Jul. 13

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New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

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White House Goes into Full Damage-Control Mode

Last week, Donald Trump was in Europe for the G20 summit. Today, he heads back there for meetings with newly-anointed French president Emmanuel Macron. In between, he's spent four days in the midst of a "Category 5 hurricane," as one Trump ally describes it. The President, for his part, spends much of his time fuming, shouting, and finger pointing. White House staffers either try to stay out of his way, or huddle for whispered conversations, as everyone tries to protect their backs.

That's the story behind the scenes. Publicly, the administration is doing everything it can to control the damage done by this weekend's revelations about the meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Their strategy appears to have four prongs:

For most Democrats, the Trumps are already guilty, and should be preparing for impeachment, imprisonment, and perhaps the gallows. So, all of this theater is for the base. And, by all evidences, it is working. Politico conducted a quick and dirty survey of GOP leaders in two dozen counties with competitive 2018 Congressional races, and found that the overwhelming sentiment is that Russiagate is a scam perpetrated by the Democrats and the media. "We haven't heard a lot of scuttlebutt about it. I think it's a whole lot about nothing," said one operative, while another opined, "Democrats and their allies in the media are actually doing the country a disservice with their 'scandal each day' narrative."

The base's response, then, is good news for Trump, and bad news for the Democrats, since the blue team will need the GOP to be hurt by this if they hope to swing the House back to their side. The bad news for Trump is that it's fairly easy to downplay Russiagate while it's just a news story. It's going to get much harder if and when indictments start coming down, and there's plenty of time in between now and November of 2018 for that to happen. (Z)

California Democrat Files Article of Impeachment

Speaking of impeachment, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) has become the first member of Congress to pull the trigger and propose an article of impeachment against Donald Trump, charging him with obstruction of justice. In a statement, Sherman lamented the President's "impulsive incompetency." Very alliterative.

Of course, this too is just political theater. Even most Democrats aren't ready to move forward with impeachment yet, and even if they are, nothing happens without the support of the GOP majority. That said, for all the talk of impeaching Barack Obama, such efforts never even got this far. So, it's another way in which Trump differs from his predecessor. (Z)

Is Collusion with a Foreign Adversary a Crime?

To cut to the chase, collusion with a foreign adversary is not a crime. No statute says you can't "collude" with a foreign government, so a lot of the articles about Donald Trump, Jr.'s, "collusion" with a Russian lawyer close to Vladimir Putin miss the mark. Politico talked to a number of former prosecutors and law professors to get a better understanding of whether young Donald may have committed a crime. What emerged is that while "collusion" isn't even mentioned in any relevant statutes, "conspiracy" is. That is, it is a crime to get together with other people and plan to commit a crime. Whether you actually carry it out is irrelevant. Planning with others to commit a crime is itself a crime, different from the one being planned.

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, pointed out that receiving stolen property worth more than $5,000 is a federal crime. If the Russians stole information from any source, online or offline, and gave it to Trump, Jr., who wanted to accept it, he would be committing a crime, assuming an appraiser could be found to assign it a dollar value of $5,000 or more.

John Dean (yes, that one), said that the crime the conspirators were planning was to allow a foreign national (e.g., the Russian lawyer) to make a contribution (in kind) to an election campaign. He also cited half a dozen other statutes the conspirators may be been planning to violate (possibly because they were unaware of them, but that is no defense in court).

Peter Zeidenberg, a former assistant special counsel, pointed out that "intent" is crucial in conspiracy cases. The emails establish beyond a doubt that Trump, Jr., wanted to get damning information from the Russian government, so the "intent" part will be easy to prove in any conspiracy case, no matter what underlying crime is.

Nevertheless, some of the lawyers said that there still isn't an open-and-shut case that a statute was violated. All campaigns try to collect oppo research from any source they can find, and that in and of itself is not a crime. (V)

Trump Talked to Goldstone in Las Vegas in 2013

In 2013, Donald Trump talked to Rob Goldstone, the man who brokered the meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., and Russian Lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. CNN has obtained video of Trump and Goldstone talking at a dinner in June of 2013 in Las Vegas. The video now means that Trump cannot claim that he never met Goldstone and knows nothing about him. At the time, Goldstone was the publicist for Emin Agalarov, whose father, Aras Agalarov, is an Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire with whom Trump has done multimillion-dollar deals. The Agalarovs were also at the dinner and were captured on video talking to Trump.

While this video doesn't mean that Trump, Sr., knew that Trump, Jr., met Veselnitskaya, it certainly makes it more difficult for Trump, Sr., to claim that Junior was doing a freelance project with people he didn't know for reasons he didn't know. It also brings up the fact that Trump has ties to yet another billionaire Russian real estate tycoon. (V)

Senate Judiciary Committee to Call Manafort for Testimony

The Senate Judiciary Committee wants to ask Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, a few questions next week. If he doesn't appear voluntarily, Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) will issue a subpoena to encourage him to show up. Specifically, the committee is curious about the emails Donald Trump, Jr., released, and what happened at the meeting they arranged. Other congressional committees are likely to follow suit. (V)

Trump's Lawyers Want to Isolate Him from Kushner

Axios is reporting that Donald Trump's lawyers want to wall off first son-in-law Jared Kushner from talking to the president about Russiagate. The demand is likely to cause friction between Trump's lawyers and Kushner's lawyers, each of whom are committed to defending their own client. It is not clear what is really behind this, but now that it is known that Kushner was present at a meeting with a Russian lawyer close to Vladimir Putin in hopes of getting secret dirt on Hillary Clinton, Kushner could be in big trouble and Trump's lawyers are worried about it spreading to their client if the two of them discuss the matter. Of course, enforcing such a wall is impossible, especially if Trump asks Kushner about Russia point blank. Kushner is unlikely to say: "Sorry, Marc [Trump's lawyer] says I can't talk about this." (V)

Have the Republicans Killed the Town Hall Meeting?

Town hall meetings have been a staple of American politics since Bill Clinton perfected the format 25 years ago. Politicians meet their constituents in high-school gyms and other venues and answer questions. It allows people to give feedback to their senators and representative, and gives the politician exposure and free publicity.

All that has changed now. Republican politicians are so afraid of hostile questions from constituents about health care that they don't dare to appear in public any more. Some just hide, and others show up only for interviews with television or radio hosts known to be friendly. As an unexpected consequence of the health-care debate, an important aspect of democracy has been lost for the moment and possibly forever.

Although politicians can avoid talking to their constituents, it is harder to avoid reporters, many of whom are pesky and persistent. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had to deal with a couple of them who kept asking about Donald Trump, Jr.'s, emails. Ryan dodged the questions and answered with generalities such as he opposed foreign interference in our elections and how various committees and professionals are looking into stuff. Clearly, Ryan sees the handwriting on the wall and it says: "Cover your ass." (V)

Democrats Don't Have a Serious Challenger to Jeff Flake

To flip the Senate in 2018, Democrats have to hold all of their own seats, which include 10 in states that Donald Trump won, and also pick off three Republicans. Their #1 target is Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), who represents a state that Hillary Clinton won. They even have a strong candidate lined up: Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who represents a Las Vegas suburb in the House.

The Democrats' second-best pickup opportunity is knocking off Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), the least popular member of the entire Senate, with a -8% net approval rating. But surprisingly, the Democrats haven't lined up a serious challenger to Flake yet, despite his lack of popularity in Arizona. The lack of a serious candidate to challenge Flake is even more surprising given his other problems:

The last point is the most concrete and troublesome for Flake. He is being challenged from the right by former state senator Kelli Ward. The primary is going to force him to the right, which may hurt him in the general election. What is so strange is that despite all these problems, Flake hasn't drawn a serious Democrat into the race yet. (V)

McConnell's Approval Ratings Are in the Tank

It's still about 16 months before we know for sure how much the GOP will be hurt by its efforts to replace Obamacare. However, one senator who definitely appears to be feeling the pinch is none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the man leading the charge. In the last month, his approval rating has dropped by four points, down to 41%. That puts him underwater, as 48% disapprove. The only senator who is doing worse is Jeff Flake (see above).

Of course, McConnell does not need to worry quite yet. The health-care fight is still ongoing, and he may still find a way to come out on top. He also represents a very red state, and will not have to go before voters until 2020. That said, his colleagues who are up in 2018 are surely aware of his numbers, and have to be a little nervous that they could get dragged down, too. (Z)

Kid Rock for Senate

Rapper Kid Rock visited the White House a couple of months ago, and apparently he enjoyed Washington very much, because on Wednesday he announced his intention to seek election to the U.S. Senate from his home state of Michigan. He's already got a website, where you too can purchase "Kid Rock: Pimp of a Nation" t-shirts.

It's very possible this is just a publicity stunt, and that Rock (aka Robert Ritchie) is not serious. On the other hand, Donald Trump's presidential campaign started as a publicity stunt, and we know how that turned out. If he does make a run, Rock would have the backing of The Donald, which would presumably be helpful, and would be running against a pretty unpopular opponent in Debbie Stabenow (D).

It's also the case that if Rock ran and won, he might well be the least-qualified member of Congress in U.S. history. Certainly, there have been celebrities elected to that body before, but all of them had some claim to legitimacy. Fred Grandy, for example, was a Harvard graduate and a former Congressional aide. Fred Dalton Thompson was an attorney with a distinguished record. Sonny Bono served as mayor of Palm Springs. Even Davy Crockett, if we go that far back, was a veteran, and even killed himself a b'ar when he was only three. Rock, by contrast, has no college degree, no military service, no political experience, and has killed no b'ars. In today's political world, however, a total lack of resume may not be a disqualifier. (Z)

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