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Political Wire logo Stone’s Forthcoming Book May Violate Gag Order
Klobuchar Vows to Treat Staff ‘Better’
House Democrats Prepare to Request Trump Tax Returns
Manafort Seeks Leniency from Judge
Bloomberg Interviewing Staffers In Early States
Trump Says He Was ‘Misinterpreted’ on Otto Warmbier

Programming Note: We pushed the Thursday Q&A because of all the Michael Cohen news. We're going to push it one more day, which means we will definitely be having a Saturday post this week.

Following Cohen Testimony, Members of Congress Make Their Next Moves

Well, that didn't take long. On Wednesday, Michael Cohen dished all kinds of dirt about Donald Trump that, if true, would be deeply problematic for the President. Clearly, the members of Congress burned the midnight oil on Wednesday night, because folks on both sides of the aisle were ready to take their next steps by Thursday morning.

Let's start with the Democrats. The moment they got subpoena power in the House, there was approximately a 99.9% chance that they would eventually have a chat with Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. When Cohen advised that the longtime Trump employee is definitely someone worth talking to, those odds jumped to approximately 99.999%. And, on Thursday, it became 100%. House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), who really hates Trump and really loves publicity, announced that he will be calling Weisselberg in to testify. His stated concern, which is not unreasonable, is that Trump may have financial obligations that allow him to be compromised by foreign governments. There's a good chance that as long as Weisselberg is going to be in town anyhow, a few other committee chairs will also want to hear from him.

Weisselberg is not the next target of House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), however. Instead, the Representative told reporters on Thursday that he thinks the time has come to talk to Trump's kids about what they knew and when they knew it. That does not mean Weisselberg or anyone else is off the hook, of course. Cummings also noted that, "All you have to do is follow the transcript. If there are names that were mentioned or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we want to take a look at all of that."

On the other side, meanwhile, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) were Trump's loudest and staunchest defenders on Wednesday, using their questioning time to cross-examine Cohen and to condemn the whole hearing. On Thursday, they made a move too, asking the Justice Department to investigate Cohen for perjury, and claiming that they have evidence he is guilty of such. It appears that Meadows and Jordan plan to focus on Cohen's claim that he did not want a job in the Trump administration, a statement that does not appear to be entirely truthful. Maybe they will nail him to the wall, and maybe that will render all of his testimony moot. CNN's Chris Cillizza thinks that is a distinct possibility.

On the other hand, maybe not. Proving what someone truly "wanted" is a tricky business, and Cohen could easily (and possibly truthfully) claim that any "lobbying" he did for a White House job was out of obligation, and not out of a true desire to serve. Further, even if he demonstrably lied about that, it would be a form of face-saving lie, like lying about one's net worth or weight or SAT score. A falsehood of that sort may or may not invalidate claims made about more concrete matters like financial transactions or interactions with the Russians, particularly if those claims are backed by documentary evidence and/or corroborating testimony from other people.

Meadows, incidentally, has a minor headache of his own to deal with. During Wednesday's hearings, he grew enraged by the insinuation that he is a racist, observing that he has nieces and nephews of color. He didn't say so, but he probably also has a black friend, too. Anyhow, this inspired quite a few people to do some digging, and to unearth three different recordings from 2012 of Meadows talking about how Barack Obama really needs to go back to Kenya. Given the racist undertones of Obama birtherism, Meadows' embrace of that conspiracy does not help his argument that he's not racist. And while his views clearly did not hurt his reelection chances in past years, they aren't going to help in 2020, when his opponent will undoubtedly remind voters about what the Congressman said. Of course, depending on what happens with Donald Trump, Meadows' leadership of the Trump cheer squad could be even more poisonous by then. (Z)

GOP Senators to Trump: Drop the Emergency

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is retiring and thus has little to lose, addressed the Senate on Thursday. His subject was Donald Trump's national emergency proclamation, and his message was: "Cancel the proclamation." Alexander argued that the President has ways to scrape together $5.7 billion without setting a "dangerous precedent."

Despite giving the speech, the Senator was unwilling to commit to voting for the House-passed measure that would cancel the resolution (making that promise would, in effect, make him the deciding vote). Since Alexander is finished with running for office, he's clearly not worried about aggravating Trump-loving voters, so it must be that he (and his colleagues) fear Trump himself. Or they still want things from him, like lots of dyed-in-the-wool-conservative judicial nominees. Whatever the case may be, it is also very clear that the Republican senators do not want to support an expansion of presidential power that Trump might deploy again, and that the next Democratic president would almost certainly deploy.

The odds are that Trump does not heed Alexander's advice, since withdrawing the national emergency declaration would be "weak," and would also hand a(nother) victory to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Further, if the administration thought there was a way to scrape the money together, they would presumably have chosen that path initially. If and when Trump holds firm, then the rubber will meet the road for the GOP senators. None of them wants to be the 51st vote that secures passage of the resolution, and that might just be enough to cause them to hold the line and to give the President a narrow 50-50 win (with VP Mike Pence breaking the tie). On the other hand, if they break ranks en masse, then none of them can be specifically blamed for "passing" the measure. Alexander's speech is presumably a not-so-subtle message that a plan of this sort is in the works.

If Trump were to stick to his guns, then lose a vote in the Senate by a margin of, say, 60-40, and then issue a veto, we would be in a brave new world. Every president is aggravated when Congress fails to do their bidding, but none of them took it quite so personally as Trump is liable to do. Meanwhile, it's now clear why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is taking his time with the joint resolution. It's not to give him extra opportunities to lobby his caucus, it's to give his caucus extra opportunities to lobby Trump. (Z)

Trump Sides with a Strongman Again

Following his unsuccessful summit with Kim Jong-Un, Donald Trump talked to reporters on Thursday. Not surprisingly, the press asked questions about Otto Warmbier, the American student who was arrested and imprisoned by North Korean authorities for 15 months. Though he was eventually returned to the U.S. by the North Korean government, he was in a coma by that time, and he died without regaining consciousness.

In response to the questions, Trump said that he had indeed broached the subject with Kim, that Kim denied any involvement on his part, and that he (Trump) believes the North Korean dictator. Here are the President's exact words:

I did speak to [Kim about Warmbier]. He felt very badly. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And, you know, you got a lot of people—big country, lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word.

This, of course, is hardly the first time that Trump has decided to put his trust in the words of a less-than-trustworthy strongman. He bought Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's claims that he had nothing to do with the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and Vlad Putin's denials about Russian interference with the 2016 election. Kim's story is no more truthful than either of these; there is absolutely no chance that his underlings would do something as provocative as arresting an American without the Dear Leader's say-so.

Why does Trump so predictably take sides with strongmen who talk out of both sides of their mouths? This will be something that historians grapple with long after this presidency ends, but from where we sit, there appear to be three plausible explanations. The first is that, for someone who is allegedly a great negotiator, he's actually very credulous and is easily manipulated. Alternatively, he's always had a very clear need to be accepted into the "club" by powerful people, and maybe this is a part of that dynamic. The third possibility is that this is the art of diplomacy, Trump-style, and he thinks that by turning a blind eye to these men's crimes, it will facilitate future cooperation. If that's it, it's not a very admirable philosophy, nor is it likely to be a correct one. For folks like Kim and Putin, "give me an inch and I'll take a mile" is their mantra, and they feast on those who show weakness.

Whatever the underlying dynamic is, Thursday's remarks were a bad look for Trump, especially since they dishonor the memory of an American who was young and innocent of any bad behavior, and who is now dead. Not surprisingly, he was slammed by partisans on both sides of the aisle. Many of them could not help but draw the same parallel that we did. For example, former ambassador Michael McFaul:

McFaul's a Democrat; how about a Republican, like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH)?

So, between this and the national emergency declaration, Trump is getting some pretty big pushback from his own party, just 24 hours after John, Michael Cohen testified. Time will tell if the troops fall back in line, or if we will look back on February 27, 2019, as the tipping point. (Z)

RNC Chair Tacitly Threatens Potential Trump Challengers

There are a number of GOP senators who are cranky with Donald Trump, at least for now. However, the RNC still has his back. Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, and had a few thoughts about any Republican who might mount a primary challenge against Donald Trump:

They have the right to jump in and lose. That's fine. They will lose horribly. The president has a 90 percent approval in our party. What would any Republican be thinking saying, "This is a guy I'm going to run against?"

What they are thinking, of course, is, "90% now, yes, but if he craters, Nixon-style, I'd like to be in a position to pick up the pieces."

McDaniel's loyalty is not surprising, since she has been on the Trump bandwagon from very early, and it was he who effectively chose her as RNC chair (a privilege afforded by both parties to a sitting president). But could her very overt efforts to cook the books for Trump backfire? It's certainly possible. We saw in 2016 what happens when the party machinery appears to be in the bag for a candidate, like Hillary Clinton, who is disliked by a sizable portion of the party's voters. Further, if the Trump presidency does go up in flames, it will be much harder for the RNC to distance themselves from him. Of course, if that does come to pass, then McDaniel will likely have to resign, so there's no particular need for her, personally, to hedge her bets. (Z)

Wheeler Confirmed to Lead EPA

When Scott Pruitt was leading the EPA (and when he was serving in every other political office he ever held), he was pretty obviously in bed with the lobbyists. For his replacement, Donald Trump decided to try something different, and to pick someone who literally is a lobbyist. And on Thursday, the Senate made it official, confirming former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler by a 52-47 vote. It was a party-line vote, excepting that Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) voted with the Democrats, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) did not vote (presumably because she is en route to New Zealand to participate in a triathlon this weekend).

It cannot be any clearer that the Trump administration has no interest in protecting the environment, and that for the next couple of years at least, the 'P' in EPA really stands for 'plunder.' That said, it's remarkable that they could not be a little more subtle about it, and find someone—anyone—whose immediate past employment was not promoting the most environment-damaging fuel the world has to offer. In any event, if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal did not make this clear enough, global warming is going to be central to the Democrats' 2020 platform. And young voters—the same ones that sometimes struggle to get to the polls—are highly motivated by this issue, perhaps because they think they might actually have a use for planet Earth in 30 or 40 or 50 years. Appointing someone like Wheeler, and then approving him on a near-party-line vote, will just make it that much easier to illustrate that when it comes to the blue team and the red team, there is a black and white difference on this very green issue. (Z)

Netanyahu Indicted on Corruption Charges

In some countries, if a leader appears to be up to no good, the law enforcement apparatus actually does something about it. Israel is one of those countries, and on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery and breach of trust. He promptly denounced the charges as categorically false and claimed that he was the victim of a media-led witch hunt. He will stand for reelection to a fifth term before the criminal process begins, so people around the world will be watching to see if Israelis vote for someone who is plausibly accused, but not yet convicted.

Quite a few folks in the media, like the editorial board of Haaretz, wondered if this is not a potential preview of American politics in 2020. By then, Donald Trump could well stand accused of specific crimes, he might be running for reelection without those accusations having been resolved, and he would certainly deny everything and claim "witch hunt." In any event, it's pretty clear why Trump and Netanyahu get along so well, and it's interesting that seemingly every world leader who prefers Trump over Barack Obama turns out to be a crook, a hoodlum, a murderer, or some combination of the three. (Z)

Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Jeff Merkley

We've worked our way through most or all of the frontrunner-type candidates. Now, we're delving into some of the longer shots, although this fellow certainly isn't as long a shot as some of the names that have been bandied about (e.g., John Kerry).

Jeff Merkley
  • Full Name: Jeffrey Alan Merkley

  • Age on January 20, 2021: 64

  • Background: A lifelong Oregonian, Merkley's blue-collar roots are not in doubt. While his mother raised him and his sister, his father worked as a mechanic, repairman, and lumberjack. Like so many of his potential Democratic opponents, he was a stellar student and served as student body president while in high school. Merkley took his BA in internatonal relations from Stanford, and was profoundly affected by a year he spent studying abroad in Ghana. Following graduation, he did an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and traveled through Central America, witnessing much violence firsthand. Thereafter, he enrolled at Princeton, earning a Master of Public Affairs degree.

    With his education complete, Merkley spent some time working in the Congressional Budget Office and the office of the Secretary of Defense, and otherwise compiled a résumé that puts the sandal-wearing, granola-eating, long-haired hippie credentials of even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to shame. At various times, Merkley was executive director of Portland Habitat for Humanity, manager of the Walk for Humanity, Director of Housing Development at Human Solutions (low-income housing), and President of the World Affairs Council of Oregon. The only things that seem to be missing are stints at Greenpeace and Amnesty International.

  • Political Experience: Merkley was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998, and served five terms there. He impressed his colleagues with his ability to get things done, and so was elected Speaker of the House during his final term there. In 2008, he was elected to the U.S. Senate; he is now in the middle of his second term.

  • Signature Issue(s): Housing. Given his work with Habitat for Humanity, he has naturally taken an interest in making housing accessible and affordable as a member of the United States Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. Merkley has worked to stabilize the subprime mortgage market, to outlaw deceptive practices by lenders, and to reduce the number of houses that are foreclosed upon.

  • Instructive Quote: "I grew up in Southern Oregon. My father was a sawmill worker and a logger, and his job put food on the table."

  • Completely Trivial Fact: Given his home state and background, it is not entirely surprising that Merkley was the first U.S. Senator to publicly endorse marijuana legalization.

  • Recent News: Several months back, Merkley decided to draw attention to the downside of the Trump administration's family separation policy by visiting a detention center, where he was denied entry and was almost arrested. Various versions of that footage have been viewed on YouTube nearly a million times. This week, Merkley has made quite a few headlines with this tweet:

    Liberals were delighted, but many right-leaning media outlets pitched a fit.

  • Three Biggest Pros: (1) Merkley has much of what made Bernie Sanders so successful, as he is very outspoken and genuine; (2) Among the candidates who are above the age of 50, he is very possibly the most skilled social media user; and (3) Few candidates can claim anti-Trump bona fides more fully than Merkley can.

  • Three Biggest Cons: (1) While Merkley has much of what made Sanders successful, he does not have Sanders' charisma; (2) He is the second most liberal member of the Senate (behind Sanders, naturally), which will be a hard sell to many of the voters the blue team wants to win in 2020; and (3) Like many folks on the far end of the spectrum, he's struggled to get his bills passed into law, so he doesn't have a strong record of legislative achievement on the national level he can point to.

  • Is He Actually Running?: In an interview given in December of last year, Merkley said that his family supported a run, and that he would not stay out of the race just because Sanders was running. That seems to suggest he's in. Then, in a second interview just days later, he doubted he could raise the money needed for a run, which suggests he's out. If he is indeed going to run, he's got to address a small problem, namely that Oregon law forbids someone from running for two offices at once, and Merkley's Senate seat is up in 2020. New Jersey just bailed Sen. Cory Booker (D) out by changing a similar law in that state, and Merkley is lobbying the Oregon legislature to do the same. Add it all up, and when it comes to running for president in 2020, Merkley is a firm "maybe."

  • Betting Odds: Most books put him at 66-to-1, which implies a roughly 1.5% chance of claiming the nomination.

  • The Bottom Line: As long as Sanders is in the race, Merkley has no viable path forward. Despite his claims to the contrary, it is implausible the Oregon Senator will join the race unless the Vermont Senator is somehow compelled to end his run prematurely.

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)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb28 Cohen Channels His Inner Dean
Feb28 Collateral Damage from Cohen's Testimony
Feb28 Takeaways from the Cohen Hearings
Feb28 The View from the Right
Feb28 Summit Ends with a Thud
Feb28 O'Rourke's Plans Come Into Focus
Feb27 House Votes to Kill Emergency Declaration, 245-182
Feb27 Cohen Testifies
Feb27 Background Checks Bill on Deck
Feb27 Trump Meets with Kim Today
Feb27 2020 Won't Be 2016 Redux for Democrats
Feb27 Hogan Clearly Prepping for a 2020 Primary Challenge
Feb27 Harris Is Out in NC-09
Feb27 Next Mayor of Chicago Will Be a Black Woman
Feb26 Congress Prepares for Vote on National Emergency
Feb26 Warren: No Sucking Up to Wealthy Donors for Me
Feb26 Former Klobuchar Staffers Come to Her Defense
Feb26 New York Goes After Trump's Taxes
Feb26 Former Campaign Staffer Sues Trump for Unwanted Kiss, Discrimination
Feb26 White House to Set Up Anti-Climate Change Panel
Feb26 Trump Takes the Oscar Bait
Feb25 Schiff: I Will Have Mueller Testify
Feb25 Trump Picks Billionaire GOP Donor for U.N. Ambassador
Feb25 Dozens of Former National Security Officials Denounce Trump's Emergency
Feb25 Pompeo Contradicts Trump on North Korea
Feb25 Harris Announces Her Plan
Feb25 Colorado Is Poised to Join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact
Feb25 Bennet Visits Iowa
Feb25 Sanders Leads in New Hampshire
Feb25 Hickenlooper: I'm Not Cut Out to Be a Senator
Feb25 Monday Q&A
Feb22 House Will Vote on National Emergency Resolution Today
Feb22 Stone Gets Rocked
Feb22 California and the Trump Administration Are Basically at War
Feb22 New Jersey May Not Be Far Behind
Feb22 Hillary Clinton, Kingmaker?
Feb22 New Election in NC-09
Feb22 Pompeo Won't Run for Senate
Feb22 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Steve Bullock
Feb21 Sanders Raises $6 Million in One Day
Feb21 CNN: Mueller May Wrap It Up Soon
Feb21 Trump Creates a Corporate-style Campaign Structure for 2020
Feb21 Will Democrats Nominate the Next Guy in Line?
Feb21 Are Coats' Days Numbered?
Feb21 Majority Opposes Emergency Declaration to Build a Wall
Feb21 Polls: Northam Should Stay on as Governor
Feb21 Are Never Trumpers Like the West African Black Rhino?
Feb21 Thursday Q&A
Feb20 Sanders Is In
Feb20 Trump Behind the Scenes, Part I: The Scales of Justice