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President Donald Trump’s stance on marijuana legalization became the jumping off point for a spat between a top White House aide, Republican operatives and a reporter on Thursday after Chief of Staff Mark Meadows laughed off a question about the prospects of broad cannabis reform advancing before the election in November.

But the controversy wasn’t solely about the administration’s position on legalization; rather the dispute centered on how freelance reporter Matt Laslo characterized the conversation on Twitter, where he said that Meadows suggested pro-cannabis reform Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) “has been misleading voters on marijuana” and that “Trump has no plan to lift a finger on cannabis legalization or even normalization.”

Laslo also shared audio from the interview and wrote that it showed Meadows “mockingly laugh when I ask if Trump plans to carry through on his promise to [Gardner] to relax federal marijuana laws.”

There’s some nuance to note. Trump and Gardner have discussed cannabis policy, the senator told Marijuana Moment in a recent interview—specifically his bill titled the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would allow states to set their own marijuana laws without federal intervention but would not federally deschedule, or legalize, cannabis. The president said in 2018 that he “really” supports the legislation.

But it isn’d clear that there has been an explicit “promise” on Trump’s part to actively push for the bill’s passage prior to November, though Laslo told Marijuana Moment that Gardner made clear in a Playboy interview the reporter did with the senator that he was under the impression it was, indeed, a pledge.

In any case, Meadows’s reaction to the question raises questions about if the administration is taking potential marijuana reform legislation seriously at all, whether through legalization or by simply protecting states’ rights.

That might not come as a particularly big surprise—especially considering that Meadows himself is a staunch opponent of cannabis legalization who consistently voted against reform amendments as a House member and that the administration has made other anti-marijuana hires.

But what is interesting is how White House Senior Communications Advisor Ben Williamson and other top GOP officials responded to Laslo’s tweets.

“Mark Meadows did not say Senator Gardner was misleading on anything—this is a blatant mischaracterization,” he said.

“He wasn’t laughing at Cory Gardner. He was laughing at getting a marijuana question out of left field from you,” he added. “So you’ve now directly misquoted him and also editorialized his motives to fit a hit piece you were writing.”

For context, here’s the audio recording of the conversation with Meadows, first reported for The New Station, and a transcript of the exchange: 

Laslo: Has there been any talk about moving marijuana legalization ahead of November?

Meadows: [Laughs]

Laslo: Trump promised it to Gardner.

Meadows: [Laughs]

Laslo: Some people say that disproportionately it affects minority communities.

Meadows: I’m not aware of anything on the agenda for the Senate or the House that would move a bill in that regard. We—the White House has not weighed in on that.

The communications aide to Trump and Meadows could have opted to avoid becoming involved in a story about marijuana policy, as one might have imagined with past Republican administrations reluctant to touch the issue. He also could have taken the opportunity to confirm that legalization wasn’t happening before November, or clarified that the president, in fact, does not support that policy change.

Instead, Williamson engaged in a back-and-forth to defend Meadows without dismissing marijuana reform—perhaps a sign of the political times given that a majority of voters across party lines now favor legalization. It could also be that the White House is sensitive to criticism of Gardner, who is in the midst of a reelection campaign in which polls show him trailing, and so they don’t want to create the appearance that a promise between him and Trump went unfulfilled, even if that promise was cannabis-related.

It’s also the case that the Trump reelection campaign is pushing a narrative that the president is the criminal justice reform candidate heading into November. While the Trump team hasn’t pushed for legalization, it has broadly criticized presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden as an “architect” of the war on drugs. Coming out against cannabis reform wouldn’t necessarily serve the image the campaign is trying to project for Trump.

From Laslo’s perspective, “it’s 100 percent [about] Gardner.”

“Even if you remember back in 2016, the first time Trump even teased the issue was in Colorado,” he said. “Trump knows his audience and the GOP knows their audience, and the party desperately needs Cory Gardner to win reelection if they want to maintain the Senate. I don’t think the president’s position even matters in this equation.”

For what it’s worth, Meadows can’t plead ignorance on cannabis issues, Marijuana Policy Project’s Don Murphy told Marijuana Moment.

“There’s no way he’s unaware. There’s just no way. I have talked to Mark Meadows dozens of times about this issue. We have had real conversations,” Murphy said. “I can’t imagine that he doesn’t know. Meadows has been around long enough to know that the president does what the president does.”

“I see a lot of positives in this dust up,” he added. “It did create some interest in the topic.”

Other Republican operatives also seized on Lalso’s characterization of the Gardner component of the interview.

“I listened to the audio and this tweet is a complete lie. Nowhere in this does Meadows say that Gardner is misleading people on marijuana,” Joe Jackson, communications director for the Colorado GOP, said. “You should delete this.”

After the reporter threatened to release a further off-the-record conversation with the White House chief of staff that he said involved talk of marijuana in order to defend his reputation, a senior advisor for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) said, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

“You wouldn’t have to defend your name if you just deleted your dishonest tweet,” he said. “The story is fine. But you invented an exchange that didn’t happen, and I’d never let any member I work for talk to you again after that.”

“Misrepresenting what someone said and threatening to release off the record convos? All this from a ‘j-school professor’?” NRSC Communications Director Jesse Hunt added. “Do the right thing and delete the tweet.”

Laslo clarified to Marijuana Moment that while Meadows requested that the conversation be off-the-record, that was never agreed to.

“Do the right thing & read the article,” Laslo responded. “But I get this comms strategy – distract, distort, contort and rev up the base with barbs against ‘the enemy.’ I get it, but it’s tired.”

“Look in the mirror lately? The truth is a beautiful thing,” he tweeted. Seek and ye shall find; unless you like lies.”

“What I saw last night was so disgusting. They just did these ad hominem attacks at me as a person that were completely unfounded,” Laslo told Marijuana Moment. “I have a 14-year-record as a congressional correspondent, where I’m respected by top Republican leaders. I’ve got Mark Meadow’s cell phone number because he trusts me.”

Bernie Sanders Calls For Marijuana Legalization In Senate Floor Speech On Policing Reform

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

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