Jul. 18

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Takeaways From the Trump-Putin Summit

Lots of outlets have takeaways from what happened in Finland on Monday. Here are some good ones:

The Hill:

CBS News:

The Boston Globe:

New York Magazine:


Obviously, all of the lists are pretty critical of the President. That is because the condemnation of Trump is nearly universal; when it comes to defending him, the Hannity stands alone. And he doesn't do takeaway pieces. (Z)

Trump Says He Misspoke

Donald Trump has spent almost two years insisting that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 election. He was quite clear on this point during his press conference with Vladimir Putin, he stuck to his guns during the plane ride home, and then again on Sean Hannity's program. At some point on Tuesday, however, Trump had a change of heart. This may have something to do with the fact that even "Fox & Friends," the President's favorite morning program, was critical of him. In any case, shortly after the show wrapped up its Tuesday broadcast, he announced that he now believes that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

Of course, this left Trump needing to explain why he said the exact opposite on Monday. And here it is, in his own words:

In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't." The sentence should have been: "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia. Sort of a double negative.

Uh, huh. That's probably the best lemonade that could have been made out of the lemons the Trump coughed up on Monday. However, the new version of Trump's words don't make sense, given that the original declaration was paired with an insistence that Putin said he didn't meddle. Why would Trump need to note that, except as explanation for his own position on the matter? Further, if this was all a simple misunderstanding, why did it take more than 24 hours to clear it up?

Once Trump had taken his best shot at cleaning up the mess he made for himself, he then went into full "change the subject" mode. He blasted the coverage of the summit, calling it—of course—"fake news." Later in the day, Russia announced it was ready to move forward on the military agreements reached by Trump and Putin, and yet nobody in the administration was able to explain exactly what those agreements might be, or why it took 36 hours for them to be mentioned. It was almost as if the Russians cooked something up to deflect some of the heat from Trump. Of course, if the Russians were indeed trying to help the Donald out, we know it wouldn't be the first time. (Z)

Russian Arrested, Charged with Conspiring Against the U.S.

The one silver lining for Donald Trump in the whole summit fiasco is that it has deflected attention from a story that would have been major news on any other day. Over the weekend, Mariia Butina—a Russian national who resides in the U.S. and has ties to Vladimir Putin—was arrested and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. On Tuesday, a variant of that crime was added as a second count, such that she now faces up to 15 years in prison.The indictments accuse Butina of cozying up to GOP politicians, the RNC, corporate titans, and the NRA, and trying both to influence them and to connect them with high-powered members of the Russian government. Court filings also allude to other, unnamed, co-conspirators, so Butina may not be the only one arrested and charged.

It should be noted that Butina has not been connected with the Trump campaign, at least not yet, and that the indictments were not the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. However, there could be other shoes to drop. At the very least, if the charges are true, then it means the Russians had more deeply (and more openly) penetrated the GOP than previously known. At worst, this could prove to be an important piece in the Trump collusion puzzle. For example, the secret phone line that Jared Kushner tried to set up is exactly the kind of project that Butina would have worked on. Similarly, Butina was very, very close to the NRA, and is a life member of the organization (as is Alexander Torshin, her Kremlin handler). The NRA gave more money to the Trump campaign than to any other presidential committee, by a longshot, and there has been much speculation that the organization was being used by foreign powers to, in essence, launder campaign contributions. So, the Butina arrest could eventually prove to be the tip of (yet another) iceberg.

The fact that Torshin is her handler is significant. He was a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament from 2001 to 2015. He has also been accused of being a key figure in the Russian mafia and has been convicted of money laundering in Spain. He is also an official of the Russian central bank. If there was money flowing from Russia to the NRA to help Trump, Torshin would be the ideal person to manage the process. Butina was undoubtedly a small fish in the process, but since she has been arrested, she is kind of in a bind now. If she stonewalls at her trial, she will go to prison in the U.S. If she flips, she might be given a glass of champagne with a touch of polonium at the party celebrating her release at the end of the legal process. (Z & V)

Mueller Asks for Immunity for Five Witnesses

While the Dept. of Justice was dealing with Mariia Butina, Robert Mueller's team was busy preparing for the first trial of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, which is supposed to start next Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Special Counsel asked judge T.S. Ellis to grant immunity to five witnesses he plans to call. That is bad news for Manafort, as it makes clear (if it wasn't already) that he's the big fish that is being targeted. If the judge signs off on the request, as he is likely to do, it's even worse news for the defense, as it means that the witnesses will be compelled to answer all questions, and cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment.

That wasn't the end of the bad news for Manafort, either: The judge also denied his request for a change of venue on Tuesday. Manafort's attorneys argued he would not get a fair trial in Alexandria, which went for Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin, and wanted to move the case four hours away to Roanoke, which split evenly between the two presidential candidates. The judge said that proper jury selection will resolve that issue, which means that yet another Manafort "Hail Mary" pass has been batted down. He's running out of options; if he's going to flip, he'd best do it as soon as possible. (Z)

Trump Fundraising Going Well

Donald Trump may be having trouble on the legal front, and the diplomacy front, and the tariff front, and the approval rating front. One place he's not having trouble, however, is the money front. His reelection campaign now has $88 million in the bank, to go with another $20 million that has been raised by a pair of fundraising committees.

A stockpile of $88 million is very good, but it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of a modern presidential campaign ($600 million-$1.5 billion). Further, Trump is constantly raising money, between his campaign rallies, his merchandise sales, and weekly e-mail blasts. So, one should probably not read to much into the tally. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Trump is planning to run and win in 2020. (Z)

GOP House Members' Fundraising Going Not So Well

In contrast to the President, a lot of GOP members of Congress are not doing so well on the money front. During Q2, Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbents in 56 different districts. 16 of those incumbents now have less cash on hand than their challenger. By contrast, there is no Democratic incumbent with less cash on hand than their challenger.

In the television environment that now reigns (streaming, time-shifting, cord-cutting), money isn't quite as important as it once was. However, donations are a pretty good indicator of enthusiasm. And the Q2 numbers suggest the blue team will put up quite a fight in dozens and dozens of GOP districts. As a reminder, the Democrats need to flip 24 seats to retake the House. (Z)

Roby Wins Runoff

There was an election last night, albeit a small one. Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) won her runoff against Bobby Bright, a onetime Democratic congressman who switched to the GOP in 2016 and ran his campaign based on the fact that Roby refused to vote for Donald Trump after pu**ygate. The result was not close; Roby won by a 2-to-1 margin.

In terms of trying to read the tea leaves for November, it's hard to say what this result means. On one hand, Roby is famous for withholding her vote from Trump, and she just crushed a Trump-loving candidate. So, maybe this is a (small) rebuke of Trumpism in the same state that sent Roy Moore packing. On the other hand, Roby has voted for most of the President's agenda, and she secured his endorsement on that basis. So, this might also be an affirmation of Trumpism, depending on how you look at it. In any event, Roby will enter the general election as a heavy favorite against Democratic challenger Tabitha Isner. (Z)

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