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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Is the Cheese Slipping Off Trump's Cracker?
      •  Foreign Affairs Are Going Poorly
      •  Trump Comfortable with Vacancies
      •  Trump Is Fumbling Puerto Rico Badly
      •  McConnell Feeling the Heat
      •  Skeletons Emerge From Moore's Closet
      •  Democrats Worried About Russian Hacking Redux in 2018

Is the Cheese Slipping Off Trump's Cracker?

Following Donald Trump's spat with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), and in particular the Senator's snarky remark about the "adult day care" center in the White House, there have been a number of articles written about the President's state of mind and his behavior behind closed doors. The Washington Post had such an article, so did Newsweek and Vox, among others.

The latest, and perhaps the most concerning, entry comes courtesy of Vanity Fair, which hits Trump with both barrels. Speaking to the publication anonymously (of course), White House insiders described the President as "unstable," "losing a step," and "unraveling." According to more than one witness, Trump told longtime confidant Keith Schiller, "I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!" Longtime friends are supposedly "shocked" and "stunned" by what they are seeing these days, as Trump undergoes frequent mood swings and launches into regular temper tantrums. Nearly every key official—like, say, Chief of Staff John Kelly—is terribly unhappy, and many remain on the job primarily out of concern for what Trump might do without them as a buffer. Reportedly, Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have even discussed a plan to physically tackle the President if he tries to launch a nuclear strike.

It's true that the article is pretty gossipy, and that Vanity Fair is not exactly the New York Times. However, the same themes and much of the same information keeps coming up in reporting from many different outlets. The White House denies everything, of course, but if those denials are truthful, then it would mean that there is an extremely well-coordinated and well-disciplined group of Trump opponents in the White House feeding the media false information. Not impossible, but not too likely, either. And perhaps the most stunning tidbit in the Vanity Fair piece comes from someone who presumably knows what he's talking about, and who was happy to put his name with his words: Steve Bannon. Reportedly, he believes there is only a 30% chance that Trump makes it to the end of his term. Not because of physical incapacity or impeachment, but because of the likelihood that the cabinet will invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the President from office. Bannon could just be stirring the pot by saying this, but it's rather hard to see how this declaration—if it is a lie—helps him or Breitbart. For what it's worth, Ladbrokes has Trump at 11/10 to finish his first term (47%), so if Bannon really believes what he says, he could make some money. (Z)

Foreign Affairs Are Going Poorly

Since America assumed a leading role on the global stage a century or so ago, each president has generally had a few foreign countries where he was able to reinvigorate their relationship with America, and perhaps a few where the relationship took a few steps back. For example, Barack Obama tightened America's ties with Germany, France, Argentina, Cuba, and (on some level) Iran, but saw relations with Russia, Syria, Libya, and Israel, among others, deteriorate.

Foreign policy was not Obama's strong suit, so his successes there are a little less substantial than those of a Richard Nixon or a Dwight D. Eisenhower or a Roosevelt (either one). Still, Obama did notch a few victories. In the case of Donald Trump, by contrast, one struggles to think of a country or a leader with whom he has developed a close relationship. At the start of The Donald's term, there were a few leaders who were pretty happy with his ascension—Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, or Vladimir Putin. But even they have backed off, meaning that the country the President's now doing best with may be...China, perhaps? It may be apropos to paraphrase Sen. Al Franken's (D-MN) line about Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): "China likes Trump better than most countries do, and they hate Trump."

Meanwhile, as the Donald largely fails to win friends and influence people abroad, a number of situations are rapidly getting worse. There's North Korea, of course. On Wednesday, they continued their war of words against the administration, announcing that Trump has "lit the wick of the war" against them. "We need to settle the final score, only with a hail of fire, not words," they threatened. Now, in fairness to Trump, North Korea has considered themselves to be in a state of war against the U.S. for the past 70 years, and has spent much of that time blustering about it. Still, their increasing bluster combined with their increasing firepower is not a promising combination.

Then, there is Turkey. Obama managed to keep things steady with them and not a lot more; there was reason to believe that Trump—with his longstanding connections in that nation—might outdo his predecessor. Not so much, as it turns out. The Turks have been aggravated for years about the United States' unwillingness to exile cleric Fethullah Gulen, an outspoken opponent of the Turkish government. They're also not thrilled about American support for Kurdish rebels in Syria. Now that Trump has failed to reverse Obama's policies on these two matters, the Turkish government is ratcheting up their bad behavior, and has arrested a number of U.S. citizens living in Turkey, as well as several non-citizens who were working for the U.S. embassy, or for American newspapers. The charge, in nearly all cases, is espionage, though this is not really credible. In response to Turkish provocations, the U.S. stopped issuing visas to Turkish visitors, and then Turkey retaliated in kind. So, with only a few exceptions, there is no travel allowed between the two countries. No end to this crisis is in sight, particular while Trump is busy focusing on the NFL and his feud with Bob Corker.

There's also Iran. For such a touchy subject, there's an unusually high level of agreement between Democrats and Republicans (including most members of the Trump administration) that sticking with the Obama-era nuclear deal is better than pulling out. But the President campaigned hard against the deal, and delivering whatever wins he can to the base is generally paramount above all else. He's kicking the matter to Congress to deal with, and from there, anything could happen. The Iranians have already responded angrily, and experts predict that things will only get worse if Trump opens "Pandora's Box" by allowing the agreement to be killed.

These are three prominent examples, but there are others that are currently on the back burner, like Venezuela and Cuba. With a capable Secretary of State and a fully functioning State Department, it might be possible to clean many of these messes up. But instead, Trump has a Secretary he loathes and a State Department with more empty desks than filled ones. He also doesn't like to think long-term, doesn't like to commit to a particular approach and stick with it, and only sometimes listens to his National Security Advisor and the other experts in the White House. So, there's every reason to think that things are just going to keep going downhill. (Z)

Trump Comfortable with Vacancies

Speaking of the empty desks at the State Department, Donald Trump is falling further and further behind his predecessors when it comes to staffing his administration. He's managed to get 172 people confirmed (some of whom, like HHS Secretary Tom Price, have already left their posts). That's barely half the 341 that Barack Obama had gotten confirmed by this point, less than half of George W. Bush's total of 358, and well behind the 299 of Bill Clinton and the 247 of George H. W. Bush. Particularly understaffed are the Departments of State, Agriculture, Education, and Energy.

The lag is so pronounced, and has gone on for so long, that Trump is now working hard to spin it as a feature, not a bug. "I'm generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be—because you don't need them," Trump declared earlier this week. "I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it's totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people."

There is, of course, some merit to the President's argument. The federal government is very big, is certainly bloated in some places, and there are undoubtedly places where fat can be cut. However, in no way does the list of vacancies suggest that careful attention has been paid to the matter, since some obviously important positions remain open, while some relatively insignificant ones have been filled. For example, the U.S. has an ambassador to Timor-Leste, but not one to Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Syria, or Cuba. The assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs has been chosen, but the undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs—whose views might be helpful right about now—has not been. Over at Energy, there's an assistant secretary for fossil energy in place, but no assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy nor an assistant secretary for environmental management. Actually, that one might well have been thought through. In any event, there's nothing and no one that can force Trump to fill these jobs, or to pick up the pace, so a half-staffed federal government is going to be the reality for the foreseeable future. (Z)

Trump Is Fumbling Puerto Rico Badly

Given how badly Hurricane Katrina blew up in George W. Bush's face, one would think that his successors would be ultra-careful not to let the same happen to them. And one would be wrong. In the week or so since President Trump got into an ugly public spat with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the situation in Puerto Rico has deteriorated. The death toll—now up to 45—and the lack of potable water and electricity have gotten most of the headlines. However, the biggest problem may be a serious food shortage. Over 2 million people currently have no way to get nourishment, which is to say that there's a need for the government to supply between 2 and 6 million meals a day. So how many is FEMA actually providing? Something like 200,000, many of which are military ready-to-eat rations that tend to cause digestive problems if consumed for too many meals in a row. Even that number may soon drop, as the supply chain has become ensnared in red tape.

This is a pretty grim accounting; one would hope and expect that President Trump would be working overtime to improve the situation, if not for the Puerto Ricans, then just to spare himself a Katrina-level embarrassment. Instead, however, he decided to hop on Twitter and share this thought:

Not only is he celebrating his bigly "success" on this matter, he is...well...whining about not getting enough credit. If being photographed on an airplane peering down at the Katrina devastation came off as crass and insensitive for W, then this would seem to be the equivalent of actually opening the door of the plane and relieving oneself on the folks below. Of course, given how fast and furious the scandals and the outrages seem to be coming these days, maybe nobody outside the island will even notice. (Z)

McConnell Feeling the Heat

In case you thought that today's entire post was going to be about Donald Trump's failings, don't worry, we've got Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) failings to talk about, too. Politics is a "what have you done for me lately" kind of business, and with McConnell's inability to kill Obamacare, and the lack of progress on changing the tax code, conservative activists have already forgotten that he essentially conjured them a Supreme Court justice out of thin air. Consequently, they want him gone pronto. Ideally, in their view, he would pull a full Boehner and leave the Senate immediately. But failing that, they will settle for the resignation of McConnell and the rest of his team from their leadership positions in the Senate.

Thus far, McConnell has had no comment on the calls for his head. However, sometimes actions speak louder from words, and it is pretty clear that he's starting to sweat. He knows that with the hand he's been dealt—an unsteady president, a divided Republican caucus, a slew of overly-ambitious campaign promises by the GOP—he may not actually score any big legislative successes this term. So, at the moment, he's returned to his old standby: judges. McConnell has hinted at killing "blue slips," a longstanding Senate tradition in which Senators have half a veto over a judge who will serve in their home state, such that if the two Senators in a delegation—say, Al Franken (D-MN) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)—agree, then the nomination dies. McConnell, his desperation palpable, is now ready to actually move forward with the plan, so that he can ram through a large number of arch-conservative judges all over the federal judiciary. Old school Senate institutionalists like Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and John McCain (R-AZ) aren't sold on the idea, so the Majority Leader is going to have to do some arm twisting. Still, much easier to climb this molehill than it is to climb Mt. Obamacare Repeal. (Z)

Skeletons Emerge From Moore's Closet

Now that Roy Moore is officially the GOP's candidate in the race to fill Jeff Sessions' old Senate seat, he's learning that politics is a rough business, where most dirty secrets don't stay secret for long. That's true of any aspiring officeholder, but Moore actually has a few extra things working against him in this regard, namely that (1) He's 70, and so has had plenty of time to make trouble for himself, (2) A lot of people really hate him, and so are eager to take him down, and (3) Not too many other people are running for office right now, so the investigative reporters have got nothing but time to explore every nook and cranny of his existence.

On Wednesday, two different skeletons of Moore's presented themselves for public inspection. The first is that his 27-year-old son Caleb was arrested and charged with trespassing. Moore promptly issued a statement blasting the arrest as a "cheap political trick." Maybe it was, but that doesn't explain the eight other arrests on Caleb's record, most of them for drug possession or driving under the influence. It may be unfair to hold a parent responsible for the bad behavior of their children, but given that Moore has spent his entire public life presuming to lecture people on how to live their lives, perhaps it's not so unfair after all. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and all of that.

The other revelation, and the one that's surely more damaging, involves the Foundation for Moral Law, which is the charity Moore founded to promote "Christian values." Several times, Moore claimed that his part-time work for the charity was pro bono. His tax returns backed this up, since he listed no income from the foundation on them. It turns out, however, that a few small considerations slipped his mind. As in $180,000 a year in payments for six years, for a grand total north of $1 million. Tax free, no less, since he didn't tell the IRS about the money.

It remains to be seen who or what else might be lurking in Moore's closet. But it's certainly possible that this race could get very interesting. And even if he wins, Moore could become the first U.S. Senator to be under indictment before being sworn in, thanks to that pretty clear-cut case of tax evasion he's now got to answer for. (Z)

Democrats Worried About Russian Hacking Redux in 2018

Given all the difficulties currently engulfing the Republican Party, Democrats are liking their chances at retaking the Senate in 2018, despite the fact that they (with their two independent colleagues) are defending 25 seats to the GOP's 8. This week, however, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee rained on the blue team's parade a bit, warning that all indications suggest the Russians will be back in 2018 to meddle in another election.

The concern, in particular, is that the Russians will use a tactic they have already deployed (apparently), and kill a few thousand Democratic voter registrations in states like West Virginia or Montana. That would be subtle enough for Putin & Co. to get away with, but significant enough to possibly sink Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) or Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who already face tough re-election battles. Steps could be taken to improve security, but they are expensive, and would require the votes of Senate Republicans, and the signature of Donald Trump. Given which party seems likely to benefit from Russian tampering, Democrats worry that the money, votes, and signature will not be forthcoming. Their best hope is probably to attach a bill providing money for new voting equipment to some larger piece of legislation that the GOP really needs to pass. However, they already tried that with the latest defense appropriations bill, and got shot down. Certainly the Democrats will try again, but it may take some serious horse trading—say, election security in exchange for tax code concessions—and even then, they may not be able to get it done. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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