Oct. 20

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New Senate: DEM 48             GOP 52

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

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Numbers 43, 44 Slam Number 45

Two former presidents emerged from their post-presidential seclusion on Thursday, with George W. Bush delivering an address in New York City, and Barack Obama doing the same in Virginia and New Jersey. Though neither used any names, both leveled criticisms that were clearly aimed at their successor in the White House. The things they had to say were so similar, it is sometimes hard to tell which ex-president is which:

"Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. ... This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American."

"Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century!"

"[O]ur politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."

"We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions..."

"Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities."

For the record, the list above is 43, 44, 43, 43, 44.

Donald Trump has not yet responded to Bush and Obama, though Obama's speeches came after the President's Twitter bedtime, so there hasn't been an opportunity as yet. On one hand, Trump hates any criticism, and he knows his predecessors are not likely to fire back at him. On the other hand, attacking them cheapens the office, and so indirectly weakens The Donald. Whatever direction he takes, he certainly knows that Obama's and Bush's words are not going to hurt him with the base. He ran as the outsider and the anti-establishment candidate, so the words of the two men who literally embodied the establishment for the last 16 years are only going to burnish his credentials. That's not to say that the words of the two ex-chief executives won't resonate with voters, just that those voters were already voting against Trump. (Z)

Kelly Leaps to Trump's Defense

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly did not speak to the press at all in the first six weeks of his tenure. Now, he's stood before them twice in the last week. The latest, which came on Thursday, was an attempt to clean up the mess that Donald Trump made with his call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. The former marine general explained to the press corps that he recounted to the president the words that he heard from Gen. Joseph Dunford when his own son was killed in action:

He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war. And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.

"That," explained Kelly, "was what the President tried to say to the four families the other day."

Now recall what Trump is reported to have actually said to Myeshia Johnson: "He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt." It is plain enough what happened here. Trump has a short attention span, likes to wing it without notes, and tends to get tired late in the day (when the call was placed). If you take Kelly's proposed speech and filter it through Trump's tendencies, you end up with what Mrs. Johnson got: words that communicate the gist, but completely miss the tone. It's also notable that Kelly, who says he was present when the call was placed, did not make any claims about what Trump actually said, only what he "tried to say."

With the Chief of Staff having cleared things up—at least, as much as they're ever going to be cleared up—one might expect that the time had come to move on to other things. However, Trump remained on the Twitter warpath Thursday, making sure to squeeze attacks on Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and the fake news, and a falsehood or two, into his 140 characters:

The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2017

If the phone call was SECRET and very personal, one wonders why Kelly was listening in. Perhaps the President will address that in Friday's tweet on the matter. (Z)

Trump Commends Trump For Handling of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, was in Washington for a meeting with Donald Trump on Thursday. This provided the President with an opportunity to share two new insights he's had about the situation. The first is that while Puerto Rico was not "a real catastrophe, like Katrina" 10 days ago, it is now "the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all the different levels." If so, that might justify some of the difficulties that the administration had in coping with the devastation. But that leads us to the second insight, namely that the administration's response was, well, perfect. "A 10 out of 10," to use Trump's exact words.

That's quite a generous assessment, one that wouldn't find a lot of adherents outside the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It might not even find that much support inside the walls. It's likely not a coincidence that Trump is in full spin mode as it becomes clear that the death toll on the island is much larger than previously known—though the official number is 48, the actual total appears to be approaching 500. Several members of Congress have called for an audit; that perfect 10 may soon need a decimal inserted in the middle. (Z)

Trump Continues to Flog NFL

President Trump appears to feel the need for a distraction right now—probably from the Niger situation—as he stirred the pot on two old favorites on Thursday. The first was the NFL, which has decided that it will not attempt to force players to stand for the national anthem. The President has tweeted his dissatisfaction with that decision several times this week, including on Thursday:

The NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our National Anthem. Total disrespect for our great country!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017

In addition to this latest tweet, The Donald also unveiled his newest bit of political theater Thursday, announcing that he has created a petition for people to sign insisting that the NFL make players stand. Keeping in mind that the purpose of petitions is to bring pressure on those in power, it is hard to imagine the situation where such a maneuver would be useful for a president, since they just may have one or two other options at their disposal for bringing pressure to bear. And if there's any question that Trump has an ulterior motive beyond compelling change, it's not possible to sign the petition without making a donation to the Trump campaign. So it's a distraction for fun and profit. (Z)

Clinton Uranium Story Back in the Spotlight

The other distraction that Donald Trump unleashed on Thursday involves a chestnut much older than his war against the NFL. It's the half-decade-old story that Hillary Clinton, while serving as secretary of state, allowed some shady Russians to purchase an American uranium mine in exchange for $145 million in donations to the Clinton Foundation. In other words, something of a 21st century version of the Teapot Dome scandal. Here's Trump's new tweet on the matter:

Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn't want to follow!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 19, 2017

Note that Trump does not bother to include a link, since everyone—at least in right-wing circles—already knows exactly what he's talking about.

That said, the reason that the story has bubbled to the surface again is because of new reporting from The Hill, the gist of which is covered in their lede:

Before the Obama administration approved a controversial deal in 2010 giving Moscow control of a large swath of American uranium, the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin's atomic energy business inside the United States, according to government documents and interviews.

This certainly sounds quite ominous, on the surface. However, as debunker after debunker has pointed out, there are quite a few details that need to be considered before reaching any conclusions. To wit:

Adding everything up, and while it's not impossible that some funny business took place, the weight of the current available evidence argues against it. In the end, the new reporting from The Hill doesn't actually add much to our understanding, and is not likely to change the fact that Clinton supporters see nothing awry, and Clinton haters are convinced this is "another massive Democratic scandal" and proof that the Democrats are the "real Russian colluders" (to use the words of Sean Hannity, journalist). (Z)

Will Senate Move Forward With Obamacare Stabilization?

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) got some good news on Thursday, namely that they now have 12 GOP votes in favor of their plan to fund Obamacare subsidies for low-income Americans for the next two years. That includes Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), authors of the latest Obamacare repeal bill. Adding 12 GOP votes plus 46 Democrats and 2 Independents equals 60, enough to not only give Senate approval to the legislation, but to override a filibuster. So, full speed ahead!

Or maybe not. There are a couple of problems left to contend with. The first is that the highest-ranking member of the Senate leadership to comment on the matter—Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX)—has expressed some unhappiness with the measure, and has also said that he doesn't want to move forward unless the President has given his support. The Senator, it would seem, does not want to rock the boat ahead of tax reform discussions. In addition, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has yet to commit to bringing the measure up in the lower chamber, and will not do so unless he's persuaded that the Freedom Caucus won't kill it. So, Alexander and Murray still have some mountains to climb. They're working on it; it's likely their best strategy is to wait until right before the Christmas recess, and tack it onto the year-end appropriations bill that Congress tends to pass pretty hastily so they can get out of town for the holidays. (Z)

Cook Political Report Moves 11 Seats in Democrats' Direction

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report keeps giving the Democrats good news, and this has been a particularly banner week. Cook has changed its ratings on 12 house races this week, and 11 have shifted in the blue team's direction. The only exception is AZ-09, the seat that Kyrsten Sinema is vacating to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).

As a consequence of the latest update, Cook now believes that 80 House races are competitive, 61 of them currently GOP seats, and 19 of them currently Democratic seats. At the moment, the Democrats need 47 seats to claim a majority. That would mean holding 90% of their competitive seats, and stealing 50% of the GOP's competitive seats. Those totals are steep, but certainly doable in a wave year. For what it's worth, PredictIt, where people bet actual money on these things, currently has "Which party will control the House after 2018 midterms?" as a toss-up. (Z)

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