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.

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.

 

Supreme Court Politics and the 2018 Election Map

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire four months before the election is the best thing that could have happened to Republicans, conventional wisdom says.  It is difficult to disagree with that logic, but it is also necessary to keep in mind the counterargument – which is that enthusiasm cuts both ways. (To be fair, the more adequate word for Democrats still reeling from the announcement isn’t enthusiasm, but fear.)

Historically, Republican voters have been more motivated to go to the polls because of the issue of judicial nominations than Democrats.  Exit polls from the 2016 election confirm this view. According to CNN, 56 percent of Trump voters said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor in their decision. Evidence strongly suggests that filling Supreme Court vacancies was a big reason for Donald Trump’s win. Though the stakes for filling any court vacancy are always high, they aren’t as high or urgent from the Republican perspective this time around. Why? Two years ago, the presidency was up for grabs and, with it, the next two or more court vacancies, including the seat held by Scalia which could have altered the court’s majority if Hillary Clinton had won.  Now, Donald Trump is in the middle of his first term, with a Republican-controlled Senate. It may gin up enthusiasm among some Republican voters, but it doesn’t have the same existential sense of urgency that Democrats are now feeling.

“Misery motivates, not utopia,” Karl Marx once wrote. That principle, combined with lingering anger over the Senate Republican blockade of Merrick Garland and the recent string of losses in Supreme Court decisions during the week leading up to the Kennedy retirement, strongly suggest that Democratic candidates and their allies aren’t going to treat this Supreme Court vacancy like any other opening in the past.

State Democratic parties and candidates are fundraising off the Kennedy retirement, some on the specific message of running as a defender of abortion rights. Others have spoken more generally about the urgency of electing Democratic governors and legislators to have as a check on any sweeping future rulings from the Supreme Court on issues like abortion, voting rights, gun control, campaign finance, or redistricting. However, the initial messaging from Democrats and various interest groups on the actual Supreme Court vacancy itself is all over the map, depending on who you ask.  Their options to block a nominee are nonexistent after Senate Republicans abolished the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees for the Neil Gorsuch vote. Their only chance at blocking a nominee is the slim chance that minority leader Charles Schumer can hold all 49 Democrats and is somehow able to get two Republicans to join them in voting against.

Just as there will be enormous pressure on a handful of red state Democrats who are running for reelection this cycle (specifically Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly, who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch last year), there will also be enormous pressure on Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who are the only pro-choice Republicans in their party’s Senate caucus. Collins and Murkowski have the benefit of not running for reelection in this hyperpartisan political environment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be feeling pressure. As Republican pro-choice women in the Senate who have a vote in judicial nominations, do they want their legacies to be defined by potentially casting the deciding vote to seat a Supreme Court justice who might one day vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?

It is also necessary to look beyond Murkowski and Collins for potential pressure points. Even though they aren’t on the ballot this year, the governors of Alaska and Maine are, as is Maine’s independent senator Angus King, who caucuses with the Democrats. Voters in both states won’t be able to vote against Murkowski or Collins in this cycle, so they may opt to flex their political muscles by voting for (or against) the candidates who are on the ballot in November.

While Senate Democrats have a terrible electoral map to defend this year, when it comes to governors and state legislatures, the map becomes almost the inverse, meaning that they will have ample pickup opportunities in down ballot races.  Democrats have shown more interest and energy in down ballot state legislative races in the first eighteen months of the Trump presidency, and have already demonstrated some success in special elections – the DLCC has flipped 44 Republican-held seats to the Democrats, in addition to a Wisconsin state supreme court seat, a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, and stunning off-year results up and down the ballot in Virginia. If Democrats can harness this anxiety about the court and turn it into votes in November, that could drive them to some surprise victories.

Democrats might not be able to stop Donald Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee, but they can put themselves in a better political position for the second half of his term: retaking the House or Senate will give them subpoena power and the ability to launch investigations, as well as control of nominations to the upper chamber; control of governor’s mansions, state offices and state legislatures will give them control of state voting rights as well as drawing the congressional maps for the next round of redistricting after 2020.

As painful as losing cases at the Supreme Court will be, the Democrats’ best hope for now is that they can use the court as an issue to play the long game: rebuild their bench in state and federal offices, gain congressional majorities, and eventually win the presidency.

 

October Surprise Watch: The Russia Investigation

Amid all the hoopla about the Supreme Court in the past several days, it’s easy to overlook the fact that there has been some movement in the Russia investigation. Here is a list of events that are already known and set on the calendar, scheduled to happen before the election:

  • July 25: Paul Manafort Virginia trial begins.
  • August 24: Mueller will update the court on sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn.
  • September 7: George Papadopoulos sentencing hearing. (Could be postponed to October, depending on judge’s availability)
  • September 17: Paul Manafort DC trial begins.
  • November 6: Election Day

Trials can be messy affairs – witness examination and cross-examination, as well as presentation of evidence by both sides virtually guarantees that a lot of Paul Manafort’s dirty laundry will be aired out in public for the world and a grand jury to see. While the charges focus on Manafort’s work as a lobbyist for a pro-Russian political clients in Ukraine, it is entirely possible that facts and allegations about Manafort’s time as Donald Trump’s campaign chairman come out during the trial.

Keep in mind, these are events we know about, based on court filings and public statements.  It is entirely possible Mueller could drop another bombshell or two. For example: a subpoena to get the president’s testimony, or the long-expected indictment surrounding the email hacks that caused so much chaos during the 2016 election. The thinking is Mueller will indict Russians who were involved in the hacks in the same way he indicted Russian individuals and organizations in connection with the social media efforts. If this is the case, the potential wildcards are if he indicts WikiLeaks as an organization, Julian Assange as an individual and the head of that organization, and if any Americans are named or indicted as well.

All of this does not take into account any potential developments in the Michael Cohen case, which may or may not overlap with the Russia investigation. (Reminder: it was Mueller’s office who referred the case to the Southern District of New York) When the FBI raided his home, office and hotel room, they seized more than 3.7 million items which federal prosecutors could potentially use as evidence. As of this writing, the judge overseeing the case has ordered that a review of documents and data files seized as evidence in the case must be finished by the first week of July.  (Reminder: federal agents seized eight boxes worth of documents, approximately 30 cell phones, iPads and computers, and the contents of a shredder)

The court-appointed special master has for the most part rejected claims of attorney-client privilege by Cohen.  According to a court document from earlier this month, out of nearly 300,000 items reviewed, only 161 were privileged and seven of them were conversations between Cohen and a legal client containing legal advice. This means that the vast majority of the evidence seized in the raids is fair game for prosecutors.

There has been reporting that Cohen is leaning toward cutting a deal and collaborating with a government but no concrete evidence of that yet. There has also been reporting that Cohen has had a falling out with his former boss and the Trump family, which might make him more willing to talk to federal investigators – whether it by the Southern District of New York or Robert Mueller’s office.

Watch this space.