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

Manafort Issued Suspicious Wire Transfers Linked to His Offshore Companies

If CNN has it right, there will be indictments released today or tomorrow, and the smart money is betting that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort will be one of the indictees. BuzzFeed published an interesting item yesterday indicating that the FBI has been long interested in 13 wire transfers Manafort did in 2012 and 2013, bringing more than $3 million into the U.S. from his offshore companies. Manafort has done work for the notoriously corrupt former Ukrainian Kremlin puppet—strike that, president—Viktor Yanukovych and has reportedly received millions, maybe tens of millions of dollars for his work. The offshore companies are located in Cyprus and in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, both hotbeds for money laundering.

The wire transfers include more than $750,000 routed from Ukraine to the U.S. via a Manafort company called Global Endeavour as well as another transfer of $500,000 from Global Endeavour that went through several shell companies and ended up at a company called Lilred, which is managed by—surprise!—Manafort. Yet another transfer from Global Endeavour for $200,000 went to a remodeling company on Long Island, not far from a property owned by a company controlled by Manafort and his son-in-law. None of this is necessarily illegal, but it does raise suspicions.

It is likely that special counsel Robert Mueller is aware of these transactions, given that four of his top prosecutors are specialists in prosecuting money launderers. A common strategy used by prosecutors like Mueller is to find small fish who potentially could rat on bigger fish and then nail them for something, possibly unrelated to the crime they are really investigating. If Manafort can be indicted and convicted of money laundering and possibly tax evasion, that might give him an incentive to tell Mueller what he knows about Trump's connections to Russia and shady business dealings in return for a lighter sentence. A key thing to look at when the indictments are released is whether they are for federal crimes or state crimes. This is of crucial importance because the president has no power to pardon people for state crimes, only federal ones. Mueller, of course, knows this very well, but he also has to find a state crime that Manafort committed and then get that state's attorney general to take it from there. (V)

Some Thoughts on the Possible Indictments

Roll Call has published a story speculating about possible indictments expected this week. Most likely are the indictments of Paul Manafort and retired Gen. Michael Flynn. Manafort has a potential money laundering problem (see above). By contrast, as a career military officer, Flynn never made millions of dollars that needed to be laundered via a maze of shell companies. The charge against him, if any, might revolve around his being an unregistered lobbyist for Turkey and Russia, and also making decisions on U.S. national security to benefit private companies with which he is associated.

Another possible indictee is Carter Page, who is a Trump-connected energy consultant with ties to Vladimir Putin. Page has denied any wrongdoing. He is scheduled to appear before a House Committee this week and is likely to plead the Fifth Amendment rather than answer any questions. He may be the easiest of the three to flip but may also have the least valuable information.

Long shot candidates for an early indictment are Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. Both of them met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya last year, expecting to get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. It is a federal crime for a campaign to try to get anything of value, including information, from foreign nationals. It would be a bold move indeed for Mueller to go after either Kushner or Junior, as that would set Trump's brightly-colored orange hair on fire. It might also precipitate Trump's attempting to fire Mueller. It is unlikely Mueller would do something guaranteed to inflame Trump this early in the investigation, but you never know.

How Trump might react to indictments is unknowable. He could try to get Mueller fired, in hopes that Republicans in Congress were too busy with tax reform to notice or do anything. Alternatively, he could just issue quick pardons to the indictees (at least for federal crimes), take some heat for a week, and hope it all blows over. If Trump manages to subvert the investigation one way or another and congressional Republicans take no action, at the very least it will be a bit harder for Republicans to proclaim their love of the Constitution going forward. (V)

Trump, Republicans Go on the Offensive

While it might be politically wise to wait and see who Robert Mueller indicts, and on what charges, before saying anything, that is not Donald Trump's style. And so, after largely holding his tongue (and his fingers) on Saturday, he lashed out with a massive, multi-tweet rant on Twitter Sunday:

There is enough questionable stuff here to fuel a pretty solid master's thesis, but what stands out most, perhaps, is the irony of Trump blasting the Democrats for trying to create a distraction. One might also note that Congressional Republicans have begun investigating the uranium deal and the dossier, so it's unclear what additional "SOMETHING" Trump wants done. The one thing Trump is right about, however, is that Republicans are falling in line behind him. At least, some of them are. Many of the usual suspects, such as Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) went on the Sunday morning news shows to cast aspersions on Robert Mueller and his team, and to point fingers at the Democrats. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) even got in on the act, lest anyone forget that while she may be a moderate, she's still a Republican.

It's understandable that Trump & Co. feel the need to say and do something as they wait, in agony presumably, for the other shoe to drop. We stand by our view, however, that three seconds of footage of, say, Paul Manafort being led away in handcuffs will quickly drown out all the rest of this posturing. (Z)

Major Business Group Plans to Defeat the Tax Bill

The Republicans' tax-reform bill won't even be released until Wednesday, and already a major business group, the National Association of Home Builders has taken a clear stand on the still-secret bill. As we noted yesterday, the group's CEO, Jerry Howard, said: "We will do everything we can to defeat this thing." The home builders don't like it because the Republicans need to find new revenue to match the tax cuts they desperately want for corporations and the wealthy. One of the places they are looking is to increase the cost of home ownership, either by reducing the deductibility of mortgage interest or that of local property taxes. Not surprisingly, home builders aren't too keen on making home ownership more expensive.

The NAHB is an especially potent lobby because it has members in just about every state, which means that every senator and every representative is on notice that their vote will be watched carefully. Howard's use of the expression "we will do everything" can be loosely translated as "try to defeat anyone voting for this thing." It's not a great start for a bill that isn't out of the door yet.

And we haven't even heard from the big guys—the banks—yet. First, fewer houses built means fewer mortgages sold, which they aren't going to like. But another item said to be in the bill is a restriction on how much money people can put in their 401(k) plans every year. Most banks offer such plans, and seeing those plans wither on the vine alongside less mortgage business, and well, you can guess how they will react once the bill is actually released. On the other hand, probably nobody knew tax reform could be so complicated. Except maybe the "Big Six" who are writing the bill. (V)

Is it "Pants" or "Cookie Jar"?

The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, now wants to cancel the $300 million no-bid contract with a tiny Montana company, Whitefish Energy, to repair Puerto Rico's power grid. The idea that a company formed in 2015, which has two full-time employees, was financed by a major Donald Trump donor, and is located in Whitefish, MT (pop. 6,300), home town to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, should get a massive no-bid contract smells like, well, a whitefish that has been left out in the sun for a week. If bids had been requested, surely multiple large and experienced companies would have bid on such a lucrative contract, but that would have run the risk of the winning bidder not having close ties to the administration.

The administration has claimed there was nothing fishy about the original deal and it is merely a coincidence that the firm is located in Zinke's tiny home town, where, according to Zinke, "everyone knows everyone." Also a coincidence is that the biggest investor in the company is a major Trump donor. Nevertheless, one has to wonder how Rosselló had even heard about Whitefish Energy, thousands of miles from Puerto Rico. If he had picked Duke Energy, PG&E, or Consolidated Edison, one could imagine that he knew about them due to their very large sizes. But Whitefish?

Another gnawing question: Why was the contract canceled just as fast as it was written? No doubt because the people involved either:

  • Didn't expect to be caught with their pants down
  • Didn't expect to be caught with their hands in the cookie jar

We didn't know which, hence the ambiguous headline.

So why did Rosselló award the contract to Whitefish in the first place? Here's a pretty good guess: Puerto Rico is close to bankruptcy and wants the federal government to bail it out. How does the governor make this happen? Standard procedure—in Russia—when you want something to happen is to send over a lot of money to one of the leader's cronies. No doubt Rosselló did a quick calculation and decided that sending a boatload of money over to a company whose CEO is a friend of a cabinet secretary and whose main investor is a major Trump donor was more likely to get the necessary help to rebuild than having an open bidding process. He may well have even gotten some suggestions from somewhere about what company to choose. Who knows? Some day, possibly, we will all know. (V)

Long-Term Trend for Trump's Approval is Downward

A new NBC/WSJ poll puts Donald Trump's approval at 38%, the worst yet for that poll. Individual polls on Trump's approval rating go up and down, but the long-term trend is almost linearly down. Real Clear Politics has a table of all 223 public polls of Trump's approval/disapproval since he took office. We plotted them with least-squares regression lines and got the following graph:

Trump approval

From the data, it is clear that Trump's honeymoon lasted until about March 7. That's the last date any pollster had his net rating in positive territory. But even in February, 20 polls had him under water, and by double digits in seven of them. Even worse, the trend lines are unambiguous: Approval is dropping and disapproval is increasing. This could spell trouble for the Republicans in 2018, since how well the president's party does in the midterms is strongly correlated with the president's own popularity. (V)

Kasich Is Laying the Groundwork for a 2020 Presidential Run

Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) has said that his political career is over once he finishes his gubernatorial term. Nobody is buying it. As a piece in New York magazine points out, he's doing everything possible to position himself for a 2020 run at the White House. He wrote a book, he keeps traveling to early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and he has been working hard to get his name recognition up. Kasich's maneuvering is so clearly aimed at a presidential run that he's barely bothering to pretend otherwise any more. His goal is to position himself as the anti-Trump Republican: An actual member of the Party who is serious about governing, knows the nuts and bolts of policymaking, and is able to behave like a grown-up.

The problem that the Governor has, of course, is that Trump (or Mike Pence) will presumably be running for re-election in 2020. That leaves Kasich with two options, both of them tenuous. The first is to run as an independent, and try to siphon off enough of the moderate Republican and conservative Democratic vote to make a go of it. There is zero chance that enough votes can be gotten in this way to win the White House; the only thing Kasich could accomplish if he travels this path is to act as spoiler and to help to dethrone Trump. The second option is to try to knock Trump (or Pence) off in the primaries. There is at least some historical precedent for this, though it would be a tall order as long as the President's approval rating among Republicans remains in the 80s (as it does right now). If this is the path the Governor chooses, the most viable scenario for him is that Trump's approval among Republicans drops into the mid-60s (or lower), and then Kasich bolts out of the gate in 2020 and wins most of the early primaries, convincing The Donald to throw in the towel. This would essentially be a repeat of what happened with the Democrats in 1968. Of course, the Party didn't end up winning that election, so even this scenario is not entirely hopeful for Kasich. (Z)

No Gubernatorial Run for Garcetti

Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (D) has a pretty impressive resume—Columbia grad, Rhodes scholar, Navy veteran—to go along with his charisma, impressive public-speaking skills, and Latino heritage. Consequently, many Democrats see him as a future superstar who is destined for bigger and better things. One possibility, as his next stepping-stone, is the California governor's mansion, which will be vacated by the term-limited Jerry Brown (D) in 2018. With the votes of the state's largest city in his pocket, the Mayor would be tough to beat. On Sunday, however, Garcetti announced that he's not interested.

Given that Garcetti is young (46) and ambitious, it's improbable that he plans to end his political career after finishing up the mayorship. Further, he's managed to find excuses to travel to Wisconsin and New Hampshire several times, on "official" business. Perhaps there was a critical shortage of cheddar cheese and Timberland boots in the City of the Angels. Or perhaps Garcetti has his eye on a bigger, whiter house than the California governor's mansion. If that's his thinking, he would do well to note that only two mayors have gone on to become president, and both of those—Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge—served as governor of their states before moving to Washington, D.C. (Z)

Trump Organization Breaks Promise of "No New Foreign Deals"

When he became president, Donald Trump pledged not to engage in any new foreign deals, to avoid possible problems with the Constitution's emoluments clause. That pledge didn't last long as his company, now run by his adult sons, is about to embark on two residential projects in India. One project, in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), will have apartments available for sale at $765,000, which is a lot of money in a country in which 80% of the population earns less than $2,500 per year. The other project features condos that start at $1.8 million.

The potential problem here is that India has a lot of corruption and the Trump organization may be dealing with a lot of corrupt officials. In addition, Indian officials may be afraid to anger the president and may be giving him special favors of one kind or another, which could influence his policies toward India. The possibility of foreign governments giving the president "gifts" was precisely the reason the emoluments clause was put into the Constitution. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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