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Trump Gets Medal Upon Arrival in Saudi Arabia

President Donald Trump finally got some respect, although he had to travel almost 7,000 miles to get it. Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, Trump was taken to the Royal Court and presented with a gold medal for "his efforts to strengthen the relationship between the two friendly countries." Precisely what Trump has done to improve relations with a country that is the home of Islam's holiest sites was not specified. Nor was there any mention of his repeated attempts to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. The new contract to sell Saudi Arabia $110 billion worth of military hardware was mentioned, however. That's billion, not million, and is more than half the GDP of Portugal or New Zealand.

Saturday was the easy part. Today will be harder. Trump is scheduled to give an address on Islam to his hosts, who already know quite a bit about the subject. Trump had five different drafts of the speech to study on the plane. He hardly slept at all on the 12-hour flight. The speech was written by his adviser Stephen Miller, who was one of the driving forces behind the Muslim ban.

Melania and Ivanka Trump accompanied the president and neither wore a headscarf. By itself, that is not unusual, as women from the West often don't, but when Michelle Obama visited the country 2 years ago sans headscarf, Trump tweeted: "Many people are saying it was wonderful that Mrs. Obama refused to wear a scarf in Saudi Arabia, but they were insulted. We have enuf [sic] enemies." If that were not enough, Trump also appeared to bow before the Saudi King while getting his medal. Naturally, he used Twitter to slam Obama for appearing to bow before the Saudi King during his visit in 2009. The White House has not responded to inquiries about whether or not Trump has softened his stance on bowing. (V)

White House Is Exploring Ways to Hamstring Mueller

It is clear already that the White House will do everything in its power to prevent Robert Mueller from getting to the bottom of the Trump-Russia connections. One avenue that it is looking at is an old ethics rule that prevents newly hired government lawyers (like Mueller) from investigating clients of the law firm they used to work for. Until this week, Mueller worked for WilmerHale, whose clients include Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. If Mueller had to avoid investigating Kushner and Manafort, it could greatly limit his investigation.

The Justice Dept. is authorized to grant a waiver to this policy. Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the case, presumably it would be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who gets to decide to grant or withhold the waiver. Rosenstein also gets to determine how much money Mueller gets for his investigation. If there are many leads to follow—and so far, there are dozens—it could be expensive. So while Rosenstein got kudos from all quarters except the White House for appointing Mueller, he still has the opportunity to weaken the investigation by doing things below the radar. Of course, doing that risks Mueller going public or talking to Congress about how he is trying to subvert the investigation. And naturally, Rosenstein has to think about his reputation as well as his job. (V)

Mueller Could Investigate Trump's Businesses

Up until now, Donald Trump's business empire hasn't received much official scrutiny. It may now. Robert Mueller's mandate includes authorization to investigate any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign and any other matter that arose or may arise directly from the investigation. Trump claims he has no business deals involving Russia or loans from Russia, but his son Eric once said his father had access to $100 million in Russian money. He also said: "Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."

In the movie "All the President's Men," actor Hal Holbrook, playing Deep Throat (Mark Felt), said: "Follow the money." In reality, Felt never said that, but it might be sage advice for Mueller this time around. And Mueller might just have more than a passing interest in Trump's tax returns, which he could subpoena if he so chooses.

The contacts with Russians may have been pure business deals from individual Russians, but clearly anyone buying a condo in a Trump property has to be extremely wealthy, and in Russia wealthy people often have close contacts with the government. That's often how they became wealthy in the first place, as crony capitalism is the basis of Russia's economy. There are more than enough leads here to keep Mueller busy for months. (V)

Working for Trump Is Getting Costly

It's not easy to be a part of Team Trump. And now, it's starting to hit current and former staffers where it really hurts: In the wallet. CNN spoke to a former Trump campaign staffer who notes, first of all, that he was never paid for his work. Making things worse, however, is that he is now piling up legal fees because he needs counsel present when answering federal investigators' questions. While the President has plenty of money for lawyers, others may not be so fortunate. The former staffer has implored Trump to help cover his costs, but recognizes that the President is notoriously tight with a buck, and is more than happy to turn his back on someone once he has no further use for them. "The world [is] going after [Trump's loyalists] and Trump [is] leaving them abandoned on the battlefield," he observed. "Yet many lives will be ruined in the process."

Of course, the financial risks aren't the only downside of working for The Donald. The constant scandals and ongoing investigations also create a great deal of stress, while at the same time undermining morale. News stories from anonymous staffers about how miserable they are have become a near-daily occurrence. And speaking of the news, there's also laserlike media attention—any current or aspiring staffer had better be sure there are no skeletons in the closet (see below). Then there's the problem, noted by CNN's ex-Trump staffer, that association with Trump can permanently taint one's resume. "At a minimum, political careers dead and damaged ability to work in D.C.," he said. And all of these "benefits" in exchange for working 60-100 hour weeks at a middling government salary.

All of these things explain why Trump is having, and will continue to have, difficulty staffing his administration. This includes even the more glamorous posts; potential FBI directors, for example, have been dropping like flies. As many as 15 candidates may have interviewed, but now a dozen of those have said "thanks, but no thanks." Former senator Joe Lieberman is still a candidate; at the rate that things are going, Trump may have to appoint him because he's the only one left standing. (Z)

Possible Paths to Impeachment

The Democratic faithful are eager to see Donald Trump brought up on charges and removed from office. For example, a recent editorial calling forcefully for the President's ouster was shared nearly 100,000 times on Facebook. Democratic and Republican politicians, however, are trying to avoid the i-word for now, each faction for their own reasons.

Still, when and if it does come to that, what will the charges be? What "crimes and misdemeanors" has Trump committed that might serve as basis for a trial? CNN's legal analyst Danny Cevallos has compiled a prospective list:

  • Obstruction of Justice: This, of course, is the obvious one. If Trump tried to kill James Comey's investigation into Michael Flynn, et al., then he may well have obstructed justice. It's a hard charge to prove, though Trump seems to be particularly adept at handing prosecutors damning evidence in a nice, tidy package.

  • Emoluments Clause: This is the other obvious one. Trump has not, in any meaningful way, separated himself from his business interests. If Congress decides they really want to be rid of him, it should not be difficult to find a transaction or a hundred that could plausibly be seen as a gift from a foreign government.

  • Misprision of a felony: This is an obscure one; but it essentially boils down to being an accessory to a crime by helping to conceal said crime. If Trump knew that Michael Flynn had broken the law (which he almost certainly did), and then tried to help hide Flynn's misconduct from the authorities (say, by trying to kill an investigation), he could well be guilty.

  • Non-criminal conduct: Cevallos observes that the Constitution's passage on impeachment is specifically written to cover a broad range of behaviors and actions, some of which are not illegal. In 1804, for example, Judge John Pickering was impeached and removed for his "profane and indecent" behavior. And when Congress was preparing charges against Richard Nixon, prominent among them was "abuse of power," a rather vague catchall that is not, in and of itself, a crime. Has Trump been profane and indecent, or abused his power? Very possibly; the former charge could be supported with mountains of evidence from Twitter alone, and the latter could be invoked in relation to the Israel leaks (among other incidents).

In the end, the decision to impeach a president is more a political calculation than a legal one, and Congress definitely isn't ready to pull the trigger yet. However, as Cevallos' commentary makes clear, they should have more than enough legal cover should it ever get to that point. (Z)

Republicans May Not Be Able to Make Big Gains in the Senate

Ten Democratic senators up for reelection in 2018 are in states Donald Trump won. If Republicans could win all these seats, they would have 62 seats starting in 2019, and could invoke cloture on any bill, this eliminating the Democrats' one remaining bit of power: filibustering legislation. But despite a very GOP-friendly map, picking up lots of seats is not a done deal for the Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it this way: "Don't fall in love with the map. The map doesn't win elections."

In recent weeks the momentum has shifted. There are three factors Republicans need to worry about, in particular:

  • Recruitment: You can't beat somebody with nobody. Incumbent senators historically have won almost 90% of their races, so to knock off a Democrat, even in a red state, the Republicans need a strong candidate. It appears they are not getting their first choices in a lot of places. In Michigan, for example, the Republican governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general have all decided not to challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). No doubt some U.S representative or state senator will give it a shot, but the fact that a two-term, term-limited governor is not interested in running for the Senate in a state that Trump won says something about how hard it will be to dislodge Stabenow. In Montana, Republicans were hoping then-representative Ryan Zinke would challenge Sen. Jon Tester (D), but Zinke accepted a job as secretary of the interior instead, presumably because he knew knocking off the popular Tester wouldn't be easy. In other states, top senatorial prospects, including Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA), Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), and Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) have all decided they like it very much in the House, thank you.

  • Strong incumbents: On paper, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) looks like a dead duck. After all, Trump won her state by 36 points. But a recent poll shows that 60% of the voters in North Dakota approve of Heitkamp. If all of them vote for her, she will be reelected in a landslide. It's true that North Dakota is a very red state, but it was also a very red state in 2012 when she was elected in the first place. If she did it once, she could do it again. She is pro-gun, pro-coal, and pro-oil. Why would her voters suddenly abandon her? Similarly, Tester has a 57% approval rating, tied with that of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) is 20 points above water. Even the least popular Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill (MO) is at +8. Knocking off a really popular incumbent is harder than it looks.

  • Trump: The midterm election is almost always a referendum on the president and the current one is the least popular one thus far since people have been keeping track. Maybe Robert Mueller will issue a report in mid-2018 saying "Nothing to see here, just move on," and Trump's popularity will zoom toward the moon. But maybe not. Conservative political analyst Sean Trende has a model that predicts Senate races quite well using as inputs presidential approval, the state's partisanship, incumbency, and candidate quality. It shows that if Trump's approval falls below 32%, the Democrats will capture the Senate. That's pretty low, but Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and both Bushes managed to fall below 32% at some point.

This said, not losing seats is still going to be tough for the Democrats, but losing eight seats seems unlikely now, and the Republicans would probably be overjoyed to pick up as few as three or four. Also of note is that in 2012, the Democrats had the same terrible map that they will face in 2018 and they picked up a net of two seats. Of course, that was a presidential election year, which means Democratic turnout is up. On the other hand, the president's party has lost Senate seats in 17 of the past 20 midterms. In short, maybe the Republicans shouldn't order cases of champagne quite yet. (V)

Clarke Plagiarized His Master's Thesis

Anyone who accepts a high-profile job in the Trump administration should expect to have their entire past closely scrutinized by the media and by left-leaning political groups. That's particularly true when you're an outspoken conservative firebrand like Sheriff David A. Clarke, who is about to leave his post in Milwaukee and take a job with the Department of Homeland Security. Given this, Clarke should probably have guessed that someone would discover that he plagiarized parts of his master's thesis while a student at the Naval Postgraduate School.

CNN counted at least 47 cases of plagiarism, all of which are documented at the link above. Perhaps most interesting is the list of sources he stole from. For an outspoken conservative, he found an unusually large amount of merit, it would seem, in what the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the ACLU had to say on the subject of security and property rights. He also "borrowed" from George W. Bush, who may the the single-worst person to plagiarize from, given both his prominence and his somewhat-middling intellectual heft. That's like a musician ripping off a song from Nickelback—everyone's heard it, and nobody really respects it.

Clarke has gone on the defensive, using Twitter to point out that he cited all the works he lifted from, and so it's not plagiarism. That argument wouldn't fly with any dean of students in the country, and it shouldn't fly here. The Naval Postgraduate School, for their part, has scrubbed the thesis, and any references to it, from all of their websites. A similar level of plagiarism cost Monica Crowley her job in the administration; we will see if Clarke's head rolls as well. (Z)

Gingrich Named Ambassador to Vatican City

No, not Newt. His wife, Callista. Though it has not been made official yet, it is expected that she will be nominated as United States Ambassador to the Holy See (aka the Vatican City) shortly after Donald Trump's return to the U.S.

Gingrich's qualifications for the post are that she is Catholic and, uh, well...did we mention she's Catholic? Obviously, Trump is repaying some of his campaign debt to Newt, who was willing to go on TV and defend The Donald when few others would. This is a fairly common use of ambassadorships; for example, it's not like Caroline Kennedy's resume justified her appointment as ambassador to Japan when Barack Obama tapped her in 2009. And really, it's hard to think of an ambassadorship that's much less consequential than the Vatican. The U.S. doesn't exactly need to negotiate trade deals or the return of hostages or the possibility of a military invasion with the pope. Heck, the Vatican has only 771 residents, and is not even a member of the United Nations (one of three countries for whom that is true, and the only one of the three whose nationhood is not in dispute). The ambassador doesn't even live in the Vatican because it's so small, they reside a couple of miles away in downtown Rome. So, if she is confirmed, Gingrich picked up a job not unlike the vice presidency. She'll call the Holy See in the morning to make sure the pope's still alive, and then will spend the rest of her day enjoying an extended Italian vacation. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May20 Trump Said Firing Comey Took Off the Pressure
May20 Russians Bragged About Compromising Trump
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May20 Comey to Testify Before Senate
May20 Mueller's Probe May Impede Congressional Investigation
May20 Trump Begins First Trip Abroad
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May19 Flynn and Other Campaign Staff had at Least 18 Contacts with Russia During Campaign
May19 Conservatives Are Beginning to Whisper "President Pence"
May19 What Did Pence Know and When Did He Know It?
May19 Democrats Should Not Be Demanding that Trump Be Impeached
May19 FBI Director...Lieberman?
May19 Gowdy Could Become Chairman of House Oversight Committee
May19 Former Israeli Spies Blast Trump
May19 Clarke Set to Accept Position in Trump Administration
May19 Roger Ailes Dies
May18 Former FBI Director Robert Mueller Appointed as Special Counsel
May18 Who Is Robert Mueller?
May18 Senate Intelligence Committee Wants Comey to Testify
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May18 Trump Denounces the Media as Unfair to Him
May18 Democratic Leaders Try to Quiet Impeachment Talk
May18 Wall Street Losing Faith
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May17 McConnell: Tax Plan Has to Be Revenue Neutral
May17 Bookie: Chances of Trump's Impeachment This Year at 25%
May17 Republican Senatorial Primary in Alabama Could Be Important
May16 Trump Gives Classified Information to the Russians
May16 Spicer Won't Say Whether Trump Will Give Recordings to Congress
May16 Rosenstein to Brief the Senate Thursday
May16 Supreme Court Refuses to Hear North Carolina Voter-ID Case
May16 GOP Senators Are Not Enthusiastic about Cornyn as FBI Director
May16 Republicans Are Already Handicapping 2020
May16 Trump's Curious Theory on Exercise
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May15 Trump Considers a Major Shakeup
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