For millennia, kings and generals had no phones, e-mail, walkie talkies, or other forms of electronic communication, and so had to send messages using human envoys. When an envoy arrived with bad news, there was much temptation for an angry commander to execute that person. Such was the case, for example, with King Tigranes of Armenia, who—Plutarch tells us—was so aggravated with an envoy's message that he had the messenger beheaded (or hanged, in some accounts). This backfired on the King, because, "no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him." Hence the aphorism: "Don't shoot (or behead, or hang) the messenger."
The notion of a leader who lashes out at the bearers of unpleasant information and who prefers to hear only flattery may seem vaguely familiar these days. Certainly, history is repeating itself in the Senate, particularly when it comes to the report that British spy Christopher Steele compiled on Donald Trump's contacts with various Russians. Rather than investigate the contacts to see if there is anything worrisome there, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck "Tigranes" Grassley (R-IA) wants the Justice Dept. to file charges against Steele for allegedly lying to the FBI about his contacts with reporters. Anyone can make a referral to the Justice Dept., which is not required to take any action, but when the request comes from a senior member of the Senate, the chance of it being acted upon is greater than if it comes from an unknown random person.
Democrats are furious and are saying the Republicans are doing everything they can to undercut the special counsel's investigation of the Russian hacking. Steele was hired by the firm Fusion GPS, which was working on a contract from a conservative website, The Washington Free Beacon. Later the work was continued by the DNC. The leaders of Fusion GPS testified before a Senate committee and asked that the Senate release a full transcript of the testimony, a request that was originally granted, but has now been denied.
Steele is a British subject and lives in the U.K., so it is unlikely that he could be jailed, even if the Justice Dept. decided they wanted to do that. At worst, he would be subject to imprisonment only if he were ever to visit the U.S., because there is zero chance that the British government is going to extradite him for this. (V)
On Friday, The Hill reported that the FBI has quietly been looking into the Clinton Foundation, yet again, for the last several months. The new investigation is being run from the Bureau's Little Rock office, and is focused upon the question of whether or not there was a connection between donations to the foundation and official acts that Hillary Clinton undertook as Secretary of State.
There is very little chance that anything comes of this. As we learned from the recent trial of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and the Supreme Court decision in the case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, the bar for conviction in these cases is very, very high. Further, the matter has been looked into before, without result. The big question is why the case has been reopened. FBI officials aren't saying, but here are a few theories:
One wonders how long the Clintons will have to be out of public life before they cease to be a subject of such interest to their opponents. Maybe two or three years...after they are both dead. (Z)
One mystery relating to Michael Wolff's explosive book Fire and Fury has now been answered: How did Wolff get into the White House many times to talk to aides? He admitted yesterday that before the project began, he spent some time building a reputation as someone friendly to Trump. Further, when talking to White House officials, he flattered everyone in sight, thus giving the impression he was going to write a book defending Trump.
While this admission does not reflect on the accuracy of the book, it does show that Wolff is somewhat devious. Some people may conclude that he can't be trusted and the book may contain false statements. On the other hand, if he had built up a reputation as a Trump critic, he would never have been allowed into the White House in the first place, so doing what he did was the only way to get the material. He is far from the first reporter to find this kind of deception necessary.
Wolff's critics are not helped by the fact that some aspects of the book have already been confirmed. For example, one of the guests at a dinner party hosted by Wolff in Jan. 2017 attended by Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes was Janice Min. The conversation between Bannon and Ailes is quoted extensively in the book. Min has told MSNBC that every word quoted from that conversation is accurate. (V)
While there are some none-too-flattering things about Donald Trump in Michael Wolff's new book, the two people who really come in for a thrashing are Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, courtesy of the unfiltered (unhinged?) Steve Bannon. The Breitbart publisher described the First Daughter as "dumb as a brick," while finding a half dozen different ways to accuse the First Son-in-Law of being corrupt.
So, how do the first children feel, now that they and their father/father-in-law have been thrown under the bus and publicly humiliated? Easy question: They are ecstatic. That's right. According to several sources who talked to Vanity Fair, they are very pleased that the President now sees "the truth" about Steve Bannon, and they believe that the whole experience will serve to undermine The Donald's trust in non-family members and to make him more suspicious and critical of outsiders. As a consequence, Jared and Ivanka conclude, their influence with him will rise. This is a positively Machiavellian way to view the situation and is, needless to say, not how normal people respond to such things. "Only they could be able to think about it that way," observed one long-term associate of the couple. Not too surprising, however, given their upbringing. (Z)
Thanks to Michael Wolff's book, all Trump administration hands are on deck, trying to put out the fire. That includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who held a rare press conference on Friday to address some of the charges made in the book. The Secretary said that he is starting to enjoy his job, that he plans to stay at least until the end of 2018, and—most notably—that he has "never questioned [Donald Trump's] mental fitness."
Psychologists, sociologists, communications theorists, and other scholars have a term that they use for a statement like this. They call it a "lie." Tillerson has never denied that he once called the President a "moron" behind closed doors. That is, by definition, an expression of doubt about the President's mental fitness. Beyond that, however, Tillerson is a shrewd fellow. Just the information that is publicly available is enough to raise questions about Trump's mental fitness, and the Secretary surely has access to oodles of information beyond that. One of the key skills needed in his past career as a successful oil executive was an ability to read people, and Tillerson was clearly very good at it. It's possible that the Secretary has examined the evidence and has concluded there's nothing to worry about, but to say he's never even considered the question is not remotely plausible. It is, however, the kind of thing one says when one is trying to keep one's job. So maybe T-Rex really will be around longer than anyone expected. (Z)
The White House tried to keep it hush-hush, but news leaked out on Friday that Mark Paoletta and Daris Meeks, who serve Vice President Mike Pence as his chief counsel and his domestic policy director, respectively, are quitting. They join former chief of staff Josh Pitcock and former press secretary Marc Lotter as key figures in the office of the VPOTUS who did not make it to the one-year mark.
Given that the vice-presidential staff is much smaller than that of the president, this means that Pence is rivaling Donald Trump in terms of experiencing an unusually high level of turnover. Is the toxicity that surrounds Trump also enveloping his vice president's staff? Or is Pence himself a difficult man to work for? Or is it some combination of both? Nobody's saying, so we will probably have to wait until the New York Times decides to do an exposé to find out. Or somebody writes a tell-all book about the Veep. Michael Wolff, do you want to try to put on your sheep's clothing again? (Z)
In the past month, the Trump administration has:
Trump is also the first president since Harry S. Truman who did not find time early in his term to visit the Golden State, where more than 10% of the country's population lives. If the people and legislators in California have the feeling they are in an out-and-out war with the federal government, it should surprise no one.
It should also surprise no one that California is starting to fight back. The Democrats control all seven of the elected statewide offices and have huge majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, so they can pass any law or regulation they want to. They are already talking seriously about creating an official state charity and passing a law that allows people to credit every dollar they donate to it against their state income tax. This would effectively reduce the effect of the $10,000 limit that the new tax law places on deducting state and local taxes. They are also talking about passing their own net neutrality law. If the penalties are heavy enough, carriers may decide to obey state law for California customers rather than risk huge fines if Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy ultimately decides the certain-to-result case in California's favor. While California probably can't outlaw oil drilling off the coast, it could pass a law requiring oil companies to carry $10 billion worth of insurance to cover damages in the event of an oil spill, like the one off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969.
No doubt more laws will be thought of and passed in short order. Trump knows that while many individuals despise him, they largely have no power to thwart him. However, when a large and wealthy state with no shortage of legal talent decides to pull out all stops in its battle with him, Republicans who previously championed states' rights are likely going to be quickly transformed into ardent federalists. (V)
Speaking of things that will not make Californians happy, Donald Trump has now responded to demands by the Republican members of Congress that he provide an actual plan for border security. The President wants $18 billion over 10 years in order to pay for 316 miles of new wall construction and for 407 miles of replacement and secondary wall construction. This would be something like one-third of the total mileage eventually envisioned—864 miles of new wall and about 1,163 miles of replacement or secondary wall—which thus puts the total cost of the project north of $50 billion, and probably north of $60 or $70 billion. In addition, Trump wants $15 billion for technology, personnel and readiness.
There is no chance that Congress provides this money. Democrats won't go for it. Border state Republicans, who know their local economies depend on a cheap supply of labor from the south, largely won't go for it. Budget hawks won't go for it. That's just too many arms to twist, given that the plan would need at least 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. Either Trump is naive enough that he does not know this or, more likely, he's setting himself up to say that he tried his best, but those sad, pathetic, small-handed members of Congress wouldn't work with him to Make America Great Again. Of course, Congress would not be an issue if the money was coming from Mexico, but that part of the campaign promise seems to have been forgotten. (Z)
On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was reversing the Obama administration's lax policies on marijuana enforcement. On Friday, the state of Vermont—home to a lot of libertarians, anarchists, latter-day hippies, and other rebellious types—gave its response, as its house of representatives voted to make it legal for individuals to possess one ounce of pot, and to have up to six plants in their homes. The Vermont senate passed a very similar bill last year, and is expected to pass this one. Gov. Phil Scott (R) has already said he'll sign it.
This development is particularly notable for a couple of reasons. If things go according to plan, it will be the first time that marijuana has been legalized by legislative action as opposed to ballot initiative. That could give other legislatures cover to do the same. Beyond that, the Vermont law legalizes possession, but does not legalize the sale or the purchase of pot. This will make it very difficult for the federal government to crack down, should they decide to do so, because there will be no large growers or dispensaries for them to target. So, like California (see above), Vermont is providing the Trump administration with an object lesson in federalism. (Z)
Donald Trump won Ohio by 8 points and Republicans were hoping to give Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), one of the most liberal members of the Senate, a real run for his money in 2018. They even got their preferred candidate, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. Unfortunately, Mandel just dropped out, citing his wife's health issues as the reason.
This creates a vacuum im Ohio politics. Nobody else was planning to run against the popular Mandel and the filing deadline is Feb. 7 for the May 8 primary. It is possible that one of the candidates for governor might switch to the Senate race though. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor (R-OH) and Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) are potential switchees. Term limited Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) could run, of course, but he clearly has bigger fish to fry at some future date (Hint: 2020). (V)