Feb. 01

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FBI Challenges Nunes Memo

As we have explained previously, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) recently produced a memo designed to undermine Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Yesterday, the FBI attacked that memo in public, saying that (1) it is not accurate and (2) releasing it would publicize classified information and would endanger national security. Donald Trump hasn't even read the memo, but has said he is 100% in favor of releasing it, presumably because he is looking for an excuse to force Rosenstein out and replace him with someone willing to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

It is very unusual for the normally secretive FBI to push back on something like this, especially when it is clear where the president stands on it. Director Christopher Wray made a case to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Monday, asking him to keep the memo secret, but that didn't work, so now the bureau has gone public with its objections.

At lot of strange things have taken place in this administration, but the spectacle of a (Republican) president determined to overrule the FBI and endanger national security in order to damage a high-ranking law-enforcement official he himself appointed is new. The FBI said that everything it did in getting a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was perfectly legal, especially since Page was already on the FBI's radar before the campaign due to his numerous contacts with Russians. The FBI also complained that the memo is inaccurate, but if it is released, it will not be able to correct the record because that would require it to reveal even more classified information, something it is forbidden by law from doing. The Democrats on the House committee have written a point-by-point rebuttal, but it is not clear if that can be released, since it also contains classified information.

And in case this whole situation did not already have enough intrigue, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is the main author of the Democrats' rebuttal, said on Wednesday night that Nunes altered the memo before sending it to the White House, and that the new memo is substantively different from the one that the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release. Nunes does not deny changing the memo, but insists that he just corrected a few typos and made a few other small changes. We may never learn the truth, given the classified nature of these documents. Nonetheless, the GOP certainly appears to be playing with fire. We shall soon learn if Trump is willing to risk getting burned. (V & Z)

Mueller Will Interview Former Spokesman of Trump's Legal Team

Until July 2017, Mark Corallo was a member of Donald Trump's legal team, primarily handling communication with the media. In July, he quit the team because he was very upset about the false statement Trump dictated about the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya in which Donald Trump Jr. was expecting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. Corallo has not commented publicly on exactly why he left, but author Michael Wolff has said Corallo quit because he believed Trump was engaging in obstruction of justice and he didn't want to be a part of it.

Corallo doesn't have to explain anything to the media if he doesn't want to, but shortly he will have to explain everything in detail to Robert Mueller. If Corallo tells Mueller that he personally observed Trump obstructing justice, it would obviously strengthen any case Mueller might make on that point. Corallo previously worked as public affairs director for the Dept. of Justice and knows Mueller from that period. Reportedly, they got along well. Most likely this means that Corallo will be open with Mueller and tell him the truth, without trying to obfuscate important details.

Corallo's cooperation could be important because it appears that Mueller is focusing on the meeting with Veselnitskaya, and especially on Trump's attempt to hide its real purpose. Misleading or even out-and-out lying to the media is not a crime, but in an obstruction of justice case, Mueller would have to show "corrupt intent," and evidence that Trump personally dictated a memo whose only purpose was to hide the real reason his campaign was talking to the Russians would bolster Mueller's case. One thing that Corallo can confirm to Mueller is what White House Communications Director Hope Hicks said on a conference he was part of. Allegedly she promised to make sure the email that Donald Trump Jr. sent to Veselnitskaya in which he said he would love to get dirt on Clinton would never come out. If Corallo confirms that, then Hicks is probably part of a conspiracy to hide a Russian contribution of information to the campaign, and that is a federal crime. Hicks could soon find herself in Mueller's crosshairs, with all the consequences of that. (V)

Justice Department Gives Up on Menendez

The corruption trial of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) ended in a hung jury last year. In theory, the Justice Dept. could try the case again. However, the judge threw out seven of the 18 counts against Menendez and the DoJ apparently decided that the case on the remaining counts wasn't strong enough, so they are dropping the whole matter and Menendez will go free without any further trials. He is up for reelection this year, so in theory the voters could kick him out. Unless he is defeated in a Democratic primary, however, he will probably win the general election simply because New Jersey is a very blue state, where the Republican bench is fairly weak, and tolerance for a little corruption is very high. (V)

Corruption Abounds in TrumpWorld

Bob Menendez may have avoided legal consequences for his actions, but as his story makes clear, neither of the two major parties is corruption-free. With that said, some presidential administrations are rather closer to the bad end of the spectrum than others: Nixon, Harding, Grant, and so forth. And at the rate we're going, the Trump administration is set to leave them all in the dust.

The latest shady behavior that has come home to roost is courtesy of Brenda Fitzgerald, the physician who was director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) until she resigned on Wednesday. One of the CDC's main jobs, and thus the director's main jobs, is to communicate to Americans the dangers of cigarette smoking. The day after her appointment to lead the CDC, Fitzgerald celebrated by purchasing thousands of dollars worth of stock in tobacco companies. It is remarkable that any physician could make that purchase, but particularly one who was made head of the CDC just 24 hours earlier.

As shocking as this behavior is, however, it's also become par for the course for the Trump administration, from former HHS secretary Tom Price's dubious stock purchases and airplane usage, to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's cozy relationship with the folks who got a giant no-bid contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico, to all the Goldman Sachs wolves in the Cabinet who are now responsible for watching the Wall Street henhouse. And that's before we consider all the folks who had to be fired because of their dirty dealings, from Michael Flynn to Paul Lewandowski to Carter Page.

What's going on, here? The root issues seem both obvious and unsolvable. To wit:

Again, none of this is going to change. And the media, of course, is turning over every rock in search of dirt, so the list of people who resign in disgrace will just grow and grow. Possibly on deck: Ben Carson, who may have been helping his son to secure no-bid contracts, against the advice of government ethics lawyers. (Z)

McCaskill Leads Top Republican in Fundraising

Probably the most endangered Senate Democrat up in 2018 is Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). The state used to be a bellwether that was perfectly balanced between Democrats and Republicans, but it has become a very red state in the past few elections, so McCaskill could be in deep trouble. However, one thing the Senator has going for her is money. In Q4 of 2017, she raised $2.9 million. Her strongest Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, raised only $960,000 in the same period. Furthermore, McCaskill has $9 million in the bank, more than enough for a state like Missouri which has only three major media markets (St. Louis, Kansas City, and Springfield). Of course, the Koch brothers and others might step in and rain money on Hawley, but so far that hasn't happened and it probably won't until he wins a contested Republican primary, which will eat up some of the money he raised himself. McCaskill is by no means home free in a state Trump won by 19 points, but her problem won't be money. (V)

Cruz Lags Top Democrat in Fundraising

Speaking of fundraising, Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) is all but certain to be the Democrats' challenger to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) this November. This week, he pleased his followers with a nice surprise: His fundraising for Q4 of 2017 was $2.4 million, which is $500,000 more than Cruz.

Cruz still has the overall edge in cash on hand, $7.3 million to $4.6 million. And as a sitting senator in a red state (albeit one that's slowly inching into purple territory), the Senator is still a solid favorite, and can presumably make up the fundraising gap with a few steak breakfasts if he so chooses. Still, if the fundraising totals are a proxy for enthusiasm, which is often the case, then Cruz has at least a little reason to be nervous. Not helping him is the fact that Donald Trump is way underwater in Texas (54% disapprove, 39% approve), and Cruz is not doing much better (43% disapprove, 38% approve). Perhaps the Senator should spend less time worrying about his potential 2020 campaign, and more time worrying about 2018. (Z)

Ninth House GOP Committee Chairman Will Retire

Rep. Harold "Trey" Gowdy III (R-SC) has announced that he will not run for reelection this year. He is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, a position he utilized in order to go after Hillary Clinton on Benghazi with a fervor that would make Inspector Javert blush. Gowdy is only 53 and his district, SC-04, has a Cook PVI of R+15 and was won by Donald Trump by 25 points. So, even in a Democratic wave year he is in little danger of being defeated.

So why would someone so young give up such a powerful position when he is not involved in any scandal and is assured of reelection? His official reason is that he wants to return to the justice system (he used to be a U.S. attorney). Possibly not coincidentally, a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which covers South Carolina, became vacant yesterday. While Trump probably is sad to have such a powerful and partisan pit bull as Gowdy leave the House, having him be an appellate judge would be even better. Stay tuned for a nomination announcement. (V)

State of the Union Reviews Are In

The punditry has had time to digest all the red, red meat in Donald Trump's State of the Union address; here's what they're saying:

Left-leaning Commentators Centrist/Foreign Commentators Right-leaning Commentators

Overall, this collection of assessments would seem to confirm that the speech was targeted at the base—who largely ate it up—and was otherwise underwhelming and/or aggravating to the rest of the country and the world. (Z)

Trump Zooms Up in New Poll

A Monmouth University poll released yesterday shows that Donald Trump's approval has gone up from 32% to 42% since December. Only 50% disapprove of him now (was 56%). The improvement might be related to the tax law, but it will take more polls to confirm. The poll specifically asked about the new tax law and 44% said they approve of it and 44% said they didn't, an exact tie. Republican groups have been spending millions of dollars on ads claiming that the law is a good thing for ordinary Americans (and leaving out the inconvenient fact that most of the benefits go to corporations and the wealthy).

Another thing the poll showed is that the Democrats' lead in the generic House poll has been erased. It has been in double digits for months and now has dropped to only 2 points, 47% to 45%. If other polls confirm this result, the Democrats' chances of retaking the House will be greatly reduced. However, the respondents were 32% Democrats, 29% Republicans, and 39% independents, which is an unusual sample, with far more independents than the actual electorate has. That could make the poll's math dicey; it could also (theoretically) mean that some respondents were misrepresenting themselves. (V)

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