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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Another Meeting at Trump Tower
      •  Prison Reform Bill Could Pass
      •  Ryan Can't Do His Job Any More
      •  Trump Nominates Robert Wilkie for VA
      •  The 800-Pound Trump in the Corner of the Room
      •  Why Michael Avenatti Is a Big Threat to Donald Trump
      •  Royals Get Married, Trump Becomes Part of the Story

Another Meeting at Trump Tower

At this point, anyone who has been following American politics is aware of the infamous Trump Tower meeting at which the Trump campaign tried (unsuccessfully) to collect dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. On Saturday, the New York Times reported on a similar meeting that took place three months before the election, on Aug. 3, 2016, also at Trump Tower. It involved folks from various Middle Eastern nations who wanted to help Donald Trump win the election. The news is notable because this is the first time it's been publicly known that other countries besides Russia might have mucked around in the 2016 election.

As with the Veselnitskaya confab, Donald Trump Jr. was present for the August meeting. Facilitating the gathering, and also present, was Erik Prince. An American, he is in both the security and finance businesses, and is a longtime GOP donor. Joel Zamel was in attendance; he is an Israeli expert in propagandizing through social media. Rounding out the guest list was George Nader, a Lebanese-American who serves as personal representative for princes in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, and who has ties to prominent Russians, including fund manager and friend-of-Putin Kirill Dmitriev. Just in case that is not enough intrigue, Nader is also a convicted child pornographer and pedophile rapist. After all, Donald Trump only works with the best people.

At this point, not much is known in terms of the specifics of the meeting, beyond the (fairly safe) assumption that some sort of social media shenanigans were discussed. Nearly everyone involved is downplaying the gathering as inconsequential, basically unrelated to the campaign, etc. Their denials aren't likely to help much, as special counsel Robert Mueller is already investigating the matter. Among the uncomfortable facts that could come back to haunt Team Trump:

  • Nader was present for at least two other potentially troublesome meetings. One of those was at Trump Tower in December 2016, and involved the de facto ruler of the U.A.E., Mohammed bin Zayed, along with then-adviser Steve Bannon and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. The second was in Seychelles in January 2017, and involved bin Zayed, Prince, and Dmitriev. So, courtesy of Dmitriev, there is at least a possible connection between Saturday's news and Russiagate. And if that connection does exist, Mueller is likely to find it, as Nader has already turned state's evidence.

  • Speaking of connections between the various Trump storylines, it was just reported last week that Elliott Broidy—former deputy finance chairman of the RNC who paid Michael Cohen $1.6 million to make the child he conceived with his mistress go away—has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts with the U.A.E. So, Saturday's news may also connect with Stormygate.

  • As president, Donald Trump has not only resisted sanctions against Russia, he also visited Israel, UAE, and Saudi Arabia on his first state visit, and has given several boons to those nations, not the least of which was agreeing to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. In other words, there is certainly some evidence of a quid pro quo.

  • Prince is the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who was given a plum job that it is almost universally agreed she was unqualified for. Again, at least a possible quid pro quo.

  • When Prince talked to Congress about his involvement with the Trump campaign, he said it was limited to donations, attending fundraisers, and writing position papers. That means he either "forgot" about this meeting, or he was trying to cover it up.

  • After the election, Nader paid Zamel as much as $2 million for services whose nature is unclear. Needless to say, if this was for the campaign, that is a no-no, since it was unreported. If the $2 million actually came from a Saudi or Emirati prince, that would be a double no-no, since it would be foreigners trying to influence an election.

  • Just last week, it was also revealed that the Trump campaign also had meetings with prominent Qatari Ahmed Al-Rumaihi in December 2016, who is known for his habit of handing out bribes. As with the August 2016 meeting, everyone involved is denying that anything untoward happened. Time will tell if that is true, but it certainly doesn't look good that Jared Kushner is about to get bailed out of his financial troubles by...a company connected to the Qatari government.

Again, at this point, very little is known for certain about the meeting between Trump Jr., Zamel, Prince, and Nader. However, there is now a clear pattern of behavior showing that Team Trump had little to no regard for the laws and the ethics of political campaigns. Maybe they didn't care, or maybe they were so desperate they felt they had to take reckless chances, or maybe they were just on the take. It's also possible that, given their lack of experience, they didn't realize the risks they were taking. If so, well, any first-year law student could tell them that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Heck, even Michael Cohen might know that.

It is also clear that the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign are both at the center of a network that includes a number of nations known for shady behavior, a number of people known for shady behavior, and an awful lot of questionable meetings, agreements, and payments. As we have said before, it's at least possible that all of this was perfectly legitimate, but that's not the explanation favored by Occam's Razor. (Z)

Prison Reform Bill Could Pass

The United States' prison system is, to put it mildly, a huge mess. As with health care, the country spends more money per capita than other Western nations and yet gets worse outcomes. In an effort to improve on the situation, Congress is wrestling with the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person (FIRST STEP) Act, which aims to improve vocational training, addiction treatment, and other prison services, such that folks who are released have a better chance of success and a lower rate of recidivism. The bill would also slightly tweak the formula for "good behavior" sentence reductions, with the result that 4,000 people would be freed immediately upon passage.

Somewhat unusually, given the polarization of modern-day Washington, the bill has divided both parties. Among the supporters are Jared Kushner, Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Koch brothers, bill co-sponsors Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Doug Collins (R-GA), Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), and the National Urban League. Among the opponents are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), Reps. John Lewis (D-GA) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and a lengthy list of civil rights groups, including the ACLU and NAACP. Most of the Democrats who oppose the bill think it does not go far enough, and are insistent on including sentencing reform as well (something that the White House says is a nonstarter). Most of the Republicans who oppose it adhere to the "Shawshank Redemption" theory that any money spent on prisons should go to more walls, more bars, and more guards.

Donald Trump, of course, cares little about anything besides "wins." So, he's pushing hard to get the bill passed so that he can claim victory. Whether or not that is going to happen is anyone's guess; the opposition of Lewis (who commands great respect among his colleagues) and of McConnell (who can bury legislation he doesn't like) are going to be particularly difficult to overcome. Whatever happens, this could well be the last chance at passage of a major piece of legislation prior to the midterms. (Z)

Ryan Can't Do His Job Any More

The GOP caucus in the House is, to put it gently, a bit unruly. There's the general herding cats problem that faces any large group of ambitious people with differing agendas. As Tom Jefferson put it, "That one hundred and fifty lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected." On top of that, House Republicans are divided into three (or, arguably more) distinct factions: The ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, the moderate Tuesday Group, and the members who are in neither camp. The third group is made up primarily of garden-variety conservatives, but also includes a handful of libertarians, Second Amendment hawks, and other folks who aren't quite large enough in number to form a full-fledged faction.

Because of the divides within his caucus, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was somewhat reluctant to accept his current post. And when he did agree, he had only lukewarm support from the Freedom Caucusers. Since then, the Speaker has kept things somewhat under control—it hasn't been a disaster, though nobody's going to mistake him for Joe Cannon, either. Ryan has done so, primarily, using the tools that are at the Speaker's disposal to reward cooperators and punish defectors. That includes committee assignments, a certain amount of patronage, and assistance with fundraising.

Now, however, Ryan has announced his retirement, which means he has effectively thrown most of those tools in the garbage. He won't be making any more committee assignments, he won't be distributing any more patronage, and he'll be doing only a little bit more fundraising. The result is predictable: The two factions at either end of his caucus are rebelling. The Freedom Caucusers just killed a farm bill that would generally be a slam dunk. And the Tuesday Groupers (some of them, at least) are dangerously close to forcing a vote on a DACA solution, over the express wishes of the Speaker.

So, why doesn't Ryan throw in the towel? After all, as soon as his predecessor John Boehner got sick of the job, he dropped it like a hot potato and quit Congress right in the midst of a term (late October 2015). Ryan's official reason is that he wants to do one last fundraising push before the midterms. On top of that, however, he presumably also realizes that choosing a new speaker would be impractical at this point. There are roughly 60 work days left in the term, and given how much time it would take the GOP to agree on a replacement, that isn't much. There's also another very real possibility. This is entirely speculation, but Ryan certainly knows that the struggle between factions to choose a new speaker would be a black eye for the GOP. Another black eye would come if that person was selected, assumed office, and then promptly had to step down upon a Democratic takeover. The Speaker certainly could not acknowledge it publicly, but maybe he's taking one last hit for the team so as to minimize damage to the GOP brand, particularly if there is a blue wave in November. (Z)

Trump Nominates Robert Wilkie for VA

Following Ronny Jackson's high-profile flameout, Donald Trump has chosen a new candidate to lead the Dept. of Veterans Affairs. It's Robert Wilkie, who is currently serving as acting secretary. He's got a smidgen of baggage, having been involved with the (successful) effort at the 2016 GOP convention to remove the anti-Russia plank from the GOP platform. However, he's also got friends in the Senate, particularly Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), so—unless it turns out he's got some currently-unknown skeletons in his closet—he should secure confirmation pretty easily.

The nomination, meanwhile, makes clear a couple of things about the President. The first is that, despite his public posturing otherwise, he was embarrassed by what happened with Jackson. Hence taking his time choosing nominee #2 and going with a much more conventional candidate.

The second is that, while he continues to get by with a partially-staffed administration, Trump is clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of candidates for important posts. Needing a Chief of Staff, he just transferred over the Sec. of Homeland Security. Then, needing a new Sec. of Homeland Security, he promoted the previous secretary's chief of staff. Needing a Secretary of State, Trump just transferred over the CIA Director. Then, needing a new CIA Director, he just promoted the deputy director. Needing a VA Secretary, he tried to appoint his personal physician, and then moved on to the acting secretary. In fact, since announcing his first group of cabinet nominees, the President hasn't gone outside the administration one time. The lack of folks who are willing and capable, and who do not offend Trump (i.e., they did not criticize him during the campaign) also explains why over 200 key positions remain unfilled. (Z)

The 800-Pound Trump in the Corner of the Room

Donald Trump wants to be the star of midterm season, and is champing at the bit while he waits to get to work. Why? Well, first of all, Trump pretty much wants to be the star of everything, which is why his mantra has been "look at me!" since the 1980s. Second, he loves campaigning, and hates governing. Third, he regards himself as a man of action, and so he prefers to get "hands on" when he sees a problem, like a looming Democratic tidal wave. Finally, he's got a big ego—even by the standards of his current position—and is not going to be amenable to being told, "You're unpopular enough that you're doing more harm than good by getting involved."

Certainly, there are some very red districts where a Trump appearance will be welcomed with open arms. However, he's not likely to make much of a difference in those places. Further, in a world where Democrat Conor Lamb can take a district Trump won by 20 points, there aren't going to be too many places where the President is an unquestioned asset. For those Republicans running in purple or blue states/districts, the general preference is that he stay away. "I would like the president to do his job and I'll do mine," said Republican Dan David, who is running in the very-swingy PA-04. The concern is not only that Trump will remind voters of his general unpopularity, but that during one of his unscripted moments, he might say something disastrous to the candidate. Imagine a Jewish joke in New York, or a comment about how great foreign cars are in Michigan, or a rant about how dumb ethanol subsidies are in Iowa. It's not going to be easy to gently tell the President to stay away, but his handlers are ready to steer him to the places where he's actually an asset, like the mountain states.

With that said, the Republicans running for reelection do agree on one request they have for Trump: Stop bashing Congress. "It would be very helpful with our base if rather than suggesting we weren't doing anything, that he acknowledged what we are getting done," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD). Veteran politicians, including Rounds, recognize that midterms swing on enthusiasm. And if GOP voters believe that Congress is just spinning its wheels, they could stay home while Democratic voters show up in droves to throw the bums out.

And speaking of Democrats, the ones running in 2018 also have to think about what to do about the Donald. Unlike Republicans, they can't politely ask him to stay away or shut up. That just makes him all the more likely to go on a multi-day Twitter tantrum. And so, the blue team has largely decided that the best way to deal with the 800-pound gorilla is to ignore him. There's no winning a pissing contest with him; all that does is put wind in his sails. So, best to let him burn through his supply of oxygen, and then move on to the next bugaboo. As DSCC chair Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) put it, "They're not interested in getting into a big food fight with President Trump." That's very shrewd, and if the Democrats stick with it, it will mute Trump's impact on the midterms even more. (Z)

Why Michael Avenatti Is a Big Threat to Donald Trump

If Donald Trump finds himself in hot water, there are really three ways it could happen: At the hands of Congress, in criminal court, or in civil court. As we observed yesterday, the third of those options—for example, the case that Michael Avenatti has brought against Trump on behalf of Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford)—could prove the biggest threat to the President. A new piece by Politico's John Culhane helps explain why.

The answer, in short, is constraints. Anything that goes through Congress is going to be subject to significant political considerations. We've already seen that as long as Republicans run the show, there is going to be little to no oversight of a GOP president. Even if Democrats take the lower house in the midterms, their actions will be somewhat constrained by fear of Republican blowback in the 2020 presidential elections. Impeachment and conviction are improbable, if only because the GOP figures to keep the Senate, and to acquit if it comes to that.

Meanwhile, the road to a criminal conviction is also fraught with difficulties and limitations. The most obvious source of a criminal complaint is Robert Mueller. He is authorized only to investigate certain issues, and while he is certainly pushing his mandate to its limit, there are some places that even he cannot go. There are also some things that Team Trump is accused of doing—like collusion—that may be concerning and unethical, but might not clearly run afoul of existing law. This, in turn, leads to another issue: Conviction in criminal cases is very, very difficult even when the law is clearly on the prosecution's side. Finally, there's the problem, special to Trump, that he is the sitting President of the United States. It's not at all clear he can be prosecuted for a criminal offense while in office, even if the law and the evidence all point the finger right at him.

A civil case, by contrast, operates under far fewer limits. Unlike a Congressional action, there are few or no political considerations. In contrast to a criminal case, the bar for a plaintiff to win is lower, which not only makes it easier to win such a case, but also makes it easier to make it to the discovery/deposition process, something that would likely be disastrous for Trump. And, thanks to the Republicans' victory in Clinton v. Jones, it is settled law that a sitting president cannot delay a civil lawsuit until he is out of office. As an added bonus, the work done in civil courts is always open to the public. No secrecy, in contrast to the work of Congress (often) or the criminal courts (sometimes).

Culhane gives a number of examples where the civil courts triumphed when the politicians and the criminal courts could not: Big Tobacco, the Catholic Church's sexual abuse cases, and various drug manufacturers among them. He also points out that now that Stormy Daniels is connected to Essential Consultants, LLC, and Essential Consultants is tied to all kinds of questionable activity by Trump fixer Michael Cohen, that case alone could prove to be a Trumpdora's Box. And that's not the only one; there's also Cockrum, Comer, and Schoenberg v. Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. and Roger Stone, which hasn't gotten a lot of attention yet, but is a civil case about the Trump campaign's role in the hacking of Democratic Party e-mails. In short, the President has a lot of things that should be making it hard for him to sleep at night; there's a good case to be made that the civil complaints against him should be right at the top of the list. (Z)

Royals Get Married, Trump Becomes Part of the Story

If you follow the news very, very closely, you may be aware that there was a wedding in the UK yesterday. Prince Harry, the younger son of Prince Charles, was married to (now retired) American actress Meghan Markle. They are now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Anyhow, this story got passing coverage in the American and British media.

Donald Trump and his wife Melanie—er, Melania—were not invited. The British are a polite people and their behavior is governed by all sorts of protocol and etiquette, so the reason for Trump's exclusion could not be announced publicly. However, it is not much of a secret that the Duke and Duchess do not like the Donald. By constrast, Harry is close with the Obamas, and wanted to have them on hand for the occasion. There was no way to navigate that without it being painfully obvious that the sitting president was being snubbed, and so the Obamas had to stay home.

With that said, the British also know a thing or two about passive aggression. The main speaker at the wedding was Bishop Michael Curry, who quoted from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "There's power in love. Don't underestimate it. Don't even oversentimentalize it. There is power, power in love." He also borrowed from the antebellum slave spiritual "Down by the Riverside": "When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more." Certainly, talk of love is not out of place at a wedding, but talk of war is a little bit of a curveball. Consequently, many folks took the "love, not violence" address as a subtle jab at Trump.

There were also some not-so-subtle jabs at Trump. Not from the newlyweds, but from the British media. Both the BBC and author J.K. Rowling took to Twitter to make the same basic observation, using a picture of the Trump inauguration and one of the well-wishers who lined the road for the wedding procession:

Meanwhile, some British commentators noted that the wedding was taking place during the time that Trump tweets most frequently, and yet he had nothing to say, not even "Congratulations." They took that as a possible snub, and potential retribution for the non-invite.

It is probably fair to say that the U.K. is the closest ally the U.S. has (if you don't count good neighbor Canada). And generally speaking, the Brits embrace the occupant of the White House. Ok, they were lukewarm on Bush Jr., but they loved Obama and Clinton and Reagan, and they liked Bush Sr. Heck, they were even fans of Jimmy Carter, recognizing that he's a swell fellow, even if he was a mediocre president. The fact that he appears to have almost completely lost the British people should really give Donald Trump pause. Not that it will, of course. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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