The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 35 – This week:
- Just how bad was last week for Trump? It’s still unclear.
- Gov. Doug Ducey must choose someone to fill the late John McCain’s shoes
- A Trump endorsee just lost a race for the first time in 2018
Cohen Plea: The news in the national press was all about Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and the jeopardy in which it puts the Trump presidency. Newspapers in Iowa, however, led with the arrest of the alleged murderer of Mollie Tibbetts.
That pretty much sums up the situation right now. It is true that Cohen’s allegedly criminal activity could potentially be a problem for Trump. But it isn’t a foregone conclusion, and this could be a case of Washington people fooling themselves about what’s important — a common occurrence in the Trump era beginning with his 2016 primary campaign.
The important part of Cohen’s plea is his admission to a campaign finance violation. By making hush-money payoffs to women who were claiming to have had sex with Trump, he accuses himself of attempting to influence the 2016 election.
But here’s where the logic breaks down: Payoffs to mistresses (or to women who claim to have been mistresses) can easily be justified as personal and not campaign expenses. In fact, it seems more rational to categorize them this way. Such payments are intended, after all, to protect the family and reputation of the payer. Even if it does incidentally affect an election, such a payment does so only in the same sense that (for example) a candidate’s fortunes in business or love could affect an election outcome. Neither are directly pertinent to the financing of a campaign.
Using that argument, Trump has already begun to deflect and rebut the idea that there’s anything criminal in the payments that Cohen made. That leaves Lanny Davis, who let his client plead guilty to what many experts are arguing is not a crime, in an awkward position.
So Trump may not face any serious criminal problems, but what about the politics of an investigation into his sex life? Well, to his hard-core fans, it remains (as he always puts it) a “witch hunt.” To his hard-core haters, it’s the first step toward the impeachment they desperately hope will happen the moment Democrats retake the House.
But then, that’s something that also helps motivate the Republican base, and (as happened in the 1990s) is likely to turn into an anti-anti-Trump backlash even among conservastive voters who still feel somewhat ambivalent about Trump.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that many Americans are hearing more and are more focused on how lax immigration enforcement led to the needless murder of a beautiful young woman in Iowa. As far as the Republican midterm effort is concerned, what looked like a terrible week to those inside the Beltway may prove not to be quite as bad as advertised.
Manafort conviction: With his conviction on eight of 18 counts, Paul Manafort becomes one of two top Trump aides now facing prison time. (Manafort served briefly as Trump’s campaign chairman during the primaries two years ago, and really served more as a hands-on campaign manager during that period.)
The main takeaway: Although he was prosecuted by Robert Mueller, whose commission is to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, nearly all of the offenses of which Manafort was convicted took place well before that election.
Democrats continue to hope that this is a sign that special counsel Robert Mueller will get Manafort to flip on Trump in exchange for a lighter sentence, or that the follow-up trial on separate charges this fall will get deeper into matters touching Trump directly.
But it is just as likely, and perhaps more, that Mueller believes Manafort was unjustly paid, perhaps indirectly by Russians, to try to influence Trump on various matters. This fits with the theory that he was given a loan that he should never have received because of interference by someone who wanted a position within the campaign. Manafort may not have been successful during the four-and-a-half months of his tenure on Trump’s campaign, but the idea is that Manafort might have also been acting to mollify or pay back a Russian oligarch who claimed that Manafort owed him a massive sum of money.
Keep an eye on the upcoming second trial, which may reveal more about the Russia connection, if indeed it exists.
Arizona: Conservatives always had a love-hate relationship with Sen. John McCain, R. He famously drew candidate Trump’s ire in 2015, but it had little effect on the race. He killed Obamacare repeal, but he was also among the most active senators in the fight to end earmarks. He had his maverick streak, and he was excessively hawkish for some Republicans’ taste, but he was also a Vietnam vet who served admirably and suffered in the custody of the Viet Cong.
McCain’s death leaves an open senate seat which Gov. Doug Ducey, R, will have to fill. Because McCain survived beyond a June legal deadline, the new occupant of the seat will stay in office until at least the 2020 election.
Conservatives are hoping he resists the temptation to appoint McCain’s wife Cindy to the seat. Ducey has said he will wait until after McCain is buried.
Florida: Rep. Ron DeSantis, with President Trump’s blessing, has the edge over Agriculture Secretary and former Rep. Adam Putnam in Tuesday’s primary.This race, which Putnam had long been favored to win without incident, turned around in a hurry after Trump’s intervention.
Also helping DeSantis is his opposition to the sugar industry, whose clout in state and national politics has allowed it to despoil the state’s environment with massive government subsidies.
On the Democratic side, former Rep. Gwen Graham has the slightest edge over former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine. She is probably the strongest candidate Democrats could field.
Kansas: Democrats have failed to kick left-leaning independent Greg Orman off the ballot by challenging thousands of the signatures with which Orman qualified for the ballot. In fact, they didn’t even come close — Orman had submitted far more than he needed, with the majority of them validated.
That means the election this fall will be a three-way race in which Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach benefits from vote-splitting between Orman and Democratic nominee state Sen. Laura Kelly. What’s more, the challenge prompted Orman to attack the Democrats for hypocrisy in their talk about open and fair elections, something that can’t hurt Kobach too much.
Pennsylvania: Keep an eye on this one, which no one expected to be close. A Republican poll shows the race between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican former state Sen. Scott Wagner in single digits at 46 to 43 percent. Not to say that the poll can be trusted — what little non-partisan polling there is shows a double-digit race — but a close race would really upend expectations and signify unexpected Republican strength in the Keystone State.
Wyoming: For the first time this calendar year, a Trump-endorsed candidate lost a Republican primary. The last time it happened was in Alabama last winter, when Trump endorsed Luther Strange and Roy Moore won instead over his warnings.
Trump had endorsed Foster Friess, a wealthy conservative megadonor. Friess lost anyway.
Given the unusual circumstances, it’s understandable that Trump’s endorsement didn’t go further. Wyoming voters rejected Trump in their caucuses in 2016, and Friess got into this race about as late as one could.
Still, Trump’s endorsement has been a deus ex machina for Republican candidates all over the country, including GOP primary candidates for House and governor. It turns out that it wasn’t quite good enough for Friess. Now state Treasurer Mark Gordon, having defeated Friess by about 7 points, is the heavy favorite for governor this fall over former Democratic state lawmaker Mary Throne.