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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Cohen Picture Gets Bigger, Clearer
      •  Trump Heads to Ohio
      •  Nadler Gets Some of the Documents He Wants
      •  Politicians vs. Tech, Part I: The Democrats
      •  Politicians vs. Tech, Part II: The Republicans
      •  Republicans Think Whites Are Discriminated Against; Democrats Disagree
      •  Eric Giddens Wins

Cohen Picture Gets Bigger, Clearer

On Tuesday, in response to FOIA requests from The New York Times and other outlets, a federal judge unsealed nearly 1,000 pages of filings related to the investigation of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen. The documents make clear how very much interest Special Counsel Robert Mueller had in Cohen and his activities.

To start, the investigation of Cohen began much earlier than was previously known: July 2017, about a year before his home, offices, and hotel room were raided, and a mere five months after Donald Trump was inaugurated. It is clear that the feds were looking at a whole litany of issues, most notably the extent to which Cohen acted as a conduit between Trump and the Russians. Team Mueller found at least some evidence on this front, including the (already made public) $500,000 payment from a Russian oligarch to Cohen. Also of interest is what was not revealed in Tuesday's release. That is to say, there were significant portions redacted, including whole sections under the heading "The Illegal Campaign Contribution Scheme." This indicates that Mueller's investigation in this area is ongoing.

Given the breadth and the length of the investigation into Cohen, the fact that warrants related to the investigation were renewed several times (implying that substantive material was being produced), and that Trump and Cohen had a long and shady relationship, it is inconceivable that Team Mueller did not turn up some dirt on Trump himself. Maybe a lot of dirt. That is certainly the opinion of former Justice Dept. official Chuck Rosenberg, who appeared on MSNBC on Tuesday, and said that Mueller has "oodles" of evidence against the President, who "ought to be scared." In fact, it's well within the realm of possibility that there is already an indictment of Trump, to be unsealed once he's no longer in office (and so, no longer protected by Justice Dept. guidelines against indicting a sitting president). If so, and if Trump is aware of it, it might explain his behavior during weekends like the one that just passed, where he seems to be particularly unhinged without any obvious cause. (Z)

Trump Heads to Ohio

General Motors is about to close its manufacturing plant in Lordstown, OH, a move that would eliminate 1,400 jobs. This displeases Donald Trump, who is somewhat obsessed with the unemployment rate. Making it a double- or even a triple-whammy for him is that the jobs are mostly held by blue-collar workers (i.e., his base), and they are in a key swing state. So, after lashing out multiple times at both the management of GM and the labor union that represents workers there, he is heading to Ohio today to try to save the plant.

Only Trump knows for sure exactly what his plan is. He may have success in his mission, if he's willing and able to cough up some sort of concession, like a juicy tax break or some other sort of subsidy. Or, if this is one of those situations where he thinks he can alter reality through a few tweets and his force of will, then he will fail. Either way, however, his efforts are tantamount to giving a band-aid to someone who has been shot 10 times.

The fundamental problem here, to be incredibly blunt, is that Trump has a grasp of macroeconomics that would be poor for a high school student, much less for an allegedly successful multinational businessman. The specific problem is his long-standing, and highly inaccurate, thinking on tariffs. Among the few ideas he has that are utterly non-negotiable is his belief that protective tariffs help Americans and hurt foreigners. Experience has shown, again and again, that it's not nearly that simple. The closing of the Lordstown plant is yet another example to be added to the long list; GM made the move because they've already lost more than $1 billion due to the Trump trade war.

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, it appears that Trump's solution to the problem is going to be to double down on his tariffs. The $1 billion loss is due primarily to the increased cost of aluminum and other raw materials that are imported by American automakers. The President is strongly inclined to counter this by slapping a tariff on foreign automobiles. What he does not appreciate is that auto manufacturing is complex and multinational, and if he does that, he will hurt American workers who build "foreign" cars (Toyotas, Hondas, Mercedes, etc.) in the U.S., and at the same time he will encourage retaliation against Ford, GM, Tesla, etc. when they try to sell their cars overseas.

In short, this appears to be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Trump's understanding of the economy is not going to change, but the realities of the auto business aren't going to change either. And that being the case, it means that swing states with significant manufacturing bases, like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, are definitely going to be in play in 2020. That's particularly true if the Democratic nominee announces that he or she will cancel the trade war, a promise that all of them are likely to be happy to make. (Z)

Nadler Gets Some of the Documents He Wants

Several weeks ago, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) sent out 81 requests for documents from people and organizations connected to Donald Trump. The deadline that Nadler set arrived on Monday, and while Democrats and Republicans disagree as to exactly how much material was submitted, it is clear that most of the recipients of those requests are not interested in helping voluntarily.

Thus far, Nadler appears to have about 10,000 pages of documents in hand, though he says more are coming. Former Trump campaign chair Steve Bannon responded enthusiastically (2,688 pages), as did Trump donor and friend Tom Barrack (3,349 pages), and, interestingly, the NRA (1,466 pages). A number of folks say they will only comply once they have a subpoena in hand. The White House, meanwhile, along with the people who are in closest orbit to the President (his sons, the executives of the Trump Organization, etc.), are apparently going to ignore Nadler entirely.

This is not surprising, and surely the Chairman was expecting this. He will surely move on to subpoenas next, and then charges for contempt of Congress after that. At that point, people like Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg and, very probably, the sons of Trump, will be left with no option but to comply or to go to prison. The President, and those who work for him (or worked for him) in the White House, will undoubtedly assert executive privilege. Then, it will be up to the courts to decide. On one hand, judges have been pretty unwilling in the past to allow presidents to assert executive privilege too broadly (see Tapes, Watergate). On the other hand, the current judiciary, and in particular the current Supreme Court, has been stacked pretty strongly in Trump's favor. So, it's anyone's guess who will win in Nadler v. Trump. (Z)

Politicians vs. Tech, Part I: The Democrats

In many ways, there is a natural affinity between the Democratic Party and the folks who run the tech industry. Both like science and technology, both are wedded to deep-blue coastal states, and both tend to look forward rather than backward. Barack Obama, in particular, was tight with the titans of the tech industry, and quite a few millions have flowed from the Facebooks, Apples, Googles, and Amazons of the world into Democratic coffers.

On the other hand, these companies are corporations that, by virtue of their fairly recent emergence, are not all that well regulated. This, in turn, has resulted in some things that are decidedly unfriendly to the Democratic Party and its platform. Enthusiastic pursuit of corporate welfare and tax loopholes, for example, and (alleged) exploitation of workers, and allowing their platforms to be used for the propagation of anti-Democratic propaganda by hostile foreign actors (many of whom drink vodka and eat borscht).

It is not entirely surprising, then, that while the Democrats' 2008 and 2012 candidate was very pro-tech, and their 2016 candidate was somewhat agnostic, many of the candidates who make up the 2020 field are decidedly critical of the industry. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has slammed Amazon for its treatment of workers and its avoidance of taxes. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) have both called for much stricter privacy rules. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has been battling with Facebook over their ability to control the content that users see. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has spoken broadly of the need for more regulation. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) isn't running for president, of course, but she took a leading role in causing New York City to yank the subsidies that were being offered to Amazon, bringing an end to the company's plans to build a headquarters there. The Representative's efforts were cheered by Sanders and Warren, among others.

This is not to say that the love affair between the Democrats and Big Tech is over. First of all, some of this year's candidates, like Beto O'Rourke, have pointedly avoided jumping on the anti-tech train. Further, the two sides need each other. The Democrats want to retain access to all those millions in donations, especially since there aren't too many other major industries where the Party is so strong. The tech pooh-bahs, for their part, know that the GOP is not a great match for them, and—recognizing that stronger regulation is coming down the pike—want to make sure that they at least have a strong voice in the process. Still, things are never going to be quite as cozy as they were in the halcyon days of 2008. (Z)

Politicians vs. Tech, Part II: The Republicans

While there may be an affinity between the Democrats and Big Tech, the same is not true for the GOP. Republicans don't love the lefty political lean of the Mark Zuckerbergs and Tim Cooks of the world, they have been known to be hostile to science, and while they tend to be the party of big business, there are plenty of industries where the muckety-mucks are mostly loyal Republicans (petroleum, banking, pharma).

The other problem, which is specific to social media companies, is that Republicans are convinced that they are being discriminated against (more on this below). This is a tough thesis to sustain, given the extent to which Twitter helped propel Donald Trump to victory. Nonetheless, there is a widespread perception on the right that anti-conservative/pro-liberal content is emphasized on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., while pro-conservative/anti-liberal content is downplayed or outright censored. Elizabeth Warren, as noted above, is convinced that progressive voices are also silenced, which means that this conspiratorial way of thinking is one of the few areas where she and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) are on the same page.

This week, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) fired a pretty sizable salvo in the direction of the social media platforms, specifically Twitter, filing a $250 million defamation suit. His filing specifically names Twitter as a corporation, and the owners of several anti-Nunes satire accounts, including @DevinCow and @DevinNunesMom, as respondents.

From a legal standpoint, this suit is laughable. When it comes to defaming a public figure, the bar is set very, very high. Perhaps most obviously, to be defamatory, the plaintiff has to argue that someone could see the content and believe it to be truthful. Are his lawyers prepared to argue that Twitter users might really believe that Nunes' cow once tweeted that, "Devin's boots are full of manure. He's udder-ly worthless and its pasture time to move him to prison."? And then there is the matter of the comically high damages that are being claimed. Nunes won his election, and is collecting his salary as a member of Congress. Exactly how was he damaged, particularly to the tune of nine figures?

No, this is not a lawsuit that is meant to actually prevail on its merits. Instead, it's a "message" lawsuit. Actually, there's a specific term for it; this sort of suit is known as a Strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP). Its purpose is to silence opponents by frightening them with the costs of a legal defense (and a potential judgment).

If this was just one congressman tilting at one windmill, then it might not be so concerning. However, Nunes threatened that this "is the first of many lawsuits that are coming." This suggests a coordinated campaign coming from many members of the GOP. And since the fellow in the White House has been an enthusiastic filer of SLAPP lawsuits in his time, that is entirely possible. In fact, as if on cue on Tuesday, Donald Trump used a press conference to rail against the various social media platforms:

I have many millions of followers on Twitter, and it is different than it used to be. Things are happening, names are taken off. People are not getting through. You've heard the same complaints. It seems to be that if they are conservative, Republicans, or in a certain group, there is big discrimination. I see it absolutely on Twitter, and Facebook, which I have also, and others I see. I really focus more on the one platform. I have many different platforms, I guess we have almost 60 million on Twitter, and if you add them all up it is way over 100 million people. And I get to see first hand what is going on, and it is not good.

If Republicans are really planning to use the courts to try to silence their online critics, that is not good news for the 1st Amendment.

Nunes is not going to win his lawsuit, and he and anyone else who files a similar lawsuit will be lucky if they don't get hit with court costs by a cranky judge who knows a frivolous suit when she sees one. Nonetheless, it is clear that whether the Democrats (see above) or the Republicans have the reins of power in their hands after 2020, Big Tech (and, in particular, social media platforms) are going to be under the microscope going forward. One can only hope that scrutiny is undertaken with the goal of protecting citizens from exploitation, and not of protecting politicians from criticism. (Z)

Republicans Think Whites Are Discriminated Against; Democrats Disagree

The newest Hill-HarrisX poll is out, and this time around they asked an interesting series of questions about discrimination. The results were that the vast majority agree that black and Latino folks are discriminated against in the United States, but there is sharp disagreement about white people. 75% of Republicans are convinced that white people are targeted for discrimination, while only 38% of Democrats feel that way.

(Z) is a historian, and can promise that this exact divide will be one of the questions that future historians examine with great interest. So, let's provide a rough outline for their future dissertations, articles, and books, and talk about some of the reasons for this perceptual divide:

  • Net vs. Gross: It is undoubtedly the case that most people, including most white people, have been discriminated against at least once in their lives. However, Democrats tend to think about this in "net" terms—if a person is hampered by their race twice, but benefits from it 20 times, then they've come out far ahead and they are not a victim of discrimination. On the other hand, Republicans tend to think in gross terms—if a person is hampered by their race twice, then they have been discriminated against, end of story. It does not matter if that number is canceled out by 10 or 15 or 20 positive outcomes.

  • The Discrimination Industrial Complex: This is a big one. The fact is that one of the major political parties, along with the media outlets that support that party, have spent decades persuading their base that they are being oppressed on the basis of their religion (evangelical Christianity), their race, their culture, their political viewpoints, and so forth. This manifests itself in all sorts of ways, including manufactured issues like the alleged "War on Christmas."

  • Confirmation Bias: One of the biggest cognitive biases of them all; people tend to pay attention to things that affirm their already-existing point of view. Given a media and political ecosystem that persuades many conservative white folks they are being persecuted, they are much more likely to take note of apparently discriminatory actions that affirm the assertion.

  • Congruence Bias: While confirmation bias is the tendency to overweight things that "prove" our beliefs, its cousin congruence bias is the tendency to underweight things that "disprove" our beliefs. White liberals, therefore, are more likely to note occasions where their race helped them (confirmation), and to ignore occasions where it might have hurt them (congruence). White conservatives, as noted, are more likely to note occasions where their race hurt them (confirmation), while ignoring occasions where it helped them (congruence).

  • Questionable Attribution: Needless to say, people rarely announce that they are engaging in racially discriminatory behavior. In some cases, they may not even be aware of it. It is left to the victim to infer that is what is happening. Sometimes, the inference does not require too much of a stretch of imagination. For example, a police officer pulls over a black motorist and asks what business he has driving around in Beverly Hills. Other times, the inference requires a bit more in the way of mental gymnastics. For example, a business lays off two white employees but retains two Latinos. Anyhow, given some of the dynamics outlined above, it is pretty easy for folks who already believe they are persecuted to transform something that might have been discriminatory into something that they are convinced was definitely discriminatory. And, similarly, folks who do not believe they are persecuted can transform something that might have been discriminatory into something that they are convinced was definitely not discriminatory.

Anyhow, whether our list of reasons is on the mark or not, it is clear that quite a few white Americans have responded to the changes in America in the last few decades by persuading themselves that they are victims of unfair discrimination. This goes a long way toward explaining the rise of Donald Trump in particular, and more generally the presence of substantial populist movements on both the right and the left. (Z)

Eric Giddens Wins

In response to the unexpected resignation of State Senator Jeff Danielson (D), representing IA-30, Iowa held a special election to fill his vacant seat. With 7,610 votes, as compared to 5,631 for his Republican opponent Walt Rogers, Democrat Eric Giddens was triumphant.

If you have no idea who Giddens is, or why IA-30 might be significant, you are to be forgiven. The short answer is that, for a brief while, he was the best-connected Democrat in the country. The longer answer is that his special election saw most of the Democrats' 2020 presidential candidates paying a visit to the Hawkeye State, so they could meet with voters and tell them what a great guy Giddens is. And while they hit the campaign trail for Gibbons, or Gideon, or whatever the hell his name is, Iowa voters just might have gotten an idea or two about who should get their caucus vote in 2020. Consequently, Giddens found himself scheduling pancake breakfasts and meet-and-greets at shopping malls with military precision, so that he could accommodate the parade of high-profile Democrats, including Beto O'Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and former representative John Delaney.

If Giddens had lost, given the Democratic lean of the district (D+4) and all of the star power that campaigned on his behalf, it would have been a bit embarrassing for the blue team. But he won, so that's a non-issue. And now, Democratic candidates are going to have to find some other excuse to spend time in Iowa. Maybe they can arrange to be diagnosed with a severe corn deficiency. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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