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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Shadowy Diplomacy
      •  Two Judges, Two Punts
      •  U.S. Army Bans Use of TikTok by Soldiers
      •  Biden Says He'd Consider a Republican Running Mate
      •  Sanders' Doctors Give Him a Clean Bill of Health
      •  Black Voters Energized Heading into 2020
      •  Back to the Future, Part I: 2019 Predictions

Shadowy Diplomacy

It is the nature of diplomacy that conversations are often secret, agreements are sometimes kept under wraps, and backchannel interactions happen frequently. This means that the American people are left to trust that their leaders do not abuse a situation in which scrutiny is often, necessarily, minimal. Unfortunately, when the country elects a president who is preternaturally dishonest, and who has for decades used secret conversations, hidden agreements, and backchannel interactions to skirt the law in his private business career, it's time to get nervous.

There were two incidents in the last few days that returned this concern to the front burner. First, it turns out that Donald Trump had a little phone chat with his good friend Vlad Putin this weekend. That's always something of a concern, given the unanswered questions about the relationship between those two men, as well as the extreme secrecy that has surrounded all of their official interactions. This phone call was extra concerning, however. First, because the Ukraine whistleblower situation has heightened secrecy within the White House, such that there is virtually no oversight of the call whatsoever, even from insiders. Second, because—in contravention of usual practice—the public did not learn about the phone call...until the Russians announced that it had taken place. After Moscow released a brief summary of the call, the White House was asked for confirmation, and balked. Eventually, the administration did issue a statement that essentially parroted the Russians' account of the call.

The odds are good that we will not know anytime soon exactly what Trump and Putin talked about, if we ever learn, nor why the White House conveniently "forgot" to mention that the call had taken place. But again, given the president we're dealing with, as well as the events of the past few years, the whole thing gives off a rather unpleasant odor. It's also...interesting timing, given that just this weekend, Russian state media described Trump as a "Russian agent" who will have to flee to Russia after leaving office. They framed this as a joke, though it's a joke that lives in the uncanny valley between "actual joke" and "not a joke at all."

The other story, meanwhile, involves TV lawyer, fixer, and (apparent) shadow Secretary of State Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps you've heard that Giuliani, who has been subjected to no review or approval process whatsoever, spent many months conducting "diplomacy" in Ukraine on the President's behalf. This weekend, the Washington Post broke the news that Ukraine was not the only place where Giuliani did that. As it turns out, he also held conversations with Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro (as did former Rep. Pete Sessions), which were apparently intended to persuade Maduro to voluntarily resign (something that did not happen, and that is about as likely as Trump voluntarily resigning).

Needless to say, the Post does not have a full picture of Giuliani's (and Sessions') involvement, including exactly how extensive it was, and exactly what its purposes were. What is known is that the official policy of the U.S. government is, and has been, sanctions designed to put pressure on the Maduro regime. What is also known is that Giuliani, Trump, and Sessions all have ties to interests that are being hurt by the sanctions. Specifically, Giuliani represents Venezuelan energy executive Alejandro Betancourt López; Sessions has a longstanding relationship with ExxonMobil, which is headquartered in his former district and has significant holdings in Venezuela; and Trump has personally done business in the past with wealthy Venezuelans connected to Maduro.

The obvious question that the Venezuela story raises is: Were these men pursuing a policy for the benefit of the United States and its citizens, or merely for the benefit of themselves and their friends? Given the almost total lack of oversight, there is an excellent chance we will never know. Giuliani's activities, in particular, appear to be a textbook violation of the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from engaging in diplomacy. However, violations of the Logan Act have rarely been prosecuted in the two centuries since it was adopted, and violations of any sort are rarely prosecuted today, so Giuliani will undoubtedly get away with...whatever it was that he did. (Z)

Two Judges, Two Punts

We have often noted that Chief Justice John Roberts tries to cultivate an image as a neutral arbiter who just calls balls and strikes. That image doesn't necessarily line up very well with reality, but that doesn't stop him from trying. And he's not the only judge who feels this way; many of them bend over backwards to avoid making politically charged decisions. Despite the fact that it's holiday season, with many courts handling a very limited docket, we got a double play on that front just this week.

To start, the state of Georgia—not exactly known for its commitment to making sure everyone is allowed to vote—recently purged about 100,000 names from its voter rolls. Undoubtedly, some of those folks have died or moved, but many others are at risk of showing up to their polling places on Election Day, only to find that they are no longer registered. Voter-rights' groups, with former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams taking a leading role, sued in federal court, suspecting that they might not get a fair hearing in state court. This weekend, Judge Steve C. Jones (a Barack Obama appointee) dismissed the suit, declaring it to be a state, and not federal, concern. At the same time, his ruling made clear that he does not agree with the purge, and specifically urges the state courts in Georgia to take a long and careful look at the matter.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Judge Richard Leon (a George W. Bush appointee) also chose to punt a decision. Specifically, House Democrats subpoenaed former Trump NSC member Charles Kupperman, Kupperman asked the court to rule whether he was required to abide by the subpoena, and then the subpoena was withdrawn. Since the subpoena is dead, and is not likely to be reissued, Leon decided there is no actual case before him, and dismissed Kupperman's suit. In his 14-page ruling, the Judge acknowledged that the case raises a "Constitutional dilemma that has long-standing political consequences: balancing Congress's well-established power to investigate with a President's need to have a small group of national security advisors who have some form of immunity from compelled Congressional testimony," but concluded that, "Fortunately, however, I need not strike that balance today!"

That Jones and Leon both chose to take a pass is understandable, and is certainly justifiable from a legal standpoint. Still, one has to wonder if they are not erring a bit too much on the side of passivity. In an era where many politicians seem to have little concern for the norms of constitutional governance, and some of them appear to have abused the system in order to stack the judiciary with highly partisan judges, it may be time for all federal judges to be a little bit more assertive in order to balance things out. (Z)

U.S. Army Bans Use of TikTok by Soldiers

On Monday morning, we had an item about FaceApp (a face transformation app funded by Russian interests) and TikTok (a video sharing app funded by the Chinese government). On Monday afternoon, the Pentagon announced that it had joined the U.S. Navy in adopting a service-wide ban on the use of the application on government-issued phones, due to concerns that it might be used by the Chinese for intelligence gathering.

Is the Pentagon taking its cues based on what we write on this site? If so, we'd like to point out that the Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston Celtics, and New York Yankees are almost certainly fronts for foreign interests hostile to the United States, and should probably be shut down immediately. In any event, it is evidence that the security threats that we (and many others) have pointed out are real, and that when security is the primary concern (as opposed to politics), it is entirely possible to take quick and decisive action. (Z)

Biden Says He'd Consider a Republican Running Mate

Joe Biden was doing a town hall in New Hampshire yesterday, and he was thrown a real curveball of a question: "Our 21-year-old son said the other night, 'I wonder if Joe Biden would consider choosing a Republican as a running mate?'" Biden handled the question in stride, responding: "The answer is I would, but I can't think of one now. Let me explain that. You know, there's some really decent Republicans that are out there still, but here's the problem right now: they've got to step up."

This raises three pretty obvious questions; let's try our best to answer them:

  1. Is he serious?: The answer that Biden gave to the question was really the only one possible for him. Given that he's running as a centrist and a uniter who can reach across the aisle, he could hardly categorically announce that he would never consider a Republican running mate. And our guess is that he actually would consider it. Biden served for many years with Sen. John McCain. He certainly had an insider's perspective when McCain, while choosing his running mate in 2008, went against his gut instinct, and instead of choosing a reach-across-the-aisle "Democrat" (Joe Lieberman), pandered to the extreme wing of his party by tapping Sarah Palin. That experience might weigh heavily on Biden's mind.

  2. Would this make sense?: Possibly. If Biden is the nominee, he's going to have to walk a narrow road, as he tries to keep independents and NeverTrump Republicans on board the S.S. Uncle Joe as best as is possible, while at the same time shoring up his left flank. Working in his favor is that there is a strong "anyone but Trump" sentiment in 2020, and a great many Democrats will hold their noses and vote for the Party's ticket no matter who is nominated. These folks would pull the lever for Biden/Shkreli or Biden/Kardashian or Biden/Vlad Tepes, if they had to. However, 2016 also taught us that there is a certain segment of the Democratic base that will take their ballots and go home if they think the ticket is too "establishment." Truth be told, it probably comes down to whether Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is the last progressive standing. If the former, she is likely to be a team player and campaign hard for the Democratic ticket, even if she's not at the top of it. If the latter, well, in 2016 his lack of enthusiasm for presidential candidates not named 'Bernie' kept the Party divided, and partly contributed to Hillary Clinton's defeat. In other words, if Biden is the nominee, and Sanders is the last challenger vanquished, Biden might have no choice but to pick a lefty VP. Otherwise, Biden might have more freedom of choice.

  3. Who?: If this did come to pass, obviously Biden would have to pick someone who has no connection with Donald Trump whatsoever. With that in mind, here are some (obviously very speculative) possibilities (all ages refer to the person's age on January 20, 2021):

    Candidate Pros Cons
    Former New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte (R) Young (52); known for being a centrist; good public speaker Not especially popular with Republicans; New Hampshire has 4 EVs
    Former Arizona senator Jeff Flake (R) Has spoken out against Trump; Arizona may be a swing state in 2020 Y chromosome; anti-Trump verbiage never backed by action
    Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) As popular with Democrats as any Republican in the U.S. Y chromosome; not so young (64); Maryland is in the bag already
    Sen. Angus King (I-ME) Centrist enough for "reach across the aisle" cred but not actually a Republican Y chromosome; almost as old as Biden (76); Maine has only 4 EVs
    Former New Mexico governor Susana Martinez (R) Latina; was a Democrat until 1995 Not nationally known; possible alcohol issues
    Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) About as anti-Trump as any Republican in the Senate right now; only Republican who did not vote for Brett Kavanaugh Not so young (63); usually falls in line behind Trump; VP candidates from Alaska don't usually work out so well
    Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) Ready to be president on Day 1; Midwesterner Quite conservative; not well known outside the Midwest
    Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) Latino; If he can flip 1 Florida Republican in 100 it might be enough to flip the state; young (49) Y chromosome; notoriously lazy; not sufficiently anti-Trump
    Former Maine senator Olympia Snowe (R) Long résumé, known for bipartisanship Long in the tooth (73); Maine has only 4 EVs
    Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) As popular with Democrats as any Republican in the U.S. not named Hogan Y chromosome; not so young (64); Massachusetts is also in the bag already

    So, if Biden wants a non-Democratic running mate, he's got options. That's even true in the likely event that he concludes he must have a female running mate; there are a number of prominent non-Trump women Republicans. On the other hand, if he wants a person of color, his GOP options get more limited. And if there's a Republican who is black and is a viable choice for Biden, we're not seeing who that might be. It's not Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), he's far too conservative, not nearly anti-Trump enough for the base, and his selection would smack of tokenism. The same would basically be true of Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), whose failure to vote for impeachment is undoubtedly disqualifying.

In the end, this is probably a non-story, and Biden (if he's the nominee) will play it safe and choose a Democratic ticket-mate. Nonetheless, while we await that information (which is about six months away), it's interesting to think about the possible ways this unfolds. (Z)

Sanders' Doctors Give Him a Clean Bill of Health

On Monday, Bernie Sanders released letters from three doctors attesting to his physical fitness. In particular, they all opined that he has completely recovered from his heart attack, and that he is entirely fit to serve as POTUS.

This is a shrewd move by the Vermont Senator. His age, coupled with his heart issues, means that health is one of his biggest liabilities. And as we have learned from Donald Trump (and other presidents), it's not too hard to find a single doctor who is willing to write health reports that are more fiction than fact. It's a little harder to find three of them who are willing to lie, so by releasing multiple letters, Sanders gives much more credence to their conclusions. The timing is wise, too. Now, he has very publicly produced evidence of his fitness. At the same time, he's done so during a low-attention period of the news cycle, and well in advance of the caucuses and primaries. That means that people won't be getting a big reminder his heart's got the yips right before they cast their ballots. (Z)

Black Voters Energized Heading into 2020

A new poll of black voters, from Third Way and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, is out. Obviously, with a bit more than 10 months to go until the election, it should be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Nonetheless, its conclusions should give the RNC cause for concern: By a margin of close to 2-to-1 (57% to 34%), black voters say they are more energized to vote in 2020 than they were in 2016. The most common reason: "Donald Trump has been a disaster for our country and we need to do everything we can to vote him out."

This is good news for Joe Biden, specifically. He has consistently led among black voters, in part due to his association with Barack Obama, and in part due to the perception that he's the most electable candidate. This poll confirms that the latter is indeed very important, and suggests that he will maintain high support among black voters as long as he continues to be viewed as the most "electable" candidate.

This is also good news for the Democratic presidential candidates in general. In 2016, black turnout was 59.6%. That was way down from 2012 (66.6%) and 2008 (63.6%). Obviously, having a black presidential candidate on the ticket played a role in those two elections, but the figure for 2016 was actually the lowest in 20 years (54.1% of black voters went to the polls in 1996). If black voters step up to the plate in the way they did in 2008/2012, that could plausibly flip Georgia (28.6% black), North Carolina (21.6%), Florida (14.5%), Michigan (14.1%), Ohio (11.3%), and/or Pennsylvania (9.9%).

Finally, this is good news for downballot Democrats, particularly in the states listed above. In particular, there are two U.S. Senate races in Georgia and one in North Carolina and Michigan in 2020. There's also one in Alabama (25.9% black), where Trump will win the state's electoral votes, but Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) is trying to hang on by the skin of his teeth. If black folks show up in droves, and if they vote a straight Democratic ticket, that could carry one or more Democratic senate candidates to victory. It's true that the Republicans' U.S. Senate candidate in Michigan, John James, is black, but there is no particular evidence that sizable numbers of black voters place skin color above party.

Again, it's a long time until Election Day. On the other hand, voter enthusiasm tends to grow over the course of an election year, not shrink. So, there is good reason here for Democrats to be at least cautiously optimistic. (Z)

Back to the Future, Part I: 2019 Predictions

At the end of last year, we ran an item featuring predictions from us, and from others, about what was to come in 2019. Let's see how well everyone did:

Jason Sattler, USA Today: "As the Republican Senate majority grows in 2019, [Mitch] McConnell will no longer need the vote of Tim Scott, the one African-American Republican in the U.S. Senate, a good GOP soldier who could not bring himself to back two of Trump's most racist appointees. So McConnell's plan to use the courts to roll back the past century will only intensify."

Comment: Basically correct. There's no particular evidence of a "who needs Tim Scott?" dynamic, however.

Rick Newman, Yahoo Finance: "[Donald] Trump will resolve the trade dispute with China. He'll have to, actually. Trump will be desperate for wins in 2019, and he may also look for ways to stimulate a slowing economy and give stock markets a boost. Making a trade deal with China would help with both, and the new trade deal he finalized with Canada and Mexico provides a template. That update of the old North American Free Trade Agreement didn't change much, but it did give Trump the opportunity to claim victory without causing much harm to trade among the three countries. Trump could do something similar with China, accepting a deal in which China opens its markets a bit more to American firms and promises to stop stealing American technology. China would have to go along, obviously—but they might if they could make verbal agreements that wouldn't change much, in reality."

Comment: Nope. The administration says a deal of some sort is coming in the next month, but it hasn't yet.

Roxanne Jones, CNN: "Trump's approval rating will hover around 35%, unless the President can deflect America's attention from the results of Mueller's Russia investigation. Trump will be impeached by the House, and even if the mostly-GOP Senate fails to convict, Trump will be disgraced and pressured to resign."

Comment: Jones was right about the impeachment, though his approval rating rarely dropped below his apparent 40% floor, and never got as low as 35%. Her prediction that he will be forced to resign is still pending, of course, but not terribly likely to come to fruition.

Timothy Stanley, CNN: "Trump's approval rating seems to have a ceiling of 45% and is heavily concentrated in rural areas. I predict it will remain just that. He deserves to poll better given the state of the economy, yet cannot make inroads because his personality and cultural politics alienate half the country. He is the embodiment of polarization."

Comment: Correct, but—typical of Stanley—not a particularly bold or insightful prediction. He might as easily have predicted that, "Despite advice to the contrary from his advisors, Trump will continue to send out ill-advised tweets."

Frida Ghitis, CNN: "The stock market euphoria that greeted Donald Trump's election, like many other illusions, is now over. The Dow was already rising nicely in 2016 and the optimism continued in 2017. The party has ended. In 2019, the market will fall in the first part of the year and start recovering in the latter part. Final Dow: 22,500."

Comment: The Dow is currently at 28,462.12. Sorry, Frida, try again.

Peniel Joseph, CNN: "Beto O'Rourke will lead the Democrats, since he is the first Democratic candidate since Barack Obama to inspire a belief in civic ideals, social justice and the grand notion that America belongs to all of us. And Donald Trump will lead the Republicans, as he continues to play to his base of nationalists and populists."

Comment: Boy, this really seemed like a good prediction a year ago.

S.E. Cupp, CNN: "Of the 300 people who will run, I imagine Beto O'Rourke will have the best chance of navigating the primary and cutting through with voters. On the other side, I can't envision a convincing challenger to Trump will emerge (though one can dream)."

Comment: See above.

James Gagliano, CNN: "My early money leans toward Beto O'Rourke (who recently met with President Obama to discuss a 2020 run) as a 2019 frontrunner. And I don't foresee any emergent Republican candidate that could contend with an unleashed, nothing-to-lose Donald Trump in the Republican primary."

Comment: Again, see above.

Bradley Burston, Haaretz: "I'm in the mood to hazard predictions for 2019. The first is that by the next New Year's Day, neither Donald Trump nor Benjamin Netanyahu will still be in office. The second is that two extraordinary heroes of their respective nations, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, will outlast Trump and Netanyahu in office."

Comment: Wrong about Trump and Netanyahu. Ginsburg and Rivlin are still in office, so the latter part could still come to pass.

John Leboutillier, The Hill: "The Mueller investigation will unveil evidence of Trump putting himself out to the highest bidder in return for campaign help and financing: Russians, Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris—there will be evidence that millions of foreign dollars illegally flowed into the Trump campaign coffers in 2016. In other words, Trump basically said, 'I'm for sale.' We may learn the source of the $66 million of his own money that Trump donated to his campaign in 2016. Was it a foreign entity who gave him the money as, in effect, an illegal pass-through?"

Comment: Not remotely.

Daniel R. DePetris, The American Conservative: "President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will hold two summits in six months and sign a formal accord mandating an action-for-action denuclearization deal. Pyongyang will agree to decommission its declared plutonium and enrichment facilities (with Yongbyon and Kangson the first to go) and destroy its intercontinental ballistic missile inventory. Washington will agree to establish formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, sign an end-of-war declaration stressing its commitment to peaceful relations, and relax sanctions for as long as Kim is compliant. Trump and Kim, however, will fight over who goes first and how quick the denuclearization process should last. North Korean officials will accuse the U.S. of moving the goalposts, and Trump will recycle the 'Little Rocket Man' moniker of 2017. Diplomacy will break down completely, and the North Korea file will end 2019 the way it began 2018: in an uncomfortable stare-down."

Comment: The first part of this prediction was dumb a year ago, the second part was fine. The events of the last 365 days have done nothing to change that assessment.

(V) & (Z): "The Democratic field won't prove to be nearly as big and unwieldy as it seems, and the blue team will have considerably more clarity by the end of 2019 than the red team had at the end of 2015."

Comment: Based on polls conducted at the end of 2015, the GOP had five candidates who were still entirely viable (Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson) and another couple (Chris Christie, John Kasich) who were alive but on life support. Right now, the Democrats have four candidates who are still entirely viable (Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg) and another (Amy Klobuchar) who is alive but on live support. We're going to call this one a winner.

(V) & (Z): "Trump will be forced to break the seal on his veto power and use it more than once, as Senate Republicans get nervous about facing voters in 2020."

Comment: Nailed it. Trump has used the veto power five times, and all were in 2019.

(V) & (Z): "Unemployment will rise above 6% for the first time since August of 2014."

Comment: Oops. Unemployment never got above 4%, and currently stands at about 3.5% (December figures aren't in yet).

(V) & (Z): "There will be a lot more talk, including from (anonymous) insiders within the White House, about the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment."

Comment: Judging from the Q&A and the mailbag, the 25th Amendment remains on people's minds. And Anonymous did publish a book, of course. However, "a lot more talk" compared to 2018 seems strong. "About the same, or a little more" seems more correct. This one's a solid single, perhaps, but no more. And if you picked up on the baseball reference that appears in each item today (in order: balked, calls balls and strikes, double play, New York Yankees, curveball, yips, step up to the plate, and solid single), then a tip of the cap to you!

Tomorrow will be predictions for 2020, from us and from others. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Dec30 Trump Starts to Assemble His Defense Team
Dec30 Biden Waffles on Subpoena
Dec30 Who's Ahead in Iowa?
Dec30 The Gender Gap in 2020 Could Be Unprecedented
Dec30 Bloomberg Hires 200 Staffers in March and April Primary States
Dec30 Florida is Too Important to Ignore
Dec30 Cybersecurity Threats Loom in 2020
Dec30 James Lankford Doesn't See Trump as a Role Model
Dec29 Sunday Mailbag
Dec28 Saturday Q&A
Dec27 North Korean "Christmas Gift" Is Belated
Dec27 Trump-only Ballot Triggers Lawsuit in Minnesota
Dec27 Democrats Getting Ready to Run on Healthcare
Dec27 What Does a Promising Presidential Résumé Look Like?, Part I
Dec27 The Not-so-Young and Restless
Dec27 Who Are the Snowflakes, Again?
Dec27 Netanyahu Will Keep on Keepin' On
Dec26 House Is Open to More Articles of Impeachment
Dec26 DNC Tightens the Screws Again
Dec26 Billionaires Have Spent $200 Million on the Primaries So Far
Dec26 Murkowski Is "Disturbed" by McConnell's View of the Impeachment Trial
Dec26 It's Christian against Christian
Dec26 Trump Now Wants to Rip American Families Apart
Dec26 McConnell Lards on the Pork
Dec26 Liz Cheney Still Undecided on Senate Run
Dec25 "Christmas Gift" from North Korea Arrives Today
Dec25 Trott Says Trump "Unfit for Office"
Dec25 The Paradox of Choice
Dec25 "Tío Bernie" Leads Among Latino Voters
Dec25 Is Amy Klobuchar Surging?
Dec25 Christmas in Washington
Dec25 I Am Not a Crook: A Look at History's Most Scandalous Scandals, Part IX
Dec24 Who Would Jesus Vote For?
Dec24 Impeachment Never Sleeps
Dec24 Money for Trump That Isn't Actually for Trump
Dec24 Khashoggi's "Killers" Sentenced
Dec24 Does Obama Have His Candidate?
Dec24 Republicans Have Always Engaged in Voter Suppression
Dec24 I Am Not a Crook: A Look at History's Most Scandalous Scandals, Part VIII
Dec23 Poll: Small Majority Still Wants Trump Removed from Office
Dec23 Graham: There Are No Republican Votes to Compel Witnesses
Dec23 The RNC Has Vastly More Money than the DNC
Dec23 Roberts Is on the Hot Seat
Dec23 Jeff Flake Says Republican Senators Are on Trial
Dec23 Doug Jones May Put Country Above Party
Dec23 Trump Is Filling the Liberal Ninth Circuit with Conservatives
Dec23 A Christmas Gift List
Dec22 Sunday Mailbag
Dec21 Saturday Q&A
Dec20 Democrats Debate in Los Angeles