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Today in Republican Sham Investigations, Part I: The Durham Probe

After 4+ years, special counsel John Durham's probe into the FBI investigation of ties between Russia and the Donald Trump campaign is over. Durham issued his final, 300-page report, which you can read here if you are a glutton for punishment, or are having trouble sleeping, or you consider lawyer-speak to be great literature. The actual substance of the report could have been squeezed into something rather less than 300 pages, we think. In fact, 300 characters probably would have done it, with 150 or so characters to spare.

Yes, what we are saying is that instead of issuing a weighty "report," Durham could have saved everyone a lot of time and just sent out a tweet. Or maybe a truth, given who his audience really is. Here is the central finding of the whole thing:

Unlike the FBI's opening of a full investigation of unknown members of the Trump campaign based on raw, uncorroborated information, in this separate matter involving a purported Clinton campaign plan, the FBI never opened any type of inquiry, issued any taskings, employed any analytical personnel, or produced any analytical products in connection with the information

In other words, the FBI handled Hillary Clinton with kid gloves, but they fell all over themselves trying to hurt Trump. And if you think we've maybe overlooked some other important stuff that's in the document, you can read "takeaways" pieces here, here, and here, and see if you believe we excluded something we should have mentioned.

In the end, we are obviously unimpressed with Durham's assessment. Here are the primary reasons we take that position:

  • Judgment calls are judgment calls. Maybe Durham would have made a different choice than the folks at the FBI made, under the same circumstances. Maybe not. Either way, it's not a criminal act to reach different conclusions. It's not even close. And indeed, Durham spends much space writing around the fact that while he doesn't agree with the FBI's choices, he couldn't find anything criminal or even particularly negligent.

  • On a related point, it is nearly impossible to re-create the context in which those judgment calls were made. It could well be that Durham, with what he knows as of 2023, would not have launched an investigation of Trump's connections with Russia. But in 2015-16, with a different set of information, and with a different political context? There is simply no way Durham can really know what he would have done.

  • We don't pretend to know what exactly was on the minds of the FBI honchos 7 years ago. But, recalling that Hillary Clinton had been investigated six ways to Sunday, and Trump had largely operated as a law unto himself, it's possible and reasonable that a decision to investigate could have been based on things other than cold, hard legal facts.

  • Blue-ribbon panels, and select committees, and special counsels are created to produce results. Sometimes they really do come up with something useful. What they pretty much never do is say "Yep, we looked at [QUESTION X] and we came up with nothing. Sorry!" Given how much time and money Durham spent, he had to produce some sort of "profound" finding. And yet, all he could come up with was a version of "but her e-mails!"

And that is really the rub. Even if you think Durham's insight was a useful one, and even if you think his report has some value, was it really worth 4 years' labor and at least $6.5 million spent? That strikes us as a hard case to make.

Naturally, in a development roughly as predictable as the sun coming up in the east, Donald Trump claimed total vindication. Does anyone care what, exactly, he said? We doubt it, so we'll just report that if you were playing Trump Victimhood Bingo, then the winning line is the one that has "witch hunt," "scam," "weaponized," "MAGA" and "hoax." Congratulations to the winners. (Z)

Today in Republican Sham Investigations, Part II: The Case of the Vanishing Informant

Well, we feel like damn fools. In the last couple of weeks, we have written three items (see here, here, and here) about the claims that Rep. James Comer (R-KY) has made against Joe Biden. In short, Comer claims to have a whistleblower and an informant who have shared very troubling things about the President. Troubling things that... Comer just can't quite give any evidence for, at the moment.

When we wrote those items, we thought there really was an informant, though we presumed one of questionable character and relevance. Silly us! This weekend, Comer appeared on Fox to share the "news" that the informant is "missing." How unfortunate! Initially, Comer suggested that the reason he or she is missing is because they are "in the spy business." However, he eventually moved on to implying that the White House had the informant rubbed out:

Nine of the ten people that we've identified that have very good knowledge with respect to the Bidens, they are one of three things, Maria. They are either currently in court, they're currently in jail, or they're currently missing. So, it's of the utmost importance that the FBI work with us to be able to try to identify what research they've done, what investigations they've done, because we have people that wanna come forward but honestly, Maria, they fear for their lives.

The Bulwark's headline was pretty on point: "Here Comes the 'Biden Kill List.'"

This playbook is getting so old it's started receiving AARP mailers. There were, of course, countless claims that Bill Clinton had Vince Foster and dozens of other "enemies" murdered. Then, during Hillary Clinton's campaign, she was accused of complicity in the deaths of Chandra Levy, unspecified members of the military, one of her aides, and some indeterminate number of sex-trafficked children as part of Pizzagate. More recently, the conspiracists have speculated that Hillary was behind the death of former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. Now Biden is getting the treatment.

It's no surprise that Comer, et al., go to this place. Their base is already primed to believe the worst of Democrats and, conveniently, dead people never speak up and push back at these tall tales. Especially if those dead people never existed in the first place. In the first of the three items above, we specifically noted that we were going to (partly) reserve judgment, because the claims that led to the Watergate scandal also seemed pretty outlandish at the outset. That was clearly a grave error, and from here on out, we will assume that any claim Comer and his ilk (ahem, Jim Jordan, R-OH) make about Joe Biden and his family is a flat-out lie, until we see hard evidence to the contrary. (Z)

Whaddya Know? Giuliani Is a Sleazeball (Allegedly)

It would seem that one of the qualifications, if you want to be a part of Donald Trump's inner circle, is that you have to be a lech who treats women like possessions. The latest Trump associate to be accused of vile sexual conduct is Rudy Giuliani, who was sued yesterday for $10 million.

The plaintiff is Noelle Dunphy, who was hired to oversee business development for Giuliani's consulting firm. The complaint reads like a late-night Cinemax movie, or an issue of Penthouse Forum. Here are a dozen of the claims that Dunphy makes:

  1. Giuliani often worked sans clothes, and pressured Dunphy to do the same.

  2. Giuliani demanded that Dunphy perform sexual acts with and upon him, told her she would lose her job if she did not, and wore her down until she relented.

  3. Giuliani insisted that Dunphy watch extremely explicit BDSM pornography with him.

  4. Giuliani took Viagra like it was candy, and then when it produced the... desired result, would point and insist that Dunphy "take care of this" before starting work.

  5. Giuliani peppered Dunphy with phone calls (sometimes 20-30 a day) and graphic text messages.

  6. Giuliani was drunk morning, afternoon, and night.

  7. Giuliani said Jews need to "Get over the Passover. It was like 3,000 years ago. The Red Sea parted, big deal. It's not the first time that happened." He also said that all Jewish men have small penises (does he not know that Milton Berle was Jewish?).

  8. Giuliani said that Black and Latino men hit women because it is "in their culture."

  9. Giuliani, while working for Trump, regularly gave Dunphy access to classified materials.

  10. Giuliani bragged that he could do anything and get a pardon, and that he could also secure pardons for others if they had $2 million to pay. He said that this could not be done through the normal channels, however, because then there would be a paper trail that the news media might discover.

  11. Giuliani explained, in detail, the plan to steal the 2020 election if Trump did not win it legitimately. He held numerous planning meetings.

  12. And, after all this, Giuliani stiffed Dunphy on something like $1 million in salary.

We recognize that Giuliani has not been found liable for any of this, and that one cannot be sure that Dunphy is telling the truth. However, America's Former Mayor has engaged in all manner of shady behavior for at least 20 years, including sexual stuff, and at some point you no longer get the benefit of the doubt. Plus, Dunphy has text messages and recordings that back up at least some of her claims. Oh, and the behavior she describes is entirely consistent with someone who uses power to get sex, and who uses sex to feel powerful. So, we must say, we believe her.

All of this said, we are not passing this news along because of Giuliani. He's a pathetic excuse for a human being, and a minor player these days, having been banished from Trumparadise. We are passing this along because if the claims about Trump are true—specifically, that pardons were being offered in exchange for cash payments—that is serious, serious stuff. And it doesn't even matter if an actual sale was consummated, merely that the offer was made. If evidence can be uncovered that this actually happened, and it wasn't just empty braggadocio from a small man trying to look big, then it's another huge legal problem for the former president, a man who already has a snootful of them. Undoubtedly, special counsel Jack Smith has already added "look into alleged pardon payola scheme" to his to-do list. (Z)

Why Would Anyone Want to Be in Politics?, Part I: Gas Prices

Don't look now, but gas prices are way down as compared to last year. You know, back when the sky was falling, and folks were saying that $5/gallon gas could mean the end of civilization as we know it?

To be more specific, according to the American Automobile Association, the national average for a gallon of non-premium gas right now is $3.54 a gallon. A year ago it was $4.47 a gallon, and in June of last year it was $5.02 a gallon. Given that last year has witnessed pretty heavy-duty inflation, gas right now is not much more expensive, in absolute dollars, as it was when Joe Biden took office. Prices always go up during the summer as more people get out and about due to the good weather, and also as people take driving-heavy vacations. So, if you like bargain gas, better get it while the getting is good.

We doubt that Joe Biden had very much to do with the gas prices when they were high, and we think he probably only had a bit more to do with the fact that they're low now. But the crummy thing about being president is that voters are more than happy to blame you when the gas is expensive, while they give no credit whatsoever when the gas is (relatively) cheap. Pretty much every single driver remembers a time when gas was three bucks a gallon, or maybe two bucks, or a buck, or less. And so, unless prices get that low again, then it will seem to most voters that prices are either "too high" or "holding serve." And neither of those help a president's approval rating.

And, indeed, there's still inflation, there's a banking crisis, and there's the whole debt ceiling mess. And so, even though gas prices have dropped like a stone, poll respondents are still hammering Biden on the economy. We just cannot imagine why anyone would want to be president. People crap on you and crap on you and crap on you and then, if you're lucky, after you leave office some of them say "You know, maybe he wasn't too bad." (Z)

Why Would Anyone Want to Be in Politics?, Part II: Congressman's Staff Attacked

There are many unpleasant things about being president, enough that we wouldn't take the job even if it was offered. But at least presidents don't have to worry about being attacked by some random deranged person on the street. Not so members of Congress, who—excepting a few members of leadership—have no security detail (unless they pay for it themselves).

That brings us to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who is at the center of the latest story of this sort. Yesterday morning, a 49-year-old man named Xuan Kha Tran Pham showed up at the Congressman's district office armed with a metal baseball bat. Pham's target was Connolly, but Connolly wasn't there, and so Pham attacked a staffer and an intern who was in her first hour on the job. Both of the injured individuals were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

As to Pham, he was apprehended by police, and is being held without bail. He's clearly got mental issues; he was already on the government's radar due to a lawsuit he filed against the CIA, accusing them of trying to imprison and torture him "from the fourth dimension." Pham represented himself in court (surprise!) and the case was dismissed (surprise again!).

We've written it before and, sadly, we'll surely write it again: One of these days, one of these folks, encouraged by the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his ilk, is going to kill one or more officeholders. And frankly, it's more likely to be an "apostate" Republican than it is a Democrat. This is one of the primary reasons that Republican officeholders who oppose Trump often head for the hills after doing so, as giving up their seat is a better choice than potentially giving up their lives. It's also why so many officeholders who oppose Trump simply aren't willing to say so publicly, or back that with their votes. Which means that the rhetoric of the former president, and of his supporters and enablers, is doing exactly what it's designed to do. (Z)

Governance, DeSantis Style

Today's posting has been no fun to write this far, and this item isn't going to make things better. In his effort to be the most far-right Southern leader since Jefferson Davis, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) keeps doing very extreme things. We don't particularly want to write a bunch of "Can you believe what DeSantis did now?" pieces, so we have been putting them in a file, as we tried to brace ourselves to write an omnibus DeSantis governance item. The latest developments (the last two items on the list) have finally compelled us to bite the bullet. And so, here's a rundown of the really extreme stuff the Governor has done in just the last few weeks:

  • Medicaid: The end of the COVID-19 pandemic means that certain federal funding for Medicaid has been reduced. There are replacement sources, but many Southern states have declined the money because they want to own the libs, or something. DeSantis appears to be a part of that contingent, and barring a change in course, many millions of Floridians could lose their health insurance.

  • State-Run Media: For many Republicans, including Donald Trump, the fawning media outlet of choice is Fox, or maybe OAN or Newsmax. Those aren't fawning enough for DeSantis, so his preferred outlet is the Florida Standard, an online outlet with a tiny footprint whose funding is shrouded in mystery.

  • Election "Security" (Part I): The Florida state legislature passed S.B. 7050, which makes it harder to vote by mail, expands the investigative authority of the so-called Office of Election Crimes and Security, and makes it much harder for third-party organizations to register voters while establishing massive fines ($50,000/instance) for any organization that runs afoul of the new rules. DeSantis hasn't signed it yet, it would seem, but he's sure to do so since it's also the bill that allows him to run for president without resigning as governor.

  • Election "Security" (Part II): The Governor and his minions in the legislature are making Florida elections more "secure" despite the fact that previous efforts have literally ruined people's lives. The Washington Post has an article about a Black man and convicted felon named Peter Washington who was told his right to vote had been restored, cast a ballot, and then was arrested by DeSantis' election police and charged with voter fraud. The charges were dropped, but not before Washington lost his job, his wife was compelled to drop out of school (due to not being able to afford tuition) and his family lost their health insurance.

  • Death Penalty: Currently, per the Supreme Court's decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana, states may only impose the death penalty as punishment for murder. DeSantis just signed a bill that would expand the death penalty to include people who commit sexual battery against children. Nobody wants to take the side of child rapists, of course, but DeSantis is regularly picking and choosing which laws and court decisions he agrees with, which is not the basis for a society based on the rule of law.

  • White Pride, World Wide (Part I): Having previously banned a high-school course on African American studies, DeSantis signed a bill yesterday that places strict restrictions on how race and gender can be taught at the state's public universities, and also forbids those schools from using state or federal funding for diversity programs. On signing the bill, DeSantis cleverly observed that DEI is supposed to stand for "diversity, equity and inclusion," but it really stands for "discrimination, exclusion and indoctrination."

  • White Pride, World Wide (Part II): Most readers will have heard, by now, about Jordan Neely. Neely was mentally ill and Black, and began behaving erratically on a New York subway train. Daniel Penny is white and a Marine Corps veteran, and he responded by putting Neely in a chokehold. Maybe that was a justifiable choice, though (Z) can note that in his rather extensive experience on public transit, there are a lot of unstable people, and it's generally easy enough to just avoid them. In any case, Penny held the chokehold for a long time, well after Neely was no longer resisting and, of course, Neely ended up dead. Penny has become the latest Kyle Rittenhouse, a cause célèbre among far-right-wing types, and his legal defense fund has raised nearly $3 million on GiveSendGo, which is the far-right version of GoFundMe. Part of the reason that fundraising has been so successful is that DeSantis tweeted this message:
    We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left's pro-criminal agenda, and take back the streets for law abiding citizens. We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let's show this Marine... America's got his back.
    Let us translate that collection of dog whistles for you: "We must stop Jew-backed Black DAs who would presume to prosecute a white man for executing a Black man, vigilante-style." And even if you don't buy our reading of DeSantis' tweet, consider this: Would DeSantis be on board this train if the races of the two men were switched, and it had been a Black Marine who strangled to death a homeless white man?

We have not been looking forward to writing this item, but we also didn't feel we could just ignore all this frightening stuff. At least it's out of the way now. (Z)

The Greatest Political Movies Ever Made, Part I

We feel a little icky after six very unpleasant items in a row. Meanwhile, thanks to the advent of summer (academic summer, not calendar summer), we are in a position to clear some of the backlogged non-news content we've got. And so, let's return to a question we asked in the February tracking poll, namely " What is the greatest movie about politics ever made?"

We came up with 25 options of our own, and also allowed write-ins. Today, we're going to share some of the more popular/interesting write-in choices. And since nobody can know every movie, we'll give a little information about each. Away we go (note that these are in alphabetical order):

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Directed By: Elia Kazan

Starring: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick

What's It About?: A radio journalist named Marcia Jeffries crosses paths with a drunken, drifter musician named Larry Rhodes. She sees that he has some very useful raw qualities, and puts her considerable PR skills to work creating a career for him in the media. The more obnoxious he gets, the richer, more popular, and more politically influential he gets.

Representative Quote: "I'm not just an entertainer. I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force... a force!"

A Bit of Trivia: The drifter role was originally set to be played by Marlon Brando, but when he dropped out, he was replaced by Griffith, for whom the film was his debut role.

Advise and Consent (1962)

Directed By: Otto Preminger

Starring: Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon and Charles Laughton

What's It About?: The president knows he's dying and doesn't trust his VP to implement the correct foreign policy. So, he appoints a like-minded fellow as Secretary of State, and an ugly chess game begins.

Representative Quote: "I'm an egghead. I'm not only an egghead, I'm a premeditated egghead. I set out to become an egghead and at this moment I'm in full flower of eggheadedness, and I hope to spread the spores of egghead everywhere I go."

A Bit of Trivia: To play one of the Southern senators, Preminger tried to recruit... Martin Luther King Jr., so as to make a pro-Civil Rights Movement statement, despite the fact that there were no Black senators at the time (and wouldn't be for another 5 years). King strongly considered it, but ultimately decided it would alienate some supporters of the Movement.

Canadian Bacon (1995)

Directed By: Michael Moore

Starring: John Candy, Alan Alda, Rhea Perlman, Kevin Pollak and Rip Torn

What's It About?: Looking to boost his popularity, the president decides to start a new Cold War. Russia doesn't work out as a target, nor does "terrorism," so he settles on... Canada.

Representative Quote: "Like maple syrup, Canada's evil oozes over the United States."

A Bit of Trivia: The movie made more money in Canada than it did the United States.

The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)

Directed By: Jonathan Lynn

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Lane Smith, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Joe Don Baker and Victoria Rowell

What's It About?: Con man Thomas Jefferson Johnson meets congressman Jefferson Davis "Jeff" Johnson, and learns that members of Congress can get rich. When the congressman dies, the con man runs for the seat as "Jeff" Johnson and wins, powered by his slogan "The Name You Know."

Representative Quote: "We're not going to show you Jeff Johnson waving a flag. We're not going to show you Jeff Johnson kissing babies. We're not going to show you Jeff Johnson doing anything because you already know what Jeff Johnson can do. Tomorrow, vote Jeff Johnson. The name you know."

A Bit of Trivia: Lynn was also the co-creator of the British political comedy series Yes Minister.

Idiocracy (2006)

Directed By: Mike Judge

Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews and David Herman

What's It About?: U.S. Army librarian Joe Bauers is selected for a 500-year hibernation experiment because he's the most average person in the military. The government cannot find a suitable female soldier to join him, so they hire a prostitute named Rita instead. When the duo emerge 500 years into the future, they discover that mankind has evolved to be very, very stupid, making Joe and Rita the smartest people in the world, and allowing Joe to commence a political career.

Representative Quote: "The years passed, mankind became stupider at a frightening rate. Some had high hopes the genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution, but sadly the greatest minds and resources where focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections."

A Bit of Trivia: Judge was inspired to write the screenplay after a trip to Disneyland.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Directed By: John Huston

Starring: Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Saeed Jaffrey and Shakira Caine

What's It About?: Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling, two Britons of modest talent find that they are unable to corruptly enrich themselves in the increasingly well-run British Raj of the 1880s. So, they decide to try their luck in neighboring Kafiristan instead.

Representative Quote: "Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We're going to teach you soldiering. The world's noblest profession. When we're done with you, you'll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilized men."

A Bit of Trivia: Of all the movies he made, this was Connery's favorite.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Directed By: John Frankenheimer

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury and Henry Silva

What's It About?: This was supposed to be on the original list of films to vote for; it was excluded due to a copy and paste error. Anyhow, Sergeant Raymond Shaw is a war hero and Medal of Honor recipient who is being used by his scheming mother and U.S. Senator father to advance his father's political prospects. What they don't realize is that Shaw is also being used by an international communist conspiracy, having been brainwashed to do their bidding.

Representative Quote: "I'm sure you've all heard the old wives' tale that no hypnotized subject may be forced to do that which is repellent to his moral nature, whatever that may be. Nonsense, of course."

A Bit of Trivia: In much of Europe, particularly eastern Europe and Scandinavia, the film was banned until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Directed By: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess

Starring: Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez and Tina Majorino

What's It About?: A lovable loser is one of the many quirky residents of a town in the Idaho sticks. He encourages his Mexican-American friend Pedro to challenge the most popular girl in school for the presidency of their class.

Representative Quote: "Look, Pedro, I don't know how they do things down in Juarez, but here in Idaho we have a little something called pride. Understand? Smashing in the face of a pinata that resembles Summer Wheatley is a disgrace to you, me, and the entire Gem State."

A Bit of Trivia: The movie was made on a shoestring budget, which is why there are no scenes set at night—the filmmakers couldn't afford to rent lighting.

Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Directed By: George Lucas

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness

What's It About?: The Rebel Alliance resists the Evil Empire long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Many readers suggested this film, or others in the Star Wars canon, as they lend themselves very well to interpretation as political allegories. But are they an allegory for Nazism? The Vietnam War? The Nixon administration? That's the hard part.

Representative Quote: "Mos Eisley spaceport: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

A Bit of Trivia: The first Star Wars movie sold 178 million tickets in North America over its various theatrical runs. The only movie to sell more is Gone with the Wind, with 202 million.

The West Wing (1999-2006)

Created By: Aaron Sorkin

Starring: Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Allison Janney, Dulé Hill

What's It About?: It's a TV show, not a movie, but many readers argued it should be included, and we can see their point. Over the course of its 7 seasons, the show tells the story of the dramatic presidency of Josiah Bartlet, from its beginning to its end.

Representative Quote: "You're a smart, savvy woman, who could easily consider world domination as a next career move."

A Bit of Trivia: While filming on location in Georgetown, very late at night, the cast and crew were accosted by a woman in a bathrobe. She had two complaints: (1) they were making noise, and she needed to be up early for meetings, and (2) the show was unrealistic, because it had no Secretary of State character. The complaining woman was Madeleine Albright.

We'll have 10 more films suggested by readers in the next installment, followed by the top 10 finishers in the actual vote. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May15 DeSantis Receives, Gives Punch in the Mouth
May15 The Trump Problem Returns, Part I: Pollsters
May15 The Trump Problem Returns, Part II: Republican Politics
May15 Today's Longshot Presidential Candidate News
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