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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Feds Monitored Michael Cohen's Phones
      •  Trump Tries to Quell the Storm(y)
      •  Giuliani Revelation Blindsided Trump's Legal Team
      •  Lessons Emmet Flood Could Try to Teach Trump
      •  How Long Will Sanders Last?
      •  California Gubernatorial Race Casts a Long Shadow
      •  House Chaplain Unresigns, Dares Ryan to Fire Him

Feds Monitored Michael Cohen's Phones

On Thursday afternoon, NBC News reported that the feds had wiretapped Michael Cohen's phones in the lead-up to the raid on his offices. If that had been true, it would have been pretty big news for two reasons. First, judges generally don't approve wiretaps unless there is substantial evidence of an ongoing crime. Second, it would mean that if Cohen said anything incriminating in the weeks leading up to the raid—and surely he knows if he did or not—then he would be up the river without a paddle. So, the alleged wiretapping would be bad news times two for Cohen.

Late in the day on Thursday, however, NBC News corrected its report, and said that what the feds were actually doing was running a pen register. That's a somewhat lesser version of a wiretap, where only the incoming and outgoing phone numbers are recorded, and not the calls themselves. It remains the case that the feds (probably, but not definitely, the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York) got a federal judge to approve a warrant for the register, which means there was some evidence of ongoing criminal behavior. It also remains the case that the feds know more than Cohen would like them to know. Given the...unusual nature of his "practice," a list of whom he was calling could be instructive in many different ways. However, the late correction to the story has definitely given NBC a black eye, and it also means the doo-doo isn't quite as deep as it appeared just hours earlier. Although when one's offices are raided and one's computers are seized the doo-doo is, pretty much by definition, already pretty deep.

NBC didn't report who gave them the initial information, but a more interesting question is why someone who had that information leaked it. It is possible that the leak was a way of letting Cohen know that in addition to the feds having his computer, they also know who he's been talking to. What if he has clients that he did not acknowledge in court on the day of the Sean Hannity revelation? That's perjury. Or, what if he has been chatting with other presidential paramours? Russians close to Putin? Turkish money laundering operations? And even if Cohen was only calling his cleaning lady and his kids, there's still all the other stuff the FBI has. What it amounts to is that the implied message of the leak is: "We know whatever there is to know, we're going to question you under oath sooner or later, and if you lie, we have enough dirt to put you away for perjury for decades, so don't even think about lying." It could also simply be a way to ratchet up the pressure on Cohen to get him to flip and spill a mountain of beans on many people close to Trump, including Trump himself.

Also relevant to Cohen's mounting problems is a tweet from George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway and also Paula Jones' lawyer in the Clinton v. Jones case. Conway believes that if Cohen fronted money to pay Daniels and was later reimbursed by Trump (as Rudy Giuliani announced on Wednesday), then effectively he lent money to Trump for however long it took to be reimbursed, and loaning money to a candidate for the purpose of influencing an election and not reporting it is a federal crime. This is not the first time Conway has tweeted something problematical for Trump. He and Kellyanne must have interesting pillow talk.

Conway isn't the only lawyer to make this observation, either. In fact, just about every media outlet had a legal expert or two on Thursday who said the same thing. CNN, for example, talked to Larry Noble of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which is focused on electoral integrity. He said that it certainly looks like an in-kind contribution to the campaign by Cohen, and one that everyone tried to cover up. He also said that the circumstances of the payment, and the attempts to hide it, could very well move things from "fine and a slap on the wrist" territory to "felony prosecution" territory. Noble's overall conclusion:

The chance that someone in Trump's orbit broke some sort of campaign finance law in this Stormy Daniels situation is very high and reflective of a culture that puts the immediate interests of the candidate above compliance with the law. From the beginning, the Daniels matter has been about protecting the campaign from damaging information. Not only is it likely the original transaction was illegal, but their actions and statements after it came out have shown an intent to continue to do or say whatever is necessary to protect the candidate.

It's really a dual problem, then: Team Trump only thinks in the short-term, and the President thinks only of himself. In many cases, that hasn't harmed the Donald (though it may have harmed the country). But in this case (and in a few other ongoing legal entanglements), it's looking more and more like that philosophy is going to come back to bite Trump in the rear end. (V & Z)

Trump Tries to Quell the Storm(y)

Yesterday "Donald Trump" sent out three tweets in an attempt to do some damage control in the wake of Rudy Giuliani's admission that he was the source of Daniels' $130,000. He did it by firing off these tweets yesterday:

We put "Donald Trump" in quotes above because from the grammar and wording of the tweets, it is clear as day that the President didn't compose those tweets. They were clearly written by one of his lawyers. Trump's own tweets are nothing like those. It is a safe bet that the lawyers are worried about Giuliani's admission because if it can be shown that the hush money was intended to affect the election, then Trump's failure to report it as a contribution of his own money means that he, personally, violated federal law.

The damage control is not likely to work. There are too many moving parts and contradictions here. At the very least, Trump lied earlier when he was asked if he supplied the $130,000 and he said "no." Also of note is that according to reports, Trump didn't reimburse Cohen all at once, but in installments of $35,000 or so. If Trump is really worth $10 billion, as he claims, could he not manage to scrape up $130,000 to make a single payment? More likely, he made multiple payments to disguise why he was making them, and that could possibly expose him to charges of bank fraud and/or wire fraud.

One person who thinks the damage control is not going to work is Michael Avenatti, Daniels' lawyer. He told the hosts of "Morning Joe" yesterday: "This is not going to end well. This president will not serve out this term. These guys are making it up as they go along." Avenatti is practically drooling at the possibility that he will be able to depose Trump under oath in conjunction with Daniels' case. (V)

Giuliani Revelation Blindsided Trump's Legal Team

Recently, we've made a couple of observations about Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The first is that, having joined Team Trump, he would be looking to make a splash as "the new sheriff in town." The second is that Wednesday's revelation that Trump did indeed pay Michael Cohen back, and that the President would be making the (dubious) argument that it wasn't an illegal contribution, came awfully soon after the hiring of the newly-renovated legal team. Too soon for them to have properly researched and considered this dramatic change in strategy.

In view of these two things, what we learned on Thursday is not surprising: Giuliani and Trump apparently cooked this up all by themselves, with no involvement from the rest of the legal team. The other members were, according to sources within the administration, "blindsided." One person who spoke to CNN likened it to a football team where every player is calling his own plays, regardless of what the other players are doing.

Giuliani is something of a Trump whisperer, so it's not too surprising he was able to talk the President into doing things his way. But Trump, for his part, seems to have made a very foolish choice. The new revelation was front page news for every outlet, even the right-wing ones, and there appears to be a universal consensus that the President's position just got much, much worse. In fact, things have worked out in such a way that it's not Trump or Cohen who might be in trouble, it's now likely to be Trump and Cohen. The first rule of throwing someone under the bus is: "Don't accidentally get sucked under the bus yourself." And if Trump was going to put all of his eggs in one attorney's basket, he really should have chosen Emmet Flood, who actually has some relevant expertise here (more below). Instead, the President chose to put himself in the hands of an attorney who has no particular expertise in the area of campaign finance, has largely been out of practice for the last three decades, and who was not a defense attorney even when he was in practice. No wonder the more competent lawyers keep quitting; this sort of thing is surely both infuriating and highly demoralizing. (Z)

Lessons Emmet Flood Could Try to Teach Trump

Donald Trump's new lawyer, Emmet Flood, advised Bill Clinton during his impeachment process. He can give Trump some good advice now because if the Democrats capture the House, the President could possibly be impeached. CNN has made up a list of items Flood could tell Trump, as follows:

  • Get your story straight and memorize it because you are going to be cross examined on it
  • Don't try to be too clever by half; it didn't work for Clinton and he is much smarter than you
  • Forbid cameras while testifying because if you seem evasive, people will think you are lying
  • Accept the fact that Hillary got more votes than you and stop lying about it
  • Don't blink even when it gets rough

Flood's problem is that Trump simply doesn't take advice from much of anyone, least of all from the hired help. He also can't control himself, and once he is questioned under oath by a skilled lawyer, be that Michael Avenatti or Robert Mueller, he is probably going to say things he shouldn't, no matter how much he has been coached not to. Flood has the toughest assignment of his life here. And now that it's clear that Rudy Giuliani is the one in the driver's seat here, the assignment may be impossible. It would not be too much of a surprise if Flood decides to exit the S.S. Trump sooner rather than later. (V)

How Long Will Sanders Last?

Emmet Flood (see above) is just now learning that you need sensible shoes when you join Team Trump, because you're regularly going to get the rug pulled out from under you. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by contrast, has been getting that treatment for nearly a year. She goes before the press, and peddles whatever she's been told to peddle, only to have the President flip the script within days, or hours, or even minutes. Then, the next day she has to go out there again and explain to the press corps that I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

The recent Michael Cohen revelations are the latest case of this. Sanders has, time after time, insisted that Donald Trump knew nothing about the $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. Now that it turns out that's untrue, she had to pay the piper on Thursday. The Press Secretary tried to use a few of her go-to lines, like "We give the very best information that we have at the time." But the reporters came armed with their pitchforks, and would have none of it. ABC's Jonathan Karl, who has previously been pretty restrained in his questioning, asked about the administration's "blatant disregard for the truth." CNN political director David Chalian was also present; he appeared on the air shortly after Thursday's press conference and said, "Circle May 3 on your calendar, because this is the day that we will look back on, in this briefing, where Sarah Sanders made it so painfully clear that she has lost credibility with the American people, with the reporters in that room." Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) was also on CNN, and since he's retiring from politics, he has nothing to lose. So, he made the obvious observation: "I guess at some point you have to ask the question: 'How does Sarah Huckabee Sanders go to work every day if she was sent out there to mislead the American people?'"

There are really two issues here. The first is that while it's undoubtedly glamorous and exciting to be White House Press Secretary, it's a hard job under the best of circumstances, and is doubly or triply so under this president. Sanders can't enjoy going out there, ending up with egg on her face nearly every day, and then being ripped to shreds by the commentariat (and the occasional stand-up comedian).

The second issue is that if Sanders really has zero credibility, she's not a whole lot of use to the administration. What did Sean Spicer in was that he was a godawful liar/spin doctor, such that he did nothing to advance the administration's messaging, while at the same time turning into an object of scorn and derision (particularly at the hands of Melissa McCarthy on "Saturday Night Live"). Sanders appears to be getting close to that point; any reporters who taks what she says at face value could find themselves looking for a new line of work. And she too is now getting hit on "Saturday Night Live" (at the hands of Aidy Bryant). Clearly, Sanders is better at the job than Spicer was—admittedly, a very low bar—but it's reasonable to suggest that the end of the line might be near. (Z)

California Gubernatorial Race Casts a Long Shadow

Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) is going to complete his fourth and final term in January and the battle to succeed him has national implications in at least three ways:

  • House races: Some years ago, California adopted Louisiana's jungle system, in which the top two finishers in a nonpartisan primary battle it out in November, irrespective of their party. According to current polling, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson (D-CA) is going to come in first, but there is a battle for the second slot. If it is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, then the November gubernatorial ballot will feature two Democrats. Faced with a choice of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, many Republican voters might decide to stay home. Their absence could doom as many as seven Republican House incumbents, so Republicans are praying that one of the Republicans running for governor comes in second.

  • Model for blue-state Republicans: The various Republicans running for governor (and senator) are trying different strategies with respect to their attitude about Donald Trump. The primary could show the way for other blue-state Republicans. If rejecting Trump big time proves to be a winner, other blue-state Republicans may try it. Conversely, if it doesn't work, others elsewhere are unlikely to try it. For Republicans in blue states, how to handle Trump is crucial and California is a big testing ground.

  • Test case for progressive policies: If Newsom wins the governor's mansion and Democrats maintain their huge majorities in both the Assembly and Senate, California may embark on a progressive experiment. Newsom is by far the most progressive of the candidates, and is more so than Brown. Early next year, California could veer sharply to the left on issues like "Medicare for all," universal preschool, infrastructure, marijuana, and a lot more. California, after all, is bigger than most countries and has the world's sixth largest economy, exceeded only by the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, and the U.K. If the experiment succeeds, it could point the way to the future, especially since Kansas' experiment with moving sharply to the right was a dismal failure.

California often leads the country in many ways, and soon it may get another shot at it. The primary is on June 5. (V)

House Chaplain Unresigns, Dares Ryan to Fire Him

House Chaplain Rev. Patrick Conroy has informed Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) that he is rescinding his letter of resignation and intends to serve out his term unless Ryan formally fires him for cause. The reason he was asked to resign is contested. While the tax bill was being considered in the House, Conroy once prayed that the members would adopt a bill that would help all Americans. Ryan didn't like this and told Conroy to cut out the politics. Conroy also said that Ryan's chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, the person who actually demanded the letter of resignation, said something to the effect of "maybe it's time that we had a Chaplain that wasn't Catholic."

This whole affair has political, as well as theological, undertones. It was expected that once Conroy was out of the way, Ryan could install an evangelical Protestant as chaplain, thus throwing a bone to the many evangelicals in the House, even though Ryan himself is Catholic. Catholics skew somewhat Democratic, so replacing a Jesuit priest by an evangelical pastor could be seen as a subtle message of "Our God is more important than your God."

The next move is Ryan's. He could fire Conroy, but that would likely lead to a firestorm and bad publicity. So, the Speaker he might just let Conroy stay and pray for poor people if he must. After all, the Almighty didn't hack the House computer and change the tax bill at the last moment to help the poor, so apparently Conroy isn't terribly effective. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May03 More Turnover on Trump's Legal Team
May03 Giuliani: Trump Repaid the $130,000 to Cohen
May03 Caputo Has Some Scary Words for Trump
May03 Trump Claims Absolute Immunity in Emoluments Lawsuit
May03 Pruitt Under Review--Times 10
May03 West Virginia Senate Candidate Uses Fake Photo in Ad
May03 Corker's Distaste for Blackburn Could Hand the Democrats a Senate Seat
May03 Democrats Win a Bellwether Race in Florida
May02 Trump May Not Understand His Legal Jeopardy
May02 Things Are Tense Between Team Trump and Team Mueller
May02 Rosenstein: I Won't Be Intimidated
May02 Bornstein Turns on Trump
May02 This Week in Scott Pruitt Corruption
May02 Rubio: Workers Get Little Benefit from Tax Law
May02 No Tax Cut? GOP May Run on Impeachment
May02 Outsider Upends Indiana Senate Primary
May02 Trump Has Told over 3,000 Lies While in Office
May01 New York Times Has Mueller's Questions for Trump
May01 Trump's Campaign Has Paid Michael Cohen's Legal Fees
May01 White House Staff Not in Agreement About Trump's Intelligence
May01 Trump Was Warned about Jackson
May01 Lawsuits Piling Up at a Furious Pace
May01 Richard Painter Will Challenge Tina Smith for Al Franken's Old Senate Seat
May01 Ideological Warfare Erupts in Republican Special Election Primary in Ohio
May01 Millennials Are Moving Away from the Democrats
Apr30 Congressional Leaders Are Worried about Trump's Impact on the Midterms
Apr30 Democrats May Make a Play for Rural Districts
Apr30 Jackson Likely Won't Get His Old Job Back
Apr30 More Fallout From Wolf's Performance at Correspondents' Dinner
Apr30 Trump to Speak at NRA Convention
Apr30 Tenuous Financial Situation May Force Cohen's Hand
Apr30 Harris Running the Dean-Obama-Sanders Playbook
Apr29 Trump Rallies; Correspondents Dine
Apr29 Progress in Korean Talks
Apr29 When it Comes to Trump Interview, the Ball Is in Mueller's Court
Apr29 Pence to Tour "Wall Construction"
Apr29 Trump's EPA May Roll Back Fuel Efficiency Standards
Apr29 Trump Vote Prompted by Cultural, Not Economic, Issues
Apr29 Senate Polls Mostly Coming Up Roses for Democrats
Apr28 Natalia Veselnitskaya Has Worked with Russia's Top Prosecutor
Apr28 House Intelligence Committee Issues a Report on Russiagate
Apr28 Judge Throws Out Manafort's Civil Suit
Apr28 Ryan Fires House Chaplain
Apr28 Montana Senate Race Heats Up
Apr28 Some Republicans Stock Up on Red Meat
Apr28 Meehan Resigns from Congress Immediately
Apr28 Texas Voter ID Law Is Back On
Apr27 Judge Kimba Wood Appoints a Special Master in the Michael Cohen Case
Apr27 Pompeo Confirmed
Apr27 Senate Judiciary Committee Passes a Bill to Protect Mueller