Oct. 28

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The First Indictments Are In

On Friday, a grand jury approved the first indictments requested by special counsel Robert Mueller. They are currently under seal, on orders from a federal judge. The secret isn't going to last for long, however, as the first arrest or arrests are expected to take place next week, perhaps as early as Monday.

Given the judge's order, not to mention the risk that a suspect might be tempted to flee, everyone involved is keeping their lips sealed. However, it would be a huge surprise if Paul Manafort isn't a target, most likely on money laundering charges, or possibly for tax evasion. What other charges might be filed, and whatever other individuals might find themselves in custody, if anyone, is anyone's guess. If the indictments somehow reach into the White House, the likeliest victim is Jared Kushner, whose actions—between attending the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya (more below) and his efforts to set up a secret communications line to the Russians—have left him pretty exposed.

With that said, it's very possible that Donald Trump's inner circle won't be ensnared in Mueller's net quite yet. In his time in law enforcement, Mueller tended to start on the periphery, using the threat of prison time as inducement to get the henchmen to turn on the kingpin. Once we learn exactly what indictments the grand jury has returned next week, there may very well be nothing that directly implicates the President, or anyone currently working for him. However, The Donald certainly knows what secrets are out there, and who knows them, so he could be in for a lot of sleepless nights in the near future even if he's publicly claiming vindication.

One wonders—and we'll likely never know for sure—if Mueller made a point of expediting this process, so that he could get the jump on the investigations being conducted by Congress. Their probes are expected to be wrapped up in the next month or two, and to be somewhat inconclusive. If they announce "there's nothing to see here," and then Mueller issues forth with indictments, it would set Trump up to make all kinds of claims about fake news and witch hunts and the like. Now that Mueller has made the first move, he has effectively seized control of the narrative.

And finally, it is worth remembering that grand jury indictments come very early in the process, and that they are not particularly indicative of guilt, since grand juries tend to be very liberal in granting prosecutors' requests. So, we will get a few more pieces of the puzzle next week, but really this is just the first step on what will be a long journey.

As Yogi Berra once put it: "You can observe a lot by just watching." In this case, at the time we posted today's blog (06:00 EDT), CNN was reporting the indictments, along with The Hill and the Wall Street Journal. But the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico had nothing on it. Could it be that editors there thought this story was no big deal? Probably not. Could it be they were not aware of the story? Not very likely. All their reporters were snug in their beds? Don't count on it. Almost certainly they were desperately trying to get independent confirmation of its veracity but they couldn't find anyone who was willing to talk to them, even on deep background. While this is only circumstantial evidence, it does suggest that major publications won't go with a story unless their own reporters have verified it. Nevertheless, with all their contacts, they are bound to chime in on the story one way or another within a few hours at most. (Z & V)

Russian Lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya Coordinated Meeting Plans with Kremlin

Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya has long said that she was operating on her own when she dangled damaging information about Hillary Clinton in front of Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner. Now, it turns out that she coordinated with a high-ranking Russian official, Russia's Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika. One does not expect honest people like Vladimir Putin's cronies to lie about things like this, but it does happen.

It turns out that the information that Veselnitskaya planned to share was a memo claiming that a couple of high-flying Clinton donors tried to use stock purchases in Russia to avoid paying Russian taxes. Chaika's office gave the memo to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) two months before the infamous Trump Tower meeting and Rohrabacher, though no friend of Clinton, didn't see much that he could do with it. The Veselnitskaya confab, then, represented the second attempt to peddle the same dirt, and apparently with the same result. For all the Russians' skill in rabble-rousing, they seemingly did not grasp that "people close to Clinton didn't pay enough taxes in Russia" is not exactly the stuff from which American political scandals are made.

While this is probably not quite as bad for Team Trump as the indictments (see above), it's still pretty bad. The new details divulged on Friday put to rest most of the stories and excuses used to justify the meeting, like the assertion that it was really about Russian orphans, and/or that Clinton-related dirt was a minor sidebar or an afterthought. It's probably just a coincidence that this story broke on the same day that the first indictments came down, but it's possible we may learn next week that it was no coincidence at all. (Z & V)

Trump Points Fingers Everywhere

Starting on Thursday, and continuing through the day Friday, Donald Trump did his best impression of an octopus, pointing fingers in so many directions that it was almost as though he had eight arms.

First of all, there was the Obama-Clinton uranium deal that has been on every Republican's lips for the last week or so. On Friday morning, the White House dispatched Kellyanne Conway so she could appear on CNN and demand that the FBI informant who made the issue public be freed from his gag order and allowed to tell his story. "[President Trump] believes, as many others do, frankly, that the FBI informant should be free to say what he knows," pronounced Conway.

That was not the only reminder that it's really the Democrats who were working with the Russians, however. The infamous dossier, which began as a Republican project to derail then-upstart candidate Trump, and then became a Democratic project to defeat then-Republican nominee Trump, was a popular subject of discussion at the White House on Friday. Sarah Huckabee Sanders made it a central focus of her daily press briefing, and also went on Fox News to declare that, "I think that this further proves if there was anyone that was colluding with the Russians to influence the election look no further than the Clintons and the DNC." The President got in on the fun via Twitter, with several tweets along these lines:

It is now commonly agreed, after many months of COSTLY looking, that there was NO collusion between Russia and Trump. Was collusion with HC!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2017

This is despite the fact that we learned on Friday exactly which GOP outlet started the dossier in the first place (the conservative Washington Free Beacon). And on Thursday, Robert Litt, the former top lawyer for the office of the Director of National Intelligence declared unequivocally that the dossier has nothing to do with the decision to investigate Trump, calling it "a mere sideshow that should not distract from a comprehensive investigation."

Of course, as long as we are relitigating Hillary Clinton's reported misdeeds, there has to be some mention of the e-mails. On Friday, the White House let it be known that Trump wants whatever unreleased e-mails of hers that the State Department still has, so he can make them public. The odds are pretty good that there are no such e-mails, and that if they do exist, they contain classified information. So, this is unlikely to produce anything new. But it does get "Clinton" and "e-mail" back into the headlines.

Hillary Clinton wasn't the only woman to find her way into the crosshairs on Friday, though. The subject of all the women who accused Trump of sexual harassment and other misconduct came up, conveniently enough, and Sanders reiterated the administration's position that all of them—two dozen or so—are liars. As recently as last week, Trump himself spoke on the matter: "All I can say is it's totally fake news, just fake. It's fake. It's made-up stuff, and it's disgraceful what happens, but that happens in the world of politics." It's worth noting, perhaps, that Harvey Weinstein offered much the same explanation, and yet was drummed out of his marriage, his business, and his profession.

The last big target on Friday was Tom Steyer, who is investing $10 million in an effort to get Trump impeached. Steyer arranged for the ad to air on Fox News on Friday morning, suspecting—correctly—that the President would see it. Reaching for his phone so quickly that it must have caused a sonic boom, Trump tweeted:

Wacky & totally unhinged Tom Steyer, who has been fighting me and my Make America Great Again agenda from beginning, never wins elections!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 27, 2017

It's not clear what that last part means—it's true that Steyer has never won an election, but it's also true that he's never run for office. He's also never summited Mt. Everest, never scored a touchdown in the NFL, and never been featured as the guest artist on a song by Justin Bieber, for similar reasons.

It's not atypical for the Trump administration to fire salvos in many directions, but even by their usual standards, Friday was unusual in terms of the number of offensives launched. Surely, this is an attempt to muddy the waters on a day when two very bad pieces of news came down the pike (see above), and is thus a sign that Team Trump is much more worried than they might let on. (Z)

Trump Blasted for JFK Documents Semi-Release

Often, it seems that the Trump administration is capable of botching anything, no matter how simple it might be, or how much time they have to prepare. So it is with this week's release of the JFK documents, wherein the White House released several thousand pages of new information to make the public happy, but kept several hundred pages classified to keep the intelligence establishment happy.

So, what's the problem? Well, the CIA, FBI, etc. literally knew this day was coming for decades, and yet they flooded the White House with hundreds of last-minute requests for redaction. In other words, it looks like the intel pros (successfully) manipulated the President. As a result, he was slammed from many directions on Friday. For example, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) took to Twitter to call the delay "ridiculous" and to complain that the government had 50 years to pull things together (actually, 54 years). Similarly, the federal judge who oversaw the compilation of the records in the first place said the President's decision was "disappointing" and that, "I just don't think there is anything in these records that require keeping them secret now."

Of course, Trump is sensitive to criticism, and is more than willing to do a 180-degree turn on a dime. So, late Friday he made an announcement:

#JFKFiles pic.twitter.com/AnPBSJFh3J

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2017

So, the people are going to get what they want. Assuming, of course, he doesn't change his mind again. (Z)

Nine Democratic Primaries to Watch Next Year

Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon is planning to primary every Republican senator up for reelection next year except Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is going to go all out to defend each and every Republican senator running for reelection. Expect lots of fireworks. But there is also some action on the Democratic side for various offices. CNN has compiled a list of nine Democratic primaries to watch, as follows:

Undoubtedly, other races will join the list, especially since we're 13 months out and we've already got nine barnburners. (V)

Democrats Lack Candidates in Some Key House Districts

Democratic candidates running against incumbent House Republicans have done a good job of raising money. In fact, in over 30 districts, at least one Democratic challenger has outraised the incumbent Republican. But Nate Cohn has pointed out a peculiar characteristic of the House races: Democrats are falling all over one another to run in well-educated districts, but are absent in many working-class districts, even swing districts. For example, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a 71-year-old 12-term congressman from NJ-02—a district Donald Trump barely won, but which Barack Obama won twice—is not feeling any pressure to retire since his strongest opponent has the grand total of $9,486 in the bank. Similarly, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), who represents a blue-collar Philadelphia suburb, also seems to be getting a free pass.

There are 11 districts among the top 50 most competitive districts where no Democrat has raised even $100,000. On the whole, those districts are the least-educated districts that are potentially up for grabs. If Democrats aren't going to bother fielding strong candidates in blue-collar districts, they don't have much of a chance to take back the House, even if they have two or three strong candidates in each of the well-educated districts. Needless to say, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) knows this, and is working on the problem. (V)

The Atlantic: Hatch Will Retire and Romney Will Run for His Seat

The Atlantic is reporting that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has told his friends that he will retire after this term, but that he doesn't want to announce it until a tax bill has been passed. Almost certainly, Mitt Romney will run for his seat and win it. Romney will first have to defeat Steve Bannon's candidate, Boyd Matheson, but Romney is so well known and respected that knocking off Matheson will be like shooting fish in a barrel. Especially since Utahns, and particularly Mormons, don't much care for Donald Trump's and Bannon's brand of Republicanism.

A more interesting question is what kind of senator Romney will be if he runs and wins. He has never been a big fan of Trump, so he might become Trump's #1 critic in the Senate since he wouldn't be up for reelection until 2024 (assuming that he would even stand for reelection at the age of 77). Of course, Romney could also try to cozy up to Trump in order to get things done. Who knows? (V)

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