May 17

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Senate Committee: Russians Helped Trump

The Senate Intelligence Committee repudiated the House Intelligence Committee yesterday with its blockbuster report that the Russians intervened in the 2016 election and tried to help Donald Trump. The House Committee report, which was written by the Republicans and immediately attacked by the Democrats, didn't find much nefarious activity at all. The Senate report, which confirmed what the intelligence agencies had long ago determined, was signed off by both the chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and the ranking member, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). With an official Senate report now stating unambiguously that Russia interfered in the election for Trump, it will be increasingly difficult for the president to claim the whole investigation is a big witch hunt. Not that he won't keep trying.

The report is not the final one, as the investigation is ongoing. One explosive issue that the Committee is still working on is whether anyone in the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians. Some of Trump's allies in Congress grudgingly admit that the Russians had their fingers in the pie, but deny that anyone on Trump's team helped them.

The Committee also released thousands of pages of documents, many of which are transcripts of the interviews held with dozens of people. Some of them relate to the infamous meeting at Trump Tower on July 2016 in which Donald Trump Jr. showed up expecting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and by most accounts, didn't. During the process of setting up that meeting, Junior called a blocked number. When the Committee members asked him whom he called, he said he didn't remember. The Democrats on the Committee want to know if the call was to the president, either to inform him about the expectation of getting dirt on Clinton or to ask permission to hold the meeting. The Democrats on the Committee all noted that the members of the Trump campaign present at the meeting were all disappointed that they didn't get the dirt they were expecting.

Another bit of information in the documents was that Junior's lawyer, Alan Futerfas, tried to "harmonize" all the accounts of the meeting afterwards because it might be embarrassing later if everyone present had a different story. If this was a blatant attempt to get the participants to lie should the FBI get involved, it might be a crime.

It will take a while for reporters to sift through the 2,500 pages of documents, but the first lists are already starting to appear. Here is one from the Washington Post about the Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya:

No doubt more analysis will follow later this week as reporters digest it all. (V)

Steve Bannon May Have Tried to Suppress the Black Vote

The Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal continues to unfold, and whistleblower Christopher Wylie continues to share new dirt about the shenanigans that the data-collecting firm was up to. Yesterday, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that former Donald Trump political advisor Steve Bannon was interested in using CA's data to target black voters in hopes of convincing them to stay home on Election Day. "Mr. Bannon sees cultural warfare as the means to create enduring change in American politics. It was for this reason Mr. Bannon engaged SCL (Cambridge Analytica's parent company), a foreign military contractor, to build an arsenal of informational weapons he could deploy on the American population," Wylie declared. He also explained that the term used for this kind of chicanery was "voter disengagement tactics." Sounds like the generals who don't order retreats, they merely call for retrograde maneuvers.

Wylie provided no proof of his claims, nor any specifics as to how Bannon attempted to achieve his ends, so this is just an accusation for now and not a certainty. If it is true, then it would be absolutely shocking that one of the very most insider members of the Trump campaign conspired to use ill-gotten data to literally undermine the democracy and to deny citizens their rights. And yet, on another level, it would not be shocking at all. After all, one of the very first things Trump did as president was create a "voter fraud" panel, chaired by Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach (R), whose thinly-veiled purpose was to take the vote away from as many people of color, poor people, women, and students (i.e., mostly Democrats) as is possible. If Team Trump was willing to entertain such underhanded, undemocratic behavior after the election, why wouldn't they try it before the election as well? (Z)

Trump Discloses Payment to Cohen

Yesterday we noted that when Donald Trump filed his financial disclosure form, he would be forced to choose between admitting he reimbursed Michael Cohen for paying Stormy Daniels (nee Stephanie Clifford) or lie on the form. The form was released yesterday and on page 45, a little footnote indicates that he reimbursed Cohen for an amount between $100,000 and $250,000. It doesn't describe what the reimbursement was for. Nevertheless, this essentially confirms Rudy Giuliani's admission that the payment was real.

The Office of Government Ethics, which reviewed the form, sent a letter to the Dept. of Justice pointing out that Trump should have reported his liability to Cohen in last year's report. Intentionally filing a false report is a crime. Trump has said he didn't have to report the liability, but the OGE sent a letter to Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein stating that Trump was most certainly required to disclose the liability. Federal investigators are also looking at the payment to see if it violated banking or wire fraud laws.

And speaking of Giuliani, he claimed on Wednesday that his "reveal" about the payment, made on Sean Hannity's show, was all part of the plan, and was just laying the groundwork for the release of the disclosure form. Uh, huh. If that is true, then why did it take so long for anyone to mention that alleged fact? Any why did the White House go into damage control mode after the revelation? Maybe if Giuliani and Trump keep working on it, they will eventually come up with a story that doesn't have more holes in it than Blackburn, Lancashire. (V & Z)

Giuliani Says Mueller Told Him a Sitting President Can't Be Indicted

Speaking of Rudy Giuliani again, Robert Mueller has reportedly informed him that the special counsel's team has concluded that it can't indict a sitting president. This is also the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel within the Justice Dept., and it has had this opinion since the Nixon administration. Giuliani said that Mueller has no choice but to follow Justice Dept. rules. Of course, the special counsel could write a brief explaining in detail what crimes the president had committed, but ultimately it would be up to the House to decide whether impeachment was warranted.

It was always unlikely that Mueller would shoot for an actual Trump indictment since, if that were the path to be traveled, it is much more apropos that Congress take the lead. That said, not everyone agrees that this question of law is settled. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told CNN that, "I happen to think that he could be indicted even if the trial is postponed." Perhaps more instructive is the response of Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, who said "[T]he Department of Justice has in the past, when the issue arose, opined that a sitting President cannot be indicted. There's been a lot of speculation in the media about this, I just don't have anything more to say about it." Those certainly appear to be the carefully-chosen words of a man who does not entirely embrace the argument that the president is not indictable.

Those who think that an indictment is possible definitely have an argument. The Founding Parents certainly did not intend the president to be above the law; the question is whether they regarded impeachment as the only necessary remedy to that problem, or if they just did not want to spend time and verbiage in the Constitution explaining what to do in the event the chief executive commits a crime. Either is possible; there are plenty of other aspects of the position they did not take time to address, assuming that George Washington would just figure it out on the fly. Like, for example, the Cabinet, which gets only about a dozen very vague words. In any event, unless Giuliani is lying or Mueller changes his mind, it's a moot point. (V & Z)

EPA Suppresses Report

The Dept. of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been working on a study of toxic chemicals that have contaminated water supplies across the nation. Several months ago, they finished their analysis, and concluded that the chemicals are dangerous in far smaller quantities than previously believed. With this knowledge in hand, the scientists wrote up their findings and prepared to release them, so that the EPA could get to work on addressing the issue.

Thus far, this sounds exactly like what the EPA should be doing, right? And indeed, it is. But before the report could be made public, White House officials warned that it would be a "potential public relations nightmare." And these days, the desire for good PR generally trumps the welfare of the American people. So, according to reporting from Politico, the report was suppressed. Now the corporate giants who release these chemicals into the water won't have to blow part of their tax windfall on cleanup.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, current secretary of energy Rick Perry famously announced that he wanted to close down three federal agencies (though he could remember only two of them). One wonders if that is the basic plan Team Trump has for the EPA. If the agency isn't going to do any protecting of the environment, then what exactly is its purpose? At this point, it would not be a surprise at all if the administration declared "mission accomplished," absorbed the agency into HHS or Interior, and appointed Scott Pruitt as AG. Dick Nixon, who created the EPA back in the days when the GOP prided itself on being pro-environment, must be spinning in his grave. (Z)

Trump May Cut Planned Parenthood Funding

It would be very difficult to get cuts to Planned Parenthood's federal funding past the Senate. Several of the moderate Republican senators, like Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK), support the program, and for the Democrats Planned Parenthood is one of their sacred cows, such that nobody in their caucus would dare vote for reduced funding. However, the Trump administration very much likes to make hamburger out of Democratic sacred cows, and so is thinking about using regulatory maneuvers to reduce the flow of federal money to the organization.

The thinking here is plain. There are only a small number of Republican issues that really, really get the base riled up, and abortion is one of them. Never mind that abortion is only a small percentage of what Planned Parenthood does, nor that most of their budget comes from other sources, such that they're going to survive regardless of what Trump does. Guns also get GOP voters to the polls, but this may not be the best time for that, particularly with the Parkland high schoolers still all over the news (and showing no sign of going away anytime soon). There's immigration, but the President has already been flogging that, and given the lack of a wall and the increase in border crossings, that may not be a great option for the midterms, either. So, abortion it may have to be.

The problem here is that any move made against Planned Parenthood will also rile up a lot of Democrats, particularly women. The question is which faction will be motivated in larger numbers: anti-abortion Republicans, or pro-choice Democrats? And given that 75% of Americans support federal funding for the organization, the math does not seem to break in the GOP's favor. (Z)

Senate Votes to Protect Net Neutrality

As expected, Senate Democrats forced a vote on Wednesday on their proposal to protect net neutrality. And, as expected, the measure was carried. All of the Democrats and Independents voted for it, along with three Republicans: Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John Kennedy (LA). That's 52-47, which in today's Senate is an absolute landslide. The proposal will now go to the House, which is likely to reject it. If they somehow pass it, it will go to Donald Trump, who is sure to veto it. In short, as we noted previously, Wednesday's vote was entirely for theatrical purposes.

Nonetheless, it's hard to argue with the blue team's strategy here. They are now clearly the party of net neutrality, an overwhelmingly popular position with the general public, and the GOP is now clearly the party of non-neutrality. And that's not the only seeming winner that the Democrats are developing in preparation for midterm season. There's DACA, which even House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) acknowledges is a potential landmine for his party. There's health care, which the Democrats are clearly going to make a major issue. There's also legal pot, gun control, #MeToo, Planned Parenthood, and the environment, among others. It's a veritable smorgasbord of issues that have majority support, and that also tend to engage the sorts of voters that don't always show up to vote (e.g., young people). Republicans should be very nervous that the blue team appears to be avoiding the mistakes of Hillary Clinton, and planning to run their campaigns based on the issues, while letting the anti-Trump vote take care of itself. (Z)

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