Friday, June 23, 2017

The Real Reason Mitch McConnell is Rushing the GOP Health Care Bill

Tom thinks Mitch is crafting a winning strategy.  By losing fast.

Mitch McConnell, as canny a pro on Capitol Hill as there is, has developed a novel strategy for the Senate version of the GOP health care bill – the long bomb. 

If you get football, here it is.  We’re in overtime after seven years of playing.  Mitch finally has the ball.  He takes over on his own 20-yard line and has decided he is going to run only one play, going for broke, the bomb.  No sustained drive for him.  He’s not even calling a huddle.  He’s hoping his team is on the same page and everything breaks correctly, and the Opposition is caught flatfooted.  If he wins, he wins, if he loses, he’s not even going to try another play.

If you don’t get football, here are the politics.  Draft the bill in private in a working group (13 white guys); spring it on the rest of the Senate as late as possible; don’t allow a committee to touch it and hold open hearings; and push for a vote in a week, that is, before the July 4 recess.  Assuming you can get your 50 votes, losing at most two of your own, then you use the summer to work out a compromise on the bill with the House, not lose anyone from either the Senate or the House in the process, and get a final bill on Trump’s desk for signing.

The presumed reason for such a process has been widely reported.  Everyone knows the bill is a dog, that 20+ million Americans will lose coverage under TrumpCare over time, that premiums will soar in the early years, and that the GOP would face, in 2018, ad after ad featuring real Americans who lost coverage with TrumpCare and were either economically ruined or died for lack of care.  Twenty million stories are a lot to choose from.  The McConnell process is based on the premise, the less said about it the better.  And more to the point, the less scrutiny, the fewer horrific headlines about the bill, and, if you avoid a hurricane of blowback, you just might entice enough Senators to sign on based on the notion of “promises kept.”

It’s cynical and appalling, but nobody ever mistook Mitch McConnell for Gandhi or King.  This is not about righteousness.  He is a sneaky bastard, and he wants to win.  Very badly.  And winning, for him, means:  1) winning reelection, 2) keeping his post as Majority Leader, which implies 3) holding on to the GOP majority in the Senate.  And he will craft precise legislative strategies to, in his cold assessment, maximize his odds of achieving these goals.

But there is another reason for the "going fast " strategy, that is not receiving any play, and that is, going fast is the best strategy for McConnell in the event the bill fails.

McConnell has said the vote will be by July 4, and if it fails, there will be no other attempt.  Because if he pursues this strategy and loses, then it’s all over.  McConnell can say the GOP gave it the good fight, and while the defeat stings, ultimately no one gets hurt by this monstrosity of a bill, and he still has 16 months to get tax reform and infrastructure reform done, and the GOP faithful will surely conclude two out of three ain’t bad.  He wants to get on to win/win legislation, and get away from lose/lose losers like health care has proven to be.

By moving fast, and cutting his losses, McConnell might win even if he loses.  In fact, knowing full well what a rotten bill this is, he may even prefer that outcome.  Here’s why.

In 2018, the GOP has an incredibly friendly Senate map.   They have 52 seats right now, and one might think they are at a huge risk of losing three or more seats and thus losing control to the Dems.  But actually it is not likely they are going to lose the Senate at all, even with a weak Trump.  There are only nine GOP Senators that are up for reelection in 2018 and, realistically, only two of them are truly vulnerable, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona.  The other seven won their last race by +17 or more points, and all are in Deep Red states.   Even if Heller and Flake lost, the Dems have to hold onto all of their seats (including 10 in states Trump won), and even then it would not be enough – that would result in a 50/50 split with Pence still the tiebreaking vote.  So it would take an utter catastrophe for the GOP to lose the Senate.

So, if you are McConnell, which health care bill scenario is more likely to result in catastrophe, among the two bad options?  Failing to pass the bill (very disappointing!) or passing the bill (20 million Americans actually lose health insurance!  Huge premium increases actually happen!  All those horrible ads get aired!)?  It is no contest.  The better option is to lose.

And that is why there will be no second play. The bill will be voted up or down before July 4.  If the GOP loses, then they will salvage the next 16 months and begin work on something – anything – that may hold more promise for a legislative win.  Because Mitch McConnell wants to be done with health care once and for all.  He wants to move on.  He does not want to tie up Senate time for months on end, for the balance of 2017, trying to solve a Rubik’s cube that has no answer. If he is going to lose, he wants to lose quickly.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Real Lesson From Georgia and the Special Elections

Tom goes to the numbers to take issue with the post-Georgia spin.

Anyone who thinks the mainstream media relentlessly charges after the anti-Trump/liberal version of any political story is mistaken.  To wit – the coverage of the Democrats’ loss in Georgia’s 6th District, and South Carolina’s 5th as well. The headlines have been all about the GOP’s clean sweep of the four special elections, the disarray of the Democratic Party, the inability to translate Trump’s unpopularity into seat flips.  And they have juicy quotes from the anti-Pelosi faction of the Democratic Party, a group who were already screaming for her head.

Now, the Dems may indeed need a coherent message; they certainly have to resolve their moderate/liberal-wing split; and perhaps Pelosi should step down as the too-San Francisco symbol of the Dems.  But none of those represent “lessons” of the special elections.

The real lesson of the special elections is this: the GOP is in big trouble in 2018, barring a dramatic turnaround in Trump’s performance or major legislative wins.

Why is that the true lesson?

Because the four districts in question were extremely Solid Red districts.  None was remotely contested last November.  The GOP candidate in November in each district won handily.  The real news was the dramatic narrowing of the margin in the special elections versus those November elections.

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016 Winner
Nov. 2016 Outcome
Spring  2017 Winner
Spring 2017 Outcome
Margin Difference
KAN 4
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
Estes (R)
R + 7
-24
MON AL
Zinke (R)
R + 15
Gianforte (R)
R + 6
-9
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
Handel (R)
R + 4
-19
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
Norman (R)
R + 3
-17
Average

R + 23

R + 5
-18

As you can see, the GOP won those four elections in November by an average of +23 points.  No one was targeting those elections for flips; these races did not occupy one second of Chuck Todd’s or John King’s coverage; no model was run at BTRTN or FiveThirtyEight to determine who was going to win; and no one had to stay up late to learn the outcome.

But in the special elections, the margin of victory dropped to single digits in each race, an average of only +5 points.  This means the gap narrowed by a full 18 percentage points, and each of these elections was, indeed, a contested race.  The fact that the GOP won them all is not the story.  The story is the margin.

How significant is that 18-point narrowing of the gap?  We all know that a great deal can happen in the next 16 months, before the midterms.  But things better improve for the GOP, because if that 18-point improvement holds for the Dems, they would pick up 49 seats and easily retake the House.  Yes, 49 GOP members won their elections by less than 18 points.  That is more than double the number of flips the Dems need.

As it happens, that number of flips – 49 -- is not far off what our models suggest based on the current generic ballot polling.  The most recent polls have the Dems up +6 over the GOP, and our model suggests this gap, if it is still +6 at midterm time, would result in a pickup of +45 seats for the Dems.  And this also is consistent with the lessons of history; unpopular first-term presidents have a tendency to get crushed in their first midterms:  Bill Clinton, with a 46% approval rating, lost 54 seats in 1994; Barack Obama, with a 45% approval rating, lost 63.  Note:  Donald Trump’s approval rating (using Gallup, for consistency), is now 37%.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Georgia on My Mind: Can the Dems Finally Flip a Special Election Seat?

The last two of five special elections in the House of Representatives will occur tomorrow, June 20, the very high visibility race for Georgia’s 6th District and the less publicized (and likely one-sided) contest for South Carolina’s 5th District.  To refresh, these elections are required because Trump named four House members to his Cabinet, and a fifth, a California Democrat, was named that state’s Attorney General.  Many eyes are focused on these races as referendums on the state of the Trump presidency (and this is a legitimate thought) and also as a predictor of the 2018 midterms (this perhaps far less so given we have 16+ months to go).  Here are the five in chart form:

State/ Dist.
Replacing
Nov. 2016          Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
General Election
Opponents                     (D versus R exc Cal)
Outcome
KAN 4
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
R + 27
Apr 11
Thompson - Estes
R + 7
MON AL
Zinke (R)
R + 15
R + 20
May 25
Quist  - Gianforte
R+ 6
CAL 34
Bacerra (D)
D + 100
D + 73
Jun 6
Gomez (D) - Ahn (D)
D +100
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
R + 1
Jun 20
Ossoff - Handel
tbd
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
R + 18
Jun 20
Parnell - Norman
tbd

The GOP has managed to hang on thus far, but the races in Kansas and Montana were far closer than their November counterparts.  Republican Ron Estes won Kansas’ 4th District by a mere +7 points, just six months after Mike Pompeo won the same seat by +31 and Donald Trump took the district by +27.  And in a race notable mainly for the winning candidate body slamming a reporter the night before Election Day, Republican Greg Gianforte managed to beat the less-than-optimal Democratic challenger Rob Quist by only +6 points, far closer than Ryan Zinke’s +15 point win and Donald Trump’s +20 margin in November.  Clearly, the GOP is on the defensive; both of those seats were considered “Solid Red” and would not have typically hit the radar screen as contested, “flippable” seats.

California’s 34th was truly uncontested, as two Democrats finished 1-2 in the primary and thus claimed 100% of the votes in the run-off election.  Jimmy Gomez beat fellow Democrat Robert Lee Ahn to succeed Xavier Bacerra.

On to tomorrow’s races where virtually all of the national focus will be on Georgia.

South Carolina’s 5th District

Let’s start (and quickly dispense with) South Carolina’s 5th district, which does not appear to be following the Kansas/Montana pattern, though we will see on Election Day.  Mark Mulvaney vacated this district when he was named Trump’s director of the OMB.  It will be a contest between Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell.

Norman is a former GOP state representative who had a doozie of a primary season with Tommy Pope, another former GOP state rep.  In the first primary, Pope finished ahead of Norman 30.4% to 30.1%, with neither coming close to hitting the 50% mark, thereby necessitating a run-off primary.  In that contest, Norman turned the tables and won 50.3% to 49.7%, a razor-thin 221-vote margin that required a recount to confirm.  Parnell, a tax attorney, handily won the Democratic primary with 71% of the vote.

Like the Kansas and Montana races, this is Solid Red country.  Mulvaney won his race by +20 points, and Trump carried the district by +18 in November, 2016.  But unlike those races, this one seems to be heading toward an easy win for Norman and the GOP.  There has been only one recent poll, and it had Norman up by +17 over Parnell.

Georgia’s 6th District

This is the heavyweight battle, featuring Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a race that has been both remarkably well-funded and exceptionally tight.

This was Tom Price’s seat, Trump’s director of Health and Human Services (yes, the same guy who has apparently yet to see the Senate’s version of the health care bill, even though he is allegedly the expert as well as the person responsible for national health care policy – but I digress).  Price won the seat in November by a comfortable +24 points margin.

But the Democrat’s initial optimism, and the reason it drew so much attention in the primary in April, was due to Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in the district in 2016 relative to that of Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.  She lost to Trump by only a single point, 48/47.  Obama, on the other hand, was defeated by +18 points by John McCain in 2008 and +23 points by Mitt Romney in 2012. 

And even though Price won comfortably in November 2016, by +23 points, that margin was slightly tighter than his wins in 2014 (+32) and 2012 (+29).  All of this, plus the rather disastrous start to the Trump administration and Price’s own failure as a key player in the “replace and repeal Obamacare” debacle, led to initial Dem optimism that they could win here.

And how close Ossoff, a political neophyte who had been a Hill staffer and more recently a film documentarian, came to pulling it off in the April primary!  With the nation watching, he easily outpaced a bloated 18-person field, winning 48% of the vote, just shy of the 50% required to have taken the seat outright and obviate the need for a runoff.

Thus he and Handel, who came in second with a mere 20% of the vote, will go head-to-head tomorrow in the runoff.  Remarkably, the other Democrats in the primary won only a single other point collectively, while the GOP candidates after Handel garnered 31%, so the total GOP vote was 51% to the Dems 49%.  Hence Handel’s challenge is to unify the GOP voters and hold on to that edge.  Handel served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2010 (please do not ask me to explain what a state Secretary of State actually does).

Georgia’s 6th is comprised primarily of northern Atlanta suburbs, which have higher median incomes than the state as a whole as well as greater educational attainment.  It also has a reasonably significant minority population, roughly 25%.  An astonishing $50+ million has been spent on the race, with Ossoff having the advantage, having directly raised $23 million overall this year to Handel’s $4 million, though Handel has a slight edge in outside money.

Polling has been extensive.  There have been nine polls since mid-May and Ossoff has led in eight of them, and the other was a tie. On average the margin is Ossoff by about +2-3 points.  Three of those polls have been in the last week and they are remarkably consistent, with Ossoff leading in each, 50-49, 50-48 and 50-47.  It is notable that he achieved the 50% mark in each.  Also worth noting is that 140,000 ballots have already been cast; there were 326, 000 votes cast in total in November.

BTRTN believes that Ossoff will win the Georgia 6th election by a nose, 51/49, and that Norman will win the South Carolina 5th election by a healthy 58/42 margin.  The Georgia outcome will be viewed as an important victory for the Dems, and will reduce the GOP margin in the House to 240-195, meaning the Dems will have to flip 23 more seats to regain control of the House in 2018.

While the Dems will do cartwheels over a Georgia win, caution must be taken with respect to 2018.  As mentioned, the midterms are still 16 ½ months away, as our countdown clock shows, more than 500 days of tweets, investigations, potential legislation and unknown earthshaking events.  There is plenty of time for all outcomes to emerge, from a startling Trump comeback to a somber Pence presidency.

Having said that, the Dems are in the driver’s seat right now.  They hold a +6 lead in the generic ballot, which, according to our proprietary BTRTN model, would translate to a gain of 45 seats for the Dems, about double what they would need to regain the House.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Why Trump Might Fire Mueller

Tom pinch hits for Steve for our Sunday OpEd, and argues that whether Trump believes he is completely innocent, dead-to-rights guilty, or anywhere in the middle, the only logical next step he will see is to fire Mueller, and soon.

Donald Trump is in an endless loop.  The more moves he makes to try to shed the long shadow of RussiaGate over his presidency, the larger the shadow looms. 

And now, with the Washington Post reporting that Robert Mueller is investigating Trump himself on obstruction of justice charges, RussiaGate has made it directly to Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.

What next?  Will Trump fire Mueller, reenacting the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate lore, right on down to the historical echo of the third-in-command at the Department of Justice doing the deed?  The country is now in the throes of the “will he or won’t he” watch, busily reading the bio of Rachel Brand, who may be destined to become the next player in this remarkable saga, joining a Watergate-worthy roster for its breadth.  Brand, the Associate Attorney General, third in line after Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein in the DOJ, is, by reputation, an arch-conservative, the Robert Bork of her time, and thus presumably willing to fire Mueller if so ordered.

The conventional wisdom – and apparently the advice of Trump's aides -- is that Trump should simply lay low, focus on his agenda, let the Mueller investigation carry on to its conclusion, and take whatever comes when it comes.  This is surely the right advice and, practically speaking, especially so if Trump is innocent, as he proclaims.

But he is not remotely following that strategy.  Instead, he has personally taken on the public fight (mostly via Twitter), sidelined his entire White House staff in the fray, brought in a Doppelganger New York City lawyer, Mark Kasowitz (and now, also DC old hand John Dowd), to deal with the daily deluge of breaking news, and enlisted his trusty surrogates (Exhibit A:  Newt Gingrich) to wage the nascent fight to discredit Robert Mueller and his investigation.

Why would he resist the conventional strategy, and fire Mueller?  Because, under any scenario with respect to Trump’s guilt, it might actually make perfect sense in Donald World, and there is a logic to it, perverse though it may be.

Scenario A:  let’s say Trump really is completely innocent of any impeachable crimes.  If he believes that, then you take his vitriolic claims at face value:  RussiaGate really is a series of inconsequential meetings with no provable collusion; Flynn made some mistakes and had to be fired, but Trump does not want him to do jail time because he was loyal and a “nice guy”, so, unschooled in FBI protocol, he leaned on Comey a bit to ease up on him; and there is nothing to be found in all of the various financial and conflict entanglements.

Why fire Mueller in this scenario?  Because if Trump truly believes this is a “witch hunt” and Mueller is a Comey-crony, card-carrying Deep State elitist who could surely manufacture some crime and make up some damning evidence, then he has to eliminate him before it happens.  And as for the outrage his aides are warning him of if he did fire Mueller?  Trump surely feels that he has defied the odds thus far, having weathered countless he-can’t-survive-this moments in his two-year assault on presidential politics and the presidency itself.  He might feel more comfortable taking the chance that his 80%+ approval rating among Republicans will hold even after a Mueller firing, preventing GOP defections on Capitol Hill.

Laying low is not his style, never has been, never will be, and certainly would not be if he knew he was innocent.  Why be quiet about that?

Scenario B:  The other theory, of course, is that Trump has a great deal to hide, is guilty as sin of something impeachable, and will take any action, however desperate, to keep  that something hidden, because if that something is discovered, his presidency is over.

Under Theory B, Trump knows he is guilty of at least one specific thing.  Perhaps Flynn knows what it is with respect to Russia – maybe Trump’s OK’ing of a scheme to work with the Russians on the optimal timing to release Wikileaks-produced emails and Trump was trying to buy his silence; perhaps Trump’s ties to Russian banks reveal some compromising exposure to blackmail that directly links to promised favors to Putin; perhaps Trump knows darn well he actually did intend to obstruct justice in all his Comey/Rogers/Coats machinations; maybe he knows Jared is in it deep and could go to jail if this goes much further. 

Clearly, under this scenario, he might feel he has to take his chances with firing Mueller because he knows Mueller, with his army of agents and lawyers and unlimited resources and time, will find that something, that smoking gun.  And the only way to prevent that is to get rid of him.  Once again, he will count on rank and file support to carry him through, and for the GOP leadership to fold once again in the face of still-strong Trump approval ratings among GOP likely voters.

Why has he not fired Mueller yet?  One might surmise he has decided the situation has to ripen; perhaps there is a three-pronged strategy at work to set the stage:

1.     Wait for Rosenstein to recuse himself, which probably will happen soon enough, and thus avoid another firing and the inevitable Saturday Night Massacre analogies.

2.     Soften up Mueller through an outpouring of outraged tweets and the surrogate campaign to discredit him, pounding away that he is a member of the Deep State.  Like any marketing campaign, the main theme needs a few weeks to become fully embedded in the arch-right psyche: that the Washington establishment fix is in and Mueller, the epitome of a Beltway elite, is out for Trump.  Gingrich is already counting the number of Democratic lawyers Mueller is hiring, and more “evidence” will surely be brought forward.

3.     Get a little more traction in the approval ratings.  Perhaps an unexpected win on health care in the Senate, or some small ball victories like Cuba, deregulation and perhaps another spinnable jobs report in early July: some bits of news to hearten the base.  (And I hate to say this, but the horrendous shooting of Steve Scalise was a win for Trump, as he finally exhibited some post-tragedy dignity, perhaps learning from his disastrous post-London terror performance.)  He might seek to get himself back in the low 40% range – an improvement -- before dropping the next bomb.

It seems preposterous to think that Trump would actually fire Mueller. The blowback from the Comey firing was intense, and the ultimate outcome – the naming of Mueller – was disastrous.  But Trump likes to “double down,” do the unconventional, and follow his instincts.  His approval rating – which he checks more often than we do here at BTRTN – dipped but then has returned to that ~ 40% range.  And by the logic outlined above, he may think he has no choice but to get rid of Mueller.

Stranger things have happened.  After all, once upon a time, Donald Trump was elected President.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Most Damning Testimony: The Words Unspoken

For all the public testimony by James Comey, some of the most significant conclusions from the hearings lie in the words that were not said. Here is Steve's take on Comey's day on Capital Hill.

Every word of James Comey’s Senate Committee appearance has already been parsed, fileted, and seasoned by pundits, anchors, and the constitutional lawyers imported to weigh in on whether the testimony on Comey Central rose to the level of obstruction of justice or an impeachable offense.

But much of the significance of Thursday’s Dancing with the Star Witness lay in the words not spoken, and in the conclusions that were only to be inferred. 

The most significant words unspoken? No one on the Senate Committee – Democrat or Republican -- ever challenged Comey’s core narrative.  No senator attempted to jostle or question his recollection. None baited him with hypotheses about why a fired employee might be motivated to embellish or even wholly concoct a juicy story.  No one rolled their eyes theatrically to convey doubt that anyone could be so absolutely certain of his memory of specific phrases and words.

Let us indeed hope there are tapes, but we doubt they exist, and if they ever did, Trump holds the law in so little regard that we can bet they have already been destroyed. If so, the question of what was actually said in a closed door meeting between the two men will, by definition, come down to “he said, he said,” and the only issue will be who is believed.  By dinner time Thursday it was clear that pretty much everyone residing in the non-alternative fact universe has put their money on Comey.

The most partisan Republicans resorted to defending their President with a strategy that we might call “hope and charity.” They debated the meaning of the word “hope,” and offered wobbly charitable interpretations of how Trump’s words could be viewed as the coarse and unrehearsed  musings and maneuvering of a man accustomed to the rough and tumble of business rather than the legally charged guardrails of executive government.  

Most notably in this regard, Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho offered a fascinating prologue before launching his true line of inquiry:

“I want to drill right down, as my time is limited, to the most recent dust up regarding allegations that the President of the United States obstructed justice. Boy, you nailed this down on page 5, paragraph 3. You put this in quotes. Words matter. You wrote down the words so we can all have the words in front of us now. There's 28 words now in quotes. It says, quote, I hope -- this is the president speaking — I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is good guy. I hope you can let this go. Now, those are his exact words, is that correct?”

What is remarkable here is the length that the Senator goes to acknowledge that he believes that Comey has precisely and accurately “nailed” Trump’s quote.  Risch would then shift gears and embark on a challenge to Comey on whether the use of the word “hope” in the phrase made the comment a benign suggestion rather a direct order. But the significance of his opening was the wholesale concession by a Republican that Comey had perfectly and precisely quoted the President.

Referencing this aspect of the testimony, Trump’s son proved that legally damaging tweets run in the family. Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted “Knowing my father for 39 years when he ‘orders or tells’ you to do something there is no ambiguity, you will know exactly what he means.” This, of course, establishes that the younger Donald – like Senator Risch -- has wholly accepted Comey’s version of the precise words, and is only questioning how to interpret them.

Comey’s response was one of his strongest moments in the day. He demanded that the words be assessed in context. You don’t need a master’s degree in hermeneutics to know that the true meaning of words cannot be drained and sanitized by abstracting them from the specific historical context in which they appear. When the President of the United States demands to see a man in a subordinate position alone, and then uses the closed door meeting to make one point and one point only – “I hope you can see your way to letting this go” – the word “hope” has a very narrow meaning, more like “I hope you understand that I am actually issuing you a direct order.”

Indeed, this is an excellent example of the law of unintended consequences: Senator Risch had "hoped" to defuse the impact of Comey's testimony by questioning his interpretation of Trump's phrasing. Instead, his line of inquiry accomplished three things: (1) it provided an extended laser focus on the precise phrase that is ground zero for a charge of obstruction of justice, (2) it served to seal the fact that the Republicans wholly accept Comey’s transcription of the exact language, and (3), it provided the perfect forum for Comey to spell out exactly how he interpreted the meaning inherent in the words.

Perhaps the most fascinating implication of this is the inference that the Republicans are willing to concede the same assumption of accuracy to all the individual memoranda that Comey created after each meeting. The Republicans essentially issued a carte blanche that Comey’s carefully written summaries will stand as the undisputed factual accounting of Comey’s one-on-one meetings with the President – until someone produces actual recordings.

The word “hope” is a recurring motif in this drama, bearing directly on the issue of audio recordings. On May 12, shortly after firing Comey as FBI Director, Donald Trump had issued a strange and seemingly ominous tweet:

@realDonaldTrump:
“James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Comey, in his testimony Thursday, seized a moment to gush “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”  This direct counter-punch at Trump – echoing and yet inverting the exact same phrase that Trump had used in the tweet – was a brilliant challenge. Bring it on, Mr. President. Produce those tapes.  If tapes don’t exist, it proves you were being intentionally misleading and threatening in your May 12 tweet.

And if they do exist, Lordy, Mr. President, you are in deep shit.

Trump’s overall response to the Comey testimony was pretty much exactly what we have come to expect from this White House: you punch me, I will punch you back harder. Unlike all the Republican senators (and even his son!) Trump alone appeared to be taking the position that Comey was lying under oath in his characterization of the private meetings, asserting that he never directed Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn. At some point – either through tapes or in a sworn deposition to Special Prosecutor Mueller – we will learn whether Trump means that Comey literally fabricated the exchange, or is simply hiding behind Senator Risch’s weasel that the word “hope” should not be construed as a direct order. Trump would then be in the position of, well, hoping that people buy into Risch’s logic. If not, his “hope” to Comey is a pretty cut and dried example of obstruction.

Of all things said and unsaid, there is one fact that surfaced for the first time in the Comey hearings, and while it is not legally damning, it was nonetheless  a very damaging commentary on the priorities and concerns of this President.  Again, it is the words unspoken that have so much significance.

Martin Heinrich, a Democratic senator from New Mexico, took a portion of his allotted seven minutes to focus on the issue of what Trump was not discussing with Comey. He asked the former FBI Director whether the President of the United States had ever in the course of nine private one-on-one conversations raised the issue of what the FBI was discovering about the core task of its investigation: understanding how Russian hacking was compromising our democracy.

Senator Heinrich:  “Did the President in any of those interactions that you’ve shared with us today ask you what you should be doing or what our government should be doing or the intelligence community to protect America against Russian interference in our election system?”

Former Director Comey: “I don’t recall a conversation like that.”

Senator Heinrich:  “Never?”

Former Director Comey: “No.”

We thereby learned the President of the United States spoke one-on-one with the head of the FBI nine times in 2017, and not once did the President show the slightest interest in the FBI’s investigation into how a hostile nation waged cyberwarfare against the United States.  Instead, Trump chose to spend his moments of one-on-one time with Comey asking the FBI Director to lay off Flynn, and repeatedly berating Comey to publicly state that Trump was not under investigation.  The words unspoken speak the loudest: Trump was far more concerned with how the FBI investigation was threatening him than how Russian hacking was threatening our democracy.

The Fox News faithful emerged from the hours of hearings with one morsel of new information to put at the front of their newsfeed: that Comey had shared his write-up of a meeting with Donald Trump with a law professor at Columbia University for the express purpose that the memo be forwarded to The New York Times.  Comey was brazenly forthright in the hearings in offering the explanation that he felt sharing the memo would ensure the appointment of a special prosecutor.  Trump’s lawyer wasted no time in trying to condemn Comey as a sleazy “leaker” of government secrets who should now be the subject of an investigation.

There isn’t much of a case against Comey on this front.  Comey is now a private citizen, none of the information in his memo was classified, and Donald Trump did not even try to exert executive privilege over Comey's testimony.

Attempting to defame Comey as a “leaker,” however, illustrates the degree to which Trump’s White House fails to understand the rights and actions of citizens in a democracy.  “Leaking government secrets” conjures an illegal action carried out under cover of darkness in which a paid government employee secretively contacts a reporter and passes along information as an “anonymous source.” That’s quite a distance from James Comey swearing an oath of truth on national television and freely volunteering this information in an open assembly. If you believe what Comey did in this regard has any whiff of illegality, you’d be wrong – but you should acknowledge that your accusation is not “leaking information” but is “civil disobedience.” That’s when people stand up in the public square and break a law in public to call attention to government wrongdoing.

For all the frothy MSNBC salivation about potential obstruction of justice charges, impeachment is simply a political judgment by Congress of the legal issues.  The question of whether Donald Trump serves out his full term will be largely based on whether a requisite number of Republicans in the House and the Senate conclude that Donald Trump has become a hindrance to their agenda and their own re-election, not because they feel any moral or ethical adherence to the rule of law and constitutional democracy.

And yet, in this regard, these hearings represented a very significant shift.

There was a great deal of time devoted to discussing the word “hope,” and there were many “charitable” interpretations of why the President’s actions should be viewed as neither criminal nor grounds for impeachment. What there was not was a whole lot of faith in this President.

No Republican senator dared go where Trump no doubt wished, a full frontal assault on his motive and credibility: “Former Director Comey,  just a few short months ago, my Democratic colleagues were screaming for your head, accusing you of horrendous judgment in the handling of the Anthony Weiner emails. The Democratic candidate for President blamed your erroneous judgments for her loss.  President Trump took office, and, despite grave misgivings about your leadership and competence, allowed you to keep your job until he realized that you no longer had the confidence of government leaders across party lines. He fired you. Then, and only then, you immediately took what is clearly retaliatory action by slandering the reputation of the President who fired you. Director Comey, is that not exactly the line of reasoning you would employ if you were the Prosecutor interviewing you as a witness? Why, sir, should anyone believe you?”

And, no Republican senator raced to defend the President based on their deep belief in his moral stature.  Perhaps had there been a different occupant of the White House – one who the senators actually respected – we would  witnessed a full throated endorsement: “Former Director Comey, the President of the United States has publically and on the record denied that he ever gave you any direction to discontinue the investigation of Michael Flynn. Yet you come here today and ask that this august body believe you over the word of the President of the United States, a soul whose integrity is unassailable, whose word is bond, who seeks only truth, justice, and honor, and who holds the duty to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution above life itself.”

No, you didn’t hear anything like that on Thursday, either.  More words unspoken.

The future of this presidency does not lie in legal definitions of the words “hope,” “let it go,” or even “obstruction of justice.”

It lies in the court of public opinion, as a steady drip, drip, drip of startling evidence accumulates, and ordinary voters attempt to sort out their own feelings by collecting input from trusted sources… like their own senators and congressmen.

The words unspoken on Thursday – the refusal of Republicans to stand by their man, and their obvious acceptance of Comey’s version of the truth – sent a message to the rank and file of the Republican Party.

We don’t believe the President.

And neither should you.