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How Bloomberg-Funded Center for American Progress Censored a Report on NYPD Surveillance of Muslims

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Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s self-funded campaign has flooded the airwaves with political advertisements, with the billionaire former New York City mayor having already spent more than $400 million on TV, radio and other ads — far outpacing other campaigns. But it’s not just Bloomberg’s unprecedented campaign spending that has raised eyebrows. As The New York Times reports, Bloomberg has also kept potential critics quiet by making major donations to progressive causes and advocacy groups around the country over the years. This may have played a part in obscuring Bloomberg’s checkered record as mayor of New York. In 2015, researchers at the liberal Center for American Progress published a major report on anti-Muslim bias in the United States, and though the draft included a chapter of more than 4,000 words about New York City police surveillance of Muslim communities under Bloomberg, that chapter was excised from the final report — as was any mention of Bloomberg’s name. We speak with Yasmine Taeb, one of the people behind the report, who says the authors were told to make major changes to the chapter or remove it. Other officials told the Times they revised the report to make it focused on right-wing groups targeting Muslims. When the report came out, Bloomberg had already given the Center for American Progress three grants worth nearly $1.5 million, and he contributed $400,000 more in 2017. Yasmine Taeb is now a member of the Democratic National Committee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at how billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg wields the power of his money in different ways. There was a major front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times headlined “In Bloomberg, Liberals See a Wallet Too Big to Offend.” The piece lays out how Bloomberg has kept potential critics quiet by making major donations to progressive causes and advocacy groups around the country. The Times reports, quote, “That chilling effect was apparent in 2015 to researchers at the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group, when they turned in a report on anti-Muslim bias in the United States. Their draft included a chapter of more than 4,000 words about New York City police surveillance of Muslim communities; Mr. Bloomberg was mentioned by name eight times in the chapter, which was reviewed by The Times. … When the report was published a few weeks later, the chapter was gone. So was any mention of Mr. Bloomberg’s name.”

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Yasmine Taeb, one of the authors of the report. She says they were told to make major changes to the chapter or remove it. Other officials told The New York Times they revised the report to make it focus on right-wing groups targeting Muslims. When the report came out, Bloomberg had already given the Center for American Progress three grants worth nearly $1.5 million and contributed $400,000 more in 2017. Yasmine Taeb no longer works at the Center for American Progress, but she is now a member of the Democratic National Committee. And still with us in Philadelphia, journalist Blake Zeff, who covered New York politics and Mayor Bloomberg’s three terms.

Thank you so much, both, for joining us. Yasmine Taeb, tell us what took place when you worked for the Center for American Progress. Tell us about this report.

YASMINE TAEB: Sure. So, as you likely know, Amy, “Fear, Inc. 2.0,” which was released actually exactly five years ago today, and I was on your show five years ago talking about the findings, it was a follow-up to Center for American Progress’s blockbuster “Fear, Inc.” first report, which was released in 2011. And the report was simply a follow-up to discuss the tightly knit network of anti-Muslim activists, politicians, organizations and funders who are, you know, fanning anti-Muslim sentiment. And the report additionally was to chronicle and detail anti-Muslim policies that were being promoted. And in particular, this is racial and religious profiling by law enforcement across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about your chapter on surveillance of the Muslim community during the Bloomberg administration by the NYPD police and bias against the Muslim community. What did you say there? And what happened to this chapter? Why didn’t we see it?

YASMINE TAEB: So, there was a very detailed chapter about the NYPD’s Demographics Unit. So, the Demographics Unit was established shortly after 9/11, and it was operating for more than 10 years or so. And the Demographics Unit was tasked with mapping the Muslim community in New York City. And that entailed, you know, following, monitoring, surveilling Muslims, of where they prayed, shopped and ate. The program was later ruled unconstitutional. Mayor Bloomberg and his administration, throughout the entire period, defended this program. This program, as you likely know, resulted actually in zero terror leads. This program was unconstitutional. It had a chilling effect on the local Muslim community there.

And my colleagues and I, the co-authors, which included Ken Gude, Ken Sofer and Matt Duss and I, we simply detailed exactly what happened, and purpose and impact of this discriminatory program. And, you know, while we were in the final stages of this report being released — and this is literally within a week of the program, the project being launched — we had to get approval from senior officials at the Center for American Progress. And that’s when the chapter was flagged by a member of the executive committee who actually previously had worked for Mayor Bloomberg. And he said that there would be a strong reaction by Bloomberg World if this report was released as it was. And so, you know, we went back and forth multiple times with the executive committee, defending the importance of the inclusion of this chapter. And unfortunately, the executive committee ultimately decided to remove it, because — in my view and my colleagues’ views, because of how it was going to be perceived by Mayor Bloomberg.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the significance of this. And I want to bring Blake Zeff in here to talk about the pattern here that you see. That was a report by the Center for American Progress. We didn’t see that particular chapter. In The New York Times, the Center for American Progress responds and says that they had focused on — that they disputed the account, arguing there had been substantive reasons to revise or remove a section on police surveillance. Why did you, Yasmine Taeb, decide to remove it entirely rather than revise it?

YASMINE TAEB: So, because it was so clear that they wanted us to produce an inaccurate portrayal of the Demographics Unit’s egregious actions, we absolutely did not want to whitewash what the NYPD did. And, I mean, again, this is a program that was later ruled unconstitutional. This is a program that infringed on the First Amendment rights of Muslims in the local community. This is a program that, again, was disbanded by Mayor de Blasio because it was a complete failure. Not only was it unconstitutional, a complete failure and led to zero terror leads, it — for me, it was incredibly frustrating, it was incredibly disconcerting, because of the amount of work that we had put into this report and project. This was an ongoing report that we had worked for more than a year. And within days of launching the project and the interactive, being told by senior officials, unfortunately, at the Center for American Progress to remove it.

AMY GOODMAN: Blake Zeff, the issue of the pattern and practice here?

BLAKE ZEFF: Yeah, look, if you see that New York Times article that you were referring to, Amy, there’s a really interesting quote in there, where former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe, who was really one of the most prodigious fundraisers for the Democratic Party over the last couple of decades, you know, first for the Clintons, then for the Democratic Party, then, later, for his own races, he basically says that Michael Bloomberg was one of, if not the most, important fundraisers for the Democratic Party during that time. And as a result of that, I mean, he really has been — Bloomberg —  a towering, a prodigious, towering figure in Democratic circles because of his pocketbook and the fact that he has been bankrolling a lot of these groups, a lot of these causes. And as a result, that enables him to wield a tremendous amount of influence.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the beginning of this blockbuster New York Times piece, starts on the front page, goes to two other pages. This is the opening paragraphs. The New York Times writes, “In the fall of 2018, Emily’s List had a dilemma. With congressional elections approaching and the Supreme Court confirmation battle over Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh underway, the Democratic women’s group was hosting a major fund-raising luncheon in New York. Among the scheduled headline speakers was Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor, who had donated nearly $6 million to Emily’s List over the years.

“Days before the event, Mr. Bloomberg made blunt comments in an interview with The New York Times, expressing skepticism about the #MeToo movement and questioning sexual misconduct allegations against Charlie Rose, the disgraced news anchor. Senior Emily’s List officials seriously debated withdrawing Mr. Bloomberg’s invitation, according to three people familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“In the end, the group concluded it could not risk alienating Mr. Bloomberg. And when he addressed the luncheon on Sept. 24 — before an audience dotted with women clad in black, to show solidarity with Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault — Mr. Bloomberg demonstrated why.”

He said, “’I will be putting more money into supporting women candidates this cycle than any individual ever has before,’ he declared

“It was not an idle pledge: Mr. Bloomberg spent more than $100 million helping Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. Of the 21 newly elected lawmakers he supported with his personal super PAC, all but six were women.”

Blake Zeff?

BLAKE ZEFF: Yeah, I mean, that’s a perfect example of this larger pattern and trend that we’ve been talking about. Also in the story, you know, just to come back to this Terry McAuliffe quote that I just mentioned, what’s interesting about that is, when Bloomberg first ran in 2001 and McAuliffe was the head of the DNC, he railed against anyone who had been part of the Democratic Party but was helping Bloomberg, whether that was consultants, endorsers, groups and whatnot. And then it shows that, 20 years later, McAuliffe is talking about him almost with a sparkle in his eyes about what a great donor he’s been and how important he’s been and how he helped fund some gun control work that he had done.

And this is something that you see, as you just mentioned, with Emily’s List, you see with McAuliffe, you see with all these groups who face these big dilemmas, just like the mayors I was mentioning before, just like the members of Congress that I was mentioning before, the charities, the nonprofits. All these groups that we’ve just been talking about all face the same dilemma, where they’re either underfunded or they need money for a good cause. Bloomberg comes in and offers it to them. But then, as a result, they’re put in this position where it’s very, very difficult to criticize him. In many cases, they’re being told that they need to support him. That’s a really, really difficult and, frankly, unprecedented situation in American democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Several prominent African-American lawmakers have endorsed Bloomberg in recent weeks. This is New York Democratic Congressmember Gregory Meeks on MSNBC.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS: Look, I’m from New York. Michael Bloomberg ran three times. I didn’t support him three times, primarily because of stop-and-frisk. It was a bad policy. At the same time, I also understand that Michael Bloomberg wanted to get guns out of the community so that innocent people did not get killed. … African-American voters are always — they are very sophisticated voters. You know, they vote their interests. They know that their interest is making sure that Donald Trump is defeated. That’s absolutely their interest. And so they’re going to move in the direction that they think, “Who is the best person to defeat Donald Trump?” And then, who is also going to talk about their agenda?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Mayor Bloomberg has also formed Mike for Black America. Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a new opinion piece, quote, “Let me plant the stake now: No black person — or Hispanic person or ally of people of color — should ever even consider voting for Michael Bloomberg in the primary. His expansion of the notoriously racist stop-and-frisk program in New York, which swept up millions of innocent New Yorkers, primarily young black and Hispanic men, is a complete and nonnegotiable deal killer.” Blake Zeff, what has just happened in these last few weeks?

BLAKE ZEFF: Yeah, there’s been a bit of a rewriting of the stop-and-frisk legacy by Michael Bloomberg and some of his supporters. I mean, what we’ve seen Bloomberg do lately is say, “Look, I inherited this policy. I apologized for its excesses, and I reduced it 95%.” In fact, let’s go through each one of those claims one by one.

Yes, the policy did exist initially under Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and we all know who that is. But a new mayor can come in and decide whether they want to continue that or not. Not only did Bloomberg continue it, but he expanded it to record levels. When he first came in, the number of stops per year was under 100,000. It then rose steadily under Bloomberg until 2011, when it reached its apex, and almost 700,000 stops were made that year. So, to say he inherited it factually is true, but he also greatly, greatly expanded it.

In terms of reducing it 95%, well, as I just mentioned, it just kept expanding, until, eventually, in 2013, it does get rolled back considerably. But that’s the year that a federal judge rules the policy unconstitutional. And Bloomberg was the subject of a lawsuit, a class-action lawsuit. And so, that clearly had something to do with that.

And in terms of the apology, this is really egregious, because there were so many groups that were up in arms about this policy for many, many years, and Bloomberg and his defenders remained defiant, constantly saying, “We need this in order for crime to go down,” and sort of suggesting that if you opposed it, that you were basically opening the doors to the bad old days of crime, terrible crime, coming back. Well, after the policy was really, really curtailed after Bloomberg left, New York continued to see these reductions in crime, and he was really proven wrong on that, again did not apologize. Years go by. The Daily News, one of his big editorial supporters, in general and also on stop-and-frisk, issued a big apology a couple years after Bloomberg left, saying, “We were wrong on stop-and-frisk.” Bloomberg did not do that. Then let’s go to 2019. January 2019, he’s at a big event for the U.S. Naval Academy. He continues to defend the policy. Finally, in November of 2019, he talks to an audience in Brooklyn and says — it was a black audience, and he says, “I’m sorry. I was actually wrong about that.” Seven days later, he declares his candidacy for president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, he had said a year before, if he did run for president on the Democratic ticket, he would have to do a long apology tour. Yasmine Taeb, I wanted to go back to you. You’re no longer with the Center for American Progress, but you are on the Democratic National Committee. You recently received a phone call from Mike Bloomberg. Can you tell us what that was about?

YASMINE TAEB: Sure. So, this was at the end of December of 2019. This was, I think, shortly after he launched his presidential campaign. And he said he was calling as a courtesy, to sit down with me to introduce himself, to tell me why he’s running, why he’s able to win, and what he’s done for the Democratic Party. I did not call him back, simply because I wanted to kind of avoid an uncomfortable conversation where I assumed he wanted to ask me to support him. As you noted, I am a DNC — an elected DNC member, which means, during a brokered convention, on a second ballot, I will have a vote, you know, to decide our next nominee. And I identify as a progressive activist. And I hope that whoever our nominee is is able to excite the grassroots and increase voter turnout and fight for a progressive platform.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why wouldn’t you want to talk to Michael Bloomberg?

YASMINE TAEB: I mean, if they reach out to me now, I’m happy to offer him the courtesy and sit down with him. At that time, honestly, because of what happened at CAP, because of the policies he supported, because of the way he kind of entered the race and is now essentially bankrolling his campaign and buying an election, I felt very uncomfortable. And, you know, if he or a member of his team reached out to me now, I’m happy to kind of offer them that courtesy and sit down with them, but at the time I just — I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s talk about what could happen in the future, this whole idea of a brokered convention, and then the role you would play, Yasmine Taeb, as a member of the DNC. Explain what this would look like.

YASMINE TAEB: Sure. So, as you may know, we passed reforms in the DNC that eliminated the vote of superdelegates on the first ballot. So, at the time when we passed these reforms — and these were the most progressive reforms the DNC had passed, from my understanding, and the grassroots was incredibly excited. These were reforms that I advocated for and lobbied for all across the commonwealth of Virginia, talking to Democrats and telling them why these reforms are needed. At the time, unfortunately, when they passed, we were incredibly ecstatic, thinking that now the process in 2020 will become more fair and impartial, and the grassroots would be more kind of excited about this and less inclined to attack the DNC and kind of leaders in the party.

Unfortunately, because of how I do believe this nomination fight is going to move forward, I believe we’re still going to have at least four to five candidates that are viable heading into the convention. I don’t believe we’ll have a single candidate that’s able to receive a majority of delegates. So, in order to avoid heading into a second ballot, we need to have at least one candidate that has at least — I believe the number is about 1,990 delegates. And honestly, I don’t think that’s going to happen. And this is particularly important and why candidates like Mayor Bloomberg are doing their homework. I mean, the fact that he reached out to me — this is in the very initial part, the first couple weeks that he entered the race — shows that he knows it will likely be a brokered convention, and he’s probably been reaching out to DNC members, trying to ensure that he has as many supporters on the DNC as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Blake Zeff, this issue of superdelegates weighing in on the second vote, what do you foresee here? And the significance of this?

YASMINE TAEB: Sure. So, unfortunately, if —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question to Blake.

BLAKE ZEFF: Oh, I was going to say, I think this really speaks to another key point about Bloomberg that’s worth getting into, because if it was just that he had billions of dollars and a ton of money — you know, Tom Steyer has a lot of money. Howard Schultz had a lot of money, right? That alone is not really the entire story here. For me, it’s the — the story about Bloomberg and what makes his candidacy potentially very potent is that it’s a combination of endless resources, but also an extremely smart team that he has. They’re very canny and clever, and also what I would call their Machiavellian approach to winning. And the fact that they’re calling all these members to try to see if they can get that support this early on really speaks to that. They are going to understand — and, look, Mike Bloomberg made his fortune. He didn’t inherit a fortune from like an oil family, right? It was from data, analytics, communications, media. He really understands these areas. And they are looking at the numbers, and they know what they need to do. And they are starting that this far out. That doesn’t surprise me at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Blake Zeff, the role of President Obama? He is in so many of these national ads that are blanketing the networks across the country for Bloomberg, though he doesn’t specifically endorse him. Clearly, it seems like Bloomberg must have said, “Can I use you talking about me in these ads?” What do you think Obama’s role is here?

BLAKE ZEFF: I’m not so sure that they got permission. You know, look, very quickly, the history between Bloomberg and Obama is not that they’re some great friends at all. As everyone knows, Bloomberg was a Republican for a long time, endorsed George W. Bush in 2004, when Obama was giving his classic speech for John Kerry that year for the Democrats. Then, in '08, Bloomberg does not endorse Obama. In 2012, he endorses Obama at the very second in an op-ed, almost halfheartedly, in which he criticizes Obama as being divisive and partisan and overly populist. So, they worked together on some issues, like gun safety reform, the environment, things like that. And I'm sure that Obama, like others that we’ve talked about, is appreciative of the fact that Michael Bloomberg gave a lot of money for Democratic causes. But they were not best buds who have worked together on a lot of things, so that the ad gives a little bit of a misleading impression. And I’m not so sure that Obama is secretly behind the scenes pulling for Bloomberg and gave him permission to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to go to a clip of seeing Michael Bloomberg at the U.N. climate summit in Madrid. We caught up with him after, well, what we thought, he was holding a news conference at the U.S. Climate Action Center, which he funds, where journalists would go to ask politicians questions. He even shocked the people who worked at this “We’re still in” conference room, when he, after speaking, wrapping up his comments, after he called all the press — and there are pictures of, you know, him standing at the U.N. climate summit sign — he was surrounded by his officials and security, and walked out. So I tried to follow him to get my question to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor Bloomberg, will you be taking questions from the press? … If you could just answer a question? We all packed in there to ask you questions.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Careful. You’re going to trip.

AMY GOODMAN: But the U.N. has said that economic and climate inequality is driving protests around the world. You’re a billionaire running for president. You’ve spent tens of millions more dollars than the other presidential candidates. Will that be your strategy to win the presidency?

KEVIN SHEEKEY: We’re here to talk about climate this week.

AMY GOODMAN: That was his campaign manager saying, “We’re only talking about climate.” Of course, that night, he had a long interview with Christiane Amanpour, and he was talking all about the election. But calling a news conference and then walking out before the journalists got to ask the question, but having that photo op of hundreds of journalists around him. Blake Zeff, your last 20 seconds?

BLAKE ZEFF: Look, that’s just another example of their strategy, which is to try to control every aspect of the campaign they can. And that’s what the commercials enable him to do. If you run so many commercials and that’s how you get your message out, you don’t have to submit to interviews, you don’t have to submit to scrutiny, because you’re already getting all the media coverage that you want. And that’s a perfect example of their desire to really control every single aspect of this. And the money enables them, in large part, to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Blake Zeff, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Yasmine Taeb, a civil rights lawyer, elected member of the Democratic National Committee.

When we come back, we talk about Yemen, where 31 people were killed in U.S.-backed Saudi-UAE airstrikes this weekend, including women and children. The U.N. called it “shocking.” Stay with us.

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