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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Summits with Putin Today
      •  Trump Describes EU as a "Foe"
      •  Gowdy: No Rosenstein Impeachment
      •  Rand Paul "Concerned" About Kavanaugh
      •  California Democrats Turn on Feinstein
      •  An Interesting Wrinkle in Mississippi Senate Races
      •  South Korean Conservatives Burned by Trump

Trump Summits with Putin Today

Today, a little after 6:00 a.m. EDT (1:15 local time), Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin will sit down for their first summit. On one hand, the timing couldn't be better, since the relationship between the two countries is as shaky as it has been since the end of the Cold War, and the two men have much that needs to be discussed. On the other hand, the timing couldn't be worse, since Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian operatives on Friday, and so tensions are unusually high. Trump, for his part, has expressed pessimism about the confab; on Sunday he told CBS News that, "I go in with low expectations. I'm not going with high expectations." That is really something from a person who has made a career out of wildly overpromising and then underdelivering. Anyhow, here are the major storylines heading into the summit:

  • Election Meddling: There is an argument to be made that this is not actually the most important issue before the two leaders, given the life or death nature of some of the other items on the agenda. Nonetheless, it will be the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Every president since the Russian Revolution (that is, Wilson through Obama) would have held Putin's feet to the fire and insisted on answers. Trump, by contrast, does not do confrontation well. And so, not only has he downplayed expectations for the summit in general, he has aggressively downplayed expectations on this point, in particular. Before leaving the U.K., Trump told reporters that, "I don't think you'll have any, 'Gee, I did it. I did it. You got me.' There won't be a Perry Mason here, I don't think, but you never know what happens, right?" (Note, incidentally, that if there was any question about the average age of Trump's base, the reference to a television show that went off the air 52 years ago pretty much tells you what you need to know.) In any event, the great likelihood is that Trump just throws up his arms, and that it will be up to the press corps (which gets a shot at Putin at the joint press conference after the summit) to turn the screws.

    Note that the President does have another option here. He could cancel the summit and insist that no meeting will be held until Putin extradites the 12 accused spies, or at least acknowledges their crimes. There are quite a few people (most of them Democrats) pushing Trump to do just that. However, there are few things he loves more than a high-profile, pomp-laden meeting with a foreign leader. So, even if canceling might be the best move for the U.S., and might even be the best move for him politically, he never seriously considered any option other than sticking with the original plan.

  • Crimea: Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine has served as the backdrop for all U.S.-Russia interactions since it happened in 2014. There is absolutely no chance that Trump exerts any pressure on Putin on this subject. However, there is an outside chance that the President formally recognizes Crimea as Russian territory.

  • Syria: This is arguably the messiest situation in the world right now. The U.S. (and Israel) would very much like the Iranians (who are under Putin's thumb) to pull back from the Syria-Israel border. Russian (and Iran) would very much like the U.S. to pull back from the same area, and to allow Syria to retake control. The whole thing is complicated enough that Putin and Trump will achieve nothing substantive during their relatively brief meeting. However, it is a situation that is ripe for a repeat of what happened with Kim Jong-Un: Putin may make a vague promise or two in exchange for concessions from Trump, and then Trump may seize on Putin's promises and claim eternal victory in Syria.

  • Arms Control: This is the area where Trump could actually score a "win." The latest in a series of nuclear arms control treaties between the U.S. and Russia is the New START agreement, which limits each country to 1,550 warheads. The agreement comes up for renewal in 2021, and could easily be extended right now—the two presidents could make it happen in two minutes. So, what is the holdup? Well, the agreement was negotiated by...wait for it...Barack Obama, and so has been slammed by Trump as "a bad deal." Exactly why it is bad, or what deal would be better has not been addressed.

  • How Will Trump Handle Putin?: Trump, ever the businessman, wants to make his relationship with Putin personal, and hopes they can be buddies (not realizing that Putin is not buddies with anyone, much less the leader of his main enemy). Meanwhile, the circumstances call for a decidedly non-buddylike posture, and if Trump appears too friendly, he is going to get roasted back in the United States, possibly even by some of the right-wing press. Going into the summit, nobody knows how Trump will chart this course—probably not even him.

  • How Will Putin Handle Trump?: In contrast to Trump, who prefers to wing it, Putin is known for his meticulous preparation. You don't get to be a lieutenant colonel in the KGB by just winging it. He has undoubtedly studied Trump's interactions with other leaders, particularly Kim Jong-Un. The Russian President will put that information to use, so one should be leery of any "deals" the two leaders make, whether on Syria or anything else.

In short, the Trump Show never takes a day off, even when it goes on the road. So, brace for something unexpected and/or outrageous. The problem for the star of the program is that Putin is almost certainly the most cagey and the most dangerous adversary that the world has to offer today, and has been playing this game for 40 years. Trump, on the other hand, is still a rank amateur. For every hour of diplomacy he has conducted, Putin has probably got 200 hours under his belt. It's not a fair fight, and we will see exactly how much the Russian takes advantage of, well, his advantages. (Z)

Trump Describes EU as a "Foe"

Speaking of outrageous, Donald Trump apparently feels he needs to have at least one scandal on every day of his European trip, as opposed to just the majority of days. To that end, he appeared on "Face the Nation" on Sunday, and shared this thought:

I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe. Russia is a foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn't mean they're bad. It doesn't mean anything. It means that they are competitive. They want to do well and we want to do well.

When asked why he listed the EU first, Trump failed to answer the question directly, and said, "I look at them all. Look, EU is very difficult. ... In a trade sense, they've really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren't paying their bills(.)"

Needless to say, Twitter users had a field day, with the official account of Merriam-Webster leading the way:

They are being snarky, of course, but the tweet does raise a valid question: Does Trump actually know what that word means? Presumably, he has a general idea, but maybe he thinks it means something more like "competitor," instead of meaning "enemy." Hopefully that is the problem, because otherwise, Trump has just revealed that he not only regards the nations of Europe as enemies, but as worse enemies than China or Russia. (Z)

Gowdy: No Rosenstein Impeachment

Friends of Trump in Congress would desperately like to find, and exploit, any chink in the armor of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Last week, they started focusing like a laser on Mueller's boss, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. Much noise was made about the possibility of removing Rosenstein from office, with articles of impeachment drawn up, possibly to be presented to the members of the House as early as today. On Sunday, however, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC)—the head cheerleader for Team Trump in the House—said that it's not going to happen. Appearing on "Face the Nation," Gowdy asked, "Impeach him for what? No. I'm not convinced there is a movement."

There is a lot of truth in Gowdy's words—much more than is generally the case with him, to be frank. First of all, as we have spent the last 18 months or so being reminded, the bar for impeachment is very, very high. There is no chance that Rosenstein has cleared it. Second, and more importantly, Gowdy and his allies didn't actually care so much about conviction (which they knew was the longest of long shots); they just wanted to generate bad PR for Rosenstein and the Justice Dept. (and, by extension, Mueller). However, it would be terribly embarrassing for the GOP to try to impeach, and to come up dozens of votes short. So, when Gowdy says, "I'm not convinced there is a movement," what he is really saying is, "I talked to Paul Ryan, and he said that the votes aren't there, so this is NEVER coming up for a vote." With Rosenstein off the table (for now, at least), and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page already squeezed for all they are worth, it's back to the drawing board for Gowdy & Co. (Z)

Rand Paul "Concerned" About Kavanaugh

In a revelation that is sure to lift the spirits of liberals everywhere, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who marches to the beat of his own drum, told "Fox & Friends" on Sunday that he is "concerned" about Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. In particular, the Senator is unhappy about the Judge's opinion in Klayman v. Obama, in which he wrote that the bulk collection of both phone and Internet metadata by the government is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Paul strenuously disagrees. "There are 10 rights or 10 amendments listed in the Bill of Rights and the Fourth Amendment is one of them," he said. "So, we're already down one of them, let's see how he does on the other nine."

All of this said, don't put Paul in the "No" column quite yet. Kavanaugh is a shrewd cookie, and will undoubtedly make sure to say the right things when he visits the Senator's office for an interview. Further, Paul often rattles his saber like this, but he doesn't generally back up his words with action. That is to say, there are a large number of times he's made a big show of threatening to withhold his vote, only to fall in line like a good soldier. If he actually does come out as a "no," however, then the pressure on the red-state Democrats to hold ranks is going to increase tenfold. After all, 49 Democrats and Independents plus Paul minus the terminally ill Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) equals a failed nomination. (Z)

California Democrats Turn on Feinstein

At its various meetings this year, the California Democratic Party has been unwilling to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein, her centrism being a bit out of step with the progressive lean of party activists. This weekend, they finally made it official, with the party's executive board endorsing her opponent, California State Senator Kevin de León. That's somewhat embarrassing for a four-term U.S. Senator, but even worse is that the vote was a blowout, with 65% of the ballots going for de León, 28% for "no endorsement," and a mere 7% for Feinstein.

Does this actually mean anything? Probably not. First of all, this little intra-party squabble isn't going to threaten a Democratic-held Senate seat, since the race is between two Democrats due to California's jungle primary system. Nor does it suggest Feinstein herself is in any danger. The folks who show up to party meetings on summer weekends are hardly representative of the rank-and-file voters, most of whom have no idea who Kevin de León is. Polling of the race backs this up; Feinstein consistently has a 20-point lead over her rival. The problem for de León is that California is a very big state, with a lot of very expensive media markets, so it will be hard for him to get his visibility up. A debate against Feinstein would help, which is why he's pushing hard for one, but she's not likely to take the bait. Anyhow, barring something very unexpected, Feinstein is still in the driver's seat for a fifth term. (Z)

An Interesting Wrinkle in Mississippi Senate Races

There are going to be two Senate races in Mississippi this year. In one of them, Sen. Roger Wicker (R) will (presumably) be re-elected. In the other, Mississippi voters will choose a replacement for Thad Cochran (R), who retired earlier this year due to ill health.

Due to a quirk in Mississippi law, the former election will appear on the ballot as normal, including party affiliations. However, the candidates in the special election will be listed by name only. And, as political scientist Alex Garlick points out, that could have a small, but measurable, impact on the results. It will not be a secret during the campaign which candidate belongs to which party but, of course, not everybody pays attention to the campaign before they vote. And evidence shows that folks who merely look for the (R) or the (D) next to a candidate's name, and don't find it, are more likely to cross party lines, or to not vote at all in that race. In a state as red as Mississippi, that could be enough to cost a Republican candidate a few thousand votes relative to his Democratic opponent.

Needless to say, a few thousand votes aren't going to swing an election in a state so red. But, if other factors also work against the GOP candidate—say, he's far right and the Democrat is centrist, and Donald Trump's approval ratings serve to keep GOP turnout down—then the quirky ballot could just become a factor. (Z)

South Korean Conservatives Burned by Trump

Generally speaking, Donald Trump is pretty unpopular in most countries. However, there is also a pro-Trump rump in most places (including the U.K., where several thousand right-wingers marched through London in their MAGA caps—and occasional swastikas—on Sunday). Given the strong feelings that the Donald tends to generate, there is much temptation for right-wing politicians to use him as a rallying point.

In view of the experience of South Korea's largest right-wing party, Liberty Korea, foreign leaders who are thinking about co-opting Trump might think twice. Under the leadership of Hong Joon-pyo, Liberty Korea hitched its wagons to Trump, celebrating his anti-North Korea rhetoric, his attacks on Kim Jong-Un, and his commitment to keeping the DMZ well-staffed with American troops. And then, Trump changed his tune on North Korea, held a kumbayah summit with Kim, and started talking about withdrawing from the DMZ.

Liberty Korea was already in bad shape before Trump came along, but his reversals apparently sealed their fate. In elections last month, the party won only 2 of 17 major seats up for grabs, and took less than one-third of the total vote. Asked about how Trump pulled the rug out from under Liberty Korea, Hong said "I still can't wrap my head around it. I never imagined a U.S. government would help a leftist government in South Korea." Not coincidentally, Hong is now his party's former leader.

Interestingly, younger Korean conservatives say that militarism and hatred of Kim (and other nations) are no longer a suitable platform, and that the way forward is to focus on economic matters. Older Koreans say that they need to stick to their guns, as that is the only way to make South Korea great again. Voters appear to have issued an advisory as to which side is right; we'll see if voters in the U.S. end up reaching a similar conclusion. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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