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The GOP Field Takes Shape
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The GOP Field Takes Shape

Plus: House Republicans threaten to hold FBI director in contempt over Biden probe.

Happy Wednesday! With our interns officially aboard for the summer, The Dispatch’s 2023 softball season begins in earnest tonight. We promise to keep you updated on how it unfolds—unless things are going poorly, in which case we’ll never speak of it again.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories  

  • The Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant in southern Ukraine collapsed yesterday, flooding surrounding villages and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people. Ukrainian and NATO leaders have blamed Russia for the dam’s destruction, while Russia has claimed Ukraine was responsible. Definitive evidence of who is behind the collapse has yet to emerge, but engineering and explosives experts suggest the most plausible explanation for the destruction is an internal explosion at the Russian-controlled dam.
  • The Washington Post reported Tuesday the United States had intelligence of a Ukrainian plan to attack the Nord Stream pipelines months before they were blown up, according to a European intelligence report accessed through the April Discord leaks. The report—sourced from an unidentified individual in Ukraine–was shared with the CIA last June and includes some details on the Ukrainian plan that match European investigators’ conclusions about the identity of the saboteurs.
  • The PGA Tour and LIV Golf—a rival golf league backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund—announced yesterday they have agreed to merge. The news shocked the golf world as critics—including PGA officials and players—have for more than a year been knocking LIV players for their complicity in an effort to “sportswash” Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and role in the 9/11 attacks. The agreement will end litigation between the two tours and combine the PGA Tour, LIV, and the DP World Tour under a single, as-of-yet unnamed for-profit entity.
  • The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that arrests along the southern border have dropped by 70 percent since the end of Title 42 last month. Border officials reported record numbers of crossing attempts just before the pandemic-era policy—used to quickly expel most migrants, incentivizing repeat crossing attempts—expired, but the administration replaced it with more restrictions for migrants seeking entry and tougher penalties for illegal border crossings.
  • A group of 11 House Republicans—mostly House Freedom Caucus members—sank a procedural vote to advance several GOP-supported bills on Tuesday, an unusual step designed to express their dissatisfaction with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s handling of the debt ceiling deal. The group—which included Reps. Matt Gaetz, Ken Buck, and Dan Bishop—said McCarthy had violated promises he made to earn his gavel and argued their move demonstrated the power of defectors over the narrow Republican majority.
  • The New York Times first reported Tuesday Mark Meadows, the final chief of staff to former President Donald Trump, has testified before a grand jury hearing evidence in several investigations overseen by special counsel Jack Smith. It was unclear when Meadows testified, and whether he discussed Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election or the former president’s mishandling of classified documents. 

Christie Jumps In

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at an event at Saint Anselm College on June 06, 2023.  (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at an event at Saint Anselm College on June 06, 2023. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Some may liken it to a clown car, others, to an overcrowded hot tub. Whatever your comically jam-packed vessel of choice, there’s no denying the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination has ballooned this week.

At a kick-off event in New Hampshire Tuesday night, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced he’s officially jumping in the race. Former Vice President Mike Pence signed the paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission formalizing his run Monday and is set to make an official announcement tonight at an event in Iowa, followed by a town hall on CNN. And GOP North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum teased a “big announcement” and officially declared his intention to throw his (cowboy) hat in the ring in a Wall Street Journal op-ed

By the end of the week, there will likely be nine more-or-less serious contenders—depending on how you define “serious”—and several more longer shots. As the field grows, the calculus for the candidates gets more complicated. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s assertion she doesn’t “play for second” notwithstanding, the game could become about deciding what it is candidates are playing for as their respective paths to the nomination narrow with every new entry. 

As CNN’s Brianna Keilar put it on live television: “At a certain point, aren’t there just too many people in the jacuzzi?”

That all depends on who you ask, Brianna. Trump is pretty transparently hoping for a redux of 2016, when a massive number of candidates—17, to be exact—fractured the “Not Trump” vote so much that he breezed his way to the nomination, almost exclusively with pluralities. When Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina entered the 2024 race last month, for example, Trump welcomed him with open arms. “Good luck to Senator Tim Scott in entering the Republican Presidential Primary Race,” he wrote on Truth Social. “It is rapidly loading up with lots of people, and Tim is a big step up from Ron DeSanctimonious, who is totally unelectable.” While the repeated attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggest Trump has zeroed in on his main foe, anyone else jumping in may be a welcome addition for the former president, with only so much vote share to go around. 

Some would-be candidates seem to have done the same math as Trump. Former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu have both ruled out bids in the name of doing what’s best for the Republican Party—which is, in their view, blocking Trump’s path to the nomination. “There are several competent Republican leaders who have the potential to step up and lead,” Hogan wrote in a New York Times op-ed explaining his decision in March. “But the stakes are too high for me to risk being part of another multi-car pileup that could potentially help Mr. Trump recapture the nomination.”

“Our party is on a collision course toward electoral irrelevance without significant corrective action,” Sununu wrote this week in a similarly car wreck-metaphor-heavy op-ed for the Washington Post. “The stakes are too high for a crowded field to hand the nomination to a candidate who earns just 35 percent of the vote, and I will help ensure this does not happen.” 

Christie—also a moderate governor from the northeast—has a different theory of the case. The Trump foe-turned-ally-turned-foe-again seems ready to face Trump head-on. With a few notable exceptions, the candidates already in the race have proven largely reluctant to take serious swings at their party’s longtime standard-bearer who, in the most recent national polling, commands around 50 percent of Republican primary voters’ support. In his announcement last night at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, Christie accused his fellow candidates of treating Trump like Voldemort: “He who shall not be named.” 

Naming Trump won’t be Christie’s problem. “He’s going to mention Donald Trump early, he’s going to mention him often, and he’s going to prosecute the case about why he shouldn’t get another shot as our nominee,” Jim Merrill, a Republican operative in New Hampshire who advised former President George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio, told The Dispatch.

The former governor, whose affiliated PAC calls itself “Tell It Like It Is,” didn’t pull any punches during his roughly two-hour town hall last night against the man he’s convinced gave him COVID-19, calling the former president “lonely, self-absorbed, and self-serving.”

“I’m going after Trump for two reasons,” he said in response to an audience question. “Because he deserves it, and because it’s the way to win.”

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, likely views his punch-Trump-in-the-mouth approach as killing three birds with one stone. Not only does it put Trump on the defensive, but picking fights will also earn Christie time on cable news, which amounts to free advertising for the campaign. Plus, it helps him paint himself as a fighter. “He knows how to brawl and we like that in our candidates,” Merrill said of New Hampshire GOP voters. 

We’re still more than seven months away from the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire’s “First in the Nation” primary, and it’s not likely all nine (or 12, if you include long-shot candidates like failed California gubernatorial candidate and radio talk show host Larry Elder, non-denominational pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley, and CPAC straw poll third place winner Perry Johnson) will make it to January with their candidacy intact. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—who led in early pollsdropped out in September 2015, as did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, too, withdrew before the first vote had been cast in 2016.

Money “is an early tell,” Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant, told Mike Warren on the Dispatch Podcast last week about the key to staying in the race. For Haley—whose campaign showed less cash-on-hand than many of her rivals—sluggish fundraising into the summer could mean “she can’t afford a real powerful media campaign” in Iowa and New Hampshire, which could force her out of the race “by Thanksgiving,” Murphy suggested. Other candidates or almost-candidates, like biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and software executive Burgum can throw their own money at their campaigns. Scott has more in his war chest than any other candidate in the race, benefitting from cash left over from his 2020 Senate campaign and significant backing from connections he formed as a member of the Senate’s Banking and Finance committees. 

But, at least as it relates to the debates, it’s not how much money you have, but where it comes from. The Republican National Committee set its barriers to entry for the first debate—scheduled to be hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee August 23—and the rules seemed designed to narrow the field. Candidates who want a spot on the stage need to have a minimum of 40,000 unique donors—with at least 200 in 20 different states—and be polling above one percent in three national polls or in two national and one state-level poll. 

This could spell trouble for Christie. When he ran for the 2016 nomination, only three percent of his funding before September 2015 came from small-dollar donors, according to the campaign watchdog Common Cause. Christie’s likely counting on his debating prowess—the same that vanquished (or didn’t vanquish) Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016—to take down Trump and make his case to voters. “It’s essentially sort of a suicide bomber strategy,” GOP strategist and former campaign advisor David Kochel told TMD, saying it’s unlikely Christie has a path to the nomination. “He’s going to strap on the bomb vest, run up on the debate stage, and pull the detonator.” But only if he can get on the stage.

Even if he can, it’s not at all clear Republicans still supporting Trump will be fazed by the types of attacks Christie has signaled he plans to level. Arguing that “character is destiny” in New Hampshire last night, for example, Christie suggested Trump wasn’t morally fit to be president—even as he admitted he voted for him in both 2016 and 2020 (something he’s vowed to never do again). Christie also went after the Trump family’s alleged grifting, and has labeled the former president a “puppet of Putin”—both accusations many Republican primary voters have brushed off for years. DeSantis, meanwhile, is trying a different tack, going after Trump from the right and calling his effectiveness into question. Why did he support bipartisan criminal justice reform? Why didn’t he fire Dr. Anthony Fauci? Why didn’t he finish the wall? “I don’t know what happened to Donald Trump,” DeSantis recently told a conservative radio host. “This is a different guy today than when he was running in 2015 and 2016.”

It’s still very early, but for now, the general contours of the race seem to be Trump v. DeSantis, with everyone else duking it out for third place. And aside from the debates—in which Trump may not even participate—the biggest inflection points will be the early contests, which Kochel—a native Iowan—sees as more important than ever. “There will be a lot of pressure for candidates who didn’t perform well in Iowa or New Hampshire to get out,” he told TMD. “If there was going to be a real concerted effort to try to beat the former president and turn the page, it’s going to have to happen in New Hampshire, because if Trump wins both states comfortably, it’s really difficult to find a path for anybody.”

Yesterday, Never Back Down—a super PAC affiliated with DeSantis’ campaign—shared internal polling with Axios showing the Florida governor has taken a significant bite out of Trump’s lead in Iowa, narrowing the former president’s advantage from 24 percentage points in mid-May to just 10 by the end of the month. And if all the other candidates dropped out? DeSantis and Trump were effectively tied.

Comer’s Contempt

It’s been many decades since Congress used its constitutional authority to detain and imprison people ignoring its subpoenas, but every so often lawmakers float the idea.

“We do have a little jail down in the basement of the Capitol,” then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in 2019 as Congress prepared to hold Bill Barr in contempt for withholding an un-redacted version of the Mueller report. “But if we were arresting all of the people in the administration, we would have an overcrowded jail situation. And I’m not for that.”

We can’t confirm Pelosi’s claims of designated dungeons, but the topic might come up again soon, with GOP House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer pledging this week to hold FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over a document Comer says details corruption allegations against President Joe Biden. While lawmakers are far more likely to cut a deal, refer Wray to the Department of Justice, or go to the courts if the FBI chief doesn’t comply, detaining him on their own is—at least theoretically—also an option.

Comer—a Republican from Kentucky tasked with overseeing the GOP’s various investigations into the Biden administration—has spent the last few months hunting for evidence of Biden family corruption, and says a whistleblower alerted him to the existence of a document with “reporting of an alleged bribery scheme related to then-Vice President Joe Biden and a foreign national.” The document in question, dated June 2020, is a FD-1023—used by the FBI to record unverified tips and reports from human sources—and supposedly contains second-hand information from a source who’s proven reliable in the past. Comer wants to know whether the FBI investigated the information and issued a subpoena for the document in May, rejecting the FBI’s claim that it avoids sharing information “that could harm investigations, prejudice prosecutions or judicial proceedings, unfairly violate privacy or reputational interests, or create misimpressions in the public.”

Threatened with being held in contempt of Congress, Wray offered to let Comer view the document at FBI headquarters, then arranged a Monday meeting at the Capitol to let Comer and his Democratic counterpart—Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland—see a partly redacted version of the document and receive an hour-long briefing. That wasn’t enough for Comer, who has insisted Wray must hand over a physical copy. “Given the severity and complexity of the allegations contained within this record, Congress must investigate further,” he said, suggesting the document should be released publicly.

Comer and Raskin came away from Monday’s briefing with differing accounts of what they’d learned. They agreed on the basics—the document outlined allegations of Biden’s involvement in a bribery scheme, which Raskin said involved Ukrainians. But Comer said FBI officials affirmed the document’s allegation “has not been disproven” and is being used in an ongoing investigation, while Raskin said the FBI had already checked out the allegations as part of an investigation of similar accusations made by former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Then-Attorney General Barr, Raskin said, signed off on the decision not to pursue the allegations any further. “My understanding is there is an ongoing investigation into Hunter Biden relating to gun charges and one or two other things taking place in Delaware,” Raskin added. “But I don’t know of any connection between that criminal investigation and the document that we saw today.”

The FBI argues it’s done enough to inform the committee—and should be allowed to protect its human source and the integrity of investigations. “The FBI has continually demonstrated its commitment to accommodate the committee’s request, including by producing the document in a reading room at the U.S. Capitol,” the Bureau said in a statement. “This commonsense safeguard is often employed in response to congressional requests and in court proceedings to protect important concerns, such as the physical safety of sources and the integrity of investigations. The escalation to a contempt vote under these circumstances is unwarranted.”

The White House also dismissed Comer’s efforts. “This is yet another fact-free stunt staged by Chairman Comer not to conduct legitimate oversight, but to spread thin innuendo to try to damage the President politically and get himself media attention,” said Ian Sams, White House spokesman for oversight and investigations.

With the Durham report’s account of dodgy FBI behavior top of mind, Republicans are primed not to take the law enforcement agency at its word, and Comer isn’t backing down. He’s scheduled a Thursday committee vote to hold Wray in contempt of Congress, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has pledged to follow up with a full House vote. The measure could stall after that if the Department of Justice declines to prosecute Congress’ referral—as seems likely. “One category of information over which the executive branch claims absolute control is law enforcement information, and so documents about particularly ongoing criminal investigations are the kinds of things that are routinely denied to Congress,” said Emily Berman, an associate professor at the University of Houston Law Center who studies oversight of law enforcement operations. “The executive branch’s position is if someone has been held in contempt for legitimately withholding information that Congress is not entitled to, we’re not going to prosecute that person.” Lawmakers can instead file suit and ask a court to enforce their subpoenas, but that process can take years.

And as we mentioned up top, Congress could order the House or Senate sergeant-at-arms to detain Wray until he complies—but a compromise seems more likely. Wray’s own agency, after all, depends on being able to enforce subpoenas, so he’s got some motive to avoid publicly defying one himself. There’s plenty of precedent for working things out: Sen. Michael McCaul recently threatened to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt for refusing to allow lawmakers to see a dissent cable about the withdrawal from Afghanistan—and Blinken gave in. “That kind of thing tends to be more about how stubborn do you want to be,” Berman said. “I don’t think it likely that Congress would want to escalate things to the point where they, you know, go arrest the FBI director.”

Worth Your Time

  • Yesterday marked the 79th anniversary of D-Day—the largest seaborne invasion in history and turning point of the war in the European theater. While most of us read about the day in history books or watch old film reel clips of the landings, Peter Orlando, a U.S. Navy radio man who served on a rescue tug boat during the operation, watched it all unfold before his eyes. “Now 101, Orlando has a clear memory of those harrowing moments of June 6, 1944, as American soldiers waded ashore in France to liberate Europe from the Nazis,” Dave Kindy writes for the Washington Post. “Orlando’s strongest memory from D-Day came as he watched the landings, wondering what might happen to the men heading into harm’s way. He recalls a dreary day painted by the intense gray of ships, sea and clouds, before he looked up and saw a flash of color: red, white and blue, straight out in a strong wind. He says he has never felt prouder of his country.”

Presented Without Comment

SEC Complaint: “Zhao and Binance understood that they were operating the Binance.com Platform in violation of numerous U.S. laws, including the federal securities laws, and that these ongoing violations presented existential risks to their business. As Binance’s CCO bluntly admitted to another Binance compliance officer in December 2018, ‘we are operating as a f—- unlicensed securities exchange in the USA bro.’”

Also Presented Without Comment

Associated Press: ‘Very Last Warning’ for 82-year-old German Convicted of Dealing Drugs

Toeing the Company Line

  • Why are Asian and European migrants showing up at the United States’ southern border? Will the White House’s efforts to “thaw” relations with China go anywhere? And what has the Dispatch Politics team been up to in Iowa? Declan was joined by Harvest, Grayson, Andrew, and Drucker to discuss all that and more on last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • In the newsletters: Haley reports on McCarthy’s brief moment of calm after the debt ceiling deal, and Nick wonders (🔒) who’s responsible for the destruction of Ukraine’s Nova Kakhovka dam.
  • On the podcasts: Jonah welcomes American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Philip Wallach to the Remnant for a discussion about the importance of the legislative branch.
  • On the site: Jonah reflects on the “Trumpian captivity” of the GOP primary race, and Charlotte covers a coordinated campaign by Russia and Iran to target U.S. troops in Syria. 

Let Us Know

Do you think Christie or DeSantis’ attacks on Trump will prove more effective in the Republican primary? Do you expect the field to winnow significantly before voting starts early next year?

Correction, June 7, 2023: The combined PGA-LIV golf tour will be a for-profit entity, not non-profit.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.