Yesterday there were primary elections in four states: Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Idaho, and Oregon. One of those states is far larger than the others, and is also a swing state. So, virtually all eyes were on the Keystone State on Tuesday. Here are the key results there:
In general, the trend on Tuesday was that Pennsylvania Democrats gravitated toward more centrist/electable candidates and Pennsylvania Republicans gravitated toward more Trump-like candidates, as the GOP continues to become fully the party of Trump. If we are looking for signs of Democratic enthusiasm, well, about 750,000 members of the blue team showed up to vote on Tuesday compared to about 675,000 members of the red team. That despite the fact that the top of the Democratic ticket (Casey and Wolf) was uncontested while the top of the GOP ticket was hotly contested. Not overwhelmingly positive for the Democrats, but certainly positive.
In Nebraska, meanwhile, Sen. Deb Fischer (R) learned who her victim...er, opponent will be. It's Jane Raybould, a member of the Lincoln city council, centrist Democrat, and perfectly fine candidate who is nonetheless up against the fact that Nebraska is very red. Republican voters outnumbered Democrats nearly 2-to-1 on Tuesday, so if there's going to be a blue wave in November, it's not likely to hit the Cornhusker State. The other interesting race in the state pitted progressive Kara Eastman, whose only political experience is one term on the Metropolitan Community College Board of Governors, against Blue Dog former representative Brad Ashford. Eastman won in a squeaker, 51.4% to 48.6%. She will now have the honor of losing to Rep. Don Bacon (R). If Eastman's victory has any sort of national implications, we do not see what they might be. Nebraska has always had a small, left-wing rump.
In Idaho, things were even grimmer for the Democrats, as Republican voters outnumbered them on Tuesday by a margin of 3-to-1. So, there will be no blue wave here, either. Lt. Gov. Brad Little (R), who is pretty centrist, dispatched Freedom Caucuser Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) handily in the GOP gubernatorial primary. He will surely defeat Democratic nominee Paulette Jordan, who formerly served in the Idaho house. If she does somehow defeat Little—and one can only imagine what kind of scandal would be necessary for that to happen—she would become the first ever Native American governor of a U.S. state.
Oregon, of course, is the opposite of Idaho and Nebraska—deep blue, with Democratic turnout easily outpacing Republican turnout. Gov. Kate Brown (D) learned that her general election opponent will be unknown state Rep. Knute Buehler (R). Brown's only moderately popular, and the state's budget is a mess, but there's little chance that Oregonians are going to go in a red-ward direction in the age of Trump.
Next Tuesday, a bunch of Southern states will step to the plate: Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky will have round one of their primaries, and Texas will have round two. There will be a few races of interest, but the next really big day is June 5, when California takes its turn. (Z)
The Trump administration is busily preparing for the President's scheduled June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Turns out, that might not be necessary. On Tuesday, Kim pulled out of a meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, and announced that he might cancel the Trump meeting. The supposed source of his change of heart? He's angry about joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, known as "Max Thunder," taking place this week along the Korean border.
It's hard to decide what is less surprising about this news. Is it that Kim keeps moving the goalposts? Or is it that he also announced that while he's willing to end nuclear testing, he's not willing to give up the nukes he already has? Whichever it is, Kim's "reason" for threatening to walk away is complete nonsense. The U.S. and South Korea conduct these exercises every year, at around the same time, and that fact was not a secret when discussions about a meeting first began. What's really happening is that Kim is running the same playbook that his father and grandfather both did. Hold out an olive branch, then keep moving it just out of reach in an effort to gain more and more concessions. This is why most presidents aren't even willing to talk to him; they (or their staff) have read a history book or two, and they know that dealing with Kim is like dealing with a slippery snake while standing on a slippery slope.
Kim now has Donald Trump just where he wants him. While it's possible that Trump is, or once was, the great negotiator he claimed to be on the campaign trail, he's made mistake after mistake with Kim that would have earned him a failing grade in Negotiation 101. Most obviously, the President has already bragged openly about how much he's accomplished vis-a-vis North Korea. Heck, he's already clearing space on his mantle for the Nobel Prize he expects to win. In other words, Trump has put himself in a position where he really needs this meeting, and Kim knows it. There may be no rule of negotiation more fundamental than: "Always be willing to walk away."
At this point, the Donald has three basic options. He can cancel this year's Max Thunder, which will not only project weakness, but will also signal to Kim that he has Trump wrapped around his finger. Or, Trump can give some other concession, in which case he plays Kim's game on Kim's terms. Or he can call the North Korean's bluff, and take a serious risk that Kim will tell the President to take his summit and shove it. The latter option is the correct one, but would be much easier if Trump had not put himself in the position where he (arguably) has more to lose than Kim does, and so cannot easily afford to walk away. (Z)
Actually, there are so many different areas with almost-daily Donald Trump intrigue that we need to specify. In this case, we're talking about intrigue related to his campaign and his personal finances—two subjects that are intimately linked in TrumpWorld. The plot thickened on this front in three different ways on Tuesday.
To start, folks on both sides of the aisle remain mystified by Trump's efforts to help out Chinese telecom company ZTE. Not only is that firm...well, Chinese, but it's also used by the Chinese government to plant compromised electronic devices in the hands of Americans (and other folks) so they can be spied on. Yesterday, a possible explanation presented itself: a Chinese company agreed last week to build a theme park at a major Indonesian development project that will include...you guessed it, Trump-branded hotels, residences, and a golf course. The project is being funded, in part, by $500 million from the Chinese government. Note that there is currently no hard evidence of a quid pro quo here. However, when a billionaire president insists on holding on to his business interests, people are going to ask (legitimate) questions about a situation like this. When the deal is consummated in the exact same week as unexpected presidential intervention on behalf of a shady foreign company, then it looks extra fishy.
Then there is Cambridge Analytica (CA), the British-run but American-owned data firm that got caught stealing Facebook users' information without permission. CA is out of business, but that doesn't mean it's out of the woods, as the New York Times reported on Tuesday that the FBI and Justice Dept. are conducting one or more investigations of the firm. It's unclear if special counsel Robert Mueller and his team have anything to do with this. It's also unclear if anyone Trump-related is being investigated. However, given that Trump's former campaign manager and adviser Steve Bannon once ran CA, and that it was owned by Trump mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer, and that the primary beneficiary of the ill-gotten Facebook data was the Trump campaign, there is an excellent chance that Team Trump is going to get caught up in this, if they aren't already. So, stay tuned.
And finally, Michael Avenatti—the lawyer for porn star Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford)—apparently has excellent sources. As part of his steady drip, drip, drip of Trump-related dirt, he tweeted photos on Sunday that showed Trump fixer Michael Cohen, future NSA (albeit briefly) Michael Flynn, and Ahmed Al-Rumaihi—a Qatari diplomat and businessman known for handing out bribes—arriving for a meeting at Trump Tower in December 2016. On Tuesday, Al-Rumaihi confirmed that he was indeed at Trump Tower for several meetings that day. The diplomat/businessman was vague as to his purposes, but insisted it was not for government business, and says he did not meet with Flynn. Surely, a well-known payer of bribes would not lie. As with the China and CA stories, this one seems likely to develop further in the coming weeks.
Having addressed these three stories, is there any obvious Trump intrigue on the horizon? But of course there is. On Tuesday, the President filed his annual financial disclosure form. Thanks to the loose lips of newly-hired counsel Rudy Giuliani, Trump was backed into a rather tricky decision. Actually, two decisions: He had to decide whether or not to disclose the $130,000 paid to Stormy Daniels, and he had to decide whether or not to disclose any other payments he might have made to Cohen (likely for other extramarital paramours). There's no particularly good option for the Donald here. If he tells the truth, then he confirms he was lying about the payment when he said he did not know, he potentially confirms that he committed a crime, and he potentially reveals other affairs that are currently secret. If he fudges the details at all, then he sets himself up to be prosecuted for lying on this year's form (along with, potentially, last year's form). And while he could muddy the waters for the 2016 form by claiming he didn't know about the Cohen payment until after the due date, that excuse cannot possibly apply this year. It takes the Office of Government Ethics between 24 and 48 hours to review these documents before they are made public, so we will soon learn what path the President chose. (Z)
The last time that former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort appeared before a federal judge, that judge—T.S. Ellis III, a Reagan appointee—let special counsel Robert Mueller have it with both barrels, expressing skepticism in his ruling that looking into money laundering in Ukraine was within the Special Counsel's mandate. That may be how they see things in Virginia, but in D.C., not so much. There, Amy Berman Jackson—an Obama appointee—issued her ruling on Tuesday in response to a request for dismissal of the charges against Manafort. In a word: No.
Jackson's ruling seems to be a response to Ellis as much as it is to Manafort and his lawyers. "The indictment falls squarely within that portion of the authority granted to the Special Counsel that Manafort finds unobjectionable: the order to investigate 'any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign,'" the Judge wrote. So, barring a plea bargain, Manafort will go on trial in D.C. starting September 17 of this year. He's not yet in the clear in Virginia, as Ellis has not yet dismissed the charges there. If that situation does not break Manafort's way, the trial will start July 10. (Z)
Democrats seem to understand running on a platform of "We're not Trump" is not a good idea. People who despise Trump are going to vote Democratic, with or without any advice from the blue team. People who worship Trump also don't need any advice how to vote. There is a small sliver of the electorate that is on the fence, perhaps, but even they probably don't need the Democrats to clue them in on what Trump has been up to. In addition, getting people to the polls is a major issue and many of them are sick of politics and don't want to hear any more about Trump. So the Democrats need a different message and are beginning to coalesce around one: Republicans sabotaged your health care.
For a variety of reasons—some of which relate to the new tax law, that eliminated the mandate to buy health insurance—premiums are expected to jump next year and the voters will hear about it just before the elections. Democrats are planning a big push to blame the Republicans and their general dislike of the ACA (Obamacare) for this. This is a big change from 4 years ago, when it was the Republicans who mostly brought up the subject of health care. Since then, the law has grown more popular and large majorities of voters are not happy with repeated Republican attempts to repeal the law.
Republicans will counter with a message that Democrats want to impose socialized medicine on all Americans. Many Democrats do want a "Medicare for all" type health-insurance system, although that is far from the British National Health Service, in which the government actually runs the health-care system. No Democrat has proposed anything like that. What some of them want is to get rid of the insurance companies, not make the doctors government employees.
Even red-state Democrats are embracing the message. Their pitch will be that Republicans talked for years about "repeal and replace," but when they came to power all they tried was the "repeal" part. Neither the Trump administration nor either chamber of Congress has come up with a "replacement," despite running the whole show for over a year. Health care is an issue that voters care about, and unless the Republicans come up with an answer to "They sabotaged your health care" they could be in for problems. (V)
Donald Trump loves holding rallies and will occasionally go stump for a candidate, but fundamentally doesn't like the mechanics of politics and doesn't understand that in addition to being president, he is also the leader of the Republican Party. Nature abhors a vacuum (even in politics), so Vice President Mike Pence has been sucked in to fill the void. He has taken part in numerous events, is meeting with many Republican leaders all around the country, and in general is building his own power base, separate from Trump's. The president's advisers are not amused.
A large piece of the problem is that the people close to Trump are occupied full time with trying to manage the President and keep him from doing things that might damage his presidency and himself. They have little time to run the Republican Party. Pence's only real duty is calling the White House at 8 a.m. every day to see if the president is still alive, and then he can spend the day working to build his own power base.
Trump may or may not understand it, but Pence certainly realizes that if special counsel Robert Mueller issues a devastating report and then the Democrats take over Congress, Trump is probably going to be impeached. If it looks like the votes are there in the Senate to convict him, Trump will be faced with the unpleasant choice of either resigning or being removed from office by Congress. In that case, Pence wants to be able to hit the ground running in 2020, hence the need to get to know Republican leaders all over the country and have chits to call in. Of course, Pence is extremely careful to suck up to Trump constantly and tell him that all his traveling is to drum up support for his (Trump's) agenda. It is possible that Trump is so disconnected from reality that he even believes that. But make no mistake. Pence's travels are not about Trump. They are about Pence and a possible future run for the White House. (V)
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) won in 2012 when her Republican opponent imploded by saying that women rarely get pregnant from "legitimate rape." That didn't go over so well and McCaskill lucked out and won. Republican operatives were dead set on making sure that wouldn't happen again, so they recruited their boy wonder, Josh Hawley, the 38-year old squeaky clean Stanford- and Yale-educated Missouri attorney general. Now it turns out that Hawley didn't really want to be a senator and isn't much interested in campaigning. State Republicans are doing a slow boil.
Hawley has not posted good fundraising numbers, has turned down interviews with conservative radio hosts, and has avoided traditional events in Missouri that GOP candidates have always attended. One radio host, Mark Reardon, said: "I'm pissed. I'm frustrated." Many of Hawley's problems are self-inflicted, including photos of himself buying wine and working out at the gym. The message that Hawley is inadvertently sending to the voters is that he doesn't work very hard as an AG and probably won't as a senator. In contrast, McCaskill is a strong campaigner and is to be found all over the state making it clear that she is giving 100% for the people of Missouri.
Hawley doesn't even have the nomination nailed down yet. He has a couple of long-shot challengers. One of them, Austin Peterson, is running a digital ad challenging Hawley to a debate and calling him a chicken for refusing—while holding a live squawking fowl in his hands:
Hawley will probably get the nomination, but unless he shapes up fast, the NRSC is going to conclude that McCaskill lucked out again and it is better off spending its money in North Dakota, Indiana, or West Virginia. (V)
As a consequence of Eric Schneiderman's sudden resignation as NY attorney general, there will be a special election for the position in November. Former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who was summarily fired by Donald Trump, is considering a run for it, possibly as an independent. He is widely known in New York, can attract plenty of money, and has a reputation for being incorruptible. His dislike for Trump is well known, but his conviction of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D) last week on bribery charges will serve him well with Republican voters. His pitch as an independent would be: "When I see a corrupt official, I put him in the big house and I don't care what party he belongs to." It could be a very potent theme, backed up with actual proof.
If he ran, he would probably be opposed by various politicians, so he would make his campaign about the rule of law. Democrats would get the dog whistle and even some Republicans might sign on, given that he just successfully prosecuted one of the state's top Democrats. For Trump, his election would be a nightmare scenario beyond belief. Bharara would have all the resources he would need as AG, couldn't be fired, and people he convicted couldn't be pardoned by the president, only by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Since Cuomo is going to need all the support he can get from the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party for his 2020 presidential run, pardons of Trump officials are about as likely as an honest day in Albany. Whether Bharara will pull the trigger and go for it remains to be seen. So far, he is very coy, but running for AG makes sense, and could be a stepping stone to U.S. AG in the next Democratic administration. (V)
Under the Senate's arcane rules, once one of Donald Trump's nominations clears an initial procedural hurdle, the Democrats can force 30 hours of debate on the nomination, something they do regularly. This has slowed the pace of Senate confirmations to a crawl and angered many Republican senators. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), for example, has introduced a proposal to cut down the debate to 8 hours for many nominations and only 2 hours for district judges. Every Democrat opposes this, so Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would have to go nuclear and change the Senate rules to reduce debate time. So far, he is not planning to do this. Part of the reason is that he understands that some day the Republicans will be in the minority and may want the same tool to obstruct the Democrats. Another part is that even if he tried, he might fail because Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) might vote with the Democrats, and with a 51-49 majority, he can't afford two defections. In fact, as long as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is back at home fighting cancer, he can't afford even one defection.
Conservatives are hopping mad about the Democrats' delaying tactics, but there is not much they can do except try to exert pressure on McConnell, who so far is standing his ground and not budging. (V)