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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Democrats Release Response to Nunes Memo
      •  Trump Spars with Mexican President
      •  U.S. Embassy in Israel to "Move" in May
      •  Trump Threatens the Whole World
      •  Bernie Sanders' Nose Is Growing
      •  Today in Irony
      •  Pennsylvania Republicans Want to Impeach Judges Over Anti-Gerrymander Map
      •  Ted Cruz, Culture Maven

Democrats Release Response to Nunes Memo

The House Intelligence Committee finally released the Democratic rebuttal to the Devin Nunes memo on Russiagate. Presumably the goal of the Republican-led committee was to bury the Democrats' memo as fully as possible by releasing it during the Saturday night news graveyard. That worked ok in the 1970s—hence the Saturday Night Massacre—but not nearly as well in a world with cable TV, blogs, Twitter, and so forth. In any event, here are the five main differences between the Republican memo (RM) and the Democratic memo (DM):

  1. The RM says that the dossier compiled by British spy Christopher Steele, and paid for partly by the Clinton campaign, was the primary basis for the surveillance of Carter Page. That surveillance, in turn, is the source of much information about possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. The DM says that the FISA court was actually presented with voluminous evidence in support of surveillance, and that the Steele dossier was only one small part of the overall picture.

  2. The RM says that the court was not advised that the Steele dossier was political in origin (first having been funded by a Website run by a Republican megadonor, then later by the Clinton campaign). The DM says that the court was most certainly advised of that fact.

  3. The RM says that the court also focused heavily on a September 23, 2016, Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, that describes Page's July 2016 trip to Moscow. The DM says that, as with the Steele dossier, this was a small part of the overall picture.

  4. The RM says that when the court was considering the Steele dossier, its contents were almost entirely speculative. The DM says that there was a great deal of corroborating information already available, and that information was presented to the court.

  5. The RM says that the court should have been apprised of the relationship between Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr and Steele, including the fact that Ohr's wife worked for the firm that hired Steele (Fusion GPS). The DM says that Ohr was tangential to the investigation, and that, even so, Ohr disclosed his ties to both Fusion GPS and Steele.

These are pretty different accountings of the same set of events. It is possible that the truth is somewhere in between the two narratives. That said, there are three observations worth making:

  1. In general, what is publicly known about the process and the FISA warrant supports the Democratic version of events.

  2. That warrant did have to be approved by a judge, and judges aren't stupid. They also well know that many of the sources presented to them have agendas.

  3. Whether or not the warrant was politically motivated or not, it does not change the information that the warrant produced. And the information that the warrant produced is not good for Team Trump.

In the end, this is an exercise in managing public opinion as much as anything else, since the special counsel is not going to be swayed by one memo or the other, and he undoubtedly has a pretty good grasp on what the truth actually is. And when it comes to the voting public, it's hard to believe that this kind of tit-for-tat is going to matter much. Those who believe the Trump campaign is innocent will continue to believe so, and the same is true of those who believe the Trump campaign is guilty. Mueller's final report might move the needle some, but a couple of wordy memos written by a bunch of lawyer-politicians? Not so much. (Z)

Trump Spars with Mexican President

Perhaps it is because Mexico does not have America's military and political might. Perhaps it is because, from where Donald Trump sits, Mexicans are not white. Perhaps it is because Trump clearly embraces certain stereotypes of Mexicans, from dishonest to dangerous to criminally inclined. After all, on Friday he read a poem at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference comparing immigrants to snakes (apparently, the President was unaware that the poem was written by a liberal and a person of color). In any event, Trump seems to think that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should be taking orders from him, and seems to be angry and befuddled when that does not happen. On Saturday, we learned that a recent phone call between the two men turned nasty, with the result that Peña Nieto canceled a planned state visit to Washington next month.

The major point of dispute, of course, was the Mexican wall. It is wildly unpopular in Mexico. Trump continues to insist, against all evidence, that Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Peña Nieto made clear that will not happen, and insisted that Trump publicly acknowledge that it will not happen. Trump refused, and after 50 minutes of back-and-forth, the Donald blew his top. We do not yet have word whether or not it looked like this:

Trump hair goes wild

What we do know, however, is that the President eventually slammed down the phone, and that was that.

There is every chance that the relationship between Mexico and the United States is going to get worse from here. The Mexican presidential election season is underway, and—just like the Democrats later this year—anyone and everyone is running against Trump. That includes frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, a leftist who really loathes The Donald. And this is before we consider that the negotiations over NAFTA are going nowhere, and are likely to reach a boiling point. Perhaps Trump will eventually score a big diplomatic success, but it doesn't appear that it will be coming from south of the border. (Z)

U.S. Embassy in Israel to "Move" in May

Speaking of taking a delicate situation and making it worse, the Trump administration is definitely moving forward with plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In fact, given the President's tendency toward impatience, the State Department is planning to make the move sometime in May. That will not actually be enough time to construct the necessary facilities, so what is going to happen is that a small number of staff members, including Ambassador David M. Friedman, are just going to move into the American consulate in Jerusalem and then hang a sign that says "Embassy" out in front. Trump bragged about the "move" during his above-mentioned CPAC appearance:

You know, every president campaigned on, "We're going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," everybody, for many presidents, you've been reading it, and then they never pulled it off, and I now know why. I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling, begging me, "Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it." I said, "We have to do it, it's the right thing to do."

Most presidents would take that much blowback as instructive, and worrying, but for Trump—who places enormous value on shaking up the status quo and on doing what other presidents would not do—it was just additional motivation.

Thus far, the experts who know the region and the situation have yet to come up with any argument for how this move benefits the United States. It certainly appears to inflame tensions with the Muslim nations of the Middle East, without extracting any concessions from Israel. Of course, experts don't know everything, but the administration has yet to articulate how this move is helpful either, beyond Trump's "it's the right thing to do." On the other hand, the move will definitely please the base, especially the evangelicals, the Islamophobes, and a few of the megadonors, particularly Sheldon Adelson (in fact, Adelson is offering to foot the bill for most of the new embassy, an arrangement of dubious legality). In short, it seems clear that the United States' foreign policy in Israel, like its foreign policy in Mexico (see above) is being governed entirely by Trump's desire to win re-election in 2020, and not at all by what is best for the country. (Z)

Trump Threatens the Whole World

Of course, any discussion of Donald Trump's willingness to aggravate tensions with the nations of the world would not be complete without some mention of North Korea. On Friday, during his now-infamous CPAC appearance, the President also announced "heavy" sanctions against several dozen North Korean companies and ships. He explained:

North Korea, we imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed by our country before. And frankly, hopefully something positive can happen. We will see, but hopefully something positive can happen.

As per usual, Trump is exaggerating a bit. These are certainly not the heaviest sanctions the U.S. has ever imposed; he might want to take a look at the sanctions imposed on Cuba in 1962, or the ones imposed on Japan in 1941. Still, given that the North Korea situation involves a whole bunch of bad options, not too many folks objected to Trump's announcement, even though they know that China will continue to circumvent things.

But even if the sanctions are in and of themselves not too controversial, that does not mean smooth sailing for Trump. He was speaking off the cuff on that day, as he so often does, and he felt he need escalate his threat. So, after announcing the sanctions, he declared:

If the sanctions don't work, we'll have to go to Phase 2. Phase 2 may be a very rough thing. May be very, very unfortunate for the world.

Nobody really understands exactly what Trump meant by this. Surely he had something in mind—maybe a nuclear strike, maybe something else. Whatever it is, commentators in the United States and abroad naturally observed that it's not terribly apropos to threaten the entire planet over the bad behavior of one rogue state. Still, that's diplomacy, Trump-style. (Z)

Bernie Sanders' Nose Is Growing

Lord Acton (not Ben Franklin or Tom Jefferson) once observed that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) appears to be giving us an object lesson on that point; at very least he is showing that it's rather harder to be a frontrunner than it is an upstart challenger. The Senator is trying very hard to distance himself from the notion, included in Robert Mueller's indictment of last week, that the Russians tried to help his campaign in order to hurt Hillary Clinton. To that end, he told this story to NBC's "Meet the Press": "It turns out that one of our social media guys in San Diego actually went to the Clinton campaign in September and said something weird is going on." Later, on a Vermont Public Radio interview Wednesday, Sanders repeated the same basic story, explaining that "a guy who was on my staff" perceived suspicious activity and went to the Clinton campaign. "And he said, 'You know what? I think these guys are Russians.'"

The problem with the stories is that they aren't true. First of all, the person in question—whose name is John Mattes—did not talk to the Clinton campaign, he talked to pro-Clinton PAC American Bridge. Since it is illegal for PACs and campaigns to coordinate/communicate, and the importance of that distinction was a major aspect of Sanders' campaign, the two are most certainly not the same thing. Second, Mattes was a volunteer, and not a staffer. Again, these are far from the same thing. Finally, Sanders' narrative implies that he (or one of his inner circle) was behind Mattes' decision to come forward. In fact, they had nothing to do with it, as Mattes has made clear. So, for Sanders to suggest he deserves credit for "playing fair" in this case is not unlike Richard Nixon taking credit for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Politifact has not weighed in on this particular story yet, but when they do, we're in "Mostly False" or maybe even "Pants on Fire" territory.

By all evidences, the Senator from Vermont remains a frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic nomination, but he's starting to pick up some serious baggage. He's already going to be rather old (80) to be starting a possible eight-year term as president, and there are a fair number of Democrats who either have objections to him/his policies, or are not happy about his sparring with Hillary Clinton. Clearly, he thinks that being associated with Russia is a major problem, and his handling of that problem has also earned him some black marks. Finally, we shouldn't forget that the general tenor of American politics (and particularly Democratic politics) right now is anti-gun, and he's generally been pro-gun in his career (because Vermont is largely pro-gun). Add it all up, and it's not too surprising that most sports books, at least, now have Sanders trailing Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) for the nomination, with Joe Biden and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) nipping at his heels. (Z)

Today in Irony

In response to the Florida school shootings, the conspiracy and semi-conspiracy theorists are putting the pedal to the metal. Not too many people are going to buy Alex Jones' notion that it was a "false flag" operation, and that the shootings never actually happened. Many more people are willing to accept the idea—already being widely promoted by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, David Clarke, and others—that the survivors of the shootings are being used as pawns by the Democrats, or by some other liberal person/group/media outlet to advance an anti-gun agenda.

Those who are inclined to believe this semi-conspiracy were handed something of a "smoking gun" (unfortunate that that is the metaphor) by the family of Colton Haab, one of the survivors of the shootings. Haab has appeared on a number of different platforms to share his views, primarily that he would like to see teachers be armed. Consequently, he ended up on the radar of CNN, who was looking for students to participate in the town hall they hosted on Wednesday night. Haab eventually made his e-mail correspondence with CNN public, which made it appear—as the student claimed verbally—that CNN had written his question for him. So maybe there was something to the conspiracy after all.

Except that it's not true. In fact, the question that Haab submitted was his; CNN has provided copies of the e-mails that prove this. The only thing the news outlet did was limit him to that question, and deny his father's demand that he be allowed to read a lengthy speech. While there is certainly some "editing" going on there, it is entirely within the bounds of ethics, and is customary for this kind of event, where time is limited. Indeed, even presidents and presidential candidates are not afforded the opportunity to deliver three or four or five minutes of pre-prepared remarks in what is supposed to be a "discussion" setting.

And so, there is the irony. It turns out that one side of this debate is indeed manipulating the survivors and using them as pawns to advance their narrative. But it's not the anti-gun folks who are doing it. (Z)

Pennsylvania Republicans Want to Impeach Judges Over Anti-Gerrymander Map

For the last several weeks, as our readers know well, there's been a fair bit of drama coming out of Pennsylvania. The state's supreme court decided that the state's heavily-gerrymandered district map, which heavily favored the Republicans, was not legal under the terms of the state constitution. The GOP appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, and were told to pound sand. Then they submitted a new map, which looked better at a glance, but was just as gerrymandered. Having squandered their chance, the GOP was compelled to yield map-creating power to the state supreme court, which had Stanford professor Nathaniel Persily do the job. He came up with a map that more accurately reflects the state's partisan breakdown, and the Pennsylvania court and Gov. Tom Wolf (D) both approved it. So, done deal, right? Not so fast. Pennsylvania Republicans are going to appeal to SCOTUS again, but are not likely to get a different answer. So, there is much talk—from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) on down—of impeaching the Pennsylvania justices who voted in favor of a less-gerrymandered map.

At this point, it worth recalling the case of Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase, a Federalist who aggravated Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans with his pro-Federalist rulings. They impeached him on several counts, and after a lengthy trial, he was acquitted by large margins. That included many Democratic-Republican votes, as many senators doubted that partisan rulings were impeachable. Since that time, the only federal justices to be impeached (a grand total of 12 of them) have been charged only with legal or ethical misconduct.

The Pennsylvania judges who are under the microscope are state, rather than federal, judges, but the principle is the same. Just speaking of impeachment is irresponsible; to move forward would be a gross offense against existing precedent. It is hard to imagine that the Pennsylvania GOP would even try it, since the judges' removal could very well backfire on them. It might be overturned by a federal court, for example, or it might cause voters to punish the GOP in the midterms. At the very least, it would invite the Democrats to clear all of the Republican justices off the court whenever the blue team happens to regain control of the legislature. In any event, Pennsylvania Republicans' anger and desperation is pretty clear affirmation that they are benefiting enormously from the old map, and they know it. (Z)

Ted Cruz, Culture Maven

When it comes to popular culture, and trying to connect with the young people, there is much benefit to being a "hip" politician. Some presidents played this game quite well:

Clinton/Arsenio, Kennedy/Monroe

On the other hand, it can also turn out rather badly:

Nixon and Elvis

It's not too hard to guess on which side of this divide Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) would fall, since he may be the most square politician in Washington. In any event, he confirmed our suspicions at the CPAC on Friday with one of the clumsiest pop culture references in memory:

The Democrats are the party of Lisa Simpson. And Republicans are happily the party of Homer, Bart, Maggie and Marge.

What Cruz was going for here is something along the lines of "Democrats are know-it-alls, and Republicans are regular people." However, he quickly ran afoul of the show's creators, who told him to stop using their art to advance his political agenda. Cruz also became a target of scorn and ridicule among the many fans of the show, who pointed out—first of all—that the partisan leaning of most characters has been made clear over the years, and that Marge, in particular, has been established as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Furthermore, the "Democrat" Lisa is the smart one, while Homer is so stupid that he once forgot to breathe, and Bart is a mediocre student and intellect who is consistently in trouble. Consequently, many fans have taken to Twitter to clarify the reference for the Senator:

Perhaps Cruz should stick to the show tunes he reportedly loves to sing. And if Elvis shows up and offers to take a photo, probably best to take a pass. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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