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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Sanders Is In
      •  Trump Behind the Scenes, Part I: The Scales of Justice
      •  Trump Behind the Scenes, Part II: The Telephone
      •  Adventures in Corruption, Part I: Mr. and Mrs. McConnell
      •  Adventures in Corruption, Part II: Paul LePage
      •  Amy Berman Jackson Is Not Amused
      •  Democrats Release List of 2020 House Targets

Sanders Is In

There were plenty of signs suggesting that an announcement was imminent. And, indeed, it was. Early Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent an e-mail to supporters and released a video announcing his 2020 candidacy for president of the United States. Here's the video:

This is 100% Bernie. He says what he wants to say, at the pace he wants to say it, with great conviction, and with the charisma he showed during the 2016 campaign. However, there was also no attention given to running time (it's 10:48), nor to production values (the entire clip is him sitting in what appears to be a study). All of the other launch videos we've seen so far try to clock in at around 4:00, and generally mix in some photos and camera work, and maybe even a little music.

In any event, Sanders 2020 got off to a very good start. Beyond the fact that the launch video has already been viewed close to half a million times, the Senator also got his first major endorsement. Of course, that endorsement came from his Vermont colleague, Sen. Pat Leahy (D), so maybe it's not that impressive. Definitely impressive, however, was that Sanders shook the money tree, and $1 million came falling out in the first four hours. His pre-established donor network will be one of his biggest advantages heading into 2020.

That said, winning February 2019 has little relevance to winning November 2020. Sanders has several challenges he will have to overcome if he is to claim the nomination. Here are four of the biggest:

  • Target on His Back: Sanders will no longer be a plucky underdog that comes from nowhere to surprise everyone (including, presumably, himself). He is now, by virtue of his 2016 campaign and the resulting name recognition, a frontrunner. That means much more scrutiny and much more criticism. To take one example, there has recently been a raft of articles, like this one, that accuse the Senator of embracing of pseudoscientific views. While there's a lot of tolerance for alternative medicine in Vermont, such views may not go over well with Democrats nationwide. Similarly, his former embrace of the Second Amendment played well in Vermont, but will play less well in, say, Newark.

  • Getting Right on Race: In 2016, voters of color, and particularly black voters, were not excited about Sanders. In the states of the South, he was generally crushed by Hillary Clinton, sometimes by as much as 50(!) points. This is a big problem in the general election, and perhaps an even bigger one in the primaries, where a fairly small number of black, Southern voters have significant control over a sizable number of Democratic delegates. To his credit, the Senator understands the problem and is trying to work on it. However, he cannot help that he came of age in a different time when it came to people's (even liberals') views of race and racism, nor that he's spent his whole life living mostly among white folks (Vermont is 96% white). He recently gave an interview to GQ in which this subject came up, and his somewhat clumsy remarks aggravated many black progressives.

  • Separation from the Field: The differences between Sanders and Clinton were crystal clear (if a little exaggerated) in 2016. Now, however, the Senator will be competing against a sizable number of candidates who have embraced most or all of his ideas, and who are all actual members of the Democratic Party. Some of them even have a clear plan for how to achieve those goals, something that is not always true of Sanders. Exactly how he will separate himself from the pack, particularly in a year when much of the progressive wing wants to see a woman candidate (and has several to choose from) will likely be the biggest question of all for him and his campaign.

  • Hillary Can't Help Him This Time: In 2016, a substantial number of Democrats who didn't actually know much about him voted for him in the primaries because they hated Hillary Clinton for one reason or another. Her vote for the Iraq War played a key role for some, but her general appearance of sleaziness and Clinton fatigue was important for others. In 2016, he was the only alternative (after Martin O'Malley dropped out). This time there will not be an anti-Clinton vote.

Given how far away the election is, and how much current polling is largely about name recognition, we won't have a great sense of how the field is shaking out for close to a year. The only thing that is certain, when it comes to Sanders, is that he's going to need a very different playbook than the one that produced so much success in 2016. (Z)

Trump Behind the Scenes, Part I: The Scales of Justice

Donald Trump has operated for half a century in a world where "justice" was largely for sale to someone who could afford the most lawyers, or could make a timely "donation" to a political campaign. The President mastered the art of pulling strings and putting his thumb on the scales of justice, so as to weight them in his favor. We've also seen abundant evidence that he regards himself as CEO of USA, Inc., and so it's no surprise that he has tried to use this approach in response to the various federal investigations of him that are currently underway.

Tuesday's big news on this front, courtesy of the New York Times (including the always-dialed-in Maggie Haberman), is that the President asked acting AG Matthew Whitaker if U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, who is both a Trump appointee and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the investigation into former Trump fixer Michael Cohen. That move would raise more red flags than a rainy-day Indianapolis 500, and besides, Berman had already recused himself. So, even though Whitaker is loyal enough that he said he would "jump on a grenade" for the President, he was compelled to tell Trump that putting Berman in charge was not possible. This apparently soured the Donald on Whitaker, and sped up the process of finding a permanent replacement.

Though that is the juiciest bit of new information, the Times' article actually includes a fairly exhaustive accounting of the myriad ways in which Trump has tried to muck around with the various investigations of his activities and his staff, both behind the scenes, and with his public pronouncements. Included are a number of graphics like this one:

Trump's attacks on the Russia investigations

As is clear from the graphic, and from the Times' reporting, these investigations have come to occupy a larger and larger part of Trump's time, energy, and public pronouncements. The fact that he has clearly turned this into a massive exercise in PR and attempted string-pulling may be a product of his inability to adapt to his new reality, or a realization that he doesn't have many other options, or possibly some of both. In any event, it's worth remembering that it wasn't the original crime that doomed Richard Nixon, it was the obstruction afterward. (Z)

Trump Behind the Scenes, Part II: The Telephone

We already knew that Donald Trump really likes to talk on the telephone, and that he sets aside copious amounts of "executive time" each day for that purpose. A new story from the Washington Post paints a much more detailed picture of this, however.

The story gives so much insight into Trump's leadership style that it's really worth reading in its entirety. However, several major themes emerge from the Post's reporting. The first is that Washington insiders have learned that nobody speaks for Trump except Trump, and that trying to ascertain the administration's policy preferences by talking to someone like acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney or legislative liaison Shahira Knight is a waste of time. Of course, given Trump's mercurial nature, even Trump doesn't always speak for Trump.

The second main point is that talking to Trump is shockingly easy—at least, it is for a few dozen chosen GOP pooh-bahs. Several of the folks interviewed for the article expressed amazement that they can call the President and, quite often, "he just picks up." When he's not available, he almost always calls back within the hour. Among the regulars are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Sens. David Perdue (R-GA), Rand Paul (R-KY), James Inhofe (R-OK), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC).

And finally, it is also clear that Trump hungers for this form of human contact/validation. He regularly calls his favorite Washingtonians out of thin air. Sometimes it's to get their opinions on a particular policy or initiative, sometimes it's to get their feedback on a speech or rally appearance, and sometimes it's with no particular purpose in mind at all. The average phone call lasts about 10 minutes and, not surprisingly, features approximately 9-1/2 minutes of Trump talking.

This approach to communication is one of the (many) ways in which Trump is the opposite of his predecessor. Barack Obama and his staff regarded every moment of his day as precious, and proceeded accordingly. Impromptu and/or casual phone calls were almost unheard of, and when there was a phone conversation with a member of Congress, an agenda was drawn up beforehand, and White House staff listened in so they could take notes and share what was said with the relevant departments or officials. Obviously, the Trump approach and the Obama approach each have their pros and their cons, though outside of the occasional Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton, most presidents have gravitated strongly toward the Obama approach. (Z)

Adventures in Corruption, Part I: Mr. and Mrs. McConnell

It would appear that Mitch McConnell's 2020 reelection campaign has already figured out where its headquarters will be, namely 1200 New Jersey Ave SE in Washington, DC. That just so happens to be the headquarters for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, which is currently being run by McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, Politico and the watchdog group American Oversight managed to lay hands on over 800 pages of e-mails that document the rather significant coordination between the offices of the Majority Leader and the Secretary. Chao has met at least 10 times with folks from Kentucky, with her husband and his staff making all of the arrangements. While a cause-and-effect relationship is hard to prove, the purpose of the meetings appears to have been a nice lunch of pork with a side of bacon, because many of the folks on the other side of the table from Chao ended up with infrastructure grants, or federal highway funds, or some other boon.

In fairness to Chao and McConnell, the Secretary sometimes responds to requests of this sort from other members of Congress, though she lends a helping hand to her husband on an unusually regular basis. At best, it looks corrupt. At worst, it actually is corrupt. That said, there may not be much anyone can do about it. The Constitution doesn't even mention the Cabinet, and since the fellows who wrote that document envisioned only (straight) men holding political office, they certainly didn't come up with any provisions about officeholders who might be married to other officeholders. While entities like the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) have been created in the years since, it is quite difficult for them to tell members of the various branches they should not interact with one another, even if those members have a very significant personal connection that could introduce bias. And even if OGE does cry foul, it largely doesn't matter unless someone wants to enforce their ruling. Probably not a good bet that the leader of the executive branch (i.e., Donald Trump) or the leader of the Senate will be doing so here.

That said, it is worth noting that Congress probably could do something about this in the future if it wants to. In 1962, when Bobby Kennedy went down to the University of Mississippi to integrate it at the point of a gun, he was not going as Jack's brother. He was going as the Attorney General of the United States, confirmed by the Senate. Ultimately, this didn't sit well with everyone, and in 1967 Congress passed a law (5 U.S. Code, Sec 3110) stating that public officials can't hire their relatives. Whether Jared Kushner is in violation of this law probably depends on whether he is formally a government employee. In any event, a comparable law could at least try to restrict a future McConnell-Chao situation, although it would be trickier. (Z)

Adventures in Corruption, Part II: Paul LePage

In the case of Elaine Chao and Mitch McConnell, there is at least some possibility that their activities are on the up-and-up. In the case of former Maine governor Paul LePage, less so. The Republican was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump as both a politician and as a businessman. And, according to documentation recently acquired by the Portland Press-Herald, LePage put that enthusiasm into action while he was still in office, with him and his staff booking 40 rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington over the course of two years. The rooms billed for as much as $1,100, and the total cost to Maine taxpayers was over $170,000. By way of comparison, LePage's predecessor spent $45,000 to cover the entirety of his out-of-state travel costs during his last two years in office.

The basics of this story were not a secret; LePage has been at the center of a pending emoluments lawsuit for almost a year. However, the specifics were not publicly known until the Press-Herald laid them out in detail. Previously, the former governor took the position that the expenditures were completely legit, but with the numbers out there for everyone to see, he changed his story, and now says he had no idea the bill was $1,100 a night. He must have misread "Trump International Hotel" as "Motel 6" when he checked in.

The emoluments case is slowly working its way through the court system. With time allotted for the original suit to be resolved, followed by the inevitable appeals, we should find out for certain if Trump and LePage violated the Constitution's emoluments clause right in time for the summer Olympics. The ones in Paris, that is. (Z)

Amy Berman Jackson Is Not Amused

On Monday, former Trump associate and current indictee Roger Stone (or one of his alleged "volunteers") decided it would be wise to post something to Instagram that showed Judge Amy Berman Jackson with a crosshairs above her head, and that declared that she was an accomplice to a "show trial." Though Stone took it down and apologized, there is a near-universal consensus at this point that this was very deliberate, and that he was trying to get his case moved to some other judge's courtroom.

Not only did the scheme (if that is what was going on) fail, but the Judge is exceedingly displeased. Presumably, she does not appreciate implicit threats on her life, or overt attacks on her integrity. However, she also takes the view that the posting violated the gag order she imposed on Stone. And although he is currently out on bail, she may just revoke that and order him to relocate to the greybar hotel while he prepares for trial. At very least, she is going to impose even stricter conditions on his bail bond.

Most observers think that Stone is eventually headed for prison. In claiming that this is a show trial, Stone is effectively concurring, arguing only that his eventual conviction will be unjust. Since everyone seems to be in agreement that the hoosegow is in his future, one would think the 66-year-old would do everything to maximize the freedom he has left. Maybe there's something we don't know, however, like he misses his regular bridge game with Paul Manafort, or something along those lines. In any event, Stone and his lawyers will appear before Jackson on Thursday, and presumably he will learn then if his wrist is going just to get slapped, or is going to get handcuffed. (Z)

Democrats Release List of 2020 House Targets

On Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) released its 2020 Retirement Watch List. This is ostensibly a list of the GOP members of the House who might retire, but is largely just a polite way of announcing which Republicans the DCCC is already planning to target. The list has 19 entries; each is already the subject of a custom, DCCC-produced digital ad that has been deployed on Twitter and other social media platforms. Here they are, including the district they represent, the PVI of that district, their margin of victory in last year's election, and our best guess as to why they are on the list:

Representative District PVI Margin Why Targeted?
Don Young AK-AL R+9 7% At 85 years of age, currently the oldest and longest-serving member of the House
David Schweikert AZ-06 R+9 10% Facing an ethics probe right now
Duncan Hunter CA-50 R+11 4% Currently under indictment for misusing campaign funds; trial is in September
Ross Spano FL-15 R+6 6% Freshman member; may have violated campaign finance laws in 2018
Vern Buchanan FL-16 R+7 6% Coastal district has lots of new Puerto Rican residents these days
Rob Woodall GA-07 R+9 < 0.2% Already announced his retirement
Susan Brooks IN-05 R+9 14% While 14% is a pretty big win, her margins of victory have declined for three straight elections, and may have her eyeing statewide office
Fred Upton MI-06 R+4 4% Anti-LGBT and anti-Obamacare views increasingly out of step with his district
Ann Wagner MO-02 R+8 4% Close election in 2018, and the district has lots of the wealthy, college-educated, suburban white voters the Democrats think they can win over
Chris Smith NJ-04 R+8 12% Has been in Congress for nearly 40 years, and is the only Republican in NJ's delegation
Peter King NY-02 R+3 6% Another member whose anti-LGBT and anti-Obamacare record is leaving them out of step with their district
John Katko NY-24 D+3 6% The only Democratic-leaning House district in the country to be represented by a Republican
Chris Collins NY-27 R+11 1% Under indictment for insider trading; trial set for early 2020
Steve Chabot OH-01 R+5 4% Staunchly pro-Trump in a district that does not entirely share that enthusiasm
Mike McCaul TX-10 R+9 4% May be too pro-Trump for suburbanites, too anti-Trump (especially on immigration) for the base
Pete Olson TX-22 R+10 3% Barely won in 2018; racist statements from that campaign may come back to haunt him
Kenny Marchant TX-24 R+9 3% Avoids constituent services, has nearly lost to Democrat Jan McDowell twice and may not survive a third round
John Carter TX-31 R+10 3% MJ Hegar gave him all he could handle in 2018; if she runs again, she may win with a presidential-year electorate
Jaime Herrera Beutler WA-03 R+4 5% Walking a fine line between support for and opposition to the President in deep-blue Washington

Clearly the focus here is on three basic types of GOP representatives: Those who are working with very small margins due to political/demographic shifts, those who are allegedly crooked, and those who are getting up there in years and may decide they've had enough. It is clear, in particular, that the Democrats see Texas as 2020's Orange County—a longtime Republican bastion that is now vulnerable.

With that said, there are some very juicy targets that aren't on the list yet, for whatever reason. Perhaps the most obvious example is Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), the only Republican currently representing a district along the Mexican border, and who defeated Gina Ortiz Jones (D) by a razor-thin 0.5% margin in 2018. He's been a fairly outspoken Trump critic, particularly on the wall. It may be that the Democrats want to hear as much of that as is possible before they make it official that he's a target.

In any case, it is nearly impossible that the blue team could equal their midterm gains, as there just aren't enough vulnerable GOP seats (to say nothing of the dozen or so Democrats that now represent Republican-leaning districts, and will themselves be targets). However, it is very feasible that the Democrats could expand their majority a bit, particularly if the Party ends up with a presidential candidate who has long coattails. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb19 Well, That Didn't Take Long
Feb19 Sanders May Enter the Race Today
Feb19 Biden's "Strength" in Polls May Be an Illusion
Feb19 Elections Board Hears About Shady Behavior in NC-09
Feb19 John James Reportedly the Favorite to Replace Nauert
Feb19 Trump at Odds with SNL Again
Feb19 Stone Shoots Himself in the Foot
Feb18 Schiff: Evidence of Collusion with Russia Is in Plain Sight
Feb18 Republicans Complain about Trump's Emergency
Feb18 Two Witnesses Told Congress that Rosenstein Considered Recording Trump
Feb18 Putin Gets His Wish
Feb18 Nauert Has Been Bairded
Feb18 Wisconsin Will Get More Attention This Time
Feb18 Could a Vegan Bring Home the Bacon in Iowa?
Feb18 Election Board Will Meet Today to Decide NC-09 Race
Feb18 Monday Q&A
Feb16 Houston, We Have an Emergency
Feb16 Trouble for Two Russiagate Figures
Feb16 Weld Prepares a 2020 Run
Feb15 Trump Will Sign Bill, Then Declare National Emergency
Feb15 Barr Confirmed
Feb15 FBI Officials Discussed Removing Trump
Feb15 The Democratic Frontrunners, According to the Trump Campaign
Feb15 Democratic Candidates Work to Tame the California Tiger
Feb15 The Next Justice to Go?
Feb15 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Michael Bennet
Feb14 Bloomberg Will Spend $500 Million Trying to Defeat Trump in 2020
Feb14 Judge Throws the Book at Manafort
Feb14 Klobuchar Raised $1 Million in First 48 Hours
Feb14 Trump's Approval Is Way Up after Government Reopened
Feb14 Cohen Will Testify before Three Congressional Committees
Feb14 McCarthy Blames Freedom Caucus for Loss of House Majority
Feb14 House Democrats Are Planning a Vast Probe of Trump's Russian Connections
Feb14 Nate Silver Says O'Rourke Has the Best Chance--at the Veep Slot
Feb14 Might Mexico Pay for the Wall after All?
Feb14 Thursday Q&A
Feb13 WWDD: What Will Donald Do?
Feb13 Senate Channels Its Inner Roosevelt
Feb13 McConnell to Bring "Green New Deal" Up for a Vote
Feb13 Barr Is in the Clear
Feb13 Mark Kelly Is In
Feb13 Will Another Amy Run?
Feb13 Today in Terrible Analysis
Feb13 Booker Wants a Woman
Feb12 Let's Make a Deal
Feb12 GOP Could Get Burned By Tax Cut
Feb12 Trump, Senate Republicans Spar Over Khashoggi
Feb12 Klobuchar's Abusive Treatment of Staff Has Been Going on for Years
Feb12 A 2020 Preview?
Feb12 Cohen Postpones Again