Feb. 21

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Mueller Issues Another Indictment

Special counsel Robert Mueller is slowly and methodically tightening the noose around the neck of Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The latest tug on the noose came yesterday when Mueller indicted Alex van der Zwaan, a former associate lawyer at the London office of the big law firm Skadden Arps. In the early 2010s, Manafort and his buddy Rick Gates were working for Viktor Yanukovych, the one-time president of Ukraine, and someone widely seen of a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yanukovych was in a power struggle with Yulia Tymoshenko, and he decided to solve the problem by throwing her in prison. He then hired Skadden Arps to write a report saying there was no political motivation for imprisoning his political opponent. Van der Zwaan wrote much of the report. In the summer of 2017, Van der Zwaan married the daughter of Ukrainian-Russian billionaire oligarch German Khan.

In the process of investigating Manafort and Gates and their ties to Russia, in Nov. 2017, the FBI started looking at Van der Zwaan's report. They asked him when he had last communicated with Manafort and Gates, and he said he hadn't communicated with either one since Aug. 2016. This was a lie and the FBI has proof of it. For lying to the FBI, Van der Zwaan was indicted.

While this might all seem complicated to people who don't follow Ukrainian politics closely, Mueller knows exactly what he is doing. He wants Van der Zwaan to squeeze Gates, who will then turn the screws on Manafort. This is how Mueller generally works. Press the guppies to get the minnows and then use them to get the carp. Move up the chain and sooner or later you are going after the great orange shark. (V)

Gun Issue Isn't Going Away

Last week's school shootings in Florida have not yet faded into the background, in contrast to the way these things usually progress. Maybe it's because this incident struck a particular nerve. Maybe it's because the students refuse to let it fade away. Maybe it's because this is the first major school shooting to happen with a GOP monopoly on the executive and legislature, which makes it rather hard to point the finger at Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Whatever the case may be, the pressure upon the nation's politicians is pretty intense. And there certainly seems to be some room for improvement while still respecting the rights of the Second Amendment fans. 97% of Americans, for example, believe that all gun purchasers should undergo a background check (something that does not currently happen, in many cases, particularly purchases at gun shows). Similarly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms recently solicited public comments on bump stocks, which turn semi-automatic rifles into automatic ones. The 35,000-plus responses were overwhelmingly (90%+) in favor of banning the accessory.

Donald Trump's positions on the issues are dictated almost entirely by political expediency, more so than any other man to occupy that office. He changes positions on the Second Amendment more often than he changes communications directors. And so, sensing which way the wind is currently blowing, he announced on Tuesday that he's ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose regulations that would make bump stocks illegal.

So, done deal then, right? Not so much. While Trump, unlike Obama, has the kind of political capital with gun lovers necessary to get something like this done, one cannot help but recall all the other Trump "orders" that have disappeared into the ether, or gotten caught up in works in one way or another: the Muslim travel bans, the transgender soldiers ban, the repeal of DACA (more below), etc. Beyond that, the pro-gun forces remain very, very strong. On Tuesday, for example, Florida lawmakers opened their session with a prayer for the victims of the school shooting, and then promptly decided they would not even consider a bill to limit semi-automatic guns and large-capacity magazines.

The conspiracy theorists are also shifting into high gear. Alex Jones, who can always be counted upon to say something loony, has already decided that the whole incident was a "false flag," a fake massacre staged by anti-gun folks for publicity purposes. A Florida lawmaker's aide was fired for sharing a version of this theory with reporters, declaring that the survivors appearing on TV to demand gun legislation are actually paid actors. Rush Limbaugh, for his part, believes that the shooting was real, but that everything thereafter was staged by the Democrats, who are ostensibly using the surviving students as puppets to advance an anti-gun agenda. Another popular theory is that David Hogg, one of the most outspoken survivors, is merely trying to deflect scrutiny from the FBI because his father used to work there. Among the folks who apparently see merit in that claim is Donald Trump Jr., who "liked" two different tweets expounding that particular thesis.

The upshot is that the stakes are as high on this issue as they have been in a long time, perhaps since the passage of the Brady Bill more than 25 years ago. And given that, both sides are in full-court press mode. We shall see who prevails, though recent history makes it very hard to bet against the gun zealots. (Z)

DACA Issue Isn't Going Away, Either

Donald Trump really created a mess for himself with his handling of DACA. He made the opposition furious, and in a way that will make it much easier to get voters to the polls for the midterm elections. He also aggravated pro-business Republicans, who don't want to bear the costs of hiring and re-training millions of employees, while also setting the GOP up to look cruel and heartless. All of this to possibly not even kill the program, since two courts have issued injunctions against Trump's actions, and the SCOTUS has thus far refused to step in.

Given the involvement of the courts, the upcoming March 5 deadline, when the first DACA recipients will theoretically lose their protection, is something of a soft deadline. And we know how well Congress does with those these days. Still, it is possible that SCOTUS could decide to weigh in, or that Donald Trump could follow in the footsteps of Andrew "Marshall has his decision, now let him enforce it" Jackson and decide to start deportations without court approval. Consequently, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is pulling out all the stops in an effort to resolve the issue before it reaches critical mass. He penned an editorial for Tuesday's edition of the Washington Post and he's going to try to force a vote on a compromise plan that would extend DACA for three years in exchange for $7.6 billion in funding for border security. There's little chance that Flake's plan gets the necessary votes, particularly since most of his colleagues are not enthusiastic about a temporary fix that just pushes the problem into the future. And even if Flake did manage to cobble together the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and did somehow get the House to sign off as well, the plan would almost certainly be vetoed by Donald Trump.

This is not to say that Trump's preferred plan has any real chance of becoming law, either. He is willing to grant the nearly 1 million DACA recipients citizenship, but he wants their parents to be permanently banned from the same, as well as $25 billion for a border wall, no more prioritization of family members (so-called "chain migration"), and no more visa lottery. When this proposal came to the floor of the Senate last week, it only got 39 votes—with three (red-state) Democrats and 36 Republicans voting "yea" and 46 Democrats and 14 Republicans voting "nay." The various reasons those 14 GOP senators gave for their votes illustrates the problem faced by the President (and by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY):

In short, any direction that this goes, some important person or faction is unhappy. Finding a proposal that can pass the House, pass the Senate, and get Trump's signature will require some real black magick, something that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Mitch McConnell don't seem to have a large supply of. (Z)

Pennsylvania Republicans Sue to Overturn New Map

As expected, Pennsylvania Republicans don't like their new court-imposed congressional-district map, so naturally they are suing to have it overturned. The suit may be filed as early as today. The new map is relatively fair, which means that Democrats have a good chance to win eight or nine House seats instead of the five they hold now.

One of the characteristics the judge asked for and got was that districts should be compact. One way to measure that is to compare the perimeter of the district to that of a district of the same area that was a perfect circle. For badly gerrymandered districts the perimeter is often much more. The Washington Post has illustrated the idea of compactness with some examples. These districts are compact:

compact districts

These districts are not compact:

not compact districts

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU called the Republican lawsuit "the mother of all Hail Marys" for a variety of legal and other reasons.

The new map is not the whole story, however. All the districts are different from what they were a week ago. Incumbents suddenly find themselves in districts they don't know. Challengers have to decide which district to run in, and the choice they made a few weeks ago may no longer be the best choice. It will take a while for the dust to settle. (V)

New Jersey Is Preparing to Fight the New Tax Law

The tax law enacted last year limits the deduction of state and local taxes to $10,000. It used to be unlimited. Many Democrats think the provision was put in specifically to punish the blue states, which tend to have high taxes in order to provide good services. Almost all Democrats in the blue states are angry about this, but New Jersey is moving quickly to pass a law to work around it. A bill, S1893, has been introduced into the New Jersey state senate and would allow local governments to create charities that could carry out functions that the local governments previously carried out. Residents could make donations to these charities and get credits against their local property tax bills for doing so. Donations to charities are fully deductible for federal tax purposes. While the purpose here is to get around federal law, the mechanism—giving people state tax credits for making donations to official charities—is a matter of state law, not federal law.

One of the bill's champions is Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ). He thinks it will be difficult for the IRS to rule against the New Jersey plan because it would also affect programs in other states, some of which offset tuition to private schools using deductions or credits. Ultimately, the issue is likely to land in the courts, with Anthony Kennedy—er, the Supreme Court—having the final word. (V)

Was Payoff to Karen McDougal Illegal?

Common Cause, a government watchdog group, has asked the Justice Dept. and the FEC to investigate a payoff of $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to remain silent about an affair with Donald Trump. The group contends that the parent company of the National Enquirer bought exclusive rights to the story of her affair with Trump with the sole purpose of making sure it was never published, a practice known as "catch and kill." Common Cause is alleging that the $150,000 in hush money was an indirect in-kind contribution to a political campaign, something that is forbidden by federal law. You can read Common Cause's complaint here. (V)

Did Bots Take Down Al Franken?

A new report by Erin Lank, of Medium, has documented exactly how the Al Franken scandal unfolded in real time. In short, it went something like this:

  1. Roger Stone ominously predicts Franken's downfall
  2. LeeAnn Tweeden goes public with her complaints/photos
  3. The Hill "breaks" the story
  4. Breitbart and Infowars pick up the story
  5. An army of twitter-bots owned by Russia, but operating out of Japan, disseminate the photos/story widely
  6. Mitch McConnell calls for an investigation
  7. Rush Limbaugh picks up on the story
  8. Franken's colleagues turn on him, and he's dead in the water without benefit of investigation or trial

The article is worth reading, if only to see how the various propagandists—Russian and American—work together, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. However, Franken was probably dead meat with or without the Russian bots, since he served as the most useful "Democrats do it, too" defense of Roy Moore, even though his behavior wasn't even in the same ballpark as Moore's. Remember, John Conyers Jr.'s career was ended too, and there were no bots going after him. (Z)

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