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Line of Succession at Justice Dept. May Become Crucial

If you know your politics, you know that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is third in line for presidency, since he is president pro tem of the Senate. If you really know your politics, you know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is seventh in line for the presidency. If you really, really know your politics, you know that Secretary of Energy Rick Perry outranks Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the highest ranking woman in the succession order. Although the Secretary of Transportation outranks both of them, Elaine Chao is ineligible (not because she is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, but because she was born in Taiwan). But do you know the batting order at the Justice Dept? It could be important, and Washington is buzzing about it. Below is the lineup. John Bruce maintains a very low profile and no photo of him is publicly available.

Justice Dept lineup

President Donald Trump is clearly extremely angry at what he calls the "witch hunt," meaning the investigation of his ties to Russia being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller. He has threatened more than once to call Mueller and yell his famous words: "You're fired." The only problem is that the law grants that authority to the attorney general, not to the president. The current AG, Jeff Sessions, has recused himself, so the next in line is Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. However, if Mueller calls Rosenstein as a witness, Rosenstein may have to recuse himself, putting Assistant Attorney General Rachel Brand in charge. Brand (44) is the first woman to hold the #3 slot at Justice. She served in the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. If both Sessions and Rosenstein recuse themselves and Trump wants Mueller fired, it would be her job. Most observers think she would resign instead.

Normally, the solicitor general comes next. That was Robert Bork's job when he fired Archibald Cox in 1973. But that position is currently open. In March, Trump signed an executive order defining the rest of the pecking order after the solicitor general. Next in line is Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. After him comes John Stuart Bruce, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. After him is John Parker, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Trump could change the pecking order by issuing a new executive order if he wanted to fire Mueller and none of the above wanted to do the deed.

Some Justice officials feel that Trump is not foolish enough to repeat Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre, but others are afraid that if Mueller comes too close to finding something absolutely devastating, Trump might try it as a Hail Mary. If Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) would like to get his own chapter in any future edition of John F. Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage," he could go on national television and state: "Mr. President, if you fire Director Mueller, I will personally introduce into the House a bill to impeach you." But don't count on it. (V)

Trump Says He Has the Legal Authority to Fire Mueller

According to sources within the White House, Donald Trump is spending a lot of his time these days yelling at televisions, as he watches news reports related to Russiagate. He's also telling anyone and everyone that, if it comes down to it, he can fire Robert Mueller directly, without needing the assistance of an intermediary.

Trump is wrong on this point, and has undoubtedly been advised of this by his staff. So, why does he say it? It's possible he's just venting. Or, it's possible that he really thinks that if he says a thing enough times, it will become true. However, the likeliest possibility is that he's talking to the base. At this point, it is very possible that Trump will eventually try to cashier Mueller, perhaps sooner rather than later. If he has reason to believe that trying to get Rosenstein, et. al. (see above) to do it will result in the Saturday Night Massacre, The Sequel, then it will look cleaner if he just tries to do it himself. That likely won't rid him of Mueller, but he can peddle the tale that something has gone terribly wrong when the President can't fire his own staff, and that the deep state is to blame. Given how ready Trump's supporters are to buy into conspiracy theories, this might well be the best that the President can make of a bad situation. (Z)

Trump's PR Strategy Is to Get Allies to Attack Mueller's Relationship with Comey

In addition to hiring a team of top lawyers, Donald Trump has a public relations strategy. It consists of arguing that Robert Mueller's long-time professional and personal relationship with former FBI Director James Comey disqualifies him from being a special counsel. Expect to hear this message from many Republicans. Richard Painter, George W. Bush's ethics lawyer, doesn't buy it at all. Painter said: "Mueller is absolutely not compromised by his professional relationship with Comey. This is just an effort to undermine the credibility of the special counsel." He also advised the entire White House staff to quit now, before Trump throws all of them under the bus.

Mueller has hired prosecutors who have gone after people involved with Watergate, Enron, and the Mafia. Mueller's instructions clearly say that he can follow any leads, wherever they may go. This almost certainly will lead some of the prosecutors to look at Trump's business empire for crimes like taking bribes and money laundering. Trump's allies will attack Mueller as an octopus grabbing everything in sight. For example, it is thought that Mueller is also looking at first son-in-law Jared Kushner's business dealings. In particular, Mueller surely wants to know why Kusher asked Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak to set up a secret communication channel so he could talk to top Russian officials without U.S. intelligence knowing about it.

Another part of Trump's strategy, besides going after Mueller, is throwing red meat to his base. Almost everything he does, even if it is legally counterproductive, is aimed at getting his base riled up so they feel he is being persecuted rather than prosecuted. As long as they stick with him, few Republicans in the House will feel comfortable voting for his impeachment for fear of retribution in 2018. Of course, that could then put them in peril from angry independents and moderate Republicans. So, it's not a great time to be a Republican member of Congress. (V)

Trump's Interests and Those of His Staff Are Diverging

Donald Trump's top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, recently told the White House staff not to lawyer up, since he will defend them all. They aren't buying. Adam Goldberg, a former Clinton official, said: "Pence hiring a lawyer tells the White House staff two things: They're all potential witnesses in this investigation, and don't listen to Marc Kasowitz." Most of the staff probably realizes that although Trump demands total loyalty from his staff, he offers no loyalty to anyone except, for some unknown reason, former NSA Michael Flynn. There is no reason to think Kasowitz has loyalty to anyone but Trump. Besides, if it ever comes down to Trump vs. a staffer, Kasowitz would be in a conflict-of-interest situation defending both Trump and the staffer.

In addition, staffers who speak to Kasowitz could risk charges of improper witness collusion. For these and other reasons, it is likely that much of the White House staff will soon be lawyered up, and each lawyer will be defending his or her client, possibly to the detriment of Trump and the other staffers. This is not a great atmosphere for getting legislation passed or running the country. (V)

It's Getting Harder and Harder for Trump to Hire People

As Donald Trump struggles to staff his administration, it has become clear that certain issues peculiar to him and to his presidency are becoming serious roadblocks. The White House has tried to spin this away, with Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming that, "I have people knocking down my door to talk to the presidential personnel office." However, the Washington Post talked to 27 people who decided against working for the administration, and found that the roadblocks are very real.

The individuals who spoke to the Post, largely off the record of course, kept returning to several themes when explaining why they declined to pursue a job in the administration:

  • Trump's "volatile temperament" makes them nervous
  • Fear of "permanent damage" to their reputations
  • Trump regularly throws his subordinates under the bus
  • The President leaves candidates in limbo, without making firm commitments or getting paperwork completed
  • An "amateurish" hiring process leaves candidates unprepared for Senate scrutiny
  • You can't "change the world" when the administration's policy agenda changes daily
  • It could get expensive if it becomes necessary to hire a personal attorney
  • "Incoherent and unclear leadership" from not only the president, but from department heads

Many of the Washington Post's interviewees pointed to the firing of James Comey as a turning point—the day when many of these concerns really came into focus. Complicating the situation is that the Senate has only 25 working days left until its summer break, which means that if Trump does not advance his nominees fairly quickly, they won't be approved until September at the earliest.

Meanwhile, the President is also having trouble keeping hold of the people he has appointed or nominated. Sheriff David Clarke has withdrawn from consideration for a post in the Dept. of Homeland Security, citing his irritation with paperwork delays. Similarly, on Saturday, six members of the presidential HIV/AIDS council resigned, penning a joint letter in which they declared that, "Trump doesn't care about HIV. We're outta here." They complained that Trump (1) has no AIDS policy, (2) refuses to consult with experts, and (3) pursues legislation that is actively harmful to AIDS victims.

It's hard to see how any of these issues are going to get any better, so the United States could be left with a partially-staffed executive branch for a long, long time. Maybe Jared Kushner can work on the problem when he's not busy bringing peace to the Middle East, ending heroin addiction, or defending himself against charges of corruption. (Z)

White House Is Trying to Water Down the New Sanctions on Russia

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked the House to water down the sanctions on Russia in the bill that the Senate passed 97 to 2 last week. The Senate intended to punish Russia for meddling in the U.S. election. The White House agrees with Tillerson, and quite possibly asked him to go on record asking for weaker sanctions. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is opposed to the House weakening the bill, and said: "I'm afraid that the level of awareness isn't where it should be," meaning that Donald Trump has yet to even condemn the Russians for interfering in the election. Either Trump denies that it happened, thus contradicting James Comey's unambiguous statement under oath that there is no doubt whatsoever that the Russians interfered, or he thinks it is no big deal for a foreign adversary to try to decide who the U.S. president is.

The bill strips the president of the power to lift the sanctions without permission from Congress, something that certainly irritates Trump no end. To make it more difficult for Trump to veto the bill, the Russia sanctions were attached to another bill that puts sanctions on Iran. If Trump vetoes the bill, he is also on record as opposing sanctions on Iran, something he certainly doesn't want and which could back to haunt him in 2020.

Senate Democrats are worried that Trump and Tillerson's lobbying in the House will result in a much weaker bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said that he wouldn't be surprised if the administration aimed to dilute the Senate's bill, given that, "the president has refused to acknowledge that we have a problem with the Russians involved in our elections." (V)

Early Voting in the GA-06 Special Election Is Soaring

Turnout, especially Democratic turnout, in primary elections in New Jersey and Virginia was vastly higher than in previous years. It looks like the same thing will happen in the GA-06 special election on Tuesday for the House seat vacated by Secretary of HHS Tom Price. It is already, by far, the most expensive House election of any kind in all of U.S. history. Over 140,000 people have already voted, including 36,000 who didn't vote in the first round. The battle is between Jon Ossoff (D) and Karen Handel (R), but many people see it as a vote of (no) confidence in Donald Trump. Money has poured in on both sides from outside the district and the race has gotten has gotten more attention than even a very competitive Senate race.

The final turnout will almost certainly pass the total vote in the 2014 midterms, in which 210,500 people voted in the district. Polls show that 92% of the voters are watching the race closely and 64% are watching it very closely. These numbers suggest a record-breaking turnout. Both parties are chasing down voters. Handel's team is going after the 35,000 voters who cast ballots in Georgia's 2016 Republican primary, but didn't vote on April 18. Ossoff's team is going after Democrats who voted in the 2016 Democratic primary, but not in April. Unfortunately for him, there are only 11,000 of them. On the other hand, that may mean that most Democrats voted in April and don't need much coaxing. The election is Tuesday. (V)

Rural Americans Resent Minorities, non-Christians, and Big City Dwellers

A New Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that people in rural areas are more troubled about changes in the country's demographics than about the economy. About 70% of rural Americans say their values are different from those of people who live in cities, and 40% say their values are very different. The divide shows up very clearly in politics. Urban counties went for Hillary Clinton by 32 points; rural ones went for Donald Trump by 26 points. That's a 58-point spread.

One point of disagreement is on immigrants. In rural areas, 42% see them as a burden while only 16% of city dwellers say that. Clearly, Trump's anti-immigrant pitch struck a chord in small towns and villages. Larry Redding, a retired canning factory employee in Pennsylvania, summed it up with: "They're not paying taxes like Americans are. They're getting stuff handed to them. Free rent, and they're driving better vehicles than I'm driving and everything else." Many rural residents say that abuse of government benefits go hand in hand with race. It is a variation of Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen," which also had racial undertones.

Another theme the poll revealed is many rural Americans believe Christianity is under attack. Sixty percent believe that, despite the fact that most blacks and most immigrants from Mexico are actually religious Christians. Even rural Democrats believe that Christian values are under siege. Given this knowledge, though, it is not clear what the Democrats can do. Turning the calendar back to 1950 isn't an option. (V)

Coulter Slams Trump

Conservative author and commentator Ann Coulter is fed up with Donald Trump, and his recent maneuvering on Cuba pushed her to the breaking point. So, she lashed out on Twitter, slamming him for not going further to overturn Barack Obama's Cuba policy. She also labeled the President a "jackass," and complained that, "Anyone in a Southwestern state who strolls to the border & drops a brick will have done more to build the wall than @realDonaldTrump."

Now, Ann Coulter is essentially a performance artist, or maybe even a circus clown, who will say and do whatever it takes to keep people's eyes upon her. Still, she certainly expresses the worldview of a certain part of Donald Trump's base, and she also has influence with a certain number of them (her million-plus followers on Twitter, for example). If her feelings tell us anything about what's going on with the base, even just a part of it, that's bad news for a president who was elected by a minority of the population and has no margin of error to work with. Of course, that's largely a re-election concern, and Trump needs to make it to 2020—or, heck, to 2018—before he starts worrying. (Z)

Democratic Presidential Candidates Need to Work on Name Recognition

In the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll, the pollsters decided to gauge how well known the various Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2020 are. Best known, by far, are Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT, 99% name recognition), Vice President Joe Biden (93%), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA, 77%). The problem, of course, is that all three will be north of 70 years old in 2020, which is a bit long in the tooth to be making a tough, potentially eight-year commitment. The only non-septuagenarian to have recognition above 70% is Sen. Al Franken (D-MN, 71%), who is undoubtedly being aided by his long career on television and radio. The rest of the candidates Politico/Morning Consult asked about, ranked from most- to least-recognized:

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY; 70% name recognition)
  • Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA; 65%)
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ; 54%)
  • Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA 50%)
  • Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY; 48%)
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA; 47%)
  • Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT; 46%)
  • Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT; 45%)
  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (D-WA; 45%)
  • Disney CEO Robert Iger (D-CA; 42%)
  • Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA; 42%)
  • L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti (D-CA; 41%)
  • Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO; 40%)
  • Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA; 40%)
  • Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D; 40%)
  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN; 39%)

This is just one data point, of course, and one that is not terribly instructive at this point in the process. Case in Point: Many Democratic Party leaders love Jason Kander as a potential 2020 standard-bearer. They think his military background, Midwestern roots, and clean-cut all-American look will play well with moderate Democrats, independents, and possibly moderate Republicans, while his progressivism could win over liberals. Further, because he's not in Washington right now, he's above the fray and will not be tainted by anything that might happen in the capital. In short, the Politico/Morning Consult gives us an indication of a few Democratic hopefuls that have separated themselves from the pack (Warren, Franken, Cuomo), but we must remember that the horse who leads at the start of the race is often not the one that leads at the end. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jun17 Trump Attacks Rosenstein
Jun17 Trump Releases 2016 Financial Disclosure Forms
Jun17 Trump Reverses Obama's Cuba Policy
Jun17 Are Democrats Looking for Voters in the Wrong Place?
Jun17 Murkowski Is Committed to Funding Planned Parenthood
Jun17 Trump Hires Another Lawyer
Jun17 Trump's Lawyer Hires a Lawyer
Jun17 Brownback Being Vetted for Position in Trump Administration
Jun17 Newt Gingrich, Flip-Flopper
Jun17 Ossoff Gets More Donations from San Francisco Bay Area than from Georgia
Jun16 Trump Lashes Out at Report Mueller is Looking into Obstruction of Justice
Jun16 Mueller Following the Money
Jun16 Trump & Co. Working Hard to Delegitimize Mueller
Jun16 Sessions Met with Russian Lobbyist During the Campaign
Jun16 Trump Punts on Commander-in-Chief Responsibilities
Jun16 Pence Hires a Defense Lawyer
Jun16 Trump Sells $12 Billion Worth of Arms to Terrorist Sponsor Qatar
Jun16 Senators of Both Parties Criticize Secrecy around Senate Health Bill
Jun16 Putin Offers Asylum to Comey
Jun16 AHCA's Margin of Error is Dropping
Jun16 Turnbull Mocks Trump
Jun16 Democrats Crush Republicans--in Baseball
Jun15 Mueller Looking into Obstruction of Justice
Jun15 Scalise Shot by Unbalanced Sanders Supporter
Jun15 Senate Approves New Sanctions on Russia
Jun15 Feinstein Defends Blue Slips
Jun15 Government Ethics Office Says Bannon's Waiver Is "Problematic"
Jun15 Why Do Republicans Still Grovel to Trump?
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Jun15 Fox News Drops the "Fair and Balanced" Slogan
Jun15 Trump's Twitter Etiquette Raises Eyebrows
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Jun14 Sessions Bobs, Weaves, and Jabs
Jun14 Russian Hacking Much Worse than Previously Thought
Jun14 Could the Georgia Special Election Next Week Be Hacked?
Jun14 Virginians Choose Northam, Gillespie
Jun14 Not Achieving Much? Fake It
Jun14 How Trump Could Fire Mueller
Jun14 Longitudinal Study Gives Insight into the Obama-Trump Voters
Jun14 Good News for Democrats
Jun14 Muslim Travel Ban v2.0 Is in Big Trouble
Jun14 Trump Calls House Healthcare Bill "Mean"
Jun14 Democrats Will Sue Trump over Emoluments
Jun13 Ninth Circuit Upholds Muslim Ban v2.0 Injunction
Jun13 Trump Holds First Cabinet Meeting
Jun13 Sessions Will Testify in Public before the Senate Intelligence Committee Today
Jun13 Questions for Sessions
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Jun13 Senate Has a Bill to Put More Sanctions on Russia