Feb. 17

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Mueller Indicts 13 Russians

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has proven remarkably adept at surprising us all, indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies on Friday, charging them with a wide-ranging and sophisticated conspiracy to undermine the United States' elections, particularly the 2016 presidential election. This was completely out of left field; nobody in the media saw this coming.

Donald Trump, not surprisingly, promptly took to Twitter to claim vindication:

Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong—no collusion!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018

The 37-page indictment is long and complicated and covers a lot of territory, which prompted just about everyone to break it down in terms of "takeaways." For those who are interested, here are some of those articles: BBC News (7 takeaways), Vox (10), Politico (9), USA Today (7), The Guardian (10), and the WaPo (3). Given Trump's tweet, and given how many takeaway articles there are, we're going to approach it slightly differently:

Good News for Trump

Bad News for Trump

The general response to the indictment, when it was first made public, was something along the lines of "It's not as bad for Trump as it could be." That's very true, but as the lists above make clear, it's also more bad for him than it is good. (Z)

The Passing of the Buck Has Begun

The shootings in Florida have created quite a political pickle for the Trump administration. The Donald was hypercritical of Barack Obama when shootings happened on #44's watch, which certainly suggests that Trump himself deserves blame now that the shoe is on the other foot. Also not helping things is that the man responsible for Wednesday's shootings, Nikolas Cruz, was clearly mentally imbalanced, and yet he managed to get a gun—just less than a year after the Congress and the Trump administration passed a bill (HJ Resolution 40) making it easier for mentally ill people (albeit folks on Social Security, and so not the Florida shooter) to get guns.

There is no question that the administration realizes the optics here are very, very bad. Beyond the fact that Trump has tried the usual distractions—most obviously chattering about "better mental health care"—the White House is pointedly refusing to release a picture of Trump signing the above-mentioned bill, even though one exists. CBS has asked for it 12 times, and all they have gotten is a picture of Trump signing a different bill, along with a note from Sarah Huckabee Sanders that read, "We don't plan to release the picture at this time." Clearly, they realize that image would linger for a long, long time—in newspapers, on Twitter, and in Democratic campaign ads.

To Trump's relief, however, a scapegoat has presented himself. It turns out the the FBI got a tip on its public tip line that Cruz was imbalanced and threatening to kill people. The FBI, obviously, did not act on that tip. So, the buck is now being passed to FBI Director (and Trump nemesis) Christopher Wray. It would be a little indelicate for the President himself to point fingers (not that it's stopped him before), so a surrogate has stepped forward to do it in the form of Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), who on Friday called for Wray to resign. Scott is a big Trump cheerleader, and is also trying to drum up interest given the Senate run he's likely going to launch in a month or two. He's also got some blood on his hands, as one of the most enthusiastic cashers of the NRA's checks. So, Scott has a lot of motivations to step up and help the President shift the blame.

Of course, the argument that Scott is making is full of holes. To start, it's great to separate signal from noise after the fact, but if the FBI acted on every tip it gets (or even the 10% most credible), it would run out of agents and money and would also end up harassing or detaining a lot of innocent people. Beyond that, even if we agree that this incident displays gross incompetence on Wray's part, that covers the shooter, but the guns still rest at the foot of the folks in the GOP. Finally, Wray is a Trump appointee, and so his misdeeds are, by the transitive property, Trump's misdeeds. As Harry S. Truman reminded himself daily, thanks to the famous sign on his desk, "the buck stops here." Trump was more than happy to adhere to that standard when it came, for example, to something like Benghazi, something for which Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were only indirectly responsible.

For those who love Trump and/or guns, none of this will matter. Wray is going to make a perfectly fine whipping boy, and may even get fired. There will be some photo-ops with victims, maybe a few more sad tweets from Trump and other prominent Republicans, and then once again we will be exactly where we were a week ago. It is happening, yet again, right before our very eyes. Maybe something will change eventually, but if you can find a book to take your bet, you can make a fair bit of money betting against that in the interim. (Z)

Another Alleged Trump Mistress Comes Forward

Ronan Farrow, as the son of Woody Allen, is no stranger to problematic sexual behavior. And recently, he's been doing yeoman's work shining the light on the bad behavior of people who are not his father. It was Farrow who blew the lid off the Harvey Weinstein scandal. And now, in a demonstration that he targets partisans on both sides of the aisle, the New Yorker reporter is back with a story about Donald Trump and his alleged lengthy dalliance with Karen McDougal while married to Melania Trump.

This is the second case of cheating on Melania that has found its way into the headlines recently, following on the heels of porn star Stormy Daniels' revelations. McDougal is not a porn star, though she was Playboy's "playmate of the year" not long before her alleged affair with The Donald, so we begin to get a strong sense of how he's spending his leisure time. In general, the McDougal narrative is exceedingly similar to the Daniels narrative: meeting in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel when Trump was in Los Angeles, dinners of steak and mashed potatoes, no liquor, watching of TV, payment for sex and/or travel costs. Reportedly, the affair lasted about nine months, from June 2006 to April 2007.

It is not terribly shocking that a twice-divorced man who likes to brag about grabbing woman by the pu**y has been less than faithful, and undoubtedly there are more porn stars, Playboy models, and porn stars who appeared in Playboy out there with similar stories. Friday's news is primarily interesting, then, for two other reasons. First, because it adds fuel to the speculation that the Trump marriage is in trouble. For what it's worth, the First Lady walked from the White House to Marine One by herself on Friday, with her staff saying that "scheduling" made it easier that way than waiting for the President. Uh, huh.

The second angle of interest is that McDougal's (temporary) silence was purchased not by Michael Cohen, but by National Enquirer publisher and Trump friend David Pecker [sic], who says that he was going to run the story, but then he decided it was not "plausible." While that definitely happens in the gossip industry—the practice is called "catch and kill"—it's not done all that often at that particular publication, particularly at the hefty price tag of $150,000, and with a story that would undoubtedly drive up circulation. So, Pecker might face some interesting questions from the FEC about whether or not that $150,000 was an unreported campaign contribution. He might also be asked about what other stories he's caught and killed. (Z)

Romney Formally Announces Senate Bid

It has been clear for a couple of months that former GOP presidential nominee Willard "Mitt" Romney would run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Romney was supposed to announce officially on Thursday, but decided that would not be respectful to the victims of the Florida high school shooting. So he waited 24 hours, figured that was good enough for government work, and unveiled a wildly-overproduced candidacy announcement video on YouTube:

The video is mostly dramatic shots of people and places in Utah, probably stock footage acquired from the Utah Board of Tourism. However, starting around 1:00, there are a few bits that seem to be subtle shots across the bow of the S.S. Trump, like when Romney laments the absence of "respect" in Washington, or when he declares that, "Utah welcomes legal immigrants from around the world; Washington sends them a message of exclusion."

So, Romney is going to lead the Trump resistance with the GOP, and within the Senate, then? Not so fast. The former Massachusetts governor was very critical of Trump during the campaign, but then more than happy to cozy up to The Donald when a Cabinet post appeared to be up for grabs. When that fell through, Romney went back to the criticism, but—despite the subtle shots at Trump in the announcement video—he told the Deseret News he's largely on board with what the President is doing. "I'm with his domestic policy agenda that he has put in place so far—lower taxes, lower regulation, lower bureaucracy," Romney said, while describing the administration as, "pretty effective."

Romney also declared that, "I'm in the fight. Just because you don't get promoted to general doesn't mean you stop fighting. There are things I believe in very deeply." But there is the rub. It's not at all clear what Romney believes, much less what he believes in "very deeply," because he's a flip-flopping political chameleon. He was for Obamacare (when it was Romneycare), and then he was against it. He was for the Bush tax cuts, then he was against them. He was for protecting LGBT folks in the workplace, then he was against it. He's been for and against Donald Trump so many times, it's getting hard to keep track. Romney "believes" whatever he deems politically expedient, and he's pretty ham-fisted about it. In that way, he is the GOP's version of John Kerry. In fact, has anyone ever actually seen the two men in the same room?

Romney-Kerry mashup

Utahns love Romney, so he's going to win the Senate seat, and he's going to represent them for the next six years (well, at least until Jan. 20, 2021). But anyone who has high expectations for him—either that he will be a powerful anti-Trump advocate, or that he'll emerge as a mover and shaker within the modern iteration of the GOP—is very likely to be disappointed. Meanwhile, whatever Romney's game is—leadership position in the Senate, another presidential run—will not be well-served by his No-Trump-yes-Trump-maybe-Trump flim-flammery. (Z)

Idaho Has Its Answer to Obamacare: Ignore It

Individual states have much more flexibility to try things out than does the federal government. FDR famously observed this while running for the presidency in 1932, repeatedly noting that he was more than willing to try anything useful that one of the states came up with in response to the Great Depression. So, when Friday's headlines announced that, "Idaho thinks it has a better idea than Obamacare," it certainly piqued some interest. After all, if the good people of the Gem State have something that improves upon the current situation, and yet is politically palatable to conservatives, that could lay the groundwork for some—gasp—bipartisanship, and maybe some progress (or maybe not; Obamacare borrowed substantially from a plan cooked up by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and we know how that turned out).

In any event, it turns out that Idaho's "better" plan is to ignore key portions of the ACA. They will allow insurers to base coverage on a person's health history, to limit coverage to $1 million a year, and to offer fewer benefits. All of these things flout the rules of Obamacare, which does not allow a person's past history to be considered, does not allow coverage limits, and requires fairly expansive benefits.

Governor C.L. Butch Otter (R) bragged that this approach would make things more "affordable." That's true, if one happens to have a history of good health, and does not develop any serious and/or debilitating conditions, and does not need the things that would be uncovered (like, say, prenatal care). A lot of folks pass these three "tests," and so would indeed be better off financially under the Idaho law. However, Team Obama did not make their rules capriciously or without reason. They understood that allowing these cheaper insurance policies—often called "junk" insurance—would trick a lot of people into thinking they are more fully insured than they actually are, and at the same time would create a pool of people who are essentially un-insurable. Those un-insurable folks, in turn, will either suffer and die, or else will go to the emergency room whenever they need care, and thus will pass the costs on to everyone else.

In short, then, Gov. Otter & Co. don't have a "better idea" at all, in that what they have come up with is nothing new—the basic choices they are dealing with have been on the table the whole time and, indeed, are the crux of the entire health insurance business. The only "idea" they have is that the Supremacy Clause doesn't apply to them or that, even if it does, a federal government led by Donald Trump and a Justice Department led by Jeff Sessions won't enforce it. (Z)

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