Jun. 15

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New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
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Mueller Looking into Obstruction of Justice

During Bill Clinton's presidency, Lewinskygate was a byproduct of Whitewatergate, as special prosecutor Kenneth Starr took his investigation wherever the leads pointed. This being the case, there was every chance that Robert Mueller's investigation of Donald Trump was going to branch off into matters not directly related to Russia. That includes obstruction of justice which, according to the Washington Post's sources, is now officially on Mueller's agenda.

What this means, of course, is that the "not under investigation" Donald Trump is now officially under investigation. Not his campaign—him. The first three people to be questioned on this matter will be Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Richard Ledgett, who recently resigned as Rogers' deputy. Presumably, Mueller will soon have an on-the-record chat with his good friend James Comey. The particularly bad news for the administration is that obstruction is a criminal charge, and the courts have ruled that executive privilege cannot be used to protect evidence of criminal misconduct. The White House did not comment on the news, referring reporters to attorney Marc Kasowitz, whose office issued a statement that they might as well have printed up on cards, so they can just give them out each day: "The FBI leak of information regarding the president is outrageous, inexcusable and illegal." (Z)

Scalise Shot by Unbalanced Sanders Supporter

Wednesday's most salacious story came not courtesy of the White House, but instead from disaffected Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) supporter James Hodgkinson, a small business owner from Illinois who hates anything and everything Republican. Deciding to take action in just about the least productive way possible, Hodgkinson opened fire on a baseball practice involving House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). The Congressman was badly injured, along with four others, and remained in critical condition as of Wednesday night. The shooter was killed when Capitol Hill police officers, who provide security for high ranking members of Congress, returned fire.

There was a time, perhaps not that long ago, when partisans waited a respectful time before trying to co-opt a tragedy like this. That time has passed. The shooting itself is eerily reminiscent of the Gabby Giffords shooting six years ago, and so is the response. Namely, Democrats are using the incident to lament gun violence and to push for gun control legislation. Meanwhile, as was the case six years ago, Republicans are pointing the finger at Democrats, and blaming them for creating such a toxic political climate. Leading the way on that front was Newt Gingrich, who spoke of an "increasing intensity of hostility on the left" and drew a (very tenuous) connection between Wednesday's shooting, the controversial staging of Julius Caesar where the assassinated Caesar bears a resemblance to Donald Trump, and Kathy Griffin's bloody Trump head video. The right-wing media were thinking in much the same way as the former speaker. Radio talker Michael Savage, for example, declared that, "I warned America the Dems constant drumbeat of hatred would lead to violence!" President Trump, to his credit, did not give into this temptation, and instead issued a very respectful statement and visited Scalise at the hospital. Bernie Sanders, for his part, blasted the attack from the floor of the Senate, while also offering his hopes and prayers for those who were injured. Of course, given that the Senator is an atheist, that may not do them much good. (Z)

Senate Approves New Sanctions on Russia

By a vote of 97 to 2, the Senate voted yesterday to place new sanctions on Russia and strip the president of his power to lift the sanctions on his own. The two "No" votes were from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) was not present when the vote was taken. It now goes to the House. If the House approves it by an equally overwhelming margin, that is more than enough to override a possible presidential veto.

If the bill passes, is vetoed, and then overridden, it will be a clear defeat for Donald Trump. It is hard to spin a law that restricts his power and makes him get permission from Congress to do something as a "win." It also hits Trump hard in an area he cares a lot about: Russia. If the House vote is as lopsided as the Senate vote, it will be interesting to see his reaction. (V)

Feinstein Defends Blue Slips

Longstanding tradition in the Senate is that when the president nominates a judge for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, the senators from the state where the judge will work are given a blue slip of paper on which they can approve or reject the candidate. Republicans are now threatening to abolish the practice. This tradition gives senators from the opposition party some power, since they can veto the president's choices. While Barack Obama was president, Republicans were big supporters of the blue slip. But now that there is a Republican president, they want to abolish it.

Yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) defended the blue slip and pointed out the Republicans' hypocrisy. There was a confirmation hearing yesterday for a federal judge in Alabama. The position was vacant because when Obama nominated a candidate, Abdul Kallon, then-senator Jeff Sessions used the blue-slip procedure to veto the choice. The Democrats accepted Sessions' veto as standard Senate practice. Now Trump has nominated someone else, Kevin Newsom, who has the backing of both of Alabama's (Republican) senators. Feinstein, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, used the opportunity to show that if the Democrats had abolished the blue-slip tradition when they ran the Senate, then Obama would have filled the position, not Trump. She argued for keeping the tradition indefinitely. (V)

Government Ethics Office Says Bannon's Waiver Is "Problematic"

Government ethics rules prohibit political appointees from participating in any matter involving their former employers, unless the president gives them a waiver. Donald Trump gave his adviser, Steve Bannon, a retroactive waiver, after he was working for the White House yet still talking to his former employer, Breitbart News, which is precisely what the ethics rules forbid. Yesterday, the Office of Government Ethics told lawmakers that Bannon's waiver is problematic. The waiver was issued on May 31, is retroactive to Jan. 20, and is undated and unsigned. This is not how waivers are supposed to work.

Four Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren (MA), Ed Markey (D), Mazie Hirono (HI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), were upset earlier in the year when Bannon called the editor of Breitbart News and "unloaded" on him about a critical piece Breitbart published about White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The ethics rules prohibit precisely this kind of behavior. They complained to the Ethics Office, which yesterday said that basically they were correct and the White House should consider disciplining Bannon. The Office has no power to punish anyone on its own. (V)

Why Do Republicans Still Grovel to Trump?

The video released earlier this week showed members of the cabinet praising Donald Trump in a way that would have embarrassed North Korea's dictator Kim Jong-un. In addition, almost no Republican in Congress has dared to criticize Trump in public. Many even make excuses for him, such as Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) saying that Trump's pressuring former FBI Director Comey to stop investigating former NSA Michael Flynn was a rookie mistake. Republicans aren't stupid. Why do they keep supporting someone they know is unsuited for the presidency?

John Cassidy in the New Yorker has one explanation. In essence, although Trump ran on a populist platform of banning Muslims, building a wall on the Mexican border, pulling out of NAFTA, and imposing a 45% tariff on Chinese goods, all of that is dead and gone. Furthermore, the media are completely consumed with Russiagate and all the hearings and intrigues associated with it.

Meanwhile, over on the hill, Congress is busy gutting all of Barack Obama's achievements, including the ACA and Dodd-Frank. Cassidy's theory is that if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were president, there would be no scandals and the media would be focusing all its attention on the bills Congress is working on—and trying to keep it secret, for fear of a terrible reaction if people knew what they were doing. From this perspective, Trump is a bright shiny object that distracts the media from what Republicans are actually accomplishing under the radar. If Trump were impeached and convicted and Mike Pence became president and was meeting daily with congressional leaders about how they can take health insurance away from 23 or 24 million people, that would dominate the news and make it much harder to actually pass the bill. In this way, Trump helps the Republican establishment get what it really wants, even if they have to grovel to Trump in public. To many, it is a fair tradeoff.

Another theory for why Republicans are sticking to Trump like glue is that 40% of the country still supports him. Any House Republican who opposed Trump in public would be virtually certain to draw an opportunistic primary opponent in 2018 who saw that praising Trump was a good way to get elected to Congress. During the primary, the incumbent would then be forced to stand at attention, place his right hand over his heart, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to Trump. It might work in the primary, but the when the Democrat replayed the footage endlessly in the general election, it might not work nearly as well. The best way to avoid the whole unpleasant situation is by carefully avoiding any criticism of Trump now. (V)

Trump's Plan to Privatize the Air Traffic Control Systems Is Hitting Turbulence

One of the few concrete plans that Donald Trump has announced is the one to turn the country's air traffic control system over to a private corporation. The plan is hitting headwinds in Congress and its opponents are starting to speak up. The probem is that any corporation is going to focus on where it can make the most money. That means investing in major airports and cutting back funding for (or eliminating) smaller ones.

Senators and representatives from rural areas, many of whom are from states and districts Trump won, are already pushing back hard on the idea. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said it would be a "tough sell" in his rural state (English translation: I'm voting against it). Rep. David Price (D-NC), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, said: "President Trump's proposal to privatize the air traffic control system...would represent a giveaway of taxpayer-funded assets to an untested private entity (English translation: All the Democrats will vote against it)." The mayors of Monroe, NC; Concord, NC; Wichita, KS; Florence, SC; and Mount Pleasant, SC, also openly oppose the plan. Nevertheless, some members of Congress, especially those from districts with major airports, support it, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, which normally opposes almost everything. (V)

Fox News Drops the "Fair and Balanced" Slogan

Fox News' slogan "Fair and balanced" was the brainchild of the network's founder, the late Roger Ailes. In the post-Ailes era, there have been personnel changes, and now Ailes' famous slogan has been dropped. The slogan's brillance is that it allowed viewers to imagine that the network was fair and balanced, when in fact it was strongly conservative and rarely gave other viewpoints much attention. The new slogan is: "Most watched. Most trusted." Since Fox has the highest ratings among cable TV stations and its viewers believe everything they see and hear, this slogan is actually true. (V)

Trump's Twitter Etiquette Raises Eyebrows

Twitter, as anyone who has used the platform knows, allows users to block other users. A blocked user can no longer see the blocker's feed, nor send messages to them. The purpose of this tool is to combat abuse, but it's also used by thin-skinned Twitterers to silence those who they did not like or who they disagree with.

Donald Trump, of course, is as thin-skinned as they come, and so he is an enthusiastic Twitter blocker, banishing all manner of individuals whom he finds disagreeable. This has been going on for a while, and has even become a badge of honor among leftists, but it got particular attention last week, when prominent author (and leftist) Stephen King discovered he had been blocked. Now, to keep on top of The Donald's tweeting, he's relying on prominent author (and leftist) J. K. Rowling to forward the messages.

In general, blocking someone on Twitter is harmless (and also kind of useless, since they can always create a new account). In Trump's case, however, he may be creating yet another problem for himself, as legal scholars wonder if it's constitutional for a president to shield his public communications from certain members of the public. Given that suing Trump is all the rage these days, it's surely only a matter of time until someone puts this to the test. (Z)

Christie's Approval Rating Is Ghastly

Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) is wrapping up his time in office. And thanks to Bridgegate, as well as his general neglect of the Garden State while running for president, his approval rating has gone where no New Jersey governor's approval rating has gone before: down to 15%. That's not only the worst approval rating in New Jersey history, it's also one of the worst in American history, and ranks him below even Donald Trump (28%) and Democratic senator Robert Menendez (44%), who just so happens to be in the midst of a corruption investigation right now.

This news is of interest for a couple of reasons. First, barring a political resurrection that would put even Richard Nixon to shame, Christie's career in governance is over. Second, his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, is running right now to replace him, and is being badly hurt by the association. This makes her Democratic opponent, Phil Murphy, a strong favorite to take the governor's mansion. If he does, it will give the blue team the trifecta in New Jersey, since they already have a hammerlock on both houses of the legislature. (Z)

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