Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
As Mother Jones revealed last week, Groundswell, the hush-hush right-wing strategy group partly led by Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, wanted to hype the Benghazi tragedy into a full-fledged scandal for the Obama administration, as part of its "30 front war" on the president and progressives. A secret audio tape of one of Groundswell's weekly meetings shows that prominent members of the group pressed House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chair of the House oversight committee, to expand the Benghazi investigation and make this supposed scandal a top-priority for congressional Republicans. This recording indicates Groundswell's mission extends beyond message coordination to scandal-stoking.
The tape has been posted at Crooks and Liars, a progressive web site, and it captured the first 20 minutes of Groundswell's May 8 meeting. (The site does not say how the recording was obtained.) The meeting opened with a prayer ("Father, we thank you for the opportunity to gather here as free Americans"), and a roll call was taken. Among those present were former GOP Rep. Allen West, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News, and Ginni Thomas. Catherine Engelbrecht, a founder of True the Vote, led the meeting, and the first order of business was a report on the Benghazi controversy from Boykin and Gaffney.
The pair reported on meetings they had held the previous night with Boehner and Issa. The two Groundswellers had encouraged the lawmakers to set up a special committee to investigate the attacks on the US facilities in Benghazi. Boykin, according to the recording, noted that Boehner had said he wanted the process "to play out" first, apparently meaning that he wasn't yet ready to step up the GOP Benghazi campaign. Boehner, Boykin recounted, had expressed the concern that were he to create such a committee, the media would cover it as a political stunt designed to bring down Obama.
Boykin, a retired general and Christian fundamentalist who caused a dust-up in 2003 when he gave a speech (while still on active duty) saying that his god was "a real god" and Allah was an "idol," told the Groundswellers that he expected the Benghazi matter to blossom into a full-blown scandal: "We've got an ugly baby here and it's going to get uglier." He maintained that "we're going to find...a huge deception."
Gaffney, a birther who has been booted out of several conservative outfits for his fiercely anti-Islam views and who has accused Obama of "submission to Islam," added, "I'm somewhat encouraged that they're taking this thing very much to heart and we really impressed upon [Boehner] that there's a lot of restiveness on the part of folks like us, and some of their donors as a matter of fact, about what's happening here." In other words, Boykin and Gaffney were issuing something of a warning to Boehner and Issa: Go hard on Benghazi or risk losing financial and grassroots support.
After the two were done, Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News, counseled fellow Groundswellers on how they should handle the Benghazi controversy. Don't mention impeachment of Hillary Clinton, he cautioned, for that would only politicize the issue and "hurt the goal" of establishing a special congressional committee. Then Engelbrecht added, "I think they have all the notes on Benghazi. Let's move ahead."
As of yet, Boykin, Gaffney, and the other Groundswellers have not gotten the special Benghazi committee they wanted. But the recording shows that Groundswell has access to the top leaders of the GOP, and its reps are not reluctant to pressure those pols.
Poor Mitt Romney. He seems unable to come to terms with one of the most significant episodes in his public life: the 47 percent video that undercut his chance of becoming president of the United States.
Sunday's Washington Postfeatured an article adapted from reporter Dan Balz's new 2012 campaign book, Collision 2012, and the excerpt focused on Romney's take on why he entered the race and why he lost. Toward the end of the article, which was based on a series of interviews Balz conducted with Romney, the twice-failed Republican presidential candidate was forced to confront his 47-percent remarks, and he just couldn't do so forthrightly.
First, Romney blamed his initial botched response to the video—his bungled, impromptu press conference the night Mother Jones released the video—on a misperception of what was on the video:
[Romney] was in California and said at first he couldn't get a look at the video. His advisers were pushing him to respond as quickly as he could. "As I understood it, and as they described it to me, not having heard it, it was saying, 'Look, the Democrats have 47 percent, we’ve got 45 percent, my job is to get the people in the middle, and I've got to get the people in the middle,'" he said. "And I thought, 'Well, that’s a reasonable thing.'... It's not a topic I talk about in public, but there's nothing wrong with it. They've got a bloc of voters, we've got a bloc of voters, I've got to get the ones in the middle. And I thought that that would be how it would be perceived—as a candidate talking about the process of focusing on the people in the middle who can either vote Republican or Democrat. As it turned out, down the road, it became perceived as being something very different."
Whoa. He first thought the video only showed him stating the obvious? That Obama had his voters, Romney had his supporters, and the small percentage in between was up for grabs? Well, that would have hardly caused a fuss. But here's what doesn't track: When the video was posted, an article accompanied the video with a transcript of what Romney had said. Anyone with a smart phone could access the video and the transcript of his remarks, in which he stated:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax..."[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
From left: Frank Gaffney; Ginni Thomas; Allen West
Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation," according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.
Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and "clueless" GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell's "two front war" against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here.)
One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women's Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Among the conveners listed in an invitation to a May 8 meeting of Groundswell were Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network; Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who resoundingly lost a Maryland Senate race last year (and is now running for a House seat); Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor; Lori Roman, a former executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Conservative journalists and commentators participating in Groundswell have included Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.
Meet the participants in Groundswell
Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right's messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing "action items."
A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell's efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag, a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept "off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons." This "will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked," the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)
"We want to protect the strategic collaboration occurring at Groundswell and build on it. Please be careful about bringing guests and clear them ahead of time."
Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist's group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions.
Critics have contended that Thomas' work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the "tyranny" of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups' spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
Groundswell, the recently created coalition of prominent right-wing activists and journalists, gathers weekly to coordinate messaging and plot strategy for "a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation." These sessions usually fixate on how best to battle the president, congressional Democrats, and progressive groups. But their 30-front war also includes something of a civil war: a fierce crusade against the Republican establishment and Karl Rove, the GOP strategist and Fox News pundit.
Rove is a regular topic of discussion—and frustration—at Groundswell's Wednesday morning meetings, according to the documents obtained by Mother Jones. At these sessions, and in messages shared by participants on Groundswell's Google group page, Groundswellers often gripe that the GOP's inside-the-Beltway crowd wants to marginalize the party's ideological die-hards and recruit, promote, and support political candidates deemed less strident and more electable. Rove especially ticked off tea-party-minded conservatives in February when the super-PAC he advises, American Crossroads, announced it was launching the Conservative Victory Project, which would try to block far-right candidates from blowing key races, as Missouri's Todd Akin and Indiana's Richard Mourdock did in Senate contests last year.
Yet as Rove kicked off this project, Groundswellers, in closed-doors meetings, initiated an effort to crush Rove, who they believed had helped shape a post-election post-mortem by the Republican National Committee that called on the party to temper its message to appeal to a broader swath of voters.
At the group's March 20 meeting, Groundswell participants reviewed the details of this vigorous anti-Rove endeavor, according to notes prepared after the session. This memo referred to a "two front war" to tear down the prominent GOP strategist who engineered the political triumphs of George W. Bush. Under the subject head "ROVE PROJECT," the memo reported:
Rove is still actively networking and building his financial capabilities, an indication that we are not yet being effective. His associates have quietly contributed to the drafting of the RNC document, Autopsy. The Autopsy Report…has drawn fire from the Tea Party, social conservatives and conservatives in general. It undermines the RNC platform…
The Two Front War: The two front war covers finances and reputation. Rove has relationships built over the last two decades. He must become toxic among the grass roots and among his base. His effectiveness has been called into question on Sunday talk shows and at CPAC. Regarding financing, the donors to his Crossroads [super-PAC] are public. They must be educated to the fact, Rove is not a conservative and his efforts are not effective.
Rove's position as party spokesperson was established as a result of the Bush election. Rove gained the title and the credit for being the "great architect." Fox has given Rove a platform and just renewed his contract. In truth, Rove no more represents conservatives then Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton represent all Blacks.
The memo cautioned that smashing Rove would take time: "Rove has been building his power base for decades. Change requires time and patience." It suggested "powerful messaging points" to use against him: "Rove does not speak for GOP like Sharpton does not speak for black community" and "Who put you in charge?"
"Rove has relationships built over the last two decades. He must become toxic among the grass roots and among his base."
The Rove Project was a key agenda item at other Groundswell get-togethers. At a February 20 meeting, Groundswell participants talked about how best to "continue efforts to educate conservatives to this real and present danger to our future success"—meaning Rove—and attendees were informed that Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state now affiliated with the Family Research Council, was identifying donors to conservative causes who "need specific attention." That is, Blackwell was compiling a list of conservative funders to pressure to boycott Rove.
During a March 6 meeting, it was announced that the Rove Project would be one of Groundswell's 10 working groups. (Others included national security, messaging, ground game, immigration, and Benghazi.) Sandy Rios, a fellow Fox News contributor, was put in charge of the campaign to discredit Rove. Weeks later, though, a Groundswell memo noted that the Conservative Action Project—a coalition of more than 100 right-wing organizations that is chaired by former Attorney General Edwin Meese—would be "taking the lead" on the Rove Project.
Rove did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, one of the leading members of Groundswell and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Through Groundswell's Google group, members were asked in February to sign a letter organized by Diana Banister, a Groundsweller and a partner at the Shirley & Banister PR firm, demanding the firing of Jonathan Collegio, American Crossroads' communications director. Collegio's sin: He had called Brent Bozell, a conservative media critic, a "hater" in an interview. (Collegio had been reacting to Bozell's attack on Rove's plan to oppose unelectable conservative Republican candidates.) The letter, addressed to American Crossroads president Steven Law, proclaimed, "You obviously mean to have a war with conservatives and the Tea Party."
The Groundswellers certainly seem to believe they are engaged in all-out combat with Rove and GOP insiders. In February, Blackwell posted an article on Groundswell's Google group page and stated, "War has been declared on the conservative movement." The article was about Rove's effort to back credible GOP candidates.
A giggle or two about Eliot Spitzer's attempted comeback would be quite natural. With the news that he'll be running for comptroller of New York City, the former New York governor, who resigned after he was caught in an S&Mish prostitution scandal, invites the unavoidable comparison to Anthony Weiner, another former disgraced Dem currently seeking redemption by campaigning for NYC mayor. But when Spitzer reentered public life in 2008 as a Slate columnist, I noted that his return to the national discourse was worth a cheer or two—mainly because he had been and could once again be a well-informed voice regarding the excesses of Wall Street and Big Finance. Does that mean that he should be embraced by populist-minded voters and pundits, as he embarks on his make-over campaign? Judging politicians on morality is often a personal exercise, and reasonable people (prudes and non-prudes) can reach different but equally legitimate conclusions about the connection between a candidate's personal life and his or her public standing. In other words, that's up to you.
In any event, with Spitzer now water-cooler fodder, here's the post I wrote when he first stepped out of the shadows:
It's easy to snicker at Slate magazine for signing up Eliot Spitzer, former New York governor and onetime john, as a regular columnist. But judging from Spitzer's first outing, it was a master stroke.
The manner in which Spitzer crashed and burned has essentially wiped out the pre-prostitution portion of the Spitzer tale, which included his longtime stint as a critic of corporate excesses. But Spitzer's opening column in Slate is a reminder that in these days of multi-billion-dollar bailouts, there are few powerful and knowledgeable figures in government raising the appropriate questions and challenging the save-the-rich orthodoxy.
What are we getting for the trillions of dollars in rescue funds? If we are merely extending a fatally flawed status quo, we should invest those dollars elsewhere. Nobody disputes that radical action was needed to forestall total collapse. But we are creating the significant systemic risk not just of rewarding imprudent behavior by private actors but of preventing, through bailouts and subsidies, the process of creative destruction that capitalism depends on.
A more sensible approach would focus not just on rescuing preexisting financial institutions but, instead, on creating a structure for more contained and competitive ones. For years, we have accepted a theory of financial concentration—not only across all lines of previously differentiated sectors (insurance, commercial banking, investment banking, retail brokerage, etc.) but in terms of sheer size. The theory was that capital depth would permit the various entities, dubbed financial supermarkets, to compete and provide full service to customers while cross-marketing various products. That model has failed. The failure shows in gargantuan losses, bloated overhead, enormous inefficiencies, dramatic and outsized risk taken to generate returns large enough to justify the scale of the organizations, ethical abuses in cross-marketing in violation of fiduciary obligations, and now the need for major taxpayer-financed capital support for virtually every major financial institution.
But even more important, from a structural perspective, our dependence on entities of this size ensured that we would fall prey to a "too big to fail" argument in favor of bailouts.
Spitzer has summed up the problem as well as anyone. He goes on:
Two responses are possible: One is to accept the need for gigantic financial institutions and the impossibility of failure—and hence the reality of explicit government guarantees, such as Fannie and Freddie now have—but then to regulate the entities so heavily that they essentially become extensions of the government. To do so could risk the nimbleness we want from economic actors.
The better policy is to return to an era of vibrant competition among multiple, smaller entities—none so essential to the entire structure that it is indispensable.
Spitzer, a populist in a suit, decries the "concentration of power--political as well as economic--that resided" in the Big Finance institutions that have dragged the economy down. He writes:
Imagine if instead of merging more and more banks together, we had broken them apart and forced them to compete in a genuine manner. Or, alternatively, imagine if we had never placed ourselves in a position in which so many institutions were too big to fail. The bailouts might have been unnecessary.
In that case, vast sums now being spent on rescue packages might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the next generation, or to support basic research and development that could give us true competitive advantage, or to restructure our bloated health care sector, or to build the type of physical infrastructure we need to be competitive.
This is the opposite of Rubinomics. Spitzer is contemplating what must be done to rebuild our economy so that it truly competes internationally and, most important, generates wealth--not what must be done to rescue the high-fliers who have crashed and who seem to hold our credit lines and economy hostage. It's a perspective not heard within the mainstream too often these days. His views could have been influential when the first Wall Street bailout was pulled together in September--had he been part of the public discourse at the time and had he not been such a bad boy in the Mayflower Hotel.
I'm not often a fan of second acts for disgraced public officials. But in this instance, I'm glad Slate is sponsoring the Spitzer rehabilitation program. In fact, after reading his article, I'd be delighted if Barack Obama dumped Lawrence Summers and tapped Spitzer to be head of his National Economic Council.
Spitzer, after the fall he took, is not likely to rise so high. But he's demonstrated he deserves a platform. Let's hope the marketplace of ideas operates better than the marketplace of Wall Street and recognizes the merits Spitzer still possesses.