October Surprise Watch: Robert Mueller, Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg

The most significant scoop in the past few days broke on CNN on Thursday night: according to sources, Michael Cohen is alleging that then-candidate Donald Trump knew in advance about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Russians were offering damaging information about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, authorized the meeting, and Cohen is willing to tell this to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The significance of this bit of information is that, if it can be verified by other witnesses, documents, or other methods, might not be the smoking gun for collusion but would be a hugely consequential piece of evidence that contradicts much of the existing defense that has been offered by President Trump and others close to him. Why? Look at this tweet from House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff:

Schiff’s timeline leaves out a lot of events (there’s only so much you can do with 280 characters), but the basic implication of his sequence of events is correct: Donald Trump’s alleged advance knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting changes everything we thought we knew at the time, as well as everything he said and did after the meeting: every time he said “No collusion,” every time he tried to float another suspect for the DNC hacks, the time he called for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, his decision to fire Jim Comey, Donald Jr’s testimony to the congressional committees investigating Russian election interference…  all of those events and comments become suspicious with the benefit of hindsight. If prosecutors can prove this advance knowledge, it could also have a significant impact on Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation into the president.

Curiously, the Trump legal team’s defense hasn’t been to deny the allegation, but to attack Michael Cohen’s credibility as a potential witness for the government. (President Trump denied the story in a Friday morning tweetstorm.) Of course, what Giuliani does not address in that barb is the fact that Donald Trump hired Michael Cohen to work for him, and to take care of sensitive and unsavory matters like paying off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to effectively buy their silence during the 2016 election.

Besides the president, the person who is possibly most at risk from this revelation is Donald Trump Jr. based on the released transcript of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September of 2017.  Note this exchange on page 29, which he said to the committee under oath that would directly contradict what Cohen is alleging:

Don Jr Transcript

Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell have both alleged that witnesses lied during their testimony to the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee, though it is not clear if either of them have spoken of the president’s son in this context. If the Democrats win control of the House in November, this explosive issue could be revisited in the new year, culminating in possible prosecutions. In the meantime, the controversy could wind up sidelining Donald Trump Jr. as a surrogate campaigning and fundraising for Republicans for midterms.

As far as the other people who were present for the Trump Tower meeting, we don’t know what – if anything – Jared Kushner may have said about it.  Paul Manafort’s criminal trial in Virginia begins next week, so there may be a chance of this subject coming up.

This is coming up in the context of the special master allowing access to more evidence seized by federal agents during the raids on Michael Cohen’s home, office and hotel room last April, although it is not clear in what context this allegation surfaced. Now that prosecutors have access to at least some of the evidence, it would be fair to assume that they are that much closer to getting an indictment against Cohen.

If this information about the Trump Tower meeting surfaced as part of the evidence collected for the investigation handled by the Southern District of New York, then it becomes highly relevant to Robert Mueller’s separate and more expansive investigation. In other words, the two legal storylines are beginning to converge over this one hugely explosive issue.  Lanny Davis – who provided CNN the audio recording of the Trump-Cohen phone call – denied that the leak came from Cohen’s end.

Perhaps the most consequential and ultimately dangerous revelation of the Trump-Cohen recording is Cohen’s mentioning of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer.  The Wall Street Journal reported that Weisselberg has been called to testify as a witness before the grand jury that is hearing the Southern District of New York’s criminal case against Cohen. According to experts, Weisselberg, who was first hired as an accountant by Donald Trump’s father in the 1970s, has intimate knowledge of the family and organization’s finances, including the president ’s net worth.  To paraphrase a cliché being used by Trumpologists on television networks, Weisselberg is a man who knows where the bodies are buried. And now, he will have to answer questions about the president and the company’s finances under oath.

Youth Voter Registration Surges in Aftermath of Parkland Shooting

vote-button

Young voters historically tend to be one of the least reliable demographic groups when it comes to turning out to vote regularly in elections. However, there is preliminary evidence to indicate this year’s election will be an exception to the rule. Survivors of the Parkland shooting have been vocally active in gun control and voter registration efforts during the past seven months, and their efforts might be starting to show results, according to findings from the Democratic-aligned data firm TargetSmart. Based on a review of voter registration data for 18-29 year-olds in 39 states, the organization found:

  • The share of youth voter registrants nationwide has increased by 2.16 percent since February 14, 2018 – the date of the Parkland shooting.
  • How that surge in youth voter registration breaks down states that have key elections this November:
    • Arizona: +8.16 points
    • California: +3.37 points
    • Florida: +7.99 points
    • Indiana: +9.87 points
    • Minnesota: +4.68 points
    • Montana: +3.81 points
    • Nevada: +6.62 points
    • New York: +10.7 points
    • Ohio: +5.95 points
    • Pennsylvania: +16.14 points
    • Tennessee: +3.82
    • Texas: +0.12
    • Virginia: +10.49
    • Wisconsin: +5.64
  • In contrast, youth voter registration dropped in only four states and the District of Columbia.
    • District of Columbia: -2.99
    • Iowa: -0.3
    • South Dakota: -1.4
    • West Virginia: -11.52
    • Wyoming: -7.1

The numbers for competitive swing states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania are particularly stunning. New York and Virginia are safely Democratic states for their statewide candidates on the ballot this year, though the real beneficiaries of that increased turnout might be downballot Democratic candidates and ballot initiatives. In a close election, the slightest margin could make all the difference.

Another data point worth keeping in mind: according to the U.S. Census, only 46.1 percent of 18- to -29-year-olds voted in the 2016 election, but this group reported a 1.1 percent increase in turnout from 2012.  According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton won this age group 55-37. Why is this important? Because if TargetSmart’s 2.16 percent nationwide calculation is correct, it means that youth voter turnout increase in 2018 may double what it was two years ago.

In summary, if this data is correct and more young people are registering to vote, it means that Democrats are expanding their base of voters, which was a crucial element to Barack Obama’s political success in 2008 and 2012.

Trump, Republicans Down in Poll of Crucial Midwest States

US Capitol at Night

Because of the constitutional quirks of the Electoral College, Donald Trump was elected president because of approximately 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A newly released NBC News/Marist poll of two of those three states does not bode well for the president nearly two years before he runs for re-election.

In Michigan, the president’s approval rating is 36-54.

In Minnesota, the president’s approval rating is 38-51.

In Wisconsin, the president’s approval rating is 36-52.

In contrast, only about one third of voters in all three states say President Trump deserves re-election.

The poll was done mostly after the President’s widely criticized summit and press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on July 16. A majority of voters in all three states were in favor of a Democrat-controlled Congress: 45-36 in Michigan, 48-36 in Minnesota, and 47-39 in Wisconsin. A majority of voters in all three states said the message of their vote in November would be that more Democrats are needed in Congress to act as a check and balance on the president.

Besides House congressional races, all three states also have governor and U.S. Senate races as well.

Kansas Democrats Add Amy Klobuchar to Convention Lineup

Following up on this story from a few weeks ago, the Kansas Democratic Party has added Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to the bill for its Demofest convention, set to take place in Wichita in late August.  Klobuchar is also rumored to be considering a 2020 presidential run.

Poll: House Democrats Up By 12

Capitol Hill

Democrats lead a hypothetical matchup for the House of Representatives 51-39 according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. The findings of the poll are generally good news for the party out of power. Some of the other highlights:

  • Republicans are only narrowly ahead among male voters, 46-44.
  • White voters narrowly favor Democrats, 46-45.
  • Democrats win all other demographic groups by double digits:
    • Women favor Democrats by a 57-32 margin.
    • African Americans favor Democrats 78-16.
    • Latinos favor Democrats 66-23.
  • Voters disapprove of both parties in Congress: Republicans 66-27, Democrats 63-30.
  • Voters are split about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. 40 percent say he should be confirmed, 41 percent say he should not. (Historical comparison: the same poll found majority support for Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation 50-35.)
    • Men support Kavanaugh 50-35.
    • Women oppose Kavanaugh 46-32.
    • Whites support Kavanaugh 46-38.
    • African Americans opposed Kavanaugh 61-15.
    • Latinos split 37-38.
    • A 62-27 majority of voters think Roe v. Wade will likely not be overturned in the next few years.
    • A 66-23 majority of voters think overturning Roe v. Wade would be a bad thing.
    • A small 48-39 majority of Republicans is the only demographic to think overturning Roe v. Wade would be a good thing.

 

The conclusions from this poll three months before Election Day:

  • House Democrats are in a good position on the generic ballot. As long as the underlying dynamics of the race remain the same, their odds of winning control of the House of Representatives look good.
  • Republicans have seemingly alienated almost every demographic that isn’t white or male. This does not bode well for their performance in ethnically diverse states like California, Virginia, and Texas.
  • The White House and Senate Republicans have a lot of work to do to gin up support for Brett Kavanaugh. However, Democrats’ attempt to make the Kavanaugh nomination a referendum on abortion rights is seemingly not working, as most voters in this poll say they don’t think the landmark case will be overturned.

 

California Voting: Record Turnout in State’s Midterm Primary Election

Much has been written about the general trend of Democrats overperforming in primary, general and special elections since Donald Trump became President of the United States. Though the Democratic candidate hasn’t always won, generally speaking he or she has exceeded past expectations. California – a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by an almost 2:1 ratio – is the most recent state to show evidence of increased voter turnout.

According to numbers released from the Secretary of State, 7,141,987 Californians voted in the state’s primary election on June 5. This figure is a record for a midterm election year, and is only exceeded by the vote totals in the 2008 and 2016 presidential primary elections, in which California played a key role in deciding the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. This figure is considerably larger than the 5,654,993 people who voted in the 2010 primary, and the 4,461,346 who voted in 2014.

California is expected to play a key role in Democratic hopes to win control of the House of Representatives in November. Democrats need to win 24 seats to flip the House.  Seven of them are Republican-held districts in California that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. There were concerns that the state’s jungle primary system might leave Democrats off the ballot in these competitive districts, until the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee intervened.

Four of the most competitive districts were located in Orange County and San Diego County. Numbers from the 2018 primary election look favorable compared to historical data from the 2014 midterm elections. The number of registered Democrats in Orange County and San Diego County increased by nearly 47,000 and 78,000 voters since 2014. Compare those figures to the number of registered voters in Orange County and San Diego County during that same period increased by nearly 57,000 and 136,000 voters.  In other words, Democrats appear to be responsible for expanding a significant part of the electorate in those two counties in 2018.

It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but the turnout numbers from the primary election are a good sign for California Democrats heading into November.

 

Russian Military Intelligence Officials Indicted for 2016 Election Hacks

A federal grand jury indicted a dozen members of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – the military intelligence agency more colloquially known as the GRU – on eleven counts in connection with the hacking and publication of Democratic Party and campaign organization emails during the 2016 election. Just Security has a good recap of the six major takeaways from today’s indictment, which is well worth reading. I would also recommend listening to the newest episode of the Lawfare Podcast which focuses entirely on various aspects of the indictment.

This is the latest in a series of indictments produced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the 17 months or so since he was appointed to the post.  This makes a total of 191 charges against 35 defendants, according to CNN’s Marshall Cohen. Previous indictments focused on Paul Manafort’s shady foreign business dealings, as well as guilty pleas from members of the Trump campaign’s inner circle, and an indictment of Russian individuals and agencies who were behind the social media effort during the election.

Journalists and observers who have been following the special counsel’s work had expected charges in connection with the hacks.  Why is this one so important? This indictment goes to the heart of the crimes that were committed during the 2016 election.  Remember, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and several senior staffers lost their jobs because of these emails.  Subsequent batches of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s account upended the final month of the presidential race. This operation had an impact in real time, and is at the heart of the collusion accusations.

The timing for the announcement was probably not a coincidence.  Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was holding a press conference announcing the indictment at the same time that President Donald Trump and his wife were meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, just days before a scheduled summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin. An anonymous White House official told Politico, “It’s a big FU from Mueller.”

The emerging Democratic position in the wake of the indictment was to call for the President to cancel his meeting with Putin next week. Some Democrats have even gone so far as saying that President Trump should demand the extradition of the indicted Russians, and in the likely event that Putin declines, to use that as an excuse to cancel the summit.

There are a few things still missing or outstanding from the latest indictment, which could turn up later in a superseding indictment or a separate indictment altogether. First, as Lawfare points out, is the thorny issue of what – if any – First Amendment protections WikiLeaks might have as a publisher when considering charges against the organization and its leader Julian Assange. This current indictment did not even address that question, but did make a few passing references to WikiLeaks as “Organization 1” as a recipient of hacked materials from Guccifer 2.0 – an online alter ego for the GRU, according to the indictment.

Assange insists WikiLeaks is a journalistic enterprise, but its actions in this episode suggest otherwise.  According to the indictment, WikiLeaks sent a private message to Guccifer 2.0 on June 22, 2016 reading, “Send any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” A subsequent message from WikiLeaks reads, “we think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against  hillary. . . so conflict between bernie and hillary is interesting.” In other words – they wanted to meddle and create controversy during the election to help Donald Trump win.  If Mueller subpoenaed Twitter to get access to all of the direct messages in the WikiLeaks Twitter account, assume he has more of these messages in which Assange or his subordinates reveal their true intentions.

Second, it should be noted Mueller has probably reached a tipping point where, unless there are more unforeseen names and charges pending, the only logical place left for him to go in this investigation is to start naming and indicting American collaborators. The unidentified American in the indictment who was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 is Roger Stone, who may still be at risk of greater legal jeopardy down the line. Buried at the bottom of page 15 is this tantalizing allegation which pretty much fits the criteria for collusion that journalists have been looking for:

One former Democratic House member from Nebraska went public on Facebook and announced that the Russians hacked his campaign’s emails in the 2016 cycle.  It’s not clear if he was the victim in the instance named in the indictment.

The big guessing game among political and congressional journalists for the next several days will be to try and figure out the identity of the campaign that solicited and received stolen emails from Guccifer 2.0. If this person is an elected state or federal official, he or she will be under tremendous political pressure to resign.  He or she may also face legal jeopardy, depending on what (if any) additional facts emerge.

Beyond the references to Stone and the unidentified congressional candidate, the big question is what happens if Mueller indicts a major figure who is close to the president – for example, Jared Kushner or Don Jr.

Third, is Vladimir Putin an unindicted co-conspirator? This may be a question for Mueller himself once he finishes his investigation, but it will be interesting to see if he takes a play from the Department of Justice’s past and slaps that dubious label on the Russian leader and implicate him directly in the hacks.

Fourth, what is the status of the obstruction of justice probe in connection with the firing of FBI Director James Comey? Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly moved the goal posts to set the criteria to grant a presidential interview, most recently arguing that they won’t allow it unless Mueller presents evidence that the President committed a crime. Mueller could get a subpoena to compel the President’s testimony, which would eventually lead to a protracted legal battle in which Mueller would likely prevail because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Clinton v. Jones.  If the case ever went that far, and an appeals court or the Supreme Court ruled in Mueller’s favor, that would create a permanent, binding legal precedent against the executive branch. The other question about the obstruction of justice investigation would be if and when Mueller would submit a final report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and if that report were to become a public document. As the calendar gets closer to Election Day, Mueller may wind up postponing any subpoena or report until after the elections.

Watch this space.

Federal Judge Strikes Down Tennessee Law Revoking Driver’s Licenses

Tennessee was one of approximately 40 states with laws under which drivers could lose their licenses if they were too poor to pay court costs or traffic fines. Judge Aleta Trauger struck down Tennessee’s law earlier this week, noting in her ruling:

“The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning. Being unable to drive is the equivalent of a recurring tax or penalty on engaging in the wholly lawful ordinary activities of life—a tax or penalty that someone who committed the same traffic violation, but was able to pay her initial traffic debt, would never be obligated to pay.”

“As a general proposition, the cities, towns, and communities of Tennessee are pervasively structured around the use of motor vehicles. Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money… Nashville is a city where motor vehicle travel is, for the vast majority of the population, an essential part of ordinary life, particularly for anyone seeking to maintain or build economic self-sufficiency. All of these facts, together, leave very little room for doubt regarding the plaintiffs’ assertion that an indigent person who loses her driver’s license is only going to be made less likely to be able to meet the ordinary expenses of life, let alone pay hundreds of dollars in traffic debt.”

This ruling could have an impact on voter turnout in the midterm elections, where Tennessee has an open U.S. Senate race and an open governor’s race on the ballot. According to the Secretary of State’s office, “all voters must present a federal or Tennessee state ID,” which includes driver’s licenses. According to the New York Times, more than 100,000 Tennesseeans could get their licenses reinstated. Judge Trauger is also presiding over a separate lawsuit arguing that unpaid traffic fines have cost almost 250,000 Tennessee residents their licenses. The Times article also notes:

According to evidence presented in the Tennessee case, 93.4 percent of workers who reside in the state drive to work.

The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016. Only about 7 percent of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.

Tennessee Democratic legislators had previously introduced bills on this subject.  A state Democratic Party official said, “We believe this is a major positive development because being poor is not a crime, and this is a huge burden lifted from many Tennesseans. Not having a valid photo ID is also a barrier to voting, so this could potentially have a positive impact on voter turnout among this group.”

The ruling could create a voter demographic that neither political party had previously accounted for, which could make the difference in a close race.  For comparison, during the last open Senate race in a mid-term election cycle in 2006, Bob Corker was elected to his first term in office by a margin of almost 50,000 votes.

Where Democrats Stand On the Brett Kavanaugh Nomination

Here is a running list of where Democrats stand on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the aftermath of last night’s announcement.

* Up for re-election in 2016

+ Considering 2020 presidential run

# Member of Senate Judiciary Committee

 

SENATE

Tammy Baldwin (Wisc.) – UNDECIDED*

Michael Bennett (Colo.) – UNDECIDED

Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) – AGAINST#

Cory Booker (N.J.) – AGAINST+#

Sherrod Brown (Ohio) – UNDECIDED*

Maria Cantwell (Wash.) – UNDECIDED*

Ben Cardin (Md.) – UNDECIDED*

Tom Carper (Del.) – AGAINST*

Bob Casey (Penn.) – AGAINST*

Chris Coons (Del.) – UNDECIDED#

Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) – UNDECIDED

Joe Donnelly (Ind.) – UNDECIDED*

Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) – UNDECIDED

Dick Durbin (Ill.) – UNDECIDED#

Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) – UNDECIDED*

Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) – AGAINST+

Kamala Harris (Calif.) – AGAINST+#

Maggie Hassan (N.H.) – UNDECIDED

Martin Heinrich (N.M.) – AGAINST

Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) – UNDECIDED*

Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) – UNDECIDED#

Doug Jones (Ala.) – UNDECIDED

Tim Kaine (Va.) – UNDECIDED*

Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) – UNDECIDED*#

Patrick Leahy (Vt.) – UNDECIDED#

Joe Manchin (W.Va.) – UNDECIDED*

Ed Markey (Mass.) – AGAINST

Claire McCaskill (Mo.) – UNDECIDED*

Bob Menendez (N.J.) – AGAINST*

Jeff Merkley (Ore.) – AGAINST+

Chris Murphy (Conn. ) – AGAINST*

Patty Murray (Wash.) – AGAINST

Bill Nelson (Fla.) – UNDECIDED*

Gary Peters (Mich.) – UNDECIDED

Jack Reed (R.I.) – AGAINST

Brian Schatz (Hawaii) – UNDECIDED

Charles Schumer (N.Y.) – AGAINST

Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) – UNDECIDED

Tina Smith (Minn.) – UNDECIDED*

Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) – UNDECIDED

Jon Tester (Mont.) – UNDECIDED

Tom Udall (N.M.) – AGAINST

Chris Van Hollen (Md.) – UNDECIDED

Mark Warner (Va.) – UNDECIDED

Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) – AGAINST+

Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) – UNDECIDED*#

Ron Wyden (Ore.) – AGAINST

Angus King (I – Maine) – UNDECIDED*

Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) – AGAINST+

It should be noted that the four red state Senate Democrats (Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Doug Jones, and Joe Manchin) who were invited to attend last night’s announcement declined the invitation, as did the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

DEMOCRATIC SENATE CANDIDATES

Phil Bredesen (Tenn.) – UNDECIDED*

Jacky Rosen (Nev.) – UNDECIDED*

Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) – UNDECIDED*

Jenny Wilson (Utah) – UNDECIDED*

OTHERS

Steve Bullock – UNDECIDED+

Andrew Cuomo – UNDECIDED+

Jay Inslee – UNDECIDED+

Terry McAuliffe – AGAINST+

 

A Tale of Two Montana Democrats

President Donald Trump and his son traveled to Great Falls, Montana today for a political rally to support Republican candidate Matt Rosendale, who is trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester in November.   It’s worth noting the differing responses from Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock, the state’s top Democrats.

Here’s Tester:

And here is the email sent out from Bullock’s Big Sky Values PAC. (In fairness, Bullock was just elected to a second term a year and a half ago, and is term-limited for 2020)

Follow Buzzfeed reporter Anne Helen Petersen for tweets and dispatches from the ground.