You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

About That Obama Enemies List

One of the rewards of being a loyal Wall Street Journal subscriber is that one gets to read things one might not see anywhere else. For instance, in Wednesday's paper there was a chilling front-page scoop about the fact that it was an American drone that had tipped off the Turkish military to a suspected caravan of Kurdish militants near the Turkey-Iraq border last year—a caravan that turned out to be nothing but local penny-ante smugglers carrying gasoline and other goods, a fact that was discovered only after Turkish planes killed 34 of the 38 of the men.

Or one might read, in the paper's opinion pages, about the “enemies list” that Barack Obama has drawn up, to sic his allies on those who would dare challenge him, a la Richard Nixon. What, you haven't heard about the enemies list? Well, that's because whatever lib'rul-media outlet you depend on has not deigned to acknowledge this monstrosity. But here is the fearless Kimberly Strassel bringing us the word in her op-ed column:

Richard Nixon's "enemies list" appalled the country for the simple reason that presidents hold a unique trust. Unlike senators or congressmen, presidents alone represent all Americans. Their powers—to jail, to fine, to bankrupt—are also so vast as to require restraint. Any president who targets a private citizen for his politics is de facto engaged in government intimidation and threats. This is why presidents since Nixon have carefully avoided the practice.
Save Mr. Obama, who acknowledges no rules. This past week, one of his campaign websites posted an item entitled "Behind the curtain: A brief history of Romney's donors." In the post, the Obama campaign named and shamed eight private citizens who had donated to his opponent. Describing the givers as all having "less-than-reputable records," the post went on to make the extraordinary accusations that "quite a few" have also been "on the wrong side of the law" and profiting at "the expense of so many Americans."
These are people like Paul Schorr and Sam and Jeffrey Fox, investors who the site outed for the crime of having "outsourced" jobs. T. Martin Fiorentino is scored for his work for a firm that forecloses on homes. Louis Bacon (a hedge-fund manager), Kent Burton (a "lobbyist") and Thomas O'Malley (an energy CEO) stand accused of profiting from oil. Frank VanderSloot, the CEO of a home-products firm, is slimed as a "bitter foe of the gay rights movement."
These are wealthy individuals, to be sure, but private citizens nonetheless. Not one holds elected office. Not one is a criminal. Not one has the barest fraction of the position or the power of the U.S. leader who is publicly assaulting them.

Got that? Identifying on a campaign Web site the people who are giving to the opponent's super PAC in six and seven-figure increments is the equivalent of Nixon's enemies list, which, as John Dean explained it at the time, was designed to “screw” targeted individuals via “grant availability, federal contracts, litigation, prosecution, etc.”  

OK, that seems a bit of a stretch. But Strassel has more. She reported a few days later that someone has been doing research into one of the people identified on the campaign Web site—Vandersloot, the CEO of the skin-care products company Melaleuca, who has given Romney's Super PAC $1 million.

About a week after that post, a man named Michael Wolf contacted the Bonneville County Courthouse in Idaho Falls in search of court records regarding Mr. VanderSloot. Specifically, Mr. Wolf wanted all the documents dealing with Mr. VanderSloot's divorces, as well as a case involving a dispute with a former Melaleuca employee. Mr. Wolf sent a fax to the clerk's office—which I have obtained—listing four cases he was after. He would later send a second fax, asking for three further court cases dealing with either Melaleuca or Mr. VanderSloot. Mr. Wolf listed only his name and a private cellphone number.
Some digging revealed that Mr. Wolf was, until a few months ago, a law clerk on the Democratic side of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. He's found new work. The ID written out at the top of his faxes identified them as coming from "Glenn Simpson." That's the name of a former Wall Street Journal reporter who in 2009 founded a D.C. company that performs private investigative work. The website for that company, Fusion GPS, describes itself as providing "strategic intelligence," with expertise in areas like "politics." That's a polite way of saying "opposition research."

Oooh, now this is getting good. Good enough for the other branch of Murdochia, Fox News, to fly into a tizzy. Someone was looking into VanderSloot's past! Wait, that sounds kind of familiar. Is it what Nixon did with his enemies? No, it's ... what I do as a reporter! I have no idea what Mssrs. Wolf and Simpson are up to in Idaho, other than looking into publicly-available court documents as anyone is entitled to do. But I know that a few months ago, I spent several weeks trying to learn as much as possible about some other big donors, the hedge fund managers who have shifted their giving from the Democrats to the Republicans. I called their rivals and ex-business partners, I called their college professors, I may even have looked up some court records! And I remember that there were a few people I called who asked me why I was trying to learn about these men and their political views—wasn't it their own business? And I remember saying something like, well, sure, everyone's views are their personal views, but when you start cutting checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars and giving them to super PACs, you are bringing your personal views into the public realm in a rather significant way, and the people who's job it is to report on this whole democracy thing of ours are going to take a closer look at you and your views.

But that's not how the Journal editorial board sees it. It weighed in after Strassel's columns with a thunderclap of disapproval, and a suggestion:

All of this is also a reason to reconsider rules that require the disclosure of political donations. This sounds appealing in theory, the Supreme Court has ruled that disclosure is Constitutional, and these columns have supported it as part of a political compromise that would allow unlimited donations. But it's increasingly clear that the real point of these disclosure laws is not to inform voters but to get donor names in order to intimidate them from participating in politics. The goal is to dispatch hired guns like Mr. Simpson on political opponents to trash their reputations.
Democrats and their left-wing allies should understand that Republicans and Mormons will not be the only targets. If Democrats think it is "legitimate" to prowl and publish the divorce records of Romney donors, no one should feign shock if some right-wing investigator is soon doing the same to Mr. Obama's bundlers and super PAC donors. A President who claims to want "civility" in political discourse will reap what he sows if he plays by Nixonian rules.

I'll grant the Journal this much: it's likely that more and more mega-donors indeed are going to seek out ways to give that are undisclosed—it is the reason why Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS group is raising so much, because, as a group that focuses on “issues,” not “elections,” it does not have to name its donors. But this shift is a travesty, not a solution, and it's why anti-disclosure loopholes like the “issues” groups need to be closed. Simply put: When you are giving on the level that Citizens United and related rulings allow you to give, you not only invite scrutiny, you demand it. When you are giving at levels hundreds of times larger than the $2,500 maximum for a regular donation to a campaign, or thousands of times larger than the size checks regular people send to candidates, then you are setting yourself apart. And the only thing that the rest of the citizenry has left to right the balance even slightly is to give you some added scrutiny—to see what personal interests, biases, you name it, might be prompting you to influence the political system in such an outsized way. It's all we've got, really—the Internet, the phone call, the visit to the courthouse. And yes, this applies to everyone. Why does everyone on the right know so much about George Soros? Because they were outraged at the scale of his giving in 2004 and 2006 and dug up everything they could on him. As is only right and proper. And now people are going to look into Frank VanderSloot, Harold Simmons and Paul Singer and the rest of Romney's million-dollar club.

For more on this, see David Weigel, who got to it a day before me and, as usual, nailed it. Also, be sure to check out the deeply-reported investigative piece by Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones looking into Melaleuca and the other “multilevel marketing” companies whose owners (often Mormon, as it happens, though not in the case of Amway) are contributing huge amounts to Romney's campaign and Super-PAC. It's a disconcerting piece. Or, as Strassel and the Journal would probably have it, the equivalent of the Watergate break-in.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis