Mar. 17

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McCabe Fired in "Friday Night Slaughter"

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was scheduled to retire tomorrow, with a pension reflecting his 20 years of service to his country. However, in a development that was simultaneously petty, deeply concerning, and entirely foreseeable, McCabe was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday night.

The official reason that McCabe was fired is that when he talked to FBI inspectors during an internal review of one of his decisions (to allow agents to speak with reporters about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation in 2016), he was not "candid" enough. While that is technically a fireable offense, it is the kind of thing that is generally overlooked (think of how many current cabinet officers were not "candid" enough during their confirmation hearings), or else that results in a compromise that the guilty party retires so as to avoid formal sanctions. McCabe, in fact, had already effectively retired—he stopped doing actual work months ago, and was using accrued leave time to cover the gap until he reached his retirement date, which he would have done tomorrow. Under any other president, he almost certainly would have been allowed to go quietly into the night, and that would have been that.

But Donald Trump isn't any other president, and McCabe's lack of candor isn't the real issue. The true reason that McCabe was fired is that Donald Trump hates him and, more significantly, hates what he represents (or, at least, what he represents to the President). First of all, though McCabe is a registered Republican, his wife is a Democrat. She ran for the Virginia state senate and got a big donation from a super PAC controlled by then-governor Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of the Clintons. Ipso facto, as far as The Donald is concerned, McCabe is a Democrat and a close friend of Hillary Clinton, and so is a "deep state" mole trying to bring down the Trump administration from within. None of this, of course, is supported by any evidence. However, it does lead to Trump's second complaint about McCabe: That because he's a mole, he didn't do enough to hammer Hillary for her e-mail server. This matter was examined exhaustively, of course, and there wasn't enough to hammer Hillary. And even if McCabe had wanted to do so, it wasn't his call, it was then-director James Comey's. And that leads us to the third and final problem, namely that McCabe is part of the FBI, which Trump thinks is out to get him. He's already fired the director (Comey), and he hasn't been able to bring himself to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. That leaves McCabe as the biggest, juiciest target at the Bureau. To put all of this more succinctly, McCabe embodies virtually all of the things that anger Trump the most—Russiagate, "Crooked Hillary," the FBI, Barack Obama, the deep state—and he is, unlike most of the other windmills Trump is tilting at, within the President's reach. So, of course Trump desperately wanted to fire him.

The problem for Trump is that, yet again, he has put short-term gain ahead of long-term pain. Here are the main problems he just created for himself:

In short, whether the President realizes it or not, he shot himself in the foot on Friday night. And he's not the only one who took a hit. In theory, Jeff Sessions is supposed to place the law above politics, and is supposed to be an advocate for the Constitution. Most AGs, including the two Nixon fired all those years ago, would have refused Trump's order. Sessions, on the other hand, announced to the world that he's just a partisan stooge. Similarly, Chief of Staff John Kelly has been portrayed as a moderating force who keeps Trump from doing too much damage. However, the President deviated enormously from constitutional norms on Friday night, and Kelly stood by and did nothing. It's true that he might not have been able to stop the President but, like Sessions, he could have resigned and he did not. It's another reminder that not only are there no grown-ups in the White House, the problem is getting worse.

On the other hand, it is at least possible that Sessions genuinely thinks he is doing what is best for the country. He knows that if he refused to fire McCabe, then Trump would fire him and replace him with someone (Scott Pruitt?) who would fire Robert Mueller. Using this reasoning, Sessions might be thinking that on the whole, punishing McCabe is a small price to pay to keep Mueller on the job. Four-dimensional chess anyone? (V & Z)

Trump Claims Daniels Violated Hush-Money Agreement 20 Times

There is more news on the porn front today, which, although exciting, would not be a top story, except for the fact that it fits in closely with today's theme: Trump lashes out to punish people he doesn't like. Up until now, Donald Trump has kept the hush-money case involving porn star Stormy Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford) at arm's length. He has claimed to know nothing about it or about the $130,000 that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid Daniels via a Delaware shell company. On Friday, that suddenly changed. Trump's lawyers filed a motion to move Daniels' lawsuit from state court in Los Angeles to federal court, possibly because federal courts tend to enforce arbitration agreements more strictly than California courts. In a second motion, Trump has personally joined the case, which technically involves Cohen's shell company, Essential Consultants.

The big question here is: "Why is Trump doing this?" Any PR consultant would have told him to just ignore the whole mess, let Daniels do her thing, call it fake news, and by November it will all be forgotten. By jumping into the mix personally, Trump has insured that the story remains on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and just about every other major paper in the country, as well as thousands of other news outlets, for days, if not weeks or months.

We don't know (yet) why he is keeping such a damaging story alive, but it might be due to one of four reasons:

On the other hand, there is a potential downside to giving this story more legs than a millipede. Women, especially college-educated suburban Republican women, who don't care about the affair or even the hush money may be upset about Trump bullying a woman, especially a woman who kept her part of the bargain for 10 years and has now been made a pawn in a larger game, not unlike Monica Lewinsky in an earlier presidency. It is hard to see how Trump will gain new supporters by keeping this story in the news (although it may fire up old ones), but it is easy to see how he could lose women who have supported him up until now (kind of like with McCabe; see above). It's a big gamble for Trump, but after all, he used to own casinos. Until they all failed. (V)

Trump Wants More Tariffs

While Donald Trump is wildly inconsistent on many issues, such as the dreamers, there are a few core issues where he has held the same position for decades. One of these is trade. He sees the U.S. as a real sap that is being taken advantage of by China and other countries, and he is prepared to reverse that, whatever the cost. The tariffs on steel and aluminum are just step 1. Now comes step 2. As early as next week, Trump intends to impose tariffs on at least $30 billion worth of Chinese exports to the U.S. The tariffs could hit high-tech products like semiconductors, but also low-tech products like shoes.

If Trump follows through, it will divide the U.S. badly. Some companies will be happy to be protected from Chinese competition, but others will find their supply chains disrupted. In addition, China could easily retaliate by putting a tariff on imports, varying from Boeing aircraft to Microsoft software. If China retaliates, Trump could hit back and before long, there could be a full-blown trade war.

Related to actual trade is the issue of what China is doing with the billions of dollars it is earning by selling products in the U.S. Part of that money is going into buying U.S. companies, some of them in critical industries or military suppliers. Trump wants to stop that. Again, if he follows through, there is a real risk of retaliation with unknown consequences. And by the way, the only country capable of putting any pressure at all on North Korea is China. So if trump gets into a real food fight with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he probably shouldn't count on much help trying to beat Little Rocket Man (a.k.a. Kim Jong-un) into submission. Who knew foreign affairs were so hard? (V)

Russia Could Have Turned Off the Electricity in the U.S.

By now we know that Russia almost certainly meddled with the 2016 elections, but that wasn't the only thing it was up to. The Department of Homeland Security has accused Russia of infiltrating the U.S. power grid, along with other pieces of critical infrastructure, including nuclear plants, water, aviation, and manufacturing. Vikram Thakhur, a technical director at cybersecurity firm Symantec, said Russia was positioned to cause major damage to the U.S. infrastructure. The tools were all in place. All that was needed was for Russian President Vladimir Putin to give the go-ahead.

A cyberattack would put the U.S. in uncharted waters. Suppose Putin turned off the electricity in a major U.S. city for days or weeks and denied doing it? Suppose he froze the federal air traffic control system so no planes could fly for days or weeks and denied doing anything? This puts the president in a fundamentally new bind. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, there wasn't a lot of doubt about who did it. Furthermore, it was a pretty clear act of war and countries know how to respond when they are attacked by a foreign power: They declare war and send out the troops and bombers. What happens if the lights go out and Putin says Xi did it and Xi says Putin did it? The U.S. is woefully unprepared for a cyberwar, but it may well be that the next war is fought in cyberspace. What we have seen so far is undoubtedly just a small warm-up exercise. It could (and probably will) get a lot worse. (V)

Tarkanian Dropping Out of Nevada Senatorial Primary

The Republicans got some good news yesterday, when perennial losing candidate Danny Tarkanian dropped out of the Nevada Senate race at the urging of Donald Trump. Tarkanian had almost no chance of winning, but he could well have forced Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) far to the right and made him unelectable in the general election. He could also have forced Heller to spend a ton of money on the primary and might have badly divided the Republican Party while going down in flames. Now none of that will happen. Heller now has a clear shot at the nomination with no obstacles in the way. Tarkanian will now run for a House seat.

That said, Heller is far from home free. He has a formidable general election opponent in Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who also has no primary opponent of note. This means Heller and Rosen can start the general election campaign tomorrow, 8 months before the election. Heller is one of the weakest Republican incumbents, so the Democrats are going to put everything they have got into this race.

With Tarkanian's withdrawal and the decision by Chris McDaniel to switch from going after Roger Wicker to going after whoever is appointed to fill the seat of the Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS, who will resign from the Senate on April 1), no Republican incumbent has a serious primary challenger. What a world of difference from the plan that former White House strategist Steve Bannon had concocted. Bannon was going to arrange for a challenger for every Republican Senate incumbent, but now he's out at Breitbart and is spending his time rubbing elbows with European right wingers. So, instead of every GOP senator facing a right-wing challenger, none will. (V)

Pennsylvania GOP Asks for Investigation

As expected, Pennsylvania's Republican Party has sent a letter requesting that Pennsylvania Secretary of State Robert Torres conduct an investigation into "a number of irregularities" in this week's election in PA-18. They have found all sorts of things to quibble about, from improperly calibrated voting machines, to unclear directions to polling places on the Secretary's website, to voters not appearing on voter rolls. The GOP's concern about these matters is, shall we say, a new development.

In the end, it's worth asking why the Party is bothering with this. At this point, "the GOP lost a seat in a deep-red district" and "the GOP barely won a seat in a deep-red district with the help of some legal maneuvering" are effectively the same, PR-wise. And the district isn't going to exist in its current form in November, so we're only talking about six months of actual service in Congress. In any case, Pennsylvania law requires that three signed affidavits, attesting to fraud or error, per precinct be submitted within five days of the election for a recount. Presumably, the letter the Pennsylvania GOP sent is a de facto acknowledgment that they are not going to be able to get the affidavits together, and so are going to try an end run around the rules (backed by the implied threat of a lawsuit). Given existing law, they probably won't get anywhere. For what it is worth, the Secretaryship of State is an appointed, officially non-partisan position in Pennsylvania. Torres was recently appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D), which certainly suggests he's left-leaning, and at very least allows us to be fairly confident that he's not going to work hard to tote the GOP's water. That would not be true if he was, for example, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R). (Z)

Cook Moves Nine More Races Towards Democrats

In view of Conor Lamb's apparent victory in PA-18, the non-partisan Cook Political Report has moved another nine races in the direction of the blue team. Most notably the seats held by Reps. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Keith Rothfus (R-PA) are now all in the "toss-up" column. In total, Cook has 73 Republican seats that it sees in play, as opposed to just 17 for the Democrats. As a reminder, the Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to retake the House. If they were to split Cook's competitive races 50/50 with the GOP, they would gain 28.

There are, of course, other ways to look at this question. For example, there is the betting site PredictIt, where folks can invest real money in what they think will happen in the elections. At the moment, "Democrats win the House" is selling for 67 cents a share, and "Republicans keep the House" is selling for 35 cents a share. That effectively equates to a 66% chance of the Democrats taking control. More specifically, "investors" see a fair chance of the Dems picking up 24-30 seats (roughly 15%), or 30-35 (15%), or 35-40 (10%), or 45-50 (5%), or 50-55 (5%), or more than 55 (15%).

Still another way to look at it, one that will allow Democrats to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, is to consider the "generic Democrat" vs. "generic Republican" polls. In the aggregate, they suggest the blue team will outpoll the red team by 8 points in November. If that were to happen, and the effect was uniform across the country, the Democrats would pick up roughly 80 seats. This is a crude approach, as "generic Republican" will not be on the ballot in most districts, an incumbent will. And, the blue wave, if it happens, will not be distributed evenly across the country. Nonetheless, any way one looks at it, the Democrats have to feel pretty good about their chances in the midterms. (Z)

Louise Slaughter Dies

The oldest member of Congress, Louise Slaughter (D-NY), died yesterday at 88. She was born in Kentucky and kept her Kentucky accent, even though she represented an upstate New York district in the House for over 30 years. Her death will force a special election to replace her. Her district has a PVI of D+8. In recent special elections we have seen huge shifts leftward in Republican districts, so it should be interesting to see if that also holds in a Democratic district. Maybe previously red districts will start electing Democrats, and previously blue districts will start electing communists or anarchists. (V)

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