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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Out Like Flynn
      •  Mnuchin, Shulkin Confirmed by Senate
      •  Four GOP Senators Undecided about Puzder
      •  What Does Trump Really Believe?
      •  Trump's Approval Rating Hits New Low in Gallup Poll
      •  Strange New Senator

Out Like Flynn

National Security Advisor Mike Flynn spent the weekend on thin ice. His pre-inaugural discussions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. probably violated the Logan Act, which prohibits ordinary citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. However, it appears that his real sin was lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the discussions, making Pence look foolish. Whatever the case may be, Flynn's head has now rolled. Late Monday night, he resigned, presumably not voluntarily.

This is, of course, a huge black eye for the Trump Administration. His team hasn't even collected their first paychecks yet, and already someone has had to resign in a cloud of scandal. And not a trivial scandal, either—this isn't hiring an undocumented maid or sending an inappropriate photograph on one's cell phone. Flynn broke the law and then lied about it. Further, he is hardly the only member of the team to find themselves in hot water. Would-be communications director Jason Miller and would-be adviser Monica Crowley didn't even make it to Inauguration Day, felled by charges of adultery and plagiarism, respectively. Steve Bannon has attracted negative attention for his power grabs. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have been mocked for their "alternative facts," the latter also had to be reprimanded for breaking the law on national television. For a candidate who promised to hire "the best people," Trump certainly hasn't had much success so far.

Meanwhile, this is a big win for the media and the intelligence establishment. Flynn would likely have skated, if not for the fact that America's spies knew what he actually said, and the Washington Post printed it. Since neither the intel folks nor the media are among Trump's favorite entities, their victory will be particularly galling to him. He won't even be able to point the finger at the Democrats, since they had absolutely nothing to do with Flynn's downfall.

In the short-term, the Administration's most pressing concern is finding a replacement for the General. The NSA is a key post, since the Advisor's input could be needed on a moment's notice if Iran attacks a warship, or North Korea lobs a missile in Japan's direction. There appear to be four leading candidates:

  • Keith Kellogg: Like Flynn, Kellogg is a former lieutenant general who showed loyalty to Trump throughout the campaign. He has extensive military and foreign policy experience, and has already been named acting NSA. If he wants to keep the job, however, he'll have to overcome some significant black marks on his record. First of all, he played a key role in the disastrous occupation of Iraq as the director of operations of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Given Trump's outspoken disdain for that war, it would be somewhat difficult for him to appoint one of the conflict's central figures. Kellogg has also worked for several of Washington's most controversial defense contractors, such as CACI International, the company that hired many of the interrogators involved with the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Finally, at 72 years of age, Kellogg is no spring chicken, especially given the rigors of the job to which he aspires.

  • Robert S. Harward: Harward is a former Navy SEAL who served for nearly four decades on active duty and retired with the rank of Vice Admiral. He has National Security Council experience, having served in that capacity during the George W. Bush administration. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a big fan, and will be pushing hard for him. Harward grew up in Iran, and so has special expertise in an area that is of great interest and concern to the Administration. He's been working for Lockheed Martin for the last several years, and so has private sector experience, which Trump values. He's also someone that Democrats might get behind, since he's a responsible grown up (like Mattis), and because of a well-received editorial he wrote for the Huffington Post in which he stressed the importance of girls' education. His only real liability is that he has no particular connection or loyalty to Trump, something that the Donald cares about a lot. Still, Harward's case is so strong, he has to be considered the favorite.

  • David Petraeus: Petraeus is the highest-profile name on the list, well respected for his lengthy military service and expertise in world affairs. He helped wind the Iraq War down, and is known for his ability to work with members of both political parties. Trump also likes him a lot. In short, he's an excellent candidate, except for one big problem. That problem is that he was caught engaging in an extramarital affair with his biographer, while also sharing classified information with her. This cost Petraeus his job leading the CIA, led to a huge fine, and nearly put him in prison. Given how often Trump railed against Hillary Clinton's e-mail server, which may have allowed national secrets to leak, it would be rather incongruous for him to hire someone who definitely allowed national secrets to leak. Oh, and he's also on probation until April, which would make for a few less-than-desirable headlines, and would also require him to check in with his probation officer if he needs to leave Washington.

  • Stephen Hadley: The only name on the list without extensive military experience, though he did serve three years in the U.S. Navy from 1972-75. Hadley has a strong claim on the job, having already served four years as National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration (2005-09), and also in various positions Ford, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush administrations. In other words, he's as establishment as it gets, and lack of experience is definitely not a problem. Like Harward, he's someone Democrats could get behind, given that he has worked for the United States Institute of Peace, has been an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage, and has collaborated with Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to produce position papers on how America should approach the Middle East. In fact, he's lefty enough that it may work against him with Trump insiders, particularly Steve Bannon. He's also no loyalist, and we know well that Trump has no love for the GOP establishment. Hadley also got into some trouble in 2013 when he wrote op-eds supporting missile attacks against Syria without disclosing his extensive holdings in Raytheon, the company that just so happens to make the missiles.

We're dealing, then, with fairly well-known commodities, which is something of a necessity given the speed with which the post will need to be filled.

Once the immediate issue has been resolved, however, Trump still has long-term concerns to be worried about, because the Flynn situation is not going away. Members of the Trump administration were advised about Flynn's falsehoods nearly a month ago, but nothing was done until the Post spilled the beans. Why? Meanwhile, there are also questions about the original conversation, and whether Flynn was acting alone, or on someone's orders. Not to mention what arrangements he reached, if any, with the Russians. Put succinctly, pundits are already dusting off the old Nixon-era question: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Depending on the answers to those questions—answers that may already be in the hands of the CIA and/or the Russians—many members of the administration, including Trump himself, could be in deep trouble. In the worst-case scenario, that Flynn was horse trading with the Russians on Trump's direct orders, it would almost certainly lead to impeachment. Undoubtedly, the Post is already hard at work looking for the next Deep Throat. (V & Z)

Mnuchin, Shulkin Confirmed by Senate

On the day he lost his National Security Adviser, Donald Trump got two more cabinet members confirmed. The first was new Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who was approved along a mostly party-line vote, 53-47 (only Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia broke ranks with his party; he was promptly rebuked by the Progressive Change Campaign, which reminded him that he needs Democratic votes in addition to moderate Republican votes to get re-elected in 2018). Even though the Democrats are not thrilled with Mnuchin, they are somewhat heartened by his generally solid grasp of economic issues, and his apparent opposition to Trump's tax plan.

David Shulkin, meanwhile, will now assume leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He's the first person without military experience to hold that job (though his father was a career officer). Shulkin is a political independent and a holdover from the Obama administration, having served the VA as undersecretary for health. Consequently, he was the first Trump appointee to be approved unanimously, and he'll probably be the last. Next up is Andrew Puzder, who will be a nail-biter (see below). Then it's Ryan Zinke (Interior), Wilbur Ross (Commerce), Ben Carson (HUD), Rick Perry (Energy), and Sonny Perdue (Agriculture), none of whom are exactly beloved by Democrats. (Z)

Four GOP Senators Undecided about Puzder

The Washington Post is reporting that four Republican senators haven't made up their minds about Secretary of Labor-designate Andrew Puzder: Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA).

Collins has viewed footage of an "Oprah Winfrey Show" episode in which Puzder's ex-wife describes the multiple times he physically assaulted her. She recently recanted the accusations. In addition to possibly beating his former wife, Puzder has admitted to having employed an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper and he said that 40% of the employees at the fast food restaurants he ran were undocumented immigrants. Democrats do not believe Puzder will stand up for workers' rights and probably all of them will oppose his confirmation. If three of the four undecided Republican senators vote "no," then Puzder will be rejected. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made clear that he will work very hard to impose party discipline, so as to spare Trump another black eye this week. Collins and Murkowski are probably lost, so he's going to need to get both Scott and Isakson. (V)

What Does Trump Really Believe?

Donald Trump has changed his position so many times on so many topics that it is hard to know what he really believes. For example, he was a pro-choice Democrat until he started thinking about running for president; now he is a pro-life Republican. An article in Axios looks back 30 years to see which issues Trump has been consistent on all this time. These are probably his core beliefs and not subject to change. There are three that stand out:

  • America sends the wrong people to negotiate: too many social workers, not enough cutthroats
  • Foreign countries rip off America
  • American leaders should retaliate

His initial actions seem consistent with these views. The people he has chosen to handle trade, especially Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, the director of the newly created National Trade Council, are definitely hardliners when it comes to foreign countries and trade. Whether they will get better deals when negotiating with, say, China, remains to be seen, however. (V)

Trump's Approval Rating Hits New Low in Gallup Poll

A new Gallup poll puts Donald Trump's approval rating at 40% and his disapproval rating at 55%. This 15-point spread is the greatest since Trump took office 3 weeks ago. It is very atypical for a new president. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton had approval ratings in the high 50s during the early months of their administrations. (V)

Strange New Senator

It took less than one day for Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) to pick a replacement for former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general. For outsiders, Bentley might seem like a decisive leader who wanted to make sure his state was fully represented in the U.S. Senate. For insiders, not so much. Here is the backstory: Gov. Bentley had been married for 50 years when his wife discovered that he was having an affair with an aide, Rebecca Mason, who was paid with campaign funds. Bentley's wife then divorced him, and members of the state legislature began to wonder if Bentley had used state funds to cover up the affair. However, the attorney general, Luther Strange, asked the legislature to stop looking while he took over the case. Next thing we know, Strange is appointed to the Senate to replace Sessions. Strange, no?

Now, you might ask, who gets to appoint the new state attorney general? Why, it's Gov. Bentley! Yesterday his choice, Steve Marshall, was sworn in. Is Marshall likely to vigorously pursue Bentley? We'll see, but the smart money is betting against it. Absent the investigation, the choice of a state attorney general for the Senate is not unusual. Strange, who is 6' 9" and known as "Big Luther," has won statewide election in Alabama twice. He has a reputation as a conservative and a straight shooter, so he is likely to win in 2018 when Sessions' term is over and remain in the Senate for many years hence.

Some people are already comparing the situation to then-Alaska governor Frank Murkowski appointing his daughter, Lisa Murkowski, to the Senate, but a better comparison might be to former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder after Obama was elected president. Will Bentley survive this incident? Unless either his appointee, Marshall, or Attorney General Sessions goes after him, most likely, yes. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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