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William Barr Is Losing the Narrative (And So, by Extension, Is Donald Trump)

Wednesday evening, news broke that some of the folks involved in Robert Mueller's investigation are not happy. Specifically, they feel that they uncovered some very concerning information about Donald Trump, and that Attorney General William Barr spun things way too far in the direction of "innocent" when he attempted to exonerate the President of all wrongdoing in his four-page executive summary.

The truth is, Barr's summary really did not pass the smell test from the beginning. There were very good questions about how the AG could reduce a report hundreds of pages in length to just four pages, and why he quoted Mueller so selectively (and only in fragments). It was also extremely difficult to reconcile Barr's assertions with all of the things that were already publicly known about the investigation. And perhaps the greatest overreach of all was Barr's very hasty conclusion that Trump could not be charged with obstruction. It is Dept. of Justice policy not to charge a sitting president with anything; the logic being that impeachment and conviction are the apropos course in the event that the occupant of the Oval Office commits a crime. Barr has made clear he supports that policy and, that being the case, he effectively usurped the prerogative of Congress. Whether or not the President should be charged with obstruction was their decision, not his.

In any case, between all of these red flags, and the grumbling coming from the ranks of Team Mueller, there are now quite a few skeptical eyes being cast in Barr's direction:

  • The Daily Beast: Barr Looks Like He's Trying to Protect Trump, Not Get Out the Mueller Report
  • Common Dreams: Has "Cover-Up General" William Barr Struck Again?
  • The New Republic: Yes, Trump Obstructed Justice. And William Barr Is Helping Him Cover It Up.
  • Politico: William Barr Has Some Explaining to Do
  • Washington Post: The plot just thickened on William Barr and the Mueller report
  • CNN: What is Barr trying to hide?
  • CNN: William Barr Has Been 'Bought and Sold at a Price'
  • Newsweek: AG Barr Is 'Playing With Fire,' Will Be Forced to Release Mueller Report, Says Former Watergate Prosecutor
  • Mother Jones: Did William Barr Whitewash the Mueller Report?
  • The Atlantic: The Critical Part of Mueller's Report That Barr Didn't Mention
  • New York: William Barr Seems to Be Covering Up Something Bad for Trump
  • Salon: Cover-up Attorney General Bill Barr Strikes Again
  • Vox: A former prosecutor explains why Barr's hasty obstruction conclusion should raise red flags
  • Forbes: Attorney General Bill Barr Has Made A Huge Miscalculation
  • Just Security: What Has Bill Barr Done to Earn the Benefit of the Doubt?
  • Slate: Bill Barr's Weasel Words
  • HuffPost: Watergate Figure John Dean Suspects Barr May Be Hiding Something 'Fairly Ugly'
  • The Onion: William Barr Declares Mueller Investigation Fully Exonerates Members Of Reagan Administration From Iran-Contra Involvement

It's true that many of these are left-leaning sources, but not all of them are. And, as you can see, there are some recurring themes. There's suspicion about Barr's motives, criticism of the haste with which he acted, and questioning about the specific content of his report. There are also numerous allusions, with the satirical newspaper The Onion perhaps capturing it best of all, to the fact that the last time he was AG, Barr helped bury the Iran-Contra scandal and to shield most of the evil-doers from prosecution.

Maybe Barr's success in making Iran-Contra disappear is what convinced him he could perform the same trick again. If so, then Forbes is right that the AG made a huge miscalculation. There are some obvious, and very sizable, differences between the two situations. Let us note four of the most important. First, while Iran-Contra was shocking and sleazy, it did not trigger anything near the angry response that Trump has. Second, when Barr helped make Iran-Contra go away, he was personally something of a blank slate. Now, he's someone whose past, and whose audition for AG term #2, has him under a microscope. Third, we live in a different media environment in 2019 than we did in 1989. It was considerably easier to make a story fade away back then, when there wasn't Twitter, and Facebook, and a dozen cable news channels, and a million websites. Fourth, the folks who knew the truth about Iran-Contra were largely Republican loyalists, and were themselves criminally exposed, in many cases. They had every motivation to play along in an effort to make the story go away. That is not true of the folks who helped create the Mueller report.

Team Barr knows they've made a mess for themselves; the Justice Dept. spent Thursday defending the AG. Even more instructive, however, is that Donald Trump has been lashing out on Twitter:

Trump also posted a really bizarre tweet mocking Joe Biden for being handsy:

It would seem that Trump feels that putting your hands on a woman's shoulders is a greater offense than putting them...elsewhere.

In any case, as we know by this point in his presidency, Trump has a keen sense of when his back is against the wall. And he invariably responds on those occasions with denials (e.g., the first two tweets) and by trying to direct the criticism elsewhere (e.g., the Biden tweet). And so, the President's own response is the best evidence of all—even more than the 20 or so stories that we link above—that he's losing the narrative. And thus we have a situation where Barr apparently tried to protect the President, and instead his actions will do the opposite, forcing the revelation of more details than Trump would prefer, and also serving to heighten (rather than blunt) the narrative that a cover-up is underway. (Z)

Trump's Staff Appears to Have Won the Border Battle

Donald Trump and a handful of Fox News pundits think it would be a great idea to shut down the Mexican border entirely. The theory is that doing so would send some sort of message to somebody that something is being done. Outside of Trump and the Fox crew, however, this was pretty universally seen as a bad idea. It wouldn't have done much to stop undocumented immigration, and it would have wrought economic havoc, to the tune of billions of dollars a day in losses to U.S. businesses (and, by extension, the U.S. Treasury). So, Trump's underlings worked hard to convince him not to do it.

As with the canceled military parade and the decision to walk away from talks with Kim Jong-Un, among others, the underlings appear to have won this one. Although the President says he will move forward with new auto tariffs on Mexico, he declared on Thursday afternoon that, "I don't think we'll ever have to close the border." In other words, he backtracked from the position he took earlier this week. By Thursday night, he was backtracking from that position, as well (would that be back-backtracking, or just tracking?), suggesting that one day it may indeed be necessary to close the border. However, a closure does not appear to be imminent anymore. And if Trump wasn't willing to accept the fallout from a border closure in April of 2019, he's not likely to be ok with it even closer to the 2020 election. So, this is probably a dead issue. (Z)

Second Presidential Veto Is On Tap

Last month, the Senate passed a resolution calling for an end to U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Their argument, which is quite correct, is that it is the province of Congress to authorize military engagements, and they never approved this particular action. The purpose of the resolution is to signal unhappiness with Donald Trump's Middle East policies in general, and with his handling of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in particular. On Thursday, the House also passed the resolution, with 16 Republicans joining all of the Democrats, for a final tally of 247-175.

Donald Trump is quite...supportive of the Saudis, even if his reasons are not entirely clear to the rest of us. He also thinks that all of his policies are 100% correct. So, he is surely going to veto the resolution, marking the second time he's been forced to do so in a month, after going two years with no vetoes. Barring a lot of changes of heart in the House, the votes aren't there for an override, so this appears to be the end of it. However, it's another indication that the GOP is slowly falling out of lockstep with the President. Will that trend become more pronounced as we get closer to the election? Time will tell. (Z)

Trump Taps Herman Cain for the Fed

There is one open seat left on the Fed Board (depending on what happens with Stephen Moore), and former presidential candidate Herman Cain was allegedly the frontrunner for the gig. Now, it's official, as Donald Trump formally nominated him on Thursday.

When it comes to his appointees, Trump reached "scraping the bottom of the barrel" long ago. By the standards of this administration, then, Cain is pretty well qualified. He ran a Fortune 500 company, and he served in an advisory position for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. By the standards of any other presidential administration, however, Cain is an embarrassment. He has no experience working as an economist, nor does he have any training in the subject whatsoever. His B.S. is in mathematics, and his M.S. is in computer science. The Fortune 500 Company he ran was a pizza chain (Godfather's), which is not exactly the cutting edge of the economic world. And Cain ended his 2012 presidential campaign because of allegations of sexual harassment. We're not the only ones who don't think much of the nomination, incidentally; Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) mocked the pick while speaking to reporters on Thursday.

The fundamental problem here is that while there are plenty of conservative economists in the U.S., including many who have served in past GOP administrations, they have pretty much all been critical of Trump's policies, particularly his trade wars. And so, folks like John Taylor, Greg Mankiw, John Cochrane, Martin Feldstein, Glenn Hubbard, Richard Schmalensee, and William Poole are off the list. We will soon see if Senate Republicans are willing to put the U.S. economy in the hands of two men who clearly have no business being anywhere near the Federal Reserve. Governors serve a 14-year term, so Cain and Moore would remain in office long after Trump leaves the White House. (Z)

Michael Cohen Has More Singing To Do, Apparently

Donald Trump's former fixer, Michael Cohen, would like to spend as little time in the hoosegow as is possible. On Thursday, he announced that he has "discovered" more files on one of his hard drives that might just be helpful to investigators. He is asking SDNY attorneys and Congressional Democrats to hold off on sending him to prison, and to take a look at the new materials, in hopes that he can trade them for a reduced sentence.

This story is a bit hard to swallow; not only that Cohen "forgot" the existence of substantial quantities of meaningful evidence, but also that the feds didn't find the files when they raided Cohen's office, home, hotel room, etc. No, it is more likely that Cohen went to his safe deposit box and "found" the USB drive he was keeping there as an insurance policy. Nonetheless, if he has more dirt to share, SDNY and the Democrats will be happy to get it. So, there may be more Cohen-related headaches in the President's future. (Z)

New Mexico Votes to Join National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Late Wednesday, New Mexico became the 14th state to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) signing the measure into law. The argument that won the day is that New Mexico is tired of being ignored during presidential elections, since their EVs are a foregone conclusion. Though given that they are the 36th most populous state, it's not clear the NPVIC will solve that problem.

This brings the total number of EVs that are committed to the NPVIC to 189, about 70% of the total needed to elect a president, and 81 short of the number necessary for it to take effect. If every state where the proposal has been introduced were to pass it, the total would jump to 339 EVs, which is more than enough. However, it's languishing in committee in most of those places, so don't hold your breath. In particular, don't count on Ohio and Florida, which are both on the "stuck in committee" list, to willingly yield up their status as the two most important swing states. Still, if public opinion continues to shift against the Electoral College, you never know what might happen. (Z)

Republicans Are Doing their Best to Help Doug Jones Keep His Seat

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) is, in theory, a dead man walking. It's true that he's such a Blue Dog Democrat that he circles three times before lying down in his bed each night. However, Alabama is a very red state, and Jones only squeaked by because some of the Republicans there couldn't stomach voting for a child molester like Roy Moore.

If the GOP can come up with a candidate who is not a child molester, they should be able to retake the seat pretty easily. But while they have managed to clear that (very low) bar so far, the Party is still doing quite a bit to keep Jones' hopes up. Their only major declared candidate right now is Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-AL), who does not have a history of sexual misconduct, but who did remain outspokenly pro-Moore until the bitter end. When speaking of Byrne, quite a few folks in Alabama have a saying: "You condone it, you own it." Polls confirm that Alabama Republicans are extremely unenthusiastic about him.

This also means there's an opportunity for some other Republican to get into the race. On Thursday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said that he might just be that Republican. The good news for the GOP is that no allegations of sexual misconduct have been lodged against Gaetz, and he did not take a strong public stand on Moore. The bad news is that the main reason Gaetz did not need to take a position on Moore is that he isn't from Alabama, he's from Florida. The Congressman observed on Thursday that he's from the panhandle of Florida, and that the panhandle is very much like Alabama. There is some truth to that. It is also true that one only has to be an Alabama resident for one day in order to qualify to run for the U.S. Senate. However, if there is any part of the country that is sensitive to carpetbagger politicians, it's the part of the country that literally invented the term. Further, Gaetz has some other black marks against him. He threatened Michael Cohen, in an obvious attempt to silence the former Trump fixer. This could cost Gaetz his bar card. He's also got a drunk driving conviction on his record, and a concerning number of speeding tickets (16 of them in 15 years). And he's got a habit of saying racist things. That may or may not hurt him in Alabama, though Gaetz' SOTU invite to Chuck Johnson, who is not only a white nationalist but is also a Holocaust denier, will presumably not be helpful.

Speaking of the Holocaust, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) is another candidate who has expressed interest in running. While he does not deny the Holocaust, he does have a bad habit of making ill-advised remarks about Adolf Hitler, something he indulged in as recently as last week. Brooks is radioactive enough that he ran in the last Alabama Senate election, and managed to finish third. That makes him even less popular than Roy Moore, which is not an easy feat.

And, by the way, Moore is also thinking about another bid. It's true that many Alabama voters were repulsed by a 70-year-old with a well-documented history of sexual predation, but maybe they'll feel more warmly about a 73-year-old with a well-documented history of sexual predation. You never know!

In short, the GOP primary is shaping up to be really ugly, and with a lot of deeply flawed candidates running for the right to carry the Party's banner. And so, the Republicans may very well do for Doug Jones what he likely cannot do for himself: save his Senate seat. (Z)

Tim Ryan Throws His Hat into the 2020 Ring

With Terry McAuliffe, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) all hinting at presidential bids in the last week or so, we are left to wonder if we missed a poll revealing that what Democratic voters really want is more generic white guys to choose from. It would seem that Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) saw that poll, because on Thursday, he used an appearance on The View to announce he's jumping into the race. This wasn't much of a surprise, since he's paid visits to New Hampshire and Iowa in the last couple of weeks, and also has a rally scheduled for Saturday in his hometown.

His pitch, which we would expect from any Ohio Democrat, is that he can win back the rust belt for the blue team. He's also done battle with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), so he hopes he can get some anti-establishment votes, too. The problem is that the field is already quite full of "rust belt" types, and that's before Joe "Mr. Rust Belt" Biden jumps in. It's also full of "I'm not establishment" types. Heck, there's even a guy who's both rust belt and non-establishment in the form of Pete Buttigieg, and he's been sucking up money and attention for many weeks. Ryan also has the problem that his name is about as generic as possible; not a lot more memorable that John Smith or Mike Johnson. With such a large field, that's a real issue. And if the much better known Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) decided there was no lane for an Ohio senator, that strongly suggests there's none for an Ohio representative. In short, we're not terribly sanguine about Ryan's chances.

Our profile of him, should you care to read a more detailed commentary, is here. (Z)

Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Seth Moulton

Moulton might be the last Democrat on our list for whom it wouldn't be a surprise if he declared. After him, it's all longshots.

Seth Moulton
  • Full Name: Seth Wilbur Moulton

  • Age on January 20, 2021: 42

  • Background: Born into a well-to-do family in Massachusetts (his father was a successful lawyer), Moulton was educated at elite schools. He attended the nation's most exclusive prep school (Phillips Academy), and then took a B.A. (physics), MBA, and MPP from Harvard. In between his undergraduate and graduate years, and shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Moulton enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, doing four tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2008, rising to the rank of Captain, and winning numerous medals, including two bronze stars. Following his discharge from the military and his grad years at Harvard, Moulton helped manage the construction of a high-speed railway in Texas, and joined with a college friend to found a healthcare startup called Eastern Healthcare Partners.

  • Political Experience: After threatening to do so in 2012, Moulton challenged then-Rep. John F. Tierney in MA-06 in 2014. Moulton became the only Democrat to win a primary against an incumbent in that cycle, and he went on to defeat Republican Richard Tisei. He's been in the House ever since, which means he's now serving his third term.

  • Signature Issue(s): National security. Moulton thinks that this is one of Donald Trump's weakest areas, and that it's not getting as much attention from Democrats as it should. He's probably right about both of those things. He also thinks that he can get a lot of attention by shining more light on the subject. We're not so sure he's right about that.

  • Instructive Quote: "I think Donald Trump is a lot harder to beat than most Democrats think. But I'm also quietly confident that I can beat him, and I don't think it'll be the hardest thing that I do in my life."

  • Completely Trivial Fact: Moulton is known for being comfortable in front of a camera, and is a frequent guest on many programs, including many non-news/non-political programs. He got his first TV experience while in Iraq, as co-host of a show called "Moulton and Mohammed," in which he and his Iraqi interpreter helped make sense of what was happening for locals.

  • Recent News: Moulton has spoken out against sexual misconduct in general, and against the behavior of Joe Biden in particular, several times in the last week, declaring that he doesn't want his daughter "growing up in this country the way that it is."

  • Three Biggest Pros: (1) Many Democrats are convinced that nominating a veteran is the way to win over blue-collar workers and independents—if so, Moulton is not only a veteran, he's a bona fide war hero; (2) He's socially liberal and fiscally moderate, which has been a winner for Democrats in the past (think: Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy); and (3) Young and charismatic is "in" these days.

  • Three Biggest Cons: (1) Although Moulton says he opposed the Iraq War, he's still pretty hawkish, which leaves him out of step with the Democratic base; (2) Similarly, when was the last time that Democrats got behind a presidential candidate because of his views on national security? Maybe Harry S. Truman in 1948? JFK and the missile gap?; and (3) He has a reputation for being outspoken, but "outspoken" can quickly become "gaffe-prone."

  • Is He Actually Running?: He's made trips to South Carolina, North Carolina, and New Hampshire this year, and has announced his forthcoming book: Called to Serve: Learning to Lead in War and Peace. What do you think?

  • Betting Odds: The books are giving 100-to-1 odds on him, which is not a good sign. Some of them are actually offering those odds on Seth Moulten (note misspelling), which is also not a good sign.

  • The Bottom Line: He should be able to carve out a lane for himself, since there aren't any Democrats talking about national security. The problem for Moulton is that most of the other candidates are shrewd politicians, and there's a reason they're not talking about that issue.

You can access the list of candidate profiles by clicking on the 2020 Dem candidates link in the menu to the left of the map. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Apr04 House Judiciary Committee Approves a Subpoena for Mueller's Report
Apr04 Trump Changes His Mind on Releasing Mueller's Report
Apr04 Some Mueller Investigators Think Report Was More Damning than Barr Suggested
Apr04 House Democrats Officially Ask for Trump's Taxes
Apr04 Biden: I Won't Do It Anymore
Apr04 Senate Goes Nuclear
Apr04 Ambassadorships Now Cost $350,000
Apr04 War Erupts within the Democratic Party
Apr04 Iowa Will Allow Remote Voting in the Caucuses
Apr04 Conservative Leads in Wisconsin Supreme Court Race
Apr04 First Quarter Fundraising Reports Are Dribbling In
Apr04 Thursday Q&A
Apr03 Trump Flails Around on Border Policy
Apr03 Behind the Healthcare Flip-Flop
Apr03 Too Many Democrats?
Apr03 And Speaking of Too Many Democrats...
Apr03 Life In the Digital Age, Part I: Google Search "Winners"
Apr03 Life In the Digital Age, Part II: New Facebook Algorithms Haven't Had Much Impact
Apr03 Life In the Digital Age, Part III: The 2020 Census is the New Frontier in Hacking
Apr03 Lori Lightfoot Elected Mayor of Chicago
Apr02 White House Tries to Figure Out What Kind of Theater to Perform at the Border
Apr02 Trump Rammed through Dozens of Security Clearances
Apr02 Democrats Preparing to Make Mueller Report Subpoena Official
Apr02 More Trouble for Moore
Apr02 Two Republican AGs Break Ranks on Obamacare
Apr02 Another Accusation Against Biden
Apr02 Buttigieg Is Raking it In
Apr02 Luján Will Run for Senate
Apr01 Trump Threatens to Close the U.S.-Mexico Border
Apr01 Trump Faces Five Court Battles on Health Care
Apr01 Biden Defends Himself against Charge of Unwanted Kissing
Apr01 Senate Poised to Change Rules to Ram Judicial Nominees Through
Apr01 Republicans Change Their Minds
Apr01 Google Helps Democrats
Apr01 CEOs Help Republicans
Apr01 Biden and Sanders Lead in Nevada
Apr01 Trump Will Hurt Ernst
Apr01 Monday Q&A
Mar29 Mueller's Report Is over 300 Pages
Mar29 House Republicans Attack Adam Schiff and Schiff Fights Back
Mar29 Trump Lied on His Financial Statements
Mar29 Trump "Saves" the Special Olympics
Mar29 NY-11 House Race Heats Up
Mar29 First Democratic Primary Debate Will Be June 26-27 in Miami
Mar29 Klobuchar Announces Her Top Priority: Infrastructure
Mar29 Michael Bennet Is Very Inclined to Run for President
Mar29 Stephen Moore's Nomination to the Fed May Be in Trouble
Mar29 Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Marianne Williamson
Mar28 Republicans Push Back Against Trump
Mar28 Trump Wants to Run on an Anti-Green New Deal Platform