‘Grifters and sycophants’: the radicals who would fill key posts if Trump is re-elected

Controversial former Trump aide Stephen Miller’s legal group is seeking lawyers with total fealty to ex-president

The Guardian, by Peter Stone, 8 Dec 2023

As Donald Trump and his allies start plotting another presidency, an emerging priority is to find hard-right lawyers who display total fealty to Trump, as a way to enhance his power and seek “retribution” against political foes.

Stocking a future administration with more ideological lawyers loyal to Trump in key posts at the justice department, other agencies and the White House is alarming to former DoJ officials and analysts who say such plans endanger the rule of law.

Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen Miller, president of the Maga-allied legal group America First Legal, is playing a key role in seeking lawyers fully in sync with Trump’s radical agenda to expand his power and curb some major agencies. His search is for those with unswerving loyalty to Trump, who could back Trump’s increasingly authoritarian talk about plans to “weaponize” the DoJ against critics, including some he has labeled as “vermin”.

Miller is well known in Maga circles for his loyalty to Trump and the hard-line anti-immigration policies he helped craft for Trump’s presidency. Notably, Trump has vowed to make those policies even more draconian if he is the GOP nominee and wins again.

Such an advisory role for Miller squares with Trump’s desire for a tougher brand of lawyer who will not try to obstruct him, as some top administration lawyers did in late 2020 over his false claims about election fraud.

“Trump doesn’t care about the rule of law or the quality of the criminal justice system. He only cares about fealty to him.” – Former Trump White House lawyer Ty Cobb

“They’re looking for lawyers who worship Trump and will do his bidding,” Ty Cobb, a former White House lawyer during the Trump years and former justice department official, said. “Trump is looking to Miller to pick people who will be more loyal to Trump than the rule of law.”

Cobb added that “Trump trusts Miller greatly”, although Miller is not a lawyer.“Trump doesn’t care about the rule of law or the quality of the criminal justice system,” Cobb said. “He only cares about fealty to him.”

Miller’s legal group, which raked in a hefty $44m dollars in 2022, also has a board seat with Project 2025, a sprawling effort led by the Heritage Foundation and dozens of other conservative groups to map policy plans for a second Trump term – or another GOP presidency if Trump is not the nominee.

Project 2025 includes schemes to curb the justice department, the FBI and other agencies, giving Trump more power to seek revenge – as he has pledged to do in campaign speeches and Truth Social posts – against critics in both parties, which could benefit from conservative lawyers’ sign-offs, but which justice department veterans warn would undermine the legal system.

It seems that they are looking for lawyers who will do whatever Trump wants them to do, and that is the antithesis of implementing the rule of law,” Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under George HW Bush, said.

“When you consider the number of lawyers who became Trump’s severe critics after joining the first Trump administration and participating in a lot of questionable actions, selection for a new administration will have to exclude pretty much anyone who has any inclination to defend our legal system or question the president asserting absolute authority.”

Ayer’s analysis is underscored by Trump’s 2020 anger at top lawyers such as the then attorney general William Barr, the then White House counsel Pat Cipollone and others, who pushed back on Trump for his false claims that he lost to Biden due to fraud.

Trump has cited Barr – one of several former top lawyers and officials who later became critics – as someone he would press the justice department to launch inquiries against, according to the Washington Post.

The former president, who faces 91 criminal charges in four jurisdictions including 17 involving his aggressive efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat, has also threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden and his family.

Donald Trump scowling into camera. Getty Images

Trump has attacked the prosecutions against him as political witch-hunts, arguing they give him the right if he wins the presidency again to use the justice department and FBI as tools to attack his opponents.

Trump’s retribution agenda was partly revealed on Tuesday at a Fox News town hall, when he slyly said if he was elected again he would not be a dictator “except for day one”.

To help facilitate Trump’s agenda, Miller plus the former Trump aide John McEntee, who started as Trump’s personal aide and then became a key adviser in 2020, have reportedly been working with others at Project 2025 to identify tougher pro-Trump lawyers.

Besides Miller’s group, numerous conservative groups have board seats on Project 2025 including the Center for Renewing America, a thinktank run by the former Trump budget director Russ Vought. The center employs Jeffrey Clark, a former justice department official who pushed false information about voting fraud in 2020 as part of Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss. Clark has written a paper that Vought’s center published titled The US Justice Department Is Not Independent.

However, Clark and several other former Trump lawyers are now facing major legal headaches after aiding Trump’s efforts to block Biden’s victory, which could complicate Miller’s hunt for new diehard Trump lawyers.

“This is a search for people with situational ethics.” – Timothy Naftali of Columbia University

Clark and other key conservative lawyers including Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman have been charged by the Fulton county, Georgia, district attorney, Fani Willis, in a sprawling racketeering case against Trump and 18 others for seeking to thwart Biden’s Georgia victory. Other Trump legal advisers who were charged, including Kenneth Chesebro, Sidney Powell and Jenna Ellis, have struck plea deals with Willis.

Some experts foresee real dangers to democracy in Miller’s search for lawyers who would back Trump’s emerging far-right agenda.

“This is a search for people with situational ethics,” Timothy Naftali, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said.

“They’re trying to screen out people who have higher loyalties to the US constitution. It’s likely they’re looking for people whose higher loyalty is to Donald Trump,” he said. “They’re trying to find lawyers who believe in dictatorship. You have to wonder what kind of people in good conscience could sign up for a Trump revenge tour. This appears to be a casting call for an American political horror movie.”

If Trump wins, some of the lawyers who may be candidates for key posts according to the New York Times include a few who work at either Miller’s group or have worked for Texas’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, a close Trump and Miller ally who has faced several ethics and criminal inquiries.

Miller and his legal center did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Miller’s lawyer search could benefit from his group’s contacts in Maga circles and rapid growth. When America First Legal was launched in 2021, it soon garnered $1.3m from the Maga-allied Conservative Partnership Institute, where Trump’s ex-chief of staff Mark Meadows is a senior official. Meadows and Vought have both served on the board of Miller’s group.

America First Legal’s deep pockets have helped fund an array of lawsuits against the Biden administration, states targeting immigration policies and what Miller has labeled “the equity cult”. Just last month, America First Legal filed a brief opposing the limited gag order placed on Trump by a federal judge overseeing special counsel Jack Smith’s four-count criminal indictment of Trump for election subversion.

More broadly, the mission statement of Miller’s America First Legal reveals its ideological compatibility with Trump’s authoritarian-leaning agenda, of which hard-right lawyers would be assets in implementing should Trump get another term.

“Our security, our liberty, our sovereignty, and our most fundamental rights and values are being systematically dismantled by an unholy alliance of corrupt special interests, big tech titans, the fake news media, and liberal Washington politicians,” the mission statement reads.

Given Miller’s strong ties to Trump, some GOP congressional veterans are alarmed by his search for more ideological lawyers who would not question Trump’s emerging authoritarian agenda.

“They’re looking for grifters and sycophants like Jeffrey Clark and Ken Paxton,” said the former House member Charlie Dent.

In Dent’s eyes, these kinds of lawyers would “do whatever they’re told. This is absolutely dangerous.”

Solano residents confront Flannery land grab at Rio Vista town hall

[Note from BenIndy: Plan now to attend Flannery’s Benicia town hall meeting, next Thursday, December 14, 6 – 8pm at the Benicia Historical Museum, 2060 Camel Road, Benicia.]

Margaret Anderson, left, puts her arm around her daughter Maryn Johnson, as they ask California Forever to drop the lawsuit against the 43 individuals from 12 families who wouldn’t sell their property to the company in their pursuit of a residential development in Solano County, as they speak at a town hall on Tuesday at the Veterans Memorial Hall in Rio Vista. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Sued farmers speak up at California Forever town hall

Crowd of more than 100 attend relatively orderly Rio Vista event

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Daniel Egitto and Nick McConnell, December 6, 2023

The audience gathered for California Forever’s town hall in Rio Vista fell silent for a moment, as Jan Sramek considered an answer during the question-and-answer portion of the event. Then, a single voice rose.

“Good neighbors don’t sue their neighbors,” they said, eliciting a cheer from audience members.

The accusation that California Forever has been less than neighborly to the community of just over 10,000 people – which is now partly surrounded by the company’s land purchases – was a recurring theme Tuesday evening.

Rio Vista residents seized the chance to let CEO Jan Sramek know how they feel about California Forever’s attempts to build a new city in southeastern Solano County – including its decision to pursue legal action against area farmers.

The event struck a less combative tone than a similar town hall in Vallejo last week. But questions and skepticism abounded in the packed audience of well over 100 people.

Neighbors vs. neighbors

California Forever sued a group of local farmers earlier this year alleging that they illegally colluded to increase the price of their land.

Maryn Johnson, whose family is among those named in the lawsuit, asked Sramek in the middle of the meeting to drop the litigation as a gesture of goodwill toward farmers who have been in the area for generations. He declined, after alleging that Johnson asked to settle the lawsuit previously.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek talks about how Rio Vista and the surrounding area can benefit from having a new community in Solano County during a town hall meeting on Tuesday in the Veterans Memorial Hall in Rio Vista. (Chris Riley/Times-Herald)

Johnson denies this and said she only invited Sramek over for Easter dinner with her family.

“I expected Jan not to commit to dropping the lawsuit,” she said in an interview. “But I think you need to ask these questions and put powerful entities in the position of stating before the public whether they will or will not act with common decency.”

Johnson said it is “patently false” that farmers colluded to fix the price of their properties, but rather that friendly conversation occurred.

“Of course we talk to each other,” she said. “Of course we have interacted with each other. The people that are named in this lawsuit are family even though we share different last names.”

Johnson, who is a teacher, said her brother continues the family tradition of farming and their family has no intention of selling the property – which is why they and others set prices so high.

“I think when you look at it from their business perspective, they did what they needed to do to acquire the land,” she said. “It wasn’t done in a trustworthy manner but I can see from their perspective why they chose to acquire land in the way that they did.”

Sramek said the lawsuit involves a small fraction of the people California Forever has done business with, and he claimed it’s evident that they broke the law.

“I think it’s quite clear,” Sramek said. “There are hundreds of people here who didn’t sell and they are not getting sued, and there are 600 people who we bought from and we are not suing them. So, it’s a small group; we’ve settled with half of them. You heard me say today ‘Hey, if you want to discuss a settlement, we can talk.’”

Skeptical residents

As in Vallejo, Sramek focused much of his presentation Tuesday on ways a new city could benefit Rio Vista’s economy, potentially bringing more jobs, restaurants and tourism to the town. He also noted California Forever’s interest in community benefits including down-payment assistance for home buyers and investments in Solano County’s existing downtowns.

The businessman highlighted his own “blue-collar” background as the son of a mechanic and a schoolteacher in a small Czech Republic town. Having left Goldman Sachs for an education company before moving on to this current project, Sramek said he doesn’t get into business ventures purely for profit.

”If I wanted to do it just to make money, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Attendees, however, had many questions about Sramek’s approach and what a new city would mean for Rio Vista.

Rio Vista resident Kenny Paul said he has a “laundry list” of concerns about the proposed development. He accused California Forever and its investors of sewing divisiveness, characterizing its opponents as “a fringe element” and “ignorant hicks.”

“In light of all this behavior, how do you expect anyone in this room or the county to believe what you’re saying?” he asked Sramek.

The CEO responded that California Forever will be placing its project in the hands of Solano County voters as a ballot initiative next November.

“Other than doing what anyone doing a project like this would do, which is buy the property, then announce it – we haven’t done anything else,” Sramek said.

Kathy Wright, superintendent of the New River Delta Unified School District, asked what this development would mean for the school district, given the district’s finite resources. Sramek said the ballot initiative would require California Forever to pay for all new students in the area, but he acknowledged that the area is currently in that school district.

One attendee noted that, although Sramek pledged there would be no development to the Sacramento River waterfront, there are renderings in California Forever promotional material that depict waterfront development. Sramek denied this, saying the company is interested in possibly building a man-made lake.

Sramek promised to return to Rio Vista for another town hall after his company announces its ballot initiative in January.

“I’ll be standing here, having people yell at me, calling me names,” he said, “but I’ll still be here talking about it.”

‘The nicest people’

Despite residents’ concerns, responses to Sramek’s presentation were more moderate than those at an explosive town hall hosted in Vallejo just days before.

Scattered claps came from the Rio Vista audience as Sramek introduced himself. Joe Scholtes of Vacaville, who moderated the event, drew chuckles as he noted local residents’ reputation for being “the nicest people.”

In Vallejo, Sramek gave attendees no formal opportunity to ask questions in a public setting, instead encouraging them to speak to company representatives at the end of the night.

Audience members in that city disregarded this request. They interrupted the meeting midway through, pelting the CEO with outbursts and accusations and arguing with his responses.

In Rio Vista, by contrast, California Forever set aside 45 minutes of the two-hour town hall for public discussion. Scholtes called on people to speak and an employee in blue jeans and a Yin Ranch baseball cap brought them a microphone.

Boos and cries of dismay erupted as Scholtes repeatedly attempted to end questions at the end of the allotted period. He closed out audience comments amid heated discussions about California Forever’s pending lawsuits.

A small handful of attendees lingered to speak one-on-one with company representatives for the last hour of the evening.

Sramek said he felt the town hall served its purpose well. He said time in these meetings has to be balanced between question-and-answer time and breakout sessions.

Town halls so far have not been livestreamed. Sramek said the company wants to maintain a more intimate feel.

“We wanted them to feel more like a neighborly event where people can ask questions,” he said.

Despite the city’s relative size, more people attended the Rio Vista town hall than the Vallejo one. California Forever required people in Vallejo to sign up for that meeting in advance. The company lifted that requirement for Rio Vista and all future town halls.

After hosting a Vacaville town hall Wednesday evening, California Forever is scheduled to hold another meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. in Willow Hall at The Fairfield Community Center.

This month’s final town halls will take place Dec. 14 at the Charles P. Stone Hall and Spenger Memorial Garden at the Benicia Historical Museum, as well as Dec. 18 in Dixon Town Hall at Dixon Olde Vets Hall. Both events will start at 6 p.m.

Video: Initial report on Chevron Refinery flaring incident released

This short video features Adam Springer, Assistant Director of Contra Costa County’s Hazardous Materials Program, and Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioa addressing the Chevron Refinery’s recent flaring incident. It is about two-and-a-half minutes long and worth a quick watch.

California Forever gutted at first Solano town hall

[Note from BenIndy: Remember, DECEMBER 14 is the date of Benicia’s town hall meeting. There are apparently only a few tickets left, so if you’d like to attend, don’t delay! Go to the EventBrite page by clicking this link. You can also email California Forever questions in advance of the meeting.]

Vallejo resident Michael Hayes shames California Forever for their tactics during a town hall meeting at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum on Wednesday. | Chris Riley / Times-Herald.

Speakers interrupt meeting demanding answers

Vallejo Times-Herald, by Daniel Egitto, November 30, 2023

Outbursts, accusations and disdain for provided answers crackled across an emotionally charged town hall about a company’s plan to build a new city in eastern Solano County.

California Forever hosted its first public forum about the proposed project Wednesday at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum in an attempt to provide residents with more information and answer their concerns.

But if any community members walked away from the night satisfied about the company’s plans, they didn’t say it. Instead, anger at California Forever and its approach to public outreach added fuel to many attendees’ doubts about the company’s promises of economic growth and fears about the harm the project might cause the county.

Benicia resident Michael Hayes accused the company of “doing urban sprawl” and said investors’ money would be better spent improving the Vallejo waterfront.

“You’ve got a bad investment. That’s what this is,” said Hayes. “You’ve got a bad investment, and we’re not going to support – as a shill – support your project. Shame on you!”

Former Vallejo Councilmember Katy Miessner agreed, adding her own concerns about the project’s long-term impact on Solano County’s economy.

“What’s going to happen in 30-40 years in this community when the construction jobs are gone and it’s all built up?” she asked, drawing applause from the audience.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek disputed these arguments, saying the new city would be limited in scale and provide jobs in industries other than just construction. He also alluded to possible investment in existing cities’ downtowns.

Solano County residents will ultimately decide whether or not the project moves forward. After presenting a first draft of plans for the new city in January, California Forever intends to ask voters to make the project legally possible through a ballot initiative next November.

‘Wrong, wrong, wrong!’

Wednesday’s meeting kicked off with a presentation by Sramek about the project and ways it might benefit people currently living in Solano County. After that, the businessman began answering submitted questions that one of the company’s own employees read aloud off her cellphone.

Sramek asked people to wait until the end of the meeting to ask their own questions in small breakout groups.

The audience, however, had other plans.

Heckling began during Sramek’s presentation, in which the CEO claimed that eastern Solano County, with its plentiful land, low ecological value and limited agriculture, is better suited for development than anywhere else in the Bay Area.

“If we don’t do it here, where are we going to do it? In Suisun Valley? Or in Dixon?” Sramek asked.

Murmurs of “Here!” and “Vallejo!” arose from the audience.

“Somewhere else. Somewhere else. We don’t have to do it here,” one woman said.

Discontent intensified as Sramek discouraged attendees from asking questions during the question-and-answer period. As the presenter began discussing construction workers’ role in the proposed community, a woman began shouting.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong! What about the Native American graves that you are going to be excavating and building on without even consulting us, the Natives of this land?” demanded the speaker, who did not give her name. “We didn’t even get an invite here tonight, and here I am from Solano. My people – where’s the other Natives? We knew nothing about this.”

Sramek promised that his team will do field surveys and consult with Indigenous tribes before building. But the woman and other audience members peppered the CEO with a spate of other questions.

Melissa Mendoza asked how the city will get water without depleting the county’s current water supply. Vallejo resident Phillip Balbuena asked about how promised tech jobs in the new city would contribute to local economies when advancements in artificial intelligence appear poised to eliminate existing jobs.

When Sramek referred to companies’ tendency to “cluster” and bring growth to nearby areas, Vallejo resident Robert Brekke questioned whether that prosperity would extend as far as Vallejo.

“I’m tired of hearing about the ‘cluster’ – and I won’t use the end of that word,” Brekke said. “But you know, you’re talking about clusters, but Vallejo is on the edge of your cluster. You’re aligning yourself with Vacaville and Fairfield.”

Napa resident Irina Rozo, who has worked in Vallejo, took aim at the basic format of the meeting, asking why Sramek was attempting to answer only questions that people had submitted in advance.

“We came from our homes to talk to you personally,” she said. “Here we are! Talk to us, not to the woman standing there.”

Sramek spoke quickly as he answered speakers, who often asked multiple questions at once and argued with his responses. He reiterated that his company has access to its own water resources and insisted that Vallejo and the rest of the county would only stand to gain from new development.

“There’s no world in which our community succeeds and that doesn’t bring more jobs into places like Vallejo,” he said.

Future town halls

California Forever plans to conduct two town halls in all cities in Solano County. The first round of meetings will all take place at 5 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Rio Vista— December 5, Legion Hall at the Memorial Veterans Building.
  • Vacaville— December 6, The Journey Downtown Theatre.
  • Fairfield/Suisun— December 7, Willow Hall at The Fairfield Community Center.
  • Benicia— December 14, Charles P. Stone Hall and Spenger Memorial Garden at the Benicia Historical Museum.
  • Dixon — December 18, Dixon Town Hall at Dixon Olde Vets Hall.

[Ed. note: Benicia’s town hall will actually be taking place from 6pm to 8pm, not 5pm to 7pm.]

Future town halls will look somewhat different from the Vallejo meeting, California Forever confirmed Thursday.

The company will allow people to ask questions directly at the event. More people will also get the opportunity to attend.

The Vallejo town hall advertised itself as requiring people to register in advance and sold out within a day. A large portion of seats Wednesday were empty, however.

Sramek said he had intended to prevent overflow, but many people who registered didn’t show up.

“A lot of people would come out, and then there would have been people who were stuck outside of the doors,” he said. “So we tried to prevent the problem. We tried not to have people drive here and then be turned away at the door.”

California Forever still recommends that people register for future meetings in advance but will accept walk-ins.

In addition to attending town halls, people seeking more information on California Forever’s plans can visit one of the company’s new offices, which opened Thursday in Vallejo and Vacaville.

The offices are located at 537 Georgia Street, Vallejo and 965 Alamo Drive, Vacaville. They are open 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

For safe and healthy communities…