Rep. Maxine Waters has been reborn at the age of 78, emerging as a folk hero to the anti-Trump resistance for her repeated torching of the president.
From the glowing coverage and partisan praise, you’d barely detect that just a few years ago the veteran California congresswoman was dubbed one of the nation’s “most corrupt” elected officials by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington for her role in pushing a bailout for a bank tied to her family.
Waters was eventually cleared by investigators, though her grandson who served as her chief of staff was not. And now, Democrats seem to be embracing—and some liberal ethics advocates willfully ignoring—her sudden emergence as one of the nation’s leading critics of ethical lapses in President Donald Trump’s administration.
Asked by The Daily Beast whether the group felt that Waters would be an effective critic of Trump’s own ethics given that history, Jordan Libowitz, a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington spokesman, demurred.
“Going to have to pass on this one, I think that’s just a little too political of a question for us,” read an email from Libowitz, whose group is a key component of a well-funded network of political and policy outfits working to “kick Donald Trump’s ass,” in the words of Democratic operative David Brock, who formerly chaired CREW’s board and has remained active with the group this year.
“She’s the Auntie Boss”
Waters these days is favorably referred to as a “resistance” fighter—by the kind of groups and viral-content creators who enjoy using a hashtag in front of the word “resistance” to signal their hatred of President Trump.
A majority of Waters’ press releases since election day have attacked Trump or a member of his administration directly. Highlights include multiple references to the president’s “Kremlin Klan” and releases with blunt headlines such as “Shame on you, Donald Trump!” and “Waters to Trump: If you hate the Constitution so much, resign!”
“The financial dealings and alliances in this Trump-Putin circle present obvious conflicts of interest for the Trump Administration, and they are too significant to be ignored,” the congresswoman said in one release. Waters told CNN in February that she was “suspicious... about who he is, where he comes from, what his actions are, [and] all of his conflicts.”
Waters, a longtime liberal bomb-thrower, has served in Congress for decades, where she currently represents California’s 43rd Congressional District. Long before President Trump came along, she had been taking activist stances against such U.S.-supported calamities as the Iraq War and apartheid South Africa. When the Age of Trump kicked off, Waters furiously went on the attack against the new administration, earning herself newfound viral status among previously unfamiliar young audiences, as well as glowing profiles by seasoned political writers.
Left-leaning viral-politics websites now routinely praise Waters as a Trump-bashing “resistance leader,” the Democratic “rock star” of 2017, and an all-around “badass” for her unflagging commitment to trashing the president as a crooked and racist liar.
Waters continued her incursion into millennial pop culture early this month when she received a celeb-studded standing ovation at the MTV Movie and TV Awards, where she took the stage to present the coveted award for Best Fight Against the System. In recent weeks and months, she has made countless appearances on cable news and progressive media to censure the Trump administration and its allies, and scored a speaking slot next to progressive stalwart Rep. Keith Ellison at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference earlier this month.
“We needed someone right now to shine the light of truth in a way that wakes us all up,” Brittany Packnett, a cofounder of Campaign Zero, told BuzzFeed early last month for a story explaining how Waters suddenly became a “hero” to Trump-loathing internet communities. “Congresswoman Waters is that light. She’s shaking it up and telling the truth, and we all owe her for it. She’s the Auntie Boss: As real as your Auntie and as powerful as only a black woman could be.”
Multiple aides to various other progressive members of Congress who spoke with The Daily Beast expressed varying degrees of surprise that Waters had been catapulted into the limelight as a leading warrior against Trump’s agenda and his financial conflicts of interest, given her own recent past, when Waters was accused of steering of taxpayer bailout money to a bank in which her husband was financially involved.
“When ethics groups of all political leanings agree that a particular member of Congress does not have the minimal ethics needed for the position, it is strange that that member parades as an advocate of ethics,” mused Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group. “That describes the current odd posturing of Maxine Waters.”
Family Ties, Federal Cash
When CREW named Waters one of its “most corrupt” politicians in 2011, the group focused on her role in a federal bailout for OneUnited Bank, on whose board her husband served and in which he owned a sizable stake, during the 2008 banking crisis. Waters arranged a meeting with the Treasury Department at which OneUnited representatives sought federal bailout money. The bank eventually received more than $12 million from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
That led to an ethics investigation into Waters’ involvement in setting up the meeting. Investigators eventually concluded that she had disclosed her financial ties to the bank, recused herself from decisions involving it, and believed the Treasury meeting would involve representatives from minority-owned banks generally, not just OneUnited (PDF). The Ethics Committee found that she had not violated any rules barring the use of one’s position for financial gain.
But that was not the case for Waters’ then-chief of staff Mikael Moore, who also happens to be her grandson. Investigators found that Moore had taken actions “unambiguously intended to assist OneUnited specifically.” He received an official reprimand.
Moore’s employment in Waters’ office raised issues of its own.
Waters told The Daily Beast that Moore had not violated any rules, and that is true. House ethics rules designed to combat nepotism in the legislature prohibit members of Congress from hiring most family members. But grandchildren were not on the list of prohibited hires when Waters gave Moore the top post in her Washington office. In early 2008, before the ethics committee began probing Waters’ role in the OneUnited bailout, CREW asked House administrators to address that apparent oversight.
“Given the extensive nature of the list, it seems clear that Congress intended for federal employees to avoid hiring relatives, even those with whom they might not have a close relationship such as first cousins,” wrote Melanie Sloan, then CREW’s executive director, in a letter to the House Administration Committee at the time (PDF). She specifically cited Waters’ hiring of Moore.
In an interview earlier this month, Waters rejected any suggestion that her past run-ins with congressional ethics authorities and watchdog groups had any bearing on her Trump remarks, and suggested that criticism of her ethics record—and reporting on that criticism—was an attempt to insulate the president from scrutiny.
“This story that you’re trying to put together, to somehow make it look as if I am as bad as a Trump, and I do bad things, and that somehow I don’t deserve to criticize him, is not credible,” she told The Daily Beast.
“I’d like you to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and I’d like you think about whether or not you’re trying to maybe protect the president somewhat, cleanse him a little bit, make him look a bit better, to make it look as if other people don’t have the right to point these things out about him and other people who you make it look as if they have the same kinds of problems,” Waters added. “I want you to think about that and think about whether or not this is a story you really want to do.”
She denied any equivalence between her own past ethical controversies and those dogging the president.
“If you’re trying to compare me with Trump, it’s totally different,” Waters said.
Pay to Play?
Moore is not the only Waters family member to benefit from the congresswoman’s position. Waters’ daughter Karen has pulled in nearly $650,000 for running a “slate mailer” operation for Waters’ campaign that ethics groups have described as an end-run around campaign finance limits.
For a fee of between $250 and $45,000, candidates and political groups can get Waters’ official backing. The fee earns them a spot on the slate mailers, campaign mailers that promote Waters allies who pay her campaign committee for those mailers. Karen Waters runs the slate mailer operation, and her consulting company is paid to manage it.
“All of that money [from endorsee fees] goes into the production of [the slate mailers] and she is paid for doing that—a very nominal fee when you compare it with the campaign consultants in Los Angeles,” Waters told The Daily Beast of the practice.
She stressed that the slate mailers are entirely above board legally—Waters sought and received official approval for the slate mailers from the Federal Election Commission in 2004—but as with her employment of a family member, ethics groups say the issue isn’t strict legality so much as the spirit of applicable campaign rules.
The Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit, describes the mailers as “a way to take large sums of money from state and federal political committees that seemingly exceed FEC contribution limits, but are perfectly legal under the federal election law.”
Still, to a younger audience hungry for elected officials to stick it to President Trump, “Auntie” Maxine’s sketchy past and track record of alleged ethical lapses might as well be ancient, forgotten history. As Waters herself has publicly noted, the recent surge in her fan base includes going from 46,000 Twitter followers to now upward of 300,000.
“I’ve decided that no matter those who do dislike what I’m doing, no matter those who disagree with me, I feel absolutely certain that this country deserves better than Donald Trump,” she told an applauding gala audience earlier this month.