• FBI May Have Been Looking for More Stormies
• More on Michael Cohen
• CBO Projections Are Brutal
• Bossert Exits
• Puerto Rico's Governor Plans to Mobilize Mainland Puerto Ricans
• Fox News and CNN Are Losing Viewers While MSNBC Is Gaining Them
• Zuckerberg 1, Senators 0
Yesterday, Donald Trump continued to attack his own Justice Dept. and he made thinly veiled threats about firing special counsel Robert Mueller. When asked about firing Mueller, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "We have been advised that he certainly has the power to make that decision." Actually, he doesn't have that power at all. Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein has it. If Trump asked Rosenstein to fire Mueller and Rosenstein refused, then Trump could fire Rosenstein and ask the next person in line, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, to do the job. This process could be repeated until Trump found someone who was willing to wield the axe.
One GOP operative close to the White House said of Trump: "He's losing his shit. We're at a different level now." In case we needed confirmation of that, Trump took to Twitter to provide it:
Attorney–client privilege is dead!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
A TOTAL WITCH HUNT!!!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 10, 2018
Another sign that Trump is entirely immersed in Russiagate, Cohengate, Muellergate, and relatedgates is that he canceled a long-planned trip to Peru to meet with Latin American leaders. With nothing on his schedule during the period he was supposed to be away, he will have lots of "executive time," meaning he can watch Fox News, stew, and tweet. With a crisis in Syria and a crisis in the White House, the next couple of weeks could get interesting. Trump has not yet gotten to the condition Richard Nixon was in near the end (in part because Nixon was drunk all the time and Trump doesn't drink), but it probably can't go on like this for very long.
Republicans in Congress are becoming more alarmed about Trump firing the entire top of the Justice Dept. in order to get to someone willing to fire Mueller. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is pressing for the Senate Judiciary Committee to take up legislation insulating Mueller. Republican senators have introduced two slightly different bills protecting Mueller, but so far, neither has been considered by the Committee. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, went on Fox Business News yesterday to tell Trump "it would be suicide for the president to want to talk about firing the special counsel." But so far, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not been in favor of taking any concrete action to protect Mueller, although if he is actually fired, taking action to reinstate him will be ten times harder.
Even if Congress doesn't do anything to protect Mueller, though, that doesn't necessarily make Donald Trump's life a lot easier. First of all, there's certainly a risk that if he tries to fire the Special Counsel, Congress will step in. They might not, but Trump can't know for sure, and if they did step in he would essentially be enmeshed in an intra-party war. Further, the optics of firing Mueller are not improving. It's true that many true believers would cheer the move, but independents and Trump skeptics would be alienated, while the opposition would become even more energized. And, perhaps most significantly, Trump-dora's Box may now be open, and firing Mueller might not shut it. It is possible that one of the reasons Mueller outsourced the raid on Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, to a federal prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, is so the case could continue even if he is fired. Berman, who was personally interviewed by Trump before being appointed (ad interim), has been recused from the case, so others in his office will handle it. Also, the grand jury would not be dismissed upon Mueller's firing. It could continue bringing indictments as long as it wanted to. Further, NY AG Eric Schneiderman could pick up the ball and run with it, since state laws have very possibly been broken.
One very real possibility is that Trump fires Rosenstein only, and replaces him with someone more Trump-friendly. Some advisers are telling the President that this is his most politically palatable option, considerably less likely to enrage Congress and/or the general public than firing Mueller. Since the Deputy AG has to approve much of what Mueller does, having a Trump ally in that job could have the effect of significantly clipping the Special Counsel's wings. However, insiders are unclear that this move would be enough to satisfy the President at this point. Further, Monday's raid was conducted entirely under the auspices of folks appointed by Trump, so he can't exactly be sure that the next person he might appoint would do his bidding, especially if that person was presented with overwhelming evidence of bad behavior by the President and/or his underlings. Before making personnel changes, Trump might want to read up on Watergate. After special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired in the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon appointed Leon Jaworski as a new special prosecutor. Jaworski immediately sued to get Nixon's secret tapes, got them, and that was the end of Richard Nixon.
The bottom line is that Trump now finds himself in a real mess. And, undoubtedly to the great consternation of those around him, he is very likely to find some way to make that mess worse in the next few days. (V & Z)
The New York Times is now shedding some light on what the FBI might have been after in the raids on Michael Cohen's offices, home, and hotel room. The report says that the FBI wanted to see if there were other women who had been paid off, in addition to Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford) and Karen McDougal (her real name). Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon once joked that there were hundreds of NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) out there. If prosecutors could establish that there were multiple hush-money payoffs during the campaign, that would make it clearer that they were campaign-related and thus illegal in-kind campaign contributions. Heaven help Trump if investigators now searching Cohen's computer find an Excel spreadsheet listing all the payoffs, with names, dates, banks, and amounts.
But that isn't the only thing the FBI was after. The bureau was also looking into Cohen's taxicab business, which at one point had 200 taxi medallions. At the high point, a taxi medallion was worth $1 million. It is not clear why that long-time business is now relevant, though. And there may well have been other goals that are not yet public.
The raids have complicated the negotiations between Mueller and Trump's remaining lawyers about Trump being interviewed by Mueller's team. The lawyers have warned Trump not to do it, but Trump has been confident until now of his ability to wing it without problems. His rage over the raids may change his view and make him refuse an interview. That would force Mueller to get the grand jury to issue a subpoena. The Supreme Court would have to decide whether a sitting president could be subpoenaed in a criminal case. In Clinton v. Jones it unanimously ruled that a sitting president could be forced to testify in a civil case. It's hard to see why a criminal case would be different. (V)
Donald Trump's fixer, Michael Cohen, isn't just a regular garden-variety New York lawyer. He has a couple of characteristics that are potentially relevant. He was born on Long Island and grew up there, became a lawyer, worked for a Democratic congressman, and went into the taxi business. He ran unsuccessfully for the New York City Council and the New York State Senate. He also had a casino boat business in Florida that failed.
He is not poor. He once bought a building at 172 Rivington St. in NYC for $2 million and sold it for $10 million 3 years later. He later bought another building for $58 million. Typically, people who buy $58 million buildings don't have to use a line of credit on their house to come up with $130,000 to pay off porn stars. They just wire it from one of their bank accounts to their newly set up Delaware corporation. Cohen's claim of having to borrow the $130,000 to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels is suspicious at best. Furthermore, prosecutors probably know if that is true since they could easily subpoena records from his bank. If they know it is not true, that could make their ears perk up and wonder: "What else is not true?"
More interesting is that Cohen's wife, Laura, is from Ukraine and he speaks Russian. And that is not Cohen's only tie to Ukraine and Russia. He has worked on deals with a childhood friend, Russian immigrant and convicted felon Felix Sater, who claims to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sater once boasted in an email: "Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process." Special counsel Robert Mueller surely knows this, since the New York Times published this last August.
Cohen has also worked closely with another immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Tevfik Arif, who founded the Bayrock real estate company, allegedly with laundered money from Russian oligarchs arranged by Sater.
Thus, Cohen has many ties to key Russians with large amounts of money and a potential interest in laundering it. Almost all the media reports about the raid on Cohen's offices center on the payoff to Stormy Daniels, but one has to wonder if the Justice Dept. would take such an enormous risk in going after the president's lawyer on account of a tiny ($130,000 is pin money in Cohen's circles) payment, even if it were in violation of federal election law. Cohen could say in court that he gave Daniels the money to protect Melania and Barron Trump; who's to know for sure? One has to consider the possibility that Stormy Daniels, et al., are mostly just a cover story—for the benefit of Donald Trump, or for the general public, or for the judges who are handing out search warrants—and what the FBI is really looking for is large-scale money laundering. There are many loose ends here. Most likely what is public now is merely the tip of the iceberg. (V)
Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released the drily-titled "The Budget and Economic Outlook, 2018 to 2028." Essentially, in the three months or so since the GOP passed its tax cut, the nonpartisan CBO has had more time to crunch the numbers, and also has a bit more data to work with. Their conclusions are frightening.
To start, the deficit looks like it will grow by $242 billion this year, to $804 billion. Of that added amount of deficit, $194 billion comes from the tax cuts. Meanwhile, an $804 billion annual deficit is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from $1 trillion, and the CBO says the United States will get there by 2020 ($1.008 trillion). And after a decade, the deficit won't just reach $1 trillion, it will have increased by (almost) $1 trillion (from $665 billion in 2017 to $1.526 trillion in 2028).
That is the bad news. And now, the worse news. The projections in the previous paragraph (and in the first portion of the CBO report) follow the letter of the law as it currently exists. That means that, in particular, the numbers do not account for (1) The likelihood that the "temporary" spending increases in the two-year budget just signed into law become permanent, (2) The possibility that the tax cuts that are supposed to expire in 2025 end up being extended, (3) The likelihood that the Obamacare taxes will be canceled, a move that is currently "on hold," (4) The great likelihood that climate change will increase certain expenses, like disaster relief, and (5) a possible recession. Near the end of the document, the CBO tries to take a stab at what will happen if some of these things come to pass, and their best guess is that the annual deficit will actually cross the $2 trillion mark by 2028.
Never in the history of the world has there been an economy as big as the United States, one on which the whole world's finances rest, to a substantial extent. So, nobody can be sure exactly what might happen if spending (and debt) are allowed to grow unchecked like this. However, both common sense and recent, smaller-scale experiments with trickle down economics (like, say, in Kansas) suggest that it is not good. Clearly, despite their rhetoric otherwise, the Republican Party has no interest in fiscal responsibility. That leaves the Democrats, a party not known for belt-tightening, and a party whose #1 policy goal right now is universal healthcare. So, there's good reason to be concerned. (Z)
Yet another high-ranking White House senior staffer has departed. This time it is Tom Bossert, who was serving as Donald Trump's homeland security adviser. Though he was one of the most experienced people in the White House, having served in a similar capacity under George W. Bush, newly-minted NSA John Bolton wants his own people. Presumably ones limber enough to duck when a stapler comes whizzing at their heads. So, Bossert was asked to resign.
The West Wing exodus, then, continues. Kathryn Dunn Tempas, of the Brookings Institution, was interested in exactly how Donald Trump's turnover rate compares to his immediate predecessors', so she created a list of the most important jobs in every administration dating back to Ronald Reagan. The job titles and responsibilities sometimes shift a bit from president to president, but it's nonetheless possible to identify the movers and shakers in the White House—or, as Tempas calls them, the "A Team." Here is her chart:
As is clear, even at a glance, the situation is pretty bad. Trump had more than twice as many departures in his first year than the previous "record holder," Ronald Reagan, and more than triple the number that Barack Obama had. Of the 65 key positions tracked by Tempas, 22 occupants did not make it to the one-year point. And, in fact, the chart above understates the extent of the problem in some ways. Namely:
- Tempas was interested only in the first person to hold a job. So, her chart
does not account for jobs that changed hands several times in the first
year—White House Communications Director, for example.
- Trump has only one complete year under his belt, and so only one line on the
chart above. However, year two is invariably rougher than year one in terms of
departures—every one of the last five presidents had a significant uptick
in people leaving. Trump is clearly going to follow that pattern; the chart
above does not reflect NEA Gary Cohn, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, aide
John McEntee, VA Secretary David Shulkin, or Bossert, among others.
- In the cases of half a dozen jobs (or so) in the Trump administration, nobody could have vacated them because nobody has, as yet, occupied them. There is not yet a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, a chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, a director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or a director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, among others.
Put another way, if one were to count the number of jobs that have actually been filled (58 or so), and the number of people who have left (30 or so), then Trump's turnover rate since taking office is in the realm of 50%. If this was the private sector, that would put the Trump White House right at the bottom of the Fortune 500, alongside Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Mosaic, Ross Dress for Less, and...Amazon.
As the chart makes clear, substantial turnover is a way of life in the West Wing. It's hard, stressful work for not a lot of pay, and once someone has a couple of years in the White House on their resume, cushier jobs (academia) and/or more lucrative jobs (lobbyist, corporate boards) often beckon. Tempas argues that Trump's particularly bad turnover rate is a product of two factors special to him. The first is his "management by chaos" style, which undoubtedly ratchets up the stress, backbiting, tension, etc. And the second is the pool of candidates he was drawing from—limited by the fact that many promising people wanted nothing to with him, and that he, in turn, wanted nothing to do with anyone who opposed his candidacy or has been critical of him. The limited pool meant that, by and large, people were installed in jobs they were not prepared for.
The upshot is that more departures are coming—many more. The only question is whose head rolls next. Jeff Sessions? Rod Rosenstein? Kellyanne Conway? John Kelly? Or, maybe, all of the above. (Z)
Puerto Rico is still suffering from Hurricane Maria. Six months after it hit, 55,000 Puerto Ricans still don't have electricity, and the island's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, is not only hopping mad, he plans to do something about it. He is keenly aware that 2 million Cuban-Americans have been a potent force in U.S. politics for 60 years, but the 5.6 million Puerto Ricans (who are concentrated in just a few states) are not. That's what he plans to change.
Rosselló is not your standard governor. He has a bachelors from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in biomedical engineering. But gaining statehood for Puerto Rico was always his passion, so he went into politics and in 2016 was elected governor at 37. He likes to point out that he is the only governor anywhere close to being a millennial.
His plan is to get as many Puerto Ricans as possible to register to vote, especially in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. He intends to copy the model Cuban-Americans used so successfully. He is going to raise money, make lists of potential voters, and generally do grass-roots organizing. One of his medium-term goals is for Congress to pass a law making Puerto Rico a state (which would have to be preceded by a majority vote of Puerto Ricans in favor of statehood, but otherwise would be all that is needed to make them state #51). Since most Puerto Ricans are Democrats, a future Democratic administration might heed the call since it would probably mean two new Democratic senators and possibly four or five new Democratic representatives. His plan is to turn the 5.6 million Puerto Ricans already living on the mainland into a lobbying force that will elect politicians who favor statehood. It's a tall order, but it worked for Hawaii and Alaska, so it might work for Puerto Rico. (V)
With an average of 1.4 million viewers per day, Fox News is still king of cable news, but its viewership is down 16% in the first quarter compared to first quarter 2017. CNN is also down, by 13%. But surprisingly, the left-leaning MSNBC has soared by 30% compared to a year ago. To put things in perspective though, 139 million people voted in 2016, out of 232 million who were eligible to vote. So 1% of the people who voted watch Fox News and 0.6% of eligible voters watch it. The three networks combined are watched by only 1.3% of the voting age population. The other 98.7% apparently have something better to do with their time.
While these statistics are surely of great interest to advertisers, they also have serious political implications. To start with, they are yet another indication that Democrats are getting more enthusiastic while Republicans are starting to have enough of a network that has tied itself very closely to Donald Trump. More important, however, is that MSNBC is a valuable fundraising tool for the blue team. When host Rachel Maddow turns the spotlight on a particular race, as she did with Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, it puts the race on the map and the money begins pouring in. If she decides that Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) has a real shot at beating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), her attention to that race could bring in a huge amount of money for O'Rourke, as well as other candidates she and fellow host Lawrence O'Donnell like.
Nevertheless, Fox News is still champ and far from dead, despite the loss of its top star, Bill O'Reilly, last year. Four of the top shows are still on Fox, namely those of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Bret Baier. Still, total television viewership is down, so politicians and parties are going to increasingly need to use other media to get their message out. (V)
According to Mark Twain, who popularized the phrase, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was the first person to declare that "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." If those two gentlemen were alive today, they might just have to update that list to "lies, damned lies, and Facebook pages." Every day, it seems we learn new details about how the social media platform is facilitating deception, from the Russians' planting of fake news stories, to the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, in which a vast amount of voters' information was collected under false pretenses, to this week's news that the biggest Black Lives Matter page on Facebook is a fake, run by a handful of white guys in Australia.
All of these revelations, and others, have made clear that Facebook needs some oversight. Like hackable voting machines, presidents who undermine their own Justice Dept., and senate majority leaders who use parliamentary tricks to steal Supreme Court seats, it's not good for the democracy when it becomes so easy to feed voters a steady diet of propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies. Mark Zuckerberg & Co. would prefer to police themselves, but they are clearly terrible at doing so, in part because there are just too many conflicts of interest there. After all, this is a multibillion dollar business whose model is based upon collecting information surreptitiously and then selling it to the highest bidder. No, it is clear that—as with the trusts and the monopolies of the Gilded Age—the government will have to step in.
To that end, Zuckerberg spent five hours being grilled by senators yesterday; he'll spend about the same amount of time today. Even he sees the writing on the wall, and he knows that some sort of supervision is coming. At the moment, his goal is to minimize that supervision. And round one, at least, went to the wunderkind. There's no doubt that the senators take this matter seriously, and that some of them were quite irked about the Cambridge fiasco in particular. However, the 42 senators who questioned Zuckerberg only had five minutes each. Further, there's a decent chance he was the smartest person in the Senate chamber, and he was definitely the only tech expert in the room. There were a few useful questions, but largely Zuckerberg was dealing with folks who probably have trouble turning their cell phone ring tone off at the movies. This is like Sandy Koufax pitching to Little Leaguers. Consequently, Zuckerberg was able to stick to his talking points, and to brush aside the senators' most aggressive inquiries. Investors were so happy with his performance that they sent Facebook stock up 4.5 points. That means that for every hour he spent talking to the Senate, the Facebook founder added about $670 million to his net worth. Nice work if you can get it.
Returning to the Gilded Age parallel, it took something like 15 years between the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 and the emergence of actual, effective trustbusting on the part of the federal government. In other words, these things take time to figure out, and even more time to implement. So, it seems very unlikely that anything meaningful will happen on the Facebook regulation front before the election of 2020, which means that those who care about the integrity of the democracy will have to rely—at least for now—on the hope that Facebook will behave like a responsible corporate citizen, and that journalists and academics do what they can to keep the social media giant honest. (Z)Email a link to a friend or share:
---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr10 Trump May Soon Discover Where the Buck Stops
Apr10 Senate Confirmation Battles Loom
Apr10 Taxes Will Rise in Many States Despite the Tax Cut
Apr10 Mueller Investigating $150,000 Payment from Ukrainian to Trump Foundation
Apr10 Neither Party Is Ready for Mueller
Apr10 Rick Scott Is Running
Apr10 Older, Educated, White Voters are Moving Away from the Republican Party
Apr10 100,000 Young Californians Have Pre-Registered to Vote
Apr09 Syria Gets Messy
Apr09 Fire in Trump Tower
Apr09 Republican Issue for the Midterms: Impeachment
Apr09 Manafort Might Try to Put the FBI on Trial
Apr09 Sanders and Harris Make Gaffes
Apr09 Nearly All Republican Candidates Embrace Trump
Apr09 GOP Pollster: Republicans Are in "Deep Trouble" in 2018
Apr09 Race to Succeed Paul Ryan Has Already Begun
Apr08 Trump Doubles Down on Pruitt
Apr08 Managing Trump, v2.0
Apr08 Managing Trump, v3.0
Apr08 Trump Will Get to Reinvent the Ninth Circuit
Apr08 GOP Candidates Have to Walk a Fine Line on Tariffs
Apr08 Americans Are Taking to the Streets
Apr08 Democrats Surging in Tennessee
Apr07 Trade War Fever Continues Unabated
Apr07 Trump Hits Russians With Sanctions
Apr07 Latest Russiagate Developments
Apr07 Trump Is Slipping with Some Key Supporters
Apr07 Farenthold Resigns from Congress
Apr07 Charlie Cook Has New House Ratings
Apr07 Larry Sabato Has New Gubernatorial Ratings
Apr06 Trump Denies Knowing about the Hush-Money Payment to Stormy Daniels
Apr06 Trump Fires Back at China
Apr06 Pruitt's In Deep Trouble...Unless He's Not
Apr06 Republicans Are Trying to Rewrite the Budget Bill Retroactively
Apr06 Trump Picks an Enemy in the West Virginia Senate Primary
Apr06 Paul Ryan's Congressional Race Is Very Strange
Apr05 Trump Refuses to Back Down, Says There Is No Trade War
Apr05 Trump: "We're Leaving Syria"; Everyone Else: "No, We're Not"
Apr05 Trump Continues to Hammer Amazon
Apr05 Trump Is Not a "Target" of Mueller's Investigation at the Moment
Apr05 Roger Stone Under Increased Scrutiny
Apr05 Trump's Infrastructure Guru Is Quitting
Apr05 NRCC Has Tough Choices Ahead
Apr05 Fourteen States Still Use Insecure Voting Machines
Apr04 China Is Ready for a Trade War
Apr04 Trump Will Use the Military to Guard the Border
Apr04 The Book Behind Trump's Policy Decisions
Apr04 Rosenstein Approved Mueller's Investigation of Manafort
Apr04 Mueller Sends Someone to Jail