Milestones in Sam Brownback's career

Sam Brownback has spent many years in Kansas politics. Here are some of the highlights from that time.
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Sam Brownback has spent many years in Kansas politics. Here are some of the highlights from that time.

Government & Politics

Brownback’s office was eager to work behind the scenes with Trump, emails show

By Hunter Woodall And and Bryan Lowry

October 03, 2017 04:04 PM


Ahead of Gov. Sam Brownback’s confirmation hearing this week for a post in President Donald Trump’s administration, emails show the Kansas Republican’s office was keen to help the GOP leader during the early days of his presidency.

The messages, which were obtained through an open records request, show the Brownback administration’s eagerness to cooperate with the new Republican president after years of balking at federal power during the Obama administration.

Trump’s White House sought Brownback’s support on nominations, the refugee controversy and inquired about other topics.

In July, the president nominated Brownback to become ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Brownback is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate. A confirmation hearing is set for Wednesday.

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Three days after Trump signed an executive order restricting people from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States and temporarily halting entry of all refugees, Brownback’s policy director, Brandon Smith, sent an offer to help to White House aide Justin Clark.

“Let me know if I can be helpful. Kansas issued a similar EO for the state-level awhile back,” Smith said in a Jan. 30 email.

Brownback’s 2016 order withdrew Kansas from the federal refugee resettlement program, but it did not actually block refugees from entering the state; it only prevented state cooperation with placement agencies.

“Thanks Brandon,” Clark responded. “Let me ask you, has the governor issued a statement in support of the plan?”

Smith replied that the administration was responding to press inquiries and a statement should be public shortly. Brownback’s official Twitter account tweeted a link to a statement of support within six minutes of Smith’s email to Clark.

“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump is inviting state and local governments to play a broader role in the refugee resettlement process,” Brownback said in the statement.

The governor’s office withheld an undisclosed number of emails from The Star’s request, citing exceptions to the open records act that protect “preliminary notes” and “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” None of the emails released include any details about Brownback’s appointment.

But the emails released show a trend of White House officials seeking support.

For example, Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president, sent an email titled “ACTION REQUESTED — Supreme Court Nominee Neil M. Gorsuch.” The message contained talking points for the Supreme Court nominee, who has since been confirmed.

“We encourage you to use and share these as you see fit,” Teller said in the email, dated Jan. 31. “We’d be grateful for all actions in support of Judge Gorsuch, including email blasts, social media posts, and other such communications.”

Brownback followed by praising Gorsuch a day later.

“President Trump made good on his most important campaign promise, to fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court with someone with impeccable credentials who will defend the Constitution with vigor and integrity,” Brownback said in a Feb. 1 statement. “Judge Gorsuch is an excellent jurist, more than qualified, and has demonstrated great respect for the rule of law.”

Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said that the coordination between the White House and the governor’s office was not unusual and that he receives similar emails as the head of the state party.

“They all talk to each other,” Arnold said. “I get a daily update from the White House in my capacity of chair. And nothing’s ever stuff that we don’t already know. … I would assume it was something that went to all Republican governors.”

Rachel Whitten, Brownback’s interim spokeswoman, said in an email: “President Trump understands the value of working with the nation’s governors and Governor Brownback is happy to support the President as he works on issues important to Kansas.”

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said this kind of communication can be common, but it depends on the relationship between the White House and the governor.

“A pillar of Brownback’s governorship has been the state balking at Washington edicts,” Beatty said. “That rings a little bit false when as soon as Trump becomes president, that changes.”

A member of Trump’s transition team reached out to Brownback’s office two days before the president’s inauguration seeking support for Tom Price’s nomination as secretary of Health and Human Services. Price resigned from the job amid scandal last week.

“I’m reaching out to see if Governor Brownback would be willing to support Dr. Price’s nomination in any of a number of ways: tweeting before, during, or after the hearing, authoring an oped or sending a letter of support to the Senate HELP and Senate Finance committees...,” the email said. “We can help with drafting or anything else you might need.”

“Happy to help,” Smith replied. “Can you send me some suggested tweets/etc?”

Brownback’s accounts later posted about Price on social media.

“Met with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price this week,” Brownback’s Facebook posted in February. “What a refreshing change to have an administration willing to work with the states.”

Price’s confirmation happened shortly after the agency had denied an extension of the state’s privatized Medicaid system during the final weeks of the Obama administration, a move Brownback’s lieutenant governor called an “ugly parting shot.” Brownback predicted more leniency from the new administration and in May the agency accepted the state’s correction plan for the program.

Listen: Deep Background podcast

Katy Bergen and Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star join Dave Helling to talk about how the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state’s new school finance system is unconstitutional. This week's episode also includes some discussion on the Kansas governor's race, including a clip with Tyler Ruzich, who is one of the teenage candidates in the running.

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Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3