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Priorities USA (P-USA) and its sister organization, Priorities USA Action (P-USAA), were established in April 2011 to help reelect President Barack Obama by means of advertising and fundraising campaigns. From the outset, their stated goal was to raise some $100 million for that purpose before the 2012 election.
P-USA, registered with the Internal Revenue Service under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, was permitted to accept donations of any amount from corporations, labor unions and individual contributors; was not required to disclose the identity of its donors; and produced electioneering communications and issue ads that could mention federal politicians by name but could not expressly advocate for their election or defeat.
P-USAA, registered with the IRS under Section 527 of the U.S. tax code, is a Super Political Action Committee (SuperPAC). According to OpenSecrets.org: "Technically known as independent expenditure-only committees, SuperPACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates. Unlike traditional PACs, SuperPACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit. SuperPACs are required to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission." During its first two months of operation, P-USAA raised $3.2 million, including $2 million from film producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and another $500,000 each from the Service Employees International Union and Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, founder of the Newsweb Corporation. Other early donors to P-USAA included Rob McKay, Ellen Malcolm, and Harold Ickes. By the end of June 2011, the two Priorities organizations had raised a combined $5 million.
Both Priorities groups were founded by a pair of ex-White House staffers: Bill Burton, who was President Obama’s first deputy press secretary, and Sean Sweeney, who served as a senior adviser to Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Theodore Johnston, a lawyer who headed Obama’s Florida fundraising committee during the 2008 presidential campaign, is the executive director of both groups. Notwithstanding these strong ties to Obama, White House press secretary Jay Carney contended that neither of the newly formed groups was working in concert with the President. “We don't control outside groups,” Carney said in April 2011. “These are not people working for the administration.”
Longtime Democratic consultant Paul Begala is a senior advisor to both P-USA and P-USAA. Some Democratic legislators objected to the formation of P-USA because President Obama — arguing that the Supreme Court’s then-recent Citizens United decision had unleashed a flood of corporate donations that were destructive to the political process — had previously criticized Republican groups for failing to disclose the identities of their donors. Former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, for one, lamented that P-USA’s founders were “trying to become corporate-lite” and were thus “playing with the Devil.”
P-USA's first major political expenditure took place in June 2011, when it paid $750,000 for the production and broadcast of a series of television ads in five swing states — Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Colorado — ads suggesting that Republicans supported a plan which would “essentially end Medicare for future retirees [and] slash education while giving huge tax breaks to big oil and the wealthy.” The ad concluded with the narrator saying: “We can’t rebuild America if we tear down the middle class.”
Priorities USA consistently echoed Democratic Party talking points in its ads and communiques. In September 2011, for instance, P-USA asserted that “after three years of relentless Republican efforts to justify tax breaks for the rich, Americans still maintain their fundamental belief that the wealthy should contribute more than they currently do.” That same month, the organization characterized Republican opponents of the DREAM Act — which would allow illegal-alien students to attend college at discounted tuition rates and to earn conditional permanent residency and a path to citizenship — as anti-Hispanic racists. Moreover, P-USA pledged to “play an important role” in reminding voters about Republicans' allegedly distasteful “right-wing talking points ... on education, job creation, immigration and taxes.”
Also in September 2011, P-USA held a lavish reception in Chicago for President Obama's leading fundraisers.
In January 2014, P-USAA began coordinating with David Brock, founder of Media Matters and Correct The Record, and Maria Echaveste, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
That same month, David Brock was named to the board of P-USAA, as the Super PAC announced that it would be supporting a possible Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016. In 2014 as well, Jeremy Bird joined P-USAA as a fundraiser.
In February 2015, Brock abruptly resigned from P-USAA. In his resignation letter, he accused Priorities officials of conducting “an orchestrated political hit job” against his own pro-Clinton groups, American Bridge 21st Century and Media Matters For America. Specifically, Brock was angry over a recent New York Times report that had called into question the fundraising practices of both those organizations, as well as those of another pro-Clinton group, Ready for Hillary. Brock's letter alleged that “current and former Priorities officials were behind this specious and malicious attack on the integrity of these critical organizations.”
It is illegal for a political campaign to coordinate its activities with those of a SuperPAC, but hacked emails which were made public by WikiLeaks show that on a number of occasions, Hillary Clinton presidential campaign officials such as Robby Mook met with SuperPAC personnel like Kim Kaufmann, the head of P-USAA. For instance, in a May 6, 2015 email to John Podesta and other Clinton insiders, Jennifer Palmieri, communications director of Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, expressed concern that the New York Times might publish a story revealing illegal coordination between the campaign and P-USAA. The Times ultimately spiked the story, however, to protect Clinton.
In August 2015, P-USAA collaborated with Correct the Record to jointly solicit contributions on behalf of Mrs. Clinton. The following month, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta began helping Priorities to raise funds.
In January 2016, P-USAA spent more than $100,000 for ads responding to accusations made by American Crossroads, a SuperPAC headed by Republican strategist Karl Rove, that Hillary Clinton was an ally of Wall Street.
In July 2016, P-USAA teamed up with Planned Parenthood Votes, the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund, the Latino Victory Fund, and EMILY's List Women Vote! to release six digital ads -- at a total cost of $500,000 -- denouncing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Facebook, Instagram, and Pandora. The ads condemned Trump's positions regarding women, abortion, immigration, climate change, the minimum wage, and public education.
Over the course of the 2016 campaign cycle, P-USAA raised a total of $192.1 million in support of the Clinton presidential campaign. The SuperPAC's leading donor in 2015-16 was George Soros, who gave $9.5 million to Priorities during that period. Other major donors included such notables as Herb Sandler, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bernard Schwartz, Mary Pritzker, and Jay Pritzker.
In October 2016, investigative journalist James O’Keefe’s “Project Veritas” released a series of undercover, hidden-camera videos showing that P-USAA was heavily involved in an initiative where Americans United For Change organizer/strategist Robert Creamer was a leading orchestrator of an initiative where the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign had been using trained provocateurs to instigate violence and chaos at Republican events nationwide – especially at rallies for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump – throughout that year's election cycle. The purpose of this strategy, which was carried out in close coordination with the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, was to create a public perception of “anarchy” around Trump, on the theory that its shock value would undermine his political support. For a detailed explanation of the strategy's genesis and key operatives, click here.
In 2017, P-USA supported a lawsuit which the League of Women Voters and three individuals filed against the state of New Hampshire in an attempt to block a voter-registration law that required people to provide a driver's license as proof of their primary residence.
Also in 2017, when P-USA absorbed Every Vote Counts – a nonprofit organization which Hillary Clinton supporters had created to mobilize black and Latino voters – Marc Elias, the top lawyer for Mrs. Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, joined the board of Priorities. Backed by millions of dollars from the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Elias had previously been behind a number of recent lawsuits filed against voter-identification laws in Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Moreover, he once represented the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a liberal activist group that engaged in voter-registration fraud.