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Trump: I Never Directed Michael Cohen to Break the Law

In his first comment on the sentencing of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump tweeted that he didn't direct Cohen to break the law. For once, that is probably (literally) true. There is not a shred of evidence that he said to Cohen: "Michael, I hereby order you to break the law." What he did do was tell Cohen to pay off two women with whom he had affairs in order to keep them from talking before the election. Those payoffs greatly exceeded the $2,700 maximum donation an individual is allowed to make to a political campaign. Furthermore, they were never reported, also a violation of campaign finance law.

Trump also complained that he was being held to a different standard than other candidates for president. That is patently untrue. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was actually indicted for using $900,000 in campaign funds to keep his mistress quiet. He was acquitted on one count and had a mistrial on others. (V)

Trouble Abounds for Trump on Thursday

There was so much adverse news for Donald Trump on Thursday that one wonders if he was able to keep up with it all. Especially since he was very busy trying to reverse course on his blunder from earlier in the week, and to try to blame any possible government shutdown on the Democrats:

For those who don't wish to watch the video, it's mostly Trump shouting about how Democrats have always wanted a wall along the border, and that they only oppose it now because it's his idea. This is interspersed with clips of prominent Democrats—Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY), Hillary Clinton—expressing support for border security and/or opposition to undocumented immigration. Of course, that's not at all the same thing as supporting a wall.

In any event, while the President was busy creating a distraction for the base, things were taking a decided turn for the worse for him in the real world. To start, the amount of evidence of illegal Trump campaign dealings with Russia is growing and growing. Among the things that former NSA Michael Flynn apparently admitted to was that he had a meeting with Russian U.S. ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the 2016 election in which it was proposed that Trump would relax the U.S. sanctions on Russia. Since the Trump campaign knew very well by that time about Russian efforts to influence the election, including hacking the DNC, that very likely makes them participants in a criminal conspiracy.

And Trump's campaign is not the only entity to get adverse news on Thursday. His inauguration committee is on the hot seat, too. They are the subject of a criminal investigation undertaken by federal prosecutors in New York, who have a lot of questions about the $100 million that was raised. For example, who donated that money, and exactly what they thought they were getting in exchange for their "donation." According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, prosecutors were tipped off to the possibility that something was rotten in the state of...well, New York by one of the recordings they seized from former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, where he can be heard discussing the situation with former Melania Trump staffer Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.

So, that is Trump's campaign and his inaugural committee. But what about Trump himself? Yep, he got some bad news on Thursday, too. Building on stories from the past few days, particularly those about Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker flipping on Trump, it is now being reported that Trump was present at a 2015 meeting where the trio discussed making hush payments to various people (e.g., porn stars) to keep their stories from becoming public. Trump has alternated between denying involvement with the payments and insisting that nothing illegal happened. This news serves to undercut both defenses, since he clearly was involved with the payments, and since the extent of the effort (and of his untrue denials) means that Trump not only violated campaign finance laws (a crime that usually entails a financial penalty), but that he engaged in a criminal conspiracy to do so (a much more serious crime). As they say, it's always the cover-up that gets you in the end.

Every day that goes by, Trump's position gets closer and closer to Richard Nixon's, circa January of 1974. One wonders if the Donald has begun toying with the idea of trading the presidency for a get out of jail free card, as Tricky Dick did. If not, he really should be thinking about it. Of course, there is one big difference, namely that Nixon didn't commit unpardonable state-level crimes. So that trade may not even be an option for Trump. (Z)

Pelosi: Democrats Will Seek Trump's Tax Returns

Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said yesterday that the Democrats will start the process to obtain Donald Trump's tax returns as soon as they take over the House in January. She warned, however, that it will be a challenging process. What she means is this: A 1924 law gives the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (Richard Neal, D-MA) the power to examine anyone's tax return, and Neal has already said he intends to request Trump's tax returns. However, Trump is virtually certain to challenge the constitutionality of the law, possibly on the grounds of the Fourth Amendment (no search and seizure without probable cause). The case is almost certain to end up in the Supreme Court.

SCOTUS, of course, currently has five Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees. However, it is not a sure thing that the Court's ruling will break exactly along partisan lines. In particular, while Chief Justice John Roberts is certainly very conservative, he is apparently not a big fan of Donald Trump. Roberts got into a spat with Trump in November on account of Trump's criticisms of the judiciary. While it is very unlikely that Roberts thinks in terms of "payback," he is not an automatic vote for whatever Trump wants unless it serves the larger conservative cause, such as campaign financing, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like. Roberts also likes to maintain the image of a neutral umpire who "calls balls and strikes." Voting against Trump on an extremely high profile case that isn't especially dear to the hearts of conservatives is clearly a way to enhance his image as a neutral umpire. While no one knows how the subpoena for Trump's tax returns will play out ultimately, it is yet another thing Trump has to worry about. (V)

Senate Pokes Trump in the Eye

The members of the Senate are not pleased by Donald Trump's blasé attitude toward Saudi Arabia, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman having ordered the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. To that end, they passed a resolution on Thursday, by a margin of 56-41, that would require the President to withdraw all U.S. support for the Saudis' war in Yemen within 30 days. Nothing, of course, is going to happen as a result of this resolution. First of all, it would have to pass the House, and it's not likely that Paul Ryan & Co. are interested. Then, it would have to be signed into law by Donald Trump, who has already said (naturally) that he would veto it. 56 is not a veto-proof majority, so that would be that.

The importance of this story, then, is that just maybe this is the first step in the Senate's reasserting itself, with some GOP senators perhaps deciding to disembark the S.S. Trump at the next station. The last time this resolution was brought up (nine months ago), it failed badly, with all Republicans and 10 Democrats voting against. It's probable that Thursday's vote was a one-off, triggered by an unusual set of circumstances. However, it is at least possible that this is the starting point for a sea-change in the dynamics of the relationship between Trump and the Congress. After all, with a Democratic-controlled House, senators like Susan Collins (R-ME), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Joni Ernst (R-IA) are going to have to make a decision soon about whether they want to get on board with some ideas that Trump doesn't like, or they want to get slammed during their tough 2020 reelection campaigns for being obstructionists and do-nothing senators. (Z)

Trump Reportedly Has Narrowed Chief of Staff Candidates Down to Five

Some day, presumably soon, Donald Trump will pick a replacement for outgoing chief of staff John Kelly. On Thursday, he announced (actually, more like bragged) that he's pared the list down to five, and that the remaining candidates are "well known" and are "terrific people." It's generally understood that former advisor David Bossie, former NJ governor Chris Christie, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, and Sec. of Energy Rick Perry are still in the running. Some think that the fifth candidate is former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Trump's braggadocio notwithstanding, it's a pretty underwhelming list. Whitaker, Bossie, and Lewandowski are all fawning yes men, and the latter two recently penned an adulatory book about Trump's road to the presidency. That the dust jacket blurbs were written by Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Newt Gingrich tells you all you need to know. Meanwhile, Christie is prickly and hot-tempered, and has already experienced an on-again, off-again relationship with the President. If he were the pick, surely he would soon be in the same doghouse that Kelly is in right now. As to Perry, he is the walking embodiment of the Peter principle. He got himself elected governor of Texas, a job that is roughly as relevant as the vice presidency of the United States (the lieutenant governor actually runs the show in the Lone Star State). Then, after a couple of disastrous presidential runs, he was picked to head the Energy Department, which he once called for disbanding, and whose function he barely understood when he took the job (it mostly deals with energy of the nuclear-generated sort, not the petroleum-generated sort). As chief of staff, he would be...overmatched, to put it kindly.

Who knows if Trump really is going to pick one of these five? He does like his curve-balls, so it could be someone that nobody is expecting. That said, it's pretty clear that the folks who might actually be good at the job are not interested. So, the President is going to be left to decide which of the not-so-good candidates is the least not-so-good. (Z)

Democrats Are Moving Left--and Right

The Democratic Party is undergoing change now but it is a little hard to understand. It is moving left and right at the same time. Consider this: The last time the Democrats controlled the House, the Progressive Caucus had 80 members and the Blue Dog Coalition had 54. But in January, the Progressive Caucus will have 96 members and the Blue Dogs will have only 24. So the Democrats are moving sharply to the left, right?

Well, no. Of the new members who flipped seats, 34 have joined the centrist New Democrats and only 11 have joined the Progressive Caucus. And with the new members, the New Democrats will have 89 members, almost as big as the Progressive Caucus, so the Democrats are moving to the right, right?

Actually, when you dive into the details, this makes sense. In deep blue districts, the Democrats are electing candidates who are further left than they used to be. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is the poster girl for that movement. But in red suburban districts that used to be Republican, centrists Democrats won and are joining the New Democrats. So indeed, the party is moving left and right at the same time. This isn't going to make governing any easier.

Now look at the seven states where the Democrats picked up the governor's mansion. In most of them, the eventual winner beat a primary candidate to his or her left. That is, in statewide races, centrist Democrats did well and candidates too far to the left didn't. In fact, none of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) endorsees for governor won.

Also noteworthy, but below the radar, is the infusion of big money from centrists and even from center-right Democratic donors. The $100 million Michael Bloomberg tossed into the pot is only the tip of the iceberg. There were many mini-Bloombergs, almost all backing moderate Democrats.

It is hard to say how these contradictory developments will affect the 2020 primaries. On the one hand, progressive Democrats feel empowered and there are likely to be multiple candidates in that lane, possibly including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and more. But the college-educated suburban women who voted Democratic in 2018 may consider themselves Democrats now and may vote in the primaries, most likely for the John Hickenloopers and Amy Klobuchars of the world. How that will play out is anyone's guess. One big factor is how many candidates there are in each lane. If one wing's votes are split 8 ways and the other's is split only 2 ways, the latter could win, even if the total vote is less. Anything is possible. (V)

Judge to Poliquin: No

Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-ME) got more votes than Jared Golden (D) in the ME-02 House race, but neither got 50% of the vote, so Maine's shiny new instant-runoff voting kicked in and the votes for the two minor candidates were redistributed. Golden got most of those, and ended up above 50%. Poliquin didn't like that and sued, claiming that the new voting system (also known as ranked-choice voting) violated the Constitution. Federal Judge Lance Walker strongly disagreed, so it looks like Golden is going to Congress and Poliquin is going home. To the extent the states are the laboratories of Democracy, this experiment was concluded successfully. Now that it is clear how it works and at least one judge has approved it, other states might try it. (V)

Will More Republicans Retire in 2020?

Many House Republicans have never served in the minority because the Republicans have been in control since 2010. They may discover that having zero power is no fun at all, and may head for the exits in 2020. The year the GOP should be worried about is 2008. In 2006, there was a Democratic wave. As a consequence, in 2008, 23 House Republicans retired rather than run for reelection.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who ran the NRCC in 2008, keenly remembers this and is worried about a repeat performance. He recently commented on the large number of Republican retirements in 2018, saying: "We saw how devastating that was for us this year. Another round of that would be really bad." The core of the problem is that, unlike the Senate, the House operates on a "majority wins" basis. If 218 representatives vote for a bill to change the colors in the American flag to mauve, taupe, and chartreuse, there is no way for the minority to block it or even slow it down. This makes serving in the House minority extremely frustrating, leading to retirements. In the Senate, procedural rules, including the filibuster, give the minority at least a modicum of power. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Dec13 Cohen Gets 3 Years
Dec13 National Enquirer Turns on Trump
Dec13 House Republicans Are Mulling Their Budget Options
Dec13 Trump Just Made It More Dangerous for Americans to Travel Abroad
Dec13 Meadows Is No Longer a Chief of Staff Candidate
Dec13 McConnell Has a Secret Weapon for 2020: Dope
Dec13 Thursday Q&A
Dec12 Trump Would Be Proud to Shut Down the Government
Dec12 Pelosi Will Trade Term Limits for Speaker's Gavel
Dec12 Trump Administration Buried Wells Fargo Report
Dec12 Judge Orders Stormy Daniels to Pay Trump's Attorneys Nearly $300,000
Dec12 Stay President To Stay out of Prison?
Dec12 New Hampshire GOP Wants to Rig the Primary
Dec12 Beto O'Rourke Tops Straw Poll
Dec11 Trump Calls Hush-Money Payments "A Simple Private Transaction"
Dec11 SCOTUS Gives Win to Planned Parenthood
Dec11 Trump's Base Believes Mueller Is on a Witch Hunt
Dec11 Maria Butina Wants to Plead Guilty
Dec11 Some GOP Lawmakers Want Another Autopsy
Dec11 Former Senators Urge the Senate To Do Its Job
Dec11 Comey Calls on Americans To Oust Trump
Dec11 Trump Has No Plan B for Chief of Staff
Dec11 When It Comes to Lying, Trump Boldly Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before
Dec10 Ayers: Thanks, But No Thanks
Dec10 Jerrold Nadler: An Order to Make Illegal Payments Would Be an Impeachable Offense
Dec10 Rubio: It Would Be a Huge Political Mistake for Trump to Pardon Manafort
Dec10 Fourteen of Trump's Associates Talked to Russians During the Campaign or Transition
Dec10 Kushner Advised Saudis after Khashoggi's Death
Dec10 The Calendar Will Change the Democratic Party's Primary Process Dramatically
Dec10 Monday Q&A
Dec09 Republicans Are Getting Worried
Dec09 Kelly's Demise Is Official
Dec09 Republicans in Denial, Part 1: The Comey Hearing
Dec09 Republicans in Denial, Part 2: Rasmussen and the Midterms
Dec09 Republicans in Denial, Part 3: California
Dec09 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: John Delaney
Dec08 The Walls Just Got Much Closer
Dec08 Trump Picks William Barr as Attorney General
Dec08 Nauert Under Scrutiny
Dec08 Kelly Is No Longer on Speaking Terms with Trump
Dec08 Pelosi Suggests Two New Members of the House Might Not Be Seated
Dec08 Trump Advisers Fear a Recession by 2020
Dec08 Tillerson Unloads on Trump and Vice Versa
Dec07 Supreme Court Hears a Double Jeopardy Case
Dec07 Arrest of Chinese Executive Makes a Messy Situation Messier
Dec07 Trump Employs an Undocumented Housekeeper
Dec07 Haley Replacement: It's Nauert, of Course
Dec07 Manchin Will Be Ranking Member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee
Dec07 Trump Tries to Save Coal, Is Doomed to Fail
Dec07 Valadao Concedes