The votes are in from Tuesday's election to choose a new member of Congress for PA-18, and most of them have even been counted. With 100% of precincts reporting, Democrat Conor Lamb captured 113,111 votes (49.8%) to 112,532 (49.6%) for Republican Rick Saccone. That is a gap of just 579 votes. The 6,000 or so absentee ballots are going to be counted today, and they will decide the winner.
Or maybe not. We noted yesterday that a margin less than 0.5% would trigger an automatic recount. That's not correct; that rule only applies to statewide elections, which this was not. In this case, recounts could be conducted in any precinct in which three voters sign an affidavit that they believe fraud took place or that an error was made. That means that any candidate trying to overturn the election results would need to find three such voters in 193 precincts in order to maximize their chances. And they would have just five days to do it, before the results become official.
The upshot is that Saccone is in trouble. While he might pull ahead on the absentee ballots, he'd need over 54% of them to triumph, which is a tall order. Because it's possible, no media outlet has declared a winner, but because it's improbable, Lamb has already claimed victory. For a recount to have any real chance of changing the outcome, the final margin would have to be fewer than 150 or so. So, Saccone would strongly prefer to get 55% of the absentee ballots and, failing that, he's got to have about 52.5% or it's completely hopeless.
Meanwhile, exactly who triumphs no longer matters all that much in terms of national politics. If Saccone ekes it out, Donald Trump will claim sole credit belongs to him and to his rally. And if Saccone does not, then the GOP will talk about what a poor candidate he was, and how Lamb was the ideal candidate, and so forth. That's all spin, though. In truth, Saccone should have waltzed to victory in this blue-collar, heavily-Republican district that Trump won by 20 points. And that's before we consider the millions of dollars the Party pumped into the race, as well as the fact that a GOP all-star team has been campaigning for Saccone for the last two weeks. Whether Saccone scores a narrow loss or a narrow victory, it's clear that many of the blue collar voters who powered Donald Trump to victory are no longer buying what the President and his party are selling. That's very bad news in 2018 and 2020, particularly in a state that Trump won by a razor-thin 0.72% margin.
At the same time, the Democrats may have gotten the very best possible outcome on Tuesday night. Many partisans would have preferred a smashing victory for Lamb. That would have been pleasing on an emotional level, but could have encouraged an "I don't really need to bother to vote" attitude among the party's voters, who tend to be flakier about showing up to the polls than Republicans. By contrast, a close contest in a deep-red district sends the message: "We can win just about any election in 2018, but every vote counts." It's hard to imagine a more useful lesson for the blue team than that. (Z)
In a major foreign policy shake-up, Donald Trump has fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. It was one of Washington's worst kept secrets that Trump strongly dislikes Tillerson and has wanted him out of there for months. Now the axe has finally fallen. Although Tillerson was new to diplomacy, at least in the past year he has gained some experience. Now as Trump is going to face Kim Jong-Un (aka "Little Rocket Man"), Trump has one fewer adviser with at least a bit of foreign policy experience to guide him.
Trump has been seriously contemplating getting rid of Tillerson since Friday, when Tillerson cut short a trip to Africa to return home. The straw that broke the camel's back might have been the Secretary's statement Monday night that he believes Russia is behind the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. Trump has said he doesn't believe the Russians were involved in the poisonings. Assuming that the disagreement about Russia is what did the trick, then having the opportunity to can Tillerson on the same day as a potentially embarrassing election result, and to push some of those unpleasant headlines down the page, was a bonus. On the other hand, it's also possible that the Secretary has been a dead man walking for weeks, and Trump was just waiting for a day when he needed a distraction.
Trump's announcement praised Tillerson and Tillerson's statement praised Trump. Both are lying through their teeth. Trump thinks Tillerson is too establishment and Tillerson thinks Trump is a buffoon. No, scratch that. Tillerson has been quoted as saying Trump was a "moron." Both statements were pointless political theater at its finest. IQ aside, Trump and Tillerson also differed on policy issues, especially on Iran and on tariffs.
While the President was in a firing mood, out went Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein, the #4 official in the State Dept., as well. Goldstein's offense seems to have been pointing out that Trump didn't have the nerve to confront Tillerson and fire him personally. Instead, Tillerson learned about his sudden unemployment from Twitter. While Trump was at it, he also relieved himself of his personal assistant, Johnny McEntee, who was escorted out of the White House. Whatever McEntee did must have been pretty serious since he wasn't even allowed to grab his jacket on the way out. On the other hand, it clearly wasn't very serious at all because Trump just hired him to work on his 2020 campaign. Such is life in the Trump White House.
Trump also announced his nomination for CIA director: Deputy Director Gina Haspel. If confirmed, Haspel will be the first woman to run the spy agency. She will also be the first director with a history of torturing detainees, something she did when she ran a CIA "black site" in Thailand. Among her other "achievements" was waterboarding Abu Zubaydah 83 times in a month, slamming his head against walls, and other harsh treatment. Eventually the torture stopped, because the CIA determined that he didn't actually have any useful information. The waterboarding sessions were recorded but she later ordered the tapes destroyed, although Haspel claims that she was acting on orders from higher up. Trump has often spoken out in favor of torture, so she was a natural pick for him.
Whether the Senate will confirm Haspel's nomination is a different matter. After all, the Republicans' majority in the Senate is only 51 to 49 now, and some Republican senators may not want to go on the record supporting a torturer. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), for example, who knows more about torture than the other 99 senators combined. After Haspel's nomination was announced, McCain said: "The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history." That doesn't sound like a "yes" vote for her confirmation, though McCain has a spotty record voting his convictions. (V)
Speaking of Donald Trump being in a firing mood, the New York Times' Maggie Haberman, who is about as dialed into this White House as it gets, tweeted this on Tuesday morning:
People close to the White House say they expect more major personnel shifts this week. An effort to rip off the bandaid fast on a number of fronts is likely.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) March 13, 2018
Trump seemed to confirm this report when talking to reporters after firing Rex Tillerson, declaring that, "I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want."
In view of this, here's a review of the 10 high-ranking staffers most likely to get the axe, listed (roughly) from most likely to be out of work by the end of the month to least:
|Person||Why They Might Go||Why They Might Stay|
|Like the departed Tom Price, Shulkin is in the habit of flying first class on the government's dime. He has also disagreed with the White House on several occasions, and does not work well with the Trump appointees in his own department. The icing on the cake: He's the only current cabinet member who served in the Obama administration (as Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Health).||The only thing keeping him in his job is the optics of having even more high-level turnover. If Trump really has decided to clean house, Shulkin's head will be among the first to roll.|
|National Security Adviser
|McMaster dislikes Trump, and dislikes working in the Trump White House. Trump dislikes McMaster's habit of disagreeing on things where he does not, well, agree (the NSA forgot to take lessons in being spineless from Reince Priebus).Further, a new NSA will not require Senate approval, so dumping him is easier than dumping a cabinet official.||McMaster's a general, and Trump likes bossing generals around. It makes his hands seem bigger.|
|Trump has taken to insulting Sessions openly, and while Sessions was willing to eat his hat earlier in the President's term, he's not doing so any more, and has been firing back. Trump remains furious that the Attorney General recused himself from the Russiagate investigation, and is never going to forgive that.||Could be that the devil Trump knows is better than the devil Trump doesn't know. If the President thought he could get an AG approved who will ask "how high?" when Trump says "Jump!" then Sessions would be out of work tomorrow. However, with the GOP's razor-thin margin in the Senate, such a person might not get confirmed. As that little drama played out, Trump could be stuck with months and months of a Justice Dept. run by Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who is even worse than Sessions in the President's eyes.|
|Chief of Staff
|Forgive the recurring theme, but Kelly and Trump don't particularly like each other. Kelly loathes Trump's haphazard approach to governance; Trump chafes under Kelly's strict supervision. Plus, most of the White House staff (particularly Javanka) also dislikes the Chief of Staff, and is happy to fill the President's head with anti-Kelly poison.||Kelly has kept the White House running more smoothly than his predecessor, which admittedly isn't saying much. He's another general, and again, Trump likes those.|
|Secretary of the Interior
|Zinke has made the wrong kind of headlines over and over, with shady travel habits, dubious no-bid contracts awarded to friends, and—after being lectured about the importance of optics—$139,000 doors for his office. He's also aggravated staff with his arrogance and penchant for pomp, most obviously orders to fly the secretarial flag whenever he's at Interior HQ.||As a former Navy SEAL and zealous gun advocate, the base loves him. Plus, Interior is on the periphery of Trump's awareness.|
|He is yet another member of the administration who acts like a kid in a candy store when traveling on the government's credit card. He's already been busted by the courts for violating the Clean Air Act, and he's made something of a mockery of "draining the swamp," spending almost all of his time talking to corporate bigwigs and virtually none talking to environmentalists or scientists.||For obvious reasons, the big corporate donors love him and, as you may have heard, they have a bit of sway in the GOP. Further, Pruitt is more willing to take orders without asking questions than just about any member of the cabinet.|
|Secretary of Education
|She is obviously unqualified for her job, got fewer votes at her confirmation hearing than any other cabinet member, and just gave a disastrous interview to "60 Minutes" at exactly the wrong time.||DeVos' family paid good money for that cabinet seat. Plus, there are few departments Trump cares less about than Education, as it has almost nothing to do with his political program.|
|Secretary of HUD
|He's embarrassed himself a few times, most obviously with the $31,000 dining set his wife tried to purchase for his office with the government's money.||Trump's Cabinet is so white that they have to issue sunglasses at Cabinet meetings. If Carson goes, the only minority cabinet-level officials will be Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Also, Trump likes Carson, and appreciates that the good doctor is never going to upstage him.|
|Secretary of Defense
|Reportedly, he, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and Tillerson had a "suicide pact," that if one of them left or was canned, all would leave. He has expressed some unhappiness with his current job.||He may well be the single most capable member of the cabinet, and he believes—not without reason—that he could be the nation's insurance policy against Trump doing something really rash, like nuking Canada. Unlike many of his colleagues, he's apparently avoided stepping on the President's toes.|
|Kushner is hamstrung by his lack of security clearance, has embarrassed the administration and at the same time helped fuel Russiagate, and he really needs to be spending all of his time saving his business empire, which is going to crumble when a $1.4 billion mortgage on 666 Fifth Avenue comes due next year.||If Kushner goes, Ivanka goes, and the President likely could not bear the loss of his closest allies, and perhaps the last remaining inner-circle folks left in the White House.|
How many of these folks are about to be shown the door? Who knows, but 2.5 seems a pretty good number for the over-under. (Z)
The primary season is upon us, with Texas going first last week and Illinois joining in next week. In many contests, Donald Trump is getting as much air time as the actual candidates. Many candidates are featuring him in their ads, sometimes referred to just as "Trump," rather than "President Trump." And the ads are not friendly; the criticism is intense and personal. There is little discussion of Medicare, Social Security, Wall Street, or other policies. It is just about who hates Trump the most. For example, billionaire J.B. Pritzker, who is running for governor of Illinois, says on camera: "As governor, I'll take on Donald Trump." Few of the ads have a positive message of what the candidate will do for the district or state. In a Democratic primary, that might work, but in the general election Democrats are going to have to come up with something better to win over independents and moderate Republicans. The danger for the primary winners is that they are all going to be thinking: "All I did was bash Trump and I won. That must be a great strategy." It won't be, as Hillary Clinton showed us.
Below are the dates of the 2018 primaries:
As you can see, after Illinois, we get a respite. Then they come on hot and heavy. (V)
After ignoring the nation's largest state for the first year-plus of his term, Donald Trump finally managed to pay a visit to California on Tuesday. The main purpose of the trip was to inspect sample segments for the wall the President hopes to build. He also spoke to some marines, and fantasized about creating a United States "space force" that would be able to fight wars in space. That will teach those damned Martians not to interfere in America's elections. Finally, the President attended a GOP fundraiser in Los Angeles. Reportedly, all four of the Republicans who live in the city were there.
From a political standpoint, this was an extremely unwise trip. Trump badly wanted footage of him inspecting those wall segments, and he made sure it found its way onto Twitter pronto:
If we don’t have a wall system, we’re not going to have a country. Congress must fund the BORDER WALL & prohibit grants to sanctuary jurisdictions that threaten the security of our country & the people of our country. We must enforce our laws & protect our people! #BuildTheWall pic.twitter.com/NGqNueukvj— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 13, 2018
However, the price of getting those pictures—beyond the mass protests that greeted Trump—was that the state's Latino voters and the wavering Republicans and independents all got a big, juicy reminder of what they dislike most about the President and the current incarnation of the Republican Party. That is not something that the many endangered GOP members of Congress in the Golden State needed. As political scientist and former Republican congressional aide Jack Pitney put it: "He's gaining cheap applause outside California at the cost of real seats in California. It's not a good trade." Recall that roughly 50% of California voters are registered Democrats, 25% are Republicans, and 25% are third-party or unaffiliated. The red team has no margin of error, and Trump either doesn't know that, or doesn't care. (Z)
Despite all the publicity about the payment of hush money to porn actress Stormy Daniels (whose real name is Stephanie Clifford), congressional Democrats are avoiding the issue like the plague despite the payoff possibly being an illegal campaign contribution. When a reporter asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) if she was interested in Daniels, she said: "Not particularly." When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was asked about Daniels, he said he would rather talk about infrastructure. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) wants to stay focused on Russia. In fact, pretty much the only Democrat willing to speak out on the subject was Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who wondered about the legal status of the payment. If it wasn't an illegal campaign contribution, was it perhaps a gift from Michael Cohen to Daniels because he loves her films so much, and if so, was it reported for gift-tax purposes?
On the other hand, Trump is very excited by Daniels. A source close to Trump told CNN that the President is asking friends what to do about the situation. They have advised him not to sue Daniels if she breaks the confidentiality agreement because it would make him look guilty. The source believes that Daniels is a bigger threat to his presidency than Russiagate, probably because it is simpler to understand. Few people really understand how a troll farm operates, but many people understand how bribing a woman to refrain from talking about an affair works. The source didn't say what Trump should do if CBS broadcasts an interview it already recorded with Daniels, but the same principle applies. Suing CBS would imply he has something to hide and would also bring up First Amendment issues as well as mountains of headlines. This story is not going away soon.
In other porn-related news, Daniels' lawyer, Michael Avenatti, noted yesterday afternoon that Trump missed the deadline to get back the $130,000 she was paid to keep quiet. Rolling Stone has an interesting interview with Daniels. She's different from what one might expect. For example, she's a mom and a nationally ranked equestrian. (V)
In a statement made public yesterday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Ellis III declared that the case special counsel Robert Mueller has brought against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort looks strong. The judge also imposed house arrest on him because he has the money, motive, and connections to flee the country. As a consequence, he must wear two ankle bracelets because two judges have put him under house arrest and the D.C system and Virginia system don't talk to each other. Manafort is allowed to leave his Alexandria condo only for medical appointments, court appearances, and discussions with his attorneys.
Each of the nine counts Manafort has been charged with carries a maximum sentence of 30 years, so theoretically Manafort could get 270 years in prison on the Virginia charges of bank fraud, plus another 8 on tax evasion, along with roughly 27 years on the D.C. charges of failing to register as a foreign agent and conspiracy. However, he could also get zero years, even if he is found guilty of everything, because all the charges so far are federal and the president has the power to pardon anyone accused of crimes against the United States. Manafort may well be holding out for a pardon. Should Virginia AG Mark Herring indict him, however, then a presidential pardon wouldn't be available. Meanwhile, we are waiting for our staff actuary to get back to us, but we believe that Manafort would not be expected to live long enough to finish his term if he gets the max. Even if he got time off for good behavior, and had to serve only 152-1/2 years. (V)
On Monday, the "House Intelligence Committee" (really just the Republicans on the committee) declared that their investigation into Russiagate was over. They released a one-page document summarizing their findings, and said that a fuller report was coming in April. The most contentious and dubious part of the statement was an assertion that Vladmir Putin was not attempting to help Donald Trump in any way while meddling in the 2016 election.
Democrats were outraged by these developments, both the decision to prematurely (in their view) close the investigation, and the conclusions contained within the report. Now, as it turns out, at least two GOP members of the committee were none too happy, either. On Tuesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said that the evidence gathered by the committee demonstrated that Putin was, "motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm [Hillary Clinton's] candidacy or undermine her Presidency had she prevailed." He observed that in a two-person race, harming one candidate is de facto the same as helping the other.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) didn't necessarily agree with Gowdy on the Putin-Trump point, but what he did say was arguably even more damning. Speaking to CNN, he opined that:
We have gone completely off the rails, and now we're basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day's news. We have lost all credibility and we're going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately. So in that regard, that's why I called for the investigation to end.
And actually, to be 100% precise, Rooney did acknowledge that Putin tried to hurt Clinton, but he believes the Russian President also tried to hurt Trump, such that the two things canceled each other out.
Where does this leave us, then? Well, there are certainly going to be two reports from the Committee, one with a red cover and one with a blue cover. Donald Trump will continue to claim vindication, and those who want badly to believe that narrative will choose to do so. Anyone else, however, will have a hard time taking anything the Committee says seriously, given what its own members—from both sides of the aisle—are saying about its lack of credibility and its partisanship. (Z)