Mar. 23

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Mueller Report Is Complete

People have been reading and re-reading the tea leaves for months, and predicting that, for half a dozen reasons, the release of the report being written by special counsel Robert Mueller is imminent. Of course, the predictions had to be right eventually, and Friday was that day, as Mueller formally delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr.

On some level, this story is actually in a holding pattern, since the contents of the report are still a secret to all but a few people. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped every outlet from producing at least a half dozen pieces in a response to the news. In order to try to make sense of it all, we're going to divide this up into three parts. First, here's what is known:

Moving on, here is what is still unknown:

And finally, here is what's next:

That, then, is where things appear to stand in the hours after Mueller submitted his report. Obviously, this is going to be the big story for quite a few news cycles, particularly if Barr does report to Congress this weekend, and even more particularly if some of the details begin to come out. (Z)

Trump Kills Sanctions on North Korea

There is an old story, which we've alluded to once or twice, from when Franklin D. Roosevelt was sailing to the Yalta Conference. One of the sailors on the ship asked FDR what would happen if the ship was sunk, and Roosevelt's answer was, "Your name will be in the paper tomorrow, but in very small type."

In other words, when there's very big news, it will crowd out the lesser news. And so, a decision that Donald Trump may have been trying to sneak under the radar anyhow—announced on a Friday morning, while the NCAA men's basketball tournament was in full swing—is likely to slide by even more fully due to the completion of the Mueller Report. That announcement was that the President is going to cancel the newly-imposed sanctions on North Korea:

It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2019

Maybe Trump knew Mueller's report was coming, or maybe it was just his good fortune that the tweet came about two hours before the special counsel made his special delivery.

That said, there is still some confusion about exactly what Trump did, and why he did it. There have been no new North Korea sanctions this week, at least none that were announced publicly. It is true that two Chinese companies were blacklisted, because of accusations that they were helping the North Koreans evade sanctions. That might be what Trump was talking about, although White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was unable to confirm that for reporters. Further, when asked why Trump made his decision, she said it is because "President Trump likes Chairman Kim." That is not the strongest basis for a foreign policy, to say the least.

There is no question that the President has, once again, hung his staff out to dry. Assuming that it really is the blacklisted Chinese companies that Trump was talking about, well, that announcement was just made on Thursday by NSA John Bolton, who therefore just received a very public black eye. And it almost certainly goes beyond just him. Slate talked to a former federal government official who worked on issues related to Korea:

Good Lord. His national security team must be apoplectic. Those sanctions would only have been approved after thorough vetting through the NSC, State, DoD, and the Intelligence Community. Bolton, Pompeo and Mnuchin would all have known and approved. I would be stunned if Bolton didn't tell Trump first. Either he told him and Trump didn't understand...or maybe he tried to slip it past him?

In any event, this appears to be another example of Trump giving up something in exchange for nothing, which is thus a win for Kim. Further, the North Korean government also announced on Friday that it was pulling out of the joint liaison office with the South Koreans that was set up in September in the border city of Kaesong. So, the kumbaya vibe that came out of the Olympics appears to have dissipated, while Trump's chances of bringing peace to Korea, and bringing home that badly wanted Nobel, just got much, much slimmer. (Z)

Kushner Used Private E-mail, WhatsApp for Official Business

Donald Trump may not be the only one to benefit from the cover provided by Robert Mueller. On Thursday, there was reporting from multiple outlets that First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner has made liberal use of a private e-mail account, and of WhatsApp (an app-based multimedia messaging client), to conduct government business, including his interactions with foreign leaders.

There are three obvious problems here. The first is that the behavior is more than a tad hypocritical, given how very much of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was rooted in complaints about Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. The second is that a fellow who could not qualify for a security clearance on his own, and had to be given special dispensation by the President, probably should not be bending the rules six ways to Sunday. And the third is national security; by using private e-mail, as well as an app that does not exactly have government-level encryption, Kushner could well have exposed classified information to foreign spies.

On Friday, just about every outlet in the land talked to a cybersecurity expert, and there was widespread agreement that Kushner's misdeeds were far more problematic than Hillary Clinton's. For example, MSNBC had a chat with Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and current cybersecurity consultant. He said:

We heard "e-mails, lock her up, e-mails, lock her up. To me, [Kushner's alleged use of WhatsApp] is far more egregious. This is foreign business interactions and, by the way, it's being blocked from other parts of the U.S. government. This means foreign leaders have a better understanding about what the White House is communicating than our own intelligence community, our own law enforcement, and our own allies. This puts us in a very dangerous position because as an executive branch, or legislative branch, we really don't know what's going on at the top. And we have no oversight of it.

All of this came to light because of the efforts of House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who will undoubtedly be looking into the matter further, even if everyone else is distracted by the Mueller report. Meanwhile, in a possible sign that Kushner might just get thrown under the bus, Donald Trump declined to defend him, and instead said "I know nothing" about it. It would be ironic, indeed, if Kushner somehow skates on the Russia stuff, only to get nailed for using a service that costs $1/year. (Z)

Trump Picks Stephen Moore for the Fed

As of Friday morning, there were two empty seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. By Friday night, that total was theoretically down to one, as Donald Trump nominated Stephen Moore to join the Board.

Moore is not a conventionally qualified candidate for the post, as he holds only a Masters degree in economics, and not a Ph.D., and his experience has almost exclusively been working for conservative think tanks and media outlets, and not doing the work of an actual economist. So, what pushed him over the top? At this point, the answer to that question should be pretty easy to guess. Moore, of course, has been a tireless defender of Trump in general, and of Trump's ideas about the Fed in particular, in newspaper columns and...wait for it...on TV. It was a Wall Street Journal column from March 13, which Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow clipped and shared with Trump, that first put Moore on the presidential radar. Since then, Trump has been reviewing Moore's TV hits, and was thrilled with what he saw. So, that's how to go from op-ed writer to Fed governor in just one easy step, and nine easy days.

Generally speaking, professional economists' response to the nomination was less than enthusiastic. University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers (whose wife, it should be noted, worked in the Obama White House), declared, "Call your favorite economist. Whether they're left, right, libertarian or socialist, none of them will endorse Stephen Moore for the Fed. He's manifestly unqualified...I think Ivanka would be a better pick." University of Chicago professor Steven Durlauf called the nomination "appalling" and described Moore as "an ideologue, charlatan, and hack." University of Oregon professor Tim Duy, who writes a blog called FedWatch, said that, "Stephen Moore is a particularly poor choice for the Federal Reserve Board. He appears more devoted to pursuing a far-right economic agenda than willing to understand the complexity of economic policy." Several of these folks also noted that Moore has been banished from the pages of several newspapers, because his pieces are so consistently full of misinformation and distortions. And if you care to read more, Slate had a particularly sharp take-down of the nominee.

We will see if Moore makes it through the GOP-controlled Senate. On one hand, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) & Co. tend to like supply-siders (and Moore definitely is that), and they are also hesitant to oppose Trump. On the other hand, they realize that the Fed serves several important purposes, and that if its independence is compromised by the appointment of obviously partisan governors, its functionality could be permanently impaired. The general theme these days has been prioritizing short-term gain over long-term pain, so Moore will probably slide through, although it may take only four votes to derail him, depending on what Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) does. (Z)

Does Trump Encourage Violence?

By all evidence, it certainly seems that way. The New Zealand shooter expressed his admiration for Trump, of course. There was also Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who just pleaded guilty to sending more than a dozen pipe bombs through the mail, and admitted that his goal was to hurt or kill critics of Trump.

Now, a new study looks at the question from a different angle, reaching conclusions that are none-too-flattering to Trump. Three scholars from the University of North Texas examined crime statistics from counties where the President held at least one rally, and compared them to comparable counties where there was no rally. And their conclusion was that the incidence of hate crimes in the Trump-rally counties jumped by 226 percent compared to non-Trump-rally counties.

As with any statistic like this, it's possible that correlation does not equal causation. However, it would be pretty hard for the increase to be entirely random, given how many rallies Trump held (and thus, how many data points are available). Further, quite a few of the incidents reference Trump directly (for example, spray painting his name and some swastikas on a Jewish temple, or threatening a person of Mexican descent that Trump is "gonna get them"). Meanwhile, one struggles to think of an alternate cause for the increase in hate crimes. Undoubtedly, this question will be studied much more, but right now things look pretty damning for the President. (Z)

Jimmy Carter Enters the Record Books, Again

Jimmy Carter, who both entered and exited the White House at a fairly young age, already had more time as an ex-president under his belt than any other chief executive, as his 38 years, 62 days and counting easily leaves Herbert Hoover's 31 years, 230 days in the dust. On Thursday, Carter set another mark; upon turning 94 years, 172 days old, he had officially outlived George H. W. Bush, and thus become the longest-lived president ever.

Now, what does this have to do with current politics? Well, brace yourself for the mother of all non sequiturs. We sometimes get a Q&A question about where Donald Trump will be ranked among the presidents, when all is said and done. (Z) also gets that question on a fairly regular basis from his students. And depending on what the Mueller report says, when its contents become public, today may just be the last day that the question does not answer itself. So, we figured that now is the time to give it a shot, with the obvious caveat that generally 30-50 years have to pass before a true judgment can be made.

To start, Wikipedia has an excellent page that presents all the various presidential ranking polls that have been conducted in the last 70 years, since presidential ranking polls became a thing. And it is clear that some things are particularly helpful for a president's long-term reputation. Foremost among them:

Meanwhile, here are some things that may seem like they should matter, but generally don't:

And finally, here are the serious demerits:

Having laid this out in some detail, let us now get back to the question: Trump's long-term prospects. Actually, let's start with his two immediate predecessors. George W. Bush, first of all, is in trouble. He doesn't have a particularly strong claim to the items in the "helpful" column right now. And he's got a number of serious dings against him, including the Iraq War, an administration with quite a few shady characters in it, and an economy that collapsed on his watch, in substantial part due to his policies. If Bush continues to be a charming fellow who gives candy to Michelle Obama, and he does something more substantive as an ex-president than paint stuff, and somehow the Middle East becomes much more stable in the next 10 years, he might have a renaissance. But it's a long shot.

Then there is Barack Obama. By virtue of being the first black president, he is going to get some "changed the country for the better" points, and he'll do even better on that front if Obamacare survives (and particularly if it thrives, or proves the entree to something else that thrives). Meanwhile, he's definitely charismatic, and is situated for a long and productive ex-presidency. He also has relatively few demerits against him; the bombing campaigns in the Middle East will fade from memory since they weren't a full-fledged war, Obama is clearly not a racist, his administration was remarkably incorruptible, and the economy was not in turmoil. He didn't win a big war, or do as much as FDR or Washington, but he's well situated to keep a ranking in the teens.

And then there is Donald Trump. He's got charisma of a sort, but it's rough-hewn like Franklin Pierce's or Grover Cleveland's, and is not likely to translate to future generations. His major accomplishment, such as it is, is the economy, but—as noted—that isn't going to help much, and he doesn't have anything else from the "helpful" category right now. He could bring peace to Korea, but you shouldn't bet on it. Meanwhile, he's got some serious demerits and, in particular, he is going to get slaughtered by future generations for pandering to racists and for the remarkable swampiness of his administration.

Here, then, is the overall conclusion: For nearly any president where the jury is still out (roughly from Nixon through Obama), one can construct a scenario where the judgment of history is fairly kind. That scenario is more realistic in some cases (Obama, Reagan, maybe Clinton), and more of a longshot in others (Bush 43, Ford, Nixon). However, with Trump, it is virtually impossible to put together a sequence of events, even a longshot one, where he avoids the basement. Even if he does work miracles in Korea, there's just too much else dragging him down. And that's before we know what's in the Mueller report, or the outcome of all the other entanglements and investigations Trump has gotten himself into. (Z)

Steve King Goes All-in on Old, White Voters

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) is a racist. Maybe not quite David Duke-level racist, but also not all that far removed from the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. If a person says one, or even two, patently racist things, it could just be an aberration or a misstep. But King has been saying both subtly and overtly racist stuff for years. Further, the pace has quickened in the Trump Era, particularly since King was stripped of his committee assignments. At a certain point, if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, and it looks like a duck, it's a duck.

Anyhow, with relatively little to occupy his time in Washington, King headed back home this week to hold some town halls for the folks in Iowa, as they cope with the severe flooding that has hit the Hawkeye State. And, on Thursday night, the Congressman was at it again, as he compared Iowa's response to the floods with New Orleans' response to Hurricane Katrina:

[H]ere's what FEMA tells me: We go to a place like New Orleans, and everybody's looking around saying, "Who's going to help me? Who's going to help me?" We go to a place like Iowa, and we go see, knock on the door at, say, I make up a name, John's place, and say, "John, you got water in your basement, we can write you a check, we can help you." And John will say, "Well, wait a minute, let me get my boots. It's Joe that needs help. Let's go down to his place and help him."

The message, in case you missed it, is that people in Iowa (a state that is 91% white) solve their own problems, while people in New Orleans (a city that is 61% black) look to the government to save them. Not only is this patently offensive, it's also not even true. In fact, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds has already asked for $1.6 billion in aid from FEMA.

At this point, King's electoral strategy is clear. Running a version of the Trump playbook, he knows that most young and minority voters are a lost cause to him, and so he's doing everything he can to gin up his base. If he can somehow survive a presidential electorate and an already-announced primary challenge in 2020, then he can probably survive the 2022 midterms. That would give him 11 terms and take him to the age of 74, and then he can ride off into the sunset. (Z)

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