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Did Greene Violate Federal Law In Her New SuperPAC Ad?

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Not long after her election to Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) helped raise money for a super PAC by appearing in a video ad that tests the boundaries of rules limiting fundraising by elected officials.

The ad explicitly asks for money for the Stop Socialism Now PAC, an entity that can accept unlimited donations. But candidates and elected officials are not allowed to solicit contributions greater than $5,000, according to campaign finance experts.

Greene made the ad with Rick Shaftan, a North Carolina-based consultant whose company also handled ads for Greene's campaign and works with a gun activism group that has been closely aligned with the freshman lawmaker. Some Republicans have cut their ties to Shaftan over his history of racist remarks.

In December, Greene appeared in several ads for the super PAC leading up to Georgia's two Senate runoffs. "It's time to fight back now before it's too late," Greene said in one of the videos.

Immediately after she leaves the screen, a voice-over urges viewers to "make a contribution today."

Stop Socialism Now PAC's Ad

Greene recites a script in the super PAC's ad, which ends with a call for donations. (Screenshots from YouTube)

Under federal law, candidates and elected officials cannot "solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds in connection with an election … unless the funds are subject to the limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements" of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. Super PACs aren't subject to those requirements, as noted in the fine print on the donation webpage referenced in the Greene ad. The statute defines "solicit" as "to ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly," that a person give money or something of value. The law says messages should be considered in context, including "the conduct of persons involved in the communication."

Legal experts differed in their assessments of whether Greene's appearance follows the law, depending on their views of how strictly campaign finance rules should be interpreted. The Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance rules, is notoriously weak. Although the commission staff looks into complaints about violations of fundraising rules, the six-member commission, which has equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, routinely deadlocks.

Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert with the good-government advocacy group Common Cause, said he believes the Greene ad clearly crosses the line.

"This communication constitutes an illegal solicitation by a member of Congress of unlimited funds," Ryan said. The ban on soliciting unlimited donations, he said, "becomes meaningless if a candidate can do this."

Ryan said he's never before seen a candidate reading a super PAC's script in an ad that explicitly asks for money. That goes further, he said, than other instances where super PACs have repurposed footage of a candidate or hosted candidates at fundraisers that people have already paid to attend.

Political operatives have steadily pushed to blur the lines between candidates and their allied super PACs, which are supposed to be independent. Candidates regularly started showing up at super PAC fundraisers with the FEC's blessing. Campaigns and super PACs are not supposed to share private information, so campaigns started publicly posting video that super PACs could use — in 2015, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign famously posted hours and hours of raw footage.

The Greene ad is different because her appearance was clearly recorded specifically for the super PAC.

"Even if a super PAC can accept, a federal candidate can't solicit — that is clear and indisputable," said Erin Chlopak of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. "The whole basis for these organizations to exist is acting independently and not in coordination with federal candidates. The weaker we make that, or the lack of rules that really require such independence, then the entire premise of why they're allowed to accept unlimited contributions falls apart."

The Greene ad doesn't specify a $5,000 contribution limit, which experts say could have avoided the issue.

"My advice would be to be very clear that a candidate is not soliciting beyond those limits," said William Minor, a campaign finance lawyer at the firm DLA Piper. Minor said the FEC has given detailed guidance about what candidates can and can't do in relation to fundraising events, but the only rule that addresses asking for money in ads is the blanket ban on soliciting outsize donations.

Still, Jan Baran, a prominent Republican campaign finance lawyer, said he believes the ad complies with FEC rules because the solicitation for money flashes up while Greene is not on screen. She also doesn't appear on the super PAC's online donations page, he said.

"The ad and Ms. Greene seem in compliance since there is no solicitation by Ms. Greene and no evidence direct or indirect that impermissible [federal election] funds are being solicited by using Ms. Greene's name or likeness," Baran said in an email.

The Greene campaign and its lawyer, former Trump White House deputy counsel Stefan C. Passantino, didn't respond to requests for comment. Reached by phone, Shaftan hung up. His Twitter bio says, "I no longer talk to the #FakeNewsMedia or care what you write."

Greene voted to overturn the presidential election by objecting to the Electoral College results on January 6, when a violent mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters attacked the Capitol. Georgia Democrats called for Greene to resign over her inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the insurrection.

In February, the House voted to remove Greene from her committee assignments for conduct such as accosting a school shooting survivor and showing support online for killing Democratic leaders. Greene said in a speech that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could be executed for treason and liked a Facebook comment that suggested removing Pelosi with "a bullet to the head."

Those incidents predate Greene's election to Congress, but while in office she has provoked fresh altercations on Capitol Hill. Freshman Democrat Cori Bush of Missouri moved her office after she said Greene and her staff "berated" and "threatened" her in response to being asked to wear masks. Greene also put up an anti-transgender sign outside her office, across the hall from a lawmaker whose daughter is transgender. Last week, Greene aggressively pursued Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., outside the House chamber, falsely accusing her of supporting terrorists.

It is not clear exactly when and where the super PAC launched the ad featuring Greene. Stop Socialism Now PAC reported spending $12,000 on Dec. 4 for "digital and television advertising" against the Democratic candidates in the Senate runoffs, according to FEC disclosures. The group didn't show up in a search of broadcast airtime by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

The super PAC posted the Greene ad that asked for money on its Facebook page on December 3, logging more than 3,500 views. That ad isn't one of the super PAC's paid posts that show up in the social network's voluntary disclosures of political ads.

FEC disclosures don't connect contributions to any particular ad or solicitation. But the super PAC has received several donations above the $5,000 limit that applies to regular (non-super) PACs.

Cynthia B. Howalt, whose family owns a chemical manufacturing company in Greene's district, gave $125,000 on November 13. Her husband, Frederick "Chip" Howalt, told a local reporter in January that the couple wanted to increase support for Greene and oppose Republicans who didn't vote to overturn the 2020 election. The couple didn't respond to requests for comment.

Another large donor to the super PAC was William O. Cooley, a retired land developer in West Palm Beach, who gave $10,000 on December 9. He declined to comment.

Greene's extensive television ads, financed in part with her $1 million loan to her campaign, were key to her victory in the Republican primary last year. Her campaign has paid Shaftan's firm, Neighborhood Research and Media, more than $665,000 for ads, polls, mailers, phone messages and calls, according to FEC disclosures. The super PAC paid the firm another $10,000.

Shaftan's ads for Greene's official campaign included one simulating an explosion at an enormous Confederate monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as Greene says, "The socialist left won't stop until America is destroyed." In another ad, Greene brandishes an assault rifle and appears to blow up targets labeled "gun control" and "socialism."

Shaftan also works with a network of pro-gun groups run by brothers in Ohio named Chris, Aaron, and Ben Dorr. They are also prominent allies of Greene's. In an interview with Chris Dorr a week before the 2020 election, Greene said that if Trump lost, his supporters might resort to violence.

"Once it's gone, freedom doesn't come back by itself — the only way you get your freedoms back is it's earned with the price of blood," Greene said in a video of the interview, reported by Mother Jones. "This is it. November 3, freedom is on the ballot."

Greene planned to speak at a May 1 rally in Columbus, Ohio, organized by Chris Dorr, who told followers they could openly carry guns there. On the eve of the rally, the organizers called it off. Greene released a statement claiming state authorities refused to provide security for her.

An Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesman disputed that account, saying the police "had every intention of providing security" and had "all necessary measures in place."

Chris Dorr didn't respond to requests for comment. In 2019, Ohio authorities investigated and decided against prosecuting him for threatening assassinations in response to the Republican governor's proposed gun regulations. "There could be political bodies lying all over the ground," Dorr said in an online video. "We gun owners will pull the trigger and leave the corpse for the buzzards."

Greene also touted the Dorr brothers' American Firearms Association's endorsement of a bill she introduced in Congress to block federal funding for any gun regulations. An article on the far-right website Breitbart said Greene's bill was a response to an abandoned effort late last year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to restrict equipment that makes it possible to use pistols like assault weapons. This type of weapon was later used in the Boulder, Colorado, mass shooting in March.

In April, Greene's campaign said it would raffle off a version of the weapon. "I'm giving away the gun that triggers the Fake News Media," Greene said in an email to supporters.

Update, May 21, 2021: The good-government advocacy group Common Cause filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission citing ProPublica's reporting and alleging that the super PAC ad featuring Greene violated the ban on candidates soliciting unlimited donations. "The United States Supreme Court has been very clear in upholding candidate contribution limits and prohibitions on candidates soliciting funds outside those limits because such contributions lead to corruption and undermine the faith of Americans in the political process," the group's president, Karen Hobert Flynn, said in a statement.

Do you have information that should be public about extremist members of Congress? Contact Isaac at isaac@propublica.org.

Meet The Trump Mega-Donors Who Control The GOP’s Future

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Wesley Barnett was just as surprised as anyone to learn from news reports that the January 6 Trump rally that turned into a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was funded by Julia Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the fortune of the popular Publix supermarket chain. But Barnett had extra cause for being startled: Fancelli is his aunt.

Barnett said he was at a loss to explain how his aunt — who isn't on social media, lives part time in Italy and keeps a low profile in their central Florida town — got mixed up with the likes of Alex Jones and Ali Alexander, the right-wing provocateurs who were VIPs at the Jan. 6 rally in front of the White House.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that former President Donald Trump has activated a new set of mega-donors who were not previously big spenders in national politics. Some of the donors appear to share the more extreme views of many Trump supporters, based on social media posts promoting falsehoods about election fraud or masks and vaccines. Whether they will deepen their involvement or step back, and whether their giving will extend to candidates beyond Trump, will have an outsized role in steering the future of the Republican Party and even American democracy.

ProPublica identified 29 people and couples who increased their political contributions at least tenfold since 2015, based on an analysis of Federal Election Commission records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The donors in the table below gave at least $1 million to Trump and the GOP after previously having spent less than $1 million total. Most of the donations went to super PACs supporting Trump or to the Trump Victory joint fundraising vehicle that spread the money among his campaign and party committees.

MAGA Money

These donors each contributed more than $1 million to Trump and other Republicans since 2015, at least a tenfold increase from their prior political giving. The names of both people in a couple are shown if they each donated in their own names; the description applies to the first person named unless otherwise stated.

Source: Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics, ProPublica reporting Credit: Chart by Moiz Syed

In the current system of porous campaign finance rules and lax enforcement, a handful of ultra-rich people can have dramatic influence on national campaigns. Many of Trump's biggest backers, such as the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, or the Illinois packaging tycoons Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, aren't shown in ProPublica's analysis because they gave millions to Republicans even before Trump. But several of the biggest new donors — banking scion Timothy Mellon and his wife, Patricia; Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and his wife, Laura; and Dallas pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and his wife, Amy — now rank among such better-known, longer-running donors as Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, professional wrestling founders Linda and Vince McMahon, and casino mogul Steve Wynn.

For some new donors, the sudden increase in their political contributions may have as much to do with newly acquired wealth as with the ascent of Trump and his grip on the Republican Party. But others inherited fortunes or made them long ago, yet never made a splash in campaign finance records until now. Several of the donors have not spoken publicly about their support for Trump or have not been extensively covered before. ProPublica requested interviews with everyone named in this article and included comments from those who responded.

"Things are diametrically different from when Trump was in office," Marlyne Sexton, who has given more than $2 million since 2015 after giving less than $115,000 before, said in a phone interview. Sexton, whose husband runs an Indianapolis-based property management company, attended a dinner with Trump in 2019, Politico reported.

"People are afraid to walk down the street, it's a joke," Sexton continued. Asked why people were afraid, she said, "You can answer that for yourself, and if you can't then we probably don't agree. I can't help you understand that."

Big Lie Believers: Julia Fancelli and Gregory Fancelli

In addition to pledging $300,000 to fund the January 6 rally in Washington, Julia Fancelli actually had a hotel suite reserved, according to organizers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But in the end she did not attend, according to Caroline Wren, a Trump fundraiser involved in the planning.

Fancelli did not respond to requests for an interview, including one placed through the office of her family's foundation. Her estate manager, Schuyler Long, who also donated to Trump, declined to comment. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported her involvement in the January 6 rally, Fancelli said: "I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded."

Publix distanced itself from Fancelli, whose father, George Jenkins, founded the chain. The company said she isn't involved in operations and doesn't "represent the company in any way." Fancelli's holdings in the privately held company aren't known and she is not listed in financial disclosures as an owner of five percent or more of the company's stock.

Forbes has estimated the entire Jenkins family's wealth at $8.8 billion, ranking 39th in the country. Fancelli served as president of the family's foundation as of 2019, according to the organization's most recent tax filing. In addition to nonpolitical charities, the foundation also made a $30,000 grant to the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.

Fancelli grew up with the rest of the Jenkins clan in Lakeland, Florida, and met her husband Mauro, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, on a study abroad year in Florence, the local newspaper reported in 2018. Though the Jenkins family is prominent in Lakeland, Fancelli is not civically engaged and lives for much of the year in Italy.

In past elections, she generally gave a few thousand dollars at a time to the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional candidates, amounting to less than $200,000 total, according to FEC records. Her contributions took off starting in 2016. Since then she's given more than $2 million. Besides backing Trump, she was the largest donor to a super PAC supporting Michigan Republican Eric Esshaki, who lost to Rep. Haley Stevens.

Fancelli's donations to Trump drew some notice. But until the January 6 rally, the most news she made was for being a theft victim: In December 2020, a murder suspect stole three pieces of a silver tea set through the window of Fancelli's modest house.

Fancelli's son, Gregory, accompanied her to a Trump campaign luncheon in Palm Beach in 2019 and donated in his own name. "My mother and I are big supporters of the president," he told a local reporter in October.

Unlike his mom, Gregory Fancelli is active in the Lakeland community. He works on restoring local houses and mosaics, as well as a planetarium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the last with the help of a grant from the National Park Service in August 2020. He has donated money to a school board candidate through shell companies named after fictional characters such as Tony Stark (better known as Iron Man) and a Ghostbuster, Peter Venkman.

He also occasionally posts online about politics, and in the months after Trump lost the election, his views appeared to harden. On Christmas Day in 2020, Fancelli said on Facebook that COVID-19 was a "fake pandemic" and argued with Facebook friends who referenced case numbers and people they personally knew who died of the coronavirus. "It doesn't have the magnitude of a pandemic, unless you combine all the illnesses and flues and give it one name," Fancelli wrote. "Definitely a very powerful scare tactic by the Chinese and the UN."

In other posts, Fancelli appeared to embrace Trump's rhetoric calling President Joe Biden soft on China and falsely claiming that the election was stolen. In March, Fancelli posted a video mocking Biden for tripping on the stairs to board Air Force One, mashing up the footage with video of Trump hitting a golf ball. To a friend who commented "Fore more years!" Fancelli replied, "Fore more years of chinese puppetry!"

Another friend commented, "80 million people voted for this?" Fancelli replied, "Some people voted for him, the rest is fraud."

Gregory Fancelli declined to be interviewed.

Online Conspiracy Theorists: Leila Centner, Michael and Caryn Borland

David and Leila Centner have never spoken publicly about their support for Trump and hadn't made a political donation (except two that were refunded in 2018) until they gave a combined $1 million to support Trump's 2020 campaign. Come Jan. 6, the Miami couple were VIP guests at the rally on the Ellipse, according to organizers. The couple declined to comment through a spokesperson.

David Centner started and sold several successful web businesses, then made a fortune on a company that processed highway tolls. In 2019, taking advantage of a provision in Trump's tax bill, the Centners reportedly invested $40 million in a fund to build affordable housing for teachers. The tax incentive, known as Opportunity Zones, was intended to entice investors into developing poorer neighborhoods. But many wealthy and well-connected people have found ways to use it to subsidize their preexisting projects.

After not being able to find a school that felt right for their daughter, the Centners started their own, the brightly colored Centner Academy in Miami's Design District.

Some school parents objected when Leila Centner used the building to host a campaign event for a conservative mayoral candidate. According to emails quoted in the Miami New Times, Centner responded to their concerns by saying, "Please do not tell me what types of events I can host in my own building after hours."

In January, the school hosted an event with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent anti-vaccine activist. David Centner introduced him as his "hero" and "personal inspiration," according to a video of Kennedy's talk.

David Centner, left, and Leila Centner pose with antivaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy at an event in January.

In April, Centner instructed school employees not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In a message to faculty and staff, she falsely claimed the vaccines don't prevent death or transmission of the disease, despite trials and research showing they do. She also cited a baseless conspiracy theory that merely being around other vaccinated people can cause reproductive problems in women.

"We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known," Centner said in the message to staff. She told employees who wished to get the vaccine that they should wait until the end of the school year and that they might not be allowed to return to their jobs.

Centner's Facebook and Instagram posts are filled with misinformation urging people not to wear masks or get a COVID-19 vaccine. She falsely claimed that the media has covered up vaccine side effects ranging from rashes to death. She also has posted attacks on the nation's top infectious disease adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as drug companies and other doctors. She has cited debunked studies claiming masks harm children and compared face coverings to the yellow stars that the Nazis ordered Jews to wear. Years ago, she posted a video — now covered by a fact-checking warning — about testing bottled water for pH levels and fluoride.

Centner is slated to speak next month at a "mask-free, freedom-fighting" conference featuring Trump adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.

Centner is not the only major new Trump donor who has promoted conspiracy theories. Michael and Caryn Borland of Newport Beach, California, have given a total of about $1.6 million since 2015. In the past they'd given less than $13,000. With their new high-roller status, they were guests at the 2020 GOP convention. Then-Vice President Mike Pence canceled a planned fundraiser at the Borlands' Montana home after the Associated Press reported that the would-be hosts shared QAnon memes on Facebook and Twitter. The posts are no longer available.

"This is not a forum for politics," Caryn Borland, a singer-songwriter of Christian music, later posted on her Facebook page. "Whether they be my opinions or anyone else's. If you express any political opinions on this page they will be taken down immediately." The couple didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Borlands met while working in a grocery store and started a modest life together, according to David Wood, a film producer who worked with them on an ill-fated project. Then they inherited a fortune on Caryn's side, Wood said. Her father was an executive of a California-based industrial materials company in the 1980s, according to corporate records, and court filings indicate that she has a multimillion-dollar trust in her maiden name. The trust's holdings include land assessed at $1.6 million in Arizona, according to tax records.

"They were not even middle class, then they inherited a massive fortune," said Wood, who received a $10 million check from the trust for the film project in 2019. Amid a lawsuit, he agreed to return $4 million, according to court papers. "I don't think they were completely prepared for it," Wood said. "I don't know if anyone would be."

Business Benefits: Kelcy Warren, Roger Norman, Palmer Luckey

Some of the biggest new donors are less outspoken about their ideologies but gained tangible benefits from Trump's presidency.

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren welcomed the impact he anticipated Trump would have on his company, Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two days after the 2016 election, he told investors, "Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we're going to support infrastructure, we're going to support job creation, we're going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing."

On Trump's fourth full day in office, he signed an executive order to help clear the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a thousand-mile link to North Dakota's oil fields. Energy Transfer's stock price soared, and Warren's wealth climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. The magazine said the percentage gain was bigger than that of any other American that year.

The Dakota Access Pipeline became a high-profile controversy in 2016 when environmentalists and Native Americans rallied to the support of the local Standing Rock Sioux, who raised concerns that the pipeline would endanger their drinking water. With Trump's support, the pipeline was completed in April 2017 and started shipping oil the next month. But legal challenges continued, and a federal court in Washington eventually held that the Trump administration cut corners on the required environmental reviews.

Warren's company is now trying to convince a judge not to shut down the pipeline, arguing in an April court filing that the company stands to lose as much as $4.28 million a day. Some Democrats are calling on Biden to close the pipeline, but the current White House hasn't taken a position.

Warren and his wife are prominent philanthropists in Dallas (they developed a downtown park and named it after their son). But they were not major political donors until Trump came along, having spent less than $600,000 in total. Since 2015, however, they've given more than $17 million. Warren declined to comment through a company spokesperson.

Another first-time mega-donor who benefited from Trump's actions was Roger Norman, a reclusive real estate investor in Reno, Nevada. In his first-ever interview, with a Reno TV news station in 2018, Norman recounted making and losing fortunes several times over, despite never learning to read or write.

Norman's crown jewel is the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, 104,000 acres of desert that he and his partners bought for $20 million in 1998. Today it's worth billions after becoming a hub for companies including Tesla, Google and Switch.

The site benefited from the Opportunity Zone program in Trump's tax bill, thanks to some influential friends. As The Washington Post reported in 2018, Treasury officials originally decided the area was too prosperous to qualify for the benefit. But Norman's business partner recruited Nevada Republicans, including the governor and a senator, to lobby for the designation.

Norman then gave more than $2 million to support Trump's reelection, compared to the less than $100,000 in total political contributions he'd made in the past. "You're a little late to that story, I'm not donating anything now," Norman said in a brief phone conversation, declining to discuss the matter further.

Another new mega-donor turned a professional setback arising from his support for Trump into a new opportunity. Palmer Luckey built a prototype for a virtual reality headset as a teenager and sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. Forbes estimated the 21-year-old's cut at more than $500 million.

Luckey has credited Trump's book The Art of the Deal with inspiring him at age 13, according to The Wall Street Journal, and he sent Trump a letter in 2011 encouraging him to run for president. During the 2016 campaign, Luckey donated $10,000 to Nimble America, a pro-Trump group associated with misogynistic and white-supremacist online posts. Luckey has given conflicting accounts of whether he wrote some of the messages under a pseudonym. After an internal uproar at Facebook, the company placed Luckey on leave and fired him in 2017, the Journal reported.

Luckey deepened his political activism, expanding his giving and hosting a fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). He started a new company, Anduril, that would cater directly to the Trump administration by making security technology for the southern border. The company raised $200 million from investors and won government contracts totaling almost $100 million.

Luckey didn't respond to requests for comment.

Luckey's sister, Ginger Luckey, is engaged to Matt Gaetz, the embattled Florida congressman and Trump ally. Their mother, Julie Luckey, who home-schooled Palmer, was slated to be a VIP guest for the January 6 rally. It's not clear if she attended. She didn't respond to requests for comment.

Government Posts: Ike Perlmutter, Duke Buchan, Lynda Blanchard

Duke Buchan, a wealthy but little-known Wall Street investor, wasn't shy about coveting an ambassadorship after he and his wife gave the Trump Victory fund almost $450,000 each, the maximum amount allowable by federal campaign finance laws in 2016. One of the last vestiges of the spoils system, cushy diplomatic posts routinely go to campaign patrons. Buchan and his wife, joint donor Hannah Flournoy Buchan, declined to comment.

Buchan told friends that he viewed Trump as a disrupter and cheered the candidate's attacks on political correctness, looking forward to saying "Merry Christmas" again, The New York Times reported in 2017. Buchan was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to Spain, where he had studied abroad decades earlier. He reportedly complained that European Union regulations scuttled his plans to bring his polo ponies along. While in office, Buchan took part in the Trump administration's controversial efforts to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

While ambassadorships are common rewards for big donors, Lynda Blanchard was unusually blunt about it. According to a person familiar with her appointment who asked not to be named in connection with the discussions, Blanchard explicitly reminded transition officials how much she donated. She and her husband gave more than $2 million to Republicans between 2015 and 2018, when Trump nominated her as ambassador to Slovenia, Melania Trump's native country. Blanchard didn't respond to requests for comment.

Blanchard, who founded a real estate investment firm, is now staking millions on her own candidacy for U.S. Senate in Alabama. She held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in March with a surprise appearance from Trump, but then he endorsed her rival: Rep. Mo Brooks, one of the leaders of the congressional effort to overturn the 2020 election results.

One new Trump-era mega-donor was rewarded with a less-conventional role in his administration. Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Entertainment chairman who was one of Trump's largest overall backers and belongs to his Mar-a-Lago club, became an unofficial yet influential adviser on veterans issues. As ProPublica first reported in 2018, Trump gave Perlmutter and two associates sweeping influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs. They had a hand in policy and personnel decisions, even reviewing budgets and contracts.

Perlmutter, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he had no formal authority and sought no personal gain.

A liberal veterans group, VoteVets, sued the VA over Perlmutter's role, alleging that it violated a Watergate-era sunshine law. In March, an appeals court said the case could proceed.

Personal Ties: Anthony Lomangino, Steve Witkoff, Vernon Hill

Though Perlmutter, 78, was drawn in by his personal relationship with Trump, he has become a bigger force in Florida Republican politics. Before backing Trump, he and his wife gave $2 million to a super PAC supporting then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, and more recently he's become a major benefactor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a leading contender for the party's 2024 presidential nomination if Trump doesn't run.

For other new mega-donors who got involved because of their personal ties to Trump, it's less clear if their support will extend to other candidates.

Fellow Mar-a-Lago member Anthony Lomangino and his wife have given more than $3 million, plus $150,000 to help aides cover legal fees arising from Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. They had previously given less than $40,000 total. Lomangino, whose wealth derives from selling a recycling-collection company to industry giant Waste Management, declined to comment.

Vernon Hill, Trump's sometime banker and golf buddy, gave more than $2 million, ten times more than he'd ever given before. In 2020 he praised the federal government's small business relief program, which his bank, like many others, helped administer. Hill didn't respond to requests for comment.

Steven Witkoff, a New York real estate friend, gave more than $2 million and served as an informal adviser on tax cuts, opioids and reopening businesses during the pandemic. He has also since become a DeSantis backer. Witkoff didn't respond to requests for comment.

John McCall, the business partner of Trump's friend and purported hairspray supplier Farouk Shami, gave $1.7 million to Trump and the GOP since 2015, versus less than $20,000 previously. McCall didn't respond to requests for comment.

Derek Willis, Joshua Kaplan, Joaquin Sapien, Doris Burke and Mollie Simon contributed reporting.

Astroturf Money: How Hawley And Greene Jacked Their Fundraising Numbers

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Two of the leading Republican firebrands in Congress touted big fundraising hauls as a show of grassroots support for their high-profile stands against accepting the 2020 election results.

But new financial disclosures show that Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), relied on an email marketing vendor that takes as much as 80 cents on the dollar. That means their headline-grabbing numbers were more the product of expensively soliciting hardcore Republicans than an organic groundswell of far-reaching support.

Hawley and Greene each reported raising more than $3 million in the first three months of the year, an unusually large sum for freshman lawmakers, according to new filings with the Federal Election Commission. That's more than the average House member raises in an entire two-year cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The tallies generated favorable press coverage for Hawley and Greene, and they both seized on the numbers to claim a popular mandate.

Politico called Greene's result "eye-popping" and "staggering," a sign that she "appears to have actually benefited from all the controversies that have consumed her first few months in office." The House voted in February to remove Greene from her committee assignments because of her social media posts that promoted far-right conspiracy theories; racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric; and violence against Democratic leaders.

"I am humbled, overjoyed and so excited to announce what happened over the past few months as I have been the most attacked freshman member of Congress in history," Greene said in an emailed statement on April 7. "Accumulating $3.2 million with small dollar donations is the absolute BEST support I could possibly ask for!"

As for Hawley, who was the first senator to say he'd object to certifying the Electoral College results on January 6, Politico proclaimed that his massive increase showed "how anti-establishment Republicans are parlaying controversy into small-dollar fundraising success." Hawley's pollster, Wes Anderson with the political consulting firm OnMessage, said in a memo distributed to supporters that the "fundraising surge" made "crystal clear that a strong majority of Missouri voters and donors stand firmly with Senator Hawley, in spite of the continued false attacks coming from the radical left."

It wasn't until later, when the campaigns disclosed their spending details in last week's FEC reports, that it became clearer how they raised so much money: by paying to borrow another organization's mailing list.

"List rental" was the No. 1 expense for both campaigns, totaling almost $600,000 for each of them. It's common for campaigns to rent lists from outside groups or other candidates to broaden their reach. But for Hawley and Greene, the cost was unusually high, amounting to almost 20 percent of all the money they raised in January, February and March.

The actual return on renting the lists was likely even lower, since it's probable that not all their donations came from emailing those lists. It's not possible to tell from the FEC filings which contributions resulted from which solicitations. Firms that sell lists sometimes demand huge cuts: The top vendor for Hawley and Greene, LGM Consulting Group, charges as much as 80 percent, according to a contract disclosed in Florida court records as part of a dispute involving Lacy Johnson's long-shot bid to unseat Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)

The Hawley and Greene campaigns did not respond to requests for comment. LGM Consulting Group's principal, Bryan G. Rudnick, also did not respond to phone messages or an email.

Far beyond these two campaigns or this one company, small-dollar fundraising has exploded thanks to easy online payments, which are rewriting the playbook for campaign finance in both parties. At the same time, the rise of email fundraising has spawned some aggressive or even deceptive marketing tactics and made plenty of room for consultants and vendors to profit. A move by then-President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign to sign up supporters for recurring payments by default led to as much as three percent of all credit card fraud claims filed with major banks, according to The New York Times. In some long-shot congressional races, consultants could walk away with almost half of all the money raised, The Washington Post reported.

Hawley's and Greene's list rentals show how politicians can pad their fundraising figures — if they're willing to pay for it. There's scant evidence that fundraising success represents broad popular support for a politician outside the narrow slice of Americans who make political contributions, and many of the people on the rented mailing lists may not have been constituents of Hawley's or Greene's. Still, the money is real, and the perception of fundraising star power is its own kind of success in Washington.

"They're juicing their numbers, but their return on investment is still a net gain," said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a professor at Fordham University who researches how political campaigns use digital communications. "The money matters, the articles about the money matter and convey power, and it adds to their clout."

The cost to rent a list can be a flat fee, a percentage cut of money raised, or even all money raised after a campaign clears a certain threshold. Donors have limited visibility into where their money goes and may not realize how much is being diverted from the candidate they mean to support.

Renting lists can pay dividends for campaigns because people who respond by donating then enter the candidates' own databases of supporters, and past contributors are much more likely to give again. Candidates with big donor bases can tap them for more money later or turn around and rent their own list to others.

Political professionals have gotten more sophisticated about efficiently converting online outrage into campaign cash. At the same time, candidates who court controversy may increasingly rely on rage-fueled online fundraising as more traditional donors freeze them out. In the aftermath of January 6, Hawley lost the support of some big donors, and major companies such as AT&T and Honeywell pledged to withhold donations from lawmakers who objected to the Electoral College vote.

"The news cycle that emerges out of controversial behavior by a candidate is like a strong gust of wind, and these mechanisms like list-building are the equivalent of sails," said Eric Wilson, a digital strategist who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "For candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Josh Hawley, who have largely been shunned by traditional corporate donors who are frequently the mainstays for elected officials, especially in off years, they have no choice but to pursue grassroots fundraising. And in order for that to work, they have to continue to make more noise. It is a feedback loop in that regard."

It's not clear how Rudnick compiled his list (or lists). But one clue to the audience that Rudnick may help unlock is who else has hired him. Besides Hawley and Greene, FEC records show that last quarter LGM Consulting also rented a list or provided online fundraising solicitations to:

In the 2020 campaign cycle, the firm's clients included then-Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who lost the Georgia Senate primary; Madison Cawthorn, the 25-year-old congressman from North Carolina who spoke at the January 6 rally; and Laura Loomer, a far-right internet personality who calls herself a "proud Islamophobe" and lost a run for a Florida congressional seat.

Rudnick has his own history of controversy. He was fired by the Pennsylvania Republican Party in 2008 after sending emails to Jewish voters likening a vote for Barack Obama to the lead-up to the Holocaust. "Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake," the email said. "Let's not make a similar one this year!" Rudnick told the Associated Press at the time that party officials authorized the message, but he declined to name them.

Campaigns don't have to disclose whose list an email is being sent to, and fundraising emails aren't comprehensively made public, so it's not possible to tell exactly how Hawley and Greene used the lists they rented. But several of Hawley's fundraising emails contained digital fingerprints tying them to Rudnick: They were sent from a web domain that shares an address with one of Rudnick's companies, and the links to donate include "ASG," short for Rudnick's Alliance Strategies Group.

In one email, sent on March 6, Hawley touted his interview on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show, in which Hawley said Democrats would use the January 6 insurrection "as an excuse to seize power, to control more power, to step on people's Second Amendment rights, to take away their First Amendment rights." Following up on a major media appearance with a fundraising email is an effective technique, Wilson said.

In a second email using the Rudnick-linked domain, Hawley explicitly laid out his goal of posting an impressive fundraising number.

"I will be filing the first FEC financial report I have filed since I stood up for the integrity of our nation's election and the left began their attempts to cancel me," Hawley said in the email. "With your donation of $25, $50, $100 or more before the critical deadline on March 31, we will shock the left — they won't be able to ignore us any longer."

Rep. Brooks Said Biden’s Election Could Spark Civil War, Seeks Senate Seat

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Mo Brooks, the Alabama congressman who is about to launch a campaign for Senate, has officially said he condemns the Capitol riot and opposes violence.

But in hours of right-wing media interviews before and after the deadly insurrection on January 6, he repeatedly raised the prospect of violence as a possible response to Donald Trump losing the 2020 presidential election.

"This is pretty much it for our country," Brooks said in a December podcast interview that has not been previously reported. "In my judgment, it rivals the election of 1860," he added, referring to the election of Abraham Lincoln, "and we saw what ensued from that" — meaning the Civil War.

Brooks' office didn't respond to requests for comment for this article.

Brooks was outspoken in baselessly accusing Democrats of "stealing" the presidential election and seeking ways to keep Donald Trump in power. Now he is hoping those statements will springboard him to higher office in a Senate race that will test the endurance of Trumpism in the Republican Party and show what political consequences lawmakers may face for openly advocating anti-democratic ideas.

The Alabama congressman announced his campaign last night to succeed Sen. Richard Shelby, who is retiring. Brooks made his announcement alongside Stephen Miller, the former White House adviser who drove Trump's hardline immigration policies, including family separation. As an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller frequently drew from white nationalist and white supremacist websites, according to emails revealed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Brooks and Miller have been allies since they worked together to defeat a bipartisan immigration compromise in 2013.

Brooks' remark about the 1860 election came on an episode of Sean Hannity's podcast that was guest-hosted by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and aired on December 22. Though the episode was billed as "Previewing the Class of 202‪1‬" in Congress, Gohmert dedicated the entire 99 minutes to promoting conspiracy theories and falsehoods about Joe Biden's victory over Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Brooks joined Gohmert toward the end of the show, along with Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs of Arizona, all leaders of the plan to object to Congress's certification of Electoral College votes on January 6. The four members of Congress discussed how Trump supporters were mobilizing for a massive demonstration in Washington.

"On January 6, this is somewhat akin to the Alamo," Brooks said, referring to the famous battle in 1836 where Mexican troops wiped out rebelling Texans at a fort in San Antonio. "Although I hope we will survive."

Brooks' invocation of historical violence was a preview of the speech he gave on January 6 at the rally on the Ellipse. Before Trump supporters marched to the Capitol and fought their way inside, Brooks asked if people were ready to lay down their lives for their cause.

"Our ancestors sacrificed their blood, their sweat, their tears, their fortunes and sometimes their lives to give us, their descendants, an America that is the greatest nation in world history," Brooks said. "So I have a question for you: Are you willing to do the same?"

After the crowd turned violent — leading to five deaths and hundreds of injuries, endangering lawmakers and disrupting the congressional proceedings — Brooks faced blowback. House Democrats introduced a formal censure motion, and billboards in Alabama demanded his resignation.

Brooks defiantly denied any responsibility for the violence on January 6. At the same time, he said he welcomed the criticism because he viewed it as helpful to his political prospects.

"That's a good thing," Brooks said in a February 3 radio interview in response to a question about the billboards. "I don't want to discourage it, because I think it's beneficial, at least in the state of Alabama, where winning the Republican primary is tantamount to winning the general election."

"Congress Decides"

On December 2, Brooks became the first member of Congress to say he would object to the Electoral College votes from key states that delivered Biden's victory. While the Constitution and federal law do establish a procedure for Congress to certify the Electoral College votes, many of Brooks' fellow Republicans recoiled at the idea of trying to use it to overturn an election whose outcome they didn't like. The certification in Congress is usually an uneventful formality after states have already certified their election results.

But Brooks himself presented it as a serious plan for keeping Trump in office despite losing the election. "Ultimately, Congress decides who won the White House, not the courts," Brooks said in a November 10 radio interview.

In dozens of right-wing media interviews between the November 3 election and the January 6 insurrection, Brooks spelled out his idea. If Congress rejected enough Electoral College votes to prevent either candidate from winning a majority, the presidency would be decided by the House of Representatives. The House would vote by state delegations, a majority of which were in Republican hands. All it would take for this plan to work, according to Brooks, was for enough Republicans to join him.

"In the United States Congress, we control who the president of the United States is," Brooks said in an interview with the Epoch Times posted on November 18. "The House would be in a position to elect a Republican to the White House."

In Brooks' telling, keeping Trump in power was just a question of political will. "No question it's an uphill climb, because I'm not sure how many Republicans we have that are willing to do what's necessary," he said on Fox News on December 4. "You have no idea who's going to win the political fights or any other fight until you fight them."

As precedent, Brooks cited the disputed election of 1876, which Congress resolved by electing Rutherford Hayes in exchange for ending Reconstruction.

"It was on the heels of hundreds of thousands of Southerners being killed in the war of Northern invasion, as a lot of Southerners viewed it back then," Brooks said in a December 17 talk radio interview. "Hayes cut that deal. Then he was elected president of the United States, and he was honorable, so he kept his promise and he withdrew the Northern forces and Reconstruction ended."

"We Need to Fight And Take It Back"

Brooks' rhetoric continued to escalate in the runup to January 6. In some interviews, he talked about fighting in terms of voting and pressuring lawmakers, the way that many politicians use the word without meaning literal combat.

"How it plays out, quite frankly, is dependent on the American people," Brooks said on Fox News on January 3. "To the extent they contact their senators and their congressmen and demand honest and accurate elections, then we're going to win this fight on January 6. But if the American people do not rise up, if they don't contact their senators, if they don't contact their congressmen, demanding that their congressmen and senators do the right thing for our republic, well then, we're not going to win on January 6. So I urge all Americans to participate in this fight on behalf of their country."

At other times, however, Brooks spoke of fighting as armed struggle, foreshadowing his speech at the Ellipse.

"When it came time to fight in the Revolutionary War, beginning in 1776, people actually put their lives at stake," Brooks said in a Newsmax interview aired on December 17. "All throughout history, American history, there have been time after time where American men and women have stood strong and fought for their country, often losing their lives in order to keep our republic, keep our liberty, keep our freedoms. And the bedrock of all those things are accurate and honest elections. And right now, the socialist Democrats have successfully stolen those from the American people in 2020. And we need to fight and take it back."

Brooks indicated in media interviews that he chose his words carefully. "If I'm on the radio, I know that every word that I say is going to be recorded forever," Brooks said in a January 4 radio interview, in the context of defending Trump's pressuring of Georgia officials to reverse that state's election results in a phone call that the president didn't know was being recorded.

Brooks met with Trump at the White House in December, along with Biggs and Gosar, to discuss their plans for January 6. As Brooks recounted in a December 29 Fox News interview, Trump told the representatives that a senator would join their objection, the necessary step for a debate and vote in both chambers. The next day, December 30, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), became the first senator to announce he would object.

Brooks, Biggs, and Gosar also, according to "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander, came up with the plan to amass a crowd outside the Capitol on January 6. "We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting," Alexander said in a video that he later deleted, "so that who we couldn't lobby, we could change the hearts and the minds of Republicans who were in that body, hearing our loud roar from outside."

Spokespeople for Brooks and Biggs have denied working with Alexander. Gosar, who appeared at earlier events with Alexander in Arizona, hasn't commented on their relationship. Spokespeople for Biggs and Gosar didn't respond to requests for comment, and Alexander couldn't be reached.

Brooks made clear that his ultimate goal was to keep Trump in office.

"Kind of like bowling a 300 game or hitting a hole-in-one, that's actually reversing the election fraud effort on the part of the Democrats such that Joe Biden is not sworn in on January 20, Donald Trump is," Brooks said in a January 4 Newsmax interview.

"We Did Not Have Ultimate Success"

Once rioters breached the Capitol, Brooks immediately blamed left-wing agitators whom he called "antifa." "You have to ask yourself, who would be motivated to distract from our message," Brooks said in a Newsmax interview on the night of January 6, while waiting for the certification proceedings to resume. "I don't believe that's in the interest of the Trump supporters."

Brooks continued this effort to shift blame in a radio interview the next day. "Too many Trump supporters were angry and allowed themselves to be manipulated or orchestrated by fascist antifa types," Brooks said.

The interviewer, Dale Jackson, pressed Brooks to acknowledge and condemn the violence by Trump supporters. "Why are you trying to make this about antifa as opposed to about the clear, obvious Trump supporters?" Jackson asked. "Why are we trying to diminish this?"

Brooks shot back, "That is the political spin that the fake news media and the socialist Democrats are trying to put on this."

"Well, I'm not the fake news media, I'm not a socialist Democrat," Jackson countered. "Why don't people just condemn this and stop trying to find reasons why it happened? … Your Facebook and Twitter page I guarantee is filled up the same way mine is with people talking about this in this way. And I just say we've got to be more forceful, I think. Am I wrong?"

Brooks didn't answer directly. "I don't know what's on my Facebook page," he said with a laugh. "That's something that my staff does, not me."

"My point is this," Jackson concluded, giving Brooks one last chance to unequivocally condemn the violence by Trump supporters before the interview ended. "I see too many of them saying, 'Yeah, see, it's antifa, it's not this,' and they're using this as a reason. And I just don't think that's a good — that's not helpful in any way."

Brooks demurred. "Well, I think the main message, which we've diverted from, is the fight we had last night in the House of Representatives and the Senate to try to protect and promote honest and accurate elections," he said. "And it's most unfortunate that whomever was able to divert attention from that, and unfortunate that while we made progress, we did not have ultimate success."

In an interview with ProPublica, Jackson said he understood Brooks to be condemning the violence. "The only disagreement we were having was whether antifa was a key driver of this thing," he said. "It wasn't whether or not it shouldn't have happened or was wrong. I think we all agree on that."

"You Can Resist, Often Through Violence"

Brooks elaborated on his views on violence in another radio interview on January 7.

"Might I suggest that over history, when you're in a republic, and there is no longer confidence in the election system, you have three options," he said in the interview, which was reported on at the time by The Intercept. "You can emigrate from that country, which is what a lot of people did in the 1920s and 1930s, in socialist Germany, with Adolf Hitler. You can submit, which is also what a lot of people did in Germany. Or you can resist, often through violence. None of those three options are good."

"Wait a minute," the host, Matt Murphy, interrupted. He pressed Brooks to clarify: "You said we must emigrate, leave?"

"No, I'm telling you what has happened historically over time when a republic loses confidence in its election system," Brooks said. "What do people, individual people do?"

They continued going back and forth, with Murphy giving Brooks more opportunities to walk back from raising the specter of violence and Brooks sticking to it.

Finally, Murphy tried: "When you bring up one of your options to be violence, it brings us directly to your words yesterday, Mo. And I'm wondering if you regret saying what you said at the rally yesterday?"

"Absolutely not," Brooks said.

Murphy, who didn't respond to a subsequent request for comment, then suggested the need to reckon with the ideas that motivated Trump supporters to attack the Capitol. "We better be willing to have serious discussions about what led to the level of frustration and anger that would cause people to allow their emotions to bubble over to the point that they would engage in something like this," he said.

Brooks' response was to explain that people were losing faith in voting — a view he had spent months promoting, and which he said left violence as one of three options. "It's pretty clear," he said, "people are getting frustrated, and they're losing confidence in the honesty and accuracy of the election system."

Brooks also shared a version of this view on Twitter that morning, writing that people who come to believe that voting can no longer get the results they want may be "FORCED" to "fight back with violence."


"How Can You Misinterpret My Intent?"

Weeks later, Brooks distanced himself from the violence of January 6. At a home-state rally on January 23, Brooks defended his speech at the Ellipse by accusing journalists of twisting his words.

"The news media, which is supposed to be the safeguard of any republic, has to a large degree become nothing more than a socialist propaganda puppet that rivals those in Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's Communist China, and socialist Germany's 1920s and 1930s," Brooks said, repeating his unusual way of avoiding the term "Nazis." "The fake news media and the socialists deceitfully suggest I intended to incite a riot when my words prove the exact opposite."

Brooks explained that when he said on January 6, "Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass," he was referring to voting in the 2022 and 2024 elections. He said his meaning was clear because as he said those words, he swapped out a camouflage Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus cap for one that read "Fire Pelosi."

"How can you misinterpret my intent?" Brooks said, drawing cheers.

But what Brooks did not acknowledge or attempt to explain was the next sentence that immediately followed "kicking ass": the line asking those assembled whether they were willing to sacrifice "their blood" and even "their lives."

"My answer is yes," Brooks said on January 6. "Louder. Are you willing to do what it takes to fight for America? Louder! Will you fight for America?"

Mollie Simon and Kirsten Berg contributed reporting.

Why Biden’s Vaccine Promise Can’t Be Fulfilled Until Summer

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

President Joe Biden has ordered enough vaccines to immunize every American against COVID-19, and his administration says it's using the full force of the federal government to get the doses by July. There's a reason he can't promise them sooner.

Vaccine supply chains are extremely specialized and sensitive, relying on expensive machinery, highly trained staff and finicky ingredients. Manufacturers have run into intermittent shortages of key materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office; the combination of surging demand and workforce disruptions from the pandemic has caused delays of four to 12 weeks for items that used to ship within a week, much like what happened when consumers were sent scrambling for household staples like flour, chicken wings and toilet paper.

People often question why the administration can't use the mighty Defense Production Act — which empowers the government to demand critical supplies before anyone else — to turbocharge production. But that law has its limits. Each time a manufacturer adds new equipment or a new raw materials supplier, they are required to run extensive tests to ensure the hardware or ingredients consistently work as intended, then submit data to the Food and Drug Administration. Adding capacity "doesn't happen in a blink of an eye," said Jennifer Pancorbo, director of industry programs and research at North Carolina State University's Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. "It takes a good chunk of weeks."

And adding supplies at any one point only helps if production can be expanded up and down the entire chain. "Thousands of components may be needed," said Gerald W. Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University's Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs and a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services office for preparedness and response. "You can't just turn on the Defense Production Act and make it happen."

The U.S. doesn't have spare facilities waiting around to manufacture vaccines, or other kinds of factories that could be converted the way General Motors began producing ventilators last year. The GAO said the Army Corps of Engineers is helping to expand existing vaccine facilities, but it can't be done overnight.

Building new capacity would take two to three months, at which point the new production lines would still face weeks of testing to ensure they were able to make the vaccine doses correctly before the companies could start delivering more shots.

"It's not like making shoes," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica. "And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, 'Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the DPA to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.' Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA ... we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late."

Fauci added that the DPA works best for "facilitating something rather than building something from scratch."

The Trump administration deployed the Defense Production Act last year to give vaccine manufacturers priority in accessing crucial production supplies before anyone else could buy them. And the Biden administration used it to help Pfizer obtain specialized needles that can squeeze a sixth dose from the company's vials, as well as for two critical manufacturing components: filling pumps and tangential flow filtration units. The pumps help supply the lipid nanoparticles that hold and protect the mRNA — the vaccines' active ingredient, so to speak — and also fill vials with finished vaccine. The filtration units remove unneeded solutions and other materials used in the manufacturing process.

These highly precise pieces of equipment are not typically available on demand, said Matthew Johnson, senior director of product management at Duke University's Human Vaccine Institute, who works on developing mRNA vaccines, but not for COVID-19. "Right now, there is so much growth in biopharmaceuticals, plus the pinch of the pandemic," he said. "Many equipment suppliers are sold out of production, and even products scheduled to be made, in some cases, sold out for a year or so looking forward."

In the meantime, the shortage of vaccines is creating widespread frustration and anxiety as eligible people struggle to get appointments and millions of others wonder how long it will be before it is their turn. As of February 17, the U.S. had distributed 72.4 million doses and administered 56.3 million shots, but fewer than 16 million people have received both of the two doses that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require for full protection.

The Biden administration has said it is increasing vaccine shipments to states by 20 percent, to 13.5 million doses a week, and encouraged states to give out all their shots instead of holding on to some for second doses. But now that second-dose appointments are coming due, many jurisdictions are having to focus on those and stepping back from vaccinating uninoculated people. Even as the total number of vaccinations increased last week, the number of first doses fell to 6.8 million people, down from 7.8 million three weeks ago, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

At best, it will take until June for manufacturers to deliver enough doses for the roughly 266 million eligible Americans age 16 and over, according to public statements by the companies.

That includes expected deliveries of Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine, which is widely expected to win emergency authorization from the FDA shortly after a public advisory committee meeting on Feb. 26. But Johnson & Johnson has fallen behind in manufacturing. The company told the GAO it will have only 2 million doses ready to go by the time the vaccine is authorized, whereas its $1 billion contract with HHS scheduled 12 million doses by the end of February. It's not clear what held up Johnson & Johnson's production line; the company has benefited from first-priority purchases thanks to the DPA, according to a senior executive close to the manufacturing process. A Johnson & Johnson spokesman declined to comment on the cause of the delay, but said the company still expects to ship 100 million U.S. doses by July.

Vaccine Supply Won't Cover All Until Late Spring

Public statements from vaccine developers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson illustrate how many people could be covered by the available U.S. supply from now until the end of the summer.

Moderna declined to comment on "operational aspects" of its manufacturing, but "does remain confident in our ability to meet contracted quantities" of its vaccine to the U.S. and other nations, a spokesperson said in a statement. Pfizer did not respond to ProPublica's written questions.

Ramping up production is especially challenging for Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines use an mRNA technology that's never been mass-produced before. The companies started production even before they finished trials to see if the vaccines worked, another historic first. But it wasn't as if they could instantly crank out millions of vaccines full blast, since they effectively had to invent a novel manufacturing process.

"Putting together plans 12 months ago for a Phase 1 and 2 trial, and making enough to dose a couple hundred patients, was a big deal for the raw material suppliers," said Johnson, the product manager at Duke University's vaccine institute. "It's just going from dosing hundreds of patients a year ago to a billion."

Raw materials for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are also in limited supply. The manufacturing process begins by using common gut bacteria cells to grow something called "plasmids" — standalone snippets of DNA — that contain instructions to make the vaccine's genetic material, said Pancorbo, the North Carolina State University biomanufacturing expert.

Next, specific enzymes cultivated from bacteria are added to cause a chemical reaction that assembles the strands of mRNA, Pancorbo said. Those strands are then packaged in lipid nanoparticles, microscopic bubbles of fat made using petroleum or plant oils. The fat bubbles protect the genetic material inside the human body and help deliver it to the cells.

Only a few firms specialize in making these ingredients, which have previously been sold by the kilogram, Pancorbo said. But they're now needed by the metric ton — a thousandfold increase. Moderna and Pfizer need bulk, but also the highest possible quality.

"There are a number of organizations that make these enzymes and these nucleotides and lipids, but they might not make it in a grade that is satisfactory for human consumption," Pancorbo said. "It might be a grade that is satisfactory for animal consumption or research. But for injection into a human? That's a different thing."

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine follows a slightly more traditional method of growing cells in large tanks called bioreactors. This takes time, and the slightest contamination can spoil a whole batch. Since the process deals with living things, it can be more like growing plants than making shoes. "Maximizing yield is as much of an art as it is a science, as the manufacturing process itself is dependent on biological processes," said Parker, the former HHS official.

The vaccine developers are continuing to find tweaks that can expedite production without cutting corners. Pfizer is now delivering six doses in each vial instead of five, and Moderna has asked for permission to fill each of its bottles with 15 doses, up from 10. If regulators approve, it would take two or three months to change over production, Moderna spokesman Ray Jordan said on Feb. 13.

"It helps speed up and lighten the logistical side of getting vaccines out," said Lawrence Ganti, president of SiO2, an Alabama company that makes glass vials for the Moderna vaccine. SiO2 expanded production with $143 million in funding from the federal government last year, and Ganti said there aren't any hiccups at his end of the line.

Despite the possibility of sporadic bottlenecks and delays in the coming months, companies appear to have lined up their supply chains to the point that they're comfortable with their ability to meet current production targets.

Massachusetts-based Snapdragon Chemistry received almost $700,000 from HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a new way of producing ribonucleoside triphosphates (NTPs), a key raw material for mRNA vaccines. Snapdragon's technology uses a continuous production line, rather than the traditional process of making batches in big vats, so it's easier to scale up by simply keeping production running for a longer time.

Suppliers have told Snapdragon that they have their raw materials covered for now, according to Matthew Bio, the company's president and CEO. "They're saying, 'We have established suppliers to meet the demand we have for this year,'" Bio said.

Mollie Simon and Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

Capitol Rioters Plotted Publicly For Weeks, But Police Were Unready

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was stoked in plain sight. For weeks, the far-right supporters of President Donald Trump railed on social media that the election had been stolen. They openly discussed the idea of violent protest on the day Congress met to certify the result.

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Inside Trump And Barr’s Last-Minute Killing Spree

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In its hurry to use its final days in power to execute federal prisoners, the administration of President Donald Trump has trampled over an array of barriers, both legal and practical, according to court records that have not been previously reported.

Officials gave public explanations for their choice of which prisoners should die that misstated key facts from the cases. They moved ahead with executions in the middle of the night. They left one prisoner strapped to the gurney while lawyers worked to remove a court order. They executed a second prisoner while an appeal was still pending, leaving the court to then dismiss the appeal as “moot" because the man was already dead. They bought drugs from a secret pharmacy that failed a quality test. They hired private executioners and paid them in cash.

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Trump Rushing Rules To Promote Deadly Pollution — And Federal Firing Squads

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Six days after President Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture notified food safety groups that it was proposing a regulatory change to speed up chicken factory processing lines, a change that would allow companies to sell more birds. An earlier USDA effort had broken down on concerns that it could lead to more worker injuries and make it harder to stop germs like salmonella.

Ordinarily, a change like this would take about two years to go through the cumbersome legal process of making new federal regulations. But the timing has alarmed food and worker safety advocates, who suspect the Trump administration wants to rush through this rule in its waning days.

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Most States Are Unprepared To Distribute Pfizer Covid-19 Vaccine

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

As the first coronavirus vaccine takes a major stride toward approval, state governments' distribution plans show many are not ready to deliver the shots.

The challenge is especially steep in rural areas, many of which are contending with a surge of infections, meaning that access to the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines may be limited by geography.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Headlines GOP Fundraiser As Virus Surges

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie headlined a fundraiser for the North Carolina Republican Party last week, taking time away from his job leading the government's second-largest agency at a moment when COVID-19 cases are surging in VA hospitals.

Though legal, campaigning by cabinet secretaries is a departure from historical norms. Nevertheless, it's become standard practice in the administration of President Donald Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit the campaign trail for Trump, and several other cabinet members recently visited Iowa. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is also campaigning in North Carolina. Trump himself has routinely blurred politics with official functions, most prominently by hosting the Republican convention on the White House lawn, and he's brushed off more than a dozen staff violations of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by government employees.

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Why A Real Vaccine Won’t Arrive Before Election Day (Without A Miracle)

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Despite President Donald Trump's promises of a vaccine next month and pundits' speculation about how an “October surprise" could upend the presidential campaign, any potential vaccine would have to clear a slew of scientific and bureaucratic hurdles in record time.

In short, it would take a miracle.

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Trump’s Vaccine Czar Won’t Relinquish Stock In Drug Company Despite Blatant Conflict

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The former pharmaceutical executive tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the administration's race to a COVID-19 vaccine is refusing to give up investments that stand to benefit from his work — at least during his lifetime.

The executive, Moncef Slaoui, is the top scientist on Operation Warp Speed, the administration's effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine in record time. Federal law requires government officials to disclose their personal finances and divest any holdings relating to their work, but Slaoui said he wouldn't take the job under those conditions. So the administration said it's treating him as a contractor. Contractors aren't bound by the same ethics rules but also aren't supposed to wield as much authority as full employees.

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Now In Government Food Aid Boxes, A Letter From Trump

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table may discover a new item in government-funded relief packages of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat: a letter signed by President Donald Trump.

The message, printed on White House letterhead in both English and Spanish, touts the administration's response to the coronavirus, including aid provided through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to buy fresh food and ship it to needy families.

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Richest GOP Donor In South Dakota Was Probed For Child Pornography

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

T. Denny Sanford, the richest man in South Dakota and a major donor to children's charities, was being investigated for possible possession of child pornography, according to four people familiar with the probe.

Investigators with the South Dakota attorney general's Division of Criminal Investigation obtained a search warrant as part of the probe, according to two of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said the case was referred to the Department of Justice for further investigation.

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How Sen. Collins Helped Big Hotel Chains Grab Small Business Funding

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In March, as lawmakers raced to put together a massive stimulus package to cope with the pandemic-related shutdowns sweeping the country, a New York company that invests in hotels deployed a Washington lobbyist for the first time. The lobbyist's mission was to secure an exception in the emerging relief program for small businesses so that hotel chains would become eligible.

The company, EOS Investors, had more than 500 employees, putting it above the limit in the original proposal by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). But if the cap for hotels were set for each location instead of companywide, then EOS could benefit at several of its properties, like the collection of resorts that EOS had recently acquired in Kennebunkport, Maine.

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Trump Family, Cronies Cleared For Millions In Bailout Funds

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Businesses tied to President Donald Trump's family and associates stand to receive as much as $21 million in government loans designed to shore up payroll expenses for companies struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal data released Monday.

A hydroponic lettuce farm backed by Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., applied for at least $150,000 in Small Business Administration funding. Albert Hazzouri, a dentist frequently spotted at Mar-a-Lago, asked for a similar amount. A hospital run by Maria Ryan, a close associate of Trump lawyer and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, requested more than $5 million. Several companies connected to the president's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, could get upward of $6 million.

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Trump’s Food Aid Program Swindles Hard-Hit Northeast States

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump's signature food aid program is sending less relief to New York and New England than other parts of the country, even though the Northeast has the most coronavirus cases. Some states — Maine and Alaska at least — have been left out completely so far.

The regional imbalances are an unintended side effect of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's strategy in hiring private contractors to distribute food, the agency said. It is now looking for ways to reach areas that were passed over.

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