Dem 48
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GOP 52
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New polls:  
Dem pickups vs. 2012: (None)
GOP pickups vs. 2012: (None)

Mueller is Looking at Business Transactions Done by Trump and Associates

Special counsel Robert Mueller's instructions are to look at connections between Donald Trump and Russia, as well as any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation. That suggests a fairly broad scope, and Mueller seems to be interpreting his instructions that way. He is looking at transactions involving the Bayrock group, which was founded by a former official from Kazakhstan, Tevfik Arif, and run by Russian businessman Felix Sater. Bayrock has been a major source of funding for Trump's real estate projects. Sater has had several brushes with the law. In 1993, he served a year in prison for assault. In 1998 he was convicted of fraud for a $40 million pump-and-dump stock scheme. In return for leniency, he agreed to cooperate with the FBI in a case involving organized crime.

Another line of inquiry that Mueller is following relates to a property in Palm Beach, FL, that Trump bought in 2004 for $41 million. In 2008, after the real estate market was starting to collapse, he sold it to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million. Maybe Trump is a fantastic businessman and Russian oligarchs are stupid, but Mueller is curious about the deal.

Mueller has also taken over a money-laundering probe started by federal prosecutors in New York. It is focused on Trump's one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort. It has been reported that Manafort was $17 million in debt to Russian interests before he joined Trump's campaign. He dealt with a web of shell companies and banks in Cyprus. Mueller wants to understand all this better and know if any money laundering took place. Also of note concerning Cyprus is that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was vice chairman of the Bank of Cyprus before he joined the administration. Undoubtedly Mueller wants to know if there was any connection between Manafort, Ross, and Trump, since Cyprus is a well-known haven for money laundering, especially by Russians.

In short, there is a huge network of financial transactions Mueller is looking at, some of which may be suspicious. In this light, it is not surprising that one of Mueller's first hires was Andrew Weissman, who is an expert at prosecuting money-laundering cases.

One of Trump's lawyers, John Dowd, said that examining Trump's business transactions goes well beyond Mueller's mandate. Mueller clearly does not agree, but the only way for Trump to stop Mueller is to try to fire him, which might precipitate his impeachment for obstruction of justice. (V)

Trump Reshuffles Legal Team

Last week, Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz got into an ill-advised and unprofessional e-mail flame war with an anonymous critic. Now, he's no longer Trump's lawyer. Originally, reports were that Kasowitz was merely stepping down from the Russia defense team, but CBS News says that he's been cashiered entirely. Departing with him is Mark Corallo, a veteran Washington lawyer who had been serving as Kasowitz's spokesman. That now leaves the job of handling the President's Russia headaches in the hands of Jay Sekulow, John Dowd, and newly-hired Ty Cobb, who is reportedly a real peach.

Presumably, Kasowitz's ouster was at least partly precipitated by his outburst last week. However, Trump is apparently also unhappy with his team's overall performance, and feels that they have not done enough to push back against Russiagate. So, in addition to shuffling lawyers—which may be akin to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic—Team Trump is also revamping its strategy. Actually, it might be more correct to say that they're getting down into the gutter, so they can play dirty. According to reporting from the Washington Post, the focus is currently on collecting dirt about Robert Mueller and his team of attorneys. In the case of the former, they are building a dossier of conflicts of interest (or, more accurately, alleged conflicts of interest) and in the case of the latter they are just trying to find whatever skeletons they can come up with. At the same time, the President's attorneys are using the media to make a very public case that some areas (like Trump's finances) are off limits, and to warn Mueller that he better not go there (see above).

Trump (and his lawyers) are also asking anyone and everyone about the extent of his pardon power, and whether or not the President can pardon friends, family members, aides, and/or himself. These discussions are, to be blunt, very stupid for two reasons. First, everyone knows that Trump can pardon his friends/family/aides as he sees fit (though not for state offenses), while nobody knows if he can pardon himself—that's almost certainly going to be a question for the Supreme Court. Asking around, then, yields no useful information. But it does give fodder for leaks, and those leaks make the President look like a guilty man.

The second, and more significant reason that Trump and his lawyers should put the kibosh on any and all pardon talk is this: the Fifth Amendment. Recall that the Amendment provides that no one, "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." That means that anyone Trump pardons could well be forced under oath to give up whatever dirt they have on the President, since they would no longer be able to take the fifth. If they remained silent, they would be in contempt, and if they lied, they would be liable for perjury charges, since pardons only cover past deeds.

Meanwhile, the best thing that Trump's lawyers could do for him right now would be to somehow, some way convince him to shut up. The interview he gave to the New York Times on Wednesday set him back significantly. It's bad enough that he handed Robert Mueller, et al., a treasure trove of information that can be used to establish intent; his statements could easily find their way into court in an obstruction of justice case. On top of that, every time the President pipes up in public, he hems in his lawyers and makes it harder for the various members of the Trump family to align on strategy. For example, if Jared Kushner wants to coordinate his defense with his father-in-law, he would essentially be compelled to take ownership of everything that Trump has said publicly. That's not in his best interest, so he and Trump will likely have to mount their defenses independent of (and possibly hostile to) each other.

Axios has noted that Trump is especially disturbed after learning that Mueller could subpoena his tax returns. Conceivably Trump could order the Commissioner of Internal Revenue to give him a heads up if Mueller does that. On the other hand, Mueller could (also) subpoena Trump's New York State tax returns and it is unlikely he would get a heads up on that.

At this point, everyone's favorite guessing game is "What Will Trump Do?" Will he let Jeff Sessions' head roll? Or perhaps those of the entire leadership of the Justice Department? Will he find some way to rid himself of Robert Mueller? The answer to these questions is that nobody knows. However, Trump's words and actions of the past few days suggest a man who is growing desperate. And we already know that the President is very impetuous. Desperate and impetuous is a very bad combination, one that could produce just about any outcome imaginable. (Z)

Manafort, Trump Jr. Testimony Not Optional

Earlier this week, it was reported that Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. would be testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since then, however, the two men have refused to confirm those reports. It's hard to imagine why they would be unwilling to confirm, since it is not like their appearance is going to remain a secret. Unless they are having second thoughts, and are entertaining the possibility of skipping the appearance.

If that is indeed their thinking, then Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) would like to disabuse them of that notion. "We sent the letter, I don't know whether they've accepted, but we sent the letter and we asked them for a voluntary appearance," he said. "I don't know if we said it in the letter or not—but we indicated to them, at least publicly I indicated to them that there will be a subpoena if they don't come." Grassley clearly wasn't bluffing, because he also said that he wants to know ASAP what their plans are, so he can round up a marshal to serve the subpoena if needed. Ranking member of the committee Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) seconded the threat. So, Manafort and Trump Jr. better book their plane tickets to DC, since an irritated Judiciary Committee is likely to be a lot more unfriendly than the non-irritated variety. (Z)

Conservatives are Furious with Sens. Capito, Murkowski, and Portman

If the health-care bill goes down in flames, as seems likely now, conservative groups that have opposed "Obamacare" for 7 long years are going to be apoplectic, and much of their anger is going to be directed at three Republican senators: Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Rob Portman (OH). In fact, it already is, as they have created a website called featuring these three senators. Interestingly enough, they seem to have forgotten Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who is the Republican most opposed to the Senate health-care bill. They also missed Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), who also oppose it. It is unlikely that the website or other conservative activities are going to change any minds, though, and none of the three "traitors" is up for reelection in 2018, so they can't be primaried next year. In short, the conservatives can seethe, but they can't do much else. (V)

Republicans Rally around Sessions

On Wednesday, Donald Trump said he was sorry he hired Jeff Sessions to be attorney general and wouldn't have done so if he had known Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russiagate investigation. Yesterday, Sessions said that he has no intention of resigning. Furthermore, Republicans in Congress rushed to Sessions' defense. For example, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) said: "I do not expect Jeff Sessions to resign, I would not want him to resign." Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) called Sessions "a great and noble human being." Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) said it was inappropriate for the president to lash out at his attorney general. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said: "I know Jeff Sessions and he's a good man." In short, if Trump expected Congress to demand Sessions' head on a platter, he is going to be disappointed.

It is worth noting that Trump has almost no leverage over Sessions. Yes, he could fire him easily, but then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would run the Justice Dept. until the Senate confirmed the new AG. And with moderate Republicans already bucking the party leadership on health care, the confirmation battle could be bloody with no guarantee Trump could ever get another AG confirmed, and certainly not one who the Senate felt would simply do Trump's bidding. (V)

Trump's Support Among Republicans May Be Less than Reported

Numerous polls have shown that Donald Trump's support among Republicans is holding steady at well over 80%. However, a new study shows that these polls may be misleading. The problem is that while people currently identifying as Republicans strongly support Trump, the number of people identifying as Republicans has dropped 4% since the election. In other words, some people who have come to dislike Trump have stopped calling themselves Republicans, so when pollsters report that Republicans still behind Trump, the people who have stopped supporting him aren't counted because they aren't calling themselves Republicans any more. (V)

Kobach Unsure if Hillary Clinton Won the Popular Vote

When it comes to Donald Trump's Electoral Integrity Commission, chairman Mike Pence is in between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he needs to appear loyal to his boss (at least, his boss for now). On the other hand, he surely knows that nothing good will come of his project, and that it could leave him with serious egg on his face. So, he's trying to proceed cautiously, and he opened the committee's first meeting with a carefully-worded statement emphasizing that, "this commission has no preconceived notions or preordained results."

Vice chair Kris Kobach, by contrast, has no such concerns, and is all in with the Trump party line when it comes to allegations of massive voter fraud. He appeared on MSNBC on Wednesday, and was asked, "Did Hillary Clinton win the popular vote by 3 to 5 million votes because of voter fraud?" Kobach's reply: "We will probably never know the answer to that question."

If there were any doubt about the motives of this commission, or at least those of Kobach, this refusal lays them all bare. Recall that there is no evidence whatsoever of massive voter fraud, nor is there any plausible way it could have happened. So, Kobach has most certainly entered into this process with "preconceived notions," and also with a complete lack of interest in actual data.

Meanwhile, there's something that probably has not occurred to Kobach, but that has occurred to the Washington Post's conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin. Namely, that by repeating empty propaganda about voter fraud, he undermines confidence in the American electoral system, and so helps the Russians advance their agenda. And we all know what the term is for someone who does the Russians' bidding without even being aware of it. So, the Kansas Secretary of State might want to have some new business cards printed up: Kris Kobach, Useful Idiot. (Z)

Sen. Chris Christie (R-NJ)?

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) goes on trial for corruption in Sept. If he is convicted, the Senate could vote quickly to expel him, and that vote would surely be 100% along partisan lines. Alternatively, if convicted, Menendez might resign from the Senate as part of a plea deal. In either case the nation's least popular governor, Chris Christie, could decide to appoint himself to the Senate, thus becoming the nation's least popular senator in the blink of an eye. In 2014, he said: "I would rather die than be in the United States Senate." In 2015, he said he "would rather jump off the Brooklyn Bridge than be in Congress." In 2017, he could say "My greatest ambition in life is to be a senator." Who knows? Democrats would boo. Republicans would cheer.

A complicating factor is that if Menendez is found guilty, he will certainly appeal. The appeal will take months, at best, by which time there will be a new governor in New Jersey, most likely Democrat Phil Murphy. Will Republicans in the Senate be willing to give Menendez the benefit of the doubt and hold off expelling him until the appeal gets a ruling and New Jersey gets a Democratic governor? Don't bet on it.

Christie could also appoint some other Republican, with state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick—a Christie ally—being the main alternative to Christie himself. If Menendez is convicted and Bramnick is appointed to his seat, the Republicans wouldn't be home free because Bramnick would have to face the voters in 2018 and New Jersey is a very blue state at the national level, so he could be as much of a thorn in the side of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as is Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Conviction or no conviction, there will be a Senate election in New Jersey in 2018 because Menendez was elected in 2012. If Menendez is acquitted, Democrats will have to decide if they want to support or primary him in 2018.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer and is unlikely to return to the Senate any time soon, if ever. His absence means the Republican majority is de facto 51-48 now. If Menendez were to be replaced by a Republican, the partisan breakdown would be 52-47, meaning that on any vote, Mitch McConnell could afford to lose two votes (rather than one) and still prevail. Under these conditions, McConnell could revive his health-care bill and try again. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul20 Trump Tuesday: Give up on Health Care, Trump Wednesday: Finish Health Care
Jul20 Last-Ditch Effort Being Made to Save Health-Care Bill
Jul20 McCain Has Brain Cancer
Jul20 Repealing the ACA Would Leave 32 Million More People Uninsured
Jul20 Trump Gives Rambling Interview, Slams Sessions
Jul20 Supreme Court Rules that Muslim Grandparents and Cousins Are Welcome in the U.S.
Jul20 Trump Jr., Manafort, Kushner to Testify Before Senate Judiciary Committee
Jul20 Rohrabacher's Support for Putin May Hurt Him
Jul19 Health-Care Plan F: Do Nothing
Jul19 Another Attendee at the Trump Jr. Meeting with Russian Lawyer is Named
Jul19 Trump Had Second Meeting with Putin at G20
Jul19 Collapse of GOP Health Care Effort May Be Bad News for Russia
Jul19 Trump's Presidency Is in Deep Trouble
Jul19 More Polls, More Bad News for Trump and the GOP
Jul19 Electoral Integrity Commission to Hold its First Meeting Today
Jul19 What's Made in America? Not Trump Products
Jul18 Four Senators Oppose Motion to Proceed on Health-Care Bill
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Jul18 More Americans Want Trump Impeached than Wanted Nixon Impeached
Jul18 Investigators Are Probing Trump's Digital Operation for Collusion with Russia
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Jul16 Campaign Paid Donald Jr.'s Attorney $50K Shortly Before Meeting Was Revealed
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Jul14 Meet the New Health-Care Bill, a Lot Like the Old Health-Care Bill
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Jul14 Kushner Wants White House to Forcefully Defend Meeting with Russian Lawyer
Jul14 Does Anyone in the Trump Orbit Know How to Behave?