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Fri Apr 19, 2019, 09:05 PM

Friday Talking Points -- The Mueller Report's Aftermath

This discussion thread was locked as off-topic by Yonnie3 (a host of the General Discussion forum).

Yesterday, Robert Mueller's investigative report on Donald Trump was made (mostly) public. Today, Trump and his cheerleaders are insisting that he has been totally vindicated and exonerated, while some Democratic candidates for president are demanding that impeachment proceedings be launched in the House of Representatives. That's a pretty wide gulf in perception, but at this point it was to be expected.

Just as has already been revealed in multiple behind-the-scenes tell-all books written about the Trump White House, at the heart of the Mueller Report's findings on obstruction of justice is a bit of incredible irony: what saved Trump from the more blatant forms of obstructing justice was nothing short of his own incompetence. He'd order an advisor to do something that was clearly illegal or highly unethical, and the advisor would either refuse outright or just do nothing in the hopes that Trump would forget about the whole thing. The fact that high-ranking aides would repeatedly just fail to act on Trump's outrageous demands in the hopes he'd soon forget about them obviously means that such a tactic was often effective. The picture this paints is not a flattering one, of Trump blowing up and screaming at someone to do something but then being so easily distracted that he'd forget all about it and often never mention it again. Again, this is the same picture painted by multiple tell-all books as well as a variety of other sources, so it is probably pretty accurate. Trump was saved from a whole lot of lawbreaking because he'd immediately forget that he had demanded such a thing. Hell of a way to run a country, isn't it?

This Keystone Kops performance begs the question of how many other wild-eyed things has Trump demanded of his staff only to be completely ignored? How much chaos have "the adults in the room" prevented, just by allowing Trump's faulty memory to erase his own tantrums? It's a frightening thought, really, especially after so many of these adults in the room have confirmed such episodes after they've left Trump's administration. The Mueller Report didn't create this narrative, it merely built on it.

Democrats, of course, are wondering what to do next. Elizabeth Warren led the pack of presidential candidates by explicitly calling today for Trump's impeachment:

The severity of this misconduct demands that elected officials in both parties set aside political considerations and do their constitutional duty. That means the House should initiate impeachment proceedings against the President of the United States.

As of this writing, the only other candidate who has agreed has been Julián Castro. Most of the others took a more measured stance. Many denounced Attorney General William Barr's press conference, where he toadied up to Trump to the exclusion of all else. Many called for further investigations by Congress, or demanded that the full and unredacted Mueller Report be made available to members of Congress. And most Democrats took the opportunity to slam Trump around, of course.

Nancy Pelosi, so far, has been charting a cautious course. She has scheduled a conference call for Monday so House Democrats can discuss what is going to happen next. Jerrold Nadler has called for hearings with lots of witnesses, including both Barr and Mueller himself, to happen in the next few weeks. Steny Hoyer, though, openly scoffed at the idea of impeachment: "Based on what we have seen to date, going forward on impeachment is not worthwhile at this point. Very frankly, there is an election in 18 months, and the American people will make a judgment."

Hoyer immediately received some pushback, but he and Pelosi are probably right about the politics of the situation. Those calling for impeachment right now are leaning heavily on the "it's your constitutional duty" argument, which is a potent one indeed. But to what end? Opening an impeachment process would mean more investigation, but that's going to happen anyway, whether you call it "an impeachment hearing" or not. Mueller's team launched 14 tangential investigations, so the Justice Department already is hard at work on everything Mueller uncovered that was not considered conspiracy or obstruction, but which still may be criminal. The House has several committees already investigating all things Trump, and those investigations are going to move forward no matter what else happens.

Just for the sake of argument, let's say the House did vote in the next couple of weeks to impeach Trump. Conviction in the Senate requires a two-thirds vote, which means that 20 Republicans would have to cross the aisle and vote to remove Trump from office. Twenty Republicans. Any bets as to the likelihood of that happening?

Now, as many have pointed out, obstruction of justice was at the center of both the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the looming impeachment of Richard Nixon. A president obstructing justice is indeed a high crime and misdemeanor, in other words. In their own words, many Republicans still serving in the Senate today were absolutely outraged at Bill Clinton's obstruction of justice, way back when. So Mueller's case for obstruction -- laid out in ten instances within his report -- is entirely sufficient to remove a sitting president.

That's an excellent legalistic point, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Bill Clinton, if you'll remember, not only survived impeachment (when enough Senate Democrats stuck with him) but his popularity actually went up during the process. He emerged politically stronger and the Republicans in Congress emerged weaker. Absent any other bombshell revelations about other Trump misdeeds, this is likely exactly what would happen if Democrats immediately began impeachment proceedings. The House could impeach him, but the Senate would not convict him. He'd be in a constant rant against Democratic overreach, and he'd paint himself as the victim of nothing but partisanship. In the end, he'd win and Democrats would "chalk up a moral victory by acting," or something. But it would all definitely affect the 2020 election, that's for sure.

At this point, we have to agree with what has been Nancy Pelosi's position all along -- that not unlike Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, the American public "will know an impeachable offense when they see one." And that we haven't met that standard yet. So far, nothing in the Mueller Report has changed our mind, either.

Democrats should continue in their efforts to obtain an unredacted Mueller Report, just to see what else it contains. They should redouble their efforts to investigate the president for government misconduct, for elections misconduct, for financial misconduct, and for anything else there is to be uncovered. The search for a smoking gun is nowhere near over, in other words. Any one of these investigations may reveal something so shocking that even Republicans refuse to defend Trump. But we're just not there yet.

Of course, there were other things happening last week than just the Mueller Report. The Democratic presidential campaign got a little more concrete with the release of fundraising figures for all the declared candidates. Here are the totals everybody raised in the first quarter of the year:

  • Bernie Sanders: $18.2 million

  • Kamala Harris: $12 million

  • Beto O'Rourke: $9.1 million

  • Pete Buttigieg: $7.1 million

  • Elizabeth Warren: $6 million

  • Cory Booker: $5 million

  • Amy Klobuchar: $4.6 million

  • Kirsten Gillibrand: $3 million

  • Jay Inslee: $2.3 million

  • John Hickenlooper: $2 million

  • Andrew Yang: $1.8 million

  • Marianne Williamson: $1.6 million

  • Tulsi Gabbard: $1.5 million

  • Julián Castro: $1.1 million

  • John Delaney: $300,000

  • Wayne Messam: $43,500

By week's end, though, the big news was that Joe Biden is finally ready to throw his hat in the ring. He's teasing an announcement possibly next Wednesday and possibly from Charlottesville, Virginia (to make a statement against Trump's "very fine people on both sides" idiocy). Will Biden be the last major announcement for Democrats? Will the field finally be set? Well, probably not -- Senator Michael Bennet also seems ready to launch, but he'll likely wait until after Biden does. To date, there are 17 Democratic politicians running (those who have held or currently hold some kind of office) as well as two outsiders (Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson). With Biden and Bennet in the race, those numbers will be 19 and 21, respectively. To be completely accurate, you'd also have to count Richard Ojeda, who officially ran but became the first candidate to quit the race. So the entire field will be at least either 20 or 22 candidates, depending on how you count. Whew!

There wasn't a whole lot else going on in Washington this week, as everyone was focused on the Mueller Report. If you're sick of in-depth analyses of the Mueller Report or just need a laugh, we would highly recommend Alexandra Petri's amusing "book report" on it (written in the style of a junior-high-school student who obviously hadn't read the whole book).

Let's see, what else? North Korea is testing weapons again, just to rattle the world's cage a little bit. Oh, and a bit of good news to end on, here -- the state of Arkansas is going to replace a statue of a Confederate inside the United States Capitol (each state is allowed two statues of prominent citizens to represent the state in the "People's House" ) with a statue of "The Man In Black," Arkansan Johnny Cash. Now there's a "retire the Confederate statues" move that everyone can go along with!

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week made news for entering not a lions' den but rather a Foxhole.

Senator Bernie Sanders appeared Monday night on Fox News to participate in live town hall meeting. This was obviously a risky thing for any Democrat to do, because you never know what'll happen on Fox.

Sanders, however, not only held his own but from all accounts actually knocked it out of the park. He defended his own positions, he defended making money from writing a book, and the Fox moderators got a huge dose of humiliation on what was supposed to be a gotcha question. All around, a pretty good night for Bernie!

We wrote about this earlier in the week, while suggesting that more Democrats ought to go on Fox if they truly have the strength of their convictions. Bernie's defense of Medicare For All was probably the highlight of the entire evening, but before we get to audience participation we have to point out one thing few have so far noticed about Bernie's position on the issue.

As far as the inside-the-Beltway media crowd is convinced, Medicare For All is a big, scary thing to virtually everyone, because it would totally do away with the private health insurance industry, and "most people are happy with the insurance they get through their employers." Well, yes and no. Bernie has been countering this impression with a valid point that few have ever bothered to make -- you may like your company's health insurance, but just because you like it doesn't mean that each and every year you aren't in danger of your employer deciding to go with a different company that is offering cheaper rates. When this happens (as it does for millions, each and every year), people lose access to their favorite doctor, they have to understand a new company's system from scratch, and they themselves have no say in the matter whatsoever (unless they're lucky enough to belong to a Union). So just because you get health insurance through your employer, there is no guarantee that you'll have that same insurance and doctor next year, or the year after that. That is the reality people live with, but that is completely ignored in what passes for a Medicare For All debate in the mainstream media. Bernie is pointing out something that everyone can relate to, in other words, because it is so commonplace.

But getting back to the audience participation. When the moderator asked the town hall audience how many had health insurance through their employer, a sea of hands went up. Then -- in true gotcha style -- he asked how many people would be willing to give up their employer's healthcare for Medicare For All. What Fox obviously expected was for almost every hand to go down, because this proves their own warped world view. What actually happened, though, was that almost every hand stayed up. People are fed up with health insurance companies, whether they are paid through their employers or not. This is why -- another fact usually ignored by the media -- Medicare For All actually polls very well among a majority of Americans. As those hands proved, even on Fox News.

So for outfoxing Fox News in such spectacular fashion, Bernie Sanders is easily our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. He may have even won the MIDOTW this week anyway, even if he hadn't appeared on Fox, because he topped the list of Democratic candidates in first-quarter fundraising ($18.2 million) and also led the pack in percentage of money raised from small donations -- 84 percent (more on this in a moment). Both of those are impressive statistics, especially considering how far out in front Bernie is. Number two in fundraising was Kamala Harris, who only raised $12 million. This means that Bernie led all challengers by an amount ($6.2 million) that was more than twelve other campaigns had collected in total. That's pretty impressive all around.

But we didn't even have to resort to the numbers game to make this week's decision, because Bernie's performance on Fox News early in the week was all we needed to see to determine this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

{Congratulate Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.}

Now, we do understand that political campaigns always try to spin everything as positively as possible for the candidate. But, at times, such spinning is so wildly misleading that it needs to be called out as cutting too close to outright dishonesty. We got a taste of this in the first-quarter fundraising numbers reported by the Democratic presidential campaigns. We're not sure any of it rises to an actual Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, so instead we will leave this week's MDDOTW statuette on the shelf and instead award (Dis-)Honorable Mention awards to a number of Democratic candidates, for how their campaigns are spinning the numbers.

The first example was in how the fundraising numbers were reported. Most of the campaigns reported the amount raised for the primary election alone (election law splits donations for primaries and for the general election into two categories). But three candidates tried to obscure the record. Two of them -- John Hickenlooper and Amy Klobuchar -- reported the total they had raised for both the primary and the general as one lump sum. This artificially boosted their numbers compared to the other candidates' totals. And one candidate -- John Delaney -- reported over $12 million raised, but failed to break this down into what he had personally given to his own campaign versus what other people had donated. The actual amount ($300,000) Delaney had raised was a tiny fraction of what his campaign said he had (Note: the numbers in the above list have all been corrected to what was raised from donors for the primary, not what these three campaigns claimed).

There was a second way the campaigns tried to obfuscate their own records as well. It has become a point of honor within the Democratic Party to boast of how much of your campaign chest was raised "from small donations." But there are two ways to measure this -- the way everyone previously had measured it, and a new way which sounds a lot better in campaign literature, but which is also misleading.

The first method measures campaign funds. What percentage of your funding was given in the form of small donations (usually defined as $200 or less)? Take the amount raised by small donations and divide by the total raised, and you get a percentage of your funding that came from small donors. This is the accepted way of measuring things, or at least it had been up until now.

A second way has now appeared, which helps make the numbers sound a whole lot better. Instead of measuring money, instead measure the number of donors. So take the number of small donations and divide by the total number of donors. Voilà! The percentage becomes much higher (because this metric ignores the imbalance in the size of the donations between large and small donors).

The Washington Post fact-checkers helpfully pointed all this out (while awarding two Pinocchios to all the campaigns fudging the numbers). Measured in the standard way (comparing the amounts raised), Bernie Sanders leads the field with 84 percent of his money raised through small donations. Behind him are Andrew Yang (81 percent), Elizabeth Warren (70), Pete Buttigieg (64), Marianne Williamson (60), Beto O'Rourke (59), and Tulsi Gabbard (55). All the other candidates fell below 50 percent, meaning over half of the money they raised came from larger donors.

But five of the candidates decided their numbers weren't impressive enough, and instead released the "compare donors, not money" numbers instead. Let's begin (in increasing order of the severity of the sin) with Beto O'Rourke, who reported that he had raised a whopping 98 percent of his money from small donors. In terms of money raised, however, this number falls to only 59 percent -- a difference of 39 points. That is, to be blunt, misleading. It's the difference between "almost everybody" and "six out of ten."

But he wasn't the worst, by far. Amy Klobuchar reported 85 percent of small donations, when she raised only 35 percent of her money this way. She doesn't have many big donors, but they've got deep pockets, obviously, to create a 50-point disparity in the numbers.

Kamala Harris was even worse, reporting the same 98 percent as O'Rourke but only raising a measly 37 percent of her money this way -- a 61-point difference.

But there were two champions by far in the "fudge the numbers" category this week, because both Kirsten Gillibrand and John Hickenlooper reported numbers so filled with fudge you expected a Keebler elf to be answering questions afterwards. Gillibrand reported a sunny 92 percent of small donors, but only raised 17 percent of her money this way. Hickenlooper reported a more-modest 85 percent small donors but only raised a pathetic 10 percent of his money from small donations. Both candidates misstated the actual number by a jaw-dropping 75 percentage points.

Spinning bad news, as we mentioned, is expected from political campaigns. But there are lines candidates should not cross. One of these lines is using the same metric as the rest of the political universe in measuring your campaign's effectiveness. For attempting to blur or erase these lines this week, we have (Dis-)Honorable Mention awards for the following: John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Beto O'Rourke. And we have a double (Dis-)Honorable Mention award for both John Hickenlooper and Amy Klobuchar, for using both methods of dishonestly trying to boost their fundraising numbers. Let's try to adhere to some agreed-upon standards in the future, folks.

Volume 524 (4/19/19)

Not surprisingly, our talking points this week deal exclusively with the Mueller Report and the continuing fallout. While other things did happen this week, by week's end it was yet another one-story week, with the Mueller Report sucking all the oxygen from everything else that was happening, which is reflected in our talking points.

Incompetence saves Trump

You just know this is getting under Trump's skin....

"For two years, America was saved from the worst excesses of the Republican Party by the Tea Partiers in the House being so incompetent that they ground the conservative agenda to an absolute halt. Now we're finding out that we were saved from the worst excesses of Donald Trump by the sheer incompetence of Donald Trump. If Trump's orders had been followed out -- if his aides had done what he explicitly told them to do -- then we wouldn't even be having an argument about impeachment, because he would have obviously obstructed justice at every turn. The only thing saving him from this is his own inability to follow through on much of anything. His aides ignored his demands or just refused to follow his orders out. They were apparently confident in the fact that Trump would forget what he told them to do almost as soon as he told them to do it. And for the most part, they turned out to be right. Trump's presidency is already an abject failure and disaster, but it would obviously be a lot worse if his people actually did what he told them to do. We're lucky, in fact, that Trump is such an incompetent leader."

Here's one clue...

This one should be used pretty much every time the press confronts any White House spokespeople from now on.

"When I hear Sarah Huckabee Sanders speak from the podium in the White House briefing room, I know full well that what she is saying is almost certainly a lie. She has admitted under oath that she just makes stuff up when answering reporters, pulling stories and quips from thin air to back up Trump's delusional view of the world. In fact, at this point, it's easy to tell when Sarah Huckabee Sanders is lying -- just watch her lips. If they're moving, she's probably lying."

The refuseniks

Again, almost guaranteed to get under Trump's skin.

"The Washington Post had a good rundown of all the top aides to President Trump who just flat-out refused to follow his orders. In shorthand, here is their list: 'Jeff Sessions refused to unrecuse himself. Don McGahn refused to have Mueller fired. Rick Dearborn threw a message from the president to Sessions in the trash. Rob Porter refused to contact the number three person at the Justice Department. Chris Christie refused to contact James Comey. Rod Rosenstein refused to hold a news conference to lie for the president. K. T. McFarland refused to send a memo. Dan Coats refused to put out a dishonest statement.' That's a lot of refuseniks working directly for the president! And one has to wonder -- all of this evidence was gathered on only two subjects. How many other insane or illegal orders does the president give on a regular basis that his aides must be trusted to just flat-out ignore for the good of the country? What else has he demanded be done that never happened? I mean, we're all happy that Trump is so incompetent that he forgets things he said five minutes ago, but it's kind of frightening to contemplate what would happen if so many people didn't just ignore Trump's worst impulses."

One of the best memories

This was entirely expected, what with the answers being in written format.

"Donald Trump used to brag about his memory, saying he had 'one of the best memories of all time,' but I guess it's not as great as he thought. In his written responses to Mueller's questions, Trump used some form of the phrase 'I do not remember' a whopping 37 times. So much for being one of the best memories of all time, eh?"

The other 14 investigations

We're not done yet, folks.

"Some of what was redacted in the Mueller report deals with ongoing investigations. There are an astonishing fourteen of these investigations, launched in tangent to the main Mueller investigation. And none of these -- not one -- has concluded yet. So while the Mueller report was an important milestone, those who are now saying it is the end of the road and we should all just move on are woefully mistaken. Not even counting the investigations launched in Congress, there are still 14 federal investigations going on as a result of what Mueller's team uncovered."

A culture of dishonesty

For our final two talking points, we turn to two paragraphs that stood out for us in the post-Mueller Report media coverage. The first is from the New York Times, which did not pull any punches.

The White House that emerges from more than 400 pages of Mr. Mueller's report is a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty -- defined by a president who lies to the public and his own staff, then tries to get his aides to lie for him. At one juncture after another, Mr. Trump made his troubles worse, giving in to anger and grievance and lashing out in ways that turned advisers into witnesses against him.

No fake news here

The second makes a very important point. There was indeed "fake news" in all of this, but it was the "fake news" coming from the White House. The media got it right, the White House insisted it was "fake news" but in the end it turned out their own denunciations were the fakest thing around.

The mainstream media's report on the incidents that Mueller examined with regard to obstruction were, in virtually all cases, completely correct. The White House's denials were bogus and right-wing cheerleaders who claimed the media got it "wrong" were themselves wrong. Trump did try to fire Mueller; he did mislead the public regarding the Trump Tower meeting; and he did try to influence witnesses.

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: ChrisWeigant
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
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Fri Apr 19, 2019, 09:26 PM

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