Feb. 15

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

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Bipartisan Group of Senators Agree on Immigration Plan

It is only 3 weeks until Donald Trump's self-imposed deadline for Congress to deal with DACA. If they fail, Trump said he will start deporting the dreamers (though a couple of federal judges may say otherwise). A bipartisan group of senators has been working hard to come up with something that could at least pass the Senate and maybe if they are lucky, even the House. Yesterday, the group said it had an agreement in which the dreamers would be allowed to stay in exchange for better border security. Trump has other ideas, though. He wants a plan that not only includes border security, but also slashes the diversity visa program and also the family reunification program. In other words, his price for allowing the dreamers to stay also includes greatly reducing legal immigration in the future in an attempt to stave off the day when whites will be in the minority. The proposed bill does not change the diversity lottery system but it does prevent the dreamers from sponsoring their parents as future immigrants.

Getting a bill through the Senate is only step 1, of course. Step 2 is getting the House to approve it. That may not be so easy, as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) made it clear yesterday that if Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) brings up a Senate bill for a floor vote, it could mean the end of his speakership. House conservatives want a vote on a different and much harsher bill drawn up by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), but Ryan has been stalling on that. (V)

Stormygate Gets Stormier

On Tuesday Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, claimed that he paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 out of his own pocket. His statement is now being put under a microscope by multiple media outlets. The Washington Post notes that Cohen has a law degree and is very precise in his use of words, as well he should be. What he said was:

In a private transaction in 2016, I used my own personal funds to facilitate a payment of $130,000 to Ms. Stephanie Clifford [Daniels' real name]. Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly.

Note that he said he used his own funds to "facilitate" a payment. That could easily mean that he fronted the money but was reimbursed by someone later. Also note that while he said that neither the campaign nor the Trump Organization reimbursed him, he said nothing about other possibilities. The WaPo's Philip Bump gives a list of some of the possibilities, along with the legal implications of each.

In this analysis, even if it was Cohen's own money, it probably wouldn't be legal because Cohen was closely associated with the campaign. In any event, we may soon find our more because the Daily Mail, which broke the Cohen story in the first place, is now reporting that Daniels believes Cohen breached the nondisclosure agreement, freeing her to sell her story to the highest bidder. If that happens, a lot more could come out. (V)

17 Die in School Shooting

We're only six weeks into the new year, and the U.S. just suffered through the eighth school shooting of 2018 to result in death or serious injury. The latest, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in south Florida, was particularly horrific, leaving 17 people dead and between 20 and 50 more injured (depending on which report you believe).

The customary Showing of Concern has officially begun:

My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2018

Just spoke to Broward School Superintendent. Today is that terrible day you pray never comes.

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 14, 2018

Praying for everyone at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Just spoke with Broward Undersheriff to ensure they have everything they need. And just spoke to FBI to make sure all federal resources are being made available to help. Will continue to monitor closely.

— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) February 14, 2018

Soon, these gentlemen and their colleagues will transition into the next stage of the process, the ritual Doing of Nothing, as we await school shooting #9. And #10, #11, and #12. Oh, and don't expect Trump to mention that the shooter—Nikolas Cruz—was fond of repeating Donald-esque rhetoric, especially anti-Muslim rhetoric, and had numerous pictures on social media showing him in a MAGA hat. (Z)

Would Firing Mueller End Trump's Problems?

With the resignation of Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the situation around Russiagate has taken an unusual turn, with potentially unexpected consequences. Donald Trump could do one of two things now. First, he could look for a lawyer as a permanent replacement. The requirements are simple. All a potential candidate has to do is answer "yes" to a straightforward question: "Will you fire Robert Mueller if I ask you to?"

The other thing Trump could do is rely on the Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which allows a president to fill a job requiring Senate confirmation with a person already confirmed by the Senate for a different position. That person can hold the new job for up to 210 days. Hello Associate Attorney General Ben Carson? Good morning Associate AG Betsy DeVos?

But even if Associate AG Carson fires Mueller, Trump is not out of the woods. The grand jury Mueller is using does not vanish like a puff of smoke the day Mueller is fired. It continues to exist—and may continue its investigation of Russian interference with the election—until such time as Judge Beryl Howell, who empaneled it, decides to dismiss it. Howell, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court by Barack Obama, would suddenly become the key player in the whole investigation, and could order the grand jury to continue working. In the past, "runaway grand juries" often went beyond prosecutors' instructions issuing indictments, but a law passed in the 1930s requires a prosecutor to sign off on indictments. Still, the grand jury could issue a report on its findings and even prepare an indictment or two and then seek any one of the 93 U.S. attorneys to sign them. An ambitious prosecutor who has thoughts of running for public office one day might decide that by signing a couple of documents, he or she gets to be one of the most famous people in the country, and so may go for it.

Howell might want to read up on the late Judge John Sirica. Sirica, a Republican, was a district judge in D.C. (like Howell), and appointed to the bench by Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was he who ordered Richard Nixon to turn over his tapes to the Watergate prosecutors. The Supreme Court upheld his ruling, and Sirica instantly became a national hero for upholding the rule of law. In 1973, he was named Time magazine's "Man of the Year." In a book, he later wrote: "Simply stated, I had no intention of sitting on the bench like a nincompoop and watching the parade go by." Those are large shoes for Howell to fill should she be forced into them. (V)

Kevin McCarthy, Rising Star

There are two high-profile jobs in Washington that may come open sooner rather than later: White House Chief of Staff and Speaker of the House of Representatives. And there is one name being mentioned for both positions: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is a rising star in the current incarnation of the Republican Party.

McCarthy's major selling point, and the reason his name is being bandied about for both jobs, is his good relationship with Donald Trump. The Congressman was an early supporter of Trump, and gets along well with the President (unlike current Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI). He also has no major black marks on his record (unlike current Chief of Staff John Kelly). McCarthy, for his part, says he would rather be speaker than chief of staff. That could change, however, if he takes the lay of the land and decides that (1) the Freedom Caucus is more trouble than it's worth, or (2) the GOP is about to lose control of the House, and with it the speakership, or (3) that he doesn't want to wrestle with Steve Scalise (R-LA) and other ambitious Republicans for the job. Whatever happens, it would seem that the notion that Ryan's days are numbered is in the air. And, of course, we already knew Kelly was on the hot seat. (Z)

White House Security Clearances A Bigger Problem Than It First Appeared

Earlier this week, we learned that there were "several dozen" White House staffers working with interim security clearances, and perhaps even more. Now, CNN is reporting that it's actually far more—at least 100 the last time an official count was taken, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

The lack of clearances creates two potential problems. The first is that many of these people will not be able to do their jobs properly, since they will not be cleared to look at some (or much) of the information they need. How, for example, can Jared Kushner bring peace to the Middle East if he can't even read CIA reports on the region? The second is that it increases the chance of a breach, of someone seeing something that they are not supposed to see. This is something that apparently happened on a regular basis with the now-departed Rob Porter, and is not a good look for an administration that campaigned heavily on the security lapses occasioned by Hillary Clinton's e-mail server.

This does not seem to be a problem that will easily be resolved. Many of these folks have bad behavior in their backgrounds and/or connections to foreign governments—these things aren't going to disappear. In fact, one of the non-cleared folks—George David Banks, of the National Economic Council—decided to resign on Wednesday after learning that his past marijuana use was likely a permanent barrier to clearance. Presumably, many more folks will face the same dilemma in the next few months. (Z)

Rick Gates Has a New Lawyer

It is official now. Rick Gates, Paul Manafort's sidekick and co-defendant, has a new lawyer, Thomas Green. Gates' previous lawyers asked to be released from the case and Green was previously seen entering the court where a judge was handling Gates' case, but yesterday, for the first time, Gates and Green appered together in court.

There has been considerable speculation that Gates hired Green in order to negotiate a plea bargain with special counsel Robert Mueller. If that is true, it could mean that Gates ends up testifying against his former partner, increasing the pressure on him to flip as well. (V)

Kelli Ward Announces Her Endorsement--by a Fake News Site

When Arizona Senate candidate Kelli Ward proudly announced that the Arizona Monitor had endorsed her, she may or may not have known that the Monitor is not a real news site. It is part of a trend in which conservative individuals and groups set up websites that look like news sites, and give them plausible names, but which just publish political propaganda endorsing their favorite causes and candidates. There is nothing wrong with a blog endorsing a candidate, but the problem here is that some of these sites are representing themselves as legitimate news operations, often with names that resemble those of traditional newspapers.

In some cases, including that of the Monitor, the true identity of the sites' creators is hidden. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said no one knows who started the Monitor site, adding: "How do you know it was not the Russians? How do you know that's not organized crime? How do you know that it isn't a group of pedophiles?" Her point is that very few people can tell the difference between a site run by a legitimate newspaper they have never heard of and one that is completely bogus from beginning to end.

Arizona isn't the only state where the problem of fake news sites has cropped up. In Maine, a site called the Maine Examiner is at the center of a controversy relating to the December mayoral election in Lewiston, ME. On Dec. 3, the site posted a story about Democratic candidate Ben Chin headlined: "Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters Bunch of Racists." Chin said no such thing. A week later, Chin lost the election by 145 votes. In January, the Lewiston Sun Journal, an actual newspaper, discovered that the metadata embedded in some of the Examiner's photos listed Jason Savage, the Maine Republican party's executive director, as the author. Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democrats, said that sites like the Examiner allow candidates and parties to publish false and misleading "news" while pretending to be legitimate news outlets and then deny any responsibility for it. (V)

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