We'll explain that shortly. It's not what you think. Saturday, the House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of the testimony of Tim Morrison, the top Russia expert on the National Security Council. On Oct. 31, Morrison told House investigators in private that Donald Trump spoke to EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland half a dozen times during the summer and the subject of their conversations was exchanging military aid for political investigations. Sondland's mandate, directly from Trump, was to make a deal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. If Sondland testifies on Wednesday, as scheduled, and confirms this, it is about as close to a smoking gun as can be. Basically, it would be the President giving a subordinate a direct order to extort a foreign leader for political gain. If Sondland says this—and that is a big "if" at the moment, because it will enrage Trump like he has never been enraged before—it will be impossible for Republicans to spin this as "hearsay" or a "process" issue.
To make it even worse, on Saturday, a national security official at the OMB, Mark Sandy, told the House that on July 25th he was instructed to freeze the $391 million Congress had appropriated for military aid to Ukraine and was not told why. His boss, Michael Duffey, a political appointee, gave him the order. Sandy added that never in his career had a political appointee interfered with an appropriation like that before. Undoubtedly, Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) is going to want to have a chat with these gentlemen to find out where the order came from. The smart money is betting on Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
Getting back to Sondland and Morrison (and the headline), a concept from computer science comes to mind here: the Trusted Computing Base (TCB). The TCB is the sum total of all the software that must work to maintain the security of the system. If any part of it fails, the system is toast. By design, no failure outside the TCB can damage the security because all the security-sensitive stuff is inside it. This applies to election software and all other software. Good designers try to minimize the TCB to reduce the chances that a bug can be exploited to take down the system.
The TCB principle also applies to crime. A successful criminal should try to minimize his exposure. In the case at hand, what Trump should have done is ask a friend to go buy him a cheap burner phone with a prepaid SIM card at a supermarket (for cash), so there would be no paper trail. Then he should have gone to one of his less-frequented golf clubs at dawn when no one was outdoors on the course, and used the phone to personally dial Zelensky and make his pitch. That way there would not have been any Sondlands or Morrisons, or others to potentially rat on him. Using a new phone from a location he hadn't been to before as president would greatly reduce the chances of the Russians or Chinese listening in on the call. From a security point of view, Trump's (trusted computing) base was much too big. It should have been just himself, Zelensky and no one else. If Sondland spills the beans Wednesday, Trump may be in for rough times on account of this mistake. (V)
Yesterday on CBS' "Face the Nation," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) left open the possibility that the current impeachment hearings might drag on into 2020. She also refused to speculate on what the articles of impeachment might contain. The trouble is that new witnesses and potential charges keep coming up. For example, Donald Trump tweeted an attack on former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch on Friday while she was testifying. This could result in a charge of witness intimidation, which is a federal crime.
Pelosi is a very shrewd political operator and when she says something, she has thought about it carefully in advance. If the House approves articles of impeachment in January, the Senate trial, which is expected to last at least a month, could interfere with the primaries. Several senators are running for president and would have to decide whether to attend the trial or continue campaigning. However, since CSPAN (and probably others) will certainly broadcast the trial from gavel to gavel, the senators could organize "viewing parties" in early-primary states where the senator and perhaps 500 or so supporters could gather together to watch the trial on a big screen. People might be encouraged to send questions about the trial to the senator, who would answer them in real time. This would allow the senator to follow the trial and campaign at the same time, possibly in a different state each day. Oh, and it would also direct just a bit of attention toward Trump's dirty laundry.
Unsaid, but surely in the back of Pelosi's mind, is how a January trial could wreak havoc for the Republicans. Suppose that, on Wednesday, Gordon Sondland says under oath: "The president directly ordered me to tell Volodymyr Zelensky that unless he dug up dirt on the Bidens, he wouldn't get any military aid." Or imagine that some other insider said it, or that there was some other development that so shifted public opinion that Republican senators felt that they had to convict Trump. Who would be the Republican presidential nominee, what with many filing deadlines already past? Could the RNC headquarters at 310 First St. just send a puff of white smoke up the chimney and issue a press release announcing that Mike Pence was the nominee? What if the House investigation turns up evidence incriminating Pence? How would Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) feel about a Pence coronation? Might Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) have a few words with his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, who runs the RNC? While at the moment it seems unlikely that Trump will be convicted, if by February 60% of the voters are convinced he is a crook, the GOP will have a bit of a problem. While the Democrats' process is chaotic, at least the rules are clear: Starting Feb. 3, the voters begin choosing delegates to the national convention. For the Republicans, there is no plan B. (V)
Donald Trump sent out a tweet yesterday. That by itself is not so unusual. He's done it before. Here it is:
Tell Jennifer Williams, whoever that is, to read BOTH transcripts of the presidential calls, & see the just released ststement from Ukraine. Then she should meet with the other Never Trumpers, who I don’t know & mostly never even heard of, & work out a better presidential attack!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2019
So maybe this Jennifer Williams is a Never Trumper and a "Bad Person." Who cares? And who is she, anyway? Turns out she is a State Dept. employee now working for Mike Pence as his special adviser for Russia. It also turns out that she listened in on the infamous July 25th call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky. And she took notes during the call. And she will testify along with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman on Tuesday. That's two people who heard the entire call firsthand and are likely to corroborate each other's testimony tomorrow—in public.
Trump senses that two ear witnesses to the call could have a version of what he said and meant that is different from the one he has provided. And because both heard the call personally, the Republicans won't be able to claim it is "hearsay," and thus inadmissible. Williams was born in a red state (Texas), has a bachelor's degree in international security studies from Georgetown University, and a master's in public policy from Princeton, so she should be a credible witness.
Needless to say, if she rats out Trump tomorrow, this puts Pence in an awkward situation. If he basically disowns his own staffer and says he barely knows her, how will that affect other Pence staffers? Will they get a warm and fuzzy feeling about how much their boss cares for them? Or will they be calling Adam Schiff tomorrow afternoon asking for appointments to talk with him? Of course, if Pence defends his aide, Nikki Haley will immediately shoot Trump an e-mail saying: "I hear you are looking for a new veep. Just wanted to let you know I am available." What's a vice president to do? (V)
In a new poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers by Ann Selzer, the best pollster Iowa has to offer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend) is on top for the first time. Here are the numbers for everyone hitting 0.5% or more:
The margin of error in the poll was 4.4%, meaning that as of right now, before a large target was pinned to his back, Buttigieg is leading in Iowa. A related issue is that 63% of the respondents feel he is right on the issues, while only 7% say he is too liberal and 13% say he is too conservative. He seems to be a good fit for Iowa. In contrast, 55% think Biden's views are right, 48% say Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has it right, and 37% say Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) views are right.
Michael Bloomberg hasn't entered the race (yet) and with a few more polls like this, he might decide not to.
Up until now, few pundits have seriously considered the possibility that Buttigieg might get the nomination. The idea of a small-town mayor beating two dozen senators, governors, and other heavyweights is about as nutty as a reality-television star beating two dozen senators, governors, and other heavyweights. If Buttigieg were to win (nearly all white) Iowa, he could parlay that into a (near) win in (nearly all white) New Hampshire. If he were to win the first two contests, he would suddenly become a very serious threat to all the others.
Buttigieg has an unusual mix of pros and cons. On the pro side, he is a military veteran, razor sharp, young, and enthusiastic. He would also rev up young voters like no candidate since Jack Kennedy. Also, since he doesn't have a long track record, the oppo researchers aren't going to find a lot to go with, other than possibly the way he has handled policing in South Bend.
His biggest con is that black voters aren't enthusiastic about him, in part because many of them attend church and often hear that homosexuality is a sin. On the other hand, they also hear that adultery is a sin, and the current inhabitant of the White House has quite a bit for oppo researchers to exploit on that score, some of it involving porn stars and Playboy playmates. Which is the bigger sin? Well, when Moses got to the top of the mountain lugging his blank tablets, God saw that he had enough space for only 10 commandments and decided that adultery made the cut but homosexuality didn't (unless, of course, that was on the tablet that Moses dropped). It is also worth noting that in 2008, black primary voters preferred Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama until Obama demonstrated that he could get white people to vote for him. If Buttigieg were to win Iowa and New Hampshire, probably many black voters, most of whom despise Trump, might decide that all-in-all, although he is flawed in their eyes, he is still acceptable.
The second con for Buttigieg is his age and lack of experience, although in all fairness, he has been elected to an executive office, and he also served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan, which is more relevant experience than Trump had in 2016. Buttigieg could probably deal with that by choosing an experienced senator as his running mate. Given how important the female vote is for the Democrats, possibilities include Amy Klobuchar (MN, 59), Jeanne Shaheen (NH, 72), Maria Cantwell (WA, 61), and Patty Murray (WA, 69). But keep in mind, even though the poll is from Ann Selzer, it is just one poll and Buttigieg is going to have a big target on his back at the next debate. (V)
Yeah, she wants Medicare for All. We all know that. We also know that unless the Democrats get something like 55 seats in the Senate and abolish the filibuster, it's not going to happen any time soon. Warren is much more pragmatic than people realize, and she would probably settle for a public option as a first step. In fact, she wrote an op-ed Friday stating precisely that.
But under the radar, she actually has a Plan B consisting of things she could accomplish without new laws, something that is unlikely unless a blue wave basically washes away the Republican Party. This is what we mean when we say she is actually quite pragmatic. Here are some of the items in her Plan B; some of them can be done by executive order and others can be done using the budget reconciliation process, which requires only that the Democrats control the House and at least 50 Senate seats:
The list goes on and on. While it is not possible to reorganize the entire health-care system by executive order, quite a bit can be done. One area where Warren is determined to make changes is drug prices. By law, Medicare cannot negotiate with drug companies about drug prices, but the government does have one huge power that Warren is determined to use as a weapon, namely 28 USC Sec. 1498. This law gives the federal government the right to use any patent and provide only reasonable compensation to the owner, which basically covers the manufacturing and distribution cost and perhaps a small profit.
Why does this matter? Consider: Sovaldi is a miracle drug that cures hepatitis C completely—if you can afford the $84,000 price tag. Or, when Mylan acquired the patents for EpiPens, they were selling for $57 each. Now they are $300 if you have insurance and $1,000 if you don't. Warren could invoke 28 USC Sec. 1498 and authorize a firm that makes generic drugs to supply them to the government at a cost just somewhat higher than the production cost. They could then be made available at cost to any hospital or doctor requesting them. Can you imagine the freakout among pharmaceutical executives when she started doing that? All she would have to do is announce that she is formally invoking 28 USC 1498 and prices would come back to earth within minutes. Going forward, a lot of new drugs are the result of government-funded university research and those contracts could contain provisions giving the government a veto over prices of any resulting drugs. (V)
The big question about the presidential campaign of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) is: "Whose fault was it?" The campaign is in complete disarray, she is betting the farm on Iowa (and if you are betting a farm, Iowa is a good place to do it), but despite that, she is polling at 3% there. For all intents and purposes, her campaign is over. It is unlikely she will even be in the race when New Hampshire votes. What went wrong?
In truth, there were two dozen candidates in the race at the start, many of them with more name recognition, networks, and money than she had, so it was always an uphill race. But every loser needs a good scapegoat so the candidate doesn't get blamed. It looks like her campaign is going to blame campaign manager Juan Rodriguez. He is said to have mismanaged the budget, first hiring too many people, then firing current employees while simultaneously bringing on new ones. One campaign official described the campaign as: "No discipline. No plan. No strategy."
Campaigns can be disorganized if the candidate has a clear message that resonates with voters. In 2016, Bernie Sanders' campaign was as chaotic as a campaign can be, but a lot of Democrats really loved Sanders and agree with him or disagree with him, everybody knew exactly what Sanders stood for. What does Harris stand for? Does anyone know, even now? Well, she would like to be the first female president. But so would Elizabeth Warren and half a dozen other women. That's not enough. Campaigning on an implicit slogan of: "I am not as scary as Warren but I am more scary than Biden" doesn't really cut it with a lot of voters.
A spendthrift campaign manager and the complete lack of a reason for voting for her weren't Harris' only problems. Another big one was Harris' choice of her sister, Maya, as campaign chairman. Harris is very close to her sister and made it clear to everyone that all decisions had to be run by her. This undercut Rodriguez and made him seem more like a deputy campaign manager. When any organization has one official leader but a different unofficial leader, that is looking for trouble as staffers don't know whom to ask for permission to do things.
In the end, there was no reason for her to run (other than that she would have enjoyed being president) and she didn't set up a good campaign apparatus. Of course it failed. (V)
Michael Bloomberg may not be all that popular in Iowa (see above) and he is very unlikely to be the Democratic nominee for president, but he could still swing the election to the blue team. He has decided to spend $100 million of his own money to take down Donald Trump in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and he will do this whether or not he is the nominee. The ads will start today. Bloomberg himself is not featured in the initial ads.
One of the ads shows some of Trump's tweets and is captioned: "A TWEET SHOULDN'T THREATEN OUR NATION'S NATIONAL SECURITY." In other words, it is going to be a $100 million negative ad blitz. We don't know yet what Bloomberg has to say, but with a $50 billion fortune, he can hire some pretty good people to make the ads. They could point out some of the things Trump has done as president, but most of them are well known already and probably wouldn't move the needle. Bloomberg could show pictures of Stormy Daniels, but anyone wanting to see her can find her quite easily in other places, and with less clothes than are required for a TV ad. One thing he could try is to ask people in those four states: "Are you better off now than you were 3 years ago?" For many people, the combination of stagnant wages, ever-increasing prices, trade wars, and constant uncertainty about health insurance isn't making their lives better. Ads like that could take their toll on Trump no matter who the Democrats nominate. And if they do seem to be moving the needle, there is nothing stopping Bloomberg from getting his checkbook out several more times. After all, spending $100 million for him is, compared to the average American household, the equivalent of spending about $190. (V)
After Richard Nixon abused his power and broke many laws, there was a general agreement in Congress that new laws were needed to rein in future presidents. Many laws were passed, dealing with campaign financing, transparency, war powers, congressional oversight, government surveillance of U.S. citizens, and much more.
Clearly, those Congresses of the 1970s missed a few things, however. Donald Trump has breached so many norms and tried to expand executive power so much that a future Congress may try to pass more laws to make sure no future president tries to ride roughshod over the country and Congress again. Several nonprofit groups have worked on possible reforms, and their ideas fall into four rough categories, as follows. For simplicity we will refer to the president as "he," but that should be read as "he or she."
If Trump is reelected and the Republicans hold the Senate, there is no chance any of this will happen. However if a Democrat is elected president in 2020, congressional Republicans may suddenly discover various body parts that have atrophied in the past 3 years and be gung-ho to rein in the president. Democrats may then stall. One compromise would be to pass the laws and have them take effect on Jan. 20, 2025, since no one knows now who will be sworn in then. (V)