Ever wonder who’s behind gross smear campaigns to sink qualified Biden administration nominees? Look no further than the American Accountability Foundation (AAF), a little-known rightwing opposition research organization housed under the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) umbrella. The oppo shop was founded in 2021 with a simple goal: “to take a big handful of sand and throw it in the gears of the Biden administration.” Since then, AAF has targeted over twenty nominees with slanderous, bad-faith attacks. The strategy has been relatively successful thus far, especially in derailing racial and ethnic minority and female nominees, including Saule Omarova, Sarah Bloom Raskin, Carlton Waterhouse, and Gigi Sohn.
AAF is led by Tom Jones, a longtime staffer to a number of conservative figures like racist, climate-change denier Ron Johnson, notorious homophobe and sexist Jim DeMint, and election-denier Ted Cruz. AAF utilizes various questionable techniques to pull off its smear campaigns. It regularly distorts the facts at hand, such as framing Federal Reserve nominee Lisa Cook’s police accountability advocacy as “racist.” It also relies on sweeping misrepresentations to gather dirt, such as using fake identities to gain access to congressional staff trainings. AAF has even solicited nominees’ friends and family for weaponizable opposition materials. These tactics have been the foundation of the organization’s sexist and racist smears, which have tanked multiple nominees.
AAF was instrumental in the character assassination of the Office of Comptroller of the Currency nominee Saule Omarova. Omarova is a law professor at Cornell Law School who’s spent over a decade advocating for robust regulation of banks, fintechs and all kinds of financial institutions. She’s an expert on financial regulation, banking law and corporate law with a track record of significant academic scholarship and policy experience. Fearing that Omarova would center regulatory policy around the public interest, AAF turned her nomination process into a circus. AAF helped manufacture faux outrage over whether Omarova is a communist, based entirely on fraught (and racialized) speculation borne of the fact that she was born in Kazakhstan while it was under Soviet rule. AAF peddled and encouraged racist and sexist smear tactics rooted in this red-scare ethos, which seeks to turn the Senate floor into a venue for wildly inappropriate exchanges. Its Republican co-conspirators happily obliged to this, peddling the organization’s lies to ensure banks’ interests were prioritized over the public’s.
And Omarova wasn’t the only one.
When Sarah Bloom Raskin was nominated to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, AAF led the charge against her nomination. There were legitimate flags generated by AAF from a review of Bloom Raskin’s record, including a belated financial disclosure and Bloom Raskin’s relationship to a fintech firm, but the organization’s attacks came in clear bad faith and were overtly misrepresentative. Bloom Raskin (a former Fed governor!) was caught in AAF’s crosshairs because she wisely suggested that climate change posed an economic risk that should be considered by the Fed. The monthslong smear campaign eventually forced Bloom Raskin to withdraw her nomination and limited the chances of the Fed adopting a more robust approach toward climate-related financial risk. It is simply asinine to identify knowledge of climate risks as disqualifying, especially in a world where both economists and scientists alike have extensively studied these risks, but fossil fuel interests and their supportive financial institutions continue to lock us into a climate apocalyptic future. The catastrophic flooding in New York cost the state some $35 million in a matter of days, wildfires in Maui cost Hawai’i no less than $6 billion, Hurricane Idalia generated an estimated $9.36 billion in destruction across the southeast, and 2023 as a whole has seen a record year for billion dollar climate disasters, as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These disasters illustrate that climate change is fundamentally an economic issue, and an increasingly devastating one at that, especially as previous models for accurately predicting extreme weather events and seasonal patterns are growing increasingly unreliable by the compounding consequences of climate change. Ultimately, AAF’s smears of qualified individuals with deep knowledge of climate-related financial risk only serves the interests of fossil fuel producers and their financiers.
AAF’s attacks weren’t limited to just financial regulators. The firm launched an attack on Dave Weil, a longtime advocate for labor and a significant critic of gig-economy giants’ abuse of independent contractor classifications. Weil was nominated to helm the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, a position he held for three years during the Obama administration. This time around, AAF released a report alleging it had unearthed disqualifying and “disturbing facts.” As usual, it was nothing more than poorly conceived slander. The report derided Weil as a hypocrite for advocating for livable wages while also working as a professor at a school that does not pay its students $15/hour. Weil is obviously not responsible for Brandeis’s compensation policies. What’s more, opposition to his nomination was led by anti-labor and anti-worker interests because of his stringent support of workers and lifelong advocacy for workers’ rights. To feign some interest in fair pay for college students who conservatives regularly dismiss in order to paint Weil as a hypocrite is clear bad-faith. Weil’s nomination ultimately failed after three Democrats (Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and Mark Kelly) voted against him following anti-labor pressures. Jessica Looman eventually replaced Weil, and was confirmed in October 2023, but the attacks cost the Department years of leadership, and U.S. labor years of advocacy from DOL’s WHD.
AAF also attacked Carlton Waterhouse, a supremely qualified Black environmental lawyer nominated to be the Environmental Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM). During Carlton’s push for confirmation, AAF declared Waterhouse “racist” and thereby unfit for office. In truth, AAF simply sought to slander Waterhouse’s long standing racial equity advocacy and environmental justice work as itself “racist,” implying such work is racist against white people. Using their usual, and itself obscenely racist tacticking, Waterhouse’s nomination dragged on for years, and he eventually withdrew from consideration.
Of course, the American Accountability Foundation (AAF) also helped spearhead the brutal blockade of Gigi Sohn in efforts to keep her from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For nearly two years, Sohn’s nomination was opposed with viciously “homophobic tropes and attacks,” based on her status as a longtime advocate for consumer rights, desire to protect (and expand) broadband access, and intention to improve competition amongst internet providers. The telecommunications industry, enabled by AAF, galvanized huge antagonism against Sohn’s nomination, stifling progress from the FCC and ultimately also leading to Sohn’s withdrawal from consideration.
Through its tanking of numerous proven advocates for, and staunch defenders of, the public interest, AAF has functionally sabotaged the Biden administration’s realization of many of the selfsame policies that got Biden elected in the first place. As a result, AAF’s work has proven deeply costly to the basic functionality of the government, and an affront to the basic ideals of democratic participation.