Sep. 02

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Russians May Have Hacked Voter Registration Lists

Although there is no evidence that hackers, Russian or otherwise, changed vote totals in any elections, there is increasing evidence that hackers (possibly Russian) did get into voter registration systems and delete some unknown number of voters. The New York Times has a story about how voters in Durham, NC, a blue county in a swing state, began complaining as early as 7 a.m. on Election Day that they were not allowed to vote. It is known that the company that supplied the check-in software, VR Systems, had been penetrated by Russian hackers months earlier. Is there a connection between the hack of VR Systems and the fact that voters who showed up at the polls with a valid voter registration card were still not allowed to vote? No one knows, because the federal government has not been terribly interested in investigating and the state and local governments don't have the know-how to investigate this kind of situation, even if they had the motivation, which they often don't. When the Dept. of Homeland Security offered to conduct an autopsy in Durham, they were rebuffed. DHS gave up quickly. Free & Fair, a team of digital election-forensics experts, was also told its help wasn't wanted. The same thing happened in many places besides Durham. The Times study showed that this kind of hacking was far more widespread than previously disclosed.

It makes perfect sense for a hacker to target the voter registration files, which are highly centralized, rather than attack thousands of individual voting machines to change totals. Besides, an attack on the voter registration files, removing many voters in blue counties in swing states, works even if paper ballots marked with an X are used. Attacking the voter registration files has another benefit for the hackers, as well. When a voter is deleted form the files, that voter is going to argue with the poll worker when told to please just go home. If the voter has a valid voter registration to show the poll worker, the discussion will take even longer. As a consequence, the lines move extremely slowly and many voters who are still in the registration files give up and leave rather than stand in line for hours.

The worst of all is that county officials refuse to believe there is a problem. Starting in the summer of 2016, cybersecurity experts began drawing up lists of ways local officials could patch the most obvious cyber vulnerabilities. All of this advice was ignored. In part it was local arrogance, with county officials who thought they knew more than they did, but there were also elements of power struggle present, with local authorities adamant that they, and only they, would run elections, without any advice or interference from outside. The result was that many local systems were compromised in various ways and the local governments don't want outsiders investigating for fear major problems will be found and they will look like incompetent fools. (V)

Mueller Has the Original Comey Firing Letter

When former FBI director James Comey was shown the door, the administration's justification was explained in a letter penned by Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. The story he told, in brief, was that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails, so he had to go. The administration's sudden concern about the treatment of "Lock Her Up" Clinton was a bit hard to swallow back then, and Donald Trump's comments immediately thereafter—in which he contradicted significant parts of Rosenstein's letter, in particular the timeline for making the decision—made the story even more tenuous.

Now, a new piece in the puzzle has come to light. As it turns out, Rosenstein's letter was version 2.0. Version 1.0 was written by Trump himself, with substantial input from bomb-thrower Stephen Miller. Special counsel Robert Mueller now has a copy of that original letter. It is not known, at least not publicly, what the letter says. There are two important things that are known, however. The first is that the original letter was killed by White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, who feared that the President's narrative was...problematic. The second is that Mueller is making obstruction of justice a focus of his investigation, and whatever the letter says, his job almost certainly just got easier. (Z)

Mick the Knife Gets to Work

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, often called "Mick the Knife," is unknown to most Americans but is de facto one of the most powerful people in the country. He has enormous influence over the federal budget the administration submits to Congress. Generally when the president's party controls Congress the budget is approved without too many changes, so in essence, Mulvaney gets to determine which government programs will live and which ones will die. An alert president who was interested in how the government spends its money would never give the director of OMB free rein, but that is not currently applicable.

Mulvaney is an ideological bomb thrower who was, until early this year, a congressman from South Carolina and one of the founders of the Freedom Caucus. There is a story in the media that Mulvaney told Trump he wanted to gut Social Security and Trump said "no." Then he told Trump he wanted to gut Medicare and Trump said "no." Finally he said he wanted to gut disability insurance and Trump said "yes," not realizing that disability insurance is part of Social Security. What is unusual here is not Mulvaney's ability to trick Trump, but that the one who told the story to the media was Mulvaney, and he did it on the record for attribution.

Mulvaney has an especially large amount of power because almost everyone else in the White House is a rank amateur who knows nothing about how the government actually works. As a three-term representative, he has a fairly good idea how things actually work. Since OMB weighs in on practically everything the government does, he has an enormous amount of power to carry out what he openly admits is a right-wing agenda. In the past he has questioned whether the government should fund medical research or student loans, has called Social Security a Ponzi scheme, has proposed eliminating the EPA, and has said that the government should not fund diabetes treatment for people who eat poorly. The 2018 budget will clearly reflect Mulvaney's priorities. Politico has a long piece on Mulvaney, his background, and his goals. (V)

Trump Concedes: No Wall, For Now

Mexico does not want to pay for Donald Trump's wall. Congress doesn't want to pay for it, either. So, unless he wants to write the check himself, he has to either give up on the idea, or use whatever leverage he has to bend Congress to his will. Trump made clear, as recently as the infamous Phoenix rally, that he was willing to play chicken and to shut the government down if he didn't get $1.6 billion in funding to get construction started. It's hard to say if he was serious, but in the interim, Hurricane Harvey happened. This made Trump's position much more tenuous, since $1.6 billion for walls and/or a government shutdown might have resulted in greater suffering in Houston. This would not be a good look for the president and so, with his alternatives limited, he has told Congressional leaders that he's not going to shut the government down to get his money.

Officially, the administration says that they still want the $1.6 billion, and expects to get it when the final budget is passed in December. Trump & Co. may even believe that. But, in truth, the odds are getting longer by the day. First, since everyone in Congress knows Trump will sign anything put in front of him—in search of those oh-so-elusive "wins"—he has virtually no leverage with them. If he were, say, a Ronald Reagan, he'd say something like, "I'll sign your mental health bill I don't like, if you give me my $1.6 billion" but he's not a Ronald Reagan. The second problem is that coming up for extra money for hurricanes and for a wall is something that budget hawks will not go for. And Democrats won't go for a wall under any circumstances. So, getting wall money in the upcoming budget (2017-18) is a long shot.

What about future budgets? Well, the 2018-19 budget comes with different challenges (assuming that there's no hurricane next year). The first challenge is that Congressional Republicans are expecting to incorporate major tax cuts into that budget (more on this below). Tax cuts mean less revenue, which means less money for walls. The second challenge is that members of Congress get extra skittish in election season, which will be in full swing when next year's budget is under consideration. In particular, representatives in heavily Latino states are going to be minding their p's and q's very carefully. So, wall funding is not looking good next year.

What about the 2019-2020 budget? It's hard to project out that far, but there is a solid chance that following next year's midterms, the House and/or the Senate (more likely the House) will be under Democratic control. If that happens, then Trump is more likely to get wall money from Mexico than from Congress (which is to say, his chances would be very, very, very slim and none). There's also a better-than-average chance that the U.S. economy will be in recession by then. So, a three-year plan doesn't look much better than a next-year plan, and in four years (2020-2021 budget), Trump (if still in office) will be facing the same election season dynamic as in 2018, except greatly heightened. Needless to say, nothing is impossible, particularly in a world where people are saying "U.S. Senate candidate Kid Rock" with a straight face. However, the smart money currently says that there's not ever going to be a Great Wall of Trump. (Z)

Ryan, Hatch Urge Caution with DACA

Surely, Donald Trump knows—or, at least, suspects—that no Mexican wall is forthcoming. It cannot be a coincidence that, in the same week that hard truth is coming to light, he is making noise about killing DACA. He needs something to give to the base to show them he's fighting those persnickety illegal immigrants.

Trump's problem is that DACA is popular with both parties, albeit for different reasons (in that way, it's kind of like Israel). Democrats like it because they are the party of immigrants. Republicans like it because they are the party of business, and business likes cheap labor. And it's probably fair to say that members of both parties realize that it's counterproductive to eject people who grew up in the U.S., were educated in the U.S., and would like to work in the U.S. Consequently, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) both made statements on Friday in which they urged Trump not to cancel DACA, and to allow Congress to come up with a "workable" solution. That "workable" solution, if it ever happens, will almost certainly involve amnesty for the 8 million or so DREAMers already in the United States.

If Congress really takes up the matter seriously, the most likely battle will be about whether the DREAMers get a path to citizenship. Traditionally, Republicans have opposed citizenship for fear that the DREAMers would vote Democratic. However, a case can be made that if a Republican Congress passes a bill giving the DREAMers a path to citizenship and it is signed by a Republican president, the DREAMers might remember who passed the law. The only fly in the ointment is that this would drive the Republican base wild and they get to vote right now rather than in 5 or 10 years.

It's hard to know what Trump will do until he does it. He does have the authority to kill DACA if he wants, and he could very well wake up some morning and announce that he's pulling the trigger. Which he would probably do via Twitter. On the other hand, the White House says they are not going to make a decision until October, at the earliest. Further, on Friday afternoon, Trump told reporters that, "We love DREAMers!" So, literally any outcome is possible. (Z)

Time For Obamacare Repeal Runs Short

Funding for the Mexican wall is not looking good, and the chances of killing Obamacare are possibly even grimmer, thanks to some bad news that the GOP members of Congress got on Friday. The bad news is a little bit of inside baseball, but the situation is this: The only viable way to pass an Obamacare repeal is through a budget reconciliation bill. Congress gets to pass one of those per budget year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & Co. were operating under the assumption that "this budget year" does not end until a budget is passed for next year, and so they had an indefinite amount of time to pass a reconciliation bill and then a 2017-2018 budget in sequence. Not quite, ruled Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who declared Friday that "this budget year" ends when the current budget expires on September 30.

MacDonough's ruling leaves the members of Congress who still dream of an Obamacare repeal with four options, none of them "good," from their point of view. The first would be for McConnell to fire MacDonough and hire a new parliamentarian in hopes of getting a different ruling. That approach is probably a non-starter; it likely wouldn't produce the desired result and the optics would be terrible. The second option is to use next year's reconciliation bill to repeal Obamacare, which is possible, except that the GOP was planning to use that one for changes to the tax code. The third option would be to come up with an Obamacare repeal by September 30. However, the GOP has had years to come up with a plan, and has been "under the gun" two or three times during that period, and has come up short. Barring a quick demise for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and an even quicker choice of a replacement, a repeal by the end of this month seems improbable. The fourth option is to work with the Democrats to come up with a plan that both parties can live with, and that could be passed without the need for reconciliation. That is what Majority Leaders past—Robert Taft (R), LBJ (D), Mike Mansfield (D), Howard Baker (R)—might have done, but thus far McConnell has shown zero interest in reaching across the aisle. So, the Democrats probably shouldn't hold their breaths. (Z)

Long-Time Trump Aide Keith Schiller Will Leave White House

Keith Schiller has worked for Donald Trump for nearly 20 years and is one of his most trusted aides. He has told friends that he plans to leave the White House next month. This will come as a serious blow to Trump, who trusts only his family and long-time aides, of which Schiller is one of the most important. Schiller said that there were two factors that are driving him to leave. First, his government job pays a piddling $165,000, and Schiller took a serious pay cut when he left the Trump organization to work in the White House. Second, he is chafing under the authority of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who is blocking his direct access to the president. Schiller was originally Trump's bodyguard and later the head of his security detail back in New York. His departure will leave Trump even more isolated than he already is. The President will also have to find someone else to fire people, since that duty was generally given to Schiller. (V)

The Invisible Primary Is Already Underway

Mike Allen of Axios is reporting that the 2020 invisible primary is already underway. This is the period—normally in the year before every presidential election—in which potential candidates start trying to line up staff and donors. Something like three dozen Democrats are already starting to do some of these things, albeit in varying amounts. The more famous a candidate is, the less important it is to begin this early, but for unknown candidates, say Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) or Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), it is never too early to start. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) can announce the day before the Iowa filing deadline and it won't hurt him. But never has the invisible primary started this early. When the sharks start circling, it is usually because they smell blood in the water. Two years from now it will be clearer who has amassed enough money, staff, and supporters to make a serious run of it. (V)

Judge to Menendez: No Breaks in the Trial So You Can Vote in the Senate

Judge William Walls has rejected Sen. Robert Menendez' (D-NJ) request to stop his corruption trial from time to time so he can go vote in the Senate. The judge said that Menendez will get the same treatment as anyone else. He would not stop the trial of a surgeon who had patients to operate on, and will not stop the trial of Menendez to let him vote in the Senate. The judge added that he didn't see any big votes coming up in the Senate right now and thought Menendez was trying to get breaks in the trial to impress the jurors with how important he is rather than to cast key votes in the Senate. If Menendez is convicted he will be under pressure to resign from the Senate, in which case Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) would appoint his successor. But Menendez would not be forced to resign and could certainly delay resigning until after his appeal if he loses. A delay in resigning is important because a new governor will take over in Trenton in January. (V)

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