Obama Quietly Gives Advice to 2020 Hopefuls
McCabe Hints At ‘Inappropriate’ Relationship with Russia
Graham Says Border Wall More Important than Schools
Governing to the Brink
The Go-It-Alone Presidency
Stephen Miller Grilled on Emergency Declaration
• Trouble for Two Russiagate Figures
• Weld Prepares a 2020 Run
Donald Trump threatened to do it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) confirmed he was going to do it. By Thursday, everyone was reporting that he planned to do it. And, on Friday, he did it. Moments after signing a series of bills that will keep the government open for at least another six months, Trump issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency, and announced that his administration would begin redirecting already-allocated funds to build a wall along the Mexican border.
The moment that Trump did what he did, this really became four different stories. The first of those is the wall itself, which is now entirely defined by spin and imagination. That is to say, the wall that the President promised during the campaign is dead (if it ever lived to begin with). There is neither the time nor the money to build a 2,000-mile border-spanning wall; the only thing that will be built by the time Americans vote in November 2020 is improvements (and maybe slight extensions) to the existing fencing. Trump himself clearly recognizes this; immediately before signing the spending bills and the declaration, he gave a rambling, hour-long speech and press conference in which he claimed victory and bragged about all the things he's accomplished. That included a declaration that, "I built a lot of wall. I have a lot of money, and I built a lot of wall." The Democrats, of course, take the viewpoint that no wall has been built, and that whatever has been built (or will be built) would have been built regardless of the person who occupies the White House.
Factually speaking, the Democrats have the right of that argument. Even in the unlikely case that the President's emergency declaration actually sticks, the 2020 election is about 20 months away. There is no way that the coming lawsuits will get resolved in Trump's favor and the various eminent domain issues will be resolved and construction will get underway and some amount of fencing that is attributable solely to the President will be completed by the time people cast ballots next November. However, we know full well at this point that Trump's base is not always concerned with facts. So, how are they responding to Friday's developments? Not too well, it would seem. Quite a few right-leaning outlets and commentators almost completely ignored the story, as if there was no good way to cover it without angering their readers. On Fox News' website on Friday evening, for example, the top stories were about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amazon's canceled NYC headquarters, the shooting in Illinois, and an actress who got prison time for DUI. Such coverage "priorities" seem hard to believe, but you can see it for yourself:
Many other generally pro-Trump outlets also ignored the national emergency story, but slammed him on other aspects of the spending bill. The main headline on Drudge Report was "SPENDING BINGE WORSE THAN UNDER OBAMA, BUSH." On Breitbart, it was "TRUMP PLEDGES TO 'TAKE CARE OF ICE,' THEN SIGNS BILL CRIPPLING AGENCY'S POWER TO DEPORT ILLEGAL ALIENS" (one wonders why so many Trump-loving sites use ALL CAPS headlines).
Meanwhile, the anti-Trump voices on the right had a field day. Ann Coulter has permanently disembarked from the S. S. Trump, it would appear, and declared on Friday that, "The only national emergency is that our president is an idiot." Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who worked for George H. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, penned an op-ed in which he warned that Trump is setting the Democrats up for power grabs of their own. And The Bulwark, which was specifically founded to cater to anti-Trump Republicans, went to town, with headlines including "The President Is Hallucinating and I Think We Should Be Concerned" and "Five Reasons the National Emergency Is a Huge Waste of Time." Indeed, the only right-wingers we could find who had good things to say about the national emergency declaration were the always-fawning Sean Hannity, and redstate.com, where the lead headline was "Take The Legal Fight To The Leftists Mr President" (apparently, they do not believe in punctuating their headlines at redstate.com). In any event, it certainly looks like the President's spin is not working very well, even with the base.
As we said, the wall is just the first story. The second story is the lawsuits, which are coming by the bushel. Amazingly, two have already been filed, by liberal watchdog Public Citizen and the more centrist watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The former includes several Texas landowners as plaintiffs, and anticipates the eventual eminent domain claims that the administration will make. And these first two suits are just the opening act. California governor Gavin Newsom (D) and AG Xavier Becerra (D) announced that they will file suit, and Colorado AG Phil Weiser said he probably will do so, too. There's no question that other blue states (Washington, Oregon, New York, etc.) will follow suit (no pun intended). The ACLU also declared their intention to sue. In fact, at the moment, visitors to their site are greeted with a splash page that says, "See you in court, President Trump" (and asks people to donate):
Lawsuits are coming from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, as well. Quite a few Senate Democrats—some who just so happen to be running for president themselves—told reporters that they will fight Trump's "phony" declaration. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) issued a statement advising that, "The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the Courts, and in the public, using every remedy available." In short, this matter is of deep interest to those who care about the balance of power between branches, those who may want to use it to score political points, and those who may want to use it to raise funds from aggravated donors. There are plenty of folks in all three groups, which means the kids of a lot of public policy attorneys are going to have very good Christmases for the next two years.
The big question, of course, is: "Does Trump have any hope of prevailing in all of these suits?" He thinks so; during his speech/press conference he predicted that the Ninth Circuit would rule against him, but that he would look forward to a "fair" hearing before the Supreme Court. Beyond the jury-rigged SCOTUS, his brightest, shiniest ray of hope is this: Only once has the Court struck down an emergency declaration, and that was in 1952 (when Harry S. Truman tried to nationalize steel mills), which is well before the National Emergencies Act of 1976.
Beyond that, however, it's all bad news for the President. The plaintiffs' attorneys will begin by observing that the Congress clearly did not intend to confer unlimited authority upon the president to spend money in any way he sees fit. They probably couldn't do so even if they wanted to, since the Constitution itself gives them sole power of the purse. In other words, there are clearly some situations that are not emergencies, where the National Emergencies Act does not apply. That being the case, then it is just a matter of establishing that this is a non-emergency circumstance. And there are three excellent points to be made in support of that position. The first is that Congress is currently in session, and is entirely available to respond to emergencies, rendering the presidential power unnecessary. The second is that Trump has been threatening to declare an emergency for years; actual emergencies are generally immediate and have a clear precipitating event, they do not linger for months or years and then suddenly "exist" on some arbitrary date. The third is that Trump did not need to declare an emergency, and he only did so because he grew impatient. That's not our opinion, mind you, it's his. During his press event on Friday, the President did what he so often does, and made his lawyers' jobs ten times harder by giving the opposition exactly what they need to make their case. His exact words: "I didn't need to do this, but I'd rather do it much faster." That is pretty much the textbook definition of "not an emergency."
All of this assumes, of course, that Congress does not take action to strike the President's declaration down, which they can do with a two-thirds vote in each chamber after Trump's certain veto. And that brings us to the third storyline that is present in this little drama, namely the 2020 election. On that front, this development is pretty lousy news for the Republicans. As noted above, the emergency declaration does not appear to have rallied the base, and if anything seems to have divided them a bit. The available polling on the matter backs this up; about 30% of Trump's base believes that declaring a national emergency is the wrong choice, with almost 10% more who aren't sure. When a president takes bold action, and he struggles to clear 60% support even among his supporters, that's not good. Meanwhile, the GOP members of Congress are likely to be forced into an unpalatable vote where they either have to poke Trump in the eye, or have to go on record as supporting his creative use of "emergency powers," thus giving Democrats coverage to declare their own emergencies in the future.
For the Democrats, on the other hand, this looks to be a late, but really excellent, Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice/Festivus present. Anything that makes the GOP squirm, and sets the President up for what is likely to be a high-profile legal defeat, is already good news for them. On top of that, however, anyone running in 2020 got two additional boons. The first is that they can point out that not only did Mexico not pay for the wall, but that the only way Trump was able to deliver on his promise was to trample on the Constitution, and even then he didn't actually get the wall built. That can undoubtedly be reduced to a more artful soundbite, but the basic argument is a pretty good one. Beyond that, however, and as Vox's Dara Lind points out in a prescient analysis that is really worth reading in its entirety, "national emergency" has just become a magic wand that can paper over the gaps in any candidate's proposals. How will you get a Green New Deal past the Senate? No problem—national emergency. Is Medicare-for-all realistic? Yes, yes it is—it's a national emergency, after all. Are you in favor of gun control? I am; it's one of our biggest national emergencies, from where I sit.
And that leads us to the fourth story: The spending bills. These are getting limited attention because the national emergency is a sexier and more sordid story. However, the six-plus months the government is now funded for marks far and away the longest period of Trump's presidency where the country (and federal workers) will not have to worry about a shutdown. Because of the President's chest-pounding, and Congress' resultant reliance on short-term spending bills, this is actually the 12th time the government was at risk of shutting down (as opposed to the two that it would be if Congress just passed an annual budget every year). And on the political front, it is actually working to the Democrats' benefit that not too many people are talking about the spending bills, because some provisions of the bills (particularly the relatively high level of funding for ICE and for immigrant detentions) actually have the potential to divide the party. When the Senate voted, in fact, the progressive candidates who have already declared their 2020 president bids all voted against the bill, while the moderates and undeclared progressives voted for it. Clearly, the folks running for president would prefer not to deal with uncomfortable questions about their votes. And now, they don't have to.
There it is, then. A story that combines many different aspects of the current situation in modern American politics. This episode of the border security reality show figures to last for quite a while, though the good news is that another shutdown is much less likely, since there would be no particular motivation for the President to do it again. (Z)
Former Trump associate and advisor Roger Stone insisted that he did not have direct contact with Wikileaks, even swearing to that before Congress. That was very hard to believe, given his long history of dirty tricks and his remarkable ability in 2016 to predict the things that Wikileaks was about to release right before they did so. When he was indicted, everyone whose last name does not rhyme with 'Crump' assumed that special counsel Robert Mueller must have the goods proving that Stone lied. And, per a court filing made on Friday, those non-Crump folks turn out to be correct.
The court filing is not terribly specific, as it does not need to be, but it says that investigators have found e-mail and other correspondence between Stone and "Organization 1" (Wikileaks) as well as between Stone and Guccifer 2.0, which was the alias under which Russian hackers disseminated hacked documents. In short, Stone's in big trouble, and that was before he found out that no-nonsense federal judge Amy Berman Jackson will remain on the case. Meanwhile, the evidence that the Trump campaign and the Russians conspired to influence the 2016 election just grows stronger. At this point, the only question that is still reasonably open for debate is whether or not the President knew about it.
Also getting unhappy news on Friday was former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Now that his plea deal has been voided, Mueller advised via a court filing that he would like to see Judge T.S. Ellis impose a sentence of 19.5 years to 24.5 years for the financial crimes he was convicted of in Virginia last year. Manafort is weeks from turning 70, and that would put him in prison until he was approaching, or past, the age of 90. For someone in shaky health, that's a life sentence. Even if the judge imposes half of what Mueller wants, that leaves Manafort in the hoosegow until he's in his 80s. And he hasn't yet been sentenced in Washington for the guilty pleas he made as part of the voided deal. So either he needs a pardon and then no prosecutions for state-level crimes, or else he's going to be away for a long, long time. In fact, more likely than not, it will be an eternity. (Z)
Given Donald Trump's legal and political woes, a primary challenge becomes more plausible by the day. A successful one is an impossibility under current circumstances, which is why possible candidates like John Kasich and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) are keeping their names in the headlines but are staying quiet about their future plans. Another former Massachusetts governor isn't so worried about winning, however. That would be Bill Weld, and on Friday he announced that he has formed an exploratory committee in anticipation of a 2020 run.
These days, Weld is best known for his 2016 run as VP on Gary Johnson's libertarian ticket. During that campaign, he spent most of his time telling people why they should vote for Hillary Clinton, and not why they should vote for Johnson/Weld. Presumably, his 2020 "campaign" would have much the same purpose, giving him a higher-profile platform from which to take shots at Trump. And if he can do well in, or even win, New Hampshire—a state with lots of Republicans who don't love the President's brand of Republicanism, and where many may remember Weld's successful governorship of a neighboring state—then that would be hugely damaging to the President. However, nobody, not even Weld himself, thinks he can actually win. That should make the exploratory committee's job pretty easy. (Z)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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