As Rome Burns

As Dave Patrick Underwood lay dying beside his wounded colleague, a white van peeled away from the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in Oakland, California. His partner survived with three gunshot wounds and a shattered femur, but Underwood died at the scene on May 29.

Underwood was one of two federal protective contractors attacked while standing watch over the U.S. Federal Building during one of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have plunged the nation into chaos. His murder came just hours after Fox News host Tucker Carlson revealed why President Donald Trump continues to stay his hand against greater use of force to restore law and order.

“On a White House executive staff call just this morning,” Tucker said on the night Underwood died, “key domestic policy advisors Brooke Rollins and Ja’Ron Smith argued that it might seem ‘racist’ to say anything about the rioting in Minneapolis,” or elsewhere for that matter.

While Smith is your run-of-the-mill Washington social climber, Rollins is something far worse.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

From 2003 until 2018, Rollins was president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a think tank aptly characterized by journalist Mark Hand as “a Koch-funded research and advocacy group.” A list posted online revealed Koch Industries, Inc. to be one of Rollin’s chief donors. Companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil also feature prominently in the donor roll.

Though it is billed as a think tank, there is actually very little “thinking” going on at TPPF. The organization has little in the way of ideology; it is merely a vehicle for securing corporate interests, from rolling back environmental regulations, progressive prison reform, and radically increasing immigration levels.

At a criminal justice and policing reform summit hosted by the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation in November 2015, Rollins heralded the coming revolution led by TPPF and its allies. “Now, we will begin to change the world, state by state, country by country, to put together what has been broken,” she said. Rollins was a prophet of things to come.

In February 2018, she stepped down as president of TPPF and took over as an assistant to Trump for strategic initiatives. She succeeded Chris Liddell and the role’s originator, Reed Cordish—a silver spoon real estate scion—in overseeing the Office of American Innovation (OAI) run by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The office functions as a policy platform through which Kushner promotes personal initiatives and establishment interests.

Formally, the existence of the OAI is superfluous. The National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council predate it by decades and essentially perform the same functions. That might matter if the OAI was not created specifically to bypass traditional policymaking channels by applying corporate pressure where it counts: the campaign coffers of lawmakers. It is an “administration” within the administration.

Cordish helped Kushner create the OAI in early 2017. This was around the time, within a month or so, that President Trump broke bread with the Koch brothers for the first time since taking office. It was also around the time Sebastian Gorka resigned from his post in the administration and warned: “forces that do not support the MAGA promise are—for now—ascendant within the White House.”

Cordish became close with Kushner through Ivanka Trump—Margaret Katz, Cordish’s wife, is a longtime friend of the first daughter. In 2017, he worked with Kushner and tech CEOs through the OAI to successfully intervene against Trump’s plan to crack down on visa worker programs that undermine the wages and job prospects of Americans. Cordish’s successors have all been cut from the same corporate cloth.

Liddell, a former Microsoft and General Motors executive who worked with Kushner in the OAI, succeeded Cordish in overseeing the office in 2018, around the time he was also appointed deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. Journalist Christina Wilkie called his rise through the ranks a “win for Kushner, who has emerged as the standard-bearer of the establishment faction of the Trump White House” opposing the “conservative wing”—that is, the wing that got Trump elected. Washington observers noted that the “White House’s tone toward Silicon Valley” softened during his tenure. Kushner, Politico reported, “led much of the outreach to tech CEOs with help from Chris Liddell” through the OAI.

Liddell ran the office as a shill for Silicon Valley and a policy neophyte. On May 1, 2017, Trump tapped him as the man to extend the olive branch to Apple, Google, Intel, Oracle, Qualcomm, and others. After the masters of the tech universe sufficiently warmed to its allies in the administration, the OAI rallied in 2017 to undercut the president’s crackdown on visa worker programs by applying corporate pressure from companies like Apple and Amazon. Many of those companies, run by CEOs not known to have much love for Trump, his 2016 agenda, or his base, now enjoy a seat at the Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups round table. Most recently, these companies were able to use the OAI and its members to successfully carve out exemptions for the immigration ban.

Calamitous Criminal Justice Reform

Under Rollins’ leadership, the office transformed into a Koch-to-TPPF-to-White House pipeline. In all things, said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, “TPPF is thinking the way its donors want it to think.” Since Rollins took over, the White House appears increasingly aligned with the interests of TPPF’s donors.

It was from her perch in the OAI that she worked alongside Kushner on various soft-on-crime initiatives, conspicuously at odds with the popular law-and-order platform President Trump campaigned on to victory. An administration source noted that Rollins used the OAI to channel private sector pressure against Trump that ultimately forced him to perform what Reuters called an “unusual reversal” on his “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. Her influence has only grown.

When she and Kushner cobbled together the First Step Act, TPPF bragged that “D.C.’s latest criminal justice reform was born deep in the heart of Texas,” at their offices on the corner of Congress Avenue and East 9th St.

By January 2019, Kushner regularly met at the White House with the Koch network and its allies, including Rollins and Josh Treviño, the chief innovation officer at TPPF; John Hostetler, a former member of Congress and founding member of the TPPF-backed “Right on Crime” initiative; Brett Tolman, the former U.S. attorney for Utah; as well as Van and Jessica Jones of Cut50. Yes, that Van Jones—the one who recently said that denying you are a racist if you are white is like denying you’re wet if you are in the ocean.

In April 2019, Rollins appeared on “The Next Revolution” with Steve Hilton to laud the First Step Act as a “truly transformational effort to change our criminal justice system at the federal level, following what many of the red states around the country have been doing for about a decade, including my Texas.” But Rollin’s “wholesale relook” at reforming the system has manifested as a wholesale slaughter of innocents.

The First Step Act has been a setback for everyone who thought they were getting a law-and-order administration. For example, a prisoner taking full advantage of the law’s provisions could cut a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking in half, to less than five years.

Joel Francisco, an Almighty Latin Kings gang leader, was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking crack cocaine in 2005. But he was released from federal prison in February 2019 thanks to the First Step Act. With his newfound freedom, compliments of Kushner and Rollins, Francisco stabbed a man to death.

Francisco is not an outlier. Drawing on figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a former congressional staffer and public policy analyst who spoke to me on condition of anonymity found 77 percent of released drug offenders were arrested for a non-drug crime within nine years, and 34 percent were arrested for a violent crime. Those who voted for a president who promised to crack down on crime to keep their communities safe are rightly disappointed. Nevertheless, Rollins’ star only continues to rise.

She received a promotion this year with the help of Kushner. On May 14, Rollins was named acting head of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), a little-known but influential post that, curiously, has only been held by Bush administration alumni in the Trump Administration.

“Brooke is really Jared’s person. . . . I think that played a big part in it,” one person close to the White House told Politico. The DPC is the principal forum used by the president for considering domestic policy matters and it is now in the hands of a Kushner-OAI associate.

As Rome burns, the people who are helping to set the fires are consolidating more policymaking power unto themselves.

The Lose-Lose Election

Though they did not know it at first, Americans almost immediately became intimately acquainted with Rollins’ Koch-approved approach to crime. Behind the scenes, Rollins and Kushner continue to advise Trump to go soft on those engaged in violence across the country.

“The president has signaled that he would very much like to crack down on rioters,” Carlson said on June 1. “That is his instinct. If you’ve watched him you believe it. But every time he has been talked out of it by Jared Kushner and by aides that Kushner has hired and controlled.” Rollins is one of those aides for whom murder, mayhem, and madness constitute a small price to pay for the reforms that are in the interest of her backers.

A few hours after Carlson’s segment, before dawn on Tuesday, a retired African American police captain named David Dorn was murdered by looters while trying to protect his friend’s pawn shop in St. Louis. Dorn died in a pool of his own blood while a bystander broadcasted his final moments on Facebook Live. As another community grieved, Trump went along with the advice of Rollins and Kushner to hold back on invoking the Insurrection Act to end the riots.

The political calculus behind inaction is as cynical as it is simple. It’s also flawed.

Kushner and Rollins believe that Trump’s base will not flip for his opponent, no matter how badly they are abused and betrayed. “Where will they go?” Kushner reportedly likes to say.

This thinking runs on the assumption that Joe Biden would take someone like Stacey Abrams as his vice-presidential running mate. Because Biden is a senile cipher, Abrams would likely run the administration. Trump’s advisors believe an outcome such as this terrifies his supporters more than his failures disappoint them. In other words, the administration sees its base as a hostage.

But even Trump’s staunchest supporters see the administration’s strategy backfiring in real-time.

John Nolte, a fierce defender of the president at Breitbart, is convinced that “current polling trends for President Trump are terrible.” Nolte’s analysis doesn’t even include the latest problems for the administration. Newsmax White House correspondent Emerald Robinson reported that Kushner has been holding meetings to secure amnesty for illegal aliens “with a goal of getting it done before the 2020 election.”

Voters demoralized by lawlessness and amnesty might wonder what is the difference between a Trump Administration guided by Kushner and his allies, and a Biden Administration effectively led by an Abrams or some other woke leftist? Abrams wants to get rid of borders; Kushner and Rollins want to legalize mass immigration. It is also difficult to tell apart their views on crime and punishment—all point toward progressive policies. In fact, Kushner is reportedly already working with Rollins to pass reforms aimed at eliminating cash bail, with the unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death as the perfect pretense. We recently got a glimpse of what these “reforms” might look like.

The New York Police Department quietly released hundreds of looters, vandals, and rioters due to the state’s new bail reform law. The law eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and non-violent felony charges, including stalking, assault without serious injury, burglary, a variety of drug offenses, and even some kinds of arson and robbery.

During the first three months the law was in effect, New York’s jail population dropped significantly, Barnini Chakraborty reports. “At the end of 2019, the number of people jailed across the state was close to 20,000. By March of 2020, the number had dipped to 15,000.”

New York City Police Chief Terrance Monahan said “just about all” of the looters arrested would be released without bail. Oscar Odom, a former NYPD detective, told Fox News that thanks to bail reform, “99.9 percent” of the people arrested and released from jail likely went right back to looting. Most people would call this mayhem. But Kushner, with the cries of agony and the din of chaos far from his secure White House perch, insists with a straight face these reforms “make our communities safer and have made our system fairer.”

If President Trump continues to abuse and gaslight his base at the behest of his advisors, they are unlikely to vote for a Democrat. But there is a chance they will simply stay home in November. In the end, it will make little difference to people like Rollins and Kushner who will land on their feet and add their time in the White House to their résumés. At this rate, Trump’s base stands to lose, no matter the election’s outcome.

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About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He publishes the weekly Contra newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @emeriticus.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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