washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

May 24: Trump Base Not Enough For GOP in 2018

With all the insane twists of the news cycle in the Trump Era, it is often hard to keep perspective. I tried to look ahead to the shape of the electorate in 2018 in a post this week at New York.

An awful lot of what the Trump administration and most congressional Republicans seem preoccupied with doing this year revolves around keeping the president’s “base” happy. And it’s worked pretty well, as multiple polls showing Trump voters generally satisfied would tend to indicate. But although paying attention to one’s own past voters is typically a good idea, it’s not enough to guarantee a winning Republican performance in 2018. As Harry Enten demonstrates via some standard history and arithmetic, the Trump base is too small to overwhelm the majority of Americans who are not happy with his performance unless turnout patterns are very strange. Here’s his key argument:

“The president’s party has lost at least 83 percent of voters who disapprove of the president’s job in every midterm since 1994. In none did the president’s party win more than 87 percent of those who approved of the president’s job. These statistics are not good news for Republicans if Trump’s current approval rating (40 percent among voters) and current disapproval rating (55 percent) holds through the midterm. Even if Trump’s Republican Party wins the recent high water mark of 87 percent of those who approve of the job the president is doing and loses only 83 percent of those who disapprove, Republicans would still lose the House popular vote by 7 percentage points. That could be enough for them to lose the House.”

Now there are some qualifiers for that analysis. At Enten himself notes, House Republicans did marginally better than Trump in 2016, so they might do marginally better than a breakdown of voters who do and don’t approve of Trump’s job performance would suggest. Just as importantly, we have no idea yet whether the apparent “enthusiasm gap” benefiting Democrats right now will offset the traditionally poor midterm turnout patterns of demographic groups currently leaning Democratic. Similarly, most polls measuring early assessments of Trump’s job performance do not include screening for likelihood to vote; many do not even screen for voter registration. So they may understate Trump’s popularity among the people who are actually going to show up at the polls next year.

Having said all that….Presidential job approval is highly correlated with midterm elections results; the only two times since World War II when the White House party has gained House seats in a midterm (the back-to-back elections of 1998 and 2002), the president had very high job approval ratings. It’s a lead-pipe cinch Republicans will lose seats next year, and the only question is how many. So they’d best find a way to make nice with voters who have not and will never wear those red MAGA hats.


Trump Base Not Enough For GOP in 2018

With all the insane twists of the news cycle in the Trump Era, it is often hard to keep perspective. I tried to look ahead to the shape of the electorate in 2018 in a post this week at New York.

An awful lot of what the Trump administration and most congressional Republicans seem preoccupied with doing this year revolves around keeping the president’s “base” happy. And it’s worked pretty well, as multiple polls showing Trump voters generally satisfied would tend to indicate. But although paying attention to one’s own past voters is typically a good idea, it’s not enough to guarantee a winning Republican performance in 2018. As Harry Enten demonstrates via some standard history and arithmetic, the Trump base is too small to overwhelm the majority of Americans who are not happy with his performance unless turnout patterns are very strange. Here’s his key argument:

“The president’s party has lost at least 83 percent of voters who disapprove of the president’s job in every midterm since 1994. In none did the president’s party win more than 87 percent of those who approved of the president’s job. These statistics are not good news for Republicans if Trump’s current approval rating (40 percent among voters) and current disapproval rating (55 percent) holds through the midterm. Even if Trump’s Republican Party wins the recent high water mark of 87 percent of those who approve of the job the president is doing and loses only 83 percent of those who disapprove, Republicans would still lose the House popular vote by 7 percentage points. That could be enough for them to lose the House.”

Now there are some qualifiers for that analysis. At Enten himself notes, House Republicans did marginally better than Trump in 2016, so they might do marginally better than a breakdown of voters who do and don’t approve of Trump’s job performance would suggest. Just as importantly, we have no idea yet whether the apparent “enthusiasm gap” benefiting Democrats right now will offset the traditionally poor midterm turnout patterns of demographic groups currently leaning Democratic. Similarly, most polls measuring early assessments of Trump’s job performance do not include screening for likelihood to vote; many do not even screen for voter registration. So they may understate Trump’s popularity among the people who are actually going to show up at the polls next year.

Having said all that….Presidential job approval is highly correlated with midterm elections results; the only two times since World War II when the White House party has gained House seats in a midterm (the back-to-back elections of 1998 and 2002), the president had very high job approval ratings. It’s a lead-pipe cinch Republicans will lose seats next year, and the only question is how many. So they’d best find a way to make nice with voters who have not and will never wear those red MAGA hats.


May 19: From Virginia, Signs That Whistling Dixie No Longer Works

Something good for Democrats is happening in, of all places, the Republican Party of Virginia: a gubernatorial candidate playing the old neo-Confederate game is not doing well, as I explained at New York:

With all the recent controversy about Confederate memorials being pulled down, you might think Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart was being shrewd by exploiting old-white-voter resentment over the issue in Civil War–drenched Virginia. But at present, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for the exurban local-government figure who’s tried to make himself into a Trump-like vehicle for protests against a GOP Establishment that is fully behind his opponent Ed Gillespie. According to a new Washington Post/George Mason poll, Stewart is trailing Gillespie by 20 points (38–18, with 15 percent going to State Senator Frank Wagner), and does not have a lot of money to catch up before the June 13 primary.

Virginia does not require receiving a majority of the primary vote to win a nomination, so Stewart can’t count on a second chance if Gillespie beats him but falls short of 50 percent.

He must be given credit for persistence, though. Stewart has pursued his argument that taking down Confederate memorials reflects the kind of p.c. culture that Trump opposes up to and beyond the gates of political prudence, as Politico noted:

“’No Robert E. Lee monument should come down. That man is a hero & an honorable man. It is shameful what they are doing with these monuments,’” he wrote in one Twitter missive, following up a few hours later: ‘After they tear down Lee & Beauregard, they are coming for Washington & Jefferson.’ He added the hashtag #HistoricalVandalism.

“When he hasn’t lamented the shoddy treatment of Southern heritage, he has compared the politicians who support removing statues to ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremists who have destroyed historic artifacts and religious sites throughout Syria. Or suggested that George Soros “needs to be tried for sedition, stripped of his citizenship or deported.” Or labeling his main opponent a “cuckservative,” the disdainful epithet of choice among the alt-right.”

His particular focus on the City of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a Lee memorial has brought Stewart into uncomfortably close proximity to white supremacists, as became apparent when Richard Spencer led a torchlit march to the memorial last weekend.

Virtually every political figure in Virginia, including Gillespie and Wagner, condemned the marchers — except for Stewart, who remained silent. He then announced a “Facebook Live event” for Monday during which, after speculation that he might be dropping out of the race, he instead attacked his enemies and rivals again:

“During the brief video stream from a tea party event in Northern Virginia, Stewart blasted “fake news,” GOP rival Ed Gillespie, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Dominion Energy and sanctuary cities. The video’s title was ‘It’s Time to Denounce.'”

That is certainly something Stewart is ever-ready to do.

But his Trump-Heavy campaign does not seem to be working at all. The WaPo/GMU poll shows him only winning 15 percent of the likely GOP primary voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s job performance….

Assuming Gillespie wins on June 13, Stewart’s campaign may be remembered as showing the limits of race-tinged attacks on “political correctness,” even among a very conservative electorate. Racist dog whistles are one thing. Howling at the moon while defending the Lost Cause is another thing altogether.


From Virginia, Signs That Whistling Dixie No Longer Works

Something good for Democrats is happening in, of all places, the Republican Party of Virginia: a gubernatorial candidate playing the old neo-Confederate game is not doing well, as I explained at New York:

With all the recent controversy about Confederate memorials being pulled down, you might think Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart was being shrewd by exploiting old-white-voter resentment over the issue in Civil War–drenched Virginia. But at present, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for the exurban local-government figure who’s tried to make himself into a Trump-like vehicle for protests against a GOP Establishment that is fully behind his opponent Ed Gillespie. According to a new Washington Post/George Mason poll, Stewart is trailing Gillespie by 20 points (38–18, with 15 percent going to State Senator Frank Wagner), and does not have a lot of money to catch up before the June 13 primary.

Virginia does not require receiving a majority of the primary vote to win a nomination, so Stewart can’t count on a second chance if Gillespie beats him but falls short of 50 percent.

He must be given credit for persistence, though. Stewart has pursued his argument that taking down Confederate memorials reflects the kind of p.c. culture that Trump opposes up to and beyond the gates of political prudence, as Politico noted:

“’No Robert E. Lee monument should come down. That man is a hero & an honorable man. It is shameful what they are doing with these monuments,’” he wrote in one Twitter missive, following up a few hours later: ‘After they tear down Lee & Beauregard, they are coming for Washington & Jefferson.’ He added the hashtag #HistoricalVandalism.

“When he hasn’t lamented the shoddy treatment of Southern heritage, he has compared the politicians who support removing statues to ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremists who have destroyed historic artifacts and religious sites throughout Syria. Or suggested that George Soros “needs to be tried for sedition, stripped of his citizenship or deported.” Or labeling his main opponent a “cuckservative,” the disdainful epithet of choice among the alt-right.”

His particular focus on the City of Charlottesville’s decision to remove a Lee memorial has brought Stewart into uncomfortably close proximity to white supremacists, as became apparent when Richard Spencer led a torchlit march to the memorial last weekend.

Virtually every political figure in Virginia, including Gillespie and Wagner, condemned the marchers — except for Stewart, who remained silent. He then announced a “Facebook Live event” for Monday during which, after speculation that he might be dropping out of the race, he instead attacked his enemies and rivals again:

“During the brief video stream from a tea party event in Northern Virginia, Stewart blasted “fake news,” GOP rival Ed Gillespie, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Dominion Energy and sanctuary cities. The video’s title was ‘It’s Time to Denounce.'”

That is certainly something Stewart is ever-ready to do.

But his Trump-Heavy campaign does not seem to be working at all. The WaPo/GMU poll shows him only winning 15 percent of the likely GOP primary voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s job performance….

Assuming Gillespie wins on June 13, Stewart’s campaign may be remembered as showing the limits of race-tinged attacks on “political correctness,” even among a very conservative electorate. Racist dog whistles are one thing. Howling at the moon while defending the Lost Cause is another thing altogether.


May 18: Miller To Write, Trump To Deliver, Speech Lecturing Saudis on Islam

There was so much going on in Washington this week that it was missed by many observers that Donald Trump’s impending overseas trip will include a “major speech” on Islam in–wait for it–Saudi Arabia. And the news just kept getting worse, as I noted at New York:

Trump will be making a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, before an audience of representatives of more than 50 Muslim countries.

Yes, that’s right: The president, a man who has espoused openly Islamophobic views and is known for his less-than-subtle thinking and speaking, will go to the birthplace of the religion, as a guest of a regime whose entire legitimacy derives from its role as the guardian of Islam’s Holy Places, and presume to lecture Muslims on their obligation to fight “radical Islam.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Before answering, one should be aware of another fact about this speech: It is reportedly being written by Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, who has a record of Muslim-baiting as long as your arm. He is the close White House ally of former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon and former Breitbart writer Julia Hahn, two people who appear to believe Muslim refugees are an existential threat to America. Miller did not let his lack of legal training get in the way of drafting the Trump travel-ban order that caused horrific chaos before being stopped by the courts. His own casual words identifying the travel ban with Trump’s call for an unconstitutional “Muslim ban” during the campaign became a central part of the rationale for said judicial intervention.

Perhaps there are wiser advisers looking over Miller’s shoulder and keeping him constantly aware of the extreme sensitivity of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Muslims toward pronouncements on Islam by infidels, even the most well-intentioned, and tutoring him on the intricacies of intra-Muslim affairs, and the constant risk of blundering into deadly insults that would take decades to erase. Maybe Trump will stay close to a cautious shift, and avoid setting back U.S.-Middle Eastern relations decisively. But this is the Trump White House we are talking about, where even the most basic guidelines are often ignored for reasons ranging from understaffing to byzantine rivalries to paranoia.

Trump is already, according to Politico, in danger of blundering into what it calls a “Saudi Game of Thrones” between two princely aspirants to the succession of aging King Salman. Tossing pronouncements on religion into that tinderbox could be a very bad idea.

Isn’t there a domestic-policy issue (supposedly his specialty) Miller should be attending to? Or perhaps a pro-Trump rally where he could be shouting and cavorting and whipping up the crowds like he did during the campaign? Trump should stay a thousand miles away from pontificating on Islam, and Miller a thousand miles beyond that.


Miller to Write, Trump To Deliver, Speech Lecturing Saudis on Islam

There was so much going on in Washington this week that it was missed by many observers that Donald Trump’s impending overseas trip will include a “major speech” on Islam in–wait for it–Saudi Arabia. And the news just kept getting worse, as I noted at New York:

Trump will be making a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, before an audience of representatives of more than 50 Muslim countries.

Yes, that’s right: The president, a man who has espoused openly Islamophobic views and is known for his less-than-subtle thinking and speaking, will go to the birthplace of the religion, as a guest of a regime whose entire legitimacy derives from its role as the guardian of Islam’s Holy Places, and presume to lecture Muslims on their obligation to fight “radical Islam.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Before answering, one should be aware of another fact about this speech: It is reportedly being written by Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller, who has a record of Muslim-baiting as long as your arm. He is the close White House ally of former Breitbart executive Stephen Bannon and former Breitbart writer Julia Hahn, two people who appear to believe Muslim refugees are an existential threat to America. Miller did not let his lack of legal training get in the way of drafting the Trump travel-ban order that caused horrific chaos before being stopped by the courts. His own casual words identifying the travel ban with Trump’s call for an unconstitutional “Muslim ban” during the campaign became a central part of the rationale for said judicial intervention.

Perhaps there are wiser advisers looking over Miller’s shoulder and keeping him constantly aware of the extreme sensitivity of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Muslims toward pronouncements on Islam by infidels, even the most well-intentioned, and tutoring him on the intricacies of intra-Muslim affairs, and the constant risk of blundering into deadly insults that would take decades to erase. Maybe Trump will stay close to a cautious shift, and avoid setting back U.S.-Middle Eastern relations decisively. But this is the Trump White House we are talking about, where even the most basic guidelines are often ignored for reasons ranging from understaffing to byzantine rivalries to paranoia.

Trump is already, according to Politico, in danger of blundering into what it calls a “Saudi Game of Thrones” between two princely aspirants to the succession of aging King Salman. Tossing pronouncements on religion into that tinderbox could be a very bad idea.

Isn’t there a domestic-policy issue (supposedly his specialty) Miller should be attending to? Or perhaps a pro-Trump rally where he could be shouting and cavorting and whipping up the crowds like he did during the campaign? Trump should stay a thousand miles away from pontificating on Islam, and Miller a thousand miles beyond that.


May 11: Possible Obstruction of Justice Makes Impeachment Talk Inevitable

As the potential implications of the Comey firing, aggravated by the wildly varying accounts of how and why it occurred, begin to sink in, so, too are the remote but tangible chances of really serious consequences, as I discussed at New York:

The timing and manner of Donald Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James Comey raise an inevitable suspicion — not proof, but a suspicion — of presidential obstruction of justice. And the only real remedy for presidential obstruction of justice, if it is stubborn, is impeachment, or at least the threat of impeachment — as we learned during the Nixon administration. Because presidents have the power to gum up every other path to the revelation and reversal of serious patterns of administration misconduct, there’s a pretty low threshold for talk of the “I-word,” once said gumming up appears to be happening.

As Matthew Yglesias notes, the Republicans who control Congress can head off an impeachment crisis by un-gumming the path to justice via some investigative entity beyond Donald Trump’s control. But that will require a break with Trump that most of them do not want to make.

If the situation we are in right now gets worse for the White House, and the rest of 2017 unfolds under the shadow of unresolved allegations about Russian collusion, then serious impeachment talk will become unavoidable. One might assume that the talk would go nowhere, since the president’s party controls the congressional levers that would have to be used to formally begin proceedings. But what could ensue, though, is the realization that Republicans might privately crave impeachment more than Democrats.

Why? Absent normal legal proceedings and without the safety valve of impeachment, the only way for an aroused public to hold Trump accountable is by spanking his political party in the 2018 midterms, an election in which the White House party is almost certain to lose ground even in normal conditions. And after that, if Trump stubbornly resists any independent scrutiny of his past and present behavior, Republicans could have a nightmarish 2020 cycle in which efforts to retire Trump after one term collide with his hard kernel of GOP grassroots support, strongest among people who know little and care less about their hero’s compliance with legal and political traditions for presidential accountability. You could definitely envision a vicious primary fight followed by a difficult general election.

In those circumstances, how many conventional conservative Republicans would resist the temptation to fantasize about a deus ex machina procedure that could remove the troublesome Trump and replace him with the extremely well-known quantity of Mike Pence, perhaps just in time to change the dynamics of 2018 — or certainly 2020 — in the GOP’s favor? Conversely, Democrats might prefer to keep Donald Trump around as long as possible to indelibly stain the GOP with his misdeeds and his alarming demeanor.

This is not to say that political considerations will determine the course of events more than the facts that eventually emerge; if it turns out there is no evidence of collusion in the Russia-Trump investigation, then the president is not going to be hounded out of office for acting as though there was.

But the fact remains that the politics of impeachment or a coerced resignation are hard to predict and impossible to dismiss. In all the talk since Comey’s firing of the parallels with Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” it has been largely forgotten that Nixon’s brash action was preceded just ten days earlier by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, as part of a plea deal over bribery charges. Agnew, in some ways a precursor of Trump in his “politically incorrect” rhetoric, had been what Nixon not-so-jokingly called his “insurance policy” against impeachment. His replacement by the ever-genial Gerald Ford had a definite if hard-to-measure impact on the willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to send the Tricky One packing.

All in all, Mike Pence resembles Gerald Ford more than Spiro Agnew. Just sayin.’


Possible Obstruction of Justice Makes Impeachment Talk Inevitable

As the potential implications of the Comey firing, aggravated by the wildly varying accounts of how and why it occurred, begin to sink in, so, too are the remote but tangible chances of really serious consequences, as I discussed at New York:

The timing and manner of Donald Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James Comey raise an inevitable suspicion — not proof, but a suspicion — of presidential obstruction of justice. And the only real remedy for presidential obstruction of justice, if it is stubborn, is impeachment, or at least the threat of impeachment — as we learned during the Nixon administration. Because presidents have the power to gum up every other path to the revelation and reversal of serious patterns of administration misconduct, there’s a pretty low threshold for talk of the “I-word,” once said gumming up appears to be happening.

As Matthew Yglesias notes, the Republicans who control Congress can head off an impeachment crisis by un-gumming the path to justice via some investigative entity beyond Donald Trump’s control. But that will require a break with Trump that most of them do not want to make.

If the situation we are in right now gets worse for the White House, and the rest of 2017 unfolds under the shadow of unresolved allegations about Russian collusion, then serious impeachment talk will become unavoidable. One might assume that the talk would go nowhere, since the president’s party controls the congressional levers that would have to be used to formally begin proceedings. But what could ensue, though, is the realization that Republicans might privately crave impeachment more than Democrats.

Why? Absent normal legal proceedings and without the safety valve of impeachment, the only way for an aroused public to hold Trump accountable is by spanking his political party in the 2018 midterms, an election in which the White House party is almost certain to lose ground even in normal conditions. And after that, if Trump stubbornly resists any independent scrutiny of his past and present behavior, Republicans could have a nightmarish 2020 cycle in which efforts to retire Trump after one term collide with his hard kernel of GOP grassroots support, strongest among people who know little and care less about their hero’s compliance with legal and political traditions for presidential accountability. You could definitely envision a vicious primary fight followed by a difficult general election.

In those circumstances, how many conventional conservative Republicans would resist the temptation to fantasize about a deus ex machina procedure that could remove the troublesome Trump and replace him with the extremely well-known quantity of Mike Pence, perhaps just in time to change the dynamics of 2018 — or certainly 2020 — in the GOP’s favor? Conversely, Democrats might prefer to keep Donald Trump around as long as possible to indelibly stain the GOP with his misdeeds and his alarming demeanor.

This is not to say that political considerations will determine the course of events more than the facts that eventually emerge; if it turns out there is no evidence of collusion in the Russia-Trump investigation, then the president is not going to be hounded out of office for acting as though there was.

But the fact remains that the politics of impeachment or a coerced resignation are hard to predict and impossible to dismiss. In all the talk since Comey’s firing of the parallels with Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” it has been largely forgotten that Nixon’s brash action was preceded just ten days earlier by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, as part of a plea deal over bribery charges. Agnew, in some ways a precursor of Trump in his “politically incorrect” rhetoric, had been what Nixon not-so-jokingly called his “insurance policy” against impeachment. His replacement by the ever-genial Gerald Ford had a definite if hard-to-measure impact on the willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to send the Tricky One packing.

All in all, Mike Pence resembles Gerald Ford more than Spiro Agnew. Just sayin.’


May 10: Trump Fires Comey To Curb Russia Investigation as GOP Stands By

As pols began to choose up sides after Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, I made this initial assessment of the partisan politics for New York.

The morning after the president’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey, an account of what was really going on is beginning to emerge in which the official explanation of steadily mounting, retroactive bipartisan dismay with Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case is but a flimsy pretext. Politico boils down the background story succinctly:

“[Trump] had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”

And so he decided to drop the hammer on Comey at the first convenient opportunity. A screwup in Comey’s description of the emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that were the subject of the FBI director’s famous October surprise provided the immediate excuse. It seems clear that Team Trump believed Democrats would be thrown into disarray by the clever use of the Clinton emails as the rationale for a firing that was really about something else.

That calculation was clearly wrong, but the fact remains that if Trump’s move was intended to curb the Russia investigation, his enemies have limited means of stopping him.

Yes, the FBI can and probably will formally continue the investigation, but the odds are pretty good that whoever Trump chooses as Comey’s immediate successor will treat it as a very low priority.

The Justice Department can — and given the recusal of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on matters related to the Russia-Trump connection, almost certainly should — appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation and clear the air. But why would a White House determined to shut it all down accept that course of action? It’s implausible unless the administration winds up with no other good options.

Congress could create a special committee, or even a congressionally constituted commission, to delve into the various issues involving the Russians. The latter course is what conservative House gadfly Justin Amash talked about doing in the immediate wake of the Comey firing.

But a lot of Republicans would have to go along with that approach, and most significantly in the wall of noise that rose across Washington after the firing was announced, the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — Representative Bob Goodlatte and Senator Chuck Grassley — seemed to be buying the White House/DOJ explanation of the matter. If their posture is that Comey had to go for cumulative sins in the Clinton email case, why would they want to waste taxpayer money on some special investigation of that Russian thingy Democrats insist on talking about? You could see any drive for a congressionally authorized investigation running into some real obstacles. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is arguing against any new investigation of Trump and Russia at all, suggesting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiries are sufficient.

Once upon a time, there might have been a wellspring of support for the appointment of an independent prosecutor that would not report to Congress or to the administration. But the law authorizing that institution was allowed quietly to expire in 1999 after its generally conceded abuse in seven separate investigations of the Clinton administration.

As veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield points out, the disarray of Congress is the single most important problem with treating this situation as analogous to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” despite the obvious parallels of an angry president trying to dispose of an underling who might be getting too close to securing dangerous information. Nixon was dealing with a Democratic Congress and a much smaller and more uniformly hostile news media; he was quickly forced to replace the fired special counsel Archibald Cox instead of shutting down the Watergate investigation altogether. The 37th president was also laboring under the ultimately fatal existence of massive evidence of wrongdoing documented by his own White House recording system; Cox was fired for trying to secure some of the relevant tapes. If the Trump White House is harboring a “smoking gun” in the Russia case, we don’t know of it at present.

The bottom line is that Trump has a much better chance of getting through this “crisis” than Nixon did when he “massacred” a special counsel and the Justice Department officials defending him. The key thing to watch is whether congressional Republicans decide in large numbers that Trump’s stonewalling over Russia and his generally imperious habits are endangering their grip on the Legislative branch in 2018.


Trump Fires Comey to Curb Russia Investigation As GOP Stands By

As pols began to choose up sides after Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, I made this initial assessment of the partisan politics for New York.

The morning after the president’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey, an account of what was really going on is beginning to emerge in which the official explanation of steadily mounting, retroactive bipartisan dismay with Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case is but a flimsy pretext. Politico boils down the background story succinctly:

“[Trump] had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.”

And so he decided to drop the hammer on Comey at the first convenient opportunity. A screwup in Comey’s description of the emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that were the subject of the FBI director’s famous October surprise provided the immediate excuse. It seems clear that Team Trump believed Democrats would be thrown into disarray by the clever use of the Clinton emails as the rationale for a firing that was really about something else.

That calculation was clearly wrong, but the fact remains that if Trump’s move was intended to curb the Russia investigation, his enemies have limited means of stopping him.

Yes, the FBI can and probably will formally continue the investigation, but the odds are pretty good that whoever Trump chooses as Comey’s immediate successor will treat it as a very low priority.

The Justice Department can — and given the recusal of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on matters related to the Russia-Trump connection, almost certainly should — appoint a special counsel to take over the investigation and clear the air. But why would a White House determined to shut it all down accept that course of action? It’s implausible unless the administration winds up with no other good options.

Congress could create a special committee, or even a congressionally constituted commission, to delve into the various issues involving the Russians. The latter course is what conservative House gadfly Justin Amash talked about doing in the immediate wake of the Comey firing.

But a lot of Republicans would have to go along with that approach, and most significantly in the wall of noise that rose across Washington after the firing was announced, the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — Representative Bob Goodlatte and Senator Chuck Grassley — seemed to be buying the White House/DOJ explanation of the matter. If their posture is that Comey had to go for cumulative sins in the Clinton email case, why would they want to waste taxpayer money on some special investigation of that Russian thingy Democrats insist on talking about? You could see any drive for a congressionally authorized investigation running into some real obstacles. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is arguing against any new investigation of Trump and Russia at all, suggesting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiries are sufficient.

Once upon a time, there might have been a wellspring of support for the appointment of an independent prosecutor that would not report to Congress or to the administration. But the law authorizing that institution was allowed quietly to expire in 1999 after its generally conceded abuse in seven separate investigations of the Clinton administration.

As veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield points out, the disarray of Congress is the single most important problem with treating this situation as analogous to Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” despite the obvious parallels of an angry president trying to dispose of an underling who might be getting too close to securing dangerous information. Nixon was dealing with a Democratic Congress and a much smaller and more uniformly hostile news media; he was quickly forced to replace the fired special counsel Archibald Cox instead of shutting down the Watergate investigation altogether. The 37th president was also laboring under the ultimately fatal existence of massive evidence of wrongdoing documented by his own White House recording system; Cox was fired for trying to secure some of the relevant tapes. If the Trump White House is harboring a “smoking gun” in the Russia case, we don’t know of it at present.

The bottom line is that Trump has a much better chance of getting through this “crisis” than Nixon did when he “massacred” a special counsel and the Justice Department officials defending him. The key thing to watch is whether congressional Republicans decide in large numbers that Trump’s stonewalling over Russia and his generally imperious habits are endangering their grip on the Legislative branch in 2018.