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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Cohen Secretly Recorded Trump
      •  McConnell Threatens Democrats over Kavanaugh
      •  Trump Threatens Tariffs on $500 Billion in Chinese Goods
      •  Mueller Wants to Chat with "Manhattan Madam"
      •  Charlotte to Host 2020 RNC Convention
      •  Dan Coats Could Be Next to Go
      •  Post-Helsinki Polls Are Starting to Roll In

Cohen Secretly Recorded Trump

One of us (Z) teaches history. And one of the greatest challenges of teaching a history course, especially at the university level (where time is tight), is reducing the material down to a point that it is understandable and digestible in a lecture or two, but is still faithful to the historical record (especially tough: the Gilded Age, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement). We can only pity the historians of future generations, and what they will go through as they try to distill the Age of Trump down to a manageable package, since there is new and notable drama seemingly every day. Friday's revelation, courtesy of the New York Times: Former Trump fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen secretly taped some of his conversations with his then-boss, including one about making payments to Trump paramour Karen McDougal.

The McDougal tape has not been made public yet, and so it is not yet known exactly what it contains (or, for that matter, who clued the Times into its existence). Current Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and sources close to Cohen agree that Trump and his fixer were talking about the $150,000 the National Enquirer paid McDougal for her story (translation: her silence) and the possibility that Trump might purchase the rights from Enquirer publisher David Pecker. Giuliani says that the conversation never went beyond that, and that no money was ever sent to Pecker, anyhow. Friends of Cohen disagree, and suggest the recording is much more damaging than Giuliani would have America believe. The recording is, of course, in the FBI's hands, so eventually the truth will out, whatever it is.

In any event, this development is bad news for Team Trump on several levels. First, he clearly lied when he said he had no awareness of payments being made to former lovers of his. It's true that he lies all the time, of course, but it's far, far worse when caught red-handed with audio or visual evidence. Dick Nixon, who was known to tell a lie or two himself, could confirm that if he wasn't already dead.

Second, depending on exactly what Trump said (and did), he might just have been caught violating campaign finance laws. That is a felony, and can carry a prison sentence. Normally, judges don't throw the book at a defendant in such cases, unless the behavior appears to have been pervasive and/or the defendant took extensive measures to cover their crime up. In the President's case, both things appear to be true. It's not too likely that a sitting president would be prosecuted (and if so, he would probably try to pardon himself), but an ex-president is fair game.

Third, there was not just one recording, there were many. Exactly how many is not clear, nor is anything publicly known about the contents of the other recordings. Giuliani tried to pooh-pooh the remaining recordings, but friends of Cohen disagreed, and said there is more dirt that will come to light. We will eventually find out who is correct, but if the recordings were secret, it's hard to see how Trump or his lawyers could know what they might contain until they get copies from the FBI (which they have not).

And finally, the worst news—although nobody seems to be discussing this angle—is that a lawyer/fixer makes secret recordings for only one reason: As an insurance policy. At very least, Cohen knew that these matters could blow up in Trump's face, and wanted to be able to save himself from being dragged down. More probable is that Cohen suspected Trump would one day betray him, and wanted to have ammunition to fight back with. Whatever the case may be, this flies utterly in the face of the notion that Cohen was an absolutely loyal lieutenant who would take a bullet for his boss.

About a year ago, Trump made headlines when he warned former FBI Director James Comey that there just might be recordings of their conversations, and those recordings just might prove embarrassing for Comey. Of course, there were no recordings, at least in that case. It will be bitterly ironic for the President, indeed, if he was the one who should have been worried about being recorded all along. (Z)

McConnell Threatens Democrats over Kavanaugh

The Democrats, as you may have heard, would very much like to derail Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court. He's clearly qualified to serve, given his background and education (though, technically, anyone is qualified, since there are no legal requirements for serving on the Court). Given that there is no hope of getting rid of Kavanaugh on that basis, the blue team is therefore looking to Bork him—to come up with some dirt that causes public sentiment to turn against the Judge, and thus causes some GOP senators to vote against him.

At the moment, the most significant chink in the armor appears to be Kavanaugh's testimony when he was confirmed as a circuit court judge. Specifically, he was asked then about his role, as White House counsel, in developing the George W. Bush administration's policy regarding the detention and torture of enemy combatants. Kavanaugh said he had nothing to do with it. Senate Democrats didn't buy it then, and though he was confirmed nonetheless, reports came to light thereafter that he had participated in at least one discussion on the matter. Consequently, Senate Democrats are now demanding access to White House records from that era, as well as time to comb through them all, so they can see if the Judge perjured himself.

This, in turn, has roused the ire of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). It is possible that he feels the Democrats are stalling, and is angry because he feels only he should be able to drag his feet when it comes to this sort of thing. It's more possible that he fears the blue team might actually come up with something substantive, and he wants to forestall that. Either way, he warned that if the Democrats continue with their document chase, he will not hold a vote on Kavanaugh until right before the November elections. In theory, this threat is supposed to scare Democrats on two levels. First, by keeping red-state Democrats off the campaign trail in the crucial weeks before the elections. Second, by handing them a big defeat right before Americans cast their ballots.

Undoubtedly, McConnell is a shrewd old turtle, and knows a political trick or two. However, he may be overplaying his hand here. First of all, the very realistic chance of derailing Kavanaugh may be enough that the Democrats are willing to risk the consequences. Beyond that, however, McConnell's whole plan presumes that a high-profile reverse like this will demoralize Democrats and keep them home on Election Day. It's possible, but most Democrats have already accepted that Anthony Kennedy's former seat is likely a lost cause. Kavanaugh being approved wouldn't be quite as shocking and unexpected as, say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passing away, or Barack Obama getting caught in a sex scandal or something like that. And then, holding the vote so close to Election Day—essentially rubbing Democrats' noses in this setback, one engineered entirely by McConnell—could actually be more like waving a red flag in front of a bull. It seems likely to aggravate Democrats, light a fire under them, and get them to the polls. So, the Majority Leader might want to think twice about his threats. (Z)

Trump Threatens Tariffs on $500 Billion in Chinese Goods

Donald Trump appeared on CNBC on Friday morning and was asked about the two big economic issues currently on his administration's agenda: The Fed and China. He blasted them both for interfering with his economic agenda, and he also said he was prepared to impose tariffs on $500 billion worth of Chinese goods. Since the U.S. only imports about $505 billion in goods from China each year, that would effectively mean that everything would be subject (except, maybe, Ivanka's shoe line).

The most notable thing about the interview was not Trump's threat, per se, since he's always willing to take things to extremes. No, it was that he sounded like a man who is set on his course, trade war be damned. After threatening the increased tariffs, he was asked if his approach might drag the stock market down, and declared:

If it does, it does. I would have a higher stock market right now, it's already up almost 40 percent, as you know, since the election. It could be 80 percent if I didn't want to do this, but ultimately, what I'm doing is making it so it's right.

Trump is, of course, exaggerating a bit here (it's more like 20%, not 40%), but it seems quite clear he's willing to accept the consequences of his policies. At this point, in fact, it is hard to imagine exactly what might cause him to change course. So, get ready for higher prices and a lower stock market. (Z)

Mueller Wants to Chat with "Manhattan Madam"

Kristin Davis, the procurer of flesh best known for running the prostitution ring that wrecked the career of New York governor Eliot Spitzer, is now on the radar of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. There's no subpoena yet, but one is reportedly imminent.

Due to the lack of subpoena, we are left to speculate as to the source of Mueller's interest in Davis. However, there is only one person in the whole Russiagate situation she is connected to, and it is Roger Stone, friend and advisor to Donald Trump, who employed Davis in a non-madam capacity. Given that Stone was also at the center of the Special Counsel's indictments of 12 Russians (even though he was not identified by name), the evidence is mounting that he's going to be the next to get the Manafort treatment. (Z)

Charlotte to Host 2020 RNC Convention

Undoubtedly, the most notorious political convention of the last century is the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which featured riots, the arrests of the Chicago Seven, and so much tear gas that it even reached eventual Democratic candidate Hubert H. Humphrey in the shower of his fancy hotel room. Now Charlotte is going to get a chance to knock Chicago out of the #1 spot. On Friday, the GOP made it official that the North Carolina city will be the site of the 2020 convention, where Donald Trump will presumably be nominated for a second term.

Trump is controversial enough that any city that played host to the Republican convention was going to have to prepare for unpleasantness. That's the primary reason why there was only one other bidder (Las Vegas). But Charlotte seems particularly likely to have issues. It is a very blue city, and is close to quite a few other Democratically-inclined urban centers (Atlanta, Richmond, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia). Plus, Trump is the kind of fellow that people are willing to get on an airplane to protest. So, the anti-Trump folks will be out in force. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of far-right groups to be found in or near North Carolina, so they will presumably be out in force, too. After all, Charlottesville is less than 300 miles away, and we all know what happened there. (Z)

Dan Coats Could Be Next to Go

On Thursday, Donald Trump announced his plans to invite Vlad Putin to the United States, and did not bother to tell Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Coats, when he found out, was visibly surprised (and displeased), and responded "Okay...that's gonna be special." This comes on the heels of Coats releasing a statement on Monday, without approval, pushing back against Trump's position (at least, his position at that time) that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 election.

As a consequence of all this, there is rampant speculation that Coats may be the next high-profile exit from the Trump administration. And the speculation is coming from both sides. That is, Coats' colleagues in the intelligence community think he might resign after having been repeatedly disrespected by the President. At the same time, White House insiders report that Trump is furious at having been "shown up" by Coats, particularly with the "special" comment. The DNI is traveling this weekend, but will be back on Monday, so that could well be the day that he resigns or is fired. Or maybe both. (Z)

Post-Helsinki Polls Are Starting to Roll In

It's been just less than a week since Donald Trump's controversial performance in Helsinki, which is enough time for some polling. CBS News has taken the lead; they asked respondents whether or not they approved of the President's performance. He did dismally among Democrats, of course (8% approve, 83% disapprove). He did poorly with independents (29% approve, 53% disapprove). And he did well with Republicans (68% approve, 21% disapprove).

Since the President's performance seemed so clearly to be a disaster (even to right-leaning politicians and media outlets), that 68% approval among Republicans is getting all the headlines, and is generally being presented as good news for Trump. "Poll shows most Republicans approve of summit," read the CNN headline, while the Washington Post went with "The majority of Republicans approve of how Trump handled the Putin summit," and USA Today had "Nearly 70% of Republicans approve of Trump's handling of Helsinki summit."

Interpreting polls in the Age of Trump is no easy thing, but these headlines might be missing the point. First of all, those numbers among independents are pretty ghastly, especially for a president who has very little margin of error to work with if he wants to be reelected. More precisely, he got between 48% and 52% of the independent vote in the three states that he won by a combined 77,000 votes. The evidence is mounting that he won't do nearly as well the second time around.

Second, and more importantly, the big news in the two weeks (or so) before Trump's European trip was that he was at 90% approval among Republicans. The President even bragged that he was doing better than Abraham Lincoln (overlooking the minor point that Old Abe died 60 years before polling began). Just about a quarter of those 90% are now unhappy enough with what they saw that they were willing to tell a pollster about it. Perhaps every one of them will fall back in line behind the Donald, but the smart money says some do not. And again, this is a president with very little margin for error—he can't afford to bleed 2 or 3 percent of his support. Put another way, we wondered on Monday whether or not Donald Trump had reached his tipping point. That is a question that cannot be answered right now, but what we can say is that this is exactly what it looks like when such a moment arrives. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul20 Trump Wants a Rematch
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Jul19 MS-13 Scare Tactics Are Working
Jul19 The Kneeling Isn't Going Away
Jul19 Rep. Jason Lewis Is in Hot Water
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Jul18 Takeaways From the Trump-Putin Summit
Jul18 Trump Says He Misspoke
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Jul18 Mueller Asks for Immunity for Five Witnesses
Jul18 Trump Fundraising Going Well
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Jul17 What Just Happened?
Jul16 Trump Summits with Putin Today
Jul16 Trump Describes EU as a "Foe"
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Jul16 Rand Paul "Concerned" About Kavanaugh
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Jul16 An Interesting Wrinkle in Mississippi Senate Races
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Jul15 Making Sense of Friday's Indictments
Jul15 Trump Points the Finger at Obama
Jul15 Making Sense of Trump's U.K. Visit
Jul15 Kavanaugh Confirmation Fight Heating Up
Jul15 Pence Family in Turm-oil
Jul15 Today in Irony...
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Jul14 House Republicans Preparing Articles of Impeachment against Rosenstein
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Jul14 Wilbur Ross: Mistakes Were Made
Jul13 Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part I)
Jul13 Foreign Policy, Trump-style (Part II)
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