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The Back Booth: How a Supreme Court Leak Consumed D.C.

The Back Booth: How a Supreme Court Leak Consumed D.C.

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

Washington loves a good game of whodunnit. And the leak from the Supreme Court this week stopped D.C. as much for its potential reversal of Roe v. Wade’s protections for abortion rights as for how it found its way, via Politico, to every player’s reading list.

As the week unfolded, The D.C. Brief chatted with two communications pros who have worked presidential campaigns and state legislature fights with the same intensity. On the right, Kevin Sheridan has served in the George W. Bush Administration, and worked for the Republican National Committee. He was also a top adviser to Paul Ryan while Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate. He got his start in the Connecticut statehouse and the Virginia Office of the Governor.

On the left, Eddie Vale has been a player in the organized labor space for decades, helping Richard Trumka become president of the AFL-CIO and then serving as his political and communications director. He helped labor push back against efforts to repeal Obamacare, staffed John Edwards’ presidential bid, and slung all manner of opposition research as a vice president at the Democrats’ biggest such digging operation.

The conversation by email with these two, both of whom are now consultants, has been lightly edited.

Elliott: You’ve each worked for national candidates who have a knack for sensing where the national narrative is heading. With the Speaker’s delegation in Ukraine, I have to imagine a ticket into the country is a must-have accessory for candidates leaning on their national security credentials. But how do you help a candidate make a trip there useful, or do you stay away and let leadership carry the water?

Vale: If you’re a candidate who isn’t an officeholder already, you need to be careful to only go if there’s a credible reason you being there helps, and it’s not just you want to wear a T-shirt with Zelensky. If you’re a veteran, you obviously have much more street cred to be there, or if your district or state has units deployed to help with training or defense facilities helping with weapons. And a lot of that ordinance being dropped on Russian invaders proudly carries a union-made label.

Sheridan: Any trip into an active war zone is highly candidate-dependent. You don’t want to look like a war tourist—or Dukakis in the tank—so your candidate better have a damn good reason to be over there.

And if you’re the White House, how long do you go before sending the President there?

Sheridan: Given the inconsistent messaging that came out of the President’s Poland trip—yes, Putin must go; no, that’s not what the President meant; yes, that’s exactly what I meant—visiting Ukraine is not an easy call for this White House. His poll numbers are bad all around but better on Ukraine than most others, so why risk another gaffey overseas trip? I’d be advising him to keep the focus on the military aid we’re getting to Ukraine and pass on the visit for now.

Vale: A White House visit is obviously a much bigger endeavor since the security package that is required is much bigger than other heads of state. But I think the other big consideration the White House is going through is where that play fits on the escalation scale.

Elliott: Separately, what are you telling clients about tonight’s late news that the Supreme Court appears to have at least written a draft of an opinion reversing Roe and Casey?

Vale: It’s not so much advising clients what to do as they’re now just pressing the “go” button on months of planning. Even back when I was helping Demand Justice with Kavanaugh hearings, groups were saying Roe would be overturned even though many—including on our side of the aisle—said that was nuts.

One lane of planning is on the care side: what needs to be done in which states, what do providers need? And the political side is harnessing the anger into political action, both to activate our base voters but also this is a huge deal for lots of independents and Republican moderates.

Sheridan: There could not be anything more damaging to the Supreme Court than a leaked decision. Just jaw dropping. But if you’re a voter who ranks abortion high on your list of voting issues, you’ve already picked your party. The motivated bases will largely cancel each other out. Eddie’s right that there are plenty of moderate voters who support Roe, but it’s always been soft support. Independent voters are running from Democrats in the face of inflation, crime, education, the border, Afghanistan, etc., and I don’t see them switching their votes over a decision that hands elected representatives the question of where to draw the line on abortion.

Republican candidates need to message this smartly and go back to the issues their voters care about. I’d add that Republican voters have been trending far more towards culture issues including free speech and education over the abortion issue in recent years. I’d expect Republican candidates to stay focused there.

Elliott: The nuance on abortion rights is so complicated that I’m not entirely sure we know what this could mean in policy or politics.

Vale: No one completely knows what will happen, but a lot of the nuance on this issue may be gone. A lot of people were expecting a ruling that was very legalese, or maybe tried to not technically overturn Roe while adding enough caveats to render it gone. But this ruling—if it comes out, of course, with no changes—just straight-up screams Roe is gone, and 70% of the country disagrees with that.

And while the future is obviously still unknowable, it’s very interesting that McConnell decided to put out a statement that is 100% focused on leak/process rather than any excitement about, or even a single mention of, Roe being overturned.

Sheridan: Republicans are going to run on court intimidation and rule of law. Schumer taking to the floor to say they are going to codify Roe essentially makes the Supreme Court’s point.

Vale: Do you guys think it’s more likely that the leak came from the left or the right?

Sheridan: My money is on a Sotomayor clerk. They’ll get an MSNBC gig out of this.

Vale: That’s what I thought yesterday. Today I’m finding interest in the theory that this is the original version of the opinion, and someone on the right leaked it as Roberts is trying to pull Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh off it into a different concurring decision, a la what happened with Casey, and that leaking was to lock them in.

Sheridan: I just can’t see any conservative on the court giving it to Politico. That would blow my mind. No conservative is ever going to trust Politico with an earthquake leak like that. Trust me, our side isn’t crafty enough to do misdirection. And [Demand Justice executive director] Brian Fallon seems way too happy about it, so it seems like it came from Sotomayor.

Elliott: Are either of you seeing any meaningful efforts in the states for a post-Roe world? If the draft comes to reality, it follows that the purist federalism-based next step would be for state legislatures to fill in the gaps for laws on abortion, equality, etc. Is anyone starting to step in—on either side—to prepare for the next steps?

Vale: On our side at least, people have been planning on the electoral and legislative side for over a year on this. It’s an oversimplification of the issue but I expect it will break out roughly along the lines of competitive states electorally.

Blue states will pass more protections like Illinois and New York. Red states already have trigger laws or are passing new bills like Idaho and Oklahoma recently. And the big fights are going to be in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, etc., not just because they’re purple but because of the split of legislature and governor between parties. It’s going to be nuts.

Sheridan: There will be epic spending in state legislative races that haven’t already made it clear where they draw the line on abortion. I would guess we’ll see statehouse races that spent $100,000 or less last cycle will be in the millions. The liberal dark money groups will drop hundreds and hundreds of millions. Attn: Sheldon Whitehouse.

Vale: Everyone, myself included, has been talking about what an amazing scoop this was by Josh Gerstein. But check out the other name on the byline: Alexander Ward. Why is a national security reporter on this? Did they get it?

Sheridan: Ward must have a previous relationship with a clerk. Phil, get to the bottom of this!

Elliott: My life would be easier if journalists had subpoena powers. But moving back to politics. Trump’s endorsement of J.D. Vance in Ohio moved him from a distant third to a victory in just three weeks. If you’re a candidate in a competitive race with a live primary, why wouldn’t you chase that endorsement at all costs?

Vale: It seems pretty clear from the outside that a Trump endorsement, no matter the cost, isn’t a theoretical question anymore but pretty clearly the strategy (almost) every candidate is taking. And not just the usual endorsement seeking of doing a phone call or doing a boring fundraiser for them. They all have to go down to Mar-a-Lago for ritual in-person humiliation of praising his tan and how smart and great he is.

Now there is definitely a risk for the general election, but I think it depends a lot on the state. So in Ohio, there’s probably not a huge downside for Vance. But states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, Michigan, etc., are a very different ballgame. And it’s why you see Team Mitch trying to keep things from devolving back to the Chicken for Checkups and I’m Not a Witch days.

Sheridan: I don’t see Ohio as indicative. It has trended populist for years, which is how you get big Trump support and also Sherrod Brown. Each of the upcoming states will tell a different story. Pennsylvania is the most interesting, and I wouldn’t assume the Trump endorsement is going to sway it either way.

Elliott: This has been a truly great conversation with loads of candor. Any last thoughts?

Sheridan: I would just say don’t sleep on the Department of Homeland Security Disinformation Governance Board. Republican voters are going apoplectic over it and they will turn out over free speech issues. You seriously couldn’t create in a lab a better base motivator than Nina Jankowicz—straight out of central casting for what drives our voters out. Nationally, that issue will have a bigger impact than abortion.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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