• Trump Gives Border Speech He Didn't Want to Deliver
• Takeaways from Tuesday's Speeches
• Other Shutdown News
• Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
24 hours ago, it seemed certain that Donald Trump's very first primetime address from the Oval Office would be the biggest story of the day. And it's certainly possible that most outlets will see it that way. But in our view, the news on the Russiagate front was much bigger, with much more significant long-term consequences.
The key player in Tuesday's Russia-related news was Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign manager. Manafort has already shown himself to be a bit on the incompetent side, and it would seem that birds of a feather flock together, because his lawyers made a giant boo-boo. In the public version of their court filings, they redacted those portions that were not meant for general consumption. However, they didn't know how to use their software properly, such that someone at the New York Times realized that it was possible to remove the redactions. And so, we now know that special counsel Robert Mueller believes that Manafort met several times with Konstantin Kilimnik, who is connected with Russian intelligence, and that Manafort shared the Trump campaign's internal polling numbers.
Assuming Mueller has proof of his claims—and surely he must—then this would appear to be the smoking gun that proves collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The reason that Kilimnik & Co. would want the polling numbers would be to target their operations—either their online propaganda campaign, or their efforts to interfere with voting. So that would be Team Trump giving information to the Russians, and Team Putin turning around and using that information to manipulate the election. If that's not collusion, it's hard to imagine what is.
Tuesday's news does not directly implicate the President, at least not yet, but it certainly does put to rest his claim that there was no collusion. Former GOP senator Rick Santorum was on CNN, and he previewed the spin we should expect to see in the next few days, declaring that it was not Trump's fault that he had to hire shady people, because the RNC wouldn't help him, and speculating that there's a "99% chance" that Manafort was a "lone wolf" and was acting of his own volition. "I had no choice but to hire crooks" is a ridiculous defense, and "We had no idea what Manafort was doing" is not much better. It's entirely implausible that the campaign manager would take such a huge risk on his own without looping in some (or all) senior members of the campaign. Further, Manafort freely admits (in the redacted-but-not-redacted-anymore part of the filing) that he traveled to Europe to meet with Kilimnik. How did he explain that meeting to the Trumps if he was keeping them in the dark about his schemes? "Hey guys, gonna pop over to Europe for a few days to have lunch with my buddy Konstantin. Think nothing of it!"
That wasn't the only bad news for Trump on the Russiagate front on Tuesday. The Supreme Court has officially ruled against "Company A," which will now have to respond to Mueller's subpoena. It's still a mystery as to what company this is, or what their role in the investigation might be, but whoever they are, they are going to have to give up the goods.
Meanwhile, Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya—the central figure at the notorious Trump Tower meeting—was charged with obstruction of justice in a money-laundering case on Tuesday. The case is not directly related to Donald Trump, but it nonetheless reiterates two things about Veselnitskaya: She has close ties to the Russian government, and she is likely involved in shady business, including money laundering. The charges were filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Southern New York, and so are not directly from Mueller. However, he has worked with that office on other matters (like Michael Cohen), and it's not too hard to imagine that Tuesday's charges might be intended to convince Veselnitskaya to spill her guts on Team Trump. Of course, she is currently in Russia and is not likely to be visiting the SDNY offices any time soon.
There is no evidence that the Trump administration knew that any of these three stories was going to break on Tuesday, so the timing of his speech could well be a coincidence. On the other hand, it's a heck of a big coincidence from an administration that likes a nice distraction. So, who knows? (Z)
It was very clear that Donald Trump might use Tuesday night's address to declare a national emergency and to order the Dept. of Defense to begin building his border wall. And he very much wanted to do so; and wrestled with the decision throughout the day on Tuesday. However, he was ultimately persuaded by some of his closest allies that the move would probably blow up in his face. And so, Tuesday's address was just a collection of talking points, with nothing new, and nothing all that newsworthy.
Given that he wasn't going to declare an emergency, and that he's not very good at sitting at a desk and reading off a Teleprompter, Trump didn't even want to give the speech, according to the New York Times' Maggie Haberman. He only went through with it because the announcement had been made, and his staff told him he couldn't back out. The President's lack of enthusiasm showed. His delivery was so wooden it made George W. Bush look like Abraham Lincoln. And he seemed to be rushing; the whole thing clocked in at less than 10 minutes (you can view it here or read it here).
As noted already, the speech was chock full of the standard talking points about crime and drugs and gangs and how the Democrats are big meanies. It was also full of falsehoods, of course. If you wish to read a thorough fisking, you have your choice of outlets, including the Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, ABC News, CNN, Politico, and Politifact. Though if you watch the speech, you really don't need their help, because the lies and distortions are so obvious. For our part, we will limit ourselves to two illustrative examples. The first came early in the address:
Finally, as part of an overall approach to border security, law enforcement professionals have requested $5.7 billion for a physical barrier. At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It's also what our professionals at the border want and need. This is just common sense.
Virtually every part of this is false, from the $5.7 billion figure (which Trump apparently pulled out of thin air several weeks back) to his definition of "common sense." But the real whopper is his suggestion that the Democrats asked for steel rather than concrete, and that he graciously granted their request. In fact, that non-concession "concession" was Team Trump's idea, and switching building substances does not do any more to address the Democrats' concerns than it would if Trump announced that instead of $5.7 billion for the wall, he'll agree to 1,418,965.85 bitcoins instead.
Here's our second example:
Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl. Every week, 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border. More Americans will die from drugs this year than were killed in the entire Vietnam War.
It is true that more people will die from overdoses this year than in the Vietnam War, and it's also true that lots of drugs come across the Mexican border. However, as we have pointed out before, most drugs are hidden inside of legal shipments. And most of the overdoses will not be from illegal street drugs, but from prescription drugs. A wall will do little about the illegal stuff, and nothing about the prescription. So, Trump's implication that going wall-less is like inflicting the Vietnam War on the U.S. population every year is exceedingly dishonest.
To the extent that there was anything different or unexpected about the speech, it was in its emphasis. There was a fair bit of focus on the humanitarian dimensions of this issue, particularly early in the speech. Meanwhile, terrorism wasn't mentioned at all, and the wall didn't come up in a substantive way until near the end.
Trump's problem, however, is that he doesn't really believe what he's selling. Whether or not one agreed with Ronald Reagan's take on the Cold War, there was never any question that he truly believed that those godless commies were a threat to the American way of life. Whether or not one agreed with Barack Obama on gun violence, there was never any question that his tears were real. But Trump doesn't really care about the wall, except as a "win," and he certainly doesn't care about the humanitarian issues. He's proven that with his words and his actions, over and over.
Because there is no real conviction behind Trump's program and his words, the address was ineffective and unpersuasive. We've already noted his obvious lack of enthusiasm; his lack of genuine feeling also came through in two other ways. The first is that the speech was internally inconsistent, and had every sign of being a franken-speech, pieced together from a bunch of memos where top staffers each listed suggested points to be made. The news outlets could practically have put title cards up: "This part is from Stephen Miller," "This part is from Ivanka," "This part is from Mick Mulvaney." As a result, you had moments like this one, where the President suggested that women and children who try to immigrate to the U.S. are the real victims:
Last month, 20,000 migrant children were illegally brought into the United States—a dramatic increase. These children are used as human pawns by vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs. One in three women are sexually assaulted on the dangerous trek up through Mexico. Women and children are the biggest victims, by far, of our broken system.
And then, within 45 seconds of this moment (thanks, Ivanka!), he was railing about how the horrible, awful illegals kill cops and ruin America's cities (thanks, Stephen!). If you change gears that quickly in a car, the transmission will fall out.
The other way in which Trump's lack of genuine feeling came out was during passages that rang utterly hollow. The most obvious of those was this one:
Over the last several years, I've met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I've held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible. I will never forget the pain in their eyes, the tremble in their voices, and the sadness gripping their souls.
It is possible he's met with folks like this, but there is zero chance that he responded in this way. Trump is like Richard Nixon—he doesn't do empathy. If the President had talked about the fury he felt when talking to these individuals, then that would at least be consistent with his personality, and possibly even plausible. But this passage was clearly written by a wannabe Hollywood screenwriter who was trying to give the address an emotional climax.
Once Trump was done, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took their turn (you can read their address at the same link as for Trump's, above, or you can watch here). They spoke for less than five minutes, and did not bother to respond directly to the President's address. In part, that is because they did not know for certain what he would say, and in part it is because they knew that the media and the talking heads would do the fact checking and the critiques for them. So, they kept it short and sweet, and merely tried to communicate that they would very much like to get the government reopened, and that—in their view—this whole situation is the handiwork of Trump. The key part of their response came during Schumer's portion:
Make no mistake: Democrats and the President both want stronger border security. However, we sharply disagree with the President about the most effective way to do it.
So, how do we untangle this mess?
There is an obvious solution: separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security. There is bipartisan legislation—supported by Democrats and Republicans—to re-open government while allowing debate over border security to continue.
There is no excuse for hurting millions of Americans over a policy difference. Federal workers are about to miss a paycheck. Some families can't get a mortgage to buy a new home. Farmers and small businesses won't get loans they desperately need.
Most presidents have used Oval Office addresses for noble purposes. This president just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear, and divert attention from the turmoil in his Administration.
Overall, it was a pretty average performance from the two Democrats. It certainly did not help that the location they chose for their speech (presumably a hallway in the Capitol) had terrible acoustics. Still, given that the blue team has the stronger position right now, they did not need to hit a home run (or even to try for the fences).
In the end, the most important takeaway is this: It is inconceivable that Trump's low-energy performance, or Pelosi and Schumer's hit-and-run tag-team changed anyone's minds. We are exactly where we were when the evening started, except that Trump's silver bullet (national emergency) will be even harder for him to use. That said, it may be the only bullet he has left. (Z)
Perhaps our assessment of the speeches (see above) is way, way off. Fortunately, several outlets have already had time to produce takeaways, so we can compare notes:NPR:
- We are no closer to the shutdown being over
- Trump's dark worldview holds
- The president's real audience: wavering congressional Republicans
- Instead of being empathetic to federal workers, he insisted this is what they want
- Trump did OK with the "optics," but that's not the most important thing
- Democrats are focused on ending the shutdown, while Trump is focused on the wall
- Is a national emergency declaration the only way out?
- Trump did not shift the debate
- No declaration of national emergency
- The Democrats did what they needed to do
- A speech for the base
- A mixed bag for the TV networks
- Neither side had new arguments to sway voters
- The television networks gave the public a clear view of both sides
- Trump tried to shift his rhetoric, but only part way
- The administration is trying to widen the debate beyond Trump's wall
- A declaration of a national emergency remains one possible outcome
That's three additional viewpoints, who largely seem to have reached the same conclusions we did. We may do this again tomorrow, and see if that holds up, if a bunch more outlets produce takeaway pieces. (Z)
The speeches were the main shutdown-related news of the day, but they weren't the only news. First, the administration announced that it will make sure that food stamp recipients get their February installments. Team Trump will apparently achieve this by delivering those installments a few days early, as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding doesn't end until January 31. This is another obvious PR move, like Monday's announcement that tax refunds would still be processed. If the shutdown somehow lingers until March, however, the administration admitted the SNAP recipients are out of luck.
The other significant news is that Donald Trump's support in Congress continues to falter. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Susan Collins (R-ME), who both face tough reelection campaigns in 2020, have both publicly suggested the time has come for the administration to back off its position. Now, their colleague Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is not up in 2020, has joined them, telling reporters that she is "amenable" to reopening the government while continuing the discussion over the wall. In addition, some of the senators who are less centrist than this trio—including Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Pat Roberts (R-KS), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)—told reporters that they continue to stand behind the President, but that there is an expiration date on their support. So, the clock is ticking for Trump to either (1) find a compromise, (2) surrender, or (3) throw all caution to the wind and give the national emergency approach a try. (Z)
Just last month, the Weekly Standard, which was far and away the preeminent conservative-but-anti-Trump media outlet, folded. This seemed to suggest that there was no oxygen left for that sort of thing, and that the Donald's takeover of the right-wing media was complete. However, this week, Weekly Standard co-founder Bill Kristol and conservative former radio host Charlie Sykes joined together to establish a site called The Bulwark as an anti-Trump successor to the Standard. Actually, the site already existed, but it was just a content aggregator. Now, it will feature its own staff-created conservative content.
Sykes and Kristol insist that the new site "is not The Weekly Standard 2.0." However, it has the same founder, the same editorial slant, many of the same writers, and—as Sykes himself acknowledges—"a lot of familiar voices" and "a similar flavor." So, readers will be forgiven if they decide the site actually is Standard 2.0. In any case, Sykes did not share his business plan, and so it is not clear how the new outlet will keep itself economically viable when the old outlet was not. Hopefully it will survive, however, as it is useful to have a site that presents a thoughtful conservative take on the issues as opposed to a bunch of Trump propaganda. (Z)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan08 Can Trump Really Declare a National Emergency?
Jan08 How Much Is $5 Billion, Really?
Jan08 Trump Administration May Try to Suppress Parts of Mueller Report
Jan08 Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Miss Oral Arguments for the First Time
Jan08 How Re-electable Is Donald Trump Right Now?
Jan07 Trump Offers an Alternative to a Concrete Wall: A Steel Wall
Jan07 Trump in No Hurry to Name Permanent Cabinet Members
Jan07 Schiff Is Not Interested in Impeaching Trump
Jan07 Ex-Felons Can Register to Vote in Florida Tomorrow--Maybe
Jan07 Sixteen Big Questions about Mueller's Investigation
Jan07 Money Is the New Straw Poll
Jan07 Petition Asks NYC to Rename a Stretch of Fifth Avenue
Jan07 Monday Q&A
Jan06 Shutdown Talks Going Nowhere Fast
Jan06 Senate Kicks Hundreds of Nominees Back to Trump
Jan06 It's Constitutional Amendment Time!
Jan06 Public Policy 101, Part I: Why a Wall Is a Bad Idea
Jan06 Public Policy 101, Part II: Why Term Limits Are a Bad Idea
Jan06 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Julián Castro
Jan05 Epic Power Struggle Begins
Jan05 Trump Threatens to Declare State of Emergency
Jan05 How Will the Shutdown End?
Jan05 Shutdown's Effects Are Becoming More Pronounced
Jan05 Democrats Unveil Top Priority Bill
Jan05 Mueller Grand Jury Extended
Jan05 Powell Says He Won't Resign; Market Rallies
Jan05 Pat Roberts Will Not Run for Reelection
Jan04 Nancy Pelosi Is Elected Speaker of the House
Jan04 The Chess Game Has Begun
Jan04 Some States Are Switching from Caucuses to Primaries
Jan04 Bernie Sanders Is in a Bit of Hot Water
Jan04 Ryan Zinke Is in a Lot of Hot Water
Jan04 Jerrold Nadler Introduces a Bill to Protect Mueller
Jan04 Brad Sherman Introduces a Bill to Impeach Trump
Jan03 No Progress Ending the Shutdown
Jan03 Trump Goes Easy on Pelosi So Far
Jan03 Trump Attacks Romney: "I Won Big and He Didn't"
Jan03 Five House Chairs Will Drive Trump Nuts
Jan03 Pittenger Won't Run in NC-09 Primary If There Is One
Jan03 Beto vs. Bernie: It's On
Jan03 Thursday Q&A
Jan02 Russians Arrest Alleged U.S. Spy
Jan02 Kim Jong-Un Issues Threats
Jan02 Trump Shoots Down Democrats' Funding Proposal
Jan02 Trump Slams McChrystal
Jan02 Romney Slams Trump
Jan02 The Year Ahead, Part I: Races to Watch
Jan02 The Year Ahead, Part II: Predictions
Jan01 Warren Is In
Jan01 Mattis Is Out