THE MORNING PLUM:
A confluence of new events and revelations — including Ronny L. Jackson’s withdrawal moments ago from consideration as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs — underscores the high stakes of this fall’s elections in a new and much more urgent and dramatic fashion.
Put simply: If Democrats can somehow win both the House and Senate, the Trump presidency as we know it — that is, the Trump presidency in its current incarnation as a rampaging, unchecked kakistocracy facing no meaningful oversight or accountability — will be over. The peculiarities of this particular presidency suggest that this would constitute a more debilitating event to the president — and, crucially, a more meaningful event for the country — than it was when the party opposed to the president captured one or both chambers during the past three presidencies.
The New York Times reports that Republicans are growing more nervous about losing the Senate to Democrats, for a specific and telling reason: It would mean that Democrats will act as a much greater check on Trump’s executive branch and judicial nominees. As the Times delicately puts it, a Democratic-led Senate would be “very deliberate” about bringing Trump’s picks for top federal agency jobs to the floor.
While Democrats have not fully exercised the power they currently have against Trump — Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as secretary of state — the Times rightly notes that if Democrats take control, they’ll face greatly intensified pressure from the base and liberal activist groups to act as a much more substantial check on Trump’s nominees.
The potential significance of such an outcome has been underscored by some of the latest revelations about Trump’s personnel choices. Jackson pulled out Thursday morning from consideration as VA chief after running into a hailstorm of criticism over his lack of management experience and allegations that he drank on the job as White House physician. Meanwhile, also on Thursday, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, will face questions in Congress about his expensive soundproof phone booth, addiction to first-class flights and condo rental from a lobbyist.
Pruitt appears unlikely to survive, and the implosions of the two men remind us of both the awfulness of Trump’s choices for major agency positions and that high-level turnover will continue throughout his presidency. Which means a Democratic-led Senate could make a real difference going forward. One can envision, for instance, that future picks to oversee the health bureaucracy will face staunch opposition if they won’t pledge to make Obamacare work instead of sabotaging it to assuage Trump’s rage and spite; or that a future EPA chief might be a nonstarter if he is — just spitballing here — a climate-change denier who is fundamentally hostile to his agency’s core mission.
Meanwhile, new developments stemming from the Russia investigation are a reminder of how much is at stake in the battle for both the Senate and the House. This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider a bill to protect special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, should Trump try to quash it. That measure also contains a provision that will require the special counsel to report his findings to Congress after the probe is over, which would frustrate any effort by Trump to install a loyal deputy attorney general who could bury those findings.
This measure probably won’t get a full vote in either chamber. But if Democrats can take them back, that would mean they could try to reinstate the investigation in some form if Trump does remove Mueller. Or, if Trump merely keeps Mueller’s findings under wraps, a Democratic-led Congress could try to legislate their public release. As two national security experts explain in this piece, Mueller has amassed a great deal of evidence at this point and could take a range of extraordinary steps to get it out to the public if Trump acts. But such an outcome would be deeply polarizing, and a legislated release, via a less legally controversial process, would be better for the country. This would likely require a Democratic-led Congress.
Even a Democratic takeover of just the House could make a huge difference. House Republicans closed down their Russia investigation and have been running a shadow probe designed to delegitimize law enforcement on Trump’s behalf, harming our institutions and degrading the rule of law in the process. That would end, and real investigations might gear up again. A Democratic-led House would mean much more serious scrutiny of the seemingly endless ethical transgressions of Trump’s agency chiefs and of Trump’s own nonstop self-dealing, and a serious effort to shake loose Trump’s tax returns.
Because of all this, a partial or total takeover would likely be a more transformative event than in past cases. After 1994, Bill Clinton morphed into a triangulating centrist and got reelected easily. After 2006, George W. Bush was already a lame duck and merely continued limping toward the end. After 2010, Barack Obama had to abandon some grand liberal priorities and enter into years of grueling fiscal trench warfare but emerged unscathed enough to win a second term.
Trump could win reelection if Democrats take back one or both chambers. But it seems less likely. Regardless, by slamming the brakes on Trump’s numerous degradations — basically ending the Trump presidency as we know it — this would, relative to the rebukes suffered by his predecessors, constitute a more dramatic, meaningful and impactful outcome for the country.
Update: The Senate Judiciary Committee just voted to advance the Mueller-protection bill. The fact that it probably won’t get a full vote only underscores the urgency of this fall’s elections.
* OOPS! TRUMP’S SURPRISE ADMISSION ABOUT STORMY DANIELS: On “Fox & Friends” this morning, Trump appeared to admit lawyer Michael Cohen represented him in the Stormy Daniels hush money affair:
“A percentage of my overall legal work — a tiny, tiny little fraction,” Trump said. “But Michael would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal, he represented me.”
Trump had previously said he had no knowledge of the payment, but this new admission suggests he understood Cohen as representing his interests at the time.
* NEW POLLS SUGGEST SENATE IS IN PLAY: New polls from Axios-SurveyMonkey find the Democratic candidates leading by sizable margins in both the Arizona and Nevada Senate races. Note this, on the “dreamers”:
DACA is the biggest warning sign for Republicans: 64% of voters across all three states support protections for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children, and 71% support offering immigrants a chance to apply for citizenship rather than deporting them.
The route to a Democratic Senate majority is through the Southwest, and Trumpism isn’t helping Republicans.
* PRUITT FACES A GRILLING: Today EPA chief Scott Pruitt will face questions in Congress about his multiple ethical transgressions. Note this:
He has outlined plans to blame others for some of his most controversial decisions … But even some supporters in Congress are growing impatient, with Republican lawmakers demanding greater accountability and telling Pruitt allies to stand down from praising him.
What a guy. Oh, also, imagine if being a climate-change denier who opposes the very mission of the EPA were a dealbreaker among Republicans.
* ‘CARAVAN’ ARRIVES AT SOUTHERN BORDER: With Trump railing that the “caravan” of immigrants must not be allowed entry, the Associated Press reports that around 130 Central Americans, mostly women and children, have arrived in Tijuana, Mexico:
U.S. lawyers planned to lead clinics later this week on U.S. asylum law to tell the immigrants what to expect when they seek asylum. The first groups plan to try to enter the U.S. on Sunday at San Diego’s border crossing.
You can bet that #Foxlandia will be filling Trump’s head with all kinds of vicious nonsense about this, leading him to lash out wildly.
* HOUSE RACES TILT TOWARD DEMOCRATS: The good folks at Sabato’s Crystal Ball just shifted a whole bunch more GOP-held House seats into the “competitive” category. Here’s what the broadening map means:
In the event of a big wave, there are some districts that might not seem competitive on paper that could flip, particularly because a deep bench of Democratic candidates is in place to capitalize on a potentially great environment in the fall. That’s where one could see Democrats picking up substantially more than the 23 net seats they need to win House control.
But they still see control of the House as a 50-50 tossup and envision scenarios in which Democrats pick up a number of seats only in the teens, if the environment shifts, which is always possible.
* BROAD SUPPORT FOR STRIKING TEACHERS: A new NPR-Ipsos poll finds that large majorities of Americans believe teachers are underpaid and support their right to strike:
Just 1 in 4 Americans believe teachers in this country are paid fairly. Nearly two-thirds approve of national teachers’ unions, and three-quarters agree teachers have the right to strike. That last figure includes two-thirds of Republicans, three-quarters of independents and nearly 9 in 10 Democrats.
Interestingly, nearly two-thirds said they had seen reports about the striking teachers, suggesting that the issue is breaking through nationally.
* HOW MACRON APPEALS TO TRUMP: French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to Congress yesterday tearing into Trumpism, but also calling on President Trump to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. E.J. Dionne Jr. explains Macron’s method:
On this question, he offered a path to conciliation by insisting that he, too, wanted to prevent Iran from ever having nuclear weapons. He proposed a bigger and more comprehensive pact built on the old one. Perhaps Macron has a chance of persuading the administration to take this off-ramp, since anything that seems big or bigger evokes a Pavlovian reaction from Trump.
One hopes that in private, Macron hinted to Trump that embracing a bigger and more comprehensive Iran deal would show Trump was strong where President Barack Obama was weak. Might work!