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Trump’s tweet derails House bill opposed by lobbyist with close White House ties

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/8/2019 Mike DeBonis, Felicia Sonmez, Josh Dawsey
Matt Schlapp et al. in a dark suit: CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp stands as President Trump speaks at a CPAC event in March. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post) © J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp stands as President Trump speaks at a CPAC event in March. (J. Lawler Duggan for The Washington Post)

President Trump on Wednesday helped derail a bipartisan casino bill opposed by a key White House ally after tying the measure to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading Democratic candidate vying to challenge him in 2020.

The intervention by Trump, contained in a morning tweet, eroded Republican support and prompted House Democrats to postpone a vote on the measure, which would pave the way for a new Massachusetts tribal casino.

The bill, H.R. 312, would confirm the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s sovereignty over 321 acres of land — including the Taunton, Mass., site eyed for the casino project. It was scheduled for a House vote Wednesday under expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds majority to pass, reflecting its broad support.

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But opponents, including Rhode Island lawmakers, have argued that the bill would harm the business of two neighboring casinos across the state line. A key Trump ally, American Conservative Union chairman Matthew Schlapp, is lobbying for Twin River Management Group, which operates both Rhode Island casinos. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is the White House strategic communications director. 

In a Wednesday morning tweet that blindsided lawmakers of both parties, Trump urged Republicans to oppose the measure.

“Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren,” Trump said, deploying a nickname he has frequently used to deride the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. “It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”

Warren co-sponsored a similar 2018 bill introduced by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), but there is no Senate legislation pertaining to the tribe pending in the current Congress. The House bill, introduced by Rep. William R. Keating (D-Mass.), has the support of 15 Democratic co-sponsors, including the entire Massachusetts delegation, as well as six Republicans.

The singular focus on Warren appeared to reflect a strategy embraced by Schlapp, who focused on the senator in a Wednesday morning tweet and an email he sent Tuesday to Republicans on Capitol Hill.

“Potentially giving her a win on such an issue is a real head scratcher,” Schlapp wrote in the email obtained by The Washington Post. It linked to a February story on a conservative website headlined “Warren’s Casino Fiasco.”

In a brief phone interview, Schlapp asked for questions to be texted to him but did not respond to a text or a subsequent phone call. Schlapp is well-known in Washington Republican circles as the lead organizer of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. A Warren spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

According to a person familiar with the circumstances surrounding the tweet, Trump was happy to attack the project once he learned it was a key priority for Warren. He agreed to send the tweet Tuesday evening, though it was not posted until the next morning, a senior White House official said.

But conservative opposition to the bill was brewing even before Trump’s tweet. White House officials have whipped against the vote in recent days — pointing to objections from the Interior Department, which in 2017 reversed a land decision, prompting the need for legislation.

Two prominent Republican lawmakers — Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Rules Committee and a supporter of the tribal legislation, and Rep. Gary Palmer (Ala.), chairman of the party policy committee and an opponent of the bill — sparred in a Tuesday night leadership meeting and again in a Wednesday morning GOP conference meeting. But Trump’s tweet appeared to seal its fate: House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) canceled plans for a vote less than two hours later.

“You get a little racist tweet from the president, and it creates a backwards stampede of people on the Republican side that previously indicated they were voting yes,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “The lobbyist for CPAC did a lot of sabotage in the last few days on this issue, and made it a conservative vs. Democrat issue when it’s not.”

A Democratic aide said the Mashpee bill probably will get a vote next week under different procedures requiring only a simple majority to pass.

Cole, a leading GOP voice on Native American issues, said Trump’s tweet was the “precipitating factor” for the bills getting pulled Wednesday and disputed the notion that the bill ought to be dismissed by Republicans because of Warren’s apparent support.

“The communities in the area want it. The state is on record wanting it. Every member of the Massachusetts delegation wants it. Why should we be intervening in a state like that when there is unanimity?” he said. “The real conflict here is between private gaming interests that don’t want Native American competition.”

Cole said he was not aware of Schlapp’s specific involvement in lobbying against the bill or whether he played a role in getting Trump to tweet about it. “I don’t think he knows very much about Indian issues,” Cole said of Schlapp.

Democrats were happy to highlight Schlapp’s possible role while bemoaning the vote’s cancellation Wednesday.

“It is also not lost on anybody that a lobbyist for the Rhode Island casino seems to have a very tight relationship with the White House,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who represents the area eyed for the casino project. “It’s sad. The consequence of this is going to be that the tribe that greeted the Pilgrims gets hurt once again by the U.S. government.”

The bill did, if only briefly, create some strange bedfellows between Trump and the all-Democratic Rhode Island delegation — whose members have worked against the Massachusetts casino plan for months.

“All I’m going to say is, I’m glad the bill was pulled from the floor today for a variety of reasons,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.). “I don’t know the president’s interest or reasoning completely. I’m not going to comment on that.”

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who spent much of Wednesday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing lambasting Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr, declined to comment on Schlapp’s potential influence on the president.

He pointed instead to the lobbying done by the Mashpee tribe’s foreign investment partners: “There’s been tremendous lobbying on behalf of a Malaysian hedge fund. I’m very concerned about the level of lobbying.”

mike.debonis@washpost.com

felicia.sonmez@washpost.com

josh.dawsey@washpost.com

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