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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The ?-gate Plot Thickens
      •  McConnell Now Wants $250 Million for Election Security
      •  Trump's Tax Returns Are Keeping the Courts Busy
      •  Withdrawn FEMA Nominee's Issue: He Got into a Bar Fight
      •  Harris All-in on Iowa
      •  National Polls Say the Democratic Race Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3
      •  DNC Has Lots of Oppo Research on Trump

The ?-gate Plot Thickens

We still don't know exactly who Donald Trump was talking to or exactly what promises he made when he so alarmed at least one intelligence official that the official felt the need to file a whistleblower claim. That means we just don't know what to call the latest scandal. And although Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson chatted with the House Intelligence Committee for several hours on Thursday, he didn't throw much light on the matter, even for the members of the committee.

That does not mean that things are anywhere near as murky as they were on Wednesday, however, as the Fourth Estate did the yeoman's work of adding several pieces to the puzzle. To wit:

  • It was not a single incident that triggered the whistleblower, it was several.

  • The Washington Post found two people familiar with the situation who were willing to speak off the record, and both said that the incidents in question involve Ukraine.

  • Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the phone just a couple of weeks before the whistleblower complaint was filed on Aug. 12. That does not necessarily mean that Zelensky or his nation were the recipients of the alleged promise(s), but it's certainly a strong possibility.

  • Trump lawyer/lackey Rudy Giuliani has been talking to the Ukrainians in recent weeks, urging them to investigate/provide dirt on Joe Biden, the Democratic challenger Trump fears the most. "America's Mayor," who isn't as sharp as he once was, appeared on CNN Thursday night and, literally in the same breath, denied that he'd asked the Ukrainians to investigate Biden, and then admitted that he had indeed asked them to investigate Biden.

  • The White House has been working very hard to keep Congress from getting details about the whistleblower complaint, with Justice Dept. muckety-mucks (including, presumably, AG Bill Barr) telling Atkinson in no uncertain terms that he better clam up. Stop us if you're heard this before, but that sounds an awful lot like obstruction of justice.

Anyhow, adding it all up, the evidence certainly points to exactly the sort of quid pro quo that Trump was accused of during the 2016 election: A foreign nation scratches his back by providing dirt on his election opponent, and he scratches their back in return by doing....well, something he shouldn't. And, frankly, it would be very much in character for Trump to get away with the first offense, and then to pull the same basic stunt again because it worked out the first time.

It should surprise nobody that the Democrats are eager to learn the details of the whistleblower complaint, and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) is...wait for it...preparing to file suit in court. The problem, in a repeat of a basic theme we've seen a lot in the last couple of years, is that the laws governing whistleblowers do not address what happens when the target is the president.

So, nobody quite knows where this is headed. That said, this could turn out to be real trouble for Trump. Richard Nixon did a lot of shady things, but it was the simple and easy to understand one (he ordered a cover-up of an attempted burglary and then lied about it) that did him in. This situation looks like it could be of a similar character. It's also worth noting that while there is currently some stonewalling going on, and while this looks like it's headed to the courts, we already have at least one person whistleblowing and we also have at least two others leaking details. So, as with Watergate, the truth here could see the light of day through unofficial channels that are beyond Trump's control. Though it will be hard to come up with a better code name for an informer than "Deep Throat," unfortunately. (Z)

McConnell Now Wants $250 Million for Election Security

There was a bit of rather startling news out of the Senate on Thursday, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that he would like to see $250 million set aside to make sure that the 2020 elections are properly secure. This marks such an aggressive 180-degree turn for the Majority Leader, who has spent the last year fighting tooth and nail against such funding, that it is remarkable that he did not break his neck.

Pretty much everyone is flabbergasted by this development, and nobody has any real idea what caused McConnell's "come to Jesus" moment. That means we can only speculate. Here are a few possibilities:

  • The "Moscow Mitch" moniker really got to McConnell, and he concluded (possibly supported by polling) that his intransigence was hurting him in advance of what is shaping up to be the toughest reelection campaign of his life.

  • Reportedly, McConnell's primary concern in this area was that an election security bill would anger Donald Trump, who takes any mention of election security issues as a personal insult. Possibly, the Majority Leader has reached some sort of accommodation with Trump, up to and including "we pass a bill, then you find some excuse to veto it."

  • Alternatively, McConnell may now have some sort of leverage over Trump (perhaps of a Ukrainian flavor), and told him "I'm not going to take a hit for you, so you're going to have to take your medicine here and be quiet about it."

  • Another variant of this theme: McConnell may foresee the decline and fall of Trump, for whatever reason, and may have decided it's better to exit the Trump train one station early as opposed to one station late.

  • McConnell may also have reason to believe that election interference in 2020, perhaps coming from the direction of China or Iran, would work more to the benefit of Democrats than Republicans.

  • Perhaps, on Wednesday night, McConnell got a visit from the ghost of elections past, the ghost of elections present, and the ghost of elections future, and they scared him straight.

We are inclined toward the first explanation, especially since $250 million is kind of a band-aid, and so seems to be more a PR effort than a serious attempt to solve the problem. Though we admit it would be really great if the last explanation was the correct one. (Z)

Trump's Tax Returns Are Keeping the Courts Busy

One of these days, sooner or later, Donald Trump's tax returns are going to be made public. Might be in a week, or a month, or a year, or a decade, but it's going to happen. And, at that point, it will be fascinating to see what deep and dark secrets he's worked so hard to keep hidden. In the interim, though, his efforts to maintain secrecy are keeping the courts jumping, with two new developments on that front on Thursday.

To start, Trump's lawyers filed suit in New York in an effort to stop his long-time accounting firm Mazars USA from turning over his returns to New York district attorney Cyrus Vance. In two ways, the new suit goes a fair bit further than other, similar suits that Team Trump has filed. First, instead of just blocking publication of the returns, they are now trying to derail the discovery process. Second, and consistent with that, Trump is de facto arguing that a sitting president is not only immune to prosecution, but also immune to criminal investigation. We shall see how federal District Judge Victor Marrero, a Bill Clinton appointee, feels about those propositions.

Meanwhile, the President got a sliver of good news from U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England Jr. out in California. Englund, who is a George W. Bush appointee, ordered a temporary injunction against California's new law that requires presidential (and gubernatorial) candidates to submit five years' worth of tax returns if they want to be on the state's primary ballot. The Judge said he will make a final ruling on the matter by October 1. Even if he issues a ruling favorable to Trump, of course, it will promptly be appealed. So, the President shouldn't party too hearty yet.

That is Thursday's presidential tax jurisprudence; undoubtedly there will be more next week. Really, it's remarkable that Trump has managed to keep things secret as long as he has. If he manages to hold on until the election—which would require fending off about a dozen lawsuits for more than a year—then that would really be something. If he does it, he should take a side trip to Egypt on his next visit to Israel and try his hand at parting the Red Sea. (Z)

Withdrawn FEMA Nominee's Issue: He Got into a Bar Fight

We suspected it wouldn't take long to find out exactly what skeleton from the closet derailed the nomination of would-be FEMA administrator Jeff Byard. And we may have been right, because on Thursday the New York Times reported on what it supposedly was: Byard was involved in a brawl in a bar at some indeterminate point in the past.

As you may be able to tell, we're a little skeptical about this story, as it doesn't quite pass the smell test. First of all, an awful lot of people have been involved in bar fights; sometimes these things happen. Second, given all of the misdeeds that have been overlooked for other Trump nominees, this seems rather piddling. Heck, the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh were many orders of magnitude worse, and the President and his 50 friends in the Senate barely batted an eye.

If a bar fight really is the issue, then there must be something more to the story. Maybe Byard assaulted a woman, or maybe he went to a juke joint with a specific intent to beat up some black patrons, or maybe the fight happened because of a drug deal gone bad, or something like that. Or maybe we were right yesterday, and he messed with Jim. That could certainly lead to a bar fight. Alternatively, maybe the whole bar-fight story is a cover for something much more nefarious that would make Donald Trump look very bad if it came out (for example, "What? You nominated a convicted sex offender to lead FEMA?"). In short, we're guessing that there's still one more shoe to drop when it comes to this story. (Z)

Harris All-in on Iowa

Although she was riding pretty high after the first Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has since come crashing down to Earth (see below). And the amount of time left to right the ship is much less than it may seem. The Iowa caucuses are just 137 days away, and during at least a month of that, people are going to be distracted by the winter holidays. These things being the case, the Senator has decided on a change in strategy: She's going to spend much less time holding fundraisers, and much more time campaigning in Iowa. Explaining her plan in earthy terms, Harris told a supporter on Thursday: "I'm fucking moving to Iowa." She will also double the number of Iowa staffers she has, from 65 to 130.

Under the circumstances, this is probably the best choice available to Harris, but it's still a longshot. This isn't 1976; a candidate can no longer create a massive wave of support with a surprise win in Iowa. So, Harris would not only need a strong showing or a win in the Hawkeye State, she would also need to follow that up with success in New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina, and then a good showing on Super Tuesday. And that, in turn, would require two things to happen: (1) a Joe Biden implosion, and (2) much of the support he lost, following the implosion, to gravitate to Harris. Furthermore, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has a very large ground operation already running in Iowa and keeps rising in the polls there and elsewhere. So even if Biden implodes, Harris has to deal with Warren. As we said, it's a longshot, which Harris certainly knows. Although she would never admit it publicly, her campaign is now probably as much about running for VP, a cabinet slot, or the presidency in 2024/2028 as it is about running for the White House in 2020. (Z)

National Polls Say the Democratic Race Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Yesterday, we took a look at state-level polls of the Democratic field, in Iowa and Florida. Today's, let's take a look at the national polls. There have been five of them since last week's debates, from Fox News The Economist/YouGov SurveyUSA NBC News/Wall Street Journal, and Politico/Morning Consult. Here's everyone who polled above 1% in any of the five:

Candidate Fox  Econ SUSA NBC  Pol  Avg.
Joe Biden 29% 26% 33% 31% 32% 30.2%
Elizabeth Warren 16% 21% 19% 25% 18% 19.8%
Bernie Sanders 18% 14% 17% 14% 20% 16.6%
Pete Buttigieg 5% 9% 5% 7% 5% 6.2%
Kamala Harris 7% 6% 6% 5% 6% 6.0%
Beto O'Rourke 4% 3% 4% 1% 4% 3.2%
Andrew Yang 2% 3% 3% 4% 3% 3.0%
Cory Booker 3% 2% 4% 2% 3% 2.8%
Amy Klobuchar 2% 1% 1% 2% 2% 1.6%
Tulsi Gabbard 0% 2% 0% 1% 1% 0.8%

A few observations:

  • Biden leads pretty much all national polls these days, but the ones where Warren is nipping at his heels are becoming more common. Sanders, by contrast, almost invariably trails Biden by double digits.

  • When it comes to the two progressive senators, there tend to be two kinds of polls: the ones where they are tied or within a few points of each other, and the ones where Warren has a big lead.

  • The two previous observations affirm our general sense that Warren is currently in second place while Sanders is in third.

  • It is no longer the case that there is a "frontrunner" tier of five, nor is it the case that there's a top tier, a middle tier, and a less-than-middle tier. At the moment, it is the top three and then everyone else. Put another way, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris are way closer to Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Yang than they are to Warren and Sanders. In fact, Buttigieg, Harris, O'Rourke, and Yang combined barely outpoll Sanders all by himself, and they trail Warren.

  • The Beatles taught us that money can't buy you love, and Tom Steyer is teaching us that money can't buy you good polling numbers. He eked his way into the fourth debate, and he better get a lot of mileage out of that appearance, because he's toast once the DNC raises the thresholds again.

As we noted above, any candidate who is not named Joe, Elizabeth, or Bernie is running out of time. The kids are now back in school, the holidays are coming up, and it's football season. So, lots of distractions. The next great shrinkage of the field will probably occur sometime around Oct. 17; that is right after the next debate (Oct. 15 and possibly Oct. 16), and is also right after the next FEC filing deadline (Oct. 15), which is going to force a bunch of candidates to admit they're not raising any money and/or that their campaign is almost broke. Indeed, it would not be a big surprise if the field is down to just five or six once the new year rolls around. (Z)

DNC Has Lots of Oppo Research on Trump

There is absolutely no doubt that whomever the Democrats nominate, Donald Trump is going to sling so much mud in their direction that he will make Lee Atwater and Karl Rove look like choir boys. That's not going to be a one-way street, though. The blue team has quietly been building up its arsenal of dirt, without even needing to talk to Ukraine (see above). That will give the Party more than a few slings and arrows to hurl in the direction of the Donald.

The Democrats' approach has several prongs to it. First of all, they have taken a long look at every lawsuit Trump has been involved in (nearly 7,000 of them); one can only imagine what they've come up with. They also have a database of promises he's made in various parts of the country, and the extent to which he's lived up to those promises. For example, the Party will be able to run commercials tailored to, say, Columbus, OH, that say "What happened to the bridge, the manufacturing plant, and the coal mine Trump promised when he visited on Sep. 17, 2016?" The Democrats also have a treasure trove of quotes from farmers, truckers, and other blue-collar types who don't think so highly of Trump's presidency. Oh, and the DNC has also filed "thousands" of Freedom of Information Act requests, to see what else they can come up with.

It is worth pointing out that, as DNC Chair Tom Perez notes, their focus is on critiquing Trump's performance as president, and not on slurring him as a racist or a moron or a degenerate. Those sorts of personal attacks turn voters off, and besides, anyone who is prone to believe those things about Trump already has plenty of evidence without the Democrats needing to provide more.

Needless to say, all of this is going to infuriate Trump, and will cause him to get nastier and to punch below the belt even more frequently. So, it's going to be an ugly campaign in 2020, in case you didn't already know that. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Sep19 Polls: Warren and Biden are Neck and Neck in Iowa
Sep19 Poll: Biden Leads in Florida
Sep19 Trump's FEMA Nominee Is a Disaster
Sep19 Whistleblower Targeted Trump
Sep19 NSA #3 Blasts Trump
Sep19 Trump Picks Robert O'Brien as NSA #4
Sep19 Trump May Face a Domestic Crisis: A General Motors Strike
Sep19 Americans Are Not Keen on Impeaching Trump
Sep19 Fed Lowers Interest Rates Again
Sep19 Sanders Unveils "Housing for All" Plan
Sep19 Warren Took 4,000 Selfies in New York
Sep19 Nine Democrats Will Take Part in an LGBTQ Town Hall on CNN
Sep19 Joe Kennedy Is In
Sep18 Lewandowski Speaks a Lot, Says Little
Sep18 About that Wall Construction...
Sep18 List of Candidates to Replace John Bolton down to Five
Sep18 Trump Administration Throws Down the Gasoline Gauntlet in Battle with California
Sep18 Sanders Campaign Hits a Rough Patch
Sep18 Rep. Paul Cook to Retire
Sep18 Bye-Bye for Bibi?
Sep17 Things Looking Pretty Rosy for Warren These Days
Sep17 Oops, They Did It Again
Sep17 When Trump Said "Locked and Loaded," Did He Mean "Locked and Loaded"?
Sep17 White House Blocks Testimony from Lewandowski, Dearborn, and Porter
Sep17 Chao Being Investigated
Sep17 Trump Making a Play for New Mexico?
Sep17 Israelis Head to the Polls
Sep16 This May Be the One
Sep16 Warren Gained the Most from the Debate
Sep16 Washington Post Ranks Warren as Most Likely to Be the Democratic Nominee
Sep16 Democrats Are Calling for Kavanaugh's Impeachment
Sep16 Why Don't the Democrats Who Have No Chance Drop Out?
Sep16 Fourth Debate Is (Almost) Set
Sep16 Trump's Challengers Are Not Happy Campers
Sep16 No More Pie in the Sky
Sep16 Romney Praises Trump for Doing Nothing
Sep14 Saturday Q&A
Sep13 Warren Is the Lone Star in Democrats' Texas Debate
Sep13 Judiciary Committee Approves a Resolution to Move Forward on Impeachment
Sep13 Federal Charges Recommended for McCabe
Sep13 Democratic Group Will Spend $50 Million on Swing-State Rural Voters
Sep13 Warren Releases Social Security Plan
Sep13 Trump's Advisers Are Trying to Block His Tariffs
Sep13 Cruz Will Oppose a Trump Judicial Nominee
Sep12 It's Time for the Third Debate
Sep12 All Major Democratic Candidates Lead Trump
Sep12 Biden Is Slipping in the Primary Polls
Sep12 SCOTUS Allows Asylum Limitations to Take Effect
Sep12 Nadler and Hoyer Are Not on the Same Page about Impeachment
Sep12 Why Bolton Was Fired