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Maine GOP candidates jump to Trump's defense after the FBI raids Mar-a-Lago

Police direct traffic outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump said in a lengthy statement that the FBI was conducting a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate and asserted that agents had broken open a safe.
Terry Renna
Police direct traffic outside an entrance to former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump said in a lengthy statement that the FBI was conducting a search of his Mar-a-Lago estate and asserted that agents had broken open a safe.

In this week’s Pulse: Maine GOP candidates jump to Trump's defense after FBI raids Mar-a-Lago, House readies IRA vote, insulin relief, climate provisions impacting Maine, and leftovers from the notebook.

Maine Republican candidates have been mostly silent about former President Donald Trump as he faces sweeping legal and congressional scrutiny, including a probe into his business practices, his role in stoking the Jan. 6 insurrection, efforts to pressure Georgia officials to overturn that state’s presidential election results and how 15 boxes of White House records — some highly classified — ended up at his residence in Palm Beach, Florida.

But several candidates and the Maine GOP joined their national counterparts in rushing to Trump’s defense when news broke earlier this week that the FBI executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago in an apparent escalation of the investigation into Trump’s ongoing records dispute with the National Archives.

Very little is known about the FBI’s search except it was legally obtained by the Department of Justice’s national security division and authorized by a federal judge. FBI agents are required to leave behind the search warrant and an inventory of seized items, but Trump hasn’t released that information and the DOJ has a longstanding policy of rarely commenting on an ongoing investigation.

However, in a statement Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that he signed off on the search and that he is filing a motion to unseal the warrant. The Washington Post, quoting a source familiar with the investigation, later reported that the search sought documents related to nuclear weapons.

The unsealing of the warrant could fill gaps in proceedings marked by a scarcity of concrete facts. Trump and his allies have rushed to fill that void in the media ecosystem with incendiary rhetoric that attacked the FBI, its motives and suggestions that search was engineered by President Joe Biden.

This is an aerial view of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. The FBI searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, people familiar with the matter said Monday.
Steve Helber
This is an aerial view of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. The FBI searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate as part of an investigation into whether he took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, people familiar with the matter said Monday.

Former Gov. Paul LePage, a vocal Trump supporter who is running for a third, nonconsecutive term against Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, echoed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in comparing the raid to actions of a “banana republic” (Others have argued that nobody should be above the law in a functioning democracy, including former leaders.)

LePage suggested to WABI-TVthat these sorts of things are “normally dealt with by lawyers to lawyers calling each other up and bringing the boxes in.”

The National Archives reportedly asked the DOJ to investigate Trump’s handling of the records earlier this year after he failed to turn them over and after a grand jury issued a subpoena in May.

Nevertheless, LePage said, “This year, they make a big deal and their lights are a blaring. It’s like he’s a murderer. This is not what America is about. This is not the Constitution of the United States. We’re being taken over by the oligarchs, the elitists . . .”

Former GOP Congressman Bruce Poliquin, who is also running again for his old seat in the 2nd Congressional District, joined other Republicans in raising the specter of political collusion between Biden, the attorney general and the Justice Department. He then parlayed that into a reason to support him in November over incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden or independent Tiffany Bond.

“If the voters of Maine send me back to Congress, I will push for an investigation into what is really happening here,” he said in a statement. “We clearly need change in Washington.”

From a pure politician accountability standard, Poliquin’s statement is a sharp departure from one he made in 2016 when he railed against the DOJ’s decision not to prosecute former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified materials while she was the U.S. Secretary of State.

“Today, we learned the FBI’s investigations yielded alarming findings about Secretary Clinton’s ‘extremely careless’ mishandling of top secret information, as Director Comey stated,” Poliquin said at the time. “We learned for a fact that Secretary Clinton broke the rules and repeatedly used private email for top secret emails while ‘in the territory of sophisticated adversaries.’ These actions put her in a situation to compromise our national security as our Secretary of State. That is plainly unacceptable. The American People deserve to have leaders that are held accountable for their actions — it is as simple as that.”

Poliquin wasn’t alone in the about-face. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy vowed an investigation into the Mar-a-Lago search if the GOP can reclaim a majority in November, telling Garland, who oversees the DOJ and FBI, to “preserve records and clear your calendar.” In 2016, McCarthy cheered the FBI’s decision shortly before the 2016 election to reopen its investigation of Clinton's private email server. (The FBI probe into Clinton was also repeatedly championed by Trump, including during a rally in Lisbon shortly before the 2016 election.)

There’s also been a glaring electoral message in McCarthy and other Republicans’ rhetoric about the FBI search.

“This raid should be a wake-up call for every American,” Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted. “We can only stop this unprecedented madness if we elect Republicans in November!”

Rallying around Trump’s apparent legal jeopardy during an election year in which the GOP was widely believed to have messaging advantages about an inflation-beset economy raises a lot of questions.

After all, Trump’s deeds are not viewed sympathetically by most Americans. A midsummer poll commissioned by NPR found that a majority of respondents blame him for the Jan. 6 insurrection, while a survey commissioned by the Associated Press found about half of respondents think he should be prosecuted for it.

Those same surveys found that Republican voters have a distinctly different view of Trump’s actions, which is why he’s still considered the standard bearer of the party and expected to announce another run for the presidency. However, there’s also a subset of voters who are uniquely devoted to Trump, but apparently not much else the GOP has to offer. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal last year found that Trump turned out millions of new voters in 2020, but it also questioned whether those voters will show up for this year’s midterm elections without him on the ballot.

That, as well as speculation that Democrats’ once-gloomy electoral fortunes might be improving, might explain the decision by GOP candidates to cast Trump as the victim and themselves as his saviors.

House readies IRA vote

Democrats continued to tout the Senate passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a broad climate and health proposal that resurrected part of Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda.

The House is expected to vote on the IRA Friday and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she has the votes to send it to Biden for his signature. It’s already clear that Democratic 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is one of them.

Golden had not yet said if he’ll vote for the bill as of Thursday afternoon.

Pingree, meanwhile, has been touting the bill’s climate and health care provisions on Twitter.

“The Inflation Reduction Act will cap seniors’ out-of-pocket spending for prescription drugs at $2,000 per year,” she tweeted earlier this week. “That's just one reason why I am voting yes!”

Pingree’s praise of the cap on prescription drugs for seniors was shared by independent U.S. Sen. Angus King, who described the provision as working in tandem with another allowing Medicare to leverage its buying power to negotiate the price it pays for prescription drugs.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins joined her GOP colleagues in opposing the bill, criticizing the price tag of “another reckless spending bill that will further fan the flames” of inflation. She also asserted that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Democrats enacted via party line votes last year “triggered inflation.” The contributory effect of the American Rescue Plan on inflation is complicated; some economists agree that it’s played a role, but just how much is disputed because there were other contributing factors including high energy prices and pandemic disruptions in labor markets and supply chains. Additionally, the United States isn’t the only country experiencing inflation.

Insulin relief

Republican senators blocked a provision in the IRA that would have capped the price of insulin at $35 a month for many of the 8.4 million Americans with diabetes.

A similar cap already exists for the roughly 100,000 Mainers who rely on insulin to treat their diabetes thanks to a law passed by the Legislature and signed by Mills in 2020 after she testified in support of it.

The Maine law easily cleared the Legislature without so much as a roll call vote. However, the push for a federal version in Congress has been entangled in electoral politics as well as legitimate policy disagreements over capping co-pays on a drug that nearly tripled in price between 2002 and 2013, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The political dispute took center stage during a series of votes last weekend on the IRA as Democrats used a procedure known as reconciliation to push the climate and health care bill over the finish line with neither Republican support nor the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster. However, the insulin provision required 60 votes because of a ruling by the Senate parliamentarian. Most Senate Republicans then voted to block it. Seven others, including Collins, who is cosponsoring a separate insulin bill, voted to advance it.

The result was that the co-pay cap remained in the IRA for patients on Medicare, but not commercial insurance.

An insulin co-pay cap for those with commercial insurance isn’t dead yet. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly plans to introduce it as a standalone measure later this year. It’s not yet clear if that bill will be the one sponsored by Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, or the one co-sponsored by Collins and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Warnock, who is expected to face a tough reelection fight this year, has the backing of a slew of Senate Democrats, including Schumer. King is also co-sponsoring Warnock’s bill.

Climate provisions impacting Maine

The IRA has been hailed by Democrats and some environmentalists as a “game changer” thanks, in large part, to the historic $369 billion investment in climate programs.

Some of that money will likely help climate initiatives in Maine, such as the transition to solar energy and electric heat pumps, while others will have bigger impacts in other states.

Much of the money goes toward tax incentives, whether for homeowners, car buyers or manufacturers. Details are still emerging about the complex bill. But it is clear that some initiatives would dovetail with, or expand upon, programs already in use in Maine.

For instance, the bill contains $4.5 billion in rebates for low- to moderate-income households to install heat pumps or other efficient, electric appliances. According to the nonprofit Rewiring America, which advocates for “electrifying everything in our communities,” a low-income household could qualify for up to $8,000 to cover the full cost of a heat pump installation plus smaller rebates for other appliances. Moderate-income households could receive rebates covering 50 percent of the costs.

Maine already offers rebate programs for heat pumps and the new programs in the IRA seem likely to build upon them, although it’s unclear how at this point.

The $30 billion to accelerate U.S. production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries may eventually benefit Maine consumers in the form of lower-priced technology but Maine doesn’t have any major manufacturing plants for those technologies. That said, the bill contains $10 billion to build such facilities.

Delving into the details, some incentives have restrictions or will only be triggered when something else happens.

Take, for example, the much-hyped $7,500 tax credit for people who purchase a new electric vehicle (or $4,000 credit for a used EV). The income caps in the bill, $150,000 individual/$300,000 for filing jointly, won’t disqualify too many Mainers given that the state’s median household income was around $59,500 last year.

But EVs are still fairly uncommon on Maine roads, with only about 5,500 vehicles registered as of late last year. Maine’s climate action plan, adopted under Gov. Mills, has a goal of 219,000 EVs by 2030.

A big part of that discrepancy is obviously the higher price that comes with those big batteries, with the cheapest models costing under $30,000 but most sedans and SUVs starting above $40,000. And then there is the issue of charging station infrastructure, which the Mills administration is expanding but is still lacking in many rural areas.

Leftovers from the notebook

  • Golden released his first campaign ad of the year. It contains a heavy focus on his “independent” voting streak and touts his willingness to stand-up to Democratic leaders.  
  • The campaign that’s hoping to convince voters to replace Central Maine Power and Versant Power with a consumer-owned utility said last week that it’s close to getting the signatures needed to put the proposal on the 2023 ballot. The Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, announced in July that it’s opposing the referendum. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine this week announced that it’s also opposing the referendum.
  • Absentee ballots won’t be available until 30 days before the Nov. 8 election, but voters can begin requesting them now. They can do that via the Secretary of State website, or by contacting their town or city clerk. Ballots must be received by town or city clerks by 8 p.m. Election Day. Maine has a no-excuse absentee ballot law.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.