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Sessions Looks to Be in Deep Trouble

When Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was nominated by Donald Trump, he—like all nominees—was required to submit extensive supporting paperwork. Included therein was this question:

Several of the President-elect's nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?

Sessions' one-word answer was, "No." Then, during his confirmation hearings, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) asked what Sessions would do if he learned that members of the Trump campaign had communicated with the Russian government during the course of the campaign. Sessions' reply:

I'm not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.

We now learn, thanks to reporting from the Washington Post, that the latter answer (and, quite possibly, the former) was not truthful. In fact, Sessions met at least twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who—his official title notwithstanding—is thought by some people to be one of the Kremlin's foremost spies and spy recruiters. Those meetings took place in July and September; Sessions was well-ensconced as a Trump supporter and surrogate by the time of the first, and remained so at the time of the latter.

Sessions was, apparently, blindsided by the Post's revelations, and over the course of the day on Wednesday, managed to sputter his way to several different responses. At one point, he called the story "false;" at another he said that he answered Franken in the manner that he did because he did not consider his conversations with Kislyak to be "relevant" to the committee's questions. Eventually, Sessions settled on what looks to be his primary defense: That he did have the meetings with Kislyak, but that they were conducted as part of the then-Senator's job as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and that no election-related matters were discussed. This explanation does not appear to stand up to scrutiny; the Post contacted the 26 members of the Committee, and each of the 20 who had responded as of Wednesday evening—including Chairman John McCain (R-AZ)—said they had not met with the Russian ambassador, and had no particular reason to do so.

Put bluntly, then, Sessions has perjured himself. Again, note his response to Franken: "I did not have communications with the Russians." Not, "I did not discuss the election with the Russians," nor, "I spoke to them, but only about the business of the Senate Armed Service Committee." Even if he's telling the truth about the content of the meetings (questionable), and truly thought they were not germane, he surely knows that it's not his privilege—as someone giving testimony before Congress—to decide what is and is not relevant. And If Sessions is guilty of perjury, then he is therefore guilty of a "high crime [and] misdemeanor," and so is subject to impeachment and removal from office. This was established, quite definitively, in the case of Bill Clinton, who was impeached for playing precisely the same sorts of word games (albeit in order to cover up for some extracurricular fun, as opposed to a possible conspiracy to manipulate a presidential election). During Clinton's impeachment, one Republican senator was particularly insistent that, "I have no doubt that perjury qualifies under the Constitution as a high crime. It goes to the heart of the judicial system." That Senator, of course, was Jeff Sessions.

Of course, politicians on both sides of the aisle are not so great about being consistent when the shoe is on the other foot. So while, by all evidence, Sessions should be impeached (or resign, which is what the Democrats are calling for), that doesn't mean it will actually happen. Even if he keeps his job, however, it is now entirely impossible for a Sessions-led Justice Dept. to impartially investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. If he is allowed to not only keep his job, but also to run the investigation (as opposed to having an independent prosecutor appointed), then it will be corruption of a sort that we've not seen for a very long time, if ever. (Z)

Handicapping Trump's Promises

The dust is starting to settle and the punditry is beginning to try to figure out what President Donald Trump's Tuesday speech, means, if anything. Below we have some takeaways, but Politico has a different angle: an attempt to assign a probability of his actually carrying out his various promises.

  • Replacing the ACA: 50% (Republicans want desperately to replace it, but they can't agree on a plan)
  • Tax Cuts: 50% for a small package; 25% for a biggie (because Republicans don't agree on the details)
  • Boosting the defense budget: 90% (Republicans like spending money on defense, but not too much)
  • Infrastructure: 10% (Republicans don't like spending money for non-defense items, not even for buying pork)
  • Family leave and child care: 20% (Ivanka wants to make her mark, but these are expensive proposals)
  • ISIS: 80% (nobody likes ISIS much and it would be tough for a member of Congress to vote against fighting them)
  • Border wall: 100% (but the "wall" may be a short barbed wire fence rather than an expensive long wall)
  • Immigration reform: 10% (this is one of the most divisive issues in Congress and Democrats will have to sign on)

In short, the authors are not optimistic about much except a slightly larger defense budget and a bit of fencing along the border. The main problem is that Trump's priorities are not Speaker Paul Ryan's (R-WI) priorities and Ryan has far more power in Congress than Trump. If he can ram a bill through the House and get Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to go along with it, what's Trump going to do when it lands on his desk? Veto it? Unlikely, especially if Ryan tells him it contains everything he wants. Trump will never read it and will just sign blindly. (V)

NYT: Five Takeaways from Trump's Speech

Now, the takeaways. Let's start with Glenn Thrush of the New York Times:

  • Which Donald Trump is Real (the Tuesday night one or the usual bombastic one?)
  • Trump finally denounced bigotry (but did he really mean it?)
  • Spiking the football in the first quarter (he took credit for killing TPP and saving a handful of jobs)
  • A serious case of the vagues (we still don't know how he will govern)
  • What's going on with immigration? (it's anyone's guess what he will actually do)

Thrush wasn't all that impressed with the speech. Trump gets points for denouncing bigotry, although it took him nearly six weeks to do so. The bar is so low for Trump now that he gets cheers for doing something that any previous president would have done automatically and without any prompting. But when it comes to policy, Trump was extremely vague and gave few details about what he really wanted. Is he going to deport all undocumented immigrants, only those with criminal records, or almost none of them? What is his plan for replacing the ACA? Is he going to fight with Congress to get $1 trillion to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure? We're not much wiser now than we were a week ago. (V)

CNN: Six Takeaways from Trump's Speech

Now let's see what CNN's takeaways are:

  • William "Ryan" Owens' sacrifice in Yemen will be etched into eternity (or, more likely, forgotten by Monday)
  • Trump's American exceptionalism (America is no more a place of carnage)
  • Unanswered health care questions (will he replace the ACA, and if so, with what?)
  • The "how?" problem (getting the numbers to add up on taxes and spending won't be easy)
  • What happened to immigration reform? (not much discussion of the topic in the speech)
  • The Democrats' response (former Kentucky Gov. gave a folksy response, but it won't have much impact)

In short, the tone was different from the "old" Donald Trump, but his proposals are still extremely vague, especially about the math. An awful lot of what Trump wants involves money—lots of it. But if he also wants to slash taxes, the numbers won't add up, and the deficit hawks in the House are unlikely to let him put it on the national credit card. So at some point he has to establish priorities. There was no sign Tuesday that he even realizes that. (V)

The Hill: Five Takeaways

Next up are Niall Stanage's takeaways at The Hill:

  • Trump's speech was conventional (to the GOP's relief)
  • Out with the grim 'carnage,' in with the sunny 'new chapter' (in six weeks all our problems have vanished)
  • Trump is an American nationalist—love it or hate it (thank you for your thoughts, Steve Bannon)
  • He wants healthcare utopia (unicorns and rainbows, yes; tough tradeoffs, no thanks)
  • He's got a better fact checker (surprisingly few falsehoods this time)

Most of the comments are about tone and style rather than content. But, again, that is because there wasn't much content. (V)

USA Today: Six Takeways

Next up is USA Today:

  • A war widow wins the night (praising a widow is easy, but it got a long ovation)
  • Bring us your tired, your hungry, your well-educated (a merit-based immigration system would be a big change)
  • Things are gonna get good (more unicorns and rainbows)
  • It's Obama's fault (everything wrong with the country is Obama's fault)
  • Trump's bayonet diplomacy (America will forget the world and look inward from now on)
  • Nobody booed (the bar is awfully low when not getting booed is a big deal)

Again, almost nothing here about major policy initiatives, priorities, and how the country will pay for them. The high point was the standing ovation for the widow of the Navy SEAL who died in Yemen. While that might have felt good to the woman, looking at it differently, Trump ordered a raid and a serviceman got killed. When Obama ordered a raid to kill bin Laden, no serviceman was killed. Ordering raids is easy. Does this make Trump a great president? (V)

Response to Trump Speech is Largely Positive

Wednesday's revelations about Jeff Sessions may serve to push President Trump's speech out of the headlines much more quickly than he would have preferred. However, at least in the short term, the response was quite positive.

To start, by all indications, Trump helped himself with the voting public. CNN's insta-poll found that 57% of viewers had a "very positive" response to the speech. This is actually not a great number, as Barack Obama and George W. Bush pulled a 68% and a 66%, respectively, for their first presidential addresses. Still, at least it's a majority, albeit a fairly slim one. The Twitter reaction was also substantial, with the address generating some 3 million tweets, and the majority of those being pro-Trump. Fox reports that this makes the address, "the most-tweeted speech of its kind," though it's a bit unclear what speeches are being excluded by the "of its kind" qualifier.

Speaking of Fox, the conservative media were mostly delighted with Trump's performance. Fox itself said the speech was "largely positive," Breitbart called it "cathartic," the Daily Caller declared that, "there can't be a dry eye in the entire country," and NRO's Rich Lowry said it was the "best Trump speech yet." This is not to say that everyone on the red team was effusive, however; several Fox and NRO commentators were underwhelmed, and many were cautious about how realistic Trump's agenda is and/or how believable it is that he's turned over a new leaf.

Wall Street was also pleased with Trump's performance. Not so much because of the policy proposals, but because he behaved like a grown-up, and (at least temporarily) put to rest concerns about his being unstable and unpredictable (two qualities that the money-men loathe). "The market clearly likes teleprompter Trump way more than Twitter Trump," said financial analyst Chris Krueger. "It was a solid speech from the perspective of putting Trump on a truly presidential footing," agreed broker Nicholas Colas. On Wednesday, the market rewarded Trump by driving the Dow Jones up 300 points, which meant that it closed above 21,000 for the first time.

So, who didn't like the speech? The left, of course, and the further left someone is, the more they hated it. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) ripped Trump for all the issues he left unaddressed, like student debt and income inequality. Ralph Nader rose from the dead to lament Trump's cavalier attitude about the environment. And Bill Maher slammed the President for being a phony Republican, and for a lack of substance.

In the end, it is worth remembering that Trump is getting "home run" credit for a speech that would have been, at best, a solid double for any of the five or six men who preceded him in the Oval Office. Further, the address will be a mere blip on the radar if Trump reverts back to his old, reality-star ways, as he's already done so many times in the past. Given this past precedent, most in the media aren't really buying that we saw a "New Trump" on Wednesday. CNN, in fact, went so far as to launch its new toy, a timer that shows how long it's been since Trump attacked someone on Twitter. He's managed to break the three-day mark, though it's probably instructive that the site did not bother to add a "weeks" or a "months" column. (Z)

Graham Wants a Law Requiring Presidential Candidates to Release Their Tax Returns

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said yesterday that he wants a law requiring all presidential candidates to release their tax returns. He specifically said that if Donald Trump runs for reelection in 2020, the law would apply to him, too. Graham is no friend of Trump. Among other things, he wants a select committee to investigate Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. He has also spoken out against Trump's claim that if it were not for massive fraud, he would have won the popular vote. Whether other Republicans will back the law Graham wants remains to be seen. Polls shows that the public definitely thinks candidates' tax returns should be public, but the number of Republicans willing to cross Trump is fairly small so far. With that said, a law passed at the state level could have the same effect—if, say, Ohio or Missouri or North Carolina says that a candidate can't be on their ballot without releasing their taxes (which would be legal), Trump would have little choice but to comply. (V)

Conway Looks Likely to Get Off Scott Free

The White House has concluded its investigation into Kellyanne Conway's endorsement of Ivanka Trump products on national TV. In a letter to the Office of Government Ethics, the Administration says that its conclusion is that, "Ms. Conway made the statement in question in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally." This being the case, they conclude there is no need for punishment.

Federal rules decree that public employees may not use their positions, "for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity." Notice that there is no stipulation about intent, nor did anyone who wrote about or commented this matter ever suggest that Conway's purpose was nefarious. In other words, the White House seems to have invented out of whole cloth a standard that would allow them to conclude "not guilty." The Office of Government Ethics can still recommend sanctions, but such a recommendation would be non-binding and, presumably, a waste of time. So, Conway appears to be free and clear. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Mar01 Trump Addresses a Joint Session of Congress
Mar01 Trump Signals Openness to Amnesty
Mar01 Betsy DeVos Steps in it Again
Mar01 Banning Reporters from a Press Conference May Be Illegal
Mar01 FBI Was Going to Hire Christopher Steele
Mar01 Trump's Management Style Is Unchanged
Feb28 Trump to Address Congress Tonight
Feb28 Trump and Ryan Are on a Collision Course
Feb28 Does the U.S. Really Need More Military Spending?
Feb28 Trump in Prime Form on Monday
Feb28 Wilbur Ross Confirmed for Commerce
Feb28 Spicer Says There Is Nothing Further to Investigate about Trump-Russia Ties
Feb28 Bush Calls Media "Indispensable to Democracy"
Feb27 Dewey Defeats Truman at Academy Awards
Feb27 Governors Don't Agree on ACA Replacement
Feb27 Leaked Report Says Millions Will Lose Health Care under GOP Plan
Feb27 Democrat Wins First Post-Trump Election in a Landslide
Feb27 More Embarrassments for Spicer
Feb27 Democratic 2020 Candidates Compete To Be Most Anti-Trump
Feb27 Navy SEAL's Father Wants an Investigation
Feb27 Donald Trump May Appear at White House Correspondents' Dinner, After All
Feb26 DNC Elects Tom Perez Chairman
Feb26 Trump Administration Extremely Understaffed
Feb26 The Retail Backlash Has Generated Its Own Backlash
Feb26 Don't Like It? Bury It
Feb26 Trump Won't Attend the White House Correspondents Dinner
Feb26 Kuwaiti Government to Spend Up to $60,000 for a Party at a Trump Hotel
Feb26 Arizona Senate Wants to Crack Down on Protests
Feb25 Trump Receives a Hero's Welcome at CPAC
Feb25 White House Declares War on the Media
Feb25 Trump Attacks the FBI Again
Feb25 Trump Administration Building a Bubble
Feb25 Key Trump Donors Own Part of Breitbart News
Feb25 ACA Replacement Leaked
Feb25 Obamacare as Popular as It Has Ever Been
Feb25 Obama For President
Feb24 Trump-Russia Plot Thickens, Yet Again
Feb24 White House Raises Concerns Trying to Justify Travel Ban
Feb24 Richard Spencer Ejected from CPAC
Feb24 Bannon Partly Right About the Media
Feb24 Elections Are Closer than You Think
Feb24 Taxpayers Are Confused about the ACA Mandate
Feb24 Feds May Get Back in the Business of Busting Pot Smokers
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