Isaac Arnsdorf

Trump spawned a new group of mega-donors who now hold sway over the GOP's future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Lie Believers: Julia Fancelli and Gregory Fancelli

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

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

Publix distanced itself from Fancelli, whose father, George Jenkins, founded the chain. The company said she isn't involved in operations and doesn't “represent the company in any way." Fancelli's holdings in the privately held company aren't known and she is not listed in financial disclosures as an owner of 5% or more of the company's stock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gregory Fancelli declined to be interviewed.

Online Conspiracy Theorists: Leila Centner, Michael and Caryn Borland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business Benefits: Kelcy Warren, Roger Norman, Palmer Luckey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckey didn't respond to requests for comment.

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

Government Posts: Ike Perlmutter, Duke Buchan, Lynda Blanchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Ties: Anthony Lomangino, Steve Witkoff, Vernon Hill

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

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

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

Vernon Hill, Trump's sometime banker and golf buddy, gave more than $2 million, 10 times more than he'd ever given before. In 2020 he praised the federal government's small business relief program, which his bank, like many others, helped administer. Hill didn't respond to requests for comment.

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

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

How Josh Hawley and Marjorie Taylor Greene juiced their fundraising numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far beyond these two campaigns or this one company, small-dollar fundraising has exploded thanks to easy online payments, which are rewriting the playbook for campaign finance in both parties. At the same time, the rise of email fundraising has spawned some aggressive or even deceptive marketing tactics and made plenty of room for consultants and vendors to profit. A move by then-President Donald Trump's 2020 campaign to sign up supporters for recurring payments by default led to as much as 3% of all credit card fraud claims filed with major banks, according to The New York Times. In some long-shot congressional races, consultants could walk away with almost half of all the money raised, The Washington Post reported.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mo Brooks compared Biden's election to the s​tart of the Civil War. Now he wants a Senate seat

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Series: The Insurrection

The Effort to Overturn the Election

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

This article originally appeared at ProPublica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Congress Decides"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Need to Fight and Take It Back"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We Did Not Have Ultimate Success"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You Can Resist, Often Through Violence"

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely not," Brooks said.

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

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

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

“How Can You Misinterpret My Intent?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court records take us inside Trump and Barr's last-minute killing spree

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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

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

The unprecedented string of executions is often attributed to Attorney General William P. Barr, and his role was instrumental: It was Barr's signature that authorized the use of a new lethal injection drug, his quotes that trumpeted the execution announcements and his position as attorney general that holds the ultimate authority in capital cases. (Barr is resigning effective Wednesday.)

But a ProPublica review of internal government records shows that Barr did not act alone. The push to resume federal executions for the first time since 2003 long predates Barr, with groundwork beginning as far back as 2011 and accelerating after Trump took office in 2017. It could not have happened without the help of Justice Department lawyers; officials at the Bureau of Prisons; two professors who endorsed the government's injection method; conservative Supreme Court justices who dismissed final appeals; and Trump himself, who encouraged the executions and declined to commute them.

Trump and his surrogates don't shy away from this. Throughout the campaign they highlighted the executions as a contrast to Joe Biden's opposition to the death penalty, reinforcing Trump's “law and order" message. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany even invoked the execution of Daniel Lee, who fell in with skinhead groups as a teenager and renounced those beliefs decades ago, to defend Trump after he declined to disavow white supremacists in the first debate.

“The activation of the death penalty and appearance of being tough on crime played into the administration's political strategy — the same political strategy that pushed for separating children and parents and using force against peaceful demonstrators," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks executions. “An administration which is concerned about the rule of law and which respects the Constitution would have allowed court challenges to proceed and would not have attempted to carry out executions under a procedure that could be declared unlawful."

The Justice Department has killed 10 people since July, with three more executions scheduled before Biden's inauguration. Most every federal agency is rushing to wrap up unfinished business, cementing policy objectives in ways that will make them harder for the incoming president to unwind. But the Justice Department's pressing forward with executions, even after the election of a new president who opposes them, is uniquely irreversible.

The White House and BOP declined to comment. In a statement, the Justice Department said: “Seeking the death penalty and carrying out capital sentences is not a political issue, nor have political considerations influenced the department's decisions. The death penalty is a law enforcement and public safety issue, and the department is obligated to carry forward these sentences regardless of who is the president or the attorney general."

“Death Penalty All the Way"

A slim and shrinking majority of Americans support capital punishment, according to public polling. But it remains popular with Republicans, especially white evangelicals. That coincides with the strongest base of support for Trump, who, in 1989, famously bought full-page ads in New York newspapers demanding the death penalty for five young Black and Latino men who were wrongly accused of attacking a white female jogger in Central Park.

“Death penalty all the way," Trump said at a February 2016 campaign event in New Hampshire. “I've always supported the death penalty. I don't even understand people that don't."

Until this year, the Justice Department hadn't executed anyone since 2003. This long interruption was as much practical as legal. A drug that most states and the federal government used in lethal injections, a sedative called sodium pentothal, became unavailable because the sole American manufacturer stopped making it. The drug shortage thwarted the Obama administration's plan to execute convicted murderer Jeffery Paul. States began using a similar drug called pentobarbital, and in 2011 federal prison officials observed several state executions, according to court records.

Shortly after Trump's presidency began, his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, wanted to resolve these issues so that BOP could resume executions. Associate Deputy Attorney General Brad Weinsheimer said in a January 2020 deposition that Sessions began “conversations with staff and BOP to move forward on that."

One of the staffers involved was Matthew Whitaker, according to Weinsheimer. Whitaker, who briefly led the Justice Department between Sessions and Barr, didn't respond to requests for comment.

BOP made plans to use pentobarbital. But it had also become scarce as manufacturers shunned its use in executions. States resorted to using “compounding pharmacies," which mix ingredients for custom-made drugs.

BOP planned to import powdered pentobarbital from a “foreign FDA-registered facility" but later turned to a domestic bulk manufacturer. It also hired a compounding pharmacy to create an injectable solution. The government has guarded vendor identities, since public scrutiny could pressure them to back out.

A sample of the compounding pharmacy's solution failed a quality test by an outside lab. But according to Weinsheimer, BOP said the problem was the lab, not the compound itself, and sent a new batch to a different lab.

BOP also explored using a different drug: the opioid fentanyl. In a March 2018 memo, then-BOP Director Mark S. Inch said BOP found a fentanyl supplier but warned “there may be negative publicity associated with using a drug to which so many Americans are addicted."

For unclear reasons, BOP planned to have the executions carried out by two private contractors, rather than government employees. The government won't disclose the contractors' names or profession, and it pays them in cash. “If we didn't pay them in cash," a BOP lawyer said in a deposition, “they probably wouldn't participate."

“Killing Is Not a Treatment"

BOP officials knew their new drug choice would face resistance in court; lawyers have argued that pentobarbital would flood prisoners' lungs with froth and foam, inflicting pain and terror akin to a death by drowning. BOP worked to fend off those concerns with expert witnesses who would say the drug was humane.

Finding these experts was challenging because most doctors consider it unethical to have anything to do with executions. The American Medical Association and other professional groups prohibit any participation, including the “rendering of technical advice."

“Doctors are experts in unkilling, we are not experts in killing," said Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist at Emory University who has testified that lethal injection of pentobarbital simulates death by drowning. “This is why lethal injection is so problematic. It impersonates a medical act, but it's not about medicine at all. Killing is not a treatment. An execution chamber is not an operating room."

The Justice Department would later claim that “BOP consulted with medical professionals" (plural). That is not exactly true. BOP engaged two expert witnesses. The first, Craig W. Lindsley, is a professor of chemistry and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University. He is not a physician or licensed care provider; he has a Ph.D., not an M.D. In May 2017, Lindsley wrote a two-page report for BOP stating that pentobarbital will take effect so rapidly the prisoner wouldn't feel a thing. He concluded, “Of all the available options and protocols in use today, I believe this protocol to be the most humane."

Lindsley declined to be interviewed, citing Justice Department instructions. He did not disclose his compensation, but he was hired through a contract with a consulting firm called Elite Medical Experts that the Justice Department paid $22,000 in the same month as Lindsley's report. The company's CEO, Dr. Burton Bentley II, did not respond to requests for comment.

BOP's second expert witness was a medical doctor: retired California anesthesiologist Joseph F. Antognini. Antognini has said he personally opposes the death penalty as a Catholic. But he also said he believes states have a right to his advice, comparing it to criminal defendants' right to a lawyer.

Antognini has not addressed how he squares his testimony supporting executions with his Hippocratic oath. He did raise ethical considerations when he was asked to compare lethal injection to poison gas (a comparison between methods, like the one Lindsley made). “Recommending one method of execution over another, I guess that's an ethical issue for me," he said in a deposition.

Antognini's rare position as a doctor vouching for lethal injection has made him a valuable witness in capital cases, including a Missouri case that later reached the Supreme Court. Antognini charges $400 an hour, $2,000 for a deposition, $4,000 per day in court and $2,000 per travel day.

In a deposition in the Missouri case, which involved the same lethal injection drug, Antognini testified that pentobarbital would make the prisoner unconscious within 30 seconds and people can't suffer while they're unconscious. “Can you explain to me how you would have suffering in somebody who is unconscious?" Antognini said. “I don't see how that can happen based on my understanding of how all this works."

Yet just a few minutes earlier Antognini had acknowledged, “We don't know how anesthetics work." Scientists understand how the drugs act in the brain on a cellular level, he explained, but not how they produce unconsciousness.

The Supreme Court accepted Antognini's pentobarbital testimony. Other courts have been skeptical, ascribing his views “little or no weight."

Reached by phone, Antognini said he was busy and agreed to talk at a later time. When that time came, Antognini declined to comment. “I wish you all a very merry Christmas," he said, and hung up.

“Some Objective Factor"

By the summer of 2019, BOP determined that its drug supply was secure and it was ready to schedule executions. The agency gave Barr a list of 14 prisoners, out of about 60 on death row, who had exhausted their appeals. The Justice Department has refused to disclose this list. (Court records include a list from 2017 with 10 names, but they must not overlap entirely because two of the prisoners who Barr chose in 2019 were not on the earlier list.)

Barr decided whom to execute with the help of the then-deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen (set to become the acting attorney general), and aides including Paul Perkins and Timothy Shea (who later became acting U.S. attorney in Washington and now leads the Drug Enforcement Administration). The officials mulled executing all 14 but decided to start with five.

They chose the five, according to Weinsheimer's deposition, for the same reason that Barr would publicly announce on July 25, 2019: They were “convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society — children and the elderly."

“There was an effort to find some objective factor in looking at the 14," Weinsheimer said. “This was an aggravating factor that seemed to apply."

In fact, that wasn't true. Barr's summary of the case of Daniel Lee incorrectly said he “murdered a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl." The undisputed evidence was that Lee refused to kill the girl, so his co-defendant did. The co-defendant was sentenced to life in prison, while Lee was sentenced to death.

Weinsheimer said he didn't know if there were other death row inmates who murdered children or the elderly. There were, according to a review by ProPublica.

Barr's announcement also justified the executions on the basis that “we owe it to the victims and their families." This also was not true in Lee's case: Family members of Lee's victims have publicly come out against executing him (as have the prosecutor and judge). The families of the four other prisoners' victims supported the executions. In any event, the Justice Department didn't consult victims' family members when deciding who to kill, Weinsheimer said in his deposition.

The Justice Department also didn't review the prisoners' physical or mental health as part of its selection, according to Weinsheimer. One of the five, Alfred Bourgeois, had an IQ between 70 and 75, and his lawyers argued he is intellectually disabled. Another, Wesley Purkey, suffered from schizophrenia, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, which his lawyers said made him unable to understand the reason for his execution.

Weinsheimer said the Justice Department decided to schedule the executions in the order that the prisoners were convicted, with the oldest first. However, they were not the oldest capital convictions, according to ProPublica's review.

As for the executions' timing, Barr's announcement did not explain why, after a 17-year hiatus, the first three executions were scheduled within one week of each other. BOP officials voiced concern that these back-to-back executions would put more stress on their staff, the agency's lawyer said in a deposition. (After a 2014 lethal injection in Oklahoma went gruesomely awry, the state's investigation concluded that one contributing factor was having two executions scheduled that day.) Nevertheless, BOP's lawyer said the agency booked three executions in one week because of “guidance from the attorney general." Weinsheimer denied that Barr gave a “direction" on how to schedule the executions.

“Moot"

Even prisoners who have exhausted their post-conviction appeals can go back to court to try to stop their execution once a date is set. A federal judge in Washington put the executions on hold in November 2019. The appeals court disagreed in April. Barr swiftly rescheduled the executions for Lee, Purkey and Dustin Honken, in a span of four days in July. In this announcement, Barr cut two from the original five (Bourgeois and Lezmond Mitchell), and added a new prisoner, Keith Nelson. The unifying theme, he said, was “murdering children," repeating his inaccurate summary of Lee's crime.

On the day Lee was supposed to be executed, the judge in Washington ordered a new injunction. The appeals court declined to intervene, so the Justice Department went to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority has been consistently hostile to last-ditch reprieves in capital cases. “Courts should police carefully against attempts to use such challenges as tools to interpose unjustified delay," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a 2019 case (the Missouri execution that featured Antognini's testimony).

The conservatives have been equally unsympathetic to objections to lethal injection, considering that the court never found a constitutional problem with “traditionally accepted methods" such as hanging, electrocution and firing squad. “The Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death," Gorsuch wrote in the Missouri case, “something that, of course, isn't guaranteed to many people, including most victims of capital crimes."

Early on July 14, five justices ruled that Lee's execution could go ahead, saying that he had “not made the showing required to justify last-minute intervention." Technically, Lee's death warrant had expired at midnight, but the government issued a new same-day notice and went ahead with the execution around 4 a.m. Lee's lawyers protested that there was still a separate court order that the Supreme Court hadn't addressed, so officers left Lee on the gurney while government lawyers worked to wipe out that last obstacle. “That cautious step, taken to ensure undoubted compliance with court orders, is irreconcilable with the suggestion that the department 'rushed' the execution or disregarded any law," Rosen, the deputy attorney general, wrote in a July op-ed. Less than an hour after a federal appeals court granted the government's request, Lee was dead.

“Today, Lee finally faced the justice he deserved," Barr said in a statement.

Later that day, at a White House press conference, Trump referred to Lee's execution as part of his attack on the Democratic Party platform. “Abolish completely the death penalty," he said. “You know what happened today with regard to the death penalty."

Trump's campaign was more explicit in an email blast the next day. “President Trump ensured total justice for the victims of an evil killer," the campaign told supporters. “With the Trump administration slated to administer total justice to three more child murderers and rapists in the coming weeks, Biden should explain why they should be protected from paying the ultimate price for their evil, horrific crimes."

That same day, July 15, Purkey was scheduled to die. Again after 2 a.m., a sharply divided Supreme Court lifted the outstanding court orders. Purkey's lawyers rushed to federal district court for a new emergency stay on the basis that his Alzheimer's and schizophrenia left Purkey unable to understand his sentence. But the Justice Department made clear that it would not wait to let that petition play out.

In a “courtesy notice" emailed to one of Purkey's lawyers at 2:03 a.m. on July 16, a senior Justice Department official said the execution would go forward at 4 a.m., despite the new court filing. “Your colleague asked me whether the govt would delay the execution to allow the judge … to consider the stay application," Hashim Mooppan, counselor to the solicitor general, said in the email. “In light of the Supreme Court's orders today and on Tuesday morning, the government will not delay the execution further. Absent a court order barring the execution, the govt intends to proceed."

The judge, in fact, did say the execution should halt while he considered the motion, but he swiftly denied it, and chastised Purkey's lawyers for “procedural gamesmanship."

“Despite the risk of irreparable harm to Mr. Purkey, the balance of equities do not weigh in his favor," wrote the judge, James R. Sweeney II, who was appointed by Trump in 2017. Sweeney's brief order did not specify what equities he weighed, but the government had argued that Purkey's sentence had already been upheld multiple times.

As Purkey's lawyers rushed to appeal, BOP went ahead with placing an IV in Purkey's arm. He was dead before the appeals court made its ruling. The court later dismissed Purkey's appeal as “moot" because he was already dead.

Honken died the next day, the third that week.

“A Personal Interest"

As prisoners desperately fought the government's execution plans in court, they argued that overdosing on pentobarbital would be so excruciating that even death by firing squad would be less painful. Justice Department lawyers chafed at the suggestion. In response, they said firing squads were “more primitive" than lethal injection, and reintroducing them would be a “regressive change."

Two weeks later, however, the agency took steps to do just that. The Justice Department proposed a regulatory change to authorize execution methods besides lethal injection, including firing squads, which remain legal in three states. “This proposed rule would provide the federal government with greater flexibility to conduct executions in any manner allowed by federal law," the agency said. “The proposed rule would therefore forestall potential future arguments by prisoners in litigation."

The proposal made other tweaks to the department's regulations to address issues raised in litigation — not exactly admitting error, but tacitly acknowledging cracks in the government's legal foundation.

While the proposal was formally signed by Barr, its point person was Laurence E. Rothenberg, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Policy. Though he is a career employee, Rothenberg's LinkedIn profile picture shows him standing proudly with Barr, and he has staked out a public position supporting the death penalty.

In a 2004 law journal article (also published by the conservative Federalist Society), Rothenberg described the death penalty as “intrinsically just." He also defended executing juvenile offenders against claims that doing so violates international law.

In another article, from 2006, Rothenberg and a Justice Department colleague attacked common critiques of the death penalty. “The extent of racial disparities in capital cases in the United States has been vastly exaggerated," they wrote.

Rothenberg has said that his criminal justice views are shaped by a family tragedy. “I also have a personal interest in, and commitment to, this work, as the son of a murder victim," he said in 2009 congressional testimony about a victims rights law. In 1974, Rothenberg's parents were shot, his father fatally, on a trip to the Virgin Islands. The shooter was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The regulation became final the day after Thanksgiving.

“It Didn't Go Well"

For the next round of executions, Barr's announcement simply said that the two prisoners, William LeCroy and Christopher Vialva, were “convicted of murder." He gave no other reason or explanation for their selection.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department executed Vialva's co-defendant, Brandon Bernard. Bernard was 18 at the time and did not pull the trigger. The prosecutor and five of the nine all-white jurors who convicted Bernard, who is Black, have since said his life should be spared. The reality star Kim Kardashian tried unsuccessfully to convince Trump to commute his sentence.

At the federal death row facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, the inmates are allowed to leave each other bequests, according to The New York Times. Alfred Bourgeois received his friend Bernard's wrist watch for the single day before it was his turn to die.

Bourgeois was strapped to a gurney in the middle of a green-tiled room, an IV in his arm. As the pentobarbital flowed, Bourgeois' stomach heaved and popped, according to George Hale, a public radio reporter who witnessed the execution. The apparent gasping for breath was consistent with how lawyers have described the drowning sensation that the injection could cause.

Bourgeois' death took 28 minutes, almost twice as long as Bernard's. Hale said, “If Alfred Bourgeois was suffering that night, he suffered for a long time."

There are three more federal executions scheduled in January — eight, six and five days before Biden's inauguration.

Trump races to implement last-minute policies Before Jan. 20

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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

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

Even as Trump and his allies officially refuse to concede the Nov. 3 election, the White House and federal agencies are hurrying to finish dozens of regulatory changes before Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. The rules range from long-simmering administration priorities to last-minute scrambles and affect everything from creature comforts like showerheads and clothes washers to life-or-death issues like federal executions and international refugees. They impact everyone from the most powerful, such as oil drillers, drugmakers and tech startups, to the most vulnerable, such as families on food stamps, transgender people in homeless shelters, migrant workers and endangered species. ProPublica is tracking those regulations as they move through the rule-making process.

Every administration does some version of last-minute rule-making, known as midnight regulations, especially with a change in parties. It's too soon to say how the Trump administration's tally will stack up against predecessors. But these final weeks are solidifying conservative policy objectives that will make it harder for the Biden administration to advance its own agenda, according to people who track rules developed by federal agencies.

“The bottom line is the Trump administration is trying to get things published in the Federal Register, leaving the next administration to sort out the mess," said Matthew Kent, who tracks regulatory policy for left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen. “There are some real roadblocks to Biden being able to wave a magic wand on these."

In some instances the Trump administration is using shortcuts to get more rules across the finish line, such as taking less time to accept and review public feedback. It's a risky move. On the one hand, officials want to finalize rules so that the next administration won't be able to change them without going through the process all over again. On the other, slapdash rules may contain errors, making them more vulnerable to getting struck down in court.

The Trump administration is on pace to finalize 36 major rules in its final three months, similar to the 35 to 40 notched by the previous four presidents, according to Daniel Perez, a policy analyst at the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center. In 2017, Republican lawmakers struck down more than a dozen Obama-era rules using a fast-track mechanism called the Congressional Review Act. That weapon may be less available for Democrats to overturn Trump's midnight regulations if Republicans keep control of the Senate, which will be determined by two Georgia runoffs. Still, a few GOP defections could be enough to kill a rule with a simple majority.

“This White House is not likely to be stopping things and saying on principle elections have consequences, let's respect the voters' decision and not rush things through to tie the next guys' hands," said Susan Dudley, who led the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget at the end of the George W. Bush administration. “One concern is the rules are rushed so they didn't have adequate analysis or public comment, and that's what we're seeing."

The Trump White House didn't respond to requests for comment on which regulations it's aiming to finish before Biden's inauguration. The Biden transition team also didn't respond to questions about which of Trump's parting salvos the new president would prioritize undoing.

Many of the last-minute changes would add to the heap of changes throughout the Trump administration to pare back Obama-era rules and loosen environmental and consumer protections, all in the name of shrinking the government's role in the economy. “Our proposal today greatly furthers the Trump administration's regulatory reform efforts, which together have already amounted to the most aggressive effort to reform federal regulations of any administration," Brian Harrison, the chief of staff for the Department of Health and Human Services, said on a conference call with reporters the day after the election. Harrison was unveiling a new proposal to automatically purge regulations that are more than 10 years old unless the agency decides to keep them.

For that proposal to become finalized before Jan. 20 would be an exceptionally fast turnaround. But Harrison left no doubt about that goal. “The reason we're doing this now is because," he said, “we at the department are trying to go as fast as we can in hopes of finalizing the rule before the end of the first term."

Easier to Pollute, Harder to Immigrate

One proposal has raced through the process with little notice but unusual speed — and deadly consequences. This rule could reintroduce firing squads and electrocutions for federal executions, giving the government more options for administering capital punishment as drugs used in lethal injections become unavailable. The Justice Department surfaced the proposal in August and accepted public comments for only 30 days, instead of the usual 60. The rule cleared White House review on Nov. 6, meaning it could be finalized any day. The Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

Once finalized, this rule might never be put into practice. The Trump administration executed a federal prisoner in Indiana on Nov. 19 and plans five more executions before Jan. 20, all with lethal injections. After that, Biden has signaled he won't allow any federal executions and will push to eliminate capital punishment for federal crimes.

Other less dramatic-sounding rules could prove harder to unravel and have broader consequences. In particular, the Environmental Protection Agency is on the cusp of finalizing several rules that would make it harder to justify pollution restrictions or lock in soot levels for at least five years. The agency wants to keep the soot standard unchanged over the objections of independent scientific advisers and despite emerging evidence that links particulate pollution to additional coronavirus deaths.

An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the timing of these rules. “EPA continues to advance this administration's commitment to meaningful environmental progress while moving forward with our regulatory reform agenda," the spokesman, James Hewitt, said.

While those rules have developed over years, others were launched later and officials are taking shortcuts to finish in time. Reviews by the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs that normally take 90 days or more are now wrapping up in as few as five days.

The White House is close to completing severalrules that would extend Trump's record of restricting immigration and make the changes harder for the Biden administration to reverse. The pending rules would make it more difficult to claim asylum by excluding people with criminal convictions (even those that have been expunged), drastically shortening the application time and giving immigration judges more latitude to pick and choose what evidence to consider. The departments of Justice and Homeland Security didn't respond to requests for comment.

Some rules read like Trump's stump speeches translated into policy legalese. The Department of Energy is racing to loosen efficiency standards for showerheads and laundry machines, evoking Trump's recurringbits about bathroomwater pressure. “Do you ever get under a shower and no water comes out?" Trump said at an October rally in Nevada. “And me, I want that hair to be so beautiful."

Notably, the trade group representing washer manufacturers actually opposes the administration's proposal, saying it's unnecessary because many machines already have short-cycle options. The proposed rule is supported by small-government advocates such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Water and electric companies warn it could lead to higher consumption and waste. The Energy Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

The administration is also bucking business groups with proposals to restrict high-skilled immigration; in October, the departments of Homeland Security and Labor unveiled regulations to raise wage and education requirements for H-1B visas, which are often used in the information-technology industry. (The proposal drew opposition from theSmall Business Administration, saying the higher costs would stifle innovation and growth.) But while raising the wage scale for skilled immigrants, the administration is pushing a different new rule to lower wages for “low-skilled" immigrant farmworkers. A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (part of DHS) told ProPublica that “Any delay in responding to an economic emergency and high unemployment in a way that protects American workers and ensures the H-1B program is administered consistent with statutory requirements could cause real harm to the U.S. economy." The Department of Labor didn't respond to requests for comment.

Other rules are more clearly accommodating powerful business interests. A rule completed on Nov. 13 would restrict pension managers from considering social and environmental impacts (known in the industry as ESG) when choosing investments. Another Labor Department rule would make it easier for companies like Uber to withhold benefits by classifying workers as independent contractors instead of full employees. Both proposals had a truncated public comment period of only 30 days. A spokesman said the agency considers all comments regardless of how long the period lasts and that the department is working to complete all regulations on its agenda.

Chicken Plants on the Fast Track

Such shortcuts still might not be enough to finish some new rules that are just starting out now. Still, these tactics have raised alarms about the USDA's proposal to speed up chicken factories, even though a regulatory change like that would ordinarily take two years or more. The USDA has not provided a timeline, and the proposal is not yet public while the White House reviews it. An agency spokesman said the department is following the standard process.

The rules change has the support of the National Chicken Council, an industry trade group, which argues that the timing is not political. Spokesman Tom Super called the proposal “the most deliberative and studied proposed rule that has ever been issued. It spans three decades, four administrations — Republican and Democrat — countless scientific studies and various court cases."

The USDA has been laying the groundwork for the rule change for years. Even though safety concerns scuttled the USDA's previous attempt to raise speeds from 140 birds per minute to 175, in 2018 the agency started granting one-off waivers to individual plants that sought permission to run faster.

The performance of those plants could equip the USDA to argue that the speed limit should go up in all of them. Although the agency has not yet released its formal justification for the new proposal, officials have referenced a new study in the journal Poultry Science that concluded that inspectors in plants with faster speeds did not detect higher average levels of salmonella contamination.

The USDA funded the study through a no-bid contract worth up to $500,000 awarded in 2018 to Louis Anthony “Tony" Cox Jr., a statistician who consults for business interests such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Cox declined to share data he secured exclusively from the USDA or to be interviewed for this article. In emailed answers to written questions, he defended his methodology but acknowledged there's room for further study.

Other evidence, however, suggests faster speeds could make chicken less safe to eat. In a September article in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, USDA researcher Jeremy Marchant-Forde and a co-author found that USDA inspectors threw out record-low amounts of chicken when the agency let more plants speed up since May. The authors called this “a major threat to public health" to the extent it suggests inspectors were failing to find contaminated carcasses (rather than the birds having suddenly become much cleaner). But the authors cautioned they're not food safety experts and declined to comment further.

While the food safety issues are debated, there's already clearevidence that running faster lines poses higher worker risks, both repetitive strain injuries like carpal tunnel and traumatic injuries like cuts and amputations. But the USDA maintains that it is responsible only for food safety; worker safety is the job of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

That's exactly the kind of interagency dialogue that the White House is supposed to coordinate when planning new regulations — and the kind of process that could be shortchanged in the final months of an administration, according to the American Public Health Association's Occupational Health and Safety Section. An OSHA spokeswoman declined to say whether the agency has weighed in on the USDA's proposal. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has not yet commented on the proposal but plans to, a spokeswoman said.

“This last-minute push for an ill-advised rule change could be deadly for essential workers in slaughterhouses," said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group for safer working conditions.

Leasing Against the Clock

Since many finalized Trump rules are currently under court challenges, the Biden administration might be able to let some of them wither or die in litigation — especially where judges have blocked or struck down the regulations and the new Justice Department could decide not to appeal.

It will also have to wrestle with other changes the Trump administration is rushing to implement, using tactics other than rule-making.

The Trump administration is also pressing ahead with opening up more federal lands to oil and gas development, despite low prices, sluggish demand and complaints from environmental groups that drilling would encroach on wildlife habitats and national parks. Bids are starting at just $2 an acre for more than 445,000 acres of public land with leases for sale to energy companies through the Bureau of Land Management, according to data from EnergyNet.com.

The leases could expand dramatically as the BLM finalizes a plan to allow oil and gas drilling on an additional 6.8 million acres of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, a habitat for bears, musk oxen, caribou and birds. Spokespeople for the BLM didn't respond to a request for comment.

Separately, the Interior Department will open up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The agency is spending 30 days asking companies for bids, and then sales need another 30 days to take effect — just enough time to beat the clock before the inauguration.

An Interior Department spokesman said the agency is taking “a significant step" to implement Congress' direction in the 2017 Republican tax bill to start drilling in ANWR. “The department will continue to implement President Trump's agenda to create more American jobs, protect the safety of American workers, support domestic energy production and conserve our environment," the spokesman, Conner Swanson, said. He didn't say whether the leases would be done by Jan. 20.

Leases that have not yet been issued would be easier for the Biden administration to drop, but even finalized leases could be withdrawn if officials decide they were improperly issued or too environmentally dangerous, according to Erik Grafe, an attorney with Earthjustice in Anchorage. (Leaseholders might argue they deserve to be compensated.)

In addition, even once leases are issued, companies need permits and authorizations before actually taking action on the ground, Grafe said. Those steps would take more time and face legal challenges. Earthjustice and other groups are already suing to block the Arctic drilling program as a whole.

“We have been protecting this place forever," said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in steering committee representing indigenous hunting communities in northeast Alaska. “This fight is far from over, and we will do whatever it takes to defend our sacred homelands."

Veterans Affairs secretary headlines GOP fundraiser as COVID c​ases surge

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

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

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

Wilkie, in particular, was already under fire for frequent trips that appear to have partisan agendas. In a letter last week, the top Democrats on the House and Senate veterans committees accused Wilkie of using taxpayer-funded travel to boost Trump and other Republican candidates.

“Leaders at VA have historically risen above partisan politics," Senate veterans committee ranking member Jon Tester of Montana and House committee chairman Mark Takano of California said in their letter to Wilkie. “Furthermore, efforts to engage in overtly political activity may have come at the expense of legitimate functions of the department's mission."

The letter highlighted Wilkie's previous official trips to North Carolina, Maine and Montana for appearances with GOP senators in tough reelection races. The partisan tilt of the Montana trip was especially pronounced because it included no events with Tester despite his key post on the Senate panel that oversees the VA.

Wilkie's latest visit to North Carolina, his home state, was not part of an official trip, according to the VA's response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That indicates his fundraiser appearance wasn't paid for by taxpayers. Wilkie's spokeswoman declined to say who footed the bill for his travel or why he was in North Carolina on a weekday instead of at his job.

“He attended this event as a private citizen," spokeswoman Christina Noel said.

The party's financial disclosures, which might show donations and expenditures connected to the event, are not yet available for that time period. The North Carolina GOP's finance director, Amanda Parrish, didn't respond to messages seeking comment.

The event took steps to comply with the Hatch Act. The invitation, obtained by ProPublica, omitted Wilkie's official titles, referring to him as “honorable" (a general signifier for people who have been Senate confirmed). The invitation also said “his participation is not a solicitation for funds," but it listed suggested donations ranging from $250 to $2,500.

The email accompanying the fundraiser invitation said the organizers wanted “this event jam-packed (within CDC guidelines)." But a photo posted on Facebook by the state party chairman showed people indoors less than 6 feet apart and not wearing masks.

Noel declined to comment on what public health measures Wilkie observed to participate in the event.

Other political figures who attended, including state Rep. Holly Grange and Trump campaign organizer Matt Dula, didn't respond to requests for comment.

From North Carolina, Wilkie traveled to Arizona, Utah and Colorado for what appeared to be official functions, according to posts on his Twitter account.

A former aide to North Carolina's endangered incumbent senator, Thom Tillis, and former Sen. Jesse Helms, Wilkie is widely viewed as aspiring to elected office in the state. North Carolina's other senator, Richard Burr, is not seeking reelection in 2022. Noel didn't respond to a question about Wilkie's political ambitions.

Wilkie has faced criticism for appearing disengaged from the VA's critical programs. He's also under investigation by the department's inspector general for allegations, which Wilkie has denied, that he attempted to collect dirt on a congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital. The results of the probe are expected soon.

The VA hospital system currently has almost 4,500 active cases of COVID-19 (including veterans and employees), a 70% increase from a month ago. More than 3,700 VA patients have died of the virus.

Veterans are a key constituency for Trump, a favorite topic in his tweets and at rallies. The VA is accommodating more political events this year by relaxing a long-standing policy that discourages site visits by political candidates close to an election. Noel didn't respond to a question about the change.

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Who decides when vaccine studies are done? These internal documents show Fauci plays a key role

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, will oversee most of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials in the U.S., but not that of the current front-runner made by Pfizer, documents obtained by ProPublica show.

According to a draft charter spelling out how most of the advanced COVID-19 vaccine trials will be monitored, Fauci is the “designated senior representative" of the U.S. government who will be part of the first look at the results. That puts Fauci in the room with the companies — including Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — in deciding whether the vaccines are ready to seek approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Fauci's role, which has not been previously reported and was confirmed for ProPublica by the National Institutes of Health, could offer some reassurance in the face of widespread concerns that President Donald Trump wants to rush through an unproven vaccine. As Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, put it at last week's debate, “If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I'll be the first in line to take it."

But there's a big caveat. Fauci doesn't have the same hands-on role for the vaccine that seems poised to show results soonest: Pfizer's. That's because Pfizer opted not to accept government funding and participate in the federal program to develop a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed. (The government did make an almost $2 billion deal with Pfizer to preorder up to 600 million doses of the company's vaccine, but it isn't contributing money to the vaccine's development like it is for other companies.)

“(We) offered opportunities for collaboration with Pfizer," said a spokesperson for the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a branch of the NIH. “Pfizer chose to conduct their Phase 3 study without Operation Warp Speed or NIH support."

Pfizer's CEO, Albert Bourla, said Friday that the earliest his company would be ready to apply for authorization would be the third week of November. While Pfizer might know by the end of October if its vaccine is effective, it would need additional time to gather sufficient safety data to present to the FDA, Bourla said in an open letter on the company's website.

Fauci's role in overseeing the companies that are participating in Operation Warp Speed arises from a unique arrangement that the government set up to monitor the trials. Typically, clinical trials set up their own independent panels of scientists, known as a data safety monitoring board or DSMB, to watch out for safety concerns or early signs of success. But all of the vaccine trials in Operation Warp Speed are sharing a common DSMB whose members were selected by Fauci's agency, the NIAID. They're also sharing a network of clinical trial sites where some volunteers are recruited for the studies.

A DSMB is responsible for making recommendations such as halting the trial if there is a safety concern or letting the manufacturer know that there's enough evidence to submit an application to the FDA. Ordinarily, a DSMB's recommendation goes to the company running the trial. In this case, the U.S. government — which gets two representatives, one from the NIAID and one from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — will also have a seat at the table in deciding what to do next.

“Once the DSMB makes a decision, the DSMB provides the recommendation to not only the study sponsor but also to the" U.S. government, whose “designated senior representative" is Fauci, the NIAID confirmed in an email. Fauci declined to be interviewed.

That's not the same as saying Fauci has the last word. The company and the government are supposed to reach a consensus, the agency said. But if they can't all agree, the ultimate decision belongs with the company.

Still, it would be an improbably brazen move for a company to move ahead over Fauci's objection, given his public stature, experts said. “These are the most important trials in medical history, this is the ultimate fishbowl," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “I don't think any sponsor would dare defy the DSMB's recommendation."

While the mechanics of a DSMB may be unfamiliar to most members of the public, people probably know and trust Fauci, according to Amy Pisani, executive director of the national nonprofit organization Vaccinate Your Family. “(He's) the sweetheart of the nation right now," Pisani said. “I do think people have faith in Anthony Fauci."

“Having Fauci with oversight is terrific," Topol added. “The more people who are experts looking at it, the better. You can't be careful enough."

Other members of the DSMB for the COVID-19 vaccines, though not as well known as Fauci, are also widely respected in their fields. DSMB members are typically kept confidential to shield them from outside influence, but ProPublica has been able to identify a few members. The charter obtained by ProPublica described the group, which has about a dozen members, as having expertise in “biostatistics, clinical trials, infectious diseases, vaccine development and ethics."

The panel's chair is Dr. Richard Whitley, a professor of pediatrics, microbiology, medicine and neurosurgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His role became public when the university announced it, though the webpage was later taken down.

His leadership provides another level of comfort in the trustworthiness of the trials to those who know him. “He is not only famously bright but he is famously independent and outspoken," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Medicine. “He'll look at the data and tell you exactly what he thinks."

Whitley declined to comment.

Susan Ellenberg, professor of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania and a former director at the FDA, told ProPublica in an interview that many people, including herself, were worried the NIH might be “pushed by the political leadership at HHS to release data" from trials prematurely, which could undermine the integrity of a trial. HHS, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the NIH's parent agency. Her concern was that political leaders might not understand scientific arguments to not disrupt the trials when wanting to have data “to be able to move quickly in an urgent situation," she said.

At the time of the interview, Ellenberg had not identified herself as a member of the NIH's DSMB, but later acknowledged that she was a member.

Dr. Malegapuru William Makgoba, an immunologist based in South Africa, is one of a few international members of the DSMB. Makgoba is well known for his work on public health initiatives around HIV/AIDS, including the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Makgoba confirmed his role on the DSMB but declined to comment further.

The common DSMB appears to be unprecedented, if only because there have not previously been multiple vaccines in development for the same disease at the same time. Experts said the arrangement offers benefits such as bolstering the evidence available to show that any one shot is safe and effective.

Standardizing trial measurements should make the vaccines easier to compare head to head, which may be useful for knowing whether one is better or worse than another in certain subgroups, such as the elderly or people with compromised immune systems, according to Vanderbilt's Schaffner.

“To me, it's better for public health to have a fairly common assessment," said Dr. Gregory Glenn, president of research and development at Novavax, which has received $1.6 billion from Operation Warp Speed and hopes to begin its Phase 3 trial in the U.S. this month as part of the NIH's clinical trial network.

There may also be some benefits from a safety perspective.

If a potential safety issue appears in one trial, having a common data safety monitoring board for multiple trials means that the board knows to look out for that same issue across all the trials, said Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Moderna. “When AstraZeneca had an adverse side effect, we have a DSMB looking at our trial — the fact that it's the same DSMB means that there's not one DSMB that has to go educate another DSMB," Zaks said. (ProPublica's board chairman, Paul Sagan, is a member of Moderna's board and a company stockholder.)

AstraZeneca's trial has been put on hold in the U.S. while the company and the FDA investigates what happened with a participant who had a bad reaction. It's not yet clear whether the reaction was due to the vaccine or unrelated.

“AstraZeneca is committed to working with governments and key partners to ensure we develop and gain regulatory approval for an effective vaccine as quickly as possible," the company said in a statement.

AstraZeneca added that another benefit of joining the government's consortium was that its large network of trial sites can help reach minority communities that are historically less represented in clinical trials and also more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Pfizer's decision not to participate means that it and the other companies may miss out on some of these benefits of pooling resources. “It's at least unfortunate, and not very sporting, as the British would say," Schaffner said.

At the same time, there could be advantages to Pfizer's going solo. “One of the greatest risks to this process is the perception of political influence, and in that regard, having parallel efforts, especially efforts seen as independent of one another and/or independent of perceived sources of political influence, is a good thing," said Mani Foroohar, an analyst at the investment bank SVB Leerink.

Pfizer declined to comment on its decision not to join the government's shared DSMB and trial network.

Whether it's Pfizer or one of the companies participating in Operation Warp Speed, the final say on whether a vaccine is ready for public use belongs to the FDA.

The FDA has promised to present the data to an advisory committee of external experts in a public meeting. A preliminary meeting will be held on Oct. 22 to discuss, generally, the standards the FDA will seek to see before authorizing any vaccine. The agency has also committed to holding advisory committee meetings to review data from individual vaccine candidates.

Between the independent trial safety monitoring boards and the public advisory committee meetings, “any kind of hanky-panky there that people are worried about is going to (go through) multiple checkpoints," Fauci said in an interview with Dr. Howard Bachner on the JAMA Network podcast on Sept. 25. “The big elephant in the room is, is somebody going to try to make a political end run to interfere with the process? … If you look at the standard process of how these things work, I think you can feel comfortable that it is really unlikely that that is going to happen."

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