John_light_profile2019

John Light

John is TPM‘s Prime editor. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, UN Dispatch, Vox, Worth, and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. Before joining TPM, John was a producer for Bill Moyers and WNYC, and worked as a news writer for Grist. He grew up in New Jersey, studied history and film at Oberlin College, and got his master‘s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Articles by John

“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” Mick Mulvaney, the acting head of an agency that regulates banking told a room full of bankers this week. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

Mulvaney, of course, is the man who is attempting an about-face for the agency he helms, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That includes rebranding the consumer watchdog by scrambling the letters in its name (Mulvaney suggests “BCFP”) and ending its practice of logging consumer complaints.

As a former member of Congress from South Carolina, Mulvaney’s campaigns raised at least half a million dollars from the investment and banking industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He is now overseeing the agency tasked with keeping these same industries in check. The New York Times noted that he received $63,000 from payday lenders alone, an industry that, under Mulvaney’s predecessor Richard Cordray — now a Democratic candidate for the governor of Ohio — the industry cracked down on for its predatory practices. Mulvaney famously called the CFPB a “sick, sad joke” while it was under Cordray’s stewardship.

Following his speech to the American Bankers Association, Mulvaney’s spokesperson claimed that his words had been misinterpreted, noting that Mulvaney also said he would listen to his constituents regardless of whether they donated. His money-talks “hierarchy” only applied to lobbyists.

Nonetheless, his honesty provoked outrage. Some Democrats called for him to step down. “Let’s call it what it is: corruption,” wrote the Washington Post’s ostensibly conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.

What Mulvaney laid bare, of course, doesn’t even rise to the level of an open secret. Members of Congress can spend up to half their time “dialing for dollars,” soliciting donations like these to fund their reelection efforts. In return, they have to offer something. Usually, that something is access. This is the sort of thing the Supreme Court acknowledged and affirmed with its 2010 Citizens United decision. As election law expert Rick Hasen notes, Justice Kennedy explicitly wrote that “ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”

So by the Supreme Court’s definition, Mulvaney did not admit to anything corrupt. Mulvaney went further. Lobbyists’ efforts to sway him with donations were, in fact, one of the “fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy,” he said in his speech. “And you have to continue to do it.”

It may not be corruption. But it also doesn’t seem on message for an administration that promised a fully drained swamp.

For saying the quiet part loud, Mick Mulvaney is our Duke of the Week.

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This week allowed us to catch our breath a bit following the whirlwind April that Michael Cohen kicked off by getting raided. Here’s what happened in Prime.

  • First, on Cohen: Josh Marshall gamed out whether Cohen is likely to flip, given his fraught relationship with Trump. He also took a closer look at Cohen’s finances.
  • Allegra Kirkland pulls together the latest on Cohen and all other things Trump-Russia in her Weekly Primer.
  • Josh also placed new revelations about Michael Flynn in his Trump campaign timeline.
  • TPM scooped this week that former FBI Director James Comey had retained Patrick Fitzgerald as his personal lawyer; Cameron Joseph, who got us that story, took a look at some of the parallels between the current special counsel probe and the special counsel probe into the Valerie Plame affair, for which Fitzgerald himself was special counsel.
  • Scott Pruitt was on the hill this week to answer for the many scandals encircling his tenure at EPA. Ahead of the hearings, Matt Shuham put together this list of things Pruitt spent money on but wasn’t supposed to. After the grilling he put together another list of Republicans who decided to apologize for their Democratic colleagues’ tough questions.
  • Trump’s travel ban, meanwhile, had it’s day before the Supreme Court. Alice Ollstein was there for oral arguments and takes a look at some of the clues she got providing insights into how the justices were thinking about the case.
  • On the voting rights front, Kris Kobach, a week after being held in contempt by the judge overseeing his proof-of-citizenship case, put out a legal filing that contained a handful of accidentally included notes to self, including that one point “PROBABLY ISN’T WORTH ARGUING.” This attracted some guffaws, including from Zack Roth, who ran through Kobach’s other recent legal blunders.
  • Meanwhile, voting rights advocates saw some victories. As Zack writes in a separate Editor’s Brief, Connecticut is considering joining an interstate compact that seeks to subvert the electoral college; Tierney Sneed rounds up a few others victories in her voting rights Weekly Primer.
  • And in her Weekly Primer on the battle over Obamacare, Alice Ollstein looks at a brewing fight between Trump’s HHS and American Indian tribes over work requirements for medicaid.
  • And, prompted by Allegra Kirkland’s article on law enforcement malpractice in Alabama, David Kurtz reflects on his own experience reporting on sheriffs in the deep south, where the office basically has the power of a minor feudal lord.

It’s always hard to tell from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule on a given case, but Alice Ollstein runs down some hints she got yesterday as to how the Court is thinking about the third and latest iteration of Trump’s travel ban (Prime access).

Hello, Prime subscribers. Here’s a recap of what happened in Prime this week.

You likely heard that Michael Cohen was in court. Ahead of the court date, Josh Marshall pulled together the various “threads of sleaze and criminality” to explain why, while the Cohen story is ostensibly separate from the Russia probe, the two are likely closely interwoven.

Ahead of the hearing, one of the big questions was who Michael Cohen’s secret, third client was, Zack Roth wrote. We got the answer in court: Fox News talker Sean Hannity. Stormy Daniels, meanwhile, showed up, seemingly to troll Cohen. Allegra Kirkland was there, and she took in the scene. Josh, meanwhile, wondered why Hannity was so bent on having his cake and eating it too: He appeared to want to make clear that Michael Cohen was not his lawyer while also maintaining attorney-client confidentiality about their discussions.

That start to the week virtually assured that this would be another in which Cohen — and speculation about what his legal troubles meant for the President — would dominate the headlines. Trump allies came out of the woodwork to allege that Cohen would flip on the President, implying, Allegra points out in her Weekly Primer on the investigations, that the President is not innocent. Even if the President chooses to pardon Cohen, Cohen still could be in trouble in the state of New York, Josh wrote. Meanwhile, Josh continued to dig in to Cohen’s past, including some of his ties to wealthy Ukrainian immigrants who have thrown quite a bit of money into the taxi business.

Paul Manafort was also in court, where Tierney Sneed witnessed his lawyers arguing that their client should be able to pay them with millions of his dollars — dollars that he currently can’t touch due to money laundering allegations. And James Comey was out on tour, expounding on the “emptiness” behind the President’s eyes for rooms full of fans; Allegra attended one such event.

Beyond the vacuum-like pull of the Russia probe news, a judge held Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in contempt of court and, David Kurtz writes, all but accused him of lying. Kobach has long pushed claims of widespread voter fraud — claims that bought him political capital but that did not hold up in court. Democrats, meanwhile, are running on an agenda of expanding voting rights and repairing gerrymandered district maps, but if they are to succeed, author Dave Daley told me in a Q&A this week, they’ll have to do more than win legislative seats: They’ll have to win key offices that control the redistricting process. Exactly what those offices are vary from state to state.

In her Weekly Primer on voting rights, Tierney Sneed noted that advocates of expanding the franchise won a key victory when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an automatic voter registration bill. The state’s Democratic legislature was on a roll, and also sent Murphy bills to stabilize Obamacare markets and put in place a statewide individual mandate to replace the Obamacare mandate that was tossed out with last December’s GOP tax cuts. Alice Ollstein has the details of those measures in her Weekly Primer on the battle over the future of Obamacare.

That’s it for Prime this week. But another week’s coming. Hang in there.

<<enter caption here>> on January 20, 2018 in Morristown, New Jersey.
Governor Phil Murphy attends the 2nd Annual Women’s March On New Jersey on January 20, 2018 in Morristown, New Jersey. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

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In 2018, we’ll be giving a weekly Golden Duke. This award, named for former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, is given to a political figure by TPM following an attention-grabbing display of corruption, abuse of power, or risible behavior. For the past several years, we’ve handed out a few Dukes around New Years. (Here are 2017’s winners.) In 2018, we’ve decided to up the frequency. There are more than enough deserving candidates.

This week’s winner is Eric Greitens, Missouri’s Republican Governor, a former Navy Seal and Rhodes Scholar who was elected in 2016 but who now, following a series of scandals, is facing escalating calls from his own party to step down. Missouri GOP strategists told Allegra Kirkland this week that they worry the governor’s meteoric downfall could still be on voters’ minds in November — especially if Greitens refuses to leave office.

The latest blow to the Greitens’ administration came on Wednesday when Missouri’s Republican Attorney General, Josh Hawley, accused Greitens of “unauthorized taking and use of property”; Hawley said his office has evidence that Greitens forwarded the donor list from The Mission Continues — a charity he co-founded with the mission of empowering veterans — to his gubernatorial campaign. Donors to the nonprofit ultimately contributed $2 million to Greitens’ successful 2016 effort.

The felony charge, however, is not the most serious problem facing Greitens.

We’ve known for months about an extramarital affair Greitens had in 2015 and allegations that he blackmailed his former mistress; he was indicted on invasion of privacy charges related to the allegations in February. A report from a committee of Missouri legislators tasked with investigating the allegations came out last week, and was far worse than expected, including allegations that Greitens pressured his mistress to perform oral sex while she wept on his basement floor.

Greitens also allegedly took a picture of the woman while she was partially nude and blindfolded, leading to the invasion of privacy charge. “You have to understand, I’m running for office, and people will get me, and I have to have some sort of thing to protect myself,” the woman recalled the future governor saying when she confronted him about it.

At this point, Greitens is left with few allies. Three Republican lawmakers in the Missouri legislature even appealed to President Trump to get Greitens to step down. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that the allegations were “something that we’re taking very seriously.” But the governor refuses to leave.

It’s unclear if Greitens will change his mind and voluntarily step down, be impeached, or attempt to ride out the allegations. But it appears he’ll have to adjust his political ambitions; he will likely have little use for the ericgreitensforpresident.com domain name he registered.

For his refusal to read the writing on the wall, Greitens is our Duke of the Week.

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