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Political Wire logo Gabbard Once Touted Gay Conversion Therapy
Shutdown Pinches Economic Growth
Kremlin Blessed Russia’s NRA Operation
Trump Confronts Prospect of ‘Nonstop Political War’
Mueller Intensely Focused on Talk to Russians
Mass Confusion on How to End Shutdown

Editorial note: Starting today, we are going on a new schedule for a while: We will publish only Monday through Friday, unless there is really big news. For example, a presidential resignation late Friday evening in the hope that nobody notices.

Shutdown, Day 19: Much Theater, Little Progress

On Wednesday, Donald Trump met briefly with Democratic leaders. Upon finding that their position on his wall was exactly the same as it has been since he became president, he stormed out of the room, and immediately sent a tweet (while his campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail). On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) opined that the whole thing was set up just so Trump could walk out (not unlike VP Mike Pence's visit to an Indianapolis Colts game), and that he prefers a soap opera over serious negotiations.

As anyone who has taken Negotiations 101 knows, the first rule of successful negotiating is: "always be willing to walk away." So, is Pelosi wrong here? Maybe Trump was just demonstrating his mastery of the art of the deal? Well, another core tenet of negotiation is something generally known as the "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," or BATNA. The general notion is that before a negotiation ever begins, the skilled dealmaker should consider what they will be left with if they are indeed compelled to walk away. Then, if negotiations are failing, they can consider whether or not they are better off jumping ship. Another, more slangy, way of expressing the same idea is "Plan B." There is no evidence that Trump is trying to negotiate in good faith, nor that he has a BATNA/Plan B in mind. So, Pelosi would appear to have the right of it.

In case there was any doubt about that, Trump helped prove the Speaker's point by spending the day on theatricality. There were the tweets, of course, including this one:

There was also a wild, impromptu press conference on the White House lawn. And the highlight of the day, such as it is, was his visit to the Texas border for an immigration round table and a bunch of photo ops. Be very clear, the trip to the border was pointless, was solely for publicity, and is not going to change a damn thing. That's not our assessment, mind you. No, it's exactly what Trump told reporters about a possible border visit earlier this week, right before his Oval Office address.

Over the course of the day, between his press conference and his trip, Trump did say a few things that are worth noting. He claimed he has the "absolute right" to declare a state of emergency (his staff is hard at work on the lawsuit that would prompt, but so too are the Democrats). He also officially admitted that Mexico isn't going to pay for the wall, and insisted that he never said any such thing. That, of course, is a lie so egregious that it belongs in the pages of a George Orwell book. Presumably, Trump will soon be advising Americans that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. Actually, that last part is already something of a personal mantra for him.

The President also insisted that Senate Republicans remain very unified behind him. It's hard to say exactly how true that is. Certainly, it's not 100% true, as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Cory Gardner (R-CO) have broken publicly with the President, while Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) warned that the caucus is "getting pretty close" to a breaking point. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) hasn't said anything publicly, but he's probably not on board the Trump train, either. On the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) officially took Trump's side, formally declining to bring up any of the Democrats' bills for a vote. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced that he thinks the time has come for the President to roll the dice and declare a national emergency. This would be the same Lindsey Graham who denounced such a move last week, and who 24 hours before said that the Senate was working on a compromise to resolve the situation. So, it's another illustration of why he's really not worth listening to anymore.

The Democrats, for their part, were fairly quiet on Thursday. Outside of a few media appearances by Pelosi, they spent their time passing a few piecemeal bills that would have reopened certain parts of the government, including the Depts. of Agriculture and Transportation. Those bills, as noted, were dead on arrival when they got to the Senate. The Senate, for its part, passed a bill late in the day on Thursday that would guarantee that all federal employees get back pay once the government reopens. That one will head to the House on Friday and then, assuming they pass it, to Donald Trump for his signature. Presumably neither the House nor the President will give the thumbs down, since doing so would be terrible optics.

It is good that federal employees will apparently not be shortchanged over a situation that is not their doing. That said, money next week (or next month, or whenever) is not all that useful for those who need to buy food and pay for electricity today. And indeed, today is the day that most federal staffers will miss their first paycheck. Meanwhile, it is estimated that the U.S. economy is sustaining an unrecoverable loss of $1.2 billion a week. The government's credit is also at risk of being downgraded, according to Fitch Ratings. That will not help maintain the robust economic growth the GOP was counting on when they passed their tax bill, nor will it do anything to keep the U.S. from sinking into a recession. So, no matter how quickly this thing ends, there are going to be lingering consequences. (Z)

Trump Campaign Had Over 100 Contacts with Russians

Everyone knows that there were many members of the Trump campaign who had contact with prominent Russians during the 2016 campaign, and that the number of Russians they were talking with was quite sizable. That meant that there were all sorts of different pairings, like campaign chair Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, or Donald Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, or Michael Flynn and Sergey Kislyak. The folks at the Moscow Project, under the auspices of the Center for American Progress, did the yeoman's work of documenting every one of the publicly-known contacts, and they came up with a figure that is larger than one might have guessed: Over 100 between Team Trump and Team Putin.

That number is, of course, a floor. It is entirely possible that there were contacts that are not currently known, and that may never be known. We will presumably learn more when special counsel Robert Mueller issues his report(s), an event that many outlets insist is coming sooner rather than later. Given the staggeringly high level of contact between the Trump campaign and a foreign adversary, and given that the foreign adversary was unquestionably dabbling in the election, it is inconceivable that nothing untoward happened. Especially given that we already know that Trump & Co. either did not understand, or did not care about, the basics of campaign finance law, which is a considerably simpler matter to navigate than interactions with a foreign adversary. (Z)

Cohen to Testify Before Congress

Even as Donald Trump copes with the government shutdown, a real mess from which he has no clean exit, he continues to get bad news on other fronts. Thursday's addition to his pile of woes: Former fixer Michael Cohen will testify publicly before the House Oversight Committee on February 7, roughly one month before he is set to make a dramatic change in address and wardrobe (Think: orange jumpsuits).

This will be the highest-profile, highest-publicity appearance so far by one of the Trump insiders who has now turned against the President. It will also be the first public demonstration of the Democrats' newly-reacquired subpoena and investigative powers. It's unclear exactly what the committee will be able to discuss with Cohen without running afoul of Robert Mueller and his investigation, but chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will undoubtedly spend much of the next few weeks gaining perfect clarity on that issue. (Z)

White House Thrilled by Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Health Problems

When Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized for her third cancer surgery last month, Donald Trump publicly said (well, tweeted) the right things:

From any other president, it would be entirely believable that at the end of the day, they could put aside their differences with a political rival and wish them good health. With Trump, given his long record of boorish and self-interested behavior, it was very hard to accept that there was any genuine feeling behind this tweet. And those who were skeptical were right to think that way, as it turns out, as members of the Trump administration are giddy at the prospect of getting to fill another seat on the Supreme Court. That includes the President, for whom the seating of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh are among his biggest "wins," despite the fact that he had little to do with the process.

In anticipation of Ginsburg dying, or being compelled to step down, the administration has already reached out to various conservative groups—most obviously the Judicial Crisis Network and the Federalist Society—for help in developing a shortlist of potential candidates. At the same time, they are also working on a media strategy, recognizing that replacing the liberal Ginsburg with a Trump appointee, and giving the conservatives a 6-3 majority on the Court, will trigger a confirmation battle royale that will make the Kavanaugh hearings look like a Sunday picnic. It is improbable that Ginsburg will voluntarily step down while Trump is in office, and it's impossible that the GOP could find 67 votes in the Senate to impeach her, even if she is no longer able to show up for work. So, this largely becomes a grim question of whether or not she can keep kicking until 2021.

Actually, she doesn't have to keep kicking. She doesn't even have to move. All she has to do to keep her seat is to be technically alive, whatever that means. Consider this potential scenario. Ginsburg fully understands what her death would mean politically, so when she gets close to the end, she instructs her medical team to keep her "alive" on life support until Jan. 20, 2021, at noon. With modern technology, they might be able to pull that off. As long as she is "alive," albeit just lying in a hospital bed with a lot of machines attached to her, there is no vacancy on the court. Of course, the Supreme Court would no doubt be asked to make a judgment about what it means to be "alive," something it declined to do in the Terry Schiavo case. In theory at least, if such a case came before the court, Ginsburg would be entitled to vote on whether or not she was dead. Suppose she voted "Yes, I am dead." That paradox would be right up there with the burning theological question of whether God is powerful enough to make a rock so heavy that even He cannot lift it.

If Ginsburg's passing does come to pass, Republicans could find that their "victory" turns out to be hollow. The circumstances by which they would have acquired their 6-3 majority are so dubious, it could serve to undermine the authority of the court for a generation. Or, it could prompt a voter backlash against the GOP Senate majority in 2020, or might even provide the impetus for significant change to the Supreme Court—limits on how long justices can serve, a change in the number of justices, etc. Of course, the notorious RBG is a tough old bird, so the odds are she renders this all moot and is back to 100% by the end of the month. (Z)

Steve King Can't Figure out When "White Supremacist" Became Offensive

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was already the most overtly racist member of Congress (which is saying something for a body that also includes Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-MS, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-CA). This week, he decided to sit down for a chat with the New York Times (it is interesting how the Times is a biased, ultra-liberal, fake news outlet until a GOP politician wants some free PR). During the interview, the Congressman was apparently really feeling his oats, because he wondered, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?"

King graduated college nearly 50 years ago, and is presumably not familiar with modern pedagogical trends. However, we are happy to advise him that every university in the country still offers plenty of coursework covering the greatest hits of Western civilization, from the ancient Greeks, to William Shakespeare, to Beethoven, to George Washington. As to "white supremacist" and "white nationalist," there was a fellow in Germany in the 1930s that had a fair bit of responsibility for turning those terms into dirty words. He got a big assist from some Southern fellows dressed in all white, including their hoods, in the 1950s and 1960s.

In any case, only King knows if this was some sort of calculated move designed to gin up his base, or if he was just so overjoyed by Donald Trump's wall and his anti-immigrant rhetoric that he just couldn't help himself. However, he just won election by a fairly narrow margin (3%), despite facing a political newbie, and its being a non-presidential year. For 2020, he's already drawn a serious primary challenger in the form of Iowa State Sen. Randy Feenstra. The RNC, in response to King's interview, announced that they expect to stay out of King's primary, and to let nature take its course. If King survives, he is going to be one of the Democrats' top targets, and may end up facing off against the fellow who nearly knocked him off, J.D. Scholten (D), for a second time. Oh, and on top of that, King appeals to an older demographic whose numbers are shrinking. Add it all up, and he would be wise not to commit to a lease in Washington that runs beyond January 3, 2021. (Z)

Crowded Presidential Field Could Imperil Democrats' Chances at Retaking the Senate

There was a time when one could plausibly run for the Senate and the White House at the same time. In fact, in 1880, James Garfield was simultaneously elected to president, senator, and representative (he accepted only the first job, of course—unfortunately for him, it didn't last too long, because he didn't last too long). These days, however, it takes so much time, money, networking, and energy to run for federal office, it's very difficult to have multiple irons in the fire. Plus, in many states, it's not legal. As a result, as Politico's James Arkin observes, the wide-open race for the Democratic presidential nod could deprive the party of one or more of their best Senate candidates as they try to beat the odds and retake the Senate in 2020.

Obviously, it requires a fairly narrow set of circumstances for this dynamic to come into play, namely: (1) a vulnerable GOP senator, who (2) occupies a seat that happens to be up in 2020, and (3) lives in the same state as one of the Democrats' rising stars. The clearest case is Colorado, where Cory Gardner is very vulnerable, and the term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) would have the best chance of knocking him off. There's also Texas, where Julián Castro and/or Beto O'Rourke could give Sen. John Cornyn (R) a run for his money, and Montana, where the term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock (D) would be the Democrats' dream candidate against Sen. Steve Daines (R).

With all of this said, this problem will probably prove to be not too significant. The Democratic bench in Colorado is pretty deep, Cornyn may prove to be not that vulnerable, and Bullock is a long shot to launch a presidential run. It's also the case that a candidate who gets knocked out of the presidential race early enough potentially still has time to course-correct and mount a Senate bid. Think Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in 2016. Still, Democrats tend to be worriers, and this is as good a thing to worry about as any, we suppose. (Z)

Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Kirsten Gillibrand

This is our first week on our new five-day-a-week schedule, and so this feature will appear today and will remain on Fridays for the foreseeable future. Also, we've made some corrections and additions to the candidate profiles page (see "2020 Dem candidates" at the top left), including a list of candidates we are planning to profile in upcoming weeks.

Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Full Name: Kirsten Elizabeth Gillibrand

  • Age on January 20, 2021: 54

  • Background: Gillibrand's parents were both lawyers, and her father and maternal grandmother were both political heavy-hitters, so her career as a lawyer and political heavy-hitter was somewhat foreordained. She grew up in central New York, took her bachelor's degree in Asian studies at Dartmouth, and earned her law degree at UCLA. For close to a decade after graduating, she practiced law, primarily at the prominent firm Davis Polk, where one of her main tasks was defending tobacco giant Philip Morris.

  • Political Experience: Gillibrand's first foray into politics came during her undergraduate years, when she interned for Senator Al D'Amato (R-NY). That eventually led to involvement with the DNC's Women's Leadership Forum, where she struck up a friendship with Hillary Clinton. That resulted in service in Bill Clinton's HUD Dept. during the last two years of his administration. She returned to private practice for five years, and then ran for and won NY-20's House seat. Serving for one term in the House, Gillibrand developed a reputation as a centrist. In 2009, she was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton upon the latter's appointment as Barack Obama's secretary of state. Gillibrand won the election that triggered in 2010, and was reelected to full terms in 2012 and 2018. She has been considerably more liberal since joining the Senate, a development that she attributes to representing a different constituency, since New York as a whole is more liberal than NY-20. Factually speaking, that is true, as the district was R+2 while she represented it, while the state is D+12.

  • Signature Issue(s): MeToo. Gillibrand has consistently been an advocate for the victims of sexual violence and sexual assault, particularly in the military. Since the emergence of the MeToo movement, she has been Congress' most prominent voice in calling for perpetrators to pay the price for their misdeeds. She is a leading critic of both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton on that front, and played a central role in bringing an end to Al Franken's Senate career.

  • Instructive Quote: "Just telling women: If you don't speak up, things aren't gonna change. If you don't become an advocate, it's not gonna change. If you don't vote, it's not gonna change. If you don't run, it's not gonna change."

  • Completely Trivial Fact: The politically-inclined maternal grandmother we mention above is Dorothea "Polly" Noonan, who, from behind the scenes, effectively ran the city of Albany for four decades. She was a local legend and a very colorful character, known in particular for her penchant for four-letter words. In fact, her story is interesting enough that it was the subject of an off-Broadway play starring Edie Falco last year.

  • Recent News: There isn't much to do in the Senate right now, given the shutdown. Nonetheless, Gillibrand has been busy working on...other matters: planning a series of visits to Iowa, leasing 5,000 feet of office space in her hometown in New York, and talking to Wall Street types about how much money they have with her name on it.

  • Three Biggest Pros: (1) Nobody will excite Trump-hating voters more than Gillibrand—beyond her outspoken criticism of his history of sexual assault, she's also voted against more of his cabinet nominees than any other senator; (2) Her relative youth will be a major selling point against the two-decades-older Trump; and (3) She's pretty unfiltered, and voters seem to like that these days.

  • Three Biggest Cons: (1) Progressives may rebel against someone with Gillibrand's sometimes-conservative record, particularly when it's paired with having worked for Big Tobacco; (2) Republicans will attack her, with some justification, and probably with some success, as Hillary 2.0; and (3) Blue-collar, Midwestern men will not be rejoining the Democratic bandwagon in droves if Gillibrand is the candidate.

  • Is She Actually Running?: Gillibrand is on the record as saying she will finish her current term in the Senate (which runs through 2024). Of course, so is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Further, no senator needs 5,000 square feet of office space for constituent services, nor to make half a dozen trips to Iowa. So yes, she's running.

  • Betting Odds: The books have her anywhere from 22-to-1 to 11-to-1, which implies a roughly 5%-9% chance of landing the nomination.

  • The Bottom Line: Gillibrand occupies the same lane as Warren (Northeastern, progressive with a dollop of centrism, outspoken feminist) and was clearly caught by surprise when the Massachusetts senator launched her campaign last month. She is just as clearly making up for lost time, and will presumably declare very soon. When she does, Gillibrand is one of the (many) frontrunners.

You can access the list of candidate profiles by clicking on the 2020 Dem candidates link in the menu to the left of the map. (Z)

If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer, click here for submission instructions and previous Q & A's. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan10 Trump Storms Out of Meeting with Democrats
Jan10 House Democrats Use Health Care to Pressure Republicans
Jan10 White House Wants to Expand Trump's Tariff Powers
Jan10 Barr Met with Senators Yesterday
Jan10 Rosenstein Plans to Leave the Justice Dept. after Barr is Confirmed
Jan10 Romney Gets a Chilly Reception in the Senate
Jan10 Steyer Will Not Run in 2020
Jan10 Thursday Q&A
Jan09 Smoke, Meet Gun
Jan09 Trump Gives Border Speech He Didn't Want to Deliver
Jan09 Takeaways from Tuesday's Speeches
Jan09 Other Shutdown News
Jan09 Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Jan08 Shutdown Day 17: Things Are About to Go from Bad to Worse
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