Grassley’s big Wednesday: Named president (pro tem), pushed sentencing reform (again), rejected oversight of Trump (again) and talked Steve King

Video still of Sen. Chuck Grassley presiding over the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, Sept. 28, 2018.

On Wednesday, it became official: Sen. Chuck Grassley will be third in the line of succession to the presidency starting in January. The 85-year-old Iowan will become President Pro Tempore of the Senate, which means he will be the presiding officer of the Senate when Vice President Pence isn’t present.

The actual power of the position has dwindled to almost nothing over the last 150 years. Basically, Grassley’s most important duty will be staying alive, so that he can move into the White House if the president, vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives all die.

Since 1890, it’s been the custom of the Senate to award the position to the longest-serving member of the majority party. When 84-year-old Orrin Hatch of Utah retires in January, Grassley, who was first elected to the Senate in 1980, becomes the GOP’s most senior senator.

This wasn’t the only Grassley news on Nov. 15.

Trump backs an important Grassley (and Kardashian) goal

On Wednesday, there was a significant development regarding an issue that Grassley has spent years working on: criminal justice reform. In 2015 and 2017, Grassley introduced bills that would have made major changes to criminal sentencing, including reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. Both times, it was rejected by his fellow Republicans.

President Trump held a media event at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to announce his support for the criminal justice reform bill, the “First Step Act.” It’s not Grassley’s bill — it was written by House members, Republican Doug Collins of Georgia and Democrat Hakeem Jeffries of New York — and it is not as extensive as Grassley’s bill.

According to Reuters,

The First Step Act directs the federal Bureau of Prisons to assess which inmates should earn credits toward completing their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement.

It also broadens employment opportunities for inmates and expands compassionate release programs for the terminally ill.

The bill would do away with the “three-strike” provision that requires mandatory life sentences for third-time drug offenders, making the sentence 25 years instead.

Judging by Trump’s public statements, the person who most influenced the president’s interest in criminal justice reform wasn’t Grassley — it was Kim Kardashian.

Kardashian has been a vocal advocate for criminal sentencing and prison reform for several years, and has had White House meetings with Trump on the issue.

The First Step Act passed the House in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would not allow a vote on it until after the midterm elections. Grassley said he supports the bill.

No oversight on Trump and the acting attorney general (part one)

In a conference call with Iowa reporters on Wednesday, Grassley said he had rejected a call from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold an oversight hearing on Trump forcing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, and his appointment of Iowan Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general. Grassley called the idea of a hearing “stupid.”

Grassley said he had no concerns that Whitaker might interfere with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump, even though Trump’s primary complaint about Sessions was that the attorney general had recused himself from supervising Mueller. (Grassley’s relationship with Sessions became strained, after Sessions publicly called on the Senate to reject Grassley’s 2017 criminal justice reform bill.) The senator also said he had no concerns whether Whitaker is qualified to be attorney general.

“I have full faith in his abilities as acting attorney general,” Grassley told reporters.

Grassley’s statement came on the same day Whitaker’s background came under increased scrutiny.

The Washington Post published a thorough look at Whitaker’s background. “Whitaker, 49, stands in vivid contrast to his predecessors, whose résumés typically boast judgeships, partnerships at prestigious firms and senior roles in the Justice Department,” the Post reported.

Whitaker, on the other hand, has never been described as a prominent attorney. Trump has repeatedly said Whitaker is well-qualified to be attorney general because he served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa for five years during the George W. Bush administration. The Post reviewed Whitaker’s application for that position.

In a disclosure submitted to the federal government for the post, Whitaker was asked to list his most consequential legal work. One case involved personal-injury litigation in which he represented a man whose leg was run over by a car. A second was a contract dispute between a dry cleaner and the grocery store where it operated. In another, he represented a marble and tile company sued by a couple over a home remodeling project.

Whitaker’s most notable case as U.S. attorney was in 2007, when he indicted Matt McCoy for fraud. McCoy was a Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate and the first openly gay member, and the prosecution was widely regarded at the time as politically motivated. It took a jury just a few hours of deliberation to find McCoy not guilty on all charges.

The Post reported Whitaker has also been the owner of a day-care center, a concrete supply business and a trailer manufacturer.

Earlier in the week, Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported that in 2012, Whitaker and two partners formed a company to take part in “a taxpayer-subsidized apartment-rehabilitation project” in Des Moines. Whitaker’s company never completed the project.

The city of Des Moines ultimately yanked an affordable housing loan that Whitaker’s company had been awarded, and another lender began foreclosure proceedings after Whitaker defaulted on a separate loan for nearly $700,000. Several contractors complained they were not paid, and a process server for one could not even find Whitaker or his company to serve him with a lawsuit.

A Justice Department spokesperson told the AP that Whitaker “did not complete the project due to cost overruns and a bad general contractor.”

Whitaker’s most eye-catching job prior to becoming attorney general was as an advisory board member for World Patent Marketing (WPM), a Florida-based marketing company that promoted such inventions as time-travel technology and a “masculine toilet.” In addition to his advisory role, Whitaker appeared in social media advertising for the company.

“I would only align myself with a first-class organization,” Whitaker said in a December 2014 statement promoting WPM.

The Federal Trade Commission ruled in 2017 that WPM was scamming its customers, ordered it to refund customers $26 million and cease all operations. It also banned the company’s CEO from working in the invention-promotion business again.

Last week, the Miami New Times reported the FBI is conducting a criminal investigation of WPM. As acting attorney general, Whitaker has control over the FBI.

No oversight on Trump and the acting attorney general (part two)

As part of a federal lawsuit, the state of Maryland is challenging the constitutionality of Whitaker’s role as acting attorney general. The state argues Trump’s appointment of Whitaker violated of the Appointment Clause of the Constitution, which requires the Senate to confirm cabinet officials. In the past, Grassley has aggressively defended the Senate’s authority against presidential overreach, but told reporters he’s sure Whitaker’s appointment is constitutional, because the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council (OLC) gave the White House verbal assurance it was.

On Wednesday, the OLC published a written version of its opinion on Whitaker. The OLC could only find one other case of an attorney general being appointed without having previously been confirmed by the Senate in another position during that administration.

In 1866, President Andrew Johnson bypassed the Senate confirmation process to appoint J. Hubley Ashton as attorney general. Ashton only served for six days before resigning.

The OLC also cited an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court case, United State v. Eaton, as support for Trump’s authority to appoint Whitaker without Senate confirmation. President Benjamin Harrison appointed Lewis Eaton U.S. Ambassador to Siam (now Thailand) in 1892, when the previous ambassador stepped down due to illness. Eaton was already in the country, as a missionary. Harrison claimed it was necessary to immediately fill the vacancy, and Eaton was the only suitable candidate.

The Supreme Court ruled that Eaton’s appointment was legal, because it was “for a limited time and under special and temporary conditions.” The OLC opinion does not explain why this case also covers the Whitaker appointment, when Trump had numerous officials already confirmed by the Senate that he could have appointed as acting attorney instead of Whitaker.

And Steve King

Grassley was asked during his conference call with reporters about his video endorsement of Steve King that was released the day before the general election.

Grassley tried to claim it wasn’t actually an endorsement, but said, “If you want to call it an endorsement, you can.”

In the video, Grassley said, “Iowa needs Steve King in Congress. I also need Steve King in Congress. I feel like I do a good job of representing Iowans, and so often, I have found Steve King to be such an ally. An ally that I need in the other body called the House of Representatives.”

Grassley’s video endorsement came after the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped its support for the western Iowa congressman because of King’s white nationalist and anti-Semitic ties.

As for King’s involvement with a far-right Austrian political party, or King’s endorsement in August of a racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about immigrants that is popular with white nationalists in Europe and America, Grassley claimed he knew nothing about those things, but said members of Congress often meet with members of foreign political parties.

Grassley himself recently endorsed a political conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic undertones. During an interview on Fox Business News on Oct. 5, Maria Bartiromo asked Grassley about the women protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court: “Do you believe George Soros is behind all of this? Paying these people to get you and your colleagues in elevators or wherever they can get in your face.”

Grassley replied, “I have heard so many people believe that. I tend to believe it. I believe it fit in his attack-mode he has, and how he uses his billions and billions of resources.”

Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros, who has long been a major funder of liberal causes as well as efforts to promote justice, democracy and international understanding often labeled as “liberal” by opponents of those efforts, is frequently cited by anti-Semites and white nationalists as the leader and financier of various secret conspiracies to undermine democracy and endanger white people.

Although there is no apparent sign that Grassley influenced Trump’s thinking on criminal justice reform, in case of the Soros conspiracy theory, Grassley’s influence on Trump was obvious.

Less than 90 minutes after Grassley said he “tends to believe” Soros was funding the Kavanaugh protesters, Trump — an avid Fox viewer and big Bartiromo fan — tweeted a more vehement version of the same conspiracy theory.

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