Monday, October 16, 2017

Overnight-- With Mike Pence


"To Pence, Trump is just a stepping stone to theocracy"

Jane Mayer has a piece in the new New Yorker, The Danger of President Pence, that needs to be factored into everyone's impeachment calculus. "The worse the President looks," she wrote, "the more desirable his understudy seems. The more Trump is mired in scandal, the more likely Pence’s elevation to the Oval Office becomes, unless he ends up legally entangled as well." But who is Pence? Many Americans don't know much about him-- even if DWT readers know too much about him.

Before we get into Mayer's look-see, let's remember, for context, that before there was Pence, Trump offered the VP slot to Kasich with the promise that he, VP Kasich, would be in charge of domestic policy and foreign policy. When asked by a Kasich negotiator what Señor Trumpanzee would be in charge of, he was told, "making America great again," presumably meaning he would be ranting and raving, playing golf and promoting Trump family businesses. Is there any reason to suppose he didn't offer Pence the same deal? From her piece, though, we learn that the uber-ambitious Pence is, according to his brother "completely unmotivated by money."
During the tumultuous 2016 Presidential campaign, relatively little attention was paid to how Pence was chosen, or to his political record. And, with all the infighting in the new Administration, few have focussed on Pence’s power within the White House. Newt Gingrich told me recently that the three people with the most policy influence in the Administration are Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Pence. Gingrich went on, “Others have some influence, such as Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn. But look at the schedule. Pence has lunches with the President. He’s in the national-security briefings.” Moreover, and crucially, Pence is the only official in the White House who can’t be fired.

...[T]hey are almost comically mismatched. “You end up with an odd pair of throwbacks from fifties casting,” the former White House strategist Stephen Bannon joked, comparing them to Dean Martin, the bad boy of the Rat Pack, and “the dad on Leave It to Beaver.”

Trump and Pence are misaligned politically, too. Trump campaigned as an unorthodox outsider, but Pence is a doctrinaire ideologue. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counsellor, who became a pollster for Pence in 2009, describes him as “a full-spectrum conservative” on social, moral, economic, and defense issues. Pence leans so far to the right that he has occasionally echoed A.C.L.U. arguments against government overreach; he has, for instance, supported a federal shield law that would protect journalists from having to identify whistle-blowers. According to Bannon, Pence is “the outreach guy, the connective tissue” between the Trump Administration and the most conservative wing of the Republican establishment. “Trump’s got the populist nationalists,” Bannon said. “But Pence is the base. Without Pence, you don’t win.”

Pence has taken care to appear extraordinarily loyal to Trump, so much so that Joel K. Goldstein, a historian and an expert on Vice-Presidents who teaches law at St. Louis University, refers to him as the “Sycophant-in-Chief.” But Pence has the political experience, the connections, the discipline, and the ideological mooring that Trump lacks. He also has a close relationship with the conservative billionaire donors who have captured the Republican Party’s agenda in recent years.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump characterized the Republican Party’s big spenders as “highly sophisticated killers” whose donations allowed them to control politicians. When he declared his candidacy, he claimed that, because of his real-estate fortune, he did not need support from “rich donors,” and he denounced super pacs, their depositories of unlimited campaign contributions, as “corrupt.” Pence’s political career, though, has been sponsored at almost every turn by the donors whom Trump has assailed. Pence is the inside man of the conservative money machine.

On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”

Deason’s father, Darwin, founded a data-processing company, Affiliated Computer Services, and in 2010 he sold it to Xerox for $6.4 billion. A.C.S. was notorious for outsourcing U.S. office work to cheaper foreign-labor markets. Trump campaigned against outsourcing, but the Deasons became Trump backers nonetheless, donating a million dollars to his campaign. Doug Deason was enlisted, in part, by Pence, whom he had known and supported for years. “Mike and I are pretty good friends,” Deason said, adding, “He’s really the contact to the big donors.” Since the election, Deason has attended two dinners for wealthy backers at the Vice-Presidential residence.

Among the billionaires who gathered in the room at the Hilton, Deason recalled, were the financier Wilbur Ross, whom Trump later appointed his Secretary of Commerce; the corporate investor Carl Icahn, who became a top adviser to Trump but resigned eight months later, when allegations of financial impropriety were published by the New Yorker; Harold Hamm, the founder and chairman of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma-based oil-and-gas company that has made billions of dollars through fracking; and David Koch, the richest resident of New York City.

Koch’s presence was especially unexpected. He and his brother Charles are libertarians who object to most government spending, including investments in infrastructure. They co-own virtually all of Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in the United States, and have long tapped their combined fortune-- currently ninety billion dollars-- to finance candidates, think tanks, pressure groups, and political operatives who support an anti-tax and anti-regulatory agenda, which dovetails with their financial interests.

During the campaign, Trump said that Republican rivals who attended secretive donor summits sponsored by the Kochs were “puppets.” The Kochs, along with several hundred allied donors, had amassed nearly nine hundred million dollars to spend on the Presidential election, but declined to support Trump’s candidacy. At one point, Charles Koch described the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton as one between “cancer or heart attack.”

Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs in the Trump White House, credits Pence for the Kochs’ rapprochement with Trump. “The Kochs were very excited about the Vice-Presidential pick,” Short told me. “There are areas where they differ from the Administration, but now there are many areas they’re partnering with us on.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, who has accused the Kochs of buying undue influence, particularly on environmental policy-- Koch Industries has a long history of pollution-- is less enthusiastic about their alliance with Pence. “If Pence were to become President for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers-- period. He’s been their tool for years,” he said. Bannon is equally alarmed at the prospect of a Pence Presidency. He told me, “I’m concerned he’d be a President that the Kochs would own.”

This summer, I visited Pence’s home town of Columbus, Indiana. Harry McCawley, a retired editor at the Republic, the local newspaper, told me, “Mike Pence wanted to be President practically since he popped out of the womb.” Pence exudes a low-key humility, but, McCawley told me, “he’s very ambitious, even calculating, about the steps he’ll take toward that goal.”

...McCawley, the newspaper editor, told me that, while Pence was growing up, Columbus, “like many Indiana communities, still had vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan.” The group had ruled the state’s government in the twenties, and then gone underground. In Columbus, landlords refused to rent or sell homes to African-Americans until [major engine manufacturer] Cummins’s owners demanded that they do so. Gregory Pence insisted that the town “was not racist,” but contended that there had been anti-Catholic prejudice. Protestant kids had thrown stones at him, he recalled. “We were discriminated against,” Pence’s mother added.

...In 1979, during Pence’s junior year in college, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, to mobilize Christian voters as a political force. Pence voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, but he soon joined the march of many Christians toward the Republican Party. The Moral Majority’s co-founder, Paul Weyrich, a Midwestern Catholic, established numerous institutions of the conservative movement, including the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of far-right congressional members, which Pence eventually led. Weyrich condemned homosexuality, feminism, abortion, and government-imposed racial integration, and he partnered with some controversial figures, including Laszlo Pasztor, a former member of a pro-Nazi party in Hungary. When Weyrich died, in 2008, Pence praised him as a “friend and mentor” and a “founding father of the modern conservative movement,” from whom he had “benefitted immeasurably.”

...Pence also began observing what’s known as the Billy Graham rule, meaning that he never dined alone with another woman, or attended an event in mixed company where alcohol was served unless his wife was present. Critics have argued that this approach reduces women to sexual temptresses and precludes men from working with women on an equal basis. A Trump campaign official said that he found the Pences’ dynamic “a little creepy.” But Kellyanne Conway defended him vigorously, telling me, “I’ve been a female top adviser of his for years, and never felt excluded or dismissed.” She went on, “Most wives would appreciate a loyal husband who puts them first. People are trying to bloody and muddy him, but talk about narrow-minded-- to judge his marriage!”

...Even as Pence argued for less government interference in business, he pushed for policies that intruded on people’s private lives. In the early nineties, he joined the board of the Indiana Family Institute, a far-right group that supported the criminalization of abortion and campaigned against equal rights for homosexuals. And, while Pence ran the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, it published an essay arguing that unmarried women should be denied access to birth control. “What these people are really after is contraceptives,” Vi Simpson, the former Democratic minority leader of the Indiana State Senate, told me. In 2012, after serving twenty-eight years in the legislature, she ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with the gubernatorial candidate John R. Gregg, who lost the election to Pence. Simpson believes that Pence wants to reverse women’s economic and political advances. “He’s on a mission,” she said.

Pence’s true gift was not as a thinker but as a talker. In 1992, he became a host on conservative talk radio, which had been booming since the F.C.C., in 1987, repealed the Fairness Doctrine and stopped requiring broadcasters to provide all sides of controversial issues. At a time when bombastic, angry voices proliferated, Pence was different. Like Reagan, who had become his political hero, he could present even extreme positions in genial, nonthreatening terms. “I’m a conservative, but I’m not mad about it,” he liked to say. He welcomed guests of all political stripes, and called himself “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”

“His radio career gave him great statewide name recognition,” Jeff Smulyan, the C.E.O. of Emmis Communications, on whose radio stations Pence’s program aired, said. “He’s likable, and a great self-promoter.” Smulyan, a Democrat, added, “I’m not sure how he’d fare in a detailed policy debate, but Mike knows what Mike believes.” In 1994, Pence was on eighteen Emmis stations, five days a week. By then, he’d lost weight and had three children; he’d also amassed a Rolodex full of conservative connections and established a national network of wealthy funders. In 2000, when a Republican congressman in northern Indiana vacated his seat, Pence ran as the Party favorite, on a platform that included a promise to oppose “any effort to recognize homosexuals as a discrete and insular minority entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws.” He won, by a twelve-point margin.

Once Pence got to Washington, Conway said, his background “in the think-tank-slash-media axis really equipped him to defend and explain an argument in a full-throated way.” Pence was in demand on the conservative speaking circuit, and frequently appeared on Sunday talk shows. “He was invited to Heritage, gun owners’ groups, property-rights groups, pro-life groups, and pro-Israel groups,” Conway recalled. “People started to see an authentic, affable conservative who was not in a bad mood about it.” Michael Leppert, a Democratic lobbyist in Indiana, saw Pence differently. “His politics were always way outside the mainstream,” Leppert said. “He just does it with a smile on his face instead of a snarl.”

Pence served twelve years in Congress, but never authored a single successful bill. His sights, according to Leppert, were always “on the national ticket.” He gained attention by challenging his own party’s leaders, both in Congress and in the George W. Bush Administration, from the right. He broke with the vast majority of his Republican peers by opposing Bush’s expansion of Medicaid coverage for prescription drugs, along with the No Child Left Behind initiative and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the government’s emergency bailout of banks. Conway calls him “a rebel with a cause.” In 2004, the House’s most conservative members elected him to head their caucus, the Republican Study Committee. Pence joked that the group was so alien to the Party’s mainstream that running it was like leading a “Star Trek” convention. “He was as far right as you could go without falling off the earth,” Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional staff member, who has become a Trump critic, told me. “But he never really put a foot wrong politically. Beneath the Bible-thumping earnestness was a calculating and ambitious pol.”

In 2006, Pence boldly challenged the House Minority Leader at the time, John Boehner, a more centrist Republican from Ohio, for his post. Pence got wiped out, but in 2008 Boehner—perhaps trying to contain Pence’s ambition—asked him to serve as the Republican Conference chair, the Party’s third-highest-ranking post in the House. The chair presides over weekly meetings in which Republican House members discuss policy and legislative goals. Pence used the platform to set the Party’s message on a rightward course, raise money, and raise his profile.

After Barack Obama was elected President, Pence became an early voice of the Tea Party movement, which opposed taxes and government spending with an angry edge. Pence’s tone grew more militant, too. In 2011, he made the evening news by threatening to shut down the federal government unless it defunded Planned Parenthood. Some Hoosiers were unnerved to see footage of Pence standing amid rowdy protesters at a Tea Party rally and yelling, “Shut it down!” His radicalism, however, only boosted his national profile. Pence became best known for fiercely opposing abortion. He backed “personhood” legislation that would ban it under all circumstances, including rape and incest, unless a woman’s life was at stake. He sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have made it legal for government-funded hospitals to turn away a dying woman who needed an abortion. (Later, as governor of Indiana, he signed a bill barring women from aborting a physically abnormal fetus; the bill also required fetal burial or cremation, including after a miscarriage. A federal judge recently found the law unconstitutional.)

Pence’s close relationship with dozens of conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political organization, was crucial to his rise. A key link to these groups was provided by Marc Short, the current White House official, who in 2008 became Pence’s chief of staff at the Republican Conference. Short had grown up in moneyed conservative circles in Virginia, where his father had helped finance the growth of the Republican Party, and he had run a group for conservative students, Young America’s Foundation, and spent several years as a Republican Senate aide before joining Pence’s staff. His wife, as it happened, worked for the Charles Koch Foundation, and he admired the brothers’ anti-government ideology. A former White House colleague described Short to me as “a pod person” who “really delivered Pence to the Kochs.”

...Pence, who had called global warming “a myth” created by environmentalists in their “latest Chicken Little attempt to raise taxes,” took up the Kochs’ cause. He not only signed their pledge but urged others to do so as well. He gave speeches denouncing the cap-and-trade bill—which passed the House but got held up in the Senate—as a “declaration of war on the Midwest.” His language echoed that of the Koch groups. Americans for Prosperity called the bill “the largest excise tax in history,” and Pence called it “the largest tax increase in American history.” (Neither statement was true.) He used a map created by the Heritage Foundation, which the Kochs supported, to make his case, and he urged House Republicans to hold “energy summits” opposing the legislation in their districts, sending them home over the summer recess with kits to bolster their presentations.

...Pence's tenure as governor nearly destroyed his political career. He had promised Oesterle and other members of the state’s Republican business establishment that he would continue in the path of his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, a well-liked fiscal conservative who had called for a “truce” on divisive social issues. “Pence was very accommodating,” Oesterle said. But after he was elected he began taking controversial far-right stands that, critics believed, were geared more toward building his national profile than toward serving Indiana voters.

At first, Pence highlighted fiscal conservatism. In 2013, he proposed cutting the state income tax. An internal report by Americans for Prosperity described the proposal as an example of the Kochs’ “model states” program “in action.” Indiana Republicans, who had majorities in both legislative chambers, initially balked at the tax cut, deeming it irresponsible. But Americans for Prosperity acted as a force multiplier for Pence, much as it is now promising to do for Trump’s proposed federal tax cuts. The group mounted an expensive campaign that included fifty rallies, two six-figure television-ad blitzes, and phone-bank calls and door-to-door advocacy in fifty-three of Indiana’s ninety-two counties. Eventually, the legislature went along with what Pence often describes as “the largest income-tax cut in the state’s history,” even though Indiana already had one of the lowest income taxes in the country, and had cut it only once before. Trump has recently described Pence’s record as a template for the White House’s tax plan, saying, “Indiana is a tremendous example of the prosperity that is unleashed when we cut taxes.” But, in the view of Andrew Downs, the Indiana political scientist, “the tax cuts were fairly meaningless.” Residents earning fifty thousand dollars a year received a tax cut of about $3.50 per month. Pence claimed that the cut stimulated the economy, but John Zody, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, told me, “Our per-capita income is thirty-eighth in the nation, and not climbing.” The state recently had to increase its gas tax by ten cents per gallon, to repair its crumbling infrastructure.

In a few surprising instances, Pence veered from conservative orthodoxy. In 2014, he broke with many other Republican governors and agreed to expand Medicaid in Indiana. He declared that his proposal was “the kind of health-care reform that puts working Hoosiers in the driver’s seat.” He was no fan of Obamacare: when it passed, he likened the blow to 9/11. Nevertheless, Pence negotiated with the Obama Administration and established waivers that made the expansion acceptable to him. Among other things, all Indiana residents were required to demonstrate “personal responsibility” by paying something toward the cost of their medical services. Critics argued that such measures were needlessly punitive toward poor residents. Americans for Prosperity, which objects to any form of government health care, gently reproached Pence for “meeting Washington’s demands.” But the Medicaid-expansion plan was, and remains, popular in the state.

After this apostasy, Pence tilted back toward the right. At the last minute, he killed an application for an eighty-million-dollar federal grant to start a statewide preschool program. Education officials in Pence’s own administration favored the grant, but conservative opponents of secular public education had complained. When reporters asked Pence about his decision, he said only that the federal government had attached “too many strings.” But, as Matthew Tully, a columnist at the Indianapolis Star, wrote, “he could not name one.” Eventually, after widespread criticism, Pence reapplied for the grant. Tully concluded that Pence had a “fatal flaw”-- he was “too political and ideological” to be a good governor. “His focus was on the next step up, not the job at hand,” Tully wrote.

Political handicappers noticed that Pence was spending a lot of time taking trips to states with important Presidential primaries and mingling with big out-of-state donors. In the summer of 2014, Pence spoke at an Americans for Prosperity summit in Dallas. At the event, he stood by Short’s side and declared himself “grateful to have enjoyed” David Koch’s support. That fall, Pence reached out to Nick Ayers, a young, sharp-elbowed political consultant, to see if he would help him in a 2016 Presidential run. Nothing came of it, but Pence clearly had White House ambitions.

In the spring of 2015, Pence signed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he presented as innocuous. “He said it protected religious freedom, and who’s against that?” Oesterle recalled. But then a photograph of the closed signing session surfaced. It showed Pence surrounded by monks and nuns, along with three of the most virulently anti-gay activists in the state. The image went viral. Indiana residents began examining the law more closely, and discovered that it essentially legalized discrimination against homosexuals by businesses in the state.

“The No. 1 challenge we face in Indiana is the ability to attract and retain talented people,” Oesterle said. “If the state is seen as bigoted to certain members of the community, it makes the job monumentally harder.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Oesterle said, “was not an issue of Pence’s creation”—it had “gurgled out” of the far-right fringe of the Indiana legislature. But, he added, “there was a lack of leadership.” In his view, Pence should have prevented it and other extreme bills from moving forward. “You can see it happening in Washington now,” Oesterle said. “He’s not that effective a leader, or administrator. Extremists grabbed the initiative.”

The outcry over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was enormous. Gay-rights groups condemned the bill and urged boycotts of the state. Pete Buttigieg, the young gay mayor of South Bend, who is a rising figure in the Democratic Party, told me that he tried to talk to Pence about the legislation, which he felt would cause major economic damage to Indiana. “But he got this look in his eye,” Buttigieg recalled. “He just inhabits a different reality. It’s very difficult for him to lay aside the social agenda. He’s a zealot.”

In an effort to quell criticism, Pence consented, against the advice of his staff, to be interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on his Sunday-morning show on ABC. Stephanopoulos asked him five times if it was now legal in Indiana for businesses to discriminate against homosexuals, and each time Pence was evasive. Pence also sidestepped when Stephanopoulos asked him if he personally supported discrimination against gays. “What killed him was his unwillingness to take a clear position,” Oesterle said. “You saw the conflict between his ideology and his ambition. If he’d just said, ‘Look, I think people should have the right to fire gay people,’ he would have been labelled a rigid ideologue, but he wouldn’t have been mocked.”

Smulyan, the broadcasting executive, began getting calls from acquaintances all over the country, asking what was wrong with Indiana. The hashtag #BoycottIndiana appeared on Twitter’s list of trending topics, and remained there for days. Alarmed business executives from many of the state’s most prominent companies, including Cummins, Eli Lilly, Salesforce, and Anthem, joined civic leaders in expressing disapproval. Companies began cancelling conventions, and threatening to reverse plans to expand in the state. The Indiana business community foresaw millions of dollars in losses. When the N.C.A.A., which is based in Indianapolis, declared its opposition to the legislation, the pressure became intolerable. Even the Republican establishment turned on Pence. A headline in the Star, published the Tuesday after the Stephanopoulos interview, demanded, “fix this now.”

Within days, the legislature had pushed through a less discriminatory version of the bill, and Pence signed it, before hastily leaving town for the weekend. But he clearly had not anticipated the outrage he’d triggered, and then he had tried to save his career at the expense of his professed principles. Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host, told me that Pence’s reversal was “almost the worst conservative betrayal I’ve witnessed in my career.” He added, “He had no chance at national office after that, other than getting on the Trump ticket.” Similarly, Michael Maurer, the owner of the Indianapolis Business Journal, who is a Republican but not a hard-line social conservative, said, “It just exploded in his face. His polls were terrible. I bet he’d never get elected again in Indiana. But he went from being a likely loser as an incumbent governor to Vice-President of the United States. We’re still reeling!”

...Trump handily won the Indiana primary. Pence, who had tepidly endorsed Ted Cruz, switched to Trump. Pence’s history with Trump, however, was strained. In 2011, Pence had gone to Trump Tower in Manhattan, seeking a campaign donation. Trump brought up some gossip-- the wife of Mitch Daniels, the outgoing governor of Indiana, had reportedly left him for another man, then reunited with her husband. According to the Times, Trump announced that he’d never take back a wife who had been unfaithful. Pence reacted stiffly, and their conservation grew awkward. Trump gave Pence a small contribution, but the coarse New York billionaire and the prim Indiana evangelical appeared to be on different wavelengths.

Nevertheless, in 2016, political insiders in Indiana began hearing that Pence would welcome a spot on the Trump ticket. “There was no doubt he’d say yes,” Tony Samuel, the vice-chair of the Trump campaign in the state, who was a lobbyist for Centaur and other companies, told me. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman at that point, arranged for Trump to meet Pence, and urged Trump to pick him. Pence was seen as a bridge to Christian conservatives, an asset in the Midwest, and a connection to the powerful Koch network. Kellyanne Conway, who had done polling work for the Kochs, pushed for Pence, too, as did Stephen Bannon, although private e-mails recently obtained by BuzzFeed indicate that he considered the choice a Faustian bargain-- “an unfortunate necessity.”

Still, Trump remained wary. According to a former campaign aide, he was disapproving when he learned how little money Pence had. In 2004, the oil firm that Pence’s father had partly owned had filed for bankruptcy. Mike Pence’s shares of the company’s stock, which he had valued at up to a quarter of a million dollars, became worthless. In 2016, according to a campaign-finance disclosure form, Pence had one bank account, which held less than fifteen thousand dollars.

But in July Pence found a way to please Trump when he played golf with him at Trump’s club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Recognizing that Trump was susceptible to flattery, he told the media that Trump “beat me like a drum.”

Yet, in a phone conversation that I had with Trump during this period, he told me that he was torn about the choice. He noted repeatedly that Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, had been “loyal” to him. When I asked Trump if he shared Pence’s deeply conservative social views, he became uncharacteristically silent.

Trump came closer to picking Christie than is generally known. On July 11th, Christie appeared at a campaign event with Trump. Afterward, the Trump campaign informed him that the choice was down to him or Pence, so he needed to “get ready.” The next day, Trump flew to Indiana to do a campaign event with Pence. A tire on Trump’s plane developed a flat, so he and his son Eric, who had accompanied him, decided to stay the night. They joined the Pences for dinner at an Indianapolis restaurant. The foursome emerged looking happy. (Samuel, who was at the restaurant, told me that Trump tipped the chef a couple hundred dollars.)

At dawn on July 13th, Ivanka and Don, Jr., flew to Indianapolis to join their father for breakfast with the Pences at the governor’s mansion. The Times soon reported that Trump had asked Pence if he would accept the job, and that Pence had responded, “In a heartbeat.”

...Before Pence’s trip to Bedminster, he had asked his brother Gregory to meet him at a Burger King. “He said, ‘Donald Trump wants to talk to me,’ ” Gregory recalled. They both knew what it was about. “I told him, ‘You have to go, you have no choice,’ ” Gregory said. As he saw it, his brother also had no choice about saying yes, if picked: “When your party’s nominee asks you to be the running mate, you have to do it.” But it was a gamble. As Gregory put it to me, “If he lost, he had no money, and he had three kids in college. He took out student loans for the kids. He’s got a retirement account, but I was afraid he’d run out of money in just a couple of weeks. He’d have to get a job. He was rolling the dice.” Some politicians in Indiana were surprised that Trump wanted to pick Pence, who was flailing as governor, and that Pence wanted to run with Trump. “The one thing you could count on with Pence was interpersonal decency, which made it strange that he joined the Trump ticket, the most indecent ticket any party’s ever put together,” Pete Buttigieg said. “But, really, he had nowhere else to go. His chances of getting reëlected were fifty-fifty at best.”

By July 14th, Trump’s aides had leaked that he was about to pick Pence, who had flown to New York for the announcement. But that night, as CNN reported, Trump called his aides to see if he could back out of his decision. The next morning, Trump called Christie and said, “They’re telling me I have to pick him. It’s central casting. He looks like a Vice-President.” A few hours later, Trump announced Pence as his running mate.

Several days later, at the Republican National Convention, Newt Gingrich, who had also been passed over for the Vice-Presidency, found himself backstage next to Trump while Pence was giving his acceptance speech. “Isn’t he just perfect?” Trump asked Gingrich. “Straight from central casting.”

The awkwardness between Pence and Trump didn’t entirely dissipate. When the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, revealing Trump’s boast about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Karen Pence was horrified. According to a former campaign aide, Pence refused to take Trump’s calls and sent him a letter saying that he and Karen, as Christians, were deeply offended by his actions and needed to make an “assessment” about whether to remain with the campaign. They urged Trump to pray. When Trump and Pence finally did talk, Pence told him that his wife still had “huge problems” with his behavior. But in public Pence was forgiving, saying, “I am grateful that he has expressed remorse and apologized to the American people.” (A Pence spokesman has denied that there was any friction over the incident.

Pence exceeded expectations in the Vice-Presidential debate, and traversed the Midwest tirelessly. “He did an amazing job,” Bannon said. “Lots of conservative groups had questions about Trump. He answered those questions.” The Kochs were delighted that one of their favorite politicians had joined the ticket, although, because of Trump’s stance against wealthy donors, Pence and the Kochs agreed to cancel a speech that he had been scheduled to give at their donor summit that August. The Kochs continued to withhold financial support from Trump, but Short, the former Koch operative, became a top adviser to Pence on the campaign. Some billionaires in the Kochs’ donor network-- such as the hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer, who has also financed Bannon’s ventures-- began backing Trump.

The Koch network gained even further sway after Trump won the Presidency. Three days after the election, Trump pushed aside Christie, who had been overseeing his transition team, and put Pence in charge, with Short as a top deputy. Trump had promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, but he had no experience governing, and few political contacts. He was also superstitious, and during his campaign he had deflected discussions about post-election staffing, fearing that it would bring bad luck. Christie’s team had been quietly gathering résumés and making plans for months, but Pence’s team threw out the research, dumping thirty binders of material into the trash. “Donald Trump ran against the establishment, but there was a vacuum,” a member of the earlier transition team said. “Movement conservatives jumped in. There was strong think-tank participation from Heritage and others who saw the opportunity.”

Trump began to appoint an extraordinary number of officials with ties to the Kochs and to Pence, especially in positions that affected Koch Industries financially, such as those dealing with regulatory, environmental, and fiscal policy. Short, who a few months earlier had tried to enlist the Kochs to stop Trump, joined the White House as its director of legislative affairs. Scott Pruitt, the militantly anti-regulatory attorney general of Oklahoma, who had been heavily supported by the Kochs, was appointed director of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, in turn, placed Patrick Traylor, a lawyer for Koch Industries and other fossil-fuel companies, in charge of the E.P.A.’s enforcement of key anti-pollution laws. As the Times has reported, a document called “A Roadmap to Repeal,” written by Koch operatives, has guided the E.P.A.’s reversal of Obama Administration clean-air and climate regulations. Don McGahn, who had done legal work for Freedom Partners, became White House counsel. Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress, who had been a major member of the Kochs’ donor network and a supporter of Pence, was named Secretary of Education. The new director of the C.I.A. was Mike Pompeo, the congressman who represented Charles Koch’s district, in Wichita, Kansas; before Pompeo ran for office, the Kochs had invested in his aerospace business. Pompeo, the former transition-team member said, “wasn’t even on Trump’s radar, but he was brought in to meet him and got appointed, like, the next day.” A recent analysis by the Checks & Balances Project found that sixteen high-ranking officials in the Trump White House had ties to the Kochs. The pattern continued among lower-level political appointees, including in Pence’s office, which was stocked with Koch alumni. Pence reportedly consulted with Charles Koch before hiring his speechwriter, Stephen Ford, who previously worked at Freedom Partners.

Senator Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat, believes that the Kochs “will stick one hundred of their own people into the government—and Trump will never notice.” As a result, he said, “the signs of a rapprochement are everywhere.” Whitehouse continued, “One by one, all the things that Trump campaigned on that annoyed the Koch brothers are being thrown overboard. And one by one the Koch brothers’ priorities are moving up the list.” Trump’s populist, nationalist agenda has largely been replaced by the agenda of the corporate right. Trump has made little effort at infrastructure reform, and he abandoned his support for a “border-adjustment tax” after the Koch network spent months campaigning against it, and after Pence and Short discussed it privately with Charles Koch at a meeting in Colorado Springs this summer. Bannon’s proposal to create a higher tax bracket for citizens earning upward of five million dollars was dropped. The Kochs enthusiastically support the White House’s proposed tax-cut package, which, according to most nonpartisan analyses, will disproportionately benefit the super-rich. (The proposed elimination of the estate tax alone would give the Koch brothers’ heirs a windfall of billions of dollars.)

...Mark Knoller, who has covered the White House for CBS since Gerald Ford’s Presidency, said of Pence, “He’s the most publicly deferential to his President of any V.P. I can remember.” At Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting, Pence said, “This is the greatest privilege of my life, to serve as Vice-President to a President who’s keeping his word to the American people.” Pence readily complied when Trump asked him to stage a protest at an N.F.L. game in Indianapolis on October 8th, by leaving the stadium when some players refused to stand for the national anthem. (Pence’s trip reportedly cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

In private, however, Pence has become a back channel for government figures who are frustrated by the impulsiveness and inattention of a President who won’t read more than a page or two of bullet points. Erick Erickson, a conservative commentator who admires Pence, told me, “Everyone knows that Mike Pence can get the job done, and the President can’t, but no one can say it.” According to NBC, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently became so enraged by the President’s incompetence that he called him “a fucking moron” in front of others, and threatened to quit. In an effort to calm Tillerson, and prevent yet another high-level resignation, Pence reportedly “counselled” the Secretary of State on how to manage Trump, suggesting that he criticize him only privately.

“Trump thinks Pence is great,” Bannon told me. But, according to a longtime associate, Trump also likes to “let Pence know who’s boss.” A staff member from Trump’s campaign recalls him mocking Pence’s religiosity. He said that, when people met with Trump after stopping by Pence’s office, Trump would ask them, “Did Mike make you pray?” Two sources also recalled Trump needling Pence about his views on abortion and homosexuality. During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.” When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, “Don’t ask that guy-- he wants to hang them all!”

...Many Americans have debated whether the country would be better off with Pence as President. From a purely partisan viewpoint, Harold Ickes, a longtime Democratic operative, argues that-- putting aside the fear that Trump might start a nuclear war-- “Democrats should hope Trump stays in office,” because he makes a better foil, and because Pence might work more effectively with Congress and be more successful at advancing the far right’s agenda. Newt Gingrich predicts that Pence will probably get a chance to do so. “I think he’s the most likely Republican nominee in 2024,” he said. Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to the former Vice-President Joe Biden, is skeptical of this, given Trump’s accumulating baggage. “There is no success for Mike Pence unless Trump works-- he cannot run far enough or fast enough to not get hit by the falling tree,” Klain said. “But he may think he can.” Evidently, the next chapter is on Pence’s mind. Over the fireplace in the Vice-President’s residence, he has hung a plaque with a passage from the Bible: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I don't know a lot of people in Pence's world so I reached out to a friend who does, Frank Schaeffer. "As a former evangelical right wing leader myself (in the 1970s and 80s as my dad Francis Schaeffer’s nepotistic sidekick) today," he told me early this morning, "Mike Pence is transparent to me. I know the routine: a high moral attitude about everything-- except the dirty far right laundry hidden in the basement. To understand Pence you need to understand that he’s an evangelical far right Reconstructionist. Most theologians argue that the New Testament Law of Love “corrects” or “completes” the Old Testament Law of Retribution. Not the Reconstructionists like Pence. Here’s a good summary of the Reconstructionists’ extremism from Frederick Clarkson (coauthor of Challenging the Christian Right):
“Epitomizing the Reconstructionist idea of Biblical ‘warfare’ is the centrality of capital punishment under Biblical Law. Doctrinal leaders (notably Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen) call for the death penalty for a wide range of crimes in addition to such contemporary capital crimes as rape, kidnapping, and murder. Death is also the punishment for apostasy (abandonment of the faith), heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, astrology, adultery, ‘sodomy or homosexuality,’ incest, striking a parent, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, and, in the case of women, “unchastity before marriage.” According to North, women who have abortions should be publicly executed, “along with those who advised them to abort their children.”
This is WHO Pence is at heart. The kind smarmy evangelical exterior hides the cold heart of a Christofascist thug. To Pence, Trump is just a stepping stone to theocracy."

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What's More Flawed? The Iran Nuclear Agreement, American Korean Policy Or Señor Trumpanzee?


The video above from CNN's Reliable Sources is important to watch even though it isn't what this post is about. It's context, important contest, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel explaining the despite Trumpanzee's blustering and threatening media licenses are not in jeopardy and that the FCC is more interested in the First Amendment than in Trump's fascist instincts to force the media to support his authoritarian approach. "The agency," she said, "will not revoke a broadcast license simply because the president is dissatisfied with the licensee's coverage."

A new poll for CBS News from YouGov, released yesterday, shows more dissatisfaction on the part of most Americans with Trump, including with the cavalier and careless way Trump is handling foreign policy.
[W]orries about global conflict are widespread, beyond the ranks of the president's strongest backers. Many Americans-- and most of the president's opponents-- feel like the U.S. could be on the path towards another world war. Among Americans overall, 30 percent feel the nation is, and another 48 percent say maybe, so together, three in four feel it's at least a possibility. Just two in 10 say the U.S. is not headed towards another global conflict. The Nation Tracker has looked at the groups of President Trump's supporters and non-supporters since the start of his term. A majority of all groups feel the prospect of another world war rates at least a maybe, and his stronger opponents are the most likely to feel it is.

...In a stark reminder of how differently supporters and detractors see the world, those who rate things as going great or good for the Administration say that the president's policy achievements are a big part of why. Those who say things are bad say he hasn't gotten enough done, and list things the president says and how he handles himself as a big part of why they think things are going badly.

On North Korea in particular, Americans today continue to think North Korea is a threat that can be contained by the U.S. and its allies. Six in 10 think so, compared to less than one-third that thinks North Korea requires military action soon. Similarly, six in 10 think that war with North Korea is still avoidable rather than inevitable.

There are big differences in views of the president's approach, depending on levels of support for him generally. Most of his strongest supporters want him to threaten North Korea, and almost all of them say they're willing to at least tolerate his doing so. Those supporting him more conditionally are more apt to describe themselves as willing to tolerate that, though they don't really want him to threaten the North.  In contrast, Americans who do not support President Trump stand strongly against his making threats to North Korea. Americans are also mixed on what the president should do with the Iran deal. Three in ten say they want him to redo it, and almost as many describe themselves as are willing to tolerate it if he does, though they don't really want him to. Four in 10 do not want him to redo the deal.

I hope you read Nick Kristof's NY Times column yesterday about his 5-day trip to North Korea. "The only way into North Korea," he wrote, "is on daily flights from Beijing on creaky Russian planes. The in-flight entertainment is a video of a North Korean military orchestra playing classical music, interspersed with scenes of missiles being launched... North Korea is the most rigidly controlled country in the world, with no open dissent, no religion and no civil society, and there is zero chance that anyone will express dissatisfaction with the government."

Being on the ground in a country lets you see things and absorb their power: the speaker on the walls of homes to feed propaganda; the pins that every adult wears with portraits of members of the Kim family; the daily power outages, but also signs that the economy is growing despite international sanctions; the Confucian emphasis on dignity that makes officials particularly resent Trump’s personal attacks on Kim; the hardening of attitudes since my last visit, in 2005; and the bizarre confidence that North Korea can not only survive a nuclear war with the U.S. but also emerge as victor.

At one factory, we came upon workers doing their “political study.” North Koreans explained that they have political study for two hours a day, plus most of the day on Saturday, so I asked what they focused on these days. “We must fight against the Americans!” one woman answered earnestly. And then the North Koreans in the room dissolved into laughter, perhaps because of the oddness of saying this to Americans.

A visit humanizes North Koreans, who outside the country sometimes come across as robots. In person, you are reminded that they laugh, flirt, worry, love and yearn to impress.

A military officer greeted me with a bone-crushing handshake, and I asked if that was meant to intimidate and convey to the Yankee imperialists that North Koreans are muscular supermen. He laughed in embarrassment, and when we ended the interview, he was much gentler.

I left North Korea fearing that we are far too complacent about the risk of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions. And that’s why reporting from within North Korea is crucial: There simply is no substitute for being in a place. It’s a lesson we should have learned from the run-up to the Iraq war, when the reporting was too often from the Washington echo chamber rather than the field. When the stakes are millions of lives and official communications channels are nonexistent, then journalism can sometimes serve as a bridge-- and as a warning.

...I have a sinking feeling in my gut, just as I had on the eve of the Iraq war, that our president may be careening blindly toward war. In that case, the job of journalists is to go out and report, however imperfectly, and try to ring alarm bells in the night.
How about over Iran? Another sinking feeling in the gut? This one is getting really confused. Was that T-Rex on State of the Union yesterday saying he wants the nuclear treaty with Iran to stay in place? Watch:

The Washington Post analysis of Trump's Iran move points to "a widening chasm of mutual disdain between the United States and its traditional allies. Trump sees them as self-interested freeloaders who must be reminded of U.S. power. They see him as an erratic force who must be managed as he squanders American leadership."
Last spring, as Trump prepared for his first overseas trip in May, White House aides outlined his game plan to assume the mantle of global primacy.

“One thing he has the ability to do is really bring people together and galvanize people around a common set of goals,” a senior adviser said in describing objectives for the 10-day tour that took Trump to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, Brussels and a G-20 meeting in Sicily.

Rather than a liability, Trump’s “unpredictability . . . is a real asset,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules. The new president, he said, was “sending one big message, which is America is ready to lead in the world again.”

Yet instead of leading, Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach has been a detour from the multilateral road the United States has traveled since World War II. And as Trump has left behind, or threatened to, the premier international agreements of this century, from the Paris climate accord to global trade alliances and now the Iran nuclear deal, he has not had many willing followers.

Among the exceptions, governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined Israel in praising what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump’s “courageous” decision on Iran.

Yet even those who have proclaimed him as a leader have sometimes not felt bound by his demands. Early in his administration, Trump gently chastised Israel for its West Bank settlements, saying that they “don’t help the process” and were not “a good thing for peace.” He has remained silent, however, as Netanyahu’s government, including as recently as last week, has approved additional settlements, leading some perplexed Israeli commentators to speculate on whether he made a “secret” deal with Netanyahu.
Worse yet, almost half (46%) the people self-identifying as Republicans actually want a preemptive war with North Korea, perhaps unable to comprehend what a nuclear bomb does. Or maybe just not caring. 77% of Democrats and 67% of independents oppose a preemptive war against North Korea. The same Quinnipiac poll shows that 40% of voters have confidence in the way Trump in handling North Korea; 57% do not, including 60% of independent voters.

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Not EVERYTHING Horrible And Disgusting In Government Can Be Blamed On Trump: Opioids


Tom Marino, the corrupt drug kingpin Trump wants to make Drug Czar

When you look at the list of the 30 counties with the worst prescription drug abuse problems in America-- counties where people are overdosing and dying from opioids like oxycodone, hydromorphone, codeine and fentanyl, you are also looking at a list of the counties in the Trumpist heartland that elected Trump president of the rest of us. (There is one outlier, Rio Arriba County in northern New Mexico, which voted for Clinton-- one out of 30.) This is the list of the 30 counties with the worst prescription drug problems and as you can see, 29 of them voted overwhelmingly for Señor Trumpanzee-- not 60-40... they're almost all in the 75% range. The county with the worst drug problem in America, Wyoming Co., West Virginia gave Trump 83.6% of its votes. Some Kentucky counties were even worse-- Leslie Co., for example, gave Trump 89.4% of its votes. These are the desperate and delusional people who listen to the rapacious monkey and believe every crazy, self-serving word that comes out of his filthy, unspeakably profane mouth.
1- Wyoming, WV- 83.6%
2- McDowell, WV- 74.7%
3- Boone, WV- 74.9%
4- Mingo, WV- 83.2%
5- Bell, KY- 79.9%
6- Dickenson, VA- 77.0%
7- Logan, WV- 80.1%
8- Floyd, KY- 72.5%
9- Carbon, UT- 66.3%
10- Mercer, WV- 75.8%
11- Powell, KY- 70.9%
12- Rio Arriba, NM- 24.2%
13- Russell, VA- 78.0%
14- Raleigh, WV- 74.5%
15- Cherokee, NC- 77.3%
16- Summers, WV- 71.1%
17- Johnson, KY- 84.0%
18- Tazewell, VA- 82.0%
19- Leslie, KY- 89.4%
20- Buchanan, VA- 79.1%
21- Martin, KY- 88.6%
22- Jackson, TN- 72.6%
23- Russell, KY- 84.0%
24- Wise, VA- 79.9%
25- Clay, KY- 86.6%
26- Clay, TN- 73.3%
27- Lincoln, WV- 75.2%
28- Webster, WV- 77.3%
29- Harlan, KY- 84.9%
30- Clinton, KY- 85.4%
Over 200,000 have died from a prescription opioid problem that's getting worse, not better. Yesterday, the Washington Post piublished a blockbuster piece by Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein: The Drug Industry's Triumph Over The Tea... even before Trump was elected with the intention of taking a meat cleaver to every rule and regulation he could find that protects consumers and the public at large from the predatory corporations that fund conservatives and conservatism. What they found, in short, was "a targeted lobbying effort able to persuade the Republican-controled to weaken "the DEA’s ability to go after drug distributors, even as opioid-related deaths continue to rise... In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation’s streets."
A handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation’s major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills, according to an investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes. The DEA had opposed the effort for years.

The law was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.

The chief advocate of the law that hobbled the DEA was Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who is now President Trump’s nominee to become the nation’s next drug czar. Marino spent years trying to move the law through Congress. It passed after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) negotiated a final version with the DEA.

Hatch has taken $2,767,140 from the drug sector, more than any member of Congress in history who has not run for president. So far this year he's the #1 recipient of drug industry bribes-- $310,199.
For years, some drug distributors were fined for repeatedly ignoring warnings from the DEA to shut down suspicious sales of hundreds of millions of pills, while they racked up billions of dollars in sales.

The new law makes it virtually impossible for the DEA to freeze suspicious narcotic shipments from the companies, according to internal agency and Justice Department documents and an independent assessment by the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in a soon-to-be-published law review article. That powerful tool had allowed the agency to immediately prevent drugs from reaching the street.

Political action committees representing the industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who sponsored or co-sponsored four versions of the bill, including nearly $100,000 to Marino and $177,000 to Hatch. Overall, the drug industry spent $106 million lobbying Congress on the bill and other legislation between 2014 and 2016, according to lobbying reports.

“The drug industry, the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors and chain drugstores, have an influence over Congress that has never been seen before,” said Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who who ran the DEA’s division responsible for regulating the drug industry and led a decade-long campaign of aggressive enforcement until he was forced out of the agency in 2015. “I mean, to get Congress to pass a bill to protect their interests in the height of an opioid epidemic just shows me how much influence they have.”

Besides the sponsors and co-sponsors of the bill, few lawmakers knew the true impact the law would have. It sailed through Congress and was passed by unanimous consent, a parliamentary procedure reserved for bills considered to be noncontroversial. The White House was equally unaware of the bill’s import when President Barack Obama signed it into law, according to interviews with former senior administration officials.

Top officials at the White House and the Justice Department have declined to discuss how the bill came to pass.

Michael Botticelli, who led the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time, said neither Justice nor the DEA objected to the bill, removing a major obstacle to the president’s approval.

“We deferred to DEA, as is common practice,” he said.

The bill also was reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Neither the DEA nor the Justice Department informed OMB about the policy change in the bill,” a former senior OMB official with knowledge of the issue said recently. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of internal White House deliberations.
Those refusing to comment on what happened include President Obama, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Rep. Marino, then top DEA official Chuck Rosenberg and DEA’s former associate chief counsel, D. Linden Barber, who, basically, wrote the bill. Cute.
With a few words, the new law changed four decades of DEA practice. Previously, the DEA could freeze drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community, giving the agency broad authority. Now, the DEA must demonstrate that a company’s actions represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a much higher bar.

“There’s no way that we could meet that burden, the determination that those drugs are going to be an immediate threat, because immediate, by definition, means right now,” Rannazzisi said.

Today, Rannazzisi is a consultant for a team of lawyers suing the opioid industry. Separately, 41 state attorneys general have banded together to investigate the industry. Hundreds of counties, cities and towns also are suing.

“This is an industry that’s out of control. If they don’t follow the law in drug supply, and diversion occurs, people die. That’s just it, people die,” he said. “And what they’re saying is, ‘The heck with your compliance. We’ll just get the law changed.’”

Joe Rannazzisi came to DEA headquarters as an outsider with an attitude. He worked as an agent in Detroit, where he watched prescription drugs flood small towns and cities in the Midwest.

Hundreds of millions of pain pills, such as Vicodin and oxycodone, ended up in the hands of dealers and illegal users.

Rogue doctors wrote fraudulent prescriptions for enormous numbers of pills, and complicit pharmacists filled them without question, often for cash. Internet pharmacies, supplied by drug distribution companies, allowed users to obtain drugs without seeing a doctor.

“There were just too many bad practitioners, too many bad pharmacies, and too many bad wholesalers and distributors,” Rannazzisi recalled.

Rannazzisi, a burly, tough-talking Long Islander, was assigned to head the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control. He had a law degree, a pharmacy degree and had spent years navigating the DEA’s bureaucracy.

The office was seen as a backwater operation whose 600 investigators had toiled for years over prescription drug cases with little or none of the recognition that went to those who investigated illegal street drugs like heroin or cocaine.

Rannazzisi brought an aggressive approach to the diversion control office.

The year he took over, Linden Barber was promoted to run diversion control’s litigation office, which crafted the legal arguments that supported the team. He was a former Army lawyer who served in Iraq. The cadre of attorneys who worked for him saw him as a tough litigator unafraid of an influential industry.

Barber and Rannazzisi formed a powerful combination that the drug companies would learn to fear. “Early on he did really good work,” Rannazzisi said. “He jumped into the Internet cases when he first came here.”

After shutting down the Internet pharmacies, Rannazzisi and Barber pursued the pain management clinics that replaced them and soon became as ubiquitous in South Florida as the golden arches of McDonald’s. To get there, drug dealers and users would take the “Oxy Express” down Interstate 75.

“Lines of customers coming in and going out,” said Matthew Murphy, a veteran DEA supervisor in Boston whom Rannazzisi hired to be chief of pharmaceutical investigations. “Armed guards. Vanloads of people from the Appalachia region driving down to Florida to get a prescription from a pain clinic and then get the prescription filled, going back to wherever they’re from.”

Back home, each 30-pill vial of oxycodone was worth $900.

DEA officials realized they needed a new strategy to confront this new kind of drug dealer.

“They weren’t slinging crack on the corner,” Rannazzisi said. “These were professionals who were doing it. They were just drug dealers in lab coats.”

Rather than focusing on bad doctors and pharmacists, Rannazzisi and Barber decided to target the companies feeding the pill mills: the wholesale drug distributors, some of them massive multinational corporations.

“I developed the legal framework to pursue actions against distributors,” Barber would later say. “We initiated a record number of administrative actions; the government collected record-setting civil penalties.”

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, drug companies are required to report unusually large or otherwise suspicious orders. Failure to do so can result in fines and the suspension or loss of DEA registrations to manufacture or distribute narcotics.

When the DEA suspected that a company was ignoring suspicious sales, the agency filed an “order to show cause.” That gave a company at least 30 days to explain why the agency should not revoke its registration.

In the most egregious cases, the DEA employed an “immediate suspension order,” allowing the agency to lock up a distributor’s drugs. The orders instantly halted all commerce in controlled substances on the grounds that the drugs constituted an “imminent danger” to the community.

Under Rannazzisi in the mid-2000s, the DEA repeatedly warned the companies that they were shipping unusually large volumes of opioids to customers around the country. Despite the warnings, some companies continued the shipments.

The DEA soon began bringing enforcement actions against distributors. In 2007, the agency moved against McKesson, the nation’s largest drug distributor and the fifth-largest corporation in the nation, for failing to report hundreds of suspicious orders placed by Internet pharmacies. McKesson settled the case, paying a $13.2 million fine.

In 2008, Rannazzisi and Barber targeted Cardinal Health, another large drug distributor, for filling “blatantly suspicious” orders from online drugstores. Cardinal paid a $34 million fine.

The DEA would ultimately bring at least 17 cases against 13 drug distributors and one manufacturer. The government said it assessed nearly $425 million in fines over a decade. Those fines reflect only a small portion of the hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue the companies receive each year.

“It’s a cost of doing business,” Murphy said.

Along the way, Rannazzisi was making powerful enemies in the industry.

“They definitely didn’t like Joe Rannazzisi,” Murphy said. “Not at all. He wasn’t viewed as a person that they could work with. And maybe that was appropriate. He didn’t want to work with industry much.”

Rannazzisi was unmoved by their complaints.

“We’re worried about their feelings being hurt because we were doing our job?” he said. “We were making them comply. We were holding their feet to the fire.”

Murphy recalled a telling meeting with drug company representatives.

He said the president of one of the drug companies sat on the other side of the table, put his hands up and said, “ ‘You got us. What can we do to make this right?’ ” Murphy recalled.

Murphy said he had heard the same thing from drug dealers.

There was an important difference, Murphy noted.

“You know,” he said, “the heroin and cocaine traffickers didn’t have a class ring on their finger from a prestigious university.”

In 2011, Linden Barber left the DEA to join the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Quarles & Brady. He started a practice representing drug companies. “If you have a DEA compliance issue or you’re facing a government investigation,” he said in a promotional video for the firm, “I’d be happy to hear from you.”

Barber’s move turned out to be a key moment in the struggle between drug companies and the government, but it was far from the only one. Dozens of top officials from the DEA and Justice Department have stepped through Washington’s revolving door to work for drug companies.

Two former U.S. deputy attorneys general have defended Cardinal, one of the “Big Three” companies, along with McKesson and AmerisourceBergen, that together control 85 percent of drug distribution in the United States. Jamie Gorelick, an attorney for WilmerHale, was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton. Craig S. Morford, Cardinal’s chief legal and compliance officer, was acting deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush.

As Rannazzisi’s investigators increased their pressure, those lawyers began to contact their former colleagues in government.

In late 2011, Morford went over Rannazzisi’s head to then-DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart as the agency again investigated Cardinal, which had sent millions of doses of oxycodone to a small number of pharmacies in Florida, including two CVS stores in Sanford.

“Michele,” Morford wrote to Leonhart in October 2011, “we are committed to working with DEA to address the challenging problem of diversion and welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your team to address these issues in a non-adversarial way.” He signed the handwritten note “Craig.”

Gorelick said in an email that she wrote to then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole “to ask that my client be afforded due process.” Morford did not respond to requests for comment.

Around Thanksgiving, Rannazzisi said he received a call about the Cardinal-CVS case from James H. Dinan, then-chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces program at the Justice Department. Rannazzisi said Dinan told him, “We’re getting calls from attorneys, former Justice people, that are saying you guys are doing some enforcement action.”

Four months later, Rannazzisi received a late-night call from Dinan summoning him to appear at Justice headquarters early the next morning to explain his actions in the Cardinal-CVS case to Cole.

“Please call me in the morning,” Dinan wrote, according to Rannazzisi. “I want to make double sure nothing unreversible happens before [Cole] is briefed.”

Rannazzisi was stunned. He had brought hundreds of these cases and had never been called to brief Cole, the ­second-most-powerful law enforcement official in the country.

The meeting quickly “spiraled out of control,” Rannazzisi said. “It was adversarial to say the least.”

Rannazzisi believed the message was clear: Back off.

Cole, now a lawyer in private practice, said he was not trying to pressure Rannazzisi.

“Hearing what Cardinal had to say could inform DEA of facts they may not have known,” Cole said in a statement. “I did not tell Mr. Rannazzisi how to come out on the Cardinal matter and certainly did not discourage him from going after any company in violation of any statutes or regulations,” he said.

Either way, Rannazzisi was defiant when he returned to the office from the Justice Department and sat down with his staff.

“Now this is war,” he recalled telling them. “We’re going after these people, and we’re not going to stop. We’re just going to continue to move forward. And we don’t really give a damn any more what the department wants.’”

...Behind the scenes, a major shift was taking place at DEA headquarters.

An appeals court in Washington, D.C., had been reviewing a case that Rannazzisi's investigators brought against Walgreens, alleging that some of its pharmacies in Florida were selling more than a million pain pills a year. A typical pharmacy sold 74,000.

The DEA had used an immediate suspension order against Walgreens, arguing that the drug sales constituted an “imminent danger” to the community. The DEA moved to shutter a large Walgreens distribution center in Jupiter, Fla., that supplied nearly 1,000 pharmacies along the East Coast.

Walgreens fought back.

...Geldhof, the DEA program manager in Detroit, was investigating a midsize Ohio-based drug distributor. Between 2007 and 2012, Miami-Luken had shipped 20 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to pharmacies in West Virginia. About 11 million wound up in one county, Mingo, population 25,000.

Despite the rising death rate in West Virginia-- the highest in the nation-- Geldhof said his pleas in 2013 to halt Miami-Luken’s operations were ignored by the legal office at headquarters.

“First we got blown off by the company,” he said, “and then we got blown off by our own lawyers.”

Novak suspected another reason for the slowdown.

At times, he said, some of his colleagues appeared more concerned with pleasing the industry than working on behalf of the public. Some of the lawyers had simply given up fighting the industry and seemed to be preparing for a future working with the companies they were supposed to be regulating, he said.

“It was not just one person who left the office; everyone started to leave. That’s your payout. You do your time, and more and more people were auditioning for the industry. It stopped us from doing our jobs.”

The departures gave the industry an unfair advantage, Novak said.

“There was a fear,” he said. “It comes from seeing that some of the best and brightest former DEA attorneys are now on the other side and know all of the weak points. Their fingerprints are on memos and policy and emails.”

The major drug companies also brought their campaign to Capitol Hill. One of their key allies was Tom Marino, then a two-term Republican congressman from Williamsport, Pa.

Marino was a former county and federal prosecutor with deep hometown ties to a district that was reeling from the opioid epidemic.

On Feb. 18, 2014, Marino introduced the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, making an effort to define what constitutes “imminent danger.” The proposal raised the DEA’s standard for suspending drug shipments by requiring that the agency establish “a significant and present risk of death or serious bodily harm that is more likely than not to occur.”

It attracted 14 Republican co-sponsors, chief among them Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), also from a region in the grip of the epidemic.

[Blackburn, a sleazy character currently running for the Senate seat Bob Corker is giving up, took $162,685 in Pharma bribes last cycle and $712,385 since first being elected in 2002.]

The DEA mobilized to defeat Marino’s measure. One internal DEA memo obtained by The Post and “60 Minutes” noted that the bill essentially eliminates the agency’s power to file immediate suspension orders of drug shipments. The new law “is fixing a problem that doesn't need fixing,” a DEA official wrote.

On April 8, 2014, with the bill stalled, Marino confronted the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. Marino told Holder the DEA was treating the companies like “illicit narcotics cartels.”

“This mind-set-- it’s extremely dangerous to legitimate business,” Marino said.

He told Holder that he wanted the Justice Department to meet with industry executives. When Marino wrote to Holder three weeks later urging him to set up the meeting, the congressman added a handwritten note: “It would be great to work together on this. — Tom.”

Within the DEA and the Justice Department, Marino’s overtures to Holder set off alarms. On May 7, 2014, Matthew Strait, the DEA’s congressional liaison officer, detailed ways “to push back” on Marino’s bill, according to an email he wrote.

It was followed by a flurry of DEA memos. One said, “This bill is without basis in case law or Congressional findings.” Another said the bill “would constitute perhaps the greatest reduction in the Attorney General’s authority under the Controlled Substances Act since the Act’s passage in 1970.”

Later in May, Marino introduced a second version of his bill, with slightly altered language. Blackburn was again a co-sponsor, but this time two Democrats were on board: Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont and Rep. Judy Chu of California.

On June 4, Bill Tighe, Marino’s chief of staff, wrote to Peter Kadzik, Justice’s top congressional liaison officer, thanking him for setting up a meeting with the industry executives.

Tighe asked Kadzik to coordinate with the industry’s point person: Linden Barber.

“Linden Barber used to work for DEA,” Jill Wade Tyson, another Justice congressional liaison officer, responded in an email. “He wrote the Marino bill.”

...On July 29, the Marino bill passed the House and went to the Senate.

The Justice Department was so concerned that it took the unusual step of having Attorney General Holder publicly oppose the bill.

“A recently passed House bill would severely undermine a critical component of our efforts to prevent communities and families from falling prey to dangerous drugs,” Holder said in a July 31 news release.

The bill stalled in the Senate.

...With Rannazzisi under attack, the industry effort gained momentum. Marino introduced yet another version of his bill in the House on Jan. 22, 2015. He announced that the Energy and Commerce Committee would hold a hearing five days later.

One of the witnesses was Linden Barber.

Barber told the committee about the Walgreens case. He was still pressing the industry’s long-standing argument about the need for a clearer legal definition of the DEA’s imminent danger standard.

The case had not ended up setting a precedent that undermined the standard. Rather than take the case to trial, the company agreed to settle and pay what was then a record $80 million fine. Still, Barber argued the DEA faced legal jeopardy.

“Indeed, many of my colleagues believe that the [Walgreens] case would have resulted in a narrowing of DEA’s authority if the agency had not settled its dispute,” Barber said. “As a supporter of DEA’s mission, I urge this committee to take legislative action that clarifies the meaning of imminent danger.”

On April 21, 2015, the House took up Marino’s bill. On the floor of Congress, Marino said:

“This bill will bring much-needed clarity to critical provisions of the Controlled Substances Act. In doing so, we will ensure that the DEA’s authorities are not abused and threatened by future legal challenges; foster greater collaboration, communication and transparency between the DEA and the supply chain; create more opportunities to identify bad actors at the end of the supply chain; and, most importantly, be certain that prescriptions are accessible to patients in need.”

The House passed the bill by unanimous consent. Not one lawmaker opposed the measure.

That same day, Leonhart, who had supported Rannazzisi’s aggressive approach, announced that she was retiring as DEA administrator amid reports that some of her agents had attended sex parties funded by Colombian cocaine cartels.

For the industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill, the pieces were falling into place.

A month later, the Justice Department named a new DEA chief who said he wanted to mend the rift between the agency and the drug industry. Chuck Rosenberg was a former U.S. attorney in Virginia and Texas who had served as the chief of staff to then-FBI Director James B. Comey.

After Rosenberg came to the DEA, the agency began putting out a new message.

“Rosenberg wanted to paint a new face on the DEA for the Hill,” said Regina LaBelle, the chief of staff for the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy at the time. “He wanted to show them the softer side of the DEA, and he wanted to work with industry.”

In October 2015, one of the last remaining obstacles to the bill was removed. Rannazzisi was pushed aside at diversion control. With the inspector general’s investigation into his comments hanging over his head, Rannazzisi retired from the DEA after a 30-year career.

The investigation went nowhere. But, Rannazzisi said, “It destroyed me.”

By this time, Holder had left and Lynch was the attorney general. Her office informed Marino that the DEA had met with 300 industry representatives and Justice was committed to “working more closely” with the drug companies.

“We value these opportunities to communicate and work with our partners in the pharmaceutical industry,” Kadzik, Lynch’s congressional affairs chief, wrote to Marino.

At the same time, the DEA was in negotiations with Hatch's staff to amend the bill for the Senate’s consideration.

The newly proposed language required the DEA to show that a company’s conduct posed a “substantial likelihood of an immediate threat” of death, serious bodily harm or drug abuse before the agency could seek a suspension order.

...On March 17, 2016, the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. On April 12, the House approved the Senate version, also by unanimous consent.

...On April 19, Obama signed the bill. The White House issued a one-page news release announcing its enactment.

Marino also issued a release taking credit for the legislation.

“With this law, our drug enforcement agencies will have the necessary tools to address the issue of prescription drug abuse across the country. I applaud the hard work of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in Congress and President Obama for realizing the importance of this legislation.”

... John Mulrooney, the chief DEA administrative law judge, has been documenting the falling number of immediate suspension orders against doctors, pharmacies and drug companies. That number has dropped from 65 in fiscal year 2011 to six so far this fiscal year, according to the DEA. Not a single order has targeted a distributor or manufacturer since late 2015, according to Mulrooney’s reports, which were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mulrooney said in his reports that the judges under him were handling so few cases at the DEA that they began hearing the cases of other federal agencies.

In his article planned for the winter issue of the Marquette Law Review, Mulrooney wrote: “If it had been the intent of Congress to completely eliminate the DEA’s ability to ever impose an immediate suspension on distributors or manufacturers, it would be difficult to conceive of a more effective vehicle for achieving that goal.”

Mulrooney’s article also criticized the law for allowing companies to submit corrective action plans before the DEA could sanction them.

He likened that provision to allowing bank robbers to “round up and return ink-stained money and agree not to rob any more banks.”

The DEA said in a statement last week that it is still pursuing reckless doctors and rogue businesses with a wide variety of tools.

“We will continue fighting the opioid crisis and continue to use all the tools at our disposal to combat this epidemic,” the statement said.

Since the DEA started to crack down on the opioid industry a decade ago, pharmaceutical companies and the law firms that represent them have hired at least 46 DEA officials-- 32 of them directly from the division. They include two officials who managed day-to-day operations; the deputy director of the division; the deputy chief of operations; and two chiefs of policy.

After nearly 30 years with the DEA, Matthew Murphy, Rannazzisi’s lieutenant, retired in 2011. He formed a drug industry consulting firm and went to work for the people he used to face across the table.

“I feel guilty,” Murphy said in a recent interview. “Because every day a lot of people die of an opioid-heroin overdose. Whether it’s a pill or heroin, people die every day because of it. And it shouldn’t be happening.”

One of the most recent departures was Jason Hadges, the senior DEA attorney overseeing pharmaceutical enforcement cases who, according to former agency supervisors and lawyers, had been demanding a higher standard of proof on cases. Hadges left the DEA in May to join the pharmaceutical and biotechnology regulatory division of Hogan Lovells, a high-powered D.C. law firm. He declined to comment, citing “client sensitivities.”

In January, Mike Gill, who had served as the chief of staff to DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg, left the agency to join one of the nation’s largest health-care law firms. He declined to discuss why the DEA dropped its opposition to the bill or his new job.

On Oct. 1, Rosenberg himself resigned from the DEA.

Last December, seven months after the bill became law, Marino's chief of staff took a job as a lobbyist with the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Bill Tighe had served as Marino’s point man on the legislation. The association was a key backer of the bill. Tighe declined to comment.

In July, Inden Barber left Quarles & Brady to join Cardinal Health as the company’s chief regulatory attorney. After being the target of two DEA enforcement actions, Cardinal had become one of the biggest backers of the bill.

Marsha Blackburn, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, received $120,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. She did not respond to requests for an interview. She announced this month that she will run for the seat of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who is not seeking reelection.

...Jim Geldhof, the DEA program manager in Detroit, retired from the agency at the end of 2015 after 43 years on the job. He said the companies were fully aware of their responsibilities under the law.

“When you’re selling half a million pills to some pharmacy and you’re telling me that you don’t know what the rules are for a suspicious order?” said Geldhof, who is now working as a consultant to lawyers suing the industry. “All we were looking for is a good-faith effort by these companies to do the right thing, and there was no good-faith effort. Greed always trumped compliance. It did every time. It was about money, and it’s as simple as that.”

Just before Geldhof left, his two-year quest to persuade the DEA to take action against Miami-Luken finally paid off. In November 2015, the DEA accused the company of multiple violations of the law for allegedly failing to report orders for tens of millions of pain pills from pharmacies, most of them in West Virginia. That case-- the most recent one to target a distributor-- is pending.

Of the millions of pills sent to Mingo County, many went to one pharmacy in Williamson, the county seat, population 2,924. In one month alone, Miami-Luken shipped 258,000 hydrocodone pills to the pharmacy, more than 10 times the typical amount for a West Virginia pharmacy.

The mayor of Williamson has since filed a lawsuit against Miami-Luken and other drug distributors, accusing them of flooding the city with pain pills and permitting them to saturate the black market.

“Like sharks circling their prey, multi-billion dollar companies descended upon Appalachia for the sole purpose of profiting off of the prescription drug-fueled feeding frenzy,” the lawsuit says.

Marino, now in his fourth term, continues to represent northeastern Pennsylvania and Lycoming County, population 116,000.

His nomination as drug czar, which would put him in charge of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is pending.

Marino declined to be interviewed for this story, but last year he told The Post:

“We had a situation where it was just out of control because of [Rannazzisi],” Marino said. “His only mission was to get big fines. He didn’t want to [do] anything but put another notch in his belt.”

Since 2014, the year Marino first introduced his bill, 106 people have died of opioid overdoses in Lycoming County. Over six days this summer, 53 people in the county overdosed on opioids. Three of them died.
Marino's district went heavily for Trump, who beat Hillary 66.1% to 30.2%, her second worst performance in the state. The DCCC didn't bother to challenge Marino and he beat the local Democratic candidate Michael Molesevich 208,106 (70.3%) to 87,956 (29.7%). Marino raised $1,093,770 while Molesevich raised $71,898. Bernie beat Hillary in Lycoming County by 10 points in the primary and in the general, Trump pulverized her in Lycoming 71.7% to 24.4%. So far, the DCCC isn't looking at PA-10 and the two Democrats vying for the nomination, Judy Herschel and Mark McDade, have almost no resources between them. Today West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin demanded Trump pull Marino's nomination for his job as Drug Czar. He's virtually unconformable after this story. Will he be reelected? Will the DCCC have the balls to take him on? And what about Blackburn's Senate campaign? I haven't heard a peep. You?

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