Mar. 19

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

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Trump Continues to Attack Mueller

For a second straight day, Donald Trump lit into special counsel Robert Mueller:

Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added...does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 18, 2018

This tweet represents a new chapter in Trump's handling of the Russiagate investigation. Up until now he has called it a witch hunt, but—on the advice of his lawyers—has carefully avoided attacking Mueller personally. Now he is definitely going after Mueller personally. The statement that there are zero Republicans on Mueller's team is factually false. Mueller himself is a registered Republican and was appointed to run the FBI by George W. Bush. The other members of his team are from both parties, although a majority are Democrats. Nevertheless, Mueller selected them all for their expertise (e.g., prosecuting money laundering) and clearly wouldn't have picked people who hate Republicans, given that he himself is a life-long Republican.

Not everyone is happy with Trump's new-found anger. For example, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who hounded Hillary Clinton on Benghazi with a ferocity that would embarrass Inspector Javert, said yesterday that interfering with Mueller would result in "a very, very long, bad 2018." In reference to the call by Trump's lawyer, John Dowd, to shut down the investigation, Gowdy added: "If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it." When asked by CNN what would happen if Trump fired Mueller, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) replied: "If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency because we're a rule-of-law nation." Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) had this to say about Trump potentially firing Mueller: "I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed."

Cooler heads are undoubtedly going to try to keep Trump from trying to fire Mueller, but he has a history of doing what he wants to, regardless of what his advisers tell him to do. (V)

Could Trump Replace Sessions with Pruitt?

The media have been full of stories of late about how Donald Trump wants to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in order to have an AG willing to fire Robert Mueller. A long article in Politico discusses that possibility and brings up three reasons why that might not be a good idea. Of course, it is very unlikely Trump reads Politico every day, especially not the longer articles. But here are the arguments.

For these reasons, among others, firing Sessions and trying to install Pruitt would lead to a firestorm and a huge court battle that Trump could lose. Nevertheless, if backed into a corner, Trump could try anyway. It may well be that Trump is convinced that no one in his campaign colluded with the Russians, so he actually isn't worried about that. But Mueller's digging into his finances seems to upset him greatly. (V)

Trump Decides It's High Time His Administration Had a Drug Plan

Donald Trump has talked a lot about the opioid crisis which, after all, weighs particularly heavily on the folks who voted for him. Today, he will reportedly unveil his plan to combat the epidemic, amidst much fanfare.

Assuming there are no last-minute changes, the proposal actually contains a lot of ideas that drug addiction experts are on board with. For example, tightening up the rules for prescribing opioids in the first place and making it easier for Medicaid to fund treatment. However, the part of the proposal that everyone will be talking about, and that is already getting all the attention, is its call to begin executing "kingpin" drug dealers.

Theoretically, the government already has the right to do that under the terms of 18 USC 3591(b), but previous administrations have not tried to exercise that particular authority. However, Trump has a general preference for using overwhelming force wherever possible, and executions fit in with that, even if they are not likely to do much of anything to deter opioid addiction. Beyond the general question of whether the death penalty is a deterrent under any circumstances, there is the problem that a lot of the opioids in question (like oxycodone or hydrocodone) are obtained by abusing the prescription system or from foreign mail-order pharmacies. In other words, they are legal drugs that many individuals obtain illegally for themselves. While it's true that illegal opioids like heroin tend to come from "kingpins," those kingpins are largely foreigners, and so beyond the reach of the federal government.

In any case, Trump is pretty good at unveiling proposals. Follow-up, maybe not so much. When was the last time we heard anything, for example, about his infrastructure plan? So, we shall see if today's announcement turns into something real, or if it's just another Rose Garden photo-op. (Z)

Democrats Expand Lead in Generic House Poll

A new NBC/WSJ poll asking voters which party they want to control Congress has the Democrats at 50% and the Republicans at 40%. Nearly all (92%) Democrats want a Democratic Congress and nearly all (88%) Republicans want a Republican Congress, but among independents, Democrats are ahead 48% to 36%. This 10-point overall lead is up from 6 points in January. Democrats also have the edge on enthusiasm, with 60% having a high degree of interest in the elections vs. 54% for Republicans. (V)

Democrats May Contest 100 House Seats

Polls like the one above and Conor Lamb's victory last week in a district Donald Trump won by 20 points are giving Democrats visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Originally they were planning to seriously contest a few dozen swing districts at most. Now they are looking at over 100 districts that may be in play. Most of them are suburban districts, like the neighborhoods outside Pittsburgh that gave Lamb his victory.

Republicans are clearly worried about this new reality. Incumbents who have never had to fight for reelection are suddenly raising money like there was no tomorrow and working for constituents in ways they never had to do before. For example, nine-term Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is making a big effort to do constituent service, in particular, helping hurricane victims in his Houston-area district. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) is sticking close to his SC-05 district, which is north of Columbia. He has advised other Republicans to do town halls, tele-town halls, and opioid conferences and skip overseas trips.

Republicans may try to make the election about the new tax bill, but evidence from PA-18 suggests that won't work. Rick Saccone leaned heavily on tax cuts to make his case initially, but that didn't move the needle at all, so he gave up on it. Since the tax bill is the only major piece of legislation the Republicans have passed so far, if that doesn't do the job, the cupboard is bare. All they have left is the specter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but Saccone tried that and it didn't work, either (though his opponent also distanced himself from Pelosi). Of course, the election is not yet upon us and new issues could arise before the campaigns really start in earnest. (V)

New Republican Megadonor Surfaces

If you follow the world of Republican megadonors, the names Charles and David Koch, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, and Todd Ricketts are surely all familiar. But what about Richard Uihlein? Richard Who? Well, he's the new kid on the block, but with $21 million in donations to Republicans in 2018 alone, he's moving up the list of movers and shakers very fast.

His most recent project is singlehandedly financing Jeanne Ives, who is running against Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-IL) in tomorrow's Republican gubernatorial primary in Illinois. Uihlein used to support Rauner, but broke with him over abortion, and is now trying his best to defeat Rauner. Uihlein has also poured money into the the senate campaigns of Kevin Nicholson in Wisconsin, Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, and Josh Hawley in Missouri.

While he supports a mix of Republican candidates, most of his money goes to folks who strongly support Donald Trump, especially if they are deeply conservative and can help pull the GOP further to the right. Bomb throwers are definitely welcome. For example, in Illinois, Ives ran an ad in which a man with a deep voice portraying a transgender woman tells Rauner: "Thank you for signing legislation that lets me use the girls' bathroom." Another of her ads features a young woman who thanks Rauner for making all Illinois families pay for her abortions. In short, nature abhors a vacuum, and with Steve Bannon out of the picture now, Uihlein has stepped up to the plate to take over where he left off. (V)

Trump Required Staffers to Sign NDAs

There was some murmuring about this previously, but now the Washington Post has confirmed it: All the key members of the Trump administration were required to sign nondisclosure agreements with a reported seven-figure penalty for revealing any "nonpublic" information they acquired during their time in the White House. Furthermore, the agreements are apparently written such that they extend beyond Trump's presidential term and, in theory, do not expire until he does.

Unless there is something we don't know about past secrecy-minded presidents, like Dick Nixon, this is unprecedented. Keeping in mind that White House staff are already forbidden from sharing classified information, at risk of going to prison, these NDAs really only cover non-confidential information about personal behavior, behind-the-scenes interactions, and the like. In other words, it's a massive overreach that speaks to more than a little paranoia. Further, it is yet another reminder that Trump thinks he is the CEO of The United States, Inc., and so the same rules and norms apply as in his business career. "Has everybody signed a confidentiality agreement like they did during the campaign or we had at Trump Tower?" he reportedly asked one staffer.

The NDAs are almost certainly not enforceable; the Trump administration is literally the federal government, and the agreements likely run afoul of the first amendment. Certainly, the "eternal" aspect of them is not enforceable. We will see what happens when the first White House staffer tries to publish a tell-all memoir. Sean Spicer, the ball is in your court. (Z)

Kushner Filed False Paperwork in New York City

As if first son-in-law Jared Kushner didn't have enough problems already, the AP is now reporting that Kushner filed false papers with New York City, which resulted in him making enormous profits on buildings he owned. In 2015, Kushner bought three buildings in an area of Queens that was rapidly gentrifying and becoming more desirable. There are special city rules that prevent developers from kicking certain tenants out to raise rents and then selling the buildings at a big profit. But that is exactly what Kushner did. He (falsely) reported to the city that his buildings had no rent-regulated tenants, when it fact it had hundreds of them.

Aaron Carr of the Housing Rights Initiative said: "It's bare-faced greed." Kushner responded that documents are reviewed by independent counsel, and "if mistakes are identified, corrective action is taken immediately." This is not quite Richard Nixon's "mistakes were made," but we are in the same ballpark. Carr's group found that the Kushners' company filed at least 80 false applications for construction permits from 2013 to 2016, all of them asserting that there were no rent-regulated tenants in the relevant buildings. In fact, there were over 300 of them. Tenants also complained that the company tried to get people to leave by harassing them with banging and drilling in the middle of the night. New York City Council member Ritchie Torres said: "The Kushners appear to be engaging in what I call the weaponization of construction." (V)

Six More Years

There are certain outcomes where, if you were surprised, you just haven't been paying attention. For example:

And speaking of spies and inevitable outcomes, Vladimir Putin was reelected as president of Russia on Sunday. He got 76.6% of the vote in the sham election, but thus far vote totals have not been announced, which strongly suggests that turnout was anemic. As we noted yesterday, it's not clear if Putin is really running the country or the thugs that surround him are, but whatever the case may be we're going to have six more years of it. (Z)

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