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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  FBI's Russia Inquiry Likely Started with Papadopoulos
      •  Mueller Probe Just Getting Started
      •  Congressional Democrats Want to Talk to Priebus
      •  Trump Fires Rest of AIDS Council
      •  Pence Urged to "Make America Gay Again"
      •  Top Five Trump Sycophants
      •  Russiagate Is Not Watergate

FBI's Russia Inquiry Likely Started with Papadopoulos

The New York Times is working hard to unravel as much of the Russia puzzle as they can. Its latest report illuminates one of the very earliest pieces of the puzzle. In May of 2016, Donald Trump's campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had drinks with Alexander Downer, Australia's emissary to Great Britain. During the meeting, Papadopoulos dropped a bombshell: The Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton, in the form of hacked e-mails. Through channels, Downer passed this information on to the FBI, and that is likely what launched the Bureau's probe into Russian meddling into the 2016 election (and not the infamous Christopher Steele dossier, as Trump's allies have claimed).

This is pretty big news, for a few reasons. The first is that it makes clear that contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians began very early, well before Trump was the GOP nominee. Beyond that, it further undermines the administration's assertion that Papadopoulos—who has turned state's evidence—was a minor player in the campaign. And finally, this new information suggests that by May of last year, Team Trump had a compelling reason to believe that the Russians really did have juicy stuff on Clinton. That puts the infamous meeting at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya (in June 2016) and Peter Smith's attempt to acquire the Clinton e-mails (in July 2016) in a much darker light. Of course, special counsel Robert Mueller certainly knew all of this long before the Times did. Undoubtedly Papadopolous told him this (and possibly more) as part of his plea deal. (Z)

Mueller Probe Just Getting Started

Speaking of Robert Mueller, there are many people in Washington who are pressing him to wrap up his investigation quickly. Those who are watching the tea leaves closely say that isn't happening, and that the available clues we have all suggest that Mueller will be at work well into 2018.

To start, Mueller empaneled a grand jury with the usual term of 18 months (which can be extended in 6-month increments, as needed). He's only 5 months into that 18-month term, and his staff is still engaging regularly with the jury. Just last week, for example, prosecutor Jeannie Rhee was seen entering the courthouse. Generally speaking, the grand jury is a starting point for various enforcement actions, like indictments and warrants. In other words, Mueller may have a few fish already in his net—a Yellowfin Flynn, a Rainbow Manafort, a great white Papadopoulos—but he's clearly gunning for more.

Further, even among the fish that Mueller does have, he's not moving particularly quickly. Mike Flynn, for example, isn't scheduled to make another court appearance for a month. Clearly, Team Mueller is doing a lot of other things with their time, and is (probably) also wanting to allow a Jared Kushner or a Donald Trump Jr. to marinate for a little while, as they wait for the other shoe to drop.

Needless to say, it is within the power of Donald Trump to throw a giant wrench into the investigation, and to move the U.S. directly into constitutional crisis mode, by getting someone in the Justice Dept. to fire Mueller. But if that does not happen, then this story is going to linger well into 2018, and maybe into 2019. (Z)

Congressional Democrats Want to Talk to Priebus

Way back in 1981, during New Jersey's gubernatorial election, the Republican Party hired armed off-duty law enforcement officers, gave them armbands, and told them to challenge black voters' right to vote. The Ballot Security Task Force, as the RNC called it, was credited for giving a narrow victory to Republican Tom Kean. It also led to an outcry, and to a 1982 judicial order that said that for the next 35 years, the RNC was forbidden from engaging in "ballot security" or monitoring polling places in subsequent elections.

That order was set to expire on December 1st. However, on election night 2016, the Trump campaign was monitoring polling places from the fifth floor of Trump Tower. That is legal under the terms of the 1982 order, as long as the party apparatus isn't involved. But then, Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus wandered down to the fifth floor and spent some time where they should not have, since they were RNC members at that point. Spicer was deposed last week, and admitted the violation, but said he didn't see any of the four large signs telling him to stay away from the fifth floor. Now, congressional Democrats want to talk to Reince Priebus, and to ask him how he managed to miss the signs (and, as RNC chair, how he was unaware of the rules, signs or no).

The Democrats' stated goal here is to cause the original 35-year order to be extended. Their unstated goal, undoubtedly, is to draw attention to the notion that Republicans—past and present—have a habit of disregarding the rules governing peoples' right to vote, and also a habit of blocking minority votes. Whether or not Priebus is compelled to testify, and whether or not the 1982 order is extended, is in the hands of U.S. District Court Judge John Michael Vazquez, an appointee of Barack Obama (Z).

Trump Fires Rest of AIDS Council

The Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) was formed by President Bill Clinton in 1995 in order to suggest policy initiatives that might help combat the AIDS crisis. Back in June, six of the 10 members resigned, with all six signing an open letter that declared, "Trump doesn't care about HIV." Now, Trump has terminated the appointments of the remaining four members, with a press release explaining that the administration will hire 10 new people in 2018 so they can "bring in new voices."

It is very unlikely that Trump's concern is that the remaining four members (or the other six who resigned) were not outspoken and/or activist enough. That suggests that one of two things is about to happen. One possibility is that PACHA is about to be packed with an assortment of AIDS-deniers, pharmaceutical bigwigs, or gay conversion therapy advocates. In other words, something like what's happened with the EPA. The thinking, if this is the course of action, would be something along the lines of, "If the council isn't doing anything anyhow, might as well score some points with the base."

The other possibility is that PACHA is about to be shut down, and the administration is expecting that people won't notice when new members are not appointed. Given that the White House has already shuttered its Office of National AIDS Policy, and scrubbed every reference to AIDS from the White House's website, this seems to be the likely outcome. This would not be the first time something like this has happened; the George H. W. Bush administration shut down Ronald Reagan's President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic, while the George W. Bush administration essentially ignored the PACHA, sometimes scheduling as few as two meetings per year. (Z)

Pence Urged to "Make America Gay Again"

The brilliant thing about Donald Trump's MAGA is that it is the ultimate 21st-century sound bite. It can be fit easily onto hats and shirts and posters, and into tweets and text messages and Instagram posts. The downside is that it is extremely easy to appropriate and to parody. This is something that Vice President Mike Pence is learning firsthand this week as he vacations in Aspen, Colo. One of his neighbors has hung a large rainbow banner adorned with the phrase "Make America Gay Again." It's not exactly clear what would be entailed in making America gay again, though it's unlikely that the rabidly homophobic Pence is going to do it.

MAGA parodies are also abundant on Twitter, particularly among the tens of thousands of responses that every tweet from Donald Trump generates. Among the more common variants:

  • Make America Gullible Again
  • Many A**holes Getting Arrested
  • Making Americans Go Abroad
  • Morons Are Governing America
  • Making All Groping Acceptable
  • Mueller Ain't Going Away
  • Moronic A**hole's Golfing Again
  • Mexican American Grocers Association

The last one is actually a real organization. Presumably, nobody has told the President that a group of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles were MAGA 40 years before his political career began. (Z)

Top Five Trump Sycophants

RedState is a conservative website, but many of its contributors are NeverTrumpers, or else have grown disenchanted with Donald Trump over the course of his first year in office. In the latter group is "Carl Arbogast" (presumably a nom de plume inspired by the movie Sneakers), who prepared a helpful guide to the five biggest Trump sycophants in the country. The highlights:

  • Jacob Wohl (Twitter): "You'll find Wohl replying to nearly every Trump tweet, usually within minutes with a statement of support no matter what Trump says...You can almost hear him in the Smeagol voice saying, 'My Trump. My preciousssss.'"

  • Sean Hannity (Fox News): "Have we ever witnessed a person who walked the establishment conservative line for so long go down the path of Trumpism so fast? Hannity didn't just get on board The Trump Train. He was ready to lie down in front of it, shouting, 'I LOVE YOU DONALD!!!' as the train plowed over him and turned him into a corpse. Even in death, Hannity would be yelling, 'MAGA!' Hannity ditched conservatism to gain favoritism in the eyes of Cheeto Jesus."

  • Jack Posobiec (Twitter): "If there were ever a more pathetic Trumper than Posobiec, you'd be hard-pressed to find one...Posobiec made his bones playing footsie with the alt-right like his knuckle-dragging Gorilla Mindset lisping goon, Mike Cernovich. Posobiec was happy to play kissy with white nationalists such as Richard Spencer. He, like Cernovich, built their large following catering to the Pepe Frog crowd with talk of 'white genocide' and adhering to kook conspiracy theories such as Seth Rich and Pizzagate. Posobiec then wanted to gain some credibility and hilariously tried to distance himself from his past. It didn't work. But he still humps Trump's leg."

  • Matt Boyle (Breitbart): "Boyle, by virtue of being a part of the Bannonbart operation became a Trump leg-humper by default. But he quickly started sucking down the Trump Kool-Aid and became a true believer. Boyle, who uses so many adjectives and adverbs in his 'reporting' it would cause most editors to jump out a window, is another person who feels Trump can do no wrong."

  • Sebastian Gorka (former Breitbart editor, former White House staff): He's such a douche that he blocks anybody on Twitter critical of him or Donald Trump. It is hard to keep track of all the idiotic statements he's made and lies he's told in defending Donald Trump or attempt to cast blame on every Trump failure on Barack Obama.

Note that the wording above is theirs, not ours. Looking at his archive, there is no question that Arbogast is a conservative, one who loathes Rosie O'Donnell, Jimmy Kimmel, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). His list reminds us that there is a significant portion of the GOP faithful that finds Trump and his base reprehensible. What these folks will do with their votes will be a big story in 2018 and 2020. (Z)

Russiagate Is Not Watergate

Yesterday, we had a piece about Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre," and how some of the things that were fatal to Tricky Dick are not true for Donald Trump. Most obviously, Trump does not record his White House conversations (so, no "smoking gun"), and he is not facing a Congress dominated by the opposition party (at least, not at the moment).

Now, let's look at the other side of the equation, and several of the ways in which Trump's position is weaker than Nixon's was:

  • Two Crimes vs. One: The original crime in the Watergate case, the burgling of the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex by Nixon lackeys, was a low-level offense, and nobody seriously thinks Nixon was directly involved. Where Tricky Dick got into trouble was that he tried to cover up that crime, thus laying the groundwork for an obstruction of justice charge. In Trump's case, he may also have obstructed justice. However, the original crime that launched Russiagate—conspiracy with the Russians—is, if proven, vastly more serious than a second-rate burglary. And Trump's non-involvement is not yet certain. So, The Donald has two significant crimes where he may be exposed, rather than one.

  • Nixon Kept His Mouth Shut: Yes, Nixon had a serious case of loose lips when he was in the White House, and given the tape recording system, that came back to haunt him. However, as a former lawyer, he was clever enough not to make public statements that handed evidence to special prosecutor Archibald Cox in a package so tidy it might as well be gift wrapped. The same is not true for Donald Trump, a non-lawyer who creates all manner of headaches for his counselors with his public statements. Just this week, for example, The Donald told the New York Times that, "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department." Not only is this untrue, it's also dangerously close to declaring, "I'm allowed to obstruct justice." Undoubtedly, Robert Mueller clipped a copy of that interview for his files.

  • Staff Loyalty: Richard Nixon had pretty good luck with staffers remaining loyal to him; conspirator G. Gordon Liddy famously offered to stand on a street corner on Washington D.C. so he could be killed and then blamed for everything. Still, there are many people who know a president's secrets, and the betrayal of just a few of them—most notably Mark Felt (aka "Deep Throat") and John Dean—was key to the President's downfall. The Trump White House, by contrast, leaks like a sieve, and just months into the investigation, numerous former loyalists—who apparently weren't so loyal—have agreed to throw The Donald under the bus.

  • Approval Ratings: Richard Nixon had a very successful first term, ending the Vietnam War, improving the economy, taking steps to protect the environment, and normalizing relations with China, among other things. His approval ratings when Watergate first broke were in the 60s, and they remained in the 50s for the first nine months thereafter. Trump, by contrast, is in the high 30s right now. This matters a lot, because impeachment is a political decision as much as it is a prosecutorial decision. The lower a president's approval rating is, the higher the chance he gets impeached. If Nixon dropped 35 points once evidence of his involvement in a crime began to leak out, what will happen to Trump's approval once Robert Mueller lays his cards on the table?

  • The Nixon Precedent: Perhaps the single-biggest advantage that Nixon had over Trump is that Nixon did not follow Nixon. When Tricky Dick took office, he inherited what scholars call "the imperial presidency." Like a king or queen, the President was assumed to be a better sort of person than mere mortals, and believed to be above such things as swearing or lying outright or engaging in shady behavior. Put another way, Nixon benefited a great deal from the fact that it took the American people a long time to notice, and to accept, that maybe the emperor wasn't so imperial. Since Watergate, by contrast, everyone is on the lookout for venal behavior from the president, and everyone is much more likely to believe that such behavior may have taken place.

The lesson here is that while Watergate and Russiagate are very similar, sometimes eerily so, there are also some major differences. Some of those differences work to Donald Trump's benefit and some of them most certainly do not. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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