Another day, another bunch of news about Donald Trump's legal situation. Sigh. There's no question that this stuff is very significant to American politics in general, and to the 2024 presidential election in particular, and those things are our foci. So, away we go.
We'll start with something of a success story for the former president: He's found himself a lawyer. It's Chris Kise, who is formerly the solicitor general of Florida. He is also a close associate (and former campaign staffer) of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), which certainly creates an interesting dynamic.
Kise has won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and is regarded as a skilled litigator who is capable in multiple areas of law, including criminal. He's also got a bit of a reputation as a dirty trickster; he famously was responsible for leaking the dirt that probably ended Democrat Andrew Gillum's chances of becoming Florida governor in 2018. So, that is something that Kise and Trump can bond over.
Because Kise is so closely associated with DeSantis, he's already pretty deeply enmeshed in MAGA World. So, he doesn't have to fear the loss of reputation or clients the way many other lawyers would. That's not true of Kise's (former) law firm, however. Until yesterday, he was with Foley & Lardner. But they were not willing to allow Kise to defend Trump under their banner, so he quit. The firm then scrubbed Kise's bio from their website with great rapidity. "Trump's lawyer, who?" is the general idea.
Reportedly, Kise has been in negotiations with Team Trump since the day after the Mar-a-Lago search. We presume that someone with a reputation as a legal shark was establishing how much he would be paid and, probably most importantly, how much his retainer would be. Surely he would not be foolish enough to leave a job at a blue-chip law firm based solely on the promise that Trump would pay him, right? And, by the way, it is definitely Trump that's on the hook here for legal fees. The RNC has made clear that paying to defend the Mar-a-Lago case is not their responsibility.
And now, some not-so-happy news for Trump. As part of the haggling over whether or not a special master should be appointed for the Mar-a-Lago documents, the Department of Justice filed a 36-page response (plus 18 pages of appendices) late Tuesday. It makes a pretty good case that a special master is not appropriate here, due to lack of necessity, due to existing legal precedent, and due to the fact that we're talking about highly classified documents here that really shouldn't be viewed to every Tom, Dick and Donald.
That's not the bad part for Trump, though. The bad part comes on page 10 (and is repeated, in various forms, throughout the document):
Through further investigation, the FBI uncovered multiple sources of evidence indicating that the response to the May 11 grand jury subpoena was incomplete and that classified documents remained at the Premises, notwithstanding the sworn certification made to the government on June 3. In particular, the government developed evidence that a search limited to the Storage Room would not have uncovered all the classified documents at the Premises. The government also developed evidence that government records were likely concealed and removed from the Storage Room and that efforts were likely taken to obstruct the government's investigation.
Emphasis is ours. Clearly, AG Merrick Garland & Co. are not only thinking obstruction, they think they have the goods to prove it. Heck, they had enough evidence before the search to persuade a judge that the claim probably had merit. Now, they have 15 boxes of additional evidence, and nothing the DoJ found has caused it to back off this line of inquiry. The penalty for obstruction, incidentally, is up to 5 years for each count. And that, of course, would be on top of any penalties for having documents that one should not have. Chris Kise certainly has his work cut out for him. (Z)
One more Donald Trump legal item, then we can move on. For the legal case in Georgia, where the former president might also get popped for obstruction, Fulton County DA Fani Willis very much wants to have a chat with Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). His testimony is clearly relevant, especially since prosecutors have pretty broad latitude when it comes to probing potential sources of useful information.
Kemp, for his part, doesn't particularly want to sit for a deposition. He is, of course, running for reelection right now. And while some of the Trumpers loathe him, those same folks are not likely to be enthusiastic about having a Black woman as governor. So, Kemp would really like to avoid antagonizing Trump and his base, in hopes of keeping as many of them on board as is possible (even if many of them are holding their noses). To that end, the governor filed a motion to quash his subpoena.
The Governor's motion was based on a silly legal argument, namely that he should not be forced to testify because he has sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity means that government officials are immune from civil actions arising from actions undertaken in an official capacity. Judge Robert McBurney did not buy that argument for one second, and quickly ruled that Kemp must testify, first because this is a criminal case and not a civil one, and second because Kemp himself is not the target. However, the Judge did allow that testifying during an election campaign is not appropriate, and so ordered that Kemp should present himself for questioning the day after the general election.
Ultimately, Kemp got what he wanted, since he'll either be out of office or else term-limited by November 9, and will no longer need to worry about keeping the Trumpers on his side. On the other hand, Trump most certainly did not get what he wants. The governor will still tell his version of the story for the record, and it won't matter much if it's tomorrow or two months from now. Well aware of this, the former president is dangling the possibility of a Kemp endorsement. There's no way The Donald would swallow his pride like that unless he was able to reach an ironclad agreement with Kemp for the Governor to soften his imminent testimony. This bears watching.
Meanwhile, as Slate's Dennis Aftergut and Norman L. Eisen point out, Willis is laser-focused here, and triumphs on nearly every motion she brings. And McBurney is running a tight ship, while showing no patience for legal hocus-pocus. That's also not great news for Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and any others who might be implicated in this—let's be frank, ludicrous—scheme. (Z)
Earlier this year, Democrats were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They had no sense of direction, had nothing to run on, and it was all doom and gloom. Now, that has all changed. They have many things to run on, including abortion, the infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS Act, and some progress on gun control. What's wrong with this picture?
Donald Trump tried to overthrow democracy, most of the Republican Party supported him then and still does, and the Democrats don't seem to be talking about that. Yes, if you ask a Democratic candidate point blank: "Did Donald Trump try to steal the 2020 election?" the answer will generally be "Yes." But that issue is not a Democratic priority, at least so far.
Really? Yeah. Politico commissioned a study by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact to analyze the $300 million worth of ads the Democrats have run so far this year. Only 4% of the ads even mentioned the coup attempt or the attempt to steal the presidency or the attempt to end democracy. That's less than the percent of ads talking about abortion, health care, roads, or guns.
Bo Cutter, a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations, said that if you raise the issue of democracy with actual candidates now, you get a pat on the head and "Well, America has always come through in the end." Les Francis, the former executive director of both the DNC and the DCCC, said democracy "is more important to the survival of the country than, frankly, daycare for kids or prescription drug prices." And Democrats don't want to talk about it. By their actions, the Democrats are communicating that they think that abortion and drug prices are bigger issues than democracy itself.
Actually, it is even worse than that, in a way. Democrats spent millions of dollars ratf**king in the primaries, actively helping Republicans who supported a coup because the Democrats thought they would be weaker opponents than moderates. It's a bet-the-farm gamble because some of them could win and do far more damage in Congress on Jan. 6, 2025 than the moderate Republicans the Democrats tried to defeat in the primaries.
But now, with all of that said, let's look at the other side of the coin. It is not easy to run on "democracy," because it's not exactly clear what that means. Does it merely refer to the events of 1/6, and Trump's efforts to overturn the presidential election? Or does it include Dobbs, the work of a highly politicized Supreme Court that represents a minority of citizens? Does it include voter-ID laws and other restrictions on voting rights? Does it include the filibuster? Does it include global warming, which is surely an existential threat to democracy? We suspect that if you asked 100 people, you'd get 100 different lists of what issues are subsumed under "democracy."
Of course, the Democrats are already running on many of these issues. You could certainly argue that talking about Dobbs and its consequences is, ipso facto, talking about democracy. Yes, the Democrats could attack the problem more directly, by harping on the insurrection and all the other anti-Democratic things that Trump and his cronies have done. But surely any voters who are bothered by this stuff are already aware of the insurrection and the other problematic stuff. And look where running a "Donald Trump is a bad man" campaign got Hillary Clinton. People (well, except for Trumpers) mostly want to hear what you're for, not what you're against.
This same basic problem shows up when trying to poll voters. In a NYT/Siena College poll, conducted in late July, voters were asked what the most important problem facing the country is. The state of democracy came in third at 11%, after the economy (20%) and inflation (15%). The only well-defined subgroup that ranked democracy above 15% was people with graduate degrees. The least interested demographics were Black (4%) and Latino (9%) voters. Among Black folks, inflation and gun policies were first at 15%. With Latinos, the economy was first at 28%.
On the other hand, NBC news conducted a poll just 3 weeks later, and in that a plurality of respondent chose "threats to democracy" as the #1 issue on their minds. That was the pick of 21% of those polled, followed by cost of living (18%), jobs and the economy (14%), immigration (13%) and climate change (8%). Did one American in 10 move "democracy" to the top of their list in just 3 weeks? That seems unlikely. Was it differences in the polling sample? Maybe, but that's an awfully big swing. Was it differences in the polling questions? "Ding, ding, ding," we would say. The NBC News poll had lots of questions about the Mar-a-Lago search and whether or not Donald Trump should be investigated (57% said yes, 40% said no). If you prime your respondents in that way, then "threats to democracy" becomes considerably less abstract.
In short, democracy is both important and is something that voters do care about. So, even though it's tough to run on "democracy" in a direct way (especially without turning it into a parade of anti-Trump invective), the Democrats can and should think about making that a bigger part of their messaging. They should recall what would have happened if, on Jan. 6, 2021, when Arizona's electoral votes were announced, then-VP Mike Pence had said: "There were serious irregularities in Arizona, so I am tentatively not going to accept these electoral votes until the state legislature has investigated and reported back." Ditto a few more states. Did he have that authority? Of course not, but suppose he did it anyway? Then what? Or suppose Trump has picked Rudy Giuliani as his running mate in 2016 and vice president Giuliani sent the electoral votes back to the state legislatures on Jan. 6? One man (Pence) stopped the coup but with a different choice of veep in 2016, it might have worked. And only 4% of the ads right now are even bringing up the subject.
This is also a chicken-and-egg problem. If ads were to highlight that the U.S. almost lost democracy, and to clearly define what that means, maybe it would register with voters more than the price of crudité. It wouldn't be hard to make an ad with a Pence impersonator "counting" the electoral votes and then rejecting Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania followed by some stock footage of Trump supporters cheering.
This is also a problem for the media, which is, of course, often afflicted with the disease known as "bothsidesism" (also known as "equal coverage"). For example, consider the news story about how Ron DeSantis announced cracking down on 20 people who voted illegally in Florida in 2020. The AP reported that straight, like it was a major crackdown, and so did not push back against the Governor's narrative. DeSantis himself could have written that story. In contrast, The New York Times reported that yes, 20 people had been charged—out of 11.1 million Floridians who voted. That's 0.0002% fraud or 99.9998% not fraud. Is there any other area with 99.9998% compliance with the law? Do 99.9998% of drivers obey the speed laws? Do 99.9998% of taxpayers fill out the tax form perfectly? But when a politician says something extremely misleading, as DeSantis did, most media outlets refuse to call him on it for fear of being called biased. But how do you report on a campaign when one side bases its entire campaign on blatant lies?
Margaret Sullivan, a long-time columnist at The Washington Post, wrote her final column on this very subject last week. She warned that journalists are going to have to find a new way to report on Donald Trump and those like him. When candidates give a speech that is full of lies, reporting what the candidate said just spreads the lies further.
Sullivan's answer is to forget the live coverage. Don't report on what happened at the rally and what the politician said (and certainly don't broadcast it live). Instead, write stories afterwards summarizing the content and putting it in context and when someone is lying clearly state that it is a lie. She says that the media have to rethink how to cover the news when lying is the basis of one side's campaign. There aren't always two equally valid sides to every controversy. The media hasn't absorbed this message yet and giving readers honest coverage won't be possible until it does.
In short, the political party and the media outlets who value democracy both have a difficult but necessary job to do. Hopefully they find a way to do it in time. (V & Z)
Is there any aspect of the political process that Mehmet Oz (R) and his team cannot botch? If so, they haven't found it yet.
The current status quo in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, of course, is that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) is up, by a lot. On average, according to FiveThirtyEight's database, Fetterman is up by 9 points. He's also right on the cusp of 50%, which means Oz would have to win over nearly all undecided and third-party-leaning voters (not bloody likely).
Oz's best chance for shaking things up is to debate Fetterman on TV, as often as is possible. Ideally, the Republican also needs those debates to begin as quickly as is possible. The longer things linger, the more that people's preferences will become baked in, and the closer we get to the time when people will start casting absentee ballots. Fetterman, who has shown himself to be a shrewd operator, knows all of this. He doesn't want to appear to be afraid to debate, but he'd prefer as few debates as is possible, and as late in the cycle as is possible.
So, how did Oz & Co. botch this? Well, they were pushing for a debate in the first week of September. And they sent Fetterman a list of "concessions," many of which were snotty. For example, trying to get extra mileage out of the Lieutenant Governor's health issues, Team Oz offered to pay for "additional medical personnel [Fetterman] might need to have on standby." They seem to have forgotten that Oz himself is a medical doctor. Which, to be frank, is certainly understandable.
Obviously, Oz and his people have seen that snark has worked well for Fetterman, and they are trying to fight fire with fire. But, in a reminder of the cliché that Republicans just don't do humor, the "jokes" from Team Oz aren't clever and a little edgy, they're mean-spirited and a lot nasty. Making fun of someone who uses a highfalutin' word for chopped-up vegetables is pretty tame. Mocking someone's serious health problems is just tacky. It should say something that even Richard Nixon wouldn't cross that particular bridge.
Anyhow, by introducing this into the debate prep, Oz gave Fetterman a Get-Out-of-Debating-Free Card. Fetterman's campaign sent out a statement announcing that the Democrat was rejecting the proposal. "I will not be participating in a debate the first week of September, but look forward to having a productive discussion about how we can move forward and have a real conversation on this once Dr. Oz and his team are ready to take this seriously," Fetterman said.
It's entirely possible Fetterman would have skipped the debate anyhow, given the circumstances. And he might have taken a small (or medium) political hit. But Oz's camp handed him an engraved invitation to tell them to kiss off. Politicians are going to study this campaign for years, for insight on what not to do. (Z)
The media tends to love a candidate who comes from nowhere and makes a big dent in the polls. Recall, for example, Andrew Yang. He made a big splash with his universal basic income proposal, and attracted quite a lot of support for someone who had no political experience or name recognition. He never polled much above 5%, of course, but that 5% impressed the media outlets enough that they still treat his every utterance as if it's front-page news.
Businessman Rick Caruso was another example of that. Unknown to anyone outside the business community, he changed his registration from Republican to Democrat and spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money on flashy TV commercials. That allowed him to rise to second place in the polls of the L.A. mayoral race, which was where he stood when ballots were cast, and was enough to earn a spot on the November ballot. During that phase of the campaign, there were scores of articles about him, his shrewd media strategy, his outside-the-box thinking, and all other manner of subjects (these pieces were often quite fawning).
It was on the eve of his greatest triumph (securing a place on the November ballot) that the wheels started to come off, though. Caruso claimed 36% of the vote, which is not bad in a 12-way contest, but isn't great, either. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) spent relatively little money and barely broke a sweat, and yet claimed 43.1% of the vote. That's 7 points more than Caruso, and just 7 points short of the promised land. As long as, say, the 8% of voters who went for progressive Democrat Kevin de León switch to Bass, she's home free.
And since Election Day, the Caruso commercials—which once blanketed the airwaves—have stopped. The Caruso campaign says they are preserving their resources for the fall. Maybe so, but note what we said above about preferences becoming baked in, and about the commencement of mail-in voting. The extensive Caruso coverage has also stopped. Well, the fawning stuff has, at least. Now, when there are stories about him, they generally cover his Republican roots and/or his shady, labor-unfriendly business practices.
The polling is also grim. There have been two polls of the race this month, and they had Bass up 49% to 38% and 53% to 32%. She's swamping Caruso, and is close to (or over) the magic 50% mark. Further, Caruso's support is clearly not growing. He's got the same one-third of the electorate he had back in June.
When we first wrote up the mayoral primary results, we were very skeptical that ultra-blue Los Angeles would actually put a faux Democratic business tycoon in the mayor's office. Now, we're certain it won't happen. And so, Rep. Bass can look forward to becoming Mayor Bass on July 1 of next year. Yes, that's how long the city waits between elections and inaugurations. So, Bass can have a nice, long winter break to recharge her batteries, we guess. (Z)
Mikhail Gorbachev rose to leadership of the (then) second-most powerful nation in the world, only to see it crumble away beneath his feet, ultimately sweeping him from political office. Yesterday, after a long (and reportedly enjoyable) retirement, he passed away at the age of 91.
Gorbachev was born to a family of poor farmers ("poor farmer" was pretty much the #1 job description in the Soviet Union). However, his political instincts, his ambition, and his brainpower allowed him to quickly ingratiate himself with the local Communist Party leadership. He was granted several prestigious awards for civilian work, and was admitted to Moscow State University to study law despite not submitting an application, or sitting for an exam, or having an undergraduate degree. He thus earned an LL.B. without having a Bachelor's degree. Such was the way of things in communist Russia.
After his education, Gorbachev accepted a position somewhat equivalent to a district attorney, but didn't like the work and so sought (and received) a series of increasingly important positions in the government of the Stavropol Region of Russia. In 1970, after 15 years in various posts, he was named First Secretary of the Stavropol kraikom. That is roughly equivalent to a governor in the U.S., except that governors are not entitled to ex oficio seats in Congress, while Gorbachev's promotion to First Secretary meant that he was granted a seat on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev did well as leader of Stavropol, and he also impressed a lot of people on the Central Committee, such that he was made one of its secretaries in 1977. That meant relocating to Moscow. It also meant free housing, access to the good stores in the city (the ones that sold Levi's jeans and Coca-Cola), and a staff of cooks, servants, bodyguards, and secretaries. That's the good news; the bad news is that many of the cooks, servants, bodyguards, and secretaries were actually KGB spies.
Presumably, Gorbachev did not say or do anything that might upset the KGB. Or, if he did, he didn't say or do it in front of the spies. He continued to make friends on the Central Committee, and was effectively the right-hand man of two successive General Secretaries (and, thus, de facto leaders of the Soviet Union)—Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. When Chernenko died after just over a year in the big chair, it was no surprise that Gorbachev was anointed as his successor.
By the time Gorbachev took over, the Soviet Union had massive problems. There was the corruption, of course. Further, the people were unhappy, and were on the cusp of a rebellion. The economy was a mess, as Russia had spent more money than it could afford on military budgets, so as to keep pace with the United States during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the U.S. never blinked, and by 1985 was under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, for whom mockery of the Soviets was a favorite hobby.
From early in his time in office, Gorbachev made clear he was a different kind of leader than his predecessors had been. Adopting a "man of the people" persona, he discouraged the cults of personality that other Soviet leaders had cultivated (no pun intended). His tenure as leader is most associated with two specific policies. The first was perestroika, which means something like "restructuring." This was a reinvention of the Soviet economy, and in practice it meant moving away from central planning and embracing certain elements of capitalism.
The other signature policy was glasnost, or "openness." Gorbachev tried to improve relations with the West, and he succeeded. He became friendly with Reagan, and the two ultimately sat down for five diplomatic summits. At those, the two leaders reached agreement on economic aid for the Soviet Union, on nuclear arms reduction, and on staying out of Third World-proxy wars.
For these efforts, Gorbachev was praised in the West as a statesman and a visionary, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In Russia, his reputation was more mixed. Some saw him as the liberal reformer the country badly needed, other saw him as weak and a sell-out. Ultimately, whether he bent circumstances to his will, or circumstances bent him to their will, is an open question, and one that historians will be thinking about for many years.
Gorbachev's premiership did not last especially long. After 5 years in office, the situation in the Soviet Union spun out of his control, a process egged on by Reagan, by Pope John Paul II, by Margaret Thatcher and by rebellions on the part of the citizenry of the various Eastern Bloc countries. In summer of 1991, the rebellions reached Russia herself, and by September, Gorbachev had little power outside of Moscow. Deftly outmaneuvered by Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev was compelled to resign on December 20, 1991. The Soviet Union was formally dissolved 11 days later.
After leaving political office, Gorbachev wrote books, spent time with his family, socialized with his old friend Ronnie, and tried to use whatever influence he had left to support democracy in Russa. While he originally had a solid relationship with Vladimir Putin, that soured over time, as Putin worked to effectively re-create the old Soviet system. Gorbachev was sharply critical of the invasion of Ukraine, and the last time he made front-page headlines was just a few weeks ago, when he slammed the Russian "president" for destroying his (Gorbachev's) life's work. After Gorbachev's death was announced yesterday, Putin said nice things, but you shouldn't believe it. Actually, you probably shouldn't believe anything Putin says, as a general rule.
It's not likely that Gorbachev's passing will have too much of an impact on world affairs, since he's been out of office so long, and since his influence in Russia was middling. That said, the fewer outspoken critics of the war there are, the better it is for Putin. So, the former premier's demise was at least a little bit of a setback for those who would like to see peace in Ukraine. Meanwhile, his exit means that the only remaining really major Cold War figures still among us are Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger. (Z)