Not long after Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were sworn into Congress, they began hearing from their new colleagues that one member of the House Democratic caucus, Josh Gottheimer, had particularly strong views about each of them. Gottheimer, a second-term representative from New Jersey, has deep ties to the lobbies for Saudi Arabia and Israel, while Tlaib and Omar are often critical of both Mideast governments.
So when Gottheimer reached out to meet with Tlaib, she was eager to take it, hoping that a personal connection would help bridge their differences. On the day of the meeting, February 6, Gottheimer arrived with a colleague, freshman Elaine Luria from Virginia — and a white binder. Luria began by saying that she had met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu six weeks earlier, and Tlaib tried to break the ice with a joke: “How’s the two-state solution going?”
The joke fell flat. Gottheimer pulled out the binder, opening it to show Tlaib the contents. It was a collection of printed-out articles, with quotes and other lines highlighted. “He goes through them, ‘you said this, you said that,’ confusing me with other colleagues,” Tlaib said.
“He had a goal of breaking me down. I left feeling exactly that way.”
Gottheimer, through a spokesperson, confirmed the encounter, but claimed that he had reached out to Tlaib “at the behest of Democratic leadership.” He and Luria “sat down with Congresswoman Tlaib to have an open, honest discussion about anti-Semitic comments on dual loyalty and other anti-Semitic tropes that the Congressman and many other members of Congress found deeply disturbing. As requested by leadership, the Congressman brought copies of statements that he found disturbingly anti-Semitic. The Congressman shared them with Congresswoman Tlaib and had what he believed, at the time, was a mutually productive conversation,” spokesperson James Adams wrote in an email. “The Congressman shared a document with a list of deeply disturbing, anti-Semitic tropes uttered by certain members of Congress.”
Tlaib said she tried to reach Gottheimer on a personal level, telling him about her grandmother, who lives in occupied Ramallah. He wasn’t interested. “He was using a very stern tone, like a father to a child. At that moment, I realized he’s a bully,” said Tlaib. “He had a goal of breaking me down. I left feeling exactly that way.”
Breaking down Tlaib, Omar, and their allies on the left has been one of Gottheimer’s primary goals since the November elections. He has worked assiduously to carve out a role in the Democratic caucus as something of an avenger, a centrist proud of his centrism and willing to take the fight directly to the squad of freshmen trying to push the party in a progressive direction. He even has a name for his handpicked adversaries: “the herbal tea party.”
His definition of too progressive is startlingly broad. As the Democratic chair of the so-called Problem Solvers Caucus, he led a push against Nancy Pelosi as she ran for House speaker last year. He has consistently voted against the party even on procedural motions, threatening to hand control over the House to the GOP. This spring, he was one of just a handful of Democrats at a private retreat on Sea Island, Georgia, hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, mingling with Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other Republican heavyweights. He was one of just six Democrats to break with the party on a push for the DREAM Act in 2018, and he publicly undermined the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., during a hearing in which he fawned over CEOs of the nation’s biggest banks.
His boldest bid for internal power, however, came amid the push for a congressional War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. As progressives in the House neared a historic achievement, Gottheimer organized behind the scenes to take the resolution down, in part by attempting to make it a referendum on support for Israel — and very nearly succeeded.
The bill’s supporters out-organized him, and in April, Congress sent a War Powers Resolution to Trump’s desk. He vetoed their resolution, rejecting Congress’s demand that the president stop backing the Saudi-led war. Last week’s effort to override the veto failed in the Senate on a 53-to-45 vote.
Trump’s rejection of the resolution — which was led in the House by Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah — was expected. But for advocates who worked on it, Gottheimer’s intervention was unwelcome but not surprising. “He was counterproductive in a totally unnecessary way at a time when there was actually party unity on something really progressive and historic — and that unity had been fought for a long time,” said Elizabeth Beavers, who was associate policy director at Indivisible during the Yemen fight. “This is a thing that he’s doing consistently, helping to organize against progress.”
Stephen Miles, head of Win Without War, which worked closely on the resolution, was befuddled by Gottheimer’s role. “It’s unclear what he’s trying to do, but the impact is causing discord within the Democratic Party, making it harder to end an immoral and unconscionable war,” he said. “He took an issue in which there’s a clear right and clear wrong, and he’s come down on the side of wrong.”
Gottheimer’s rearguard action against the Yemen resolution, and his attempt to link the issue to Israel, hasn’t been previously reported. It’s been perhaps the most aggressive move any Democrat has made against the caucus and its leadership this session — and the intensity with which he approached it suggests that Gottheimer is working to establish himself as a leading player in the years to come.
Gottheimer’s intervention in the effort to end the Saudi-led war in Yemen takes on new resonance in the context of his longstanding links to Saudi money. Gottheimer is a protege of Mark Penn, a notorious Democratic operative who has become a leading Trump cheerleader on Fox News. Penn’s companies, where Gottheimer has held senior positions over the years, have long been on Saudi Arabia’s payroll.
Gottheimer’s first big job out of college was as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, where he worked closely with Penn, the president’s pollster. The two have remained close since. Penn became CEO of the consulting firm Burson-Marsteller, long one of the PR outfits working closest with Saudi Arabia, and in 2006, he hired Gottheimer as an executive vice president. Gottheimer worked at the consultancy firm, where he reported directly to Penn, until 2010. In 2008, Penn joined Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign as chief strategist, notoriously urging her to paint Barack Obama as un-American, and took Gottheimer with him.
Burson-Marsteller, as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow once laid out, has been a reliable voice for the worst of the worst. “When Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller,” Maddow said. “When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller. Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller. Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu — Burson-Marsteller. The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11 — Burson-Marsteller.”
She continued: “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial. That’s why it was creepy that Hillary Clinton’s pollster and chief strategist in her presidential campaign was Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller.” (Penn, at the time still serving as CEO, disputed the characterization.)
The consulting firm has continued to do major business with Saudi Arabia, including by representing a Saudi-run alliance engaged in the Yemen war, a contract it inked in 2017. (Now known as BCW, the firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) One of Gottheimer’s earliest fundraisers in 2015 was hosted by Don Baer, an ex-Clinton aide who replaced Penn as CEO of Burson-Marsteller.
“When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.”
Gottheimer, a Harvard Law graduate, left Burson-Marsteller to work as a lawyer at the Federal Communications Commission in June 2010, and has remained close to Penn. In 2012, Microsoft hired Penn to build a guerrilla PR shop to battle rival Google in Washington, and Penn plucked Gottheimer from the FCC to join him. Gottheimer later became a consultant with the Stagwell Group, a Penn-owned private equity firm, according to a 2017 financial disclosure. Between 2015 and 2017, while Gottheimer was consulting for Stagwell, Saudi Arabia paid Targeted Victory, a digital company owned by Stagwell, more than $1 million to spread pro-Saudi information on Twitter. “The Congressman has never done any work for Saudi Arabia,” said Adams, Gottheimer’s spokesperson.
In Washington, a handful of law and lobbying outfits are registered as agents on behalf of Saudi Arabia. In the last election cycle, Gottheimer was among the top recipients of cash from those firms’ lobbyists and lawyers, taking in more than $20,000 from them in 2017 and 2018, according to Ben Freeman, an analyst at the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.
That makes Gottheimer one of the top 20 biggest recipients of Saudi agent cash in either party, but that number is deceptive, as the rest of the list includes party leaders and veterans. “Almost everyone ahead of him was either up for Senate reelection or part of Party leadership. And he actually pulled more money from Saudi foreign agents than even some Senators up for re-election,” such as former Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly, Freeman wrote in an email. Nobody as junior as Gottheimer comes anywhere close.
In 2016, Gottheimer flipped a northern New Jersey congressional seat that had been in Republican hands for more than two decades, representing a slew of Wall Street commuters, as well as more rural areas to the west. He played up his close ties to the Israel lobby, noting that he was a member of the most prominent Jewish fraternity in college and active with both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and NORPAC. Donors connected to NORPAC, which advocates for Israeli interests, made up his largest source of campaign cash in the last cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s been a regular speaker at AIPAC’s annual conference and led the charge in the Democratic caucus to have Omar, D-Minn., condemned by her colleagues on the House floor for what he said were anti-Semitic remarks.
His ties to Penn have followed Gottheimer to Congress, where he co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus, which was established by the dark-money group No Labels, which Jacobson and Penn launched in 2010. (Jacobson still runs it, and Penn advises on strategy.)
No Labels launched “The Speaker Project” in June 2018, aimed at expanding the power of a small group of centrists if Democrats took power in the House of Representatives. The project pushed for a rules change that would give a clear path to a floor vote for any legislation that met a certain threshold of bipartisanship. It’s easy for K Street to round up small bipartisan groups, meaning the reform, if passed, would effectively hand control of the floor to corporate interests. “There’s a problem-solvers group that is looking to have some influence, if the result is close, in terms of changing the rules and naming the speaker,” Penn said in September on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News.
Meanwhile, No Labels deliberated making Pelosi, who was running for speakership, a “boogeyman” in its communications strategy, but ultimately decided against doing so. No Labels Chief Strategist Ryan Clancy argued that the time wasn’t right. The outfit “is probably going to go to war with Pelosi. And it probably should,” Clancy wrote in an email, published by The Daily Beast. “I don’t know that now is the time to do it, especially when we have a perfectly good villain to use in Bernie [Sanders].”
Gottheimer attempted to execute The Speaker Project in the run-up to the new Congress, organizing the Problem Solvers Caucus to withhold support from Pelosi. She made modest concessions and beat back his effort.
Gottheimer is showing no signs of receding into the background.
But Gottheimer is showing no signs of receding into the background. In the first quarter of 2019, he raised an astounding $830,000, almost none of it from small donors, giving him some $5 million cash on hand. Aside from the campaign cash he rakes in from the pro-Israel and pro-Saudi lobbies, he cultivates Wall Street openly. The tendency was on unusually obsequious display at an April Financial Services Committee hearing, where the CEOs of America’s major banks testified, including JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan, Goldman Sachs’s David Solomon, Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, and Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat.
At the hearing, titled “Holding Megabanks Accountable,” Waters, the committee chair, showed a rotating series of slides highlighting anti-social bank practices. When it was Gottheimer’s turn to question the bankers, he borderline apologized to them.
Thank you all for being here today and for your work and for what you do for New Jersey. I’m very grateful. I wish we had also put up slides earlier today that looked more like this. One about how many jobs your firms have created, or slides showing how many entrepreneurs and small- and minority-owned businesses have been supported by your institutions. Or slides showing how many pensions and 401ks and homes and other finances you’ve helped people secure. Your firms currently employ more than a million people. You’ve doubled your small-business loans in the last decade from $44 billion to $86 billion, including supporting small businesses in my district to the tune of $471 million. Making the dream of homeownership possible, your firms have originated $1.8 billion in home mortgages in my district alone and I’m grateful. Unfortunately, there’s no slide up there about that either.
His questioning was no less fawning: “Mr. Dimon, can you describe some of the work that your firm has done in the small-business lending arena and how those loans are helping to facilitate small-business growth?”
Tlaib, sitting in front of Gottheimer at the hearing, was startled. “I had to pause because he was on our side of the aisle,” she said. “I was taken aback by his strong stance for megabanks. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t undermine the leadership of the committee.”
Gottheimer’s entire strategy in his effort against the Yemen resolution relied on a quirk of parliamentary procedure. The following account of his behind-the-scenes maneuvering is based on interviews with more than a dozen members of Congress, Hill staffers, and advocates who worked on the resolution. Bear with us as we hack through the legislative weeds where this battle played out.
In February, when the Yemen resolution was on its way to the House floor, the American Civil Liberties Union declared that it would oppose the measure if it did not include language specifying that the bill would not give legal cover to the U.S. drone war in Yemen. The ACLU’s concerns were rooted in the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which was passed after 9/11 and was interpreted by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations as permission to wage war anywhere Al Qaeda or its affiliates are active. The ACLU wanted it made clear that the Yemen resolution did not bless that interpretation, so Jim McGovern, chair of the Rules Committee, introduced an amendment to that effect.
Republicans were also given a shot at one amendment. Put forward by Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., they proposed blowing a hole in the resolution by tweaking it so that it didn’t bar the U.S. from sharing intelligence that could assist Saudi bombers with targeting.
The fight came to the House floor on February 13, and Gottheimer approached Democratic leadership to warn them that he was against the McGovern amendment and had enough votes to take it down. Leadership huddled and pulled the amendment from the floor, rather than risk having it voted down.
That left the Buck amendment, which passed with the support of Gottheimer and 56 other Democrats. The resolution was hobbled, but still barred the U.S. from providing midair refueling, deploying ground troops or advisers, or providing any other assistance with the war.
The next obstacle for House Democrats was what’s known as a motion to recommit. It’s a chance for the minority party — in this case, Republicans — to attach something to the bill. Minority parties use these motions for mischief, to try to make the opposition take difficult votes, but because it’s a procedural formality, members of the majority are good at ignoring them and voting no.
This time, however, Democrats took the bait. The Republican motion was aimed at something that would be difficult for Democrats to ignore: boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or BDS, the Palestinian-led movement to pressure Israel to respect international law with regard to its ongoing occupation of Palestine. The bill’s advocates suspected Gottheimer, who works closely with Republicans, had a hand in the party’s choice of motion to recommit.
The resolution read in part:
Because it is important to the national security interest of the United States to maintain strong bipartisan support for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, all attempts to delegitimize and deny Israel’s right to exist must be denounced and rejected. It is in the national security interest of the United States to oppose restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any foreign country against other countries friendly to the United States or against any United States person.
Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a vocal opponent of BDS, had just a few minutes to decide how to recommend the party vote. He made a snap judgment to support the measure. Nearly all House Democrats oppose BDS anyway — only Tlaib and Omar are official supporters — so it was seen as an innocuous addition to the resolution, even if it gave the GOP a minor win. It passed unanimously, with even Tlaib and Omar voting yes.
The seemingly harmless vote had a real procedural consequence. Under congressional rules, resolutions brought under the War Powers Act are “privileged,” meaning that there must be a floor vote on them. When the Yemen resolution moved from the House to the Senate in February, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the extraneous language around anti-Semitism meant that the bill had become routine and was therefore “de-privileged.” This allowed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to choose whether to bring it to the floor. Unsurprisingly, he chose not to.
The process had to start over. Sanders, who was the lead sponsor in the Senate, reintroduced the resolution in March, and the Senate amended it to include a version of the Buck amendment. Pushed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the amendment clarified that the resolution did not bar “the sharing of intelligence between the United States and any coalition partner if the President determines such sharing is appropriate and in the national security interests of the United States.”
Now that Gottheimer knew that BDS could be a silver bullet against the Yemen resolution, he went to work organizing support for it behind the scenes.
Now that Gottheimer knew that BDS could be a silver bullet against the Yemen resolution, he went to work organizing support for it behind the scenes. Claiming that he had “the votes in my pocket,” he approached Democratic leadership and threatened to take it down on the floor. He would only allow it to pass, he said, if Majority Whip Steny Hoyer agreed to hold a vote the same day on an anti-BDS bill sponsored by Rubio in the Senate.
Hoyer is a fierce opponent of BDS and a vocal advocate for Israel and, often, Saudi Arabia. He leads a biannual congressional delegation to Israel and called out Omar in a fiery speech at AIPAC’s annual conference, which came just as the Yemen debate was coming to a head. But Hoyer was all-in on the Yemen war resolution, so much so that his statement in the wake of its passage read like an apology for his effort to Saudi Arabia. (Following the vote, he issued a wildly ahistorical statement that didn’t mention Saudi Arabia and claimed that the conflict was truly being driven by Iran: “The Houthis and their Iranian sponsors are primarily responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe. The international community must continue working to end this civil war that Iran and the Houthis launched and persist in waging at the expense of innocent civilians.”)
As the April vote approached, Gottheimer told Khanna that if he, along with Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., and Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., would denounce BDS and support his play for the Rubio bill, he would back off his threat to take down the Yemen resolution.
Gottheimer spoke with Khanna partly because Khanna was the bill’s lead author, but also because the New Jersey representative despises Pocan, a feeling that is widely known in the caucus to be mutual. Khanna took the proposal to the CPC chairs. In prior years, a weaker progressive caucus would likely have folded, tossing its two BDS supporters under the bus. But after deliberating, they decided to reject the overture and told Gottheimer that they’d be demanding a clean vote on the resolution, and a no on the motion to recommit. No deal.
Gottheimer may have prevailed had two forces — Hoyer and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, unaccustomed to being in full alignment — not come together to resist his effort. Khanna, vice chair of the CPC, and McGovern, chair of the Rules Committee, convened a meeting of the war opponents to find a way past Gottheimer. Two unimpeachable supporters of Israel, Max Rose, D-N.Y., and Ted Deutch, D-Fla., agreed to counter the anti-Semitism card Gottheimer was trying to play and pledged their opposition to the Republican motion to recommit, no matter how cleverly it was written and deployed.
Having refused to negotiate with Gottheimer, the CPC pushed forward on a vote. On the morning of April 2, a Tuesday, Hoyer spoke to the full Democratic caucus and urged them strongly not to join Gottheimer in voting for the motion to recommit. A vote was scheduled for Thursday, and Hoyer pressed Gottheimer to drop his pledge to support the Republican motion and tank the resolution. Hoyer explained to Gottheimer that Republicans wouldn’t stop after Yemen. The GOP, Hoyer cautioned, could attach BDS language to any bill Democrats brought to the floor, for as long as Democrats were in the majority.
Gottheimer was unmoved. The morning of the vote, Hoyer called a meeting of the whip team, in charge of rounding up support. “I need your attention,” he said. “No, seriously, I need your attention,” Hoyer said forcefully, getting what he asked for.
Gottheimer may have prevailed, had not two forces unaccustomed to being in full alignment come together to resist his effort.
With no cameras present, he delivered perhaps the most impassioned speech he had made behind closed doors — even according to people there who are often skeptical of Hoyer. He argued that millions of people were facing starvation as a result of the U.S.-backed war, and Democrats had a “moral responsibility” to do everything in their power to end it. Then he turned to the Gottheimer-led effort. Voting for the motion to recommit, he said, would betray the party and effectively hand control of the floor to Republicans. Hoyer noted (with some accuracy) that nobody in Congress is a stronger supporter of the Jewish state than he is. But no matter what language Republicans stuck into the motion, he said, Democrats must vote it down.
Khanna and Deutch spoke as well, presenting a united front against the motion. On the floor, Hoyer delivered another strong speech. “The American people will not be fooled or misled by this tactic. Our fellow supporters of Israel will not be fooled,” he said. “The vote on this motion is a vote to kill this bill through a cynical and dishonest tactic. So let’s move past this charade of a motion. Let’s stop playing games with this very important and serious issue in support of Israel. Reject ‘gotcha’ politics.”
He called Gottheimer’s bluff. As the votes were tallied, only four Democrats voted with Gottheimer: Jeff Van Drew, a machine politician and freshman from New Jersey; Elaine Luria, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-recruited former naval commander; New York freshman Anthony Brindisi; and South Carolina freshman Joe Cunningham. Brindisi, Cunningham, and Van Drew are among the 24 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus. All but Luria are members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, of which Brindisi is a co-chair.
Asked about his effort to combine BDS and the Yemen resolution, Gottheimer’s spokesperson Adams said, “To be clear, the Congressman feels we need to immediately pull out of Yemen and has voted multiple times to end U.S. involvement in the disastrous conflict in Yemen. Hard stop. The Congressman continues to stand up against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, which is reflected in his consistent stand against the discriminatory BDS movement.”
After losing the vote on the motion to recommit, Gottheimer turned around and voted to support the resolution. Even if he, on principle, simply couldn’t countenance any vote that gave any quarter to BDS, no matter how gimmicky, critics say there had to have been more at play. Voting one’s conscience is one thing; organizing colleagues to take down a resolution, and boasting of having the votes to do so, is another. “There was more here than just a vote,” said Miles of Win Without War, “and he owes people an explanation.”
Madeline Trimble, a steering committee member for the main Indivisible chapter in Gottheimer’s district, said that local activists’ hard work to elect a Democrat in the seat wasn’t paying off. “Many of our members actively supported Josh Gottheimer’s re-election efforts because we believe in the Democratic Party platform. Some of us are concerned that sometimes it seems like Congressman Gottheimer is working at odds with that platform,” she said. “We understand this is a purple district and we’re not expecting an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in NJ-5; we just want him to meet us halfway and act like a normal Democrat who believes in the party.”
Ryan Grim is the author of the book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement, available for pre-order as an e-book and in paperback.