Jul. 12

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

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Collins and Murkowski Are Probably "Yes" Votes on Kavanaugh

Democrats who are hoping that Republican Sens. Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) will vote against the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court are likely to be disappointed. Yesterday, Collins touted Kavanaugh's experience and sounded warm notes about him, despite her earlier vow to vote against anyone who would overturn Roe v. Wade, something Kavanaugh might well do. Murkowski said that abortion, gun owners' rights, and regulatory issues are important to her. Both she and Collins voted to put him on the D.C. Circuit Court in 2006.

If Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is in Arizona and may not be able to come to the Senate to vote, doesn't show up but all the other Republicans vote to confirm, Kavanaugh will have at least 50 votes, enough to be approved. It is also possible that a few Democratic senators, especially Joe Manchin (WV), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Donnelly (IN), will also vote for confirmation if their votes don't matter because they are scared to death of a "no" vote being used against them in the fall campaign. On the other hand, if they vote for confirmation, Democrats may be angry with them and may not bother voting for them, putting them in a lose-lose situation.

Despite the reality that they don't have the votes to block Kavanaugh, Democrats are planning to put up a fight. In particular, they want access to documents that Kavanaugh wrote when he worked for George W. Bush. These documents include discussions of programs to detain suspected terrorists and conduct warrantless searches. These documents could shed light on Kavanaugh's views on these subjects. (V)

The First Kavanaugh Muck Has Been Raked

There was little chance that Brett Kavanaugh would make it through his first week as a SCOTUS nominee without a little dirt from his past coming to light. It only took about 48 hours, in fact. And the winner is...baseball tickets.

Unlike many Supreme Court nominees, Kavanaugh is not independently wealthy. He was not born to wealth, and he's spent his whole career in public service, which is not known for its seven-figure salaries. He's also a baseball fan. A big one, it would seem, as he managed to pile up between $60,000 and $200,000 in credit card bills purchasing tickets for the Washington Nationals. This is a team that will sell you prime season tickets for $6,000 a year, so that's a lot of tickets.

There's probably nothing concerning here, beyond some unorthodox priorities, and a bit of bad judgment in personal matters. However, there is one potential red flag: The judge's debt was somehow paid off very quickly (or, at least, disappeared from his disclosure forms). Oh, and then there's the fact that sports tickets function much like untraceable currency, which means they sometimes play a role in money laundering and/or political corruption scandals. So, while the matter seems trivial—and, in the end, probably is—it does need looking into, and it would not be a surprise if it came up in Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings. (Z)

Senate Rebukes Trump...Sort Of

The U.S. Senate is none too happy with certain policies of the Trump Administration. And so, on Tuesday, they decided to bring that to the President's attention, voting 97-2 in favor of a pro-NATO resolution. Then, on Wednesday, they did it again, voting 88-11 in favor of a resolution criticizing the President's tariffs (and threatened tariffs).

As to NATO, it's a bit unclear as to the Senate's authority in this area. The upper chamber is, by the terms of the Constitution, granted the power to approve treaties. In the case of the treaty creating NATO, they did so on July 21, 1949. It is not clear that the Senate has any role in dissolving treaties, though, as the Constitution is silent on that point. Customarily, they have played a role, particularly in breaking treaties that they had previously approved. But it's a legal gray area, and if Trump were to pull out of NATO (which requires a one-year waiting period), it's not clear the Senate could stop it. That would be a matter for the Supreme Court to decide. So, we might forgive them for issuing a non-binding resolution, since that may be about all they can do here.

On the other hand, when it comes to tariffs, anyone who read Wednesday's resolution, and who did not know their civics, might be left with the impression that the Senate has no more claim to authority in this area than they do with NATO. A person like that might not have any awareness that the Constitution includes this clause:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

So, the Senate most certainly does have some actual power here, but clearly they have no interest in using it. In the age of Trump, much of the GOP dislikes what the president is doing, but they are terrified of actually challenging him. It's eerily reminiscent of what happened with Joe McCarthy about sixty years ago. That would be the same Joe McCarthy who was assisted by right-hand man Roy Cohn, who in turn schooled an up-and-coming New York real estate developer in the art of winning by any means necessary. In any case, until the Republican senators decide they are interested in using some of the powers the Constitution grants them, they might as well print their resolutions on the sort of paper that comes in rolls and resides in bathrooms. (Z)

Markets Tumble on Wednesday

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced its plans for the next round of tariffs on China. On Wednesday, the markets responded. And they were, in a word, despondent.

The global markets were the first to get their turn, and they all took a beating. The Shanghai Composite was down 1.8%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng dropped 1.3%, Japan's Nikkei took a 1.2% hit, and all of the major European indicies were down at least 1%. The Chinese market is in the midst of its worst year in a long time, which certainly works into Donald Trump's hands a bit. However, it's only a bit, since the Donald can affect the Chinese markets only indirectly (and so can't really use them as a bargaining chip), and since Xi Jinping isn't quite so much in the thrall of the business elites as Trump (or any other president) is.

As the foreign markets were closing, it was time for the U.S. markets to take their turn jumping off a cliff. The Dow closed down a bit more than 219 points, while the S&P 500 was down about 1%. The President was clearly aware of the economic news, and he got onto Twitter to comment:

...things up, better than ever before, but it can’t go too quickly. I am fighting for a level playing field for our farmers, and will win!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018

In short, there is every indication that he's planning to stay the course, collateral damage be damned. (Z)

Pence Heads Home to Do Damage Control

Speaking of collateral damage, the Trump administration might be putting on a poker face, but they are clearly aware that the tariffs could cost the GOP dearly in the midterms, particularly in the agricultural regions being targeted by the Chinese. To that end, homegrown vice president Mike Pence has been sent to the Midwest to meet with prominent business leaders and GOP donors to assure them that all is well.

There is a lot about this that is interesting. First of all, does Mike Pence really believe what he's peddling? Or is he just being a good soldier? Or does he simply recognize a good opportunity to groom his own political network when he sees one, in anticipation of the presidential run he's planning for 2020 or 2024? Beyond that, are a few carefully-chosen words from the Veep really going to have any impact on the folks he's meeting with? After all, they can check their stock portfolios and their balance sheets as easily as anyone—they are going to be well aware of the damage that is (or is not) being done to their bottom lines by Donald Trump's policies, regardless of whatever sweet talk they get from Pence. And finally, Pence's agenda evinces a concern with keeping the money flowing into the GOP coffers, but not so much concern about the actual voters who put Trump into office. Whether that is the right focus, particularly for a president who insisted that money doesn't matter so much in politics, is presumably something we will learn on November 6. (Z)

North Korea Situation Heads Further Downhill

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea yet again last week to work some more on denuclearization. That's a process that, in the words of some members of the administration, was all but complete. Perhaps that person, whoever they might be, was a little hasty in their assessment. In fact, insiders say that Pompeo's latest trip went "as badly as it could have gone."

What, exactly, does that mean? Well, first of all, Pompeo reportedly made no progress while he was in North Korea, and in fact got the sense that their diplomats had no particular interest in working with him. Further, he flew all that way (6,857 mi/11,035 km) because he was promised a face-to-face with Kim Jong-Un. Instead, Kim snubbed the Secretary of State. That is not good.

At this point, the folks who have been studying the hermit kingdom for years are very pessimistic. Adam Mount, whose expertise is in nuclear strategy, deterrence and North Korea, said that, "By now it's abundantly clear that this approach is a dead end. The White House has essentially tried to shoot for the moon and total disarmament, and it's clear that North Korea is not only not willing to do that, but sees very little reason to take steps in that direction." Cheon Seong Whun, a former official in the South Korean Dept. of Defense, was even more critical. He said that Donald Trump made a "huge political mistake" in agreeing to meet with Kim without conditions, a mistake that cost the President a chance to exert maximum political leverage. Cheon also observed that the Kim family has used this same strategy many times before, and that, "The North Koreans have a very correct understanding of weak spots in Western politicians who try to make a deal with them. The politicians have to sound optimistic. Pompeo is not prepared to admit he made a mistake."

It's possible that Trump pulls this one out of the fire (or the mushroom cloud). However, given that he has zero diplomatic experience, that Pompeo has only slightly more than zero, and that the State Department remains grossly understaffed, including the still-vacant job of Special Representative for North Korea Policy, the odds are not in Team Trump's favor. (Z)

Manafort Is a VIP Prisoner

Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, isn't exactly living a life of luxury behind bars waiting for his trials, but he being treated far better than other prisoners. A new filing from special counsel Robert Mueller yesterday has revealed that unlike other prisoners, Manafort

It is not clear why Manafort is getting VIP treatment. One possibility is that either Mueller or Judge T.S. Ellis wants to head off a possible defense that Manafort didn't have the opportunity to mount his defense adequately, so by bending over backwards to give him every chance to prepare his defense, they are trying to eliminate that line of appeal. (V)

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