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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Sticks It to Federal Employees, Again
      •  Trump to Cancel UN Funding for Palestinian Refugees
      •  Donald Trump's Legal Situation is Getting Grim
      •  Sessions Better Not Count on His December Paycheck
      •  Making Sense of the Florida Polls
      •  Cruz Looks Outgunned by O'Rourke
      •  Dirty Tricks Case Study: Abigail Spanberger

Trump Sticks It to Federal Employees, Again

Donald Trump does not like most of the 1.8 million people who work under him. In part, that is due to his belief that many of them are part of the "deep state" that is out to get him. Another element is that when he was a real estate developer, regulators and other bureaucrats were the opposition. Probably also playing a role is the fact that the path they have taken with their lives (public service, moderate salary, etc.) is antithetical to what Trump thinks is worthwhile. He's looked down on non-wealthy non-entrepreneurs all his life, and there's no reason to think that changed when he moved into the White House. So, it's not too shocking that on Thursday the President announced he was canceling the 2.1% raise federal employees were supposed to receive in January, declaring that "federal agency budgets cannot sustain such increases." The total cost of the raise: $25 billion.

There is zero chance that Trump has suddenly become a budget hawk, given how willing he's been to blow millions or billions of dollars on other projects, from the Mexican wall, to unnecessary military parades, to a massive tax cut that makes $25 billion seem like pocket change. No, this is part of a sustained assault on the federal bureaucracy, one that also includes leaving key posts open for months and months, appointing leadership that knows little to nothing about the departments they manage (we're looking at you, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, Betsy DeVos, et al.), and issuing executive orders designed to cut federal employees' unions off at the knees (all of which were overturned by a judge last week).

Politically, it is hard to see how this benefits Trump and/or the GOP, since saving $25 billion is a relative drop in the bucket, especially when it means taking barely enough money to keep up with inflation out of the pockets of hardworking folks who (largely) do thankless jobs. On the other hand, it's pretty easy to see how this could backfire. To start, there are some of the less-than-pleasant juxtapositions it sets up. Like, for example, that the GOP can find $1.5 trillion to fund tax cuts, where 83% goes to the wealthiest 1% of Americans, but they can't find $25 billion for middle-class federal employees? Or, to take another example, that the billionaire Trump, who has never wanted for anything in his life, can callously deny a relative pittance of a raise to people who may well be living paycheck-to-paycheck.

There's also a more concrete downside, politically. Trump probably thinks that most government staffers are Democrats, but he is wrong: The breakdown actually tracks pretty closely with the general electorate, with 44% identifying as Democrats, 40% as Republicans, and the other 16% as independents or members of third parties. And these 1.8 million folks aren't randomly distributed around the country, they are concentrated in places where the federal government does its business, most obviously Virginia. In other words, the reelection campaign of folks like Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and Dave Brat (R-VA), who were already in trouble, just got that much harder. Also much harder: Trying to figure out the next federal budget in October, as this will add yet another contentious issue to a process that is already nearly impossible to manage. (Z)

Trump to Cancel UN Funding for Palestinian Refugees

In another move that is supposedly about saving money, but really isn't, Donald Trump announced plans on Thursday to cancel all U.S. funding for the United Nations aid program for Palestinian refugees. The administration will also call for a 90% reduction in the number of people recognized as refugees, from 5 million to 500,000, and will soon announce its own "peace plan" for Israel. The move, if it is carried out, will save the federal government about $350 million a year. Actually, that is what it would have saved under Barack Obama. Since Trump already cut the payments by half, it will save something like $180 million. That is to say, about .00434% of the federal budget. By comparison, the U.S. sends about $40 billion per year to Israel, or abut 222 times as much as it spends on Palestinian refugees.

The real purpose here, of course, is to please the same folks who cheered the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That includes Christian evangelicals, Islamophobes, and right-wing Jews (read: Sheldon Adelson). Experts are in agreement that the consequences will be significant, increasing suffering among the people the money is supposed to help and, consequently, increasing the amount and the severity of violence in the region. In turn, it will make a "solution" to the situation all the more difficult, particularly given that Trump clearly intends to offer up something very one-sided.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, Trump is doing a very good job of helping the Democrats to make the case that he (and the Republican Party that supports him) are cruel and heartless. Consider, in addition to the Palestinians:

  • The indifference toward Puerto Rico
  • Reduced funding for Meals on Wheels
  • Near-elimination of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program
  • Eliminating the meager raises due to federal employees (see above)
  • The separation of families along the border
  • The dramatic reduction in the number of people allowed to request asylum in the U.S.
  • The cancellation by fiat of American citizens' passports, based on the suspicion their birth certificates might be fake

On the latter point, incidentally, the Washington Post's original reporting on the story went along, in part, with the administration's claim that they were just continuing a Barack Obama-era policy. That turns out to be false. The policy was first implemented during the Bush Jr. years, started to tail off, was killed off entirely (and quickly) upon Obama's assumption of the presidency, and was resurrected by Team Trump.

And speaking of the family separations, the latest filing from the Justice Dept. reveals that 497 children have not yet been united with their families, despite the fact that Judge Dana Sabraw set a deadline of July 26 for the process to be complete. The Judge either cannot, or will not, actually sanction the administration. It remains to be seen if voters decide to do so on November 6. (Z)

Donald Trump's Legal Situation is Getting Grim

Donald Trump has a wide variety of legal problems. His lawyers, even the mediocre ones, know it. On some level, the President also knows it. And several of those problems moved much closer to becoming full-blown crises this week. That includes:

  • Obstruction of Justice: Reading the recent tea leaves, it is not only clear that special counsel Robert Mueller is putting together an obstruction of justice case, but also that he already has what he needs. Politico reports:
    [Trump's lawyers believe] that if Mueller wants to build an obstruction case around [AG Jeff] Sessions, he has the fodder he needs in the form of a January 2018 New York Times report indicating that the president instructed White House counsel Don McGahn to prevent Sessions from recusing himself—and that Trump aides have talked with Mueller about the episode.

    The drumbeat of presidential tweets denigrating Sessions as "weak" and calling on him to "stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now" have also shaped the view among the president's legal team. They have come to believe that if Mueller wants to build a case that the president has intimidated his attorney general, he can do so given the voluminous public record created by the president—and that firing Sessions won't change much.

    Trump himself seems to be thinking the same thing. Late Wednesday night, he went on a Twitter rampage on the subject, including this tweet:

    The "fudged" tape that Trump is referring to is the interview where he admitted to firing James Comey over the Russia investigation. It was not fudged, of course. What it is, however, is a pretty big piece of the obstruction puzzle, which is why Trump is desperately trying to discredit it.

  • The McGahn Situation: Trump is angry with and distrustful of White House counsel Don McGahn, and so announced on Wednesday that McGahn would soon exit stage left. Though this was presented as McGahn's decision, we speculated yesterday that maybe it wasn't. And, in his (Twitter) rage, the President appears to have spilled the beans and confirmed we were right to be suspicious:
    The new version of events—that Trump decided to can McGahn—presents two (or possibly three) problems for the President. First, because it looks to be linked to McGahn's conversations with Mueller, it adds to the obstruction case. Second, given that Trump apparently lied about McGahn's departure, it may add to the cases against him for both obstruction and conspiracy. And finally, McGahn's staff is very loyal to him, and many may decide to exit along with him.

  • Not Enough Lawyers: At the outset of the this administration, the White House counsel's office had 35 lawyers. It's down to 25 now, and will drop to 22 by the end of September. Friends of Trump recognize that is barely enough to handle matters as they currently stand, and it will be far, far short of enough if the Democrats gain control of the House and begin peppering the White House with subpoenas and document demands and the like.

    And then there is the President's personal legal team, which is already outmanned and outgunned, and is also likely to have vastly more work to do in upcoming months than they have now. Television lawyer Rudy Giuliani is essentially useless for any serious defense work, while Emmet Flood is currently the favorite to replace McGahn. Jay Sekulow can't do it all alone, but, as has already been demonstrated, very few top-flight lawyers want to work for a fellow who does not follow advice, and who has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to firing counsel. Given the dire straits that are presenting themselves, Trump is thinking about poaching Abbe Lowell, who currently represents Jared Kushner. Whether Lowell would agree to take the job, and whether or not it would even be ethical for him to do so, are excellent questions.

So, it's a big mess that's getting bigger and messier by the day. If Trump somehow manages to extract himself from the giant mess he's in, he may just get that Nobel Prize he's aching for, since he will undoubtedly have bent the laws of space and time to his will, and thus will be worthy of recognition for reinventing the science of physics as we know it. (Z)

Sessions Better Not Count on His December Paycheck

As noted above, Team Trump thinks that the legal damage that would be done by firing AG Jeff Sessions is a non-issue because that ship has already sailed. Meanwhile, whatever political damage might be done will essentially be moot after November 6. So, it seems probable that Sessions' last day at work will be November 7, give or take a few days.

Just in case there was any doubt on that point, Donald Trump himself effectively confirmed Sessions' drop-dead date in an interview with Bloomberg on Thursday, in which the President committed to keeping the AG until the midterms, but absolutely refused to answer a question about keeping him after that. Much like the Full Sherman, any answer other than "I'm absolutely, positively going to keep Sessions around" means "He's outta here."

One can only imagine what a replacement AG candidate might look like. First of all, given the treatment Sessions received, there aren't going to be too many volunteers to replace him as a whipping boy. Beyond that, however, there are two mutually contradictory forces in play here. The deeper that Trump's Mueller trouble gets, the more he will want an AG who will do his bidding (including, most likely, firing Mueller). At the same time, however, the deeper the trouble gets, the harder it will be for GOP senators to look the other way and to give Trump the AG he wants. Threading that needle will be difficult, if not impossible, and until it does get threaded, the acting AG will be Trump's nemesis, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. (Z)

Making Sense of the Florida Polls

As we have noted, the polls of Florida's gubernatorial primary were disastrous, particularly the eight (out of nine) that had eventual Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum finishing in fourth place. Vox decided to ask eight experts what went wrong. There are several themes that run through the article:

  • Gillum did a particularly good job of turning out minority and young voters, which pollsters' models did not anticipate.

  • Gillum was courting segments of the electorate (black voters, progressives) that the other candidates basically did not contest, as they fought tooth-and-nail over the white suburbanites, the centrists, older Democrats, and Latinos.

  • Primary electorates are small and idiosyncratic, and that can be hard to account for.

  • Because primaries do not attract the interest and money that general elections do, pollsters have to work on the cheap, which means computer surveys and the like. These are far more prone to inaccuracy.

  • Because primaries are not "final," voters do not truly commit to a candidate until late in the process, maybe not even until they're in the voting booth.

  • The race was both crowded and very close, which allows late swings in support to have an outsized effect.

  • Some of the big events in the race, like Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) involvement, happened too late to be captured by polls.

There's undoubtedly a lot of truth here, although it's hard to see that many of these things can be corrected for going forward, which is a reminder that modern polls—particularly primary polls—should always be taken with at least a cup of salt. Hopefully, the general election polls in Florida will be better. For what it is worth, the first survey of the race has Gillum up 48%-43% over his opponent, Ron DeSantis (R). (Z)

Cruz Looks Outgunned by O'Rourke

Texas is slowly trending purple, but it's not there yet, as indicated by the fact that every person who holds statewide office right now is a Republican, and that Donald Trump won the state by 9 points. These things being the case, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) should be cruising to victory in his reelection campaign, but he's not. A big part of the problem is that he's got serious liabilities that have little to do with the issues:

  • He is one of the least charismatic politicians in recent memory
  • His goal is clearly to use the Senate as a springboard to bigger things (i.e., the White House), and Texans know it
  • He is a shameless opportunist, as evidenced by his rejection, and then embrace, of Donald Trump
  • Nearly all of his colleagues loathe him, such that they will not be motivated to go above and beyond to help him
  • Like Trump, he's very divisive, which means that most Texans' opinions about him are hardened. Either they love him, or they can't stand him—there aren't many fence-sitters for him to win over

The latter point could prove to be the most important one in 2018. Cruz is going to turn out a certain subset of the electorate, one that skews fairly old and fairly white, and that's about it. That means his kryptonite is a young, charismatic candidate who can get unusually high numbers of young and minority voters to show up to vote. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) is looking more and more like he might be that guy, as polls of the race get tighter and tighter.

In the last week or so, the contrasting styles of the two men have been on full display, thanks to the ongoing NFL anthem controversy. At one of his countless town hall-type meetings with voters, O'Rourke was asked for his views on the matter. Undoubtedly he had thought about it, but he was nonetheless speaking extemporaneously, and yet he gave a very deft answer. In short, he emphasized three major points in his response: (1) That he himself loves America, the flag, etc.; (2) That he nonetheless thinks it's very American to choose to kneel, following in a tradition that stretches from the founding parents to MLK, Jr.; and (3) That reasonable people can nonetheless disagree on the question. Here's the video:

Cruz, who seems to take most of his political cues from Trump these days, sensed an opportunity, and so he quickly released his own video:

To nobody's surprise, the Senator's staff edited O'Rourke's remarks to make it seem like the congressman only favors those who kneel. They also layered tweets from Hollywood luminaries on top of the footage, with a narrator advising that "liberal Hollywood was thrilled" by what O'Rourke had to say. Cruz has also taken to wearing a Houston Texans shirsey to campaign events:

Ted Cruz in a shirsey

There are few people who look good in a shirsey. Ted Cruz is not one of those people. That picture is only a tad less awkward than the famous one of Nixon and Elvis.

Subjectively speaking, one views the clips and is left with the impression that O'Rourke stands for something, while Cruz is just against things (and not even the same things all the time, just whatever things happen to be convenient at that moment). And objectively speaking, it is clear that O'Rourke is connecting in a way that Cruz is not. The number of views that the Representative's video has gotten, across all platforms, is now more than 44 million. The Senator's video, by contrast, checks in at less than 200,000. That means that Cruz has lost this round, and if he piles up too many more of these setbacks, he will be in real trouble on Election Day. (Z)

Dirty Tricks Case Study: Abigail Spanberger

When it comes to the House of Representatives, the GOP knows that they are in desperate times right now, given the general dynamics of midterm elections along with the historic unpopularity of the man in the White house. They have made clear that they will use every trick in the book to try to save their majority, and if there were any doubts about that, Abigail Spanberger can lay them to rest.

Spanberger, who once worked for the CIA, is the Democrat who is trying to knock off Rep. Dave Brat (R), the Freedom Caucuser who won a surprise victory over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, but who might be a bit too conservative for his R+6 district these days. Spanberger says that GOP super PACs unethically acquired a copy of her federal security clearance application, and they are now trying to use her personal information against her. The GOP super PACs, for their part, do not deny the story, other than the "unethical" part. They say they got the document through a standard federal records request, a story that experts find dubious.

Spanberger has also been targeted for some particularly vicious push polling, a technique in which partisans spread propaganda in the guise of a supposedly unbiased poll. One of the questions, for example, asked if the respondent knew that Spanberger once taught at the Islamic Saudi Academy in Alexandria, Va., and that numerous students at the academy were "arrested for terrorism." It's true that she taught there, and that a handful of alumni were arrested, but there is of course zero evidence that any of the students were in her classes. And even if they were, are all of Timothy McVeigh's teachers forever barred from holding office? Or the Unabomber's? Or Robert Hanssen's?

In any event, it is clear—between this story, and the one above, and the "monkey" remarks from Wednesday, and a whole bunch of other ugliness—that the gloves are off this campaign season. Not only are they off, they are in the trash can and on the way to the landfill, where they will be incinerated. Given the stakes in this year's midterms, along with the general political climate in the Age of Trump, this figures to be the most brutal midterm campaign in modern history, and maybe even ever. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug30 Takeways from Tuesday's Primaries
Aug30 Florida Governor's Race Has Already Turned Ugly
Aug30 McGahn Will Soon Be McGone
Aug30 Sessions May Well Be Next
Aug30 Puerto Rico Death Toll Soars; Trump Remains Impressed with His Administration's Response
Aug30 Trump Administration Denies or Revokes Thousands of Passports for Mexican-Americans Living on the Border
Aug30 Trump Resumes War on Google
Aug29 Elections Were Held, People Voted
Aug29 Trump Warns of "Violence" if Democrats Win Midterms
Aug29 Appeals Court Rules that North Carolina's Congressional Map Is Unconstitutional
Aug29 More Details Emerge Regarding North Korea
Aug29 Trump Has a New Conspiracy Theory
Aug29 Ellison Could Cost Democrats Four House Seats
Aug29 Poll: Americans Believe Michael Cohen but Don't Want Trump Impeached
Aug28 Doug Ducey Has a Tough Call to Make about McCain's Replacement
Aug28 White House Flag Does Gymnastics: Up, Down, Up, Down
Aug28 U.S. Strikes Deal on Tentative NAFTA Replacement with Mexico
Aug28 WSJ: Manafort Tried to Negotiate Plea Deal
Aug28 Is Giuliani a Plus or a Minus for Trump?
Aug28 Bill Nelson Is an Old-Style Senator in a New-Style World
Aug28 Cruz's Lead over O'Rourke Keeps Dwindling
Aug27 Republicans Are Preparing for Tough Times if Democrats Capture the House
Aug27 Dershowitz: New York Probe Is More Dangerous to Trump than Mueller's
Aug27 Two Big Primaries This Week
Aug27 Kelli Ward Thinks McCain Conspired Against Her
Aug27 Trump Personally Spiked White House Statement on McCain
Aug27 Trade War with China Is about to Heat Up
Aug27 The Problem with the Emperor's Clothes
Aug26 John McCain, 1936-2018
Aug26 DNC Changes Superdelegate Rules
Aug26 Federal Labor Unions 1, Trump 0
Aug26 What Happens After Trump?
Aug26 This Week's Senate News
Aug26 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: William S. McRaven
Aug25 Weisselberg Gets Immunized
Aug25 Could Trump Be Al Caponed?
Aug25 Aides Expect a Manafort Pardon
Aug25 Dino Sajudin Is Going to Tell His Trump Story
Aug25 Pompeo Cancels North Korea Trump
Aug25 Democratic Donors Are Fed Up with the DNC
Aug25 The End Is Near for Senator John McCain
Aug24 Trump Can No Longer Control Pecker
Aug24 Weeks Ago, Trump Asked Lawyers about Pardoning Manafort
Aug24 Sessions Pushes Back
Aug24 Trump Wants to Criminalize "Flipping"
Aug24 Collins Says Kavanaugh Described Roe as "Settled Law"
Aug24 Casey Has a 15-Point Lead in Pennsylvania Senate Race
Aug24 The Duncan Hunter Story Just Keeps Chugging Along
Aug23 Takeaways about Cohen and Manafort
Aug23 Manafort Juror Dishes on Deliberations