Since the day that Joe Biden took office, Congress had been unable to hammer out a budget agreement. Consequently, the doors of the federal government have been kept open by a combination of carryovers from Donald Trump's last budget and stopgap spending measures. But no more; yesterday a budget bill passed both chambers of Congress. It now awaits only a signature from the President. Since Biden has no interest in, say, trying to extort the legislature for money to build a wall, that John Hancock is surely a formality.
The bill cleared the Senate 68-31, after a bunch of amendments from Republican members were defeated. The House vote was a little more complicated, as that chamber passed the budget in two parts. The "defense" portion was approved by the lower chamber 361-69. The "everything else" portion was approved 260-171, with one member voting "present" (Rashida Tlaib, D-MI).
The key elements of the bill:
Once there is a budget bill in place, then a rather significant hurdle has been cleared in terms of passing a potential reconciliation bill. So, now that this is in the rear-view mirror, it's possible that the blue team will get back to arguing about that. Although not too loudly, because they don't want to spook Sen. Joe "Sure a Reconciliation Bill Is Still Possible" Manchin (D-WV). (Z)
As long as we're on the subject of aid to Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky is going to be getting a nice infusion of cash courtesy of the United States. What he apparently won't be getting, however, is a nice infusion of jet fighters. Although the ostensible transfer of American F-16s to Poland, and then Polish-owned MiG-29s to Ukraine, was presented as a done deal, you know what they say about counting your chickens. It turns out that the U.S. government, including both the White House and the Pentagon, had not signed off on the plan. And now, at least publicly, it's dead.
If you would like to point the finger at a particular person when figuring out whom to blame for the deal's demise, then the person you want is Josep Borrell, the E.U.'s foreign affairs and security policy chief. Borrell, back on Feb. 27, opened his big, fat mouth and announced the deal to the world. There's general consensus that if the exchange was going to happen, it needed to happen under the radar, literally and figuratively, to avoid openly committing multiple NATO countries (i.e., Poland and the U.S.) to the shooting war. Once the plan became front-page news, keeping things on the down-low was no longer plausible, and the would-be Ukrainian MiGs went down in flames. Figuratively, in this case, not literally.
There are a number of reasons being given for putting the kibosh on the deal. The Poles are saying that they had real concerns about delivering the planes to Ukraine; flying into a war zone is flying into a war zone, regardless of your specific purpose. The Biden administration, including both the President and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, says that the risks entailed in executing the plan are not worth the benefits since a hot war with Russia would be a rather sizable problem, and since the Ukrainian air force remains largely intact, such that there is not a pressing need for the planes.
With Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) taking the lead, 40 Republican members of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to the White House urging Biden to reconsider the transfer of the fighter planes. Either these senators are announcing to the world that they don't get it, or they are letting us know that they are more interested in posturing than they are in actually helping Ukraine. If this plane swap is going to work out, then it needs to recede from the front pages and return to "under the radar" status. Shutting up and/or using backchannel means to convey your views to the President would be helpful in allowing that to happen. Publicly issuing open letters for everyone to see, by contrast, is not helpful.
At this point, the cat is so far out of the bag that if Biden actually does want to get MiGs to Ukraine, he may have to get very creative. This might be a good time to break out the history books; Franklin D. Roosevelt was particularly skillful at sending weapons to warring countries while pretending to be neutral. Perhaps the 32nd president can provide some inspiration for the 46th president. (Z)
Things are not going so well for Donald Trump these days. There are his legal woes, of course, which just keep piling up. He's still cut off from the main social media platforms, and his attempt to create an alternative has already become a punchline. He keeps saying politically stupid things. He's at war with the most prominent non-Trump Republican in the nation, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Former allies turn against Trump on a near weekly basis, with former AG Bill Barr the latest example. While Trumpism remains strong, with many current Republican politicians taking the xenophobia and the culture wars stuff and the disdain for democratic institutions to even greater extremes than even Trump himself, it is abundantly clear that the former president's grip on the party is weakening.
At the moment, Trump is taking a great interest in the 2022 midterms. Not because he really cares about the fate of the Republican Party, but because the midterms offer him an opportunity to advance three of his main goals: (1) settling scores with people he believes crossed him, (2) rewarding and encouraging sycophants, and (3) cultivating a reputation as a Republican kingmaker. Unlike McConnell, who cares only about electing Republicans (a.k.a. #3), Trump does not appear to fully appreciate that he cannot generally have all of these things. And sometimes, when he tries, the former president risks achieving none of his goals.
North Carolina, where Trump's bud Rep. Ted Budd (R) is running for the open U.S. Senate seat, is a good example. The Donald surprised his inner circle when he endorsed Budd, a decision made largely because of sycophancy. That means that Trump overlooked two other candidates who are almost certainly more electable: former representative Mark Walker, and former governor Pat "Bathroom Bill" McCrory.
But Budd isn't doing so well. He is behind in the polling and also in the fundraising. He is what Trump would call a "loser." Although he is plenty Trumpy, so is Walker, and they are competing for the same voters. Trump tried to get Walker out of the race by offering to endorse him for a House seat, but Walker has already been in the House, knows what it is like, and prefers trying for a promotion. Now it is too late for him to get out, no matter what Trump offers as the filing date is long past and the field is set.
A recent poll puts McCrory at 35%, Budd at 24%, and Walker at 17%. If Walker would just go away, most of his support would go to Budd, but he is not going away and even if he did, his name would still be on the ballot.
The Club for Growth is also backing Budd and has put $4 million into ads so far, with a promise of another $10 million before May. McCrory is mostly coasting on name recognition so far, but now he has launched his first television ad, and it attacks Budd for being Vladimir Putin's patsy. In the ad, McCrory says "I don't compliment our enemies. I stand for truth and freedom." Given that Putin is not wildly popular in American right now (and also not in Ukraine and only barely so in Russia), McCrory's ad will put Budd on the defensive. Budd tried to respond to the ad by calling Putin a "thug," but the ad has actual footage of Budd excusing Putin, so now dumping on Putin may be too little, too late.
Glen Bolger, McCrory's pollster, said he had just completed a poll of Republican primary voters in an unnamed state this weekend (presumably North Carolina). He said 87% of them are rooting for Ukraine. McCrory's pollster should be taken with a tub of salt, but it is entirely possible that being "soft on Russia" is not a plus for any politician right now.
Meanwhile, another state where Trump isn't making much headway is Georgia. The former president's preferred Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, is doing OK, largely due to lack of serious primary competition. But Trump's preferred and strongly endorsed gubernatorial candidate, former senator David Perdue, is not. Both Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) are plenty Trumpy when it comes to their public stances on the issues. Trump backed Perdue, in part, because of a**-kissing, but mostly because the former president wanted to punish Kemp for not overturning the 2020 election results in Georgia.
The latest poll of that race, from Fox, is just not good for Perdue. It gives Kemp an 11-point lead, 50% compared to 39%. Another recent poll, from the Republican firm BK Strategies, is even worse. It has Kemp up by 15 points, 48%-33%. And, perhaps most importantly, the trendlines are in the wrong direction for Perdue. He was generally trailing Kemp by single digits, but now he's consistently behind by double digits. And since Perdue was a senator, it's not like there will be a "getting to know him" dynamic that will win some Georgians to his banner. He's already a known commodity. Further, the state's primary is on May 24, so he's only got 74 days to right the ship.
The bottom line is that in nearly every major Republican primary that is underway right now, Trump either hasn't endorsed anyone (e.g., Ohio U.S. Senate, Ohio governor, Pennsylvania U.S. Senate, Arizona U.S. Senate) or he's backed a candidate who is trailing in the polls (e.g., Georgia governor, North Carolina U.S. Senate, Alabama U.S. Senate, Alaska U.S. Senate). As the first post-Trump presidency midterm, a lot of Republicans are going to be watching carefully for insight about how much power the former president really has. And the clear lesson that's shaping up is that Trumpism is essential in most Republican primaries, but Trump's personal support is not. (Z & V)
As long as we are on the subject of Donald Trump Sr. and his waning power, the former president has a wee problem right now in that he said some impolitic things about Vladimir Putin. You know, like calling the Russian "savvy" and a "genius" for invading Ukraine. There are all kinds of issues with those remarks, among them: (1) they play into the notion that Trump is a puppet of Putin, (2) they make it seem as if Trump is taking sides against the United States, (3) they are way out of the mainstream since the vast majority of Americans oppose the invasion of Ukraine, (4) the assessments are just plain stupid on the merits since Putin's invasion has been many things, but "savvy" and "genius" are clearly not among them.
Presumably sensing that his father was damaging himself with such comments, Donald Trump Jr. posted a video to Facebook Watch in an apparent effort to clean things up:
You might want to take a look, because the performance appears to have been fueled by Bolivian marching powder. And if not that, well, it was something—we'll eat our hats if he was straight. In any event, young Trump's "revelation" is that his father's praise was not sincere, and that he was just buttering Putin (and Kim Jong-Un, and Xi Jinping, and others) up so that he could "play these guys, and he played them like a fiddle!"
Needless to say, this thesis is a tiny bit hard to swallow. To start, why would Trump Sr. have had a need to butter Putin up when the Ukraine war started? Trump is no longer president and will not be interacting with Putin in any official, semi-official, or non-official capacity anytime soon (if ever again). Beyond that, what would make Trump Jr. believe that a politician with a giant ego and authoritarian tendencies would ever be so foolish as to uncritically accept phony, fawning praise as genuine? How could he possibly think that people like that actually exist? Oh, wait. We guess some questions answer themselves. (Z)
The Republican bench is California is somewhat thin. All of the statewide offices are held by Democrats, as are a sizable majority of the seats in the legislature (91 of 120), both U.S. Senate seats, and a sizable majority of the seats in the U.S. House (42 of 53). The handful of high-profile Republicans who do reside in the state, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, recognize that the path to power lies in moving up through the ranks of the House, and not in pulling a Don Quixote and tilting at elections they almost certainly cannot win.
Last year's gubernatorial recall, because of the quirky rules that potentially allow a candidate to win with considerably less than 50% of the vote, was far and away the Republican Party's best chance of capturing the Golden State's governor's mansion. And so, the recall attracted the best candidates that the Republican bench had to offer, most notably talker Larry Elder, businessman and perennial candidate John Cox, former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer, former assembly member Kevin Kiley, and former athlete and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner. This was a sorry group of "talent," in the sense that none of them had the slightest chance of attracting enough votes to win, even in a recall. Some of them might be good and/or likable people, but as far as their chances of winning, they were the Washington Generals facing off against Gov. Gavin "Harlem Globetrotter" Newsom (D-CA). And, of course, Newsom was sustained in office by a huge margin.
All of these folks are cognizant of the reality that if they could not win under the more favorable circumstances of a recall, they certainly aren't going to win a regular election. And yesterday, Faulconer—who was probably the most electable of the lot, such as it is—became the final prominent GOP recall candidate to confirm that he will not be taking another bite at the apple. In other words, Elder, Cox, Faulconer, Kiley and Jenner are all "out" when it comes to this year's gubernatorial election.
That leaves the California GOP with an even more meager list of candidates than it had for the recall. Leading the way is Republican state Senator Brian Dahle, who at least has the virtue of having won an election before. Also running are unknown businessman Anthony Trimino, unknown Navy veteran Shawn Collins, and unknown perennial candidate Major Williams, who apparently decided that if he was good enough to lose the Pasadena mayoral election then he is certainly good enough to lose the California gubernatorial election.
California always reelects its governors anyhow; the last governor to fail to win a second term was Culbert Olson (D)... in 1942. With the generally popular Newsom running in a deep blue state, and the clown college the that California GOP has offered up, we can't even come up with a way the Governor could lose. He could be caught in bed, maskless, at the French Laundry, with a live boy, a dead girl, a goat, Vladimir Putin, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Elizabeth Holmes, and he'd still win by 10 points. (Z)
Boy, oh, boy there were a lot of candidates for this slot this week. But we're going with the one that is most heavily drenched in irony. This week, New York Supreme Court Judge David B. Cohen allowed Smartmatic's $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News and Rudy Giuliani to move forward (though the judge did dismiss some portions of the suit, including dropping Jeanine Pirro and Sidney Powell as defendants).
Now, that alone would not be enough for this story to make the cut, especially in a week where so many unpleasant people and organizations suffered setbacks and embarrassments. No, what takes this story to the next level is the judge's reasoning for why a (necessary) finding of "actual malice" is actually plausible. Here are Cohen's own words:
Ironically, the statements of Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most popular Fox News host, militate most strongly in favor of a possible finding that there is a substantial basis that Fox News acted with actual malice. As noted above, on November 19, 2020, Dobbs posted a video of he and Powell on Twitter with a caption stating, inter alia, that Powell "has no doubt that Dominion voting machines run [Smartmatic]'s software which allows [it] to manipulate the votes." ... The same day, Carlson wrote an article stating that, for over a week, Powell had been claiming that the election had been stolen and that, if Powell were correct, it would be the greatest crime in American history, and he thus asked her to substantiate her comments. However, Powell never provided the evidence requested by Carlson, and President Trump's campaign advised Carlson that it knew of no such evidence. Therefore, there are sufficient allegations that Fox News knew, or should have known, that Powell's claim was false, and purposefully ignored the efforts of its most prominent anchor to obtain substantiation of claims of wrongdoing by [Smartmatic].
In other words, Fox should have known they were repeating unsubstantiated lies because the channel's most prominent personality asked repeatedly for proof of Powell's claims, and never got it.
So, if Fox does lose this suit, it may well because the staff did something out of character, and conducted some actual journalism. Not only that, but the "guilty" staffer is Tucker Carlson, who is generally as far from a journalist as Fox gets. This'll certainly learn 'em; Carlson won't make the mistake of conducting actual journalism again. Anyhow, the risk that the network loses to Smartmatic, thanks to its sleazy behavior, is certainly cause for some schadenfreude. But if the linchpin of the case is that Carlson screwed up, and actually acted like the employee of news organization for once? Now we're talking schadenfreude supreme. (Z)