Dem 49
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GOP 51
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New polls:  
Dem pickups vs. 2012: (None)
GOP pickups vs. 2012: (None)

Another One Bites the Dust

In a move that has been rumored for more than a month, VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired on Wednesday. In the early days of the Trump administration, Shulkin was largely responsible for most of the (small number of) legislative victories that were recorded, most obviously an expansion of the G.I. Bill for post-9/11 veterans. At the ceremony for the signing of that bill, the Secretary was so thoroughly in Donald Trump's good graces that the President declared Shulkin would never hear the words "you're fired." However, he has since fallen from favor due to shady travel expenses, as well as a belief among conservatives that the Secretary was not moving fast enough to privatize the VA system. And so, following a months-long power struggle, Shulkin is gone, despite the fact that he's still well-liked by the members of Congress and by veterans' groups.

Replacing him, barring any confirmation issues, will be the President's private physician, Rear Admiral Dr. Ronny L. Jackson. This is not a big surprise; as someone who managed to avoid military service, Trump doesn't know too many actual veterans, and he was very pleased at the glowing bill of health that Jackson delivered back in January. Whether there was some sort of quid pro quo—clean bill of health for Cabinet slot—is something that only two men know for sure, and neither one of them is talking. But that doesn't mean that people aren't whispering about it.

Now the question is whether any other heads will roll in the immediate future. On one hand, Chief of Staff John Kelly and his assistants were reportedly preparing a memo last week announcing multiple departures at the same time, so as to reduce the damage done to the administration. Then they got caught by surprise when Trump went off prematurely and sacked NSA Herbert McMaster. If this narrative is correct, then it would seem to suggest that any other terminations would also have been announced on Tuesday, since Shulkin's ouster was definitely not a surprise. On the other hand, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on March 13, then Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe on March 17, then McMaster on March 22, then Shulkin yesterday. Those are gaps of 4 days, then 5, then 6. This is not to suggest that there's a secret pattern, and someone else's head will roll in 7 days, then 8, then 9. However, it does make it look like Trump is firing a person, deciding he's not quite happy, then firing another, and so forth. And there have been a lot of rumors about HUD Secretary Ben Carson, AG Jeff Sessions, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in particular. What it boils down to is that anything is possible, and nobody knows for sure what might happen tomorrow or next week—not even the President. (Z)

Mueller Plays Another Card from His Hand

This is complicated, and has a heavy cloak-and-dagger element to it, so bear with us. London attorney Alex van der Zwaan is about to be sentenced, having pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with deputy Trump campaign manager Rick Gates and also with a shadowy figure identified in court documents as "Person A." On Tuesday, special counsel Robert Mueller filed paperwork related to van der Zwaan's sentencing that included this paragraph:

Fourth, the lies and withholding of documents were material to the Special Counsel's Office's investigation. That Gates and Person A were directly communicating in September and October 2016 was pertinent to the investigation. Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agents assisting the Special Counsel's Office assess that Person A has ties to Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016. During his first interview with the Special Counsel's Office, van der Zwaan admitted that he knew of that connection, stating that Gates told him Person A was a former Russian Intelligence Officer with GRU.

"Person A" is widely understood to be Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukraine-based lobbyist who did work for Gates and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Much of what is alleged in this paragraph—in particular, that Gates (and, by extension, Manafort) had ties to a Russian intelligence officer—has already appeared in other Mueller filings. The new addition here is the revelation that those ties remained active throughout 2016—that is, while the presidential campaign was underway.

Now, it's possible this is not as damning as it seems. It is not yet known exactly how connected to GRU Kilimnik still was in 2016—was he an active officer, or a retiree? Further, while it is clear that Gates knew about Kilimnik's past, it is not yet fully established that Manafort knew. Finally, there is currently no direct evidence (at least none that's been made public) that Kilimnik served as a conduit between GRU and members of the Trump campaign. Mueller's filing merely raises the possibility.

The big question, at least for now, is why Mueller added this wrinkle to his filings. Two obvious explanations present themselves (though only he and his team know for sure, of course). The first is that Mueller realizes which way the winds are blowing (see below) and wants to lay some Russia-related cards on the table, so as to make it harder for him to be fired. The second is that he's trying to amp up the pressure on Manafort who, unlike Gates, has not yet turned state's evidence. These two theories are not mutually exclusive, so it could well be that both are correct. (Z)

Trump's Allies Are Starting a Campaign against Mueller

A source has told Politico that Donald Trump's allies are about to begin a campaign to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller by digging up incidents that occurred when he was FBI director and presenting them in such a way as to cast a shadow on his judgment. Some items on the agenda are whether Mueller once covered up dealings with Mafia kingpin Whitey Bulger, his handling of anthrax attacks on government officials in 2001, his testimony to Congress that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and anything else the oppo researchers can find.

The idea, of course, is to drive up his negatives with the public so that when most people don't trust him, Trump can fire him without too much blowback. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon put it this way: "I think President Trump is going to war." (V)

Judge Allows Emoluments Case to Go Forward

Article 1 of the Constitution forbids any federal official from taking presents or emoluments from any king, prince, or foreign state. This is a bit of a dark corner of the Constitution, with very few court rulings on what it actually means. One of the reasons there is so little jurisprudence in this area is that to bring a case on the issue, the plaintiff would need standing to sue. If, say, the King of Morocco gave the president a nice camel, this might be an unconstitutional present, even if he gave it to the National Zoo, but to sue, someone would have to demonstrate that he or she was (financially) damaged by the camel. Such a case may now be at hand.

The attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C. have sued Donald Trump on the grounds that business from foreign embassies that would otherwise have gone to hotels in Maryland or D.C. has gone to Trump International Hotel simply to curry favor with him. For example, the Kuwaiti Embassy has long held a big bash to celebrate its independence day. In the past it was at the Four Seasons Hotel. After Trump became president, the embassy relocated the party to Trump International. It is things like this that convinced Judge Peter Messitte of the U.S. District Court in Maryland to rule that the attorneys general have standing to sue on behalf of hotels that have suffered possible financial damage on account of foreign states diverting business to Trump properties.

Messitte's ruling is certain to be appealed. If it is sustained, the attorneys general will subpoena documents from the Trump Organization to determine how much money the Trump International Hotel has taken from foreign governments.

Trump's attorneys will argue on appeal that the emoluments clause applies only when a foreign government gives a federal official an outright gift, not when it does business with that person at fair market value. Given how uncertain this area of the law is, the matter is likely to end up in the Supreme Court. (V)

Appeals Court Orders Wisconsin to Hold Elections for Vacant State Legislature Seats

Two seats opened up in the Wisconsin state legislature when two Republicans resigned to take jobs in the administration of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. In theory, Walker is supposed to call special elections to fill the seats, but he has refused. Last week a state judge, Josann Reynolds, ordered Walker to hold the elections. Walker's response was to ask for a delay of a week before calling them. His plan was to use the week to ram a new law through a special session of the Republican-controlled legislature making the elections unnecessary. In a sense, he has a point. Since the legislature has adjourned for the year, newly elected legislators would have nothing to do, although they could run in November as incumbents.

Now the Wisconsin Court of Appeals has ordered Walker to hold the elections, despite the adjournment. Walker argued that it would be a waste of taxpayer money to hold elections, but the appeals court shot that down saying holding elections required by law is never a waste of taxpayer money.

The reason that Walker doesn't want to hold the elections, one for the state senate and one for the state assembly, has nothing to do with saving money. It has everything to do with saving face. In January, Democrat Patty Schachtner won a special election in Wisconsin SD-10 by 9 points, even though the previous incumbent, Republican Sheila Harsdorf, won in 2016 with 63% of the vote. Walker is clearly afraid that if two more special elections are held, Democrats will win both and give the blue team more to cheer about. (V)

Stormy Daniels' Lawyer Wants to Depose Trump

While Donald Trump's affair with porn star Stormy Daniels is a bit of a sideshow to all the drama going on in D.C. (Mueller, officials being fired, North Korea, etc.), it could have a major effect as Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has asked the judge for permission to depose Trump for 2 hours. If the judge agrees, Avenatti can ask Trump what he knew about the $130,000 payment to his client. If Trump admits that he met her, he will be confessing that he has been lying about her all along. If he denies knowing her, and Daniels has proof that they met, such as photos or video footage, he would be committing perjury. If the Democrats capture the House in November, they could impeach him for perjury, just as the Republicans did to Bill Clinton. David Schwartz, the spokesman for Michael Cohen, who paid Daniels the $130,000 out of his own pocket, said the request was frivolous and asked the judge to deny it. (V)

Former Disney Star to Work in the White House

It's official: The Trump administration is a Mickey Mouse operation. Well, in a manner of speaking, at least. 22-year-old former child star Caroline Sunshine, best known for the four years she spent on the Disney Channel show "Shake It Up," has joined the White House press office. Given her past career, she definitely looks good on TV, which is a major plus for anyone wanting to work for Donald Trump. She also has over 500,000 Twitter followers, which is another selling point, because it's a lot, but it's also less than Trump has.

Meanwhile, we are getting closer and closer to the day when Diamond and Silk are hired by Trump. Reportedly, the President loves their loyalty, their charisma, and their enthusiasm for him. It is unclear, however, if he has seen the rather cringeworthy clip that first launched them to fame—"Trump's Yo' President":

This might well be the worst rap song ever recorded, which is saying something in a world that has had the career of Vanilla Ice inflicted upon it. Given that Trump reportedly came close to rejecting John Bolton because of his mustache, a clip like this one could be a dealbreaker. On the other hand, if Ben Carson does get shown the door (see above), it is well within the realm of possibility Trump could decide that employing Diamond and Silk is the best way to keep his administration "diverse." (Z)

Joe Arpaio, One-Trick Pony

Joe Arpaio, formerly sheriff of Maricopa County, is running for the seat that Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is vacating. Perhaps you had forgotten. If so, that would be understandable. Certainly, judging from the size of the crowd at his latest campaign event, he doesn't seem to be attracting a lot of interest:

Arpaio appears at ASU

By our count, it appears that there are 13 people in attendance, at least two of whom are falling asleep.

In any case, Arpaio has very little momentum, is getting very little publicity, has raised very little money, and the Arizona primary is just five months away (August 28). In an obvious state of desperation, he has turned to his one tried and true technique for stealing some headlines: Squawking about Barack Obama's birth certificate. He insists that he's got ironclad proof that it's fake, which he got from...Italy, naturally. And he says that if he is elected to the Senate, he will get to the bottom of this matter once and for all.

Of course, this raises a number of questions. First, why must this "proof"—which Arpaio has been claiming that he has for five years now—remain a state secret? If you've got it, Joe, then flaunt it. Second, what exactly would the purpose of "solving" this matter be at this point? Even if Barack Obama was not legally entitled to serve as president, he's out of office. Unless the would-be senator has invented a time machine, the point is moot. Third, and finally: Italy? Seriously? Is that where faux Americans from Kenya go for their phony citizenship papers?

When Arpaio launched his Senate bid, it was a longshot at best, given that even the Arizonans don't much care for him any more. Now, it is 100% clear that he's in the last few months of his career as a public figure, and once the end of August rolls around, he'll be retired for good. Maybe he and Roy Moore can take a vacation together, and reminisce about the old days of acting like they were above the law. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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