The S.B.F. PAC Pickle, a New DeSantis, & Pompeo’s Doc Fetish

Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state.
Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
January 26, 2023

It’s become increasingly clear, after a midterm miracle, that Joe Biden is running for re-election, document controversy be damned. It’s a momentous decision that has set in motion countless other political dominoes, including the process of designating a super PAC of choice to bundle the donations and distribute the proceeds.

Becoming the anointed super PAC of a sitting president seeking re-election is a crowning achievement in political donor circles—there are millions and millions in fees to be made, after all. And as my colleague Teddy Schleifer and I first reported back in October, it seemed a tectonic changing of the guard was in store. Future Forward, the newish group backed heavily by Silicon Valley, appeared to be outpacing Priorities USA, the venerable Obama/Clinton-era PAC, which some in Biden’s inner circle believe is past its prime. The dynamic seemed to evidence the manifest destiny of Democratic fundraising, from D.C. to California, and of the desire among certain Washington insiders to make their mark on a more nimble operation. It also bore the fingerprints of Anita Dunn, Biden’s Zelig-like aide who has done consulting for the PAC in the past. (A source close to Bidenworld disputed that Dunn or White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, who is close to Priorities founder Guy Cecil, have charted out their preferred PACs.)

Since then, however, Future Forward has been tainted by its association with alleged ponzi-schemer Sam Bankman-Fried, who has given millions of dollars to the PAC. Other major political groups, including the House Majority PAC, the D.N.C., the D.C.C.C., the D.S.C.C., and the Senate Majority PAC, have all said they plan to return S.B.F.’s money. But Future Forward had not said publicly what it intends to do with the more than $10 million it accepted from S.B.F. and his businesses during the last presidential cycle, plus the nearly $2 million S.B.F. donated during the midterms. 

For months, rivals have used Future Forward’s silence on the issue to weaken its bid. Bankman-Fried may not have been the group’s biggest donor—that distinction goes to Dustin Moskovitz, the Facebook and Asana co-founder—but he was a major donor. And unlike other PACs that took his money, Future Forward is unique for taking its first check from S.B.F. way back during the 2020 cycle. The money from that check, of course, is now long gone, raising the question of how deep the PAC would have to dig to return those funds. When I contacted the group’s president, Chauncey McLean, he told me that Future Forward will cooperate with authorities, is “following the situation in real-time,” and is “prepared to return the funds from these donations, as the legal process warrants.” 

It seems safe to assume that Future Forward will have to return the tainted money that S.B.F. donated during 2022, at the very least. But will it also have to return his donations from the previous cycle, as some sort of purity test? Federal prosecutors allege that Bankman-Fried was engaged in fraud since the founding of FTX in 2019. When I reached back out to McLean for clarification, he said he would return all of the money, but it’s unclear if he meant that he would do so immediately or when compelled.  

As the Future Forward pickle suggests, presidential cycles are long and unpredictable. To wit, here’s a poll that the White House does not want you to see: Pete Buttigieg’s popularity in New Hampshire is actually growing, according to a University of New Hampshire survey. Back in July, Buttigieg edged out Biden by one point as top presidential candidate in 2024. This latest poll shows him edging out Biden by five points, 23 percent to 18 percent. In the same poll, Biden is tied with Elizabeth Warren and leads Bernie Sanders by three points. 

Obviously Biden isn’t getting primaried, and certainly not by a member of his administration, but it’s an unsettling data point. I’m sure it doesn’t help that there’s a general revolt in New Hampshire over Biden’s push to make South Carolina the first primary state, diminishing the pull and economic boon that comes every four years. But alas, political fortunes are made and destroyed in New Hampshire, and the 80-year-old candidate—who came in fifth in the state’s 2020 primary—doesn’t want to leave it up to chance. 

“DeSantis Without the MAGA”

Biden seems to be inching toward consolidating power at the very moment when more and more Republicans are looking themselves in the mirror and hallucinating presidential fantasies of their own. Or at least recognizing that a public flirtation can only help but elevate their profile as Trump returns to political gravity and uncertainty reigns about DeSantis’s national arithmetic. The latest potential curiosity case: Georgia governor Brian Kemp. Kemp’s approval rating is at an all time high, around 62 percent, according to a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, thanks to an economic rebound following Covid with 3 percent unemployment and G.D.P. growth of 7.5 percent annualized last quarter. That approval rating is up 20 points from January 2021, when Kemp enraged Trump via his refusal to magically procure more votes and overturn the election result.

Kemp inarguably benefitted from Trump’s early support, in 2018, but he’s now one of the rare candidates who could ascend a debate stage and credibly claim that he wasn’t made by Trump. Moreover, he’s already beaten him in a proxy race: Kemp defeated former senator David Perdue, Trump’s preferred candidate, by 50 points last fall. Unlike Liz Cheney, Kemp has become one of the few politicians who has been able to thread the needle of winning reelection as a Trump antagonist. That’s mainly because Kemp has not fought back, saying he would still accept a Trump endorsement during his re-election. “Governor Kemp has navigated the most complicated political waters possible for the better part of three years,” said Georgia G.O.P. strategist Scott Paradise. “He doesn’t let himself get distracted or sucked into drama.”

Could the white-glove strategy work? It’s unclear, but Kemp is certainly making all of the rumblings of a politician looking to enter the national stage. The latest example is this profile in Politico about his state’s E.V. car manufacturing boom, featuring a conspicuously vague response about his ambitions. (“My intention is to serve four more years,” he said.) Unlike the robotic DeSantis, Kemp is a real backslapping retail politician, like Glenn Younkin, but with a little more southern charm. It also helps that he’s twice beaten the Democrat’s bright shiny object, Stacy Abrams. As one Republican strategist explained to me, “He’s DeSantis without the MAGA. Donors and elites should love him, along with soft Rs, too. His issue would be the MAGA voters staying home in a general.” He did manage to get MAGA out in November in Georgia despite Trump’s offensive. 

In the meantime, another siren coming from New Hampshire, where another UNH poll shows DeSantis is the clear frontrunner among Republican primary candidates with 42 percent of respondents ranking him as their first choice over 30 percent who support Trump. Good news for Nikki Haley, after making the clearest indication that she’s planning to launch her campaign—she came in at 8 percent, trailed by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and Mike Pence at 4 percent.

Pompeo’s Classifieds

Everyday, it seems that another politician who claims they’ve never mishandled classified documents (Mike Pence, Biden, Trump) magically finds some classified documents in their house, garage, basement, office, etcetera, arousing suspicion and sometimes unwarranted and overblown newscycles. The classification of documents has become both a partisan issue and, notably, a bipartisan issue. When it’s your team, you must figure out why such a sloppy mistake was made. When it’s the other team, clearly they are selling state secrets and imperiling our assets! 

Well, there’s one 2024 hopeful who also had a strong affinity for overclassification during his time in the administration, who could very easily fall into the same classification trap ahead of his ’24 run. A longtime State Department official explained to me that he filed a complaint to the Office of Inspector General about Mike Pompeo’s rampant use of classification to stop the sort of embarrassing leaks that plagued the Trump administration. (I had heard about this problem years ago when I covered the department for ABC News.) This official told me: “Pompeo was actively telling his senior staff that every bit of paper that reached his desk had to be classified so it couldn’t be [turned over through a Freedom of Information Act request]. The rationale was: even if you copy/pasted a New York Times article, if you’re sending it to Pompeo, it should be by definition classified. The truth is they were drowning in leaks and wanted to be able to go after anyone speaking in the press with the threat of losing security clearances and jail time.” In fact, a memo the official wrote and attached to the complaint to the O.I.G.’s office came back to him with a higher classification after a political appointee reviewed it. “It went from unclassified to classified for no apparent reason,” the official said. 

Now, the logic goes, if Pompeo was classifying virtually all of his communication, it stands to reason that there’s a likelihood that he may have classified documents somewhere in his garage. I’ve asked Pompeo’s team if he has searched for any classified documents since leaving office, and if they’re found any. A spokesperson declined to comment. Pompeo said on Buck Sexton’s show on Tuesday, “I don’t believe I have anything that’s classified.”