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Trump Budget to Drop Today

This morning, the members of Congress will receive full copies of Donald Trump's first annual budget proposal. Although we've already seen a broad outline of the President's plans, now we're getting the nitty gritty. And, in short, it's a doozy.

First, Trump's selling points: The budget slightly increases overall spending, and calls for additional spending on defense (+$54 billion), infrastructure (+$200 billion), and border security (+$2.6 billion). $1.6 billion of the new border security money would go to building a wall, although at a projected price tag of $15-$30 billion, $1.6 billion is a relative drop in the bucket. The budget also calls for the creation of the first-ever federal paid family leave program, while cutting taxes on businesses and high-earning individuals. And, in the coup de grace, Trump declares that his plan would balance the budget by 2027 while at the same time reducing the national debt.

And now, the bad news: Trump's budget would slash nearly everything that's not defense, infrastructure, or border security. Education, national parks, scientific research, diplomacy, legal aid, student loan forgiveness, public television—you name it, and it probably comes under the knife. The biggest loser, however, would be Medicaid, which would be cut by a staggering $800 billion over the next 10 years. Other "safety net" programs would also be hit hard, including food stamps (a.k.a. SNAP); Social Security disability insurance benefits; additional income for poor seniors, disabled adults and children (SSI); and public assistance for needy families (TANF).

To make all of this "magic" happen, the Trump budget relies on two major assumptions, neither of them likely. The first of these is that the economy will grow by a robust 3% every year for the next 10 years. "I see no way that's going to remotely happen," said David A. Stockman, who served the budget director under President Ronald Reagan. The second is that the AHCA, as passed by the House of Representatives, will become law largely unchanged by the Senate. As we have pointed out many times, there is zero chance of that. For both of these reasons, the New York Times' analysis is headlined, "Trump's First Budget Works Only if Wishes Come True."

Further, even if Trump was not making wildly unfounded assumptions, there is simply no way his budget is going to make it through Congress. They're not stupid (well, most of them) and they know that this budget would lead to brutal punishment at the polls, starting with all the voters who depend on Medicaid. Further, GOP rhetoric notwithstanding, the members surely recognize that "trickle down" economics—and Trump's plan is a classic example of the concept—does not work. Economists don't agree on much, but they do agree on that. For all of these reasons and more, the reception that the budget is getting on The Hill is chilly. For example, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who is as much of Trump loyalist as there is in the Senate, proclaimed the budget "basically dead on arrival."

What this episode shows is that Trump still doesn't understand how Washington works. Presidents always have a tough time getting their budgets through Congress, but to have a serious chance they have to lobby Congress and the country very hard. Releasing a budget when the president is not available to start campaigning for it instantly means Trump has wasted his best opportunity to convince people that the budget is a good thing. For the next week, the big news is going to be about his meetings with foreign leaders. By the time he gets back, half the Senate will have proclaimed the budget is old news and no longer relevant. As a president, you are not supposed to squander your best chances of getting something important done. Trump seems to have missed the memo on that.

In the end, then, this is nothing more than political theater (as presidential budgets often are). Trump will claim all manner of "victories"—"I balanced the budget!" and "I tried to build the wall!" and "I was going to give paid family leave!"—and then will blame the meanies in Congress for not allowing him to make America great again. (Z & V)

Flynn Defies Subpoena and Invokes the Fifth Amendment

Michael Flynn yesterday informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that he has no intention of complying with its subpoena about his contacts with the Russians, thus setting the stage for a huge fight with constitutional implications. Flynn clearly has a right to avoid testifying against himself, but Congress also has a right to provide oversight of the executive branch. What happens when rights collide?

Flynn has offered to provide the documents and testify, but only if he is given immunity from prosecution. It is almost certain that he violated laws about working as a foreign agent without registering as such and possibly other laws, including those about lying to federal investigators. The Senate is very unlikely to give immunity because that could affect the investigation of Robert Mueller. What the Senate could do is find him in contempt of Congress and ask the Justice Dept. to prosecute him. Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) has declined to state what his next move is, but if he does decide to cite Flynn for contempt of Congress and ask the Justice Dept. to prosecute Flynn, it is not clear who would make the decision to prosecute or not. Normally, that would be on the attorney general's plate, but since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from investigating the Trump-Russia connection, maybe it would be Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein who makes the call. Or maybe Rosenstein would pass the hot potato to Mueller. The only thing that is certain is that the Trump administration is already taking the Constitution to places it's never gone before. (V)

Mueller Inquiry: The Plot Thickens

We can probably just make a macro of that headline, because it's going to be apropos a lot in the next year or two. Robert Mueller has only been on the job for about a week, and already he's turning over stones that the Trump administration would prefer remain undisturbed.

The biggest revelation of the day is that President Trump reportedly was not satisfied to twist just James Comey's arm. Nope, he also went to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers and asked them to deny in public that there is evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. They declined the request, which they found inappropriate. So, Trump gained nothing, other than two more extremely credible witnesses in a possible obstruction of justice case, and two more people who can lend credence to Comey's version of events.

And speaking of Comey, the other big news on Monday is that Mueller has been briefed on the contents of the memos that the former FBI Director wrote about his meetings with Trump. This effectively confirms that said memos exist. And the fact that Mueller is now going to make obstruction of justice a part of his investigation means that he believes them. Trump prayed at the Wailing Wall on Monday, and left a note, as is customary. If his note gets nabbed and published, like Barack Obama's was, we will learn if he asked the Lord to smite a few former FBI directors. (Z)

Trump Is Working on Picking a Legal Defense Team

President Donald Trump sees the handwriting on the wall (not the Wailing Wall), and it says: "Get a lawyer, fast." According to the Washington Post, Trump has been personally involved in the process of selecting a legal team, possibly with lawyers from multiple firms. Possible finalists include Marc Kasowitz, Robert Giuffra, Jr., Reid Weingarten, and Theodore Olson. Kasowitz, who has worked for Trump for decades, is expected to lead the pack. He has represented Trump in his divorce cases, his real estate transactions, and in defending against the allegations of fraud at Trump University. The team would be independent of the White House Counsel's Office.

Once everyone has lawyered up, the whole business will get a lot nastier. An interesting question is what Justice Neil Gorsuch will do if he ends up being the deciding vote in a case relating to Trump. But long before anything gets to the Supreme Court, Trump will be on trial in the court of public opinion. It is hard to imagine he will have any free time left to do things, like, say, governing. A nasty fight over the Senate's subpoena of Flynn could easily suck Trump into the mix and dominate D.C., making passing the Republican agenda very difficult. (V)

Israelis Angry with Trump about Failing to Move the U.S. Embassy

In Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump was treated like a king. In Israel, not so much. Many Israeli officials are angry with him for de facto outing one of their spies when blabbing highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister. Another batch are angry with him for promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and then not doing it. The issue of whether Jerusalem is part of Israel is extremely contentious. For 60 years, U.S. policy has been that no state has jurisdiction over Jerusalem. The issue is so fraught that the U.S. Supreme Court even ruled on it once when a Jerusalem-born American citizen insisted that his passport list Israel as his birthplace. The Court said: Nope.

The one area where Trump sees eye-to-eye with all Israeli officials is in containing Iran. For this reason, Israel did not protest too much about the United States selling $110 billion worth of advanced military gear to Saudi Arabia, as it is more likely to be used against Iran than against Israel. (V)

Melania Trump Delivers the "Swat Heard 'Round the World"

While they visited Israel on Monday, Donald Trump and his wife were walking along a red carpet with the Netanyahus. The President reached out for the First Lady's hand, and she swatted it away. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz posted the footage to their Twitter feed, and it quickly went viral, with tens of thousands of people retweeting what quickly came to be known as "the swat heard 'round the world."

So, what happened here? Well, here are the most popular theories:

  • Melania thought it was a bug and not the President's hand
  • Melania finds her husband repugnant
  • Melania isn't used to scrutiny and forgets the world is watching her every public move
  • Melania was protecting her husband against a breach of protocol, since the Netanyahus were not holding hands

Democrats are really hoping it's option #2, but that's probably not correct. Even if she actually is turned off by her husband, she's unlikely to broadcast it so openly. More probable is that it's #3. It is unlikely that Melania is aware of diplomatic protocols or cares about them. Besides, from the video it is clear that she doesn't have a good view of the Netanyahus and probably can't see whether or not they are holding hands. The pressure of her unexpected and unwanted job as FLOTUS is probably overwhelming for her and she doesn't realize that even her smallest gesture could become worldwide news. Whatever the case may be, incidents like this are not going to help improve her lack of enthusiasm about serving as First Lady. (Z)

Supreme Court Rules that North Carolina Racially Gerrymandered Map

Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision declaring that the Republican-controlled state legislature illegally used race as a major factor in drawing its district maps. The state maintained that it was merely trying to maximize the number of Republicans elected, which the Court has previous said is fine. In a very unusual situation, Justice Clarence Thomas sided with the four liberals. Possibly with Antonin Scalia now dead, Thomas doesn't have anyone to tell him how to vote any more.

Other gerrymandering cases are working their way up to the Supreme Court. These cases are in Wisconsin and Maryland. It is clear that sooner or later SCOTUS is going to have to lay down clear rules as to what the state legislatures can and cannot do in the way of gerrymandering. That decision, when it comes, could have huge implications for control of the House and the state legislatures. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not vote in this case since he was not present during the oral arguments, but will probably get to have his say in cases now in the pipeline. (V)

Amateur Cartographer Produces Precinct-Level Map of 2016 Election

Maps are definitely hot today. Ryne Rohla, a Ph.D. student at Washington State University who loves maps, has produced the first precinct-level map of the 2016 presidential election. Here it is:

2016 precinct map

At first glance it is pretty red. Also at second and third glances. But remember, Hillary Clinton actually got almost 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, even though popular votes don't count. Trump clearly won many more square miles than Clinton, but square miles don't count either. What the map shows is how incredibly concentrated the Democrats are. In fact, the biggest chunk of blue in the contiguous 48 states is a very sparsely populated Indian reservation in Northeast Arizona.

The map also shows where geology hits politics. If you look closely at the map, there is a band of blue running in an arc from Virginia, through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and up to Arkansas. Why are there so many blue precincts in the deep South? It has to do with geology. About 100 million years ago, the seas were much higher than they are now and this band marked the North American coastline. Off the coast, the shallow ocean floor was teeming with life for millions of years. As the seas got lower, North America got bigger, but the ancient coastline, now inland, had exceedingly rich soil due to all the remains of the former marine life. This soil was exceptionally productive for growing cotton, so Southerners imported large numbers of slaves to work the plantations in this area. As a result, the counties and precincts along the old coastline have very large black populations and vote strongly for the Democrats. (V)

Poll Gives Ossoff Comfortable Lead

The Democrats are desperately trying to steal one of the red congressional districts that has come open due to Trump administration appointments. KS-04 did not work out, and MT-01 is looking a bit dodgy, but the blue team got good news in a new SurveyUSA poll of GA-06: Jon Ossoff is leading Republican Karen Handel by 7 points, 51% to 44%.

If true, this number would mean that Ossoff had essentially consolidated all the Democratic votes from the jungle primary, along with a sizable portion of the independents—a development that is well within the realm of possibility. The poll also had additional good news for the Democratic candidate: The number of voters who see his biggest liability—that he lives outside of GA-06—as an issue is 48%. That's within shouting distance of the 40% of voters who think that Karen Handel's biggest liability—that she doesn't have a college degree—is an issue. Needless to say, if an R+8 district falls to a member of the blue team, everyone is going to interpret that as a repudiation of Donald Trump, and Democrats are going to be making hay out of it for months and months. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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