Oct. 29

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Mueller Indictments: No Comment from White House, Much Activity by Lawyers

Little is known, as yet, about the indictments that Robert Mueller has secured from a federal grand jury. This being the case, there is little upside to the administration commenting on the matter. That doesn't always stop Donald Trump from commenting anyhow, but he stayed away from the subject on a much-slower-than-usual-for-him Saturday on Twitter, largely contenting himself to take potshots at filmmaker and activist Michael Moore. The White House communications office also remained silent.

This is not to say that the administration is not taking the news seriously, however. Behind the scenes, lawyers for Trump the president, Trump the person, and for the various individuals who could find themselves under arrest on Monday, worked the phones, desperately trying to figure out exactly what is going on, and who is about to get pinched. Apparently, nobody knows anything—attorneys for the two men most likely to be targeted, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn—say that they are in the dark. Outside of CNN, which is protecting its sources, no media outlet has been able to figure out anything, either, or to even confirm the reports. So, Mueller and whoever else knows what is going on is apparently doing a very good job of keeping things close to the vest.

Publicly, Trump and friends have continued their campaign of distraction, with allies of the President using twitter, Fox news, and e-mail to try and return the focus to Hillary Clinton. "Crooked Hillary and the DNC have been EXPOSED paying a company to use a foreign agent to take down my Presidency," read the fundraising blast that went out on Friday night. Undoubtedly, the activities of a private citizen who is not president will take up a fair amount of time on the Sunday morning news shows. However, if Paul Manafort or Michael Flynn or Jared Kushner gets hauled away in handcuffs on Monday or Tuesday, that is going to be stories 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D on every website and in every newspaper. Anyone who thinks or hopes otherwise is kidding themselves. (Z)

Energy Contract Heading into Scandal Territory

Early this week, Puerto Rico signed a contract worth up to $300 million with Whitefish Energy to fix the power grid that was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria. This is a strange arrangement, for at least two reasons. First, Puerto Rican utility companies have reciprocal agreements with other utility companies to provide emergency assistance. Normally, those would be activated under these circumstances. Second, Whitefish is a tiny company with only two permanent employees, and no track record of dealing with a problem of this magnitude.

Given the mysterious nature of the deal, it did not take long for people to notice a few things. Namely that: (1) Donald Trump and Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló have been palling around a lot lately, (2) The owner of Whitefish, Andy Techmanski, is friends with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as they both come from the same small Montana town where Whitefish is headquartered, and (3) The primary investor in Whitefish, Joe Colonnetta, is a major Trump supporter and donor.

None of this proves anything, of course, but it certainly doesn't look good. And now, everyone is rushing for cover. The White House claims they had nothing to do with the contract. Zinke claims he had nothing to do with it. Rosselló claims he had nothing to do with it. Everyone is calling for audits and investigations. This could go nowhere, but it could also become the next Teapot Dome which, conveniently enough, involved Montana's next-door neighbor of Wyoming. The only thing that seems certain is that Whitefish won't be collecting the whole $300 million, or anything close to it. (Z)

GOP Seems Determined to Repeat Obamacare Failure With Taxes

When Republicans made their strongest push at repealing Obamacare—the one that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) killed—it was a small committee of GOP Senators that crafted the bill in secrecy, without comment or feedback from outside the committee. That served to aggravate many within Congress and without, and contributed to the bill's defeat (and, in particular, McCain's 'Nay' vote). Now, as the Republicans try to cook up a plan to change the tax code, they're doing it again, albeit with an even smaller committee called the "Big Six."

The reasoning, at least officially, is that working in secrecy will keep the lobbyists at bay for as long as is possible. If that really is the plan, it's not working. For example, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) very much wanted to kill (or severely curtail) the deduction for state and local taxes, which is known as SALT. Already, he has been compelled to throw in the towel on that one, as it had the members from states like California and New York up in arms. Similarly, Republicans want to kill the deduction that people get for mortgage interest. To balance that, to some extent, there was a plan to give a "home ownership credit." Now, the latter part of that plan is off the table. This caused the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) on Saturday to blast Ryan for betraying them, and to announce that they would now oppose the GOP tax plan. "All the resources we were going to put into supporting are now going to go into opposing the plan," NAHB Chief Executive Officer Jerry Howard said.

So, the Big Six are not enjoying the supposed benefit of secrecy. Meanwhile, they are causing much trepidation among members who feel shut out of the process, and are deeply concerned that the proposal could have "some bombs in there," to use one Congressional aide's words. Given the incredibly thin margin of error that the GOP is working with, all of this is not promising. (Z)

It's Trump's Republican Party, at Least for Now

Charles Sykes is a conservative author, editor, and former radio host who finds no place for himself in the current iteration of the Republican Party. He has written a very interesting essay for Politico Magazine entitled, "Why Jeff Flake Is Going to Need a Good Dog." Sykes' point is that it's Donald Trump's Republican Party for now, and the President is unusually good at punishing those who fall out of line. Consequently, Flake, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and others who would dare rebel against The Donald should prepare to spend the next year or three as personae non gratae, apostates who will find they have many fewer friends than they thought.

It's an excellent piece, and from someone who knows of what he speaks, as Sykes himself is getting the traitor treatment these days after authoring How The Right Lost Its Mind. However, we continue to believe that Malcolm Gladwell's notion of a "tipping point" is worth keeping in mind. He argues that changes of various sorts do not happen until "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point," at which time things begin to evolve rapidly. There are at least three potential tipping points that could come to pass in the near future: (1) If tax reform succeeds or fails, and the GOP has little use for Trump anymore, (2) Robert Mueller's investigation/arrests officially make Trump into Richard Nixon the sequel, or (3) A few more prominent senators—like, say, Orrin Hatch (R-UT)—defect. Point is, Flake may want to think about just renting a dog for a few months, rather than buying. (Z)

Fusion GPS to Hand Over Financial Records to House Intelligence Committee

The House Intelligence Committee, led by Republicans, is showing a very high level of enthusiasm for investigating Russia-related matters that might implicate Hillary Clinton and/or the Democratic Party. On that front, an agreement has been reached that GPS Fusion—the company responsible for the salacious Trump dossier—will turn over its financial records, so that everyone has clarity on exactly who was paying the bills.

As we have noted before, this is just a distraction. The question of who was paying the bills has apparently been answered—the conservative Washington Free Beacon at first, and then later the DNC and the Clinton campaign. The financial records aren't likely to shed any additional light, and certainly won't implicate Clinton any more fully, as they will neither prove nor disprove her claim that she had no knowledge of the scheme. Further, nothing that happened here is actually illegal, so no matter what the Intelligence Committee finds, their next step is going to be...nothing. (Z)

New-School Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Run New-School Playbook

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former VP Joe Biden are both entertaining the thought of running for president in 2020. To that end, they are finding all kinds of reasons to visit New Hampshire and Iowa—fundraising for the Democratic Party being the most common excuse. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are also entertaining the thought of running for president in 2020, and are also paying lots of visits to states they don't live in. However, their itineraries primarily involve swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida.

There is an obvious generational divide here. The two fellows who have been in politics for decades are running for president the way people have run for president for the last half-century. The three senators whose careers began more recently (2013 for Warren, 2003 for Harris, 1998 for Booker) are clearly adopting a different paradigm. Since nobody is officially running, nobody is explaining their thought process, so we are left to speculate. Here are five possibilities:

It could be any, all, or none of the above. What seems clear, however, is that the enormous power that New Hampshire, Iowa, and (to a lesser extent) South Carolina have exercised over American politics since the 1960s is on the wane. (Z)

Could CNN End Up Under Trump's Thumb?

Roger Stone was one of the Trump insiders who was sent out to muddy up the waters vis-a-vis Russiagate (see above). On Friday night, he sat for a discussion with CNN's Don Lemon. Stone was displeased with the encounter, and went on an expletive- and threat-filled tirade on Twitter, which got him suspended from the service, very possibly permanently. Among the tweetstorm was one message that attracted particular notice: "When AT&T aquires (sic) Time Warner the house cleaning at CNN of human excrement like @donlemon @jaketapper & dumbf**k @ananavarro will be swift."

To understand the situation here requires connecting a few dots. First, as Stone points out, AT&T is indeed trying to acquire Time Warner (which owns CNN). That merger will have to be approved by the Justice Department. Normally, a president would not (and should not) interfere in that process, but Donald Trump is not a normal president, and he famously loathes CNN. Stone, meanwhile, has frequent and frank conversations with the President. Adding it all together, and considering Friday's tweet, it certainly appears that Stone has knowledge that Trump is thinking about using his influence to silence critics on CNN. As in, "We're not going to be able to approve this merger as long as you continue to employ Don Lemon, Jake Tapper, Ana Navarro, and dumbf**k." There's no way to know how serious the President is, since he often speaks off the cuff, but the idea sure seems to be rattling around in his head. (Z)

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