All the President’s Men: Mike Pence

The Trump Administration is so dreadful they’ve made the George W. Bush Administration seem almost acceptable in comparison.  Dubya surrounded himself with qualified staff.  As awful as Bush Vice President Dick Cheney was, he had notable Washington experience: he’d served as White House Chief of Staff and as Secretary of Defense.  In contrast, Mike Pence went from conservative talk-show host to Ineffective congressman (and governor) to Trump’s Vice President.

Nonetheless, the primary criticism of Pence isn’t that he doesn’t possess the cojones to perform the job of President, if need be.  The Vice President — who has touted his “Christian credentials” — is castigated because he could act as a moral check on Trump.  Instead, Pence has chosen to be Trump’s primary cheerleader.  His fawning buddy.  His toady.

When Trump selected Pence as his running mate, none of us expected them to be equal partners in a Trump Administration; it was unrealistic to expect Pence to compliment Trump’s imbecility with thoughtful insight.  Most observers recognized Pence for what he was intended to be: an empty suit with impeccable conservative Christian credentials who had the blessing of Republican oligarchs such as the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer.  (In July 2016, Trump was leaning towards choosing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as his running mate; Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway persuaded Trump to choose Pence — for the stated reasons plus the fact that Pence would be better as the liaison to congressional Republicans.  By the way: Conway got her position because of the influence of Robert Mercer.)

Now, Pence has a limited portfolio within the Trump Administration: he placates big donors, such as the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer, and also reassures the religious right.  (In July 2016, the 538 website noted that Pence was the most conservative Republican VP candidate in forty years (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-pence-would-be-a-really-conservative-and-mostly-unknown-vp-pick/ ).)  When there’s a Trump imbroglio, Pence declares fealty to Trump and the religious right is assuaged — this first happened with the October 2016 release of the notorious Trump “Access Hollywood” tape and has continued to the present day with Pence’s support for Trump in the Stormy Daniels scandal.  (Uncharacteristically, on May 21st, Pence spoke out on North Korea, threatening it with “the Libya model.”  In response, a high-ranking North Korean official called Pence, “a political dummy,” characterizing his remarks as “ignorant and stupid.”)

Nonetheless, because of Pence’s high-visibility Christianity, many political observers believed he would provide a moral framework for Trump; they expected that when Donald Trump became president he would soften his behavior and that Pence would play an important role in this process.  That is, they expected Trump would begin to act presidential.  This hasn’t happened and part of blame must fall on the shoulders of Mike Pence.

In his May 9th Washington Post oped (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-no-longer-the-worst-person-in-government/2018/05/09/10e59eba-52f1-11e8-a551-5b648abe29ef_story.html? ), conservative columnist George Will criticized the Vice President: “The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness… is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.”  George Will noted that Pence frequently claims he is “deeply humbled” to be able to serve in the Trump Administration.

George Will castigated the President: “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic.”  But Will savds his most ferocious commentary for the Vice-President: “Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying.”

Why has Mike Pence become Trump’s toady?

There are two possible explanations; neither of which is flattering to Pence.  The first is that the Vice President has realized that the only way to work closely with Trump is to continually flatter him; that Trump is so insecure that he only will tolerate close relations with those who proffer their unwavering love.  This suggests that Pence — realizing that Trump threatens the United States — has decide to dampen his personality and pander to Trump, believing that only this behavior will mollify him.

The second explanation is that Pence actually lacks a moral core; he is a hollow man (“Shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion”, T.S. Eliot)  The Vice President is not able to stand up to Trump because Pence is a weak person; he’s playing a part in a political play and only reads the lines that he’s been given — he’s been instructed to be Trump’s toady and that’s what he is doing.

Since Trump became President there have been calls for his impeachment.  Many observers have warned that if Trump was removed from office, we’d get Pence as President and he would be worse.

What we know about Pence suggests that if he were to become President he would be different from Trump.  Nowhere near as crazy.  (No demented early morning tweets.)  Pence would be a more conventional Republican President; an actor, content to read the lines written for him by Republican oligarchs.  Instead of being Trump’s toady, Pence would grovel at the feet of the powerful men who control the Republican Party.

Trump or Pence.  Not an appealing choice.

All The President’s Men: John Bolton

The Trump Administration is so dreadful they’ve made the George W. Bush Administration seem almost acceptable in comparison. Dubya was also a dummy but at least he wasn’t a racist bully. And Dubya surrounded himself with folks that had some connection to mainstream American foreign policy: Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. Trump’s first National Security Adviser was crazy Michael Flynn; now it’s equally crazy John Bolton.

Since 1981, Bolton has been a bristly far-right Republican insider.  He’s served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.  In 2005 Dubya nominated Bolton as his Ambassador to the United Nations; because of his contentious nature, Bolton was never confirmed.

Bolton has long been characterized as having an abrasive manner — one foreign diplomat described him as “rude and undiplomatic.”  State Department colleagues accused him of “spinning” intelligence in order to support his views.

In the arena of U.S. foreign policy, Bolton is on the conservative fringe.  His career is littered with inflammatory statements: “There is no United Nations” and dismissing Palestinian claims to statehood as “a ploy.”  He opposes the European Union; in 2008, he urged Ireland not to join the EU and, in 2016 , urged England to leave.  Bolton stakes a position that’s similar to Trump’s “America First” stance; he is skeptical of international law and most international organizations.  Bolton describes himself as a “unilateralist.”

Before his appointment as National Security Adviser, Bolton split his time between legal work in Washington DC, commentary on Fox News, and consulting work for conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Gatestone Institute.  In addition he ran the John Bolton PAC with major support from Republican oligarch Robert Mercer.

Trump’s foreign policy is “personal” rather than ideological; he seems intent on undoing every accomplishment of Barack Obama.  In contrast, Bolton is deeply ideological.

Iran:  Trump was against the Iran agreement — technically the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA) signed November 24, 2013 —  because Obama was for it.  Bolton has been against the JPA since it was negotiated; calling it a “massive strategic blunder.”  He’s advocated Iranian “regime change” and is a long-time of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK).  (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/world/middleeast/john-bolton-regime-change-iran.html )

Trump wants to negotiate a new JPA that specifically limits Iranian missile testing, gives inspectors unfettered access to Iranian military bases, and extends the (old) JPA’s expiration date beyond 2030.  It’s unlikely that either Bolton or Trump can gain the support of the other signatories: China, England, European Union, France, Germany, Iran, and Russia.

North Korea:  Trump has seized on “denuclearization” of North Korea as his signature foreign-policy initiative.  Once again, his motivation is personal; he wants to succeed where Barack Obama failed.  He revels in the notion that the June 12th meeting with Kim Jong Un will provide a diplomatic breakthrough and ensure his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bolton has a long record of antagonism towards North Korea; during his tenure in the George W. Bush Administration he advocated that it be added to the “Axis of Evil.”  In February, before he became National Security Adviser, Bolton wrote an editorial ( https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-legal-case-for-striking-north-korea-first-1519862374) building the case for a preemptive strike against North Korea.

In early May, it was reported that Trump had discussed removing all US troops from the Korean peninsula; it’s likely that ultra-conservatives, like John Bolton, talked him out of this.  On May 13th Bolton offered a very specific definition of what North Korean “denuclearization” meant: “getting rid of all the nuclear weapons… taking them to Oakridge, Tennessee… getting rid of the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities.”  Bolton said the process should follow “the Libya model.”

North Korea immediately rejected Bolton’s comments: “This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”  At this writing, North Korea is threatening to cancel the June 12th meeting.

Russia: To say the least, Trump’s attitude towards Russia has been inconsistent.  On the one hand he called Putin to congratulate him after he was “reelected” Russian president.  On the other hand, he’s claimed, “nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”

John Bolton is a Russia hawk.  He’s accused Putin of lying to Trump about interference in the 2016 election — Bolton is convinced Russia did interfere — and writes, “The notion that the Russians can help us with terrorism … is delusional.”

China:  To a lesser extent, Trump’s attitude toward China has also been inconsistent.  Bolton is a China hawk.  His associates say, “The new US national security adviser is willing to risk a military conflict with China to achieve President Donald Trump’s goals for America.”

Summary: On many issues, John Bolton bolsters Trump’s positions with a strident unilateralism.  However, Bolton appears to be mired in an old-school view of his office.  He’s eliminated the White House position of Cybersecurity chief.  He’s also disbanded the “global health security” team — the group charged with reacting to pandemics.  Bolton is far more dogmatic than Trump.

Bolton and Trump do not appear to be on the same page regarding negotiations with North Korea.  It doesn’t appear that Bolton will have a long tenure as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

Christianity Goes Astray

When I was a teenager, my grandfather Harry used to dine with us most nights. After dinner he would deliver a homily, usually, “Beware the Russians!” Grandpa Harry warned us about the Russians because they had no ethics: they would say and do anything to win.  If he was alive now, Harry would still fear the Russians, but he would also warn of Christians, because some of them are willing to say and do anything to win.  Witness their support of Donald Trump.

Although their numbers are declining, roughly 72 percent of Americans identify as Christians — approximately 240 million, the largest Christian population in any nation.  More than 10 percent of US Christians do not belong to a congregation.  Of those who do belong to a congregation, the largest group contains evangelical Christians — although their numbers are declining, roughly 60 million are White Evangelical Christians.

80 percent of White Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.  In their recent study, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/socrel/srx070/4825283? ) sociologists Andrew Whitehead,  Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry conclude that for many White Evangelicals, “voting for Trump was… a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.”

Whitehead, Baker, and Perry used data from the latest Baylor Religion Study (https://www.baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/doc.php/292546.pdf) to unearth the core beliefs of White Evangelical Christians.  The sociologists identified six questions as measures of Christian Nationalism: The first is “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”  Christian Nationalists reject this because they believe that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God.  White Evangelical Nationalists respond positively to these five notions:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

White Evangelicals support Trump because he appears to agree with them.  In an interview with the Huffington Post ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/researchers-discover-common-thread-between-evangelicals-who-voted-for-trump_us_5abbd15ae4b04a59a313c5ea) Andrew Whitehead noted that since his election Trump has given Christian Nationalists direct access to the White House.  This has led them to forgive his conduct: “They believe God can use anyone, ‘even a thrice married, non-pious, self-proclaimed public playboy,’” to form a Christian nation]. “For Christian nationalists, the end goal is a society that favors Christianity in various aspects… How that project is achieved is of little consequence to them.” [Emphasis added]

If my grandfather was alive, he’d be shocked that these Christians have adopted the “say and do anything to win” morality of the Russians.  The White Evangelical Nationalists have abandoned mainstream Christian ethics.

Christian ethics is an elastic concept and you’ll get different definitions from Christian to Christian.

If we focus on the teachings of Jesus — that is, emphasize the ethical teachings promoted in the New Testament — three ethical principles stand out.  The first regards personal integrity: mainstream Christians believe that those who call themselves Christians should be straightforward and honest; they should speak the truth.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus said; “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’  But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”  Christians should be forthright; they should not lie.

The second ethical teaching is about social relations: mainstream Christians believe that Christians should be fair and compassionate.  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus said: “Whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them.”  Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

The third ethical teaching is about equality: mainstream Christians believe that Christians should treat regard others as equals.  Jesus brought a message of love: “A new commandment I give you, love one another.” (John 13:34)  Paul summarized this as: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Donald Trump does not practice these ethical teachings.  He is a liar, bully, sexist and racist.  He is an apostate.

Why then do White Evangelical Christians support Trump?

There are three explanations.  The first is that they do not believe what the mainstream media says about Trump.  They do not believe that he is a liar, bully, sexist, and racist.  White Christian Evangelicals live in an information silo where they get their information from pro-Trump sources and, therefore, trust Trump over mainstream media sources such as The Washington Post.

The second explanation is sociological.  The White Evangelical Christians support Trump because their pastor or preacher tells them they should.  That is, these Christian — and their friends — do not decide independently how to vote — or what is right.

The third explanation is theological.  White Evangelical Christians recognize Trump for what he is but they do not care because Trump is furthering their goal of a Christian Nation and “how that project is achieved is of little consequence to them.”  From this perspective, Christian Nationalists have abandoned mainstream, New Testament Christian ethics and instead adopted Old Testament ethics where — because of the omnipresence of evil — it is permissible to say and do anything to win.

Whenever White Evangelical Nationalists support Trump, they are abandoning mainstream Christian ethics.  They, too, are apostates.

Where’s the Strategy?

Many Trump supporters voted for Donald because they believed he was a successful businessman — rather than a reality TV star. These Trump adherents thought he would bring business acumen to the White House. Trump backers believed Donald had a strategic vision to “make America great again.” Turns out they were mistaken.

There are several attributes of a successful businessman.  One of these is Vision: the ability to see the big picture and to propose a plan to focus the business and achieve its long-term goals.  A successful President also needs vision.

Trump holds up an image, “make America great again,” but doesn’t have a coherent vision of what it will take to accomplish this (noble) objective.  Trump doesn’t have a reasoned domestic or a foreign policy.  There is no strategy; instead Trump presents a random set of assertions — “China is taking all our jobs!” — or tactics — “build the wall!”

The absence of strategy has dire consequences for America’s domestic and foreign policy.  So far, Trump has presented four domestic policy initiatives.  He promised to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” but in reality, he supported repealing Obamacare and designing a replacement later.

Trump promised to create good-paying jobs by a combination of tax cuts and trade policy.  He passed the tax cuts but there’s no evidence they have generated better paying jobs.  So far his tough talk on trade has not produced results.

Trump also promised to create good-paying jobs by a far-reaching $1.5 Trillion plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  It hasn’t gotten off the ground.  Fifteen months of the Trump presidency have established that Trump doesn’t have a job-creation or economic strategy beyond helping the rich get richer.

Finally, Trump promised to “protect” America — and coincidentally create jobs — by building a multi-billion dollar wall along the southern border.  Once again, nothing has come of this.

So far, Trump’s domestic policy failures haven’t hurt the country.  Trump inherited a strong economy and it seems to be growing in spite of him.  Foreign policy is a different matter; Trump’s lack of vision endangers us.

Trump doesn’t have a big picture vision of America operating in a world where there are several strong nations and our relationship to them changes depending upon context.  Consider China.  We’re in a “trade war” with China.  Nonetheless we need their help dealing with North Korea.  We have a multifaceted relationship with China.

Because he doesn’t have a realistic vision of world politics, when forced to make a foreign-policy decision, Trump relies upon his instincts.  And his instincts are isolationist.  His slogan, “America first,” means, “America alone.”

We can see this in his handling of global climate change and the Paris climate agreement.  Trump wants the US to withdraw from this treaty in November 2020, “unless we can re-enter on terms the are more favorable for our country.”  (Trump has assigned a delegation to renegotiate terms but so far there has been no progress.)  If the US withdraws, we will be alone in opposition to this deal.

Trump’s position on most foreign-policy issues goes through these two stage: first he wants to withdraw and then he backpedals to, “We’ll withdraw unless we can renegotiate on more favorable terms.”  That’s his position on NAFTA.  And his position on Syria.

To say the least, Syria represents a complicated and dangerous situation.  The United States has military personnel in Syria as part of a coalition to eradicate ISIS.  On March 29th, Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from Syria “very soon.”  Next came Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Douma; then the US and it British and French allies responded by bombing Syria.  While emotionally gratifying, the bombing wasn’t a strategy; as a result, Americans still do not understand what the US plans to do in Syria and the Middle East, in general.

Russia stands in contrast to most foreign countries because Trump doesn’t want to cut off relations with the former Soviet Union; instead he wants the two nations to get closer.  He muses that “getting along with Russia is a good thing” and “I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin.”  Most foreign-policy experts believe that Russia is the number one threat to the United States and predict that the former Soviet Union will attempt to meddle in the US mid-term elections.  Nonetheless, Trump remains sanguine.  But he doesn’t have a US-Russia strategy beyond his “cutting a deal” with Vladimir Putin.  Trump’s ego has shoved aside his isolationism.

That’s what’s happening in North Korea.  Trump is getting ready for personal negotiations with Kim Jong-Un the North Korean leader whom he once derided as “little rocket man.”  It’s not clear what Trump’s strategy is but it is clear that he sees this as an opportunity to cut a historic deal.

In addition to vision, one of the characteristics of a successful businessman is collaboration — the ability to work effectively with a team.  Trump doesn’t possess this attribute.  He is negotiating the troubled waters of foreign policy on his own guided only by his erratic instincts.

Donald Trump endangers the United States.  And the world.

Another Look at Trump Supporters

After reaching a low of 36 percent, Trump’s approval rating has gradually inched up to 40 percent (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). On the Left Coast his (historic) low remains a source of amazement because we rarely hear anyone speak favorably of Trump. Nonetheless, after 15 months in office, and a series of epic blunders, Trump has held onto his base.  What explains this?

Until recently, my primary source for understanding Trump supporters was an excellent book by UC Berkeley Sociology professor Arlie Hochshild, “Strangers in Their Own Land.”  Hochschild conducted a five-year study of Louisiana Tea Party voters who eventually became Trump supporters.  Hochschild details their “deep story,” a narrative shared by her interviewees: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male… Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  Most in the back of the line are people of color… Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!  You’re following the rules.  They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back… Who are they?  Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?”

There’s a blues song with the title, “I’ve been down so long that down looks like up to me.”  It seems to me that the voters Hochschild interviewed have been screwed over for so long that they’re profoundly disoriented.  Grasping for a lifeline, they latched onto Trump.

Recently, academics have studied this phenomenon.  In their paper, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/socrel/srx070/4825283? ) sociologists Andrew Whitehead,  Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry conclude that for many Trump supporters, “voting for Trump was… a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.”

Whitehead, Baker, and Perry used data from the latest Baylor Religion Study (https://www.baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/doc.php/292546.pdf ) to unearth the core beliefs of white evangelical Christians — 80 percent of whom voted for Trump.  After controlling for factors such as party affiliation and religiosity, the sociologists identified six questions as measures of Christian Nationalism: The first is “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”  Christian Nationalists reject this because they believe that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God; there’s a covenant for a Christian nation.

While Christian Nationalists reject separation of church and state, they respond positively to these five notions:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

Christian Nationalists support Trump because they believe he supports these notions.  (In addition, the Whitehead, Baker, and Perry study found profound anti-Muslim attitudes among the Christian Nationalists; for example, agreement with the statement, “Muslims endanger the physical safety of people like me.”  Trump appears to harbor the same sentiments.)

That explains why Christian Nationalists have stuck with Trump through 15 tumultuous months in office.  In an interview with the Huffington Post ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/researchers-discover-common-thread-between-evangelicals-who-voted-for-trump_us_5abbd15ae4b04a59a313c5ea) one of the study researchers, Andrew Whitehead, noted that since his election Trump has given Christian Nationalists direct access to the White House and this has led them to forgive his conduct: “They believe God can use anyone, ‘even a thrice married, non-pious, self-proclaimed public playboy,’” to form a Christian nation]. “For Christian nationalists, the end goal is a society that favors Christianity in various aspects… How that project is achieved is of little consequence to them.”

While “Strangers in their own land” doesn’t directly address Christian Nationalism, many of Arlie Hochschild’s subjects participated in the evangelical Christianity that Whitehead, Baker, and Perry identify as the source of Christian Nationalism.  (And Hochschild’s subjects who don’t seem particularly religious appear to share the same worldview as their neighbors.)

Two of Hoschschild’s observations seem particularly relevant.  The first is that the Louisiana Trump supporters have no confidence in government to fix their problems.  The second is that they place their confidence in business.  Hochschild observed that her subjects “identify up with the 1 percent.”  They believe that big business, not big government will provide the solutions to their problems, whether they are meaningful employment, healthcare, or environmental pollution.  (This derives from the Calvinism that underlies white evangelical Christianity.)  They voted for Trump because they saw him as a successful businessman.

Vice President Mike Pence has an important role because he’s a Christian Nationalist (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/gods-plan-for-mike-pence/546569/ ).  Pence has been responsible for many of the initiatives that the Christian Nationalists held dear: the effort to flood the courts with conservative judges; the drive to restrict abortion rights and defund Planned Parenthood; the effort to provide Federal funding to church schools; the drive to restrict immigration; etcetera.

As long as Mike Pence stands by Donald Trump then Trump will have the support of the hard-core component of his base — Christian Nationalists.  And when Pence steps away, and Trump falls, Pence will become President.

What’s Wrong With Trump This Time?

During most of Easter Week, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically silent. Then, starting on Easter Sunday, Trump tweeted that he would end DACA, “stop” NAFTA, and move troops to the Southern Border. What spurred this crazy talk?

There are several theories about why Trump unleashed his immigration tweetstorm.  One theory is that it was because conservative Republicans have slammed him for signing the $1.3 trillion spending bill (March 23rd) without securing funds for his border wall.  Another was that for most of Easter Week, the White House staff had constrained him so that he wouldn’t tweet about Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal; on Saturday and Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly, Trump vented his frustration on Twitter.  Another theory is that, on Sunday morning, Trump was watching Fox News and responded to one of their reports.  The Final theory is that Trump is coming apart because of pressure from his legal woes.  That’s the theory that seems most plausible.

Trump is facing legal action on three fronts: Interaction between his presidential campaign and Russia, lawsuits brought by aggrieved women, and lawsuits based on the “emoluments” clause of the Constitution.

Russia Probe:  On February 16th, the Justice Department unveiled the first of four pillars of the Mueller investigation into interference in the 2016 election: the indictment of 13 Russians for Internet-based meddling.

In the coming months we’re likely to see indictments clustered around the three additional pillars of the Mueller inquiry: hacking, collusion, and obstruction.  The hacking indictments should explain who hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The collusion pillar would explore the illicit cooperation between Russian operatives, involved in election interference and hacking, and the Trump campaign. On March 29th, the Mueller inquiry alleged that while Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were working for the Trump campaign, they had contact with a Russian intelligence operative.

Finally, the fourth pillar of the Mueller investigation should focus on obstruction of justice: has the Trump Administration blocked DOJ efforts to understand interference in the 2016 election?

Recently there’s been an unravelling of the Trump legal team responding to the Mueller inquiry.  The lead lawyer, John Dowd, resigned and has yet to be replaced.   Meanwhile, there’s intense speculation about whether Trump will agree to an interview with the inquiry (many observers believe that because of Trump’s penchant for mendacity he should not testify).

(By the way: in parallel with the Mueller inquiry is the Cockrum vs. Trump lawsuit; where three private individuals — Ray Cockrum, Scott Comer and Eric Schoenberg — are suing Donald Trump and Roger Stone for violating their privacy and civil rights by participating in the hack of the DNC emails.)

Trump’s Women: There are three lawsuits of note.  The first involves actress Stormy Daniels (real name Elizabeth Clifford) who alleges that, in 2006, she had an affair with Trump and subsequently was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about it.  On April 2nd, Trump’s legal team asked that this dispute be settled in (private) arbitration.  Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, wants a (public) civil trial.  (There’s a separate allegation that the $130,000, paid in October 2016, violated campaign finance laws.)

The second lawsuit involves model Karen McDougal who alleges that she had an affair with Trump and, in 2016, was paid $150,000 by America Media Inc. (which publishes the National Enquirer) for the story.  McDougal claims that American Media actually paid her in order to kill the story.  (There’s a separate allegation, brought by Common Cause, that the $150,000 was an illegal campaign contribution.)

The third lawsuit involves Summer Zervos who alleges that Trump sexually harassed her in 2007.  She’s one of more than twenty women who came forward, during the 2016 political campaign, to charge Trump with harassment.  Before Trump took office he accused these women of lying; in response, Zervos filed a defamation suit.  It wended its way through the courts and, on March 20th, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the suite could go forward  citing court precedent from the Bill Clinton-Paula Jones case: “a sitting president is not immune from being sued in federal court for unofficial acts.”  (Trump’s attorneys have appealed this ruling.)

The Trump attorneys handling these cases are not those representing him in the Mueller investigation.

Emoluments:  Article I of the Constitution says, “No Person holding any Office… shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”  (An emolument is a profit of any kind.)  Since Trump took office there have been lawsuits that alleged that Trump businesses illegally  accept payments from foreign governments.  (That is, Trump is using his position as President to benefit his businesses,)

Several of these lawsuits have been dismissed on technical grounds.  However on March 28th, a Federal Judge in Maryland let an emolument lawsuit go forward.  This action, brought by the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland, focuses on the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC:  “The District of Columbia and Maryland said their local residents who compete with Trump’s businesses, such as Trump International Hotel… , are harmed by decreased patronage, wages and tips…”

In this instance, Trump is represented by the Justice Department, not his private attorneys.

Summary: Trump’s legal woes aren’t going away soon.  Each of the three threads is likely to persist for the duration of 2018.  (The Washington Post indicates that the Mueller probe is likely to issue a preliminary report in mid-Summer but that doesn’t mean the probe will end then.)  Many observers believe that the Summer Zervos lawsuit is on the fastest track and may cause Trump to be deposed by summer.

For the rest of the year, Trump will be under pressure from these lawsuits.  Expect Trump’s bizarre behavior to continue.

“Russian Roulette” Trump and Putin

Until Robert Mueller publishes the results of his investigation into Russian intrusion in the 2016 election, David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s new book, “Russian Roulette,” will be the preeminent source for information about what happened; what did Russia do and why did they do it.  There are four takeaways from this well-researched and disturbing book.

Russia has declared war on the United States:  During the October 22, 2012, presidential debate, Mitt Romney called Russia America’s “biggest geopolitical threat.”  At the time, many observers scoffed, but it turns out that Romney was right.  Corn and Isikoff’s book indicates that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has declared cyberwar on the United States and its allies; the 2016 political campaign was the most evident manifestation of the new Kremlin offensive.

Russia cannot compete against the United States economically or militarily.  Because the US has, historically, opposed many Russian political initiatives — such as the annexation of Ukraine — Putin has decided to retaliate by undermining our democracy: he seeks to destabilize our political system and sow discontent.  In 2016 Russian operatives interfered in the U.S. political process by meddling in the voting process, selectively leaking hacked information, and spreading disinformation via social media.  The Russians did this to cripple Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to aid Donald Trump.

Russian Roulette makes it clear that Putin hated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and, therefore, deliberately set out to hurt the Obama Administration, the Clinton campaign, and Democrats in general.  (The Russians not only interfered in the presidential election but also in Senate and Congressional races.)

Trump idolizes Putin.  Tellingly, Trump shares Putins’s hatred for Obama.  What jumps out from Russian Roulette is that there’s abundant evidence of Russian cyberattacks and Trump has steadfastly denied this.

Donald Trump threatens our national security:  Corn and Isikoff’s book doesn’t contain a “smoking gun;” there is no new information that proves that Trump personally colluded with Russian operatives.  Nonetheless, Russian Roulette reports that before November 8, 2016, the Kremlin had been trying to “cultivate” Trump for at least a decade.

The Russian effort to enlist Trump is said to take two forms: one is to provide him with funding for his various projects; the other is to threaten him with blackmail with evidence of sexual misbehavior.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has no business interests in Russia.  However, Russian Roulette reports that during the campaign Trump’s representatives tried to arrange for a Trump tower to be constructed in Moscow.  In addition, there’s abundant evidence that Trump has done business with Russian oligarchs — on projects located outside Russia.  During the nineties, Trump was in deep financial trouble and there’s information that Russian money bailed him out.

Russian Roulette discusses the possibility that Trump was sexually “compromised” during his visit to Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.  There’s plenty of innuendo but, so far, no proof.

At the conclusion of Russian Roulette we’re left wondering if Trump is a dupe or a doofus; is he denying that the Russians interfered in the election because he’s following Putin’s lead or because he’s too vacuous?  For whatever reason Trump is ignoring two existential threats to the United States: Russian cyber warfare and global climate change.

Even though the US intelligence community believes that the Russian interfered with the 2016 election, Trump discounts this.  He continues to lobby for “normalization” of our relationship with Russia.  (As this was being written, Trump fired Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster; both had advocated a hard line with Russia.)

Trump’s associates met with Russians: Corn and Isikoff’s new book provides ample evidence that members of the Trump campaign — Carter Page, George Papadpoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, among others — met with Russian operatives during the campaign.  It appears that the Trump campaign was aware that the Russians had hacked the DNC and John Podesta’s emails.  Nonetheless, there’s no evidence that the Trump campaign and the Russians planned joint operations; for example, that the Trump campaign asked the Russian operatives to disrupt voter turnout in Wisconsin.  (There’s nothing about the Trump campaign that’s comparable to the purported link between the Russians and the NRA:  the FBI is investigating allegations that Alexander Torshin, an official at the Central Bank of the Russia and life member of the NRA, funneled money through the gun lobby group to the Trump campaign.)

The Obama Administration was too soft with Russia:  Russian Roulette makes it clear that the Obama Administration was informed that the Russians were interfering with the 2016 election.  In hindsight it’s clear that the Obama Administration was way too soft with the Russians.  (At the last minute, when they wanted to go public with what they knew about the Russian interference with the election, the Obama Administration was thwarted by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Summary: For the moment, David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s new book, “Russian Roulette,” is the preeminent source for information about how Russia interfered in the 2016 election.  Bottom line: we’re at war with Russia and Donald Trump isn’t doing anything about it.

Facebook, Trump, and Russia

As the Mueller probe continues, there’s new evidence about the interaction between the Trump campaign, a sinister British political consulting firm — Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook.  They collaborated to steal the 2016 election.   By the way, there’s a Russia connection.

To understand the role of Facebook we recall the period after the 2016 candidate debates.  The last debate occurred in Las Vegas, on October 19th; Hillary Clinton won that debate, as she had the previous two debates.  At the time, most Americans thought Clinton would win the presidential election as polls showed ahead and it was widely believed that the Democrats had a superior “ground game;” that is, Dems were assumed to have a much more muscular ability to get-out-the-vote on November 8th.

The influential website, 538, believes that a single event cost Clinton the election: the October 28, 2016, letter that FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-comey-letter-probably-cost-clinton-the-election/ ) reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails.  It’s probably more accurate to say that Clinton lost for multiple reasons.  One was a massive shift towards Trump on election day; the Trump campaign managed to get out their vote.

Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.  Nonetheless, she lost the presidency because she lost the electoral college; specifically, she lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined total of 79,646 votes.  That’s where the influence of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook (and Russia) mattered.  The Trump campaign developed their own electronic get-out-the-vote effort, targeted to swing states.

In the traditional people-powered get-out-the-vote effort, volunteers go door to door to first register voters and then, later, to encourage registered voters to vote for specific candidates.  The volunteers are aided by current precinct lists that show the residences of interest — for example, where Democrats live, who the residents are, and their recent voting behavior; that is, did they vote in the most recent election (the lists don’t show how they voted in the latest election because that information is confidential).  In more sophisticated voter outreach, basic information is amplified by relevant consumer data; for example does a specific voter belong to the Sierra Club or is there someone in the house that does not speak English.

The more sophisticated the voter data base, the more effective the get-out-the-vote effort is.  In 2016 the Trump campaign, with the help of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, developed a remarkable swing-state voter data base.  They did not hand data base printouts to volunteers to guide their door-to-door interaction; instead the data base information drove electronic interaction using social media, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Unlike previous get-out-the-vote efforts, the Trump campaign strove to both get out Trump voters and inhibit possible Clinton voters.

Typically, in the last few days of the election cycle, the get-out-the-vote efforts focuses on “persuadable” voters.  That is, no special effort is spent on reliable voters, those who have voted in the last few elections.  The volunteers focus on intermittent Democratic voters and Independent voters who they believe might vote for their candidate.  The volunteers repeatedly knock on doors with the intent of convincing persuadable voters to vote on election day.

In 2016, the Trump campaign bypassed the traditional door-to-door get-out-the-vote approach and, instead, contacted persuadable voters electronically.  For a voter deemed likely to vote for Trump, the campaign sent them email, twitter, or Facebook messages.  In addition they sent them news briefs — primarily via Facebook — that would likely convince the persuadable voter to vote for Trump.

The genius of the Trump-Cambridge Analytica-Facebook approach is that it, to a degree never seen before, personalized the messages to persuadable voters.  They used the Facebook data to develop a voter profile and then sent voters messages based upon this profile.  (This worked both to motivate voters to vote for Trump and to dissuade potential Clinton voters for voting for her.)

Writing in The New Yorker, Sue Halpern (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/cambridge-analytica-facebook-and-the-revelations-of-open-secrets ) observed: “Cambridge Analytica contractors worked with Trump’s digital team, headed by Brad Parscale and Jared Kushner. Alongside all of them were Facebook employees who were embedded with the Trump campaign to help them use Facebook’s various tools most effectively—including the so-called “dark posts,” used to dissuade African-Americans from showing up to vote.”

The most informative investigative journalism is in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/23/leaked-cambridge-analyticas-blueprint-for-trump-victory ): “The blueprint for how Cambridge Analytica claimed to have won the White House for Donald Trump by using Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube is revealed for the first time in an internal company document obtained by the Guardian… it details the techniques used by the Trump campaign to micro-target US voters with carefully tailored messages about the Republican nominee across digital channels.  Intensive survey research, data modeling and performance-optimizing algorithms were used to target 10,000 different ads to different audiences in the months leading up to the election.”

And the Russians were involved.  Writing in Slate (https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/did-cambridge-analytica-leverage-russian-disinformation-for-trump.html ), Justin Hendrix reported “Cambridge Analytica also enlisted Russian-American academic Aleksandr Kogan to mine the private Facebook user data that is the subject of the ongoing scandal. While an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia, Kogan received grants from the Russian government to research ‘stress, health and psychological wellbeing in social networks.'”

The Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook collaborated to steal the 2016 election. With help from the Russians.

Forecasting the Midterm Elections in the Midwest

The 2018 midterm elections will occur on November 6th. Democrats need to win 23 seats to take back the house and 2 seats to gain control of the Senate.  This week we look at 12 midwestern states where there are a handful of opportunities for the Democrats.

A February 4th ABC News/Washington Post poll ( http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/strength-party-strongholds-key-midterm-outcomes-poll/story?) suggests why Democrats look forward to November 6th: “Democrats lead by 14 points among likely voters… But that reflects a vast 38-point Democratic lead in districts already held by Democratic members of Congress. In districts the [GOP] holds, by contrast, it’s a tight 45-51 percent Democratic vs. Republican contest.”  Democrats also lead in enthusiasm: “They lead very widely among those who say it’s especially important to vote this year.”

A “blue wave” is predicted because experts believe that Democrats are more motivated to vote than are Republicans.  Because most Democrats deplore Trump and his Republican Party, Dems are eager to curtail Trump by taking back the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate.

Intensity of feeling should play a critical role in the November 6th elections.   In the latest Quinnipiac Poll (http://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail? ) 57 percent of respondents disapproved of the job Trump is doing (38 percent approved).  49 percent of the poll respondents disapproved strongly (29 percent approved strongly).

Notably, Trump is losing the support of women.  The most recent Washington Post poll indicates that 65 percent of women disapprove of the job Trump is doing.

What is clear from the polls is that there is a big difference in how Trump is viewed in Red and Blue congressional districts.  Red district voters support Trump: they feel he is doing a good job, ignore his lies, and believe the investigation into possible collusion with Russia is a hoax.  Blue district voters have radically different feelings.  This suggests that the 2018 outcome is going to be decided by swing districts.   The balance of this article examines the swing districts in the Midwest.

Illinois: The Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner, is up for reelection; the Cook Report rates this as a Toss Up.  (The Democratic candidate has yet to be selected.)  There are 4 House races of interest:
IL 6 Roskam (R) Toss up
IL 12 Bost (R) Leans Republican
IL 13 Davis (R) Likely Republican
IL 14 Hultgren (R) Likely Republican

Indiana: One of the Republican primary targets is Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly; the Cook Report rates this race as a toss up.

Iowa: There are 3 House races of interest:
IA 1 Blum (R) toss up
IA 2 Loebsack (D) likely Democrat
IA 3 Young (R) leans Republican

Kansas: The Republican Governor, Colyer, is running for reelection; Cook rates this as likely Republican.  There are 2 House races of interest:
KS 2 open (R) Leans Republican
KS 3 Yoder (R) leans Republican

Kentucky: There is 1 House seat of interest; KY 6 Barr (R) is rated as lean Republican.

Michigan: The Republican Governor, Snyder, is term-limited out; Cook rates this race as a toss up.  Democratic Senator Stabenow is up for reelection; Cook rates this as likely Democrat.  There are 2 house seats of interest:
MI 8 Bishop (R) lean Republican
MI 11 Open (R) toss up

Minnesota: The Democratic Governor, Dayton, is term-limited out; Cook rates this race as a toss up.  A recently appointed Democratic Senator, Tina Smith, is up for reelection; Cook rates this as a toss up. There are 4 House races of interest:
MN 1 open (D) toss up
MN 2 open (R) toss up
MN 3 Paulsen (R) lean Republican
MN 8 Nolan (D) toss up

Missouri: Democratic Senator Clair McCaskill is high on the Republican’s hit list; Cook rates this contest as a toss up.

North Dakota: Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp is also a big Republican target; Cook rates this as lean Democrat.

Ohio: The Governor’s seat is open as Republican John Kasich is term-limited-out; Cook rates this a lean Republican.  Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is up for reelection; Cook rates this as lean Democrat.

Wisconsin: Conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker is up for reelection; Cook rates this as lean Republican.  Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin is up for reelection; Cook rates this as likely Democrat.  There is 1 House race of interest: WI 6 Grothman (R); likely Republican.

In summary, in the midwest Democrats have a good shot at picking up at least 2 governorships and 3 house seats.

The Women’s Wave

There’s continuing talk of a “wave” election in November; an election where Democrats across the nation vote in larger numbers than Republicans and take back control of Congress and many state legislatures. While a blue wave is likely, it won’t be the result of superior organization by the Democratic Party. Instead it will be the result of a grassroots mobilization led by women.

A November blue wave is predicted because most political experts believe that Democrats, and Independents, are more motivated to vote than are Republicans.  A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/03/01/voters-vow-elect-congress-stands-up-trump-poll-shows/376578002/ ) reported that voters are unhappy with the country’s direction and dissatisfied with President Trump.  “58%-32% [of] those surveyed say they want to elect a Congress that mostly stands up to the president, not one that mostly cooperates with him.”

Notably, Trump is losing the support of women.  The most recent Washington Post poll indicates 65 percent of women disapprove of the job Trump is doing.  (Notably, a majority of white women disapprove of Trump.)

Outside Washington, women are driving the resistance to Trump.  This fact has three implications: the first is that women are leading the movement and, in many cases, running in opposition to incumbent Republican men.  The second implication is that women are directing the construction of grass-roots voter mobilization efforts; in many instances these are separate from the Democratic Party.  The third implication is that women are building campaigns based upon issues that resonate with their home base.

Female Candidates: Multiple news sources have commented on the record number of women — overwhelmingly Democratic women — running in 2018.  At the end of January, NBC News (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/huge-2018-story-more-500-women-are-running-major-office-n841916 ) observed that “More than 500 women are running for major office.”

A significant percentage of the female Democratic candidates are women of color.  Notable is Stacey Abrams ( https://staceyabrams.com/) who is running for Governor of Georgia.  If I only told you that Stacey was an unmarried black woman, you’d think she had no chance in this race.  But if I introduced you to Stacey — a graduate of Yale Law School, who is the Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives — you’d come away believing that she is the most qualified candidate.

Stacey Abrams is the founder of The New Georgia Project which, for the last four years, has been working to register voters, primarily people of color.  (In 2008, Barack Obama lost Georgia by 200,00 votes and there were 700,000 unregistered black voters.)  Like Stacey, many of the 2018 female candidates are linked to grassroots organizations — most of which have a get-out-the-vote component.

Independent from the Democratic Party:  The Stacey Abrams campaign is independent of the Democratic Party; this is true for many progressive female candidates.

A prime example of an independent organizing effort, led by women, is the Restaurant Opportunities Center (http://rocunited.org/ ).   ROC is running campaigns for the benefit of America’s 14 million restaurant workers — the majority of whom are women.  (BTW: two-thirds of these women report being sexually harassed on the job.)  In 2018, ROC is focussing on Michigan where state law permits restaurants to pay workers as little as $3.52 per hour.  ROC is organizing 134,000 restaurant workers to put a “fair wage” initiative on the ballot and to vote in 2018.  (In 2016, Trump won Michigan by 12,000 votes.)

New Southern Strategy: The national Democratic Party has been focussed primarily on the Democratic bastions (California, New York) and the historic swing states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin).  Meanwhile the resistance is funding strong efforts in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.

Recently, there was a funding conference for the new southern strategy (https://waytowin.us/about/ ).  Their funding strategies contrasted with those of the national Democratic Party.  Way to Win begins locally with a “focus on field organizing and… targeted digital strategies.”  It’s collaborative with an emphasis on “building independent political power… [and] long-term relationship[s].”

Empowering the Base: The key element that distinguishes the new grassroots mobilization is that it starts at the local level not in Washington.  The Way to Win charter states: “We believe that we can win by focusing on our base — a multiracial coalition of people of color, young people, and progressive white people — and offering an agenda that will try impact people’s lives.”  Way to Win has five goals:
1. Reflective Democracy — candidates that reflect their communities
2. Local racial and economic justice accomplishments
3. Barrier removal — particularly barriers to voting
4. Base turnout increase
5. Shift political giving to the base — rather than the Washington political infrastructure.

Because of the emphasis on local issues, the new grassroots’ mobilization focuses on different issues from community to community and state to state.  One example is the push in Michigan for a “fair wage” for restaurant workers.  In Florida, Way to Win is supporting the “Restoration of Rights Coalition” which has sponsored a ballot initiative “to restore voting rights for more than 1.6 million formerly incarcerated people.”

By being community-centered, rather than candidate-centered, the new grassroots’ mobilization aims to last for more than one election cycle.  The political support aims to build a true progressive infrastructure not merely the election of a particular candidate.

There’s a wave coming.  It’s being led by progressive women, outside Washington, and it’s likely to dramatically change the political landscape.

Forecasting the Midterm Elections in the South

 

The 2018 midterm elections will occur on November 6th. Democrats need to win 24 seats to take back the house and 2 seats to gain control of the Senate.  This week we look at the 11 southern states where there are a handful of opportunities for the Democrats.

A February 4th ABC News/Washington Post poll ( http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/strength-party-strongholds-key-midterm-outcomes-poll/story?) suggests why Democrats look forward to November 6th: “Democrats lead by 14 points among likely voters… But that reflects a vast 38-point Democratic lead in districts already held by Democratic members of Congress. In districts the [GOP] holds, by contrast, it’s a tight 45-51 percent Democratic vs. Republican contest.”  Democrats also lead in enthusiasm: “They lead very widely among those who say it’s especially important to vote this year.”

A “blue wave” is predicted because experts believe that Democrats are more motivated to vote than are Republicans.  Because most Democrats deplore Trump and his Republican Party, Dems are eager to curtail Trump by taking back the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate.

Intensity of feeling should play a critical role in the November 6th elections.   In the latest Quinnipiac Poll (http://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail? ) 57 percent of respondents disapproved of the job Trump is doing (38 percent approved).  49 percent of the poll respondents disapproved strongly (29 percent approved strongly).

Notably, Trump is losing the support of women.  The most recent Washington Post poll indicates that 65 percent of women disapprove of the job Trump is doing.

What is clear from the polls is that there is a big difference in how Trump is viewed in Red and Blue congressional districts.  Red district voters support Trump: they feel he is doing a good job, ignore his lies, and believe the investigation into possible collusion with Russia is a hoax.  Blue district voters have radically different feelings.  This suggests that the 2018 outcome is going to be decided by swing districts.   The balance of this article examines the swing districts in the South — ignoring states like Arkansas where there do not appear to be Democratic opportunities.

Florida: The Senate race pits the incumbent, Bill Nelson (D), against a yet-to-be-determined Republican; the Cook Report rates this as “Lean Democrat.”  There’s also an open Governor slot as the incumbent, Scott (R) is leaving because of term limits; Cook rates this as a “toss up.”  There are 5 House seats of interest:

FL 7 Murphy (D) — lean Democrat
FL 13 Crist (D) — likely Democrat
Fl 18 Most (R) — likely Republican
FL 26 Curbelo (R) — toss up
FL 27 Ros-Lehtinen (R) — lean Democrat; as Ros-Lehtinen is retiring

Georgia: The Republican Governor (Deal) is term-limited out.  Cook rates this as a safe Republican seat but Dems are very high on their leading candidate, Stacey Abrams.  There are two House seats of interest:

GA 6 Handel (R) — lean Republican
GA 7 Woodall (R) — likely Republican

Kentucky:  There is one House seat of interest: KY 6 Barr (R) — lean Republican.

North Carolina:  There are three House seats of interest:
NC 2 Holding (R) — likely Republican
NC 9 Pittenger (R) — likely Republican
NC 13 Budd (R) — likely Republican

Tennessee: This Senate seat is in play because the incumbent, Corker (R), is retiring; Cook rates this as a tossup because the Democrats are running a strong candidate, former governor Phil Bredesen.  The Republican Governor (Haslam) is term-limited out; Cook rates this a likely Republian.

Texas: Every election, Democrats claim that, because of demographic shifts, big changes are coming in Texas.  We’ll see.  Republican Senator Ted Cruz is up for reelection; Cook rates this as likely Republican.  There are 3 House seat in play:
TX 7 Culberson (R) — toss up
TX 23 Hurd (R) — lean Republican
TX 32 Sessions (R) — lean Republican

In summary, in the South Democrats have the opportunity to pick up at least one Senate seat, a Governorship, and five House seats.

Mueller Inquiry Status

On February 16th, the Justice Department unveiled the first of four pillars of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into interference in the 2016 election: the indictment of 13 Russians for Internet-based meddling.  Since then the Mueller investigation has been quiet but there’s new evidence that they are moving forward with the other three pillars of their inquiry: collusion, obstruction and hacking.

On April 30, the New York Times   (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/30/us/politics/questions-mueller-wants-to-ask-trump-russia.html ) published the roughly fifty questions that the Mueller probe wants to ask Donald Trump, under oath.  These questions are primarily about campaign coordination with Russia — collusion — and about possible obstruction of justice.

The collusion aspect of the Mueller probe explore the possibility of illicit cooperation between Russian operatives, involved in election interference and hacking, and the Trump campaign.

A key Mueller question for Trump focuses on the notorious June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting where a Russian operative offered to give key members of the Trump campaign political dirt on Hillary Clinton.  Mueller also wants to know about communication between (Trump associate) Roger Stone and Wikileaks — conversations about hacked DNC and Clinton Campaign emails.  More generally, Mueller wants to find out what Trump knew “about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the [Clinton] campaign.”

Mueller’s most provocative question is “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”  (Paul Manafort is the former manager of the Trump presidential campaign; he has since been indicted by the Mueller probe for his Ukraine consulting work and other undisclosed actions.)  Manafort was present at the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting; the question suggests that the investigators know of other attempts to secure Russian assistance.

In the context of the 2016 election, collusion can mean “a long-term criminal conspiracy.”  One would hope that the coming Mueller indictments would address the concern that Donald Trump has subterranean ties to Putin, and Russian oligarchs, and this relationship subverted the US electoral process.  Several Mueller questions relate to this.  Notably: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?”  (There are rumors that the Mueller team has excavated the financial links between Trump and Russian oligarchs.)

Although Trump continues to deny collusion, there seems to be ample evidence that there were, to say the least, unusual interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.  (The latest revelation is that a Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, gave $500,000 to Trump associate Michael D. Cohen.)  The key question is: can any of these interactions be tied to Trump?

Another pillar of the Mueller investigation focuses on obstruction of justice: has the Trump Administration blocked DOJ efforts to understand interference in the 2016 election?  There are three sets of Mueller questions relating to obstruction.

The first set concerns Michael Flynn who was a key adviser to Trump during the campaign and, briefly, his national security adviser.  (Flynn has agreed to cooperate with the Mueller probe and has pled guilty to lying to an FBI agent.)  Mueller is interested in whether Trump was aware that Flynn had reached out to Russian officials before the inauguration.  Another question asks if Trump has contacted Flynn about a possible pardon.

The second set of obstruction-related questions concerns Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  These questions concern Sessions decision to recuse himself from the Mueller inquiry and Trump’s (alleged) pressure on Sessions to end the Russia investigation.

The third set of questions relate to former FBI director James Comey.  Mueller wants to ask Trump about the circumstances that led to Comey’s dismissal.  Specifically, Mueller would ask Trump: “What did you mean when you told Russian diplomats on May 10, 2017, that firing Mr. Comey had taken the pressure off?”

There’s abundant evidence that Trump is displeased with the Mueller investigation.  (Almost daily, he Tweets to this effect.)  What remains to be seen is whether there is concrete evidence that Trump has obstructed the investigation; for example, by promising to pardon those who have been targeted by the Mueller probe.

Finally, the third pillar of the Mueller investigation regards hacking.  This inquiry would explain who hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.  As noted above, Mueller wants to find out what Trump knew “about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the [Clinton] campaign.”

Summary:  May 17th marks the anniversary of the day that the Mueller probe began.  It’s accomplished a lot in a remarkably rumor-free inquiry.

There seems to be abundant evidence that Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 presidential election and that there was contact between the Trump campaign and Russians.  Of course, as the presidential candidate, Trump bears some responsibility for this.  What remains to be seen is whether there’s direct evidence that Trump committed an unlawful act.  Trump acts like he’s guilty but, so far, there’s no smoking gun.