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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part I)
      •  Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part II)
      •  Strzok Battles with GOP Members of the House
      •  Spicer: Manafort Was a Key Player
      •  Dershowitz: SCOTUS Could Overturn Impeachment
      •  Trump Claims to Be More Popular than Lincoln
      •  Another Chapter Added to Stormygate Saga

Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part I)

Donald Trump met with the other leaders of NATO this week. When he left the U.S., the President promised his base that the U.S. wasn't going to be taken advantage of any more, and that all those other goldbrickers were going to start paying their fair share of the costs of running NATO. And, now that the meetup is over, did he secure a "win"? The depends on who you ask.

There appears to be little question that Trump conducted himself in a manner that was rather...different from any past president. He showed up late for meetings, ignored the issues that the other nations wanted to discuss, and demanded an emergency discussion of NATO spending. The word "chaos" has been deployed liberally to describe the proceedings. Whether Trump's behavior is a bug or a feature presumably depends on one's perspective.

Another issue that (apparently) depends on one's perspective: Did Trump get what he wanted? At a press conference on Thursday, the President announced that he was indeed successful, and that the other members of NATO had agreed to increase their spending. And then France's Emmanuel Macron announced that no, in fact, they had not made any such commitment. Other NATO leaders, including Germany's Angela Merkel and the organization's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, backed Macron's version of events. Further, Trump made other claims, like that other NATO members "owe" the U.S. for past underpayments, that are demonstrably false. So, it would certainly appear that the President is lying.

When it comes to domestic politics, of course, Trump has made lying a frequent habit. Clearly, that now extends to his foreign policy, where he is peddling a version of events, and presumably hoping that the base buys it. In case there was any doubt on that point, Trump was right back at it later in the day, tweeting about North Korea:

The Donald's claims of "great progress" do not square with any other report of what's happening between the U.S. and North Korea, including Wednesday's news that the most recent trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a disaster.

When it comes to foreign affairs, there is much temptation for a president to spin things aggressively, to the point of creating their own alternate reality. Trump is far from the first to engage in a tradition that dates back at least as far as the United States' emergence as a world power. TR and the Panama Canal, Woodrow Wilson and American "neutrality" before World War I, LBJ and the Vietnam War, Ronald Reagan and the Contras, George W. Bush and weapons of mass destruction—all of these situations involved a fair bit of...inventiveness from the presidents involved.

The problem for Trump is this: Each of the latter three gentlemen eventually got caught in their lies. And the reason that the did (in contrast to TR or Wilson) is that they lived in an era in which the president was no longer the American public's main (or only) source of information about foreign affairs. How long Trump can keep his fantasies going is anyone's guess, particularly given that his lies are particularly frequent and particularly egregious, and that they often involve allies (as opposed to enemy leaders whose contrary responses are more easily dismissed). However long people buy what Trump is selling, the events of the past half-century suggest that the walls are eventually going to come crashing down. (Z)

Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part II)

In case Donald Trump didn't make enough foreign policy news on Thursday with his falsehoods about NATO and North Korea, he also shared a few thoughts about the remaining stops on his trip that really had people talking, and not in a good way.

Currently, he is in the U.K., and as part of that swing of his tour, he gave an interview to The Sun that was full of vitriol. Trump said he felt "unwelcome" in London, blasted that city's mayor Sadiq Khan for doing a "terrible job," expressed his low regard for PM Theresa May and her handling of he Brexit, and said that populist firebrand Boris Johnson would make a good PM (presumably better than May).

The President's remarks about May stood in stark contrast to what he had to say about Vladimir Putin, just hours after The Sun interview was published. Asked by a reporter about what would happen if the Russian leader (once again) denied involvement in the 2016 elections, Trump said:

I mean, look, he may. You know, what am I going to do if—he may deny it. I mean, it's one of those things. So all I can do is say, "Did you?" and "Don't do it again."

In other words, when it comes to the United States' closest friends, Trump is willing to threaten, and manipulate, and denounce, and lie and to do whatever else it takes to achieve his ends. With America's enemies, by contrast, Trump says his hands are tied. This is an approach to foreign policy that is, to say the least, unusual.

Later in the interview, Trump expounded on his relationship with Putin, effectively (and probably inadvertently) revealing the thinking that underlies his approach to diplomacy:

Somebody was saying, is he an enemy? He's not my enemy. Is he a friend? No, I don't know him well enough. But the couple of times I've gotten to meet him, we get along very well.

I hope we get along well. I think we get along well. But ultimately, he's a competitor. He's representing Russia. I'm representing the United States. So, in a sense, we're competitors. Not a question of friend or enemy. He's not my enemy. And, hopefully, someday, maybe he'll be a friend. But I just don't know him very well. I've met him a couple of times.

In short, Trump defines his relationship with other world leaders in entirely personal terms. He doesn't particularly care if Russia and the U.S. get along; what is most meaningful to him is that he and Putin get along. And, as the Washington Post's Philip Bump points out, a hostile totalitarian like Putin or Kim Jong-Un has nothing to lose in playing to Trump's love of flattery and glad-handing. On the other hand, an Angela Merkel or a Theresa May or an Emmanuel Macron doesn't do that; their philosophy and their domestic political environment and their foreign policy all demand that they treat the President as an equal and a partner, not as an emperor whose ring must be kissed. Of course, you can't teach a 72-year-old dog new tricks, and so there is zero chance that Trump is going to change. Which means that it's going to be at least two more years of America's friends being treated like enemies and her enemies being treated like friends. (Z)

Strzok Battles with GOP Members of the House

FBI agent Peter Strzok was one of the investigators who looked into the Trump-Russia connection during the 2016 election, and who worked for Special Counsel Robert Mueller thereafter. Then, some personal text messages critical of Trump—sent to Strzok's paramour and colleague Lisa Page—came to light. Though there is no direct evidence of professional impropriety on the part of either Strzok or Page, Mueller runs a tight ship, and its integrity was compromised. So, Page and Strzok were kicked off of the Special Counsel's team.

Donald Trump, of course, has a some supporters in Congress that would love nothing more than to undermine Mueller's investigation. However, precisely because Mueller—as a former director of the FBI—runs such a tight ship, there aren't too many angles of attack. Strzok and Page represent the only real opportunity available at the moment, with the added benefits that: (1) They were caught red-handed sending those anti-Trump texts, and (2) Their extramarital affair adds a salacious element to the matter (even if that fact is actually irrelevant to the investigation).

Now before we proceed, it should be noted that Strzok's (and Page's) bad behavior is potentially worthy of getting a look-see. But when the House Judiciary Committee hauled him in to testify on Thursday, it was abundantly clear that the real purpose of the hearing was so that the GOP could do a little grandstanding and launch a few salvos in Mueller's direction. First, because the fellow who instigated Strzok's appearance was Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who has turned politically-motivated Congressional investigations into an art form. Second, because there is little more to be learned, since the amount of "evidence" to be examined amounts to less than half a dozen texts. It's not like this is Watergate or the O.J. Simpson case. Third, because Strzok was removed from Mueller's team just about a year ago. In other words, Mueller promptly "fixed" the problem, and has since conducted a year's worth of investigation on which Strzok had no impact.

In case there was any doubt as to the real purpose of Strzok's "testimony," it was quickly put to rest as the GOP members engaged in their lines of questioning. For example, when he was asked to reveal specific details of the FBI's investigation, he refused—quite appropriately—because it is an ongoing investigation and his bosses specifically told him not to share details. Gowdy, however, promptly threatened Strzok with a "contempt of Congress" charge. To take another example, when asked about the now-infamous texts, Strzok said they were personal messages, reflected his disgust with Donald Trump's treatment of Khizr Khan and his family, and that his views did not in any way affect how he did his job. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), one of Trump's loudest supporters in the House, suggested that Strzok had just committed perjury, and then decided to deliver a punch below the belt: "When I see you looking with a little smirk, I wonder how many times did you look so innocently into your wife's eyes and lie to her about Lisa Page."

Those two examples give a pretty good sense of the tone and tenor of the hearing; the Washington Post has more gory details, including video, for those who would like them. Strzok, and the Democrats who tried to defend him, did their best to fight fire with fire. For example, when Gohmert made the crack above, someone on the Democratic side of the gallery shouted that the Congressman had forgotten to take his medications. And Strzok got a few carefully-crafted (and very possibly pre-scripted) thoughts out there for the record. For example:

I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity. I have the utmost respect for Congress's oversight role, but I truly believe that today's hearing is just another victory notch in Putin's belt and another milestone in our enemies' campaign to tear America apart.

Ouch. Gowdy, in particular, was apoplectic about this particular remark.

In any event, the net result of Thursday's hearing was almost certainly a big zero. There are basically three schools of thought when it comes to Mueller's investigation: (1) Trump and/or his team are guilty, and nothing Mueller comes up with going to change my mind about that, (2) Let's wait and see what Mueller comes up with, and reach our conclusions then, and (3) Trump and/or his team are innocent, and nothing Mueller comes up with going to change my mind about that. It is unlikely that any congressional hearing is going to cause anyone to move from one of these camps to another, but particularly not a congressional hearing as clumsy and obvious as this one was. (Z)

Spicer: Manafort Was a Key Player

Donald Trump has, in the past few months, insisted that the now-jailed Paul Manafort was a minor member of his campaign. That includes this tweet (among other statements):

Meanwhile, just over a week ago, Trump sent this tweet:

That certainly implies Trump has read the book, but we all know he actually didn't, since he doesn't read.

And now that Spicer's book is available to reviewers, we know for certain that Trump didn't read it, because it directly contradicts the President's story about Manafort. Here are the exact words of the former press secretary:

Paul brought a much-needed maturity to the Trump campaign when it needed an experienced political professional operative more than anything else. There was no semblance of a campaign structure, just a few, distraught, overworked people constantly barking into their phones. Paul immediately set up and staffed the political and communications operations necessary to take on the Clinton machine.

That is, of course, rather far removed from "with us for a short period of time." Spicer clearly realizes he's treading on thin ice with his former boss, as the book also has a lot of flattery about the President's political skills and unique talents, including a description of him as "a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow." We shall see if Trump actually sees that as a compliment, and whether or not it is enough to calm him when he learns what Spicer had to say about Manafort. Particular if that characterization comes up in, say, Manafort's upcoming trials. (Z)

Dershowitz: SCOTUS Could Overturn Impeachment

Sean Spicer is't the only person peddling a Trump-friendly book right now. Harvard law professor, alleged liberal, and frequent defender of Trump Alan Dershowitz has one too, called The Case Against Impeaching Trump. It's 160 pages, which is pretty slim for any sort of serious analysis. And an examination of the work gives one the impression that if the author were John Smith, and not a well-known Harvard professor, that it would be an e-book.

In any event, there are two claims that Dershowitz makes that are getting particular attention. The first is that Trump cannot be impeached for collusion:

For example, if a candidate asked Putin to get dirt on his opponent by hacking emails, that would be a crime. But merely passing along dirt that has already been obtained would not be. That is true even if the dirt had been obtained illegally through hacking. The person doing the hacking would be guilty of the crime, but the campaign would not be guilty of using the fruits of the hacking, any more than The New York Times and The Washington Post would be guilty of publishing the Pentagon Papers or the materials stolen by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. So, based on what we now know, it would seem clear that Trump could not be charged criminally with colluding with Russia, even if there were evidence that he did so.

Inasmuch as the requirement for impeaching and convicting an officeholder is that they committed "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors," which is (probably deliberately) broad and unspecific, it seems dubious for a lawyer to argue that he knows for certain what is or is not covered by the phrase.

Dershowitz's second claim, and the one that is really making headlines, is that the Supreme Court is entitled to overturn a presidential impeachment and conviction. His argument is that, since collusion is not an actual, impeachable crime, then a removal on that basis would be unconstitutional, and it would be within the Court's rights of judicial review to declare it as such.

Neither V nor Z is a lawyer, much less one with a reputation for having a brilliant legal mind. However, one of us (Z) does have their degree(s) in U.S. history. And Dershowitz's argument is utterly at odds with the historical record. First of all, the Founding Parents decided that the Chief Justice would preside over any impeachment proceeding. It is inconceivable that they—many of them lawyers, and all of them suspicious of concentrating too much power in one person's hands—envisioned a situation where the same person would oversee the initial trial and then the de facto appeal. If they really wanted the Supreme Court to be a "check" against the legislative branch's power to impeach, the Parents would not have made the Chief Justice the presiding officer.

That leads us to a second, and arguably even more ahistorical, element of Dershowitz's argument: His invocation of judicial review. The Founding Parents most certainly did not intend the Supreme Court to review this particular decision that Congress might make because the Parents did not intend for the Court to review any decision that Congress might make. Judicial review is a doctrine created out of whole cloth by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803, more that a decade after the Constitution was written. Dershowitz certainly knows this, as Marbury v.. Madison is basically case #1 that American law students learn about. And so, for him to suggest that there is a clear and inarguable relationship between impeachment (which is in the Constitution) and judicial review (which isn't) is sophistry at best, and dishonest at worst.

It's a little unclear what is motivating Dershowitz's full-throated, ongoing, somewhat dubious defense of Donald Trump, especially since he continues to insist that he's a liberal and that he would be saying the same things about Hillary Clinton. Maybe he enjoys the attention, or maybe his hackles are up and he's feeling cornered, or maybe he just enjoys playing devil's advocate. Or possibly he's padding his retirement fund; Dershowitz has managed to crank out two books about Trump in the last 10 months, and they both went to the top of the bestseller lists. Whatever it might be, there are undoubtedly many members of Trump's base who are delighted at what the good professor has to say. They are likely to be very disappointed, however, if his theories are ever subject to serious scrutiny. (Z)

Trump Claims to Be More Popular than Lincoln

About a year ago, Donald Trump suggested that the ceiling for his presidency was second-best of all time. On that evening, at one of his famous rallies, he declared that only Abraham Lincoln was out of reach. Now, just less than a year later, it would seem that Trump has revised his opinion of himself, and that he now thinks that even the Great Emancipator is catchable. In his interview with The Sun (see above), Trump said, "You know, a poll just came out that I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party. Beating Lincoln. I beat out Honest Abe."

There was at least some confusion as to where Trump came up with this, because there is no recent poll that asked about Trump and Lincoln, particularly one that produced that result. However, a review of Trump's Twitter timeline pretty much resolves the mystery:

The wording here is clumsy, but what the referenced poll actually said is that Trump's approval among Republicans is higher that has been recorded for any other Republican President.

It's unclear if Trump is displaying ignorance, or dishonesty, or both, but let's now rain on his parade a little bit. It's hard to believe that even Trump's base will swallow the claim that he is somehow more beloved than Lincoln, but if they do, it will be because they do not realize that political polling was created roughly 75 years after Lincoln died. So, there's no way to compare Trump's numbers to any Republican before, say, Eisenhower.

That leads us to a second problem. It's actually the case that Trump might very well beat Lincoln if we did have polling numbers from the 1860s. The GOP was still coalescing back then, and was divided into three factions throughout the Civil War, two of them somewhat skeptical of Lincoln. The only time he might have pulled a 90 is in the week or so between the end of the war (April 9, 1865) and his assassination (April 14, 1865). And yet, nobody would argue that Trump is a better president than Old Abe (except, maybe, Trump himself). So, "support among the president's own party" is clearly not a measure of a successful president.

And, finally, issue number three, and the one that is surely most damning. While it is not correct to compare Trump to Lincoln (or U.S. Grant, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, etc.) due to the lack of polling data, it is fair to compare him to post-WW II Republicans, including Ronald Reagan (who topped out in the mid-80s among members of the GOP). It is simply beyond belief that Trump is a more popular president than the Gipper, a man who managed to take 49 of 50 states in 1984. If we grant that supposition, then that leaves us with only one way to explain the discrepancy between Trump's numbers and Reagan's: Those Republicans who do not approve of Trump dislike him so much that instead of saying "I don't approve of Trump" they are saying "I'm not a Republican any more." In other words, the Donald's "success" here is almost certainly a reflection of how unpopular he is with some (now-former) Republicans, rather than of how popular he is with all Republicans. Which, in turn, is more evidence that the GOP is now almost fully the party of Trump, more so than it's ever been the party of any other president. Exactly what they will do when they no longer have Trump is a question that should be keeping RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel up at nights. (Z)

Another Chapter Added to Stormygate Saga

One day, the saga of porn star, stripper, and presidential fling Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford) is going to make a great miniseries (and since Daniels is an actress, she could even play herself in it). The latest news on that front came earlier this week, when Daniels was performing in a strip club, made physical contact with some patrons during her time on stage, and was arrested by one of the (several) police officers who were present.

This story is of dubious significance, but we mention it for two reasons. The first is that this incident is likely to be used by friends of Trump/critics of Daniels to further assail her character. However, what happened here seems fairly evident. As she travels the country cashing in on her 15 minutes of fame, Daniels gave the same basic performance she's been giving at strip clubs across the United States, which included things like rubbing patrons' faces against her breasts. What she (presumably) did not know is that in Ohio, where she was performing on the night of her arrest, strippers are legally not allowed to physically touch patrons. Since the district attorney dropped the charges the next day, it would seem that he agreed that this was an inadvertent error.

The second point worth noting veers in the direction of a conspiracy theory. As noted above, neither V nor Z is a lawyer, and we are most certainly not experts in regional variations in strip club law. However, this Ohio law feels very much like something that was put on the books to please constituents, but that is not generally enforced. Particularly since the whole stripping business model is, to an extent, built around the lap dance (which is where most strippers make most of their money). Add to that the fact that on the night that a politically-controversial performer was on stage, the place was absolutely crawling with undercover police (including several women). In other words, this has all the hallmarks of a setup, perhaps perpetrated by friends of Trump who wanted to give him some ammunition to use against Daniels. There is no evidence of this yet, just supposition, but it's worth keeping in mind. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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