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Political Wire logo Trump Team Made Fast Work of Iran Strike
Warren’s Surprising Closing Argument
Amash Says Trump Abused Power in Iran Strike
Jared Kushner Shifts Focus to Re-Election Campaign
Behind Tom Steyer’s Polling Surge
Justice Department Winds Down Clinton Inquiry

Trump Backs Down

The Iran war fizzled out. America killed a prominent Iranian leader, Iran fired a couple of shots in the general direction of a U.S. base and missed (probably on purpose). At his press conference on Wednesday, Donald Trump said no Americans were killed, so the war with Iran has been canceled with no hard feelings.

Crisis averted, then? Maybe, but maybe not. There are at least four ways this matter could rear its head again:

  1. The Iranian Response: As we noted yesterday, Iran doesn't particularly want a war with the United States. Or, at very least, they don't want a hot war, which would be highly detrimental to them. On the other hand, they've waged a cold war against the U.S. since 1979, and they may ratchet that up, as the government would like the U.S. to pay a price for killing one of its leaders. For example, the Iranians could launch a cyber attack on the U.S. Iran doesn't have the capability of taking down all the electric power stations in the U.S. or even all of them in some state, but it might do something that causes some local damage. It has attacked dams, financial systems, and government networks before. It might also muck around in the election, borrowing from the Putin playbook (more below).

    There is also a theory that the Iranians are planning to respond violently, but they are biding their time until the U.S. drops its guard a little. Iran has been a country for more than 2,500 years, so they have no problem playing the long game. Still, this possibility is somewhat unlikely; Iran's reasons for wanting to avoid a hot war will be the same in a month or six months as they are right now.

  2. Domestic Politics: Trump still has questions to answer about exactly why he ordered the attack on Gen. Qasem Soleimani in the first place. Key members of Congress were briefed on Wednesday about the reasons for the attack and came away nonplussed. That includes several Republican members of the Senate, like Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT). "There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack," said Paul, who called the briefing "an insult to the Constitution." Lee concurred, describing the presentation as "un-American" and "completely unacceptable." As you may have noticed, Republican senators don't exactly have a great track record of holding Trump accountable, but it's at least possible the Senate might try to modify the War Powers Act of 1973 to rein the President in. Don't hold your breath, though.

  3. Trump Validated?: Trump's pattern, generally speaking, is to interpret everything as a victory and as validation for his approach. He will undoubtedly do so here. He also tends to use such victory/validation as basis for bending the rules even more the next time. So it is possible that the Iran-U.S. War is done for now, but that the whole experience causes the President to decide that it will work to flex his muscles somewhere else, like Venezuela.

  4. Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752: There is still much mystery surrounding the crash of a Tuesday flight from Tehran to Ukraine, with the deaths of all on board. The crew of that plane was unusually experienced, making pilot error an unlikely explanation. In addition, the flight data cut off very abruptly as the plane was reaching altitude, which is unusual. Further, the Iranians have been very quick to declare "engine failure" and to announce that they will not be asking for help with the investigation (which means that airplane manufacturer Boeing and the world's three best crash analysis labs—in France, the U.K., and the U.S.—will be left on the sidelines). None of this means that something untoward happened, but it does leave open the possibility that the flight was deliberately shot down or, even more likely, that it was hit by an errant missile.

Anyhow, the "War with Iran" is over and Trump has survived what could have been a serious crisis, at least for now. We'll see if it stays that way. (V & Z)

Progressive Groups Are All Taking Aim at Biden

It's less than four weeks until the Iowa caucuses and progressive groups are getting very nervous. Despite their best efforts, Joe Biden is still the frontrunner, so they are all intensifying their fire in his direction. On Monday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee demanded that he retract some statements he made about sexism in politics. Hours later, Indivisible hit him on his immigration plan. The Sunrise Movement recently picketed him when he held a fundraiser hosted by a billionaire in New York.

This is hardly the first time Biden has taken flak from the left, but this time it is more coordinated and sustained than previously. What has surprised the progressive groups, though, is his endurance. They had expected him to crumble long ago. Instead he is on top of the polls and pulled in $23 million in Q4 2019. While that is far behind the $34 million Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) raised, it is still a lot of money and enough to keep him going for weeks.

One of the things the progressive groups are going to fight in the coming month is the idea that Biden is more electable than other candidates. To the extent that voters see him as the most electable Democrat, it will be hard to dislodge him, since for most Democrats, the top priority in 2020 is not Medicare-for-All or the Green New Deal, but defeating Donald Trump.

Unspoken, but key to the progressives' problem, is that they are split between two candidates. Having Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) together getting more votes than Biden, but individually getting fewer delegates, would ultimately hand the nomination to Biden (or possibly another moderate). What the progressives really need to do is find a way to convince either Sanders or Warren to leave the race after Super Tuesday and support the other one. If both of them continue until the bitter end, the chance is great that Biden will get the nomination, supporters of both Sanders and Warren will be very angry and not vote, and Donald Trump will be reelected. One can see this problem a mile away, but the solution is not in view. (V)

Democratic Unity Will Determine Trump's Fate

As if right on cue yesterday, PPP released a couple of polls that make the above point numerically. Consider Arizona first. Donald Trump won Arizona by 4 points in 2016. Currently, he is in a tie there with Joe Biden and has slight leads over Bernie Sanders (1 point), Elizabeth Warren (2 points) and Pete Buttigieg (3 points). In Iowa, Trump has a small lead over each of the Democrats.

However, digging deeper into the numbers, we get a different picture. In Arizona, among the undecideds, more than 80% dislike Trump. If all, or even most, of the undecideds are allocated to the Democrat, any of the Democrats could beat Trump. Same story in Iowa.

Right now, a lot of voters are saying "I will vote for Biden, but not for Sanders" or "I will vote for Sanders, but not for Biden." In other words, if we get a rerun of 2016, with a substantial number of Democrats saying: "I am not voting for the lesser of two evils," then Trump will probably win. Democrats are very picky. If their favorite candidate doesn't make it to the general election, they tend to go off and sulk. Republicans generally aren't like that. They just look for the little (R) on the ballot and mark that person, no matter who it is. So the Republicans' secret weapon is that they are in it for the party, not for some ideology or some specific candidate. Democrats just aren't made that way and it could cost them the election. (V)

Congressional Democrats Aren't Taking Sides in the Primaries

With the Democrats having a wild and woolly primary, with something for everyone, one might expect that every member of the House Democratic caucus would have found someone to endorse. It hasn't happened. Joe Biden has 31 House endorsements so far, double that of any other Democrat, but far short of the 181 endorsements Hillary Clinton had in the first week of January 2016.

Why? Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) explained: "They may lean towards one of the candidates, but they're nervous. They are so nervous. They're nervous about each one of the leading four for different reasons." For some members, the danger is betting on the wrong horse. If a member endorses "A" and then "B" is elected president, "B" is not likely to forget that. While presidents generally don't actively punish members of their own party who supported someone else in the primaries (with one notable exception), they don't take kindly to requests for favors, either.

In addition, an endorsement, even if it is for the person who eventually gets elected, has a potential downside: it could anger constituents who support a different candidate. An endorsement for Bernie Sanders could antagonize progressive constituents who love Elizabeth Warren and vice versa. And it could really anger constituents who support one of the moderate candidates. So all things considered, hiding under the table and then endorsing the winner when he or she looks inevitable is the safest course to choose. Few members of Congress, even those who are military veterans and faced death on the battlefield, have enough courage to pick a favorite and take the accompanying blowback in such an unsettled race. (V)

Trump's Pitbulls in the House Will Not Be Unleashed in the Impeachment Trial

With the impeachment trial likely to begin very soon, a key question is who the lawyers will be. Neither side has announced its legal team, but Politico is reporting that Donald Trump is not going to let loose his House attack dogs, Republican Reps. Jim Jordan (OH), Mark Meadows (NC), and John Ratcliffe (TX). They each vigorously "defended" him in the House proceedings by attacking the Democrats and the process (without saying much of anything about Trump's actual guilt). Trump would prefer an orderly trial in which the Senate considers the evidence and then acquits him. With Jordan, Meadows, and Ratcliffe on the defense team, the trial would become a circus.

That doesn't mean these gentlemen will play no role going forward. Far from it. They are expected to hit the talk shows and defend him on television. There they can grandstand to their hearts' content. They can talk about witch hunts and how the guilty party really is Hunter Biden or about whatever else distracts from the actual articles of impeachment.

Trump could always change his mind at the last minute, but for the time being the defense team is likely to be led by a more conventional lawyer, such as White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. (V)

Can Democracy Survive 2020?

Democracy is under attack from all sides. The most visible aspect is Donald Trump's telling Congress to buzz off and declaring that no one in (or formerly in) his administration has to obey congressional subpoenas. But when the history of 2020 is written years in the future, the main story may be that Americans lost faith in democracy. The big test will be the 2020 election, with a huge amount of foreign intervention expected. That could play out in ways not yet foreseeable.

Robert Silvers, a former top DHS cybersecurity official, summed up the problem as follows: "What Russia did in 2016 turned a lightbulb on in some other nations' heads about what they could do." Basically, Russia interfered in multiple ways and got away with it. Other nations saw this and noted how easy and cheap it was, and may want to join in this year. Here are three storylines to watch in 2020:

  • Hacking may be a year-long project: Foreign government hackers could start early and try to sow dissent in the Democratic primaries to get progressives and moderates at each other's throats so that neither group will be willing to support a nominee from the other group. Such an effort would focus on disinformation campaigns, especially posting fake stories to social media to get one side or the other riled up. In addition, more sophisticated hackers could try to penetrate voter-registration systems with the goal of planting backdoors there. These can be used later in the year to remove voters from the rolls in precincts seen as hostile to the hackers' governments. In other words, vigilance is required already, and few election officials are on full alert this early in the cycle. The real goal here would not be so much to elect a specific candidate as make Americans believe that elections had become meaningless and that democracy was dead.

  • The new kid on the block, Iran: Lobbing a few missiles at a U.S. military base is one thing. Trying to sabotage the U.S. in some way is potentially a much bigger deal. Iran could get involved in the elections, more likely to oppose Donald Trump than support him, but that might only be the start. If Iran really wanted to cause big trouble, imagine it hacking a major bank and then moving money from account to account at random. Millions of people might initially be happy finding thousands of dollars that aren't theirs in their accounts, but millions of others would be quite displeased to find money missing. What if Iran did it but denied it? What if Trump decided this was a good time, proof or no proof, to launch a major military attack on Iran? The possibilities for chaos are limitless and there is little the government could do to fix things, causing people to lose faith in government (and thus, democracy).

  • What role will China play? China might get involved in election hacking, but even if it doesn't, it could have an enormous impact. The big China cybersecurity story in 2019 was the U.S. attempting to stop telecom giant Huawei from embedding itself deeply in the core of the cellular telephone network and Internet. China has been around for roughly 3,000 years and a minor setback in one year is not going to stop it. With potential advances in 5G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other fields, China could come to control the cellular network and the Internet and be able to spy on everyone from teenagers to top government and military officials. It could also control who is allowed to see what. Part of China's rise is due to hard work, part of it is due to industrial espionage, and part of it is due to the decentralized nature of decision making in the West. If a Chinese student who is smart applies to a top Ph.D. program in computer science in the U.S. and the Chinese government is prepared to pay whatever the official tuition is, the student will be accepted and may eventually go back to China to help advance the Chinese government's goals. If a U.S. company wants access to the Chinese market and the "price of admission" is sharing its technology with a Chinese company, count on the company saying "sure thing." There is no central body in the U.S. that can say: "Stop helping China, even if that works to your disadvantage right now." If China gets its way, the world will run on Chinese principles, to the advantage of China. Democracy is not a Chinese principle.

In short, technology in general and cybersecurity in particular are stories to watch this year. (V)

Kansas Democratic Candidate for the Senate Raises $1 Million

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) has announced that he will not run for reelection in 2020. He felt that shepherding a major farm bill through the Senate last year was a nice capstone to his long congressional career and is calling it quits. Right-wing firebrand Kris Kobach wants his job and this has Kansas Republicans scared. He ran for governor in 2018 and lost—to a Democrat. The Kansas GOP was counting on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo running, but he has said he won't run (although with a June filing deadline, he could easily change his mind).

Pompeo's announcement did have an effect on the race, though. The leading Democrat in the race, State Sen. Barbara Bollier, suddenly became a much more serious candidate. She raised $1.1 million in Q4 of 2019 and has been endorsed by former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius. Pompeo will come under enormous pressure to change his mind and declare that "no" is simply his way of saying "yes." But if he really doesn't jump in and Kobach becomes the Republican nominee, Bollier could become the first Democratic senator from Kansas since 1939.

Bollier, a physician, served in the Kansas House for eight years—as a Republican. In 2016 she moved up to the state Senate. On Dec. 12, 2018, she announced she was switching teams, in large part due to the Kansas Republican Party including specifically anti-transgender language in its platform.

If Pompeo makes it clear to other Republicans in private that he really is not going to enter the race, other Republicans may jump in to take on Kobach. But if enough of them do that, it may fragment the anti-Kobach vote and allow the former Kansas secretary of state to grab the Republican nomination. The last thing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants is a competitive Senate race in Kansas, but he may not have control of the situation. (V)

Massachusetts Senate Primary Is Very Strange

Unseating a sitting senator, especially a popular one, in a primary, is extremely difficult. Generally speaking, a sitting senator who faces a credible primary challenge fits in one of these categories:

  • The primary challenger opposes the incumbent on ideology or policy
  • The incumbent is enmeshed in a scandal
  • The incumbent is deemed insufficiently loyal to the party or its leader
  • The incumbent is seen as old, weak, or otherwise easy pickings

None of these apply to the challenge Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is facing from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA). Markey has been in Congress since 1976, is a mere stripling at 73 and functioning well, and is a close ally of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), which is a plus in very liberal Massachusetts. So why is Markey being challenged? If the challenger were Joe Smith III, it would be a mystery, but Bobby Kennedy's grandson knows very well that the Kennedy name is magic among Democrats, especially in the Bay State. Grandpa served in the Senate (albeit from New York) and both of Bobby's brothers, Jack and Ted, were senators from Massachusetts. Joe figured it was his turn and took the plunge.

One factor that may have pushed Kennedy (39) to run now is his style. Markey is a workhorse, not a show horse. When he was in the House, his specialty was telecommunications policy and he is continuing to work on that in the Senate. Net neutrality aside, telecom policy is not something that gets the grassroots excited. Kennedy is a fighter and Massachusetts voters are so angry with Donald Trump that many of them would prefer a senator who is out there in Trump's face every day, rather than one carefully writing bills that will go nowhere as long as Mitch McConnell is running the Senate.

Louis Jacobson of Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball has looked at past challenges to see if there are any precedents. He found nine senators who have lost primaries since 1992, listed below. An asterisk indicates the winner of the general election.

Year State Incumbent Challenger Notes
1992 IL Alan Dixon Carol Moseley Braun* Dixon voted for Robert Bork and Braun had much appeal as a young black woman
1996 KS Sheila Frahm Sam Brownback* Frahm was appointed to Bob Dole's seat and was not well known
2002 NH Bob Smith John Sununu* Smith was too right-wing for New Hampshire
2006 CT Joe Lieberman* Ned Lamont Lieberman supported the war in Iraq too strongly for his Democratic constituents
2010 UT Bob Bennett Mike Lee* Bennett greatly underestimated the strength of tea partier Lee
2010 PA Arlen Specter Joe Sestak Specter was a turncoat and neither party respected that, allowing Pat Toomey (R) to be elected
2010 AK Lisa Murkowski* Joe Miller Miller was a tea partier endorsed by Sarah Palin
2012 IN Dick Lugar Richard Mourdock Lugar was an old (80) moderate and Mourdock was a fire-breathing right winger
2017 AL Luther Strange Roy Moore Strange was an appointed senator and Moore was an extreme right winger

None of these even remotely resembles the Kennedy-Markey race. In all nine of these cases, the incumbent had some significant weakness. For example, two were appointed senators and a number of the others (Smith, Bennett, Lugar, and Strange) were out of step ideologically with their states. Markey is an excellent fit for his state and has no obvious weakness.

So what are the odds? Despite the difficulty of beating a popular elected senator who is a good fit for his state, Markey is in deep doodoo. In a September poll, Kennedy was ahead 48% to 42%. Markey knows that he has a problem, and is working hard to fix it, but the Kennedy name has superpowers that are hard to defeat. (V)

Trump Defamation Case Heads to New York's Highest Court

New York State is good at many things, but nomenclature isn't one of them. The New York State Supreme Court is actually a low-level trial court. The top court is the Court of Appeals. That court will soon be in the news because former "Apprentice" contestant Summer Zervos accused Donald Trump of kissing and groping her against her will and he called her a liar. She responded by suing him for defamation. Trump responded to the suit by saying essentially: "Hey, the president is like a king; you can't sue him."

The New York State Supreme Court disagreed with Trump and said that the case is very similar to the Paula Jones case. In that case, Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. Clinton responded by saying essentially: "Hey, the president is like a king; you can't sue him." The U.S. Supreme Court, which is definitely not a trial court, disagreed with Clinton, and on May 27, 1997, unanimously ruled that the president is not like a king, and private citizens can sue him. Jones' lawyer in the case was George Conway, husband of Kellyanne Conway, and a frequent coauthor of op-eds denouncing Donald Trump. The case was sent back to the lower courts for an actual trial, but the trial court judge dismissed the suit. Jones appealed. Eventually, Clinton had enough and paid Jones $850,000 to make her go away. She took the money and ran.

Getting back to the Zervos case, Trump appealed his loss in the New York State Supreme Court to the Appellate Division, which also ruled for Zervos, citing the Paula Jones decision. Now Trump is asking the Court of Appeals to reverse that decision. If Zervos wins at that level, then an actual trial will begin, unless Trump decides to buy her off and she accepts. If Trump weren't such a cheapskate, he would ask her what it would take to get her to shut up, pay her, and move on. But that is not the route he seems to be taking, so this story will live on for a while. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jan08 Iran Makes Its Move...
Jan08 ...And So Does McConnell
Jan08 Democrats May Postpone Next Debate
Jan08 Flynn Looking at 6 Months
Jan08 Hunter Finally Resigns
Jan08 The Law of Unintended Consequences
Jan08 Trump Jr. Continues to Run the Trump Sr. Playbook
Jan07 Iran Situation Gets Messier and Messier for Trump Administration
Jan07 Bolton Says He's Willing to Testify
Jan07 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Almost Complete
Jan07 Yang Can't Figure Out Where to Spend His Money
Jan07 Castro Endorses Warren
Jan07 Pompeo Says He Won't Run for the Senate
Jan07 Chelsea Clinton Collected $9 Million for Board of Directors Work
Jan06 War with Iran?
Jan06 Congress May Clash with Trump over War Powers
Jan06 Will the Iran Situation Help Buttigieg?
Jan06 Sanders Soars
Jan06 Appeals Court Hears Arguments in McGahn Case
Jan06 A Report from Trumpland
Jan06 Who's Ahead? 2024 Edition
Jan06 Another House Republican Retires
Jan05 Sunday Mailbag
Jan04 Saturday Q&A
Jan03 Iranian General Killed on Trump's Orders
Jan03 Evidence Against Trump Continues to Mount
Jan03 More Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are In
Jan03 Bloomberg Makes His Strategy Official
Jan03 Castro Gives Up
Jan03 Williamson Campaign Enters Its Death Throes
Jan03 Why Do Young Voters Hate Pete Buttigieg?
Jan03 Unions Are Cool on Sanders This Time
Jan03 Five Fights to Expect in Congress
Jan03 Over 200 Members of Congress Ask Supreme Court to Revisit Roe v. Wade
Jan02 Trump Says He Will Sign China Trade Deal on January 15
Jan02 Trump-Critical Pieces by Christians Are Piling Up
Jan02 An Under-the-radar Sort of Gerrymander
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Polling
Jan02 Beginning-of-the-Year Democratic Power Rankings
Jan02 Q4 Fundraising Numbers Are Trickling In
Jan02 Elections to Watch in 2020
Jan01 Do as I Say, Not as I Do
Jan01 Collins "Open to Witnesses" in Impeachment Trial
Jan01 Lewandowski Is Out
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part I: The Worst Weeks
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part II: The Lows
Jan01 Trump 2019 in Review, Part III: The Highs
Jan01 Back to the Future, Part II: 2020 Predictions
Dec31 Shadowy Diplomacy
Dec31 Two Judges, Two Punts