Happy Halloween! This is a really busy week. Here's what's going on today:
There are all of a sudden A LOT of experts on this issue right now, and this is going to be the headline for the rest of the week and beyond. I think the WaPo Daily 202 did a really good job of breaking down takeaways this morning though, so I'll summarize that for you.
1. The indictments tell us that multiple members of the Trump campaign flirted with the idea of getting help from the Russians. This is what George Papadopolous was arrested for.
The timeline fits:
DNC email hack was March 2016 --> Papa communicated with someone believed to be linked to the Russian government in April --> In July, Trump famously encouraged the Kremlin to release the emails.
Throughout the course of that timeline, the photo of Trump, Papa, Sessions, and others were photographed sitting around the same table. This photo ON ITS OWN refutes the White House's claim that Papa was a low-tier campaign staffer. Pro tip: Low-level campaign staffers, paid or unpaid, DO NOT sit at the same table as the candidate on the regular. Period.
Other things that happened during that time period were, of course, the Trump Tower meeting that Manafort and Don Jr. were involved in.
2. Sam Clovis will be in the hot seat next week on Capitol Hill. [See yesterday's last message]
3. We know that Papa is still to some extent helping Mueller's team as a "proactive cooperator". Seth Abramson, former prosecutor and current law professor at UNH (and an outstanding Twitter resource for this) said yesterday that, "there is every reason to think that Papadopoulos was wired for sound not long after his arrest on July 27th, 2017 at Dulles airport."
He wouldn't have gotten such a nice plea deal had he not gotten some good sound for Mueller's team or at least sufficiently convinced Mueller's team that he could get good sound.
Another thing the Papa arrest tells us is that Mueller's team is REALLY good at keeping things secret. If you're not in D.C., you didn't feel the shockwave that rocked this town after that announcement dropped yesterday. It is extremely difficult to keep secrets in this town, and now we know Mueller and his team can do it extremely effectively.
4. The updated timeline raises more questions about what Trump himself new and when. Here are some questions WaPo poses:
- Was Trump present when Papa said that he could set up a Trump-Putin meeting? According to the indictment, there was indeed a national security meeting with foreign policy advisers, which is where Papa told the group that he had the connections to the Kremlin. It is unclear whether Trump himself was present at that meeting.
- Did Trump know Papa had been interviewed by the FBI when he called James Comey in January to ask for loyalty? There are allegations that the FBI interview and the Comey call happened on the same day, January 27th.
5. Mueller is playing hardball, meaning if you cooperate, you get a shiny deal like Papa. If you don't, you get hit hard, like Manafort and Gates.
Just to recap what they're facing: Manafort and Gates' bond is $10 million and $5 million unsecured, respectively. They are both also under house arrest with daily reporting.
Only four times in history has someone been convicted under the FARA law for failing to register as a foreign agent, and usually it's a simple civil penalty. This is the first time the violation has been elevated to a criminal one, which means Mueller is going for maximum leverage with Gates and Manafort.
A former Watergate special prosecutor said of Mueller's charges that "the only defense that [Manafort has] is to go in there and start singing like a canary to avoid jail time", and indeed, both Manafort and Gates each face over a decade in prison. However, based on the statement Manafort's attorney gave yesterday, that doesn't seem to be the strategy they're taking. My guess is that they plan to drag this out as long as they can.
Gates brought a public defender with him to court yesterday, and there was no statement.
6. Unsealing Papa's guilty plea was Mueller's insurance policy that it makes it politically untenable for Trump to fire him.
Congressional GOP have been mostly mum on this issue until now, fleeing from reporters and cameras yesterday so as not to have to say anything. The deafening silence was broken only by a peep about how they're not worried about Mueller and his job. There was legislation drafted just a few weeks ago to protect Mueller and his funding, but that seems to have all but died at this point.
Some key lawmakers have also noted, perhaps disguised as other comments, that firing Mueller would cross some sort of line for them, saying things like "it's important to let our legal system run its course" (Grassley), or "He's not going to get fired by the president" (Hatch).
It's also been made clear that the president's counsel both in and outside the White House have advised him to tamper his public responses, and to not go after Mueller personally. My feeling is that his rage will boil over at some point, and he'll say something terrible.
Apparently Steve Bannon is urging the president to take action against Mueller, from which we can also assume that Steven Miller is quietly doing the same.
7. This week, the week the House is set to roll out it's huge tax reform plan, will be the test to see how much this revelation by Mueller's team will affect the president's legislative agenda. The agenda has had a hard enough time as it is without huge news like this, so it will be interesting to see the fallout from it on Capitol Hill as the days go on.
8. With Tony Podesta's downfall, Mueller has proven what we've known all along: his investigation is not political or partisan. He's going after big players who have broken big rules, regardless of who they've given money to or voted for in the past.
AS A REMINDER
This is not the only part of the Russia story. Today at 2:30pm, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google about Russian interference in the election.
According to Axios, here is how the tax debate is shaping up. I know no more than I did yesterday, officially.
"The House is set to release its tax plan on Wednesday, but the Senate is planning on releasing its own bill about a week or so after. The bill will differ in some significant ways from the House bill, and is geared toward attracting moderates like Sen. Susan Collins — and even potentially Democrats.
Here's how the Senate plan is shaping up, per congressional aides and an administration official.
- The Senate is likely to not fully repeal the "estate tax" — a 40 percent tax on estates worth more than $5.49 million for individuals and $10.98 million for couples. This is a key demand of Collins, per Bloomberg.
- The Senate is more likely than the House to do a full repeal of the state and local tax deduction.
- Yes, but: If there's any hope of courting Democrats, the deduction probably can't be fully repealed. There are currently quiet conversations ongoing with Democrats viewed as potentially gettable (such as Sens. Claire McCaskill and Tom Carper on the Finance Committee), per an administration official.
- Like the House, there are likely to be four individual tax brackets — including keeping the current top rate of 39.6 percent on the wealthy (another Collins demand, although specifics matter). Both chambers have discussed levying this rate on people making $1 million and higher.
- The Senate is unlikely to make changes to 401(k) contribution limits, although President Trump may have killed this idea in both chambers last week.
- The Senate, along with the House, is likely to have a phase-in of the lower corporate rate.
The other thing that happened yesterday is that, contrary to her early support of the bill, Susan Collins drew a red line on what she will not accept in a final version: Lowering taxes for folks who earn more than $1M/year, and she doesn't want to see the Estate Tax go away. Additionally, she made comments about how she is skeptical of a deficit-raising tax cut plan.
Remember: This bill has to be identical in the House and in the Senate, and at this stage where we don't have text, only rumors, it doesn't sound like they will be remotely similar.
This place is swarming with lobbyists this week because, in addition to their own constituents, the GOP is beholden to just about every major cause that has a lobby shop in Washington, and needs to come up with a plan that appeases them all and keeps their cash flowing. This is why tax reform is so hard, btw.
FEMA Director Brock Long was meant to testify in front of the House Homeland Security Committee tomorrow, but for some unknown reason, that testimony has been postponed. This could have something to do with the fact that the Whitefish contract has been cancelled, so now the GOP might think it's unnecessary for him to testify.
This Whitefish thing has been a big deal for Puerto Rico, and I haven't covered it well enough with you folks, so with the help of the WaPo Energy 202 from yesterday, here is my analysis:
- The move from the Puerto Rican governor now is to make mutual aid requests from New York and Florida ---- in the eyes of many, this should have been the first move.
- The Energy 202 paints a good picture of this controversy with Whitefish:
-- Zinke's son worked for the company last year.
-- Whitefish paid its foremen $462/hour and its lineman $319/hour. These are scales higher than its competitors, which begs the question as to why Puerto Rico of all places, an island strapped with debt, would choose them. As an example, the Army Corps of Engineers has been offering firms $195/hour for journeyman linemen and $230/hour for general foremen. Why did PR go with the costlier option?
-- Whitefish's owner, Andrew Techmanski (close friend of Ryan Zinke), also is a shady character. His wife was listed as one of Whitefish's two managers, despite reports from her Facebook page that she had just started a new job as a nurse practitioner. Some suspect that she is on the contract to help Whitefish qualify as a "economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business", which is bad for real business that qualify as such.
-- Within the contract itself stated that the rates could not be audited or reviewed by FEMA or PR's government, the comptroller general, or PREPA.
- So far the Administration has denied wrongdoing, Ryan Zinke even issuing a statement.
- The final decision to grant the contract to Whitefish was that of Puerto Rico's electric utility, PREPA.
The Administration and federal government must do a few things now:
1. Visibly assist Puerto Rico with getting its electric grid back up and running -- this is of utmost importance.
2. Review FEMA's response. My boss has learned that FEMA took 12 days to get to many Puerto Ricans. This needs to be looked into.
3. Help Puerto Rico investigate and hold someone accountable for the Whitefish contract. Even though the contract is cancelled, doesn't mean there shouldn't be any follow up.
4. Do something about Puerto Rico's debt situation. This has been a years-long, ongoing crisis, and it's time the U.S. government stepped up. In a GOP-controlled congress with other priorities and problems to deal with though, don't count on it.
ANOTHER GOP RETIREMENT
Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) is retiring and will not seek reelection in 2018. This guy is very close with Pence. Possibly eyeballing him for an Admin post (Commerce Secretary if Ross is brought down by Russia?)...or maybe VP Pence fancies himself his own Cabinet...just in case.
That's all for now -- stay tuned, Happy Halloween, and don't forget to remind folks that open enrollment starts TOMORROW.