White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, one of Donald Trump's most trusted advisers, has resigned. Various observers have said he thinks of her like a daughter and will miss her dearly. On Tuesday, she spent 8 hours before the House Intelligence Committee, but refused to answer most of the questions, invoking a kind of executive privilege, without using those words. She was an unusual communications director in that she studiously avoided the limelight. She almost never appeared on television, gave no interviews, and has no presence on social media. In other words, ironically enough for someone in one of the highest-profile communications jobs in the world, she hates communicating.
According to the Times' Maggie Haberman, however, Hicks has been planning her departure for months. She told colleagues that she had accomplished what she felt she could with a job that made her one of the most powerful people in Washington, and that there would never be a perfect moment to leave. Needless to say, this not-terribly-believable answer has everyone speculating as to what the real reason is. Here are some theories:
It could be any, all, or none of these, of course, though it is hard to believe—in particular—that it's purely coincidental that Hicks' congressional testimony and her resignation came only a day apart from each other. One thing for certain is that she was not fired, as outside of his family, she is the person Trump trusts the most. In fact, he is running out of true insiders. There are his daughter and son-in-law, of course, but she's been under attack for nepotism, and he's been given a major black eye by his inability to get a security clearance. It's very possible that they will decide they are also short-timers. The general assumption is that the relationship between the President and the First Lady is not exactly cozy right now, what with payoffs to porn stars a recurrent theme. There's Dan Scavino, the President's social media guru. But beyond that quartet, the list runs short. Even for very stable presidents with wide social networks and wives who actually like them (Barack Obama, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter), the White House can be very lonely. For Trump, the feeling could quickly get quite profound. What does the President do under those circumstances (alone, lonely, angry, etc.)? He lashes out, both in person, and via Twitter. And what do you know... (Z & V)
As if on cue, Donald Trump has once again attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions for following standard procedures. In this case, Sessions relied on the Dept. of Justice inspector general to review possible surveillance abuses. Here is Trump's tweet:
Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isnt the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2018
The implicit target of Trump's wrath this time is Inspector General Michael Horowitz. And yes, he is an "Obama guy," but that is not the whole story. Horowitz is a career civil servant who has held high positions in the Justice Dept. under four presidents: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. Furthermore, as inspector general, he has sometimes uncovered things for which Republicans have praised him effusively, including thousands of text messages between two FBI officials who were not shy about expressing their contempt for Trump.
Trump has repeatedly attacked the AG and the Justice Dept. He doesn't understand that unlike other executive departments, the DoJ is supposed to operate independently of the president and not simply prosecute his political enemies. Previous presidents generally kept their hands off the Justice Dept., at least the ones not named "Tricky Dick."
Trump's ire is about the surveillance of his campaign aide Carter Page, who traveled to Moscow and was involved with various Russians, so the FBI got a warrant from the FISA Court to follow him. One of the many pieces of evidence presented to the FISA Court to get the warrant was the infamous Steele dossier. The court was told that Steele was initially hired by a right-wing Republican website but later the DNC took over the project. Judges are constantly presented evidence from sources with an agenda, but they also know that just because they have an agenda doesn't mean everything they present is false.
As a general rule, oppo research (including the Steele dossier) is about finding incriminating but true things about one's opponent. These are much harder to rebut than false statements pulled out of thin air. So far, nothing in Steele's dossier has proven false and a number of things in it have proven to be true.
Normally after suffering Trump's lashings, Sessions responds like a beaten dog, but this time he seems to be fighting back. In response to Trump's tweet, Sessions said: "As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution." Of course, if Trump continues to pound Sessions, he may not be the attorney general for long. (V)
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson has set Sept. 17 as the date former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort will go on trial for money laundering and failure to register as a foreign agent. Having Trump's former campaign manager on trial at the height of the election season will be a huge distraction for Republicans who want to talk about tax cuts, as opposed to criminal behavior by a former top Trump campaign official.
In addition to this trial, Manafort will also have to go on trial in Virginia for tax and bank fraud. No date has been set for that trial yet, since some of the evidence from one trial is likely to be used in the other, prosecutors offered Manafort the option of combining the two cases into one trial in D.C., but Manafort declined. What no one wants to talk about is the difference between the D.C. jury pool and the Virginia one. D.C. is about half black and the jury is likely to reflect that. Virginia is only 22% black. Given that nearly all black voters are Democrats, Manafort's lawyers probably think a Virginia jury will be more sympathetic to a former Trump campaign official than a D.C. jury. (V)
The New York State banking regulator has asked Deutsche Bank and two other lenders for information about Jared Kushner's loans, lines of credit, and other financial arrangements. If the agency finds that the banks have violated the law, it could fine them. If it discovers criminal activity, it could also refer the matter to state prosecutors.
It is widely known that Kushner's flagship building, at 666 Fifth Avenue, has a $1.4 billion mortgage due next year, with little chance that the First Son-in-law can pay it off. He is under great pressure to scare up a lot of money fast and the regulators want to make sure that everything he has done to acquire it is legal. From Kushner's point of view, this problem might be worse than anything special counsel Robert Mueller might have in store for him, because the president has the power to pardon federal crimes but not state crimes.
Also on the Kushner money front, the New York Times is reporting that after private equity billionaire Joshua Harris met Kushner at the White House multiple times last year, his company loaned $184 million to Kushner's firm. The previously unreported loan was three times larger than the average Harris made. Possibly also of interest is the $325 million loan Kushner got from Citibank after Citicorp's CEO, Michael Corbat, met with Kushner in the White House. Of course, when you are bringing peace to the Middle East, reforming government, and solving the opioid crisis, it is sometimes hard to remember when you are working on government business and when you are working on your own business. It could happen to anyone. (V)
Donald Trump is apparently serious about tackling guns, at least a little bit. This is not too much of a surprise; given his past verbiage, the Florida school shootings and other incidents of mass gun violence are something of a black eye for him. Further, Trump is not a man given to much sentiment, by all indications, but he does have a bit of a soft spot for kids.
In order to try and generate some forward progress on the issue, Trump invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the White House to discuss the matter, and he even arranged to televise the proceedings. And what happened there stunned both participants and viewers alike: The President called for some very specific changes to existing law that he wants to see Congress enact. Specifically, he wants the minimum age for gun purchases to be raised from 18 to 21 and he wants expanded background checks. He also said that adding a rider to a bill, one that would make concealed carry easier—something that the NRA and the House Freedom Caucus both want—was not viable. The upshot is that Trump sounded a lot more like the Democrat he was from 1946 to roughly 2014, and not much like the Republican he became about three years ago.
Anybody who says that they know what will happen next is lying. One possibility is that Trump, who has credibility with the Second Amendment crowd that Barack Obama never had, actually gets something done here. A second is that he loses interest and moves on to some other subject, as he has so many times before. A third is that the GOP decides he's no longer useful now that the tax bill is done, and they start to rebel against him en masse. After all, there are few cows more sacred to the modern GOP than guns. Stay tuned. (Z)
Democrats continue to flip Republican seats in special elections for seats in state legislatures. In New Hampshire, Phil Spagnuolo (D) beat Les Cartier (R) 54% to 46% in a special election to fill a seat in the New Hampshire House that was vacant due to the death of the Republican legislator. Democrats have won 8 of the last 10 special House elections in New Hampshire.
In Connecticut House district 120, Democrat Phil Young beat Republican Bill Cabral for an open seat caused by the previous legislator's being elected mayor of Stratford. Republicans controlled this seat for 40 years before it flipped this week.
Nationally, Democrats have flipped 40 state-level seats in 2017 and 2018. Republicans have flipped four Democratic seats, and two of those were in Mississippi and Louisiana, where Republicans normally do very well. (V)
Late last year, the department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would be slashing programs meant to help the poor, the elderly, and the homeless. Afterward, Secretary Ben Carson may have sat down at the 50-year-old dining table in his office and lamented his situation. Fortunately, though, the problem has been solved. The old and poor people are still going to get the short end of the stick, of course, but—thank goodness—a brand-new dining set is now on its way. So, problem solved, and at a bargain-basement price of just $31,000 according to the New York Times.
Now, as it happens, there is a federal law that says that any redecoration expenditures in excess of $5,000 have to be approved by Congress. When HUD official Helen G. Foster pointed this out, Carson's wife Cindy told her to find the money, even if it meant circumventing the law. When Foster refused, she was promptly reassigned from a high-ranking job to a low-ranking job, and someone else was found to make the deal happen. Foster is now suing HUD.
This is not the only way in which the good doctor appears to be enjoying the spoils of office. HUD has also been steering a fair bit of business, reportedly, to an ambitious young black entrepreneur from Carson's home state of Maryland. That might not be a problem, but for the fact that the entrepreneur is Ben Carson Jr. Federal law also frowns on that, of course. Thus far, Carson Sr. has avoided too much negative press, primarily because there's so much other news right now. But if this turns into an embarrassment for the administration, he could soon find himself eating his last supper at that $31,000 table. (Z)