Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Four Pillars of the 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.  This should end Trump claims the Mueller investigation is a “hoax.”  The DOJ announcement suggests that we should expect many more indictments as a product of the remaining three pillars of the probe.

The February 16th announcement, by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, focussed on an extensive effort, conducted by Internet trolls headquartered in St. Petersburg, to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.  Using a variety of tactics, the Russians began by disparaging Hillary Clinton, switched to inhibiting voter participation, and concluded by encouraging Americans to either vote for Trump or a third-party candidate, such as Jill Stein. (At its peak, the Russian effort had a monthly budget of $1.25M and employed hundreds of operatives.)

The DOJ indictment is noteworthy because it arrived unexpectedly — there were no press leaks suggesting an indictment was imminent — and the 37-page legal brief was unusually thorough — it appears the FBI had a source inside the St. Petersburg troll factory (“Internet Research Agency”).  The indictment revealed that the head of the Russian operation was Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Russian premier Vladimir Putin.

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.  (It might also shed light on the chain of events that led then FBI director, James Comey, to reopen the Clinton email brouhaha 11 days before the election.)

The collusion pillar would explore the illicit cooperation between Russian operatives, involved in election interference and hacking, and the Trump campaign.  It would answer questions such as, were members of the Trump campaign aware of the Russian activities and did they coordinate with them?  The February 16th, DOJ indictment is silent about collusion: “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge [of the Russian operation].”  (Trump has suggested that the indictment proves there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians.  This isn’t true because the indictment doesn’t discuss collusion.)

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.

(The DOJ indictment noted that the St. Petersburg-based troll operation began in 2014.  Trump tweeted that since the Russian subversion began a year before he announced his presidential candidacy, it had nothing to do with his campaign.  However, it’s worth remembering that Trump was in Moscow in November of 2013 and bragged to the press about his relationship with Vladimir Putin.)

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?

This first pillar answers the question that has vexed many Americans: Did the Russians try to interfere in the 2016 election?  The answer is yes.  Russians agents are trying to subvert our democracy and, therefore, we are at war with Russia.

The remaining pillars should address these questions: Did the Russian interference cost Hillary Clinton the presidency?  Did the Trump campaign coordinate with the Russians?  And, is Donald Trump a Russian agent?

It will be very difficult to prove that Russian interference cost Clinton the presidency.  Writing in his 538 website, Nate Silver (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-did-russian-interference-affect-the-2016-election/ ) observed that it was probably the October 26, 2016, Comey letter, reopening the Clinton email controversy, that tipped the election to Trump.  Nonetheless, Silver observed, “Thematically, the Russian interference tactics were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost.”  (For example, one reason Clinton lost was a decline in black voter turnout and the Russian agents worked to suppress this turnout.)

However, it should be noted that Clinton lost the electoral college because of 77,784 votes in three states.  In Wisconsin, Clinton lost to Trump by 22,177 votes where Jill Stein received 31,006 votes.  It may be that there are smoking guns lying in the wreckage of the 2016 election: voting machines that were tampered with or Russian agents advising Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin…

It seems likely that the Mueller investigation will establish coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians.  (For example, it seems obvious that the Trump campaign knew that the Russians had hacked the DNC well before this was public knowledge.) What remains to be seen is whether there’s evidence that ties Donald Trump to this.

Finally, there’s the concern that Trump is a Russian stooge; that Putin blackmailed Trump to run for President because Putin wanted to disrupt our democracy.  On the one hand this seems like the most difficult suspicion to prove.  On the other hand, Trump acts like he’s guilty; he spends so much time decrying the Mueller investigation as “a hoax,” and trying to thwart it, that it’s hard to believe that he didn’t do something wrong.

Given the level of professionalism evidenced in the February 16th indictment, the Mueller investigation will establish whether Trump is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Forecasting the Midterm Elections in the West

The 2018 midterm elections will occur on November 6th. Democrats have been predicting a “blue wave,” but recently there’s been an uptick of support for President Trump and, as a result, Democrats are nervous. Nonetheless, the eleven western states look positive for Dems.

The latest 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 west.

California: Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is running for reelection and is likely to win her sixth term in office.  The real excitement is in the House races where, according to the Cook Report, at least 10 races are competitive.

CA 4 McClintock (R) — Likely Republican.
CA 7 Bera (D) — Leans Democrat. (The one Democrat seat in jeopardy.)
CA 10 Denham (R) — Toss up.
CA 21 Valadao (R) — Likely Republican but Dems outnumber Republicans.
CA 25 Knight (R) — Toss up.
CA 39 Royce (R) — Leans Democrat; Royce is retiring.
CA 45 Walters (R) — Leans Republican.
CA 48 Rohrabacher (R) — Toss up.
CA 49 Issa (R) — Leans Democrat; Issa is retiring.
CA 50 Hunter (R) — Likely Republican.
(There’s a lot of interest in Republican Devin Nunes seat (CA 22); the Cook Report rates it as Solid Republican.)

Because of California’s “top-two” primary system, it’s likely that on November 6th, California voters will chose between two Democratic candidates for Governor and two Democratic candidates for Senator; this should depress the Republican vote.

Nevada: Republican Senator Dean Heller is up for reelection and the Cook Report rates the race as a tossup.  (Heller’s likely opponent is Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen.)  There’s an open Governor’s slot because the existing Republican governor is term-limited out; Cook rates this Governor’s race as a tossup.  There are two House races of interest, both currently occupied by Democrats:
NV 3 Rosen (D) — tossup; Rosen is retiring to run for Senator.
NV 4 Kihuen (D) — Leans Democrat; Kihuen is retiring.

Arizona: Republican Senator Jeff Flake is retiring and the Cook Report rates this race as a tossup.  (The likely Democratic candidate is congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema.)  The Republican Governor, Doug Ducey, is running for reelection; Cook rates this race as likely Republican.  There are three house races of interest:
AZ 1 O’Halleran (D) — Leans Democrat
AZ 2 O’Salley (R) — Leans Democrat; O’Salley is retiring to run for Senator
AZ 9 Sinema (D) — Likely Democrat; Sinema is retiring to run for Senator.

New Mexico: Republican Governor Martinez is term-limited out.  Cook Report shows race this as leaning Democrat.  There are two open house seats of interest (both incumbents are retiring.)
NM 1 Lujan-Grisham (D) — Leans Democrat
NM 2 Pearce (R) — Likely Republican.

Colorado: Democratic Governor Hickenlooper is term-limited out.  Cook Report shows this race as leaning Democrat.  There is one congressional seat up:
CO 6 Coffman (R) — Toss up.

Montana: Democratic Senator John Tester is up for reelection.  Cook shows this as likely Democrat.  There is one house seat, Gianforte (R), which Cook shows as likely Republican.

Washington: There is one house seat of interest: WA 8 Reichert (R); he is retiring.  Cook rates this a toss up.

Oregon: The Democratic incumbent Governor, Kate Brown, is up for re-election; Cook shows this a likely Democrat.  OR 5 Schrader (D) rates as likely Democrat.

Thus in the west there’s an opportunity for Democrats to pick up 2 Senate seats, at least 8 House seats, and 3 governorships.

Pelosi’s Marathon

I like Nancy Pelosi. She’s a smart, hard-working, progressive leader. But she’s getting old, so there have been calls for her to step aside.
That’s why her February 7th, 8 hour 10 minute filibuster is worthy of mention. When it counts, Pelosi still has what it takes.

Next month, Nancy Pelosi will turn 78. She’s been in the House of Representatives since 1987 (representing San Francisco) and the House Democratic leader since 2003. Since 2010, Republicans have focussed their wrath on her and turned her — and Barack Obama — into their hate objects.  Whenever there’s a competitive house race, Republicans routinely paint the Democratic candidate as a “Pelosi liberal,” someone who will “enact the Pelosi agenda.”

For many Republicans, Nancy Pelosi has become the face of the Democratic Party.  On the February 2nd PBS New Hour, conservative columnist David Brooks quipped, “And we get a false view of politics based on what Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi are screaming each other.”  (Liberal columnist Mark Shields came to Pelosi’s defense, “Let me just establish first at the outset there is no moral parity between Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump.”)

Republicans like to attack Pelosi because she’s a San Francisco liberal — not a bad thing, in my opinion — and because she’s a woman.  (If we ever doubted that misogyny lies at the heart of Republican politics, we only have to study the behavior of Donald Trump — it’s hard to imagine a more sexist U.S. politician.)

Recently some Democrats have turned on Pelosi because of her age.  They’ve suggested that she should step aside in favor of some younger Democrat.  Not suprisingly, all the Dems suggested for Pelosi’s position are white men.

At the moment, Democrats are scrambling around trying to find leadership that can stand up to the Trump news juggernaut.  It’s a daunting task because Trump has the dual advantage of being able to use the White House propaganda machine and — as a reality TV star — being extremely media savvy.  Many have suggested that Nancy Pelosi and the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, aren’t the ideal politicians to represent the Dems.  But there’s no unity on which Democrat should represent the Party.  (For their State-of-the-Union response, Democrats actually had five different responses; the official response was by Congressman Joe Kennedy — who did a good job.)

Early 2018 finds the Democratic Party in an unusual condition: the base is highly motivated — at least here in California — and the national leadership seems to be in disarray.  That’s why Pelosi’s marathon was important.

On February 7th, Pelosi spoke in defense of the Dreamers.  The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/02/07/a-house-filibuster-like-the-one-nancy-pelosi-gave-hasnt-happened-in-more-than-a-century/? ) observed that Pelosi’s filibuster was the longest ever in the House of Representatives — the previous record was 5 hours 15 minutes set in 1909.  “According to our Washington Post team who was watching Pelosi, she barely took time to unwrap a mint several hours in and was not interrupted once.”  The Post also noted that during the entire 8 hours and 10 minutes, Pelosi wore “four-inch heels.”  (So much for the concern that Pelosi no longer has the energy to be an effective Democratic leader.)

All this would be notable, and amusing, if it was not for the fact that Pelosi was defending the Dreamers, the 690,000 young people who are legally adrift since September 5th, when Donald Trump terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  On January 9th, Trump promised that he would soon sign a “clean” DACA bill.  However, on January 12th, when presented with a bipartisan compromise, Trump reneged on his promise.  Since then the Dreamers status has been precarious.

On January 22nd, when Senate Democrats ended 2018’s first government shutdown, they forged an agreement with Republican Senate leadership that within a couple of weeks there would be a Senate debate on the resolution of the DACA issue.  Unfortunately, House Democrats were unable to get the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, to agree to a similar plan.  At the moment, Ryan has not agreed to let the House debate DACA or immigration in general.  (Many feel this is because if Ryan lets the full house vote on DACA, and immigration, the result is likely to be something that the White House does not agree with.)

On February 7th, Pelosi said she supports the substance of the pending Senate budget agreement — to avert a government shutdown — but wants to extract an an explicit promise from  Paul Ryan that he’ll bring a Dreamer bill to the floor soon.  (According to the New York Times, during her 8 hour 10 minute filibuster, “Pelosi read heart-rending testimonies from Dreamers who had written their representatives about their lives. There was Andrea Seabra, who is serving in the Air Force, and whose father was a member of the Peruvian Air Force. There was Carlos Gonzalez, who once worked as an aide to former Representative Michael M. Honda, Democrat of California. And there was Al Okere, whose father was killed by the Nigerian police after articles he wrote criticizing the Nigerian government appeared in a newspaper.”)

Some Democrats have issues with Nancy Pelosi.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine any other Democrat doing what she did on February 7th.  Pelosi is a leader.  Hopefully she can lead Washington Democrats to a satisfactory resolution of the DACA crisis.

The Great Imposters: Reagan and Trump

Donald Trump likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan.  Trump and Reagan do have a lot in common, both in terms of ideology and their approach to the office of the President.  They’re imposters.  Reagan was an actor playing the role of President; so is Trump.

Ideology: Reagan and Trump were influenced by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism: “unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive.”  This produced the “trickle-down” economic theory that cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy would eventually benefit all members of society.  In the 80’s this produced “Reganomics” and, in 2017, led to the massive GOP tax-code revision.  Trump doesn’t believe in governing for all Americans, only for those he perceives as winners.

Reagan and Trump supported the doctrine of white supremacy.  Reagan’s approach was less overt: he advocated “States’ rights” and deplored “welfare bums” and “welfare queens.”  Trump has a long history of racism and, since Charlottesville, has made public his support for white supremacists.  (Trump’s immigration objective is to block the immigration of everyone who is not of white-European origin.)

Reagan and Trump campaigned with an “America first” perspective.  In 1980 Regan said, “Let’s make America great again.” In 2016, Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America great again.”

Personality: Reagan and Trump marketed themselves as outsiders who would come to Washington and shake up the establishment.  Reagan promised to reduce the power of the Government and noted, “Government is the problem.”  Trump promised to “drain the swamp.”  (Both Reagan and Trump forgot their promises after entering the White House.)

Reagan and Trump were raised as mainstream Christians; at the end of their lives they both identified as Presbyterian.  As they began to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination they adopted a conservative Christian agenda.  Reagan’s signature “values” issue was prayer in the schools.  Trump’s signature issue is abortion.  Both Reagan and Trump began their adult lives as pro-choice and then switched to being “pro-life.”

Reagan and Trump both had an unsavory aspect of their personal history that they labored to conceal.  During the 40’s Regan was an FBI informant who provided the bureau with names of motion-picture luminaries that he believed were communist sympathizers.  Reagan continued his relationship with the FBI into the 70’s.

In the 90’s Donald Trump several times filed for bankruptcy because of problems with his hotel and casino businesses.  It’s alleged that he recovered from a ruinous financial situation by laundering money for the Mafia.  (Allegedly, Trump’s Russia connection started with the Mafia.)

Mental Health: Reagan left the presidency in January of 1989 and five years later was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Writing in the Virginia Quarterly Review (http://www.vqronline.org/essay/reagan-retrospect ) Robert Erwin notes that during his time in Washington, Reagan was regarded as an “amiable dunce;” someone who did not understand business essentials or the governmental process but who, in public gatherings, exuded confidence and spoke effectively.

Since Trump became president there has been continuous speculation about his mental health.  Like Reagan, Trump does not appear to understand business essentials or the governmental process.  Trump functions best when he reads from a script.

Management: Robert Erwin writes, “Future historians will have no trouble understanding [the Reagan presidency] as an American example of the ancient practice of political puppetry… put a videogenic executive impersonator out front who would not interfere with trade associations, lawyers, lobbyists, and others doing the important work.”

The Trump presidency follows the Reagan “puppet” model..  Trump is the “videogenic executive impersonator,” while in the background Republican oligarchs organize to get their objectives accomplished.

We can see this model at work in the recent Republican legislative initiatives.

1.2017 Tax Reform: Trump signed the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” on December 22nd.  It passed the House and Senate with no Democratic support.  (Most legislation needs a minimum of 60 votes to pass the Senate; the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by a 51-49 margin because Republicans were able to use a convoluted “budget reconciliation” process: they had to “ensure” that the tax bill only increased the deficit by $1.5 trillion in the first 10 years.)  The GOP tax plan, which greatly benefits the Oligarchs supporting Trump, was shepherded through Congress by Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin (formerly CEO of OneWest Bank) and WH chief economic advisor Gary Cohn (former COO of Goldman Sachs)

2. Immigration: On September 5th, Trump precipitated an immigration crisis by ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and not providing a way for the Democrats to negotiate safe status for the 690,000 DACA young people.  On January 9th, Trump promised that he would soon sign a “clean” DACA bill.  However, on January 12th, when presented with a bipartisan compromise, Trump reneged on his promise.  Democrats briefly shut down the government and then backed off, on January 22.

It’s become clear that Democrats are not negotiating immigration with Trump –whose positions change hourly — but his chief-of-staff, John Kelly, and senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller.

The White House staff keeps Trump in the background and lets Republican operatives do the real work of crafting the legislation.

Caveat: Although Reagan and Trump are strikingly similar, Reagan was a fervent anti-communist.  On the other hand, Trump never misses an opportunity to suck up to Russia.