Jun. 11

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Trump Furious That People Didn't Buy His Spin

In the last week, Donald Trump tried to create a "win" where none existed. He concocted a sequence of events that made it appear as if he had puffed out his chest and blustered in the direction of Mexico, and they had responded by bowing to his demands and taking action to curtail immigration to the United States. There were only two problems with that narrative, both of which came to light within hours of the President declaring victory. The first was that Mexico merely agreed to detain asylum-seekers on their side of the border while their cases are heard, and to try to stanch the flow of people from Central America. Since the Mexicans hardly have the resources to do those things, it could very well cause more people to sneak across the border illegally, thus actually worsening the problem that is supposedly being solved. The second issue was that, whether this agreement represents a step in the right direction or not, it was negotiated many months ago, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Trump's saber rattling.

As it became clear that the media (non-Fox division) was on to Trump's spin, as they generally are, he grew furious. His first move was to call in to CNBC's "Squawk Box" for a (typically) rambling interview. It went poorly, because the day's guest was Myron Brilliant, who is head of international affairs at the Chamber of Commerce. He dislikes the president's entire approach, is not shy about saying so, and has the facts to back his position up.

Once Trump hung up with CNBC, obviously dissatisfied with the result, he jumped onto Twitter. Fortunately for him, there are no know-it-all Chamber of Commerce officials there to push back against him. The President sent a few tweets like this one:

When will the Failing New York Times admit that their front page story on the the new Mexico deal at the Border is a FRAUD and nothing more than a badly reported “hit job” on me, something that has been going on since the first day I announced for the presidency! Sick Journalism

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 10, 2019

Trump also released the hounds, with Vice President Mike Pence sending out a series of nearly identical tweets like these (one of which Trump retweeted):

Mexico has pledged to do more to secure the border than Congress. It’s time for Congress to do its job and give the Administration the resources it needs to secure our border and reform our asylum laws.

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) June 10, 2019

.@POTUS got Mexico to step up... Now it’s time for Congress to step up! The American people want Congress to work with this Administration to reform our asylum laws, secure our border, and fix this broken immigration system once and for all! Let’s get it done!

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) June 9, 2019

Sec. of State Mike Pompeo also got into the act:

We thank FM @m_ebrard for his hard efforts to negotiate joint obligations that benefit the US & Mexico. We look forward to working alongside Mexico to fulfill these commitments to reduce the flow of illegal migration out of Mexico so that our southern border is strong & secure.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) June 8, 2019

In short, with very few "wins" under his belt and Election Day 2020 looming, Trump really wanted this one, and he thought he had it. But it does not help that the "concessions" the administration got from Mexico are very possibly counterproductive, and it really ruins things when it turns out those concessions had absolutely nothing to do with his tariff threats. In fact, because he clearly backed down on the tariffs in the face of GOP pressure, he came off looking weak, which he hates, and which means he's almost certainly worse off from a PR standpoint than he was before this whole drama started. No wonder he spent Monday lashing out, and telling anyone who would listen that he just can't get a fair shake.

There is an observation, often attributed to Albert Einstein but probably not actually his, that suggests that "the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results." Trump's inability to learn from his mistakes, and to avoid repeating them, is really quite remarkable, and has no parallel in the history of the presidency. Even Dick Nixon and LBJ made new mistakes, not the same ones each time. It's astounding that Trump thought the truth about this story would not come out, given the scrutiny he's under, and also given that several folks he's thrown under the bus (like Kirstjen Nielsen) knew what really happened. And even if his version of events had been wholly correct, it's astounding that he thought it would win him significant favor with the voters. Outside the base, his tariffs are unpopular, wonky half-measures on immigration are unpopular, and he is personally very, very unpopular. If the goal was merely to rally the base, then he succeeded, because they're eating it up (see here and here and here and here and here for examples). But he clearly thought he was going to score major brownie points beyond the base, which is madness.

There's also a potential irony to Trump's policies: for many Americans, they are providing a first-hand lesson in the downsides of tariffs and trade wars. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argues that gives an opening to the Democratic field to talk about alternative approaches, and that some of them (Joe Biden, Beto O'Rourke) are taking it. He writes:

Democrats can pledge to move away from two-country tariff wars and instead toward mobilizing an international response with allies against China's trade abuses. Similarly, Democrats can argue for renegotiated trade deals that raise wage, labor and environmental standards, with the goal of helping U.S. workers via a sensible internationalism in contrast to Trump's erratic nationalism.

You know what that sounds like? A description of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump hated so much that he withdrew from it at the first possible opportunity. And if the legacy of the most nationalist and isolationist president of the last century is to lay the groundwork for greater international cooperation on the part of the United States, well, that would be quite the unexpected turn of events, indeed. (Z)

Justice Dept. Will Turn Over Mueller Evidence to House Democrats

The generally frosty relationship between the William Barr-led Justice Dept. and the Jerrod Nadler-led House Judiciary Committee thawed on Monday, at least for a day. It was announced that some of Robert Mueller's secret files would be turned over to the Committee, so they could take a closer look at obstruction of justice and other possible malfeasance by Team Trump. The agreement came less than 24 hours before the Committee was scheduled to vote to take Barr to court in order to enforce their subpoenas. Presumably, that vote won't be necessary, at least not for now.

It's not known exactly what the Dept. of Justice will hand over, and the general public is not likely to get the answer to that question anytime in the near future. It is easy enough to figure out why everyone involved decided to call off this game of power chicken, however. For Barr & Co., they avoid (or at least postpone) a probable loss in court that was looking like it would come pretty quickly, and they also get to hold back at least some of Mueller's materials. For Nadler & Co., they get at least some of the dirty laundry they want, and they don't have to wait weeks or months for it. It's the art of the deal, as it were. (Z)

House Democrats Hear from John Dean

While the Judiciary Committee was making progress in its negotiations with the Dept. of Justice, they were also staging a little political theater. Since they are having trouble getting anyone from the current possibly-impeachment-worthy administration to talk to them, they thought it might be interesting to chat with someone from the last possibly-impeachment-worthy administration. So, they invited John Dean, of Watergate fame (and infamy) to the Hill. He's been out of government for 45 years, and has no inside knowledge about Team Trump, so his job was to opine on the parallels between Trump and Nixon.

This was a really silly move on the part of the blue team. First of all, most Americans, particularly those under the age of 60, have no idea who John Dean is. Second, he wasn't a politician, he was White House Counsel. That means that he's not exactly a gifted public speaker. In fact, he's kind of a boring guy who doesn't really have the ability to turn a good phrase, which he demonstrated on Monday, saying nothing particularly interesting or soundbite-worthy. Congressional Republicans roundly mocked the stunt, as well they should have, because it smacks of desperation, and undermines the blue team's assertion that impeachment is a serious business. It's really surprising that a veteran politician like Nadler, who has been in the business since 1977, would make this mistake. (Z)

House Democrats to Appeal Wall Ruling

Last week, a Donald Trump-appointed federal judge ruled that House Democrats do not have standing to ask federal courts to stop the President from redirecting funds toward his border wall. Depending on who you ask, Trevor McFadden's reasoning was open to debate, at best, and extremely shaky, at worst. At very least, one could hardly consider the matter closed. And when the lawyers working for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) & Co. said they would review the decision, and decide whether to appeal, it certainly seemed a question of "when" the appeal was coming rather than "if."

Well, now it has come, as House general counsel Douglas Letter announced on Monday that he is indeed going to appeal McFadden's decision. So, this story is not over yet. Predicting what the courts will do is something of a fool's game, but we will remind readers that the most similar case to this one was decided in favor of the plaintiffs in 2015 (although the plaintiffs back then were House Republicans, and the matter was resolved with a bipartisan compromise before the appeals process could fully play out). (Z)

Gillibrand Makes the Debate Cut. Hooray for Her?

By now, politics-watchers know that to make it to the stage for the first two rounds of Democratic debates, candidates have to, at bare minimum: (1) Tally 1% in at least 3 DNC-approved polls, or (2) Collect donations from at least 65,000 people, with at least 200 donors in 20 different states. These bars are so easy to clear, however, that 20 candidates had qualified for the June 26/27 tilt by the start of the weekend, with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Mike Gravel, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), and Mayor Wayne Messam (D-Miramar) still on the outside looking in.

There are, of course, only 20 seats available on the debate stage. And given that at least one of the Moulton & Co. quartet figures to make at least one of the two thresholds eventually (either in time for the June debates, or else in time for the ones in July), it has become clear that the only way to be sure of a debate ticket is to fulfill both of the criteria. There were 13 folks who had done so by Friday of last week, and on Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joined them. She had already made the polling cutoff, and now she's made the donations cutoff.

So, the Senator will have her say for 5 whole minutes on June 26 or 27, and for another 5 on either July 30 or 31. So too will Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Beto O'Rourke, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend), Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Marianne Williamson, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN). Those are the 14 that have cleared both bars. At the moment, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan (R-OH), Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) are also in line for a golden ticket, but there's a chance they could get booted off the stage in June, or in July, if one or more of Moulton/Gravel/Bullock/Messam surges.

The point here is this: The second- and third-tier candidates are pleased that the DNC has been so liberal in setting its cutoffs, and are cranky that the bar is going to get a fair bit higher for the third round of debates. However, that permissiveness is also something of a curse for the non-frontrunners. Five minutes, chopped up into three or four or five brief snippets, is not much time to get on voters' radars. And if we have any doubts about that, the news out of the cattle call in Iowa this past weekend, or the one in California the weekend before that, confirms that the various Democrats are really having trouble standing out from one another. And so, it's looking more and more like the first two rounds of debates aren't actually going to do much to create separation, and that the real winnowing is going to happen in August, when the DNC gets more stingy about letting candidates participate. (Z)

Trump Super PAC a Mess

The Democratic field has its woes, but so too does the Republican president they're all itching to face off against. Directing our attention to Trump 2020 (and not the various investigative and political crises he faces at the moment), insiders agree that the President's super PAC, America First Action, is an absolute dumpster fire.

There are, according to the folks who talked to CNN, three distinct problems. The first is a lack of leadership, as the PAC keeps alternating among chairmen, none of whom seem to know what they are doing. The second, which is obviously a byproduct of the first, is that the PAC is really bad at fundraising, given that presidential backing should be a license to print money. It took in $39 million last year, which sounds good, but is dwarfed by the $164-million take of the Democrats' Senatorial PAC (which is called the Senate Majority PAC), or the $158-million take of the Republicans' House PAC (which is called the Congressional Leadership Fund). Heck, even the NextGen Climate Action PAC ($64 million) and the Women Vote! PAC ($40 million) took in more. And the third problem is that what money America First Action does take in tends to get squandered on things like five-figure dinners at Trump properties and generous payments to folks who were pushed out of Trump's orbit, but probably still have some dirt on him and/or his campaign (like Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski, and Katrina Pierson). In other words, these transactions look an awful lot like hush payments.

America First Action's status as a certified train wreck probably doesn't mean much in terms of the 2020 election. After all, Trump doesn't have all that much need for TV advertising and things like that, and he won in 2016 without a meaningful super PAC in his arsenal. Primarily, it's a reminder of what happens with any entity he touches, whether a business, or his charity, or his PAC: people of questionable competence run the show, and as they do so, facilitating grift is one of their primary responsibilities. (Z)

Amash Quits Freedom Caucus

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is really a Libertarian and not a Republican. However, Libertarians don't win elections (there's never been a Libertarian Party member in Congress), so Amash did what the Pauls, Ron and Rand, did: set up shop on the right-wing fringe of the GOP. Amash even co-founded the House Freedom Caucus, a.k.a. "The guys who found Paul Ryan to be too much of a hippie for their tastes."

Most of the Freedom Caucusers, being actual Republicans, care primarily about limiting the taxes that people (particularly rich people) pay, as well as the money that the government spends. Amash, being a Libertarian at heart, cares about limiting the power of the government overall. While Barack Obama was in office, it was easy enough for Amash and the others to be on the same team. However, now that Donald Trump has overseen the slashing of taxes, while simultaneously trying to expand government power in other ways, the alliance is at its end. Amash blasted Trump a couple of weeks ago, called for his impeachment on obstruction of justice charges and other abuses of power, and then quit the Freedom Caucus on Monday. That said, he may have just been saving face, as the Freedom Caucusers were also thinking of kicking him out.

In the short term, this illustrates that Trump's iron grip on the GOP remains strong, and that apostasy results in swift and harsh consequences. Amash is now a man without allies in Congress, and his career could be coming to a rapid end, as he's drawn a serious primary challenger for 2020. In the long term, however, it may hint at serious fissures in the coalition that elected Trump in the first place. The libertarian wing of the GOP isn't huge, but it's not invisible either, and those folks often place intellectual purity over political expediency. If Amash runs a third-party campaign, or if he merely signals to like-minded voters that Trump is antithetical to the Libertarian cause, that could be trouble for a president whose margin of error is very thin. It's worth noting that Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Iowa all have sizable numbers of Libertarian voters. (Z)

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