Political Animal

Pawlenty Out and Walker on the Ropes

I have previously made the case that governor’s races in 2018 will be crucial based on a comparison of what happened to Minnesota and Wisconsin in 2010, two states that share a lot in common. Democrat Mark Dayton won by a sliver in a three-way race that came after Republicans nominated an extremist, and a more moderate GOP candidate stepped in to run as an independent. Meanwhile, Wisconsin elected Republican Scott Walker.

Those two races happened amid the 2010 red wave, just as redistricting was about to take place after the 2010 census. Wisconsin Republicans gerrymandered their districts and have basically had control of the state legislature and governorship ever since. In Minnesota, Dayton held the line against a Republican-controlled state legislature and redistricting was eventually completed by a neutral court process. The trajectories the states followed after that are a perfect example of how Democratic policies work and those espoused by Republicans don’t.

Yesterday, primaries for the governor’s races took place in a year that will once again determine the future of both states. The big news is that Tim Pawlenty lost his primary to Jeff Johnson, even after outspending him by about ten-to-one. The take-away from their debate came down to a contest of who was more supportive of Donald Trump, with Johnson reminding Republican voters that Pawlenty called the president “unsound, uninformed, unhinged, and unfit to be president of the United States.”

What this demonstrates is that the whole “insurgent vs establishment” narrative has been flipped for Republicans. The insurgent extremist now occupies the Oval Office and GOP candidates with a history of establishment ties are being rejected by the party’s base voters. Pawlenty admitted as much to reporters after his concession speech.

“The Republican Party has shifted,” he said, according to a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who was in attendance. “It is the era of Trump, and I’m just not a Trump-like politician.”

On the Democratic side, Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s 1st district in Congress, won handily over state legislator Erin Murphy and state attorney general Lori Swanson. None of these candidates was a progressive firebrand, but Swanson, who had initially been favored to win, was recently accused of misusing state property and personnel for her own political gain. Walz is a fairly unassuming character who has represented the southern portion of the state, which is primarily rural, but also home to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Those results sent prognosticators back to the drawing board.

While the headline coming out of Minnesota is Pawlenty’s loss, this state also featured contested primaries for both parties in two senate seats, as well as one for attorney general. As of this morning, Democrats had cast more than 580,000 ballots in the governor’s race compared to 320,000 for Republicans. If that discrepancy is related to voter enthusiasm, which will affect turnout in November, it is a really bad sign for Republicans.

To the east, Scott Walker will once again be the Republican candidate for governor and will face off against Democrat Tony Evers, head of the state’s Department of Public Instruction and a former teacher. Walker acknowledges that this will be the toughest race of his career. Even without a contested senate race, Democrats turned out in record numbers in Wisconsin, with almost 540,000 ballots cast, compared to 230,000 in the 2010 primary. In addition to the governor’s race, Republicans had a hotly contested senate primary and approximately 450,000 showed up to vote, compared to 615,000 in 2010.

Overall, these gubernatorial races are early signs that bode well for Democrats in November. A win for both Walz and Evers could shrink the divide between the state’s trajectories that has developed over the last eight years.

Pardoning Manafort Wouldn’t Work

Paul Waldman asks a straightforward question:

From the beginning, there has been a question hanging over Manafort’s case: Why won’t he flip? After all, other Trump aides have when faced with possible jail time, and Manafort is facing more than anyone. There’s a real possibility he’ll never see another day as a free man. One popular explanation is that he’s afraid that if he tells everything he knows, some people in Russia would become displeased enough to kill him.

So Manafort may have decided that it’s better to take his chances with a jury than to find a strange substance smeared on his door handle one day.

If I were in Paul Manafort’s shoes, I’d have a reasonable amount of confidence that the government could successfully place me (and my wife) in a witness protection program, but I’d have no confidence that this would protect my extended family. Are his adult daughters and their families going to also disappear off the grid? How about other family members, mistresses, or other people I care about? The truth is, as long as a nation-state that is indistinguishable from a violent organized crime family is bent on punishing me, I’m not going to feel like the people I care about are safe.

This may be the real reason Manafort won’t talk. He still owes Oleg Derispaska somewhere around twenty million dollars–and he has no prospect of repaying that debt in cash. All he can do is keep his mouth shut and hope that’s enough to get some forgiveness on the debt.

Waldman thinks Trump will ultimately pardon Manafort, but only after the second trial, which will cover his dealings with Ukrainians and Russians. The problem with this prediction is that Manafort needs charges hanging over him to invoke his right against self-incrimination. If he’s pardoned for most of what he could conceivably be charged with, he could be compelled to tell the special counsel what he knows or face fresh charges of contempt and obstruction of justice. Is he really going to count on either Mueller to give up or Trump to counter every new charge with a fresh pardon?

Maybe things really will get this weird and broken, but I think the reason Manafort hasn’t already been preemptively pardoned is that it would not solve Trump’s problems. In fact, it probably would exacerbate them. Even for congressional Republicans, there’s a limit to how nakedly Trump can obstruct the investigation and get away with it. He has not fired Jeff Sessions or Rod Rosenstein, for example, and he’d run into similar problems if he started pardoning Manafort for refusing to cooperate with investigators when he faces no prospect of self-incrimination.

And Manafort can still face state charges, particularly in New York, and I don’t see the pardon card as much of an option for Trump. If he’s desperate enough, maybe he uses it and maybe Manafort can avoid spending his life in prison. But it would not solve Trump’s problems or make all of Manafort’s go away.

The Firing of Peter Strzok Will Lead to Increased Attacks on the Justice Department

I watched a lot of Peter Strzok’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees and came to the conclusion that he made one gigantic mistake. By using his work phone to text Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, he opened up his private communication to public scrutiny. Otherwise, all of the charges against him were refuted in the short span of about one minute of his opening statement.

I understand that my sworn testimony will not be enough for some people. After all, Americans are skeptical of anything they hear out of Washington. But the fact is, after months of investigations, there is simply no evidence of bias in my professional actions.

There is, however, one extraordinarily important piece of evidence supporting my integrity, the integrity of the FBI, and our lack of bias.

In the summer of 2016, I was one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Mr. Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.

That’s what FBI agents do every single day, and it’s why I am so proud of the Bureau.

Yesterday, Peter Strzok’s lawyer announced that he had been fired, even though the Office of Professional Responsibility had recommended that he be demoted and suspended for 60 days. Apparently David Bowdich, deputy director of the FBI, ignored that recommendation and decided to fire Strzok. Beyond that, no one from the FBI is willing to comment or provide a rationale for the decision.

Given that the Office of Professional Responsibility didn’t consider the use of a work phone for private communication to be a fireable offense, I can only think of two reasons why Bowdich would fire Strzok:

  1. He has information about Strzok that hasn’t been made public, or
  2. He succumbed to political pressure from Trump and Republicans.

If #2 played any role in this decision, it is not only a travesty for a career FBI agent, it simply invites more attacks on the bureau. As we know, both Trump and his congressional enablers have been attacking Strzok relentlessly to discredit both the FBI and Mueller investigation.

Over and over again, rather than mount any kind of defense for whether the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to influence the election, they have chosen to attack the investigators. As I’ve previously pointed out, Trump’s pattern when he’s challenged is to lie, distract, and blame. So far, those attacks have led to the firing of the FBI director, the deputy director, and now a lead investigator. Meanwhile, there are threats to impeach the deputy attorney general and calls for the attorney general to step down.

If Bowdich thought that these attacks would recede by firing Strzok, that is an incredibly naive assumption. Instead, he demonstrated that attacking the investigators works–and that will lead to more of the same. It’s clear from Trump’s twitter feed that he is taking a victory lap over Strzok’s firing and smelling more blood in the water.

The only way to stop these vicious attacks on the Justice Department and Mueller investigation is to stand up to the attackers and show that they don’t work.

Paul Manafort’s Defense Calls No Witnesses

I’ve been called for jury duty a few times but have always been rejected. Having never sat on a jury, I can’t say for sure how I’d feel about it if the defense decided to rest without calling any witnesses or having their client testify.  If the person is truly innocent, then why not try to demonstrate that in some way beyond simple cross-examination of government witnesses? I guess it’s much harder for me to accept not having a defense at all than to grant the accused the right not to speak in their own defense. I know that if I were falsely accused, my lawyers would have trouble convincing me to remain silent, but they’d never get away with resting my case without making one at all.

But that’s what Paul Manafort’s lawyers did today.

Defense attorneys for Paul Manafort rested their case on Tuesday without calling any witnesses or having the former Trump campaign chairman testify in the trial where he is accused of bank and tax fraud.

At the same time, the judge overseeing the trial rejected Manafort’s motion to throw out the 18 charges against him.

Manafort, who has watched silently as the case against him was argued in federal court, was asked by Judge T.S. Ellis whether he wanted to testify in his own defense.

“No, sir,” he replied.

Asked whether he was satisfied with the advice he’d gotten from his attorneys, Manafort said, “I am, your honor.”

Ellis indicated that prosecutors and Manafort’s lawyers would likely make closing arguments to the 12-person jury on Wednesday. After that, the jury will begin its deliberations behind closed doors.

Obviously, the defense will say that the government has not met the burden of proof and suggest that their case is so weak that it doesn’t require rebuttal from expert witnesses. Maybe there’s a juror who is unwilling to convict Manafort because he or she has been convinced it’s all part of an elaborate Deep State plot to nullify the 2016 election. That would result in a mistrial, which is almost certainly the best outcome Manafort can hope for. I believe the documents in this case speak for themselves and there’s not really any ambiguity about Manafort’s guilt. An outright acquittal seems like an impossibility.

Assuming Manafort is convicted, I’m not sure much will change. He’s already in prison. He still faces even more severe charges in Washington D.C., where he’ll presumably have a less sympathetic judge and a tougher jury pool. Will a conviction in Virginia and the certainty of an extended prison sentence change Manafort’s calculus and lead him to seek a cooperation deal?

It’s possible, but he seems to be either afraid to cooperate or holding out hope of a pardon, or perhaps both of those things. Getting convicted would not logically change how he feels or his overall strategy.

In any case, I think if I was sitting on his jury and had any doubt about his guilt, his lack of a defense would seal the deal for me. How about you?