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Political Wire logo The Last Option to End Trump’s Presidency
The Blockbuster That Wasn’t
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Democrats Debate Next Steps Following Mueller Hearings
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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  All Eyes on Mueller
      •  Brits Choose BoJo for Next PM
      •  Trump Sues to Protect His Tax Returns
      •  Senate Confirms Esper to Lead Department of Defense
      •  Afghanistan Wants Answers
      •  Trump Thinks Villainizing Omar Will Win Minnesota for Him
      •  House Democratic Candidates' Fundraising Is Brisk

All Eyes on Mueller

After much negotiation and at least one postponement, former special counsel Robert Mueller will appear before Congress today. Up first is three hours before the House Judiciary Committee, starting around 8:30 a.m. ET. Then, it will be two hours before the House Intelligence Committee, starting around 1:00 p.m. ET.

On Tuesday, Mueller threw a bit of a curveball into the proceedings when he asked that Aaron Zebley, his right-hand-man, be allowed to accompany him to the hearings, to serve as counsel. Republicans cried foul, with Donald Trump doing the loudest crying:

In the end, Mueller's request was granted. Zebley is expected to advise Mueller, and not to testify himself. That said, he will be sworn in for the second hearing, so he just might speak then.

This, of course, is the Democrats' show, and they have some important decisions to make. To start, they have to decide how much to try and push Mueller outside his comfort zone. He made some debatable decisions while serving as special counsel, along with some outright errors in his report (for example, misinterpreting the meaning of "coordination"). Further, he knows things that are either not in the report, or are redacted. If the blue team decides to explore these various areas, it's their very best chance of uncovering something new and juicy. However, too much aggression also risks putting Mueller on the defensive and causing him to clam up.

Another key decision will be exactly how to conduct the questioning. Anyone who watched the Brett Kavanaugh hearings knows that giving each member of the committee 5 minutes leads to disjointed questioning, doesn't allow for much follow-up, and thus ends up producing fairly superficial testimony. The wisest choice would be for the members to yield their time, and to let the Judiciary Committee's lawyers do all the questioning. However, it's a rare politician who does not long for five minutes on television before a national audience, not to mention the chance to be the person who delivers the zinger of the day. So, the tactically sound choice may be a hard sell for Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Of course, the most important thing the Democrats have to figure out is exactly what questions to ask. Just about everyone has a list of suggested questions for Mueller. To take an example, the one produced by Yahoo is clear and concise:

  1. Why did you not demand an in-person, sit-down interview with the president?
  2. Why didn't you subpoena the president?
  3. Do you think Trump was truthful in the written answers he did provide you with?
  4. Would you have charged President Trump with a crime if not for the Justice Department policy against indicting sitting presidents?
  5. When the president keeps repeating, "No obstruction, no collusion, total exoneration," is he telling the truth?
  6. Did you intend for your report to serve as a blueprint for Congress for possible impeachment proceedings?
  7. Of the 11 episodes involving possible obstruction of justice by the president, which did you consider the worst and why?
  8. Were you blindsided when Attorney General Barr mischaracterized your report as essentially exonerating the president, when this was not the case?
  9. Were you furious?
  10. Is that why you sent a letter to the attorney general stating that his statements "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office's work and conclusions?"
  11. Did Attorney General Barr ask you to end the investigation early?
  12. Did you feel your work was done?
  13. Do you believe there is evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in any way to affect the outcome of the 2016 election?
  14. How do we prevent Russian meddling in 2020, perhaps the most important election of our lifetime?

Note that we said "clear and concise," and not necessarily "good." A lot of these questions aren't actually useful, in that they would just be grandstanding, or they would cover things Mueller has already made clear he won't address. This illustrates some of the difficulties the Democrats face as they try to craft just the right questions. If you would like something more substantive, Politico's list has more detailed questions, accompanied by analysis. And if you're a real glutton for these sorts of things, The Hill, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Just Security, WIRED, The Washington Post, Lawfare, and NBC News have lists, too.

Whatever the Democrats come up with, they are going to spin it for all it's worth. They have set up a "war room" that will be working on all cylinders during Mueller's appearance, cranking out soundbites and video clips for wide circulation on television and social media platforms. They plan to keep up the offensive for multiple days, at least through the Sunday morning news programs.

On the other side of the aisle, meanwhile, the GOP is taking something of a bipolar approach. Throughout this week, they have been pooh-poohing the hearings as much ado about nothing. That includes the President, who, when asked by reporters if he would be watching Mueller's testimony on TV, said "No, I'm not going to be watching, probably, maybe I'll see a little bit of it."

For anyone who believes any of that, particularly the part about Trump not watching closely on TV, we have a handsome bridge in Brooklyn for sale at a very reasonable price. The GOP pooh-bahs, including the head pooh-bah, know full well that Mueller could do a lot of damage today, and they are very anxious about it. The Republicans in the room are going to do whatever they can to cut him off at the knees. American Greatness has (yet another) list of 25 questions of the sort that the red team will ask. Some examples:

  1. Since Donald Trump was not president when Russia attacked our electoral process and since you specifically were tasked with conducting "a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election," did you investigate why the Obama Administration, including CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, let this happen?
  2. Did you look into any connections between the Hillary Clinton campaign and Russian interests since you also specifically were tasked with investigating "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and it's widely known that the Clinton campaign was digging up political dirt on Donald Trump from Russian sources before the election?
  3. Your office scrubbed the iPhone devices used by Peter Strzok and Lisa Page after they were dismissed from the team. Is that obstruction of justice since both are subjects of ongoing congressional investigations?

In short: "What about Obama and Hillary?" And also belying the claim that this is no big deal, the GOP has also set up a war room, which will also be pumping out soundbites, video clips, etc. for mass consumption.

The stage is set, then, and the players all have been assigned their parts. So, let the drama begin. (Z)

Brits Choose BoJo for Next PM

Shortly after we posted yesterday, the Brits made official what has been known for at least a week: a Johnson is coming to 10 Downing Street. Boris Johnson (actually Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson if you want to get picky) handily won the right to be the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (or the United Kingston, according to some), outpolling rival Jeremy Hunt by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. That's the kind of feat one can pull off when only 0.2% of the country actually gets to vote (since it was an election for leadership of the Conservative Party, and not a general election). He succeeds Theresa May, whose premiership was wrecked by the Brexit.

Johnson, of course, has much in common with Donald Trump. The hairstyles, to start. They're both media mavens whose conservative politics feature a significant populist streak. Both have a history of casual racism. Both tend to overpromise and underdeliver. The similarities are substantive enough, in fact, that "the Brits can't laugh at the United States anymore" was a running joke on Tuesday.

That said, the people who have studied Johnson say he is considerably more politically savvy and much more disciplined than Trump is. He's going to need those skills, because his plate will be full as soon as he officially assumes office. To start (and in another commonality with Trump), much of his cabinet has either already quit, or will do so by the end of the week. That sort of instability is not especially common in the British political system, which is set up to ensure continuity in the Cabinet. In foreign affairs, Johnson will have to confront the messy Iran situation, as that nation just seized a British oil tanker. He may try to work with Trump on this, but he may not.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Brexit, which Johnson has promised to achieve, by the deadline, through whatever means necessary. This is much easier said than done. The PM-designate claims he will be able to reopen negotiations with the European parliament, but the EU says that is not happening. They're not joking, and this whole promise feels very much like Trump's campaign promise to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

Johnson's second option is to take the Brexit deal that May negotiated, and somehow get it through Parliament where she could not. The only plausible way to do this would be for Johnson to dissolve the legislature and call for new general elections, hoping that he gets a more favorable collection of MPs than he's currently got. This approach already backfired on May, however, and there's every reason to think it would backfire on Johnson, as well, especially since his party already lacks a majority.

And then there is the third option, which is definitely the ugliest one. Johnson could execute a "no-deal" Brexit, which would send the British economy into a spiral, and might well take the world economy with it. Parliament is adamantly opposed to this, and so if this is the approach Johnson chooses, he would likely go to the Queen and ask her to declare the legislature to be in recess, which is called "proroguing." The effects of this course of action would be something to behold. It would drag Her Majesty into politics, which will not amuse her or the British people. It will trigger lawsuits, with former conservative PM John Major already having declared that he will be the first to file. The MPs say they might just keep meeting in some location other than the Palace of Westminster, so they are not really prorogued. And whenever they are formally called back to work, they would likely hold a vote of no confidence in Johnson and boot him from office.

In short, things are going to get very interesting on the other side of the pond. Normally, we don't put foreign affairs items this high on the page. However, given the close relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., and the potential for the Iran situation and the Brexit to affect folks on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the world, this one is worthy of the attention. (Z)

Trump Sues to Protect His Tax Returns

As you may have heard, Donald Trump really does not want the public to see his tax returns. And on Tuesday, his legal team filed suit in federal court, trying to stop anyone and everyone who has pursued the returns—including the state of New York, the House Oversight Committee, and the House Ways and Means Committee—from actually getting their hands on them.

There are already several lawsuits on this subject working their way through the courts. Tuesday's filing, which you can read here, if you wish, suggests that Team Trump knows they're fighting a losing battle. The President's lawyers aren't really making a serious argument; it's much more of an "everything but the kitchen sink" kind of filing in which they raise every issue under the sun in the hopes of gumming up the works. For example, they claim that the federal law that entitles House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-MA) to Trump's federal returns is unconstitutional, and also that the newly passed New York state law that gives Neal access to the President's state returns should be overturned because state returns are not Neal's purview. Those two arguments are basically contradictory, since if one argues that state returns are not Neal's purview, then it implies that federal returns are his purview, which would mean that the "unconstitutional" law is, in fact, entirely legal.

This, then, is just part of Team Trump's "delay, delay, delay" strategy. Given how ham-fisted it is, and given that these legal issues are already being covered by the other pending cases, there's a good chance it gets tossed pretty quickly. (Z)

Senate Confirms Esper to Lead Department of Defense

The Department of Defense has been without a proper leader since James Mattis resigned in January. That's rather unfortunate, given the various messes the administration is currently dealing with, most obviously the mess over in the Strait of Hormuz. DoD is headless no more, though, because on Tuesday the Senate confirmed Mark Esper to succeed Mattis.

The main black mark on Esper's résumé is that he's got close ties to his former employer, Raytheon, which suggests that the military-industrial complex is alive and well. However, the previous nominee—Patrick M. Shanahan—had that black mark plus a bunch more, so Esper seemed pretty outstanding by comparison. The vote was 90-8; guess how many of those eight are currently running for president? The answer is five, with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) all giving the thumbs down. It presumably would have been six, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was not present for the vote. Anyhow, Esper has already been sworn in, and undoubtedly the top item on his to-do list will be to place a call to Boris Johnson to figure out what to do about the Iran situation. (Z)

Afghanistan Wants Answers

This story probably didn't get as much attention as it should have, since Donald Trump says and does so many wild things. However, earlier this week, the President declared that he has a "secret plan" to win the war in Afghanistan, and that it would be quick:

If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people. I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in—literally in ten days. And I don't want to do that. I don't want to go that route.

Trump said this while flanked by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose nation has a complicated relationship with the Afghans, to say the least.

There is no "secret plan," unless you count "drop a bunch of nukes." In making his declaration, Trump reminded everyone of his strongman instincts, and his predilection for violent solutions to problems (or, at least, violent threats). He also made clear that he has virtually no idea what is going on in Afghanistan. The United States' mission there is not to defeat the government or its people, it's to stabilize the government and eliminate the Taliban. If the President really did order the deaths of 10 million people, he'd be killing 9.95 million innocents in order to get to 50,000 hostiles. That is an unacceptable amount of collateral damage under any circumstances. Would his base go for that? We report, you decide.

On Tuesday, the government of Afghanistan asked Trump exactly what his meaning was when he threatened to wipe the country's citizens off the face of the Earth. There's no good answer to that, which means that the President needlessly inflamed tensions with a key ally for no particular reason, and in a place where thousands of American troops are deployed. New Defense Secretary Mark Esper better brace himself, because these kinds of unforced errors come with his job. At least, they do these days. (Z)

Trump Thinks Villainizing Omar Will Win Minnesota for Him

Donald Trump's racist tweets were back in the news Tuesday, at least a little bit. As he continues to make the case that they represent a brilliant master stroke of political strategy, he declared that his attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (DFL-MN) will help him win the Gopher State next year:

For the record, he lost Minnesota by about 45,000 votes, or 1.5% of the total cast.

If Trump really believes this, he's fooling himself. When Omar returned home last week, she was greeted by a standing ovation and chants of "Welcome home! Welcome home!" Beyond that, when Trump lost Minnesota to Hillary Clinton, his net approval there was +3. Now, it is -16. And just last year, the GOP was trounced in the gubernatorial race, two Senate races, and enough state house races to lose control of the legislature.

In short, if the Donald treats Minnesota as "in play," then he's going to be doing the same sort of tilting at windmills as Hillary Clinton was when she spent time and money campaigning in Georgia. That said, it's very possible that Trump doesn't really think that, and that his claims are just post-hoc justification for his tweets, so as to counter the narrative that he fired them off in a fit of pique without putting any thought into them. (Z)

House Democratic Candidates' Fundraising Is Brisk

It's not so easy to figure out exactly how well House candidates' fundraising is going, because the FEC does not break the data down like that. So, anyone who wants to know essentially has to go through about 1,000 filings and add up the numbers themselves. The good people at the Washington Post have done that yeoman's work, and they report that Democratic House candidates outpaced their Republican rivals by $17.6 million, in total.

That tally comes with at least a couple of grains of salt. The first is that it's a long time until the election, and so there's plenty of time for the GOP to play catch-up. The second is that there are more Democratic incumbents than Republican incumbents, and incumbents have a pretty big fundraising advantage, particularly at this point in the cycle (when many of the challengers have yet to declare themselves). That said, it's still a big haul for the blue team, and an early (if imperfect) indication that the "green wave" that powered them in 2018 is going to be in effect in 2020 as well. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul23 Budget Deal Is in Place
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