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House staffers on a summer trip to Ukraine learned U.S. aid was frozen. Stunned, here’s what they did next.

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WASHINGTON — Two days after a whistleblower secretly filed a complaint about President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in August, two top congressional staffers arrived in Kyiv on a routine business trip that ended up setting off alarm bells on Capitol Hill.

The aides work for the Democratic leadership of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for federal spending. They had been dispatched to make an on-the-ground assessment of the cash Congress has been pumping into former Soviet states — including Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine — to aid their defenses against Russian aggression.

But after traveling from Chisinau, Moldova, for two days of meetings and Ukrainian special-forces training observation in Kyiv and Berdychiv starting on Aug. 14, the staffers were shocked to learn from U.S. embassy officials that there was no new money coming into Ukraine, a congressional aide familiar with their trip told NBC News. The Trump administration had frozen military aid to the country in the midst of its war with Russia.

What’s more, the two Appropriations staffers, Becky Leggieri and Hayden Milberg, couldn’t even get an explanation for the holdup, because embassy officials didn’t know the reason, the aide said. That set off a scramble in Washington to find out what happened to the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that had been specifically earmarked by Congress for Ukraine and that now play a pivotal role in a mushrooming scandal that threatens to lead to the president’s impeachment.

The anonymous whistleblower, a CIA employee, has received a great deal of attention for exposing what Democrats say was Trump’s plot to pressure Ukraine into investigating a rival for re-election — former vice president Joe Biden — to help him politically in exchange for receiving military aid. But even if the whistleblower had not stepped forward, there’s a chance that the scheme would eventually have been exposed by a combination of congressional accountants like Leggieri and Milberg, whose job it is to keep track of every major expenditure, and various executive branch officials who have emerged to share the pieces of the story they knew.

The appropriations staffers didn’t know about the Biden angle, only that military aid was being held up. The whistleblower sewed it all together — and did that in time to prevent a deal from being consummated or for the freeze on the funds to become permanent. But when the staffers realized the money was not flowing, they set off important alarm bells.

“As soon as Appropriations Committee staff learned that Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding had been held up, the committee began making urgent inquiries of the Defense Department to understand the situation,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement to NBC News. “After the Defense Department told our staff that the hold originated at the Office of Management and Budget, we began pressing them for an explanation.”

They wouldn’t get one, receiving only a vague acknowledgment that a re-assessment of U.S. interests was being done, and that only after the freeze became public two weeks later. But pressure from the lawmakers who hold the purse strings for the government is not insignificant.

At the time of the staffers’ visit, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, was “beginning to fear that the longstanding U.S. policy of strong support for Ukraine was shifting,” he told House impeachment investigators in a closed-door deposition in late October. Even two weeks later, when he sent a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to inquire about whether there had been such a reversal in U.S. policy, Taylor testified, it still had not occurred to him that the aid could be conditioned on Ukraine opening an investigation touching on American politics.

“That, however, would change,” he testified.

Ultimately, the visit by Appropriations staffers played only a modest role in exposing Trump’s actions on Ukraine, which was thrust further into public view last week with the first open televised hearings, including one featuring Taylor. But that piece of the puzzle — first discovered by NBC News in a routine House travel disclosure filing made on Nov. 8 — sheds light on how Trump’s actions were partially revealed by wonky number-crunchers, who typically toil away far from the spotlight.

As legendary Chicago mobster Al Capone found out when he was put away for tax evasion, accountants are quick to catch on when something is amiss. All across Washington this summer, in the sleepy offices of the federal government infrastructure, red flags were raised. The same thing was happening at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. In some cases, the hands being raised belonged to officials within the Trump administration who worried that the suspension of aid was illegal.

The hunt to find out why the money wasn’t moving played out on Capitol Hill and across several federal agencies at the same time the whistleblower complaint was quietly winding its way through separate government channels in August and early September, and it illustrates the difficulty anyone connected to the administration would have in hiding a purported plot to withhold federal funds.

It also raises the possibility that the episode would have been discovered without the whistleblower. There are just too many nonpartisan civil servants who come in contact with a $391 million spending package to execute such a maneuver undetected, according to experts on the federal budget process.

“You could try to create a quid pro quo by holding up the money and hope you get your quo before anybody finds out, but it wouldn’t take very many weeks,” said Kate Eltrich, a former Senate appropriations aide and Obama administration OMB official. “If you were trying to do something nefarious, it would be very difficult to contain that to a small number of people.”

In the case of the Ukraine money, which included defense dollars and State Department grants for the purchase of weapons that Congress required the administration to spend, the sprawling network of federal officials tasked with overseeing aspects of the spending included House and Senate members of both parties, their staffs, nonpartisan budget officials at the State and Defense departments and career government workers at White House agencies.

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, and career Foreign Service officer George Kent, behind, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 13, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The pause in funding spilled into public view on Aug. 28, two weeks after the congressional aides arrived in Kyiv, when Politico published an article in which an unnamed senior administration official said the spending was frozen pending a review of whether its release was deemed in the best interests of the United States. The article, which did not mention any effort to secure an investigation into the Joe Biden or his son Hunter, quoted Democratic lawmakers charging that Trump was helping Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Ukraine.

It wasn’t until after that article was published that OMB finally responded to House appropriators with a similarly vague explanation for why the money was being withheld.

Ultimately, it would take only a matter of weeks for scattered data points to reveal more edges of the puzzle. On Sept. 9, the director of national intelligence notified House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that a whistleblower had raised a matter of “urgent concern” that the DNI overruled. The whistleblower already had consulted with a member of Schiff’s staff before filing the complaint in August, according to The New York Times, and Schiff was aware of at least the outlines of the concern.

The Intelligence Committee “was unaware of the freeze in security assistance at the time the (appropriations) staffers traveled to Kyiv and had no interaction with them prior to their trip,” an Intelligence Committee official said in an email to NBC News. “At no point has the Committee discussed whistleblower matters with them, either.”

On the same day that he was told of the “urgent concern” matter, Schiff and the chairmen of two other committees sent White House counsel Pat Cipollone a letter demanding that the administration preserve and transmit records related to the possible withholding of aid to Ukraine as a means of forcing that country to open investigations into Joe Biden — a leading contender to challenge Trump in 2020 — and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Two days later, after the White House counsel’s office received the whistleblower complaint from the Justice Department, Trump released the money for Ukraine. That decision was announced publicly by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., as he tried to fend off amendments to a military spending bill, assuring his colleagues they didn’t need to force the White House to lift the hold because Trump had assured him it already had been done.

In the weeks since the whistleblower’s complaint was made public in late September, along with a White House summary of a July 25 Trump call with Zelenskiy in which the leaders discussed both U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense and the Bidens, a parade of current and former U.S. officials have testified that Trump and a rump group of his hand-picked political emissaries conducted a shadow foreign policy with Ukraine that focused on boxing Zelenskiy into a simple trade.

If Zelenskiy wanted the money, he had to publicly announce the opening of investigations that would cast aspersions both on Biden and on the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House, the officials have said under oath. The latter would require Ukraine’s president to fictitiously implicate his own nation and exonerate its mortal enemy in service of Trump.

While Trump and his allies argue there’s “no harm, no foul” because Ukraine ultimately got its aid, the behind-the-scenes machinations in Congress reveal just how tenuous the situation became, with the flow of aid not resuming until after lawmakers began asking questions.

The crisis wasn’t fully averted, because there wasn’t enough time left to spend all of the funds before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30, as government budget officials ultimately told Congress.

Laura Cooper, an assistant secretary of Defense, testified that the government managed to get roughly 80 percent of the dollars to Ukraine by the end of September. To ensure the remainder didn’t disappear, new language had to be tucked in to a must-pass spending bill known as a continuing resolution to claw back the unspent funds and then reissue them, giving the administration another year to spend the money.

Even now, as Trump faces potential impeachment in the House, it’s not clear that all of the funds have yet made it to Ukraine.

“Thanks obviously to the Congress we got the language in the continuing resolution that thankfully will enable us to obligate all of the funding, ultimately,” Cooper told the House in her closed-door deposition.

And both in Congress and within the administration, the freeze triggered concerns that aid suspension was not just politically questionable but also illegal, according to interviews with congressional aides as well as transcripts from witness depositions in the impeachment proceedings.

“An important part of the accountability of our system is that there are people whose sole job is to carry out what is required by the law or policy,” Eltrich said, adding that having those civil servants is crucial if “you want to prevent corruption.”

Cooper, in her deposition, explained that the administration can only refuse to spend money appropriated by Congress if it takes one of two steps: a “presidential-level rescission,” in which the president formally cancels the money and notifies Congress, or a “reprogramming action,” in which the Pentagon in this case would assign the money to another priority.

Neither of those steps took place, Cooper testified. Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, acknowledged the White House had been aware of the legal issue regarding not spending the funds set aside by Congress during his news conference last month.

“We knew that that money either had to go out the door by the end of September,” Mulvaney said, “or we had to have a really, really good reason not to do it.”

So did two House appropriations aides who spent part of their summer at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

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Amy Klobuchar drops final Iowa ads, six days until caucus

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in Washington, D.C. for the Senate impeachment trial, but her face will be on Iowa airwaves by way of two final TV ads launching Tuesday — just six days before Iowans go to their caucus sites.

“Iowa, it’s time to choose,” one of the ads, “99,” opens before pivoting to highlight Klobuchar’s endorsement from the Quad City Times along with the co-New York Times endorsement that commends her “Midwestern charisma and grit.” “99” seeks to convince viewers that she can unite the party, and “perhaps,” the country — proven by her commitment to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties. 

The second ad, “It’s About You,” features Klobuchar hitting Trump off the bat. “We have a president who thinks everything is about him,” she says. “His tweets, his golf course, his ego.”

“But I think the job is about you,” Klobuchar adds as she ticks through common issues that come up on the campaign trail like healthcare, education, and security. “I’ll be a President who restores decency to the White House and gets things done for you.” 

Klobuchar’s ability to physically campaign in the state has hit a speed-bump due to the impeachment trial, so these ads combined with tele-town halls are possibly the only access caucus goers will get to the senator until the impeachment trial is wrapped.

At her final campaign event of six over the past weekend, Klobuchar took photos with various Iowa staffers, joking that she might not be able to come back before caucus — a nod to newly surfaced revelations from former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book that may give Democrats more substance behind their push for witnesses at the trial. If witnesses were to be called, the trial schedule could directly interfere with the caucuses.  

Most recent Iowa-specific polls have placed Klobuchar in fifth place, but an Emerson poll released Sunday evening shows Klobuchar in third place with 13 percent, behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 30 percent and former Vice President Joe Biden with 21 percent. 

Biden leverages Trump’s attacks to win over Iowa voters

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — With the Iowa Caucus one week out, Joe Biden reminded voters in the state that they should support him because he’s taken on the most heat from President Trump.

“There’s a reason why this man is on trial. The reason he’s on trial is because he does not want to run against me,” Biden said. “I hope I’ve demonstrated I can take a punch. And if I’m the nominee, he’s going to understand what punches mean.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at the North Iowa Events Center on Jan. 22, 2020, in Mason City, Iowa.John Locher / AP

The former Vice President focused primarily on health care, gun reform, and climate change while speaking to the 200-person crowd at the University of Northern Iowa.

On the issue of health care, Biden reignited attacks against his progressive opponents along with Medicare for All, which he called a “catchy idea” that takes too long to implement.

“Well there’s an old expression in the long run we’ll all be dead,” he added.

Biden said that some of his rivals have failed to tell the truth about how much their plans cost because the prospect of higher taxes “scares the living devil out of people.”

“I show how I pay for everything in my campaign,” he said.

Addressing the issues he vows to reform, Biden pointed out that first “we’ve got to beat Donald Trump” to get any of that done.

Biden also touted his electability against President Trump, selling himself as the candidate most likely to beat him because of his support among minorities and across partisan lines.

Having that support, Biden argues, is key to unseating Trump and helping down-ballot Democratic candidates.

He even suggested that if a candidate cannot garner significant support from minority groups, they should not become the nominee.

“I don’t believe you can win a nomination in this party and more importantly, I don’t believe you should win the nomination in this party unless you can demonstrate … substantial support from each and every one of those communities,” he said. “That’s what is needed.”

Bloomberg takes on Sanders in his home state of Vermont

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg drew a contrast between himself and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential campaign rival, during his Tuesday swing through Sanders’ home state.

“I can’t speak for the senator, I can only speak for myself,” Bloomberg told reporters when asked to address voters in the Super Tuesday state who are considering voting for their home state senator in the Democratic primary.

“I’m the kind of person that pulls teams together, I can attract the great, the best people, I can get them to work together. I’ve shown that again and again and again, that’s what this country needs. It doesn’t need one idea person, it’s a job where you have to have a manager and management is something that you develop over a long period of time. And it’s not something you just walk in and say I got a good idea I’m gonna manage, that’s just not the way the real world works.”

Presidential candidate, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg greets Jewish voters on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Fla.Andrew Uloza / AP

When pressed if he was saying that Sanders is a “one idea” person, Bloomberg pushed back, saying, “You’d have to ask Bernie what his ideas are. I’m not an expert on him any more than he is an expert on me.”

The Sanders campaign has not yet returned a request for comment about Bloomberg’s remarks. 

Back when Bloomberg announced his candidacy in November, Sanders accused Bloomberg of attempting to buy the election by sinking his own personal wealth into his bid.

“We say to Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires: Sorry, you ain’t going to buy this election,” Sanders said in Iowa at the time.

Bloomberg has spent over $218 million so far on television and radio ads, according to data from Advertising Analytics, and millions more on digital ads. While Bloomberg has until the end of the month to file his first spending report with the Federal Election Commission, he’s said he will not accept individual donations and will bankroll his campaign with his own deep pockets. 

On Monday, Bloomberg said he thinks he is the only candidate capable of beating President Trump in the election.

“I do think I’m the only candidate that can beat Trump because I think the country is, wants evolution rather than revolution,” Bloomberg said. “The country likes an awful lot of what we have, they just don’t like the style. And so they’re not looking for big change I don’t think in anything other than management, and how we conduct ourselves.”

Bloomberg, who is skipping early state contests and instead focusing on the rest of the Democratic nominating calendar states, has officially visited all of the states that hold their nominating contests on Super Tuesday. His campaign ticked off the last state with a stop in Portland, Maine Monday afternoon.

He said he was not following the news coming out of the early states, where he is not on the ballot, because his campaign strategy isn’t focusing on those states. 

He added that he decided to run because  “I didn’t like what the candidates were doing in terms of their policies. I didn’t think they made any sense, that you couldn’t fund them, you’d never get them through Congress, and I didn’t think they could beat Donald Trump.  So I decided, okay, I’m going to run.”

—Gary Grumbach contributed

Trump-aligned non-profit brings anti-impeachment message to Michigan, Pennsylvania

WASHINGTON — America First Policies, a non-profit advocacy group aligned with President Trump, is expanding its anti-impeachment advertising to the key general election swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, NBC has learned. 

AFP has booked more than $350,000 in television spending across the two states, data from Advertising Analytics shows. A spokeswoman with the group told NBC that in total, each state will see more than $200,000 in television spending, and when combined with a corresponding digital effort, the group plans to spend $500,000 across the two states. 

The new ads blast impeachment as a partisan and political act, calling on Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, as well as Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, to oppose removing the president. 

“For the radical left, this is really about one thing: winning the White House,” a narrator says in one ad. 

“The left’s impeachment scam, exposed. Instead of standing up for America and securing our borders, Bob Casey is standing with radicals.” 

Out of the three senators targeted by the new ads, Peters is the only one up for re-election this year (Casey and Stabenow both won a new term in 2018). The ads serve as a way to get the anti-impeachment message out into the bloodstream in states that will be pivotal to Trump’s re-election effort (both are states Trump narrowly won in 2016). 

The new ads will air starting on Tuesday, and come after the group dropped almost $400,000 on television ads targeting Sen. Doug Jones, R-Ala., on impeachment. Jones is considered one of the most vulnerable senators in 2020, having to defend his seat in a deep-red state. 

Elizabeth Warren picks up a slew of new progressive endorsements

WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gained endorsements from progressive thinkers and influencers on Monday even as she falls behind in polls to Bernie Sanders, underscoring an enduring divide within the movement in the final week before the Iowa caucuses.

The endorsements — rolled out by the pro-Warren groups Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Working Families Party, and Black Womxn — include well-known policy minds within liberal circles such as Heather McGhee of Demos, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

The groups touted more than 75 new endorsements for Warren from current or former state and local officials, including Mayors Meghan Sahli-Wells of Culver City, California and Chris Taylor of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The list also included former congressmen Sander Levin of Michigan and Brad Miller of North Carolina.

Another notable name was Susheela Jayapal, who is the Multnomah County Commissioner in Oregon. Her sister, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, has endorsed Sanders for president.

“My choice has been between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I voted for Bernie in 2016, and continue to admire and appreciate his fierce advocacy,” Susheela Jayapal said in a statement. “But 2020 is not 2016. In 2020, I’m with Warren. In 2020, more than ever, we need bold policy and advocacy — and we also need a president who can actually govern.”

Those endorsements, part of about 3,000 announced by the groups Monday, come at a critical moment for Warren who has lost ground in surveys and now trails Joe Biden and Sanders in national and early-state polls. Sanders has consolidated large swaths of the progressive community and jumped into the lead in recent polling in Iowa by the New York Times/Siena and New Hampshire by CNN and the University of New Hampshire.

One bright spot for Warren? She’s the top second-choice preference for voters in both surveys.

Moulton endorses Biden’s presidential bid

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa —Former Democratic presidential candidate and current Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid Monday morning, arguing he’s the right person to lead the country. 

Moulton announced his endorsement in a statement on Twitter that said he’s backing Biden given his decades of experience “serving the country, especially his eight years as vice president.” He went on to list several achievements of Biden’s career, including passing the Violence Against Women Act and the Affordable Care Act. 

The Afghanistan veteran’s statement also argued that Biden “will beat Donald Trump and unify our country after four years of the most reckless commander-in-chief in American history.” 

The endorsement is not too surprising given the personal relationship both men have. In the statement, Moulton points out that Biden “was the first person to hold a rally for me” when he launched his long-shot congressional bid in 2014. They have since become friends and Moulton considers him a mentor.

During an interview with NBC News last year, before Moulton launched his own presidential bid, Moulton said he’s “a huge fan of the vice president” and that he’s gone to Biden “multiple times” to ask for advice.   

Pete Buttigieg releases ‘closing’ Iowa ad

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg is out with what his campaign is calling his “closing” TV ad in Iowa that will air statewide through caucus night, just one week from today.

In the ad, Buttigieg says that “It’s time to turn the page from a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking, polarized by the same old fights, to a bold vision for the next generation.”

He addresses issues like corporate greed, “inaction” on climate change, and endless wars with photos of him campaigning across the state on screen. The former South Bend Mayor finishes off his closing ad saying that “We need to break from the old politics and unify this nation.”

The 30-second ad, “It’s Time,” is one of four ads the campaign is airing in Iowa ahead of the February 3 Caucus.

In a statement released by his campaign, Buttigieg is advertised as the “president who can rally this country around bold ideas for the next generation and achieve things that have never been done before.”

Democratic group targets vulnerable GOP senators on impeachment

WASHINGTON — Majority Forward, the not-for-profit group associated with the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, is launching a six-figure ad campaign on Monday targeting vulnerable Republican senators on impeachment. 

The two 30-second ads, which will run on digital and associated platforms like Hulu, will run in Arizona to target Sen. Martha McSally, Colorado to target Sen. Cory Gardner, Iowa to target Sen. Joni Ernst, Maine to target Sen. Susan Collins and North Carolina to target Sen. Thom Tillis.

The ads, entitled “Oath” and “Rigged”, focus on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments on coordinating with the White House during the impeachment trial, and the oath of impartiality that all senators took before the trial began.

The ad campaign marks the first full-throated effort by a Democratic group to run ads in support of impeachment and the trial. Prior to this, mostly only presidential candidates like philanthropist Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused on the topic in ads

“Senate Republicans have broken their oath of impartiality and their promise to the American people by playing along with Mitch McConnell’s cover-up,” Senate Majority PAC president J.B. Poersch said in a statement. “By refusing to get the facts and demand a fair trial from the onset, Senate Republicans are putting party politics over principle. Our new ad campaign urges these vulnerable incumbents to do their jobs and demand a fair trial now.”

All five of the senators targeted are facing difficult reelection campaigns in 2020. While some of the senators, like Gardner and Collins, have chosen to take a more neutral approach when asked about calling witnesses to the trial or if the president’s conduct was appropriate, Tillis and Ernst have publicly sided with the president.

“I think it’s so ironic that [House impeachment managers] really hammered in their brief, ‘overwhelming’, I think they said that word 11 times in their brief, and yet we haven’t seen overwhelming evidence of an impeachable offense,” Ernst told NBC News on Friday. 

And Tillis shared a Twitter video last week where he called the trial a “sham”.

“They don’t have the information, it’s a sham impeachment,” Tillis said. “It’s a waste of America’s time, and people in North Carolina are getting tired of it.” 

McSally, who lost her Senate bid in 2018 and was then appointed to her seat, wouldn’t say in an interview on Fox News if she would vote for witnesses or not. Instead she said she wanted a “fair trial.” 

In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Americans said they wanted witnesses called in the Senate trial. 

Buttigieg goes on the offensive as Sanders pulls ahead in the polls

DES MOINES, Iowa — With Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pulling ahead in the latest early state and national polls, fellow Democratic hopeful and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is sending a message to his supporters that Sanders must be stopped. 

The Buttigieg campaign sent an email to their followers on Saturday asking them to donate to the campaign in order to stop Sanders’ surge.

“Right now, Bernie’s campaign is out-raising and out-spending us,” the email states. “If this continues, there’s a good chance he wins the Iowa Caucuses.” 

Hours later Buttigieg’s Deputy Campaign Manager, Hari Sevugan, followed up with an email saying that if Sanders wins the nomination, Democrats will lose in 2020.

“Bernie performs the worst against Trump amongst all major candidates,” Sevugan writes citing the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. Sevugan continues, “In short, we risk nominating a candidate who cannot beat Donald Trump in November. And that’s a risk we can’t take.”

In sharp contrast to the emails sent to supporters, Buttigieg was reluctant to address Sanders by name when asked if the senator’s candidacy was too risky to defeat Trump.

“I believe that we should be very mindful that one of the worst risks we can take at a time like this is to recycle the same Washington style political warfare that brought us to this point,” Buttigieg said. “If we believe it’s important to win, and I sure do, then the best thing we could do is put forward a candidate who offers something new, something different.”

Shortly after Buttigieg made those comments, supporters received another message from the campaign this time via text. Echoing earlier emails suggesting that Sanders won’t beat Trump, the message included a graphic showing Sanders losing to Trump by 6 percentage points.

This comes as support for Sanders has ticked up and recent polling and Buttigieg aims to bolster his pitch as the candidate best positioned to beat Trump. Both Sanders and Buttigieg are campaign in Iowa this weekend, with only days until the first-in-the-nation caucus on Feb. 3.

Klobuchar on Democratic primary: ‘I should be leading the ticket’

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar appealed to Democratic primary voters on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” arguing that her mix of pragmatism and legislative success is what the party needs to defeat President Trump in November. 

While Klobuchar said she’s “ready to support the winner” of the Democratic Party’s nominating fight, she pointed to recent Democratic victories in purple and red states to argue that she fits the profile of a successful nominee. 

Just eight days before the pivotal Iowa caucus, she also took a swipe at Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has seen his stock improve in a handful of recent polls and has taken more incoming in recent days from his Democratic rivals. 

“I think Senator Sanders’ idea of kicking 149 million Americans off their current health insurance is wrong. That’s why I don’t think he should be leading the ticket,” she said, referring to Sanders’ push for Medicare for All, which would ultimately replace private insurance with a government-run system. 

“I think I should be leading the ticket because my ideas are much more in sync with bold ways of getting things done, taking on the pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit public option, having an education plan that actually matches our economy, and the experience of getting things done. I’m the only one in the Senate running left on that stage that has passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat. That matters to people right now.”

Biden surrogates hope to take attention away from Sanders dispute in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa — With a little over a week until the Iowa caucuses, surrogates for former Vice President Joe Biden want voters to focus on Biden’s electability argument, rather than his ongoing policy debate on Social Security with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

In an email exclusively obtained by NBC News, four Hawkeye state Biden endorsers reminded supporters and Iowa politicos to dismiss “falsehoods” spread about Biden’s Social Security record circulating in negative posts by Sanders’ campaign. They claim that the Sanders campaign is currently “spending hundreds of thousands of dollars” against Biden, a tactic also employed by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

“There is no surer way to reelect Donald Trump than by letting Bernie Sanders get away with these false attacks and negative tactics,” Bruce Koeppl, the former director of Iowa AARP, wrote in an email. “The attacks of Bernie Sanders, his campaign, and his supporters on Joe Biden only help one person: Donald Trump.”

The letter comes as Biden and Sanders continue to face off on Social Security, a political he-said-he-said that started last Saturday when Biden demanded an apology from Sanders and his aides for spreading supposed out-of-context videos of Biden. While Sanders did apologize to Biden earlier this week, it was specifically for a Sanders supporter and staffer saying Biden has a “corruption problem.” 

The Biden-Sanders back-and-forth has strengthened as Sanders climbs in state and national polls. For Biden supporters like Koepple, former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, Iowa Building and Construction Trades Council president Bill Gerhard and Liveable Communities advocate Kent Sovern, it’s time for action. 

“It’s time for the caucus-goers of Iowa to tell Senator Sanders that we’re not going to put up with his malarkey – or his negative attacks,” the group said in a note to Biden supporters. 

The Biden campaign has tried to elevate Biden’s electability argument this week: They posted a Twitter video, and emphasized in a fundraising email, that Democratic infighting will only help elect Trump, and that Biden is still the most electable candidate.

The Sanders campaign responded in a similar video, continuing to highlight comments Biden made on the Senate floor about Social Security.

In an interview with NBC News affiliate WIS10, Biden said that candidates picking apart statements from “35 years” ago may be acting in “desperation.” 



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Warren releases plan to combat epidemics like coronavirus

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Warren releases plan to combat epidemics like coronavirus

WASHINGTON — As focus on the coronavirus intensifies, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is releasing a new plan on how to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases and better prepare for global outbreaks. 

Her in-depth agenda focuses on fully funding global health agencies, investing in the development of vaccines and ensuring that health departments and hospitals are prepared to handle potential outbreaks

“The best way to beat a pandemic is to prevent it from starting in the first place,” Warren’s plan says, “As president, I will work to build the foundations that help us catch infectious diseases before they spread.” 

Though Warren does not specify where the funding would come from, a large portion of her plan revolves around funding organizations that would strengthen global health infrastructure. She specifically mentions fully funding the Centers for Disease Control, USAID and the Global Health Security Agenda, which involves 50 countries.

Elizabeth Warren smiles during a rally at West Delaware High School, on Jan. 4, 2020, in Manchester, Iowa.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Warren’s plan addresses fighting epidemics on a global level, but she also ties in a commitment to stop infectious diseases, like Hep C and HIV, in the United States. Earlier in her campaign, Warren released a plan to make PrEP, an HIV prevention drug more affordable and accessible. The plan drew attention from a now high profile endorser, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, who recently introduced Warren in Iowa. 

In Washington, Warren plans to restore a position in White House leadership on health security, one that was originally part of the Obama administration that Trump then removed. She also will create a “swear jar” policy for when drug companies break the law — and the funding from that will go to the NIH to expand development of vaccines and treatments and study of infectious diseases. 

Of note, Warren makes a point to mention the importance of spreading factual information and countering misinformation in the process of combating global outbreaks. She says she will work with the private sector on this issue. 

“Science will once again be in charge at the CDC,” the plan says. 

The focus on science also ties into Warren’s portion of the plan that tackles the crossover between climate change and disease outbreak. Her plan folds in portions of her previously released plans on climate and adds in a focus on preventing spread of disease after natural disasters. 

Warren ends her plan by specifically mentioning the coronavirus, as a reminder of the importance of investing in public health institutions. 

“Diseases like coronavirus remind us why we need robust international institutions, strong investments in public health, and a government that is prepared to jump into action at a moment’s notice,” Warren says in her plan, “When we prepare and effectively collaborate to address common threats that don’t stop at borders, the international community can stop these diseases in their tracks.” 

The death toll from the disease has now risen to 106 people.

Amy Klobuchar drops final Iowa ads, six days until caucus

DES MOINES, Iowa — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in Washington, D.C. for the Senate impeachment trial, but her face will be on Iowa airwaves by way of two final TV ads launching Tuesday — just six days before Iowans go to their caucus sites.

“Iowa, it’s time to choose,” one of the ads, “99,” opens before pivoting to highlight Klobuchar’s endorsement from the Quad City Times along with the co-New York Times endorsement that commends her “Midwestern charisma and grit.” “99” seeks to convince viewers that she can unite the party, and “perhaps,” the country — proven by her commitment to visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties. 

The second ad, “It’s About You,” features Klobuchar hitting Trump off the bat. “We have a president who thinks everything is about him,” she says. “His tweets, his golf course, his ego.”

“But I think the job is about you,” Klobuchar adds as she ticks through common issues that come up on the campaign trail like healthcare, education, and security. “I’ll be a President who restores decency to the White House and gets things done for you.” 

Klobuchar’s ability to physically campaign in the state has hit a speed-bump due to the impeachment trial, so these ads combined with tele-town halls are possibly the only access caucus goers will get to the senator until the impeachment trial is wrapped.

At her final campaign event of six over the past weekend, Klobuchar took photos with various Iowa staffers, joking that she might not be able to come back before caucus — a nod to newly surfaced revelations from former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book that may give Democrats more substance behind their push for witnesses at the trial. If witnesses were to be called, the trial schedule could directly interfere with the caucuses.  

Most recent Iowa-specific polls have placed Klobuchar in fifth place, but an Emerson poll released Sunday evening shows Klobuchar in third place with 13 percent, behind Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with 30 percent and former Vice President Joe Biden with 21 percent. 

Biden leverages Trump’s attacks to win over Iowa voters

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — With the Iowa Caucus one week out, Joe Biden reminded voters in the state that they should support him because he’s taken on the most heat from President Trump.

“There’s a reason why this man is on trial. The reason he’s on trial is because he does not want to run against me,” Biden said. “I hope I’ve demonstrated I can take a punch. And if I’m the nominee, he’s going to understand what punches mean.”

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event at the North Iowa Events Center on Jan. 22, 2020, in Mason City, Iowa.John Locher / AP

The former Vice President focused primarily on health care, gun reform, and climate change while speaking to the 200-person crowd at the University of Northern Iowa.

On the issue of health care, Biden reignited attacks against his progressive opponents along with Medicare for All, which he called a “catchy idea” that takes too long to implement.

“Well there’s an old expression in the long run we’ll all be dead,” he added.

Biden said that some of his rivals have failed to tell the truth about how much their plans cost because the prospect of higher taxes “scares the living devil out of people.”

“I show how I pay for everything in my campaign,” he said.

Addressing the issues he vows to reform, Biden pointed out that first “we’ve got to beat Donald Trump” to get any of that done.

Biden also touted his electability against President Trump, selling himself as the candidate most likely to beat him because of his support among minorities and across partisan lines.

Having that support, Biden argues, is key to unseating Trump and helping down-ballot Democratic candidates.

He even suggested that if a candidate cannot garner significant support from minority groups, they should not become the nominee.

“I don’t believe you can win a nomination in this party and more importantly, I don’t believe you should win the nomination in this party unless you can demonstrate … substantial support from each and every one of those communities,” he said. “That’s what is needed.”

Bloomberg takes on Sanders in his home state of Vermont

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg drew a contrast between himself and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential campaign rival, during his Tuesday swing through Sanders’ home state.

“I can’t speak for the senator, I can only speak for myself,” Bloomberg told reporters when asked to address voters in the Super Tuesday state who are considering voting for their home state senator in the Democratic primary.

“I’m the kind of person that pulls teams together, I can attract the great, the best people, I can get them to work together. I’ve shown that again and again and again, that’s what this country needs. It doesn’t need one idea person, it’s a job where you have to have a manager and management is something that you develop over a long period of time. And it’s not something you just walk in and say I got a good idea I’m gonna manage, that’s just not the way the real world works.”

Presidential candidate, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg greets Jewish voters on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center in Aventura, Fla.Andrew Uloza / AP

When pressed if he was saying that Sanders is a “one idea” person, Bloomberg pushed back, saying, “You’d have to ask Bernie what his ideas are. I’m not an expert on him any more than he is an expert on me.”

The Sanders campaign has not yet returned a request for comment about Bloomberg’s remarks. 

Back when Bloomberg announced his candidacy in November, Sanders accused Bloomberg of attempting to buy the election by sinking his own personal wealth into his bid.

“We say to Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires: Sorry, you ain’t going to buy this election,” Sanders said in Iowa at the time.

Bloomberg has spent over $218 million so far on television and radio ads, according to data from Advertising Analytics, and millions more on digital ads. While Bloomberg has until the end of the month to file his first spending report with the Federal Election Commission, he’s said he will not accept individual donations and will bankroll his campaign with his own deep pockets. 

On Monday, Bloomberg said he thinks he is the only candidate capable of beating President Trump in the election.

“I do think I’m the only candidate that can beat Trump because I think the country is, wants evolution rather than revolution,” Bloomberg said. “The country likes an awful lot of what we have, they just don’t like the style. And so they’re not looking for big change I don’t think in anything other than management, and how we conduct ourselves.”

Bloomberg, who is skipping early state contests and instead focusing on the rest of the Democratic nominating calendar states, has officially visited all of the states that hold their nominating contests on Super Tuesday. His campaign ticked off the last state with a stop in Portland, Maine Monday afternoon.

He said he was not following the news coming out of the early states, where he is not on the ballot, because his campaign strategy isn’t focusing on those states. 

He added that he decided to run because  “I didn’t like what the candidates were doing in terms of their policies. I didn’t think they made any sense, that you couldn’t fund them, you’d never get them through Congress, and I didn’t think they could beat Donald Trump.  So I decided, okay, I’m going to run.”

—Gary Grumbach contributed

Trump-aligned non-profit brings anti-impeachment message to Michigan, Pennsylvania

WASHINGTON — America First Policies, a non-profit advocacy group aligned with President Trump, is expanding its anti-impeachment advertising to the key general election swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, NBC has learned. 

AFP has booked more than $350,000 in television spending across the two states, data from Advertising Analytics shows. A spokeswoman with the group told NBC that in total, each state will see more than $200,000 in television spending, and when combined with a corresponding digital effort, the group plans to spend $500,000 across the two states. 

The new ads blast impeachment as a partisan and political act, calling on Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, as well as Michigan Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, to oppose removing the president. 

“For the radical left, this is really about one thing: winning the White House,” a narrator says in one ad. 

“The left’s impeachment scam, exposed. Instead of standing up for America and securing our borders, Bob Casey is standing with radicals.” 

Out of the three senators targeted by the new ads, Peters is the only one up for re-election this year (Casey and Stabenow both won a new term in 2018). The ads serve as a way to get the anti-impeachment message out into the bloodstream in states that will be pivotal to Trump’s re-election effort (both are states Trump narrowly won in 2016). 

The new ads will air starting on Tuesday, and come after the group dropped almost $400,000 on television ads targeting Sen. Doug Jones, R-Ala., on impeachment. Jones is considered one of the most vulnerable senators in 2020, having to defend his seat in a deep-red state. 

Elizabeth Warren picks up a slew of new progressive endorsements

WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., gained endorsements from progressive thinkers and influencers on Monday even as she falls behind in polls to Bernie Sanders, underscoring an enduring divide within the movement in the final week before the Iowa caucuses.

The endorsements — rolled out by the pro-Warren groups Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Working Families Party, and Black Womxn — include well-known policy minds within liberal circles such as Heather McGhee of Demos, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

The groups touted more than 75 new endorsements for Warren from current or former state and local officials, including Mayors Meghan Sahli-Wells of Culver City, California and Chris Taylor of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The list also included former congressmen Sander Levin of Michigan and Brad Miller of North Carolina.

Another notable name was Susheela Jayapal, who is the Multnomah County Commissioner in Oregon. Her sister, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Pramila Jayapal, has endorsed Sanders for president.

“My choice has been between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I voted for Bernie in 2016, and continue to admire and appreciate his fierce advocacy,” Susheela Jayapal said in a statement. “But 2020 is not 2016. In 2020, I’m with Warren. In 2020, more than ever, we need bold policy and advocacy — and we also need a president who can actually govern.”

Those endorsements, part of about 3,000 announced by the groups Monday, come at a critical moment for Warren who has lost ground in surveys and now trails Joe Biden and Sanders in national and early-state polls. Sanders has consolidated large swaths of the progressive community and jumped into the lead in recent polling in Iowa by the New York Times/Siena and New Hampshire by CNN and the University of New Hampshire.

One bright spot for Warren? She’s the top second-choice preference for voters in both surveys.

Moulton endorses Biden’s presidential bid

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa —Former Democratic presidential candidate and current Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid Monday morning, arguing he’s the right person to lead the country. 

Moulton announced his endorsement in a statement on Twitter that said he’s backing Biden given his decades of experience “serving the country, especially his eight years as vice president.” He went on to list several achievements of Biden’s career, including passing the Violence Against Women Act and the Affordable Care Act. 

The Afghanistan veteran’s statement also argued that Biden “will beat Donald Trump and unify our country after four years of the most reckless commander-in-chief in American history.” 

The endorsement is not too surprising given the personal relationship both men have. In the statement, Moulton points out that Biden “was the first person to hold a rally for me” when he launched his long-shot congressional bid in 2014. They have since become friends and Moulton considers him a mentor.

During an interview with NBC News last year, before Moulton launched his own presidential bid, Moulton said he’s “a huge fan of the vice president” and that he’s gone to Biden “multiple times” to ask for advice.   

Pete Buttigieg releases ‘closing’ Iowa ad

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg is out with what his campaign is calling his “closing” TV ad in Iowa that will air statewide through caucus night, just one week from today.

In the ad, Buttigieg says that “It’s time to turn the page from a Washington experience paralyzed by the same old thinking, polarized by the same old fights, to a bold vision for the next generation.”

He addresses issues like corporate greed, “inaction” on climate change, and endless wars with photos of him campaigning across the state on screen. The former South Bend Mayor finishes off his closing ad saying that “We need to break from the old politics and unify this nation.”

The 30-second ad, “It’s Time,” is one of four ads the campaign is airing in Iowa ahead of the February 3 Caucus.

In a statement released by his campaign, Buttigieg is advertised as the “president who can rally this country around bold ideas for the next generation and achieve things that have never been done before.”

Democratic group targets vulnerable GOP senators on impeachment

WASHINGTON — Majority Forward, the not-for-profit group associated with the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, is launching a six-figure ad campaign on Monday targeting vulnerable Republican senators on impeachment. 

The two 30-second ads, which will run on digital and associated platforms like Hulu, will run in Arizona to target Sen. Martha McSally, Colorado to target Sen. Cory Gardner, Iowa to target Sen. Joni Ernst, Maine to target Sen. Susan Collins and North Carolina to target Sen. Thom Tillis.

The ads, entitled “Oath” and “Rigged”, focus on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments on coordinating with the White House during the impeachment trial, and the oath of impartiality that all senators took before the trial began.

The ad campaign marks the first full-throated effort by a Democratic group to run ads in support of impeachment and the trial. Prior to this, mostly only presidential candidates like philanthropist Tom Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg focused on the topic in ads

“Senate Republicans have broken their oath of impartiality and their promise to the American people by playing along with Mitch McConnell’s cover-up,” Senate Majority PAC president J.B. Poersch said in a statement. “By refusing to get the facts and demand a fair trial from the onset, Senate Republicans are putting party politics over principle. Our new ad campaign urges these vulnerable incumbents to do their jobs and demand a fair trial now.”

All five of the senators targeted are facing difficult reelection campaigns in 2020. While some of the senators, like Gardner and Collins, have chosen to take a more neutral approach when asked about calling witnesses to the trial or if the president’s conduct was appropriate, Tillis and Ernst have publicly sided with the president.

“I think it’s so ironic that [House impeachment managers] really hammered in their brief, ‘overwhelming’, I think they said that word 11 times in their brief, and yet we haven’t seen overwhelming evidence of an impeachable offense,” Ernst told NBC News on Friday. 

And Tillis shared a Twitter video last week where he called the trial a “sham”.

“They don’t have the information, it’s a sham impeachment,” Tillis said. “It’s a waste of America’s time, and people in North Carolina are getting tired of it.” 

McSally, who lost her Senate bid in 2018 and was then appointed to her seat, wouldn’t say in an interview on Fox News if she would vote for witnesses or not. Instead she said she wanted a “fair trial.” 

In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Americans said they wanted witnesses called in the Senate trial. 

Buttigieg goes on the offensive as Sanders pulls ahead in the polls

DES MOINES, Iowa — With Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pulling ahead in the latest early state and national polls, fellow Democratic hopeful and former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg is sending a message to his supporters that Sanders must be stopped. 

The Buttigieg campaign sent an email to their followers on Saturday asking them to donate to the campaign in order to stop Sanders’ surge.

“Right now, Bernie’s campaign is out-raising and out-spending us,” the email states. “If this continues, there’s a good chance he wins the Iowa Caucuses.” 

Hours later Buttigieg’s Deputy Campaign Manager, Hari Sevugan, followed up with an email saying that if Sanders wins the nomination, Democrats will lose in 2020.

“Bernie performs the worst against Trump amongst all major candidates,” Sevugan writes citing the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. Sevugan continues, “In short, we risk nominating a candidate who cannot beat Donald Trump in November. And that’s a risk we can’t take.”

In sharp contrast to the emails sent to supporters, Buttigieg was reluctant to address Sanders by name when asked if the senator’s candidacy was too risky to defeat Trump.

“I believe that we should be very mindful that one of the worst risks we can take at a time like this is to recycle the same Washington style political warfare that brought us to this point,” Buttigieg said. “If we believe it’s important to win, and I sure do, then the best thing we could do is put forward a candidate who offers something new, something different.”

Shortly after Buttigieg made those comments, supporters received another message from the campaign this time via text. Echoing earlier emails suggesting that Sanders won’t beat Trump, the message included a graphic showing Sanders losing to Trump by 6 percentage points.

This comes as support for Sanders has ticked up and recent polling and Buttigieg aims to bolster his pitch as the candidate best positioned to beat Trump. Both Sanders and Buttigieg are campaign in Iowa this weekend, with only days until the first-in-the-nation caucus on Feb. 3.

Klobuchar on Democratic primary: ‘I should be leading the ticket’

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar appealed to Democratic primary voters on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” arguing that her mix of pragmatism and legislative success is what the party needs to defeat President Trump in November. 

While Klobuchar said she’s “ready to support the winner” of the Democratic Party’s nominating fight, she pointed to recent Democratic victories in purple and red states to argue that she fits the profile of a successful nominee. 

Just eight days before the pivotal Iowa caucus, she also took a swipe at Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has seen his stock improve in a handful of recent polls and has taken more incoming in recent days from his Democratic rivals. 

“I think Senator Sanders’ idea of kicking 149 million Americans off their current health insurance is wrong. That’s why I don’t think he should be leading the ticket,” she said, referring to Sanders’ push for Medicare for All, which would ultimately replace private insurance with a government-run system. 

“I think I should be leading the ticket because my ideas are much more in sync with bold ways of getting things done, taking on the pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit public option, having an education plan that actually matches our economy, and the experience of getting things done. I’m the only one in the Senate running left on that stage that has passed over 100 bills as the lead Democrat. That matters to people right now.”



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Democrats grapple with Bernie surge in Iowa

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DES MOINES, Iowa — The greatest trick Bernie Sanders ever played was convincing the world the chance he could win didn’t exist.

The independent senator from Vermont has been running for president for the better part of five years, but some Democrats are only just now, a week out from the first contest in the 2020 presidential primary season, beginning to come to grips with the fact that he could actually win the nomination.

“Suddenly, we have the Democratic establishment very nervous about this campaign. We got Wall Street nervous,” Sanders told a crowd of roughly 1,100 Sunday night in Sioux City. “They’re starting to think, could this really happen?”

“We are their worst nightmare,” he added.

Next Monday’s caucuses remain a toss-up, according to the polls. But Sanders has taken the lead in several recent surveys of Iowa and New Hampshire and continues to be the field’s best fundraiser — without having faced the same intensity of incoming fire as some other candidates, like fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren.

A Sanders win would turn the Democratic Party upside down, much as Donald Trump’s victory did for the GOP in 2016. But how could virtually no one see Sanders coming when he nearly overturned the party establishment four years ago when he came within a whisker of winning Iowa?

“They’ve always wanted to discount or dismiss him, but they do so at their own peril,” Hugh Espey, executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which first brought Sanders to Iowa in 2014. “It’s staring them right in the race.”

For most of the 2020 primary, everyone from Wall Street to K Street viewed Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, as the more formidable contender, leading to a storm of scrutiny when she was surging in the polls last year.

Given Sanders’ lackluster poll numbers then, moderate Democrats and Republicans often built him up to use as a cudgel against Warren, especially when she was struggling to explain how she’d pay for “Medicare for All.”

“At least Bernie’s being honest here,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said at the Democratic primary debate in October, while joining others on stage in criticizing Warren.

Billionaires like former Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein and investor Leon Cooperman also trained their fire primarily on Warren, not Sanders, presumably assuming, like so many others, that Sanders’ time had passed and that he would soon hand off the baton of the progressive movement he started to Warren.

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“None of his opponents have attacked him,” said Ian Sams, a Democratic operative who has now gone two rounds against Sanders — as a campaign aide to Clinton in the last election, and to Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in this one. “There had been a supposition all last year from media and the political class that there’s no way Bernie way could win, which was a pretty faulty assumption.”

The attacks worked to weaken Warren, but left Sanders relatively unscathed.

Now, some moderate Democrats feel the need to sound the alarm and try to wake supporters up to the fact that Sanders is not a mere protest candidate, but a real threat to win the nomination and, they argue, potentially cost Democrats the election against Trump.

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“Bernie Sanders could be the nominee of our party,” Pete Buttigieg’s campaign alerted supporters in an email. “Bernie’s campaign is out-raising and out-spending us. If this continues, there’s a good chance he wins the Iowa caucuses.”

The tone of the warning, which was repeated in a second email and follow-up text message to supporters, was jarring in a campaign where candidates have rarely gone after each other by name.

Asked by NBC News if he was worried that Democrats were underestimating Sanders’ appeal, Buttigieg said, “It’s a terrible mistake to not take any candidate seriously.”

Klobuchar suggested that nominating Sanders could hurt down-ballot Democrats. “I do not come from a state that is as blue as Vermont,” she told reporters in Ames. “I have been able to get those votes and bring them in. And so I think a lot of people have talking points about how they can do this. I actually have the receipts.”

Matt Bennett, the vice president of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, which has agitated against Sanders and his philosophy for years, said many political insiders have a Sanders-size “blind spot.”

“We issued a warning a year ago that Sanders could win the nomination and would likely lose to Trump. And we’ve been the only ones really taking the fight to him,” Bennett said.

“It’s past time for other Democrats to come off the sidelines and for the media to start doing its job to vet a serious contender for the nomination,” he added. “We simply can’t stand by while there’s a threat that Democrats could nominate a guy who would hand such nuclear-level ammunition to the Trump campaign.”

Voters at events for moderate candidates this weekend expressed concern about Sanders’ potential nomination, though all said they would vote for him in the general election.

“It’s going to be hard for him to pull in people in the middle,” Todd Darson, who is deciding between Biden and Buttigieg, said of Sanders. “That’s what scares me the most.’

Anything could happen in the Feb. 3 caucuses, and Iowa Democratic insiders say it’s just as likely that former Vice President Joe Biden could win the caucuses and then quickly consolidate the nomination as it is likely that Sanders could win Iowa.

But Sanders, on a whirlwind tour of Iowa this weekend during a break from his jury duty in the Senate’s impeachment trial, relished the fear that he said he has been striking in his enemies.

“They’re looking at recent polls in New Hampshire and in Iowa, and they’re saying, ‘Oh my God, Sanders can win!'” the senator told a packed auditorium in Ames.

Sanders’ allies say the political and media elites miss his strength because they have a blind spot for candidates whose message is aimed at working-class voters, including Sanders, but also Biden, whose durability has surprised many, and Trump.

“The establishment has underestimated him because the Beltway fails to grasp how much support there is for the principle that every American should have basic health care, basic education and the opportunity for a good paying job,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a co-chair of Sanders’ campaign, told NBC News.

So far, a “Stop Sanders” effort has not emerged, but one still could — and Sanders allies say they now have a target on their backs.

“Things are going to get crazy,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who has endorsed Sanders and become one of his top surrogates, told volunteers at a field office opening in Ankeny, Iowa.

Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, who joined Sanders as a warm-up act on his most recent Iowa swing, told supporters in Ames that “the rich” are going to start panicking.

“The knives are out,” Moore said.

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