• GOP Plots Impeachment Strategy
• FBI Official Under Investigation for Document Tampering
• Trump Signs Short-Term Funding Bill
• Trump Gets Another Tax Return Victory
• Google to Significantly Limit Targeted Political Ads
• About that Trump Jr. "Bestseller"
• Lots of Drama in Israel
Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week has nothing on the Impeachment Week that leader-of-the-impeachment-inquiry Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) just staged. Witness after witness visited the Hill and said very incriminating things about Donald Trump and his administration, while swatting away flies named Nunes and Jordan. Bringing up the rear on Thursday were the White House's former top Russia expert Fiona Hill and State Dept. official David Holmes, who works at the embassy in Ukraine. There's a case to be made that the duo did as much damage to the President as EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland did on Wednesday.
One of the main things that Hill wanted to do, clearly, was undermine the various conspiracy theories and excuses that the Republicans have put forward in order to justify the President's conduct. Her opening statement took particular aim at the notion that Ukraine, and not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election:
Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary, and that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016.
Though Trump was not named, this is so obviously directed squarely at him that she might as well have added "and anyone who thinks Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S. is an idiot." Hill also said that quite a few employees of foreign governments tweeted or said things about the Trump campaign, and that such statements do not have any effect on the United States' relationship with those countries. This is a response, in particular, to the questions put to former ambassador to Ukraine Masha Yovanovitch by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). The Representative posited that a bit of political commentary from a few Ukrainian officials is irrefutable proof of deep and abiding corruption on the part of the Ukrainian government. Hill, obviously, does not agree with that thesis. It is instructive that when it was their turn to ask questions of the witness, Republicans basically didn't bother, and instead resorted to lecturing her. The gender dynamics here—powerful men presuming to publicly chastise a woman like this—were pretty icky, particularly since Hill also noted in her testimony her sense that Sondland did not always take her seriously due to her gender.
Meanwhile, Holmes became the first eyewitness (earwitness?) to say that during the July 26 cell phone call between Trump and Sondland, Joe Biden's name definitely came up. On Wednesday, Sondland confirmed the general content of the call, but said he could not remember whether or not Biden was mentioned. Holmes said he definitely was. Trump, for his part, took to Twitter to push back against this:
I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 21, 2019
The careful reader will note that is not actually a denial. Further, given how loudly Trump speaks on the phone, it is likely he's suffering from some (or a lot of) hearing loss. So, his inability to overhear things is not exactly instructive. Furthermore, Holmes is 45 and Trump is 73 and the ability to hear things often declines with age.
Furthermore, both Hill and Holmes were in agreement that anytime "Burisma" was mentioned, it was code for "Joe Biden," that there was unquestionably a quid pro quo, and that everyone in the administration knew exactly what was going on. This reiterates the main theme of Sondland's testimony on Wednesday. However, Sondland's tone was flippant, and he was also vague when being vague was self-serving. On the other hand, Hill and Holmes were not at all vague, and carried themselves with the same sort of dignity as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Indeed, while Hill was still testifying, an online "Fiona Hill Fan Club" was already forming. Hours after she was done, #FionaHillFanClub was still trending on Twitter.
Both witnesses also mentioned former NSA John Bolton, but particularly Hill, who used to work for him. Her testimony gave added weight to his hints that he knows things about this situation that are not yet publicly known. It is not yet known what Schiff & Co. have planned now that the cavalcade of witnesses is basically at its end, but it could be that they decide they have no choice but to wait until they can compel Bolton's appearance. (Z)
With the parade of witnesses this week, all of them saying things that were somewhere on the spectrum from "pretty bad" to "absolutely devastating" for the Trump administration, the odds that the House will adopt articles of impeachment—which were already very high—rose to something like 99.99%. It's hard to imagine what might forestall that result at this point; it would probably take something like a meteor striking Earth and triggering a tsunami that wipes out Washington. But assuming that the movie Deep Impact does not prove to be an eerily prescient prophecy, then an impeachment trial is in the Senate's future, likely sooner rather than later. And so, as CNN notes, "Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working with the White House to prepare for the likely Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump."
Let us pause for a moment to reflect on how extraordinary that statement is. In any other trial in the United States, if the jury and the defendant were communicating before the trial (much less coordinating strategy), that would result in an immediate mistrial. In the current political environment, however, it barely raises eyebrows when we learn that the President and his jury are cooperating. Anyhow, the general Republican consensus at the moment is that the Democrats should be given about two weeks, and should be allowed to present all of the evidence they've gathered. The thinking—and it would seem that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is taking a lead role in helping strategize on behalf of a man who slurred his father—is that cutting the Democrats off would make it look like the President has something to hide. On the other hand, if all the evidence is laid before the Senate, and then Trump is acquitted, he and his surrogates can claim total vindication.
At the moment, the White House is in agreement with this course of action. That's subject to change at literally any moment, perhaps three or four or five times in a single day, but at least for now, that's what the future is looking like, impeachment-wise. (Z)
According to a report from CNN, an FBI agent is under investigation for allegedly altering a document related to the Bureau's 2016 investigation into Russian election meddling. This is part of the overall investigation into the matter being conducted by federal prosecutor John Durham and Justice Dept. IG Michael Horowitz.
Beyond the existence of an investigation, CNN was unable to learn much more in the way of details. The identity of the person under investigation, their rank, and whether or not they still work for the Bureau are all unknown. Similarly, the nature of the document in question, the extent of the alterations, and the role that all of this played in the investigation remain a mystery. It's also worth noting that, even if the investigation was inspired (in part) by a tainted document, that does not mean the very legitimate discoveries it made are rendered null and void. In that way, it's like the Ukraine whistleblower. Even if that person turns out to be an alcoholic Satan-worshiping communist with chronic halitosis and a rap sheet full of convictions for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat, that doesn't mean that the smoke and fire they pointed out wasn't real.
Still, just the revelation of the investigation is going to add plenty of fuel to kvetching by Trump and his base about witch hunts and the deep state and the like. And if there's an actual indictment, or a conviction, the sky will be the limit. After all, look how much mileage was gotten out of the text messages that Lisa Page and Peter Strzok sent to each other. (Z)
As we learned last year, it is not a good move, politically, to shut the government down just before a major holiday. And so, with just hours to spare before funding ran out, the Senate passed and Donald Trump signed a bill approved by the House of Representatives earlier this week that will keep the money flowing for another month while negotiations continue. So, nobody's Thanksgiving will be ruined.
That means that the folks in Washington have a new deadline of December 20 to work something out. They seem preternaturally incapable of doing so these days, for obvious reasons (e.g., polarization, disagreements over funding the border wall). At the same time, shutting down the government during the Christmas season was not good optics in an off year; it's hard to imagine anyone allowing that to happen heading into an election year. Adding it up then, the smart money says that you should mark your calendar for the passage of another short-term spending bill, sometime around 3:00 p.m. ET on December 20. (Z)
Earlier this year, as readers will remember, the legislature in California passed a law requiring all presidential and gubernatorial candidates who appear on the state's ballot to submit five years of tax returns in order to qualify. They just might have had a specific individual in mind when they did this. Anyhow, the big question was whether the new requirement would pass muster in terms of federal election law. We, and most of the other folks who looked at it, thought that it would.
As it turns out, that was the wrong question. The RNC's lawyers, to their credit, realized that the correct question was: "Is this consistent with state law in California?" On Thursday, the seven-justice, majority-Democratic California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it is not, essentially because the state's ballot laws are written to be very inclusive, and to keep the bar for qualifying very low.
As with the two tax-return rulings that Trump got earlier this week, this is a victory for him, but a qualified one. First, the door is still open for some other state to try the same maneuver. They probably won't, with the elections now so close, but you never know. Second, and more importantly, Trump was never going to give up his tax returns to be on the California ballot. All this does is allow state Republicans to vote for him in the primaries, and thus to give him delegates he presumably won't actually need. If the presidential returns are to see the light of day, it will be due to one of the three pending federal lawsuits, not because of California's state law. So, the decision by the California judges did nothing to change the odds that Trump is able to keep his secrets. (Z)
In an obvious shot across the Facebook bow, Google announced on Thursday that it will significantly limit the ability of its customers to target political ads. Although the search engine has the information to do some very, very fine-grained marketing, they will only allow political advertisers to target based on just three general categories: age, gender and location (but only to the ZIP Code level; no narrower). That means that if your political messaging is exactly what male baby boomers in Peoria want to hear, then you've got no problems. On the other hand, if your goal was to reach only folks who have recently visited smallhands.com, kkk.org, or machineguns4everyone.net, you're out of luck.
This announcement was expected, and isn't all that much of a game changer, as Google does relatively little business in the realm of political advertising. But, given that Twitter has also imposed significant limits on political ads, it does increase the pressure on Facebook to follow suit. Facebook, for its part, could easily collect nine figures in political advertising revenue in 2020. However, if they maintain the "wild west" anything-goes policy of 2016 (which CEO Mark Zuckerberg has recently affirmed), then that would be guaranteeing a lot of bad press, would alienate a fair number of users, and would be something close to an engraved invitation to Congress to look seriously at regulating the platform. In other words, they would be pursuing short-term gain at the expense of likely long-term pain. So, it's not terribly surprising that after Google made its announcement, Facebook said that it was considering a similar sort of change, severely limiting the ability of advertisers to target specific types of people. If the social media giant did change its policy, that would be a much bigger deal than with Google, as carefully targeted Facebook ads were a critical tool for fringe groups and Russian trolls, not to mention the Trump campaign, in 2016. (Z)
Most people would probably be surprised to learn how few copies of a book have to be sold in order to make the "bestseller" lists. It depends on the genre of the book, and there's some weekly variance of course, but generally sales of 3,500 copies in a week is enough to do the trick. That means it's quite plausible to game the system by bulk-purchasing copies of a book. The Church of Scientology famously did it for months and months in order to make certain that L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics had a long run on the bestseller lists, and many other authors, publishers, etc. have done it as well. A few years back, the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly both changed their methodologies in order to make it a little harder to execute these sorts of shenanigans, but with enough money and determination, it's still doable.
We explain all of this as preface to the news, reported Thursday, that the RNC spent $94,800 buying up copies of Donald Trump Jr.'s new book Triggered, so as to ensure that it was a "bestseller" in its first week of release. The amazon.com price is $17.95, and the site tends to sell new releases at close to cost, so that tells us that the RNC (which surely got a bulk price) paid something like $17.50 a copy. That makes their total purchase somewhere in the realm of 5,400 copies, which means the GOP single-handedly bestowed bestseller status upon young Trump. Undoubtedly more copies than that were sold, but this does reveal that the Party knows that the son is nowhere near as popular with the base as the father. It's also dangerously close to self-dealing, since the RNC works for Trump Sr., and is funded primarily through donations. (Z)
There have been a couple of big stories out of Israel in the last couple of days. First of all, Benny Gantz has failed to form a government, just as current PM Benjamin Netanyahu failed before him. That now opens the door for any member of the Knesset to take a shot at it; the prize in this little competition is the premiership of Israel. If nobody can do it, as seems likely, then Israel will hold yet another round of elections.
Second, the news broke on Thursday that Netanyahu is going to be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, marking the first time that's happened to a sitting Israeli PM. The decision was made by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit; undoubtedly Netanyahu is cursing himself for not appointing William Barr to that job. The indictment is 57 pages, and the evidence appears to be pretty substantive; particularly serious is the assertion that the PM steered 1 billion shekels (approximately $280 million) in government benefits to his friend, millionaire Shaul Elovitch. We are hardly experts in Israeli law, but one has to assume that nobody would undertake such a high-profile and politically fraught prosecution without having an awful lot of ducks in a row. So, if we were betting, we would put our money on "conviction." In that case, the sportsbooks advise that they would give us about 2-to-3 odds, implying a 60% chance that the PM is headed to the big house.
We bring this up because earlier this week, of course, the Trump administration announced a dramatic change in policy, declaring that they no longer opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It seems improbable that announcement could come just a day or two before Israel started on the path to another election, and before Netanyahu got indicted. Whether Team Trump intended their announcement to help Netanyahu with the first problem, the second one, or both, is known only to them. But it strengthens the case that the President's foreign policy is shaped by his own personal goals, and not necessarily what is in the interests of the U.S. (or of peace, for that matter). (Z)
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Nov21 It Wasn't Just the Gordon Sondland Show
Nov21 Hearings Aren't Moving the Needle
Nov21 Democrats Debate in Atlanta
Nov21 Americans Don't Believe Campaigns Are Based on Facts
Nov21 Nikki Haley Goes Full Trumpist
Nov21 Wayne Messam Is Out
Nov21 Republicans Still Want Pompeo to Run for the Senate in Kansas
Nov21 Carolyn Maloney Will Become Chair of the House Oversight Committee
Nov20 Impeachment Inquiry Goes Better than Usual for Trump
Nov20 Trump Reverses Policy on Israel
Nov20 Grisham Tells a Whopper
Nov20 New Hampshire Poll Has Buttigieg in the Lead
Nov20 Democrats Debate Tonight
Nov20 Let Them Eat...Avocado Toast
Nov20 Jim Jordan May Get a Never Trump Challenger
Nov19 Get Ready for More Fireworks
Nov19 Trump Gets Physical...Or Does He?
Nov19 Two Courts Give Trump Favorable Tax Return Rulings
Nov19 A Faustian Bargain?
Nov19 Another Day, Another Gerrymandered North Carolina Map
Nov19 American Bridge Tries Out Possible Approach to 2020 Advertisements
Nov19 Why The Hill is Fox News Lite
Nov18 The Base Is Too Big
Nov18 Pelosi: Impeachment Hearings Might Not Finish This Year
Nov18 Trump Attacks a Pence Staffer
Nov18 Poll: Buttigieg Leads in Iowa
Nov18 Warren Has a Plan ... for Health Care
Nov18 The Harris Campaign: The Obituary
Nov18 Bloomberg Will Spend $100 Million in Four States
Nov18 What Kind of Government Reforms Might Be Passed Post-Trump?
Nov17 John Bel Edwards Is Reelected
Nov17 Sunday Mailbag
Nov16 Yovanovitch Testifies, Republicans Obfuscate, and Trump Instigates
Nov16 Stone Is Guilty as Charged
Nov16 Saturday Q&A
Nov15 The Day After...
Nov15 Diplomacy, Trump Style
Nov15 Today in Emoluments News: Trump International DC
Nov15 Amazon Sues the Pentagon
Nov15 The State of the Democratic Race, Part I: National Polls
Nov15 The State of the Democratic Race, Part II: Early State Polls
Nov15 Longshot Candidates Become a Little Bit Longer Shots
Nov15 It's Déjà Vu All Over Again
Nov14 Taylor and Kent Testify
Nov14 The Case for and against Impeaching Donald Trump
Nov14 Impeachment Could Cost the GOP
Nov14 The Voters Have Already Made Up Their Minds
Nov14 Giuliani Writes an Op-ed Condemning the Impeachment Inquiry
Nov14 Trump Suffers Another Taxing Defeat