Aug. 27

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Hurricane Not Quite the Distraction That Trump Hoped

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Saturday, and has already done much damage. While it is certainly front page news, it has not been enough to make people forget all of the maneuvering that the Trump Administration did on Friday.

To start, Trump was blasted from all quarters throughout the day on Saturday. While the "news dump" is a time-honored political technique, Friday's execution of it was so obvious, and so clearly an attempt to use human tragedy for political gain, that he's being called out for it from across the political spectrum. Former RNC Chair Michael Steele was asked about the matter on MSNBC, and said, "I can't figure out crazy anymore." GOP consultant Alex Conant opined that, "It was very risky, because if the hurricane is as bad as the experts were predicting, then he's opening himself up to a lot of potential criticism," Democrats, for their part, did not feel the need to wait and see how bad the hurricane was before lodging their criticisms, starting with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who took to Twitter to accuse the President of using the storm as "cover," and described that choice as "So sad, so weak." Indeed, Trump should probably stay away from Twitter for several days, because he's being absolutely excoriated there by users. "Trump just pardoned Joe Arpaio during a Category 4 Hurricane. This guy is such an awful freaking human being," wrote one. "Only a scum like Trump would use the devastation of a Category 4 hurricane to slyly pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio," agreed another. "You'd think a Cat 4 hurricane would be the ideal Friday night cover for a dubious pardon -- but it actually only amplifies it. Just watch," predicted a third.

The prediction that the Arpaio pardon would not go away, despite the hurricane, was spot on, as that story got all kinds of attention on Saturday, from many different angles. To start, the base may be happy with the decision, but many other Republicans joined with the Democrats in denouncing it. That includes Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) who both declared their unhappiness with the pardon on Friday night, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), whose spokesman said on Saturday that, "The speaker does not agree with this decision," and that, "Law enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States; We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon." Right-leaning media outlets were none-too-thrilled either. The Washington Examiner, for example, published a very critical editorial under the headline, "Trump, once the law and order candidate, embraces lawless disorder with Arpaio pardon." The editorial board of the Arizona Republic, Arizona's biggest newspaper, declared that, "Donald Trump's pardon elevates Arpaio once again to the pantheon of those who see institutional racism as something that made America great."

On some level, Trump and his staff—while they may have hoped that the hurricane would distract from the pardon—surely knew that they were at risk of taking some damage in the short term. Less clear is whether they realized the possible long-term risks of a pardon. To start, Trump has just handed the Democrats a powerful weapon to use in Arizona in 2018 and 2020. Keeping in mind the blueward trend of the Grand Canyon State, and the fact that Trump won there by less than 4 points, moderately unpopular Jeff Flake was already facing an uphill battle. Now, Latino voters can be expected to turn out in droves to register their displeasure with the GOP, even if Flake continues to run as the anti-Trump. The equation becomes even more interesting if health issues cause John McCain's seat to come open as well. One might think the President would have learned how much two Senate seats matter from his Obamacare repeal disaster, but he never seems to think more than a day or two ahead, much less 18 months ahead.

Even if Trump does not care about McCain and Flake—two senators he's currently at war with—he may have also created long-term problems for himself with the pardon. Customarily, pardons are issued for one of two reasons: (1) To correct a gross miscarriage of justice, or (2) To be merciful, when a convict has suffered enough. There is no evidence that Arpaio was treated unjustly, and he certainly hadn't suffered, since he hadn't even been sentenced yet. No, this pardon was granted solely for political purposes. In case there was any doubt about that point, we learned on Saturday that Trump asked AG Jeff Sessions about killing the case even before it was concluded. Clearly, the merits of the case were irrelevant to the President. And here is the problem: Trump knows that issuing a pardon for whatever reason he pleases is not illegal, but what he doesn't seem to realize is that he doesn't have to break the law in order to be impeached. As Gerald Ford famously observed, the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that the Constitution describes as the basis for impeachment and conviction, "means whatever Congress says it means." Clearly, the Congress is not ready to consider impeachment yet, but if ever they get there, they've got everything they need to hit him with something like "abuse of power" and to make it stick. As Al Capone learned, it's not necessarily the worst thing you did that gets you convicted, it's the thing that can most easily be proven.

Finally, if the administration is hoping that eventually everyone just forgets about all of this, it does not look like Arpaio is going to help out by going gentle into that good night. Despite being 85 years old, and having been thrown out of office by the voters of Maricopa County, he says he's considering running for office because, "I think I've got a big political message to get out." If John McCain's senate seat comes open, it would not be a surprise to see "America's Toughest Sheriff" make a run at it. Which would mean a constant reminder, during election season, of the controversial pardon. So, in many ways, this story doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, hurricane or not. (Z)

Mueller's Microscope Trained on Flynn Again

We haven't heard too much from Robert Mueller and his team recently, but late on Friday the news leaked that they are focusing again on former NSA Michael Flynn, and his possible involvement in a scheme to acquire Hillary Clinton's e-mails from Russian hackers.

It is far from clear that incriminating e-mails actually existed or, if they did, that Russian hackers actually had them. What is clear, however, is that deceased GOP operative Peter Smith believed that this was worth pursuing, and that he claimed to have ties to the Trump campaign, particularly to then-adviser Flynn. Obviously, Mueller thinks there's something to these allegations. And if he can prove that Flynn was part of such a scheme, that would be enough to make the former general guilty of a crime, even if the "goods" he was trying to acquire didn't actually exist.

It is widely understood that Mueller's game is not to get Michael Flynn, per se, but to catch him as a "small fish" in the net in hopes of getting him to flip on the "big fish." The same is true of Paul Manafort, on whom the walls are also closing in. Mueller now knows, thanks to the Joe Arpaio situation, that the President has no hesitation in using his pardon power to spare friends and supporters (particularly those with dirt, presumably). So, the special counsel will likely try to find a way to charge this as a state-level crime, ideally in a Democrat-controlled state, so that Trump's pardon power does not apply. Flynn's residence is in North Carolina, where AG Josh Stein (D) might well cooperate and Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) is unlikely to issue a state pardon. Another possibility is New York, where meetings might have taken place. If that can be proven, New York AG Eric Schneiderman—who aspires to be Gov. Eric Schneiderman—would undoubtedly be more than happy to prosecute. (Z)

Cohn Should Have Been More Reserved

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn appears to have played his hand very badly. He was upset by Donald Trump's handling of Charlottesville, but he also wants to keep his job, and with it a chance to take over the Federal Reserve when Janet Yellen's term is up. So, he hedged his bets, and spoke out against his boss without resigning. Bad choice when you have a boss who cares about loyalty above all else.

Naturally, Cohn's remarks got back to Trump (in other words, Fox News did a story about them). The President is reportedly "furious" about this news, and also about a story that Cohn was overheard at a dinner in New York saying that he sometimes withholds plans from Trump because he fears The Donald will go off half-cocked. So, Cohn is now at risk of getting fired. He should probably be particularly nervous next Friday, since that's the day that Trump likes to swing the ax (or, more accurately, to have someone swing the ax for him). Meanwhile, Cohn's dream of leading the Federal Reserve—which was a bit of a longshot anyhow, since chairs are usually chosen from among the current governors—appears to be dead in the water. (Z)

Gorka Headed Back to Breitbart

On Friday, Sebastian Gorka joined his former boss Steve Bannon in getting booted from the White House. On Saturday, he continued to follow in Bannon's footsteps, returning to the Breitbart from whence he came.

As with Bannon last week, Gorka is not saying anything nasty about the man who just showed him the door. Not yet, at least. However, Breitbart is in the business of throwing fire bombs at anyone and everyone who displeases them, and there is simply no chance that Trump avoids their wrath forever. Especially given that he's hyper-sensitive, and wont to take offense at items that are only mildly critical, or that only indirectly involve him. Meanwhile, Bannon has already announced that he's going to "light up" Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). We appear to be headed, then, to a triangle with the alt-right in one corner, the administration in another, and the GOP establishment in a third, with each corner in a cold war (or even a hot war) with the other two. It's not going to be pretty. (Z)

Polls Are Ugly for Prominent Republicans

The good news for Donald Trump is that he's set a record. He loves that, so much so that he regularly claims "records" where none actually exist. The bad news is that it's a record that no president wants, and that he certainly won't be able to brag about on Twitter. He's now recorded the lowest approval rating in a Gallup Poll—34%—for any president in his first year. There are a number of reasons this is very bad for him:

That wasn't the only bad polling news for Trump this week. A new PPP poll showed that in a hypothetical matchup with Rep. John Delaney (D-MD), the only Democrat thus far to declare for 2020, Trump is tied 38% to 38%, with 24% of respondents undecided. Since Delaney is virtually unknown, that means that people are giving their support, in essence, to literally any person the Democratic Party can come up with. If the Party can find a candidate who is not loathed by huge segments of the population, he or she should be able to claim most of the undecided 24%.

Trump, then, is looking pretty weak, and the trend lines are not favorable. As a consequence, potential GOP challengers are getting more and more open about their intentions. Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) may take a shot, if he doesn't launch an independent bid instead, and so may Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is probably planning another run, VP Mike Pence could well decide the time is ripe, and who knows who else is playing it close to the vest, and may throw their hat in the ring once the midterms are over? Paul Ryan? Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), back for another "little" tryst? People are even talking seriously about the wrestler The Rock, since experience no longer matters. Maybe he can choose Kid Rock for the VP slot, and we can have Rock-Rock 2020.

As grim as Trump's polls are, however, his main nemeses in Washington won't be able to take much solace, because their numbers are even worse. According to a new Harvard-Harris poll, Mitch McConnell has an approval rating of just 19%, the worst of any politician with a national profile. He's actually doing even worse in his home state than he is nationwide, as just 18% of Kentuckians approve of their senator. He's also the only Republican in the country where even a majority of Republicans disapprove of him. Paul Ryan is not doing much better, and is also underwater according to the poll, 33% to 47%. Harvard-Harris has Trump doing just a bit better than Gallup does, although also underwater, 41% to 55%. And in case anyone thinks the GOP's fortunes will improve if Mike Pence moves into the Oval Office, well, he's doing only three points better than Trump, with a 44% approval rating.

The upshot of all of this is that the Democrats are going to be given a golden opportunity in 2018 and in 2020 to make up some of the ground they lost in 2016. Will they seize it, though? Or will they allow themselves to be undone by fights between the moderate and progressive factions of the Party? Or by issues that will not connect with the voters they need to win back? Time will tell (though see below for more). (Z)

Should Democrats Avoid Playing the "Race Card"?

Steve Bannon has said, on multiple occasions, that as long as the Democrats insist on focusing upon identity politics, the GOP will be able to win elections by talking about economic issues. Bannon may be a blowhard and a racist, but he's not stupid. And so, the New York Times' Timothy Egan has penned an editorial wondering if the Democrats ought to take notice of what he's saying.

The argument here is fairly simple. Everyone already knows that Donald Trump and much of his cohort are racists and/or racist-enablers. There are certainly people for whom this is a powerful and deeply-important issue, but those individuals are already going to vote Democratic in 2018 and 2020. Meanwhile, there are a sizable number of voters—the Obama-Trump voters—who are not particularly motivated by this concern and, in fact, are often put on the defensive by talk of Black Lives Matter or white privilege. Further, these people—like nearly all voters—want to feel hopeful, and debates over race and racism, whatever they may achieve, do not engender hope. Barack Obama understood this dynamic well; by virtue of his heritage, he did not have a particular need to announce his opposition to racism and bigotry. This freed him to focus on his core message, which was, quite literally, hope.

Egan does not propose that Democrats should abandon this issue completely, saying that of course they should speak up when things like Charlottesville or the Joe Arpaio pardon happen. His point is merely that the blue team should be careful not to indulge too often, and should make very certain to put economic issues front and center. Hillary Clinton's campaign—which focused primarily on the awfulness of Trump, and not nearly enough on her ideas for the country—would seem to support these conclusions. (Z)

WSJ Says Trump Is No Republican

Yesterday, we used The Godfather to make sense of American politics. Today, it will be Star Wars. In those movies, a young whippersnapper named Anakin Skywalker comes along and is expected to bring "balance" to the force. He presumably does (we still have two more sequels left before we know for sure), but by turning into the evil Darth Vader, killing everyone, and then getting himself killed. This is presumably not what the Jedi had in mind when they predicted that "balance" was coming.

What does this have to do with Donald Trump? Well, the Wall Street Journal, a right-leaning newspaper owned by the President's friend Rupert Murdoch, has just published an editorial declaring that Trump is no Republican, and that, "Republicans need to think of Trump as a political independent." In other words, they need to set the agenda themselves, and pass their legislation, without presidential guidance or assistance. However, there is a fly in the ointment. Or two flies, actually. The first is the Democrats, who are not going to sign off on tax cuts for rich people, or Obamacare repeals, or any staunchly conservative initiatives like those. The second is Trump, who has veto power, and could use it for any reason, including to snub his enemies.

One solution to both of these problems is for both Republicans and Democrats to meet in the middle, and to adopt legislation with enough bipartisan support that a presidential veto could be overridden. That's a tall order, especially given the rancor in Washington over the last 10 years, but we're already seeing a little movement in that direction in the area of health care.

Part of what led to the ascendancy of Donald Trump was voters' sense that Washington was "broken" (a fair assessment) and that the outsider from New York could "fix" it (a much more dubious assessment). Wouldn't it be ironic if The Donald did help get things running smoothly again, not though any action of his own, but by causing partisans on both sides to unite in their shared opposition to him? In other words, voters may get the end result they wanted, but in a completely different manner than they expected. Maybe, by the end, we'll even be calling him Darth Trump. (Z)

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