Democratic Attorneys General Prepare to Challenge Trump Administration In Court

As Democrats prepare to enter next year completely shut out from any position of power in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, Democratic attorneys general are preparing to challenge or oppose the incoming administration’s agenda. According to the New York Times, this would essentially be a continuation of the roles played by Republican attorneys general during the Obama presidency:

The states’ rights arguments that Republicans have made gospel for nearly eight years — that states must serve as a check against federal overreach — are likely to become convenient for Democrats. So are the legal tactics that Republican attorneys general used to stifle Obama administration programs, including filing lawsuits in front of friendly local judges to win nationwide injunctions against policies they hoped to stop, said Amanda Frost, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

With Mr. Trump’s ascension, attorneys general of both parties may shuck any remaining veneer of nonpartisanship, even as they continue to wade across party boundaries on investigations involving consumer protection or pharmaceutical pricing.

According to Paul Nolette, a political-science professor at Marquette University, who studies attorneys general, Republican attorneys general filed partisan legal briefs in only five Supreme Court cases during the Clinton administration, a figure that rose to 97 in the first seven years of the Obama administration.

Donald Trump is already familiar with how litigious and problematic New york Attorney General Eric Schneiderman can be, having recently settled the class-action lawsuit against Trump University brought by Schneiderman for $25 million. But legal opposition in the states to the president’s agenda has a way of elevating the attorney general, as was the case with Greg Abbott in Texas.  A new generation of Democratic stars may emerge from the legal trenches after opposing Donald Trump for the next four years.

Senate Democrats Catch Two Lucky Breaks

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is probably breathing a sigh of relief  after getting two bits of good news today.

First: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who was being considered for the Secretary of Energy position in the Trump Administration, announced that he would be remaining in the Senate.  Former Texas governor Rick Perry wound up getting the top job in the government agency he wanted to eliminate as a 2012 presidential candidate but couldn’t name. (Here’s video of the infamous “Oops” moment which derailed his candidacy.)

Second: Donald Trump chose Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) for Secretary of Interior. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who just finished his first term in the House of Representatives, was considered a serious challenger for Montana Democratic senator Jon Tester’s 2018 reelection campaign.  Political observers weighed in on this development via Twitter:

Jaime Harrison Opposes Rex Tillerson Nomination

A few hours after the DNC Forum in Ohio, Democratic National Committee chairman candidate Jaime Harrison issued this statement:

“Putin and his henchmen helped Donald Trump win the election, and it appears that the nomination of Putin pal Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State is Trump’s way of saying ‘spasiba.’ The Senate must act in the U.S. national interest and say ‘nyet.’”

The subject of Tillerson or the Trump cabinet in general did not come up during the forum.

For those who skipped Russian in school, “spasiba” means “thank you,” and “nyet” means “no.”

CIA Concludes Russia Wanted to Help Trump Get Elected, Will Congress Investigate?

The Washington Post dropped a bombshell yesterday revealing the existence of a secret CIA assessment that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was done with the intended purpose of helping him get elected, as opposed to the previous theory, which was that it was about creating chaos and mistrust in the American political process:

Intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and others, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, according to U.S. officials. Those officials described the individuals as actors known to the intelligence community and part of a wider Russian operation to boost Trump and hurt Clinton’s chances.

“It is the assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s goal here was to favor one candidate over the other, to help Trump get elected,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on an intelligence presentation made to U.S. senators. “That’s the consensus view.”

The article also notes that the intelligence was challenged by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Donald Trump himself repeatedly questioned the accusation that the Russians were behind the hacked DNC and John Podesta emails being published by WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign, and the Trump Transition put out the following statement last night in response to the story:

Setting aside the inaccuracy of their claim of “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history,” the Post’s reporting was subsequently confirmed by the New York Times, which added another detail to the story: Russians hacked Republican National Committee computer systems, but did not publish any of the information they obtained.

Democrats and some congressional Republicans are asking (and in some cases, promising) investigations into various angles of the Russian hacking.

From the Trump transition team’s perspective, this Russia hacking assessment would put another asterisk on their election victory, the first being that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes. The fact that Trump himself and Republicans in general gleefully cited the emails being dumped daily by WikiLeaks during the campaign, as well as the fact Trump himself called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, does not help their case either.  The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote a good article about the political dilemma Republicans find themselves in regarding how to handle this. As national security columnist John Schindler pointed out on Twitter:

Watching this story play out from the perspective of international leaders who will have to deal with President Trump for the next four years, those leaders can draw two conclusions: first, the President-elect only receives an intelligence briefing once a week, according to Reuters; second, that the president will not believe or openly dispute the findings of his own intelligence agency. The latter may wind up undermining Trump himself later on. If he has to rally international support for diplomatic action against a country or organization, and he cites U.S. intelligence findings as his evidence, who is to say that a skeptical country such as China or Russia or Venezuela won’t come back with a response along the lines of “Why should we believe your intelligence when you don’t even believe in it yourself?”

It will be interesting to see to what extent the Republican Congress is willing to investigate this in the months ahead, and if they do, how deep the rabbit hole goes.

UPDATE: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is reporting that Donald Trump has chosen Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, according to two sources. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tillerson has ties to Putin and Russia:

Among those considered for the post, Mr. Tillerson has perhaps the closest ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, having negotiated a 2011 energy partnership deal with Russia that Mr. Putin said could eventually be worth as much as $500 billion. In 2012, the Kremlin bestowed the country’s Order of Friendship decoration on Mr. Tillerson.

This pre-existing relationship with Mr. Putin complements Mr. Trump’s push to improve U.S.-Russia ties. A number of Republicans have urged him to be wary of working closely with Russia, warning that it is trying to expand its influence in a way that runs counter to U.S. interests in places such as Ukraine and Syria.

Exxon has a large global presence, and this could introduce sticky conflicts of interest if Mr. Tillerson is selected. The company explores for oil and gas on six of the world’s continents and has operations in more than 50 countries.

Mr. Tillerson, who is slated to retire next year, has retirement funds worth tens of millions of dollars, a value that could potentially be affected by State Department activities. For example, he could benefit from such potential department actions as the lifting of sanctions on Russia.

In light of the CIA assessment on Russia’s role in the election, this confirmation hearing will be a lot more interesting than if Trump had chosen a more conventional nominee like Mitt Romney or Bob Corker.

UPDATE II: Mitchell also reporting that former Undersecretary for Arms Control and UN Ambassador John Bolton is Trump’s choice for Deputy Secretary of State. Democrats wouldn’t allow a confirmation vote on Bolton for the UN ambassador nomination during the Bush years, so he was a recess appointment.

Branstad Nomination Gives Democrats a Possible Pickup Opportunity in Iowa

Donald Trump chose Iowa governor Terry Branstad to be his ambassador to China, an offer that Branstad accepted.  The vacancy for Iowa’s chief executive would be filled by Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds until the 2018 election. Branstad – who was already the state’s longest serving governor – was up for reelection, but now Democrats will have the opportunity to run against Reynolds. This would give Democrats an opportunity to win another governorship, in a state Trump won by a slightly larger margin than Texas.

The Democratic Governors Association went through the opposition research on Reynolds and forwarded this Politico story mentioning her as a potential U.S. Senate candidate in 2014. Depending on the political and economic winds in two years, as well as candidate recruitment, this could be a good opportunity for Democrats to get a win.

Senate Democrats Urge Heitkamp and Manchin to Turn Down Trump Offers

Following up on this story from a few days ago, CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett are reporting Senate Democratic leaders Charles Schumer and Dick Durbin are urging their colleagues Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin to not accept any positions in the Trump administration, at the risk of weakening the Democratic Party’s hand in the Senate.

Neither Heitkamp nor Manchin would say much about the nature of their discussions with the incoming administration, but when Manchin was asked about the possibility of the GOP picking up his Senate seat if he were to take a job with the administration, he said, “The people of West Virginia sent me here… I got to do what I can to make sure I’m helping my people.”

If Trump picks one or both of them to be in his cabinet, that would leave Democratic ranks in the Senate at 53-47 or 54-46 for at least the next two years. Depending on the political winds two years from now, the Republicans could potentially expand on that majority during the midterm elections, though the general historical trend has been that the party in power loses congressional seats during midterms.

DNC Chairman Candidates and Democratic Senator Respond to DAPL Decision

There was a big development over the weekend in the ongoing protests about the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement for the DAPL to be built under Lake Oahe, a big win for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe which had opposed the project.

Here is how the declared candidates for the DNC chairmanship stand on the DAPL issue:

Rep. Keith Ellison:

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison:

“I applaud the Army Corps for heeding the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and agreeing that an alternate route for the DAPL is needed to protect the safety and dignity of the nearby Reservation. While I was discouraged that the process proceeded as far as it did without necessary consultation, today’s announcement is a welcome indication that the Obama Administration has heard the voices of the Standing Rock Sioux and their many supporters. I hope the federal government builds on today’s decision to foster appropriate respect for Indigenous peoples in the future. And make no mistake: if the Trump Administration attempts to reverse today’s decision, or otherwise disregards the legitimate interests and concerns of Indigenous peoples, the Democratic Party will stand strongly with the first Americans.”

Because she is up for re-election in 2018, I’m also including Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp’s statement as well:

“It’s long past time that a decision is made on the easement going under Lake Oahe,” said Heitkamp. “This administration’s delay in taking action — after I’ve pushed the White House, Army Corps, and other federal agencies for months to make a decision — means that today’s move doesn’t actually bring finality to the project. The pipeline still remains in limbo. The incoming administration already stated its support for the project and the courts have already stated twice that it appeared the Corps followed the required process in considering the permit. For the next month and a half, nothing about this project will change. For the immediate future, the safety of residents, protesters, law enforcement, and workers remains my top priority as it should for everyone involved. As some of the protesters have become increasingly violent and unlawful, and as North Dakota’s winter has already arrived – with a blizzard raging last week through the area where protesters are located — I’m hoping now that protesters will act responsibly to avoid endangering their health and safety, and move off of the Corps land north of the Cannonball River.

“Additionally, our federal delegation and governor have been working together in a bipartisan effort to push for more federal resources for law enforcement who have worked day and night through weekends and holidays to support the safety of our communities. The administration needs to provide those funds – whether the protesters remain or not.”

There is no statement from New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley at this time. This post will be updated if that changes.

UPDATE: I received the following statement from Ray Buckley:

“I am pleased that the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to explore alternate routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline. We need to ensure the protection of sacred and historic tribal sites as an integral part of American history and our larger culture.

“This victory belongs to the people of the Standing Rock Reservation and all the supporters and protestors who have passionately defended the land.”