Operation Bury Bernie: The Political Motive of the Jane Sanders Investigation

Imagine a sports team celebrating a championship victory even before the playoffs have started, and you have a good idea of what the mood must have been like among Donald Trump’s top political advisors after the New York Times ran this story:

A federal investigation into a long-ago land deal by Senator Bernie Sanders’s wife is threatening to take some of the luster off the senator’s populist appeal, attaching the phrase “bank fraud” to the biography of a politician practically sainted on the left for his stands against “millionaires and billionaires.”

Mr. Sanders, a Vermont independent, is still riding high on popularity from his presidential campaign, delivering rousing speeches to cheering progressives in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

But he has been shadowed by talk of a deepening investigation into his wife’s role in a 2010 land deal for a Vermont college that ultimately contributed to her ouster as its president. His wife, Jane Sanders, has hired a lawyer to represent her as federal authorities look into a $10 million sale of about 33 acres of lakefront property by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to Burlington College. Ms. Sanders was hoping to relocate and expand the institution.

The couple and many of their supporters maintain that the investigation is politically motivated and that it was set in motion by the Vermont state chairman for Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, Brady Toensing, who filed a complaint with the local United States attorney’s office in January 2016 on behalf of the diocese’s parishioners.

Earlier this month on CNN’s State of the Union, Sanders branded the investigation into his wife a right-wing witch hunt, and it seems difficult to disprove the suggestion that Republicans are getting their Salem on:

Toensing, 49, is an attorney and vice chairman of the state Republican Party. If not for Trump, he might be nothing more than a local thorn in the [Sanders] amily’s side. But in 2016, Toensing became leader of the Trump campaign in Vermont, a role that has propelled him into contention to become the state’s chief federal prosecutor.

Toensing has made a career of attacking Vermont’s Democratic and progressive politicians. His targets include the former governor and attorney general. His highest-profile target by far has been the Sanders family…

Toensing grew up in Detroit, where his mother was a federal prosecutor, and the Upper Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, where his father lived. He went to law school at Georgetown, then moved to Charlotte, Vt., in 2001 with his wife and three children. He remains a partner in the politically wired and aggressive D.C. law firm of his mother, Victoria, and her husband, Joe diGenova.

Toensing’s opposition research on Jane Sanders began in 2014, when the idea of Bernie Sanders’ eventual run for president made most Vermonters laugh. Late that summer, he approached a Vermont news outlet promising a juicy scoop. Jane Sanders had received a lucrative payout when she left the small, struggling college, he said.

A month later, attack ads appeared on local television that accused her of accepting a “golden parachute” from Burlington College even though her husband had criticized Wall Street executives for taking such payouts.

A little more than a year later, Toensing filed a complaint with the Vermont US attorney that requested an investigation into alleged bank fraud by Jane Sanders.

I mentioned yesterday the prospect of Sanders running again in 2020. If, in fact, Toensing is appointed as Vermont’s next US Attorney, and uses his position to further investigate Sanders’s family, such an effort would be a modern-day version of President Nixon’s sabotage of Sen. Edmund Muskie’s (D-ME) 1972 Presidential campaign. Nixon obviously wanted rid of Muskie because he feared Muskie’s viability in a general election; snuffing out Muskie’s campaign effectively ensured Nixon’s re-election. (Anybody remember the first name of Muskie’s wife, by the way?)

Trump’s minions would love to see Democrats turn on Sanders as soon as possible, branding him as hypocritical, shady and corrupt and questioning whether he should resign from his Senate seat due to the investigation of his wife and the “serious allegations” that investigation involves. (Bay State readers will recall how Democrats turned against then-Rep. John Tierney three years ago after his wife was involved in scandal; don’t think for a moment that Trump operatives are unaware of that precedent, or the larger dynamic of Democrats abandoning ideological allies linked to scandal while Republicans defend to the death ideological allies linked to scandal.) If that happens, the question then becomes: which potential 2020 Democratic contender will Trump’s minions drown in a sea of suspicion next?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.