Jun. 14

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Michael Cohen and His Lawyers Part Ways

Donald Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, is in a fix himself. He hasn't been charged with a crime (yet), but he expects to be arrested soon, possibly when prosecutors have examined the 3 million files on his computer and smartphones that they took in a raid in April. He may have committed bank fraud and wire fraud when "fixing" some of Trump's problems. Yesterday, he split with his legal team, though it is not clear whether he fired them or they quit. He found a new lawyer, but hasn't announced the lawyer's name yet. It is possible that the reason for Cohen and the lawyers parting company is that Cohen wants a lawyer with experience in the Southern District of New York, whose prosecutors have his computer and phones. It is also possible that he wants a lawyer whose speciality is negotiating plea bargains.

The $64,000 question is whether Cohen actually knows enough about Trump's dealings to be worth anything to the prosecutors. If he does, the $128,000 question is whether he will flip and cooperate with them or stonewall and pray for a pardon. Cohen wasn't really involved in the 2016 campaign much, so he probably doesn't know much about conspiracy with any Russians. What he might know is whether Trump had affairs with more women to whom he paid hush money. Prosecutors might not be so interested in that. However, he might also know about any money laundering that Trump has done, since Cohen is very well plugged in with New York Russians and Ukrainians. That information might be valuable, although it might also be on his computer, making his own testimony less valuable.

Michael Avenatti, the lawyer working for porn star Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford), said yesterday: "I think the likelihood of Mr. Cohen immediately flipping on the president just went through the roof." Of course, he may not really know what Cohen is going to do and could be just trying to scare Trump. (V)

Trump Runs More Victory Laps

Donald Trump is very pleased with himself after his visit to Singapore. Given how much mileage he gets out of non-accomplishments—an infrastructure plan that went nowhere, a wall that does not actually exist, an opioid plan that has saved no lives—it's not surprising that he'd make a big deal about an actual accomplishment. But he is predictably taking it to the nth degree, with a bunch of tweets like these on Wednesday:

Just landed - a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018

So funny to watch the Fake News, especially NBC and CNN. They are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea. 500 days ago they would have “begged” for this deal-looked like war would break out. Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018

That's right, NBC and CNN are now a bigger threat to the U.S. than Kim Jong-Un.

Trump is once again demonstrating that, for someone who bills himself as the world's greatest negotiator, he's actually not very good at negotiating. There is near-universal consensus that he gave more to Kim (prestige, reduced military maneuvers) than he got (vague promises). Generally, giving up more than you get is the #1 sign of a bad negotiator. Further, by overstating his success, Trump is once again giving away leverage to Kim. If the North Korean dictator launches just one more missile, or conducts just one more test, or even makes just one more threat, it will be very embarrassing for the President. Kim knows this, and will use it to his advantage.

One other point on the negotiation front. Trump has, of course, called the Iran nuclear deal the "worst deal ever negotiated." Whether one likes the Iran deal or not, there's no debating that it's more substantive than the piece of paper Kim signed, which has no substance at all. Still, Trump undoubtedly thinks that he did much better with North Korea than Barack Obama did with Iran. In part, that is because rule #1 of the Trump White House is "Anything #45 does is good, anything #44 did is bad." However, it's also because Trump is an unimaginative fellow who views all deals as if they are business deals. The thing that really sticks in The Donald's craw, when it comes to the Iran deal, is that he believes the United States paid hundreds of billions of dollars to the Iranians. This is not true; what actually happened was that the Iranians regained access to billions of dollars of their own assets that had been frozen, and then the U.S. also paid $1.8 billion to settle a debt left over from the 1970s.

Still, Trump imagines those piles of money—he can practically see them, smell them, and feel them—and it drives him nuts. As a businessman, Trump hates paying for things. He also has little appreciation for anything beyond dollars and cents, whether it's symbolism, or political pressure, or anything else. He had no problem canceling the military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea (which were then partly un-canceled) because, as Trump saw it, this was a win-win. It didn't cost the U.S. anything to give them up and (he thinks) it reduced the nation's expenses. Kim may be venal, but he's not stupid, and he sees this. As long as he says nice things about how he's willing to denuclearize, and he makes sure not to ask for direct cash payments, he will be able to extract an arm and a leg from Trump. This is the predictable result of electing a businessman as president. (Z)

Trump's Claims about the North Korea Deal Don't Align with the Facts

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's fact checker, has taken a close look at Donald Trump's claims about the deal he made with Kim Jong-Un. They don't stand up very well. Here is a brief summary of his findings.

The article has other examples as well. In short, Trump has added another batch of lies to the over 3,000 Kessler has already documented. (V)

Trump Will Play a Big Role in the Dreamer Feud

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is trying desperately to avert a discharge petition—one that would force a House floor vote on several immigration bills—from getting the needed 218 signatures. He is now working hand in glove with Donald Trump to craft a bill that Trump could sign but which can also get 218 votes in the House. In particular, some votes from members of the Freedom Caucus will be needed, and Ryan wants Trump to somehow get them. The problem is that all the members of the Freedom Caucus view giving dreamers a path to citizenship as amnesty, something they abhor.

The trick that Ryan and Trump are trying to pull off is to put in so many sweeteners that at least a few members of the Freedom Caucus will go for it. These could include $25 billion to build a wall on the Mexican border, an end to family-based immigration, an end to the visa lottery, and a new merit-based immigration system (which Canada has). If Trump and Ryan are unable to come up with a bill that can get 218 votes, then the Democrats and moderates may go back to Plan A: the discharge petition. Ryan is wildly opposed to that because it would lay bare the split in his caucus. (V)

Sanders Looks to Be on Her Way Out

CBS News is reporting that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah, will be exiting the White House by the end of the year, and possibly sooner. Sanders took to Twitter to deny it, but it's unlikely CBS made it up. Further, she's already spent almost a year on the job, a job that generally burns through people very quickly.

Replacing her may not be so easy. As the Trump White House's version of Baghdad Bob, it is her job to go out and tell baldfaced lies, and to do so with conviction. For those who are interested, she does it through what scholars call self-deception; she's persuaded herself that her cause is so just that the lies aren't really lies. In any case, while Sanders isn't a great liar—everyone sees right through her, in part because she lies so often—she is considerably better at it than Sean Spicer was. Finding someone else willing to go out there before the highly-unforgiving White House Press Corps and to propagandize so shamelessly will be a tall task. Any competence over and above that of Spicer will just be a bonus.

And it's not just this one job that the White House HR department has to worry about. It's hundreds of them. Remarkably, the situation has gotten so bad that the Trump administration is taking the unprecedented step of holding a job fair. "Interested in a career at the White House?" the flyer asks. The problem, of course—and the reason that a job fair is necessary—is that the Trump White House is not where careers start, it's where they end. Anyone who accepts an appointment runs the risk of turning themselves into permanently damaged goods (and that's before we talk about the possible legal troubles that could arise).

The situation around Trump is reminiscent of that surrounding another very controversial Republican, namely Joe McCarthy. No Republicans were willing to challenge the Wisconsin Senator at the height of his power, but most of them also didn't want to be associated with him, knowing that eventually the walls would come tumbling down. Trump appears to be in the same situation. Nobody wants to challenge him, for fear of being destroyed, as Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) was in the primaries on Tuesday. However, most Republicans also don't want anything to do with him, which would seem to suggest they know the party (and maybe the Party) is eventually going to come to an end, and that there will come a time when the Donald will be as poisonous as McCarthy was after his fall from grace. Perhaps it makes sense, since Trump learned politics from McCarthy's right-hand man, Roy Cohn. (Z)

Pruitt Could Be On His Way Out, Too

Since it was Richard Nixon who created the EPA, it may be somewhat apropos that the agency has given us Scott Pruitt, who may be the most corrupt person to hit Washington since Tricky Dick got into that helicopter on August 9, 1974. Pruitt has spent money he had no right to spend, arranged sweetheart deals with lobbyists, misused staff for personal business, traveled first class needlessly, and all of this while doing nearly everything in his power to roll back environmental protections. Even the political bosses of the Gilded Age would be impressed.

Exactly how Pruitt has kept his job when the heads of other folks, like Tom Price, have rolled for doing far less, is a source of much speculation. The main reason, however, is likely that the base remained happy with what he was doing, and so he remained an asset for Donald Trump, politically. That time now seems to be coming to an end, as several prominent members of the right-wing commentariat have turned against him. Laura Ingraham, for example:

PRUITT BAD JUDGMENT HURTING @POTUS, GOTTA GO: Pruitt had aide, GOP donors help wife find job: report https://t.co/p7dhOK58Sh

— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) June 13, 2018

The National Review is in agreement. Pruitt has also been criticized this week by a number of senators, including Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and even his friend and fellow Oklahoman Jim Inhofe (R). For some of the critics, Pruitt's goals run counter to theirs. For example, the two Iowa senators love corn subsidies, while Pruitt wants them gone. In most cases, however, the growing rebellion against Pruitt is a purely political calculation. If he's tainted, then everything he does is tainted, which will make it much easier for Democrats to undo everything when they gain power again. Now, the Democrats are likely to undo everything regardless of who does them, but if playing along with this narrative will get Pruitt shown the door, they're happy to do so. (Z)

Las Vegas and Charlotte Are the Leading Contenders for the 2020 GOP Convention

Generally, cities like national political conventions. Tens of thousands of people show up, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and generally pouring money into the city. However, relatively few cities bid for the 2020 Republican National Convention, mostly because there is a good chance the convention will renominate Donald Trump. He is not popular in cities and no small town has the tens of thousands of hotel rooms needed.

Nevertheless, there were a few bids, and the RNC has now whittled the choices down to Las Vegas and Charlotte. Neither city has ever hosted a Republican convention, but Charlotte hosted the 2012 Democratic National Convention, so the RNC knows it is capable of it. On the other hand, Donald Trump has a hotel in Las Vegas and he could make a lot of money by encouraging delegates to stay there. On the third hand, the average high temperature in Las Vegas in the summer is 102 Fahrenheit. Las Vegas was in the running for the 2016 Republican convention, but when evangelicals discovered that the Las Vegas telephone book contains 64 pages of listings for escort services, the city withdrew its bid. Whether Trump sees this aspect of Las Vegas as a feature or a bug is not known. The Democrats are not as far along in the process yet. (V)

Pence Ruffles Baptists' Feathers

The Southern Baptists had their annual convention in Dallas this week, and one of the featured speakers was Vice President Mike Pence. Quite a few attendees did not want him to appear at all, for fear that he would politicize the event, and thus distract from their religious message. They were right to think that way, because after a few religiously-themed remarks about Bible study and Jesus, he veered into a lengthy accounting of "500 days of promises made and promises kept" by the Trump administration. Many attendees were furious, and the denomination's newly elected president, J.D. Greear, felt the need to apologize.

This story is primarily interesting because it reminds us that Pence, regardless of what he might think, is not a serious presidential candidate whenever Trump's time in office is up. Trump won because he was able to unify several different GOP constituencies—the pro-business Republicans, (some of) the libertarians, the social conservatives, and (to everyone's surprise) the evangelicals. Pence has only one constituency, the evangelicals, and even they are lukewarm about him. No doubt they would hold their noses and vote Pence over a Democrat, but the VP would have a serious enthusiasm problem, and serious difficulty making inroads into any of the other constituencies that drove Trump to (a narrow) victory. (Z)

McCaskill's Private Plane Has Become a Campaign Issue

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is not poor. Very few senators are. In fact, most are millionaires. Even so, McCaskill is one of the wealthier senators, with a net worth of $19 million. She also owns her own airplane, and that has become a campaign issue. McCaskill brought it upon herself by announcing that she was going on a tour of Missouri in a recreational vehicle to meet ordinary voters, but then she used her own private jet for part of the trip. A right-wing website, the Washington Free Beacon, tracked her plane and published its use. McCaskill has admitted to using the plane, but says she spent her days in the RV and used the plane only at the end of the day to get to her overnight location. When Donald Trump learned about this, he tweeted:

Senator Claire McCaskill of the GREAT State of Missouri flew around in a luxurious private jet during her RV tour of the state. RVs are not for her. People are really upset, so phony! Josh Hawley should win big, and has my full endorsement.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018

Of course, Trump didn't mention that during his campaign, he traveled almost exclusively in his own 757 to go from rally to rally and never went anywhere at all in an RV. Still, McCaskill's opponent, Josh Hawley, is going to hit McCaskill over and over for being rich and out of touch with ordinary voters. (V)

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