Mar. 07

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

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Texas Primaries: Democrats Did OK, Not Great

Texas held the first primary of the 2018 election season yesterday, as people across the nation watched closely for clues as to what is going to happen in November of this year. Here are the major takeaways:

Texas will head to the polls again on May 22. Meanwhile, the next big "reading the tea leaves" election is next week in Pennsylvania (see below). After that are the Illinois primaries on March 20, and then a pretty long dry spell. (Z)

Another One Bites the Dust

Gary Cohn, who leads the National Economic Council (NEC), has been headed for the exit for many months. He doesn't get along well with Donald Trump, didn't get his dream job as chair of the Federal Reserve, and doesn't like working this hard and taking this much abuse for a measly $180,000 a year. He almost quit when Trump refused to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville. Now, in response to the President's plan to levy tariffs on steel and aluminum, Cohn has actually quit. So, to review, unrepentant racism is bad, and tariffs are really bad. At least the man has priorities.

This is not good news for Trump. First of all, Wall Street was very much relying on Cohn's presence within the White House, as a moderating force and a voice of reason. Upon news of his departure late Wednesday afternoon, the market reacted badly, dropping 1% in after-hours trading. The odds are very good the Dow Jones will take a hit today.

Meanwhile, with each departure, Trump's staffing problems get more acute. Often, in these circumstances, the chair of the NEC might be replaced by his deputy, either on an interim or a permanent basis. The problem here is that Cohn's deputy, Jeremy Katz, quit in December. At least a dozen other seconds-in-command have also quit recently, most prominently the deputy directors of the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council. Meanwhile, as Trump searches for people to fill all of these vacated posts, not to mention the posts he never managed to fill in the first place, prospective hires can have no doubt that they will be working for a boss who does not listen to his staff, is highly temperamental and prone to outbursts, thinks nothing of publicly humiliating those who irritate him, and cares little about policy or governance. And that's before we talk about the risk of getting enmeshed in Russiagate, if for no reason other than the fact that Trump refuses to keep his mouth closed on the matter, no matter how often his lawyers tell him to do so. Hardly the ideal boss, or the kind of person who can attract "the best people."

The leading candidates to replace Cohn are Peter Navarro, leader of the White House National Trade Council, and Larry Kudlow, a conservative commentator, blogger, and talk show host. It is, to be blunt, a little crazy that these are the two folks under consideration, since they hold radically different views on just about everything economic. Navarro is a staunch protectionist, and so probably the correct person to aid with the implementation of tariffs. Kudlow is a free trader, but is more Trump's type of person as a New Yorker, a television star, and a Wall Street insider. Kudlow also once had a $10,000/month coke habit, so if he does get hired, he probably shouldn't sit next to Jeff "War on Drugs" Sessions at meetings.

Of course, who knows how long Sessions will last, since he's one of the many members of the administration who is reportedly on thin ice. Joining him are Chief of Staff John Kelly, NSA Herbert McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, among others. Trump is already approaching a 40% turnover rate, more than double the previous record holder at this point in his administration (Ronald Reagan). If The Donald really shifts into high gear, maybe he can be the first-ever first-term president to have a turnover rate higher than his approval rating. (Z)

Nunberg Goes Wild

Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg went bananas on national television Monday. First he said he was not going to obey a subpoena from special counsel Robert Mueller to testify Friday, basically challenging Mueller to arrest him. Later he began what can only be described as testifying in public. He said that Donald Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting in which Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya promised to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton. That would be significant, since Trump has denied knowing about the meeting. Nunberg also said he suspects Trump aide Carter Page colluded with the Russians. He went on to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is too smart to collude with Trump directly because Putin would be afraid Trump would blab all about the collusion. Needless to say, ignoring a subpoena from someone as experienced and focused as Mueller is stupid beyond all belief. And then going on television answering the questions you think Mueller might ask in the presence of the grand jury and FBI is even worse. And that is especially true, since Mueller doesn't really care about Nunberg. He just wants to know what he knows and then he is free to leave. Now Nunberg has made a real mess of it.

Nunberg's rant left White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a loss for words. She said: "I think he definitely doesn't know that for sure because he's incorrect." Pretty reminiscent of the time that Alan Greenspan reportedly said, "I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant." President Trump no doubt watched Nunberg carry on, and it can't have made him happy. And Mueller isn't going to be deterred from interviewing Nunberg under oath by this circus. The main things Nunberg achieved are: (1) making himself look like a fool, (2) whetting Mueller's appetite for questioning him under oath, (3) infuriating Trump, and (4) making this a huge new story until something bigger comes along.

Some people have suggested that Nunberg was drunk and others have said it was just performance art, similar to what his buddy Roger Stone likes to do. But the backstory of Nunberg and Trump is complicated, and might shed some light on his antics yesterday. Here are some highlights of their relationship:

In short, the relationship has been extremely troubled and Nunberg is no fan of Trump anymore. But any sane person in his situation would just obey the subpoena, tell Mueller everything he knew, and let the chips fall where they may. Late Tuesday, Nunberg finally said he would definitely comply with the subpoena. Let's see what happens today, though, once the liquor wears, once he's had time to sleep on it. (V)

McCarthy May Become House Republican Leader if Democrats Win the House

If Democrats win the House in November, Rep. Kevin McCarthy is likely to be promoted [sic] from Majority Leader to Minority Leader. It may sound strange, but it has to do with ranks and how House elections work. The Majority Leader isn't actually the leader of his party. The Speaker is, so right now McCarthy is actually #2 in the Republican caucus, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) calls all the shots. If the Democrats capture the House, most insiders expect Ryan to resign and leave public life. This would set off a battle for the minority leader position among McCarthy, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), and one or more others.

McCarthy actually ran for speaker before and didn't make it because the entire House elects the speaker, so it takes 218 votes to win. The House Freedom Caucus doesn't like him much, and the Democrats weren't going to vote for him, so he had little chance. But being elected minority leader requires only a majority of the Republican caucus, so the 30-or-so members of the Freedom Caucus wouldn't have enough votes to block him.

One thing McCarthy has going for him is that he gets along with Donald Trump very well. Trump values loyalty above all else, and McCarthy exudes loyalty to Trump. Consequently, Trump might announce that McCarthy is his favorite and that he will oppose any representative who votes against his selection. Would this violate the separation of powers? Probably, but things like that don't bother Trump very much. (V)

Conway Violated the Hatch Act Twice

The Office of the Special Counsel (unrelated to Robert Mueller's group) announced yesterday that Donald Trump's aide Kellyanne Conway violated the Hatch Act twice last year. This 1939 law, named after former senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, prohibits federal employees from using their government position to support or oppose candidates for office. Conway twice mixed government business with campaigning in interviews last fall, once on CNN and once on Fox News. Both times she spoke from the White House and attacked now-senator Doug Jones of Alabama. She said that Trump didn't want a "liberal Democrat" to represent Alabama in the Senate.

Conway's problem is that she advocated against Jones from the White House property. If she had been interviewed at her home or in the network's studio, it would have been perfectly legal. It is doing politics on government property that is illegal. The Office of the Special Counsel has no power to punish anyone, though. It has merely referred the matter to the White House for action. Don't hold your breath waiting for some. (V)

Lamb Won't Be Slaughtered in Pennsylvania

Conor Lamb (D) is ahead of Rick Saccone (R) in the PA-18 special election to be held next Tuesday. A new Emerson College poll has Lamb leading Saccone 48% to 45%. Emerson doesn't have much of a track record, but by all rights, Saccone should be leading by 10-20 points in this R+11 blue-collar district that went for Trump by 20 points in 2016. Republicans have spent $9 million here and that seems to have bought them a statistical tie, at best.

Donald Trump plans to campaign for Saccone on Saturday. It's a big gamble for him. If Saccone wins, he can take credit for the victory and it will inspire other Republicans to cling closely to him. On the other hand, if Lamb wins this one, or even if he comes within a point or two of winning, it is going to set off alarm bells all over the Capitol. If districts as red as this one are in play, what does that say about pink, lavender, purple, and blue districts? Even more important, what message does that send to Republican candidates when a personal appearance by Trump in a district he won in a landslide doesn't ensure a win? (V)

Americans Don't Want Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum

Donald Trump's proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum don't have widespread support. In a new Quinnipiac University poll, 50% of voters oppose the tariffs and only 31% approve of them. Every demographic category opposes the tariffs, except Republicans and white voters without a college degree. By a margin of 54% to 34%, voters disapprove of how Trump is handling the trade issue.

What is noteworthy here is that blue-collar workers support the tariffs, even though they will hurt blue-collar workers. While the tariffs will help steel and aluminum producers, it will hurt companies that use steel and aluminum in their products, which range from beer cans to cars. The number of jobs that depend on using steel and aluminum greatly exceeds the number that depend on making those commodities. So either the tariff supporters are ignorant of how the tariffs will affect jobs, or this is just another culture-war issue in which the supporters of the tariffs want to stick it to the economists and professors and trade experts, even if it means possibly losing their jobs. (V)

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