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A pro-DeSantis PAC’s attack on Donald Trump drew some pushback from the Florida governor’s allies. I͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
 
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May 16, 2023
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Principals

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Steve Clemons
Steve Clemons

The pro-Ron DeSantis PAC Never Back Down criticized Donald Trump like few GOP candidates have after his CNN town hall on Twitter, bringing up everything from January 6th to his court loss to E. Jean Carroll. But Shelby Talcott scoops that the tweet in question caused deep consternation within the PAC, with one DeSantis ally grousing that it was a “massive mistake” that “sounded like it came from CNN.” As she writes, it raises a bigger question for the field: How do you go after Trump without sounding like a Democrat to Republican voters?

The genius behind the public’s ability to interact with the artificial intelligence platform ChatGPT, Sam Altman, will appear before the Senate as part of a whirlwind week in Washington, writes Kadia Goba. Are Altman and ChatGPT friend or foe on Capitol Hill? And do Senators have the technological background to really understand him? It was clear when the House quizzed TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew their digital literacy was pretty dreadful.

I’m hearing some discomfort among Democrats that President Biden is leaving town Wednesday to attend the G7 meetings in Japan while the debt ceiling is a live issue. Yesterday, I had discussions with several leading Democrats from the Senate and House and there was a split: Some said it was important to the U.S. that he be there, another person told me that when the full faith and credit of the United States is on the line, you don’t leave the battlefield for Speaker Kevin McCarthy to “romp around on.”

Plus, Kadia gets a sobering text from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

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Priorities

White House: For the time being, Biden is still moving forward with his plans to leave on Wednesday for the G7 meeting in Japan, despite unresolved conversations on the debt ceiling (he could still change his mind). Biden and Vice President Harris will meet with Congressional leaders at 3 p.m. on the borrowing limit.

Senate: The Appropriations Committee is set to hold a hearing on Biden’s latest China-related budget request, during which Democrats also plan to make a point or two about the debt ceiling. “Let’s be clear: China isn’t debating whether to pay its debts, or wreck its economy. China isn’t debating whether to invest in its future, or cut and cap the investments that keep it competitive, and China does not operate on CRs,” Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash. will say in prepared opening remarks obtained by Semafor.

House: Two staffers working for Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., were attacked by an assailant with a baseball bat in his district office in Fairfax. Both were taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries; Connolly told CNN last night they had been released. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he placed a call to Connolly to check on his staff, calling the attack “heinous.” Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said he spoke to the House Sergeant at Arms and Capitol Police after the incident about how they are “collaborating” with members of Congress.

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Need to Know
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

The long-awaited report from special counsel John Durham faulted the FBI over its handling of the original counterintelligence investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, concluding the probe was rushed and that senior FBI officials who worked on it showcased a “serious lack of analytical rigor.” The report — which runs more than 300 pages and comes four years after Durham was tasked with investigating the origins of the Russia probe — did not recommend any changes in FBI or Justice Department policies, nor did it include any major new revelations or come paired with any new charges.

Reactions to the Durham report broke predictably along party lines. “THE CRIME OF THE CENTURY!” former President Trump wrote on Truth Social. Other Republican presidential contenders backed him up, claiming the report as evidence of the government being weaponized for political purposes. Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in New York who led Trump-related investigations as a staffer for the House Intelligence Committee, called the report a “political hatchet job.”

Speaker Kevin McCarthy sounded pessimistic about a potential debt ceiling agreement ahead of today’s meeting with Biden, telling reporters that Democrats and Republicans were still “far apart” and that the White House seems “more like they want to default than a deal.” He added that he thought leaders needed to agree on terms by the weekend in order to leave time for passing legislation before the default date. The view from Semafor’s Jordan Weissmann: Don’t read too much into the gloom. McCarthy has every incentive to talk like an agreement is out of reach to put pressure on the White House and reassure his conference that he’s negotiating as hard as possible.

A former employee of Rudy Giuliani sued him, alleging sexual harassment, assault, and violations of New York labor laws and saying she has evidence on tape. The employee, Noelle Dunphy, began working for Giuliani in 2019 when he was a personal attorney for former President Trump. She also claims that Giuliani told her he was selling presidential pardons for $2 million and that he and Trump would split the money. A Giuliani spokesman denied the allegations.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. will introduce the AI Shield for Kids Act or the “ASK Act” meant to prohibit entities from offering artificial intelligence to minors without parental consent. The bill, which was shared with Semafor ahead of its release, also requires the FCC in consultation with the FTC to issue rules that would prohibit companies from charging consumer fees to remove AI features for kids. “I have seven grandkids and I’m terrified by the lack of control available to parents when it comes to social media and AI,” Scott said in a statement.

Morgan Chalfant, Kadia Goba, and Jordan Weissmann

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Beltway Newsletters

Punchbowl News: Time could become an issue for debt ceiling negotiations, since at least some congressional leaders think it could take up to 10 days to move a bipartisan agreement through the House and Senate. Meanwhile, Democrats on Capitol Hill “freaked out” about Biden’s public suggestion over the weekend that work requirements for federal assistance programs were on the table in debt limit negotiations, leading Jeffries’ aides to “forcefully” push back on the idea behind closed doors.

Playbook: One of those critics was Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who told Politico: “We did not elect Joe Biden of 1986 … We elected Joe Biden of 2020.”

The Early 202: Democrats are preparing to collect signatures for a discharge petition on the debt ceiling as soon as Wednesday, but a final call will not be made after this afternoon’s White House meeting.

Axios: New York Mayor Eric Adams, who has been publicly critical of the White House, was supposed to be part of Biden’s campaign advisory board but was cut before it was announced last week.

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Shelby Talcott

Sometimes Back Down: Key DeSantis allies viewed anti-Trump tweet as a “massive mistake”

REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

THE NEWS

The leading pro-DeSantis PAC surprised the political world with a single tweet after Donald Trump’s CNN town hall last week. It bluntly called out the former president for his answers on January 6th, his “rigged” election claims, “the sex abuse case” he was found liable for damages over, “his defense of his comments about grabbing women by their genitals,” and investigations into “his stash of taxpayer-owned classified documents.”

“How does this Make America Great Again?” the tweet from the official account of Never Back Down concluded.

This was the kind of all-out critique of Trump that Ron DeSantis — and most of the 2024 field — have never made themselves.

Don’t expect to hear it again, though: The tweet generated some heated internal pushback at Never Back Down, while multiple prominent conservative commentators piled on publicly.

One DeSantis ally familiar with their thinking told Semafor that the group’s leadership “100%” recognized it as an error. A second source familiar with the situation added that they were told the tweet was sent without the approval of the PAC’s senior communications team.

“That post was a massive mistake,” the first ally said. “It sounded like it came from CNN, and I think people inside realized that that was a massive mistake, and I hope it won’t be repeated again.”

In perhaps a sign of concern around how it had been received, Never Back Down also added a reply to the tweet the next morning: This one focused on DeSantis’ “impressive accomplishments” in Florida and his dedication to discussing his “great vision” for the country.

In a statement, a representative from Never Back Down called the sources’ version of events “false,” but did not name any specific errors.

“This inaccurate gossip based reporting about internal conversations and strategy at Never Back Down is false,” Steve Cortes, a spokesperson for the PAC, said in a statement. “Never Back Down remains focused on telling the incredible story of success and service of Governor Ron DeSantis and amplifying the growing grassroots calls for him to become president.”

SHELBY’S VIEW

Never Back Down’s aborted attack gets to a core obstacle for DeSantis and indeed all of Trump’s Republican challengers: How do they attack him without sounding like Democrats to Republican voters?

Entire categories of what would be go-to attacks against any other candidate are effectively forbidden. DeSantis backed off almost immediately after a brief mention of Trump’s hush money payments to an adult film actress. He strongly defended him from his indictment in New York, from an FBI search on his Mar-a-Lago home that turned up hundreds of classified documents, and has avoided getting into topics related to other investigations. Even as DeSantis boasts on the pre-campaign trail that he’s a “winner,” he still hasn’t taken a clear stance on the most fundamental part of any electability argument: That his opponent lost the previous election.

Primary voters have long been conditioned to see discussion of Trump’s issues with the law, or January 6th, or women as liberal obsessions designed to drag down the party, not issues to be litigated in a contest between Republicans. After CNN’s town hall, for example, the network’s focus group of attendees bemoaned that the hosts kept bringing up his 2020 election claims: “Couldn’t the media ask him a question about 2024?” one voter asked.

This reflects my own experience on the trail in recent months: Republican voters rarely cite Trump’s personal or legal issues as prime arguments against him or even topics that they’re concerned about (the furthest they’ll usually go is to note that they’re tired of the “drama”). Issues like the economy, parental control over what’s taught in schools, or the border are much more likely to come up first.

So what to hit Trump on instead? DeSantis and his supporters have telegraphed some likely lines of attack aimed at hitting him solely from the right.

There’s electability, where DeSantis has recently criticized a “culture of losing” in the party without naming Trump, while warning Republicans will lose again if they “get distracted and focus the election on the past or on other side issues.”

And then there’s competence: DeSantis has hinted at attacking Trump from the right on COVID-19, in particular, saying repeatedly that he would have fired Dr. Anthony Fauci and resisted health guidance from CDC officials.

DeSantis has tried to call out Trump for attacking fellow Republicans as well, saying his criticisms of his record on Social Security and Medicare amount to “Democrat attacks” that damage the party.

ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT

Some potential 2024 candidates, most notably Chris Christie, have urged Republicans to go further in attacking Trump over the issues named in the Never Back Down tweet. “The way to win is to beat the guy that’s ahead,” he said on The Dispatch podcast. “And so what would a campaign look like? A campaign would look like a direct, frontal challenge to Donald Trump.”

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Tech

It’s Sam Altman week on Capitol Hill

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Sam Altman, the tech mogul behind ChatGPT, will testify before Congress for the first time on Tuesday as lawmakers look to study up on artificial intelligence in order to potentially regulate it. And he’s keeping a busy schedule while he’s in Washington.

Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, addressed about 60 members of Congress last night during a bipartisan dinner on generative AI. hosted by Reps. Mike Johnson, R-La. and Ted Lieu, D-Calif. According to Lieu, Altman discussed how he believes the technology would revolutionize society and concerns it being used for hacking and spreading disinformation.

Members also had a chance to ask Altman questions, most of them centered around maintaining the country’s advantage in innovation and properly regulating the technology.

“Two things came out,” Lieu said. “One is: The U.S. is ahead and we need to remain ahead. And second: It can’t be completely unregulated.”

On Tuesday morning, Altman will appear at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “Our hope is to learn and illuminate — demystifying the looming impacts, good and bad, of this fast-advancing technology,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT. plans to say. The hearing will also feature testimony from a New York University professor Gary Marcus and IBM executive Christina Montgomery.

After that, Altman is expected to speak and take questions at an afternoon all-members briefing hosted by the House AI Caucus and Congressional leadership, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries are also expected to give remarks, along with Reps. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif, and Jay Obernolte, R-Calif.

Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and AI Caucus member,  told Semafor he’s interested in understanding what Altman believes AI’s future applications will be “not only quality life but our military and then what are the potential dangers that AI presents.”

Altman’s visit comes amid a scramble by lawmakers to familiarize themselves with the rapid advances in artificial intelligence. Members say they’re aware that Congress has a spotty record regulating new tech, but the arrival of ChatGPT has sparked a sense of urgency.

McCarthy took a group of members to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  for a crash course on AI last year, while House leadership hosted two professors from the university last month for an all-member briefing.In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already unveiled a framework for regulating the technology.

Experts and members of Congress say they predict Congress will be voting on regulatory legislation within six months to a year.

— Kadia Goba

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Election Watch

Will progressives win another big city mayoral race?

Just one state – Kentucky – is holding a primary today, but voters in cities across Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Florida are holding their first post-COVID elections, too.

Three big things to watch:

Will progressives take power in more big cities? Philadelphia’s Helen Gym rallied with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Sunday, closing out her campaign just like Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson did — with one last push to turn out the city’s most liberal Democrats. She’s running to stop evictions and expand mental health services, telling Semafor she’ll lead a “movement of action” to attack the root causes of crime. Her leading opponents: fellow ex-city council member Cherelle Parker, who wants to hire 300 more police officers, and ex-city controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who’s endorsed by the city’s three most recent former mayors.

Whoever wins the primary will be heavily favored to beat GOP nominee David Oh; no Republican has won the office since Harry Truman was president. It’s the same in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, where state Rep. Sara Innamorato, elected with the support of Democratic Socialists for America, is running for county executive against a moderate who warns that her “failed progressive agenda” would be ruinous. And in two politically competitive cities, Jacksonville and Colorado Springs, Republican mayoral candidates are trying to hold on to city hall by bashing their Democratic opponents as soft on crime, citing positive things they’ve said about racial equity and Black Lives Matter.

Who’ll face Kentucky’s popular Democratic governor? Gov. Andy Beshear is one of just four Democrats who leads a state carried by Donald Trump in 2020, and Trump has endorsed Attorney Gen. Daniel Cameron, the first Black man to hold that job, to replace him. So has Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, Cameron’s political mentor.

But Cameron didn’t clear the field, and he’s been outspent by former U.N. Ambassador Kelly Craft, who’s battered his record and conservative values in TV ads — some funded by a super PAC with capital from her billionaire husband. Polling has found a steady lead for Cameron, but the primary’s been bitter, and state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has tried to run up the middle as a no-drama, no-faction candidate. “A lot of Republican voters are looking for someone who has their own brand,” he told Semafor.

Will election deniers gain ground? Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, angered some pro-Trump conservatives by expanding early voting and making mail balloting easier in 2020. MyPillow founder Mike Lindell’s endorsed one of his opponents, and Adams told Semafor that he has to beat them back: “It’s important for our image as a state, and for our business environment that we’re not seen as a bunch of nutjobs.”

In Pennsylvania, where both parties are picking nominees for the state supreme court, commonwealth court judge Patricia McCullough wants the GOP nod. She earned notoriety — and in MAGA-world, lots of praise — for 2020 opinions that broke with the rest of the bench and advanced Trump’s election lawsuits.

—David Weigel

For more election analysis from David Weigel, sign up for Americana, his twice-weekly national politics newsletter.

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One Good Text

Gerry Connolly is a Democrat representing Virginia’s 11th congressional district. He has served in Congress for over a decade.

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Blindspot

Stories that are being largely ignored by either left-leaning or right-leaning outlets, according to data from our partners at Ground News.

WHAT THE LEFT ISN’T READING: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering banning chocolate milk in school cafeterias due to the added sugar content.

WHAT THE RIGHT ISN’T READING: A Connecticut judicial nominee said she regrets signing a 2017 letter in support of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court due to her vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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— Steve Clemons

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