A member of John Boehner’s inner circle is under fire even as the House Speaker is at his most vulnerable: Exactly one week before the House GOP’s top official will seek re-election to his post.
“Every member who votes for John Boehner is vulnerable because not only is he unpopular with the base after his lame duck deception, but now he’s exposing members to the results of his poor judgement,” a senior GOP aide told Breitbart News after news broke Monday from the Washington Post and local Louisiana sources that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spoke at a conference of white supremacists back in 2002.
“Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the House majority whip, acknowledged Monday that he spoke at a gathering hosted by white nationalist leaders while serving as a state representative in 2002, thrusting a racial controversy into House Republican ranks days before the party assumes control of both congressional chambers,” the Washington Post’s Robert Costa wrote late Monday. “The 48-year-old Scalise, who ascended to the House GOP’s third-ranking post earlier this year, confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization. That organization, founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, has been called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
Scalise is Boehner’s second lieutenant, serving right beneath House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. His scandal could put pressure on every Republican member who voted for him for whip. It also, that senior GOP aide said, shows Boehner and McCarthy are weak leaders because they either failed to properly vet Scalise or they withheld information about his past.
“Boehner’s cronies not only backed Scalise for whip but they also backed him for RSC chair,” the aide said, indicating that Boehner and McCarthy should have done their due diligence before supporting someone like Scalise for the whip job.
The irony is that several establishment Republicans, including National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesman Brad Dayspring, pushed the idea this past electoral cycle that establishment Republicans are better vetted than Conservative types. He pointed to Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle from 2012 as examples.
Conservative Review senior editor Daniel Horowitz tells Breitbart News the Scalise story—coupled with the resignation from the House of Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) in New York following his guilty plea to a tax evasion charge—is proof that the GOP establishment narrative is baseless.
“It’s ironic that this latest scandal is brought to us by the same people who claim conservatives cannot win elections because they have not been properly vetted,” Horowitz said in an email. “Coupled with Michael Grimm, the establishment has created gratuitous vulnerabilities in the party at a time when the Democrats should be the ones on the ropes.”
O’Donnell, who won the 2010 GOP nomination in Delaware for U.S. Senate over then Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), infamously had to defend herself from allegations she practiced witchcraft—something her old television appearances fueled.
This year in Mississippi, though, it was establishment incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran who had a questionable background. During his primary against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, Cochran faced concerns over taxpayer-funded world travels with his longtime aide, problems with his short-term memory and questionable comments he made about farm animals. In the end, Cochran won the primary and swept to victory in deep-red Mississippi.
Nonetheless, all that talk from GOP establishment figures about vetting GOP candidates could come back to bite them in a big way as the repercussions for Scalise’s actions sort themselves out. This scandal gives conservatives a major weapon against the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party should that talking point come out again. “I am not a witch is nothing to compared to I am not a KKK member,” that first senior GOP aide joked to Breitbart News.
A second GOP congressional aide, when asked about Scalise’s performance in the leadership role, told Breitbart News: “Well he seemed like another Boehner stooge so far.”
“Scalise is clearly in the camp of the corporatist wing of the party that needs to be taken down,” that second GOP aide added.
At this point, there hasn’t been much of a serious effort to take down Boehner—at least not as there was at the beginning of the last Congress. But the Scalise news could change everything, a handful of connected House GOP aides told Breitbart News late Monday. That’s not to say there is definitely going to be another coup attempt, but small pockets of resistance to Boehner that formed over the past two years thanks to his immigration stances and especially thanks to his pushing through the cromnibus spending bill are now emboldened in the wake of this crippling news to this still-young GOP leadership team.
Scalise didn’t take over as GOP whip until the middle of 2014. He moved over from the chairmanship of the Republican Study Committee after then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was upset in a primary in June by now-Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA). Cantor was replaced in the number two slot by McCarthy, and Scalise beat out Reps. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) and Peter Roskam (R-IL) for the whip position.
Scalise came under fire during the battle over the so-called “cromnibus,” a 1,774-page $1.1 trillion spending bill that Boehner forced through Congress with Obama’s help right after the midterm elections during the lame duck session of Congress. After Breitbart News reported that Scalise was in political trouble back home for his role in getting the cromnibus—which funds, in its entirety, President Barack Obama’s executive amnesty—passed through Congress by whipping votes for it, former Alaska Governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin highlighted his political woes on her Facebook page. She has more than four million followers.
“GOP leaders already going wobbly, hoping us peons won’t notice,” Palin wrote, providing a link to the Breitbart News story raising the possibility of a primary challenge against Scalise from retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness.
Maness was a U.S. Senate candidate in Louisiana’s jungle primary, campaigning against both now Senator-elect Bill Cassidy and outgoing Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. Maness shocked the political world in Louisiana and nationally, garnering some 200,000 votes statewide with hardly any national help outside the endorsement of Palin. Maness could be even more emboldened to make a move at Scalise now, given the vulnerabilities he’s showing both in Washington and back home in Louisiana. The knives are out for Scalise behind the scenes, and Boehner and McCarthy are both not defending him publicly.
Maness, who would presumably be ready to fill Scalise’s congressional seat should this scandal force his regignation, lives in Scalise’s district. He just launched the hybrid Political Action Committee (PAC) Gator PAC after campaigning for Cassidy against Landrieu. In addition to newly-formed alliances with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter—the likely next governor of the state—Maness and Cassidy have since made amends.
During the campaign, Maness showed he’s willing to criticize fellow Republicans when he perceives them to be wrong on race. When Cassidy said that Harry Reid’s Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate was “like a plantation,” Maness ripped the term as “incredibly offensive to many Americans” and called on Cassidy to “immediately apologize.” Maness also made minority outreach in black communities across Louisiana a major plank of his campaign by publicly supporting the Redeem Act from Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), something that would help those caught up in the criminal justice system reintegrate into society.
To mark his enthusiastic support for the Paul-Booker bill, Maness toured Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary to learn more about rehabilitation of inmates post-incarceration.
“Angola has some of the most progressive rehabilitation programs in the nation for non-violent offenders,” the Times-Picayune’s Cole Avery wrote about Maness’ Angola prison tour. “Maness visited a class where a group of about 20 inmates learned about air conditioners so they can get jobs when their sentences are up. It’s a program near to Maness’ believes that anyone can succeed with hard work and personal responsibility.”
There’s also talk in Louisiana that Maness may fill Vitter’s Senate seat when he steps down after presumably winning the governor’s election later in 2015. But since Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), another hardcore conservative, is also definitely in the running for the Senate seat as well—and with Scalise’s woes—Maness may change course and go for Scalise’s House seat, something that would avoid an intra-conservative battle between Maness and Fleming.
Making matters murkier is the fact that calls for Scalise’s resignation are beginning, even though several major Republicans are, so far, publicly backing him up.
“Rep. Scalise should resign his leadership post,” Peter Wehner, an Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow and former official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, Tweeted. “The party of Lincoln shouldn’t have as its #3 a keynoter at a white supremacist convention.”
“If Scalise doesn’t resign, then @GOP members should be asked why they would continue to serve as members of his caucus. Seriously,” conservative strategist Jimmy LaSalvia added.
“I don’t think Scalise should resign over this. He should resign over the lame duck betrayal over obama’s amnesty. And we should #FireBoehner,” the Conservative Review’s Horowitz added via Twitter.
Two different spokespersons for Scalise have not responded to a request for comment from Breitbart News in response to the calls for Scalise’s resignation from leadership and from Congress. “A career-on-the-line test for Scalise in the coming days: does his base crack or can he hold on?” the Post’s Costa Tweeted, summarizing the calamity in leadership right now.
Even Scalise himself, however, seemed unsure if he would walk away from this scandal unscathed and job intact. “At the end of the day, you are judged by your character,” he said when asked by the Times-Picayune on Monday night if he’s concerned this will affect his position in leadership. “And look, I’m proud of my record of working to help people throughout my years of public service. Whether they have the same political philosophy as me or not, I work hard to help all people.”
Some top Republicans, ranging from Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, defended Scalise.
“This is an absurdity,” Gingrich said in statement defending Scalise and attacking reporters for pursuing the story. “Twelve years ago Scalise made a mistake in judgment while giving speeches on the state budget.”
“Scalise will remain whip and he will do a good job for all Americans,” Gingrich added.
Peter King said that Scalise has “no bias or bigotry,” and stood by him in an interview with the Post’s Costa. Steve King stood by Scalise, too, saying: “Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners… I know [Steve’s] heart.”
From the left, Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) attacked Scalise, saying this episode “raises serious questions about the judgment of an elected official.”
But Castro’s fellow Democrat and Scalise’s fellow Louisianan, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA)—a member of the Congressional Black Caucus—defended Scalise. “I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body,” Richmond said.
Richmond’s support for Scalise came without the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, however, as CBC vice chairwoman Rep. Yvette Clark (D-NY) called on Boehner to investigate Scalise.
“It is my hope that Speaker Boehner will do a thorough investigation into the circumstances involved in Congressman Scalise’s participation with the organization and reassure all members that his leadership has not been compromised by an affiliation with such an organization,” Clark said.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson laid into Scalise, too, saying via Twitter: “How Do You Show Up at a David Duke Event and Not Know What It Is?” Erickson is guest-hosting Rush Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio program on Tuesday, and hinted via Twitter that this storyline will be a major focus of the show. Nonetheless, the chaos in the political world over this—with unusual alliances forming on both sides of Scalise—does Boehner no favors heading into the all-important speakership vote next week.
Top aides to Boehner and McCarthy haven’t responded to a detailed set of questions from Breitbart News about whether they vetted Scalise before letting him into their inner circle in leadership, or what they knew and when they knew it about this incident. But according to Costa, all of GOP leadership—Scalise’s office, and Boehner’s and McCarthy’s teams—are terrified right now.
“Boehner, McCarthy mum. But people close to them both are nervous. This came out of left field. Privately, mounting concern,” Costa Tweeted.
“The scene inside House GOP right now, based on dozens of calls and e-mails tonight: wait and see,” Costa added in another Tweet.
“Boehner, McCarthy said to be monitoring press coverage of Scalise, but so far no comment, per GOP aides,” Costa said in yet another Tweet.
To make matters worse for GOP leadership, in addition to the several inconsistencies in Scalise’s story, the incident has propelled a conversation about race in GOP politics—rather than the direction of the country under President Obama—to the front of the political world heading into the first days of the new Congress. Perhaps even more shocking than that to Boehner and company is now thanks to these revelations, David Duke—a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan—is now elevated into the political narrative, a disastrous situation for a Republican Party looking to govern as it gains official control over all of Congress for the first time since before Obama took the oval office.
Duke actually did an interview with the Washington Post, in which he said about Scalise: “I’ve certainly met him. He’s a nice guy.”
“[Scalise] says he didn’t realize what the conference was. I don’t know if he did or did not,” Duke added in his interview with Costa.
Duke followed up with the Washington Post later in the evening as well, saying in a second interview with Costa that his campaign manager Kenny Knight and Scalise were personally close. “Scalise did communicate a lot with my campaign manager, Kenny Knight,” Duke told the Post, adding that was “why he was invited” to the white supremacist conference in 2002.
When Duke was asked what Scalise and his confidante Knight discussed regularly, he told the Post they talked about “Hollywood system, about war” and that Scalise “was just a state rep then.” Federal Election Commission (FEC) records indicate that Duke’s campaign manager donated at least $1,000 to Scalise’s campaign as recently as 2008, something Costa flagged late Monday night noting that Duke confirmed the address listed on the FEC records for a “Kenneth Knight” $1,000 donation to Scalise in 2008 was indeed that of his campaign manager’s.
Scalise spokeswoman Moira Bagley didn’t deny that her boss spoke to the white supremacist group run by David Duke in 2002, but simply said her boss was, in the words of Costa, “unaware at the time of the group’s ideology and its association with racists and neo-Nazi activists.”
“Throughout his career in public service, Mr. Scalise has spoken to hundreds of different groups with a broad range of viewpoints,” Bagley said to the Washington Post. “In every case, he was building support for his policies, not the other way around. In 2002, he made himself available to anyone who wanted to hear his proposal to eliminate slush funds that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars as well as his opposition to a proposed tax increase on middle-class families.”
“He has never been affiliated with the abhorrent group in question,” Bagley added. “The hate-fueled ignorance and intolerance that group projects is in stark contradiction to what Mr. Scalise believes and practices as a father, a husband, and a devoted Catholic.”
Costa cited other anonymous Scalise aides who he wrote “argued that Scalise was poorly staffed during the period, when he was busy touring the state promoting his efforts to curb state spending.”
“Scalise’s aides said due to the unavailability of Scalise’s schedule from that year, they did not have details to share about his appearance or remarks, but said he was a frequent speaker at a variety of events at that hotel—a hotspot for New Orleans-area conventions,” Costa wrote.
But, as Costa reported, local press clippings from the timeframe indicate that Scalise was either complete oblivious to what was going on in his community—or he’s being misleading about not knowing now.
“The Gambit Weekly, an alternative publication in New Orleans, wrote days before the conference that the hotel distanced itself from Duke’s group and expressed its discomfort,” Costa wrote, adding that: “The Iowa Cubs, a minor-league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African-Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.”
In addition, Roll Call’s Niels Lesnewski discovered an old interview from 1999 in his publication—three years before the 2002 David Duke conference that Scalise is now facing fire for—in which Scalise admitted he knew who David Duke was, and seemed to support some of his policies. Duke was considering a run for the first congressional district U.S. House seat that Scalise now holds, and Scalise—and now Sen. David Vitter (R-LA)—were other potential candidates. Vitter, then an attorney in Metairie, Louisiana, is quoted first in the story disavowing Duke’s beliefs.
“I honestly think his 15 minutes of fame have come and gone,” Vitter is quoted in the 1999 Roll Call piece, which noted he was “seriously considering” a run for the House seat he eventually won before becoming a U.S. Senator years later, as saying of Duke. “When he’s competed in a field with real conservatives, real Republicans, Duke has not done well at all.”
Then Scalise is quoted as saying, according to Roll Call reporter John Mercurio, as someone who “embraces many of the same ‘conservative’ views as Duke” but painted himself as “far more viable.”
“The novelty of David Duke has worn off,” Scalise said at the time. “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”
Another defense Scalise used in an on-the-record interview he conducted with his hometown Times-Picayune on Monday evening was that he didn’t have “Google” back in 2002, when this event occurred, so he couldn’t vet the organization.
“There is a lot more vetting that goes into setting my appointments,” Scalise told the paper. “I have a scheduler. I didn’t have a scheduler back then. I was without the advantages of a tool like Google. It’s nice to have those. Those tools weren’t available back then.”
That’s not entirely true. The internet was in full swing by that point, and Google had technically been inn use for years by the time of this event in 2002. There were plenty of other search engines that Scalise could have used to vet the organizations he was speaking at. In addition, as the Roll Call article he had previously been quoted in showed, he knew full well who David Duke was in 1999, and in 2002.