We are eight days in, and Portergate shows little sign of waning. The big news on Tuesday came courtesy of FBI Director Christopher Wray, who continues to aggravate the President who handpicked him to replace the fired James Comey. Since the news of Porter's spousal abuse broke, the White House has claimed it came as a complete surprise to them. Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray said that is not true, and that the Bureau warned the administration about the problem last July upon the conclusion of its security-clearance investigation. To borrow a technical term sometimes used by those in the upper echelons of law enforcement, Wray is claiming that the Trump administration is "lying".
At this point, Portergate has morphed into three different scandals. Namely:
In his year as a candidate, and now his year-plus as a president, Donald Trump has demonstrated a teflon-like ability to dodge scandals that makes Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan look like amateurs. Could this be the one that sticks? Hard to say "yes," given that he's danced his way around pu**ygate, and the Gold Star family, and the "he knew what he signed up for" dead soldier, and Roy Moore, and the mockery of the handicapped reporter, and the insults of Megyn Kelly, and the adulterous affair with the porn star (more below), and so forth. However, it does seem that the President is losing his ability to distract. He's been trying to use infrastructure and immigration to drown out Portergate, and is not succeeding. Further, spousal abuse may connect with this cultural moment in a way that many of the other would-be scandals do not. At a certain point, between pu**ygate, and the President's support for an accused child molester, and Portergate, one imagines that many of the women who voted for Trump will conclude that he has some pretty unhealthy attitudes, and that maybe he's not on their side. (V & Z)
Michael D. Cohen is Donald Trump's longtime personal lawyer. He paid porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000 in order to purchase her silence as regards the extramarital affair she had with the President. None of these facts is really in dispute. On Tuesday, however, Cohen added another bit of information to the equation: He claims he paid the $130,000 out of his own pocket, and of his own volition, in order to "protect" the President. Cohen's statement to the New York Times makes pretty clear why he's making this claim:
Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly. The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.
If Cohen was acting on behalf of the campaign, and/or was using anyone's money other than his own, it would be a pretty serious violation of campaign finance law, since the Trump campaign never reported that $130,000.
It's going to be up to the Federal Election Commission to decide whether or not they buy this story. Given that he's a millionaire but most certainly not a billionaire, it would be awfully generous for Cohen to give away $130,000 without thought of recompense. He will also have to persuade the FEC that none of the hours billed to Trump in the last year have anything to do with this particular transaction. Perhaps Cohen will get lucky, and the matter will be decided by a commissioner who was born yesterday. (Z)
In September of last year, Democrat Annette Taddeo ran an anti-Trump campaign in a GOP-leaning district (Florida 40) and won, flipping a seat in the state Senate. In November of last year, Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman ran an anti-Trump campaign in a GOP-leaning city (St. Petersburg) and won, thus keeping his job. And on Tuesday, it happened again. This time, it was Democrat Margaret Good who was running the anti-Trump campaign, and it was the state senate seat for Republican-leaning Florida 72 that she won. Good took the seat from James Buchanan, member of a well-known Sunshine State political family (not the one that that gave us the lousy antebellum president of the same name).
Democrats at both the state and national levels are taking particular notice of Tuesday's win. The area covered by Florida 72 (Sarasota) has 10% more Republicans than Democrats, and was carried by Donald Trump by 4.6 percentage points. Further, the last two times that the seat was flipped by a Democrat—1992 and 2006—ended up being Democratic wave elections. Hence the reason that a fairly small local election is being described as a "bellwether." The "mother of all swing states" has one Senate seat up in 2018 (currently held by Democrat Bill Nelson) as well as all of its 27 seats in the House of Representatives, 16 of them held by Republicans. So, this could very well be the place that control of one chamber or the other is decided.
Even if one does not want to put too much stock in a single election, the overall trendlines are very worrying for the GOP. Across 70 special elections in 2017, Democrats ran 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton and 7 points ahead of Barack Obama's 2012 results. In the 12 races in 2018 so far, the numbers have gotten even better for the blue team, with their candidates running 23 points ahead of Clinton and 8 points ahead of Obama. It's not very likely that the Democrats can maintain that kind of average swing during the midterms, especially since many incumbents will be running. However, a swing of 5 points is very plausible (and may even be conservative), and might be enough to flip the House. (Z)
DACA protections are theoretically going to start expiring on March 5 (for some recipients), unless Congress can work something out in the interim. They are making zero progress. However, the program may survive nonetheless. A California judge ruled last month that the administration's reasoning in killing the program was questionable and potentially illegal, and granted a stay until the matter could be properly litigated in court. On Tuesday, Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York concurred, writing:
Defendants indisputably can end the DACA program. The question before the court is thus not whether defendants could end the DACA program, but whether they offered legally adequate reasons for doing so. Based on its review of the record before it, the court concludes that defendants have not done so.
In case there was any question that Donald Trump's loose lips are hurting him, Garaufis' ruling took note of the President's "recurring, redundant drumbeat of anti-Latino commentary" and also made reference to his celebration of (white) Norwegian immigrants and his denigration of Haiti as a "shithole." The Supreme Court is now considering whether or not to consider the matter; whether they do so or not, the administration is not going to be rid of DACA anytime soon. (Z)
In their annual meeting with the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the U.S. intelligence agencies told the senators that the Russians had succeeded in 2016 in weakening U.S. democracy by throwing out propaganda and fake news on social media and getting millions of people to believe it. They also see no sign that the trend is reversing and expect Russia to build on its successes and continue during the 2018 election season. The severe warnings were in stark contrast to Donald Trump's view that there has not been any Russian meddling at all, which means that he has done nothing to combat the problem, or to cause anyone else to do so.
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) asked the chiefs to convince the President to accept their findings that the Russians interfered in the 2016 elections. He said that when he talks to people in Maine they say the whole story is a hoax and a witch hunt because the president says so. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that he could identify elements of the Russian disinformation campaign if need be. He also said that the CIA had offensive weapons that could raise the cost of meddling, but he didn't go into details. He denied a New York Times report that said the CIA paid a businessman $100,000 to buy stolen American cyberweapons.
The senators were divided on how big a deal Russian interference is. Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) said: "The American people are smart people, they realize there are people attempting to manipulate them, both domestically and foreign." In other words, we don't have to do anything. In contrast, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) was more concerned because voting begins next month in some states. Blunt said: "If we're going to have any impact on securing that voting system itself, it would seem to me, we need to be acting quickly." Unlike Risch, he seemed to be calling for some kind of response, but didn't explain what he had in mind. (V)
After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that the congressional district map the Republican-controlled state legislature had drawn up was a gerrymander in violation of the state constitution, the legislature complied and produced a new map. It was still gerrymandered, although not as obviously as the original one. Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) wasn't fooled, so he vetoed it yesterday. He said that despite the map no longer containing an image of Goofy kicking Donald Duck, it was just as partisan as the original. As a consequence, a special master appointed by the court will draw up a new map.
In a way, it is surprising that the Republicans drew up a map as partisan as the first one. Surely they knew the governor, a Democrat, was not going to accept a highly gerrymandered map. Or maybe they thought they could pull a fast one on him. However, he hired a Tufts University professor, Moon Duchin, who is an expert on political maps, and she nixed the map because it would still give the Republicans the edge in 12 of the state's 18 congressional districts, despite the fact that Pennsylvania has 800,000 more Democrats than Republicans. If the Republicans had not been so greedy, and had drawn a map giving themselves a lead in 9 or 10 districts, instead of 12, they might have gotten away with it. (V)
Gary Emineth has dropped out of the North Dakota Senate race because he expects the much-better known Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) to enter the race to unseat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Previously, Cramer said he wasn't going to run, citing his House seniority as an issue. Although North Dakota is a deep red state, Heitkamp is popular and knocking off a popular incumbent senator is never easy, especially not if 2018 is a Democratic wave year.
Emineth probably didn't have much of a chance himself, since state senator Tom Campbell is also running for the Republican nomination and is better known. Also, Emineth has repeatedly called anti-Israel protesters "a bunch of Arabs," which has not gone over well.
Cramer still hasn't made up his mind completely, but is under a lot of pressure from Donald Trump to run. Still, he has to consider the fact that Heitkamp has won three statewide elections in North Dakota and has $4.4 million in the bank, a huge amount for a state with cheap television markets. (V)