May 27, 2021

Sen. Whitehouse Remarks on Kristen Clarke and Voting Rights

Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, here we go again. Just a few weeks ago, the Senate debated Vanita Gupta’s nomination for Associate Attorney General, so let’s review the bidding from that.

Gupta was eminently qualified for her role. She had support from the foremost law enforcement leaders and groups in the country. She had proven herself handling high-level government responsibilities. But Republicans set their hair on fire trying to take Ms. Gupta down. They grasped for something, anything, to dent her prospects. Eventually they landed on contorting an 8-year-old op-ed, even calling her accurate responses to their questions about it lies. It wasn’t pretty.

Now we are back on the floor with Republican hair aflame again, this time over the nominee to run the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke. Like Ms. Gupta, Ms. Clarke is eminently qualified. She knows civil rights law inside and out. She has run one of the Nation’s leading civil rights organizations. She is a superb, well-trained, experienced lawyer.

Conservatives have endorsed her, like President George W. Bush’s DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. Law enforcement organizations like the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police support her.

She ought to have flown through committee and been a quick vote here on the floor, but, no, it is hair-on-fire time again. Why all the coifs aflame? Look behind the smokescreens and remember that the No. 1 strategy of the Republican Party for 2022 is to keep voters from voting. And guess what. Ms. Clarke will run the voting rights section of the Department, and Ms. Gupta, who used to run that same Civil Rights Division, will supervise her as Assistant Attorney General.

Behind the ruckus over Ms. Gupta and now Ms. Clarke is a dark money operation out to suppress the vote. It has the trade craft of a covert operation–cutouts, front groups, secret money–and that covert operation is now focused on preventing, as our colleague Senator Warnock says, “some people” from voting. And Ms. Clarke and Ms. Gupta will be the lawful, legal opposition to the dark money, voter- suppression apparatus.

Here is what we know. When Trump was in power, this covert op ran a dark money-funded apparatus within the Federalist Society to select Federal judges. For 4 years, the Federalist Society’s operation was the gatekeeper to the Federal bench. Virtually every judicial candidate who passed through this dark money-funded turnstile was approved by big, anonymous donors out to control the courts. Donors got to approve judges and Justices who would have their backs.

That dark money turnstile was step 1. Step 2 was dark money-funded political campaigns for Senate confirmation of the nominees who got through the turnstile. For Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees, this was done by the Judicial Crisis Network, headquartered literally down the hall from the Federalist Society–not just the same building, the same hallway, but they also share staff. In each Supreme Court confirmation, a $15 million or a $17 million check from a secret donor would fund the advertising campaign.

Step 3 is dark money-funded front organizations appearing before the donor-selected Justices in orchestrated flotillas with common donors behind them, undisclosed to the Court.

When Trump lost, of course, step 1 and step 2 lost their salience and closed up shop. But with Trump judges still on the court, these front groups are still at it. In one case before the Supreme Court right now, 50 organizations–50 organizations–that filed briefs received funding through rightwing groups involved in this operation.

Dark money funding can’t be traced back to its original donors, obviously, because it is dark money, but a 2019 Washington Post investigation revealed that one guy, Leonard Leo, while executive vice president of the Federalist Society, from 2014 to 2017 coordinated $250 million–a quarter of a billion dollars–across a network of the front groups engaged in this court capture operation. Recent testimony in my Courts Subcommittee raised that number to over $400 million–nearly half a billion dollars–through 2018. Four hundred million is a lot of money, but a captured court, that is a pearl beyond price.

This Leo operation worked wonderfully during the Trump Presidency. Donors got their judges. Judicial Crisis Network and Leonard Leo got their dark money. But then that Post investigation came out, and Trump’s polling started to tank. So, like a burned agent, Leonard Leo bugged out.

Where did he bug out to? Well, Leo surfaced early last year with a group called the Honest Elections Project. These phony-baloney front groups love to have the name that is the exact opposite of what they are actually doing. So this one is called the Honest Elections Project, and it has been running voter suppression activities in key battleground States, sending threatening letters to local election officials, and filing lawsuits to restrict voting–and, of course, all dark money-funded.

But poke a little further and you discover that the Honest Elections Project is a legal alias of something called the Judicial Education Project, which is–you guessed it–the sister group to Judicial Crisis Network–yep, Leo’s judicial confirmation attack-ad organization. And, of course, behind this covert op was dark money, much of it run through DonorsTrust, the identity-laundering, dark money ATM established by the Kochs’ donor network. Before it took on this Honest Elections Project alias, more than 99 percent of the Judicial Education Project’s 2018 revenue was a single, anonymous $7.8 million donation that came through, of course, DonorsTrust. There is no way to know who cut that check

What does all this dark money finagling and front group subterfuge tell us? As a reporter for the Guardian observed, the Honest Elections Project, so-called, melds two goals of the rightwing dark money operation: One, pack the Federal judiciary, and two, bring voting rights cases before the packed courts. Rigging elections by keeping “some people” from voting is now a Republican priority, and if Trump judges will help, so much the better.

Just recently, we actually learned more about the covert voter suppression operation. The watchdog group Documented and the magazine Mother Jones uncovered a video of a presentation by the dark money group Heritage Action to its top donors. In the video, the presenter brags about getting what she called “key provisions”–“key provisions”–into voter suppression legislation in dozens of capitals around the country.

She tells the donors, and I am quoting here, “In some cases, we actually draft them for them”–they actually draft the laws for the State legislatures–“or,” she said, “we have a sentinel”–a sentinel; what a creepy word–“we have a sentinel on our behalf give them the model legislation so it has that grassroots, from-the-bottom- up type of vibe.” Big donors love that grassroots, from-the-bottom-up type of vibe.

There is lots of dark money that fuels this covert op. Heritage Action says it plans to spend $24 million in eight battleground States to “create an echo chamber” of relentless lobbying for voter suppression bills. They say they will be coordinating with known Koch network groups like the Susan B. Anthony List, Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks.

This operation is the kind of stuff that we might want our intelligence services to do in enemy countries to create disruption and discord and provide secret influence. The idea that creepy billionaires are running covert operations in and against our own country, that ought to make you cringe.

Not only is this behavior morally corrupt, it may have broken rules. One State legislature has already floated an ethics probe into Heritage Action’s sentinels jamming phony bills through their chamber.

So back to Senate Republicans getting their hair on fire over Kristen Clarke and Vanita Gupta. These two women scare the daylights out of this dark money operation behind Republican voter suppression. Ms. Clarke knows the Voting Rights Act cold; she won voting rights cases against voter suppression laws all over the country. Put Jim Crow 2.0 up against a Department of Justice Civil Rights Division led by Kristen Clarke, and that dark money voter suppression operation has a problem. So the big dark money donors behind this covert operation will raise whatever ruckus they can–first, to try to stop Vanita Gupta, which didn’t work, and now to stop Kristen Clarke, which won’t work–all in an effort to protect their dark money scheme to prevent some people from voting. You have to look behind the smokescreen sometimes to understand what is going on. It is not pretty, but it is the truth.

I yield the floor.