Feb. 22

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

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New Charges Filed Against Manafort and Gates

Yesterday, special counsel Robert Mueller filed new charges against Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. The court sealed the charges, so we don't know what exactly changed. In particular, we don't know if the changes are related to the guilty plea entered yesterday by Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer in the London office of the law firm Skadden Arps who wrote a report at the request of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort did work for Yanukovych in the past, so there could be a connection. It is also possible that the change relates to a rumored plea bargain between Gates and Mueller. In that case, Mueller may have reduced the charges against Gates in return for his spilling the beans on Manafort. None of the lawyers for the people involved cared to comment to the media on what is going on. (V)

Democrat Wins a Special Election in a Deep Red Kentucky State House District

Yet another Democrat has won a special election in a state House district that Donald Trump won by a huge margin. In this case it is KY-49, a district Trump won in 2016 by a margin of 72% to 23% over Hillary Clinton. In Tuesday's special election, Democrat Linda Belcher beat Republican Rebecca Johnson by a margin of 68% to 32%. Going from 23% to 68% is a gain of 45 points for the Democrats. This is the 39th special election since 2016 in which a Republican seat has flipped to the Democrats, while only four seats have flipped the other way. Special elections are, well, special, because by definition there is no incumbent. The enormous difficulty the Republicans are having holding open seats doesn't mean that they will have just as much trouble holding seats in which an incumbent is running for reelection. Still, it is an omen that can't be entirely ignored. (V)

Rubio Impresses, Underwhelms

Remarkably, the Florida school shootings remain in the forefront of public consciousness, and have shown no signs of receding. On Wednesday, CNN held a town hall in Sunrise, Florida and allowed attendees to grill Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on gun control.

On one hand, Rubio said much to make the crowd unhappy. He reiterated his support for the Second Amendment, defended the thousands of dollars he has accepted from the NRA, and would not commit to a ban on semi-automatic weapons or to turning down future NRA money. He was booed roundly several times, was attacked as "pathetically weak" by the father of one victim, and was blasted by the mother of another, who shrieked "Enough talk! What is your action?"

On the other hand, Rubio showed some sign of backing off his previously ironclad stance on gun rights, which has regularly earned him an A+ from the NRA. He said he's open to raising the minimum age for gun purchases to 18, would consider legislation to reduce the size of legal gun magazines, and that he does not favor arming teachers (unlike the President; see below). These are not exactly radical changes to his thinking, but they do represent a slight thawing. Further, he did show up for the town hall, even knowing that he was going to be taking a beating. Whether or not he has small hands, at least he's got bigger...something than Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) or Donald Trump, both of whom were asked to attend, and both of whom were unwilling to face the heat. (Z)

Meanwhile, Trump Just Underwhelms

Though he did not attend CNN's town hall, Donald Trump did hold a "listening" event at the White House for selected victims of the Florida shootings and other interested parties. Initially, it looked like the major story was going to be that he wants to arm teachers. "If you had a teacher who was adept with the firearm, they could end the attack very quickly," he explained.

However, Trump forgot that the cameras catch everything, even the smallest details. And so, the big story became this image captured by Carolyn Kaster of the AP:

I'm listening

Trump, of course, is not known for his empathy. But who knew that he's so bad at it that his staff literally has to give him crib notes to remind him to say, "I hear you"? Not to mention all the other things on the card that, for nearly any other president, would come 100% naturally. And if that were not enough, we can also see in the photo that—instead of his initials, as is customary—Trump has had "45" embroidered on his cuffs. That little detail was first noticed by reporters about a month ago, but in the context of this picture, it certainly serves to clarify exactly who it is he really cares about. (Z)

Kelly Is Trying to Demote Kushner

White House chief of staff John Kelly has clearly had enough of first son-in-law Jared Kushner and is trying to rid himself of Kushner. In particular, Kelly has written a memo stating that staffers who do not have a full security clearance, something Kushner lacks, will have their access to highly classified documents cut off. Until recently, Kushner actually read the President's Daily Brief, something the President himself doesn't bother with. Since the brief is full of classified information, Kushner will be out of the loop on key issues, especially foreign policy, which will make it harder for him to bring peace to the Middle East, one of his main jobs.

Multiple sources have reported that Kelly's dislike for Kushner is matched only by Kushner's dislike for Kelly. Theoretically, Kelly outranks Kushner, and as a retired four-star Marine Corps general, he certainly has more gravitas. But Kelly is not married to Donald Trump's favorite daughter, which makes all the difference in the world. In the end, if Trump is forced to choose sides, most likely Kelly goes and Kushner stays. It hasn't gotten to that yet, but we are getting closer.

Nominally, the no-clearance no-info policy affects many staffers, but the focus is on Kushner because he is one of the President's closest advisers. The whole subject of security clearances has come up due to the affair around Rob Porter, who not only beat his former wives, but didn't have a full security clearance either, even though he controlled the flow of paper to the President. Once that was out in the open, Kelly felt that he had to do something and while he was at it, this was his chance to take a potshot at Kushner, and he grabbed it. (V)

Only a Quarter of Voters Are Getting a Bigger Paycheck

The main purpose of the tax-cut law the Republicans rammed through Congress in December was a huge tax cut for corporations and the very wealthy. Nevertheless, the law also includes a small tax cut for ordinary people, at least those who don't itemize deductions. The idea behind this was to make the law more palatable to ordinary people, such as the secretary who got an extra $1.50 per week. The Republicans' hope was that if enough people are happy with their tax cut, they won't care that big corporations and millionaires get the lion's share of the benefits.

A new Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that the Republican strategy may not be working as well as expected. Only a quarter of registered voters say they have seen an increase in their net pay. Among employed and self-employed voters, 37% say they got a raise through the new law, while 53% say they haven't gotten more money. The poll shows that high-income earners are more likely to have noticed a pay increase. However, those are also the people who may also be hit with the reduced deduction for state and local taxes, which may cancel out their gain and even reverse it.

Both parties are gearing up to make the law a central campaign issue. Republicans are going to focus on the increases in some people's paychecks and on the idea that the law will stimulate the economy and the stock market. Democrats are going to talk about the uneven distribution of the gains, the reduction in state and local tax deductions, and the huge increase in the federal deficit. If the market keeps sinking, they'll add that to the list, too. (V)

How Did Melania's Parents Get Residency?

Whether it is presidential golfing, due process, the treatment of women, or swamp draining, Donald Trump is a pretty enthusiastic adherent of the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to life (particularly when Democrats are involved). The latest example of apparent hypocrisy involves his in-laws, Viktor and Amalija Knavs. It is already known that Melania Trump broke immigration laws when she first came to the U.S., something that would theoretically earn her a one-way ticket home under the Trump border security plan. More recently, however, folks have been asking questions about her parents, who are regularly seen at the White House and at Mar-a-Lago. Questions about exactly what their immigration status is, and how they acquired it. On Wednesday, White House insiders confirmed that the Knavses are legal permanent residents of the United States and are close to obtaining their citizenship.

What is the problem? Well, according to immigration attorneys, there are only two plausible paths they might have followed in order to acquire that status. The first possibility is that they were sponsored by a potential employer, one who argued that the Knavses have special skills that are in short supply in the United States. Since the pair are retired, he from driving limousines and she from working in a textile factory, that possibility seems unlikely. That leaves us with option two: They were sponsored by a family member already living in the United States. Like, say, Melania Trump. That sounds an awful lot like "chain migration," to use the President's term, a great evil according to the President. We're probably lucky that the Knavses haven't already joined MS-13 or some other street gang. Anyhow, it's another example of the President not practicing what he preaches. (Z)

Democrats Lead by 15 Points in Generic House Poll

One indicator that generally is predictive of changes in the partisan composition of the House is the generic ballot, in which the pollster asks: "Do you want the Democrats or the Republicans to control the House?" Last year, Democrats had a double digit lead, but it had been reduced to single digits in recent polls. According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, the double-digit lead is back, with 53% of the voters preferring the Democrats and 38% preferring the Republicans. November is a long ways away, but if the Democrats lead by 15 points on Election Day, they will probably take control of the House.

Of course, candidates, money, and issues matter as well. "Generic Democrat" and "Generic Republican" won't be on the ballot anywhere. Still, with the Democrats likely to pick up 3-5 seats in Pennsylvania as a result of redistricting there, along with multiple seats in California as a result of retirements and the general toxic nature of the GOP in the Golden State, the blue team is well on its way to flipping the 24 House seats it needs to take control. But as always, a week is a long time in politics and 9 months is forever. (V)

Democrats Ask for $300 Million to Fight Russian Interference in the 2018 Elections

The Democratic leaders in Congress, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), have proposed adding $300 million to the upcoming appropriations bill to fight Russian interference in the 2018 elections. The money would go to the FBI, which has said it expects the Russians to try to interfere with the 2018 elections, just as it did in 2016.

People in the Dept. of Homeland Security said that last year Russian hackers had probed the election systems in 21 states and some of them were compromised. In Congress, most members concede that there is a problem, but whether they are prepared to appropriate some money to do something to solve it is another matter. (V)

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