‘Arguably the most desperate act I’ve ever seen a sitting member of Congress do’

- Mei 02, 2018

There are two massive portraits of President Donald Trump behind the bar at Grant City Tavern. The first is a framed photograph. The second, a painting by a popular local artist, features the president from the waist up, his head superimposed on the body of a muscular man with his bulging arms folded across his chest, wearing a tight muscle T-shirt that says “POTUS 45.” Next week, the bartender says, the tavern is hosting a “Lesbians for Trump” event.

Welcome to the East Shore of Staten Island. This is Trump country, and the president is playing a central role in what might be the nastiest Republican congressional primary in America.

Almost without exception, Republican Party leaders on Staten Island, in New York City and in Washington have thrown their weight behind Rep. Dan Donovan. They don’t like Michael Grimm, the former congressman who’s trying to win back his old seat after serving eight months in prison for tax fraud.

Grimm, a fast-talking former FBI agent elected to New York’s 11th Congressional District in 2010, amassed a centrist record in his two terms in office. Now he’s making a comeback as a Trump-style populist, challenging Donovan’s record of loyalty to the president.

There are signs it’s working in a district that Trump carried over Hillary Clinton by 25,000 votes — the only district in the city that Trump won. Grimm is still popular here, particularly among residents who remember his omnipresence after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc there in late 2012.


He has roughly half as much money as Donovan — who had nearly $740,000 on hand as of late March — but the National Republican Congressional Committee is concerned enough about Grimm’s chances that last week it designated Donovan one of three incumbent House members in the “Primary Patriots Program,” which raises money for incumbents facing strong primary challengers.

Donovan himself is leaving nothing to chance: Last month, after a constituent noticed that her local post office wasn’t displaying photographs of the president and vice president as it had done during Barack Obama’s two terms in office, Donovan proposed legislation to require post offices to mount photographs of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence inside their buildings. He appeared on “Fox & Friends,” one of the president’s favorite television programs, to tout the legislation.

“Now he’s in a primary, he’s suddenly pro-Trump,” Grimm said. “It was arguably the most desperate act I’ve ever seen a sitting member of Congress do. But it was also the funniest.”


“Honestly, when he was on Fox, holding up those pictures, like a kid at show and tell, it was the first time I actually felt bad for him. I did. I actually felt that, he’s embarrassing himself. And I’ve known Dan for years. He’s embarrassing himself,” he said.

Donovan has never been one of the president’s loudest cheerleaders — he announced he’d stick by the “imperfect choice” of Trump after the “Access Hollywood“ tape was released shortly before the 2016 election. But since then, he’s worked hard to show his support and he’s voted in line with the president’s position 84.5 percent of the time.

After being critical of previous Trump administration efforts to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities like New York because they would cut federal aid to police departments, Donovan recently proposed his own legislation that would cut federal aid to sanctuary cities, while carving out the New York Police Department.

In the first radio ad his campaign released last week, a voice-over proclaims, “As your former District Attorney, Dan Donovan believes in law and order, which is why Dan Donovan is working with President Trump to build a wall and deport dangerous illegal immigrant gang members. Dan Donovan stands tough with Donald Trump.”

Trump isn’t the sole focus of the primary. With a little less than two months to go before the Republican primary, the race has spiraled into a smash-mouth contest featuring name-calling, accusations of dirty tricks, lies and dishonesty. Grimm has taken to calling Donovan “Desperate Dan” or “Dishonest Dan.” Donovan recently released radio ads referring to Grimm as the “convict congressman.”

“My opponent set the tone,” Donovan told POLITICO in an interview recently. “This is my seventh run and I’ve never had a race like this before, where an opponent dragged someone’s family into the race.”


Donovan was referring to a complaint made to the Office of Congressional Ethics claiming that Donovan intervened in the 2015 arrest of Timothy O’Connell, the son of Donovan’s fiancee, Serena Stonick. Donovan strenuously denied the charge and believes Grimm is behind the complaint, because only congressional insiders would know to file a complaint with the little-known OCE.

“It’s just utterly disgusting that he would drag this young man’s life into the public when he’s struggling,” Donovan said.

“People are fragile when they’re going through recovery. And this young man was doing really well and now he’s distraught, he’s ashamed of himself,” he said. “Dragging that out for a political gain it’s disgusting is what it is, and their camp should be ashamed of themselves.”

“I never filed that complaint and I don't know who did,” Grimm told POLITICO.

Donovan has also accused Grimm’s campaign of trying to get him kicked off the New York state Reform Party’s ballot line on a technicality by tinkering with petition signatures his campaign submitted to the Board of Elections. Grimm freely acknowledges that someone from his campaign messed with Donovan’s petitions. He argued Donovan’s campaign and the Reform Party should have known better than to leave their petitions unguarded at the BOE.

Donovan’s campaign called the maneuver a “dirty trick.”

“They’re morons,” Grimm said in response.

Staten Island Reform Party Chairman Frank Morano told POLITICO he believes the incident was “a deliberate attempt at fraud and filing of a false instrument by a Grimm campaign operative.”

The New York City Board of Elections voted Tuesday to keep Donovan on the Reform Party line and referred the case to local and federal prosecutors.

“I didn't know about it until after it happened. If you would have told me he was doing it, I would have told him not to because it’s just not worth it because I don't really like to play petty little games,” Grimm said of his campaign worker's meddling with Donovan's signatures.

“But now, after the attacks that have been coming out, I’m glad they did it.”


In the last week, Donovan’s campaign has been hitting back at Grimm just as hard, running a 60-second radio ad that begins with a recitation of Grimm’s inmate number from his time in prison and focuses on his criminal record. Grimm said he’d spoken to an attorney about suing Donovan for defamation over the ads, which he said misstate the nature of his conviction and the size of an outstanding tax bill he is negotiating with New York state.

“He’s the one getting nasty,” Grimm said of Donovan.

Grimm is trying to draw new parallels between his own felony conviction and the current investigation into Trump, tapping a growing vein of distrust among Republicans of the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Although Grimm pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud stemming from his hiring of undocumented immigrants at a Manhattan restaurant he once held a part-ownership stake in, he has long maintained publicly that the investigation was politically motivated. In interviews, he’s repeated this explanation: that his conviction was part of a deal former Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch made in order to be nominated as attorney general.

Grimm said his felony conviction has “made me more conservative.”

“You don't realize how precious your rights are under the Constitution until they’ve been deprived. So, you know, I used to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Now I realize how it’s so easy for them to abuse their power,” he said.

He drew parallels between his own experience and Trump supporters’ criticisms of the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I gotta say this, I feel ... validated. Not vindicated, but validated that I called out this three years ago, that there was political corruption at the highest levels of DOJ and the FBI,” he said.

That argument has Donovan walking a tightrope — trying to attack Grimm as a convicted felon, and defend Trump from a federal investigation, all without tacking so far right that he alienates the moderates he’ll need to win in a general election. He’s called on Grimm to release his tax returns, but said it was fine that Trump hadn’t.

He continues to insist Grimm is a Trump opportunist. During the 2016 campaign, the congressman says of his opponent, “he didn’t say a word of support for the president.”

“[Grimm] tried to associate himself with the president even with his taxes, but you know what? The president did disclose a lot of his financial interests,” Donovan said. “The president wasn’t convicted of federal tax fraud. The president didn’t get elected and then plead guilty after his election to get out from under a 20-count indictment. So there’s quite the difference between him and the president.”


 

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