Mar. 13

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

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Dem pickups: (None)
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House Intelligence Committee Exonerates Trump Completely

The Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have decided that their investigation of Russian influence on the election is over, and have finished a draft report of their findings. On Monday, they issued a one-page summary of the report, which will be released once various parties have had a chance to review and sign off. The summary advises that "the draft report contains 40+ initial findings that describe":

This was meant as a big, juicy present for Donald Trump, and he certainly took it in that way, immediately jumping on Twitter to announce:


— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018

As anyone on the Internet knows, IF IT'S IN ALL CAPS, IT HAS TO BE TRUE.

As is obvious from even a cursory reading, the document is hyperpartisan. If the Republicans behind the report had stuck with exonerating Trump, they might have plausibly argued that their findings were dispassionate and non-partisan. But they had to go further, taking swipes at the Obama administration ("lackluster pre-election response"), the Clinton campaign, and the intelligence community. And speaking of the intelligence community, it is also the case that the Republicans' report is completely at odds with the intel pros' evidence and conclusions, since those folks have been unequivocal in stating that Vladimir Putin was most certainly trying to help Trump.

Naturally, Democrats are furious. It goes without saying that they were not involved in writing the draft report. They also say there are dozens more witnesses they need to call and thousands of pages of documents they want to see. They also want to force some people they asked to testify to actually do so, and to stop hiding behind executive privilege. There is zero chance that any of these things will happen. So, Russiagate just got a little nastier, and when the actual report is published in April, it will likely start a firestorm. (Z & V)

Republicans Throw Everything They've Got at PA-18

Over the weekend, every part of the Republican Party was giving all it had in an effort to put Republican Rick Saccone over the top in today's special House election in PA-18. Donald Trump held a rally. The RNC sent in staffers from D.C. to knock on doors. A major GOP super PAC tried to undermine Democrat Conor Lamb with liberals by sending out a mailer pointing out his pro-gun, anti-$15 minimum wage positions. Another one tried to undermine him with moderates by tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The Koch brothers did their part, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct mail ads and field operations. All of this activity (and don't forget the $9 million the GOP has already spent in the district) is to win one measly House seat that won't even exist once the new map takes effect in time for the November election.

The Republicans have a substantial majority in the House, so losing this one seat won't affect their ability to pass whatever laws they can agree on. So the enormous effort is all about the potential symbolism of a loss in a district Trump won by 20 points. If that comes to pass, all the news for the rest of the week is going to be about how the Trump voters have had it with The Donald.

All the polls in the past week have shown the race to be within the margin of error, so unless it is a blowout, the polls will have been right, no matter who wins. A new Monmouth University poll out yesterday has Lamb up 51% to 45%, outside the poll's margin of error. However, the poll's turnout model assumes Democrats will show up in numbers very uncharacteristic for the district, and more in line with national turnout in recent special elections. If the turnout is normal, Lamb still wins, 49% to 47%, but that is a statistical tie. In any case, it all comes down to turnout. The side that can get its voters to the polls in greater numbers will win.

In theory, given the lean of the district, all the Republican pooh-bahs who have shown up to campaign for Saccone, the vast amount of money the GOP has poured into the race, and the ground operation, Saccone should be leading by 10-20 points, not running even with Lamb. Part of the explanation is that some Trump voters are unhappy with Trump and want to show it, but also Saccone isn't a very good candidate and Lamb is. In the event of a narrow Saccone victory, both sides will claim vindication, but behind closed doors Republicans will be sweating bullets. And heaven help us if the gap between Lamb and Saccone is less than 0.5%, because that will trigger an automatic recount under Pennsylvania law, and then things could get really ugly. (V)

Stormy Daniels' Lawyer Tries to Pressure Trump

Yesterday Michael Avenatti, the media-savvy lawyer that Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford) hired, ratcheted up the pressure on Donald Trump. Avenatti sent a letter to Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, who created a shell corporation for the purpose of paying Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair she had with Trump in 2006-2007. The letter offers to return the $130,000 immediately in exchange for nullifying the hush-money agreement.

The pressure on Cohen comes from New York State's professional standards for lawyers, which require any offer of a settlement to be discussed with the lawyer's client. Consequently, Cohen is now required to discuss the matter with Trump. If Trump rejects it out of hand, as he almost certainly will do (because he doesn't want her talking to the media), it looks more and more like he is trying to silence her. After all, she is offering him $130,000 and all she gets in return is the right to talk to anyone she wants to about anything she wants to. If he has nothing to hide, why not take the money and let her shoot off her mouth? It is clear that Avenatti is fighting a battle on two levels: the courts of law and the court of public opinion. From Trump's point of view, winning the former but losing the latter would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. (V)

Looks Like It's Kudlow

With the caveat that you can never be sure with Donald Trump until the ink is dry on the hiring paperwork, it looks like Larry Kudlow is going to be tapped as the replacement for departed National Economic Council chair Gary Cohn. The deciding factor, reportedly, is that the President has been impressed by Kudlow's performance on—wait for it—the cable news. An announcement could come as soon as today.

Kudlow is an interesting choice, given that he and Trump don't see eye-to-eye on some pretty important things. In particular, the would-be NEC chair is a "globalist" in every sense of the word, something that Team Trump does not generally approve of. That said, he's also an "economist" for whom politics comes first and evidence comes second, and Trump surely appreciates that. Not only is Kudlow an advocate of supply-side economics, a theory that has been widely discredited by both liberal and conservative scholars, he also hates employer-paid health insurance, taxes on capital gains, estate taxes, and virtually all regulations that impact the financial sector. Nearly all of these ideas put him far outside the mainstream. He also predicted wrongly that there would not be a recession in 2007, has advocated enthusiastically for a border wall, and is a supporter of any and all Muslim bans. Maybe he and Trump do see eye-to-eye after all, particularly if Trump happens to cancel the tariffs after today's election in Pennsylvania. (Z)

DeVos Blows It on "60 Minutes"

The United States has a long and "proud" tradition of cabinet officers who were appointed in order to keep some faction of their party happy, and not because they were actually qualified to head a department. Even the great Abe Lincoln did it; his original Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was appointed solely to keep Pennsylvania Republicans happy. Cameron lingered for a nine-month tenure that qualified him for the short list of worst cabinet secretaries in U.S. history before the President finally managed to send him packing to Russia. Donald Trump doesn't have a lot in common with Lincoln, but this is one area where The Donald and Old Abe are definitely on the same page. No, not in sending underlings off to Russia. In appointing cabinet secretaries of dubious quality. A generous accounting of the Trump cabinet finds at least five folks who have no business in their jobs: Scott Pruitt (EPA), Rick Perry (Energy), Ben Carson (HUD), Ryan Zinke (Interior), and Betsy DeVos (Education).

It is hard to say which of this quintet is worst—you certainly wouldn't want to have to live on the difference—but on Sunday night, DeVos appeared on "60 Minutes" to stake her claim. Why she agreed to the interview is anyone's guess; Perry and Carson are at least self-aware enough to realize that television is not their friend. Among other missteps, DeVos did not realize that students' test scores are trending upward rather than downward, admitted that she does not bother to visit underperforming schools, was confused as to whether there are more more sexual assaults or more false accusations of sexual assault, and did not know that charter schools have been a mixed bag at best. She also reiterated her support for arming teachers, though at least this time she did not suggest that as a means of defending against marauding grizzly bears.

The White House was watching the interview, according to numerous reports, and was "alarmed." Donald Trump, for his part, was more than alarmed—more like "angry." So much so that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment on the matter at her Monday press conference. There is no greater sin in this White House than embarrassing the administration, so we will have to add DeVos' name to the list of Trump underlings who are in the dog house. It is getting crowded in there. (Z)

Warren Won't Take DNA Test

A common Republican strategy to take down a Democrat is to find some questionable item in the person's character or history and hammer on it over and over and over and over and over and over. Think: Hillary Clinton's email server. How many people even know what an email server is? But by sheer force of repeating "email server" enough times, it became a major weakness for Clinton, even though the server might actually have been more secure than the State Department's (because the Russians probably didn't know it existed). It looks like technique is now going to be used against Elizabeth Warren, someone the GOP clearly fears would move the country far to the left if she is elected president in 2020. Time to start taking her down now.

The attack on her is that she refuses to take a DNA test to prove her claimed Cherokee or Delaware Indian heritage. While this is a dog whistle, it could be an effective one. Many of the blue-collar white men in Donald Trump's base hate affirmative action programs with a passion. To them, everyone except white men get a leg up on jobs, loans, college admissions, and everything else. They see this as discrimination against white men and hate it bitterly. So by making it look like Warren lied about being part Native American, and then using this advantage to get a job at Harvard, the Republicans bring up all their white resentment and feelings of being a victim to the forefront.

It is probably stupid of Warren to refuse the test. She was born in Oklahoma and grew up there. Oklahoma has many Native Americans, so the claim could well be true. But if she took the test and discovered that she was partly Native American, it would prove her claim and probably make Trump stop calling her "Pocahontas." If the test showed no Native American blood, she could apologize and that would probably be the end of it. By refusing the test, she is keeping the story alive until 2020. (V)

Orange County Will Be Central to Democrats' Attempts to Capture the House

For decades, Orange County, CA was a Republican bulwark, sending an endless series of Republicans to Congress. That is starting to change, and 2018 could be the final nail in the GOP's coffin there. If it is, it could have major national implications. Orange County contains (parts of) seven congressional districts, four of which are currently represented by Republicans. Here are the map and the data.

Orange Cty map

Demographic changes in the county over the years have led to a situation in which whites are a minority, Latinos are about one-third, and Asians are one-fifth of the population. Three of the districts are heavily Democratic, and the other four are even or slightly Republican. Democrats are making a major push to capture all seven seats and they have a decent shot at it. Nationwide, Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take control of the House, and this one county could provide one-sixth of them. And they are all located in the same media market (Los Angeles), albeit an expensive one. Republican strategist Sean Walsh summed up the situation by saying: "The canary is coughing."

The Republicans' problems start with two retirements, those of Ed Royce and Darrell Issa. Both of them saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to leave on their own terms. Having to defend two open seats in swing districts in a potentially blue wave is clearly a bad start for the Republicans. Of the other two GOP districts, Dana Rohrabacher's is slightly more Republican than Mimi Walters'. However, Rohrabacher is the most pro-Russian member of Congress, a close ally of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and someone special counsel Robert Mueller has a definite interest in. He represents the whitest, richest, and most MAGA district in the county, and his 15 terms in Congress give him near universal name recognition in his district. Still, recent polling shows that 90% of the people who disapprove of Donald Trump say they won't vote for Rohrabacher. As the state becomes more and more anti-Trump, Rohrabacher clearly has a big problem.

Walters, although only in her second term, is probably in better shape than Rohrabacher since she doesn't have quite as big a target on her back. When asked if she was worried, she shrugged it off, saying that she won 37,000 more votes than Donald Trump did in 2016.

A factor in all these races is California's jungle primary system, in which the top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election (unless one of them gets more than 50% of the vote). If, for example, a less Putinistic Republican challenges Rohrabacher and 10 Democrats enter the primary, Rohrabacher and the other Republican could advance to the general election, even if the Democratic candidates combined far outpoll the Republican candidates combined. The DCCC or DNC could step in before the primary if that looks like a real possibility, but supporters of the candidates the DCCC wants to get rid of are likely to be hopping mad and might stay home. Still, to get an idea of which party is going to control the House in 2019, Orange County is a place to watch. (V)

Trump Blocks Merger

In nearly all ways, Donald Trump is a laissez faire, pro-business president. On Monday, however, he took the uncharacteristic step of blocking the planned $117 billion merger between Broadcom and Qualcomm. In the written explanation for the decision, the White House said that there was "credible evidence" that Broadcom and its partners "might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States."

Exactly what happened here is still fuzzy, especially since Trump hosted Broadcom CEO Hock Tan at the White House last November. At that point, not only was the President on board with the merger, he touted it as a "win" for American workers, since Tan promised to move his corporate headquarters to the United States. Blocking a merger for national security purposes is a very rare move, with less than half a dozen cases on the books—one for George W. Bush, two for Barack Obama, and now two for Trump. In all five cases, a company with ties to China was involved, and in three of the five it was specifically a semiconductor maker. Perhaps a message is being sent to Xi Jinping and his government, or perhaps there is intelligence that points to some sort of nefarious plot on the part of the Chinese. Cyberwarfare is, after all, the latest front in the struggle for global domination. It could be years, or decades, before we find out the full truth, if we ever do. (Z)

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