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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Democrats Get Serious About Impeachment Inquiry
      •  Senators Start to Squirm
      •  Trump Begins Planning His Defense
      •  More on Alexander Vindman
      •  Mr. Bolton, Please Report for Your Deposition
      •  What's a Trump Staffer to Do?
      •  Twitter to Reject All Political Ads
      •  Harris Campaign Begins Death Spiral

Happy Halloween, everyone! May yours be truly ghastly.

Democrats Get Serious About Impeachment Inquiry

All right, the Democrats were already serious about their impeachment inquiry. On Wednesday, however, they got considerably more so, as the House Rules Committee advanced a resolution that will establish formal procedures for their inquiry into Ukraine-Contra. It is expected that the full House will approve the measure today.

The purpose of the resolution, beyond launching the next stage of the inquiry, is to de-fang as many of Team Trump's anti-impeachment-inquiry talking points as is possible. The key elements of the document:

  • It will give the investigation a bit more formality, and thus a stronger legal footing
  • It will allow many future hearings to be public, rather than behind closed doors
  • It authorizes the release of full deposition transcripts
  • It potentially opens the door for Donald Trump to send lawyers to the Hill to represent his interests
  • It potentially gives Republicans more opportunity to cross-examine witnesses
  • It allows GOP committee members to subpoena witnesses (but only with agreement from the Democratic committee chair, which is not likely to be forthcoming)

Needless to say, this is not going to end the complaining coming from the direction of the White House, and from the President's most fervent supporters in Congress. However, those folks are going to have to work much harder to find compelling things to kvetch about. Further, the resolution is likely to quiet some fence-sitting Republicans, like Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), who were willing to criticize the conduct of the inquiry, but not the validity of the inquiry itself. And finally, ever-wily Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has really hoisted the Trump-loving Republicans by their own petards. If the Democrats had jumped straight into public hearings, then Trump & Co. would surely have criticized them for turning impeachment into a public spectacle. But now, Pelosi & Co. can invite cameras and reporters into the room to watch (and record) for themselves as people dish dirt on the administration, and can say, "Hey, we're just trying to do what the Republicans asked of us." It's one thing to read an executive summary of testimony in which, say, Bill Taylor declared there was a quid pro quo. It's another thing entirely to watch for yourself as he says so.

And indeed, as if on cue, Taylor said on Wednesday that he is willing to return to the Hill and testify again, this time publicly. Clearly, Trump and his supporters forgot the old adage: "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." (Z)

Senators Start to Squirm

On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi reiterated yet again that no decision has been made on impeachment. That's just politician-speak, though. She knows full well that the Democrats passed the point of no return many squares back. And she's not the only one who knows it; the members of the Senate know it, too. That's not such a problem for Senate Democrats; outside of the occasional Joe Manchin (D-WV) or Doug Jones (D-AL), they know exactly how they will vote when that time comes, and that their voters will be happy with their choice. For many Republicans, particularly those who need some NeverTrump, independent, and/or Democratic votes, the calculation is considerably tougher.

Foreseeing what is coming down the pike, many Senate Republicans have started to make public pronouncements about what a trial should look like. They want a trial with substance and due consideration given to the issues and the evidence raised. For example, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said, "I think it is important the Senate process be viewed as fair and serious and give serious consideration to whatever the House is going to bring us." Translation: "Mitch, don't try to make this go away with parliamentary tricks."

We've consistently taken the view that, given the involvement of Chief Justice John Roberts and the intense scrutiny that the Senate will be under, a sham trial was unlikely. There are at least four reasons that a Republican senator might demand a real, legit trial:

  • They think that this forum will afford Donald Trump his best chance of defusing this whole thing
  • They want to vote to convict, and want as much cover as possible in order to do so
  • They are terrified of the bad optics of a sham trial
  • They've read their copy of the Constitution, and concluded they have a civic duty here

Naturally, the precise set of motivations will vary on a senator-by-senator basis.

Among the Senators who are most likely to check any or all of the latter three items on the list above are the five Republicans who face the most difficult re-election bids in 2020: Susan Collins (ME), Joni Ernst (IA), Martha McSally (AZ), Cory Gardner (CO), and Thom Tillis (NC). In case that quintet was not already aware that they are between a rock and a hard place, the group Need to Impeach has launched an extensive ad campaign in most of their home states (all but the very expensive-to-advertise-in North Carolina) that encourages the voters there to call their senator and demand a vote for conviction. Need to Impeach knows that, even if Trump does not get tossed out of office on his, ear, that even a few Republicans breaking ranks to join the Democrats gives legitimacy to the whole matter and weakens the Donald badly.

In short, the GOP members of the Senate are going to have to do what so many of their fellow Americans do, and stock up on Rolaids in late November. The Senators are just going to have a different reason for doing so than everyone else. (Z)

Trump Begins Planning His Defense

Donald Trump has finally seen the light and now knows that the chance he will be impeached is somewhere north of 99%. Consequently, he is beginning to prepare for his Senate trial. He could try to marshall the facts that show he is innocent, but they are few and far between. He could also try to put together the best legal case to show that extorting a foreign country for political gain is not an impeachable offense, but that will be a tough sell.

So the Donald is going to go for a different and well-established approach: Follow the money, but with a twist. He is going to effectively bribe reluctant senators into voting for acquittal by offering them a deal he hopes they can't refuse: You vote for acquittal and I will raise money for your reelection. Otherwise, you are on your own. Leave it to Trump to think of using money as a weapon to get himself off the hook in a case where he's accused of using money as a weapon. Will it work? We don't know and neither does Trump, but given the facts and the law, it may be all Trump has to work with. (V)

More on Alexander Vindman

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's testimony, very damaging to Donald Trump, continued to echo on Wednesday, meaning that the longtime NSC official made a lot of headlines for the second news cycle in a row. In particular, we got more and clearer details about how thoroughly convinced Vindman was that a "Biden dirt for aid money" quid pro quo was being proposed, and also how concerned he was about the omissions in the semi-transcript of the Trump-Volodymyr Zelensky phone call that the White House released.

Meanwhile, there's another element to the story that we just missed yesterday, namely that Vindman is Jewish. That means that when the Sean Duffys and Laura Ingrahams of the world question his patriotism, and suggest he has loyalty to entities other than the United States, they are invoking one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes of them all, namely the notion that Jews have dual loyalties, and that their commitment to the "foreign" entity is stronger than their commitment to their country of residence. Whether Duffy and Ingraham deliberately say anti-Semitic things, or it's just instinctive, is something only they know. (Z)

Mr. Bolton, Please Report for Your Deposition

There is much reason to believe that former NSA John Bolton knows some things, maybe even some very damaging things, about what happened between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky. There is some reason to believe that he would like to share what he knows with Congress. These suppositions, especially the latter one, should be resolved by next week, as the House committees who are looking into impeachment have now formally asked Bolton to present himself for questioning next Thursday.

Bolton's personality suggests that he will be there with bells on. He's a temperamental SOB who does not like to be shown up and who does not forgive those who slighted him. And he feels very much shown up and slighted by Trump. On the other hand, Bolton's personal philosophy suggests he wouldn't be caught dead talking to the House. He's historically been an advocate of a strong, independent presidency—and by that, we mean something along the lines of a monarch or a dictator—and a weak, obeisant Congress. We'll see whether it is Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde who ultimately wins out here. (Z)

What's a Trump Staffer to Do?

Donald Trump has a well-deserved reputation for finding people who will throw themselves on grenades for him. With that said, there are some very clear limits to this superpower. First of all, however he does it, his technique seems to work on only some people, and even then just a small number of them. Second, even those who fall under his spell tend to turn against him as soon as they awaken from their trance (think Anthony Scaramucci, Michael Cohen, Sam Nunberg, etc.). What this means is that the President may be able to get some of the folks in his orbit to stonewall Congress, at least for now, but there are going to be a lot of folks who are either happy to stick it to him or, alternatively, who see it as their responsibility to abide by the wishes of the legislature.

For people who want to talk to Congress (or, at very least, who are willing to talk to Congress), and who no longer work for Trump, then things are generally pretty easy, since they are beyond his reach. However, a lot of the witnesses that the House would like to talk to are still actively employed in the executive branch, which means they work for a man who would think nothing of firing them for vindictive, personal reasons. It's something of a Sophie's Choice for these individuals—ignore Congress and risk contempt charges and permanent damage to their reputations, or abide by the legislature's directives, and risk getting canned.

There are a number of ways to thread this needle, and at least three different approaches were on display on Wednesday. One option is to choose one's words very carefully when speaking to Congress, as John Sullivan did. He's under consideration as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, which meant that he got grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Senate Democrats took advantage of that opportunity to ask him some choice questions about things like Ukraine and quid pro quos. Sullivan took the tack of frowning on quid pro quos in general, declaring that, "Soliciting investigations into a domestic political opponent—I don't think that would be in accord with our values." However, he also said he had no knowledge of any specific arrangements like this, and noted that the President has denied the existence of a quid pro quo.

An alternative approach is to conclude that working for Trump is ultimately incompatible with speaking truthfully to Congress, and to end one's employment before the President can do it for you. That's the call made by Tim Morrison, who serves as the National Security Council's expert on Russia and on Europe. He will be on the Hill today to testify, and in anticipation of that, announced yesterday that he will be quitting the administration. That suggests that a bombshell or two may just be in the offing.

The third option is to do what Alexander Vindman did: talk to Congress, then return to work the next day, put your head down, and hope for the best. He might well be fire-proof, at least for now, since cashiering him would make Donald Trump look awfully guilty. Nonetheless, many folks at the NSC are shaking in their boots (well, in their loafers), and fear that in a moment of pique, the President could perpetrate his own Saturday Night Massacre. That is not an unreasonable fear, needless to say. And it does give added weight to the supposition that some folks are waiting for a judge to compel their testimony, not as a delaying tactic, but so they can say truthfully they had no choice but to speak. (Z)

Twitter to Reject All Political Ads

In an obvious shot across the bow of social media rival Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on Wednesday that the platform will stop accepting political ads of any sort. "We've made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought," he tweeted.

This may seem a principled stand, but before anyone goes too far in giving kudos to Dorsey, two things should be pointed out. The first is that Twitter collected less than $3 million in revenue from political ads in 2018, so this is not like McDonald's abandoning beef, or Ford saying they will no longer make gas-powered automobiles, or the USC football program promising they will no longer pay players under the table. The change in policy is not really going to affect Twitter's bottom line. On top of that, Dorsey has just drawn a black and white distinction in an area that has many shades of gray. What if Apple runs an ad featuring Martin Luther King Jr.? Or Nike has one with Colin Kaepernick? Or Smith & Wesson has one for bump stocks? Or Greenpeace wants you to save the whales? Or the AARP wants you to purchase a membership? Or Bob's Mattress House runs an ad in honor of the Fourth of July? Which of those things are political ads, and which ones aren't? So, the policy may not actually work all that well in practice.

Reacting very badly to Twitter's announcement was Donald Trump, whose campaign issued a statement that declared, "Twitter just walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars of potential revenue, a very dumb decision for their stockholders." Team Trump also called this "yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known." Inasmuch as this new policy will have zero effect on the personal Twitter accounts of Trump or his staff, we can read the angry response in only one way: That Trump 2020 was planning to buy a lot of ads saying things that cannot appear to come directly from the accounts of the President and his team. Propaganda? Conspiracy theories? Blatant falsehoods? Racist stuff? Ads masquerading as "Democratic Party" ads? Presumably it's something along these lines.

Fortunately for Team Trump, they can still run as many ads as they want, saying anything they want (truthful or not), on Facebook. Despite the objections of his employees, as well as pushback from many other folks (including some on Capitol Hill), Mark Zuckerberg responded to Dorsey's announcement by re-committing to his site's policy of running any ads that political candidates care to submit (and pay for). "Ads can be an important part of voice—especially for candidates and advocacy groups the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates." In contrast to Twitter, Facebook collected more than $300 million from political ads in 2018, so that might possibly have something to do with Zuckerberg's deep and abiding commitment to free and open political discourse.

It's entirely possible that Facebook may be able to have its cake and eat it, too. Well, part of it. However, it is our view that the "we will not censor political ads with falsehoods" policy is not sustainable long-term. Yesterday, we noted the case of Adriel Hampton, who launched a campaign for the governorship of California while freely admitting that he was only doing so in order to run misleading ads on Facebook. Well, the platform has now banned him, since he is not a "real" candidate. That's all good and well, but it's very easy to become a bona fide candidate for Congress, or the state legislature, or mayor, or dogcatcher. And the next person to follow in Hampton's footsteps isn't going to be so open about the phoniness of their candidacy. Is Facebook going to be in the business of deciding who is a "legitimate" candidate and who isn't? That seems a much bigger rabbit hole than merely deciding which ads are dishonest. Further, what will they do when an unquestionably legitimate candidate decides to start running a slew of dishonest ads? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has already done it once, and there's no reason she won't do it again, and still again, particularly if she has a point to make.

If Facebook establishes itself (more thoroughly than it already has) as the platform where any political candidate can propagate any lie or slander that they wish to propagate, it's eventually going to end up biting them in the rear end. What if, for example, white supremacist Arthur Jones decides to mount another congressional campaign and decides to purchase some ads sharing his views on Jews, LGBTQ folks, and people of color? That will not be helpful when it comes to user retention. Or, what if the platform gets itself sued for libel? It's true that the Communications Decency Act of 1995 (probably) indemnifies social media platforms against such suits. However, a clever lawyer might be able to make the case that a law written nearly a decade before Facebook was founded was never meant to apply to them. Alternatively, that lawyer might be able to make a case that their laissez-faire policy may not open Facebook up to libel claims, but does make them guilty of civil negligence. Perhaps worst of all, from Zuckerberg's perspective, is that Congress might take note of what's happening, and could slap some stringent regulations on his company. So, we foresee a change of course sometime soon, particularly once the 2020 candidates, and maybe a few 2020 "candidates" start aggressively pushing the limits. (Z & V)

Harris Campaign Begins Death Spiral

Sen. Kamala Harris' (D-CA) campaign had itself a moment, right after the first round of Democratic debates, when she scored some points by going after Joe Biden's chummy relationship with segregationists. Since that brief bounce, however, the Senator has made little headway. She consistently polls in the single digits, in both national and state polls. She has not generated much excitement among black voters, who she was counting upon as a key constituency, nor among her fellow Californians, who she was hoping would deliver her a tidy pile of delegates on Super Tuesday. Oh, and she's also been spending far more money than she's taking in.

Consistent with all of this, the Harris campaign announced a "redeployment" plan on Wednesday. The key elements of the plan involve firing a bunch of people, and largely giving up on California, Nevada, and New Hampshire. In other words, by "redeployment," what they really mean is "retreat." Team Harris will consolidate most of its forces and its resources in Iowa, where it will make its last stand, not unlike Napoleon at Waterloo, or Lee at Petersburg, or Wilhelm of Prussia at Argonne Forest.

As you may have heard, things did not work out so well for those three generals. And similarly, the "put all of our eggs in the Iowa basket" plan is not going to work out for Harris. The first problem is that there's no indication, and no particular reason to believe, that she can make a meaningful dent in the support of the four people above her in the Iowa polls. The second is that, even if she pulls off a miracle, Iowa doesn't actually matter all that much anymore. There was a time—in 1976, for example—when a win in Iowa could fill a candidate's sails with wind. But in more recent memory, the Hawkeye State's Democrats are just as likely to rally behind a Dick Gephardt (1988) as they are a Barack Obama (2008). In short, the Senator is throwing a Hail Mary pass that can't possibly result in a touchdown. And so, it may come slowly, but the end for her campaign is now in sight. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Oct30 Vindman Speaks, Trump & Co. Counterattack
Oct30 Two Amigos May Have Some Explaining to Do
Oct30 Early State Polls Suggest Rocky Start for Joe Biden
Oct30 Democratic Candidates Don't Care About California
Oct30 What Do Evangelicals Believe These Days?
Oct30 Bet You Didn't Know that Lindsey Graham Is a Big Supporter of the Green New Deal
Oct30 Good News for House GOP?
Oct29 House Democrats to "Formalize" Impeachment Proceedings
Oct29 This Week's Witness List
Oct29 A Tale of Two Photographs
Oct29 Mike Pompeo May Be Interested in A New Job
Oct29 Sessions May Want His Old Job Back
Oct29 North Carolina Republicans Suffer Another Gerrymander Defeat
Oct29 Florida Republicans Forced to Postpone Annual Event
Oct29 Rep. Greg Walden Will Retire
Oct28 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Is Dead
Oct28 Trump Organization May Sell Washington Hotel
Oct28 This Is Why Trump Doesn't Go Out in Public
Oct28 We Now Have a Trump Tweet Baseline
Oct28 Show Me the Money
Oct28 Rep. Katie Hill to Resign
Oct28 Details for Sixth Democratic Debate Announced
Oct27 Sunday Mailbag
Oct26 Saturday Q&A
Oct25 Trump Administration Did More than Withhold Aid
Oct25 Democrats Strategize on Impeachment...
Oct25 ...And So Do Republicans
Oct25 Barr Is Paying Dividends for Trump
Oct25 Warren Grapples with Funding Medicare for All
Oct25 Biden Will Accept Super PAC Money
Oct25 Sanders Unveils a Weedy Proposal
Oct25 Klobuchar Makes November Cut
Oct25 Ryan Drops Out
Oct24 Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures?
Oct24 Zelensky Knew the Score Well Before Trump Called
Oct24 Trump Capitulates Completely on Syria
Oct24 The Great Wall of...Colorado?
Oct24 Is This What Trump's Lawyers Are Telling Him?
Oct24 Trump Looking Weak in Many Swing States, Against Many Democrats
Oct24 If You Really Like Dick's, You May Get Your Dream Candidate
Oct23 The Impeachment Drums Are Beating Louder
Oct23 Trump Says He's Being Lynched
Oct23 Trump Isn't Going to Like Either of These Books
Oct23 Mnuchin, Conway Under Consideration as Mulvaney Replacements
Oct23 Reports of Joe Biden's Demise May Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Oct23 Senate Map Gets More Wide Open by the Day
Oct23 Is the Trump Organization Embarrassed To Be the TRUMP Organization?
Oct22 Democrats Don't Want Impeachment to be a Turkey
Oct22 Supreme Court Sustains Political Gerrymanders Yet Again
Oct22 Trump's Hands Are Tied on DHS