The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 20

May 18, 2020

This week:

  • Unmasking scandal starts to get legs
  • Republicans pick up a House seat
  • Road to GOP regaining the House runs through suburban Calif.

President 2020

‘Obama-gate’ A recent CNN report began by calling it a “conspiracy theory” that high-ranking Obama administration officials were involved in spying on incoming Trump administration officials in late 2016 and early 2017. The problem is, it’s not a theory. This actually happened. The question is, just how pernicious — or how innocent — was it?

Documents show that senior officials, including Vice President Biden or someone acting in his name, requested to look at unredacted versions of documents about Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and his contacts with foreign officials. 

The redactions in these documents exist in order to protect U.S. citizens from unlawful surveillance by the NSA and CIA as they go about the business of tracking foreigners. The unmasking of citizens’ identities — identities of incoming government officials — by outgoing officials serves no legitimate purpose. It might be idle curiosity, it might be something more malicious, but there’s no way to read it as genuine concern for the public trust.

And even worse is the criminal act involved in leaking such a surveilled conversation between a U.S. person (the technical legal term) and a foreign agent. Someone in Obama’s administration committed an actual crime in doing this — not a bogus crime like the ones alleged in Trump’s impeachment, but a real crime. 

Meanwhile, Flynn himself is on the point of being exonerated after what definitely looks like an unethical attempt by prosecutors to set him up with a perjury trap, despite already knowing that no underlying crime had taken place.

This is an especially sensitive question when incoming government officials are being snooped on by outgoing officials with just a few days left in their service. The U.S. prides itself on the rule of law and the peaceful transition of power. This snooping or sneak-peeking or whatever you want to call it, whatever its extent, represents a second concerning breach in this regard. Between this revelation and earlier revelations that FBI and DOJ officials lied to judges and falsified evidence in order to surveil Trump campaign officials, it seems that serious breaches to the rule of law were going on in the late Obama administration. 

America’s republican system depends on officials obeying the law, especially when it comes to investigating or surveilling opposing politicians. Just as it raised serious concerns when people thought President Trump was really going to “lock her up” — “her” being Hillary Clinton — 

There is still a great deal of information unavailable to the public, so it is too early to draw any broad conclusions. But the documents are out there now. This can no longer be written off as some kind of crazy, wild-eyed theory.

‘Haters and losers’: In 2016, President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly among voters who hated both candidates. But this time, he is losing to Joe Biden among these voters by 40 points, according to one poll.

This has to be worrying for Trump, but it’s also not necessarily an apt comparison. Biden is not the same sort of universally despised figure as Clinton. People who dislike him are more likely to do so because of his party or his beliefs or because they believe he has insufficient mental acuity to do the job — not because he is personally vile or intolerable. That really sets 2020 apart from 2016.

Libertarian: As quickly as he had teased a run for president on the Libertarian ticket, Rep. Justin Amash has bowed out. As a much more conservative alternative to previous Libertarian candidates, he would have been a formidable nominee. It is very much the Libertarian Party’s loss. Then again, as with his earlier apparent decision to run, it is clear as mud whether his bowing out has a positive or a negative effect or President Trump’s chances of re-election. 

In those states where the race will be close, a libertarian is probably unlikely to take much support away from Trump. Gary Johnson, in winning a record number of votes for a Libertarian in 2016, still did not prevent Trump’s unlikely victory. 

House 2020

Republicans gained one House seat and retained another in special elections last week. There is one more such elections scheduled this year, to replace former Rep. Chris Collins, R, in New York, after his guilty plea for insider trading. That election has been delayed until June 23.

California-25: Mike Garcia won last Tuesday’s special election to the House seat left vacant by the lurid sex-scandal involving former Rep. Katie Hill. Hill, a Democrat, had wrested the seat away from Republicans in the 2018 election, but she was forced by public and party pressure to resign last November. 

Garcia won by a rather large 12-point margin. This is significant because any Republican opportunity to retake the House will require significant gains in suburban California, where the Trump era has not been friendly to the GOP. 

To be sure, Trump has no chance of winning or significantly improving his performance on the ballot in California. But if Republicans can enjoy a comeback like this one in a seat like this one, they may be able to win back several other seats currently in Democratic hands. This may also suggest that reports of the Republican Party’s death in the suburbs were exaggerated.

Meanwhile, it points to the fact that Republicans need to stop grousing about mail-in elections and start contesting them in earnest. This race was all mail balloting.

Smith and Garcia will face each other once again in November. 

Wisconsin-7: State Sen. Tom Tiffany easily won this race, as expected, and did it by a 14-point margin. This northern Wisconsin seat is the exact opposite of the California district — precisely the sort of white, working-class rural district, until recently Democratic, where President Trump’s approval and support thrives. 

Obama won this seat in 2008 and a Democrat had represented it for 21 terms up to the 2010 election. A Democratic resurgence here might have sent a message that Democrats can recover with the working class. Unfortunately for them, there is no indication that this type of Democratic voter is anything but an endangered species.