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GOP donors are hobnobbing in person again; Dems are sticking to Zoom

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Dan Kildee

Democrats’ restraint comes as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Wolensky warned this week that the country faces another virus surge, citing mass travel, the rise of more contagious variants and loosening restrictions. President Joe Biden for the first time urged governors to slow their reopening plans and to keep mask mandates in place as leaders race to make shots widely available. When Biden headlined a fundraiser for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last week, it was a virtual one.

Democrats’ caution poses a sharp contrast with a growing number of lawmakers on the GOP side of the aisle, who have been hobnobbing in person with donors for weeks, if not months, and are showing no desire to slow down.

Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) hosted a ski trip fundraiser this past weekend in Park City, Utah, joined by Reps. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) and Jason Smith (R-Mo.), according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO.

In May, donors will be able to join Reps. William Timmons (R-S.C.), Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) and Lance Gooden (R-Texas) on a fundraising trip to Key Biscayne, Fla. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) is set to host a spring retreat at the Inn at Willow Grove in Virginia. And Republican lawmakers are convening breakfasts, lunches and dinners at the same Washington restaurants that hosted their pre-pandemic fundraisers as well as the Capitol Hill Club.

A list of upcoming fundraisers sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Friday lists 204 upcoming events, more than half of which are described as “in person.”

The DCCC declined to comment on whether it had issued guidelines for holding fundraisers during the pandemic. The NRCC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee hasn’t “issued formal guidance and encourage[s] all Senators to follow local guidelines for their fundraisers,” according to an NRSC spokesperson.

Republican lawmakers and donors have for months been far more willing to meet and mingle in the flesh — as was in evidence last summer when Republicans held a limited in-person convention while Democrats kept everything virtual. But now that Washington’s ruling classes are mostly vaccinated, the divide in fundraising approaches is getting starker.

More than half a dozen GOP lobbyists, consultants and fundraisers said they’ve witnessed an uptick in interest in these live events in recent weeks, particularly now that lawmakers and many donors have had their shots and the weather is improving.

The return to real life fundraising, they said, seems to stem from the same pandemic fatigue afflicting the general public, which has led many Americans to return to normal life even though the majority of the country remains unvaccinated. But there are also downsides to virtual fundraising that have persuaded GOP fundraisers to shun it, including that the confines of Zoom and other online platforms don’t allow for one-on-one time with lawmakers.

“People are certainly over the Zooms, if you will,” said one Republican fundraiser who’s started planning in-person events. “The weather is getting nicer, so doing an outdoor reception is a feasible idea — whereas in January that wasn’t going to happen.”

A few Democrats are also trying out in-person events. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) are set to host a fundraiser benefiting Kildee’s leadership PAC next month at the Whiskey Creek golf course in Maryland, according to an invitation.

A spokesperson for Kildee’s PAC said the fundraiser would be held entirely outdoors and that attendees would “strictly” follow state and federal guidelines for such events.

“Whiskey Creek is following enhanced sanitation procedures, including sanitizing golf carts,” the spokesperson said. “There will be no communal food at the event (everything will be individually boxed or wrapped).”

A Democratic lobbyist said the handful of other invitations he’d seen for in-person fundraisers were also for events taking place outdoors.

“People are cautious, and understandably so,” said Michael Fraioli, whose Democratic fundraising firm hadn’t held an in-person fundraiser in more than a year.

Some Democratic lobbyists said they thought in-person events might resume this summer as Covid restrictions eased and more people were vaccinated. “There’s been some talk of hopefully doing an in person event or (perhaps) even a PAC trip later this year but it’s all in the ‘Let’s see how it goes’ phase,” Paul Bock, a Democratic lobbyist, wrote in an email to POLITICO.

And the GOP lawmakers who do opt to host in-person events have a more limited guest list from which to draw. Some trade associations bar their lobbyists from attending in-person shindigs, one fundraiser said, while others leave it to their employees’ discretion. Among those who can attend, there’s also the divide between those who find it easier to stick to Zoom and those who prefer to go out for a party. Local health restrictions — particularly in D.C. — also keep numbers small.

For now, Republicans have more political cover to host events — whereas for Democrats, who have largely come down much harder on the side of public health precautions, the optics are more fraught. And so, the party’s fundraisers have stuck with the virtual money-raising circuit. And they’ve endured a load of Zoom fatigue in the process.

“I don’t think [virtual events] will ever go away completely, but I’ve had some lobbyists say if they never have to Zoom again they’ll be thrilled,” Davey said. He noted that he recently re-upped his Zoom subscription for another year.

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

From the history of these spats, it makes sense that Republicans are still kneeling to an out-of-power president.

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Blinken names State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer

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Blinken names State Department's chief diversity and inclusion officer

“It’s perpetuated by policies, practices and people to this day,” Blinken said.

Abercrombie-Winstanley was the former ambassador to Malta during President Barack Obama’s second term, served as a senior career diplomat for more than three decades, and was the first woman to lead a foreign diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.

“We have the talent to become a model in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce,” she said after being introduced by Blinken. “We will ensure the Department of State is the organization that deserves the devotion, sacrifice and the dedication that so many of us have freely given.”

The department has long struggled to reflect the diversity of the United States, and the problem has gotten more pronounced in recent years by several measures. For instance, Black employees make up a smaller share of its workforce than in 2002, according to 2020 Government Accountability Office data.

State has also faced internal pressure, particularly among younger staff, to meaningfully address the issue.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has previously spoken about her experience working in the department amid colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male.

“In many ways, it was very lonely. It was very lonely,” she said during a 2019 POLITICO podcast. “Walking down those long halls of the Department of State, you didn’t see a lot of people who looked like you. You certainly had to deal with impostor syndrome.”

Diplomats of color have also raised concern to POLITICO and others about the unwritten rules they feel the need to abide by in order to advance their careers in the State Department.

Abercrombie-Winstanley will report directly to the secretary of State, Blinken said.

President Joe Biden has promised diversity will be a key facet of his administration, though outside groups have at times had to lobby for representation in the cabinet and for other high-ranking positions throughout the federal government.

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

Greenberg also said he was paying the legal fees for the woman, who is now 21 years old.

The WhatsApp messages shed light on key aspects of the scandal consuming the Florida Republican congressman and close ally of President Donald Trump — and on the state of mind of the man Gaetz once called his “wingman” as he sought to manage the fallout.

Greenberg went so far as to push Gaetz to use his influence with Trump for a pardon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, including one who heard Greenberg say it repeatedly.

Asked about the request from Greenberg, Gaetz previously declined to confirm or deny that it occurred. But the congressman said he did not ask Trump to pardon Greenberg. Gaetz couldn’t be reached this weekend to discuss the WhatsApp messages that are the subject of this story.

Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The congressman has not been charged and so far no evidence has surfaced against him beyond anonymous allegations he had sex with a minor or paid for prostitutes. But the scandal has seriously hobbled Gaetz, who built a national reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of Trump and has relentlessly attacked the very Department of Justice that’s now investigating him.

Greenberg faces decades of prison time from a total of 33 different charges, including identity theft, a host of financial crimes and stalking a political opponent he falsely smeared as a pedophile. But the alleged sex-trafficking of the former 17-year-old is the most serious charge and carries a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.

In the Aug. 14 WhatsApp chat with a politically influential Republican mutual friend of Gaetz and Greenberg, Greenberg initially referred to the young woman as “Vintage 99” — a fine-wine reference to her birth year that she used as her online name on SeekingArrangement, a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies.

“I’m having to pay for vintage 99 to retain [a] lawyer,” Greenberg wrote in the WhatsApp chat to the friend, who discussed the messages with POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “They [federal agents] contacted her and are wanting her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk to them.”

Nor does she want to talk to the press. She blocked a POLITICO reporter on social media and her iPhone after she was called and texted to discuss the case Monday. Her attorney couldn’t be reached. POLITICO is withholding her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.

Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client is not paying anyone else’s legal bills that he’s aware of, and noted he couldn’t speak to Greenberg’s arrangements before Scheller began to represent the defendant in December.

Scheller suggested his client might cut a deal.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said after a hearing last Thursday.

It’s not illegal for a suspect to pay the legal bills of a potential witness against him, but attorneys say the arrangement could raise questions about the case against him.

“Imagine if this was a drug case and the drug lord was paying the lawyer of a prosecution witness. What would people say?” said an attorney representing an individual who spoke to prosecutors in the case, and who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Any time you get something of value, it’s a potential problem and you’re subject to impeachment. It can make a witness less credible,” the attorney said. “At the same time, to make this case [against Gaetz] work, the evidence just needs to be piled on … They’re interviewing everyone.”

In the WhatsApp chat obtained by POLITICO, Greenberg told the friend that his attorney at the time informed him that “everyone is going to need a lawyer.” But the friend then called Greenberg’s attorney — and determined that Greenberg wasn’t telling him the truth.

“I have nothing to do with any of this and think it is incredibly uncool you are trying to lawyer me up to be a part of it, Joel,” he wrote back via WhatsApp. “Not. F—ing. Cool.”

The friend told POLITICO that Greenberg’s message “felt like a setup.”

“It’s the same playbook he used against the teacher he falsely smeared as a pedophile,” the friend said, referring to a separate charge against Greenberg. “And he’ll do the same thing to Gaetz if he can get less prison time.”

Greenberg and Gaetz shared girlfriends, according to interviews with friends and associates who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on SeekingArrangement. One friend who spent time in the company of both men said he was of the impression that the two engaged with women in more of a “sugar daddy relationship” where money changed hands, though it wasn’t explicitly prostitution.

“I know Joel and Matt paid some of their bills, rent, tuition, things like that,” the friend said. “This is a thing that happens when you’re successful and you have these relationships: ‘Are we not supposed to help these women who mean something to us and that we care about?’ Is that prostitution? Maybe if you’re a Puritan.”

Since many of the transactions in question took place on Venmo, Greenberg speculated in his WhatsApp messages that those mobile payment records were the likely evidentiary link to the woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked as a minor.

“I’m trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don’t want anyone to be caught off guard,” Greenberg wrote to his friend, who promptly replied that he wasn’t on Venmo, had no such history with any of these women and begged him to “absolutely positively leave my name the f— out of any of this. I’m serious about this Joel.”

“Understood,” Greenberg replied. “My only concern is I don’t know what could possibly come out of their mouths, and if any of them mentioned places where we met etc. I would think you would want to at least have a heads up if some chick says she partied at your house or something. That’s all. I’m trying to cover every possible angle I can think of. I wouldn’t want anyone to be blindsided.”

The friend insisted that he had nothing to do with what Greenberg was describing and was not involved in his schemes.

“I know you aren’t. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Greenberg replied.

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