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PW logo Putin Says Russia Is Open for Dialogue
Trump’s Base Strategy Raises Questions About Re-Election
Deciphering Patterns In Trump’s Lies
6 New Lows for Trump In 2018
Trump Bails on New Year’s Eve Party
Trump Lies About ‘Deleted’ FBI Text Messges

Cell Phone Data Puts Cohen in Prague Despite His Claim He Has Never Been There

One of the disputed items in the infamous "Steele dossier," compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, is an item saying that former Donald Trump fixer and now convicted felon Michael Cohen met with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016 to work out how Russia would help the campaign and how they could cover their tracks. Needless to say, if this were true, it would be the smoking gun proving collusion between the campaign and the Russians. Also needless to say, Cohen and Trump have consistently and vigorously denied any such meeting. Cohen has denied ever having visited Prague.

However, McClatchy is now reporting that there are phone company records of Cohen's cell phone being close to Prague during the summer of 2016. Four people with direct knowledge of the matter have confirmed that Cohen spoke to people in Russian intelligence there. In addition, electronic eavesdropping by an unnamed Eastern European intelligence agency picked up a phone call among Russians, one of whom said that Cohen was in Prague. Two sources confirmed this to McClatchy. These new revelations, plus the report from Steele, increasingly make it look like Cohen has been lying all along and he did meet with Russians in Prague. It is virtually certain that special counsel Robert Mueller also has this information. Mueller probably asked Cohen about this, but it is not known if he came clean or lied about it.

If Mueller has long had this information, he no doubt began checking it out—for example, by issuing subpoenas to airlines to find out if Cohen traveled to any European Union country in 2016. If he was trying to be sneaky, he could have flown nonstop to say, Munich, and then gone to Prague by train or bus to avoid leaving a paper trail. If Mueller has evidence that Steele was right about the meeting, he is likely to believe the other parts of the Steele dossier are true as well. That would give him the motivation to put serious resources into trying to verify some of the other allegations in it.

Shortly after the McClatchy report came out yesterday, Cohen denied everything via Twitter:

Given Cohen's shaky relationship with the truth, it would be wise not to put much stock in that denial. Especially since it has the feel of being written by someone who is losing his grip on reality. (V)

No Movement on Shutdown, Despite Trump's Pretending Otherwise

Donald Trump is doing everything he can to make it look like he's rolled up his sleeves and gotten down to the hard work of solving the government shutdown. He previously canceled his Christmas travel plans, and on Friday he canceled his New Year's plans as well. Just in case anyone didn't get the message, OMB director and incoming interim chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appeared on "Fox and Friends" Friday morning, and explained that the President will not leave Washington while the government is shut down, because he is "very heavily engaged on (the shutdown negotiations) on a minute-by-minute basis."

Since Congress isn't in town right now, it's a bit implausible that Trump is negotiating with anyone right now. And, in fact, new reporting from Politico confirms the picture that is being painted by the President's increasingly desperate tweets. He is utterly consumed by the shutdown, and enraged by the fact that there is nothing he can do about it right now. He's also isolated in the White House, as most of the administration's senior officials are away for the holidays. The First Lady has left again, too, for the sunnier shores of Mar-a-Lago. Apparently she sees no need to remain in Washington, since she had nothing to do with the shutdown.

Each day that this lingers, Trump ratchets up his rhetoric and his threats, usually via Twitter. Friday's entries:

It's getting to the point that one can practically see the President frothing at the mouth. In any case, this particular rant is nonsense. First, far from being a "profit making operation," shutting down the entire border would cost the U.S. about a billion dollars in lost commerce each day. Second, if Trump really does have the ability to completely shut the border down right now, then why is the wall needed? Third, if he tries it, the courts will grant an injunction so fast that the President's head will spin.

Politically, Trump is definitely not helping himself with anyone besides the base (and probably not even all of them). A new poll from Harvard CAPS/Harris reveals that 39% of Americans would like to see Trump impeached and convicted, and another 20% would like to see him censured. So, it is now close to 60% of the public that would like to see some sort of Congressional action taken directly against the President. That is not quite Dick Nixon circa June 1974 territory yet, but it is awfully far down that road, particularly given that Robert Mueller has not even released his report(s) yet. (Z)

Trump to Freeze Federal Employees' Pay

He signaled earlier in the year that it was coming and, with nothing much else to do right now, Donald Trump made it official on Friday: Federal employees (non-soldiers division) will receive no raise in 2019. The President nonetheless promised that, "[this] will not materially affect our ability to attract and retain a well-qualified Federal workforce."

Exactly how Trump knows that, given that he's barely able to staff his own administration, is an excellent question. In any case, nearly a million federal employees will now endure the double whammy of delayed/missing paychecks in January, and then no raise in February. Politically, Trump is doubling down on his belief, stated just two days ago on Twitter, that most federal employees are Democrats (and, therefore, worthless since they won't ever vote for him). He's also setting up the not-so-good optics of demanding money for Mexican walls, and finding money for trillion-dollar tax cuts, but doing nothing for the hardworking folks who keep the government running. Interesting priorities. (Z)

North Carolina Election Board Is Disbanded before Certifying the NC-09 Election

The House race in NC-09 is not going to be called for a long time. The Democrats have alleged that a Republican operative, McCrae Dowless, violated election law in multiple ways (for example, by collecting and then destroying absentee ballots in Democratic areas). The election board has been struggling with the race for weeks, but now there is a new wrinkle: The courts have declared the elections board to be unconstitutional and ordered it disbanded before certifying a winner. Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) plans to name an interim board to serve until Jan. 31. Lawsuits are flying in all directions.

However, the North Carolina Republican Party has said it will not name any members to the interim board and will only name them for the new board, which will take over on Feb. 1. If the new board finds that the election was tainted, it could order a new election. In addition, sometime after the House convenes on Jan. 3, it could declare that the seat is vacant, basically forcing a new election no matter what the new board does in February. Already, incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has issued a statement indicating that they won't allow anyone to be sworn in while the investigation is ongoing.

One issue that is still open, to some extent, is whether new primaries are needed or whether the two general election candidates, Mark Harris (R) and Dan McCready (D) can just run again. (V)

House Republicans Conclude Investigation into FBI's Handling of Clinton E-mails

House Judiciary Committee chair Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) and Oversight Committee chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) have completed their (latest) investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, and the FBI's handling thereof. And just in time, since both of those gentlemen are leaving the House in four days. Anyhow, in a shocking turn of events, they found...nothing. It's true that the duo claims their efforts "revealed troubling facts which exacerbated our initial questions and concerns." However, they did not specify what those facts were. Further, they found so little to report on that they did not even produce an actual report. Instead, it was a six-page letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and a few of his colleagues, encouraging them to keep the investigation going (since House Democrats most certainly will not be doing so).

There are, of course, very legitimate uses of the House's investigative powers. However, there is no avoiding the conclusion that this was not among them. Clinton's e-mails and/or the FBI's handling of those e-mails have been investigated six ways to Sunday, and nothing has been found (in particular, nothing criminal). This is why every report/letter the Republicans generate makes use of vague phrases like "troubling facts," but has nothing in the way of specifics. Beyond that, it is worth considering what concrete result might come out of these inquiries. Impeachment of Hillary Clinton and her removal from office? She is a private citizen. Termination of the FBI Director who oversaw the investigation? James Comey has already been fired.

No, the only real purpose of these investigations, particularly the latest one, was to undermine Robert Mueller by drawing a parallel between Clinton's e-mails (a low-level offense, if an offense at all) and Donald Trump's collusion and obstruction and other alleged crimes (potentially massive offenses, if proven). We shall soon see if Senate Republicans decide they would like to keep playing this game, or if they take note of how 60% of Americans want Trump impeached/censured (see above), as well as the fact that the leading advocates of these investigations (Gowdy and Goodlatte) are now out of office, and decide that maybe their time and political capital are best invested elsewhere. (Z)

Democrats Will Have $129 Million Extra to Spend on Staff in January

One of the many things former speaker Newt Gingrich did during his time in office was consolidate power in his office. He did that by taking away staff from the committee chairs. With limited staff, the committees needed the Speaker's help with investigations, letting Gingrich run the show. However, the appropriations bill Donald Trump signed in September, increased funding for House staff by $129 million. Trump probably expected the Republicans to hold the House, so the extra money would come in handy for investigating Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Now it is incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi's money, and no doubt she will give much of it to the committees that are likely to investigate Trump, including Intelligence, Judiciary, and Banking.

In fact, they are already anticipating hiring new staff. The House Judiciary Committee is running a "help wanted" ad looking for lawyers with expertise in criminal law, immigration law, constitutional law, antitrust law, and bankruptcy law, among other areas. House members say they are being flooded with applicants. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who sits on the House Oversight Committee, said of the job hunters: "They are people with law degrees and experience just wanting to be part of this historic moment." Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who will lead the House Intelligence Committee starting next week, said: "We're being deluged with resumes, really impressive resumes. There will be no shortage of good candidates." One danger the Democrats could face though is with whip-smart young lawyers on all the committees, there could be turf wars that backfire on the Democrats. For example, Schiff and incoming chairwoman of the House Banking Committee, Maxine Waters (D-CA), both want to drag the top executives of Deutsche Bank before Congress, and both of their staffs could be writing up subpoenas for their respective bosses to sign, without telling the other team.

While this is about three moves ahead in the virtual chess game going between Mueller and Trump, Politifact has reported that the total cost of the Mueller investigation, including direct and indirect costs, from May 17, 2017, until March 30, 2018, a period of 10.5 months, was $16.7 million. That scales to $19 million per year. If Pelosi is smart, she might hold, say, $20 million in reserve, just in case Trump fires Mueller shortly. In that case, the House could hire his whole team for a year. As a benchmark, the investigation of Bill Clinton by Ken Starr cost $52 million and other investigations of Clinton cost $40 million. So Mueller is a bargain so far. (V)

Putin Seems to Be Favoring the GRU over the FSB

Russia has two spy agencies. The main one is the FSB, the successor to the notorious KGB. The other is the GRU, which is officially a military intelligence agency whose job is supposed to be learning Western military secrets. An investigation by the Washington Post suggests that the GRU has expanded its territory into snuffing out people Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't like, interfering in foreign elections, grabbing Crimea, and more. It is also expanding rapidly, even to the point of teaching cryptography and other spy-oriented classes in high schools, to help interest and then recruit future employees. The GRU is inclined to take much bigger risks than the FSB. Former U.S. Deputy National Intelligence Officer Andrea Kendall-Taylor described the rivalry between the agencies as: "Putin has become more comfortable with risk. The GRU fits his moment." Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence, said: "Historically, the GRU has been Russia's main agency for operating in uncontrolled spaces, which has meant civil wars and the like. In some ways, the Internet is today's uncontrolled space."

The GRU also has a keen interest in psychological warfare and has deployed psychological weapons in various conflicts in the past. Computer hacking is another GRU specialty. In short, given Putin's increasing tolerance for risk and the GRU's fearlessness, we are likely to see plenty of Russian interference in American politics in the coming two years, very likely including the 2020 election. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Dec28 Congress Reconvenes and Nothing Happens
Dec28 Federal Government Advising Its Workers on How to Deal with Creditors
Dec28 Poll: More Blame Trump for Shutdown than Democrats
Dec28 For Trump, Desperation Appears to Be Setting In
Dec28 Two Texas Democrats Are on a Collision Course in 2020
Dec28 How Russian Money Saved Trump
Dec28 MSNBC Tops Fox in the Latest Ratings
Dec27 Trump Finally Visits the Troops
Dec27 Effects of Government Shutdown Slowly Begin to Show Themselves
Dec27 Term Limits on the President Could be Abolished
Dec27 Markets Come Roaring Back
Dec27 Whitaker Falsely Claimed Honor He Never Got
Dec27 California May Lose a Seat in the House
Dec27 Thursday Q&A
Dec26 Trump Promises to Keep the Government Shut Down Until He Gets His Wall
Dec26 Why Immigration Is the Spark that Keeps Shutting Down the Government
Dec26 Another Migrant Child Dies in U.S. Custody
Dec26 Times Looks Into Spurious Claims that Got Trump out of Serving in Vietnam
Dec26 Trump vs. the Supreme Court
Dec26 The Invisible Primary Is in Full Swing
Dec26 Nasty Senate Primary in Arizona Is Also Already Underway
Dec25 Markets Tank and Trump Blames Powell
Dec25 Mnuchin May Get the Blame Next
Dec25 Trump Is Home Alone on Christmas Eve
Dec25 Trump May Have Ruined a Kid's Christmas
Dec25 McCaskill: GOP Senators Believe Trump is Nuts
Dec25 Interesting Facts about the 2018 Election
Dec25 Democrats Toyed Around with Dirty Tricks in Alabama Senate Election
Dec24 Mulvaney: Shutdown Could Stretch into 2019
Dec24 Trump Fires Mattis
Dec24 Syria Withdrawal Is Official
Dec24 What Will 2019 Bring?
Dec24 Americans Don't Want Trump to Pardon His Associates
Dec24 Nonvoters Didn't Vote Because They Don't Like Politics
Dec24 Connie Schultz Will Leave the Carrot Cake in the Fridge
Dec24 Monday Q&A
Dec23 Shutdown Enters Second Day
Dec23 Economy Having a Bad Month
Dec23 Trump Is Thinking about Firing the Fed Chair
Dec23 Syria Withdrawal Began with a Phone Call
Dec23 A Mueller Mystery
Dec23 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Sherrod Brown
Dec22 Government Shuts Down
Dec22 Sanders: All of America Wants the Wall
Dec22 Supreme Court Hands Trump a Defeat
Dec22 Ruth Ginsburg Had Surgery for Lung Cancer
Dec22 Russia Actively Tried to Compromise the Midterms
Dec22 Gallup To Cut Back on Political Polling
Dec22 Bettors Think Trump Will Be Impeached
Dec21 Mattis: I'm Out