Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, acquired a new problem yesterday. It's not the 47-month prison sentence he got from Judge T.S. Ellis. That was last week's problem. Nor is it the additional 43 months that Judge Amy Berman Jackson tacked on yesterday, to be served consecutively with Ellis' sentence, for a total of 7.5 years, against which the 10 months he already served will be credited.
No, the bad news for Manafort is that Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. has indicted him on 16 counts of mortgage fraud, conspiracy, falsifying business records, and tax fraud. Vance's office falls under the auspices of New York State, not the federal government, so if Manafort is convicted on one or more counts, Donald Trump won't have the authority to pardon him. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) does have the power to pardon him, but the chance that Cuomo would do that is, shall we say, not so great.
Trump has praised his former campaign manager, but has not said whether he intends to pardon him. It is very unlikely he will do so before the 2020 election, since there would be massive political fallout if he did. If he is planning to do it at all, it will probably be on his last day in office, thus eliminating any possibility of political harm.
Manafort's lawyers will defend him by claiming the new charges violate the Fifth Amendment's prohibition of double jeopardy. Actually, to be more precise, the Supreme Court has said that state- and federal-level prosecutions for the same crime are legal, so the real problem would be New York state law, which forbids state-level prosecution of already-prosecuted federal crimes. However, Vance is well aware of the laws in New York, and has carefully chosen charges that do not overlap with the federal ones to defeat such a defense. The feds are now finished with Manafort, but no date for the New York trial has yet been set. (V)
Senate Republicans desperately want to avoid taking a vote to support a position that all of them actually believe in: that Congress, not the president, determines how the government will spend its money. The trouble is that voting to defend Congress' power by voting to end the national emergency Donald Trump has declared scares the daylights out of nearly all of them. The law says they must vote by March 18, so Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to find some way out of the bind.
One approach is a bill authored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and cosponsored by a dozen other Republicans that would change the law to automatically terminate future emergencies after 30 days unless Congress passes a resolution to continue them. That wouldn't affect the current emergency, of course, but the sponsors' hope is that it will distract at least one of the four Republican senators who are currently planning to vote for the House resolution and will get him or her to vote against it, in order to save Trump the embarrassment of a congressional resolution telling him he can't do something he wants to do. The trick is unlikely to work. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), for one, has already said that changing the law won't affect how she votes now.
Not only did Collins not fall for this trick, but Donald Trump didn't either. He said that he would not endorse Lee's plan (which would also curtail his powers to declare more emergencies during the rest of his time as president). Furthermore, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that if Lee's bill passes the Senate, she won't bring it to a vote in the House.
The White House is actively lobbying the Senate to try to get as few votes as possible for the resolution. If it passes 51 to 49, Trump will just blame one of the four GOP senators who voted for it. If it gets 55 or 60 votes, that will be much harder. As a practical matter, it won't matter because Trump has the power to veto it and there is no chance 2/3 of the House will vote to override his veto.
So we are back to where we were before Lee's effort began: Barring something unexpected, the Senate will vote on ending the emergency very soon, and the number votes for ending it is likely to be in the range 51 to 60. (V)
While few senators are profiles in courage, one thing they do care about (at least somewhat) is what the voters think. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll released yesterday shows that 52% of the voters oppose the emergency declaration and only 38% support it. As usual, the poll falls along party lines, with 80% of Republicans supporting the declaration and only 10% of Democrats supporting it. Ominously for Republicans, though, only 30% of independents support it, while 57% are against it. (V)
Jared Kushner got into Harvard, even though he was a mediocre student. Could his father's generous gift of $2.5 million to Harvard have helped? In the immortal words of Sarah Palin: "You betcha." Was it legal? As long as there was no specific deal and Harvard's way of thanking Charles Kushner for his generosity was to admit one student—Jared— who would otherwise never have made the cut, probably it was legal.
Now a far bigger "admissions scandal" has emerged. Rich parents have done things that are clearly illegal, like hiring smart people to take their kids' SAT tests so the kids wouldn't have to, and bribing coaches to certify that their kids were star athletes in sports they had never participated in. The payments often were hidden by money laundering as well, another little legal no-no, especially since the laundering was done with fake charities, creating a fraudulent tax write off, another little legal no-no.
For presidential candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), this scandal is manna from heaven. Sanders (and others) have long claimed that the system is rigged in favor of the rich. The ease with which rich parents can buy their kids' way into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other top schools to allow the kids to get a head start on life so that later they can buy their kids' way into the top colleges, seems to confirm how rigged the system is. It is almost certain that many (most?) of the Democrats are going to latch onto this scandal to argue that the system is indeed rotten and something needs to be done to make college admissions (and a lot of other things) a meritocracy.
In the specific case of college admissions, it will be interesting to see what the candidates propose, other than forming a committee to study the problem, because in the current scandal, the colleges themselves were hoodwinked. They didn't know about the fake SAT scores and fake athletic prowess, so naturally they didn't take any action to thwart any of it. Still, generalized ranting that the system is rigged, and giving this scandal as an example, is sure to hit home with well-off, but not truly rich, suburban parents whom Democrats are actively courting and who feel this kind of stuff is grossly unfair.
Not everyone who tries to get political mileage out of this will necessarily be successful, however. Donald Trump Jr. took to Twitter to register his...disdain with the whole situation:
Is it just me or is everyone in Hollywood strangely silent today? Come on guys you're always very vocal in forcing your opinions on everyone... What changed?— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) March 12, 2019
Quite a few respondents on Twitter were quick to point out that young Trump knows at least two people whose money got them college admissions that they do not appear to otherwise have deserved, and both of those people are named Donald Trump. In other words, those with glass diplomas, should not throw stones. (V & Z)
Beto O'Rourke announced yesterday that he is running for president. If Joe Biden gets in as well, it will set up an epic battle between them. Although they are about as different as two Democrats can be, they would be fighting for the same slice of the Democratic electorate: Those people who want a traditional, Irish, centrist, white male candidate who can appeal to blue-collar workers. To a close approximation, every vote Biden gets is a vote fewer for O'Rourke, and vice versa.
Now some of the ways in which the two of them are polar opposites. Biden is an old (76) guy with a track record as long as your arm. O'Rourke is a young (46) guy with only three terms in the House and nothing much to show for them. Not surprisingly, Biden is popular with older voters and O'Rourke is popular with millennials. Although their strengths are similar, their liabilities are not. During the campaign, Biden is going to have to confront the ghost of Anita Hill. During the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and didn't take her accusations that Thomas sexually harassed her seriously at all. That won't play well in the modern Democratic Party. O'Rourke is going to have to deal with the problem that many Democrats want a president who is capable of governing and his governing experience consists of 6 years on the El Paso city council and getting elected to the House three times in a D+17 district and then proceeding to do nothing. The comparisons with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who has been in the House for all of 2 months, and is already probably the second-best-known member (after Pelosi), and who has actually done things (like put the Green New Deal on the table), will be brutal.
Another problem Biden and O'Rourke have in common is money, and where they got it. Biden is beloved by the banks, credit card companies, and large corporations because he represented Delaware in the Senate, a state where many of them are incorporated due to its corporate-friendly laws. O'Rourke was the second largest recipient of oil company money in Congress. Neither of these things plays well with the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, so despite their edge in name recognition, once the show gets going in earnest, both of them could be in trouble fast.
If both of them run, their campaigns will probably be very different. Axios' Mike Allen makes the case that Biden will run on a five-point program:
O'Rourke is not going to make up a five-point program. And if his run for the Texas Senate seat is an example, he won't make up any program at all. He'll just send out a stream of photos: Beto eating some ethnic food; Beto kissing a baby; Beto shopping for fruit; Beto putting a quarter in a parking meter; Beto calling his mother; Beto tying his shoelaces; that kind of stuff. It's definitely more fun than talking about what to do about North Korea's nuclear weapons. (V)
Political parties pick their convention cities to make a statement. So why did the Democrats pick Milwaukee for their 2020 convention? The instant answer is: to win back Wisconsin. But not so fast. The other two finalists were Houston and Miami. We can dispose of Houston easily. The Democrats have almost no chance to turn Texas blue, even if their 2020 nominee is Beto O'Rourke or Julián Castro, both of whom are from the Lone Star state.
However, Miami was a very serious contender. Florida has three times as many electoral votes as Wisconsin, and is a far more ethnically diverse state than 86%-white Wisconsin, so it appeals to many demographic groups the Democrats need. The Sunshine State also has many wealthy Democrats who would be happy to help underwrite the cost of the convention. In addition, Miami is a popular tourist destination and has more hotel rooms than Milwaukee.
So why did Milwaukee win? For one thing, it has DNC Chairman Tom Perez's heart—he and his wife, Ann Staudenmaier, got married there. But that is not the only reason. Many observers have repeatedly said that the Democrats need to win back the Midwest or they are doomed, so holding the convention in Wisconsin could show voters in neighboring states that Democrats aren't going to ignore them, the way they did in 2016. No presidential candidate would ever ignore Florida, even if the convention were to be in Fairbanks, AK, or Guam.
Florida also has a few negatives that Democrats are aware of. For example, the weather in Miami in July can be brutal, even if there is no hurricane in progress—and a July 13 start is definitely in the hurricane season. Wealthy Democrats might have been willing to pitch in to help fund the convention, but then might have closed their checkbooks, saying they had done enough already. Also noteworthy is that both the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, and the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, are Republicans and have no particular interest in hosting a successful convention beyond filling the city's hotels and restaurants. In contrast, Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) are members of the blue team.
In addition, Milwaukee has a reputation for being a working man's city. Miami is anything but that. It probably didn't help Miami's cause much that in 2016 it was named the worst city in America to live in, edging out Detroit for the "honor." It also won the title of America's rudest city, which is saying something in a country that also has New York in it. Its high rate of income inequality and high rate of violent crime weren't plus points, either. In short, a lot of factors went into the decision, and although Florida might be the better state, Milwaukee is the better city.
If you are thinking: "Why didn't the Democrats pick, say, Cincinnati or Denver," that's not how the process works. Cities make a detailed bid for the convention, demonstrating that they have a suitable arena, enough hotel rooms, good security, flights from everywhere, and much more. The DNC then inspects all the cities, makes a list of finalists, then talks to city and state officials at length. If a city doesn't submit a bid, it won't even be considered, no matter how great a choice it might be. (V)
Republicans believe—or at least used to believe—in free markets, so the RNC pretty much allows each state to run its primary and allocate its convention delegates free from RNC interference. Some states use proportional representation and others are winner-take-all. All of that is fine with the RNC. Democrats don't go for that. They think that if you get 16% of the vote in some contest, you should get 16% of the delegates. With some 20-odd candidates for president expected, this rule could easily lead to no candidate getting a majority of the delegates, thus leading to a nasty and divisive convention, which is sure to help Donald Trump, just as the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago helped Richard Nixon.
To make it worse, it appears that DNC Chairman Tom Perez doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, so he is going to make it relatively easy for candidates to qualify to be on stage for the party's 12 primary debates. If candidates that almost no one has ever heard of, like former congressman John Delaney, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson get equal billing with Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders, and many other well-known candidates, the result will be to fragment the vote even more, as some viewers are sure to latch onto some of the very minor candidates, making it even harder for a major candidate to get to 50.1%.
If no candidate has unstoppable momentum by May 2020, the candidates who sense they have a fighting chance are probably going to take off the gloves and start brawling. All the negative things that are said about the eventual winner are going to be replayed endlessly in October by the Trump campaign.
Finally, the last straw. Supporters of Bernie Sanders were furious that the 2016 superdelegates were in the bag for Hillary Clinton, even though in the end it didn't matter because she won far more elected delegates than he did. Still, they were so bitter about his loss that the DNC changed the rules for 2020. The superdelegates (Democratic governors, senators, and other elected officials, etc.) will be allowed to attend the convention, but won't be allowed to vote—on the first ballot. But they will be allowed to vote on the second and subsequent ballots. If no candidate has a majority of elected delegates on the first ballot, then the superdelegates could end up deciding who the Democratic nominee is, and the party could have an internal civil war as a result. As we have pointed out many times before: Be careful what you wish for. You might get it. (V)
Another celebrity couple bites the dust: adult actress Stormy Daniels and lawyer Michael Avenatti. They weren't involved romantically, just professionally, and it was his profession, not hers. The reasons for the breakup are obscure, as they always are when celebrity couples call it quits. Only this time, neither of them said everything is hunky dory and they will remain best friends. Daniels said she found a new lawyer, a Tulsa-based malpractice attorney, Clark Brewster. Avenatti said that due to attorney-client privilege, he could not elaborate on the reasons for the split.
This is just speculation, but Daniels might have gotten tired of Avenatti putting the spotlight on himself instead of on her. She has made a number of films and has always insisted on being the star, not her male partner. In addition, Avenatti filed a defamation suit against Donald Trump without her consent—and lost. Finally, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, he represented another alleged Kavanaugh victim, but the case was so flimsy, no one believed it. So Daniels may have decided she needs a lawyer who will put her first. Why a man from Oklahoma who specializes in medical malpractice is the right one remains a mystery, though.
Despite all this excitement, the best is yet to come. Her pending case is about getting out of the nondisclosure agreement that she signed as the quid pro quo for Trump paying her $130,000 in hush money so she wouldn't talk about her one-night stand with him. If the new lawyer cans win that case for her, she will be free to talk about the affair in any form and medium she chooses. That could range from a sit-down interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper—no, wait, she's already done that—to a DVD with Alec Baldwin depicting the, er, incident. In any event, we can be sure that if Daniels wins, she will not exit stage left quietly. (V)
Programming note: The Thursday Q&A will move to Friday because of some technical issues.