Donald Trump claimed a scalp yesterday, as FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe announced that he was ending his duties immediately and will formally retire in March. Trump has long wanted to be rid of McCabe, even though he was the one to appoint him as acting director after he fired James Comey. Trump's gripe with McCabe is that his wife ran (unsucessfully) for the Virginia state senate last year as a Democrat and got funding for a PAC controlled by then-governor Terry McAuliffe (D). Needless to say, it is not illegal for the spouses of government officials to run for public office and get funding from officials in their respective parties, but Trump believes McCabe is out to get him and wanted him out. Multiple sources have reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressured FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire McCabe, but Wray refused. It is not known whether Sessions did this on his own or was following orders from Trump. McCabe has told friends that although Wray didn't formally fire him, he did pressure McCabe to leave right now and not wait until his pension is fully vested in March. McCabe has worked for the FBI for over 20 years.
It is possible that Trump's complaint about McCabe's wife is a cover story. Last year, when the President urged then-Director James Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, Comey told three FBI officials about the meeting, and one of those was McCabe. The other two have already left the FBI, and with McCabe's imminent departure, all three are gone. They can no longer affect FBI strategy, which is possibly what Trump cares about, but, of course, all of them can still be called to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller's grand jury. (V)
Republicans in Congress understand that if Donald Trump fires Robert Mueller, it will cause a firestorm and possibly the end of his presidency. They also know that Mueller's boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is very unlikely to fire Mueller. So it now appears their game plan for firing Mueller, described in a memo circulating in Congress, is to first get rid of Rosenstein so a new Deputy can be appointed to wield the hatchet.
The story is somewhat complicated, but basically the Justice Dept. (effectively under Rosenstein since Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russiagate investigation) went to a FISA judge in 2016 to get a warrant for surveillance of a Trump associate, Carter Page, in the overall scheme of things, a very small fish. The Department believed that Page was a Russian agent, so the proper procedure was to go to a FISA judge to get a warrant, which is precisely what they did. The judge apparently was convinced there was cause to issue the warrant, so it was issued. The accusation in the memo is that the evidence the Department gave the judge was based in part on the dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. The dossier was initially ordered by the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing website funded by Republican megadonor Paul Singer. Later, the DNC took over the project. The implication of the memo is that Rosenstein used partisan material to get a warrant to spy on a (minor) Trump campaign aide.
This argument has multiple holes in it. First of all, Steele is a respected spy who has worked with the CIA in the past and is considered highly trustworthy, no matter who is funding him. Second, getting a warrant to do surveillance on a target does not require proof that the target committed a crime, only that there is reason for surveillance. Third, the judge presumably looked at all the evidence presented to him or her and decided that a warrant was, well, warranted.
A battle is now shaping up about whether the Republican memo should be made public. The Department of Justice is against releasing it because it contains classified material. Nevertheless, Republicans want to release it in hopes of hurting Rosenstein and ideally getting him to quit or be fired so a new DAG can be appointed who will duly fire Mueller. The House Intelligence Committee voted late Monday, along party lines, to release the memo while also voting, again along party lines, to delay a rebuttal memo written by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA). The matter is now in Donald Trump's hands; he has five days to decide whether to allow the document to become public. (V)
Late Monday, as required by an act of Congress, the Treasury Department released an unclassified list of 114 foreign politicians and 95 oligarchs with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also released a second, less specific, report addressing businesses that are owned by the Russians, or are doing significant business with them. Donald Trump is empowered to impose sanctions on companies and foreign countries doing business with these Russian interests. Monday evening, he announced that he had decided not to do so, at least for now.
Naturally, Congressional Democrats were outraged. "I'm fed up waiting for this administration to protect our country and our elections," declared Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressional Republicans were probably none too thrilled, either, but they have learned to play their cards close to the vest these days. In any event, Trump has—at least for now—prioritized his relationship with Putin over his relationship with Congress. He also didn't do himself any favors when it comes to convincing Americans that he's not in bed with the Russian president. (Z)
FCC Chair Ajit Pai was more than happy to tote the Trump administration's water when it came to killing net neutrality (or, at least, trying to do so). Presumably, the White House expected that he would do the same if they decided to move forward with their plans to nationalize the nation's 5G network. On Monday, however, Pai made clear that would not be happening, and declared that "Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future."
Those are the words of a traditional, small-government Republican. So, Pai might be motivated by his political philosophy. He also used to be a lawyer for Verizon, so he might be motivated by his loyalties to them. Whatever it is, such a proposal would have to be approved by a majority vote of the five people on the FCC. Given that all four of the other members also spoke out against the plan on Monday, it would now seem to be dead in the water. (Z)
At the Koch Brothers' recent retreat in Indian Wells, CA, the talk was about the tax bill (very popular), the economy (going great guns), and the midterms (not so great). The fear that permeated the whole event was that even if the economy continues humming along (which is by no means certain), a strong economy and $400 million from the Koch brothers, might still not be enough to prevent major losses in the midterms. Art Pope, a major donor from North Carolina, said: "I do think the 2018 election is going to be very challenging for Republicans" (English translation: We are going to lose a lot of seats). Pope knows his history. In 2006, the economy was doing very well, but George W. Bush was not popular and the Republicans took a beating. He is a afraid of a repeat performance.
John Sides, a professor at The George Washington University who is an election expert, put it this way: "The strongest predictor of midterm elections is presidential approval, not economic growth." Sides added that if things remain as they are now, economic growth is not going to insulate Republicans from potential losses in November. Nevertheless, speaker after speaker at the Koch conference hammered on the economy as the winning message. Basically, with such an unpopular president, it is the only bullet in their gun, so they have to use it. (V)
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) will retire at the end of his term. At 71, he is a mere youngster in the House, but he is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. That's the committee, along with the Senate Appropriations Committee, that decides how the government will spend its money. It is one of the half dozen or so most powerful positions in the federal government.
People don't normally retire from positions like that, and he is not involved in any scandals. The conclusion has to be that Frelinghuysen thought he wouldn't be reelected from his R+3 NJ-11 district, especially since the Democrats found a very strong candidate to run against him in Mikie Sherrill. She is a graduate of the Naval Academy and Georgetown University (with a law degree), a former Navy helicopter pilot, a former federal prosecutor, and a mother of four. In November, Charlie Cook said the race was a tossup, but with an open seat in the district now, it surely leans Democratic, despite the slight Republican tilt of the district.
Frelinghuysen's retirement prompted CNN's Chris Cillizza to make a pretty salient observation: The "governing wing" of the GOP is dying fast. Close to half of the 35 Republicans who have thrown in the towel come from districts that Hillary Clinton won, or that she lost by a small margin. That means, more often than not, centrists who are willing to compromise, and who don't necessarily hate every Democratic idea and officeholder. The loss of these folks almost necessarily means a GOP caucus that is smaller, but also more inflexible and obstructionist. Should the Democrats retake the House, we could still be looking at years of gridlock, as the remaining Republicans use their now well-honed techniques for grinding Congress to a halt. (V & Z)
Political action committees working to keep Republicans in control of the Senate raised $32 million last year, a record for a non-election year. The Senate Leadership Fund, One Nation, and two other related groups, run by an associate of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), had only $24 million in the bank at the start of this year because they burned through a bunch of money in an unsuccessful attempt to support Roy Moore in Alabama's special election. More than half the donations were funneled through One Nation, which does not have to disclose the identities of its donors or its spending. (V)
Tonight is the State of the Union (SOTU) address—or, if you are someone who got your tickets early—the State of the Uniom. Melania Trump has announced she will be there, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg says she's skipping it, as she did for Trump's address last year. What are the odds that the former hears, and the latter misses, an address for the ages? Not good. Beyond the factors that argue against Donald Trump being able to give a winning speech, which we discussed yesterday, the fact is that the SOTU is pretty rarely an occasion of historic significance. Here's our list of the dozen most important SOTUs, from least to most impactful:
It drops off pretty steeply after these 12. With about 230 SOTUs in the books, that means that the address is truly historic roughly four percent of the time. Not good odds for Trump, any way you look at it. (Z)