesn’t like,” says Axelrod. “The coarseness, the meanness, sometimes the silliness, the focus on the trivial … I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

So why the memoir, why all the voter participation efforts, if she doesn’t want to be in the arena? The former first lady believes she can get close enough to the heart of politics to make a difference without wading into the partisan fray, people familiar with her thinking say.

“I think she’s been clear that she doesn’t have a love of politics, but [her recent activities are] her way of encouraging people to stand up for who they are and the things they feel are important,” says Susan Sher, Obama’s former chief of staff. “That’s key to her, as opposed to saying, ‘Vote for this person vs. that person.’”

In that spirit, just this year she’s launched the nonpartisan When We All Vote, aimed at boosting midterm turnout, and the Global Girls Alliance, a program through the Obama Foundation aimed at educating girls in the United States and the developing world. And, of course, there’s the rock-star-adjacent stadium tour and best-selling memoir; extra tour dates were added in Washington and Brooklyn to accommodate demand, and book retailer Barnes & Noble announced this week they haven’t seen as high demand for any book since the 2015 release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.”

In other words, when the ongoing slap-fight between Democrats and Republicans goes low, Michelle Obama plans to keep going high, hoping her megawatt celebrity can bring some of the civic goodwill that surrounded her husband’s political ascent back to a bitterly divided country. If Democrats are looking for a savior to deliver them from Trump, it won’t be her.


Although she’s been reluctant to wade into Democratic politics, it can hardly be said that Michelle Obama has remained neutral since leaving the White House—and every time she’s fired back at the Trump administration, it’s only made the calls more fervent for her to throw down the gauntlet and challenge Republicans at the polls. When Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in May 2017 delayed a requirement for healthier school lunches that she’d championed as part of her Let’s Move! health campaign, she fired back on all cylinders at a public conference: “Think about why someone is OK with your kids eating crap … if somebody is doing that, they don’t care about your kid.”

The subject of children’s health and welfare is clearly close to Obama’s heart—the Let’s Move! initiative was her first major endeavor as first lady, and she writes in “Becoming” of how personally the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre affected her and the former president.

“She was the mom-in-chief, and people absolutely adored that,” says Democratic strategist and pollster Celinda Lake. “She’s had a 10-year conversation with the American public, and they’ve valued what she’s said because she uses her voice selectively; she hasn’t been out there every five minutes using her voice in a political way.”

Her occasional tetchiness at Trump aside, Obama has mostly maintained that equilibrium in her post-White House political life. Her unique ability to critique Trump’s worldview, as she did in September after the president’s “America First” remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, while maintaining her benevolent aura is exactly why some think she’d be such a formidable candidate (Cillizza once referred to her as the president’s “kryptonite”). Despite their constant rebuffing, the calls for her to run are ubiquitous for a reason—YouGov ranks her as the third-most popular American in the world, behind only Bill Gates and her husband, and the most popular person in the world full stop among millennials.

“I have a lot of respect for her dislike of politics, but I wish she would run,” sighs Lake. “She would be an unparalleled leader, but she’ll be one in whichever realm she chooses.”

“She would be amazing [as a candidate],” gushes Andrea Steele, president and founder of Democratic nonprofit Emerge America. “I’d love to see her be recruiter-in-chief now … maybe she doesn’t want to run, but she could be a tremendous recruiter in all of these cities [on her book tour], if she made the pitch.”

Lynda Tran of the progressive firm 270 Strategies underscored the weight a figure like Obama carries on the stump for Democrats, where she was absent this year in favor of When We All Vote’s nonpartisan outreach efforts.

“There’s probably no better surrogate on the campaign trial, no better ally to have onstage than Michelle Obama,” says Tran. “You’d be crazy as a Democratic candidate if you didn’t want to have Michelle standing next to you.”

Those in Obama’s camp, however, believe an effort that reaches more than just dyed-in-the-wool Democrats will be more effective in the long run—and more in line with her personal goals and mission.

“We wanted to make sure [When We All Vote’s] reach was as broad as it could be,” says Tina Tchen, Obama’s former chief of staff in the East Wing and treasurer of the nonprofit today. “We partnered with a lot of college voter registration efforts, we wanted to make sure make sure we could go into all sorts of settings … that was the idea, making sure the reach was as broad as it could and doing it in a nonpartisan way.”

“Participation was the aim,” says Axelrod. “And, you know, to the extent that her efforts went [with When We All Vote], they were successful, because we saw the greatest midterm turnout in a century.” When We All Vote can’t quantify exactly how many voters it registered and turned out, but a post-midterm statement from the group’s CEO, Kyle Lierman, boasted of reaching more than 220 million individuals via social media and reaching over 3.7 million voters via text.

Of course, when voter participation spikes, it happens to benefit Democrats more than their opponents, a fact that’s surely not lost on Obama and her allies. But the nonpartisan approach is largely in line with how she and the former president have approached his post-presidency, with only the occasional glancing shot at the current occupant of the Oval Office.

“A huge part of her brand and emphasis was on what are fundamental American values—inclusiveness, fighting for a better future for our children and families,” says Tran. “These are all things that are aspirational goals, regardless of your side of the aisle.”


Of course, it’s one thing to espouse the values of unity, inclusiveness, and civic responsibility—it’s another entirely to successfully sell voters on their value. Modern political history is littered with the footnotes of otherwise milquetoast political figures hoping to appeal to an idealized American identity; the Obamas’ enduring popularity comes from their ability to do it well.

To what, then, can you ascribe Michelle’s ability to act as such an effective messenger even if her message is fairly ethereal? Both Obama world insiders and Democratic onlookers had largely the same response, which could be boiled down to one word—a trait she paradoxically shares with Trump, who rode his tell-it-like-it-is persona into the White House:

“She’s very authentic,” says Tchen.

“She’s an authentic, passionate, hip person,” says Axelrod.

“We often talk about authenticity in politics, and she’s definitely authentic,” says Tran.

“I think that I’ve known her for something like 27 years, and she’s exactly the same person,” says Sher.

And so on.

So if Michelle Obama’s not running, but she’s got what it takes to defeat Trump, is there anyone else in the Democratic Party who does, too? Several Democratic insiders referred to the same troika of Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams.

But it’s hard to see how any of them could carve out a path to the presidency, and that’s why the calls for Michelle Obama to run, however futile, will probably keep coming even as her friends keep shooting them down.

“Would she be great? Yes,” says Sher. “But it wouldn’t be fair to her. I do not think she should run for office.”

Derek Robertson is a news assistant for POLITICO Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @afternoondelete.