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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The Other Valenki Drops?
      •  Californians Are Bearish on Biden
      •  Now This Is What Malice Looks Like
      •  CPAC Is This Weekend
      •  TRUTH Launch Goes about as Expected
      •  Madison Cawthorn Is in Trouble, According to... Madison Cawthorn
      •  Jim Hagedorn Has Died

The Other Valenki Drops?

A valenki is a Russian boot worn mostly in the winter. Since it is winter right now, and since Russia has had "boots on the ground" in the vicinity of Ukraine for months, and since Vladimir Putin finally made a move yesterday, the headline seems an apt metaphor.

What happened yesterday is probably easiest to parse if we just run through each of the dramatis personae. And so:

  • Putin: Yesterday, the Russian leader gave a speech in which he recognized the independence of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and made the case for Russia's claim to those areas. Both are in Ukraine, of course, but both are home to sizable populations of pro-Russian separatists. Later, Putin said he would be sending "peacekeeping forces" to those territories.

  • The Biden Administration: President Biden and his team are not happy, and he had a lengthy meeting with the National Security Council yesterday evening. That said, the White House is currently treading very lightly. The administration pointedly did not use the word "invasion" yesterday, and while sanctions will be imposed on the two regions of Ukraine, broader sanctions are not yet on the table.

  • The Allies: French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz are not happy, either. They each talked to Putin before his speech, and they each talked to Biden after. At the moment, the three leaders are coordinating on next steps. Early this morning, Scholz pulled the plug (or maybe, inserted the cork) in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. This will hit Russia hard since energy is its biggest export product. So far, there seems to be little mention of bringing the U.K.'s Boris Johnson in on the conversation; maybe they've concluded that he's just a grandstander looking to wag the dog and to distract from his COVID-19 scandals. Or maybe he was at a party and couldn't be reached.

  • The United Nations: The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting, and afterward condemned Putin. Putin pushed back, claiming that the U.N. is the aggressor here because of all the armaments it's send to Ukraine.

  • Volodymyr Zelensky: The Ukrainian president vowed that he will not allow portions of his country to secede/be seized, and that there will be recriminations for Russia. Of course, since he is reliant on outside nations for help with this, he doesn't have the only vote in what happens here.

As to what happens next... who knows? It's certainly possible that Putin has found a face-saving maneuver that solves nearly everyone's problems. He gets to look strong, the U.S. and its allies avoid a war, and Zelensky is left holding the bag. It's also possible that Putin is looking for leverage, and that he can be "convinced" to leave Ukraine in exchange for concessions. That would also allow everyone to save face while avoiding war.

With that said, when we look at games of 3-D chess like this, we tend to assume that everyone is behaving rationally until persuaded otherwise. In this case, however, we can't help but think of Lyndon B. Johnson, who became so ensconced in his bubble that he was almost completely out of touch with what was happening outside the White House by 1968 or so. That's just 4-5 years into his time as president. Putin is 10 years in to his current term (and 19 years overall), he spends nearly all of his time in an underground bunker, and he appears to be in the thrall of a bunch of right-wing hardliners. So, perhaps rational behavior should not be assumed.

In any case, it sure looks like the ball is in Biden's court. We'll see, first of all, if harsher sanctions are announced today or tomorrow. Also, Biden and Putin had agreed to a summit, but that was only going to happen if Putin did not invade Ukraine. To hear the White House tell it on Monday, there has not yet been an invasion. So, is the summit still on? The answer to that question will be very instructive, indeed. (Z)

Californians Are Bearish on Biden

The Berkeley Institute of Government Studies (BIGS) is a good pollster, and one of the best when it comes to taking the temperature of California voters. And the newest poll from BIGS certainly has grim news for the Democrats, as nearly every prominent Democratic federal officeholder is drowning, approval-wise. Joe Biden is underwater by 1 point (47% approve, 48% disapprove), Kamala Harris is underwater by 8 (38%/46%) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein is underwater by 19 (30%/49%). Only Sen. Alex Padilla has a net positive rating; his 34% approval his pretty anemic, but because so many Californians don't have an opinion, it's still higher than the 26% who disapprove, putting the Senator above water by 8 points.

The obvious storyline here is that if Democrats are doing this badly in deep blue California, they're in big trouble nationwide. And that's fair, as far as it goes. However, we would point out two other conclusions that can be drawn. The first is that even if Feinstein runs again in 2024 (which she probably won't do), there is zero chance that 70% of Californians vote against her in the general election. It's a particularly clear reminder that "I disapprove of politician X" does not necessarily mean "I am therefore voting for politician Y from the other party."

The other conclusion also starts with Feinstein. What on earth has she done to justify such a precipitous drop in her numbers? Yes, she hugged Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and she's clearly past her prime. However, she's basically a backbencher in the Senate these days, and doesn't make all that many headlines. Feinstein is clearly being punished for the general state of the country, the economy, the pandemic, and all the other things that aren't going so well right now, and so are fueling a "throw the bums" out sentiment. The other major Democrats who are taking a beating right now, including Biden, are surely suffering from the same phenomenon. So, if the country remains in poor shape in September, October, and November, the blue team is going to take a shellacking. However, if things begin to improve, then the rising tide will surely raise all Democratic ships. And as we pointed out yesterday, the exact state of affairs is less significant than the direction things are moving come election time. In short, while the President and his party are down and out right now, the potential for a comeback is certainly there. (Z)

Now This Is What Malice Looks Like

Last week, Sarah Palin twice lost her lawsuit against The New York Times, as a judge ruled that she had failed to demonstrate the paper acted with "actual malice," while a jury decided the same thing the next day. That finding is a necessity in order for a public figure to win a defamation suit. In our write-ups of the case, we pointed out several times that Palin is surely going to appeal and that conservatives who cheer her on might want to be careful what they wish for, as it is right-wing media that approaches (and crosses) the line far more often than left-wing media do.

As a courtesy, presumably in thanks for tipping Tucker Carlson off about the Canadians, Fox decided to provide us with an object lesson of what we were talking about. As we noted last week, special counsel John Durham is trying hard to find something to justify the multiple years and multiple millions of dollars he's spend looking into the Russia investigation(s). And last week he made a sloppily written filing that was quickly twisted by right-wing types into "Hillary Clinton planted someone in the White House to spy on Donald Trump."

As chance would have it, Clinton was scheduled to speak at the New York Democratic State Convention the day after that news broke (and thus the day after the conspiracy theory came to life). She knows a little something about snark, of course. She also knows a little something about the law, having earned a J.D. from a small law school in Connecticut (our staff researchers are trying to ascertain which one). And so, in her remarks to the New York Democrats, she needled TrumpWorld a bit, observing that the deeper The Donald's trouble gets, the wilder the conspiracy theories about her get. She also fired a shot across the bow of Fox, et. al., casually observing, "Fox leads the charge with accusations against me, counting on their audience to fall for it again. They're getting awfully close to actual malice in their attacks."

Clinton's remarks sent Sean Hannity into a tizzy, His exact words, from the Thursday night edition of his program:

Malice? Really? It's called news. Hillary, we invite you to bring it on. It's from a legal filing. We quoted exactly from the filing that was put in federal court.

The claim that this was "news" is dubious. The claim that Fox was just quoting Durham's legal filing is a baldfaced lie; he never actually wrote that Clinton placed a spy in the White House.

In any event, Hannity can get away with bloviating because that's what he's paid to do (although we suspect he might have gotten a visit on Thursday from the suits in legal, telling him to tone it down). But Fox's lawyers know what it looks like when another lawyer—in this case, Clinton—is tacitly threatening a lawsuit. And, not surprisingly, all Durham/Clinton coverage had disappeared from Fox's website by Monday. Here's what their homepage looked like by Monday afternoon:

The lead story, in giant type, is about how Kamala
Harris is falling apart; below that in much smaller type are stories about Russia and a Democratic mayor who did not wear her mask in public.

Kamala Harris' woes are the big story of the day, and then Russia and a maskless Democratic mayor are next, and are of equal significance? Seems like sound news judgment.

The point here is that it's not just us who know that defamation and near-defamation are much more common among right-leaning media than among any other outlets—the right-wing media (or, at least, their lawyers) know it, too. And that is why Fox folds like a guy with 2-7 offsuit the moment there is even the faintest whiff of a lawsuit. (Z)

CPAC Is This Weekend

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will take place this weekend and, on Monday, the list of speakers was announced. Headlining for the third year in a row will be Donald Trump. Also making appearances will be Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Kristi Noem (R-SD); Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), John Kennedy (R-LA), Marco Rubio and Rick Scott (both R-FL); Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH); Mark Meadows; Larry Kudlow; Larry Elder; Donald Trump Jr.; Kimberly Guilfoyle; Candace Owens; Charlie Kirk; Ben Carson; Tulsi Gabbard and "Papa John" Schnatter (among others). It's the sort of lineup that gives one butterflies in one's stomach. Whether those butterflies are caused by excitement or nausea depends on one's political predilections.

Since the whole thing is just members of the choir preaching to other members of the choir, the weekend is not likely to produce much newsworthy material. There are two exceptions, however, one possible and one definite. The possible exception involves Trump Sr.'s speech; he's been quite reckless in recent weeks and months, and he might take his rock-star appearance as an opportunity to further incriminate himself. The definite exception is that on Sunday, CPAC will conduct a straw poll to see which candidate is favored by the attendees. This is not necessarily predictive, as the True Believers™ are not always reflective of what the rank-and-file are thinking (the Pauls, Ron and Rand, won five times between them, to take just one example). However, what the result will tell us is whether Trump might be slipping a bit. The former president outdistanced #2 finisher DeSantis 55-21 in February of last year, and 70-21 in July of last year. Most years have only one CPAC, but in 2021 there were two.

And as long as we're at it, Gabbard's appearance would appear to be fulfilling the destiny that seemed in store during her "she sounds an awful lot like a Republican" bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. That said, the former representative hasn't exactly landed a plum gig at Fox as the resident "Democrat for the purposes of 'balance.'" She spends most of her time running her PAC, which is basically funded by the money left over from her presidential run. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) might want to take a long look at that as she considers her future options. (Z)

TRUTH Launch Goes about as Expected

Donald Trump's new social media platform had its launch yesterday and, to nobody's surprise, it did not go well. Indeed, the bad news (apparently) began before it was officially made public. Reporter Mikael Thalen, who writes for the Internet-focused The Daily Dot, said he was able to gain access to the beta version of the platform and to lay claim to the handle @realDonaldTrump. How someone did not think to reserve that many moons ago is beyond us, though we presume Thalen won't be allowed to keep the username.

Once the floodgates were opened to the general public yesterday, things did not get a lot better. It would seem that it did not occur to TRUTH social CEO Devin Nunes to arrange for enough server capacity, such that it was nearly impossible to access the platform. And many of those who did get through, often after numerous attempts, were notified that they would not be able to create accounts, but that they would be placed on a waitlist. The waitlist was up to at least 200,000 people by the close of business on Monday.

Of course, having a lot of interest in your site—and becoming the #1 download on the Apple App Store—is generally a good thing. And undoubtedly, the folks running TRUTH will be very pleased at the numbers, even if the launch itself went poorly. That said, it is quite clear that a lot of the folks signing up for accounts are not Trumpers, but trolls. Twitter was full of people bragging that they were ready to go scorched earth on TRUTH, there were lots of stories from Internet-focused websites about the same, and we even got a few e-mails from readers who were preparing to do mischief.

In view of the army of trolls that's headed Trump's way, it was also reiterated yesterday that the platform will be using AI software to censor content (so much for a "free speech" zone). Specifically, TRUTH will employ "a San Francisco-based Series D start-up that provides automated solutions through cloud-based artificial intelligence for understanding images, videos, and text content." Translation: "We will use the cheapest content moderation solution we can possibly find." Undoubtedly it will go well; presumably there was no Series E start-up available, so that TRUTH might save a few more bucks.

And finally, here is the logo that TRUTH unveiled yesterday:

It's a light purple square, a white block 'T,' and a
green block period next to the 'T.'

And here is the trademarked logo of Trailar, a British solar panel maker:

It's a light purple square, a white block 'T,' so 
basically identical except for the green period

Perhaps they look similar to you? They certainly do to Trailar's lawyers, and so a lawsuit may well be in the offing.

We write this story up because if Trump was able to create a viable platform, that could be a meaningful weapon for him as he tries to keep bending the Republican Party to his will. And certainly it's not the first online launch that's gone badly (recall the early Obamacare exchanges, for example). However, with a CEO who knows nothing about tech, and with no clear plan for how this is going to pay for itself, and with the utilization of the cheapest tech solutions available, and with a gaggle of amateurish errors, the odds of this becoming a viable platform are even longer than they were two days ago. (Z)

Madison Cawthorn Is in Trouble, According to... Madison Cawthorn

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) was among Congress' most enthusiastic supporters of the folks who showed up on 1/6 to try to overturn the presidential election result. His problem is that North Carolina has a law, adopted after the Civil War, that prohibits anyone who supported insurrection against the United States from appearing on the ballot. A group called Free Speech for People sued to boot the Representative off the ballot and, according to him, they are close to succeeding. Appearing on Fox last night, Cawthorn said:

Tucker, they are actually very close. Now, what's going on in North Carolina is that the state board of election, a panel of five people, is asserting that they have the ability to bar 740,000 plus Americans in my district from being able to elect me to send me to Washington to be their weapon to fight against the deep state.

It is somewhat unexpected that Cawthorn would admit this on national TV. Maybe he's exaggerating his peril, and just using this as an opportunity to lash out against the deep state and/or to shake his followers down for donations. Or maybe he's telling the truth, and he wants to get his spin out there before the decision comes down.

If Cawthorn does lose, he'll be in a tough position. First, the law is pretty clear, and if he's found to be on the wrong side of it, it's not going to be easy to convince a court to step in and overrule the North Carolina Board of Elections. Second, there will come a point—very soon, and probably before the appeals process is played out—when the ballot deadline will have passed, and he will be out of luck even if he triumphs in court. North Carolina law does allow write-ins, so maybe he should get to work on his MUR-COW-SKI-style rebus?

Murkowski rebus and suggestion for Cawthorn

Hm. On second thought, he might want to make sure he doesn't get smacked down by the board of elections. (Z)

Jim Hagedorn Has Died

Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R), who was in the midst of his second term representing MN-01, passed away over the weekend. He was 59, and had been battling liver cancer and COVID-19, though he was vaccinated against the latter.

Hagedorn had a long career in public service, though all of it was in staff or bureaucratic positions prior to his tenure in the House. He was very Trumpy, and before that was a firebrand; his now-defunct blog "Mr. Conservative" trafficked regularly in racism, sexism, homophobia, and other less-than-admirable notions. He referred to then-Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell as "undeserving bimbos in tennis shoes," for example, and said he concurred with "John Wayne's wisdom of the only good Indian being a dead Indian." (Note that it wasn't John Wayne who said that; it was Gen. Philip Sheridan.) Hagedorn explained away the posts as "satire," and yet he deleted the whole blog as soon as he decided to run for Congress. That did not stop the right-wing Washington Examiner from describing him as "the worst midterm candidate in America" for the 2018 elections.

Because replacement representatives must be elected, rather than appointed, Hagedorn's seat will be vacant for a while. The primary will be on May 24, while Aug. 9 will be the date of both the runoff election and the primary for the 2023-24 term. As we noted yesterday, updated PVI numbers haven't been released yet, but based on the Biden-Trump vote, MN-01 is going to get a little less Republican than its current R+8. Not a lot, though, so it will probably remain in GOP hands after this year's midterms. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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