In this edition: Mueller Mania (part II), the two Americas of voting rights, and the return of the gay rights wars.
I'm [redacted] wondering if any [expletive deleted] will get [harm to ongoing matter] while eyes are on the Mueller Report, and this is The Trailer. Enjoy the holiday. We'll be back early next week.
The competition was stiff, but the most buzzed about quote from the special counsel's redacted report came from President Trump himself.
“Oh, my God, this is terrible,” the president said, according to notes from the chief of staff of former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions. “This is the end of my presidency.”
It was not the end of his presidency. In the nearly two years since the president sacked FBI Director James B. Comey, Republicans have defended him, derided the investigation into his campaign and opened investigations into how and why the president's 2016 campaign was being monitored by the FBI in the first place.
Democrats long ago stopped expecting revelations about the president to dislodge his Republican support. Trump's approval rating has been frozen in place in the 25 days since Attorney General William P. Barr released a summary of Mueller's findings.
How will any of this affect the 2020 presidential race? In a few small ways.
The impeachment chorus. No Democrat running for president, not even those serving in the House (where impeachment happens), have called for opening hearings that could remove the president. The political calculation is clear: Rattled by memories of the Clinton impeachment 21 years ago, Democrats fear taking this step would be unpopular, galvanize the president's supporters by blotting out the issues they could be reachable on and even fail. Every Senate Democrat and 20 Republicans would need to vote to convict the president, and Democrats have said there is no point in trying unless Republicans move. Plus, in 19 months, they'll get a chance to remove Trump from office via an election.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's conclusion that a special counsel could not convict the president, as it would circumvent “constitutional processes for addressing presidential misconduct,” is being read as a nod at impeachment. Liberal activist and billionaire Tom Steyer, who passed on making his own presidential bid, said Thursday that his Need to Impeach campaign was more vital than ever: “The only way to get the full, uncensored truth for the American people is to begin impeachment hearings now.”
The security chorus. Since the 2016 election, a number of left-wing writers and activists — some Democrats, some not — have argued that Hillary Clinton's campaign was obsessed with Russian hackers to a fault. Shouting about foreign malfeasance, they said, was a way to dodge responsibility for losing a layup election.
The text of the Mueller report suggests that the Clintonites, who made plenty of mistakes, were indeed sideswiped by the sort of hacks and interference that could swing elections. There is evidence that the conspiracy theories about the hack of the Democratic National Committee were fabricated to cover up the Russian source of that hacking; there are details about how crucial turnout and targeting information was stolen from Democrats and used to hurt them.
There's just not much Democrats can do about that, except raise the specter of future hacks and cheating. “Case made for my bill for backup paper ballots and post-election audits,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) tweeted Thursday. To many rank-and-file Democrats, invoking Russian meddling in the 2016 election is not a way to suggest that the result might be overturned. It's a call to be overly cautious about their data and skeptical (if not paranoid) about online chatter attacking their candidates.
The scandal chorus. The president's unshakable support from Republicans, which will be enforced next Saturday at a rally in Wisconsin, has given off a sense that nothing sticks to him. That clearly is not true. The president's approval rating runs far behind voter approval of the economic situation, a bigger gap than pollsters have ever seen before. It is deeply unusual for most voters to believe the country is on the “wrong track” when the economy is growing and unemployment is low. For the entirety of Trump's presidency, voters have said the country is on the wrong track.
The Democrats running to beat Trump have not chased every scandal or controversy, believing Hillary Clinton's fatal error was emphasizing Trump's weaknesses so that voters forgot what she stood for. And there are plenty of swing-seat Democrats who say they do not want Congress to be subsumed by investigations.
The record is pretty clear on this: It is a problem for an incumbent party when its candidate appears to be plagued by scandal. It was a problem for Hillary Clinton. It was a problem for Al Gore. It was a problem for Gerald Ford. Don't look for Democrats to replace their own message with an anti-Trump message. Do look for them to say the country needs to “change the channel” from the Trump drama, no matter what voters think of his economic performance.
There are many fine Washington Post stories about the findings of the Mueller probe, but this one lays out how they intersected with the 2016 election.
A long look at Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who surprised many Democrats by becoming not just a supporter of, but an evangelist for, the Sanders campaign.
Polling shows most voters still uncomfortable with the president's handling of immigration policy, but Democrats worry about a few traps they have not figured out how to navigate around.
“The Democrats Whose 2020 Goal Is Grander Than the Presidency,” by Russell Berman
A look at Future Now, the latest project by Democratic activists to focus the party on electing state legislators before it cedes another decade of redistricting.
In Tennessee, Republicans are set to pass a strict new law to limit voter registration campaigns. In Florida, Republicans are on the verge of demanding that nonviolent felons — newly enfranchised by a state constitutional amendment — pay off court debts before they try to vote again.
And meanwhile, in Michigan, voters are about to head to the polls in their first election with same-day registration and no-excuse early voting.
In the run-up to the 2020 elections, voting rights from state to state are diverging more than at any time since the 1960s. There is very little that the minority parties in state legislatures can do about this; there is even less that the candidates, flying over and sometimes into the states where the laws are changing, can do.
“If this bill is passed, it will make it virtually impossible for a campaign to come in here and engage meaningfully in voter registration,” said state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democratic leader in Tennessee's supermajority-Republican legislature. “We have one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country already.”
Since 2016, Democrats have raised the priority of voting reform whenever they take power in state legislatures. One result has been an archipelago of mostly blue states where voting has grown dramatically easier. Automatic voter registration is the law in 16 states; all but four — Alaska, Georgia, Michigan, and West Virginia — backed Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In Michigan's case, the changes to voting laws came only after a referendum in November. In most cases, there has been some Republican buy-in when voting changes have won popular support statewide.
“While voting restrictions are happening at the hands of the Republicans, the expansion of voting rights is happening with input from both parties,” said Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Those voting restrictions are also happening predominantly in deep red states, or swing states where Republicans have political control. Since 2013, when the Supreme Court ended the Voting Rights Act's requirement that many states get “pre-clearance” before changing their laws, Democrats have watched restrictions on new voters proliferate, and then proliferate again.
Their most dispiriting setback has come in Florida, where a bipartisan effort to amend the state's constitution and restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million former felons passed with a supermajority of the vote. Since then, with control of the governor's mansion and the legislature, Republicans have quickly moved legislation that would require former felons to settle all debts related to their convictions, which could keep hundreds of thousands of voters off the rolls.
The Democratic fightback started early, but with not many levers of power to pull. After narrowly losing the 2018 gubernatorial race, former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum launched Florida Forward, which was designed to be a registration campaign and quickly became focused on slowing or stopping the court fees bill.
“They're taking every step possible to undermine the will of the voter,” Gillum said in an interview. “And really, it's no longer just the will of the voters we're talking about; it's the constitution of the state of Florida.”
Democrats in red states are asking presidential candidates to speak up about the laws. Many have already. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has attacked the Florida bill, and former congressman Beto O'Rourke's stump speech includes a specific attack on Texas laws that don't allow student IDs as forms of voter identification. In his own stump, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) often makes a blanket attack on Republicans, saying they should “get the hell out of politics” if they want to pass laws that restrict the franchise.
None of that has moved state legislators, except for the ones in blue states. The Democrats' 2018 sweep in New York brought about the most significant change in voting rights relative to the 2016 primary; for the first time, the state will have 10 days of early voting ahead of its primaries and general elections. But many of the key Democratic primaries will take place in states where voting laws have been tightened, like O'Rourke's Texas. And in Tennessee, as they wait for a vote next Monday on the bill that would punish voter registration groups if they submit incomplete or flawed forms from voters.
One week ago, the antiabortion activist Randall Terry — he prefers the term “child killing” to abortion — told his 2,166 YouTube subscribers that he would be protesting Pete Buttigieg's campaign stops in Iowa.
“We're taking our murder coach, the one that says 'it's a sin to vote for Democrats!'" said Terry. “Please pray for us. We're going to go to five campaign stops, with our bullhorns, and say the truth about Pete Buttigieg; that he is promoting evil in the presence of God.”
Terry's plan was buried at the end of a 25-minute video, after some updates on the news from Washington and the activist's personal endorsement of a Philadelphia-based guitar manufacturer (“the finest guitars I've ever seen"). But the protest made a bigger splash than anything Terry, 60, had done in a decade.
On Monday, Terry himself disrupted a Buttigieg rally in Des Moines by shouting “Sodom and Gomorrah! Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!” The candidate, who is already the highest-polling gay contender for the presidency in American history, brushed it off.
“The good news is, the condition of my soul is in the hands of God — but the Iowa caucuses are up to you,” he quipped to the audience after the interruption.
On Tuesday, Terry and a crew of protesters returned to protest outside Buttigieg’s events, this time dressed as a devil while promoting “Mayor Pete” (a colleague dressed in a costume consisting of slacks, a white dress shirt, and a tie) in between exaggerated cackles.
Outside of Iowa, Terry’s protest was seen as a strange kind of political coup. Not long ago, a majority of voters would tell pollsters that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a gay president. This year, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 68 percent of voters were “enthusiastic” or “comfortable” with the concept.
Buttigieg, who came out of the closet after entering politics, has largely received positive coverage over the idea that he’d break a historical barrier. It’s been only 10 years since Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first gay political leader of any country, and only four years since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges established a constitutional right for same-sex couples to get married.
Since then, the conservative movement’s crusade against same-sex marriage seemed to be over — so much so that in 2016, some Republicans emphasized that Donald Trump had never spoken out against it, and that Hillary Clinton was one of the last national Democratic politicians to endorse it.
It was Buttigieg, not Republicans, who pressed the issue of gay rights in this campaign, and in doing so, the candidate seemed to find a weakness in the other party. After Buttigieg gave a speech attacking Vice President Pence’s record of opposing same-sex marriage and signing a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that made it easier for private businesses to deny services to LGBTQ people, Pence insisted that Buttigieg had “said some things that are critical of my Christian faith and about me personally.” Gay rights activists read between the lines: Pence was not comfortable defending the long fight against same-sex marriage, and had instead retreated to the high ground of “religious liberty” politics.
Terry, whose stunts have long kept him outside the mainstream of conservatism, does not retreat. Neither do some other, more politically influential, social conservatives. In a statement this week, the National Organization for Marriage, one of the few organizations still openly advocating for court appointments that could undo same-sex marriage rights, argued that Buttigieg was advancing pseudoscience to say that he was “born” gay. “The causes of homosexuality are complex and difficult to ascertain with certainty,” wrote NOM's Brian Brown.
“The fact that Mr. Buttigieg considers himself to be gay is of no particular import to us,” Brown continued. “What is of great importance, however, is using the false notion that sexual orientation is immutable to impact public policy on issues such as marriage and gender.”
This is not a fight most Republicans want to have anymore. Like Pence, they had moved on to discussing whether LGBTQ rights advocates were making demands that violated religious liberty; the issue had become whether they could compel bakers to make wedding cakes, not that they could get married. The sight of an actual anti-gay protest in Iowa had gotten around the country, with Democrats who saw it praising Buttigieg.
“I thought it was so retrograde, like some throwback to the 1970s,” said Morris Meyer, 55, a Democratic activist who came to see Beto O'Rourke campaign in Alexandria, Va. on Wednesday. “In the year 2020, I think stuff like that really helps him. I mean, my daughter's gay, and when she told me, I said I didn't love her any less.”
In Iowa, one of the first states where courts legalized same-sex marriage, most Democrats ignored the anti-Buttigieg spectacle.
“It’s not like all of Westboro Baptist was here,” said Tiffany Welch, 39, who went to hear Buttigieg speak Thursday morning. (The Westboro Baptist church is best known for protesting at funerals of notable people to argue that God hates gay people.) “It kind of comes with the territory. We have free speech.”
What was more disappointing, Welch said, was knowing there were more conservative and very religious members of her family who would automatically write off Buttigieg because of his sexual orientation.
“That breaks my heart but it’s not surprising because that’s the kind of thing that I’ve grown up with,” she said. “It’s really disheartening to know that a positive thing in his personal life is such a disqualifier for so many people . . . especially when we have our current president, who has a whole sordid background.”
Still, Welch said the way Buttigieg could relay his personal story, including coming out, was one of the qualities she liked best about him.
“I really appreciate that [Buttigieg is] willing to openly share that, knowing it opens him up for criticism and random protesters,” she said.
Amy Wang contributed reporting from Iowa.
Under the new tax plan, have the federal taxes you pay gone up? (Monmouth, 801 adults)
Stayed the same - 46 percent
Gone up - 28 percent
Gone down - 14 percent
Don't know - 13 percent
The operating assumption by Republicans about Democrats in the Trump era is that when they get into a battle of public opinion, they'll lose. That's not what happened with the 2017 tax cut package, which was unpopular upon passage, ticked up a bit in early 2018 (upon news of some employers handing out bonuses), and then regressed, to become opposed by most voters again. It's estimated that two-thirds of all taxpayers had their bills reduced by the 2017 law; just one in six voters believe that they got a tax cut.
How likely is it that intelligence agencies broke the law in how they investigated the Trump campaign? (Fox News, 1,005 registered voters)
Not at all - 35 percent
Somewhat - 23 percent
Extremely - 22 percent
Very - 12 percent
Even before the first summary of the Mueller report, Republicans inside and outside of the House Intelligence Committee had been working to move public debate to why the Trump campaign was being investigated in the first place. This question is asked in just about the most open-ended way possible — who has ever seen a police procedural and doesn't think investigators “somewhat” flout the rules? — and finds an electorate pretty ready to believe that the FBI did something wrong as it investigated the Trump campaign.
North Carolina. Dan McCready was never the kind of Democrat who gets his party's left-wing base excited; his race for the 9th Congressional District did not become a cause celebre until a scandal over “ballot stuffing” engulfed his Republican opponent, sparking a new special election. Since then, he's raised more money than any other Democrat running for the House.
But he's turned some money down — specifically, the $2,000 donation sent his way by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). After local reporters noticed that McCready had asked the donation to be given back, he explained that he “did this weeks ago because I vigorously disagree with any anti-Semitic comments,” but that he would “condemn in the strongest terms the hateful rhetoric against her, the Muslim community and people of color.”
On Twitter, unsurprisingly, McCready was pummeled by Democrats who said he'd been opportunistic and Republicans happy to agree. McCready, however, had already distanced himself from the party in Washington, telling voters last year that he would oppose Nancy Pelosi's bid to become Speaker of the House. (If he joins the House this year, he won't have to vote on that question.)
What was most problematic for McCready — the impression that he was taking both sides of the Omar question — looked more like the story of how Democrats have reacted to her very different controversies. Many Democrats piled on Omar for her tweet that suggested support for Israel in Congress was “all about the Benjamins.” More Democrats defended her after conservative media outlets accused her of diminishing the horrors of 9/11 in a speech; the speech itself was about how American Muslims felt threatened after 9/11.
Terry McAuliffe. Saying that his “heart was with Virginia,” the state's last governor to leave office without significant scandals told CNN that he would not run for president in 2020.
"[I] think I could beat Bush — I mean, Trump — like a rented mule,” he said. “But we’ve got issues in Virginia and I’m concerned about Virginia.”
Democrats, on the verge of winning total control of Virginia's legislature, have struggled a bit with fundraising and recruiting since the revelation that Gov. Ralph Northam wore blackface while attending medical school. McAuliffe, who had toured early states and talked to donors about a 2020 bid, is the most prominent of several Democrats trying to help Virginia Democrats patch things up ahead of the November elections.
Seth Moulton. He is universally expected to launch a presidential campaign soon; sources with knowledge of his plans say that he learned from focus group research that Democrats are concerned on electability above all other issues, and that a young veteran (Moulton is 40) was very competitive with some better-known, older names.
Larry Hogan. He's making a long-awaited appearance in New Hampshire next Tuesday, speaking at Politics and Eggs, as a fifth month of speculation about whether he'll challenge President Trump gets underway.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He's back in South Carolina today and tomorrow, with two rallies and a roundtable about poverty in the upstate.
Pete Buttigieg. He's begun to spell out some policy proposals to set him apart from the Democratic field; chief among them being a national service plan, which he described on MSNBC as “always important and never urgent.” John Delaney had proposed a similar plan.
John Delaney. He rolled out a plan for a Department of Cybersecurity, a cabinet-level position that would coordinate all info security operations.
Tim Ryan. He's spending three full days in Iowa ahead of the Easter holiday, with meet-and-greets in some Democratic strongholds.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). She's returning to New Hampshire on Monday; the idea that she is less focused on the state than other Democrats had crept into local party chatter.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). On Tuesday, she endorsed Illinois congressional candidate Marie Newman, who is challenging antiabortion Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) for the second time; Gillibrand is the first 2020 Democrat to endorse a primary challenger in a House race since the DCCC announced that contractors working for challengers would not get work with the committee.
Beto O’Rourke spent Wednesday afternoon in a crowded hotel ballroom in Alexandria, Va., stuffed with voters who had waited more than an hour to see him. One of the first questions: Why couldn’t they see him some more?
“I haven’t seen you on any MSNBC recently,” said one woman at the front of his crowd. “I haven’t seen you on TV, and other candidates have been on TV morning, noon, and night.”
It was true; after months of hype that bordered on surreal, O’Rourke has fallen out of the daily narrative of primary coverage. His town halls aren’t covered live on TV, or even recapped, unless he’s made a gaffe.
The big question is whether this matters, especially so early in the primary. The evidence suggests that it probably doesn't. It was true, in 2015, that Donald Trump's complete dominance on television, including frequent coverage of his rallies, gave him a sustained advantage over other Republican candidates.
But that was unique, and most campaigns don't see constant coverage as useful except in three incidences: At the start of a campaign, after a breakout moment, and in the last days before primaries. If you think of the actors in any campaign like planets orbiting the sun, the press is Mercury, zipping around at top speed. The campaigns are like Jupiter, going days without any particular need for daylight.
In Alexandria, O'Rourke argued that his focus on rallies (which usually get positive local coverage) and town halls was a plus for him.
“I’m going to go everywhere; listen to, talk with, everyone, show up with the courage of our convictions,” he said. “As far as MSNBC or the cable television networks, one of my all-time heroes — Dischord Records — had this do-it-yourself philosophy. They started their own label, wrote their own songs, booked their own tours. They ensured that everyone could see them, and that they could see everybody. We have held more town halls in the month and four days we’ve been doing this than any other candidate, because meeting you, eyeball to eyeball, is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV, with a sound bite, or a sentence.”
The crowd of around 600 people applauded at that. “At some point, I’m going to have to give in and be on your television set,” O'Rourke added. “But right now I want to meet with you in person.”
Andrew Yang, the novice presidential candidate running on a universal basic income, has gotten some fresh attention for an old idea: The campaign hologram. Yang plans to be the first American political candidate to use hologram technology for multiple, simultaneous political events. India’s Narendra Modi and France’s Jean-Luc Melancon did it first, but no one here had tried until Yang.
That was not for a lack of effort from the hologram industry. “We had conversations with every major candidate in 2016,” said David Nussbaum, executive vice president of the Los Angeles-based Hologram USA, which will run Yang’s projection project. “The problem that kept coming up for them was whether it would insult voters. If you’re not physically here, why not? They imagined people asking that and they said no.”
Yang had no such problems; after “cold-calling every 2016 campaign,” Nussbaum found Yang to be the most interested in using holograms to spread his message. The price, said Nussbaum, ranged “from tens of thousands of dollars to seven figures,” as small or as ambitious as the candidate wanted.
“In this case, we’re going to use a hologram projection truck,” said Nussbaum. “It’s a 30-foot long trailer, and it’s beautiful. We’re going to wrap it in graphics that say, ‘Yang 2020, powered by Hologram USA.’ And inside the trailer will live a 17-foot long hologram projection stage.”
The image beamed from the trailer will, of course, be Yang, filmed live in a capture space in New York. “If he’s beaming into five cities, he can interact with people in all five,” said Nussbaum. “If you’re in Seattle and you ask a question he will have a screen where he can see you asking it. That’s how real time it is; that’s how interactive it is. To everyone in the audience, it will look like he’s there.”
Yang has already qualified for the first Democratic presidential debates, scheduled for the end of June.
. . . six days until Democrats meet for the She the People forum
. . . nine days until Democrats head to Las Vegas for the SEIU's meeting
. . . 20 days until Amy Klobuchar's town hall on Fox News
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