• Trump Administration Moves Forward on Agenda Items
• Pundits Don't Care Much for Early VP Plan
• O'Rourke Picks Campaign Manager
• Democrats Avoid Ugly Primary in Arizona
• Avenatti Arrested
• Tuesday Q&A
Donald Trump has had some pretty lousy days, weeks, and months as president. Sunday, by contrast, was probably his best day. It's an odd kind of presidency when one's top achievement is being cleared of conspiracy charges, but there it is.
Naturally, every member of Team Trump, from the President on down, has spent much energy claiming victory and total vindication. But, of course, vindication is not enough. They also want vengeance. And so, on Monday, Trump made very clear that he's not satisfied with how things stand, and that he is going to exact payback from anyone who doubted him, criticized him, or otherwise had anything to do with the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller. The President's exact words:
There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, very bad things—I would say treasonous things against our country. Those people will certainly be looked at. I've been looking at them for a long time.
That is more than a little concerning. In fact, it's positively Nixonian. Well, except for the fact that Richard Nixon was behind closed doors when he threatened to persecute his enemies, while Trump is doing it right out in the open. And there's no reason to think he's bluffing, given his past willingness to stick it to those who anger him. Former Trump adviser and campaign manager Steve Bannon, in fact, predicted on Monday that the Donald will go "full animal," whatever that might mean.
Taking their cue from Trump, others in his orbit got in on the act, too. A veritable parade of folks, from Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Donald Jr. to Kellyanne Conway, went on Fox News to toss a few verbal Molotov cocktails. The President's lawyers spent the day on Monday taking potshots at Mueller. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) ominously threatened that former FBI director James Comey will be the next person to be investigated. And just about everyone in the GOP attacked Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and called for his resignation. Of course, as we've been reminded many times by folks like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Schiff answers to a fairly small number of people, most of them in California, and none of them among the GOP leaders who are calling for his head.
Quite a few commentators, on both the left and right, suggested on Monday that there is method to all of this madness, and that Trump & Co. have made a calculated political decision to "weaponize" Mueller in order to gin up the base. But is there really any reason to believe that? Trump is a walking id who spends 24 hours a day wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Is there really any reason to think that Sunday's and Monday's performance is anything different from what we've seen for the last three years or so, namely him saying whatever he's thinking whenever he thinks it?
And even if there is political strategy here, either now or in the future, we're not so sure it will work out all that well for the President. There's actually not a lot of value in driving the base into a lather 18 months prior to an election. Further, he's gotten much mileage out of claims about the deep state, and how he's a victim, and so on and so forth. Can he really keep that narrative going, given how things turned out? He will try, undoubtedly, but generally there has to be at least something that can pass for persecuting going on in order to fuel a persecution complex.
Meanwhile, there's no question that Trump is winning the spin war right now, as the narrative across the spectrum is "PRESIDENT VINDICATED!" And consequently, Trump has hugged the Mueller report very close. However, let us point out another, entirely accurate, way in which the report could be described: "Mueller report makes clear that Trump had many felons in his orbit, might have obstructed justice, and would not have won election without Russian interference." Once the world has access to something beyond a brief, four-page memo written by a Trump appointee, will the pro-Trump narrative remain intact? Or will it start to crumble? And if there is some adverse stuff in there for the President, will he be able to backpedal, having already embraced Mueller's findings? These are all good questions.
It is also not clear that this outcome is bad news for the Democrats, long term. Undoubtedly, a lot of them (and a lot of the left-leaning folks in the media) have their tails between their legs right now. And, barring some extremely unexpected development, impeachment is now dead. However, the fact is that Democratic voters' enthusiasm for impeachment was waning before the Mueller report came out. And running a campaign based on how evil Trump is was not a winning strategy in 2016, as Hillary Clinton showed us. It is likely that the 2020 candidates will now be forced to run on the issues, and on what ideas they have for improving the country. That's almost certainly a better strategy anyhow, since people who dislike Trump don't really need to be reminded why. Further, if the President is spending all of his time settling scores, and the Democratic candidates are refusing to play the tit-for-tat game and instead are talking about issues of substance, that could win over some fence-sitting voters for the blue team by making the Democrats look like the grown ups in the room.
Needless to say, a lot of this is speculative. All the wind is in the sails of the S.S. Trump right now, without a doubt. However, we think it's right to wonder if that is where the wind will remain for the next 18 months. (Z)
Inasmuch as Team Trump is feeling its oats right now, it's not so surprising that they have moved forward with a couple of signature initiatives while momentum seems to be on their side. To start, given that the national emergency remains intact, the Pentagon has advised Congress that the first $1 billion in funds for wall construction has been identified, and that pre-planning has begun. Of course, there are quite a few court cases to be resolved, so it may be a while before the administration can actually begin trying to use that money. The $1 billion, incidentally, is being diverted from efforts to stanch the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. We probably should point out that in 2018, approximately 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, while approximately 400 were killed by undocumented immigrants. You may reach your own conclusions.
Speaking of people dying, the administration also renewed its efforts to kill the ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare. Although the Justice Dept. had previously said it was ok with leaving certain parts of the law intact, it has now thrown its full support behind a judge who endeavored to strike down the entire program with a stroke of his pen. Legal experts across the political spectrum were in agreement that the ruling was ideologically motivated, had more holes than a pound of swiss cheese, and is likely to be overturned on appeal, but you can't blame Team Trump for trying to strike while the iron is hot. (Z)
Last week, we answered a question about the possibility of one of the older and whiter Democratic candidates pairing up early in the primary season with a younger running mate who could diversify the hypothetical ticket in terms of gender, or race, or both. Pairings like Joe Biden/Stacey Abrams, or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)/Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)/Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Part of the notion is that the older person would commit to being a one-termer, making the running mate a sort of president-in-training.
We thought the idea had merit. However, quite a few other commentators do not share our views. CNN's Chris Cillizza, for example, wrote that " Joe Biden's VP gimmick is a very bad idea," while the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty pleaded "Don't do it, Stacey Abrams." The former's point is that the move would be tantamount to Biden loudly admitting his age is a weakness, while the latter's is that Abrams would spend a year apologizing for Biden's past missteps on race and would be permanently damaged if he does not land the nomination. Meanwhile, both pundits think the move would be "gimmicky."
Perhaps Cillizza and Tumulty are right. After all, they've both been following and writing about politics for a long time. On the other hand, the pundits of Andrew Jackson's day did not approve when he invented the nominating convention in order to cement his candidacy in 1828. The pundits of William Jennings Bryan's day did not approve when he took the show on the road instead of staying at home and running a classic front porch campaign. The pundits of Franklin D. Roosevelt's day did not approve when he appeared in person at the Democratic convention to accept the party's nomination in 1932. All of these things were decried as inappropriate, and in poor taste, and so forth, and then promptly became de rigueur.
The fact of the matter is, the Democrats have a much bigger field than they have had in a long time, and the two men leading in the polls would both become, by a wide margin, the oldest presidential nominees ever. We thus stand by our assessment that unusual times could call for unusual measures, and that some creative thinking could well prove to be a shrewd move. (Z)
There was little question that Beto O'Rourke was doing his best to be Obama v2.0: Young, charismatic, strong on empathy, and so forth. And in case there was any doubt, the would-be Democratic nominee just hired a key member of #44's team to be his campaign manager. It's Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, who responded to the news by tweeting:
I firmly believe primaries make our party stronger. Hardest part is having friends I admire deeply on all sides, working for the many *great* candidates in this race. But I’m absolutely confident we’ll all be back together in time, united in our most important goal for 2020.— Jen O'Malley Dillon (@jomalleydillon) March 25, 2019
Dillon's particular specialty is Big Data, another hallmark of Obama's successful campaigns. She's also got some expertise in branding, so perhaps her first item of business will be to commission a new logo for the campaign:
Alternatively, she could convince O'Rourke to just change his slogan to WhataBeto. (Z)
Jennifer O'Malley Dillon might think that primaries make the Democratic Party stronger (see above), but not everyone would agree. In particular, the blue team would really like to knock Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) off in 2020, as doing so is key to their (slight) chances of retaking the Senate. The problem was that Mark Kelly, former astronaut and husband of former representative Gabby Giffords, declined to bow to pressure and accept that the party's preferred nominee was Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who is Latino, a veteran, and a Harvard graduate. So, Kelly launched a campaign preemptively, and really hit the ground running in terms of messaging, fundraising, etc.
It would appear that Gallego would like to keep his safe seat in the House, rather than roll the dice against Kelly and then, if that somehow works out, roll them again against McSally. Or, maybe the Democratic muckety-mucks decided that a somewhat lefty Latino wasn't quite as strong as they thought, particularly as compared to a fairly centrist white guy with a compelling background. In any event, Gallego announced on Monday that he's not interested in the senate after all, clearing the way for Kelly to preserve his cash and to spend the next 18 months hitting McSally with both barrels. (Z)
According to Newton's Third Law, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so, maybe it was inevitable that a day that saw the Robert Mueller storm clouds lifting from Donald Trump's life also witnessed the downfall of his former nemesis Michael Avenatti.
It's not much of a secret that Avenatti is a grifter. However, it would appear he chose a target that was just a bit out of his league in the form of Nike, a massive multinational corporation with $35 billion in revenue annually. According to court filings, Avenatti and another attorney (later revealed to be celebrity attorney Mark Geragos) attempted to extort the shoe maker for $20 million, threatening to go public with damaging information about illegal payments being made to high school athletes. Nike went to the authorities instead, and now Avenatti is in deep trouble. Disbarment is all but certain, and a ruinous financial penalty and a prison term are also probable.
Undoubtedly, this was the icing on Trump's no-collusion cake. Meanwhile, since the days of Avenatti as a vaguely plausible presidential candidate are gone, and since he no longer represents Stormy Daniels, this presumably marks the last time he'll be mentioned on this site. (Z)
This one's heavy on the Mueller questions, as promised.
Even if one assumes that the AG's letter correctly summarizes Mueller's investigation, wouldn't all the other publicly known evidence still suggest Trump is a "useful idiot," to use espionage parlance? S.B., Los Angeles, CA
The core elements of the definition are: (1) Helped to advance Russian propaganda, and (2) Did so unknowingly. Since Trump certainly did a great deal of work to advance Russia's propaganda goals (e.g., "Lock her up"), then that leaves us only with the question of whether he did so unknowingly. Assuming Bill Barr's report is accurate, then Trump was indeed unknowing, and would thus be a textbook case of a useful idiot.
Like many others, presumably, I was (and still am) hoping that the Mueller report would give us an explanation for the shadiness and evasiveness in the Trump administration when it came to their multiple contacts with Russia and their pro-Russia leanings. Is it possible that they could have been aware of the support they were being given by the Russians to win the election, but that the awareness in and of itself would not constitute collusion/conspiracy/coordination? What exactly is the legal bar for conspiracy? E.G., Hopewell, NJ
With our usual caveat that we are not lawyers, conspiracy generally requires three things: a plan to commit a crime, awareness that the planned act is illegal, and an "overt act" taken in furtherance of the crime. There is no question a crime was committed here, which is why a dozen Russians have been indicted. Undoubtedly, Trump took overt acts that aided the Russians (again, "lock her up," etc.). In fact, generally speaking, being aware of a crime and staying silent is itself considered an "overt act." That means that the only prong of the three where Trump could possibly have come up short is "awareness." If he was aware, and it could be proven, he'd be in big trouble. And presumably, the special counsel concluded either that Trump (and those in his orbit) truly weren't aware, or that it couldn't be proven.
To put that another way, it's not generally possible to be aware of a crime being committed, remain silent, and yet not be guilty of conspiracy. You don't even have to know about everything illegal that is being done, or all of the conspirators, you just have to be aware of part of it.
In every other jurisdiction in America, the position of attorney general is elected. Why isn't that the case at the federal level? Seems like having the AG answerable only to the president opens the position up to miscarriages of justice, like perhaps Bill Barr's unilateral decision to not pursue obstruction of justice charges against Donald Trump. The AG should be independent of the White House, and not beholden to the person who appointed them. D.E., Kennett Square, PA
First, note that not all states do AG-via-election (for example, Maine and New Hampshire, among others, give the state governor the power to appoint his AG). In any event, electing an AG opens up a whole can of worms, namely the person doing things that are politically popular, and are not necessarily undertaken in service of justice being done. That happens all the time on the state level, and would undoubtedly be even more problematic on the federal level. And assuming the AG ran independently of the president, and not as part of a president-VP-AG ticket, you could end up with a messy divided government, in which the president was at war with his own AG. For example, what if Barack Obama had been saddled with Jeff Sessions? Or Donald Trump with Loretta Lynch?
In other words, every approach has its downsides. For most of U.S. history, presidents managed to pick AGs who were able to be a functional part of the president's team, but independent enough to put the country ahead of the man in the Oval Office. But that tradition has weakened considerably in the past 50 years or so; JFK's appointment of his brother probably didn't help, nor did Richard Nixon's (temporary) deployment of Robert "Saturday Night Massacre" Bork, nor George W. Bush's appointment of Alberto "Hatchet Man" Gonzales. Presumably, we will soon know if Bill Barr will be added to the roll of dishonor.
Would it be logical to assume that Robert Mueller would be unable to determine, one way or another, if Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia without actually talking to him, Don Jr., Eric, Jared Kushner, etc. under oath? As far as I'm aware, none of them were called to testify. Wouldn't their statements be pivotal to ensuring a thorough and complete investigation? F.A., Minneapolis, MN
That is a very good question, not unlike what happened with the "investigation" of Brett Kavanaugh. Were there interviews that we simply don't know about? If not, how can Mueller possibly justify his conclusions? One wonders if Mueller did not write something like this: "It was apparent to me that I was not going to be given access to the Trump family, and without information from them, I have no way to prove collusion." If Mueller did write something like that, it would mean Bill Barr's summary was technically accurate, but grossly misleading.
Today, you wrote a lot about the Mueller Report and what it says or doesn't say. But none of us know what the Mueller Report says or doesn't say. All we know is the "Barr Report." Barr, a Trump pick who has been openly critical of the Mueller Investigation, issued a four-page summary. I trust Barr as much as I trust Trump (in other words, zero). So, why are you treating what Barr wrote as factual regarding the Mueller Report? And why is the mainstream media doing the same? R.M., Strong City, KS
In part, because it's all we've got right now. But also because anyone and everyone is operating under three key assumptions: (1) Barr was basically an honest guy the last time he was AG, and so presumably he has remained so, (2) Rod Rosenstein has apparently seen the report, and also has a reputation as an honest guy, and (3) Eventually the report is going to be released to Congress (and possibly the general public), and if Barr and Rosenstein fudged things they would be found out, so it would be a waste of their time (and their reputations) to do so. That said, if Barr says "nobody sees the report but me," then that will look very fishy, indeed.
Given that the policy of the justice department is not to indict sitting presidents, what does a "guilty" finding look like, if not a detailed report of evidence of guilt with no explicit conclusions attached to it? M.M., Santa Cruz, CA
You make a good point. And given how politically fraught it would be to charge any president with obstruction, much less this particular president, "I have reached no conclusions" may be just about as damning as Mueller was going to get.
There is a lot about the Barr summation of the Mueller report that leaves me
with huge questions. The one that sticks out the most is in regards to plea deals. In the
investigation, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and initially Manafort were given plea deals where they
agreed to plea guilty to lesser crimes in exchange for information about "bigger fishes." It doesn't
seem that this information led to any "bigger fishes." Is that common for plea deals to be given
for information that goes nowhere or that exonerates their bosses? My understanding—granted,
from TV and movies—is that plea deals are for actionable evidence and not for evidence of
exoneration. Maybe I have a misunderstanding about plea deals but something seems off kilter about
the Gates, Flynn and Manafort deals.
Lastly, because I try to operate with a fair mind that weighs all possibilities, I've have had to consider is the reaction of the left of disbelief to the findings just team bias or is there something that doesn't seem right? To me it seems like so much of the actions of Trump and his team are extremely suspicious and troubling. By the same token when I look at the Republicans' case against Hillary Clinton with the e-mails and Benghazi, I see mountains made out of molehills. Have I and others on the left done the same thing—taken trivial facts and overinflated them to fit a preconceived outcome? In your opinion is there actually something there or should those on the left accept these findings and move on? I ask because I don't want to become like the Republicans who see child sex rings in harmless pizza shops. D.E., Lilitz, PA
Generally speaking, plea deals are given for two reasons. The first is to spare the prosecution the difficulty of a trial. In these cases, of course, the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence (or for fewer charges or, very rarely, for adjustments to the findings of fact). The second is to acquire information. Since prosecutors/courts are not in the business of "proving" innocence, they do not make trades for exculpatory evidence, as you note. And you are right that the plea bargains involving Flynn and Gates don't seem to add up right now. What was the purpose of the plea deals, and what was all this talk of Flynn (for example) sitting for dozens of interviews and providing valuable information? Similarly, what were all of the money laundering experts on Mueller's team working on? And what about the folks who appear to still be in the midst of the process, like Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi? Were they just red herrings?
As to your question about Russiagate being the new Benghazi, or the new Pizzagate, it's true that everyone has their blind spots and biases, of course. However, we don't think this is at all a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Regardless of what is, or is not, in Mueller's report, there are lots of things that are already publicly known. The Trump Tower meeting. Jared Kushner's attempt to get a secret phone line at the Russian embassy. The President's refusal to allow anyone to listen to his conversations with Vladimir Putin. The statement drafted on Air Force One that Trump falsely denied involvement with. Dozens of contacts between the campaign and Russian operatives. Lies about those contacts, often in front of Congress. In short, there was a heck of a lot of smoke, and it's still somewhat hard to see how none of it involved any fire. And perhaps most important is that Donald Trump spent years acting like a guilty person. He was clearly worried, and we would bet a sizable sum of money that even he was surprised when the report came back as favorably as it did.
A few months ago, you wrote that the Russian case was certainly the biggest political scandal in the American history, which includes the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Teapot Dome Scandal, the WMD in Iraq and, of course, last but not least, the Watergate. It seemed to me a little bit exaggerated at the time, because we didn't know for sure what happened between Russia and Trump back in 2016. Now that the investigation is complete, and given its conclusions, would you stand by your affirmation? E.K., Brignoles, France
You are, we must point out, misrepresenting our words. What we said (on January 14 of this year), was that if a conspiracy was proven it would be the biggest scandal in history. Both the original question itself, and our answer, had that qualifier.
And, as others have pointed out above, we are still mostly in the dark as to what Mueller found. That said, we already know that Watergate resulted in 40 people being indicted, while the Mueller investigation produced 34 indictments, Teapot Dome 2 indictments, and Crédit Mobilier zero. So, Russiagate remains in the running for worst scandal, depending on what else comes out.
Oh, and we did not compare Russiagate to the WMD in Iraq. We specifically noted that certain kinds of bad behavior—like the fudging of WMD—don't get called "scandals," for whatever reason.
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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Mar20 Politicians vs. Tech, Part II: The Republicans
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