The chatter about a House leadership post is gone. So is talk of statewide office. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, there’s no prospect of an administration job for Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
One year after the Florida congresswoman’s resignation as national party chair at the Democratic National Convention — where activists booed and shouted “shame!” at her during a Florida delegation breakfast speech — the once-rising star’s political fortunes continue to fade, beset by critics on all sides.
Wasserman Schultz is again on defense after steadfastly refusing to explain why she continued to employ Imran Awan, an IT staffer who was under a federal investigation for alleged equipment and data scam in the U.S. House since February. She finally fired him on July 25, one day after authorities arrested him on a seemingly unrelated mortgage fraud charge. He was at the airport leaving for Pakistan, after wiring $283,000 there.
The firing came a full six months after about two dozen House Democrats dismissed four of Awan’s relatives and a friend, all of whom were under investigation with him.
Wasserman Schultz broke her public silence on Awan last week, portraying herself as the victim of "right wing media" attacks rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry aimed at Awan and the IT group.
But fellow Democrats are as confounded and disbelieving as ever by her penchant for making puzzling and stubborn political missteps.
“We wish she would go away and stop being so public by doubling down on negative stories,” Nikki Barnes, a progressive DNC member from Florida, who believes Wasserman Schultz left the national party “in shambles” while chair, culminating with the hack of DNC servers and the release of embarrassing internal emails by WikiLeaks in the 2016 campaign. As for Wasserman Schultz’s defense, Barnes said “none of this makes sense. It doesn’t sound like racial profiling … there must have been something for her.”
The problem with the Awan case, Barnes said, is that it’s not just hurting the congresswoman. It’s drawing negative attention to a party still healing after last year’s shocking losses and the divisive Democratic primary when Wasserman Schultz appeared to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders.
“This adds to Debbie being re-branded as the Democrats’ disastrous destruction,” Barnes said. “Those of us on the DNC know we have to rebrand ourselves and earn the people’s trust. And unfortunately Debbie’s name does not scream trust. It screams power. It screams limited access. It screams WikiLeaks now. DNC lawsuit. It screams a lot of negative things to the public. That’s not how we want to rebrand ourselves.”
Barnes said she couldn’t understand why Wasserman Schultz made herself a target of attention by becoming the lone Democrat to employ Awan. Wasserman Schultz then drew even more negative attention to herself by publicly threatening the Capitol Police chief with “consequences” in a dispute over an office laptop under examination from investigators.
The drama ensured Wasserman Schultz would play a central role in a murky congressional summer “scandal” story playing out from Washington to Weston, her South Florida congressional district’s base.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz is still a national figure, but unfortunately for her it’s because so many people around the country see her as playing a devastatingly bad role in the last election,” said R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis and former DNC vice-chair who clashed with Wasserman Schultz. “I can mention her name in Minneapolis and it gets a viscerally negative reaction, and I’ve found that to be the case in other parts of the country, too. Sadly, I think she deserves the negative reputation.”
Republicans have seized the opportunity to pound an unpopular rival who resigned as party chair after WikiLeaks released embarrassing hacked DNC emails just before the election. Wasserman Schultz’s office said Awan wasn’t a DNC employee and didn’t have access to its internal system but some conservative commentators and media have advanced unsubstantiated claims that Awan may have had access to and then leaked the DNC emails.
Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, a fellow Floridian in Congress who might run for governor, has called for a Justice Department investigation and suggested Wasserman Schultz might have to testify. A conservative group has filed an ethics complaint against her. A Senate committee is examining the Awan group’s immigration history.
President Donald Trump himself last week weighed in by retweeting an article from conservative news site Townhall with the headline: “ABC, NBC, And CBS Pretty Much Bury IT Scandal Engulfing Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s Office.” On Saturday, he retweeted a clip of a FOX commentator asking “What’s a high priced Clinton attorney doing representing a low level IT staffer for the Democrats?"
After Wasserman Schultz finally spoke publicly about Awan’s case last week in her hometown South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper, its editorial board called the controversy a “non-case against Debbie Wasserman Schultz” and a columnist followed up Tuesday with an opinion piece headlined: “GOP can’t handle truth about Wasserman Schultz.”
Wasserman Schultz also made a point to bring up the unproven conspiracy theories that accused her of a link to the murder of former DNC staffer Seth Rich. Her comments came after Trump’s on-again-off-again adviser Roger Stone tweeted about the alleged conspiracy, without offering evidence, that it was a “FACT – Wasserman-Schulz ‘IT consultant’ Awan was partying with Seth Rich the night of his murder!” Wasserman Schultz called the rumors about the murder “vile and disgusting.”
As for Awan’s case, Wasserman Schultz told the Sun-Sentinel that she thought he was being initially investigated on an overblown technicality for “transferring data outside the secure network, which I think amounted to use of apps that the House didn’t find compliant with our security requirements.”
She said she thought other House IT employees haven’t been investigated for similar activities, such as the use of the storage service Dropbox, which isn’t approved for use under House IT rules. She pointed out that neither Awan nor anyone else in his group have been arrested for their work in the House.
Not only did Awan and the other suspected staffers not have approved access to classified information, she said, he wouldn’t have been able to access it on other House members’ equipment because they’re not allowed to store it on office computers.
Wasserman Schultz, however, didn’t address the numerous stories broken by the conservative Daily Caller that called into question the qualifications of and paychecks for Awan’s group. Why she kept Awan on after the FBI raided his home and seized smashed hard drives is also unanswered. Nor has Wasserman Schultz explained in detail what Awan specifically did to earn the $7,800 she paid him this year after his IT privileges were suspended in the investigation.
A written statement from the congresswoman, who hails from Florida’s most Democratic county, attributed her actions to her commitment to protecting minorities.
“As a mother, a Jew, and a Member of Congress, if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s this: my commitment to doing what’s right and just — even if it isn’t what’s easy and simple — is unyielding,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Undoubtedly, the easier path would have been to terminate Mr. Awan, despite the fact that I had not received any evidence of his alleged wrongdoing. Over time, the investigation raised troubling concerns for me about fair treatment, due process, and potential ethnic and religious profiling.”
Jodi Davidson, a former Wasserman Schultz staffer, said Wasserman Schultz’s statement was consistent with how she treated everyone in the office – with loyalty and respect.
“I’m not surprised she did this,” Davidson said. “He wasn’t charged with anything so to let him go without due process — the Debbie Wasserman Schultz I know wouldn’t do that.”
Awan had worked for Wasserman Schultz for at least a decade, had witnessed her internal party rise and fall and had earned her trust, according to current and former staffers who said they were acquainted with him.
Over the years, as her circle of trust shrank, loyalty became an ever-more precious commodity to Wasserman Schultz, according to former staffers and top Democrats in Florida and Washington. Now, Wasserman Schultz has become such a polarizing figure in her own party that some longtime Democratic allies, when contacted by POLITICO, struggled to say kind words about her or explain how and why she got into this latest jam. They describe a hard-working politician with a sharp mind but an equally sharp tongue and hot temper that leads her into otherwise avoidable dustups and troubles.
Though admired by Democrats for her fierce advocacy of progressive causes, she nevertheless turned natural allies to enemies at the DNC, in the Obama White House and even in Florida, where she picked an explosive fight with top Democratic donor and trial lawyer John Morgan after she trashed his popular medical-marijuana initiative, seemingly without cause.
“In politics, you’re as strong as your friends. And she doesn’t have as many as she used to. And that’s her fault,” Morgan said.
Morgan and those who have known and observed Wasserman Schultz for decades say her demeanor began to change when she was DNC chair; power went to her head, they say, and mounting criticism then made her paranoid.
After President Obama won reelection in 2012, Wasserman Schultz resisted entreaties from the White House to quit on a high note and make way for fresh leadership. Months later, the congresswoman signaled that she’d use her post to raise more money for Democrats and hinted it would help her elect loyal House and Senate Democrats who could aid a run for statewide office or a top leadership position in the House.
By the summer of the 2014 midterms, when Democrats were destroyed nationwide and in her home state, Wasserman Schultz was engaged in a behind-the-scenes cold war with White House advisers and Obama allies who said her personal ambition conflicted with her role as chair.
Out of real party power in Washington, Wasserman Schultz had to head home to defend her congressional seat, from Democrat Tim Canova – her first primary challenger she ever faced as an incumbent since her first election to a Florida state House seat in 1992.
Backed by Sanders, Canova spent big but lost to Wasserman Schultz. Still, her relatively anemic primary election winning margin — 57 percent to 43 percent, the smallest of any Florida incumbent — revealed the damage to her brand.
Canova is challenging her again in 2018.
Florida’s first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, Wasserman Schultz remains relatively popular in her heavily Jewish district. U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat who has known Wasserman Schultz for two decades, credited her work ethic and “brilliance.”
But unlike Wasserman Schultz, Frankel saw trouble when news broke of the House investigation and stopped using IT support from Awan’s group.
“Maybe if I had known him for a lot of years and worked with him, he could’ve convinced me. I just said no,” Frankel said. “I didn’t have any kind of relationship with this guy other than he fixed my computers once in a while. There was no reason for me to risk anything for him.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks, a N.Y. Democrat who praised Wasserman Schultz for doing “the right thing” by sticking by Awan, had used Awan’s wife as an IT staffer but said he let her go amid the investigation because “I was told that the person that was on my staff could not access my database or anything of that nature, it would have had a negative effect on my office. And I was not in a position to pay when there was no work to be done.”
Not only were Democrats at pains to explain why they fired the staffers while Wasserman Schultz stood by Awan, they were bewildered by her decision to call out the Capitol Police chief at a May 18 budget hearing where she demanded the return of a laptop recovered in the investigation that she suggested was hers.
“I think you’re violating the rules when you conduct your business that way and should expect that there would be consequences,” she said during a caught-on-camera exchange highlighted by Republicans.
To Democrats like the DNC’s Barnes, it’s a distraction the party can ill afford.
“Everything that’s going on right now is taking away from what success we’re seeing in the grassroots movement. No one’s talking about the people’s platform or hearing our good news because the headlines are focused on Debbie, her misplaced laptop and consequences,” Barnes said.