The day that President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice for attorney general, Jeff Sessions was described by a Democratic lawmaker as a perfect pick “if you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible, and women stayed in the kitchen.” The day after Trump picked Tom Price as his nominee to be the secretary of health and human services, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described the then-congressman as someone who would almost literally kick the crutches out from the disabled. Teachers and students organized walkouts to protest Trump’s education pick, Betsy DeVos, and Schumer later called her “one of the worst nominees that has ever been brought before this body for a Cabinet position.” As soon Scott Pruitt was announced as Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Sierra Club launched an ad buy, targeting moderate Republicans and describing the nominee as “unfit” for the job. But Trump’s team, generally eager to throw sharp elbows, didn’t counter-attack.
So the nominees did what any brand in crisis would do: They hired public relations people to change the narratives. And in doing so, they altered the way Cabinet nominees go about their confirmation processes, bringing the free-for-fall ad spending of the post–Citizen United era into what had traditionally been a fairly staid proceeding.
At this point in the Trump presidency, the shattering of norms—that one should not, say, suggest an FBI director drop an investigation into your campaign and then fire him, or turn Cabinet meetings into presidential validation sessions, or attack private citizens on social media—has become so regular an occurrence that even as they threaten our institutions, they also have begun to lose their shock value. But they add up. And if the republic ever hopes to return to its pre-Trumpian state, each violation will have to be named, recognized, and counted. Here is but another of them.
Going into the confirmation-hearing process, allies of Sessions, Price, DeVos, and Pruitt tapped America Rising Advanced Research, a conservative rapid-response and opposition research outfit and a well-known player in the nonstop effort to push the GOP agenda—a break with the old way of doing things, in which the Cabinet confirmation process was, while still a political affair, a decidedly less heated, moneyed, and plutocratic one.
AR2, as the outfit is known, quickly pushed back against the critiques. It excavated and distributed videos like one of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker praising a school-choice organization that DeVos led. It shipped talking points to allies in the conservative mediasphere accusing coal-country Democrats of kowtowing to a coastal elite if they voted against Pruitt. Paying for this work was either the nominees themselves or their close associates.
Previously, confirmation processes were entirely in-house by the White House, which shepherded a nominee through all the steps required. But in 2017, the politics of confirmation fights were outsourced much like how in 2016 super PACs took over many of the functions that campaigns used to do during presidential races. If this is the new norm, it’s easy to imagine a world in which if you want to get confirmed to a top government job—especially if you have thin record or a controversial past—you will also need the bucks or the connections to pay for political operatives to make your case. The process will simply be too expensive for an administration to shoulder on its own.
As a 501(c)(4), AR2 is officially a “social welfare” organization, so it doesn’t have to disclose its donors, but Price’s most recent Federal Election Commission filings showed that he gave the group $40,000 out of his own campaign account for its work (even though campaign accounts are supposed to be restricted to use in political campaigns). Someone with close knowledge of AR2’s involvement in the confirmation processes who was not authorized to speak publicly said that in some cases those costs could rapidly escalate depending on the nominee. Pruitt’s super PAC, Liberty 2.0, donated more than $102,000 to Future 45, a super PAC that along with its dark money counterpart, the 45 Committee, dropped millions of dollars on ads backing Pruitt, Price, DeVos, Sessions, and failed Secretary of Labor nominee Andy Puzder; Future 45 was one of the biggest contributors to America Rising’s own PAC, and Future 45 received $175,000 from something called the Ending Spending Action Fund, which in turn received $100,000 from four members of the DeVos family. Some of AR2’s clients, such as DeVos (whose family’s net worth is more than $5 billion) and Puzder (whose net worth is an estimated $45 million), could pay for it out of their own pockets, but the longtime public servants either had to pay from a political action committee or have a wealthy benefactor foot the bill. The latter was the case for Sessions, whose AR2 campaign was paid for by the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative political action committee that wants to move the federal bench rightward and whose most recent brush with notoriety was as the primary booster of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Brian Rogers, the executive director of AR2, told me his group was necessary for these nominees, since they faced a wall of obstruction from the Democratic Party. “The reason we got involved in the first place was the Democrats’ unprecedented efforts to prevent President Trump from assembling his Cabinet after winning the election in November,” Rogers said. “To appease their looney left-wing base, Democrats waged a campaign to oppose and obstruct eminently qualified nominees at a rate never seen before in American history, going back to George Washington.”
This is certainly true; typically new presidents are given wide latitude to pick their own agency heads. But the fact that Trump wasn’t, Democrats say, had more to do with the fact that he was picking Cabinet secretaries with little to no governmental experience, with complicated or incomplete background checks, and whose views on policy, such as they were known, were far outside the mainstream.
“That they needed to do this speaks to the level of baggage and controversy these nominees brought with them,” said Adam Smith, communications director for Every Voice, a good government group dedicated to decreasing the role of money in politics. “They needed all of the extra help, and the people they nominated are used to throwing money at political problems to get the kinds of results they want.”
It wasn’t just America Rising that benefited. This year some of the nominees had hired help from all sorts of different parts of the conservative political ecosystem. Sessions’ nomination was spearheaded by Keith Appell and Sarah Isgur Flores, two Republican operatives with long careers in party politics. (Appell was a volunteer, while Flores was a member of the transition team.) Puzder’s spokesman was George Thompson, a consultant for the Republican lobby shop Banner Public Affairs who has also worked a spokesman for Puzder’s company, CKE Restaurants. (Puzder withdrew as more of his record came to light, including allegations of domestic abuse, proof that sometimes even the best-funded press effort can only help out at the margins.) DeVos was backed by a new group called Friends of Betsy DeVos, which seemed to consist only of a spokesman, Ed Patru, who declined to say who else was behind the billionaire’s pop-up support group but that it was a way to “get all of Betsy’s supporters who wanted to get involved in a more structured way,” and who relied on America Rising to “do what they do best—opposition research and disseminate information in real time.”
In previous administrations, would-be Cabinet nominees didn’t have to pay out of pocket or rely on outside groups to defend them. Chris Lu, who served as executive director of President Obama’s transition team, said no similar effort existed back in 2008. Outside groups weighed in, certainly, and some of them even ran ads, but they did so on their own and without being put up to it by the nominee.
“I can tell you that no one came to me with that in mind, and if anyone had I would have advised them against it,” Lu told me.
Instead, then, as with previous administrations, a prospective Cabinet secretary was led through his or her nomination process by a team of government lawyers, legislative aides, agency staffers, and the White House communications team, which provided talking points and tried to set the narrative on the nominee’s background and views.
Those involved in this effort this year, however, said that the chaos of the Trump transition left the candidates on their own.
“All of the people working for Trump were complete diehards who had no experience with politics,” said one political operative who worked on behalf of one of Trump’s nominees. “They wouldn’t respond to inquiries from CNN because they thought CNN was ‘fake news.’ They looked at how Trump was affected by negative stories, and so they figured everybody else was untouchable, too.”
It is impossible to predict if in the future confirmation battles will be run out of the White House, or if the Trumpian way of offloading the campaign to the individual nominee will become the new norm. The trend in politics is toward outside groups such as super PACs having an ever greater say over campaigns, and the lines between official and unofficial campaign efforts have become increasingly blurry.
But if this new way of outside groups coordinating—and being paid by—nominees or their benefactors grows, it could tilt what kind of person becomes a government official. If a lifelong public servant gets nominated but has neither the money nor the connections required to pay a consulting firm to mount a defense of her, it would be open season for the opposition party to attack her record without an equally loud response.
“You have to accept that this is the new reality we are living in,” said one Republican operative who worked on the Sessions confirmation fight but was not paid for it. “These are battles. If you want to get your guy confirmed, you have to ante up.”