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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Administration Does Damage Control...Badly
      •  Is Russian Meddling Overblown?
      •  White House Considering Russian Proposal
      •  MS-13 Scare Tactics Are Working
      •  The Kneeling Isn't Going Away
      •  Rep. Jason Lewis Is in Hot Water
      •  California Will Remain a Single State

Trump Administration Does Damage Control...Badly

Donald Trump just can't help himself. On one hand, he desperately wants to downplay and/or deny Russian interference in the 2016 election because it threatens his legitimacy. On the other hand, he went so far in his denials (and in his kowtowing to Vladimir Putin) that even many on the right were outraged. So, Team Trump has been in cleanup mode ever since, though it's not going well.

On Tuesday, the President finally acknowledged that the Russians had interfered with the election, and tried to dismiss his earlier remarks by saying he misspoke. This was rather hard to accept, given that it does not generally take 24 hours for someone to realize that they misspoke. On Wednesday, Trump (apparently) tried a new angle, asserting that the Russians are no longer interfering in U.S. elections. Here is the full exchange with ABC's Cecilia Vega, which took place after a cabinet meeting:

Vega: Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?

Trump: Thank you very much, no.

Vega: No, you don't believe that to be the case?

Trump: Thank you very much everybody. We're doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. There's been no President ever as tough as I have been on Russia.

While Trump's assertion squares well with his instinctive desire to make the whole Russia thing go away, it flies in the face of the evidence and of logic. How could he possibly know if Russia has stopped targeting the U.S.? Consequently, his remarks triggered a new wave of outrage, and it was left to Sarah Huckabee Sanders to address in her press briefing (which is no longer daily, and is down to happening about once every 10 days). Sanders explained to the press that Trump—wait for it—misspoke when he said that the Russians were no longer targeting the U.S. Careful readers may notice that the administration gave the same exact excuse on Tuesday. The Press Secretary said that what Trump actually meant when he said "no" is that he would not be answering questions. That explanation does not appear to make much sense in the context of the discussion quoted above.

As he so often does when he's feeling cornered, Trump followed the morning's difficulties with an absolute Twitter blitz. Among the highlights:

As to the final tweet, which strains credulity to its limits, it's rather unclear to whom Trump might be referring. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a statement rejecting the President's remarks while Air Force One was still on its way back from Europe. On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray joined in on the chorus, declaring that Russia is the "most aggressive actor" in election interference. Also on Wednesday, NSA Director Paul Nakasone announced that, in the absence of guidance from the White House, he was going to take the lead in coordinating efforts to protect the security of the 2018 election. Perhaps it is CIA Director Gina Haspel who is such a fan of Trump's performance; she appears to be the only leader of a relevant intelligence agency who has not rebuked the Donald.

The Donald Trump Damage Control Tour resumed on Wednesday night, when he sat for an interview with CBS News. In that appearance, Trump came up with a brand-new claim: That he warned Putin that the U.S. simply will not accept any further interference in its elections from Russia. "I let him know we can't have this. We're not going to have it, and that's the way it's going to be," Trump said. Yet again, this is simply impossible to believe. If Trump really took a hard line with Putin (which would be totally out of character for him, by the way), then why didn't he say so when reporters asked him about it on Monday? Why did it take him 48 hours to conveniently "remember" that he'd done the right thing?

After the interview aired, things went even further downhill for the President, as the New York Times reported that Trump was presented with ironclad proof of Russian meddling well before he publicly acknowledged the truth on Tuesday. How far before, exactly? At a briefing on January 6, 2017, two weeks before his inauguration. That means that every time he has rejected Russian meddling (not to mention every time he called the Mueller probe a "witch hunt"), he wasn't merely in denial, he was actively lying. The folks who are tracking the President's lie total are going to have to go back and revise their numbers way upward.

Ultimately, there is a sizable portion of the electorate that is convinced that Donald Trump is a traitor, a coward, and a liar, and that isn't interested in his explanations or his excuses. There is also a sizable portion of the electorate (not as large as the first, of course), who will support Trump no matter what. So, as he and his staff desperately try to spin this disaster away, he is speaking to only a fraction of the voting public. Who knows how large that fraction is, exactly, or how many of them are buying what he has to sell, though one imagines that there will be a few polls out soon that shed some light on those questions. What we do know (more below) is that he won by the skin of his teeth in 2016, and even a loss of just 1% of the folks who voted for him would almost certainly be fatal to his reelection chances. (Z)

Is Russian Meddling Overblown?

As Donald Trump & Co. have tried to cope with the fallout from the Putin summit this week, some Trump surrogates have been trying out a different line of reasoning. That includes Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who told the Washington Examiner that when it comes to election interference, it didn't actually have any impact, so "We've blown it way out of proportion."

Does he have a case? Well, to start, it should be noted that Johnson isn't necessarily a neutral third party here. Beyond the fact that he's one of the more right-wing and more pro-Trump senators, he too won election in 2016 by a fairly small margin (98,766 votes). And even if he truly is trying only to defend Trump, his confidence is misplaced at best, dishonest at worst. The thinness of the Donald's victory is made clear by the (now well-known) fact that roughly 77,000 votes across three states (more specifically, 44,292 votes in Pennsylvania; 22,748 in Wisconsin; and 10,704 in Michigan) was the difference between victory and defeat. All of those figures represent less than 1% of the total vote in the respective states.

Now recall that the primary effect of the Russian hacking was to air the DNC's dirty laundry, and to aggravate supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). If that caused just one Democrat/independent in a hundred to stay home or to vote third party, then that would have done it. As a reminder, Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 51,463 votes in Michigan, 49,941 in Pennsylvania, and 31,072 in Wisconsin. We can never know how many of those Stein voters might have gone for Clinton in the absence of Russian hacking, nor can we know how many folks stayed home, but the numbers are close enough that it is well within the realm of possibility that Team Putin changed the outcome. And that's before we consider other Russian mucking around, including their covert social media campaign and any possible meddling with voter databases. So, the answer to the question is: No, Johnson doesn't have a case. He cannot possibly know (nor can anyone) that Russia did not impact the election, or that the matter is "overblown." (Z)

White House Considering Russian Proposal

One thing that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin definitely discussed at their summit was a very strange kind of deal: The Russians would allow Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team to interrogate the 12 Russians who were indicted last week if the U.S. government will allow the Russians to come to America and interrogate 11 Americans citizens who they say are guilty of crimes against Mother Russia. The Trump administration is seriously considering the proposal.

This is madness, on many levels. First of all, the "charges" that the Russians have made against the 11 Americans appear to have been invented out of whole cloth, and are unsupported by evidence. Consequently, the State Dept. is utterly opposed to the plan. Upon learning of the President's ruminations, Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd. The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions American citizens—we do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes."

The second problem is political. The Trump administration is, of course, trying desperately to make it seem as if they are not in league with Putin, and that the Donald is not Vlad's puppet. If they agree to this plan, well, let's just say it won't help them make their case. In fact, what they would be doing is helping the Russians to advance the narrative that "the Americans engage in dirty tricks, too!" Being a (presumably unwitting) part of the scheme would pretty much make Trump into the textbook definition of a useful idiot.

And speaking of making a case, that leads us to the third problem: There is absolutely no value for Mueller in conducting an interrogation of Russian nationals on Russian soil, where he has absolutely no punitive tools at his disposal. Let us recall that these folks are spies. Lies and deception are literally their stock in trade. Who could possibly imagine that they would answer the Special Counsel's questions truthfully? Well, Donald Trump can apparently imagine it, but nobody else. Even if Trump somehow makes the deal (the first actual deal of his presidency, by the way), Mueller will surely refuse to participate in the charade, which isn't going to generate anything useful, and may end with him being given a nice cup of polonium tea. Given all these problems, any other administration would let this proposal fade away without mentioning it again, but given the apparent insistence on shooting themselves in the foot, who knows what Team Trump will decide? (Z)

MS-13 Scare Tactics Are Working

Donald Trump might not be having too much success with Russia right now, but his propaganda campaign against MS-13 (read: Mexican immigrants) is going fine and dandy. In fact, he was back at it in the midst of Wednesday's twitter storm:

The latter tweet, incidentally, refers only to a proposal Yoder made. Despite what Trump suggests, the Congressman has thus far secured $0 billion. We are waiting for the staff mathematician to get back to us, but we believe that is approximately 100% lower than the amount Trump claimed. Presumably, the President misspoke.

Anyhow, a new poll reveals that 85 percent of Trump voters think MS-13 is either a "very" or "somewhat" serious national threat, 53 percent believe the gang is also a threat to their local communities, and 51 percent worry at least "somewhat" that they or their family members will personally be a victim of the gang's violence. This despite the fact that MS-13:

  • Has fewer then 10,000 members in the United States
  • Rarely commits acts of violence against non-immigrants
  • Is a fairly small-time operation, relatively-speaking (unlike, say, Solntsevskaya Bratva or Yamaguchi Gumi)
  • Is basically limited to just a handful of states (California, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York—blue states all)

In other words, the average Trump voter has never even seen a member of MS-13, and wouldn't know one if he bit them on the nose. Or, put another way, the average Trump voter is roughly five times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a member of MS-13 (and twenty times more likely to win $1 million or more in the lottery, incidentally). But, of course, one cannot promise to build walls and take strong steps to "protect" white people from lightning (though if anyone was going to campaign on that, it would be Trump). Anyhow, Trump is hardly the first politician to invent a bugaboo that barely exists, he's just better at it than most. (Z)

The Kneeling Isn't Going Away

Speaking of bugaboos, the NFL season isn't far off. And we now have our first player, the Titans' Jurrell Casey, who has formally announced that, fines be damned, he will continue to kneel during the national anthem. "I'm going to take my fine," he said. "It is what it is, I ain't going to let them stop me from doing what I want to do. If they want to have these battles between players and organizations, this is the way it's going to be."

It was very likely that some players would keep kneeling; this just makes it a certainty. It was also likely that Trump would find a way to keep blasting NFL players (read: ungrateful blacks), this just makes it a certainty. The first preseason game is on August 2, so get ready for some football—and some angry tweets. Whether VP Mike Pence will be back for a command performance of the show he put on at a Colts game is currently not known. (Z)

Rep. Jason Lewis Is in Hot Water

Before his time in Congress, Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN) had a lengthy career as a right-wing provocateur on the radio. CNN laid their hands on some recordings from the show, and learned that he had some rather impolitic things to say about women. For example, sadly wondering, "[A]re we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can't call her a slut?" He also had some very...dubious political analysis of female voting patterns: "We all know that women tend to vote more liberal than men. It is the women who are guided by more emotion than reason." He also proposed that "young single women" who vote on the basis of having access to birth control are "without a brain" and cease to be human beings.

This issue came up during Lewis' first election campaign (in 2016), but that, of course, was before #MeToo. Further, the recordings of his show were not made available back then, so they did not undergo the kind of review CNN conducted. His district has a PVI of R+2, his margin of victory in that first campaign was just 2%, and Donald Trump's margin of victory in the district was even less. So, MN-02—which was already on the blue team's target list—just jumped right to the top. Lewis' opponent in November will be Angie Craig, making for a rerun of 2016. And in Q2, he raised just $221,000 to her $550,000. She's also got the backing of EMILY's List, among other PACs. So, the Congressman is in deep trouble, assuming he doesn't throw in the towel and resign before the election. (Z)

California Will Remain a Single State

There was very little chance that the planned November ballot proposal was going to result in the division of California into three states. First, because the voters were unlikely to go for it. Second, because even if the voters said "yes," the courts were likely to say "no." Third, because even if the courts said "yes," Congress was likely to say "no."

On Wednesday, the courts jumped the line. Before Golden State voters even had a chance to weigh in, the California Supreme Court removed the proposition from the ballot, declaring that, "significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition's validity." And so, pro-break up activists are now batting 0-for-221 since 1850. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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