The Morning Dispatch: New Hampshire Winnows the Field

Plus, Roger Stone’s criminal case, and a look at how opposition research gets deployed.

Happy Wednesday! There were results in New Hampshire last night, but we don’t want to overlook the most important news of the day: How did Siba, a standard poodle, beat out Daniel the golden retriever at the Westminster Dog Show?!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Department of Justice has overruled its own prosecutors to ask a judge not to sentence former Trump adviser Roger Stone to a lengthy prison term for lying to Congress and tampering with witnesses in his trial.

  • The World Health Organization continues to sound the alarm about the global coronavirus outbreak, calling the virus “a very grave threat for the rest of the world.” More than 43,000 people globally have contracted the disease.

  • In a long-awaited step towards justice, Sudan will hand over its thuggish former president Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court to face war crimes charges related to the genocide his regime carried out in Darfur. 

  • A federal judge approved a corporate merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, America’s third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers. 

  • In a story that would surely be getting more attention were the party roles reversed, the Floridian who drove his car into a parking-lot tent of Republicans registering voters told investigators he did so because “someone had to take a stand” against Trump. He has been charged with aggravated assault. 

New Hampshire Has Spoken

Bernie Sanders edged Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday night to win New Hampshire’s first primary, and Amy Klobuchar finished a strong third. Declan spent the last week in New Hampshire; here’s an excerpt of his postgame report from Nashua:

Pete Buttigieg focused first on Senator Bernie Sanders. “I respect him greatly to this day, and I congratulate him on his strong showing today,” Buttigieg said to 1,200 supporters packed into a steamy gymnasium on Tuesday night. Then he shifted to his own success. “Thanks to you, a campaign that some said shouldn’t be here at all, has shown that we are here to stay.”

Buttigieg’s acknowledgment of Sanders’ triumph—25.9 percent to the former South Bend mayor’s 24.2 with 90 percent of the vote counted—mirrored that of many in the political world on Tuesday night, in that he quickly moved away from it. Yes, Sanders’ margin of victory—at just under 1.5 points—was significantly tighter than the seven or eight percentage points that polls had projected for the senator whose home state of Vermont is next door to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Yes, 25.7 percent is the worst showing ever for a New Hampshire primary winner and less than half the 60 percent of votes Sanders received in 2016. But the field is bigger this time around, and with popular vote victories in each of the first two states, plenty of money in the bank, and strong national polling, it’s hard to look at Sanders as anything other than the frontrunner.

But he’s a weak one, with a high floor of (very passionate) support and—so far—a ceiling that would prevent him from amassing the necessary delegates once the field winnows further. With their impressive performances on Tuesday, Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota seem best positioned to convert the abstract campaign currency—momentum—into vote totals that could rival Sanders’ base. But Nevada and South Carolina—with their large Latino and black populations—will prove rockier terrain than Iowa and New Hampshire.

After pulling in 20 and 25 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, Buttigieg will now bring his version of hope and change to states where he is polling in the mid-single digits. The campaign has proved more than capable of elevating the 38-year-old’s profile thus far, but it has primarily had to appeal only to white voters, and college-educated white voters at that.

Klobuchar, for her part, made the most of her surprisingly strong 20 percent third-place showing. The first female to be elected senator from Minnesota opened her “victory” speech—broadcast live on some cable television networks nationwide—with an introduction for voters who might not yet be familiar with her. “Hello America! I’m Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump,” she began before diving into her stump speech, tweaked a bit to place additional emphasis on unity and electability. “We know that we win by bringing people with us instead of shutting them out. Donald Trump’s worst nightmare is that the people in the middle, the people who have had enough of the name-calling and the mudslinging, have someone to vote for in November.”

Klobuchar’s charge now? Building out the campaign infrastructure necessary to harness all this newfound energy. The campaign says it already has 50 staffers on the ground and ads ready to go in Nevada (which caucuses February 22), but her South Carolina (February 29) operation is thin. The campaign will be deploying additional personnel to Super Tuesday (March 3) states by Saturday. The $2.5 million raised since polls closed will certainly help in that regard.

Roger Stone, the DoJ, and The Rule of Law

Last November, political trickster and former Trump adviser Roger Stone was convicted of seven felonies related to his efforts to mislead the Mueller investigation: five counts of making false statements to Congress, one count of obstruction of Congress, and one count of witness tampering. This week, federal prosecutors asked a judge, in accordance with relevant federal sentencing guidelines, to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison. The Stone case, one of the last loose ends of Robert Mueller’s investigation, seemed to be drawing near its logical conclusion.

Then, Tuesday, everything changed. The Department of Justice suddenly signaled it would overrule its own prosecutors’ recommendation, filing a new motion calling a nine-year sentence “excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances.” All four of the career prosecutors on the case—two of whom were holdovers from Mueller’s team—announced they would withdraw from it in apparent protest. And President Trump picked up the thread on Twitter, fuming anew that Stone had ever been prosecuted in the first place and publicly teasing the possibility of a full pardon.    

The sudden DoJ intervention on Stone’s behalf further calls into question President Trump’s decision last month to remove then-U.S. Attorney for D.C. Jessie Liu from her post, where she had overseen the prosecutions of a number of Trump associates who had run afoul of the Mueller investigation, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Stone himself. Trump ostensibly asked Liu to step down in order to appoint her undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes at the Treasury Department—but on Monday, Axios reported that her name is being withdrawn from that nomination, too.

The president’s defenders insist there’s nothing to see here: that the federal sentencing guidelines relied on by Stone’s prosecutors are too harsh, and DoJ was right to step in and ignore them. Ironically, such defenses have the same problem as defenses of Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine that led to his impeachment: It’s possible to posit a tolerable reason why he did what he did, but to do so you have to ignore heaps of Trump’s own statements and actions on the subject.

Every time Trump has spoken about his longtime adviser and friend since his arrest, he has been plainly incensed that Mueller rang Stone up for lying—when any fool could see it’s the Democrats who do most of the lying around here! “If Roger Stone was indicted for lying to Congress, what about the lying done by Comey, Brennan, Clapper, Lisa Page & lover, Baker and soooo many others?” he complained in a January 2019 tweet.

Then, in November: “So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr and Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?”

Even without this context, for the DoJ to step in and overrule its own prosecutors in a case like this would be highly unusual. For them to do so under such circumstances is all but unheard of. And it’s not going over well at Justice. Don’t be surprised to see more resignations in the days ahead.

How the Oppo Gets Made

Just as former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg plans to join the rest of his competitors for the Democratic nomination after New Hampshire, incredibly damaging audio was unearthed in which Bloomberg is discussing race, crime, and New York’s infamous stop and frisk policing tactic.

Given the timing and nature of this release, the audio was very likely the result of an opposition research campaign. A former oppo-researcher herself, Sarah has a piece that demystifies how negative stories about candidates make it into the news.

Presidential campaigns and national party organizations may have their own research teams in house (the RNC, for example, may have more than a dozen folks in their research department toward the end of a cycle) but the vast majority of campaigns are using an outside vendor.  Either way, these folks put together "the book" on each opponent. And these books aren't cheap. They can cost tens of thousands of dollars. 

(Side note: A smart candidate hires someone to do a "self-vet" as well. This means putting together a book on its own client to prepare the candidate and his team for what the other side can find and how they will pitch it to reporters. As one former practitioner told me, this can "lead to a lot of very awkward conversations.")

So what goes in these books? Everything. Opposition research is about drawing a contrast between how the opponent defines their candidacy and reality. A researcher will start by cataloging everything the opposing candidate has said—positions, biography, mission statement. Every public record that can be found—LexisNexis searches, voting records, property records, divorce records—will be used to find contradictions and inconsistencies. 

Unlike the Hollywood version, these jobs are done behind laptops not in alleyway dumpsters. It can be tedious, dry work in which a researcher leaves the office to travel to rural courthouses that may only keep deeds in hard copy. And the vast majority of what a researcher finds will be a dead end. Some researchers will have specialties in forensic accounting or a legal background. Some will be former legislative staffers that can pick apart a voting record more efficiently than a vulture with a carcass. 

Worth Your Time

  • For much of the 20th century, the CIA secretly owned a Swiss company that was one of the world’s leading manufacturers of encryption devices—and made millions selling devices with secret back-channels they could access to governments all over the world, in what the CIA has called “the intelligence coup of the century.” While the broad contours of the program have been known since the mid-1990s, Greg Miller of the Washington Post has the definitive account, with many new details, here.

  • George Washington University physicist Neil Johnson is using science to predict when online hate will turn to real-world violence, Steve Nadis reports for Discover Magazine. “The same principles that govern jostling molecules might also apply to groups of humans.”

Presented Without Comment

Something Fun

This is so metal.

Also, there’s something ironic about Rage Against the Machine performing at the Capital One Arena, no?

Toeing the Company Line

  • The U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Codes of Conduct has drafted an opinion that would prelude federal judges from being members of legal organizations like the Federalist Society. Over on the website, Ryan J. Owens has a good piece breaking down all the ways in which that’s a foolish and unconstitutional idea.

  • Be sure to check out the latest edition of the French Press, which examines Bernie Sanders’s latest comments on abortion and how “the American culture war has grown unnecessarily and gratuitously intolerant.” In it, David goes through a laundry list of ways Democratic candidates could appeal to pro-lifers without having to alter a single policy position—and examines why they haven’t, and don’t, and won’t.

Let Us Know

Pundits love a good underdog story, and Amy Klobuchar’s strong showing in New Hampshire certainly fits the bill. One thing pundits haven’t been able to agree on: What to call the thing. Which moniker is best?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).