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Yates Tells the Senate that Flynn Could Have Been Blackmailed by the Russians

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate subcommittee yesterday. She said that on January 26th, six days after President Donald Trump was sworn in, she told White House counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn was compromised and could be blackmailed by the Russians. Flynn was Trump's first National Security Adviser. Having a National Security Adviser who can be manipulated by the Russians is generally not a good thing. Nevertheless, Flynn kept his job for in excess of two more weeks, and was fired only because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence, and not because he was compromised. Yates did not discuss with Congress what the Russians had on Flynn since that information is classified, so we have to guess. How about this as a guess: "Flynn made a deal with the Russians that if they helped Trump win the election, he would see to it that the worldwide sanctions on Russia would be dropped." Anything is possible, but whatever it was, Yates was alarmed enough to warn the administration that it should get rid of him.

Republicans on the Senate committee tried to take her down, but they were no match for her. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) tried to accuse her of insubordination for not defend the travel ban when the president asked her to. She reminded him at that her confirmation hearing he had asked her if she would refuse to defend an unconstitutional order and she said then that she would indeed refuse. So far, courts in three states have found the two travel bans unconstitutional. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) quoted the statutory basis for the travel bans, but she immediately cited subsequent congressional action that explicitly prohibited religious discrimination. (V)

Clapper Says Russians Wanted to Help Elect Trump

Sally Yates was not the only person to speak to the Senate subcommittee yesterday. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was there, too, and he also did the current administration no favors. His primary message was that the Russians had information on both the Republicans and the Democrats, but only used the latter material. Clapper's conclusion, then, is that the goal of the Russians was not blackmail, nor to create general chaos, but specifically to derail Hillary Clinton and get Donald Trump elected. In his own words: "[T]o me, the transcendent issue here is the Russian interference in our election process, and what that means to the erosion of the fundamental fabric of our democracy."

Clapper also had a few other matters he wanted to straighten out. In particular, he made clear his irritation with Republicans who insist on using him as a talking point. In the past, the former DNI has said that he had no proof that the Russians and the Trump team colluded during the campaign. On Monday, he clarified that he was not "in the loop" on that particular discussion, and would have no reason to be privy to such information, even if the FBI already had a smoking gun in their hands. Consequently, Clapper concluded, the fact that he has no evidence of collusion is not in any way proof that such collusion did not happen.

Clapper had a more than 50-year career in the intelligence community, and is widely respected. He has been retired since leaving his post, and expressed some mild unhappiness on Monday that he was called to Washington for more questioning. On Tuesday, he will resume his retirement, and if Donald Trump has his way, he will not be asked to interrupt it again. (Z)

Wagon Circling Has Already Begun

As noted above, several GOP Senators used Monday's hearings to try to score some political points and to undermine Sally Yates and James Clapper. They did not succeed, by all evidences. That is just phase one of Operation Damage Control, however, and the next steps are already underway. The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch has filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking copies of all of Yates' e-mails from her 11-day tenure as acting attorney general. They hope, of course, to find some sort of dirt they can use against her. In this, they are likely to be disappointed. Even if there was something compromising that happened in her 11 days in office (unlikely), she's presumably clever enough not to document it in an email. Further, much of her correspondence from that time is surely classified.

Donald Trump also got into the act. Either not understanding or not caring about the clarification that Clapper offered, the President took to Twitter to announce that, "Director Clapper reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows—there is 'no evidence' of collusion w/ Russia and Trump." Then, however, Trump and his team decided that they wanted to feature this information prominently, and to stop it from getting pushed down the page by later tweets. Twitter actually has a means to do this; a user can select a single tweet to be "pinned," which causes the tweet in question to always appear first. Pinning was not quite enough for the President, however, so one of his social media team actually tried to incorporate the tweet into Trump's Twitter header, right next to his mug shot. The end result was both garish and awkward, and the change was reverted fairly quickly, but not before other Twitter users had a field day mocking Trump for the attempt. Now, Trump's newsfeed is merely a ho-hum string of messages about fake news, and the evil media, and how Yates and Clapper didn't say anything new. Maybe he's losing his touch. (Z)

Why Did Trump Persist in Hiring Flynn?

For the moment, Donald Trump is sticking with his story that he didn't know that anything was awry with former NSA Michael Flynn, and that it's Barack Obama's fault that the general's bad behavior slipped through the cracks. This despite the fact that we learned on Monday that Obama himself warned Trump about Flynn when they first met in the Oval Office on November 10. So why did Trump hire Flynn, anyhow? CNN's Chris Cillizza has three theories:

  • Obama Loathing: Although Trump and Obama had a generally cordial meeting on November 10, there's little question that the two men don't like each other, and that Trump has worked very hard to be the anti-Obama. Perhaps he hired Flynn specifically to spite the 44th president.

  • Loyalty: Trump values loyalty above all else, and Flynn was unfailingly loyal during the campaign. That may have been enough to override his other sins.

  • Confidence in His Own Judgment: Trump has enormous confidence that he knows better than everyone else. His presidential victory, which came in the face of so many naysayers, served only to validate that confidence. Maybe, then, he just decided that he knows better about Flynn than Obama, or Sally Yates, or anyone else.

Those are Cillizza's theories; now let's add two of our own:

  • Ignorance: Trump has certainly gotten into a tight spot many times in his career. And he's managed to extricate himself with a lawsuit here, and a cash payment there, and the occasional favor from a friendly person in a position of power. He clearly had no idea, upon entering office, exactly how harsh the spotlight on the president is, and how difficult it is to keep secrets in Washington. He still doesn't seem to fully grasp that, actually. Anyhow, it's well within the realm of possibility that Trump thought that once Obama and his people left town, Flynn's baggage would go with them, and that would be the end of it.

  • Keep Him in the Tent: One time, shortly after becoming president, LBJ decided not to can FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, one of his biggest enemies. When a Johnson ally expressed amazement at the decision, the always-earthy Texan said, "It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in." We still don't know what it is, exactly, that Flynn discussed with the Russians. However, Trump might very well know, and he might realize that if Flynn spills his guts, it could be big trouble. So, the President could have decided that trying to sneak him on to the NSC was better than throwing him under the bus.

These theories are not mutually exclusive, of course; nearly any combination of them could be true. Whichever it is, however, we are unlikely to ever know. Trump has dug his heels in on his version of events, even though that version is obviously not truthful, and he has not generally been the type of person who changes gears once he's committed to a story. There are probably only two ways the real story might come out. First, Flynn is indicted for a crime and goes for a plea bargain. Second, the Democrats capture the House in 2018 and start investigating him seriously. (Z)

Court of Appeals Has Tough Questions over Muslim Travel Ban v2.0

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard the appeal of the Muslim Travel ban v2.0 yesterday in Richmond. The government was represented by Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, who was bombarded with questions and hostile comments from the 13 judges present. Judge Robert King noted that Trump has never retracted his comments about wanting to ban Muslims. Judge Pamela Harris said the ban clearly had a disparate effect on Muslims. Other judges also appeared to be skeptical. Nevertheless, court watchers know that it is unwise to draw conclusions from the oral arguments, as judges often want to test the lawyers. Nine of the judges were nominated by Democratic presidents, and three were nominated by Republican presidents. The chief judge was nominated in a recess appointment by Bill Clinton and renominated by George W. Bush. (V)

EPA Fires Half of Its Scientific Advisers

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has notified 9 of the 18 members of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors that their terms had ended and they would not be reappointed. Traditionally, board members serve two consecutive 3-year terms. Some observers fear that Pruitt is going to stock the panel with industry people. The board's job is to advise the agency about scientific risks. For example, how many parts per million of some carcinogenic substance is acceptable in drinking water? Or much pollution should a coal-fired plant be allowed to spew out into the atmosphere? A board on which many of the members come from polluting industries is likely to set much higher limits on how much pollution is acceptable than a board full of scientists and academics.

There are hundreds of advisory boards throughout the government. Industry representatives are present on many of them, but they don't dominate most of them, in order to make sure the administrator or secretary gets unbiased advice about scientific issues about which he or she must make decisions. It is possible that in the Trump administration, industry representatives with a clear axe to grind will come to dominate most of the scientific boards, thus greatly affecting the advice given to government officials. (V)

Manchin Gets a Republican Challenger

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is running for reelection in West Virginia in 2018. He is considered endangered because Donald Trump carried his state by 40 points. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) has decided that makes a run against him worth giving up his safe seat in the House. Yesterday he announced his candidacy, saying that Manchin lost his West Virginia values when he moved to Washington in 2010. One specific item he cited is that Manchin authored a bill to strengthen background checks on gun sales, something not popular in West Virginia.

Despite the redness of his state, Manchin is not a dead man walking. First, the reelection rate of incumbent senators is a tad under 90%. Second, Manchin is universally known in West Virginia, having run statewide five times and won all of his races. Third, he has been working with Trump, rather than opposing him at every turn, so it will be hard for Evans to brand Manchin as an anti-Trump liberal. Manchin is a skilled and shrewd politician and certainly can't be counted out. Politico has a detailed profile on this unusual Democratic politician who has survived in a very red state. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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