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Tensions over Ukraine Are Running High

Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday for over an hour. Biden told Putin that if he invades Ukraine, he will pay a very high price for it. Putin is not one to be terrorized easily, but he has to consider the possibility that Biden really means it and whether the diplomatic and economic hit would be worth it. Of course, backing down now without getting some concession in return would make Putin look weak, and if there is one thing Putin absolutely cannot tolerate, it is looking weak.

Biden thinks that an invasion is a real possibility, and has told Americans in Ukraine that this would be a good time to vamoose. Biden is also drawing down embassy personnel in Kyiv as he doesn't want them held as hostages if Russia should invade. These are signs that Biden expects an invasion. Some reports put it as early as Wednesday.

Although there is no requirement for "equal time" in this sort of confrontation, Biden was also on the phone yesterday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They last spoke in January and Ukrainian officials said it did not go well. Presumably Biden talked about sanctions and other punishments after a Russian attack and Zelensky was probably more interested in large shipments of antitank rockets and antiaircraft missiles to actually stop an invasion in its tracks.

Biden isn't the only U.S. government official focused on Russia right now. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been talking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been on the phone with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Blinken is thinking about how to use diplomacy and Austin is thinking about what to do in the event of war. Lloyd knows all too well that Ukraine is pretty well surrounded by hostile countries:

Map of Eastern Europe

In addition to a border with Russia, Ukraine has a long border with Belarus, which is the last Stallinist dictatorship in Europe and has been run for the past 26 years by a corrupt Russian puppet, Alexander Lukashenko. When Putin tells Lukashenko to jump, Lukashenko will say: "How high would please your majesty?" Poland is trending toward authoritarian rule, but is it not a Russian puppet state and is a member of NATO. However, it is not clear whether it would cooperate if the U.S. wanted to funnel weapons through it to the Ukrainian resistance. It has said, though, that Americans exiting Ukraine are welcome to transit Poland without a visa on the way home. Slovakia is a functioning democracy and a member of NATO, but its border with Ukraine is only 50 miles. Hungary is much further along the road to dictatorship than Poland and is not especially friendly to the U.S. Romania is a democracy and a member of NATO. A one-sentence description of Moldova would be: "It is a corrupt failed state with a separatist movement that wants to be absorbed into Mother Russia." Much of the Russian Navy is on alert in the Black Sea. Ukraine doesn't live in a nice neighborhood, but it has to deal with the neighborhood it has, not the one it would like.

The geopolitics of this are bad enough for Biden, but he also has to deal with U.S. politics as well. Many far-right news outlets are either demanding the U.S. stay out of a possible upcoming war in Ukraine or even saying the U.S. should back the godless Commies in Russia over democratic Ukraine. Rep. Tom Malinowksi (D-NJ) has said that constituents who get their "news" from Tucker Carlson are calling to say they want the U.S. to back Russia. In a way, Carlson's views are not surprising. He loves authoritarianism, having broadcast his show from Budapest in August so he could praise the wannabe dictator, Viktor Orban. So it looks like a war in Ukraine would be added to the culture wars. At first the culture wars were largely about abortion and gay rights, but they have expanded to include positions on vaccines, war in Ukraine and more. Potential new topics could include Daylight Saving Time, parent-teacher associations, football, and gluten-free pizza dough recipes. (V)

Giuliani Is Negotiating with the Jan. 6 House Select Committee

Big surprise here. Rudy Giuliani is not going full stonewall with the House Committee investigating the coup attempt, as so many others in Donald Trump's inner circle have done. Instead, he is quietly negotiating with the Committee about the timing, nature, and extent of his possible cooperation. What's wrong with this picture?

Well, for starters, as a former prosecutor himself, Giuliani knows that defying a subpoena can have consequences—and no doubt did in cases he himself prosecuted. For another, fighting a subpoena, possibly up to the Supreme Court, will require a lot of time from expensive lawyers. Since Giuliani has had his law license suspended, lives a high-profile lifestyle, and has three ex-wives to whom he may be paying alimony, the financial cost of defiance might be a problem for him. Finally, although he has been as loyal and helpful as possible to Trump, the former president has treated him like a used paper tissue. Giuliani might just have decided that it is time for him to focus on what is best for Rudy, not what is best for The Donald.

Giuliani has been a Trump confidante for years and has been deeply involved in all kinds of shady stuff (e.g., trying to extort the president of Ukraine) for a long time. Specifically, he was up to his ears in planning the Jan. 6 coup attempt and probably knows more details than anyone other than Trump himself. If America's Former Mayor were to tell all he knows, it would be a disaster for Trump. It isn't known exactly what the negotiations are about. Possibly he wants to limit the scope of the questions and time period he can be questioned about. Possibly he wants to reserve the right to plead the Fifth Amendment in response to some questions. Or maybe he is gunning for immunity so he can't be prosecuted if he admits that he and Trump conspired to break the law.

One thing that Giuliani is certainly concerned about is that the Committee has already received 60,000 pages of documents and spoken with 500 small fish before moving up to the big fish. One of the small fish who appears to be cooperating with the Committee is his former buddy (and former NYC police commissioner) Bernard Kerik. Giuliani doesn't know how much the Committee already knows (and no one on it is about to tell him). This means that if he testifies and tries to hide his own involvement in the coup attempt, he may commit perjury and the Committee may be able to detect this instantly based on testimony from other witnesses. This is why he is concerned about the details of his testimony and possible immunity. It is all about covering his own ass. (V)

Trump Proactively Tried to Cover His Tracks on Jan. 6

Many of Donald Trump's opponents think he is dumb as a doorpost, but in some ways he is very clever. In particular, during the coup attempt on Jan. 6, he instinctively knew that the event was not going to blow over quickly and that there would be investigations after the fact. So he did his best to cover his tracks in real time.

In particular, while the coup attempt was going on, Trump was constantly on the phone. Only not the official White House phone on his desk in the Oval Office or even his cell phone. Trump knew that the desk phone is monitored and recorded by all manner of people, and if you are planning to do things that had better not see the light of day, that would be a terrible choice. Likewise, he probably assumed that the phone records of his personal cell phone would be subpoenaed some day, so he avoided it, too. The result is there was a period of hours during the events of Jan. 6 when he appeared to go radio silent, but that was anything but the case.

Trump has a long history of using other people's phones. When the Stormy Daniels story broke in 2018, he was on the golf course and tried to call Melania to get to her before she saw the news story. He called her from his phone and she didn't answer. So he grabbed a cell phone from a nearby Secret Service agent and called her from it. She answered immediately. The agent was not pleased. History does not record whether Melania was pleased.

Frequently, Trump used the personal cell phone of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, whose office was within shouting distance of Trump's office. Some people who want to call Trump call Scavino's personal cell phone and then Scavino brings it to Trump. The Select Committee knows this and has subpoenaed Verizon to get Scavino's phone records. Scavino has filed a suit to block the Committee. It will be a big battle because one insider has said Scavino is the "key to pretty much everything," so the Committee definitely wants to know who called that number that day and what numbers were called from that phone that day. Scavino will no doubt argue in court that while the Committee is free to get the records of his official cell phone (which Trump doesn't use), his personal phone is none of the Committee's business. Whether this argument works depends on whether the judge was born yesterday or at some earlier point in time. Finding a judge who has recently fallen off the turnip truck could also be a winning option for Scavino.

Scavino's phone wasn't the only one Trump used to hide his tracks. He also used cell phones belonging to Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and even Ivanka Trump. One problem with this strategy is that Trump trusts only a few people and the Committee knows who they are for the most part. It can (and probably already has) subpoenaed the phone records for all of them. But phone records merely show what number called or was called, whether the connection went through, and how long the call lasted. It does not contain any information about what was said or even who was at the other end, just the number and who pays the phone bill. So, for example, if Ivanka's phone records show that she had a connection for 7 minutes with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Ivanka could say that she just wanted to chat with Jordan and ask how his two grandchildren are doing and maybe share her yummy new recipe for gluten-free pizza dough.

When Gen. John Kelly became chief of staff in July 2017, he tried to stop Trump's evasive phone behavior, but it didn't work because Trump didn't trust Kelly and didn't want him to know who he was talking to. As a result, Trump continued his evasive behavior all through his presidency, and certainly on Jan. 6. In contrast, Barack Obama made all his calls from his official phones and never circumvented the phone protocols. (V)

Democrats Are Beginning to Campaign on Supporting Democracy

You wouldn't think "I support democracy" to be a partisan campaign issue in the United States, but these days it is starting to become that. The six closest states in 2020 (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) are all electing governors this year and in four of them the voters will also pick a secretary of state to run future elections. In Pennsylvania, the new governor will appoint the secretary of state. And the Democratic candidates in these states are starting to make defending democracy an important part of their pitches. This is not likely to win the hearts and minds of the most devout Trumpists, but it could work with college-educated suburban voters.

For example, Pennsylvania AG Josh Shapiro (D), who is running for the open governor's seat, has said: "I think what is clear is that the state actors, like a governor, are going to be critical to defending our democracy. And Pennsylvania, I believe, will be at the epicenter of that fight." In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI), who is running for reelection, said: "What's happened to our democracy? We should make it easier for eligible people to vote, not more difficult." Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), who wants to replace term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ), said that her high-profile defense of the 2020 election results in Arizona is what has propelled her candidacy.

The same argument is coming up in secretary of state races in other states. Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D), who is running for another term, said: "There are people who do not believe in democracy running to oversee elections. That's like giving a bank robber the keys to a bank." New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse (D), who is running for reelection, said: "The 2020 election fundamentally changed the conversation about being in this extremely administrative position. It's changed the conversation from being about how well do you administrate to whether or not you believe our democracy is in peril."

These comments and similar ones from other Democrats running for secretary of state have resulted in campaign contributions in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Wisconsin that are three times higher than in 2018 and eight times higher than in 2014. Democrats seem to have latched onto a powerful argument and it seems to be working. At least, it is exciting the base. Whether it will win elections is another matter, of course.

But the new-found interest in talking about democracy doesn't mean everything else has been forgotten. Evers summed this up by saying: "The people of Wisconsin do care about kitchen-table issues, too. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. But it is important, obviously, to save our democracy." (V)

Voters Are Split on Who They Want in 2024

The voters can't decide if they want more of the same or something new. A new CNN/SSRS poll shows that 45% of Democrats want Joe Biden to run for reelection in 2024 but 51% want somebody new. Among Republicans, 50% want to see Donald Trump run again and 49% want somebody else to head the GOP ticket.

Among Democrats who don't want Biden to run again, the biggest reasons are:

However, the non-Biden Democrats definitely have not settled on a an alternative. The top non-Biden choices are Sen. Bernie Sanders (5%), Michelle Obama (4%), Pete Buttigieg (2%), and Kamala Harris (2%). Not exactly a groundswell here.

Among Republicans who don't want Trump to run in 2024, the biggest reasons are:

However, the non-Trump Republicans have a somewhat better idea of who they do want. The top alternatives are Gov. Ron DeSantis (21%) and, well, that is it. Tied at 1% are Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD). (V)

Trump Is Now Battling People Who Used to Support Him

Not only is Donald Trump losing some voters who used to support him (see item above), he is also losing support among Republican Party officials who used to support him. His troubles with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are well known, but far from Trump's only problem.

All over the country, Trump's picks for offices high and low are generating a lot of hostility towards Trump. The pattern is pretty much the same everywhere: Trump has endorsed some flunky who kisses his ass but is a weak general election candidate in a race the local Republicans think they can win with the right candidate, but Trump is blocking that right candidate. Take Michigan as an example. Republicans would love to knock off AG Dana Nessel (D), who is running for reelection. There Trump has endorsed Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno. DePerno says that his top qualifications are "Father, husband, and American (in that order)." Actually, quite a few people in Michigan have those qualifications, and some of them are even lawyers.

What DePerno also has going for him (and also against him) is his claim that the Michigan voting machines were rigged against Trump in 2020. A review by the Republican-controlled state Senate showed his work as "demonstrably false." Republican officials across the state are scared that if DePerno, with Trump's backing, gets the GOP nomination, their chances of knocking off a sitting Democratic AG in a state with a (slight) Democratic majority will fall to approximately zero, since not only will DePerno not get any Democratic votes, but there will be plenty of Republicans who will see DePerno as a kook and vote for Nessel (or worse yet, stay home and impact the gubernatorial and other races). This puts most of the Republican establishment in Michigan in direct conflict with Trump.

The same scenario is playing out in dozens of states and congressional districts. Trump has surgically chosen people who are willing to state in public that he actually won in 2020 and the tallies showed Biden ahead because Democrats cheated. For the most part, these are weak candidates and local Republicans are often backing someone else, who they think can win the general election. As a consequence, Trump is fighting party leaders in many states. The Senate races in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia and North Carolina are the most visible ones where Trump is battling the Republican establishment, but it goes much deeper than that. Privately, many Republican leaders are grumbling about him and how he is going to lead the Party to defeat in many midterm races. They are largely afraid to confront him directly, but when Trump is backing a candidate they see as a sure loser and they are backing someone else, the conflict is hard to paper over.

It is not only some voters and Republican politicians who are souring on Trump. So are some big donors. For example, Art Pope, a prominent North Carolina donor, has said that he talks to other big donors and constantly hears that although there is some abstract support for Trump, they don't want him to run in 2024 (and probably don't want him meddling in 2022). One senior Republican said that people tell him what a great president Trump was, but now is the time for him to go away and let someone else take over. Another said Trump is entirely focused on himself and it is getting tiring.

Behind the scenes, Trump's advisers are telling him to stop focusing on 2020 and focus on winning in 2022 and 2024. This results in Trump screaming at them. When one adviser tried to tell him what he did wrong in 2020 and how he could improve in 2024, Trump began shouting that he actually won.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz observed that Trump "is still God among Republicans, but independents don't want him to run again. They have had enough." Since independents are the biggest political bloc, that an ominous sign. (V)

Florida Is a Breeding Ground for Far-Right Groups

More Floridians are facing federal charges for the Jan. 6 coup attempt than are residents of any other state. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Many far-right "patriot" groups are based in Florida.

Several high-profile Floridians are bridges between Donald Trump and far-right groups. Among them are former NSA and QAnon fan Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign state director for Latinos and head of the Proud Boys Enrique Tarrio, and long-time Trump confidante and Oath Keeper insider Roger Stone. Both the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers are trying to move from the fringe into mainstream Republican politics, so having close connections to Trump is a boon for them.

Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of South Florida, notes that for people who don't follow politics much, "government" isn't the local government or even Tallahassee, it's D.C. And they look there and don't see much that is helpful. So when they are angry, the anger is directed at national politicians, not the governor or local politicians.

Another Florida professor who follows far-right groups, Deana Rohlinger of Florida State, says that there have been militia groups in Florida for years, but they have expanded and broadened and have morphed into more extreme networks. This allows other people and groups to join up more easily.

Groups tracking extremism say that those in Florida are better organized than those in other states. What is an extremist group or hate group depends on who is doing the measuring. The Southern Southern Poverty Law Center has an especially broad definition, but not everyone agrees with it. The SPLC has labeled the Proud Boys a hate group, but at least one Republican running for Congress has invited Proud Boys' leader Tarrio to campaign with her. There are also plenty of neo-Nazis in Florida, but most observers see them as extremists, even both of the state's Republican senators. To get Rick Scott and Marco Rubio both to denounce a group as too far right, they have to be very far right indeed. (V)

Val Demings Pushes for More Police Funding

While some Democrats, starting with Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), are busy chanting "Defund the police" to the consternation of many Democrats who are afraid she will scare off moderate Democrats, at least one other Democrat is actively campaigning on a platform of giving the police more funding. That would be Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), who is the former chief of police in Orlando and who is challenging Marco Rubio for the Senate.

Demings is so police-oriented that she is campaigning as "Chief Demings" rather than her current title of "Rep. Demings." As such, it will be very tough for Rubio to hang the "defund the police" slogan around her neck. Her main campaign pitch is telling audiences that law enforcement doesn't have enough money to keep "our families, our neighbors, and businesses safe." Maybe the voters won't notice it, but she is running for senator, not governor. Senators don't really have much to say about policing, whereas governors do. Maybe she picked the wrong race to jump into. Two other high-profile Democrats (Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist) are running for governor, however, and no other high-profile Democrat is running for the Senate, so she can avoid a brutal primary this way, even though her pitch is not entirely appropriate. But maybe the voters won't notice.

Rubio has definitely noticed her pitch and appeal and got 55 Florida sheriffs to endorse him. Again, not really on target for a Senate race, but he understands that people will see Demings as strongly pro-law-enforcement, which is generally popular, and wants to counter that as best he can. The two are arguing on social media about crime, again an odd issue for a Senate race. Rubio said that Demings has made it harder for the police to do their job while enabling violent criminals. Demings shot back that when she was chief in Orlando, she reduced violent crime by 40%, "while Marco Rubio was home asleep in his bed."

Not all Democrats are happy with Demings' campaign. Jasmen Rogers, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward County, said: "It is discouraging to hear that Congresswoman Demings is sponsoring legislation that would increase these police budgets." We are not sure whether remarks like this hurt or help Demings. It is certainly possible that the more people in Florida who hear that she is pro-police, the better it is for her.

Demings is a true politician, though, and knows how to go with the flow. Although now she uses "Chief" as her title, back in the summer of 2020, when she was in the running for vice president, she removed it from her campaign logo so as not to irritate progressive Democrats who might have been advising Joe Biden about who to pick as his running mate. Now that she is playing entirely to a local audience, "Chief" is back in there. (V)

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