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

The Sessions Plot Thickens

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared before the Senate for his confirmation hearings, he said he had not met with anyone from the Russian government during the campaign. His exact words: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." After he was confirmed, it came to light that he had indeed had communications with the Russians, namely ambassador (and probable spy) Sergey Kislyak. At that point, Sessions acknowledged two meetings with Kislyak (the number later rose to three), but insisted that they were conducted in his capacity as U.S. Senator, and that "I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign." When asked why he had denied meeting with the Russians in the first place, Sessions said that he didn't think that was the kind of meeting the Senate was interested in hearing about.

That story has never been particularly believable. First, Sessions' initial statement was unambiguous. "I did not have communications" does not mean, "I had SOME communications with the Russians, but not the kind I think you want to hear about." Second, there was no clear Senate-related reason that Sessions would need to meet with Kislyak. At very least, no other Senators did so. Third, when Sessions paid the costs for traveling to the two meetings, he did not use his U.S. Senate funds. If he was on Senate business, why wouldn't he use Senate money? In any event, on late Friday, the Washington Post reported that evidence has come to light that strongly suggests the Attorney General was lying. Namely, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted several reports sent from Kislyak to Moscow in which he detailed the contents of his meetings with Sessions. In those reports, the Russian ambassador said that election-related matters and the Trump campaign were indeed discussed.

Sessions certainly looks to be in deep trouble. If Kislyak was telling the truth, then it means the Attorney General perjured himself before Congress during his confirmation hearings, and then again when he returned to explain his meetings with the Ambassador. In addition to two different instances of perjury, Sessions would also be dangerously close to conspiracy charges.

The Attorney General really has only two options here. The first would be to insist that Kislyak was reporting false information to his superiors as a means of testing whether or not the CIA was listening. The Russians certainly have been known to do this, but intelligence pros agree that it's not Kislyak's style, and that he has not been known to do this in the past. Further, the Russian government was eager for information about the Trump campaign, and their operative is rather unlikely to have made them wait through a bunch of shenanigans. So, this defense is not likely to stand up to scrutiny.

That brings us to Sessions' second option: He could update his story, once again, in an effort to explain himself. That was the course taken by Justice Dept. spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores on Friday night, when she acknowledged that the campaign might have been discussed with Kislyak, but that interference in the election was not. The problem with this approach is that we would only have Sessions' word that he and the Ambassador did not talk about interfering with the election, and at this point, his word is not worth a lot. Further, even if interference was not discussed, any discussion of election-related matters contradicts the statement he made during his confirmation hearings, and so leaves him still guilty of perjury. In other words, Sessions does not seem to have any good options, which means he's probably in deep doo-doo.

As bad as this news is for the AG, however, it may be even worse news for Donald Trump, as it creates all sorts of problems for the President. To start, we now have five members of the campaign who apparently met with the Russians to discuss the election. There's Sessions, and then Michael Flynn, who met with Kislyak several times to discuss the sanctions. There's also Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, who met with several Russians to try to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. And the tally of five assumes that we take the campaign's word for it that Peter W. Smith, who tried to buy Clinton e-mails from the Russians, wasn't actually working for Trump. Whatever the case may be, what was once smoke is quickly becoming fire, and it's getting harder and harder to argue that it was "just one meeting" or "just one rogue individual."

The disposition of Sessions is another huge problem. Trump just threw his AG under the bus; this news is not going to make it any easier for him to remain as part of the administration. But if Sessions goes, either due to resignation or termination, it creates all sorts of problems for Trump. First, a termination in particular, but also a resignation to an extent, implicitly confirms that something untoward took place between Sessions and Kislyak. Trump does not like to make such admissions; recall that even Flynn was fired not for talking to the Ambassador, but instead for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about it. Second, if Sessions leaves in anger (or maybe even if he doesn't), he would be a prime candidate to trade immunity from prosecution in exchange for spilling his guts. Third, and finally, Sessions would likely be replaced on an interim basis by Rod Rosenstein, whom Trump loathes. In theory, the President could promote someone ahead of Rosenstein, but such a maneuver would likely come with heavy political and possibly even legal costs. And whoever the interim is, Trump could be stuck with them for a long while, given how difficult a time he has finding appointees. Further, the Senate is unlikely to approve anyone who would take it easy on Trump, so however things unfold Sessions' replacement would likely be a much bigger thorn in the President's side than the one he's got right now.

This news broke late on Friday, and so there has not been time for the various actors to fully respond. Trump's twitter storm will undoubtedly come early this morning, and after that there's every chance things could develop rapidly from there. At the moment, Paddy Power, Betfair, and other betting sites have taken all of their Sessions-related bets off the board, but there was a time not too long ago that you could get 12-to-1 that Sessions wouldn't survive this year. That's looking like those who bet against the AG could profit handsomely, perhaps even by the end of the weekend. (Z)

Trump Shakes Up Communications Team

Donald Trump believes that many of his problems are due to faulty communications, so he is attempting to fix them by changing the communications team. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was eased out yesterday, although though he will stay on the payroll until the end of August. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will replace Spicer as press secretary. De facto, she replaced him weeks ago, but now it is official.

On the way out the door, Spicer denounced the new White House communications director, Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci, who is often called "Mooch." Scaramucci's qualifications are first, that he is very rich. He sold his interest in a hedge fund for an estimated $100 million. Trump likes rich people. Second, he has been a Trump supporter from the very beginning. Trump likes people who supported him from the very beginning. Third, he has vigorously defended Trump on cable TV. Trump likes people who defend him on cable TV. As we have seen before, these are the three main things Trump looks for in new hires, and Scaramucci has all of them in spades.

Scaramucci is supported by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, but opposed by many others in the White House due to his lack of actual qualifications for the job. A situation in which a White House staffer is strongly opposed by other White House staffers invariably leads to a big-time leak-a-thon, in which the staffer's opponents are constantly dishing dirt to friendly reporters. One of the staffers who vigorously opposed Scaramucci was Reince Priebus, which means Priebus is now on thin ice, especially since he was the one who brought in Spicer. Priebus is already spinning like crazy, telling Fox News that, "It is good to start fresh." Yeah, right. Meanwhile, senior strategist Steve Bannon is worried that Scaramucci brings the Wall Street mentality he so hates to the White House. Having Priebus and Bannon taking pot shots at Scaramucci from day 1 should make his job interesting, to say the least.

This is the second shake-up in two days. On Thursday, Trump shook up his legal team by firing Marc Kasowitz and promoting John Dowd. Neither of the shake-ups addresses the administration's key problem: an undisciplined, distracted president who has no interest in governing and who tweets whatever comes into his mind, regardless of the consequences. (V)

Mueller Wants All the Documents Related to Trump Jr.'s Meeting with Russian Lawyer

Special counsel Robert Mueller has asked the White House to preserve all emails, text messages, notes, voicemails, and other items related to the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, a Russian lawyer close to Vladimir Putin, and others. Requests like this are not unusual, but this one makes it clear that Mueller is definitely going to look at the meeting closely, since it is the clearest (public) evidence so far of a potential conspiracy to violate U.S. laws, in particular, laws about foreign nationals contributing anything of value to U.S. political campaigns, including information.

What no doubt has also attracted Mueller's attention is how the White House handled the story when it got out. There were numerous contradictory explanations about the meeting and why it was held. It now appears that the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitkaya, promised Junior dirt on Hillary Clinton and he eagerly showed up to accept it. Mueller might decide to indict them for this. (V)

Trump and Manafort Will Testify in Private

Early this week, it was reported that Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Then, it looked like they might try to back out, until Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) threatened them with subpoenas. Now, an agreement has been reached: They will testify, but behind closed doors. This was probably about as much a concession as Junior and Manafort could get, given their limited leverage. It's hard to see how it will do them much good, though, given how leaky Washington is these days. Plus, demanding a secret hearing certainly gives off the impression that they're guilty of something.

Meanwhile, things did not go nearly as cordially between Grassley and Glenn Simpson. Simpson is the co-founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that British agent Christopher Steele was working for when he collected a dossier of scandalous Trump-Russia related material, some about money laundering and some about Trump's sexual dalliances. The veracity of that dossier is in question, and the Committee insists on talking to Simpson about it (they can't compel Steele to appear since he's not a U.S. citizen). Simpson politely declined their request, and so a subpoena has now been issued. Grassley & Co. may not learn much, however, as Simpson has already indicated through his attorney that he's going to plead the fifth. (Z)

Felix Sater Helped Kazakhs Accused of Money Laundering through Trump Properties

A name that keeps popping up in connection with Russiagate is that of Felix Sater, a Moscow native who pleaded guilty to a stock-fraud scheme in 1998 and who has been a frequent business partner and senior adviser to Donald Trump. McClatchy now has a scoop about how Sater helped international fugitive Viktor Khrapunov, who is accused in civil lawsuits of laundering money through Trump-branded properties. Khrapunov is a former Kazakh energy minister who fled the country after the government accused him of stealing government funds. He went to Switzerland but wants to get visas for the U.S. for his family, with Sater's help.

In 2012 and 2013, Sater worked with the Khrapunovs on real estate deals worth $40 million, even though Viktor Khrapunov was already on the Interpol wanted list, with his wife and stepchildren added shortly thereafter. The Khrapunovs also invested millions in a health-technology company run by Daniel Ridloff, a partner of both Trump and Sater. The company, World Health Networks, actually had a real product, but according to McClatchy, Ridloff's real goal was to get a visa for one of Khrapunov's stepchildren, as evidenced by a visa application McClatchy obtained and posted on its Website.

It only gets more complicated from there. Read the article linked to above for more details. Suffice it to say that Trump has done business with convicted criminals and international fugitives accused of money laundering, in projects involving millions of dollars. Has Trump committed a crime involving these people? So far, no evidence of that has surfaced, but the whole story is probably not out there yet. It is no wonder that Trump has railed furiously at special counsel Robert Mueller for looking at his finances, which may include some transactions that Trump would prefer to keep secret. In particular, Trump may be worried that Mueller may subpoena Sater, who lives in New York State, and ask him a few questions under oath. (V)

Repeal and Replace Just Got a Lot Harder

By the start of this week, the repeal and replace of Obamacare had become something of a longshot. And now, it has gotten quite a bit longer. On Friday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough went through the Senate's proposed replacement bill and said there were significant portions that cannot be done through reconciliation. That includes defunding Planned Parenthood for one year, banning coverage of abortion in Obamacare insurance plans, killing cost-sharing subsidies, and imposing a six-month waiting period for new insurance enrollees. It's also very possible, though MacDonough has not ruled yet, that the various pork being given to specific Senators for their votes—for example, the roughly $100 million that would be sent to Alaska each year in exchange for Lisa Murkowski's (R-AK) vote—would not pass muster, either.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had no room for maneuvering as it was. If the Planned Parenthood/abortion provisions are struck, there are as many as a dozen conservative senators that might bolt. If the pork is struck, that will cost him at least three or four votes. He doesn't have three or four votes to spare, much less a dozen. Meanwhile, Murkowski, Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Susan Collins (R-ME) have said they will vote against a straight repeal. That's already one more defector than McConnell can afford in a John McCain-less Senate, and there's every chance that a Dean Heller (R-NV) or a Jeff Flake (R-AZ) or a Rob Portman (R-OH) could join them if it becomes necessary. It would appear the time has come for the Majority Leader to admit defeat; the question is whether or not he knows it. (Z)

Congress May Strip Trump of Power to Lift Sanctions

The Senate has already passed a bill 98 to 2 to strip the president of the power to lift sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. The bill got bogged down in the House for a month, but is now moving forward again, despite strong opposition from the White House. The main House negotiators are Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). There are a few sticking points, such as whether sanctions on North Korea should be added to the bill, but it seems likely that an agreement will emerge. If the House and Senate can agree on the same bill, it will land on the president's desk, where it will be promptly vetoed. Then it will go back to Congress, where the veto could well be overridden. If that were to occur, it would be a major embarrassment to Trump. (V)

Trump Picks Two More for EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency (emphasis ours) is currently led by Scott Pruitt, a man who has sued the agency over a dozen times, who has collected nearly half a million dollars from the petroleum industry over the years, and who does not believe that human beings contribute to climate change. One would struggle to imagine a worse resume for the holder of that job.

Meanwhile, what about his top lieutenants? What would be worse: (1) A person who has spent years lobbying for the coal industry, or (2) An attorney who has made his name defending polluters against regulatory actions? Actually, we don't have to choose, because Donald Trump just nominated one of each to serve as Pruitt's top assistants. The lobbyist is Andrew Wheeler, whose biography touts his ability to "develop tailored, comprehensive strategies that assist clients in realizing their federal affairs goals." The attorney is Bill Wehrum, and his biography advises clients that he can help them with all manner of issues, including "oil and gas production, gas processing, interstate oil and gas transportation, petroleum refineries, utility and industrial boilers, combustion turbines, stationary engines, chemical manufacturing, and minerals processing." At this rate, the next president won't have to worry about EPA appointments, because there won't be much of an environment left to protect. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul21 Mueller is Looking at Business Transactions Done by Trump and Associates
Jul21 Trump Reshuffles Legal Team
Jul21 Manafort, Trump Jr. Testimony Not Optional
Jul21 Conservatives are Furious with Sens. Capito, Murkowski, and Portman
Jul21 Republicans Rally around Sessions
Jul21 Trump's Support Among Republicans May Be Less than Reported
Jul21 Kobach Unsure if Hillary Clinton Won the Popular Vote
Jul21 Sen. Chris Christie (R-NJ)?
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
Jul18 Trump Is the Least Popular President Since World War II
Jul18 More Americans Want Trump Impeached than Wanted Nixon Impeached
Jul18 Investigators Are Probing Trump's Digital Operation for Collusion with Russia
Jul18 Flake Is between a Rock and a Hard Place
Jul18 Democrats Are Looking to the Blue Dogs to Win Back the House
Jul18 Urbanization of the West Is Becoming a GOP Nightmare
Jul18 Twitter Users Sue Trump
Jul17 More Setbacks for Health-Care Bill
Jul17 Trump Jr. Excuses, Part I: Blame the Secret Service
Jul17 Trump Jr. Excuses, Part II: Hillary Is Shady, Too
Jul17 Trump Jr. Excuses, Part III: Hillary Is Shady, Too (Alternate Version)
Jul17 Conway Says She is Criticized Because of Her Gender
Jul17 South Carolina Attacked 150,000 Times by Hackers on Election Day
Jul17 No Shortage of Democratic Candidates for Congress
Jul17 Jenner for Senate?
Jul16 More Setbacks for Heath-Care Bill; Vote Delayed
Jul16 Campaign Paid Donald Jr.'s Attorney $50K Shortly Before Meeting Was Revealed
Jul16 White House Tries to Move the Goalposts
Jul16 Trump's Approval Rating Remains Dismal
Jul16 Trump May Be Reaching His Tipping Point
Jul16 How Much Did Gerrymandering Help the GOP in 2016?
Jul15 Russian American Lobbyist Attended Meeting
Jul15 Kushner Hires a New Lawyer
Jul15 How Did the Trumps Get Here?
Jul15 Trump Lauds Transparency