Jonathan Swan on migrating to the Biden beat

Jonathan Swan, the star national political correspondent at Axios, has built a reputation as one of the most enterprising and deeply sourced reporters covering the White House. But for a brief period over the summer, his exasperated visage, captured in a combative TV interview with President Donald Trump and memed into the annals of internet fame, earned him a moment of celebrity that is rarely afforded even the most high-profile of journalists.

For Swan, 35, the realization that his face had unexpectedly become a social media sensation became clear when friends from his native Australia, who don’t normally follow American politics, messaged him in shock that his well-coiffed mug had hit their shores. “They’d realized I’d finally made it when Snoop Dogg Instagrammed me,” he said wryly in an interview with Jewish Insider on Monday. “That was, I think, one of the things that really impressed my friends more than anything else.”

Of course, Swan’s quizzical expression, which spoke to many Americans dismayed by Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, would not have gone viral at all if his aggressive line of questioning hadn’t so effectively exposed the president’s effort to deflect responsibility for his mishandling of an unprecedented national crisis. But Swan, a tireless Trumpologist, was well prepared for the task, thanks to his four years delivering a fusillade of scoops on such consequential matters as the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while providing readers with a fly-on-the-wall portrait of Trump’s mostly unstructured life in the White House.

His reporting, in its totality, amounts to no less than a scrupulously detailed chronicle of the president’s time in office — one historians will surely appreciate, and which his colleagues in the field have had no choice but to reckon with as they’ve sought to keep up. “He bedeviled me,” Maggie Haberman, The New York Times’s White House correspondent and another uniquely sourced Trump whisperer, told JI, laughing with what sounded like a mix of awe and frustration. “There are many instances in which he has scooped me, which I think I’ve repressed the specifics of,” she said. “You just always have to watch out for him.”

With just under two months remaining until Inauguration Day — when Trump’s tumultuous run finally comes to an end — Swan remains on the prowl, averring that he has no intention of letting up in his coverage before the clock strikes noon on January 20. 

At least for the moment, he is reluctant to reflect on Trump’s legacy, noting that he won’t yet allow himself to “get philosophical about what it means for the country” because he doesn’t think he has anything profound to say. “I haven’t sat back on a rocking chair and pondered my time covering Trump,” he said. “It’s obviously been a bizarre experience.”

His reporting, the implication was, should speak for itself. 

But from a procedural standpoint, Swan was more than ready to expound on his experience covering the White House during what has been one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, culminating in what Swan described as a “poisonous non-transfer of power.” 

The Trump administration is a singularly leaky vessel, discharging an unmitigated stream of secrets from anonymous officials and other ensigns in Trump’s orbit. Swan, a beneficiary of many of those secrets, said there was never any dependable rhyme or reason to the pattern with which leaks spewed out. Reporters simply had to be ready with their buckets to catch the excess drippage.

“Things were sort of blurted out and leaked out and shaken out,” he recalled. “I used to laugh at some of the commentary you’d get from people who used to work in previous administrations — ‘Oh, this story was clearly the press shop.’ It’s like, give me a break. That’s not how this Trump White House worked. There was not this delicate strategic planning going on where they packaged things up and put them out. It was just a daily fire hose where they were sort of reacting to mostly overwhelmingly negative stories.”

Even in the twilight of the Trump era, Swan said, the leaks continue to flow. “We just published a story this morning about Trump’s legal team having yelling matches, a lot of infighting over their strategy, and they’ve just thrown Sidney Powell under the bus for floating a conspiracy theory that was too much even for Rudy Giuliani,” he said. “The leaks are still there.”

Despite his reporting prowess, Swan has at times been accused of being too cozy with the Trump administration. Two years ago, in another televised interview with the president — the first installment in Axios’s new HBO show — Swan broke the news that Trump was planning to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship for immigrant children. But he was ridiculed for the seemingly giddy manner in which he brought up the order, and for failing to challenge Trump on a factual inaccuracy.

“It was a bad interview,” Swan acknowledged to JI, noting that it was his first TV interview and he hadn’t adequately prepared for it. 

“Literally, the first television interview I ever did was the president of the United States,” he said. “I’ve been on plenty of TV shows over the years as a panelist, but I’d never actually done a sit-down TV interview. Probably’d be nice to start with, like, the mayor of some city or something and work your way up. It wasn’t probably an ideal situation, and I think it showed. I don’t think I did a very good job the first time.”

On the second go-round, this past July, he had sharpened his knives, arriving armed with an assortment of counterpoints as he challenged Trump’s misstatements at virtually every turn. 

The fallout, according to Swan, has been long-lasting. “None of our Trump administration interview requests have been fulfilled since then,” he said. 

In many ways, Swan’s needling of the president was a return to his roots. “The television interviewing in Australia and Britain is more adversarial and less deferential,” Swan said. “In Australia, there’s much less pomp and circumstance around the office of the prime minister than there is around the American president.”

Before decamping to the United States, Swan worked as a political correspondent at The Sydney Morning Herald, and he recalls his years down under with affection. “It’s a smaller pond,” he said, but that didn’t mean its reporters were any less effective at their jobs. 

He singled out Pamela Williams, a writer-at-large at The Australian Financial Review, for praise. “Now, I’m a little biased — she is my mentor, and she’s a dear friend — but she is, in my opinion, the best investigative journalist in Australia over the last 30 years,” he said, “and she would clean the clocks of most reporters here in the U.S. at major publications.”

The feeling is mutual. “Jonathan’s been the most exceptional young journalist I’ve ever mentored,” Williams told JI in an enthusiastic email, adding: “He has a level of diligence, and a commitment to building sources that is a result of intense pressure: new to America, he was determined to dive into the deep and competitive pool of top Beltway journalism around the White House. And to work as hard as it took to rise to the surface.”

As the Trump era comes to an end, Swan — who worked as a political reporter at The Hill before joining Axios in 2016 — is now making preparations to cover the incoming Biden administration, even as he keeps one foot in the current White House and plans to stay connected to his sources with the hope that they can provide newsworthy material down the road. 

He has found, for the moment, that it has been more difficult to cultivate sources in Biden’s orbit relative to Trump’s — a dynamic he anticipated but which he is still learning to navigate. “I’ve been told by my elders that I shouldn’t expect another West Wing to leak as prolifically as the Trump West Wing did,” he said. “I suppose that’s a shame. There was sort of real-time leaking out of the Oval Office, out of the Situation Room, and the culture of infighting and backstabbing — that will be hard to replicate, I imagine, for future administrations.”

The Biden camp, by comparison, “is a very disciplined and very tight-knit group of people who actually have real information,” Swan observed. In taking stock of the Biden landscape, Swan is coming to the conclusion that his reporting will “require a different mindset and a different approach,” he said with some level of mystification. “There’s just not going to be as many people willing to talk in an unauthorized capacity.”

Swan didn’t elaborate on what that approach would be, but Haberman — who will also be writing about the Biden administration — was confident that Swan’s coverage will be solid as he becomes familiar with the new terrain. “I’m sure it will drive the Biden folks crazy,” she said. “It will be great.”

Looking ahead to the larger stories, Swan mentioned the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of in 2018 and which Biden has vowed to reenter. “I’ll be covering the China story very closely,” Swan added. “I think the relationship with China, how they manage that, how they manage the politics of it and pressures from the left, pressures from the right, a willingness of some on his team to want to find areas to cooperate with China, but a political atmosphere where you’re going to get punished for that — it’s going to be a really interesting and obviously consequential dynamic to report on.”

Swan can also look forward to a new personal chapter. In September, he and his wife, Betsy Woodruff Swan, a national correspondent at Politico, had their first child. Swan took paternity leave after his daughter, Esther, was born, but he seems to have returned to work relatively quickly. “I took a couple of weeks — ish,” he said. 

“It was hard to have a baby probably anytime, I imagined, but this year was challenging,” Swan added. “But my wife, Betsy, is amazing, and I think one of the hard things has been my family hasn’t been able to come out for their first grandchild. They’re all back in Australia.”

Swan, who is Jewish, finds downtime with his family on Friday nights, when they sit down for Shabbat dinner. Woodruff Swan, who is not Jewish, has learned how to make challah for the occasion, Swan told JI with pride. “She’s very good at it,” he said. “We love doing Shabbat dinner.”

Otherwise, according to Swan, “you make your own weekends as a reporter.” Swan — who harbors ambitions to write books or perhaps longer magazine pieces — has little sympathy for reporters who complain about the notion that Trump has stolen their time and thrown their schedules into a state of flux because of his haphazard and unpredictable approach to governing. 

While some journalists may be looking forward to a more tranquil period of American politics, Swan seems intent on maintaining the same competitive pace he has kept up for the past four years.

“There are plenty of people who have had it really tough in America over the last year, and particularly during the pandemic,” Swan said. “I don’t put White House reporters at the top of the list.”

NY AG: New hate crime stats undercount antisemitism

Recently released statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation — indicating the highest number of antisemitic hate crimes in a decade — “severely” undercounted the number of incidents, New York Attorney General Letitia James said on Monday.

James and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost joined a webcast hosted by the American Jewish Committee to discuss the release of the FBI’s annual hate crimes report, which found that hate crimes targeting the Jewish community had increased by 14% in 2019.

James said she questioned the accuracy of the data, suggesting that underreporting from both local law enforcement and the impacted communities themselves led to a lower number.

The New York attorney general — who described herself as an “honorary member of the Orthodox community,” having represented Crown Heights in the New York City Council for 10 years — sees the latter issue as a particular problem in what she called the “insular” Orthodox Jewish community.

“Going forward, obviously we’ve got to do a better job, particularly in the Orthodox community,” she said. “We’ve got to inform them and educate them and encourage them with respect to reporting these crimes.”

Yost agreed that underreporting is an issue for many categories of crimes, not just hate crimes, but noted that the victims of hate crimes are more than statistics laid out in data.

“We’re talking about hate crimes. That’s measured one life at a time. One case file at a time. This doesn’t happen to X number of people, it happens to one person… Someone who’s going to carry that trauma with them, the rest of their lives,” he said. “As much as I care about the data, it’s not the numbers that move me, it’s the stories.”

The Ohio attorney general criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his particularly stringent enforcement of coronavirus mitigation measures in Orthodox Jewish communities.

“When you single out a particular group and other similarly situated groups are not called out, I think you’re really sending a subtle message that helps to create a fertile seed bed for antisemitism or for racism or what have you,” Yost said.

James and Yost diverged on recent discussions and protests over police accountability. While James saw them as a potential step toward rebuilding trust between citizens and the police — thereby increasing reporting of hate crimes — Yost painted a darker picture. 

“The notion of law enforcement being a tool of the popular will frightens me and… it should frighten every American who knows anything about history,” he said. “The Holocaust, the things that happened in Nazi Germany were popularly supported. Law enforcement famously looked by while lynchings occurred in the South. Why? Because it was popularly supported… I’m really concerned that in our rush to make policing more responsive in some communities, that we risk unleashing the genie from the bottle.”

The second coming of Darrell Issa

After a brief spell in the political wilderness, Darrell Issa, the former longtime California congressman and car alarm magnate, is now preparing to rejoin his Republican colleagues in the House — and he wants to make clear that he hasn’t gotten rusty in the interim. 

“I’m just a little bit more refreshed,” he said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday.

The past two years have been unusually sedate for the 67-year-old Issa, who established a reputation as one of the Obama administration’s most dedicated adversaries during his combative tenure chairing the House Oversight Committee, where he led the Benghazi investigation. In 2018, however, he gave up the fight, relinquishing his seat in California’s 49th congressional district when it looked as if he would lose to a Democrat — ending a nearly two-decade run in the House.

Issa had set his sights on the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, thanks to an appointment from President Donald Trump in 2018. But his nomination was stonewalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) over an FBI background check, and he was never confirmed. “I think Bob Menendez was just looking to get a pound of revenge,” Issa speculated in an interview with JI last March. 

If Issa is still sore about losing the post, he also sought to convey the impression that he had by no means been defanged. “I was supposed to have a hearing, and Sen. Menendez blew up the hearing,” he said on Friday afternoon. “I went back to the White House the following day and told the president I thought I should switch to holding this seat for my party, and he agreed.”

The congressman is poised to represent the historically conservative 50th district of California, which includes a large swath of San Diego County. Issa was accused of opportunism as he campaigned in a district that sits adjacent to his old one, but he said his priorities have always remained the same and rejected the notion that congressional lines had much meaning. 

“The idea that you represent some very fine lines drawn by some gerrymandering authority, I think, just wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “I think anyone would say, wait a second, you represent your country first, your state second and a region third.”

Despite polling that suggested Issa would have a close race, he prevailed over his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, by more than eight percentage points in the November 3 election.

Issa, for his part, said he never doubted that he would defeat Campa-Najjar — who told JI that he is now planning to write a book about his complex relationship to his late Palestinian grandfather’s alleged involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. But Issa nevertheless acknowledged that he had to fight for the seat after a contentious primary battle that hobbled him leading into the general election.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, and I’m not, to know that when $5 million is spent bashing you in the primary you have some work to do in the general to fix that,” he said, alluding in part to an attack ad from American Unity PAC that took aim at some of his past statements on Israel. “It’s not only not my first rodeo,” he added, “but it’s not the first time the bull threw me either.”

The general election battle was also strained as Issa and Campa-Najjar, both of Arab descent, took turns attacking one another over, among other things, their fealty to Israel — even though, according to questionnaires solicited by JI, they hold largely the same views when it comes to the Jewish state. 

While Issa, whose paternal grandfather was born in Lebanon, accused his opponent without evidence of being against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Campa-Najjar charged that Issa had called Israel an “apartheid state” and expressed sympathy for Hezbollah. 

Issa has denied the allegations, noting that some of his comments have been taken out of context. “Whether someone agrees with me or not, I have two things I’m consistent about,” he said. “I’m an unapologetic supporter of Israel, and I’m willing to go and meet with any leader any time to be better educated without necessarily agreeing with them, but at least hearing them out.” 

During his time in Congress, Issa noted, he met with Muammar Gaddafi as well as Yasser Arafat and Bashar al-Assad. “I’m not afraid to listen to people that I disagree with in the hopes that they will listen to me and their ways will be changed.”

It was such an attitude, Issa believes, that allowed the Trump administration to broker historic normalization deals with Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which he supports enthusiastically. “For Jared Kushner and the rest of the team,” he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, “it happened because they believed in it and because they were willing to go anywhere, meet with anyone, to try to achieve it.”

Issa supports a two-state solution and claims that he is “perfectly willing” to engage in good faith with the Palestinian Authority, but he is doubtful that he will be able to do that in the immediate future. “I view these normalizations as an opportunity for the Palestinians to say we would like to normalize relations, let’s sit down and really make that effort anew, and do it sooner rather than later,” he said. “But so far, I see no movement.”

He amended his remark by pointing out that he has seen “a lot of good people within the Palestinian community who want to go a different way.” But, he added, “I don’t see a Palestinian Authority that’s geared to do it, and obviously, as long as Hamas is funded, and well-funded, by Iran, and Hezbollah is still a reality, I’m not sure where we go except to have those conversations and tell them that these are the changes that are needed if they’re going to enjoy what they tell us is their goal.”

President Donald Trump greets Rep. Darrell Issa at a White House event on August 14, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Though he was initially cold to Trump at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Issa has since embraced the president wholeheartedly (and the feeling is apparently mutual). In conversation with JI, he singled out Trump’s approach to Israel for praise, commending his decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

“President after president promised to move the embassy to the building we built for that purpose,” Issa said. “Even though it was called a consulate, that building was built to be the embassy just waiting for a president to issue the order.”

Issa refused to acknowledge that Trump had lost the election, even as the president’s increasingly desperate legal efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters have been struck down in the courts and condemned by a smattering of Republican leaders. 

“We don’t know the outcome of the legal battles, so I don’t want to be presumptuous beyond what’s fair, but I think the one thing that we can know is that President Trump has grown the party,” Issa said, citing the president’s strong showing with Latino voters this cycle. “He’s given us an opportunity to continue reaching out to people who became Trump voters.”

Still, Issa seemed willing to allow for the possibility that Trump wouldn’t be in the White House next term. “I would be much happier if President Trump prevails in these legal challenges,” Issa said, “but for a moment, assuming he didn’t, then our job is to work with the president but not to work for the president.”

One issue on which he isn’t willing to budge is the Iran nuclear deal. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to return to the agreement brokered by his old boss, former President Barack Obama, and which Trump abandoned in 2018. But Issa, who described Iran as “an existential threat to the region,” said that he would fight to keep the United States out of it. 

“The undoing of that agreement, and the successes based on a much closer relationship with Israel and asking for and getting Arab nations to come to the table, has worked,” he said. “So, with all due respect if Biden becomes president, the failed policies of President Obama should not be considered for a return. I mean, they’re just that, they’re proven to have failed, versus the policies that have gotten us a lot further down the peace trail.”

That isn’t to say he doesn’t envision reaching across the aisle on occasion. Issa expressed admiration for some Democratic members of his California congressional delegation, including Reps. Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Scott Peters (D-CA). On foreign affairs, he said, “Juan and I see eye-to-eye with some frequency, and Scott and I have done immigration reform and other issues together.”

On the Republican side, Issa said he is looking forward to reengaging with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as well as minority whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). “They early on endorsed me and supported me,” Issa said, “and that makes a difference when it’s not a close call in the beginning.”

Issa told JI that the leading Republicans on the three House committees he previously sat on — including judiciary, oversight and foreign affairs — have all asked him back. “The intent,” he said, summarizing his approach as he readies himself for a new term in Congress, “is to return to the committees of jurisdiction I’ve historically been involved with and continue a lot of the work that I was doing on transparency.”

“I always tell people, the idea that you’re going to do something new after 18 years — the only thing new is that two years of sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be confirmed, gave me a perspective,” he said. “But it’s not going to change the basic goals that I had when I was in Congress.”

Rep. Susie Lee weighs in on Democrats’ swing district struggles

Rep. Susie Lee‘s (D-NV) reelection in Nevada’s 3rd district on Nov. 3 was an anomaly this year. 

Although House Democrats lost many of the swing districts they hoped to pick up — or in several cases, hold onto — Lee eked out a three-point win over former WWE fighter Republican Dan Rodimer, down from her nine-point margin of victory in 2018 when she ran for the seat being vacated by now-Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). 

The newly reelected congresswoman told Jewish Insider that she believes presidential election year dynamics were the source of the closer-than-expected race.

“This is an electorate that performs better for Republicans in a presidential year than a midterm,” Lee said. “There was increased turnout… I think that was reflected on both Democrats and Republicans, and independents.”

Lee’s district, which covers southern Nevada, was one of many across the country that proved to be a tough fight for Democrats. Lee was hesitant to weigh in definitively on why Democrats struggled to win at the polls until she had a chance to examine the data closely.

“In 2018, many of my colleagues, like myself, won in districts that Trump had carried by many, many points, and Trump was not on the ballot,” she said. “And so you have to weigh that dynamic when you’re looking at these results, the impact of him being at the top of the ballot.”

Lee also acknowledged that, contrary to Democratic assumptions, large turnout benefited both parties.

“Ultimately, we all knew these were gonna be tough races,” Lee continued. “These are districts that traditionally had been Republican for years… The fact that Democrats won them in the midterm, we knew it was going to be a tough fight to hold on to them.”

In light of that dynamic, Lee expressed optimism that Democrats were able to hold on to many of the districts that they flipped in 2018.

The congresswoman interpreted the election results as a signal that the country remains divided, and that voters expect their representatives to work in a bipartisan manner to solve problems.

“I take it as a mandate to continue the work that I have done to continue to find common ground, to work to find solutions that are going to impact the lives of the people I serve,” she said. “I think that there is a yearning for us to work together. I’m personally gonna take that to heart and continue to do the work that I’ve been doing.”

To shore up their House majority in 2022, Lee said, Democrats need to continue to focus on middle-class issues — like health care, family leave and raising the minimum wage. The congresswoman emphasized that congressional Democrats did push such legislation over the last two years, but she blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for failing to take up the legislation in the Senate.

“I think we need to do what Democrats are known to do, which is to protect our middle class and make sure that everyone has equal access to opportunity,” she said. “We need to focus on kitchen table issues, which is exactly what we did in the 116th Congress.”

But Lee added that her party must also work to bring Republicans to the table to ensure that the legislation is “sustainable.” 

“It’s tough work. It’s not the work that you see on TV, but it’s the work that ultimately produces the types of solutions that we’re going to need,” she said. “It all comes from forming relationships, having those conversations, finding the space to be safe and have that type of conversation.”

“Not just now but always,” she added, “that’s really what Congress should be about.”

House letter raises concerns about Israeli demolition of Bedouin settlement

A letter sent by several dozen congressional Democrats to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week raises concerns about the Israeli government’s demolition of a Palestinian Bedouin community earlier this month.

The Israeli government demolished the Khirbet Humsah village in the West Bank, displacing 73 Palestinians, in early November. The Israeli military claimed the settlement was illegally constructed in a firing range in the Jordan Valley.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) urges Pompeo, who is visiting Israel this week, to communicate U.S. disapproval of the demolition to the Israeli government, and push the Israeli government to cease similar actions going forward.

The letter — which describes the demolition as “a serious violation of international law” and a “grave humanitarian issue” — also requests information on whether Israel used military equipment it received from the U.S. in the demolition.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), one of the letter’s signatories, told Jewish Insider he signed on because he sees the Israeli government’s actions as impediments to peace.

“I think these Israeli demolitions bring us further away from a two-state solution at a time when we need to see both sides moving in the opposite and more peaceful direction,” Lowenthal said. “We do not believe the U.S. should support, directly or indirectly, any action which undermines a two-state solution.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) characterized Pompeo’s failure to address the demolitions as particularly concerning given his upcoming visit to a West Bank settlement.

“For the secretary of state to visit the West Bank without even acknowledging the home demolitions, that’s counter to American values and our framework for a two state solution,” Khanna said. “The only way we’ll make progress in the region is by standing up for both Israel’s security and the human rights of Palestinians.”

Other notable signatories include Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) — a candidate for the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairmanship — Debbie Dingell (D-MI), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Nydia Velázquez (D-NY).

Eric Adams joins crowded field of candidates for NYC mayor

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams became the third elected official to formally announce his bid to become the next mayor of New York City on Wednesday.

In a virtual kickoff rally conducted over Zoom, Adams pledged to make the government “work much better than it is now” to lower the number of coronavirus cases in the city and deal with the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the city’s most vulnerable communities. Evoking a phrase Mayor Bill de Blasio used in his first mayoral campaign in 2013, Adams said, “People talk about a ‘tale of two cities,’ but we need to acknowledge that the dysfunctionality of government is the author of that book. We need action, and we need it now.” 

Adams is among a dozen candidates, including City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn) and several former de Blasio administration officials, to announce a mayoral bid ahead of the Democratic primary on June 22, 2021. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was considering a run for the city’s top job, bowed out earlier this year to focus on his mental health. 

Adams has already raised more than $2.5 million for his race, according to recent campaign finance board filings.

Adams, 60, who previously represented Brooklyn’s 20th state Senate district, has longstanding ties to the borough’s Jewish community. He has been a leading voice in combating the rise of antisemitism across the city’s five boroughs. In 2018, following the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Adams, a retired NYPD captain, said he would begin carrying his handgun whenever he attends religious services. 

In recent months, Adams criticized de Blasio for the lack of outreach to the city’s Orthodox Jewish community amid an uptick in coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with large Jewish populations. “For the last six months, I’ve sounded the alarm to demand the city’s COVID-19 outreach reach those who don’t access traditional media, those whose first language isn’t English,” Adams said after de Blasio expressed ‘regrets’ for the approach he took in responding to the virus. 

In 2016, Adams headed a delegation of law enforcement officials to Israel in a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Earlier this year, Adams denounced the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for the distribution of a questionnaire asking local candidates seeking their support to agree not to visit Israel if elected. “I encourage every New Yorker to visit Israel and other places important to understanding the cultures essential to the history of people in our great city,” Adams said in a tweet.

Kathy Manning is seeking a spot on Foreign Affairs

As the first woman to chair the Jewish Federations of North America, Congresswoman-elect Kathy Manning (D-NC) is no stranger to big jobs. But during orientation for newly elected members of the House of Representatives — which began last week — she’s come to terms with just how busy her schedule as a congresswoman will be.

“One of the things I’ve learned is how precious a commodity my time will be,” Manning said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday afternoon. “Because there’s so much to get done, and so many ways to approach the problems that we want to solve for the American people. So managing my time is going to be a challenge.”

With her limited time, Manning said her top priority is to assist in efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s also eyeing a spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in part because of her commitment to and “deep knowledge” of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Being on that committee would allow me, I think, to stand up for what I believe is such an important relationship,” she said. 

“The other reason I find that committee interesting is that President [Donald] Trump had done a lot of damage to the relationships with our allies around the world,” Manning continued. “And it’s going to take a lot of work to rebuild those very important relationships. And I wouldn’t mind being part of that work.”

Although all incoming members of Congress are meeting together at orientation events, bipartisan cooperation for the incoming class may be hampered by coronavirus concerns.

“It’s been a little difficult to get to know the Republican members in our new class. We are trying to social distance. There have been some different approaches to mask wearing and social distancing that have made it difficult for me to get to know some members on the Republican side,” Manning said.

“On the other hand,” she added, “I have really been able to get to know and bond with the Democratic new members. And that’s been a big advantage.”

Manning was one of a small number of Democrats to flip a Republican-held House seat blue this cycle — although her victory is due in no small part to a court-mandated redrawing of the now-blue district.

Manning seemed relatively sanguine about Democrats’ losses in House and Senate races across the country, noting that many of them were in districts and states that were previously considered reliably Republican.

“They were very, very difficult races. So I think there was always a risk that we would lose some of those seats,” Manning said. “I think the good news is that we won the presidency. And that was the big prize that we were all hoping we would be able to accomplish. And we feel great about that.”

The newly elected congresswoman told JI she believes Democrats can shore up their House majority in 2022 by focusing on controlling the pandemic, facilitating better health care access, decreasing unemployment and improving education over the next two years.

Manning’s former colleagues at JFNA say she’s well placed to get things done in Congress.

“I couldn’t be more proud that a former chair, the first woman chair of JFNA, is continuing her service as an elected member of Congress,” JFNA President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, a former congressman, told JI. “It’s a testament to her leadership and that our leaders continue their love of public affairs in the elected realm. I couldn’t be more excited for her, she’ll make a great representative. It’s a moment of great pride.”

Eliot Engel looks back

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) admits that he has some regrets about his performance in the June 23 Democratic primary, when the 16-term congressman lost in an upset to Jamaal Bowman, the former Bronx principal and political upstart who is heading to Congress next year.

“There are always things you would have done differently, things that you see that might have been changed,” Engel explained in an interview with Jewish Insider on Tuesday. “I think we should look to the future. I can’t change the past. I’m obviously disappointed that I didn’t win reelection.”

Engel said there was “absolutely no indication beforehand” that he should have worried about the race, but he offered one explanation for why Bowman may have beaten him by double digits. “We had these terrible killings, George Floyd and whatever, and that seemed to stir the pot,” Engel said, alluding to mass protests against police brutality that took place over the summer and appear to have given momentum to a number of progressive candidates. “I think that played a role in this race.”

As Engel prepares to step down, the congressman, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, reflected not only on his recent electoral loss but also his decades-long tenure in the House. “I’ve been in Congress for 32 glorious years,” he said. “I grew up in a Bronx housing project. We didn’t have much money, and we didn’t have any contacts.” 

Engel, 73, still seemed somewhat gobsmacked that he had managed to get elected to Congress in 1989, and that he had risen through the ranks to become chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position he achieved in 2019 and which, coupled with his strong support for Israel, he views as one of the crowning accomplishments of his legacy.

“I said when I ran that I would be the best friend that Israel ever had in Congress, and I think that I have kept up that bargain,” he told JI, adding his belief that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in better shape than ever. “It’s no longer built on security and cultural ties, but on economic ties and cooperation in every sector, supported not just by Jewish Americans but by all Americans, or many Americans, and Israel is a strategic partner in every sense of the word.”

The recent normalization deals between Israel and Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, according to Engel, have positively changed the geopolitical calculus in the Middle East. “It used to be where the Palestinians blocked everything,” he said. “They complained and whined and cried that they weren’t being treated fairly, and then when we tried to get together to treat them fairly, they rejected everything we did.”

“The old fights are really antiquated,” Engel said. “I would always talk to the Arab leaders and say, ‘You and Israel sound very much alike, why do you continue to be enemies?’And I think that the Arabs are finally realizing this, and that’s why you’re having diplomatic relations with all these different [Arab] countries.”

The congressman added his belief that U.S.-Israel relations would be in good shape going forward, and that both parties would be able to work together in a bipartisan manner, at least with regard to the Jewish state. 

“We have a situation now where, if you think of one thing where there’s bipartisan consensus, it’s Israel,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that everybody feels the way I feel. I mean, I think that Israel is one of our most important strategic partnerships, and I think that people understand that the relationship is very important. I don’t like when one side tries to politicize. It’s a nonpartisan issue, and I think it shouldn’t be used as a political football.”

Bowman, 44, has called for conditioning aid to Israel, which Engel regards as foolhardy. “We support Israel because Israel supports us, and we have values that we stand for, and Israel stands for the same values,” Engel told JI. “So to treat our closest friends the way we would treat our adversaries and condition aid on this or that is just ridiculous. It’s just absolutely ridiculous. And if people are going to push that, I don’t think it’s going to pass.”

Engel said he had called Bowman after the primary to congratulate him on his victory and to wish him good luck, but that otherwise, the two haven’t spoken. “I know that some of the things he’s been saying about Israel or whatever are inaccurate and just plain wrong, and I hope that he takes the time to learn the issues, so that he wouldn’t make the statements that he has made,” Engel said. “That’s really not helpful to achieve peace in the Middle East.”

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2011. (Facebook)

Engel is leaving Congress during a tense moment for the Democratic Party as moderate candidates in swing districts have butted heads with progressives over messaging on issues like defunding the police and socialism. For his part, Engel hopes that such “infighting” will “fall by the wayside” and that Democrats can work together to achieve what he described as shared goals around job creation and raising the federal minimum wage.

“By and large, there’s not that much difference between members of Congress,” Engel said, while cautioning, “I do think that we have to be careful. You talk about defunding police or any of these other things, they are not correct, in my opinion, and they are not good issues for the country and we need to be careful. We need to show people that we want to have a big tent. I think that’s important. And we want to show people that they can feel comfortable in the Democratic Party.”

“Of course, there are going to be different people who are going to have different ideas on different things,” Engel added. “We need to be careful, that’s all. A freshman in New York is different than a freshman in middle America somewhere. So we need to be doing everything we can to help get our new people reelected, not fighting and then insisting that people pass some kind of purity test.”

In the last six weeks of his final term, Engel told JI that he is most focused on helping his constituents as the coronavirus pandemic enters a third wave. 

While a number of Democratic congressmen are vying to succeed him in the Foreign Affairs Committee — including Reps. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Brad Sherman (D-CA) — Engel declined to offer his endorsement.

“I’ve stayed out of it because I think it’s not right for me as I’m leaving to say who I want to replace me,” he told JI. “I think they’re all capable people doing it. I’ve done lots and lots of things with Gregory Meeks through the years, we both represent districts in New York. Brad Sherman has been a good friend. So, we have competent leadership.” (He did not mention Castro in his appraisal.)

As for his next move, “I figured I would let the term end, and then I would sit down and try to figure out what makes most sense for me,” he said. 

“I know one thing I’m not going to do is retire.” 

Engel did express an interest in joining President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, but was vague on details. 

“That’s certainly something I’d consider. People have said to me, would you want to be an ambassador, would you want to be an undersecretary?” Engel told JI without going into specifics. “I’ll see. When Congress ends, I’ll step back and I’ll see what makes most sense for me. I still want to contribute.”

Asked if he had any plans to challenge Bowman when his term expires in two years, Engel was tight-lipped. “I think it’s really too early to see,” he said, adding, “Let’s look at him and let’s see what he does. There are lots of people that I didn’t care for who turned out to be good and a lot of people I liked who turned out to be not so good.”

“Let’s see who he reaches out to,” Engel said of Bowman. “I made it a point to reach out to everyone. Hopefully, he’ll do the same, and we’ll see. That’s the last thing on my mind, worrying about what’s going to happen in two more years. I think that we have a lot of work to do now.”

Bonnie Glick is moving on after being fired from USAID

Bonnie Glick had some unfinished tasks on her agenda as she anticipated the final months of her brief stint as deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President Donald Trump. 

Among the items atop her list were stopping China from leading the 5G mobile technology competition around the world and building upon the recent Middle East agreements — including the Abraham Accords between the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain and a more recent deal with Sudan — as part of the agency’s primary focus of distributing resources to poor and developing countries.

The agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, was supposed to hand over the reins to Glick and return to his previous role as assistant administrator at the bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean at the end of the 210-day legal limit on his appointment. But three days after the November election, Glick, who became the second highest-ranking official at USAID in January 2019, was fired in a move to extend Barsa’s term as acting administrator. 

The maneuver came after Glick was unwilling to say, in public or in private, that she would not transition to the incoming Biden administration, an official in the current administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told JI. In a letter delivered to her on Friday afternoon, John McEntee, the director of the Presidential Personnel Office, wrote that “pursuant to the direction of the president,” she was immediately terminated. 

In an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday, Glick refused to discuss the reason for her firing in what she described as a “little bit of a topsy-turvy week,” but acknowledged that there was “general consensus” that her termination was “without cause.” 

In a statement released on November 6, the agency said, “The entire USAID family owes Bonnie a debt of gratitude for her leadership and her accomplishments and wishes her well in all of her future endeavors.” 

The White House did not return a request for comment. 

Glick has since joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a senior advisor, where she intends to continue the work she was doing at USAID. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to continue what I was doing, to participate in the discussions around the issues that are important to me,” she said. 

Glick told JI she will not be joining the Biden administration, but expressed hope that the issues she worked on while at the agency will be picked up by the next administration. “And one of the things that I’m committed to is ensuring, to the extent that I’m able, that there’s an orderly transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, and I’m hopeful that the career staff who are there will be allowed to proceed with transition-planning,” she added. 

A government official told JI the staff at the agency “are angry and in silent revolt.” 

Glick expressed concern about the lack of cooperation on behalf of the Trump administration to ensure a smooth transition of power. “One of the things that USAID promotes around the world is democracy and transparent government. And so now, I believe we need to practice what we preach,” she explained. “And to the extent that the [Trump administration] is not properly transitioning to an incoming administration it sends a really bad signal to developing countries.”

Madison Cawthorn arrives in Washington

Madison Cawthorn was in a jubilant mood on election night, and for good reason. The 25-year-old Republican upstart had defeated his Democratic opponent, retired Air Force Colonel Moe Davis, in the race to represent a district in western North Carolina. Though Cawthorn has never held elective office or worked full-time in government, he had convinced a majority of voters to send him to Congress next year, making him the youngest U.S. representative in decades. “It was freakin’ awesome,” Cawthorn recalled. “I mean, the mood was just electric.” 

The first thing he did, according to a post on his Instagram page published the following day, was bow his head in prayer and “give glory to God.” But the first thing many outside his immediate orbit saw was a short but provocative tweet that was far less conciliatory than the seemingly inclusive message he had preached throughout his campaign. 

“Cry more, lib,” Cawthorn wrote at 9:24 p.m., just a few minutes after the election had been called

For many who read it, Cawthorn’s message was an indication that the young conservative had yet to settle into his role as a congressman-elect. But in an interview on Saturday afternoon, Cawthorn sought to dispel that impression and admitted that, “in the heat of victory,” he had gone too far.

“I’m a fierce competitor, always have been, love competition, love really getting into it,” he told Jewish Insider in a 30-minute interview. “Even with my brothers, I love talking smack, you know, that kind of thing.” 

Still, he made sure to note that the tweet wasn’t directed at Davis, with whom he said he has not spoken since claiming victory. “I will say that it was directed at a sect of the liberal party that has really bought into cancel culture,” Cawthorn said. “There’s just been so much, you know, blatant lies about me, specifically when it comes to questions of Nazism and racism.”

“It was a lash out at that cancel culture saying, ‘You know what, people saw through your lies,’ and it was kind of just, like, gloating in victory. But I’ll say it was probably not the most congressional thing I’ve ever done,” Cawthorn added. “I have to represent everybody now, so I shouldn’t have done that.”

The North Carolina native experienced a tumultuous campaign as he struggled to fend off accusations of racism, antisemitism and white nationalism along with allegations of sexual impropriety. Perhaps most notably, Cawthorn came under scrutiny for a July 2017 social media post in which he appeared to glorify Adolf Hitler during a visit to the Nazi leader’s former mountain chalet, referring to him as “the Führer.”

Cawthorn is succeeding former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who in March vacated the seat in North Carolina’s 11th district to serve as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Meadows contracted the coronavirus about a week ago, but Cawthorn said that the former congressman has been helpful in assisting with his transition to the Hill. 

Cawthorn spoke to JI from Washington, D.C., where he is attending freshman orientation for new House members through Saturday. 

“It’s actually incredible,” Cawthorn said of orientation. “I’m a lover of history, so it’s incredible to be in a place where we had the vote to decide to have the Emancipation Proclamation, where we decided to go to World War II, where the civil rights battles were fought. I mean, it’s just, I got to spend about 30 minutes all by myself on the House floor yesterday — and just to be frank with you, I was in awe.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, a precursor to the abolition of slavery, was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and was not voted on by Congress.

Cawthorn said he was impressed by the new class. “We have some real rock stars,” he said. “It’s a diverse field. You’ve got the charismatic people who can really carry a message and communicate with broad spectrums of the American people about what our mission is. You also have some really great thought leaders. You have a few people who are mixtures of those two. And it’s so diverse. There’s so many young patriotic women in our conference this year.”

The congressman-elect said he had talked to “just about every single person” new to the class and that he had been particularly impressed with Texas Rep.-elect Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor, and Burgess Owens, the retired NFL safety whose Utah congressional race has not yet been called but who is in D.C. anyway. “He’s just a badass,” Cawthorn said. “So kind, so generous, but you can tell that he is an immovable object.”

Cawthorn told JI that he had not met Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican and QAnon adherent who has been stirring up controversy since she arrived in Washington thanks to her incendiary Twitter feed attacking coronavirus restrictions, nor has he had the chance to speak with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for whom he has expressed admiration despite taking issue with her policies. 

“I’m looking forward to it, though, for sure,” he said. “Disagree with just about everything she believes in, but I think that we need more people of conviction.”

As for President Donald Trump, with whom Cawthorn hobnobbed over the summer: no interactions yet. 

Cawthorn has argued on his Instagram page that the American electorate should stand up to defend a free and fair election process as Trump has made baseless claims about voter fraud. But in conversation with JI, Cawthorn seemed ready to accept that former Vice President Joe Biden would be the next president. 

“If you could put this in, please, and keep the whole quote: I do completely support our president, I support the democratic process that we have,” Cawthorn said. “I will tell you right now, if I was a betting man, I would say it does not look like Donald Trump is going to be the president. I do think that there’s still a Hail Mary’s chance that we get it. If we can keep Biden under 270 and then it goes to the House of Representatives, I think that the president will win. But I admit, from where I’m sitting, that it seems like an unlikely scenario.”

Whatever the outcome, he said he would go along with it. “If Biden becomes president, I will respect the office,” Cawthorn told JI. “I will oppose him where I have to. Hopefully there’ll be some common ground. I doubt it. But one point I do think that we’ll be able to have common ground is infrastructure reform.”

Broadband infrastructure is Cawthorn’s rallying cry, but he also made clear that he is interested in a wide array of changes. “I want to make sure that we have the best road system, I want to make sure that we update all bridges, I want to make sure that we upgrade the wall, I want to make sure that we have better ports, better pipelines,” he said. “I want to make sure that we are energy diverse. I don’t want to get rid of fossil fuels, but I do see the wisdom in diversifying our energy portfolio.”

Cawthorn emphasized that, with such goals in mind, he hopes to sit on the appropriations committee but would also settle for foreign affairs. “I really think that our foreign policy positions have just been terrible for the last few decades,” he said. “You know, we’re wasting our money, wasting our blood, wasting our resources. I think we just need to be more shrewd with our foreign policy positions.”

Did that mean a less hawkish approach than before? 

“Absolutely, for sure,” he said. “I think the military industrial complex is a thing, and I think that, you know, all life is precious.” He added, “When we say, you know, walk around carrying a big stick, speak softly and carry a big stick, we’ve forgotten what it meant to speak softly. If we dug more wells instead of launched more warheads, I think the world would be a much safer place right now, and it would be cheaper.”

Madison Cawthorn and some young fans. (Courtesy)

Asked to describe his mission statement with about two months remaining until he is sworn in, Cawthorn got lofty.

“I think kind of an overarching value you can say is freedom, but it’s more just strong conservative ideas, but delivered empathetically, that also take into account that not everybody has the same life or lifestyle or the same experiences and we need to do the best we can for everybody. But there are certain people in our community we need to cater to, which is not a hugely winning argument among the deep red conservative base,” he said. “But really, my accident really showed me that there are people who struggle with some things that you just can’t know about unless you’ve lived it. And so that’s my big message.”

Cawthorn was paralyzed from the waist down in a near-fatal car accident six years ago. Until recently, he had been training to compete in the Paralympic Games, but he switched paths when it became clear that his workout regimen was degrading the integrity of his spine. 

After the crash, he also picked up a sideline as a preacher, delivering sermons to churches throughout North Carolina. “It really gave me a great platform to really share my testimony,” he said.

The congressman-elect, who was raised Baptist but is now nondenominational, said that he is a devout Christian. “I would say I have a very, very, very strong faith and [am] very grounded in the actual word,” he told JI, adding that he had read through “just about every single religious work there is,” including the Torah and the Quran. 

At first, Cawthorn asked that his admission about reading the Quran be off the record, but he then agreed to allow it to be published. The biggest reason he read through the Quran, he said, is because he wanted to become a better proselytizer if he was “ever was presented with the opportunity to speak to a practicing Muslim who was kind of thinking like, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve kind of got a feeling in my heart, I’m interested in Christianity.’”

“The thing I found when I was actually reading through the Quran is that Christianity — that is a very easy switch to make to lead a Muslim to Christ,” Cawthorn said. 

“They believe Jesus is a real person,” he said of Muslims. “They believe he was a prophet, though. And so when you’re trying to lead an atheist to Christ, or, say, kind of a traditional Jewish person, you kind of have to make people really — you have to sell Jesus a lot, because, one, they don’t really believe that, you know — some very devout Jews just think he’s kind of a good guy. That’s great. But, you know, the Muslims, they already believe that he was somewhat divine, and so all you have to do is just be like, he wasn’t just a good man, he was a god, and now if you can submit to that then you believe in Christ.”

Cawthorn said he had converted “several Muslims to Christ because of that,” including a “young woman” who lived in New York and someone “down in Atlanta” when he was in rehab after his accident. “It was pretty incredible.” 

He did not go into specifics, but seemed to believe that evangelism was a calling on par with public service. “If all you are is friends with other Christians, then how are you ever going to lead somebody to Christ?” Cawthorn mused. “If you’re not wanting to lead somebody to Christ, then you’re probably not really a Christian.”

Had he ever tried to convert any Jews to the Christian faith?

“I have,” he said with a laugh. “I have, unsuccessfully. I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.”

Cawthorn expressed a similar sentiment during a July 2019 sermon at a church in Highlands, North Carolina. “If you have Jewish blood running through your veins today,” he told the crowd, mulling on a chapter from the Gospel of Mark, “this might not mean as much to you, but for someone like me, who’s a gentile, this means a lot.”

Cawthorn told JI that he has been making efforts to commune with the Jewish community in his district but because services are online, he has been unsuccessful. He’s planning to arrange an event at which he can reach out to a diverse section of his community, including people of different races and religions.

It is unclear, however, if his more left-leaning constituents are ready to hear from him. “Among Democrats, there is a deep disappointment that Madison Cawthorn was elected over Moe Davis, and, frankly, surprise, given the inexperience, missteps and exclusionary viewpoints of Mr. Cawthorn,” Esther Manheimer, the mayor of Asheville, which sits in Cawthorn’s district, told JI in an email. “However, I understand that, purely from a political standpoint, the congressional district heavily favors any Republican candidate and that may be what happened here.”

After JI inquired about Cawthorn’s thoughts on the separation of church and state, he said that many people have asked him if he will be able to divorce himself from his faith as a congressman. “That is the basis of all of my experience and everything I’ve learned, everything that I believe in, how I’ve formed all of my worldview,” he said of his religion. “I always think of that question as just so silly.”

“The Lord and the Bible and the value systems I’ve gotten through Judeo-Christian values,” he added, “it affects every single decision I make.”

“My family is a bunch of true frickin’ believers,” Cawthorn said. “It’s Christians that are, like, fun to be around, too. It’s not like guys who are like, ‘Oh, that’s a sin,’ ‘Oh, you’re awful,’ ‘Oh, X Y and Z.’ It’s people who just meet you where you are. If you want to cuss and drink, that’s your prerogative. I cuss and drink. I probably shouldn’t, but, you know.”

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