• Economy Having a Bad Month
• Trump Is Thinking about Firing the Fed Chair
• Syria Withdrawal Began with a Phone Call
• A Mueller Mystery
• Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Sherrod Brown
Chief Justice Pauses Contempt Order for Mystery Company
Mnuchin Startles Wall Street
O’Rourke Issues Warning About Trump
Mnuchin In Damage Control Mode After Trump Remarks
More Help Wanted at the White House?
Washington Digs In on the Shutdown
As just about everyone knows by now, roughly a quarter of the federal government has been shut down since the end of the day on Friday. And while yesterday was filled with lots of posturing and alleged negotiating, nothing much changed. While it is true that the White House sent VP Mike Pence to the Hill to talk with Senate leaders, and while it is true that they did actually have some discussions, there was little chance that either side would move off of their positions. And indeed, after Pence headed home to Number One Observatory Circle, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters that the two sides are "very far apart."
So, the main thing that was achieved on Saturday, such as it is, was for each of the key players to stake out their positions. Donald Trump, for his part, changed his vacation plans:
I will not be going to Florida because of the Shutdown - Staying in the White House! #MAGA— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2018
He really had little choice; the optics of leaving Washington D.C. during a "crisis" would be very bad. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced loudly that there would be no vote held until Trump and Senate Democrats reach a deal. Translation: "Leave me out of this." And Schumer announced, just as loudly, that Senate Democrats would not vote on any deal until Donald Trump had publicly announced his support for it. Of course, given that Trump announced his support for the wall-free budget deal just 24 hours before torpedoing it, that may not mean much. Presumably, if and when a deal is approved by Congress, there will be someone to run the paperwork over to the White House, sort of like Pheidippides at Marathon, so they can get a signature before the President tunes in to Fox News.
A deal approved by Congress does not seem likely anytime soon, though. The Senate will have a pro forma session on Monday, largely to stop Trump from making any recess appointments (Secretary of Defense Sean Hannity? Attorney General Jeanine Pirro? Secretary of the Interior Carl Icahn?), but will not have a real session until Thursday. And, by then, we will be two workdays removed from Democratic control of the House (and from the automatic death of the already-passed House bill with funding for the wall). So, it is not likely that Schumer & Co. will be motivated to do all that much except make very public statements about how hard they are working to try to reach a deal, but how it's just not working out.
We argued yesterday that Trump has backed himself into a corner, and a losing one. A new analysis of the midterm elections supports that position. It reveals that if the GOP had run on the thriving economy, they would have connected better with independent voters, as well as folks in the suburbs. But, instead, these groups overwhelmingly perceived the Republicans' #1 issue as immigration (with good reason). This is a big part of the reason that both groups broke strongly for the Democrats. In particular, independents went 56-44 for the blue team, which is more than enough to cancel out a motivated Trump base in most situations.
Given that Donald Trump is engaged, at this very moment, in a maneuver that sacrifices the economic well-being of the country in exchange for (possible) movement on immigration, it would appear he has learned nothing from the midterms. And there is now mounting evidence (see below) that he won't have a good economy to run on in 2020, making a change of course very difficult, even if he were to want to do so. (Z)
Actually, "bad month" is probably underselling it. The Dow Jones just had its worst week since October 2008, which was in the midst of the Great Recession. It was down 1,655 points, or 6.9%. The Nasdaq was down even more, 8.4%, making for its worst week since November 2008. And the S&P was down 7.1%. The good news is that wasn't its worst week in a decade. The bad news is that it was its worst week in 7 years (August 2011). Also grim news: The major indices in China, Italy, Germany, Japan and South Korea are all down, too.
There are a lot of outlets—CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, etc.—that make a lot of money explaining why the market does what it does. And the single most common story these days takes the form of "Donald Trump did X, and so the market responded with Y." But the truth is that nobody really knows exactly why the markets behave as they do. Heck, the exact causes of the Great Depression are still hazy, and that is with nearly 90 years to have considered the matter. The point is that the current downturn may have to do with Trump's trade wars, or with Sec. of Defense James Mattis' resignation, or the withdrawal from Syria, or uncertainty over the Brexit, or bad behavior by the Russians, or any of a dozen other factors. Nobody knows for sure, and it may be that nobody ever really knows. When the market goes up or down, pundits just look at the most recent news and announce that the market is reacting to the news. Economics is not like astronomy where when the moon suddenly goes dark, scientists can later say: "It went dark because the earth got between the sun and the moon."
There are a few things that are very clear, however. The first is that the U.S. economy cannot thrive forever and, as of last month, it was in its 114th consecutive month of growth, just 6 months short of the record set from March 1991-March 2001. Not only could the party not last forever, but one could argue that it's ending right on schedule.
The second is that all the signs of a recession are upon us. Barring an epic Santa Claus rally, the market is going to have its worst December since the Depression, and is going to finish down on the year for the first time since 2008. With the world's other markets tanking, a bearish 2019 is probably unavoidable at this point.
And the third is that the tax cut, given its stated purpose of driving the economy to greater heights, was an unmitigated disaster. Not only did the U.S. economy fail to reach greater heights, it almost certainly became overheated, which undoubtedly contributed to the current downturn. Further, the biggest and best silver bullet that Donald Trump has when it comes to combating recessions—countercyclical spending—has already been fired. There's no plausible way he can dump another $500 billion or $1 trillion into the economy now. And if that's not bad enough, the tax cut's mathematics were based either on excessively optimistic assumptions about the economy (Republican analyses) or on the notion that things would remain stable (nonpartisan and Democratic analyses). If the economy goes into recession, and starts shrinking, then the Grand Canyon-sized hole that Paul Ryan & Co. blew in the budget is going to become galaxy-sized.
In short, 2019 would probably not be a fun year for any president. It will be especially bad for a president who will also have to deal with dozens of different investigations, and lawsuits, and scandals. Donald Trump may soon long for the day when special counsel Robert Mueller was the only annoyance he had to worry about. (Z)
From the perspective of Donald Trump, the United States' economic downturn (see above) could not have come at a worse time. There are, of course, the various disasters du jour that are unfolding at the moment, from the very public resignation of Jim Mattis, to blowback over Syria, to ongoing developments in the Russiagate scandal, to the shutdown. But beyond that, it hit just before the Democrats are set to take over the House of Representatives. If the economy had gone sour in, say, February of next year, then he could have spent the next two years blaming Nancy Pelosi & Co., and half the voting public would have bought it. But the fact that the downturn appears to have begun while the Republicans still control the entire federal government, and in the first full year after the GOP tax cut, makes pinning the blame on the blue team a pretty hard sell.
Trump, of course, never takes the blame for anything. And with the Democrats as a less-than-viable target, he appears to have settled upon the next-best option: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell. Despite the fact that Trump himself appointed Powell just 11 months ago, and that Powell's actions are taken in concert with the other members of the Fed's board, the President is working hard to persuade himself and others that the Chairman is to blame for all that ails the U.S. economy (primarily because the Fed has imposed a slight increase in interest rates several times this year). This weekend, Trump has reportedly begun asking underlings whether or not he is allowed to fire Powell.
Here is the only answer to that question extant, from Section 10 of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913:
[E]ach member shall hold office for a term of fourteen years from the expiration of the term of his predecessor, unless sooner removed for cause by the President.
What we have here, then, is yet another case where guidelines have been left very unspecific, based on the assumption that the president would act in good faith. The United States seems to have been bumping into a lot of those recently.
Past presidents—that is, the ones who generally acted in good faith—interpreted this to mean that if the Fed Chair kept his or her nose clean, they were untouchable until the end of their term. Donald Trump, of course, does not act in good faith. He has taken advantage of the vague portions of law and custom to do all sorts of things his predecessors would not have considered, from appointing a dubious acting AG, to preemptively pardoning people under questionable circumstances, to making a farce out of the emoluments clause, to inventing unclear "national security" grounds to justify a trade war. In short, if and when Donald Trump needs a fall guy, he is going to find "cause" to fire Powell, and then is going to try to replace him with a more loyal foot soldier (although that was what Powell was supposed to be, so apparently it's not so easy to find someone like that). The Senate would have to confirm the new chair, of course, and so could theoretically hold the line and stop Trump from doing this. But they haven't stood up to him thus far, so one probably should not hold their breath waiting for them to do it in this scenario. On the other hand, see below. (Z)
Donald Trump's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria caught just about everyone by surprise. Since that move was opposed by virtually everyone in his administration, from Jim Mattis on down, it was something of a mystery as to where the idea came from. Fox News? Rush Limbaugh? A dream? Twitter? Anything was possible. Thanks to reporting from the Washington Post, we know the answer now: It was the President's phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
It was not a secret that the two men talked on the phone shortly before the decision was announced, but now it's clear that it was indeed Erdoğan who sold Trump on the move. Generally speaking, this is being portrayed as an example of a superior salesman and manipulator in Erdoğan outmaneuvering a weaker one in Trump. And it may well be that this is 100% due to Erdoğan's silver tongue. However, it is also possible that there are other layers to the story that are, as yet, unknown. For example, there is some reason to believe that Erdoğan has some ödün (Turkish for kompromat) of his own. In particular, it may be that Flynn was working for Turkey and for the Trump campaign at the same time, and Trump knew about it. If true, that would be a problem. Alternatively, it might be that Trump would really like the Turks to stop making noise about the death of Jamal Khashoggi, or that the President has business concerns related to his licensing deals in Turkey. Or, it could be that Russia and Turkey are on the same page here, and that Vlad Putin is somehow involved. Anything is possible, and Donald Trump long ago lost the benefit of the doubt. The only thing that is certain is that the Turkish government got something it really wanted in exchange for...nothing, it appears.
Trump, for his part, is trying his best to spin this away on Twitter:
If anybody but your favorite President, Donald J. Trump, announced that, after decimating ISIS in Syria, we were going to bring our troops back home (happy & healthy), that person would be the most popular hero in America. With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media. Crazy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should. Interesting relationship-but I also gave all of the resources that he never really had. Allies are very important-but not when they take advantage of U.S.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
That "favorite president" bit is a nice touch. Nonetheless, is does not change the fact that this whole situation has gone very badly for Trump. Trump's opponents are outraged, of course, but he doesn't care about them. What he does care about is the base. And this poll, taken just a couple of months ago, should give him real pause:
The military vote was a key component of Trump's victory, and that's before we consider the fact that many troops have friends and family members who are influenced by military matters. What we have this week is a decision that has the appearance of disregarding the troops and the mission(s) they've risked their lives for, followed by a very public resignation by a man they hold in high regard, who made sure to send a blistering public letter trashing the President on his way out the door. There can be no question that Trump cost himself a fair bit of support this week. And this is a man who not only won his first election by the barest of margins, but who is also counting on his base as his insurance policy against impeachment and removal from office. In other words, this is the kind of setback he really cannot afford. (Z)
This news is necessarily vague, by its nature. As part of his investigation, Robert Mueller has issued a subpoena for an unnamed, foreign-government-owned company. That company does not wish to be subpoenaed, and so has challenged the summons. For the first hearing, an entire floor of the D.C. federal court house was sealed off, so that the entire matter could be conducted in secret. The subpoena was allowed to stand, and so the mystery company appealed the matter to the Supreme Court.
At the moment, this story is of interest for three reasons. First, it will be the first time (at least, the first time that is publicly-known) where SCOTUS (if they agree to hear the case) will directly weigh in on an aspect of the Mueller investigation. Second, it will be the first time in U.S. history (again, if the Court agrees to hear the case) that the business of the Supreme Court will have been conducted under seal. There have been past SCOTUS cases where portions of the record were kept secret (sensitive information about trade, most commonly), but there is no known instance of an entire case like this going before the highest court in the land. Third, it is a reminder of how very good Team Mueller is at what they do. Reporters and other folks across the land are dying to know what company this is, or at least what their basic profile is. German bank? Russian hotel? Turkish holding company? Cypriot shell company? Multinational tech conglomerate? The possibilities are endless. And yet, not even the slighest clue has leaked as to the mystery company's identity. We may find out in a week, or a month, or a year, but whenever it is, it will be because Robert Mueller has chosen that time to lay down his cards. It's a striking contrast to a White House that leaks like the Titanic—after it hit the iceberg. (Z)
Last week, we observed that the list of serious candidates we haven't already profiled is dwindling. It's not completely exhausted, however, and this week it's another person who definitely has a shot in the 2020 election.
- Full Name: Sherrod Campbell Brown
- Age on January 20, 2021: 68 (He'll turn that age in the week
after the presidential election)
- Background: Quite a few of his potential rivals for the nomination
faced adversity growing up, but Brown had a comfortable middle-class childhood as the son of a
doctor and his wife who remained happily married for half a century. An excellent student, Brown
matriculated at Yale, where he took his degree in...wait for it...Russian studies. So, he and Donald
Trump would definitely have something to talk about during debates. He also got two Master's
degrees, in education and public administration, from Ohio State University.
- Political Experience: If ever there was someone who counts as a
"career politician," it's Sherrod Brown. He was a leading Democratic activist while at Yale,
which caused the Party to recruit him to run for the Ohio house before he'd even graduated.
He won that election, making him the youngest member of that body at the time, and served from 1975-82.
That was followed by two terms as Ohio Secretary of State (1983-91), and seven terms in the
U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2007). He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006,
and just won his third term in convincing fashion, beating Republican Jim Renacci by six
points. In other words, in the last 43 years, Brown has been in office for 41 of them.
- Signature Issue(s): Like many Midwestern members of the Senate,
it seems, Brown has found a need to dabble in a whole host of issues, from banking regulation to
terrorism to education. If he runs in 2020, however, it is likely that the central idea of his campaign
will be economic populism. He is, and has been, an ardent opponent of NAFTA and other international trade
agreements. He is also (rightly) concerned about the plight of America's small farmers, and has
advocated for them as a longtime member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.
And finally, he is well known as an advocate for spending federal dollars to revitalize U.S.
- Instructive Quote: "Anyone who's tried to pay a heating bill, fill a
prescription, or simply buy groceries knows all too well that the current minimum wage does not cut
- Completely Trivial Fact: By virtue of having birthed 8 presidents, one
of Virginia's nicknames is "mother of presidents." Between the 1870s and the 1920s, when nearly
every president came from Ohio (excepting the odd New Yorker or Hoosier), the Buckeye State nearly
caught up, before stalling at 7 (with Warren Harding the last, almost a century ago). If Brown is
elected to the White House, Ohio would finally pull even with Virginia.
- Recent News: Brown is doing an excellent job of keeping his name in the headlines,
with all manner of stories. He
Donald Trump for throwing a "temper tantrum" over the budget this week. His wife sat for a
with Politico magazine. And the Columbus Dispatch even had a
this week about the Senator's new "presidential haircut." It's the kind of hard-hitting journalism
that is sure to "wow" the Pulitzer committee.
- Three Biggest Pros: (1) If Brown can win his home state, where he's
already won five statewide elections, then all he needs are the Clinton states plus Pennsylvania, or
Florida, or any two of Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia; (2) Clearly, the
man knows how to win elections, as he is 15-for-16 lifetime despite often facing stiff competition
(his only loss was his second reelection bid as Ohio Secretary of State); and (3) He's popular in the Midwest
while still being one of the half-dozen or so most liberal senators, so he's certainly got the
potential to unify the Bernie and Hillary wings of the Party.
- Three Biggest Cons: (1) If Brown is elected president, Walt Disney
World will make an animatronic robot of him for the
Hall of Presidents,
and that robot will be much more lifelike than the Senator himself; (2) Economic populism may be a
hard sell in 2020, especially if Trump's economic populist policies tank the economy (see above);
and (3) Young voters, and voters of color, might not be too excited about a choice between two white
guys who are in or nearing their seventies, and some of them might stay home on Election Day.
- Is He Actually Running?: You don't arrange to have your local paper
run stories about your presidential haircut if you're not running.
- Betting Odds: He's getting a wide range of odds, anywhere from 33-to-1
to 14-to-1, which implies a 3-7% chance of landing the nomination.
- The Bottom Line: Brown's a compelling candidate, but he's in the same lane as Joe Biden, and Biden is currently polling much better. If the former VP does not drop out, it's hard to see how Brown can overcome him.
You can access the list of candidate profiles by clicking on the 2020 Dem candidates link in the menu to the left of the map. (Z)
If you have a question about politics, civics, history, etc. you would like us to answer, click here for submission instructions and previous Q & A's. If you spot any typos or other errors on the site that we should fix, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.Email a link to a friend or share:
---The Votemaster and Zenger
Dec22 Sanders: All of America Wants the Wall
Dec22 Supreme Court Hands Trump a Defeat
Dec22 Ruth Ginsburg Had Surgery for Lung Cancer
Dec22 Russia Actively Tried to Compromise the Midterms
Dec22 Gallup To Cut Back on Political Polling
Dec22 Bettors Think Trump Will Be Impeached
Dec21 Mattis: I'm Out
Dec21 Trump Changes Course, Won't Sign Short-term Funding Bill
Dec21 Meadows to Federal Employees Who May Not Get Paid: You Signed Up for This
Dec21 Trump Administration Will Lift Sanctions against Deripaska's Companies
Dec21 Ethics Officials Told Whitaker to Recuse Himself, but He Refused
Dec21 Perez Axes the Kiddie Table in 2020
Dec21 Should the Democrats Use Ranked-Choice Voting in 2020 Primaries?
Dec20 Trump Wants to Pull Out of Syria Immediately
Dec20 Shutdown Averted--For Now
Dec20 Michigan Power-Grab Partially Fails
Dec20 Cummings Is Already Sending Out Letters Requesting Information
Dec20 Trump Signed a Letter of Intent on Moscow Project during the Campaign
Dec20 Paul Ryan Bids Farewell
Dec20 No Sanctions for Kavanaugh
Dec20 Kasich Doesn't Think He Could Beat Trump in a Primary
Dec20 South Carolina GOP May Skip 2020 Primary
Dec20 Thursday Q&A
Dec19 Trump's Wall Collapses
Dec19 Washington Decides to Do Something Different, Passes Bipartisan Crime Bill
Dec19 Trump Foundation to Dissolve
Dec19 Flynn Sentencing Postponed
Dec19 Trump Launches Reelection Machine
Dec19 Will Trump Cooperate with His Campaign?
Dec19 McSally Wins by Losing
Dec19 Republicans Want to Create an ActRed
Dec19 Could Kansas Be a Senate Battleground in 2020?
Dec18 Republicans Are Waiting for Guidance from Trump over the Shutdown
Dec18 Much Drama on the Michael Flynn Front
Dec18 Takeaways from the Report on Russian Interference
Dec18 Pennsylvania Could Be Trump's Waterloo
Dec18 The Gender Gap May Haunt the Republicans in 2020
Dec18 GOP Has a Looming Evangelical Problem, Too
Dec18 Klobuchar Moving Up in Iowa
Dec18 Lamar Alexander Won't Run for Reelection in 2020
Dec18 We Know Where the Tax Break Went
Dec17 Leaked Senate Report Shows Massive Scale of Russian Election Interference
Dec17 Giuliani: Trump Will Meet with Mueller over My Dead Body
Dec17 Collins Is OK with Mueller and a Challenger to Trump in 2020
Dec17 Iowa Democrats Want to Win
Dec17 The "Guess the VP" Game Has Begun
Dec17 Tom Perez Is at War with the State Democratic Parties
Dec17 Trump Is at War with Saturday Night Live (Again)
Dec17 Monday Q&A