No, not the one battering the Northeast. The one battering Breitbart executive chairman (for the moment) Steve Bannon. Excerpts of Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House leaked on Wednesday and the hurricane that ensued has only gotten bigger. First, Donald Trump lit into Bannon. That's to be expected. But then, one of Trump's lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bannon yesterday, telling him to shut up. This was also to be expected. Trump's modus operandi his entire life has been to threaten to sue his adversaries. Such letters have no legal significance. Their only purpose is to scare people, especially people who can't afford a lawyer. Bannon doesn't scare at all, is very wealthy, and knows plenty of lawyers. His slogan is: "Honey badger don't give a sh*t." People who know Bannon well say it is much too early to count him out.
What Trump doesn't seem to understand is suing people when you are President of the United States is not the same as suing people when you are a New York businessman. To start with, public figures—and POTUS is about as public as you can get—can only win defamation lawsuits when they can show that the assertions made by the defendant are false, the defendant knew they were false, and the defendant made them anyway. Trump has zero chance of winning such a suit. Likewise, he has no chance of winning a breach of contract suit claiming that Bannon signed a nondisclosure agreement. Bannon wasn't his employee, he was the government's employee, and government employees generally don't have to sign or abide by NDAs.
But worse yet, should Trump actually file a lawsuit, Bannon's lawyers will force him to answer questions under oath. Trump is a loose cannon under the best of circumstances, and when probed by skilled lawyers, who knows what might come out. Trump probably doesn't know, but all the lawyers involved certainly do, that the first article of impeachment the House drew up against Bill Clinton was that he lied under oath (to a grand jury) about precisely what he did with Monica Lewinsky. And Clinton is a lawyer, not given to loose talk, and he still hung himself. Trump is neither a lawyer nor disciplined.
But Trump didn't stop with a letter to Bannon. His lawyer, Charles Harder, also sent a letter to Wolff's publisher, Henry Holt and Co., telling it to refrain from releasing the book. Not only is the publisher refusing to comply, but it moved up the release date and the book went on sale this morning. In the case of at least one D.C. bookstore, that meant 12:01 a.m., as they stayed open late to accommodate readers who just can't wait for Amazon to ship it to them overnight. The book is already #1 on Amazon's list of bestsellers, easily beating out a heartbreaking road novel, and two books on how to cook with a pressure cooker. Bannon's goose may be cooked (see below), but at least it will be done quickly, with lovely herbs and spices. A reason the publisher is willing to take its chances in court is that Wolff taped many of the 200 interviews that he conducted to collect material for the book. If the "tapes" (more likely audio files on a smartphone) show that the book accurately quotes Bannon and other people cited, Trump has no case against the publisher.
Speaking of tapes, once upon a time, long long ago, there was a president who was under investigation by a special counsel and there were some interesting tapes (and they really were tapes). The special counsel got curious about what was on the tapes, as special counsels are wont to do. That didn't work out so well for the president. Might special counsel Robert Mueller get curious about these recordings? Who knows? He doesn't give press conferences.
Trump's response is not ending with threats of lawsuits. He is organizing a wide-ranging campaign to undermine the book, and his allies are being mobilized in his defense. Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, for example, said: "When I read the stories and excerpts from Wolff's book, it appears like a compilation of score settling." Sarah Huckabee Sanders characterized the book as "complete fantasy and just full of tabloid gossip." Of course, if Wolff has recordings and makes them public, a lot can change very fast. (V)
The war between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon has attracted quite a bit of media coverage. The New York tabloids decided to cover it with their characteristic taste and refinement, as shown by their front pages yesterday:
In this battle, Trump is already clearly the winner. To start with, Bannon has two sources of power: His billionaire financier Robert Mercer and his position at Breitbart. He has already lost Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who was frustrated with Bannon's strategy in the Alabama special election. His position at Breitbart may also be in danger, because Rebekah Mercer has a financial stake in Breitbart News and may decide he has to go. The website's board is also leaning toward that outcome.
In the fight between Trump and Bannon, right-wing media are nearly all siding with Trump. In addition, Matt Drudge, Newt Gingrich, Ari Fleischer, Rush Limbaugh, and many other figures on the right are also sticking with Trump and against Bannon. Pretty much the only person on Bannon's side is Milo Yiannopoulos, who used to work for Bannon.
Bannon himself has been quiet as a mouse. He hasn't defended himself or lashed out at Trump at all. Doing so would certainly cost him his job. Breitbart's audience is made up almost entirely of fervent Trump supporters, and if Bannon were to take a(nother) pot shot at their man, it would be curtains for him.
Lost in the commotion is who the real winner of this spat is. It is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who can breathe a lot easier now. Bannon was planning to run extreme right-wing candidates against all the incumbent Republican senators up for reelection in 2018. He might well have knocked off a few of them. He would certainly have weakened all of them. Now his power to do that (absent Mercer's money) is greatly diminished, which helps all the incumbent Republicans enormously and makes the Democrats' chances of capturing the Senate smaller. (V)
In case Wolff-gate (and yes, they are already calling it that) was not enough, the New York Times dug up some more dirt on Russiagate on Thursday, reporting that back in March, Donald Trump gave Attorney General Jeff Sessions a direct order not to recuse himself from the investigation. The president's view is that it is the AG's job to protect him (it isn't). When Sessions defied the order and recused himself anyhow, Trump threw the mother of all temper tantrums.
The Times was also able to confirm that Robert Mueller is aware of this information, which strengthens the case that Trump obstructed justice. Certainly, former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks thinks so. "There is so much evidence now, and as was said, it's not one piece, it's the total picture. The pieces of the puzzle are fitting together and they spell obstruction," she told MSNBC's Chris Hayes. Many legal experts agree with her, while others are not yet persuaded that Mueller could prove "corrupt intent." However, even the skeptics acknowledge that we don't necessarily know everything that the special counsel knows, and that even if we're not 100% of the way to an obstruction conviction right now, we're certainly getting close.
Meanwhile, on the same day these revelations came out (timing that is surely not a coincidence), Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Jim Jordan (R-OH)—both of them ultra-conservative Freedom Caucusers—published an editorial calling for the AG to step down:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but it would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world...If Sessions can't address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general? Sadly, it seems the answer is now.
This is clearly part of the larger campaign by some in the GOP to discredit the Russiagate investigation, and all who are involved, even if their involvement is tangential due to having recused themselves. Meadows and Jordan also know that a new AG would not be bound by the recusal, and could strike back against Robert Mueller, perhaps even terminating him. Democrats know this too, and so they are now in the awkward position of trying to defend and protect a man they do not like, and whom they tried to block from becoming AG just 10 months ago. Politics does make strange bedfellows, indeed. (Z)
In case Thursday's NYT revelations, along with the calls for his head, were not enough, Jeff Sessions also rescinded Obama-era policies that de-prioritize enforcing federal laws against marijuana in states that have legalized it. Sessions said that prosecutions would now be up to individual U.S. attorneys. On one level, the goal is to create confusion in the minds of marijuana consumers, and especially marijuana businesses, about future federal enforcement efforts. For someone who has always championed states' rights against the big bad federal government, as Sessions has, this is a bit of a reversal. It's also a reversal for someone who claimed in his confirmation hearings, and then again afterward, that he would not take steps to crack down on pot. Many GOP senators were openly critical of the AG's change of course on Thursday, though one is left to wonder what they were smoking when they bought into the rabidly anti-drug Sessions' claims that he had turned over a new leaf when it came to marijuana.
The reason that the many Republican senators are irked is that they realize that while the decision is about law enforcement on one level, on another level, it is all about politics, and maybe not such smart politics. Trump's base of conservative, older white men in rural areas seem to be more into opioids than pot, so Sessions' move will be cheered by them. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, it will not be cheered at all by younger voters. Sessions' decision is likely to energize many of them and get them to the polls in November—to vote a straight Democratic ticket. They already dislike Trump on account of pulling out of the Paris accord, his Muslim bans, his plans to punish "sanctuary cities," and his administration killing net neutrality. This just makes it worse. The Virginia and Alabama elections showed that when they are motivated, young voters turn out in droves, and this is not a good sign for the GOP. (V)
In case one object lesson in pandering to the base at the expense of alienating younger voters was not enough, the White House served up a second one on Thursday, announcing that it planned to open virtually the entire U.S. continental shelf to offshore drilling. Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke said that there are 47 different spots ripe for exploitation, and that the government would be able to lease all of them between 2019 and 2024.
This proposal, if it moves forward, will please the petroleum companies that donate generously to the Republican Party. It will also excite much of Trump's base, because of the impact on job creation and economic growth, but also because many of them resent overprotective environmentalists. On the other hand, governors of nearly every coastal state—Rick Scott (R-FL), Jerry Brown (D-CA), Phil Murpy (D-NJ), Henry McMaster (R-SC), Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Jay Inslee (D-WA) among them—are bitterly opposed, because they don't want to harm their states' tourist industries, and because they don't want pollution and the risk of an oil spill. The Pentagon is not happy at the idea, either, because a raft of offshore platforms could interfere with their ability to train and to conduct maneuvers. And, of course, younger voters are furious. They see a decision like this as mortgaging their future for the sake of the present, and believe (probably correctly) that petroleum, as a fuel source, is obsolete and headed the way of the dinosaur. (Z)
When you have a base that is small, and probably shrinking by the day, you have to do everything you can to keep them fired up, and showing up to the polls. So, you do things like lash out against marijuana, or open waters to drilling that the namby-pamby Barack Obama would not. The other side of the coin, however, is doing whatever is necessary—by hook or by crook—to keep your opponents from voting.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump's voter fraud commission breathed its last in the face of mounting legal and logistical hurdles that proved impossible to overcome. However, as the Washington Post's Paul Waldman points out, this is far from over. The GOP continues to explore all manner of tools to suppress Democratic voting, including voter ID laws, reduced polling hours, and the like. He predicts that the technique that will be the Party's focus in the next year or two, because it's got a stronger legal basis and it's much harder to prove ill intent, will be purges of voter rolls. That could include people whose names match those of convicted felons, or who match those of non-citizens on the DHS' visitor list, or who simply match those of another voter. There's a Jane Wilson voting in Baltimore? Well, there was a Jane Wilson convicted of armed robbery in Bethesda 10 years ago; and it's probably the same person, so purge her. There's a Juan Gonzales voting in Florida? Must be the same Juan Gonzales who is visiting from Guatemala—purge him. There's a John Smith in Columbus and one in Cincinnati? Must be the same guy—purge them both.
As if on cue, New Hampshire's GOP-controlled state senate passed a bill known as HB 372 this week. This would require anyone who tries to vote in New Hampshire with out-of-state ID to acquire a New Hampshire driver's license and to register their car in the state within 60 days. These two things come with a minimum cost of $50 and $23, and then additional fees tacked on depending on the municipality and the car can easily push the bill into the hundreds of dollars. What kind of person is likely to have an out-of-state ID, and very possibly a car, but not necessarily several hundred dollars to burn? College students; HB 372 is a pretty overt attempt to stop them from voting by imposing what is, in effect, a back-door poll tax. Not coincidentally, college students—especially these days—vote overwhelmingly Democratic. The bill passed the New Hampshire state senate on a straight party-line vote (14 Republicans for, 9 Democrats against), is expected to pass the state house in the same way, and then will probably be signed into law by Gov. Chris Sununu (R). If this flies with the courts—and the ACLU's lawyers are already preparing their briefs, of course—expect other states where the GOP has the trifecta to try it out. (Z)
The 94th district for the Virginia House of Delegates race ended up an exact tie between David Yancey (R) and Shelly Simonds (D). As stipulated by Virginia law, the winner was chosen by lot. Yesterday, Yancey's name was pulled out of a bowl and he was declared the winner of the seat, giving the Republicans a 51-to-49 majority in Virginia's lower chamber. Had Simonds won, the two parties would have been tied at 50-50 and a power-sharing arrangement would have been necessary.
Simonds has refused to concede and is considering her options. One of them is to ask for another recount of the ballots. Another is to go to court and contest a single ballot that she disputes, in which the voter filled in two ovals but drew a slash through one of them. The instructions given by the Virginia Board of Elections suggest that such ballots are invalid and may not be counted, but a three-judge panel, all of whose members were appointed by Republicans, counted the ballot, making the race a tie. If the disputed ballot is ruled invalid, Simonds would have a 1-vote majority. (V)