• Donald Trump, Threat to National Security
• SCOTUS Gives Pro-Choice Forces an Apparent Victory
• Social Media Ain't Switzerland
• House Passes Obamacare Update
• Jacksonville (Un)Masked?
• Three More States' Voters Head to the Polls Today
• Today's Presidential Polls
It is now universally agreed that the Russian GRU (Russian military intelligence) offered Taliban guerrillas a bounty for every U.S. soldier they killed. It is also clear that the U.S. intelligence apparatus was aware of this many months before it leaked to the general public this weekend. Beyond those two facts, there remain some very important unanswered questions, with few possible answers (if any) that do not reflect badly on Donald Trump. Here are the three biggies, as things stand on Monday night:
- What did Trump know, and when did he know it?: When the story initially broke, the
President claimed he was unaware of the bounty program. That was...hard to believe, let's say, and indeed, it was
on Monday that the information was included in the President's Daily Briefing (PDB) back in February. This being the
case, we are now left with three possibilities: (1) Trump does not bother to pay attention to the PDB, or (2) He saw the
information but didn't care, or (3) He saw the information and deliberately looked the other way. All of these
explanations are, to be blunt, impeachable, and represent unacceptable abrogations of presidential duty.
Recognizing that he's got a problem on his hands, Trump moved off the "I never heard about it" story on Monday, and instead tossed out a kitchen sink defense via Twitter:
Intel just reported to me that they did not find this info credible, and therefore did not report it to me or @VP. Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!! https://t.co/cowOmP7T1S— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
By "kitchen sink" defense, we mean that he's dumping all the oldie-but-goodie excuses into 280 characters (or less). You will notice that in a mere 40 words, the President concedes he heard about the GRU's efforts, but: (1) the information wasn't credible, and also (2) this whole thing is being exaggerated to make him and other Republicans look bad, and also (3) it's all a hoax. None of these excuses stands up to scrutiny by themselves, and taken as a whole, they are mutually contradictory. For example, it cannot be the case that the threat was real but deemed non-credible, and at the same time was also a made-up hoax.
- Were any bounties actually paid?: So, Trump is now in damage-control mode. And a major
element of how much damage is done, and whether it can even be controlled, will be how successful the GRU program was
(and when). Already, Trump has a reputation for treating Vladimir Putin like a buddy rather than a hostile adversary. If
American soldiers were killed on the instigation of Russians before the President was advised of the program, and he did
nothing to respond, that will look very, very bad. If American soldiers were killed on the instigation of Russians
after the President was advised of the program, then their blood will be on his hands, which will look
At the moment, there is some evidence that the GRU did have some success, although the evidence is not ironclad. Already, the mother of at least one U.S. Marine who might have been killed for the bounty is demanding an investigation. Generally speaking, a politician does not want to be on the opposite side of an issue from the grieving mother of a war hero.
- What will Trump do next?: This may be the most consequential question of all. Perhaps Trump was
aware of what the GRU was doing, and perhaps he wasn't—we may never get a satisfactory answer to that question. And
perhaps American soldiers died due to the GRU's bounties, and perhaps they didn't—we may never get a satisfactory answer
to that one, either. However, it is beyond all doubt that the Russians took hostile actions that put American soldiers' lives
in jeopardy. That requires a response, and a biggie. Trump has famously been unwilling to do much to Putin beyond a little
wrist-slapping. If the President does not change that policy, he's going to be hammered endlessly on this. And if he does
hit Putin in some meaningful way, then we will see how Putin responds.
The reason or reasons that Trump has always handled Putin with kid gloves (and has, incidentally, taken steps to hide the content of his interactions with the Russian "president") have never been clear. There is, of course, the supposition that Vlad has kompromat he's holding over Trump's head. Alternatively, it has been speculated that Trump is trying to grease the skids for Trump Tower Moscow once his presidency ends. There's also the less conspiratorial, and probably more likely, explanation: Trump is basically a coward who has trouble standing up to bullies. Whatever it is, the rubber has now met the road, and the Donald has a hard choice to make.
At the moment, members of Congress are demanding answers. That includes Senate Republicans, the same folks who felt there was nothing problematic when Trump was impeached for trying to extort Volodymyr Zelensky. So, this is apparently more serious than that. Or maybe it's just closer to the election. In any event, this administration has never met a situation that it couldn't politicize, and so has only briefed a small number of House Republicans so far. Reportedly, House Democrats will get their briefing today, though they will presumably not count their chickens until the eggs hatch.
Imagine if Barack Obama had tried something like this; giving, say, two different briefings after Benghazi, with the members of his party getting the earlier briefing. Republicans in Congress and the media would be screaming, and wondering what Obama was trying to hide. And those would actually be pretty fair criticisms. So, we are compelled to ask: What is the Trump administration hiding here? Maybe we will find out some day. (Z)
Surely, the timing of this story is not a coincidence. On the same day that the latest Russia-related scandal spun out of control, CNN published an extensive story on Donald Trump's interactions with foreign leaders. The story is based on reports from many high-ranking members of the administration, some of whom were named in the piece (James Mattis, John Bolton) and some of whom were not (because they are still in their jobs). The executive summary, in one sentence: The biggest weakness in the United States' national security is Donald J. Trump.
The specifics are grim. Among the highlights (lowlights?):
- Trump is never, ever prepared for his calls with foreign leaders.
- He is not interested in anyone's advice or feedback, even from generals or members of his family.
- He has not gotten more skilled over time; in fact, he's probably gotten worse.
- He spends much time boasting to foreign leaders about his wealth and accomplishments.
- He also spends much time attacking his predecessors, particularly Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
- He consistently defers to strongmen, particularly Vladimir Putin, granting unwarranted concessions.
- His most regular phone buddy—about twice a week—is another strongman, Turkey's Recep Erdoğan.
- On the other hand, Trump regularly belittles and insults the leaders of America's allies.
- He is particularly nasty to women leaders, telling former UK Prime Minister Teresa May she's "weak" and German Chancellor Angela Merkel she's "stupid." (It's really quite rich for a guy who barely escaped his undergrad education to besmirch the intellect of someone with a Ph.D. in quantum chemistry.)
While the folks CNN spoke to concede that Trump does the right thing on occasion, much more often his calls are "abominations," to use the words of one respondent.
Conceptually, it is clear that Trump does not see himself as the President of the United States, and leader of its 300+ million citizens. Instead, it is more like he is CEO of USA, Inc., with the members of his administration the equivalent of lower-ranking corporate officers (i.e., flunkies) and the members of his base the equivalent of shareholders. In other words, the CEO...er, the President, sees everything in transactional terms, in which he feels he's either putting one over on his rivals, or else he thinks they are trying to rip him off. Not rip the United States off, mind you, rip him off. He cares, at least nominally, about what's good for the shareholders...er, the base, although if he perceives his needs and theirs as being in conflict, well, you know full well which wins out. And he has virtually no concern for the rest of the people he ostensibly represents.
One of the people CNN spoke to said that if Senate Republicans were familiar with the contents of all of Trump's phone calls, as opposed to just the ones with Volodymyr Zelensky, then they would have had a very difficult time sustaining him in office. Maybe so, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & Co. have been doing an awfully good silly putty impression in the past three years, as they bend left, right, and sideways in order to look the other way, and to continue the stream of conservative judges and regulatory rollbacks. That said, it sure looks like they are going to get a mulligan with the newest Russia fiasco (see above). We shall see what they do with it, especially with an increasingly likely Trump electoral defeat and the possible loss of the Senate looming. (Z)
Another day, another hot-button ruling from the Supreme Court. And another apparent win for liberals, as Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four liberal justices in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo to strike down a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Like voter-ID laws, the law was an attempt to advance partisan political goals cloaked in the guise of reasonableness and concern for the general welfare.
The reason that we are describing this as an "apparent" win, however, is that the ruling is not exactly what it seems. To many, it appears that Roberts may have turned over some sort of new leaf, that he's embraced the role of "swing justice," and that he's become a grudging advocate for abortion rights (as well as immigrants and LGBTQ Americans). Not so fast. In his concurring opinion (Stephen Breyer wrote the majority opinion), Roberts made clear that his issue is not with the policy, per se, but instead with the manner in which the law was written and in which the lower courts decided the case. As with his DACA decision, he even drew the broad outlines of what a law that would pass muster with him would look like. And he's telling the truth; in a nearly identical case last year (Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, a 5-4 decision in which Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote), Roberts came down in favor of a "must have admitting privileges" law.
So, in the long-term, pro-choice Americans should not breathe easy. In the short-term, however, voters are going to (incorrectly) interpret this as a huge win for abortion rights, and a huge defeat for anti-choice forces. What effect this will have at the ballot box in November is unknown. On one hand, it could cause Democrats and Progressives to see that SCOTUS is very important, and could motivate them to get to the polls to make sure that the next justice is chosen by a Democratic president. Maybe even the next two justices, or three. On the other hand, it could make them complacent.
Similarly, this decision—along with the ones on DACA and LGBTQ rights—could cause conservatives to double and triple their efforts to hold the White House and the Senate, reasoning that a 5-4 majority isn't enough, and that a 6-3 majority is going to be needed. Or, it could cause them to become angry and disheartened, and to wonder if maybe packing the courts isn't quite the panacea that it seemed. There was some evidence last week of the latter response, but who knows how things will play out over the next four months, especially with several more controversial decisions from SCOTUS still in the queue?
There is one political effect that has already become clear, however. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is pro-choice, and so is the majority of voters in her home state. When she cast her vote for Brett Kavanaugh, she admitted that she was concerned, as she so often is, but said that the deciding factor for her was that he swore up and down that he was not interested in restricting abortion rights. Given his vote in this case (not to mention his strongly worded dissent), that was apparently a(nother?) lie from the Justice. This certainly won't make the Senator's already-shaky reelection bid any easier. Democratic challenger Sara Gideon is hitting Collins hard for gambling with women's reproductive rights. Gideon was up nine points in the last poll of that race, about four weeks ago. We bet she does better in the next one. (Z)
Given their druthers, the various social media platforms would prefer to be the Switzerland of the culture wars: stay out of the fray, with the exception of collecting lots of money from the involved parties. That model worked fine for quite a while, but it's not getting it done anymore. Long-term, giving violent and angry people an unfettered global platform could eventually create serious legal liabilities. Short-term, it's beginning to affect the bottom line, as both users and advertisers flee platforms they see as insufficiently moderated.
Facebook, which is the largest social media platform of them all, has been particularly unwilling to police harmful, dishonest or hateful political content, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg generally making a vague "marketplace of ideas" argument in support of the platform's Wild, Wild West approach. Nobody really believes this is a purely philosophical matter. Facebook makes big bucks taking in advertising from (virtually) all comers, including those who may be liars, propagandists, or Russian fronts. Further, Zuckerberg has cultivated a close relationship with Donald Trump, in particular. This is not necessarily because of their shared politics, but because Trump has some ability to make life hard for Zuckerberg regulation-wise, and Zuckerberg would prefer he not do that. There has also been much supposition that the presence of Trump-loving billionaire Peter Thiel on Facebook's board of directors has influenced that platform's approach to the President and his supporters.
In any event, some Facebook advertisers are beginning to hit the platform where it hurts, namely in the wallet. While nobody objects to political content, at least not to the point of launching boycotts, they do object to advertising that fans the flames of racial tensions, that propagates obvious falsehoods, or that facilitates anti-democratic activities like vote suppression. And so, until Facebook does a better job of limiting this sort of content, much of it coming from Donald Trump, his campaign, and his supporters, a number of advertisers have announced they will stop running ads on the platform. As of Monday, the list includes Adidas, Best Buy, Clorox, Coke, ConAgra, Denny's, Ford, Honda, HP, Starbucks, and numerous others. This isn't enough to make a major dent in Facebook's bottom line, but it could be enough to tell Zuckerberg that the writing's on the wall, and that "neutrality" isn't viable, long-term.
Other platforms have already begun to take strong action specifically targeted at the dishonest, hateful, and anti-democratic elements of the Trump campaign and movement. Reddit has just banned the forum "The_Donald," which had no formal link to the President or his campaign, but was an utter cesspool of bigotry, misogyny, conspiratorial thinking, and calls for violence. The video-streaming service Twitch, used primarily by online gamers (not exactly a Trump constituency), has suspended the Trump campaign's official channel, decreeing that some of the content (recordings of his 2016 rallies) violates their policies against propagating hate. And, of course, Twitter has increasingly gotten into the habit of slapping labels on Presidential tweets.
One cannot help but notice that this tipping point seems to have arrived right around the time that Trump's approval ratings are in the dumpster, and his re-election hopes are becoming faint. Maybe these platforms' patience ran out, but maybe there just isn't much money in the Donald Trump business anymore. In any event, as with Russia (above) or Jacksonville (below), the President appears headed for a choice. He can: (1) tone it down, which runs entirely contrary to his style, or (2) risk more suspensions, warning labels, etc., which infuriate him and make him look weak, or (3) move to wholly unmoderated platforms like Parler, something that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Eric Trump, and Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale all did last week. The problem there is that Parler doesn't have a fraction of the reach that Twitter or Facebook do. Further, if Trump is at all interested in distancing himself from fanaticism, then Parler is about the worst place to do it. It's even more of a cesspool than the "The_Donald" subreddit, and is particularly heavy on klansmen and other white supremacists, as well as vicious anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. (Z)
If you had just been watching the Democratic primaries and debates, you might have walked away thinking that the future of American healthcare was a choice between expanded Obamacare and Medicare for All. Not so fast, said the Trump administration, yanking the Overton window rightward with dizzying speed last week, as it asked the Supreme Court to strike the Affordable Care Act down.
On Monday, House Democrats returned serve, passing a bill that would strengthen and expand the ACA, injecting more funding into the system, and giving DACA recipients the opportunity to qualify for insurance. It's a far more centrist approach than Medicare for All, and is even more centrist than the approach favored by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden (who says he wants to expand the ACA, but would also back a plan to allow people to buy into Medicare or Medicaid). However, even though the House Progressive Caucus grumbled a bit, they fell into line, a tacit acknowledgment of where things stand at the moment. The only Democrat voting against was a centrist, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), while two Republicans, Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA) and Jeff Van Drew (NJ) joined with the blue team in voting for.
Obviously, the House bill isn't going to come before the Senate; Mitch McConnell will toss it in his desk drawer with all the others, or use it to line the cage of his parrot, if he has one. But the battle lines are now drawn, and the Overton Window is set. The Democrats will make clear that a vote for them is a vote for strengthening and expanding the ACA, and a vote for the Republicans is a vote for stripping away health insurance from millions of Americans, and for eliminating additional benefits that millions of other Americans rely on (like, your lifetime benefits can't be capped).
Exactly what position the Republicans will run on is not clear to us. Ever since the Trump administration moved to eliminate people's healthcare in the middle of a pandemic last week, we've been watching for some indication of what their angle is going to be. But there really hasn't been anything, so far. The President has tweeted out dozens of "wanted" bulletins for people accused of vandalizing statues, for example, but nothing on healthcare. And his fellow Republicans apparently don't want to touch this issue until they absolutely have to. We'll see what they eventually come up with. (Z)
Public health remains on a collision course with Donald Trump's desire for a big, boisterous convention. With the number of COVID-19 cases spiking, the city of Jacksonville announced Monday that masks are now required for anyone who goes out in public. It's possible the decree will be reversed by the time the Republicans convene in that city on Aug. 24, but the odds are that it won't be. If it's not, then it will run contrary to the President's strong desire for a maskless, "there is no COVID-19" convention.
Last week, we had an item about how two folks who had been Trump's allies on COVID-19, namely Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) were wavering. Now, there appear to be some defections closer to home. On Monday, Mitch McConnell declared that "We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks," while also observing that "Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter." Meanwhile, as recently as last week, VP Mike Pence was praising states for getting the economies going again. Over the weekend and on Monday, by contrast, his kind words were reserved for states who "prudently" tapped the brakes in the face of emergent hot spots.
Trump may be able to thread the needle for a while on COVID-19, either by ignoring the issue, or by offering vague pronouncements and platitudes. But, if current trends hold, he's headed for a very high-profile PR challenge in about seven weeks, and he's going to have to choose:
- Cancel the convention.
- Concede that COVID-19 is a big deal, after all, and have a masked convention.
- Remain in denial, an increasingly minority position even within his own party and administration, and try for a maskless convention, which could blow up in his face in a number of ways.
Who knows which it will be, should a decision need to be made? The only thing we're sure about right now is that the Democrats have to be feeling pretty good about their decision to dial things back, and to keep things flexible. (Z)
With the primary calendar torn asunder by COVID-19, it's sometimes hard to keep track of exactly when a particular state will hold its primary. Three of them are up today, as it happens: Colorado, Oklahoma, and Utah. Here are the most interesting story lines:
- Oklahoma: Oklahoma is a very red state, as you may have heard, which really limits the
amount of drama on Tuesday. In the Democratic Senate primary, for example, four candidates will duke it out for the
honor of being slaughtered by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) in November. Similarly, four of Oklahoma's congressional districts
have a PVI of R+17 or greater, and Republican incumbents who are standing for reelection. So, nothing to see there. That
means that, pretty much by default, the most interesting race is the Republican primary in OK-05, which is "only" R+10,
and was captured by Democrat Kendra Horn in a major upset in 2018. Today (or, more likely, later this week), Horn will
find out which of the nine white people running on a platform of "I love Donald Trump, guns, and Jesus" will try to
knock her off in November.
- Utah: There's no Senate election in Utah this year, and the situation with the House
delegation is similar to the one in Oklahoma. Two districts are ruby red and occupied by Republicans who are running for
reelection. A third is even redder, and the honor of replacing the retiring Rob Bishop (R) will go to whichever of the
four Republicans who is running comes out on top today. Meanwhile, UT-04 is "only" R+13, and was won by Democrat Ben McAdams
in 2018. There are four Republicans angling to take him on; one of them is Mormon, one is a talk radio host, one is a
woman, and one is black. We do not know which of those demographics will carry the day, but if we had to bet, we would
bet on the Mormon.
Meanwhile, former Republican governor Jon Huntsman (who is also a Mormon) would like his old job back. He's had an interesting career since leaving the governor's mansion. He resigned that post to serve as Barack Obama's ambassador to China, then ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, then served as Donald Trump's ambassador to Russia for two years. In other words, his résumé has something for everyone to love, but also something for everyone to hate. According to those on the ground, the primary has turned into a referendum on Huntsman more than a matchup between him and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox (R). Despite the former governor's vastly greater name recognition and much larger political network, it's going to be close.
- Colorado: The big story here is the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, where former governor
and presidential candidate and current centrist John Hickenlooper will face former state rep. and current progressive
Andrew Romanoff. After a few Hickenlooper missteps, it looked like the race might be tightening, but the
had the former governor up 30, 58% to 28%. Presumably he will advance, and the Democratic establishment will get the
candidate it wants to face off against the very vulnerable Sen. Cory Gardner (R).
Other than the out-of-reach CO-01 (which is D+21), any of the Centennial State's six other House races could potentially get interesting. However, the three Republicans representing CO-03, CO-04, and CO-05, and the three Democrats representing CO-02, CO-06, and CO-07 are all running for reelection (as is the Democrat representing CO-01). So, odds are the status quo holds. The swingiest of the seven is the D+2 CO-06, currently represented by Jason Crow (D). However, since only one Republican is running in the primary (Republican Party of Colorado chair Steve House), there won't be much news of interest there today.
It's entirely possible that the most interesting result of the night will actually come out of a state that voted last week, namely Kentucky. As of 4:00 PT Monday, would-be centrist Democratic nominee Amy McGrath held a 1,000-vote lead over would-be progressive Democratic nominee Charles Booker. Today, Kentucky's two largest counties are expected to announce their results. So, we may know by tonight who will try to consign Mitch McConnell to the rubbish heap. (Z)
Three June polls, three small leads for Joe Biden. Presumably, with two potentially winnable Senate races, the Democrats are going to lavish time and money on the Peach State. Further, Biden does much better with black voters than Latino voters. Add it up, and while Georgia and Texas may look similar right now, polling-wise, we think the former is much more likely to flip than the latter. (Z)
|Georgia||49%||45%||Jun 25||Jun 26||PPP|
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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jun29 Trump's Next Problem: Superspreading Superchurches
Jun29 Fox News Kept Millions in the Dark about COVID-19
Jun29 Republican State Legislatures Are Trying to Reduce Absentee Voting during a Pandemic
Jun29 GRU Paid Taliban Bounties for Killing American Soldiers
Jun29 Trump Retweets "White Power" Video
Jun29 Can Trump Beat the Florida Convention Jinx?
Jun29 Another Take on 2024
Jun29 The 2020 Census Will Change the Distribution of Electoral Votes for 2024
Jun29 Don't Forget What Is Going on Downballot
Jun28 Sunday Mailbag
Jun27 Saturday Q&A
Jun26 Time for a COVID-180?
Jun26 Legal Matters, Part I: Obamacare
Jun26 Legal Matters, Part II: A Win for Trump
Jun26 Legal Matters, Part III: A Loss for Trump
Jun26 A Tale of Two Conventions, Part I: the Republicans
Jun26 A Tale of Two Conventions, Part II: the Democrats
Jun26 Democrats Are Liking Biden's Bunker Strategy
Jun26 Kooky Candidate Watch: Winnie Heartstrong
Jun26 COVID-19 Diaries, Friday Edition
Jun26 Today's Presidential Polls
Jun26 Today's Senate Polls
Jun25 Biden Leads Nationally by 14 Points
Jun25 Poll: Trump's Approval for His Handling of the Coronavirus Is A Record Low
Jun25 Flynn Is In Like Flynn
Jun25 Zelinsky Testifies that the Justice Dept. Is Politicized
Jun25 Obama Raises Over $11 Million for Biden
Jun25 Trump's Hold on Republican Senators is Ebbing
Jun25 Second Presidential Debate Is Moved to Florida
Jun25 Is Trump Too Racist Even for Republicans?
Jun25 Jacksonville Voters Don't Want the Republican National Convention
Jun25 What If Trump Loses But Refuses to Concede?
Jun25 Lincoln Project Supports Bullock
Jun25 Trump's Brother Sues to Block Niece's Book
Jun25 Today's Presidential Polls
Jun25 Today's Senate Polls
Jun24 The Results Are (Partly) In
Jun24 Trump "Rallies" in Arizona
Jun24 What Is Going on with Trump?
Jun24 Avoiding the Mere Appearance of Impropriety...
Jun24 ...as Compared to Outright, Hands-Down Improper Behavior
Jun24 Is Hickenlooper Blowing a Layup?
Jun24 Today's Presidential Polls
Jun23 Berman Firing Isn't Going Away
Jun23 China Trade Deal Is Definitely Off, Unless It's Not
Jun23 Trump Extends Immigration Restrictions
Jun23 Trump Will "Rally" In Phoenix Today
Jun23 Bolton Book Drops Today
Jun23 Trump Sticks His Foot Where the Sun Does Shine