Obama Aide’s Book Blurs Lines Between Memoir, Comedy and Political Analysis

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Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump
Dan Pfeiffer
Twelve Books

This November will mark the ten-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s election.  Though he has only been out of office for almost nineteen months and is a relatively young ex-president at the age of 57, most Democrats would probably say that Donald Trump’s presidency feels like Obama has been gone much longer.  Without a clear leader in the Democratic Party and a general feeling of goodwill and nostalgia for his presidency, former Obama aides and cabinet members have been gradually writing and publishing books with their own take on the 44th president.  The latest to do so is his former communications director Dan Pfeiffer.

Pfeiffer stays away from the traditional political memoir format in his tome, as opposed to works released by other Obama administration alumni like David Axelrod, Timothy Geithner, Leon Panetta or Ben Rhodes. Rather, his book melds a combination of a memoir of his life in politics, a personal post-mortem of the 2016 election, and an effort to make the connections in the political progression that led the American electorate to veer wildly from electing Barack Obama to electing Donald Trump.  Obviously, he does so through the prism of a Democratic political operative and with the benefit of hindsight almost 18 months after the presidential election.

The underlying thread connecting both Obama and Trump is the shifting media landscape due in no small part to the evolution of the Internet, social media, and means of communication, which both men excelled at, though Democrats would argue that Trump uses them for more nefarious purposes – his tweets, pushing conspiracy theories, and creating an information bubble that is difficult for independent outside sources to penetrate. (Pfeiffer describes Twitter as “a performance-enhancing drug for politics,” and compares it to using meth because of its addictive nature.)

Anyone who has listened to Pfeiffer on an episode of the Pod Save America podcast which he helped launch with three fellow Obama alums knows he can be foul-mouthed in his humor and political commentary, particularly when engaged in commentary with one of his co-hosts.  While reading the text, it’s easy to imagine hearing him saying these things during an episode of the show. Though he is an openly partisan Democrat, he is not a propagandist or an apologist in his writing or his commentary. He does critique mistakes and offers differences of opinion about Obama personally, the administration he served in, and the Democratic Party as a whole.

One of the more illuminating parts of the text is how Pfeiffer and the campaign coped with conspiracy theories about Obama as the years progressed. In the early days it was forwarded chain emails alleging he was a secret Muslim, later on it was the full-blown birtherism that Donald Trump used to launch his political career.  This culminates in Pfeiffer’s back story behind writing the jokes for the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner during which Obama infamously roasted Trump, an episode that some have speculated was a factor in his decision to run for president and his personal animus toward Obama.

One of the most amusing episodes in the book which Pfeiffer dedicates an entire chapter to is the time he split his pants in the Oval Office, and his frantic attempts to fix them before being called again to accompany the president to a press conference. There is also the scary account of him nearly having a stroke because of the toll the long hours and stress was taking on him physically, caused by a combination of a blood vessel in his brain and high blood pressure.

Readers who study presidential history and are looking for a bombshell revelation or profound insight about the Obama presidency will be disappointed, and are better served by more traditional Washington insider memoirs or books by historians and journalists.  However, some of the most intriguing parts of the text are the ones Pfeiffer hints at but does not elaborate on.  This specifically refers to his many experiences with candidate and president Barack Obama over the years, in which rather than giving up the goods himself, he defers to his former boss to let him tell his own story in his own words, presumably his upcoming presidential memoir. (Michelle Obama’s memoir is scheduled for a November release after the midterm elections.)

Even the stories he does tell about his personal memories of Obama shed some personal light on the former president: how Obama told him he was running for president, behind the scenes decision-making on the campaign and in the White House, relationship and marriage advice, Obama’s reaction to a long-winded question from Kanye West during an A-list fundraiser, and a rare example of Obama losing his temper when he walked into the White House communications office and delivered what Pfeiffer describes as “a twenty-minute, not entirely family-friendly rant about the opposition party.” This is the kind of story that probably would have leaked instantly in the Trump White House, but managed to remain secret until well after Obama left office.

Until Obama’s book is published, we are left to speculate about what other stories Pfeiffer might be alluding to. However, because of the timing, it is also worth noting the dramatically different reaction Pfeiffer’s book got compared to the critical and political reaction to memoirs by Trump administration alumni Sean Spicer and Omarosa Manigault-Newman.  (For historical context, the only memoir really critical of the 44th president written by a former Obama cabinet official so far was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but even he didn’t take the burning down the house approach to it that Manigault-Newman did. It’s inconceivable to imagine an aide in any other administration surreptitiously record private conversations inside the White House Situation Room or a phone call with the President of the United States and release at least some of those recordings.)

One thing worth noting: Pfeiffer buried a lot of his jokes in the footnotes at the bottom of the page throughout the text.  This gives the book a feel – intentionally or not – of Pfeiffer breaking the fourth wall like Zack Morris or Frank Underwood.

Is Pfeiffer’s tome Obama nostalgia? No, though most Democrats say they miss him every day. It’s a different take and a different style from the usual Washington insider memoir, arguably for the better. Pfeiffer had a unique vantage point to witness the Obama presidency, but he wisely tells the story in his own voice, rather than make it into a more scholarly text. Perhaps most importantly, what Pfeiffer does in his book is an honest attempt at answering the basic question that has bedeviled the country since Election Night 2016: how did we get here?

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.

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.

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+