Playbook: How SCOTUS skates past controversy after controversy

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With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross

NEW FROM JMART — “How Tennessee Became the Poster State for Political Meltdown,” by Jonathan Martin in Nashville: “Today, Tennessee represents the grim culmination of the forces corroding state politics: the nationalization of elections and governance, the tribalism between the two parties, the collapse of local media and internet-accelerated siloing of news and the incentive structure wrought by extreme gerrymandering. Also, if we’re being honest, the transition from pragmatists anchored in their communities to partisans more fixated on what’s said online than at their local Rotary Club.”

TRUMP ON TUCKER — Former President DONALD TRUMP sat down with Fox News’ TUCKER CARLSON last night, his first interview since his arraignment. Some eyebrow-raisers:

  • He claimed the Manhattan courthouse was rife with tears: “I’ll tell you, people were crying. People that work there. … It’s a tough, tough place and they were crying. They were actually crying. They said, ‘I’m sorry … 2024, sir, 2024.’ … So in one sense, it was beautiful.”
  • Asked by Carlson if he would ever consider dropping out of the race for president due to legal woes, he said no: “I’d never drop out; it’s not my thing.”
  • And he had this recollection of his meeting with Chinese President XI JINPING: “He had an incredible — I’m not allowed to say it, because it’s politically incorrect — a beautiful female interpreter.”

DOUBTING (ACTION ON) THOMAS — In a letter to JOHN ROBERTS this week, Senate Judiciary Chair DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) implored the Supreme Court chief justice to tackle two major accountability items:

1. Open an investigation of Justice CLARENCE THOMAS, who failed to disclose millions of dollars’ worth of luxury vacations on the dime of GOP donor HARLAN CROW, according to a blockbuster ProPublica story.

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2. Have the justices adopt the same code of conduct that currently governs the behavior of all other federal judges.

Those requests might sound like no-brainers for Roberts, who has long stressed the importance of upholding impartiality and preserving public trust in the courts. But there’s good reason to think Durbin’s requests will fall on deaf ears. That’s according to SCOTUS whisperer Josh Gerstein, who told us last night why he’s skeptical Roberts will act.

— A COURT UNBOUND: First off, it’s important to note that while Roberts has generally insisted Supreme Court justices follow the same rules as judges in lower courts, they’re not bound by them.

Said Josh: “If you have a complaint about a circuit court judge or a district court judge, there is a procedure: There’s a committee in each circuit that you can take that complaint to. And if it’s a conflict of interest, they’ll assign it to a judge or judges in another circuit to investigate and rule on. But when you’re talking about the Supreme Court, they have … argued that it’s really not proper for their inferior judges to basically sit in judgment of them.”

— NOT MUCH PRECEDENT: When Congress has complained in the past about alleged improprieties involving a justice, they often call on Roberts to investigate — and threaten to do so themselves if he doesn’t. Roberts never has before, and Josh doesn’t expect things to be different now. The odds of that changing for Thomas are “pretty close to zero,” he told us.

In fact, it’s not even clear Roberts could act if he wanted to. While the chief justice has a well-established role in assigning opinions, managing court operations and even presiding over impeachment trials, Roberts technically doesn’t have any disciplinary powers over his colleagues. “It would be a sort of strange thing for him to do,” Josh said. “And I think because of the blowback he could face, that might be one of the reasons he’s never done it.”

— THE HONOR SYSTEM: So when a controversy breaks out, Josh said it’s usually up to the justice under scrutiny to decide how to respond or even whether to respond. Last year, for instance, Justice SAMUEL ALITO authorized the court to issue a statement responding to allegations regarding his socializing with people interested in influencing the court.

After two lawmakers pressed the issue, Josh told us, “The court [writes] back saying, ‘Well, here’s some of the facts that we’ve gotten from the justice involved, and have a nice day.’” And that’s that.

— GOTTA HAVE A CODE: Durbin’s demand for some semblance of an ethics regime isn’t the first such request. In fact, the members of the court acknowledged they were considering it in 2019, when Justices ELENA KAGAN and Alito told appropriators that they were working on a code of conduct.

But nothing has come of those talks four years later, and WaPo reported earlier this year that the justices had essentially abandoned the effort amid disagreements over what it should look like.

— WHERE’S CONGRESS? Josh said it’s fair to ask why lawmakers haven’t done more on this issue. Controversies surrounding the justices emerge every so often, and whenever they do, there’s always outrage over the lack of an accountability process beyond sending a slew of letters.

Lawmakers could in theory try to pass legislation imposing some rules on the justices, and a number of such bills have been filed over the past year. But, Josh noted, it’s not clear if they’d be constitutional: Roberts has suggested that separation of powers limits Congress’s ability to police the high court.

Still, Congress has nudged the court to make smaller reforms in the name of transparency — from tightening some financial disclosure rules to disclosing stock trades in real time and putting financial disclosures for justices online in a public database.

That may be “nibbling around the edges of the problem,” as Josh put it. But while lawmakers of both parties have expressed interest over the years in increasing Supreme Court transparency, the reality is that bipartisanship will be hard to find as long as it’s only a conservative justice under the microscope.

“These are areas where I could see Congress actually reaching a consensus, but it’s very hard to do in a situation where a specific justice is on the ropes,” Josh said.

Related read: “Jet-Setting With Clarence Thomas Puts Spotlight on an Eccentric Billionaire,” by NYT’s Abbie VanSickle: “Mr. Crow gives few interviews and rarely speaks in public. ‘I wouldn’t care if John Q. Public had never heard of me,’ he told The Times in 1996. ‘In fact, I’d prefer that John Q. Public hadn’t heard of me. It’s not a HOWARD HUGHES privacy thing. It’s a what’s-the-point thing.’”

Good Wednesday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

NEW THIS MORNING — Welcome to POLITICO’s Mayors Club, a first-of-its-kind roundtable of 50 mayors, one from each state. Our colleagues convened this group of mayors to tell us how they’re tackling the issues their own voters are demanding action on — and what they’re pushing state and national leaders for. The project marks a commitment from this newsroom to look beyond Washington and dig into state and local policy.

Throughout the year, we will survey and interview these leaders on a variety of key issues plaguing cities and towns across the country — and what solutions mayors are rolling out. You’ll hear more of their stories as the project unfolds. Read the introduction by Liz Crampton

Check out the first two installments:

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — The Partnership for Public Service is releasing the 2022 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government: “The rankings and accompanying data provide a means of holding federal leaders accountable for the health of their organizations, shining the spotlight on agencies that are successfully engaging employees as well as on those that are falling short,” a summary says. See the full rankings and analysis

The Top Five: 1. National Aeronautics and Space Administration … 2. Department of Health and Human Services … 3. Intelligence Community … 4. Department of Commerce … 5. Department of Veterans Affairs

PHOTO OF THE DAY

2024 WATCH

DeSANTIS DOWNLOAD — “Why Ron DeSantis Is Taking Aim at the Federal Reserve,” by NYT’s Jeanna Smialek and Linda Qiu: Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS “has begun to criticize JEROME H. POWELL, the Fed chair, in speeches and news conferences. He has alleged without evidence that the Biden administration is about to introduce a central bank digital currency — which neither the White House nor the politically independent Fed has decided to do — in a bid to surveil Americans and control their spending on gas. He has quoted the Fed’s Twitter posts disparagingly. His critiques echo a familiar playbook from the Trump administration.”

MORE POLITICS

UNDER PRESSURE — “Republicans facing a reckoning later this week,” by Adam Wren, Natalie Allison and Meridith McGraw: “Days after a mass shooting in Louisville, Ky., many declared and undeclared 2024 candidates will be brandishing their Second Amendment bona fides at the National Rifle Association’s annual leadership forum in Indianapolis. From there, a number of the candidates will travel south on I-65, where they will make their cases to Republican National Committee grandees for a gathering in Nashville — the site not only of another mass shooting, but also the state GOP-led ejection of two Black Democratic lawmakers last week.”

MASTER OF PUPPETS — “Inside Chicago’s intense, behind-the-scenes effort to secure the DNC,” by Shia Kapos, Christopher Cadelago and Sally Goldenberg: “Illinois and Chicago elected officials were fearful that Biden’s sentimentality about Atlanta would win out. And so they and their neighbors made a full-court press of their own. When the DNC came to Chicago to discuss the city’s bid, they happened to be there during Lollapalooza’s kickoff. Mayor LORI LIGHTFOOT took them to watch Metallica warm up in an empty Grant Park.”

Georgia takes it well: “It’s your loss, DNC!” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Patricia Murphy writes

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Arizona GOP Senate candidate MARK LAMB, who entered the race for independent Sen. KYRSTEN SINEMA’s seat, is rolling out his campaign infrastructure and we got a sneak peek. PAT AQUILINA will be political director for the campaign, after serving as campaign manager for Rep. ELI CRANE (R-Ariz.) in 2022. The campaign will employ Lincoln Strategy Group as general consultant, FP1 for media, The Morning Group for national fundraising, PUSH Digital for digital and online fundraising and Cygnal for polling.

IF IT TALKS LIKE A CANDIDATE — “Sen. Tim Scott takes another White House step: Launching 2024 exploratory committee,” by the Post and Courier’s Caitlin Byrd: The South Carolina Republican “plans to launch a presidential exploratory committee on April 12 — the same day he plans to be in Iowa, the leadoff state in the presidential nominating process. He will travel to New Hampshire the very next day before returning to South Carolina on April 14.”

IF IT WALKS LIKE A CANDIDATE — “It sure looks like a Biden aide is running for Congress in Rhode Island,” by Boston Globe’s Dan McGowan: “GABE AMO isn’t a household name in Rhode Island politics, but it’s increasingly likely that the Moses Brown graduate and former aide to GINA RAIMONDO is going to join the field seeking to replace US Representative DAVID CICILLINE in the First Congressional District.”

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’ — “GOP attorney Eric Early announces Senate campaign,” by L.A. Times’ Seema Mehta: “The 64-year-old has run for office multiple times, losing to incumbent Democratic Rep. ADAM SCHIFF in a 2020 congressional contest, and failing to advance past the primaries in the 2022 and 2018 attorney general race.”

JUST POSTED — “After Texas Ruling, Democratic States Move to Stockpile Abortion Pills,” by NYT’s David Chen and Ava Sasani

THE WHITE HOUSE

BIDEN ABROAD — “Biden to Celebrate Diplomacy, and His Own Irish Roots, in Belfast,” by NYT’s Michael Shear and Katie Rogers: “Even White House officials have made little effort to describe Mr. Biden’s trip as a policy one. It is personal for the president, they said, and most of his time will be spent in the countryside — with his sister and his son among the scores of staff, Secret Service and media in the long presidential motorcade.”

CONGRESS

KNOWING YOUNG KIM — “This Korean American Republican is trying to educate her party — in the U.S. and abroad,” by Olivia Beavers and Nicholas Wu in Seoul: Rep. YOUNG KIM’s (R-Calif.) “bridge-building remains aspirational in many respects. With a Democrat in the White House, Kim is not an influential voice in shaping U.S. foreign and national security policy. But she has sought out opportunities to serve as a link between America’s Conservative Party and the right-wing government in Seoul.”

The challenge: “She is a prominent Asian American in a party struggling to allay fears among voters of color, including Asian Americans, that Republicans are focused on white voters and overly tolerant of racial bigotry and xenophobia.”

BRAGG FIRES BACK AT JORDAN — Manhattan DA ALVIN BRAGG yesterday ratcheted up the standoff between his office and House Judiciary Chair JIM JORDAN (R-Ohio), filing a lawsuit with the intention of barring a former employee from complying with a subpoena issued by House Republicans. “In a 50-page lawsuit, Bragg slammed House GOP efforts to compel the testimony of his former lieutenant, MARK POMERANTZ, as a ‘brazen and unconstitutional attack,’” our colleagues Kyle Cheney, Josh Gerstein and Jordain Carney write. Read the lawsuit

OUT WITH THE OLD — “New Pressure to End Old Senate Practice After Mississippi Judicial Pick Is Blocked,” by NYT’s Carl Hulse: “Republicans abandoned the blue-slip process for appeals court judges after gaining control of the Senate in 2015. … But the practice was retained for district court judges, and Durbin has been reluctant to jettison it, fearing Republicans would retaliate by bringing the confirmation process to a standstill.”

CHANGING HIS TUNE — “Lindsey Graham meets with Saudi crown prince, reversing past criticism,” by WaPo’s Mariana Alfaro

POLICY CORNER

TEST DRIVE — “Biden makes huge push for electric vehicles. Is America ready?” by Tanya Snyder, James Bikales and Alex Guillén: “By pushing the industry to make the transition faster, Biden could risk a backlash from unwilling consumers, complicate questions about China’s dominance of electric vehicle supplies, and escalate his administration’s legal fight with the oil industry and GOP governors who oppose his efforts to phase out internal combustion engines.”

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW — “Education Secretary Cardona: focus on banning assault weapons, not books,” by Reuters

FOR THOSE KEEPING TRACK — “Biden Administration Proposes Evenly Cutting Water Allotments From Colorado River,” by NYT’s Christopher Flavelle

RIPPLE EFFECT — “Obamacare ruling, Medicaid overhaul could trigger an HIV resurgence,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein

AMERICA AND THE WORLD

LEAK LATEST — “U.S. Officials Speak to Ukrainians After Document Leaks,” by NYT’s Michael Crowley: “In their first public comments since the documents appeared online several weeks ago, Defense Secretary LLOYD J. AUSTIN III and Secretary of State ANTONY J. BLINKEN said they had spoken to their Ukrainian counterparts. Mr. Blinken also said he had spoken to unnamed American allies to ‘reassure them about our own commitment to safeguarding intelligence.’”

Related read: “An Online Meme Group Is at the Center of Uproar Over Leaked Military Secrets,” by NYT’s Kellen Browning and Stuart Thompson

GERSHKOVICH LATEST — “U.S. Officials in Moscow Haven’t Been Allowed to Visit WSJ Reporter Evan Gershkovich,” by WSJ’s Louise Radnofsky and William Mauldin: “The U.S. has frequently accused Russia of ignoring international law in depriving Americans of proper diplomatic representation, and its language is becoming increasingly blunt.”

FOR YOUR RADAR — “Biden aide, Saudi prince see ‘progress’ toward Yemen war end,” by AP’s Aamer Madhani and Matthew Lee

MEDIAWATCH

FOX IN THE DOG HOUSE — “Fox attorneys in libel case reveal dual roles for Murdoch,” by AP’s Randall Chase in Wilmington, Del.: “Fox Corp. had asserted since Dominion filed its lawsuit in 2021 that RUPERT MURDOCH had no official role at Fox News. In its filings, it had listed Fox News officers as SUZANNE SCOTT, JAY WALLACE and JOE DORREGO. But on Easter Sunday, Fox disclosed to Dominion’s attorneys that Murdoch also is ‘executive chair’ at Fox News.”

The context: “The disclosure came after Superior Court Judge ERIC DAVIS wondered aloud during a status conference last week who Fox News’ officers were. … Davis suggested that had he known of Murdoch’s dual role at Fox Corp. and Fox News, he might have reached different conclusions in a summary judgment ruling he issued last month.”

The Fox News statement: “Rupert Murdoch has been listed as executive chairman of FOX News in our SEC filings since 2019 and this filing was referenced by Dominion’s own attorney during his deposition.”

Related reads: “Judge Limits Fox’s Options for Defense in Dominion Trial,” by NYT’s Jeremy Peters … “Rupert Murdoch and Fox Corp. board members sued by investor over ‘stolen election claims,’” by NBC’s Jane Timm

VALLEY TALK

MUSK READ — “Elon Musk says he’s sleeping on a couch at Twitter and his dog is in charge,” by WaPo’s Faiz Siddiqui: “The billionaire made the comments in an interview with the BBC on Tuesday night over the company’s live audio feature, Twitter Spaces. In the interview, Musk said Twitter would tweak a new label it has added to accounts including NPR and the BBC referring to them as state-affiliated media — highlighting instead their reliance on public funding.

“But Musk also contested that misinformation and hate speech were more prevalent on the site, after the journalist was unable to name a specific example of the phenomenon.”

Joe Biden and Joe Kennedy III called Ethel Kennedy from Air Force One to wish her a happy 95th birthday.

Ted Cruz apparently gets quite the law enforcement greeting every time he flies through O’Hare International Airport.

Elon Musk swears you’re losing your check mark if you don’t pay up by next week.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Rob Engstrom is joining Bullpen Strategy Group as a senior adviser. He previously was chief political strategist at the American Bankers Association and is a Chamber of Commerce alum.

David Frulla is now comms director for Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.). He most recently was comms director at the Republican Main Street Partnership, and is a Western Caucus Foundation alum.

Molly Mitchell is launching Mitchell Media, a PR firm focused on politics and startups. She previously was marketing director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, and is a National Democratic Redistricting Committee and DCCC alum.

Theo Menon is now legislative director at Republican Main Street Partnership. He most recently was a government affairs associate at R Street Institute.

MEDIA MOVES — Dan Merica and Aneeta Mathur-Ashton are joining The Messenger. Merica will be a national political reporter and previously was a national political reporter at CNN. Mathur-Ashton will be a political breaking news reporter and previously was a writing associate producer at MSNBC. … Adam Wollner is now an editor at The Messenger. He previously was an editor at CNN.

TRANSITIONS — Stephen Schatz is now SVP at Drumfire Public Affairs. He previously was deputy chief of staff and director of intergovernmental affairs for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. … The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic is adding Giancarlo Pellegrini as Democratic chief counsel and Kelly O’Keeffe as Democratic comms director and senior adviser. Pellegrini previously was Democratic elections counsel for the House Administration Committee. O’Keeffe previously was comms director for Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.). … Alex Cohen will be government affairs director at the Alaska Wilderness League. He most recently was senior political strategist at Sierra Club. …

… Amanda Fuchs Miller is now deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs in the Education Department’s Office of Postsecondary Education. She previously was general counsel for Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). … Brittany Grimm is now founder and president of Arrowhead Strategies, a new political fundraising consulting firm. She most recently was director of development at New Media Ventures, and is a DCCC alum. … Andrea Goodman is now CEO at I AM ALS. She previously was SVP of patient support and research strategy at the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) … Fred Ryan … former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) … Christian DatocMindy MyersBrad Elkins … CBS’ Rita BraverJack Pandol Jr.Katherine Rodriguez of DoorDash … Gretchen AndersenSindy BenavidesAnthony Bellmon Peter Scher of JPMorgan Chase … Corry RobbJohn Athon of Safespill Systems (4-0) … POLITICO’s Yohannes GurmuLaly Rivera Perez Nick Iacovella … National Student Legal Defense Network’s Aaron AmentAudra McGeorgeChris Gorud of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) office … Reed Galen … ABC’s Eric Ortega Shalla Ross … WaPo’s Carrie Camillo … AARP’s Timothy Gearan … CNN’s Greg Clary Woody JohnsonEric Leckey

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected] or text us at 202-556-3307. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike DeBonis, deputy editor Zack Stanton and producers Setota Hailemariam and Bethany Irvine.





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