Jul. 08

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New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

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Presidents Meet; Advantage Putin

On Friday, for the first time since taking office, Donald Trump met with Russian president Vladimir Putin. There are several points about that meeting where everyone seems to be in agreement. It was much longer than expected; over 2 hours instead of the 30 minutes that were originally scheduled. Further, the two men got along famously. That means Trump has connected with Putin, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Xi Jinping, but hasn't done so well with Justin Trudeau, Emanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, or Enrique Peña Nieto. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Trump does better with autocrats than he does with more democratically inclined leaders.

Everyone also agrees that Trump brought up Russian meddling in the 2016 election. But from there, things start to get a bit more fuzzy. Vlad's version of events is that he denied involvement in the election, Trump accepted his answer, and that was the end of it. The Donald's version, relayed to the media through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is that he brought the issue up several times, and that he most certainly did not accept Putin's denial. Given that both men have a long history of twisting facts, and also of hearing what they want to hear, it's difficult to know who's being truthful. Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between the competing narratives. Though if Trump's version of events is even slightly true, it raises an obvious question: How come the President was uncertain about Russian meddling when he spoke in Poland on Thursday, but was confident it had happened by the time he met with Putin on Friday?

Of course, the election was not the only subject that came up. Reportedly, the two men agreed to cooperate in Syria, to avoid "interference" in the other's internal affairs, and to work together on cybersecurity. Although working with Vladimir Putin on cybersecurity seems an awful lot like working with Kim Jong-Un on mental health issues.

Overall, the consensus is that Putin "won" the meeting. Perhaps overwhelmingly so; Politico's Molly McKew argues that the Russian president scored a "stunning victory." Surely, Putin has no intention of ceasing his interference in the United States' internal affairs, and he is going to do as he sees fit in Syria. So, the "agreements" Trump made aren't worth the paper they aren't written on. Meanwhile, the President was unable to hold Putin's feet to the fire on the election meddling, while giving the Russian a tale to peddle back home about how he got Trump to back down on the issue. It may or may not be true, but Putin knows better than anyone that perception is often more important than reality. (Z)

Another Day, Another Strange Tweet from Trump

Shortly before he met with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump got out his phone and fired up Twitter to deliver this...news:

Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 7, 2017

As the Washington Post's Aaron Blake notes, this is a very strange tweet, for several reasons. First of all, it is highly implausible that a large number of European leaders are captivated by a story that's nearly a year old, and is rather U.S.-specific in nature. Second, Trump does not seem to grasp the difference between the FBI and the CIA, specifically the fact that the CIA does not concern itself with domestic matters like this. Third, while John Podesta was a high-ranking member of the Clinton campaign, he was not a DNC official, and had no authority to hand over the organization's servers. The upshot is: What the heck is Trump talking about?

Actually, though, the more interesting question may not be what Trump was tweeting about, but why. We know, of course, that he sometimes likes to stir the pot as a distraction from other, more damaging stories. And we also know that he was prepping for a tough meeting with Putin as he issued forth with that tweet. Putting the two things together, Trump may have inadvertently clued us into his insecurity about the meeting, and his fears that it might go disastrously. Trying to create an alternate story for the right-wing media to talk about, which they certainly did, seems to be the only plausible explanation for why the President would dredge up a story that is not only inaccurate, but also well past its expiration date. (Z)

Wheels Coming Off Senate Health Care Effort

We noted yesterday that Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who is usually a reliable vote for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), is getting cold feet about the Senate's health-care bill. And, to nobody's surprise, he's not alone. At least half a dozen of his colleagues are also wavering.

The biggest blow for McConnell comes courtesy of John Hoeven (R-ND), another usually reliable vote. After hearing from state residents (who provide the votes he needs) and health care executives (who provide the money), he has announced that he, "[does] not support the Senate health care bill in its current form." He's not talking about making the bill more stringent, so that makes another senator who is pulling in the opposite direction of the Rand Paul (R-KY)/Ted Cruz (R-TX)/Mike Lee (R-UT) contingent.

It doesn't end with Hoeven, though. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has yet to announce his support for the bill, and he is now telling constituents that he doubts the measure will even come up for a vote. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) is, like Hoeven, being buffeted by both voters and industry lobbyists. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Susan Collins (R-ME), who were already on the fence, have been loudly signaling this week that they are probable no votes. And it's not like McConnell has gotten any good news from the senators who spoke out against the bill before this week, like Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or Dean Heller (R-NV).

The New York Times has a whip count of where things apparently stand and, at the moment, it's the sort of thing that gives majority leaders nightmares. There are the 48 Democratic/Independent "no" votes, of course, and 11 Republicans who say they will vote "no" on the current iteration. That group of 11 includes the three most conservative GOP Senators and three of the five most liberal members of the caucus. So, in either direction, there are enough no votes to sink the bill. Another 24 Republican senators have not announced their plans, while only 17 have said they will vote "yes." Even with his considerable political skills and nearly $200 billion in pork to distribute, it is very hard to see how McConnell can make this happen. (Z)

Trump Will Likely Get to Pick Judge for the DC Circuit

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, aka the D.C. Circuit, gets to rule on laws and policies of the federal government. Further, because they represent only one city, and not a group of states, they are often the first and last word outside of the Supreme Court. For these reasons, the D.C. Circuit is regarded as the most powerful part of the judiciary outside of the SCOTUS.

This week, one of the Circuit's 11 judges—Janice Rogers Brown—announced her intention to retire, which would then give Donald Trump a chance to pick a replacement. She's a fire-breathing conservative, and a George W. Bush appointee, so the political balance of the D.C. Circuit would remain the same (7 Democratic appointees, 4 Republican). However, this would give the President a chance to put his stamp on America's second most important Court. Further, given that his administration is particularly likely to find itself arguing before the D.C. Circuit, he may be able to slightly improve his chances there. Finally, the D.C. Circuit is often a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, and Trump's choice could well be someone he hopes to elevate to the next level, should another SCOTUS vacancy arise. So, this is much more meaningful than your usual circuit court appointment. (Z)

Electoral Integrity Commission Getting Nowhere Fast

Every day, it seems that Donald Trump's Electoral Integrity Commission gets more bad news. There has now been plenty of time for the 50 states to comply with Kris Kobach's demand for voter rolls. And how many have complied? One, and that one—Arkansas—only supplied a partial set of data that did not include the social security numbers Kobach wanted.

Given how much time has passed, and how many states have said openly that they are not interested, it's unlikely that many (or any) other states will be joining Arkansas. And, just in case, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (a Clinton appointee) heard arguments on Friday on the question of whether the commission's efforts to collect data should be halted. Odds are good that a temporary restraining order is coming, at the very least. And given the questions that Kollar-Kotelly asked, observers suspect she's ultimately going to grant a permanent injunction. So, Kobach and Co. should probably be thinking about Plan B right about now. (Z)

Good News, Bad News on Jobs for Trump

Given that Donald Trump's platform had a massive jobs plank, he got some very good news this week. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the U.S. economy added 222,000 jobs in June, considerably more than was expected. Trump's running total, since taking office, is 863,000 jobs, while unemployment now stands at 4.4%.

That is the good news; now the bad. To start, while Trump is able to claim 863,000 jobs in five months, Barack Obama oversaw the creation of 908,000 jobs in his last five months on the job. This will not please The Donald, given his ongoing competition with and resentment of his predecessor. Beyond that, while jobs are being created, wages are stagnating, which tends to translate into voter unhappiness. Finally, 4.4% is pretty much as low as unemployment can go, and is regarded by economists as "full employment." So, unless Trump focuses on higher pay for workers—something he's never even vaguely suggested that he is interested in—then there is pretty much nowhere to go from here but downhill. (Z)

Arpaio May Soon Learn About Life on the Other Side of the Bars

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, aka "America's Toughest Sheriff," was a law unto himself for decades as the voters of Maricopa County kept re-electing him. However, last November, the lawsuits and all the settlements paid out, and the cavalier disregard for people's civil liberties finally caught up with him, and he was sent packing. Since then, he's busied himself in retirement by going on trial for criminal contempt of court, thanks to his habit of ignoring judges' orders while he was still sheriff. The judge has the case now, and soon Arpaio will find out if he's going to do some time in the big house. Given that his defense was, "I didn't understand the law," which is always a real winner, he should probably be getting measured for some of the pink underwear he made so famous.

Now, just because he's no longer in office, it does not mean that Arpaio's fate has no relevance to politics. He was one of Donald Trump's earliest and most enthusiastic supporters; in particular, they shared a passion for Obama birther conspiracies. So, if he's convicted, it reflects badly on the President, at least a little bit. It also makes him the winner of the "first Trump associate to go to prison" sweepstakes, perhaps just edging out Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. (Z)

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