Nov. 19

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Get Ready for More Fireworks

It's a big week for the impeachment inquiry. Maybe even the biggest week, as a cavalcade of witnesses and a torrent of information will be coming down the turnpike, beginning yesterday, and continuing through the rest of the week.

Yesterday's calendar did not include any hearings but, late Monday, House Democrats did release two new transcripts, from political adviser and Kyiv embassy diplomat David Holmes, and State Department official David Hale. Holmes talked about the notorious cell phone call between Donald Trump and ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, saying that he was shocked by what he was hearing, and also by the shoddy security precautions being taken. He said he's "never seen anything like" it. Hale, for his part, said that as someone who keeps on top of official government channels of communication, he knew nothing about requesting an investigation into the Bidens. This indirectly confirms that the whole thing was done through unofficial channels (i.e., Rudy Giuliani and the "Three Amigos").

For the rest of the week, the Democrats will be welcoming an All-Star list of witnesses to the Hill. Here is the schedule:

That's nine witnesses in just three days. The House stenographers are going to have to make sure to do their finger calisthenics, or they will cramp up.

Trump, of course, continues to want to take action, even though he would be better served by sitting on his hands. For example, he announced on Monday that he would "strongly consider" giving written responses to questions from House Democrats. They say they would welcome that ("Here's some rope Mr. President; feel free to hang yourself!"), but presumably Trump's lawyers will persuade him that it's probably not wise, given that he's now being investigated for lying in his written responses to Robert Mueller. Trump also wants to fire or reassign the folks in the White House who have agreed to appear before Congress. Again, not wise—it would make him appear guilty, would potentially strengthen the case for obstruction of justice, and could get him in trouble for acting without cause.

Meanwhile, the polls are not heading in the President's direction. The newest ABC News/Ipsos poll reveals that 51% of Americans want him impeached and removed. That is a slight uptick from the previous poll, not to mention a majority. More troublesome for Trump, however, is that 70% of respondents think he did something wrong. That's a difference of 19% between "something smells fishy here" and "throw the bum out!" If, say, two-thirds of those 19% make the fairly short journey from "this was wrong" to "this was illegal," that would put Trump in a very bad place, indeed.

And finally, let us close with this item from The Atlantic from six months ago. It got relatively little attention, despite its very provocative headline: "'Dozens' of Whistle-Blowers Are Secretly Cooperating With House Democrats." Obviously, this was a rather larger revelation than it seemed at the time. One wonders how long Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) & Co. have known what was coming, what they did to get their ducks in a row before it became public knowledge, and what they know that is not yet out of the bag. (Z)

Trump Gets Physical...Or Does He?

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (entitled "Allegiance," if you're interested) where ship's captain Jean-Luc Picard presents himself at sickbay for his annual physical, several weeks ahead of schedule. Inasmuch as he despises his annual physical, and usually has to be goaded into showing up, ship's doctor Beverly Crusher finds this a tad bit suspicious. Eventually, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise figures out that Picard has been kidnapped and replaced by an impostor doppelgänger. Ultimately he is rescued and all is well in the galaxy.

We bring this up because, just this weekend, Donald Trump showed up early and unexpectedly at Walter Reed for his annual physical. Now, nobody suspects that the President has been replaced by a doppelgänger (although who knows what Vlad Putin has up his sleeve?). Still, there is much about this that is suspicious. Like Picard, Trump hates physicals, and it's rather out of character for him to show up early (much less three months early, as was the case here). Further, the visit to Walter Reed was not on the President's public schedule. On top of that, Trump's explanation for the visit—that he was completing "phase one" of his annual physical, and that he'll be back for "phase two" in a few months—makes no sense. Physicals are not done in shifts, multiple months apart. And finally, presidents in general have a habit of lying about their health. This one, in particular, has made that an art form.

The obvious explanation here—and the one that usually applies when someone makes an unexpected and unscheduled visit to the hospital—is that there was some sort of moderate-level (or worse) medical emergency. The White House is equipped to handle everyday things like a cold or a spray tan overdose or an STI, but is not in a position to treat, say, a stroke or a coronary episode. The President's doctor, Sean Conley, says that is not what happened, but given that pretty much every doctor who has made public pronouncements about Trump's health was later proven to be lying through their teeth, it's hard to put all that much faith in his words. It's also worth noting that, just a few weeks ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) did not have a heart attack, and then all of a sudden he did. Whatever Trump's secret is, he will probably be able to keep it only if there are no more incidents. If he's rushed to Walter Reed again, the tri-partite physical exam is going to be a tough sell. (Z)

Two Courts Give Trump Favorable Tax Return Rulings

Donald Trump rarely gets good news from the courts when it comes to his tax returns. However, he got a little of it on Monday. First, the Supreme Court agreed to stay a lower court ruling, so that it can potentially review the subpoena that the House Oversight Committee sent to Trump accounting firm Mazars USA. Second, federal judge Carl Nichols (a Trump appointee) said that if Democrats want to take advantage of the New York law that allows them to see Trump's tax returns, they have to notify both the President and the Judge, and wait 14 days while the Judge decides if the request is legitimate.

So that's 2-0 on the day for the Donald. That said, these are both rather limited victories. The Supreme Court's move was expected, was agreed to by House Democrats, and does not actually tell us much of anything, It could have been done on the order of a single justice, and does not indicate whether they will even take the case, much less how they will rule if they do. House Democrats' legal counsel is going to respond by Friday, so this could prove to be a short stay. Meanwhile, the Democrats don't particularly want to take advantage of the New York law; that's their last recourse if all else fails. And even if it gets to that point, there's no guarantee that Nichols will deny the request. Add it all up, then, and the President's tax returns did not become considerably more likely to remain secret on Monday. (Z)

A Faustian Bargain?

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) had a reputation as something of a moderate; his votes place him to the left of 60% of the GOP caucus in the Senate (put another way, he's one of the 20 or so most liberal Republican Senators). Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) had a similar reputation; in her three terms in office she's bucked her party a number of times, most obviously voting against the 2017 tax cut.

They probably don't have those reputations anymore, though. Tillis is up for reelection in 2020 (as is Stefanik, of course), and they've both become foot soldiers in the Trump militia. The Senator, who has pretty lousy approval ratings (33% approve, 38% disapprove), has been running on a platform of how very much he loves the President and his policies. The Representative, for her part, has taken a leading role in defending the President during the impeachment hearings. This has thrilled the Fox Newses of the world, not to mention Trump, who recently made Stefanik just the 47th person he follows on Twitter.

In Tillis' case, it's clear what he's trying to do. He wants to fend off a challenge from the right in the form of the wealthy, Trump-loving Garland Tucker. As to Stefanik, she does not have a declared primary challenger, although maybe she knows one is coming. Presumably, though, Tillis and Stefanik both read the newspapers. And so, they surely both know that two Republican gubernatorial candidates in two deep-red states just held Trump close and lost. And if the strategy came up short in R+15 Kentucky and R+11 Louisiana, with Trump having time to personally rally and campaign for his GOP brethren, then how can it possibly work in Tillis' R+3 state, or Stefanik's R+4 district, especially given that Trump probably won't be able to give them the personal touch?

It's possible that the duo are going to try to pivot back to the center once they reach the general election, except that this isn't like adopting a slightly less aggressive opinion on global warming or gun rights. This is Donald Trump we're talking about. He's the political equivalent of mad cow disease; once you've got him, you've got him for life. Stefanik and Tillis are going to need some significant moderate Republican, Independent, and/or conservative Democratic support on November 3, and they have probably wrecked that possibility. Hence the Faustian Bargain referenced in the headline.

Obviously, neither (Z) nor (V) has been elected to Congress, nor do we have access to the internal polls that these folks have. So, they may well have insight that we don't. That said, there are already worrisome signs from their points of view. In 2018, Stefanik faced and defeated Tedra Cobb, who will be back for another go-round in 2020. Prior to last week, Cobb had raised $650,000 this cycle, and had 5,000 Twitter followers. In the three days after Stefanik made national news with the kabuki theater that she and Devin Nunes performed during the hearings, Cobb collected $1 million in donations, and added 250,000 Twitter followers. The challenger now has more Twitter followers (253,000) than the incumbent (213,000). Tillis, for his part, is now likely to get a serious moderate challenger in the primary in addition to the one from the right, thus squeezing him from both sides, while the Democrats contending for the right to face him are raising money by the bushel. If Trump becomes even more radioactive, say due to impeachment revelations, then Tillis and Stefanik could really be in deep doo-doo. (Z)

Another Day, Another Gerrymandered North Carolina Map

Speaking of North Carolina, by the terms of state law there, the legislature gets to draw the maps for congressional and legislative districts, but the maps have to be approved by the courts. Thanks to gerrymanders of years past, the GOP has an iron grip on both houses of the state legislature (29-21 in the State Senate, 65-55 in the House). So, North Carolina Republicans keep producing gerrymandered maps. And judges in the Tar Heel State keep rejecting them. Rinse and repeat.

Last month, a three-judge panel signaled that they were about to strike down the latest Congressional district map. Consequently, the Republicans decided to be proactive and to try again "voluntarily," before they are forced to do so by a court order. Their new map, released this week, is still gerrymandered, but less so. Currently, the NC delegation to the House of Representatives has 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Given the state's partisan breakdown, the Democrats should probably have 6 or 7 Representatives, so the current map is costing them 3-4 seats. The new map proposed by the Republicans would effectively give back two of those. Not enough, say the Democrats, and so the dance continues.

The goal of the GOP, of course, is to concede as little as is possible, and ideally to drag this on for so long that the state has no choice but to move forward with a gerrymandered map. However, a fair bit of chaos could be in the offing. It's very possible the courts will create more time, if need be, by pushing back the state's primaries. Further, even if the Republicans are able to get away with conceding only two seats, that means they're still throwing two members of Congress under the bus. Rep. George Holding (R-NC) is one of those, and says he'll probably just retire. Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) is the other, however, and he has no intention of going quietly. If his district is redrawn to be Democratic, he plans to try to primary one of his colleagues. Between the Senate race (see above), the Congressional machinations, and the question of whether or not Donald Trump can win the state again, it's going to be quite the interesting year in North Carolina politics. (Z)

American Bridge Tries Out Possible Approach to 2020 Advertisements

The Democrats are itching to defeat Donald Trump in 2020 (assuming he doesn't defeat himself first, impeachment-wise). And they will have plenty of money at their disposal as they try to do it. But translating that money into more Democratic votes is not such an easy thing to do. There is only so much "get out the vote" activity that can be done. And developing an effective advertising campaign is a real challenge. The problem, as Hillary Clinton demonstrated in 2016, is that direct attacks on the President don't quite work. They put the folks who voted for him on the defensive, and they also play the game by his get-into-the-gutter rules.

American Bridge is a liberal super PAC that gets most of its money from labor unions and from deep-pocketed Democratic donors, most notably George Soros. In other words, it's Sean Hannity's worst nightmare. And they think they might have a better approach to TV advertising than the one that Clinton 2016 took. They've recorded 60 ads, which are currently running in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Each features a 2016 Trump voter explaining why they regret their vote and will not be voting for him again. Here is an example, featuring Pennsylvania voter Mark Graham:

Here is another example, featuring Michigan voter Lori Malburg:

The strategy here is obvious. Instead of assaulting Trump (and, by extension, those who voted for him) head-on, the message is "He fooled me, too." That may trigger less of a defensive response from viewers, and may give them "permission" to vote differently in 2020. Whether it works remains to be seen, but at very least, it is clear that American Bridge is trying to learn from the Democratic mistakes of 2016. (Z)

Why The Hill is Fox News Lite

On occasion, we describe the political site The Hill as being "right-leaning." And anytime we do that, we get questions from folks who have either read the site's coverage, or have read the Media Bias/Fact Check report on them, or have seen this now-famous chart, and who feel that The Hill is actually centrist.

The truth is that The Hill's news reporting is pretty straight down the middle of the road. We're more than willing to link to it, though their overly aggressive use of autoplay videos does annoy us some. The site's slant comes from two things, and it's the exact same two things that give Fox News its slant. The first is that both outlets tolerate extremely irresponsible opinion pieces. It's one thing to engage in spin; that's what opinion pieces are for. It's another thing to engage in conspiratorial thinking and gaslighting, and The Hill far too often runs op-eds that are guilty of this. The worst offender was John Solomon, whose name came up several times during Masha Yovanovitch's testimony before the House, as she accused him—quite correctly—of peddling lies and conspiracies aimed at advancing the administration's narrative on Ukraine. Solomon no longer works for the site; a couple of weeks ago, he left for a job at...wait for it...Fox News. And now that he's gone, and no longer generating clicks, the site's editorial board has had a come to Jesus moment, and says they will now review his pieces on Ukraine. That's all good and well, but they had no issues publishing them in the first place despite their total lack of a factual basis. Further, they continue to give a platform to others who are in the Solomon mold, most obviously Jonathan Turley and Sharyl Attkisson.

The other issue has to do with the ownership of the site. Fox is owned, of course, by the arch-conservative Murdoch family. And The Hill is owned by the equally conservative Jimmy Finkelstein. The problem is not just that he's a conservative, though, it's that he's good friends with Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. This is what gave John Solomon a platform for as long as he had one, even as his pieces got more and more outlandish; he had the backing of the big boss. As one former employee put it, "Solomon is a symptom of the larger problem of Jimmy Finkelstein." It's also worth noting that just as the news staff at Fox is unhappy to be associated with irresponsible opinionating, and with folks who pal around with Donald Trump, so too is the news staff of The Hill upset about these things.

Anyhow, the lessons here are twofold: (1) read The Hill, especially its op-eds, with a particularly critical eye, and (2) it's not just Fox, OANN, Breitbart, and (sometimes) InfoWars that propagandize for Trump; it's a remarkably wide swath of media outlets. (Z)

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