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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump-Russia Plot Thickens, Yet Again
      •  White House Raises Concerns Trying to Justify Travel Ban
      •  Richard Spencer Ejected from CPAC
      •  Bannon Partly Right About the Media
      •  Elections Are Closer than You Think
      •  Taxpayers Are Confused about the ACA Mandate
      •  Feds May Get Back in the Business of Busting Pot Smokers

Trump-Russia Plot Thickens, Yet Again

James Comey is quickly becoming the highest-profile FBI Director since J. Edgar Hoover. The man that Democrats love to hate was back in the news Thursday, thanks to reports that the Trump Administration asked the FBI to "knock down" media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and the Russians. Comey refused, which means that a big shift in partisan feelings about him could be coming soon. This story could develop into a real problem for the Administration; students of history will recall that the Watergate scandal (or, at very least, the direct involvement of Richard Nixon) began with an order to the FBI to cover up the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.

Meanwhile, if that were not enough, news also came out on Thursday that Donald Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, met with Ukrainian lawmaker Andrii Artemenko in January to discuss a plan for resolving the Russian-Ukrainian dispute over Crimea. Details are murky, but the plan would apparently have involved "leasing" the captured land to Russia in exchange for withdrawal of troops. This would be a very pro-Russia resolution and, if the reports are true, would mean that a(nother?) close associate of President Trump's violated the Logan Act, which forbids non-government officials from negotiating with foreign governments.

These Russia-related stories are not going away anytime soon, and while it's possible that the Trump Administration escapes largely unscathed, that's certainly not looking probable. Turning back to Nixon again, we recall exactly how the Watergate scandal unfolded: slowly, over the course of many, many months, with the first serious revelations coming out shortly after his second inauguration. Here is a chart of Nixon's approval ratings:

Nixon's approval ratings

Essentially, Nixon managed to weather the storm for about four months, then reached something of a tipping point where his support collapsed. By summer of 1973, he had a core of about 28% of the populace who were still with him, while the rest had turned irretrievably against him. He lingered for a full year after that, but he was effectively a dead man walking roughly six months into his second term. Time will tell if Trump suffers the same fate, but certainly the members of his administration can't like the current trend line. (Z)

White House Raises Concerns Trying to Justify Travel Ban

The Trump Administration knows that the Muslim travel ban v. 2.0 is going to face legal challenges. This time, they're being proactive and getting their ducks in a row before those challenges come. So, the President has instructed the Dept. of Homeland Security and the Justice Dept. to collect evidence that the seven countries on the list—Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—actually are the biggest threats to American security, and so are justifiably being singled out.

This request has left a sizable number of federal employees, particularly those in the intelligence community, unhappy. To start with, there is no past justification for choosing those seven countries, so any argument is going to be rooted in projecting future activity. Figuring out what might happen next week or next month is an intelligence question, and not one for DHS or DoJ. Further, Trump is clearly putting the cart before the horse, and—as Sherlock Holmes put it—twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. This is perceived as a politicization of intelligence-gathering, and so a violation of one of the core tenets of the intel establishment. The Administration may not care that they are stepping on the toes of the CIA, et. al., given their already rocky relationship. However, judges are not stupid, nor are the lawyers that work for the ACLU. And it is certain that this process is going to be brought up in one or more courts of law. No judge would accept a psychological assessment proffered by a cardiologist, and they're not much more likely to accept an intelligence assessment produced by the DoJ. (Z)

Richard Spencer Ejected from CPAC

White nationalist Richard Spencer was hoping for an invitation to speak at the conservative CPAC conference that began yesterday in Maryland. He didn't get it. So he just bought a regular ticket and showed up anyway. This caused trouble for CPAC, since it wants nothing to do with the alt-right movement. When his presence was detected, security ejected him from the venue. Spencer is in favor of turning America into a white, Christian nation, which is a couple of bridges too far for CPAC.

On the other hand, Steve Bannon was not only let in, he was invited to speak, along with his sidekick Reince Priebus. Bannon said that the biggest threat facing America is the "corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to the economic nationalist agenda that Donald Trump has." He predicted that the media would be fighting the White House every day. Another thing Bannon said Trump is going to do is destroy the "administrative state." By this, he means the Trump administration intends to repeal thousands of regulations created by the federal departments. One that is already gone is a rule prohibiting coal companies from dumping toxic waste in the nation's streams and rivers, the argument being that the regulation costs thousands of coal miners their jobs. Many, many more regulations that protect people's health and safety are on the chopping block. (V)

Bannon Partly Right About the Media

Steve Bannon's notion (see above) that the media are the biggest threat facing America—and not, say, global warming, or terrorism, or instability in Asia, or heroin addiction—is silly political hyperbole. However, his assertion that there will be daily battle between the White House and the media appears to be right on target. This has already been made clear during Donald Trump's first month in office, and some of the titans of the journalistic establishment are signaling that they have no intention of backing down.

The Washington Post, for example, has just changed its motto to "Democracy Dies in Darkness," a very unsubtle shot at Trump's authoritarian impulses. The New York Times, meanwhile, is taking an even more direct approach. For the first time in seven years, the paper will be running a television advertisement. The spot will air during the Academy Awards, which is sure to attract a large audience, and to feature a lot of talk about the Administration and its policies. It's a black and white, minimalist presentation that presents a series of statements, like "The truth is alternative facts are lies" and "The truth is more important now than ever." And the newspapers are not alone; CNN's website has effectively been transformed into TrumpWatch 2017, and MSNBC got good ratings for its two-hour special "Trump: The First Month." So, the gloves are off on both sides. (Z)

Elections Are Closer than You Think

Did you think the first (indirect) test of Donald Trump's coattails will be in Nov. 2018? If so, you are off by about a year and a half. There could be as many as seven special elections for the House this Spring to replace members who have new jobs. Here is the list so far:

  • Apr 4: CA-34 (Xavier Becerra's seat is vacant because he has been appointed attorney general of California)
  • Apr 11: KS-04 (This is the seat of the new CIA Director Mike Pompeo)
  • Apr 18: GA-06 (Secretary of HHS Tom Price is leaving behind this seat in a swing district in the Atlanta suburbs)
  • Jun 20: SC-05 (Mick Mulvaney is now director of OMB, so the special election will determine his replacement)

In addition, if Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) is elected chairman of the DNC this weekend and he resigns from Congress, a special election will be held in his Democratic district. If the Senate confirms Rep. Tyan Zinke (R-MT) as secretary of the interior, his successor will be chosen in a special election for his at-large seat. Finally, if Trump picks Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for the job of NASA administrator, a special election will be held for his seat. So all in all, we could have up to seven special House elections in the Spring.

Actually, there is one special election that is tomorrow, although it is not for the House. It is for a state senate seat in suburban New Castle County, DE. If the Republican wins it, the Delaware state senate will flip to the Republicans for the first time since 1972. Hillary Clinton carried the senate district by double digits, so if they can't win this seat, all the protests around the country will be written off as "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Macbeth, V, v). (V)

Taxpayers Are Confused about the ACA Mandate

Many taxpayers are already working on and filing their 2016 tax returns, and more than a few are doing it wrong because they mistakenly believe the mandate has gone the way of the dodo and they don't have to pay a penalty if they don't have insurance. In reality, they do have to pay a penalty if they are not insured. The penalty has jumped to $2,085 for a family this year. Last year, 6.5 million people paid the penalty. The uncertainty is pitting taxpayers (who don't know the rules) against tax preparers (who do). Some tax preparers are unwilling to just ignore the penalty, even if the IRS seems unlikely to enforce it, because knowingly filing a false tax return is a crime.

To add to the confusion, the makers of the popular TurboTax program have changed it to make filling out the line about having insurance coverage optional, although legally it is not optional at all. In theory, if Congress repeals the law, it could put in a provision to let people file an amended return to reclaim the penalty money, but the IRS is not enthusiastic about getting millions of amended returns.

If Congress quickly repeals the ACA and eliminates the penalty for 2016 along with it, before most people file, all is well, right? In principle yes, but former House Speaker John Boehner predicted yesterday that the Republicans would never agree on a replacement for the ACA and will be afraid to repeal it absent a replacement. The key problem, of course, is that without the mandate, many healthy young people will choose to go uninsured so the insurance pool will be weighted towards old sick people, which will make premiums skyrocket. If the sick people are segregated into "high-risk pools," actuarially these will need very high premiums to be able to pay the costs of the treatments. Unless the government puts up hundreds of billions of dollars or decides that sick people won't get insurance, there is no way to solve the problem. (V)

Feds May Get Back in the Business of Busting Pot Smokers

During the Obama administration, the DEA stopped enforcing federal prohibitions on marijuana usage, with Obama himself declaring that the government had "bigger fish to fry." In his press conference on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the federal might return to prosecuting pot users, on the theory that pot is a "gateway" drug, and such prosecutions will ultimately reduce the incidence of addictions to more serious drugs like heroin.

The science is definitely not with Spicer and the White House on this point. Meanwhile, as a logistical matter, the federal government's enforcement apparatus is already going to be spread thin with other initiatives (deportations, travel bans, etc.). Finally, as a political matter, busting marijuana users is not likely to excite too many Republicans, but it will help energize young Democrats. Add it all up, and this feels very much like a trial balloon that's not going to go anywhere. So, there's probably no need to hide your bongs just yet. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb23 Cabinet Secretaries Are Battling Trump Aides over Appointments
Feb23 Pay-for-Play Remains Alive and Well with Trump Administration
Feb23 Trump Overturns Protections for Transgender Students
Feb23 CPAC Opens with an Identity Crisis
Feb23 Trump Continues to Sink in Polls
Feb23 Kellyanne Conway Benched
Feb23 Perez and Ellison Agree Not to Interfere in Primaries
Feb23 Democrats' Hopes to Retake the House Lie in Suburbia
Feb23 Travel Ban Hurting the Tourist Industry
Feb22 Trump Lays Out Plans for Mass Deportations
Feb22 Trump Denounces Anti-Semitism, Sort Of
Feb22 Trump and McMaster Don't See Eye to Eye on Key Issues
Feb22 McMaster Will Require Senate Confirmation
Feb22 Trump's Streak of Falsehoods Has Lasted 33 Days
Feb22 Town Halls Becoming a Real Hornet's Nest
Feb22 Yiannopoulos Resigns from Breitbart News
Feb22 Protest Trump by Withholding Taxes?
Feb21 Trump Picks Lt. Gen. McMaster as the new National Security Adviser
Feb21 New Travel Ban is Coming
Feb21 Milo Yiannopoulos Disinvited from CPAC Conference
Feb21 More on the Election Results
Feb21 Republicans Lose Some Top-Tier Senate Candidates
Feb21 Kansas State Legislature Rolls Back Income Tax Cuts
Feb21 Britons Don't Want Trump
Feb21 Trump Golfs, Tries to Hide It
Feb20 Trump Administration Plans to Speed Deportations
Feb20 Another Day, Another Non-Existent Terrorist Attack
Feb20 Trump Searching for New National Security Advisor
Feb20 Trump about to Discover that Dealing with China Isn't So Easy
Feb20 Could Trump Jail Reporters Who Publish Leaks?
Feb20 Why Should America Trust You?
Feb20 Impeach President Bannon Signs Appear around the Country
Feb19 Trump Continues to Ignore the Grown-Ups in His Cabinet
Feb19 Priebus Is All In on Trump
Feb19 Keep an Eye on Mike Pence
Feb19 Trump Retreats from Governing, Goes Back to Campaigning
Feb19 Trump Travel Costs Skyrocketing
Feb19 Trump's Pick for Navy Secretary Reportedly About to Withdraw
Feb19 Milo Yiannopoulos Will Be Keynote Speaker at CPAC Conference
Feb18 Senate Confirms Pruitt
Feb18 Business and Politics Keep Colliding
Feb18 Ryan's Tax Plan Is Running into Trouble
Feb18 Veteran John McCain is Back at War--with Donald Trump
Feb18 Russian Headache Getting Worse for Trump
Feb18 Could Mark Sanford Tell Trump to Take a Hike?
Feb18 Score Settling Continues as Trump Administration Staffs Up
Feb17 Trump Holds a Chaotic News Conference
Feb17 Harward Says, No Thanks
Feb17 Trump Names Alexander Acosta to be Secretary of Labor
Feb17 Mike Dubke Chosen as Communications Director