Dec. 03

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New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

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Trump Just Can't Help Himself

That's a headline we could use pretty often, but it is especially apropos today. Reportedly, the White House was caught off guard by former NSA Michael Flynn's guilty plea on Friday. If so, then they truly are living in a bubble, because anyone and everyone who has been watching this situation unfold saw it coming a mile away. In any event, Donald Trump is not happy—because of the plea deal, because it was a surprise, because it came on the same day as his biggest victory as president. And when Donald Trump is unhappy, and when he thinks he might be exposed, he is simply incapable of keeping his thoughts to himself. So, he went on Twitter Saturday morning to try to spin the story, and to make himself into a good guy:

I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017

Undoubtedly, The Donald's lawyers have told him, over and over, to zip his mouth when it comes to the Russia matter. Tweets like this one are why. Do you see the enormous mistake that the President made? It was just three words, but they could prove to be the most damaging three words for a president since "No new taxes." The mistake, of course, is "and the FBI." Recall that Flynn was forced out on February 13 of this year. Later that month, and again in March and April, Trump tried to get FBI director James Comey to back off his investigation of Flynn. Then, on May 9, Comey was fired. Prior to Trump's tweet, the story was that Flynn got fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence, causing Pence to embarrass himself when he went on TV to defend Flynn. If that was the issue, then it is a political and personal matter, but not a criminal one.

On the other hand, if Trump knew on February 13 that Flynn had lied to the FBI—and the President just admitted that he did know—then he's got two big problems. The first is: How did he know Flynn had lied? Did Trump have any involvement in ordering either the lie itself, or the meeting(s) with the Russians that prompted the lie? The second is: If Trump knew that Flynn was guilty of a federal offense on February 13, it means that his conversations with and firing of James Comey were unambiguously intended to cover up a crime. This is a textbook example of obstruction of justice, and is literally the exact same thing that got Richard Nixon in trouble. Trump's lawyer, John Down, is attempting to argue that Trump was merely paraphrasing the statement made on Friday by Trump's other lawyer, Ty Cobb. Uh, huh.

But wait, there's more. On Saturday, the New York Times published excerpts from e-mails by Trump transition team member K.T. McFarland. The messages document conversations about Russia between McFarland, Flynn, and other Trump administration officials. At very least, they make clear that Flynn's Russia-related activities were well known to members of the campaign, and that Flynn continued to be a key team member thereafter. This runs contrary to the administration's claims that Flynn was "acting independently." At worst, depending on how one reads two or three key messages, the e-mails may document a conspiracy to manipulate the election. Particularly critical is a message in which McFarland says that Russia, "has just thrown the U.S.A. election to [Trump]." If that is an "update" on what was happening as part of the ongoing negotiations with the Russians, then it's big trouble for Team Trump. McFarland and others are claiming that she was merely paraphrasing the Democrats' talking points. You may recognize that excuse from the previous paragraph.

Presumably, there is someone—maybe several someones—in the White House responsible for convincing the President that everything is ok, and that he's got nothing to worry about. Whoever that might be, they're going to be earning their paychecks from here on out. Meanwhile, it's likely only a matter of time until Trump decides that Mueller must be fired, setting the stage for both Saturday Night Massacre Part II and a constitutional crisis. (Z)

What the Flynn Plea Deal Means

Following the Michael Flynn plea deal, there were lots of "takeaway" lists. Politico often produces a slightly different spin on that approach, wherein they ask experts for their main takeaway (along with a few paragraphs of explanation). Here's what the 11 folks that the site contacted came up with this time:

The executive summary: This investigation is closer to the beginning than the end, and someone at the very top of the food chain is in deep trouble. (Z)

How the Sausage Is Made

Watching a sausage being made is not for the weak of stomach, not in a butcher shop and not in the United States Senate. The Hill took a look, though, and wrote a story on how the tax-bill sausage was made. It was clearly a team effort, and one that avoided some of the mistakes made with the Obamacare repeal.

Majority Whip John Cornyn was assigned the job of getting Sens. Ron Johnson (WI) and Steve Daines (MT) on board. Both were squealing because pass-through businesses didn't get as low a rate as corporations. Making the rates equal would have blown a gigantic hole in the budget, so Cornyn proposed allowing small businesses to have 23% of their income considered tax free and the rest taxed at the higher rate in the bill. The senators accepted the deal and voted for the bill.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) was assigned the job of pulling Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) over the finish line. Portman had breakfast with Collins Wednesday morning. She was worried that setting the fine for not having health insurance to $0 would cause insurance premiums to jump. Portman said he would help move two other bills, Alexander-Murray and Collins-Nelson, that would help a little bit in stabilizing the health insurance market. So far the bills haven't been voted on and they may run into opposition from the House Freedom Caucus and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). In the end, Collins may or may not get what she was promised.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) also played a role. He was the one who worked out an agreement with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a deficit hawk. Corker said he wouldn't vote to raise the deficit by one penny. Toomey initially convinced him that raising it 150,000,000,000,000 pennies was OK, though. But at the last minute, Corker had an attack of conscience and was the only Republican to vote "no."

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) was assigned the job of keeping the mortgage interest deduction at $1 million. He had to fend off senators who wanted to drop it to $500,000, the same as the House bill. In the end, Scott succeeded and the limit remains at $1 million. Of course, that could change in the conference bill. One nice thing about battles over numbers is that a compromise is easy to imagine here. A conferee could say: "How about $750,000?" and probably get everyone to agree.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) assigned himself the job of dealing with the ever independent-minded senator from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski. He didn't even bother offering her a better tax rate for seal hunters, sled-dog breeders, or some other favored constituency. He was willing to throw in language to allow oil and gas drilling in the 19-million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest one in the country. She went for it. After all, grizzly bears, dall sheep, and muskoxen don't vote.

Now we come to Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who was driven from the 2018 race and is in principle beholden to no one. And he is a deficit hawk, to boot. Getting him on board required something bigger than a mere senator, so Vice President Mike Pence got the assignment. Pence promised that Flake would be consulted on the subject of deporting the dreamers or allowing them to stay when the time came. Flake also got rid of an expensing gimmick in the bill that he didn't like. In doing this, Pence pulled off the best deal since Jacob got Esau's birthright for a bowl of stew.

Interestingly enough, nobody was assigned mission impossible: leaning on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). McCain doesn't take advice from anyone gladly and marches to his own drummer. But in the end, the former maverick who voted against both Bush tax cuts because they blew up the budget decided that he wanted his tombstone to read: "Party first." (V)

Next Target: Repealing the New Deal and Great Society

The Senate and House have to agree on a final tax bill and then ram it through both chambers in predawn darkness, as is their habit, but this is so crucial to all Republicans that one way or another it has to succeed. The Republican leadership has noticed that their bill will blow a gigantic hole in the budget and add a trillion dollars to the deficit, so they are already planning to handle this by going after many New Deal and Great Society programs with a hatchet. Reducing spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has long been a GOP goal, and now they can use the huge deficit (which they helped to create) as an excuse to gut those programs, which they have never liked.

Politically, gutting Medicaid is the easiest of all since it helps only poor people, and most of them are Democrats. Taking a hatchet to it won't cost the Republicans too many votes. In contrast, Social Security and Medicare are there for all seniors, and many of them are Republicans. They are much better organized than poor people (AARP has 37 million members), vote in large numbers, and are far more politically savvy than poor people. George W. Bush discovered this the hard way after being reelected in 2004, but Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan may have to learn that lesson all over again. (V)

Tillerson Is a Lame Duck

Technically, to be a lame duck, your replacement has to already be known. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's replacement isn't quite official (reportedly it will be Mike Pompeo), but circumstances are such that it might as well be, because the Secretary is effectively powerless. There are a number of reasons that this is the case; the biggest is that everyone in the world knows he's a short timer who does not have the confidence of the President, such that working with Tillerson is a waste of time. The stripped-down State Dept., the apparent lack of necessary skills for the job, and the overt disdain for career diplomats' expertise are contributing factors, as well. The upshot is that if Tillerson holds on until January 20, it will be because he has decided that date is symbolically important, not because he's trying to tie up loose ends or finish some grand project. It will be interesting to see if Tillerson's departure triggers the supposed "suicide pact" he has with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that if one goes, they all do, but don't bet on it.

When Tillerson does go—and that is definitely a "when" and not an "if"—he will have a strong case as the worst Secretary of State in American history. He's torn down much of his department, offering up the explanation that the staff will not be needed because so many troublesome problems are going to be solved. That's putting the cart before the horse in a manner that is either arrogant or foolish or both, particularly given that one struggles to think of a major foreign policy situation that has gotten better in the last year, while many—North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia, even the UK—have gotten worse. There are many parts of the federal government where the damage done by bad leadership can be reversed fairly quickly, but the State Dept. is not one of them. The experienced diplomats who have fled will take decades to properly replace. And a soured relationship with another nation, or a hot spot that has become inflamed, can take even longer to repair, if it's ever repaired.

Of course Tillerson, though undoubtedly not up to his job, is not the only problem here. He's not even most of the problem. No, as Politico's Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky point out, most of the problem is Donald Trump. The President does not understand, and does not value, what the State Department does. In fact, he likely despises them, since they created obstacles for him as a businessman (by upholding the rules) and as president during the Muslim travel ban debate (again, by trying to uphold the rules). Given his dislike for State and his supreme confidence in himself, Trump prefers to handle foreign policy personally, even if it means openly undermining his staff. That's probably not the best approach for any president, but it's particularly unwise for a president who is the polar opposite of a diplomat. Making things worse, as Miller and Sokolsky observe, is that the era of "heroic diplomacy" is over. The world's problems are messy and complicated, and don't lend themselves to quick or simple solutions. Of course, simple solutions—a wall on the border, a "terrific" health care plan, a one-man team working on the Middle East and opioid addiction at the same time—are all Trump has. Adding it all up, there's little chance that Mike Pompeo—or whoever the next Secretary turns out to be—will be much of an improvement on Tillerson. (Z)

Trump to Declare that Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel

Speaking of Donald Trump handling foreign policy by himself, without the benefit of expert advice, he is reportedly going to make an announcement on Wednesday that he is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Several presidents have pondered this, some have even openly promised it, but he will apparently be the one to deliver (although the U.S. embassy will remain, at least for now, in Tel Aviv).

There is an excellent reason that presidents have made this promise on the campaign trail, but backed off in the White House. Domestically, this announcement will curry much goodwill among evangelical Christians, Jews, and Islamophobes, as it will be an assertion of Judeo-Christian supremacy over a city that has significance to all three of the Abrahamic religions. It will also allow Trump to claim some headlines during a week when lots of journalists are going to have a serious case of Flynn on the brain.

The problem, and the reason that both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter backed off this same promise once they were sitting in the Oval Office, is that the pronouncement will serve to inflame tensions abroad without generating much benefit for the United States. Yes, the Israelis will be pleased, but they are already close allies—they can't be much more friendly, or do much more for the U.S. than they already do. Meanwhile, the nations of the Middle East—and Muslims around the world—will (with justification) take the announcement as a poke in the eye. That's the kind of thing that, for example, will make it harder to broker a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Not to mention the kind of thing that will help foment terrorism against the United States, particularly if the President were to also retweet some viciously Islamophobic videos. There is some suggestion that the decision on Jerusalem is not final, and that it could change before the scheduled announcement on Wednesday. We shall see if cooler and more experienced heads prevail. (Z)

Jones Has a Small Lead in Alabama

A new Washington Post/Schar School poll puts embattled Republican Roy Moore behind Democrat Doug Jones 47% to 50% in their race for Alabama's open Senate seat. The three most recent polls until this one had Moore ahead by 5-6 points. The margin of error is 4.5%, but more important than the statistical error in polling is the unknown turnout. A special election in the middle of December is likely to have a small turnout and whichever side is better at getting partisans to the polls is likely to win.

Moore has been accused of molesting teenagers 40 years ago by several credible witnesses. Nevertheless, about a third of likely voters say that Moore has higher moral standards than Jones. About a quarter of the voters say that moral character, rather than political views, will determine their vote. Among these voters, Jones leads 67% to 30%. Surprisingly, on the always-critical issue of abortion, the candidates are essentially tied, with 47% preferring Moore's position and 46% preferring that of Jones.

Another unexpected result is that among Republicans, fewer than one-sixth believe the women who have said Moore molested them as teenagers. This could become a big problem if Moore wins and the Senate Republicans try to expel him. These voters are not likely to be happy if their candidate wins but 52 Republican senators and 15 Democratic senators kick him out because they do believe the women. No senator has been expelled in over 150 years and no one has ever been expelled for allegations that the voters who put him there don't believe a word of. (V)

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