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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Ratcliffe Confirmed as DNI
      •  U.S. To Pull Out of Another Treaty
      •  A COVID-19 Train Wreck Is Looming
      •  There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part I: Trump vs. Obama
      •  There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part II: Voting by Mail
      •  Warren Likes Obamacare Again
      •  Republican Party Abandons Its Candidate in CA-10
      •  Loeffler Doesn't Know She is Toast
      •  Today's Presidential Polls

Ratcliffe Confirmed as DNI

Dan Coats was Donald Trump's first (confirmed) Director of National Intelligence, serving in that post until he was fired via Twitter in summer of last year. He was replaced, on an acting basis, by Joe Maguire (fired in February), and then by Richard Grenell (whose commitment to the job was such that he kept his post as U.S. ambassador to Germany). Now, the White House has a new, permanent DNI. It's Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX), who was approved on Thursday 49-44, on a 100% party-line vote.

The post of DNI is fairly new, having been created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Nonetheless, in that relatively short time, a pretty clear ethos developed around the job: it should be filled by someone with broad, bipartisan support. This is eminently reasonable. First of all, the DNI works closely with people from both parties, and so it's important for everyone to have confidence that he (and they've all been men, so far) is motivated solely by a sense of duty, and not by partisan concerns. On top of that, sometimes the DNI needs to tell a president something that the president doesn't want to hear. Independent types can be counted on to do that, when necessary. Partisan hacks, not so much.

Coats, who was the fifth (confirmed) DNI overall (in addition to being Trump's first), was approved by an overwhelming majority of Senators (85-12), and generally lived up to the standards expected of him. That is also what led to his ouster. Coats and Trump butted heads on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and on the need for greater election security in 2020. The final straw was Coats' approval of the investigation into a presidential phone call, that—at the time of the then-DNI's firing—was largely a mystery to the general public. It later came out, of course, that the phone call was to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Although he was only the acting DNI, it's fair to say that Joe Maguire also tried to live up to the expectations of the job. He continued Coats' investigations into the 2016 election. And, as with Coats, that ultimately led to his demise. Resisting presidential pressure to drop the matter, Maguire was cashiered after his staff briefed House Intelligence Committee members on evidence that Russia wants to see Trump reelected in 2020. That's hardly groundbreaking news, but it was enough to send the President into a blind rage.

It would appear that, at that point, Trump learned his "lesson." Although Coats and Maguire are both conservative Republicans, and they sometimes took care to tread lightly around the President, they were not Trump toadies. Both were also unquestionably qualified to be DNI: Coats is a former ambassador, representative, senator, and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Maguire is a retired vice admiral who had a 36-year career in the U.S. Navy. None of these things are particularly true of Grenell, Maguire's replacement as acting DNI. Yes, Grenell is currently ambassador to Germany, but he got that job due to connections and generous campaign donations, not due to résumé. He stepped on many German toes (and showed he knows what side his bread is buttered on) when he went against usual diplomatic protocol and appeared on television (multiple times) to praise Trump and to criticize German chancellor Angela Merkel. Undoubtedly, the President would be delighted to keep Grenell as DNI, but even some Republicans balked at the idea.

And so, Trump turned to Ratcliffe, who is very much in the Grenell mold. The Representative has a few years in the Justice Dept. under his belt, and has been in the House since 2015. That's pretty thin; what put him on Trump's radar was his grilling of Robert Mueller when the former special counsel appeared before the House. And what put Ratcliffe over the top was his aggressive defense of the President during the House impeachment inquiry.

And so, yet another job that is supposed to be "above politics" is now occupied by a hyper-partisan toady (see also Attorney General, U.S. Atty. for Washington D.C., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, etc.). That, of course, is just the way the current occupant of the White House likes it. Will (some of) these jobs be returned to the previous, higher standard once the Donald is gone? Maybe, maybe not.

Meanwhile, has anyone ever actually seen Ratcliffe and Steve Carell in the same place at the same time?

Ratcliffe and Carell have the same
haircut, hair color, nose, and general appearance

Given that Ratcliffe will now have primary responsibility for protecting the 2020 election from outside interference, there may soon be a time when the country would actually be better off with Michael Scott on the job. (Z)

U.S. To Pull Out of Another Treaty

When Woodrow Wilson returned home in 1919, deeply frustrated by the negotiations over the Treaty of Versailles, he placed the document before the Senate and imperiously demanded that they approve it. The senators, with Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA) taking a leading role, did not like the idea of the U.S. being bound by these sorts of international agreements. The headstrong Wilson was unable to find a middle ground with Lodge and his colleagues, and so the U.S. never ratified the treaty. That meant that, technically, the U.S. remained in a state of war with Germany (a state of affairs not formally resolved until 1921). It also meant that the U.S. never joined the League of Nations, ultimately forfeiting whatever small chance there was at preventing World War II.

This is one of many ways in which the Republican Party of Donald Trump hearkens back to the policies of a century ago. It has been a long time since the U.S. had a president who was aggressively isolationist (Grover Cleveland?), but that's exactly what Trump is. At best, he sees little to no value in cooperation with the nations of the world, viewing diplomacy as a zero-sum game in which every concession made to another country is necessarily a loss for the United States. At worst, he is either willingly or unwittingly doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin. Whatever the explanation, the White House announced on Thursday that it is pulling out of the George H.W. Bush-era Open Skies Treaty, which allows member countries to conduct reconnaissance flights over other member countries, largely so everyone knows what's going on and there are no misunderstandings.

The administration's explanation for their decision is that Russia has not been living up to its part of the bargain, and that this will force the Putin administration back to the negotiating table. This is a little hard to accept at face value, for a number of reasons. First, the White House has not given a compelling explanation of what exactly Russia was doing wrong. Second, diplomacy like this generally operates under the presumption that "something is better than nothing," such that negotiations for new and improved treaties take place while old treaties remain in place. Third, Team Trump said the exact same thing the last time they pulled out of an arms-control treaty with Russia (the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty), and there has been zero progress on a replacement.

Now, foreign policy is not our area of expertise, so it's possible that there is something we are missing or are misunderstanding. On the other hand, it is the area of expertise of Gen. Michael Hayden (ret.), who served as National Security Agency director, as deputy director of national intelligence, and as George W. Bush's director of the CIA. Here is his response to the announcement:

This basic assessment has been seconded by former Sec. of State George Shultz, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association Daryl Kimball, former FBI Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi, and most of the leaders of Europe. So, maybe our assessment isn't so far off, after all.

Assuming the withdrawal goes forward, there will be only one major arms-control treaty remaining between the U.S. and Russia, namely New START. That one was negotiated by the Obama administration, so you can probably guess how likely the Trump administration is to try to keep it. And indeed, comments by the White House, not to mention the obvious logic of "if you abandon two, you'll likely abandon all three," make clear that the Trump administration wants to kill that one as soon as is possible, and then get to work on expanding America's nuclear stockpile. Absent an extension, New START will expire automatically in February 2021. That means that reelecting Donald Trump almost certainly moves the U.S. closer—maybe a little, maybe a lot—to nuclear war. Will that come up during this year's campaign? Maybe, though Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Cold War, etc. are far enough in the rear-view mirror that maybe that danger isn't as salient as it was in, say, 1964. (Z)

A COVID-19 Train Wreck Is Looming

Speaking of a willingness to gamble with Americans' lives, there is much concerning news this week when it comes to COVID-19, and the Trump administration's management thereof. To start, and entirely predictably, many of the states that have reopened are witnessing spikes in diagnoses of the disease. There is now a near-universal consensus that a second COVID-19 wave is coming, and that it will likely be centered in the South (as opposed to, say, New York).

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration responds to current conditions (not to mention future outbreaks), the focus is entirely on restarting the economy. That means that any naysayers who might push back against prioritizing money over public health really need to be silenced. Consequently, the CDC has been "muzzled" (to use their word). In particular, Dr. Anthony Fauci's absence from television has been noticeable. The politicians and economists are calling the shots now, not the scientists.

There are also disasters looking a bit further down the road. To start, the national stockpile of medical supplies is badly depleted. Now would be a good time to try to rebuild it, especially in case there are second (and third, and fourth) waves of COVID-19 in a few months. At least, that is the advice of the scientists who worked on pandemics for the Obama administration, and have presented the White House with a seven-page list of recommendations. What are the odds that Donald Trump takes note of their advice, given whom it's coming from, and given his near-total inability to think more than one step ahead? Very poor, we would say.

And then there is the hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine, which is being held out by the White House (and others) as a panacea that will quickly resolve the crisis and return everything to normal. Not so fast, write Elena Conis, Michael McCoyd and Jessie Moravek in a well-researched opinion piece for The New York Times. They draw our attention to what happened with the polio vaccine several generations ago, pointing out that it took a very long time to develop, that there were setbacks in the manufacturing process that resulted in a batch from one factory being fatal, and that it took many years to achieve a herd-immunity level of vaccination, particularly in poor communities. That's not to say that things will go just as badly with COVID-19, but they could. And, at very least, it is probably wise to expect some setbacks, as opposed to zero setbacks. And thus to have a Plan B which, by all evidences, does not exist at this moment.

What we're saying here is that the White House's response to COVID-19 continues to be underwhelming in a variety of ways (not exactly a profound insight), and that there is ample evidence that it will remain that way due to a near-total lack of foresight. Meanwhile, here is a question to which we have absolutely no answer: What will the Trump approach to COVID-19 look like if he is reelected? A second term is the President's overarching goal right now, and if and when it is achieved, then what? Will he press forward with his economy-first approach, in search of higher approval ratings? Will he discover a newfound interest in public health, figuring that "250,000 people died of disease on his watch" will not look great in history books? Will he wash his hands (of the whole thing)? We honestly don't have the faintest idea. (Z)

There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part I: Trump vs. Obama

Continuing with the theme that Donald Trump thinks only one step ahead, at best, we now turn to two stories this week that both involve Barack Obama. For a long time, the incongruity between Trump's bumbling and erratic style on one hand, and his rapid political rise coupled with the fanatical devotion of his base on the other, led many (including us) to wonder if Trump was masterfully playing a game of 3-D chess that the rest of us just could not see. These stories make clear, once again, that no, he isn't.

The first item involves the official White House portraits of the former President and First Lady. Customarily, the portraits are completed after a president's term ends, and the former president and first lady (if they are still living) are hosted by the current president and first lady for the unveiling and a day of kumbayah and putting partisan differences aside. It's a charming tradition that has been maintained consistently since the Jimmy Carter years, and inconsistently before that.

Needless to say, Donald Trump hasn't got the faintest interest in making nice with Barack Obama for a day (or even for a few hours). Further, the President doesn't do well at these sorts of events, which are completely off-brand for him. And so, not surprisingly, the White House made clear this week that there will be no unveiling while the Donald occupies the Oval Office.

Looked at from a purely political vantage point, there is potentially some logic here. It is true that looking petulant, and that trampling on pleasant, bipartisan traditions are both bad looks. However, it is equally true that inviting Barack Obama to the White House for a high-profile event sets up a comparison where Trump probably does not come out on top, and also gives publicity to the former Obama Veep whom Trump happens to be trailing in the polls. Some very skilled politicians of generations past, notably Richard Nixon and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were very sensitive to these sorts of dynamics, and bent over backwards to avoid giving free publicity (and, in particular, the prestige of the presidency) to opponents.

So, maybe it really was 3-D chess? Or was it just Trump's knee-jerk, reflexive snubbing of anyone who upsets him? Well, the second Obama-related story from the last week strongly suggests that it's the latter. Because if the President was shrewdly trying to keep Obama from getting a lot of free publicity, then he probably shouldn't be pressing for his predecessor to be hauled before Congress to give testimony about Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

It is true that Trump has apparently persuaded himself that he was the victim of a mass conspiracy spearheaded by Obama. It is equally true that a politician skilled in the art of 3-D chess—Nixon, FDR, etc.—would recognize that getting the former president before Congress is a recipe for utter disaster. Obama is the King of Smooth; imagine some of the remarks he might make:

"It's true that my administration knew the Russians were giving extensive help to Trump—and I do mean extensive—and we looked into it as closely as we could. However, there were limits to that because of the non-cooperation of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Republican Party."

"I'm confused. Donald Trump says I broke the law in order to spy on him, and yet he also says the president is above the law. Which is it?"

"I am happy to appear before Congress when asked. Shouldn't every public servant see that as part of their responsibility?"

"Why yes, I did release my tax returns voluntarily."

"Joe Biden? He wasn't involved in any of this. However, he was a wonderful partner for eight years and, as someone who has sat in the chair, I know he would make a great president."

Trump should be grateful that his loyal acolyte, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), put the kibosh on an Obama appearance.

In any event, any politician skilled enough to do a cost-benefit analysis of the portrait ceremony situation would certainly be skilled enough to do a cost-benefit analysis of the risks of giving Barack Obama a national platform for four or five hours of TV time (and probably four or five news cycles). If Trump cannot do the math on the latter, then he surely cannot do the math on the former. Which leads us back to where we started: It's not 3-D chess, it's just instinct and flying by the seat of his pants. (Z)

There's No 3-D Chess Going on Here, Part II: Voting by Mail

Another issue on which we would argue that Donald Trump shows a lack of...insight is vote by mail. We would start here with three propositions that, we think, are pretty indisputable:

  1. The conventional wisdom is that vote by mail increases turnout, and increased turnout works to the benefit of the Democratic Party

  2. There is a case to be made, based on both inference and hard data gathered during the primary process, that the conventional wisdom will not hold this year. Because COVID-19 disproportionately affects older folks, and because those folks skew Republican and pro-Trump, vote by mail could "save" more GOP votes (from voters who might otherwise stay home for health reasons) than it adds Democratic votes.

  3. Given that it is at least somewhat unclear which party will benefit from vote by mail in 2020, a pretty good tiebreaker is "we don't want to be the party whose position is 'if you want to vote, you have to risk your life.'" That was a bad look for Republicans in Wisconsin last month, and it would be a bad look for Republicans nationwide in November.

We are not the only ones who have reached these conclusions, it would seem. Despite staunch presidential opposition, many states, including many red states have already taken steps to make voting by mail easier. More states will undoubtedly follow suit.

Trump, for his part, has stuck very vocally to his position that vote by mail is wicked and wrong and illegal. There was his high-profile Twitter battle with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), which we noted in yesterday's posting. Meanwhile, the President made a visit to a Ford plant in Michigan yesterday afternoon—ostensibly to celebrate its successful COVID-19 recalibration, but really just a thinly veiled campaign event—and took the opportunity to loudly rail against Benson and against vote by mail again.

Who knows exactly why Trump feels so strongly about this issue? Maybe he's absorbed the conventional wisdom, and this is merely an expression of a well-thought-out political strategy. Certainly, he's not the only Republican who still feels this way; on Thursday former (and aspiring future) representative Darrell Issa filed suit in California to try to kill that state's vote by mail plans. Since those plans were adopted by the state legislature, and indeed predate COVID-19, well, let's just say he's not terribly likely to prevail.

Anyhow, Trump could be playing 3-D chess here but, once again, we doubt it. First of all, is it really plausible that he is capable of explaining, in detail, why vote by mail customarily favors Democrats? Second, a shrewd political operator would keep his mouth shut, and let other Republicans take whatever damage is inflicted by insisting on in-person voting, especially since voting procedures are not currently a federal prerogative. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) would no doubt be happy to get on television every day to oppose mail-in voting since his state is fighting the idea in the courts. All Trump has to do is ask him to take over. Third, it is instructive that much GOP leadership, including in particular the think tanks, are deciding that vote by mail might be a good idea this year.

So, we would say the stronger argument is that Trump is once again operating on instinct and on having personalized the issue, and that he is just reflexively taking the position that is "opposite of what the Democrats think." It is very difficult to see any evidence of a larger plan here, especially when his attacks on folks like Benson are littered with emotion-driven (but factually unsound) claims like "this is illegal!" (Z)

Warren Likes Obamacare Again

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would very much like to be president. And the only plausible way that's going to happen now is if she becomes vice president first. So, she is actively jockeying for the gig. When the Senator was trying to compete with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for the hearts of progressive voters, she announced her support for Medicare for All. Now that she's trying to make nice to Joe Biden, who is all-in on Obamacare, she's decided that Medicare for All might be a nice goal to aim for in the future, but for now, improving Obamacare is the way to go. "I think right now people want to see improvements in our health care system, and that means strengthening the Affordable Care Act," she told a group of students in Chicago.

For those progressive Democrats who supported Warren's presidential campaign, this story embodies one of her biggest selling points: she's pragmatic and flexible. For those progressive Democrats who never warmed up to the Senator, this story embodies one of her biggest flaws: She's chameleon-like and not a True Believer™. Either way, Warren is a shrewd political operator, and as such, surely knows that her VP bid is something of a longshot, no matter what her position on healthcare is. The late great Sen. Henry Clay once said: "I'd rather be right than president." Warren is clearly not of that persuasion. (Z)

Republican Party Abandons Its Candidate in CA-10

Maybe there will come a time when every aspiring politician figures out that the first thing you should do, when announcing a run for office, is delete all of your social media profiles and start fresh, so that ill-considered postings from the past don't come back to haunt you. That time has not yet arrived though, as the case of would-be congressman Ted Howze can attest. The arch-conservative veterinarian is trying to knock off freshman congressman Josh Harder (D-CA), and managed to secure the Republican nomination in CA-10. This week, however, it came to light that Howze has a rather long social-media history that involves things like slurring Muhammad as a pedophile, accusing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) of being a crack addict, calling for the murder of prominent Democrats, and propagating nearly any conspiracy theory that came his way. Oops! How's a fellow supposed to remember many dozen hateful posts, all of them at least three months old?

Howze's defense of himself has been somewhat less than compelling. He has tried finger-pointing, claiming on Twitter that he's the victim of "Brett Kavanaugh style attacks." As to the posts themselves, the candidate claims that he is not responsible, and that they are the work of "others" who have access to his social media accounts. He was unable to explain who those others might be, or how it is that they seem to have access to copious numbers of photographs of Howze and his family when they are on vacation. In any event, Republican muckety-mucks did not find his defense credible, so they've withdrawn their endorsements, financial support, logistical support, and have left the candidate a Rep. Steve King (R-IA) type orphan.

CA-10, a district with a PVI of even that the Democrats flipped in the 2018 wave election, is exactly the sort of district the Republicans are hoping to capture in 2020 with an eye toward taking back the House, or at least cutting into the Democrats' majority. Given that Howze's skeletons are out of the closet, that he's flying solo, and that he's up against an incumbent, the seat is now a safe bet to remain in the Blue Team's hands. (Z)

Loeffler Doesn't Know She is Toast

On Wednesday we pointed out that Sen. Kelly Loeffler is toast. After she got a confidential briefing about how COVID-19 was going to wreck the economy, she sold a big batch of her stocks in companies likely to be affected and bought stocks in medical supply companies and a company that makes teleworking software. She claims that a little birdie must have told her financial advisers to make all these trades because she certainly didn't tell them. The voters of Georgia are not convinced and she is way behind in the polls and is very unlikely to make the January runoff in the Georgia special election.

Rather than giving up graciously for the sake of the Republican Party, she is doubling down and digging in her heels. In an interview with Politico she insisted that she is not going to drop out and support her Republican opponent, Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). The net result of her staying in is that much mud will be thrown by both Loeffler and Collins and whoever makes it to the runoff will be badly damaged against whichever Democrat also makes it. In theory, both Collins and Loeffler could end up in the runoff, but with Loeffler trailing so badly now, there is no way both of them can make the top two. (V)

Today's Presidential Polls

We're still confused by the handful of swing-state polls that suggest Donald Trump has a lead in them. How can that possibly be reconciled with numbers like these? The answer: They can't.

Anyhow, if you flip the three states that are outside the margin of error (MI, PA, WI) from 2016, then Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States, 278 EVs to 260. And that's before we talk about the other states slipping away from Trump, as he's not leading in any of them, and they are more likely than not to correlate with the national result. (Z)

State Biden Trump Start End Pollster
Arizona 45% 41% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies
Florida 45% 43% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies
Michigan 47% 39% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies
Michigan 51% 45% May 18 May 19 PPP
North Carolina 42% 42% May 12 May 21 Neighborhood Research and Media
North Carolina 45% 43% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies
Pennsylvania 48% 39% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies
Wisconsin 48% 38% May 10 May 14 Redfield & Wilton Strategies

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May21 Quinnipiac Poll: Biden Has 11-Point Lead Nationally
May21 Michigan Sent Absentee Ballot Applications to All Voters
May21 Senate Will Subpoena Company that Did Work for Burisma
May21 Local Officials Are Now Battling Governors about Reopening the Economy
May21 House Will Allow Proxy Voting
May21 Supreme Court Blocks House from Accessing Mueller Documents
May21 Florida Health Data Specialist Fired for Refusing to Alter Data Website
May21 Arpaio Is Back
May21 Firm That Lobbied Trump Got a $1.3 Billion Contract to Build Some Fencing
May21 Today's Presidential Polls
May20 Trump Continues to Earn Low Marks for Handling of COVID-19 Pandemic
May20 Will Trump Really Try to Hold Rallies This Year?
May20 Donald Trump, Military President
May20 The Legal Blotter, Part I: Voting Wars Continue in Texas
May20 The Legal Blotter, Part II: Oregon Stay-at-Home Orders Are Back on, for Now
May20 The Legal Blotter, Part III: Another Trump Family Lawsuit
May20 Loeffler is Toast
May20 The COVID Diaries
May20 Today's Presidential Polls
May20 Today's Senate Polls
May19 Pompeo Plot Thickens
May19 Burr Plot Thickens, Too
May19 Trump Is Taking Hydroxychloroquine
May19 The One-Two Punch: Eric Trump...
May19 ...and Donald Trump Jr.
May19 Trump Is Doing Well in Swing States...or Not
May19 Oregon Stay-at-Home Order Is Struck Down
May19 Biden Will Cancel Keystone Pipeline
May19 Val Demings' Star Is Rising
May19 Today's Presidential Polls
May18 Bloomberg Is Planning to Support Democrats
May18 COVID-19 Deaths Will Pass 100,000 by June 1
May18 Democratic Governors Hit with Lawsuits
May18 Behind the Scenes It Is Birx, not Fauci, Who Is the Real Power
May18 We Need to Move on to Stage Five
May18 The Response to COVID-19 Is Just Class Warfare in a New Form
May18 Texas Supreme Court Halts Expansion of Mail-in Voting
May18 Trump's Opposition to Absentee Ballots May Backfire
May18 Trump Supporter Chosen as Postmaster General
May17 Amash Bows Out
May17 Sunday Mailbag
May16 Trump Fires State Department Inspector General
May16 Saturday Q&A
May16 Today's Presidential Polls
May16 Today's Senate Polls
May15 Burr in Hot Water
May15 House Democrats Expected to Vote on $3 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Bill Today
May15 Bright Testifies Before Congress
May15 "Obamagate" Roars Back to Life
May15 Unpleasant Surprise May Be Coming for Seniors