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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Demands that Sessions Fire Mueller Right Now
      •  The Manafort Trial: Day 2
      •  Manafort Is Facing Long Odds
      •  Senate Rejects Proposal to Beef Up Election Security
      •  Trump Continues to Chip Away at Obamacare
      •  Cruz Could Be in Real Trouble
      •  Koch Network Pushes Back Against Turning Point USA

Trump Demands that Sessions Fire Mueller Right Now

Donald Trump probably obstructed justice yesterday when he sent out this tweet:

For starters, since AG Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the whole Russiagate probe, he doesn't have the authority to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. But even if Trump had demanded that Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein did the firing, the tweet would be very problematical. When a president who is being investigated orders the investigation to stop, that is practically proof right there that he is obstructing justice.

Trump may not have understood this, but his lawyers sure did. Jay Sekulow quickly called the New York Times to explain that the tweet was not an order to his subordinate, but merely an opinion that Sessions "should" stop Mueller, in the sense this would be a good thing (e.g., "people should brush their teeth before going to bed"). Although Trump's television lawyer Rudy Giuliani is a bit rusty, even he understood that telling the AG to kill an investigation of the president is not a good idea. He explained the tweet by saying: "It's not a call to action."

People not working for Trump were less charitable. Matthew Axelrod, a long-time top prosecutor, described the tweet differently: "What he's saying here is that there's no one who ought to be able to investigate his actions and, if necessary, hold him accountable for those actions." It is known that Mueller is collecting Trump's tweets to see if there is proof of obstruction of justice in them. This new one is surely going to be a big prize in his collection. (V)

The Manafort Trial: Day 2

The prosecution in the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort brought in the son of a clothing store manager as a witness yesterday. The witness said that Manafort ran up bills of over $900,000 between 2010 and 2014, putting him among the store's top five customers.

What is noteworthy, though, is that Manafort never paid by check or credit card, as the other customers did, but by wiring in money from his foreign accounts, in the name of his foreign businesses. Prosecutors also showed a bill from the store that Manafort had in his records and which the witness said was fake. It said the customer was Global Endeavor, one of Manafort's companies. He might have forged the bill to fool his bookkeeper into thinking it was some routine business-to-business transaction. Manafort's defense attorney suggested that maybe Manafort's partner, Rick Gates, forged the invoice for some unknown reason. However, Occam's razor strongly suggests that it was Manafort who forged the invoice in order to hide the fact that he was paying for expensive clothes with off-the-books money he was not reporting to the IRS. There isn't a shred of evidence that Gates was involved.

Another witness was FBI agent Matthew Mikuska, who testified about the April raid on Manafort's apartment and how the FBI got some of the documents it will use in the trial. He made it clear that the FBI had a search warrant, so all the evidence seized is admissible in court.

The prosecution also tried to introduce more evidence about how Manafort cozied up to the rich, but Judge T.S. Ellis III was skeptical that this mattered and limited how much evidence could be shown.

Ellis also made news by banning the word "oligarch" from his courtroom, saying it was a pejorative. In addition, he shook things up when he asked if Gates would be a witness. When prosecutor Uzo Asonye said: "He may testify in this case, your honor, he may not," more than a dozen reporters bolted for the door. The judge wasn't buying it, though, and shot back that the prosecution knew very well whom it was going to call. (V)

Manafort Is Facing Long Odds

There is a famous story about the director Robert Altman. He was on the second day of directing MASH, which would become his most famous work, and he got a call from the studio. They advised him that they had looked at the footage he had already shot, and the number of pages of script he had worked his way through, and concluded that he was already four days behind schedule.

We bring this up because Paul Manafort's trial is also in its second day, and yet he seems to be losing so badly it's like the prosecution has already put on four or five or six days' worth of its case. Legal commentators across the various TV networks and the Internet are near-universal in their consensus that it is not going well. Perhaps the best indication, however, is that Donald Trump—who is undoubtedly getting briefings from his own legal team—was in an absolute tizzy on Twitter on Wednesday. The tweet above is just one of nine he sent on Wednesday blasting the investigation and the prosecution of Manafort. Particularly interesting was this one:

This might be the most unintentionally ironic tweet that Trump has ever sent (which is saying something). Given that the Donald knows little about history, he undoubtedly does not know that one of the things that turned the jury against Alphonse (note correct spelling) was his habit of wearing expensive suits to his trial, thus undercutting his argument that the low income shown on his tax returns was legit. Invoking him—a fellow who was found guilty, by the way—was probably a bad choice under any circumstances, but was particularly unwise on a day in which the prosecution argued that Manafort's expensive clothes habits do not seem to square with the numbers he's been reporting to the IRS.

In any event, Manafort's biggest problem may not be how poorly his own case is going, but instead the enormous difficulty of prevailing as a defendant in a federal prosecution. Let's take a look at the last four years' data for prosecutions by the Dept. of Justice:

Year Guilty Verdicts Not Guilty Verdicts Conviction Rate
2014 30,619 199 99.3%
2015 28,694 127 99.6%
2016 27,516 163 99.4%
2017 27,604 144 99.4%
Average 28,608 158 99.5%

Of course, that is for all prosecutions. How do Manafort's chances look when we compare him only to other white-collar defendants? Not good:

Year Guilty Verdicts Not Guilty Verdicts Conviction Rate
2014 8,039 43 99.5%
2015 7,472 36 99.5%
2016 6,779 48 99.3%
2017 5,868 32 99.4%
Average 7,039 40 99.4%

Ok, but maybe his chances are a little better in Eastern Virginia, as opposed to some other federal district? Nope:

Year Guilty Verdicts Not Guilty Verdicts Conviction Rate
2014 1,355 10 99.3%
2015 1,543 7 99.5%
2016 1,379 8 99.4%
2017 575 1 99.8%
Average 1,213 7 99.4%

It is true that federal cases are dismissed a sizable percentage of the time; anywhere from 10% to 35%, depending on the type of crime, the year, the venue, etc. However, once a case is allowed to go to trial, things get pretty grim for the defendant—something like 200-to-1 odds. And the statistics above are for the average federal prosecutor, not the former director of the FBI, backed by a team of "best of the best" pros and an unlimited budget. It seems reasonable to say that, under those circumstances, Manafort is facing something more like 250-to-1 or 300-to-1 odds. Oh, and he would have to beat those odds twice since no matter how this trial goes, Manafort faces another trial in D.C. in September. Suppose you put 249 black balls and one white one in an urn and take one out while blindfolded. The probability of getting the white one is 0.004. If you put the ball back in and do it again, the chance of getting two white ones is 0.000016. But Manafort may not know this. After all, he is more interested in big numbers than little ones.

In short, Manafort is going to lose. He may not fully grasp the long odds, but he must be generally aware that the prognosis is bad, and surely his attorneys know exactly how bad it is. Which means that, since he is not flipping, his plan must be a presidential pardon. And if that is correct, then Team Manafort must secretly be thrilled about the fact that Trump is in full freak-out mode, since the more anxious the President gets, the more likely he decides to accept whatever the political costs are of riding to his former campaign chair's rescue. (Z)

Senate Rejects Proposal to Beef Up Election Security

It has already been reported that the Russians are busy hacking the 2018 elections and that much more security is needed. So Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment to a pending bill to give the states an additional $250 million to improve election security. The Senate rejected the amendment 50 to 47, largely along party lines. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said it was "for too early" for the Senate to spend more money on election security. Lankford may not be aware that the next election is in just over 3 months, and once money has been appropriated, it takes time to spend it (hire security consultants, buy new equipment, update software, etc.). Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warned that there would be "serious consequences" if Russia interfered in this year's elections, but it is already doing so and the Republicans are not interested in putting their money (well, the taxpayers' money) where their mouths are.

Incidentally, in case we needed an object lesson in how serious this problem is, we got one at last year's Defcon in Las Vegas. There, IT-University of Copenhagen professor Carsten Schürmann was challenged to hack one of the more commonly-used voting machines in the United States, the 2000 WinVote by Advanced Voting Solutions. He barely broke a sweat, finishing the task in just under 90 minutes, working entirely through Wi-Fi and never physically touching the machine. And he's just one guy, not an army of crack Russian hackers.

In circumstances where physical contact with the 2000 WinVote is possible, it gets even worse. A team from the security firm Synack managed to crack the machine in just seconds by connecting a USB keyboard and typing in the ultra-secret code: ctrl-alt-delete. One can only imagine what they might have accomplished if they had tried up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. In any case, it's clear that the security pros recognize the issue, and are ready to get to work. They are just waiting for a call from the politicians, which may or may not be coming. (V & Z)

Trump Continues to Chip Away at Obamacare

Donald Trump is very, very bad at getting Congress to enact much of anything beyond bills cutting taxes or renaming post offices. To compensate, he has been more creative and more aggressive in the use of executive orders than most other chief executives (though he's definitely still looking up at both of the Roosevelts). On that front, the President signed into existence a new rule on Wednesday that will allow insurers to sell low-cost, low-coverage health insurance policies (aka "junk insurance") with a duration of one year, and renewals up to three years. Under Obama, the limit for such policies—which were to be used only as a stopgap—was 90 days.

The official purpose of this action was to create "affordable" options for consumers. The real purpose is to try and trigger an Obamacare "death spiral." The expectation is that young and healthy people will decide they don't really need much coverage, and will buy the cheap policies. This, in turn, will leave a disproportionate number of older and sicker people in the Obamacare exchanges. Prices will rise, more people will adopt cheap insurance or no insurance, prices will rise some more. Rinse and repeat enough times, and maybe the whole system comes crashing down.

The calculation here is the same as it has been all along. Some old and/or sick people will be unable to afford their insurance, and will suffer and/or die. Some young and/or healthy people will actually need their insurance, and will discover that it doesn't cover much, or that—in the event of a catastrophic health issue, like brain cancer—the deductible is huge, there is a lifetime cap, and the insurer can cancel on them at the end of the year. Presumably, the people who get the short end of the stick in these scenarios will be very angry (unless they are too dead to be angry). What Trump in particular, and the GOP in general, are hoping is that the number of angry people will be much smaller than the number of folks who are thrilled with their cheap insurance. Time will tell, but it's a pretty big gamble, especially since there are relatively few people who manage to develop heart failure or stage four cancer in their 20s and 30s, but there are quite a few who need things like birth control, or inhalers, or physical therapy, or minor surgery, and who will discover that those things are only partly covered, or aren't covered at all, under their new policies. (Z)

Cruz Could Be in Real Trouble

Given that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is one of the highest-profile Republicans in the country thanks to his presidential bid (and his love of publicity), and given that he represents a very red state, it is hard to believe that he could be in danger of losing his reelection bid. But the evidence is mounting that he has a serious problem on his hands in the form of folksy Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX).

To start, the latest polls are not good for the Senator. Quinnipiac now has him up just 6 points, 49% to 43%. Even worse, however, is that 43% of Texans say they don't really know enough about O'Rourke to form a strong opinion, whereas only 7% say that about Cruz. Put another way, O'Rourke's support has much more room to grow than Cruz's. Another poll, from Texas Lyceum, did not attempt to measure how well known the two men are, but did have Cruz with just a two point lead, 36% to 34%, which is a statistical dead heat.

Then there is fundraising, where O'Rourke is currently outpacing the Senator at better than a 2-to-1 clip, pulling in $10.4 million in Q2 (compared to $4.6 million for Cruz). The Congressman has also released his first ad, and it's solid:

As the ad suggests, O'Rourke is a skilled user of social media, livestreaming nearly everything he does, and often holding online events like online town halls and reddit AMAs.

Cruz is facing two major problems here. The first, which is only partly of his making, is that the GOP and its president are not wildly popular right now, putting any Republican who is up this year at potential risk of getting caught up in a blue wave. The second, which is entirely of his own making, is that Cruz just isn't all that likable or charismatic. That's clearly not fatal; Dick Nixon and LBJ weren't likable or charismatic, and they had fine careers. In a race against a pointy-headed Democratic wonk, say Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cruz' intellectual acuity would probably carry the day. But a fellow like O'Rourke, with Bobby Kennedy-like looks and charm, is the Senator's kryptonite. These days, he often attracts standing-room-only crowds, even in very red parts of the state.

Cruz, of course, is trying to secure his flanks. Undoubtedly, he's going to shake the money tree in the next few months, and make up some of that fundraising gap. There are also going to be a bunch of Senatorial debates. O'Rourke wanted six, with two conducted in Spanish. Cruz, knowing that he might need the TV face time, agreed to five, but all in English. Expect the fact that he does not speak Español well enough for debate purposes, and O'Rourke does, to come up once or twice during their meetups.

In short, we're getting close to the point that Texas may legitimately be in play for the Democrats. And a win there, if it happened, would give them an insurance policy against a loss by Sens. Heidi Keitkamp (D-ND) or Claire McCaskill (D-MO). But when all is said and done, Texas is still fundamentally a very red state. (Z)

Koch Network Pushes Back Against Turning Point USA

Politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say. And so it is that, in the last week, the libertarian-leaning Koch Brothers and their network of wealthy supporters have said and done some things that positively thrilled many of the nation's left-wing folks. The latest: They are not happy about the efforts by some Republicans to undermine the nation's universities, and to discredit the teaching of left-leaning texts and ideas.

While the Kochs certainly want to see the curriculum include works held dear by conservatives, like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, they also support the teaching of works by Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong. John Hardin, the director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation, explained:

If people don't know and understand all the ideas that have influenced history, then how in the world can we have any hope of making progress in the future? Innovation and discovery depend on the collision of different ideas. This is going to be even more important with the future that we're heading into, where change comes rapidly and students are going to need the skills to adapt quickly.

The Kochs are particularly displeased with Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump student group that has used a now well-worn trick, creating a Professor Watchlist of academics who are accused of indoctrinating students.

It is a rare academic who does not see the value in exposing students to many different points of view, a process that might even include taking a few classes with unabashedly left-wing professors. With that said, the complaints made on Professor Watchlist are, almost without exception, laughable. To take a few examples:

Dr. Jane Close Conoley is the current president of California State University--Long Beach. In an op-ed from 2014, Conoley stated that if you are "light-skinned," you have a "significant unearned privilege."

Michael Park is an instructor at California State University-Long Beach. He used a media law class to disparage Tea Partiers and conservatives as being birthers. In an assignment, Park implied that opposition to President Obama is based on a belief that he is not a "true American."

Dr. John Donoghue is a professor of history at Loyola University--Chicago. He regularly teaches a course on slavery and abolition, but updated his class this year to include Donald Trump, and linked him to slavery. His courses and research often attempt to link capitalism to slavery.

Dr. Gregory Vincent is the vice president for diversity and community engagement at the University of Texas-Austin. On two separate occasions, he condemned an affirmative action bake sale as "demeaning."

The sort of hand-wringing on display here, in response to near-zero provocation, is probably why the Kochs described what is going on at the universities as "McCarthyism 2.0."

The divide that is on display here is really just another aspect of the argument going on between the Kochs and the pro-Trump forces over immigration, and spending, and the like. The establishment wing of the party (which includes nearly all of the Republitarians) values immigrants, hates careless spending, and values education and intellect. Read a George Will column sometime; each one has enough SAT words to keep the College Board supplied for a couple of years. The populist wing of the party, ascendant under Trump, dislikes immigrants, barely understands the federal budget, and disdains book learnin'. This divide isn't going away, which means that the question of where the Kochs (and those like them) belong in the modern political landscape is going to be very interesting to keep an eye on in the next few years. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug01 Facebook Shuts Down Disinformation Campaign
Aug01 Manafort's Trial Gets Underway
Aug01 Trump Wants to Give a Tax Cut to the Rich
Aug01 Trump Attacks the Koch Brothers
Aug01 Trump's Former Right-hand Woman Says Trump Knew about Meeting with Russians
Aug01 Giuliani Keeps Shooting His Client in the Foot
Aug01 Kelly Will Remain Chief of Staff until 2020
Aug01 Cuomo Leads Nixon by 30 Points in New York Democratic Gubernatorial Primary
Jul31 Giuliani: Colluding with Russia Is Not a Crime
Jul31 North Korea Situation Deteriorates; Trump Likes His Chances with Iran, Though
Jul31 Rand Paul Supports Kavanaugh
Jul31 Manafort's Trial Begins Today
Jul31 Koch Brothers Will Not Oppose Heitkamp
Jul31 Kelly Is a COSINO
Jul31 Sessions Announces "Religious Liberty Task Force"
Jul31 Trump to Get the "All the President's Men" Treatment
Jul30 Trump Tweets, Part I: Government Shutdown
Jul30 Trump Tweets, Part II: Robert Mueller
Jul30 Trump Tweets, Part III: The Press
Jul30 States Struggling with Election Security
Jul30 Johnson May Mount Senate Bid
Jul30 Ginsburg: Five More Years
Jul30 Avenatti Says Trump Should Take an Intelligence Test
Jul29 Trump Wages War Against the Fourth Estate
Jul29 Judge Says Lawsuit Over Citizenship Question on Census Can Go Forward
Jul29 The Problems with Trump's Collusion Story
Jul29 Who's Going to Win the Midterms? Television Broadcasters
Jul29 Some Bad News for the GOP, Part I: The Kochs
Jul29 Some Bad News for the GOP, Part II: The Polls
Jul29 Trump Campaign Denies their Flags Are Made in China
Jul28 Trump Revs Up War on Cohen
Jul28 Trump Organization CFO Has Been Subpoenaed
Jul28 Trump Touts Economic Growth
Jul28 Trump Will Try to Save Barletta
Jul28 More Skeletons Emerge from Rep. Jason Lewis' Closet
Jul28 Rich White People Have Become Democrats
Jul28 How Five Key Demographics Regard Trump
Jul28 What Will Young Voters' Turnout Look Like in 2018?
Jul27 Trump Punts on Three Major Goals until after the Midterms
Jul27 Trump Administration May Be Getting Ready to Bomb Iran
Jul27 Mueller is Following the Tweets
Jul27 Administration Misses Deadline to Reunite Families
Jul27 Democrats Up by Double Digits in Generic House Poll
Jul27 West Virginia Secretary of State Blocks Blankenship's Senate Bid
Jul27 Jordan Is Running for House Speaker
Jul27 Surprise! No Rosenstein Impeachment
Jul27 Cohen Claims Trump Knew in Advance about the Meeting with Veselnitskaya
Jul26 Trump Claims Cohen's Audio Tape May Have Been Doctored
Jul26 Trump Makes Trade Deal with EU
Jul26 Republicans Move to Impeach Rosenstein