Aug. 04

Click for

New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

Previous | Next

Mueller Impanels a Grand Jury

Special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury, indicating that his investigation is making progress. Once a grand jury has been impaneled, a prosecutor can subpoena witnesses and documents, and Mueller's has already issued them in conjunction with the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, among others.

Legal experts see this step as a significant escalation of the investigation because it means Mueller clearly has specific targets in mind now. He and his team are no doubt following many leads, but some of them are now concrete enough to begin serious investigations of possible crimes, not just fact finding.

Also of note regarding Mueller is that there are reports that he is very much following the money. Trump's financial past may or may not be related to possible Russian interference in the election, but Mueller may suspect the possibility that financial crimes, such as money laundering, will be found. The FBI has already combed through financial records relating to the Trump Organization, as well as shell companies he has been involved with. The FBI has also looked closely at people who have bought condominiums at Trump-branded properties, especially the many Russians. Another subject of interest is Trump's business contacts relating to the 2013 Miss Universe pageant held in Russia. It is not known whether Mueller has copies of Trump's tax returns.

Mueller is also very interested in four of Trump's associates, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone. All of them have known contacts with Russia. Manafort, in particular, could be up to his ears in trouble. He worked as an unregistered foreign agent, which is a felony, and may have been involved in money laundering and tax violations in his years of dealing with Russia and pro-Russian parties in Ukraine. It is common in cases like this for prosecutors to offer small fish like Manafort leniency if they will spill the beans on bigger fish. No doubt Mueller is thinking of something like this for all of them. (V)

Trump's Conversations with Foreign Leaders Have Leaked

Yesterday the Washington Post published verbatim transcripts of phone calls Donald Trump had with the president of Mexico as well as with the prime minister of Australia. The contents of the calls are mildly interesting: Trump told the Mexican President to stop talking about the Wall, and he didn't understand the Prime Minister at all. He also slammed New Hampshire as a "drug-infested den"; presumably the Granite State will no longer be a swing state if he runs again in 2020.

That said, the actual content of the conversations is the least of Trump's worries. Presidential conversations are not posted on the White House website. Only a small number of people have access to them. For someone high enough to have access to the transcripts to leak them means that very high officials in the CIA or military must be so worried about having Trump as president that they would risk giving highly classified information to a major newspaper with full knowledge it would be published within an hour. It is possible that whoever did the leaking knows something about Trump that the public doesn't know and felt that justified the leak.

Even if the leaker felt justified, however, the choice they made has triggered a backlash, even from Trump critics. Their point is that the president needs to be able to speak freely with foreign leaders without fear that his words will find their way into print. Particularly notable is the piece written by David Frum, an outspoken Trump critic, entitled "Why Leaking Transcripts of Trump's Calls Is So Dangerous." He worries that a vicious tit-for-tat cycle of bad behavior is becoming entrenched in Washington:

[T]he workings of the U.S. government have been gravely compromised, and in ways that will be very difficult to repair even after Trump leaves office. Trump's violation of basic norms of government has driven people who would otherwise uphold those norms unto death to violate them in their turn. Contempt for Trump's misconduct inspires counter-misconduct.

Nor is that the end. The less Trump can trust the regularly constituted government, the more justified he will feel in working irregularly. His irregular actions then justify more counter-irregularity from the rest of the government.

Undoubtedly, we haven't heard the last of this story, beyond just the Trump tweetstorm that will be coming sometime this morning. (V & Z)

Trump May Change the Balance of Power between the President and Congress

The Founding Parents were dealing with a king who thought he was, well, a king. They didn't like that so much, so they wrote a Constitution that split up the federal government into three sort of equal branches. They clearly thought that Congress, which got to write the laws, would be the dominant branch, with the executive branch simply enforcing the laws Congress wrote. Even on foreign policy, Congress was supposed to be in the driver's seat, given that it had the exclusive power to declare war, ratify treaties, and regulate commerce with foreign nations. Over the centuries, the executive branch has acquired more power (often because the president just did something he wasn't empowered to do and Congress did nothing to stop him). From time to time (the Gilded Age, for example), Congress has taken some of it back. According to James Hohmann, one of the legacies of the Trump administration may be a shift in power back towards Congress.

Constitutionally speaking, the recent sanctions bill was a no-brainer, given the text of Art. 1, Sec. 8, Clause 3, which grants to Congress the power, "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." If Congress explicitly has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, it can obviously put restrictions (i.e., sanctions) on such commerce.

The sanctions bill may be only the opening shot, though. If Congressional Republicans and Democrats can find areas of agreement—in other words, can get the necessary number of people on board to override a veto—there are many areas in which they could hem in executive power. Here are a few possibilities:

In short, there are a lot of areas where Congress has the ability to assert itself, including some where they are already doing so. (Z & V)

Democrats Have a Problem on Many Issues with White Working-Class Voters

As we have pointed out before, most pollsters work for either only Democrats or only Republicans, and their mission is helping their clients win elections. When they release polling results, these should be taken with a barrel of salt because the company's stated mission is to help its clients and the numbers may be suspect (generally making their clients looking better than they really are). Pollsters who work for the media and nonpartisan organizations (e.g., SurveyUSA) are relatively rare. Normally, the polls the partisan pollsters take for their clients are not released to the public in their entirety since the clients don't want their opponents to get free polling data.

One exception to the norm is a wide-ranging poll on fundamental views of white working-class voters taken by a Democratic firm, Expedition Strategies. It is noteworthy because it is quite detailed and fairly negative for the Democrats. There is no reason to think a Democratic firm would concoct a bleak picture for the Democrats out of thin air. It gives clear advice to the Democrats on how to proceed going forward. For them, it is worth reading to see what issues to focus on. For Republicans it is valuable to know what the Democrats are going to focus on (and are already starting to do), so messages can be crafted to counter the advice early on. The report on the poll, taken June 27 to July 13, is quite long and uncharacteristically colorful. Here are some of the main questions asked about each party.

Democrats lead only on health care, and that lead is only a net of 4 points. With Republicans having a 35-point lead on job creation, the Democrats have their work cut out for them with while noncollege voters. The survey focuses on economic issues, but did ask if the voter was pro-choice (56%) or pro-life (34%), so that may not be as much of an issue as some Democrats feared. On the other hand, 49% live in a household with a gun, so talking about gun control is not going to be a winner for the Democrats. (V)

Poll: 80% of Voters Disapprove of Republicans' Plans on Health Care

A new Quinnipiac University poll shows that an incredible 80% of registered voters disapprove of how the Republicans are handling health care. Even 60% of Republicans don't like what's going on. Republicans' attempts to slash Medicaid is not helping them much either; 69% oppose cutting its funding, while only 26% support the idea. Even among Republicans, a slight majority (52%) don't want Medicaid cut.

Perhaps the most surprising results of the survey is that a narrow majority of voters (51%) wants to scrap the current health-care system entirely and replace it with a single-payer system. Also surprising is that in generic House poll, voters want to see Democrats control the House by a margin of 52% to 38%. This is larger than in previous polls and may reflect the voters' dislike of how the Republicans are dealing with health care. (V)

Senate Won't Recess During August

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. During the Obama administration, Republicans routinely kept the Senate in session during their August vacation to block Barack Obama from making any recess appointments. Now the Democrats are doing the same thing to block Donald Trump from making any recess appointments. In practice, this means that every three days the presiding officer bangs a gavel and asks the empty chamber if anyone has any Senate business to conduct. Not hearing an answer, the officer announces that the next session will be in three days.

This stunt has been done before, but what is unusual this time is that all the Republicans were on board. In effect, they don't trust their own president any more than the Democrats do. They are just as afraid as the Democrats that if he had the power to make recess appointments, Trump would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, make a recess appointment of one of his friends to the job, and then order the new AG to fire Robert Mueller. Many Republicans have said that they oppose firing Mueller due to the expected firestorm that would occur. They would rather just let things play out and see what happens. Insiders have said that privately, about 90% of the members of Congress would rather have Vice President Mike Pence in the oval office than Trump, so if Mueller can arrange that, one way or another, most of them are OK with that. (V)

Trump May Fire U.S. Commander in Afghanistan

On one hand, Donald Trump is clearly awed and a little intimidated by high-ranking military brass. On the other hand, one of his favorite ways of mixing things up is fire-and-replace. In that way, he's kind of like the owner of a 4-12 football team, who tries to sell fans on the notion that a new coach will make all the difference in the world, even if the team itself stinks. Not that we're thinking of any team in particular. Certainly not the L.A. Rams.

Anyhow, Trump's itchy trigger finger looks like it's about to override his other instincts, because General John Nicholson, a 35-year veteran and the United States' top commander in Afghanistan, is reportedly on the hot seat. This, of course, is entirely the president's prerogative. However, a change in leadership is typically designed to effect a clear and specific change in strategy. Such was the case, for example, when Barack Obama replaced Afghanistan commander General David McKiernan in 2009. In the case of Nicholson, by contrast, there does not seem to be a strategic plan—Trump is just irritated that the war hasn't been won yet. "It's just personalizing the President's frustration," said one White House insider, while making clear that the General still has the support of the Pentagon, including Sec. of Defense James Mattis.

If Nicholson gets jacked out of his job, the rumored replacement is current NSA Herbert McMaster. That may actually make a change in command more likely. McMaster has not gelled with Trump or with the rest of the administration, and sending him to Afghanistan would solve that problem without creating another high-profile and very embarrassing departure of a high-ranking official. Too bad for Trump that there's no need for an Attorney General in charge of Afghanistan. (Z)

Gov. Jim Justice Switches to Republican Party

On Thursday, Donald Trump held a rally in West Virginia. He appeared there with his friend, Gov. Jim Justice (D-WV), who took the opportunity to announce that henceforth he will be Gov. Jim Justice (R-WV). " I can't help you anymore being a Democrat governor," he said. "So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican." This means the Democrats now control just 16 governors' mansions, their lowest total since there have been 50 states.

The news has a lot of people scratching their heads, and wondering why Justice would become a Republican at a time when the Party's star seems to be in serious decline. That, however, is the wrong question. Beyond being a Trump supporter from a very red state, Justice is also a global warming skeptic, a supporter of reduced taxes, a lover of coal and a hater of the EPA, and a fan of increased military spending. Oh, and he was also a registered Republican for 43 years, from 1972 to 2015. So, Thursday's announcement was not really a switch, it was a return to the Party he actually belongs in. And the real question is, "Why was he ever a Democrat (even if it was for only 18 months or so)?"

There's no way to answer that question with certainty, since Justice has not seen fit to show his cards. However, it is fair to assume that (a) he's a shrewd politician, and (b) he did not somehow "see the light" twice in less than two years. If both of these things are true, then it suggests that he made a tactical decision to masquerade as a Democrat for one election cycle. Why would he do that? Well, his run for the governorship in 2016 was his first ever attempt at elected office. On the GOP side of the contest, the primary was crowded with candidates who had name recognition, most obviously Bill Cole, President of the West Virginia Senate. The Democratic side, by contrast, offered a softer path to the nomination. Further, being a Democrat allowed Justice to land the endorsement of the United Mine Workers, who have much influence in the Mountaineer State. Also, $1.5 million in financial support from the Democratic Party, which was going all out to win the West Virginia governor's mansion. In some states, where voters are quite obsessed with the (R) or the (D) next to a candidate's name, this would be a pretty risky gambit. However, in West Virginia, ticket-splitting is more common than it is elsewhere. And to make absolutely certain that he maximized the crossover votes, Justice ran a campaign that was so devoid of substance that disdainfully awarded him an "IFFY" for running an issue-free campaign. He was the only gubernatorial candidate in 2016 to be "honored" in this way.

The argument here, then, is that Justice's switch was inevitable. But why did it happen now? If we dismiss his rather flimsy declaration that he decided this was the best way to serve the people of West Virginia, then we are forced to speculate. There have been whispers in some Democratic corners that he did it to help Trump, in exchange for help settling some leftover debts from Justice's business transactions in Russia. It's true that Justice did business with the Russians, but this kind of quid pro quo seems very unlikely, and veers into the realm of conspiracy theory. We would propose three alternate possibilities, any or all of which could be true. First, since the West Virginia legislature is dominated by Republicans, this may make it a little easier for him to work with them. Second, if he was going to switch anyhow, it's better to get that in the rearview mirror, well before any future election campaigns. Third, it's possible—though there's no evidence of this yet—that he's toying with a run against Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) next year. That would likely be a fool's errand, since Manchin is very popular, and the 66-year-old Justice is a bit long in the tooth to begin a Senate career (where it takes 20 years to get any real power). Still, he has three years left as governor, so he'd still have a job even if a Senate run fizzles. Stranger things have happened. (Z)

Facebook Introduces "Related Articles"

The social networking site Facebook got into some hot water last year, as it became clear that they were an unwitting accomplice in spreading all manner of lies and misinformation (some of it Russian in origin) during election season. They are very sensitive to such criticism, and so have been trying to tweak the site to rectify the problem. On Thursday, they began rolling out their latest idea on that front, a "related articles" section that will accompany article links placed in users' news feeds.

The concept works something like this: Imagine someone posts a story to Facebook reporting that 'Hillary Clinton' is an anagram of 'China Trill Only,' which reveals quite plainly that she's actually a double agent working for Xi Jinping. In response, the site might add links below that item from or Politfact with headlines like "Hillary a Chinese Agent? Pants on Fire" or "Clinton-Chinese claim debunked" or "Egg Rolling Our Eyes at Latest Clinton Smear." Surely, Facebook knows that the kind of people who are the audience for such stories are not the type to click on links that challenge their worldviews. They are hoping, however, that there will be at least come clickthroughs, and that in other cases just the headline will be enough to plant the seeds of doubt. (Z)

Back to the main page