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Trump Legal News: Flight of the Rat(s)

The Trump legal news has slowed a bit, but that doesn't mean it's stopped. There were a number of interesting developments yesterday, in fact.

To start, Trump and his 18 Georgia co-defendants have all pleaded not guilty. That's not really news, everyone knew they were going to do that. What is news is that some/most of the 18 have figured out that the person the long arm of the law is really trying to grab is Donald Trump, and that the correct play here is to flip on him. Among the rats who have decided to exit the sinking ship is Mark Meadows, who presumably knows... everything.

In the end, the logic of turning against the former president is impossible to ignore. The 18 are all badly exposed, and are probably going down, no matter how good their lawyers are. The only thing that fighting would do is expend vast amounts of money and lead to a longer sentence. Even if some of them are tempted to sacrifice themselves to protect Trump, he's almost certainly going down, too. So what's the point? Further, he's not a man to repay such a favor, not even by picking up the tab for legal fees. Add it up, and singing like a canary is really the only play. And better sooner than later, as the defendant who flips first will get the best deal.

Meanwhile, as Trump tries hard to drag his feet in the various venues, the U.S.S. Jack Smith keeps chugging along. CNN reported yesterday that he and his team have taken an interest in two issues not previously known to be on the radar: (1) efforts to breach voting machines in Georgia and in other states and (2) fundraising done based on claims of voter fraud, and which might itself be fraudulent. The former president might want to get himself into court ASAP, in hopes that Smith stops investigating. If Trump is actually able to get one or more trials moved to 2025, he might find that by then the Special Counsel has proof that he kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, killed all those women in London in 1888, and hijacked Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305.

The gears of justice are also grinding at 1 First St NE in Washington—that is, the U.S. Supreme Court building. We'll have much more to say about this next Tuesday, but it's abundantly clear that SCOTUS is going to have to straighten out this Fourteenth Amendment business. And it's surely better to do it before a presidential election, rather than during or after. This timeline creates a problem of standing, though, since private citizens aren't necessarily damaged by an ineligible person running for political office. Serving, yes. Running, no.

As it turns out, the standing issue is pretty easy to resolve. It's not hard to run for president in the United States; hundreds or thousands of people do it each cycle. And someone who is running for an office most certainly is damaged by, and has standing to sue, an ineligible opponent. And so, tax attorney John Castro has decided he is running for the Republican nomination for president. He has further decided that he should not be forced to compete with an ineligible candidate, such as Donald Trump. So, he's sued and, apparently, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

There is a little reluctance in that last paragraph because this should theoretically be big news, and yet the only mainstream outlet that has it is Newsweek, which is of only moderate quality. However, the Supreme Court's website says the case has been distributed to the justices, in anticipation of a conference to be held on the 26th of this month. And since it is only a matter of time until the Supremes get to deal with this anyhow, they surely think it's best to deal with it now. Add it up, and we think Newsweek has it right.

It must not be much fun to be a Mar-a-Lago employee these days. Trump does get the occasional good bit of legal news, mostly from the court of Aileen Cannon, but the vast majority of it is grim for him. The walls (and the bars) are clearly closing in, and he just can't be feeling good right now, regardless of the braggadocio he performs at his rallies. There's gotta be ketchup stains on, what, 75% of the walls at this point? (Z)

Secretaries Blast Tuberville

The leaders of the U.S. military are supposed to be apolitical, so they don't often take to the pages of The Washington Post to attack a sitting United States senator. But desperate times call for desperate measures. And so, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall and Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth did exactly that yesterday, taking Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) to task for his one-man freeze on military promotions, which he imposed because he does not like the military's willingness to pay travel costs for women members who are seeking abortion services.

Let us start by reminding readers that what makes this one-man show possible is the number of promotions the Senate has to vote on each year (basically, anyone being promoted to major/lieutenant commander, or higher). There is no plausible way for the senators to give careful consideration to hundreds of officers, and so they are generally handled by unanimous consent, which only takes a few seconds or a minute for each promotion. If a candidate is problematic for some reason, or is being promoted to a particularly important post (say, Chair of the Joint Chiefs), then the Senate will slow things down and take a careful look. But that's less than 1%, usually. What Tuberville is doing is denying unanimous consent for all promotions, not just the problematic/extremely important 1%. Some key promotions could be done through regular order, but it would require multiple hours for each one, and would also allow Tuberville to block the rest ad infinitum.

The op-ed from the secretaries raises half a dozen key points:

  1. The lack of promotions has left some high-ranking officers spread thin, as they do multiple jobs.
  2. The lack of promotions means acting leaders, who don't have the full powers of their posts.
  3. The lack of promotions is hurting the image of the U.S. military abroad.
  4. Tuberville is politicizing the military, which is a bad idea.
  5. The policy Tuberville opposes, assistance with abortion services, is important to retention and readiness.
  6. If a senator does not like a policy, he or she has many legitimate tools for trying to change that policy; parliamentary tricks are not among those legitimate tools.

The conclusion: "We believe that the vast majority of senators and of Americans across the political spectrum recognize the stakes of this moment and the dangers of politicizing our military leaders. It is time to lift this dangerous hold and confirm our senior military leaders."

The three secretaries backed their op-ed with TV appearances in which they shared their unhappiness with the Senator's behavior. Del Toro was particularly pointed, explaining that as someone "born in a communist country, I would have never imagined one of our own senators would actually be aiding and abetting a communist and other autocratic regimes around the world." This followed a discussion of how Chinese officials are laughing at their American counterparts, in case you are wondering which communist regime Del Toro was specifically referring to.

Tuberville responded to Del Toro's remarks thusly:

It is concerning that you got people that are in secretary positions like that, that would say something like that in our country, instead of getting on the phone and calling me and saying "Coach, what are you doing?" It just makes no sense.

We will point out that Tuberville's proposal, namely that the apolitical heads of the branches of the military should be calling him and/or lobbying him, would seem to cross some lines that shouldn't be crossed. On top of that, they know full well what he's doing, and that he has no intention of changing course no matter how many phone calls he gets. Finally, the "Coach" bit of that really sits... badly. He is no longer a coach, he is a United States Senator. The whole "I'm a folksy guy who is tossing a football in my official photo" is OK for messaging purposes, we suppose, if a bit corny. But it's clear that he still sees himself as "Coach" more than as "Senator." And the problem is that coaches are dictators unto themselves, where the only thing that matters is if they keep winning.

This is the mindset that has allowed and caused Tuberville to instigate this situation. We presume that Alabamians are happy with his prioritizing one relatively limited dimension of abortion policy above all else. And the Senator has decided that as long as Alabama "wins" here, that's all that matters. Of course, it means the Pentagon is losing right now. And in 2024, he's going to become a poster child for Republican extremism on abortion, which will mean that the GOP will also join the list of losers. But he's not going to back down, because that's not what football coaches do in the face of adversity. This being the case, it's hard to see how this gets resolved at this point, unless the Senate changes the rules. (Z)

The Decline and Fall of Mitch McConnell?

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) froze up the first time, we wrote that the politics of the situation meant he was going to have to give some answers as to what went wrong. He obviously disagreed... until it happened a second time. Now, he and his staff are in full-fledged damage-control mode.

To that end, U.S. Capitol Attending Physician Brian P. Monahan released a letter yesterday. It is addressed to the Senator, and reads:

My examination of you following your August 30, 2023 brief episode included several medical evaluations: brain MRI imaging, EEG study and consultations with several neurologists for a comprehensive neurology assessment. There is no evidence that you have a seizure disorder or that you experienced a stroke, TIA or movement disorder such as Parkinson's disease. There are no changes recommended in treatment protocols as you continue recovery from your March 2023 fall.

In other words: "Nothing to see here!"

Undoubtedly, McConnell hopes and expects this will be the end of it. We're not so sure. The two incidents caught on camera were pretty scary, and we can't be the only ones who are skeptical that this has only happened during the tiny fraction of the time that the Minority Leader happens to be on camera. Further, while we know nothing about Monahan personally, we do know about all the occasions where a physician to high-ranking politicians has offered up a diagnosis that proved to be less than forthright. So, we feel compelled to take his letter with a few grains of salt.

In any event, there's no question that a reckoning has begun among members of the Senate Republican Conference about exactly how much longer it makes sense for McConnell to remain their leader. Some of them are legitimately concerned that he's not physically up to the job anymore. For others, this is merely the entry point for a discussion about how, even if his health was perfect, the Kentuckian doesn't much fit with the current Republican Party.

During the Obama years, which coincided with McConnell's rise to the top of the GOP Senate ranks, the Senator was something of an ideal foil for the President, as far as Republicans were concerned, since his favorite word was "no." That said, the two men did sometimes work together, out of necessity. During the Donald Trump presidency, despite the ostensible partisan alignment, McConnell's relationship with the White House wasn't much better. The current president is probably the one with whom McConnell gets along the best; their partisan differences notwithstanding, they're both old-school, work-behind-the-scenes types who have been friends for decades.

Back in what proved to be his heyday, McConnell was something of a hero to many Republicans, since he got things done—like stealing two seats on the Supreme Court (after the deaths of Antonin Scalia and Ruth Ginsberg). But that's a long time ago in a "what have you done for me lately" town like Washington. He's lost control over much of his conference (see, for example, the Tuberville situation) and, thanks in no small part to attacks from Donald Trump, he's seen as a RINO by the Republican base. The leaders of Congress usually do pretty poorly in approval polls, since they get a lot of the blame for voters' general unhappiness with Congress. But even accounting for that, McConnell's approval numbers are staggeringly bad. In most polls, he is 50+ points underwater. For example, in the latest from The Economist/YouGov, just 14% of respondents approve of him while 66% disapprove, producing a staggering net of -52%.

In Animal House, Dean Wormer advised that "fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life." In politics, those things may not be such a problem (see Blutarsky, Sen. John). On the other hand, "out of touch, infirm, and unpopular" is not a good place to be. How much longer can McConnell fight off the sharks that are nipping at his heels? (Z)

Johnson, of the Tennessee Three, Running for the U.S. Senate

State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) is the one member of the "Tennessee Three" who was not expelled from the Tennessee state House, and so did not have to go through the silly ritual of being re-appointed to her seat, and then re-elected in a special election. She is also the only one of the three who is white. These two facts may be related.

In any case, Johnson is now one of the most famous state assembly members in the state, and in the country, probably only trailing Mallory McMorrow in Michigan. In politics, you strike while the iron is hot (or while the fish is cold, in Ron DeSantis' case), and so Johnson has decided to go for a big promotion. Yesterday, as she had hinted she would do, she declared a bid for the U.S. Senate, gunning for the seat that Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is planning to defend next year.

Undoubtedly, Johnson has a theory of how she could win this thing. Presumably, she is relying on a backlash against Republican overreach and anti-democratic behavior, which she can certainly attest to personally. And Blackburn is not a terribly popular senator; her approval lags about 10 points behind where "generic Republican" would rank, if "generic Republican" was representing the state in the U.S. Senate.

But that is about all we can come up with, and there is no question Johnson faces long odds. To start, more Tennesseans want abortion illegal than want it legal (55% to 40%), so Johnson isn't going to be able to use the Democratic issue du jour to her advantage. The last time Tennessee elected a freshman Democratic U.S. Senator to Washington was back in 1984—a fellow named Albert "Al" Gore. The state did elect one Democratic governor this century, but that was Phil Bredesen, who ran for the U.S. Senate after reaching his term limits, and then... got crushed by Blackburn.

It's a jump of several rungs on the ladder, from state representative to U.S. Senator, so probably worth a longshot gamble. But "longshot" is definitely the operative word here. (Z)

The Trouble with Biden

No, not that Biden. The other one. The Democrats, in 2024, are really hoping that abortion will be the issue that powers them to victory in many races. The Republicans, in 2024, are really hoping that Hunter Biden will be the issue that powers them to victory in many races. The relevance, or lack thereof, of those two issues probably says a little something about where each of those two parties is these days.

As it turns out, with one possible exception, Hunter Biden isn't proving to be the cudgel Republicans had hoped for. In races for offices other than president, Joe Biden's name does not appear on the ballot. And in those races, Republican candidates are having a hard time convincing voters that: (1) Joe Biden has responsibility for Hunter's misdeeds, and (2) that somehow this alleged scandal is germane to non-presidential contests. Yes, hardcore Trumpers are convinced, but they're already voting Republican anyhow. If Hunterpot Dome doesn't land with anyone beyond that, then it's of no use, politically.

And then there is the presidential race. Barring a change of plans, Joe Biden's name will indeed appear on those ballots. And Donald Trump has been harping on Hunter Biden on a regular basis at his rallies and on his boutique social media platform. Maybe this is helping Trump, maybe it's not—certainly, as noted, the base eats it up. For the other presidential candidates, however, it's not exactly a winner. The problem is that if they talk about the deep and abiding corruption of the Biden administration, they are just affirming one of the main themes of Trump 2024, and so are aiding and abetting the Donald's own campaign. That might be just fine with Vivek Ramaswamy, but for the others, it's not good. They may not be willing to attack Trump, but they also don't want to help him.

It is certainly possible that things could change, particularly if Hunter Biden ends up going on trial. But, as things stand, expect to hear Trump continue to obsess about the First Son, while every other Republican... looks for something else to talk about. (Z)

Amo Wins in Rhode Island, while Utah Is Still up in the Air

Voters in Rhode Island and Utah headed to the polls yesterday for special election primaries. Given that the seat being filled in the former is D+12 and the seat being filled in the latter is R+11, yesterday's primaries are the de facto general elections.

We wrote about the Rhode Island contest last week, and noted it had turned into an ugly struggle between various Democratic interest groups. The three main candidates on that side of the aisle were Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos (Latina), Gabe Amo (Black), and former state Rep. Aaron Regunberg (progressive). Once the votes were counted, it wasn't close. The winner, and surely the next representative from RI-01, is Amo. He took 32.5% of the vote, as compared to 24.9% for Regunberg. It would seem that the Latina vote was split, as the third-place finisher was actually Sandra Cano, who is Colombian and claimed 13.9% of the ballots. Matos, who is Dominican, got just 8%. That is not a great showing for someone who should have pretty good name recognition from having won and held statewide office. Clearly the voters were not happy about the fraudulent signatures on Matos' campaign nomination paperwork.

Now that Amo is the nominee, he just has to dispatch Republican Gerry Leonard, whose pitch is that he served for 30 years in the Marine Corps. Impressive, but not likely to carry an election in a deep-blue district. As an indication of where the enthusiasm is, the Democratic side of the contest saw about 40,000 votes cast yesterday, whereas the Republican side saw... 4,000.

We also wrote about the election in Utah, where the main question was whether the very moderate Becky Edwards (R), who dislikes Donald Trump and who voted for Joe Biden in 2020, could claim a plurality of votes if the more conservative candidates split the staunch conservative vote.

And now, allow us to pause for a moment for story time. On one occasion, about 10 years ago, (Z) was returning to California from some east coast destination, and had a connecting flight in Salt Lake City that was set to depart around 8:00 in the evening. The departure gate got moved without any announcement, and by the time (Z) had figured it out, the plane was in the air. Utah absolutely shuts down around 10:00, and so there were no more flights, no way to get from the airport to a hotel, and nothing could be done except to spend the night loitering in SLC.

We note this because the Utah results rolled in pretty steadily last night until 10:00 p.m. and then... ground to a halt. So, we can't tell you who won. Celeste Maloy, who is pretty conservative, is currently leading, with 38.0% of the vote. The moderate Edwards has 36.0%, and the very conservative Bruce Hough is out of luck, with just 26%.

At the moment, 80% of the vote is in, and Maloy has a lead of 1,317 votes. If current trends hold, she'll add 1,320 votes to her lead thanks to the largest county in UT-02 (Washington) and about 1,000 more thanks to the 10 small counties in the district. So, that's around 3,500 votes. Edwards, on the other hand, would pick up 1,600 in the part of Salt Lake City that's in UT-02, and another 750 in Davis county. That's around 2,350 votes. Add it up, and it looks like Maloy will be your winner by 1,000 votes, but it's close enough that you can't be sure. Presumably, the Utahns will get right back to work counting votes at 6:00 in the morning. At least, that's when planes start taking off again.

Whichever Republican wins the Utah primary, they will go on to face, and almost certainly defeat, state Sen. Kathleen Riebe (D), who was chosen at the convention of the Utah Democratic Party. Both the Utah general election and the Rhode Island general election will take place on Election Day, which is Nov. 7. (Z)

Judicial News, Part I: Court Strikes Down New Alabama Maps

Well, this was an entirely foreseeable outcome. Just over a month ago, here is what we wrote about the wrangling over Alabama's congressional district maps:

The recent Supreme Court decision that the Alabama House map was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to make sure Black voters could not elect two Black representatives (out of 7), even though 27% of the voters are Black, has given the Democrats hope. The Alabama state legislature wiped its collective rear end with the Court decision and drew another map that has one Black district. The resulting lawsuit is now in court and it seems likely that the result will be a new map with two majority-Black districts drawn by a court-appointed special master.

We wrote very similar things a couple of times in July, and a couple more times in August.

This is not meant to be a demonstration of our brilliance—after all, that is already self-evident. No, it's meant to point out that it was painfully obvious where this was headed. And yesterday, it got there. The same three-judge panel that's been overseeing this matter, and that includes two Donald Trump appointees, unanimously voted to strike down racist map v2.0. Since the Alabama legislature doesn't want to play nice, the Court further ordered that a special master draw up three maps for its inspection. The final map will be chosen from those three.

So, you can pretty much put a +1 in the Democratic House column in 2024, as the Alabama delegation will go from 6R, 1D to 5R, 2D. And there may be something poetic about the fact that the decision was handed down in the Black Federal Courthouse. Especially since the Black in question (Hugo L.) went from being a member of the KKK to being an ardent opponent of segregation and discrimination. (Z)

Judicial News, Part II: More on the Wisconsin Shenanigans

Yesterday, we had an item on the chicanery in Wisconsin; unable to win elections the old-fashioned way, Republicans there have taken to exploiting loopholes. The current plan is to find some reason to impeach newly elected Democratic state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz, then to hold off on a trial, effectively suspending her indefinitely and turning a 4-3 Democratic majority into 3-3.

The Bulwark has access to someone who is really on top of the Wisconsin government—reporter Bill Lueders—and he ran down some of the specific elements of the current dispute. We think they're worth passing along:

The point here is that while Wisconsin Republicans are engaged in a fair bit of problematic behavior, while also choking on their current diet of sour grapes, Wisconsin Democrats are not innocent lambs here. They are certainly playing some hardball (although hardball that is entirely within the rules established by Wisconsin law).

One other thing to add to the item from yesterday. If Republicans in the Wisconsin state House impeach Protasiewicz, and then Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate refuse to actually take the matter up, it would sideline the judge... unless she resigns. In that case, then Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) would choose a replacement, and among the folks eligible for that honor are... Janet Protasiewicz.

The downside to resigning and being re-appointed is that Protasiewicz would no longer be entitled to a 10-year term, and would have to run for office again in an election next year. But exactly how much of a downside is that? As The Bulwark's Charlie Sykes observes, this year's election had Democrats coming out of the woodwork to vote for Protasiewicz (and, by extension, to vote to protect abortion access). Do Wisconsin Republicans really want to have her on the ballot again, on two different occasions, in 2024?

In short, there is quite a chess game going on in Wisconsin right now. (Z)

Judicial News, Part III: North Carolina Justice Sues

Wisconsin is not the only state where a left-leaning judge is being subjected to shenanigans from right-leaning folks. In 2022, conservatives seized control of the North Carolina state Supreme Court, leaving it with five Republicans and two Democrats (both of them Black). There are some on the right who might prefer there to be only one Black Democrat (or even none). To that end, Associate Justice Anita Earls is currently being investigated (or harassed, to use her term) by the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission.

What is Earls' "misconduct"? Well, she gave an interview with a site called Law360, in which she said the North Carolina judiciary is not diverse enough, and gave some thoughts as to what could be done about the problem. You can read the interview here, if you wish, but to do so you have to sign up for the free 7-day trial (unless you happen to already be a subscriber to Law360). We signed up for the trial, and read the interview, and it's garden-variety stuff. It's not like she channeled her inner radical and said the solution to the state's diversity problem is to kill whitey.

Nonetheless, Earls is being investigated. Of course, being a judge, she's also a lawyer. And if there's one thing lawyers know how to do, it's file lawsuits. And so, Earls has done exactly that, arguing that her remarks were covered by the First Amendment, and asking a federal court to quash the investigation.

Earls, presumably not coincidentally, is up for reelection in a couple of years. If her opponents can make her radioactive, that would surely complicate things. Meanwhile, the other Black person/other Democrat on the state Supreme Court, Michael R. Morgan, will see his term end next year. He could theoretically run for reelection, but he will reach the state's mandatory retirement age in 2027, so it might not be worth it.

Add it up, and the Tar Heel State could easily end up with an all-Republican (and possibly all-white) state Supreme Court by 2026, or possibly sooner. On the other hand, despite the fact that the state is pretty evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the former has been unusually aggressive and effective at shutting the latter out of most parts of state government (except the governor's mansion). The kind of overreach that the Earls situation seems to represent could backfire on the NC GOP, not unlike what appears to be happening in Wisconsin right now. (Z)

Report from Texas

As we noted in yesterday's posting, the impeachment trial of Texas state AG Ken Paxton commenced yesterday. We happen to have a reader who is on the story, namely K.C.W. in Austin, TX, and so we thought we'd pass along their report:

Folks started lining up at 3:00 a.m. outside of the Capitol for tickets to the gallery. Suffering a bout of insomnia, I thought about attending, but knew I'd probably nod off, and I snore like a freight train, and I preferred watching Durango's Sepp Kuss defend the Red Jersey at the Vuelta a España. I chose to watch the proceedings online instead. They started off with pre-trial motions, most of which were to try to dismiss all charges, chip away at individual charges, or exclude evidence (the pre-term exception). All failed, with only 6-8 Republicans voting in favor. Consensus seems to be that they are hard-right Republicans who might see challenges from the right if they didn't vote that way. The final vote won't go that way, but it would be interesting to tally the changes. Then came the pleadings. Paxton's lawyer, Tony Buzbee, went full-on performative, responding to all of the "how do you plead" with responses such as, "everything the clerk has said is false, and AG Paxton pleads not guilty," to the point that opposing counsel, Rusty Hardin, had to object. Sustained. Buzbee doubled down on being a di** with the next charge by responding, "Absolutely not guilty." (One has to wonder how he has enough billable hours to be a top-flight lawyer in Texas, given how many hours he must spend in his tanning bed. Even in sunny Austin, that sort of tan creeps us the f**k out.)

With the preliminaries out of the way, it was time for the opening statements, one hour for each side. The prosecution spent no more than 15 minutes, banking the rest for witnesses (24 hours). The defense spent all but two minutes trying to enter into the record "evidence," despite the fact that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), presiding officer and supposedly in the bag for Paxton, admonished jurors that nothing said in opening statements should be considered as such. My own take on this is that prosecution has lots to present, and defense is clutching at straws (or other things). The day ended with testimony by Jeff Mateer, who self-described himself as an 11 on a 1-10 scale of conservativism. He was nominated by Donald Trump to be a district court judge, and even Republicans rejected him for being too much of a nutter. Hardin spent lots of time getting Mateer to describe in detail just how nutty and out-of-sync he is with America, before going for the goal: Even this guy thinks Paxton stepped over the line.

I'll add that state senator Angela Paxton, Ken Paxton's wife, whom he cheated on, and is required to attend the proceedings by the state constitution, showed up in a red dress. I'll suggest that this is not to show support for Republicans, but rather a reference to the Wheel of Time's Red Aja, the notoriously misandrist faction, and whose TV series just launched its second season. She's out for blood.

Thanks, K.C.W.! (Z)

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