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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Russians Arrest Alleged U.S. Spy
      •  Kim Jong-Un Issues Threats
      •  Trump Shoots Down Democrats' Funding Proposal
      •  Trump Slams McChrystal
      •  Romney Slams Trump
      •  The Year Ahead, Part I: Races to Watch
      •  The Year Ahead, Part II: Predictions

Russians Arrest Alleged U.S. Spy

On Tuesday, it was reported that former U.S. Marine and current security consultant Paul Whelan was arrested in Moscow by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). The FSB claims he was engaged in an act of espionage against their country. They have not specified what they mean by that, however.

Whelan's family insists that he's not a spy, and that he was only in Moscow to attend the wedding of a friend. Of course, spies always insist that they were doing something innocuous, and they certainly don't advise their families of their covert activities. So, the Whelans' denials are not necessarily instructive, one way or another. That said, this certainly looks to be payback for the United States' arrest of Maria Butina, who just two weeks ago pled guilty to trying to infiltrate Republican political circles and to attempting to influence U.S. relations with Russia. Despite the guilty plea, she also says she wasn't doing anything wrong, and that she was just a student trying to improve relations between the U.S. and Russia. Uh, huh. The Russian government regards her as a political prisoner and a scapegoat.

This certainly creates yet another headache for Donald Trump. If he lets Whelan rot in a Russian prison, he will be attacked for not standing up to Vlad Putin. And if he trades Butina for Whelan, which is understood to be what Putin wants, he will be attacked for selling out U.S. national security to Vlad Putin. If the Donald didn't know it in 2016, he certainly does now: There's a reason that being U.S. president is called "the hardest job in the world." (Z)

Kim Jong-Un Issues Threats

Speaking of strongmen who aren't nearly as friendly as Donald Trump once thought, Kim Jong-Un delivered his annual New Year's address on Tuesday. He waved his sword (or, perhaps more appropriately, his Hwandudaedo) in the direction of Washington, warning that the Trump administration better not impose any new sanctions and demanding that all joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea be brought to a halt. Kim also said that he's willing to talk some more about denuclearization, but that if the U.S. does not bow to his demands, he will seek a "new path."

What we have here is our second lose-lose situation of the day for Donald Trump (see above for the first). Past presidents avoided meeting with Kim, his father, and his grandfather because they knew that the North Korean leaders' words are not worth the paper that they're written on. In this June's summit in Singapore, Kim Jong-Un held true to form: He promised almost nothing specific, and yet somehow still managed to break his word, as it was discovered in November that his regime is at work on a new weapon at a new test site.

At this point, whether he realizes it or not (and there's no guarantee he does), Trump has two options. He can stop meeting with Kim, which would not only mean abandoning his Nobel Peace Prize dreams, but also his signature foreign policy "accomplishment." Furthermore, choosing not to schedule another summit would be tantamount to the President's admitting he erred, and he hates to do that. Alternatively, Trump could meet with Kim again sometime in 2019, and get lied to some more, and get used as a prop for photo-ops some more. Again: "hardest job in the world." (Z)

Trump Shoots Down Democrats' Funding Proposal

The Democrats haven't even taken over control of the House (that will happen tomorrow), much less passed any legislation, and yet Donald Trump is already wielding his veto power over them. Responding to Monday's news that the Democrats plan to adopt six funding bills already passed by the Senate (last month), along with a seventh funding the Dept. of Homeland Security that grants $1.3 billion for "border security" but not $5 billlion in wall money, Trump sent out a bunch of preemptive tweets on Tuesday:

It's a good thing Trump is a well-established teetotaler, because otherwise we would be convinced he's hung over from his New Year's Eve celebration. That third tweet, in particular, is barely comprehensible. There's also a certain irony in Trump's using a 21st century communication device (iPhone) and a 21st century communication medium (Twitter) to insist that low-tech solutions are always the best. Undoubtedly, "walls and wheels" will be a full-fledged Internet meme by the time you read this. And one other thing: A high-profile battle with Trump where he's in the weaker position is exactly where Nancy Pelosi wanted to start her tenure as speaker. She couldn't have drawn this up better if she'd hired a team of Hollywood screenwriters to do it.

Anybody who says they know how and when this will end is lying. Normally, when push comes to shove, Trump folds like an accordion. However, he has spent the last two weeks making this personal and convincing himself that the base is behind him (which he's correct about, but only partly). In short, this is what it looks like when he adopts a bunker mentality. Meanwhile, the Democrats would be skinned alive by their voters if the first thing they do out of the gate is yield to Trump. Further, they know full well that the polls and public opinion are on their side.

There are certainly some solutions out there that would allow both sides to claim a "win," like wall money plus amnesty for the dreamers, and maybe the sides will come together behind one of those solutions very quickly. On the other hand, it is now entirely possible that this thing stretches on for weeks and weeks. Trump has formally invited Democratic leaders to the White House for their first chat since Dec. 11. This time, it presumably won't be on camera. Whatever happens, though, once that meeting is over we should have considerably more clarity about how long this thing will linger. (Z)

Trump Slams McChrystal

It is well known by now that Donald Trump cannot allow slights, even the smallest ones, to pass. He also seems to be particularly aggravated when the criticism comes from women of color, or current/former military men. We will let you reach your own conclusions as to why those particular demographics particularly get under his white, draft-dodging skin. Anyhow, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (ret.) shared some pointed thoughts about the President earlier this week, including his opinion that Trump does not tell the truth, and that Trump is immoral. These are hardly earth-shattering insights about the Donald, but they were nonetheless guaranteed to provoke a response. And, on Tuesday morning, they did just that:

The timing of this tweet means that it was literally Trump's very first item of business in 2019 to get on Twitter and to attack someone. Only 1,161 more attack tweets to go in order to equal last year's total.

One wonders if "President" Trump understands what he is implying when he puts "general" in quotes. In any event, the circumstances under which McChrystal lost his last command and James Mattis did are quite similar; they were both a little too loose with their opinions, were removed from a high-profile command (but not fired), and then chose to retire. Last week, in the case of Mattis, Trump claimed that the situation reflected badly on Obama. This week, he's claiming that the nearly identical situation reflects badly on McChrystal. Ah well, nobody ever accused the President of being consistent.

In any event, it's barely newsworthy when Trump squabbles with someone anymore, even a former four-star general. We only mention it because there is a certain segment of the Democratic base that sees "military officer" and "outspoken critic of Trump" and thinks that might just be electoral gold in 2020. See, for example, this piece, headlined "Democrats should nominate a military officer in 2020," or this one, headlined "Why Democrats Fall So Hard for Military Candidates." In other words, some folks are now talking about McChrystal as a possibility for the 2020 ticket, in case the field is not already crowded enough. Stranger things have happened, of course, but it's worth noting that he's got some serious baggage (for example, participating in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death), and that, by all evidences, he's a Republican. So, we wouldn't spend too much money buying up and just yet. (Z)

Romney Slams Trump

Mitt Romney's decision to run for Orrin Hatch's Senate seat, at the age of 71, has been something of a mystery. First, because it's not clear how it fits in with his overall career plan, given that it takes 15-20 years to accrue any real power in the Senate. Second, because his position on Donald Trump is a little hazy. On one hand, Romney was quite critical of the President when he was running for the White House. On the other hand, Romney was more than happy to cozy up to Trump when it seemed like the Secretaryship of State might be available. Who can forget the most awkward political photo taken since Nixon and Elvis got together?

Trump and Romney have...dinner?

Since that day, including during last year's campaign, Romney has been moderately critical of Trump's personal conduct, and moderately supportive of his policies. Sort of a reverse version of "Hate the sin, love the sinner."

On Tuesday, however, Romney clarified his thinking in an op-ed written for the Washington Post. The piece is, on the whole, very critical. The key passage:

The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December. The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president's thoughtless claim that America has long been a "sucker" in world affairs all defined his presidency down.

It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions this month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.

Although even having written this, Romney notes that he does like some of Trump's policies.

Coming on the eve of his swearing-in as a U.S. Senator, it's clear that Romney is firing a shot across the bow of the S.S. Trump. That said, we just spent two years listening to Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) talk a good game, and yet fall right in line when it came time to cast their votes. And Romney has, for a long time, been someone who was willing to talk the talk, but who shied away from actually walking the walk. So, while he has clearly signaled that he intends to be a thorn in Donald Trump's side, don't bet that Romney will actually follow through until presented with concrete evidence to the contrary. (Z)

The Year Ahead, Part I: Races to Watch

Yesterday, we did some looking back at 2018. Today, let's do some looking forward. While just about everyone is going to spend this year focusing on the 2020 horse race, there are some interesting and important elections happening in 2019. Now seems as good a time as any to give a quick overview of the big ones:

  • NC-09: Seats in Congress aren't generally up in odd-numbered years, of course. But the recent election in NC-09 was, shall we say, an odd election. The results are now so badly tainted that a new election is all but certain, either because state authorities in North Carolina decide to call for one, or because House Democrats refuse to seat Mark Harris (R), who "won" the first go-round. The biggest question is whether Harris and Dan McCready (D) will automatically face each other again, or if they will have to go through a second round of primaries.
  • Louisiana: There are three states that will have gubernatorial elections this year, and Louisiana is the biggest. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) is running for re-election. On one hand, he has the advantage of incumbency this time. On the other hand, Louisiana is still pretty red, and Bel Edwards won the last time primarily because his opponent, David Vitter, was enmeshed in all kinds of scandals. The Governor got some good news when the biggest threat to him, Sen. John Kennedy (R), decided not to run. He'll likely end up facing Rep. Ralph Abraham (R) instead, though with Louisiana's jungle primary, you never know. This will definitely be a bellwether election that people look to in order to judge Democratic strength, particularly in the South, heading into 2020.

  • Kentucky: Gov. Matt Bevin (R) is running for re-election despite approval ratings that are 25 points underwater (30% approve, 55% disapprove). The Democratic bench in Kentucky is surprisingly deep, and Attorney General Andy Beshear, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes are all considering a run. Beshear and Grimes have both won statewide elections in Kentucky, and Beshear is the scion of a political dynasty; his father was the governor who preceded Bevin. Still, Kentucky is very red, and Bevin is counting on that to carry the day (in much the same way that it carries the day for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is also way underwater, popularity-wise). This will be another bellwether election.

  • Mississippi: Normally, this would be a foregone conclusion. However, Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is term-limited, and there could be a bloody free-for-all among the half-dozen Republicans who have expressed interest in replacing him. Meanwhile, the Democrats have a solid candidate in Attorney General Jim Hood, who does not appear to have any serious opposition, and who has won four statewide elections in Mississippi. We wouldn't quite call this one a bellwether, as the deck is still pretty stacked against Hood. However, if a Democrat manages to flip the governor's mansion in one of the reddest states in the union, alarm bells are going to go off at the RNC, especially since Donald Trump figures to hold many a rally in favor of the eventual GOP nominee.
  • Virginia: Both houses of the legislatures of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia will be up, as will the lower house in New Jersey. Virginia is the only one of those that is interesting, as the other three are certain to remain in Republican, Republican, and Democratic hands, respectively. In the Old Dominion State, by contrast, the GOP has a slim two-person majority in both the state senate (21-19) and in the house of delegates (51-49). Further, the Democrats just did very well there in the midterm elections. If the blue team can flip just two seats per house, which is well within the realm of possibility, they will add another trifecta on top of the six they gained in 2018, which would push their overall total to 15.
  • Chicago: Rahm Emanuel is unpopular in his home town, and has decided not to run for a third term. The officially non-partisan ballot for his replacement will feature at least 11 names, and very likely more, including Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Cook County Democratic Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle, and former White House Chief of Staff and U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley, who is a member of the legendary Daley family (his father is Richard J. and his brother is Richard M.; both served as mayor, with Richard J. being particularly famous and infamous). The mayoralty of Chicago is as close as modern America gets to an old-style urban boss, so whoever wins the election can be expected to have an outsized influence on national politics, particularly Illinois' congressional delegation.

  • Las Vegas: Nevada is also pretty machine-like, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle. Two-term incumbent Carolyn Goodman (D) is running again, and will likely win. Like the mayor of Chicago, she too has a fair bit of influence over the state's Congressional delegation.

  • Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio: Though Texas' rural areas are deep red, their cities are purple-to-blue. And so, the state's four largest cities all have Democratic mayors (even though the office is officially non-partisan in all cases). Three of the four are up this year (with Austin the exception). Assuming that all three stay in the hands of the blue team, it will be a non-story. But if the GOP flips two or three of them? There will be stories all day and night about how the Texas Republican Party is reasserting itself and getting its house in order. In other words, it's kind of the opposite of the Mississippi governor's race.
  • India: This is the biggie. Current prime minister Narendra Modi is considered an even shot to keep his job. His main competitor, and likely successor if things turn against his Bharatiya Janata Party, is Rahul Gandhi, who would be the fourth member of his family to hold the office (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi are the others; Mahatma Gandhi is not related, though). Modi has generally held Donald Trump at arm's length, while Gandhi is a bit of a rabble-rouser who really dislikes the President. So, India-U.S. relations could be in for a bumpy ride, particularly as regards Syria and Iran.

  • Argentina: Argentina was one of the first South American countries to veer rightward in the 21st century, when they elected the center-right Mauricio Macri in 2015. He ran based on a promise to clean up the economic mess made by Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner's administration, which was left-wing, populist, and pretty corrupt. Macri's done better on the corruption front, but the economy has actually gotten worse, which has turned this election into a real wild card. Will Macri run for reelection? Will Kirchner be back for her revenge? The picture will not be clear until later this year; the elections will be held at the end of October.

  • Afghanistan: The key here is not who wins or loses, but if the Afghanis actually manage to have a legitimate election (i.e., no Taliban calling the shots). If they do, it is a good sign for the health of the government, and the day the U.S. can dial down its commitment to the country draws closer. If they cannot, it's a very bad sign, and that same day moves much further away.

  • The United Kingdom: Officially, the Brits have no election scheduled this year (the next one is scheduled for 2022). However, with Theresa May grappling rather unsuccessfully with the Brexit, and having already faced one vote of no confidence, anything is possible, including a snap election.

So, that's how it looks from the vantage point of January 1. Undoubtedly, other races will be added to the list based on resignations, votes of no confidence, and the like. (Z)

The Year Ahead, Part II: Predictions

The elections that will take place in 2019 are among the known unknowns of the year. There are a lot of other known unknowns, and probably even more unknown unknowns. A lot of outlets have predictions about some of those various unknowns; here are some of the more interesting ones:

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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)."

  • 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."

  • 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."

  • 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?"

  • 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."

And while we are at it, we'll add a few predictions of our own to round things out: (1) 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; (2) 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; (3) Unemployment will rise above 6% for the first time since August of 2014; and (4) There will be a lot more talk, including from (anonymous) insiders within the White House, about the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment. Let's see how we do! (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan01 Warren Is In
Jan01 Mattis Is Out
Jan01 House Democrats Have Their Plan in Place
Jan01 Federal Employees Sue
Jan01 Trump's 2018 in Review: The Highs and Lows
Jan01 Trump's 2018 in Review: By the Numbers
Jan01 Trump's 2018 in Review: Twitter
Dec31 Trump Can't Find a Consistent Way to Blame the Democrats for the Shutdown
Dec31 McChrystal Says Trump Is Immoral
Dec31 Kelly Gives an Interview with the Los Angeles Times
Dec31 Pay No Attention to Lindsey Graham
Dec31 The Environmental Impact of the Wall
Dec31 Democrats United against Trump but Split on Everything Else
Dec31 Where Will Trump Be Tonight?
Dec31 Monday Q&A
Dec30 Russians Pressured Manafort while He Led Trump Campaign
Dec30 Trump Keeps Tweeting; That's How the White House Staff Likes It
Dec30 This Is What Fake News Looks Like
Dec30 And This Is What Corruption Looks Like
Dec30 How Will History Remember 2018?
Dec30 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Jerry Brown
Dec29 Cell Phone Data Puts Cohen in Prague Despite His Claim He Has Never Been There
Dec29 No Movement on Shutdown, Despite Trump's Pretending Otherwise
Dec29 Trump to Freeze Federal Employees' Pay
Dec29 North Carolina Election Board Is Disbanded before Certifying the NC-09 Election
Dec29 House Republicans Conclude Investigation into FBI's Handling of Clinton E-mails
Dec29 Democrats Will Have $129 Million Extra to Spend on Staff in January
Dec29 Putin Seems to Be Favoring the GRU over the FSB
Dec28 Congress Reconvenes and Nothing Happens
Dec28 Federal Government Advising Its Workers on How to Deal with Creditors
Dec28 Poll: More Blame Trump for Shutdown than Democrats
Dec28 For Trump, Desperation Appears to Be Setting In
Dec28 Two Texas Democrats Are on a Collision Course in 2020
Dec28 How Russian Money Saved Trump
Dec28 MSNBC Tops Fox in the Latest Ratings
Dec27 Trump Finally Visits the Troops
Dec27 Effects of Government Shutdown Slowly Begin to Show Themselves
Dec27 Term Limits on the President Could be Abolished
Dec27 Markets Come Roaring Back
Dec27 Whitaker Falsely Claimed Honor He Never Got
Dec27 California May Lose a Seat in the House
Dec27 Thursday Q&A
Dec26 Trump Promises to Keep the Government Shut Down Until He Gets His Wall
Dec26 Why Immigration Is the Spark that Keeps Shutting Down the Government
Dec26 Another Migrant Child Dies in U.S. Custody
Dec26 Times Looks Into Spurious Claims that Got Trump out of Serving in Vietnam
Dec26 Trump vs. the Supreme Court