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Political Wire logo Protesters Glue Themselves to Capitol Entrances
Freedom Caucus Opposes Trump’s Budget Deal
Biden Says Trump Much Worse Than Anyone Thought
Democrats Frustrated With Pace of Investigations
Gabbard Says Harris ‘Not Qualified’ to Be President
FBI Director Admits He Hasn’t Read Mueller Report

TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Budget Deal Is in Place
      •  Trump Administration to Exercise Broad Immigration Enforcement Powers
      •  Everyone Is Jockeying for Position Prior to Mueller's Testimony
      •  Pence Mystery Explained...Maybe
      •  A Skeleton from Biden's Closet
      •  Cumulus Media Buries Pete Buttigieg Interview
      •  Tuesday Q&A

Budget Deal Is in Place

There was a fair bit of pressure on all sides to work out a new budget for the federal government this week. Congress is about to leave town for a five-week recess, and not long thereafter the debt limit was going to be reached, leaving the government unable to pay its bills. And nobody wanted a shutdown heading into an election year. So, after a week or so of negotiating, the White House (primarily Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin) and the leaders of Congress (primarily Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA) have reached a deal.

The agreement continues the longstanding tradition of papering over political differences by getting out the credit card and giving everyone a windfall. Democrats are going to get about $100 billion more a year in domestic spending, while Republicans are going to get about $75 billion more a year in defense spending. The deal covers the next two years, and during that time, the national debt limit will be waived. The Budget Control Act of 2011, which was meant to rein in spending but never really did, is now repealed.

There are elements to the new agreement that will displease partisans on both sides of the aisle. Democrats, especially progressives, will not be happy that the President will have pretty wide leeway to move money around without Congressional approval. In addition, the deal does not appear to include any of the restrictions that had been bandied about, like "No attacking Iran without Congress' say-so." Republicans, at least those who still regard themselves as budget hawks, will be unhappy at an even larger deficit, projected to reach $1.3 trillion by the second year of the agreement. It also does not appear that there is money for a border wall, which was Donald Trump's dealbreaker the last time. Perhaps he's given up for now, or perhaps he believes he'll be able to redirect the money within the constraints of the new budget bill.

By all indications, everyone is ready to approve the bill. Pelosi has been prepping her caucus for a week, in particular the progressives, and appears to have the votes she needs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has also done some whipping, and is prepared to move the measures through his chamber. Trump has publicly announced his support:

Trump doesn't actually know what a poison pill is; maybe someone will explain it to him. In any case, let us recall that we got to this point in the process in 2017, with everyone singing kumbaya, and then Trump got hammered by the Mick Mulvaneys of the world for the lack of fiscal restraint, by the Ann Coulters of the world for the lack of border wall funding, and by the Fox Newses and Rush Limbaughs of the world for both. So, this story isn't over until the President's signature is actually on the funding bills. Since the members of Congress are heading for the hills at the end of the week, we'll know how it works out very soon. (Z)

Trump Administration to Exercise Broad Immigration Enforcement Powers

In 1996, Bill Clinton's reelection was not a sure thing, and he wanted to make nice with all of the conservative Southern Democrats who had helped propel him to victory in 1992. So, he threw his weight behind the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which included a suite of anti-undocumented-immigrant measures. Among the most punitive of these was a provision that empowered the government to quickly and summarily deport suspected undocumented immigrants who have no pending amnesty/immigration cases in court, and who cannot prove they have been in the U.S. for at least two years.

After Clinton won re-election, this new deportation power was used very sparingly, applied only to people who arrived at airports or seaports. In 2004, George W. Bush—who, like Clinton in 1996, was facing an uncertain reelection—expanded things a bit, applying the law to people arrested within 100 miles of the border, and who could not prove they had been in the United States for at least two weeks. That was the status quo for 15 years.

Donald Trump, of course, is also looking at a tough reelection campaign. He's also got a base that really dislikes immigrants. And he's built zero border walling. So, in the proud tradition of two of his three immediate predecessors, he's going to use the 1996 law to curry a little favor with his voters. Specifically, the administration announced yesterday that instead of "within 100 miles of the border," it would now be "the whole country." And instead of "at least two weeks," the administration is going to extend that to the two years allowed by the law. The new policy takes effect today.

At least, it theoretically takes effect today. There are some obvious issues that the law and the new enforcement plan raise. It's not necessarily easy for someone, undocumented or not, to prove they have been in the United States for two years. So, the new plan could cause people who are not legally subject to the law to be deported nonetheless. Making that more likely is that the decision-making power will largely be in the hands of low-level ICE employees, without a judge or other official reviewing decisions and making sure they're correct.

Naturally, the legal challenges are coming. By the time you read this, it is likely the ACLU and the American Immigration Council will already have filed. The law hasn't been subjected to a serious court challenge, so they may well prevail. It is probably instructive that the administration took this long to make this move; if they really thought they were on solid legal ground, they presumably would have acted much sooner. As it is, the matter will undoubtedly be tied up in the courts for a year or two, which means this is yet another example of immigration-policy theater. The administration can claim to be doing something, without actually doing anything. (Z)

Everyone Is Jockeying for Position Prior to Mueller's Testimony

Tomorrow, former special counsel Robert Mueller will visit the House and speak to two committees about his report and his investigation. On Sunday, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) did some very public posturing, telling Fox News that Donald Trump is almost certainly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, and that he expects to hear further evidence of that from Mueller. Yesterday, it was the Trump administration's turn to do a little posturing.

It began, of course, with the Posturer in Chief, who used Twitter to reiterate sentiments he's expressed at least a thousand times:

Meanwhile, the Justice Dept. also got in some saber-rattling, and sent Mueller a letter that warns him that any testimony "must remain within the boundaries of your public report because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege." The letter was signed by Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer, but it has AG William Barr's fingerprints all over it.

None of this pressure, from either direction, is likely to have an effect on Mueller. He's been playing this game for a long time, and he's also been prepping for his testimony for weeks. He was never going to say anything that wasn't covered by his report, but even that constraint leaves him with a lot of leeway to say some very damaging stuff, if he so chooses. He's playing things very close to the vest right now; nobody (including the DoJ) has even seen the opening statement he prepared. The show begins at 8:30 a.m. ET tomorrow. (Z)

Pence Mystery Explained...Maybe

On Monday, the Trump administration finally gave an explanation for why VP Mike Pence had to abruptly cancel his trip to New Hampshire a few weeks ago. The Veep was scheduled to participate in a roundtable discussion about the opioid crisis, and one of the people scheduled to be in attendance was former NFL player Jeff Hatch, who is himself an opioid addict. Although Hatch has worked to help other people with their drug issues, he also got busted for dealing fentanyl recently, and consequent to that was sentenced to four years in prison last Friday as part of a plea deal. Pence allegedly did not want to shake hands with Hatch, or be seen in his presence, so the whole trip was aborted.

Is this the truth? Maybe so; after all, Pence is a guy who won't have dinner with a woman unless his wife is also there, so maybe he has some other unusual rules for who he will and will not associate with. That said, one wonders why he couldn't have just avoided Hatch, or else communicated to the folks in New Hampshire that the former football player should be disinvited. The administration's version of events implies that such maneuvering would have screwed up the investigation into Hatch, but that doesn't entirely pass the smell test, as canceling the trip abruptly was surely as suspicious as any of the other alternatives. The "I didn't want to shake hands with a drug dealer" explanation also doesn't make clear why Pence had to hustle back to the White House on that day. In any event, this is presumably all the explanation we're going to get, whether we buy it or not. (Z)

A Skeleton from Biden's Closet

The Washington Post is certainly doing its part to air the Democrats' dirty laundry these days. Its story on the wages being paid by Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-VT) campaign got a lot of attention, including from us. And on Monday, the paper turned its sights on Joe Biden, reporting that while he was VP (and the Obama administration's "point person" on Ukraine-related matters), he called for that nation to increase gas production and offered U.S. aid so that they could do so. Not long thereafter, Biden's son Hunter took a job...with a Ukrainian gas company.

Perhaps there was nothing untoward here (that is the Bidens' position), but it certainly looks very bad. And, in politics, perception is usually reality. Donald Trump and the current iteration of the Republican Party, who are already hitting Biden over this, have learned that when it comes to tearing opponents down, the first rule is: "keep it simple, stupid" (which, not coincidentally, is also the first rule of the propagandist). Whomever the Democrats nominate, Trump is going to find one or two or three weak spots that person has, and is going to repeat them over and over and over. And Biden, with his 50 years in politics, during which he developed a high level of comfort pulling strings, will undoubtedly give GOP oppo researchers a lot of material to choose from. This is worth some consideration when evaluating whether or not he really is the "most electable" Democrat. On the other hand, "His son worked for the Ukrainians" is not as strong as "What was in her deleted emails?" given that probably half the country has never even heard of Ukraine and most likely not one in a hundred could locate it on a map. (Z)

Cumulus Media Buries Pete Buttigieg Interview

Pop quiz: If you would like to figure out if someone voted for Donald Trump or not, but you can't ask them any political questions, what should you ask them? The answer is: "Do you like country music?" The correlation between "country music fan" and "Donald Trump voter" is a little over 90%.

Presumably aimed with that insight, and along the same lines as his Fox News town hall, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) thought it would be a good idea to sit for an interview with Blair Garner, host of a popular country music-centered program that is syndicated by Cumulus Media. Garner normally steers away from politics, but he jumped at the offer, and the two had a nice 20-minute conversation while the host taped his program. All good, right?

Not so much. Cumulus struck the interview from the broadcast, and so it is only available via a Soundcloud link set up by Garner. Cumulus said that they had no choice, for fear of violating the FCC's Equal-time Rule. This is what is known, in technical terms, as "a lie." The Equal Time Rule, which is rarely enforced anyhow, has four specific exceptions, one of which is news interviews. Undoubtedly, a major broadcaster and syndicator knows this.

Given that Cumulus is known for its conservative politics, the odds are that they killed the interview because they didn't want to give a Democrat some free advertising. Buttigieg's being gay may also have played a role. Today's voters generally live in bubbles that are, at least in part, of their own creation (more below). But never doubt the extent to which major media outlets (particularly those on the right) are also engaged in the business of bubble-creating, sometimes very consciously so. (Z)

Tuesday Q&A

It would appear the racist tweets story has been played out for now, since there were very few questions about them this week (as opposed to a great number of them last week).

Like the East-coast bias from many mainstream media outlets and D.C. inhabitants being in a "bubble," do you (Zenger) ever worry that you have fallen into a California "bubble" of thought and opinion? I have a good friend in Alabama that has far more socially liberal views than most in our circle. He has lived in California, but out there he claims they thought he was far right-wing nut job. Your thoughts? B.M., Birmingham, AL

Let's start with your friend's reception in California. You did not say where he lived, or for how long he was a resident, but the Golden State's reputation for being home to 37 million Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez clones is greatly overstated. There is a long tradition of moderate Republicanism in the urban areas, and an even longer tradition of hard-core Republicanism in the rural areas. One could easily take Inyo County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, and at least a dozen others and plop them down in Nebraska or Kansas, and they'd fit right in. (Z) can also say, based on his interactions with thousands of students over the years, that a sizable chunk of the populace is apolitical, and that a sizable chunk of the loyal Democratic populace is moderate. Don't forget that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who is about as moderate a Democrat as it gets, has won statewide election six times. We have to wonder if your friend was not suffering from some confirmation bias, and taking note only of the outspoken lefties.

As to (Z) living in a bubble, that's certainly a concern, and nobody can really be certain how free of the bubble they are. However, both (V) and (Z) make a point of regularly reading the right-wing media such as Fox News, Breitbart, Red State, and the Bulwark, to see how they are covering things. When there is a televised event (like a debate), and both of us are watching, one of us generally watches it on Fox News (it is Z who tends to get that responsibility, because Fox isn't really available in Europe). And, for various logistical reasons, it is generally (Z) who reads the e-mails we get with corrections, comments, and so forth. So, to the extent that a bubble exists in Z's life and understanding of politics, it's not for lack of actively pushing back against it.

As an unbiased observer, what do you see as Bernie's path to the nomination? N.P.K., Riverside, CA

Whenever we write an item about the Senator, we get e-mails about how much we hate him and are trying to take him down. So, maybe we are not unbiased observers. Or, maybe our correspondents aren't.

In any case, there simply is no plausible path for him without Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) first imploding. They aren't going for exactly the same voters, but the overlap between Warren voters and Sanders voters is enough that they are in direct competition with each other. And, broadly speaking, Warren is the more appealing candidate right now to the majority of progressives. She's a woman, so her election would break the biggest glass ceiling left in presidential politics. She's a bit newer and fresher than someone who already ran in 2016. And her policy ideas have been more fully thought out and articulated, and generally seem more plausible. Oh, she's also stepped on fewer toes, and has aggravated fewer voters.

Even if you disagree with our assessment of Liz v. Bernie, it's indisputable that there are few enough progressive votes out there that, if split 50/50 or 40/60 or 30/70, they just won't be enough to power someone to the nomination. So, Warren and Sanders are like Voldemort and Harry Potter—neither can live while the other survives. And for those who desire a Warren implosion, well, she has been running a pretty buttoned-down campaign, and has tried to avoid any serious errors. She's also doing more to be competitive in all four early voting states than Sanders is. So, the smart money says that she outlasts him. Bernie's best chance to change that dynamic is probably the debates; we'll see if he's willing to go there next week.

If Sanders does somehow emerge as the progressive standard-bearer, then the next problem is taking on the moderate who emerges from the primaries. If that is Joe Biden, it's probably an easier task for the Vermont Senator, as Biden has some serious liabilities (see above for an example), and progressive voters are not likely to be tempted to vote Joe. If Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is the one who emerges, that's a much tougher draw for Sanders, as his voters won't be nearly as opposed to her, we would guess, and she doesn't have quite as many skeletons as Biden does.

The executive summary of Sanders' path, then, is this: Use the debates to take Warren down a peg, re-emerge as the champion of progressives, hope that Biden is the candidate who consolidates the moderate vote, and then do everything possible to win over Democrats who aren't so sure about Uncle Joe.

Assuming Mayor Pete does not win the Democratic nomination, where does he go from there? Clearly, he is interested in being heard nationally (and many of us like what we're hearing). He has buckets of money, but no obvious path forward. He seems too centrist to serve in a Warren or Sanders administration, and doesn't have hope for a Senate seat in red Indiana. Kingmaker? Pundit? I don't see him carpetbagging to New York or settling for South Bend. L.F., Aurora, CO

You're right that he aspires to be upwardly mobile in politics, such that the mayoralty of South Bend (or a seat in the House of Representatives) will soon be beneath him. You're also right that this is probably not his year, presidency-wise.

However, we think you are too quick to dismiss the other alternatives. Indiana has had a Democratic senator as recently as this year; Joe Donnelly's term only came to an end on January 3, 2019. And even if you dismiss his election as a wonky byproduct of running against Richard "rapes are part of God's plan" Mourdock, the other Senate seat was occupied by a Democrat (Evan Bayh) as recently as 2011. Buttigieg could absolutely run in 2022 against Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), and would have a real shot at winning.

Similarly, regardless of which Democrat wins the White House (if the party does indeed unseat Donald Trump), it will be necessary to have a diverse cabinet that represents the Party's different constituencies. Given his background, Buttigieg would be a natural to lead HUD, or to serve as Secretary of Veterans' Affairs. Given that he was an intelligence officer in Pakistan, Homeland Security would not be a stretch, either. If you made us place a bet on what the Mayor will be doing in February 2021 if a non-Buttigieg Democrat is elected president next year, we would put our money on "waiting for Senate confirmation" to lead a cabinet department."

I am wondering about the various positions in the Trump administration. Does a person (let's say, the new spokesperson of the White House, Stephanie Grisham) who fills several offices (What House Press Secretary/Communications Director and spokeswoman for the First Lady, in the case of Grisham) get the salaries for all those jobs? Or does she keep only the highest salary? Is it the same for all members of the administration? P.B., Lille, France

The administration has a certain amount of leeway in terms of the salaries it pays (most of) its staffers, but only a certain amount, and it's not legal for them to collect multiple full salaries. In the case of Grisham, she was earning $155,000/year for her work for the First Lady, and she assumed two more jobs that paid their previous occupants $179,700. While Grisham will get a bump to that $155,000 salary, and she may even earn a bit more than the $179,700 that Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Hope Hicks each did, given her multiple roles, she will not be paid $179,700 plus $179,700 plus $155,000.

To take another example, Mick Mulvaney is currently the "acting" White House Chief of Staff and is also director of the Office of Management and Budget. The latter job's salary is higher, and is also set by statute, so that Mulvaney is currently taking home $203,500. That won't increase unless Congress approves.

What if there is a President Biden with a Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate, Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies or retires, Biden nominates someone to replace RBG, and McConnell refuses to call a vote. What happens? O.Z.H., Dubai, United Arab Emirates

That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? While McConnell doesn't answer to many people, he does answer to his colleagues in the Senate. Clearly, folks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) or Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) are very comfortable with a Machiavellian "the ends justifies the means" mentality. But if enough of the moderate Republican senators, either due to their own scruples or because they fear the voters at home, opposed McConnell in his attempt to flout the spirit of the Constitution (even while abiding by its letter), he would have to back down.

Assuming McConnell's caucus does line up behind him (which they have generally done so far), then the Democratic president would probably file a lawsuit, arguing that while the Constitution does not specify how long the Senate has to consider nominees, it does create the general expectation that the upper chamber will move forward in a "reasonable" amount of time. How a Supreme Court, with the conservatives outnumbering the liberals 5-3, would rule on that is anyone's guess. Would Chief Justice John Roberts, in particular, be willing to play games with the integrity of the Constitution just to keep the court extra-conservative?

In the 2014 mid-term election, 39 million Democratic votes were cast for House candidates. In 2018, 60 million Democratic votes were cast for House candidates, and not one word was written about this 54% increase. This was quite obviously why Dems picked up 40 House seats, but the increase in the total number—the most important aspect—was completely ignored. 60 million votes for one party in any election is a helluva lot of votes—as many as McCain or Romney got in 2008 and 2012. And is unheard of for a mid-term. With Trump digging himself deeper and deeper in mierda, why should we expect less anti-Trump turnout than when he was not on the ballot? S.G., Los Angeles, CA

We are going to have to dispute your premise that nobody talked about that vote margin. Speaking only for ourselves, we've mentioned it many times, including as recently as last week. We've also seen it mentioned by many other outlets.

In any event, there is every reason to think that Democratic turnout will be even better in 2020 than it was in 2018. The two wildcards, however, are: (1) How much will that turnout be muted by the impact of the Electoral College?, and (2) How much will pro-Trump turnout be up when his name is on the actual ballot? Those two things make it impossible, at this point, to know how closely 2020 will mirror 2018.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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