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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Natalia Veselnitskaya Has Worked with Russia's Top Prosecutor
      •  House Intelligence Committee Issues a Report on Russiagate
      •  Judge Throws Out Manafort's Civil Suit
      •  Ryan Fires House Chaplain
      •  Montana Senate Race Heats Up
      •  Some Republicans Stock Up on Red Meat
      •  Meehan Resigns from Congress Immediately
      •  Texas Voter ID Law Is Back On

Natalia Veselnitskaya Has Worked with Russia's Top Prosecutor

In July 2016, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower. Junior was expecting dirt on Hillary Clinton, but it is not clear exactly what he got. In any case, Veselnitskaya has always maintained that she was a lawyer in private practice, with no connection to the Kremlin. However, the New York Times has now discovered that she has close ties to Russia's prosecutor general (think: attorney general) Yuri Chaika, who is very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is now impossible to believe she was acting on her own at the meeting. She was clearly there on assignment from Chaika or Putin, despite her previous denials. If he didn't know before, special counsel Robert Mueller now knows that three top members of Donald Trump's campaign met with someone with close ties to the top of the Russian government during the campaign. Now all Mueller needs to make a clear case of conspiracy is to nail down what they talked about at the meeting. If it was about Russian adoptions (the cover story), maybe there is nothing fishy afoot, but Junior was told he would get dirt on Clinton. That is why he went, and that is why he brought Manafort and Kushner. If it was really about adoptions, this would be one of the all-time greatest bait-and-switch operations in history.

The connection between Veselnitskaya and Chaika came out because some of her emails were hacked and released by an organization set up by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former tycoon who was stripped of his holdings, imprisoned, and then exiled from Russia. The only people with the power to punish people like that are Chaika and Putin, and Chaika would never do something like that without an order from Putin. There is undoubtedly much more to this story. (V)

House Intelligence Committee Issues a Report on Russiagate

Briefly summarized, the House Intelligence Committee report on Russia is: "Nothing to see here. Just move on." There is no news in the report, but perhaps some in the 98-page Democratic response to it. The ranking Democrat on the Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) explained it yesterday. The key point is that the Committee failed to follow up on a lead that might have shown that Trump knew about the meeting with Veselnitskaya (see above) in advance. According to Schiff, right after Junior arranged the meeting with Veselnitskaya, he (Junior) had two calls with Emin Agalarov, the son of Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov. Between the two calls, Junior received a call from a blocked telephone number. Democrats on the Committee wanted to find out who made that call. In particular, if it was from Trump Sr., it would be virtually certain Junior told his father about the proposed meeting and probably asked permission to do it. Schiff wanted to subpoena phone company records to find out who made that call. The Republicans refused his request.

Trump Sr. has denied knowing about the meeting. If it turns out he talked to his son right in the middle of the son's negotiating a meeting with a Russian lawyer very close to Putin, that claim would be impossible to believe. Schiff said that the Republicans on the Committee simply did not want to know if Trump Sr. was in contact with his son just as the latter was planning the meeting.

Trump Sr., of course, has already declared victory in the usual way:

As is so often the case, the President's words appear to be laying the groundwork for terminating special counsel Robert Mueller. And while the House report does basically exonerate Trump and declare "case closed," there is just one small fly in the ointment: If Mueller didn't already subpoena the phone records to see who made the call from the blocked number, the subpoena will be out the door first thing after breakfast on Monday. Maybe before breakfast. If Trump Sr. knew about a meeting whose purpose was to get dirt on Clinton, he is up to his waist in doodoo, no matter what was discussed. And if the subject of the meeting was to tell the campaign that the Russians had Hillary Clinton's emails (and maybe John Podesta's as well), then Trump is up to his ears in it. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress who tried to help cover up his misdeeds won't exactly come off smelling like a rose, either. If Trump has any awareness of these problems, then maybe this weekend is the one where he finally decides to swing the ax. Tonight is Saturday night, after all, and by Monday the Donald's position could be much worse. (V & Z)

Judge Throws Out Manafort's Civil Suit

Robert Mueller has charged Paul Manafort with a variety of crimes in two courts. Manafort's response was to sue him for exceeding his authority, then later he changed the suit to simply request that Mueller stop digging. Even the reduced ploy didn't work. The judge in the D.C. case has thrown out Manafort's suit. In her 24-page opinion, Judge Amy Berman Jackson said that Manafort failed to identify any specific harm he would suffer if Mueller continued working on the case.

No doubt Manafort's lawyers will think of plenty of other things to try to stop Mueller, but if Jackson reacts to them as she did to this one, he will get nowhere with her. Manafort's first trial is scheduled for July 10. (V)

Ryan Fires House Chaplain

There is one fact that is not in doubt: Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) asked for, and received, the resignation of House Chaplain Rev. Patrick J. Conroy after nearly a decade of service. Just about everything else surrounding the story is not clear. For example: Why was Conroy fired? Does Ryan even have that authority? Did the Speaker consult with other leaders in the House, or did he act unilaterally?

Also clear is that a lot of members of the House are angry about the move, particularly those who are Democrats and/or Catholics. 148 of them (mostly Democrats) have signed a letter demanding answers from Ryan. However, the generally accepted notion is that Conroy was fired for one or both of these reasons: (1) He was a little too willing to express sympathy for the poor, and a little too unwilling to embrace the idea that wealth is proof of God's providence (i.e. the "Prosperity Gospel"), and/or (2) He was unable to "connect" with Protestant members of the House, since he does not exactly have expertise in issues related to marriage, families, etc. In theory, these things should not have been a problem for the Catholic Ryan, but it is assumed he was responding to pressure from other members of his caucus, particularly Southern evangelicals.

Whatever the exact truth is, there appears to be an emerging schism within the ranks of the GOP, and the Democrats are ready to take advantage of it. As we have pointed out, white Catholics have emerged as an important swing constituency in American politics. And if the blue team, perhaps with an assist from the Pope, can persuade those voters that the GOP does not respect their values, it could flip some districts and even some states. (Z)

Montana Senate Race Heats Up

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) was the one who collected the information that took down Ronny Jackson, Donald Trump's choice for VA secretary. The Republicans see this as an opening for taking down Tester in his reelection bid in November. Trump won Montana by 20 points, so their ads will harp on the fact that Tester was disloyal to Trump, with the hope that the Trump voters will punish him for it.

However, before the Republicans can get Tester's scalp, they first need to settle on a candidate. Currently, there is a bitter four-way Republican primary in Montana. State Auditor Matt Rosendale is the establishment favorite, but the other three are portraying him as a carpetbagger from Maryland. He has a strong Maryland accent, so it is not easy for him to deny the charge, even though he has lived in Montana for years. The other three contenders are State Senator Al Olszewski, former judge Russell Fagg, and businessman Troy Downing.

Montana has the third largest percentage of veterans of any state in the country. However, if the Republicans go after Tester for taking down Jackson, Tester is certainly going to fight back with something like: "My top priority is helping our veterans and I want the VA to be led by a someone who can do that, not a political hack who gives out opioid prescriptions like candy."

Actually, Tester does face a big risk, but it isn't from the Jackson affair. It is from the Green Party, which filed to place a candidate on the November ballot. If that succeeds, the Green Party candidate is likely to siphon enough votes from Tester to allow the Republican, whoever that may be, to win, as Tester has never gotten more than 49% of the vote. The Green Party ballot slot is not a sure thing, however, because Democrats are alleging that the signature drive for the Green Party was organized by a Republican firm in Nevada, in violation of state law. Depending on how that battle turns out, Tester may be in greater or lesser danger. Also a bit odd is that one of the Green Party candidates used to be on the Montana Republican Party payroll. Lee Atwater may be dead, but his legacy of dirty tricks lives on.

Republicans are responding by saying that turnabout is fair play. In 2012, Tester allies spent $500,000 supporting the Libertarian candidate, Dan Cox, who ultimately got 32,000 votes in the general election. Tester's margin over Republican Denny Rehberg was 18,000 votes. If states would simply adopt instant runoff voting, problems like this would suddenly go away because people could then vote for a Green or Libertarian candidate as a first choice, and then a Democrat or Republican as second choice. (V)

Some Republicans Stock Up on Red Meat

Midterm elections are always, to some extent, a referendum on whoever occupies the Oval Office. That looks to be particularly true this year, and Democrats are giddy about the possibility given Donald Trump's sky-high disapproval ratings. The big question is how Republicans running for office are going to adapt to that reality. They could give up and throw in the towel, and an unusually high number have done so. They could try to make the election about local issues, like would-be senator Josh Hawley is doing in Missouri. Or they could hold the President close and run on Trumpism.

Running a pro-Trump campaign in a ruby red state or district is a pretty easy choice, although there may be very few places where it's a guaranteed winner. Running such a campaign in a more moderate district, by contrast, is a much...bolder choice. Still, some members of the House appear ready to give it a try. For example, Claudia Tenney represents NY-22, an R+8 district. She's been outraised by her opponent, State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, for three straight quarters and GOP leadership tried to persuade her to run a more moderate campaign. Instead, she has doubled down on the red meat. Campaign e-mails blast the Democrats as traitors and declare the need to "lock them up." Tenney regularly laments the existence of the "deep state" and "fake news," and has suggested that most mass shooters are liberals.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) has gone in the same direction. His district, AL-5, is R+18, so he's presumably not in danger. On the other hand, given Sen. Doug Jones' (D-AL) victory last year, who knows? Anyhow, Brooks also has some ideas about shooting, namely that a lot of Republicans are retiring because they are worried about being assassinated. His primary evidence for this is that several members of the Republican baseball team, who witnessed the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), have retired. That's pretty shaky, obviously. If other Republicans are really that out of touch with the dynamics of the midterms, that will only help the Democrats. So too will the opportunity to point out to Democratic voters that Republicans think they are crazy and violent. This is probably why GOP leadership is leaning on Brooks and Tenney to zip it. (Z)

Meehan Resigns from Congress Immediately

Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) has resigned from the House, effective immediately. In January he had said he would not run for reelection but planned to complete his current term. The reason for all this commotion is—as usual—a sex scandal. And, by the way, he used $39,000 of government money as hush money to keep the staffer in question from talking. Thus we now see that not only does the private sector pay better salaries than the government, but the hush money is also more, even for Playmates and porn stars.

Under state law, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has 10 days to call a special election, if he wishes to do so, and then the election must be held within 60 days of that proclamation. Meehan's district is D+1, so it's hard to imagine Wolf would not seize the opportunity to deal the GOP another high-profile defeat heading into the midterms. If Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) also resigns from Congress shortly, as he said he would, Wolf would have a chance for a double whammy. On the other hand, Dent's PA-15 district is R+20, so Wolf might choose to leave that one vacant. The Governor's only plausible excuse, should he choose to hold one special election and not the other, would be timing. As in, "calling a special election in April gives us enough time, but calling one in late May does not." So, Dent might just speed up his departure in order to make Wolf's decision a little harder. (V & Z)

Texas Voter ID Law Is Back On

Texas has passed two voter ID laws in the past seven years; the first (2011's SB-14) was struck down for too obviously discriminating against minority voters. The second (2017's SB-5), was also struck down, but then appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel ruled on Friday that the law is ok, after all. Their vote was 2-1, with two Reagan appointees upholding the law and one Obama appointee dissenting.

It's interesting that two judges are OK not only with a voter ID law, but one that is written to allow the use of military ID or gun permits to prove identity, but not student ID cards or out-of-state drivers' licenses or tribal identity cards. The ruling will certainly be appealed, but there is little chance the matter will be resolved by November. So, the GOP's chances in Texas just got a bit of a bump, particularly in the increasingly-close race between Sen. Ted Cruz (R) and challenger Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D). (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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